He heard nothing save the shift of feet and jangle of leather slapping into thighs. The roar of the crowd, the other fighters squaring off in their own circles around the arena, all of it faded away to just his heartbeat pounding with assurance. Gavin stood in front of nearly the entire Arling all peering down from the stands to watch a 17 year old show off his prowess, but in his heart he was back at home trying to best his father in a little sparring before dinner.
A sword whipped towards his head, but he dodged out of the way, the blade harmlessly flailing towards the ground. Spinning on his toes, he rammed his own dull edged blade towards his opponent’s shield arm. It should have barely touched it, but the boy’s stance wilted like flowers in high summer. Gavin had to pivot fast to keep the blade from slicing up and knocking into the boy’s teeth.
In doing so, he spun closer to his opponent. Lifting up his own shield as both protection and to mask his face he whispered, “Pst, Evans. You have a shield, block with it.”
The boy who was a good head or more shorter seemed to stare at his arm in shock before nodding that he did in fact have a shield. Greener than the Hinterland meadows, Evans limply lifted up his shield towards his opponent as if to assure him that he still held it. Gavin nodded that it was the right idea then folded tighter behind his.
“Okay,” he ordered the boy a few years younger than him. “Now, charge at me.”
“Charge you?” Evans muttered, clearly out of his depth. He spent the entire sparring time whipping his sword around like a scythe to mow hay. Which wasn’t that surprising. Nearly everyone there was a farm kid or the occasional chantry orphan who couldn’t hack it as a priest.
“Yes,” Gavin tried to hone all his strength through his arm, forming his brick for a shield wall as his father taught him. “That’s what it’s really about.”
“I thought I was supposed to cut you, ya know, with this,” Evans’ wrist twisted the blade around a bit more, failing to flow with it so the heavier metal waned to the ground.
“Just...give it your best,” Gavin said.
Nodding, Evans dropped his shoulder down and ran full bore at Gavin. The kid’s ropey shoulder stuck hard against the wood, rattling Gavin’s body from the unexpected source. Evans was at most 100 pounds soaking wet, but he threw his all into it. Scrabbling, Gavin dug his toes into the sand, trying to stop the runaway kid from knocking him onto his ass. That’d be rather the spectacle in the end. The most promising squire beaten by a fifteen year old kid that could vanish in a birch forest.
Sweat dripped down his back, Gavin getting a grip with his toes in the waning footing. With a little twist, he turned in place, surprisingly light on his feet. Evans stumbled onward, while Gavin playfully touched the blunt flat of his blade against the kid’s backside. The kid wasn’t able to stop as easily, his feet flopping in the sand as he fought for the brakes while Gavin spun right back to face him.
Never take your eyes off your opponent.
Flailing, Evans dropped his sword and had to spread both his legs far apart to catch himself. But, he finally stopped. Chuckling, he turned around and shouted, “That was amazing! How did you do that?”
“It’s not very difficult,” Gavin said. He tried to keep the smile off his face, to remain taciturn in such simple matters, but there was no denying the pride at his hard work. “I can teach you how later.”
“Maker, yes you will,” Evans shouted again, the enthusiasm infectious. He wasn’t the youngest one here, that was a girl barely even 14 who apparently was terrifying with a spear, but he seemed the most naive. A bit like a puppy, Gavin wanted to pull Evans under his wing and set him up with a nice warm box to sleep in.
“Pick your weapon up,” Gavin said, jerking the pommel of his sword at the ground. Evans gulped and fumbled around for the metal at his feet when a horn blared through the arena.
Every would-be squire froze in their little test-at-arms, some dropping their weapons same as Evans did, others sheathing them. Gavin preferred the latter, having been taught to appreciate his tools. As the dust settled along with the stilled feet, the Knight-Commander stepped out into the middle of the ring.
He was a friendly sort who Gavin met on occasion at his parents urging. While the others gulped at the shine on the man’s armor, the rank insignia and the crimson cape stretching off his shoulders, Gavin noticed that a bit of mutton stew remained in his snowy beard.
“Please,” the commander said, “line up here before me.”
All the squires nodded at each other and, one by one, fell into an uneasy line. It was foolish, they’d already been accepted. This was a simple matter of tradition and a bit of spectacle before the tourney began. Still, Gavin couldn’t hide the small swell of excitement as he lifted up his chest. He’d been working for this day for years. Since he was ten, really, and his mother caught him trying to figure out how to unsheathe one of his father’s old swords.
Squinting in the summer sun, Gavin caught sight of the fancier chairs near the Arl’s box. Sitting in one was the white-blonde hair of his father, the man with his back straight and no doubt a grit in his jaw. Beside him was a dark skinned woman, her hair spilling off both sides of the blue clothed chair. Gavin’s mother kept waving at her son as if he couldn’t see her, then turned to his father to nudge the man in the ribs to join in. One was happy for him, the other...cautious.
“Step forward, Erin Womack,” the Knight-Commander ordered. A girl from Redcliffe skipped towards him, her head bent. “You shall squire for Ser Quentin.”
Erin’s eyes grew wide, before she reached out and with both hands grabbed the Knight-Commander’s hand in her own. That caused the man’s scroll to shake a moment. He hadn’t expected such a response, but after a time returned it.
“He’s over there, if you can get to your Knight, please,” the Commander chuckled, getting a laugh from the audience.
Blushing hard enough her freckles turned bright red, Erin waved at the crowd while turning to her Knight. She’d be trained in all the proper ways, not just fighting, but culture, serving the crown and chantry, and be on the fast track to her own knighthood. The moment Gavin expressed an interest in having a Ser before his name, it was squirehood he strived for to get his boot in the door.
Evans nudged an elbow that was all bone into Gavin’s side, “Whatever Knight gets you is gonna be so lucky. You’re the best one here.”
He should have been here a year ago, maybe two, but his parents keep insisting it wasn’t the right time. That he wasn’t strong enough, or ready. Perhaps they had a point when he was fourteen, but now Gavin stood taller than his father and could carry bricks from one side of their lands to the other all day should the need arise. He was more than ready, he was meant for this.
Tipping his head up, he kept the idiotic grin off his thick lips but he couldn’t hide the shine in his amber eyes. One by one, the Knight-Commander called people up to him and gave them their assignments. The people they’d serve for two years, no questions asked. It was how they learned discipline, and the decorated Knights didn’t have to lug around their heavy armor all by themselves.
Their ranks began to thin, a pair of twins being split apart. They didn’t make a fuss about it. In truth, the Redcliffe knights all remained at the castle for the most part. Save a few trips out into the forests of the arling, the squires would stay in the same room and see each other often. That he would be under Arl Teagan’s watch was probably the only reason his father finally relented. Even with the straining yoke of his parents influence, Gavin was glad. He...when left to his own devices, his decision making was questionable. A few years answering to a man or woman who reached the point of Knighthood would surely be helpful in teaching him.
“Huh,” Evans kept whispering beside him. His eyes darted up to Gavin, “Must be saving the best for last.”
“Evans,” the Knight-Commander said in his booming voice before returning to the scroll. “That’s all it says. Evans?”
“Aye, that’d be me.”
“Is that your given name or family?” the man focused on the kid who was trying to knot up his sandy hair.
“Dunno, my dead mum never told me and the Sisters just shouted ‘Evans’ at the top o’ their lungs when calling for me.”
“Well...” the Knight glanced around, his fellows all chuckling at the rambunctious young man. “You’re with Whitley, who will hopefully find you a good second name.”
As Evans darted off to his future, he glanced back at Gavin and winked again. He wanted to laugh with the boy already chosen to be a squire, but only three more people remained beside him. Surely they wouldn’t pull such a prank as to single him out? As if that would be funny. Most people upon asking to meet Gavin Rutherford, son of the fabled Commander of the Inquisition, took a long stare at his soft brown skin and asked if it was a joke. He stood out whether he wished to or not. At least on the field he could convince himself it was for his skills and not more obvious reasons.
The Knight-Commander waved in the next two people, giving them to their futures. For a moment, Gavin let his eyes drift over to the last one beside him. Pasty Pete was the name he heard bandied about in the squire tent. It was rather apt, the 16 year old more blinding white than even his father who could act as a beacon in a storm. Realizing that only two of them remained, Pasty’s cheeks turned bright red. Poor kid didn’t want to be picked last and be shown as a consolation prize. That wasn’t how it worked, the Knight-Commander made the decision months back when they all tried out in battles that meant something.
Back when Gavin climbed out of the armory training yard in Redcliffe, the Knight-Commander had clapped him on the back and said he was guaranteed to become a squire. He practically skipped the entire way back to the refuge, only to wind up tending to Mrs. O’Leary’s open sores while telling his mother the good news.
It seemed cruel though, to leave Pasty Pete hanging upon such an edge. Even knowing they belonged, being last was not...
“Peter Pastile, step forward.”
Oh Maker. While the second to last squire hopped towards the Knight-Commander to accept his appointment, Gavin felt the blood pool in his cheeks. He could hide a blush better than most, but with every eye watching as the son of the once Commander of the Inquisition was picked last to be a squire, it had to be visible from the treetops.
No. Perhaps Evans was right, and they are saving the best for last. It’s a farce, or, they’re attempting to put him in his place. Humble him. Yes, that had to be it.
Locking his back into place, Gavin stuck his chin up higher and prepared himself. For a moment the Knight-Commander’s eyes lingered over the young man he once knew as a boy and a pang of confusion lanced through them. “Alright,” the man turned on his heel and raised his arm to the coupled up squires and their knights, “let’s get off the field so the jousting can get started.”
All the blood in his cheeks drained. That can’t be right. There was one more. Him. He had to be assigned. To be told where to go. Who to serve. Around him he could hear the whine of whispers, judgment itself passing upon the lone young man standing adrift. What was going on?
How did he fail?
“Ser...” Gavin tried to call to him but his voice was frozen in his throat. The threat of tears burned in his eyes but he shook them away. Not here, not with everyone watching. He turned towards the stands where his parents sat and found the seats empty. Were they so embarrassed by his failure they had to leave the tourney in shame? His brain churned though a dozen thoughts, most of them freezing his blood cold. It wasn’t a matter of losing, it was as if he lost before the game even began.
What was he supposed to do now?
A few harrowed eyes darted towards the shadow left behind from the light, but all the other squires were too busy having equipment dumped into their ropey arms. It would be their job to handle it, carry it, oil and clean it, learn their master’s every whim as if they shared one mind. While Gavin...he had no idea.
Horses trotted past him, the jousters in their frilled finery marching past the crowds that were rising to their feet in anticipation. His parents didn’t bring him often to the tourneys, but on their rare chance to escape the abbey he’d sit upon his father’s shoulders, fingers knotted in the blonde curls for balance, and stare in awe at the mighty warriors. Now only a spitting rage dulled with frozen failure filled him. Barely glancing at the horses, he dipped his head low and tried to skirt out of the arena without drawing any attention.
He hated farming. It was nothing but keeping things alive just long enough to kill them. Day in and day out, plant the seed, water the seed, tend to the plant, harvest the plant, walk the livestock over the stalks before winter. Repeat come spring. He wanted...Maker, his father would cuff his ears for it, but he wanted the same adventures people spoke of when it came to his parents. Or his Aunt Hawke. Even when his father grumbled about the fairy stories, she’d sneak into Gavin’s room by candlelight, pull a giant blanket over her massive form and tell him about the time she fought the Arishock or took on a would-be god.
It was what he wanted since he was little. To be a knight, to fight for what was right and help people. Not like his mother, not with potions and slapping on ointments with his hands and back. But that wasn’t to be, apparently. Gavin wasn’t built to be anything but the pack mule at some backwater abbey in the middle of nowhere.
His head slumping so far down his chin skimmed near the middle of his chest, Gavin turned towards the south and the direction of home. In his wallowing state, walking the three days there seemed preferable. He had no weapons to his name, no food, no shelter, not even a cloak, but it was that or face his parents and having to tell them that he was wrong. That he failed.
“Master Rutherford,” a voice called out from the side.
Gavin didn’t turn. That was what people called his father, when not all but bowing while dropping a Ser. He kept his eyes squeezed tight and remained shuffling sadly into the distance, when the voice picked up, “Gavin, stop...”
Now he did, and turned to find Arl Teagan out of breath and running towards him. He was dressed not in traditional finery for watching the tourney but typical riding leathers. “Buggering, brothers of...” the Arl gasped, almost tumbling to a knee as he came to a stop. Instinctively, Gavin reached out to grip onto his elbow to keep him upright as the elderly man gasped in a breath.
At that moment, who should appear but his parents.
Ser Cullen Rutherford eyed up the situation with a distant concern, while Gavin’s mother yanked him towards the ill Arl. “Teagan,” she cried out as if running to an ailing friend’s bedside. While his being a friend was apt, the running was not. His mother had to hobble on her cane, his father taking most of her weight as he guided her closer.
“No, no,” the Arl tried to wave away her healing hands, “I’m quite all right. Just thought I’d make it in time and misjudged.” Crystal blue eyes landed upon Gavin who gulped at such focus from a high Lord. “Forgive me, son. I meant to reach you before the ceremony, but was delayed.”
“Teagan?” his mother leaned closer to the old Arl who’d been as bald as a river rock for all of Gavin’s life. She mentioned on occasion how he had the most striking red hair when she first met him but that was ages ago.
A breath rattled in the old Arl’s lungs like gravel trapped in the spokes of a wheel, but he smiled brightly at Gavin’s mother. “The Knight we assigned your son to...”
“Good man,” Cullen said, nodding his head. What did he know of it? Even Gavin had no idea who it was until today. But his father had been in on it, and most likely his mother too? His father never made a decision without her input.
“Yes,” Teagan nodded brusquely, “but also incapable of fulfilling any of the duties prescribed to him. I’m afraid he suffered a hunting accident a week earlier, fell into a poorly marked bear pit.”
“Oh Maker,” his mother gasped, her fingers covering her lips. “Is he alive? Do you need...?” She waved those same fingers through the air, twanging it with magic that only Gavin and his father could feel.
“No, he is recovering, but at his age and then injury, I’m afraid he won’t be up to fighting speed to take on a squire.”
He didn’t fail. Gavin gasped as if a massive weight as freed from his chest. No, your to-be mentor was nearly killed. Which means...? “What now?” Gavin asked, he turned to his parents first before orbiting to the Arl.
His father’s hand clapped him on the shoulder, “You try again next year. It’s not such a long wait.” Wait again? He’d already skipped it twice over, to be eighteen -- a true man -- and looking into squiring? Every knight would laugh him out of the running.
Tears lifted in his eyes, not of sorrow but rage at the cruel finger of fate. He’d been so close to this. Proved himself, had made friends with many of the other squires already. They’d been trading letters since the trials, getting to know one another in preparation of sharing quarters and now...
“There is another option,” the Arl said, his words instantly drying Gavin’s frustration. A flicker of hope danced in his chest. “A Knight in Denerim lost a squire and is willing to take on someone fresh. Now, they’ve already been training together for a few months, so there’d be catchup but...” Teagan tipped his head at Gavin’s mother, “knowing your boy I think he can handle it.”
“No,” Cullen threw his foot down in an instant.
“No?” it was his mother who turned to him, a hand on her hip. If she added the other, he was done. “For the Maker’s sake...”
“Lana, no,” he cupped his fingers around his wife’s arm and shook his head more. “We had this all planned out. Knew who Gavin would study with, have him close to home so we could...”
“Could what, father?” Gavin leaped in, tired of his parents taking over his life.
Cullen took a slow sigh and the same amber eyes he saw in a mirror glared at him. “Watch over you should the need arise.”
“I’m not a child,” Gavin jabbed at his chest. “Look, look at what I did out there. What I accomplished in the trials. I have done everything you’ve asked of me. Made every sacrifice, learned all I could, proved myself every step of the way!” His normally soft, bass voice was rising in anger when not dipping into a low growl at the inequity of it all.
His father got to lay out all the rules, all the steps necessary for him to prove he was ready. And the moment a single rock threw it off, everything Gavin did, all the blood and sweat he lost, meant nothing. No. He wasn’t having it. Shaking his head as if a bee lodged in his ear, Gavin stepped away from Lord Rutherford.
“I’ll go to Denerim on my own,” he stated as if he was seven years old again and planning to run away because his mother tried to make him eat leeks. Forgetting his sense, Gavin didn’t turn to the Arl to ask who this knight was, or even the proper direction of the city on the other side of the country. Nope, he just stepped forward and kept walking.
“Blessed Andraste,” his mother cursed behind him, “Gavin Grayson Rutherford, you get back here this instant.” The full use of his name froze him in his boots. It wasn’t magic, but it may as well have been.
“And you,” Lana spun on her heels, having to drag down Cullen’s stature to stare her in the eye, “You’ll not be playing the part of stoic but cautious father. Our son is right, he’s earned this. Denerim is not the edge of the world. It’s not as if he’s being shipped off to Tevinter.”
Shocked, Gavin turned back to find his father’s eyes darting around the grounds as if he was a dog that got caught crapping on the rug. The shame was palpable from his wife’s tongue lashing. “But we don’t know this Knight,” Cullen tried to argue.
“We know our son,” his mother extended her knotted hands to Gavin. A callus that never went away skirted over the back of his hand as she tugged him over. “He’s a good boy, man, sorry. Still getting used to that. Besides, didn’t you...?”
“Fine,” his father threw up his hands, giving in almost instantly. Gavin could hardly believe it. He’d been excited about being somewhat under his father’s long shadow, always having people look towards the great Rutherford before risking the son’s safety. But in Denerim! Maker, not a soul would know who he was. He could be Gavin instead of Cullen’s boy.
“And,” his mother shrugged, “it’s not as if he’ll be completely alone or unlooked out for. We can always ask --”
“Do not say his name,” Cullen grumbled, catching Gavin’s attention. There were a lot of people his father couldn’t stand. Most of them, come to think of it, but few he refused to name verboten.
Lana stumbled towards her husband and cupped his cheek, “Oh Honey Eyes, it’s been nearly two and a half decades. Don’t you think...?”
“You’re asking me to trust him with our son?” his father crested his forehead over his mother’s. Gavin immediately looked towards the horizon, far too used to his parents behaving mushily.
“He’s good with kids, and keeping people safe,” his mother whispered before sounds of kissing followed from behind his hand as a blinder.
As Cullen pulled away, his eyes landed upon Gavin and he sighed, “I suppose, Teagan, our son will be heading to Denerim to become a squire.”
Yipping, Gavin raised his fist in the air before the self consciousness struck him. Squires probably weren’t supposed to hoot and holler about such things. In a more demure tone he said, “Thank you, father.” Then he tipped over and hugged his mother, “And thank you for convincing him.”
She skirted her hands over his shoulders, as if still shocked he wasn’t a little boy climbing in her lap for a story. That was always his problem, his parents couldn’t stop seeing the child and everyone here was happy to indulge them because one was a great warrior and the other...they had no idea.
Standing up, Gavin glanced around to find where he left his meager belongings. He might need a bit more if he was to set out for Denerim, but traveling light would be best. “I should find a horse, set out to the city before dusk fall,” he said, a plan falling into place. There were a few maps around to guide him down the road, it’d be an adventure. The start of his adventure. Maybe he’d meet a shifty character in a tavern.
“Hold up, son,” his father’s hand landed upon Gavin’s shoulder. They met eye to eye, and despite Gavin having the younger age and slightly wider frame, his father kept him pinned down.
“There will be a convoy leaving for Denerim in a week’s time, my boy,” the Arl said. “It’s best to travel together on such an endeavor.”
“But...” the words and whining faded. He turned to watch what was to be his life slipping into various tents, all of the new squires humbled by their workload.
“Do not be so hasty to run headlong into a lifetime of drudgery,” Teagan chuckled. “Come, I believe there is jousting occurring.”
Perched beside his mother and father, who shared a box with the Arl and the Arlessa, Gavin watched the tourney as a spectator. Hopefully, the next time he sat at one of these he’d be a full knight in his own glittering armor and banner.