The second Luke passes through the large wooden doors of the stables, he is struck by the scent of hay and animals. He can see that the long, back wall of the stables is the defensive wall with several windows and doors opened to the killing field. Luke is sure that he didn’t see them as he approached, but he guesses that it is some protective illusion. Knowing nothing about magic, he shrugs and looks around at the long row of neatly kept pens.
A young girl with dull, red hair is the only worker in the stables and she is busy tending to a gorgeous, royal blue war-horse at the far end of the stables. The mighty horse is obviously enjoying the grooming, but it still takes the time to look in Luke’s direction for a few seconds. He glances to his right to find a pack of slender greyhounds in a large pen. Stiletto turns toward the smaller dogs, causing them to back away. A defiant yelp breaks the silence, but Stiletto continues to quietly stare at the terrified pack. Luke reaches over the pen’s gate to scratch one of the greyhounds on the head. The other dogs cautiously come up to sniff at his hand until he gently pulls it away.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” Luke says, getting within a few feet of the girl. “I was told that I could keep Stiletto here while I was attending the academy. Are you in charge of the stables?”
Another horse nuzzles his arm when he leans against its stall. Smiling at the horse, he pulls out a piece of dried fruit for the brown mare. The mare is about to snatch the food, but the girl suddenly hits Luke’s hand with an expertly thrown brush. The horse steps away from Luke, nervously watching the girl glare at them.
“My father keeps the horses on a strict diet,” the girl declares as she continues to brush the war-horse.
“If you want to help me, grab that bucket of water over there and bring it to me.” Luke grabs the heavy bucket and drops it next to her with more force than he intended. The cool water splashes on her leg, causing her to glare at him again.
“Sorry about that. It was heavier than I expected and my hand slipped,” Luke says, getting her a horse blanket to dry off with. “My name is Luke. I just arrived here and I was told that Stiletto could stay here. Do you have a name? Not that I’m trying to demand anything. By the way, beautiful horse you’re working with.”
“I’m Jamie. This here is Bolt. We got her for Selenia when her last horse was too old to go into battle,” the girl explains with a gentle touch to the horse’s cheek. “She’s a western Yagervan who was raised by halflings for strength and endurance. A more beautiful horse, I have never seen. Though I’m just a youngling, so what do I know?”
Luke is about to say something else, but Jamie waves a hand as if she already knows the question. “I know the usual questions when people first meet Bolt, so I answered you and saved you the time. New recruits tend to talk too much and miss their first meal. If you don’t waste your time here then you will fall asleep in the dorm or zone out on the wall. You guys always think you have too much free time on your first day.”
“I’m pretty hungry, so I just wanted to drop off Stiletto and get some food,” Luke says with a charming smile.
“You can put Stiletto in the pen over there. It was made for a pony, but he’s big enough for it to be just the right size for him,” Jamie casually states, taking a closer look at the noble shepherd. “I am impressed with the shape and health your pet is in since I’m assuming he is always on the road with you. You have the look of a traveler, so I assume his diet is rather varied. Rest assured that all of us here will take good care of your pet.”
Jamie opens the door to a small pen for Stiletto. The dog’s ears stand up and he backs away from the girl. She tries to give the dog a warm smile in order to calm him down as she approaches, but Stiletto dodges her hands at the last second. The girl reaches into her pocket, pulling out a piece of jerky that she gingerly holds out for the dog. A look of triumph crosses her face when the dog begins to drool. Her victory is wiped away when he barrels into her, snatches the jerky from her hand, and promptly returns to Luke’s side. Jamie scrambles to her feet, wiping the hay from her clothes. She ignores the hay sticking out of her wild hair.
“Stiletto isn’t my pet. He’s my best friend. Let me talk to him,” Luke politely requests. He gives the dog a kiss on the top of his head. “I know, boy. I wouldn’t like to be penned up either. Though, I guess I am being penned up in this academy if you think about it. Unfortunately, I can’t let you wander around this place without both of us getting into trouble. I promise to visit you every chance I get and take you out for some runs in the forest. Besides, you’re going to be pampered in here while I get worked to death. So, enjoy yourself and be nice to the young lady.”
Luke smiles at Jamie as Stiletto walks up to her and lets her lead him into the pen. After she closes the door, Jamie waves to Luke and goes back to grooming Bolt. The muscular horse keeps its eyes on the half-elf who makes his way out the door. Luke is so busy thinking about how to find the heir that he bumps into a heavily armored dwarf. Luke is thankful that he didn’t walk into one of the foot-long shoulder spikes sticking out of the foggy platemail. One look at the old dwarf’s face tells the young warrior that he isn’t very happy about the jostle. His gray beard is practically bristling with a sudden surge of rage.
“I’m very sorry about that. I should pay more attention to where I’m going,” Luke apologizes as he backs up.
“Watch where you’re going, crazy kid. Goddamn toddlers think that they own the place,” the dwarf growls, his voice deep and tinged with annoyance. “I don’t believe I know you, kid. I’m Duggan Ironcaster, your taskmaster if you take any blacksmithing courses. So, who in the Holy One’s name are you? You better make it a real good answer. I hate long, drawn out names or moronic nicknames that you young folk seem to have nowadays. I remember when all you needed was your first name and a sturdy fist to make a memorable introduction.”
“My name is Luke Callindor. I just arrived and I haven’t quite gotten over the excitement of being here,” the half-elf humbly replies. The dwarf looks him over and spits on Luke’s boots. With a glimmer in his sapphire-like eyes, Duggan slaps Luke on the back hard enough to knock the youth off-balance.
The dwarf is walking away before Luke can ask about the spitting. The few dwarves he has met would slap each other on the back for any reason, but it was always positive and brotherly. The spitting was a new and confusing gesture. Luke is sure that the spitting will gnaw at him until he asks Duggan about it. The worst that could happen is that he gets a reputation for being an idiot. Luke smiles at the idea because if people think he’s an idiot then it might be easier for him to find to the heir. He easily catches up to the dwarf, which seems to irritate the short man.
Duggan refuses to pay attention to Luke until the half-elf asks, “Is spitting on someone’s boots a dwarven custom?”
The armored dwarf whirls around on Luke faster than the half-elf ever imagined a dwarf could move. The expression of seething anger on Duggan’s face causes a lump to get stuck in the Luke’s throat. Without warning, the dwarf breaks out into gut-shaking laughter. His orange tears fall to the grass causing a small fire that he effortlessly stomps out. Still laughing, the dwarf gives Luke a solid punch to the stomach, forcing Luke to gasp for air and fall to one knee. It takes a lot of effort for Luke to stand after the unexpected blow. Duggan is already walking away before Luke regains his composure.
“Is there anyone who works here and is in a good mood? I’ll be going insane if everyone has an attitude like Kevin, Duggan, and Jamie,” Luke mutters, rubbing his sore and growling stomach. “I better get some food before the students get back. That should give me some time to think unless the cook is some easily angered ex-warrior who thinks everyone below the age of twenty-five is nothing more than an arrogant punk. I’m going to have to pray a lot to Uli if I want to get out of here alive.”
“Enjoy your stay here, kid! Let’s hope you make it through the week!” the dwarf shouts as Luke walks away.