Paid Stories Badge Paid Story
There are 2 more free parts

The Boy in the Barn

19.6K 1.1K 110
                                    

           A chill wind had started up as Paolin trudged across the castle grounds to his quarters, and he drew his cloak farther around him. It was insufficiently thin, doing nothing to shield him from the winter weather. He grimaced into the hood that was pulled over his face.

          Paolin had always been treated like rubbish by the royals, especially because of his abilities. But he also knew that the life the King offered him was infinitely better than the alternative: life in a prison camp. Years ago -- three, to be exact -- he himself had been a performer in the Royal Exposition. Because the King had seen value in his unique abilities, Paolin was hired on as the King's gamewarden in lieu of imprisonment at the conclusion of the festivities.

          The sun dipped below the tree-line, and Paolin urged his pace onward. A few yards away, nestled in the forested grounds behind the castle, a towering barn glowed from within with torchlight. Paolin grinned to himself. It wasn't much -- wasn't really anything, actually -- but it was home.

          He unlocked a little side door and stumbled into the sheltering warmth of the barn, swiftly securing the door behind himself. The familiar scents of hay, animals, and manure wafted over him.

          The barn was three stories tall: the most impressive on the continent. The hay-covered entry landing was comprised of spacious pens that housed the King's horses, sheep, and cows. Just a ladder's climb above the horses were the chicken coops, and another floor above that was Paolin's den.

          "I'm back," he called to the cavernous barn, throwing off his ratty winter cloak. He reached out the tendrils of his magic and instantly made a connection with Tulip, the most powerful of the King's mares and Paolin's personal favorite. He grinned. The female horse was a beautiful chestnut, dappled with white spots across the chest. The animal's energy blossomed at his presence and leaned into his power. Paolin closed his eyes and soothed the creature with gentle thoughts. Then, he communicated to Tulip the things that had happened in the throne room. Not through actual vocalization, of course, but through their shared energy.

          Paolin was constantly amazed by animals -- and not just because he could talk to them. They were so much smarter than any human would guess, and even more gentle. The horse seemed to comprehend his thoughts clearly enough by the time he finished. She stamped her hooves on the dirt-stained floor, disgruntled.

          King. Bad. Paolin sad. Bad man.

          "Not to worry," he muttered, stroking her silky mane before leaping onto the bottom rung of the rickety ladder. "I've got it all under control."

          Bad man.

          Paolin said a quick hello to the chickens before climbing up to the top loft. His living area looked more like a squatter's settlement than a bedroom. A patchy, straw-covered cot rested under a wide open hole that used to be a window. Beside it were stacks of dusty books, a snuffed torch, and a small pile of animal feed.

          "Home sweet home," he muttered, fishing some flint out of his pocket so he could produce a flame. Once the torch was lit, he sat on the cot, wrapped himself in his thickest blanket, and stared out of the window-hole. Though it let in the outside air, it provided a truly unmatchable view of the castle grounds. Over a field of coniferous trees, the castle loomed into the darkening sky, wooden pyres and arches twisting together and apart: a harsh jungle gym for the birds that dared to roost there. Beyond that was the sprawling expanse of Lake Heylweay. The castle of Pathos was constructed on a forested island in the middle of the lake, which meant that travel to and from it required passes on royal gondolas. It was an ingenious security move, actually. No one left or entered the castle without the King's express permission. However, it made it that much more difficult to escape.

          But even if Paolin did manage to escape, where would he go? He had nothing, only his animals and his position. And his memories. Paolin raised his eyes to a spot on the other shore of the lake, where he could discern the rolling fields of bright green grass that were, again, to host the Exposition. His throat constricted.

          Paolin remembered his performing days as if they had happened yesterday, as if he had never left. The taunts, the obligations, the threats from the King himself ... But he could also remember some good things about them, too. He met Prince Markus, and he befriended Marithyda Skyelorn.

           Well, he thought, they certainly aren't better off now than they were before. One is dead, and the other is in hiding.

          Could he really thrust that kind of hell upon someone else, someone he doesn't even know? Could he rip someone from their life and force them into this dangerous charade? That's not even to mention the contest King Harlan spoke of. What will happen to the other Touched that don't win the grand prize? What will they lose? If Paolin knew anything for sure, it was that the Exposition never failed to inflict devastation. Never.

          He sank down onto his pathetic bed and blew out the torch. He was still able to faintly detect the animals roving around below, but their quiet presence did nothing to soothe his racing mind. By the time the moon had risen to its climax, he sank into a worried sleep haunted by strands of black hair and glittering knives.

+ + +

          Paolin rose with the sun and tended to his usual routine. Feed and water the animals, clean their stalls, spread new hay, milk the cows, collect eggs from the chickens. As he moved to brush the horses, he nearly ran into one of the female sheep. She was clearly pregnant, and had been for quite a while now. Ironically, he called her Lion.

          "Good morning," he muttered, tying back his hair. As easily as breathing, he closed his eyes, reached out his magic, and connected with the ewe. Her energy was strong, but slightly stressed. Not surprising in the least, considering that she could give birth at any moment. "Keep hanging on," he assured her. She bleated and hobbled away.           

          The greater part of the morning continued in this manner, until Paolin noticed one of the King's guards striding towards him from the castle. He sighed and leaned against the barn door. The guards were no better than the King himself: the whole lot of them were bullies and cowards. And they certainly didn't approve of Paolin and his abilities, though they had no problem using them for their gain.

          "I've a message from King Harlan," the man drawled, dabbing at the beads of sweat that had collected on his forehead with a handkerchief. Is this guy serious? Paolin thought scathingly.

          "Well, what is it?" He asked, taking a few steps forward. The man thrust out an envelope and Paolin snatched it up. Inside was a small sheet of parchment. "'You are to begin the recruitment process immediately,'" he read aloud.

          "What recruitment process?" The guard wondered. Paolin ignored him and read on silently.

          By the end of the week I expect you to have gathered all of the performers for the upcoming Exposition. Have them ready to begin the rehearsals.

          Paolin turned cold all over. During the course of the busy morning, his new task had completely slipped his mind.

          "Thank you," he choked to the guard. Without another word, he turned and stalked back into the barn, pulse racing. His animals stared at him with mild concern. How was he to conspire against his own kind and keep his conscience clean? How could he reinstate the very thing that eventually killed his friend, the Prince of Karvoth? The King had to be stopped. His enslavement of the Touched needed to end.

If only he had help. If only ...

Paolin paused; he nearly stopped breathing. An idea was starting to form in his mind, growing stronger by the second. It was foolish -- suicidal, even -- but what did he have to lose? He knew exactly who would do anything to seek revenge on the King, who had more power than anyone he knew.

          Before he could lose his nerve, Paolin saddled up Tulip and rode full-speed towards the gondola docks. There was work to be done.

Shadow Witch (Skyelorn Chronicles #1)Where stories live. Discover now