Given the chance to train as a squire, kitchen servant Achan Cham hopes to pull himself out of his pitiful life and become a Kingsguard Knight. When Achan's owner learns of his training, he forces Achan to spar with the Crown Prince--more of a death sentence than an honor. Meanwhile, strange voices in Achan's head cause him to fear he's going mad. While escorting the prince to a council presentation, their convoy is attacked. Achan is wounded and arrested, but escapes from prison--only to discover a secret about himself he never believed possible.
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Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.
He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.
Sitna Manor sat on the north side of the Sideros River. A brownstone curtain wall, four levels high, enclosed the stronghold. A second wall sectioned off the outer bailey from the inner bailey, temple, and keep. Achan wasn't allowed to enter the inner bailey but occasionally snuck inside when he felt compelled to leave an offering at Cetheria's temple.
The barn loomed ahead of him in the darkness. It was one of the largest structures in Sitna Manor. It was long and narrow, with a high, thatched gable roof. Achan shifted the pail to his torch hand and tugged the heavy door open. It scraped over the frosty dirt. He darted inside and pulled it closed.
The scent of hay and manure drifted on the chilled air. He walked to the center and slid the torch into an iron ring on a load-bearing post. The timber walls stymied the bitter wind, and Achan's shivering lessened.
The torch cast a golden glow over the hay pile, posts, and rafters and made Achan's orange tunic look brown. A long path stretched the length of the barn with stalls on each side penning chickens, geese, pigs, and goats. Two empty stalls in the center housed hay and feed. He approached the goat stall.
"Morning, Dilly, Peg. How are my girls? Got lots of milk for me?"
The goats bleated their greetings. Achan rubbed his hands together until they were warm enough to avoid getting him kicked. He perched on the icy stool to milk Dilly and begin his tedious routine. He could have worse jobs, though, and he liked the goats.
By the time Achan had finished with Dilly, the stool under his backside had thawed, though his breath still clouded in the torch's dull glow. He lifted the pail to get a better look. Dilly had filled it a third. Achan set it between his feet, slapped Dilly on the rear, and called Peg. When he had finished milking her he moved his stool outside and set the pail on top of it. He grabbed a pitchfork off the wall.
Dilly and Peg danced around as Achan dumped fresh hay into the trough. The goats' excitement faded to munching. The other animals stirred, but they were not his responsibility. Mox, the scrawny barn boy, had arrived a few minutes ago and now shuffled from stall to stall at the other end of the barn.
As Achan leaned the pitchfork against the wall, he had to pause. A chill ran through him that had nothing to do with the temperature. He felt the familiar pressure in his head. It wasn't painful, but it brought a sense of a looming, sinister shadow. Someone was coming.
"Lo, Mox!" a familiar voice called from near the barn's entrance.
"Moxy poxy hoggy face, we know you're in here."
Achan sucked in an icy breath and slid back into the goat stall. The voices belonged to Riga Hoff and Harnu Poe, Sitna Manor's resident browbeaters.
Mox's young voice cried out. "Stop it! Don't do that! Ow!"
Achan set his jaw and thunked his head against the wall of the stall, earning a reprimanding look from Dilly. Poril would flay him if he returned late. And there was no guarantee he could beat both boys. He should mind his own business. Regular beatings had made him tough — they could do likewise for Mox.
Or they could cripple him for life. An image flooded his mind: a young slave being dragged through the linen field by Riga and Harnu. They'd crushed his hands so badly that all the boy could do now was pull a cart like a mule. Achan sighed.
He edged to the other end of the barn, stepping softly over the scattered hay. Two piglets scurried past his feet. He clenched his jaw. If the animals got out, Mox would be punished by his master too. Riga and Harnu knew that, of course.
Achan spotted them in a pig stall at the end of the barn. Harnu was holding Mox's face in a trough of slop. The mere thought of the smell turned Achan's empty stomach. Riga leaned over Harnu's shoulder laughing, his ample rear blocking the stall's entrance. Fine linen stretched over Riga's girth and rode up his back in wrinkles, baring more skin than Achan cared to see.
He sent a quick prayer up to the gods and cleared his throat. "Can I help you boys with something?"
Riga spun around, his mess of short, golden curls sticking out in all directions. His face was so pudgy Achan could never tell if his eyes were open or closed. "Stay out of this, dog!"
Harnu released Mox and pushed past Riga out of the stall. The torch's beam illuminated his pockmarked face, a hazard from working too close to the forge. "Moxy poxy piglet got out of his pen. He needs to learn his place." Harnu stood a foot taller than Riga and was the real threat in the barn. He stepped toward Achan. "Looks like you need to learn yours too."
Achan held his ground. "Let him go."
Harnu's gaze flitted to a pitchfork propped against the wall. He grabbed it and swung. Achan jumped back, but the tines snagged his tunic, ripping a hole in the front and scratching his stomach. Achan squeezed his fists and blew out a long breath.
Harnu jabbed the pitchfork forward. Achan lunged to the side and grabbed the shaft. He wrenched the weapon away and spun it around, prongs facing Harnu. He waved it slightly back and forth, hoping to scare the brute into flight.
"The barn is off limits to your instruction. Anything else I can do for you boys? A little hay? Some oats, perhaps? Drag you to the moat, tie a millstone to your ankles, see how well you swim?"
Like a dog being teased with a bone, Harnu lunged.
Achan stepped back and raised the pitchfork above his head the way he'd seen knights do in the longsword tournaments. With nothing to stop his hurtling bulk, Harnu stumbled. Achan swung the tines flat against Harnu's backside, and the bully knocked head first into the chicken pen. The birds squawked and fluttered, sending a cloud of dust over Harnu.
Riga slipped past the stall and made toward the milk pail. Achan darted forward and stuck the pitchfork in the clay earth to snag Riga's foot. The big louse tripped and sprawled into the dirt and hay.
Footsteps behind Achan sent him wheeling around just in time to lift the pitchfork to Harnu's chest. Over Harnu's shoulder, Achan could see Mox climbing out of the geese pen with a squirming piglet under one arm.
Harnu raised his hands and stepped back, a thin scratch swelling across his reddened cheek. "Lord Nathak will hear 'bout this, stray. You'll hang."
Achan knew he wouldn't hang for a tussle like this, but he might be whipped. And Lord Nathak's guards were merciless. But Achan doubted Lord Nathak's servants would bother their master with such a trivial matter. He shrugged. "Not much to tell. You fell into the chicken pen."
"You attacked me with a pitchfork when I caught you trying to steal a horse."
A tremor snaked down Achan's arms. Stealing a horse was cause for a hanging. And no one — especially Lord Nathak — would take the word of a stray over a peasant, even one like Harnu. Achan jabbed the pitchfork out. "If Lord Nathak hears a breath of that tripe, I know where you lay your head."
Harnu snorted and beat his chest with a clenched fist. "You dare threaten me?"
Achan glanced around for Riga, but the swine had vanished. He backed toward the hay pile, feeling cornered. Achan took another step back, keeping the pitchfork aimed at Harnu. His boot knocked against something.
Harnu cackled and pointed behind Achan's feet. Achan looked down. The stool and pail lay on their sides, milk seeping into the clay soil.
Riga charged out of the hay stall with a roar. Achan turned, but Riga jerked the pitchfork away. Harnu rushed forward and battered Achan to the ground.
The pitchfork dug into Achan's back. He gritted his teeth, not wanting to give the brutes the satisfaction of hearing him scream. He was more upset over the spilled milk than the pain.
Pain, he was used to.
Mox pointed at Achan from the end of the barn, his face gooey with slop. "Ha ha!" The ungrateful scab was on his own next time.
Dilly and Peg kicked against the wall of their stall, agitated by Achan's distress.
Harnu crouched in front of him, grabbed the back of his head, and pushed his face toward the puddle seeping into the dirt floor. "Lick it up, dog!"
Achan thrashed in the hay but lost his battle with Harnu's hand. He turned his head just as his cheek splashed into the milky muck. The liquid steamed around his face. Harnu released Achan's head and sat back on his haunches, his wide lips twisting in a triumphant sneer.
Riga chortled, a dopey sound. "I'd like a new rug, Harnu. What say we skin the stray?" He dragged the pitchfork down Achan's back.
They never learned.
Achan pushed up with his arms. The prongs dug deeper, but he was able to slide his right arm and leg underneath his body and twist free. He grabbed the handle of the pail and swung it at Harnu's face. Harnu fell onto his backside, clutching his nose.
Achan scrambled to his feet. He grabbed another pitchfork off the wall and squared off with Riga.
The portly boy waddled nearer and lifted his weapon. Achan faked an upswing.
When Riga heaved the pitchfork up to block, Achan swung the shaft of his weapon into Riga's leg.
The boy went down like a slaughtered pig.
Harnu approached, pinching his nose with one hand and wiping a fistful of hay across his upper lip with the other.
"This does grow old," Achan said. "How many times do I have to trounce you both?" "I'm telling Lord Nathak." Harnu sounded like he had a cold.
"You've no right to attack us," Riga mumbled from the dirt floor.
Achan wanted to argue, And what of Mox? but he'd sacrificed enough for that thankless whelp. He grabbed both pitchforks and fled from the barn.
Pale dawn light blanketed Sitna Manor. Achan jogged toward the drawbridge, glancing at the sentry walk of the outer gatehouse. The squared parapet was black against the grey sky. A lone guard stood on the wall above like a shadow.
Achan ran through the gate and over the drawbridge. As usual, the guards ignored him. Few people in the manor acknowledged anyone wearing an orange tunic. One small advantage of being a stray. He sank to his knees at the edge of the moat to wash the blood off the pitchforks.
Riga and Harnu wouldn't let this go easily.
Achan sighed. His fingers stiffened in the rank, icy water. One of these days he'd accept pretty Gren Fenny's offer to weave him a brown tunic, and he'd run away. He was almost of age — maybe no one would question his heritage. He could tell people his mother was a mistress and his father was on Ice Island. Sired by a criminal and almost sixteen, people wouldn't ask too many questions.
But could Achan convince Gren to come with him? He scrubbed the pitchfork prongs with renewed vigor to combat the dread in his heart. Any day now, Gren had said. Any day her father might announce her betrothal and crush Achan's hopes. He'd hinted at running away together, but Gren hadn't seemed keen on the idea. She loved her family. Achan tried to understand, but as a stray, the concept of family was as foreign as a cham bear. He could only dream of it.
When the pitchforks were clean, Achan returned to the barn. His attackers had left and, thankfully, had not done any damage they could blame him for. He shuddered to think of what their feeble minds hadn't. The torch still burned in the ring on the post. They could have burned the barn to ashes. They were truly the thickest heads in Sitna, maybe even in all Er'Rets.
Not that Achan was much brighter, sacrificing himself for an ingrate who was probably out chasing piglets.
Achan hung one pitchfork on the wall and used the other to clean up the hay. When the ground was tidy, he grabbed the empty pail and sat on the stool to catch his breath.
The consequences of his heroism were suddenly laid before him. The scratches on his back throbbed. The goat's milk had completely soaked into the ground, the front of his tunic, and his face. Only the latter had dried, making the skin tight on his left cheek. His nose tingled from the cold. He shivered violently, now that he'd stopped moving. He scowled and pitched the pail across the barn. It smacked the goat stall, and the girls scurried around inside, frightened by the sound.
But Achan didn't want a beating. So he picked the pail up again, dragged the stool into the stall, and managed to squeeze another two inches of milk from the goats. It was all they had. Poril would be furious.
Achan jogged out of the barn, around the cottages, and across the inner bailey. By now, more people were stirring — it was almost breakfast time. He wove around a peddler pushing a cart full of linens and a squire leading a horse from the stables. A piglet scurried past, just avoiding the wheels of a trader's wagon. Achan ignored it. Mox could hang for all he cared.
Pressure filled his head again.
This time the insight that followed was not dread but kinship and hope. Achan paused at the entrance to the kitchens and turned, seeking out the source of the sensation. His gaze was drawn to the armory.
There, Harnu slouched on a stool clutching a bloody rag to his nose. His father stood over him, hands on hips. The warm glow of the forge behind their menacing forms brought to mind the Lowerworld song that Achan had heard Minstrel Harp sing in the Corner last night:
When Arman turns away, Shamayim denied To Lowerword your soul will flee.
Achan shuddered. The sensation of kinship was definitely not coming from them.
He spotted someone else. A knight stood leaning against the crude structure of the armory, watching Achan with a pensive stare. He wore the uniform of the Old Kingsguard — a red, hooded cloak that draped over both arms and hung to a triangular point in the center front and back. The crest of the city of Armonguard, embroidered in gold thread, glimmered over his chest. The knight pulled his hood back to reveal white hair, tied back on top and hanging past his shoulders. A white beard dangled in a single braid that extended to his chest.
Achan recognized him immediately. It was Sir Gavin Lukos, the knight who had come to train Prince Gidon for his presentation to the Council.
For what purpose did the knight stare? Achan had never met anyone above his station who hadn't wished him harm or hard work. Yet his instincts had never been wrong. Sir Gavin harbored no ill will. Achan gave the old man a half smile before entering the kitchens to face Poril's wrath.
* * *
Achan settled onto a stool by the chest-high table that was worn by years of knives and kneading. The kitchens were two large rooms under one roof. One was filled with water basins, tables, and supplies for mixing. The other held six chest-high tables and three hearth ovens that left the room sweltering nearly all day.
Poril, a burly old man with sagging posture, poured batter into stone cups and carried them to one of the hearth ovens. Serving women scurried about filling trays with food and gossiping about Lord Nathak's latest rejection from the Duchess of Carm.
Achan's stomach growled at the smell of fried bacon and ginger cake. He wouldn't be able to eat until after the nobility were served, and then he would be allowed only one bowl of porridge. Poril had a knack of knowing if Achan had eaten something he shouldn't have. Achan suspected the serving women's tongues flapped for extra slices of Poril's pies.
The scratches on his back burned. He was in no mood for Poril's daily lecture, nor could he stomach the cook's nagging voice and the queer way he spoke about himself using his own name. Especially not when he was hungry and had a beating coming. He only hoped Harnu would keep his accusations of thieving to himself. Maybe it was time to talk to Gren about that brown tunic.
Poril scurried back to the table with a linen sack of potatoes. His downy white hair floated over his freckled scalp. Sometimes Achan wanted to laugh when he watched Poril. The man looked more like he should be wielding a sword than a wooden spoon. Some of the serving women said Poril was part giant. Achan wasn't convinced. The cook might be tall and thick, but his sagging posture and thinning hair just made him look old.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "By Darkness Hid"
Copyright © 2009 Jill Williamson.
Excerpted by permission of Third Day Books, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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