The Fall of Lord Blackthorn

Paths of Destiny

The boy Blackthorn did not know how to respond, for in truth, he was not certain he could rationalize an argument. Then, at last, he said, "'Tis not an act of justice if no law permits it."

His father's answer was immediate. "Yet no law denies his action, either. The question remains, then, who is in the right, for neither can be wrong." He held up the eight cards of virtue, fanning them in his hand. "These cannot tell us, can they? The virtues are chaotic in nature, unruly, open to interpretation." He spread his fingers. The cards fluttered to the table, some facing down, others up. "They define endless paths through which one can attain spiritual fulfillment, yet never specify which is the correct path to take."

With a cloth, the boy Blackthorn picked up a kettle steaming over the hearth and poured its contents into a wide bowl that rested on the cutting table. "Perhaps there is no correct path, Father," the boy said, eyeing the rivulets of water that danced down the side of the bowl.

"No, perhaps not," his father answered. "But if the path of one man impedes that of another . . . What then?" He held up the woman and the scales. "Only rules, rules made by the men who walk the paths, can answer which one may continue forward, and which one must concede." His father gripped the boy in his gaze. "Dost thou understand what I am saying?"

"Of course," said the boy Blackthorn. "Like all things, virtues are meaningless without definition." 'Twas one of his father's favorite sayings. "'Tis why we need laws."

"Good." His father's smile was warm. "Put down thy cloth, boy, and go. I will take care of the dishes this night. I know how thou dost enjoy thy walks among the woods. Contemplate what we have discussed, for tomorrow thou shalt stay inside. Thou must study thy books."

Without trying to appear too hasty, the boy Blackthorn rinsed and dried his hands, then headed to the back door, passing the ladder that led to the loft in which his bed and wardrobe were housed. He removed a lamp from its hook beside the door, lit it, and departed the cottage.

The night held tightly to this part of the forest, an hour or so journey away from the lights of Yew. Blackthorn's lamp cast a pale circle in the darkness, not that he truly needed a light yet. The glow from the back window of his father's cottage bathed the yard, and then briefly flickered. His father had passed in front of the window, no doubt on his way to his study.

Blackthorn continued on fifty or so footfalls south and east until he came to the stable. Their horse, Gavel, snorted and quietly tapped his hooves against the earth when Blackthorn approached. He soothed the red gelding before turning to the back of the stable. There in the corner, beneath a pile of hay and straw, the boards lay loose. With a pitchfork, Blackthorn pried them up, then quickly removed the long bundle of cloth hidden beneath them. Boards and straw returned to their appropriate place, he left the barn, jogging parallel to the cottage toward the garden. A quick right past the old well took him into the woods.

The tall, voluminous trees of the Deep Forest sheltered the earth from the night sky. Stray beams of star and moonlight managed to slip through the branches and leaves. His footsteps cracked upon twigs and rock, echoing with the song of crickets and the occasional cry of an owl, then the burble of stream to his left. The scent of wet mud and stream reeds joined that of pine and yew. He followed the brook, a crisp rivulet of moonlight where it widened enough to separate the roof of the trees. Where the water eventually led, Blackthorn did not know, for he had never followed its current any farther than a few miles, but he guessed it emptied into one of the northern rivers, which, in turn, emptied into the bay far to the north.

Soon he arrived where the water hooked around a small hummock of earth and moss, and embedded in its middle, a round stone, silver in his lamplight and no higher than his waist. He balanced the lamp upon the stone, and unrolled the cloth. Steel gleamed and brass glittered as he peered at the blade and hilt of his sword.

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