17. Chapter 16
The Keep was large, imposing and grim, and so too as it turned out was Sergeant Cenric. I found my way through the crowded courtyards and reported to the sentries, who told me where to find him. He was a huge man, gaunt and imposing, with gimlet eyes, long dark hair and a ragged beard, and when I appeared in front of him he was neither polite or friendly. "What's this?" he growled. "Has that soft fool Angon sent me yet another little wretch to feed and amuse? I've enough rats to cope with as it is". I didn't think I could feel any lower than I already did, but this terrifying Hillman made my heart sink further still. "Please sir" I blurted out "I'm not afraid to work hard and I'll be no trouble, but if you want me to go away then I will". He looked a little surprised at this, and had clearly noted my accent and manner of speech. "A little lordling" he snorted "who did you belong to?". It was a safe enough guess what had brought me to the keep and sent me to his door. I straightened up a little, and felt a little flicker of pride and defiance "Galdirion son of Carandir of Rushwater. My father was lost in the north last year, and my mother died in a fire a few days ago". My voice tailed off at this and the pride and defiance disappeared as quickly as they had come, tears welling uncontrollably in my eyes. But I did not let them fall, and managed to master myself, I did not want to show weakness in front of this man. However his bearing changed at once and his expression softened. "Galdirion's boy? I heard about that fire, terrible business. Your father was a good man and a good friend to me, and there's a place for you here if you need it. Radulf!" he roared. Radulf came running from another room and slid to a halt in front of us. He was one of the boys I knew from our street clan, about my age and red haired but small and skinny. He looked surprised when he saw me and then gave me a broken grin. "Take…". Cenric realised he had not asked me my name, so I gave it to him. "Take Esteldir here up to your quarters and find him a spot, then show him to the kitchens, always short handed in there and at least you'll keep warm".
Radulf led me through a maze of passages, corridors and stairways, even along the battlements at one point, until we reached the main dormitory hall, and I was sure I would never be able to learn my way in such a large place. As we went he talked to me incessantly about life as a castle rat, who to stick with and who to avoid, what was a good task and what definitely wasn't. It was all too much for me to take in, but I did grasp his warning about two of the older boys who shared our quarters. They were almost of an age to begin their soldier training, and it sounded like they enjoyed tormenting their younger companions. It seemed I had been favoured with the posting to the kitchen too.
Once in the main dormitory block we climbed several steep stairways and finally a heavy ladder into an attic under the rafters. It was a dim space full of gnarled timbers and lit by a few hanging lanterns, and the wind could be heard whistling outside on the tiles of the steeply pitched roof. At that time of day the place was mostly empty, save for a couple of boys who were still curled up on their pallets, one of whom coughed every now and again. Radulf pointed out an empty pallet in the furthest corner and disappeared briefly down the ladder, before returning with some blankets that had definitely seen better days, and smelt a deal worse than the fur in Angon's quarters. I folded them neatly on the bed and then we set off for the kitchens. Fortunately for me they were in the cellars of same building so finding one from the other was simply a case of going up or down as far as I could. The cook was a fat jolly man who constantly shouted at everyone round him, but did it with a twinkle in his eye. I was heartened a little by this, his manner reminded me a little of my grandfather and his constant jesting. He was a hard taskmaster, but fair, and I spent the rest of that day helping a dour man with a very bad limp called Arthon fetch wood from the store and water from the pumps. The kitchens were hot, crowded and busy, but eventually the garrison were fed and all the kitchen staff got to eat what turned out to be a passably good meal of stew and beer. I was exhausted and spoke little, and those around me paid me little heed, but for the first time I felt a little peace and wondered if this new life of mine might be bearable after all. I could throw myself into my work and forget the pain, or at least make it a little less.
We were finally dismissed and everyone left quickly, heading back to their quarters in the Keep or back down into the town. There were a few other boys obviously heading the same way as me so I attached myself to them. They looked at me with mild curiosity but otherwise paid me little interest, but I did not care and thought gratefully of my bed and the sweet oblivion sleep would bring. The attic was very crowded when we finally crested the top of the ladder, but the hubbub of voices diminished when I appeared. I wondered at this and looked around to see if I could spot any familiar faces. I did eventually find Radulf, but the warning glance he shot me gave me no comfort. When I reached my cot I could see that the neatly folded blankets had been thrown into disarray, and worse still they were damp and a familiar and unpleasant stench was rising from them. Two large boys, of mostly Hillman stock to look at them, lounged nearby, grinning. The place fell into an expectant silence.
The larger of the two, a red haired and freckled boy called Bor, spoke first. "Oh look, it's the little wester lord and he's wet his bed". He laughed and quite a few of those around me joined in. Before the laughter had died on his lips I was on him, taking him completely by surprise and having the advantage as a result. I was filled with ice cold rage and fought dirty, before he could react I had smashed his nose and knocked his front teeth out. We rolled to the floor and I untangled myself and leapt back ready for the next assault. It did not come from Bor though, who sat momentarily looking dazed with blood pouring from his nose and lip. The other boy, Olfric, came at me instead, and there was a gasp from the spectators as he had drawn a blade. He cursed me and then charged. For a moment I was back in a sunny meadow with my father coming at me with a twig in his hand and then Olfric was tumbling over my outstretched leg and I was twisting the knife out of his grasp. He hit the ground with a crash, and now I was onto him. He miscalculated that I would not use the blade on him and came at me once again but I slashed deep into the palm of his outstretched hand and he felt back clutching it to his chest. I'd almost forgotten Bor though and was only just in time, spinning round as he swung for me. In a blur I felt the knife bite deep into flesh and he screamed in shock and pain and fell back with a crash, loosing the knife from my grasp in the process. Fortunately for me, and for him, I had caught him through the arm, and though he bled profusely it was not a fatal wound. I stood in the midst of the throng, trembling and filled with battle rage and waiting for the next attack, but it did not come. Instead there was shouting below and the sound of running feet and soldiers appeared at the top of the ladder. All of a sudden I felt sick and weak and very very tired.
A few minutes later, as the wounded were being tended to, Sergeant Cenric appeared in an undershirt and breeches looking furious. "What on earth is going on here?" he roared. All eyes were on me, and I spoke up, quietly recounting what had happened and pointing out my sodden bedding and the bloodied knife that now lay on the floor near a recumbent Bor. "Is this so?". The question was met with a surly silence from my two opponents. There was a pause and then Cenric continued. "Esteldir, help yourself to what you want of their bedding. Olfric, two dozen lashes for you for carrying arms against Keep rules. Bor, a dozen lashes for you for spoiling army property. Esteldir a dozen lashes for you for using the knife, halved for self defenc. No more of this, understood? Get this place cleared up". I nodded my assent, but did not see if the others did likewise. I was completely spent and it was all I could do afterwards to find Bor and Olfric's pallets and help myself to their best blankets, but I could not fail to notice the looks some of the other boys now gave me.
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