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Topic Subject: A KNIGHT MUST CHOOSE - Story Thread
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posted 10-01-02 15:38 EST (US)   


Written by: Civis Romanus

Charles: Son of Liselle and Harold; about 8 years of age.
Emile: Circus master. Short, plump build. Father of Emily.
Emily: 17-year old daughter of Emile, the circus master. Slender build but comely. Dark hair, brown eyes.
Godfrey: Middle-aged farming father of Edwin, a gaoled former red knight.
Jayhawk: Tall, green-eyed musician who plays the lute. Ageless traveller whose ebony wings are hidden by a continuous glamour. May not interfere in the acts of mortals.
Lancer: 24 year old Mercenary in the employ of the Earl of Kensington. Light brown hair, blue eyes, medium heighth; strong wide shoulders, narrow waist and hips. Prefers sword and crossbow.
Liselle: Young twenty-something wife of Harold, a missing Kensington soldier.
Rafe: Son of the Earl of Kensington. A 19 year old knight. Expert with short bow. Competent swordsman.
Robert: Knight of Lancashire. Champion swordsman. Taller than Lancer, comparably built.

Kensington: Southeast corner, east of Sussex.
Lancashire: Northwest corner, west of Mahlenshire.
Mahlenshire: Northeast corner, east of Lancashire.
Sussex: Southwest corner, west of Kensington.




[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 11-04-2002 @ 09:28 PM).]

posted 10-01-02 15:50 EST (US)     1 / 44  

It was the kind of night when even the most wary found little to fear from shadows created by a brilliant moon. A minstrel somewhere nearby was plucking strings on a lute sending a melancholy tune towards finely cut, colorful, jewel-like lights flickering in the dark sky. A soldier of the Castle Guard stood at his post gazing first across the darkened countryside at whatever might be in motion there, if anything, and then towards the source of the mournful music.

The soldier shifted his footing slightly to rearrange the pressing weight of the armor he wore. Out of habit he glanced at the crossbow he carried to reassure himself it was ready for business, not that any 'business' was visibly at hand. The lutist's tune continued to cry for his attention, but this lasted only until something else became far more insistent: The itch between his big and neighboring toe.

Pursing his lips in irritation, the soldier wiggled both toes hoping the friction between them would ease the annoying itch. It did... but only for a little while. Frustrated he banged his offending toes against the stone of the castle's wall. That was a mistake, he immediately realized, as he hopped around trying to get at a pained foot that was encased in metal plate on the top and chain mail on the bottom.

The melancholy minstrel turned the corner just as the guard let loose a medieval curse at all that was holy and began limping around in a small circle as if he were trying to force the pain into the stones on which he walked.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-01-2002 @ 08:06 PM).]

posted 10-01-02 20:23 EST (US)     2 / 44  
"Difficulties, Guard?" asked the lutist.

"Not insurmountable, Minstrel," replied the soldier, his face reddening from the pain and the embarrassment of being caught in such unsoldierly behaviour. "Just distracting." Settling down at last the guard focussed his attention on the minstrel. Now that the man was present who was responsible for the melancholoy melody heard in the dark, the soldier decided he would take the risk and ask the question on his mind ever since he began hearing the minstrel playing his lute.

"Why do you play such a sad melody, Minstrel?"

"I am called Jayhawk, Guard. As for the music... Well, it seems suitable for the moment, at least to me. Does it appeal to you?"

"It is finely played, Jayhawk. But it seems too sad for such a fine evening."

Jayhawk looked out into the black of the night at something distant apparently only he could see. "It is not the evening I play it for...," he said, his voice trailing off at the end. Then he looked again at the soldier. "What is your name, Guard?"

"I am named Lancer," answered the soldier. Jayhawk's brows knitted into a slight frown.

"I see your weapon is not a lance, but is instead a crossbow?"

Lancer sighed. "That question comes my way often and I explain it the same. I was named for my father who soldiered with pike and lance. I choose the crossbow and the sword."

"A different choice than your lineage would suggest," observed Jayhawk.

"So my father said as well," agreed Lancer. "From where do you hail, singer of sad songs?"

Jayhawk hesitated before answering. There were some things he couldn't tell just anyone. Jayhawk maintained his silence just long enough for Lancer to quickly take the measure of the man standing before him.

The minstrel Jayhawk was exceptionally tall, well over six feet. He was slender, long armed and long fingered. No doubt this accounted for his adept playing of the stringed instrument that hung from his left hand. He wore his hair much like the others, not very long and not too short. It was cut with a well sharpened blade by a trained hand, not by his own as was often the case these days. Except for his heighth, all else seemed quite usual... until one observed Jayhawk's eyes, his green eyes to be precise. Lancer concluded they had the power to spellbind and he was glad for the evening and the modest cancelling effect of the moonlight on the man's commanding green eyes.

The minstrel finally answered, "I am not from this land, Lancer; nor from any that you know. I am here, merely here, and that is where I am from and where I go. Good evening, Lancer, and well met."

"Yes, well met, Minstrel. A good evening to you also," Lancer replied. He watched the minstrel resume his stroll along the parapet of the castle and disappear into the dark of the night. Once more the melancholy notes of Jayhawk's lute floated towards him from the place into which the minstrel vanished.

"So sad a song," Lancer said to himself, shaking his head. He looked out upon the dark fields beyond the walls of the castle and though the night was calm, the music caused his mind to harken back to times before this. Some of his rememberances were as dark as the night.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-01-2002 @ 08:45 PM).]

posted 10-01-02 21:02 EST (US)     3 / 44  

Mid morning of the next day found Lancer performing his customary daily weapons practice in the area near the armory. A small boy watched Lancer as he adjusted his crossbow. The soldier put a bolt in the notch of the crossbow, drew back the string and prepared to release its bolt into the strawman target set up against a wooden backboard.

Before he pulled on the triggering device, Lancer consciously checked for aim and windage. He moved the weapon slightly to the left of the target to compensate for a breeze he detected coming from his left. He slowly squeezed the trigger. The catch released and the bolt was propelled at high speed directly at the strawman, burying itself deeply in what would have been the strawman's heart.

The boy watched Lancer do so similarly three more times before he gathered enough courage to approach the soldier. Lancer saw the boy coming towards him and lowered his crossbow into an unthreatening position so as not to alarm the youngster. "Sir," the boy began before immediately being interrupted by Lancer.

"I am not a knight, lad. Do not call me sir."


"That will do, lad. What do you want to say?"

"You are very good with the crossbow. Someday I would like to be that good too."

"Practice, lad. It takes practice. You have many years ahead to become skilled with this and many other weapons."

The boy considered this and spoke again. "Are you from far away?"

"Yes, lad. Faraway. I am a mercenary."

"What is a mercenary?" the boy asked.

"I am a warrior who soldiers for whoever pays me."

"Do you mean it's not important why you fight battles, so long as you are paid for it?" said the boy. Lancer's eyebrows knitted, not in anger, but more in sudden thought.

"Something like that, I suppose." Memories clawed away at him from the recesses of his mind reminding him of battles fought for no apparent reason, others fought for greed or revenge and a few battles that seemed justified if only because survival was at stake.

Lately he had begun to regret the taking of money for all but the latter. Nonetheless, a man had to live and a landless wanderor had no choice but to take what life had given him. In Lancer's case, it was skill at arms. Sometimes he fought alone, sometimes with others, sometimes he led others into the battle; but always there was the battle. It was the one constant in his entire life.

The boy broke up his pattern of thought with another question. "My name is Charles," said the boy. "What is your name, Bowman?"

"I am called Lancer, young one."

"Lancer?" The boy looked at the weapon in Lancer's right hand.

Lancer sighed. "Yes, after my father and his fondness for the weapon."

"Oh... I see... I think." The boy fell silent then. Lancer saw a woman at the door of a nearby cottage who seemed to be staring at him... Or maybe at the boy.

"Is that your mother there I see?"

The boy looked in the direction indicated by Lancer's nod. "Why yes, Lancer, it is. I have chores to do."

Lancer nodded knowingly. "Hmmm... Don't you think you should go about your chores? Afterall, a soldier's training begins with obeying orders."

"I suppose so. Goodbye, Lancer. I wish you well."

"And I, you, Charles." said Lancer. The boy ran to his mother, but before he arrived at her side the boy turned and waved to the soldier holding the crossbow. Lancer waved back. The woman looked past her son and saw the soldier wave at the boy. She smiled at Lancer as if to say "Thank you for treating my son well". The smile eased Lancer's thoughts about past battles and he smiled in return, waving once more, this time to both the child and his mother. Lovely lady, he thought. The husband is blessed indeed.

Then Lancer returned to weapons practice to await whatever orders would be his that day.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-01-2002 @ 09:19 PM).]

posted 10-02-02 15:55 EST (US)     4 / 44  
There were no orders that day, nor the three days that followed. In fact, all of these days were uneventful, that is, until the fifth day and the arrival of the Earl of Sussex.

The boy Charles was seemingly everpresent each of those days, following Lancer wherever he went for the most part, until a chore or two took the boy away at his mother's call. Everpresent Charles seemed to be, but to the boy's credit not annoyingly so.

Lancer showed the boy how to use a few simple weapons and fashioned for him a short sword made of wood. The tip was blunted to prevent injury. Lancer showed the boy how to hold the weapon and instructed him in a few simple maneuvers. The boy proceeded to attack with vigor any inanimate object that presented, at least in the boy's mind, a viable target for swordplay. Lancer was amused by the boy's antics and found himself looking forward to seeing the child each day.

The squeal of the gearing that elevated the castle gate and the pounding of hoofs, warhorses no doubt, alerted Lancer that visitors were arriving at Kensington Castle. It was the Earl of Sussex and a company of his mounted infantry, six in number. As Lancer looked on Sussex was greeted by the Earl of Kensington and both entered the keep while Sussex's soldiers took care of their horses. It appeared to Lancer that the company of soldiers would stay the night. He noted the loaded horses they were leading to the Keep's stable. He also noted that three of Sussex's men appeared to have a great thirst, unlike the remaining three who walked elsewhere. Lancer paid them no further attention and returned to his practice as the three thirsty mounted infantrymen populated the nearby Boar's Head Tavern.

Even from where he practiced, Lancer could hear the carryings on of the men. It was no surprise to him when they staggered out of the Tavern some time later on unsteady legs and speaking to each other in overly loud voices. Charles had taken umbrage at some heinous act perpetrated on him by a seemingly threatening wood hitching post just outside of the tavern and was giving each upright section the fight of its life with his wooden sword. Unfortunately, uneven ground caused the boy to trip and fall into one of Sussex's inebriated soldiers.

"Clumsy oaf!" bellowed the soldier. He grabbed the boy by the collar and elevated him three feet off the ground so that the man's ale laden breath filled the boy's nostrils, nearly causing the lad to retch. The soldier glared at the boy then cast him to the ground. "Think you're a swordsman do you? Well let's see how good you really are against something other than a hitching post!" The soldier pulled his sword and waved it at the boy. The boy turned pale and his legs shook. He could hardly breathe from fright.

Purely by circumstance, it was at that moment that the boy's mother stepped out of their cottage to call for Charles only to see her son clutched in the drunken soldier's hand and then thrown to the ground. When she saw the sword drawn, she screamed her son's name and began to run to him. Though others in the area heard her scream and turned to find out what was wrong, only one of them reacted when he saw the boy's danger. He was at the boy's side as fast as his legs could carry him.

"Quite a risk you're taking, soldier," said Lancer, breathing only slightly the quicker from his run.

"What risk? The boy? No risk at all, the little miscreant deserves a lesson," replied the drunk.

"No, your risk is with me," replied Lancer, his voice calm but edged in iron.

"So what's this to you? Are you his father or something?" said the drunk, listing slightly to his right. "If you are, your boy's no credit to your family line."

"And you, soldier, are credit only to the dog that spawned you."

The man's bloodshot eyes opened wide and he swung his free blade at Lancer. Lancer agiley dodged the blade and grasped the wrist of the drunkard's sword arm. He brought his other fist down on the drunkards's closed hand and forced him to drop his sword. Then Lancer smashed his free fist into the drunkard's face sending him to the ground senseless. The two other Sussex men with the drunk drew their swords. Lancer drew his as well. They charged Lancer together.

In the blink of an eye, with a deft movement of his blade, Lancer disarmed both men in succession. As quickly as it began, the battle ended - one man on the ground, his nose red, bleeding and rearranged, and two men standing feeling vulnerable and foolish. A voice behind Lancer interrupted the tableau.

"Enough!" bellowed Sussex, who with Kensington and another man had been drawn out of the Keep by the commotion in the courtyard. The two intoxicated Sussex soldiers tried to explain themselves. "He attacked George, Milord! We tried to protect him!"

"SILENCE!" shouted Sussex. "I saw what happened from the Keep's second window. You find sport in terrorizing young boys?! We are guests in this castle! You two, take your comrade and make your camp outside of the walls! We will leave on the morrow, but you will not set foot in this castle while we are here! Am I understood!?"

"Uhh... yes... Milord." The men reached down to pick up their comrade by the arms and drag him away to do as they were ordered. Sussex looked at Lancer and said nothing. He turned to the boy's mother next. "I apologize for my soldiers' behaviour. Please take your boy home. I believe him to be frightened, but thanks to this Kensington man, unhurt."

The woman curtsied, smiled and quickly motioned for the boy to join her. Charles did, but not before the boy smiled and said, "Thank you, Lancer." Lancer nodded and turned to face the Earls. The two Earls and the third, much younger man studied Lancer as he resheathed his sword.

Lancer was of average heighth, broad-shouldered but narrow at waist and hip. His legs were straight, strong and yet not as stocky as some. His eyes were blue, his face tanned by the sun, its skin not weatherbeaten nor scarred. The only visible mark of his enterprise was a small scar low on his neck. The other scars didn't show; for they either were covered by clothes he wore or by force of his will. He wore his light brown hair in the Norman fashion as if formed in an inverted bowl and cut at the bowl's edge. His hair lay against his head without curl or wave.

"You are in my employ are you not?" said the Earl of Kensington.

"Yes, Milord," answered Lancer.

"It was best you did not use your sword to its maximum potential," the Earl said.

"I did not want bloodshed, Milord," replied Lancer.

"Nor do we." This statement was pointedly directed towards Sussex, a fact not missed by the visiting earl.

Sussex nodded towards the Earl of Kensington. "Well said, Kensington. My apologies to you for the poor behaviour of my men. They will be dealt with upon my return." Sussex turned to Lancer. "Well fought, Sir Knight. My complements."

"I am not a knight, Milord."

"Not a knight? Your skill rivals one," said Sussex.

"My status does not. By your leave, Milords?"

"Granted," said Kensington. The earls watched Lancer return to his weapons practice. "What did the boy say was this soldier's name, pray tell?" asked Sussex.

"I believe the boy called him Lancer," said Kensington.

"Hmmm... Misnamed it would seem," observed Sussex.

"So it would seem. And now, please be so kind as to return to the Keep with me, Sussex. I believe there is meat and bread ready for you."

"Wonderful news, Kensington. I most assuredly shall!" The two men walked back to the entrance to the Keep, the entire incident forgotten amid the need to speak of other things. The third man, barely out of his youth, about 18 years of age, lagged behind. He stopped before entering the Keep and turned to stare at Lancer. The bowman was notching a bolt in his crossbow to let it fly at the strawman. Again the bolt struck the strawman true.

"Hmmm. Maybe he shall be the one...," considered the young man. "He'll need training... but I think he can do the work my father has set for me and one of my choosing. We shall see..." The young man turned about and entered the Keep.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-05-2002 @ 12:54 PM).]

posted 10-02-02 21:44 EST (US)     5 / 44  

Lancer sat on a crudely hewn stool outside of his small multi-room, one-man-to-a-room dwelling, alloted to him as part of his mercenary pay. He held in his right hand a tankard of ale. Good brew, he thought. He took a healthy swig of the ale and let it find its way down his throat to his stomach.

Lancer never drank to excess... Not usually, anyway. Events like what occurred earlier in the day reminded him of the folly of drink. There was another event that first taught him this lesson. His father died from too much ale and a lack of sense about when he was fit to fight and when he was not. The swordsman who killed his father took advantage of his drunken state to pick a fight and run his father through. Lancer's father never had a chance.

The swordsman had no chance either when Lancer, sober and determined, confronted him. The fight was brief but bloody. Lancer gave no quarter to the man who killed his father. Since then, he never gave quarter to any man confronting him, not that it always ended in bloodshed; but it was ended somehow, and usually in Lancer's favor.

Lost in thought, Lancer heard the rustling of a woman's garment before he realized anyone was near. He looked up to see a woman only a few steps away and walking directly towards him. Lancer recognized her as Charle's mother.

"Sir, may I speak with you?" she began as soon as she was near, but not too close for modesty's sake.

"Yes, of course. You are Charles' mother are you not?"

"I am. My son says your name is Lancer. Do I have it correctly said, Sir?"

"You do. And you may stop calling me sir. I am not a knight. Calling me Lancer is courtesy enough for the likes of me. However, you have me at a disadvantage as you know my name, but I don't know yours."

"Of course... Lancer. My name is Liselle. I came to you tonight to thank you for helping my son. Since his father left he has had no one to look to for... well, for the things a boy needs from a father."

"I am hardly his father," said Lancer, uneasily looking away from Liselle's heart-shaped face and hazel eyes, all framed in light brown hair. "Just a friend, I suppose. Where is his father?"

"Harold is on patrol in the North, near Mahlenshire."

"When is he due back from patrol?"

Liselle's lovely face crumbled and tears began to fall from her eyes, running quickly down her cheeks and falling onto her perfectly proportioned bodice. "His patrol is overdue, Lancer. I... I... Thank you again. I must... I must go." She turned about quickly, suddenly, the edges of her long skirt flaring out and collapsing back towards her ankles. Lancer could hear her sobs even as she ran towards the cottage where she and her son lived.

He watched her hurry away and then raised his tankard of ale to his lips, this time emptying it of its content in a continuous series of gulps. Though it warmed him inside, the ale did not ease his mind. Tears... A woman's tears... Why did it always disturb him? Not battle, not death, not destruction... Just tears... The tears of an unhappy woman.

The sound of a boot crunching on gravel ended Lancer's reverie. Leaning against a support post in the shadows was a man whose face Lancer could not make out in the dim evening light. Knowing that he was now seen, however poorly, by Lancer the man stepped away from the post and approached the mercenary.

"A good evening, soldier," said the man cheerfully in a man's voice still tinged with a youthful timber.

"Good evening," replied Lancer. The man nodded and took another step closer, his face catching the barest ray of moonlight and revealing himself as the young man who accompanied the two earls when Lancer tangled with the drunkard.

"I am told you are a mercenary in my father's employ," said the young man. Lancer suddenly realized who this was and quickly gained his feet.

"Milord, I am sorry. I did not know you to be the Earl of Kensington's son."

"I have been away and I understand you are newly employed and would not know me by sight. Lancer, I have a request of you."

"It is my duty to serve Kensington, Milord. What would you ask of me?"

"Remember, Lancer, I said this was a request. You must accept this assignment voluntarily. Now here is what I ask. Two things. First, accompany me in the travel assigned to me by my father. Second, and consider this carefully Lancer; you must learn a new skill in weaponry besides the crossbow and the sword in order to serve us well. You must learn the skills of the mounted archer."

Lancer considered. Garrison duty or duty on the open field or forest. Lancer knew his preference.

"Agreed, Milord. To where must we travel?" asked Lancer.

"To the North... There is trouble in the land of Mahlenshire. But first, your lessons. Tomorrow morning at sunrise near the armory. I shall see you there."

"Yes, Milord."

"And Lancer, when we are gone from this castle on our mission, my name is Rafe."

"Yes, Milord Rafe. As you command," said Lancer.

Rafe looked at the mercenary, smiled and shook his head. Then he walked away with a jaunty step whistling a cheerful tune, a melody that contrasted greatly with the melancholy tune played five nights previously by the mysterious minstrel.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-02-2002 @ 10:15 PM).]

posted 10-03-02 20:25 EST (US)     6 / 44  

Lancer lay flat on his back in the dirt looking up at the sky, his bow on the ground nearby. Trying to ride a horse and shoot is no easy matter, he concluded. The horse he fell off of walked over to stick its muzzle in his face to see if his rider still lived. Lancer lived. He patted the horse on the muzzle to reassure the creature and prepared to mount and shoot again.

Practice... practice... practice some more. Angle, windage, moving target and then add to these a new dimension, his own motion on his ebony black horse. Unsteady bow shots went wide of the target. Onlookers thinned in desperation as they sought the safety of wooden posts, overturned tables and other protective objects.

Whisssh! Thunk! A miss. Whisssh! Thunk! Another miss. Over and over, Lancer practiced. First with bow and arrow and then with crossbow and bolt. His familiarity with the latter made it easier. He hit the target with the crossbow, though not as deftly as he could with both feet firmly planted on the ground.

Eventually, he came to understand the use of the bow when riding a horse. Never to be an expert, he nonetheless seemed to be able to perform adequately when tested or called upon to demonstrate his skill. So the man who previously used only sword and crossbow now added another weapon to his personal armory: a short bow and quiver. It fit well on the side opposite the place he holstered his crossbow, and nicely complemented the sword in its scabbard that rode his horse's flank when he was mounted.

Days passed as Lancer continued to practice his archery while waiting for Rafe, son of the Earl of Kensington, to direct him towards some other activity. One day that direction arrived in the form of a messenger.

Lancer had just loosed an arrow at another strawman target. The feathered end of the arrow stuck out from the right shoulder of the strawman bound to its wooden backboard. A soldier, one of Kensington's mounted archers, was leaning on a wooden post nearby watching Lancer as the mercenary examined the results of his most recent attempt to hit the target from a moving horse.

"Not bad," the soldier said to Lancer. "You appear to have disabled this one."

"Appears so," observed Lancer. "Except I was aiming for its left shoulder, not its right."

"Oh," said the soldier. "Well, in battle that would be a good enough hit."

"I suppose so," commented Lancer. "But I'm used to hitting what I'm aiming at." The soldier grunted an acknowledgement of Lancer's comment and decided to join some other soldiers standing off the practice range.

A slender man dressed in servant clothing came running up to Lancer. The servant was carrying a note from somebody. "Are you the one called Lancer?" the messenger began.

"Yes, that is my name," replied Lancer.

"I have a message for you from the Earl of Kensington. I am to await your answer." The messenger handed the note to Lancer. The mercenary broke the wax seal imprinted with the Earl's mark.

The Earl of Kensington, at the specific request of his son, Rafe, invites the soldier named Lancer to feast this evening at a Banquet to honor his son's nineteenth birthday and to enjoy the entertainment therewith. He may bring a guest of his choosing. The Earl requests that all guests arrive as the sun touches the horizon of the Western Sky.

Lancer listened to the entire invitation and then answered. "Tell Milord, the Earl, I shall be most pleased to attend."

"Will there be a guest?"

"I am not sure, but tell the Earl most likely so."

"I shall tell him what you said. Good day, Lancer."

"Good day," said Lancer. The messenger ran off in the direction of the Keep.

Hmmmm, a guest. A name occurred to Lancer, but he felt very unsure of its propriety. Afterall, Liselle is a married woman; but then again, the diversion might take her mind off her missing husband and ease her woes for awhile. Lancer debated with himself as the day wore on and as the sun rode its path into the Western Sky. By the time the sun reached its zenith, Lancer had decided.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-05-2002 @ 12:49 PM).]

posted 10-05-02 12:48 EST (US)     7 / 44  
Liselle lowered her eyes demurely and smiled. "Oh Lancer, that is most kind of you; but I am a married woman and the entire castle would begin talking... You know what I mean. No... Thank you very much, but I think it best if I do not accompany you."

Another voice in the rear of the cottage called out, a boyish voice. "Lancer!" Charles came running to see the soldier he had befriended. "Come to show me another weapon?" The boy's eyes twinkled with expectation.

"No, Charles. Not this time. I'm here to speak with your mother." Charles face dropped and the twinkling exited his eyes like stars disappearing at dawn. "Oh." The boy shuffled his right foot on the floor of the cottage as he looked down at the scrape marks he made on the floor.

Then Lancer said, "But tomorrow I'll show you the correct way to sharpen a work knife." The boy frowned. "But Lancer, that's not a weapon."

"True," replied Lancer. "But a work knife is a tool that you will use every day in many ways and it must have its proper care. Do you know how to sharpen a work knife?"

"Well... No, not really," came the boy's hesitant reply.

"Then tomorrow you will learn." Liselle studied Lancer's face as he spoke with her son. She studied the color of his eyes, the flow of his brownish hair, the curvatures of his face and the little lines that appeared here and there... and the small scar on the left side of his neck.

Lancer finished speaking with the boy and turned to see Liselle staring at him, her eyes reflecting appreciation and a little something more. He decided that he'd better leave.

Lancer said his goodbyes, the boy's look of respect and Liselle's pretty smile etched in his mind. Confusion and frustration clawed at his thinking. He needed a release of some kind. Action, merriment, adventure... anything!

Maybe the banquet that night would be the right venue. He set his mind on making full use of the evening, wherever it might take him.

Liselle watched her son return to his room and his chores. A fleeting almost innocent but surprising thought crossed her mind. Is it possible to love two men at the same time?
She dismissed it immediately as the idle thinking of a presently idle, distracted woman. She picked up a broom and began to sweep the cottage. But the little thought, now planted, began to sprout and grow ever so slowly...

posted 10-06-02 15:14 EST (US)     8 / 44  
The soldier standing in the threshhold of the entrance to the Great Hall of the Keep felt very uncomfortable at first. He knew not a soul in the Great Hall where the banquet was being prepared and would be served. Further, he had never associated so closely with so much nobility and other land-owning gentry, except when on duty and standing guard near a doorway or stairway in times and places past. Even then, it wasn't as if any of them would speak to him for any purpose other than to ask directions to the castle's privy tower.

So it was with great relief that Lancer spied Rafe about fifteen paces away. He ignored any of the others in the room and quickly closed the distance between them. "Good evening, Milord Rafe," said Lancer bowing respectfully from the waist.

"Ahh, Lancer. Good to see you here at last. Stand by me awhile and I will introduce you to some of the people you should know, including your host."

Lancer bowed respectfully once more and maintained his silence taking a place at Rafe's side and waiting patiently. In these moments of waiting, Lancer looked around the room. Ever pressing on his mind was the hope that he would say nothing and do nothing to embarrass himself that night, or embarrass the man who guided his unexpected journey into this level of society.

Suddenly Rafe grasped Lancer's arm and propelled him forward. "Yes, now... Lancer, it's time to meet your host." Rafe's pace was faster than Lancer's earlier stride and Lancer was hard pressed to maintain his position at the younger man's side. Soon they both stood before the imposingly built, but relatively average heighth man who was Rafe's father. Rafe cleared his throat to get the Earl's attention. The Earl turned to see the source of the noise at his back. Upon seeing Rafe, Kensington's eyes lit up with pleasure.

"My son, you've arrived at last! I hope the evening will be a memorable one for you."

"Your evening banquets, father, have always been memorable for me," said Rafe as he bowed respectfully as was due his father, the Earl of Kensington in a public forum. "My father, may I formally present the soldier and expert swordsman, now an archer in training, of whom I have spoken about, the man you observed the other day with Sussex. This is Lancer."

Lancer stepped forward and bowed deeply. "I am most pleased and particularly honored to be invited to this feast, and to be permitted to be in your presence on such an occasion, Milord Earl."

Kensington studied the man bowing before him. Average in size compared to his other soldiers, strongly built, especially around and about the shoulders, but lacking the hard look of a typical mercenary. There's more going on here than meets the eye. "You are most welcome, Lancer," answered Kensington. "You will be seated at my table, there, at the end. I shall enjoy a moments conversation with you at a later time this evening... Oh, and one other thing... Perhaps a demonstration of your skill with a sword... Ummmm... Just for the entertainment of our guests?"

"As you command, Milord." Ooops, Lancer did not anticipate this. He bowed recognizing the meeting was now concluded. The look in the Earl's eye was indecipherable and the man's motive unfathomable. Lancer stepped away, Rafe near him, the mercenary more confused and nervous than when he arrived.

Rafe sensed Lancer's nervousness and spoke quietly. "Rest easy, Lancer. He does nothing without good reason."

It was the variety and range of these possible good reasons that most contributed to Lancer's fraying nerves. For the first time, he began to wish he had declined the invitation.
He turned to say something to Rafe, but the Earl's son was gone. Lancer stood there, alone and wondering, without a friend nearby or in sight.

posted 10-07-02 14:13 EST (US)     9 / 44  
The melodic plucking of a lute's strings gained Lancer's attention as he stood in the Great Hall anxiety scratching at his soul. He turned to his left to see the minstrel walking among the arriving and milling guests. Surprisingly, the minstrel's green eyes were focussed not on any of the nearby guests (or even on those more distant) dressed in all of their finery. No... Instead the tall musician was unmistakably concentrating on Lancer... And for no reason Lancer could possibly fathom.

Even as the mercenary watched, Jayhawk was slowly walking closer and closer as the melody he played, a lovely little tune not melancholy at all, reached its final few notes and was concluded. On the final note the minstrel was just a step away from Lancer. As the sound of the last note faded into the depths of the hall, the minstrel lowered his instrument and smiled at Lancer.

"A good evening, young warrior," said the minstrel.

As courtesy dictated, Lancer acknowledged the greeting properly but did not bow. This was not meant as disrespect, but was proper among peers of two different trades where nobility was not an issue. "A good evening to you as well, Minstrel," said Lancer.

"I see that you are here as a guest of young Kensington in celebration of his 19th birthday."

"Apparently that is so, though I feel more like the oxcart's third beast in a team of two."

"Hmmm, I can understand your appraisal of this moment very well. Have you met any other person here with whom you might speak or enjoy a passing minute?"

"No, Minstrel. I entered this hall, met Rafe and the next personage I am talking with is the Earl himself. Now it is you. I have spoken to no others."

"I see." Jayhawk paused and began to look around at others in the Great Hall. "No matter, Lancer. You will find that your time in this Hall will be busy but brief this evening." Jayhawk smiled once more and then, his eyes still probing Lancer's, he lifted his instrument and without looking at the strings, began to play a different tune, one that was livelier than the one that preceeded it.

Lancer stared at the departing minstrel feeling more uncertain than before. Fortunately, he didn't have time to dwell on his uncertainties because the dinner bell sounded and the banquet began. Lancer's position was at the far end of the host's table, sitting in the last chair on Rafe's side. Next to him was a lovely young woman, attached it seemed to the knight who sat next to her. She was a brown-eyed brunette with a pale oval face, thin red lips and a dimple that materialized only when she smiled and only on her left cheek, the side that faced Lancer.

Lancer and her escort, the knight, waited for her to be seated before sitting themselves. The knight then introduced himself as Sir Robert of Lancashire, and the woman as the Lady Glynda. The knight then inquired as to Lancer's name. As usual, the same quizzical expression and question followed and the same answer was given.

"A most unusual circumstance, Sir Lancer," said the knight.

"No, Sir Robert. Not 'Sir' in my case. I am not a knight," Lancer clarified. The woman looked at him, curiousity registered in her glance. At last she spoke directly to Lancer.

"If not a knight, how came you to be at this table among the genteel acquaintences of Sir Rafe?" Lancer reddened somewhat at this question, not knowing if it was asked with a point attached or quite innocently.

"By invitation of Sir Rafe, Milady. That is all I know of for a reason," answered Lancer. The young woman looked at him for a moment longer as if searching for more words to be said. Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of the food.

Lancer ate lightly, his appetite diminished by events. He was shy among women in general. This evening's passing talk with Glynda did nothing to make him feel any more comfortable than when he first entered the Hall. As if sensing this, or because she had nothing she deemed appropriate to say to Lancer, Glynda said nothing more to him while they were seated, saving her words for Sir Robert and any others who addressed her. Being content with this, Lancer remained quiet in order not to invite her talk.

And so the evening's affair wore on - first food and drink, then novel pastries sweetened with honey, and then the entertainments. A dance troupe performed to Jayhawk's lute music; then a jester performed comedy. Lastly, a singer treated them to favorite ballads, again accompanied on the lute by the minstrel. Songs concluded, the singer and musician both bowed before the Earl of Kensington. It was then that the moment came Lancer wanted wholeheartedly to avoid...

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-07-2002 @ 02:21 PM).]

posted 10-07-02 16:28 EST (US)     10 / 44  
A commanding voice sounded out over the hub bub in the hall. "Guests and Ladies, your attention please," cried out the Earl of Kensington after the applause for the minstrel and balladeer died down considerably. "I am most pleased you have enjoyed this evening's entertainment! Now, there is something more to be seen! A surprise for you all!" The guests became as quiet as a hall full of people flush with food and drink could become. The Earl continued, "I present to you a man among my soldiers who is exceptionally skilled at arms. He has been invited by my son to this banquet and at my request will demonstrate his considerable skill with a sword for your entertainment! I present... Lancer!"

Lancer? A sword? The twittering among the guests, both men and women, advanced throughout the Hall even as the mercenary knew he must rise and bow, first to the Earl and then to the guests. He did so, but out of the corner of his eye noticed the reaction in Glynda. The woman registered surprise and then the surprise transformed itself into a smirk, a knowing look, a look that conveyed something that somehow left Lancer feeling diminished. He didn't understand why... at least not until a moment or two later.

The Earl continued his introductions. "Also... We are pleased to have among us the reigning champion swordsman of the region... because I invited him to be here, that's why... (laughter broke out among the guests)... Sir Robert of Lancashire!" Lancer's head swiveled quickly towards Sir Robert. The mercenary was surprised and now fully understood why Glynda bore the smirking grin directed his way. Lancer was sure what was going through her mind was a calculation of how long ungenteel Lancer would last before Sir Robert. Glynda's look conveyed the impression the calculation was quick and uncomplicated and Lancer was not the victor.

"And now, servants, please make the arrangements," directed Kensington. Lancer noted that Rafe was looking in their direction. The mercenary wondered to which of them Rafe's smile of encouragement was directed, he or the knight. Meanwhile, banquet tables were moved and the guests managed to be quite tolerant of the disruption to their seating. Both gentlemen and ladies were content to join the others at the perimeter of a very large circle broadly surrounding the two soon-to-be actively engaged swordsmen.

"Milord Kensington, as you directed, I did not come to this banquet bearing a sword, nor has he," said Sir Robert, indicating Lancer with a nonchalant toss of his hand.

"Not a problem. I've made the arrangements," answered Kensington jovially. Two servants entered the hall on his signal, each carrying a sword. To Sir Robert one servant handed an unusual sword. It was smaller, more slender than that used by a foot soldier. In fact, the sword resembled one used by an ancient people called Romans after the city that was once the center of a great empire, but now was mostly a slum of ruined, rundown buildings. Sir Robert did not seemed dismayed. In fact, he seemed quite pleased and bowed to the Earl in acknowledgement of the Earl's thoughtfullness.

The other sword, one typically used by a foot soldier, was given to Lancer. It was longer than the sword of Sir Robert and broader. Its reach was intended to compensate for the advantage of a mounted warrior, but its weight made it a weapon of choice only for relatively short periods of usage. Nonetheless, it was of a shape and design that was most comfortable in the the hands of Lancer. He too bowed to the Earl.

Sir Robert began to maneuver his sword to get a sense of its balance. He suddenly swished it through the air, causing the circle of onlookers to back up unconsciously. Fortunately, nobody tripped and fell embarrassingly on their posterior. The men smiled in appreciation. The women were talking among themselves or to their escorts nervously, often giggling and speaking rapidly, no doubt from excitement or possibly intimidation induced by the presence of the weapons... or something.

For some inexplicable reason to Lancer's way of thinking, the attention of the women, who varied in age from a woman-child of 15 years to some who were beyond child bearing age, was focussed primarily on Lancer. "Because you are the stranger... the mystery here," said Jayhawk to himself under his breath so that nobody would hear. He had noticed the same thing from his vantage point. "They all know the famous Sir Robert by sight and reputation. Very few know you, Lancer, or even heard your name before now. Curiousity draws them. What will you do with their attention, swordsman?" Jayhawk watched from afar to see for himself what Lancer would do.

As Lancer held out his hand to accept his weapon he saw among them the Lady Glynda standing among those in the innermost ring of the circle. She too stared at him. He saw her appraising eyes study him. Then she smiled, but oddly. Again Lancer felt a barb lodge itself somewhere inside. Could he have chosen, he would have wished himself to be a hundred kilometers away at that moment rather than absorb that look of disdain sent his way as if he were an unworthy. He turned around with his back towards Glynda to avoid the look in her eyes.

Now too, Lancer checked his sword's grip and balance. Satisfied he grasped the hilt of the sword, pointed the sword upwards and thrust the blade into the air quickly, decisively. He heard sharp intakes of breath from young women and comments spoken in the voices of young men. Lancer refused to turn around and glance at the sources. He was embarrassed enough by the circumstances and by any public display of his skills. He always had been.

Kensington interrupted the activities once again. "Two exercises, if you will. The first, a traditional one-person series of practice moves. The second, contact between you in simulated combat. Oh... And Lancer, go easy on Sir Robert. Lancashire shall want him in one piece for duty tomorrow." Lancer winced. The guests laughed. Sir Robert frowned in obvious irritation.

Just great... Lancer forgot himself and frowned in the direction of Kensington full in the knowledge that the comment was meant to goad the knight against Lancer. However, both swordsmen surmised that Kensington actually did not desire the death of either, that something close would be entertainment enough. Lancer suspected that he was the one being tested, not the knight. Rafe's expression gave no clues, but his eyes never seemed to leave Lancer.

Sir Robert began his series of practice moves, swooshing the sword from side to side; bringing it over his head and down in a slicing motion; then stepping lightly on his feet and manuevering his sword in what seemed a swordsman's ballet. It paralleled the time of Lancer's practice routine and concluded at the same time as Lancer's.

As the knight performed his practice routine, Lancer used his left and right leg alternatively as bracing for swings of his heavy sword. The sword was in slower, yet constant motion, first behind him, then to his side, then in his left hand and then in his right hand. He concluded his demonstration by rapidly shifting the sword from his left hand, the blade swinging around to the side, over and around his head and then to the other hand, moving closer to the perimeter of the circle with each sweep of his sword, finally finishing with the tip of the blade pointed at a pretty 16-year-old blonde-haired girl in the encircling audience. The girl's legs turned soft and she swooned into the arms of two young men standing next to her. Lancer shook his head and turned away to face the knight.

Sir Robert nodded in acknowledgement of the quality of the display. Lancer bowed and grasped the blade of his sword in both hands just below the hilt, holding it in front of him as a sign of respect. The knight returned the complement. Then both grasped the hilts of their respective swords, raised their weapons and began to circle each other.

The clash of metal on metal reverberated all about the hall, adding to the excitement racing through the audience.
Clang, clang... Clang... Clang, clang, clang. Lancer's more measured, slower blows matched the knight's almost artistically delivered blows. Neither combatant gave much ground, neither combatant gained a clear advantage over the other. Sometimes Lancer was on the defensive, and sometimes Sir Robert was pressed the hardest of the two. The battle continued... Perspiration beaded on the foreheads of the two men. Exertion began to show in their faces. Sir Robert tripped and fell. He jumped to his feet just before Lancer could strip him of his weapon. Then moments later, Lancer countered a blow low on his blade near his sword's hilt and felt the sword fly out of his hand. He rolled before Sir Robert could put the point of his weapon near a vulnerable place and win the contest. He came up with his sword at the ready to block the knight's probable blow. Clang! Just in time, thought Lancer. The audience oohed and ahhed even more than during the practice.

The knight stepped back to ready his next attack. Lancer rose to his feet to do the same. The swords were now feeling heavy as stone in their hands. They both were breathing hard. Lancer raised his sword, slower than before. Sir Robert did likewise. The swords were never permitted to meet.

"Enough!" bellowed the Earl of Kensington. "We have been well entertained. My complements to you both. Your reputation, Sir Robert, is well deserved. And Lancer, your's shines that much more brightly. Servants! Collect their weapons!" The two servants ran between the swordsmen and took their weapons. Sir Robert watched the servants scurry out of the hall with the two swords and then caught Lancer's eyes with his. The knight smiled and offered his hand. Lancer recognized the meaning and quickly stepped forward to grasp the knight's hand in a manly grip. No words were exchanged. None were required. Each knew the other's thoughts.

Lancer never bothered to see the reaction of Glynda, however he saw her striding rapidly towards him looking like she was about to say something. He wasn't interested in what she might have to say. So it was no concern to him when a great press of people all about them prevented Glynda from getting anywhere near him to say what she intended. Lancer's only concern concentrated on surviving the flood of humanity that jostled for his and the knight's attention.

Questions, complements... Too many words flying about for them to be answered directly. Boys, men, women and girls pressed for attention, especially the girls, who just couldn't seem to get close enough to either Lancer or Sir Robert. Soon the soft, scented, overly heated bodies became just too much for Lancer and he looked pleadingly at Rafe hoping he had some way for the mercenary to escape all of the pressing pulchritude. As chance would have it, Rafe did...

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-07-2002 @ 08:57 PM).]

posted 10-07-02 21:36 EST (US)     11 / 44  
Amidst all of the human confusion whirling around him, Lancer finally caught the eye of Rafe. The Earl's son was standing next to his father and a third man, a soldier, one Lancer had never seen before. Rafe motioned vigorously for Lancer to join them. The mercenary gave a courteous "excuse" and hurried to join Rafe and the others. He heard the very end of the conversation just as he arrived.

"... And that is what the Captain told me to tell you, Milord," concluded the soldier. The Earl looked at his son.

"Rafe, I had hoped you would not have to make this journey, but I see no other alternative. And I think you must leave tonight."

Rafe noded. "I agree, Father. Their trail in the north is still warm, all the better to follow it as we discussed. Lancer is not completely trained but I think sufficiently for this mission. I doubt there is any question about his swordsmanship." The Earl glanced at Lancer and smiled. "Not at all, my son. You have chosen well."

Lancer looked from one to the other unsure about what was being discussed. The Earl provided only minimal information. "Lancer, my son has chosen you to be his companion on a scouting mission in the north. He cannot answer your questions now as there are far too many ears here and about in the Hall tonight. Will you accompany him on his mission voluntarily and take direction from him whatever the situation might be?"

There was no hesitation by Lancer. "Yes, Milord. As you command."

"No Lancer, I do not command this. You must be willing to do this of your own volition. I ask again, will you accompany him?"

"Yes, Milord."

Kensington turned to Rafe. "Then, my son, you and Lancer must make preparations and depart immediately. Go now. I will explain your absence to the guests. And Lancer, I charge the wellfare of my son to you. Return him to me alive and well."

"Yes, Milord," responded Lancer. "I would gladly do so without command." Kensington smiled and nodded. Rafe motioned to Lancer and the two men left the Great Hall to pack appropriate travel items. They met in the castle courtyard, each carrying their belongings and supplies, about 100 paces from the stable.

Lancer immediately asked Rafe a double question, "Milord, are we going north and does this have to do with the missing patrol?

Rafe shot Lancer a "How did you know all this" look, but answered him promptly. "Yes to both."

Lancer became lost in thought as they walked to the stable. His steps slowed the closer he came to the structure and he began to lag behind Rafe's pace. Finally, Lancer stopped walking. Rafe turned around to see Lancer standing there scuffing his feet in the dirt. "What's the matter, Lancer?"

Lancer looked up at Rafe. "Ummm... A moment, please, Milord. Grant me a moment. There is something I must do."

"Will it be swift?"

"Yes. I will not take long."

"Be swift then. I'll wait for you here."

"Thank you," said Lancer. He dropped his belongings in a place nearby and out of the way of foot or horse traffic. The soldier ran back towards the cottages in the castle township. He reached his destination and rapped on the door of the cottage. Liselle opened the door, took one look at the expression on Lancer's face and knew he too would be leaving. "When?" was all she said.

"Tonight... I can't say more except this. Wherever I go I shall look for your husband and any sign or news of his whereabouts. If I find him, I will also find a way to see that he returns to you. I swear this to you and the boy."

Liselle's eyes moistened and tears began to fall. Lancer read her reaction as gratitude for what he was about to do; and in fact that was one reason, but not the only reason. A sadness lurked in her feelings as well. A sadness that another man of whom she had grown fond was leaving and possibly never returning again. Impulsively she stepped forward encircling Lancer's neck with her arms and planting her lips on his cheek, kissing him once there and again near his ear. There she whispered, "Be careful, Lancer. We care for you... my son and I both." Then she released him, turned away and closed the door, wiping the stream of tears coursing down her face with the tips of her fingers and the back of her hands.

She saw the boy staring at her from the door to his room. "What's the matter, Mother?" he asked.

"Lancer must leave for what might be a long time, Charles."

"Oh." The boy's face dropped as knowledge of Lancer's leaving and its implications filled his thoughts. Then his mind shifted to what he had just witnessed. "Why were you kissing him? I thought you only kissed Father like that."

"Lancer is a good man, Charles, like your Father. It is appropriate to kiss a good man. Lancer will try to find your Father. He told me that, so I kissed him."

"Oh, I understand now, Mother." The boy turned to reenter his room and stopped momentarily, looking back. "If anyone could find Father, it would be Lancer." Charles smiled and went back into his room.

"I think you are right, Charles. Lancer would be the one who could," she said to herself. And even as she said this she suppressed that stray thought trying to surface and confront her: what if they both, Lancer and her husband, returned to her at the same time, together. Liselle hurriedly found something to do for the sole purpose of distracting her mind from the threatening dilemna.

Rafe saw Lancer reappear around the nearest bend in the path that led to the stables and saw him run to where he had deposited his belongings. When Lancer, belongings in hand, reached the Rafe's side it was Rafe who spoke first. "Ready Lancer? Business settled?"

"Business is settled, Milord... and thanks. Lead on, please. I shall be following closely." Both stepped off for the stables and the mounts that waited for them within.

posted 10-08-02 15:29 EST (US)     12 / 44  
Lancer glanced at Rafe. They had ridden for five hours through the moonlit night. Now dawn began its emergence. Still they rode on for at least another hour until the sun was fully elevated above the eastern horizon. At a place near a creek, Rafe motioned to Lancer to stop. The mercenary sighed in relief.

Lancer dismounted from his horse, stretched his stiffened legs and rubbed his posterior. He had ridden horses before, but not typically for this length of time. He hoped his posterior could withstand the punishment. In some ways he wished it were as tough as the leather on which he rode. On the other hand he was glad it wasn't. He knew of some with that characteristic and the bowed legs that accompanied it, and he was glad to avoid the teasing names given them by their comrades. He did not ever want to be their target himself.

It felt good to walk around seeking firewood for their campfire. Lancer gathered more than they needed just to keep the good feeling in his legs.

Eggs tumbled about in a small pot positioned over the campfire started by Lancer. As soon as they were boiled, the two men drenched the eggs in the cold water of the creek to stop internal heat from overcooking the eggs. Then they peeled the eggs and added some dried meat and biscuits to round out their morning repast. A brief rest and the two riders once again were in their saddles and covering as much of the plains as horses and light would permit.

Lancer hadn't spoken much since they left the castle behind. He had taken a little time to sharpen his long sword, just to get the nicks out and ensure both edges were in their best possible condition. He did this during their brief stop for dinner, about the time the sun was at its zenith. It was Lancer who kicked the last bit of dirt onto the noonday campfire to prevent an errant spark from setting the plains on fire. Then both he and Rafe checked the cinching on their saddles, mounted their horses and rode away from their noonday camp.

Sometime before sunset Lancer looked at Rafe, an expression on his face saying he wanted to ask a question. Rafe patiently waited for Lancer to say what was on his mind.

"Rafe, I must ask you a question."

"Is it about the reason we are making this journey?"

"No. I am sure you will tell me the particulars when the time is right. My question is this. Do you know of a soldier named Harold in the service of your father, the Earl? He is married to a woman named Liselle and has a boy named Charles. He's the youngster I have been teaching about weapons, the one who became involved in the trouble with Sussex's men. Harold's patrol is long overdue, or so Liselle tells me."

"What is your interest in Harold, Lancer?"

"I promised his wife I would try to find him."

"You are under orders, are you not?" cautioned Rafe.

"Yes, Rafe. But that shouldn't mean I cannot keep my eyes and ears open for a trace of the man, does it?"

"No, it doesn't mean that at all. I'm just trying to ensure you remember your duty."

"I understand, but you will find that I am keenly aware of my duty. Yet, I must ask again, please. Do you know the man or have you any information about Harold?" Lancer patiently waited for Rafe to respond.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-08-2002 @ 09:32 PM).]

posted 10-08-02 22:06 EST (US)     13 / 44  
"Yes, Lancer, I know the name. He is a squad leader who patrols the northern area for Kensington. We are going north because he and his squad have not returned. His is the third squad that has disappeared in the area without a trace."

"What was the squad's purpose in patrolling the north?" asked Lancer.

"To ensure tax revenue owed to the Duke of Cumberland is collected and delivered. My father and Sussex are vassals of the Duke, along with Mahlenshire and Lancashire in the north. The Duke insists upon prompt payment of taxes as he is heavily indebted to the King and must also pay for the soldiers he is called upon to maintain or contribute.

"Lately, patrols guarding shipments of tax revenue have been disappearing, along with the revenue. Mahlenshire has complained about the problem and is increasing his army of Red Knights. He is telling the Duke that Sussex and my father are to blame for his losses because his shipments disappear on our lands or near our common borders."

"Is that our mission? To find the lost patrols?" asked Lancer.

"No. We are to travel the area quietly and observe for ourselves what is going on. We are to stay in the background as much as possible. We are to do everything necessary to learn the cause of the disappearance of the revenue without being observed. Nothing more."

"And if we should find Harold..." said Lancer.

"We will do what makes sense at the time," replied Rafe.

Lancer nodded. He understood Rafe's meaning clearly. The subject was dropped as both noted the sun was soon going to set. Lancer pointed out a good camping place and they began to settle in for a night in the nearby woods.

This time the campfire was intended for heat and light. Lancer built it just the way he learned long ago from his father: high enough to heat but not burn the brace of fowl he and Rafe brought down with their arrows earlier that day. It was a good hunt. Game was plentiful and though Rafe's aim was virtually unerring, Lancer did not embarrass himself either with the accuracy of his own shots from the back of his horse. Rafe took the time to complement Lancer on his newly gained prowess with the short bow and arrow. The mercenary appreciated the complement, but in truth, he enjoyed the fruits of his labor more.

Lancer's appetite matched the abrasions on his posterior in size. Though it was becomming easier to ride, it still left him sore at day's end. His hunger grew, on the other hand, the more the scent of cooked fowl found its way to his nose. When they agreed the meat was ready, both men bent to the task of consuming it. This they did voraciously. The pile of small bones grew by the side of each man. Soon enough, the pile of bones was greater than the remaining scraps of cooked meat and their bellies were as full as they could stand.

The obligatory and customary round of burps concluded the feast. On a branch of a solitary tree high above them an owl wondered "who" it was that made such undignified noises below. It seriously disturbed the creature's attempt at finding rodents and related fauna for his own night's meal. Eventually he flew away to find a quiet place from which to work.

The two soldiers settled down for a night's sleep. They were disturbed only once. A distant howl from a wandering wolf woke them briefly. Rafe listened to the howls as they faded away into the night. He wondered... A wolf... portend of good or bad? He continued to wonder until sleep overtook him again and the rising sun did its job of waking them both the following morning.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-09-2002 @ 03:20 PM).]

posted 10-09-02 15:54 EST (US)     14 / 44  
Horseback again, the two riders struck up a conversation that ranged from childhood experiences to soldiering. Lancer was becoming increasingly at ease in the presence of the son of the Earl. So too, Rafe was quite accepting of Lancer, though the mercenary was about 5 years older than he.

"Lancer, why have you never been knighted?" blurted out Rafe almost as soon as the question struck his mind. Lancer looked across at Rafe wondering how he should answer.

"Because I do not believe I am of a station that permits knighthood," answered Lancer.

"Nonsense!" said Rafe. "Station is irrelevant."

"But Rafe, you are next in line to your father, the Earl, and you are a knight. How can it not be relevant?"

"Lancer, you don't understand. Sure my being the son of an Earl permits me a better opportunity at knighthood, but station isn't the necessary criteria. Many knights do not have noble blood. Instead they have done something to make themselves worthy and they did so of their own free will. They chose to become knights and succeeded. Why haven't you chosen?"

"I lack the qualifications to make the choosing."

"Again, nonsense," said Rafe. "You are skilled at arms. You demonstrate loyalty... at least so far." Lancer glanced at Rafe, but saw the "I'm teasing" twinkle in the young man's eyes and dismissed his own darker thought. Rafe continued, "And I witnessed your rushing to the aid of a child. Next you promise the child's mother you will try to find her missing husband. I call that the acts of a knight."

"I am a mercenary and unworthy."

"Lancer, you may have made that choice awhile ago under circumstances at that time. That was then, this is now. You can choose differently. But you must do the choosing. Think about it," concluded Rafe. Lancer again looked at Rafe. Thoughts did in fact whirl about in his head. They centered on his father, his father's death, his act of revenge, his leaving his mother and brothers behind to assume the life of a mercenary, the battles he fought, the men he killed in anger or simply for coin.

His thoughts were interrupted at that point because a string of wagons crossing a meadow in the distance caught their mutual attention. The closer they came to the wagons, the more it became obvious who their occupants were: a troop of entertainers - maybe what some call a circus - was travelling in the same direction as Rafe and Lancer.

An idea occurred to both of them simultaneously...

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-09-2002 @ 04:09 PM).]

posted 10-10-02 16:07 EST (US)     15 / 44  
After keeping their distance most of the day, Rafe decided it was time to execute their little scheme. Riding noisily that evening into the circled wagons, Rafe announced their presence. "Ho the camp! We are travellers and mean no harm. Permission, please, to join your campfire and travel with you for a few days!"

The leader of the circus - a barrel shaped man with his face creased in humor lines - stepped towards them, eyeing them closely. "My name is Emile. These are my artists. There are bandits about these days. What guarantee have all of us that you are not bandits."

"Bandits steal their meals. We pay for ours." So saying, Rafe tossed a bag of coin towards the circus leader.

"And should we believe you will not knock us on our heads and steal this back plus more?"

Rafe laughed. "Hide it where you will. Give us back what you think is fair when we leave. You may change your mind about us when we demonstrate our skills in archery and swordplay."

"Skills? What skills?" asked the leader, somewhat distracted from his earlier fear.

"Why Spearman here... (Lancer arched an eyebrow and glanced somewhat disapprovingly at Rafe)... is an excellent and quite entertaining swordsman. He has just completed an engagement performing before the Earl of Kensington and was very well received. I, on the otherhand, offer considerable accuracy in archery and credible skill with a sword, though not enough to rival Spearman. My name is Strider. Shall we demonstrate our skills for you after an evening's repast?"

The circus leader decided to take the chance. The jingling coins in the pouch he held were as persuasive as the words coming from the mouth of Strider (Rafe). Then, when he saw the two men's acts he was convinced that the pouch of coins he held as surety was only the very start of something quite intriging, possibly very profitable - and he let the two men join them for a time.

Emile's daughter, Emily, a beautiful girl of seventeen, had stared wide-eyed at Strider most of that first evening and whenever he was in sight all through the following day as they slowly drove their wagons and guided their horses north to their next engagement. It was the evening of the second day and most of the members were grouped around the night's campfire.

Sitting in the shadows on the driving board of a wagon was the circus owner's daughter. Next to her, with his arm around her, was Strider, who had noticed previously that the girl's attention seemed inordinately focussed on him. Emily was listening wide eyed to what the man whispered to her. Every now and then she giggled nervously. Almost without anyone noticing Strider moved them both backwards into the darkness of the wagon.

However, one person did notice. Spearman (Lancer) shook his head. Impetuous youth, thought Spearman, as he continued to sharpen the blade of his sword. He was glad at his advanced age of 24 that he wasn't prone to such impulsive behavior. And the Earl's son no less, thought Lancer. He ran the stone up and down the edge of each side of the blade contemplating the disaster that might befall them if Rafe and Emily were discovered by the girl's father.

Unknown to him that moment a pair of darkly pupiled female eyes watched him from across the circle. They belonged to one of the troupe's dancing girls, the most comely among them. Spearman casually looked up from his work only to notice the dancing girl staring at him with unwavering eyes, the flame of the fire giving them a surreal almost diabolical glint. Spearman averted his gaze hoping that when he next looked, the girl's eyes would be focussed elsewhere. Not to be... The next time Spearman looked, he saw the girl smile and rise from the log on which she sat. She walked towards him, her eyes locked on his, her hips swaying in a way only a full figured, narrow waisted woman could engineer.

posted 10-10-02 20:22 EST (US)     16 / 44  
Lancer(Spearman) eyed the approaching girl apprehensively as she took a seat next to him on the long log placed for seating around the fire. She said nothing but looked deep into his eyes and smiled. Snow white teeth contrasted with the darkly tanned complexion of her face, shoulders and arms and the even darker color of her lips. The pupils of her deep brown eyes reflected the flickering flames of the fire. She smiled again and dimples appeared in both cheeks. Lancer swallowed hard and smiled back.

The girl was wearing one of those deeply plunging shirts that sought her waist front and back, but stopped just short of being indiscreet. Her skirt was long and pleated, extending all of the way from her waist to the ground. When she leaned forward, Lancer's eyes were tugged downwards involuntarily. He hoped she didn't notice, but couldn't tell because when she leaned forward her smile broadened even as Spearman's face reddened that much more.

She was reaching for his sword, the one he had been busily sharpening. She ran her fingers up and down its blade. In broken words, afflicted with a heavy accent Lancer couldn't place, she said, "My but that is a large sword. Are all of your swords that big?"

"Um...I...uhhhh...well...uhhhh. I only have this one...just one," he stammered.

"You must have another... somewhere. One you haven't shown us?"

"Uhhh...well...uhhh... No...uhhh...not really."

"It must be a secret sword. You can show it to me. I'll keep your secret." So saying, the girl placed her hand on Lancer's leg just above the knee. Gulp! Lancer jumped up off the log. The girl looked at him with a startled expression on her face. The other men sitting around the fire did their best to keep from laughing.

Satina, the girl who joined Lancer on the log, was notorious among them for behaviour of this sort. It was something the circus men looked forward to when strangers joined them. Sometimes they made bets on which stranger would gain her attention if more than one stranger was in camp.

The lots were cast evenly this night, half for Spearman and half for Strider. Among the half betting against Spearman was Emile, owner of the circus and the father of Emily. Shaking his head he rose to get coins from his wagon, the one just behind him in which Strider(Rafe) and Emily were... were...

Great stones and glory! Lancer knew exactly what would happen in a few moments if he didn't do something. Satina was one thing, the owner's daughter another. Still on his feet, Lancer shouted out to Emile. "Don't go yet, Circus Master! I haven't recited the latest poem making the rounds! Come back! Come back!" In the dark of the wagon Rafe stopped in mid-kiss to hear what the shouting was all about.

Emile turned around, a look of curiousity on his face. He returned to the campfire and sat next to Satina, a frown creasing her face as she tried to understand what went wrong.

"Here is the poem...," said Lancer.

"It was dark that night and just one saw
The wagon parked under the trees.
Inside of the wagon were two young folk
They were named Philipe and Louise.

Philipe and Louise, rise up I say!
Trouble arrives and soon.
You will have no warning other than this;
Act now or meet your doom!"

Lancer was walking about the campfire and making his way towards Emile's wagon as he recited the poem. He positioned himself at the side of the wagon and as he continued to speak, he banged his sword hilt on the wagon's side. Rafe began to suspect the words were aimed at him.

"Now these two youths were so engrossed
They heard and saw not a thing.
No friend had they to warn them that day
So their end had a tragic ring.

The father of Louise had come to call
His arrival was unexpected.
'Cause Phillipe was found where he shouldn't have been,
The youth's head was disconnected.

Philipe and Louise, rise up I say!
Trouble arrives and soon!
You will have no warning other than this!
Act now or meet your doom!"

Wham! Lancer wacked his sword hilt on the wagon body one more time.

Just as soon as the poem ended, Emile rose to his feet to go to the wagon once more. But this time, Lancer could detect scrambling inside. He looked under the wagon and saw two pairs of legs light down on the ground from the opposite side and run along the far side of the wagon circle. It was just then that Emile arrived giving Lancer an odd look.

"A strange poem, Spearman. I'm not sure what it's supposed to mean."

"Neither do I, but then I'm not a poet, Circus Master." Out of the corner of his eye he saw Emily, alone now, reenter the interior of the wagon circle and approach the campfire. Rafe followed soon afterwards from a different direction, a look of gratitude in the glance he shot towards Lancer. At last Lancer could feel relief. He glanced towards the place where Satina had been sitting only to find she had vacated the place and was now walking hand in hand with one of the other circus performers.

Lancer shrugged his shoulders and ceased to think about what was and what might have been. He settled back down in his spot by the fire and began to sharpen his sword once more.

posted 10-12-02 02:13 EST (US)     17 / 44  
The next few days consisted of riding, camping and performing in the small villages the troupe encoutered along the way. Gradually they made their way north to the border between the land of Kensington and the land of Mahlenshire.

The archery performed by Rafe and the swordplay of Lancer, in their adopted names of Strider and Spearman, were a combination of special amusement to the townsfolk and nearby farmers. Coins and gifts from store and field served as the troupes earnings. Applause was their daily dessert.

Rafe at first had seemed absorbed by the Circus Master's daughter but his attention soon wandered towards Satina, and in Lancer's mind for obvious reasons. The woman was a skillful distracter and a relentless seductress. Emily, all of seventeen, could not compete no matter how she tried. There were some wiles she just couldn't bring herself to attempt, and therein was the source of her ultimate defeat. The Circus Master choose unwisely when he bet Lancer would be the one to fall into Satina's web. In some ways, he was glad to have lost. He worried far less about his daughter these days.

Clink, clink, clink... Emile was counting the coins earned from their recent performance. "Business has been good these days since you two arrived!" exclaimed the happy Circus Master. "That reminds me... I have something for you." Emile rose and entered his wagon. Lancer and Rafe heard him rummaging around for something. Soon he returned and handed to Rafe the very same pouch Rafe had tossed to him as surety the day they all first met.

"But there are the same number of coins in it as when I gave it to you," protested Rafe. "We have shared meals at the campfire. We owe you compensation for that."

"Strider, you and Spearman have brought a level of prosperity to us better than we've seen in six month's time. We earn more now than we all of us could ever eat in a year of travels; and you both have been true to your word. Not thieves at all, just as you said. It is fitting that we return this to you as it was given to us... and with our thanks."

Rafe nodded and tied the pouch to his breech belt. Lancer noticed Emily standing in the shadow of the campfire, her slender but womanly figure illuminated by the flickering light. She seemed to be smiling at one of them, Rafe or Lancer. It took Lancer a moment or two to realize it was him. He lowered his eyes and tried to find something else for them to study rather than the pretty daughter of Emile.

Someone tugging at his shirt distracted Lancer. It was one of the young boys of the camp, the son of the juggler to be specific. "Spearman, would you do some tricks with your sword for us, something different... You know, something we haven't seen before?"

"The sword, always the sword," thought Lancer. "Lad, I really don't want to bring out my sword tonight," said Lancer, his voice tinged with a slight tone of irritation.

"Then Spearman, something else... Would you please?"

Lancer looked around. All eyes were focussed on him. What was he to do. Rafe poked him in the ribs. "Go ahead, Spearman. I'd like to see something new too. Indulge the lad, would you please."

Lancer understood what this meant. This was not a suggestion from Strider, this was an order from Rafe, the son of the Earl of Kensington and Lancer was expected to obey. The mercenary had no choice...

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-12-2002 @ 02:23 AM).]

posted 10-12-02 02:40 EST (US)     18 / 44  
Spearman (Lancer) sighed. "Why can't I just be left in peace," he thought to himself. He looked at the pairs of eyes - girls, boys, women, men - all staring at him expectantly. And then there was Rafe, his arms now filled with Satina... An interesting idea occurred to him in that instant.

He glanced across the campfire just to be sure what he thought might be the case actually was the case. Yes, Emily was glaring at Rafe with daggers for eyes. 'If looks could kill,' was the expression he remembered that best described the look in Emily's eyes . Lancer smiled. The stage was set. He would begin the first act with his sword.

Slowly he walked to the place where he stored his belongings, then stood silently with his sword loosely held and pointed to the ground. Suddenly he elevated his sword upwards and ran straight at the tall flames of the campfire. He leaped over the flames swinging his sword in a downward arc. As the sword was driven downwards, its sharpened edge buried itself in a flaming log one third meter in length. Continuing his leap he brought the burning log up, impaled on the sword, to illuminate the sword's arc high in the air and down again.

Then Spearman began a series of leaps and strokes with the sword, very much like one of his practice exercises, but all the while circling around the fire. The flames from the burning log pierced by the sword played its reflections off the shiny blade even as the movement of the sword caused the flames to form eye capturing patterns of moving light in the darkness.

At times he manuevered as close as he could to someone in the audience. If a girl, she would shriek with surprise or fright and cling to someone nearby. If a boy, he would grimace yet bravely try not to flinch. Others nearby dreaded the closeness of the flames, but secretly hoped it would be their turn next. Lancer concluded his display by slamming the burning log on a stone put in place to bank the fire. The log burst into firey splinters, split and freed his sword. He raised the sword into the air and then slowly brought it down, pointing to the ground once more... then he bowed to the Circus Master.

Applause rang out. Even Rafe joined in, releasing his hold on Satina for the moment. But Spearman wasn't finished. He raised an index finger to silence them and to indicate he needed a minute. Spearman walked to his camping place and withdrew a weapon now being seen for the first time by those in the camp. It was his crossbow.

"I seek the bravest one among you," he said as he walked back towards the circle of circus performers. Many called to him, but he looked at one in particular. He walked to where Emily was sitting and held his hand out. "Are you the bravest of them all?"

Emily was startled, but looked once more in Rafe's direction and with determination stood up. Emile rose to protest, but a glance of reassurance from Spearman settled him back in his seat.

Spearman reached for an apple that had been left over from the night's meal. He handed it to Emily indicating she should take a bite from it. Emily brought the apple to her mouth and took a dainty bite from the fruit. She chewed and swallowed what she had taken. Spearman showed her where to hold the apple: about half of an arm's length from her side and at the level of her face. She held it there as Spearman turned the apple so that the mark of her bite faced him. Nothing was behind Emily except the high side of one of the wagons.

"Be brave, beautiful Emily," he whispered to her just before he turned and quickly stepped off ten paces. He turned and with quick work of his hands, loaded a bolt into the crossbow and worked the mechanism to draw back its bow string. He raised the weapon, aimed and pulled back on the trigger in a smooth, continuous movement.

The bolt was propelled from the crossbow at a speed hardly any could see. Emily stood there, one minute apple in hand and the next holding nothing, eyes wide from tension and surprise. Everyone leaped up from their seats to find the bolt. It was there... its point buried in the side of the wagon, the apple suspended on the bolt, pierced through its heart, dead center where Emily had taken her bite.

A cheer rose from the performers as they turned about to congratulate Spearman; but Spearman ignored them. He placed his crossbow on the ground and approached Emily. He knelt down on one knee in front of her reaching at the same time for the hand that once had held the apple. He spoke loudly for them all to hear, "I give homage to the bravest of us all." Then he brought Emily's smooth, dainty hand to his lips and kissed it.

The girl's face turned pinker than the prettiest rose. The veins on her neck pulsed with the rush of blood. Her breathing sped up and her knees began turning to jelly. It was only momentary, but the next thing she knew, she was captured by Spearman's strong arms and being escorted back to the place where she had been sitting. There was no hesitation on her part. Emily suddenly stopped walking. She turned and wrapped her arms around Lancer's neck, reached up and placed a firm, warm kiss on his cheek. She gave no attention to Rafe from that day forward. And though she longed for something else, Spearman treated her with affection and the highest respect all the while he and Rafe remained with the circus.

posted 10-12-02 21:07 EST (US)     19 / 44  
The circus made its next stop in the ancient fortress and village of Gallinus. Lying on the Kensington side of the border with Mahlenshire, the fortress was used extensively in those years when the relationship with Mahlenshire was far less friendly than today. The stone walls, built centuries ago by Roman invaders to ward off the attacks of the Celts, showed places here and there where the damage of many battles since that time was hastily repaired. Despite all this, the walls appeared formidable and their age was a telling commentary on the quality of Roman military engineering.

Within the village, the circus gave its customary performance. It was well received as usual. Lancer and Rafe noticed Emile in extended conversation with a person who seemed to be a town official. Emile's side of the conversation was animated, while the official merely shrugged his shoulders at what appeared to be the Circus Master's protestations. Finally, Emile spoke an uncommon epithet and stormed away from the official in the direction of Rafe and Lancer.

When he was a few paces away, Rafe tried to address the raging man. "What is wrong, Emile. You seem ready to level this village."

"Nothing, Strider... and everything!"

"I don't understand, Circus Master," said Rafe, stepping in front of Emile to halt his fierce step, but doing so with courtesy as much as possible.

"Well, it seems we must pay a toll!" cried out Emile.

"But Circus Master, a simple toll... What can be the harm?"

"You don't understand, Strider. The toll must be paid to Mahlenshire when we cross the border."

Lancer looked at Rafe, a puzzled expression on his face. Rafe attempted to explain. "Oh, I see. But that is odd. Under the Duke, and both Kensington and Mahlenshire are vassals of the Duke, there are supposed to be no cross-shire tolls. If I remember, the Duke said tolls of this kind merely make things more expensive and discourage cross-shire trade. He said, let these fees be paid as taxes and only as taxes should they be collected."

"Why is Mahlenshire disobeying the Duke?" asked Lancer. Emile was interested in Rafe's answer as well.

"I don't know, Spearman," said Rafe. "The Duke is away at war on behalf of the King. Maybe Mahlenshire feels he can get away with it, especially with folk such as us... in this circus, I mean."

"The village elder said Mahlenshire's men collect their tolls at the border on the other side of the village in plain sight of the fortress. They charge only those entering Mahlenshire and leaving Mahlenshire who are not known to be residents of their shire. I am told the fee is greater than what we earned at our last two performances."

"That is unreasonable," observed Rafe. "And improper. Was any reason given?"

"The elder said Mahlenshire was upset that he had lost tax revenue in Kensington bound for the Duke. Apparently, this is Mahlenshire's idea of how to collect his stolen tax monies from the area in which the thefts occurred."

"Hmmm, maybe Spearman and I can talk some reason into the toll collectors in the morning." Rafe gave Lancer a meaningful glance. "Yes, in the morning," repeated Rafe. "Rest easy, Emile. There'll be no forbidden tolls charged to this enterprise."

Rafe nodded to Lancer and the two walked towards the place where the wagons circled. Emile watched them as they walked away. He didn't know whether to be pleased or to fret all the more at the trouble these two might bring his way.

posted 10-13-02 12:05 EST (US)     20 / 44  
"Yes, Rafe. But if there is trouble it is for me to deal with," said Lancer the next morning as they packed their horses. "You know what your father commanded."

Rafe looked quickly around to make sure no one was in earshot of their conversation. "Careful, no one here must learn our real names," cautioned Rafe. Lancer nodded, quickly aware of his verbal gaff after the fact.

The wagons set off as early that morning as they could manage. They hadn't gone far when up ahead they saw the road post that signaled the end of Kensington shire and the beginning of Mahlenshire's holdings. The entire area was in full view of the walled fortress. Lancer saw more people than usual peering at them from the stone walls. Come to see the show he suspected. He hoped there would be no show.

Up ahead, a man on a horse barred the road into Mahlenshire. He seemed to be dressed in knightly fashion. He was clothed in red and wore armor as red as the devil's own face. The horse was draped in red cloth, the edges a darker red than the rest, as if the red dye above had bled to the edge and collected there becoming darker over time as would congealed blood. Lancer had never seen the rider before nor his particular dress. He and Rafe motioned to Emile to hold the wagons back and both riders advanced their horses until they were within "jousting" distance of the red-garbed figure.

"Halt!" called out the red-garbed figure. "State your business and be prepared to pay your toll." Lancer and Rafe reined in their horses.

"Who is it that orders us to halt?" said Rafe.

"I am a red knight in the service of Mahlenshire."

"And we are a troop of entertainers bound for the villages of Mahlenshire. We have no home in any shire and pay no tolls to vassals of the Duke." answered Rafe. "Make way!"

"I ordered you to halt and to pay your toll!" bellowed the knight. "What is your name?"

"Strider," answered Rafe.

"And your companion? The one who should be your father," said the knight pointedly.

There was a difference in age between the two, Rafe and Lancer, but the knight had exaggerated the difference in his swaggering way simply for effect. Why not, these were two entertainers, weaklings typically. Not much risk in his mind. Besides, these tactics always netted coin in the past: most of it for the Earl and a little for himself.

Rafe looked at Lancer, who returned his glance. If it had been another occasion, a more pleasant one, both would have been driven to laughter. But this was not a pleasant moment at all.

The knight became more impatient and more brazen with each passing moment. "Pay your toll and you shall pass! Pay not and you shall be carried back in one of the wagons," he cried out. Rafe shrugged his shoulders and nodded to Lancer. Then the son of Kensington wheeled his horse and guided it back to the wagons.

Emile, frowning, waited for Rafe to speak. Emily glanced from Rafe to Lancer, her face mirroring concern, but not for Rafe it seemed. "He will not let us pass without paying a toll," reported Rafe. We have little choice it seems. He is only one and by the rules of chivalry can be challenged only by one. It is Spearman's turn by our agreement, so I must yield to this." He looked up to see increased concern, even dread, race across Emily's face. "Be easy, Emily. I've seen this before. There is little to worry about in Spearman's case."

Lancer noted that Rafe had returned to the wagons. The mercenary lightly touched his horse with his spurs and eased his horse closer to the red knight. Soon he was in speaking, not shouting distance. Lancer decided against furthering the charade. If it was to be a contest between them, let it be done under his real name.

"You asked my name, Knight. It is Lancer. Consider yourself challenged for passage, toll free, myself and all of these people with me."

"Ahhhh, so it is Lancer is it," said the knight, a knowing sound to his voice. The knight reached towards his horse's side and withdrew a pointed lance from a place where it was strapped to his saddle. "Challenge accepted. Now dismount, Lancer, and yield to me before you are badly hurt, or I will dismount you myself and you may suffer the pain of it for the rest of your life, which may be quite brief."

Lancer sighed. "Is this really necessary, Knight? Let us pass, will you? Besides, the pointed stick you carry is not my idea of a weapon."

"Not your idea of a weap...?" the Knight responded incredulously. "Your name declares it. What do you take me for, a knave?"

"No, but you're close." Lancer couldn't see the man's face since it was hidden by his red helmet. He assumed it had grown about as red as his armor. Lancer wheeled his horse about and quickly trotted the animal back to the position where he and Rafe first spoke to the knight and turned his horse around again to face the knight.

The knight impatiently waited. The horse sensed its master's impatience and became agitated, lifting one hoof and then the other to strike and scrape at the ground, tossing its muzzle up and down, shaking it left and right.

Seeing Lancer had turned around and was facing him, the red armored knight bellowed an indecipherable epithet and put his spur to his horse. The beast raised its front hooves into the air, whinnied, snorted loudly and then leaped forward as it dropped its lifted hooves to the ground. As the horse charged forward, the knight lowered his lance so that its deadly point was aimed at Lancer's chest.

Rafe heard Emily's sharp intake of breath and saw her staring wide-eyed at Lancer, her hand in a small fist being bitten hard by tension driven teeth.

Lancer held his ground, neither advancing nor retreating. But he did pull his sword from its scabbard. Onwards charged the red knight. Closer came the murderous point of his lance. At just the right moment, with the point close and the time of its impact obvious, Lancer unexpectedly leaned far enough to his right so that the point missed his upper body by mere centimeters. Lancer swung his sword at the same time.

The blade collided with the shaft of the lance severing it into two splinter-ended pieces, one piece - the pointed end - falling to the ground and the other piece still carried in the surprised knight's left hand. Quickly Lancer elevated the blade and as the knight closely passed by, Lancer swung it horizontally, the flat of the blade striking full against the chest armor of the knight.

It was as if all forward motion ceased in an instant for the knight's body while the horse continued forward. One minute he was astride his horse, the next minute he was astride the grass of the meadow... the handle of the lance still in his hand, his horse heading for an unknown destination in Kensington.

Lancer's arms and shoulders began to ache with the pain of the impact. It was always like this when these stupid knights tried to use that stupid weapon on him.

The knight's pain was much lower than Lancer's. It proceeded from his posterior and concluded its trip upwards at the knight's neck. Dismounted, the knight was helpless under the weight of his armor and completely at Lancer's mercy. The lightly armored swordsman slipped out of his horse's saddle and walked over to the fallen knight.

Lancer saw the helmet of the man turn in his direction. Lancer gripped his sword tightly just in case. He needn't have worried. The knight was defeated and was merely waiting for his quick and clean end at the hand of Lancer. "A sword, knight? But your name..."

Lancer sighed. "I am not a knight. My name is my father's choice. The weapon I use is my choice."

The red knight looked at him from within his red colored cast iron helmet. "You fight as if you're a knight. So make your cut swift and sure, Lancer who is not. I am prepared."

"Prepared? For what? I do not hunt knights. Do you yield and permit us to pass toll free?"

"I yield."

"Then live," said Lancer. "And do not speak my name; for you know I am not knighted and I expect you will not want it known too widely who it was that unhorsed you. Nor do I want every knight in Mahlenshire challenging me. Stay here, Sir Knight. I will have someone with a hoist and a wagon come to fetch you shortly." The irony in the statement was not lost on the red knight. The knight removed his helmet and nodded. He was about thirty years of age, dark eyed, dark haired with a scar running down the left side of his face. Lancer wondered if this man was a mercenary like himself. No, most likely not, he concluded. Mercenaries were not knights so this man couldn't be a mercenary.

Lancer resheathed his sword and walked back to his horse, mounted it and guided it at a trot towards the circus wagons. Passing by Rafe he said, "There'll be no tolls today. I shall meet you in the next village."

Emily tried to say something as Lancer rode by, "Spearman, I... I..." But the mercenary apparently didn't hear her, for cheers rang out from the entertainers, their wives and children as he rode by. Then, as he passed under the gatehouse of the fortress he heard cheering from the soldiers in the ramparts above; and as he passed over the drawbridge and through the wheelhouse he heard more cheering. He waved and made an elaborate bow, punctuating it with a comical flourish of his hand.

Men on horses, great smiles on their faces, passed him by. One shouted, "Greetings and well done... We will gather up the knight and return him to Mahlenshire." But these men had no hoist equipment! Then it dawned on Lancer. These men intended to strip the knight and bring him into the fortress sans armor. His humiliation would then be complete. Lancer felt sorry for the knight... almost.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-13-2002 @ 01:53 PM).]

posted 10-14-02 16:29 EST (US)     21 / 44  
On Rafe's pre-arranged orders, Lancer returned to the village to advise the Chief Elder about what had occurred. His reception in the elder's chamber was rather cold and unfriendly. Surprisingly, the village elder did not seem especially thrilled to have seen the red knight defeated by Lancer. "No tolls, free passage... What was there to be upset about," wondered Lancer.

"Yes, yes... Masterfully done. Now leave, Spearman," said the Chief Elder. "I have issues to resolve."

Lancer stepped from the Chief Elder's chamber to see a second and third elder enter, concern written all over their faces. Lancer noticed that the last elder to enter failed to close the door completely. He edged very close to the thick wooden door to listen to what was being said, all the while watching the corridor for any sign of people coming in either direction.

"... Yes, I know the Earl will be furious."

"And especially because his income will be reduced if this continues. You know what he wants."

"Of course we do. And it will not be his income alone that is reduced. Yours too... and yours ...and mine as well."

"What are we to do then?"

"One thing we'll need to do is rectify the situation with the circus. Can't let word of it spread. Certainly not to the ears of the Earl."


"Maybe if we cause them to turn back... or maybe... or maybe... uhhh... disappear?"

"Perhaps. That would satisfy the Earl."

"The thieves?"

"Right, the thieves."

"Maybe tonight."

"No, too soon. Not enough time. We need to get a message out."

The sound of footsteps echoing in the corridor made Lancer reluctantly pull himself away from the chamber door. He lightly ran down the corridor in the opposite direction from where he first heard the footsteps. He rounded a corner. A quick glance told him he had evaded discovery. He slowed to a walk.

Lancer felt confused. Kensington? Why? It did not seem a characteristic of the man to be so diabolical nor to place such people in positions of authority. His son seemed entirely unaware of the conspiracy. Rafe made very clear the night before the incident with the Mahlenshire knight that tolls were unacceptable and that Lancer was to make sure the elders understood their rights under Kensington and the Duke. He had done so promptly as ordered... Only to discover this?

Lancer sought a place in the Inn to stay the night. There was more he must observe before he returned to the troupe. Rafe would understand once he explained to him, or so Lancer hoped.


The man before the Chief Elder had a scar running down the length of his face on its left side. The scarred man nodded his head. "Yes, I understand. I will carry your message... After I conclude some unfinished business." He turned around and stepped quickly from the chamber.

The Chief Elder looked at his two comrades, also village elders. "I wonder what unfinished business he has in mind?"

"It is probably best we don't know," said one of the two elders standing to the side.

"Yes, better to let things happen as they will," replied the Chief Elder, nodding in agreement. "The Earl must be reassured that his authority is without challenge, now and henceforth."

posted 10-15-02 15:22 EST (US)     22 / 44  
The room in the Inn was what Lancer expected: dark, cold, furnished with necessities only. He found that his room contained a small sleeping cot, a chest for belongings, a table and one chair, a candle and holder and a small lantern. There were the usual porcelain vessels for water and cleansing. He guessed the lantern was necessary for finding the privy. He was right.

A place to sleep is not always the most welcome in which to stay. Lancer grew restless and decided to take the measure of the village now that he was without the accompaniment of members of the entertainment troupe or of Rafe.

His first stop was the stable to look after his horse and to check on its care. Quite satisfactory. His next stop was... But there was no next stop. Instead, he heard a brief series of footsteps and then the world exploded in a flash of blinding light.

Lancer opened his eyes, one eyelid at a time. His head throbbed. He could sense, even if his hand had not yet found, the growing lump on the top of his head. From out of nowhere he felt hands grasp his arms and waist and attempt to raise him to a sitting position.

He winced as his helpers succeeded in getting him to sit upright. These were the villagers who saw the man wielding the club. Some had chased after him while others rushed over to see to Lancer's well being. The villagers who had chased the club wielder were now returning. The man had evaded them all and was hiding somewhere in the village or the fortress, they knew not where.

Lancer decided to risk rising to his feet. Standing now, the dizziness slowly subsiding, he thanked them for their help. "What happened?" he asked them.

"Twas the man dressed in red armor that you unseated this morning. We brought him into the village then let him go when he gave us his word he would leave the area and not return. We saw him club you. He would have mashed your skull, we think, if we hadn't scared him away." The hoofbeats of a galloping horse caught their attention. Before any could react, the former red knight, the man who had assaulted Lancer, was galloping his horse into the countryside.

"Well, so much for him," said one of the villagers wryly. "At least he kept one part of his promise."

Despite his fuzziness, something occurred to Lancer. "Did he have his red armor with him?"

"No Spearman, he did not. It must still be with the armorer where we brought it after we hauled him into the village."

"Hmmm. I see. Please have the armorer take out the dent in the breastplate, if you will. And tell him to store it for me. I think I may have a use for it before long." The villagers looked at each other with curious expressions, but none felt it appropriate to ask Lancer the questions on their minds.

Lancer placed his hand on his tender head. "Now where can a person get appropriate medicine for such a hurt?" he asked one of the villagers.

"There, Spearman. Where the Apothecary resides."

"Yes, my friend, but afterwards, a different kind of medicine. Something... Uhhhh... Something more revitalizing. Something like... Ale! That's it! Ale!" Nothing wrong with a stein of ale, he thought. And today his hurting head made him feel the need to indulge.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-15-2002 @ 03:46 PM).]

posted 10-16-02 16:38 EST (US)     23 / 44  
Lancer thanked the villagers for their assistance but made his way to the apothecary alone. The mercenary looked suspiciously at the powder deposited on a three-inch square piece of thin cloth given to him by the apothecary.

"This is supposed to ease my headache?" said Lancer, looking doubtfully at the mostly white, but somewhat here and there discolored powder.

"Yes, Sir Knight. It is made of the finest herbs and compounded potions known to our science," replied the apothecary.

"I am not a knight, apothecary."

"To me you are, Sir, considering your ending of the tolls allows me to make a better living now for my family."

"They may not be ended forever."

"Nonetheless, we know how to end them should they happen again," said the apothecary with a confident smile. Lancer merely glanced at the man, not entirely sure what he meant.

"How do I consume this... this mixture?"

The apothecary smiled again. "Mix it with a cup of well water and drink it down all at once."

"Any restrictions, like mixing it with ale during or after its consumption?"

"Why no, Sir. I have had many a customer do such and not suffer any serious consequences. As I said, it is made of..."

Lancer finished his statement. "The finest herbs and compounded potions known to your science... I know, I know."

Lancer found an available source of well water and mixed the powder in a small drinking cup. The discomfort of a throat feeling like it would invert was added to his continuously pounding head. Special relief would be necessary and Lancer launched himself on a direct route to his single-minded destination. When he swung open the door to the tavern, the sqeaking of its poorly oiled hinges only added to the effect of the armies battling each other with clubs near the back of his head.

The tavern, called the PIGMAN'S SNOUT, was only lightly occupied. Tables were readily available and he sought one out without paying much attention to whoever else was in the tavern. Soon enough, the ale he ordered was brought in a tankard to him by a young wench barely 16 years old.

The tankard was of a generous size. Nonetheless, Lancer's great gulps of its room temperature content managed to empty the vessel only half way down. The throbbing of his head persisted despite the inflow of brew, though the smooth beverage did ease the constriction in his throat caused by the apothecary's powder. But Lancer still was in a mood about as testy as the brew was smooth and refreshing; and whatever special work the apothecary's powder was destined to do unfortunately hadn't happened yet.

The table next to him was taken at about that moment by a foul smelling traveller who seemed to have the mark and stench of every road between London and here on his person. He bellowed for the serving girl to bring him something to drink. She did as she was requested. She wished she hadn't.

One hand on the tankard and one hand on her, the miscreant demanded something more that set the hairs on the back of Lancer's neck straight out and his head to hurting all the more. "You have rooms here, don't you?!" said the miscreant to the tavern owner loudly. "A few coin for an hour or two and then I'm gone," he said. "You're the richer and the girl can get back to serving!" The few other men in the tavern, including the hooded man in the corner with his face hidden, looked up to see what the tavern owner would do. The girl had a panicked look on her face. She was, no doubt, as innocent as she was young.

The tavern owner, a small man, said nothing and did nothing to help the struggling girl, who was held by the miscreant by her slender lower arm. Lancer's hand began to shake, but not with fear, as he held the tankard with its now greatly diminished content. The pain in his head amplified the feelings of anger and revulsion beginning to well up within him.

"You're hurting me!" cried out the girl to the harsh man holding her captive. "Let me go!" She struggled vainly trying to prevent him from drawing her ever closer for whatever was the purpose he had in mind that she could only suspect. "Well?!" shouted the miscreant. "I'm still waiting, owner!" The girl cried out in pain again as the traveller twisted her arm.

"ENOUGH!" bellowed out a voice painted with rage. A tankard of ale, half empty, was slammed down on a table near the miscreant. "ENOUGH I SAY! I'M SICK OF THIS SHIRE! I'M SICK OF THIS WORK! AND I'M SICK AND TIRED OF YOU!" So saying, Lancer leaped to his feet, grabbed the miscreant by his outer clothing, closed a ham fist, and sent it on a journey straight towards the miscreant's face...

Lancer looked down on the jumbled heap of what had been the obnoxious miscreant. It had been short work. A few exchanged blows and then a haymaker to the nose. Already the sheriff was there to see what the disturbance was all about. The girl had been very quick to report what had happened, smiling all the while at Lancer. The miscreant would find the fortress dungeon to be the only room he would have for the next few days and nights.

The mercenary drained the last few drops of ale from his tankard. Whether it was the powder, the ale or the diversion, he actually began to feel somewhat better. Lancer stood up to leave, but before he could, the young serving girl quickly stepped in front of him. "I couldn't let you leave, Sir, without saying thank you," she said.

Lancer managed a half smile. "I'm sorry to have let it go as far as it did. Is your arm injured?"

"Not badly Sir, thanks to you. It might bruise, but it will be fine soon enough. May I say thank you once more? A different way?"

"Uhhh... A different way?"

"Yes, like this." The girl stood on her tiptoes and reached up, pulling Lancer's face down towards hers. She kissed him on one cheek and then the other, sweetly, warmly. Then she let him go and stood aside so he could leave.

Lancer's step was a little lighter as he made his way back to his quarters. The knob on his head was still there, but for a collection of reasons, it didn't hurt anymore the way it had before he entered the tavern. Now there indeed was an apothecary of another sort, he thought to himself. One that seemed to have been the right prescription for this troubled day.

There was one other in the tavern who watched the play unfold between the miscreant, the girl and the man who protected her. The figure sat in the cornermost table and drank beer from the tavern's barreled supply. "Impressive" thought the person hidden under the hooded robe after having observed the short battle that erupted over the girl's mistreatment. Perhaps this is the one I seek.

When Lancer left the tavern, the robed figure silently finished what was left of the tankard served earlier, rose and followed him outside. The figure kept a good distance between them so that Lancer would not realize he was being followed. The figure watched his every step and easily discovered the mercenary's living quarters in the Inn. After Lancer entered his room the figure stopped to consider what next should be done. A decision was made. The figure stepped forward towards the door to Lancer's room.

posted 10-17-02 15:57 EST (US)     24 / 44  
Lancer found the sleeping cot a welcoming platform for his tired body. He flopped down on it and stared upwards at the white plaster applied to the boards that made up the ceiling. Here and there patches of white plaster were missing exposing the outer surface of the wooden boards. In one area the board was channeled, as if some burrowing thing had carved the wood while it was a tree and now its handywork was exposed at last to the light of day. In this case, the light of day was coming from the flickering flame of the solitary candle lit by Lancer before he sought rest on his cot.

Lancer tensed and came up off his cot like a lightly napping, startled feline when his reverie was disturbed by human knuckles rapping on his rough hewn wooden door. Almost immediately, his head began to hurt once more. Lancer shouted out, "Go away! I don't want to see or talk to anybody!"

A man's voice answered. "I have a proposition for you, Spearman. Hear me out first."


The voice hesitated. "Shall I tell the world out here about Mahlenshire, or tell you in privacy instead?"

Mahlenshire? Lancer sighed. "Alright stranger. One moment." Lancer sought out his sword and grasped it firmly as he unlocked and opened the door.

The man in the hood looked down at Lancer's weapon. "I don't blame you, Spearman. I would be cautious too."

"Enter, but keep your hands empty and visible to me at all times," said Lancer, seriousness edging every word spoken. The mercenary closed the door behind the hooded man. Lancer's eyes never left the stranger. "What do you want?"

Then man pulled back his hood to reveal a grey bearded face and mottled grey haired visage of a middle-aged man, most likely a farmer. His skin was dark and weathered. It was obvious by his calloused hands that he was used to hard labor such as with the plow. "I need your services to free my son."

"Why? What has your son done?" asked Lancer.

"Nothing to deserve imprisonment in the dungeon of Mahlenshire."

"Then why is he imprisoned?"

"He was a red knight in the service of Mahlenshire and refused to do the Earl's bidding. He was imprisoned, my lands were confiscated and my daughter and I were cast out of our cottage to live however we could manage."

"I do not have a particular fondness for red knights. Why should I care."

"Because, Spearman, my son has done nothing wrong. Those knights who evicted us from our cottage would not tell us what crime my son committed. I learned only later that he was imprisoned because he would not commit a criminal act he was ordered to do by the Earl."

"Why have you brought this to me?"

"I have asked help from every free knight in these shires I could find and minimally trust. I sought out others who might help even if it was for a price. Still, nobody would help us. Then I saw what you did to the red knight and learned what was done to you. And later I saw you in the tavern. Yes... I was the one you might have seen who was sitting at the far corner table. I thought you might be the one who would help. You have a personal sense of justice. There has been no justice in Mahlenshire for my family and others. I thought you might care enough to do some good in my shire.

"So what have you offered them, these knights and hirelings? Jewels, coin, gold, silver, land... anything?" said Lancer, sarcasm growing in his voice as his headache grew more prevalent.

"I don't have those things to offer. All I can offer is part of what I can produce in the future when my home and lands are returned to me."

"Then what do you expect. Look... I'm a mercenary. That's all I know to do for a trade. What skills I have aren't free for the asking. Pay me a fair price first and I give you a fair level of service. That's it... Now, I'll ask you a simple question. What do you have to offer me for my services?" Lancer stood there, brow creased in a frown, waiting for his answer.

"I don't have anything left to offer. Mahlenshire's knights took it all for the Earl."

Lancer's rage boiled over. "Then get out of here! Leave me alone! I don't work for free, I told you that! Leave, NOW!"

The man stood passively, simply staring at the red-faced raging warrior in front of him. In a voice filled with sadness he said, "I guess I misjudged you. I thought you were someone better." Then he turned around and walked outside, gently closing the door behind him.

Lancer stared after the man, nothing meaningful to say in response. His rage subsided as quickly as it had been unleashed as the import of the man's words sunk into his thoughts. Sick to his soul, he let the sword fall from his hand to the ground. He walked to his sleeping cot and fell onto its straw filled sleeping pad. For the longest time he once more stared at the inexpertly applied plaster covering the wood planks that made up the ceiling of his room and the floor of the room above.

He slept poorly that night. Images beckoned to him from his dreams. Faces of the men he fought and killed; faces of the women he saw wailing near the bodies of their dead sons and husbands; and the face of his father looking disapprovingly at him.

In the morning he brought out his travel sacks, packed them and prepared to journey to the town in Mahlenshire where Rafe and the circus waited for his return.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-17-2002 @ 09:12 PM).]

posted 10-18-02 16:09 EST (US)     25 / 44  
His horse felt the sudden increase in weight as Lancer placed the twin travel sacks over its haunches. Then the horse forgot the weight as the stallion continued to fill its stomach with alfalfa from the trough in its stall. Reluctantly, it allowed its human master to bridle and saddle him and lead him into the light of very early morning.

After his master elevated himself onto the stallion's strong back, the horse felt pressure on his side that meant go forward. As it always did at these times, the horse lowered the focus of its senses and entered the portals of mindless movement allowing the signals communicated by his master to guide him in whatever direction his master chose.

They came to a halt well before passing through the fortress's last gate. Lancer dismounted and entered a structure guarded by empty shells of armor. The horse saw him come out of the structure some time later carrying pieces of red painted metal strung together with hemp rope. These pieces of metal too were placed on the stallion's back.

The stallion snorted in disapproval. These were far heavier items than the two sacks the horse had accepted that morning. Lancer regained the saddle and once more the horse felt pressure on its side. He responded as always, but each time a hoof struck the ground it was with greater force and more effort than before.

Lancer guided his mount out of the fortress's main exit and through the Gatehouse towards the road into Mahlenshire. About 100 meters away on the road where it forked he saw a man astride a riding horse, a pack horse as well close by. Lancer continued forward all the while squinting his eyes in the morning sun trying to see the face of the figure sitting astride the horse.

Close enough now, he could make out the features of the man's face. It was the face of the man who visited him the night before, whose son was a prisoner in Mahlenshire's dungeon. Lancer continued to approach the fork where the man on the horse seemed to be calmly waiting. Lancer was near the man, close enough to speak, just a few minutes later. The man said nothing, but simply stared at Lancer as if expecting a word or two.

Lancer halted his horse and stared back. Then Lancer's expression changed, as if something had been decided silently and was waiting to be announced. "What is your son's name?" asked Lancer.

"Edwin," answered the man.

"And yours? Your real name, I mean."


"Can your packhorse take more weight?"

"Unquestionably," said Godfrey.

Lancer's stallion felt the weight on its haunch reduce dramatically as the strung together pieces of red painted armor were placed by his master on the back of the packhorse. He lifted his muzzle, moving his head up and down as if to say "Yes, and thank you." The stallion gave no thought to what the packhorse might be thinking about the new weight on its back. It was a packhorse, not a war stallion. Who cared?

Remounted, Lancer said nothing to Godfrey, but headed his horse towards the fork and the road that led, ultimately, to the village where he expected to find Rafe. Godfrey guided his horse and packhorse to a place behind Lancer, then permitted himself a moment to smile.

Godfrey thought to himself. Maybe he wasn't so old afterall that his instincts might be as dull or blind as he thought they were when he left Lancer's room the night before. Godfrey had convinced himself to take the chance that this morning might happen this way. Now Godfrey was feeling as young as the man riding the stallion before him, not like the despairing old man who debated with himself in the dark of the previous night.

[This message has been edited by Civis Romanus (edited 10-18-2002 @ 04:17 PM).]

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