THE ETERNAL TREES OF PRAND

By

Frances Evlin

Chapter 1- Excerpt

Chaff limped into the speckled mare's stall and darted a glance over his shoulder as he kneed shut the gate. Earlymorn light silhouetted no figure in the stable's open doorway, nor did the dark-timbered interior reveal any sign of human life. And so, setting down bucket and broom, Chaff pulled two withered carrots from the pocket of his breeches. "I've brought you a treat, Lusala," he whispered, his throat choking. A pitiful offering for a starving horse, but the best he'd been able to do.

The dootra lifted her head and whickered faintly. Although in the dimness, Chaff could not see the color of her eyes, he knew the green that had once been bright as spring foliage was lusterless now.

He took a step toward her, but froze at a flicker of lantern light and the sound of rapid footfalls coming toward him along the stable corridor.

"Chaff! You're in here, aren't you?" The hard-voiced shout stirred Lord Yoad's dozing purebloods to nervous snorts and restless hoof stamps.

Chaff slipped the carrots into the water pail.

Ghost-like in his pale gray uniform, a man strode into sight. Rix, damn him. No surprise that Lusala's ambitious guard had quit breakfast to check on her; he was ever eager to prove his competence. As he reached the gate, he lifted the lantern to light the stall. "What are you up to?"

Chaff gestured at the scrub broom and bucket of water. "What does it look like?" he snapped, but under Rix's hostile scrutiny, his bravado wavered. He clenched his hands to conceal their trembling, and cursed the sweat that suddenly dewed his forehead.

Stablemaster Parl, who had followed the guard, stepped forward. "I told you, he's my most conscientious boy."

"And I say your confidence is misplaced." Rix jerked open the gate and stepped into Lusala's stall. By Lord Yoad's orders, the hayrack was empty, the floor bare of bedding. Thus, the guard's attention came to rest on the bucket at the stableboy's feet. Apprehension seized Chaff, shortened his breath and weakened his limbs.

Thrusting the lantern at the stablemaster, Rix pushed up the sleeve of his uniform, and bent to plunge a hand into the water. When he straightened, carrots pinched between thumb and fingers, his dark eyes burned with satisfaction. "You see, Parl," he said, "you just can't trust a hedge-whelp." A sardonic grin touched his lips as he addressed Chaff. "I suggest you beg for strength from that Eternal One you Believers love so much. You'll soon need it."

As Rix tramped away, Chaff sagged against the wall and pressed his back against the wood, wishing he could transfer its solidity to his body. Well aware of Parl's frustrated gaze upon him, he drew a deep breath, seeking comfort in the familiar scents of meadow hay and well-groomed horses.

"Whatever possessed you to do such a thing?" the stablemaster burst out when the guard was well gone. "Did you really think your absence at table wouldn't be noticed when yours is the only blond head amongst the lot? And just what did you expect to accomplish with two carrots?"

Wanting to give answer to the man he viewed as a second-father, Chaff mumbled, "I had to do something."

"What you had to do was obey Milord's orders. It isn't your place to decide if he's right or wrong."

"How can you defend him?" Chaff flared. "How can you say nothing and watch Lusala die?"

"He won't let her die," Parl shot back.

The Holdings' bell began to toll, summoning the Hall servile staff to witness Chaff's punishment. His stomach churned. Only a ten-day ago, he'd watched a cobble sweeper receive seven strokes of the rod for insolence. What would his penalty be? More than seven, he thought.

As two guards approached with purposeful step, Parl sighed heavily, and looked into Chaff's eyes, his own filled with compassion. "You know I'd help you if I could."

"Yes," Chaff breathed. "I know."

Then Lord Yoad's men were upon him, one on either side, propelling him into the broad courtyard, its cobbles still wet with earlymorn dew. Above the horizon, ragged with silhouetted always-greens, the sky had turned rosy-yellow, as if anticipating the sun's arrival on this clear March day. The assembled staff members whispered to each other. The women smoothed their white smocks with twitchy fingers; the men tucked loose shirttails into their brown breeches.

Chaff's mouth went dry as his gaze swept past them to the flogger, a man of hard-sinewed arms and an impassive face. And skilled enough to deliver great suffering with the least amount of incapacitation, for Lord Yoad would expect Chaff to resume his duties on the morrow. The guards stripped off his shirt, pushed him against a lantern post and tied his hands to the crossbar above his head.

Flanked by Parl and Fieldguard Captain Slone, Lord Yoad stood before him. Chaff's heart clutched with dread. Seven year's training kept him from looking his lord in the eye, but Chaff sensed his master's anger. The nobleman raised one hand and called out, "For willful and deliberate disobedience of my orders, fifteen strokes."

Gasps arose from the serviles, and Chaff recoiled in mind and body. Fifteen! Lord Yoad had never ordered that many for anyone! Anguished, Chaff raised his gaze to his lord's, and saw only a chilling emptiness.