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Protector - Squire Part 19

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Raoul wiped lather away from his ear. "His majesty tells me I have no excuses. He believes I took advantage of our efforts in Bay Cove to stay away. He won't admit I'm right and all this mummery is not the best use of Third Company. Instead he's decided that, like a dog, I have to be retrained to remember who is king and who is not."

"He wouldn't take the Own away, would he?" Kel asked, horrified. The king could be unfair, but surely not that unfair.

"Worse." Raoul patted his face with a cloth. "He said if I take more time away from his bootheels for my own pleasure, he'll seat me with the greediest matchmaking mother in each district."

Kel winced. Surely there ought to be laws against that kind of punishment. She had to compliment the king on underhandedness, though. He'd picked the penalty Raoul dreaded more than fines or the loss of n.o.ble privileges.

"That night after supper, Kel took a long walk with Cleon, Neal, and Esmond of Nicoline. Owen joined them: he had arrived with Lord Wyldon the day before, stopping for a few days before they headed to Northwatch Fortress and the Scanran border. The squires wandered in the city, then headed back to camp. On the way Kel asked to stop at the challenge boards. She wanted to see who she would face the next day.



Neal, Esmond, and Owen left them at the tournament grounds. Neal had to pack, he said. Esmond had a letter to write. Owen, after his arms were tugged by the other two, decided he had stockings to mend. Cleon smiled at Kel as their friends left, trailing weak excuses.

"Apart from Raoul and Buri, we must be the worst-kept secret in this traveling gossip show," he remarked as they read the lists of matches. "Have you - Mithros, guide us. We're back to this. Do you really want to die a virgin? I keep telling you, we can fix that."

Kel looked at Lord Wyldon's name and shook her head. Then she rounded on Cleon. Stabbing him in the chest with a forefinger, she demanded, "What if I took you up on it? What if I said, All right, I don't want to die a virgin?" She mock-glared up into his eyes, noting with glee that he looked panicked. "You are just trifling with my maiden's heart. I've heard about fellows like you, who talk so beautifully and run when they might have to keep their promises!" She turned and folded her arms over her chest. Charm or no, accusations or not, she was as timid as he, but she needed to know, did he want her? When he kissed her or looked at her with liking and pride, she went all warm inside. Did he feel the same?

After a moment he muttered, "I - I need to talk Mother around."

Her blood went cold. She was justly punished for teasing him. There was only one reason he would feel he couldn't bed her until he talked his mother around. That scared her far more than s.e.x.

He'd told her about his mother, his father's early death, the lack of money to do much-needed work at Kennan. "Your marriage is arranged," Kel reminded him softly. "With an heiress." The girl's mother was his mother's friend. Everyone in their district expected the wedding eventually.

Neither Kel nor Cleon had uttered two words for fear of disaster: "love" and "marriage." If he wanted to talk his mother around, he was talking marriage. "I'll work it out, somehow," he said, his voice shaky. "We'll just have to be really heroic and bring in plenty of Crown purses."

"I'm not ready," she whispered. "I have no dowry, I want my shield - "

Cleon turned her into his arms and kissed her long and sweetly, not caring who saw them. At last they broke apart, panting a little. "Rest, love," he murmured, cupping her cheek in one hand. "You court death by flying tomorrow."

The next day Kel and Peachblossom waited for the match before theirs to end. Kel winced as two fourth-year squires came together in a crash of splintering lances and retired for their final run. They would be black and blue all over in the morning.

She was sweating before she even put on her helm. Wyldon was there, on the sidelines at the far end of the field. She'd seen Owen too, in the stands. It seemed Kel's former training master really did like to wait in quiet, alone, before his matches began. Most knights wanted their squires nearby when they jousted.

The two contestants knocked one another from the saddle in their third run and were carried off the field. Monitors cleared away their debris as Kel mounted Peachblossom.

The herald beckoned to Kel and Wyldon, who took their places. Conversation in the stands ended. The only sounds were the flap of pennants and Peachblossom's snort. The trumpet blew; Peachblossom took off. As she rose in the saddle and set the position of her lance, Kel realized something funny: I've actually missed this.

There was no time to think anything else. On came Wyldon, riding a large gray warhorse. Kel aimed her lance straight and true. The big hammer of Wyldon's impact struck her shield and shield arm; the little one of her own strike slammed her lance hand. Her lance splintered, pieces falling. Kel and Wyldon turned their horses and trotted back to the start points. Kel shook out both arms, then her head and neck for good measure, and accepted her second lance.

The trumpet called. On came Wyldon again, faceless in his helmet, lance steady in his grip. Kel shifted her position. They came together hard: this time it was Wyldon's lance that broke.

Third time lucky? Kel wondered giddily as she worked first one arm, then the other. The field monitor insisted on giving her a fresh lance.

Kel didn't pray to the G.o.ds for victory in the lists. It was never good to bother them, particularly over something that was a very rough variation of a game. Today, though, she wished she had the nerve to do it as she settled herself on Peachblossom's back.

Once more, and then I can lie down, she told herself grimly, turning to face Lord Wyldon.

The trumpet called. Peachblossom hurtled down the lane. Kel shifted, then sank a little, looking for the best way to hit that oncoming shield. She leaned in and braced herself for the impact.

When it came, it slammed so hard Kel's vision went gray. Peachblossom danced to keep her in the saddle until she could settle back. Her ears roared; her vision slowly cleared. She nearly dropped her lance, but clung to it grimly as Peachblossom carried her back to her side of the field.

When the monitor tugged the lance, Kel needed a moment to see that he wanted to take it. "Judges gave the victory to my lord Wyldon," he told her.

"Oh, good," Kel said weakly, body pounding, muscle and bone telling her in no uncertain terms how they felt about this treatment. She didn't see the monitor flag another man to help him get her shield off, or she might have scolded when Peachblossom 'tried to bite him. Instead she swayed in the saddle, grateful it was there, knowing she really ought to dismount. It seemed like such an effort.

"Mindelan." Once that voice had driven through solid terror to make her pay heed. She turned toward it now, and saw a broad hand held out to her. She took it. "Very well done. Very well indeed. You listened to my advice about your shield - but then, I expected no less. I only wish - "

Kel grinned foolishly, her ears still ringing. They made a nice counterpoint to Lord Wyldon's voice, she thought. "I know, my lord," she managed to say. "You wish I were a boy. But being a girl is more fun. More fun - er? Is that right?"

"Go lie down, Mindelan," Wyldon advised.

"You're tilt-silly."

"Yessir," she said, automatically obeying the command. Somehow she climbed out of the tilting saddle and slithered to the ground. The two monitors caught her.

"Mithros watch over you, Keladry," Wyldon said. Kel waved her thanks. To Peachblossom Kel's training master said, "Let the monitors unsaddle you and groom you. None of this temperamental nonsense."

Peachblossom regarded him for a moment, then snorted. Flicking his tail, he followed Kel and her escort, with Jump bringing up the rear.

Voices woke her. "Is she going to sleep forever?"

"I can't believe she stayed in the saddle. Papa says Lord Wyldon unseats everybody."

"When he hit her that third time? I thought his lance would go straight through her. But he didn't unseat her. He shook her hand!"

"We should go, if she's asleep. It's just, we won't know anything, if we don't ask."

Girls. There were three girls near her, talking in hushed voices. Girls, and they wanted to talk to her. She was hungry enough to eat a cow, horns and all, but duty came first.

Kel opened her eyes. The three curious faces that filled her vision jerked back.

"It's... all right," Kel mumbled. "I was waking up." She licked her lips - she was stone dry. Looking around, she saw she was in her own tent. Jump rose on his hind legs, planted his forepaws on the side of her cot, and dropped an apple onto the sheet that covered her. Four sparrows landed beside his offering, each with a grape in its claws.

"Is there water about, and a cup?" inquired the oldest of the three girls. Jump towed her to the small table where the water pitcher sat. The girl filled the cup and brought it to Kel. The water was warm, but it cleaned the stickiness from Kel's tongue. She started to eat the apple, while the sparrows continued to ferry single grapes to her from a bowl next to the pitcher.

"My thanks," Kel said to the girl and to her animals. It was nearly sunset, judging by the light that flowed through the open tent flap. It was enough that Kel could see her guests were very well dressed. They watched her with eyes as bright as stars, lighting three very different faces. The oldest looked to be about twelve, the other two ten or so.

"You broke his lance!" The most energetic of the three was blond; she beamed at Kel. "It was beautiful!"

"Beautiful is Yvenne's word for the week," the oldest girl told Kel.

"Mama says, if me and Fianola still really want to, in a year, she'll let us try." The speaker, the other youngster, looked to be a sister to the oldest. Both had similar brown eyes, olive skin, and brown hair so curly it fought the pins that confined it.

"Fianola will do it even though she's too old."

The oldest girl looked down, as if two extra years were something shameful. "Fianola and I", she corrected her younger sibling.

Here was something Kel could fix. "My best friend, Nealan of Queenscove, was fifteen when he started," she said gravely. "He's squire to Alanna the Lioness now."

The three faces looked equally awed. Kel knew how they felt.

"We hoped," Fianola said shyly, "if - you don't mind..."

"Have you advice for us?" asked the blond Yvenne. "Things we can practice, like archery, and horseback riding, except we know about those."

"Do we have to be as big as you?" asked the younger brunette. "I don't think I'm going to be very tall."

Kel sat up. Someone had laid a clean shirt and breeches on a nearby stool. She reached for them wearily. Fianola took up the shirt, shook it out, and held it for Kel.

Well, it's not like they've never seen female ribs and legs before, thought Kel. She started to rise. Her whole body protested the effort. The two young girls each grabbed an arm and hauled her up. Kel thanked them, and pulled her shirt over her head. "I'm just lucky that I'm big," she told them. "Alanna the Lioness is a head shorter than me, and she manages. It will help if you run," she told them, slowly tying the lacings of her shirt. "Up and down stairs, on broken ground. Run for a long time. That builds up your wind and your stamina and your legs. Climb. Hunt. Really work on archery and riding. Lift heavy things. I worked hard - I still do. Don't let anyone say it's easy." She accepted her breeches from Fianola and drew them on, one tree-stump leg at a time.

Sitting on her chair, she looked each of them in the eyes for a long moment. She wasn't sure about the blonde, for all her energy and eagerness. She could be one who jumped from wonderful idea to wonderful idea. One of Kel's brothers, presently a student in the royal university, was like that. But the sisters felt different. The older girl seemed as if she wouldn't go after things lightly. If she did choose to be a page, it would be because she'd found out all she could and chose to do it anyway. The younger one - Kel saw a fire in her small, dark face. The younger one needed it. She would manage.

"More importantly," she said, speaking carefully and firmly so they would remember, "be ready to put up with things - insults, practical jokes, dirty tricks. n.o.body will make it easy. You'll be called names and accused of doing things you'd expect from the worst slattern who works the upstairs rooms at inns." Though girls of their age and station weren't supposed to know of such things, Kel's experience was that they nearly always did. "None of that is important, so long as you win through to your goal." She met each pair of eyes in turn, making sure they had heard her, then nodded a dismissal. "Shoo, please," she told them with a smile. "I need to go eat."

They tumbled toward the door. Pianola was the first to stop, turn, and curtsy. The two younger girls did the same. Then all three raced down the gra.s.sy lane.

"Good luck, and G.o.ddess bless," Kel whispered. "I hope I see at least one of you again someday."

sixteen.

THE NORTH.

They left Blue Harbor at last. On rolled the progress up the coast. They pitched camp for a week on the western edge of Fief Mindelan, a sign of royal favor to the house that had negotiated the Yamani treaty. Kel saw her nieces and nephews for the first time in six years. They were shy with this large stranger, who looked nothing like their memory of her. Seeing her oldest brother, Anders, who managed the fief, was also a shock: they were the same height. At first Anders goggled. Then he laughed, shook his head, and gave Kel a hug.

"Don't worry," he a.s.sured Kel as the children kept their distance. "In a little while they'll besiege you. Would you mind talking to Lachran about page training? He goes in the fall. He'd never say as much to his father, but I think he's nervous."

Kel nodded. That was the least she could do for her oldest nephew. Anders had given her useful advice before she had left for Corus.

As luck had it, her seventeenth birthday came while she was at Mindelan. There was a party just for family and friends; the monarchs went hunting with other local n.o.bles. It's nice to have a meal without having to wait on everyone, Kel thought. Nicer still was the sight of Cleon with her nieces and nephews. They knew him - Mindelan was Inness's home as well as Anders's - and shamelessly pestered Cleon for games and treats.

Once he looked up from a knot of children to see Kel watching. His eyes filled with longing, so much that Kel had to go. He was thinking of the children they could have. Kel shivered. She didn't want to consider that at all. Her shield awaited her, if the Chamber of the Ordeal didn't grind her to cat meat. An heiress, and his duty to the tenants on his lands, awaited him.

Two days later the progress was about to heave itself onto the road when urgent messages came from Fiefs Seabeth and Seajen. Scanran wolf-ships had been sighted off the coast, though they had yet to attack. That same afternoon a messenger from Northwatch galloped through Mindelan's gates. Scanrans had crossed the border in three places. General Vanget haMinch, in charge of the border defenses, needed troops and supplies immediately. He also wanted the progress to head inland and south, out of danger. He could not promise their safety if they followed their scheduled route north. When Kel heard the news, she knew what was coming. To put it off - and to hear it in private - she went down to the River Domin. Someone had rolled a log nearly to the water's edge. Kel sat on it, looking across the shallow band of water. Seven years ago she had tried to kill a spidren with a handful of rocks here.

Steps in the undergrowth made her look around. Cleon sat next to her. For a long while they simply shared the quiet chuckle of the water and the calls of birds. Finally Cleon said, "Half of us are off to Northwatch. We leave tonight at moonrise. The ones to defend the coast are going now. They're taking three of the Rider Groups - not Buri's Seventeenth, though."

"My lord?" Kel asked.

Cleon shook his head. "The king's decided that First Company of the King's Own has been at court too long and needs to remember why they wear the pretty mail. Glaisdan and his men are on their way to the coast. My lord Raoul and Third Company stay with the progress."

"Maybe I'll sleep here tonight," Kel said with a shudder. "He'll be angrier than a stung boar."

Cleon smiled. "The queen sent him to his room."

Kel gaped at him. "She what?"

"Oh, not in front of anyone," Cleon a.s.sured Kel hastily. "They were in that tower of yours. I wouldn't have heard if I hadn't been using the, er, necessary that's on the floor right below. The queen said if Raoul was going to squall like an infant cheated of a sweet he could go to his room until he grew up."

Kel hid her face in her hands, not sure if she would laugh or cry. "Definitely I stay out here tonight." Then she thought to ask, "Did he go?"

Cleon nodded. "Sooner or later he'll realize the monarchs will want to see things for themselves, and that he'll have to keep them safe with one hundred men. Maybe he's figured it out by now, that it's why Commander Buri didn't squeak about her staying with the progress." He sighed. "I wish I were sleeping out here with you tonight."

Kel didn't care if anyone saw. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face against his chest. "How long?" she whispered.

He stroked her hair. "All summer, at least." She had nothing to say that wasn't pointless. Instead she turned her face up for his kiss.

The much smaller progress was east of Mindelan when Cleon's prediction came true. The king and queen let most of the train, led by Roald and Shinkokami, follow the G.o.dsroad east. The monarchs, with the mages Numair and Daine and the realm's chief healer, Baird of Queenscove, remained behind. Raoul, Kel, and Third Company were their guards, along with Buri and the Seventeenth Rider Group. Dressed plainly, moving quietly, their party visited fiefs and towns below the Scanran border. They noted what was needed, then Numair magically transmitted their requests to mages in Corus. Further news of Scanran activity came as Daine sent out hawks and eagles to spy for her and flew as an eagle herself. From their reports she drew maps and sent them to General Vanget through bird messengers. Unlike the monarchs, she had not been requested to leave the district.

They had been riding through mountain terrain for two weeks when General Vanget caught them. Kel stood guard at the tent as the fiery Minchi expressed overburdened feelings to his king and queen, with Buri and Raoul in attendance. The king's explanation of what he'd been doing did little to appease the general. He demanded that they not add to his worries and get their royal behinds back to the progress.

"You can't expect me to do nothing while my people are in danger!" snapped the king.

"But I expect you to do what you must away from the danger zone!" barked the general. "I can't chase after clan war parties and guard you. And if you think the realm won't go to pieces if you're killed, sire, then you don't know your people."

"Roald is of an age - " King Jonathan began.

To Kel's astonishment, Vanget interrupted his king. "Roald does not command the Dominion Jewel and thus its power over each pond and leaf of this kingdom. People think if you fall, the land falls." There was a long silence before he said wearily, "So if you will please go away?"

"We'll go," Kel heard the queen say firmly.

By the time Vanget left the tent, Kel had schooled her face to blankness. For the first time she felt sorry for the king. His people were in danger, and he could only ask others to protect them.

"Why doesn't he use the Jewel to protect the north?" she asked Raoul that night. Like all pages she had studied the magical artifact and its power to hold a kingdom together if a strong-willed ruler held it.

He shook his head. "Anyone ever mention the famine of 438 to you?"

"No, sir," Kel replied, putting her weapons-cleaning gear aside.

"You know Roger of Conte tried to magic an earthquake to destroy most of Tortall and quite a chunk of our neighbors, right?" Kel nodded. Raoul stirred up their campfire before he said, "It didn't happen because Jon called on the Jewel to hold the land together. The problem was, the strength it drew to stop the quake had to come from somewhere. We had a famine throughout the realm the next year. All the year's seed, with that magical potential for life, was dead. He and Thayet beggared Tortall for three years to buy food, to keep the kingdom from starving. All magic has a price. Pay now or later, with your own substance or someone else's, but you will pay."

"Enough. We lived and you're depressing me," Buri said, nudging his foot with hers. "Tell her about the giantess who fell in love with you that year."

"Aw, Buri!" he protested.

"Giantess?" Kel asked, wide-eyed. "Come on, tell!"

They rejoined the progress at Fief Hannalof and traveled east to the sprawling lands held by members of the Minchi clan, north of Fief Dunlath on the Gallan border. After a week of celebrations the progress took a meandering route south and west. There were tournaments: Kel entered as many contests as she could. It was the only way she could even briefly stop worrying about Cleon, in battle as a knight for the first time. There were fewer knights to joust against. Everyone who could be spared was sent north. To fill empty hours, Shinko talked Kel into doing exhibitions of glaive combat and Yamani archery with her ladies. Kel mentioned that she would have thought that with the border in trouble, people would frown on expensive, showy affairs like the progress.

"Not so," Shinko told her. "If the rest of this were canceled, people would think the realm is in real danger. They would panic."

Kel shook her head. "I'll stick to jousting," she told her friend. "It's nice and simple, just like me."

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Protector - Squire Part 19 summary

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