A short story that prequels my novel, Fidelyon, recounting the beginning of a friendship between two secondary characters. It happens three years before the novel when Jagger was 15 and Seamus was 9. Jagger has moved to the palace with his uncle, Lasher, only a week after his family was massacred during a Volandum raid.
Shadows of the Palace
Jagger stumbled into the servant passage with a gasping breath. His hands trembled, fumbling with the disc that hung about his neck. It slipped between his fingers twice before he clenched it so tightly the rigid metal dug into his skin. Black. The color of charred wood, of moonless nights where wolves waited in ambush, of ashes skittering along the ground beneath an overcast sky.
He shoved it beneath his tunic. The rough laugher of the stable hands still echoed in his ears. Coward’s son, is it? We’ve not had one of you before. Care to fight, coward’s son?
Jagger rubbed his hand above his upper lip, then stared at the smear of blood against his pale skin. Shivering, he shoved himself away from the wall and stumbled blindly down the dim passage. One week and already he knew more of the palace’s secrets than those who’d lived there for years. What did any of the others know? A ragged exhale shuddered his body. They’d never faced the wolves. The Volandum raiders. They’d not seen anyone die. How could they know what it was like, watching a spear ram through the chest of one’s mother? Holding a sister as her life seeped away with the blood that stained his hands. Searching through the ruins for a brother only to find the small figure curled away, torn, bloodied, and so cold and still.
He’d fight them all, whatever they said. He’d saved the others, his father had. His death provided enough warning some villagers still lived. Jagger caught a corner, his fingers digging in the stone. He hurled himself around it and almost ran over a page crouched in the shadows. Jagger staggered, catching the wall for balance. The lad shoved himself to his feet and pressed back against the wall, his eyes wide beneath a shock of red hair. So young. So like— Jagger stifled a cry and spun away.
If only the others had listened. His father might be alive. He’d warned them the wolves would ambush from behind the village. He’d proved his words with his life. He’d saved them and they— Jagger slammed against something soft and yielding.
“Jagger!” Fingers gripped his shoulders and ice blue eyes peered at him beneath a belled cap. Lasher’s brow narrowed and he brushed at the mud clinging to Jagger’s tunic. “What have you—”
“Don’t.” Jagger gasped the word. He tore away. “I can’t. I…” He turned and fled. The corridors wound about like the scattered bones of an ancient monster. Jagger’s shoulder crashed against an unobtrusive door. He didn’t slow as he stumbled down a flight of steps. Something caught at his boot and he fell the last few paces. Rough pavement ground against his knuckles. He rolled to his knees and staggered back to his feet. Flickering light barely lit the shadows of a round central chamber. Passages gaped from all sides. He chose one at random and plunged down it. The shadows clung to him, enveloping him, slowing his steps. Damp drops of water gritted against his fingertips as he traced one hand against the wall.
The stone fell away into a shallow alcove. Jagger swayed, then crumpled against the bare ground. Clasping his knees to his chest, he dragged himself into the narrow gap. His fingers whitened around his forearms and he squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his forehead against his knees. Each thud of his heart roared between his ears. His breaths were distant, belonging to someone else. The dull aches and bruises. The invisible strands of ice that constricted tighter and tighter until he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even feel. The dry burning behind his eyes. He should have died instead of them. For them. With them. Anything. He muffled a groan and pressed the back of his fist against his lips. It was so cold. It was…
Something flickered down the corridor. A… lamp? He blinked, staring vacantly as the golden light bobbed up the passage. They didn’t understand, any of them. How could they? The light stopped. Blue eyes stared at him over the flickering taper, then the slight figure crouched down and set the lamp just inside the alcove. The lad straightened and studied him. Jagger stared dully back. Did even the little ones wonder what a coward’s son looked like?
“Are you hungry?” The voice was swallowed in the shadows that stretched on either side of them. “Are you hurt?”
The words reverberated without meaning. Jagger’s mouth opened then shut without a sound. His brow furrowed vaguely. “I…”
The page shifted from one foot to the other, then seemed to come to some decision. “Don’t go anywhere.” He touched Jagger lightly on the shoulder, then sprang away, soft as a ghost of a memory.
But the lamp was still there. Jagger let his head fall back against the stone wall as he stared at the flickering light. So small, yet it seemed to expand as he watched it, growing brighter, growing stronger, until it would swallow up all. He’d wake up, soon. There’d be wooden walls around him. Shrill voices bickering over the best seat at the table. Raised eyebrows because he was still abed. Just so soon as he woke up…
Silence echoed on all sides. Shadows edged his vision, creeping around the fringes of light, working their way inward. Jagger’s breath quickened, but he couldn’t move. Couldn’t think or speak or—
Pattering footsteps snapped him back to the corridor. The lamp flickered. The gloom pressed down with freezing intensity. The thin figure wavered in the light like a wraith, then consolidated into a firm figure.
The lad stepped over the lamp and sank to the ground on the other side of the narrow alcove. “He said your name was Jagger. The jester did.”
He was back. Why was he back?
The blue eyes were steady. Clear. “My name is Seamus.”
The lad frowned slightly, then pulled something from his pocket. He leaned forward. “I brought you something.” He laid a half-circle pastry on Jagger’s knees. It was warm still, and the faint scent of apple oozed from one broken corner.
Jagger’s breath choked and his gaze shifted from the pastry to Seamus. “It’s… you…”
The page slid across, wedging himself between Jagger and the wall. “Don’t you like it?”
An ache tightened around Jagger’s chest, threatening to shatter the shield of ice. “I…”
The eyes fastened on his. “Are… you fine?”
The ache splintered into a hundred painful shards. A gasping sob rose in Jagger’s throat. A thin hand crept around his neck. “It’s okay,” the young voice whispered. “You’re here now.”
Heat pricked Jagger’s eyes. “But they aren’t.” The hoarse words tore itself from his throat.
The page stilled, then his frail body trembled. His arm tightened and he pillowed his head on Jagger’s shoulder. He didn’t speak. He didn’t need to. Jagger bowed his head, fighting against the burning in his throat and behind his eyes. Breathe. Just breathe. Just—
“You can cry,” Seamus’s voice was low. Each word dissolved fragmented ice. “It helps, sometimes.”
Jagger’s breath choked, but it was too late. The ice melted in a burning rush of heat, spreading from the page’s arm. His breath came in ragged sobs. Seamus pressed closer, his other arm wrapping around in a lopsided hug. Burying his face in his hands, Jagger finally wept.