A preview of Chapter 41 from Book 2 of my WIP fantasy book series, ‘Sea of Shadows’.
It’s a standalone chapter in many ways, existing as a flashback for one of my main characters.
Errin De’Car and Rufus Sebatre lay entwined beneath the low arched ceilings of the monastery basement. The room was cool but dry, surrounded by stacks of grains for the monastery kitchens. A singular lantern flickered overhead to light their quiet corner.
Today was Errin’s sixteenth birthday, and Nine Orders tradition was for a novitiate to choose their calling when they turned sixteen. Errin would have a week to decide whether to take the Grey as a brother of the Nine or leave the order and find a life elsewhere.
A brother of the Nine Orders had to don the Grey and renounce all possessions for the good of others. But brother was no longer a term Errin felt comfortable with; they hadn’t told anyone but Rufus, who was kind and understanding when Errin explained their discomfort in the identity they’d grown up with. Rufus assured them, “You’re not the only person to feel this way. There are others—many others like you out in the world.”
This shifting identity was one of the reasons Errin had agonised over staying at the monastery.
They felt trapped. On the one hand, the Nine Orders were always good to them. Here, they were cared for, educated, and given a proper chance to help people and live selflessly. On the other, the Order had left Errin isolated from the rest of society. If they struck out now, they had no clue where to go or how to live. The only life they knew was within Arkensport’s grey walls. They had even found friendships here amongst the other novitiates after Elder Luquin’s death.
Then, four months ago, a young man named Rufus joined the monastery and changed everything for Errin. The two quickly became inseparable. So much so, that Errin couldn’t imagine leaving the monastery so long as Rufus remained. Was that a good enough reason to dedicate a lifetime to the Nine Orders? The orders forbade romance, and if Rufus left the monastery, his family would disown him.
Errin and Rufus’ closeness evolved from sneaking glances and private smiles to passionate kisses in empty corridors, eventually carrying them to this private spot in the monastery basement, curled beside each other, their hearts beating in rhythm. Rufus raised his hand and brushed aside a thick lock of black hair from Errin’s face, a smile playing over his handsome features. “I love your hair. It’s your best quality.” He leaned in and kissed their nose. “And your eyes.”
“Grey,” Errin muttered. “Like the robes.”
“Grey like a storm cloud.”
“Is that better?”
Rufus kissed them again. “It’s you.” He paused. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” Rufus: a young man smelling of lemongrass and eyes dancing with mischief. An unexpected boon Errin didn’t know they needed until Brother Amier introduced Rufus to the novitiates four months ago.
“This is Rufus Sebatre, secondson of the noble Sebatre Family of Le Mé.” Brother Amier announced. “Rufus will train as a religious scholar for the Nine Orders.”
“But he’s too old to be a novitiate!” one of the boys complained.
“He’s not training to be a brother, idiot,” novitiate Gillet muttered. “He’s a noble.”
Brother Amier ignored them. “Here in our walls, you’ll treat him like any novitiate. He will pray as you pray. He will sleep where you sleep. He will scrub chamberpots and wash dishes and prepare meals as you do.” Errin noticed the flash of annoyance in young Rufus’ eyes. “He will study the religious texts as you do, but he will not rise to Brotherhood.”
It wasn’t unheard of, but the practice of training noble boys for scholarship was rare. Errin eyed the new boy with interest and Rufus, noticing their gaze, threw Errin a quick, impish smile. That smile sent an immediate rush through Errin, and they knew from that moment they would very much like to get to know the Sebatre secondson.
The two spent every evening sitting on their bunks in the communal dormitory, shared with six other novitiates, discussing life outside Arkensport. Rufus had travelled across large swaths of Karrun for the sake of noble this-or-that and as the secondson, he only had to sit and listen while his elder brother contributed to talks of land and trade and taxes. “It is very dry,” Rufus had explained.
Errin asked if he wanted to be a religious scholar.
Rufus gave an unhappy shrug. “Don’t have much of a choice. My mother’s as devout as they come and there’s not much else for a secondson.”
“And if you could do anything?” Errin asked because they knew what it was to not belong somewhere. Since Elder Luquin’s death three years ago, their feelings of detachment had grown until every time they looked in a mirror they felt a stranger stare back at them. I don’t want to be this. But I don’t know what I’d be if I left. Brother, elder, man, husband, father…? None of it felt right. It was like a cage, except a bear stood on the other side, snarling and keeping Errin from rattling the bars.
Rufus was more than a balm to Errin’s loneliness. He was a resurrection of sorts.
“What will you do?” Rufus asked softly, returning Errin’s wandering mind to where they lay amongst the sacks of grain.
“I don’t know.”
Rufus stared for a long while, his fingertips tracing small circles over Errin’s jawline. Errin let their eyes slide closed, feeling the weightlessness of Rufus’ presence. “I think you do. You just don’t want to say it.”
The weight returned and Errin opened their eyes. “I don’t know where I’d go.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Okay, but I don’t want to go without you.” Errin had told Rufus of their interest in the hospital, but they had never really considered leaving the monastery to pursue it. They didn’t even know where to start…
They noticed, then, that something played in Rufus’ eyes. It was that familiar spark of mischief Errin had fallen in love with. “What if we left together?”
“You can’t leave.”
“I’m not supposed to,” Rufus agreed. “But I have a plan.” He propped himself up with an elbow. “I’m going to join the Karrunian army.”
“What?” Errin sat up.
“I told you, I’m not made for this sort of thing. Old texts and prayers and stuffy Elders…”
“The army, though? It’s dangerous. Your family would never allow—!”
“They don’t need to know. Once I’ve signed up, there’s nothing they can do to break my contract until I’ve served my time.”
“But, why? Why would you want to be a foot soldier?” The Karrunian army fought land skirmishes on Imla’s borders and backed the squabbles of nobles, but everyone knew the army was preparing for an eventual invasion of Imla. Imla was rich in resources and Karrun’s population increased more than they could build homes to sustain it. Karrunians had already settled parts of Imla’s southern region and their influence was spreading, much to the disfavour of the Imlan monarchy. The tensions between the two continents had risen over the years. If not for the setback of the Withering Death a few years back, a war might have already been unleashed on Imlan lands.
The passion fled from Rufus’ eyes, replaced by uncharacteristic sternness. “I refuse to be a fawning servant or a mindless noble. I want to be useful. I want to fight.”
“If you join the army you’ll be following orders like you do now—except you’ll be putting your life in danger!” Or ending other people’s lives, Errin thought but didn’t say.
It was difficult not to feel a rise of anger. “Why didn’t you tell me before? Why now, after we…” Errin trailed off, staring at the floor.
They felt Rufus’ warm hand cup their cheek. “I didn’t know this would happen. I didn’t expect to fall in love.”
“You haven’t given it a fair shot here.”
“It’s not for me.”
Rufus dropped his hand. “An army recruiter came by the stables yesterday. She said she was looking for young people to join the fight in the Long Fields. She’s staying at the Miel Inn for another week and said I could come by if I want to join.” He paused. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to sign up.”
Errin could see his mind was set. “How will you tell the brothers?”
“I’ll sneak out at night. I still have some coins, and once I’ve joined the army they’ll pay me a soldier’s wage. Until I become a general, that is.”
Errin just stared in disbelief.
Rufus took Errin’s hand and brushed his thumb over it. “I can’t stay here. I don’t belong.” He squeezed their hand. “After everything you’ve told me, I don’t think you do either.”
Errin didn’t say anything else, and the two snuck back to their dormitory an hour later, unnoticed by the sleeping novitiates. Errin slipped under the covers and stared into the darkness for a long time, contemplating the past four months with Rufus. Their misery only worsened when they remembered they only had a few more days to decide if they would join the Brotherhood.
The following day, Errin argued with Rufus in hushed tones in the back of the library. “You don’t have to go now,” Errin pleaded. “The army will have more recruiters. Give it a year! One year at the monastery.”
Rufus’ eyes were sad. “I can’t live here.” He pressed a hand to his chest. “I can’t.”
Errin placed a hand over Rufus’ own and shifted it to his heart. “And what about me?” They knew it wasn’t fair to ask. They had resolved to let Rufus go, and yet here they were, standing before Rufus, begging him not to leave Arkensport.
Rufus intertwined their fingers and kissed Errin’s hand.
“I knew it,” a snide voice shot from behind them.
The young lovers broke apart and whirled to their eavesdropper. Errin’s face heated when they saw novitiate Gillet standing there, arms crossed and looking supremely smug. Gillet had been Errin’s rival for years, always jealous of Errin’s better grades and, rare as it was, praise from the Elders. Errin never encouraged the rivalry, but they also hadn’t done anything to make peace with the boy. Now, it seemed that animosity was coming to a head.
“What are you doing lurking in the library?” Rufus asked coolly. He’d taken an instant disliking to Gillet since arriving at the monastery.
Gillet flicked his eyes to Rufus and then back at Errin. “I knew you two were up to something. You’re always sneaking off at night, whispering to each other… Conspiring. I figured you were stealing from the monastery, but this.” He looked triumphant. “I hope you weren’t planning on ascending to Brotherhood, De’Car. And what would the noble Sebatre family think, to learn their secondson is a—”
“Don’t you rutting dare say what you were about to say,” Rufus interrupted, eyes burning with cold fury.
Gillet looked elated.
Errin could sense the shift in Rufus. They finally found their voice and stepped between the two. “Leave us alone.” Something in Errin’s expression must have put him off because Gillet took a step back and glared at them.
“The Elders will never let you stand as a Brother once they find out about this,” Gillet spat.
Rufus took a threatening step forward and Gillet flinched. Errin threw out an arm to catch Rufus in the chest before he did anything stupid. “I’m not a Brother. And nor are you.”
“Not yet.” The unspoken threat hung in the air.
“What do you want, Gillet?” Errin asked in a resigned voice.
“What makes you think I want something?”
“Because I’ve known you for years. What can I do to make you forget what you saw?”
Gillet’s eyes gleamed as he considered the question. Errin could feel Rufus’ tension like a fraying bell rope. Finally, Gillet answered. “I want gold.”
Errin felt the breath leave them. “Gold? I don’t have…”
“Not you,” Gillet said, pointing at Rufus. “I want his gold. I know he has some. There’s no way a noble would go anywhere without it.”
Rufus snorted. “What do you need gold for?”
“You’re not staying in the order.” Errin realised.
“Hells no,” Gillet threw back. “I’m not wasting my life holed up in this place.”
Errin opened their mouth to speak, but Rufus beat them to an answer. “I’ll give you gold as long as you keep quiet about us.”
Gillet held out an expectant hand, palm up.
“It’s not here,” Rufus hissed in annoyance. “I’m not stupid enough to carry it around with me.”
Gillet let his hand fall, but he stood the victor. Errin shared a look with Rufus before he led them both from the library. “You shouldn’t have to give him anything,” Errin said under their breath.
Rufus hardly moved his lips as he murmured, “I have to. To protect you.”
Errin felt their heart drop as they reached the dormitory and Rufus dug the hidden purse from under a tile. He laid each heavy coin, one by one, into Gillet’s open palm. Both Gillet and Errin’s eyes widened at the amount. It was more than either had seen in a lifetime. Gillet looked almost afraid as he tucked the coins into his pocket and glanced around the room.
“Now keep your mouth shut,” Rufus warned and thrust a finger into Gillet’s chest, “or I’ll do more than threaten you.”
Gillet clamped his jaw shut and nodded before scampering off in a hurry. Errin let out a sigh of relief as the boy exited. They looked at Rufus’s sad expression and murmured, “I’m sorry about your gold.”
“It’s not that,” Rufus said after a moment, his eyes meeting Errin’s. “I was going to leave some for you, in case you decided to leave the order.”
They both stood for a while in introspective silence. “I have to leave tonight,” Rufus decided. “That gold might have shut him up for now, but it won’t last. If my family finds out about this…” He left the rest unsaid, and Errin had some idea what a noble family might do to a rebellious secondson.
“I’ll help you pack,” Errin said, even though all they wanted was to lock Rufus in a room and never let him leave.
The day passed with excruciating slowness. Errin had to deliver food to the orphanages and Rufus returned to the library to maintain the ruse of his studies. Only when they’d eaten supper and recited prayers did the two come together in the dormitory while the other boys dressed for bed. Gillet eyed them as he crawled under his covers holding to a wadded bit of cloth that Errin was sure contained all the gold coins he’d extorted from Rufus.
Errin and Rufus pretended to go to sleep and waited for soft snores before shirking aside their covers and creeping out of their respective beds.
A roll of thunder peeled outside. A small top window flashed as lightning streaked, then vanished. The dormitory was dim but there was enough light to guide them to the door and out into the hall. Rufus had his pack slung around his shoulders in the purple cloak he’d worn when he arrived at the monastery. They held hands as they tiptoed through the corridors to the back entrance of the building.
When they stood at the small door, Rufus turned to Errin and took their hand in his. “You can still come with me,” he said. “I’ll be at the Miel Inn until the end of the week.”
“I’m not a soldier,” Errin said.
“We can find a place for you.”
For a very brief moment, Errin wondered if that were true. They could run. They could find a life together, somewhere in the fields of Imla. Errin could train as a field medic for the army.
But they couldn’t see themselves standing amongst the stern faces of the soldiers, watching them cut people down for the sake of some higher calling.
Errin released Rufus’ hand. “Someone has to stay behind or they’ll discover us both.” People would scour the continent for a runaway noble, even a secondson. “Goodbye, Rufus.”
Rufus had tears in his eyes as he grabbed Errin’s face and kissed them with young passion. When he withdrew, they were both breathless. “I’ll write to you,” Rufus promised. He opened the door and pulled his hood over his hair. The rain pelted the cobblestone and ran in small rivers down the streets. “I love you, Errin De’Car,” he whispered, then turned and disappeared into the night before Errin could respond.
Errin stared out, ignoring the rain soaking their sleeves as they clutched the doorway until long after Rufus disappeared. Then they closed and locked the door, shutting out the storm.