He thinks it's odd, sometimes, though he's not certain why.
A sense of dislocation, perhaps. Like cutting yourself on an unsharpened blade. He walks the immense aisles of the cathedral, footsteps echoing hollowly into the blue shadows of high vaulted ceilings and arches, stone figures watching him from above as he, in turn, watches dawn play across their carved and weathered faces. The grandeur of this place is oddly soothing in the solitude it affords him. A holy place, just hushed, here suspended in the silence after Mattins when most have shuffled out. It's a favorite moment of his, a favorite service to attend, and today it gives him pausethere is training, and paperwork, and a squire for him to wake and a council meeting and a king, but he lets himself linger nonetheless. Just for a heartbeat, just for a heartbeat.
Hal smoothes his fingers over the well-worn coolness of a granite pillar, and he passes it by for the window beyond it, so familiar. He tilts his head back to regard the shifting colors of the stained glass as the sun kisses the horizon. Saint George and his horse rear proudly in their vibrant capture, the legendary knight's lance driving deep into the mouth of the writhing wyrm, the wyvern struck down in the name of Christian right and valor, the duty of chivalry and honor. The scarlet cross on the white field of his banner matches the insignia of the little shield-shaped pendant Hal keeps around his neck.
Saint George, his patron. He wears the reminder of him constantly, right beside the badger tooth that shares the chain. The Knight touches it almost unconsciously, reverently, and then he kneels before the pricket stand to light one of the votive candles there and pray. The scabbard at his side clanks against the tiles, and he closes his eyes and breathes in the spice of incense and morning.
So is his custom. It is the Feast of Saint George, and Hal will do this, remember it, every year of his life. He feels he owes it to the fellow. Besides, it's a tradition. Fifty-three years. Now fifty-four.
Perhaps you are a better advocate for me than I deserve, Sir, he thinks, and smiles wryly.
And how it was a beautiful day, all those long years ago, the first battle he led as Commander, when the Knights were not Royal but outlaws instead, remnants of a monarchy thrown into ruin by the usurper.
He was young, so young. Twenty-four years surely were not enough to merit his position. But he was brilliant. He was ambitious and worked himself relentlessly to stride to the top of the order, rank by rank and fight by fight. Commander Trent knew of his talent, praised it on the day he died. And the generals voted. He'd become their leader because he was the best.
And they took the town of Midways by thunder, and he rode through the streets in his battered, dented armor, the plume of his helmet bedraggled and half-gone, his gauntleted fist pressed tight against a shallow slice that had broken between the gaps in his cuisse, carving into his thigh. The grimness of shock had set his mouth and furrowed his brow, but emotions were something to be nursed in private. For now, there were fortifications to build, bodies to count, devastation to set to rights. The civilians were safe, he'd made certain of that, keeping them huddled in their shops and homes while he and his men destroyed the garrisoned soldiers there with dark efficiency.
The stiff breeze chilled the sweat upon his brow. He nudged Muireann around a pile of corpses, already calculating his losses in his head. He had a regiment twenty miles westward, if he sent a runner to them they'd be there within a day unless the weather turned. Requesting one, two platoons extra from Sir Wyatt's forces would give him a welcome strength if he decided to press on northward, and Wylie had advantage enough with the bulk of the cavalry at his side, not mention his familiarity with the terrain...
There was a dead girl on the roadside.
Hal flinched. No, not another innocent casualty, hadn't he seen enough? He swallowed hard and tried his damndest to move along, but he hadn't looked away in time. She was all cold eyes and frozen terror, blood in chestnut curls, pudgy child hands still curled around the javelin that was in her.
He stopped. Dismounted. As he knelt to close her eyes, a shudder struck him so violently that he had to plant a hand on the ground to keep himself from toppling over. His leg was throbbing in fresh agony, forgotten until that moment; he tried to pray but found no words, so he merely stared at her tiny body before crossing himself clumsily and rising. No, he couldn't let his hands shake, his vision reel, there were men depending on him and he had to leave right away. It wouldn't be long before her mother found her, or a sister or brother, and the keening and breaking would be more than he could bear.
He crawled back into the saddle and booted Muireann into a trot. There were dogwood blossoms drifting from the trees, trampled under heavy hoof and foot, and blood filling the cracks between the cobblestones. Now wasn't the time to linger. Not when there was work for him to do.
He woke, once, in a rough bed with threadbare sheets that scratched his skin, aching and stale, a headache pressing heavily on the back of his skull. His torn hands groped at the mattress for his sword before his eyes were even open, and when he bolted upright in automatic panic at finding no blade, he found himself confronted with the wash of rain-hued monochromes through the cracks in the shutters. In the corner, Kathryn sat winding and mending clean bandages. Doing her part for the war.
"What's the time?" he croaked, and she glanced his way, sighing.
"Seven. In the morning. You got a good four hours."
Hal cursed, flinging the blankets off and rising stiffly. "S'life, Kate, that's too long. Why didn't you wake me sooner?"
She didn't answer, only pursed her lips. Groaning, the Knight-Commander rubbed at his face and went to the window, fumbling the latch to shove it open and breathing in the damp autumn air.
"Do you want to catch cold, too?"
"I need to see what's going on."
It was the usual chaos, city streets churned into ankle-deep mud and carts trundling through the mess uncertainly. The white surcoats of his Knights were dotted here and there throughout the crowds of refugees returning to the city, inspecting and guiding, helping, repairing. Civilian soldiers patrolled the walltops and Dragonrider sentinels glided in and out of the clouds. The clamor was impressive, but apparently he'd caught a solid, if brief, space of rest despite the noise. A sleep of more than ten minutes, even, his first since that time the other day, when he'd napped perched atop a barrel until he fell off.
"Seems to me that the city's right how you left it," Kathryn remarked, dryly, and tossed another bandage roll into the basket at her feet. "And I didn't wake you, dearest, because you looked dead. And still look dead." She paused. "Can't you sleep more?"
Hal shook his head, taking up his trousers from where they'd been hung over the back of a chair. They were still damp from washing, but at least they weren't as caked in filth as they had been. "That's not an option, Kate, and it won't be for a while."
"But the treaty's been signed." She lifted her needle for another repair. "Hal, it's been a week since you captured this place. The war's won. You're not rebuilding this city alone."
"Of course not." He picked up his stockings but didn't put them on, taking a seat on the bedside to drag his fingers through his pillow-ruffled hair. "I wouldn't have any sanity left if I was."
"What?" She drew her thread through the fabric. "Don't be a stonebrain, love. Think about it. Battles, treaties. You've taken the capital and the usurper is dead and our king is on the throne. Isn't that enough to justify keeping your strength? Or at least getting a good night's sleep? S'life."
"All the more reason that I give them what I can, then." His jaw was set, stubbornly. He rose and padded to the window once more and stood there, barefoot and half-clothed, staring out at the world that filtered distantly through his view like fish swimming upstream. "I can't sit back and rest on triumph when there's still so much work to be done. That tyrant left commerce in shatters, the city in ruin. The refugees want their homes back. And our enemieswho'll be pardoned and who'll be spared? Who do we judge and execute for continuing their fathers' treason? And what's left of the Church? The people need hope, but there's nothing for them but burned parishes and corrupt, gibbering cowards of clergymen. The king and I need to find a new Archbishop. And all my men who died
God in heaven, Kate, this new peace hangs by a thread and I can't let it break, not now."
Kathryn set her sewing to the side. She studied her husband with even hazel eyes, lashes lowered in the way she always did when thinking. "And you're frightened."
"Terrified." He leaned his forearms against the sill, grimacing at some unpleasant twinge in the muscles of his back. Kathryn rose and glided to him, joining him at the window to drape an elegant hand over his shoulder.
He didn't move. She cupped his jaw, then, and turned him to face her, and she smoothed her palms over the raggedness of his beard, grown longer and far more unruly than he would ordinarily permit it to. When she touched the hair at his temple, the very faintest and few strands of prickled gray laced there, he exhaled raggedly and covered her hand with his own.
"I love you, lass," he murmured, "and I'm worried. You know it's harsh here. It's not going to change soon. You'd be safer with your parents."
She sniffed. "I think my parents have their hands full enough with our children. Don't even talk to me about worry. I can't even imagine what would happen if I wasn't here to take care of you."
Hal chuckled, a bit chokingly. Kathryn drew her hand from his face and placed it against his chest instead, trailing her fingertips over the ridges of his scars. Here, on his side, he should have perished last year, but instead he became a legend. His hands, cris-crossed with the stripes of his work, his arms and stomach and back, the patchwork man he'd become, all stitches and broken bones, over and over and over, for the sake of the kingdom their fathers had lost.
He didn't realize that she was crying until she buried her face into his shoulder and clung there, and her cheek was wet and she was shivering. But when he tipped her head back, her eyes checked his own with the same iron that he'd always seen in her. She laced her fingers between his.
"You're thirty-three years old, Hal," she told him, quietly, "and you've spent your whole damn life fighting this war. You can't throw your health away now. Believe it or not, there are far better things you can do for this kingdom than die for it."
Hal didn't say anything. He studied the floor, pensively. Kathryn rolled her eyes, dashing her arm across her face.
"Yes? Come on, you. Four or five more hours and then I'll let you order all your men around to your little heart's content. You're no use to anyone when you're half in the grave. And trust me, you look a fright."
Still, he didn't stir, but he did cock an eyebrow at her, just a hint of his humor flitting amongst the haggard lines of his face, the dark bruises carved beneath his eyes. When she drew him across the room, he let her, and sat on the edge of the bed, pulling her into his lap so he could press his face into that short and dark hair of hers that he loved so much. She twisted to kiss him, gently.
He sat there and held her for a time. It was easier, really, to push the thoughts of war further from his mind, as much as they could be pushed, when she was so curled against him and her breath was warm at the base of his neck.
Later, he'd weep too.
He was born into high rank, the ruling House of the kingdom's strongest countyback in the days of the old monarchy, the lords of his blood stood second only to the king. Perhaps, then, as the heir, it was one of his most important duties to have a son.
And so he had daughters.
He hadn't meant to. But it never bothered him. He was weary of war. Of the notion of having to train a son for fighting, for killing, just as he'd been raised. No. He'd train his girls, his beautiful girls, only to defend themselves. And there would be no obligations, no need to walk his path.
The first, Heather, had his gray eyes. As she grew older, she wore her hair like Kathryn's, and spoke with the same dignity, walked with her same grace. She and her sister spent the first several years of their lives hiding in a convent with their mother. It was strategic, close enough to the fortress that the outlaw Knights called home, yet safe by nature from the enemy's grasp. Hal would ride to see them whenever he had leave, a two-day journey.
She would sit on his shoulder and grin madly when he showed her to his mates. He called her his pearl, and told them all that she never cried. She had such soft, soft hands. They weren't touched by the world yet; she hadn't seen how men could be cruel. All she knew was the small community that had been built there, the wives and the children of Knights, in hiding, and the gentle nuns that sang lauds and taught her to pray her rosaries and hope.
Kate gave birth again two years later. And though Sage's hair was also dark at first, before she was three it had lightened to a blond reminiscent of Hal's own sister, and her eyes were wonderfully hazel. She clung to his legs while he walked and loved for him to heft her into the air. His angel, he said. She would grow to hunger for adventure, and she loved to laugh and play, nowhere near as reserved as calm Heather. Her delight was in making her father smile. Even as a young woman, she'd hang from his back or one of his arms, giggling at how he held her up so effortlessly, always climbing on him, mussing the spiky brush-cut of his hair.
And Ann. Ann was brought into the family, not born, adopted as his own when she was fifteen years old. She was different in the most cherished way. He'd met her during the course of the war, a mousy girl crippled by fear and astonishing in the magic she could perform. He saved her life on several occasions, but then she would return the favor, and in the same soft way that she did everything, she snuck into his life and he could do nothing else but ensure that she stayed there.
Light. A red rose. On the campaign trail, she became his aide, and she held his mirror as he shaved, and he would brush and braid her long, flaming hair. Kathryn had always laughed at him for his penchant for collecting strays. Annie, then, was the foremost example.
He couldn't help it. He'd pluck boys from the streets and nurture them into fine Knights, though he would argue that it only happened twice. And chivalry, he liked to say, placed him into any good lady's service for whatever need she had. As a Knight, his bounden duty was to offer his full help to others. Of course, Kate would always tell him that no, he was simply softhearted.
He was fifty-three when another stray wandered into his life. Her name was Anarin. And after a time, he began to realize that if the son Kathryn had borne him had lived, he would have wanted him to be just as feisty, strong, and plucky as her.
It was the most painful moment of his life.
He was twenty-three and he was sitting on cold floorstones, his back to the wall, tucked away there, watching the sluggish rise and fall of his wife's chest. There was a draft, coming in from the doorway. His feet were numbed.
He tilted his head back to study the shrouded ceiling. There were no windows in this inner room, only a single oil lamp, dimmed so Kate could rest. And he was glad that she was. Until the healers had sedated her, she had been shrieking, wailing. Hysterical.
He just felt empty. And the bitterness of it all was sitting like grit in his teeth, bile burning in his throat.
When the door creaked open and Cliff Parson, Surgeon to the rebel Knights, eased himself inside, Hal couldn't look him in the eye, even as the other man crossed to him and crouched at his side.
"You need sleep, too, lad," he whispered.
Hal dipped his chin in what could have been the faintest of nods. Parson sighed.
"How d'you feel, then?"
The Knight considered it.
"I don't know," he finally admitted, truthfully. And he wasn't sure if that was because he simply couldn't process the situation, or if he didn't want to feel anything about it at all. But Parson seemed to understand. The Surgeon clasped his forearm, brief, a comfort, and rose, padding noiselessly to Kathryn's bedside.
"Seein' how she's doing. She been sleeping since I last saw her?"
"Aye." Hal pawed at his nose. It was strange, how hard it'd been to breathe. Parson's hands were scrubbed to their typical near-rawness, but he'd missed the corner of one thumbnail and there was blood there, a tiny rusty fleck. The Knight blanched.
The Surgeon's exam was brief. When he left, he crooked his fingers to beckon Hal after him, and once they were on the other side of the door he pulled a hand through his thick mahogany hair and let out another sigh.
"I know it's hard, Hal. Look, I've told Commander Trent to put you on indefinite leave. You and Kate will need it."
He nodded again, dully. It was the first time he'd ever agreed with Parson on the subject of taking leave, but he couldn't think, not now, and all he wanted was Kate, an abrupt and sickening tunneling of his vision, but nothing else could matter. He put a hand to his brow. Parson was looking at him with a new softness in his inky eyes.
"Was there a name?" he asked, quietly.
Hal had to clear his throat. His tongue was dry, too. It took a moment to summon the answer.
"John," he rasped. "We were going to call him Johnny."
There was silence for a long moment. The Knight trembled. Something like pain was fluttering against his ribcage like a trapped magpie, it was like the searing aftermath of adrenaline twining 'round his nerves, down his wrists, his fingers. And perhaps his face showed it, for Parson reached out and took him by the shoulders, and just the feel of his hands was a support that let Hal take in a breath once more, however strained.
"What would you like me to do?" the healer asked him.
It was dizzying. "I'll need to take his body to the family estate. He should be buried there."
Parson nodded. "We'll take care of getting him ready. D'you know if she'll want to see him when she wakes?"
I imagine she'll want to say goodbye." Hal leaned back against the wall. He was utterly dry-eyed but his head was pounding terribly. He felt Parson's fingers tighten against him.
"Hal," he said. "Don't you worry about Kate. She's a strong lass. And she's young. You both are. She'll pull through just fine. She'll make it."
And his unspoken words were, you'll make it. Hal could feel it. He wrapped his hands around the other man's wrists, knowing he had no words to actually say. Parson let him go.
"Are you going to sleep?"
"I don't know. Maybe." Hal rubbed at the back of his neck. The Surgeon turned and disappeared down the corridor into some other part of the infirmary, and returned with an extra blanket, which he pressed into the Knight's hands with a soft order to take it easy.
When Hal went back into the room, Kathryn was still sleeping. He took off his boots and his sword belt and wrapped himself in the blanket and stretched out on the bed beside her, not touching, but he felt her twitching dreams and the flushed heat of her fevered brow. He brushed his thumb over her cheek.
The Surgeon was right, of course. They'd make it. It
just wasn't going to be easy.
If he was honest, he'd admit it. His first memory isn't of his motheralthough that was the harmless lie he'd tell if the subject happened to come up. It is, in fact, the feel of his fingers curling against the leather-wrapped hilt of a broadsword. And his father bending over him, wrapping his hands around his son's to show him a good grip. And he remembers how his father's skin was cold, because it was always cold, and he always smelled of ash. He was a White Necromancer, Lord Harold was, and Hal was frightened of him. But the blade was clear, and it shone, and even then, at three years old, Hal saw his face in the reflection and knew that this thing in his grasp, it was for him, always for him.
And so his training began once he turned five, first with a dagger. By seven, he was learning to aim a crossbow and use a short-sword.
At ten years old, he was well skilled in the one-handed longsword and archery. He began work with a rapier to improve his quickness and footwork.
When he was twelve, his teachers realized that he was starting to grow, and grow absurdly. His legs and arms were disproportionate, his hands and feet overlarge, his shoulders broad despite his leanness. So he was trained for strength, with cudgels and wrestling, and endurance and weights.
Fourteen, he was growing into himself. His muscles were thickening, and for some odd reason the girls in the town were cooing at him, even though his face was ridiculous and his voice was cracking. He began to master the broadsword. Shaving followed soon after.
At fifteen, his father had to begin searching for special instructors for him, because the boy was outmatching his masters. His mother, meanwhile, was inviting relentless waves of young noble ladies to the manor and Hal had no notion why she should was doing such a thing. Having to show them around and politely entertain them was interrupting his practice time.
And when Hal was sixteen years old, he stood before his Lord Father's desk and asked for his permission to join the once-Royal Knights, to follow the paths that his forefathers had walked, even if it meant forsaking his inheritance and duties as heir.
Lord Harold agreed. On a condition.
"You must be great," he said, and his quicksilver eyes were keen. He touched the hilt of Hal's sword, and then he touched the small medallion at his son's throat, the shield-shaped pendant bearing the scarlet cross upon its white field. "Saint George is your patron and your advocate. I think the meaning of that is clear."
Hal bowed to him. Three days later, he rode out alone from the manor gates, leaving behind the walls of smooth sandstone and the sprawling vineyards, and the lake and the mountain pines he'd always known.
He'd tried saying it was all for glory and honor, the best he could give for the kingdom. But his brothers called him an egghead for that, so he settled for admitting that he wanted to be a Knight because he felt silly doing anything else.
"I am of the opinion, Sir Haldor," the man told him, gravely, "that you're a bit of a cock."
Hal lifted one eyebrow. "I beg your pardon."
"Oh, pardon given. Not sure that's what you really meant, though." The fellow broke into a grin. It made the Knight-Commander somewhat annoyed. This man had an army, and even if it was small it was clearly very capable, and Hal was in the very midst of their encampment on what was possibly a fool's errand, and the pup was grinning at him. Laughing, the man slid off of his stool, stretching. "Say what you mean, Sir Haldor. I don't like mincing words."
"Don't be impertinent."
"See, that's a bit of an improvement!"
He had to grind his teeth together to keep from snapping. The guards at the tent's entrance were seemingly unconcerned with him, but the worry still squirmed in his stomach that he'd set himself into a trap by coming here. He drummed his fingers along his sword hilt. "I take it that you mean to reject my offer, then?"
"On the contrary. I haven't said anything on the subject." The other man crossed his arms, but he was still smiling and the oddest thing about it was that it wasn't a menacing expression in the slightest. It made Hal want to trust him, which by itself made him suspicious.
"You're making light of a rather serious matter," he growled. "Aren't you? You've sent out your word to the kingdom that you're the son of King Faolán. Do you intend to take down the tyrant and claim your throne with an army of three hundred?"
"And you're the Commander of the Royal Knights. Don't misunderstand me, but I'm curious as to why you haven't pledged your fealty to me already. This is the cause you fellows go on about, aye? Serving your Vercingetorix?"
His eyes were crinkled in some cleverness. Hal stiffened.
"If you are my prince than I will be glad to serve you," he said, slowly. "But you must forgive me. Frankly, you are young and you are being brash. This kingdom fell because your father was weak, easily manipulated, and slow to act. I am exercising caution because I don't intend in any way to back a monarch who will end up either as malleable as him or as corrupt as the usurper."
The younger fellow snorted. "And your vows of Knighthood?"
"If you are aware, sir, I pledged my blade and honor to the service of God, kingdom, liege, and chivalry. In that order of importance. Understand there are four priorities within my list of vows and you are not the first, nor even the second." He kept his voice even, as steely and distant that he could possibly manage. "Don't assume that I form my alliances lightly, or without the wellbeing of my people in mind."
"And I feel the same way." The prince sauntered over, coming to stand but a pace from his visitor. His smile was fading, but his gaze was still easy. "Sir Haldor, if you give me a chance to trust you, I will."
Hal had to bite back a grim chuckle. You trust me already, lad, he thought, standing where I can easily stab you with the weapon you let me retain. Foolish.
But the prince wasn't finished. "Which makes me wonder. Your people? You called them your people, Sir Haldor. Let me speak plainly and ask you thisdoes the eldest son of the kingdom's wealthiest House intend to take the throne instead? Am I in your way?"
"Don't speak nonsense." Hal scowled. "I have no desire to rule whatsoever."
"But you're ambitious." Now his tone was sharpening. "You were Knighted at nineteen, Sir Haldor, and made Commander at twenty-four, and in your time you've won more battles against our common foe than all the previous victories against him combined. You're a quick strategist, subtly ruthless and political, obscenely rich, and I have to wonder, Sir, if you doubt my ability to rule justly because you think yourself a better fit for the throne. Or would you like a prince that you can manipulate, pull the puppet strings and watch him dance?"
The Knight-Commander huffed irritably. "You are not doing well at winning friends for your cause, lad. Spurn the Dragonriders all you like, if that's your desireenemy of my enemy or no, I have no love for those terrorists. But mind you, since you apparently wish to discard the Knights, who"
"Always swear to uphold their king? Come now!"
Hal snarled. Shoving past the younger man, he yanked his cloak about himself and made to exit the tent into the driving rain. But a soft word at his back stilled his feet, and he turned to face the lad who'd called his name.
The prince regarded him, head tilted to the side. His eyes were glinting amber in the firelight, shifting into pure gold with every flaming spark. Royal gold.
The Vercingetorix have eyes like wolves.
"I'd heard you were a good man, though," he said. "I need a good man far more than I need soldiers. You puzzle me, Sir Haldor. So ambitious, but what sort of ambitious man leaves his birthright for a sword and an outlaw's life?"
Hal continued to hover by the tent flap. "I do everything deliberately, sir. I may be a Knight-Commander but I'd be a blasted shoddy king, I can tell you that much."
There was silence for a spell, rain drumming on the broad tent's roof and splattering to the sodden ground below. The Knight shifted warily, feet squelching in the mud. The Vercingetorix prince let his mouth twitch into a faint and crooked smile.
"You don't trust me."
"No, I don't." Hal edged back to him regardless. "But you are Prince Conall."
"Indeed, I suppose I am." He chuckled, spreading his hands wide. "All the more cause for us to circle each other, then? You're proud and I'm foolish. But I'm starting to think that I need you at my side, Sir Haldor. Maybe someday, you might let me be your cause. Your king."
"Maybe." The Commander rubbed at his beard. Outside, there was an owl calling, and the rain pounded the earth. Sighing, he wandered to the warmth of the fire, chafing his frozen knuckles.
Prince Conall looked at him. He shrugged.
"I've a long journey and a short night, if I'm headed out tomorrow. Let's talk, then. Have anything to drink with you?"
The young man grinned. "Now that's my kind of language. How's brandy suit you?"
But the badger tooth? He doesn't ever explain it. Not that it's a common topic of conversation, mind, since the chain it shares with his George's Cross is always tucked away beneath his clothing. Even Kate's not sure, but she lets him have his secret, since she can't recall a time when he didn't have the thing.
Really, he's always liked badgers. There's a quietness to them, solitude, but their very being rests in fearless strength, in the assurance of earth and deep wisdom. And duty.
When he was sixteen, and traveling alone, he saw a bellowing mastiff dog lunging into the sett of a mother badger and her kits. He jerked his horse to a stop and flung himself from the saddle, but it was over before he came close; the dog bounded away, crying and bleeding, and his intended victim snarled and disappeared into her sett to shuffle and grunt and nose about her babies.
She'd been hurt, too, but only because the mastiff had jerked in her jaws. One of her teeth had been yanked clean out, a curving inch-long incisor. Hal picked it up. Wiped the blood and hair off with his handkerchief. He crouched to peer into the hole and Mum Badger showed him all her fine remaining teeth and glared balefully. He inclined his head to her and backed away.
He camped close by that night, snared two rabbits and a squirrel, and speared a fish. The last he roasted and ate, but the others he skinned and cut and carefully sliced thin. He cooked them in their juices into a soft sort of stew, and the next morning, he left it at the badger's doorstep. After all, he figured, it'd probably take a few days for her mouth to heal up and stop hurting, maybe she'd like something softer for herself. It was a simple thing. He liked her.
He kept the tooth as payment, though, and considered it a fair enough trade. He wears it with his Saint George pendant to help himself remember, and that's something of value.
Despite the temptation to linger, he finally does extract himself from the cathedral's tender hush. There are things to do, after all. He rides back through the city streets and past the gates of the palace he's come to call his home. There's a pleasant breeze, faintly tinged with warmth, swirling in from the south, and high on the tallest tower the Vercingetorix banner snaps back and forth, the rampant silver wolf resplendent on its verdant field. Hal dismounts at the stable yard and tosses a coin to the boy who takes his horse, and as he heads for the doors he wonders if Anarin's going to be agreeable today or if he'll have to drag her from her bed.
She surprises him by being up alreadyno sooner have his knuckles touched her chamber door than it's flung wide open and his grinning freckle-face of a squire jumps him, throwing her arms about his neck and laughing, and he very nearly topples over, sputtering.
"Many happy returns, Master!" She's beaming from ear-to-ear. It takes him some time to pry her off of him, and even when he succeeds she hits him lightly on the arm. "How come I had to hear 'bout your birthday from the gossips? That's not fair, Sir, it's hard enough trying to figure out what I can give you! So I figured I'd start by getting up for practice without you having to yell at me an' all. Alright, now tell me how many laps you want me doing, see how excited I am for those? C'mon!"
What, did the lass drink tea for his sake, just to have all this energy? Hal stifles a chuckle and follows, more sedately, as she springs down the stairs, her proclivity to please him only heightened with enthusiasm. He cuffs her lightly when she slows enough to let him and his relaxed pace catch up.
"I should give you a lap for every gray hair you give me, rapscallion. Did you work on your letters last night?"
"Um. A little?"
"That doesn't sound promising."
Anarin launches into an elaborate excuse right away, something about cats this time. Hal only listens for the entertainment of it, not that he'd ever admit to her that he's trying not to laugh behind this impassive face he's maintaining. Stern he may pretend to be, but she's a good lass. After all, he only trains the best.
What had he been thinking earlier, about this sense of dislocation? The Commander's brow furrows as the pair of them duck out into the practice courts, and he waves a greeting to the few ambitious souls already there. It's odd, he realizes. He and his squire begin their stretches and she cheekily asks him if he's gonna need to take it easy now that he's old, and he whaps the back of her head. It's so odd for him to let himself think that. Dislocation? He's so tangled in this life that he couldn't dislodge himself from it if he tried.
Anarin's heading for the stairs to start her walltop laps. Hal smiles wryly.
Fifty-four years? He can do longer. He shakes out his legs and goes after her, and with every intention to run himself hard and long, just because he knows that he still can.