Less a boy and more a man

strawberryGot a new teaser for you from the YA fantasy I'm working on. This piece happens leading up to the big middle-of-the-book ordeal, which I'm now working on. Hope you enjoy! Feel free to leave a comment.  Cool, damp air washed over Liam's face, bringing the sweet scents of cut hay and sun-warmed aspen leaves. Dusk had settled around the village, with lit candles in the windows of several homes. Liam listened for the duergar among the sounds of the wind in the trees, the shuffling of horses, and a couple in the alley having a spat about who ate the last loaf of bread.

Genny had mentioned ponies, so he went around to the stables. They'd been quick. The duergar had mounted their ponies and cleared out of the stables in a hurry. They'd also been brutal; Liam found the stable boy on the floor bleeding from the head. He checked to make sure the boy was still alive— he was— and then hurriedly saddled up his horse— with an apology for making him go out again so soon— and headed out.

Tracks. He needed to find their tracks. Dozens of ponies would make prints in the dirt; they certainly didn't float on air. Duergar didn't have magical abilities— other than their sense for valuables— so they couldn't even make their tracks disappear if they wanted to.

He directed his horse around the stable yard until he found the small hoofprints and a direction of travel. North. The prints were scuffled, and something about them made him hesitate.

North would take the duergar home to Aurora, but in three days travel. If he raced north along the road he would catch up to them in a matter of hours, but if he was wrong about this path, if it was a trick, he might never catch up to them. The twisting in his gut had him turn around and go back to the stable. He hoped he was right.

He tied off his horse and fetched a pail of water. His horse stamped in protest over not being put back in the stall to finish his dinner.

"Sorry, boy," Liam whispered.

Placing the pail beside the stable boy, Liam tore off a section from the bottom of his shirt, pausing only for a moment to admire Genny's even stitches. He dunked it in the water and set work at reviving and cleaning the blood from the boy's face.

He couldn't be much more than twelve. His dark hair was roughly chopped close to his head, so it had done a terrible job of absorbing the blood, leaving much of it to run down his face. He had the tanned skin of someone who worked outside most the day, dotted with dark moles. He was likely either the child of the innkeeper or sold to the innkeeper from a family that could no longer feed him.

The boy moaned and his hand came up, reaching for the gash across his scalp, just above his temple, and met with the damp cloth under Liam's hand.

The boy's eyes flew open.

"Easy now," Liam said softly. "I'm not the one that hurt you."

"I know that," the boy snapped. Likely uncomfortable with waking up in the arms of someone several years older than him.

"Do you remember what happened?" Liam let the boy take the cloth, and then he helped him into a sitting position.

"Duergar," he said, his voice groggy.

"Did they have a girl with them? She'd be about my age."

The boy blinked and shook his head. "I never saw them. I heard them coming and then— Nothing. I guess that's when they hit me."

Frustrated, Liam stood up and started pacing. He scrubbed his hands through his hair. He'd misjudged. He'd lost too much time coming back. They could be anywhere and getting farther away by the minute. But the twisting in his gut said he was on the right track. Too bad his gut couldn't tell him which way they'd went.

"Did they take her?" the boy asked. "The girl you're looking for? Did the duergar take her?"

Liam stopped pacing. He wanted to snap at the boy for asking foolish questions— would he be asking if they'd had a girl with them if they hadn't taken her?— but something in the boy's voice made him stop and listen.

"They do that sometimes. Take people."

"Why? What do they want with them?" Liam asked gently.

The boy put down the cloth, the bleeding had slowed as the wound began its repairs, and took a drink from the pail.

"They sell them," he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "To the highest bidder."

Liam's gut threatened to bring up the stew from dinner. He knelt in front of the boy. His speech— he was educated, brought up in a proper household. Definitely not the speech of a typical stablehand.

"Were you sold to the innkeeper?"

The boy wouldn't meet his eyes.

"I need to find my friend," Liam said. "Do you have any idea where they would have taken her?"

The boy fiddled with the piece of cloth torn from Liam's shirt.

"Please," Liam said. And the boy seemed to know Liam was not one for saying "please" often.

"They have this place— a cottage of sorts— east of the village. Inside, there's a door. You'll know which one. On the other side of that door— Find the underground room. That's where they'll keep her."

The boy gave him directions for finding the cottage. Liam offered him a hand and helped him to his feet.

"Come with me," he said before he left. "After I get my friend back, I can help you find your family . . ."

The boy gave a sad, appreciative smile. "I've been here for six years. They're good to me. I eat three meals a day . . . I didn't have that at home."

Liam gave the boy one long last look. He couldn't be sure if he was telling the truth, but he also couldn't force him to come with him if he didn't want to. He knew too well what it meant to not be able to go home. With a nod, he let the boy know he respected his difficult decision. Though, as Liam walked away, he had to admit the stablehand was less a boy and more a man.