The Wretched of Muirwood Page 3

And at precisely that moment, the moment when she realized the Medium was real, her heart full of thoughts too dazzling to bottle up, she saw the Aldermaston turn, gaze up the ladder, and their eyes met.

For the brief blink of a thought, she knew what he was thinking. How a young girl just past her ninth nameday could understand a world-wise and world-weary Aldermaston did not matter. This was the moment he had been dreading that evening. Not the washed out gravemarkers, the empty stone ossuaries, or the rings and linens left behind. It was knowing that she, a wretched of Muirwood, knew what had happened. That it was a moment to change her forever.

His recognition of her intrusion was shared then by Pasqua and Jon Hunter.

“I ought to blister your backside, you rude little child!” Pasqua said, striding over to the loft ladder as Lia scrambled down it. “Listening in like that. Like you were nothing but a teeny mouse, all anxious for bits of cheese. A rat is more like it. Snooping and sneaking.” Pasqua grabbed her scrawny arm, not gently.

“I won’t tell anyone,” Lia said, gazing at the Aldermaston fiercely, ignoring Pasqua and Jon Hunter. She tried to tug her arm away, but the grip was iron. “Not if you let me be taught to read. I want to be a learner.”

Pasqua slapped her for that, a stinging blow. “You evil little thing! Are you threatening the Aldermaston? He could turn you out to the village. Hunger, my little crow, real hunger. You have never known that feeling. Ungrateful, selfish…”

“Let her go, Pasqua, you are not helping,” the Aldermaston said, his eyes shining with inner fury. His gaze burned into Lia’s eyes. “While I am Aldermaston over Muirwood, you will not be taught to read. You greatly misunderstand your position here.” The eyes narrowed. “Five hundred loaves. Tonight. The food will help offer distraction.” He turned to leave, but stopped and gave her one last look. A sharp, threatening look. “They would not believe such a story even if you told them.” He left the kitchen, the vanished storm no longer blowing his stock of pale white hair.

Jon Hunter plucked a twig out of his hair and gave Lia another look – one that promised a thrashing if she ever said a word to anyone – then followed the Aldermaston out. Lia did not care about a thrashing. She knew what those felt like too.

Pasqua kept her and Sowe up all night, and by dawn their shoulders and fingers throbbed from the endless kneading, patting, and shaping of loaves. But Lia was not too exhausted, the next morning, to resist stealing one of the gold cemetery rings from a box in the Aldermaston’s chambers. After tying it to a stout length of string, she wore it around her neck and hid it beneath her clothes.

She never took it off.

CHAPTER TWO:

Knight-Maston

Four years passed. The Aldermaston was true to his word and Lia was true to hers. She never told anyone about the floating stone, or the alcove she and Sowe had discovered in the hillside, or the cemetery rings. The storm raging outside reminded her of the previous one from years ago. Instead of sleeping in the loft with Sowe, she tried to get comfortable on the floor near the oven where it was warmer.

Thunder rocked the Abbey grounds, and even the thick stone wall thrummed with it. The rain dripped from several loose shingles in the roof, and the plunk plunking on the mats kept her awake. She was not certain what would be worse, grabbing a few pots to catch the water and listening to the deep blooping sound or cramming her blanket harder against her ears to muffle it.

In the darkness, something heavy lurched against the double doors, and for a moment Lia remembered Jon Hunter bursting in, bearing the news of the landslide. She sat up fast enough to graze her head against the planks of the trestle table nearby. The sound was loud, like when Getmin or Ribbs shoved a barrel full of beans into place. She heard a few low whispers and curses just outside the door, which meant it was likely a pair of learners. Sometimes they snuck out of their rooms at night to wander the grounds, but few were courageous enough to brave the Aldermaston’s personal kitchen. On quiet bare feet, she padded over and grabbed a skillet from the hook pegs, a wide flat one made of iron. A heavy wallop on the head was usually all it took to scare away a learner.

“Here we are,” a man’s voice whispered. “Easy there, lad. Let me look at you. Bleeding still. Let me see if the kitchen is open.”

The handle rattled and shook.

“Locked. Won’t be able to cross the river again if I stay here much longer…let me see if I can open it.” A dagger came through the crack and struggled against the crossbar, making Lia skip back and away with shock. Learners did not carry daggers!

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