Rolland had been rushed into the palace surgeon’s workroom. He didn’t know how long he’d screamed for. His throat was dry and sore.
The surgeon was not gentle. She was fast cleaning the wound. Rolland bit into a thick piece of leather, watching her nimble fingers work away at his flesh.
The surgeon looked at him, a hint of pity flickering in her eyes. ‘I will have to cauterise the wound.’
‘Cauterise?’ Rolland’s voice was weak, he could manage no more than a whisper.
‘The wound will be burned.’
And that’s all the warning she gave.
Rolland passed out.
He awoke not in an infirmary bed or a cell, but in his room, at the academy. There was someone sitting by his bed, one of the servants Rolland sometimes saw walking the halls. When he awoke, the servant stood up and left without a word. Some time later his door opened again. A cane clacked.
Master Willem walked in.
Rolland glanced up at him. ‘How long have I been asleep?’
‘A few days.’ Willem sat on the chair the servant had used, his joints popping as he lowered into it. ‘We were getting worried.’
‘We?’ Rolland was not looking at the master. Instead he was staring down at his wrist. It was bandaged up. It throbbed, and itched. The pain almost felt like it was coming from where his hand had been. How can something gone hurt so much?
Out of the corner of his eye, Rolland saw Willem frown. ‘People care for you here, Rolland.’
‘My punishment, how am I supposed to continue my studies when I cannot write?’
Willem’s chair creaked. ‘Losing your hand is not your only punishment.’
Rolland finally looked up from the wound. ‘What else is there?’
‘You are no longer permitted to study at the academy. You will not finish your apprenticeship. All your classes will end.’
‘Am I to be kicked out of the academy? Can I—can I go back to my family?’
The master shook his head. ‘I wish that could be your path. You are lighttouched. Once your studies have ended you must become an adviser.’
‘An adviser? No noble would wish to hire the lighttouched who killed two men in the streets! The lighttouched without a hand! Who screamed and screamed in pain at his punishment, crying in front of hundreds like a child!’ Rolland’s voice caught. He looked away from the master, ashamed of his outburst, his inability to keep his emotions in check.
Master Willem’s patience didn’t waver, which only made Rolland feel worse. Over the years he’d broken many of the academy’s rules. Now, he had broken the law. And he’d unleashed on Willem. Ever patient Willem, who’d always looked out for Rolland, ever since his first day at the academy.
‘There has been much talk of you in the city. There are still those who wish you were executed. There will always be people who wish for the worst, people who have no room in their hearts to forgive. But those are not the only ones out there. The king had to punish you, to save face. As do we. But there are people out there who argue that you should not have been punished at all. The world does not hate you, Rolland. At least, not all of it.’ Master Willem rose from the chair. ‘While you recover, you will stay in your room. I will have food brought to you, and if you desire books, you only have to ask.’
Rolland spent days alone in his room. None of the people he’d thought of as friends visited him. Master Willem sat with him a few times, but Rolland got the feeling that the other students had been... discouraged from seeing him.
He wasn’t sure he could blame them. Who wanted to be associated with an outcast?
The nightmares stopped. Now that he could drink the tea again, his dreams disappeared completely. Still, he could barely sleep anyway. The pain on his stub... his wrist—he found he hated the word stub—always flared when he tried to sleep.
At least I’m alive, he whispered to himself, in those quiet hours where the world of his room was completely dark. I’m alive. I have my life... I have...
He wasn’t sure what else he had. He’d lost his hand. His studies...
Maybe Master Willem had been right. Maybe people out there thought what happened to him was wrong. There might even be someone out there who would look past what he did and have him as their adviser.
He didn’t even care anymore if that person wasn’t a noble. He couldn’t be more disgraced than he already was...
He would go with anyone who wanted him. Anyone at all.
Osca Stanton seemed an eccentric sort of man. He was by no means noble, he wasn’t even rich. He walked around in expensive clothes, but those clothes had holes, and where there were no holes, there were patches. He smiled when he looked at Rolland. That was another strange thing. Not just the smile—Stanton looked at Rolland.
Six months had passed since Rolland lost his hand in front of the king and his court. He was getting used to using his right hand. When he’d been young and new to the academy, his master’s had told him he should write with his right. He’d struggled, trying to hide the use of his left hand when writing in class, but it constantly got him into trouble. After awhile the master’s relented and let him use his left. Now it was almost as if they got their wish, he was finally learning to write with the right hand.
Osca Stanton was the only person to show any interest in acquiring Rolland as his adviser. Which was no surprise, even though some in small circles whispered about the wrongs that had been put on him, they weren’t about to have him as an adviser. Any person to take Rolland as an adviser would have their reputation ruined by the association, something Rolland was beginning to think wouldn’t be a problem for Stanton.
He’d been working for the man only a week, shadowing Stanton everywhere he went, and he still wasn’t sure what he actually did. They got a lot of stares walking around the city. Word had travelled fast, and Rolland was easy enough to spot still in his apprentice robes. Stanton would talk to him freely when in the city, which only furthered his strangeness. From all these things, Rolland was beginning to like Stanton. He was one of the only people who didn’t treat him as though he were different.
Rolland followed Stanton through the bustling city.
‘Huh,’ Stanton said loudly.
‘I’ve just noticed, whenever I’m walking with you, people seem to almost jump out of the way. It’s usually a struggle getting through the market. With you, it’s just a gentle stroll. And Rolland, stop calling me sir. I’m not a noble, and I’m not one of your masters.’
‘You’re my employer, sir.’
‘Yes, I am, that means you have to listen to what I say. So cut it.’ He paused, glancing back at Rolland’s residual limb. ‘Sorry.’
Rolland smiled. Stanton was a strange man indeed.
‘Where are we going today, si—Stanton?’
‘We’re leaving the city, off to talk to some farmers.’
‘I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, couped up in that academy of yours, but each year there seems to be less and less food.’ They left the market and walked through some of the quieter inner city streets. ‘If we have a few more years like this… most people don’t seem worried, Ashrennon hasn’t experienced a famine since its conception. I just wanted the opinion of a farmer.’
‘My father was a farmer.’
‘Was? He died?’
‘He’s alive. But technically, I’m not allowed to have a family.’
‘That sounds absurd. So they take you guys when you’re eleven and tell you you have no parents anymore?’
‘Huh.’ Stanton stopped abruptly, causing Rolland to almost bump into him. He turned to Rolland. ‘Where does he live? I need to talk to a farmer, any will do. This way maybe they’ll talk back.’
Rolland hadn’t seen his family since he had warned them about Jolm. Master Willem had assured him they were okay, but they were of course not permitted to see him.
‘I’m not sure that’s allowed.’
‘What are they gonna do, cut off your other hand?’ Stanton grimaced. ‘They wouldn’t, would they?’
‘No. No, I don’t think so.’
‘Then let’s go!’ Stanton turned around and walked forward again. Rolland caught up, grabbing the man’s shoulder.
‘It’s actually this way.’ Rolland pointed down another street. Stanton stopped and wheeled around to the right direction, starting again on his determined walk.
Rolland knew he was forbidden to see his family, and he was hesitant to break another rule after losing his hand. But perhaps this didn’t count. He wasn’t visiting his family, how could he? He wasn’t supposed to have one. He was just following his employer to talk to a farmer. A farmer who happened to have raised him. It wasn’t a lie, just not the whole truth.
It was still well before noon when they began approaching the farms of the outer city. Whenever they passed a worker in the field Rolland felt them stop and watch him, just as they had done when he’d walked down here the last time. Stanton didn’t seem at all bothered by the looks, in fact, Rolland was beginning to think he liked the attention. Had that been why he’d hired him? So far Rolland hadn’t been able to actually advise Stanton on anything. He just followed him around, and they chatted casually. It did not seem like the typical adviser-employer relationship, but of course, Stanton wasn’t the typical merchant.
It was nicer walking to his farm this time around. The threat of Jolm hurting his family had left his mind, even if he had not been caught yet. It would be far too risky for him to make a move while he was in hiding. When Rolland closed his eyes, he no longer saw the farm burning. He saw his family sitting, sipping tea, his sister playing with some small wooden toy. He enjoyed the image, though he knew his father would be working the fields, not sipping tea.
People stared at Stanton as the two of them walked past the fields. The farming community was a small one. No doubt word had already travelled from Rolland’s last visit. They would know who he was, and they wouldn’t stare for other reasons. But Stanton was a stranger, in strange clothes. They were free to stare at him all they liked. He had the look of a merchant about him, despite his poorly kept clothes and lack of wares. There weren’t a whole lot of reasons for a merchant to walk around these parts.
‘It’s that one.’ Rolland pointed at his family’s farmhouse.
‘How quaint.’ Stanton took the lead down the track worn over many years by mule and cart.
Rolland followed. He was sure his father would be somewhere out on his fields. He strained his eyes to look around, trying to glimpse him. There were others working, but he could not spot his father. People from the nearby village often came and helped on the farm for a small fee at particularly busy times of year. This winter had passed quickly, and the fields were getting readied for the new season’s crops. If he was lucky, his father might be at home having an early lunch with the rest of the family. The last time Rolland had come here, he’d gotten a warm welcome.
He’d killed two men, stood trial by the king, and lost his hand since then. Word would surely have travelled this far about what he’d done. Rolland knew that rumours twisted the truth of what happened much of the time, it was no different for rumours about him. They could think any manner of things about their son. The worst part of the rumours was true. Whether or not the men were good men, he had murdered them.
Stanton stopped at the small steps leading up to the door. He waved a hand to let Rolland go first. ‘After you, sir,’ he said with a mocking smile.
Rolland walked past his eccentric employer, hiding a smirk behind his hood. He stood at the door for a long moment. Stanton coughed behind him. The man didn’t understand hesitation. Not even when it came to business, which explained much off his success, or rather, his lack of success.
Stanton leant over Rolland’s shoulder and knocked on the door. ‘We’d be here all day otherwise.’
Steps sounded from the other side. Not the slow, heavy footfalls of his father. It was the smaller, quick steps of Reeba, his mother, her shoes scuffing the wood floor.
The door swung open. ‘Rolland.’ Reeba’s eyes met his, then fell down his arm and finally to his sleeve. Rolland pulled up his left sleeve, revealing the residual limb. His mother let out a small gasp at the sight. The end of his arm was rounded, covered in scars, mostly from where it had been burned. Reeba’s hands came up, hesitating where his hand used to be.
‘Hello!’ Stanton nudged him to the side. ‘Rolland, aren’t you going to introduce me?’
‘Uh, of course.’ Rolland’s arm dropped, the sleeve falling back down. He stood aside on the porch and thought to make a formal introduction, then thought better of it. Stanton was not big on formality. ‘This is Huow Stanton, my employer.’ Stanton stood tall for a moment, trying to strike a regal figure, and failing. ‘And this is Reeba Goslan.’
Reeba crossed her arms, taking in the man’s tattered clothes. Her eyes set for a moment on the foreign timepiece hanging around his neck, then finally came up to his stubble ridden face. ‘You’re Rolland’s employer?’ She stood aside. ‘Well, come on in.’
Rolland walked in first and led the others to the main room. Leira was in the corner playing with a carved wooden doll. He recognised the style. His father had carved many for him when he was a child. Wooden figures holding wooden swords. He used to make them fight little wars out in the grass while his parents worked.
‘She’s grown,’ Rolland said as they all took a seat at the table.
‘They grow up faster than you could imagine,’ Reeba replied.
‘I was hoping to talk to a farmer, is your husband around?’ Stanton asked.
‘So this is a business visit? Well, my husband is working the fields, but if you want to talk to a farmer, you need not look any farther.’
Stanton smiled at Reeba. ‘There have been a lot of rumours.’ He leant back in his chair. ‘Each year the farms seem to be producing less and less food. Each year we have less and less rain. The people from the palace say there’s nothing to worry about. But of course they say that, they wouldn’t want to make us all worry, would they? No. And what do they know about going hungry, anyway? Even if us commoners were on rations, they’d be eating like… like…’
‘Yes, they’d still be eating like kings. I’ve been doing a lot of talking, with the food merchants and the like. People are worried. That’s why we’ve walked all this way today. I wanted to hear what someone in the know had to say. You and your husband, you work the fields everyday. You know each year how the harvest has gone. Tell me, Reeba, are you worried?’
Reeba looked away from Stanton to where Leira was playing in the corner, and she sighed. ‘I’m worried. The harvests have been declining steadily, for years now. The rain… it used to rain so much when I was a child. Everything was so much greener back then. But now? The earth is getting harder. The grass is brown in the summer, not that vibrant green it used to be. It’s not just that we get less from the harvest, either; the city is growing. The inner city seems to be getting bigger all the time. There are more people to feed than there used to be.’ She looked away from Leira and back at Stanton. ‘I worry about it everyday. But what is you knowing how bad it’s getting going to do? What could you do about it?’
Stanton smiled and rapped his knuckles on the table. ‘Well, I think I have a plan.’
‘What are you going to do, make it rain?’
‘No, no, of course not.’ Stanton stood and readjusted his tunic and coat. ‘Well, that’s all I wanted to ask about.’
‘You’re leaving?’ Reeba’s eyes moved from Stanton to Rolland and back. ‘So soon? Won’t you stay for lunch. You’ve had a long walk, and you’ve got another long walk back. Some food will do you both good. My husband will be in soon, as well.’ Reeba gave Rolland a pleading glance.
Stanton turned to Rolland. ‘Well, you’re my adviser, what do you think?’
‘I think we could use the rest.’ Rolland tried to hold back a smile. ‘Besides, the food’s fresh here, picked straight from the garden.’
‘I make a mighty fine tea, too.’
Stanton sighed and sat back down. ‘I guess we can spare a little bit of time. The day’s business can wait.’
The front door opened around the corner and heavy boot steps hit the creaking floor boards.
‘Ah, right on time,’ Reeba said.
The conversation was mild, strained by the presence of Stanton and the unasked questions Rolland knew his parents had. Leira was still wary of him, even more when she noticed his missing hand. Stanton was eager to leave when the food had been eaten. The whole way back Rolland wondered when he would see his family next. He was appreciative of Stanton, maybe he had chosen to go there out of convenience, but it had given Rolland time with his family. Time he wasn’t supposed to have.
His mother was right, the grass did look browner. Browner than when he was young, even. The sky lacked a single cloud. It was not that way everyday, it still rained in Ashrennon. Rolland was just having trouble remembering the last time it did. He wasn’t much of a worrier, Rolland. A dreamer, perhaps, but not a worrier. He had learnt when he was young and pulled away from his parents, that worrying about a thing wouldn’t change it.
This problem of food seemed worthy of worry. He had not noticed it in the academy. The food they ate stayed the same from when he entered to when he left. Bland small portions. Had it always been that way in the academy? Had Master Willem eaten the same when he was a child? He stared at Stanton’s back as they walked. The tattered clothes that once must have looked rich. The cocky, casual attitude, evident even in the way he walked. What gave this man confidence? Why would he walk around in tattered clothes, when Rolland knew he could afford better? What plan could this common merchant have to solve Ashrennon’s food problems?
Todd Herzman writes fantasy, science fiction, and anything else that catches his fancy. He has a Bachelor of Writing degree from the University of Canberra, and his debut novel, A Dark Inheritance, is a SPFBO 6 Semi-Finalist and is available on Amazon.
If you'd like to read his free prequel to A Dark Inheritance, The Seeker and the Sword, you can grab it by going to his website and signing up to his author newsletter.
He's also the writer of the web serial Ashrennon.