Yoann used to be a professional tennis player but found his true passion in making up stories. He now writes and looks after his chickens on a full time basis in the Welsh countryside.
The castle’s stone floor felt like rough ice under Alena’s bare feet. She hopped to catch up with her Mistress; the woman was quick as a panther, and cruel as one too.
“When did you last bleed?” she asked, increasing the pace.
Alena thought. The cold numbed her wits and the steep staircase had driven the air out of her lungs. Every breath burned the back of her throat. She tasted metal on her tongue. Think, she reminded herself. Her minute hands held the parchment case tightly against her flat chest. Her fingers’ bones chilled her blood and skin; an unexpected shock and they would snap like matchsticks.
“A week and a fortnight, Mistress,” Alena whispered and was blurred by her steaming breath.
She skittered behind the Mistress–all underlings had to. Only equals could walk side by side.
“So,” the Mistress said, tapping her fingers to her violet lips. “You should be bleeding already.”
“We must move quickly, then. I’ll call on Valerio after the audience.”
Underlings mated to produce more underlings. It was the perfect way to ensure an unending line of bonded servants. The firstborn went to the female underling’s owner–to compensate for putting up with nine months of pregnancy–and the secondborn to the male underling’s owner, with the proceeds from a sale shared between both owners.
Alena had mated with Valerio’s underling twice. The Mistress had thrashed her for not being with child, but Alena preferred the beatings to the pain of pregnancy and condemning a soul to a life as underling. A kind marketwoman had sold her a curse-delaying philtre for the price of a loaf of bread. With that in her belly, Alena could go to bed with a relative peace of mind.
The audience hall was only slightly warmer; the tall windows faced South and the sun shone high in the sky. Alena removed the miniver cloak from the Mistress’ shoulders. The woman’s body heat was still trapped in the white furs; it warmed her hands on the way to the cloakroom. Alena reluctantly hung it and returned to the hall. She ignored the lords and earls and gentlemen milling around her just as well as they ignored her.
As the petitioners came and went, Alena admired the green hills and lush valleys through the windows. Gulls and crows scanned the skies in a silent glide. She longed for a better life–a freer life. Most people didn’t dream of a life as a tanner or hardworking labourer, but Alena saw the beauty in free work. Anything seemed more appealing than an underling’s life.
The lords and ladies pushed their solid oak chairs and stood up, signalling the end of the audience. Alena rushed to the cloakoom. She unhooked the Mistress’ cloak but stopped. It was heavier. She slid a hand in the left pocket and her fingers met a stone. She peeked and saw a clump of firestone. Or at least what she thought was firestone in its raw form. Shiny as a ball of molten bronze. Heavy as pure gold. With some grinding and warming, it would become the most precious – and dangerous–powder in the realm: firedust. A single grain could burn for hours.
It was a forbidden substance across the Three Kingdoms. Simply possessing it was punishable by disembowelment.
People walked into the cloakroom. Other underlings. Alena wrapped her fingers around the stone and deftly dropped it in the pocket of her cotton tunic. For once, she was grateful to be ignored. She walked to the Mistress. Her heart pumped frantically and warmed her body. The Mistress kept on chatting with a gentleman as Alena wrapped the shining white miniver around her Mistress’ shoulders. She didn’t notice a thing. Alena’s suspicion was confirmed. It had not been there when she first hung the cloak.
Alena studied the room. Underlings standing awkwardly about their masters. Masters laughing and frowning and chattering. One of the Mistress’ acquaintances, Lord Aspen, checked his side pockets, then his inside pocket, and then his underling’s pockets. He had lost something.
His mantle had been next to the Mistress’ cloak.
Alena looked away and followed the Mistress out of the hall.
The biting cold air slapped her face but she didn’t let it distract her. Alena knew this stone was her chance to flee. The key that would unlock the last door. The possibility to escape had never struck her until she’d felt the stone. Escaping was sheer madness, and many an underling had been ripped to pieces for attempting it. Alena had no choice but to bide her time. The opportunity would not be rushed.
True to her word, the Mistress called on Valerio and the next day Alena was summoned to the man’s manor. The normally sweet philtre had tasted bitter–perhaps because she’d hoped it would be her last. She did her duty in silence–as always.
A full moon and a week passed before the opportunity finally emerged. The King honoured the Mistress with an unexpected visit to her late husband’s manor. He announced the need to discuss matters of the State; that was enough to make the Mistress’ imagination run wild. She ordered everyone about, panicked a good deal and slapped Alena twice to release her tension. Alena was to look after the King’s every need.
And so she did. She was so nervous she didn’t listen to the conversation–until the King mentioned a firestone. He gestured to Alena to pour some mead into his goblet.
“The Institution charged with enforcing the firedust ban has announced the disappearance of a great deal of firedust,” the King said.
“Oh my,” the Mistress gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.
“I’m told it was seized during a raid. In an underground laboratory.” The King took a bite of boar sausage. “The illegal workers have all been sentenced to death, naturally.”
Alena’s ears prickled, and her hands trembled as she reached for the decanter. To reach the ears of the King, she imagined the stolen amount to be substantial–a hogsheadful, perhaps even a barrelful.
“How did it happen?” the Mistress asked.
“It’s a rather unimpressive story. The stone was simply lost. I suppose it’s but the size of an egg, so it can be easily misplaced, but I will have to request the Institution heightens its security measures.”
Alena carefully poured the mead into the King’s goblet.
“Lord Aspen must be losing his mind over this,” the Mistress said.
The King nodded. “Especially since the stone was under his direct supervision when it disappeared.”
Alena spilled some mead onto the King’s lap.
He jumped out of his chair in shock and striked Alena with the back of his hand. The Mistress shouted and swore at Alena. The underling’s face grew purple with embarrassment, and no matter how often she apologised, her words rose and slumped to the ground as silently as a leaf. The Mistress led Alena into the hallway and hit and striked and smacked her face until her hands bled.
‘Out of my sight!’ the Mistress cried. ‘Out!’
Alena obeyed–to the word. Her time had come. The Mistress returned to the King and would remain there for a moment. No one would be looking for her until the evening. Alena ran to her room and pocketed the firestone. She didn’t need anything else; the stone would provide for all of her needs.
Alena ran out of the manor and into the streets. She wiped her bloody nose with her tunic’s sleeve. The air smelled different. It was heavy with horse dung and smoke–and freedom. But the smell turned acrid when she thought of what was next.
Her face was disfigured. Her broken nose ached. Nausea seized her stomach but she kept it in. The bloody tunic stuck to her skin. If she didn’t change quickly, her clothes would give her up; anyone was authorised to turn in a fugitive underling. She had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat, nothing to buy with, and only one thing to sell–but who bought illegal substances?
She remembered a man in the marketplace. A man who appeared to sell everything, and never the same thing two days in a row. She found him when he was about to leave the marketplace. She asked if he bought things.
He eyed her as if she were a different person. “Depends. What can an underling possibly have of value?”
She looked around her, as most criminals do. “A firestone?”
He raised his eyebrows and adjusted his woolen skullcap. “Show me.”
She looked around her again, dipped her hand in her pocket and unwrapped the rag with the stone in front of the man. He raised an eyebrow and a smirk stretched across his lips.
“You see these men, there?” He pointed to two men wrapped in black cloaks. “They’re guards of the night watch. Under the direct rule of the King. In one shout, I could have you killed. Or you can sell it to me for one large copper.”
It was a ridiculous offer. This stone was worth the world to the right person. Alena was desperate for real coins; she needed to get out of sight, and change her clothes, and buy some shoes. All that, before the Mistress’ men caught her. Or before anyone suspected her of fleeing. The man sensed her anxiety because his grin widened.
“Two large silvers,” she said. It would be no good to him if she were caught with the firestone. The leverage wasn’t all his.
The man smiled. He looked her up and down, then glanced at the guards, and he nodded.
“You’re lucky you found me.” He winked as he handed the two large coins.
Alena fled. She went to the first clothing stall she saw and bought the first robe she could put her hands on. With the change, she bought a pair of leather slippers. It brushed against her calloused feet. She disliked the feeling. Her pocket held enough money to feed her for a few days, perhaps a week. She ran faster than she had ever run.
A shepherd was herding his sheep through the city gate. Driven by instinct, Alena placed herself behind the shepherd and followed him out of the gate as if she were with him.
The city guards were too busy prattling their day away.
As she left the gate, a rush of relief hit her. She was free.
The air was cold and the sun was about to set, but she didn’t care. She would spend the night under the wintry stars if she had to.
A sudden crave for honey gripped her. The next market town was leagues away. The crave was strong. Too strong not to worry her. She would’ve done anything for a drop of honey–even turn around.
A thought struck her then. Her breasts were swollen, and she had felt nauseous twice in two days. The underling of the Mistress’ sister had told her about these types of symptoms.
And then she knew.
The Mistress had avoided her belly in the latest thrashing.
Somehow, the Mistress had found her philtre. It had never tasted bitter before; it was a sweet concoction. She could easily have switched it.
And she had.
Alena was free, but with child. With no coins, and no stability to care for a child, she now hated her freedom.