Eilhu looked at his hands raw and blistered, whorls of red and white, burned and abraded by the work he undertook. The muscles from heel to the nape of his neck ached with every movement. His scalp sweated and itched beneath his hat and his eyes stung from the heat and smoke of a kitchen which never ceased activity.
Eight years after begging at the castle gates, Eilhu subsisted on a diet of ashes, labour and smoke in the bowels of the kitchen. He remembered to show gratitude without being prompted. The regiment had burned away his softness, but if anyone made eye contact with the silent, stoic boy, they felt struck by a poignant sense of loss.
‘Come here, boy.’ Gordon said.
Twenty years of service armoured Gordon in pride and authority, despite his soiled clothes and dark spade of beard which hung from his chin like a tentacle, braided and thrown over his left shoulder. He clicked his fingers and Eilhu scurried forwards.
‘Grab a shovel for the ashes, boy, we’re up to our knees in it again.’ he said.
Eilhu grabbed a shovel and went to the stove, scooping up the white and black hillocks of ash and depositing them into an open burlap sack with practiced ease. A servant tittered as they ran past him with a platter of roasted apples, topped with melted slabs of yellow cheese.
He ignored it but the sound slipped beneath the calluses and stung where it landed.
The metallic ring of the platter falling to the ground raised a round of braying cheers from the kitchen staff, but Gordon snatched his hat off his head and uttered a chain of expletives fit to turn the air blue.
Eilhu carried on with his work.
‘Boy.’ he said.
Eilhu turned and straightened his back, ready for instruction or correction.
‘Grab a platter, you’re serving.’ he said.
Eilhu looked at his scarred, ash-streaked hands and laughed.
‘I’m covered in ashes.’ he said
Gordon sneered and threw a cloth from his belt.
‘Clear yourself up and get serving, you dolt.’ he said.
Eilhu wiped himself down with the cloth, smearing away the worst of the dirt and sweat. He straightened his hat on his head and ran to take a platter of stuffed vine leaves. It was his first visit outside the kitchen and the bed he slept in, but his thoughts were on making sure he did not drop the platter before he left the kitchen.
The doors rose to the ceiling, opened with a creak onto the great hall. The banquet table ran the entire length of the hall, nobles and courtiers feasting on a constant stream of proffered dishes. Eilhu stood, paralysed by spectacle before a voice boomed towards him.
‘Bring those leaves here.’ he said.
King Frederick’s eyes narrowed as Eilhu drew close but he snatched vine leaves from the platter without looking at him and chewed on one. Eilhu continued to serve until the tray was clear and he went back to his work, shovelling and cleaning, heating and fetching water. He curled up on the lumpen mattress of straw and slept without incident.
He opened his eyes to find Gordon stood over him, hands on hips and his mouth slashed into a thin, tight line.
‘Guess where I’ve just been?’ he said.
Eilhu blinked and adjusted his hat.
Gordon sighed and tugged at the hat on Eilhu’s head. Eilhu sat up and curled away from him.
‘What?’ Eilhu said.
Gordon shook his head.
‘Wearing a cap before the king where’s your manners?’ he said.
Eilhu’s stomach soured and his eyes squeezed hot tears down his cheeks.
‘I have a sore on my head. I wear the hat to keep it clean.’ he said.
A small lie. Eilhu had hair of burnished gold, too distinctive to go without notice so he kept it shoved up under a hat, sewn and patched to grow with him through the years.
‘You don’t before His Highness, you idiot boy.’ he said.
Eilhu babbled apologies but Gordon folded his arms across his chest and shook his head.
‘I’m to dismiss you. Good as you are, King Frederick puts stock in manners. You would do well to remember such a thing.’ he said.
Eilhu shuddered and folded his arms, tucked his chin down to hide his distress. He would not cry in front of Gordon.
‘I agreed with him, but you graft without complaint, you’ve not stabbed anyone nor spat in a bowl of stew, which sits well with me.’ he said.
Eilhu raised his chin. Gordon was smiling at him.
‘So, yes I will dismiss you from the kitchen but there’s another position come up and I’ve had a word in the right ear.’ he said.
Gordon’s voice had grown lighter, as close to kindness as his manner allowed and he reached out a hand to the young man.
He told him to get his things. Gordon walked him from the dormitory and through the kitchen. No one met his gaze and his shame hung on his bones like rotten meat. He stood with Eilhu at a closed wooden door.
‘Follow the corridor around then go through the gate. You work dawn to dusk, and no answering back, Ben has less taste for it than I do.’
He clapped Eilhu on the shoulder and squeezed before he pushed him ahead.
‘Now don’t mess this one up.’ Gordon said.
Eilhu opened the door and walked through, followed the corridor around. He glimpsed over his shoulder to see Gordon stood in the doorway, watching him with interest and a small, quiet pride.
The sunlight hurt his eyes, but he kept his head up as he walked through the high metal gate. Curled ferns waved in the breeze, and the soil was rich with the loving bounty of strong, hardy plants and flowers. He shut the gate behind him, beguiled by the melodic refrains of a songbird high above him. A trowel and a fork rested on top of rough leather gauntlets. He put on the gloves and picked up the instruments.
Eilhu kneeled in the dirt and dug with his tools.
He did not see the woman who watched him, from her chambers with interest.
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