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SIR TOBIAS WOULD know about losing men under his command, he’d understand. Hawk read the truth in his eyes and the way the knight clenched his jaw. “Just because it suits us and lightens our guilt doesn’t always mean it’s a lie,” he said after a long pause.
Hawk snorted. “My father put me in charge. I survived, my men didn’t. I’m at fault.”
Mage Faron made an exasperated noise, but Sir Tobias held up a silencing hand. “All right then, yes, you are at fault. You were the mage of the party, why didn’t you feel the enemy?”
As the first shock of the accusation passed, Hawk clenched his fist. “I did. Irissa and I both felt them. We knew something was watching us.”
“Then why didn’t you run?”
“Run?” Hawk’s eyes widened. The thought had never occurred to him. Why would he run? Wrystan was his home. “They were invaders. I couldn’t leave them at large in the forest. They could have been anyone!” It was his duty as both a mage and a page to protect this kingdom.
“So you charged right in, dragging your unwilling men behind you?” Tobias accused.
“No!” Hawk snapped. “They found us first. We didn’t even have time to think or plan.”
“But you’re a mage-page, aren’t you?” the knight pressed. “Why didn’t you escape or tell your men how to get away? Why didn’t you stop Ren from fighting?”
“I’m only a page!” Hawk shouted. “I couldn’t take on fifteen men and win, and no one in their right mind would follow my orders!”
As his words faded into the misty night, Hawk slowly brought his breathing back under control as he thought about what he’d said.
Sir Tobias squeezed his shoulder. “Precisely. Despite what you might think, Hawk, you’re still a boy. They were all men. They had their own choices to make. They chose to follow Ren, and he led them to their deaths.”
“No.” Hawk denied, shaken but still fighting. “It wasn’t his fault.” He looked up at the knight, pleading for understanding. “It wasn’t. He was trying to save us.”
“From a position of complete weakness,” Sir Tobias told him, though not unkindly. “He must have known he wouldn’t win. How could he? They were outnumbered, unarmed and tied up. No one wins against those odds.”
Hawk’s shoulders sagged under the truth. It made him feel worse. “He was a good man. They were all good men.” His head fell forward against Sir Tobias’ chest.
Mage Faron patted his back. “Good men die just as often as bad ones. Usually more often. There’s little we can do to change that, Hawk, except by fighting smart and well.”
He shuddered as the emotions he’d crushed down for too many days welled up inside of him. “I should have done something.”
The chest under his forehead heaved a sigh. “Next time you will. If you can find a clever way to do it. Getting yourself and everyone around you killed is not smart. Or heroic. A good knight saves as many as he possibly can, but not even the best can save them all.” Firm hands pushed him back and he looked up into his knight-tutor’s eyes. “It was a hard lesson, Hawk, but one we’ve all got to go through. Keep it with you and learn from it.” Tobias let him go with a stern look. “Next time you won’t get caught out. You’ll be ready for trouble and find a way to combat it.”
“Yes, sir,” he promised.
“Then they didn’t die in vain.”
Hawk let out a deep sigh and felt the heavy weight of the last few days ease slightly. It didn’t vanish, but it didn’t press so hard either. It would take time to settle but he knew he could move on now.
“Thank you, sir. Mage Faron.” He nodded at his two tutors, and they smiled.
“You’ve too much promise to be lost to your brooding,” Sir Tobias told him with an affectionate punch on the arm. “Don’t let me down.”
“And if you could find a way to help your new friend,” Faron added, “I’d be grateful. I don’t think he’ll speak to me.”
When the mage nodded over his shoulder, Hawk turned, surprised to find that Arien had followed them outside. He stood a little way back, barely visible through the drizzle and gloom.
“He looks up to you, mage-page. You should think about why.”
Hawk stared at the mage for a long moment, but Faron only smiled and nudged him forward. “You’re dismissed, student.”
Arien waited for him to approach, a forlorn figure in the rain, and fell silently into step as Hawk returned to the barn. Shifting his shoulders, Hawk felt the new responsibility settle there, giving him something to focus on beyond his own thoughts. He sighed with relief.
“We’ll reach Royas Bay tomorrow,” he told the skinny boy. “We’ll head for the mage school first. You’ll like it there. It’ll be warm and dry, and they’ll feed you up.”
The boy just looked at him making Hawk realise he hadn’t spoken a word since the rescue in the forest. The pine marten draped around his neck, however, lifted his head at the mention of food and made an eager sound.
Hawk chuckled. “Yes, you’ll fit right in, my greedy friend.”
The pine marten snuffled at his mage’s ear and they settled down by the campfire to dry, while Hawk finally finished his important letter home.
* * *
IT WAS RAINING as they approached Royas Bay, grey curtains of mist clouding out the sea and all the world, until suddenly, right before them, the white walls of the city rose.
“Home at last,” Mage Faron sighed as they passed through the open gates.
Emptied by the relentless rain, the streets were easy enough to navigate, leaving little time for gawking or sightseeing. Buildings loomed out of the mist, but were just as quickly swallowed, and not once did Hawk see the palace, until they reached the waterfront and rode right past it.
Sidony kept up a constant barrage of questions, which Squire Philippe manfully attempted to answer, while Sir Gedrey gave a running commentary to Irissa and the guardsmen. With Mage Faron and Sir Tobias leading the way, Hawk and Arien were left to entertain themselves.
For Hawk it was a strange journey. He knew the city so well that it felt like home. He’d seen many new mages arrive bubbling over with excitement like Sidony, or staring around in silent amazement. Not so for Arien.
Part of that Hawk attributed to the weather. It was a bleak day made worse by the damp wind gusting off the sea, but that wasn’t all of it. The further into the city they rode, the more Arien seemed to withdraw. A tall boy, for all he looked half-starved, he already topped Hawk’s modest height and usually sat straight-backed in the saddle, swaying easily with his mount. Not today. Once past the gates of Royas Bay, the boy hunched lower and tighter into a ball of unrelenting misery.
Hawk couldn’t understand it. He’d thought the mage school was where Arien wanted to be. He’d expected him to be pleased, if not overly eager; the boy had a lot on his mind and he didn’t seem much given to excitement. Right now he looked downright terrified.
Remembering Faron’s words, although he couldn’t believe anyone would look up to him, let alone a mage as potentially powerful as this one, Hawk tried to think of something comforting to say. “We’re nearly there,” was the best he could come up with.
Arien turned haunted eyes towards him.
“The mage school is beyond the palace, on a little rise of its own. It won’t be long now.”
If anything the boy hunched down even smaller.
Hawk frowned, but before he could attempt some other weak platitude their group was overtaken by a flock of jogging boys. Even in the rain the white wolf on their purple tabards shone, heralding them as palace pages. They were laughing as they trudged, especially after they recognised Sir Tobias.
Then: “Hawk!” A tall dark boy with broad shoulders turned to jog backwards beside Hawk’s sodden horse. “You’re back.”
Grinning, Hawk leant down and clasped wrists with his best friend. “Trust you to find me before I’m even home, Bertram.”
“It’s my duty to know who’s in and who’s out,” his friend retorted.
“I thought that was the gatekeeper’s job.”
“And there’s no higher gatekeeper than those who hold the keys to the kingdom,” was Bertram’s quick reply.
“Move along, Prince Page,” Sir Tobias ordered, with a languid wave towards where the other lads had moved ahead. “Sir Konde doesn’t think kindly of latecomers.”
Flicking the knight a cheeky salute, Bertram sprinted after his companions. “Good thing you’re back to replace him then, sir!” he called over his shoulder before vanishing into the mists.
“It’s so nice to be home and respected again,” Tobias remarked, turning his horse away from the palace and trotting down the avenue that led to the mage school. Alongside him, Mage Faron’s horse frisked as it sensed it was almost home.
Feeling light-spirited himself, Hawk smiled and turned to Arien but the boy wasn’t there. Surprised, he looked back over his shoulder. Sidony, Philippe, Sir Gedrey and the guards chatted amongst themselves behind him. Much further back, Irissa and Arien were barely part of their group. They rode in silence, shoulders drooping almost as much as their weary horses’ heads. It made Hawk feel uncomfortable to watch them and his own spirits sink again.
Then they rode past a familiar set of doors and down a half-concealed alley to a stable and farmyard beyond. Curious heads popped out of windows, a gaggle of voices called out greetings and people poured from all directions to hustle the travellers out of the rain.
Hawk was home and, no matter what else was going on, it felt good to be here. So he shook off his doubts with the last of the rain and plunged into the ceaseless activity that was the mage school of Royas Bay.
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