An attack by bandits in the middle of the night leaves a young boy with no memory of who he is or where he is from. Nursed back to health by the devoted monks in a Benedictine abbey, he takes the name Alexander, or Xan for short. Aided by the kindly Brother Andrew, Xan commits himself to finding out who he really is.
Does he have a family? Are they still alive?
And who—or what—is the shadowy figure creeping around the abbey in the dead of night?
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Chapter 1: Tragedy
The boy jolted awake to a thunderous drumming. He rolled off his straw mattress. The dirt floor trembled beneath his toes, almost tickling them. Da-doom, da-doom, da-doom. “Father? Mother?”
Vapor puffed from his mouth in the dim light. Dawn must be near.
Across the cottage, Father sprang to his feet, his thick hair jutting out in all directions. “Listen. Horses!” He pulled a brown tunic over his head as Mother stirred next to him.
The boy grabbed his own tunic, sticking his arms into its scratchy woolen holes. Then he slipped on a pair of thin leather shoes. Father might need his help.
Hoots and curses and screams rang out from the far side of the village—a chaotic mix of angry shouts and terrified cries. Hardonbury Manor must be under attack!
Mother clung to Father’s hand, her eyes wide with fear. “What do we do, Nicholas?”
“Stay here!” Father bolted out the crooked wooden door, letting in a rush of misty air.
Bitter smoke stuck to the boy’s tongue—not the pleasant smell of the hearth, where Mother heated their broth each morning. Nay, it was foul smoke, worse than the stench of the fire that had burned the crops in the West Field last year.
Mother sunk her face into her hands.
“Don’t worry.” The boy hugged her tight. “God will protect us.”
“Son!” Father’s voice called from outside.
“Coming, Father!” He squeezed Mother’s hand and burst out the flimsy door.
A surge of heat slapped his face as flames sprang up from the thatched roof of a nearby cottage. The manor house on the hill was burning, too! Dark clouds of smoke poured from windows on its high stony walls—like rows of filthy chimneys staining the red sky of dawn.
Villagers scurried about in all directions, but six burly men had gathered to defend Hardonbury with their tools: hoes, shovels, and long scythe blades for the wheat harvest.
Father stood among the defenders, taller than the rest. His shoulders were squared, and his eyes glistened in the firelight. Maybe Father wanted him to join the battle.
“I’m here, Father.”
“Nay! Take Mother and run, son,” Father yelled. “’Tis bandits!”
Just then, the village blacksmith sprinted down the lane toward them, his huge hands balled into fists, pumping back and forth. A bandit dressed in black pursued him on a sweaty horse. Dust swirled into the smoky air with the strike of each hoof.
The horseman held a long wooden mace crowned with metal studs. He bore a jagged scar on his cheek, and his thick, crooked nose looked as though it had been broken and never healed. He kicked the blacksmith to the dirt, then swung the mace and hit the poor man’s head with a bone-cracking blow.
“Get ready, men!” Father said. He waved his son off: “Not you.”
The boy shook his head hard. He would never run and leave Father to fight alone. He might be only eleven years old, but he’d worked the fields with Father each day and cleaned the tools with Father each night. He was old enough to fight bandits with Father, too.
Five men on horseback rode up in a cloud of dust, joining the scarred bandit. They circled the defenders, penning the boy out. A few of them carried crossbows fitted with sharp quarrels. He couldn’t get to Father without fighting through them. More bandits were heading this way, too, judging by the sound of it.
“What’a we do with this bunch, Rummy?” a pig-eyed bandit asked the man with the scar.
Rummy lifted the bloody mace in his fist and peered down at Father and the others. “Drop your weapons now or we kill you all.”
The boy reached to the ground and picked up a stone. A short, thin bandit sat upon a brown horse nearby. If he could hit that bandit with a stone, it might create an opening, and he could run to help Father inside the circle, where an extra shovel lay on the dirt.
As the boy took aim, a child cried out in terror from the cottage across the path—the voice of little Alden, only six years old. The child’s cottage was on fire!
Alden’s father was standing with the other men, and his mother and sister had died last year in the plague. That meant Alden was all alone as the flames on the roof rose higher.
There was no one else close enough to help the child.
The boy dropped his stone on the path. “I’ll be right back, Father!”
He ran to the burning cottage. Alden was pulling desperately on the jammed door.
“Stand back, Alden!”
He kicked the door hard with his heel, splintering its frame. Shards of wood hung limply as the door fell to the dirt. The child raced out, his face streaked with mud and tears.
“Alden, run to the East Field!” he said. “Someone will get you soon.”
The child nodded and ran toward the East Field.
The boy headed back to Father and the others, who were holding their tools high toward the bandits, ready for battle.
“We will never give in to you,” Father told Rummy. The others shouted in agreement.
“As you wish,” Rummy said. He gestured to his men. “Kill them.”
The boy picked up the stone again. He needed to be at Father’s side for this battle, but his delay in helping Alden had stolen his only chance.