Ranulf couldn’t hold back his excitement. I’m home! He wanted to urge his palfrey forward and gallop up the hill to the stone gatehouse guarding the entry point to his family’s seat at Orgryt Castle.
“Don’t think of it, pup. You’ll act respectable. I’ll not have it said Wymerth forgets manners in their teachings.” Sir Boadren, his master spoke out. The man who oversaw Ranulf’s training as a squire winked at his companion, Sir Waren, a man in his 30’s. They both understood what it was like to be a young boy visiting home for the first time since he left to foster at Baron Wymerth’s demesnes; nonetheless, Ranulf had to show patience and follow his orders.
The ride through the two gates took longer than Ranulf remembered it did when he rode away as a child of six. He sat straight, trying to make his master, and his sire, proud. A welcome breeze helped to cool the heavy heat of the Fire Moon. Summer was the worst time to travel. Ranulf was glad they had beaten the looming storm. Even as they halted their horses, he could thunder claps booming across the Centyri Valley.
Ranulf’s sire, Sir Gilbert, the Earl of Corbeau stood with one of Ranulf’s two brothers, Jared. The oldest of his brothers, and the heir to the earldom, Arthur, was at Nalavignon, squiring with Sir Demetris. There was no mistaking a relationship between father and sons: Jared, Ranulf, and Gilbert; all three had black hair, brown eyes, and when the boys were fully grown, they would be tall and just as fit as their sire.
“Welcome, Sir Boadren, how was your ride?” Gilbert asked.
Boadren dismounted, handing the reins to a stable boy. “Skirted a storm, and swam through Deercreek River. Bloody water was running higher than normal this time of year.”
“Aye, that river collects water from the mountains, which have been hit hard by summer monsoons. Come inside where a mug of ale, or wine, waits.”
Sir Waren grinned, “Bowie, are you going to keep us out here while you talk or can we accept Earl Gilbert’s hospitality?” He slapped the knight’s shoulder. “I’ve had it with the elements, I’m going inside. Stay out and watch the storm arrive if you wish. Come on, young Ranulf, and greet your family properly.”
Boadren glared at his friend, “I was about to release my squire, Waren. Must you usurp my authority any chance you can?”
“Get over yourself, Boadren.” He whispered to the knight, “Can’t you see the longing between the sire and the son?”
Boadren let out a sigh. “Aye, I did. I wanted to say a word on Ranulf’s progress first. I suppose it can wait until later. Let’s get settled. I could use the company of a willing woman tonight.”
As much as he hated washing behind his ears, Ranulf had to admit that it did feel good to be clean. 13 year old Ranulf de Corbeau stood by the fireplace as he toweled the last of the wetness from his body. I can’t believe it’s been a year since I started squire training. He threw the towel on a chair. He flexed his biceps, posing, as he watched his shadow on the stone wall closest to the hearth. He smiled, imagining what life would be like once he was fully grown, wearing the spurs of a knight. Royalty and nobility would flock to him, asking for his help and showering him with gifts after he solved their problems. His name would cause his enemies to weep with fear.
Ranulf was still daydreaming when Miles, a castle servant, opened the door. “Master Ranulf, you tarry at dressing, hurry now. You sire calls for you at his side.”
Embarrassed at being caught, Ranulf’s face flushed red. He quickly pulled on his clothing. “Where is he, Miles?”
The servant gathered the dirty clothes Ranulf had discarded on the floor. He is within his private solar, with your brother, Jared and his advisors.”
“Thank you.” Ranulf didn’t waste any time, jogging along the halls and down stairs, finger-combing his thick hair and securing his belt. He bounced down the stone steps, almost flattening a servant carrying a tray of food on her way upstairs. Throwing out a quick ‘Sorry!’ Ranulf tried to be aware of those in his path. It wouldn’t do at all to injure any of his father’s people.
Sir Feris, a scowl on his face when Ranulf stopped short of barreling in to him, stood guard in the entrance to the Earl’s private solar. “Whoa there, boy, else you feel the taste of my blade by your careless actions.”
Ranulf caught his breath. “I didn’t run in to your sword, Sir Feris. I can judge my distance well enough.”
“Watch yer tongue, lad, and take caution, next time slow down else I’ll teach you a lesson.”
Ranulf mumbled an apology as he passed the knight. He knocked on the door to his father’s private solar. Hearing a response to enter, Ranulf opened the door enough to squeeze through the entry.
His father sat at his table with Sir Boadren, Sir Waren, Sir Sandre –the Seneschal, Sir Gareth – the Marshall, and Sir William. His brother Jared sat proudly beside Sir William, his master and mentor. The men were in good humor, having just broken their fast.
“Come in, son,” his father said with a smile, “and sit next to me. Sir Boadren has been informing us of your progress.”
Ranulf looked at the man who controlled his future. Sir Boadren’s face was neutral. What did he tell father? As directed, he sat in the empty chair between his sire and his brother, Jared.
“Cheer up boy, your skin has gone pallid. One would think I’ve sent for the executioner.” The men laughed at Gilbert’s jape. “Here, have a drink of ale, son. It’ll put the color back in your cheeks. Tomorrow we shall go hunting Trihorn in honor of Ranulf surviving his first year as a squire.” Gilbert slapped his youngest son on the back. “May Zabe bless him with a long and eventful life, as all boys wish.”
“That is a hell of a curse to put upon the boy, Gilbert.” Gareth said. “Why don’t you slap a slave collar ‘round his neck at the same time.”
Sir Sandre placed a restraining hand on Sir Gareth’s shoulder as he spoke up. “Relax Gareth, and stop baiting our liege. Think about when you were Ranulf’s age…and tell me true, what were your dreams of, if not of great adventures?”
“I admit to seeing myself as a great knight and I challenge every man in this room who denies the same, but boyhood fancies and putting out a blessing are not the same. Placing one’s flesh and blood under the notice of a god is catamount to setting fire to a tree that one is sitting on: the epitome of foolishness.” Sir Gareth replied.
Gilbert jumped to his feet, “Must you always be so unruly, Gareth? You call me foolish? I’ll not be insulted in front of my guests. Let us retire to the lists, where we shall settle whether or not I am unfit with our fists.”
Gareth slammed his fists on the table. “Idiot, I made a promise long ago to you, Gilbert, that I would never hold back my true thoughts. Today I must back up my words with my fists? If that is your wish, we go now.”
Jared leaned over to whisper in his brothers’ ear, “Father, Sandre, and Gareth act like old women, pecking and jawing at one another. Two, sometimes all three, of them fight at least once a month; most of the time, father wins. Before Mother died, she would send the combatants to the healer. She never could get them to stop. After the fight, they go back to being best friends again.”
Jared and Ranulf followed the men out of the castle and to the lists. Ranulf was surprised, and slightly embarrassed at the large crowd of guards and knights who joined them to watch his father battle his closest friend, and second-in-command. Bets were tossed about as to who would win this time.
Gareth and Gilbert shed off sword belts in the spirit of fair play. Good-natured insults were bantered back & forth, both men dancing around one another, waiting to see who would throw the first punch. Gareth gave in, swinging –and missing- on his attempt. In a matter of seconds, the two combatants let lose a maelstrom of fisticuffs.
“Get him, Father! Knock him out!” Ranulf couldn’t help himself, as he yelled in excitement. When Gareth went to his knees, blood streaming from his nose, Ranulf let out a roar of triumph for his father’s win.
Gilbert held out a hand to help Gareth to his feet. “Zabe’s blood, Gareth, I’ll have one hell of a shiner by the end of the day.”
“I’ll lay you out next time, old man.” Gareth said, spitting out blood.
“Not likely, old friend. I held back today, not wanting to make you look bad.” Gilbert retorted, gingerly checking to see if his nose was broken. “Tomorrow morning, at dawn we hunt. Today, we spend telling tales and enjoying our visitor’s company. Ranulf, come with me so I may have speech with you without interference.”
“Aye, father.” Ranulf answered.
Back in his father’s solar, Ranulf found a comfortable chair next to the fire. His sire pulled up a chair alongside. Gilbert poured a goblet of wine of wine for both of them.
“I am pleased by your diligence to observe and learn at Baron Wymerth’s keep. Owen sends regular letters to me. He tells me you have an aptitude for seeking information. Has he taken you aside to speak of extra training yet?”
Ranulf took a deep breath. Wymerth told me not to speak of my special training. He said it was a secret that only my year mates, he, and the King knew of my extra skills. He started at his goblet.
“Son, I know of Wymerth’s special training. The Wymerth family has provided their services to squires for many generations. Only their family, the King, and those trained know of what is taught. I went there and was taught by his sire. I gave Owen permission to train you. What skill does he teach you?”
Ranulf looked up, a burden lifted off his shoulders. “You know?”
“Aye, son, I do. Don’t mistake my awareness as permission to tell others. It’s not. You can speak to me, to your year mates, the King, and Owen. No one else must know, not even your wife should you marry one day.”
Ranulf nodded, Baron Wymerth had emphasized the same warning with showing him, and the other two squires, a prisoner locked up. The man’s tongue had been cut out. He was a disgraced knight who tried to blackmail Owen Wymerth. Killing would have been a kindness. Owen used the man as a practice subject for his squires. “Baron Wymerth says I am to be trained in torture, for the purpose of extracting information. He says I am not bothered by the pain of others, which would make me good at discovering information by the means of flesh.”
“I would have hoped for a better road for you. That skill will make your name feared. Make your peace with Zabe after each session, son, for such a skill will stain your soul.”
Ranulf nodded his head. He had feared the same. “I shall do as you say, Da, what did you learn there?”
“I am a master of disguises & languages. This allows me to enter a city or country to perform a task for the King and is why I am often away on hunting trips or checking our other holdings. I rely on Gareth to watch over our home when I’m not here. Our lives as Kings’ knight’s are difficult son, but rewarding. If we are severely injured, the King provides for us. If we are killed, he takes care of our families. He knows we are his servants for life.”
“I will be the best, then. I promise.”
Gilbert held out his arms. “Come here, Ranulf.” He hugged his son. “I know you will. You have a courageous spirit. I just wish you had a different path to walk.”
It was a glorious day for a Trihorn hunt. Ranulf sat on a sturdy bay gelding waiting for his father to mount his own hunter. Jared nudged his chestnut closer to his brother.
“Don’t lose your head today, Ranulf. Trihorn bucks in rut are more dangerous than a pack of Forest Cats. It was a Trihorn that caused my injury, the reason I can’t sire children.”
Ranulf angled his head, confused. “I thought father paid a Golden Dagger healer to treat your wounds after your hunting accident.”
Jared shifted unconsciously on his saddle. “No, Ranulf, the Golden Daggers were unable to help me after the buck’s horns ripped my flesh open. Father called for a Knight of the Silver Serpents. The Temple sent an experienced knight who did his best to repair the damage, but it had been too long by the time he arrived.”
Ranulf bent his head towards his brother. “Does it work anymore?”
“Aye, but as I said, I can’t sire children. There’s no reason to marry if I can’t breed, now is there? So, I say again, be careful brother. One eunuch in the family is enough.”
Ranulf shuddered. Just thinking about injuring his hammer and stones scared him. He looked around at those waiting to hunt with his father: Sir Boadren, Sir Waren, his brother, Sir Ciprien, Sir Feris, and Sir Urbian. Eight total.
“Ready lads?” Earl Gilbert called aloud, “Let’s ride out. There are servants in the forest watching in the forest for our quarry. Listen for the horns, and be cautious!”
Stirring a cloud of dust, the knights followed Ranulf’s sire out of Orgryt Castle’s thick walls. It was a short ride to the forestlands next to the Alderwood River. Leaving the road, they halted in a small meadow to wait for a signal, the riders ceasing all speech; those who had not down so already pulled out strings to ready bows.
It didn’t take long. An arrow trailing orange ribbons shot up.
“That’s from Kylin.” Sir Ciprien said with a low tone. “He’s by the triple oak meadow.” The hunters urged their mounts after Sir Ciprien.
Ranulf loved to hunt; Wymerth used hunting as one of his rewards for squires who proved they would go above and beyond while learning new skills. It was a trait Owen Wymerth sought in squires for his extra training program.
The path quickly changed to a deer trail, the riders dodging low-hanging tree branches or shrubs as they galloped along. They came upon Kylin, who pointed the direction of the Trihorn buck. A few paces and the hunting party caught up to the magnificent beast.
The buck had to be four or five seasons old, its front facing horn was almost as long as the head and the two upward were just as long. A thick, pungent smelling oily musk dripped from a gland below the eyes. Sunlight breaking through the tree canopy gave the hunters a glance at the vertical mahogany stripes originating from the black dorsal line. The upper half of the body was a light brown turning to a white at the belly.
The Trihorn was agile, changing directions a dozen times, going deep within the forest then switching to lead the men back to the edge again. The buck doubled back in a flash, running towards the men. It used its deadly horns, slashing at Sir Urbian’s horse. Man and horse went down in a tangle of legs. The Trihorn leapt over them and ran on. Sir Ciprien stayed behind to help the downed knight.
Sir Feris let an arrow fly at the buck. Somehow, the Trihorn was able to twist at the last second, the projectile passing by. Earl Gilbert’s arrow hit, the barb sinking in the buck’s hindquarters. Sir Boadren’s arrow stuck in the beast’s shoulder.
Enraged, the buck stopped running forward and charged at his tormentors. He was able to nick Sir Waren’s horse. Jared and Ranulf shot arrows at the same time, both hitting the buck in his chest. The beast, losing blood, began to stagger.
All knew to stay mounted. This was when the Trihorn bucks were deadliest. Once the animal went down, Sir Feris dismounted. He approached the buck with caution. When the Trihorn didn’t get up, the knight cut the animal’s throat. Congratulations were shared. Gilbert sent Feris to see after Urbian and Ciprien.
In the aftermath of the hunt, Gilbert, Boadren, and Waren had let their guard down. It was a break the Phaelyng raiders looked for.
An arrow struck Gilbert in his chest and Waren in his throat. Gilbert yelled out, his cry enough of a warning to keep his sons from being struck. Boadren & Waren drew swords when four Phaelyngmen broke from cover. Jared and Ranulf followed suit. Gilbert stood up, having broke part of the arrow off to allow mobility to fight. Two more Phaelyngmen joined their companions.
Ranulf had never been in a real fight before. He stayed by Jared, the two brothers, attacked a man old enough to be their uncle. He toyed with them, pushing the boys around with his sword play. Jared put a bit of distance between them, so he and Ranulf could try to worry them man like two dogs. Jared feinted, drawing the raider’s attention while Ranulf was able to slide the point of his sword in the man’s side. The Phaelyngman dropped to the ground, a red stain spreading on his jerkin.
A familiar cry gave them hope when Sir Feris and Sir Ciprien rode up and joined the fight. Jared and Ranulf saw their father fall to his knees. The two boys ran over to their sire.
“Father!” Jared called out, “How bad is the wound?”
“Da, hold on. We’ll help you home.” Ranulf said, his heart beating fast from the adrenaline.
“Help me up boys.” Gilbert wheezed. Before he could say another word, an arrow slammed in to his chest. Frothy blood dribbled from his lips, a surprised expression on his face as he looked beyond his sons to the raider holding a bow. “He’s not dead?”
It was the man Ranulf had stabbed with his sword.
“Nay! You’ve killed my father!” Ranulf yelled as he turned to see who had sent the deadly arrow to his father’s body. Grasping his sword, Ranulf ran at the warrior, ignoring the shouts of Sir Boadren and the Corbeau knights.
The Phaelyng man had one hand firmly at the wound where Ranulf’s blade sliced open his flesh. Blood ran freely, soaking his clothing. He laughed at the young boy’s anger. He held his sword at readiness.
Ranulf brandished his sword, challenging the wounded man. Trying to remember the limited training, he tamped down his anger. Luck was on Ranulf’s side; his opponent was weakening from blood loss. Ranulf thrust and parried, finally seeing a chance. He slashed the man’s throat, and stood watching while the warrior bled out.
It was as Baron Wymerth said. Ranulf de Corbeau had a gift. He said not a word while the life left the raider’s body. When the body fell over, Ranulf quietly wiped his weapon on the corpse’s clothing, slipping the blade to the scabbard hanging on his belt.
“Come on Ranulf, we have two bodies to take back to Orgryt. Urbian is dead of his injuries.” Sir Feris said quietly. “We’ll leave the buck here.”
“Nay! This Trihorn cost us two men. It must be brought home and mounted on the wall.” Jared replied. “Our sire would have done so if one of us had died.”
“Aye, I agree.” Ranulf said, his heart bleeding for his father. “And, we have learned a valuable lesson today. Never forget to check a downed man. It is best to make sure he is dead. Had I done so, my sire would be alive. It is a mistake I will never make again.” He helped Boadren hoist his father on to his horse. Keeping his emotions in check, Ranulf vowed to make his father proud. If Wymerth wanted him to learn torture or intelligence gathering, then he would be the best at it for his father’s sake.