Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Five
"You want to practice mounted combat with Rue tomorrow?" Sir Graham asked, his expression dubious. "And how am I supposed to believe you won't take this as a chance to go out on a lark? If I know teenage boys, I know that you'll take any chance to shirk your duties."
Gary shook his head. "'Twas Ohu's idea, sir," he explained. "He's not the sort to let us go running about when we might be needed."
"Ohu?" Graham repeated.
"His Uni partner," said Valrigard, who was elbow deep in what looked like reports of some kind. "An old campaigner, and not one likely to indulge any childish mischief. Personally I think it's a fine idea. Even the experience knights are getting restless with nothing to do but fetch things all day. A bit of skirmishing might be just the thing to keep the young boys busy until we can get a firm enough grasp on the situation here to act."
"I don't know," Graham said slowly.
"With all do respect, sir," Gary put in. "It's too cursed miserable outside for playin'. Wouldn't go out at all, 'cept I need to stay in form for when we fight the bandits."
"Oh, very well then," the Grarrl said, rubbing his forehead. "I suppose there's really nothing I urgently need Rue for tomorrow. Go let him know."
Gary nodded, walking out of the room. As soon as he had closed the door behind him, he took off running down the hall to find Zerue. He wasn't in the least excited about another day of falling flat into the mud, but having his best friend along to crack jokes was certain to improve his enthusiasm significantly.
He yelped in surprise as his headlong run brought him barreling into another person. There was a cry of shock from the other Neopian as they both tumbled to the ground. Humiliation burned at Gary's face as he attempted to extricate himself. For someone who was trying to make himself look good, this was certainly not going to do him any favors.
As he was rising to his feet, he glanced over at his victim. A squeak of horror emerged from his throat.
It was the stewardess, Lady Ayame.
"By Fyora's crown..." he said. "M'lady, I'm so sorry..."
She looked up at him, and to the squire's surprise she was smiling. "I know that we are in something of an urgent situation, but if it's all the same to you I'd as soon we didn't barrel down the hallways at full pelt. Might lose a few knights in the process of gaining only a few seconds."
The squire wasn't sure what to make of Ayame's comment. Gary was accustomed to nobles being extremely touchy about their dignity, particularly when he opened his mouth and his accent gave away his common background. He hesitantly offered a hand to help her up, which she accepted without comment.
"I'm sorry," he muttered again, at a loss for what else to say. She quirked an eyebrow.
"You already said that."
He started to apologize for repeating himself, but realizing that it would be the third time he said he was sorry, he found his mouth snapping shut again. The stewardess laughed, her scarlet eyes glittering.
"No need to be so reticent, Sir Knight. I'm not one to sit on ceremony, nor to pursue punishment for a mere accident. Just be more careful next time."
"Ah, actually I'm a squire," Gary said, finding his voice again. As an afterthought he added, "M'lady."
"A squire? You don't look it," she replied. "You're very tall for someone so young. But then again I'm hardly one to pass judgement. I don't look particularly look my age either."
The Bori was completely at a loss for how to react to this woman. He'd never met anyone so... blunt. At least not without also being intentionally rude. There wasn't really any malice in the Kougra's voice, just an odd sort of frankness.
When he didn't reply, she clicked her tongue. "Shy one too, apparently. I have to get back to work, but I'll probably see you around, Sir Squire. Try not to bump into anyone else."
She walked around Gary and vanished down the hall, the Bori staring after her in total bafflement.
His confusion must still have shown on his face, because when he was finally able to locate Rue the Aisha immediately noticed.
"You look a mite addled, Gar'," he remarked. "Someone tol' me you been doin' rounds with that bruiser Uni of yours. He slam your head into a rock or somethin'?"
"Wha?" Gary's mind snapped back into the present, and he shook his head with a chuckle. "No, though my back 'n arms are gonna to be pretty bruised. I just ran into Lady Ayame... literally."
The Aisha snorted. "When people say t' sweep the ladies off their feet, I don't reckon they mean that literally."
"Ha ha," the Bori said sarcastically. "She's just... I dunno, she's odd. Never known a noble to be so cheerful."
"Takes all sorts," Rue replied. "Though I suppose that livin' in a place like this, you'd have to either be cheerful or depressed. Bein' happy sounds like more fun."
Gary could see the justice in this statement. Changing the subject, he explained what Ohu had suggested, earning a theatrical sigh from his friend.
"Curse it, Gar', you always gotta drag me into your work-a-holic nonsense. I was hoping to spend tomorrow mornin' sleepin'."
"If I'm going to be collecting bruises from a grouchy equine," Gary said, slapping his friend on the back, "You are doing it with me. A little mud won't kill you."
"Nah, but the neomonia I get from standin' out in the rain all day might."
* * * * *
Rue need not have worried about catching Neomonia. Despite the rain, all three squires found themselves panting and sweating from the exertion of the combat exercises that Ohu was setting them.
One thing was certain at this point; the purple Uni had just as much experience as Valrigard had claimed. If he'd been so minded, he likely could have taken Rue and Grace down by himself, with any help from a rider. He did not, however. Gary wasn't getting off that easily.
"Ow!" the Bori yelped as Rue slammed the wooden sword into his leg. The massive height difference between the Bori's steed and the Aisha's made it laughably easy for Rue to get under Gary's guard and score low blows. The Bori swung his own weapon down towards Rue's unprotected back as he zipped by, just missing and swatting Grace's hindquarters instead.
The young Uni squawked in surprise jumping ahead with such suddenness that Rue slipped backwards out of her saddle and hit the mud.
"It ain't just knight-on-knight, Greeny," Ohu admonished the spotted Uni. "You can't be dislodging your rider every time you get a little bump. Any enemy with sense will know that going after you is an easy way to get your rider."
"I know, I know," she muttered, nudging Rue with her nose as he pulled himself back up into her saddle. "I was just surprised is all."
The Bori offered his friend a consolatory smile. Rue chuckled remorsefully. "I think that I need t' ask Sir Graham to give me more lessons in mounted fightin'. This is harder'n it looks."
"Aye that," Gary replied. "Now y'see why I was so sore last night. After doin' this all day, sleepin' on the stone floor was a right nightmare."
"Stop complaining," Ohu said. "Now, this time when you close with us, try to focus on-"
A lance of white-hot pain shot across Gary's shield arm, and his cry of agony cut Ohu off. The Uni looked around at his rider, his expression confused, but before he could ask what was wrong something whizzed past them, missing his head by inches.
When it embedded itself in the ground next to its mate, they could see that the object in question was a crossbow bolt.
Ohu spun around, facing their assailants with his teeth bared and his shaggy pelt bristling. Gary could see six... no eight...
"The bandits!" Rue yelped.
"Get back to the castle!" Gary snapped, trying to ignore the pain from where the first arrow had grazed his arm. Ohu seemed to agree with him, because the Uni spun around, pelting down the path back towards the city. Grace was a fraction of a second behind him.
"We have to fly!" she called, but the older Uni shook his head.
"There's not enough room, you ninny! We can't get enough momentum to lift off here, the pass is too narrow! Just keep running!"
However, the bandits were cannier than Gary had anticipated. A knot of them were waiting on the other side of the bridge, cutting off their escape back to the castle. He had to duck as another arrow sailed past the space his head had occupied only seconds before.
"Why're they attacking us?" Rue bleated as Grace danced sideways. "We got nothin' worth takin'!"
"We are worth taking," Gary replied grimly. "Taking out. They saw us out there practicing fighting, they know we're warriors. It can only help them if they pick us off while we're alone and armed with wooden swords."
"If we could fly, we could get across the river easily" Grace said dolefully.
"Ifs don' do us no good, Gracie-girl," Rue said, "We gotta think of somethin' that's not flyin'!"
Gary looked at the more experienced squire, expecting him to offer some sort of plan. Unfortunately, Rue had gone pale and it was clear he was panicking. The bandits were closing in behind them, and they'd be pinned between the two forces in seconds.
"Ohu," Gary said sharply, "You're big; do you think you can charge them with that thrashing trick of yours to avoid the arrows?"
"You'll fall off," the Uni pointed out.
"Then let me. If I fall then that'll give them something to focus on besides you. Try to get back to the castle and get help!" Turning to his friend, the Bori added, "Rue, help me?"
The Aisha snapped out of his funk and nodded, bringing up his sword and shield grimly.
"You're a fool," Ohu said shortly, but didn't waste any more time on talk. With a scream of defiance he leapt forward, charging the line of archers on the bridge at breakneck pace. Gary kept a near death grip on the saddle horn, ducking as arrows whizzed past them. Just before Ohu's hooves hit the first cobbles of the bridge, he let go of the Uni's saddle and almost immediately found himself thrown sideways as Ohu thrashed to avoid the rain of projectiles.
As he rolled through the mud, he tightened his grip on the wooden practice sword. It had been careless of him not to be properly armed in hostile territory. If they survived this, he'd make sure he brought his real one with him everywhere from then on.
He felt teeth grasp the back of his tabard, and Grace yanked him upright. With a nod of thanks to the Uni, he turned to face the attackers. Rue was still mounted, looking fearful but determined. Ohu was nowhere to be seen; with any luck he had broken through the line and was on his way to fetch help.
As the throng of bandits surged towards the two squires, Gary knew that they were in big trouble if Ohu didn't make it back in time.
To be continued...