Chapter 2 Tula
Teacher was looking over his small class of Chosen students in a dusty room above an old stable. Most of these boys were from the poorest families of their faith in Tula, those who could not afford the tithing required for the regular Chosen school.
A few had parents of some means who preferred this Teacher’s Socratic form of instruction where each question leads to more questions. The result was boys not as well versed in the dogmas of their religion but who had a better grasp of the world and their part in it. Those few families with some money were the ones who kept this school open.
A knock on the door behind him brought Teacher out of his reverie. He had placed his lectern so that anyone entering the classroom would have to pass by him, including late students. He slid the portal cover open to see a hooded figure not of the Chosen staring back at him. “Who?”
“You know me, I am a friend,” a familiar voice responded.
“Wait,” said the Teacher as he closed the portal cover and turned to his students. “Discuss among yourselves: What is truth?” The students, not unlike sailors to new coasts, were accustomed to being launched on voyages of self discovery while their captain’s attention was elsewhere.
Teacher stepped into the small hall of his meager school and faced his visitor. He was cautious with strangers as his people were often targets of violence by both the authorities in Tula and the people of the “flock.” He remembered this voice though he couldn’t recall from where.
The figure pulled his cowl back to expose his face – Geoffrik, the Belkan regional warlord who had allowed the Teacher to return to Tula after the battle at the pass months before. Why was he here?
Shirah was the name Teacher gave Geoffrik. A cousin of Teacher’s late wife, Shirah gained a position as a maid in the castle but kept her Chosen heritage a secret. She did not associate with others of her faith and avoided garments linked to her religion.
Other maids vied with each other to attach themselves to the powerful in Senschal’s inner circle. Shirah kept a low profile. That quiet diligence and spurning of fancy dress drew the attention of one important person – Tanya.
The wife of the legendary Wolf had surprised everyone by marrying the self-proclaimed “Prince” Senschal when her first husband had disappeared. She found herself a lonely outsider in the castle’s world of backstabbing politics. Many women contended for the plum position of the Princess’s personal servant. But Tanya rejected all in favor of the reticent Shirah.
Geoffrik could not believe this so-called “Dragon’s den,” was a place to meet a member of the castle staff. Here were the dregs of Tula – thieves, murderers and whores – every type of character the average people of the city chose not to see.
This cesspool, and that is what it smelled like, was the bay side of the rocky neck of land that enclosed the harbor where the Tu River met the western sea. Tula meant “mouth of the Tu” in the language of the old, defunct western empire.
Senschal had made the “Dragon’s Den” available to pirates and smugglers who served those who served him. Limited in space by being wedged between the water and the rock cliff atop which stood Senschal’s castle, Dragon’s Den had a distinct advantage – deep water. Over the centuries silt from the Tu had filled in the east side of the bay making that part of the port too shallow for the larger cargo ships of the current day.
Merchants of the town had to use lighters, shallow draft vessels that moved goods between the docks in the town and the ships in the harbor. Since Senschal owned the rocky peninsula outright, he could use access to the “den” and its deep-water docks as incentive to keep his favored supporters in line.
Geoffrik was in this ‘den of inequity’ dressed, as the Teacher had advised, as an old mercenary in worn-out garments and leaning on a staff. He feigned weariness as he stood by a dark alley filled with passed out drunks from the pub next door.
A hooded figure emerged from the alley, passed Geoffrik without looking at him and crossed the street to edge of the water. Turning around, the odd individual studied the figures moving along or sprawled in the narrow road including the ‘mercenary.’ The figure retraced its steps to the alley whispering “Geoffrik?” as it passed.
He followed into the blackness with the stench of human waste and vomit growing stronger with each step. Shirah climbed over a pile of rotting garbage, beating back angry rats, then turned to Geoffrik and asked, “Anyone?” pointing behind him. Seeing no one he turned back in time to see her disappear through some vines into a cleft in the rock face against which “Dragon’s den” clung.
Geoffrik used his staff to probe the path in the darkness as he pursued the sound of Shirah’s steps. The passageway was narrow and made a gradual climb upwards as it twisted through the rock. It opened into a short man-made tunnel where he heard her move a metal latch. He next heard the sound of a heavy door opening.
The light of a small candle almost blinded Geoffrik as he entered a storeroom full of furnishings and tools no longer used but kept in case of future need. “Wait here,” Shirah whispered as she took out a small candle, lit it from the first, then handed it to him and maneuvered through the piles of objects. The glow from her candle got dimmer till Geoffrik heard another door open and close. Now there was only the light of his candle and the sound of his breathing.
As he waited, Geoffrik reflected on what the Teacher had told him about Princess Tanya. The birth of her and Senschal’s daughter was more than a month early. The child was colicky and Tanya kept her at the far corner of the castle, away from her husband who could not stand the incessant crying. Teacher had said Shirah was sneaking in other babies in to calm the little princess.
The noise of the door again interrupted his thoughts and he saw the glow of another candle. Soon Tanya was before him, her face showing apprehension in the soft light. “Geoffrik?”
“Tanya, I have come to ask you an enormous favor. Are you able to keep secrets from your husband?”
The question made her uneasy. “I can,” she paused, “And I do.” She wanted to trust him but was not too sure. “Why do you ask?”
Geoffrik stared at her for a moment. That brief delay made Tanya even more apprehensive. She stepped back in alarm as he reached inside his cloak and pulled out a cloth bundle. He watched her face as he unwrapped the material to reveal her former husband’s gold horn.
Tanya’s gasp and the shock on her face convinced him he was right to trust her. But he was surprised by what happened next. She threw herself at him and cried, “Oh, Geoffrik, you are the answer to my prayers!” Tanya pulled away and whispered, “Wait, I have a greater treasure you must take away.”
The one the Wolf had entrusted with the gold horn stood in the bowels of the castle of his enemy not knowing quite what to do. Geoffrik trusted Tanya but her abandoning him holding it confused him. What “greater treasure” could she refer to? He also worried that the more the Princess moved in and out of this room, the more attention she could gather to herself.
After what seemed forever, Tanya returned. She carried a bundle, larger than his. It was her turn to watch his face as she pulled back the cloth to reveal the contents. Now it was Geoffrik who gasped.
What stunned this unflappable plainsman was not that he was looking at a baby but what he saw in the child’s face. He knew those eyes came not from Senschal – only the Wolf could have fathered them.
Tanya explained to Geoffrik how, finding herself pregnant, her husband missing and the mountain clans in chaos after the battle of the pass, she had accepted Senschal’s offer of protection. Then she saw how he played his supporters against each other, favoring first one then another. When he began to involve her in his schemes, Tanya came to fear this devious opportunist.
After she gave birth to her full-term healthy daughter whose eyes betrayed her true paternity, she led her husband to believe the baby was ‘preterm’ and unhealthy. Tanya had guessed that her new husband could not stand the sound of a colicky child so she had Shirah sneak in sickly children through the same tunnel she had brought Geoffrik; a secret passage Shirah had discovered.
But Tanya faced a dilemma: what to do with her baby, named Kareen, a respected name in both the Wolf’s and Senschal’s families. The way out was easy – the tunnel, through which Shirah could smuggle in a dead local child to replace her and give Senschal a body to bury. Until Geoffrik arrived she had found no one she could trust to raise little Kareen in secret away from her husband.
The “Lord of the Plains” felt humbled. He had come to Tanya hoping she would hide his secret. Now he had to protect and raise the legendary Wolf’s only heir. He agreed with Kareen’s mother he should raise her as a boy to help evade suspicion when people realized he gained a child at the same time as the death of Senschal’s little princess.
Tanya nursed her child to keep Kareen quiet on the journey ahead. She then kissed the now drowsy baby one last time. Geoffrik bundled the baby under his cloak and, using the staff in his free hand to guide him, returned with Shirah back through the dark tunnel. They arranged that Tanya’s trusted maid would obtain a dead baby girl in Tula for the princess’s ‘funeral’ then join him for the trip to the plains. No one there would recognize a maid from Senschal’s castle.
After Kareen’s funeral, Tanya had no choice but to return to Senschal’s bed.