Midnight’s Knight is slated for release on March 20, 2017! I hope you’re as excited about learning the story behind two of my favorite characters who have been integral parts of the Fae War Chronicles from the very beginning.
Ramel came out the winner in Sneak Peek Roulette, so here is a chapter from Midnight’s Knight with Ramel as the focus. If you’ve read the other sneak peek, this chapter occurs fairly soon after the first one. (To give you any other chapters would be to spoil the book!) Enjoy!
Ramel arrived at the practice grounds before the bell signaling the end of the noon meal had even been rung. He wasn’t about to waste a single moment of the opportunity to train with the squires. His hands shook slightly as he unfolded his kerchief, and his stomach suddenly knotted. He looked at the bread and cheese that he’d smuggled from the kitchens and knew he should eat it, but gods, it felt like his insides were being chewed by a Northwolf and then filled with a thousand slithering snakes. He managed a bite of bread, but it tasted like sawdust, and his mouth was so dry that he had to wash it down with a gulp of water. After another torturous bite, he folded the cloth around the food and replaced it in his pack.
He tugged at the sleeves of his shirt and straightened his quilted training vest unnecessarily. His three roommates teased him good-naturedly about the time he’d spent that morning in front of the bit of polished silver that they used as a mirror. He’d thrown back a few cheerful insults in reply, mostly having to do with their lack of time spent in front of the mirror. But even earlier, his nerves prompted him to check and recheck his appearance, his desire to make a good impression on the squires overriding his distaste at the hint of vanity.
The single toll of the great bell in the Queen’s Tower sounded. One toll for the hour after noon, two tolls for the hour after that, and so on until dusk. Ramel felt the ring of the bell in his bones; every part of his body felt especially sensitive, galvanized by the writhing mass of anxiety in his gut. He ran over Squire Kieran’s words again in his head, trying to quash the doubt that whispered in the back of his mind. Perhaps the squires were only jesting, and they didn’t truly mean to spend any time with a young page. Perhaps they’d just said it to see whether he’d appear in the practice yards prepared. Worst of all, maybe they’d just laugh at him. His stomach dropped at the thought of being a laughingstock for all the squires and the pages who would no doubt line the wall as they did every day.
“They wouldn’t do that,” he said quietly to himself. Squire Kieran and Squire Finnead were the best of their year, and among the best of all the squires no matter what their age. They wouldn’t act dishonorably. But did telling a page that they would spar with him after the noon meal really count as anything that could be held to a Knight’s honor, even a Knight in training?
Attempting to distract himself from his racing thoughts, Ramel rearranged his gear, neatly lining up his copper water cup with his practice shield and his belt-pouch. He picked up his quarterstaff, the worn smoothness of the wood comforting beneath his touch. He stepped into an empty practice ring and began slowly running through the warm-up patterns that all pages learned during their first year. He knew them so well now, after years of being a page, that he could run through them with his eyes closed; and sometimes he did, testing his ability to sense the position of his body and his surroundings without sight. Their staff-master emphasized to them that simple strength or outstanding agility meant nothing when compared against hours of practice and attention to detail. Learning and practicing the movements slowly and smoothly laid the foundation for speed and, after many years of dedication, skill.
The pages trained with quarterstaffs, and only after at least five years of study did the staff-master allow them to pick up a practice shield. The staff-master also gave the older pages permission to add weight to their staffs through strips of silver carefully inlaid into the staff by the pages themselves. Ramel had added two bars of silver to his staff thus far. Each addition of weight meant hours of extra practice in the relative privacy of his barracks room, forcing his muscles to execute the patterns as precisely with the newly heavy staff as they had with a lighter one. It meant a few weeks of waking up with an aching body every morning and still keeping up with his fellows during the morning run and drills. But Ramel didn’t shirk the additional time, nor did he shy away from the physical discomfort. Some of the pages in his year hadn’t added any weight at all, despite the staff-master’s permission, and Ramel privately thought that they didn’t deserve to be made squires. If they weren’t willing to add weight to their staffs now, how would they become skilled with an actual blade?
A few squires began arriving at the practice grounds for their afternoon sessions. Ramel watched to ensure that he wasn’t taking a practice ring from any of them. A few of them gave him considering looks that bordered on skeptical—the pages practiced in the mornings, and the squires in the afternoons. The Knights and Guards had their own practice grounds inside Darkhill proper, where the Queen and the favored members of her Court could watch them spar, if they so chose. Thankfully, none of the squires bothered to ask why there was a lone page running drills with his staff in the farthest practice ring. They went about their own warm-ups and effortlessly ignored him.
A few of the younger pages filtered into the practice grounds to watch the afternoon training session of the squires. In contrast to the squires, they watched Ramel with interest and murmured to one another, no doubt making bets on the time that would pass before one of the squires would reprimand the lone page. Ramel swallowed down his nerves and schooled his face into a mask of concentration, but after another long quarter hour passed, with more squires arriving and no sign of Finnead or Kieran, he gave in to his desire to block it all out and closed his eyes for his next set of drills. Rather than let the whispers of the pages or the glances of the arriving squires rattle him, he concentrated on absorbing all the sensory cues that were made more apparent without his sight: the feel of the noonday sun on his skin, the slight breeze that whispered across the hard-packed dirt, the faint scent of sweat and the smooth wood of his quarterstaff in his hand, warm now from his own body heat.
He concentrated on engaging the proper muscles in his arms and legs as he ran through the drill, keeping his midriff tight and his stance properly balanced. As he swung his staff in a crescent block, he heard the soft scuff of a boot on the dirt, and before he could open his eyes, his staff was nearly wrenched from his hands by a strong grip. Acting purely on the reflex drilled into his body by hours of practice, Ramel sharply twisted his staff and reversed its motion, tracing an opposite crescent and forcing his unknown assailant to release the staff or come away with a badly sprained wrist at the least. With his staff free, Ramel delivered a sharp rap to where he estimated his opponent to be; and then, rewarded by the solid smack of his staff on flesh, he leapt backward to put space between them, only then opening his eyes. The murmuring of the pages along the wall of the practice ground took on an excited tone, his fellows’ voices swirling around him like a flurry of surprised moths.
Squire Kieran stood at the edge of the practice ring, brushing dust from the sleeve of his tunic—dust from his staff, Ramel realized with a dull horror. Squire Finnead stood a pace outside the ring, watching with a slightly arched eyebrow and a small smile.
“Do you know what the punishment is for hitting a squire?” Kieran demanded, his expression thunderous.
Ramel straightened and brought his staff to his side, swallowing hard. For once, he didn’t know what to say, so he settled for, “No, sir.” His voice cracked and shot up into the upper reaches of the soprano range. He cleared his throat and tried to ignore the embarrassment washing over him. “I apologize, sir.”
Squire Kiernan seemed to be having trouble containing his rage; his face contorted a bit, and he pressed his mouth together into a thin line. Ramel wondered faintly if squires were allowed to beat pages. He hadn’t ever heard of it being expressly forbidden, and he steeled himself. Then he heard Squire Finnead murmur in a slightly reproving tone, “Kiernan. I thought you were going to teach him a lesson, not scare him half to death.”
Ramel took a breath and squared his chest, raising his chin. His voice came out firmer and didn’t crack this time. “I’m not frightened, sir. I was merely startled when Squire Kiernan…stepped into the ring…during my drills. I apologize if I gave offense.”
“Startled,” repeated Squire Kiernan, raising an eyebrow. He pressed his mouth together again. Squire Finnead shook his head slightly as he looked at the taller squire.
With a slow, sinking feeling, Ramel realized that Squire Kiernan was trying not to laugh at him. In the first instant of crushed hope, he half-expected to feel the sting of childish tears trying to worm their treacherous way into his eyes; but to his surprise, he felt instead the warm blossom of anger in his chest. He drew his shoulders back and inclined his head respectfully, but now his voice hardened. “Sir, I have apologized if I gave offense, but I do not intend to be the subject of your amusement. I will cede you the ring.” He gave a stiff half-bow, gripping his quarterstaff so hard that his knuckles ached.
“No need to bristle, lad,” Kiernan said in a tone that was almost brotherly, holding up a hand. “Just a practical lesson in sharp words, since you are so fond of them.”
Ramel nodded but watched the well-built squire warily. Was he being dismissed? Was that the extent of the ‘lesson’ from Squire Kiernan? The murmuring of the pages swirled up again like dust kicked up by a strong wind. Squire Finnead turned his gaze to the gathered pages along the wall, his sapphire eyes inscrutable.
“If you insist on whispering like a crowd of gossips, I will tell you to leave,” he said firmly. He spoke without raising his voice and yet the pages fell silent instantly. “It is clear to me that a few of you wish to learn from their elders, whereas others only watch hungrily for their failure.”
A few of the pages looked down uncomfortably. Ramel felt a strange little spark of courage at Squire Finnead’s words. Was it possible these two squires, the best of their year and some of the youngest squires in recent history to be put forth at the Solstice, was it possible that they saw promise in him?
“Wishing failure upon your fellows not only displays a lack of chivalry, but a lack of understanding in the basic tenets of knighthood,” continued Squire Finnead, his eyes flashing with a hard, flinty spark. The pages all stood stock-still along the wall, none of them daring to move. Ramel, too, found himself rooted to the spot, transfixed by the power of Squire Finnead’s voice and words. And then an overwhelming conviction rose up in Ramel’s chest as he stood in the dusty practice ring: someday, Squire Finnead would be one of Queen Mab’s Three. Ramel didn’t exactly know how he knew—his mother’s sister had the Sight, but he hadn’t ever shown any signs of it. And besides, he didn’t See it. He just felt it, a bone-deep truth that settled into the fabric of his being simultaneously with another: someday he would be Finnead’s squire. He would polish his armor and tend to his mount and serve him at table. If Finnead was ever called to battle, Ramel would ride at his side.
“So be it by the Lady’s grace,” Ramel whispered soundlessly to himself. Squire Kieran saw his lips move, but he recognized the words of the invocation and only looked at Ramel with a considering gaze.
“What are your basic tenets of service to our Queen?” Squire Finnead demanded of the pages.
“Truth, honor and loyalty,” came the full-throated answer in young voices on the cusp of manhood.
“Truth, honor and loyalty,” repeated Squire Finnead with a nod, crossing his arms over his chest. “I will tell you now a truth that some of you clearly have not learned: desiring to see one of your fellow pages fail is a sign that you have not worked hard enough to succeed. It is only the weak that wish to see their peers fall, so that they may trod on their backs and lift themselves out of their own ineptitude.”
Ramel’s eyes widened slightly at the deliberate sharpness of Squire Finnead’s words. Squire Kieran’s gaze shifted between the pages and his fellow squire as he listened no less intently than the younger Sidhe.
“Your honor is displayed in your actions,” continued Squire Finnead, “and your loyalty is not only to your Queen but to each other—for who do you suppose will save your life in a battle with a mountain troll than one of your fellow Knights? Who do you suppose will bind your wounds and bear you safely from the field? Who do you suppose will stand stalwart by your side as you face the tasks demanded of you to protect the realm of our bright Queen?” Squire Finnead’s questions pressed down on them, layer after layer of meaning wrapping around their young forms. Rather than looking shame-faced, many of the pages now gazed at Squire Finnead with hero-worship shining in their eyes, their young faces aglow with admiration. Ramel realized he would have competition to be chosen as Squire Finnead’s future squire. He squared his shoulders and raised his chin. He would prove himself beyond a doubt.
“Are you sure you weren’t born to be a Scholar, brother? Or perhaps a poet,” said Squire Kieran into the breathless silence that followed Squire Finnead’s voice. “Your words have ensnared the young ones like little birds in a forest spider’s web.”
Ramel shuddered slightly at the comparison: forest spiders were the stuff of fireside tales, huge creatures that snared whole deer in their webs.
“I don’t want to capture them in a web,” replied Squire Finnead, matching his fellow squire’s light tone. “What use would I have for a dozen chirping little birds?” He raised his eyebrows slightly, half a smile on his lips. “Though now I wager they’ll chirp a bit less.”
“Chirp a bit less and learn to fly a bit more,” offered Murtagh shyly from his place along the wall with the other pages.
Squire Kieran chuckled. “And avoid spider’s webs while you’re flying,” he replied. Murtagh flushed in pleasure at the acknowledgement. Squire Kieran turned back to Ramel. “Shall we continue with our lesson now, little bird?”
Rather than feel offended, Ramel felt a strange pride in Squire Kieran’s brotherly diminutive. He straightened, tightened his grip on his staff and nodded. Squire Finnead tossed a practice staff to Squire Kieran, who caught it with casual grace. Ramel bowed to the squire, a traditional courtesy extended during training. His heart suddenly surged in his chest and he swallowed down his sudden anxiety, gripping his staff harder to hide the trembling of his hands.
The next hour passed in a strange kind of haze for Ramel. His focus narrowed to Squire Kieran and the staff in his hand. The squire started by running through basic patterns with him, nodding in satisfaction when it became apparent that Ramel displayed proficiency in the fundamental movements. Squire Finnead watched and occasionally commented, most often for the benefit of the now-silent pages gathered along the wall. Squire Kieran’s corrections were blunt but not mean-spirited, and Squire Finnead was careful to speak in generic terms about the skills of swordsmanship, making it apparent that he wasn’t talking about Ramel in particular. The other pages watched breathlessly, and the audience expanded to include a few of the more junior squires as well.
Ramel didn’t have time to feel any self-consciousness at being the center of so much attention; he concentrated all his energy on completing the tasks demanded of him. Sweat beaded on his brow and slid down his back. More than once, he was silently grateful for the leather grip that he’d painstakingly added to his staff. The pace that Squire Kieran set was so fierce that Ramel didn’t even have time to pause and wipe his palms on the hem of his shirt. It became quickly apparent that the older squire possessed much more stamina than him, but Ramel doggedly forced his tiring body into the movements with as much speed as he could muster.
During the last quarter hour, Squire Kieran increased the pace of their drills, though Ramel had believed they were already going at a breakneck pace. Ramel stumbled as the squire delivered a sharply smarting blow to his shoulder, but he turned the stumble into a sweeping uppercut with his staff, almost catching the squire off guard. Squire Kieran smiled a little as he blocked the uppercut.
“Good, lad,” he said in a voice barely more than a growl, still circling the ring but giving Ramel just a breath to recover. “Always look for your next move. Turn a mistake into an attack. Use your enemy’s satisfaction against him.”
Squire Kieran sounded barely out of breath, but Ramel didn’t spare any more than a cursory thought for that fact. Instead, he gritted his teeth and summoned all the reserves of strength remaining in his tired body.
“That’s it,” Squire Kieran said, his words low and meant only for Ramel. “When you think your body is at its limits, push harder.” Another hard rap from the staff to Ramel’s ribs, but the page didn’t even pause. “When you feel pain, brush it aside.” Their staffs connected with the solid thwack of wood upon wood. “When you believe you are winning, fight as though you are losing.” Their dancing feet summoned a cloud of dust from the hard-packed dirt. Ramel saw black spots dancing at the edges of his vision and his chest hurt from breathing so hard, but he didn’t relent. Their staffs were little more than blurs now; Ramel wasn’t sure how his limbs were still functioning, much less moving at a speed that he’d never imagined before this moment. He felt a strange sort of calm, like he stood in the center of a whirling storm. He blocked Squire Kieran’s staff once, twice, thrice, lunged forward for a counter-strike when he saw an opening—and then the world exploded in a starburst of color and his head snapped back with the strange numb force of an unexpected blow. After the colors, the world went black.
“When you believe you are fighting with staffs, watch for a punch.”
Squire Kieran’s voice wavered in the air like ripples in a pond. Ramel had been sure he’d fallen, because he wasn’t in control of his body, but somehow he wasn’t on the ground. He blinked hard, felt warm blood sliding down his chin, and realized that someone held him upright, firmly but not ungently.
“Steady, lad,” said Squire Finnead into his ear. “On your feet, now.”
Ramel heard his own breath loud in his ears and for a terrible moment he thought he’d retch right there on the squire’s feet. Then he drew on some reserve of strength he didn’t know he possessed and straightened himself, nodding to Squire Finnead even though the world still swam like it was underwater. He couldn’t focus on the faces of the pages against the wall of the practice grounds; they were all pale blurs.
“You leaned into that a bit more than I expected,” came Squire Kieran’s voice. Ramel drew back his shoulders as the big squire loomed over him. Slowly his vision began to clear, and he saw a flash of concern cross the squire’s face.
“He’ll be fine, just give him a moment,” said Squire Finnead, releasing his hold on the back of Ramel’s shirt.
“Might have a pair of black eyes,” said Squire Kieran.
Ramel shrugged in what he hoped was a nonchalant manner, but the movement made his stomach turn sickeningly. He swallowed hard but said, “Pages are clumsy. We fall down stairs and such all the time.”
“Well, your punch didn’t dull that sharp tongue of his,” Squire Finnead said to Squire Kieran.
Squire Kieran chuckled. “And now the sharp tongue is deployed in my defense.”
“I am glad for your time, sir,” Ramel said honestly, unable to scrape together a witty response. His thoughts felt like children’s marbles, rolling in all directions. At least he could see again. He fought the urge to wipe at the blood trickling over his lips and down his chin.
“All right, all to your own lessons,” Squire Kieran ordered the other pages. They hastily obeyed—all except Murtagh, who hesitated, wide-eyed to be disobeying a squire but clearly concerned for his friend. Squire Kieran began to say something to Murtagh, but then the world flickered black at the edges again and Ramel felt himself being moved quickly by Squire Finnead. When his vision cleared, he was standing in one of the small rooms off the practice grounds that held the blunt-edged practice weapons for the knights and older squires. The darker room felt blessedly cooler than the afternoon sun.
Ramel felt a tug at his hand and looked down in surprise to see that he still clenched his staff in his fist.
“Easy, now,” said Squire Finnead, sliding the page’s weapon from his grip. “It bodes well you kept your weapon in your hand, but relax for just a moment.” He steered Ramel toward a stool. The blunt swords gleamed on the wall, the light carving into Ramel’s aching eyes. He obediently sat, shivering as his sweat cooled on his skin.
“Here.” Squire Finnead pressed a water skin into his hands.
Ramel took a swallow. The cool water helped quell the uneasy turning of his stomach, but his voice still came out slightly hoarse. “Why are you being so…kind?”
Squire Finnead chuckled softly. “Kindness isn’t weakness when it’s properly tended, lad. Looking after those younger than you, especially if you’ve had a hand in hurting them, that’s just being an honorable squire.” The shadows darkened his sapphire eyes into fathomless depths. “Otherwise what would we be but schoolyard bullies?”
Ramel let Squire Finnead’s words sink into his pounding head. He saw the sense in them, but he still wanted to protest. He wanted to show them that he was grateful for their instruction, even if it meant a couple of black eyes and a bad headache. He wanted them to understand that he wouldn’t rat them out to any of the Knights—he wasn’t a sniveling little child, even though he was younger than them by at least a dozen years if not more. But his focus narrowed to taking a sip of water every few minutes and commanding his stomach not to rebel. Squire Finnead inspected the practice weapons on the wall, glancing at him every now and again but not making him uncomfortable with a constant gaze. For that, Ramel was strangely grateful. He wished he had the strength to simply ignore the pain, as Squire Kieran had said during their training session; but try as he might, his thoughts kept slipping like water through his fingers and the ache behind his eyes turned into hard knots at his temples and at the bridge of his nose.
“Here.” Now Squire Finnead handed him a wet cloth. Ramel stared dumbly at it. He couldn’t quite grasp what he was meant to do with it. The squire silently took it from his lax grip, tilted the younger boy’s head back slightly and began to clean the blood from his face. Ramel jerked when the squire touched his nose, and to his shame tears flooded his eyes at the stinging pain. Squire Finnead only pressed his lips together silently and held the back of Ramel’s head with his other calloused hand as he finished his task. Ramel hastily wiped his eyes with the edge of his sleeve the moment that the squire turned away.
“Well, this one said he’ll look after him,” came Squire Kieran’s voice. Ramel knew better than to turn his head. The room had finally stopped spinning from his last attempt to move.
“Murtagh, isn’t it?” Squire Finnead asked from somewhere near the door of the little room.
“Yes, sir,” Murtagh answered.
“It’s…all right,” Ramel said, but his words faded as another bout of dizziness swelled over him. “I’m fine.” His protest sounded weak to his own ears.
“Lad, I hit you as hard as I’d hit Finnead,” said Squire Kieran, a rueful note in his voice. “It’s no insult to your toughness that you need looking after. Now, I’ll speak to your staff-master about your afternoon lessons. Let me handle it,” he said firmly as Ramel began to protest again. “I’m beginning to think that blow knocked loose your sense of respect.”
“No, sir,” Ramel said dutifully.
“That’s more like it,” said Squire Kieran. “Now,” he said, turning to Murtagh, “you’ll have to be excused as well. With a hard hit like that, make sure he doesn’t go to sleep until nightfall. If he does get so sleepy that you can’t rouse him, come find one of us. This will help with the headache—one spoonful in a glass of water every few hours.”
“You just carry around herbs for headaches?” Ramel asked fuzzily, squinting at Squire Kieran.
“We’ve learned to be prepared,” replied Squire Kieran. He sank to his haunches in front of Ramel. “Open your eyes wide, lad.” He summoned a taebramh light with a snap of his fingers, and though Ramel winced at the sharp pain digging into his skull, he obediently kept his eyes open. Squire Kieran peered at first his left eye, then his right, and then had Ramel follow one of his fingers with his gaze as he moved it in different directions.
The squires conferenced in a low voice. Murtagh slid over to Ramel’s side, squeezing his friend’s shoulder reassuringly.
“That punch would have knocked out a cave troll,” Murtagh whispered.
“If I ever decide to box a cave troll, I’ll see if there’s truth in that statement,” said Squire Kieran with an arched eyebrow.
“No disrespect meant, sir,” Murtagh said hastily.
“None taken, lad. Now, let’s get you two up to the barracks.”
And though he felt like his head was about to explode like one of the firecrackers at the Solstice celebration, Ramel thought dizzily that every pang of pain was a price well paid, because now he knew his path. He circled back to the truths that had settled into him just before the sparring session. His mind kept returning to the thoughts like a dog to its favorite bone. Someday, Squire Finnead would be one of Queen Mab’s Three. And before that, he would be squire to Finnead. He smiled to himself, and let Murtagh think it was the effect of the blow to his head.
Content copyright January 2017 by Jocelyn A. Fox. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited without express permission of the author.