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The Thinning Veil

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 1

 

Death had almost had Gavin today. Had come closer than in all the months of the Icani War, when the specter had flirted daily with them all. A misstep that had sent the horse ahead of him down and his own after it in a jumble of equine and human limbs and he'd tumbled into a mass of Icani howling for his blood. And for no few precious seconds he'd been helpless, devoid of breath, half trapped under a struggling horse, unable fend them off. Niccoli had come thundering to his rescue, a gleaming armored shape against the evening sun, longsword swiping this way and that, tribesmen scattering against the threat of iron shod hooves and razor edged death.

Niccoli had reined in a wild eyed mount as Vriloki heaved to his feet, all four legs sound, thank any number of gods. Gavin had pulled himself up after, the whole of his right shoulder numb from the hard meeting of flesh and bone with ground. Niccoli had stayed long enough to see him in his right mind, before charging back into the fray.

And fray it had been. Nothing more than a skirmish along the old Mission Road, the Icani having become damned sensitive of late over any incursion across the river and into the mountains they considered tribal territory.

There were Genothian merchants that thought differently. And Genothian interests that wanted the Mission road open to trade with Vermorte on the other side of the Moss Tooth range. There had been a treaty that ended the war, allowing that passage open, so long as men from Genoth and Vermorte stayed to the road. But lately, the Icani had been attacking caravans. Attacking anything that ventured past the border and into their territories, treaty or not, and Gods knew what had prompted it. Some idiot trader, venturing beyond the road, or worse yet, someone attempting the mines, that had been at the heart of the conflict that had started the war to begin with. Men had been dying one both sides, because of it. It had been a damned hard patrol today because of it.

Regardless, it was the job of the border patrols to see those Genothian merchants safe and sound. Their duty to keep the Icani in check.

"My right nut for a tankard of ale," Sir Liam roared, to the accompanying clatter of steel shod hooves on cobblestones.

"From what I hear," a cavalryman called back to the big knight, "You've plenty to spare. Least that's what the tavern wenches claim."

There was a spattering of laughter from men-at-arms and cavalrymen weary from the road. Gavin couldn't work up the energy to join them. It hurt when he laughed, a combination of possibly fractured ribs and bone deep bruising. Four stone weight of armor didn't help, nor the bone jarring gate of his borrowed mount. His own, smoother gaited destrier limped behind, black tipped ears twitching and nostrils flaring as he scented home and warm, dry stables in the moist air.

Four days of miserable weather and the unexpected skirmish with the Icani war band and Gavin's usually fair luck had turned sour. It hadn't only been him to take injury, two men sorely hurt and a good horse dead and another likely crippled. Gavin's own, which thought plauged him like a festering wound. Lady knew it was only Gavin's armor that had saved him from worse than a sore shoulder and a few tender ribs.

He'd walked a good part of the distance back, sparing Vriloki the weight of an armored man, not prepared to take the mount of an honest cavalryman simply because he wore the armor of a knight proper and had the ear of the knight commander. That is, until his feet grew tired and three stone worth of armor had his shoulder screaming bloody murder, then he was more willing to trade off riding with a cavalryman willing to take his turn afoot.

"Fool," Niccoli had muttered under his breath, when Gavin had finally given in and pulled himself into the saddle with effort.

Gavin had arched a brow, summoning a sardonic look, because Niccoli wouldn't know what to do if he let the depreciation slide. "Do tell? It seemed the honorable thing to do." Because Niccoli DeLathe, second son of the Earl of Lathe was honorable to a fault. Honorable to the point that a less highborn knight, a knight brought up in very ignoble circumstances even, might go out of his way to prick and prod, in efforts to pierce that armored veil of stodgy principle.

"We've three wounded men, and you're one of them. There's no honor in walking armored when you could take a hale man's place astride," Niccoli said, straight backed with narrowed blue eyes fixed sternly ahead. "When you can't swing a sword in a day's time, you'll regret your act of stubbornness."

"The day I can't swing a sword, I'll be sure to bow to your wisdom, Niccoli."

Niccoli cast him a look, strands of usually pale hair clinging, darkened with rain, to his brow, fine mouth tight with irritation. All of them were drenched, mud spattered, miserable. Skirmish with the fierce Icani warriors had been unexpected as close as they'd been to the border on their way back from a long patrol. They'd been on the watch for outlaws and black marketeers, easier opponents by far than Icani practically born with blade in hand.

"Stop your bickering, lads," Sir Liam shouldered his destrier between them. "We're home with no men lost, and I for one am glad not to have to report otherwise to the commander."

Gavin blew out a breath of tired agreement, staring through the pointed tips of his borrowed mount's ears towards Lockheer. The lady herself must have been with them, that no life of theirs had been lost. It had been a fierce and unexpected ambush and the Icani who had sprung it had not been so lucky. He supposed his own tumble had even been a spot of luck, if one wanted to take a queer view of such things, luck being a flirtatious and fickle thing. His mount might not have taken the tumble had its rider's attention not been snared, a flicker of movement caught from the corner of helm obstructed vision making him turn attention away from the ground before them. It had saved him a spear thrust from the side, but sent him down into the mud along with his mount in the process. A hard meeting of flesh and earth, that he supposed grimly, was better than a spear through the side. More embarrassing, certainly.

Lockheer Keep with its towering stone walls and crenulated buttresses was a welcome sight for a weary man. The drawbridge was down, the old cobbled road leading to it dotted with travelers and merchants, even on a grey, wet day. Lockheer was the last bastion of civilization before the terrain melted into the vast wild territories that made up the Moss Tooth Range. The last outpost for travelers making the dangerous trek west, and one of the few places where the less violent sects of the nomadic Icani tribes ventured to trade their wares. A walled town, surrounding the older structure of the keep itself. Built before Genoth was an empire by the first of the Genothian clans, it sat against a backdrop of densely wooded mountainous slopes, thick and graceless, the stones of its outer walls discolored with age and moss and algae. But impenetrable. Lockheer had never been taken through siege.

The guards at the barbican saluted them as they passed, crossing the long bridge spanning the river below, heading for the portcullis at the outer gate. Town children flocked alongside as they entered the outer ward, laughing and begging souvenirs, dangerously close to the steel shod hooves of tired, irritable warhorses. It was a slow procession through town to the inner gates that led to the second ward, which housed armory, stables and training grounds.

Stable lads ran up to collect weary mounts, leaving exhausted, battered men to care for themselves. Gavin dismounted, mail rustling metallically, armor clinking as his boots touched ground. He nodded silent thanks to the cavalryman that had loaned him his horse and the man nodded back. As delightful the thought of shedding armor and finding the nearest horizontal surface to collapse upon was, Gavin made a point of locating the stable marshal himself to see to Vriloki. The big man gave him a look, as if he'd purposefully brought injury to the great roan warhorse, before giving him a brisk, 'out of my stable, knight,' before turning his attention to Gavin's mud spattered mount.

Gavin was happy enough to comply. There was no man more capable with horseflesh than Stable Marshal Graff, and he took special care of the great, thick-legged warhorses that carried knights weighted down with armor and weaponry tirelessly into battle. A warhorse of good breeding was worth no small fortune and Vriloki was of the finest.

It was a matter then, of crossing the muddy cobbles between stable yard and the inner wall that protected the keep itself. Those final steps towards the keep proper seemed endless, as if the armor on his back dragging him to the ground. The aches that need and determination had helped him stave off up until this point - - the aches that Niccoli predicted would have him incapacitated in a few days time, made themselves full known. He groaned under it, feeling that sudden bone deep throb of pain in the shoulder that had taken the brunt of his fall. Had to stop mid step while black crowded in along the edges of his vision, drawn there by a sudden lightheadedness.

"The Lady watch over children and fools," Niccoli muttered, a strong grip under Gavin's good arm, and the smell of him, sweat and leather and something Niccoli specific anchored Gavin to firm ground. He drew a shaky breath, allowing himself a moment to lean on Niccoli's solid strength.

"Seems I am one today," he had to admit.

Niccoli shook his head, the armor at his shoulders glinting in the light piercing thinning clouds. It was no great disgrace using Niccoli as a crutch as they made their way into the keep and up the stairs to the second floor knight's quarters. He had a small room of his own. A privilege of rank. A Knight Protectorate of the realm. A hard won title for a man of common birth. Harder won for one not even Genothian in birth. His mother was Sekk, a refugee fled to Genoth with a babe not yet out of swaddling. She'd found sanctuary in Genoth, found a merchant husband willing to raise another man's child. A good man. A decent father. He'd bought Gavin a commission in the cavalry. Gavin had proved his own worth once he'd gotten there. He was uncommonly adept with the sword, uncommonly lucky, save for certain noteworthy incidents, this last one chief among them, on the battlefield.

"You're damned lucky we didn't bury you in the field," Niccoli groused, fighting with a buckle.

Gavin twitched a brow. "We don't leave our dead behind."

The other knight sniffed, his humor a less developed skill than his marshal ones. It made him easy to gibe and Gavin had developed a taste for it. For seeing Niccoli DeLathe flare in offense. For evoking moments of less than knightly retort.

"Besides," Gavin ventured a small shrug as Niccoli eased the gardbrace off his bruised shoulder, anything to hide the shudder of relief that wanted to run the gambit of his body at the removal. "If I die, I'll cede all my gear to you, I know you'll care for Vriloki."

The shoulder plate hit the floor, rude treatment from a knight with a healthy respect for armor. Niccoli cast him a narrow glare, offended somehow, until Gavin's expression penetrated and he realized the teasing for what it was.

Then, "Take your gear to ground with you. Vriloki I'll accept."

He reached for the buckles of the other gardbrace, struggling with stiffened leather, until one of the garrison squires scampered in and took over with much defter fingers. Almost a man could lament having a boy with clever, competent hands take over a job from a more fumble fingered, exhausted knight. For all his sober humer and prickly honor, Niccoli's company was a balm.

"I've got it, sir Niccoli," said the squire, Ansel, a freckle-faced fourteen year old with a shock of red hair and a mouthful of large, equine-like teeth. "Commander Haden's asking for you, sir."

Niccoli nodded, waving a dismissive hand as he looked back to Gavin. "See the physicker about that shoulder. We can't afford you out of commission for long."

It was as nice a thing as Niccoli had ever admitted to him. He didn't wait for a response, before turning on his heel and heading out.

"There're dents aplenty to pound out of your armor," Ansel was remarking as he placed it on the rack, piece by piece. "I'll take it down to the smith. You've a torn buckle under the plackart. I heard you took a fall."

He supposed the high points of the venture had already made the rounds of the garrison. Gavin shut his eyes and let the boy babble about the state of his armaments while he divested him of the rest of it. Breathed in a sigh of relief when it was only linen and leather weighing him down.

"I'll see to your gear, sir, if you wish to see the physicker," Ansel urged, already in the process of pulling out rags and oil.

Gavin thought he'd be better served finding a hot bath, than the bony hands of the regiment physicker. There was nothing broken and nothing that prodding and poking could mend and the bathes under the keep proper, as old as the original keep itself were perpetually warm, fed by hot springs that welled from the earth. It was reckoned that those selfsame springs had been the chief reason that Lockheer had been built upon this spot.

He sat down while he considered the prospect and then lay back, needing just a moment to collect his stamina before he made that trek down numerous steps. His head swam at the change in position. He shut his eyes, letting it sort itself out.

Opened them again with the distinct feeling that time had passed when he wasn't looking. Ansel was gone from his room, as well his battered armor. He'd slept then, while the squire quietly went about his work. His head felt clearer for it.

His body though, cried protest as he rose. Aches that had been dully insistent before, had blossomed into stiff, full-fledged protest. He doubted, as the arm attached to the injured shoulder refused to move more than a quarter of its usual span of motion, and that with the accompaniment of no small pain, that he could lift that sword in the corner, much less swing it. Niccoli would be proven right and would, in that elegant manner he had, quietly lord it over Gavin.

He changed into clothing not stained with four days road sweat, linen and a leather jerkin and a belt devoid of weapons. He passed men on duty and men off of it, exchanged greeting with no few by name.

The stairs he took at a leisurely pace, the stone under his hand gradually warming as he descended, instead of chilling. Even during the bitter cold of winter, the lower levels of Lockheer stayed warm, perpetually heated by the springs at her roots.

The bathes themselves were cavernous, one large natural pool, with a few smaller man made basins. Steam and the faint smell of sulfur rose from the dark, placid surface. A good score of men, no few from Gavin's recent patrol, soaked in the healing waters. A few attendants scurried about, fetching towels, mopping pools of water from the slick stone, attending in general to the needs of the bone weary men who utilized the bathes. Gavin declined the offer of one to help disrobe and stored his own clothing in one of the wooden cubbies that lined the alcove leading into the bathes. He settled into one of the smaller pools, devoid of inhabitants and reclined against smooth stone until he was neck deep in warm water.

Conversations were muted, most men content to sit and soak in silence, accompanied only by the gentle lapping of water. Even a man who found long silences uncomfortable, felt at ease here. He shut his eyes and a vision of the face of the Icani warrior at whose feet he'd tumbled swam up at him. Broad and marked with soot colored tribal patterning. Black around the eyes, patterns down the high cheeks, hair knotted and long, braided with bits of bone and metal. Fierce, ax-wielding barbarian, who'd looked down at Gavin with as much surprise as Gavin had looked up at him, sprawled in the mud at his feet. Only long training and a great well of survival instinct had kept his sword in hand. He'd barely blocked the curved ax blade that had arced down towards his skull. There was a chip in his blade from the blow. Lesser steel would have shattered.

He played out the skirmish in his memory, seeking flaws. Panic had been upon him, fear for Vriloki, the rush of blood in his throbbing head making all other sound muffled. The screams of men, the blurred rush of Icani towards him, more than he could have fended off from his ungainly position, until Niccoli had entered the fray. Hard to recall the details of the rest of the fight, once he'd been back on his feet, just the rain of metal on metal, the wash of movement, the smell of blood and sweat and fear, until the Icani broke, retreating with their wounded into the forests. Perhaps he'd gone over the edge into berserk, drawn there by panic and pain and adrenelin. He'd been driven there before, on occasion, during the heat of confusion and battle and those moments, he recalled hazily at best, as well. Sometimes the blade in his hands seemed to take on life of its own. Sometimes, he could almost imagine he felt the bloodlust of tempered metal. It depended on the blade. On the situation. He'd held a sword once, crafted by the finest smith in Genoth, made for the knight commander himself, that had almost vibrated in his palm. Almost he was glad he didn't own that blade, it had spooked him so.

Almost.

It was a damned fine sword.

He sighed and blanked his mind. The soft slap of feet on the stone, the occasional splash as a man waded in or out of the pool punctuated a silence that lasted long enough for a man to drift, secure in the knowledge that the attendant would not let him slip under and drown. Then it was broken by the chortle of a deep voiced man telling the boys at the entrance alcove he'd been capable of unlacing his own trousers since he'd been out of swaddling, and the slap of heavy feet as that same man trod across the wet stone towards the pools, heartily calling greetings to this man or that of his acquaintance as he passed.

Sir Liam, against which no peaceful silence could stand. Liam's very presence was loud, in the way dragons and earthquakes and torrential thunderstorms were loud. It was in his nature.

"Hiding down here, I see," Liam chortled at him, heading his way. A man of decent proportion was never so glad for obscuring dark water as when Liam sauntered towards the bath, genitalia swinging like some great pendulum between his legs. It was enough to make a man doubt the state of his own masculinity.

"It's poor manners to bring weaponry into the bathes," Gavin observed dryly.

Liam grinned unabashedly, "You'll never find me without."

The big man settled into the water on the ledge next to Gavin with a great sigh. Liam of Grekinglen, one of six brothers of the Marquis of said province and one of a line of knight Protectorates dating back to the first order. Born and bred for the knighthood and as fierce a fighter as had ever graced its ranks. He ran a big hand over short cropped auburn hair and cast Gavin a crooked grin. His nose had been broken one too many times and sat oddly bent.

"How's the shoulder?"

Gavin shrugged the good one, experimentally rotated the other and hid the wince. "Good enough."

"Ha," Liam snorted. "The fall you took, you're lucky you didn't take a break. A few days of soaking will loosen it up."

"You've reported to the commander?"

"Aye, along with Niccoli. We explained your fragile condition and the Commander understands your absence."

"My thanks," Gavin said dryly. "How did he take the news of our less than graceful skirmish in the mud?"

"Called the lot of us dense headed buffoons for not noticing an Icani ambush laid in wait - -"

"You explained the driving rain - -?"

"He wasn't much in mood for reasonable excuses. Not in much of a good mood at all, in fact."

Gavin lifted a brow questioningly.

Liam settled deeper, flinging two long arms along the warm, wet stone at the edge. "There's nobility afoot. Some Duke or another come in from Anelthar to inspect the border troops at the behest of his Majesty - - least that's what Sir Simon says. He's all-aflutter about it, bootlicker that he is. Commander's just annoyed that there's a highblood underfoot, hindering good men at their work."

"And embarrassed," Gavin surmised. "That a troop of his finest comes staggering in, bedraggled and bruised after a less than heroic encounter with a band of Icani savages. I can't say I'm saddened to have missed the giving of that report."

"You'll get your chance, no doubt, lad," Liam chuckled.

Little doubt of that, avoiding notice for long was an impossibility, Lockheer being no sprawling city. Gavin leaned his head back against the warm stone and let the water work its magic on his aching bones. If this were Genidere, where he'd grown up under the roof of his mercantile stepfather, a man who was impatient to wait for the body to naturally heal its ills, might find a practitioner of frowned upon arts to make a potent to speed the process. Most good Genothian citizens abhorred such practices, taught by the priestesses of Xera that magics not ordained by the church were suspect and to be avoided, but Gavin's Sekkish mother had instilled no such superstitions in her son. She was a practitioner herself of certain small magics, though in strictest privacy. She'd worn a tiny azure geode around her neck as long as Gavin could remember, a bauble to most, but to those chosen few who had an affinity, an object of power.

There were larger geodes of similar properties to be found in the Wilderlands. Beyond value to those who gathered powerful things. The Lady sanctioned Order of Deznar, the king's own corps of mystics held great interest in those stones of power, as did Sekk, across the Strait of Malun, where magic was freely practiced. Little wonder greed won out over self-preservation and the occasional prospector dared Icani territories to seek a handful of stones.

"You hungry?" Liam asked after a very long span of comfortable silence.

Gavin lifted a hand, fingers wrinkled and waterlogged, and thought that, yes, he was. The last time he'd eaten had been dry rations on the road.

"Aye. Am I to believe that you haven't partaken yourself, already?"

"A bite or two before cook chased me from the kitchen," Liam admitted. "Dinner should be well underway by now though. There were dumplings boiling, and roasting birds when I slipped in, though."

"Dumplings," Gavin sighed, mouth watering. Cook had an affinity for dumplings that never failed to please. "Then we should be on our way, before they're all gone."

"They'll be heads knocked and asses kicked if they are."

Liam lifted himself out of the water, the skin of his body a shade or two lighter than that of his face and hands and criss-crossed by paler scars. Almost he was twice Gavin's girth, and none of it fat. He held a hand out and Gavin accepted it, letting Liam haul him up.

"Damned nasty bruising," the big man observed. And it was, a huge patch of discoloration along Gavin's right side, from armpit to hip. The damage to the shoulder was deeper and not so easily seen by the naked eye. It felt looser though, after an hour in the bathes.

A boy trotted up to them with towels. Liam scrubbed his across hair shorn close to the skull, then draped it across his shoulders as he strode towards the alcove and their clothing.

Gavin had more hair to towel, the wet tips of it touched his shoulders. He soaked up the majority of the water with the towel, before wrapping it about his hips and following Liam. His own skin was darker, even that perpetually hidden by armor. Dark haired and golden skinned, as most Sekkish were. He'd taken no small bit of insult over it growing up, the majority of Genothian's distrustful of foreign things and the kingdom as a whole wary of Sekkish influence.

The tables were full and the kitchen staff bustling when they reached the common mess off the kitchen. A long, low roofed chamber, with rows of rough plank tables and benches where common men-at-arms ate.

There was a great hall, with towering ceilings, hung with banners, but it was seldom used

Gavin had a place there, if he wished, the privilege of knighthood. But unless there were some formal occasion, he preferred to sit among honest fighting men. Niccoli was already there, in the company of the garrison master of arms. Gavin and Liam found a place opposite, between a few cavalrymen. Liam bellowed at the boy in charge of their table for ale and hearty platters.

"Heard you took a tumble," the gruff old master of arms commented.

Gavin raised a brow at Niccoli, who raised one back. "Yes. Seems the talk of the keep. My skills apparently are so acclaimed that a minor accident baffles and amazes those around me."

Liam chortled, slapping the table in appreciation. Niccoli's mouth twitched in a dry smile.

"You tumbled four body lengths headlong into the mud at the feet of two Icani warriors," Niccoli commented. "It's baffling that you managed not to be skewered on the spot."

"They were rather surprised," Gavin grinned, sitting back to allow a boy to place a platter of gravy covered dumplings and roast chicken before him. Another followed with tankards of dark ale.

"From what I've heard," A tall, raw-boned knight moved up behind Niccoli, pausing to stare down his long nose at the gathering. "The Icani are probably off congratulating themselves on their victory and the ineptitude of the king's knights after your encounter."

"If only you'd been there, Sir Simon," Gavin said with the sort of lazy smile that was sure to set the Knight commander's second in command's teeth on edge. "Your heroic presence might have sent them all fleeing in terror."

Liam snorted into his tankard.

"As opposed to your bumbling carelessness, Gavin." Simon specifically left off the 'sir', not taking his gimlet gaze from Gavin. "We're a horse down and three men injured due to sheer sloppiness. And all under the watchful eyes of his Grace the Duke of Idago. Inexcusable and embarrassing. You've dishonored Lord Haden."

"There was no dishonor," Niccoli said quietly. "It was bad luck, not lack of attention that set us in the path of the Icani. We walked away from it with no casualties, which the Icani cannot claim. Let it be, Sir Simon."

Simon leaned down, one hand on the table next to Niccoli's elbow. "You are too lenient, Sir Niccoli. If you're to achieve the rank your linage deserves, you'll have to learn to call out failure and incompetence when you see it."

"When I see it," Niccoli said with that same quiet tone, though his eyes were narrow and dark. "I'll be sure to condemn it as righteously as you."

Simon sniffed, not getting that quiet, dangerous stillness in the set of Niccoli's body. The knight seneschal had little love for commoners raised to the rank that used to be, in the day of their father's, reserved for men of noble blood. He was a staunch believer in lines of division and it gave him no small frustration that knight commander Haden had no such distinction. As far as he was concerned, Gavin was an undeserving commoner, elevated to a status that should have been reserved for the sons of nobility. It rankled even more, Gavin was sure, that he was actually good at the job. Better than most who bore the title of king's knights. Certainly better than Sir Simon, whose marshal skills were not so attuned as his organizational ones.

Gavin sat back, content to sip his ale and let Niccoli deal with Sir Simon. Always interested when Niccoli's patience wore thin and he let slip glimpses of the predator beneath.

"With your lineage," Sir Simon was saying, oblivious to Niccoli's irritation. "You might look forward to being Knight commander yourself, one day."

"God help him," Liam laughed. "He can barely tolerate bureaucrats and ass kissing sycophants, now."

Simon tossed the big knight an unappreciative glare.

"He'd look good in the vestments though," Gavin commented thoughtfully. "Blue's his color. Women would swoon. And no few men, pretty as he is."

Niccoli rolled his eyes, the faintest hint of blush coloring his pale cheeks.

"You're one to speak," Liam chortled, enjoying the whole thing immensely, even as Simon glowered at the change of his subject. "The girls in town falling all over themselves to get a look from you - - and the tailor who keeps offering free fittings in hopes of getting his hands on you - - what do they call his eyes, when they're gossiping over him, Niccoli?"

"Sultry," Niccoli offered helpfully.

"Yes, yes, thank you for that reminder. At least I don't chase the girls away in fear of what's in my pants."

Liam roared in laughter. "Oh, ho, lads, let me assure you all, once I've laid a woman, she'll forever lament the puniness of the tool of the next man who comes her way."

"Crude, the lot of you," Sir Simon sneered.

"Gentlemen."

They all looked up, caught in the midst of their revelry and Sir Simon's irritation. Simon straightened, inclining his head towards the Knight Commander.

"In good spirits, I see," Commander Haden, observed. A man of medium build, hair and beard a shade or two darker than Niccoli's pale gold, and liberally sprinkled with silver. Nothing imposing at all about him, until you looked into his eyes and realized this was a man of keen intelligence and experience. A man that held power and used it wisely.

Another man stood behind him, tall, high cheeked, pale faced, with the bowl haircut that the highbloods and those who aspired to be, of late had started favoring. Expensive clothing and jewelry adorned his person. One could only assume him the touring Duke come to inspect Lockheer.

"With cook's dumplings before us, what else, Commander?" Liam speared one of said dumplings.

"Your Grace. Commander Haden." Simon inclined his head, casting a quick warning glance at the seated knights to watch their manners.

"Three of my finest," Commander Haden nodded towards the table. "Sir Niccoli DeLathe. Sir Liam of Grekinglen. Sir Gavin of Genidere."

The Duke arched a faintly interested brow. "DeLathe? One of the earl's sons?"

"Aye, your grace," Niccoli nodded.

"A nasty business, the Icani harassing the king's forces at our very border," the Duke remarked.

Niccoli made no comment and lady knew it had been miles across the border on the Icani side that the skirmish had happened. It was up to the commander to share that bit of information if he wished. The Duke's pale eyes swept the table, lingering, Gavin thought, for a moment upon him, before the man turned to the Seneschal.

"Sir Simon has sung praises of the fine hot springs under the keep."

"Our claim to fame," The commander agreed. "I shall arrange a private moment for you to sample them, your grace."

"Most certainly," Simon agreed, and edged away, spinning tails of Lockheer's aged history to the Duke as they departed.

Commander Haden lingered, and Gavin found a great deal of interest in his platter. "A nasty business indeed, gentlemen. But the best was made of it. I expect to hear from Physikar Duraq that you've paid him a visit, Sir Gavin."

"Of course, Commander." Gavin looked up, unavoidable, but there was no censure in the knight commander's eyes, simply the stern expectation of a man used to having his words followed to the letter. And though Gavin would admit to certain issues bowing to the authority of fellow knights or imperious seneschals, Haden's word was law.

There was no man he respected more. No man that had done more for him personally; seen past the stigma of Sekkish birth and common breeding to the potential that lay beneath. Commander Haden had recognized the budding skills of a young cavalryman and recruited him for his own regiment. An honor beyond the pale, for a newly commissioned eighteen-year old. It had been good luck on Gavin's part and bad on the part of the Duke of Jarl's protection detail that had saved the life of the king's favored cousin and brought Gavin the brief recognition of the crown.

He'd gotten Vriloki out of that bit of desperate bravery in the face of swarming Icani warriors; a warhorse from the Duke's own stable. And a knighthood at twenty-two, at the behest of that very same Duke and Knight Commander Haden.

Simon DeGath wasn't the only noble-blooded knight to resent him for it. The old bloods preferred the old ways, where a man had no chance of advancing beyond the rank of his breeding. Commander Haden and the Duke of Jarl were of a more progressive mindset. And since it was likely that Jarl would succeed the king, who was sickly and had yet to produce an heir of his own, their views were only mildly protested.

"How long will he be here?" Liam leaned forward once Commander Haden had moved away and asked in as low a voice as he were capable, of Niccoli.

"A few days, I hear," Niccoli idly swabbed a chunk of bread in the last of his dumpling gravy, eyes thoughtful. "They say it's an inspection of Garrison readiness."

Gavin leaned forward, sensing doubt Niccoli was too much of a knight to voice at a public table. "Ah, but what's here to inspect, that would take a high blooded lord days?"

"Looks to me he wouldn't know the pointy end of a sword from the pommel." Liam added.

Niccoli shrugged.

Gavin finished before Liam, who demanded seconds, and rose when Niccoli did, matching his stride as they walked from the hall. Niccoli was lightly armed, a knife at his belt, the red silk surcoat with the crest of their order over a padded gambeson. The soothing euphoria of the baths had begun to wear thin, and Gavin was thankful that all the weight he bore was the thin linen of a shirt. The night was warm enough though, and the environs of Lockheer as safe as any garrison keep, so he needed no more than that.

They walked in silence, boots slapping softly against stone, as at ease with each other's company as two men might be, who'd served and fought together under the banner of Knight Protectorate for three years. Out of the keep proper and into the inner ring, where there were fewer men in the twilight to overhear a private conversation.

"Four months and no clashes with the Icani," Gavin said finally. "And we're sent out, beyond the range of our normal patrols, to assess the state of an old mining road."

"Don't put more into it, than there is, Gavin."

"A handful of days before a highblood with no business inspecting troop readiness happens to stop by? What has the commander told you?"

Niccoli cast him an agitated look. "If he'd shared in confidence information with me, do you think I'd do him the disservice of bandying it about?"

"Has he?"

"Lady save me," Niccoli breathed, nodding to the guard at the outer gate as they strode into the outer precinct, which housed the shops and houses of Lockheer town. The shadows of dusk did not deter the town's liveliness. The population of Lockheer was small, but they made their livelihood off the garrison stationed there. There were taverns and eateries aplenty and music drifted out to the streets from the open doors, catering to soldiers and men-at-arms. Commander Haden discouraged dens of gambling, but there were always a few games to be found in back rooms and private quarters for a man that wished to play the odds. There were women to be had, as well. The local order of Lhesa, where a man might go for companionship if he wished an encounter he could be assured to come away from disease free. An expensive venture, but the Lhesa were highly skilled at their profession. If he wanted a cheaper lay, there were always a few tavern wenches willing to engage.

Niccoli stopped at the edge of a small crowd watching a quartet of traveling musicians play while a shapely girl danced, clapping small bells between her fingers as she moved.

"If I were to venture a guess," Gavin said. "I'd say someone wants to start mining again, and we were out to test the waters."

Niccoli cast him a quick, worried glance. "Ridiculous. The mines close enough to the border to protect have been depleted."

"Hence our casual survey of the road leading deeper."

Niccoli hissed.

"If we broke the border treaty in earnest - -" Gavin tilted his head close to Niccoli and said softly.

"We'd set the Icani on the warpath," Niccoli finished, then shook his head and moved away from the crowd. "Commander Haden wouldn't allow it. He's gone out of his way to keep the border secure."

"I hope so."

"We went in to make sure the road was secure from black marketeers and poachers." Niccoli reminded him.

"Aye," Gavin agreed, but it was hard not to wonder at those orders. He knew commander Haden opposed expansion into the Moss Tooth Range and the bloodshed that would result, but Commander Haden was a solider, and his duty was to follow the orders handed down to him by his king or his king's representative. For two years the treaty had been met, two years since the Duke of Jarl had treated with the Icani clans and carved out the agreement that had ceased the bloody battles that had claimed so many lives on both sides. Commander Haden had helped him do it. Gavin had been there at the signing.

A harder won treaty than any forged with Sekk, because the Icani followed no one leader. The clans were many and widespread, with a variety of beliefs, and most of them volatile. It was inconceivable that any man with an inkling of the hellstorm of violence that would follow if that treaty were broken, would test it. One had to trust that Haden, whose word was law here in the borderlands, would fight tooth and nail to see that treaty upheld.

 

 

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