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Protector - Squire Part 15

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Suddenly he began to fly around the narrow confines of the tent, not stopping. The sparrows hid under the cot; Jump barked his objections. At last the griffin dropped onto his platform bed, curled up under spread and trembling wings, and went to sleep. The sparrows came out of hiding to stare at Kel.

"I have no idea," Kel said in response to their unspoken query. "Maybe he thinks he needs practice."

"Whatever that was, it looked really strange," Owen said. He stood in Kel's open tent flap.

Tired as she was, she smiled at him. He'd barely said a word around the others. "Come in," she invited.

Owen shook his head. "You need sleep. I just wanted to ask, could I help you arm up? Myles, he's a good fellow, but... It may be the only time I can arm someone for combat."



Though she would rather get ready alone, Kel wasn't coldhearted enough to resist that doleful face. She would feel the same in Owen's shoes. "Would you?" she asked. "I'd like it, if you wouldn't mind."

Owen brightened. "Mind? Not me! Really? You're sure? Wonderful! I'll see you at lunch!" He ran down the lane with a whoop.

Kel shook her head, smiling. She went to tell Raoul, since he'd helped her to arm for Ansil. He agreed to let Owen do it. Kel bade him goodnight, and returned to her quarters for a better night's sleep than she'd had the night before.

The next day Kel sent her friends away again, making them leave her and Peachblossom in the waiting area to watch the jousts that preceded theirs. Owen had done a good job of arming her. Now she settled her gauntlets and took a deep breath. The joust before hers had ended. Monitors cleared the lanes.

The herald in charge came to give Kel her instructions. He had gone and Kel was in the saddle when something ungainly and orange flapped over the stands and glided to the field. The griffin reached the end of Kel's tilting lane as she did, perching clumsily atop the wooden barrier. He panted, beak open, as he glared at Kel.

"Do you feel clever?" Kel demanded. "I thought you couldn't get out of the tent."

The griffin rose on his hind legs, fanned his wings, and voiced a screech that echoed the length and breadth of the tournament field. Kel shivered; the hair stood on the back of her neck. "Stop that," she ordered. "Behave. I mean it. Otherwise I'll chain you next time."

Sir Voelden was ready at the end of his lane. Kel lowered her visor and waited for the trumpet call. "Charge," she whispered to Peachblossom.

Voelden was more sure of himself than Ansil, but he was slower and heavier. Kel adjusted her grip and struck his shield squarely, just as his lance struck hers. They swerved and returned to their original ends of the field.

The griffin shrieked as Kel pa.s.sed him, his cry ringing in the air. The people in the stands were so quiet that Kel heard alarm calls from distant jays and crows. The griffin had frightened the birds; he'd made Voelden's stallion rear; but Peachblossom's only response was to blow at the immortal as he went by.

In position, Kel waited. The trumpet called. Peachblossom charged without Kel's saying a word. Rising in the saddle, she aimed at Voelden's shield and shifted to put more force behind her lance, a trick she had learned from Raoul. Voelden's shield ripped free of its straps and went flying. Something hit Kel's ribs like a hammer. She gasped for air. A man shouted, "Foul!" People roared in disapproval. What happened? she wondered, swaying in the saddle.

Peachblossom lunged at Voelden over the barrier. "No!" Kel whispered. She hauled on the reins, trying to breathe. "Peachblossom, curse you, stop it!" she yelled. The command emerged as a breathy squeak. She turned him and headed to their starting point, then checked her breastplate. There was a dimple the size of a fist under her heart. Voelden had tried to run her through.

Kel asked her field monitor for water and a fresh lance. It gave her time to catch her breath. She inhaled, refilling sore lungs, and wondered how to answer Voelden. Deliberately trying to kill an opponent unannounced was dishonorable.

"You can retire from the lists." The monitor pa.s.sed her a fresh lance.

"Thank you, but no," Kel replied, trying to speak normally. She turned into her lane and waited.

The signal came; Peachblossom charged. Kel rose and braded herself. She angled her shield so Voelden couldn't slide his lance past it, and struck his shield hard. Her lance shattered; so did his. Kel rammed her shield forward and hooked it behind Voelden's. Slamming her body sideways behind the locked shields, she heaved. Voelden popped from his saddle to hit the ground.

The crowd roared and came to its feet.

Kel dismounted and walked over to him, drawing her sword. He hadn't moved. She flipped up his visor with her sword point and pressed the sharp tip to his nose.

"Yield," she advised, her voice even. "Or I carve my initial right there."

He raised gauntleted hands. "I yield."

Kel smiled coldly. "And they say conservatives can't learn."

She walked back to Peachblossom, her ribs making her wince as she ducked under the barrier. Rather than remount, she led Peachblossom back down the field. All around her she heard a chant, and raised her head. Groups of people in the stands were on their feet, crying, "Mindelan! Mindelan! Mindelan!"

Queen Thayet and a group of women that included Kel's mother bore her away despite her protests. Peachblossom would be groomed and watered, Thayet said firmly. Kel was to be quiet and await a healer's inspection. She worried about the griffin until her mother said he now sat on the peak of the queen's tent, having followed them.

Inside, efficient hands unbuckled her breastplate, removed her helmet, and stripped off her mail and gambeson. Her cotton shirt was peeled away to reveal a sweat-soaked breastband and a huge, spreading bruise on her right side. The women hissed in sympathy.

The healer laid gentle fingers on the bruise. Coolness radiated from her touch, easing the ferocious pain. "Nothing's broken," the healer told the queen. "The bones are bruised, but I can handle that." She rested a palm on Kel's bruise. "Don't fight me," she warned.

"My children don't fight healers," remarked Dane, "or I'll know why."

Kel rolled her eyes. "Mother" she said with disgust, "I haven't done that in years."

"Good," Ilane replied, unperturbed. "If you forget, there are plenty of fans here for me to whack you with."

Coolness turned into cold on her side. Painlessness sank into her abused ribs; Kel almost felt them pop in relief. "Ouch," she said as an unexpected sharp pain bit into her side.

"I was wrong; one rib is cracked. Hold still and be quiet," ordered the healer.

Kel stared at the canvas overhead until the healer made the bone whole. At last the woman stepped away. "Sleep, food," she ordered. "Sleep will probably come first."

Already Kel's eyelids were drooping. "The griffin," she murmured.

"I'll mind him." Daine's face appeared in Kel's view. "I need to see why he's so upset."

Kel nodded her understanding, and slept.

Kel returned to her tent late that night after she'd eaten, still groggy. The sparrows were asleep for the night. Jump, who had found Kel as she ate, curled up under her cot. Only the griffin showed any desire to be awake. Standing on the ground rather than his platform home, he paced back and forth. If Kel hadn't been exhausted, she might have been kept awake by the soft padding of his feet. She had just enough will to remove her boots before she rolled herself up in a blanket and slept the night away.

The camp was nearly quiet when Kel rose. The monarchs had set a rest day with no special events. Once Kel had tended her animals and her gear, she decided a visit to the lake was in order. The griffin needed a bath.

Carrying him, she negotiated the narrow, gra.s.sy streets with ease. Everyone moved out of the way rather than risk touching the griffin. He ignored them, trying to groom himself with little success. At the lake Kel sought a large, flat stone she had noted when she and Cleon talked in the tree. There she set up her operation: Jump, drying cloths, a corked bottle with the mildest soap available, and jerky strips for bribes.

She was lowering the griffin into the water for a last rinse when he whirled and raced up her arms, digging into clothes and flesh as he climbed. Kel, half off the rock, yelped and clung desperately as the griffin rose to his hind feet on her back, fanning his wings so hard she felt the breeze. He shrilled, his voice rising and falling in a series of notes that made her skin creep. She scrabbled back from the edge and turned slowly. The griffin dug in, then leaped over Kel to stand on the rock, still voicing that eerie cry. Jump faced the land, growling deep in his throat, his one good ear flat. Kel sat up.

A huge, winged creature, its feathers brindled gold and black, spiraled down from the sky to land beside Kel's rock. A second creature the color of newly minted copper touched the ground ten yards behind the brindled one. Seated, they towered over Kel, the brindled griffin nearly seven feet tall at the shoulder, the coppery one six feet at the shoulder. Kel gulped. She was in very serious trouble with no Third Company or Daine to protect her.

She pulled the young griffin toward her. If these two had sensed him in their territory, they may have come to kill him or drive him off, as mortal predators did with intruders. She did not like their large claws and their cold gazes. Their eyes were intelligent, the brindled griffin's gold, the other's a darker copper than its feathers. If they were the griffin's parents, she was about to die. She only had her belt knife - their claws were longer than it was.

The young griffin screeched and struggled from Kel's hold, leaving long scratches on her arms and chest. He stood on the rock in front of her and rose to his hind legs, wings spread for balance. Kel stayed very still, not sure what was going on.

An eagle hurtled from the sky, landing between Kel's rock and the griffins with an undignified thud. It immediately began to change shape until a small form of Daine's head perched on the eagle's body. "Kel, it's all right!" Daine said without turning away from the griffins. "They're his parents. That's why he was so restless yesterday. They were close enough he could sense them."

Kel looked from one griffin to the other. "Parents?" she whispered. She had thought Daine would never find them. Her charge had been with her for over a year.

The youngster trotted over to the brindled adult, twining between its large forelegs like a kitten. Now the copper one hopped ten yards to land beside its mate. It peered under the larger griffin's ribcage to inspect Kel's charge. The young griffin b.u.t.ted his head against the copper griffin's nose. The copper one reached out a forepaw, dragged the little griffin to itself, and began to wash him.

Daine clapped her wings to her human ears. "Please, lady, gently," she said, tears in her eyes. "No need to shout. It hurts." After a moment she took her wings away and looked at Kel. "They gave me their names, but I can't p.r.o.nounce them. The brindled one is his father. The copper one is his mother." She winced and continued, "They thank you for all you've done. I said you've been searching for them all this time, through me. I also told them you killed the centaur who was going to keep him."

Kel looked at the griffin. Seeing him now with his parents, she realized he was still tiny, still an infant in griffin terms. This had happened before, with wild mortal animals she'd rescued as babies; the time always came when they had to rejoin their kind.

The brindled one - his father - reached over the copper griffin's wings and worked a cloth bag loose of its ties with his beak. He dropped it in front of Kel.

"This is just a token, they say," explained Daine. "They can't really thank you for what you did, but they know humans value their feathers."

The female yanked a trailing feather from her son's tail. The youngster squalled - Kel could have told them he hated to have loose feathers yanked - until his father set a forepaw on his shoulders and pressed him down.

"They say he has learned bad habits," Daine told Kel. "They never allow a young one to make so much noise."

The female laid the orange feather on the bundle. Mother and father traded looks, then nodded to Daine and Kel. Grabbing his son by the scruff of his neck, the male took off first, the young griffin secure and squalling in his beak. The female joined them in the air.

Kel sniffed. She was rid of the little crosspatch, and his mess, and his temper. She ought to be celebrating, not sniveling. "This is ridiculous," she muttered. She found the handkerchief she kept in her boot and blew her nose. "He's with his own kind. I don't even like him."

"You did the right thing," Daine said.

Kel nodded. "It's a weight off my mind, or it will be. You get used to anything - " She looked at Daine, still a human head on an eagle's body. "Well, maybe you don't."

Daine chuckled and shaped herself entirely eagle, then took flight. Kel gathered up the bathing things and the griffins' gift. "That's that," she told Jump. "The sparrows will be pleased."

She didn't open the griffins' bag until she reached her tent. It held a fortune in brindled gold and copper griffin feathers. The creatures had said their thanks in an easy way, gathering the results of their last molts. Kel tucked the baby griffin's feathers into the bag with them - she had saved them all, half-thinking his parents might want them - then packed the bag away. For the first time in over a year she could travel light, without platforms, dishes, drying cloths, jerky, and fishing gear. She didn't have to worry about his meals or keeping him away from other human beings.

When she'd rid herself of all the griffin-care baggage, she collapsed onto her cot and put her hands behind her head. "Maybe this won't be so bad," she told Jump and the sparrows.

The progress moved on. At each new tournament location, Kel was offered a match with someone. Once she learned that a refusal meant someone would disrupt time with her friends to slap her with a glove and challenge her, she accepted the matches when proposed. They were safer: padding was worn instead of armor, and lances were padded and tipped with a coromanel to blunt the shock of impact. Matches were supposed to be less a fight than an exhibition of skill. There were fewer injuries and no deaths. Also, unlike a challenge, there was no penalty in equipment or coin paid when she lost. And she did lose from time to time.

Most of Kel's opponents were knights. A handful were squires - Joren was never one of them. Raoul pointed out that those Kel faced were nearly all conservatives. "They want to prove you're not as good as the lads," he explained. "When you show you're equal to most knights, you make those whose brains haven't turned to stone think. They might even remember that once there were female knights throughout the Eastern Lands, in dark times when every sword was needed. It was only a century ago."

She won two out of three matches. She hated to lose, but knew that if she won every time, people would whisper that someone used magic on her behalf. After one loss Kel was ma.s.saging her hand - it was numb after three shattered lances in a row - when her opponent rode up. Removing his gauntlet, he offered his hand to shake. Kel removed her own glove and took it, not sure what the man intended.

"I owe you an apology, squire," he said. "I heard things - well, they were untrue. I apologize. I wish you well." He backed his mount to the center of the tilting field and bowed to her, hand over his heart.

The leaves turned color, then fell. It got cold. The progress crossed the Olorun just east of Corus. A tournament was set up outside Fief Blythdin, the festivities brightened by the scarlet-and-gold uniforms of the pages. Lord Wyldon had granted them a holiday of sorts. They got to observe a tournament, and the squires were freed from banquet service as pages did the work.

On the second night of the tournament, Kel and Cleon stopped so she could read the board that listed the next day's proposed matches. If someone wanted out of the match, he had until midnight to change the listings.

"I'm on again," Kel murmured. It was hard to read the board. She borrowed a torch from the lane and held it up so she could see.

"What a surprise," Cleon joked, tugging a stick out of Jump's mouth.

Kel's mouth popped open when she read her opponent's name. "You'd better see the coffin maker and order me a box," she told Cleon as he threw the stick for Jump to chase.

He straightened, confused, and read the name she pointed to: Wyldon of Cavall.

"G.o.ds protect me, you're going to die a virgin," he whispered. "What say we find a nice private haystack and take care of that?"

Kel elbowed him. She didn't think she was ready to share his bed, though she certainly liked kissing him. She wondered why he joked about making love to her but never tried to do so. Squires tumbled girls of the lower cla.s.ses all the time; they were infamous for it. Kel feared both possible explanations for his refusal to press her. Either her large, muscular body was ugly to him, which seemed unlikely when they kissed; or he meant to marry her as people of their station married, with the bride a virgin.

"Never mind the haystack, just visit the coffin maker," she told him, and sighed. "I'd best turn in early," she said, resting a hand on his arm. They were in a shadowy pocket with few pa.s.sersby; they were safe enough for a discreet touch. "I'll need all the rest I can get before he pounds me into the mud."

"He can't still dislike you," Cleon said.

"I don't think he does," Kel replied. "But that won't stop him from pounding me into the mud."

"Maybe you'll win?" Cleon offered. "You're pretty good. You've beaten knights."

Kel just gave him a look, her brows raised.

Cleon hung his head. "I know, I know, but I thought I should mention it. I ought to get credit for the compliment."

Kel smiled at him and put the torch back. "Good night, silly." She walked on down the lane.

He caught her and tugged her into a dark niche by the stands, where he kissed her warmly. Kel matched his warmth with hers: she liked the taste of him. "Good night, sunrise," he whispered, and let her go.

As if the weather G.o.ds overheard Kel's mud remarks, rain during the night left a sloppy tilting field in its wake. Peachblossom grumbled, Jump rolled in the stuff, and the sparrows ignored it.

Waiting to take the field, Kel looked down its length at her training master. He and his mount waited alone, hearing the chief herald's instructions. His wife sat in the stands, someone had said; his conservative friends sat with her. Kel knew, though, that Wyldon must like that moment of quiet before he mounted up, just as she did.

Now the herald rode to Kel's side of the field.

She accepted her helmet from a monitor and put it on, then took up her lance and urged Peachblossom to their starting point. Gobbets of mud were thrown up by the herald's trotting mount. Kel grimaced. She hated sloppy ground; it took days to get the grit out of her gear.

"I don't know why I came over," the herald remarked when he was within earshot. "By now you know the rules as well as I. Lord Raoul asked me to tell you that if you get yourself killed, he will never speak to you again."

"So helpful," Kel replied.

The herald saluted her with a raised hand and rode off the field. Kel and Wyldon took their places in the lanes. When the trumpet blew, they charged and came together in a grinding crash; both lances shattered. Kel rode to her end of the field, gasping for air. Lord Wyldon didn't have Raoul's height and weight, but her side was numb from his impact all the same. She waited until she could feel her arm and hand properly, thinking, lucky for us tournament lances are so easily made. A strong young sapling, a man who's shaped wood all his life, and I'm ready to be pounded again. She accepted a fresh lance and turned Peachblossom for their second run.

The trumpet sounded. On came Wyldon as Kel's focus narrowed to his shield. She barely felt Peachblossom under her, barely noticed Wyldon or his mount, just his shield as she rose, balanced, and hit. Again a splintering crash: Kel's lance went to pieces; a third of Wyldon's snapped off. They returned to their start points for new lances.

I'm doomed, Kel thought. I should have bedded Cleon before I died.

The trumpet blared. Peachblossom flew down the track, an avalanche of a horse. She set herself and realized too late she was wrong; her weight was now in the worst possible spot if she wanted to stay in the saddle. Her lance hit the rim of Wyldon's shield; his struck just under the boss on hers. Kel's bottom rose from the saddle, her boots popped from the stirrups. She went flying.

She set her body for the fall, and landed in a clatter of metal and a splat of mud. She sat up, ears ringing. Removing her helmet improved matters. Her ears didn't stop ringing, but now it wasn't so loud.

Lord Wyldon approached on his horse, helmet tucked under his arm. His clean-shaven face was handsome in a cold way, marked with dark eyes and a scar that went from one eyelid into the cropped hair over his temple. His bald crown gleamed in the sun. "Coming along nicely, Mindelan," he said, his voice as cool and crisp as ever. "I wouldn't have let you joust until your third year, but Lord Raoul was right to let you try. Keep your shield higher by an inch or so. Need a hand up?"

"No, sir, I thank you." Peachblossom had come to urge her to her feet. Kel hauled herself upright by grabbing her saddle.

"Has Joren given you further trouble?"

She was surprised that he'd asked. "No, sir, I don't believe he has."

Lord Wyldon raised dark brows. "You don't believe so? I taught you to report more precisely, Mindelan."

Kel stood straighter in response to the reprimand in the training master's voice. "He spends time walking about with knights who later challenge me. Of course, his is a very well known family. That might account for it."

"No doubt." For a moment Wyldon looked away, shaking his head. Then he met her eyes again. "Remember what I said about your shield. Hold steady, Keladry." He rode off the field.

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Protector - Squire Part 15 summary

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