Excerpt: The Stable Boy
He woke up to the smell of grass and mud, sunshine, and a deep, twisting, writhing ache coursing through his body.
He passed out again.
When he woke the second time, the sunshine had been replaced by moonlight and something was sniffing him. He groaned and dug his fingers into the damp grass, managed to lift his head up, and found himself staring into the eyes of an enormous dog—a hunting dog, of good size and, he would hazard, sharp intelligence.
The dog chuffed at him and despite the pain, the confusion, the sense of panic clawing deep in the recesses of his mind, he dredged up a smile. “Run along,” he croaked, then swallowed to try and get some fluid moving. “Back to your master.”
In reply, the dog just howled.
He cringed away from the sound, tried to burrow into the ground, tears stinging his eyes as the movement set the throbbing ache to burning.
The minute he had the thought, everything came flooding back to him. He was Prince Philip Degaré Hollis. Everyone called him Prince Diggory. He had been on his way to marry Prince Adalwin von Brant … and his bodyguard had betrayed him, tried to murder him. Benoit—Diggory would see him hanged at the very least. Him and all three of his nasty little band: Elci, Ignance, Poris. Yes, they would all die, and as painfully as they had tried to kill him.
With that thought, he passed out a third time.
The next time he woke, the smell of soup made his stomach growl. He opened his eyes and stared up at a ceiling of open beams and the thatched roof above. Turning his head, he took in the table and chest that seemed to be the only other pieces of furniture.
Diggory slowly sat up, pushing back the heavy quilt that had covered him. Sharp pain stabbed at his left side and he curled his fingers around it. Benoit had tried to stab him, but only wound up slicing him. Unfortunately, the knife had been set with magic, a nasty-feeling curse he hadn’t been able to figure out before he’d been shoved into the river, left to die of whichever killed him first: wounds or water.
Where was he?
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed and attempted to stand up, relieved when he swayed slightly but managed to stay upright. Shoving loose strands of dark brown hair from his face, he looked further around the little house and saw the fireplace where a pot of soup cooked and a rocking chair set before it. There was a single door and a small window with no glass, only a large, heavy-looking length of cloth to cover it at night and in cold weather.
The floor was dirt, covered with straw, dried flowers and herbs, scratchy against his bare feet—and he noticed only then his clothes were not his own, but breeches and a shirt much too big for him.
Well, standing had worked well enough; time to try walking. Diggory took a step away from the bed and other than feeling mildly dizzy, he seemed well enough. Focusing on the door, he headed slowly for it, feeling a small thrill of triumph when he reached it without trouble. The door creaked as he pulled it open, the rope handle rough against his hands. Outside, sunshine bit at his eyes and the smell of wildflowers was surprisingly strong—because the cabin seemed set in a field inundated in them: Witch roses, his nurse had called the wild purple blooms. He’d never understood why when they looked nothing like roses, but she’d only ever laughed in reply.
He still didn’t know why they were called thus.
Setting the stray thought aside, Diggory looked around for whoever lived in the cabin, but could spy no sign of a person. Drawing a breath, he let it out slowly on a sigh and began to walk down the worn dirt path leading away from the cabin door.
It meandered across the field and into a small patch of forest. Sunlight painted spots of gold randomly across ground that was otherwise so dark it was nearly black. As he left the trees he could hear the rush of the river and realized how his savior must have come across him.
He heard the dog first, and then the enormous brown and white dog he vaguely remembered from before came lumbering up over the crest of a hill and down toward him. “Hello, there,” Diggory greeted with a smile, laughing when the dog jumped up on him and sent him stumbling back a couple of paces. He ran his fingers through the dog’s fur, scratched his ears. “Thank you for finding me, Master Dog.”
The dog barked, leaned up just enough to lick his cheek, then dropped down and ran off, pausing only to give another bark over his shoulder. “I’m coming, I’m coming,” Diggory said with another laugh and slowly followed. The hill left him panting and breathless at the top—pathetic, really, when he knew how much time he spent walking and riding back home through mountains far more difficult.
At the bottom of the hill was the river. A man with gray hair and a short beard stood on the bank fishing. He turned when the dog barked, then stood with his mouth open a moment, clearly surprised to see Diggory. He lifted a hand in greeting, but was silent until Diggory and the dog reached him. “You’re up and about sooner than I thought you would be,” he said, setting aside his fishing pole. “How do you feel?”
“Weak, a little dizzy, but I think I’m lucky to be that healthy,” Diggory said, gingerly touching fingers to his side.
“Aye, that you are,” the man said. “You’re lucky Winnie here found you when he did and that the river dumped you here of all places. My wife was a witch and managed to teach me a few things. I don’t have her touch, but I was able to patch you up well enough. I’d be careful, though. That curse on you is dormant, but not gone. It could wake up any time and finish whatever it started. Don’t know what put it to sleep, so like I said—you be careful.”
Diggory nodded. “I will and thank you. I’ll do what I can to repay your kindness, sir. I do not suppose you could tell me where I am? My name is Diggory.”
The man snorted softly. “Yes, I just bet it is with an accent like that. You’re just a mile west of the royal palace.” He pointed a finger across the river to a path that vanished back into the woods. “Head that way on for a bit you’ll come to a hill that’ll let you see it. Whole place is in quite a fit while they prepare for Prince Adalwin’s wedding.”
So Benoit had succeeded in taking his place, exactly as he’d bragged. Bastard. Diggory’s hands curled into fists, but he forced himself to relax. “I see.”
“Yeah, I thought you might,” the man replied, eying him pensively. “My name is Frederick, but Freddie will do.”
Diggory stared back. “You know who I am.”
“Only supposition, but you kept saying your father’s name and Prince Adalwin’s while you slept. Been asleep nearly two whole days, and I thought you’d sleep at least two more. Anyway, there ain’t many folk that would be muttering both those names with a sense of urgency. Did seem strange, though, when I went into town and they were all buzzing about with news of your arrival at the palace. Would explain your curse.”
“It should have killed me. I don’t know why it didn’t.”
Freddie smiled faintly, stroking his beard. “Well, as my wife always said, gods rest her soul, curses are tricky things. Malicious intent warps all magic, and magic that is nothing but pure malice tends to bite the caster as much as the target. May explain why it’s gone dormant, but I hesitate to say too much ’cause I’m no witch and wouldn’t want to lead you astray.”
“But if you had to guess …?”
“Well …” Freddie considered him, backs of his fingers stroking his chin. “If I recall what my wife told me, when a curse meant to kill doesn’t work, it instead … how best to say? … well, it sort of ‘kills’ that which was the greatest threat to begin with. Like, you clearly should be dead so no one knows you’re the real Prince Phillip. So chances are, you won’t be able to tell anyone you’re the real prince. But there’s never any knowing for sure because each curse warps a bit different. Don’t go taking my word for it. I’d go find a witch. Think there’s one about a week south of here. Sadly, since my wife passed on, we haven’t had another come this way.”
Diggory dismissed the idea, wise though it was. He could not afford to be gone at least two weeks. The wedding was less than a month away. “Thank you for all—” he broke off at the sound of a horse racing through the trees and watched as someone broke free of the forest on the far side of the river and rode with familiar ease over the rickety bridge a few paces down.
“Good afternoon, Master Freddie! How fare you today? Oh, I see you have company. I do beg your pardon.” The man, a noble to judge by his finery, approached them and smoothly dismounted. His horse was a handsome bay, the color of good brandy, with a black mane and it had to be about seventeen hands. It bent its head to greet Winnie, whose tail wagged fiercely at seeing the horse.
Shifting his attention to the man, Diggory found it hard not to stare. He was leaner than Diggory and taller, with tanned skin and bright gold hair that indicated a great deal of time spent outdoors. He had bright green eyes and a pale, tempting mouth that curved into a friendly smile. “Who is your friend, Freddie?”
“His name is Diggory. He grew up where my wife did, came to see an old man and keep me company for a bit. Diggory, I make you known to his royal highness, Prince Adalwin von Brant.”
Diggory barely managed to school his reaction. The description he’d been given of his fiancé did not do him justice; it seemed woefully dry all of a sudden: tall, slender, blond hair, green eyes, pleasant demeanor. He supposed the Master Secretary of the Royal Offices could not have put ‘extremely desirable’ on the official papers.