Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Two
The following day saw the young squires once again sparring alone in the royal practice courts. It was evident that Rue was learning a lot from his knight-master. Gary winced as a particularly good parry from his friend sent the Bori's wooden sword spinning across the room. The fourth time it clattered against the far wall and tumbled to the floor, Gary shot his friend an exasperated glare.
Rue smiled sympathetically. "Graham hammered tha' one into me, sorry. He likes t'say that defense is the best offense and an enemy wit' no sword is a poor enemy."
Gary bared his teeth in an expression that might have been called a grin, but looked more like a snarl. "Well then, you'll just have to teach me that move and how to defend against it, won't you? We wouldn't want ol' Brightvale to have any less then the best protectors possible, hm?"
"Alright, alright," the Aisha said with a laugh. "Nothing's changed since the page days, eh? Y' still need me to show you how to fight proper."
"Bah. You just helped me all the time 'cause I was the only one who'd humor you by being impressed," Gary replied loftily. "No one else would admit to being outclassed by a commoner."
"And then I kicked their butts in sparring practice and deflated their fat heads," Rue replied cheerfully. "Now go get your sword and I'll show you my moves."
Gary complied, trotting across the practice field to fetch his weapon. As he returned to Rue's side, however, he was startled to see an unfamiliar blue Draik in the uniform of a senior knight walking across the courts.
Now it wasn't unheard of for the knights on duty to the castle to practice at the royal courts, but to see one when there were students training was rare. A quick glance in Rue's direction confirmed that he was as baffled as his friend. What was the knight doing there?
The Draik strode straight up to the two squires, who hastily removed their helmets and saluted. He inspected them in silence for a moment, the tension in the air so thick that Gary felt it could have been cut with a knife. The Bori's unease was somewhat tempered when he realized that the knight was looking up at him. He'd know he was growing, but it was both amusing and disconcerting to realize that he was now taller than most full grown adults.
Then, the Draik finally spoke.
"You, the Bori; name?"
Gary couldn't begin to fathom why the knight was asking him this, but it wasn't his place to question it. A squire spoke politely when spoken to and always differed to full knights.
"Squire Garrett Diamonte, M'Lord," he replied formally.
"And your master?"
The Bori suppressed a wince. "Don't got one, sir. I'm in service at the castle, under the Man-At-Arms."
The Draik folded his arms, a look of derision flitting across his face. "How old are you?"
Gary could feel the heat rising in his face with every question. "Seventeen sir."
The Draik's frown deepened. Most young Neopians became squires at age fourteen. This meant that Gary had been one for three years, and still didn't have a proper knight-master. For a time, being with his old friend again had helped him to forget the desperation of his situation, but the strange knight's interrogation had firmly reminded him of how poorly it reflected on his honor that no one would take him on.
To his surprise, however, the Draik actually smiled a moment later. When he spoke again, Gary realized why. "You're tall enough I'd have believed you if you said you were twenty."
The Bori was embarrassed again, but it was with a slight smile that he replied, "I hear that a lot, sir."
The knight chuckled. Then the smile slid off of his face and he waved a hand. "At ease, both of you."
The squires relaxed their posture somewhat. The knight turned his attention to Rue. "You Graham's boy? You fit the description."
"Aye, Sir," Rue replied. "Squire Zerue Keemis, in service t' Sir Graham of Drackon Ridge."
The Draik nodded, and finally addressed both of them. "I am Lord Valrigard of Pyrfell Bay. The matter that brought your master to the city is the reason I am here now. His Highness, Prince Skarl, had decided to oversee the matter directly, and asked me along as a military advisor."
Gary's eyes went wide with shock; the prince was going to deal with a bunch of bandits? What could he possibly contribute to the mission that an experience warlord couldn't? If this was a diplomatic issue it would make sense, but it was a band of thugs. There was no need for the prince to get involved.
"Unfortunately," Valrigard was saying, "His Majesty, King Talren, does not think Abyssal Acres is worth squandering resources on, since it barely contributes to the country and is more of a drain on our income than anything. His position is understandable, but it means that I am only at liberty to assign soldiers not already on assignment to come to its aid."
The Bori finally realized where Valrigard was going with this, and his fur bristled with excitement. "Y' want me to come along, sir?"
"A green squire wouldn't have been my first choice, but I can't really afford to be picky right now," he replied. "I was watching you two spar for a while, and you seem competent enough to at least put one or two of the raiders out of action, and every little bit helps."
Gary tried not to show how much the knight's words stung. It only made sense that his opinion would be low; the Bori had been passed over by potential knight masters three years running. This meant he had no skills applicable to anything but city duties, and that his combat experience was limited to practice. But this assignment represented his first, real chance to show what he was made of. If he could impress the knights on this mission, though, he might finally get a real master...
"We're heading out first thing in the morning tomorrow," Valrigard said, interrupting Gary's thoughts. "I expect you'll need a Uni, since you aren't assigned to a master. Meet me at the field an hour after luncheon. We'll see if I can't find someone suitable on short notice."
The squire's heart leapt into his throat, and it was everything he could do not to grin like an idiot. His own Uni partner! Most new squires were partnered to a Uni that had just finished his or her basic training, and the Uni learned from the knight's partner while the squire studied with the knight. Over the five to seven years of squire training, the squire and Uni learned to work together as a unit so that by the time knighthood rolled around they were perfect partners. However, squires on city duty didn't need Unis because they never went anywhere, so Gary hadn't been partnered to one.
The Draik saluted the boys, who returned the gesture. Then he walked back out, probably to make more frantic last minute preparations.
"Well!" Rue said, once the boys were certain Valrigard was out of earshot, "Seems we won't be seein' the last each other any time soon. You get to go into a real battle, Gar'!"
The Bori nodded enthusiastically. "And who knows, maybe if I do well someone will finally take me on as their squire!"
The Aisha grinned. "Let's make certain-sure you put on a good showing, eh? Guard up, squire, I'm gonna show you that parry."
* * * * *
The Unis in the military service were, of course, not kept in any sort of stable. Lesser nations might have subjected them to such indignity, but in the enlightened land of Brightvale they were treated with the same respect any other intelligent creature got.
There was, however, a large open meadow much akin to the kind were wild Uni herds were said to roam out on the Endless Plains west of Neopia Central. This was were they lived while they were being trained
Gary had been to the meadow a number of times in the past. All pages had to learn how to ride, of course. But he'd only ever ridden old, retired mares. The idea of getting a young Uni to be his permanent partner in battle had him quivering with excitement. He'd met Rue's partner, a cheery mare named Grace. The obvious easiness of their relationship made him raw with envy. Who knew, even if this adventure did not gain him a new knight-master, maybe having a Uni partner would at least give him someone to talk with to assuage his frequent loneliness.
When he finally reached the place, he quickly spotted Valrigard waiting for him. He trotted over to the Draik, saluting him formally.
"Ah, good, you're here," the knight said. "At least you're punctual. Well it was a bit tricky finding someone on such short notice. Most of the time there's at least a few days to hunt around so that it is ensured that the personalities of the prospective partners will be compatible. I did, however, manage to find someone who will hopefully be able to compensate for your lack of experience."
As he was speaking, a massive purple shape was ambling towards them. Gary was certain he'd never seen a Uni quite that big. The stallion's hooves were as big around as dinner plates, and every inch of his body was proportionately sized to match. The muscles that bulged under the Uni's purple pelt testified to strength and skill that only years of experience could grant.
"Ah, here you are," the Draik said, spotting their guest. "Squire, this is your new partner, Ohu. Ohu, this is Squire Garrett."
The Uni said nothing. Deep blue eyes scrutinized the squire, and from what Gary could see of the stallion's expression he wasn't terribly impressed.
"Ohu is an old trooper," Valrigard went on. "He lost his old partner about a year ago, but has graciously agreed to come out of retirement to help us on this mission. I'll leave you two to get acquainted; there is still a very great deal I need to do before we can depart."
And with that Valrigard dashed off, leaving Gary alone with the massive Uni.
"So your name is Garrett?" Ohu asked, his voice low and gravelly.
"Yes, sir," Gary replied stiffly. Tentatively he added, "But my friends call me Gary."
"I'm not your friend," the Uni said bluntly. "I was supposed to be retired; I only agreed to this because Abyssal Acres is my home. Going with you gives me the chance to defend it."
Gary's mouth snapped shut, and he immediately dropped his gaze to his feet. So much for his dream of a partner and friend. His disappointment must have shown plainly on his face, for a moment later the Uni sighed.
"Look, kid; don't take it personally. I just don't make friends. Not after... If you know what's good for you, you'll get out of this job while you still can. There's nothing ahead of you but heartache, especially if you don't even have a knight master to teach you to keep yourself alive properly."
The Bori's jaw tightened. "I have nowhere else to go, sir."
Ohu frowned. "What do you mean by that?"
When Gary's only answer was silence, the Uni snorted. "Fine, it's your life. We leave tomorrow at dawn; go make sure you're ready to hit the road as soon as you wake up."
"Yes, sir," the squire replied. He turned from the field and headed back up to the castle. One thing after another, it seemed. Sometimes he wondered why he was still trying for this knighthood thing when it felt like the world was conspiring against him.
Then he reminded himself of what he had just told Ohu; that he had nowhere else to go.
To be continued...