(A/N: Inspiration from J.K. Rowling. Story mine. Or rather, story Valentina's.)
The Tale of Tercio
By Valentina Jett
Once, long ago, there lived a family, noble in name but poor in everything but children. Indeed, some said the lady of the house had done her duty by her lord too virtuously, for she had given him no fewer than seven children, and every one but the last a boy. But they did not heed foolish talk, and lived happily, poor in money but rich in love.
The first son of the family was well-favored and wise, and knew secret arts beyond the cunning of an ordinary man, such as how to find hidden treasures of gold, and how to charm the heart of even the loveliest lady. The second son was strong and well-made, and instead of fighting dragons, as many knights did in those days, he lived alongside them and learned their secrets, feeding them sheep and cattle in the mountains so that they did not venture into the valleys to eat humans. The third son... but more of him anon.
After these first three children came a pair of boys born within the same hour, and with temperaments as alike as their faces. They were tricksters and jokesters, and no man was safe around them. Their next brother was valiant and strong, if a trifle hot-headed at times, and fiercely protective of the last child of the family, a lovely girl, as brave as she was beautiful, and as intelligent as she was brave.
The third son of this family, Tercio, was the different one. He was very studious, even as a boy, and a strong believer in the law. When his brothers would play outdoors, battling with mock weapons or trying to snatch a ball from one another, he would most often be found in his bedroom, poring over an ancient treatise. He had even been known to shout at his brothers when their games disturbed his studies.
And so it happened one night, when Tercio was nineteen and a man grown, that a visitor came to their home one night, and spoke of his work learning of the customs of other lands, and the goods that passed from one country to another. The parents dismissed their elder two sons, who were eager to be off to their own work, and the younger four children, who wished to be playing, but Tercio stayed to hear the visitor speak.
"I need an apprentice," said the visitor. "An intelligent young man, willing to work and work hard, who wants to rise quickly and go far."
"Such is my wish," said Tercio, "and I will work for no wage, only my board and keep, and enough for a new set of clothes so that I do not shame you in my rags." His mother grew angry at this, for her children's clothes might not be new, but rags they had never been. But the father raised his hand, and the mother held her peace.
"So we shall start," said the visitor, "and if your work gives satisfaction, a wage you shall soon receive. Pack your things, for we depart in the morning."
And so it was done. Tercio returned with the visitor to his home and began to learn his work. For a year, all was well. But then a great scandal divided the families of the land, and it fell out that Tercio's family was on one side of the divide, while his new superior was on the other. Tercio's first inclination was to return to his family, but his superior spoke to him gently.
"I will be sad to lose such a fine worker, surely," he said. "But it is not only that. Even so short a time as I have known you, I have come to think of you, Tercio, almost as my own son, the child I never had."
Tercio looked around him, at the comfortable room in which he stood, the fine clothes which now he wore, and thought of his home, how the winds sometimes whistled not only around the walls but through them, how his clothes had often been shabby and out of date. And he thought that perhaps his master's perspective on the matter was not so difficult to understand after all. He had the law on his side, to be sure.
"I shall stay with you, sir," he said.
His master smiled. "Excellent."
Tercio stayed another year in his place, refraining from all contact with his parents, sending only brief letters to those of his younger siblings who, in his opinion, might yet be brought to see reason. But at the end of that year, he began to be uneasy. The scandal in the land, far from healing, was growing worse. Open war was surely soon to be on them. Should he not reconcile with his family, to be at peace, should any of them die?
"War? Certainly not!" his master told him. "This will never come to war. A few hotheads with foolish ideas, that is all." He frowned. "One thing does trouble me, though. Should some of those hotheads come here, all those who belong to this castle are protected by the law. But your lawful allegiance is still to your home. You have never changed it."
"I will do so now, sir, and gladly," said Tercio, grateful for something he could do to restore his master's good opinion of him.
But he soon had reason to regret it. He had not been two months bound to the castle before open war was declared – but the two sides which had so long been quarrelling were not the enemies here. Indeed, they had hastily made alliance against this new power, which sought to invade their country and take all by force. Keep after keep fell to their weapons, and the castle of Tercio's master was not spared.
And, as Tercio learned to his horror, anyone bound to the castle as he had been bound could not legally be ransomed. It was the reverse of the protection his master had promised, for his master was dead, and Tercio was a slave. He was not mistreated, for his new masters knew the worth of a slave who could read and write and figure, but he was regarded by them as no more than an intelligent dog or horse, worthy of only an absent nod and a wave of dismissal once his work was done.
What truly galled his spirit, though, was the collar which all the slaves were forced to wear. A thin ring of iron, it was enchanted – for the new master of this castle was an enchanter – with a spell which would make it heat to the point of pain, and farther, if the wearer went too far from the place where the enchantment had been cast. Tercio could go no more than two miles from the castle unless the collar were removed, and only the enchanter held the key to its lock.
What was more, no man could leave the castle, for it was guarded by three creatures of magic. The closest to the castle was a man with a face like stone, who never took his eyes away from the castle gate, and who knew by magic all whom his master allowed to enter or depart, and would strike dead on the spot any who were not so allowed. Next was a fierce dragon, which would eat any who escaped the watcher, and finally was a wood nymph, a creature like a human woman, but so beautiful that any man would be instantly captivated by her. Her forest surrounded the castle, and she, like the dragon, was bound by magic to seek out those who escaped and lure them to herself, keeping them until the enchanter came for them.
These three safeguards were not only to keep the slaves in, Tercio knew, but to keep the unwanted out. The enchanter also had spells to tell him when folk crossed into the lands he claimed, and a magical mirror which would show him what happened to them. Tercio grew to hate the enchanter's laughter, for it meant another hapless peasant or young, ambitious knight had run afoul of the wood nymph and been lured either to her lair, where she would keep him until she grew tired of him and released him, or into the purview of the dragon.
But there was a day the enchanter did not laugh. Tercio looked up from the castle's accounts on that chill, cloudy day to see his master brooding over what he saw in the mirror. "The man must be an enchanter himself," he muttered. "That or simply too stupid to understand what she is, and what she means."
Tercio dared a look into the mirror. There stood a tall, handsome knight, and for a moment Tercio thought he recognized his oldest brother – but no. His brother, like all his family, had hair of plain, ordinary brown, and this knight had hair red as flame. Two other knights stood behind him, and a pair of servants behind them, one holding the bridle of a lady's saddle horse. All of them, knights, servants, and lady, shared the fiery hair. The knight who stood in the foreground was speaking earnestly to the wood nymph, who seemed distressed.
Tercio quickly returned to his books as his master glanced his way. But his heart was racing. Perhaps, could many succeed where one had always failed, and find their way to the castle, to liberate it from the enchanter?
His master's curse told the story. "Blast them! Blast him! How in the name of Hades did he turn her that quickly? But it matters not. The dragon will eat them all, and I be rid of them – ah, and here it is now!"
Tercio risked another look. The dragon was speeding towards the small group. Smaller than it had been – only the shortest of the knights was left, fighting with all his strength to control a fear-stricken horse. Had it thrown the lady? If not, where had she gone?
The dragon shot flame from its mouth. The knight dived out of the way. The horse was not so lucky. The dragon began to dine.
As it did, the knight climbed to his feet and waved his hand. Other figures emerged from the edge of the forest.
The enchanter cursed again. Tercio stifled an exclamation of joy. They had known that the dragon would not attack them when it had food close at hand, so they had sacrificed the lady's horse in order to allow them to pass.
"The watcher will never let them through," said the enchanter surely. "He never sleeps, never weeps, never blinks. His eyes never leave that gate, and his sword is always ready to smite any who try to pass it without my allowance."
The two servants took the lead as the group approached the castle. They looked very much alike, Tercio noted, almost identical, and his thoughts went again to his own family. He wondered if they lived, and how they had fared in the war.
The servants placed themselves where the watcher could see them, but not close enough that he would strike, and began to speak to one another, idly, as if passing the time. Tercio wondered what they were doing, until he noticed the other members of the group smiling, gasping, laughing. They were joking, telling funny stories.
And then the servants began to tumble, tripping and pushing one another, managing to make their movements at once graceful and clumsy, balanced and unsteady at the same time. Tercio had to look away twice lest he betray himself by laughing at their antics. Finally he fixed his eyes on the watcher.
The watcher, seemingly in spite of himself, was watching the tumblers instead of the gate, and although his face was as stony as it had ever been, his eyes were beginning to water. Finally, he had to raise a hand to wipe them.
And as he did, the third knight and the lady dashed through the gate, so swift that Tercio could barely follow them with his eyes. The enchanter screamed in fury and dashed the magical mirror to the floor.
"I challenge you!" shouted a voice from the other end of the hall. There stood the knight, tall and strong and all in chain mail, naked sword in his hand. Tercio caught just a glimpse of the lady as she darted behind a pillar, on the other side of the hall from where he stood himself. "Steel against steel, the winner to rule this castle!"
The enchanter drew his own sword and saluted the young man, then came to the center of the hall to meet his adversary.
And the man was young, Tercio saw as he watched. Younger than he was himself, too young to be a true knight, he must be only a squire yet. But he was a fine fighter, strong and balanced and well versed in the ways of the sword – both men bled from small cuts, but neither was yet shown the master –
The young knight disarmed his opponent and placed the point of his sword against his opponent's chest. "Yield," he ordered.
The enchanter laughed. "I will not," he taunted. "For you cannot kill me by cutting through my chest – nay, nor by cutting off my head! My magic will keep me alive unless you find the one place on my body where I may be slain, and you will never find it, never!"
The young knight took a step back, confused. The enchanter whistled, and his sword leapt into his hand –
"His feet!" shouted Tercio. "Strike at his feet!" For he had not lived all these weary months as a slave without learning one secret of value.
The enchanter turned, his face contorted in rage, and made a sign in the air – Tercio screamed as his slave's collar heated to the point of pain –
His master screamed as well, as a dagger seemed to materialize in his back. Tercio gasped with the ending of his pain and stared across the hall, to the place where the lady stood, her face half proud, half horrified, her hand still lifted with the end of her throw.
The young knight raised his sword and struck at the enchanter's feet, slicing them off at the ankles.
The castle shook on its foundations with the enchanter's last scream, as his body dissolved into fog, a fog that spread and filled the room. Tercio could see nothing, hear nothing, only feel, and what he felt was joy, as his collar fell away from him. He was free.
When he could see again, he stood alone in the hall. Where his master had lain, there now lay a scroll. He picked it up.
"Whosoever finds this," it read, "if you be of noble blood and birth, you be the new lord of this castle and all its lands. Tend it well, and come to Court to pay your respects to the new King as soon as you are able."
Tercio had never imagined himself as a lord, being only the third son of a poor family, but he knew how to tend a castle. Under his direction, the keep and its lands were soon prospering, and he had news of the outside world. The war was over, the enemy's generals slain and its armies scattered. A new King indeed sat on the throne, but reports of his name were difficult to come by, and contradictory at that, and Tercio had his own concerns keeping the castle running well. It was another year before he could be spared to travel to Court.
At Court, he knelt before the King, and rose at his sovereign's command.
"And do you know me yet?" asked the King.
Tercio raised his eyes to his King's face and looked, truly looked, as he had not dared yet to do – for something about the voice, he thought he knew. But what he saw, he almost did not believe.
"Perhaps you will know me better," said the Queen, laughing. "Look at me, foolish child."
Tercio turned his eyes to the Queen, and knelt again at her feet, of his own will – for the Queen was his own mother, and the King his father, and as the greatest lords of the Court came forth, he knew them for his own brothers, and the Queen's chief lady-in-waiting his sister.
He had not known them at first, he explained when they were alone, because they were strangely changed. All of them, every one, had hair of a bright and flaming red.
They had been struck by an enemy's spell, explained his eldest brother, for the enchanter who had enslaved Tercio was not the only one working for their foes. It had been meant to set the family afire. He had been lucky to turn it so that this was the only effect.
"Change my hair as well, then," said Tercio, "for I would have the world know my family, and how much I value them."
"It is a powerful spell," warned his brother. "It will affect not only you, but your children, and your children's children, and thus down through time, as long as I can see. All of our descendants will be red-haired."
"All?" asked the sister.
"All," said the eldest. "Unless one of our line shall marry another whose deeds and bravery rival our own."
"So be it," said Tercio.
And so it was, and so it is, and so it shall be ever.
(A/N: Yeah, you know what I want you to do. And I really hope you do it. And yes, I am working on Dealing with Danger. But this insisted on being written tonight. Hope you liked it.)