Ser Chrisfer and Lancyn

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

Trials

Lancyn was very weary by the time they reached the Tower in Markfale. Several days of hard travel, and they'd have made it sooner but for that little difficulty in Hemminsford, when he and Chrisfer had been the only Elite available to investigate an accusation of harassment sent in by a leathersmith with two female apprentices. It had not been difficult to solve—bashing of heads first, and then sitting the prime offender, one Timotis, down and telling him in very plain speech to behave himself. Lancyn could not begin to fathom the foolish boy's logic. If the girls were really not competent to learn the trade, their Master would soon discover it. If they were, then Timotis had no grounds for suggesting that they shouldn't have been taken on as apprentices.

It was an irritating, petty little quest, and had delayed them two whole days, and now they had missed the opening day of Trials. Lancyn did not mind, at least, not very much. Certainly he would have liked to see everything, but there were still two days left, and there'd be Trials somewhere else at Autumntide, and while it was true that he had not managed to witness Trials in the three years he'd been travelling with Ser Chrisfer, there was no reason why they shouldn't see the next, if they wanted to. It might even be best like this, he thought. From what Chris had told him on the way here, there was quite a bit of pomp and display on the first day, and what Lancyn really wanted to see was the fighting.

"I have to see the Tower Master," Chris muttered almost apologetically as he slid off his horse in the courtyard. Lancyn made a face at him, but took Horse's rein without complaint and led the beasts into the stables. He hoped Chris would have time to alert the housekeeper to their presence, for he was extremely hungry.

He'd never seen a Tower stable so full before. The stablekeeper tutted anxiously but found a corner stall for the two animals to share. Lancyn gave their saddles and bridles into the care of the duty apprentice, and watched her carefully as she fetched food and water and began to groom them. Eventually satisfied, Lancyn patted Brown's glossy neck, admonished Horse to behave, and made his way inside to the kitchen, where the housekeeper was ladling hot soup into bowls, a loaf, butter, and a bowl of apples were laid out on the table, and Chris was standing by the huge open fire, in conversation with a tall, lordly man Lancyn had never seen before. Certainly Elite, Lancyn thought. Was that the Tower Master? Probably not; usually they were older. The stranger looked like the embodiment of all the knightly virtues, elegant and handsome, exactly as Lancyn had always imagined knights looked, before he met Chrisfer.

Of course, he knew better, now.

"Spiced wine, dear?" the housekeeper greeted him. Lancyn thanked her as he took a cup from her tray, and inhaled the rich scent of the hot brew before taking a cautious sip. There had been no snow on their journey, and enough lambstails in the hedgerows and yellow spikes gleaming in amongst the grass to signal the arrival of Spring, but still, it was not warm outside, and his chilly hands folded eagerly round the cup.

"... and your tisane, Ser Kevyn," the housekeeper was saying as she offered the last cup on her tray to the lordly stranger.

A tisane? When there was spiced wine? Oh well, no accounting for tastes, Lancyn thought, and caught Chris's eye for a moment. From the deliberately bland expression in those cynical brown eyes, it was clear Chris entirely agreed with him. Lancyn hid his grin in the cup.

The tall knight coughed politely.

"Um. Yes. Ser Kevyn, my squire Lancyn," said Chrisfer, and Lancyn put down his wine and crossed to exchange the ritual greeting.

"I didn't notice you yesterday, I'm afraid," Ser Kevyn remarked. "Did you have a good day?"

"Lancyn's not entered," said Chrisfer, just as Lancyn said, "We only just got here."

"Sit, sit!" the housekeeper encouraged them. "Your soup will get cold. Ser Kevyn, are you sure you won't have something?"

"No, thank you, Maris, it'll only keep me awake. This is all I need." Still, he sat down on the bench next to Chrisfer and waited politely for Lancyn to get a few mouthfuls of soup inside him, but the faintly interrogative look in his wide green eyes impelled Lancyn to offer an explanation.

"We were hoping to be here two days ago, but there was a quest," he said, cheerfully. "If we'd been delayed any longer, I doubt there would have been room in the stables for our horses. We'd have had to go to an inn."

Ser Kevyn smiled faintly. "You'd not have found lodging at any inn in the city," he said. "I've not seen such a crowded Trials in years."

Lancyn was surprised. Surely there was room enough for all the candidates and the knights in the Tower, even with visitors from other Towers. Why would anyone need to stay at an inn?

"Family like to watch," Chrisfer muttered, and stuffed his mouth with bread.

"So what was the quest that delayed you?" Ser Kevyn inquired.

Lancyn noticed Chrisfer chewing and swallowing frantically, and took pity. "It was nothing very grand," he explained, "a little local quarrel." Briefly, he outlined the circumstances. "Really, Master Leathersmith Jerrold ought to have been able to sort it out for himself, but he took it to authority instead."

"Do you think it was wrong of the leathersmith to involve you?" Ser Kevyn asked.

"No..." Lancyn considered for a moment. "No, he had every right, and I dare say it is easier in many ways when the correction comes from elsewhere. Master Jerrold has to live there, and the boy's family are among his customers—he'd not want to offend them. We're strangers to them all, known to be neutral."

"And perhaps, not completely aware of the ins and outs of the situation?" Ser Kevyn suggested with a faint smile.

Lancyn was fairly sure the question was meant in a friendly spirit, and smiled back. "There were nuances, definitely. There may have been more that we did not discover, but it was clear that the local magister did not like Timotis, or his family. So it might be said that Master Jerrold was being generous, in taking the problem to Elite instead... or that he was being extra careful, in case the magister was so determined not to appear biased that she was too lenient."

"Still, it was only, what did you say, a little local quarrel. Might have been best to find a solution locally."

"Yes, if they but could. That is our greatest advantage, I think, that we—I mean, Elite in general, not anyone in particular—we aim to achieve a just solution, rather than a comfortable one or a convenient one or one which ensures that the people with the most influence get what they want." Lancyn chose his words with care, wanting to impress this splendid knight, to make it clear that he, Lancyn, knew what he was about. "We look for balance," he continued. "Timotis was complained of, but he knew he had a fair chance to state his case. And we may have managed to get the message through his thick skull that if he persists in being a nuisance, nobody at all will want to take him on."

"How did you settle?"

"Made him pay compensation and a public apology for maligned reputation to each of the apprentices, and brought him with us to Markfale for the trade fair. He contracted with," Lancyn grinned, "the Markfale orderkeepers."

Ser Kevyn shouted with laughter. "So tell me about your quest in Milling, with the magic purses," he said, when he had calmed down.

Startled, Lancyn stared.

"I told you, Towers are great places for gossip," Chrisfer murmured. "Maris, do you happen to have any of your magnificent toffee cakes, because there's a hollow in my belly that's toffee-cake shaped and crying to be filled." With an indulgent smile, the housekeeper rose from the table—Lancyn hadn't even realised she was there—and went to the store-room. A negotiation began. Lancyn was confident that he too would be given a toffee-cake, or whatever else there might be, so he ignored it.

"The quest was sent in by Lord Mitteral, in the far north," he began, and described the whole incident, with a lot of unnecessary corroborative detail added by his knight, once Chris had returned to the table with a selection of sweets. Ser Kevyn responded with anecdotes of his own quests, including news from Vallacarfel which was particularly gratifying (the examination, conviction and execution of Loupe). He and his squire Ajander had been involved in the stirring events there, and both Lancyn and Chrisfer were fascinated by this different perspective on the capture of the pick-pocketing gang and its leaders.

Eventually, though, Lancyn's face cracked open with an enormous yawn, which seemed the signal for the conversation to come to an end. He was sorry, but he was also very tired, and there were a lot of stairs to climb before he could sleep. They had been allocated beds at the very top of the East Tower.

"It's a pity you weren't here in time to sign up," Ser Kevyn said.

"Yes," Chris said, in an odd tone. Chrisfer was looking at him very strangely, Lancyn thought, but possibly he was befuddled by the lateness and the spiced wine. "He'd have had a few surprises for the Tower-trained."

"Well." Ser Kevyn's face looked quite drawn. He must also be weary. "Another half-year isn't so very long to wait."

"No," agreed Chris, standing. "Not very long."

* * *

Clutching his blanket round him, Lancyn shuffled to the window to see what the day might have in store. It was cold, but bright and clear, and from his commanding position in the topmost, tiniest bedroom of the second turret, he could see the Mark valley for miles. The river glinted as it wandered through gentle hills dotted with sheep, off towards the sunrise. To the south, there were orchards, orderly trees in rows, not quite ready to blossom; to the north, the edges of the city, and the bright collection of tents and wagons clustered there for the trade fair. No wonder the inns were full, with a gathering of employers and work-seekers as well as the Trials.

It was, of course, the trial grounds that particularly interested Lancyn. A little leftwards he could see a high bank of spectator seating—a few brightly coloured blobs already dotting the tiers, staking out the covetable places in the centre—and a stepped standing platform along the west side of a roped-off square. After a moment, Lancyn realised that there was another square beyond the tiers, with its own seating and standing arrangements. The spectators in the topmost row of seats would be back-to-back. Over to the right were more areas defined by ropes, and beyond the big squares, a sizeable field which must, he felt sure, be used for the mounted events.

Lancyn grinned to himself as he stared down onto the trial grounds. Two more years, maybe, and he'd be down there himself, proving his worthiness to take the Oath. Perhaps even next year. But probably not. He'd started so late, he had a long way to catch up. Lancyn still drilled with Chrisfer every day, unless they were in extreme haste, but Tower-trained candidates worked on their weapons skills all the time. And the law, of course. And history. And the like. He had a long way to go.

"Ready for breakfast?"

Lancyn jumped, startled, and realised with some embarrassment that he was not yet dressed.

"We're eating in the dining hall this morning, should be an education for you. I'll be with the seniors, you'll have to join one of the junior tables. Get on with it, kid, you don't want to miss anything!" And Chrisfer was gone.

Lancyn scrambled into his cleanest clothes, and headed for the stairs, then at the last minute went back for his leather jacket. It would be cold outside, and he did not want to climb three hundred and seventeen steps (he counted them on the way up last night) after breakfast to fetch it.

 

He joined the stream of people heading into the dining hall, which was fuller than any he'd seen before, with excited noise echoing off the high stone walls. A harassed steward pointed him at a table, informed him there'd be fresh jacolet out in just a moment, and hurried off towards the kitchens. Lancyn inserted himself onto the bench, smiled amiably at the company—they looked to be about his own age—and settled in to listen. Someone passed him a clean platter, so he helped himself to bread and curd cheese, and a cup of jacolet when the fresh jug arrived. It was very good jacolet, rich and strong. No doubt Chrisfer was on his third cup by now.

His immediate neighbour, a handsome, dark-haired boy (not unlike Ser Kevyn in demeanour), asked Lancyn to pass the jug, informed him that his name was Faraden, and inquired how he had done yesterday.

"Oh, I'm not entered," Lancyn said, handing the jug along. "We only got here last night."

"Not entered... oh." Making a visible effort to be polite, Faraden asked, "Are you here to see... you have family in Trials?"

"No, no. My knight, um, thought I should see what it was like," Lancyn said. "I'm looking forward to it. I've never seen Trials before."

This caused a ripple of astonishment along the table.

"Never seen Trials before? But—where did you train?" This from the freckled, red-haired lad across the table.

"I—with my knight. I've never trained in a Tower."

"Never?" The red-head looked flabbergasted. "How can you possibly—I mean, well."

Faraden smiled pityingly. "You'll have a lot to learn," he said, in a condescending tone that set Lancyn's hackles rising. "I recommend the Formal Sword," and he smirked. "As I understand it, you Road-trained squires are a bit deficient in the technical skills."

"You might learn a few things yourself." That was the skinny youth with velvet-brown eyes and luxuriant lashes, seated next to the redhead and helping himself lavishly to butter and raspberry jam. "Road-trained know better than to expect ferals to fight fair. What's the point learning the rules, when you never get to use them?"

Lancyn smiled approvingly at this. He didn't see the point of Formal combat either. Particularly Unarmed Formal, where you let your opponent up when you'd pinned him. Anyone could see that that was just stupid. When you'd pinned your opponent, you sat on his head until you'd got a rope round him, or he'd be up and at you again, or running.

"I think you'll find," said Faraden, who was beginning to get on Lancyn's nerves, "that Formal combat is the best test of ability." He stacked his cup and platter on the dirties tray, and stood. "I'm scheduled for the hour after noon. Watch and learn."

"Uh huh," said the brown-eyed boy, hugely unimpressed. When Faraden had gone, he stretched a hand across the table to Lancyn. "M'name's Edge. Looks like we Road-trained oughtta stick together. Have you really never been in a Tower?"

"I've stayed in Towers," Lancyn said cautiously, "and I've used the practise grounds, but no, I've never been, um, trained in one. Why, were you in a Tower?"

"Before my knight took me on, yes," said Edge. "Been on the road for three years, now. And between you and me, I learned a lot more from Kevyn than I ever learned in the Tower."

"And you're entered?"

Edge displayed his left arm, which bore a green ribbon. "Two down, three to go."

"What events are you doing?"

"Distance, this morning," Edge replied. "Slingshot. Then Blunt this afternoon. Open Staff."

"You should be able to show these Formal-trained Tower types a few tricks," Lancyn said, trying to keep the envy out of his voice.

Edge grinned. "Come watch me! Third hour after noon."

"I will." Lancyn grinned back. "Uh, when does everything start?"

"There'll be a bell to announce when each event gets going. And—"

A distant clanging interrupted him.

"That bell?"

"That bell. You finished? Come on!"

"I should, um, I don't know if Ser Chrisfer..." Lancyn looked round, anxiously. He wasn't quite sure what Chris had intended for today. He had assumed they would watch the Trials together, but he couldn't see his knight anywhere.

"Is your knight signed up for mastering?" That was the red-haired boy. "If so, he'll be down at the field already."

"Oh. Uh, I don't know." Lancyn felt a little bit lost. He didn't even know what 'mastering' meant.

"Let's go down and find out," said Edge, who had rounded the table to stand beside him. "There won't be much of a crowd yet."


Edge was right: there were spectators in place on the tiers, and standing alongside the Mounted course, but there was plenty of room. Lancyn knew that there was a ground-side section reserved for Elite, but he was glad to have someone with him who could show him exactly where that was.

They found a good spot by the rope at the main arena, and settled in to watch the first triallist in Formal Sword.

"He's... not very good, is he," Lancyn remarked, disappointed, after a few moments. From what Faraden had said, he'd been expecting a display of real prowess.

"He'll just get his three minutes, I expect," Edge said. "The master will let him show what he can do, and then finish him off. To be fair," he added, grudgingly, "they aren't necessarily expecting to pass Trials this year. Anyone above fourth year is allowed to enter, and of course, there's no guarantee even if you've had your full seven. Some people take—yes, see, he's disarmed."

There was polite applause as the combatants bowed to one another and separated, the triallist trudging off the field, the knight joining a small group in one corner. "Is that Ser Kevyn?" Lancyn asked, spotting an elegant dark head among them.

Edge waved, and got a languid hand in return. "He's signed on for the morning here. He said I could manage to hit a barn door without him watching, but he'll be there to see me fight this afternoon. Wait—you know Kevyn?"

"We met last night, in the kitchen," Lancyn explained. "But I thought he said his squire was called Ajander."

"That's me. But everybody calls me Edge."

That was fair enough, Lancyn thought, and—rather belatedly—introduced himself. Which led to an exchange of information about how they had come to be attached to their particular knights. Edge, apparently, had not been very responsive to the discipline of Rittenhold Tower, and said with blithe unconcern that if Kevyn hadn't taken him on he'd probably have been thrown out as a hopeless case. He was intrigued by Lancyn's brief account of his own rescue by Chrisfer, and by the notion that Lancyn had been a merchant's apprentice. So very long ago. A different lifetime, it seemed.

Then the buzzing crowd hushed again as a new triallist approached the cluster of knights and bowed to one, who followed him to the centre of the field and took up combat stance.

"What do you think of this one?" came a voice behind them. It was a knight Lancyn had not met before, but he took a moment to assess the youngster on the field, and replied politely.

"He signals everything, and moves as though he's counting drill." Lancyn remembered those days, stab and thrust and parry and thrust and three and four and parry and thrust. "You can tell his opponent knows exactly where the next blow will be aimed."

"And he's so slow, Ser Vosber might have broken through three times already," Edge contributed. "Footwork isn't bad, but he keeps dropping his shoulder."

The knight chuckled. "Quite right. You're not from Markfale Tower, are you? Would you be the Road-trained pair, Kevyn's squire and Chrisfer's?"

They confirmed this.

"Good, good. You'll be entered for the Open Sword tomorrow, I take it?"

"Yes," said Edge.

"I'm not a triallist," Lancyn admitted, sadly. "We arrived too late."

"Really? Pity. I like to see what the Road-trained squires can do. Still, you'll enjoy the spectacle." And he moved off.

"They keep doing that," Edge muttered. "Just ask you stuff, out of the blue. Oh, yes, I thought he'd have him disarmed the second his time was up."

They chatted on for a while, until the next triallist walked onto the field. This time it was Ser Kevyn who was chosen, and it soon became apparent that his opponent was far more capable than the previous two. The fight lasted almost ten minutes, and there was hearty applause when the younger man acknowledged defeat.

"Of course, he wasn't really going all-out," Edge said. "You should see him in a real fight."

"He's very skilled," Lancyn said politely. It was certainly true, though he would back Chris against Ser Kevyn—or anyone else, for that matter. Which reminded him, his knight must be wondering where Lancyn had got to. "I think I should look for Ser Chrisfer," he said. "I'll be sure to catch your combat this afternoon, and the Distance event, too, if he has no other plans for me."


"Ah, there you are," Chrisfer greeted him, when Lancyn eventually ran him to earth in the Elite enclosure by the Mounted ground. "Been watching the action? See anything good?"

"Ser Kevyn was on the Formal Sword ground a few minutes ago. And I met his squire. He's very good."

"Kevyn, or the squire? What was his name, Alehander?"

"Ajander," Lancyn corrected absently, "but he's called Edge. I haven't seen him compete yet, but he's fighting this afternoon in the Open Staff."

"Aha! Perhaps I'll get to meet him. I signed up for mastering on that one. These pampered Tower-based knights don't like to get themselves bruised. Why, hello, Rufus, I didn't see you there! How are you, you lazy bugger?"

"Still fit enough to teach our triallists to watch themselves in the Open Staff!" A stocky knight with leathery dark skin and a broad smile turned and clapped Chris on the shoulder. "Is this your squire? Will I be facing you this afternoon?"

"Lancyn's not entered," said Chris, his face clouding. "We got delayed on the road."

"Takes the fun out of it, not being entered yourself," Rufus observed, exchanging wristclasps with Lancyn. "Are you signed up for anything?"

"Wait, he can do that?"

"You should keep up, Chrisfer. They're allowing the pre-triallers to go in for a couple of events now, provided they're sixteen years or more. Some of the late starters get very restless otherwise. Put your name down, lad, and get yourself a white ribbon."

Lancyn felt a grin spread across his face. "I will, Ser. Thank you!


It really did change how it felt, being here, watching the Trials, when you were going to do a bit of fighting yourself, Lancyn thought. Suddenly it was all so much more exciting. In fact, this was the best of all possible worlds, because he didn't have to worry whether he passed or not.

Chrisfer seemed to know everyone, or at least, everyone seemed to know him, and Lancyn recognised quite a few faces from their Tower visits. They watched the Mounted event (Sticks), wandered across to the Slingshot in time to see Edge crack every target and exchange his green ribbon for a blue one, and spent quite a bit of time at the Formal Swords ground. Now that Lancyn knew about the ribbons, he could see that the weakest competitors were the ones wearing white, and thought gleefully that his own opponents, this afternoon and tomorrow, might be a bit surprised.

Well before noon, enticing scents began to permeate the air. There were candy stalls and pastry stalls and fruit stalls, stalls selling bread pockets filled with peppers and hot cheese, long wooden spikes of roast meat and onions, platefuls of tiny fish fried in flour, corn cobs dripping with butter, hot fat sausages on little forks, and long thin cold sausages, chewy and well-spiced. If it hadn't been for the fight this afternoon, Lancyn would have stuffed himself, but he and Chrisfer contented themselves with sampling and sharing. Anyway, there'd be a feast this evening, after the events closed.

It turned out, somewhat to Lancyn's regret, that Faraden had been telling the truth this morning. Faraden was a very accomplished swordsman, and his bout went the full twenty minutes, and had the spectators cheering when the closing bell rang. He was surprised to see that the next triallist was female, and impressed when she lasted almost the full time, succumbing in the seventeenth minute to a trick which he'd like to learn.

"I'll buttonhole Dorrick and make him show it me," Chris promised. "Come on, time for me to earn my keep." So they headed for the Rough ground. Lancyn was last on the list, which would give him time to watch the knights and see how they fought.

Edge was already in the triallists' enclosure when Lancyn got there, and quite surprised to see him. He grinned delightedly at Lancyn's explanation, and predicted that the two of them would give the masters a hard time. "Most of the triallists did Formal Staff on the first day," he explained. "Can you imagine? Nearly put me to sleep."

"What did you do for your Formal trial?"

"Mounted Sword. It's why we came to Markfale Tower for Trials, they have the right combination of events here."

"Are they different at each Tower? I didn't know that."

"I guess they have training specialists in each one." Edge shrugged. "They had Punishers here, on the first day, and I've never seen those anywhere else."

"Those evil things like metal clubs with spikes? People actually still use those?" Lancyn had only seen punishers in pictures.

"Pretty effective, if you don't get out of the way in time," Edge said. "But you don't see them around much, no. I think one of the resident Markfale training masters must like them, or something."

"They can't be practical," Lancyn said thoughtfully.

"Not for lightweights like me, doubt if I could pick one up, let alone swing it without falling over. If you're looking for practical, though, I'd have liked to go in for a Fight Trial, but they only do those at Rittenhold, and that won't be for another year and a half."

"Fight? Is that the Open one where you can use anything you can get?"

"It's amazing! I saw a Fight Trial before I went travelling with Kevyn, they had it set in an inn, not a real inn, they built one on the Trials ground and the observers sat at the tables and had to watch out for themselves. It was spectacular! The combatants kept stealing weapons from the observers—nobody was allowed to take unguarded weapons in, of course, but still."

"Hmm," said Lancyn. A year and a half. Interesting.

"Anyway... Who are you going to pick as your master? Do you know anything about them?"

"You should choose Ser Chrisfer," Lancyn said immediately. "That one, with the dark beard, the one who's laughing." Chris was almost doubled over, and the knight he'd been talking to had hidden his face in his hands. "He's my knight," he added, proudly.

"I'll do that," Edge said. "Unless he's had a bout just before me, of course. You can't choose someone who hasn't had two bouts to rest, did they tell you?"

"Yes. And I can't choose my own knight."

They watched the first few triallists with interest. Not surprisingly, these were better than the white-ribboned swordsmen. In fact, Lancyn was the only one in this triallists' enclosure who wore a white ribbon, everyone else was an actual triallist on their third or fourth event, and thus wearing green or blue. They were a smallish group, and there were only half a dozen masters, but he had gleaned enough information to know which one he wanted to pick as his own opponent. He was up last, anyway, so he'd have a chance to watch them all.

And then Edge was up, bowing politely to Chrisfer, who grinned slyly at him and took up his ready stance.

Lancyn was not at all surprised that this was a quality fight. Edge was agile and sharp, dodging fast and seizing every opportunity to get his blows in. Chrisfer was very soon in full swing—not quite flat out, Lancyn thought, because flat out was when you were in real danger and it was win or be crushed—but not holding back. Respecting his opponent's ability to look after himself. Their own practice bouts were like that, these days, and no sympathy for the bruises, because as Chrisfer said, if you were too slow to block, you deserved them.

The two of them were fighting along the trunk of the fallen tree now. Edge had leaped up there first, and jumped every swing Chrisfer made to dislodge him, so now they were both up there, showing off shamelessly, and wearing matching, maniacal grins. Lancyn rolled his eyes, but indulgently. Oh, now they were back on the ground, and Chrisfer using that tricky jab of his. Edge had as much trouble deflecting it as Lancyn always did, but swivelled his hips in a most unlikely way and very nearly set Chris off-balance. Good for Edge! He yelled out in support—the other triallists in the enclosure were all shouting encouragement too—and realised from the level of sound that this bout was attracting a large crowd.

At last, it ended, not with a disarm or a grounding, but with a bell. Twenty minutes, and Edge came panting back, looking extremely smug, as applause rang round the ground. The next triallist, pale with nerves, went on, and Lancyn offered to tie Edge's final ribbon, a rich and splendid purple, in the blue one's place. "Excellent fight."

"It was, wasn't it! Thanks for pointing me at your knight, I'd probably have gone for one of the big fellows, but that was a real workout. Man. I need to sit a while." They moved back and settled on the triallists' bench. Most of the others had gone, now, not expecting much from the last three fights, so they could see the combat ground well enough.

"If you've fought all your other bouts like that, you must be certain of passing your Trials."

Edge smiled cockily, but shook his head. "It's not just about how well you fight. I mean, being Elite, it's more. I think this—" he waved in the general direction of the trials grounds—"is the easy part. Because when you think about it, fighting just isn't that important. Especially," he snorted, "Formal combat."

"Yes," said Lancyn, thinking of how Chrisfer's wits were better weapons than his sword and staff. "Most of the time, people just assume we'll be good in combat because we're Elite, and they just give way. I know it doesn't always work out so well, sometimes the malefactors fight, I know Elite do get killed. We've nearly—but the quests that have gone best for us, mostly, we haven't had to fight at all."

"We've had quests like that," Edge agreed. "I like it better. I mean, I enjoy a good battle as much as anyone, but this—" he waved at the arena—"is more fun than having to, uh."

"Kill people."

"Yeah. That. You don't like it either."

"No. I mean, sometimes you have to, but it's—I'd rather leave it to a solemn judgment, if I can."

The triallist in the centre of the field dropped his staff, and was promptly tripped and pinned by the knight master. Edge sniffed, and turned away. "I used to think it was an easy call to make, before I actually killed my first man."

"It changes things," Lancyn said, and they both fell silent.

"But that's not exactly what I meant," Edge went on with a forced brightness to his tone. "I was thinking of all the law, and the etiquette, and stuff. They get to spend so much more time at book-learning, in Towers. You and me, we know how to fight dirty, and, and how much a horse needs to eat when you have to ride from Rittenhold to Beccanskey, but what about all the traditions?"

"Yes," Lancyn agreed somewhat glumly. "And map-making, and construction, and herb-lore." Suddenly he found himself wondering if he'd be anywhere near ready to take the Oath even two years from now. There was so much he didn't know.

"The closer I get," Edge said, "the more I wonder if I can possibly be ready. I thought I was, but now, I don't know."

The next triallist's name was called, and Lancyn jumped. "I'm up after this one. I should get padded up."

"Have a good one!"


Lancyn bowed politely to the group of masters. Chrisfer winked at him as he straightened, and tilted his head almost imperceptibly, but Lancyn didn't need his knight's suggestion, he'd already discovered which of the masters was held to be the best at staff-combat, so he faced Ser Rufus and formally requested the honour of a trial.

Ser Rufus had only been called upon for one other bout this afternoon, so Lancyn hadn't had much opportunity to study his style, but he had noticed that all the combats had begun with three minutes of careful assessment by both parties, after which the capable fighters got serious and the less competent were swiftly dismissed.

Lancyn wasn't going to do that.

As the signal was given, he lunged forward at once, aiming for his opponent's left wrist. Ser Rufus parried with a huff of astonishment, and Lancyn set about a fast, determined attack, forcing his opponent into defensive mode. Distantly, he heard a familiar cackle of delight, but he paid no attention, he was here, now, fighting, pushing, testing, crack of wood against wood and the hard shock up his arms with every blow.

Ser Rufus came back at him, no tentative jabs, this was fierce work. They battled back and forth across the pitted ground, up the tussocky slope, on and around and over the fallen tree, a dance ruled by the percussive clack and clash of their weapons. An awkward step, a stone rolled on the uncertain ground and he was unbalanced for a moment and pushed down, but he rolled clear and swiped at his opponent's ankles as he went, and was up and following through before he even had time to wonder why that felt familiar. Attack again, drive forward, watch for the weak spots, push hard, and harder.

Lancyn's head was icy-clear. He began to favour his left side, just a little, just enough to tempt his opponent, one injudicious move and he'd have him down, come on, see, you can defeat me if you just—

There was a ringing, and a roar from the crowd. And Ser Rufus in front of him, chest heaving, and holding his staff flat across his palms. Out of time. Had they really been fighting for twenty minutes? Lancyn levelled his own staff, and they bowed.

"Well done," said Ser Rufus, and Lancyn thanked him rather breathlessly.

"That's my Lans!" Chrisfer bellowed, as he swooped in and threw his arm round Lancyn's shoulders. "Two more minutes and you'd have had him!"

"Quite a display," said a new voice, which turned out to be Ser Kevyn, with Edge's jaunty grin right behind him. "I thought your bout with my boy here was sure to be the best of the bunch, Chris, but that was astonishing. Don't think I've ever seen Rufus so pressed."

"Not for years, at any rate," said Ser Rufus himself, hauling off his gloves and chest-pads as he spoke. "I seem to recall a certain obnoxious little runt of a squire giving me a lot of trouble at his Trials a few years ago."

"Can't think who that could've been," said Chris. "C'mon, kid. You'll be wanting a hot soak before dinner, and so will I."


The bathing chamber surprised Lancyn. He'd expected the usual array of small tubs, each fit for three or four, but he'd never seen a large square bath like this before. Though he and Chris had left before the combats were finished, there were already more than a dozen people enjoying the steamy water.

"They do it this way for the Trials," Chrisfer explained. "Take all the tubs out, fill the trough with water instead, and everyone can get done before we eat."

"It must take a great deal of hot water!"

"It's a lot of work, hosting Trials. That's why they rotate through the five chief Towers," Chris explained. "Push that soap tray over, will you."

Lancyn obliged, sending the floating dish scudding across the water. "And there are different events, aren't there? Edge was telling me about the Fight which they only do at Rittenhold. Do you think I'll be ready to enter that Trials? I'd like to do a Fight, it sounds like fun."

"It is! All the witnesses end up covered in drink and dust, and it takes half an hour to get your own weapons back! Great stuff. One triallist I saw got himself up on the ceiling beam and lay there throwing stuff down at his knight master, until the knight got a window-hook over his leg and he landed on a couple of spectators. Funniest thing I ever saw! Is my back clean?"

Chrisfer obviously wasn't making any guesses as to when Lancyn would be ready for his own Trials. Slightly disappointed, Lancyn dropped the subject and concentrated on soaping himself. It wasn't the leisurely experience a proper tub would have been, they didn't linger in the hot water, just got themselves under the rinser, pulled on fresh robes from the stack, and went up to their rooms to dress. Lancyn reckoned they needed another bath after three hundred and seventeen stairs, but he contented himself with a quick splash in the washing bowl. Relaxed by his bath, he wondered seriously about falling straight into bed, but his belly didn't think that was a very good idea and he didn't even bother to mention it to Chris, so down to dinner they went.

It was pleasant to sit in a mixed group—no top table for the seniors tonight, the knights mingled with the triallists and youngsters—and listen to his table companions swapping tales of what they had seen today. The triallists were a little tense, though, and everyone avoided the subject of his own combats. Very soon, the knights prompted general conversation instead, and were soon talking of quests and quandaries that might be encountered on the road. Lancyn did not contribute much, as it seemed mostly theoretical (and just a bit silly, which he thought it would be impolite to say). In his experience, situations were never quite so perfectly balanced as the ones Ser Vosber kept proposing. But the others seemed to understand the rules of the debate better than he did. He just listened, and was careful not to catch Chrisfer's eye.

Lancyn promised himself that once they left the feast he would ask Chrisfer if any knights had ever really had exquisitely difficult quests, or if they were made up in order to torment inexperienced squires. In the event, though, he was so tired after the day's excitements that he quite forgot his questions, fell into bed, and was asleep almost before his head touched the pillow.


The practice ground was half full next morning when Lancyn and Chrisfer got there, but they found a vacant spot without particular difficulty. It felt good to get back to drill, after five days of hard travel, and missing yesterday morning in favour of watching the Trials. He'd had a good workout on the Open Staff ground, but this was normal, familiar, going through their routine together, then sparring for a while, before Chrisfer kept his promise to show Lancyn the nice little move Ser Dorrick had used in the Formal Sword, and they worked out a defence against it together.

As the last entrant on the list for this afternoon's Open Sword, Lancyn had actually been squeezed in at the beginning. Possibly this was unfortunate, as he had every intention of lasting out his full twenty, and that would put the others behind, but it was hardly his fault. Would Ser Kevyn be signed up for mastering? Because it would be interesting, Lancyn thought, to fight Ser Kevyn, particularly after Edge's epic battle with Chris yesterday.

Thinking of Edge put Lancyn in mind of something that had been worrying him, and once the two of them settled down in a quiet corner to check and polish their swords, he broached the subject. "Chris, what do Road-trained candidates do about the, uh, the other stuff? The things the Tower-trained learn in the Library?"

Chris's oil-cloth stilled in his hands. "Other stuff?" He looked up, eyes bright and interested.

"There has to be more to taking the Oath than being able to fight," Lancyn persisted. "But from what they said at the feast last night, the ones who pass will take it at the feast this evening. So there must have been something, I mean, the Tower-trained ones are taught here, so I suppose the knights here know whether they've learned enough or not. Only, what happens with someone like Edge?"

"He has a knight, you know."

"Yes," Lancyn agreed, "only, I mean, I've picked up quite a bit as we've travelled, laws about property and apprentice rights and courts of justice and such. Except it's all random, and we haven't met every kind of problem, there must be so many situations I don't know how to deal with. So, I just wondered. If there was some kind of, of examination, to assess what I know. What a Road-trained squire knows, I mean."

"Do you really think the Tower-trained learn how to deal with every situation they might meet?"

Lancyn thought about this. "Well," he said, cautiously, "I don't think there'd be enough books in the world to deal with all the stupid things people do. You just have to take the general principles and make sure you get a solution people recognise as just, even if it doesn't exactly follow precedent. I suppose."

"Yep," said Chris. "Pass me the dry-cloth, would you. Thanks. And you, and Ajander, and every other Road-trained squire, have been learning to do that."

Well, all right then, Lancyn thought, but... "I just... it feels as though there's something missing."

Chris held his gleaming blade up to check his face in its mirrored surface, and preened. "What sort of something?"

Lancyn still thought the beard looked silly like that, but he wasn't going to mock his knight when there were three other senior Elite within earshot. "I don't know. I just—I do know that being able to fight is, well, it's important, but this, all this," he waved vaguely at the merry red flags and banners flapping in the morning breeze, "makes it seem as though the fighting is the only thing that matters."

"You're right." Chris grinned at him. "It isn't, and being able to—Lans, you don't have to worry about it. Truly. We do know what we're doing. I'm just not allowed to tell you."

"Oh." Lancyn wanted to be pleased about that, but clenched his teeth on something that felt more like annoyance. He'd grown used to sharing everything with Chris, to knowing what was going on, and to contributing his own opinions and having them count for something. This strange divide between senior and junior Elite was very unsettling. "I'm glad I'm not Tower-trained," he said, and stood up. "You done? What shall we watch, this morning?"

"You choose," said Chrisfer, expansively. "Which would you be entered for, if this were your Trials?"

So they went to watch the Mounted Slide-Bow trials for a while, with Lancyn arguing that he might as well get all his worst events in at once, and Chrisfer insisting that that was a daft strategy, what if he didn't pass, he should plan on spreading out his weakest skills. When the Slide-Bow palled, they looked at the Unarmed Formal, but by mutual consent decided that the sight of people being polite to one another in the middle of their fights was too ridiculous, and Lancyn would be better off warming up and getting the blade-guards put on his sword in plenty of time for his own event.

He enjoyed his bout with Ser Kevyn. It was a relief to concentrate on the fight, and not fret about what was happening here at the Trials. Indeed, he had to concentrate. Ser Kevyn was quite different to Chrisfer, taller for one thing, with a longer reach and an elegant style. And, most crucially, left-handed.

The two of them probed one another's defenses carefully for several minutes before accelerating into serious battle, fighting hard to gain the high ground and pushing back and forth all across the Rough territory. Lancyn tried Ser Dorrick's trick, and it very nearly worked, but Ser Kevyn was just too quick—or possibly Lancyn hadn't properly worked out how to perform it against a left-handed opponent. Ser Kevyn had plenty of tricks of his own, too, and Lancyn was very much occupied keeping up with them all.

There was a fair crowd watching by the time the bell rang—the place had been almost deserted when Lancyn walked onto the field, probably because nobody expected much from a white-ribbon—and plenty of applause, but Lancyn was more pleased with Ser Kevyn's approving Well done.

After that, he was ravenously hungry, and hauled Chrisfer straight to the stall selling hot meat on sticks, and insisted on tasting a variety of spiced snacks and chilled fruit before they returned to the Open Sword and settled back into the Elite enclosure. Where Lancyn was, somewhat to his surprise, much congratulated on his performance, and Chrisfer strutted proudly and claimed credit for it all.

Edge's Open Sword trial took place in the middle of the afternoon. Lancyn was expecting great things, and was not disappointed. He'd guessed, from Chris's muttered Good for you, kid! that Edge had picked the best master available, a dark, slender knight who moved like liquid and wielded his sword as thought he'd been born with it. In the rare instants when he could bring himself to look away from the combatants, Lancyn glanced over at Ser Kevyn, whose expression was a compelling, intense mixture of pride and anxiety. It must be hard, he thought, to see your own pupil fighting like that, and wondered how Chris had looked during his own bouts.

The fight didn't quite last for twenty minutes. The timekeeper was moving towards the bell when the knight master's sword twisted, too fast for Lancyn to see, and Edge's sword flashed and fell. Edge made a desperate grab, too late, and his shoulders slumped with disappointment as he began to make his bow. The master bowed back, and the two of them exchanged words, there in the middle of the field, before Edge reached down for his sword amidst a storm of applause.

"Does that matter?" Lancyn asked, urgently. "That he lost?"

"What do you think?" said Chris.

"I—no, it can't matter. Not against a swordsman like that, he was incredible."

"Quite right," said Chris. "A triallist just has to prove competence, he doesn't have to win, or hold out the full twenty."

That made sense. It definitely confirmed Lancyn's growing certainty that the fighting wasn't the essential thing here. "Good," he said, "because I think Edge is ready."

"What makes you the judge of that?" The voice, high and haughty, came from his left. It was Faraden.

Lancyn had not realised he was there too, watching the fight. "I'm not the judge," he said, calmly. "I can have an opinion, and I think he's ready to take the Oath."

"He's good with a sword, I'll grant him that," Faraden said.

"And with a staff and slingshot. I didn't see him unarmed, or mounted." He didn't feel inclined to share their other conversations with this arrogant boy.

"As it happens," Faraden continued, "I think he'll pass, too. I'm impressed. I didn't think it was possible to be that good without proper Tower training."

"You'd be surprised what we learn, on the road."

"Well, I'll be out there soon myself," Faraden said, confidently. "Do my solo time, run a few quests, then join a Tower. Come back in a few years and you can face me in the Formal Sword."

Lancyn stifled a laugh. "Make it Open, Rough and I'll do that." Or a Fight, he thought.

"C'mon, kid," Chrisfer interrupted. "I could use a drink. And I just spotted Rufus in the crowd. He'll stand us an ale, after your bout yesterday."


It was strange, almost melancholy, to see the non-Elite spectators streaming towards the gates, and the Trials grounds being dismantled, all the ropes and flags being stowed and the tiered benches taken down. Lancyn found himself working in the bench-stacking chain, loading them onto broad-wheeled carts. The supervising knight told him they'd be sent south to Vallacarfel, where the Autumntide Trials would be held this year.

The food vendors were packed and gone by the time the tiers were done, and there was a sudden rush for the Tower. Lancyn didn't see the point of hurrying, there were easily another two hours before the Feast, and though the sun was setting, it was surprisingly mild outside. He noticed that most of the juniors of around his own age (near as he could tell) had vanished—he'd been hoping to catch up with Edge, but with luck, they would meet at the Feast. Unless successful triallists were seated among the seniors? Did they find out before the feast—was that why they'd gone inside in such a hurry?

It was just as well, he decided, that Chrisfer had brought him along. Otherwise, when he got to his own Trials, he wouldn't have any idea what was expected of him. Right now, though, what was expected of him was that he didn't stink, so he headed for the baths, cleaned off the sweat of the day in the crowded water, rinsed, and wrapped himself in a robe to climb the three hundred and seventeen stairs. The Tower laundry must be working miracles, with all these invaders to get cleaned and towelled.

There was no sign of Chrisfer at the top of the tower, so Lancyn dressed, tidied his hair and descended again. The milling crowd of juniors outside the dining hall was audible from half-way down.

To his delight, Lancyn spotted Edge and managed to fight his way through to congratulate him on the Sword bout. Edge grinned briefly and thanked him, but had no conversation, and kept chewing at his fingernails. It must be nerve-racking, waiting to find out whether you'd been deemed fit to pass Trials, and take the Oath.

A stout knight with a mighty bellow called for quiet, sorted the waiting crowd into two lines and sent them in. Lancyn followed obediently, and ended up in a good spot, close to the top end of one of the tables running parallel to the long walls. The youngsters were all at the lower end of the hall, and still chattering in excited trebles. The knights' tables, along the short wall with the magnificent scarlet and gold tapestry, were as yet empty, but as he took stock, seniors began to file in and take their places. He spotted Ser Kevyn first, then Chrisfer, looking unusually solemn next to him.

The tables were full. There were three loud thumps, staff against drum, and the knight with the bellow intoned Truth, Justice, Peace into the silence. They all repeated this, then sat, except the end-seated from each table who went to fetch trays of food.

Lancyn was slightly disappointed to have been separated from Edge, whom he could see at the far end of the next table along. He was not sorry to be well clear of Faraden, who'd been among the earliest into the hall. And he was quite surprised to find that the person seated to his right was female—she introduced herself as Alyssa, and after a moment, he recognised her as the female squire he'd seen fighting Ser Dorrick, and mentioned that he had watched the bout.

It turned out that several of those in his immediate vicinity had seen at least one of Lancyn's fights, too, and they had a lively conversation detailing the awkwardnesses of their own fights, how lucky they had all been to avoid total humiliation, and what else they'd seen that was worthy of mention. The food was excellent, a grand selection of roast meats, sausages, shreds, carrots, sprouts, strange green vegetables like tiny trees which turned out to be very good, sliced pale vegetables which turned out to be very bitter, beans, and tubers (crisped as well as crushed), and tempting piles of sweet treats in glass bowls. The atmosphere, though, was strange, a little hectic, a little shrill, and Lancyn noticed that most of his table companions were not eating very much. Only he and Pelarik, the gigantic young man who had entered the Punisher Trial, were making a hearty meal.

Just because everybody else's nerves had ruined their appetites, didn't mean Lancyn wasn't going to enjoy the food. You ate well when you got the chance, he thought everyone knew that. These Tower folk were too highly strung. In their place, he'd be nervous, yes, but relieved that it was over. "What happens next?" Lancyn murmured to Alyssa as he helped himself to more shreds and gravy.

"I don't exactly know," she muttered back. "It's my first Trials."

He was surprised, and she explained that she had been squire to Ser Madena until a year ago, but had returned to Elsweve Tower because her dian wished to have a child. "That's why she isn't here," Alyssa went on. "She's too near her time, perhaps she's even birthed the baby by now. But she won't be back on the road for years, so..." She shrugged. "I don't know if I'm ready to go out on my own yet, but it seemed worth a try. Elsweve don't run Trials, so I came here."

"What was it like, being in a Tower after you'd been travelling?"

She leaned towards him, and whispered. "Boring as shit."

He grinned. "That's what I thought."

"This lot are in for a big surprise," she said, offering him a bowl of candied nuts. "Some of them seem to think they'll be out there like bright, shining stars, shedding the light of truth and justice over the common folk. It'll do them good, most of them, but they won't like it."

"There's one or two I wouldn't mind watching fall flat into a puddle," Lancyn admitted, thinking of Faraden. "It'll do them good to find out that people don't follow the rules. I mean, that's the point, that's why we're out there!"

"Puddles are good," she agreed. "Just so long as they don't swan into situations they can't deal with. A lot of Elite get killed doing their solo time."

Lancyn was going to ask about that, because it seemed pretty stupid to him, pushing the Tower-fledged out of their element so abruptly. But the room fell suddenly silent, and when he looked to the senior tables, the knights were standing. Five stepped forward, the rest filed sideways and stood along the walls, behind the tables.

Ser Henris, the Tower Master, stepped forward from the line of five. "Over the past three days," he announced, "every one of us here has participated in the Trials. Some as masters, all as witnesses. Many, as triallists. And now, as the final event of this Springtide Trials, we ask those who have been judged ready to stand before us all, to take the Oath and become full Elite." He read out five names. There were murmurs, and once, a gasp, and five young men stood and made their way from the junior tables to line up before the line of knights. They knelt and offered both hands to be grasped, and the knights in unison spoke the Oath, and the successful triallists repeated it. Then they stood, exchanged formal wristclasps with their oath-givers, and walked round to stand in the vacated places at the first senior table.

Another five names were called. The process was repeated. The fair-skinned boy opposite Lancyn was summoned, and got up, shaking and clouting his knee on the bench so that he hobbled the first few steps. Faraden sauntered up as though he were Tower Master already. The red-head from yesterday's breakfast table looked dazed and incredulous as he made his way forward.

Lancyn watched them all, their faces pale and set, or flushed with excitement, proud, nervous, solemn, and wondered how he would feel when it was his turn.

Eventually, two of the knights stepped back from their line and moved to the walls. The top table was very nearly full again, with new-made knights. Beside him, Lancyn heard Alyssa sigh, and the big lad Pelarik shrugged ruefully but without surprise.

The Tower Master called four more names, and Lancyn grinned delightedly as Alyssa gave a squeak and got to her feet. Edge was already moving. As, Lancyn realised, was Ser Kevyn, joining the three Oath-receivers so that when Edge knelt, it was in front of his own knight. He watched them, but they might have been alone in the room, saying the Oath to one another, and when they stood it was not for the traditional hand-to-wrist greeting but for an embrace. Over Edge's—Ser Ajander's—shoulder, Ser Kevyn's face tried to smile, but he blinked as though there were tears in his eyes.

Ser Henris was speaking to Alyssa, and after their wristclasp, handed her a small token, what it was Lancyn could not tell, but she beamed and tucked it carefully inside her shirt before taking the last vacant place at the table.

"We welcome you all," the Tower Master said. "Be strong and wise in all that you do, and never forget that you are Elite, and that you serve. Truth. Justice. Peace."

"Truth. Justice. Peace." Lance repeated the words, along with everyone, a solemn whisper that made the back of his neck prickle. And that, apparently, was that.

A storm of conversation burst forth.

"So, what do you think?" It was Chris, sliding into the empty seat beside Lancyn.

What did he think? Lancyn wondered. "I... I'm surprised there weren't more. There seemed to be so many doing the Trials."

"We're quite picky. There'll be more than a few who quit the Tower, after this. Pass me those pink things, would you?" Lancyn obliged. The 'pink things' were gelatinous cubes smothered in sugar. He eyed them with disapproval.

"Don't eat them all. Why would people leave? Because they aren't good enough to pass?"

"Pique, more likely," Chrisfer said, stickily. "Some who are good at swordplay will decide they know it all, and they don't care to be Elite anyway. A few will recognise that this life isn't for them—the ones who didn't manage to pass the fighting Trials, probably. And if they've had three Trials and haven't passed, they'd have to be invited to stay. Not everybody does pass."

"And the ones who did, Alyssa and Edge and the others? What happens next?"

Chris swallowed hastily. "They get quests. Get equipped, if they aren't already—the stable-masters will have been planning for extra horses. Go out on the road. Some of them will go right away, some, it may take a few days."

"Why don't the Tower-trained get a chance to go out as squires, first? It seems..."

"A bit cruel?"

"Well. Impractical. I mean, I suppose they are trained, but it's different."

"It is a difficult time for them. Probably why it's done this way. It's tradition, but it does seem to work out."

"Alyssa told me a lot of newly-made knights get killed." He tried not to sound accusing, but really, it didn't seem right.

"Sometimes we get it wrong," said Chris. "But you know, kid, any quest can get you killed. The QuestMaster distributes them very carefully, the Towers have been consulting for weeks on what can be saved for the neophytes. But they have to learn, and learn fast, and you learn faster by doing than by being told what to do."

Lancyn wanted to ask about another matter, too, but Chris's other neighbour asked a polite question about something or other, and Chrisfer turned to entertain the people further down the table. It wasn't until later, when they staggered up the last few steps to their tiny bedrooms, that he was able to bring it up.

"Ser Kevyn looked, he looked, and Edge too, when he took the Oath, I thought they'd be happy about it, but..."

"They've been on the road together for three years. That ends now."

Lancyn thought about this as he got out of his clothes and into his bed.

He was glad he was not yet ready to enter Trials.

 

There are no more Chronicles so far, although there are more to come.

 

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