“I don’t know; I couldn’t see his face. It was dark.” It was an hour later and Bace was still cradling his wounds in the Headmaster’s office.
“The lamps were lit.” The Horsemaster said calmly. The Headmaster looked up at the trainer and then back at Bace. He sat down.
“You’re protecting someone. Why? Was it Stephen?”
“No.” Bace practically yelled. He was horrified at the thought of Stephen being accused.
“Then why aren’t you telling us?” The room grew silent. Bace looked down at his feet and shivered.
“Because this Academy needs men, not boys.” He replied.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The Headmaster asked.
“Bace, if you don’t tell us we are going to have to accuse you. There is no other explanation but hard evidence. You were the only one in the barn when I found you. You know what it looked like, you’re not stupid.” This was the Horsemaster. Bace listened quietly as the door opened behind them and the Horsemaster left. He looked up at the Headmaster. They watched each other for a minute before standing together. Bace was a little behind.
“Well, I can see that you’re not going to budge, Bace. Though I’m not sure why. I’m afraid I simply can’t let this slide. Until you tell us who it was I’m going to have to punish you. You’re on mop duty in the Hall until I say you’re done.” They were interrupted as the door opened. Bace slowly turned.
“He will certainly not be.” The Doctor replied.
“You do not administer the punishment of students, Doctor. You are a man of medicine, not discipline.” He said as the Doctor began quickly checking Bace over.
“It is my business if the student is also my patient.” The Doctor said.
“I had been led to believe that Bace was discharged from your care just this morning, am I correct, Doctor?” The Headmaster growled. The Doctor stopped prodding Bace and looked up at the man who had averted his eyes to avoid any confrontation, apparently finding the floor very interesting. He turned to face the Headmaster.
“Yes, Sir.” He said quietly, wishing Bace would defend himself.
“Then that will be all.” The Headmaster dismissed the Doctor and they waited for him to leave. When the door shut, he started again.
“You will be on mop duty in the Hall until I tell you to stop. Is that understood?” Bace nodded, keeping his eyes to the floor. The Master sat down again as Bace turned out the door, moving slowly with his injured arm cradled close to his body. Bace ambled over to the cleaning closet and pulled out a long stick with a small rag tied to the end. He filled the bucket at the well outside and then began the long task of mopping the entire Hall floor. Bace had never had to mop a floor with one hand and the task was proving to be impossible. He paused for a second to rub his shoulder and then dipped the rag back into the bucket. The sun was just beginning to rise when Stephen came bursting through the doors. He lost his footing for a second on the wet floor but then froze, limbs spread wide. Bace stopped mopping and watched. Stephen relaxed suddenly but looked at Bace with urgency. He carefully made his way closer. Bace could see the look of betrayal in Stephen’s eyes but he could tell that the boy didn’t want to believe it. Stephen always spoke with his eyes before he opened his mouth and this was proof enough for Bace that he was at least capable of thinking of what he was going to say before opening his mouth.
“I didn’t want to say anything but I need to know, Bace. I trust you and I just can’t believe that you’d do such a thing.” Stephen looked hurt suddenly. Bace grew quiet and let the boy settle.
“Stephen, have I ever lied to you?” Bace asked.
“I’ve only known you for a month and of the four weeks I’ve only actually seen you for one of them.” Stephen replied. Bace shook his head.
“Stephen, what’s something that’s really important to you? What’s something that means the most to you?” Bace asked quietly, he was sure that the Doctor was listening from in his office.
“My mother.” Stephen said without hesitation.
“Then I swear on your mother’s name that I did not try to take Kale’s horse.” Bace lowered his voice when he finished; making sure that Stephen knew he was serious. Stephen stared for a moment longer into Bace’s steady eyes and then his face suddenly erupted into the biggest smile Bace had ever seen on his face.
“I knew it. You would never do such a thing. Just a warning though-” Stephen began but the door suddenly opened. Kale strode in, breathing hard from his run. He stopped when he saw Stephen and Bace together in the middle of the room. Bace looked down and plunked the mop in the bucket. Water splashed onto the floor. Stephen stood between them, glancing from one to another. Bace pushed the bucket and mop to the wall and leaned the stick on the wall. He couldn’t tell what Kale was thinking as he stood by the door and straightened his coat and stuck his hands in his pockets. Stephen was the first to speak.
“Kale, Bace didn’t-” Kale pulled a hand free and held it up to silence the boy. He waited as Stephen trailed off then looked up at Bace again. Bace waited. He was willing to take whatever Kale felt he needed to throw at him. Kale breathed deeply, finally catching his breath.
“I don’t know what to believe, Bace. I know what I want to believe.” Kale spoke slowly, obviously hating the conflict that had arisen causing him to think carefully about every word that came out of this mouth. Bace remained silent. Stephen opened his mouth again but Bace jabbed him in the ribs with a thumb. Kale opened his mouth but closed it again. He walked carefully over the water across the room and then silently into the lunch room. Bace looked over at Stephen to make sure the boy wasn’t about to do anything rash. Stephen watched Kale walk out of sight and then turned to Bace, eyes wide. He was shaking his head.
“Why would he think that you tried to take his horse? You’d never do such a thing.” Stephen exclaimed.
“Enough.” Bace said firmly. Stephen looked at Bace sharply and then joined Kale in the lunch room. Bace quickly finished mopping the entrance just moments before the swell of students came bursting in. He stood to the side, quietly loathing each dirty footprint that walked across his shining floor. When the last finally came through Bace quickly started working his way down the hospital hallway. He worked slowly, starting at the far end and making his way back towards the large entrance. He had nearly made it back when he heard a commotion start up from inside the lunch room. He set down the mop and started for the door. As he rounded the corner a part of him knew what he was about to walk into. He could hear the uproar and he knew that there were two students in the center of the large crowd that had gathered. A table had been thrown over, food was everywhere. As he walked closer he glanced over at Marta who stood, looking at Bace hopefully, behind her counter. Bace suddenly felt his gut twist and it wasn’t from his healing wounds.
He could hear the muffled grunts of Kale. Then Devon.
Bace dove into the crowd and pushed his way through. Most students moved out of the way, even pushed him along when they realized who it was. When he reached the center a second later Bace threw himself at Devon who had Kale’s head locked in his arm. They collided and Bace quickly droved Devon to the ground. He instantly felt his stiff wounds cry out in agony. Bace had the element of surprise but that was quickly lost as he was in no condition to fight. One of Devon’s devils quickly came to his aid and Bace felt himself thrown off into the crowd. He managed to stick his boot into Devon’s face as he flew. The surrounding crowd, overthrown with excitement, threw Bace back at the younger man. Bace recognized the boy instantly and felt a familiar ache in his jaw return. He reacted quickly and threw a solid left hook at the kid’s jaw. The boy flew back and then looked at Bace. Bace grinned, knowing the boy would now feel as he did three weeks ago. The boy saw the grin and fury flashed behind his eyes. Bace was aware of Kale and Devon to his right. Kale was suddenly on the ground but Bace had his own problems. He could no longer move his right arm and he knew what was coming. The student, caught up on pure adrenaline and knowing where Bace’s injuries were just by watching him suddenly lashed out blindly with years of instinct driven into him. He moved quickly and hit Bace hard on both his right shoulder and stomach. Bace dropped and suddenly became aware of Kale standing over top of him. Kale threw the flat of his hands forward at the rushing student and pushed forward with every muscle he had. Devon was nowhere to be seen. The student flew back and the room grew silent. Kale stood, ready to take on any who tried to come at him.
Another presence suddenly entered the room and the students scattered. Stephen walked in with a cloth pressed to his nose. The Doctor was close behind him. The Headmaster entered a step behind them and the students all ran past to clear the room. A few of the curious ones stayed behind but remained close to the door for an easy way out. Kale rolled Bace onto his back as he held his own nose shut to keep the blood from pouring out. Bace tried to sit up but Kale held him down.
“Juz wai.” He said, still plugging his nose. The Doctor quickly knelt down and passed him a rag. Kale stepped back and doctored his own nose while checking on Stephen. The Doctor slowly pulled Bace’s sweater off and examined his wounds. Bace lay as still as possible, trying to slow his breathing. He swallowed, waiting for the Doctor to give him that look. He received it a moment later. The same, one eyebrow raised, disappointed but concerned fatherly look that he always gave Bace whenever they met in such a fashion.
“You’ll be fine, Bace. You know what I’m about to say next.”
“But you need to take it easy.” Bace replied shortly as the Doctor helped him to his feet. Bace waved him away when he found his footing and snatched for his sweater. The Doctor avoided the swipe and held the sweater out of the weary man’s reach.
“Bace, I need you to tell me that you’ll stay out of these things. Your wounds need to heal.” Bace nodded, clenching his jaw. The Doctor hesitated, staring the man down for a moment longer and then handed him his sweater. Bace tried pulling it on but stopped as the pain struck him again. He looked at the Doctor finally, defeated. Together they pulled it over his head and then settled it onto his shoulders.
“You’re still in pain, where?” The Doctor asked, seeing the pain in Bace’s eyes. Bace motioned to his shoulder. “Good, serves you right. Maybe it will be a good reminder to stay out of trouble.” The Doctor turned and walked out the door then, leaving the Headmaster to do his job. Kale was outwardly fuming; something Bace had never seen before and was suddenly very curious to discover what had caused this to happen. The Headmaster grew quiet, looking over his shoulder at Stephen and Kale and then forward again at Bace.
“I want all of you out of here.” The Headmaster announced to the few students that were still lingering in the room. Marta turned to disappear further into her kitchen to clean up.
“Sir-” Stephen started but the Headmaster interrupted.
“I want this room to be cleaned until it is spotless. I also want one of you to help Miss Marta with the dishes. Then you will find me in my office.” The three students nodded and then watched the Headmaster leave the room. When the door closed, the room grew quiet again.
“Are you out of your mind?” Bace asked, looking at the two. Kale started walking forward as Stephen looked away guiltily.
“What about you? Why didn’t you just say that it was Devon?” He asked, now standing a few feet from Bace.
“Why does it matter?” Bace asked, not moving from where he stood and Kale took another step forward.
“So you’re telling me that you’d just throw out a friendship to save that bastard’s skin?” He was yelling now.
“Kale, you know I wouldn’t do that.”
“Then what were you doing?” Kale suddenly grew quiet; his rage was quickly subsiding to a soft hurt. Bace hesitated suddenly, not really knowing how to respond.
“I just didn’t want Devon to have to pleasure of watching me tattle like a child. For once, I wanted Devon to win and maybe give him the chance to see what he was doing; what he has been doing for years.” Stephen was suddenly at Bace’s side.
“When I told you to stop bullying him, this wasn’t exactly what I meant.” Stephen chirped. Bace ruffled his hair and pushed his head away playfully towards the kitchen.
“Go help with dishes.” Stephen obeyed quietly and soon the sound of his gentle voice mingling with Miss Marta’s filled the room.
“Guess I owe you an apology.” Kale said as they brought the table to its feet again. Bace shook his head.
“No, this was my fault.” The two men paused, each at either end of the table. They came to an understanding in that moment; a silent agreement and never spoke of the incident again. That is until they found themselves all seated together in the Master’s office an hour later. The Academy had emptied throughout their time in the lunch room, all dispersing to their classes.
“Well, who’s going to talk first?” The Headmaster asked. All the students were used to writing a full report as punishment. It was rare for the Headmaster to punish them so personally. There was simply too much trouble every day for the Master to deal with it all personally. Kale leaned forward but Bace quickly spoke.
“Why don’t you ask Devon?” The Headmaster leaned back in his chair, amusement toying with the corners of his mouth. Kale and Stephen looked over at Bace. Bace remained placid and kept his gaze forward. The Headmaster looked at each student before him.
“That is all gentlemen.” The Headmaster suddenly turned to a report on his desk. The boys looked at each other.
“Aren’t you going to-” Now it was Kale’s turn to jab Stephen in the ribs with a thumb. The Headmaster looked up.
“I said you are free to go.” The three quickly stood before he could change his mind. When they entered the hallway Kale and Stephen quickly ran to find their classes. Bace waited for them to leave and then turned around again. He knocked on the Master’s door.
“Enter.” Came the voice from inside. “Bace.” The Headmaster gestured for him to sit again, noticing how the simple act of breathing now seemed to be a painful victory for the young man. He had been through similar injuries himself and he knew how painful the other end of the arrow was.
“Sir.” Bace nodded his thanks as he sat down.
“Are you not pleased with your punishment, Bace?” The Headmaster joked.
“I’m just a little confused.” He said, shifting to a more comfortable position in the hard chair. The Headmaster smiled.
“Your Stephen is a noble young man. Miss Marta heard Devon bragging to some friends about a little incident in the barn and she was on her way to tell me when Devon decided to intervene. Your Stephen stepped in to defend the cook but ended up getting a warning hit to the nose. Luckily for him, Kale happened to be the first person Marta ran into after Devon and she told him everything. This, needless to say, resulted in the fight you happened upon today. Is that clear enough for you?” The Headmaster asked and watched as the student soaked it in.
“Thank you, Sir. It is.” Bace stood stiffly to leave and the Headmaster noticed him rub his shoulder uncomfortably.
“Let that arm of your rest. You’re the best we have and I don’t want to lose you.” The Headmaster turned back to a thin parchment on his desk, ending the conversation. Bace walked out again but this time turned out the door. He rubbed his shoulder as the cold reminded him how much it hurt. He slowly made his way towards the archery field to watch his class and then moved with them to the jousting line. Bace felt as if it would be years before he reached his best level again so he watched gloomily on the sidelines. His Joustmaster thought otherwise. He came and joined Bace once the students were settled into their routine.
“Won’t be long before you get back up there. You’re stronger than any student I’ve ever had, Bace.” Bace looked over at the master and raised an eyebrow.
“How long do you wager?” Bace asked quietly.
“A few more weeks and you’ll be back to your usual self.” He said. “I had an arrow through my chest once. Even went out the other side.” He suddenly pulled down his thick cowl to reveal an old scar on his chest. “It won’t be long. Now that you’ve been through the worst it’ll feel like you’re healing in no time at all.” Bace nodded. The Joustmaster suddenly stood and started yelling at the poor form of a student who had just hit the ground. His mount kicked up dust as it spurred away, spooked and insecure now that it had lost the weight of its rider. Bace quickly stood and stepped in the path of the rampaging horse and held up his good arm, cooing loudly to it. The horse slid to a stop in front of him and tossed its head. He lunged for the reins and then turned them over to Wes, the beast’s rider, as he came over rubbing his neck.
“Nasty one, hey?” Bace asked. At their age, it was rare for them to come out of the saddle. When they did, they fell hard.
“Yeah, I don’t know what spooked him.” He said, still breathing hard from the exercise.
“Can’t ask a horse that too many times.” Bace said quietly and Wes grinned.
“Thanks, man.” He turned suddenly and mounted after slapping Bace on the shoulder, quickly gaining control of the shivering animal. Bace winced after a few moments, not able to contain the pain that Wes had just accidently reinstated in his shoulder. Bace watched the remainder of his classes with immense boredom. During supper that evening Stephen and Kale both looked around for him but he never showed. Stephen shrugged as they sat down to eat.
“He doesn’t feel well. He’s probably resting.” Stephen said.
“And that’s good.” Kale said awkwardly a moment later. Bace, however, was far from resting. He was in his room trying to exercise. He sat down on the floor and managed a few push-ups before collapsing. He tried a few other exercises and soon his clothes were damp from the exertion. He pulled off his sweater, sending a shot of pain from his shoulder down his back and then painfully repeated the exercises. His door suddenly flew open. He stopped.
“What are you?” Bace turned around from the wooden bar above his bed on his wall that he used for chin-ups and met the gaze of Kale. Stephen was behind him, trying to peer over his shoulder as he blocked the doorway. Suddenly a sack of supper came flying over Kale’s head and landed in front of Bace on his bed. Bace looked at it warily and then sat down. Kale tried not to look at Bace’s wounds. Every time he saw them he felt as if he could feel the weight of the arrows in his own body.
“I can’t just sit around all day. I’ve been doing it for three weeks already and I’m tired of it.” Kale was also trying not to notice how thin Bace was. He was finding it hard to focus. Bace was well muscled, although he had lost some of his edge through the last few weeks. But it wasn’t that which worried Kale. It was the way Bace’s ribs seemed to stick out that made him worry.
“When was the last time you had a proper meal?” Kale asked; trying to bring it up lightly as Stephen joined him on the second bed. Bace looked at the sack of food and then looked away, suddenly ashamed. He leaned back against the wall and grabbed a loose sock that lay beside him. He started rolling it into a ball.
“Haven’t been able to keep anything down for a while.” He finished rolling the sock and then tossed it across the room to land on a heap of other dirty socks. Closer to the end of Bace’s time at the hospital Bace had started eating on his own again but as soon as the Doctor left the room Bace couldn’t keep it down and he couldn’t figure out why. Kale looked at him, visibly worried.
“What about water? You’ve been drinking, right?” He asked. Bace nodded. Kale’s edge didn’t leave however and he sat forward. Stephen watched quietly.
“You have to eat though.” Bace looked at the stubborn students across the room from him. Unfortunately for them, Bace was much more stubborn and refused to share anymore. Stephen suddenly turned to Kale.
“What if we mash the food so he can drink it?” Stephen said excitedly. Bace seemed to turn green at the comment, his eyebrows lowered in disgust. Kale noticed and turned back.
“Always full of bright ideas, hey? You think that will make food more appealing to him?”
“Well, at least I’m trying to help.” Stephen defended himself. Bace listened as his two students argued for a few more minutes. He stood when their arguments grew stale and with less drive and pulled on a sweater. He ignored the pain and then tossed the satchel of food onto Stephen’s lap.
“You two ladies done bickering?” He asked and then walked out the door. The two stopped their chattering and then hurried to follow. They walked with Bace to the armory and then watched him pull two thick blades from a barrel. Bace threw the larger one at Kale and then passed the smaller one to Stephen as he walked past them out of the building.
“These swords are hideous.” Stephen said as they walked towards the practice ring. Kale suddenly understood what they were doing and tried to slow down the inevitable by walking further back. Stephen seemed oblivious and followed at Bace’s heels, almost stepping on them.
“Well, Stephen.” He said quietly. “They’re the best the Academy has.” Bace ducked under the fence and watched as Stephen did the same. Kale followed shortly. Stephen continued to argue.
“No they’re not. Have you seen the new ones they got last year?” Stephen asked, unaware that Bace was positioning him in front of Kale. He absentmindedly went into a ready position.
“Those are worthless compared to these.” Then Bace snatched Stephen’s sword from his grasp. Stephen was about to object but obediently let Bace examine his sword. Stephen looked up at Kale and gave him a look that seemed to say ‘Oh good, maybe now he’ll see what bad shape it’s in’. Bace looked up at Stephen a moment later. “This sword was forged using the strongest metal known man.” He said as he placed a finger on the flat of the blade right above the hilt. Stephen watched the sword balance itself out perfectly, becoming parallel to the ground. Kale suddenly watched with interest. Bace handed the sword back to Stephen who tried to do the same. “I’d like to see you do that with one of those new shiny ones you like so much.” Bace said. Stephen was still balancing when Bace suddenly barked the order to ready their blades. He quickly grabbed his blade and turned to face his opponent. Realizing who it was for the first time he drew back.
“I can’t fight Kale! He’s way bigger than me.”
“Size doesn’t matter, Stephen. You and I are about the same height. Do you doubt my skills because of my size?” He asked.
“Never.” Stephen seemed offended at the thought that Bace would think of him that way. Stephen looked up at Kale again. Kale suddenly turned to Bace, giving him a look. Bace nodded. Both students turned back to each other hesitantly. Kale nodded for Stephen to take the first strike. Kale deflected it easily and without thinking quickly corrected Stephen’s approach. Bace stepped back. He wanted Kale to know that he thought of him as equal and he only wished to enhance Kale’s skills through his experience. Kale stepped back and motioned for Stephen to try again. This time they made it through a few stiff routine-looking strikes. Kale was tense. They both stopped when they realized they were out of sequence. Bace stepped forward.
“Hold on. No more routine. What’s routine to a Dainer?” Kale and Stephen stopped, relieved, and turned to face their teacher. “Kale, you’re very good. You’re better than anyone in your class and you learn quickly. Stephen, you’re very accepting when it comes to something you’ve done wrong and you’re not afraid. You’re also very spontaneous. I can see that. Use what you have and Kale will adjust.” Bace turned back to Kale. “You need only be as good as your opponent.” He saw the wheels turning in Kale’s head as he returned to the outside of the ring. The sun was beginning to set and Bace was determined to have them understand why he brought them out here before it was too dark. Kale suddenly looked as if he understood. He turned back to Stephen and nodded encouragingly this time. Stephen threw in a random strike that Bace knew didn’t belong at the beginning of any sequence they had learned. Kale barely managed to block it but then visibly relaxed and gently took all the hits with an ease that Bace had never seen before. He seemed to know where the strike was going before it was executed. They continued for another minute or so before their movements started getting sloppy again. Stephen kept on wanting to settle back into a trained sequence. Bace called for them to stop so they stepped back. Their chests were rising and falling a little quicker now. Stephen looked back and forth from Kale to Bace, obviously pleased. Kale smiled down at him. Bace nodded and then ducked out of the fence.
“See you in the morning.” He called back as he walked to his Section.
It was only just over a week later and Bace seemed to be healing rapidly. He had slowly been working food back into his system and this alone boosted his energy and almost appeared to make the pain less every day. The Doctor still refused to let him into his practices because he still didn’t have full motion in his shoulder but Bace was allowed to join the daily jog. He was already finishing before all the others after only three days of running. Many marveled at how quickly he bounced back and some even dared to feel contempt for the excelling man again. Bace had been fit. Suddenly he didn’t see why it would take so long to heal if his body was fit to begin with. It wasn’t like what he was doing was new to his body. It all felt very familiar. The pain still lingered but now at a dull ache instead of the persistent throbbing. The Doctor didn’t think he’d ever be able to draw the bow as he used to but Bace was determined to prove him wrong. He returned to the field every day and tried pulling the massive longbow that he used to draw so easily. Each time he met disappointment.
“Shut-up. He’s just upset about not being able to draw his bow anymore.” Stephen said during Sunday breakfast. Kale had been prying Bace all morning as to why he seemed so quiet lately. He turned to Bace.
“You need to let it heal more. It’s not going to get any better if you keep on using it.” Kale said between mouthfuls.
“You might be making it worse.” Stephen voiced. “Why don’t you wait until you can put on your sweater without wincing?” Kale kicked Stephen under the table as Bace glared.
“Look-” Kale began but then swallowed and leaned forward on the table. “One more week. Just wait one more week and then try. If that doesn’t work wait one more week. One week at a time.” He said and then looked down at Stephen who was rubbing his shin.
“You can always start with a lighter bow. You know, work your way up to your own.” Stephen risked speaking again but this time the men started nodding thoughtful as they scraped at their plates. Bace took another bite and then divided the rest up between Kale and Stephen by scraping it onto their plates. They devoured it without question as was the familiar ritual developed through the week and then stood together.
“Nobody else can draw your bow, Bace. It’s not going anywhere.” Kale said as they dropped off their dishes at the counter. Stephen thought he saw a smile creep out of Bace as he exchanged glances with the cook but it only lasted a second. The room was beginning to clear out and they knew that if they didn’t hurry they would miss riding into town. It was their day off and all three were excited to have something different to do. Bace had been working them hard throughout the week whenever they had a spare moment. He wouldn’t make them give up their Sunday though. He also felt like he needed one. Even though he was almost able to keep up with his old self he still found himself tiring faster. He was always exhausted at the end of the day. He was able to eat but Kale accused him of eating like a bird, and he didn’t sleep well and never felt rested when he did. Kale didn’t believe that it was because of Bace’s lack of food and sleep that he was failing. He believed that Bace wasn’t eating or sleeping because he was failing. The idea that he wasn’t good enough for himself and that he wasn’t improving daily was causing Bace to slip inside of himself once more. Kale needed to find a purpose for Bace before Bace disappeared altogether.
The two men mounted a few minutes after leaving the lunch room and joined the large group outside. They were joined by Stephen a few minutes later. The horses were tossing their heads excitedly as the crowd continued to grow. Sundays were the ‘Day of Freedom’ but they couldn’t help but sneak in one lesson every week.
“Order.” The Headmaster suddenly mounted and sent his booming voice over the crowd. Sunday happened to be the only day of the week when everyone at the Academy was mounted at the same time so it was the only opportunity to practice group formations. Bace and Kale quickly parted and each took their place. Bace stuck himself at the back with the eldest students. He saw Kale take his place and then rise in his saddle to check on Stephen. His horse stamped when he sat down again.
Don’t get too excited. He seemed to be saying. Kale patted him on the shoulder and then leaned back as he heard the trumpet blow. The group slowly started moving and the Headmaster turned them north to dip into the field and take them on their loop around the city. Soon the valley was filled with the sound of battle. They were a mass of thundering hooves, driven on by muscle and scattering all wildlife nearby. They were all required to wear their leather on Sunday and the tight skin was pushing on Bace’s wounds. He tried not to let it show.
Kale glanced back at Bace. He couldn’t tell what he was thinking. This wasn’t a new feeling. Bace seemed to be riding stiffly. Their leather was probably making him uncomfortable, he thought. Bace was a natural rider and found he was quite comfortable in the saddle. Kale could always pick out when something was wrong by watching Bace ride. Bace suddenly caught his gaze and lowered his eyebrows. Kale turned back around. The trumpet blew again, signaling the scouts forward. Bace was among them. The five students designated as scouts had the initial position of taking up the back. After the second trumpet blow they were to move ahead and make sure the group wasn’t running into any trouble. Bace and the other four students kicked their mounts forward and together they loped briskly to the front. A few students saluted mockingly. Stephen waved furiously as Bace slipped by and then saluted broadly. Bace allowed a slight grin and then rode forward with the others. They had made it to the south end of the city when Levi ran up to Bace who had stopped far ahead and now sat watching to group move like a giant bug with thousands of legs.
“There’s somebody in the forest to the south. They’re just watching.” The man said softly to him.
“The Headmaster was informed?” Bace asked.
“Yes, he wants us to take a look; make sure they’re okay.” Bace nodded and then they waited for the group to pass and move on ahead. The three other students joined Bace and Levi. Once they were gathered Levi moved to another spot. Bace watched.
“He’s over my shoulder now.” He said to Bace. Bace looked over briefly and caught sight of a figure hiding in the trees.
“We could flush him out.” The youngest of them said.
“That would work great if he didn’t know we were here.” Levi hissed sarcastically.
“He’d see us right away.” That was Marvil.
“Why don’t we go ask him what we should do?” Bace suddenly said. The group grew silent and stared at Bace. “It’s just one guy.” He said. The other four nodded. Bace was oldest by far in the group. Scouts were chosen at random during breakfast. Five plates of the two hundred had a colored mark on the bottom. If you had the mark you were to be the scout, among others, on Sunday. Bace figured he had at least three years on the oldest of the four.
“What if he kills you?” Asked Levi.
“Then I guess we’ll know what side he’s on.” Bace said as he led them forward. As they rode closer he sensed the four boys forming a perimeter behind him so the stranger couldn’t escape out of the trees. Bace dismounted when he met the tree line and walked forward. The figure seemed to have receded a little further into the trees. The canopy above was thick and blocked out most of the sun.
“Excuse me. Are you okay?” Bace called when he saw the figure. He was crouching now. Bace drew his blade when the figure suddenly stood. He raised it and took a step back. The figure suddenly stepped forward; their hood slid off and hit their back. They held out a hand as if to apologize.
“No, please.” It was a young woman. “I’m sorry, I meant no harm.” Bace suddenly understood and turned. She caught up with him as he sheathed his blade and placed a hand on his shoulder. He turned suddenly, brushing off her hand.
“You would be doing yourself a considerable favor by walking away right now.” He growled. She looked stunned and stepped back.
“What did you just say?” She said.
“Ma’am, do you realize how foolish you’ve been?” Bace stepped forward.
“What?” She said, suddenly raising her voice and stepping forward.
“What honor do you find in abusing the obligations of a scout?” He raised his voice back at her.
“What are you talking about?” She asked, eyes widening.
“You knew we would have to investigate a mysterious figure watching us from the trees so you did it to fill your own desires.” He hissed, suddenly lowering his voice as if just saying it would dishonor him. The woman, realizing she was caught, shut her mouth and watched the same man she had been watching for seven years walk away.
“You could at least offer me a ride.” She wasn’t about to give up. Bace spun around and walked back towards her so they were only inches apart.
“You just be happy that I plan on riding away and forgetting about this. The moment you see the back of my head know that I will never think of you again.” He said and turned around, this time making it out of the trees. The young woman planted her hands on her hips. This was not at all how she had planned their first meeting to go.
Bace couldn’t find Kale or Stephen when he reached the city. He wasn’t exactly looking for them either. Every so often he would take an extra moment to scan the crowd of people or check around a corner but he was content with spending the day by himself. Halfway through the day he removed his leather and strapped it onto his saddle. He was walking around a corner, leading his horse, when he suddenly bumped into the woman from the woods. Realizing who he was she glared at him.
“You!” She exclaimed as he quickly turned and walked the other way, rolling his eyes. He continued his slow walk through the crowded streets and suddenly caught sight of Kale. Their eyes locked for a second and he saw Kale motion to someone who Bace couldn’t see. He had a good guess of who it was. The crowd suddenly parted as Kale pushed through, Stephen behind him. The crowd always seemed to give the big battle horses a wide girth.
“What was that about?” Kale asked. He must have seen the forest-woman confronting Bace from a few shops down.
“That’s who was watching us. She’s no concern of ours.” He said. Kale’s eyes widened.
“You sure she isn’t a problem?” Kale suddenly asked, glancing over Bace’s shoulder. Bace turned. The young woman was pushing her way through the crowd towards him. She couldn’t have been over twenty but her long black hair hung down to her waist. She was at his side before he could stop her.
“You’re no knight! You have no right to throw such accusations at me!” She yelled.
“Are you saying that I was wrong?” Bace yelled back. It was the first time Kale or Stephen had ever heard the older man speak louder than a conversational tone. They were somewhat taken aback by the sheer power behind his tone. The woman stepped back. She hadn’t expected it either. It only took her a moment to recover and she was back in.
Kale looked down at Stephen playfully as their argument continued. Stephen looked up, allowing a short bark of laughter. Kale crossed his arms and Stephen quickly mirrored.
“I don’t need your protection. I can look after myself!” She yelled back.
“I guess it isn’t your problem then, is it?” Kale and Stephen had lost the conversation. They were now wondering how it had come to this but the woman suddenly stopped. It looked as if she had never been at a loss for words. Bace, satisfied, quickly hit home. “But don’t come crying to me the next time this kingdom is burning and all you can do is stand back and watch as men are filling the land with blood trying to defend you.” The young woman withdrew. He had a point, Kale realized, but he found the execution a bit crass. Bace had obviously had enough of this woman for one day. He rarely talked to anyone, let alone argue with a woman. Kale figured it was time for this to stop so he stepped forward. The woman glanced up at him. Bace kept his eyes on her, feeling the soft pressure of his friend’s presence come forward as he stepped up behind him.
“Miss, I’m not exactly sure what this is about but I can see that you’re quite capable of looking after yourself. And your family for that matter. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ll do our best to keep out of your hair.” He turned Bace around by the shoulders. Bace turned willingly into the crowd and led them away.
“That was close.” Stephen commented quietly. “Thought for sure I’d see fire come shooting out of her ears.”
“Don’t worry.” Kale said glancing at Bace. “I have twelve older sisters.” Bace looked over, still trying to relax and led them over to a small eatery. They tethered their horses outside and walked in. The owner knew Bace well.
“Bazil!” He yelled across the room. Bace, not fond of being in the spotlight, quickly crossed the room and sat down at the counter.
“Coffee then?” He asked. Bace nodded, glancing around the room for signs of trouble.
“Three please.” Bace nodded quietly. Stephen quickly sat down beside Bace.
“Oh no, I don’t have any money.” Stephen said but Bace looked down at him and allowed a grin.
“I know.” He said. Kale noticed the Drinkmaster open a small flask and pour a drop of its contents into the warm drink. He frowned. The master passed the drink to Bace and then handed the other two to Stephen and Kale on either side.
“He put something in your coffee.” Kale whispered to Bace louder than he had intended. The Drinkmaster overheard and grinned at Bace’s remark.
“A little extra flavor never hurts.” He grinned again as he raised the mug to his lips. Kale, understanding, nodded and drank his coffee heartily. Stephen didn’t understand.
“What if it’s poison?” He asked, suddenly grabbing onto Bace’s wrist.
“Stephen.” Kale scolded as Bace lowered his coffee. “We’re in a bar.” Stephen, finally catching on, took his hand away. The Drinkmaster looked at Bace and winked. Bace grinned again as he lifted the mug to his mouth.
“It’s brandy, Stephen. A little drop makes you warm on a cold day.” He said quietly.
“And a little more takes away any aches or pains you’ve got.” The master winked and Bace shook his head.
“That’s not all it does. You don’t want to drink any more than that.” Bace said.
“Can I have some?” Stephen asked. The master started reaching for the flask to see what Bace would do.
“No.” He shook his head. The master chuckled.
“Why not? I’m cold.” He asked.
“You’re too young Stephen.” Bace replied quietly. Stephen slumped in his stool. A seed was planted that day in him. A seed that started to grow as he watched the Drinkmaster pour a drop into Kale’s drink as well. Stephen suddenly had a strong desire to be a man.