Excerpt: Playing with Shadows

Eight months left. Corin turned to lie on his stomach, burying his face in the straw pillow. It smelled stale, exactly like it had when he’d first arrived at the monastery. The pallet he was trying to sleep on was thinner, letting the cold of the stone beneath it leach up through the thin layer of blanket and straw.

It wasn’t supposed to be pleasant, Corin reminded himself. The year’s service was supposed to teach humility and respect for the priests, not be a pleasant vacation from home. The only things it had taught Corin so far were that he hated being cold and hated being hungry and he hated all of the priests.

Well, most of the priests. He couldn’t bring himself to hate Rafferty, even if Rafferty was the one who’d dragged him to the monastery. He’d hated Rafferty to begin with—and easily. Corin’s village was usually skipped when the priests made their yearly rounds to check to make sure the villages surrounding the monastery were sending in their young men and women.

It didn’t matter that Corin’s father was dead three years, leaving his mother and four sisters dependent on him working to survive. He didn’t know how they were doing without him, and it made him angry all over again to think of it. He should have been there, not here. He should have been working for them, not for a bunch of stupid priests who thought they were god’s gift to the world.

Flipping again, Corin laid flat on his back, staring up into the dark of the tiny room. He could hear the two men he shared with; Alan was breathing even and steady, fast asleep, and Mavir was snorting quietly in his sleep. If he were home and unable to sleep, Corin would go for a walk until his mind shut off. Unfortunately, it was forbidden to walk the monastery after dark, so he was stuck here, listening to Alan and Mavir sleep and listening to his own thoughts until they drove him mad.

Scowling, Corin tugged the thin blanket up over his shoulder, hoping to regain some of the warmth he’d lost in his tossing and turning. It was an exercise in futility; there was no getting warm, not unless he tried crawling in with Mavir or Alan, and he doubted they’d be happy with that. They never seemed cold, despite having the same thin pallet and blankets that Corin did.

It didn’t matter, Corin told himself, finally giving up. Sitting up, he pulled the blanket around his shoulders and shuffled back to lean against the wall behind him. The room was oppressively dark with absolutely no light to see by. They weren’t allowed candles on the grounds it would encourage them to be up during the night. Add to that the lack of windows in their room—it was tucked inside the monastery, far from any exterior walls—and Corin couldn’t see anything at all.

A shiver crept down his spine, and Corin shifted uneasily. It was only the cold, Corin told himself, pulling the blanket tighter around his shoulders. The room seemed warmer, but that was only because he was no longer lying on the stone. Despite those assurances, Corin sat as still as he could until the feeling passed, slipping away as quickly as it came and leaving him feeling colder than ever.

He really needed to start sleeping more, Corin decided, but he made no move to lie back down. Staring into the darkness, Corin debated breaking the rules and leaving. He wasn’t sure he could make it to the door without tripping, though; the stones were uneven and hard to navigate in the daytime, let alone when he couldn’t see a damn thing. There would be no leaving if he woke Alan or Mavir.

Corin didn’t really want to venture into the monastery in any case. It was a spooky place when he was allowed to walk about; he couldn’t imagine it would be any better in the dark of night. He was better off staying there, pretending to sleep and thinking too much. He wanted to go home. He missed his family, everything from his mother’s scolding when he did something she considered stupid to Elisa’s fretting about what ribbon to put in her hair to attract the attention of the baker’s boy.

Shifting against the wall, Corin tried to distract himself. His thoughts immediately slipped to Rafferty. He didn’t often see Rafferty since he was one of the priests who was sent out often on one errand or another. He saw him enough to know that the other priests didn’t seem to like Rafferty much, though Corin hadn’t figured out why. Rafferty did everything the rest of the priests did, didn’t seem to slack in his duties.

He was nicer to them and maybe that was why the other priests didn’t care for him? He never seemed mean or to take joy in ordering Corin or the other servants to do some arduous task that didn’t really need doing. Honestly, who needed to scrub all of the walls on a weekly basis? Stone walls, at that. Rafferty only ever asked them to do normal things, like scrubbing floors that were actually dirty.

If Corin were being honest, it wasn’t any of that which had changed his mind on Rafferty. It had been the day he’d been up on the roof. One of the other priests had ordered Corin to the roof to sweep away stray leaves and dirt for some sort of ceremony they were doing. Corin had had the roof half done, going nice and slow to enjoy the sunlight for the first time since he’d been dragged to the monastery when he’d seen Rafferty.

Rafferty had been standing at the top of one of the towers, his priesthood cloak discarded. He was wearing a white shirt that billowed gently in the wind, and he’d been staring out across the kingdom, a melancholy look on his face. He’d looked so sad and lonely up there, all alone, and Corin had made the mistake of letting it get to him. Rafferty hadn’t seen him, and Corin had hastily gotten back to work. When he’d finished, Rafferty was gone, but Corin hadn’t been able to look at him the same way since.

He should hate Rafferty, he really should, but Corin didn’t. He looked as lonely and alone as Corin felt, trapped in the monastery with no way to leave. Corin would be arrested if he left before the year was up, and then he’d never see his family again. Rafferty … Corin didn’t know much about the priesthood, but he expected it wasn’t easy to walk away from. At least Corin would get to leave after a year; Rafferty would be stuck there forever.

Yawning, Corin shifted, sliding down the wall without relinquishing his hold on the blanket. He let his head touch the pillow and then shut his eyes again, hoping to fall asleep before he worked his head into further circles.

Eight months left. He could do this.

****

Corin groaned, but obediently pushed himself upright as light flooded through his tiny room. Alan was out the door before Corin could do more than blink and yawn, and Mavir followed slowly, not giving Corin a second glance. Corin ignored them in kind, dragging himself off the pallet and to his feet. It felt like he hadn’t slept a wink, but Corin made himself move anyway. He’d feel more awake after breakfast. Hopefully.

The dining hall was packed with servants. Breakfast was cold leftovers from the previous night since no one was allowed to be up before the sun. Thankfully, there was plenty of hot tea since that didn’t take much to make. It was cheap tea, weak and watery, but better than nothing. Corin helped himself to a cup of tea and a hunk of stale bread, and then found himself a seat, waiting for the priest in charge of them to come with the day’s assignments.

Hopefully, it would be something easy, Corin thought, slumping in his chair tiredly. He doubted he’d be that lucky, however. He never was. Corin had finished his breakfast and was drinking his second cup of tea when two priests entered the room. The low chatter from the rest of the servants immediately died down, and Corin tried not to stare. Neither of the two priests were the man who usually directed them. Corin immediately recognized Rafferty, but he didn’t know the name of the other priest, only that he was one of the higher-ranking priests who barely deigned to acknowledge Corin and his peers existed.

“If I call your name, please come with us,” Rafferty said, his voice carrying across the quiet room. He listed off five names, none of which Corin recognized. Corin watched, curious, as the five stood, setting aside cups and leaving the room behind Rafferty and the other priest. That was highly unusual, but Corin supposed they probably had some special project that those people were best to work on.

The dining hall filled with chatter again, and Corin ignored it, partly because he was tired and not feeling particularly friendly and partly because the main topic of conversation was a discussion on whether so-and-so had actually seen the shadows move and whether the stories the priests told about the demon shadows were at all true.

It was a load of crock in Corin’s opinion. It wasn’t a popular opinion, as he’d found out his second day there when he’d made the mistake of laughing at Karli, who was adamant she’d seen the shadows moving in odd ways one evening. A few others had come forward with stories about the shadows, but Corin hadn’t believed them any more than he’d believed Karli. It was stupid, the idea of shadows coming to life.

The priests hadn’t helped. Their weekly sermons tended to focus on nebulous demons ready to snatch the souls of any servant who was tempted to disobey the priests. They harped on fate and doing one’s duties and Corin was sick of it. Unfortunately, most of his peers were sucked in, and Corin’s continued derision had alienated them thoroughly.

It didn’t make any sense. If it were true that demons lurked in the shadows, wouldn’t everyone see them, not only Karli and a few others? Corin didn’t trust a word the priests said, either. They were more interested in keeping themselves happy and well-pampered and were more than willing to use the idea of “demons in the shadows” to keep the servants doing what they were told.

Corin finished his tea and resisted the urge to rest his head on the table in front of him. He might not be able to get up again if he did that. The priest who normally handed out duties arrived then, keeping Corin from giving in anyway.

He ended up assigned to kitchen duties, which wasn’t terrible. The cook kept a pot of tea on at all times for everyone simply because there was so much running around involved in kitchen work. Corin ended up on dish duty, which kept him in one place and didn’t take half as much energy as fetching would have. Corin wasn’t sure he could have spent the day running back and forth getting firewood and water.

Corin was still exhausted by the time they broke for dinner. His hands were long wrinkled, numb from both the cold water and the constant use. The priests ate an hour before the servants, and the servants ate after, before being immediately ushered off to their rooms for the evening. Corin sat down heavily in the dining hall, ignoring the way he was ignored. He started eating slowly, noting that the five who’d been selected that morning were back.

“No, nothing special,” the young man closest to Corin was saying to Karli. “We had to clean a library with them breathing down our necks. I swear, they made each of us clean off the desk since none of us could do it right or something.”

Corin rolled his eyes, not surprised by that. He stopped paying attention then, more inclined to eat than to listen to the stupid conversations around him. After dinner, the priests escorted them back to their rooms, and Corin wasted no time in stretching out on his bedding, falling asleep quickly despite the cold discomfort of the thin pallet.

He woke up thrashing at some point later, his heart racing and fear thrumming in his veins. A nightmare, Corin realized after a moment, his breathing loud and ragged in the quiet of the room. He hadn’t woken Alan or Mavir, judging by their breathing. Corin took a few deep breaths, trying to remember the dream, but to no avail. The room was too warm again, and Corin stilled, feeling completely unsettled as he stared towards the ceiling.

There was nothing in the room, Corin thought. It was a by-product of his nightmare. Alan and Mavir were the only company he had, sleeping quietly nearby. Forcing himself to move, Corin flipped, letting a gust of cool air under his blanket. Lying flat on his stomach, Corin buried his face in his stale-smelling pillow and tried to go back to sleep. The uneasiness slipped away after a few moments, and Corin fell back asleep, determinedly thinking about nothing at all.

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