I wake to the sound of several people clomping over a wooden floor, preparing for the day. I sit up and look around, realizing that somehow I have been placed in a narrow bed in one corner of a small room. At first I wonder where I am, still bleary with sleep, my head aching, but when I see Bran and Evangeline pulling things out of their saddlebags, I remember that this is the inn, and I am in Norcombe. A pang of despair strikes my heart as I recall what has brought me back to this room. Auro is not here.
"Oh, good. You're up." Sir Gerhard strolls through the door and tosses my saddlebags to me. "Might as well get ready."
The other knights, who have been oblivious to me up until now, glance my way. Bran casts me a wan attempt at a smile, but Evangeline simply turns away again. I think I catch a glimpse of red around her eyes. She is more worried about Auro than I might have imagined.
I am happy to find my spare squires' uniform in my saddlebags. Finally I can change into soft, fitted clothing. The others, done with their preparations, wait for me downstairs. I put everything on except the tunic, which would obviously brand me as a squire. With just my loose off-white shirt and breeches, and my soft, leather boots, I can pass as a fairly well-to-do merchant's daughter. Perhaps this change alone will help to separate me from the tatterdemalion stable girl that escaped the keep last night.
The others are sitting at a table when I plunge down the stairs, outwardly calm as they eat their breakfast. It is a thick porridge with fruit preserves and sugar on top, but I have to force myself to eat it. I can't tell why—if it is an effect of the strong drink Sir Gerhard gave me last night, or because of my anxiety for Auro—but I feel sick. Sir Gerhard wordlessly pushes a cup of coffee toward me, and I slowly sip at it, blinking tiredly and groaning. My headache has only worsened since I rose.
"What in blazes did you make me drink last night?" I ask Sir Gerhard in a hoarse voice.
"Cider," he explains with a shrug.
I shake my head slowly, careful not to exacerbate my pain. "No, I've had cider before. What you gave me was different."
He shrugs again. "I had the barmaid add a little mandragora to your drink. I needed you to sleep. Now you are well-rested, and if you finish your coffee you will feel better in a matter of minutes."
I groan and fall back into my chair. I should feel more surprised that Sir Gerhard has admitted to drugging me, but I don't. I don't bother complaining either; I needed the rest, and there are more important matters to attend to than arguing with my mentor.
"Well now that I have learned never to trust any drink you give me, what are we going to do about Auro?" I inquire, suspiciously eying the rest of my coffee.
"It isn't drugged," Sir Gerhard assures me.
I still don't drink any more of it. "What are we doing today?" I ask again.
"Slow down, Aven," Sir Gerhard admonishes me. "Finish your porridge. Evangeline and I are going to gather information from the streets. You and Bran, on the other hand, will stay and listen to what the patrons here have to say."
"What?" I exclaim, clunking my coffee cup down so abruptly that it spills. "I can't just sit here!" I protest.
"Well you're going to have to," Evangeline snaps. The room is still mostly empty this early in the morning, but every head turns at the sound of her voice.
I simply glower at her. "That's easy for you to say. You aren't the one stuck here with him." I indicate Bran with a jerk of my thumb. Fortunately, he doesn't take offense.
"You're stuck here because when we sent you to the keep, you proved that you are utterly hopeless, No-name," she retorts.
Sir Gerhard shoots a withering glare in her direction before he turns to me. "We can't risk letting you onto the streets," he explains. "Ulrich's men might still be searching for you. You're just as likely to come across information here as on the streets anyway. Be patient," he states, standing up and clapping a hand on my shoulder. He locks his pale blue gaze on me and adds, "Don't be foolish. Bran, you watch her."
With that, he glances at Evangeline, and they both exit the inn. I gaze wistfully after them, wishing I could follow. Bran, on the other hand, does not take his eyes off of me.
I hate waiting. We must remain in the taproom, watching patrons as they file in and out, listening to the conversations around us while pretending to have one of our own. I can't think of anything useful to say, and all Bran talks about are crops this season. It is well past midday and we have already eaten lunch by the time I hear anything that catches my ear.
I'm listening to two men and one woman gossiping about the hideous shoes some tailor down the street wears, about to explode out of sheer boredom, when the inn door bursts open and a heavily cloaked man rushes in. I catch a glint of armor under his dark cloak and hastily bow my head, not wanting to risk the chance of being recognized.
"Ale, John, and plenty of it," he gasps to the innkeeper, loudly enough that Bran and I can hear him from our table in the corner.
"What's got you so flustered, Rowan?" John inquires as he pushes a tankard toward the man.
"Sir Ulrich's gone mad, I think. Did you hear? Last night, his men caught two kids skulking around in the keep. One of them escaped, but Sir Ulrich's got the other one now and he's calling the boy a spy. Can you believe it? My own Jorin ain't much older than that boy, and he can hardly put one foot in front of the other without tripping over something. It's impossible, I tell you, for a kid that young to be a spy."
John shakes his head in agreement. "Who would even think to send a young man to do such a dangerous thing? What could they hope to learn?"
Rowan shrugs as I watch him out of the corner of my eye. I notice Bran turn away, sipping at his own tankard of ale, but his eyes indicate that he is listening intently to the conversation.
"Poor young fellow looked terribly confused when Sir Ulrich's men hoisted him up on the battlements for us all to see. His lordship claims he knows who sent him, and he's calling for Sir Gerhard to come forward if he wants to save the boy."
"The Sir Gerhard? Gerhard Wingholdt, you mean?" John exclaims in astonishment, before shaking his head. "It can't be. Last I heard, he was spending his days in some backwater little estate. What'd he be doing here, especially with Sir Ulrich loose?"
"That's exactly it, John!" Rowan exclaims, oblivious to the numerous curious faces that look on. "Maybe he's here to take care of Sir Ulrich like he did last time. Unfinished business and all that."
"Easy, Rowan. Don't go spouting off things you don't mean," the innkeeper warns him glancing around suspiciously. "Still," he adds in a quieter voice, "I don't like how they got that kid roped into it. What'll happen if Sir Gerhard doesn't show?"
"The boy gets it. He'll be the guest of honor at a public execution tomorrow if Sir Gerhard doesn't send word to Sir Ulrich by tonight."
"Humph," the innkeeper grunts. "I'm telling you, these are dark times, Rowan. Dark times."
I stop listening after that. "Bran," I mutter. "Did you hear that?"
"Yes." He shakes his head. "They know Gerhard is here. The boy must have broken under questioning..."
"Auro wouldn't do that!" I hiss back.
Bran smiles wanly. "Oh, believe me; Ulrich has certain methods of making even the strongest men talk."
I blanch, imagining Auro at the mercy of the notorious knight. Of course he would talk. I would to. A thought strikes me, and I reach across the table, touching Bran's arm with my fingertips. "But why would Ulrich even be interested in Sir Gerhard?"
Bran frowns. "They knew each other. Gerhard and Ulrich served together in the war."
Things begin to make sense to me all of a sudden, even as Bran continues to explain.
"They were prominent knights, both of them. The king chose them to lead an entire battalion of soldiers safely to a point beyond the Valdasian forces so that they could strike from behind and surprise them. It was highly coordinated, but somebody alerted the Valdasians. The men almost didn't make it to the attack point because they were ambushed. Gerhard had to think quickly to rescue the men, and he noticed something about Ulrich, something that was wrong about him when their mission succeeded. He confronted him later, when they were alone, and learned that Ulrich had been the one to warn the Valdasians. He was the traitor."
Bran shrugs and adds, "You ask why Ulrich is interested in Gerhard? Gerhard is the one responsible for putting him in prison. He is the one who tracked him down and stripped him of knighthood."
I nod. Bran's story fits perfectly. Of course Sir Gerhard knew Ulrich. Of course he was suspicious of George, who trained under Ulrich's tutelage before the war. I understand now, and I realize what must happen.
"Sir Gerhard has to face him. To rescue Auro, to make things right. He has to defeat Ulrich," I insist.
Bran smiles wanly. "And how do you propose he does that?"
I hesitate. "Well... I don't know. But I'm sure Sir Gerhard can think of something."
"Perhaps. In the meantime, I suppose we must wait for Gerhard to return and make up his mind."
The news of Auro's capture spreads quickly in the small inn. Every patron that comes through the door has something to say about "the hostage boy", or "Sir Ulrich", or "Sir Gerhard". I am sick of all this talk by the time evening comes. All I want is for Sir Gerhard to return and set things right.
It is late—most of the other patrons have left or gone to bed by the time Sir Gerhard and Evangeline enter the inn. Bran immediately rises to his feet and inquires, "Have you heard—?"
Sir Gerhard nods curtly and interrupts with a single order. "Upstairs." Bran and I follow wordlessly.
Once we are all gathered in the small room, Sir Gerhard, standing beside the single window and scanning the streets below, murmurs, "I heard the news and sent word to Ulrich. I have offered to meet him outside the city tomorrow morning at dawn."
"What makes you think he will come?" Bran asks.
"He will come," the knight assures him. "I have offered to accept the trade he proposed in his little announcement today."
"Trade?" I inquire with a sinking feeling.
He turns a solemn glance at me and nods once. "I will trade myself for the boy."
Nobody utters a word. I want to protest, but I can't. How am I supposed to speak out against saving Auro's life? "Isn't there anything else...?" I hesitantly ask.
Sir Gerhard shakes his head. "Not with the timeline Ulrich has given us. I have told him to meet me, and to send a message by way of my messenger if he accepts. If he refuses and harms Auro in any way, I have warned him that I will go to the Capital and bring retaliation. I will fight until he is annihilated, even if I must pull down the keep myself." He smiles coldly and adds in a chilly voice, "I think he will accept."
"He'll turn the tables somehow," Bran warns. "He's not one to play fair."
"I know," Sir Gerhard replies calmly. "I have prepared for that eventuality. That is why Evangeline and I were out so late today. Now I suggest we all sleep. The message will not reach us until morning."
"How do you know he will not follow your messenger?" Bran inquires with a nervous hint in his voice.
Sir Gerhard raises a hand in a calming gesture. "Relax, my friend. I have given him the name of a well-known peddler in the city square, near the cathedral. Evangeline will be waiting there out of sight. When Ulrich's messenger comes early in the morning, she'll be listening to the message, which will mean nothing to the peddler. She'll wait until all is clear before returning here."
"I won't be followed," Evangeline clarifies in a stony voice before anybody can ask. I don't hesitate to believe her.
Despite Sir Gerhard's suggestion, none of us even try to sleep. I sit in a corner of the room and watch as Bran pulls out his sword and begins to polish it. Sir Gerhard oils his staff then resumes his watch at the window. Evangeline merely stares blankly at some place on the floor until most of the night has passed away, lost in thought for hours.
I think I have begun to doze off when I hear Sir Gerhard murmur, "It's time."
Evangeline's footsteps echo as she leaves silently, every step marked with steady determination. I do not envy anyone who tries to follow her.
The sun has not quite risen when Sir Gerhard indicates that we ought to eat something while we wait for Evangeline to return. The innkeeper and the cook are not yet up, so we remain upstairs, where Bran doles out provisions of dried fruit and meat, which we absently gnaw on as we wait. The food has taken on the same leathery taste and texture as the bags in which it has been stored. It feels like an eternity before we hear footsteps approach and Evangeline walks through the door.
"Well?" Sir Gerhard inquires expectantly.
She nods silently, her face scrunched up in a painful looking expression. I realize she is crying when I see moisture gleam in the dim glow from a lamp. "He's agreed," she says with a rush of relief. "He's agreed."
I slowly stand up and pull on my tunic, belting my sword at my waist and reaching for my staff. "Then I'm going," I announce. They turn to look at me, and I explain, "It's my fault he has Auro. I need to help. If Ulrich is going to try to cheat somehow, I want to be there to stop him."
To my surprise, none of the knights protest. In fact, Sir Gerhard nods.
"Very well. I do not doubt that Ulrich will bring others with him. I will do the same."
With that settled, we do not waste any more time. We all file out from the inn and onto the street. It is not far from here to the city gates, and within a few minutes, we all stand on a gently sloped hill just outside the city wall, near enough to have a clear view of the gates, but not so close that an archer could pick us off with a few well-aimed arrows.
I can't help but notice that the hill is covered with mounds of earth, evenly spaced over the ground. "What are these?" I ask as we pass close to one.
"Burial mounds," Bran explains quietly. "It is customary for the lords and knights of Norcombe to be buried in such a fashion."
I shiver. I'm not sure I like the idea of meeting Ulrich on a burial ground. "Isn't this sacrilegious or something?"
Sir Gerhard laughs shortly. "The dead don't care about our affairs. Who knows; perhaps they will offer us their help."
"That's not funny," I mutter, still spooked by the thought that beneath each of those mounds is a dead, decaying body.
"Either way, this is the best place to meet strategically. Trust me."
I fall silent.
"You said dawn, didn't you, Gerhard?" Bran notes after a few minutes, peering at the sun, which has just risen over the horizon. "Ulrich should be here by now."
"We're early," I point out. "Maybe he slept in."
Sir Gerhard shakes his head. "No. Bran is right. Ulrich should have been here hours ago, planting his soldiers around the field to ambush us if things don't go his way."
"Maybe he's not coming. Do you think he might simply send his soldiers out to kill us?" Bran replies.
"You're always so cheerful," I grumble.
Sir Gerhard glances toward the city gates as he answers, "He's coming. He knows I will run if he doesn't come, and his men won't be able to catch me. This is his one chance. He's too smart not to take it."
Even as he speaks, I see a small group of men emerge from within the city wall, making their way slowly toward us. I recognize a thatch of yellow, straw-like hair on top of one head. It's Auro, stumbling along in front of two of Ulrich's men.
There are five of them, I see as they approach. Ulrich, in his blue and gold tunic, is at the front, flanked by guards. At first I don't trust my eyes, but I look closer at one of the men and realize it's George. He is wearing Norcombe's colors today, just like his old mentor. It is a sign of contempt for an errant knight to wear colors of any kind, but Ulrich looks as if he doesn't care at all. I am immediately suspicious.
I glance at Sir Gerhard, who watches Ulrich with narrow blue eyes. He looks just as wary as me. I tighten my grip on my staff, lowering it defensively in front of me. Without glancing my way, Sir Gerhard murmurs, "Easy. Don't show any aggression yet. As far as we know, he's merely here to talk."
I reluctantly raise my staff as the man comes steadily closer, now mere paces away. Despite Sir Gerhard's warning, I can sense his tension. He is also preparing for something; I can only imagine it will be an attack.
Ulrich stops just a few paces from us. He doesn't say anything, merely standing and smiling at Sir Gerhard in the most unnerving fashion. His eyes slowly flicker over all of us in turn. He does not seem to recognize Bran or Evangeline, but when his gaze lands on me, it stays for a few moments, and he looks slightly puzzled.
"I've seen you before," he murmurs, pointing at me.
George, standing on Ulrich's right side, explains in a low voice, "She was the other spy. The stable girl."
"Ah, of course." His eyes immediately light up with recognition and he smiles at me.
I take a step back without thinking. His is the kind of smile that sends chills down my spine.
"So you're the one that got away. Pity," he adds. "We could have had so much fun with you."
"That's enough!" Sir Gerhard barks, lowering his staff in front of me.
Ulrich returns his gaze to Sir Gerhard, still looking as if he is amused by something. "Hello, Gerhard. I see you've noticed our mutual friend." He indicates George, who looks away studiously. "Surprised to see that one of your own knights has defected to my side? He's been so useful. Without him, I wouldn't have known how important this boy really is." He claps a hand on Auro's shoulder. The squire winces painfully.
I realize that Auro hasn't been the one to break under questioning. It is George. George has probably supplied that information voluntarily. I glower at him.
"Not that one," Sir Gerhard says with a shake of his head. I can't tell if he means that he's not surprised, or if he knows that George hasn't really defected. Even I'm not sure about George anymore.
"I brought the boy," Ulrich continues. "You recognize him, don't you?"
Sir Gerhard doesn't answer.
Ulrich placidly reaches for Auro, dragging him closer by the collar. He removes a knife from his belt with his free hand and holds it to Auro's throat. "I'm guessing he's a squire. So..." He traces a shallow line across Auro's skin, drawing a trickle blood. "Whose squire is he?"
Evangeline draws her sword immediately, but Sir Gerhard holds out a hand to stop her from attacking. His staff is still in front of me; otherwise I fear I might attack Ulrich myself.
"Oh, a little sensitive, are we?" he chuckles and releases his grip, handing Auro off to his guards again. His face turns serious, and he states, "I want you in exchange for the boy, Gerhard."
But Sir Gerhard is already shaking his head. "We both know that isn't going to happen, Ulrich."
I let out a surprised, wordless exclamation. What will happen to Auro?
Ulrich laughs and unsheathes his sword. It is one of those short, thick blades, and he holds it with easy confidence. On his left arm is a circular metal shield, devoid of any insignia, just as Sir Gerhard explained in heraldry so long ago. "You're right, Gerhard." Before any of us can react, he lifts his sword high above his head, letting the sunlight glint off of it. "Form up!" he bellows, his voice ringing in the clear morning air.
Almost immediately, men begin to pour out through the city gates, jogging in full soldiers' armor, their weapons bared. I am too overwhelmed to count, but it must be near a hundred men. I look fearfully at Sir Gerhard, who to my amazement is actually smiling.
"Surrender," Ulrich orders with a cunning grin. "You're outnumbered, and I doubt even you, Gerhard, can match me with these numbers."
Sir Gerhard shakes his head. "Predictable as ever, Ulrich."
The errant knight hesitates for a moment, unnerved by Sir Gerhard's obvious calm in the face of such disastrous circumstances. All of a sudden, I see his face change from one of hesitant curiosity to sheer disbelief. I cast a glance over my shoulder to see what he is staring at, and my jaw drops in shock. Rising up from within the burial mounds, like specters from the grave, are men, each wielding at least one weapon.
At first, I really do think they are ghosts, that Sir Gerhard was right about the dead helping us, but then I recognize among them the three patrons from the inn, the ones who couldn't stop talking about the tailor's ugly shoes. I glance closer at their tunics and suddenly realize what they are. They all wear the crest of Andaria, but in many different colors. The gossipers bear the silver on red of Wulcombe. There, to the left, I see the violet on white of Addlewood, and the gold and blue of Norcombe. A few wear the gold crest on a red field—these are from the Capital City itself. Some come from places as far as Fenbury, with their black on white crests. All of them share something in common, though. Every one of them is a knight.
I have never seen so many knights gathered together. My first thought is how? Apparently, Ulrich is thinking the same thing. His utter shock shows on his face.
"Where did they all come from, sir?" I ask Sir Gerhard in an awed voice.
"What do you think we've been doing these past few weeks, Aven?" he replies without taking his eyes off of Ulrich. "We've been secreting knights into the city ever since Ulrich took over. I'm sure they are in a fairly bad mood after a cold night spent out here in the burial mounds," he adds with a raised brow, smiling at his opponent.
"My men still outnumber you," Ulrich growls.
"Perhaps." Sir Gerhard shrugs. "But you are outmatched."
The errant knight lets out a bellow of rage and plunges forward without another thought. Sir Gerhard moves to meet him, and suddenly we are all in the middle of battle.
I catch a glimpse of Auro as he kicks the man holding him captive and bites down on his arm, but I do not see George at all. Before I can dwell on that, though, I am distracted by an oncoming blade aimed at my head. I dodge automatically, as I have been trained to do. I strike with my staff, catching the attacking soldier in the stomach. He may be wearing a mail shirt, but the blow still knocks the wind out of him. He groans and falls to the ground, clutching his middle. I crack him in the skull with one of the metal-shod ends of my staff and render him unconscious.
We are outnumbered still, at least two to one, but I am amazed by the knights' skill. I hardly have a chance to engage with one soldier before a knight steps in to "save" me. They all seem eager for the fight, regardless of age or gender. I realize that this is what knights do, what they train for every day.
Jostled and pushed around, I find myself suddenly on the outskirts of the fray, merely looking in at things. The mercenaries are highly outmatched, but they are fighting with all their strength. I recall what George once explained to me about tactics: mercenaries are always terrible allies to have if it looks like the battle is not in their favor. I glance around, though, and see that they are all still fighting. Why have they not surrendered? I wonder, but then it strikes me. Ulrich must be doing well against Sir Gerhard.
Overcome with anxiety, I push my way toward the last place I saw them, near the crest of the hill. I beat several people—knights and mercenaries alike—out of my way with my staff. I have to find Sir Gerhard, and I don't have time to differentiate between any obstacles.
The fighting has dwindled near the center of the hill, and a loose circle has formed around the two knights. They circle each other, both looking for the tiniest of openings. Ulrich moves his sword in lightning quick strikes, dashing forward and immediately retreating before Sir Gerhard can strike him. Sir Gerhard doesn't seem terribly worried, though his opponent is obviously very skilled and wields a sharp sword. He simply moves his staff to meet Ulrich's blade, twisting it swiftly at the last moment so that the sword slides off of his staff instead of cutting into the wood. I have never seen such precise movement. Again, I am reminded of my mentor's skill.
Ulrich isn't to be outdone, however. He is exceedingly swift with his sword, striking multiple times in the space it takes Sir Gerhard to make one attack with his longer staff. I notice that the errant knight holds his shield close to his body, keeping it near to protect himself from Sir Gerhard's attacks.
All around me, the knights continue to stave off Ulrich's soldiers, but the sounds of battle seem to fade as I watch Ulrich and Sir Gerhard move continuously in their sleek, skilled dance. One knight parries just in time to block a blow and retaliates immediately with an attack of his own. It's a constant back and forth battle in which neither seems to tire. I fear I am becoming too entranced by the fight—I need to pay more attention to my own surroundings—but I can't look away.
Sir Gerhard spies an opening in Ulrich's defense, one that I barely see, and he quickly strikes, reacting faster than I could imagine possible. He wedges his staff between Ulrich and his shield and twists it rapidly to the side. I hear a crack, and the errant knight groans, his arm flopping uselessly to his side. I think his arm is broken. Sir Gerhard immediately moves in to give him a finishing blow to the head, when Ulrich dashes forward, moving so quickly that I don't realize what he is doing until it's done. He twists his torso, throwing his useless arm up, grimacing in pain as the staff lands on his shield. At the same time, he swings his sword upward with the other arm. Sir Gerhard can't pull away fast enough. His staff catches on the edge of Ulrich's blade, and a full third of it splinters off, leaving a broken, jagged end. I know how devastating this is; the staff is now unbalanced, and it will be much weaker structurally.
In his shock, I see Sir Gerhard hesitate. So does Ulrich. The errant knight closes in, crowding the other knight so he can't put very much power behind his blows. Ulrich crouches suddenly and delivers a swift uppercut to Sir Gerhard's thigh with his sword. I watch in horror as blood spurts from the clean slice in his leg.
"No!" I shout silently, my voice so hoarse that no sound comes out. I immediately rush forward to help, seeing Sir Gerhard fall to his knees, but in my haste, I don't notice the butt end of a spear until it has connected with the back of my head. There is a brief moment of shocked pain before everything explodes in blinding white light and then goes black.
My head aches. I know immediately that I can't possibly be dead—the itchy, coarse bandages that I feel wrapped around my skull are most certainly proof that I still live. I don't take any time to wonder how before I open my eyes and try to sit up. I fall back down with a groan.
"Easy there, Aven. You don't have the strength to be sitting up so quickly." I hear George's voice, hear his footsteps approaching rapidly, before I see his face, peering down at me with such genuine worry. He looks so innocent, so human.
"Get away," I mumble, trying to push him from me with feeble hands. "Where am I? Let me see," I demand in as loud a voice as I can muster. "Where am I?"
He holds his hands up in surrender and takes a few steps back. I glance around the room suspiciously. It is a big, stone chamber, much like my quarters in the knights' keep. This room, however, is bare except for a few chairs and a single bed, which I am currently occupying.
"You're in the keep at Norcombe," George explains gently.
"No," I groan, suddenly recalling all that has happened with foggy memory. "You can't have won so easily!"
He smiles with puzzled bemusement. "But, Aven, I'm on your side."
I glare suspiciously at him. "Why am I here, then? I thought Ulrich lived in this keep."
"Not anymore," George replies cheerfully, shaking his head. "He killed the rojen when he took over, but now that he is dead, the rightful heir has taken his place. It's my father, actually, if you can believe it. He's very grateful to us, as you can imagine," he adds with a charming smile.
I am still not convinced. "Ulrich was planning to kill the king and you knew. Why didn't you send word?"
He sighs. "He kept a close watch on me. I don't think he trusted me very much. I know; what a pity. I only managed to get a few letters out, and I'm sure most were intercepted. He only kept me around because I could tell him about Wylden and Gerhard. All I could do was try to stall him and keep him oblivious to the knights Evangeline was bringing into the city in disguise."
"But you told him who Auro was! You let him know he was with Sir Gerhard," I protest.
"To protect him," George explains wearily. "Ulrich would have killed the boy without a thought, so I gave him enough information to think Auro was valuable. It worked."
Regarding him warily, I hesitantly try to sit up again, much slower this time. The effort is a success, and I am able to look George over much more closely. He has changed back into his usual white tunic with the green crest. Wylden. Sir Gerhard. I immediately stiffen, remembering that last image I saw of my mentor falling under Ulrich's blade.
"Sir Gerhard," I blurt out. "I saw him fall. How—is he...dead?"
George chuckles and shakes his head. "It would take more than one superficial slice to his leg to do the job. He's recovering in the next room. You can see him if you'd like."
I lift the blankets from me cautiously and put my feet on the floor. They are bare. I realize with chagrin that I am only wearing a loose, long nightgown. I've never worn a nightgown before. I don't like it. My clothes sit nearby, draped over a plush velvet chair. My staff leans against it.
"I want to change first," I state. "Get out."
George raises his eyebrows, but he takes the order philosophically and steps out of the room, closing the door behind him.
I find it harder to change than I first expected, considering that every time I move my head the slightest bit, my vision blurs and the room around me spins. I fall over only once, though, and finally I emerge from the room wearing everything but my boots.
I am staring down at my feet when I step out into the corridor, but as soon as I hear that voice, my head snaps up, and I find myself falling backward.
George is swift enough to catch me before I hit the floor, and as soon as he sets me on my feet, I rush into Auro's outstretched arms. He folds me securely against himself, and I close my eyes, inhaling deeply.
"Auro, I'm so sorry," I whisper, holding him so tightly that nothing is between us. I don't think I will ever let go of him. I only wish I could tell him how terrible I feel for abandoning him.
"It's not your fault, Aven," he replies, patting my hair with an awkward hand. It hurts my head, but I don't tell him to stop.
"I'm so relieved you're all right," I state, pulling back to look him over. One of his hands is bandaged, and his face has an ugly dark bruise all on one side, but otherwise he looks unhurt. The scratch on his throat is already healing.
"My battle scars," he says proudly when he notices my staring. "They're not as great as that lump you got, but I'm proud of them."
I laugh and embrace him again.
"All right you two," George comments dryly. "Gerhard's awake for now, Aven, so if you want to see him, you'd better hurry up."
I nod and follow him to a door just down the corridor. Auro accompanies me there, but when I open the door and cautiously enter the room, he and George both wait outside.
"Sir Gerhard?" I inquire tentatively.
"Aven," the gruff reply comes from the bed on the far side of the room. "I was wondering how long it would be before you'd come to gawk."
I approach slowly, curiously gazing at the man in the bed. It looks as if he was covered in blankets up to his chin, but he has pushed them down to his waist, his arms crossed stubbornly over his chest. I can see his clearly defined musculature through the thin shirt he is wearing. I look at the cords of muscle in his arms and realize how strong he really is. Though he is pale and looks exhausted, I feel silly for ever doubting he would defeat Ulrich.
"I thought you were dead for a while there, sir," I mutter.
He scoffs. "Hardly. Though if the medic has his way, I will die of old age before I get out of this bed." He shifts his legs as he speaks and winces in pain. "I can stand another day's rest, though, I suppose," he admits.
"How did you defeat Ulrich? That is, if I may ask, sir. I saw you fall."
He smiles flatly. "When he cut my staff with his sword, Ulrich unwittingly provided me with the perfect close quarter piercing weapon. When he went in for the final strike, I ran him through."
"He was wearing a mail shirt, though," I point out.
"Not over his throat," Sir Gerhard replies.
"Oh." There's nothing else I can say. I have no words to express my relief, and I don't think he will accept a hug as graciously as Auro did.
"Sit," he states, indicating a nearby chair. "I want to talk to you."
I obediently take a seat, staring nervously at Sir Gerhard. What could he possibly want to talk to me about? I hope it will not be a lecture on carelessness; the throbbing in my head is already lesson enough.
After a pensive moment, the knight sighs and offers me the vaguest hint of a smile. "You did well, Aven."
"But I hardly—" I begin.
He cuts me off with a weak wave of his hand. "You survived," he explains. "Which," he adds, "does not surprise me. You have knight's blood in you, after all."
I smile wanly, feeling like anything but a knight. "I did pretty well for a no-name squire, didn't I?" I joke.
Sir Gerhard doesn't laugh. His face is solemn, his eyes thoughtful as he replies, "You have a name, Aven."
I frown for a moment before shaking my head. "Yeah, Aven No-name."
He also shakes his head. "No. It's Wingholdt. Aven Wingholdt."
A shiver runs through me, but I think it is just a draft from the open window. And yet, I have heard that name before. "Sir... That can't be right," I say in a slow, careful voice. "I..."
That's when I remember. I only heard it in passing, hardly taking note of it at the time, but now it comes back with absolute clarity.
"The Sir Gerhard?" John had said. "Gerhard Wingholdt, you mean?" The same astonishment that crossed his face that day is now creeping over mine. "The innkeeper called you 'Wingholdt'," I breathe. For some reason, I am not very surprised. Things begin to make sense; Yeowuld, the staff, the flower he showed me. I feel as if some part of me has known all along.
"That's right," Sir Gerhard nods once. "I am Gerhard Wingholdt, and you, Aven, are my daughter."
Tears spring unbidden to my eyes, streaming down my face though I will them to stop with every fiber of my being. I'd rather die than cry right now, in front of my mentor—my father. I can't explain them; I shouldn't be crying at all, but that doesn't keep the tears at bay.
Sir Gerhard doesn't seem to know what to do. He simply looks away, focusing with great intent on his hands. I can't bring myself to speak for several minutes.
When I finally find my voice, I whisper, "Why didn't you come back?"
He sighs, still not looking at me. "It was...difficult to stay away, Aven. At first I was away, fighting in the war. After I exposed Ulrich for the traitor he was, there were several months when he was loose, and I had to track him down. I couldn't see you for fear that he would come after you and your mother."
"But after...?" I ask in a small voice.
He shrugs his shoulders in defeat. "I was afraid. I feared I would come home and find you gone. I feared I wouldn't know you, or worse yet, that you wouldn't know me." He hesitates, drawing a deep breath.
I am shaking my head slowly, unable to say anything, too choked by my own emotion.
"I know it isn't an excuse. I was foolish and afraid. That's why I'm telling you now."
I hide my head in my hands then, realizing that the crying won't stop for a while. We sit in silence for several minutes as I let years of emotion cascade from my body. When my eyes finally run dry, I feel drained and weak.
"I can arrange a new mentor for you, if you would prefer it," Sir Gerhard murmurs softly, and I realize he is as tentative about this as I am. "This may be difficult for you, Aven, and I know you weren't always the happiest of squires, so if you choose, you may simply return to life in the orchards. Everything would be the same—"
"No," I disagree firmly, looking up at him for the first time. "It wouldn't." I realize that now I will always know, and to know and just turn away wouldn't be enough for me. It never will be. I sigh shakily and try to steady my voice, clutching my arms around myself to stop the shivering.
"I don't want another mentor. I can't tell you how many people have expressed to me how lucky I am to be training with you. I want to be a knight. I want you to teach me." As soon as I say it, I know immediately that this is what I want.
Sir Gerhard purses his lips and frowns thoughtfully. I can tell he is touched, but he tries to hide it beneath his gruff exterior. "Very well," he growls, nodding curtly. "We will continue your training."
I smile tentatively and take a chance, inquiring, "Can I call you 'Sir Dad' now?"
He shoots the ugliest look I have yet seen at me. "'Sir Gerhard' is fine," he retorts.
I laugh and nod. "All right." Truth be told, calling him anything else would be awkward. I think I will always call him "Sir Gerhard", even when I am a knight.
After a few moments, I realize that he isn't going to say any more, and I can't really think of anything else to say. I hastily get to my feet. My head spins, but I manage not to fall as I make my way to the door.
"Go lie down," Sir Gerhard admonishes me. "I suggest you rest if you want to be able to travel within the next few days."
"Travel?" I ask, turning to glance at him.
"We will be returning to Wylden, of course," he responds.
I suppress any comments I have about his health, though I seriously doubt that he will be able to ride in such a short period of time. The journey back to Wylden will be long, at least four days' ride. With his leg cut, Sir Gerhard will be in immense pain.
Despite my doubts, which are confirmed by the medic himself, our horses are all waiting in the courtyard for us after only three days spent recuperating in the keep. My head is still very sore, but I do not have bouts of dizziness as often anymore. Sir Gerhard is still pale and nowhere near recovered, and I find it painful to watch him climb into the saddle. He does it, though, and soon we ride out of Triniste.
Worried as we all are for Sir Gerhard's health, we insist upon taking things slowly, resting often so that Bran can keep an eye on Sir Gerhard's wound to make sure it does not split open. The journey will be much longer than usual, but we are too full of relief to care. With everything settled in Norcombe, and all the other knights already on their way home, we are ready to follow suit. I am certainly anxious to see Wylden again.
A cold winter wind blows across my face as I immerse myself in thought, and I pull my hood up to keep my head warm. I glance at Auro as he does the same thing, and we smile at each other. I recall that first night we spent in our room, and the explanation he gave me for his desire to be a knight comes to mind.
I don't know what will happen when we return to Wylden, but I do know that I will continue my knight's training. George has already agreed to tutor me in tactics again, and in a show of goodwill, he has also agreed to tutor Auro. I think he is eager to prove to Sir Gerhard that he is not as selfish as we make him out to be. I wonder if the weeks he spent watching Ulrich have anything to do with this change of heart.
As for me, I know I will be a good knight. I have an excellent mentor, after all. A knight's heritage runs in my blood, and that gives me purpose. I intend to prove that I can be a knight too. If that means I must be a squire first, then I will do it. This is the one service that I can perform, the one thing I can be, because I have knight's blood in me. My name is Aven Wingholdt.