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Scullery maid, Fera, is in love with Lord Tyron, but he doesn’t even know she exists. That is until he’s gravely wounded and she’s forced to take care of him. Will he love her in return or will he be consumed by his injury?
Fera tripped and stumbled. She fumbled for the dish, but it slipped from her grasp, shattering against the floor with an almighty crash. She jumped away as hot soup and ceramic shards flew everywhere.
‘Clumsy girl!’ raged Cook Weira, flailing her wooden spoon, cheeks flushed, hair wild and frizzy from the steam. ‘No, you damn fool, clean it up later. Lord Tyron is waiting. Here.’ She grabbed another dish, ladled out more soup and handed it over. ‘Drop it again, and you’ll be scrubbing chamber pots for the rest of your life. Well, what are you doing? Don’t just stand there like a lackwit. Go!’
Fera handled the dish as carefully as a newborn as she climbed the twisting servants’ stairs. She had been a servant at Appelwhite Keep for the last two years, ever since the barbarians had murdered her parents and stolen her voice and maidenhead. Where once she had worked on a farm and been loved, now she slaved away at a host of gruelling tasks, all beneath the cold hard eyes of Cook Weira and the other senior servants.
She had climbed her fair share of stairs during her time, so when she reached the great hall she was barely puffed.
Only rarely was she sent to serve Lord Tyron directly; ‘If she can’t speak, what use is she?’ Analise, the head maid, had sneered. She was supposed to keep her eyes to her shoes, to focus on her task and mind her own business, like any good servant. But Fera couldn’t help but look around her, at the colourful tapestries, the polished furniture, the brass candelabras, at the great wooden table where Lord Will Tyron and his men sat. It was a small gathering, only five, including Lord Tyron himself. All knights and all his closest friends.
As always, they ignored her. She placed the soup in the centre of the table without notice, refilled their mugs without thanks, as they ate and drank and laughed.
She tried not to stare as she circled the table. Lord Tyron sat in the middle, hair loose and wild, eyes as green as a forest lake. He was broad-shouldered and tall, and Fera would oft daydream what it felt like to be lost in his strong arms, to feel his stubble scratch lightly against her face. She bit her lip and lowered her eyes. I must stop thinking like this. He is a lord, I am a maid—and a damaged one at that. He will wed a noble Lady, and I a commoner from the village. It can never be.
And she knew it was true by the way those green eyes stared through her, like she mattered less to him than the half-chewed gristle on his plate. It was only fitting. It was her place.
When she had completed her tasks, she climbed back down the stairs, tugging at the scarf wrapped around her neck, her scar itching beneath.
‘Back are you?’ said Cook Weira, looking up from her pot. ‘Good. Now clean up your mess, and when you’re done you can do the washing.’
Fera glanced at the tower of pots and plates in dull resignation, then sank to her knees and began gathering up the pieces of broken dish.
Early the next morning as Fera scrubbed the keep’s cold stone floor, she lifted her head at the sound of clashing swords coming from the courtyard. She put down her brush and hurried to the window.
Lord Tyron laughed as he parried Sir Chaprey’s blow, the blades sliding against each other with a loud scrape. They circled each other, the hot sun beating down on their heads. They wore light chainmail and gripped leather shields. Their iron swords gleamed in the sunlight. Sir Chaprey thrusted at his abdomen but Lord Tyron dodged and circled behind him, so fast he was almost a blur. Before Sir Chaprey had a chance to defend his back, Lord Tyron kicked out and the young knight was sent sprawling to the ground. Lord Tyron laughed again, his deep voice echoing around the keep. Fera’s heart skipped a beat. He looked so beautiful with his face lit up like that. His hair was loose and blew lightly in the wind. She loved his hair. She loved everything about him, from his muscular calves to his slim hips to that cute little dimple at the left corner of his mouth that deepened whenever he smiled.
Fera leant against the window frame with a sigh, resting her chin on her hands as she watched him. Sheathing his sword, Lord Tyron helped haul the young knight to his feet. Sir Chaprey shook his head in disgust, red-faced and grim. Lord Tyron slapped his back good naturedly and said something Fera couldn’t hear. Then they stepped apart and Lord Tyron unsheathed his sword, ready for another round.
Their swords clashed again but this time Lord Tyron took it easy on Sir Chaprey, giving him the opportunity to land easy blows. Fera was quietly admiring how Lord Tyron’s muscles bunched up in his arms, the taut shape of his arse in his tight-fitting pants, when there came the sound of a tortured horn blast. She looked up with a start. Two more blasts followed—a warning. Something was wrong.
Lord Tyron and Sir Chaprey hurried to the portcullis. Everyone else in the keep paused, the air suddenly thick with unease. Grinda hurried outside so she could see, making sure to keep out of sight. Analise would wack her knuckles with her wooden rod if she knew she was forsaking her work.
Lord Tyron had his hand raised against the glare as he gazed past the lowering portcullis. Armour gleamed in the distance. Another three short blasts.
A mounted knight galloped inside, pale and shaking, dragging something behind him which scraped against the cobblestones. Fera swallowed. Where were the rest of the knights? Twenty had left that morning. He was dragging a board, something on top of it. Fera struggled to see. Somebody cried out. Others gasped. Fera clapped a hand to her mouth. Body parts—legs, arms and a head were pinned to the board with iron stakes. Fera stared at the man’s bloodied face before turning away with a wince. The barbarians—she knew their work. It was a message, loud and clear.
Lord Tyron began shouting orders. Fera dodged into the shadows as everybody rushed about, making their preparations for battle. Sir Chaprey hurried away to gather the rest of the knights. Fera kept her eyes on Lord Tyron, no longer caring about her work or fearing Analise. The only important thing was him.
An hour later, the men were armoured and mounted. Lord Tyron hefted up his shield. On it was painted a hawk—his family’s sigil. They were an old family, renowned for their bravery and valour. His father was a hawk, as was his grandfather, and now he would fly into battle.
Fera watched as he kicked his horse into a gallop, his knights following in a tight group behind him, her heart beating in her throat.
The servants gathered in the courtyard at the sound of a horn blast, the third for the day. It sounded again, as impatient as the last. Three short blasts, again and again, as if the blower didn’t know when to stop—or couldn’t.
‘Something’s wrong,’ Analise whispered, twisting her long red hair around her fingers. ‘Something terrible has happened.’
Fera clutched at her skirt. Please, not Lord Tyron. Please.
Cook Weira stood beside her, pale as her apron, still holding her wooden spoon as it dripped sauce onto the cobblestones.
Horses clattered into the courtyard, and Fera was relieved to see that so many knights still lived. Haggard and bleeding and some gravely wounded, but alive. But where was Lord Tyron?
There was a collective moan and cries of fear as Sir Chaprey galloped inside, Lord Tyron clasped to his chest, limp and grey, blood down his right side, his arm twisted and dangling.
Sir Chaprey was shouting orders but Fera didn’t hear a word, her ears ringing, watching as they hauled Lord Tyron from the horse and carried him away. Somebody tugged at her arm. Fera turned her head numbly—Analise.
‘Hurry,’ the head maid shouted in her ear, lips white with fear, as she dragged Fera after her, and it was the first time there wasn’t a snarl in her voice.
For the next several hours, Fera filled tub after tub with water, only for them to return crimson time and time again. She washed and steamed and dried bloodied dressings. She climbed the stairs alongside the other servants, hauling up those same tubs, bearing trays of newly washed dressings to be used again. They weren’t just for Lord Tyron; the knights screamed as the healers tended to them. Grey, tortured figures on their straw pallets, hard to see in the dim light of the great hall and harder to forget. Lord Tyron had been taken to his own room. She stared at his door and tried not to fear.
It was well into the night when the last tub returned untainted, and the servants could rest. Few found sleep easily. She could hear Cook Weira weeping from across the way. Others murmured fearfully to each other. Fera stared at the ceiling, rubbing at the scar on her neck, as tears coursed down her cheeks.
She slept, and her dreams were filled with tubs of crimson water, each one bloodier than the last.
Days passed. Knights healed or died. The news of what happened circulated through the castle. The barbarians had been routed. The land was safe. But at great cost. The savages had already sacked and burned several villages before Lord Tyron reached them. He was the first to charge, as Fera knew he would be. Barbarians fled in his wake, so fearsome was he, sword slashing left and right. But an axe took him hard in the shoulder, cleaving through bone, and he fell badly from his horse.
Initially, the servants spoke about him reverently. They loved him and were happy to serve him. But their talk soon turned dark and sullen the further the week passed.
‘Rich and spoilt.’
‘I don’t deserve to be treated like that, not even by a lord.’
‘He’s lost all hope,’ Cook Weira wailed as she sat trembling in the kitchen. ‘Don’t know what’s good for him no more. His own Mama Weira.’ She dabbed at the broth on her blouse. ‘Took special care with his food, I did, and he threw it in my face.’
‘He’s grievously crippled now, and angry,’ Fera caught Analise whispering to a stablehand while on her way to the gardens. ‘Apparently, he won’t let anyone tend to his wounds. And he threw his chamber pot at Lord Crandish and it was full!’
It was only inevitable they eventually turn their eyes on Fera—the last resort, the lowliest of the low. Let her be abused and insulted like the rest of them. Just because she was an unfortunate, didn’t mean she should escape the lord’s insanity.
The other servants watched as she ascended the stairs, carrying Lord Tyron’s breakfast tray. Weira looked worried. Analise almost looked excited. ‘Watch that chamber pot!’ she cried after her. None of them held any hope. If they couldn’t speak sense to him, how could a mute?
Henry, Lord Tyron’s manservant, stood outside his door just in case his lord needed anything. Though Fera doubted he did much more than remove his empty trays and chamber pots these days. Tall and thin, with jowls that wobbled every time he moved, he frowned at her approach.
Fera stopped by the door, waiting. Henry’s frown deepened as he pushed it open with a skeletal hand.
It was dark inside, the curtains drawn tight. And it stank—of rot and sweat and human waste. The door clicked shut behind her. Fera squinted, barely able to see. She had never been allowed in his room before, and the thought of it made her heart beat a little harder. It was large, the ceiling high. There were the outlines of grand pictures on the walls, the shapes of furniture, as she tiptoed around the mess on the floor. She tripped and squelched and slid over a host of nameless things. When was the last time the room had been cleaned? She nudged something with her shoe and a puff of stink made her stomach turn.
Fera approached the head of the bed. She thought she saw a shape but couldn’t be sure. Was it him? Was he asleep? Was he even here? She opened her mouth, closed it again, then put down his tray and drew open the curtains. Light flooded inside.
‘Aaarrgghh. Close it!’
Fera stepped back. Lord Tyron was sitting up in his bed, squinting, hand shading his face. He was far from the man she once knew: eyes sunken and red, skin the colour of old cheese, hair an oily knotted mess; food had stuck in his ragged beard and had been left to rot.
‘What are you, a halfwit? I said, close it!’
Fera could only stand frozen, staring at the stump that was once his right arm. It was wrapped in a soiled bandage and had a fly buzzing around it. He threw his bedding aside with a grunt and staggered over to the window. Fera blushed and looked away; his chest was bare, and he was only wearing a thin pair of britches. She could see the outline of his—
He paused before he drew the curtains shut. ‘Who in God’s name are you?’ Fera lifted her eyes, and for the first time they looked at each other. She opened and shut her mouth, touched the scarf around her neck. ‘I asked you a question. Answer me.’
She gripped her throat and shook her head.
He ripped the curtains shut with a growl. ‘Am I so repulsive they have to drag a blockheaded slattern from the street to serve me now?’
He lay back down on the bed and rolled on his side. Tears filled Fera’s eyes and she fled from the room. He hated her. More than that, he despised her, just like everyone else.
She returned to the servant’s quarters and was about to throw herself onto her bed and sob until she was sick when she passed by Analise. She was leaning against the wall, arms folded, looking smug. She had expected Fera to fail—likely hoped for it. The head maid had always treated her like something that had crawled out of a chamber pot, and Fera had always bore it quietly, letting it chip away at her soul bit by bit. But not today. For some reason something roused inside her, a hot, flaming need to prove herself, to succeed where everybody else had failed.
Fera glared at her. I will bring Lord Tyron back. Even if it means I’m doused in a dozen chamber pots. I’ll prove them all wrong. I am no useless thing.
The next morning Cook Weira looked up in surprise as Fera approached, holding out her hands for another tray. Her heart pounded as she climbed the stairs and it only got worse as she waited for Henry to open the doors, but she didn’t let it stop her.
Inside was as dark and rank as the day before. She could see his faint form lying sprawled on the bed, breathing lightly. She put down the tray, took a breath, then flung open his curtains for the second time.
Lord Tyron sat up with a roar. ‘I said n—’ He paused, his eyebrows shooting up into his fringe. ‘You again.’ His knuckles turned white as he gripped his blanket. ‘You dare disobey me? I should have you thrown out the castle.’ His voice went low and dangerously quiet. ‘Close them.’
Fera shook her head.
‘I said, close them.’
Fera folded her arms. He stared at her, aghast. She could feel his rage build like a wall of heat, but she would not waver, though her heart pounded so hard sweat trickled underneath her arms and she found it hard to think straight.
‘I am your lord, obey me or I’ll have you flayed!’ He flung off his blanket and leapt to his feet. He reared high above her, menacing and tall, but Fera didn’t budge, blocking the window.
She knew Lord Tyron far better than he knew her. He was a good man and he would never hurt a woman. Besides, she knew when to be afraid. She had been almost murdered by the barbarians, after all, and Lord Tyron was no savage.
Still, it was a difficult predicament. What would he do?
He glared at her, but when she still didn’t move, his anger began to fizzle, replaced with surprise, then curiosity. He rubbed his whiskery chin. ‘Who are you?’
Fera frowned, unable to answer.
‘How long have you worked here?’
She held up two fingers.
‘Two? Two months?’
Fera shook her head, jabbed her two fingers in the air.
She stared at him.
‘You’ve been here two years? Impossible. I would know your face.’
She frowned and folded her arms.
‘Why can’t you talk?’
She arched her neck and pulled down her scarf.
He was silent. ‘They slit your throat.’
Fera lifted her chin, trying not to cry. She wouldn’t cry.
Lord Tyron studied her with those green eyes, taking in her thin woollen dress, her brown wavy hair loosely pinned beneath her wimple, her nut-brown skin darkened from her years in the sun. She was much younger than him, barely a woman. She dropped her gaze, feeling uncomfortable.
She looked up.
He was gazing hard through the window, a muscle in his jaw ticking, his long hair sticking to the sweat on his broad back. ‘I am your lord and master. It is my job to protect you, and I failed.’
She dared to touch his hand. There was a filth-encrusted bandage wrapped around his wrist. Another injury, and infected by the smell of it. If he wasn’t careful, he would lose that hand too.
He grimaced and pulled away. ‘Leave me. Thank you for the food.’