Ander isn’t even supposed to be friends with Lenna. She’s the youngest daughter of the baron, and he is sworn to protect her family as an apprentice guardian. So falling in love with her is unthinkable. As for Lenna, she’s destined to marry a man fitting her noble station. That much is absolutely clear.
But, while their difference in rank should guarantee propriety, Forest Edge is a small place and true friends are hard to come by. As hard as he tries, Ander can’t resist the headstrong and beautiful young woman, no more than she can turn her back on her guardian. Will their love for each other go unanswered or lead to disaster?
Ander had never seen a castle before and he supposed the one looming over him was impressive. It was big, at least. Much larger than any building he saw before, but from the way everyone spoke about it at home, he expected something more overdone.
Where were the piles of gold? Where were the fancy dressed people? Where were the booming sounds of trumpets as he entered through the main gate? There wasn’t even anyone standing guard.
The gruff man towering over Ander gave his shoulder a shove to remind him not to slow down, as though Ander needed reminding. He received hours of lectures on the subject during the three-day long journey from his home village to this town.
“When we reach Forest Edge,” the man said every chance he got, “there’ll be no more of this dillydallying. You won’t be in a lazy fishing village anymore. This is a true town. The Baron expects his people to work. You’ll quit your gawking, move fast, and do what you’re told. Understand?”
Ander nodded his answer and never opened his mouth the entire trip. After his early mistake of asking the man’s name landed him a slap in response, Ander knew enough not to ask any more questions.
If he had been brave enough to talk after that, he would have mentioned that his ‘lazy fishing village’ wasn’t lazy at all. Everyone worked long days to bring in enough food just to survive. It didn’t matter how young or old you were, you worked until you couldn’t work anymore. Then you ate, slept, and did it all again in the morning.
Despite his hard work, the man almost refused to take Ander when he first arrived. He called him scrawny and weak, though Ander didn’t feel as though he was either of those things. At eight years old, he advanced from mending nets and tack, to maintaining the boats. By ten, he worked in the fishing fleet as one of the adults. He couldn’t pull in as much as the full-grown men, but they didn’t treat him like a child either. He was expected to keep up, no matter how much it caused his arms and back to ache.
His strength was the reason he was chosen to be brought to Forest Edge, or so he was told. One day as his ship sailed back to shore, he saw a group of men watching him and the others work from the docks. Three days later, he was being packed up and sent off.
There was plenty about the situation Ander didn’t understand. He simply knew he was to become an apprentice guardian at Baron Lukeman’s castle, a nobleman’s solider and protector. Which meant no more fishing.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about the shift in lifestyle and scenery. There were people he was leaving behind he cared about. But as nice as they were, they weren’t family. They weren’t sad to see him go, and instead cheered him on, as though he was only a passing guest they were ready to shuffle off to the next house. He lived in the village his entire life, but never found a home with them.
Now he was moving into a building of stone. A thick tower the size of several buildings in the village smashed together made up the base of the structure while smaller buildings spread out from it like fins.
Not wanting to get caught gawking, Ander continued to walk toward the overly large wooden doors that stood before him. Opening and closing such large doors seemed impractical, but then again, he was warned about such odd things by the people back home.
The man grabbed Ander’s collar, tugging him hard enough to lift him off his feet and turned him away from the main entrance.
“Those doors are for people who matter,” the man said. “Do you matter?”
A twinge of pride bubbled in Ander’s chest, and in that brave, stupid moment, he nearly spoke. If he had, he knew the smack to the back of his head would have been much worse than the slap from asking the man’s name.
“No you don’t.” The man walked faster, forcing Ander into a jog so that his much shorter legs could keep up. “You ain’t worth more than then fish you smell like.”
They walked in through a much more reasonably sized door in a wing to the left of the tower. The familiar sounds of work filled Ander’s ears as soon as they stepped inside. Although the walls were raw stone and the air was chilly and stale, even on such a warm day, he instantly felt comfortable.
A woman in a dark blue dress and off white apron rushed down a set of stairs and past them without a glance. She shouted something through an open door, received a muffled response and then turned back.
“What’s this then?” Her lack of patience was clear on her plain, round face. Ander recognized the look. He saw it every time he stopped others work to ask questions. He hated the look, and it always made him want to figure everything out on his own, just so they wouldn’t appear so bored with him.
“He’s meant to be the apprentice guardian.” The man’s large hand pressed against Ander’s back and shoved him forward. “I’ll leave the rest to you.”
Much to the dismay of the woman, the man proceeded to turn around and walk back out the door he came through. Ander didn’t turn back to watch the man leave and felt no remorse at his departure, despite the fact the man was the last link he had to his old home. It was clear he’d never see either again.
The woman looked about ready to run after the man and drag him back by his ear, but after a moment her expression softened and she turned her full attention to Ander. Now she was no longer scowling, Ander saw she wasn’t as plain as he first thought. She was old enough to be his mother, and the age showed in tiny crinkles around her eyes and mouth, the kind you only got if you spent a lot of time smiling.
“What’s your name, then?” She showed none of her smile as she looked him over. He wondered if she too thought he was scrawny and weak.
She frowned and for a moment he wondered if maybe he said something wrong. “No last name?”
Ander shook his head, afraid to speak more than necessary in case she was as prone to hitting as the man.
“Right then, Ander. Where’s your stuff?” She looked over his shoulder at the door as though expecting to see a cart full of items. “I’ll show you to the room you’ll be sleeping in.”
All Ander could manage was a confused stare. Stuff? What stuff? Had he been expected to bring tools to work with? The only thing he owned were the clothes he wore and his prized dagger he kept strapped to his side.
It didn’t take her long to understand his confusion, and too her credit, she kept most of her pity hidden behind her tired eyes.
“Well then, no point wasting time.” She ushered him down the hall at a pace even faster than then man’s. “I’ll take you to Guardian Ronan. I hope you’re ready, because I’m sure he’ll put you to work right away.”
Three days of walking left Ander’s muscles feeling tight and weary, but there were still several hours of daylight left. If he could move, he could work. That’s what the men would tell him on the boats when he would comment about being tired. He’d learned to quit complaining and do what he could. It was all anyone truly expected from him.
Without a word, Ander followed the woman down the wide hallway where the voices of workers and the sound of clashing dishes echoed. The beautiful aroma of fresh cooked meat filled his nose and caused his mouth to water. She led him past the kitchen, but at least he now knew where it was. He had plans on visiting first chance he got, and he wouldn’t be intimidated out of the room until he got some of that delicious smelling food.
The woman stopped without any warning and grabbed Ander’s shoulder. When he turned back to see what was the matter, he noticed she was leaning over to his height. Her voice was barely more than a whisper when she said, “Now, careful what you say. Ronan has moods. And remember, if you need anything, come to me first.” She brushed off her apron as she returned to her full height and then realised she’d forgotten something important. “Oh, and my name is Cordelia. Welcome to your new home.”
Cordelia knocked twice on the door but didn’t wait for a reply before swinging it open. She shuffled Ander into the room and declared, “Your new apprentice.”
A man in his thirties turned from a pile of papers he was working on, and raised a dark, bushy eyebrow at the woman before his gaze dropped to Ander.
Ander found his throat tighten as the man continued to stare at him without speaking for long minutes. Everything about the man shouted discipline, from the way he held his back straight even while sitting, to the thick muscles that bulged under his pressed white shirt. Every item in the small room was carefully placed, from the papers and pens to the blankets on the small bed tucked into the corner.
The only thing that showed any sort of mess was his hair, which Ander imagined he’d been mussing while he thought.
To prove Ander right, the man lifted his hand and ran his fingers through his hair, scratching the back of his head for a moment before dropping his arm to his side.
Cordelia snorted and patted Ander’s shoulder. “Can’t blame him for that. He’s a growing boy. He’ll get bigger.”
He didn’t look convinced. For a moment Ander worried he might be told to turn around and go right back where he came from. The idea of going back after the fuss the others made at his leaving made his stomach lurch.
“Let’s get you to work then.” Guardian Ronan stood and led the way out the door. Cordelia gave Ander a quick smile before hurrying off to her own business. “First off, some rules. Do as I say. No whining, sulking, crying, or running away. If you choose to run, don’t come back. There’s no place here for those who aren’t entirely dedicated to the house.”
He opened a door wide enough for Ander to peek inside. The setup of the room was similar to Ronan’s, except about half the size. There was enough room for a small bed, a writing desk and wooden chair. Nothing more.
“You’ll sleep here.” Ronan quickly closed the door, much to Ander’s regret. The room which seemed cramped before instantly become the most luxurious thing he ever saw once he knew it was his.
A room to himself? He thought only nobility had such luxuries. Perhaps the others were right about the castle after all.
“I suppose you don’t know how to write?” Ronan said.
“You’ll learn. Being a guardian isn’t all about brute force, you know.”
Ronan pointed out some other areas of the castle, including a few people’s rooms whose names Ander quickly forgot, until they reached a set of stairs leading up. For the first time, he came to a complete stop and looked down at Ander.
“Above everything else, you will remember this. Do not go upstairs without my permission. And most of all, do not speak to any of the Baron’s family or their guests unless answering a question they ask you directly. In fact, don’t even answer any questions. If they speak to you, find me immediately and I will deal with things. Understood?”
Although the words weren’t said in anger, Ander found the back of his neck damp with fear. He didn’t understand why there would be certain people he couldn’t talk to. Everyone in the village was equal. His cheek stung at the memory of the man who brought him here. If the ones upstairs were anything like that, he would listen to the guardian and avoid them as much as possible.
“As for today’s training, you’ll begin by carrying these items to the blacksmith for repair.”
Ander hadn’t noticed they’d walked outside until he followed Ronan’s finger to the pile of rusted metal items leaning up against a wooden structure built against part of the stone wall of the castle. Ander hardly recognized any of tools in the pile other than a couple of daggers and spears.
“The blacksmith is the building with the largest billow of smoke coming from it,” Ronan said. “Remember, you want to carry as much as you can to get the job done fast, but not so much you’ll completely wear yourself down before you finish.”
Ander eyed the pile more carefully, this time not to figure out what the items were, but instead to calculate the weight of each.
Ronan sighed and ran his hand through his hair, his shoulders sinking a little as he stared at the boy. “But I suppose I can’t have you running around town representing the baron looking and smelling like that.” He scratched the spot at the back of his head and sighed again. “You remember where I told you the baths were?” Ander nodded. “Good. Go have a bath. And when you’re through, have another. Hopefully by then some of that stink will be scrubbed from you.”
Ander lifted his arm to his nose, but couldn’t smell anything. The other man talked about his stench plenty too, but he still couldn’t understand what either man was so worked up about. Either way, he wasn’t about to refuse a direct order. He made his way back through the building to get cleaned up.
At some point during Ander’s bath, his old clothes were taken and new ones were placed in a neatly folded pile on a chair next to the door. Placed carefully on top was his dagger. Despite the panic that rushed through him when he noticed the change in the clothing, there were no signs of it having been touched other than to move it from one pile of clothes to another.
He held the sheath against his chest and focused on breathing. Everything was gone from his old life, even the smell. The only thing he had left was the blade. He thought of the people he once knew and tried to focus on their faces to etch them into his memory, but they seemed to slip away with each breath. The kids he lived with were a little easier, but the more he tried to picture them, the less sure he was of the little details such as eye colors and mouth shapes.
Standing in the open bath room with stone walls baring down on him, Ander trembled. His eyes burned but no tears came.
Finally, Ander pulled on his new black pants that were a touch too big for him and a long-sleeved shirt with a bright red crest of a rearing buck embroidered into the chest. The fabric was thicker than he was used to and felt heavy against his skin. There wasn’t any patchwork or darning that he could see. He couldn’t imagine they would give him new clothes, but without any signs of wear, it was impossible to believe they were worn before.
It must be some sort of mistake. The clothes were probably meant for someone else, but were left by accident. There was certainly no way he was expected to work in these clothes. Material as fine as this must be for special occasions only. He had to find Ronan and put things right before he got the clothes dirty.
But Ronan wasn’t in his room, nor any of the other areas he visited earlier. He even checked the kitchen, for good measure, though the women there shooed him out almost the moment he poked his head inside.
Outside, the sun was still high and the air pleasantly hot without being sticky with a nice breeze to keep a person from overheating. It was a perfect day for work. Ander looked at the pile of metal bits and considered his options. He could waste more time looking for Ronan and get yelled at, possibly hit, for not getting work done, or he could risk damaging the clothes.
Ander balanced a few of the long pieces of metal on his arms and hoped he wouldn’t find any holes in the sleeves later that night.
Before seeing the smoke, Ander heard the sounds of the blacksmith and followed it to the barn on the far edge of town. The boom of a hammer against an anvil and the roar of a fire deafened Ander as he stood in the open double-doorway and watched the work. He wanted to ask where to put the metal down, especially since his arms were starting to cramp from the awkward position and weight, but he knew his voice wouldn’t reach over the noise. Even if it did, he was afraid of startling the huge man and ruining his precise work.
After a long, heart pounding moment, the large sooty man set down his hammer and examined the piece he worked on.
“You have a tongue, boy?” The blacksmith didn’t look at him, but since there was no one else around that Ander could see, he knew it must be him the man spoke to. It was impossible to tell how long ago he’d been noticed. “Or just those giant eyes?”
“I-uh.” Ander wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say. If displeasing Ronan seemed like a bad idea, this man was a good foot taller and his arms and chest were about twice as thick. Since he wore no shirt, Ander could see every hard muscle in his chest, and it was terrifying. More like a monster than a man. “Ronan told me…”
“So you’re the new apprentice.” The man’s booming laugh was a loud as his hammer. “Good luck with that.”
Ander continued to stare at the blacksmith, not sure what else he should say and wishing he could dump the metal and run.
The blacksmith turned his head toward a back door and shouted “Quill.” He dipped the metal he was working on into a pot of water and steam burst from out with a hiss. “That Ronan.” Ander wasn’t sure if the man was talking to him or to himself. “Stick up his ass, higher than the king’s himself. Well. Heh. Poor kid. Quill! Where are you boy?”
“Here,” a much younger, but no quieter voice replied from behind Ander. Ander nearly spilled everything out of his hands at the sound of it. “With the water you asked for, you old bastard.”
“I ain’t old ‘til I’m dead.”
The conversation had the ring of practiced ease as though it was said many times before and had become more routine than true bickering. Men who worked on the same boat for years tended to talk to each other with the same tone when they were working.
Instead of finding another full grown man behind him as he expected, Ander discovered a boy probably a couple of years older than himself. His blond hair was brown with soot and his skin was almost as dark as the blacksmith’s. He also wore the same leather pants and no shirt as the larger man.
He walked the heavy looking pail of water across the room and dropped it next to the similar one the blacksmith placed his worked metal within. Once done, he turned back to smile at Ander, his teeth shockingly white against his dirty skin.
“Quill, meet the new apprentice guardian. Didn’t catch your name, boy.”
As intimidated as he was, Ander found himself relax at the lack of threats or annoyance the man showed him. The accent and rough tone were familiar compared to the crisp and proper way of speaking Ronan and Cordelia used.
“Ander, sir.” He attempted a smile of his own, but the weight of the old weapons in his arms was getting to be too much and the expression turned into more of a grimace.
“None of that sir stuff around here,” the blacksmith said. “None of us live a coddled life inside a castle. Call me Jed.”
“Here.” Quill beckoned Ander back out the entrance he came through. “He’ll make you hold those forever while he chattered away. I’ll show you where you can leave them.”
They walked around to the back of the building where piles of other objects that varied from looking as rough as the ones Ander carried, to near pristine condition, lay waiting. Or at least so his untrained eye believed.
“Drop them anywhere,” Quill said. “It’s my job to organize everything that comes in anyway. Besides, the more time I get to spend out here, the better.”
Quill sat on the dirt where no grass was willing to grow in the shade of the building and motioned for Ander to do the same. He continued to stand. It was bad enough he was working in these clothes, but then to sit down on the ground and slack off on his work, it was too much.
But he was also in a new place, and this was the first chance he had to make a friend. Things could be different here. It would be nice to have at least one boy his age who spoke to him more than telling him dinner was ready or he was needed down on the docks. He didn’t want to mess that up by acting too good to sit on the ground.
A quick hand to the earth told him the soil was baked dry from the day’s heat and that which wafted from the building behind them. Careful not to move his butt too much once it touched the ground to avoid unnecessary stains, he finally got himself settled next to Quill.
“You sure you only just arrived?” Much to Ander’s dismay, he realized Quill watched Ander’s every move with a look of amusement. “You’re already acting like a proper castle dweller. All worried about a bit of dirt.”
Ander hung his head and avoided looking at the other boy. He messed up already, and they only just met. So much for making a new friend. “Sorry.”
Quill leaned his head back and laughed. Not a cruel laugh, but one that made Ander want to join in, even though he wasn’t sure what was so funny. “Relax, kid.” Quill thumped Anders shoulder with his hand hard enough to make Ander swing forward. “I get it. They like things clean over there. You don’t want to get in trouble. It’s one of the reasons I’ll never get a chance to peek my head inside. No amount of baths would get my skin squeaky enough for them.”
“Ronan told me to have two baths, as if one wasn’t enough.” The words tumbled easily from his lips. It was like catching up with an old friend rather than meeting a new one. When his words made the boy laugh again, long and hard, a warmth spread in his chest.
This place would be okay. If everyone was as easy to talk to as Quill, he might even be able to think of this place as home.
They didn’t talk long. Ander didn’t even get to mention half of the things he’d seen within the castle before Quill stood back up.
“Better get to work before the old bastard finds out I’m relaxing.” Quill picked up a couple of the shinier looking items, ready to take them inside. “Come back whenever you can. Maybe someday I can show you where we go swimming around here.”
Such a simple word had Ander glowing. Swimming. He loved to swim, though he rarely got to. He was too busy working on the water to be in it. He wanted to grab Quill now and force him to lead him to the water, but he knew he didn’t have time. He had to finish moving the rest of the items, and Quill was busy anyway.
Ander ran all of the way back to the castle, spurred on by the thought of having a proper friend.