Copyright © Sever Bronny 2014.
Augum picked up a wooden bucket and splashed the stallion. Its coarse chestnut hair gleamed in the afternoon sun as water dripped to the arid dirt. He imagined it hissing like kettle water spilling on a cook fire.
He grabbed the brush and began scrubbing, hands aching from splitting wood all day. That morning, Sir Westwood had bought two rough cords from a passing merchant, so while almost every Willowbrook youth swam the Gamber, Augum had spent his time hacking at dry oak.
It was late in the season and there should be snow everywhere. Instead, the horizon quivered and cicadas filled the air with a thick buzz, slowing his thoughts to the speed of molasses.
His eyes flicked to the unmoving waist-high grass beyond a cluster of huts with cracked earthen walls and thatched roofs. The grass stretched endlessly, a placid yellow ocean broken only by crooked fencing, tilled pastures, and the occasional willow tree. Sweaty men flogged teams of oxen, trying to squeeze in one more planting of quickroot before the snows buried their exertions. Horses milled near each other, heads low as they grazed. Fat hogs sat unmoving in the shade of a gray barn. A distant clanging rang out as the smith shaped iron.
There was a wooden creak. Augum turned to find Sir Tobias Westwood standing at the plank door of their home, mop of curly gray hair shining with sweat, wheat dangling from his mouth. His leathery face creased as he squinted against the blazing sun.
“No Sir, not yet.”
Sir Westwood scratched at his stubble and spat on the ground. “You can have a swim after. When you return, we shall study the written word.”
“Yes, Sir.” Augum wiped his brow as the old knight went back inside. He resumed washing the horse, hoping Sir Westwood would forego sword training tonight. By the time he finished, a wavering crimson sun kissed the horizon.
A voice fought its way through the hot air. “Hear ye, hear ye! Read the latest on the scourge known as the Legion! Two coppers for the Blackhaven Herald!”
Augum raised his wiry frame on tiptoes to glance over the horse’s back. A gaggle of dirty children mobbed a dark-skinned boy of about fourteen—the same age as Augum. Women in aprons and men in muddy boots rushed forward. Voices called after the boy.
“What news already, herald?”
“Tell us the Lord of the Legion spares us common folk, we don’t have none witches here!”
“We have not the money or the tongue, just speak it, boy!”
Augum groaned. He knew what this meant. They will all come over to have Sir Westwood read it aloud to them because he was one of only a handful in Willowbrook that could read. One time the herald had come when Sir Westwood was away on a hunting trip, so the villagers made Augum do the reading instead, enjoying his nervous stuttering. Augum could read well, it was just having all those hostile and impatient eyes on him that made it difficult.
Sir Westwood approached Augum holding two coppers. He grimaced. “This I do not like. He comes too soon,” and handed Augum the coins. Augum stepped before their hut and waited.
When the herald saw him, he rushed over with a crooked smile, exchanging the coins for a rolled parchment. He then strode off, continuing his entreaties, while the crowd remained behind.
A hunched man with one eye made an impatient gesture. “Well read it already, you daft boy!”
“Read it, gutterborn piglet!” Dap said. He was sixteen with a wide face and a neck as thick as the boars he butchered.
The crowd chuckled.
Sir Westwood stepped beside Augum, brows crossed like two swords. “Dap, if you do not want to feel the back of my hand, you will not repeat those words. I have told you many a time, we do not know where Augum was born.”
“Yeah well, he is a bastard orphan then, ain’t he? And ain’t that mean he is gutterborn? I mean, look at him, he has that ugly gutterborn face, them gutterborn hands—heck, he ain’t even have no friends—”
The part about friends had struck a nerve and Augum shot forward like a viper. After all, Dap had ensured he could not make any in Willowbrook, mostly by making up stories, like the one about him being raised by stray dogs.
Like many times before, Dap’s beefy arms grabbed Augum and threw him to the ground like a sack of coal. His hammy fist immediately began ramming into Augum’s face, until Sir Westwood pried the two apart.
“Go on home, Dap, else I take the proclamation and read it to myself.”
The crowd, who seemed to have enjoyed the pounding Augum took, grumbled in disappointment.
“Best go on home to your pappy, boy,” the one-eyed man said at last. “We needs to hear the news.”
Dap scowled and gave Augum a pointed look. “I’ll see you later.”
Augum spat blood onto the dirt as he shrugged off help from Sir Westwood. “Can’t wait.” He knew he was in for it now. It was just a matter of time before Dap and his cronies found him and beat him raw. He was their entertainment. He fought them, sure, but there were always so many, and he could not exactly run to Sir Westwood every time he had a bruised face or a torn tunic. Sir Westwood knew of course, but the old knight said nothing, instead choosing to train Augum how to defend himself using a sword and the written word.
Unfortunately, knowing how to swing a sword was useless against a boy like Dap, who was a far better swordsman. Like most other boys in Willowbrook, Dap had held a blade before he could walk, whereas Augum first gripped the pommel of a wooden practice sword only after Sir Westwood took him in, and he hardly had a knack for it.
As for the written word, it was only good for more beatings. Showing even the tiniest bit of smarts led to calls of putting on airs or witchery, even from adults. Thus, he had learned to play dumb. It was better not to say too much.
All his life, someone had picked on him, and always because he was the odd one out, the stranger, the gutterborn orphan. No part of him ever accepted it though. He believed there was more to his destiny than serving as a whipping boy. At night, he dreamt of riding a stallion into battle with a great silver lance, a crowd of girls looking on with adoring eyes; and even though they may not be real, he dreamed of being a magician too—or witch, or whatever they called people that could fight with their mind. Regardless of who he was in his dreams, he always had plenty of courage, honor, wit and friends—especially friends, for he had yet to make even one.
Sir Westwood picked up the parchment from the ground and shoved it into Augum’s hands. “Read it.”
Augum wiped the blood from his nose with the sleeve of his red and yellow tunic, the royal colors of King Ridian, Sir Westwood’s liege. He held up the parchment before him, trying to ignore his throbbing cheek, the one Dap had concentrated on smashing. Loopy characters slanted sharply, as if the scribe had been in a great hurry to pass on the news.
“‘Let it be known,’” Augum began reading aloud, “‘that the Blackhaven high council declares the rule of King Ridian the Third contrary to the interests of Solia—’”
The crowd gasped and exchanged anxious looks. Sir Westwood’s face darkened.
“‘Therefore,’” Augum continued, “‘King Ridian is hereby stripped of all his titles and lands, as are those loyal to him still. With this proclamation, the council disbands itself and submits its will to Lord Sparkstone and his great army, the Legion. All hail the Lord of the Legion, our new master, savior and king.’”
There was silence.
“Is that all there is, boy?” the one-eyed man asked.
Augum turned the parchment so they could see. “Yes.”
“Then we best prepare …”
The crowd dispersed, muttering amongst themselves. A few even ran.
Augum watched them go. “Prepare for what, Sir?”
Sir Westwood spat on the ground and took the proclamation from Augum. He stared at it. “For the inevitable.” His eyes searched the horizon, stopping on a spot to the north.
“But they wouldn’t come right this—” Augum’s throat tightened as his eyes fell upon the same spot.
What was that?
He ran over to his favorite willow tree behind the hut and scrambled up its thick trunk. Men from the fields had already begun sounding the alert. Bells rang and pots banged all over Willowbrook. Barefoot children cried as their mothers scooped them up, running towards the Gamber.
He placed a hand over his eyes and squinted. It was a cloud … a cloud of charging knights—the herald’s news was old!
“Climb down, Augum.” Sir Westwood, bathed in the crimson light of dusk, was strapping on a battered breastplate. His sword dangled in its sheath on his hip. He held Augum’s woolen coat under his arm.
Augum grabbed a handful of the willow’s drooping branches and swung off like one of those tree-living beasts he had read about in Sir Westwood’s books. The knight bent a knee and gripped him by the shoulders, looking up with stern yet kind eyes.
“Augum, if I were to choose a son, I would choose no other. You have been a faithful squire, but you cannot take part in that which comes.”
Augum began to shake his head. “No, Sir, you can’t leave me behind—”
“Look at me. It is my duty. Courage, Augum, courage. Now, the crowd will run east to the river. The soldiers will likely follow. That is why you shall travel west across the Tallows. I have thrown together a sack of journey bread, salted beef and two skins of water. Take it before you go. You are not to return, understand?”
Augum saw Sir Westwood’s lips moving but the blood rushing through his head prevented him from understanding the words. “I’m going with you, Sir. Give me a sword and—”
“No. You are not ready, nor are you able. I shall not have you slaughtered in the field like so many before you. This is the Legion, Augum, the Legion. I have seen what they are capable of, and you are not to see that for yourself, not yet!” Sir Westwood’s gaze travelled beyond Augum. “I have been waiting for this a long time.”
Augum opened his mouth to protest just as a fireball mushroomed into the sky from the far end of the village. He instinctively clutched at Sir Westwood, but the knight gently pried Augum’s hands away, placing the coat around Augum’s shoulders. Sir Westwood then mounted his horse and, with one last look, galloped off toward the flames.
Augum stood breathing rapidly, watching the back of the only person that had ever cared about him ride off to certain death.
Suddenly something huge smacked into his back, sending him flying through a wooden fence. A tiny piglet squealed and scampered through the hole, only to be kicked by Dap, his face contorting with victorious glee. The piglet landed near Augum and went still.
“Told you I’d get you—”
Augum barely had time to shield his head before the rain of punches began.
“And this one’s for being smart—” Dap raised his fist just as a black-armored soldier in a pot helm careened through the fence, scattering chickens like a shark in a school of fish.
Dap, who was still sitting on Augum, raised his arms. “Wait, I’m one of you—”
The soldier did not break stride; a viciously large ball and chain flail whistled through the air, smashing into Dap’s chest. Dap fell back with a sickening gurgle. The towering soldier placed an iron boot against Dap’s hulking loaf of a body and yanked his weapon free.
Augum scrambled away as the spiked ball whistled by his ear, lodging into a fencepost with a smack. He ran around the corner of the house only to see a score of black-armored knights riding straight at him. He raced across to the other homes, listening as screams and shouts of attack filled the air. The invaders were swarming through the village now. This was it; he had to either find Sir Westwood or flee.
The group of knights galloped past, giving him one last opportunity to escape to the Tallows. He swallowed hard and took another look.
There were too many, it was no use.
“I’m so sorry, Sir,” he mumbled before making a run for it, not stopping until he was well outside the outer fence. There, hiding in the grass, Augum watched Willowbrook burn.
Augum headed westward when the soldiers began combing the fields with torches. He glanced back only once, and that was to engrave the image of the towering inferno into his mind. An occasional scream still punctured the night.
He walked on and on, eyes glazed, hands limp. The stars sparkled clearer than a still pond; he scarcely gave them any attention. Eventually, numb from exhaustion, he curled up among the tall grass, holding his legs close.
He barely slept.
Augum trudged that vast plain for three days and nights without food or water, having forgotten the sack of provisions Sir Westwood had thoughtfully prepared for him. He wore through his leather turnshoes, pushing his wiry frame to endure. Each night was cooler than the one before, as if winter itself hounded him along with those black-armored soldiers.
On the eve of the third day, black clouds raced overhead as a coarse wind pushed on his back, making waves in the ocean of waist-high grass. Lips cracked, mouth dry as parchment, he felt as if the sole purpose of his existence was to keep placing one foot before the other.
His thoughts drifted idly. Sometimes he pictured Sir Westwood alive and well. At other times, he envisioned him slumped over in a pool of his own blood, like fat Dap.
His heart panged. The old knight had been a strict but fair man, very different from the foster family Augum had previously lived with, the Pendersons.
The Pendersons … even thinking about them made his teeth clench. He glanced down at his cracked hands, remembering how blistered and bloody they would get as he toiled in their field. The longer he stared, the more he remembered, until a dirt farm and young corn stalks appeared before him. He looked up to find Meli, that old wretched mule, standing before him on wobbly legs. She was his only companion, occasionally sharing Mr. Penderson’s lashing. He winced, recalling how that same whip would flash across his back, splitting open the skin like a overripe tomato.
Suddenly someone shoved him to the dirt.
“Hey Gutter—why you always falling down?” Garth Penderson asked.
Augum placed a hand between his eyes and the hot summer sun. “I need to get to pickin’ cause—”
Garth burped loudly before Augum could explain how Mrs. Penderson would not let him eat until Meli’s packs were full of corn. Garth’s brother, Buck, and his sister, Wyza, cackled in support. All three shared the same muscular physique, flaming Penderson hair and identical ponytail. Garth was older than Augum by three years, Buck by two, and Wyza by one.
“Then why is you sitting there like some lazy dog?”
Augum stumbled to his feet. Meli glanced at him with tired red eyes. She was probably thirstier than he was. He needed to get to the well—
A blinding pain splashed across his face. His eyes immediately began to water from the slap.
Garth dusted off his hands. “You best answer when I talk, Gutter.”
Buck’s ruddy cheeks puffed out with a grin. “Dumber than a cow.”
Wyza kicked the old mule. “Dumber than this here ass!”
Augum moved between Meli and the brats. “You leave Meli alone!”
Garth pushed him back down into the dirt with a lazy hand, a wicked smile playing across his lips. “Don’t cry now, we is not going to do nothin’ to this useless old mule.” Suddenly he reared back and clobbered Meli with his fist. The animal fell to the ground, braying, as corn spilled into the dirt.
The brats roared with laughter as Augum dropped to help Meli. He tenderly smoothed her mangy hair before trying to help her stand, but she was too weak and kicked feebly at the air.
Mrs. Penderson’s screeching voice floated over from the farmhouse. “Wyza? Buck? Garth? What you doing over there with that stupid boy!”
Garth rolled his eyes. “Nothing, Ma!”
“I need that corn picked, you hear?”
“Tell that gutterborn trash to hustle up!”
Garth squatted down before Augum. His chin dropped as his neck bulged. A moment later, he belched a burp of rotten onion into Augum’s face. Wyza and Buck laughed.
“You heard her, Gutter,” Garth said, ignoring his siblings. “Get going, we needs you pickin’.” His pig eyes swiveled to the spilled corn. “And by the looks of it, you ain’t going to be eating for a while.”
Augum’s vision blurred. Suddenly the brats were gone and it was raining. Beside him, Mr. Penderson jerked at a leek, dropping it into one of Meli’s pouches, muttering to himself all the while.
Augum somehow knew what was about to happen. The dread ate at his stomach. He reached out to her, wanting to tell her everything would be all right, that he would protect her—yet just before his hand touched her hide, Meli collapsed, leeks tumbling to the mud.
He scrambled to pick it them up. “Mr. Penderson, I’ll clean it right away, no need to get angry—”
“Don’t be talking back to me, boy!”
The punch was harder than usual, doubling Augum over. With it came the stench of strong wine from the man’s breath. Mr. Penderson loosened the whip hanging from his belt and wacked the animal across the snout. Meli only made a quiet whine.
“No, Mr. Penderson, please—!” but even when Augum lunged across the animal to protect her with his own body, Mr. Penderson did not stop, lashing boy and mule alike.
“You’re killing her! Stop, Mr. Penderson, stop—!” Augum kept shouting between his own cries of pain.
Mr. Penderson did eventually stop, but only because he had winded himself. “You deserve each other,” he spat, and weaved back to the house.
Augum lay with Meli, shoulders heaving. Her flank had long ceased rising.
Now there was nothing holding him there.
“I’m leaving, Meli,” he whispered, lovingly stroking her neck. “Just like we’ve always said. I’m sorry you can’t come with me.” He gently closed her eyes, rose, and turned toward the Gamber, never looking back.
He had followed that winding river south until stumbling upon the village of Willowbrook, where an old knight by the name of Sir Tobias Westwood found him lying hungry and bloody by its banks. He took Augum in, fed and clothed him, and made him his squire.
Before long, life grew routine. Augum’s hands browned from oiling and polishing Sir Westwood’s armor. His tunic was constantly soaked from scrubbing the knight’s stallion, the planks, the iron pots, the trestle table and benches. At night, he ached from the day’s riding, straw prickling at his scalp. Splinters stung his hands from training with a wooden sword. He smelled like roast chicken, turkey, rabbit, boar or venison after learning how to cook. He sunburned tending to Sir Westwood’s garden, chickens, geese and pigs. The wounds on his back slowly healed, leaving permanent ridged scars he would sometimes trace with a finger, scars that never stopped itching.
Sometimes Sir Westwood took him hunting, and Augum’s elbow would be raw from constantly catching the sinew bowstring. The old knight made Augum taste bitter and sweet plants, pointing out which ones were edible; taught him how to locate north using tree moss; tired him out lecturing about chivalry, heraldry, and the basic etiquette required of a noble in court.
But Sir Westwood had been most particular about the written word, proclaiming that a knight who could not read or write was at the mercy of those who could. Thus, Augum often stayed up late, quill in hand, fingers stained with ink, copying dusty tomes. Castle Stewardship, Arithmetic of the Treasury, On Horsemanship, The Joust, and the like. Some had sunk in, most had not.
Sir Westwood also taught him how to speak properly. “Am not” instead of “Ain’t.” “We are not” instead of “We isn’t.” The Penderson drawl was patiently but methodically corrected at every turn. It was how the highborn city folk spoke. Sir Westwood was liberal when it came to more modern youthful contractions, however, as long as they were from the city.
Remembering those happy times with Sir Westwood warmed Augum’s heart and made it easy to forget where he really was.
He stopped and glanced about. The tall yellow grass of the Tallows lashed at his hands as if possessed by the spirit of Mr. Penderson. The wind had increased during his reminiscence and he had not even noticed. Cold rain pelted his face, stinging his eyes. The clouds overhead were as dark as a Penderson heart.
Suddenly the grass flattened as a strong gust knocked him to the ground. His woolen coat shot over his head, choking and dragging him like a sail attached to his neck. He fumbled with the collar, only to discover he was too weak to undo it.
He gurgled what he thought was his last breath when there was an abrupt tearing sound. The coat ripped away, exposing his face to a torrent of icy needle rain. Gasping, he curled up into a ball, already shivering from the cold seeping through his clothes.
A mule hee-hawed. When he looked up, the Penderson brats had him surrounded, ponytails flapping in the wind, cruel grins on their ruddy faces.
“You is damn stupid, Gutter.” Garth’s wide fist reared back as Augum feebly rolled away, only to find Mr. Penderson standing before him, a giant bottle of wine in one hand, whip in the other.
The farmer took a long swig and wiped his mouth with an oily sleeve. “You done wrong, boy.” The whip uncoiled like a viper.
“I ain’t done nothin’ …” Augum pulled on the grass, scrambling to get away, only to stumble across Dap’s bloody body. A black-armored soldier stood just behind, wielding a spiked ball and chain flail, face obscured by a pot helm.
“No …” Augum tried to move back, but a great stallion blocked his path. It snorted and reared up, exposing a rotten ribcage, and bony thorns where there should have been hooves. The Penderson brats closed in from his left. Their father, whip snaking, from his right. Behind Augum came the whistle of a flail. He raised his hands in defense and screamed, until exhaustion overcame all sense and he collapsed, succumbing to nightmares as turbulent as the rain.
It was pitch-dark when awareness returned. The grass whipped his numb face as the storm raged about him. His soaked tunic snagged on the dirt as the enemy dragged him along the ground.
“Please, sir, just leave me alone …”
The wind moaned as Augum felt his body suddenly lighten. Had the soldier thrown him? His stomach lurched from the weightless sensation, yet the anticipated crash back to the ground did not come.
Lightning burst across the clouds, fanning out like a great spider web, making visible something Augum struggled to make sense of—yellow grass far below him. The ensuing crack of thunder rattled his innards and amplified the nausea.
It’s only a nightmare, he thought frantically, it’s only a nightmare … yet every subsequent flash confirmed the unbelievable—that he was indeed flying.
Then, amidst the spearing flashes, he glimpsed an enormous mass of jagged rock, the top of which disappeared in cloud. The wind increased to a shriek as he hurtled towards the behemoth, slowly losing consciousness from tumbling end over end. With the tunnel of darkness closing in, Augum felt a final searing light illuminate his entire being. A warm glow settled over his heart, and as it faded away, so, too, did he.
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