Aleksandr rode at a leisurely pace down the dirt highway on the back of a bay gelding. On either side of him, dense forest lined the road along the well-remembered path from Fennell Keep to Heahun. Aleksandr was troubled by swinging emotions, as one moment he was excited to be headed home, and the next he dreaded having to face his parents after the humiliation at the Holy Sennight tournament only the previous day. He still could scarcely believe what had happened: Baron Dorja Fennell without his sword at the ceremonial greeting between a vassal of the Great Houses of Dargon and Northfield. The certainty that the bully Sigurdur had stolen the blade moments before the baron rode out onto th e lists did little to allay Aleksandr’s mortification. It was a squire’s duty to make sure his knight, or lord as it was with Aleksandr, was properly armed and equipped going into battle, and that meant being vigilant at all times. Aleksandr sighed as he played out the nightmare in his mind over again.
He let out a sigh. It helped his situation even less that his brother Pter, who was with him now on the road to Heahun, had once again made a brilliant showing. He had placed third overall in the tournament, which was no small feat. Many of the knights there had been jousting while Pter was still nursing, to say nothing of the battle experience many had from fighting in the Shadow Wars that had ended only ten years ago. Aleksandr turned in his saddle to gaze at the spoils of Pter’s victory, which followed in a cart not too far behind: a couple of pigs, half a dozen chickens, some bolts of expensive cloth, and a beautifully forged helm that needed only a crest to make Pter one of the finest-looking knights in Baranur. Of course, Pter had covet ed the fine suit of armour that had been the first prize but the haul he carried home was impressive nevertheless.
Aleksandr now shifted his gaze to his brother, and sighed again. Tall, handsome, his chin held high, Aleksandr’s oldest brother was the very picture of gallantry and chivalry. He had the trademark Heahun flame-red hair, and a pale complexion. He looked dashing in the Heahun colours of blue topped with a white chevron. In the top left corner, a yellow sword denoted his skill at arms, as proven in the numerous tournaments he had attended. He was fifteen years Aleksandr’s senior, and had been a knight in the household of Baron Winthrop for six years. As peace had reigned throughout the land since well before Pter was born, he had gained his fame through tournaments, at which he was very proficient. Aleksandr knew that his parents burst with pride at the very mention of their eldest son’s name, so renowned was his skill with a lance throughout Winthrop, Fennell, and even into other surrounding baronies.
“What’s the matter, little brother?” Pter asked, turning his attention from the road ahead to look at Aleksandr.
“Weren’t you at the tournament?” Aleksandr hung his head. “I’m a failure. I humiliated the baron and our family!”
“Bah,” Pter scoffed, taking everything with nonchalance as was his way. “It wasn’t as bad as that. You served the baron admirably for the rest of the tournament. Why, it was a thing of beauty the way you delivered that one lance to him at the canter –”
“But none of that matters, Pter,” Aleksandr insisted. “No one saw that. They saw that he didn’t have a sword to touch with Baron Bastonne’s in commemoration of the end of the Shadow Wars! That was the most important part of the tournament — of the sennight, even!”
“Well,” Pter’s lip curled into a crooked smile. “The look on the baron’s face was pretty funny!”
“That’s not funny Pter!” Aleksandr felt near to tears. “It’s all fine and good for you to laugh and be merry — you’re going home with prizes! With honour! Mother and father love you.”
“And they don’t love you?” Pter regained his composure, and a look of concern crossed his face. “They love you well enough; they just like making a big deal about knightly things and such. Father’s getting too old to joust, but he wants to keep living it through us. It’s not me so much that they’re crazy about; it’s the praise I bring them.”
“No, you’re their favourite,” Aleksandr said. “I’ve never been able to live up to you.”
“Now, now, little brother,” Pter said. “I certainly wasn’t a squire when I was twelve, and I didn’t earn my first blazon until I was nearing twenty. Look at you: a rose on your heraldry for saving a damsel in distress, no less! What I wouldn’t give to have a real blazon like that — not this ‘feat of arms’ sword that any fool with a lance can earn.”
“Well I haven’t done much to live up to it lately,” Aleksandr said. “Wait until we get home. Then you’ll see.”
“Be that as it may,” Pter said, an uncharacteristic gloom descending over his features, “I would give everything I have now for my heraldry to bear an honourable — a *real* blazon, such as yours.”
“And I wish I had your skill and fame, so we’re even.”
Pter laughed at that, and with a toss of his head was back to his old carefree self again. “If only wishes came true, eh? But I suppose the soil is always more fertile in the next barony …”
They rode along in silence for a while, and Aleksandr pondered the possibility that his brother was not as happy with life as he seemed, or as it seemed he should. To Aleksandr, Pter had everything a knight could want: fame, adoration, his parents’ pride. Especially his parents’ pride. Aleksandr feared what his parents’ reaction might be to his return, given the disaster at the tournament. It was all the worse since Pter had fared so well.
“So,” Pter said, breaking the silence rather abruptly. “What crest do you think I should put on my new helm?”
“The same as on your old one, I suppose,” Aleksandr said. “I’m sure I’ll wear the flanduil on my helm if I achieve knighthood.”
“Ah, yes,” Pter said dreamily. “Grandfather Harabin’s great flanduil. I often wonder if he really did slay one, or for that matter if they really exist. But no, I want something of my own, not a crest inherited from an ancestor.”
“You should be proud of our flanduil.” Aleksandr felt mild annoyance at his brother. “We’re just about the only family in Baranur that is allowed to wear it!”
“Oh, I am proud of it,” Pter turned his head to face Aleksandr and flashed him a brief smile. “But I didn’t earn it. That’s the thing. Our grandfather, may God assoil him, earned it by slaying the great serpent, but I’ve never even seen a flanduil and I probably never will. I want a crest that was earned through my own sweat and blood!”
Aleksandr nodded silent assent. He could understand the sentiment; in earlier years he would have agreed with it wholeheartedly. The romance of a knightly errand had excited him in days long past, but his infatuation with knighthood and chivalry had been beaten out of him by Sigurdur and the other squires in those long, painful, lonely years he had endured at Fennell Keep since his promotion to squire while only nine years of age. He often rued the day that he had tried to save Zhilinda, the baron’s daughter, from the lecherous clutches of Sir Jarek Kelbhen. The honour that it had earned him had proved to be nearly more than he could bear. Now he was merely content to survive his squirehood, and hopefully serve as a household knight to the baron. He did not trouble to imagine grand quests and the like any longer.
“What’s the matter, Aleksandr?” Pter asked. “You used to be so taken by all of this. Where’s the aspiring knight I once knew? Has that little thing at the tournament got you that down?”
Pter, of course, knew nothing of what Aleksandr’s life had been like the past few years. Nor did anyone for that matter — not even Aleksandr’s long time friend Lev who was studying to become a monk at Heart’s Hope Monastery in Fennell Keep.
When Aleksandr did not answer, Pter once again became grave. “There’s something, isn’t there? Something you haven’t told me?”
“People change …” Aleksandr said.
“Not that much,” Pter said, once again looking forward. “Nay, not that much. You’re a completely different person now than the brother I knew a few years ago. But if you don’t want to discuss it right now, that’s your affair. I’ll have it from you before the sennight is out, though.”
It was nearing the end of the day when Aleksandr and Pter arrived at their home of Heahun. The sun was low in the sky, covering the landscape in a cheerfully ruddy glow. As the horses and the cart approached the town, Aleksandr saw one of the young peasant boys hop from his perch in a small tree and scamper towards the village, yelling at the top of his little lungs, “Sir Pter is here! Sir Pter is here!”
The village folk who had been milling about converged on the main road that bisected the town and led to the Heahun manor. They cheered Pter as the two brothers got nearer.
“Poor folk,” Pter said quietly to Aleksandr, “not much excitement in their lives, I’m afraid!”
“Yay for Sir Pter!” the townsfolk cried, crowding around the horses and trying to touch Pter or his horse. Some threw rose petals in a celebration worthy of a returning hero.
“Did you win the tournament, my lord?” a pretty young peasant girl asked, tugging at Pter’s blue tabard.
Pter leaned over in his saddle and planted a kiss on the girl’s cheek, at which she blushed a deep crimson. “No, not quite, but I did win this,” he said, plucking the new helm from the wagon and holding it aloft. The people cheered even louder at this, and acclaimed Pter the greatest knight in the land.
Aleksandr tried to remain inconspicuous throughout all of this, and despite being on horseback he managed fairly well. Only a few of the peasants noticed him, one or two giving him a shallow bow or nod of the head. A couple of girls his age who loitered near the back of the crowd giggled when he looked their way, causing Aleksandr to blush nearly as much as the girl Pter had kissed, but aside from that he was ignored. He kept an eye on the manor, and it was not long before he saw the large shape of his father clad in dark green, with his hair, now more silver than red, flowing in the wind. Behind him the thin form of Aleksandr’s mother followed at a more modest pace, along with a few of the household servants.
Pter dismounted when his father, Harbid Heahun, drew close. The two embraced mightily, and Harbid even placed a kiss on his son’s cheek. He then held Pter at arm’s length, a huge tooth-filled grin splitting his face.
“How great to see you again, son,” the older Heahun exclaimed. “And with such honours! We received news this morning of your triumph at the tournament. I would that I had been there to witness first hand but …”
Pter laughed and clapped his father on the back. “Think nothing of it, father! Here, look at the prizes: the pigs and chickens; they’re for you and mother of course as I have no need of them.”
Harbid went over to the cart and marvelled at the helmet that Pter had won, opening and closing the visor in fascination with the new innovation. “If only we had helms like these in my day! Why I could tell you a tale or two about almost smothering inside my own –”
“Mother!” Pter cut Harbid off as Madeline approached, and he picked her up in a great hug and kissed her as well.
Throughout all of this merriment and warm greetings, Aleksandr felt particularly alone and left out, as his parents seemed not to notice he was even there. His dismounted his own horse, and in what seemed an afterthought, Harbid approached him and shook his hand gravely. He betrayed no emotion with the neutral greeting. Aleksandr did not know whether he should fear a tongue lashing as soon as the peasants were gone, or to mourn the loss of his father as a loving parent. With his mother it was worse, for she would not look him in the eye as he hugged her, and she remained rigid and unresponsive when he kissed her on the cheek.
Harbid ordered the household servants to bring the cart and horses around to the stables, while the family walked together to the manor house. Pter smote Aleksandr reassuringly on the back as they walked side by side behind their parents.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “They’ll get over it. This is Holy Sennight after all, when all wrongs are forgiven.”
Aleksandr hoped that his brother would be proven correct. Once inside, Harbid sat down at the large oak table in the dining room and poured himself a tankard of wine. After a healthy draught, he seemed fortified for further conversation.
“Well, it will be a quiet Holy Sennight this year, I’m afraid,” he said, seeming more sad than angry; Aleksandr had hoped that Harbid was not as angry as predicted. “Your sisters are of course all married now, spending the sennight with their husbands and their families, Kaiya having left just before the last harvest. Tschel is off on some assignment for the courts, and Bren and Tancred are still free-lancing in Comarr …”
He trailed off and seemed to brood for a while. Until then, Aleksandr had never seen his father as old, but in that moment, his face lit only by the dying sun that cast its last rays through an open window, Harbid looked ancient. His hair was mostly white now, and his face bore deep crevices. He was not as imposing a figure as he had been when Aleksandr had left for Fennell Keep six years ago, his muscles having withered away as if by some evil magic. His eyes no longer held the lustre they once had.
A servant entered the room, carrying a tray of bread and cheese. She set it down on the table, and again Harbid was moved to speak.
“Well, let us have a little bite of something before we’re off for the night, shall we?”
Everyone sat down and munched on the food in silence for a while before Pter spoke up, “Well what’s everyone so gloomy about? This should be a joyous occasion!”
Something seemed to stir in Harbid as he looked up from his drink at his eldest son. “Cephas’ boot! Need you ask? Why, I can barely show my face to the sun’s light after that disgrace the day before last!”
“Oh come now father,” Pter said. “If you’re talking about that bit with the baron’s sword, it wasn’t that –”
“By the good God it was,” Harbid roared.
“You weren’t even there,” Pter protested. Aleksandr merely tried to hide in the shadows near one corner of the table, but to no avail, for his father pointed a knotted finger at him.
“The most promising of my five sons, or so I thought,” he thundered, his voice shaking as if he were near to tears. “Saved the baron’s daughter from disgrace even! So what then? You feel you have the right to sit on your arse and do nothing? Nay — not even that! You bring dishonour on yourself, on your family –”
“Father, please,” Pter shouted loud enough to drown out his father. “The boy’s twelve years old and already a squire! I doubt even you would have been fit for the task at so young an age –”
Harbid sent his goblet sailing across the room with a swipe of his arm. “Why are you defending him? He’s sullied your victory at the lists, too! By the Stevene, what is this family coming to? Certainly the days of Harabin are long past!”
Pter bit his lip, presumably to keep from saying something he would later regret. Aleksandr emerged from his hiding place to try to calm his father down. “You’re right father, I am a disgrace, and I’m sorry!”
“Oh, I see,” Harbid fumed. “Why, I suppose that makes everything all better then!”
“No –” Aleksandr whimpered.
“Bah!” Harbid got up from his seat in disgust and stormed away from the table, taking the pitcher of wine with him as he went. Madeline followed closely in his wake.
Pter made an inarticulate noise, then he too left the dining room for his own chambers, leaving Aleksandr alone in the room. Aleksandr put his head on his arms atop the table and began to cry. For all the beatings and belittlings Sigurdur and the other squires had lavished on him at Fennell Keep, none were as painful as what had happened just now. Aleksandr’s own family was disintegrating around him, and it was all his fault. The dishonour he had brought the family was surely more than his parents could bear, and they hated him for it. Worse still, a wedge was being driven between them and Pter as well, since Aleksandr’s older brother had tried to defend him. And as far as he could tell, there was nothing Aleksandr could do to improve the situation at all.
The following days might have been Aleksandr’s happiest in a very long time, were it not for his blunder at the tournament. For the first time in months, Aleksandr woke in the morning free of bruises and stiff joints. Only the sun filtering through the shutters of his childhood bedroom awakened him, and he ate well at every meal. No exhaustive studies in war and chivalry, and more importantly, no older squires to torment him. Indeed, they should have been days for which he would be thankful, but instead they caused him more discomfort than the past three years combined.
His father’s anger had cooled somewhat, and now Harbid merely tolerated his youngest son with cold politeness. Aleksandr’s mother hardly spoke to him, and it seemed to Aleksandr that she hated him. Aside from the servants and peasants who were properly deferential given his noble blood, the only person in Heahun who treated Aleksandr like a human being was his brother Pter. After the first evening’s argument, Aleksandr’s eldest brother had been cheerful and carefree, as if nothing had happened. With his dashing good looks, charisma, and unparalleled skill at arms, he had quickly returned to their parents’ good graces, having always been their golden son.
Aleksandr could not help feeling mildly jealous of his brother, for he had everything that Aleksandr could ever want. This was easily curbed, however, for Pter’s friendly and easy-going nature did not allow one to bear ill feelings towards him for long. He also spent much time with his youngest brother, which Aleksandr appreciated immensely.
In the early afternoon of Aleksandr’s third day in Heahun, he and Pter went for a long walk in the fields surrounding the village. They had gone for walks in the days previous, but had never left the confines of the town before. At first they travelled along the beaten dirt highway that led to Fennell Keep, encountering along the way a number of the village folk going about their daily business. For the farming contingent of the peasantry, Holy Sennight could not be devoted entirely to leisure and worship, as the last of the crops still needed to be harvested. The peasants who were not Stevenic also continued to work. The pace was slow however, as most of the wheat had already been safely stored, while in other trades the fact that all the Stevenics were not working seemed a good excuse to relax.
A few furlongs down the road from Heahun, Pter directed their path off the highway and into the fields themselves. They walked along the border between a field of flax and one of wheat so as not to disturb the growing crops. Being the month of Sy, the wheat was still a verdant green, and the flax a bluish-grey. Aleksandr let his fingers play across the tops of the plants on either side of him as they walked, enjoying the happiness of the moment, trying not to think of the troubles he had left behind in the town. Ahead of him, Pter swung his sword lazily from side-to-side, cutting a stalk here and there, but doing no irreparable damage to the crop. The sun shone warmly down on Aleksandr’s head as they walked, and a cool breeze licked at the beads of sweat that gathered on his forehead. Intermittently, peasants tending to the fields could be seen as the two Heahuns made their way to the forest.
Presently, they entered the dark coolness of the forest. Normally the woodcutters’ axes and cries of warning would have permeated the wood, but today all was quiet. The brothers made their way to a small brook that trickled gently through the woods, and there they took their rest. Its modest banks offered a place for Aleksandr and Pter to sit however, and water to cool their feet and quench their thirst.
After a few moments of silence, Pter drove his sword into the ground decisively. “Well, little brother, I’ve decided.”
“What’s that, Pter?” Aleksandr was not expecting anything particularly ground-shaking.
“I’m going to go on an errand of knighthood.” By the steely set to Pter’s jaw, Aleksandr knew he was not being facetious.
“What?” Aleksandr caught his breath.
“I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I’ve realised I’ll never be happy with just tournaments and inconsequential frivolity. I need to prove myself as a true knight!”
“You –” The words stuck in Aleksandr’s mouth, fearful of what Pter’s revelation meant. “You won’t go to Comarr like Bren and Tancred, will you?”
Pter laughed. “Oh, no, little brother! How could I complain of the lack of honour in tournaments, only to prostitute myself in some foreign war? I have no desire to follow our dark-haired brothers into the bloody fields of Comarr.”
Out of a family of eight children, Bren and Tancred were the only ones who had the chestnut coloured hair of their mother. Aside from that they looked more like Harbid than any of the other Heahun children. Despite outward resemblance to their parents, they shared a personality that seemed perpetually at odds with the rest of the family. Impious and rash, they had caused Aleksandr’s parents nearly as much consternation as he had.
“You and I are not like our other siblings, Aleksandr,” Pter said. “We belong to an older time — the days of the Knight’s Charge at Balkura and the Great Houses War. To serve the Duke of Dargon and the Stevene and no others.”
“But where will you go, then?” At the time of their departure, Aleksandr had been disappointed in his brothers, Bren and Tancred, but over time his lofty ideals of chivalry had been tarnished, and to earn one’s living as a free-lance seemed much more agreeable.
Pter looked at Aleksandr, a warm smile on his face. “Does it matter? The errand is in the quest. Do you really think that there was that much more for our father and our grandfather to do than there is now?”
“They both fought in the Shadow Wars,” Aleksandr said.
“Yes, that’s true,” Pter said. “But there have been other periods in Baranur’s history when such was not the case, but still knights took errands about which ballads are sung today. I do not need a specific destination — God and my heart will guide me.”
Aleksandr was so taken by his brother’s idealism that he could almost believe him. Apparently this showed on his face, for Pter gave him a playful punch in the shoulder and said,
“Aleksandr, what’s wrong? You used to live for this kind of talk. You’re the reason I have the courage to make such a decision, leave behind everything that’s dear to me, take the knight errant’s vows of poverty and celibacy …”
Aleksandr sighed and steeled himself to tell his brother that which he had told none other. “Well, you did say that you’d get it from me by the end of the sennight. I didn’t want to tell anyone, but –”
As his voice wavered, Aleksandr felt a reassuring hand on his shoulder. Pter’s compassion gave him the resolve to go on, and expose the entire horrible story to the light of day.
“When I was a page, things were the way they were meant to be. Nothing was especially easy, but it was bearable, and it was the path to knighthood. Once I was a squire it was different. It was horrible and wrong and — and I learned that chivalry is a lie! I was only nine, five years younger than even the youngest of the squires. Some of them are nice to me, but most aren’t. Especially Sigurdur. He’s as old as you, but still a squire. He beats me all the time, and makes the other squires hurt me, too. They hate me, and they hurt me all the time!”
To his humiliation, Aleksandr burst out in tears yet again. For three years he had fought a battle with himself every night to keep from crying, but in the last sennight he had betrayed himself more times than he cared to count and let tears flow unabated down his cheeks.
Still, the strong hand remained on his shoulder. “Cephas’ boot! Why haven’t you said anything before this?”
“I can’t,” Aleksandr said. “For one thing, Sigurdur is the baron’s nephew. But also … it’s just not done! You were a squire once; you should know!”
“Aye,” Pter said, “I was a squire once, but not like this.”
“Besides, even if I did rat them out, what would change? Who would believe the word of the squire who lost the baron’s sword over a dozen faithful squires? Especially Dame Lyudmilla, the training master, who hates me as much as any of the squires do.”
“I am beginning to see a picture,” Pter said. “You did not lose or forget the baron’s sword, did you? It was Sir Foninn’s squire who brought the baron a sword, wasn’t it?”
“Good God!” Pter exclaimed. “All of this, because of him! But I think I can see your point. Even if we told father of this, he’d surely think that we’re so desperate to win back his good favour we’d say anything!”
There was a long pause before Aleksandr spoke. “Pter … I don’t know … how much longer I can take this. I don’t even want to be a knight anymore.”
“It hurts me more than you know to hear that, little brother,” Pter said. “Because I know you would make all of us proud, would follow the code of chivalry unfailingly, and serve the duke dutifully. But one way or another, this situation must be ended.”
“What do you mean, Pter? What should I do?”
“That is for you to find out, unfortunately”
“But how?” Aleksandr said, hanging his head in despair.
“I don’t know,” Pter said. “Perhaps you should think about it alone for a while.”
Aleksandr was alone in Heahun’s stone church. Modest compared to the churches in Fennell Keep, it now seemed cavernous to the young boy as he was alone. Aleksandr himself sat in one of the wooden pews at the front of the church, near the altar. It was the only place he could think of to go to be alone. After the recent years spent in Fennell Keep, he didn’t believe in anything that was taught in churches like this, but after only a while in the building he had been taken in by its calm atmosphere.
He looked about the large, silent hall, relishing the peaceful atmosphere. It was mid-afternoon, and coloured rays of sunlight played across the stone floor through several stained glass windows that lined the various walls. Many of them depicted certain of the Stevene’s most revered followers, noteably Holy Aleksandr and Cyruz of Vidin. There were, of course, representations of the Stevene and the window above the church showed a noose over a shining book that represented the Stevene’s Light.
As it was Holy Sennight in Fennell, the altar was covered in a cloth of deep cerulean blue, and a blue carpet led from the entrance to the altar. Several potted flowers and candles also decorated the church. It was pleasantly cool in the stone building, and smelled faintly of the blossoms that adorned it. Not a sound encroached on the perfect calm of the nave. Aleksandr knelt on the smooth stone floor.
“God, I know I haven’t spoken to you much lately, and I’m sorry. I guess you know my excuses … but I need your help.”
Aleksandr knelt several menes, begging for some kind of help, but to no avail. No answers came to him, and he found only frustration. He sat back on his heels, and sighed. He was trying too hard. He remembered a lesson that Brother Vladimir, the chaplain at Fennell Keep, had taught him: a relationship with God was like a relationship with any other person and sometimes had dry spells. It was not something to feel guilty or frustrated about, and trying to force the relationship back to happiness would never work. Instead, Brother Vladimir recommended merely sitting back and clearing one’s mind, and allowing what images that might come to enter the imagination. So Aleksandr got up and sat back down on the pew.
He had to sit for several menes before he became vaguely aware of images forming in the back of his mind. He could see King’s Key pieces being moved about a board. He began replaying a game from long ago against Tpliki in which his knights, a unit he was used to using to their maximum potential, were taken from him. He was then forced to employ a strategy that was less than obvious at first. During that first game, he had come to the realisation that he did not have to save Zhilinda Fennell from Sir Jarek’s hands himself. Now, he realised that he alone could deal with Sigurdur.
Strangely, he could feel within himself the stirrings of chivalric pride. Perhaps spending so much time with Pter over the past few days was having an effect on him, or perhaps it was divine inspiration, but suddenly he knew exactly what must be done. Only honour could defeat Sigurdur’s dishonourable ways.
“And so, it must be trial by combat.”
“Aleksandr…” Pter’s eyes grew wide. He appeared to be shaken. “Are you sure this must be the way? This Sigurdur is so much older –”
“No, Pter,” Aleksandr said, “It is the only way. I prayed as you bade me, and I have come to this: I will clear my name by challenging Sigurdur to single combat. If I win, I am exonerated and he will no longer torment me. If I lose … then he will no longer torment me, but in a different sense.”
“I do not doubt your courage, little brother, but a twelve year old should not speak of death so lightly.”
“I did not decide this lightly, Pter. But it is the only way. Just as it was the only way when Lev and I tried to save Zhilinda Fennell ourselves.”
“Aleksandr,” Pter reached over and put a hand on his little brother’s shoulder. “It is because of me that you have decided to do this. Let me fight in your stead; it is allowed –”
“No, Pter.” This was Aleksandr’s fight. If he allowed Pter to go in his stead nothing would be solved. “I have to do this. Do not worry about me. Either way I’ll be better off. And besides, Stevene favours the just.”
One corner of Pter’s mouth curled up into a smile. “Very well brother, you have convinced me. I should have as much faith as you — after all it did guide you safely through your battle with Sir Jarek. For certes, fighting but a lone squire will be nothing compared to facing three hardened free-lances!”
Pter stepped forward and hugged Aleksandr. “Ah, Aleksandr, what has become of us? We both have exactly what we want and yet are miserable. You, the baron’s own squire, while I bear a blazon for feat at arms on my heraldry. And yet, you are bullied by your fellow squires and I …”
“I know that you feel you lack honour, brother,” Aleksandr said, “but you do not. You’re one of the few people who’s actually treated me with dignity of late.”
“I wish it were not so.” Pter stepped back. “But we will make things right. I wish I could convince you there was another way for you, though.”
He ruffled Aleksandr’s flame-red hair with one hand while he reached for his sword with another. “I can see there is no turning you from this choice, little brother. So at least take this.” He pulled the rest of the sword from its sheath and hade it to Aleksandr.
The young boy’s eyes grew wide as he took the blade. He was not ready for how heavy the sword would be and almost dropped it, then recovered and moved it through the air in a slow arc.
“It is an excellently balanced blade. It has served me well.”
“Pter, I can’t take this! You’ll need it for your errand.” Aleksandr had almost forgotten about his brother’s decision to leave home and his position as a knight in Baron Winthrop’s household to take up an errand of knighthood. Such a brave undertaking required a good sword.
“I won’t need it as much as you do. You might not care whether you live or die, but I certainly do!”
“Well, you’re the only one then,” Aleksandr replied.
“You know that’s not true,” Pter said. “Mother and father love you very much. Their pride’s just a little hurt right now, but they’ll get over it.”
Aleksandr trembled as he approached the squire’s barracks, Pter’s sword clutched in his hands. The moment was here, when he would challenge Sigurdur to single combat. He had thought about this moment for days, going over the scenario in his head a thousand different ways. In almost every instance he died at Sigurdur’s hands. He had convinced himself that he did not care. Now that the time had arrived, he was terrified. He could feel beads of cold sweat on his forehead, and the scabbard in his hands was wet and slippery. His whole body trembled.
Only a few cubits from the door that led into the part of Fennell Keep where the squires lived, Aleksandr stopped. He could not make his feet move. His heart pounded in his chest. He squeezed his eyes shut.
“You fool, this is what you’ve dreamed about for nearly a sennight. Now just get in there and finish it!” he cursed himself.
But wasn’t a life of beatings, ridicule, and humiliation better than no life at all? Aleksandr could just hide the sword and go about his life as it had been before. Surely he could survive, just taking everything one day at a time.
But what then of honour? Aleksandr had been raised to believe that honour and pride were among the most important things in a person’s, especially a knight’s, life. He had strongly believed that at one time. He wanted to believe it again. Aleksandr tried to draw strength by thinking back to Pter’s departure only yesterday on his errand of knighthood. He had been the very symbol of chivalry, atop his stallion, lance held high, declaring to the assembled villagers of Heahun his pledge. His armour had shone so brilliantly in the early morning sun. The people had cheered him loudly, proclaiming him the greatest knight the Heahun family had ever known. Aleksandr’s parents had not been so pleased, especially Madeline, Aleksandr’s mother. The look she had given Aleksandr as Pter was riding off on his quest –
“What on ‘diar are you doing out here, you tree rat?” Sigurdur’s voice blared mere handswidths away from Aleksandr’s face.
Aleksandr opened his eyes to see the door that he’d been standing in front of was now open and the imposing figure of the oldest of the squires filled the doorway. Sigurdur must have come through the door while Aleksandr had been daydreaming. Before he could answer the older squire’s challenge, a fist struck Aleksandr in the nose. He reeled backwards, bright lights flashing before his eyes. Sigurdur’s laughter helped stop the room from spinning.
“What are you going to do now, squireling?”
As Aleksandr’s vision cleared, he could see that most of the other squires had followed Sigurdur through the door and had filled the castle corridor. “You stole the baron’s ceremonial sword at the Holy Sennight tournament and humiliated him before the baroness of Bastonne!”
Everyone laughed, Sigurdur the hardest. “And how are you going to prove that?”
“With this!” Aleksandr said, pulling Pter’s sword from its scabbard. The blade caught half way out of the scabbard and the squires howled. Aleksandr could feel his face heat and his heart pound harder. He wrenched the sword free so forcefully that it nearly flew out of his grasp, but he recovered by twirling the blade in the pattern of a noose in the air. “I challenge you to trial by combat, Sigurdur!”
The hallway suddenly became quiet. Sigurdur eyes were wide as he stared at the sword, then at Aleksandr. Then his eyes narrowed and his face contorted into an ugly scowl. “You stupid fool!”
He slapped the sword blade away, but Aleksandr flipped the blade up then slashed to the left, nicking Sigurdur’s cheek.
“You’ll pay for that!” Sigurdur said, touching the cut. “With your life!”
He stormed into the barracks. The remaining squires stood where they were, eyes wide with shock. Tpliki walked up to Aleksandr and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Aleksandr!” he shouted. “What are you doing? Sigurdur will kill you!”
“If that is what is meant to be.”
“How can you talk like this?” Tpliki shook Aleksandr. “Cephas’ boot! He’s twice your size and experience! Nothing is worth this!”
Aleksandr looked directly into Tpliki’s eyes. “Tpliki, you know what my life has been like these past years as a squire. How do you think my parents reacted to the Holy Sennight humiliation? Add those together and you will see that I have no choice.”
Tpliki dropped his hands from Aleksandr’s shoulders and lowered his gaze to the ground. Without another word, Aleksandr walked through the doors leading into the barracks where he picked up a shield before heading into the training area. As he tested out the sandy ground, he felt a sense of re-enacting a scene he had lived before. It was not long ago that he faced Sigurdur on this circle of sand, with the other squires gathered around, cheering for the baron’s nephew to ‘smash the squireling.’
“By the good God, what am I doing?” Aleksandr thought to himself. Things had happened so quickly once he got to the barracks that he had not had much time to think about it. His knees went weak as the lumbering, tree-like shape of Sigurdur moved in front of him. Aleksandr’s heart began to race again. He was going to die. His sword arm was shaking so violently he almost lost the grip on the weapon. He swallowed hard. At least he would die with some pride left.
Aleksandr saluted, then fell into a fighting stance, and began to circle his opponent. Pter’s sword was well balanced and Aleksandr carved a quick figure-eight in the air with it. Sigurdur grunted, and charged in for the first attack. His blade nearly cut Aleksandr’s wooden shield in two and became stuck just above the handgrips. Aleksandr lashed out with his own sword, but Sigurdur was able to parry the blows with his shield. He wrenched his sword free of Aleksandr’s shield and swung again.
Aleksandr shuffled backwards and avoided the attack. Now that the first blows had been struck, he was more calm, his grip on his sword tighter. As with all the other combats he had fought before, now that the first terrible attack had been landed, he was able to concentrate more on how to defend himself, less on how afraid he was. For several menes Aleksandr was able to hold Sigurdur off with his shield and parry with his sword, but he was getting tired. Sigurdur was too strong.
Another strong blow from the older squire broke a large piece off Aleksandr’s shield. Aleksandr knew he was finished if things kept up the way they were going. He remembered that his father had told him that old grandfather Harabin said always to attack. Even in the most dire of circumstances a knight must never defend, but always attack the enemy. Despite being outnumbered almost a hundred to one, that was what the Fennell knights had done at Balkura many years ago. It was their brave charge that had always inspired Aleksandr, and so, he now lunged towards Sigurdur.
The larger boy — no, man — was caught off guard by this new tactic and Aleksandr was able to put a deep gouge into Sigurdur’s leg. Sigurdur bellowed with anger and pain and lashed out at Aleksandr. The uncontrolled attacks were easy to dodge, however, and Aleksandr was able to get outside of Sigurdur’s considerable reach.
Apparently wounded, Sigurdur dropped to a knee and seemed to lower his guard. Without thinking, Aleksandr attacked the opening left by his opponent, then was blinded as a handful of sand was tossed into his face. Aleksandr’s eyes felt like they were being ground in a flour mill by all of the tiny granules. His first instinct was to get away from Sigurdur as quickly as he could, but then he remembered what had happened the last time Sigurdur had used this tactic: he had counted on Aleksandr backing away and had kicked Aleksandr in the crotch, finished the fight. So instead of retreating, Aleksandr lunged forward, sword extended ahead of him. At first he felt the slightest of resistance as the tip of the blade made contact, then it slid smoothly and Aleksandr kept pushing until the hilt stopped the blade from going any further.
The thud of Sigurdur’s sword dropping to the ground reached Aleksandr’s ears and he was suddenly struck by the realisation that he had driven Pter’s sword into Sigurdur’s body. The older squire made a gasping noise and started to slide backwards, off of the sword.
Aleksandr fell onto his back as the blade was suddenly freed and he felt warm liquid splatter onto his face and hands. A short distance ahead, he could hear Sigurdur begin to whimper like a wounded dog. The whimpering then gave way to screaming. Aleksandr dropped his sword and shield and rose to his knees.
“My God, what have I done?” Aleksandr thought as he rubbed his eyes, trying to get the sand out of them.
Sigurdur’s screaming got louder and Aleksandr could hear the other squires rushing to his side. One of them shouted for the healer. Another cried for Brother Vladimir. More sand flew through the air and landed on Aleksandr. Given Sigurdur’s screams, Aleksandr imagined the other squire was thrashing about and sending sand flying in all directions. The sounds Sigurdur was making were horrible; Aleksandr wished he could not hear them. Even for one such as Sigurdur, Aleksandr felt pity.
“Aleksandr,” Tpliki was suddenly beside Aleksandr, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. “You’re alive!”
“B-but I killed Sigurdur,” Aleksandr said. Bile suddenly rose in Aleksandr’s throat and he leaned over to empty the contents of his stomach. Once he had stopped heaving, he cried. “Oh, God, I killed him, Tpliki!”
Aleksandr could not see, but the air reeked of vomit, blood and feces. There was no honour here. Mercifully, Sigurdur’s wails began to grow quieter and then finally he was silent. He had been mute for a few moments when Aleksandr’s eyes finally cleared enough that he could see. Sigurdur lay twisted on the ground, the sand all around him stirred as if by a huge mixing spoon. Blood covered the sand and the squires who had tried to hold Sigurdur down as he thrashed about.
For several menes, Aleksandr could only kneel and stare at what he had done. The other squires were all staring at him. It was deathly silent; not even a bird chirped though it was by now mid-morning.
“What is going on here?” A shrill voice shattered the silence. Dame Lyudmilla, the knight in charge of training the squires stormed into the inner bailey. “What are you codswallops doing out here? Why I …”
She stopped when she caught sight of Sigurdur. Her gaze followed the trail of blood that led to the sword laying next to Aleksandr, then at Aleksandr himself. Her eyes were wide and her face pale. Aleksandr could not fathom what she might be thinking.
“By the good God,” she finally managed to gasp. “What happened here?”
One of the squires who had been kneeling beside Sigurdur stood and said, “Dame Lyudmilla … Aleksandr challenged Sigurdur to trial by combat. He accused Sigurdur of stealing the baron’s sword at the tournament.”
“Sigurdur did do it,” Tpliki said. “That is why he lost the trial!”
Dame Lyudmilla turned her gaze once more to Aleksandr. “I can’t believe it. I would have never expected such a thing from you.” She shook her head. When she spoke again, her voice held something resembling respect. “Clearly, I misjudged you, Aleksandr. Yes, you definitely do deserve the honours you’ve received.”
She looked across the bailey to some commotion at the main keep. “The baron is coming. You had better get Aleksandr out of here. I will deal with his lordship. There are things I must set aright.”
Several days later, Aleksandr stood before Dorja Fennell in the baron’s chambers high in the central keep. Aleksandr had been there many times before, first as a page waiting on the lord of the keep, later as the baron’s squire. He wondered whether he would remain Baron Dorja’s squire after this meeting.
The room seemed ominous this day, the shadows in the corners somehow darker, the light cast by candles somehow dimmer. The head of the bearskin that lay at the foot of the baron’s bed seemed to be baring its teeth at Aleksandr specifically. He shifted nervously as he waited for the baron to speak.
Baron Dorja was sitting at his large oak desk, an elbow on the arm of his chair, resting his chin in the palm of his hands. As Aleksandr’s father had, the baron looked much older than the last time Aleksandr had seen him, a sennight ago. He seemed to have more grey hair, and the lines around his eyes were more pronounced. His skin was almost the colour of the ashes left over after a raging fire.
At long last, he spoke, “I did not mourn the passing of my nephew as much as I should have, perhaps. I always knew he was a thug, but I let him stay in my household as a favour to my sister.
“Even so, I do not know what to make of what happened a few days ago. It is unfortunate that you had to be vindicated through such means.”
“Your lordship?” Aleksandr was confused. He had felt sure that the baron would have been furious that his own squire had killed a family member. At the least, Aleksandr had expected to be thrown out of the baron’s household without preamble.
“Dame Lyudmilla explained everything to me. Even down to how the other squires treated you. Despicable. Needless to say, Dame Lyudmilla has been removed as trainer of the squires. She should have put an end to this long ago.”
“I think she wanted to harden me, your lordship,” Aleksandr said. He wasn’t sure why he was defending the woman who had contributed to making his life hell nearly as much as Sigurdur had.
“Yes,” the baron said, “which is why I am allowing her to stay on as one of my household knights. As for you, that is a harder decision.”
Aleksandr swallowed hard.
“A member of my family is dead, killed by a fellow squire. Even though it was a true trial by combat, members of the same household should never take each others’ lives. I thought perhaps that you should no longer be my squire. However, taking everything into account, I think the burden you bear as a result of killing Sigurdur is enough. And I would be proud to have a squire as brave as you.
“Twice, you have proved yourself to have great courage: once trying to fight mercenaries that kidnapped my daughter, and another time fighting a man nearly twice your size and experience in single combat. You remind me of a wolverine I saw once while hunting in the woods near Fennell Keep. It had been an especially bitter winter and food was hard to come by. The wolverine had found a carcass to feed on when along came a great bear which was over twenty hands tall when it stood. The wolverine, no bigger than a dog, fought the bear and killed it. I think from now on, your nickname will be wolverine instead of squireling.”
“I-I thank you, my lord,” Aleksandr stammered. “I don’t know what else to say. I am sorry for the loss of your nephew, I wish there had been another way.”
“I know,” Baron Dorja nodded. “And it is because you feel remorse that I want you as my squire. A knight should know bravery and skill at arms, but must still have a human heart.”