DISCLAIMER: Tortall and its inhabitants belong to Tamora Pierce, and used with her (indirect) permission.

 

 

The Squire Years

Chapter Three: Strategic Concerns

 

The next day was dedicated to developing their power bases.  Unlike the previous week, the squires began their day inside in the classrooms while the pages were on the practice courts.  Each group had been assigned a section of three adjoining classrooms to work in.  In each classroom there were large sheets of paper on the wall, and chalk to draw with.  These were crucial in mapmaking for their defense plans.

 

Joren had been granted the southeast side of the palace to defend.  This included the palace wall and parts of the Royal Forest.  It was probably the easiest place in all of Corus to defend; he was allowed to assume command of the garrison weapons--several catapults and specially crafted pivoting cauldrons atop the wall--made for dumping boiling oil onto any attackers. Though he was granted permission to rely on them for his initial defense strategy--which would be present during lessons within the next four days--it was understood that he would not use them during the actual fight.   

 

Cleon’s group was given the hunting lodge as a base.  It was a good half-hour’s ride into the Royal Forest; as pages they had been there numerous times.  The lodge was fortified, though not heavily, and Cleon’s group had to work mainly on an offensive plan, taking into consideration the resources at the lodge and the distance needed to be covered.

 

Kel wasn’t sure whom she felt sorrier for.  Defense was always easier for her to plan, but Joren’s group would have to rely much more on calculations--especially concerning the catapults.  Cleon’s force, though not as well equipped, had more manpower.  His group was the largest, outnumbering Joren’s almost at a two-to-one ratio.

 

Kel knew that her group would be the balancing force.  If she sided with Cleon, there was little chance for Joren to adequately defend his keep.  If she sided with Joren, Cleon’s group would be obliterated--the defense always had the upper hand when fortified.

 

Her group lacked in equipment; they were supposed to represent the bandits and mercenaries who fought regardless of the underlying principles.  She only had one mage in the group--Prince Roald--and she had never witnessed his magical abilities.  But all the Gifted squires were trained in basic warcraft magic.  She’d have to get a full account from him later.

 

Her group’s base was at a random point in the Royal Forest, close to the Oleron River.  They were supposed to be a virtually defenseless camp, guarded only by sentries and protection spells.

 

She and Roald managed the sketches and maps of their camp, deciding who would take which posts at which times and devising several defensive plans.  The other squires were quick to point out flaws in the plans, and the knights pointed out different ways to make the best use of their surroundings.  They all worked well together.  The plans were simple and relied on swiftness more than complex tactics.  Kel had noted, with some degree of pride, that her group was made of the fastest squires and knights.  Lord Wyldon had obviously considered that when choosing her group—but what were the strengths of the others?

 

Joren’s defense squad had the best archers.  Sir Imrah of Legann had won every archery contest he’d participated in during the last year, according to Roald, his squire.  And Joren and Balduin had always been the best of the pages in previous years.  Their skills would be crucial for defense.  Cleon’s group, meanwhile, was full of excellent swordsmen.  Her own brother, Inness of Mindelan, was one of the better swordsmen in the realm--and he’d taken Cleon as his squire because the big redheaded youth was the best in his class.  Neal had always been a natural with the sword as well, having begun his studies long before becoming a page.

 

So, Joren’s group has the upper hand in long-range defense, and if they fail, Cleon’s unit will easily trounce them in a close-range battle, Kel thought, glancing into the other classroom where Joren was sitting.  He was writing furiously as his regiment gave suggestions.

 

She was surprised to see him working so well with the other boys.  She’d never personally seen him work in a group, but she’d had him pegged for the kind of boy who would ignore his underlings and do things his own way.

 

He looked up at her, his bright blue eyes fixed on hers.  His expression was impossible to read.  Kel wondered if he would even be willing to make an alliance with her.  They hadn’t really been on friendly terms with him for very long--and she didn’t trust him at all.  Three years of fighting and nastiness could not be forgotten with a pretty apology.  And she wasn’t sure how much of that apology was sincere.

 

He’d told her that his knight-master, Sir Paxton of Nond, had changed a lot of his views on things.  Sir Paxton was courting Kel’s older sister, Adie, and there were hopes of a marriage between the families; so it was possible.  But it was still too strange for Kel to honestly believe.

 

Joren smiled slightly, then returned to his writing.

 

Kel shook her head.  I’ll never understand him.  Why waste time analyzing him? she wondered, ignoring the little voice in her head that was reminding her that it was always best to know her enemies.

 

***

 

Supper was strange that night.  The squires had split into their groups at the tables.  While Kel normally ate with Neal and Seaver, she was alarmed to see that they’d gone elsewhere.  Neal sat with Cleon and Esmond, two tables over, while Seaver sat with Joren.

 

She wanted to sit with her friends--to talk about something other than the simulation.  She was thankful, though, that Roald and Merric and Faleron were in her group.

 

That night King Jonathan showed up for the meal.  He had two other guests with him; one was a tall, lanky fellow in his early forties.  He dressed fairly casually, and carried himself differently than any noble Kel had ever seen before.  Lord Wyldon introduced him as the Baron of Pirate’s Swoop--George Cooper.  He was a handsome man, with dancing hazel eyes, but Kel couldn’t take her hazel eyes of his companion.  His wife, Lady Alanna of Trebond and Olau--or as she was more commonly known, Sir Alanna, the Lioness.  She was the first female night in Tortall in over a century.  She had become the King’s Champion at the age of twenty and was known throughout the Eastern Lands for her heroic deeds.  Her actions had made it possible for the king to grant girls the right to train for knighthood; Kel wouldn't have to disguise herself as a boy for eight years, as Alanna had.

 

Kel could hardly eat throughout dinner.  Every time she looked at the Lioness her eyes were met with a steady purple gaze.  Did this mean that Lord Wyldon and the king were permitting her to speak to the Lioness now?  She wondered what this sudden change was about.

 

Halfway through the meal, the king rose from his seat.  He motioned for everyone to remain seated.  “You’ve studied hard to reach this point, new squires.  And we know that you’ll only improve from here.  While the last few years have been odd, with the unusual changes of pace in your studies, know that you are only better for it.  Knights are no longer solitary warriors, as they were in my days as a squire.  Warcraft has changed since the Immortals War, and we have changed with it.”

 

Kel nodded as she took in King Jonathan’s words.  He was still the most handsome man she’d ever seen; and now she had rid herself of the anger she had felt when he had allowed Lord Wyldon to put her on probation because she was a girl.  She had proven herself in her studies and in combat, and the king himself had told her he was proud.  She listened with rapt attention.

 

“The knights of the realm want squires who can work in groups; boys--” he glanced at Kel and smiled, “--and girls--who can follow orders as well as they give them.  This new battle scenario is your chance to prove to them that you will be able to handle a real war.  Show them that your groups can come together to attack or defend decisively.

 

“You will have advisors,” he continued, “as Lord Wyldon has mentioned.  I shall be working with the defensive line; I have experience defending castles and forts.  Sir Alanna, however, has much experience in leading assaults.  Cleon of Kennan, your group shall work with her.  And George Cooper is one of the best teachers of what I’ve always called ‘back-hall fighting.’  His area of expertise will help Keladry of Mindelan’s group.  After classes tomorrow morning, each group will meet with their advisors and review any battle plans made this afternoon. Until then, Mithros guide you.”

 

The king left the room swiftly before any of the squires had the chance to stand and bow.  After a moment of silence, the usual hum of conversation was present again.

 

“George Cooper, eh?” Merric asked in a whisper.  “I hear that he was an outlaw--pardoned by the king so he could marry the Lioness.”

 

Kel looked to Roald for confirmation, but the prince smiled mysteriously.  Looking back at Merric, she shrugged.  “For whatever reason he was pardoned, I’m sure he earned it.”

 

“Goddess, strike me down if I’ve ever met a man more obstinate than you!”  The Lioness’s rough yell brought silence to the squires’ mess hall.  All eyes shifted toward the head table, where the King’s Champion was standing, palms flat on the table, glaring at Lord Wyldon.  The training master, for his part, looked as calm as he ever had.

 

“Alanna,” the baron murmured, placing a hand on his hot-tempered wife’s shoulder.  The lady knight, suddenly aware of all the pairs of eyes fixed on her, flushed crimson.

 

“I apologize, Lady Alanna,” Wyldon began, not sounding very sorry at all, “but I won’t change my mind.”

 

Kel had a feeling they were talking about her.  She glanced across the room at Neal.  His worried eyed met hers before turning back to the boys at his own table.

 

***

 

“So what do you think that was about?” Kel asked him later, as they headed toward the library.

 

Neal sighed.  “Father told me that the Lioness is going to be in Corus for the next four months, if not longer.  She was hoping to work closely with all the squires--help teach fencing--but she and the Stump can’t agree on anything.”

 

Kel sniffed at his disrespectful nickname for Lord Wyldon.  “Why won’t he agree?  She wouldn’t be showing favoritism if she taught all of us.”

 

Neal nodded as he opened the door for Kel.  “He’s disagreeing because he’s a disagreeable person.  Does he need an excuse?  Besides--he’s probably refusing everything she requests; I’m surprised she’s allowed to work with my group for the battle.”

 

Kel couldn’t help but feel jealous.  She’d always wanted to have a nice long conversation with the Champion--and she had blown the once chance she had.

 

They made their way to the long table in the center of the room where several pages and squires studied.  Owen of Jesslaw, a page one year younger than Kel, jumped up to give her a casual one-armed hug.

 

“I’m glad you could find it in you to stoop down to the level of us pages!” he laughed.  Kel noticed with some amusement that his voice had dropped half an octave over the summer.  “And Mithros, Kel--you’ve grown even taller!”

 

She nodded, sitting next to him.  “Another inch.  I think there’s ogre blood in the Mindelan line.”

 

“Ah--that would explain a lot of things,” Neal sighed, falling into the seat beside her.

 

Cleon, seated across the table from them both, snorted and spoke to the first-year pages in the group.  “Unless your name is Nealan of Queenscove, don’t ever speak to Kel like that.  She’ll run you through with a lance.”

 

“Or bludgeon your with a staff!” Owen interjected.

 

Cleon grimaced.  “For some reason she lets this oaf get away with murder.”

 

Neal leaned over, wrapping his arms around Kel’s waist.  “Some people are more charismatic than others,” he said, smiling smugly at Cleon.

 

Kel rolled her eyes and pushed her friend away, hoping he hadn’t noticed the quickness of her breath or the sudden heat in her cheeks.

 

“Don’t let Lord Wyldon see you acting like that, Queenscove--not if you want her to stay.”

 

All heads turned to the doorway where Joren stood, looking handsome in a blue velvet tunic.  He wore a friendly expression--unlike any Kel had seen before.

 

“Can I join you?” he asked, showing them that he had brought a stack of papers, books, and a bottle of ink with him.

 

No one spoke for a moment; even the first-year pages seemed to gather that Joren was not really desired company.  Finally Kel nodded to him and Cleon gestured to the vacant seat beside him.

 

Neal wasn’t too certain about it all.  He narrowed his eyes at Joren.  “Just what are you doing here, anyway?”

 

He was one of the younger squires, but having started his training at fifteen, he was old enough to take the Ordeal of Knighthood.  Next to Yancen and Cleon, Neal was the biggest squire in the palace--and his temper made him the most threatening at times,

 

Joren gazed at him evenly, shifting through his class work.  “I’m here to study--and talk to Cleon and Keladry.”

 

It was about the mock-battle.  All of a sudden, Kel felt more at ease about Joren’s presence.  Neal still seemed ruffled, but Kel decided that he wouldn’t be Neal if he wasn’t perturbed in some way or other.

 

She and Cleon pulled Joren to a smaller table in the corner while Neal glared and explained the battle scenario to Owen, who complained that the squires had all the “jolly assignments.”

 

Cleon, meanwhile, was being difficult.  “I don’t see how any alliances can be formed if all three of us are present,” he said, directing a scowl toward Joren. 

 

The blond squire sniffed and looked at Kel.  “The question is, what are Lord Wyldon’s objectives?”

 

“What do you mean?” Kel asked, her usually dreamy-looking hazel eyes intensely locked with Joren’s icy blue stare.

 

“You heard the king.  Our goal is to prove that the different groups can work together.  But is the knight’s duty to fight effectively, or prevent larger battles?”

 

Cleon scoffed.  “This is no time to get philosophical, Joren.  It’s a battle simulation, not a diplomatic endeavor.”

 

“Wait a second, though,” Kel said, resting her hand on Cleon’s arm.  “Why would they have included diplomacy if this was merely a fighting exercise.”  She turned to Joren, her expression quizzical.  “What do you have in mind?”

 

He smiled.  “They’re judging us on our battle plans, and then the tactics we use once the strategies fail, right?  Well, if we come up with glorious plans for all scenarios, they’ll still give us credit if the battle never happens.”

 

“What in the Goddess’s name kind of plan is that?” Cleon asked incredulously.

 

With a sigh, Joren continued.  “Diplomacy is the key.  King Jonathan has been involved with wars and disasters since his coronation day.  What would impress him more than seeing tomorrow’s youth acknowledge that compromise can prevent human loss?  We don’t have to fight.  We can be prepared for battle, and fight should there be any kind of need--but that doesn’t mean that we should rush to arm ourselves first.”

 

Kel leaned forward, studying Joren.  “Why are you doing this?  You’ve always been the kind of person to hit first--why the sudden promotion of pacifism?”

 

He smiled again--an eerie, twisted smile that made her nervous.  “People change, Squire Keladry.  I want to impress the king and Lord Wyldon as much as you do.  This is the first time we’ve been given a choice in our scenario; let’s show them that we can make good choices.  We can build an alliance between the three groups, and prevent the battle.”

 

Cleon nodded reluctantly.  “The worst thing that could happen is being removed from our positions as leaders.  There’s really nothing to lose.”

 

“You both have knight-masters.  It’s easier for you two to accept being replaced,” Kel said, feeling nervous. 

 

Joren reached over and touched her shoulder lightly, causing both Kel and Cleon to tense up visibly.  “Don’t worry, Kel.  I’m sure someone will take you.  Lord Raoul will whisk you away to help command the King’s Own if no one else steps forward.”

 

He stood and went back over to the large table, leaving two very puzzled squires behind him. 

 

Kel and Cleon exchanged worried glances.  “Should we wait for the stab in the back?”  Kel asked.

 

Cleon sighed.  “If he turns against one of us, he turns against us both.  Agreed?”

 

She sighed.  “I’ll talk to my men tomorrow, and then we’ll discuss it.”

 

 

Continued in Chapter 4

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