This is a prequel short story (approximately 2,700-words) to my WIP, Prince of Shadow and Ash, from the point of view of main character Regulus’ best friend, Dresden Jakobs. Nope, you don’t need to know anything about my WIP to read. 🙂 But if you’d like to know more, you can click here for other posts talking about it.
Language warning: four instances of b—–d in its historical usage.
“I was only following my lady’s orders.” Dresden lifted his chin and glared at Hendrick. Morning sunlight shone through the branches of one of the many trees in the walled-in garden next to Lord Kimberly’s castle, making him squint. Not really the unintimidated look he had aimed for.
Hendrick was older, taller, and more muscular. Not to mention a lord’s son. At thirteen, Dresden was a scrappy servant. The smart thing would be to grovel and beg forgiveness. But Dresden had never been particularly good at groveling, and he’d done nothing wrong. Well, nothing terribly wrong.
“Really, Hendrick.” Brigid tugged on her older brother’s sleeve. Her silky chestnut hair was wound in braids above her round, pale face and wide eyes. She was short, even for a thirteen-year-old girl. Which was why she’d asked for Dresden’s help. “I told him to—”
“Go inside, Brigid.” Hendrick gently but firmly pushed her away. “The servant boy should have known better, so he’s either a cad or an idiot.”
Dresden glowered and forced his hands not to curl into fists.
“Either way, a beating should get through your thick Carasian skull.”
Dresden didn’t even have time to get angry at Hendrick for using his foreign heritage as an insult, because Hendrick was already pulling his fist back. Again, the smart thing to do would be to stand still and take it. But instinct took over, and Dresden reflexively raised his hands to shield his face. He squeezed his eyes shut as he realized the beating would likely be worse for trying to thwart it.
The blow didn’t land.
There was a sharp smack and someone grunted, but it wasn’t Dresden. Dresden opened his eyes to a head of thick black hair.
“Move, bastard,” Hendrick growled. “That blow wasn’t meant for you, but this one will be if you don’t get out of my way.”
Regulus didn’t move, still shielding Dresden with his body. “Dresden is my servant. Any discipline he may need falls to me.” Regulus’ voice was steady as he looked up at his cousin. He was barely fourteen but already tall, only a few inches shorter than seventeen-year-old Hendrick. “Now. What happened?”
“He put his hands on Brigid.” Hendrick glared at Dresden over Regulus’ shoulder.
The disappointment in Regulus’ sigh stung far worse than Hendrick’s insults. “My lady Brigid, is that true?”
Brigid glanced at her brother uncertainly. “I wanted to see over the wall to watch the horses. Dresden was just helping me balance on the back of the bench. I asked him to.”
“And he should have refused!” Hendrick crossed his arms. “Good thing I happened by, because your filthy servant had his hands on my sister’s waist.”
Dresden winced. Okay, he hadn’t thought it through. He should have said no. Or at least only held her hand. But it had felt natural to support her by her waist. And then maybe he did stand a bit closer than he should have…she was really pretty.
Regulus shifted and turned slightly so he could see Dresden without turning his back on his cousin. “Jakobs. Do you understand what you did was wrong?”
Dresden lowered his head. “Yes, master.”
“Then what do you do?”
Dresden sighed and bent low toward Hendrick. “I made a mistake. It should not have happened, and I swear, it will not happen again. I humbly beg your forgiveness, Master Kimberly, Lady Kimberly.” Ugh, groveling. He’d find a way not to be a servant one day. He’d earn enough to buy a freeman’s holding far from any pompous nobles.
“Your servant is presumptuous and has an attitude problem,” Hendrick said coldly. “He needs a beating. If you won’t do it, I will.”
“Wait.” Regulus blocked Dresden from Hendrick. “He’s useless to me beaten. I’ll deny his next meals—”
“You’re soft, Hargreaves,” a new male voice intruded.
Dresden glanced up, still bowed, his hands going cold at Lord Kimberly’s voice. Regulus offered a quick, stiff bow to his father’s cousin as Lord Kimberly approached. Kimberly always looked severe, with his lean, muscular frame and heavy brow. But the disapproving scowl slashed across his mouth made him look more unapproachable than usual.
“Hendrick is correct. Your servant overstepped his station. You must learn to control him, or he will continue to be a rotten servant.”
I’m not a rotten servant, Dresden thought indignantly. I do my job.
“Yes, my lord.” Regulus inclined his head. “I will speak—”
“Speak?” Lord Kimberly’s eyes narrowed. “He’s your servant. You don’t reason with him; you punish his wrongdoing.”
“My lord…” Regulus swallowed audibly. “It was a mistake.”
“And when he’s been properly punished, he will make fewer mistakes.” Lord Kimberly turned his cold eyes on Dresden. “Take off your belt, boy, and give it to your master.”
Brigid gasped. “Father—”
“Go inside, Brigid.” Kimberly, as usual, would allow no argument. Brigid fled the garden, her pink dress rustling as she ran. “Now, boy.”
Dresden’s hands shook, but he complied. He kept his eyes on the ground as he offered the belt to Regulus. He supposed three years as an indentured servant without a single beating was more than he could have hoped for. Regulus did not take it.
“My lord, please.” Regulus’ voice had lost its confidence. “It was a first offence.”
Hendrick snorted. “Your servant often offends, he just does it differently every time. And you allow it, Reg.”
Dresden winced. So, Hendrick had overheard them. He knew that Regulus let Dresden call him Regulus, or even Reg, instead of master. At least, when they thought no one was listening.
“He is my servant,” Regulus said with a shrug. “No one else calls me master, and my name is more respectful than bastard.”
There was a terrible moment of silence. Regulus had gone too far, Dresden was certain.
Kimberly sighed. “Hargreaves, Lord Arrano saw fit to give you a servant. If you don’t discipline him properly, you do my cousin further discredit. Now take the belt and punish your wayward servant.”
Further. Because to some, Regulus’ existence did his father discredit. Kimberly refused to even refer to Lord Arrano as Regulus’ father, and wouldn’t let Regulus do so, either. I may be foreign and a servant, but at least no one thinks I shouldn’t have been born.
Regulus took a deep, slow breath. He took the belt. Dresden tried not to let his fear or resentment show as he turned and stepped over to brace himself against a nearby oak. He should have known better than to hope his master could be a true friend, even if he was kind.
“My lord, you are right,” Regulus said slowly. “The fault is with me, not Jakobs. I have not kept a close enough eye on him or disciplined him enough. His failure as a servant is merely a reflection of my failure as a master. A dog cannot be blamed for stealing from the table if his master feeds him scraps. I will do better in the future. But for now, the problem is me, and the just punishment should be mine.”
Dresden’s breath caught. He looked over his shoulder. Regulus held the belt out to Kimberly, his eyes downcast. Hendrick smirked. The corner of Kimberly’s mouth twitched. He wouldn’t—Kimberly took the belt.
“If that’s what you want, Hargreaves.”
Dresden nearly choked. “Master—”
“Step aside, Jakobs.” Regulus’ spine was rigidly straight, but he wouldn’t meet Dresden’s eyes. “Now.”
Dresden moved several steps aside, more out of fear of making things worse than any desire to watch Regulus be beaten. Regulus placed his hands on the oak trunk, bracing himself.
“You want your tunic ruined, bastard?” Hendrick taunted.
Regulus grimaced. “A wise consideration, cousin.” He pulled off his loose tunic and tossed it to Dresden. Dresden caught it, staring dumbly at Regulus’ bare back. He looked frightfully pale compared to Dresden’s rich olive skin. Pale and exposed. The shirt was unlikely to have been ruined. But it might have softened the blows. Regulus braced himself against the tree again.
“What’s this?” Kimberly stepped forward and hooked his finger on the thin leather cord around Regulus’ neck and drew it back. Regulus clutched the necklace in his fist.
“It’s mine. From my father—I mean Lord Arrano.”
Kimberly stilled. “What is it?”
Regulus’ shoulders shook. “A ring.” Why he should be afraid of showing the ring, Dresden didn’t know. He’d thought Regulus kept it always on his person for safekeeping.
Kimberly’s face darkened. He dropped his hand. “Show me.”
Regulus turned from the tree, his expression drawn. Slowly he eased his fist and lowered his hand. Kimberly snatched up the ring, the cord taut against Regulus’ neck.
“He gave you this, boy?”
“I swear it.” Regulus’ lower lip trembled. “Before I left. He said to keep it in case I ever had need of it, but to keep it secret. Not to tell a soul. I know I shouldn’t have it, but he gave it to me. I didn’t steal it, and I don’t intend to use it, my lord. Just keep it.”
Dresden looked between Regulus and Kimberly, uncomprehending. He’d never looked closely at the tarnished silver ring. Kimberly let the ring fall back to Regulus’ bare chest.
“My cousin is more of a fool than I thought.” Kimberly looked furious. “That could cause trouble. Only an heir should carry a signet ring.”
Dresden clutched Regulus’ shirt in his clammy hands.
“I know, my lord.” Regulus lowered his head. “I don’t know why he gave it to me. But I’ve never shown it to anyone.”
“Never speak of it again.” Kimberly stepped back. “Turn around! Let’s get this over with.”
Regulus’ hands had barely touched the bark when Kimberly drew his hand back. The belt whirred through the air and slapped loudly against Regulus’ skin. Regulus twitched and his hands curled against the trunk, but he didn’t make a sound. A red line blazed across Regulus’ back. As Kimberly drew back again, Dresden squeezed his eyes shut. Whir. Smack. Whir. Smack. Again, and again. Regulus cried out. Dresden opened his eyes, afraid to see the aftermath. But Kimberly wasn’t done. Whir. Smack. Regulus sagged against the tree and whimpered. Again Lord Kimberly pulled back, and it took every ounce of Dresden’s resolve not to interfere. It would only make things worse.
Whir. Smack. Regulus screamed and his knees buckled. Tears squeezed from Dresden’s eyes as Kimberly hit Regulus again and Regulus cried, leaning against the tree on his knees.
Kimberly looked at Dresden. “I hope that taught you a lesson as well, boy.” He threw the belt at Dresden, and Dresden fumbled it, dropping it and Regulus’ shirt to the stone garden path. Hendrick snickered.
“Get up, Hargreaves,” Kimberly said with a sigh.
Regulus whimpered and his body trembled, but he pulled himself up on the tree and turned toward his guardian. He managed a small bow, his face pinched with pain. “Thank you, my lord. I will do better.”
Kimberly grunted. “You better. I’d hate to have to tell Lord Arrano his mistake can longer reside here. Remember, Hargreaves. You’re lucky. Things could be worse. So make the most of your situation, and don’t abuse my hospitality by allowing your servant to subvert his station. And keep that signet ring hidden.”
“Yes, my lord,” Regulus said quietly. “I’m grateful for your kindness.”
Kindness? Dresden clutched the shirt and belt. He just beat you!
Kimberly nodded, then turned away. Hendrick followed his father out of the garden, and Dresden rushed to Regulus’ side.
“Reg,” he whispered. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I couldn’t do it.” Regulus reached for his shirt and grimaced. He spoke so softly Dresden barely heard him. “I wouldn’t hurt my only friend.”
Guilt twisted Dresden’s stomach. “I’m sorry. If I hadn’t been stupid—”
“It’s in the past.” Regulus pulled on his shirt with a stifled cry. “Go ask Luke for some salve. Say it was a training accident. I’ll meet you in my room.”
Dresden got the salve as quickly as he could. Regulus was sitting slumped over the back of a chair, his shirt tossed aside. The red lines crisscrossing his back were dotted with dark blue bruises, and pinpricks of crimson showed where the belt had split his skin. Dresden immediately began slathering the lines with the pungent salve, praying to Etiros it would somehow help.
“I can’t believe…” He shook his head.
Regulus chuckled drily. “I think he’s wanted to do that for some time. He just didn’t have a good excuse.” He flinched as Dresden touched his back again. “I’m an embarrassment to have around. As if my disgrace taints them. He keeps me for my father’s coin. Both the money my father sends for the inconvenience of raising me, and the part of my allowance I know he keeps.”
Dresden shifted uncomfortably. Regulus had never talked about his situation. He always bore the insults from Hendrick and the thinly veiled jabs from Lord Kimberly without comment, even in private, and Dresden had never dared to broach the subject.
“But…it’s not your fault,” Dresden said.
“I know that!” Regulus jerked. “Etiros above, don’t tell me things I already know!” He shoved out of the chair. “I didn’t ask to be born, or to be sent here! I am polite, I stay out of trouble, I train hard to earn my knighthood so I can leave! But it’s never good enough! I’m never good enough.”
Regulus leaned on the table, his shoulders trembling. The salve glistened over the dark red lines from the beating that should have been Dresden’s. Dresden clutched the little clay jar, unsure what to do as his face burned with shame.
“And now…” Regulus’ head sank lower. He looked so young and lonely. “The bastard and his servant friend. You know what they’ll say? I’m too comfortable with you because I should be you. They’ll say I know deep down I’m more my mother’s son than my father’s. Maybe they’re right.”
Dresden stared at the jar. He should apologize for making Regulus’ life worse. But for the first time in years, he was afraid of how Regulus might react to him.
“Lord Kimberly and Hendrick will be watching more closely.” Regulus sniffed, his voice hoarse. “We’re going to need to be more formal. Even in private, so we don’t slip up. Master and Jakobs. Understood?”
A hollow ache settled in Dresden’s chest. “Yes, master.”
He tried to tell himself it was worse for Regulus. At least the other servants were friendly. Regulus had no other friends. But it felt like Dresden was being punished; pushed down to his station, as Kimberly said.
Regulus took a deep breath. “Good.” He moved back to the chair. “Finish, ple—” He grunted. “Too friendly,” he muttered under his breath. “Finish, Jakobs.”
“Yes, master.” Dresden returned to applying the salve as anger fought his guilt. “I’m sorry. I won’t get you in trouble again.”
Regulus flinched as Dresden’s fingers brushed a bit of ripped skin. Dresden finished and stepped away. Regulus remained slumped over the back of the chair, letting the salve dry. With nothing else to do and unable to stare any longer at the bruises, Dresden set about tidying up Regulus’ small room. Not that there was much to clean. Regulus didn’t own much. But the desk could use dusting.
“Drez,” Regulus said softly.
Dresden looked up from arranging a stack of books on warfare. Was the use of the nickname to see if he would fail to remember his new instructions? “Yes, master?”
“It won’t be forever.” It was hard to hear Regulus, he spoke so quietly, with his forehead resting on his arm on the back of the chair. “When I’m knighted, maybe my father will allow me back. And if not, we can travel. Find another lord I can pledge to, who won’t care who I call my friend.”
Dresden wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
Regulus sighed. “Just…don’t hate me, Drez—Jakobs.” He sniffed and wiped at his face. “Please don’t hate me.”
“You took a beating for me.” He stared at Regulus’ welted back. “I don’t think I could hate you, Reg—master.”
“Good.” Regulus stood with grunt and moved to his bed. As he carefully laid on his stomach, Dresden heard him mutter, “I need one person who doesn’t hate me.”