Josh had been squire to Sir Lawson for nine years now. He was supposed to be learning how to be a knight; that was the purpose of being squired out to a knight. But it had been obvious to almost everyone that Josh was never going to make it as a knight. He could hardly bear chainmail, let alone a full suit of armour, nor lift the greatsword Sir Lawson wielded with ease. But Josh was squired out, just like his brother was, to any local knight who'd take him. It seemed his father refused to admit he had a son incapable of being a knight.
Josh had forgiven him, for the most part. Certainly, Sir Lawson hadn't particularly been local, but he'd been passing through, and Sir Lawson refused to accept that Josh could not be turned into a knight, one way or another, and took him under his wing. Josh hadn't particularly liked being at home, and Sir Lawson offered to take him away and turn him into a knight. As an eight year old with not a lot of promise, it was better than nothing.
Josh actually liked Sir Lawson. He was the kindest knight he'd ever met. He had, admittedly, tried to give him all the martial skills he would need to become a knight, but once it had been established that Josh was never going to get there, he had decided to find another role for him instead. They'd grown particularly close, and Josh had no desire to leave his service and go back home, if he could help it.
Josh had solved that problem by showing off his good hunting skills. Josh may be terrible with a sword, but the boy could use a bow with astonishing accuracy, taking down deer and hogs in the thick woods with ease. He had also learnt to cook and prepare the meat as well as forage for food in the woods. The first time Josh had cooked a rabbit stew for him, Sir Lawson decided that Josh was definitely doing all the cooking from then on. Having a squire who could cook as well as do his squirely duties was a distinct bonus for a knight who preferred the travelling lifestyle.
They settled into a happy dynamic, in which Sir Lawson, as a full-blooded knight, did all the fighting and chivalrous acts, and Josh attended to their domestic needs, continuing to serve him as his squire long after he should have moved on from the rank. Indeed, he should have been knighted by now; he was old enough and Sir Lawson was willing to vouch for him and his skills, but Josh refused. He didn't think he was good enough, and he preferred being Sir Lawson's squire.
Sir Lawson had something of a lazy attitude to appearing at the King's Court, anyway. He preferred wandering around the countryside having adventures and helping where he could. Josh had always suspected Sir Lawson hadn't particularly grown up much. Fighting dragons and trolls and rescuing damsels in distress was a lot more fun than endless tournaments at the King's Pleasure.
Because they had been living this lifestyle since Josh was twelve years old, when he'd graduated from page to squire, he had grown accustomed to it. Josh might not have the stature of a knight, but he was resilient and resourceful, capable enough to survive out in the wilderness where other men might otherwise perish. It had given him a sense of freedom that he'd never had at home, and he was loath to give it up for anyone.
On this particular evening, they had set up camp in the forest by the river. The sun was dipping upon the horizon. Soon it would be dark. They had been travelling all day and had not found a single town, let alone one with an inn they could stay in. So the forest it was. Josh was getting quite good at making comfortable beds from leaf litter, grass, wool, and some lengths of material, but it was nothing on a proper bed. A roll of thunder rumbled across the sky, the grey clouds obscured by the canopy.
"Shouldn't we put up some sort of shelter? It might rain again," Josh said, gazing up at the sky.
Sir Lawson turned his gaze to the sky, listening for any more thunder. "Oh, we might be alright tonight. Where could we put up a shelter anyway?"
"I don't know," Josh said, annoyed. He looked around the forest to see if there was anywhere suitable. "How about those trees over there? They're not as close to the river, but maybe that's a good idea in case it floods. Remember what happened last time.?"
Josh indicated the three trees standing close enough that a tarpaulin could be tied between them to keep off the water, but with enough open ground to erect a shelter. It was further back from the river, but if it was going to rain all night, maybe it wasn't a bad idea to be away from the river.
Sir Lawson took the reins of his horse and thought a moment before replying. "But we don't have all the tarpaulins. One of them ripped during the last storm, and we haven't replaced it yet. Have we got enough for a shelter?"
Josh retrieved the remaining tarpaulins from the pack. "Um, we could try. But if you'd rather look for a cave that may not actually exist in this forest, I think this is the best we're going to get. Besides, I'm tired. I just want to make some supper and rest. We've been up since dawn."
"I would never want to delay your cooking, Josh. Come on, then. Let's tie up the horses and get this shelter built," Sir Lawson said.
Josh carried the tarpaulins over to the trees while Sir Lawson led the horses over. The shelter had to be modified from their usual method as they were one short, but while it wasn't one they could stand in, it would do as far as keeping the rain off while still leaving one spare to protect the horses. Neither were impervious shelters either. They were not huts or cabins. But they did the job and kept most of the water out. Josh knew enough magic to make them warmer and more water-resistant, which allowed them to sleep through the night with some comfort. Once they'd set up their beds and unburdened the horses, Josh got out his bow and knife, preparing to find some game for dinner.
"So, what do you want? Anything I can find?" Josh said, slipping his quiver over his shoulder.
"Make it small. Hares and rabbits, that sort of thing. We've still got another two days' travel ahead of us. Deer is only good if we're staying put for a week. You might want to see if there's any fish in the river too," Sir Lawson said.
"Yes, sir. I'll see what I can find," Josh said.
Leaving the camp behind, Josh set off. A small flickering ball of light floated ahead of him, giving him some light to see with in the darkening woods. Once he was out of sight of the camp, he knelt down and grabbed four stones from his pocket and lay them in a cross shape on the ground, each oriented to the four cardinal points. Taking his small bone-handled knife, he whispered to it before laying it down on top of the stones. It spun around, searching for game. It stopped suddenly, pointing north east. Gathering the knife and the stones, Josh set off.
He soon came to a clearing, and he recognised the burrows hiding around the edge. He was thankful he wouldn't have to go far to get food. He slowed down and stilled his footsteps, using the ball of light to look for any recent tracks. He froze as he heard something rustling in the bushes. Silently, he nocked his bow and waited, hoping to see something that could be made into food.
Just as he was about to fire, there was a blinding flash of light in the distance and any game that was hiding fled in fear. Two figures appeared in the distance. Josh got to his feet and backed off as he recognised the smell of magic in the air.
"I think I'm fishing in the river tonight," he murmured as he went back the way he'd come.
The witch was not used to travelling that way. By magic. Broomsticks had been perfectly suitable for generations, but no. It was the new-fangled way to travel now, magicking yourself all over the place. She hated it. Where was the fun in that? She was the sort of witch who held that peasants needed to glimpse a view of a witch riding a broomstick in the sky to reinforce their presence and their power. If she'd had her way, she'd have flown here. She glared at her companion, a wizard in somewhat dirty robes and a pointed had covered in silver stars.
"This had better be worth it, Mage," she said, with all the scorn it deserved. She had been interrupted in the middle of a damn good full moon rite by a Mage who had promised, well, everything. But Mages often did that. She had yet to see one that could deliver.
The wizard walked over to a tree trunk, drew a few sigils on the bark, and opened up a secret space. Inside, there was a glowing crystal ball made of rose quartz. He reverently removed it and returned to it. The witch did not look impressed.
"I suppose you're going to tell me it'll make any man fall in love with me or something, right? You know Adolphos told me that last month as he presented me with a silver fucking bridle that disintegrated as soon as I touched it. Do me a favour, Mage, and don't fuck me around," she said.
She was so bored of having to court every wizard in the land. She was, by all accounts, the most powerful magician in all the worlds, which was the only reason they bothered with her. Even the King offered her favours and tokens to keep his fields fertile.
"I promise you, Lady Amanda, that this is the most powerful crystal ball in the known world. It offers prediction and precision far greater than any other, and it will make any man fall in love with you, should you possess it. I offer it to you now, my Lady, that you will accept this as my gift to you," the wizard said as he knelt before her, holding the crystal ball up before her.
She managed to look even more unimpressed than she did before. "I've already got one of those. They're good for village fairs. Peasants like that sort of thing, the smoke and mirrors and such. Esmerelda sells them in Warwickshire for fifty gold pieces. I can see her mark on it, you nonce. I mean, I like the effort. All that secrecy about it coming out of a tree. Really impressive. But really. Try again with a proper magical item. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll be getting back to my rites."
Reaching into her robes, she pulled out her broom from only the Gods know where, and set off into the sky, leaving the poor wizard all alone. She didn't see him curse and smash the crystal ball against a rock. It shattered, useless, the magic broken.
Josh and Sir Lawson were eating a hearty supper of fish pie when a bedraggled looking man walked past their camp, head hung low as he huddled into himself. It had begun to rain by now, and it seemed to be particularly persistent. It would rain all night after all.
"Who do you think that is then? Should we, I don't know, be chivalrous or something? That's what knights do, right? He'll freeze out there on his own like that," Josh said.
"He's a wizard, Josh. Can't you smell his magic?" Sir Lawson said.
Josh tried, but couldn't smell anything. "I think the rain stops me sensing it. But I'm not as good as you anyway."
Sir Lawson moved to the edge of their shelter. "Ahoy there, sir! Would you care for some shelter?"
The man stopped and turned to them, looking confused. But after a moment's thought, he jogged up the bank towards them. They made room for him around their fire and he sat down, warming himself by the flames. In spite of how wet it was, he kept his hood up, concealing his face in shadows.
"I thank you, sir. It is a wretched night," the wizard said.
"What are you even doing out there at this time of night? I thought wizards didn't wander in the forests," Sir Lawson said.
The wizard said two words. "Lady Amanda."
"Ahh, yes. Of course. I take it she rejected you, like she rejects everyone else," Sir Lawson said.
The wizard lowered his head. "I was not worthy. And I did- do genuinely love her, unlike the others."
Sir Lawson stifled a laugh. "Yeah, I've heard that one before. Here, you want some pie? You look like you need it."
The wizard took the food gratefully. "I beg you, do not tell anyone I was here. I will leave once I am done. I have magic enough to get me home. There is not room for me here anyway."
Sir Lawson shrugged. "Well, if you're sure."
The wizard said no more. There was silence as the wizard ate, and true to his word, once he was done, he bid them farewell, casting some enchantments as he headed back into the rain.
"So which one do you think that was then?" Josh asked as they watched him go.
"I don't know. I couldn't see his face. They've all got their own marks on their foreheads, you know? So you can tell who it is from that. But he didn't want to be identified. Maybe we'll never know. Must be local though," Sir Lawson said.
"Who's this Lady Amanda anyway?" Josh asked.
"Oh, I forgot this is the first time you've travelled in these parts. She's the King's witch. Well, I say the King's witch, but he's really the Witch's King. She rules this particular kingdom. The wizards here keep courting her in a bid to win her hand and obtain her power, but she rejects them all. Don't they know she's just not interested in men? Honestly. Some people never know when to give up," Sir Lawson said.
"Oh, right. I've never met a witch before. Are they evil? I've heard they're meant to be evil," Josh said, crossing himself at the thought of being in the kingdom of an evil witch.
"Well, they're not really evil. I mean, they're just doing what they do. You know, they can't help existing. Any girls born on the night of the thirteenth full moon in the month of Hazel always turn out to be witches. That's just how it is. It's an accident of birth. They're mostly benign figures, from what I've seen. Village healers and wisewomen, most of the time."
"Except for Lady Amanda," Josh said, suppressing a shiver.
"Well, yes, except for her. But she's an exception to every rule. Speaking of which, we should probably go pay our respects at her cottage tomorrow. We'll pass it midmorning. I've learnt the hard way that passing by without giving her a suitable offering is not a wise decision. It's another day and a half to the King's Court, and we'd do well to have her blessing as we travel through her lands," Sir Lawson said.
"I'm still not sure why we're going to Court though. Like, I thought you hated going to Court. Isn't that why I've never been? Because you hate going back?" Josh said.
"I'll be honest, I've never had much time for Court. I don't like the politics. But he's still my King, he's the one I swore allegiance to when I was knighted, so every now and then I do have to answer his summons. I am one of his better knights. We'll be there a week for the tournament games. Oh, how I hate tournaments! But it'll do you good to be in Court again. We'll be stopping in Harbourne to pick up some new Court clothes for you. You've grown out of the old ones, haven't you?" Sir Lawson said.
"Yes, I have." Josh crossed his arms and pouted. "That's what you get for not taking me to any Court at all for a year and a half. I grow out of them. They'd better be nice ones. I don't want to look like a servant. I am your squire, after all."
Sir Lawson braced himself for Josh's inevitable protestations. "Then you'll have to let me buy you a new mail shirt. Look, I know it's heavy, but that's what squires wear. Mail and leathers, and a new shirt in my colours. You'll need a new sword belt and arms, and some gauntlets to protect you from the bow. Oh, and I'm getting you a new knife. That tatty bone one will not do in Court. It might be a family heirloom, but it won't do."
Instead of starting a fight, Josh merely sighed and bowed his head. "Yes, sir. If that is what I need to be presented to Court, then I will accept it."
Sir Lawson squeezed his shoulder gently. "I'll try and get some light mail for you, alright? I know a smithy there who makes real light mail for the female guards. I'll see if he won't make a shirt for you. Just a shirt. That's all, I promise."
Josh squirmed a little and tried not to feel insulted at the prospect of wearing mail made for women. "Yeah, about that. I guess I should tell you. Um, I kind of am a girl. But, like, I got enchanted when I was a kid. My dad wanted two sons. But like, it just changed how I'm seen. It hasn't really changed- you know. That's why I can't really bear the mail or the sword. I'm too weak. But the enchantment masks who I really am."
"Oh, I know. Your father mentioned it to me when we were negotiating your apprenticeship. That's another reason we're stopping by Lady Amanda's cottage. I want to see if she can lift the enchantment, assuming you want it lifted, of course," Sir Lawson said.
"But I've lived as a boy my whole life! I can't just be a girl! I don't even know how to be a girl! Like, it's all needlepoint and dancing and throwing handkerchiefs all over the place, right? Oh, and getting kidnapped by dragons. That happens to girls too! I don't want that. I'm happy with who I am. I mean, it's not perfect, but you don't seem to mind, though, right? I mean, you've never said anything when we've-" Josh blushed and looked away, embarrassed. "You know. It's so weird from my perspective, but like, it's nice. I like it. I don't want you to stop."
Sir Lawson brought his young squire close. "Your body is real. It's male. I thought you knew that? It doesn't just appear that way, it is that way. Why would you think it hasn't done that?"
"Oh. So, it's supposed to be this way? This is how it's meant to be? I just- I've never known. I don't remember anything much about being a girl. Just that I was, and then I wasn't. And then I'm being squired off to you. Even now I sometimes think I'm a girl. I don't think it's gone away," Josh said.
Sir Lawson put some enchantments in place to hide them from view as the rain poured down around them. "Lie with me tonight. I'll show you what I mean."
Josh woke the next morning with the knight's arms around him. The dying embers of the fire were still letting off some heat, but they weren't dead yet. The heat made the air shimmer as he looked out over the forest. Sir Lawson shifted behind him and Josh could feel him pressing up against him. Memories drifted into his mind of the night before, and he shivered as a hand moved down between his legs and began stroking him slowly. Sir Lawson kissed his shoulder softly and murmured in his ear.
"Good morning, squire. I trust you slept well."
"I-I did, sir. Very well, sir."
Sir Lawson exhaled, bringing him close. "How about we go wash in the river before breakfast, hmm? Bring your bow. We'll catch some fish for breakfast, and smoke a few for the journey ahead."
"Yes, sir. At once, sir."
Josh didn't waste any time getting up. He pulled on his trousers and a shirt before banking up the coals on the fire to make sure there was still something left to start a fire with once they got back. Josh left his master there to follow him down to the river. He wanted to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. It would be freezing, and it would not be enough to simply wash his face. When Sir Lawson bade him wash in the river, he meant his whole body.
He sat on the bank of the river and looked for fish instead. He had no idea how many would be around at this time of morning, but he still had some leftover bread from the night before and his net. If he could entice them to the surface with some crumbs, he might save himself some time in catching enough fish for the journey.
Sir Lawson was undressing as he came up beside him. "Come on, Joshy. Get into that water. It'll be good for you!"
Josh shivered in anticipation as he watched Sir Lawson wade into the water. He did a good job of hiding just how cold it was. Knowing it was better to do as he was told, he left his clothes on the bank, their possessions protected by enchantments, and followed him in. He hissed at the icy water.
Sir Lawson did his best to distract his squire from the cold water, but Josh was having none of it. He washed as he'd been taught as quickly as he could and climbed back out of the water to sit on the bank. He shivered with cold as he brought a blanket around him to warm him up.
"I don't know how you can stand that. It's like ice. How do you not freeze to death?" Josh asked as he wrapped his feet in the edge of the blanket to stop them turning white and falling off.
"You're such a weakling, Josh. It's lovely in here!" Sir Lawson said, though he was beginning to shiver a little.
"You've probably scared all the fish away. We'll get nothing for breakfast at this rate," Josh said, scowling at him.
Sir Lawson dived under the water one last time before climbing out of the water. He dried off as quickly as he could and sat down beside Josh, who was only just beginning to warm up.
"There. All done. If we let the water settle again, maybe they'll come back," Sir Lawson said.
"No, we'll have to go further down. If we wait here for them to return, we'll be here all morning," Josh said.
"Well, we'd better move downstream then. Go on, get dressed and get hunting. I'll deal with the rest of the camp," Sir Lawson said.
Josh wasn't quite ready to do that, but there was no time to lose. Smoking fish needed at least an hour and a half, and that was assuming they were easy to catch. He'd rather smoke them all day, if he was being honest. That made the best fish. But Sir Lawson had made it clear they did not have all day, so he would have to make do with what time he had. Getting to his feet, he grabbed his clothes and trudged back to the camp to get dressed.
Three hours later, they had begun riding out of the forest. The fish had proven elusive, and Josh didn't have nearly as much as he'd wanted, but he was in a hurry, so it would have to do. Josh knew where they were heading. It would be enough for the journey ahead, but no more. Sir Lawson had prepared a suitable offering for Lady Amanda. Josh had decided to stop worrying about meeting a witch for the first time. He'd managed to convince Sir Lawson not to ask her to lift the enchantment on him, which made him happier. All they had to do was get there, get her blessings, and continue on their journey.
Sir Lawson and Josh rode valiantly along the road. They arrived at Lady Amanda's cottage a bit before noon. They had left later than they'd planned as Josh insisted on smoking the fish as long as possible. It would set them back half a day, but if it meant good smoked fish to eat along the way, Sir Lawson would cop it. He might offer some to the King in penance for being late.
As they arrived at Lady Amanda's cottage, they found she was not home. This was not necessarily unusual. To obtain her blessings did not always require her presence. But a return visit was required on the journey back to make sure she had found the initial offering, and to offer another in person.
Sir Lawson dismounted and retrieved the offering from one of his saddlebags. "Come on, squire. You're needed too."
"Are we really going in there? Why? Can't we just leave it by the gate and promise to come round when she's in? Leave one of those, 'Oh, we're so sorry we missed you' cards. Can't we just do that?" Josh said as he dismounted.
Sir Lawson gave him A Look. Josh sighed, hung his head, and followed the knight into the grounds of the cottage, their horses left tied outside. Josh didn't particularly like the cottage. It was a witch's cottage, after all, and he'd heard nothing but bad stories about them. They were supposed to lure children into their graves, cast the Malocchio, and leave the fields barren and dry.
"So where are we going then?" Josh asked as he followed Sir Lawson down the path.
"Round the back. There's a well there," Sir Lawson replied.
Josh kept close to him as they went around the left side of the house to the back garden. A winding path led to the stone well in the middle of the garden. There were a few offerings there already, leaning against the stones. Sir Lawson laid his own offering down beside the others.
"Come here, squire. I need your hand for a moment," Sir Lawson said.
Josh wasn't sure he liked that idea, but did as he was told. Offering his right palm, he watched in silence as Sir Lawson pricked his skin with a sharp pin and squeezed some of the blood out.
"Is that really necessary?" Josh said, trying to hide his fear. Was it really a good idea to leave your blood with a witch?
Sir Lawson pricked his own skin and made the blood ooze out. "Yes, it is." He took out a piece of parchment and pressed the small wound against it, allowing the blood to seep into it. "Do the same. Leave your blood next to mine."
Josh pressed his palm against it. "Like this?"
"Yeah, like that. Then sign your name. It's so she knows which is which and who's been here. She uses it to check who's called back to see her if they've called while she's out," Sir Lawson said.
"Oh, I knew she'd be using my blood for something. Witches do that. They do evil magic with blood," Josh said.
He took his bleeding hand in his, allowing their blood to mix. "Don't worry, Josh. We'll be alright. It's not that kind of magic."
"I think someone's been listening to too many fairy tales. Sir Lawson, is it not? I thought I recognised your arms. I haven't seen you since, well, since you were knighted. Are you actually going to Court?" Lady Amanda said as she came up behind them.
Sir Lawson and Josh got to their feet. Josh copied the bow he made to her and tried not to look scared. "I am, actually. I thought I should show up every now and then, just so His Majesty knows I'm still alive. How are you, Lady Amanda?"
"Better for seeing you. Who's this then? You got yourself a new squire?" Lady Amanda said, turning to Josh.
"Ah, yes, his name's Josh. He's my squire and cook. He makes a very good March hare stew. If it is in any way inferior to your own, it's because of the magic you always put into your cooking, Lady," Sir Lawson said, hoping to sweeten her up enough to let them pass by unharmed.
Josh blushed. "Oh, I'm not that good. Not really. I just- I mean, I do alright. I can feed us. But I'm hardly some sort of expert."
"Oh, nonsense. I admire a man who can cook. I'd ask you to stay, but you'd never make it in time for the tournament, and I know how much Sir Lawson loves a good tournament," Lady Amanda said with a smile.
Sir Lawson laughed, and did his best to hide his hatred for them. He knew the King's Champion would challenge him. He always challenged him whenever he dared to turn up, and Sir Lawson hadn't won yet, mostly out of respect for the King. It never bode well to actually beat the King's Champion. That sort of thing Just Wasn't Done.
Sir Lawson smiled at her. "You know me, Lady, I live for the Tournaments."
"Go on, get out of here. Send His Majesty my blessings while you're there," Lady Amanda said, ushering them back down the path to the front.
Josh had never been so happy to be on horseback as he and Sir Lawson left with the witch's blessings as they headed down the road to the Palace. Witches creeped him out, he decided.
King Mikhael Leaf the First (not his real name; that was much duller and unlikely to inspire Kingly devotion so he'd had it erased from the records) came down to lunch in his usual fashion. Attended by several tiny eunuchs in gilded bird costumes, he descended the stairs in as much finery as he could wear (without looking like a fool; that was what he had his Fool for) as trumpets and drums announced his arrival. The most beautiful handmaidens in the kingdom scattered rose petals at his feet as he walked. (Rightly so.)
This morning, he had decided to descend the stairs on the back of his pet tiger. Sometimes, he used his pure white horse, or sometimes the lion. Not the bear, though. Not after the last time. He cringed at the memory. There had been such a mess to clean up after the bear had savaged an unfortunate eunuch, mistaking it for its own breakfast. (The bear had been thoroughly and efficiently roasted for the next feast. That'll teach him.)
Coming into view of the dining hall, he put his best smile on and began waving to the assembled Court as his vizier announced his entrance. He loved that bit. He smiled and counted off the titles, just to make sure none had been forgotten. He could hardly be blamed for not being nice about it though. He'd had them made into a gigantic tapestry that hung behind his throne. His vizier really had no excuse to forget them. (Memory like a sieve.)
As they arrived at the foot of the stairs, King Mikhael Leaf the First (and surely the Most Dashing) dismounted and scowled at his vizier. "You forgot Highest and Most Noble Archangel Of the High Heavens' and 'Slayer of the Beast from Midden Forest', but I'm feeling generous so I'll just have your pay docked. Get out of here, you dunce. I will eat in peace."
The vizier bowed in gratitude. He knew better than to speak back. He took little time to flee as he left the dining hall.
King Mikhael Leaf the First looked around his assembled Court. "Let that be a lesson to you all. Don't Forget The Titles. I mean it. They're all Very Important Titles, and I won't have them belittled by anyone Forgetting them."
There was a murmuring of acquiescence; they all heard the capital letters. The King was serious. His Majesty then proceeded to recite them all, just to reinforce them all in their memories. Half an hour later, the King was satisfied, and he took his seat as he called for his lunch. There was Silence. The King did not permit anyone to talk until the meal was over.
With the same amount of (completely necessary) pageantry, the King paraded through the palace to his throne room and took his seat. The vizier went over the list of people coming to see him, and prepared to be Best and Most Fairest Judge Before the High Heavens (Except Perhaps the Gods). Before any could be admitted, however, Lady Amanda arrived, entering with no effort as everyone got out of her way. It was not going to be a good day. (Fuck. Should've stayed in bed.)
"We need to talk, Your Majesty," Lady Amanda said as she approached the throne.
The King gestured her forward. "What's going on? Did you get re-"
She did not let him finish. "Silence, you old fool." Her voice sent waves of fear throughout the throne room as everyone fell silent. She did not say anything more as she approached the throne, leaning in close to him to make sure he heard her, while not announcing her news to the entire Court. She was the only one who was permitted to get so close to him. "He's back. The two-spirit."
The King looked puzzled, but thought better of trying to pretend she was joking. You never joked with Lady Amanda. (Always ends badly.) "Oh. Yes. The two-spirit. And he's a- what, exactly? What does he have to do with me?"
"That wretched two-spirit child you conceived twenty three years ago. The one conceived amongst the Beltane fires. Remember that one?" she hissed, not wanting to be overheard.
The King looked a little nervous, and then a little guilty. "Oh. That two-spirit. So he survived, did he? I'm impressed. I wasn't sure he'd survive childhood. He was a little runt when he was born. Thought he wouldn't last the night."
(He couldn't remember the name of the woman who'd carried the child. She was rather beautiful though, he did remember that. Lovely long raven hair and good wide hips, and she stood there with a crown of antlers, gesturing for him to follow her into the woods-)
"Oh, he survived. He was adopted into a local knight's family and serves as his squire. He is very much alive and well and old enough to be a knight. He's coming here. To the palace. With one of your knights. He'd better not find out who he really is. That will ruin everything. You will not spoil my plans, will you?" Lady Amanda warned.
The King shook his head. He most certainly would not. He'd taken in the witch's child, a daughter, who was most certainly a witch herself, as his legitimate heir. Lady Amanda was as close to a Queen as he got, having lost his barren wife many years ago. (Was that the Lady's fault too? No, the King never dared think about that. That would be treacherous.) He knew full well Lady Amanda wished to have her daughter on the throne soon enough. He could not have some bastard two-spirit child he'd drunkenly conceived one Beltane night coming here and Upsetting things. He could lose everything.
"I will not let the child know who he is. Upon my own grave, he will never know," the King swore. "Which knight, if I may ask?"
"Sir Joshua Lawson. The one who never comes to Court. I made sure that two-spirit was squired off to him to keep him away from Court for a reason. Sir Lawson never comes to Court. That child would never know of his inheritance. That is how it must be," Lady Amanda said.
The King took all this in with all the seriousness it required. Then he smiled a little. "He's chosen a bad time to answer one of my summons, hasn't he? How rude of him. I shall have to tell him to give me more warning next time. Don't worry, I'll keep that squire busy. Maybe I'll even knight him. I like a good knighthood ceremony. Don't worry, my Lady. He'll never know who he really is."
A day and a half later, Sir Lawson and Josh finally arrived at the Palace. It was late at night, the sun had been set for a while. Josh had asked to stop at sunset, but Sir Lawson didn't see the point. If they pushed on for a few more hours, they'd make it and then they could sleep in a proper bed. That was enough to convince Josh to keep riding.
Riding up to the gate, Sir Lawson knocked on the gate with the butt of his sword. "Ahoy! Hail to the King! Sir Lawson asks to be admitted into the Palace at the Royal Invitation of the King!"
They waited a moment, getting out of the way of the drawbridge. A couple of heads appeared above the parapets while another marched out of the door within the drawbridge itself to inspect them. It was made perfectly clear that they were armed and prepared to shoot to kill if he proved not to be who he said he was.
"I am the King's Champion, here to challenge anyone who dares enter the Palace," said the first knight to approach them. He raised his visor as he lifted his torch up to see who they were. "Who are you then?"
"It is I, Sir Joshua Lawson, and my squire Joshua Thomas. I come not to challenge. I am here with the King's invitation," Sir Lawson said, retrieving the scroll he'd been sent inviting him to the tournament.
"I'll see that, thank you," the King's Champion said as he took the scroll. Handing the torch to the knight beside him, he unrolled it and read it in the light. "'Sir J. Lawson, Ye Most Noble Knight of the Realm, Is Hereforth Summoned to a Most Royal Tournament, to be Held at His Majesty's Pleasure in the Palace Grounds on this the Seventh Moon of Rowan.' Well, that's the current one, that's for sure. You're a bit late though. Everyone else got here two days ago. What took you so long?"
"Ah, we were delayed. It has been a long ride from up north. We came as soon as we were able, as we had to stop by Lady Amanda's cottage to leave offerings to ensure our safe passage," Sir Lawson said.
"You'd better come in then. You get whatever room is left, I'm afraid. We're almost full to the brim," the King's Champion said, handing the invitation back. He turned to his knights. "Go on, get the gate lowered. Rouse the stableboys."
They nodded and returned to the Palace. Soon enough, the drawbridge was being lowered to the ground, allowing them to enter. The King's Champion led them through, announcing them to anyone who was still awake. Josh had never seen a real Palace before, at least, not one this ridiculously large. It was much bigger than he'd anticipated and far more extravagant than any of the Castle Courts he'd been to before. He had no idea where anything was. They were led to the stables, where their horses were unburdened and left in a couple of free stalls.
Taking their possessions, they were taken to the wing of the Palace where they would be staying. The only room left was at the far end of the Palace, overlooking the cropping fields and the stableyards. Sir Lawson didn't mind. Left alone, Josh was left to wonder what on earth would happen next. To distract from this, he began unpacking their things, like he always did when they had rooms to stay in.
"Come on, Josh. Leave it all there and come to bed. It's late," Sir Lawson said with a yawn.
Josh stopped unpacking and bowed to him. "Yes, sir."
Josh had never slept in a bed that good before. Curled up beside Sir Lawson, he took pleasure in the fact he wasn't sleeping out on the hard cold ground. He had no shame in sharing a bed with him. The sort of relationship he had with his master was not unusual, though it wasn't common either. But it had bonded them closer than Josh had anticipated, and he had become fiercely loyal to him as a result. He had certainly been with Sir Lawson longer than he'd been with anyone else who he might've called family.
Josh was awake first, as he was used to being, and left his master to sleep while he unpacked their things and prepared his armour. The tournament was due to start that day, and Sir Lawson would need his gear. He did not wear a full suit of armour, though. He had found it far too tiresome to deal with on a regular basis, and made do with a breastplate and a few other select pieces, along with more chainmail. There was a mannequin in the corner of the room that Josh dressed with his armour, keeping it all in place. It wouldn't be needed just yet.
Once he'd sorted out his master's gear, he took some time to eat his own breakfast, and then bathe and wash the dirt from the journey off. It wasn't a nice hot bath, but the warm water was better than an icy stream, and it was appreciated nonetheless. He wasn't a knight anyway. He didn't have access to those sort of privileges. He dressed in his Court outfit once he was done, making sure he had everything polished and done up properly. By the time he returned to their room, Sir Lawson was awake. He sat up in bed as Josh came and sat beside him.
"I've done all the unpacking, sir, and got your gear ready. Am I dressed properly? Only it's been a while, I can't remember what else I need," Josh said.
"That's very resourceful of you, Josh. You look fine to me. I've called for a hot bath. Want to help me out before we head down to breakfast?" Sir Lawson said.
"Yes, sir. What do you need for today? I wasn't sure what's happening today, so I laid out everything," Josh said.
"Well, the tournament's not til this afternoon, so we can do without most of the armour until then. I'll let you know what I need when you dress me," Sir Lawson said.
Josh was about to offer to polish his leathers when the hot water arrived. The tub in the bathing room next door was filled with steaming hot water by an army of servants. Josh did not dare ask to bathe with him, but he stood by and helped when he was asked. Maybe he should become a knight so he could take hot baths. That would be nice. He had no idea what arms he would take, though. He wasn't particularly keen on his own family's, and never really thought they belonged to him. But he couldn't take Sir Lawson's either. He'd have to make up his own. He felt that would be the only way he'd accept it.
Breakfast was served in the main dining hall with all the other knights and their squires who'd travelled to the Palace for the tournament. There were cheers and jeers as Sir Lawson arrived, and he embraced their welcome wholeheartedly. Josh just kept quiet, making sure he did as he was told.
The King's Champion was the first to rise. "Sir Lawson, it has been many years since we last clashed swords. I challenge you, Sir Knight. Prove you are still worthy of the title!"
Sir Lawson put on a brave face and approached him. "I accept your challenge, like I always do. I may not win, but at least I will prove myself worthy of my Knighthood."
The King's Champion chastised him. "Now, now, don't get too proud. We haven't fought yet. I do intend us to clash swords this time. You are too lazy with a lance!"
"Lances are for tournaments and fighting wars. I have no need of them," Sir Lawson shrugged.
"You would if you made good on your oath to bear arms for your King," the King's Champion said rather pointedly.
"I would if he sent me battle orders. If he needs me, he knows where to find me. Now, can I sit and eat? I'm going to need my strength if we're going to fight this afternoon," Sir Lawson countered.
The King's Champion gestured to a free seat on the end of the table. "By all means, break your fast with us, Sir Lawson. And is this your squire?"
Sir Lawson brought Josh forward to present to the rest of the knights. "Josh Thomas from Greenfields Estate in- where is it?"
"Cheshire, sir," Josh answered.
"He looks old enough to be a knight. What's he still doing in a squire's clothes? Has he not come of age yet?" the King's Champion asked.
"He's old enough, but he prefers being my squire, and I'm happy for him to serve me. If he doesn't want to continue to knighthood, that's his choice. It suits us better this way," Sir Lawson said.
"You'd better not let the King know then. He'll knight any squire who's old enough, whether he wants it or not. Besides, what sort of boy does not desire to become a man? If he is entitled to knighthood, he'd best take it while he still can," the King's Champion warned.
Sir Lawson went to reply, but the trumpets sounded, heralding the arrival of the King. Sir Lawson took his place and stood with the rest of the knights. Josh retreated to the walls with the rest of the squires and servants.
King Mikhael Leaf the First arrived on the back of his white horse, accompanied by his usual (and quite reasonable) pageantry. He had put on his best dress robes, with his sword and dagger at his side and his arms emblazoned on his surcoat. His crown seemed to be even more magnificent than usual. Once he'd been properly announced, he dismounted from the horse and went to address his knights.
"My Most Noble and Great Knights of the Realm, I welcome you to the Palace for this, our great Rowan Moon Tournament. Yes, we're all looking quite dashing this morning, aren't we? It's so good to see you all again. I see Sir Lawson has graced us with his presence this time! I was beginning to think you'd been eaten by that troll you were fighting last summer. Good- Good to see you're still alive, if quite bad at actually coming to see the King you swore allegiance to when I knighted you."
Sir Lawson did not dare answer back. That was Just Not Done. Instead, he listened to the King as he magniloquently opined about his other more loyal Knights, and talked up his King's Champion to an obnoxious degree. Sir Lawson had to bite his tongue to stop himself interjecting and possibly getting himself flung in the dungeons for his trouble. (That'd be the least of it, you swine.)
Eventually, after asking each Knight to come and pay homage to him before they began their meal, they were allowed to sit down and the food was served. Josh preferred that to standing around listening to speeches. He attended to Sir Lawson at table faithfully, ignoring any jibes from other knights who thought it undignified for a man of his age to still be a squire.
Josh hoped no one would notice them. He hoped the King would not call him out for being too old. He didn't want to be a knight. He wanted to be a squire. But the King's Champion's suggestion that if he didn't become a knight, he'd be a boy forever stung in ways he hadn't anticipated. He was old enough to be a man. He didn't need to be a knight to be a man, did he? But he was the oldest squire in the palace, and he began to feel a little shameful about it, even though it never bothered him normally. Would he still feel this way when he was five and twenty? What about when he was thirty? Could he still bear to be a squire at that age? Perhaps knighthood wasn't such a bad thing after all. He'd read about knights who travelled together anyway. That wouldn't be too weird. He could still do all the cooking, but be a proper knight. He'd have respect then.
His thoughts didn't go any further though, as King Mikhael Leaf the First summoned him. Josh was a little terrified about that. He hadn't expected that at all, but Sir Lawson encouraged him to go, and Josh approached him and knelt before him reverently.
"You are the squire of Sir Lawson, are you not?" the King said.
"Yes, your Majesty," Josh replied.
"A little bird tells me you're twenty two years old. Shouldn't you be a knight by now? Why haven't you undergone the rites yet?" the King asked curiously.
Josh had hoped it wouldn't be about that. "I-I prefer serving Sir Lawson as his squire, your Majesty. But-but if you want to knight me, I don't think I could refuse, could I?"
"It's undignified for a boy of your age to still be a squire. No, I shall knight you, boy. That will add to our tournament's celebrations. We've already got a few candidates waiting. You will join them at dusk in the chapel to begin your vigil. Sir Lawson, you will spend the day preparing your squire for knighthood. I insist on nothing less. He will be a fine knight, if he has been tutored by you," the King said.
Sir Lawson stood and bowed to him. "Thank you, your Majesty. I will do as you say."
Josh did not say anything about it until they were back in their room, preparing for the ceremony. Josh hadn't expected to be knighted so quickly, but it seemed he had no choice in the matter. Josh was terrified. He had no combat skills. He had no capacity to bear armour. He didn't even have a warhorse. He'd never been able to afford one. Josh began to panic.
"I can't be a knight. I'm not good enough to be a knight. You-you said I didn't have to be a knight if I didn't want to. Is it really bad that I'm still a squire at twenty-two? I should've been knighted last year. That's not wrong, is it? Like, I'm not in trouble for still being a squire?"
"Well, not trouble, per se, but it is unusual. But it's out of my hands now, Josh. The King wishes to knight you, and there's not a lot you can do about it. I've got the right gifts for you, I sent them along a few days ago, but that was only by accident. I had meant for them to go to another squire who was meant to be here to be knighted that I was sponsoring, but since he's not apparently not coming for another year, you get them," Sir Lawson said.
Josh didn't like that. He was beginning to panic. "This is really happening, isn't it? They're really going to knight me. I couldn't serve you if I was knighted, could I? Like, if I had to have all that armour, I'd need my own squire and you'd need another, and I just want it to be us. Just you and me. I don't want anyone else. I just want to be a squire. I just want to take care of you. How is that so wrong?"
Sir Lawson sat him down on the bed, rubbing his back gently in a bid to calm him down. "It'll be alright, Josh, I promise. You can still serve me once you're knighted. You love me, don't you?"
Josh hesitated a moment. "Yes, sir, I do. I love you so very much. But it is forbidden, is it not? We aren't supposed to be in love. But no one has been kinder to me than you, sir, and you are the only family I have now. You're the only family I want. I wish to serve you until the day I die. How is that wrong?"
"It's not wrong. It so isn't wrong. If our love is so wrong, I will renounce the Gods of this Kingdom this instant and find another who does not shun love in any form. Let's get this knighthood over and done with and get out of here. I've heard there are dragons in the next kingdom," Sir Lawson said.
Josh paled at the suggestion of fighting dragons. "Oh, no, not more dragons. Please, no more dragons. I'll take trolls, or-or outlaws, or even those horrid little dwarves, but no more dragons."
Sir Lawson laughed. "It's okay, I was joking about the dragons. But we need to prepare you for the ceremony. You'll be required to fight in at least one tournament to prove yourself. I can arrange a fair opponent so it's less likely you'll be pummelled into the ground, but you've got to do the rest yourself. Hand-to-hand. I know you're terrible with a lance. We'll do some drills today, alright? Then I'll get you ready for the vigil and what else is to come. It's going to be hard, Josh, and I can't be with you tonight, but don't you dare back out on me. Do this for me, alright? Swear fealty to the King, as you must, but do it for me. Then we'll get out of this Palace and go wandering and never worry about all this again."
Josh tried not to look too scared at the prospect of having to fight. "Yes, sir. I won't have to wear armour, will I? I can't afford armour. I can't bear armour. What will I fight in? What I'm currently wearing?"
"I've got some mail for you, I took the liberty of buying a full suit for you when we were in Harbourne, but you will need to wear more than you're used to. You're becoming a knight. You're going to need to know how to fight and defend yourself. I know we haven't really focussed much on combat skills in the past few years, but I hope you haven't forgotten everything. Now, we'll get you suited up and head down for some drills. I want you to bear the weight now and get used to it before having to face a battle," Sir Lawson said.
Josh bowed his head. "Yes, sir."
Josh did not like the extra weight. He had a long-sleeved mail shirt on, mail trousers, and a mail hood in lieu of a helmet, to make sure he was protected in combat. But he did appreciate how easy it was to move in it though. Compared to a solid plate armour suit, mail was comparatively more flexible, even if the weight wasn't much better.
He was glad of the drills though. Sir Lawson ran him through all their usual combat drills, allowing Josh to get used to fighting in his mail armour and how it moved. By the end of it, he felt it might not be too bad. It was something he could cope with, which comforted him a little.
Retiring to the shade of the pavilion, Josh removed the mail hood and splashed his face with cold water. He was hot and sweaty, and he wanted the mail to be gone. Scooping some water into his mouth, he tried not to think about what the evening would bring.
"You've done well, Josh. I think you'll be alright out there with the others. But you'll have to keep up the battles. You can't neglect your skills once you're a knight, so get used to that idea while you're praying tonight. You're becoming a warrior, Josh, even if you hadn't planned on it. Think on the oaths you're going to make tonight. Think about what you want on your shield. It'll have to be painted before we go in for the vigil. It's not normally a problem. Most squires use their family crests so they can be made beforehand, but I don't know if you want to use yours or pick out something new for yourself. This is part of bearing arms, Josh. Having your own is important," Sir Lawson said.
"I can pick my own? Is that allowed? Because I don't want my family crest. I can't even remember what it is. I've always liked yours though. Can I use yours?" Josh said.
"You can use elements of it, sure. Why don't we go clean up and head to the library to pick out something good for you? You'll get a bath tonight too, a proper one, and I'm hoping they'll have sent your robes up while we've been out here. I did ask for them. There's a lot to go through right now, Josh, and I usually have at least a week to prepare, but since His Majesty's decided to do this so quickly, I'm rushing everything. I hope you don't mind. It's not normally like this. But it'll be alright. We'll get this knighthood ceremony out of the way and get out of here," Sir Lawson said.
"I'd better go get cleaned up then. I doubt I'd be allowed in the Palace library like this," Josh said.
"There's a washroom in the armoury. You can clean out there," Sir Lawson said.
The water was cool, but not unpleasant. There was a small bathing pool at the far end of the barracks where knights could bathe after drills. With fresh robes brought down from their rooms, Sir Lawson and Josh made the most of the empty pool. Josh dared a kiss as he curled up beside him. His skin was rough, his body solid with muscle. Josh felt like a child next to him.
"Where would I go if I didn't have you with me? I keep wondering about that. What happens if you die in combat? I might be a proper knight tomorrow, but I just want to be with you. I never want to leave your side," Josh said.
Sir Lawson sighed. He shifted and brought an arm around Josh's shoulders, bringing him close. "It would be silly of me to say I'll never die, because we all die eventually. I'm not invincible, and neither are you. But I think you vastly underestimate yourself, Josh. You've faced dragons, and come out of them alive. If you can survive a dragon, you can survive hand-to-hand combat tomorrow. You can survive anything. No matter what you might think, no matter what others think, you're brave and strong. You're a great hunter, a great survivor. That's what you do. I'm a good fighter, but that's about all I'm good at. I need you if we're going to survive out there. I'm useless without you there to do the things I can't do. All the fighting in the world is useless if you have no food. And you're a great cook, and a great companion. Think about that tonight, too. You deserve to be a knight just like those other squires. I'm not just saying that, either. I took you on all those years ago because I saw your potential, even though you didn't. I know you better than you know yourself."
Josh thought on his words. Were they true? He had never known Sir Lawson to be untruthful. He was good at surviving on his own, that was true. He'd done it before, when Sir Lawson had gone off on his own and left Josh to keep camp for him for a few days. Josh had survived quite happily, though it had been quite boring without Sir Lawson to talk to. By the end of the fourth day, he'd started talking to the game he was catching, just for something to talk to. He had often won archery contests, too, when he'd been pushed enough into entering. He was good at archery. It was the weapon he was best skilled at. He wasn't completely defenceless if he was attacked, but knights so often used lance and sword and Josh's skills with those weren't as good.
He wasn't sure about brave and strong either. With Sir Lawson as the knight, Josh had got used to letting Sir Lawson take the lead while he held his bow and waited to see if he might be needed. But becoming a knight would mean he'd have to learn to take lead as well. He tried not to let it frighten him. But he had faced dragons and survived, that much was true. Dragons were probably the scariest creatures in the known worlds, and to face more than one and come out alive was something of a miracle. He had never thought he deserved the thanks of those princesses he rescued, but when he thought about it, maybe he did after all. Maybe he was braver and stronger than he'd thought he was.
"Do you really think I'm good enough to be a knight? I don't really feel like one. But if you think I'm capable of being a knight, I'll believe you. It'll take some time to sink in though. I wasn't expecting to become a knight when we came here. I haven't really had time to adjust to that. How long do I have to do this vigil tonight anyway? Should I get some sleep before I do that? It sounds arduous," Josh said.
"It lasts ten hours, from dusk til dawn, or thereabouts. You'll be going in soon. If you're sleepy, I know a few charms and a couple of herb drinks that'll keep you awake. If I'd had more time to prepare, I'd have let you sleep all day today before the vigil so you'd be able to stay awake and into the day when the ceremony takes place. But I'll see if I can't get you a few hours between the vigil and the ceremony for a kip if you like. The tournament lasts for three days, too, so you could fight the day after if you wanted to regain your strength before heading into combat. Just let me know what you want," Sir Lawson said.
The rest of the afternoon was more hectic than Josh would've liked. He did have a couple of hours' sleep, and he had finally decided what he wanted on his shield, which had been sent off to be painted before the vigil. There was barely time to finish dinner before he was taken up to be dressed in his robes and taken to the chapel to pray. He did like that he was still technically wearing Sir Lawson's colours, though. He had a white tunic on, black hose and shoes, and a red robe over the top of it all. With the other three squires, they were led into the chapel by the King to begin their vigils.
Sir Lawson was there, along with the King's Champion, and the other knights and Lords sponsoring the squires. A procession was made along the aisle to the altar, where a sword and shield to be given to each squire was laid down and blessed by the High Priest. The four squires knelt at the altar and blessings said over them as they began their vigil. Josh didn't have a chance to speak with Sir Lawson before they were left alone in the silence of the chapel. He would not be seeing anyone else until dawn.
Josh had decided to kneel at the altar. A couple of others had decided to stand, at least for now. Josh had not taken in much of the chapel, but he could see the coloured light from the stained glass windows flowing in down onto the ground. He glanced up at the altar and at the images of the God and Goddess flanking the back wall. He could feel their eyes boring into him, as if challenging him to stay the whole night rather than run out in fear.
Instead, he got to his feet and approached the altar, crossing himself and bowing as he'd been taught to do. Facing them, he silently made his intentions known to them. He would be true to his oaths and be the best knight he could possibly be. He moved over to where his shield was laid, his sword lying underneath it. The arms he had finally chosen was a combination of his own symbols and some of Sir Lawson's. The shield itself was purple, and he'd chosen a sun in splendour on top of a crescent moon as his symbols. From Sir Lawson, he'd borrowed the two cinquefoils and the Tau cross. He glanced up and saw the Tau repeated before him on a much grander scale. It looked just like a letter T, with its horizontal long beam the connection between the God and Goddess, and the vertical line connecting them both to their people in the World.
Josh ran a finger over the shield. The artist had been very good, and he would be proud to bear it. It was his symbol now. He would be known by his arms as a Knight of the Realm. He was proud of that achievement as well, when he was being honest with himself. Considering his father had sent him off with a knight at age seven with no expectations he'd actually become a knight, the fact he was being knighted the next day felt like the most important thing he'd ever done. If he was still sure he'd be welcome at home, he had half a mind to write home and declare his good news.
Standing at the altar, his gaze was caught by a glimmer coming from the space between the statues. I wonder what that... His thoughts trailed off as he moved past the altar to the sanctuary.
He could see a golden Tau cross emblazoned on the stonework, shining bright and clear. A crown formed out of the shadows, sitting just above his head. He had no idea why it had done that. He didn't know what it might symbolise either until he realised that it was a Royal crown. He'd been staring at enough crowns earlier in the library to know what a Royal crown was meant to look like in heraldic design. Only Kings and Royal Princes were allowed to bear a Royal crown on their shields. He wondered why he was seeing it. He wasn't Royal, not as far as he knew. He reached out to touch it, and as his fingers brushed the shadowy stone, he heard a whispering voice.
'A child of the sun and moon is born under a crown that is hidden from them.'
Josh pulled away. That sounded like a prophecy, and that meant Destiny. "No. Whatever it is you have planned for me, I want no part of it. I travel with Sir Lawson. That will be my life. I want no part of this Destiny," he breathed, his voice barely audible. He didn't want to disturb the others. He turned back to the altar and saw a bright golden light hovering above his shield.
'The noble squire will rise like the God on the Solstice.'
The voice whispered again, and this time, Josh noticed the other squires looking up at him in awe. They'd heard it too. The golden light still hovered over his shield and they crowed around, watching as the light emblazoned a Royal crown on Josh's shield where the Tau cross had been. Josh gasped. Tomorrow was the Winter Solstice.
"No. Nonono. Not me. I don't do Destiny. This isn't happening," Josh whispered. "You all saw that, right? I didn't just paint it on in secret while you were all praying."
One of the squires ventured close and looked at it. The power from the shield was immense, and he backed off. "I have no idea what's going on. It is Solstice Eve. I have seen some kind of Divine magic."
"I don't want it. I don't want whatever it is that's going on," Josh said, backing away from the responsibility he could see in that shield. "What are they even talking about? I can't be King. I'm not even Royal. I'm just a squire from a farm in Cheshire. I'm no one."
Another of the squires looked at him pointedly. "Don't you know what a child of the sun and moon is? Haven't you been taught the myths?"
Josh stood there looking confused. He scratched his head, unsure what he was talking about. "Um, no. I don't know what that's about. We didn't really spend a lot of time reading books. We travelled most of the time."
The same squire replied. "You're a two-spirit. You're a child of the Gods. Did your Knight teach you nothing of the myths? A two-spirit is born of the Gods and the King at Beltane. You're lucky to see one in a few hundred years. They come when they are most needed. I'd say we're in for some big trouble if we've got a two-spirit amongst us. They are born with the Divine Right of Kings. This Kingdom rightfully belongs to you."
Josh gave a nervous laugh. "No, that can't be right. I was born- I know who my parents are. I'm not the King's son."
Josh panicked a little as he saw them all kneel at his feet. That wasn't good. He didn't need them believing it either. He didn't want to cause any trouble. He just wanted to travel with Sir Lawson and leave it at that. He wanted a simple travelling life, the only life he'd ever known. He didn't want to be King. That was for Kingly people, not for lowly born squires.
"No, no, please don't do that. Get up. Please don't do that. I don't want to get in trouble. I'm about to become a knight, not steal the throne. Oh, Gods, please don't let this be true. I don't want any part of this, I really don't. I don't want to be King. I never wanted any of this. I don't want a Destiny. People with Destinies tend to die in very bloody circumstances. I wish to remain very much alive. I just want to travel around with Sir Lawson. That's all I want to do with my life. Not be King. I never want to be King," Josh said, trying to remain calm.
Josh went to look at his shield again, just to make sure the crown was still there, but he found it had vanished. The cross behind him had gone too. He had no idea if what he'd seen was real, or if it was just his imagination. He decided to push it aside. He would concentrate on his vigil for the ceremony tomorrow and forget all about prophecies.
"Okay, that didn't happen, alright? I want nothing to do with Kings or crowns. That never ends well. No, I will become a knight and be content with that. Please don't say anything. I don't want to cause trouble. Swear it. Swear it on your swords," Josh said.
The three squires came over to him, their swords in hand. All three lay them at his feet. Josh tried not to be alarmed as they made a small cut in their hands and dropped blood onto their blades.
The squire to Josh's left spoke first. He was an average sized man, strong and handsome. "I am soon to be Sir Adam. It is a rare privilege to meet a two-spirit. I swear allegiance to you this night. You have my sword."
The squire beside him followed. Much taller and more well-built, he knelt before him and offered his sword. "Upon my knighthood, I, Sir Alan, swear allegiance to the child of the moon and sun. You have my sword, Majesty."
The third was a tall slender lad with messy brown hair and a quick attack. "I, as Sir Hamish, will serve you to the end. You have my sword, my Lord."
Josh was beginning to panic. "No, no I didn't say swear loyalty to me. They'll think this is some sort of organised plot and it really isn't. I just want to go travelling. I don't want to be King. Tomorrow, we all swear loyalty to the proper King, and we will be true to him. He is the King, and we will be his loyal knights. I won't have anything else. I mean it. Don't follow me. I'm not King, I'm not going to be King, and I never will be King. So just- just don't, alright? We are the King's subjects. We are his knights. Can you do that?"
They all bowed their heads. "Yes, Majesty."
"Can we get back to the vigil already? That's why we're here. I don't want anyone to think we've been doing other things," Josh said.
They wisely didn't reply this time and cleaned their swords of the blood as they replaced the swords back on the altar. Josh stood beside them as they stood there, gazing at the statues. Adam reached for Hamish and Alan's hands. Hamish took Josh's.
"We're in this together, no matter what happens. Kneel and pray, brothers. We've got a long night ahead of us," Adam said.
Offering reverence to the statues of their Gods, they knelt before the altar and began silent prayer. The vigil had finally begun.
Josh was stiff and sore by the time the dawn light began streaming in through the windows of the chapel. He had prayed very hard and very long, trying to work out what it was he was supposed to do. The voices and the golden light had not returned, and there had been no further disruptions to their vigil. The knowledge Josh had about his identity was concerning though. He had decided to forget about it. He didn't want to know. As the bells rung out the start of the day, Josh and the other squires rose to their feet and bowed to the altar, officially ending their vigil.
"We're coming with you when you leave," Adam said confidently.
Josh looked at them, surprised, unsure he wanted more than just him and Sir Lawson. "Why? We don't really do anything interesting, I promise. We just travel around. It's very boring."
"The Gods foretell it. We all saw it, didn't we?" Adam said, turning to Alan and Hamish.
"I saw it too. All five of us travel together. You know five is sacred to us. Two and Three, Goddess and God. Two of you, and three of us. It's meant to be. We weren't shown the real purpose of it, just that we are to travel with you. We will fight this afternoon at the tournament, and prove ourselves worthy, and the day after, we leave at dawn with you. We gave you our swords last night, and we meant it. We swear oaths to the King. We will not be lying," Adam said, speaking for the others.
Josh went to reply, but the High Priest entered the chapel then, striding confidently down the aisle. This was it. The ceremonies were soon to begin. Josh hid the fear in his heart.
"You have sat in vigil til dawn. If any of you are not prepared to undergo the rites, be it on your head, and back out now. You have two hours to bathe and break your fast. The ceremony begins at nine bells," the High Priest said.
The squires bowed to him as he gestured them out. Josh tried not to panic again as he was taken back to Sir Lawson.
Sir Lawson had just woken by the time Josh arrived back at their room. Josh had no idea what to say to him. Sir Lawson embraced him warmly as he lay down beside him.
"So, how was it? As scary as you'd thought it might be?" Sir Lawson said.
"I'm a two-spirit," Josh said without thinking. "I didn't even know what that was, the other squires had to tell me, but there was golden light and a crown. What does it mean, my Lord? I don't want to cause a stir."
Sir Lawson shifted uncomfortably. "Ah. So you know about that. I was going to tell you once we'd left the Palace, but someone's beaten me to it."
"The Gods told me. The other squires heard it too. They saw the Royal crown on my shield. They saw it. Something happened in there last night and it's all about Destiny and I want none of it. I don't want to be King. I don't want to make trouble for anyone. I just want to travel with you, but I'm scared no one will believe me. I don't want any of that, my Lord, I swear," Josh said.
Sir Lawson tried to calm him down. "It's alright, Josh, I know you don't want it. I was told about it when I took you on, but I chose not to tell you because I had a feeling you didn't want to know. You know I hate Court politics anyway. I decided you'd be better off growing up like a normal kid and if one day you wanted to know, I'd tell you, and then it'd be in your hands what you did with that information. It's too much for a young kid to know. I figured you'd be better able to handle it when you were older. You'd have a better sense of who you are. If you want my opinion, though, you're better off away from Court. Let other people be Kings and Queens. It does the Kingdom no good to have a King who doesn't want to be there."
Josh looked at him strangely. "So, wait, you knew, but didn't tell me? What do you know, my Lord? I know what a two-spirit is now, you know. I know what that means I am. The King is my father, even if he does not acknowledge it. I prayed so much about it last night though. I tried to make peace with what I'd been told. The other squires with me bowed to me. They gave me their swords. They recognise me as King. I tried to tell them not to do that, but I couldn't stop them. But they said they'd been told they're coming with us when we leave the Palace too. That means we don't do anything, right? We just go along with all this and pretend nothing happened, and let other people worry about Kingdoms, right?"
"It's obviously not your time, or there'd have been more urgency. No one gets sent away travelling if they're meant to claim the throne right now. That makes me feel better, actually. Just- keep it quiet, get this over with, and we'll get out of here, alright?" Sir Lawson said.
Josh nodded. "Yes, sir. So what happens now? Can I eat yet? I'm starving."
"I've already sent for breakfast for the both of us to be brought up here. I thought you'd prefer to eat here than down in the hall. After that, we'll get you bathed and ready for the knighthood ceremony. I'll be sponsoring you along with the King's Champion. He owed me a favour, and since this came about at such short notice, he was happy to step in. After that, it's the tournament, where you'll have your first bout, and I'll throw a fight with the Champion to keep the peace. Hopefully we'll be able to leave tomorrow," Sir Lawson said.
"That sounds pretty good, actually. I'd like to get out of here. I'm tired of all this," Josh said.
"Don't worry, it'll all be over soon. You'll be a knight, and believe me, I know you hate the idea of it, but it's a powerful rise in status for you. Not everyone gets that. Cherish that. It'll protect you when you least expect it," Sir Lawson said.
"What do you mean by that? How will it protect me?" Josh asked.
"You know how to fight and survive, on your own if need be. As a knight, you'll get a lot more respect around these parts than you would as a squire. We are good people, ambassadors of the King in some ways. There are laws that only refer to knights that we can take advantage of, like finding refuge in an Abbey or Inn if we need it, and we have property rights as well as the honour of being first among the King's fighters. If you haven't got any property you can take for yourself, the King usually parcels off some good land for you. I can see if there's any near my estate if you like. Don't refuse me because you want to spend your life travelling. Trust me when I say you will rue the day you turn down land given by the King if I die and you have nowhere else to go. Land is how we secure our wealth. That's how the system works. Without that, you will be poor and unable to maintain a horse or armour, and be a proper Knight," Sir Lawson said.
"Oh, but my brother will get the farm, won't he? So I'll have nothing. What should I do then?" Josh said.
"Leave it with me. I'll deal with it and get you some land near my estate. If you want, I can annex it onto my land, and look after it for you, if that would help. No point in doubling up when you don't need to, and I'm sure you'd rather stay with me than in your own place if we went back there," Sir Lawson said.
"What would that mean if you died though? Would I be able to inherit any of that, or just my part? If it's part of your land, what happens then if you die?" Josh said.
"I have no other kin. That's why I wander. If I die, take my things, take care of my land, and travel the known worlds. Be true to everything I have taught you. Be a force for good in this Godforsaken world. Don't you dare think of doing anything else."
Josh agreed, even if he wasn't entirely reassured. "I will. It won't be as much fun without you, though."
Breakfast arrived soon after that, and Josh appreciated being able to spend the morning with Sir Lawson. He was still daunted by the prospect of being knighted, and Sir Lawson did his best to calm him down and reassure him it would be alright.
They bathed together. Sir Lawson insisted on it as part of his duty as his Lord. Finally able to bathe in proper hot water, Josh did his best to relax as Sir Lawson washed him with rose water and washed out his hair with special oils. Josh had never had such attention paid to him before, and he appreciated it. Sir Lawson's presence calmed him.
Josh was reluctant to leave the hot water, but it was time to get dressed again. Sir Lawson dressed him, helping him into his robes. He was back in his white, red, and black garb, though Josh didn't mind. He understood its symbolism well enough. Sir Lawson spent some time combing his hair in a bid to tidy it up. With one final moment to settle his nerves, Sir Lawson led Josh back down to the chapel for the ceremony.
Josh hadn't been aware of just how many people would be there. The chapel was full. He'd never been in front of so many people before as he was led down the aisle to the front by the High Priest, where he would be sat with his sponsors and the other squires and their sponsors who were undertaking the rites. Josh nodded a hello to them but didn't speak as he sat down between Sir Lawson and the King's Champion. The other squires nodded their welcomes back, and Josh could see they were just as nervous as he was. Taking a deep breath, he clasped his hands together and said another prayer, hoping it would all be over soon and that his secret wouldn't come out.
Please don't let them know what I am. I don't want it. I don't. I just want to go away and travel and not get involved in this. If you're listening to me, just let me get through this day, become a knight, and leave this place in peace. That's all I ask. I don't want any of that two-spirit Destiny thing. I don't want it. I like my life and I don't want to be anything else. So please, just leave my Destiny alone, just for now. I really don't feel ready to deal with it right now, Josh prayed, hoping the Gods would listen to him.
His prayers were interrupted by the sounds of trumpets heralding the arrival of the Royal Family and the beginning of the service. Everyone knelt down in veneration as the King passed down the chapel to take his place on the throne between the two statues. He was divine, of course, so his place was with the Gods. Josh very much did not want to mess with that.
"Hail to His Majesty, King Mikhael Leaf the First, First Amongst the Gods, Perfect Lord of All the Worlds, Keeper of Peace Amongst the Tribes of Kardan, Great Vanquisher of the Trolls of Oron, The One Who Slayed the Dragons of Wiltshire, Who Keeps the Sacred Flame Burning..."
Josh tried to pay attention as the King's titles and epithets were read out. There were an awful lot of them. He felt the service would go faster if he didn't insist on it every time he entered a room, but he kept that thought to himself. (As you should, boy.) There was a nudge in his ribs some time later once the heralds were over and it was time to respond the way he'd been taught.
The chapel echoed with a loud cry of "Hail to His Majesty, King among the Gods and God among Kings!"
King Mikhael got to his feet to address his people. Josh didn't particularly listen to that either, but he tried to look attentive enough so that he had some idea of what was going on. He didn't want to look foolish in front of the King. He did try to remember what he'd said though. The King was speaking about how important it was to be a knight and what his duties would be. He thought he might want to pay attention to that part, just so he knew what he was signing up for.
Once the King was done, it was time for the ceremony itself. The High Priest blessed the squires' shields and swords with incense and sacred oils. They were offered up in service to the Gods and to the King, and blessings asked on the knights-to-be that they may be true to their oaths and uphold the King's Law. The squires were then brought before the altar, their sponsors beside them.
Josh watched nervously as Sir Lawson took possession of his sword and shield, as did the other knights who'd trained the squires. The King stepped forward now, and Josh watched, entranced, as he moved regally from his throne to the front of the altar where they stood. He moved like a King should move, with elegance and arrogance in just the right measures.
"You come before me, squires all, because you have come of age, and are judged as being fit to enter into knighthood," the King said as he watched the four squires before him. "You, the squire of Sir Lawson, step forward."
Josh settled his nerves. Sir Lawson touched his shoulder and offered him a smile. With the King's Champion and Sir Lawson flanking him, Josh stepped forward and knelt before the King, his head bowed.
"Do you solemnly swear allegiance to His Majesty King Mikhael Leaf the First, as a Most Noble Knight of the Realm, wholly and completely, to the exclusion of all others?" the High Priest proclaimed.
"I do, Your Majesty. I swear allegiance to you above all others as a Knight of the Realm. If I break this oath, I accept any punishment you wish to bestow upon me," Josh said, trying not to mumble.
"Do you solemnly swear never to keep company with traitors nor hide them from justice?" the High Priest continued.
"I do solemnly swear never to keep the company of traitors, for it would make me a traitor before the eyes of the Gods and my Lord," Josh replied.
"Do you solemnly swear to treat all Ladies with respect, to never give them evil council, and to assist any Lady who asks for your help?" the High Priest said.
"I do solemnly swear never to give disrespect to a Lady," Josh replied. He hoped he'd remembered that correctly. It had seemed a bit short compared to the others.
"His Majesty is the Gods' representative in the Kingdom. Do you solemnly swear to observe the proper rituals and ceremonies of our faith, to attend faithfully to your spiritual duties, and to act as the Gods have taught us, to be a pious and chivalrous servant of the King?"
Josh paused a moment as he tried to remember the right response. "I do solemnly swear by the Gods above and below, to be a pious and good Knight and to observe the rites and ceremonies of our faith."
"Stand, Squire, that you may be presented with your arms," the High Priest said.
Josh stood, and dared to gaze upon the King. Sir Lawson gave the sword to the King with a bow. It was in a scabbard now, a good leather one, and the King buckled it around his waist with ease. It felt strange to have it there. He'd never carried a sword before, and it was heavier than he'd anticipated. He'd have to get used to that. Then the shield was presented to him. The King took a moment to look at it so he could remember the arms of his new knights.
"Sun and moon, hey? Nice choice. I like the purple," King Mikhael commented. He decided against revealing what he recognised in the symbols he'd chosen. (Bloody two-spirit.)
"Thank you, Your Majesty," Josh replied, unsure if he was meant to.
King Mikhael smiled. "I present you with your arms, that you may carry them proudly in this Kingdom and in others, and be proud to be known by them. Stand by your arms, good sir, that you may not dishonour them."
The shield was strapped onto Josh's back, proclaiming his arms to the assembled crowd. That was definitely heavier than he'd anticipated, but he bore the weight without complaint. He had no reason to hate this King, and in all truth, he'd probably been more decent than a lot of Kings could be when they were told they were Gods on Earth.
"Kneel, that I may dub thee," King Mikhael said.
Josh knelt at the King's feet, his head bowed. He knew, in that moment, that he would defend this King to his death. He felt the sword tip touch his shoulders.
"I dub thee, Sir Josh Thomas, a Most Noble Knight of the Realm. May you serve your King and our Gods with honour and dignity. Rise, Sir Thomas, and greet the people you are charged to protect," the King said.
Josh gingerly got to his feet and turned around. The whole crowd were on their feet in applause, but Josh only looked to Sir Lawson, and smiled as he saw him cheering him on.
Josh didn't particularly remember much after that. The other squires had been knighted, but he hadn't heard any of that. He was back by Sir Lawson's side, elated beyond belief. Once the other squires had been knighted, there was a final prayer and blessing and then the service was over. Sir Josh and Sir Lawson led the other new knights out of the chapel behind the King and the High Priest.
The rest of the morning was spent in celebration, culminating in a banquet lunch that lasted a good three hours. Sir Josh was so caught up in it all that he'd forgotten he'd have to fight as well, to prove his skills. So when the tournament was opened that afternoon, and the new knights invited to come forward and prove themselves, Sir Josh was just a little bit nervous again.
Sir Lawson had had the foresight to make Josh wear his armour, so there was no need to change. It did not make Josh feel any less daunted by the prospect of fighting another. The arena was packed with people and the first order of business was the challenge of the King's Champion. Sir Josh was a bit nervous, he didn't want Sir Lawson to get hurt, but Sir Lawson reassured him he'd be fine. Sir Josh had to sit on the sidelines rather than with the other squires on the edge of the arena. Another squire had been arranged for Sir Lawson to aid him in combat, but Sir Josh didn't like that at all. He should be out there helping him, but it wasn't proper for a knight to act as a squire, so he had to sit in silence and pretend he was alright with it.
"All hail to the King's Champion! I stand before His Majesty and protect his honour. Who amongst you seeks to challenge me? Who thinks they are strong enough to defeat me?"
The King's Champion rode around the arena, proclaiming his challenge to all and sundry. There would always be at least one challenge, one staged battle to proclaim the King's supremacy, but as the position was not as permanent as it's current holder liked to believe, there were always a few genuine challengers who sought to usurp him.
Sir Lawson always favoured himself in the former category. Someone had to go in and throw a fight, and it might as well be him. It didn't matter to him. Court politics weren't something he had time for. With Josh looking on nervously from the stands, he stepped forward.
"I, Sir Lawson, challenge you! Defend your King against my sword," Sir Lawson replied, unsheathing his sword as he approached. It was blunted, of course. He couldn't actually kill him, not with the blade, at any rate, even though he sometimes wanted to.
The King's Champion raised his own sword. "Step forward, Sir Lawson! The power of the King will defeat you!"
Josh hated this part. He could never relax until the battle was over and he knew Sir Lawson was alright. He turned away at the first clash of swords, unable to look. He knew he would throw the battle, and he knew why, but he could never guarantee he wouldn't be injured. He would not leave his post though. He was a knight now, and not a squire. There were others out there to assist them. He was helpless.
It was over sooner than he'd anticipated. With one final blow, Sir Lawson lay on the ground, the King's Champion standing triumphant over him. The whole crowd erupted into cheers at the symbolic defeat of the King's enemies. Josh did his best to cheer along, while hiding his shame at his former master having lost a battle, even if it was just for show, even if it was for the good of the Kingdom.
He felt a stab of jealousy as his replacement squire ran off to tend to Sir Lawson in his place. That should be him down there. He should be at his side helping him up. He made his way down to the edge of the arena anyway, unable to resist being there to greet him as he was helped back to the side, the King's Champion by his side with his own squire.
"Oh, sir, are you alright? Are you hurt at all?" Sir Josh said by way of a greeting.
Removing his helmet, Sir Lawson stood still as his squire removed his plate armour. "No, no, just bruised and battered. I've been through worse. He's learnt to hit harder since the last time we fought."
"Oh, that's good, I was worried there for a while. You went down so hard, I thought you'd died," Sir Josh said.
"Don't you worry about me. I can take care of myself. He caught me off-guard, so I don't feel that guilty for losing on purpose," Sir Lawson said.
The King's Champion approached them then, and shook hands with Sir Lawson. "Good fight, Sir Lawson. You've improved. Don't make it so easy next time."
"If I'd known you wanted a proper fight, I'd have gone the mace, Sir. But we made a good show of it anyway. Til next time, my friend, assuming you are still Champion at the end of this tournament," Sir Lawson said.
"Oh, I will be, don't you worry about that. Now get out of here, there are others itching for a fight, I can just smell it," the King's Champion said.
Sir Lawson and Sir Josh watched him walk back out into the arena, calling for more challengers. Once he was out of his plate armour, Sir Lawson sent his squire to take it all back to his rooms. He had no desire to fight again if he could help it. After taking a swig of water, they returned to the stands to watch the rest of the battles.
The last fight of the day was reserved for the new knights. The King invited the four new knights into a melee to see who was the best out of the four. Whoever won would face the King's Champion to prove their skill. The four knights had a chance to face each other in combat for the first time, and as they stood there, swords drawn, they all clasped hands and vowed to put on a good show, regardless of who won.
Sir Josh had never been so nervous before, but he talked himself into it. He had Sir Lawson cheering him on from the sidelines and he had the confidence that no matter what happened, he was fighting new-blooded knights just like he was, more of an equal fight than he had feared. He much preferred that to facing an older knight.
Sir Josh fought Sir Adam first, and fought bravely. With Sir Lawson's tutoring, he'd learnt enough to beat him, which surprised everyone least of all Sir Josh himself, as he sent Sir Adam to the ground. He hadn't hurt him badly, but he was at his side almost immediately, making sure he was alright. Sir Adam brushed him off and told him to prepare for the next fight.
Sir Alan was next. Sir Josh didn't fancy his chances against someone so much bigger and stronger than him, but something overtook him and he was fighting under someone else's command. With a strange sense of confidence, after a long and arduous battle, Sir Alan conceded defeat. Sir Josh was not expecting that at all, and as the crowd cheered around him, he wondered what on earth was going on.
He met his match in Sir Hamish though. Sir Hamish was quick and just as cheeky as he was. Only Sir Hamish got the better of him. One blow to his shoulder he hadn't expected sent him to the ground, and Sir Josh lay there, shocked and amazed.
It hadn't registered until Sir Hamish came over and offered him a hand up. Pulling him to his feet, he congratulated him on a good fight before he was proclaimed the champion. Sir Josh went over to Sir Lawson, feeling a little dazed.
"You were great, Josh. I knew you'd be alright out there once you got going. How'd it feel with the armour? Not too heavy was it?" Sir Lawson said, congratulating him.
"No, well, I didn't really notice it at the time. I was too busy trying not to get killed. But I feel so sore now. Everything aches. That's normal, right? I'm not going to die of some horrible chainmail-related disease?" Sir Josh said.
Sir Lawson laughed as he brought his arm around his shoulder. "No, sir, that's completely normal. That final hit knocked you for six, you know. I'm not surprised you're hurting. At least it's all over now. Come on, let's go get cleaned up and get some dinner. I'm starved."
Sir Josh was happy to do just that. He took his shield and sword as they crossed the sand back to the pavilions. They were bound to visiting one of the physicians before they went anywhere else to make sure they had sustained no serious injuries. Once both Sir Josh and Sir Lawson had the all clear, they took their leave of the games to spend some time alone. Sir Lawson hadn't planned on participating in any other games if he could avoid it. If anyone asked, he had a broken rib. That'd get him out of any jousting.
Returning to their room, Sir Josh packed away the armour that had been unhelpfully packed the wrong way by the other squire. It was kept in a lockable chest at the foot of the bed to prevent anyone stealing it. Plate armour was too expensive to leave lying around. The upside was that it was hard to get away with. It wasn't exactly easy to conceal unless you had come prepared. But if a knight dared to take another knight's armour outside of taking the spoils of war, he would be deemed a traitor anyway.
Sir Lawson decided a rest was in order and called for some food and some water to bathe in. He suggested Josh might want to explore the palace if he so desired while he waited. Sir Josh, however, didn't want to leave his side. He felt it would be bad of him to leave him unguarded, even though he still hadn't got rid of his squire's mindset and didn't actually have to protect him at all. Sir Lawson decided against deterring him and allowed him to guard the room if he so desired while he had a rest.
Sir Josh liked that. With his sword, dagger, and his bow and arrows, Sir Josh felt ready to defend his former master as he stood outside their room. He had thought about staying inside in case someone came in through the window, but as there was no way to get through the window without breaking the glass, he decided he'd be alright. If he heard glass, he would run in and heroically save the day.
So when Sir Josh did hear that glass shatter an hour later, it shocked him enough that it took him a moment to regain his senses as he charged in, nocked bow ready to fire at whichever evil knight was attempting to take his former master's life. He didn't expect to see a woman standing there though. Sir Josh lowered his bow; he'd just vowed that morning to give all his respect to Ladies and that, presumably, meant not firing arrows at them.
"Everything alright, Sir Lawson? I heard glass breaking, I thought you might be in danger," Sir Josh said.
"No, no. Just- I knocked the vase over. Sir Josh, this is Lady Amanda's daughter, Lady Catherine. Have you two met yet? I don't think you have. Josh is my loyal squire," Sir Lawson said, sitting up.
Sir Josh extended his hand politely, but Lady Catherine didn't greet him. He wasn't sure what you were supposed to do when the Lady in question didn't seem to respect you back. "Oh, right. Nice to meet you, Lady Catherine. So what's she doing here then? How did she even get in? I was guarding the door."
Lady Catherine walked towards Sir Josh. "My mother is a witch, as am I. How do you think I got into your room?"
Sir Josh swallowed and crossed himself. "Oh, God, not another witch."
She gave him a withering look and turned back to Sir Lawson. "Why do you keep him around? He's so tiresome. I can't court you when he's hovering around. Send him away. He's a knight now, anyway. He should be doing his own things."
"He's a good loyal friend. Better behaved than you," Sir Lawson said. "I'm really not in the mood right now, Lady Catherine. Can't it wait?"
Sir Josh knew the smell of magic as soon as Lady Catherine cast her enchantments. He closed his eyes, expecting all sorts of trouble, but she growled in frustration instead. Sir Josh dared to look. He found Lady Catherine standing before him, looking at him crossly.
"What have you done? What enchantments have you put on him? Why can't I touch him?" she demanded.
"I-I don't know. I haven't done anything. I'm not that powerful," Sir Josh protested, shying away from her.
"Wretched two-spirit. Mother said you're evil, that you don't belong. You're stopping my magic, aren't you?" Lady Catherine said.
"No, no, I'm not doing anything, I swear," Sir Josh said.
"Step back, Sir Josh. Whatever it is you're doing, she's not worth it. Trust me," Sir Lawson warned.
"But I'm not doing anything, I swear! I'm not!" Sir Josh knelt and crossed himself. "I swear on the name of the Gods, by the vows of Knighthood I made this morning, that I am not casting any magic. I swear it, my Lady. I swear it. I am a better cook than I am a magician."
"No wonder you were abandoned. Useless two-spirit who can't even wear a mail shirt, let alone wield any magic. You should've died long ago. You should never have come back," Lady Catherine said.
She gave him one last glare before storming out of the room. Sir Josh stood there thoroughly confused. Sir Lawson got up and started cleaning up the glass. Sir Josh watched in silence, trying to understand what on earth Lady Catherine had said about him.
"Um, Sir Lawson, why does Lady Catherine know I'm a two-spirit?" Sir Josh ventured.
Sir Lawson stopped, and he looked up at him. "Don't, Josh, please. Sometimes it's better not to know. I could tell you everything, but I really don't want to. Not yet. Just- wait til we've left the Palace. Then I'll tell you everything."
Josh frowned. "Is this one of those Destiny things? Like, I'm not supposed to know or someone will kill me?"
"I'm not saying anything more. I can't. Just leave it, Josh. Please. This is not something you want to get involved in," Sir Lawson said. "Remember what I said about Court politics?"
"It's all a load of bollocks?" Sir Josh said tentatively.
"Exactly. Just leave it. You're better off not knowing. Just keep your head down. The sooner we're out of here, the better," Sir Lawson said.
Sir Josh almost replied, but thought better of it. Maybe it was better not to know if Destiny was involved. He'd heard all sorts of tales about what happened to people with Destinies. It usually ended up with them dying. Perhaps it was better not to know. If he didn't know, it wouldn't come to be, would it?
"Calm yourself, woman. You will not be Queen by murdering an innocent boy," Lady Amanda said as her daughter paced around the room.
Lady Catherine had gone straight to her mother after leaving Sir Lawson's room. She turned to her mother and glared spitefully. "Oh, you know he is no innocent. We should make sure he doesn't leave the Palace. I don't want him out there alive."
"He doesn't know what he is! How can he challenge when he doesn't know what's due to him? That's how he's innocent. But you had to go blabbing to him, didn't you? Sir Lawson knows. Unless he's sensible enough to remain silent, that two-spirit will know his inheritance, and he will have a legitimate claim to the throne. We will be finished. Do you want that? Do you really want that to happen? No, the longer he remains ignorant, the better. He can't challenge if he doesn't know," Lady Amanda counselled.
"But when will I be Queen? I am already past marriageable age. How much longer can that damn king live for?" Lady Catherine said. "I am not marrying him, mother. I know he has been with you. I do not want your leftovers, even if he is a King."
Lady Amanda slapped her. "Be patient, will you? I can't just assassinate him. I'm not his Queen. Any kind of suspicious death and we will be the first to be accused because we are so close to him. The people are fearful, but they are not stupid. Will you trust me for once? We're playing the waiting game. In the meantime, I suggest you take up the offer of one of those rich princes who come courting. It couldn't hurt to marry into a good family. I'm only trying to look after you. If this king won't do, we'll find another. You're still young. You're a rich prize for any sensible prince to want."
Lady Catherine growled in frustration. It was not what she wanted to hear at that moment. "That two-spirit inhibits my powers. What am I supposed to do with that? I cannot get near him."
"He's a two-spirit. Don't you understand what that makes him? He has the spirits of the God and Goddess inside him, even though he doesn't realise it. Two-spirits are only born when the King lies with both God and Goddess at Beltane. That's enough to produce a legitimate heir. And stupid Mikhael did just that, the idiot. Two-spirits are rare, so they're not normally a problem. But once that power is awakened, not even I could stop him. This is why he must never know what he is. He has been born with the Divine Right of Kings imbued into his body. If he ever claimed the throne, he would not be refused, even though he has never undergone the rites as you have," Lady Amanda said.
Lady Catherine sunk into a chair, defeated. "I know, I know. I have tried to think about marriage. But they all reject me when they find out I'm a witch. I should like to move far away, to another kingdom where they don't know your name. Then I will not be followed by your poison."
Lady Amanda sighed. "I'm sorry if I've made life difficult for you. That was never my intention. I only wanted the best for you. I could never be Queen, but you? You could. A good marriage in a good Kingdom, so you'd be looked after. I didn't want you to suffer the oppression I have. They don't like me. They pay homage because they are afraid. That's all. If I were to ever lose my power over them, I would be humiliated and powerless. That's why I need you here. I need you to legitimise all this. Besides, the King doesn't have any other heirs, apart from the two-spirit, and he will never challenge as long as I live. I'll give you up for the good of the Kingdom, so there's peace amongst us. Do you know what happens when a King dies without an heir? Wars happen. People die. Witches are killed. Please tell me you understand that."
Lady Catherine stood and walked to the window. "So we are trapped in a destiny of our own making. How ironic. Do you really want all this that badly? Why?"
"Mikhael courted me once. And, yeah, we were in love." Lady Amanda smiled at the memory. "But I was known as a witch even then, and his parents didn't want us to be together. We persisted though, and we slept together. That's when you were conceived. When he found out I was pregnant, he shunned me. But I knew my power. I was carrying a royal child, a royal witch, and she would be very powerful indeed when she inherited the throne. But he was weak-willed. He would not stand up to his parents. So we ... came to an arrangement once his Queen died. I might not be his Queen, but I convinced him to take you as his only heir. I made all the necessary arrangements so you would be brought up properly and he would always be loyal to me. That's why I've done all this. You can be Queen, Catherine. You can be safe. Please don't throw that away for nothing."
Lady Catherine didn't reply immediately. She was beginning to feel torn between her role as Crown Princess, and her inheritance as a witch. It was so hard to be both. Did she really have to keep on struggling? Didn't her mother even understand any of that? She'd actually come to like the idea of being Queen. Mikhael wasn't a bad King, all things considered. He might be pompous and a bit ridiculous at times, but he had a kind heart. He was not cruel or bloodthirsty. She knew more about what it meant to be King than she thought her mother realised. It had its own magic. She'd felt it.
"I can't keep being a witch, mother. I just can't. You've taught me so much, and I'll always be grateful for that, but my place is here. I'm part of the Crown now. I just wish you'd leave. You don't understand me anymore. You can't understand any of this. I just want to be free of your schemes and left to live my own life. I don't care about that two-spirit. He hasn't undergone the rites. He isn't meant for this place. He was never meant for this place. Didn't you ever pay any attention to the Oracles? This was never about him. It was all about me. Just go, mother."
"Look, I didn't ask for any of this to happen. That King fell for me. I have never had a suitor before. I fell in love. You are his child, Catherine. The two-spirit must be-"
Lady Catherine turned to her mother. "Go! Just get out of here. I don't care anymore."
King Mikhael found Lady Amanda in the Temple shrine that evening. She had missed the grand banquet he had held and he was concerned. Lady Catherine had disappeared as well, and no one had any idea where she'd gone. The King wanted to be sure everything was still alright. He did not have another heir if Lady Catherine could not be found, so it was imperative that she be found. he had already sent his best knights out after her in case she had somehow been kidnapped by a dragon. That no dragon had even been seen around the Palace was beside the point. The Crown Princess had gone missing, and that usually pointed to dragons. The King was quite sure of that.
Lady Amanda was not praying. King Mikhael hadn't expected that. But she was apparently chatting quite amiably with the grand statue of the Goddess. The King wasn't sure if it was a two-way conversation. The statue remained passive and still, bathed in soft candlelight.
"Lady Amanda, can we talk a moment?" King Mikhael asked as he approached them.
She turned to him. She did not look pleased to be interrupted. "Later, my Lady," she murmured as she stepped away from the statue. "What do you want? Can't you see I was communing with the Goddess?"
"Lady Catherine's disappeared. I was just wondering if- if the deal was still on. If she's gone off with some other Prince, we're going to have to change our little arrangement," King Mikhael said.
Lady Amanda hadn't expected to hear that. "Disappeared? What do you mean, she's disappeared?"
"She's not in the Palace, my Lady. Now, if you know where she's gone, and when she'll be getting back, I'll stop worrying. But she is a Crown Princess, after all, and I thought I saw a dragon flying around earlier..." The King trailed off.
Lady Amanda brushed off his concerns. "Oh, will you stop worrying? She's probably just gone back to the cottage. Why would she leave? You know she's not betrothed to anyone. She's told me she intends to stay here, to fulfil our promise. She will be Queen. She's denying her inheritance as a witch, but I'm willing to forgive that for a Kingdom."
"Hey, it won't be your Kingdom, it'll be hers. She's part of my family now. If you get anything, it'll be at her discretion," King Mikhael reminded her.
Lady Amanda did not need reminding. "I'll be in my rooms if you need me. Good luck finding a witch, Your Majesty."
With a spiteful curtsey and a contemptuous glare, she turned and left the shrine, leaving King Mikhael alone. He watched her go, wondering if she'd ever just be happy for once with what she had. He turned to the statue of the Goddess.
"This is all your fault, you know," he said to her before he left.
Sir Lawson and Sir Josh were riding out from the Palace, accompanied by Sir Adam, Sir Alan, and Sir Hamish. They weren't officially out searching for Lady Catherine; her disappearance had merely provided a convenient excuse to leave without being questioned. Sir Lawson wasn't interested in staying around any longer than necessary. They took the north road, intending to find another Kingdom to visit.
"So we're not going to get in trouble for leaving like this, are we?" Sir Josh asked.
"Oh, no. His Majesty has grown used to me disappearing like this. He does understand why I don't come to Court very often. Besides, I did my symbolic battle with his Champion. I've done my duty in protecting his honour and authority. He should thank me more often for that," Sir Lawson said.
"So where are we going then? A new Kingdom? Didn't you say you'd tell me more about that two-spirit thing as well? When am I going to find out about that?" Sir Josh said.
Sir Lawson laughed off his questions. "You're never going to stop asking questions, are you? When we've made camp and had some supper, that's when. I don't want just anyone overhearing us as we travel, alright?"
"Yes, sir. We're not going to travel very far, are we? It's already nighttime," Sir Josh said.
"There's some woods I've camped in before. There should be a good hut there we can use," Sir Lawson said.
The prospect of a hut to sleep in cheered Sir Josh up as they travelled along the dark road. Sir Lawson had conjured up some balls of light to help guide the way and keep them safe. They made a comforting warm circle around them, lighting up the road around them well enough for their purposes. The woods turned out to be closer than Josh had feared and the hut was indeed still there. They hadn't expected it to be occupied, though, and a shocked and somewhat annoyed Lady Catherine stood in the doorway.
"Am I ever going to escape you two? What are you doing here? Who are these other men?" Lady Catherine demanded.
"We are travellers, my Lady, nothing more. We had just planned to stay here tonight. The whole Palace is out looking for you, you know. They say you've been taken by a dragon, but I can see that is not the case," Sir Lawson said.
"You're not going to take me back to the Palace, are you?" Lady Catherine said.
"No, my Lady. We're moving on. But if you've got the hut, we'll go find somewhere else to camp tonight," Sir Lawson said.
Lady Catherine sighed. "No, don't move on, there's nowhere else to stay. I've just made some supper. You want some?"
Sir Lawson glanced at Sir Josh. "Yeah, that would be great, my Lady, if you're inclined to be so generous. I am not sure you have enough for five extra mouths though."
"I'm a witch, of course I can feed five people. Come on, then. It's getting cold," she said, gesturing them inside.
Tying their horses outside, Sir Lawson, Sir Josh, Sir Adam, Sir Alan, and Sir Hamish followed her inside the hut. It was a one-room hut, with a fire, a bed, and a table, and not much else. It was simple, but did the job. They sat down at the table as supper was served to them. Sir Josh hesitated, unsure how he felt about being so close to Lady Catherine again.
Lady Catherine went to snap at him, but held her temper. "You irritate me, Sir Josh, but it is not you, but me. Please, sit and eat, and forgive me for my mood. I have too much weighing on my shoulders. I needed some time for myself away from the Palace."
"I know what you mean, my Lady. You are the Crown Princess, after all. Has your mother been flitting about your head again?" Sir Lawson said.
She sighed. "She is always doing that. She does not trouble me. It is you, Sir Josh. You trouble me. But I fear life may be simpler for us both if I return to the Palace, and let you roam with your Knight. I fear then we would both be content. You see, if I tell you what you are, what it means to be a two-spirit, things will be awakened that none of us can control. And that would not make you happy. It woujld not make me happy either. You don't belong here. I do. That's all you need to know."
Sir Josh looked at Sir Lawson. "But I do know. I was told last night while I tended to my vigil. We all know, all four of us saw what happened. But I have no desire to chase it, my Lady. The throne is yours. I gladly give it to you. My destiny lies elsewhere."
"He's right, we saw the crown just like he did, sitting plain as you like on his shield. He's the two-spirit, and he has our swords. Wherever he goes, we go too. We're sworn blood brothers now," Sir Adam said.
"So that is how it is to be then. How interesting. And yet, I wish I could go with you. Anything to get away from my mother. You know what she's like, Sir Lawson, so you understand why I wish to flee. It's not that I don't wish to be Queen either, for that is how I've been brought up. I will be Queen, of that I'm certain, but I wish she'd just leave me alone and let me live my own life," Lady Catherine said.
Sir Lawson nodded in agreement. "Don't talk like that. I've seen the Oracles like you have, my Lady. You'll get your Prince sooner than you think, and you'll heal this Kingdom of your mother's corruption. I can feel the land hurting as much as you can. It needs you. We all need you. That is by far a much better outcome for all of us. Sir Josh has been brought up in my service. You've only ever known the Palace. This is how it was always meant to be. He will be King, but it will be of a different kind. And before you interrrupt, Sir Josh, don't ask. You don't want to know."
Sir Josh wasn't planning on asking. He'd had enough of Destiny to last a lifetime. "So where do we go now? What's the next plan?"
"We go north, of course. No reason, apart from the fact it's away from the Palace. You'd be welcome to travel with us, Lady Catherine, if you should wish to visit the Kingdoms up north. We offer ourselves as an escort, should you wish it," Sir Lawson said.
Lady Catherine almost said yes, but declined. "I must go back. My Prince will meet me here, not the other way around. There is no point in defying things. I thank you for the offer, but go without me. I will be safe enough."
"Well then, tuck in, boys, we'll be off at dawn. Good luck, my Lady. Send my deepest regards to your mother," Sir Lawson said.
The five knights set off at dawn the next day, after stocking up on anything they could find in the forest. Their horses weren't too laiden down, and they had enough with them to defend themselves from an attack if it proved necessary. Sir Josh was happy to be on the road again, and he was keen to get back to their usual routine of travelling and sleeping out and making his own goddamn food again. He always liked that part.
His new friends, Sir Adam, Sir Alan, and Sir Hamish, were keen to experience the sort of life they lived, in spite of all the dire warnings about sleeping on hard ground in the cold, building their own shelters, and not having a bath at all unless you came across a nice clean stream or a lake.
"I hope you're ready, good Knights. We've got a road ahead of us and a whole Kingdom to explore. I hope you're ready for adventure!" Sir Lawson said.
"Oh, no, I'm going to need to cook for five now," Sir Josh suddenly realised as they set off down the North road. "Oh, that's going to need much bigger pots. We're going to have to stop by the next market town we find. And we'll need more tarpaulins. I can't build a shelter for five out of what we've got. Oh, and we'll need some more rugs, and some more rope, and maybe a cart or another horse to carry these things, and I need a new pair of shoes, and oh, we should remember to get some more hunting bows made. I could do with some help if I'm meant to be hunting for five..."