Author: M. Forthe PM
I don't fight. I don't care about privilege and prestige. I work in the orchards with all the other urchins in the estate, and most importantly, I hate knights. Why, then, have I been chosen to learn how to become the very thing I despise?Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Humor - Chapters: 10 - Words: 67,096 - Reviews: 18 - Favs: 13 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 10-12-12 - Published: 11-17-10 - Status: Complete - id: 2865606
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Well it's about time to do some editing, so this story is now officially under maintenance. If you have any suggestions, feel free to leave me a review or a pm and I'll see what I can do about it. :D Those of you who've already read the story, look for new additions! :D
Summary: Aven doesn't like knights. Her father used to be one. Maybe that's why he was never around-why her mother never spoke his name. Now, with both parents dead, she has no name and little to hope for in life, except working in the orchards to earn food. She's never dared to presume that her life will improve. But when a Choosing is announced, Aven is chosen from among all the other adolescents in the estate. Once her training is completed, she will have a position of power and prestige. She'll answer only to the king's council. But she doesn't know if she can handle the training, especially since she'll be learning how to become the very thing she's resented since she was young. Because Aven has been chosen to be a knight.
The sharp crack of wood upon wood rouses me from sleep. The knights are practicing. Soon the sun will rise and chase away the dim twilight of early morning. I consider closing my eyes to rest for a few more minutes, but the persistent clatter of the practice swords will not let me. I wish—as I often do—that the knights would practice somewhere else.
I rise from my thin cot and pull on my heavy boots. I do not need to change into my work clothes; I have slept in them again. It is a bad habit because they will wear out faster, but I have been very tired lately. I throw on my cloak—it is threadbare, but better than nothing—and leave the small, one-room mud and wood house that is my home.
I head toward the orchards, passing the training ground on my way. It is nothing but an open field, pitiful compared to the neat, fenced-in greens of the large estates, or so I've heard. Wylden is one of the smaller estates of the kingdom, and open fields are rare here. What isn't already naturally forested land is dominated by neat rows of fruit trees—apple, cherry, peach. Wylden provides a large part of the kingdom with fresh fruit during harvest time. This makes up for its small training ground, which is only used by six knights anyway.
Four of Wylden's six knights are practicing at the moment. Two are hacking away at each other with heavy wooden swords; the other two are doing some kind of agility drill. One of the swordsmen notices me as I walk by and he waves. His opponent raps him sharply on the knuckles and jabs him in the gut with the end of his sword. The drill must be over then, because the victorious knight stalks away with an air of disgust. The friendly one that waved must be in pain; he remains doubled up on the ground until I have passed, and I don't glance back to see if he is all right.
I don't like knights.
My father was a knight. He left to serve in the neighboring estate of Yeowuld, where he was born, when I was just a baby. Wylden may be small, but Yeowuld is not half its size, and the entire estate is nothing but dark, dense forest. My mother used to tell me about it when I was little and was actually interested in other places. She would tell me about my father and read his letters to me, letters that stopped when my father died abroad in a war with the Valdasians. I had never seen him. And now I never will. My interest in anything other than my small home in Wylden died with him.
His letters are buried with my mother. She never read them to me after he died, but I used to catch her reading them silently to herself when she thought I was sleeping. Before her illness took her, she tried to give the letters to me, but I didn't want them. I'd lived all my fifteen years without my father; I didn't need the letters like she did. That was nearly three years ago. I still don't miss the letters.
A shadow lingers over my face and I realize that the sun has risen as I've walked, and I am standing in the orchards. Like many youth, I work in Lord Avery's orchards. He is the rojen—the lord of Wylden estate. He never comes down from his squat stone keep on the hill, so he sends his exchequer, Martin, to find and oversee workers. Martin used to be a friend to my mother, so he sees to it that I always have work in the orchards. Nobody is paid in gold or silver, but in bread and pegs.
Pegs are little wooden coins that everybody in the rojen's employ can give for a drink at the inn in town. I do not live in the village like many of the people, so I save my pegs and trade them to other people for bread or cheese. Occasionally I will visit the inn, but I only allow myself one drink of the bitter cider that is so popular. I have noticed too often the figures that lurk in the shadows at night, waiting to waylay a traveler who has imbibed too much.
Though I can already feel the warmth of the sun through the widely spaced trees, I shudder. I do not like to think of people who would so casually harm others for a handful of pegs, or a warm cloak. It is daylight, and I am safe enough in the orchards, but I can't help wishing I had brought my staff with me. It is six feet long, carved from a sturdy oak sapling. Just holding such a potential weapon is enough to scare away most of the skulkers. There are plenty of other targets that don't carry heavy wooden weapons. They don't know that I can't do anything but wave the staff around and shout loudly.
"Aven!" Martin's voice carries particularly well through the trees this morning.
Relieved to be rescued from my own thoughts, I look up in answer to my name, seeking Martin's face from among the trees.
"Over here!" he calls, beckoning me toward him.
He stands on the edge of the orchards, a stout figure clad in brown and gray like the rest of the orchard workers. One would hardly guess he is also one of Lord Avery's most trusted advisors. As I approach, I notice two other people with him; a girl I don't recognize, and I boy I have seen working in the orchards on occasion. I think his name is Auro.
The girl is small, probably a few years younger than me. She has dark hair and wide brown eyes. I look her over without bothering to hide my curiosity, and she looks down hastily, her hands clenching her grubby tunic nervously. She is very timid. I realize that my brow is furrowed and my lips pursed—I've probably been scowling at her without noticing. Martin has told me it's a bad habit, that I come off as an unfriendly person, but I don't see why I should worry—I consider myself a very unfriendly person. After all, I have no friends.
A quick glance at Martin tells me that he is about to admonish me for being so prickly, so I attempt to smile at the girl. It is an utter failure. She isn't looking at me anymore, and I doubt my smile is worth looking at anyway. With a shrug, I turn to the boy, Auro.
He is close to my age, perhaps a little older, caught in that stage between boy and man. His face is still honest and open, but he is far taller than me, and his bare forearms are corded with muscle. He had an unruly mop of yellow hair, and broad features, of which his ears are the most prominent. Yet, somehow, he does not seem as awkward as his appearance might otherwise suggest. He stands with steady confidence, and his dark blue eyes regard me with a faint hint of amusement from underneath his heavy brow.
I don't bother smiling at him.
"Do stop glowering, Aven," Martin chides me gently, drawing my attention back to him. He hands me a small, cold loaf of heavy brown bread, as is customary before we begin work. The others don't have bread, so I assume they've already eaten. I wolf my bread down hastily, worried that I am holding the others up.
As I eat, I glance around at the others, but they seem too preoccupied to notice me now that Martin has chastened me. The stout old man is glancing up at the keep on the hill, his face oddly devoid of emotion. I can't help but feel as if something is not quite right.
"Why are there only three of us here, Martin?" I ask with the last bite of bread still in my mouth. By now there should be at least twenty workers in the orchards.
"I have given the others the day off," Martin replies without looking at me, his gaze still on the castle.
"Why?" I swallow my bread painfully, my mouth suddenly dry.
He sighs and turns to face the three of us. "I didn't expect the news to reach you, Aven. If you gave up that hovel of yours and moved nearer to town, you might know about these things."
"The news, Martin," I say flatly. He never misses an opportunity to criticize my decision to remain alone in my remote house. I never let it bother me. By now his attempts are more out of habit than sincerity.
"Two of our knights have decided to retire. They've requested a choosing," he answers.
I frown. This is certainly unexpected news. Each estate must keep a certain number of knights, according to its size and population. These knights are trained warriors that serve the king. Their position is unique, because although they remain in their home estates, they do not answer to the rojen, but straight to the king's senate. Knights who have distinguished themselves—or who have simply survived long enough—may choose to leave the service and become vassals, the counselors that make up the king's senate. It is a great honor, but to become a vassal, a knight must first choose a squire, an apprentice that will take the knight's place.
In my lifetime, there has only ever been one knight to actually retire in Wylden. Quite a few squires have been chosen by the knights before, but usually because one of the old knights has died. This one knight fortunate enough to retire had a squire that trained with him for three years before he was able to become a fully-fledged knight. It is hard work, and it doesn't end after training. Now, with two knights looking for squires, I wonder what the chances are that I might be chosen.
"Are we three the only ones who will be there?" I inquire.
Martin shakes his head. "No. There are more youth from the village, and a few from the keep. Every person fifteen to twenty-one years of age must be there."
I sigh with relief. There must be a hundred people who fall within that category, many of them larger and stronger than me. Chances are that I won't stick out. I glance at the others, and notice that Auro looks eager. He will most assuredly stand out, but he doesn't seem to think that is bad.
Very few people are trained to fight. As such, the knights look for young men and women who are strong or intelligent, people that can learn quickly and take the strain of long hours of practice. This boy looks like he can take it, like he wants it. He must dream of the glory of winning, the admiration that commoners have for skilled knights. Perhaps he will make a good knight.
Or perhaps he will die.
Either way, I have little doubt that he will be chosen.
Martin squints up at the sun, then back toward the keep, muttering, "We might as well go now. With two knights I suppose it'll be a long choosing."
He beckons us to follow him as he sets off up the hill, puffing after the first few steps. Auro, who can probably outstride Martin with ease, maintains a slow pace beside the man, and I follow with the smaller girl at my side.
"What exactly is a choosing?" she asks in a soft, nervous voice.
I can't help but snort. She has nothing to worry about.
Martin answers in a wheezing voice. "Oh...well, it's hardly something you need to fret about, Bess. It's a long, boring affair..." He trails off, and for a while I think that is all he is going to say.
My curiosity, I must admit, has been piqued. I want to know more about the actual process of a choosing, since I was not old enough to attend the last one. "What's it like?" I ask.
"You will all stand in a line," Martin says. "The knight...knights, in this case, will immediately send away those they see as unfit... Then they'll question those that remain until they make their decision. That's the part that can take hours."
"I hope I'm chosen," Auro states thoughtfully. His voice shows no excitement, but his honest face reveals his earnest desire.
"Well I'm going to do everything I can do not to be chosen," I retort sullenly. I can feel curious glances pointed at me as soon as I speak, but I focus my gaze on the ground in front of me. I say nothing more, and I don't look up until we have passed through the gates of the keep and stand in the stone courtyard.
The keep looks much bigger this close, I notice. There are sentries standing inside and outside the gates, and more keep watch on the battlements above. These are not knights, but men-at-arms, who do not have nearly as much skill or training as knights do. Gazing around, I see that we are not the first to arrive for the choosing; already, several young men and women stand in a weaving line in the middle of the courtyard. I count about sixteen.
"Are we...late?" Martin huffs.
I glance at the person he has addressed.
She is tall, taller than Martin by almost a full head. Her red hair is fastened tightly behind her neck, and she is dressed in an immaculate pair of breeches and soft doeskin boots. Her loose white tunic is emblazoned with the green knights' crest, and she wears a shirt of mail underneath. A short, broad sword hangs at her waist. She is a knight.
"You are the last," she replies shortly. After a moment of tense silence, her face softens and she adds, "The others were early."
Martin looks relieved. I've never seen the laid-back man so apprehensive.
"Are these three yours?" the lady knight inquires, looking us over.
He nods. "Yes."
"Very well. You may take your places at the end of the line," she instructs us, taking no more heed of Martin.
I avoid her gaze and slink into place. I consider feigning a limp, but I don't wish to attract any attention to myself. I simply step quietly into line.
"Nineteen, hmm?" the knight murmurs to herself once everybody is still.
I glance quickly around the courtyard. It is barren except for a small gathering of men in one corner of the square, which Martin has joined. The man he stands next to is quite obviously Lord Avery, judging by his fine clothes and thick, fur-lined cloak. It is not particularly cold now that the sun has risen, but he hunches within the folds of the cloak like a bird guarding against the first snow. He is surrounded by other councilors, all of them soft and finely attired. I see no other knight.
"Lord Avery," the woman says, turning to the rojen, "I, Lady Evangeline, Knight of Andaria, do request permission to choose, from among these gathered, two youth to be trained in the ways of the knight."
I can tell that this 'request' is nothing but a formality. Even Lady Evangeline seems bored by her own words.
The rojen simply waves one spider-like pale hand absently before drawing it back inside his cloak.
"Lord Avery," she repeats in a sterner voice, "I need your verbal consent."
The man looks surprised and slightly annoyed. He lifts his head a little and peers owlishly at the woman who has dared raise her voice to him. Instead of assenting, he inquires, "Two youth, you said? Where is Sir Gerhard that he cannot choose his own squire?"
"He is away," Lady Evangeline replies in a tone that tells everyone that she will not brook further questioning.
Lord Avery hesitates, but he seems to realize that he is not as strong as this female knight in front of him. "Oh, very well. Carry on."
I can't help but smile a little. This aspect of knighthood doesn't seem terribly bad. Nobody but a knight would dare speak to the rojen in such a fashion.
The lady knight turns away from Lord Avery and levels her gaze on the nineteen of us who await her next move. She doesn't speak again but begins to pace along our line, gazing at each of us in turn. I don't look up, but I can hear her as she moves progressively nearer.
Out of my peripheral vision, I catch glimpses of her beckoning various people forward, separating our haphazard row into two distinct lines. I see her booted feet as she stops in front of me. A long, endless interval passes before she murmurs, "Step forward."
I automatically obey without a thought, such is the tone of her voice. It is not loud, nor is it particularly stern. It is simply commanding.
She moves on, and I glance at the others around me. The small girl, Bess, is no longer beside me; she has not been chosen to step forward. Auro has.
"Those of you who did not step forward are dismissed," Lady Evangeline calls as she reaches the end of the line. "Return to your homes."
A collective sigh of relief escapes from those who have not been chosen. They hastily scurry from the courtyard. None of them seem to have wanted to be chosen. I wonder why I have not been sent away. There are only eight of us waiting, and most—like Auro—look eager to be chosen. Only one or two others seem to resent staying as I do.
"Congratulations to those of you who have passed the first choosing," Lady Evangeline states, smiling slightly at us. "I will now ask each of you a few questions. Answer clearly and succinctly. Let's make this process as bearable as possible. You—" she turns on the first boy at the far end of the line without warning "—give me your name."
"Jason," he replies quietly.
With hardly a pause, she nods and responds, "Jason, thank you, you may go."
The boy gapes at her, but she has already moved on to the next candidate.
I cast a sidelong glance at Auro. He shrugs.
"She's really agonizing over this decision, I see," I mutter.
A soft snort escapes him, but he otherwise doesn't reply.
Soon, Lady Evangeline has eliminated three more. Now there are four of us; Auro and I are the last two. She approaches him first, skipping over me as if I'm not even there.
"Name?" she asks.
"Auro Birch," he answers, flashing a brief, confident smile. He doesn't even look nervous.
"Auro? Short for...?"
"Aureus," he says.
"Oh." She taps a finger thoughtfully against her pursed mouth. "The reason you don't use your full given name is?"
He meets her steady gaze with one of his own. "It's too long, ma'am. I don't care for it," he replies politely.
She peers intently at him, and for a moment, I think she's angry and will dismiss him. Finally, she stretches out her hand in offering. Auro takes it and they shake. I can see approval gleaming in her eyes.
"Knew it," I mutter under my breath.
"Stay here," she instructs him in a quiet voice. "I'll make an official announcement in a moment." Then, without warning, she turns on me. I can't look away fast enough. My eyes meet her green gaze.
"And you are?"
"Aven," I reply in a guarded voice. I'm not going to let her intimidate me.
"Aven. Do you have a last name?"
"No?" she prompts me.
"Why would it matter if I did?" I retort. "It makes no difference to you or me."
She raises an eyebrow, but the rest of her face remains impassive. "Very well. Tell me then, Aven No-name, what do you do?"
"Do?" I echo.
"How do you put bread on the table?" Her voice is infuriatingly calm and patient.
"I usually carry it home and set it down right in the middle of the table." That right there is a bit of genius, I think.
"Hmm" is all she says. "Where do you work?"
I've done enough fooling around. Now it's time to end the interrogation as quickly as possible. "The orchards."
"Ah, yes, you came with Martin. Do the two of you get along?"
I shrug. "Well enough."
"Hmm..." She stares at me for a long time and then sighs, offering a shrug of her own. I do believe she's fed up with me.
She turns back to Lord Avery again and announces, "I have made my decision."
That draws everybody's attention. The choosing has gone much faster than expected.
"Go on," Lord Avery responds dutifully.
"Given the candidates, I have chosen, to serve as my squire and to train for knighthood, the boy Aureus. Will you please step forward at this time?"
I catch a glimpse of Auro's smug smile as he approaches Lady Evangeline. I can't help but hope she shows him just how hard a knight's training really is. I have seen it all too often on my way to the orchards. If he thinks it will be glorious, he is mistaken.
"And now, acting as proxy on behalf of Sir Gerhard, Knight of Andaria, I have chosen, to serve as Sir Gerhard's squire and to train for knighthood, the girl, Aven. No-name, will you please step forward at this time?"
I don't realize what she has just said until I am halfway across the courtyard. Suddenly, it registers that I have not been dismissed, but chosen. There is a great big scowl on my face as I turn around and take my place at Lady Evangeline's side.
"Gerhard will just love you," she mutters out of the corner of her mouth. "It serves him right for not coming himself."
I stand in silent shock, unable to do anything but look unpleased by the events. After a moment, I begin to protest, "I'm not qualified—"
I am cut off by a peremptory gesture from the lady knight. "It is up to me to make that decision," she hisses to me. "Now be still."
Lord Avery is watching us carefully now, eying first Auro, then me. He approaches, looking us over like he is at a horse market and we are scraggly ponies waiting to be sold. He comes so close that I can see the flat gray color of his eyes. He smells of old clothing and stale perfume that doesn't really mask the faint odor of his unwashed body. Few people bathe frequently, especially when the weather turns cool as it has begun to do, but here in Wylden only the nobles can afford perfumes to cover up other unpleasant scents.
Honestly, I'd rather smell plain filthy than like a filthy flower.
I think my dislike shows on my face, because Lord Avery glares at me from down his long, straight nose. I want to tell him it's only the smell—that he shouldn't take it personally—but I don't. He probably should take it personally. I don't really like him.
Finally, his inspection is over, and he nods curtly to Lady Evangeline. He tries to stare down his nose at her, but he has to tilt his chin back to do it. She is taller than him.
"Very well," he says. "You have my approval." With that, he turns away, muttering to the men around him, "I am going inside. There is a draft out here."
I don't think he really cares about the knights and the choosing. I glance at Lady Evangeline and see the poisonous look she shoots after Lord Avery. She must agree with me. I think her opinion of him is lower than mine.
Her eyes suddenly meet mine as she turns my way and then Auro's. "Well—" she claps her hands together "—shall we be off?"
I merely shrug and follow her from the courtyard. My mind is racing, despite my calm exterior. It is only just beginning to sink in that I am going to train to become a knight. I don't know if I ought to be angry that I have been chosen, or nervous about what knighthood will entail. There has to be a way out. They can't make me train against my will, can they?
Finally, I can't stand the turmoil inside my head.
"I can't fight!" I explode. Auro starts and looks at me in alarm, but Lady Evangeline hardly gives me a second glance.
"Look," she explains with a hint of exasperation, "you have no place to question my decision. I have my reasons. I've seen you by the training green with that staff of yours. If you don't fight, why do you carry it?"
"Because it's big and heavy and anybody hoping for an easy target won't know that I can't use it!" I retort, waiting for disappointed surprise to cross her face.
She smiles instead. "And that is exactly why you've been chosen."
"What?" I can't help but be a little confused.
"Intimidation is a strategy that knights use all the time. It may surprise you to know that we don't always go looking for fights. I may not be your mentor, but here's your first lesson: if you can intimidate somebody out of a fight then you don't have to put your own life at risk."
"Thanks," I grumble, but I feel just a little better, knowing that there is a legitimate reason I've been picked.
"Pardon me," Auro butts in, "but I happen to know that she's quite capable of attacking people with that staff."
"Oh?" Lady Evangeline inquires with a hint of curiosity. "I sense a story. Do tell."
As soon as Auro mentions it, I remember an incident in the orchards, in which I struck a boy over the head for teasing me and throwing half-ripe apples at me. It can't possibly be him though. Can it?
"Yeah, I thought I was safe in a tree, but she jabbed me so hard with that stick of hers that I fell out, and before I had time to get to my feet, she'd cracked me over the head with that thing." He's grinning at me, rubbing the back of his head ruefully. Evangeline laughs, and I flush deep red.
"Maybe you ought to remember that before you throw apples at me," I mutter.
I'm suddenly drawn back to one of those ordinary days in the orchard, remembering exactly what happened the first time I met Auro.
Martin is standing all alone and I realize that I'm late. Again.
"Did you sleep late today?" he asks me good-naturedly.
"No," I grumble, rubbing my head ruefully. It aches, probably thanks to the knights and their early morning practice.
"Well grab some bread and get to work. The others are already out there."
I nod and hastily snatch a small loaf of bread from Martin's bag, running into the orchard before he can lecture me. It isn't long before I've found where I left off work the day before, and I set my staff down at the base of a tree. Just as I reach up to start gathering apples, one of the aforementioned fruit drops from above and hits me in the head. I shake my head, which is already sore, and peer upward. I don't see anything; I suspect it just fell.
I go about my work without complaint until yet again an apple hits me in the head.
"Hey!" I exclaim, whirling around, gazing in every direction, especially up. I pick up my staff and glare at my surroundings. Nothing stirs.
Growling menacingly, I turn back to work and for a third time I am struck by an apple to the head. This is ridiculous.
"All right, that's it! Show yourself!"
A soft snicker reveals that my attacker is up above, hidden high amid the foliage of the tree.
Snarling, I jam my staff upward in the general vicinity of the snicker. It connects with a satisfying thump and my attacker lets out a surprised yelp. I jab him with my staff again, a little bit harder this time, and with a crash, he lands painfully at my feet, curled up on the ground.
"What do you think you're playing at?" I growl, poking the huddled form with the end of my staff.
The boy uncurls and stands up, brushing himself off as if nothing has happened. He's surprisingly tall.
"Sorry," he apologizes with a grin. "Just thought it'd be funny to see how long it would take you to realize it was me. I'm Auro, by the way."
I realize that the boy is my age-maybe even a little older-his blue eyes gleaming with mischief.
"You thought it would be funny?" I promptly raise my staff and crack him over the head with it. "Well think again!"
"Ow!" he cries out, throwing his arms up protectively above his head. "Hey, watch it!"
I hit him again and again until he gives up and runs away, laughing.
"And stay away!" I call after him, but I fear that he isn't even listening...
With a glance at the boy now next to me, I can see those dark blue eyes, still twinkling humorously at the memory. It seems he remembers it just as clearly as I do. There is no doubt he is the same boy.
Evangeline snorts, "Oh, Gerhard is going to love you two."
Auro and I glance skeptically at her. We've both heard the sarcasm in her voice. I brood silently. Who is this "Sir Gerhard" that I am to learn from?
After a short, silent period of walking, I notice that we've descended from the hill and are now in the orchards again. Glancing around with a frown, Auro asks, "Hey, where are we going anyway?"
"That's 'Lady Evangeline'," she corrects him sternly. "You may be a new squire now, but I'll tolerate no lack of respect or discipline from you."
I snort, and she rounds on me. "And you, No-name, the same goes for you. Gerhard's not here right now, which makes me the one in charge for the time being. You'd best learn manners quickly, before your new mentor knocks them into you."
I glare at her.
She looks ready to add a sterner caution, but Auro distracts her again.
"This is great and all, being a squire, I mean, but where are we going, Lady Evangeline?" I notice he is very careful to address her respectfully.
She sighs and casts her eyes upwards. "Heavens, boy, you carry on like my old biddy grandmother. I suggest you talk less and pay attention to more important matters. It'll do you good."
He flushes and presses his lips tightly shut.
Lady Evangeline laughs a little and adds, "We need to pick up your things and move them to the barracks first. Once that's done, we'll see what ought to be done next."
"The barracks in the keep, you mean?" Auro inquires curiously.
"No," says Lady Evangeline, her eyes set ahead. We are nearly out of the vast orchards now; I can see the outskirts of the village a little ways ahead.
When it is clear she isn't going to say anything more, I answer self-importantly, "Knights have their own barracks." I'm pleased to know something that eager Auro does not. I only know this because I've seen the knights' barracks, a forbidding building of dark stone on the edge of the forest, behind the training ground. "The barracks in the keep are for men-at-arms." Men-at-arms are the regular soldiers, the ones who aren't chosen to be knights, or the ones who can't afford training at the officers' school in the Capital. They're the soldiers in the army, officers are their commanders in the field, and the knights are their leaders and advisors.
"Hmm," Lady Evangeline murmurs appraisingly. "Very good, No-name. Do you know why that is?"
"Because knights don't want to mingle with common soldiers?" I guess. "Because they smell funny and you don't like them?"
"Because they'd kill you if they had to share quarters with you," Auro interrupts, obviously thinking he's being very amusing. I glare death at him.
Lady Evangeline is grinning, but she shakes her head. "Interesting, but uninformative. No, we have separate quarters for two reasons—one, because we are the commanders, and it wouldn't do to let the men see us when we are at ease. They must respect us, and to do that they must have faith in our discipline and training."
I wonder what kind of things happen when knights are at ease that would lower the soldiers' respect for them. I am about to inquire about this, but Lady Evangeline doesn't give me time to interject my question.
"Most importantly," she continues, "the soldiers answer to the rojen. They are his men, though he is ultimately subject to the king. We do not answer to the rojen in any way. We answer only to the king and his senate."
"I knew that," I mutter under my breath.
"Don't mumble, No-name," Lady Evangeline snaps, suddenly all bristles. "I hate mumblers."
"Sorry," I mumble. I can tell she is glaring at me. I focus hard on the path in front of me so that she can't see the face I'm making.
As Lady Evangeline has been lecturing us, we've come upon the outskirts of Wylden's one village—Wyldhaven. It is not very big, but the shops and houses are crowded together, as if the village wants to look even smaller than it really is.
Lady Evangeline stops, glances around as if to gather her bearings, and then stalks forward again with renewed purpose. "You live with the blacksmith, right, boy?" she asks Auro.
He nods. "He's my uncle. The smithy's on the far side of the village."
"Good. And you," she snaps back at me, "you live out in the boonies by the training green, don't you?"
"The same boonies you live in," I reply coolly. I live unnervingly near the knights' barracks. We're almost like next-door neighbors. If I'd ever paid any attention to the knights, I'm sure I would have recognized Lady Evangeline out on the training ground at one point in time. But they're either gone or holed-up in their big stone quarters all the time, except for practice, and I have never cared to remember any of their faces whenever I've passed by them. Maybe if I had, I would already know which knight Sir Gerhard is.
At least I'm sure that I didn't see Lady Evangeline on the training ground this morning—it's probably safe to guess that Sir Gerhard was the other missing knight. Except that leaves me with another question—where is he, and why did he miss the choosing?
Before I can ask, Lady Evangeline has stopped in front of a small wooden building with a thatch roof. It is identical to almost every other structure in the village. "This it?" She turns to Auro.
"Well yes, but—"
She pounds on the stout door without another word and waits for an answer. Nobody comes. She taps her foot and crosses her arms impatiently over her chest.
In the silence that follows, Auro speaks up in a careful voice. "I don't think anybody is inside. I could let you in if you want."
Lady Evangeline shakes her head. "No. You want to tell your family the news, don't you? Where will they be right now?"
He shrugs. "They're probably in the back. Come on, I'll show you."
He leads us around the house and across a narrow tract of land. There is corn and cabbage growing in a small garden plot. An apple tree stands nearby. Even the blacksmith needs to grow extra food to feed his family, though everybody in Wylden who owns a horse, everybody who uses iron tools, even the soldiers come to him at some time or another. Lord Avery himself sends his horses down to the blacksmith to have them shod.
The shop is behind the garden, near the stables. A few horses already wait in the paddocks, some of them finicky and nervous, others completely calm, untroubled by the clanging of the blacksmith's hammer.
Auro continues past the stables, absently rubbing a few soft faces that nose him for treats. "No handouts today," he murmurs, patting one particular horse gently on the forehead. "Sorry, Bucker."
"'Bucker'?" I echo, glancing at the horse in question. It's an ill-fitting name—the horse is old, its hide sagging over a bony frame.
"It's a good name," Lady Evangeline states, approaching the horse and letting it sniff her hand. "You've bucked lots of young mischief-makers around in your day, haven't you?"
I can't help but notice that she talks to the horse as if it can actually understand her. Auro seems just as unnerved as I do.
"Wait here," he says. "I'll bring my uncle out."
Lady Evangeline hardly nods to acknowledge him, patting Bucker and whispering to the horse. Auro hesitates for just a moment before he disappears into the shop.
We don't wait for very long before the clanging stops, and Auro returns with a very tall, very wide man behind him. So this is the blacksmith. I've never had an opportunity to meet him before now. He doesn't look much like Auro, except maybe the light hair, but there is a slight broadness to Auro's shoulders that just might gain some of the same width his uncle has in a few years.
"Lady Evangeline, Aven, this is my uncle, Tad Norleigh," he introduces us before turning to his uncle and stating, "Aven is a...friend of mine, and Lady Evangeline is going to be my mentor."
The blacksmith, his face unsmiling and serious, offers his huge hand in greeting to me. His handshake is very strong. When he finally loosens his grip, I have to resist the urge to massage my hand.
"Mr. Norleigh," Lady Evangeline murmurs in greeting, inclining her head and taking his hand. They shake, each squeezing tighter than is necessary, as if measuring the other up by the strength of their handshake. I swear I can hear bones creaking.
The blacksmith, after several moments of silence, releases Lady Evangeline's hand and breaks into a slow, proud smile. "I hear Auro's fin'ly gonna do somethin' with himself. That true?"
She nods. "Yes, Mr. Norleigh, that is true. Aureus will serve as my squire from now on. If he does well, he will one day take my place as a knight of Andaria. I trust this is acceptable to you?" Her face says it had better be acceptable to him.
He claps Auro on the back with a heavy hand. Auro emits a soft, pained groan, but he smiles like he's used to it.
"Course it's acceptable to me. That boy's got it in him to do some good as a knight. I always knew it. Now what is it you'll be needin' from us?"
"Just his things," Lady Evangeline says.
The blacksmith looks surprised. "N-no supplies? No horse? No money? ...No weapons?"
"Has he got a horse already?" she asks.
Mr. Norleigh casts a glance at Bucker, who whickers softly. "Well..."
Lady Evangeline, following his gaze, laughs. "No, Mr. Norleigh. That horse will hardly do. He'll be supplied with a horse when he needs one."
"What about weapons?"
"Does he have one that he is comfortable with already?" she inquires. "A family heirloom perhaps?" I can't quite tell, but I think she's being sarcastic. It's faint, though, and the blacksmith doesn't catch on. When he shakes his head, she replies, "Well then, just his personal effects will be all we require. We have our own fund for new squires; it comes straight from the king. When Aureus is ready, he will craft his own weapon."
"Ah." Mr. Norleigh nods. "Well then that's settled, I suppose." He rests a hand on Auro's shoulder and squeezes kindly. Auro winces slightly. "Off you go, my boy!"
Auro takes a step forward, but he's held back by his uncle, who has suddenly started to frown.
"Hang on," the large man muses thoughtfully. "If he'll be living in the barracks, what are the chances of him visitin' his family?"
"Squires may visit on holidays," Lady Evangeline explains. "Special cases are made if they are to leave on long missions or other knight business." With that, she seems to take pity on Auro, not leaving any room for the blacksmith to intervene again. "Don't worry, Mr. Norleigh. Your nephew will be well taken care of. Come, Aureus. We must be on our way."
She leads us away from the shop and back to the house. I can feel the blacksmith's gaze following us. "Gather your things," Lady Evangeline orders Auro. "And be quick about it. I want to make it back to the barracks by midday."
"Why?" I ask as Auro dashes inside. "Does something special happen at midday?"
She looks thoughtfully at me. After a long silence, she states calmly, "Yes. Lunch. I'm famished."
I am less than amused by her wit.
After that, I wait in silence, while Lady Evangeline mutters to herself. She gets more impatient as we wait. "I swear, one more minute and I'm going in after that boy," she growls. It hasn't really been that long, but by the way she is talking, one would think she has been waiting for hours.
Fortunately, Auro returns before she can barge through the door. On his back is a shapeless bag, cinched tightly shut. In one hand, he carries something wrapped in a little gray cloth.
"Sorry," he apologizes bashfully. "My aunt held me up."
"I thought you said nobody was inside," Lady Evangeline counters, eying him suspiciously. "If she was in there, why didn't she answer the door when I knocked?"
"I didn't think anybody was in there," he replies with a shrug. "She must have been frightened by your knocking."
I can't help but laugh. The glare I receive silences me. I wonder if that's something they teach all knights. It seems as though that menacing glare could come in handy in certain difficult situations. I must ask about this later. For now, with Auro finally ready to go, we set off again, this time toward my little abode on the other side of the orchards.
"What's in the cloth?" Lady Evangeline inquires absently, indicating the bundle in Auro's hand with a jerk of her chin.
"Oh." Auro jumps and stares down at it, as if he's forgotten it is there. "Just some bread and cheese. My aunt made me take it," he adds. "Want some?" He offers it to her.
"No." Despite her complaint of hunger, Lady Evangeline distractedly refuses his food. I notice her eyes are narrowed, scanning our surroundings intently as we leave the village. Her hand rests on the pommel of the sword she carries belted at the waist. "Never travel distracted," she states to no one in particular. I suppose she's instructing us again.
Auro shrugs and glances at me, holding out the bundle of food to me. I never turn food down. I take the part he offers me, and we both eat as we follow Lady Evangeline. She may be on guard and wary, but the only danger we can possibly come to as we walk through the orchards is the rare chance of an apple landing on one of our heads.
At the pace she takes, it isn't long before we've passed completely through the orchards for the second time since the choosing. The training ground comes into view, and I notice Auro cast his gaze eagerly toward it. I don't think he's ever seen it before, unless he's caught glimpses of it from high up in the orchard trees. The knights usually discourage onlookers. They've never minded me because they're used to seeing me walk to and from the orchards, and I don't hang around to watch. Most people have no business being near the training ground; they are usually chased off by one of the knights as soon as they are noticed.
None of the knights I saw training that morning are there now, but that doesn't mean they're done training. Sometimes I have seen them riding their horses through the forest, following paths that must be known only to them. Which begs the question—
"Will we learn to ride horses?"
Lady Evangeline hardly glances at me, only uttering a short bark of a laugh. "Don't you think it's a little early to worry about horses? You can't even use your own staff."
I don't respond, too busy glowering darkly at the ground. Who does she think she is, so important that she can treat me with such disdain? A knight, a voice in my head laughs wryly. She's a knight, and you're an orphan.
"I'm a squire," I say aloud, chasing away the vindictive voice in my head.
"Yes, you are," Lady Evangeline replies coolly. "So stop asking frivolous questions. Gerhard and I will go over your studies with you before your training begins. For now let's worry about getting your things, No-name."
I scowl, only allowing myself a shrug as a reply, because I don't trust myself to speak civilly to her at the moment.
Soon my house comes into view. It already looks forgotten and forlorn. What will it look like when I'm gone? I don't realize I've halted and am staring at the house until Lady Evangeline interrupts my thoughts.
"Stop staring, No-name, and go pack your things. Quickly now."
I grumble my assent and duck inside. I think about running away, but Lady Evangeline will probably chase me down or wait for my eventual return. Having witnessed her impatience first-hand, I seriously doubt she will choose to wait. Holing up inside my house is another attractive idea, but then I imagine her banging down the door to retrieve me. No. I've already decided to see what I can learn, and then—when the right time comes—I will escape. I won't be able to come back to my little house, but I have grown tired of Wylden anyway. When I leave, I will go somewhere far away, perhaps to try my hand at city life in the Capital.
"Take your time!" Lady Evangeline's sarcastic shout draws me back into the present, and I hasten to gather my belongings.
There isn't much. A few extra shirts, my only pair of spare breeches, a loose tunic, and a belt all go into a ragged burlap bag. Besides that, all I have are a few kitchen utensils and a blanket. The dishes I leave, the blanket goes in the bag. My eyes travel across the small room one more time, and I notice one last thing. My staff.
It is smooth and polished with oil, which keeps it from splitting. Each end is shod with heavy iron strips. This staff was intended to be a weapon, not the walking stick I often use it as. I pick it up, testing its balance, which—as always—is perfect. This one possession is the only thing I own that has sentimental value to it, as well as its practical purpose. It was my father's. He left it before I was born, hoping that I would be a son that he could be proud of. A warrior. I'm angry that I never met my father, guilt-ridden because I will never be the son he wanted, but I still cling to the staff—the one thing he ever left to me. His letters were my mother's, but this staff is mine.
"Are you finished yet?" Lady Evangeline bellows just as I exit the house. Her voice carries very well over the few short feet between us.
I stand stunned for a moment, my ears ringing. Then I nod, clutching my staff tightly, almost as if I fear she will take it away from me.
My fear is ungrounded. She merely grunts and pivots on her heels. "Well come on then. Let's be off."