Sunday, 20 November 2016

Steel and Silver - Part II

Following on from where the first part left off, part two of Steel and Silver begins anew years after the first part of the story. Now facing the problems of a young adult in the Vidorian World, our protagonist's new life is a far-cry from the one he knew before...

Part three shall be released on the 27th November. As before, any who have not read it may find a  glance over Watcher of the West useful at this point - though it's not necessary in order to enjoy this new story to its fullest capacity! Happy reading!

‘Can you see?’ Hugh said, holding the pretty silver coin up to the cold light of the winter day. ‘This is Emperor Lyshir III.’
            Sara leaned closer. Her pretty face was inches from Hugh’s now, and he felt his cheeks enflame in a blush. ‘Is that really what he looks like?’ she said slowly.
            ‘I believe so, yes,’ Hugh said, trying to hide his crimson cheeks. He pointed quickly to the edge of the thumbnail-sized penny before Sara saw his blush. ‘And see here, around the edge. It reads “Emperor Lyshir III” in case you were unsure.’
            ‘What about the other side?’ she asked, reaching over to touch the coin between Hugh’s fingers. Her hand caught his and he felt his heart flutter for a moment. Quickly, he rotated the coin, trying to keep his thoughts in order. Don’t make any more of a fool of yourself, he thought.
            ‘This side,’ he said, holding it up to the bright winter sun, ‘has the Imperial Phoenix on it, see? The bird with its wings spread wide. Around the edge, it reads “Thennwin, Dorestadt,” which is the name of the man who made the coin and where it was made.’
            Sara fixed Hugh with her bright green eyes and pulled her shawl around her shoulders. Her breath caught on the cold morning air as they sat on the low wall just outside Felyr’s farm. ‘Are there lots of coin-makers?’ she asked.
            Hugh nodded. ‘A fair few,’ he said. ‘I believe there’s one other here in the southern Imperial Heartlands. The one who makes coins for the earls of the Western Heartlands is called Andrey, and his coins come from a place called Busnik, just to the south of Westwarden Castle.’
            Sara quirked her pale, curious brow. ‘How do you know that?’ she said. ‘That stuff about the western lands. Have you been there?’
            Hugh fell silent and quickly looked away. ‘Oh,’ he said, suddenly scared he may have overstepped the mark. ‘I learned it somewhere. I’m not sure exactly where.’
            There was a moment’s pause that felt like agony for Hugh. I’ve made a fool of myself, he thought. She’s going to work out I’m not from the west – damn, why did I even try to lie to them? Why didn’t I just say I was from the west like I am? Why-…
‘I always forget that you can read,’ Sara said, giggling quietly to herself. ‘You’re so clever, Hugh. Will you teach me to read?’
            As Hugh gazed into her apple-green eyes he found himself weak. Oh, by the Divine Empress, yes, he wanted to cry. He wanted to reach out and touch her rosy-red cheeks and caress her mahogany-red hair. I would do anything to spend the hours with you, he thought to himself.
            ‘Oh, right,’ Hugh spluttered, his cheeks enflaming again. ‘Yes, I can try, I’d be happy to.’
            She giggled again and squeezed his arm. ‘Thank-you,’ she said sweetly.
            Every lie hurt, particularly those he had to tell Sara. I would give all for you, he thought as he gazed into her eyes. She quickly looked away and smiled, her slightly bucked front teeth catching her bottom lip. For ten years Hugh had been a part of the community at Kirkby-by-Hill, but the lies he had told in the opening days of his time there had dogged him for years and years. As far as the locals were concerned, he was Hugh – a nameless bastard from the village of Havarby in the furthest reaches of the Eastern Imperial Heartlands. He had claimed to have lost his memory one day, and had awoken to find himself beside an overturned cart and two dead corpses: a man’s and a woman’s. He had grabbed a sword from the cart for protection and wandered, helplessly lost, before happening upon Kirkby-by-Hill. All he had claimed to know for certain was that the sword had been a gift, he was unsure from whom it was or who it was intended for.
            Most of the village had bought the lies he had told, but a few had been reluctant. Guard Symonds – the very fellow who had caught Hugh the night he had arrived – was one who had, and still, remained sceptical. Syminds, however, had recently been promoted and moved to the nearby town of Dorestadt, he was rarely around Kirkby-by-Hill anymore.
At every opportunity for the last decade, though, Hugh had done his utmost to help the people of Kirkby-by-Hill and change their perception of him. He had started as a useless, unknowing farmhand, pushing an ox-drawn plough through a field or sowing seeds in the soil. Now, though, he helped Felyr, the village’s well-known butcher.
            People came from across the Southern Heartlands for Felyr’s sausages. They had graced the tables of the gentry, as the tall, grim-faced man liked to tell people. ‘Earl Harathad himself comes by once a year!’ the old, sour-faced butcher had told Hugh on his first day almost twelve months ago, and almost every day after that.
            Earl Harathad was everything that Aesinger was not. He was just and honest; a good man who had not earned his position through trickery and deceit. He was kind and generous to those on his lands, and cared for his people. But more than anything, he was absent. He made a tour of his extensive lands once a year and, just as Felyr liked to tell, when he came to Kirkby-by-Hill he stopped for some sausages.
            Hugh had no notion as to where Earl Aesinger was, or what he was doing. He did not know if he was looking for him or if he had given up, certain that he had been killed somewhere out in the wilderness. All Hugh knew for certain was that he had not found him, and ten years was a long time to spend looking for a single nuisance nephew. Would he even recognise him? Surely, since being lifted to the lofty heights of earldom, his uncle would have his hands full running the Western Heartlands.
            In the intervening decade since he last saw his uncle, Hugh had grown taller. Slightly above average height, he had grown lithe and tough from his days labouring in Kirkby-by-Hill’s fields and barns. His hair was still black and cut short around his ears, and his complexion still pale despite many long days in the sun, but he had shed all fat from his features and his jaw had grown stern and hardy at the bottom of his long face. He worried that he shared a resemblance with his father, but every time he caught his reflection in a stream he wondered if his fears were unfounded.
            Aesinger had been made earl of the Western Imperial Heartlands almost two years after secretly murdering Hugh’s parents. His coup had been quick and clean, perfectly executed and utterly terrible. Hugh had been surprised it took as long as it did for his uncle to be made earl. I wonder if perhaps Emperor Lyshir III does not trust him, the young man thought as he gazed at the silver coin in his hand. I would never trust that snake – I wonder if my father ever truly did. The thought made Hugh’s spirits drop and he gazed at the stern silver face in his hands.
            ‘I saw him once,’ Sara said, reaching out to touch the coin again. She stroked the edge of Hugh’s hand as she did and, despite the cold, Hugh felt himself blush again. ‘I was in Vidoropolis once with Ma and Da, and he went past in a big procession.’ She straightened up and looked at Hugh, gesturing with her hands. ‘He wore a huge suit of armour – it made him look this big!
            Hugh smiled. He opened his mouth to respond, but before words could leave his tongue, a shout came from behind him. ‘Boy! Get in here, it’s time to work!’
            Hugh quickly jumped to his feet and span around. Standing in the doorway of the large, barn-like building behind him was a tall, thin man with a grizzled face. ‘Coming, Mister Felyr!’ Hugh cried. He shot a quick smile to Sara. ‘I’ll see you later?’
            ‘Sure,’ she said with a small, shy smile. ‘Work hard!’
            Reluctantly, Hugh hurried away from the pretty young woman and into the large wood and thatch building he had been sitting in front of. The floor was covered in thick rushes and reeds, stained dark with crusty-red gore, though the rest of the room was dark and stank of blood and soot. From the rafters of the wide building hung dozens of butchered carcasses: cows, pigs, and chickens, all skinned and plucked as they need be.
            ‘You’d best put all thoughts of Miss Longfields out of your mind,’ Felyr grumbled at Hugh as the young man picked up a heavy leather apron. ‘I’ll have no accidents today on account of your mind roamin’ over that young lady’s curves.’
            ‘There will be no accidents, Mister Felyr,’ Hugh said as he tied the apron around his middle and picked up a heavy, slightly rusted cleaver from one of the many wooden tables that littered the room. ‘No accidents yet, sir! See? I still have all my fingers!’
            Felyr turned his dark, sunken eyes on Hugh. ‘Ain’t your fingers I’m caring about, boy,’ he said and spat onto the rushes. ‘It’s my meat I’m afearing for. Now go on, get!’
            Hugh quickly set to work on a side of beef. He had learned quickly under Felyr, and although the man was renowned for his bad moods, his terrible teeth, and for only having seven fingers, Hugh had found himself fond of the grizzled old man. He was a fine teacher – stern but clear – and would not accept anything less than the best.
            Hugh worked hard and swiftly, trying to keep his mind from Sara. No matter how hard he tried, though, he found his thoughts constantly returning to her. She is rather lovely, he found himself thinking as he plucked the feathers from a chicken shortly after midday. Perhaps I should tell her how lovely she is – no, no. That would be foolish, I-…
            ‘What did I say about curves, boy?’ Felyr snapped from somewhere off in the gloom of the chilly barn. ‘The only flesh you’ll get your hands on this day is that which hangs headless and gutless from these rafters!’ The butcher laughed as he threw open some of the shutters, cold light flooding the barn. ‘A chill day, and snow is falling!’
            Hugh placed the bird he was holding down on the bench he was working at and crossed to the shutters Felyr had tossed open. Felyr’s butcher-barn was located on the easternmost edge of Kirkby-by-Hill, slightly elevated on the hillside. From the open shutter, Hugh could see down onto the village, now covered in a thin layer of white snow. The green hills for miles around had been turned white, though the livestock that walked upon the hills continued to munch at the snow-covered grass, undeterred by the cold.
            Down in the village, children ran through snow-slicked streets, whilst their mothers and sisters went about their daily business. Some tended the small herb gardens they kept adjacent to their homes, whilst others carried bundles of furs or clothing to and from the small steam that ran through the village. The men kept their business to the barns, moving boxes and sacks of grain and produce from place to place, loading a few onto carts to be taken off to market in the nearby town of Dorestadt. All was done under the gentle caress of the snow falling from the pale heavens above.
            ‘It’s a fine place,’ Felyr said slowly with a nod of his grizzled head. A small smile graced his thin lips for a moment as he and Hugh gazed out of the window together. ‘A place worth fightin’ for, so my Grand-Da used to say. But enough talk, let’s get on.’
            Hugh and Felyr turned away from the view from the shutters and back to their work. The hours ticked by in relative quiet, the two men exchanging words now and then, remarking on the blood or build of the beasts they butchered, or on the sharpness of the blades in their hands. Still, time and again, Hugh found his mind slipping away from the task at hand and back to Sara.
            He began to worry if he had given too much away. I should not have mentioned Andrey of Busnik, he thought, chewing his lip as he removed the legs from a chicken. Sara is not any run-of-the-mill foolish peasant girl; she has a spark of intelligence, and she may work out that I come from the Western Heartlands.
            The sword had almost been a giveaway. Ten years ago, when he had first arrived, he had carried with him the bastard-sword given to him by Captain Aethlar, his late combat instructor, mentor, and friend – another victim of Earl Aesinger’s coup. He had dragged the weapon all the way across the Imperial Heartlands, more out of duty than actual want of the item. He had been called a thief and viewed with suspicion when he arrived, and when Olfden had asked him to get rid of the weapon, he had reluctantly agreed to. ‘It doesn’t do right for a young lad to be seen with such a weapon,’ Olfden had said one night. ‘You’d best dispose of the thing.’
            The stag’s head etched into the pommel had been the last thing Hugh had seen as he hid the weapon – the sigil of his family, the Fortescue crest. He could not bring himself to toss it into the river or bury it somewhere where he may forget, so one night, as Olfden and his wife Lynna were sleeping, Hugh stole out to the village well. He found a loose cobble beside the tall, upright structure and hid the blade in the nook beneath it. One day I may wish to see it again, he remembered thinking.
            ‘Look, boy,’ Felyr said, cutting into Hugh’s thoughts, ‘we need to do something about this – it’s getting ridiculous.’
            Hugh looked up from his bloody work, eyes wide with surprise. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said.
            ‘You can’t get your mind off that girl, it is painfully clear!’ Feyr said, putting his cleaver and the leg of lamb he was holding down on his wooden workbench. ‘We need to do something about this or you’re never going to be able to do a proper days work again in your life!’
            Hugh blushed. ‘I mean, I wasn’t actually thinking about-…’
            ‘Nonsense,’ Felyr said with a growl. ‘Look at your face, lad, you’re away with the faeries and thoughts of Miss Longfields – she’s been on your mind for months!’
            ‘Felyr I really wasn’t-…’
            ‘Now, boy,’ Felyr said, leaning over the butchered lamb before him and glaring at Hugh, ‘are you a man or a mouse? A hearty Human or one of them namby-pamby Elves to the east? A child of the Phoenix or a Dwarf, cowering under his mountain?’
            ‘Damn right you are!’ Felyr yelled, slamming his cleaver down into his workbench where it stuck, quivering in the wood. ‘Go out there and get Miss Longfields! Win her heart or you’ve no job to come back to tomorrow!’
            Hugh felt his face go pale. ‘You can’t be serious,’ he said, weakly. ‘She’s-…’
            Felyr leaned towards Hugh, eyes narrow, bald head lined and weathered. ‘She’s a fine missy, well-liked and respected, as are you. What’s the matter, don’t know how to?’ He laughed.
            Hugh blushed. ‘Well, I mean, I’ve never really had a woman before, you know?’ He felt deep shame within him as he said it, but he had been raised to expect an arranged marriage. It was the courtly norm for the sons and daughters of the imperial elite to be married off to one-another to strengthen familial ties and help keep the Empire secure. Hugh had never imagined himself actually being able to choose a woman of his own, or to allow feelings to dictate whom he pined for.
            Felyr’s deep-set eyes widened and he laughed again. ‘You’re joking? Well, what, you want tips from ol’ Felyr?’
            ‘No!’ Hugh cried, waving his hands, ‘By the Empress, no! I just…’ Hugh trailed off for a moment. ‘How do I make her like me?’
            Felyr frowned a moment, wiping a bloody hand on his leather apron. ‘Well,’ he said, pulling his cleaver from the workbench and setting it aside, ‘she’s Burr the tavernkeeper’s daughter, no?’
            ‘Yes,’ Hugh said, taking another chicken from the hooks hanging from the rafters. ‘How does that help?’
            ‘Well,’ Felyr said, tossing a lump of bloody gristle onto the rushes on the floor, ‘go there tonight and speak with her.’
            Hugh frowned. ‘What, you’re saying go and profess my affections for her in front of her father?’ he said and shook his head slowly. Such practice would’ve been laughed at in the Imperial Court, Hugh thought to himself.
            ‘Why not?’ Felyr said with a shrug of a shoulder. ‘Also, that chicken isn’t going to behead itself – get.’
            With a sigh and a chop of the cleaver, Hugh shook his head. ‘I don’t know,’ he said slowly, quietly. ‘I don’t think this is worth it.’
            Felyr snorted as he cut the leg from the pig before him. ‘Speak for yourself,’ he said. ‘She’s a pretty lass. Just a matter of time before someone else notices her.’
            The two men fell to silence once more, continuing their bloody work in hushed quiet. The fleshy smacks of cleavers on dead animal flesh continued for a few hours as the light began to dim outside and the day became old. Hugh found himself alone with his thoughts: his parents, his uncle, his sword, Sara. Ten years, he thought with a wince. Surely he’s given up – he must have given up. Maybe I can settle here and start a new life after all – perhaps I can throw that sword away for good. The same thoughts dogged him every day of his life, but Earl Aesinger had no jurisdiction within Earl Harathad’s lands. Surely I’m safe? he thought. Surely it would have been easier to hunt me down years ago before I settled – if that is even my uncle’s motive? Oh, how can I drag Sara into this terrible life?
            Feeling suddenly alone, Hugh shivered in the chill wind that blew through the butcher barn’s open shutters. Outside, the snow was falling heavily from a blanket of heavy grey cloud. Livestock had retreated into the shelter of barns and most people had made their way inside to escape from the cold. By the Empress, Hugh thought, who’d have thought that after ten years I’d still be finding this peasant thing hard?
That evening as the snow fell heavily through the gloom of an encroaching winter’s night, Hugh made his way back from Felyr’s. Pulling his loose, threadbare cloak around his shoulders as he went, he tried to get his thoughts in order. His head still whirled with all Felyr had said, as well as the uncertainties about his uncle that still plagued him. Ten years, he told himself. Ten years has passed and he has not found me – he would not even recognise me! I’m sure it’s safe for me to tell Sara how I feel. By the Empress! Hugh let out a sigh and watched his breath mist on the air before him. Who’d have thought that peasant problems were so hard to deal with?
He made his way through the village, his eyes down and his head lost in thought. He passed under the low eaves of the humble homes that lined the roughly cobbled road that ran through the village and out of the valley. When he reached the centre of the modest settlement, he glanced at the well. Tall, narrow, made of dark grey stone, Hugh knew exactly which of the cobbles at its base hid his sword – No, Captain Aethlar’s sword.
With the snow blowing about him on a cold wind, Hugh made his way to the low house he had shared with Olfden and his wife Lynna for the last ten years. Ten years, he thought for the umpteenth time that day, I was only supposed to stay for the night. How did I end up staying ten years? Hugh knew every cobble in the narrow road that led to the low, wide wattle, daub and timber-framed home.
He had done as Olfden asked that night ten years ago and awaited until the next day to assist in the fields. He had helped spread the ceremonial ashes and tilled some of the soil as asked, and before he knew it the sun was setting and he was eating the villager’s food again. ‘You’ll have to stay another day and work it off!’ Oldfen had said from beside him. He had soon realised work always needed to be done, and once he found the opportunity to leave, a year had passed and he had grown attached to Kirkby-by-Hill and its humble inhabitants – particularly to Olfden, the man who had filled a little of the void left by the death of his own father.
Soon, he was standing outside the home he had lived in for the last decade; thatched roof low but straight, with a long, wide stone chimney sticking from the rear. The shutters were firmly closed, though from the few cracks in the battered old door, Hugh could see a warm orange glow coming from within. Stretching out his hand, he pushed the door open and stepped in.
‘Good day?’ Olfden’s low voice called out as he entered.
Hugh stood in the warm glow and quickly closed the door behind him. ‘Productive, as ever,’ he replied. Shaking off the winter’s chill, he cast his eyes over the room within. The long, low house was a single room, a large bed at one end for Olfden and Lynna, and a smaller one at the other for Hugh. The stone-flagged floor was covered in rushes and there was even a scrap of old rug before the wide, warm hearth.
Olfden sat on a low stool by the fire, drinking from a pewter tankard with numerous dents in it. Still enormous and strong in build, the last ten years had done little more to the large, brawny man other than grey his hair. His face was dark and his beard as full as ever. Lynna, Olfden’s wife, had changed little too. Short, with a wide chest and hips, but a minute waist, she was a tough and hardy woman, often seen carrying great bushels of produce or casks of drink around the village. Unlike some of the men and women, she did not shy away from hard work and her frame reflected that. The bright blue eyes in her face were always alive with light and love, and she looked at Hugh as if he were her own son.
‘Stew’ll be done soon,’ she said as Hugh took off his threadbare cloak and placed it by the fire to dry. ‘Rabbit and leek – good for the soul.’ She smiled at him and kissed his brow.
Lynna and Olfden had been married some thirty years. Despite their efforts, they had never been able to have children of their own, yet they had continued to stand by one-another. Hugh had thought it strange at first, for he had heard stories from his parents of noble men leaving their wives if they were unable to bear children. Ten years later, there was something he found admirable in Lynna and Olfden’s utter devotion to one-another.
He knew that he was like a son to them. Hugh had filled a void in Lynna and Olfden’s lives that nothing else could, and they had taken him in and partially filled the whirling darkness left by the murder of Hugh’s parents. Still, he had not told them the truth of his upbringing. The lie about the cart, the bodies, and the lost memory dogged and haunted his every day. My life here is wonderful, but built on lies, he thought as he sat down beside Olfden.
‘Lyn, tell Hugh what you saw today,’ the big man said, taking a swig from his flagon and glancing sideways at Hugh, a small smile on his rough features.
‘Ooh, quite the thing it was,’ Lynna said, looking at Hugh with a raised brow. ‘I heard from none other than Clara that there was something going on towards the east edge of the village! So, I hurried over to see what was about, and what should I see! None other than you sitting sharing a rather quiet moment with the lovely Sara Longfields.’
Hugh felt his cheeks enflame again and he looked into the roaring fire in the stone hearth. ‘What of it?’ he said quietly.
‘She’s a lovely lass,’ Lynna said with a big nod to Olfden. ‘Sweet, pretty, intelligent to boot! You’d do well for a lady like her.’
Mortally embarrassed, Hugh put his face in his hands. ‘Does everyone know?’ he said meekly.
Lynna winced and made a gesture with her hands. ‘Well, not everyone-…’
‘Yes,’ Olfden interrupted with a low chuckle. He clapped Hugh on the shoulder with a heavy hand and took a swig of his drink.
‘By the Empress,’ Hugh muttered. ‘Felyr was giving me a talking-to about it, he said I should go and see her in the tavern tonight-…’
‘Why don’t you?’ Olfden said with a shrug of his enormous shoulders and a final swig of his tankard. ‘Sounds like a magnificent idea, if you ask me. Lynna and I always wanted grandchildren.’
Hugh made a small groaning sound and sunk deeper into his hands. ‘I don’t think I can,’ he said. ‘I don’t think-…’
‘Hush, you,’ Lynna said, cuffing Olfden on his shoulder with the back of her hand. She appeared above Hugh and pushed a heavy wooden bowl full of hot stew into his hand. ‘You don’t have to do anything. Have some dinner and decide for yourself. All I’d say is that you’ve known her for years, so follow your heart and do what you think is right.’
Hugh picked up an old wooden spoon from the hearth and looked up into Lynna’s bright blue eyes. ‘Very well,’ he said quietly, taking a spoonful of warm, sloppy stew. It was unrefined and simple, yet hearty and warming – just like the folk of Kirkby-by-Hill. Hugh felt a warmth spread through him as he ate, along with a slowly blooming confidence.
After a few spoonful’s, he was resolute. ‘You know,’ he said, placing the half-eaten bowl down, ‘I shall go and see her.’ He stood up and picked up his worn, half-dry cloak. ‘I’ll do it right now. Why waste a moment longer?’
‘Hah!’ Olfden laughed and clapped him on the back so hard Hugh thought he would fall over. ‘That’s the spirit, lad! Go and get her!’
Hugh thanked Lynna for the meal and promised to eat the rest on his return. With a final nod to Olfden, he turned and headed out into the dark and cold of the night. The snow was falling hard and no moonlight pierced the thick, heavy clouds above. The only light that fell upon the village came through cracked shutters or the occasional firebrand left in a sconce on a wall – though most of those had gone out in the wind.
            It was not far to The Grotto. Kirkby-by-Hill’s only tavern was a small place, two stories tall and with a wonky thatched roof. The bottom floor was given over to tavern use, whilst the upstairs was given over to whosoever wished to sleep and housed the Longfields family: Sara, her mother, father, and younger brother. Hugh often gazed through the upper shutters when he passed, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sara as he went about his business. Today, though, as he walked across the snow-covered cobbles towards the squat doorway in the side of the long, wide building, his eyes were fixed ahead of him.
            What do I say to her? he thought as he approached. His feet crunched over the thickly-fallen snow beneath him, and dozens of large, fat, fresh flakes caressed his cheeks and brow as he went his way. Hugh pulled his cloak tightly around his shoulders and chewed his lip. Should I just profess before all, or slip her a note? Oh, but she can’t read! Damn, Vidoria give me strength, what am I to do?
            He paused before the door a moment and took a deep breath. He could hear sounds of revelry from the other side, and guessed it would be busy within. Sara will be hard at work serving, he thought with a sad sigh. Perhaps this was a bad idea after all, she won’t have time to talk to me.  The clink of mugs and crack of horns upon benches rumbled away from the other side of the door, as did the familiar sound of laughter. There was always lots of laughter in Kirkby-by-Hill, and it was infectious.
            Hugh found himself smiling. No, he told himself as he reached out a hand. No, I can do this – these are good, happy folk. I am one of them now; I am good and happy too. Yes. He pushed the door open and was greeted with the roar of revelry. Swamped in warmth and laughter, Hugh stepped into the tavern’s spacious lower room. Lined with benches and small tables, the room was centred on an enormous hearth in which a giant log was crackling. There were perhaps a dozen men and women seated in the tavern, sitting in groups of three and four, sharing smiles and joy.
            Suddenly unsure if he had made the right decision, Hugh stood by the door for a moment, wondering if he should just turn around and leave again. Something about it felt wrong, trying to bring Sara into his life in such away. I lie to her about who I am every day, he thought, suddenly downcast. What if something should happen, and she finds herself thrust into my world of lies and deceit? No, this is wrong. He turned to leave.
            ‘Hugh!’ a voice called through the din.
But not just a voice, it was hers. Hugh felt himself go weak and his resolve fail him. For a moment, he wanted to flee. He wanted to turn and run out into the cold and not face her. But then, there she was before him, a smile on her lips. Her apple-green eyes seemed to glisten with joy, and the dark green frock she wore bustled about her as she advanced towards him.
‘Sara,’ he began, his voice catching in his throat, ‘I was wondering if I-…’
‘Come in and sit, silly,’ Sara said with a wide smile, revealing the tips of her slightly bucked teeth. ‘I’ll have Da get you a drink.’ She took his hand and led him into the room, leaving him weak and flustered.
Unable to protest, Hugh was led to a seat close to the roaring hearth, where he sat and watched Sara quickly retreat across the room. Suddenly, he was far too hot. He took off his cloak and loosened the collar of the simple tunic he wore, but still he felt a sweat on his brow. He looked around the room, trying to take his mind off his current predicament.
He knew most of the faces and a few names. Behind the counter was Sara’s father, Burr, a man of similar stature to Olfden. Bald of head and unfriendly-featured, his arms were as huge as the boughs of an oak, and his girth was just as impressive. Burr Longfields was a former soldier, discharged from the Vidorian Legion for dishonourable conduct – a story everyone in the village knew. Bandits, meant for trial, Hugh thought as he looked at the enormous man, swallowing the nervous lump in his throat. They’d been harassing Burr’s unit for some time, so when he caught them he had them hanged without proper authority. The story, once it had descended into rumour, even went as far to say that Burr was sentenced to death, yet no man was brave enough to stand before him with an axe.
Burr was fierce to look at and was well-respected in the village. Dark-jowls and sunken eyes, he was a cold mountain of muscle. Hugh had seen the big man toss drunks out two at a time, one in each hand. And I’m here for his daughter, he thought with another nervous swallow. When Hugh and Burr made eye contact across the room, he gave Hugh a somewhat cold look, followed by a slow nod, which Hugh quickly returned. I had best not upset him now.
 Trying to take his mind off the frightening man behind the bar, Hugh turned his attention to the other patrons. Three of the small contingent of black-armoured imperial soldiers were sitting at a bench drinking quietly together. There was Borgas and Leddon Stoneswright, the local stonemason’s twins, sitting with two older-looking gentlemen Hugh did not recognise; not far from them sat Hettie, one of the oldest ladies in the village, with a woman who looked even older than she did. There were a few faces amongst the groups he did not recognise; friends of those he knew from nearby villages, no doubt. They were welcome, and ate and drank with those from Kirkby-by-Hill.
But then something caught Hugh’s eye: sitting at the far end of the tavern in the darkest corner, furthest from the light of the hearth, was a hunched and hooded figure. There was a long pipe between his thin lips and a covering of stubble on his chin. The rest of his face was lost to the shadow of his hood, though Hugh could clearly see the hilt of a sword shining in what light from the fire reached the corner.
‘Don’t stare,’ Sara’s voice cut into his thoughts. She giggled and placed a wooden flagon of cider down in front of Hugh.
‘Oh? Sorry, I-…’ Hugh trailed off, shooting the figure another glance. ‘He’s not from around here, is he?’
‘No,’ Sara said, sitting down on the stool beside Hugh. ‘He’s been here a few days. Think he’s a wanderer or a traveller of some sort, possibly some official. He has a sword and wears some leather-looking armour under that cloak, I saw it when he first came in.’
‘Has he said much?’ Hugh asked with another glance at the fellow in the corner.
‘Little and less,’ Sara said with a shrug. ‘He pays for his room and his food in good silver, though, so we cannot complain. Anyway, feel like teaching me some letters? I can get some coins like earlier.’
Hugh smiled at her, putting all thoughts of the mysterious stranger from his mind. ‘I’d like that,’ he said.
Sara smiled at him and stood, squeezing his hand. ‘Thank-you for this, you’re a sweetheart,’ she said as she retreated towards the counter where he father was standing guard over his establishment. This is perfect! Hugh thought to himself as she went. I have her all to myself, we can talk quietly for a little while and then I can tell her, I can tell her exactly how I feel and-…
Hugh’s thoughts trailed off as he caught Burr’s gaze again. Sara was standing at the counter, taking a pinch of coins from her father. His eyes were narrowed and he glared past his daughter and into Hugh’s face. That must have been the last thing those bandits saw before they died, Hugh thought and swallowed as a cold chill of fear washed over him. Those cold, sunken eyes, those-…
‘I’m back,’ Sara said in a sing-song voice, placing half a dozen silver coins in Hugh’s hands. ‘Now, you’ve got to show me what all these say.’
Hugh tore his eyes away from the dark stare being shot in his direction by Sara’s father and glanced over the coins. ‘These will probably all say the same thing if they’re from the Southern Heartlands,’ he said. ‘The moneyers might be different, so we’ll have a look at those.’
Sara nodded her head eagerly. ‘Please, let’s begin.’
Hugh took a quick sip of his cider and turned the first coin over. ‘See here?’ he said, pointing to the edge of the coin. ‘T-H-E-N-N-W-I-N; Thennwin. See? And this part D-O-R-E-S-T-A-D-T; Dorestadt. Now, if we look at another coin, these letters will be different.’ Hugh reached out and picked up another coin. ‘E-M-P-E-R-O-R; this says “Emperor”.’
Sara nodded her head eagerly, taking the coin from Hugh’s hand. ‘I get it,’ she said. ‘I know a few letters – my mother taught me a couple years ago. Let me see if I can read what this one says on the other side.’
Hugh nodded, taking another quick sip of his cider. He was glad of the excuse to gaze at Sara’s face. For a few moments, her pretty, rosy features twisted as she struggled with the letters on the other side. ‘This looks like an “A”, and this one an “N”. Then perhaps an “O”? No, no – a “D”!’ she paused a moment and took the previous coin from Hugh’s hand, who barely noticed, for he was too busy staring into her eyes.
‘This was an “R” and an “E” on the coin from Dorestadt, and this last letter looks a little like a G? No – a “Y”!’ she looked up at Hugh, a wide smile on her face. ‘Does this say “Andrey?” It does! Andrey of Busnik, like you said this morning!’
Hugh started, dropping the coins he had held. ‘What?’ he said, suddenly shocked. He felt as if a lead-weight had just been dropped into his stomach. Eyes wide, he looked from Sara to the coin she held, then back at her. ‘It can’t do, let me see that coin, please.’
Hands shaking, Hugh held a palm out to Sara, who obediently placed the silver into his palm. ‘Was I right?’ Sara said, bending down and picking up the other coins from the floor. ‘It does say “Andrey of Busnik”, doesn’t it?’
It did. Wide-eyed and pale-faced, Hugh stared open-mouthed at the coin Andrey, Busnik. This coin is from the Western Imperial Heartlands – the lands my uncle took from my father! Hugh quickly closed his mouth and looked at Sara, doing what he could to keep his composure. ‘You are right indeed, well done, my dear.’
Sara’s face lit up. ‘I was right?’ she said, her rosy features lighting up in a wide grin, yet for the first time, it brought no joy to Hugh’s heart. ‘Can I try and read the rest of it?’
‘In a moment,’ Hugh said, closing his hand around the coin. ‘But let me just ask, where did you find this, Sara?’ he asked.
Sara frowned. ‘I think it’s one of the coins the fellow in the corner paid for his room with this morning.’
Hugh’s head whipped around and looked towards where the figure in the corner had been sitting. Now, there was nought but shadows and cobwebs in the nook where the figure had been. Cloak, sword, and bearded chin – all had vanished. He’s gone, Hugh thought, eyes wide with horror. Something is afoot here – I don’t like this one bit!
‘He gave Da a little coinpurse. Shall I see if he still has it? He might have more interesting coins.’ Sara said sweetly, putting he hand on Hugh’s knee to get his attention.
Hugh started again, caught suddenly off guard by Sara’s touch. ‘Why, yes,’ he said quickly, his voice trembling with sudden fear and betraying his nerves. ‘If he’s a traveller like you say, he may have given your father more coins.’ Hugh sorely hoped he had. A fellow who has been around will have silver from across the Empire – a man on the payroll of a lord will have only his coin to show for it.
‘Is everything alright, Hugh?’ she said, stroking his cheek with her soft fingertips. ‘You look as if you’ve just seen a ghost.’
Hugh blushed at her touch. ‘I just-… No, I’m fine,’ he said and put on a brave smile. ‘Fetch this man’s coinpurse if your father still has it and doesn’t mind us looking through it.’
Moments later, after another dark glare from Sara’s father, Hugh sat before the hearth with the stranger’s coinpurse in his hands. Dark, smart leather with a simple knotted drawstring about its neck, there was nothing particularly special about the small, clinking pouch. This man paid well for the amenities here, Hugh thought, hope fading. How could he afford such expense if he were not being funded by a lord?
Sara was beside him, eagerly looking over his shoulder. She has no idea, Hugh thought as she felt Sara lean into him. He had lost all desire to tell her how he felt, and felt as if he were holding his future in his hands. If this is full of coin from the Western Heartlands, this man could be in my uncle’s pay – he could be looking for me.
‘Come on,’ Sara said with a smile, reaching out to tug on the small leather purse’s drawstring. ‘I want you to teach me some more.’
Hugh managed a small smile as the bag opened. ‘Let’s see what we have,’ he said in a weak voice, and reached into the pouch. Fingers trembling, he drew out a coin.
‘Another from Andrey of Busnik,’ Sara said. ‘I remember what you said this morning – he’s one of the moneyers in the Western Imperial Heartlands.’
Hugh nodded his head. ‘Very good,’ he said quietly. ‘Let’s try another.’
The next was another coin minted by Andrey of Busnik, as was the one after, and the one after that. Soon, Hugh had been through the whole pouch. There were only twelve silvers within, but all were minted in the Western Imperial Heartlands, in the lands controlled by Hugh’s uncle, Earl Aesinger.
He’s looking for me, Hugh thought, wordlessly passing the pouch back to Sara. That must have been a spy, searching for me. He’s coming – he’ll know where I am now, and he’ll find me. What will he do when he does? Will he kill me like he did my parents, or shall he just leave me be? I am no threat, I am happy here, I want to remain here, I-…
‘Hugh, what’s troubling you?’ Sara said from behind him, placing one of her soft hands on his own.
In that moment, with the warm fire before them and the low rumble of conversation clouding all would-be eavesdroppers, Hugh could have told her everything. He wanted to open his heart to the woman beside him and confess all his lies, admit that he was in fact Sir Hugh Fortescue, son of Earl Jacob, yet he could not. As he gazed into her bright green eyes and the light of the fire gently shimmered upon her mahogany-red hair, he found himself a coward.
‘Sara…’ Hugh began, his eyes dropping to the floor. I can’t do this to her, he thought. If she finds out I’ve lied to her all my life, she’ll hate me.
She sat forwards, her eyes suddenly full of hope and life. ‘Yes, Hugh?’ she said. ‘What is it you want to say?’
But surely it’s wrong not to? Hugh thought. You’ll probably have to leave soon, never to see her again. Surely it’s best to tell her the truth and have it out? He sighed, thinking of the coins in the pouch. The evidence seemed so circumstantial, yet it was a risk he felt he could not ignore. What would my uncle do to the people of Kirkby-by-Hill if he found out they had sheltered me? Would he kill them to stop them from spreading the truth? Would he even be able to act here?
He took a deep breath. ‘There is something I must tell you,’ he said in little more than a whisper.
As he looked up, he saw her face shining with joy and happiness. ‘What is it, Hugh?’ she said.
How can I do this? he thought. How can I ruin this? He took a deep breath and took hold of one of Sara’s hands. The firelight danced upon their fingers and the room seemed to fall to a little hush as Hugh became lost in a world of fear, regret, and love. ‘Sara, I…’ he trailed off, his eyes falling to the rush-covered floor again.
He felt fingers on his cheek and his gaze was lifted by Sara’s gentle hand. Before he could say anything, she was kissing him. Her gentle lips brushed his for a few precious moments and Hugh felt as if his heart were about to burst. He was unsure if he kissed back or not, for his body was frozen in pure shock.
When she withdrew, her rosy face was flushed with colour and joy. ‘I feel it too,’ she said gently, squeezing his hand in hers. ‘I’ve wanted to say for months – years, even. I feared you did not feel the same way, so I said nothing for so long.’
Hugh let out a soft laugh. Oh, by the Empress, what has happened? he thought to himself. ‘No, Sara,’ he said gently, ‘I came here this evening to tell you just that, but-…’ he shook his head again. I can’t do this to her, he thought. I can’t ruin her happiness, not now, not tonight. I’ll tell her tomorrow or another day, but not tonight.
‘But what, Hugh?’ she said gently, leaning closer to him.
Her lips were close to his face again, and Hugh felt himself fighting the urge to keep kissing her. ‘But I-…’ Hugh began again, failing to find the words. Oh, damn it all, he thought, succumbing to cowardice once more. ‘I was embarrassed,’ he said eventually, resigning to fear. ‘I thought your father would, I don’t know, throw me out or something.’
Sara let out a sweet laugh and put her arm around Hugh’s waist. ‘Don’t be so silly,’ she said. ‘He’s not a monster!’
Hugh glanced past Sara and caught her father’s eyes again. Dark eyes glowered at him from behind the bar and he quickly looked away. ‘No, I’m sure he isn’t,’ Hugh said, uncertainty.
With another shy smile on her face, Sara kissed Hugh again. He surrendered himself to his feelings, giving into the warmth of the night and Sara’s infectious happiness. He closed his eyes and accepted his fate, telling himself that he would inform her of his true self on the morrow. She has a right to know now, he thought, and I know I can trust her. But even as he kissed her, and he felt the warmth of her arm around his waist, he could not completely rid his mind of the clinking silver coins from the Western Heartlands, nor of the shadowy figure who had mysteriously disappeared into the night as if he had never been there.

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