Beneath the Web
Cover art copyright by Donato

So, here it is, the other half--actually more than half--of the Wooden Sword. I’d been working on the story for several years and had thought I had every scene covered before I started, but the book proved more difficult to write than I’d imagined possible.

Beneath the Web ran long, it ran late, and were it not for some timely suggestions from my friends and peers (CJ Cherryh and Jane Fancher) it might never have achieved its final form.

If you compare Wooden Sword and Beneath the Web, you’ll find indications of a major shift in my writing style. From Daughter of the Bright Moon through Wooden Sword, I’d employed what’s usually called an omniscient point of view. That is, when I was writing a scene, every character had a camera on his or her shoulder and there was an additional camera hovering overhead. With an abundance of fictional cameras (and their associated internal microphones) to choose from, I’d bounce gaily from one viewpoint to the next, sometimes even in the same paragraph.

CJ Cherryh employs a style she calls “third-person intense” which in many respects is a first person style, but without the “I.” In the third-person intense, the writer picks a viewpoint for a scene or section and sticks to it, even adopting the character’s thought processes for the third-person narration.

Anyway, after reading the draft of the book that I’d already sent to ACE in New York, CJ suggested that I give third-person intense a try. I even drove down to Oklahoma to spend ten days with her while I tried changing my literary gears.

I was pleased with the results and from then on I’ve been a third-person intense disciple.

Beneath the Web excerpt (actually, chapter two of the book)

Braydon was nervous. His promotion to serjeant in Prince Alegshorn sorRodion’s personal guard had been a hard-earned reward after four years of tedious common service. He applied himself to his new duties–accompanying the free-spirited prince on his daily, and nightly, rounds–with diligence. There were real threats to the prince’s safety this second night of Calends in the 47th year of King Manal sorRodion's reign. In addition to the obvious dangers posed by the ice-covered cobblestones, there was always the threat of the Wolf. The veterans in Prince Alegshorn’s guard had seemingly endless accounts of narrow escapes by both brothers.

In the infantry, Braydon had no personal contact with the Wolf, but the legends of the Wolf’s ruthlessness were both wide-spread and compelling. As he followed his prince through the dark streets of Eyerlon, the young serjeant wished he had a spear in his hand instead of a sputtering torch.

He was the last in line and constantly looking over his shoulder, slipping on the ice, or flinching from the jagged shadows his torch threw flickering light on rough-hewn walls. He was also lost. If he became separated it would be dawn before he found his way back to the palace. And his reward for that breach of discipline would be a long walk back to the wretched village where he’d been born.

Braydon was breathless and oozing sweat when Prince Aleg called a halt outside a nondescript wooden building. The prince divided up his men.

“You three make yourselves scarce, but keep your eyes open. Hal, you stay with the torches. And you–  You with the torch-- Brandon--?”

“Braydon Braydson, midons prince.”

“Right. Give Hal your torch. You're coming with me.”

“Midons prince?”

Braydon wasn't known for his quick wits. He gotten his promotion because he was a brawny lad who, as a rule, did exactly what he was told. Still, it didn't take much to understand that whoever went inside was going to witness compromising events that might render him expendable. Any reasonable man would hesitate, as Braydon did.

Now, Brandon.”

The prince motioned for Braydon to lead the way. The lamp-lit vestibule was blessedly warm and blessedly empty. The prince shed his drab cloak and cowl. His golden hair shone against the embroidered blue velvet of a tightly fitted blue dalmatic. One after the other, Prince Aleg propped his boots on the stairs for Braydon to polish with his sleeve.

“Do I seem sufficiently princely?”

Braydon collected the castoff clothing. “Yes, midons prince.”

“Look at me, Brandon, when you answer my question.”

“Braydon, midons prince. Braydon Braydson.” He folded the cowl over his arm as he obeyed. “The whole kingdom knows you are a prince, midons, how could you seem otherwise?”

Prince Aleg flashed a smile that men followed eagerly into battle and women to other, equally dangerous, places. “For a start, I could look like my misfortuned brother.”

The prince’s smile cooled but did not vanish–as if he shared a private joke with himself. Braydon went upstairs first. The two men bracketing the upper doorway recognized Prince Alegshorn as genuine and stood aside. Like Braydon, they wore nothing that could identify them. Unlike him, they were armed: one with a shortened spear, the other with a sword. The swordsman opened the door.

Chair legs scraped as a double-handful of noblefolk rose and gave their prince the honor he was due. A chair at the head of the trestle table remained unoccupied, but sitting there would have left the prince with his back to the door. Aleg calmly chose a more defensible seat. Braydon stood behind him, as other nameless partisans stood silently behind their patrons. He recognized several of the noble faces: Driskolt sorMeklan, Sidon of Fenklare; the Moreg cousins out of the donit of Arl–tall, lean Red Moreg and ox-like Black Moreg; Eudalig sorJos whose fey demeanor belied a temperament every bit as ruthless as the Wolf's; and, at the foot of the table, wearing a ill-concealing feathered mask, Wektianne barSulwynde, whose long, slender legs Braydon had last seen wrapped around the prince in his bedchamber. The rest were unfamiliar, but by their dress and manner they were well-placed in the intimate septs of the donitorial clans.

“We're honored by your presence, midons prince,” one of the unfamiliar men announced. “Your blessing–”

“Don't confuse my blessing with my presence, Skulpen,” the prince snapped. The rest of the room stiffened. Prince Alegshorn picked up a wine ewer and filled the nearest goblet before Braydon could intercede. “Quickly tell me everything no one would tell me in the palace, so I can stop pretending I don’t know why I’m here.”

Skulpen clamped his lips together. He was the oldest man in the room, with a clear memory of the days before the war when Aleg’s father had been the crown prince. Hatred and contempt for both of Vigelen’s sons winked in Skulpen's eyes.

Driskolt sorMeklan ventured into the tense silence. “We have reason to believe the Wolf intends to disassemble our honor lands, to ransom them to the highest bidder to restore the treasury. We are not pleased.” Dris was a bosom friend of Prince Aleg’s: the man who had invited him to this seditious gathering.

Prince Alegshorn feigned surprise. “And to think I had thought those notions were coming from the king. Has my accursed brother stolen the royal seals again?”

“Godswill, midons prince!” Black Moreg pounded the table with his massive fist and all the goblets tottered. “Since Tremontin, the Wolf lurks inside our king’s right ear. While he’s whispering, no one else is heard! Only the gods know what the Wolf’s got in mind once he has a full treasury.”

“The gods and the spooks,” Eudalig corrected.

The assembled noblefolk spewed abuse upon Walensor’s sorcerers and its crown prince. Braydon’s ears turned red, but Prince Aleg silenced everyone with a soft-spoken question:

“What do you expect of me?”

Eyes turned uptable to the sidon of Fenklare, who kept his hands folded and his mouth shut.

The fateful words fell to Black Moreg, who had no use for subtlety. “Godswill! Remove the bastard!”

“If the Wolf were a bastard, but he’s as legitimate as me or you. Do we dare to challenge legitimate rights? To talk of removing him, good Moreg, is to talk treason. Do we talk treason tonight?”

A lump clogged Braydon’s throat. They were already talking treason. They were all dead if word of this meeting reached the wrong ears. He wanted to bolt from the room, but he didn’t, nor did any of the partisans, though their faces grew pale.

“It's no secret,” Eudalig drawled. “Your father first talked treason the morning you were born.” Like Skulpen, Eudalig belonged to Prince Vigelen’s generation. “It was always his intention to put you on the throne.”

Prince Alegshorn said nothing. It was no secret that his father despised the Wolf and that he fomented a vicious rivalry between his sons in the blatant hope that Aleg–less than a year younger and always bigger and stronger–would resolve the dynastic inconvenience through “accident.”  Menders loyal to Prince Vigelen slept outside the boys’ nursery, but the Wolf survived. By the time Prince Vigelen led the first charge of the Arrizan war, and died with four thousand others in a lake of hellfire slag, the rivalry smoldered with neither brother able to close for the kill.

Now the war was over.

“Godswill,” swore the beardless youth sitting beside Driskolt sorMeklan, “Godswill, midons prince, if you don’t act soon it may be too late. Our king is old and could die at any moment.” His patron did not clout him across the head and so it might be inferred that the stripling spoke with Fenklare's approval.

“Your will, midons prince.” Red Moreg spoke up for the first time. His voice was as deep and formidable as his cousin’s. “We place our lives and our honor in your hands.”

The prince contemplated the swirling wine in his goblet as if the surface patterns held private omens.

“Need I remind any of you that the price of treason is not merely death, but anathema, too? To raise a hand against the Wolf, and get caught doing it, costs not only your life, but your soul’s eternal peace. I’m content to let Fate weave her own cloth for a while.”

“With the war over, the Wolf will turn on you. He might prevail: he’s fast and sly and pays no heed to honor. The donits would revolt, but then who would inherit the crown? Gilenan?” Skulpen named the third prince, a ten-year-old boy born after his father’s death. “No one wants your mother for regent. A nobleman, like myself, might wed one of your sisters, and make a bedstead claim on the crown. But it would be easier for us all if you clear your own path to the throne, as Prince Vigelen always intended.”

The prince stared at Skulpen a long time. “I am truly heartened by your faith.”

Irony was wasted on Skulpen avsorLewel. “It is an honor to place my honor in the hands of Prince Vigelen’s favorite son. You are all that my heart's-friend prayed for. Walensor will be in your debt.”

Braydon's tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth. Growing up in an assart village he’d held the usual commonfolk perception of noblefolk: powerful men and women whose loyalty to each other was as exceeded only by their greed. He’d clung to that perception during the war, but a few months in the prince’s guard had changed his opinions completely. If Prince Alegshorn ascended the throne as a result of conspiracy and treason, he was going to be in debt to the noblefolk, not the other way around.

Prince Alegshorn had never been blinded by country-common naivete. “Were it to become mine, I would have no debts around my throne, either owed or owing.”

“But will you have the crown and throne, midons prince?” Eudalig toyed with the feathers dangling from his hat.

“I would not refuse, if they came cleanly. But, and hear me well, good lords, while King Manal rules and reigns, I will hear no talk of treason against the throne.”

Driskolt sorMeklan leapt to his feet, brandishing his goblet at the rafters. “Hail Manal sorRodion, King of Walensor!”

Everyone matched the gesture, saluting the monarch who had already reigned for forty seven years–the last twenty as an invalid sustained by the Brightwater circulating through his throne. In the early decades of his reign, King Manal brought Walensor to unprecedented prosperity and aroused the greed of his neighbor, the Arrizan Empire. Throughout the war–at least until the Wolf attained his majority last New Year’s Day–it was King Manal’s wisdom that guided Walensor through its darkest hour. A common man like Braydon wouldn’t have minded if Manal sorRodion remained king forever.

Driskolt’s companion voiced that precise sentiment: “May our king rule and reign a hundred years!”

Arms stretched again, then the noblefolk sat and drank. Or Braydon assumed that they did. He noticed that Prince Alegshorn wet his lips without swallowing. The serjeant was relieved when the conversation meandered to slightly-less-dangerous subjects.

“I’m opening my hall for a feast tomorrow,” the prince announced. “It was, after all, the third night of Calends twenty-three years ago when the Wolf chose to enter our realm, and it is my custom to make merry in his honor.”

“Will he attend?” one of the Moregs asked. Braydon did not see which, and their voices were very much alike.

“Midons Prince Rinchen marks his anniversary on first day of the new year, as you well know. A Calends birth, when the sun is far away and the moon is hiding, is too cursed for public celebration, especially by a crown prince. But I am pleased to remember what the Wolf would have us forget.”

Wektianne spoke for the first time: “Is the celebration for lords only, midons prince, or are we all invited?”

“Beauty is always welcome in my hall; yours above all, dear lady. We’ll dance until dawn.”

“As you command, midons,” she replied huskily.

Prince Alegshorn leapt to his feet so fast that the grim partisan behind Wektianne wrapped his fist around the hilt of his sword. But the golden prince merely reached across the table to raise the lady’s hand fashionably to his lips. “Say ‘request,’ merou. Not even a prince can command beauty.”

The odd-sounding endearment was one of the few Pennaik words the sorRodions clung to. Braydon didn’t know what it meant, but from the flush surrounding the edge of Wektianne’s mask, it was a word she had heard in more intimate circumstances. Braydon held his prince’s chair, expecting him to sit down again, but the prince remained standing.

“I cannot stay here all night, so, tell me, do I understand you a-right, my good and loyal friends? It is your opinion that for the good of Walensor and, especially, the good of Walensor’s noblefolk, the Wolf must die?” Aleg stared at each of the conspirators in turn.

Braydon caught sight of Aleg’s smile and was grateful he did not have to meet the eyes above it.

Eudalig moistened his lips. “It would be sufficient if he renounced his claim in your favor, midons prince. He knows it was Prince Vigelen’s wish, for the good of Walensor. You said it yourself: he’s Calends-born, cursed in form and spirit. Because he is legitimate, and a hand raised against him now is a hand raised against us all, he must be brought to a proper understanding.”

“While hearts beat blood, the Wolf will not renounce his rights,” Prince Alegshorn said with cold certainty. “If you would plot against my brother, you must understand that. He’ll kill anyone who stands in his way.”

Eudalig studied his fingernails with rapt attention.

The prince grinned lop-sidedly. “For that matter–in this one thing, we are in complete accord.”

“That is understood, midons prince,” Driskolt agreed. The sorMeklan counted a dozen kings in their lineage and could meet the stare of any upstart sorRodion without flinching. “The question seems to be: which prince wants the throne more? We would like to have an answer before the Wolf sells our honor land to ennoble commonfolk merchants.”

Prince Alegshorn caught Braydon’s eye and jerked a commanding knuckle toward the door. “You shall, Dris. My word: You shall be the first to know.”

Braydon reached the door in time to open it for his prince, who strode through without a backward glance or farewell. They were alone in the vestibule again, while Braydon draped the prince’s cloak and cowl around him. Prince Aleg studied the now-shut upper door.

“We’ve spiked their wheels for awhile,” he said, fastening the cloak with a plain bronze brooch.

“ ‘We,’ midons prince?”

Aleg sighed. “A figure of speech, Bandron.”

Braydon opened his mouth, then closed it again: If the prince couldn’t remember his name, he might survive this brush with treason. He shivered as a blast of snow filled the vestibule. Braydon took his torch from Hal and covered the rear as he had before.

No one talked until they reached the outer gate of the palace house where Prince Alegshorn’s familiar face and the proper passwords got them through quickly. The prince waited until they were in the tunnel between the older and newer portions of the royal residence before questioning the men he’d left outside the conspirators’ bolthole. They reported seeing nothing suspicious and Aleg dismissed them for the night. Braydon went with them. He got half a step before he felt a drag on his cloak.

“Follow me.”

After quenching his torch in the snow, Braydon hurried after the prince. They took the empty backways to Prince Aleg’s hall. Body servants met them and removed the prince’s heavy clothes; Braydon was left to his own devices. The prince was comfortable in silk and soft wool while Braydon argued with his leggings. Aleg sent a boy to the kitchen for cold meat and sweetbreads. By the time the plate arrived, Braydon was warming his back by the brazier, wondering how much longer he had to live.

Prince Aleg dismissed the boy and began gnawing on a chicken leg. While the prince sprawled sideways across a high-backed chair, Braydon stood stiff and grim.

“Have some,” the prince said amiably.

Braydon shook his head, though his mouth was watering.

“Suit yourself. There's enough for two.”

“It is not my place, midons prince.”

The prince tossed the bone into the brazier where it sizzled. He began dividing a sweetbread into bite-sized pieces. “What do you make of our conspiracy?” he asked casually, as if inquiring about the weather.

Braydon wished that his prince would stop saying ‘we’. “It is not my place to make anything of it, midons prince. I wish to the gods that my ears had been sealed with wax.”

“But they weren’t, and I asked you a question.”

“It is not my place to answer such a question, midons prince.”

“Braydon Braydson, born in the assart of Gorse on Weychawood in far Fenklare; son of Brayd (who else?) a shepherd, and the woman, Ingolde, a weaver and recently raised into the Web as a hedge-sorcerer. Your father died at Kasserine–with mine. Your brother, Indon, died what--two summers ago in High Norivarl–?”

“Three,” Braydon corrected.

The prince shrugged. “Three. It was four years ago that you first answered the muster-call. You marched with Santar barFlayne avsorMeklan, because, though your village is assarted land, your family sells wool at the Flayne market where he was lord. You, yourself, are a lordless. Have I missed anything significant?”

“No, midons prince,” Braydon whispered to his toes.

“I know things about you, Braydon, that you don’t know about yourself--but I’ll spare you the details if you’ll concede that I am not in the habit of choosing my serjeants haphazardly and do me the honor of answering my questions when I ask them.”

Braydon couldn't speak, but the prince was blessed with–or had learned–patience.

“I concede, midons prince,” Braydon muttered when he could.

“That’s good. I was beginning to fear that I’d misjudged when I chose you.”

“I thought it was the luck of the draw.” The words were out of Braydon’s mouth, without the proper honorifics, before he could stop them.

Prince Alegshorn scowled. “Iser’s iron whiskers, not hardly.”

“Midons prince, you knew who I was when you walked the line picking your serjeants for the winter?”

“Let’s say I knew what you were and let’s say you answer my question: What do you make of our conspirators?”

The momentary pride Braydon gained from the knowledge that he’d been chosen by plan, not luck, vanished. “Midons prince, it isn’t my–”

The prince hurled another half-gnawed bone. It struck hard on bone beneath Braydon’s eye. A half-finger’s breadth more and it would have blinded him. The soldier understood that luck had no more to do with Prince Alegshorn sorRodion than it had with the Wolf.

“Midons prince, I believe they despise Prince Rinchen above all else.”

“Everyone despises my brother. He despises himself; all else follows naturally. Should I make common cause with them?”

“They support you, midons prince, because they believe you’re noblefolk, like them, not royal.”

“Well put! I’ll remember that–noble, not royal. Anything else?”

Braydon raked his sweat-damp hair. “I don’t know, midons prince. I don’t know you. And I know even less of the Wolf. Begging your pardon, midons prince, but you are not what I expected. Is it not possible that the Wolf is not what he seems either?”

“Ah–now that's a very good question. I would expect shepherds to be wary of wolves. But you ask the wrong person, my brother and I are hardly in each other’s confidence. Go on.”

“I’ve gone far enough, midons prince. I see that a prince’s life is treacherous and I have already made too many errors–”

“Fortunately for both of us, I haven't.” Aleg took a bite of sweetbread then wiped his fingers on his breeches. “Braydon Braydson, to whom have you sworn enduring oaths?” he asked with sudden formality.

The young soldier came to attention. “Midons prince, I’m sworn to your service as a serjeant.”

“For which I pay you well. I had something personal in mind. Have you sworn your honor or loyalty to another?”

Braydon shook his head. “I was born in an assart village. Our land belongs to the crown, our personal oaths, too. I’d need royal permission to swear a personal oath…” Understanding filled Braydon’s mind. He raised his eyes. “I could freely swear to you, midons prince.”

“Have you enough basi to reach the Web?”

“I am headblind, midons prince. Our hedge-sorcerer, Auld Mag, swore so when I was born. Even if I had the basi, I could not use it.”

“Can't miss what you never had,” the prince added with a knowing look. “Can you read script or tallies?”

“Not a word, midons prince. I can count sheep in my head and coins on a board.”

“Make certain it stays that way if you value your tongue or your fingers.”

Aleg bellowed for another servant. The man appeared so quickly that Braydon assumed he had been eavesdropping. “Summon the spider. Tell him I’m taking an oath.”

The servant's eyes wandered. Braydon realized he was a sorcerer and reaching for the Web. Braydon shouldn’t have been surprised that a prince would have spooks in his personal service, but he was.

“Taviella attends. My ears are her ears. My eyes are her eyes. All that is done shall be recorded within the Web.”

The prince disappeared momentarily into a private chamber at the rear of the hall.  When he returned he held a length of braided silk cord in the sapphire and gray colors he’d made his own. “You're right-armed, aren’t you?”

Braydon nodded and shivered involuntarily when the prince knotted loops of silk over his right shoulder.

“Braydon Braydson, lordless man of the assart of Gorse, surrender yourself into my safe-keeping. Swear to me your life and honor; I will protect them from all harm beneath the Web of Walensor as you henceforth honor me above all others.” The young man tried to kneel. “Fool, I’m not ennobling you,” Aleg hissed, “merely asserting, before the spooks, that I’m the only one who can legally kill you.”

The young man's jaw dropped. “Midons prince–”

“The lordless man understands,” the spook chanted. “He is lordless no more. He is Braydon Braydson no more. Braydon avAlegshorn, what you do henceforth is done by Alegshorn ruVigelen sorRodion, Prince of the Realm. Whatever is done to you, is likewise done to the prince.”

The hall echoed with the sound of something breaking. Braydon wondered what was wrong, then felt boiling moisture stream down his right arm and was shamefully relieved when the prince seized his shirt and kept him from falling. The burning stopped; his right arm was completely numb. The sleeve shimmered with Brightwater and the clasp binding the cords to his sleeve gleamed with unnatural light before fading to ordinary silver.

“The oath is bound!” The spook closed his eyes, breaking contact with the Web. “Will you be needing me again, midons Prince Alegshorn?”

“No, go back to bed.”

When the spook was gone, Braydon succumbed to dizziness. The prince helped him sit in the high-backed chair and once again suggested that he eat.

“Your first Brightwater oath takes a lot out of you.”

Braydon held a drumstick awkwardly in his left hand.

“You'll feel fine by morning,” Aleg assured him. “But I'd think twice before I raised my hand against anyone wearing my colors–especially against me.”

Braydon arranged his numb arm in his lap. He fingered the braided silk. “What does it mean? What have I done?”

“You’ve become one of my oath-bound partisans.”

“What do I do?”

“Whatever I tell you to do–mostly messenger duty. I’ll give you a scroll to take to someone, or send you to fetch one. We headblind folk can’t rely on the Web, can we?”

Braydon still didn’t like it when the prince used ‘we.’  “Does it come off?” He fingered the silver clasp.

“Of course. I expect everyone in my service to change his shirt at least once a year.”

He blushed like a maiden. “What if I lose it, or it gets stolen?”

“You won’t lose it; Brightwater silver doesn’t get lost. And it doesn’t take kindly to being stolen or otherwise removed.”

“ ‘Otherwise removed’.”

“I don’t promise you that you’ll be safe from my enemies or my friends, Braydon avAlegshorn, but I swear you’ll be avenged.”

“I’m honored, midons prince–I don’t know what to say…or do.”

“Say goodnight and go back to your barracks. Wektianne’s in the inner room and she’ll keep me up past dawn if I linger out here much longer.”

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