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463 HE, Corus

“He’s only Lord Raoul’s squire because Lady Alanna asked him to,” Lerant muttered as he kept an eye on the red haired youth as he and Lord Raoul practiced the joust. He took a savage pleasure in seeing the laidback boy get unseated many a time by Lord Raoul. “He's nothing special other than being Lady Alanna's son. He isn’t worthy of being the King’s Own squire, not like-“ Lerant stopped himself before he could finish his sentence.

“You like Kel better than Squire Alan, then” Dom said, a twinkle in his eye. “We’ve only had two King’s Own squires, after all.”

Lerant would not dignify that statement with had a response. Dom might actually tell Kel; hewrote her letters, after all.

Dom just chuckled as he watched the young man’s frown deepen.

***

456 HE, Corus

It hurt to see Kel interact so familiarly with Lord Raoul. There was something between them that was different from what most other knight-masters had with their squires.

Lerant wished he could have had that kind of relationship with Lord Raoul. If only he had been allowed to try for his shield, it might have been him that Lord Raoul would be instructing in everything from jousting to strategy. Standard-bearer was an important job, even in times of peace, but nothing compared to a knight.

Lerant berated himself bitterly. “You’re just lucky that Lord Raoul helped you at all, that he took you into the Own." It really wasn't Kel's fault, though he took it out on her. It was lucky though that she hadn't snitched on him when he had tricked her then.

It didn’t help that Kel was so damned competent at everything Lord Raoul was training her in. If he had been given the chance, Lerant thought, he could have tried to be like her; he could have been the best squire that Lord Raoul could ever have wished for.

But he couldn’t.

And even though it was a great honor to be a Standard-Bearer, allowed to stay by Lord Raoul’s side at all times, he wished that he could fight by Lord Raoul’s side and even carry some of Lord Raoul’s burden the way Kel did so readily.

***

Aunt Delia was beautiful and intelligent; she had been the pride of the House of Eldorne. There had been hopes of her becoming the Queen, Lerant remembered his relatives saying, of how when she had been presented to the court all the squires and knights and even King Jonathan had fallen over themselves competing over her.

That was before she committed treason and ruined the House of Eldorne.

Aunt Delia was locked up in a tower and could never come out again. Treason, they said; it was considered a mercy that she hadn’t been executed - because she hadn't just wanted to be King Jonathan's Queen but the Traitor Duke Roger's. Her deceit had been unmasked in the events that culminated in the great Earthquake and done by the first Lady Knight in a hundred years, no less.

And the world turned and while many new nobility progressed and numerous changes were implemented, the House of Eldorne struggled to live with their ruined reputation. Lerant had been too little to remember his beautiful treasonous aunt, but her name had stained his reputation even before he could even walk.

***

Most noble boys, especially those in the Books of Silver and Gold, aspired to be a knight or a mage when they grew up. Lerant himself, when he was young and still ignorant of much of what was said of his family in the aftermath of his aunt's betrayal of Tortall, had dreamed of training for his shield like many of his ancestors and the knights that had made their names like Raoul of Goldenlake. He had applied himself purposefully to his swordmanship lessons as the best knights, he thought, were best with a sword. His tutors were complimentary of his skill; he hoped then that his skill would give him an edge when he started his page training.

His tired parents though pulled him aside when he was older, though, and crushed that dream.

"We cannot afford it, Lerant" his mother said softly.

Lerant bowed his head. He knew well how hard it was for the House of Eldorne to do business in Tortall even how many years after his Aunt Delia’s treason. He kept his face still, holding back unshed tears, bowed and walked to the door without another word.

And when he had left the room, he heard his father say something else.

"It's better this way. He would have been bullied there even if we had had the money. It would have been hard even with King Jonathan supposedly fair."

And Lerant, eight years old, wondered how long it would take for a fanily to be forgiven for the crimes of one.

***

452 HE, Corus

It was a great shame, Lerant thought, to the pride of the once mighty House of Eldorne, to try to get into the army and navy, to be a man-at-arms with such noble blood as he had.

It was a greater shame to not even be allowed to do so. He had the skill to be part of the armed forces of Tortall, but no one would allow him to even try to prove himself.

“No, your services are not required right now.” This was said to his face.

“I wouldn’t let that man hold a sword near me; Eldornes would backstab you while smiling, not to mention make the King distrust you." He had heard this after he had asked for a position as man-at-arms at a nearby fief, one that they used to have business dealings with.

What were members of disgraced Houses supposed to do, just disappear? Lerant didn't know. Only those of Tirragen and Malven could understand how he felt.

It was unfair. He wanted to try to regain the honor of the House of Eldorne, in his own small way, but no one would even give him a chance to do it.

***

453 HE, Corus

He sighed as he sat in a tavern. His mother would disapprove if she knew that he was in one but he didn’t care anymore. What good was his noble blood if he couldn’t even use it to get work?

"Are you Lerant of Eldorne?"

“Yes.” Lerant felt he hadn’t hidden his surprise well, but it wasn’t every day that a well-known knight walked into a tavern in the Lower City. Even Lerant knew of this man. This was Sir Raoul of Goldenlake, King Jonathan’s friend and the Knight Commander of the King’s Own. Lerant had not even tried to apply there even though he knew he could qualify based on skills alone; surely if other nobles hardly trusted a man of Eldorne the King wouldn’t.

“I’ve been looking for you. Can we talk outside?” The Lord looked uncomfortable as he looked around the noisy tavern. Later, Lerant would find out that the reason he was so uncomfortable was because he avoided drink. Back then, he wondered if he was going to be arrested or something close to it.

“Of course, Sir.”

Outside, it was bright and sunny. Lerant wondered why Lord Raoul wanted to talk to him; he noticed the curious stares from those passing by.

“I came here to offer you a job in the King’s Own, Lerant of Eldorne.”

There was no need to bother hiding his surprise anymore, Lerant thought. “Sir?”

“You would be the Standard-Bearer, should you accept” said Lord Raoul formally. “Do you know what a Standard-Bearer does? You would also assist me in arming up and in grooming my horse and readying him for battle. What do you think?”

Lerant nodded. He narrowed his eyes. Was this a trap? Did the King want someone to watch the Eldornes for possible treasonous plots?

Still, it was work. It was better than trying his luck going around Tortall.

“I would be honored, milord."

***

453 HE, Bazhir Tribes

"Can't believe that Lord Raoul took him in," he heard as he methodically made his way to the well to get water. “He might just turn around one day and poison the food.” Lerant ignored it.

“Give them time,” said Qasim, one of the more senior King’s Own men, as he appeared at Lerant’s side. “Sir Raoul has good judgment; all the men know that.”

Lerant nodded. It wasn’t like he hadn’t heard that before not to mention it would bring Sir Raoul trouble if he retaliated. Sir Raoul had given him purpose, something he thought he couldn't get, and he would do his best for him.

He remembered his parents’ shock when he had told them of his new position.

“With the King’s Own, Lerant?” his mother, worried, had hovered while he packed his things.

His father was worried too, he observed, as he finished packing his trunk. “Isn’t the King’s Own headed by Raoul of Goldenlake?” He could hear his father’s unsaid words – was this how the Crown would punish Eldorne more?

Lerant supposed that his father could be right in thinking that; after all, it was fearing disapproval from the Crown that led to Lerant not being accepted anywhere.

“He talked to me himself, Father, Mother” he had replied. “I’m going to take it.”

In the King's Own, Lerant could both disappear and make his own name for himself.

He would do anything to be able to stay.

***

455 HE, Corus

Lord Raoul never took squires, a fact that Lerant was thankful for. The one and only time the Knight Commander had taken a squire was in his first year as a knight (when that was the custom) but since he had become Knight Commander of the Own, he hadn't needed one, the men said. So many servants there to do the typical work of a squire.

And there was him, Lord Raoul's standard-bearer. If he couldn't be a knight, it was fulfilling to serve one of the best knights of the realm. Even though his family grumbled at how he was serving a Progressive and for so long now, at least he wasn't cowering in the estate and settling for being idle or falling into less honorable pursuits.

It was gratifying to see Lord Raoul’s trust in him; after how many campaigns the whispers from the King’s Own about his family had died down. Some of the men had started to joke around with him, even thanked him for his prompt service to Lord Raoul whenever there was a raid.

This was where Lerant belonged. He might not be a knight, but he was of service to someone he admired. This was his way of atoning for his family, Lerant thought. Was Aunt Delia still alive, he wondered. It was unlikely that anyone from his family would tell him.

***

456 HE, undisclosed area

"But he's taking a squire, don't you know? That's why we'd rushed off and all. Was supposed to talk to the squire right after the Tests, I heard, but we had to go flush those ogres at the border.”

Lerant almost dropped a spare lance he was polishing.

"Any squire would love to have him as a knight-master," said another man. "Whatcha think, Dom, who do you think he'll take? Your cousin?”

He heard Dom laugh. "If Lord Raoul chose my cousin, it would be a miracle if he'd last a week with us, traveling through mud and all."

"But you hear things in the palace and about the new crop of squires from your cousin, Dom. Any guesses on who he'll pick?"

"I think everyone will be surprised," Dom said, a smile in his voice that indicated he knew whom his Lord was going to ask to be his squire.

“C’mon, Dom, give us a hint! We’re going to ride with him anyway for four years!”

Dom just smiled. Lerant felt uneasy.

***

457 HE, Tournament

His heart was in his throat when Kel charged.

If she died in this joust, her death would be on Lerant's head. She was only jousting because of him anyway; had she not come to stop the nobles harassing him she wouldn't be on her ornery horse right now. And her first real joust.

She better not die.

"She'll be fine," said Qasim. "Dom and the others wouldn't bet on her if she didn't have a chance. Lord Raoul isn't even worried about her and he's tested her many a time."

Lerant hoped Qasim was right.

***

"I repent my calumney to you and to Lord Raoul," gritted out Sir Ansil, a bandage around his head. "It's too bad that you have to have a girl save you too," he said.

It had been Kel's right to challenge Sir Ansil for his insulting Lord Raoul. Having seen Kel ignore insults to her person, he felt justified in retorting, "The girl squire that beat you in fair combat."

Sir Ansil turned purple with rage before leaving in a huff, his witnesses running to catch up with him.

***

459 HE

Kel wasn't really his rival, Lerant thought as he noted how different Third Company was with Kel and Lord Raoul gone, milord accompanying her to Corus for her Ordeal. She hadn't risen to any of his taunts, had even fought for him, had let him keep his honor by not telling others what had happened between him, her and the nobles. Kel was like that, taking everything on herself.

Third Company had seen Kel become a rare squire, one who was not just good at fighting but had the mind to command, yet was compassionate enough to take care of so many animals. He had been spiteful, but his spite was empty. How could one hate Kel when they saw how hard she worked for herself?

It inspired him, not that he would ever tell her, to do his best also.

And if Kel could deal with a killing machine, she could certainly deal with the Chamber. It was what Dom said every time one of Third Company speculated on Kel's chances with the Chamber. Hundreds of knights faced a Chamber and lived before her. Kel and Dom's squad were the first to encounter a killing machine and they had survived with Kel's quick thinking. Kel would make the Chamber spit her out if she could.

***

460 HE, Fort Steadfast

"Lord Raoul, welcome."

"Lerant, good afternoon." Silence descended upon them as Lerant mechanically helped Lord Raoul take off his armor, muddied from long days of travel in the rain. It was quiet so far at Fort Steadfast, Lerant thought, so his lord would be able to rest well after his long journey.

It was an odd feeling now that he didn’t have to share Lord Raoul’s tasks with Kel anymore. "How's..."

Lord Raoul looked at him knowingly. "Kel? She's on her way to Lord Wyldon for her orders. She’ll be commanding the new fort, the one Dom’s squad is helping build."

Lerant exhaled. Kel would be on the front.

"She'll be fine," Lord Raoul said.

"I wasn't asking-" he protested weakly.

Lord Raoul grinned at him.

***

455 HE, Tusaine Hills

It had been a split second decision then to shield Lord Raoul's unguarded side with his own body during the conflict with the bandits, Lerant reflected while in the tent for those needing observation. He could imagine his aunt Delia, some of his older cousins sneering at him for saving someone who had helped to stop the coup that she had planned with Ralon of Malven and Alex of Tirragen.

Lerant wasn't his aunt Delia, a kraken that disregarded the effect her treason could have on their family and all of Tortall. He was Lerant of Eldorne, Standard-bearer for the King's Own.

He had chosen Lord Raoul over his family and would do so again.

Thank you, Lerant.

Lerant cherished those words more than he could ever say to anyone.

***

September, 460 HE, Fort Steadfast

“Lerant,” said Kel cheerfully when she finally visited Fort Steadfast for Lord Raoul’s wedding.

“Kel,” said Lerant, belatedly realizing that he was smiling at her. Must be the war; everyone who wasn’t trying to kill you must be a good person, he rationalized. But Kel was good even in times of peace, more than most.

“It’s good to see you,” said Kel with a smile.

Lerant raised an eyebrow. "You aren't here to beg a position with Lord Raoul, are you? There isn't any place for you, you know."

Kel laughed.