Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Dark Ages, Book 1: Chapter 3, Part 1

(Continued from Chapter 2, Part 3)


“I still can’t believe you took that boar down so cleanly,” said Reace, riding just ahead as appropriate. He turned and looked at Cyrus. “Weren’t you frightened? It came this close to ending you.” He held his fingers less than an inch apart.
“Of course not,” said Cyrus. “It was me or him, and I decided it was going to be him.” In fact, Cyrus had been terrified, but Reace didn’t need to know that. When the beast had been flushed from his nest it was supposed to be heading straight for Reace, but the boar proved unpredictable and went for Cyrus instead, catching the stable boy off-guard. He had a spear ready, but in his shock he didn’t even think to use it until the last moment.
But Cyrus was proud of himself for felling his first boar. His father had never even been allowed to go hunting with the baron, so it was a great victory regardless of Cyrus’s bravery. And having done it once, he suspected he’d do even better next time.

“Well, I’ll get the next one,” said Reace. He passed a hand through his auburn hair, trying to look as comically vain as possible. Cyrus offered him a grin.
“Certainly you will, my lord. Whoever heard of a baron who couldn’t fell a boar?”
They heard hoofbeats coming from behind, and Cyrus made way respectfully as the baron himself rode up next to Reace, flanked by two of his guards.
“There will be another hunt next month,” said Baron Girard to his son, almost as if he’d overheard their conversation. He spoke to Reace alone, without a glance in Cyrus’s direction. “You will make a kill then. Few men make a kill on their first hunt, myself included. Not everyone is as skilled as my brother, and still I’m the one who sat the throne.”
And Cyrus was glad for that. The Baron frightened Cyrus and did not seem to like him much, but Reace’s uncle, Lord Geralt, outright despised Cyrus. “I have nothing against lowborn brats,” he had said at the table the first time Cyrus had been invited to dine with Reace and his noble family. “I just don’t think a young lord like Reace should be seen consorting with them. They are base and vulgar people, and it’s our job to protect them, not to befriend them.”
Lord Geralt rarely allowed Cyrus near Reace when he was around but, luckily, he spent a great deal of time ranging north along the high way, clearing the road of bandits and staying out of his lord brother’s hair. Unfortunately, Reace looked up to his uncle, but Cyrus couldn’t blame him. He truly was a great warrior.
The Baron continued to talk to Reace as they drew closer to the edge of the forest, so Cyrus fell behind to let them talk in peace. The baron was wary of discussing certain subjects in Cyrus’s presence, and Reace would tell Cyrus anything worth telling later anyway.
He broke away from the hunting party and their noise: their talk of the trip and victories and gossip. Usually he would be glad to join in, but these were the Baron’s men, older and not interested in the company of a stable boy. Without Reace, Cyrus’s only company was the trees of the forest.
Cyrus trotted alone on his young gelding, taking in the forest around him. He smelled the crisp autumn air and watched as leaves fell from the old trees that surrounded him, getting thinner as they approached the forest edge. He listened to the steady crunch as his horse stepped on the newly fallen red leaves, covering the black, rotting old ones.
His thoughts began to wander, first toward the best way to tell the stories of his hunt to his family. They would want all the details, especially his younger brothers. Then, his thoughts wandered toward town and the young maid Lina, the innkeep’s daughter. She was a pleasure to look upon, and Cyrus had been sneaking glances her way for some time now. His victory over the boar had left Cyrus feeling mighty, and he’d found his thoughts turning to Lina often ever since. Perhaps it was time to ask for her company.
The town was not so far away now, and he wondered if he could sneak away without being noticed. The main group was well apart from him by now and paying him no heed. He could hear their chatter and laughter… and the laughter of children nearby.
That was strange. Children did not often come into the forest on their own. Most smallfolk had an almost superstitious fear of the woods, and even Cyrus’s father had told him several stories of lone hunters who entered the woodlands never to be seen again. Children’s stories, to be sure, but many people held them to be true just the same.
Cyrus trotted toward the sound of the children. He soon lost sight of the hunting party completely, and the fears of his childhood came back to him. He was alone, chasing sounds through the forest as a ship follows the song of the siren. Was he walking into a trap laid by imps? Or was it something more sinister, like the Wind Children that Ser Arturos faced in the old tales?
The sounds were very close now, and Cyrus could hear words mixed into the laughter. The voices were familiar, and Cyrus’s fears faded away.
He saw the children in a clearing ahead. He dismounted and approached quietly, hoping to jump out and frighten them back to town. Cyrus could spin it as a lesson in alertness later, but frightening children never got old. He could see why adults told children those sorts of stories.
Cyrus recognized many of the children immediately: young Tomard and Jovey, Gordyn and Mikheal. They had a smaller boy surrounded, a younger lad with straw-colored hair, and after a moment Cyrus recognized him as young Glenn of the Mill. Glenn had never come back for further lessons after he ran away crying several weeks ago. Cyrus was disappointed and confused, since Glenn had been the only one to land a blow on him that day. When he asked about it, the other boys told him not to bother with the northern bastard.
They said that Glenn’s mother had traveled north once years ago, but her caravan was attacked by bandits. When the patrols found her, the van was looted and she was battered, bloody, and with child. The children assured Cyrus that Glenn was bandit’s get and not worth his time. A northern bandit’s get, no less, to judge by his hair color, so Cyrus left it at that. He was content to simply ignore the kid, as most of the townsfolk did.
But here was something different. The older boys danced around Glenn, pushing and hitting, spitting at him and pelting him with twigs. The younger boy had a few bruises already, but he did not seem to be resisting at all.
Cyrus watched for a while, waiting for Glenn to retaliate. But Glenn simply continued to take his abuse for several minutes, and finally Cyrus had seen enough.
He jumped out from his hiding place with a yell, and the children were startled out of their wits. Mikheal was the first to recognize Cyrus. He grinned and yelled, “It’s Cyrus! Run for your lives!” He ran off toward town and the other children followed, laughing and shouting in mock fright.
Glenn simply watched them go until Cyrus approached. Cyrus was angry at Glenn, and he could see that Glenn knew it. There was fear and determination in his eyes. Cyrus ignored it.
“Glenn, you’ve got to stand up for yourself! Are you craven? Why do you let them push you around so?”
Glenn looked confused, as if this wasn’t what he was expecting. Then he turned downcast, looking ashamed.
“I… can’t hurt anybody,” he said. “Not even them.”
Cyrus glared at Glenn a moment longer, but after a moment he thought he understood. If the bastard child of a bandit got into a scuffle with a townsperson it would look like he was taking after his father. Cyrus couldn’t imagine thinking about such things at Glenn’s age but, then again, he wasn’t born a bandit’s bastard.
Cyrus sighed. “You’re too soft, Glenn. A knight doesn’t fight to hurt people, he fights to protect others, including himself. There is no dishonor in defending yourself.”
The younger boy continued to stare at the ground, and it reminded Cyrus of himself when he knew he was being scolded. He felt very old, all of a sudden. What could he do that was better than lecturing the boy?
Cyrus heard his gelding snort in the distance, and it gave him an idea. A flight of fancy, his father would have called it, and it would certainly ruin the rest of his day, perhaps even the rest of his month. It was his own fault for getting involved, he supposed. Lina would have to wait.
He grabbed Glenn by the hand and began pulling him toward his horse.
“Come, Glenn. I’m going to teach you how to defend yourself. I’m going to give you special lessons. I may not be Ser Devon, but I think you could use my help.”
Glenn struggled at first, but by the time they reached Cyrus’s horse all dissent was gone. The younger boy seemed simply in awe of Cyrus’s ragged mount.
“You’re going to let me ride?” Glenn seemed to be bubbling over with barely restrained excitement.
Cyrus smiled. It was the first time he’d seen Glenn act his age.
“Yes, I will,” he said, climbing into the saddle. He helped Glenn up next to him, and they rode toward the keep.

(Continued in Chapter 3, Part 2)

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