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189 pages
Jul 2006
Cross and Crown

The Sword, The Ring, and The Parchment (Terrestria Chronicles #1)

by Ed Dunlop

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Chapter One


“Make haste, lad!” Argamor roared, looking up from the massive chain that he was fashioning on the anvil, his swarthy features twisted in anger. “You can work faster!”

The muscular arm of the huge blacksmith brought the heavy hammer down in a mighty blow against the glowing iron link upon the anvil, and the sound rang across the darkness of the November afternoon like a vesper bell. The man’s lip curled in hatred as he watched the slender slave boy. Reaching up with a dirty hand to scratch his thick, black beard, he snarled, “You shall work harder, knave, or you shall taste the lash again!”

“Aye, my lord,” young Josiah replied wearily. “I shall work faster, my lord.” Gasping for breath, he struggled to haul the cumbersome coalscuttle across the muddy workyard. A freezing rain slashed at his back and the biting north wind sweeping down from the fells howled through his threadbare tunic, chilling his weary body. Reaching down with his free hand, Josiah grasped the heavy chain to relieve the weight of the iron shackle around his thin ankle. At the opposite end of the chain, a large iron ingot nearly half the boy’s weight slid across the muddy ground.

The evil blacksmith chuckled as he held his hammer aloft, pausing in his work to watch the feeble efforts of the boy. “The lad works hard,” he said with a sneer. “Does he not, Evilheart?”

“Aye, that he does, my lord,” Evilheart replied, fingering the lashes of his whip and stealing a quick glance at his companion, Lawofsin. “The lad does work hard.”

“But he must be pushed to work harder!” Argamor roared, striking a ringing blow to the anvil. “The lad must learn to work faster!”

Argamor’s two guards were as different from each other as two brothers could possibly be. Evilheart was clearly a descendant of the Early Kings—a stout bulldog of a man, with arms and shoulders so thick that it appeared as if he had no neck. With his shaved head and stern countenance, he struck fear into Josiah’s heart every time he came near. Lawofsin, while of the same heritage, was tall and lanky, with muscles like ropes and a mournful, melancholy expression on his thin face. He had a huge shock of unruly brown hair that was always in need of washing. Both men carried whips. Josiah was almost as afraid of the two guards as he was of their master.

Struggling against the weight of the chain and the scuttle heaped with large chunks of coal, Josiah had managed to reach the shelter of the shed. Dragging the weight of guilt across the stone floor, he approached the edge of the flaming forge and timidly moved within arm’s reach of his burly master. The forge was an open furnace nearly three yards across with a huge bellows mounted at one side. By pumping air with the bellows, Argamor could heat the forge until it was hot enough to turn iron cherry-red.

Setting the scuttle on the rock ledge at the edge of the forge, Josiah stepped up onto the ledge to empty his burden of coal into the glowing furnace. Smoke and heat from the forge billowed around him, burning his eyes and searing his lungs. The blistering heat of the open fire was worse than the cold and rain outside. Josiah took a deep breath and struggled to lift the clumsy scuttle to the red-hot lip of the forge.

“Faster, lad!” The unexpected blow across the back knocked Josiah off balance, nearly sending him into the flames. His heart pounded as he struggled to keep from tumbling forward. He threw out one hand to regain his balance, touched the edge of the forge, and recoiled with a howl of pain.

Argamor and his two henchmen roared with laughter.

Tears filled Josiah’s eyes. “I-I can’t work any faster, my lord,” he stammered, struggling to keep his voice from trembling. Turning his face to avoid the worst of the heat, he emptied the coal into the blazing forge while sparks from the fire leaped upwards and swirled around his head like glowing fireflies.

“And why not?” Argamor roared. “You must work faster!” The hammer crashed down on the anvil with a thunderous impact that made Josiah flinch.

“I’ve been working hard all day, my lord,” the boy replied fearfully, cringing at the prospect of a sudden fist. “I haven’t eaten since this morning, my lord, and I’m hungry, and tired, and cold.”

“Are you complaining?” The blacksmith’s cruel face contorted with rage and his dark eyes glittered with fury. Having completed his work on the huge chain, he hurled it onto an enormous pile of other chains.

“Nay, my lord,” Josiah replied hastily. Gripping his own chain, he dragged the weight of guilt across the floor and moved away from the huge man. “But if you would remove the chain of iniquity and the weight of guilt from my ankle, I could work faster, my lord.”

Argamor threw back his head and roared with heartless laughter. “Remove the chain? Evilheart, did you hear the lad? He wants me to remove his chain!” The blacksmith stepped closer to Josiah. His black beard framed yellow, twisted teeth as he flashed a leering grin. “You want me to remove your chain, lad? So you can make your escape?”

Fear washed over the youth as the man moved closer. “Nay, my lord. But methinks that if you were to remove the weight of guilt, I could work harder.”

Argamor loomed over Josiah and a sulphurous stench overpowered the youth, choking and gagging him. “The chain is your own, lad, of your own making. Your worthy master would never consider taking it from you. The weight of guilt is yours and yours alone.” He smiled. “It is yours forever.”

“But the chain is heavy, my lord, and the shackle chafes against my ankle. It hurts me so! And the weight of guilt slows me down and drains my strength as I drag it everywhere I go.” Trembling with exhaustion, Josiah sank to a sitting position on the warm stone of the ledge. The empty coalscuttle clattered to the stone floor.

Argamor was enraged. “Stand to your feet!” he roared. “Do you presume to slack in the very presence of your master?” A huge fist struck Josiah on the shoulder.

Josiah stood wearily, fearfully snatching the scuttle from the floor where it had fallen. “I beg pardon, sire. I am weary, and I am hungry, and I am wet and cold. I cannot carry on, sire. I must rest.”

The angry blacksmith leaped forward and seized the boy. Lifting him by one arm and one leg, he hoisted him high into the air so that the weight of guilt swung freely at the end of its chain, causing the shackle to bite painfully into Josiah’s ankle. “You are cold, are you?” Argamor roared. Snarling with rage, he held the trembling youth over the glowing, pulsating forge. “If I drop you in, you will no longer be cold!”

Josiah was terrified. The heat from the forge blistered his arms and face, singeing his eyebrows and burning his throat. He gasped for breath. If the master should release his grip, he would drop helplessly into the hungry, crackling flames…

“Not another word of complaint, churlish knave, or I shall cast you in,” Argamor growled, hurling the boy to the floor beside the forge. “Get back to work!”

Sobbing helplessly, Josiah retrieved his coalscuttle, grasped his chain with his free hand, and crept from the shed into the onslaught of cold rain. His bare foot splashed into a chilling puddle, but he barely noticed. His heart ached. Why, oh why, must Argamor be so cruel? Was he not doing his best? What more could a master ask of a slave? Was there to be no relief from the constant, backbreaking work, the sting of the lash, the cruel mocking of Argamor and his henchmen, Evilheart and Lawofsin? Was the wicked blacksmith correct—were the chain of iniquity and the weight of guilt to be his forever?

Lightning slashed across the blackness of the afternoon sky and the thunder boomed angrily in reply. The wind howled and shrieked like a living creature agonizing in pain as the chilling rain pummeled the helpless slave boy. Back bowed against the unrelenting weight at the end of the chain, Josiah slogged wearily through the mud for another load of coal. A moaning sob escaped his trembling lips. “Is there to be no escape from this misery?” he cried softly. “Must I wear this chain and serve this wretched man forever? Is there no one to care?”