“Clank!” I grunted as the top of my shield drove into my helm, and I staggered to the side to avoid the follow-up blow. The strike against my shield had been cleverly devised to cause me to do precisely that, for the real blow came in the form of a hard thrust right into my chest. I gasped as the wooden waster thudded into my chest.
“I yield,” I said as I lowered my own waster in defeat. My opponent lowered his own weapon, and pulled of his helm. “You are getting much better,” he said in a rough voice, caused by an old sword wound at his throat. “I had to work hard to land that last blow.” He bowed slightly. “By your leave, m’lord.”
“Thank you, Swordmaster,” I nodded to the older man, and he went on his way. I pulled off my helm and laid it on one of the blocks of wood we used as seats around our training arena. That was a fancy term for a clearing in the woods with an open shed as a meeting hall. But it was in my family’s holding, and it had become a second home for me since I had reached my eighteenth summer.
My mother, the Countess of Green Oaks, and my father, the Earl of Brightwater, had insisted that I been trained in the martial arts, though my real skills ran to woodworking and blacksmithing. I was much more skilled at hammering out a good blade, rather than hammering an opponent with it. And, of course, as a member of the nobility, a knight, I was expected to lead our armsmen in battle if necessary. And, a leader also needed to be proficient in arms, as well as the handling of men in battle.
I picked up my helm and walked out of the training area, taking a well-worn trail through the woods and out onto the castle grounds. The castle – my home – was the center of business for the surrounding community and a refuge if we were to come under attack. I was the fifth generation in House Brightwater to call this place home. Our timely alliance with the House Green Pines, also known as my parents’ marriage, helped bring an end to the roving bands of brigands who took delight in terrorizing the farmers and other folk in the surrounding countryside.
Instead of our single keep, my realm included four keeps, a walled village, and nearly a thousand men-at-arms, who could be called up at need. My parents had appointed a sheriff to investigate crimes, and magistrates to handle most matters of law. I, and the other nobles, sat on the Countess’ council, where I learned the good and the bad of administering to a realm.
One of the bad things, at least in my view, was the subject of marriage. My parents truly loved each other, but theirs had been, like most of the other noble marriages, an arrangement between families. My grandparents were wise people, and they chose exceedingly well, but the opposite could be said of many other marriages among my peers and betters. I heard tales from my friends extolling the misery of such unions. They gave issue to illicit affairs, emotional torment, and even bodily harm. More often, though, the couple raised their children, did their duties, and went through their days, living with someone they would not have chosen for themselves.
Despite this, my parents were enthusiastic proponents of arranged marriages. One of the more loathsome duties I had to perform was to attend an endless array of social gatherings, there to represent my family and my realm. The style in formal clothing was horrid, with silly hats, shoes instead of boots, and garments that could not even turn a light rain. We nobles carried only light swords, while our real weapons and armor were stored close at hand. The food and drink were usually good, though, and I often managed to find a room where my friends and I could converse in peace.
The absolute worst part of the whole charade, though, was the young women. Oh, many of them were attractive to the eye, but their charms ended there. Alpha wolves dreamed of having predators such as these in their packs. Of course, these predators tended to attack each other as much as stalk their prey, making them a nightmare to any sane person. At every event, I could count on having to fend off at least one of my female contemporaries. Some were charming, but that feral gleam in their eyes always gave them away.
I had been told to attend one of the largest events of the year, a birthday party for one of my cousins, a tenday hence, and I had to be fitted for yet another formal coat. The one I’d had somehow blew off my horse and was trampled in the mud. My mother had glared at me when I explained the incident, while my father tried to hide his amused expression.
I made my way to the armory to turn over my armor for repair. One of the buckles had broken, and my shield’s boss was loose. I removed the heavy chainmail shirt, and then stripped off the gambeson beneath. The armorer’s apprentice hung the armor, and I walked toward the house in just my breeches and my boots. “My lord, if I may have a moment,” a voice called from behind me, and I turned around.
It was one of our sergeants-at- arms, and I stopped and waited for the older man to approach me. I stood up straight as he bowed in an informal but correct greeting. “Sergeant.” One did not waste words with these men, I’d learned. Most of them were veteran warriors, and they deserved my respect.
“I have a new squire for you, M’lord. He is waiting in the knight’s hall for you.”
I suppressed the urge to snap at him. It was not his fault, and I knew that he was following orders that had originated with my parents. All knights had squires, and I was a knight. This would make four squires they’d tried to saddle me with; the other three had been dangerously incompetent, and no amount of training would have convinced me to take them into battle.
“Thank you, Sergeant. I will see to them as soon as I’ve had a bath.”
“Begging your pardon, M’lord, but I was told to say that you should come back with me now.” He was manifestly unwilling to deliver that message, but he knew his duty to our mutual liege.
“Please deliver the message that I will be along shortly,’ I said much more calmly than I felt.
“By your leave, M’lord.” The sergeant turned and marched away to pass my message to the captain of the guard, most likely.
I took a breath, and walked to the knight’s hall, nodding to the people I passed along the way. Reaching the double doors, I opened the right leaf and strode inside. The hall was large enough to seat forty people, but there was only one other person in the room. He turned around, and I looked at him, with a neutral expression. He was slight of build, and a good six inches shorter than me. He was a redhead, with green eyes and a pale, freckled complexion. “M’lord,” he greeted me with a proper bow.
“You wish to be my squire?”
“I do, M’lord.” His voice was higher in pitch than mine, but it was still strong and clear.
“All right. I expect my squire to become proficient at the manual of arms, and to be my right hand as I go about my duties. I will treat you with the respect your station deserves – and I will send you home if you do not meet my expectations.”
“I expected no less, M’lord.”
I watched him for a long moment, taking the young man’s measure. “How old are you?”
“I’ve had sixteen summers, M’lord.”
“You may omit the honorific when we are alone. What is your name?”
“I am Sasha, of House Lockwater. My father is Earl of Lockwater.”
“I am Calum, then, Sasha. Now, then, have they assigned you quarters?”
“No, they have not.”
“Then, I will do so. Gather your belongings, and follow me.” I led him through the house, and stopped at the entrance to the servant’s quarters, pulled the door’s bell chain once, and then I opened the door and stepped inside. One of the valets stepped forward, and nodded once as he spied my new squire. I ensured that he would be given a room, and I retired to my quarters for my bath.
Over the next three tendays, Sasha worked beside me every day. He was a quick study, and I rarely had to tell him anything more than once. He had a dry sense of humor without being pretentious or overbearing. That was most fortunate, because he quickly proved to be my very best shield against the ghastly creatures who stalked me at the birthday party.
He was, I thought, a presentable enough young man with pleasant features and manner, but he repelled the women who deigned to approached me. He was polite and gracious, and they still would walk away from us with expressions of consternation plain on their faces. I was most grateful, and he laughed quietly when I thanked him profusely for his services.
Another surprise lay in store for me when I faced him on the practice field with wasters in our hands. We both wore light, padded armor, and we wielded light wasters. I wanted to judge Sasha’s level of skill, not beat on him with a heavy sword. We started our training bout, and by the time we were done, I was soaked with sweat and bruised all over. I was the larger and stronger of us, but trying to land a solid blow on Sasha was like striking at smoke.
The Swordmaster stood at the edge of the field with his arms crossed, watching me blunder after my elusive squire. Finally, I held up my free hand. “Have mercy, I beg you.”
Sasha laughed, and then sobered as the Swordmaster walked up to him. “How long have you studied the sword, Boy?”
“Two summers now, Swordmaster.”
He looked at me. “Keep this one close. He will surely save your life one day.” He bowed slightly. “By your leave, M’lord.”
Sasha watched him walk away, and then he turned to me. “I did not mean to insult you, M’lord.”
I smiled and shook my head. “That man gave you a high compliment, and we all know that you are much the better swordsman. Be warned, I do plan to get a lot better, and repay you some of these bruises.”
Sasha grinned. “As you say, M’lord.”
“Your insolence is duly noted, Sasha. Now, I need a bath to soak away these fresh bruises you’ve gifted me with.”
Sasha’s grin turned to a smile, and I looked at him for a long moment as my mind whispered something I couldn’t quite catch. His smile dimmed, and I took a breath and shook my head. “Apologies, I was thinking of something else. Shall we?”
We sparred with each other every third day, which was fortunate for me, since my bruises from the last session would be mostly healed. I was becoming better, and I had managed to land a single solid hit on my agile squire. He had glared at me, and then he had beaten me soundly, despite my best efforts to defend myself.
I held up my hand to end the session, and I removed my helm and smiled ruefully at Sasha. “You do not like to lose, I see.”
Sasha shook his head. “My duty is to keep you safe, among other things, Calum. The more proficient I am at the sword, the better for us both.”
“Yes, that is true.” My mind was whispering at me again, and I shook it off. “We should get to our work.”
We walked back to the house together, talking of our duties for the rest of the day. Along with our usual responsibilities, Sasha and I both were attended by tutors, who taught us writing, reading, and mathematics. We had a class later in the afternoon, and I had struggled with the work assignment, which was due this day.
“I will help you with it after my bath,” Sasha promised me.
“That will be fine,” I replied. We each went to our own quarters, and I bathed, then I pulled on a tunic that covered me to my thighs, and, gathering my chalkboard and my book, I walked to Sasha’s room. We had become informal with each other, so I knocked once on the door, opened it, and stepped inside.
I looked up at my squire, and froze in amazement. Sasha stood by the room’s single bed, clad only in a pair of light breeches. His body was angled slightly – which presented his breasts in half profile. My mouth dropped open, and I just stared at the person in front of me, who was plainly not what they seemed.
“I’m sorry, M’lord,” Sasha started, making no move to cover his – her? – chest.
I made an effort to close my mouth, and I brought my hands together in front of my belly. My mind was still reeling, and I dragged my gaze up to Sasha’s eyes. “You are a woman?”
Sasha nodded, and tugged the pants down to her knees. Her sex was outlined by reddish hair matching the hair on her head. My heart thudded in my chest, and my ears roared as I took in the sight of her. “You are beautiful,” I managed to say at last.
“I will leave,” Sasha said as she jerked her pants into place. “Please, don’t punish me.”
“What? No, of course not.” I stepped up to her and took her gently by her slim shoulders. “I would never send you away.”
Sasha looked into my eyes, and I looked into hers. How long we stood there, I did not know. I fell into those green eyes, and she smiled up at me. Stepping back, she pulled on a loose shirt, and sat on her bed. “Come, sit with me, Calum.”
I sat down beside her, and clasped my hands in my lap.
“What do we do now?” she asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” I told her. “We can’t keep your secret forever; someone will divine it sooner or later. I don’t know how we will tell my parents.” I looked at her. “What of your parents, Sasha?”
She shrugged. “They think I’m staying with my cousin to study music.”
“Oh, my,” I said with a laugh.
“It’s not funny, Calum.”
“Oh, but it is, Sasha. Tell me, why are you really here?”
“Because I am ... intrigued by you, and my father refuses to approach your father on my behalf.” She scowled. “He is enamored of an alliance with some house in another kingdom, and the man he’s presented to me is a pig.”
“How do you even know me?” My heart was back at it again, and I had to concentrate to hear her.
“We have spoken several times; I am not surprised that you do not recall meeting me.”
“Wait.” I turned and looked into her face, and now it was warm in the room, and there was something wrong with my breathing. “I do remember you, now. You brought me a drink during three, no four, different events.”
“I am impressed,” Sasha smiled up at me. “My hair was longer then, and, of course, I wasn’t wearing a squire’s clothes.”
I sighed. “As I said, we will have to tell my parents the truth. Hiding you from them would not be proper or wise.”
“Should I wear the clothes I have been wearing?”
“Yes. We will have a private audience with my parents; no one else needs to know.”
I stood. “Then I will leave you to dress. While you do that, I will send word that we wish a private audience with my parents. Please come to my quarters when you are ready.”
“Yes, M’lord,” Sasha replied with a tiny smile.
I left her there, and found a footman to deliver my message to my parents. Sasha appeared outside my door a few moments later, and the footman returned to say that my parents were ready to see us. I dismissed the page, and I escorted Sasha to my parents’ quarters. We were announced, and I led the way into my mother’s office.
“Good day, Calum,” my mother said with a smile. My father stood next to her chair, and he greeted me with a nod.
“Mother, Father, you have met Sasha, my squire.” They both glanced at her in acknowledgement, and then looked back to me expectantly. “He is not quite what he appears.”
“How so?” My father looked at Sasha in alarm.
My mother’s eyes widened, and then she burst into laughter, covering her mouth with her hand.
All three of us stared at her in consternation as she fought to bring her mirth under control. Finally, she sighed, swallowed one last snicker, and addressed Sasha. “Sasha, my dear girl, I recognized you the moment you set foot in my presence. When I did, I sent a message to your mother, explaining that you were safe. She had previously sent word to me that you were not, in fact, at your cousin’s house.” She frowned. “She was worried about you, so I had to tell her you were safe.”
Sasha flushed crimson. “I am sorry, M’lady.”
Mother lifted her hand. “While I am not happy with your deceiving your mother, which is between you and her; what I would like to hear from you is the reason for your subterfuge.”
“Uh,” Sasha stammered, and cleared her throat. “Pardon, M’lady. I wanted to spend time with Calum, um, Sir Calum, sorry, to, uh, know him better.”
“Oh, dear,” my father sighed.
“Indeed, my husband.” My mother smiled slightly. “Sasha, do you think you love Calum?”
“I don’t know that for certain, M’lady, but I think I might.”
“And you, Calum?”
“I thought she was a man until a short while ago, when I stepped into his, uh, her room and saw her changing clothes.”
My father chuckled, earning him a swat on the arm from my mother. She gazed at us speculatively for a moment. “We,” she waved her hand at my father, “have had several conversations, and we have heard many reports, about how the two of you are conducting yourselves. We, and Sasha’s mother, have no wish to forbid your relationship.”
I exhaled noisily, and she mock glared at me. “We do have some stipulations you are to follow. First,” she held up her right index finger, “you will not produce, or do anything that may produce, a child until after you are married. That would embarrass Sasha’s family, and that would have ... repercussions.”
“Second,” she lifted her middle finger, “Sasha, you will continue in your duties as Calum’s squire. Third,” she lifted another finger, “the two of you will decide if you wish to marry within the next three tendays. I would advise that this discussion not be merely as lovers, but that you both soberly consider each other as partners, for that is what you will be if you marry. If our houses are to flourish, you both need to be strong leaders.”
“Yes, mother,” I said quietly.
“Yes, M’lady,” Sasha bowed her head.
“Then we will expect you at dinner.”
I stepped up and hugged my mother, and received a pat on the shoulder from my father. Sasha did the same, although she also demurely hugged my father. “Thank you,” she said to them with a smile.
“Now, shoo,” my mother stood and waved at the door. “We all have work to do today.”
Sasha and I walked out into the hall. “Well, that was invigorating,” I said quietly.
“That was embarrassing, Calum!” Sasha stopped to look at me, the color high in her cheeks.
I lifted my hand. “We need to discuss this privately, Sasha.”
She bit her lip. “Of course. Your quarters, or mine?”
“Mine, I think.” I led the way, with Sasha at my side. I glanced at her as she strode beside me. Her presence was comforting to me; it was ... fitting. We walked into my rooms, and I closed the door behind us. I turned, and Sasha hugged me tightly, burying her face in my chest. I took her into my arms, and she lifted her face to look at me. My lips met hers before I was aware that I had moved.
As a nobleman, my experience with women was, of necessity, practically nil. I had held a girl’s hand, and exchanged brief kisses a few times. Anything more from me would have been considered a promise, and I’d had no intentions of making promises that would come back to haunt me later. Truthfully, those were my parents’ words on the subject, which had been handed to me when I became a man six summers ago.
So, this was all new to me, and I drew back with my heart thundering in my ears. “Sasha...” I started.
She shut me up with a fierce kiss, and then she pulled back a step. Her breasts heaved under her shirt, and she was flushed from her collar to her hairline. She made to say something, and then she turned and dropped into a chair. “What are we going to do?”
I sat down across from her. My quarters included a small library with two armchairs, a private bath, and a bedroom with its own door. “I would advise against sharing a bed, or bathing together,” I said levelly.
Sasha snorted. “Now there is some truly sage advice.” She bit her lip. “Sorry, M’lord.”
“Sasha, look at me, please.” She turned to me, and I smiled. “We are equals here.”
“I am not your wife, nor your intended,” she reminded me.
“No, but we need to decide our future together, and I have no wish to command you in anything concerning it.”
“So, let us talk.” She sat up straighter and looked expectantly at me.
And, talk we did, until dinner was announced. We supped with my parents, and spoke of the business of the day. Sasha collected her hugs as we left, and, after a brief kiss, she went to her quarters, and I went to my rooms.
As my mother had instructed us, Sasha and I talked with each other over the next two tendays. We were together from sunup to bedtime, and we were often alone. I talked of my passion for workworking and blacksmithing, and she talked of her equal passion for the sword and riding horses. Although my house was senior, her house was nearly as influential among the other houses in the realm.
Then, one day, a messenger arrived at the castle with an urgent message from Sasha’s father, Lord Lockwater. He had strong evidence that the raiders had returned, and so I was ordered to gather a cohort and ride to support House Lockwater. Four days later, we were encamped two leagues from Lockwater’s keep in an open area near the river that formed the realm’s western border. The river had several fords, spanning thirty leagues, so it was not possible to guard every crossing point.
Sasha camped with me, since we had little privacy, anyway. More importantly, I quickly came to appreciate her grasp of the facts and circumstances that surrounded the art of war. As the reports came in from our scouts, Sasha and I formed an understanding of where our enemy was, and what their intentions potentially were. I conferred with my commanders, hard bitten and battle hardened to a man, and we sent our army into the field. We had two thousand men, in four roughly equal formations, and we kept them close enough for each to support the next.
Three days later, the raiders struck in force. They swarmed across two of the fords to our front and rushed to meet two of my formations. The battle raged through the afternoon, and we seemed to have the upper hand. Our men were well equipped with stout shields and a variety of long arms to keep horsemen at bay. Our archers were equally proficient, and they reaped a deadly harvest from the enemy’s ranks.
The fighting stopped when night fell, and we took the opportunity to replace one of our battered formations with fresh troops. I walked into the command tent after dinner to find Sasha conferring with one of our cavalry captains. “Something is not right,” Sasha told me.