Crawford the manservant and the young master Hewlett shuffled wearily into the servants’ entrance at the rear of mansion. It had been a long walk from the cliffside. A few household staff were in the kitchen, four of them playing Minotaur Bridge. There was a heated argument about the scoring of a Doubled Banshee which fell to a hush as the two entered.
“His Lordship is in the parlour, and he requests you meet him in the library.”
The door from the back staircase opened to the next to the ajar parlour door, and as the youth shuffled past he could hear hushed toasts. Something boring and mundane about “power” and “peace”. He’d never cared one bit about his father’s dealings, and he wasn’t about to start now. And being caught eavesdropping… he hurried past the door to the end of the hall.
He’d never counted how many, but the library was the largest room in Hewlett Manor.
Thousands of worlds to get lost in.
Thousands of escapes from this mundane life.
And just one world out here. Hardly fair.
He grabbed a log from the pile and stoked the hearth. He sat there as the heat and light grew, warming his hands; not the soft, gentle hands of any other noble heir, but the calloused, nimble hands of the budding adventurer.
The postprandial drinks were still in full swing in the next room. No chance of his father emerging for some time yet, so he lit a candle from the fire and scanned the shelves. There it was, and the bookmark still in place: The Chronicles of Enderis the Wanderer, Vol. III. He set the candle down and quickly engrossed himself in the centuries-old tome.
It was several hours later before he noticed the guests had gone and his father, presumably, had retired to bed. He sighed and shuffled upstairs.
“…staffs, and black robes, that’s what Brent said. Poor boy was scared witless— good morning, Master Hewlett!”
Mrs. Morgan and the kitchen maids rose when the boy entered. He looked exasperated.
“I’ve told you a thousand times, stop treating me like… him. I’ll breakfast with you. What’s the news?”
Guardedly, the cook began again. “A hamlet, on the edge of His Lordship’s land. It was razed last night. Only Brent the farmhand survived. Well… had survived.”
Kitchen maid Jim piped up. “It was mages! And they cursed ‘im!”
“Brent, well, he was a good friend of ours. Here’s the worst news. This never leaves this room, boy.”
Mrs. Morgan leaned forwards and whispered conspiratorially.
“The leader of the mages was one of the guests here last night”.
Furious, the young master Hewlett was pacing the library. Crawford stood near the door.
“I dare not second-guess His Lordship’s motives. And I’m sure there’s some grand scheme here.”
“How can you say that! They’re dead! He knew about it, he fucking must have!”
A scowl. “Be that as it may—“
“He doesn’t love me. His heir! He clearly doesn’t give a fuck about this estate or its future!”
“We don’t know what the mages were doing here last night!” His voice was rising in uncharacteristic fury.
“Crawford, I… listen.” He collapsed into his favourite reading chair. “I eavesdropped last night. Not deliberately. The parlour door was open. They were toasting to peace and to power. What does that sound like to you?” The manservant looked heartbroken.
“Crawford?” The boy’s voice was timid. “My… my mother. What was she like?”
Crawford sighed. “I know where you’re going with this. Don’t think for a second that your father was different before. He has always been cold. He has always been callous. He has always lacked love.”
The manservant gave a far-off look. “That said… your mother was a light in this world. You get that from her.”
They both had tears in their eyes, although the boy was trying his best to hide it. “Why the fuck do you stay?”
“I serve the Hewlett family. Its Lord and its heirs.” A pointed look.
“I’m leaving, Crawford. I’m never coming back. What’s keeping you here then?”
A grand chair. Not a throne; not gilt, or jewelled. Not on a pedestal or even pride of place in its room. Lord Hewlett didn’t need any of that to look imperious.
A ring. Again, not ornate, but simply-finished silver with the Hewlett sigil stamped onto it.
The boy. Who wishes he was too proud to kneel. Wishes he could control his tears.
The lord. Pocketing the ring with a terrible smile. Saying “begone”. Knowing he just condemned his heir.
one week later
You know this, Eben. Come on. Arm straight. Don’t lock elbow. Visualise the target. Breathe out. Loose.
The bolt hit its mark, and the curious rabbit suddenly became decidedly uncurious.
It was the boy’s eighth day on the run, and he’d run out of the food he’d managed to pack in his escape. Just as well he’d had the foresight to grab his handbow and knife. He took the latter in hand and went to work.
While the meat stewed in the pot, he took in the view. From here he could see the span of the Hewlett estate, and the wider fiefdom. The burning hamlet to the west.
This land… my name… that door’s closed to me. Eben Hewlett no more.
He looked at the stolen book poking out of his pack.
I suppose I am a wanderer now.