Jolting past the bewildered group, I sprinted toward the square. A man astride a mare pranced before the meetinghouse. The gray streaks in his burred dark hair glinted in the sun. His black tunic and trousers blended with his horse’s sable coat. A messenger. And not a regular messenger, judging from the roaring white and black dragon emblazoned on his short, red velvet surcoat. A royal one.
What business brought a royal messenger to Petheralm? Surely not Olin’s desertion. My heart skipped a beat. Any news from Wazenforth usually bode ill for our remote village.
Spying Grandpapa standing to the right of the meetinghouse beside Uncle Danith, I hustled through the small crowd to reach him.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
He slipped his arm around my waist and drew me to his burly side. “Fellow rode into the village a short while ago and demanded the friar gather the villagers. Won’t deliver his message until he has a crowd.”
“Olin?” Although the crowd chattered amongst themselves and paid no attention to us, I whispered the question.
“Safe with his family. Deserter or not, they were happy to see him.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Including the miller?”
“Especially Jorn.” Grandpapa chuckled. “It’s taken Death knocking on his door to soften his ole heart, but that’s the truth of it. Welcomed the lad with open arms.”
“What happens now?”
Grandpapa ran his free hand over his scruffy gray beard. “He’s waiting for the cover of night to head into the woods. If he takes the same route Ingrid took years ago, he will avoid Fort Pelko and reach Shorefern within a few days. Jorn gave Olin the last of his silver, and the womenfolk will make sure Olin has vittles for his journey. With a lil’ luck, the lad should make it.”
He would reach safety, but at what cost? Never seeing his family again. It was a sacrifice he shouldn’t be forced to make, and wouldn’t if not for our lunatic monarch. I opened my mouth to voice the thought, but abruptly closed it when Friar Hildric ceased ringing the bell.
With a nod from the friar, the messenger began to speak.
“Villagers of Petheralm.” His booming bass voice easily carried his words to the crowd. “I bring greetings from Her Majesty Queen Amelia. Our beloved queen has taken it upon herself to scout the kingdom in search of people to fill the following positions: stable hands, household servants, and a hand maiden.”
The crowd gasped and began to murmur, halting the messenger’s prepared speech.