The Gifting

The Gifting - Extract

Chapter One

They came for Simon Hartstongue at night, three men from the village. He was at the fire, damping down. The boy from the poor house was with him. He’d been teaching him letters for a while along with the rest of the villagers who still wanted it. Not many of them now of course. Simon continued the boy’s tuition as he was sick of the banter and the blows the women gave the child and the way he never complained, no matter what they did. He thought he might give the boy something, an apprenticeship of sorts, a skill his tormentors didn’t have. It was the only gift he had to offer. Which for a man of thirty-two winters was humiliating to have to admit. And still it wasn’t enough.

All that day, something had been in the wind. Simon should have sensed it, but he hadn’t. Or at least had paid it no attention. He’d been too busy worrying about what Ralph Tregannon, the Lammas Lands’ Overlord, would ask him to do next. He’d also been preparing parchment and quills for the lessons of the morning. Not only that, but he was starting to consider whether it was time to move on, search for another place of refuge for one such as him. If he could find the strength and integrity for it, which he doubted. He could no longer sleep easily at night. All these thoughts had occupied him during the previous hours and, without knowing it, he was to pay for his lack of attention now.

The knocking at the door alerted him to their visit first. If he’d been keeping his mind-skills as sharp as they should have been, they would never have succeeded but nearly two year-seasons of Ralph’s protection had dulled the scribe’s edges, making him weak. Once again, he had no-one to blame but himself.

The harsh noise made the boy jump.

‘Hush,’ Simon whispered, stilling him with one hand on his shoulder. ‘Go into the food store. There’s an alcove at the back. Hide there behind the curtain.’

Wide black eyes stared up at the scribe and he could see the sweat on the boy. His fear seeped through Simon’s senses like a rock snake.

‘Do it,’ he said, this time more urgently as the rapping came once more.

The boy gave him one more wide-eyed look and was gone.

‘Wait a moment!’ Simon called out so whoever was outside could hear him as his fingers hurried to hide parchments, quill pens, books in the drawers from where they had come. ‘I’m not prepared for visitors, but I’m on my way.’

‘You don’t have a moment, Master Simon,’ a voice from outside growled a menace. The north country accent told him it was Thomas the blacksmith.

Anything else Thomas might have said then was overpowered by the sound of the door being rammed with something solid from outside. The frame shook and the thin strips of woods splintered and cracked.

‘Wait!’ Simon called again, trying to still the sudden shake of his hands. ‘I’m coming. Just be patient, won’t you?’

Fumbling with the mechanism, he caught a glimpse of his narrow features in the polished plate drying on the shelf: slight, willowy, his brown hair combed back, brown eyes wide. Some thought him attractive; he could never fathom why. He kept up a stream of meaningless words, trying to connect with them in his mind in order to search out their intent. It was no use; his own fear was too strong for him and when, at last, he had no option but to open the door, the only advantage he had was the evidence of his eyes alone.

He knew then they wanted to kill him.

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