By Blake Gabriel
Death’s stench filled his nostrils with the sickly sweet smell of blood, gore, and shit mixing together in the mud and rain. It clung to him like a desperate lover, its cloying scent overcoming all others.
“Hush now,” the knight whispered to the man dying in his lap. “All is well. The battle is over.”
Even in the hands of the realm’s most skilled surgeon, Ser Hewes knew that the soldier was doomed. The blade that had torn his stomach open like a slashed sack of grain lay nearby, as well as the corpse of the man who had borne it. All Hewes could do now was comfort the soldier as the goddess took him from the world.
“You fought bravely, Hollis,” Hewes said, holding the soldier’s hand. “You saved my life.”
Hollis gave him a shuddering smile. The soldier’s weathered face was caked in bloodied mud, but his eyes still gleamed brightly beneath the grime.
“Was just – doing my part, ser,” Hollis grunted, his eyes closing for a moment. “I didn’t think the bastard would get me so good.”
“I am proud to have called you one of my own,” Hewes said. “Any lord would pay many gold crowns to have an armsman such as you in their service.”
The soldier nodded, his blood staining the ground around him and soaking into Hewes’ arms, but the knight didn’t pay any attention to it. He could have a new surcoat made, but he could not buy a soldier as loyal and brave as the man in his arms.
“You’ll be given an honored burial, my friend,” Hewes promised.
Suddenly, with renewed strength, Hollis gripped his master’s arm. His eyes opened wide, searching the gray curtains of cloud above.
“Ser, I have a son. His mother’s dead. I’m all he’s got,” the soldier groaned.
Hewes held the man in his dying throes, whispering. “I will see to it that he is taken care of. I will take him into my household as my page and as a squire when he is old enough. And, if he proves himself worthy of it, I will give him a knighthood of his own.”
Hollis met his gaze, hope kindling. “Truly, ser?”
“I swear it. Upon my own life and honor, I swear it.”
A light rain, little more than mist, began to fall. The storm, blown down from the mountains of the Cloudwall, would grow and it would soon wash over the battlefield. The droplets of water gathered on the rim of Hollis’ helmet and fell mingled with the soldier’s tears.
“Thank you, Ser Hewes,” he said, his voice faint. “By the goddess, thank you.”
The torrent of steel shivered Philip’s shield as he fell back beneath the relentless assault. Sword-blows came so fast that he could barely lift his shield in time to block and they were swung with such force that his arm became sore.
“Come on, Philip! Are you just going to hide behind your shield all day?” Harold, his opponent, shouted through his helm. “If you were a knight, you’d face me with honor!”
Philip backed away, his grip tightening on his blunted blade. Harold was twice his size with thrice the weight. The other boys always kept out of his way, but today Philip had made the mistake of drawing his ire. The two fighters circled each other.
Dunwood, the scarred, old soldier in charge of the drill yard, stomped around, barking instructions, but his one eye was watching the two boys. He knew that even with blunted swords, two boys in the heat of a sparring match could give each other quite the beating – and Ser Hewes didn’t want anyone hurt too seriously.
“You’re a craven, Philip!” Harold roared, lunging around the other boy’s shield. “Craven! Craven!”
He had beaten Philip into a corner, battering at his shield with such force that Dunwood feared he’d break the boy’s arm.
“Alright, lad, that’s enough!” the serjeant ordered. “I said, that’s enough!”
Still smiling, Harold stepped away, removing his helmet and turning to face Dunwood. “The runt’s not even worth your effort.”
Before Dunwood could answer, a sword smashed across Harold’s padded back, dropping the boy to his knees. Cursing, he spun, trying to lift his own weapon to parry, but Philip’s second stroke was too fast, hitting his arm with a sickening crack.
“Goddess, lad, I said enough!” Dunwood roared.
“You pig-fucking peasant!” Harold howled, clutching his arm, his sword forgotten. “Hells take you, you whoreson!”
“Shut your mouth!” Dunwood growled. “A noble’s son shouldn’t profane his mouth with such talk.”
“What’d you know? You’re no better than him, old man!” Harold cried. “My lord father will hang the both of you!”
“Leave my yard this moment, Harold Crowe, and have Brother Guy take a look at your arm or I’ll treat it myself,” Dunwood glowered.
The boy glared back, but only unyielding iron stared back. Climbing to his feet, Harold fled the drillyard. The other boy, Philip, had lowered his sword and hung his head. He doffed his helmet and dropped it in the dirt.
“Not the best idea to make an enemy of Lord Crowe’s heir, lad,” the serjeant said. “Ser Hewes is still his father’s sworn man.”
“A liege lord’s justice passes through his vassals,” Philip replied with the familiarity of recitation. “Lord Crowe cannot punish you without punishing Ser Hewes.”
A smile creased Dunwood’s weathered face. “A good thought, lad, but if his heir is hurt under my watch, our good baron is within his rights to have Ser Hewes dismiss me from his service. And where will an old man like me be after that?”
He had meant for the boy to smile too, but Philip seemed not to have any mirth in him. The boy put away his sword and started to undo his sword-belt.
“Did I say you could leave the yard?” Dunwood said, raising an eyebrow.
Philip looked confused. “I thought – I struck Harold from behind.”
“Aye, lad, a most dishonorable thing to do,” the serjeant said, nodding. “But there’s plenty of dishonor to go around on a battlefield. Miss an opportunity like that and you may get yourself killed.”
Little Dan, the smith’s son, piped in, “Ser Dunwood, I thought we were to learn how to fight with honor, like true knights.”
Dunwood turned to face the boy and all the other boys gathered around. Many were no older than their tenth winter, but they all had the same eager faces. They dreamt of knighthood, of a sword tapping their shoulders, and of the favors of maidens and ladies.
He knew better. Of the dozen boys in the drill yard, less than half would be worthy of the dubbing, and the rest would make meager armsmen. Like him, perhaps.
“I’m no knight, Dan, so I’m not teaching you lads how to fight like one. I’m teaching you how to survive and if that means you have to live with the dishonor, then so be it. Better a dishonorable man than a dead one, I say,” Dunwood answered. “If Ser Hewes picks you to squire for him, I’ll let him teach you about honor.”
The boys all eyed each other, jostling about. Ser Hewes Jossedon couldn’t have all twelve boys as his squires so they would all be competing for his attention. At best, he would choose three, but Harold Crowe was assured a place, so there would only be two for them to fight over.
Dunwood looked them over. Little Dan, exuberant and energetic though he was, was much too small to make a squire, much less a knight. Maybe one day he would make a good archer, but only if he practiced with a longbow every day. Mark Ulmer was strong for a boy his age, but his wits and his feet were slow. Leighton, the farmer’s boy, was squire material though his sword-work could use improving.
Dunwood’s eyes stopped on Philip. “Mark, Leighton, step into the ring with young Philip. Let’s see how he fares against two foes.”
The boys bowed, Philip donning his helmet and raising his shield and sword against his new enemies. Mark Ulmer attacked first, swinging mechanically and with the grace of a charging bull. Dunwood watched approvingly when Philip caught the blow with his shield and shoved Mark back.
“That’s it, lad. Put your shoulder and your body behind it,” Dunwood said, stepping out of Leighton’s way as the boy came in on Philip’s right.
Leighton’s thrust would have skewered Philip’s side had the boy not spun, quick on his feet, to parry the strike. Philip followed through by bashing Leighton with his shield, and the farmer’s boy fell backwards onto his rump.
Mark was back, attacking from high in a close approximation of Ayallen’s opening move. Dunwood nodded, surprised. He had not expected any of the boys to employ the simplest forms, let alone Ayallen. Swooping Hawk was an advanced form well beyond these boys. He might have underestimated Mark Ulmer.
But Philip side-stepped the blow and answered with his own series of blows. Cut, bash, and thrust. Mark blocked the first attack but the shield bash knocked him off-balance, and the thrust hit him right in the belly. He doubled over, dropping his sword.
“I yield,” Mark said, coughing.
Leighton had climbed to his feet, weapon raised, but when Philip turned to face him he threw down his weapon. “I yield too.”
Dunwood laughed. “Well, it seems you’ve put the fear of the hells into these lads, Philip. Good work. You can go get yourself cleaned up, and get a sweetroll from Hilde. Tell her I said you earned it.”
Philip bowed and shrugged off his arms and padding, running out of the drill yard. The serjeant faced the other boys. “The rest of you lads will be working your forms. Hop to!”
As they formed their loose lines of practice, Dunwood smiled to himself. He knew he had at least one boy worthy of a knighthood.
To Be Continued...