Chaff, a stable boy in the employ of Lord Yoad, receives Awareness magic–the ability to manipulate Life Force particles–on his sixteenth birthday.
He flees Yoad Hall and travels to the Crown to see the Eternal Trees and Prand’s First Loyal who provides the connection to the Eternal One. King Neel, First Loyal, astonishes Chaff by revealing that he is a Second Loyal.
The Non–the antithesis of the Eternal One–manipulates Lord Yoad’s men into felling an Eternal Tree. Angered by Man’s act of destruction, the Eternal One will not assist his First Loyal until He is appeased…
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Genre: Fantasy Word Count: 101, 507
Chaff limped into the speckled mare’s stall and darted a glance over his shoulder as he kneed shut the gate. Earlymorn light silhouetted no figure in the stable’s open doorway, nor did the dark-timbered interior reveal any sign of human life. And so, setting down bucket and broom, Chaff pulled two withered carrots from the pocket of his breeches.
“I’ve brought you a treat, Lusala,” he whispered, his throat choking. A pitiful offering for a starving horse, but the best he’d been able to do.
The dootra lifted her head and whickered faintly. Although in the dimness, Chaff could not see the color of her eyes, he knew the green that had once been bright as spring foliage was lusterless now.
He took a step toward her, but froze at a flicker of lantern light and the sound of rapid footfalls coming toward him along the stable corridor.
“Chaff! You’re in here, aren’t you?” The hard-voiced shout stirred Lord Yoad’s dozing purebloods to nervous snorts and restless hoof stamps.
Chaff slipped the carrots into the water pail.
Ghost-like in his pale gray uniform, a man strode into sight. Rix, damn him. No surprise that Lusala’s ambitious guard had quit breakfast to check on her; he was ever eager to prove his competence. As he reached the gate, he lifted the lantern to light the stall. “What are you up to?”
Chaff gestured at the scrub broom and bucket of water. “What does it look like?” he snapped, but under Rix’s hostile scrutiny, his bravado wavered. He clenched his hands to conceal their trembling, and cursed the sweat that suddenly dewed his forehead.
Stablemaster Parl, who had followed the guard, stepped forward. “I told you, he’s my most conscientious boy.”
“And I say your confidence is misplaced.” Rix jerked open the gate and stepped into Lusala’s stall. By Lord Yoad’s orders, the hayrack was empty, the floor bare of bedding. Thus, the guard’s attention came to rest on the bucket at the stableboy’s feet. Apprehension seized Chaff, shortened his breath and weakened his limbs.
Thrusting the lantern at the stablemaster, Rix pushed up the sleeve of his uniform, and bent to plunge a hand into the water. When he straightened, carrots pinched between thumb and fingers, his dark eyes burned with satisfaction. “You see, Parl,” he said, “you just can’t trust a hedge-whelp.” A sardonic grin touched his lips as he addressed Chaff. “I suggest you beg for strength from that Eternal One you Believers love so much. You’ll soon need it.”
As Rix tramped away, Chaff sagged against the wall and pressed his back against the wood, wishing he could transfer its solidity to his body. Well aware of Parl’s frustrated gaze upon him, he drew a deep breath, seeking comfort in the familiar scents of meadow hay and well-groomed horses.
“Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?” the stablemaster burst out when the guard was well gone. “Did you really think your absence at table wouldn’t be noticed when yours is the only blond head amongst the lot? And just what did you expect to accomplish with two carrots?”
Wanting to give answer to the man he viewed as a second-father, Chaff mumbled, “I had to do something.”
“What you had to do was obey Milord’s orders. It isn’t your place to decide if he’s right or wrong.”
“How can you defend him?” Chaff flared. “How can you say nothing and watch Lusala die?”
“He won’t let her die,” Parl shot back.
The Holdings’ bell began to toll, summoning the Hall servile staff to witness Chaff’s punishment. His stomach churned. Only a ten-day ago, he’d watched a cobble sweeper receive seven strokes of the rod for insolence. What would his penalty be? More than seven, he thought.
As two guards approached with purposeful step, Parl sighed heavily, and looked into Chaff’s eyes, his own filled with compassion. “You know I’d help you if I could.”
“Yes,” Chaff breathed. “I know.”
Then Lord Yoad’s men were upon him, one on either side, propelling him into the broad courtyard, its cobbles still wet with earlymorn dew. Above the horizon, ragged with silhouetted always-greens, the sky had turned rosy-yellow, as if anticipating the sun’s arrival on this clear March day. The assembled staff members whispered to each other. The women smoothed their white smocks with twitchy fingers; the men tucked loose shirttails into their brown breeches.
Chaff’s mouth went dry as his gaze swept past them to the flogger, a man of hard-sinewed arms and an impassive face. And skilled enough to deliver great suffering with the least amount of incapacitation, for Lord Yoad would expect Chaff to resume his duties on the morrow. The guards stripped off his shirt, pushed him against a lantern post and tied his hands to the crossbar above his head.
Flanked by Parl and Fieldguard Captain Slone, Lord Yoad stood before him. Chaff’s heart clutched with dread. Seven years’ training kept him from looking his lord in the eye, but Chaff sensed his master’s anger. The nobleman raised one hand and called out, “For willful and deliberate disobedience of my orders, fifteen strokes.”
Gasps arose from the serviles, and Chaff recoiled in mind and body. Fifteen! Lord Yoad had never ordered that many for anyone! Anguished, Chaff raised his gaze to his lord’s, and saw only a chilling emptiness.
Already the rod whirred through the air, and Chaff had no time to prepare himself. But he could not have even imagined the shock of that first blow. It broke skin, scored flesh, stung like a fishknife cut. The force pushed a strangled gasp between his lips. Gratification flitted across Lord Yoad’s face. Chaff bowed his head and clenched his teeth. He won’t hear me scream, he vowed. He won’t!
Stroke after stroke fell. Chaff strained away from the terrible pain, pressed his body against the post. Its sharp corners gouged his chest and abdomen. The rough ropes scraped his wrists as his knees folded. He fought to remain upright, to maintain his dignity.
“By the Non,” one of the fieldguards muttered, “the little lame mucker is tough as boiled leather.”
But Chaff’s mind longed to close itself to the agony that wanted to swallow him whole. And so the courtyard, the world, hazed over. Only two humans existed in it. Him and the flogger. He heard only the whir of the rod and the expressionless voice intoning the stroke number. Felt only the wracking torture. Smelled only his blood and sweat. Sickened, he swallowed his bile along with his groans.
Chaff could not bear any more. The orphan warders had taught him to Believe, and although he had little faith that the Eternal One truly cared about him, he raised a silent prayer. Please, One, help me withstand this.
Chaff caught his lower lip between his teeth and bit as the fourteenth and fifteenth blows fell.
The punishment was over. He had survived without fainting, without crying out. His back burned with a merciless hot, red fire. He sagged against the post, tumbled hair clinging to his sweat-damp forehead, bloody slaver oozing from his bitten lip.
“Guardsman Rix tells me the boy is ten-and-six this morn, Milord,” Captain Slone said.
“Really? On the first day of springtide? Then we must lay on one more stroke to celebrate such a lucky birth-remembrance day.”
No! Chaff’s mind raged. No! I’ve taken my penalty! Tears of indignation and anger blurred his vision as he lifted his face toward the just-born sun. Its rays splashed over him. Their golden warmth enveloped his body, enwrapped it as if in layered quilts. He hardly felt the last blow.
“Untie him,” Lord Yoad said.
As the rod-wielder obeyed, two fieldguards stepped forward and grasped Chaff’s arms. He hung limp between the men. One of them grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked his head up to watch Lord Yoad address the other serviles.
“No one will go near this boy. No one will speak to him or touch him until tomorrow morn.” He stabbed a finger at Rehnata. “Especially not you.”
The old healer acknowledged his words with only the slightest incline of her gray head, an act of near-insolence the lord would not have tolerated in anyone else. He dismissed the crowd with a gesture, and as Rehnata turned away, her gaze touched Chaff’s. He saw a flash of surprise, then awe. She must not have expected him to endure so well.
The fieldguards jerked him upright and urged his stumbling steps across the courtyard toward the long, low stable building. They left him sprawled in Lusala’s stall, breathing in the stink of urine-soaked flooring.
The speckled mare whickered and came to snuffle at his raw wounds. Her warm breath heightened the fires of hurt, and he moaned, “No, Lusala.” As always, she understood, and lifted her head, although she stayed close beside him.
For a time Chaff’s thoughts drifted, then slowly came to focus on Lord Yoad. Lean of body and fair of feature, he was the richest man in the kingdom of Draal. At only three-and-a-half ten-years, he owned forests that stretched from its landsedge to Prand’s Crown, where grew the Eternal Trees. But all of Chaff’s loyalty and devotion had gone to the lord’s wife, Lady Meave. And she had responded in kind. Lord Yoad must have resented that terribly. Now, with Milady gone and no one else who dared intercede, he was levying his retribution.
Chaff heard the hoof-clatter of horses being led from their stalls, followed by the excited baying of the lord’s pack of white hounds and the shouts of the fieldguards. The din swelled, then diminished, and silence descended.
Slowly, Chaff became aware of the presence of creatures other than Lusala. Sparrows and pigeons in the rafters, a mouse in a nearby stall, barn cats on the prowl. And yes, even stable flies, dung beetles and wood ants.
Had his agony heightened his senses to such an incredible degree? The intense connection with all living things awed, yet frightened him. Perhaps death hovered near. Perhaps he was already on his way to One’s Realm.
Another presence, a human, entered Chaff’s range of perception. Quietly and quickly it came toward him.
“Here,” a small voice whispered. “I’ve brought water.”
The disquieting sensations fled from Chaff like darting minnows. Relieved to be free of them, he collected his thoughts and opened his eyes. The youngest stableboy, Winky, only a ten-year, knelt beside him, holding a dipper.
“Go away,” Chaff mumbled. “You’ll be punished.”
“There’s hardly anyone about,” Winky said, but his quick glance into the corridor belied his attempt at bold unconcern. “Parl and the boys are owner-marking the new foals. Milord’s taken Cap’n Slone and some of his men hunting, and the rest are at weapons practice.” He waved a grimy hand. “Even the one who guards Lusala.”
Lord Yoad needn’t have worried about Rix offering sympathy, Chaff thought.
“Please drink.” Fear now shadowed Winky’s dark eyes, and set his thin body atremble.
Chaff pushed himself up on one elbow. For a moment, the stable rocked. When it had stilled, he guided the dipper to his mouth with his free hand, wincing as the rim touched his swollen lower lip. He rinsed his mouth and spat, then drank thirstily. The water tasted especially good–fresh, cool and minty.
“Rehnata put something in it to help with the pain,” Winky said, “and to heal the stripes quicker.”
Tears threatened and Chaff forestalled them by draining the dipper. Winky took it from his shaking fingers as he once more collapsed.
“Thank you,” Chaff whispered. “And thank Rehnata. Now go before you get caught.”
The small boy rose, glanced around, and hurried away. Not until his footfalls faded did Chaff yield to the despair he had stubbornly restrained. Swimming on the brink of a potion-induced sleep, he sought memories of Lady Meave, his beautiful, golden-haired lady, absent from the Holdings these past four thirty-days. She had brought him with her from the kingdom of Falshane when she had married Lord Yoad. From amongst all the children at the orphan home, she had chosen him to accompany her, to be Lusala’s caretaker. She had chosen him. How he had clung to that all these years.
Unmindful of the hurt such movement brought, he turned onto his side, and curled his body around the bitter sorrow in his heart. “Milady,” he sobbed. “Milady, why couldn’t I have gone with you?” Squeezing his eyes shut, he willed himself to escape the pain, to let Rehnata’s drink take effect, and at last the healing peace of sleep engulfed him.
He awoke slowly, with hazy recollections of having heard Lord Yoad and his men return from the hunt, their horses stamping and blowing. He vaguely remembered listening to the stableboys’ unnaturally hushed voices as they went about their eventime chores.
The stable now lay night-quiet, but lantern light glowed on the stall’s partitions. Sensing a presence other than the dootra’s, Chaff turned his head.
Parl hunkered beside him. “Rehnata drew fresh water for you and Lusala.” He gestured at the bucket sitting next to the lantern.
Chaff struggled to form words in a cottony mouth. “You aren’t supposed to talk to me.”
“Milord relented and gave me permission to check on you one time before going to bed,” the stablemaster said. “Here. Let me see your back.”
Chaff eased himself onto his stomach, and repositioned his left arm so that he could rest his cheek upon it. Parl looked closely at the wounds and sighed. “They’ll feel better in the morn, after Rehnata cleans and salves them, but you’ll have some scars, I’m afraid.” He sat down and leaned against the wall. “I’m amazed you’re doing so well. Sixteen strokes for a lad as fine-boned as you…”
He shook his head. “You made Milord very angry, Chaff. I wish you’d try harder to understand him. He’s doing what he thinks he must to force Milady to return.”
“But she might have been abducted.” Chaff hated himself for almost wishing such were true. It would explain why Lady Meave had not taken him with her, or at least told him she was going. While he had sensed she was not truly happy in her marriage, neither had she indicated she was miserable enough to leave.
“Chaff, be sensible. If she’d been abducted, Milord would have received a ransom demand long ago.”
“None was ever received for the return of Princess Haehli of Shubeck,” he said, “and it’s been six thirty-days since she disappeared.”
“Hunh!” Parl snorted. “That hoyden. No doubt she’ll soon surface with a commonfolk bastard in her arms.”
“Then perhaps Milady was taken by magik.”
“Ah, yes,” Parl said. “Rehnata’s explanation.” He waved one hand in a gesture of exasperation. “Whose magik? The only mortal beings who possess it are Keepers. And whether they be sprite or human, they’re committed to good works. The Eternal One wouldn’t have spirited her out of her garden. That’s not His way. And the Non couldn’t have got anywhere near someone as devoted to the One as Milady. So who then, Chaff?”
“I don’t know. I only know that if she’d had a choice…” Chaff’s words failed, and he closed his eyes against the melancholy that scored his heart as painfully as the rod had scored his back.
“She had a choice. And she chose to leave. She won’t ever come back. Milord is almost to the point of accepting that, and when he does, he will allow Lusala to be fed.”
“Do you really believe that?” Chaff’s astonishment burgeoned into sudden anger. “If you do, then you’re a fool! He starves Lusala for the same reason he ordered so many strokes for me. Because Milady loved us. Your dear lord can’t understand such devotion since he doesn’t give a rat’s turd about anyone. Not even you, Parl, no matter how long and faithfully you’ve served him. Can’t you see that? Are you blind?”
The stablemaster flinched as if struck, and tight lines hardened his plain face. Chaff pulled in a deep breath. He’d said too much, let his misdirected rage hurt someone he cared about. But he couldn’t bring himself to apologize for speaking the truth.
The silence hung like cobwebs between them. When Parl finally spoke, it was as supervisor to servile. “According to contract, a dootra must be returned to the royal family of Falshane if its owner dies or otherwise relinquishes ownership. Milord will have to send Lusala back, but he’s under no obligation to return you. You’ll just have to get used to life without Milady. And unless you enjoy getting rodded, you’d best learn to obey Milord without question.”
“I won’t promise that.”
Parl rose abruptly and snatched up the lantern. “Then you’ll suffer the more for it. The world can be a hard place unless you bend to fit it.” He tramped out of the stall, and in the corridor hung the lantern from a hook on the wall opposite the stairway to the sleeping loft. “‘Til the morn, Chaff,” he muttered and climbed the steps.
Chaff lay quiet, listening to the small night noises of the stable. Lusala chewed at the half-wall, loosing the strong odor of lamp oil, which Chaff had been ordered to pour upon it to prevent such cribbing. The wood bits fell from her lips as she lowered her head and blew. Poor sweet thing. No matter what Parl thought, Chaff was sure Lord Yoad would starve her until she died.
Slowly, he forced himself to a crouch, then steeling himself against the hurt, straightened his back. Sweat beaded his forehead and he rested, hands palm up on his knees. He looked down at his rope-burned wrists. On the underside of the left one, his birthmark was plainly visible, even in the dim light from the corridor lantern.
As a child, he’d pretended the long-looped figure-eight made him special, for he’d never seen anyone else with such a mark. Well, but here he was, beaten and bloodied. No one special at all. A hedge-whelp, as Rix had said.
He inched to the bucket of water Parl had brought, and drank. Gratitude welled in his heart when he detected the taste of Rehnata’s tonic. Whatever herbs she used, they brought not only pain relief, but renewed strength.
After a few minutes, Chaff dared to stand. Giddy, he steadied himself with a hand on Lusala’s shoulder, ashamed to take support from her. She was already ribby and canted in at the flank.
Chaff closed his eyes, rested his hands on the mare’s back, and pressed his forehead against her side. “Oh, Lusala,” he whispered. “If only I could take you home.”
The mare’s hide shivered under the quick tightening of Chaff’s fingers. Thieve Lusala and run? Why not? She was dying and he had only a life of misery ahead at the hands of Lord Yoad. He lifted his head, feeling flushed and feverish. He had to take this opportunity, for there would be no other.
His heart trembled at the audacity of his plan, but he could not quell the elation that consumed him, body and soul. He hurried to fetch the bucket of tonic-laced water and set it in front of the speckled mare.
“Drink, Lusala. Drink your fill. When the night’s full dark, we leave.”