The Wretched of Muirwood (Legends of Muirwood #1) by Jeff Wheeler

CHAPTER ONE:

Cemetery Rings

Lia lived in the Aldermaston’s kitchen at Muirwood Abbey. More than anything else in the world, she craved knowing how to read. But she had no family to afford such a privilege, no one willing to teach her the secrets, and no hope of it ever happening because she was a wretched. Nine years before, someone had abandoned her at the abbey gate and that should have put an end to her ambitions. Only it did not. One can not live in a sweet-scented kitchen without hungering after pumpkin loaves, spicy apple soup, and tarts with glaze. And one could not live at Muirwood Abbey without longing to learn the wisest of crafts – reading and engraving.

Thunder boomed above Muirwood Abbey and water drenched the already muddy grounds. Lia's companion, Sowe, slept next to her in the loft, but the thunder and the sharp stabs of lightning did not wake her, nor the voices murmuring from the kitchen below as the Aldermaston spoke to Pasqua. It was difficult waking Sowe under any circumstances, for she dearly loved her sleep. Running drips dampened their blankets and plopped in pots on the kitchen tiles below. Rain had its own way of bringing out smells – in wet clothes, wet cheeses, and wet sackcloth. Even the wooden planks and the eaves had a damp, musty smell.

The Aldermaston’s gray cassock and over-robe were soaked and dripping, his thick, dark eyebrows knotted with worry and impatience. Lia watched him secretly from the shadows of the loft.

“Let me pour you some cider,” Pasqua said to him as she fidgeted amongst the pots, sieves, and ladles. “A fresh batch was pressed and boiled less than a fortnight ago. It will refresh you. Now where did that chatteling put the mugs? Here we are. Well now, it seems someone has drunk from it again. I mark these things, you know. It was probably Lia. She is always snitching.”

“Your gift of observation is keen,” said the Aldermaston, who seemed hurried to speak. “I am not at all thirsty. If you…”

“It is no trouble at all. In truth, it is good for your humors. Now why did they stack those eggs that way? I ought to crack one over the both of their heads, I should. But that would be wasteful.”

“Please, Pasqua, some bread. If you could rouse the girls and start the bread now. Stoke the fires. You may be baking all night.”

“Are we expecting guests, Aldermaston? In this storm? I doubt if a skilled horseman could ford the moors now, even with the bridges. I have seen many storms blow in like this. Hang and cure me if any guests should brave the storm tonight.”

“Not guests, Pasqua. The rivers may flood. I will rouse the other help, maybe even the learners. If it floods…”

“You think it might flood?”

“I believe that is what I just said.”

“It rained four days and four nights nigh on twelve years ago. The Abbey did not flood then.”

“I believe it may tonight, Pasqua. We are on higher ground. They will look to us for help.”

Lia poked Sowe to rouse her, but she mumbled something and turned the other way, swatting at her own ear. She was completely asleep still.

The Aldermaston’s voice was roughshod, as if he were always trying to keep himself from coughing and it throbbed with impatience. “If it floods, there will be danger for the village. Not only our crops chance being ruined. Bread. Make five hundred loaves. We should be prepared…”

“Five hundred loaves?”

“That is what I instructed. I am grateful you heard me correctly.”

“From our stores? But…what a dreadful waste if it does not flood.”

“In this matter, I am not seeking advice. I am impressed that we should prepare for flooding this evening. It is heavy on me now. As heavy as the cauldron in the nook. I keep waiting for it. For the footsteps. For the alarm. Something will happen this night. I dread news of it.”

“Have some cider then,” Pasqua said, her voice trembling with worry. “It will calm your nerves. Do you really think it will flood tonight?”

Straightening his crooked back, the Aldermaston roared, “Do you not understand me? Loaves! Five hundred at least. Must I rouse your help myself? Must I knead the dough with my own hands? Bake, Pasqua! I did not come here to trifle with you or convince you.”

Lia thought his voice more frightening than the thunder – the feeling of it, the heat of his anger. It made her sink deep inside herself. Her heart pained for Pasqua. She knew how it felt to be yelled at like that.

Sowe sat up immediately, clutching her blanket to her mouth. Her eyes were wild with fear.

Another blast of thunder sounded, its force shaking the walls.