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Knights Errant

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“Oh come, Ned, it’s only one little tournament...”

Piers stood up in the saddle, causing his horse to shy a little at the change of weight, and Edward to look at him in agonies of indecision.

“But father said that I wasn’t to go. I am not allowed to go.”

Piers sat back down again, and shook back his curls, and laughed. “Oh, defy him, Ned, please do. I have a bet on with Sir Ralph that you would, and you don’t want to make a liar of me, do you?”

He looked down at Edward, where he sat in the entrance to the tent, with a winning, wheedling look on his handsome face. Edward sighed. It was always this way, with Piers leading, and himself following. Ever since they were striplings together, their interactions had followed that pattern, and Edward couldn’t find it in him to complain. The need to give in to Piers sat under his breastbone much like a real wound might. The censure from his father the King was a lot further away, and in this particular war, as with any war that involved Piers, he was winning. He would always win, and Edward was glad of it.

He just sometimes wished that Piers wanted him to do things that were more honourable, and less... troublesome.

Of course, it wasn’t that Piers was dishonourable, precisely, more that his plans were usually mischievous, or even impish in nature. Not for Piers the boredom and solemnity of duty and state occasion. Or even, such as now, fighting an unwinnable war against the damned Scots. No, a party, or a feast, or a tournament, these were the entertainments that Piers craved, and Edward craved them too - he couldn’t deny it. He just wished that he could do both. That he wasn’t so torn between his father and his best friend.

“Ah Ned,” said Piers, more softly, seeing his struggle, “Do I not always think of you? I know you may not leave the Scottish front, on pain of deepest punishment, but I have thought of that - see.” He snapped his fingers and a servant brought a leather bag from which he pulled a cloth, that was a plain cover for a shield device, and an absurdly scruffy surcoat, that could not have seen better days these ten years past.

“There you are,” said Piers, magnanimously, “So that you may join us, and none shall be the wiser - excepting Sir Ralph, of course!”

Edward grinned, because that was like Piers too, generous to his friends, cutting to his enemies, a tongue like an adder, or so the gossip went. Edward knew differently - knew how much his friendships meant to him. Had a fair old idea that the bet with Sir Ralph didn’t really exist, but that it gave both Piers and himself a titular reason, an excuse. Edward appreciated the artifice, even if his father no doubt would not.

“Well, and so I shall,” said Edward, pretending weariness, “For I cannot see you in pauper’s garb if you should lose, and to ask for more largess just now would be to send my father into one of his apoplexies.”

Piers held out his gloved hand for Edward to clasp, “And it is a shame that such a man could not be carried off by one. Jesting, of course!”

Edward took the hand, and his own was immediately surrounded by the softest doeskin, with gilt chasing about the sleeve. “No,” said Edward, with a smile, “I would not see you the poorer, for all your jokes are in such treasonous taste.”

“And I thank God for that every day,” grinned Piers, perfectly in amity with him.

***

The tournament was all entertainment. Edward was glad that he had come, for all that his borrowed surcoat itched abominably. No-one seemed to recognise him, or perhaps they were determined not to do so, despite the fact that he was in the midst of a crowd of young knights, twenty one of them, or more. It could have been lonely, but instead it seemed rather more freeing, despite the itch of commoner’s wool upon his neck.

There was a rich feeling of danger as he tilted in the joust, for no-one would be generous with his person, or his skill - for here he was not Edward, Prince of Wales, but an unnamed knight, of no known prowess or honours. There was the possibility of injury, even perhaps of death, although that would be the basest of ill-luck - but it did add a frisson, there was no denying.

Edward was red-faced and laughing when Piers caught up with him.

“Congratulations are in order, I hear,” he said, his eyes twinkling, “For Sir Nemo of Nowhere is through to the next bout, and very creditably too.”

“Yes,” said Edward, all contentment, “And here also is a very acceptable draught of sack, if Sir Piers would care to partake with Sir Nemo in celebration?”

“Always,” said Piers, his hand on his heart, “And forever.”

Edward laughed. He wished life was always this simple. This filled with joy. Piers slumped down with him on the same bale of straw, and they passed the bottle backwards and forwards, watching the crowds passing by the tourney fields. Idly, Edward reached over and began picking at the pearls that embellished his friend’s overly-decorated girdle.

“You are such a dandy, dear Perrot,” he said, and Piers shrugged.

“I am as my Lord God made me, which is apparently with an unending appetite for the finer things of life.” He twitched his girdle out of Edward’s grasp, but left his own hand behind, strong and shapely, and Edward idly played with that instead, turning it this way and that, admiring its lines, placing it palm up, and tracing the heartline there with the tips of his fingers. It was as strong and unbroken as the rest of him, another enduring proof of their friendship if any such were needed.

Impulsively, Edward bent down a little before drawing it to his lips, placing a kiss upon that sturdy loyal palm. Piers drew in a sudden breath and shifted slightly. Edward smiled into his skin, before lifting his head and glancing slyly at his friend.

“Are you certain? Here?” asked Piers, looking almost flustered, a delicious hint of pink about his noble ears, “We would only be a width of fabric from discovery...”

The sack had warmed that hollow space beneath his breast. Edward was feeling pot-valiant and far from cautious. “You said it yourself, cos. I am Sir Nemo of Nowhere. No-one cares what Sir Nemo does, or with whom he spends his time. Or in what manner.”

Piers chuckled, a filthy deep sound. “Then I am your man, Ned, in whatever way you want me.”

“And I do want you, Perrot. Always.”

The tent flap closed silent as a whisper behind them.

***

A rosy light was creeping in through the edges of the tent, red from the dawn, red from the fabric of the tent, and Edward was feeling lazy, cossetted in that warm red warmth, that was almost as good as a fire. He would win this tournament today, he was certain, and in that comfortable knowledge, he could relax. His body felt pleasantly spent, and his mind was at ease - what more could be wanted from the world?

“Ned, Ned, damn them - we are discovered!” said Piers, from without, his voice sounding harsh and rough with anger.

Edward closed his eyes. He was not to be allowed such peace. He might have known.

The tent was suddenly thrown wide open, the dawn light more piercing now, nowhere near as rosy as he had expected, and Piers himself was abruptly there beside him in a whirlwind of strong limbs, carelessly secured clothes and an uncombed beard. This last was nearly unheard of, and Edward discovered in himself the first stirrings of real anxiety.

“What can you mean?” he asked, his voice rising to an uncomfortably high pitch. He and Piers had not been discovered in any kind of compromising situation. What could possibly be worse than that?

“It’s your father, the King. He has discovered this rewarding place, and the reason why we deserted the Scottish front. He has sent a force of knights to recover us, and to arrest us all more than likely. We must flee!”

Piers eyes were white like that of a spooked horse in the semi-gloom of the tent. He began scrabbling at braies and hose, and throwing them at Edward’s still-naked form.

“Ned, you must hurry. I am of a mind that he doesn’t yet know that you are with us, and I do not think any of our company would betray you, as long as he does not question them directly. Which he won’t if you can get a move on!”

So Edward threw back the covers and stood, his body beginning to shiver in the chill of an early dawn. Piers still threw an admiring glance his way, which pleased him, despite the panic he could already feel beginning to infect their small area of the camp. Although it didn’t stop him getting dressed as speedily as he might, because it was cold enough to shrivel the plums now he was out of his cosy nest. Piers aided him, by playing the part of body servant, holding up garments and armour, and by slipping linens next to his skin. It was a damned shame their time was so limited, a damned shame. Knowing it was Piers at such a task warmed the blood wonderfully.

But Edward sobered fast enough once he emerged to find their small camp almost packed up entire. His tent must have been left until the last, which he appreciated, although he also thought less care taken about his sleeping person, and more of a care taken with regard to his intact hide would have been appreciated even more. However he recognised in himself that such surliness was perhaps due more to the early hour and lack of breakfast than to any real complaint.

The mood of the camp was beginning to affect him, his pulse starting to quicken, his palms to sweat. When Piers began to run towards the line of horses, it seemed only natural to pace alongside, feeling his breath moving faster, a tingle rising in the belly. Like the anticipation before a battle, although he hoped that it wouldn’t come to that, for all his own experiences of such things had been kept limited by a father’s natural caution for an only son. Piers was laughing now Edward saw, and turned to see what had amused him so. There was a distant smudge on the horizon, a darkness spreading on the silvered dewy meadows - it was his father’s force, which numbered more than thirty knights, Edward judged, although it was hard enough to tell in the misty dawn.

“They take us seriously, do they not?” said Piers, his smile wide and exhilarated, looking as alive as Edward had ever seen him. “Here, up you get.”

And before Edward knew what was happening, he had been tossed upon the back of his favourite mount, a feisty sorrel by the name of Marron, who shifted uneasily under him, as eager and unsettled by all this as Edward himself.

Piers mounted alongside and as soon as he hit the saddle he was off. Edward was almost hard pushed to keep up - but following Piers was something he had had a great deal of practice in. He bit his lip, the sting of the wind bringing tears to the eyes, but his companions, his fellow knights, were beautifully up to the task. Even as his father’s men began streaming into the camp - desperate to engage, but thankfully apparently not keen to kill or main - their own small force split up in a dozen different directions, making their enemies chase each and every one, or none at all. Laughter came on the wind, streaming like their pennants behind them - Edward was so damn proud of them all in that moment, as they made a game of it, and played it so very well. He added his own cries to the melee, whooping like a boy again, and Piers looked back at him, his teeth blindingly white in his grinning face, and his excitement so palpable, that Edward’s heart thumped more strongly in his chest than ever.

“It’s no good!” shouted Piers, in apparent glee, “They will catch us eventually. How can they not?”

He didn’t seem to care though, thought Edward delightedly. His friend, his truest companion of the heart, so brave and admirable. But Piers was waving him forward.

“You must go, Ned,” he cried, “We will hold them off - your escape will never be noticed in all this crush. You must go back, be and do and act as though you had never once thought of this tourney field.”

“But Sir Nemo does not want to leave you!” Edward shouted back, although he knew, even as he offered his defiance, that it was no good. He must agree, or face his father’s terrible rage. And that was not to be borne.

“I shall come aright!” Piers called, “I always do! Hey there!” He had wheeled even as he’d conversed and now, coming hard upon Edward’s side, he slapped Marron’s rump, causing him to snort and break into a rough gallop, veering away towards the road. Edward looked back helplessly over his shoulder as he was carried away, seeing his dear Perrot rearing his own steed, and waving his sword dramatically in the air, almost like a jackanapes, in a conspicuous effort to draw the eye away from the fleeing mount and its lone rider.

It was a solitary journey, in the end. None of the one-and-twenty knights met up with him on the road, and Edward couldn’t decide whether he was glad or sorry. But his heart was kept warm by the image of Piers there at the end, facing down the world. He knew he would think of it often, freezing alone in his pallet in the Scottish borderlands. He would hold that picture like a keepsake in the cavern of his memory, and treasure it always.

But more practically, as soon as he returned, he would also seek out his step-mother, the estimable Queen Margaret - for if there was a soul yet alive who could temper the King’s wrath, then it was her. Dearest Meg, who had a fondness for him, and for Piers. Who could surely be depended upon for all such comfort and mitigation as he could contrive.

For Piers would always come aright - if his Ned could have anything to do with it at all.