Slipping into a legendary event, accidentally, by the back door.
Photo credit: Karora (public domain, retouched)
Samma shifted his travel pack to the other shoulder and pushed his exhausted legs to move faster. What was he going to say to Cook Hallera? She had resisted giving him time off to begin with, scowling as though he was lying about his sick father. Which he wasn’t! Not this time. To be fair, the timing was horrible. He’d been gone during a huge celebration honoring the taen’s adopted daughter, when everyone in the castle worked double loads. And now he was late. He’d promised to arrive yesterday and start work at dawn, but that had seemed so far away two days ago, talking to that cute tavern maid. Hallera was going to kill him, if the other scullions didn’t do it first.
Thinking through possible excuses, Samma walked halfway up the zigzagging road to the castle gate before noticing the crowds clustered along the roadside. Mostly not moving, either. He veered and jostled and slipped through gaps, finally reaching the top.
A sign was posted near the main gate. Probably an announcement about the festivities. Samma pretended to read it, scanning the text and nodding. After bluffing to get hired at the castle, he had to maintain the illusion that he’d actually paid attention in school. He really did mean to go back and learn his letters at some point, but flattering the right people was so much easier.
The portcullis and heavy outer doors were open, but the gate beyond them was closed. As Samma stepped forward, two guards brandished their pikes. They relaxed when he greeted them.
“Oh, hey, Samma. You sure you’re supposed to be here?”
“Yep, and worse, I’m late.”
The guard seemed dubious, but let him through the small-door. “If you say so. Be careful.”
Samma didn’t like the sound of that. Had Hallera already been asking after him?
The sight of the entrance courtyard stopped Samma midstride. Where was everyone? The courtyard usually teemed with travel carts and merchants and local petitioners. Now, only a handful of brightly painted nobles’ carts were parked along one wall. Across the plaza, a few well-dressed people huddled in conversation on the castle steps. Otherwise, nothing. No donkeys, no servants, no guards, nobody.
Could the taen be sick? Angry? Had something gone wrong at the ceremony? They weren’t at war now, were they? For a moment, Samma panicked. No, whatever had happened, it couldn’t have been his fault. He hadn’t even been here.
He crept toward the servants’ entrance, walking softly to avoid disturbing the eerie silence.
The kitchen yard shocked him. Even without visitors, a castle always needed provisions. The yard should be filled with people hauling baskets and wrangling squealing animals, pushing carts of vegetables and rolling barrels of wine. But it was empty. Completely empty . It was midday, and he could hear birds singing.
A rat ran across the path a few paces ahead, quickly followed by a dog. Samma jumped at the noise, yelping and almost dropping his pack. He glanced at the castle windows, hoping nobody had seen him acting so skittish. He spotted a lady in an upper hall window, but luckily she was looking away and took no notice.
Well, whatever was wrong here, he didn’t want to lose his job on top of it. He had to go inside and get this over with.
Through a window, he saw Hallera at a large table, crouched over a ledger. Samma gulped. Staring at ledgers never improved her mood.
At the kitchen doorway, he saw another sign. He recognized the symbol for “no entry.” Since when had they put that up? He’d never known them to have problems with unauthorized people in the backrooms. Odd. Samma squinted at the words beneath the symbol, as though that would make them legible. He had a sinking feeling about all this. For a moment he considered leaving. But where would he go? Besides, Hallera was in there, and he’d glimpsed others too, and he was already late.
Stepping through the door, Samma noticed several things in rapid succession. First, it was deadly quiet in here too. It was never quiet in the kitchens. Ever. Second, none of the people he’d seen through the doorway had moved in the last few seconds. No movement at all. Third, his feet were suddenly stuck to the floor, then his legs frozen in place, then all the rest of him too.
Samma’s last thought would have pleased his beleaguered teachers. He really should have put more effort into learning how to read.