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The Thinning Veil
The light exercise he'd been hoping would loosen his muscles had turned arduous and he felt it. With no duty today, there was little excuse not to go in search of a remedy for it. One more pleasing than smelly herbs and the bony fingers of the garrison physicker.
He headed for Lockheer town, exchanging nods with the gate guards as he strolled through. The town bustled with morning trade, the outer keep gates open and admitting travelers and traders, pilgrims and missionaries of Xera who thought they had the protection of their goddess, on their way to attempt to spread word of the Lady to the barbarians of the Moss Tooth range. More often than not, they never came back, the Icani perfectly content with practicing their own 'heathen' faiths without interference from 'civilized' man.
From the vantage of the main street in the outer ring, you could see over the walls to the east where the mist clung to the closest peaks beyond. By midday, unless rain cut in, the mist would dissipate and the lush, forested slopes would be clearly visible.
The smells of vendors peddling breakfast vied for dominance with the odors of livestock and wood smoke and human sweat. Genidere was worse, a great city where people crowded amongst each other like vermin fighting for solid ground. Here the mountain breeze swept the worst of the smells away and if a man wished refrain, he had but to ride out the gates a few hundred yards where the wilderness constantly encroached upon the tilled fields outside Lockheer.
Lockheer had ever been a working keep, vigilant against attack and even the buildings of the town were slate roofed, instead of thatched, a guard against flaming arrows sent over the walls. Stone roofs, cobbled streets, a fortress built for defense that had held its own through numerous bloody conflicts. The most strategically placed of all the border garrisons, between the foot of the Moss Tooth Range and the only easily passable stretch of the Sylve River. Tendrils of the Sylve traveled under the east ramparts of the keep, a boon as far as defense was concerned, as well as the disposal of sewage.
The house of Lhesa sat on the northern side of the outer ring. A neatly kept, two story building with white walls and dark timber beams. The windows were lined with planters overflowing with flowers and over the door was a blue sash and above that, painted in cerulean, the symbol of Lhesa, the handmaiden of Xera.
The house of Lhesa was always open, ready to serve, for a proper donation to the coffers of the order, any man in need of the touch of a woman. Early morning was not their busiest time, though, and only a bored looking young woman sat in the outer chamber when Gavin walked in. The house smelled of perfumes and flowery things, a great improvement from the street.
The young woman, in the pale blue robes of her practice greeted him with the perfunctory Lhesa salutation. Then she actually looked at him and recognition lit her eyes, and something more akin to enthusiasm entered her voice.
"Oh! Sir Gavin. Welcome to the house. How may the maiden's of Lhesa serve you?"
Surreptitiously she shrugged her outer robes back off her shoulders, baring the thin straps of her gown, and the low cut of her bodice. Her breasts weren't ample, but they were young and firm. He didn't know her name, not frequenting the house as much as rumor suggested he did.
"I was hoping for a session with Beatrice, if she's up."
She smiled, hiding her disappointment, and inclined her head. "For you, Sir knight, she'll gladly rouse. I'll take you to the bathes and see she attends you."
He knew the way, but he followed her regardless, appreciating the sway of slim hips under thin silken robes. The order of Lhesa were strict in their rules of hygiene. A cleansing was required before a man might enjoy the skills the Lhesa employed. There were men, no doubt, that only bathed, and unwillingly, during their visits to the handmaidens. They did their part, client by client, Gavin thought wryly, to improve the quality of Genothian air.
The brass tubs were not as spacious as the pools under the keep itself, but the water was warm and scented with lilac and oils and there was a girl to wash a man's back and scrub his hair with deft, soft hands.
The girl made a soft exclamation when she saw the bruising as he sported. She helped unwind the physicker's wrappings about his ribs and he settled into the large tub. She scuttled off, conferring with another unseen woman, then was back, with a netted pouch of dried herbs and flowers, which she dropped into the water. The smell was immediate and subtle, soothing and floral.
"Twill help ease the aches," she said, not meeting his eyes. Not a handmaiden full, but merely a bath girl. She laid a hot cloth over his shoulder and folded another behind his neck. He sighed, sinking lower and let her rinse the soap from his hair. She removed the cooling towel from his shoulder and replaced it with a warm one.
And again, but this time an older female voice exclaimed softly, upon baring his bruised flesh. "Lady's mercy. The things men to do themselves."
He cracked his eyes and peered up at the matronly face and figure of the house mistress, Lady Beatrice. Few men came to her for sex, there being younger, prettier maids available, but many a bone-weary man appreciated the magic of her hands.
"It wasn't apurpose, I swear," he said it with a wry smile and she cocked a brow, old enough and wise enough in her trade not to be swayed by a man's flirtation.
"You never do," she said, clumping him in with the rest of his gender. "You've been to see physicker Duraq? No broken bones?"
"Nay. A cracked rib is all. But, his care left me wanting. His hands are cold and bony compared to yours, lady, and his ointments smelled the same as the stable master's."
She chuckled and beckoned to the girl. "See him to the Willow room and mind not his teasing. He's of a mind that all women are aflutter at the sight of his comely face."
He grinned fully at that and rose. Both the girl and Lady Beatrice were well used to naked men and showed no embarrassment. Beatrice assessed the full extent of bruising, before shaking her head and moving off. After helping him towel dry and holding a robe for him to don, the girl silently led him to the indicated room.
Lady Beatrice was waiting, candles fluttering and incense scenting the air. A tall, padded table dominated the little room and he lay upon it, belly down, folding his hands under his chin while she warmed eucalyptus oils.
He shut his eyes and let her lay hands on him, clenching his teeth when her strong fingers kneaded tender places, until she worked out the pain. If the Lhesa utilized true magics in their trade, it was a well kept secret, but Beatrice came as close to working miracles with her hands as any Sekkish magicker might.
She didn't speak as she worked and he was content to shut his eyes and sink into the luxury her oiled hands provided.
It was over too soon, though he guessed she'd given him more of her time than was her norm. She let him lay there and drowse while she fetched his clothing, which had been brushed and aired during his session.
"I would rebind your ribs," she said. "But unless you plan to don armor or engage in battle today, I'd rather not. Physicker Duraq practices medicine as if he were still on the battlefield. Some ills fare better allowed rest and time to breathe."
"I'll try to avoid battle again today and perhaps tomorrow, if your wisdom directs, lady. And no armor shall weigh me down."
She arched a brow, skeptical and held out his linen shirt to don.
"Perhaps a score of days for full healing," she suggested.
"That would depend on Lord Haden's plans for me."
"Lord Haden is mindful of the frailties of men," she smiled wanly and Gavin recalled no few whispered rumors that Knight Commander Haden occasionally supped with the Lady Mistress of the Lhesa. The knight commander was due, being a widower of some years, with grown children of his own in distant Anelthar.
He took his leave of the house of Lhesa feeling far better than when he'd arrived. Other than absorbing the jarring impact of Sir Dwayne's blows upon his sword, he'd taken no hit to the body from the man and hence sported no new bruising. It was doubtful the Duke's knight could say the same. He frowned, letting his mind linger on the man's audacity, figuring Liam's assessment true enough. There had been no few unscrupulous men knighted on the field of battle during the Sekkish war fifteen years past and the more recent and briefer Icani conflict. And still others that came by their titles and their gear unlawfully. Outlaws turned hedge knights, their loyalties bought and sold for a price, their honor non-existent. Why a noble of the king's court had such men under his banner was anyone's guess.
Gavin had an intolerance for bullies altogether. A result of growing up, clealy of Sekkish blood on the streets of Genidere. Step-son of a well to do merchant or not, children could be cruel and he'd been the victim all to often of taunts and spiteful jests. He'd come home often, bloody and bruised, even as a child having little capacity to humbly submit to insult. He'd learned to fight early on. Learned that speed and wit went a good ways to surviving combat with larger, older boys. It still served him well, a man grown who'd made a career of combat. Still, bullies made his teeth ache.
He shook his head, pushing it from his mind. No good would come of dwelling on it. Niccoli was the holder of grudges among them, and Gavin of the flash fire temper, who aired his grievances and forgot them, soon enough. Prolonging this thing Duke Idago's hedge knight had initiated would serve no purpose.
He had better things to do. A sword to mend, first and foremost. He took it to the guard room over the posthern gate and sat among comrades in warmth and solidarity while he took whetstone to the chip in the blade.
He was still in the process of it, when Ansel found him with a summons from the Knight Commander. "He's asking for you, sir Gavin," the boy said, gnawing at his lip. There was a fresh bruise on his face from that earlier loosing bout.
"Feeling your lumps?" Gavin asked.
The squire shrugged, embarrassed. "I'm getting better. Jerad's a year older is all."
"And bigger," Gavin gave him that due.
"Sir Dwayne is bigger than you but you beat him." The boy said defensively with a boy's prickly pride. "And he cheated."
"That he did," Gavin conceded. "But remember, honor in the practice ring and honor on the field of battle are two different things."
The boy stared at him, not quite understanding. Too young, too inexperienced to grasp what lengths men would go to in the heat of real battle when life was on the line. He clamped a hand on the squire's shoulder and sheathed his blade, heading towards the knight commander's offices.
It had been too much to hope that Lord Haden might in the midst of his distraction with the Duke, forget Gavin. A man-at-arms stood outside the door, nodding ever so slightly as Gavin paused and rapped on thick wood.
He did, shutting the door behind him. Striding across a carpet worn more from the passage of many heavy feet, than the passage of time, to stand before the broad, somewhat cluttered desk of the Knight commander. There were a few tapestries on the wall to insulate from the cold, but mostly it was stark, unadorned stone. The knight commander had little use for elegant trappings and undue pageantry.
"Is there some issue I ought be aware, between you and the Duke's knight?" The commander was not known to mince words, either. He was candid and honorable, any courtly manners he'd once possessed blunted by three decades of a life devoted to the protection of King and country. There were rumors that Lord Commander Haden made some of the King's councilors distinctly uncomfortable when he was at court, and his choice to command from the border a good portion of the year suited them well.
"No, milord." Gavin inclined his head, casting a wary look up from under his lashes to gauge the commander's mood. Pressed, he thought. There was talk in the guardroom that Sir Simon had commissioned the kitchen for a formal dinner, in honor of the Duke. And if the mad rush of merchants and staff in the inner ward were any indication that was most certainly so.
"See that it remains so," the commander said. "I'll not have brawls in my garrison."
"We have a reputation to uphold, as King's knight's."
"I would not sully it, milord."
Haden sighed, pressed his hands upon the spread papers he'd been reading and looked up at Gavin. There was weariness in his eyes and considerably more lines about them than when Gavin had first met him, some seven years past.
"Small pricks to honor might be overlooked for the good of the Garrison." There was very little that went on in Lockheer that Commander Haden did not know.
A faint, grim smile touched Haden's mouth. "Large cuts, however - - I would require no knight to endure without a defense of his honor."
Gavin met Haden's eyes, inclining his head.
"Nor, would I require a man to allow one less honorable to harass those below his station."
"They've been making a nuisance of themselves, Duke Idago's men?" Gavin made the assumption.
The commander snorted softly. "They share their lord's presumption of divine right. We've had complaints from the town. A few scuffles between men-at-arms. His knights are arrogant, but generally direct their infractions towards those with no recourse to retaliate. It was bad luck that they chose you to bully, instead of some hapless page."
"Or good luck, depending on your view." Gavin smiled slightly. "I'm better suited to respond in kind, than a maid or a boy half my weight."
The commander's jaw tightened, frustrated, no doubt that the smooth routine of his command had been unsettled by the intrusion of the king's envoy.
"And now he wants a feast. And a damned tourney," Haden shook his head. "As if we've nothing to do here but lounge about and indulge in idle entertainments."
"Why is he here?" Gavin decided to be bold and inquire. "It seems to me as if this Duke is underqualified to assess the state of garrison readiness. It seems coincidental - -his arrival and the Icani stirring after so long with no incident."
Haden looked at him, a long, assessing stare and Gavin had the uncomfortable feeling that he'd overstepped some boundary.
"Of course, its not my place to say - -"
Haden smiled finally, a relaxing of his face, as if some valve had been turned and the stress drained from him. "Aside from your miraculous sword arm, your penchant for speaking out of place has always been a favored quality. An honest one."
He leaned back in his chair, palms flat on the cluttered surface of his desk and met Gavin's eyes. "And no - - no conincidence, I think. There's a push from certain powerful interests to reopen the crystal trade. I fear these interests might be sending parties of their own to access the state of the mines."
Gavin narrowed his eyes. Armed parties no doubt, which might have encountered some Icani war party and engaged and stirred the ferver of the tribes.
"We weren't patrolling for Icani activity, but for Genothian border encroachment."
Haden inclined his head slightly.
"But the treaty - -?"
"Yes, the treaty. Idago hasn't come out and said as much, but he laments the loss of immeasurable wealth from 'the priceless coffers of the barbarians mountains'. His words."
"His majesty wants this?" Gavin hesitated to ask. Haden's loyalty to his king was unshakable. A royal decree and they'd be back at odds with all of the mountain tribes.
The knight commander sighed. "I know not what his majesty wants. I don't believe this is his wish, but there are people he listens to, advice he takes to heart - - he can be swayed away from his own common sense. Lady grant that Jarl keeps him constant with his own good advice."
"You have his ear, as well," Gavin ventured.
Haden's jaw tightened. "Aye."
Then he waved a hand, turning attention back to his paperwork. "I've work to attend."
Gavin inclined his head. "I'll leave you to it then, milord."
* * *
The whole of the keep was astir over the 'grand celebration'. Fisher boys tromped in, silvery fish, fresh caught from the shade dappled waters of the Sylve, strung on sticks they carried over their shoulders. Hunters sent out by Cook that morning, returned with game birds and venison. Fresh produce from the farmers who tended the fields outside Lockheer trundled into the courtyard.
"You'd think we were hosting the king himself, from the all the fuss." Sir Liam remarked, leaning a bare arm against one of the stout rails of a training yard while a procession of women went by, arms laden with fresh cut field flowers.
"Simon doesn't get the chance to show off his organizational skills to nobility that often out here. Perhaps he hopes for a private appointment if he inserts his nose deep enough into the Duke's cleft," Gavin suggested, leaning on the same rail, next to Liam.
Niccoli stood to his right, arms crossed, hair sweat dampened from a recent bout with Liam. He gave Gavin a look. "It would be a step down. Idago's holdings are little more than a speck on the map. If he held any true power, he wouldn't be out here, performing menial duty."
"Perhaps they couldn't tolerate him at court," Liam laughed. "And this was as good a way as any to be rid of him."
Niccoli snorted, but Gavin rather thought, someone with a purpose had likely sent Duke Idago, if he were not the power behind the 'interests' Knight Commander Haden had spoken of. Haden had not asked him to keep in confidence what they had spoken of, but the commander would expect such musings not to be bandied about recklessly. Liam and Niccoli were as close to brothers as he'd ever known and neither of them likely to spread delicate speculation. There were things they ought to know, things that might put their lives at risk should some private interest create conflict in the borderlands they protected.
"Or he's here to test waters," he said softly, eyes on Sir Simon, who'd appeared at the steps of the keep across the yard, discussing something with the castle custodian.
"What do you mean?" Liam asked. But Niccoli had drawn his brows and was staring at him steadily, silently waiting for Gavin to continue.
"They want to reopen the mines. Some faction or another. The commander thinks they've been sending men across the border."
"Xera's tits!" Liam cursed. "That'll damn well stir up the Icani."
"It likely already has," Gavin said. "Perhaps they didn't attack us for no cause, after all."
"They'll break the treaty to reopen the mines?" Niccoli asked quietly.
"Commander hopes the king won't allow it to happen," Gavin said.
"No wonder he's doubled patrols," Liam grunted. "If he's had wind of this, he's trying to keep folk from our side of the border in check, not the other way round."
"Damned greedy bastards." Niccoli clenched his fists, eyes narrowed dangerously, mouth set in a tight line. "They'd spend lives - - thousand of lives - - for their damned trinkets."
"The commander won't let it happen," Gavin said and believed it. Believed in Haden more than he believed in Genoth's fickle patron goddess. Xera had never done a thing for him. Haden had changed his life.
"He knows what he's about," Liam seconded his opinion, eyes following a broad hipped townswoman laden with a wicker basket of what looked like mushrooms. The forests surrounding them were overflowing with such treasures. Mushrooms and herbs and flowering remedies that grew in abundance here at the foot of the Moss Tooth range, brought high prices further west in cities like Anelthar and Genidere. Here, all a maid had to do was go out into the forests and pick them, if she knew her craft.
"I've heard," Liam said. "That Cook's making three different kinds of meat pies and enough even for those not invited to sit in the great hall with his lordship."
"No great loss that," Niccoli said, with the tone of a man who'd had to endure his fair share of pompous festivities. Being the second son of a powerful Lord, no doubt he had.
"He's spotted us," Gavin muttered, jerking his chin in the direction of Sir Simon, who was weeding his way through the busy courtyard towards them.
"I've already passed word through the pages, but I want no mistake," Simon started before he'd even come to a stop before them. "All knights and officers are expected to attend the Duke in the grand hall this evening. Wear your finest attire and be on best behavior."
Gavin got a particularly long look at that last command. Liam got a slightly lesser one and the big knight grinned and assured him. "I'm always on my best behavior when there's a feast involved."
Simon sniffed. "Its not often we have the chance to prove we're not simply some backwoods garrison, but a command of the kingdom's finest. We may not have all the luxuries of a keep in more civilized lands, but we can assure the Duke that we maintain the finest standards, even so. They'll be no lewd behavior and no common brawling."
"Lewd behavior?" Liam exclaimed. "Why would there be in a hall full of pricks and balls, unless you plan on inviting the order of Lhesa to grace us with a softer presence."
If glares could have killed, Liam would have dropped on the spot.
"Don't embarrass Knight Commander Haden," he snapped, but they all knew he really meant don't embarrass him.
He stomped off after, to try and impose his will somewhere else.
"Well then, I suppose a bath is in order," Liam announced, slapping the solid wood railing. "You lads for a trip to the hot springs?"
"I've had my bath today," Gavin laughed. "And with sweeter company than you."
"And you paid a pretty penny for a Lhesa to wash your back." Liam laughed. "You Nicco?"
"I'll meet you there," Niccoli promised.
Liam waved a big hand and strode off. Gavin and Niccoli stood a moment longer, listening to the sound of practice blade against practice blade in the training yards beyond. Niccoli's jaw was set, his hand on the pommel of his belt knife white knuckled.
"What?" Gavin asked quietly.
Niccoli shook his head, locks of pale hair falling onto his brow. He lifted the hand from the knife and pushed them back. "My father was one of those who decried the terms of the treaty. Who thought war was a small price to pay for access to the riches hidden beneath Moss Tooth's heights. If there are those pushing for the mines to reopen, he's chief among them. It sickens me."
Gavin blew out a silent breath, envying Niccoli not a bit, the nobility of his birth, when it brought with it, layer upon layer of political scheming. Niccoli was here, a knight in a border garrison, because he'd wished to escape it. Because he'd refused an arranged marriage that would have sealed a deal between his father and another noble family. Gavin knew only the barest details and those admitted when Niccoli had been deep in his cups, but he knew there was bad blood because of that rebellion and only the influence of a doting mother had kept Niccoli's father from disowning him entirely.
"I'm sorry." He didn't know what else to say.
Niccoli cast him a glance, an aborted laugh. "Yes, pity the child born in the pit of vipers."
"Pity is the last thing I feel for you, I assure you."
Niccoli met his eyes and in the sunlight the blue of his gaze was like the clearest sky of a summer day. There were times, when he caught Gavin's eyes, intent on some measure close to his heart, that Gavin found himself loosing track of the words, snared by a color that bordered on unnatural. Unsettling in no few ways and Niccoli entirely unaware of it. But Niccoli broke it first this time, lowering gold tipped lashes, swallowing as if there were something lodged in his throat.
"I just - - my father and men like him - - lives are nothing to them."
"Yes," Gavin agreed, but his mind was elsewhere, wondering if he might not go down to the baths after all, regardless of his recent one at the house of Lhesa, and lounge with Niccoli and Liam in the warm waters. He had legitimate excuse with his aching shoulder and tender ribs. It came upon him, now and again, a vague desire to pursue that unsettling feeling at the pit of his stomach where Niccoli was concerned. An awareness of Niccoli that went beyond an appreciation of his martial skill and his fierce honor. And though there was no sin in appreciating the finer points of a well-turned man - - just look at the statuary that graced the parks of the great cities - - he seldom had the desire to pursue it.
Sitting in the bathes unclothed with Niccoli, when at the moment, his awareness of the very scent of him - - sweat and leather and something else entirely - - had become razor keen, seemed no wise choice. He would shake it off. He always did. Perhaps take a trip back to the house of Lhesa and remind himself what a man truly desired, in the soft body of a woman.
He ended up instead on the eastern bridge looking out over the dark waters of the slow moving Sylve. There was little else to do, but bide time until he needed to prepare for Sir Simon's feast and this entertainment cost no silver and served well to sooth an unsettled mind.
The eastern portcullis was open, though heavily guarded, judiciously welcoming the occasional trapper or Icani trader come down out of the mountains to barter priceless wares. The forest beyond the Sylve, though the garrison constantly attempted to cut it back for the sake of defense, was thick and thriving. The trees on the far bank lush and green and trailing roots into the water, soaking up its limitless life force. There were a half dozen or more boys and a few old men fishing off the side of the bridge.
Gavin sat on the thick stone wall, feet over the side and stared down at the dark water. A fish broke the surface here and there, creating concentric rings and turtles lounged nearer the banks, resting on rocks or the barely submerged tangle of roots. It was broad here, about two hundred yards and the bank steep on the keep side, a natural defense against attack from the east. The closest easy crossing was miles north.
A sliver of perception niggled at his peripheral vision, but when he turned his head to look, it was only a glint of light dancing on the gentle crest of water. A familiar feeling, that tickling suspicion of 'something', just beyond the scope of his perception. He'd lived with it all his life. Always looking over his shoulder at something that wasn't there. The result his step-father had always said, of too fertile an imagination. Gavin would admit to having that. It hadn't stopped the nightscares of a very young boy, who'd always imagined too clearly the things that might dwell in the shadows under the bed. He'd grown out of it.
The feeling was old and familiar now. It had even occasionally saved his life. As it had a few days past when he'd avoided the spear of an Icani warrior that he'd otherwise never have seen coming. The fall afterwards had been an unfortunate side-effect.
He rotated his shoulder and let his eyes traveled over the tops of the trees at the bank to the hazy slopes of the mountains beyond.
He knew the borderlands as well as any man who'd spent the last few years either patrolling or fighting in its forested depths. Well familiar with the trails and passes on this side of the range. The Moss Tooth was vast though, hundreds of miles of mountainous lands past the relatively gentle upthrusts of the borderlands. Moss Tooth's jaws at their height were a different beast altogether.
If the Icani conflict had been fought in the heart of those ferocious peaks, the Icani tribes might have had no need to sign a treaty; they'd have swallowed every force Geneth sent at them. There were rumors of things in the highlands, things that fed off the power of the crystals that lay in the depths of the earth, that no man, or batallion of men could stand against. Gavin had never seen such a thing with his own eyes, but he'd heard tales. And he had seen the very real power of Icani mystics.
From the look of the thickening mists pillowing about the high slopes to the east, it looked as if evening would bring rain. It was the season and the forests were lush from it; the waters of the Sylve high.
"Storm comin'," an old man with a rod over his shoulder and a basket that smelled of fresh caught fish, remarked as he ambled by.
"Knee's say it'll be a nasty one. Hate to be a man on patrol out there when it hits."
Gavin seconded the opinion. Horses and men in heavy armor did not fare well on steep, rain-drenched trails. There'd be no knight out in it tonight, if Sir Simon had his way, at least.
The old man trundled on, and Gavin stared at the water, at subtle ripples that suggested undercurrents stronger than normal under the dark surface. Deep waters, and they would rise further still by tomorrow when the mountain streams emptied their overflow down slope.
He swung his legs over the wall and back onto the cobbled stone of the bridge. He'd wasted enough time, he supposed, cleared his head of notions likely to cause him trouble. There was nothing left, but to don his dress silks and go and partake of Cook's finest creations.
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