Arric knew from the moment he saw his stepfather’s face that he was in serious, if not terminal, trouble. He didn’t wait to find out the details but dropped the armful of logs and set off at a dead run down the track. His stepfather raced after him waving his axe and bellowing. At one point a knife whistled past Arric’s ear and he gave a startled glance over his shoulder. Bork Grayling was a choleric man who hated a lot of things and people but there were three types of individuals that fuelled his rage to incandescence, tax collectors, magic users and people he disparagingly referred to as ‘bum chums’. Arric wasn’t a tax collector. He wondered as he increased his speed which of the other ones his stepfather had discovered he was. Bork gave up the chase eventually but Arric didn’t slow down until he’d put a good mile between himself and home. It hadn’t been as bad when his Mother was still alive but relations between him and Bork had deteriorated steadily since her death two years ago. It had only been a matter of time before there was a parting of the ways.
He waited until dark then returned to the house and retrieved his belongings. His room was on the ground floor, a lean to off the kitchen that was cold in winter and stifling in summer but it made his task easier. He didn’t yet know a lot about using magic but he’d taught himself a few things and he had no trouble releasing the window catch from outside. He climbed in and retrieved the little carved wooden box that had been his Father’s and his purse containing a few copper coins from their hiding place. It didn’t take long to gather the rest of his meagre belongings. His wash things, comb and razor, his towel and his spare shirt and socks wrapped in the thin blanket off his bed made a small enough bundle that he could easily carry them. He eased the door open. He could hear his stepfather’s snores from upstairs as he crept across the kitchen and retrieved his cloak from the peg by the back door. He returned to his room and less than ten minutes after entering climbed out again and set off into the night.
On reflection it was probably the magic using that Bork had discovered. While Bork was in a small minority in hating magic users an awful lot of people took a dim view of men who liked other men. Arric had been even more careful about concealing his preference for his own sex in matters of the heart. In any case it was purely theoretical since he’d never had a boyfriend or even a kiss. From a practical point it made no difference which it was. He was now homeless. He pulled his cloak round him to keep the worst of the rain off and set off along the track to seek his fortune or at least a roof over his head and steady employment. When he got to the lane at the end of the track he tossed a mental coin which came up with left. At the cross roads his mental dice roll sent him southwards.
Beattie Talbert opened the back door of the Drum and Monkey on a sleeting, cold February afternoon to find a drowned rat on the step. A very polite drowned rat who asked hesitantly if there was any work, any work at all, he could do in return for a bit of food. Taking in the dark shadows under the eyes and the pinched face Beattie had nodded. Arric had nearly collapsed with relief. His little store of coppers had long gone and work was non-existent at this time of year. He was cold, wet and hungry, very hungry, since he hadn’t eaten anything for two days. The Inn had a small function room. It didn’t really need cleaning since she couldn’t remember the last time it had been used but the lad could give it a dust round in return for a hot meal. Beattie led the way into the kitchen telling him to leave his sodden cloak and boots by the door. He wasn’t much dryer underneath and she ladled out a mug of broth and sat him by the fire to warm up and dry himself off a bit before starting work.
She showed him the cupboard with the cleaning materials and opened the door of the room telling him to give it a bit of a clean up and to come and find her when he was finished to get his meal. Arric who had thought the mug of broth and crust of bread was his meal brightened up and thanked her all over again when he heard this. Beattie left him to it and went back to the empty tap room. She sat polishing glasses to while away the time. The Drum and Monkey was on a back road and didn’t get much passing trade. Her regulars from the village would all be in after work and would be gone within an hour or two. It was only after the rush when the tap room was empty again that she realised four hours had gone by and Arric hadn’t appeared to tell her he was finished. When she opened the function room door her eyes widened in surprise. The floor and windows had been washed, the grate had been leaded, the tables and the mantelpiece had been polished until they were shining. She didn’t see him at first but that was because he was on his hands and knees cleaning the brass fender. Beattie was impressed.
Arric glanced up “I’m almost done mistress. I’ve just the lamps to polish.”
“You can do them in the morning. Come and have your supper.”
That had been four years ago and Arric had never left. The next day not only had he finished the function room but there had been wood to chop and a barrel to bring in. One job led to another and after a few days of this Beattie decided it was good to have someone to do the heavy work around the place. She’d been a widow for fifteen years and at sixty six thought she’d earned a bit of respite from breaking her back. The Inn was profitable enough without her late husband drinking most of the profits so she’d offered him a position.
He’d accepted immediately thinking he’d found as much fortune as he could want at the Drum and Monkey working for the kind hearted landlady. He had his own little room under the eaves and a day off a week. A few minutes walk in one direction was the large village of Pudleston. The Inn was situated on the junction where a smaller road branched off and wound northwards through woods and fields passing farmsteads and hamlets until it eventually joined the high road down which Arric had come from his home on the outskirts of the forest of Borland. Five miles in the opposite direction lay the large market town of Whitecastle that took it’s name from the marble palace that stood on the hill above it.
The grandfather of the present king, Wellian the First, had been an enlightened ruler who believed in education. He had endowed a school and also a public library in the town. King Merrick the Second had shared his grandfather’s enlightened views. When he’d ascended the throne Alcheron seemed set to continue on it’s happy and prosperous course but the King had died young. His son, Prince Blaise, was barely eleven and Queen Karmella seized the Crown. Taxes became heavier and heavier, the roads were full of potholes and people who complained too loudly tended to disappear. Things things like the library were neglected. It continued to function though the building was in need of repair.
The books were old and worn but if you looked you could find information on every subject including the practice of magic. Arric spent every Tuesday in the library. On his small wage he couldn’t afford the fee to be able to take books out but he could sit and read all day. He invested in a notebook and pen and recorded the fundamental principles of using magic and anything else he found particularly helpful. He didn’t only study books on magic but read histories, geographies and anything else that caught his interest. He’d decided to educate himself against the day when he might set himself up as an Innkeeper in his own right.