Ser Chrisfer and Lancyn

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

When Someone Needs You

with thanks to Ephemera for the beta

This story is available as podfic (mp3): right-click to download

"Knights can get married, you know."

Lancyn chewed his mouthful of apple, thankful for the opportunity to absorb this remark before he had to respond. On the other side of the table, Chrisfer continued to inspect his throwing knives, and got out his sharpening stone.

Reluctantly, Lancyn swallowed the last of the apple, and said, "Mmm?" conveying, he hoped, mild interest and a willingness to hear more, if more there was.

"Yes. Quite a few of the Elite here at the Tower have wives, you know."

"Oh." As Lancyn had never before considered the matter, he wasn't even sure whether this came as a surprise or not.

"And some of the knights on the road are married." Chrisfer paused to peer along the gleaming blade. "It must be nice to have a home to go to and a warm welcome. In between quests."

"Um. Mmm."

"Sometimes knights marry dians, and they quest together. But most dians don't marry knights and most knights don't marry dians. It's just, you know. I'm just saying. So that you know. Not that you'd want to marry someone right now, but if you were to meet someone, it wouldn't be a problem when you're full Elite."

"I'll, uh, bear it in mind," said Lancyn, still somewhat baffled. He really didn't see why Chris should feel it necessary to inform him that he might marry someone once he was a knight. That day was a long way off. Lancyn knew he had made good progress, but he was far from ready to take the full Oath.


"Are you getting married, then?" he blurted.

"Me? Stars, no!"

"Oh." Lancyn was relieved. Just Chris being his usual erratic self, then.

"It's just that—you remember there was a letter waiting for me, when we got here?" Lancyn did remember. It was a rare thing, a letter. Elite communications were different, they were reflected around the network of Towers so that every quest was known to every Towermaster, and it was possible to keep track of where the knights—and dians, he supposed—were working. But a letter, a real letter, which had been directed here to Vallacarfel and arrived before they did, that was unusual.

"Of course." Lancyn responded politely. "From your mother, you said. I hope she is well, and all your sisters, too."

"Yes. They are. Very well. Yes. Katya's getting married."

"To Brig?" Lancyn remembered the tall, quiet young man who had followed Katya about the house, last Midwinter.

"Yes. And she wants us to be there."

"Us? I mean, obviously she'd want you, but why me?"

"Why not you?" Chrisfer stared at his squire. He was hiding something behind those bright brown eyes, Lancyn could tell that much, but he knew there was no chance he'd get Chris to reveal what it was. But it probably wasn't important, in the grand scheme of things. Most probably Katya hadn't mentioned Lancyn at all, and Chrisfer thought it would hurt his feelings, which was foolish of him and also rather sweet.

"So, we'll be heading north again," Chrisfer continued. "The wedding is a month before midwinter, so it won't be as cold as our last visit."

"Wait, but, didn't you take a quest, only yesterday? Will we have time?" It was a long way north from here. And a pity, too, to be headed that way as winter was coming on. Snow was all very well, but Lancyn preferred his winters mild. But, obviously, for Chris's sister's wedding, the journey must be made.

"Oh, we'll get there." Chrisfer looked oddly morose at the prospect. Usually he relished being on the road. "It shouldn't take long to catch a pickpocket or two, and flush out whoever's in charge."

"You think there's an organisation, then."

"From the look of things, it's a flourishing business, stealing, in the glorious city of Vallacarfel. The city magister there is always understaffed, though, that's why he calls in Elite help so often. People don't want to join the local orderkeepers when they can head downriver and go to sea, with the chance of making their fortunes honestly. It tends to mean the ones who stick with law enforcement are likely to take bribes from the malefactors."

"Bit of a problem, that," said Lancyn, cheerfully. "So, tomorrow, we catch a pickpocket?"

* * *

Lancyn did not think it could be difficult to attract the attention of a pickpocket. Just stand around and look wealthy. Catching the pickpocket, though, might be a different matter. Presumably the successful pickpockets—and this town seemed to be infested with peculiarly successful ones—were difficult to detect. They were supposed to be 'lightfingered', after all. He thought he had hit upon a solution to the problem.

Lancyn had a mousetrap in his money-pouch.

And here he was, standing on the outskirts of the thronging marketplace, blinking like a country boy, and alert—he hoped—to every passing touch.

There was a snap, and a shriek, and Lancyn's hand closed firmly around the skinny wrist recoiling from his money-pouch.

* * *

"Looks like they make 'em young in Vallacarfel," Chris said, staring at the kid. "Been in the business long?"

The kid glowered at them through a veil of very dirty hair, and refused to speak. He was a grubby little brat with terrified brown eyes and thin, pointed features disfigured by a bruise that swelled purple across the left side of his face. The sight of that bruise, when he swung round to get a good look at his captured thief, had frozen Lancyn's glee and gentled his grasp.

And Chrisfer had taken one look and turned tautly white, his eyes burning with rage; but his voice was mild and playful now as he tried to get the boy to speak. It was no easy task, and they kept at it for half an hour before Chrisfer shrugged and—apparently—gave up.

"You hungry, Lans?" the knight said casually. "Fetch us up something from the kitchens. I'd rather eat here than in the hall." Chrisfer's room held a neat wooden table and four stacked stools, and Lancyn had spent enough time in Towers now to know that while the Elite in residence were expected to assemble for a formal evening meal, the midday repast was a casual affair that might be eaten anywhere.

He went obediently down to the kitchens, taking his time. Chrisfer would have better luck with the kid alone. He loved children. Lancyn had seen him abandon any pretense at dignity to play like a child himself, with Talia, and with Joel's twin boys, as well as any number of chance-met youngsters on their travels. It was a gift, one Lancyn himself lacked: he could play, and enjoy it, but for him it took conscious effort to set aside his adult self, whereas for Chrisfer, it came naturally.

He returned to the room bearing his laden tray: a platter laden with sliced meat, three pots of assorted relishes, a loaf hot from the oven, butter, a jug of juice and several apples (Lancyn was extremely partial to apples), and three sugar fancies begged from the indulgent housekeeper, who had patted his arm and told him not to make eyes at her, it would do him no good, before picking out the three largest candies from her supply.

The boy still looked wary, but Chrisfer greeted Lancyn's return cheerfully with the announcement that the kid's name was Erryn.

Erryn stared at the pile of food as Lancyn set it down, but made no move towards the table, and when Chrisfer gestured to him to sit, the astonishment in his bruised face was heartbreaking. Timidly, the boy took a single slice of meat, and gaped as Chrisfer piled another four onto his plate and Lancyn set a steaming, fragrant slice of bread beside them, and offered him the butter. Then he ate, cramming in the food so fast he appeared likely to choke, until Chrisfer murmured something and he slowed down enough to chew.

The boy startled both of them with his polite 'Thank you' as he finished his meal.

* * *

"It's all right, you know. We never hang people on Thursdays."

Lancyn rolled his eyes theatrically. "Don't mind him, Erryn. He's a bit touched, but he's all right."

"I get no respect," grumbled Chrisfer. "You see how it is?"

A smile flickered briefly across the boy's face. "What do you do with, um, people, then, on Thursdays?" he asked, tentatively.

"Well," Chrisfer leant on his elbows, considering. "We feed them, which we've done. That bit's easy. Then comes the torture part. We wash them."

Erryn looked for a moment as though he might laugh. "Are you going to ask me any more questions?"

Chrisfer sniffed, and wiped his sleeve carelessly across his face. Lancyn, amused, admired his technique and kept quiet. "Depends. You going to answer?"

The boy looked old, suddenly. "What happens after?"

"After you answer the questions? No escape, kid, you still get a bath. I'd wait, if I were you. That way you can say we tortured you into it. More dignified."

Erryn's shy smile lit his face like sunshine. "I mean, after the, um, bath."

"Dinner's an hour after sunset. Then, I suppose, we get a pallet and a few blankets in for you."

"We aren't going to throw you out into the street," Lancyn added quietly.

"Yes, but," the boy bit his lip. "What happens to me, after?"

Chrisfer was suddenly serious. "Exactly what happens depends what you tell us. But we aren't going to hurt you, you have my word on that. If you can help us, if you can tell us what we need to know, I promise you won't suffer for it."

"But if they see me, if they find me... I wasn't supposed to get caught. They said, if I get caught, I wasn't to tell anything. And if you let me go..."

"How about if we take you away from Vallacarfel? Would you like that?"

"We can take you back home," Lancyn suggested. "Do you have family, outside the city?"

"No! I mean, no, don't take me back there."

"All right," Chrisfer said gently, "if that's what you want. But are you sure? Do your parents know you're safe?"

"My father's dead."

"But your mother, she'll be worried about you. We can send a message, tell her—"

"No! No. Don't tell her. She's the reason—she's the one who sold me."

The sugar fancy in Chrisfer's hand shattered noisily. After a moment, everyone laughed. Chrisfer went into the bath chamber to wash his sticky fingers (and, Lancyn thought from the muffled noises he could hear through the wooden door, to vent curses into a towel). Lancyn busied himself tidying the candied shards, and the boy shrank against the wall and hugged himself.

* * *

Erryn's story came out in painful pieces. His mother had sold her son to a man named Loupe in payment of some kind of debt. Erryn was vague on the details, but it seemed to have something to do with one of the boy's sisters. There were several siblings, an elder brother, who had run away from home long ago, and two, or possibly more, sisters, one of whom had been married off in exchange for a settlement of some kind, and at least one of whom was clearly working as a prostitute.

Loupe had brought Erryn to Vallacarfel and settled him among a sizeable gang of children who worked the streets, thieving from the townfolk and the many travellers who passed through the city on their way to the sea. Erryn had not been in Vallacarfel very long, and today was his second foray into the marketplace. He'd been punished for not bringing anything back at his first attempt. Hence the bruised face.

It came as no surprise to Lancyn that by the time Erryn finished his story, he was closely wrapped in Chrisfer's arms, with tears trickling bright lines down his dirty cheeks.

* * *

Over the next few days, Erryn—who had emerged from his bath a blond angel—told them as many details as he could be coaxed to remember about Loupe's operation: how many children there were, how many adults were involved, what was the routine... He was a bright kid, quick to grasp what they needed from him, and eager to please. He was also, though he was doing a fair job of hiding it, absolutely terrified that Loupe would find him.

It was a reasonable fear. Loupe... Lancyn very much wanted to rid the earth of Loupe. Of course, he'd have to trample Ser Chrisfer's dead body to get to Loupe first. There was nothing that angered Chris more than abuse of the innocent.

Chrisfer had taken a strong fancy to Erryn. So strong, that Lancyn might have been jealous, had he not been certain of his own place at Chris's side. It had occurred to him, though, that he would not be able to remain with Chris for ever. One day, perhaps three, four years from now, he would have to take the Oath and go on quest alone. It would be a wrench.

Possibly, though, it wouldn't be so bad if Chris had someone ready to take Lancyn's place as his squire. Somebody with three, four years of Tower training, somebody Chris already held in affection.

Quietly, at times when Chrisfer was perforce absent, Lancyn started teaching Erryn to read.

* * *

"They're sending us away."

"What? When? As soon as we—"

"No. Now. Before."

"Before we deal with Loupe?" Lance was astounded. He must have misunderstood. "That can't be right. We—"

"No. It's true. Three hours discussing the plans, and three minutes for everyone to move me off the quest." Chris smashed his hand furiously into the post between stalls, and Horse shuffled uneasily on the rustling straw.

"But why? Why? It doesn't make sense. I mean, we found Erryn. He trusts us, you especially."

Chrisfer cursed until he ran out of breath. "They say it's too personal. They say... They say I'd be too determined to see him dead."

Lancyn was about to remonstrate, but paused. Chris was certainly determined to deal with Loupe... was that so bad? It was unarguable that Loupe was slated for death: to do as he had done, to exploit these children and subvert order and lawful business in the town—he'd be hanged, no question. There was Erryn's evidence... and nothing else, he realised unwillingly. Not yet. Lancyn was perfectly convinced of Erryn's honesty, but was it grounds enough to kill a man who had not been Examined?

It had been personal for him, he thought, killing that—those two men, back in the spring. Lancyn still remembered the rage he'd felt, seeing Chris fettered and gagged in that wet clearing. Had he abandoned justice in favour of revenge? Had he let himself kill, because they had angered him?

No. No, it had not been wrong, or a mistake. It had been shockingly painful, to kill someone, he'd been shaky for a while, and downright scared the next time he had a sword in his hand, but all his reactions had never included doubt. It had been horrible, but it had been the right thing to do. Even if they'd never taken Chrisfer, those ferals had terrorised the area and committed many crimes.

Which Loupe had also done, he thought. But the level of proof was... not the same.

"How do they plan to raid Loupe's territory, without us?" he asked, prosaically.

"Oh, they don't plan that." Chris voice was tight with anger. "They'll take me along to guard the kid."

"They're never taking him into the middle of a raid!"

"He's the only one who knows the way. And he can't read a map, so he'll have to come with us. No, he'll have to come with me, because you'll be downriver."


Chris eyed him malevolently. "Thought you wouldn't like that," he observed. "I need you to get us passage on a boat leaving Vallamouth tomorrow evening."


"I'm sorry, Lans. But it has to be done, and I think the kid's better with me. He'll have to identify Loupe, and those others, Bruvin and... whoever. Everything he told us, everything in the question sessions, is all written down, and even Regget couldn't think of anything more to ask. They won't need Erryn here in person, so we're going to get him out of Vallacarfel and take him north with us. These raids hardly ever make a clean sweep, there'll be someone who stays loose."

Lancyn nodded reluctantly. "And it's not as though these ferals will realise Erryn's already given his evidence."

Chris laughed, without humour. "They'd probably kill him anyway, as a lesson. I won't risk him here when he's out in the open. As soon as his job is done, we'll be on the way downriver and nobody is going to get to him."

"It's more important, Chris. It's more important to keep Erryn safe than to kill Loupe yourself."

His knight stared at him, eyes like obsidian. Then he sighed, and softened. "I know. I know. I just... When I think what that scum did to our boy..."

* * *

Lancyn didn't mean to enjoy himself, but he couldn't altogether help it. Here he was, with Brown and a spare horse (for Erryn to ride, eventually, but at present making itself useful carrying Chrisfer's belongings and the boy's meagre pack), on a barge heading downriver towards Vallamouth Port, and it was a warm, sunny day with bright blue sky and sunlight on the water and nothing to do but enjoy the ride and fret about Chrisfer and Erryn.

He had no quarrel with Chris's feelings about Erryn: the boy was a real find. When Chris had explained to him that he would be needed to show the Elite raid the way to Loupe's hideout, he had gone white, so frightened he could hardly speak, yet he'd agreed to the risk, to trust them and do what they needed. He'd be a good squire.

Of course, when Erryn had seen how they proposed to disguise him, he'd been outraged and wonderfully vocal. Lancyn couldn't blame him, but it had been a real struggle not to smile at the sight of Erryn glaring at them from under the heavy fringe of his beribboned brown wig, and stamping resentfully in the beaded cornflower-blue dress... He was too young to be obviously masculine, yet despite his smooth cheeks and the pretty clothes, he still looked to Lancyn's amused eyes very much the boy. But no doubt the disguise would hold. When the kid was riding demurely on a pony with a couple of Elite knights as escort, he'd pass for a rich man's daughter riding through town.

Lancyn trusted Chrisfer to take care of the kid and bring him safe to Vallamouth docks. He did. And he knew that Chrisfer was perfectly able to take care of himself, too, and didn't need his squire along, even if his squire had killed three men, now, and was honestly useful in a fight. But he fretted. And it would be hours yet before he could expect to see them.

The uneventful trip downriver did nothing to take his mind off what would be happening back in Vallacarfel, but once he was disembarked, the task at hand occupied his mind. A seaport was something new, and exciting, with the briny scent in the air, tall masts spiking above rooftops, and everywhere tanned men and women with their hair thonged and twisted into pigtails. He led Brown and the spare animal carefully from their barge's dock towards the masts, located the Harbour Master without difficulty, and obtained a list of the ships which would be sailing on the evening's tide.

Bribing a pair of curious children to mind his horses, Lancyn made his way along the dock, and soon determined which of the ships would be best for his purpose. There were so many, moored along the T-shaped ends of jutting piers: other ships were drawn up along the piers, but apparently, the ones due to depart on the evening tide were positioned at the ends. Lancyn made enquiries, and determined that there were two headed for the far North, but he didn't like the look of the Windcheater's crew, and instead walked along to the next pier to inspect his second option. And wished he knew a great deal more about ships.

Or, really, anything at all.

There was a ramp connecting ship and pier, with sailors making their way on board with a variety of supplies, including a couple of mules laden with barrels. Lancyn kept out of the way and observed the activity, liking the orderliness and the cheerful shouts. Over to his left, at the far end of the T-bar, a tall, solid man was carefully repainting the ship's name in gold and yellow. Lancyn liked that. It showed pride, he thought, and attention to detail.

He called out to the next man who strode towards him along the pier, asked whether the captain would take passengers, and gave his name. The sailor nodded helpfully, trotted over the ramp, and a moment later Lancyn was being hailed. He looked up. The captain—he supposed—was leaning over the railing on the upper deck. A blond head, a jewel in the ear which flashed in the sunlight, friendly, shrewd blue eyes inspecting him, a wide grin, and he was invited to come aboard to discuss terms.

The deal was soon made, and at a very fair price: passage for three, and three horses, to the port of Beccanskey, only a day's ride from Chrisfer's family home. Lancyn left word for Chrisfer at the Harbour Master's office, retrieved Brown and the spare horse, saw them settled in the hold, inspected the small cabin he, Chris and Erryn would occupy, then went back on deck to watch the ship's business.

The captain's blue eyes had not lied: Bryn was as friendly as he had seemed, and apparently delighted to have a passenger who had never been to sea before. Lancyn was fascinated by the ship, and asked a great many questions. Bryn took him on a tour of inspection, bouncing happily on his toes and pouring out information in an enthusiastic flood as they looked at the cargo, stores, sailors' quarters... it was like a floating town, no, like a floating Tower, although Towers were not as a rule equipped for navigation.

"Nothing better than standing in the mast-cup watching the Star eat up the waves as she gets the wind in her sails. You want to climb up?"

"Up there?" Lancyn asked eagerly, tipping his head back to stare at the tiny nest-like lump high on the main mast. Bryn, explaining that his crew knew perfectly well what they were doing and really, he was only in the way at a time like this, showed Lancyn the proper technique for ascending the mast. They swung themselves into the "mast-cup", and Lancyn gazed around, grinning with excitement. The view was magnificent, the sailors below thumb-sized as they scurried about their tasks. He could see distant sails, out beyond the harbour's sheltering promontories, and upriver, a steady procession of barges heading to and from the seaport.

"What did you say?"

"Sorry!" Lancyn apologised. "I was thinking aloud. Wondering if my knight is on one of those barges."

"I hope so," Bryn told him. "We have three hours in hand, but if your companions don't arrive in time to catch the tide, we'll sail without them."

"I'm glad I didn't unpack," Lancyn remarked. "I can't travel with you if they don't get here. But they will." They must.

* * *

They did. It was surprisingly undramatic. Lancyn was still being shown 'the ropes'—literally, since there was more rope on this ship than he'd ever seen in his life—when the unmistakable sound of hooves thudded along the pier. There was Erryn, still in his girl-guise, perched wide-eyed on Horse's back, and Chrisfer walking alongside, with his hair tangling in the breeze from the sea. Lancyn greeted them placidly, but his heart rejoiced as he presented them to Bryn, who grasped Chrisfer's hand in greeting, and looked at girl-Erryn with surprise. Then there was a hail from the pier, and Bryn excused himself to inspect the finished paintwork.

"I'll tell you details later," Chris promised, as Lancyn closed the cabin door. "Kid here's worn out, it's been quite a day. We had every knight, every battle-trained dian, every specialist we could get hold of from a thirty-mile radius, and we caught the ringleaders and a whole schoolful of children. All that Erryn knew of, but no doubt there'll be a few villains heading out of town in a hurry tonight."

"Not on this ship," Lancyn assured him. "Bryn told me they had a full crew and wouldn't be taking on any more passengers, with the three of us on board."

"When do we leave?"

"An hour before sunset. There's time to go ashore and eat, if you want to do that, as soon as I've settled Horse."

"Not much point," said Chrisfer, gloomily. "Besides, I don't want Erryn seen anywhere he doesn't have to be. Not even in disguise. Bring something for him to eat here."

"Can't I go on deck?" Erryn asked, looking disappointed.

"Best not, kid. I'm sorry."

"When we're at sea, then?"

"I don't know." Chrisfer looked worried. "I don't want you to be traced. It may be best if you stay out of sight. Or keep your disguise." Erryn groaned.

"The captain is a good man, I'm sure of it," Lancyn said.

"I dare say, but can you vouch for each and every member of the crew?" Chrisfer snapped. "I'm not saying no, Erryn, just that, well, we should wait. Meanwhile, we need to get this place organised while Lans checks on Horse." He took Lancyn aside. "I'm staying with the kid. If there's anything to be done..."

"I'll do it."

"I know."

"Chris? I'm glad to see you."


Lancyn rolled his eyes and went back on deck.

* * *

"I meant to ask earlier, only I was distracted," Bryn greeted him, "will you and your knight join me for the evening meal? From tomorrow, we'll eat at the common table, but I have my meal in my cabin on the day we set sail. It gives the crew the chance to tell one another things they don't want me to hear. I'd appreciate the company."

"That's very kind. I'm sure Ser Chrisfer will be pleased to join you, as will I. Our, er, our young companion has already..."

"She won't mind being left alone in the cabin, I suppose, not at that age," Bryn commented. "When you said 'a child', I must admit I assumed a little one."

"I didn't mean to mislead—"

"No, no, it was my own fault. I hear 'child', I think 'baby'." He grinned. "My wife is expecting, you see. Excuse me, we must make ready to leave now. If you wish to watch, stay right here and you won't be in the way." And he was off, bounding up to the high platform and shouting incomprehensible commands.

Lancyn went back to the cabin, where he found Chrisfer tucking blankets over a slumbering boy. News that they were about to leave Vallamouth brought a wry smile to Chris's face, but he declined the offer of supper with the captain, and said to give his apologies, he would stay with Erryn. He was not hungry anyway. Nor did he particularly wish to observe the ship's departure.

But Lancyn did, so, with a mental shrug at his knight's unexpected lack of spirit, he went back on deck, to watch intently as the ship was made ready and left the harbour, and try to understand the interactions of crew and ropes and canvas, which looked chaotic but must in truth be ordered. It was not until they were well clear, with the masts and rooftops of Vallamouth shrinking into the setting sun, that Bryn turned to him, his elegantly chiselled face smiling so broadly that his eyes almost disappeared, and congratulated him.

"Your first time at sea. What do you think?"

Lance grinned back. "I like it very much."

"It's a fine life. The best life there is. You'll see." Bryn looked utterly content. "Should be a good run, at this time of year. We'll travel east for a while and pick up the wind from the south after we round Smoke Island. We'll eat after sunset."

* * *

The sky was star-lit, with a sliver of moon, by the time Lancyn went back to the cabin. The small hanging lamp, its tiny flame shielded by rather sooty glass, cast a dim orange glow, but the darkness was only the second thing he noticed. First was the stench. Third, the groaning.

Chrisfer was lying curled on the low bunk in his clothes, looking utterly miserable. The cabin bucket was beside him, on the floor, and he leaned over to retch even as Lancyn gaped in astonished dismay.

"Chris!" Lancyn hissed, mindful of the sleeping Erryn. "What's wrong? Are you wounded? You didn't tell me you were hurt!"

"Not wounded," Chris gasped. "Sick."

"I can see that."

"Wasn't supposed to be awake for this. Urgh. Voyage. Dropped the bottle. And the kid drank mine instead of his own. Sleeping like the dead. Oh, grief..." He retched again. He didn't seem to have anything left to throw up except his own innards, but made a mighty effort to get rid of those, then mopped himself with a washing cloth and lay back, panting, on the bunk. Lancyn tried unsuccessfully not to breathe. The smell in the cabin was vile.

"Bottle," he stated, now recognising the sickly element in the air. "Poppy syrup? To make you sleep?"

"Been to sea before. 'S awful."

"And Erryn took it." Lancyn put his hand to the sleeping boy's throat, found a firm, steady pulse, and was relieved. "Come on. You can't stay here."

"Don't make me move!"

"You want to lie here in this stink?"

"Take the bucket."

"I intend to. And you. You'll be better in the fresh air."

"Yeah, where I can see everything going up and down. Urgh. Ohhhh..."

"It's dark out there, you idiot. Come on." Lancyn hauled Chrisfer to his feet, thrust the washing cloth into his flaccid hands, jammed his travelling cloak over his shoulders and pushed him through the doorway. Taking a deep breath, he plunged back into the cabin for his own cloak and the bucket of vomit. He prodded Chris, staggering, up the steps and onto the main deck, and lent him against the steps to the upper platform while he hastened to the side to empty the bucket. A sailor, white teeth wide in the starlight, relieved him of the noisome burden; Lancyn went back to Chris and more or less dragged him to the front—bow? prow? he couldn't remember—of the ship.

"Sod. Sadist," Chris muttered through clenched teeth. "I won't forget this."

"Oh, stop complaining. You're not dying."

"Hah. I can only wish. Ooohhhhh... If I throw up, it's going over your knees."

"Charming. Come on, now, take a deep breath. Isn't that better?"

Chris grunted and was silent. Lancyn enjoyed the feel of the ship's motion beneath his feet, the clucking of water under the boat, and the bright clarity of stars overhead. He could perfectly understand why Bryn loved this life.

"Is everything all right?" A tall, sturdily-built sailor had approached silently.

"My friend is seasick," Lancyn explained. The sailor nodded, and padded away, returning a few moments later with a water bottle.

"He should drink."

"Thank you," said Lancyn. Chrisfer had not turned round, and Lancyn could read the mortification in the rigid lines of his knight's back.

"You need anything, call me. Name's Col."

Col melted tactfully back to the rear of the ship.

After a short pause, Chris reached for the water bottle, rinsed his mouth and spat over the side, then took a cautious drink.

"They seem to be good people," Lancyn remarked. "And they don't come south to Vallamouth more than four or five times a year. Mostly they go east, to the Grand Archipelago. Their home port is Stoyhaven." Bryn had been cheerfully informative over dinner, so patently honest that Lancyn had felt quite uncomfortable at the thought of deceiving him over Erryn. "I think we can let Erryn out, when he wakes up."

"If he feels like I do when he wakes, he'll have to come up on deck."

"You are feeling better, then?"

"Yeah. The, uh, fresh air helps. A lot."

"You'd best plan on staying here for the whole voyage, then. And Erryn too. He'll be pleased, he seemed interested in the ship."

"Yes. Babbled about being on a ship when he was small, as we came downriver." Chris paused. "He did so well today, I was proud. Led us straight there, warned us about the lookouts so we could have someone take them off the roof, kept out of the way like I told him to when the chaos broke out, and identified Loupe and his henchmen without a quiver. Poor kid started shaking like a baby's rattle once I got him out of there."

"He's a brave boy."

"Yeah. He deserves better than—well, any kid would. My mother will spoil him, feed him up a bit. He's too skinny. And my sisters will love him, I'm sure."

Lancyn thought about this. "We're taking him to live with your family." Of course.

"It's handy, having to go north for Katya's wedding, but I'd have thought of it anyway. Kid needs a proper mother." There was steel in his tone. Understandably.

Perhaps Chris was right, Lancyn mused. Erryn deserved a chance to be carefree for a while. But he'd mention to Bevelyn his idea of setting the boy to Tower training, in a few months, maybe.

"And you'll be glad to see my family again, won't you?" Chrisfer's voice broke in, startling Lancyn out of his train of thought. Yes, he said, he would be glad to see them again. Particularly Talia. He thought they might manage a little mischief together.

Chris humphed, and pointed out that Emmy would be a more suitable companion than the brat. He was definitely feeling better.

After about an hour, Chrisfer said he was getting cold and thought he might like to go to bed now, but as soon as he opened the cabin door he turned tail and bolted back up on deck with his hand to his mouth. Lancyn inspected their boy, propped the cabin door ajar to let the sickly smell out, and followed.

"Think I'll stay up here," Chris mumbled. "Feel queasy when I go down there." He arranged himself on the deck, but very quickly sat up again, groaning. "Don't think I want to lie down. The motion..." He stood, grasping the rail, and breathed deeply.

Lancyn moved to stand beside him. "Tell me about the raid," he requested. It should take Chris's mind off his seasickness. The ploy worked: Chris gave him every detail, with a great deal of bad language whenever he addressed the subject of Loupe. Lancyn sympathised with Chrisfer's frustration at not getting the chance to 'deal with' Loupe, but suggested mildly that hanging would be reasonable compensation for his crimes. Chris was also angry and distressed by the other children in Loupe's gang: some had cowered in terror, and been easy to manage, but not a few had fought like wildcats and shown every indication that this feral life was exactly what they wanted. It was a nasty mess.

"Perhaps we've not done so badly, being sent away," Lancyn reflected. The Elite at the Tower had a difficult time ahead of them.

Chris was silent for a long time. At last he shivered visibly and pulled his cloak tighter.

"Want to try your bunk again?"

Chris shook his head. "Wish I were Horse. Could sleep on my feet," he muttered. "Are the horses all right?"

"They're fine." Lancyn moved to stand behind his knight, pressed against Chrisfer's back, and furled his own cloak around them both. "That better?"

"You're supposed to be the one who feels the cold."

"I haven't been vomiting," Lancyn pointed out, hugging gently. "This is why you didn't want to eat, isn't it? The seasickness."

"I went to sea once before," Chris admitted. "Thought I was going to die. That's why I got the poppy syrup. Much good it did me."

"You know, when I was a boy, I used to dream of this," Lancyn murmured. "Going to sea, travelling beyond the horizon. Adventures. I wanted to be an explorer. To do something... amazing."

Chris was very quiet, and almost still enough to be asleep on his feet. Eventually he spoke. "Was that what you intended to do, when you'd finished your contract with Perel? If I hadn't come along and dragged you off with me?"

"If you hadn't come along, I'd be dead now, or indentured for life."

"Yes... but I didn't have to take you away, I mean, you could have had the life you dreamed of."

"And you called me a sap. Idiot," said Lancyn, fondly. "Spreading justice and getting into trouble, you promised me, don't you think that's enough of an adventure? Personally, I'd say it's working out well." He groped for Chris's right hand. "I wouldn't be anywhere else."

"I would," Chris grumbled. "Dry land, for one thing."

There was a gentle cough. Lancyn turned his head, to see the tall sailor, Col, looking at the pair of them with only the hint of a smile on his face.

"If you want to sleep on deck," Col said, and Lancyn saw that he was holding a large blanket over one arm, "you can sit against the cabinhead. Travellers with sensitive stomachs do better upright." He showed them where to settle, handed over a solitary cushion, and wished them a comfortable night.

Lancyn propped himself against the cabin's wall and took possession of the cushion; after some demurrals and readjustments, they were neatly tessellated together, Chris sitting between Lancyn's legs and resting back against his chest. With cloaks wrapped around them from behind, and the blanket spread over the front, it was warm and adequately comfortable.

* * *

Lancyn woke as the first fingers of dawn streaked across the sky. His back was a little stiff, and his butt completely without sensation, but the warm lump of Chrisfer was still heavily asleep against him, his hair silken against Lancyn's cheek. Altogether, he'd had worse nights.

Col loomed, crouched beside them, and offered a steaming beaker. Lancyn sipped at it gratefully, careful not to disturb Chris.

"The day crew will be up soon," Col murmured. "Your friend may want to wake before he has too many witnesses."

"How long?"

"Half an hour."

Lancyn reckoned he could manage another twenty minutes or so. "I'll let him sleep a few minutes, then. He had—yesterday was—he needs it."

"I know you brought a secret with you." Col turned away, politely not asking for details. "It'll be safe on this ship, whatever it is. Bryn's had this crew a long time."

"He seems a good man."

Col's smile lit his face like sunshine. "He is that."

"Our secret," said Lancyn, deciding to make a start, "is... the child we brought aboard yesterday—is a boy. We're taking him out of reach of any villains in Vallacarfel who might—there was a man, well, several men, exploiting children, using them to thieve. Elite broke them, yesterday. And the boy has nowhere else to go." His jaw clenched. "His mother sold him."

Col nodded. "It happens."

"You've heard of this before?"

Col shrugged, looking suddenly old. "It happens," he repeated, getting to his feet. "I need to check the compass." And he was gone, leaving Lancyn feeling vaguely puzzled. There had been something... but no, it was gone.

* * *

Lancyn went down to the cabin to see if Erryn was awake. He'd left Chrisfer being cajoled into drinking a tisane—a tisane! hee!—by Col, who, it appeared, was in charge of the ship overnight and not the ordinary sailor Lancyn had assumed. The boy was still fast asleep, his cares smoothed and a tiny smile on his lips. It was good to see Erryn smile, even if he was unconscious.

Happily, the smell was more or less dispersed. Lancyn begged a mop and bucket from one of the crew to wash away the sticky remnants of spilt syrup, then headed up on deck to partake of a hearty breakfast with the day crew before they assumed their duties. He was pleased to see Chris nibbling cautiously at a slice of bread.

Chris stayed on deck. Despite the visible waves, he was happier in the fresh air, staring at the horizon. He was subdued, of course, but managed a conversation with Bryn—concerning Erryn, presumably.

Meanwhile Lancyn enjoyed himself enormously, talking to all the sailors and absorbing instructions on the art of sailing. He spent a considerable time in the mast-cup, staring into far horizons and wondering about the foreign lands beyond. He learnt to splice rope, and to read the compass. He even learnt to swim—Smoke Island, it turned out, was active, and sent hot rock into the sea, so that the water was warm in its vicinity. So he stripped off his clothes and descended the nets with everybody else, and with help from the more enthusiastic swimmers, soon managed to paddle about independent of the rope that was set out as a safety line.

He was quite glad to get back on board. Apparently sailors had a different scale for these things, as the water did not answer Lancyn's idea of 'warm' at all. He had also swallowed rather a lot of it.

* * *

After a hearty supper, Lancyn sat up for a while listening to Bryn and Col telling tall tales of the voyages they'd made, but he soon found himself yawning and went below. Chrisfer had been offered extra blankets tonight, and was bundled up on deck; Erryn was still fast asleep. Lancyn was sorry the kid had missed out on the swimming, but there'd be fun aplenty once they reached Bevelyn's home.

He fell onto the bunk and was asleep in seconds.

* * *

"I can? I can go on deck?" Erryn had woken at dawn, stretched, sat up, and announced that he was hungry. He showed no signs of either seasickness, or the lingering effects of poppy syrup.



"Wash first," Lancyn ordered sternly. "You'll want to look respectable when you meet the ship's captain." He went on deck, to a bright, clear morning with a brisk wind. They were travelling north now, at a much faster pace which, Bryn had assured him yesterday, ought to bring them to Beccanskey in good time.

Erryn emerged a few moments later, with sparkling eyes and a sunny smile, made his courtesies to Bryn and scampered happily off for breakfast in the care of an indulgent sailor.

"I wonder what the trouble is," Chris remarked quietly, nodding towards the ship's captain, who was staring at their boy with knit brows. Lancyn had no suggestions to offer, but Bryn shook himself and bounced to the upper deck to confer with the steersman, so it didn't seem to be of much moment.

Erryn was as eager as Lancyn to learn about the ship, and very quickly endeared himself to the crew. There might be nightmares ahead, but for the moment he seemed to have left his cares behind in Vallacarfel. It was good to see.

"Boy's a born sailor," commented Bryn. He seemed intrigued by Erryn. Several times during the day Lancyn noticed the captain watching as the boy moved around the ship. "He came from Vallacarfel, then?"

"That's where we found him," Lancyn replied, scrupulously exact.

"Hmm. He has family in the north, then?"

"Not that I know of. Ser Chrisfer does, however, and we're taking Erryn to live with them."

"He doesn't want to go back to his own home, then?" Bryn's tone was deliberately casual, and he was looking ahead, squinting towards the horizon, but Lancyn could not help but feel that there was more to his questions than idle conversation.

"His mother sold him to the man who ran a gang of thieves in Vallacarfel," he said bluntly. "I don't think Erryn felt very loved, at home."

"His mother... sold him. I see."

"You don't sound surprised."

"I've heard of it before."

"Does it happen often, then, in these parts?" Or was the Valla region filled with particularly heartless mothers? That was the worst thing about Elite work, Lancyn thought, discovering the cruelty in people.

"I doubt it," said Bryn. "I think..." He fell silent, and as one of the sailors chose that moment to approach with a query about fishing, the conversation seemed to be over.

* * *

"He's made himself quite at home," Lancyn said. He and Chrisfer were in the bow again, surveying the ship; Erryn was on the upper deck with the steersman, being allowed to take the wheel.

"I wish he wouldn't climb the mast," Chrisfer grumbled. Chrisfer had turned almost green, that afternoon, at the sight of the kid climbing to the mast-cup. But he had bitten his lip, taken himself to his chosen spot in the bow, stared out at the ocean and held on to the rail so hard his knuckles turned white. He hadn't relaxed until Lancyn informed him the kid was back down on deck.

"It's great up there. You feel like... I don't know, like the wind, or a bird, or something."

"Oh, really."

Best change the subject, Lancyn thought. "I didn't know you could swim." Chrisfer had been in the 'warm' water yesterday, encouraging his squire to swim. Apparently the movement of the waves didn't affect him when he was swimming in them.

"Since I was a child," Chrisfer said, absently. "There's a lake not far from home... Erryn will like it there. It freezes in the winter. We put on ice shoes and have races."

"Sounds like fun. You can teach both of us, when we get there."

Chrs brightened. "I can! Assuming I survive this voyage."

"You are better now, though?"

"Long as I stay on deck." He paused. "I might just be able to eat supper, I think. It smells quite... tempting." There was a scent of bacon on the air. The sun was almost at the horizon, and some of the crew were setting trestle tables and benches out by the mast. Lancyn was looking forward to the evening meal—it was hungry work, being at sea.

The night sailors began to assemble by the tables, ready to break their fast. As Col's tall form appeared up the steps, Bryn hurried over to him. There was an apparently urgent conversation, with much emphatic shaking of heads and waving of hands, then the pair of them turned towards the upper deck.

"Erryn!" Col bellowed. Every head on the ship turned towards him. "Little Bear?"

Up on the platform, the kid froze.

"Nicol? Nicky?" he yelled, voice high with astonishment, and Col held out his arms. Erryn flew down the steps and straight towards him like an arrow to the gold. As they wrapped themselves tight around one another, Lancyn and Chrisfer were already hurrying across the deck, but Bryn intercepted them.

"Give them a moment," he said, gently.

"What's going on?" This from Chrisfer.

Bryn grinned. "Brothers," he explained.

* * *

Beccanskey came too soon, now that it meant farewell. Erryn helped them to unload the horses, and submitted willingly enough to being hugged goodbye, but it was obvious that his heart was on the Shining Star with his big brother, and indeed, with his blond hair bound back in a seamanlike thong, and the rope-callouses forming on his hands, he already looked more sailor than landsman.

Col thanked them, again, before they left. Looking into his suntanned, smiling face, Lancyn could not but wonder how he and Chrisfer had missed seeing the resemblance for themselves. Bryn, of course, had the advantage, since he had known Nicol since 'Col' was little more than Erryn's age: Nicol had overheard his mother arranging to sell him, and run away to sea. There was more to that story, Lancyn was sure, but he doubted Col would ever tell the details.

So, there they were, Ser Chrisfer and his squire, and Horse and Brown, and a spare horse to carry their packs now instead of the boy, on the road west from Beccanskey as the sun slipped behind the trees and the air chilled rapidly. There was a small wayside inn some dozen miles ahead, and Chris had expressed an earnest desire to sleep in a proper bed tonight. For the moment, though, he was unusually subdued.

"He'll do well, you know," Lancyn said gently.

"Yes, but he's at sea! It's dangerous! Just because we had a simple voyage with no storms—sailors can drown, you know."

"There's danger everywhere. And he's happy."

"He'd have been happy with my family. He's just a child."

"Chris. You can't make Erryn's choice for him. If we'd taken a different ship, if we'd never found his brother, then yes, he would have been happy with your family, of course he would. But you saw how they were together. You can't grudge him that. Either of them."

"I suppose. I just..."

"You want the people you love to be part of your family." Chris glowered a bit, but didn't deny it, so Lancyn made his own confession. "I, mm, wanted to do the same. I thought we could recommend him for Tower training, so that. When I." He couldn't quite manage to say when I leave you, Lancyn found. "Anyway, it's not to be. Instead, we have a ship's captain we can ask for any favour we need, ever." Bryn had been almost as transported as Nicol, whom he seemed to regard as his own little brother.

Chris shuddered. "Let's hope it never comes to that," he said. They rode on in silence for a few minutes. "It was a good thought, Tower training."

"Brave kid. And you'll need someone to keep an eye on you, when I'm, um, on my own." It was such an uncomfortable thought, questing alone.

"He'll be all right, won't he?"

Lancyn snorted. "In a few years' time he'll probably have his own ship!" he predicted. "Meanwhile, I still want to learn to walk on frozen water."

"I'll get Emmy to help teach you," Chrisfer promised. "She's a good girl. She gets a bit overwhelmed when everyone's there, but when she's on her own she—"

"Chrisfer," Lancyn interrupted. "You remember what I said about not making Erryn's choice for him?" Chris looked guilty. "Same applies to me."

"Of course it—"

"And to your sister."

"Oh, shut up!" Chrisfer's ears were red, and not just from the gleams of sunset.

His squire smirked at him, but decided to be merciful. "What say we shake up these lazy animals for a mile or two?"

Horse was already accelerating. "Last one to the inn sleeps on the floor!"


On to the next story: Trials



Back to the Chronicles Index
Back to Popslash Index