A test of honor, p.9
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       A Test of Honor, p.9

           Justin Hebert
 
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  Chapter 9

  "To kill by fight or subterfuge

  Clarence first could not decide.

  Then his blood became cold as steel

  thinking how his family died."

  - Katisha Franklin, 13 Septem, 1787 AC

  The next two weeks were a blur of training, reading, and shoveling camp food down his gob as quickly as possible so that he could get back to training or reading. After five days, six students clearly stood out as fast learners, including Quincy. He singled them out, handed each of them a wooden hip dagger with leather sheath, which he'd commissioned from Old Tom the carpenter.

  Aidan hadn't gone on any raids, but Charlene permitted him to share in the spoil, apparently deciding the service he provided was worthwhile. He chose items that would have value in camp, rather than the gold and silver objects so many of the other bandits chose. Paper, bowstrings, charcoal, cook-spits, and clothes (especially clothes!) were his for the taking whenever the raiders would return in the evening and pile up the take after choosing five items each for themselves. Food went into the common stock, and frequently the raiding squads would return with little or no physical spoil apart from what the Redtails could eat. You were right, Father.

  At least once a day, usually midday, he would visit Nadya. After a week, she was bedridden, and he would bring her meals and talk to her about comings and goings throughout the camp, gossip about who was probably sleeping with whom, bow his head as she gave thanks to her family gods. She would ask him if he'd read anything interesting in the journals, and he would eagerly recount everything he had learned. Father's was filled with stuffy accounts of the day's events, Troy's with impenetrable political theory, and Katisha's with a sugary mix of poetry, chivalric stories, and lists of which boys she liked. The lists were ordered from greatest to least.

  Every evening, he would sup with and then instruct the senior students, who wore their wooden daggers as conspicuously as war medals. They would plan the following day's practice, Aidan giving advice and guidance. Every morning, his advanced pupils would train small groups and personally help those who struggled. Aidan commissioned more wooden daggers, and approached Kluny about getting some proper daggers made for his six student leaders.

  "Just like this one," Aidan said, holding the dagger that Kluny lent him for the demonstration with Quincy, "but polished so bright you can see yourself in it. Brown softbark is fine for wrapping the hilt, but it needs to be treated so that it doesn't crack with age."

  "I know how to make a sheep-sticker, Sir Knight," Kluny said, speaking the most words to Aidan in a row that he could recall, "and I'll make it just fine without your help. You want 'em fancy-like, eh?"

  "I want them nice, but functional." Aidan said, knowing he was pressing his luck with the cantankerous old blacksmith, but wanting to make sure he was understood. "A fine weapon elevates the spirit with a sense of self-worth, it generates confidence-"

  Kluny started to pick through the various iron and bronze scraps he'd gotten from the last few days' spoil. He waved Aidan away as if shooing a pest. "Be gone, Sir, before I change my mind."

  Aidan bowed, despite the fact that Kluny wasn't even looking at him, and ambled back toward his tent for some more reading. He took a deep draught of the afternoon air, rich with the aromas of fresh clover blossoms and moss and black soil. He read the journals concurrently - reading his father's recounting of a given day would make him eager to read Troy's account, which would make him curious to discover Katisha's perspective. Sometimes they skipped days, and he would just have to imagine their reactions and opinions on various small events like deciding the cost of a trading permit for a lost merchant who traveled through Barrowdown selling fine glassware.

  Reading their words, their experience of life, made him feel like they were still with him in some way. Even when this obvious fiction was destroyed by the noisy scuffle between two toughs who accused one another of cheating or when the wind changed so that the stench from the cesspit they'd designated wafted over his tent, the resonance of his family's lives stayed with him in everything he did.

  "He's overcharging you, y'know," a woman's voice chimed behind him as he walked away from Kluny after placing his special order, "but I guess he's got to earn coin somehow, eh?"

  He turned to see Charlene, her braided hair freshly styled with intricate overlaps and neverending knots. She was wearing a thick, red woolen cloak overlaid with diagonal stripes of velvet and satin, the hood lined with fur and stiff enough to keep its shape while down, making it appear as though she were wearing some grand fancy collar of a court Lady.

  "My Queen," Aidan said, bowing respectfully as she approached, "you look even more beautiful than usual this evening."

  "I should hope so." She winked, and Aidan felt his face flush just as it had done the day of the demonstration. "I've got an engagement this evening with a young man I hope to know better."

  "And who is the lucky fellow?" Aidan forced himself to inquire, though he felt jealousy already rising in his throat like a piece of jammed food.

  "Oh, my good and chivalric Knight," she laughed, "you do amuse me sometimes. Come, walk with me."

  Aidan flushed a little, but still wondered whom Charlene was planning to meet with. "As you will, my Lady."

  They walked the perimeter of the camp, passing the occasional armored sentry, who bowed his head and muttered "M'Lady" at Charlene's presence. "Your training is having quite an effect on us."

  "Is it?" Aidan did his best to conceal his pride, but he was sure she saw straight through it. "I can stay, then?"

  "Frankly, good Sir," she laughed, and his heart raced with joy at the sound, "if you left, my people might just go with you."

  "You flatter me, my Lady," he answered, deflecting the compliment as he'd been trained to, "but I merely teach them how to fight. It is you who keep their spirits up when they doubt themselves, who treats each of them as your friend. Compared to that, I'm just a worn-out old Soldier."

  "You are far from worn out," she winked at him, and although the flirting made him glad, it also made him hope that whomever she was meeting with later wasn't the jealous type, "and you're far from old. We have plenty of codgers like Rodrig who still can pull a crossbow string."

  "Rodrig is a good man." Aidan wasn't sure why he said that, perhaps to soften her remark about him being a codger, no matter how jokingly she intoned it.

  "Yes, he is." She stopped and brushed a stray braid out of her face. Aidan looked into her deep-brown eyes and nearly lost himself. He had seen many extravagantly dressed court Ladies in his day, all of them so beautiful that they drew any man who saw them into their company like moths are drawn to lanterns. But there was something about Charlene, a spirit of courage and liberty like he'd never encountered that made this honestly plain-looking common girl more beautiful than even the most manicured and pampered princess.

  "Begging your pardon, my Lady," Aidan said, shaking himself from the trance that came every time he looked into her eyes, "but was there something in particular you needed from me?"

  She pursed her lips, and he couldn't fathom what he'd done to disappoint her. Obviously she'd moved on, seeing some young buck later in the evening. He wondered if romantic connection with one of her men would cause dissension in the others, upset the balance of power. Has she even considered this?

  "Word is, a caravan from one of Meadows' bootlicks will pass our way tomorrow. Feel like getting some use out of that scepter that sits on your waist?"

  "Who is it?"

  "Didn't think it mattered." She raised an eyebrow and tilted her head. "You said if it were Meadows' men-"

  "I know what I said." Aidan regretted asking, but some of Meadows' Vassals were good people who had fallen into that House's pockets because of their ancestors' poor choices. He didn't want Charlene to think him afraid, so he thought of an excuse. "I know some of them, might give us an edge."

  "Hm." She still appeared suspicious, but told him the name anyway. "T
hey call him Hauser. He's Count of Greenleaf or something."

  Aidan nodded. Lord Hauser, Count of Greenleaf, was whom his father once privately dubbed the laziest man I've ever met. It made Aidan smile to remember that Greenleaf was one of the richest counties in the area, thanks to their long-ago investment in wine grapes. "Count me in, of course."

  "Of course." She turned toward the camp and said, "I must beg my leave, Sir Aidan, but I will come for you midmorning tomorrow. Be ready."

  He bowed, and she stalked away, passing a sentry who gave a knuckled-brow salute as she passed. He approached Aidan, who was still considering what he had learned from Charlene. Tomorrow is the day I strike back at my enemy.

  "Good afternoon, my good man," Aidan said to the sentry, not wanting to be impolite. "What is the hour?"

  "Fifteen minutes past fourth hour, Sir. All quiet on the rim."

  The sentry knuckled his conical helmet, the nose guard shifting to the left a little at the gesture. Aidan returned the knuckle and then sprinted back to the camp in a hurry. He was late for his senior students' practice.

  The next day unfolded much the way Aidan believed it would. He rose early, meditated, washed himself, ate breakfast with several students, and shared stories with them. They marveled at his accounts of the weapons and ways of the Heavens. The idea of a Plaz musket capable of discharging multiple rounds as quickly as rain brought an equal amount of open-mouthed gaping and incredulous head shakes.

  After breakfast he sat in his tent, holding his father's journal in his hands. He closed his eyes and ran his fingers over the hard cover, feeling every groove, every rough patch, every corner worn smooth with heavy use. He resisted his temptation to open it, instead kissing his family seal adorned on the front and placing it respectfully with the other two. The three books sat on a strip of folded red velvet; they were his shrine.

  Following his ritual, Aidan pulled on his Kevlan Gambeson liner and donned his armor, piece by piece. As he left his tent and jogged to where his students would already be gathering on the grassy clearing nearby, he paused when he saw a shoot of wild bangleberry sprouting from the ground near the root of a tree. Katisha was fond of bangleberry leaves, often drawing their ragged-bordered, pointed ovals on her curving letters when she wrote in flowing calligraphy. He yanked a soft green branch from the little late-sprouting weed, pulling his gorget up and forcing his gauntleted hand to shove the delicate limb into his breastplate just over his heart.

  True to her word, Charlene came for him midmorning as he was running drills with his class. She stood in his eye line as he called out commands as though closely examining techniques. Aidan called for Trent, a big-chested Mardoni with brown skin so dark he could easily be mistaken for an Iridonian, to take over for the morning. A few of the students left, doubtless those whom Charlene had chosen for this raid. Aidan could feel his blood beginning to flow more freely. Today, he would fight back against the wrongs committed against him by the overreaching Deputy.

  "You look ready to storm the breech," a voice came from behind him. "What say we besiege Klauston together, you and I, Sir Aidan?"

  Aidan smiled as he recognized Connel, who looked much different in his full suit of black Kannitick Plate than he did in the plain-beige woolens he wore about camp. Aidan was very curious about this young fighter, this man who had conceded on account of his respect for Aidan's own chivalry.

  "Tell me, Sir Connel," Aidan began, choosing his words carefully so as not to offend, "where are you from?"

  "I grew up on Radcliffe Estate, down near the Southern Lords." Connel smiled, his faceplate still propped open above his head. "I come from House Wolvish."

  "Wolvish. Good name." Aidan didn't want to reveal that he had never heard of them. He wasn't lying, though. Wolvish was a good name, and he wondered if Connel's father and predecessors shared those same large canine teeth that did indeed make the young knight look like a wolf.

  "My Da trained me in the Knightly ways," his voice grew distant and sad, "told me to keep to 'em as best I could, the day we was evicted."

  "Evicted?"

  "Our Liege made promises he couldn't keep. Lord Lemange, Duke of Willowglen."

  Aidan spat at the mention of the name. Duke Lemange was a modern cautionary fable for the Noble class. He wanted to build an estate large enough to rival Klauston itself, so he borrowed money and manpower from whoever would give it. For five years, he did exactly what Connel said - made promises he was unable to fulfill. Awarded the same fief to several Knights, letting them fight it out among themselves. Eventually they got wise to his scheme and repaid him for his greed.

  "Did you take part in the uprising?"

  "Too young," he said, shaking his head as though filled with regret. "But I did see it happen."

  "Is it true they forced him to eat coins?"

  Connel smiled like a devil, and Aidan felt an unnatural chill. "Fed them to him on strings, the way merchants always keep them. Forced his mouth open with a sword, dropped the coins in his gullet until his stomach burst and he died moaning."

  The shiver that Aidan had been trying to fight off came unbidden, shaking his body and rattling his armor. "But your land was not restored."

  Connel shrugged. "Got to keep the title. Served a few Lords on spec, but usually got passed over for a nephew or a bootlick."

  Aidan was about to ask how he got involved with the Redtails when Charlene began speaking. It was near enough what he expected to help fuel his sense of impending victory. Lord Hauser was going to Klauston to meet with the Deputy; the Redtails would meet with him first to empty his pockets. Simple enough.

  "Try and avoid killing if you can," she was saying, her face and voice serious in equal measure, "because we're trying for a ransom, not an assassination."

  "The dead don't pay very well," Rodrig chimed in, looking likewise serious and stern, "so hold your fire and keep a disciplined hand on your weapons."

  "If there's one thing I think we can count on, Mr. Rodrig," Charlene said, a naughty smile creeping across her face, "their hands will be nothing but disciplined when it comes to their weapons."

  She gestured suggestively with her staff, and most of the twenty or so raiders gathered on horseback released a raucous laugh that was half chuckle, half shout. She eases their tension before a battle, just enough to relax their nerves but not enough to make them lax. No wonder they chose her. Rodrig had explained to him a few days ago how the Redtails chose their leaders by a vote, not unlike the Anarchists in the Heavens, which Aidan had fought. It bewildered him at first, but he was quickly coming to see the need for men who slit throats and feared no legal reprisals to feel like they had some say in who led them. Illusory power still felt like power.

  Half an hour later, Aidan was lying beneath by a great oleander hedge that bordered the road, fallen petals from its flowers strewn all around it. The ground wasn't wet enough to be called mud, neither dry enough to be called dirt, and it squished silently beneath him whenever he made even the slightest movement. Lord Hauser and his company of retainers were strolling along the road, quietly while peering at the tree line, muskets at the ready.

  Three horsmen outfitted in bright-red Kannitick Plate, each bearing their circular House Crests over their heart, rode about eight paces in front of the second rank, which consisted of Lord Hauser himself flanked on each side by similar Soldiers. Behind them, three more perfectly encircled their Liege in a protective formation. Aidan took a deep breath and held it for three beats, preparing himself for the moment of action.

  A bush near the tree line rustled, and the entire armed party halted, each Knight looking to the shaking shrub. A large hare suddenly burst from it, running across the grassy area between the road and the woods. Aidan felt his heart beat faster and his muscles tense as he let out his breath slowly. Everything appeared slower to him, the anticipation enhancing his senses. A few of the armored men laughed at the hare as it bounded across the meadow, and one even jokingly aimed his musket. Lord Hauser
was three paces in front of Aidan, gazing with his entire party in the direction opposite the oleander hedge where the Redtails lay in wait.

  His Kannitick Plate provided a boost as he leapt from the hedge, and in a flash he ducked under the head of the nearest horse and grabbed the reins of Lord Hauser's brown mount. In the two heartbeats it took the escorts to notice his arrival, he had Lord Hauser at the point of his crossbow, its deadly crystalline bolt swirling with cloudy-white elemental frost.

  They reacted swiftly, aiming their Plaz muskets at Aidan and shouting orders for him to drop his weapon. This allowed the other bandits hidden in the hedge to emerge, holding their own Plaz weapons and elemental crossbows at the other members of the party. For a tense beat, everyone was frozen in place; the Knights aimed their weapons at Aidan as the Redtails aimed their weapons at the Knights, and Aidan aimed his fatal weapon directly at their Liege, his finger hovering menacingly over the trigger mechanism. An uncomfortable silence descended upon them, and no one breathed.

  "Lord Hauser," Aidan said, his tone controlled and his words clear, "order your men to lower their weapons, and none of you will be harmed."

  "It's a dangerous game you're playing, lad," Lord Hauser said, his voice a baritone as it echoed in his armored suit. "Sure you know the stakes?"

  "Do I need to count to three?" Aidan knew better than to answer questions or listen to his quarry. He had to exert control.

  "There will be consequences for this."

  "One."

  Lord Hauser sighed. "No need for dramatics. Do as he says, men; lower your weapons and yield."

  They obeyed, loosing a few angry growls as the Redtails confiscated their muskets, pistols, swords, and axes. Lord Hauser opened his faceplate, glaring at Aidan with narrow blue eyes, his gray-speckled brown beard matted against the chin cup. Aidan returned the courtesy, lifting his faceplate and enjoying the look of shock that came over his quarry's face.

  "Sir Aidan, is that you?"

  "Choose one of your retainers as a messenger. Your ransom is one thousand crowns."

  The middle-aged Noble flinched at the figure, but turned to one of the rear Knights and nodded. The bandits let go his reins, and he flew in the direction they had come from, whipping his horse furiously.

  "Should we take their plate?" Erick asked, training each of his Plaz pistols on two different Knights.

  "They didn't resist, Erick," Charlene answered, her voice holding an irritated edge.

  "Still, it's tempting." He smiled as several of the Knights tensed. "We could even slit their throats once the ransom arrives, double our take."

  "And have five posses hunting us within the week," Rodrig said, his voice betraying anxiety that Erick was about to do something rash.

  "Erick," Charlene said, clearly forcing her voice to remain measured and calm, "either close your trap or take a walk back to camp."

  "Just posing the question."

  Aidan looked around nervously and saw a few of the other bandits begin to lick their lips as though tempted. Erick's eyes, however, were locked on Charlene, and Aidan realized what he was playing at. He's trying to organize a mutiny, right in the middle of a job. Moving slowly to avoid inducing panic, Aidan reached for a pistol slung on his hip while he held the ice-bolt crossbow in his left hand. Once he reached it, he drew it across his body.

  "Erick, your options are clear: shut the fuck up or leave." Aidan had locked the firing hammer back as he drew the weapon, and it was now aimed directly at the tall, bulky bandit. He turned to Lord Hauser. "If you would be so kind, my Lord, would you please swear upon your honor that you'll not try to escape until your ransom is secured?"

  Lord Hauser lifted an eyebrow and looked around as though trying to decide whether he wanted to watch the Redtails slaughter one another. After a few tense, quiet heartbeats, he answered. "On my honor and the honor of my sworn retainers, we will not attempt escape or hostile action until our ransom is safe in your hands."

  Aidan lowered the crossbow, keeping his pistol trained firmly on Erick, who looked from Aidan and to the others around the group. He pressed his fat lips together and lowered his pistols, spitting near the feet of the horse nearest him. He gave Aidan a tilted smile and mocking bow, as though acquiescing to his authority. The other Redtails all lowered their weapons, apparently satisfied with Lord Hauser's oath, though Charlene ordered them to stand guard at the rear, and a few ran back to their position in the oleander hedge.

  "If you men would care to dismount and stretch your legs," Charlene told their quarry, "you may do so. If any attempt escape, Lord Hauser's life is forfeit."

  Lord Hauser and all of the others dismounted and stretched. Aidan removed the elemental bolt from its fitting, placing it carefully back into the padded bag where it belonged. He unlocked his pistol's hammer and slung it back on his hip, next to his mace.

  "From the tourney field to the flowery hedge," Lord Hauser said, looking at Aidan with uncertainty. "Most can't decide if you're a hero or a heel."

  "And what is your conclusion?" Aidan asked, surprised to hear that he had not been universally condemned.

  "I think you're in a difficult spot," he said in a tone equally noncommittal to his verdict, adding, "but I can't say I blame you for being angry."

  "I am sure you registered a formal protest with the Deputy," Aidan snarked, still eyeing Erick to make sure his little display of strength was truly finished. The big man squatted on the ground now, scratching in the dirt with a stick.

  "In times like these, it doesn't pay to stick your neck out for someone who's not sworn to you." The way he emphasized sworn got Aidan's attention. Is he trying to tell me something?

  "I don't suppose Lord Meadows would take too kindly to your placing me under your protection."

  "I don't imagine he would, but he'd have to accept it. I happen to know that the King is eager to put this ugliness behind us."

  Aidan considered these words. If the King sponsored Hauser's decision to take Aidan as his sworn retainer, the Deputy could do nothing about it. There would be consequences certainly, but perhaps Hauser's fortunes had improved. Still, there must be a cost. No one does something like this without certain expectations.

  "And the price of your protection?"

  "I think you can discern that for yourself." Lord Hauser looked significantly at Aidan's now-unloaded crossbow, then to Connel, Charlene, Rodrig, and Erick, pausing at each one significantly. The message was clear: Turn on your fellow bandits and rescue me. No doubt his retainers would help. Even unarmed, anyone was dangerous in Kannitick Plate.

  Lord Hauser lilted his eyebrows slightly, as though asking Aidan if he agreed. Against his will, Aidan pictured the scene: First he would load his crossbow subtly and kill Connel. Then he would draw his pistol and kill Charlene, his mace to kill Rodrig, who would be a little slow to react as he was currently massaging a leg cramp. Then he would mount Lord Hauser's horse, pulling the Noble up to sit behind him as the two rode back to his castle, braining Erick with his mace if the man was too stupid to yield, which he would be.

  Angrily, he closed his eyes tightly and tried to rid himself of the images, but ever since he returned from fighting in the Heavens he had found it more difficult to ignore such imagery. He looked Lord Hauser straight in the eyes and shook his head, glowering at the man.

  "Watch him," Aidan growled to Woodsen, who walked over with his lowered musket. For the next two hours, Aidan waited impatiently for the runner to return. Every time he glanced at Lord Hauser, the man just pursed his lips and lilted his eyebrows again as though reminding him of the terrible offer. When the retainer finally approached, alone and carrying a sack that appeared filled with coins, Aidan breathed a sigh of relief and felt a weight lift from his shoulders.

  "Most of you are sworn Knights, just as I used to be." Aidan felt the need to give them a warning he wished someone would have given him long ago. "Be warned: what has happened to me can happen to any one of you."

  One of them made some
rude comment under his breath, and the party laughed as they mounted their horses and rode away unimpeded. Aidan burned with a desire to challenge them, to fight them steel to steel and defend his House's honor. Instead, he watched their mount's rumps grow smaller and smaller as they continued on their journey to Klauston.

  "Quite a speech," Rodrig said, clapping Aidan on the shoulder. "If only they had ears to hear."

  "He tried to turn me against the lot of you, you know."

  "Hauser?" Rodrig glared at the departing company and spat. "Gutless coward."

  "There was a time I would have thought him a perfectly Noble gentleman. He was sworn to our enemy, but he never had a direct conflict with my family."

  "And how do you think of him now?"

  "The same way I think of all of them." Aidan lowered his faceplate and flicked a few thumb-switches to lock his helm closed. "They're even worse criminals than we are."

 
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