“Please, no!” Robbie Angusstamm screamed as his father’s heavy strap came whistling down on his bare back. He tried to yank his hands free, but his brother Boyden held his wrists tightly against the dining room table. Sulis curse it! Why do I have to be such a worthless weakling? He promised himself he wouldn’t scream again, but he screamed just as loudly the next time the strap hit.
“Sleeping by the river in the middle of the goddess-cursed afternoon! How many times must I beat you before you learn responsibility, boy?” His father brought the strap down even harder.
“I didn’t mean to!” But Robbie’s explanation turned into screams of pain as the strap landed again and again.
Robbie let out a humiliating whimper when his father finally stepped away and Boyden let go of his wrists. Clutching a chair for support, Robbie struggled to hold back his tears. By the goddess, don’t let them see me cry.
His father towered over him. “Learned your lesson, boy?” Angus Camlinstamm was the largest man in the Valley, even bigger than the village blacksmith. Although Angus had become a bit round about the middle, he was still strong as a team of plow horses. His blonde hair, flowing past his shoulders, was only just starting to show some gray. His broad face was red, both from anger and exertion. “Well? Have you?” he demanded when Robbie didn’t answer at once.
“Yes, sir,” Robbie said, ashamed of how pathetic he sounded.
“I’m not going to have to send your brother looking for you again, am I, boy?”
“All right, then. Stop lazing around like a fool and get your chores done.” Angus hung the strap on its peg by the door. “If you finish before dinner’s over, I may consider letting you join us.”
Like that will ever happen! Robbie clutched at his empty stomach, knowing he’d get nothing to eat before breakfast. Careful of the welts on his back, he pulled on his shirt, which was made from crude homespun. Although Angus could afford better, he didn’t believe in wasting coin on workday clothing. His father and brother had better quality clothes for holy days and other special occasions, but Robbie didn’t.
As he passed through the kitchen, one of the servants quickly drew the star of Sulis in the air to ward off his evil. He hated it when people did that, but how could he blame them? His reflection in the shiny pots that hung from the kitchen wall showed dark black hair–the color of night and demons. Green eyes, unlike those of the children of the goddess. Skin, darker than natural. He was also so short his brother called him a worm.
Outside, Robbie drew two large buckets of water from the well. He staggered toward the barn, the weight of the buckets bending him forward and pressing his shirt against his back. Praying none of the servants or farmhands would see him, he set the buckets down and emptied some of the water. His father would beat him again if he knew, and Boyden would laugh at his weakness. Boyden could carry hundred-pound sacks of grain as if they contained feathers. Boyden was everything their father wanted in a son.
Boyden hadn’t killed their mother.
When he reached the barn door, he shouted for Allyn or Darien to open it, but no one came. The two farmhands were supposed to help him with the animals, but this wouldn’t be the first time they’d used Robbie getting in trouble as an excuse for taking the night off. They knew he wouldn’t risk another beating by telling on them.
Robbie sat the buckets down to open the door. The barn was large, with plenty of room for the dozen cows, ten horses, and four mules as well as for the large pig and her half-dozen piglets. When he entered, the cows mooed happily. The horses and mules neighed and stomped their feet in greeting. A bird whose wing he’d mended flew down from the rafters, landed on his shoulder, and nibbled his ear affectionately. The animals’ joy seeped into his body like a warm, living current, strengthening him against both exhaustion and pain. Animals couldn’t sense the evilness in his soul. Only here was he loved.
The animals’ welcome quickly turned to cries of thirst. Cursing himself for making them wait so long for water, he began filling up the water troughs. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep by the river, but he’d been up most of the night helping a neighbor’s goat with a difficult birth. “It will be alright. Robbie’s here now. Just be patient, and I’ll get water for all of you.” Knowing they could depend on him, the animals all quieted.
It took several more trips to the well to get enough water, and by the time he’d finished, he saw spots in front of his eyes. But he was far from finished.
When he started the milking, the large, gray-striped barn cat twined around his legs, mewing for attention. “Hello, Ronan. Taking care of the mice and rats for me?”
:Of course.: Ronan licked his paws as if getting the last taste of a recent kill. :Good hunting.: Robbie didn’t exactly hear Ronan’s words; it was more that he got an image or feeling from the cat’s mind. He didn’t know why he could understand animals; he’d always been able to. Perhaps it was another sign of his demon blood.
Robbie placed the milk in the icehouse. He then turned to cleaning the stalls and feeding the animals. When he entered Wild Thing’s stall, the mare neighed. :Wild Thing stomp father bully to mash.: Robbie hugged his horse around the neck.
With Wild Thing, communication had always been particularly strong, and her mind seemed much more complex than other animals’ because Wild Thing wasn’t a normal horse. Four years ago he’d found the days-old foal out on the plains, near the body of her dead mother. She’d been half-mad with hunger and fear. Her brilliant coloring, somewhere between chestnut and auburn, and the stars on her chest and forehead made it obvious she was a Horsetad. The herd of wild horses roamed free on the plains of Lundia, and people said they could never be tamed. The origin of the Horsetads was highly debated. Ages ago, some said Sulis herself had ridden her chariot in the land, and her horses had mixed with those of earthly origin. Others said the Horsetads had escaped from the seven hells and their demon masters and were forever unwilling to allow anyone to master them again.
Rubbing his face against her, Robbie choked back a sob. “Wild Thing, girl, why can’t I do anything right? Why did I have to be born evil?”
Wild Thing stomped her hoof. :Not evil. Robbie good.:
Robbie knew she was wrong, but he didn’t argue. Many in the Valley thought Wild Thing was a demon herself.
Very late, he finally stumbled up to bed. Despite his hunger and the pain in his back, he was so tired he fell almost immediately asleep.
* * *
Early in the morning, Robbie stirred. He winced as he sat up. But he knew the pain in his back wouldn’t last too long. His demon blood made him heal more quickly than normal people. Struggling to his feet, he carefully got dressed, brushed the tangles from his long, curly hair, and tied it back with a strip of leather. Wondering if he’d ever grow a beard, he felt the smoothness of his face. At sixteen, a lot of boys had at least some hair on their faces. Then again, who ever heard of a demon with a beard?
As he left his room, he was nearly brought to his knees and just avoided crying out. It took him a moment to realize that this time the pain wasn’t his own. He blocked it away and hurried outside to find the injured animal. A faint mewing came from the other side of the barn. He followed it and found Ronan covered in blood. Trembling, Robbie knelt beside the cat and stroked his head. No, not Ronan! “What happened to you, boy? Don’t worry, Robbie’s here.” Robbie cradled the cat in his arms and carried him inside the barn where he kept his medicines.
As Robbie examined the injury, he sighed in relief. “It’s not as bad as I thought, my boy. Some of this blood isn’t yours. Got a few licks in yourself, did you?” Ronan mewed feebly, and Robbie saw an image of Ronan fighting several overgrown rats. Robbie cleaned the wound carefully and treated it with one of his salves. Robbie couldn’t explain how he knew how to make his remedies. No one had taught him. Certain plants just seemed to make good medicines, and certain medicines felt as if they’d help a particular problem.
As he rubbed in the salve, a trickle of energy moved through his fingers into Ronan. The sensation resembled other men’s descriptions of the pleasure to be found with a woman. Ronan’s wound began to heal. Holy Sulis, what is this I do? If being a demon feels this good, maybe I shouldn’t mind being one!
By the time Robbie finished bandaging the wound, Ronan had drifted into a peaceful sleep. He carried the cat to a spot where it could sleep without being disturbed. “You’ll be fine, Ronan, my boy. I’m not so sure about me, though.” His father wouldn’t be happy he’d spent all this time healing a cat, especially after the beating he’d given him yesterday for neglecting his chores. Angus didn’t consider cats important animals.
Realizing he’d have to forego breakfast to get the chores done on time, he put his hand over his empty stomach.
* * *
After completing the morning chores, Robbie found his father outside the barn talking to Cullen Bevinstamm, a neighboring farmer. “You think I have no use for the boy myself?”
“Angus, you know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate. This is my only plow horse. If she dies, I won’t be able to feed my family.”
“Is your horse sick, sir?” Robbie asked.
The farmer glanced nervously at Robbie, and his father snapped, “Stay out of this, boy.” Angus turned back toward the farmer. “Just what do I get out of letting him go with you?”
“Angus, you know all my money’s gone into seed, but I’ll pay you a tetra at harvest.”
Angus scowled. “How do you know you’ll even have a harvest?”
Robbie clenched his fists. Why can’t he ever think of anything but money? If the horse is sick, I have to help. “What’s wrong with your horse, sir?”
“Boy, I told you to stay out of it!” His father rounded on him. “Do you need another lesson?”
Robbie clenched his fists even tighter, but he didn’t dare say anything more.
“Do you have any of your wife’s preserves left?” Angus asked the farmer. Cullen’s wife was rumored to make the best preserves in the Valley, not that Robbie had ever tasted any.
The man nodded, glancing nervously at Robbie. “Yes, I think there are four or five jars.”
“Send all you have back with the boy, and I’ll wait for the money.” Angus stomped back to the farmhouse without even looking at him.
Cullen licked his lips nervously, and Robbie looked down at his feet. “Your horse?” he asked, still not meeting the man’s eyes.
Cullen backed farther away as he explained what was wrong with his plow horse. It sounded like the lung sickness. He fetched his supplies and saddled Wild Thing.
On the ride to his farm, Cullen stayed far away and said nothing. Robbie tried not to mind. Farmers came to him because he was far better at treating animals than anyone else in the Valley, but Robbie knew they wished they had another choice.
When they neared the farm, Cullen rode a little closer. “Just so you know, I’ve sent my wife and children to her sister’s for the day.”
Just what do you think I’d do to them? I’d never hurt a woman or a child. I’d never hurt anybody. But even as he thought it, he knew it was a lie. Couldn’t his demon blood cause harm even if he didn’t mean it to? It had killed his own mother.
They dismounted in front of Cullen’s small stable. Cullen had far fewer animals than Angus: a single cow, a few chickens, the sick plow horse, and the old mule he’d ridden to fetch Robbie. The farmer led him inside, still careful to keep his distance. As soon as Robbie entered, his lungs tightened, making it difficult to breathe. A bay gelding coughed and wheezed. Talking in his usual soothing tones, he approached. “Hello, old boy, not feeling so well, are you? It’ll be okay.
Robbie touched the horse to be sure of the extent of the illness. “He has the lung sickness, like I thought.”
He had the man light a brazier, and he set about brewing a remedy for the horse. “I’ll give this to him now, but he’ll need the dose repeated three times a day for a week. Come fetch me again if he’s not acting better in a day or so.” As he put herbs of differing amounts into the mixture, he explained the process to the farmer.
“Sounds a bit complicated,” Cullen said. “I’ll fetch you some paper and ink, and you can write it down.”
“I have better things to do than writing down remedies,” Robbie snapped. He wasn’t about to admit he was too stupid to either read or write. Father Gildas hadn’t allowed him to attend the temple school, claiming the knowledge of the goddess shouldn’t be shared with the seed of demons.
* * *
Just after noon, Robbie started back to his father’s farm with three jars of strawberry and two jars of peach preserves in his saddlebags. His stomach ached with hunger, and his head swam so badly he feared he might fall off Wild Thing. Cullen hadn’t offered him so much as a piece of bread, and healing left him ravenously hungry, especially for sweets. By the time he reached home, the noon meal would be over, and there’d be nothing to eat until supper.
As he took a shortcut through the woods, he got out one of the jars of preserves. “My girl, do you think my father would ever know there were five jars instead of four?”
Wild Thing’s ears flicked in answer.:Robbie hungry. Wild Thing hungry. Nice grass there. Nice jar thing here.:
Wild Thing was suggesting they stop at the abandoned stable up ahead. He’d found this stable when he was twelve, during one of his wanderings through the woods looking for plants for his remedies. The stable consisted of a small barn with four stalls and a fenced-in paddock with grass for grazing. A small stream ran alongside it, and it had been in surprisingly good condition for an abandoned structure. He’d fixed it up to use as a private retreat. Stopping beside the stream, he opened the jar and reveled in the sticky sweetness of the fruit; it was the best preserves he’d ever tasted. Before heading home, he made sure to wash any sign of the preserves from his hands and face.
* * *
In Robbie’s dreams that night, the demon lady came to him. He’d dreamed of her for as long as he could remember. She always dressed in clothing more brightly colored than any he’d ever seen; tonight she wore scarlet, trimmed with bright silver braiding. Like him, the lady had black hair, green eyes, and dark skin. As a child he’d longed for sleep, where he could curl up in her arms and listen to her stories and songs. But as he’d gotten older, the dreams had begun to trouble him. If demons loved him, didn’t it mean he was as evil as people said he was?
Tonight she approached through a fog of mist, sunlight forming a halo around her. She hugged him to her chest. “I love you. You won’t always be alone.”