Author's Note: And thus begins the final book that I have completely written and edited enough times to make it readable. As I mentioned in the previous book, I've finished writing Book 5. Actually writing the story, however, is only one small step, so I have no idea if it will be ready to start posting by the time I finish posting this one. We'll see. As for this one...I'm posting three chapters today because it's the weekend and I had the time. I'll probably try for two at a time throughout the week. As always, feel free to review and make suggestions.


Prologue

The boy stood in darkness upon a foreign doorstep, his head tilted back as far as it could go so he might see the imposing structure of his new home. Built of large, gray stones, the castle appeared almost humble from the outside in spite of its size. Stone and windows, much like the cottage in which he'd grown up, though he doubted the inside was near as rough. This castle would have a floor, and nice furniture, and large fireplaces, and lots of people.

His former home had boasted no such amenities. The one-room cottage might have seemed full with only himself and the old man and woman who had raised him since birth. It might have seemed warm sometimes thanks to the fury of the old man whose wife broke her back in the fields to keep him intoxicated. He could not have imagined anything nice about the single cot the couple shared, forcing him to bed down in the dirt, or the rough-hewn table upon which they'd eaten meager meals.

About two hours ago, the old man had decided he no longer wanted to continue offering charity to the young orphan boy who'd been born in his barn, located just over the border separating the tame land of Meyjia and The Wilds. Although technically the man lived in The Wilds, he claimed allegiance to the Duke of Bryune, and when he got fed up with the boy, he decided the Duke was certainly wealthy enough to take care of him. So he took the boy to the Duke's castle, deposited him on the wide, stone front doorstep, and left the boy with only a word of advice.

"Work hard and say little, boy, and maybe one day these wealthy bastards'll make you their butler."

For the first hour, the boy did not lift his hand to knock because he was ashamed of the lonely tears spilling down his cheeks. So he hid behind a bush on the right side of the stairs leading up to the wooden double doors. No one came in or out of the castle, as sunset was long since past and nighttime was nigh on impossible to navigate with nothing but a few inadequate stars to go by. Still, he would rather not be seen until he was ready.

An hour ago, he'd walked back up the steps, even lifted his hand to rap on the door, but he'd eventually lowered his tightly-clenched fist when he realized he did not have the courage. What if they didn't want him? The old man and woman certainly hadn't wanted him. Why they had kept him for five whole years was a question his childish mind could not quite fathom.

So he stood in front of the door, trying to search for the courage to take the next step, meanwhile hoping that someone would spot him and open the door and save him from taking the initiative.

When an hour had passed and still no one had noticed him, he thought perhaps he could try knocking just once, very lightly, to alert someone to his presence. Except he had barely managed to lift his fist into the air before he heard the sound of a rustling bush nearby. Fearful that some sort of night animal might be out on the prowl, the boy pressed himself against the thick wooden doors, his heart beating wildly with fear. The rustling was coming from his left, and with each passing second the noise got steadily closer and closer.

Should he start knocking now? Yes, he decided when he saw the bush just next to the stone doorstep begin to rustle, now would be the perfect time to request admittance into the lofty Bryune Castle. The boy turned and frantically raised his now-shaking arm, intent on finally announcing his presence, if only to escape the beast in the bush, when a high-pitched voice cried out, "Stop!"

He must have jumped about five feet, for when his feet hit the ground they could no longer support his weight, and he toppled onto his rear end. Jarred by the impact, he sat in a daze for a moment before his eyes focused in on the source of the exclamation.

It was the beast in the bush. Except the beast in the bush was now peering at him over the top of the stone landing, his shadowed eyes and a mop of dark hair all that was visible.

The beast, it seemed, was a boy.

"Who are you?" he asked the boy.

He watched two dark eyebrows rise imperiously. "Who am I? Who are you?"

"I'm not the one skulking about in the bushes."

"Well I'm not the one who's been standing in front of my home for the past two hours."

"You saw me?" He frowned when the boy nodded. "Then why didn't you say anything?"

"Wanted to see what you'd do," the boy replied with a shrug. "Your name?"

Judging by the child's high-mannered question and reference to the castle as his home, it was obvious the boy belonged to the Duke of Bryune. What he was doing rustling through the bushes at such a late hour was another matter entirely, and one he chose not to broach quite yet. Best to get the introductions out of the way.

"My name is Jack. Jack Barnes." A simple name, really, derived from the place of his birth. The old woman had told him that his mother had died shortly after birthing him, but not before she bestowed upon him a name. Barnes became his surname because he was born in the old man and woman's barn. Jack because that happened to be the name of the cow whose stall his mother had overtaken in which to give birth.

"I'm Brendan Wolfe, but everyone just calls me Bren. Are you here to visit?" the boy asked good-naturedly.

"I'm here to work."

Bren snorted. "You? Work? You're a scrawny little thing."

"So are you," Jack retorted, for the boy had stepped far enough away from the stone ledge that he could see the Duke's son was every bit as small as he.

"Bet I could beat you in a race."

"Bet you couldn't."

Bren grinned mischievously. "Wanna see?"

Jack frowned. "Shouldn't you be in bed? It's late."

The boy shrugged. "I want them to think I ran away. Then he'll have to come looking for me."

"Who's he?"

"My father."

"Oh."

"Did you run away, too? I bet your father's out looking for you."

Jack shook his head. "Don't have a father." When Bren's jaw dropped, he added, "Don't have a mother, either."

After the surprise wore off, a wistful expression stole over the well-dressed boy's youthful face. "I have a mother and father, but I never see them. Still wanna race?"

His mission to acquire a position at Bryune Castle forgotten, Jack nodded and pointed to a dark shadow in the shape of a tree. "To there. Ready?"

"Go!"

And they were off. Feet pounding down the stone steps and then on the hard-packed dirt, Jack pumped his arms furiously as he raced side by side with the Duke's son. Halfway there, both boys were laughing wildly with the freedom of escape, and when they both crashed into the tree, neither one of them thought to look to see who won. They simply collapsed, winded, and leaned back against the rough bark of the tree to catch their breath. A long time passed before they heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and Jack could somehow sense Bren's excitement.

"He's come," the boy whispered, but when the dark shadow appeared before them, it was a rather hefty woman with a severe bun and glaring eyes.

"Who is she?" Jack whispered.

"Miss Pam, my nursemaid. She's evil."

"Master Brendan!" the woman barked, causing both boys to jump. "You are to return to your room immediately!"

Apparently, arguing with the stern older woman would prove futile, for Bren didn't bother to complain as he slowly stood and began to trudge back towards the castle.

"And your father says to stay away from the boy!" the woman called after him.

Bren's footsteps paused, and then he kept walking, leaving Jack alone with the imposing figure of the barking nursemaid looming over him. "Don't know why you're here boy, but the Duke says I'm to put you in the stables! You're to work hard and keep to yerself! Off with ye!"

That was the beginning, and Jack assumed the ending, of his friendship with the future Duke of Bryune. Except after one week of mucking stables and distributing hay until his poor little arms shook from the strain, he lifted his head from the trough in which he'd been scrubbing his face to the sight of Brendan Wolfe standing straight across from him.

"Thought you were supposed to stay away," Jack grumbled, still aching from the beating he'd taken just last night from some of the other stableboys who took exception to the fact that Jack was an orphan and smaller than all of them.

"Who's gonna know? No one ever pays attention to me. Sides, Miss Pam got fired for letting the twins cry too long and disturbing my father's work. The new nurse doesn't know the rules yet," Bren explained. "You done?"

"Yeah."

"Let's go."

A short while later, the boys were hidden amongst the tall grasses on the land to the north of Bryune Castle, staring up at the passing clouds overhead. Every now and then, one of the boys would point to one and announce what it looked like. Finding a cloud that faintly resembled the horrible Miss Pam had sent them both into fits of laughter. After a while, Jack decided to ask Bren a question that had been bothering him for days now.

"Bren, what's it like having parents?"

His new friend pursed his lips as he considered the question. "I don't know. Like I said, mine are never around. I think you're lucky. At least you're parents have an excuse to ignore you. They're dead."

Except they weren't dead. For nearly thirty years Jack believed the lie told to him on his third birthday by the old man and woman when they explained why he should not be calling them mama and papa.

He didn't have a mama and papa. They were gone. Dead. For years after reaching Bryune Castle, he fought to defend himself against other children who thought less of him for having been an orphan. Who laughed at him because he was all alone in the world. His revenge had been to rise above them, moving from the stables to the household, and eventually even to butler, while many of those same boys remained lowly stablehands.

With the help of Brendan's younger brother, Devlin, he educated himself. From Douglass, the other twin, he learned how to shoot a crossbow and how to make women swoon. And through Brendan he found trust. Security. Family. Never once did he suspect that Brendan was truly his family by blood, or that his dearest friend had been lying to him for years.

Little Jack Barnes had followed the old man's advice. Speak little and work hard. He became butler, just as the old man said he would. And when his whole world came toppling down, his trust and friendship broken forever, he left to seek a new destiny.

Whatever that might be.