DISCLAIMER: Tortall and its inhabitants belong to Tamora Pierce, and used with her (indirect) permission.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Umm… there are some discrepancies in In the Hand of the Goddess that I’m taking advantage of in this fic. During Alanna’s battle with Dain, the Tusaine knight, it refers to Douglass of Veldine as Raoul’s squire. However, in the chapter “Fears” it says that Sacherell of Wellam is Raoul’s squire. For the sake of this story (the upcoming chapters, that is), I’m going to go with Sacherell having been Raoul’s squire (they just have a closer friendship). I just don’t want to deal with Maura & the wolves, and she’s Douglass’s ward. *sweat*
Chapter Two: On the Practice Courts
The knights began watching the squires’ training during the third day of the congress. Neal and Merric squirmed under the scrutiny of all the large men around the practice field, and sometimes it showed in their fighting. The already-claimed squires were practicing, too, occasionally Kel could heir the boasting and bragging of their knight masters.
The morning drill began with staff combat. While fighting against Faleron of King’s Reach, Kel made the mistake of looking over her opponent’s shoulder. Lord Raoul--commander of the King’s Own--was there, talking to a tall, wiry knight. She didn’t recognize the other man, but she was well aware that they were both paying close attention to her. A hard rap on her knuckles brought her attention back to Faleron.
He narrowed his eyes at her. “Don’t get caught up in them, Kel,” he growled. “Don’t blow it.”
She forced him back with a counter-attack. “And don’t you stop pulling your shots. You should’ve broken bones with a clear strike like that.”
After staff fighting, the squires moved on to swords. Kel and the other first-years were less experienced, and paired themselves with other first- and second-year squires. Only Neal was permitted to duel with the older boys, and Kel was proud to see the impressed reaction of the observing knights. Kel herself did not fair badly. She beat Merric, but lost to Quinden in the second round.
Wrestling flew by, everyone managing decently. It wasn’t Kel’s strongest technique, but it certainly wasn’t her weakest, either. Her arm--strengthening exercises had paid off. She managed to beat Cleon, who was three years older and a good deal heavier than she.
By the time they got to tilting, Kel felt worn out. The squires had been giving their all in order to show the knights that they were worthy. When she mounted and finally brought Peachblossom around, she was the last in line.
Lord Wyldon signaled for the squires to begin--first those at the far quintain--which bore the tiny smudge of paint he had applied as a target two years before, when Kel had been smug about her ability. After the first squire finished, another from the second line began. The second quintain was suspended, and much more challenging. Kel was in the second line.
The others had done well. Faleron and Yancen of Irenroha, both in her line, had even won a smattering of applause from the onlookers. As Kel and Peachblossom took their place, Kel leaned over to whisper in her mount’s ear. “We can show them, right?”
Her run was flawless. Not only did she manage to hit the more difficult target; she nailed it--and shattered her lance in the process. It had happened before, but this time the pain in her hand and wrist was eased by the clapping and whistles of the knights on the sidelines. Kel grinned back at Neal, then at the men perched on the fence.
“Are you quite pleased with yourself, Squire Keladry?” Lord Wyldon asked. “Don’t be arrogant, girl. Go get another lance.”
She nodded apologetically and began to dismount. But Wyldon’s voice made her freeze.
“Why don’t you ask on of those men for a weighted lance?”
She had practiced with a weighted lance from the first day, and Lord Wyldon knew that all of the spare lances were too light for her. She looked nervously over her shoulder at the row of knights, noticing for the first time that most of them carried various weapons. Were they planning on sparring with the squires?
“Go on.” His voice was calm, but stern. It reminded her of the many days she’d spent in trees and on edges of cliffs to battle her fear of heights, and how Lord Wyldon’s quiet yet intimidating voice would coax her back down. She liked to think that he had been trying to help her then; maybe now he was helping her find a knight-master his own way.
She dismounted and led Peachblossom over to the older men, stopping in front of Lord Raoul and his friend. “Sir, do you... do you have a weighted lance on hand?”
Lord Raoul raised an eyebrow. “Weighted?” She could see he was holding back a grin. His black eyes danced as he looked down at her.
“Yes, sir. None of the spare practice weapons are weighted. Surely yours are?” she felt bold and rude, but refused to look as embarrassed as she felt.
Raoul smiled at his friend. “I don’t have my lance, but Sacherell has his.” He gestured to his companion, who was probably a good five years younger than him.
Kel took the lance Sir Sacherell offered her with a light bow. “Keladry of Mindelan, sir.”
“Sacherell of Wellam,” he replied, nodding politely. “Is it too heavy for you?”
She hefted it, testing its weight. “No, sir, it’s perfect.”
He looked surprised. “Mithros! Raoul wasn’t kidding when he said you were a strong lass! Alanna rarely uses a lance so heavily weighted.”
Feeling uncomfortable in the center of attention--and being compared to the Lioness--Kel shifted from one foot to the other.
“Mount up, Squire Keladry,” Lord Wyldon called impatiently. She bowed again in thanks and mounted Peachblossom.
When she returned to the line, Faleron smiled at her. “Looks like you’ve found your knight-master.”
Neal gave her a dry look. “Don’t play innocent, Kel. You’ve always been one of Lord Raoul’s favorites. Surely he’ll choose you.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Kel muttered, preparing for another run at the quintain. This time the knights were eager to see if she could handle Sir Sacherell’s lance. Gods of mountains and rivers, Kel thought in Yamani, please don’t let me bring dishonor to my teachers and my family. She perfectly executed the maneuver and earned the cheers of several knights. Glancing over to the fences, she saw Sir Sacherell and Lord Raoul clapping along with the others, smiling at her.
“That a girl,” Lord Wyldon murmured as she rode back to the line.
After lunch, instead of going to class, the squires were told to go back to the practice courts. This time they were split into three groups. Three leaders were chosen--Joren of Stone Mountain, who would lead the defensive line; Cleon of Kennan, who would lead the attacking charge; and Kel, who would lead the renegade troop. She was the only first year in charge, and felt sheepish. But Faleron, one of the better second-years, whispered that he was more than happy to have her in his usual place.
Unlike other battle simulations, this “free-fight” would take place over the course of several days, and their objectives would be kept from one another. The leaders were allowed to have councils, and send “emissaries” for negotiations. But the biggest difference was that some of the knights took part in it. Each group leader would have an advisor--to be announced later--and two or three knights in their team. The squires were told to treat the knights as equals.
The knights in Kel’s group were Sirs Geoffrey of Meron, Sacherell of Wellam, and much to her chagrin, Conal of Mindelan. Her squires were Prince Roald of Conte as well as Faleron, Merric, and Yancen--a group Kel was quite pleased with.
After dividing them up, Lord Wyldon and Lord Raoul stood in the middle of the practice courts, expressions grim.
“You’ve never had a lengthy battle simulation, and you’ve never studied the importance of alliances,” Wyldon said, eyeing each squire carefully. “Those who have been to my Strategies and Tactics lectures know that alliances can make or break a war. You will learn the power of espionage--carefully choose whom you trust.”
Raoul stepped forward, clearing his throat. He towered over Lord Wyldon, who wasn’t a short man. “Several of you will be assigned the role of a spy. Knights and squires alike will be approached by Lord Wyldon at any time during the course of the campaign. Only Wyldon and Sergeant Ezeko will know who all the spies are. It is your duty to find the traitors in your own company.”
“Keladry of Mindelan,” Wyldon called out. “Step forward with your men.” She and her group did so. The training master circled her as he spoke. “This is the crucial faction in our war. This is a renegade troop, loyal to no one. She will most assuredly have spies in your groups. You should not trust her as far as you can throw her. The same goes for all of her men. Think of them as pirates or bandits or a small fanatical faction, if you will.” He stopped in front of Joren and Cleon. “Your first goal should be to win her alliance. Otherwise, you are so evenly matched that you will fight to attrition, and her men will swoop in and conquer your lands.”
Kel was nervous. She’d never been in charge of an offensive group before, and she didn’t like being such a central figure in the plan. And she really didn’t like the idea of Joren being a potential enemy. She still easily recalled all the nastiness she’d endured from him during her years as a page.
“But for today,” Raoul called, “we will work on training in groups. Tomorrow will be dedicated to strategy.”
Kel’s group commandeered one of the fencing courts and she spoke to them seriously before beginning the exercises, “My lord has put me in charge, but I want each of you to feel free to suggest anything--strategies, exercises--whatever. And if you have any disputes with my leadership, I’d rather have you tell me your doubts than feel insecure about my plans or leadership. Any questions?”
“Mithros, Kel, I’d forgotten how you could be,” Conal smirked.
Kel realized--not for the first time--that she liked her brother much more when he was far away. She gave him a slightly irritated look. “Is that a compliment, sir, or are you being pert?” She sounded so much like Lord Wyldon that it made her flinch.
Conal grinned. “It’s a compliment. I think being under your direction will be an educational experience.”
Shaking her head, Kel instructed her team to start on their standard exercise regime. She assigned Roald to lead the drills and teach the knights the order of stretches and techniques. While he did that, she pulled Conal aside.
“Please don’t treat me like your kid sister,” Kel whispered. “It’s bad enough having to command knights and older squires. Don’t make it worse.”
Conal nodded, frowning slightly. “Do you want me to switch sides? I’m sure Wyldon would understand.”
Kel shook her head. “No--just treat me like you would any other squire.”
“Sure thing,” he said, ruffling her hair. He joined the others in their drills and Kel sighed. This was going to be a strange week.
Continued in Chapter 3