Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part One
The dull impact of a wooden practice sword on the straw stuffed practice dummy was the only sound in the normally bustling practice yard of Brightvale Castle. Though normally swarming with pages practicing their combat skills, the recent advent of the fortnight break for midsummer saw the place deserted. Almost all of the pages had gone home to visit their family holdings, or were staying in the city with family visiting them.
However, the yellow Bori that was presently attacking the practice dummy was clearly far too old to be a page. He was very tall, thin and gangly; evidence to a recent dramatic growth spurt. Only very close inspection would reveal the hardened muscles under his pelt that gave proof to nearly ten years worth of intense physical training. He might have been mistaken for a courtier's son that had snuck out onto the practice field on a whim.
His uniform, however, was unmistakable. A full body suit of chainmail, set over by a green and gold tabard. A simple practice helm barely suppressed his dark blond hair. Most telling of all was the crest of Brightvale emblazoned on his chest. He was a squire, one without a knight-master who worked in the castle under the supervision of the Man-At-Arms that trained the pages.
The boy's brow was furrowed with concentration, every iota of his attention focused on the rhythm of the practice pattern. Normally he would have asked one of the final year pages to spar him, but all of them had been promoted to squire status and gone out with their respective masters. Of course they'd had no trouble being chosen. They were all highborn, the sons of influential Lords. Becoming the knight-master to a noble's son was sure to earn the friendship of the squire's father, which in turn meant an increase in the status of the knight-master.
The Bori had no such advantages. He was a commoner, the son of a brick maker. Of course, commoners were allowed to become knights. If they weren't the kingdom wouldn't have lasted long, because there certainly weren't enough nobles with sons willing to put their lives on the line to maintain an army. However, anyone that applied for page training had to be sponsored by someone that was already a squire or knight, and most common born squires were taken on by their old sponsors.
This wasn't an option for the young Bori.
"Y'know, I reckon you got it, Gary. You certainly whacked it enough," a rough voice drawled, causing the Bori to start. He grinned despite his hammering heart. He knew that voice as well as he knew his own, and it had been a year and a half since he'd heard it last. He turned to see a very familiar skunk Aisha standing behind him, unruly silver hair hanging lank about his head. The newcomer was in a squire uniform much like Gary's but instead of the Brightvale crest it sported the coat of arms of his knight-master's fief; a swooping orange crokabek against a dark green backdrop.
"Rue!" he called, drawing the Aisha into a hug and clapping him on the back. "By Fyora's crown, it's great to see you!"
"Same to you, Gar'," Rue replied happily, returning his old friend's hug. "Almost didn't recognize you, though. What've you been eatin'? You gotta be at least a foot taller than when I last saw you!"
Gary chuckled. "You ain't far wrong; I've had to let out my chain male so many times this year that I'm on first name terms with the ol' smithy."
"Ha!" the Aisha barked. "I reckon you'll make a fine target in a fight, what with your head higher'n everyone else's."
Gary snorted derisively. "Ha, ha. You're a riot. I think my sides are splitting."
"Your britches too, I can hear the seams crying from how much they're being stretched."
The Bori swung his wooden blade at Rue, who ducked with a laugh.
"You're getting slow, Gar'! Don't tell me that filling out paperwork for the city knights is taking the edge off your skills, I might have to whack you over the head until you remember 'em."
"Is that a challenge?" Gary asked, his eyes narrowing.
"Might be," Rue replied genially. "'Less your too scared to fight something that hits back. I reckon you could go back to the dummy if you'd rather."
"You're not weaseling out of this one now," the Bori said with a broad grin. "Since you're here, you can show me some of the tricks that Sir Graham has been teaching you. Make sure I ain't getting' soft running messages around the castle for the desk knights."
"I just got off the road and already you're makin' me get all sweaty," the Aisha complained cheerfully. "Fine then, lemme get a practice sword."
* * * * *
By the time the duo had put away their practice weapons and headed up to the military mess for luncheon, Gary's arms and shoulders were burning. It was no mystery why Sir Graham had sponsored the son of a cloth merchant as a page; Zerue Keemis was brutishly strong and had a natural talent for swordplay. Gary only wished he could boast the same. He was strong, certainly, but it was strength hard won. He had to exercise and practice constantly to keep himself in form. And despite the fact that he'd been studying the weapon for six years, he remained a subpar swordsman.
Still, he had held his own against his friend and year-mate. That was a distinct relief, given that Rue had spent the last year and a half honing his skills in the field while Gary sparred students three years his junior.
"I still say you'd have beaten me if we were usin' staffs or spears," Rue said, stretching his shoulders with an audible pop. "You were always best in our year group at those. Plus you're so cursed tall now that I bet you could get a bloke with a pole arm 'fore they got close enough to touch you."
The Bori snorted, "Staffs ain't weapons for knights; swords, axes, and warhammers are. Maybe a spear, but that ain't so good in close fighting."
"Hey, whatever works!" the Aisha said cheerfully. "I know from experience that if'n you're strong enough, you can beat someone silly with a broom!"
"Oh, is that why you're so addle pated?" Gary asked impishly. "Your pa knockin' you silly with a broom to get you to behave?"
Rue swatted his arm, and both boys laughed. Gary was glad the Aisha was back. The two had been best friends during their page training, and he missed having someone around with a decent sense of humor.
As they rounded the corner, Gary was surprised to see a very familiar green Skeith walking towards them from the other end of the hall. Or rather, walking in the direction they had just come from, since it was highly unlikely he knew who they were or would be looking for them if he did.
The Bori jabbed his friend in the elbow and jerked his head towards the approaching figure. Spotting the newcomer, Rue quickly kneeled, Gary a fraction of a heartbeat behind him. As the Skeith walked by them, they muttered "Your Highness" in unison. He paused long enough to incline his head towards them before hurrying along down the hall.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Rue quirked an eyebrow at his best friend. "So since when has Prince Hagan had a beard?"
Gary's mouth quirked up into a smile. He'd known Rue would ask about that. "He started growin' it about eight months ago. Apparently someone suggested that it'd make him look wise."
"Makes him look like he needs a shave," the Aisha replied, looking highly amused. Gary punched his arm.
"Show some respect, Squire. That's gonna be your king one of these days."
"And he'll be a king that needs a shave," Rue replied airily.
As they entered the mess hall, Gary shook his head. His friend had very little tact, and it was pointless to argue with him. Then again, Gary's reluctance to speak ill of their liege lords mostly stemmed from his determination to be as exemplary as a squire as he could possibly be. He half hoped that if he impressed someone enough with his good behavior and diligence that he'd finally be picked up by a knight. Rue didn't really need to worry about that.
The two grabbed trays and loaded them with food. Normally full of pages, the mess hall was as deserted as the practice courts. Only a few knights in service to the capital were coming in, and most of them took their meals out with them. As they sat at one of the tables, Gary decided it was time to steer the conversation back into safer waters.
"So what brings you up here, anyway?" he asked. "I didn't reckon on seeing you 'til next time Graham was called for capital duty. Something up at the Ridge?"
"Oh," the smile faded from Rue's face. "Nah, Drackon Ridge is fine. It's actually the neighboring fief; y'know, Abyssal Acres? They had what they thought were bandits chewing on their tails, and they called us in for help."
"Their own knights can't deal with 'em?" Gary asked incredulously.
"Well, that's the weird thing," Rue replied. "Turns out, they ain't allowed their own knights. Can't even have a militia. Owning anything sharper'n a spade is a felony there, by royal decree."
Gary frowned. That was very odd. The reason most lords were so willing to allow their sons to become knights was because as long as they weren't assigned to the capital they could us their training to defend the home fief. The outlying holdings in particular were vulnerable to threats from raiders and savages. Or worse; Werelupe Woods was right in the middle of Brightvale after all. Why would a fief that was so close to the border have a decree like that placed on it?
"So... they asked Sir Graham's pa for help with the bandits?" Gary prompted.
"Yeah, but we can't seem to root 'em out," the Aisha replied. "They're a tricky bunch, and there's a ton of 'em. I ain't never seen a bandit group that big. We can't send too many to Abyssal Acres because then they could just come'n raid Drackon Ridge. So we came to ask his majesty if'n we can get some backup- and hopefully a lift on that law so that we can teach the locals to defend themselves."
Gary nodded. King Talren tended to be more concerned with reading and studying than tending to the needs of his kingdom, but in the tradition of the rulers of Brightvale he was very wise. He'd surely see the reason in Sir Graham's request and give him the help he needed.
Still, it was curious that one of those wise kings would set such a law in the first place...
To be continued...