Nothing like an awkward conversation to start your day off well. Poor Faron.
Part One is available. This is about halfway through what I’ve already got. If you want more, let me know.
“So, have you and Tall Tobi been friends for long?” Jessie asked, a little too casually over breakfast the next morning.
Blowing on the top of his coffee to cool it, Faron hid a smile of remembrance. “We hardly know each other.” It was remarkable what a bit of sleep and a flex of the magic muscles could do for a body, he thought. Not to mention the sight of a welcome face – even if it was bruised.
Watching him smile, Jessie stirred a spoonful of honey into her coffee, before offering the pot to him. Healer mages loved sweet things; the sugar helped refuel their magic. However, there were some things that Faron drew the line at. Especially at this time of the morning.
“Like that, is it?” she murmured, smiling at the young squire who brought their breakfast of fried eggs and sausages over from the cook fire. The lad looked fresh out of the palace, and more than a little young for his new life.
One of the best things about being in King’s Company, Faron was fast learning, was that he could ask the squires to do almost anything for him. Though there were five knights riding with this company, Sir Newn Casmir of Henwyn was actually in charge. Of the four squad captains, only two were knights. The others were as good as ordinary riders in the Company, and their thirteen squires were ranked accordingly. As one of only five precious healer mages – even if he was just a junior – Faron ranked higher than almost all the squires and held a surprising amount of power. If he wanted to.
Thanking the lad, Faron tucked into his breakfast with relish. It wasn’t until he’d finished off his eggs that he realised Jessie was still watching him.
Surreptitiously wiping his chin and glancing down at his tunic, in case he’d spilled food all over himself, Faron raised his eyebrows enquiringly. “Is something the matter?”
Jessie shook her head, smiling as she speared a sausage and chewed thoughtfully. “I’d never have guessed, you know.”
Not entirely sure where this was going, Faron finished his mouthful before asking, “Guessed what?” Though he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer.
“Actually I hadn’t even thought about it. You don’t, really, until a situation arises.” Dipping her sausage in her runny yolk, she studied the effect before biting into it. “Then again I didn’t see you flirting with any of those eager tavern maids along our way. Maybe I should have paid more attention, instead of just being grateful you weren’t troublesome like some juniors I’ve known.”
Bracing himself for the end of this conversation, Faron quickly polished off his breakfast and returned to nursing his coffee.
“You’re so quiet and calm,” Jessie continued. “You lulled me into a false sense of security.”
That made him frown. “I wasn’t lulling you -”
“But you didn’t tell me the truth either.” She jabbed her fork at him. “Not that you should have to, I admit. I mean I wouldn’t expect you to tell me if your preference was otherwise. Then again if it was it wouldn’t matter so much that I was bringing you into a camp full of men and mettlesome boys. Again, not that that should be a problem,” she added quickly when Faron’s face started to heat up – and not from embarrassment. “But you of all people should know what these boys are like.”
Yes, Faron knew perfectly well what they were like. It was one of the reasons why he was so quiet and private about everything. He’d always been careful to make sure his business remained only his business. “It’s not relevant,” he told her gruffly. “And it’s hardly illegal. It shouldn’t matter.”
“No, it shouldn’t,” she agreed. “And I likely wouldn’t have even noticed. Except I saw the way you looked at Tall Tobi.” She paused to finish her last mouthful and waggled her eyebrows. “And the way he looked at you.”
This time Faron’s heat was pure embarrassment. “I told you, we barely know each other.”
“Well, you’re practically still a baby, aren’t you?” she teased.
“I am seventeen years old,” he told her, with all the affronted dignity he could muster. On his shoulder, Ira bobbed and waggled her head, mocking him.
Jessie and her rook mage-beast cackled at the barn owl’s antics. It wasn’t fair, he was surrounded by females who thought themselves too funny for words. Life, was it any wonder he preferred boys?
With a playful slap on his leg, Jessie grinned. “We’re only teasing, Mister Sour Face. Looks like you need more honey in your coffee.”
Before she could follow through on her threat, Faron drained his cup and moved it out of reach. “I think I’ve had enough coffee this morning, thank you.”
Mage, rook and barn owl sighed in mutual feminine disappointment. “You’re no fun at this time of day.”
Actually until Jessie had started this particular line of conversation he’d been feeling remarkably cheerful. So he just looked at her, reminding her of why that might be.
She put the honey down with a sigh. “All right, I’m sorry I had to bring it up, Far, truly I am. But you’re not in Royas Bay now and here in King’s Company we have certain rules. First, no romances. It’s tough enough keeping over one hundred men peacefully together without rubbing their faces in what they can’t have.”
Before he could say anything, Jessie held up a hand to show she wasn’t finished yet. “Especially when we have a handful of women in the mix.” She patted her chest as if he might possibly have forgotten she was female, small and curvy as she was. “For the most part you’re in the minority, but even so if some guys are getting some where others aren’t, regardless of who their partner is, trouble starts brewing.”
Waiting for her to finish, Faron began idly stacking their dirty crockery. “So that wasn’t you I saw slipping into Sir Newn’s tent last night then?”
To his astonishment Jessie turned bashful. “Er…” Running a hand through her hair, she looked away with a rueful laugh. “All right, so I’ll admit there are plenty of romances, but this place isn’t like the city. Someone will always see you sneaking around, and the gossip in this travelling circus spreads like wildfire. What’s important is not to be obvious about it, all right? And only ever with a completely willing partner.”
Looking around their small section of the camp, Faron tried to imagine forcing himself on any of the men within sight. Though he was tall, he was also skinny and not particularly strong. Even the little squire who looked like he shouldn’t have been let out of the palace yet could fend him off with his eyes closed.
Not that he was interested in all or any of them. No, his interest lay in one direction only and he already knew it was reciprocated.
Apparently reading his mind, Jessie chuckled again and shook her head. “Don’t look so shocked, Far. You’re a healer. Who knows what you might get up to with a little sleep charming, making your victim all languid and dozy?”
The suggestion was so appalling, he physically recoiled.
Jessie had been watching him very carefully and seemed relieved by what she saw. “All right. Good. Sorry if I offended you, but it had to be mentioned. So it’s just Tall Tobi on your mind, and from the looks of him yesterday it’s very much mutual. Lovely. But a word of caution, if you don’t mind?”
“What, besides telling me it’s not allowed, you mean?” Faron asked wryly.
“Besides that,” Jessie agreed, and waited for him to give a reluctant nod. “You and Tobi are far from the only ones preferring boys in this camp, but the majority like women. For the most part they won’t be bothered by anything you do, but there are those who see it as shameful. Mostly those are the ones who feel like you, but are too timid to admit it. They’ll be the ones you have to watch out for. They’ll cause you trouble, hurt you if they can.
“You’ll be an easier target than Tobias, so you’d best watch yourself. It’s been a couple of years since I last sponsored a junior healer and having gone all the way to Royas Bay to get you, I’d be mighty vexed if you got yourself all broken up before a month has passed. Do you understand?”
Faron looked into that merry face and saw the concern in her dark eyes. Much as he’d rather not hear what she was trying to say, it wasn’t exactly the first time he’d been warned against such prejudices. Nor would it be the first time he’d encountered them. Even in the city some people thought it was their right to interfere with other’s private affairs. Or try to beat the difference out of you.
So he listened to the warning and let it settle in his heart as he stared back into those kind eyes and nodded. “I’ll be careful.”
She smiled and ruffled his hair. “See that you are. I’ve not even started training you yet.”
“Seems our newest healer did a good job on you.” Sir Kennett greeted Tobias by grabbing his chin and tilting it towards the light for a better look. “Yes, a very nice shade of yellow, and all the puffiness gone. Good. How’re your scratches?” he asked, letting go.
“Good as gone,” Tobias assured him, running a gloved hand over his neck and feeling an echo of a certain tingling touch.
Sir Kennett eyed the rising heat on his squire’s face with slightly raised eyebrows. “Indeed.” There was a wealth of meaning in that one word, but thankfully the knight didn’t pursue the subject further, instead turning to accept his horse from Rasco. “Everyone ready?” he called, looking over his squad as he swung up into the saddle.
His two squires quickly did the same, while the rest of Kennett’s twenty-four men prepared to leave. King’s Company was often seen as the pinnacle of Wrystan’s military might. In peace time, the mounted band of knights and soldiers patrolled the length and breadth of the country in companies and squads, dispensing local justice, rounding up outlaws, carrying supplies to isolated villages and generally offering help wherever they could. Be it in building, rebuilding and expanding houses and barns, clearing up after a storm, or even assisting during planting and harvest time.
The main role of King’s Company – besides training up hosts of young cavalry soldiers – was to act as the King’s authority throughout the land. Wrystan was a large, prospering country, but their present king – Wulfram IV – was an ageing man. It simply wasn’t possible for him to travel on progresses as he once had, and there was only so much Crown Prince Aric could do in his stead. Through King’s Company, however, he maintained good relations with his subjects. Since so many people could not get to Royas Bay to petition him in person, the Company took the King’s authority to them.
Tobias loved being a part of it. As a third son of a rural baron, he’d known there wasn’t anything for him at home. So when he’d been offered page training at the palace in Royas Bay he’d jumped at the chance and never looked back. Once his training was over he’d been given another choice – become a border knight, enter the army, join the coastguard or ride with King’s Company. Not all squires were offered such a wide range of choices, though. Every squire needed a knight-sponsor, but not all knights wanted a squire. Luckily for Tobias he’d been well-respected as a page and had received plenty of offers once his training was done.
As exciting as joining the coastguard had seemed, he’d never been a big fan of water. Being a border knight seemed too restrictive, while being in the army was a bit too warlike. Tobias could handle himself perfectly well in a fight, but he wanted more from life than daily drills, strict routines and the occasional skirmish. So that’s why he’d accepted Sir Kennett’s offer, and never once regretted it, though he’d been with the Company for four years now.
Every day was different, and tomorrow, as with so many other days in the past, they would be moving onto a new camp somewhere else. First they had a particular task to take care of.
“There have been reports over the last few weeks about something wild up in these trees,” Sir Kennett explained to his squires and sergeants as their squad set out, heading northwest out of camp, towards where the central mountains loomed about a mile away. “The reports have been garbled and panicked, mostly, but I spoke to a band of coppicers yesterday and they gave me a more detailed description.”
“So what’s fussing them?” Sergeant Cobrin wanted to know between bites of a fruit roll. A nervy, active man he was always late for meals, too busy poking his nose in other people’s business to deal with his own. A good fighter, he was also skilled at keeping his men in strict line. He wasn’t very sympathetic, though, which sometimes caused friction between him and ordinary folk.
At his tone, Rasco rolled his eyes. Tobias just hoped they wouldn’t have to deal with outsiders this morning, or it might turn out to be one of those days.
“Rabid bear,” Sir Kennett announced flatly.
The squires were silent as they absorbed that, but the two sergeants scoffed. “A rabid bear?” the brawny Sergeant Herrel snorted. “Sure it’s not just another escaped sheepdog, like that one over in Nepton?”
“Or that family of foxes down in Fassecove?” Cobrin chuckled.
Kennett eyed them both, but he wasn’t laughing. “I saw some of the damage this beast has done,” he told his sergeants, instantly quelling their mirth. “At the very least it’s a well-grown boar on the loose. Perhaps more than one.”
“A wild boar.” Herrel grimaced. “I think I’d rather meet a rabid bear.”
“I’d rather meet neither, if it’s all the same to you,” Rasco muttered.
“Mountains hear that,” Cobrin agreed.
“Gentlemen, we are Company riders,” Sir Kennett chided softly. “It’s our job to meet such things and take care of them so the locals don’t have to.” They fell into an unhappy silence and the knight nodded at his sergeants. “Take centre and back, the last thing we want is for this beast to crash in on us unawares.”
“Aye, sir.” Flicking casual salutes, they reined their horses in and waited for the double column of riders to trot past before rejoining in their assigned places.
Remaining at the front with his squires, Sir Kennett took them off the main roadway and up a rocky track into the trees. “We’ll start where the coppicers showed me the damage yesterday and work our way out from there,” he told Tobias and Rasco. “Save your questions for then. In the meantime eyes and ears open. You never know what might be lurking out in this shadowed wilderness.”
As Tobias did as he was told, turning his attention to the dark firs encroaching all around them, he couldn’t help smiling a little. A rabid bear, or perhaps a boar hunt. No, life with the Company was never boring.
To be continued…