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The Thinning Veil

by P L Nunn


Chapter 2


The Brass Hat was a favored tavern of the knight's regiment. The two of them were recognizable faces in the mull of common fighting men and townsfolk, King's knights holding some small celebrity of their own. A pair of serving girls elbowed each other in their haste to reach the tall table Gavin and Niccoli leaned against. The plumper and bolder of the two reached them first, the other a scowling, close second.

"Sir Gavin," the former beamed, brushing her ample bosom against his linen sleeved arm.

"Sir Niccoli." She fluttered her lashes, casting a coy look at Niccoli, but refraining from the familairity she bestowed upon Gavin. Niccoli was the aspiration of every woman with a pulse, inspiring dreams of white knights and blooded titles and chivalrous, perfectly handsome husbands, but they never made the approaches or the offers to him that Gavin was flooded with. Niccoli radiated aloofness. He could look down his perfect nose and make the boldest of suiters flinch. The unattainable dream.

Lady knew he could have had his choice of bedmates, here in the border lands or in the largest cities of the kingdom, but as far as Gavin knew, and Lady knew, Niccoli wasn't one for crowing his own exploits, Niccoli was pure as the driven snow.

Gavin was most certainly not, though he suspected his reputation was far greater than his actual exploits. At least to the best of his knowledge. There were certain memorable nights of hard drinking that he recalled not at all.

"A case of Niriberry wine came in," the barmaid said conspiratorially, leaning close to afford a clear view of deep cleavage. "Shef's saving it for his best customers, and I reckon the two of you qualify. Care for a taste?"

"You always look out for us, Helda." Gavin grinned.

Niccoli said nothing, leaving the task of flirting with serving girls to Gavin, staring instead out at the shadowed street and the slow passage of riders leaving the keep. The lanterns strung behind him made a fiery halo of pale, wavy hair. Little wonder that the tavern wenches found reason to loiter, or maids off the street reason to drift close to the Brass Hat's sidewalk patio.

"Xera's tits," Gavin breathed in exaggerated frustration. "It's enough to make a man feel homely, with all the maids sighing over you."

Niccoli snorted softly and cast him a dubious look. "Is that your ego I hear shriveling, over the lack of attention?"

Gavin chuckled, despite the twinge in his ribs and Niccoli cast him an answering grin, amusement finally winning past darker thoughts.

The niriberry wine, when the tavern maid returned, was cool and sweet and heady with strong spirits. A damned fine drink, and rare, niriberrys being found only in the highlands and picked by Icani hands. He imagined, from Helda's sly insinuation, that Shef had been trading with border smugglers, one of the very practices this garrison and their borderland patrols were supposed to discourage. But no one ever complained too loudly about small smuggled luxuries like this. A few casks of wine here, a few pelts there and Genothian and Icani traders alike were happy. Everyone benefited. Sending forces across the border and into the Icani territories to protect a Genothian mining operation would be a different matter altogether.

Niccoli finished his wine and slapped a few coins on the tabletop. He was never much for carousing overlong in taverns and on this occasion, with his body one big complaining ache, Gavin was more than willing to cut the night short. His hip was beginning to twinge with each step and the hurt flared upwards to ribs and shoulder, more insistent once it had his notice.

Perhaps a short night and a long sleep were in order. And the Physicker in the morning, to confirm that yes, he'd tumbled headlong off a horse and engaged in a desperate battle directly after.

He folded his right arm against his chest, the ache in his shoulder less adamant when it wasn't swinging about. Niccoli cast him a look, not missing the move, but refrained from comment.

"I want to check on Vriloki before I find my own bunk," he said and Niccoli nodded, assuredly understanding a man's concern for his mount, above all other things.

"Then I'll see you on the morrow," Niccoli said, veering off towards the keep while Gavin headed towards the stables once they were inside the inner gates. He moved past a group of men heading from the lantern lit yard towards the gate leading out to Lockheer town. Soldiers from the occasional clank of metal and armor. Too dark to see faces and he was too weary and too intent on seeing to Vriloki to take the time to scrutinize.

A shoulder with the weight of mail hit his in passing. He cursed, specks of light dancing at the edges of his vision.

"Clumsy churl," a man groused. "Watch where you're going."

It hurt too damned much to do anything less than reply in kind. "Watch where you're going, damned arrogant oaf."

The group as a whole stuttered to a halt, maybe five of them, and with the light behind Gavin, he saw livery and crests on surcoats that he didn't recognize. Silver stags on a field of dark blue. At least two of them wore the mail and carried the weaponry of knights. The one he'd glanced off of was one of them, shorter than Gavin, but broader, and most assuredly armed. A blunt, bearded face twisted in offense.

"What did you say?"

"Are you deaf as well as lacking in manners?"

The broad face reddened and a big hand went to the sword hanging at his hip. "Insolent little shit - - I'll teach you to mouth off to your betters."

"My betters - -? Show me one and I'll pay proper respect." There was the stable perhaps fifty yards behind him, the dark looming shape of the keep further away to his right, the gate closer, but blocked by the stranger knight's companions. They'd take exception, no doubt, if Gavin smashed the heel of a hand into the knight's nose before he had the chance to draw a sword that would take a chance encounter to more serious levels of discord. He'd take the chance, figuring that the ensuing confusion would attract the gate guards, who most certainly knew him, and that their inclusion might quell further violence. Or at the very least even the odds.

"Draw a weapon in this courtyard and there'll be hell to pay."

The furious knight glanced askance at Niccoli, who strolled towards them, no doubt having heard the disturbance and decided to come back and investigate. They might not recognize Gavin as a King's Knight, casually dressed and unarmed as he was, but there was no mistaking the crest on Niccoli's burgundy surcoat. The King's own gold dragon curled upon its barbed tail.

"This ignorant knave offered disrespect," the knight hissed. "Do your servants not know their places?"

"This knave is a King's knight," Niccoli answered. "Draw sword against him and you draw it against me."

"Knave?" Gavin lifted a brow, but Niccoli never took his eyes from the knight.

"Offense is offense," the knight eyed Gavin a little more critically, a trace of uncertainty in his voice.

"Were your feelings bruised?" Gavin asked, and this time Niccoli did look at him, eyes narrowed in agitation. "If it's apology you need, you'll find it in hell. Or you could try and force it out of me in fair combat, if you think you're capable."

The sword almost cleared the sheath then and Niccoli stepped forward, hand on his dagger, as if he thought Gavin incapable of dealing with the lout. But the other knight, taller and thinner than the first, laid a hand on the squat one's forearm, halting the drawing of sword from sheath.

"Sir Dwayne, let us not impose on the hospitality of this fine keep by creating conflict where there need be none."

The knight, Sir Dwayne hissed, and let the sword drop back into its sheath, though his big fist stayed clenched about it. The other one inclined his head, dirty blonde hair in a tail at his neck, shrewd eyes. He urged movement and his hotheaded comrade reluctantly turned, with one last glaring look at Gavin, before the lot of them headed towards the inner gate.

Gavin saw the breath Niccoli had been holding release, saw his hand relax and his fingers flex, retreating from the hilt of his belt knife.

"The Duke's escort, I take it?" Gavin said, as the group disappeared through the gates.

"It was his crest they wore," Niccoli said tautly. "Damned arrogant bastards, to come here and think they have the run of the keep. To threaten a King's knight."

Gavin shrugged, his temper, though easily roused, a less volatile thing than Niccoli's. His grudges were short lived. Niccoli held his longer. "I doubt they knew I was one, until you pointed it out. I could have handled it. He was slow and likely fat under that mail."

Niccoli cast him a dubious look. "And the others? Well-armed, even fat, slow men in numbers can down an unarmed foe of greater skill. And I'd contest that any of them were of particularly slothful physique. Watch your back, Gavin. Offense was given on both sides and I hold little confidence in the honor of mercenary knights."

* * *

The stable master held much the same opinion of knights for hire as Niccoli. There were a score of new horses in the stables, the mounts of the Duke and his party, which had been given into the care of Lockheer's stable master. They'd been here, the group of knights and men at arms who'd accosted Gavin, annoying the stable master, who was a man of little humor and strict regiment and abusing his boys. One sported a bloody nose, where he'd been cuffed. Gavin was given to understand that he'd dropped the tack belonging to one of the knights and the man had taken offense.

An easily offended man, Gavin thought, as he stood outside Vriloki's stall and scratched the white patch under the black forelock. And one, he thought, he'd like to encounter when he wasn't unarmed, to see how the arrogant sot's bullying played out with a man in no wise unprepared to respond in kind.

The horse snorted softly, pushing into his touch, breaking his train of thought. Vriloki wanted harder scratching and perhaps a treat or two. Gavin had none on his person, but he promised he'd bring an apple or two in the morning.

He left with the stable master's assurance that Vriloki had taken no lasting harm from the tumble. A few days of rest and light exercise and the application of warm poultices, and the leg would be good as new.

Gavin figured much the same was true of him. But he stopped by the garrison infirmary to fulfill Commander Haden's instructions, just the same.

The physicker, with the dour expression of a man who regularly dealt with men who made a habit of abusing their bodies, bound his ribs with strips of clean linen, gave him a salve with the instructions to use it along with the application of warmed rags and advised liberal visits to the bathes. The salve smelled very like what the stable master had slathered upon Vriloki's foreleg.

"Light duty for a few days," the physicker suggested as he left.

"Of course."

"That doesn't mean drinking and whoring," the man said to his back. "Work the shoulder, or it will stiffen."

He found his own bed then and it was a welcome thing to settle upon it. It was a fine change from a thin bedroll over earth. He took the time to undress and shift between laundered sheets and sighed with the pleasure of it. He was asleep as soon as he found a position where the dull throb of shoulder, ribs and hip were less pronounced.

He woke early, his body's habit despite the abuse he'd recently dealt it. Once awake, there was nothing for it, but to rise. He winced at the dull ache that had settled deep during the night. He opened the small crock of salve and smeared a liberal portion on his shoulder. The strong herb smell infused the little room. He threw on a soft linen shirt, then the padded gambeson that knights wore under mail. The surcoat with the crest of his order over that and he could be mistaken for nothing other than a proper knight at ease within his own garrison. He stuck a knife through the belt, Niccoli being correct that one ought to be vigilant about the state of one's back when knights likely nursing grudges towards him roamed the halls of the keep.

To an early breakfast then, since there was no other task awaiting him. The squires and the cooks and the keep scullions were all about, in the midst of ritual morning chores. The night guard would be stumbling in to take their rest while the morning guard rose to relieve them. Those men-at-arms not presently assigned duty might enjoy a few extra hours sleep if they cared for it, and most did, enjoying the relative peace the treaty with the Icani had brought.

The village within the outer walls would be rousing as well, the keep gates opening, to allow traders and farmers the freedom of Lockheer. There were men in the common hall when he entered, but the benches were mostly empty. There was strong dark tea, yesterday's bread with butter and hot porridge sweetened with honey, to break his fast.

He finished his breakfast and asked Cook, a grandmother of twelve who still blushed through her wrinkles when he flirted with her, for hot rags to lay across his shoulder. Then retreated to the privacy of the walled herb garden outside the kitchen, to sit on a stone bench and press the warm, damp rags under the gambeson and against the salve he'd earlier smeared. He leaned there, eyes shut in the early morning sun, until the warmth had leeched out of the rags and taken with it some of the lingering pain.

It was a good day. The rains had dried up and the sky was cloud free and blue. He filched two apples on his way through the kitchens and headed for the stables. Vriloki accepted them with equine good grace, stolidly chewing while he swished his black tail, discouraging flies. Gavin took a brush to him, careful of sensitive places, especially vigorous with favored ones, but the stable boys had been thorough in their care of the big roan destrier and his coat already gleamed from the work of eager young hands.

The stable master was giving him dour looks, intolerant of men not in his employ loitering about the stables, so Gavin took his leave, deciding that his aches had receded enough to stand a bit of loosening. The training yard was as good a place as any to achieve that end.

There were a few men about, a pair utilizing the archery range, a group of squires practicing with behourds, blunted tourney swords made of whalebone, while a few men at arms and a handful of other boys leaned against the edge of the ring, shouting encouragement or tips to the dueling boys.

Red headed Ansel was out there, struggling against an older, more accomplished young squire, who was more interested in impressing the onlookers than imparting any lessons of skill to the younger boy.

"Loosen your arm, Ansel," Gavin suggested. "Or he'll jar the sword from your grip when he batters you."

The boy glanced at him, surprised to have a knight protectorate leaning at the gate offering advice, and the bigger boy took the chance and slammed through Ansel's guard. It was a nasty hit, even for a practice sword and the young squire sprawled in the dust, curling about his stomach, no doubt lacking greatly in wind. Had it been a real blade he'd be trying to contain spilled guts.

Gavin pushed the gate open and strolled inside. He did not fault the older squire for taking his advantage. Training young men for war was not meant to be easy or pain free and often ruthlessness was a key to survival. Pain taught hard lessons not easily forgotten. He'd gone through his fair share, but more often than not, even as a boy, he'd had a certain grace and speed, that confounded older, more experienced opponents.

He picked up Ansel's dropped sword, small and light enough for a boy to easily handle, light for a man used to handling real steel, but a man learned to utilize the weapons at hand.

"Watch my stance when I defend," he said, as the boy scrambled up, cheeks as red as his tousled hair. "Attack me, Jerad."

"Sir Gavin - -?" the other boy stammered, uncertain, fearing retaliation perhaps.

"It's okay. Go on. No holding back."

The boy nodded, took his stance and smashed his sword down upon Gavin's. He took the blow, elbow loose, and went with it. The boy was stout and strong and had a decent swing when he was uncontested. Block, dodge, parry, giving a bit of instruction as he wove. Simple moves, purposefully slow for a pair of boys to see what he was about and to take note.

He switched the behourd to his left hand, to relieve the injured shoulder, parried a blow, then stepped back at the following swing and brought the pommel of his sword down upon the wrist of his opponent. The squire yelped, loosing his grip on the behourd. He met the blunt tip of Gavin's practice sword as he went to retrieve it.

Gavin lifted a brow, unwinded. "It doesn't always take a killing blow to disarm an opponent. Did you see what I did?"

"Aye, sir," the squire said, wide-eyed, shaking out his wrist.

"Easy to say, when you're fighting wet-behind-the-ears boys," a disdainful voice called from the sidelines. "Different story if it's a man you face."

They'd attracted a crowd. Squires and pages and keep garrison, all with recognizable faces. Then there were the few that he didn't know and the one he half recalled from last night's encounter. That was the one who had made the comment. The Duke of Idago's knight, Sir Dwayne, leaned against the fence around the circular yard, two of his cronies at his side.

Gavin rested the tip of the behourd in the dirt, recalling the bloody nose of the stable boy. "I imagine you're well familiar with bloodying boys and unarmed opponents. My offer still stands, sir knight. The one of fair combat and apologies."

The knight's mouth tightened, but his eyes sparked with eagerness.

"Aye. I trust your comrades won't take too great offense if I trounce you in the practice ring? I won't have king's knights crying foul over a fair victory?"

Gavin shrugged, letting a faint smile touch his lips. "It would be the height of dishonor if they did and King's knights have a care for that."

The man didn't quite get the cut, but his brow wrinkled as if he suspected.

"Men fight with toys here in Lockheer, and not real steel?" The knight taunted.

Gavin shrugged. "Boys do. Men do as they like. The commander frowns upon duels that draw blood."

"You leave that to the Icani, huh?" The stout knight sneered, to the chuckles of his comrades.

Gavin shrugged, not contesting that claim. It was true enough. "If your manhood shrivels at the thought of handling bone instead of steel, then I've no qualm."

"No," Kerrik, the stubbled old armsmaster, snapped from his place in the shade on the shed where the weapons were stored. "There will be no steel barred in this ring if it's a deul between knights with a grudge to settle."

Sir Dwayne glowered, but assented.

Gavin leaned the behourd against his thigh while Sir Dwayne divested himself of his broadsword, handing it over to one of his friends. Gavin caught the trailing locks of hair about his face, twining them and tying them back out of his face with a thin strip of leather. His hair was overlong, past his collar and likely to get in his eyes in the heat of real combat. Sooner or later he'd have it cut, later probably, since the maids claimed to like it. He rotated the stiff shoulder, the short bout with the boy having aggravated the ache, waiting while the other knight chose a blunted weapon from the rack, before entering the small enclosure.

In the light of morning, Sir Dwayne was less portly and more muscled stout than he'd seemed at night after a few ales and a goblet of potent wine. A broad, stubbled face, with a scar running from temple to the bridge of a badly healed nose. He had small eyes in that broad face; dark and cruel. The sort of man that carelessly struck boys a fraction of his weight. The sort of knight for hire that abused his status and reveled in it.

He strutted into the ring, confident in his prowess. He'd chosen a behourd longer than the one Gavin had taken from Ansel and gave it a one handed flourish, a grin twisting his lips. Gavin waited while he entered, sword tip still in the dirt.

He lifted it as Sir Dwayne circled, a casual tilt towards the man's throat, turning as the knight circled him.

"Does Lord Haden choose his knights for their pretty faces and not their prowess?" Sir Dwayne sneered.

Gavin grinned, parrying the edge of Dwayne's sword when the man tested his reach. "Aren't you sweet for saying? When Duke Idago hires mercenary knights, is loutishness a top priority or does intelligence factor in?"

Sir Dwayne snarled and attacked. A rush of powerful blows, inelegant but effective, the stock and trade of most knights wielding heavy broadswords on the field of battle. Power through your opponent, hack and pummel until you drove through his defense or he yours. Men like sir Dwayne and Liam, stout and powerful made fierce adversaries on the field, the sheer power of their attacks and their stamina overcoming lesser men.

There was little skill in his drive though, little forethought, other than the goal of breaking Gavin's guard. And he would have, had Gavin simply absorbed the blows, parrying until his body trembled from the shock of constant impact. He chose another route. Avoid the blows, twist this way or that and let Dwayne's momentum carry him forward. His stepfather had had a taste for fencing and the first blade Gavin had held had been a light foil, the first dance he'd learned the elegant, fleet footed one of the fencer. Unencumbered by armor, it was easy to incorporate the liquid movements that confounded melee fighters. Easy to find a rhythm and outmaneuver a man with a longer reach and a heavier sword. Easy enough to distance himself from the complaining aches and focus on the dance.

Oh, and he danced well. Fluid grace and motion, letting the weight of the blade, even if it was bone instead of steel, guide him. Becoming the blade. All focus and instinct and bite.

He slid under a powerful swing and spun inside the man's reach, striking not with the blade, but with an elbow, smashing it against the knight's nose in his retreat.

Sir Dwayne growled, staggering a step, before shaking it off, but blood flowed. Fair turnabout for the boy the knight had bloodied in the stables.

"Now you're just playing with him, Gavin," came a call from the sidelines. Gavin didn't take his gaze from Sir Dwayne, but from his peripheral vision he saw the number of spectators had grown significantly. Liam's broad form at the fence standing next to the armsmaster, was hard to mistake.

Gavin blocked a blow, let the edge of his opponent's behourd slide off his own, and ducked before the blades had parted, slipping around and delivering a blow to the back of one of Sir Dwayne's knees. The man went down, one knee slamming into the dust, one hand on the dirt to keep him from going all the way down. A bad position to be in and a novice fighter might have given ground, tried to scramble away. Sir Dwayne, though he lacked a certain finesse of movement, was no novice fighter. Those scars he had were earned in battle and a battle he'd survived to boot. He swept the hand on the ground up, flinging a handful of dirt in Gavin's face. Instinctually Gavin turned his face, taking a step backwards instead of delivering the pseudo deathblow.

Sir Dwayne surged up with a roar, swinging his sword two handed, face flushed with rage and embarrassment. Gavin met him, whalebone cracking against whalebone, until he felt the integrity of the behourd in his hands give.

Bad luck and a sure sign that this needed finishing and quickly. Find an opening. He knew the way the man moved now, knew that on his two handed follow throughs he left his side open. He feinted to the side upon the deflection of a mighty blow that made his bruised shoulder and ribs scream bloody murder and swung his own weapon full force against the man's side, below the ribs. A debilitating blow, even had the man been wearing armor. As it was, a padded tunic was not enough to absorb the impact that shattered an already fractured bone practice sword.

Sir Dwayne went down, and Gavin was left with a behourd with the blade snapped some six inches from the guard.

"Yield," Gavin growled, dropping one knee to the dirt beside Sir Dwayne and pressing the blunt edge of the snapped behourd against his exposed throat.

The man was gasping, red faced from that blow to the kidney, but his eyes were narrowed, watering from pain and glittering with hatred. "I'll yield to no stinking Sekkish lowblood."

Gavin clenched his teeth, having not heard that particular insult in some while. Not since he'd proved himself against the Icani and risen in the ranks of King's knights. Apparently Sir Dwayne had gone to lengths to find out about him since last night's aborted row.

"Why not, when one just knocked you on your broad ass before half a keep's worth of spectators?" Gavin bent low enough to taunt softly.

Sir Dwayne glowered, before his lips flattened into a cold smile.

"Knife," someone cried.

Gavin felt the man move before he saw the naked steel he'd drawn from his boot. He rolled away from the thrust of the knife, the blade slicing through the thin cloth of the surcoat, but nothing more. Dwayne swiped at him again as he struggled to his feet, and Gavin blocked the blow with the guard of his broken practice sword.

The spectators were crying foul and Dwayne's eyes flicked to the side, aware finally of the dissatisfaction of their audience, mouth flattening at their cries of 'Foul. Foul.'

Gavin had had him, fair and square. They knew it. He knew it. The knight glowered at him, hand clenched white knuckled on the hilt of the dagger. He danced away from a flurry of swipes from a blade that might easily pierce the padding of his gambeson. Dwayne had raised the stakes, thirsting for blood. Gavin tossed the broken sword and drew the knife from his belt. Evenly matched then and he only half heard the hush of the spectators. They were no boys to be chastised for breaking the rules of the training yard, but knights proper and there were few men willing to rush in a break up a fight turned deadly between knights. Dwayne swiped at him again, he blocked the jab, catching the guard of Dwayne's knife with his own, pressing his weight forward and grasping the wrist that held the knife, bringing a knee up hard against an unprotected groin.

Dirty infighting, a duel between knights reduced to this, but Sir Dwayne had played the first card. The mercenary knight grunted and staggered a step, but didn't give way, grappling to free his arm.

"Cease!" The command was roared. The voice was unmistakable, even over the cries of the bystanders.

Gavin broke, pushing back, on guard still, wary of an opponent who wasn't as likely to jump at Knight Commander Haden's voice. But Haden wasn't alone, Gavin saw when he chanced a glance at the fence.

The onlookers had cleared away from a section of fencing, making way for commander Haden, who strode forward, Sir Simon and Duke Idago trailing him.

Gavin waited until Sir Dwayne's arm dropped to his side, before lowering his own, and presenting the other knight his back. There were a damned lot of people at the fence, drawn from all quarters of the garrison.

Sir Dwayne moved past him with a glare, limping, no doubt sporting aching testicles. Gavin's mouth twitched in a faint smile and the man's mouth tightened, before he stomped out of the ring, inclining his head in respect to the duke as he passed and heading for his cronies and his sword.

Gavin sheathed his knife, striding forward, no avoiding Commander Haden's stern stare at the gate.

"The meaning of this?" Haden asked, voice low enough not to travel much past the men standing nearest him.

"Just a friendly bout, sir."

Haden's eyes narrowed slightly, clear indication that he'd caught the hind end of that friendly bout and seen nothing friendly about it.

"It looked to be entertaining. And this keep lacks sorely in entertainment. Too bad you broke it up."" the duke commented with the bored tones of a man used to being constantly amused. He had a small gathering of followers, a young page dressed in velvet and silk and a pair of attendants dressed in his ducal colors following in his footsteps. One of them had a large, wire-haired wolfhound by a jeweled leash. The dog looked as bored as its master.

"Perhaps we can arrange an exhibition of skills for your lordship," Sir Simon stepped in when Knight Commander Haden's mouth thinned.

"I do like a good tourney to break the tedium," the duke of Idago admitted, exhaling a long suffering sigh.

"I'll arrange something, my lord," Sir Simon hurried to assure, missing the lord commander's tight lipped frown as he ushered the lord towards the keep.

"There's nothing we like more putting on shows for highborn asses," Gavin muttered. He rotated the sore shoulder, wincing at complaining muscles. He supposed this little bout had exceeded the light exercise the physicker had recommended.

Commander Haden cast Gavin a look and the commander's face was damned hard to read. But annoyance was clear enough. Whether it was at Gavin or having to house the duke and his retinue, was anyone's guess.

"Gavin had him, fair and square, commander." Liam approached through the dispersing crowd. "And the lout refused to yield. Next time use a man's behourd instead of a boy's and maybe you'll end the fight with a whole blade."

This last was directed at Gavin, who cast Liam a dry look past the commander's shoulder.

"It's not sir Gavin's skill in question," Haden said. "But his judgment. We'll speak of this later. I'll send a boy when I wish you to attend me."

He departed with that dire statement hanging in the air behind him.

"Xera's tits. I'd planned a quiet day, I swear."

Liam laughed. "Not to worry. Commander's got a soft spot for you, lad. He'll only slap your wrists but so hard."

Gavin snorted, winced again when Liam laid a heavy hand on his shoulder.

"That the mudsill from last night?"

Gavin lifted a brow. He could only assume Liam had spoken with Niccoli between then and now. "I didn't think Niccoli prone to gossip."

Liam laughed. "We watch out for our own and that one is as likely to stab you in the back as challenge you outright. I'd judge him more outlaw than knight. Keep an eye out while he's in the keep. We'll do the same."

Good advice and no less than he'd offer were positions reversed.



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