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Wat peered around the corner with his one good eye.

“I’d be careful if I was you.” A thin, rasping voice startled him and he jerked back from the doorway.

“If they catch you, they’ll make you sorry,” the voice continued.

Wat turned toward the stone wall and spotted tiny John Thatcher huddled in the dark shadows. “Maybe,” he agreed. “But they’ll have to catch me first.”

The small boy snorted. “Like that would be hard, catching a cripple.”
Wat flushed angrily.

The boy continued. “They’ll cut off your hand, or put out your eye, or somefin’.”

The lad knew better than most. The whole village had watched as his father was hung from the gibbet for poaching in his lordship’s forest. They left his body to hang, a grisly warning to all who had once hunted in the nearby forests that were now forbidden to them. His youngest son had taken to begging outside the manor kitchens ever since. Wat had nearly stumbled over the scrawny lad many times as he made his own risky trips to the kitchen to sneak some food.

“Well, I won’t make the mistake of taking something big, like your da. I’ll take something small they won’t miss.”

The boy shrugged as if it made no difference to him. “It’s your scrawny neck they’ll hang. Not mine.”

Ignoring the boy, Wat turned back to the delicious smells pouring out of the manor kitchen. He clutched his hand to his middle, trying to soften the gnawing hunger. If he didn’t get something to eat soon, he was afraid he would begin gnawing the dirt clods that littered the courtyard. Ever since the Normans had come, hunger was a constant companion. The harsh conquerors had harrowed the land, putting torch to the fields and farms, laying the ground waste so no rebellion could grow. Wat had been hungry for two years now.

Wat leaned farther forward, trying to judge Cook’s mood. If he was in a pleasant frame of mind, things could go well and his mother might slip him some scraps. If Cook was in a fitful state, then everyone would be foul-tempered. All Wat could expect then was a whack across his shoulders with a broom. That and more gnawing hunger until nightfall, when his mother would try again to sneak him a bit of something.
Wat had learned two lessons in his ten summers. One was that dung rolled downhill. The second was that it usually managed to find him rather quickly.

The sound of clanging pots, sizzling fat, and shrill voices mixed among gruff commands assaulted Wat’s ears. The frantic activity did not bode well.

Cook stood by the hearth, sweat pouring down his beefy, reddened face. He picked up the huge meat hook, which leaned close to the fire.
“Blood of the Saints!” he bellowed, dropping the hook. Turning to Ralph the spit-turner, he thwacked him up side the head. “How many times have I told you not to leave that handle so close to the fire?”
Still staggering from the blow, Ralph tried to defend himself. “But I never even touched—”

“Get out of my way, you thick-headed turnip!”

Looking sullen, Ralph scuttled back to a safe distance. Cook, hastily wrapping his burnt hand with a thick piece of cloth, picked up the meat hook again. The entire kitchen staff held their breath as he approached the hearth. Grunting with the effort, he reached out and sank the end of the hook into the roast pig and removed it from the spit. He carried the heavy meat across the room and laid it on the waiting platter. Everyone let out a sigh of relief and returned to their duties. Nothing ruined Cook’s day worse than dropping his fine dinner on the floor. Wat never quite understood this. He would gladly eat a roast pig, even if it had been dropped on the floor and rolled for ten paces. But then, Cook was a picky fellow. All the Normans were.

Filling their arms with platters, trays, and pitchers, the servers left the kitchen and headed for connecting door to the great hall, where Lord Sherborne and his guests awaited their meal. As soon as the room was empty, Cook disappeared through a small door at the far end of the kitchen that led to the buttery. According to Wat’s mother, the man often grabbed a quick tankard of ale as his just reward for preparing another successful meal.

When Wat was certain he could hear nothing but the crackle of the fire and distant sounds from the great hall, he crept to one of the platters left sitting on the table. It held a tantalizing assortment of meat pies that smelled so good, Wat feared he would drool over the lot of them. Licking his lips, he studied them carefully, wanting to choose only the plumpest, fattest one.

“Hey you! Get away from those pies!”

Wat snatched his hand back and looked up to see Ralph the spit-turner standing in the doorway, the imprint of Cook’s hand still red on his face.
“Get out!” The boy’s voice was filled with outrage. “We don’t feed devil’s spawn around here!” Ralph strode over to the hearth and grabbed the meat hook. His eyes narrowed and an unpleasant smile appeared on his big ugly face. “I’ll teach you to hang about the kitchen door.”
The dung was starting to roll downhill.

Wat turned and bolted. He ran out through the kitchen doorway and stumbled into the courtyard. He tried to gather some speed, but was hampered by his useless left leg as it dragged behind him. He fought the urge to turn and see how close behind Ralph was. Stopping to look would slow him down, and he didn’t dare risk it, even when he heard a loud “oomph” and a clatter as something hit the ground.

Ralph’s voice rang out. “Watch out, you little goat turd!”

“I was just sitting here . . .”

Tiny John Thatcher’s words were lost as Wat moved out of hearing range. He passed into the outer courtyard, his feet slapping out an uneven rhythm on the rough stones. The sound of his own breathing filled his ears and he couldn’t be certain how close Ralph was behind him.
Dodging chickens and pigs, and a villager or two, Wat kept to the shadows of the walls as much as he could, trying to make his way to the outer bailey. A cold bitter fear settled into the pit of his stomach as he heard the voices of other village boys join Ralph. There were few things they considered as fine a sport as chasing a half-blind cripple. Since most of the villagers were convinced he was begotten by the devil—why else would he be blind in one eye and have such a misshapen foot?—he knew that no one would lift a finger to help him.

He also knew that sometimes he could get away, and sometimes he couldn’t. Partly running, mostly sliding, Wat made his way down the steep drawbridge that led toward the outer bailey.

The voices drew closer. With this many in on the chase, Wat knew there was a good chance they would catch him. He fought back a wave of panic, reminding himself that he had survived their beatings in the past. But then, they’d never been carrying a meat hook before.

Skidding around the corner by the smith’s yard, Wat startled a group of pigeons that had been hidden by the water trough. He hadn’t seen them at first, not until their flapping wings caught his attention. Desperate now, the voices right behind him, he checked his stride and turned toward the trough. He was out of time. He could only hope that if it had hidden the pigeons that well, then maybe it would work for him.

His breath came in ragged, tearing gasps as he hunkered down and crawled into the small space. His hands and knees settled into the pigeon feathers and droppings that covered the ground, but he ignored them. Droppings were nothing compared to flying fists and kicking feet, to say nothing of the meat hook.

Wat drew himself down as small as possible and cleared his mind of all thoughts. As his breathing eased, he tried to imagine he was nothing but a plump, gray pigeon. He pictured himself covered in soft, gray feathers, hiding from prey by staying still under the brush. Trying to calm his heart, which hammered painfully in his chest, he filled his mind with the sound of cooing.

All too soon, he heard the sound of running feet and loud voices come tearing around the corner. He ignored the excited shouts and yells that almost sounded like gibberish in his ears, and concentrated on being small and invisible.

Without so much as a pause, the footsteps went past him. A little further on he heard their footsteps slow down and their voices raised in confusion and frustration.

“Where did he get to this time?”

“I know I saw him come ’round the corner.”

A loud, booming voice interrupted their puzzled questions. “Get on now! All of you! I don’t want your kind of trouble around here!”

Wat recognized the voice of Olin, the blacksmith, and let out a deep sigh of relief. All of the village lads respected his large, heavily muscled arms and brawny strength. Since he had a temper to match, no one ever dared argue with him. Wat heard Ralph’s voice mumble something about meaning no harm.

“Go!” Olin bellowed so loudly that it caused the water trough Wat hid under to shudder. The boys lowered their voices and Wat listened to the sound of their footsteps as they went off in different directions.
He had hardly taken a deep breath of relief before a huge arm, blackened with soot, reached in and grabbed him by the shoulder.

“And I don’t want you skulking around my smith, either!”

Yanked to a standing position, Wat found himself face to face with Olin, whose coarse face glistened under a fine layer of sweat. The blacksmith held a hammer the length of a man’s leg in his left hand as easily as if it were a twig.

“I don’t care how thick that head of yours is, boy, when it comes up against an iron poker, it’s going to burst like an overripe plum. Now stay away from those lads. Stay away from here, too.” The blacksmith let go of Wat and gave him a little shove. “I don’t know why they didn’t see you there,” he muttered. “You were hiding in plain sight.”

Olin looked away from Wat, then froze. Slowly, Wat turned around and saw his mother standing behind him, all the color drained from her face.
“An iron poker?” she asked, her voice wobbling.

Wat sickened when he realized his mother had overheard. He worked hard to keep the realities of the villagers’ torment from her, knowing it wounded her more than him.

“Brenna,” Olin’s voice softened as he spoke the name. “What are you doing here?”

Wat’s mother took two steps forward, then stopped. “I heard shouts and yelling, and the word ‘cripple’. I thought Wat was in trouble.”

“Well, he was,” Olin said, matter-of-factly. “And now he’s out of it.” Olin glanced over at Wat and a look of true understanding passed between them. Wat’s mother need not know. “He’s a big lad, now, Brenna. He can take care of himself.”

Olin put his hand on her elbow to gently steer her away, but she jerked from his hold and came to stand in front of Wat. Her eyes nearly burned holes in his skin as she searched for the truth.

“Are you truly all right? Did they . . .” her voice faded. She couldn’t bring herself to give voice to the words.

“Truly, I am fine, Mother,” Wat said.

Olin stepped forward again and this time she let him take her elbow. “Come now, we must get you back to the kitchen before they notice you’re gone. You’ve already got one mark against you.” He nodded his head in Wat’s direction. “You don’t want to be handing them excuses on a platter now, do you?”

Brenna shook her head and let Olin escort her to the edge of the smith yard, where he gently nudged her toward the manor. She looked over her shoulder one more time at Wat. He gave her a cheerful smile, and some of the tenseness left her face.

As soon as she’d left, Olin hurried back to Wat. “Go on, now,” Olin said, his voice gruff. “Stay out of trouble so you don’t break your ma’s heart.”
“Aye,” Was said, wondering when Olin had come to care so much about his mother’s heart.

Wat turned to leave the smith yard, then glanced back over his shoulder to study his hiding spot. Now that he looked, he had to agree it didn’t offer much cover. Maybe he had been lucky. His mother always said he was born under fortune’s star, but he wasn’t convinced. Days like today lay challenge to her claim.

Enough. There was no point in staying here in the castle yard any longer. It was time to move on. He began to make his way through the village to the castle gate.

When he reached the gatehouse, he squared his shoulders and lifted his head high, doing his best to stand up as straight and tall as possible. As he limped through the gate and down the drawbridge, the sentry on duty kept his eyes focused straight ahead, but his fingers fluttered together as he formed the sign to ward off evil.