One - Tristain

Tristain knew it was a bad day to piss off his knight and master. Leon’s powerful kick sent him sprawling into the barrels behind. The knight’s sword crunched into the mail at his side. He gasped sharply as pain shot through his ribcage. Tristain raised his shield weakly, expecting a blow. But nothing came, and he stumbled to his feet.

“Know your range, squire,” Leon’s voice carried from across the yard. “If you’re close enough to hit them and you haven’t, they’ll be sure to hit you.”

Enough talking, Tristain thought, grinding his teeth. Just hit me already.

Leon had his sword and shield by his side. Tristain charged. His opponent’s sword swept upwards, and Tristain blocked. Flipping his sword for the reply, Tristain missed. Leon had already moved back. They circled each other.

“Where are the weak-points, lad?” Leon’s voice was muffled by his faceplate.

Tristain knew the answer, of course, but Leon liked to test his memory in the heat of battle. “Armpit, groin, neck, back of the knee, and ankle,” he yelled, punctuating each word with a step forward. Leon maintained his distance. Still, they continued to circle each other. “Why are you holding back?”

“You’re not ready, Squire.”

Not ready, my arse.

Moving in fast, Tristain brought his sword low. The knight’s feet looked unsteady. He’d finally caught Leon off-guard. Tristain reversed, bringing the sword back up. Changing his footing, he ran the flat of his blade along his opponent’s curved helm. He pivoted, hooking the sword behind Leon’s head. He pushed, sending Leon over his outstretched leg. The crashing sound reverberated through Tristain’s helmet.

Leon’s red beard seemed to explode from his face as he threw open his visor. Stunned, it took him a second, then he howled with laughter.

“I yield, I yield!”

Planting the tip of his blunt training sword in the dirt, Tristain helped Leon to his feet. “I thought you had me, Sir.”

“Cheeky fucking sal’brath.” Leon swore in Hillard, the language of the people from the South Hills. It meant fish-breath; how everyone from the mountains thought of people not from the mountains. “Where’s my flask?”

A servant boy had it on hand. Leon unbuckled his helmet, throwing it aside. Throwing back his neck, his muscles flexed as brown liquid ran down his chin. The Hillman was shorter than Tristain, but twice as wide, and all muscle. Tristain could sometimes beat him in a sword-fight, but in pure strength, Leon had him beat all the time.

“You’re learning,” Leon said, wiping his face.

Tristain smiled at that. Still, he wished the knight would take him more seriously. He wasn’t going to get better and stronger if Leon took it easy on him. For a man given the moniker Leon the Strong, he could be irritatingly cautious.

Inside their canvas tent, Tristain racked his armor and washed his face in a small basin, then changed into finery. The son of a count had grating expectations, sometimes. Tristain’s chest filled out his forest-green doublet, snug from two years of Leon’s training, while russet-red hose hugged his muscular legs. He wiped his hair. Dirt got everywhere—in his underwear, in his ale, on his clothes. The army had burned the fields months ago, but the land was still barren, little more than a dust-bowl.

He eyed the small writing desk, its papers in a scattered pile—his half-written letter to Selene sticking out like a rude gesture. What can I say to her? That I haven’t found a way yet?

“I’m going for a walk,” Leon’s voice came from behind. Tristain turned. Shaved head and flowing red beard, Leon was a large man, twice as wide as his squire, wearing the clothes of a lowborn knight—loose-collared linen shirt and black trousers. “You coming?”

Tristain nodded. The letter could wait.

“So,” Leon said as they passed a barracks. A woman whistled a tune ahead as she hung out soldiers’ linens, while a pair on patrol walked past, spears in hand.

Tristain waited for Leon to say something. A minute of stony silence, and they reached a small hill, where they saw the besieged city open out in front of them. Rennes’s walls stood stark and silent as the sun set behind them. Below them was a flat area set with outward-facing spikes, facing towards the city. Beyond the spikes, deep and hungry, laid trenches that would cover the assault. Tristain wasn’t sure why they waited so long. Three long months had passed since they arrived, and still no word on the timing of the assault. Mayhap they expect the city to starve before then, he thought. And they’ll surrender without a fight.

The sky turned hues of pinks and oranges. Another night in a foreign land arrived, and Tristain was no closer to his goal of finding employment as a household guard than when the day started.

“Sir.” Sharp wind whipped unshorn black hair across Tristain’s face. “Is there a particular reason you think I’m not ready?”

Leon stiffened. He took a sip of his flask. “You’re what, Tristain… sixteen?”

Tristain clicked his tongue without meaning to. “Eighteen, sir.” He should know that… I’ve been his squire for near on two years.

“Ah, I forget sometimes. And tell me, what do you want, money, fame? If you’re looking for either, just look at me: ten dozen pieces of silver to my name, and a busted back. They call me the Strong, but sometimes I can’t reach my arse to wipe.”

Tristain stopped himself from saying something smart. Around them, the sounds of dinner picked up, crashing pots, cooks barking orders to servants, soldiers joking around campfires.

Leon gave him a look of resignation, before taking another swig. “You think I’m spineless, lad, too afraid that I’ll hurt you? Don’t give me that look. I know what the men say, when they talk over their fires, when they think my back’s turned. They say I’ve lost my touch. And yet… they will die, and yet more before this war is over.”

Tristain sighed, folding his arms. Below them, a campwife, the women followers of the army who cooked, cleaned, and served the soldiers, chased a servant boy out of her kitchen.

“If you won’t push me, Sir, how am I going to prove myself?” He tried his hardest to keep the anger out of his voice.

“I didn’t say that, lad. The squad’s on patrol duty tomorrow. You’ll be in the van, riding with me.”

That drew a smile across Tristain’s face. Riding in the vanguard, Tristain would look important to anyone that saw. If he looked important, he might look important enough to sponsor or hire as a personal house guard. If he was a house guard, his master would offer his mother somewhere to stay as a matter of course, if he could get them away from his father.

Once, he dreamed of being a lord of a mighty estate, like his father, fighting tourneys for his own glory, and fighting in wars for the glory of the empire. How high he’d ride into battle, how nobly he’d spirit a lance into the empire’s enemies…

Leon belched as he drained the contents of his flask. “Let’s get back.” He started down the hill, then stumbling. Falling softly into his arms, Tristain kept him from falling. 

Leon wiped his own face, chuckling. “Ah, you’re a good lad. It’s what I always told Erken: you treat your elders with the respect they deserve.” A dark look flashed across his face.

As they walked back to the tent with the white eagle banner, Tristain thought of Leon’s son. Erken was his name, a lad of sixteen, and much like other boys his age, wanted nothing more than to make their fathers proud. Tristain knew little of what that was like, but people often talked about legacy and family glory, and he understood the sentiment. His father had talked about it enough for a lifetime.

Erken had died in a battle in the Giant’s Footfalls, thirty miles to the north. The army’s last major battle before the siege, they had fought hard to gain a hill defended by archers from the Kingdom of Badonnia, the empire’s age-old foe, and whose lands they had occupied. The empire had lost over a quarter of their forces—a thousand men in total to gain the hill, and the Badonnians were forced to retreat, fleeing behind Rennes’ walls. Leon’s son had been one of the dead.

Tristain placed Leon in his bed and quaking snores filled the room. His flask rolled on the floor.

Tristain sighed. As long as he had known him, Leon never abstained from drink, enjoying an ale or strongwine with dinner as folk do, but these days it seemed he never found a single moment without it. Though Tristain now smiled as he thought about what the knight had said to him. Riding in the van tomorrow. He was happy to have the chance to prove himself. As he turned to get dinner from the kitchens, he heard shouting and cursing. He stuck his head out the door.

“You’ve heard?” a soldier in his breeches yelled, running in the parade ground’s direction.

“Minstrels!” the other said, close behind.

The parade ground was at the center of the camp. Turned into a veritable city by the many and varied folk that tailed an army, it touted tents and pavilions of bright colors, rugs, armor, supplies, anything and everything. For the right price, of course.

It seemed far from the stark hill dotted with catapults, far from the noise of the drilling grounds, far from the row of latrine pits. The scent of char-grilled meats and smoky spits drifted into his nose. The sweet sound of a harp played quickly filled the air, accompanied by a quicker lute and faster drumming. From what Tristain heard along the way, a troupe of minstrels had arrived, causing a great stir.

As he entered the grounds, he had a good view of the musicians, but what really drew his eye was the general and the surrounding lords. The general, Duchess Ilse Adolar, stern of eyes and jaw, carried the face of someone accustomed to hard decisions and the weight of the world on her shoulders. As the musicians started their next song, Tristain walked over to the general. He pushed down the knot in his gut.

“…we’ll have to smooth things over with the Order, I’d say,” he overheard someone say as he approached.

“No,” a man in fine mottled silks and velvets said. “I’d say this is precisely what they need. They’re getting a little too comfortable. They should serve the empire, not work for the highest bidder. Ah, someone approaches.”

Tristain bowed. “Your Grace, my lords. I am Tristain Florian Oncierran, son of Sebastian, and heir to Invereid.”

“Well met.” The duchess tipped her head. “I believe you are Sir Vorland’s squire, are you not?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Ay-ay,” the minstrels’ herald said, a man with a peacock feather sticking from his peaked hat. “And for the next song we have Glamis of the Tower, a sad song to be sure, but a treat for the ears.” They sang of Glamis, a man who sought power and strength above all other men. Defeated by a better fighter, he turned to the Great Devil out of spite, and became something more than a man—a terrifying wolf, killing his daughter and his wife.

“Very prestigious, to learn under Leon the Strong,” the man in silks said as the harps and slow drums started. He was short, plump, with slick blond hair and a beak-like nose. “How goes it? Has the strength of the man himself rubbed off on you?”

“I believe we haven’t met, my lord,” Tristain said.

“No, I don’t believe we have. Count Andreas Pagehald of Verania. Vredevoort leads my troops, but I pay them. Though I’m here because who better to monitor my own holdings?”

Tristain’s eyes lit up. The regiment from Verania was the largest and would’ve cost thousands to pay. Surely, he would have more than enough to pay for a single household guard. But whether he would want to take the risk of upsetting his father… There was also Vredevoort: the vicious man had led the disastrous battle in the Giant’s Footfalls, where thousands had died. And Erken, Leon’s son. Though Tristain would work for Pagehald directly, not Vredevoort, so it might not have been all that bad.

Cheers filled the air as the song finished. People rose from their seats, tossing silver pieces, while young boys ran around, gathering the silver up in their arms. Tristain thought it was a decent rendition, though the strings were out of time with the singer.

“Now, we have our own real-life Glamis here,” the herald said, pointing to an obscenely hairy soldier. “You’re more hair than man, my friend.” The hairy one waved his arms defensively. “Oh, I don’t envy your mother if you were born like that! Throw him in the river, they must have said, the midwife’s cursed him!”

“Count Pagehald—” Tristain went to speak, turning back.

“Yes, I remember it now,” the man said, leaning on his back leg. “Your father gave me a thrashing in the August Griffin Tourney ten years ago, I believe. He always had a temper, that one. What news of him?”

“I do not have any, my lord. He was in good health when I left two years ago. It is little wonder, so far from civilization here.”

“Indeed. I receive writs and reports to sign but once a moon. I sometimes ask if the sun does not set backwards here. And yet, our esteemed Archduke wishes to claim these lands? For what purpose?”

“You forget yourself, Andreas,” the general admonished.

“Apologies, Your Grace. Excuse us. I wish to speak with Tristain privately, if you’ll permit.”

The duchess bent her head slightly as if her neck, stiff from carrying a stone jaw, could only bend so far. Tristain and the count bowed in return, and took to a nearby table. The count dismissed those seated with a wave.

“Tell it true, young man.” Pagehald ran a hand under his smooth double chin. Though he wore a long tunic with flowing sleeves and a loose belt, it did very little to hide the plump. The days of the count’s tourneys are long behind him. “What’s your plan after this godsforsaken war?”

“To serve, my lord. My greatest desire is to serve an honorable household.”

“Ah, color me intrigued. I would’ve placed heavy bets on you having dreams of fame and glory. After all, few men of your age want to set down roots in one place.”

“I have responsibilities to take care of, my lord.” Let him think I have a mistress and children to support, to keep from prodding further.

The man nodded. “Hm… I understand all too well, and I’m not unsympathetic to your position. You should come for a visit after we wrap up this nasty business in Badonnia. My estate makes the finest wine north of the Bight.”

“Thank you, my lord,” Tristain said, trying and failing to keep a straight face. He felt like dancing on the tables, kicking over flagons of ale in time to the music. He pushed down his excitement for now. It was only a small step ahead, and he would have to make it through the war first. But one step at a time.

“And don’t forget, my friends, to tip your campwives,” the herald said to the crowd. “Or give ‘em the tip!”

After the count bid him farewell, Tristain sauntered off to bed, the sounds of the revelry fading, but his good mood remained strong. Guilt spiked through his chest as he planned; he was just using the count. The count seemed like a decent man, and yet Tristain had very little interest in being his guard. It was simply for the position, and all the details that came with that. A place for his family to live, where his mother and Selene would finally be safe.

But a familiar pain in his left hand, where his father had shattered his pinkie with a mallet, followed the guilt. Rage persisted over the years, though he barely remembered the specifics. Not because his memory failed him, but because there simply were too many occasions to count. He’d almost become inured to it by the end. It was only when Bann died six years ago did Tristain become the heir and the golden child. Then, his father’s rage turned on Selene, the family’s ward, and their mother. He couldn’t forget that, even if he tried.

Selene was more than the daughter of a noble family—she was Tristain’s sister in all but blood. He would do anything to protect her. The courts offered no recourse, because Selene’s family did not wish to pursue a count for recompense. And like many others, they cared little for daughters—first sons were kings of their home. Everything else was dispensable. Squeezed by circumstance, Tristain had only left her to find a position that would allow them all to get away. He welcomed the pain in his left hand. It was a reminder of what he would do, what he was capable of, to get her free.

After he perfected the ending of the letter to Selene, he climbed onto the straw bed at the foot of his knight’s armor, steel glinting dully in the light of a tallow candle where scarce an inch remained. For the first time in months, he slept soundly.