Hello everyone, I hope that 2017 finds you happy and healthy. As those of you who follow me on Facebook may know, my original release schedule for 2017 has been impacted by a few real-life events, not the least of which is a novella turning into a novel…which I think is to your benefit, really. I hope to have this novel wrapped up and ready to be released by the end of February, and after that I will turn my attention to Book 5 of Tess’s timeline.
Ramel and Finnead’s story was too important to be shortchanged, and I’ve loved getting to know them as their younger selves. So here is a preview of what awaits in Midnight’s Knight, a Fae War Chronicles novel. Enjoy!
Dust hung suspended in the air over the practice grounds, drifting in a pale cloud over the dark heads of the young Sidhe crossing swords in the ring. Younger boys stood to one side, watching the squires with sharp eyes, whispering to each other when they spotted a particularly deft movement executed by one of the fighters. The wooden practice swords cracked together sharply—though they were permitted to practice their swordsmanship without the watchful eye of a Knight or a Guard, the squires were still restricted to blunt practice weapons carved from hard wood. Even these wooden swords could break bone if they hit at just the right angle; the squires were not full Knights, but many of them had been training for a quarter-century or more and they were nearing their age of majority.
“When d’you think Carden will take a squire, Murtagh?” whispered one copper-haired page to the boy standing beside him. The pages meticulously memorized the hierarchy of the Guards, Knights and their squires. A page would only be promoted to squire after he had completed at least two decades of training and had been chosen by a Guard or a Knight; typically the Guards and Knights chose their new squires after the Queen’s Games at Midwinter, when the Queen selected the squires to be made Knights and Guards.
The other page shrugged. “He’s only been a Knight for a decade, doesn’t mean he has to take a squire. Some never do.”
“Aye, and that cuts down on our chances,” said the copper-haired page, crossing his arms over his chest as he watched two of the younger squires spar. He imagined holding a heavy wooden practice sword rather than a page’s quarterstaff.
“Always so optimistic, Ramel,” said the boy on his other side, his voice a bit patronizing.
“Perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to be stuck as a page until my age of majority,” replied Ramel with quick wit, lifting one eyebrow at the boy who’d spoken.
The boy flushed. “’Tisn’t Carrick’s fault that he’s not a squire yet.” His fists balled at his sides at the insult to his older brother.
Ramel’s green eyes sparked with merry mischief. “Oh, of course not. My apologies, Owain. It couldn’t possibly be Carrick’s fault that he was passed over ten times at the Queen’s Games—”
“Ramel,” said the other page warningly, watching Owain pale with fury. They might only be pages, but they were closer to men than boys now, with all the hotheaded impulses of youth and the strength of maturity beginning to show in their bodies. Owain’s chest heaved as his face twisted into a mask of anger, his rage increasing with Ramel’s every word.
The copper-haired page continued on without pause, focused on Owain’s mounting anger with a kind of glinting satisfaction. “—I mean, that’s a decade of failing to catch even the oldest Knight’s eyes, and you know how a few of them like to take pity on the prettiest lads….oh, well, I suppose that might be why your dear brother hasn’t caught their fancy, since he’s neither pretty nor skilled—”
Owain’s self-control finally snapped, and he lunged forward, tackling Ramel with a yell of anger. Ramel flashed a grin at Murtagh, who sighed and rubbed his forehead as he watched the two pages wrestle, Owain shouting angrily at Ramel to apologize for the slur to his brother and Ramel gleefully avoiding every blow aimed at him with admirable quickness. The other pages watched with a mixture of amusement and disapproval, some of them edging away from the scuffle. The Knights, as a whole, did not approve of pages engaging in petty fistfights.
Owain caught Ramel with a flailing punch, landed more through luck than skill; but Ramel licked at the blood trickling over his lip and grinned, his eyes bright with enjoyment as he leapt to his feet. Owain tackled him again with a wordless, growling yell of fury that turned into a howl of indignation when Ramel promptly flipped him onto his back and stretched out his arm, putting pressure on the joint. Murtagh winced at Owain’s undignified yowl; he considered breaking them up and then quickly abandoned the idea as two of the older squires approached with grim faces. They tossed aside their practice swords and hauled the two pages apart. Owain swallowed a childish sniffle as the squire holding him by the collar set him upright again. Ramel stood with a bit more grace, ignoring the bluish blood smeared down his face. He bowed his head respectfully to the squire who still held his arm in a firm grip—more to protect Owain than to offer Ramel any assistance.
Murtagh evaluated the two squires with wide eyes. They were both in the older half of the squires, their bodies well muscled from their decades of training. Next to them, Ramel and Owain looked like mere boys. But despite all this, Ramel had the gall to meet their sharp gazes.
“Why are we interrupting our practice session to break up a fistfight between two pages?” asked the squire holding Owain by the collar. He shook the now-pale page slightly when he didn’t receive an answer.
“He started it,” Owain said sullenly, jerking his chin at Ramel.
“Is that true?” asked the squire holding Ramel’s arm, looking at him with serious eyes the color of sapphires.
“No, sir,” replied Ramel in a measured voice. He still didn’t pay any mind to the blood dripping from his nose, which now slid down his chin and dripped onto the hard-packed dirt.
“No?” The squire raised one dark eyebrow, waiting for Ramel to elaborate.
“No, sir,” repeated Ramel. “We were merely discussing the chances of Knight Carden choosing a squire, sir, after this year’s Games, and that led to a discussion of the unfortunate…delay…of some pages in their progression. Sir,” he added, just to be safe.
Murtagh watched the whole discussion from a few paces’ distance. Owain flushed again at Ramel’s calm and measured description, which seemed to be winning over the squires. He lunged forward again, only to be jerked back by the squire holding his collar…unfortunately, he looked a bit like a pup being held by his scruff by a larger dog. Murtagh had to hide a smile and he glimpsed the spark of amusement in Ramel’s gaze.
“He insulted my brother,” panted Owain, sounding petulant after Ramel’s carefully considered words.
“And who is your brother?” asked the squire holding Owain.
“Carrick,” answered Owain almost resentfully.
“Well, that is unfortunate,” murmured the squire holding Ramel’s arm. Ramel thought he heard a note of repressed mirth in the squire’s voice, and he risked a glance at the squire’s face. He cursed his own forwardness as he found that the squire was looking down at him, catching the inquisitive scan. He lowered his eyes respectfully.
“Waste of time, this,” said the other squire with a sigh, but then he looked over at Murtagh. “You. Did you see what happened?”
“He’s his friend!” yelped Owain indignantly. “He won’t tell it straight—”
“Quiet,” snapped the squire, “or you’ll find yourself with boxed ears and a bad reputation among the squires.” He grimaced slightly and corrected himself. “A worse reputation among the squires.”
The squire holding Ramel almost smiled at that. “Perhaps a bit harsh for the boy to hear, Kieran.”
“All the better he hears it now and not later, so he doesn’t end up like that fool brother of his,” Kieran replied relentlessly.
Murtagh almost felt bad for the now shame-faced Owain. He startled slightly when the other squire addressed him again.
“Now, tell us the truth of it,” the squire said in a level voice. “What are the basic tenets of your service to the queen, after all?”
“Truth, honor and loyalty,” replied Murtagh automatically. He took a breath. “Sir, ‘twas Owain that tackled Ramel…but truthfully, Ramel goaded him with words about his brother.”
“What exactly did he say?” the squire asked.
Kieran sighed. “Come on, Finn, let’s get back to the ring and let these whelps get back to their learning.” He shook Owain a bit at his last word.
“Oh, we’re learning right now,” said the squire Finn with a glint in his eye. He turned back to Murtagh.
The page cleared his throat and steeled himself. “Sir, Ramel said that Owain’s brother Carrick was neither skilled enough to be taken on as a squire by a younger Knight, nor was he pretty enough to catch the eye of an older Knight who might be swayed by such things. Sir,” he added, following Ramel’s lead.
“May the Good Lady protect us,” muttered Kieran, looking away from the two pages. Finn, for his part, kept his face composed; but his shoulders shuddered slightly, like he’d swallowed a chuckle. After a moment, he nodded to Kieran. The squires released the younger boys, who assumed the posture that they all adopted when they were being chastised by an older warrior: hands linked behind their back, eyes respectfully focused somewhere over the shoulder of the Knight, Guard or squire correcting them.
“At least you know how to stand respectfully,” said Finn mildly. He looked at Owain. “It would do you well to gain more patience and composure. You cannot afford to be hotheaded when your family name already bears the shadow of your brother’s failure.”
“I hope to be judged on my own merits, sir,” Owain said in a voice barely more than a whisper. All the page’s anger had drained away, leaving him pale and defeated.
“A worthy sentiment,” said Kieran, crossing his brawny arms, “but you must earn that right. And from what we have seen today, you’d rather be brawling in the dirt over an insult than working hard to step out of your brother’s shadow.”
Owain said nothing, bowing his head.
“And you. Ramel, is it?” Finn turned to the copper-haired page. “Curb that barbed tongue of yours until you are old enough and skilled enough to merit its use.”
Ramel raised an eyebrow ever so slightly and glanced over at Owain, whose torn shirt and bruised face spoke clearly enough about the superiority of his skills.
“Don’t look so proud of yourself for besting one of your peers in a fistfight,” Kieran warned him, catching the look. “Next time perhaps we will test you ourselves, if you think yourself a cut above.”
“I would be honored to learn humility at your hands, sir,” Ramel replied in a voice so respectful that the two squires couldn’t take his words as sarcasm. Finn’s lips twitched in a half-smile and he glanced at Kieran, who didn’t look quite so amused.
“Tomorrow after the noon meal, then,” Kieran told Ramel. His voice took on a warning tone. “It will be a hard lesson.”
Ramel barely contained his excitement; he felt his heart leap. But he kept his eyes focused over Kieran’s shoulder and nodded. “Yes, sir. I look forward to it, sir.”
“And stop calling me ‘sir,’” Kieran muttered, shaking his head as he turned to walk away.
Finn gave the two pages an appraising glance before he joined his fellow squire. He pointed to each of them in turn. “Thicker skin,” he said to Owain. “A Knight never loses his composure.”
Owain nodded silently. Finn shifted his gaze to the copper-haired boy.
“Courtesy and restraint,” he said to Ramel. “A Knight does not gloat over the failings of his peers or those below him.”
“Yes, sir,” said Ramel dutifully.
Finn dismissed them with a gesture, returning to the practice ring with Kieran. Ramel rejoined Murtagh with a small, satisfied smile on his face.
“Why do you look like a hunting hound who’s caught the fox?” Murtagh asked him in a whisper. They needed to be quiet now, or the squires would probably banish them from watching the practice sessions for a few days.
“Because I’m going to practice with the squires tomorrow,” Ramel said with a hint of smugness. He brushed his coppery hair away from his forehead, watching Kieran and Finn begin their sparring practice again.
“You’re not going to practice with the squires, you’re going to get beaten by them,” Murtagh corrected him.
Ramel shrugged. “They’ll remember my name now.” He glanced at Murtagh. “Not all of us are Walkers. I don’t have anything to fall back on if I’m not accepted as a squire.”
Murtagh shifted. He didn’t particularly like discussing his unusual talent with the other pages, though he counted Ramel as a friend. “I haven’t entirely made my decision yet.”
“You’re passing good at staffs, but not brilliant,” remarked Ramel, his eyes following Finn’s quicksilver movements. “That will translate into the sword work we learn as squires. Your archery is all right too, but overall you’re middling at best.”
Murtagh sighed. “It hasn’t even been five minutes since the squires lectured you and you’re already sharpening that tongue of yours again.”
“No,” said Ramel, shaking his head earnestly. “That’s not what I mean, and you know it. I’m just saying that if you don’t want to be a Knight or a Guard, might be best to cut out early. It’s going to get harder as we go…and there’s no turning back once you accept your sword.”
“I already know that,” muttered Murtagh.
“I’m just saying it as a friend,” Ramel said, softening his tone. They stood in silence for a few moments. Finn slid his practice blade through Kieran’s guard and gave the larger squire a quick rap on the shoulder.
“We’ll still be friends if I do…if I leave, won’t we?” said Murtagh. He tried to keep the hopeful note out of his voice.
“Of course,” said Ramel, but his eyes were on the sparring squires. “We’ll always be friends.”
“Aye,” said Murtagh with a sigh, watching his copper-haired friend. He wasn’t yet a century old, but he knew enough of the world to understand that if he didn’t continue on the path to become a Knight, their friendship would fade into a fond acquaintance. Murtagh looked at the rapt expression on Ramel’s face as he watched Finn leap across the practice ring, wooden blade blurring with the speed of his movements; Ramel wanted to be a Knight more than anything, and Murtagh wished his friend all the success in the world. If only he was so sure of his own path…but those were thoughts for a quiet afternoon spent away from their training. So he tucked away his doubts and squared his shoulders as they watched the squires spar.
Content copyright January 2017 by Jocelyn A. Fox. Unauthorized reproduction is prohibited without express permission of the author.