Written for Ephemeratales' Sensory Overload Ficathon. (For more (better) stories, check out the list here:
http: slash slash www dot livejournal dot com slash users slash ephemera underscore tales slash 52848 dot h t m l … with the words into symbols and removing spaces, of course...)
The problem, Harley decided, with being a magical prodigy, was that there was entirely too much trouble he could get in to, should he put his mind to it.
And, of course, he'd put his mind to it.
"Squire!" The bellow could be heard over the general ruckus of the caravan, and Harley winced. There was no room to doubt that the call was for him because no one else had a booming bass voice like his knight, once angry. Struggling valiantly with the assorted pads, armor and weaponry that one of the other squires had informed him was Sir Benny's; he managed to limp his way toward the swarthy and rather angry looking man.
"Here sir," he panted, sure that if he had to carry this much farther his life would be a lot shorter than even he could anticipate.
"What is all that?" Benny frowned down at him.
"Your gear." Harley tried not to give Sir Benny too much attitude, but honestly. He couldn't help but wonder if the knight had taken one too many slaps upside the head with a sword.
There was a soft chuckle to Harley's right, and turning he saw the object of his desire to venture into squirehood leaning on Sir Benny's shoulder, fighting back a laugh. He had shoulder length blond hair, held back by a thong and he winked one blue eye in Harley's direction. Of course, in being dumbstruck by him, Harley managed to drop half of the load he'd been attempting to haul around. Sir Benny looked about five seconds away from throttling him.
"Now, Sir Benny, you knew when you took him on that he was a beginner." Sir William tried to placate. It seemed terribly unfair that instead of getting Sir William to squire under, he'd been left with Sir Benny. Still, Bentley, who had been helpful enough to point out where Sir Benny's armor was, hadn't seemed too terribly interested in Sir William past being just his squire so there was still hope.
"He brought the Ghost Knight's armor," Benny ground out between clenched teeth. It didn't take a genius to realize that he was in trouble. He made a mental note to get revenge on Bentley. He really should have known better than to expect the other squires to help him out of a jam. Harley knew their type. Most came from the families of gentry living out in the country, but they were gentry all the same and they all tended to look down on those not obviously from the kingdom or from it's ruling class.
Given his short silver hair, pale eyes and dark skin, it was obvious that Harley wasn't from either. No one at magic school had ever cut him any slack for it and it had been spectacularly stupid of him to assume that anyone here might either. Figured. Even geniuses had their less than brilliant moments.
"You know how the scamps are. One of 'em probably put the kid up to it." Sir William gave a dry chuckle. "Although, I have to say, it's pretty impressive that he managed to get his way around the magical encryptions keeping those in place. Most squires just come back to their knights in tears." William nudged Sir Benny with a meaningful glance. And Harley had to say that he sincerely wished Sir William would leave it alone.
Because Sir Benny looked ready to murder someone.
"Well it's too late to fix it, so we'll just have to take it along. The front of the caravan's already left and if we don't get it together, they'll leave without us," Sir Benny grumbled darkly, pulling the heaviest of pieces out of Harley's arms and scooping up the armor that had fallen to the ground, leaving Harley with the pads and the sheathed sword. "Let's just hope the king doesn't notice that his national treasure is missing until after we get back from the borderlands."
Trailing Sir Benny to the godawful mule pony he'd been assigned, Harley carefully packed the pads and the chain mail in the saddlebags before looking around. Of course, since everyone was scrambling to catch up to the front of the caravan, no one was paying the slightest bit of attention to him. Sir Benny was certainly occupied trying to secure the armor to the donkey they were taking with them.
It was a breeze for him to discreetly word a small little enchantment to ensure that whoever stumbled upon the place where Harley had taken the equipment from would see it just as it had been. He should have suspected it to be a prank with the way the bucktooth squire had pointed him towards something that had fifteen minutes worth of encryptions to detangle. Still, if his damned knight hadn't left him to fend completely for himself, Harley might not have had to mistakenly raid a national treasure.
"So, Sir Benny," Al, the weapons master, called out, pulling Harley out of his thoughts, "are you going to take good care of my newest squire?"
Al reached over to pinch Harley's less than amused cheek.
"If he gets himself killed, it's his own damned fault," Sir Benny grumbled and it took every ounce of Harley's self control to not turn around and scowl at the man.
"Yes, well, I expect him to be returned to the palace in one piece," Al laughed. "Wouldn't do a thing for us to have our newest squire bite the dust on his first mission. We're having a hard enough time recruiting young men who would much rather spend their time lazing about the palace grounds then actually working without having word spread that we kill them as soon as they enlist." Al chuckled.
Harley wondered just what it was he'd gotten himself into. Al knew who he truly was. And he was sure that this was a blatant attempt to make sure he was looked after somewhat since there would be a little backlash if he should fail to ever return to magic school. But still, wasn't this a bit overboard? They'd bitch maybe a day or two about losing their bought and paid for genius before they moved on to more important matters.
Al just waved cheerfully though, before walking back towards the palace grounds.
Sighing, Harley snuck a look at Sir Benny. He was taller than Harley by more than Harley was comfortable with, and he had black hair, dark brown eyes and the scraggly beginnings of a beard, which Harley had personally seen develop in the fifteen minutes after the man had shaved the whole thing off. He wasn't as conventionally beautiful as Sir William by any stretch of the imagination. But he had his own appeal.
Until he opened his mouth, at least.
Sir Benny might not have been his first choice of knights to squire under, but that was no reason to ruin the man's career. He was bad tempered, surly and demanding, yes. But he was always fair in both his actions and his punishments, so Harley supposed he couldn't begrudge him too much.
"Squire! Get a move on it or I'll leave your worthless hide behind," Sir Benny bellowed. Harley narrowed his eyes. On second thought, he took it all back. The man was impossible.
"Some things never change, do they," Sir William chuckled reining his horse up between Harley and Sir Benny. Harley favored the man with a happy grin. Sometimes they most certainly did! Because four years ago he never thought he would have been this close to his crush. No matter what Sir Benny pulled, no matter how many dirty jobs or backbreaking errands of triviality he was forced to endure, it would all be worth it.
Because Harley was finally going to get a chance to be close to Sir William.
The thrice-damned mule pony bit him on the thigh as he dismounted after a very long, very arduous day of riding. "Dog meat," Harley whispered under his breath. "When we get back, you are dog meat."
"A squire never mistreats his horse or his master's horse," Benny intoned deeply, pulling the reins out of Harley's hands, "because he realizes that the horses are often what keeps him between life and death." And damned if the stupid pony didn't all but purr for Sir Benny as he scratched its fetlock before giving it an apple chunk.
Harley wanted an apple chunk. He was freaking starving. He'd purr too, if Sir William were around to feed it to him. Although, he supposed that, as long as Sir Benny wasn't bellowing at him, having Sir Benny petting him with those big gloved hands wouldn't be too bad a fate either.
Unfortunately, Sir William was on the other side of the encampment and Harley was stuck with a temperamental horse and an ornery knight. Sir Benny would most likely spit on Harley before he wanted to touch him. "He bit me, what was I supposed to do? Pat him on the head and say 'good boy'?"
He heard Bentley snicker behind him, and he discreetly flipped the squire the bird.
"From the way you were bouncing all over his back today, I don't blame him for being a bit churlish. You can complain about your aches and pains and we'll hear you. God only knows you have no problem whining loudly to me about them, but he isn't afforded the luxury. And he told you the only way he knows how that he didn't appreciate the treatment. Now brush him down, stake him next to a nice patch of grass and then come help me with my gear."
Harley waited until Sir Benny's back was turned before scowling at him. He was seventeen, not seven. And just how the hell was he supposed to know how to ride?! He'd never done it before. It was considered beneath any self-respecting mage to resort to nonmagical means to travel. And given that Harley shown his powers at birth, mastered them by six, had been learning at a university level by ten and had been granted professorship status at fourteen, he'd never had to spend more than fifteen minutes in a horse's presence, let alone ride one.
Still, there was no way Sir Benny knew that. Any other teenager his age should have been riding for years. Harley, not for the first time, was having second thoughts about the intelligence of this plan. When it came to long intricate spells or untangling involved encryptions, he could plan ahead down to the last minute detail. But when it came to dealing with people, he wasn't so hot. In fact, it was where he most often ran into problems. It was taking every ounce of acting ability he had in his body to pretend he was an average run-of-the-mill farmer's son interested in becoming a knight.
And given the number of times Sir Benny had shook his head and glared down at him in disappointment, it was probably a good thing that Harley never actually intended to be a knight, because he was a horrid squire.
He heard, more than saw Bentley come up behind him. Bentley was about as quiet as a raging bull. And about as subtle. "Yes, Squire. Make sure you brush that pony down before I nail your worthless hide," Bentley mocked in an impersonation of Sir Benny as he circled towards Harley on the right side of the horse. Harley strongly considered using magic until the horse took the opportunity out of his hands by reaching out and taking a chunk out of Bentley's arm with his teeth.
"Maybe you should leave my pony alone and mind your own," he returned mildly, holding back a smile.
The mule pony was still not his best friend, though. He favored the animal with a small glare before pulling off the saddlebags and the saddle. Grabbing a curry brush, he made quick work of brushing the animal down the same as the other squires were doing around him. It wasn't all that hard, and it was actually kind of calming.
Of course, he also added a slow ache easing spell under his breath as he brushed, so his horse looked a bit less worse for wear than the other ponies. The horse deserved some compensation for actually having to taste something as nasty as Bentley. Grabbing the reins, he staked Hell Demon (as he'd decided to name the creature) to a small and secluded clearing. With a couple well-chosen spells, Hell Demon had plenty of lush grass and vegetation to pig out on.
Harley was glad one of them would be able to.
He'd seen the saddlebags, and he was pretty sure that jerky was what was for dinner. Which seemed a tragedy since nothing had been for lunch. "See, I'm not that bad, Hell Demon," he whispered to the horse, liking the peacefulness of the clearing. After a day of hanging out with swearing and stinky squires and their less than respectable knights, Harley was all for enjoying a couple of moments of blissful silence stolen for himself.
Of course, as he caught sight of Sir William walking into the woods just across the clearing, it struck him that the next thing better than a few wonderful moments stolen for himself was a few moments of a stolen chance encounter with the knight he was quickly falling in love with. "Have a nice dinner, Hell Demon," he told the mule pony cheerfully. "I've got dinner plans myself."
He quickly darted through the grass and made his way to the edge of the forest. He trailed Sir William quietly for half a league, trying to figure out what would make a good excuse to find himself in Sir William's company. They were far enough from the encampment that he couldn't very well make the excuse that he'd been out running an errand. But the old 'I got lost' explanation would probably hold water. It was just a matter of making it so that Sir William couldn't simply point the way back and send Harley back on his merry way.
There was a small hole to the left of where he was crouched behind a rather large line of trees. It would hurt, he decided, but a quick spell could ease some of the pain. Plus, Sir William would be more sympathetic to an injured soul and that would give Harley the chance he needed to strike up a conversation. Then he could let things flow naturally from there. All he needed was an opportunity, really.
Darting out, he squeezed his eyes shut as he stepped into the hole and then wrenched his body in the opposite direction. There was a small pop.
It hurt way more than Harley had planned for, and his mouth flew open to let loose a scream attesting to that fact. Unfortunately, it never made it to anyone's ears because a hand clamped over his mouth, and Harley felt himself bodily picked up and dragged back to his previous hiding spot.
His eyes were watering from where his ankle smarted, and he struggled in vain to get out of the grasp of whoever had thwarted his own somewhat devious plans.
"I can't believe you just did that. You had to have been dropped on your head as a baby," the deep grumbly voice reverberated against Harley's back despite the fact that the words had been whispered. Blinking hard, Harley turned slightly to see the side of Sir Benny's dark, scruffy face. For a moment, he seriously contemplated biting the hand that was silencing him. "Aside from your ankle, are you hurt anywhere else?" Sir Benny eased the hand away and Harley sighed softly.
The sharp stabbing pain in his ankle had quieted to a dull, roaring throb. But aside from that, he was fine. "I'm okay. What are you doing here?" he whispered back with an accusing glare. Sir Benny arched an eyebrow in return.
"What am I doing here? What are you doing here? I thought I told you to come help me with my gear when you were done with your horse."
"Well, obviously, since you're here, I wouldn't have been able to find you anyway, so why are you getting bent out of shape about it?" Harley shot back.
"You are the most troublesome squire in the history of squires," Sir Benny told him darkly. "Now shut up before he figures out we're here." Sir Benny motioned to the ring of trees Sir William had sat down in and started unpacking a pack in during Harley's encounter with the hole and Sir Benny.
"Why are you following Sir William? I thought you were friends."
"Never you mind," Sir Benny shushed him. "Although, believe me when I say that I'm gonna drag out of you the reason you injured yourself to get his attention."
His face flushing angrily, Harley gave Sir Benny a glare and tried to wiggle out of the man's grip around his waist. Unfortunately instead of getting Sir Benny to release him, it had the opposite effect as Benny hauled him up closer against him.
Sir William was sitting cross-legged in the center of the ring and pulling out a scrying mirror, so Harley only gave Sir Benny an absentminded smack, as he squirmed to get a better look. What could Sir William possibly know about scrying? Better yet, why would he even have the need to engage in it?
Given his hand position and the crudity of the phrases he was muttering to try and activate the mirror, he was by no means a master at it, Harley decided as the scrying resulted in a small image appearing that was about a third of the size that a truly educated mage could manage with a mirror that size.
"Your mirror works like crap," Sir William sneered at the figure that appeared in the translucent circle.
"Well, if you'd ever bothered to do your readings, you'd be better at it," the figure told Sir William curtly. "Are things working as we planned?"
"Mostly. There's been one or two minor glitches, but nothing that will endanger the mission."
"Glitches? You better hope they don't endanger the mission. Your fee is exorbitant enough that this better go off without a hitch. Do not forget who you are dealing with, Sir William. Should you cross us, there isn't anywhere you can run to that we can't find," the figure told Sir William darkly. Even from the clearing, it wasn't hard to see Sir William turn a bit green in the face.
"It'll be easy as pie. I'll see to it. But you better uphold your end of the plan."
"But of course." The figure disappeared, but Harley assumed it was mostly due to Sir William's incompetence with the scrying mirror than with them actually wanting to have ended the conversation.
There were a few chosen swears uttered by Sir William, and Harley struggled again as Sir Benny's grip got tighter. His foot was killing him, and his crouched position on the ground wasn't doing anything to alleviate the pain. To make matters worse, Sir William was walking their way.
Sir Benny bodily dragged him past the row of trees back into a thicket of bushes, and Harley closed his eyes so the brambles wouldn't gouge one out. He could feel though that he was going to come out of the experience with quite a few scratches.
Unfortunately, Sir Benny wasn't as quiet as he could have been and Sir William's footsteps came to a halt not too far from the thicket. "Who's there? I know someone's there! Reveal yourself."
Harley sucked in his breath, only to let out a small squeak and Sir Benny tackled him to the ground. He opened his mouth to furiously whisper a protest at the treatment, but Sir Benny took advantage of the situation to seal his mouth over Harley's and shove his tongue down Harley's throat.
It should have felt disgusting. He should have tried to push Sir Benny away harder than he did.
But, well, it wasn't as if Sir Benny was a completely repulsive person. He'd shown himself to be kind, considerate and compassionate to just about everyone but Harley.
Sir Benny did taste strongly of spearmint leaves, though, which solved the ongoing riddle of what Sir Benny was forever chewing on. It just didn't explain why one burly hand had worked its way under his tunic to feel his chest while the other was caressing, much to his undying embarrassment, his hardening cock. He could feel the blood rushing to his cheeks as he tried half heartedly to push Sir Benny away.
"Oh, Benny. I didn't realize."
The kiss ended abruptly, and Harley was jarred by the sudden loss of Sir Benny's body heat against his as Sir Benny jerked away to glare up at Sir William. "It's not what it looks like."
Damn straight it wasn't! Harley scrambled to get his tunic down and his pants back up and tied. His lips were still tingling from where Sir Benny's mouth had been against them, and he hoped to heaven that Sir William hadn't seen the evidence of just how much Harley had unwittingly enjoyed the show Sir Benny had put on. Standing up, he limped slightly, to keep his weight off his injured foot.
"Of course it isn't," Sir William agreed with Sir Benny. The lewd wink he gave Harley though, suggested otherwise. "Although, I have to say, if it was what it looked like, I finally get to commend you on your taste. Usually you pick the worst lovers. This one however, definitely is better looking than most. If you ever get bored with him, I wouldn't mind some of that," Sir William chuckled, slapping Sir Benny on the back.
Sir William walked past Harley, and a hand reached out, pinching his ass hard. Another arm wrapped around his waist, pulling him back up against Sir William's chest. Harley was sure his eyes were bulging out of his head as Sir William's hand snaked out, grabbing his still hard cock roughly.
"Best make sure you leave him satisfied," Sir William laughed before licking Harley's ear. Harley couldn't help but cringe away from it, "or someone else might take up where you left off."
Sir William released him just as abruptly as he'd grabbed him, and Harley stumbled to the ground with a less than graceful thud. He could feel his face heating up as he bit his lip hard to keep from saying or doing something he knew he'd regret.
"Harley," Sir Benny started after Sir William vanished from sight.
"Don't." Harley pulled off his shoe, to inspect his foot. He couldn't look Sir Benny in the face, because he'd probably punch him. And he couldn't think on what Sir William had said or he'd be blubbering like a baby.
"I'm sorry," Sir Benny said quietly.
That almost made it worse. Because, of course, Sir Benny had just ruined his chances with Sir William to cover their eavesdropping, and it didn't matter anyway, because Sir William wasn't the person Harley had thought him to be. So, in essence, the whole trip was a waste. The whole squire thing, the whole intrigue and all the hope Harley had invested into getting close to Sir William and finally having someone to be close to--to love had vanished in one quick moment.
He murmured a quick healing spell on his ankle, ignoring Sir Benny's gasp of astonishment at the magic. Who cared anyway. The jig was up and Harley had no interest in continuing to pretend. Getting stiffly to his feet, he avoided Sir Benny's gaze. "I'm going back to camp." He started limping in that direction. The spell couldn't heal the ankle completely, but it took away most of the pain, and it only ached a little as Harley stepped on it.
"You shouldn't be walking on that." And before he knew it, he was thrown over Sir Benny's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. As if Harley didn't have enough reason to be mad at Sir Benny or at himself and all his pathetic weaknesses. He started struggling, but Sir Benny didn't give an inch. "Go to sleep."
There had to be some kind of compulsion behind the words, Harley realized too late as his eyes slipped closed and he surrendered to unconsciousness.
Harley cringed as he opened his eyes to find himself in an old memory. He hated it because it was one of the worst memories he had, but he liked it too, because it led to one of the best memories he had. It was just that usually when he dreamed this, he bypassed this part so he didn't have to remember it. He tried closing his eyes, but no such luck.
He was thirteen, naked as the day of his birth, hogtied to the scarecrow in the palace gardens and he had a gag shoved firmly in his mouth, preventing him from using any of the magics that he knew to get himself out of his predicament.
His silver hair was falling in his eyes, and it was scattered on the ground around him from where the other boys had cut it off out of spite. There were bruises developing along his ribs and arms too, from where they'd taken it upon themselves to teach him a lesson with their fists.
He was a nobody.
It didn't matter how good he was at magics or how smart he was. They were bigger, stronger, and more connected both within the palace and within the school. Even if there were someone to care that Harley was getting treated this way, they'd still get away with it completely because their parents were important lords of the realm.
And Harley was nothing but a scrawny commoner that didn't seem to know his place or know when to downplay his unique abilities. His parents had sold him to the magic school as soon as he'd displayed his first act of magic. Then it had been tutor after tutor until he'd outgrown them all.
He very badly wanted to empty his stomach, but he knew that if he did so, he'd only end up choking on his own bile. His arms ached from where they'd been tied above and behind his head, and the ropes at his feet were cutting into his skin and he could feel the trickle of fluids—blood most likely—running down his ankles.
"What the hell?"
Whipping his head up, Harley ignored the ache settling between his eyes at having been stranded in the sun for the last six hours. There was a tall stranger standing between him and the sun, so he had at least had a couple moments of relief. From the looks of it though, the relief would be short lived, because the stranger was in fact a knight. He had on beat up armor and pads and chain mail. He was helmeted, so there was no trying to figure out what he was thinking should Harley have even wanted to. He wasn't wearing his gauntlets, but there were beat up looking cloth gloves on his hands as he clumsily undid the bindings at Harley's ankles. He must have been jousting with the rest of the knights at the tourney that had given the boys the excuse to tie Harley up in the first place.
His ankles burned when the rope was pulled from them, but Harley bit back a whimper as the knight reached up to undo the bindings at his wrists. He wasn't going to get any sympathy from the knight, he was sure. If he was anything like the spoiled brats who'd put him here in the first place, he'd probably expect Harley to prostrate himself in gratitude for the rescue. And it was with a heavy thud that Harley fell to the ground.
For a moment, he just wanted to stay there, but then his body rebelled, and he reached up to yank the gag off just in time to lose the contents of his stomach on a patch of growing onions. He jerked slightly as a hand came to rest on his forehead, pulling his hair back out of his face, and another came to rest lightly on his waist to support him as he heaved heavily.
"Who did this to you?" The knight asked quietly after Harley finished and slumped back onto the ground.
He looked at the helmet with bleary eyes as he hunched his shoulders in. What exactly was the point of telling him? The boys would get a slap on the wrist at most and then they'd be back with a new way to torture Harley. And if that weren't bad enough, Harley was certain that should they want to, they probably did have the power to get him thrown out of the school and out of the palace on their united word alone. So he just shrugged at the question indifferently.
He should probably get his act together and heal the angry, weeping wounds at his ankles, not to mention his aching, bruised ribs. He felt dizzy though, and unbelievably tired. He'd just rest his eyes for a moment and then he'd get right on it.
"Hey." The knight shook his shoulder. "Hey, wake up."
Opening his eyes, Harley felt a little better, but he attributed it to the fact that the knight was leaning over him and blocking the hot sun. It didn't hurt either that he was tilting Harley's head up enough to get a flask of water to his lips. Drinking thirstily, Harley downed half the flask before the knight thought to pull it back. "Hold on, I think they might have left your clothes at the edge of the gardens."
Then the knight was gone.
Sitting up painfully, Harley took inventory of his injuries. There were the ankles of course. Then there were the ribs, and if they weren't broken then they were very bruised because it hurt to breathe. His skin was sickly hot too, so he imagined that under the tan, he was extremely sunburned as well.
The ribs came first, he decided. It would be a while until he felt up to healing the rest, but breathing took priority. He thought for a second, and then gave voice to a simple sounding enchantment that knitted everything together. Of course, the effort left him drained and he barely noticed as the knight plopped his dirty and now slightly slashed robe over him. The boys had ripped the rank and ribbons off of it, but Harley could bring himself to care. It wasn't as if that was the first time that had ever happened.
The escalated violence was new though. He'd have to keep his guard up now to keep from finding himself in this position again. It shouldn't take too long to find a spell that he could set at night that would warn him and wake him up before someone could get close enough to gag him.
"Who did this to you?" The knight asked again, this time pulling Harley to his feet. "Why'd they cut your hair?" Knuckles brushed some of the silver strands out of his face.
"Long hair is reserved for nobility and for the top mages under the king. Not for upstart commoners who don't know their place." Harley reached up to weakly push the hand away from him. He tried to turn away, but a hand on his stopped him. Glancing down, he could see a huge scar covering the back of the knight's hand in a crescent shape. Given the scaring pattern, it was amazing that the knight was even able to use it, let alone have the dexterity with it that he was displaying as he pulled Harley's robe around him and buttoned a few of the buttons.
"Thanks for your concern and for cutting me down," he managed hoarsely, swaying slightly. "But it doesn't really matter who did it."
"I beg to differ. Palace mages are protected by law. Despite the fact that they've ripped your patches away, that protection extends to apprentices. We'll see the weapons master about this; he knows what happens within these walls. If you won't give them up, he'll be able to."
He went to pull Harley after him, but Harley stumbled. "Look, you can't stop them," he tried, pushing at the scarred hand and trying to get it to release him. The knight did though, only to grab Harley and with surprising gentleness haul him up over his shoulder.
"Watch me," the knight gritted out. "Those spoiled palace brats think that because their families have been around for generations that they are above the laws and above basic humanity. Unfortunately for them, the king is most definitely on your side, no matter how foreign you might be."
And before he passed out, he let his fingers ghost over the embossed name on a corner of the armor within his reach.
Harley came awake slowly, only to find himself on Sir Benny's pallet. It only took a second for the surroundings to register before he bolted up. He didn't get too far though, as Sir Benny bodily pulled him back down with a less than gentle thump.
"Get away from me!" he hissed quietly, suddenly aware of the fact that they were sleeping out in the open amongst all of the other knights along on the expedition. Not that he didn't appreciate the way the big hands were holding him close or smoothing the blankets down over his torso, it was more that he was still reeling from the earlier humiliation he'd been given.
No matter how touched starved he might be, he didn't want to think he was so pathetic that he got turned on by the first person who showed him any kind of compassion.
"Lay down and shut up," Sir Benny growled in his ear as he threw a big arm over Harley, pinning him to the pallet. "Look, I have no idea why a palace mage would disguise himself as a simple squire, but so help me, if you're in with William on his plans, you'll wish you'd never heard of me."
Blinking in confusion, Harley twisted around to get a better look at Sir Benny. "How did you--"
"That doesn't matter. I just know."
"No, you can't put me off with that," Harley whispered back furiously, as the events started clicking into place. "You're a dream maker. That's how you knew. You put me to sleep and raided my memories." This was worse than their little forced tryst in the forest and it infuriated Harley. He'd fought long and hard to gain some autonomy. Balling up his fist, Harley pulled back and socked Sir Benny in the eye as hard as he could. "What the hell is a dream maker doing parading around as a knight?"
"What, you think it's an exclusive deal? Magics deal only with magics and the nonmagical deal only with the nonmagical occupations?" Sir Benny hissed out. "I was recruited for my abilities as a dream maker." Sir Benny, held his eye as he swore under his breath. "You can't possibly believe that that knight in your dream was Sir William."
"I'm not a stupid backwards kid anymore," Harley whispered furiously at Sir Benny's shocked face. "You're not going to intimidate me with these tactics. Maybe somewhere along the way, Sir William changed, but he taught me to stand up for myself, and I'm not going to let you bully me like I let those boys from my memories bully me."
Sir Benny glared at him hard with his one eye for a good minute as Harley glared mulishly back. "Fine. But unless you want Sir William privy to everything I just learned from your dream and to your true identity, you will keep quiet about me and about what we saw until the end of the trip."
"Only if you promise not to touch me ever again," Harley snarled back. Hurt.
It wasn't even that he wanted to stay in Sir William's good graces anymore. He could tell from Sir Benny's somewhat obvious ploy at blackmail that he wanted to ensure Harley's silence. But he couldn't tell Sir Benny that his touch—hell, his kiss even—had done more for Harley than three years of mooning after Sir William had even begun to hint at. He didn't want Sir Benny's pity. And even less did he want Sir Benny's scorn or disgust over something so simple as a quick grope and a kiss.
"Fine." Harley scrambled up, flopping down on his pallet inches away with a huff.
Three days since the incident, and he and Sir Benny had only exchanged the most necessary of words between them. Sneaking a look out of the corner of his eyes, Harley could see the dark scowl on Sir Benny's face. They were to reach the edge of the borderlands by noon.
Personally, Harley wasn't quite sure what to expect. He'd always heard tales of what knights did, of course. Lots of jousts and killing of beasts and rescuing of princesses. None of it had ever seemed too terribly useful to him. Not like learning the applications of heat generated magics or understanding the fundamentals of the basic healing charm.
Still, they were on their way to flush out a pack of man-hungry manticores that had been stirring up trouble. Reports had come in ranging the size of the pack from ten to upwards of a hundred. And Al had planned for the worst when he'd sent his knights out.
That he'd allowed Harley to tag on as a squire had been a bit dubious to Harley in the beginning, but he was quickly beginning to understand why the weapons master had put up such little resistance to the idea. The idea of facing a pack of a hundred manticores wasn't exactly something to sneeze at and a little magic, no matter how problematic it had been for Harley in the past to develop offensive means to display it, was better than no magic at all.
And as the reality of the situation was sinking in the closer they got to their destination, Harley was increasingly glad that he'd been born with his inherent magical tendencies. He couldn't fathom facing these things defenseless.
"Stick close to the caravan," Sir Benny growled at him, grabbing Hell Demon's reins and pulling Harley closer into the center of the caravan. Harley practically bit off his tongue to keep from snapping back.
"Awfully protective of your squire, aren't you," Sir William snickered, leering at Harley yet again. His skin crawled. In all honesty, Harley was beginning to wonder what he'd ever seen in the man to begin with. He had one memory of Sir William helping him out of a sore spot, and he'd practically canonized him in return. He should have known that his expectations would far surpass the reality.
"Like you've said, he's a beginner. You've been through three squires in the last three years, and maybe you like the change up, but I enjoy having just one that stays." Sir Benny muttered gruffly. That was a lie. Sir Benny couldn't wait to get rid of Harley's problematic presence.
Looking away, Harley could see Bentley pointing and laughing at him from amongst the other squires on the fringes of the caravan. Well let him. Harley scowled at the whole lot.
And then suddenly, it was all he could do to keep his seat on Hell Demon as the pony bucked up along with half a dozen other horses. There was a loud crashing sound accompanied by falling branches as half a dozen fantastical beasts fell from them onto the riders and horses below. In the confusion, Harley saw one take down Bentley and his horse, its human head grinning broadly as blood dribbled down its chin.
"The sword," Sir Benny bellowed at him, and scrambling, Harley plucked it from his saddlebags adding another quick sharpening spell to the other spells protecting the sword and it's bearer before he tossed it to Sir Benny. He tossed off a quick protection spell too, that added another layer of protection to the clothing Sir Benny was already wearing.
Maybe Sir Benny didn't care a thing for him past keeping his word to Al and keeping Harley safe, but Harley cared about what happened to Sir Benny. The man, strangely enough, was growing on him.
He'd no more done that though, when one of the beasts fell from the branches knocking him off his horse. He scrambled madly to keep just out of reach of the huge dragon-like claws that were attached to the red furred lion's body. He vaguely heard Sir Benny's bellow of rage as he tried to get around the manticore's scorpion tale.
"Kiiiiiiiiiiiiilll," the manitcore purred at him, a mad happy smile on its face as it arched its back. Harley managed to yell a quick shielding spell just before it flung poisoned quills in his direction. "Maaaaaaaagic!" it screamed, enraged now.
A bad feeling worked its way up Harley's spine as he saw the creatures flinging knights and squires away like paper dolls as they came to surround him.
Harley tried to think of anything, everything, but all he could seem to do was panic as they closed in on him.
Perplexed and terrified, Harley watched as Sir William managed to squeeze past them to join Harley inside the circle. Not that he pretended to understand why. For the entire trip, William had yet to refer to him by name or even to him directly. And yet here he was, defending Harley where he hadn't even bothered to raise a hand to rescue his own squire?
"What are you doing?!"
"Rescuing you," Sir William yelled back, deflecting the closest manticore's attempt to snap at him.
"Squire!" It was impossible to mistake Sir Benny's bass bellow for anyone else's. And with wide eyes, Harley watched as Sir Benny violently brought the sword down through a manticore's neck, breaking the circle long enough to slip inside to join Harley and Sir William.
"Benny," he screamed as a volley of quills were aimed at Sir Benny. Muttering a quick spell, he managed to disintegrate them before they hit Sir Benny. However, in doing that, he failed to notice how close Sir William had drawn to him.
It didn't matter though, because he'd gotten over the shock of being surrounded by twenty man-eating creatures and now he was furious. A simple ignition spell amplified a thousand fold ought to do the trick, he decided. Muttering the words, he flung them out aiming at the creatures.
For a split second nothing happened, and then there was an inhuman chorus of screams as their flesh spontaneously burst into flames.
"Enough," the word was whispered in his ear, and jerking, Harley got enough of a look to see Sir William's angry face before the hilt of Sir William's sword came smashing down on his temple.
And then there was nothing.
Harley woke slowly, painfully. His head throbbed as if a thousand manticores had stood on it and done a little dance. Cracking an eye, he groaned at the brightness of the noonday sun as it shown down on him.
"Harley?" A gruff voice accompanied the hand shaking his shoulder. Cracking an eye, he saw a big hand undoing the simple string at the throat of his tunic. There was a massive crescent shaped scar on the back of it and Harley wondered briefly at the dexterity it displayed since any injury that huge should have incapacitated the hand all together.
And then the memory of where he'd seen it before came rushing back and Harley scrambled up, pushing it away frantically before taking a panicked look around him.
Amazingly enough, he was not surrounded by the faces of bloodthirsty manticores. In fact, he was surrounded by a couple dozen of the knights who had accompanied the caravan, most of whom were looking down at him with something akin to concern.
Disconcerted, Harley's gaze flew back to the owner of the hand that still had a hold on him.
Sir Benny's solemn face looked back at him. "But," he started, completely confused.
"We knew Sir William was up to something," Benny told him as half a dozen knights nodded in agreement. "We knew he was after something, but we weren't sure what. When you managed to show up with the Ghost Knight's armor, we suspected that it might be the key to the protection charms of the castle, embedded in that suit that he was after. A few of the other squires had reported back to their knights that Bentley had been the one to convince you that it was mine when all the knights and the squires know I don't have armor of my own."
"Al never told me that the suit was the key to the protection charms of the palace," Harley protested in disbelief. "You can't possibly expect me to believe that the palace shielding charms are protected with such crappy encryptions!"
"No one else knows about it but the order of the knights," a knight interrupted, abruptly reminding Harley that he and Sir Benny were not alone. "We swear fealty to our king and make our vows over the suit. It's an act of faith between the king and his knights."
Harley looked at him in disbelief. "And you let me take it away from the palace on a mission where it could have been stolen?!" he screeched.
Sir Benny chuckled, and Harley whirled around to glare at him. "It's not common knowledge among knights what the armor is important for," Sir Benny told him, "just that it's important. Trust me when I tell you that everyone was keeping an eye on it, even if they didn't understand the true seriousness of the situation. William gambled on not many of us knowing the true purpose of the armor."
"What we didn't gamble on was his interest in you."
Harley blinked, sure his eyes were tricking him as Al walked through a wall of knights to get close to him. "Excuse me?" What the hell was Al doing here?
"Sir William's been spying for years, we've discovered. It's only in the last year and a half that we've been keeping him under constant surveillance. And even then, he was managing to encrypt things enough to prevent us from finding the true purpose to his presence in our kingdom."
I suspect he was after the armor originally," Al added. "After all, he did use Bentley to get Harley to bring it along. However, I suspect that once he realized that he had the palace's top mage tagging along after him, he chose to use it to his advantage."
"Top mage?" Sir Benny raised an eyebrow and looked down at Harley.
"You wanna make something of it?" Harley scowled, hating the way his face was heating up under the shock spreading through the crowd of knights.
"You're the top mage?"
"The foreign prodigy!"
"You mean the one sold to the kingdom at birth?"
"Yup, he's the one. They say no one can surpass his abilities."
"Well, he did take out an entire pack of manitcores in the time it takes my horse to piss."
Harley was certain his face was a brilliant shade of red, and he sincerely wished the ground would swallow him up. It was just so much fun learning he was as great a commodity as a rusted suit of armor.
"Enough," Sir Benny bellowed, effectively quieting the entire group. "What I don't understand is what Sir William thought he'd be able to get trading Harley to an enemy."
"Simple," Al shrugged, "power. All he had to do was gag Harley until he got him back to his cohorts, and from there it would take a couple intricate mind control spells, obviously, but to have a mage of Harley's influence under their control would give them incredible leverage on us."
They were all cracked, Harley decided. There was no way he was that important. Not when he'd been generally ignored, forgotten and left behind for the vast majority of his life spent in the palace.
"They've been training you all along for military situations," Al told him apologetically, obviously seeing the confusion on Harley's face. "The only reason the king allowed me to grant you permission to squire with Sir Benny was because he wanted to see how you'd react under true skirmish circumstances. He's actually been rather protective of you all along. I've always told you that if you'd been more vocal about those spoiled mage brats you'd schooled with, they would have been banished long before they had been."
"Banished?" Harley all but squeaked. He hadn't seen them since that day, but he hadn't expected that they'd been banished. Al shrugged.
"But now the mission is to get both you and the armor back to the palace. The longer we're out here, the more nervous the king gets."
Al turned back around, before grabbing a hold of the armor and vanishing into thin air. It was all Harley could do not to gape. The man was a mage? Why the hell had no one ever told him?
"He keeps quiet about it," Sir Benny told him quietly, offering a hand to help Harley climb to his feet. Uncertainly, Harley stared at the crescent shaped scar before he accepted it. As quickly as he was sure the knights had gathered around him, they dispersed like mad, scrambling to find their horses and help the wounded to theirs.
"Why?" Harley whispered quietly, painfully as he pulled his hand back to look at Sir Benny.
He got that he was a weapon. Well, maybe he hadn't gotten it before, but he understood it now. It certainly explained the distance that everyone had always kept from him.
"Why were you nice to me then? Was it because I was a top mage in training?"
Sir Benny scowled before sighing and running a hand uncomfortably through his short black hair. "I was barely a knight at that point. I'd had to borrow William's armor to even be allowed in the tourney. And I had no idea who you were, let alone that you were capable of magic until you healed your ribs like that."
"So why bother?" Harley asked, suspicious.
"You were a kid. What was I supposed to do? Walk by like it was nothing?" Benny grumbled angrily before stomping away towards his own horse.
But Harley wasn't about to let that be the end of it. Storming off after Sir Benny, he grabbed the horse's reins right out of Sir Benny's hands before the man could mount.
"And what you did in the clearing? That was just to catch Sir William off guard?" Sir Benny flushed guiltily, and Harley supposed he had his answer. "It was, wasn't it. You couldn't care less about me. I disgust you and you can't stand the sight of me."
And just like that, the fight went out of him. He limply threw the reins back at Sir William and turned to find Hell Demon. When he got to the palace, he could just submerse himself in magical texts. It had worked in the past. Who needed human affection or love or anything like it anyway?
"I have never broken my word in my entire life," Benny's booming voice behind him scared about three years off Harley's life. Startled, he whipped around to find Benny incredibly close. "But for this, I will."
Benny's mouth crushed down on his. Stunned, Harley could only let the man kiss him for a moment before he melted into it, his fingers twining up into Benny's hair, pulling him closer.