The man turned to Lia, who was standing with her head bowed meekly as a serf should in the presence of her betters. He put his finger under her chin and tipped up her face, turning her head from side to side. 'She's a pretty one, for a fact. What's your name, girl?'
'Lia, master,' she whispered, trembling.
'Well, Lia, a word of advice: work hard and obey orders. We have no time for slackers and troublemakers here. There's no shortage of rods in the castle, nor men who know how to use them, as wayward girls soon learn to their cost. Go along with Garek now and remember what I said. I'll be keeping a close eye on your progress.'
He told the guard to deliver her to the kitchen. Garek took her arm and led her through the doorway into the keep, then turned left into a low arched passageway. After a dozen paces the passageway opened out into a big chamber with a curved ceiling, like the inside of a barrel. To her left was a huge open fireplace, with pots and kettles hanging on hooks, and a large roasting spit. In the middle of the room was a big wooden table, and in the corner a long stone sink.
There were two men and three women, and Garek left her in the care of a short fat bald man whom she presumed was the overseer. A change of master is always a frightening time for a serf, and this man seemed stern and unfriendly. He looked Lia up and down, scowling.
'And who might you be?'
'Are you a virgin?' She nodded, startled by the directness of the question. 'We'll see,' he said. 'Stand still.' He pulled up her skirts and pushed his hand between her legs. Lia whimpered, trembling. 'Keep still, I said!' he growled, as he carefully eased his finger into her sex and explored her. 'Intact - and see to it you stay that way. You're in the royal castle now, not some stinking village hut with goat shit on the floor. Only a noble like the king or Prince Baran can deflower you here, understand?'
'You'd best not forget it. I'll have the skin off your arse if you let some servant or rough-arsed soldier mount you, make no mistake.'
He glared at her a moment longer to reinforce the threat, then turned to a handsome young woman with jet-black hair. She was standing just behind the man with her arms folded, staring at Lia in a hostile fashion.
'Where's Jarold?' the overseer asked her.
'You sent him off to Cavell with the fish order,' she said, 'remember?'
'So I did,' the man grumbled. 'Bugger!'
He looked at the three others in the room. The first was a young man, occupied cleaning vegetables. The second was a fair-haired girl about Lia's age, who was crouched by the fire stirring a pot. Watching over her was a plump old woman with a round red face and grey hair done up in a bun. The two young ones kept their heads down and busied themselves with their allotted tasks, while the old woman looked on indifferently. The overseer finally jabbed his chin at the young man.
'You, Durwin, take this one to the laundry and get her some respectable clothes, then show her where she sleeps. Make sure she stows her things tidily, mind. And don't dawdle: there's a lot to do today and we're short-handed with Jensine away.'
The young man beckoned to Lia, and she followed him to the far end of the kitchen and out through another door.
'That was our overseer, Holmann, in case you didn't know,' he said with a wry smile, as soon as they were out of earshot. 'Friendly soul, isn't he? It's a miracle he called me Durwin just now - usually it's cockroach. You said your name's Lia?'
She nodded. He was a year or two older than her and a head taller, with unruly brown hair. He seemed friendly enough, and had nice eyes and a nice smile. He took her along a narrow passageway with storerooms on either side packed with crates and barrels, explaining that they contained provisions to feed the garrison in case of siege. The sight of all these stores made Lia think there might be some truth in the rumours of war with Osburg.
They came to a larger room that was full of steam and almost unbearably hot. A row of cauldrons hung over a fire as big as the one in the kitchen, and there were several wooden tubs full of water. A woman was wringing out wet clothing, and as they entered she wiped her hands on her apron and came forward to meet them.
'Lia, this is Kerta,' Durwin said. 'Holmann sometimes sends us here to lend a hand, when he can spare us from the kitchen.'
'Aye... sometimes,' Kerta said with a tired smile. 'I could wish it were more often.' She looked weary, and Lia guessed that the work in the laundry was hard. Kerta was middle-aged and slender, with dark-brown hair tied back from her rather plain face. She went into a small side room and returned with two grey smocks, neatly folded, a pair of leather slippers, a washcloth, and a clean square of linen for drying oneself. As she handed them over Lia saw that her hands were red from all the washing.
'Two smocks,' Kerta said, 'one to wear, one to wash. Drop it off here in the morning and I'll have it washed and ironed and ready for collection by noon. The same goes for towels.'
'You have to keep clean when you work in the kitchen,' Durwin explained. 'If your hands or smock are dirty you'll be punished. He's very strict like that, our overseer.'
But Lia was clean by habit and inclination, bathing every day as Helma had taught her, and with her new clothes in a bundle under her arm she followed Durwin along another passageway to the dormitory, a long, low chamber with two rows of beds and a screen of willow hurdles down the middle.
'Men on the left, women on the right,' Durwin said. 'All the downstairs servants sleep here, not just the kitchen staff. Right now there's two men and six women, including you. It should be seven, but Jensine's just had a baby. She's staying in the town with her sister till she's strong enough to come back to work.'
There were gaps in the screen, Lia saw, so there would be little or no privacy.
'The washroom's at the far end,' Durwin went on. 'The newest servant - that's you - has to fetch two buckets of water every morning from the well so the others can have a strip-wash. Tomorrow morning someone will show you what to do: Tilda, probably, as she was newest till you arrived. Once a week we go down to the river to bathe properly and wash our hair, but not all together. I'm with the Friday lot; that's me, Kerta and Clady, who you haven't met yet. Clady's the seamstress. I don't know which group you'll be with; that's for Holmann to decide.'
He pointed out a spare bed and Lia put her bag underneath it. 'Get changed,' he said, 'you have to wear the proper things here.'
Lia waited for him to leave or turn his back, but he just stood there, hands on hips, a faint smile on his face. 'Come on,' he said, 'you haven't got anything I haven't seen before.'
Lia stripped off her things, feeling heat rise to her cheeks, but before she could put on her new clothes Durwin stepped close. 'Better check to see if you're clean,' he said. 'Show me your hands.'
Lia held them out and he took them in his own, turning them over. 'Hmm... not bad. Turn around.'
She did so, and he unfastened the plaited grass ribbon that tied back her hair and stroked her long tresses. 'Good,' he said. 'Keep it as clean as this and you'll be all right. Turn back this way.'
She turned around to face him, and he put his hands on her breasts. She gasped and tried to step back, but the edge of the low bed pressed against her calves.
'Stand still,' the young man said. He kneaded her breasts, pushing them up and together like the soldiers did to Helma. 'Nice...' he drooled. 'Lovely and firm... and bigger than Dagna's, even. You're prettier than she is, too, and she won't like that, so you'll have to watch out for her.'
Lia was too flustered and embarrassed by what he was doing to ask who Dagna was. No one had ever touched her like this. No one had seen her naked, except Helma. Then Durwin's right hand slid downwards, over her flat belly and between her legs. She gasped and jerked her hips back.
'Keep still,' he said sharply. 'Don't be silly; I know the rules about not deflowering virgins.'
Lia forced herself into immobility, and Durwin's fingers began rubbing up and down her sex. She was trembling as though she had the ague, and despite his assurances she was terrified of what he might do, with the overseer's threat still ringing in her ears.
'Such a lot of fuss over a quick feel,' Durwin said, more softly now. 'Others won't be so gentle. You'll be getting a lot worse than this soon, believe me. A lot worse.'
He continued to rub her for several minutes, and something strange started to happen. She felt a tingling between her legs that she didn't understand at all. Though she was ashamed at what was happening, and afraid of him, somehow she didn't want it to stop.
But Durwin abruptly took his hand away and told her to dress, and she did so hurriedly, relieved to be able to cover her nakedness. He took her back to the kitchens, pausing briefly to point out another door along the way.
'This is Holmann's room,' he said. 'He likes to be close so he can keep an eye on us.'
The overseer rounded on them the instant they showed their faces. 'And where have you two been all this time, eh?' he snapped. 'Idling about, I'll warrant. I swear, lad, if it wasn't for the fact there's two baskets of vegetables to wash and chop I'd have the hide off you. Get on with it, cockroach, before I change my mind!'
'Yes, master,' Durwin mumbled as he scurried off back to his chores.
'As for you, my girl,' the overseer snapped, glaring at Lia, 'you've just earned yourself a taste of the rod. Get them clothes off, and be quick about it.'