Organized by Storytellers On Tour, along with several other bloggers and bookstagrammers, we present to you Little White Hands, Mark Cushen‘s debut Fantasy novel, the first book in the Garlan Greatheart series. Make sure to check out their posts as well! And don’t forget to enter the giveaway!
Mark Cushen has loved the fantasy genre since he accidentally stumbled onto Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion masterpiece, “Jason and the Argonauts”, while channel-hopping one Christmas-time Saturday afternoon, somewhere between the ages of 5 and 8.
Ever since then he has been obsessed with stories of sword-wielding heroes battling monsters in fantastical lands, and is now attempting to create his own. Little White Hands is the first of (hopefully) many.
Connect with Mark Cushen
Almost five hundred years have passed since the Seasons were at war.
Half a millennium since Winter defied Spring, and lost.
Generations have come and gone, not knowing the bitter freeze and howling snows of Winter ever existed.
But now, after centuries of silence, the participants in this ancient struggle have resurfaced and reignited their feud on the doorstep of an unassuming little kitchen boy.
Garlan’s dreams of being just like the knights he idolizes may not be as impossible as he has always been led to believe, when he is chased from his home and thrust headlong into the kind of adventure he had only ever read about in books.
Setting out on a journey that spans the entire kingdom of Faeland, Garlan will traverse impossible mountains and stormy seas and battle terrible monsters, all to keep the world he knows safe from an enemy who will stop at nothing to bring about a never-ending winter.
With a cast of fantastical characters to aid him in his quest, can Garlan overcome his self-doubt and find the courage he needs to rise above his humble station and become the hero he always dreamed of being?
The fate of the world rests in his hands.
Excerpt from Little White Hands by Mark Cushen
The Kitchen Boy
If I were to tell you that there was once a humble little kitchenhand who struggled through many perils and pitfalls to become a venerated hero, would you believe me?
Most likely you would say, “Pah!” or “Nonsense!” or “Never in a million years!” and then go on about the business from which I had disturbed you. I can almost hear you say those things. And maybe you would be justified in saying them.
But what if I then told you that it was not uncommon at all for such things to happen, because the call to adventure would often come chap, chap, chapping on the door of a young girl yearning to be free from the tyrannical grasp of her wicked stepmother, or fall at the feet of the seventh son of a seventh son seeking to go out and win riches and glory. Would you believe me then?
Maybe you should just read on. Let me take you to the kingdom of Faeland, in a period long since forgotten to time, when dragons soared and giants roamed, and the animals could still speak the same words as the people with whom they shared the world. And when we get there, perhaps you will learn the truth of it for yourself.
Our young kitchenhand’s name was Garlan, and he looked like most—well, what he really looked like has actually now been forgotten. But if you closed your eyes and had a good think, and tried to imagine what he looked like for yourself, there’s a very good chance that the image of him that you conjure up in your mind won’t be so far off the real thing.
Now, Garlan worked in the castle of Altenar, who was the High King of Faeland. Working in a kitchen could be difficult—working in the kitchen of the royal castle, even more so. Meals had to be prepared on time and to the highest grade for the king and queen and all their noble guests, several times a day, every single day. And then there was the clearing up that came after. But Garlan was no less hard working at the end of the day than he was at the beginning because he knew that the harder he worked the faster the day would go by, and then he got to go and do what he was most passionate about, which was practicing with his sword. You see, more than anything else, Garlan truly wanted to be a knight. He dreamed of one day taking a knee before King Altenar to feel his blade fall upon his shoulders, and take his place among the ranks of those elite warriors that he revered so much.
In his heart of hearts, though, Garlan knew that a dream was all those desires would ever be, and a certain castle guard took no pain in reminding him of that at every turn. “You? A knight?” that guard scoffed, and not for the first time that week. “Don’t make me laugh! You’re just a scruffy kitchen boy. And what’s more, you’re too soft! Too clean! I mean look at those tiny little hands, not a scratch or callus to be seen. Sir White Hands, that’s what they’d call you. What knight by that name could ever slay a dragon or win a championship at the lists? Never going to happen.”
I’ll show you, Garlan thought as the guard walked off to continue his rounds, chuckling as he went. One day I’ll be the best knight that ever held a sword. You’ll see.
But almost as soon as those thoughts were thought, he reproached himself. Only, I can’t be. Not ever. Kitchen boys can’t be knights. He looked down to see that in his frustration he had scrubbed the pots so hard that a thick bubbly froth had filled the basin, almost to overflowing. The pots were sparkling, though. He examined his hands and saw that the guard had been right—they were pinky-white, wrinkly, and soft.
Juran, a man in his fifties who was the head cook and Garlan’s uncle, came in just as the guard left, and said, “I’ve a mind to introduce the flat of my frying pan to old Rotter’s face,” when he saw that his nephew’s head had sunk low, just like it would when he retreated into that place in his mind where the self-doubt lived, and realised that the guard must have said something to upset him again. “Pay him no mind. If you have a dream, a desire of any kind, you hold onto it. You must go after it with all of your heart and soul. Do you think I sat by your mother’s deathbed and promised her that I would support you all of your life, just to let you give up on your dreams at the slightest discouragement from an idiot like him? Absolutely not! He’s just a guard, Garlan. He walks around in circles all day—like a wind-up toy, but with fewer manners. He doesn’t know the first thing about what it takes to be a true knight.” The cook had gotten himself quite worked up now, but as always had managed to bring the smile back to his nephew’s face just when he needed it.
Later, as the day came to an end and the final meal for the king and queen was cooked and served and cleaned away, Garlan said his goodbyes to the kitchen staff and collected his things to make the walk down through the evening-time hustle and bustle of Kingfisher’s Nest. He enjoyed the walk home from the castle because there was always something going on in the streets, and even though he had no other standards against which to measure his hometown, he loved it with all his heart. It was the middle of autumn, and all the leaves on the trees had turned orange and brown and were shedding, decorating the pavements with their earthy tones.
His route would begin in the upper town outside the castle walls, where the houses and other buildings were made with thick beams and well-cut bricks and roofed with fine slate, and the windows all had the loveliest glass panes and shutters with iron hinges that protected them from harsh winds and rain. The farther downhill he went the more modest the buildings and businesses became, until nearer the water were situated the dwellings of the people who made their living off the lake.
It was here, in a small wooden glade by the cliff’s edge, that Garlan lived alone, in the simple little house that Juran had helped him build, when the kitchen boy insisted one day not so long ago that while he was grateful for all the years that Juran had raised him like his own trueborn son in the comfort of his apartment next to the castle’s kitchens, he needed to learn to stand on his own two feet.
So at the end of every day when his work in the castle was done, Garlan would make the walk down through the cobbled streets, stopping every now and again to receive a fresh loaf of bread from the old baker lady who had taken to him like a grandmother and thought that he “could be doing with a little more meat on his bones,” or to talk briefly with Tom, the tailor’s apprentice with whom he had struck up a friendship; and then he would get to practicing the knightly arts.
His little house did not have its own yard as such, but the glade provided all the space he needed. Wooden targets dangled from the branches of the trees, and at these he would run with a broom held out before him like the fearless jousters who competed at the lists. He had also built dummies from planks and branches and padded them with straw that he had taken from the castle’s stables, and on these he would swing with his wooden sword and shield for hours, envisioning in his head that he was a valiant knight doing battle with a wicked sorcerer or gluttonous dragon.
“I could beat any one of those guards,” he hissed to himself as he struck at what was just now a savage goblin chieftain come to pillage his home and steal away all the pretty maidens. He was quite riled up as the mocking he received from Rotter had crept its way back into his mind all over again. “I would make a better knight than any of them!” He hacked and hacked and hacked away, chopping with his wooden sword with all the strength his little arms could deliver, letting out all his anger and frustration as he did so. It wasn’t long before the damsel-thief was reduced to splinters and straw.
An hour rolled by. Then two. The sun was gone and the animals of the night were out, each lending its individual voice to a delightful night-chorus. Garlan was on his second dummy now, this one playing the role of a terrible mountain troll. He had been so focused that he had not noticed that the night was so well on, and that he was far past dinnertime. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he thrust his sword into a slot in a tree stump (because he liked to pretend he was drawing his blade from a great stone, like the mighty warriors of myth and legend would do to prove their worthiness) and sat his shield on the grass and walked to the cliff’s edge at the far end of the glade to cool down.
The water was calm but menacing at this hour, black as the night sky high above it, and prevented from being totally and completely frightening only by the light of the silver moon, which Garlan liked to think of as a giant guardian light that watched over him. Sometimes he would even ask the moon questions about life that he did not know the answer to, or things about his parents that he was too reluctant to ask his uncle, such as what they were like as people, and if he had inherited anything of note from them, because from up there it must be able to see and know everything that had ever happened in the world.
Tonight, though, he had no questions, and his meeting with the moon was a short one. He was too exhausted to think about anything other than the comfort of his soft feather bed.
❄ ❄ ❄
The kitchen boy was less tense the next day as he left most of his frustrations on the floor of the glade alongside the dummy he had destroyed. Best leave them there, he thought as he walked out into the crisp autumn air to begin his day. He drew his wooden sword from its wooden stone, said goodbye to the little blackbird that nested in the tree by the door, and made the steep climb up through the streets to the castle.
The town was built upon the hilly island situated on the southern side of Faeland’s biggest lake—the Wormgrave—which sat in the crook of the King’s Crown Mountains at the end of the River Split’s southern branch. Legends said a great serpent once lurked in the lake, back in the ancient days before there were any people on the island, only a giant kingfisher which ruled over the creatures of the lake as a mighty king. But over time the great serpent in the water had hunted so many of the kingfisher’s subjects that it was left no choice but to vanquish the monster.
All that was a long time ago, but the statues that stood at the side of the road leading up to the castle made sure the townsfolk never forgot. Garlan certainly would not because every day on his way to work he stopped at each one to marvel at their beauty and read aloud the placards which explained them. Provided it wasn’t raining, of course.
“The King of the Lake,” read the placard beneath the first statue, of the kingfisher standing over the creatures of the lake and holding court like a noble lord. The second statue, some ways up the hill, was Garlan’s personal favourite, “The King and the Usurper.” This showed the kingfisher and the giant serpent entangled in a terrible battle which sent waves up around them. The next statue revealed that the kingfisher had emerged victorious as he took the serpent back to the island to show his subjects that they no longer need live in fear. But then came, “Long Live the King,” which showed the kingfisher dying of a broken heart as he realised that all of his subjects were gone, for the serpent had devoured them all. On this same statue, the conquered serpent had slipped from the kingfisher’s grasp and back into the emerald depths. It was thus that the Wormgrave got its name.
There were no more statues after that one, but Garlan knew the story then goes that the island fell quiet for hundreds of years until eventually the first people came along the river in their boats and settled it, and over time it grew into the thriving settlement of Kingfisher’s Nest.
Garlan always timed his walks so that he could visit each statue and still arrive at work just on time, and not a minute sooner. The castle of Kingfisher’s Nest was unique in that the kitchens were not located out in the bailey (the walled courtyard where the barracks, feasting hall, stables, forges and workshops were situated), but within the keep itself. He had once overheard some guards saying that the reason for that was because the king loved his food so much he preferred to have the kitchens close at hand should he fancy a midnight snack. He had never dared to ask if there was any truth to the rumour because he quite liked his head where it was, and spreading tall tales about the king was a sure way to find oneself on the chopping block beneath the headsman’s axe.
Juran welcomed him warmly as he did every day. “Did you sleep well?”
Garlan shrugged. “A bit.”
“Were you practicing last night?”
The boy nodded and winced as he stretched his achy muscles.
“Well, you’d better smarten up,” Juran said with a slight chuckle. “Today’s a big day. Some important general is returning from an even more important mission abroad, and it seems like we’re to whip him up a dish for every day he was gone.”
Garlan put on his apron and got to work. For breakfast they made herb sausages, smoked bacon, and scrambled eggs from an assortment of birds, with platters of fruit on the side. Lunch was soup loaded with chopped mushrooms, carrots, leeks, and beans, and served in bowls of hollowed, golden crusty bread, fresh from the oven. Dinner was a roasted pig served on a bed of fried potatoes and parsnips and stuffed with mashed turnip, ground black pepper, and chopped scallions. Supper was lighter fare, and consisted of a meat paste flavoured with wine and herbs and spread thin on sliced bread that had been fried in butter.
That day passed by quicker than he feared it would, and Garlan could not recall ever being more thankful for anything else in his life. He had almost fallen asleep on three occasions and avoided a hiding from the guards who frequented the area only because his uncle had clipped him around the ear and woken him up. “Get food in your belly and your backside straight into bed as soon as you get home,” the cook ordered as they were clearing up at the end of the day. “No swordplay tonight.”
Garlan responded with a yawn. “You can’t tell me what to do, you know,” he then said through a roguish grin. “I don’t live under your roof anymore.”
“No, you don’t, but the roof you do live under was built by these hands. And they’re just as capable of pulling it down as they were of putting it up.”
Garlan only laughed. Another work day was done, and he left in high spirits.
As he crossed the bailey on his way to the castle gate, Garlan stopped for a few moments to watch the soldiers train. He did that often and, in fact, had picked up most of his own skills from watching the king’s men go through their drills and spar with each other, to replicate later on his dummies at home. After a short while, the men huddled away into the hall to eat, hanging their swords and spears up on a rack at the edge of the training area.
Usually he would have left then, but tonight he was feeling more adventurous, and he found himself picking a sword up from the weapons rack before he even recognized having the thought to do so. As eleven-year-old boys go, Garlan was strong, for he was often tasked with bringing up crates and barrels from the cellar to the kitchen; but even he failed to anticipate how much heavier the weapon would be than his own little wooden sword, and it dragged him to the ground with its weight as soon as it came free of its pegs.
Best use two hands, he thought as he climbed to his feet and dusted himself off. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he hoisted the sword up with both hands and threw a few strikes at the practice dummies, but the weight of the sword dragged him off balance, and he missed his intended target more times than he hit it. If nothing else, though, he was determined, and he enjoyed the struggle of training, and so he continued swinging as long as he was able to before the soldiers came back out of the hall to move him along.
As he stood there, swinging clumsily, a guard walked onto the training yard. It was Rotter. “What are you doing here, White Hands?” he asked while crunching on an apple.
Garlan turned with a start. Sweat dripped from his chin onto the dusty dirt floor, and his arms ached. Swinging the bigger sword had tired him out, and he could not speak for breathing so heavily.
“Are you deaf as well as soft?” Rotter said, stepping towards him. The juice from the apple was dribbling down his chin, and he had bits of the red skin stuck between his teeth. “I asked what you were doing here. You shouldn’t be here. And you most certainly should not be playing with that! Put that sword back and get out of here, skivvy.”
“I’m not a skivvy,” Garlan said back, trying to voice his reply as sharply as he could, but every breath was a struggle, and it didn’t quite come out as threatening as he’d hoped.
“Is that so? Well how comes you do skivvy work for that old codger in the tower behind the castle?”
Garlan could feel the rage boiling up inside of him, and he gripped the handle of the sword so tightly his knuckles paled. White Hands seemed an appropriate name now. “I’m not a skivvy! Well, I do mop his floors and keep things clean for him, and cook for him too, sometimes, but he tutors me for it. He’s my teacher!”
Rotter swallowed a chunk of apple and spat a pip at the boy’s feet. “Whatever you say, White Hands. So what are you doing out here anyhow? And why do you have that sword? I won’t ask again.”
“Training? For what? There an infestation of cockroaches in the kitchens you’ve been set to get rid of? Or has the Rat King returned to haunt the stores, and you’re going to put him down once and for all?” As he laughed, Rotter coughed up a piece of apple, and he spat that at the kitchen boy’s feet too.
Of course Garlan did not really believe the stories that told of a huge rat monster with multiple heads and tails, which was said to lurk in the quiet darkness of dungeons and damp cellars to pick off unsuspecting victims, so he rolled his eyes and chose not to answer the japes. “Why are you so horrible to me all the time?” he asked instead. “What did I ever do to you?”
The guard shrugged. “Nothing, really. I just get bored on my rounds sometimes.” He pointed to the wooden sword in Garlan’s belt. “Say, that’s a nice little toy you’ve got there, White Hands. Can I see it?”
“It’s not a toy. It’s a sword.”
Rotter laughed and drew his own blade from its scabbard. “This is a sword, White Hands,” he said, pointing it at the boy’s face. “That’s a stick.”
Garlan moved back a step and dragged the big sword up to slap Rotter’s aside with it. “Don’t do that!” he snapped.
“Do what? This?”
Again Garlan slapped Rotter’s sword aside, using much of his limited energy to do so. “I said don’t do that!” He could feel his face reddening more intensely as the anger built within him.
The guard laughed. “You’ve got some brass on you, White Hands; that much I’m willing to admit. But you’re lucky you’re not a little bit older. If you were, I’d put you in your place the hard way, right here, right now. Teach you how much of a skivvy you really are. Now put that sword back and get out of here before I throw you out.” Rotter sheathed his own sword and spat a third time at the boy’s feet, looked him up and down disdainfully, and turned and walked away.
Garlan could not let the insults go unchallenged. His rage was too intense now. Before he knew it, he was shouting after his tormentor, “I’m old enough!” and as soon as the words were out, he instantly regretted saying them. But it was too late to back out now. Besides, no knight worth his salt would back down from an aggressor, so he breathed deep and pressed on. “Throw me out. See if I don’t make you pay for it.” His heart raced inside his chest, and his palms were sweating furiously.
Rotter stopped dead in his tracks. He didn’t turn around straight away, but his shoulders were bouncing up and down, and Garlan knew that he was laughing at him. When at last the man did turn, he threw the remainder of his apple to the floor, drew his sword once again, and marched towards the boy at an alarming pace. “Time you learned a lesson, White Hands!”
But White Hands was ready. He dragged his sword up off the ground again with what little strength he had left and swung it as the guard advanced on him. It was a swing and a miss. Rotter saw the strike coming and deflected it with ease, knocking the sword out of Garlan’s grip and across the yard, leaving him defenseless. Or so he would have been had he not brought a backup. As Rotter reached for him with a leather-gloved hand, Garlan ducked underneath the man’s arm and struck him hard on the elbow with his wooden sword, which he had drawn from his belt quick as a flash. The guard swung back around in a rage with his blade outstretched, but Garlan anticipated that too, and once again he dipped underneath his opponent’s arm, this time striking him hard on the knee with a counter. A loud crack sounded out, and Rotter howled and crashed to the floor, where he rolled back and forth with his knee clasped in his hands, cursing and snarling.
Garlan laughed and approached him. “Is there anything you’d like to say to me now?” he asked, inflated with confidence, holding his head high and puffing out his chest as though he was some warrior of renown winning a great victory.
“Yes,” the guard hissed through gritted teeth, “just one thing.”
“And what’s that?” Garlan sneered, moving a little closer. He was rather enjoying looking down on the bully who took so much pleasure in mocking him.
Rotter shot up and grabbed Garlan by the collar so suddenly that he cried out and dropped his wooden sword in fright. “Never let your guard down!”
❄ ❄ ❄
He woke up some time later, face down in mud. It was long into the night, and all that remained of the night animal’s chorus were the hooting owls and barking foxes. As he rolled onto his side, he winced, for his face hurt terribly. He sat up and realized he was in the upper town, just outside the castle. Rotter had thrown him out onto the street.
“You alright there, lad?” asked a passing patrolman, walking by on his nightly rounds.
Garlan nodded. “Fine, thank you. Just tripped.” He rubbed his jaw and winced again. Rotter must have hit him hard. The patrolman lingered for a moment to make sure before nodding back and going on his way again. Garlan sat in the mud for a few minutes more before getting to his feet. He gave his filthy clothes no mind but noticed that his wooden sword was not there, and he sighed as he realised that it had no doubt been snapped into pieces and tossed away. Looking around, he saw that the streets were empty, and so, turning on his heels, he began to sulk down the hill towards the lower town.
Just as he reached the tavern a few turns away from the cliff-side glade, the clouds let open in the sky above, and rain began to pour down, soaking his clothes through. Garlan stopped and stood on the spot for a few minutes, watching the patrons of the tavern come out in various stages of insobriety and head off home to their families. He held his hands out to feel the rain soothe his open palms, which were sore from the leather handle of the bigger sword dragging heavily across them as he swung it about earlier.
Eventually the lights in the pub went out, and the shutters were pulled closed, and round about him all was lifeless. Garlan realised that he must have been standing there for some time and gave himself a shake and took off towards home again. But as he neared the corner, a tall silhouette appeared in the darkness ahead, heralded by the clip-clop of hooves on cobbles. The mounted figure was swaying from side to side, and then slid limply off his shadowy steed and into the saturated mud.
Garlan ran to the stranger at once and lifted him onto his lap, and at that very same moment the black dray horse went to its knees, slumped onto its side, and gave its last breath. It was then that the kitchen boy saw that the great beast was bleeding profusely from slash marks that crisscrossed its stomach and flanks and legs. Garlan turned away in horror, only to see a similar sight in the old man he was cradling. Claw marks stretched across his face from one cheek and across the bridge of his nose to the other, and he had a deep stomach wound, and the blood had soaked into his clothes.
“You must… seek out the High Seasons,” croaked the stranger, through a bloody cough. He strained with every word. “Tell them… tell them, the farm… and the Baron… attacked!”
As he paused to take a hard-won breath, a sudden loud screech tore through the night and froze the man in terror, and Garlan turned in the direction whence the sound came. The man began to wail and pressed his hands to his ears as an immense snowy owl alighted on the roof of a house on the other side of the street.
Garlan gave the bird little thought and shook the stranger gently. “What farm?” he said. “Who is the Baron? What are the High Seasons?”
The man met the boy’s eyes. His own had become lifeless, sapped of whatever light remained in them. “The Blue Man has returned.” His eyes then glazed over, and a long, slow breath seeped from his body, and he died.
Garlan shook him again and questioned him, but no reply came. For a time he could hear nothing, even as the rain pounded every surface nearby and the thunder rumbled in the sky. Unable to pull his eyes from the man’s horrific wounds, a question raced through his mind: What would a knight do right now? But it was a question he couldn’t answer. He wasn’t a knight.
How long he sat there with the dead man slumped across his lap he could not have guessed, but eventually another patrolman walked by. “What’s going on over there?” he shouted out through the curtain of rain, turning off his route to come over and investigate. Garlan was too much in shock to reply. Instead, he turned and looked up at the white owl that was still perched on the roof and grew suspicious of its being there, so very far from where its natural habitat should be.
The patrolman gasped when he saw the dead horse and all the blood. “What in the name of… What happened?”
“I found him like this,” Garlan whimpered. “I don’t know what happened to him. I asked him, sir. I did. But, he’s dead. His horse died, and then he died. Please, sir, help me. I don’t know what to do.”
The patrolman lifted the dead man off Garlan’s lap and placed him on the sodden ground before helping the shaken boy to his feet. “You didn’t see what happened?” he asked. “You’re certain?”
Garlan shook his head. “I swear. He fell off his horse as I came down the road. He was already hurt.”
“Where were you going when you found him?” the patrolman asked as he studied the bloody scene.
“Home. I was coming back from the castle.”
“What were you doing there?”
“Working. I’m a kitchen boy.”
The patrolman nodded and scanned the area. “Is your home far from here?”
“No,” Garlan replied, “only a few minutes away, on the cliff-side.”
The patrolman urged him back on his way and then drew his sword. “Then you head on home, son,” he said, softly. “Leave this with me. Might be I come fetch you later for the investigation. But if you’re sure you have nothing more to tell, on you go. Whoever did this might still be on the streets. Quickly now.”
Garlan wiped the soak from his face before saying, “Thank you,” and he ran off as fast as he could.
He was drenched by the time he got home, his clothes so dark with wet that the blood that had stained them was almost unnoticeable. The image of the dying man and his horse consumed Garlan’s thoughts all night. He sat at his little table in a daze, eating a dinner of leek and potato stew that he was not able to finish. The wounds, the blood, the look on the old man’s face as he edged closer to death, the owl—all of it haunted him so much that when he finally went to bed, sleep evaded him.
Outside, the rain still poured, and the thunder still boomed. The sounds of the world were loud out there, and Garlan was certain they would not cease to let him sleep. For a moment, he considered going out into the glade to meet with the moon, hoping it would help him quiet his thoughts, but he did not want to get soaked again. He decided to just contend with it all and pulled his blanket over his head.
But as he started to drift off to sleep, there announced from outside a most dreadful sound. He crept out of bed and crossed the room to the window, and then the sound came again: a loud screech. He flung the shutters wide, and there on the low branch of a tree opposite his window sat the great snowy owl. The little blackbird that nested by his door hung limply from its beak. It lingered a moment and stared at him unnervingly before throwing out its immense white wings and taking off into the black sky.
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