The Squire (Paperback)
The Squire (Paperback)
An Epic Fantasy Adventure
Squire Col Vanheim wants nothing more than to train, get his spurs, and get away from the capital with its scheming, arrogant nobles.
As a commoner raised to a position reserved for nobles, Col faces bullying, taunts, and dirty tricks, when he isn't ignored completely.
On the day of his greatest triumph a beastman invasion sends Col running for his life with the arrogant Princess Rain in tow.
His mentor murdered, his home in flames, and an army of monsters out to kill him, can Col deliver Rain to the safety of legendary Celestia?
The Squire is a tale of love and honor, duty and revenge, war and survival.
Col blinked sweat out of his eyes as he turned aside another of Sir Geris’s strikes. Brilliant sunlight pounded down on the training yard in front of Castle Finegold, forcing him to squint. Spring was quickly turning to summer in the kingdom of Corinthia and the heat of the day promised a blistering season. Despite the fine weather only Col and his mentor Sir Geris were training in the practice yard. The other squires probably feared to break a sweat. They’d dueled for an hour in the heat and Col’s hands tingled from the impact of the wooden practice swords. Sweat soaked his padded under-tunic through, still he’d blocked every one of the elder knight’s blows.
Col raised his sword for the next pass, but Sir Geris stepped back and lowered his weapon. “That’s enough for today.” His mentor’s raspy voice matched his scarred face. No pretty nobleman content to hide at court, his master had served on the front lines of every major battle for the past twenty years and had survived everything the battlefields had thrown at him. Sir Geris was a warrior first and a nobleman second. “Tend to our gear and we’ll get lunch.”
“Yes, sir.” Col stripped off his stinking leather breast plate. Not that Col minded the stink; in his five years as a squire he’d gotten used to the smell of leather, sweat, and oil. Col would turn eighteen in a month and at the winter solstice, if Sir Geris and the king found him worthy, he would receive his shield and spurs, a full knight at last. No more training and a good deal less taking orders.
Knight and squire walked together toward the armory where they stored all the practice weapons and other gear. “You did well today. I didn’t land a single blow.” Sir Geris clapped him on the shoulder.
Col smiled. Few people made it through a sparring match with Sir Geris without taking a blow, much less a squire. “If we’d gone another five minutes you would have had me. I just got lucky you quit when you did.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit. In all honesty I’d say you’re the fourth-best swordsman in the order, squire or knight. You’ll do well at the squires’ tournament next month.”
Col gave a soft snort of disgust. The noble fops that passed themselves off as squires couldn’t fight their way out of a burlap sack.
“What was that?” Sir Geris said.
“Nothing, sir, it’s just that fighting the other squires seems like a waste of time. Only a dozen of them take the training seriously, and of those only two have any real talent. After sparring with you it’s like fighting children.”
They reached the armory and Col opened the door. Inside, dozens of armor stands and racks holding wooden swords and unstrung bows stood in neat rows. Quivers of arrows hung from pegs on the wall. Col draped his armor over an empty stand then did the same with Sir Geris’s. The swords he replaced in the racks where he’d gotten them. The gear taken care of he grabbed the spare tunic he’d left in the shed earlier and threw it over his head.
“I know the other squires aren’t the finest warriors to ever pick up a sword.”
Col raised an eyebrow at that.
“Okay,” Sir Geris said. “Some of them are sad indeed, but that doesn’t mean you can overlook them. Even an unskilled opponent can be dangerous if you underestimate him.”
“I know, sir, but am I wrong to want an opponent who can give me a real challenge?”
“Not at all,” Sir Geris said as they turned toward the barracks to get a meal. They often ate with the soldiers in the barracks rather than the nobles in the keep. “In fact, I’ve been thinking about asking some of the other knights to spar with you. It’ll do you good to face someone with a style different from mine.”
“Do you think any of them would be willing? I know most of the knights don’t approve of a commoner being a squire.”
Sir Geris laughed. “The ones who disapprove will probably be the first to volunteer so they can put you in your proper place. You’re already better than most of that lot so they’ll be in for a surprise.”
Col grinned and followed his mentor into the barracks. He liked the idea of pounding on one of those smug prigs. They were all so quick to dismiss him. He’d enjoy showing them their mistake if he got the chance.
A dozen soldiers sat at tables scattered around the mess eating a late lunch when they entered. They started to rise, but Sir Geris waved them back to their meals. The kitchen sat at the back of the mess and Col went to collect the food while the older knight found a table. As usual the noon meal consisted of stew — pork Col thought — along with bread and ale. He put everything on a wooden tray and carried it back to Sir Geris’s table.
Col nodded, set the tray down, and sat opposite his mentor. He grabbed a bowl and dug in, using the bread as a spoon. He let out a groan of delight. Salty and rich, with thick gravy and big chunks of pork, the food tasted so much better than anything he’d eaten growing up. He looked at Sir Geris pushing his food around without eating.
“You could always go up to the keep and get something,” Col said.
Sir Geris frowned and ate with more enthusiasm. Col grinned and went back to his meal. Sir Geris had less use for most of the other noble knights than Col had for their squires. After a few more bites Col said, “So no one wanted to join us this morning?”
“Everyone said it was too hot to train.”
“His Majesty will have to make sure there are no wars in the summer,” Col said.
Several of the soldiers nearby laughed at that. “Seriously though, do they think poetry will help in the field?”
Sir Geris frowned, deepening his scars. Poetry had become the new fad at court; the knights and squires competed to see who could come up with the worst rhyme. It amused the ladies, which seemed to be the main point. “They don’t dare work their squires too hard. Most of the knights are minor nobles and younger sons. Some of the squires’ fathers are powerful men. If they push too hard…”
Sir Geris didn’t have to finish the sentence. Col knew what would happen. The offended squire would complain to Daddy who would complain to the king who wouldn’t want to risk angering one his nobles and so would order the knight to take it easy on the squire. “That’s one advantage I have. You could work me to death and no one would care.” The words came out more bitter than Col intended.
“Your father…” Sir Geris faltered and fell silent.
Col barely swallowed his mouthful of stew. “He doesn’t know me anymore. He’s pulling further and further away from everything. It was bad when Mama and Bella died, and he’s been getting worse every day. If Miss Lena didn’t bring him food and sit with him to be sure he ate it he would have died long ago. There’s nothing I can do to reach him.”
“I’m sorry, Col. If there’s anything I can do just name it.”
“You’ve already done more than I could have asked, sir.” It was the truth too. When Sir Geris took Col as his squire he gave Col’s father a room at his family keep and hired a nurse to care for him. No other man would have done that for a poor commoner half mad with grief. Sir Geris claimed he did it so Col could concentrate on his training, but Col knew better. Sir Geris looked after his father because it was the decent thing to do. “So what are we doing this afternoon?”
Sir Geris sighed in relief at the change of subject. “We’ll ride the east road. You need all the riding practice you can get.”
Col sniffed, imitating the nobles, and said in a haughty voice, “There was not an excess of horses in the slums of Rel.”
This brought another round of laughter from the men and a good-natured smile from his mentor. “Finish up and get the horses ready. I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
* * *
“Morning, Col,” a familiar voice called as Col stepped into the stables. He found Jack, one of the two stable boys, brushing a beautiful black mare. Jack was the younger son of Joseph, the stable master. Two years younger than Col, Jack and his older brother Joey numbered among Col’s many friends in the castle’s servant corps.
“It’s afternoon not morning, Jack.” Col offered a friendly grin. “Pretty quiet around here.”
“Calm before the storm. This,” Jack said with a distasteful gesture at the horse he was combing, “is Princess Rain’s latest purchase. If it isn’t in perfect condition when her high-and-mightyness shows up I’ll have to listen to the bitch complain then I’ll probably get a slap upside the head from the old man. I’d rather be on the manure wagon with Joey.”
“Is she that bad?” Col worked on getting his Sir Geris’s horse ready. He led the tan gelding outside and tied him to the rail in front of the stable. He’d seen the princess around many times, though he’d only spoken to her once or twice. She was a beautiful girl.
“Worse.” Jack’s disgust came through loud and clear.
Col grinned. You seldom got such a strong opinion from the good-natured stable boy. Not that it surprised him that the princess would be miserable to work for. In his experience most nobles shared many personality traits with starving bears. Pity, you couldn't run a spear through a noble when they became a pain.
Col finished tightening the saddle on Sir Geris’s horse then went to get his own. His pinto mare lived in the farthest stall on the left. No surprise there since he ranked lower than any other squire in the king’s service. Even the pages outranked him at court. “Hey, girl,” Col said. She came up and nuzzled him. “Want to go for a ride?”
Her ears perked up at that. Col smiled. She stood only fourteen hands high, but Col’s pinto was the smartest horse in the stables. Sir Geris gave her to Col when he advanced from page to squire. He scratched her neck as he led her out of the stall. He wouldn’t trade his little pinto for the finest warhorse in the stable.
Col led her out, tied her to the rail, and went back to get his gear. He reached for his saddle. “Son of a bitch!”
Someone had put a long scratch in the leather, no doubt a little gift from one of his fellow squires. He shook his head. They used to pick fights with him, but after he flattened enough of them they switched to damaging his gear or pulling nasty pranks. He couldn’t do anything about it. The scratch looked like hell, but wouldn’t keep him from using the saddle. He hoisted the saddle over his shoulder and carried it out front to finish getting ready.
Princess Rain stood by the stable door dressed as slick as you please in a white shirt and black vest. Her tight white pants hugged the curve of her hips and tucked into knee-high black boots polished so bright he had to look away to avoid the glare. She wore her long black hair tied back in a complex braid he guessed had taken her maids an hour and would be ruined ten minutes after she started her ride. The riding outfit was snug enough to show off her curves to good effect, but the look of disdain with which she regarded him spoiled an otherwise pleasant image. Col managed a bow despite the saddle in his arms.
“You there,” she said. “Go fetch my horse.”
Col set his gear beside his pinto. “Jake’s inside, Princess. I’ll let him know you’re here.”
“I ordered you to fetch my horse.” Her voice raised an octave to borderline shrill.
He suppressed a sigh. Why couldn’t she have shown up fifteen minutes later? He reached down the front of his tunic and pulled out his bronze squire’s medallion for the princess to see. “I’m a squire, Princess, not a stable boy. Jake! The princess is here.”
Col smiled. “He’ll be right out.”
Col turned back to his mount. Just as he reached for the saddle the princess said, “How dare you ignore my orders?” Col winced at the nail-on-slate tone of her voice. Beautiful she was, but he wouldn’t have spent a second more than necessary in her presence for all the coin in the treasury.
Col took a deep breath and tried to remember she was a princess. The last thing he could afford was to lose his temper with her. Just be polite, get the horses ready, and get the hell out of her way. Col plastered on a false smile and turned to face the princess. “Sir Geris, my knight trainer, ordered me to prepare the horses for a patrol. According to squires’ code of conduct, when I’m performing a task ordered by my knight trainer only Sir Geris or the king can give me new orders. Since you are neither of those people I have a duty to perform my assigned tasks.”
The princess sniffed. “Any of the other squires would have jumped at the chance to do something for me.”
Col returned to saddling his horse. “Princess, most of the other squires are too lazy to read the code of conduct or too arrogant to obey it if they did."
“You should watch your manners,” Princess Rain said. “I’ll tell Callion what you said then he’ll put you in your place.”
Col just shook his head, swung up into his saddle, and gathered the reins of Sir Geris’s horse. Of all the squires, Callion hated him the most, and the feeling went both ways. The son of a duke, Callion was only ten deaths away from being king. Of course he acted like he wore the crown already, at least among the squires. He tried pushing Col around a few times and discovered a title did little to protect you from a right cross. Two black eyes later Callion found someone else to torment. That didn’t help win Col any friends among the other squires. Since he didn’t have any friends to begin with at least it hadn’t cost him any.
Col nodded to Rain. “Good afternoon, Princess.”
He clucked his tongue and guided his pinto toward the gate where Sir Geris no doubt waited impatiently.
* * *
“What took you so long?” Sir Geris asked when Col rode up.
“Sorry, sir. Princess Rain mistook me for a stable boy. I needed a few minutes to escape with a minimum of manners.”
“Forget about her and get your gear on. We’ve got real work to do.”
Col noticed his armor and sword resting on the ground beside Sir Geris, who wore a mail coat of his own. “Trouble, sir?” Col dismounted and slipped the chain hauberk over his head.
“Raiders, beastmen it looks like. Sergeant Talon reports numerous attacks all along the Great Road.” Sir Geris swung up into his saddle.
Col belted his sword on tight and mounted up just as the princess rode arrived. He sighed as she approached.
“Are you aware, sir, that your squire ignored a direct order from me a short time ago?” she said.
“Col mentioned it, Princess.”
“And, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t bother the squires when they’re performing their assigned duties. They can’t drop everything when you’re around. If they did we’d never get anything done.” Sir Geris didn’t mention the other squires seldom got anything done anyway, but Col chalked that up to diplomacy.
The princess’s eyes widened, and her frown deepened. It appeared she’d expected a different reply. Before she could gather herself for a fresh rant Sir Geris continued. “If you’re going for a ride, stay close to the castle. We have reports of beastman activity and while I doubt they’d come close to the city there’s no sense taking chances. Good afternoon, Princess.”
Col nodded again and followed behind his mentor. He forced himself not to smile as they rode away from the castle. He enjoyed seeing the brat taken down a peg if only for the moment. His good mood faded as he reminded himself that they rode into lethal combat with the kingdom’s fiercest enemies.
“Sir, just the two of us against a raiding party of beastmen doesn’t seem like the best odds.”
Sir Geris looked back. “We’re not looking for a fight today. I need to talk to the patrols and see what’s happening. Once we know more we can plan an effective counterattack.”
“That’s a relief, sir. I know I said I wanted a challenge, but that’s pushing it.” They turned east off King’s Way, the road connecting Finegold Castle to the city that shared its name, and on to the Great Road.
Wide enough for four wagons to ride abreast, the Great Road connected all the Lake Kingdoms in one massive circle. From the Great Road hundreds of smaller roads branched off to other communities. Each kingdom maintained its section of road, and they all took that responsibility very seriously as the Great Road was the lifeblood of the Lake Kingdoms. After all, no one would be crazy enough to sail across Armageddon Lake.
Col and Sir Geris rode in easy silence for the better part of an hour without encountering another soul, that by itself was unheard of now that the spring trading season had begun. “Sir, I’ve got an awful itchy feeling on the back of my neck. What in the hell is happening out here?”
“Nothing good. There must be a patrol further on holding up merchant traffic. That can only mean they spotted raiders. Keep a sharp eye out now.”
Col swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and loosened the sword in his scabbard. He was glad for his leather gauntlets. The way his hands sweat he’d be lucky to grip his sword without them.
A short ways further on they came to a small side road. “Sir,” Col said. “Look there.” He pointed out a set of fresh horse tracks. They must have been riding hard considering how they’d torn the ground.
Sir Geris eased over beside him. “These are the freshest signs we’ve seen. Let’s check it out.”
Col guided his horse down the road beside his mentor. They hadn’t gone far when Col heard the faint sound of steel on steel. “Do you hear that?”
“Yes.” Sir Geris ripped his sword out of its sheath. “Let’s go!” He spurred his horse and raced off, Col right on his heels.
It didn’t take five minutes for them to reach the logging camp at the end of the road. A dozen men-at-arms battled seven huge boarmen, seven-foot-tall mountains of muscle, covered in bristly hair, with cloven hooves for feet and blunt, three-fingered hands, and the tusked heads of giant boars. The bunkhouse smoldered, but it looked like a group of loggers armed with water buckets had the fire under control. Five others armed with double-bitted axes were holding off another pair of the brutes.
“Help them!” Sir Geris pointed at the loggers then he turned his horse toward the larger group of boarmen battling the soldiers.
“Right,” Col muttered under his breath. He turned his horse toward the opposite side of the camp and raised his sword. Col charged at the nearest monster, who noticed him just in time to get decapitated by his first cut.
He rode on past then wheeled his horse around to make another pass at the second monster. That was the plan at least, until his mare’s hooves hit a slimy patch of mud and slid out from under her.
He jumped clear before she hit the ground. On the downside that left him laying on his back in the mud with a five-hundred-pound boarman charging at him.
Col got to his feet in time to redirect a spear thrust that no doubt would have pierced him clean through. He moved back trying to buy time.
The boarman wielded a spear with a massive iron head that could have served for an ax blade. The beastman snorted, snot and spittle covering its snout and curved tusks. Col barely jackknifed out of the way of a horizontal cut.
The damn spear gave the monster too great a reach and rendered his sword useless until he closed the distance. He dodged back to avoid another thrust and felt the mud slide under his back foot.
His legs went out from under him and he splashed down into the mud again. The beast towered over him.
Col gave a high, shrill whistle.
His mare came charging into the beastman’s back, sending him staggering forward straight onto Col’s sword. Col wrenched the blade sideways, slicing the brute’s gut open and spilling blood and entrails all over himself. The boarman fell over sideways, dead.
Forcing himself back to his feet Col raised his sword, ready for the next opponent. Fortune stood with him and the rest of the monsters lay dead or dying in the mud. On the opposite side of the camp Sir Geris and the surviving soldiers stood in a little circle. Tired and shaking, Col let out a sigh.
Still alive, Light be praised.
Col took a deep breath and gagged. He might still be alive, but he didn’t smell like it. He bent down and wiped the worst of the gore off his sword with the beastman’s filthy tunic. His mare shied away as he approached her, not that he blamed her.
“It’s okay, girl. It’s me.” She calmed enough that he could gather her reins.
It was well that he had them to hang on to as the blow to his back almost sent him into the mud again. “Much obliged, young sir.” The logger that struck him, a big, burly fellow with a scruffy beard and mud-spattered leather clothes, said, “Don’t know how we’d have handled those ugly bastards if you lot hadn’t shown up when you did.”
“My pleasure,” Col said as the rest of the loggers, all dressed in some variation of the first man’s garb, gathered around to smite him on the back. If they kept pounding him like this they’d do him more harm than the beastmen. “Is there a well or brook around here? I need to rinse off, badly.”
“No problem.” Two of the loggers hurried off.
“Col, you all right?” Sir Geris rode up to them.
“Bruised and needing a bath, but otherwise fine.”
“Good man. When I lost sight of you I got worried.” He looked down at the two dead boarmen. “You made a good account of yourself.”
Col was starting to speak when two buckets of icy water gushed over his head. Blood and gore ran down his armor and pooled at his feet. Through chattering teeth Col said, “My thanks, gentlemen, but a little warning would have been nice.”
The two loggers looked at each other. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“If you’re finished with your new friends we need to get back. The king must hear of this.”
“Yes, sir.” Col swung up into his saddle. “Gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure.”
“The pleasure was all ours, young sir. Stop again and we’ll share a pint.”
Col waved and rode away beside Sir Geris. If their drink was as strong as their pats on the back he’d be in no rush to return. “What did the sergeant-at-arms have to say, sir?” Col asked.
“They followed wolfman tracks down the road then ran into the boars. The wolfmen got away, but they saved the loggers.”
Col nodded. “Did we lose any men?”
“Two took serious wounds, but no fatalities. Light be praised.”
“Sir, what happened here? I thought the different tribes of beastmen hated each other. If wolfmen and boarmen have started raiding together…” He left the sentence unfinished. If they were working together then all Corinthia faced a serious threat.