The scorching sun beat down on the backs of the stableboys, colouring their exposed skin in an unpleasant reddish tinge. The tallest sighed and switched the broom to his other hand, sweeping the hay slowly into a corner. The youngest boy, a sun-browned child of only ten, poured water all over the earthen floor as he hurried to finish his job. Setting down the half-filled buckets in front of the horse troughs, he hung his head in anticipation of a telling off. Nothing happened, for it seemed the glaring sun had entranced them all into a state of oblivion.
Catching this opportunity to rest, the boy sat down on the nearest log and closed his dust-filled eyes. The cool touch of shadows around him caressed his tired body. Perhaps he could stay like this until Lord Faolan came home, relaxing for the first time since the preparation for the battle began. Sleep was closing in, the lulling embrace of beautiful dreams called him into its arms. Yet all too soon a pair of rough hands shook his shoulders, and he reluctantly opened his eyes.
“Some newcomers have arrived,” said the nasally voice of Ciaran , his tall frame looming over the smaller boy, “You better get up and get the stables ready, I will be back with the horses.”
“I could come and help,” suggested the younger boy, hoping to be able to tag along, “The stables are clean. Besides there’ll be a lot of horses.”
“No, I can do it all,” said Ciaran dismissively, already turning his heels to head towards the entrance, “Just stay here.”
Leaving behind the annoyed grumbles of the child, Ciaran marched swiftly towards the group of travellers. Rounding the corner, he faltered at the sheer size of the riding party, regretting marginally that he had not accepted the other boy’s help. Biting his lips, he decided that this was his chance to prove himself and so continued alone. Lord Faolan was not home and thus unable to greet the newcomers. Instead the wizened chamberlain stood on the stone steps to welcome the travellers, while the household women fluttered about trying to ready the house behind him. Ciaran stopped a respectful few yards behind the riding party. He couldn’t help but stare at the newcomers as he waited for further instructions.
It seemed as though the chamberlain was addressing the man astride the dark stallion, a lean figure dressed comfortably for a day of riding. The man exuded a quiet confidence and power about him, although the features of his sun-beaten face told of a lesser heritage. Riding next to the charcoal stallion was a boy, his knees clasped tight around the flanks of his docile mare. His back was unnaturally straight; his chin tilted upwards as though trying to defy everything under his nose. He was no more than a small child despite his airs, and if one looked closely his strangling grip on the reigns betrayed his exhaustion. Tiny as he was, it seemed that he was the centre of the entire party. Riding garments of incredible richness clothed him, and he bore on his pale finger a ring engraved with the crest of the Lords of Castlehaven. He met the chamberlain’s gaze with his emerald ones, and stiffly inclined his head.
The man next to him slid off his horse with feline grace and lifted the child off the saddle. Without the height of his mare, the little boy was a portrait of forlorn vulnerability. Jerking out of his staring trance, Ciaran stepped forward as a piercing whistle signalled him to take up the reins of the horses and lead them to the stable. He bowed his head low as he held on to the leather reins, and as he walked past the little nobleman from Castlehaven he realised that the boy was as young as his youngest sister. Even with his erect spine and serious eyes, the boy’s wispy dark curls and childish face showed clearly that he’d only seen about six or seven summers past. Lifting his booted feet, the little child followed the tall man beside him into the hall of Castle Albridge, leaving a bevy of servants carrying countless trunks trailing behind him. Shaking his head to clear his confusion, Ciaran guided the horses to the best stalls in the stable.
“So, what were they like?” asked the youngest stable boy excitedly, running up to help steer the well-groomed horses into their respective stalls.
“Like the rest of them, those rich and uppity noblemen,” Ciaran said dismissively, even though he himself was entranced by the riding party only moments ago, “Honestly Colum, I don’t know why you get so excited whenever visitors come.”
“Well, if you’d only let me go and see them myself,” pouted Colum under his breath, still annoyed that he was kept from helping as a stableboy should.
“I heard you,” said Ciaran’s voice from behind the great stallion, “And if you want to be able to take the reins from the noblemen themselves, then keep working hard at it. I’m not giving my privileges up so easily.”
“Ciaran, can you tell me about the riding party?” asked little Colum tactfully, changing the topic.
“Well, since you asked so nicely,” said Ciaran with an attempt at a resigned tone, his mind already racing through his meagre vocabulary to find the best words for the story, “There they were, the big group of travellers. At the very front was a man, a right warrior upon the black stallion there. Now next to him was a boy...”