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The Thinning Veil

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter 4

 

Regardless of Sir Simon's wishes, there was little chance of a hall full of battle-hardened soldiers observing courtly etiquette. Most especially when the food was plentiful and the wine flowed. Perhaps if there'd been a lady of the keep to curtail rougher manners, men might have made more of an effort, but there hadn't been a Lady to oversee Lockheer's daily upkeep and add her touch of gentility for more than three decades and a keep full of military men had little use for the sort of foolish pretense practiced in the upper houses of nobility.

Not that Duke Idago seemed to mind, from what Gavin observed, seated next to Liam on the benches that backed the long arms of the U shaped table configuration of the great hall. The Duke sat at the high table, with its fine linins and padded chairs, in the seat of honor next to Knight Commander Haden. Sir Simon sat on his other side, along with the officers of noblest blood in the command and a few of the Duke's entourage. Niccoli had been cornered by Sir Simon upon entering and coerced into a seat at that table. It was likely he was well and truly drunk from the amount of wine he'd partaken. Goddess knew the rest of them were well on their way, the Duke among them.

The off tune stylings of the two minstrels someone had found in town was starting to sound lilting after five courses of Cook's feast had been served and countless cups of wine and ale. The tables were littered with the remnants of loaves and meat pies, spattered with gravy, served from shared trenchers placed every third diner. The pages were harried and the serving maids, no few hired from town, were giggling and forward, the center of much male attention and compliment, being the only females present. Easy for them to flirt, knowing Commander Haden would deal with any man who offered unwanted attentions harshly. Honest, hard working folk had a good life here under his command, even at the furthest limits of civilization.

The Duke seemed to hold his men to lesser standards, for no few of them made more than lewd comments to the maids, reaching out and grasping buttocks here or a breast there as a woman leaned over to fill a goblet or set a plate. Sir Dwayne, who was seated a few places down the table from Gavin, was chief among the offenders. Though from his laughter and his expression the knight seemed to think the maids encouraged it. No particularly worse treatment than a tavern wench might expect, though, but the Knight Commander's glower deepened with each incident and he seemed little inclined to engage his noble guest in conversation.

Idago seemed not offended, spending a great deal of time leaning across Sir Simon trying to engage Niccoli. He'd met the Lady DeLathe at Gilroy, the King's country estate, this very last season, it seemed. Even with four children grown, her beauty was unparalled, the Duke espoused. Niccoli was his mother's spitting image. A shame he wasted himself out here at the very edge of civilization instead of gracing the court. No doubt the Vermillion Guard, the king's personal guard, would have him, considering his linage. Idago would be glad to put in a good word, if Niccoli liked.

Gavin rather thought the man was flirting, the way he went on about it, eyes devouring Niccoli as he talked. Niccoli seemed unimpressed, responding monosyllabically to this comment or that. He met Gavin's eye now and then, with a look of vague disgust. Gavin tipped his goblet his way, arching a brow and Niccoli's mouth twitched.

Idago was not so immersed in his cups that he overlooked where Niccoli's attention drifted. He looked Gavin's way himself with a faint, interested wrinkle of his high brow. Gavin had met very few highbloods he'd felt inclined to bow head to and the Duke of Idago was not among them. He met the man's gaze with a lazy one of his own, raising his goblet to sip at the sweet wine.

"From what I hear, Lord Haden" the duke said, leaning elbows on the table, attention fixed on Gavin. "My good knight, sir Dwayne, was quite lucky in his bout with your man this morning. Word about the keep is that your knight is exceptionally skilled with the blade."

"I've no knight that isn't," Haden said, a slight furrow between his brow.

"Lucky is what he is?" Sir Dwayne groused loudly. "I've fought better."

"And had your ass handed to you by them as well, have you?" Liam laughed, well and truly drunk and cheerfully loud because of it.

Gavin leaned forward on an elbow, peering down the table at Sir Dwayne, feeling the pressure of a good deal of the eyes in the room on him, now that Idago had centered him with his languid query. "It was a fair bout - - until it wasn't. It seems you have a tender ego, Sir Dwayne."

Dwayne glowered, hands clenching into fists.

"Is it true you fought injured, Sir Gavin?" The duke inquired. "If so, you made a good showing."

Gavin shrugged. "Nothing of import, milord."

"A good excuse, I'd guess," Sir Dwayne muttered.

"An excuse for what? Making a spectacle of you? We could go again if you've a need for acute embarrassment." Gavin's tongue tended to get away from him at the best of times. When he was lightheaded from drink and under the pressure of no few interested eyes, it had a mind of its own. The knight commander seemed not amused.

Sir Dwayne's hands slapped the table and almost he rose, but for the hand of the man next to him on his forearm, restraining him.

"That, I'd like to see," the Duke said cheerfully. "Sir Simon, you did promise me a tourney."

"The men here do not fight for entertainment," Haden said stiffly. "Nor do we draw blood against each other."

Idago waved a negligent hand. "But you most certainly fight to hone skills, do you not, Lord Haden? And it seems your man might teach mine a thing or two - - if rumors are to be believed. "

Sir Dwayne glowered, red faced and embarrassed. Easy prey for his Duke's idle attempts to stir trouble.

"Only rumors I hear," the knight growled. "Is that he uses that pretty face to worm his way into the beds of half the maids in town."

"He only wishes," Liam boomed, highly entertained by the whole thing.

"From all your interest in my 'pretty' face, I'd say you were more interested in bedding me than fighting me."

And that was the telling blow. Sir Dwayne surged up, cutlery and tableware scattering as he lunged across the men separating them towards Gavin.

There was no easy way to avoid the man, trapped as he was between two men on the bench, with Dwayne scrambling across his bench mates and over the table to reach him. He took the impact and toppled ass backwards, the stout knight's weight bearing him down. The bad shoulder took the brunt of the fall and stars danced along with black spots in his vision, almost blinding him to the big fist driving down towards his face. Almost.

He twisted to the side as best he could with the man half on him, and the fist grazed his ear, slamming down against the stone floor with enough impact that the knight howled. Gavin rolled, putting all his weight in the action, shoving with his good hand as he did. The man had barely caught his fall with a knee and a hand when Gavin snatched up a platter that had fallen and smashed it full against the side of the other knight's head. It shattered, meat juices and bits of ceramic clinging to Sir Dwayne's face.

Sir Dwayne swung blindly at him, still on one knee and landed a glancing blow. Gavin shot one of his own back, landing full against the other man's broad nose with a satisfying crunch of bone. He didn't realize Commander Haden was bellowing at them to cease until Liam grasped him under the arms and hauled him backwards, other men doing the same with Sir Dwayne.

He was angry and he hurt, shoulder and ribs screaming from Dwayne's initial impact with him and his subsequent meeting with the floor. It took a few red tinged seconds of struggling against Liam's implacable strength for the sound of actual voices to get through.

"Enough. Enough!!" Commander Haden stood with his hands planted on the high table. The whole of the room was on its feet, straining to get a vantage to see the fight. Save the duke, who sat back, goblet in hand, a faint smile on his face as if it had all been arranged for his pleasure.

"Out. Both of them out," Haden barked and from the brief look Gavin had at his face as Liam swung him around, crowding him towards the south door while the men restraining Sir Dwayne hauled him towards the main entrance, the commander did not look happy.

Gavin cursed, the last of the adrenaline draining away upon the heels of the realization that he'd done exactly what the commander had asked him not and provoked an incident. Damn. And Damn.

"Okay," he snapped at Liam, trying to shrug off the big man's hold. "I'm okay. I can damn well walk on my own."

"Back in your right mind?" Liam loosened his grip, waving away the man at arms that had followed them out into the narrow servants corridor.

Gavin leaned against the wall, breathing hard. "Xera's tits, I've pissed him off."

Liam laughed. "Aye, I'd say the commander's right annoyed. Sir Simon looked as if he were in the midst of apoplexy. Wasn't you that threw the first blow, though."

"Just the last. And goaded him to it."

"Not your fault man's dull enough to try and fence words with a trickier tongue. Off with you. I'll head back and see the commander understands it."

Gavin half laughed, but it hurt his side. He doubted Sir Liam would be able to convince the commander of any such thing.

There was little else to do but go back to his chamber. He leaned with his forehead against the solid wood of the door once there and cursed himself again. The commander only gave warnings once, and he'd be lucky to simply catch the worst of the patrol routes for the foreseeable future. The fist that had likely broken the other knight's nose slammed against the wood and it hurt. He grimaced and hissed through his teeth.

The shoulder that had been feeling half again better before the damned ham fisted knave had bowled into him, hurt too. It throbbed like bloody hell. He went for the salve the physicker had given him. Regardless that it smelled like the stable master's brew, it had soothed the ache.

He shrugged off his surcoat and was in the midst of divesting himself of the fine linen tunic under it, when there was a brisk rap on his door. It opened before he could grant entry, and Niccoli stalked in, a denunciation already on his tongue. "You fool. Have you no semblance of self-control?"

"Apparently not," Gavin said dryly.

Niccoli drew breath, eyes drawn to the span of colorful bruising that decorated Gavin's side. "Lady save, you look like hell."

Gavin snorted and unstoppered the jar. Dabbed a bit on his fingers, and winced, the stretch of left arm to right shoulder making his side complain.

"Fool," Niccoli breathed, softer, shaking his head in frustration. He took the jar from Gavin's hand, motioned for him to turn, and applied a portion of the salve himself.

Cool salve, warm fingers and it felt good. He blew out a breath, shuddering, a hand to the wall to steady himself against the conflicting sensations of pain and the soothing of it. He dropped his head, a tightness in his chest that threatened easy breath as Niccoli worked the analgesic into his skin.

"Goddess tits, Nicco, the Lhesa should be so lucky to have you."

Niccoli snorted softly, kneading sore muscle, battle hardened hands surprisingly gentle. It eased the stiffness, eased everything but the odd quiver in Gavin's gut.

"This much damage," Niccoli said quietly. "And still you felt the urge to fight. You need a keeper, Gavin."

"I didn't start it."

"No," Niccoli agreed after a moment.

"The commander's right pissed, I'd wager," Gavin surmised.

"You'd win that wager," Niccoli said shortly. "One damned meal and you can't hold your tongue, baited or not. You're a knight, not a common solider, Gavin."

"I'm aware," Gavin snapped, head down, fingers curling into a fist against the wall.

Niccoli snorted, hand splayed across the bruise on Gavin's shoulder. Silent after that, unmoving for a moment that stretched into eternity, it seemed, until Gavin could endure it no longer, and straightened. Turned with the good shoulder against the wall and cast Niccoli a wry look.

"I suppose I did little enough to prove it tonight, though."

"You'll be lucky," Niccoli took a step backwards, some faint, curious color in his cheeks. "To be riding midnight patrols for the next fortnight."

"I've ridden worse."

Niccoli met his eyes, a long blue look, before he looked away, shaking his head. "Go to sleep, Gavin. It's likely the only way for you to avoid further trouble."

At which advice, he turned on his heel and left, shoulders taut with agitation. Gavin supposed he had reason enough. Niccoli liked order in his world. Niccoli believed in men who preformed their duties, men who behaved honorably. There'd been a distinct lack tonight.

He trailed Niccoli to the hall, leaned bare shoulders against the cool stone of the hallway wall and shut his eyes, feeling the steady strength of the keep beneath his back, as the sound of Niccoli's boots receded. Old stone, that radiated a subtle sort of patience and faintly hummed with quiet essence of ten generations of human occupants.

Sometimes the 'awareness' came upon him, as fleeting as the things that skulked in the corner of his vision, a sense of the underlying currents of certain things. Of the elder forests they sometimes ventured across the river to patrol; of the ancient stones of the old roads that led to cities that were no longer there. The biting energy of a well-forged blade when the fever of battle was upon him; the power of a low rolling storm. Always fleeting, never the sharper sense his mother claimed to have, enhanced by the little crystal she wore around her neck. Lady help him if he ever experienced those visions that he knew she had, even if she never spoke of them to him - - an honest fighting man had no use for them.

Except perhaps for the affinity for good steel. The way he lost himself sometimes in the song of the blade when it mattered most. A well served awareness in battle. Disconcerting when it washed over him in the midst of wine induced delimna. He blew out a long breath, carefully stepping away from the wall, shoving the sensation away. He shrugged the tunic back up, not bothering with the loosened lacings and the rust colored cloth lay lightly across his shoulders. His best shirt, lightly embroidered around the cuffs and the neckline.

There was a flask in his room, a little silver affair he'd won in a 'friendly' duel back before the treaty, when they'd been in the field, fighting almost daily skirmishes with the Icani tribes, in their back and forth battle over the borderlands. 'Friendly' duels had been common among the knights. A way to shed the stress of the unconventional war they fought. A way to prove themselves. He'd been so young then, so eager to prove his worth, to disprove the ignobility of his birth. He supposed even now, a seasoned knight of twenty and six, that he was still trying to prove something. Still fighting the black mark of Sekkish birth. Some days it was harder than others.

He stretched his legs out on his bunk, back against the wall, the stone of which was dead and quiet now and took a sip of potent, distilled brew. It burned going down, as wine never did. He closed his eyes and savored it. Savored the memory that sprung unbidden to his mind of the feel of Niccoli's hands on his bare skin. He couldn't recall Niccoli ever laying hands on him before. Not in so 'intimate' a manner. Liam was unmindful of things such as shared nudity and personal boundaries and conservative social niceties. Gavin had shared a hundred bathes with him, had Liam's hand on his bare shoulder no few times and thought nothing of it. Niccoli's modesty was more refined. Niccoli did not strut about naked through a bath full of soldiers, never was he thoughtlessly forward. The son a great lord, instilled with lordly manners, most of the men thought, and respected him enough for his bravery in battle and his unshakable honor, not to think less of him for it. Gavin rather thought it was simply that Niccoli was shy.

Forward in battle, fearless in the charge, a stickler for duty, but reticent when it came to interacting on a social battlefield. Friendships came hard for him. It had taken years before he'd considered Gavin a friend instead of simply a comrade in arms. Liam, who'd known Niccoli long before Gavin had risen to the rank of King's knight, said in confidence that the house of DeLathe was like a pit of snakes, poisonous and backstabbing and little wonder its sons grew to manhood with no trust in the generous state of human nature.

Gavin slouched deeper in the bunk, trying to find a comfortable position. He drained the flask of the last of its contents, wishing he had a softer head for spirits. Succumbing to drink induced sleep would not be an unwelcome thing.

There came a rapping on his door and he blinked, starting up, half thinking it might be Niccoli returned for some unknown reason.

"Enter," he pushed himself up, one leg off the side of the bunk.

To his disappointment, it was no knight, but a bashful red-headed page, reluctant to intrude upon a man retired in his chambers.

"I'm sorry, sir Gavin," Ansel shifted, head down, in the doorway, as if he feared being the bearer of bad news. "Knight Commander Haden commands your presence."

"Xera's - -" Gavin hissed, breaking off the end of the curse. He supposed the boy, and most of the keep as well, knew of the brawl in the great hall. He swung his other leg onto the floor, and sat there, elbow on knee, running a hand through overlong hair.

"Chambers or office?"

The boy blinked, seeming a bit off his usual stride. A bit flushed of face, as if he'd snuck, as a boy might, more than a few goblets of unwatered wine attending the feast. A boy not used to it, would have a reeling head tonight and a throbbing one come morning.

"Where is he? Chamber or office?" Gavin sighed, regretting his own consumption of spirits and the trouble it had led to.

The boy blinked, then said in a rush. "The south tower. You're to go to him immediately on the battlements of the south tower."

Gavin waved a weary hand in assent and Ansel backed away, bowing as he did, shutting the door behind him. He supposed he had this coming. The battlements as a meeting place was an ominous portent, the commander generally retreating there when he was of a sour mood. Making him wait seemed unwise.

The knight commander's office and private chambers were in the south tower, and it was simply a climb of no few winding stairs to reach the battlements on the roof of the tower. He nodded at the sleepy eyed guard patrolling the hall and began to climb. Gavin could smell the rain before he reached the open air. That storm that had threatened had not quite hit full tilt, but the rains had come. The stones were wet and dark, the clouds breaking here and there in the night sky, letting through weak moonlight. The air up here smelled of rain and wet pine and all the other clean forest smells swept in with the breeze.

It still rained, though it was more of a steady mist now and no heavy downpour. Enough that the battlements were still dark, torches drowned out. Gavin looked for the silhouette of a man and found none, not even the shadowed figure of a patrolling guard along the long stretch of battlement that spanned the two east facing towers.

"Commander?" he called, scanning the darkness. Between the wine at the feast and the flask in his chamber, his head felt light on his shoulders. Goddess help him if he wavered on his feet in front of Haden.

He moved out onto the broad tower roof, boots making soft sounds against rain slick stone, mist collecting on his hair, sheening the skin of hands and face.

"Commander?" he ventured again, then stopped, squinting into the shadows against the crenulated battlement wall. There was a shape there, supine in the darkness. He might have missed it entirely save for the glint of metal in a fleeting patch of moonlight.

He drew breath, the hair on the back of his arms prickling in unease, his hand wanting desperately to go for the comfort of a weapon he did not have. Not even a belt knife. One did not think to go armed to a meeting with one's commander in the safety of one's own keep.

Another step and he could make out the lines of a body, saturated with rain, sprawled half against the wall, the glint he'd seen the hilt of a protruding dagger. He cursed then, and ran forward, realizing as he skidded to his knees that the pale, bearded face lying against the wet stone was that of Knight Commander Haden.

He fumbled for a pulse and his fingers encountered wetness thicker than rain water and the ragged edges of a wound. Throat slit, skin cold, the hilt of the dagger sticking out from the commander's side, beneath his ribs. A sound that might have been a curse, might have been an incoherent sob broke from Gavin's lips. He grasped the hilt, pulling the blade free, rolling the commander against his legs and searching desperately for any spark of life.

"No, no, no," he blinked water from his eyes, pressing his fingers hard against the gash in the commander's throat that was still warm and wet, trying to staunch a flow that wasn't there.

"Help. Someone, help," he bellowed, hoping that some careless battlement guard would hear and rise to his duty.

There was the sound of a gasp, high pitched, laced with dismay, and he half caught sight of a face at the stairwell, young, pale, before the boy disappeared back down. Lady willing to fetch help. The sound of armored feet then, pounding up the stairs and men appeared bearing torches, pushing past the the boy. Ansel, Gavin thought numbly, standing frozen in pale faced horror. Then the boy lifted an arm, stabbing a finger towards the battlement where Gavin sprawled with Haden's lifeless body under his hands.

"There, there!" the squire cried, voice breaking. "He still has the knife."

Gavin blinked, not comprehending until weapons were drawn and aimed, amazingly enough, towards him. Then he realized he still grasped the bloody blade and he opened his mouth to set them right, but Sir Simon was pushing through the press of armed men, face shadowed and lurid in the sputtering light of torches fighting against the mist. How they'd all gotten here so fast, Gavin had no notion.

"Murder," Simon cried. "He's murdered the commander."

It was ludicrous that that was the first thing out of Simon's mouth. Ludicrous to even consider.

"No!" Gavin roared, half rising, furious at the very accusation, the knife still in hand. Damned comfortable hilt, fitting his hand as well as his very own belt blade. He looked down in sudden terrible realization. Familiar pommel, familiar faint etching on the body of the blade.

"Xera - -" he breathed, before the haft of lance hit him, out of the darkness, wielded by a man who'd come up at him from the side.

He stumbled back down, one knee hitting the stone next to Haden with a crack, sharp pain in the temple spreading throughout the entirety of his head, and they were on him. Frightened, angry men, who knew nothing but the stark reality of the corpse of their beloved commander laid out before them; knew nothing but Sir Simon screaming bloody murder and the boy crying accusation, and Gavin's own belt knife - - his own Xera be damned knife - - bloody and condemning in his hand. He couldn't fathom how. Instinct said don't let them take him down. Fighting instinct that had served him through a hundred conflicts let him disregard the blinding agony of the blow to the head and try and shake them off.

But he was a knight unarmored and unarmed, save for that damning knife, and he just wanted distance from them, not their blood on his hands, mingling with Haden's. There were too many and save for slashing about like a madman - - or a guilty one - - there was no help for it, but to give in, let the blade go and let them bear him down.

"I didn't - -" he gasped, face against the wet stone, a man's knee in his back, other's with hands upon his shoulders, hands on his arms, pinning him. "I didn't do this!"

"I saw him," Ansel cried, fear and grief making the boy's accusation desperate and shrill. "I saw him with the knife over the commander. Blood's still on him."

The knee on his back pressed down, likening to crack already bruised ribs. It stole Gavin's breath. Probably just as well he didn't engage in a match of accusations against a teenaged boy. And he could half understand the betrayal of a boy he'd thought admired him, coming upon the sight he had. Assumptions would have been made and not unreasonable ones what with the knife - -his own damned knife - - in hand. His head swam from the shock of that as much from the blow.

They weren't gentle, these men, most of whom he knew. Most of whom he'd fought with and laughed with and barrocked with at some time or another. Thunder cracked in the sky to the east over the mountains and the rain took up in sheets again, as if a floodgate had been opened. His head reeled from someone's elbow against his ear when they jerked him up. On purpose or not, it hardly mattered. His wrists they'd bound behind him and his shoulder screamed bloody murder for the position.

Simon loomed over him, while he was on his knees, men holding him fast, someone's hand in his hair, forcing his head back.

"Ungrateful wretch!" Simon cried, face twisted, drenched hair clinging to his forehead, water dripping off his long nose. "After all he did for you, could you not accept chastisement well earned?"

"No!" Gavin gasped. "I didn't - - You can't believe I would harm him."

"I see it with my own eyes. We all do!" Simon hissed and waved the knife, washed free of blood by the rain, before Gavin's eyes. "Your knife. Your mark on the hilt."

"I didn't," Gavin screamed, straining against the hands that held him. "And while you stand here accusing me, the man who did escapes."

Simon drew back and arm, hit him, the back of a closed fist across the side of the mouth. Gavin tasted blood, shook hair out of his eyes, glared up, and it seemed almost as if Sir Simon wept, eyes red, face twisted in grief. Frustrated as he was with his posting, Sir Simon had been with the lord Commander for a decade or more. There had been respect between them.

"I can't look at you now," Simon snarled. "Get him out of my sight. To the dungeons." The knight seneschal drew himself up, Gavin's belt knife clenched in the hand by his side. He waved the other at the press of guardsmen standing in the rain. "You and you, take the knight commander to his rooms. And keep close tongues. I'll not have the keep in a panic."

They dragged Gavin up, wrestled him away as Sir Simon was issuing his orders, hands biting into his flesh, the shocked anger rolling off the guardsmen like the smell of sweat. Past the boy, who'd fallen to his knees, sobbing almost hysterically, into the hands covering his face.

"Xera's tits, Simon, I didn't do this," he cried over his shoulder, planting his feet. "Have the sense to close the gates at least and keep the man who did from fleeing the keep."

A fist drove into his side and the wind left him in a gust of pain. Another to the temple and he staggered on the steps. They caught him, kept him from sending them all tumbling down in a tangle of limbs. Dragged him down the narrow stairwell into red tinged darkness, surrounded by wet men, by angry, stunned ones.

There was a crowd of curious loitering near the lower entrance to the tower stairwell, drawn by the rush of guards. Pages and castle servants, faces blurred in Gavin's wavering vision. He thought he saw the fine velvets of one of the Duke's gadflies. The whispers and gasps of speculation couldn't slip past the ringing in his ears. Their details wavered, overwhelmed by visions of Haden's staring eyes, his mouth half open in the terror of a man who knew he'd been gasping his last breath.

And his knife. His knife in the commander's flesh. He couldn't fathom it. His head spun from trying.

 

 

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