The Squire, страница 1
James E. Wisher
About the Author
Also by James E. Wisher
Copyright © 2015 by James E. Wisher
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Col blinked sweat out of his eyes as he turned aside another of Sir Geris’s strikes. Brilliant sunlight pounded down on the training yard in front of Castle Finegold, forcing him to squint. Spring was quickly turning to summer in the kingdom of Corinthia and the heat of the day promised a blistering season. Despite the fine weather only Col and his mentor Sir Geris were training in the practice yard. The other squires probably feared to break a sweat. They’d dueled for an hour in the heat and Col’s hands tingled from the impact of the wooden practice swords. Sweat soaked his padded under-tunic through, still he’d blocked every one of the elder knight’s blows.
Col raised his sword for the next pass, but Sir Geris stepped back and lowered his weapon. “That’s enough for today.” His mentor’s raspy voice matched his scarred face. No pretty nobleman content to hide at court, his master had served on the front lines of every major battle for the past twenty years and had survived everything the battlefields had thrown at him. Sir Geris was a warrior first and a nobleman second. “Tend to our gear and we’ll get lunch.”
“Yes, sir.” Col stripped off his stinking leather breast plate. Not that Col minded the stink; in his five years as a squire he’d gotten used to the smell of leather, sweat, and oil. Col would turn eighteen in a month and at the winter solstice, if Sir Geris and the king found him worthy, he would receive his shield and spurs, a full knight at last. No more training and a good deal less taking orders.
Knight and squire walked together toward the armory where they stored all the practice weapons and other gear. “You did well today. I didn’t land a single blow.” Sir Geris clapped him on the shoulder.
Col smiled. Few people made it through a sparring match with Sir Geris without taking a blow, much less a squire. “If we’d gone another five minutes you would have had me. I just got lucky you quit when you did.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit. In all honesty I’d say you’re the fourth-best swordsman in the order, squire or knight. You’ll do well at the squires’ tournament next month.”
Col gave a soft snort of disgust. The noble fops that passed themselves off as squires couldn’t fight their way out of a burlap sack.
“What was that?” Sir Geris said.
“Nothing, sir, it’s just that fighting the other squires seems like a waste of time. Only a dozen of them take the training seriously, and of those only two have any real talent. After sparring with you it’s like fighting children.”
They reached the armory and Col opened the door. Inside, dozens of armor stands and racks holding wooden swords and unstrung bows stood in neat rows. Quivers of arrows hung from pegs on the wall. Col draped his armor over an empty stand then did the same with Sir Geris’s. The swords he replaced in the racks where he’d gotten them. The gear taken care of he grabbed the spare tunic he’d left in the shed earlier and threw it over his head.
“I know the other squires aren’t the finest warriors to ever pick up a sword.”
Col raised an eyebrow at that.
“Okay,” Sir Geris said. “Some of them are sad indeed, but that doesn’t mean you can overlook them. Even an unskilled opponent can be dangerous if you underestimate him.”
“I know, sir, but am I wrong to want an opponent who can give me a real challenge?”
“Not at all,” Sir Geris said as they turned toward the barracks to get a meal. They often ate with the soldiers in the barracks rather than the nobles in the keep. “In fact, I’ve been thinking about asking some of the other knights to spar with you. It’ll do you good to face someone with a style different from mine.”
“Do you think any of them would be willing? I know most of the knights don’t approve of a commoner being a squire.”
Sir Geris laughed. “The ones who disapprove will probably be the first to volunteer so they can put you in your proper place. You’re already better than most of that lot so they’ll be in for a surprise.”
Col grinned and followed his mentor into the barracks. He liked the idea of pounding on one of those smug prigs. They were all so quick to dismiss him. He’d enjoy showing them their mistake if he got the chance.
A dozen soldiers sat at tables scattered around the mess eating a late lunch when they entered. They started to rise, but Sir Geris waved them back to their meals. The kitchen sat at the back of the mess and Col went to collect the food while the older knight found a table. As usual the noon meal consisted of stew — pork Col thought — along with bread and ale. He put everything on a wooden tray and carried it back to Sir Geris’s table.
Col nodded, set the tray down, and sat opposite his mentor. He grabbed a bowl and dug in, using the bread as a spoon. He let out a groan of delight. Salty and rich, with thick gravy and big chunks of pork, the food tasted so much better than anything he’d eaten growing up. He looked at Sir Geris pushing his food around without eating.
“You could always go up to the keep and get something,” Col said.
Sir Geris frowned and ate with more enthusiasm. Col grinned and went back to his meal. Sir Geris had less use for most of the other noble knights than Col had for their squires. After a few more bites Col said, “So no one wanted to join us this morning?”
“Everyone said it was too hot to train.”
“His Majesty will have to make sure there are no wars in the summer,” Col said.
Several of the soldiers nearby laughed at that. “Seriously though, do they think poetry will help in the field?”
Sir Geris frowned, deepening his scars. Poetry had become the new fad at court; the knights and squires competed to see who could come up with the worst rhyme. It amused the ladies, which seemed to be the main point. “They don’t dare work their squires too hard. Most of the knights are minor nobles and younger sons. Some of the squires’ fathers are powerful men. If they push too hard…”
Sir Geris didn’t have to finish the sentence. Col knew what would happen. The offended squire would complain to Daddy who would complain to the king who wouldn’t want to risk angering one his nobles and so would order the knight to take it easy on the squire. “That’s one advantage I have. You could work me to death and
“Your father…” Sir Geris faltered and fell silent.
Col barely swallowed his mouthful of stew. “He doesn’t know me anymore. He’s pulling further and further away from everything. It was bad when Mama and Bella died, and he’s been getting worse every day. If Miss Lena didn’t bring him food and sit with him to be sure he ate it he would have died long ago. There’s nothing I can do to reach him.”
“I’m sorry, Col. If there’s anything I can do just name it.”
“You’ve already done more than I could have asked, sir.” It was the truth too. When Sir Geris took Col as his squire he gave Col’s father a room at his family keep and hired a nurse to care for him. No other man would have done that for a poor commoner half mad with grief. Sir Geris claimed he did it so Col could concentrate on his training, but Col knew better. Sir Geris looked after his father because it was the decent thing to do. “So what are we doing this afternoon?”
Sir Geris sighed in relief at the change of subject. “We’ll ride the east road. You need all the riding practice you can get.”
Col sniffed, imitating the nobles, and said in a haughty voice, “There was not an excess of horses in the slums of Rel.”
This brought another round of laughter from the men and a good-natured smile from his mentor. “Finish up and get the horses ready. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
* * *
“Morning, Col,” a familiar voice called as Col stepped into the stables. He found Jack, one of the two stable boys, brushing a beautiful black mare. Jack was the younger son of Joseph, the stable master. Two years younger than Col, Jack and his older brother Joey numbered among Col’s many friends in the castle’s servant corps.
“It’s afternoon not morning, Jack.” Col offered a friendly grin. “Pretty quiet around here.”
“Calm before the storm. This,” Jack said with a distasteful gesture at the horse he was combing, “is Princess Rain’s latest purchase. If it isn’t in perfect condition when her high-and-mightyness shows up I’ll have to listen to the bitch complain then I’ll probably get a slap upside the head from the old man. I’d rather be on the manure wagon with Joey.”
“Is she that bad?” Col worked on getting his Sir Geris’s horse ready. He led the tan gelding outside and tied him to the rail in front of the stable. He’d seen the princess around many times, though he’d only spoken to her once or twice. She was a beautiful girl.
“Worse.” Jack’s disgust came through loud and clear.
Col grinned. You seldom got such a strong opinion from the good-natured stable boy. Not that it surprised him that the princess would be miserable to work for. In his experience most nobles shared many personality traits with starving bears. Pity, you couldn't run a spear through a noble when they became a pain.
Col finished tightening the saddle on Sir Geris’s horse then went to get his own. His pinto mare lived in the farthest stall on the left. No surprise there since he ranked lower than any other squire in the king’s service. Even the pages outranked him at court. “Hey, girl,” Col said. She came up and nuzzled him. “Want to go for a ride?”
Her ears perked up at that. Col smiled. She stood only fourteen hands high, but Col’s pinto was the smartest horse in the stables. Sir Geris gave her to Col when he advanced from page to squire. He scratched her neck as he led her out of the stall. He wouldn’t trade his little pinto for the finest warhorse in the stable.
Col led her out, tied her to the rail, and went back to get his gear. He reached for his saddle. “Son of a bitch!”
Someone had put a long scratch in the leather, no doubt a little gift from one of his fellow squires. He shook his head. They used to pick fights with him, but after he flattened enough of them they switched to damaging his gear or pulling nasty pranks. He couldn’t do anything about it. The scratch looked like hell, but wouldn’t keep him from using the saddle. He hoisted the saddle over his shoulder and carried it out front to finish getting ready.
Princess Rain stood by the stable door dressed as slick as you please in a white shirt and black vest. Her tight white pants hugged the curve of her hips and tucked into knee-high black boots polished so bright he had to look away to avoid the glare. She wore her long black hair tied back in a complex braid he guessed had taken her maids an hour and would be ruined ten minutes after she started her ride. The riding outfit was snug enough to show off her curves to good effect, but the look of disdain with which she regarded him spoiled an otherwise pleasant image. Col managed a bow despite the saddle in his arms.
“You there,” she said. “Go fetch my horse.”
Col set his gear beside his pinto. “Jake’s inside, Princess. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“I ordered you to fetch my horse.” Her voice raised an octave to borderline shrill.
He suppressed a sigh. Why couldn’t she have shown up fifteen minutes later? He reached down the front of his tunic and pulled out his bronze squire’s medallion for the princess to see. “I’m a squire, Princess, not a stable boy. Jake! The princess is here.”
Col smiled. “He’ll be right out.”
Col turned back to his mount. Just as he reached for the saddle the princess said, “How dare you ignore my orders?” Col winced at the nail-on-slate tone of her voice. Beautiful she was, but he wouldn’t have spent a second more than necessary in her presence for all the coin in the treasury.
Col took a deep breath and tried to remember she was a princess. The last thing he could afford was to lose his temper with her. Just be polite, get the horses ready, and get the hell out of her way. Col plastered on a false smile and turned to face the princess. “Sir Geris, my knight trainer, ordered me to prepare the horses for a patrol. According to squires’ code of conduct, when I’m performing a task ordered by my knight trainer only Sir Geris or the king can give me new orders. Since you are neither of those people I have a duty to perform my assigned tasks.”
The princess sniffed. “Any of the other squires would have jumped at the chance to do something for me.”
Col returned to saddling his horse. “Princess, most of the other squires are too lazy to read the code of conduct or too arrogant to obey it if they did."
“You should watch your manners,” Princess Rain said. “I’ll tell Callion what you said then he’ll put you in your place.”
Col just shook his head, swung up into his saddle, and gathered the reins of Sir Geris’s horse. Of all the squires, Callion hated him the most, and the feeling went both ways. The son of a duke, Callion was only ten deaths away from being king. Of course he acted like he wore the crown already, at least among the squires. He tried pushing Col around a few times and discovered a title did little to protect you from a right cross. Two black eyes later Callion found someone else to torment. That didn’t help win Col any friends among the other squires. Since he didn’t have any friends to begin with at least it hadn’t cost him any.
Col nodded to Rain. “Good afternoon, Princess.”
He clucked his tongue and guided his pinto toward the gate where Sir Geris no doubt waited impatiently.
* * *
“What took you so long?” Sir Geris asked when Col rode up.
“Sorry, sir. Princess Rain mistook me for a stable boy. I needed a few minutes to escape with a minimum of manners.”
“Forget about her and get your gear on. We’ve got real work to do.”
Col noticed his armor and sword resting on the ground beside Sir Geris, who wore a mail coat of his own. “Trouble, sir?” Col dismounted and slipped the chain hauberk over his head.
“Raiders, beastmen it looks like. Sergeant Talon reports numerous attacks all along the Great Road.” Sir Geris swung up into his saddle.
Col belted his sword on tight and mounted up just as the princess rode arrived. He sighed as she approached.
“Are you aware, sir, that your squire ignored a direct order from me a short time ago?” she said
“Col mentioned it, Princess.”
“And, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bother the squires when they’re performing their assigned duties. They can’t drop everything when you’re around. If they did we’d never get anything done.” Sir Geris didn’t mention the other squires seldom got anything done anyway, but Col chalked that up to diplomacy.
The princess’s eyes widened, and her frown deepened. It appeared she’d expected a different reply. Before she could gather herself for a fresh rant Sir Geris continued. “If you’re going for a ride, stay close to the castle. We have reports of beastman activity and while I doubt they’d come close to the city there’s no sense taking chances. Good afternoon, Princess.”
Col nodded again and followed behind his mentor. He forced himself not to smile as they rode away from the castle. He enjoyed seeing the brat taken down a peg if only for the moment. His good mood faded as he reminded himself that they rode into lethal combat with the kingdom’s fiercest enemies.
“Sir, just the two of us against a raiding party of beastmen doesn’t seem like the best odds.”
Sir Geris looked back. “We’re not looking for a fight today. I need to talk to the patrols and see what’s happening. Once we know more we can plan an effective counterattack.”
“That’s a relief, sir. I know I said I wanted a challenge, but that’s pushing it.” They turned east off King’s Way, the road connecting Finegold Castle to the city that shared its name, and on to the Great Road.
Wide enough for four wagons to ride abreast, the Great Road connected all the Lake Kingdoms in one massive circle. From the Great Road hundreds of smaller roads branched off to other communities. Each kingdom maintained its section of road, and they all took that responsibility very seriously as the Great Road was the lifeblood of the Lake Kingdoms. After all, no one would be crazy enough to sail across Armageddon Lake.
Col and Sir Geris rode in easy silence for the better part of an hour without encountering another soul, that by itself was unheard of now that the spring trading season had begun. “Sir, I’ve got an awful itchy feeling on the back of my neck. What in the hell is happening out here?”