For a moment, Luthias stared into the cup, wondering if his death or his life lurked within. He glanced up at the High Mage’s blank face, and without further hesitation, Luthias quaffed the purplish wine. Then, he and the High Mage waited.
Luthias had changed in the two weeks since he had returned to Baranur. He had arrived in Pyridain haggard and ill; Marcellon cured his winter sickness, and the good food that the Duke sent to him had brought Luthias near to his normal weight. Practicing with heavy wooden weapons, Luthias had regained much of his strength. Two signs only remained to mark the Count’s stay in the Beinison Empire: the addiction to ardon, for which Marcellon hopefully had just given him a curative, and the beard.
Luthias had not wanted to retain the straggly beard, grown in the hectic, half-remembered days when he had been running. Soon after Marcellon cured his winter sickness, Luthias began to shave it off, but he found a long knife scar, running along the jawline, from beneath his left ear to his chin. The Count, resigned, settled for trimming the beard neatly, and later he was glad; it made him look older.
After a minute or so, the Count of Connall wondered, “How soon will I be affected, Marcellon?”
Luthias was discomforted by the stare that Marcellon gave him. “It should work immediately.”
“Then I’m cured of the ardon addiction?” Hope began to seep into Luthias’ heart after a hard fortnight. The young Count had found it hard to hope when his body was irrevocably addicted to a magicked drug. He would have stopped taking it alone, he would have even allowed himself to be restrained, but the lack of ardon would kill him. Now, at last, he would be free. Marcellon had promised him a cure or death.
The High Mage found it necessary to swallow twice before answering. “You should be dead by now,” he muttered, shocked. “The poison was immediate. I’ve never known a case where a man has drunk ardonatus and lived!”
Ardonatus? Now Luthias stared. He had taken ardonatus, a lethal, magical concoction derived from the same spice that he was addicted to, and he lived? “Ardonatus?” the Count questioned indredulously. “You’re sure?”
“I’m certain,” the High Mage answered, fascinated. “I made it. There is can be no doubt. You are immune to ardonatus.”
Fury flooded the world of the Count Connall, and he, enraged, hurled the golden goblet against the stone wall of Pyridain Castle. “Those bastards!” the young Count screamed. “They’ve robbed me of my life, and now of my death as well!”
“You’re immune to ardonatus,” Marcellon repeated incredulously. “You cannot be immune to ardonatus.”
“I’m alive, aren’t I?” Luthias yelled irrationally.
“Perhaps there is a cure to this,” the High Mage was murmering. “This should not be happening. No one is immune to ardonatus. Let me have some time…”
“Time?” Luthias echoed furiously. “Marcellon, I thought you said you didn’t like your patients to live in Hell!”
The High Mage’s eyes focused abruptly. “I don’t,” he snapped. “But this is extrodinary, Luthias. If you are immune–if there are no effects–how do you feel?” the physician finished unexpectedly.
The Count blinked. “I don’t feel any different, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Never,” Marcellon repeated, “has any man taken ardonatus and lived to speak of it!”
“Well,” Luthias quipped, “there’s always a first.”
“This is important!” the mage emphasized. “Immunity to ardonatus…incredible!”
Luthias replied, “This is insane. It’s never going to end, is it? I’m living in Hell and I can’t even die!”
“That’s the definition of Hell,” Marcellon told him, chuckling.
“This isn’t funny,” the Count snapped. “I can’t die–”
“You can die any time you wish,” the High Mage’s voice dropped to a deadly, quiet level as he corrected the young nobleman. “Take a sword and put it through your heart. But I won’t keep your death a secret, not if it comes about in that way.”
“You were willing to poison me,” Luthias argued.
“That was before I thought you had a chance,” Marcellon retorted. “You have one now, perhaps.”
“There’s no cure,” the Count reminded the mage hotly. “You told me so yourself.”
“I told you I did not know of one,” the Royal Physician corrected. “I didn’t. I still know no cure. But you are immune to ardonatus, Luthias. That means something.” The High Mage’s voice became coldly calm. “Now, you may take the cowards’ way and kill yourself if you wish, but I am going back to my laboratories and find out what is happening to you.” Luthias’ mouth twitched angrily. “Do you really want death, Luthias, son?”
“I want this to stop,” the Count spat thickly. “I want to be freed. I won’t be a slave, Marcellon! I won’t!”
“Easy,” the High Mage counseled. “Let me try.”
“Do I have a choice?” Luthias rued rhetorically.
“I won’t give you more poison, if that’s what you’re asking,” Marcellon decided. “Take a knife to your heart.”
The young Count smiled ruefully. “Sir Edward has suspected I might harm myself. He hasn’t let me near any edged weapons since I arrived.” Luthias came close to laughing. “He won’t allow me near high towers alone, either.”
Marcellon smiled at the wisdom of his colleague. Edward was a shrewd man. “Come with me, my boy. Let me see what I can do for this.” The older man held out his hand to the despairing younger one, who would have taken it, had his attention not been stolen by the slamming door.
The youngest of Sir Edward’s squires rushed into the cold room and slid to a stop. “Thanks be to God I have found you!” the boy exclaimed with breathless drama. “Please, your Excellencies, come quickly.”
“What’s wrong?” Luthias asked sternly, immediately on the alert.
“Oh, your Excellency, the Beinisonians are in Pyridain!”
Marcellon’s eyebrows rose with appreciative curiosity. Luthias expelled a word that the squire was too young to hear. Blushing, he escaped the room with urgency which equaled his entrance.
“It seems we must attend the Knight Commander,” Marcellon observed mildly.
Luthias had already left the room. “Come on!” he urged as he sped toward the Duke of Pyridain’s office, which had been made into a war room.
“What’s happening?” Connall demanded as he opened the door. Marcellon, serene but concerned, stood behind him. “They’re here?”
“Twenty Beinisonians,” the tall Knight Commander supplied. “Perhaps more. The scout just returned.”
“Through this storm?” asked the mage.
“How close?” the warrior inquired.
Sir Edward solemnly shook his head. “Very close.” The Knight Commander frowned. “I was not prepared for this,” he admitted, sitting. “Marcellon, you warned me to expect the unexpected.”
“You should have expected it,” Luthias said without blame or rebuke. “The Beinison Empire is trained to attack at any time of the year; they’ve staged winter invasions before.”
“Have they?” Edward smiled. “My history is not the finest.”
“When are we repelling them?”
“As soon as I can assemble the army,” Edward answered the younger warrior. “As soon as possible.”
“That will take a day and a half,” Luthias surmised.
The Knight Commander considered the problem. Finally, he nodded. “At least that,” he confirmed Luthias’ guess. “A day and a half–after the snow storm stops and if the snow is shallow enough to mobilize without blazing trails.”
“Where are they?” young Connall demanded, pulling the map toward him. “Show me, Sir Edward.” Silently, the Knight Commander indicated a nearby area. “That’s damn close,” the Count concluded. The young man gave the Knight Commander of the Royal Armies a serious look. “You don’t have a day and a half. After the storm, they’ll be here at the castle within a half a day.”
“As usual,” Sir Edward admitted after a moment’s thought, “you’re right, Luthias.”
“Can you delay them somehow?” Marcellon suggested. “If nothing else, I can–”
“Not unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Sir Edward cut him off. “Using magic is unchivalrous, and I won’t allow you to do so unless there is no other solution.”
“In this case, there is another way,” Luthias assured the High Mage. “Send a distraction. Send a single fighter there.”
“It won’t delay them much, not one fighter,” the Knight protested.
“It will be enough,” Luthias argued, “if the fighter is any good.”
“A squad perhaps–”
“Perhaps nothing,” the Count of Connall interjected. “One man will be enough. You can’t risk an entire squad, Sir Edward. You’re here in Pyridain. You won’t receive any reinforcements until spring. One man is all you can risk.”
Omninously, the Knight Commander rose to face the younger man. “I will not order a lone man to his death, Luthias. And I will not–nay, cannot–ask any fighter to–”
“You needn’t ask anyone,” Luthias told him, his stance and his voice becoming serious and firm. “I’ll go.”
“I won’t allow it!” Sir Edward declared violently. “No, Luthias. I need you too much.”
“You don’t need me,” the Count opposed him. “I’m an addict, Sir Edward. I’m of no use to you. Let me go.”
Edward took Connall by the shoulders. “You’ll die,” Edward predicted, fear in his voice. “I won’t be made to tell Lady Sable that I allowed you–”
“Don’t tell her anything,” Luthias commanded. “Let Sable think I died quickly in Beinison. I will die; that’s fine, Sir Edward, but this way, at least, I’ll die with some snatch of honor, like a man, not a beast. Let me go.”
“Let him go,” Marcellon pleaded softly. “You cannot win, Edward.”
“The ardon will have you in fits by the time you fight,” Sothos made one more effort to deter him.
“All the better,” Luthias, with bitter joy, assured him. “I’ll be fiercer. Let me go, Edward.”
With regrets, the Knight Commander agreed, “As soon as the storm ends.”
Tired by the short ride (how his father the great horseman would be ashamed of him!), Luthias neared the end of the woods. Soon, he would reach his destination and fight, he hoped. Fight? Luthias smiled; it was almost a joke. How could he fight, wearing old armor, and bearing a battered shield and bent sword? Knowing that he would soon die and that the Beinisonians would loot his body, Luthias would accept nothing else. Yet he would fight, and fight his best, before he died, old armor or no.
Through the trunks of the bare trees, he could see a farmstead with a weathered barn and an old house. Near the barn were at least a score of horses. Unless there was some sort of meeting, this was the place. These were the men that he would have to delay.
Luthias was suprised by how easily he could remember what Sir Edward had told him about the force. Usually the ardon had him in fits by now. Well, maybe Marcellon had slipped some in his food, to keep him going during the past few days.
“There will be about twenty or twenty-five men,” the Knight Commander had told him. “They are led by a personage of some importance; he has an elaborate device on his shield.”
Luthias didn’t see the man or his shield. He didn’t see anyone, anything, except the horses. How odd, the Count of Connall thought. They must be hiding. Carefully, Luthias edged his horse forward.
Like a strike of lightning, a girl’s scream split the dawn. Luthias reined the horse, listened frantically as another scream issued, then spurred his horse toward the barn.
With old grace, Luthias leapt from the horse, and with old strength, he threw open the door to the barn. Oh, yes, indeed, this was the place! Inside, twenty men were abusing a girl of perhaps ten years (an old voice called within him, Sable!), and one was threatening an older boy with a pitchfork.
Luthias evaluated instantly and acted. He plucked the pitchfork from the brute threatening the boy, swung it, and contacted. The man fell. Luthias set the pitchfork on the floor, leaned it toward the boy, and let it fall. The boy caught it, and Luthias instinctively turned his attention toward the screaming girl.
There was a crash behind him. Although Luthias looked, he had his sword out and flashing by instinct. He kicked a man in leather armor, wounded another, and saw a man in a blue tabbard enter the barn. Luthias paid him no attention, and continued his defense of the girl.
“Get back, you animals!” the man shouted in strong Beinisonian. “What sort of men are you, attacking children? Have you no honor? Get back!”
Amazingly, the men went back.
The armored man turned to him. Luthias could see him clearly now: he was a dark-haired man, with blue eyes and a moustache, about thirty years of age. Over his mail, he wore a sky-blue tabbard of silk belted with leather. On the belt hung a jeweled sword of fine quality and a silver drinking horn. Draped over his shoulders, the man wore a silver chain, the universal symbol of Knighthood, from which hung a silver star–the symbol of the Beinisonian order of Knights. “Well done,” the man began in Beinisonian. “I see you have taken my lessons–” He paused, reached out and raised Luthias’ face shield. “You are not my squire,” the Knight concluded. He peered at Luthias’ face. “Who are you?” he demanded sternly. “Why are you here?”
“I am not important, sir,” Luthias answered carefully but respectfully. “The girl–” Luthias stopped, kicked the brute he had killed off her, and bent to examine her.
No! The head was bent in an impossible direction. Her legs were covered with blood. Luthias pounded the floor in frustration.
“We were too late,” concluded the Knight behind him.
The boy rushed over, sobbing, toward the girl. Luthias reached out and closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, kid,” Luthias breathed. “I tried.”
The Knight was boxing a man’s ears as Luthias stood. “You bastards! Can’t you barbarians leave even children alone?”
“We were sent here to get information. The general didn’t say–”
“I command!” the Knight reminded him harshly, delivering another blow. “You are under my orders, and while you remain under my command, you will comport yourselves with some honor. Do you understand?”
The man looked away sullenly. “Yes, your lordship.”
“Go back to your business,” the Knight ordered, then he turned back to Luthias. “Now, you, sir, answer my questions. Who are you, and why are you here?”
At a loss for a moment, Luthias found himself staring at the man’s silver chain. Suddenly, he smiled. “I challenge you, Sir Knight. I am here to stop you. You are invading my homeland. I challenge you to a duel.”
The men around the Knight laughed wickedly as the boy sobbed behind Luthias. Poor boy. Luthias knew what it was to loose a sibling. The laughter continued. Luthias stood straight and proud.
“Let us kill him, Lordship,” the leader of the rabble chuckled. “He’s only a boy, little older than your squire. By the Masked God, we’ll teach him to interefere with his Imperial Majesty’s troops!”
“Silence!” the Knight commanded angrily. “He has challenged me as a Knight; as a Knight, I alone will answer. Do not interefere with me!” Calmly, the man turned back to Luthias. “To the death?”
Luthias nodded. “As you wish, sir. I only ask that your men leave my country, should I win.”
“That is fair,” the Knight agreed. “I accept. Call Rience,” he commanded. One of the men ducked out of the barn. “Rience is my squire. He will ensure that my word is kept.” The Knight stepped forward and offered Luthias his hand. “It is unchivalrous to fight one who is unknown. I am Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn.”
Luthias took his hand and bowed slightly. “I am Luthias Connall.”
“I noticed that you do not wear the badge of Knighthood.”
“I am not yet Knighted,” Luthias informed him, “but I give you my word to behave as one.”
“I will accept that,” Sir Lawrence said. “Now, sir, break your fast with me. I do not fight well on an empty stomach.”
“Thank you, Sir Lawrence,” Luthias replied graciously, “but no. You know as well as I that eating right before combat enhances the injuries and makes them harder to cure.”
“You are right, Luthias Connall,” Lawrence admitted. “Come out to the yard. If you are agreeable, we shall begin immediately.”
“Very well, sir.” Luthias moved to sheath his sword. Lawrence’s hand suddenly stopped him.
“You will fight me with that?” he asked disdainfully.
Luthias again looked at the pitiful sword. It was bent, rusted, almost dull. “It is what I have, sir.”
“Rience!” Sir Lawrence bellowed. A young man with dark, curly hair entered the barn. He looked enough like Sir Lawrence to be a brother. “Fetch my silver sword.” Lawrence smiled at Connall. “If we are to fight as equals, you will, at least, have a decent weapon. Come now, Lord Connall.”
Luthias followed Sir Lawrence silently to the field before the house. Rience, whom Luthias supposed was one of Sir Lawrence’s brothers, rushed forward with a well-made sword. With a brief, polite bow, the boy offered the weapon to Luthias. Luthias granted the boy a brief smile and inspected the weapon.
Warily, the Count of Connall swung the sword and tested its balance. It cut the air smoothly, and it balanced perfectly. The sharp, steel blade, beautiful in the cloudly winter light, gleamed with care. The workmanship, Luthias judged, was excellent, and the taste of the artisan was superb, for the only ornamentation on the weapon was delicate etching in the silver hilt.
“It is a fine weapon,” Luthias declared his admiration.
“I thank you.” The Beinisonian Knight paused. “Are you ready then?”
Luthias nodded and pulled down his face shield. “I am, sir. Begin.”
With graceful ferocity, Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn leapt toward Luthias, his long, jeweled sword flashing with death. For a wild moment, Luthias’ mind panicked; it had been so long since he had fought against an actual person of his own calibur…since Sy, since he fought Michiya. This time, Luthias thought, he would not be allowed to win. But despite his doubts, Sir Lucan’s training was still in his arm and in his heart, and Luthias, without thought, blocked Sir Lawrence’s blow and struck his own. The Knight of the Star jerked backwards as Luthias’ attack struck.
For a moment, Sir Lawrence paused, staring at the drop of blood on the muddy, slushy snow. “First blood to you, Lord Connall,” the Knight of the Star said with surprise. “I had not expected a man not yet a Knighted to strike so well.”
“Have at you,” Luthias replied, and struck again.
But Sir Lawrence knew this time whom he was fighting, and the jeweled long sword raced to meet Luthias’ wrapped blow. The Knight of the Star twisted and struck over the old, battered shield.
Luthias retreated as his shield dropped with the force of the blow. His shoulder, just at the joint of the arm, stung. Luthias spared it a glance. The plate protecting the shoulder was shattered, and his flesh was cut, not deeply.
“Recover your armor,” Sir Lawrence allowed politely, but he stood ready to fight.
“I have nothing to repair it with,” Luthias confessed. Within his helm, the Count of Connall smiled. “I simply shall have to prevent you from hitting me again, Sir Lawrence. Lay on.”
Lawrence raised his sword to strike. Luthias readied himself to block with sword and shield. They moved toward each other–
A crashing sound, like wooden thunder, shattered Luthias’ concentration. Instinctively, he stepped back, as did Lawrence. The dull boom sounded again, and Luthias’ head jerked toward the sound. The boy from the barn was beating the structure with a pitchfork. Luthias stared a moment, then saw a man in the loft above the sorrowful boy.
“What in the name of Gow–” Sir Lawrence started.
And then Luthias understood. The man-at-arms in the loft–crossbow–And even as Luthias’ shield was instinctively rising, he thought, my God, Roi, we’ll even die the same way.
And the bolt impaled itself in the shield and halted. Unable to think, Luthias stared at it.
“That dishonorable whoreson!” Sir Lawrence was cursing. “Followers of Amante in my own–” He whirled. “Rience! Bring him here! By Gow, I’ll teach him to interfere with a Knight’s combat!”
“He shot me,” Luthias, stunned and staring, stated. “He shot me.”
“Aye, that son of Erida,” Sir Lawrence muttered. “Dishonorable whoreson. Interefering–I apologize, Luthias Connall. I did not order or condone this.”
“He shot me,” Luthias said again. They shot Roisart, too. Roisart died. How did he escape?
“You are white as the Moon-Jewel,” Sir Lawrence noted. “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” Luthias assured his opponent quickly. The Count of Connall shook his head to clear it of the memories. He took a deep breath and explained, “My twin brother was murdered by crossbowmen–” Anger crept into his voice. “Assasins hired by your Emperor’s spies!”
“I am vowed to say nothing against the Emperor,” Sir Lawrence replied, but he was scowling. “Let me say that the Knights of the Star have no truck with activities of that sort.”
Luthias calmed. “I know.” And he did; Luthias was well acquainted with the honorable reputation of the Knights of the Star.
Rience, the young squire, the boy from the barn, and several of the men at arms then came forward, dragging the struggling crossbow man. They threw him into the slushy snow in front of his lord. The archer looked at the knight defiantly.
Sir Lawrence was not a man to be defied, however. “How dare you,” the Beinisonian Knight began ominously. “How dare you interfere with my combat? This is my fight, mine alone!”
“The Masked God teaches us to win by any means,” the crossbow man reminded his lord.
“Fortunately,” Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn answered loftily, “I am a follower of Gow.” Without warning, the Knight swung his sword hand and hit his man-at-arms with the hilt of his weapon. The man’s temple began to erupt blood. “Take him away,” Sir Lawrence ordered angrily. “I’ll deal with him later, and be warned: the next of you to try something of this nature shall pay with his life!”
The Knight of the Star turned back to his enemy. “Remind me never to cross you,” Luthias breathed, but he smiled.
Sir Lawrence returned the gesture and hefted his swords. “May Sanar help you if you do,” laughed the Knight. “Lay on.”
Luthias delivered a quick blow to the head. Sir Lawrence blocked with speed bordering on panic. Without pause, Luthias swung his sword again, this time at the Knight’s arm. Sir Lawrence dodged and moved to strike, but found himself blocking Luthias’ next attack instead, a blow aimed at the left leg.
Connall couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop. He was in the rhythm again, the heartbeat of fighting that Sir Lucan and his uncle Clifton had instilled in him since he could walk. Luthias was blind to everything, except the focus of the battle, except the rhythm of the combat. It had been so long since he had fought, since he had so naturally delivered blow after blow after blow, as if it were a graceful, well-remembered dance.
For the first time in months, Luthias felt good. With energy and skill, he contined the blows.
Sir Lawrence was slowing, and it was no wonder; the Knight of the Star had had a longer ride than Luthias and he hadn’t yet eaten. Lawrence stepped back and paused a moment, resting. Luthias waited, refusing to fight a tired opponent. When Lawrence nodded, the Count of Connall attacked again. Lawrence blocked the blow, but it was too strong. The Knight fell in the snow, his sword flying away. Luthias nodded to the squire Rience, who ran and fetched the blade and brought it to his master.
“Are you ready?” Luthias asked courteously.
“Begin,” Sir Lawrence answered.
Luthias struck again, furiously, like the god of war. Lawrence parried brilliantly, but again, the blow was too strong. Luthias quickly followed with a wrap to the head, which rang on Sir Lawrence’s strong helm, but did not cut it. Lawrence wavered, then collapsed to his knees.
Luthias quickly held the sword in front of Sir Lawrence’s eyes. He could rise any moment. Sir Lawrence did not move. Luthias relaxed slightly. “Do you yield, Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn?”
Mutely, Lawrence held out his sword in defeat. Luthias looked at the heirloom incredulously. “I will not take your sword, sir. Stand.”
Confused, Sir Lawrence rose. “My life is forfeit to you, Lord Connall. That was the term of our combat.”
“I don’t want your life,” Luthias told him. “I want your men out of my country. You promised me that, should I conquer. I have. You are an honorable man, and you will keep your word. I have what I want.” Luthias smiled and raised his face shield. “I won’t kill an honorable enemy without need, sir. Return to your home.”
Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn doffed his helm and stared at the Count of Connall. “Whoever your teacher was, he trained you well in the ways of fighting–and in the Knightly Code.” Sir Lawrence offered Luthias his hand. “Would to Gow we weren’t enemies, Luthias Connall; this day, you would have your Knighthood from me.”
Luthias smile grew, and content calm flooded his eyes. “I have never been so honored, Sir Lawrence,” he said, and he shook the Knight’s hand.
“I believe, Sir Lawrence, that I can fufill that office.” Luthias whirled to see Sir Edward and the High Mage, surrounded by troops, on the edge of the woods. When had they arrived? Luthias wondered. Still suprised, Luthias watched as the Knight Commander, who had spoken, dismounted and approached the Knight and Luthias. Marcellon followed him. “Honor given by an enemy is a high complement, one that Luthias has well earned. Count Connall, kneel.”
Confused, Luthias knelt in the snow. Edward unsheathed his sword. “I, Edward Sothos–”
Panic struck Luthias hard when he realized what Sir Edward was intending, and he instantly reached out and snatched Edward’s wrist. “Sir Edward,” he protested desperately, “you can’t! You know what I need!” How could the Knight Commander make a drug addict a Knight? He would be weak, unpredicatable…
“You no longer need it,” the High Mage announced, smiling. At Luthias’ confused stare, he explained, “The drink I gave you…I cured you. By accident, I cured you.”
“I don’t believe it.” Luthias scorned the very idea. Ardonatus, curing addiction? The Mage was mad.
“How long since the last time, then?” Marcellon inquired.
Luthias thought about it. Too long. He released Edward’s hand. He was cured. Good God. Oh, Sable, I’m going to be a Knight. I’m coming home.
“I, Edward Sothos,” continued the Knight Commander, “Knight of Baranur, have been called upon to convey upon Luthias of Connall the office of Knighthood. Who asks this charge for him?” Edward inquired in the ritual, then stopped uncertainly. It was tradition for the master of the candidate to answer, or the father, or the noble.
Luthias saw Marcellon open his mouth, but behind him, Sir Lawrence answered, “I so ask.”
“You know him worthy?” Edward continued.
“I so know.”
“So be it. I, Edward Sothos, Knight of Baranur, charge you, Luthias of Connall, to take up the office of Knighthood. Do you accept the charge, with all its honors and obligations?”
“I so accept,” Luthias replied, his voice strong and confident. He had known the ceremony by heart for years.
“Do you vow to protect and serve your homeland, your lady, and your King?”
“I so vow,” Luthias replied steadily, but his body began to shake. He was tired, and his knees were cold from kneeling in the snow.
“Do you vow to be in and above all things, a Knight, a follower of Chivalry and Honor?”
“I so vow.”
“How do you so vow?”
“Upon my honor, my sword, and my life.”
“Then I, Edward Sothos, Knight of Baranur, with this silver chain do convey upon you, Luthias of Connall, that office.” Again, the Knight Commander paused, for he did not have the symbol of Knighthood to give to Luthias. Marcellon smiled, held out his hands, and murmered something. A fine silver chain appeared on his wrists. The Knight Commander smiled, took it, and placed it on the Count’s broad shoulders. Then Sir Edward lightly struck Luthias’ cheek with the flat of his blade. “Let that be your last unrequited blow.” Edward sheathed his sword. “Rise, Sir Luthias, Count Connall.”
Sir Luthias did so, laughing. “I am proud of you,” the Knight Commander said, and that was all.
The Count of Connall turned to his opponent and held out his hand. “Return now, Sir Lawrence. You will have safe passage out of the country. You have my word, as a Knight.”
Sir Lawrence of the Silver Horn grinned. “Thank you, Sir Luthias. May you and I live to laugh about this someday.”
“I’ll treat you to a drink,” Luthias promised.
“I drink to you now,” Lawrence announced, taking his silver drinking horn from his belt. He put it to his lips, drained it, then offered it to Luthias. The Count Connall took it uncertainly and drank. He found the horn full of sweet, hot liquid that made him feel better immediately.
“Thank you,” Luthias said, returning the silver horn. He suddenly remembered the fine, etched sword he had been allowed to use. He offered it. “Again, thank you.”
Sir Lawrence took it from him, but did not sheathe it or hand it to his squire. “This sword was given to me by my master when I was made a Knight,” he told Luthias. “Today I took the place of your master; today you became a Knight.” He held out the sword to Luthias. “I have had no student more worthy than you.”
“I am deeply honored,” Luthias accepted.
Sir Lawrence bowed. “Let us ride!” he ordered his men. They grumbled, but mounted. Rience brought his master his steed. Sir Lawrence mounted and rode around his men to organize them. He paused when he faced the south, then turned and drew his jeweled sword. Quickly, he saluted Sir Edward and Sir Luthias. Both returned the salute, and the invaders charged back into Beinison.
Luthias watched the Beinisonians leave with satisfaction. “Well,” he said, “that’s settled.”
“Indeed,” Sir Edward answered, smiling. “Welcome back to life, Luthias. Well done.”
“No more talk about abandoning your wife,” ordered the Knight Commander. “No more talk about abandoning the country and the King. We all need you, as you have so aptly proven.”
“Yes, Sir Edward,” Luthias agreed, chuckling at Edward’s mock-scolding. “I’m back to–” Luthias felt a tap on his upper arm where his armor had shattered. He turned to see the boy from the barn, the boy who had warned him about the crossbowman.
With an earnest look that Luthias didn’t understand, the lad put his hand over his heart, touched his lips, then extended the hand. Confused, Luthias frowned. The boy made an abrupt, frustrated face, then pointed toward the barn and began to swing his arms and point to his legs.
Luthias didn’t understand the pantomime, but the boy was obviously not playing a game. Unwilling to hurt the lad’s feelings, Luthias nodded.
The boy’s expression became anguished. Once again, he placed his hands over his heart and then offered them to the Count Connall.
His voice wry, the High Mage interrupted gently, “He is trying to thank you, Luthias.”
Luthias sent the mage an angry look; it always annoyed Luthias that Marcellon pointed out mysteries as if they should be obvious. Then the Knight turned to the boy and remembered the ugly scene in the barn. The boy had a familiar grief in his eyes.
“You are welcome,” Luthias replied to the gestures as if the lad had spoken. “I am truly sorry about your sister…she was your sister?” The boy nodded. “Had I arrived a few moments sooner, I might have been able to save her…” Luthias looked down, ashamed for a moment, and caught sight of the ugly crossbow bolt protruding nastily from his battered shield. His heart wrenched. “But I couldn’t save Roisart, either.”
The boy withdrew, as if sensing the Count’s sorrow, but after a moment, he approached the Knight again. Luthias watched him curiously. Abruptly, the boy touched the Count’s chain of Knighthood, then laid his hand on his own chest where a similar chain might fall.
For once, Luthias needed no interpretation, and he smiled. Turning to Sir Edward, the Count of Connall wondered, “Since I am now a Knight, I will have need of a squire, won’t I, Sir Edward?”
“At least one,” the Knight Commander confirmed.
Sir Luthias returned his attention to the eager lad. “Will you become my squire?” the Count wondered, his eyes certain of the answer. In reply, the boy nodded violently enough to decapitate himself.
Marcellon had never seen Edward so suprised. “You can’t make this boy your squire! He isn’t of noble descent; he isn’t even close! He’s a farmer’s son, Luthias!”
The Count of Connall gave the Knight Commander an astonished look. “What difference does that make?” Sir Luthias argued. “I know ‘noble” sons who are dishonorable cowards. This ‘farmer’s son’ was brave enough to try to rescue his sister from twenty armed men–alone! That in itself shows this boy’s worthiness. Social class has nothing to do with it!”
The Knight Commander frowned mightily. “I understand your point, Sir Luthias, but it is still unheard of to make a peasant a Knight. He will have to be Knighted someday if you allow him to become your squire.”
“That is the general idea,” Marcellon agreed with a dry smile.
“Look, Sir Edward, he’s already displayed knightly qualities,” Luthias reminded the Knight Commander. “He tried to rescue and defend a lady. He faced the danger with bravery.” Edward still maintained the awful frown. “Look, Sir Edward, I’d rather Knight a peasant with a noble heart than a coward with a noble name.”
“Again,” Sir Edward admitted with resignation, “you have a point. I’m not certain I approve, but I can’t stop you. To a degree, I even agree with you.”
“So,” Luthias began, returning his attention to the boy, “would you like to squire to me?” The boy grinned joyously and nodded enthusiastically. “Good. We’ll have the ceremony later this week.” Count Connall grimaced. “But I can’t keep calling you ‘boy,’ though.” Not even in my head. “What is your name?”
With a sudden feeling of stupidity, Luthias winced at his own question. The boy couldn’t talk, or else he would have warned of the crossbowman verbally. And he probably couldn’t write, either; he was, after all, a peasant.
Well, he would be a gentleman, a Knight, someday, and he would have to be literate. And he would have to have a name.
The announcement, “His name is Derrio,” saved Luthias from further embarassment. Behind the dumb lad stood the farmer, whom Luthias presumed was the boy’s father. “Is it true?” the man asked the Count and the Knight Commander. “Is there a war coming?”
“It is already here,” Sir Edward answered with a grim nod. “The Beinison men that were here were an advance scouting force sent to find the locations of our forces. As it appears, they will invade through this area. Your farm is no longer safe.”
“Let us leave this place,” a pale woman at his side suggested. Tears flooded her eyes. “I no longer have a desire to stay.”
The farmer paused. “Could your armies use another archer, my lord Knight? I may not be as good as your regulars, but I have won the region’s archery contests for the last two years. My wife could cook or care for the wounded.”
Kindly, the Knight Commander smiled. “We can always use archers.” Sir Edward glanced at the woman who lowered her eyes.
Luthias laughed. “And a cook, a real cook, would probably boost moral more than anything else!”
With unusual nervousness, Marcellon glanced over his shoulder at rising, dark clouds. “Come. We should be getting back to Pyridain. Another storm is coming.” The High Mage approached Derrio slowly and looked at him oddly. “And I find myself curious as to why this boy is unable to talk.”
“Let’s go,” Sir Luthias began, but his new squire dashed away. “What–”
“Be patient,” Marcellon advised, mounting his steed. “He will return.”
Luthias shrugged his large shoulders, a feat and a half in rusted armor. “My horse,” he suddenly muttered, and quickly, he recovered the beast from behind the barn.
By the time he returned, Sir Edward and Marcellon had remounted, and the boy, holding a miniature harp, had reappeared. The boy looked around. “Your parents will join us later,” the High Mage assured him, and Derrio nodded. Marcellon reached out and gently touched the harp’s tiny strings. “A goodly instrument,” Marcellon muttered. “Your sister would approve.”
Derrio smiled, then proferred the intrument for Luthias’ approval. Lacking Marcellon’s insight, the Knight could only nod and smile. “Is there anything else you want to bring?” Derrio considered briefly, then shook his head. “Let’s go then, squire. We have work to do.”
The boy smiled; Luthias swung him onto the horse; and with the Baranurian army, they rode back to Pyridain.