Be Careful What You Joust For
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Isolda's father once told her that any respectable tournament would feature at least three deaths. Such events were dangerous affairs. A lance could catch a knight in just the wrong spot and find its way through his armor, or a man might take a moment too long to yield in the hand to hand combat. The competitors weren't the only ones in danger, though. Brawls in the stands could often turn deadly. And sometimes people gambled more than they could afford, forcing the debt collectors to take their payment in flesh rather than coin.
Isolda knew that the upcoming tournament would be no exception to the rule of three deaths. It was to be the biggest tournament Treland had ever seen. Bigger arena, more knights, more spectators, and definitely higher stakes. There were even whispers that this tournament was the one foretold in the Prophecy of Arwin. Surely there would be at least three deaths. But who?
The first death, Isolda knew, would belong to her youngest son, Terric. He wasn't going to take a lance through the heart or partake in illegal gambling...at least, she hoped he hadn't gotten into such things. No, his death was of a different variety. He was to take the Oath of Arwin on the final day of the tournament, and with that oath, his dreams of becoming a knight would be snuffed out.
The second death would belong to Isolda's eldest daughter, Oriana. She was of marrying age, and with so many young lords and knights coming to town, it was inevitable that a betrothal would be arranged. Whether it would be to Prince Rixin or some other noble, Isolda was not sure, but either way, the second death would be that of her daughter's childhood.
The third death...Isolda didn't know what the third death would be. She hoped it wouldn't happen at all, but if it had to, she prayed it wouldn't belong to her eldest son, Marcus. His wouldn't be the death of a childhood dream or the death of his youth. He was competing in the tournament, so if the third death belonged to him, surely it would be death in the simplest sense of the word: the end of his life.
A knock on her chamber door took Isolda out of her thoughts. A page handed her a letter sealed with the symbol of a Gargamulan man trap pressed into pale green wax - the mark of Axion Tobias Crane. She broke the seal and scanned the letter. If someone had intercepted it, they would have thought that it was an update on Tobias' tutelage of Terric. He was progressing well in mathematics and showed a great enthusiasm for history and cartography. That was good news, but Isolda suspected that the letter served another purpose. She walked over to the fire and held the paper as close as possible to it without it catching fire. Within seconds, a note written in fire ink became visible in the left margin. New Market, third alley on the left, second right, one hour. Isolda committed the directions to memory and tossed the letter into the fire.
What does he want? wondered Isolda. Tobias knew to only summon Isolda for matters of the utmost importance, which meant one of two things. Either her husband's inspectors were dangerously close to exposing the truth about one of her establishments, or Tobias had finally uncovered a clue... No, Isolda refused to let herself dream of such things.
The guard at the front gate of Vulture Keep snapped to attention at the sight of Isolda approaching.
"Good morning, my lady," he said. "I would have had a carriage and escort waiting if I had known you planned on venturing out today."
"That's not necessary," said Isolda. "It's a lovely morning for a stroll around the city."
"That it is," agreed the guard. "Just give me a moment to call for Michael..."
Before the guard could finish, Isolda smiled at him and walked through the gate. She didn't need guards to follow her around the city. She was quite capable of handling herself.
She made it across the bridge and through Sir Garus' square before she noticed the two men watching her. They were both dressed in hooded roughspun cloaks that covered them from head to toe, and by the look of it, they were both armed.
Isolda turned left and headed toward the switchbacks that divided the upper and lower halves of the city. The men followed.
The quickest path to the new market would have been to go straight at the bottom of the cliff, but instead Isolda took a left. The men followed.
Two more right turns brought her back to the main street, the one she would have been on if she had not gone left. Again, the men followed. She quickened her pace. They quickened theirs. She had no doubt that they were following her.
She weighed her options. She could turn down an alley, but they would easily see her and follow. If she ducked into a crowd...no, there were no crowds. With the tournament only a few weeks away, the streets of Arwin's Gate were more crowded than usual, but that still meant that there were only half a dozen people rather than the one or two people that would have been present a month ago. She had no chance of escaping until she reached a busier part of town.
As she approached the new market, the crowds seem to double in size with every step she took. Before construction had begun on the new arena, this part of town had been almost entirely empty, save for unsavory characters that met in crumbling buildings in the wee hours of the morning to sell crossbows, scorpium, and any other contraband they could find. But now it was teeming with merchants hoping to sell their wares to nobles coming to town for the joust and...
"Watch out!" shrieked a woman behind her.
Isolda jumped back. The wagon swerved. It went up on two wheels. Isolda thought for sure that its cargo of colorful carpets would spill out and crush a fruit stand, but the driver was able to stabilize it just before it tipped past the point of no return. He shouted a few choice words not at all appropriate for the ears of a duchess as he turned onto a side alleyway that seemed much too narrow for his wagon.
Isolda let out a sigh and looked down to make sure her foot hadn't been run over. It hadn't, but she was standing on the tail of a very angry looking squirrel. It chirped at her and scurried away as soon as she lifted her foot.
She turned to locate her pursuers and found that they were pushing through the crowd headed straight towards her. As they approached, they pulled off their cloaks to reveal black and grey quartered tunics with a golden rhino head emblazoned on the front.
"Are you harmed, my lady?" asked one of the men.
"N...no," stuttered Isolda. "No, I don't think I am. Just a bit shaken up." She let out a dramatic sigh.
The guard nodded and gripped the hilt of his sword. "How shall we handle that reckless driver? Lord Garrion will surely banish him if you'd have it so."
Isolda considered it for a moment. "I can't help but feel partially responsible. He was going too fast, but if I had been watching where I was going, it all could have been avoided."
The guard frowned. "Then just a fine?"
"If you think that's best," said Isolda.
One of the guards started off down the alleyway in pursuit of the wagon. The other stayed with her.
"Are you sure he knows where he's going?" Isolda asked. "I could have sworn the wagon went over there." She pointed at an alley further down the street.
"Are you certain?" asked the guard.
"No, but what harm would it do to check?" Isolda suppressed a smile as she watched the second guard run off into a dead-end.
That was easy, she thought. After years of practice, Isolda had become quite adept at spotting the guards that Garrion sent to protect her whenever she left the castle. They always wore cheap hooded cloaks to try to blend in, but to her trained eye, that only made them stand out. She had confronted Garrion about it once, but he just feigned ignorance. After that, she had made a point to lose the guards whenever possible, whether she was having a clandestine meeting with Tobias or merely enjoying a morning stroll.
Before the guards could return, Isolda ducked into the third alley on the left and went through the second door on her right. It was immediately clear to her that the room hadn't been occupied for years, not since the gold mine went dry and practically turned Arwin's Gate into a ghost town overnight. The only part of the room not covered with a thick layer of dust was a vanity in the corner of the room stocked with make-up, a wig, and a neatly folded pile of clothes.
Isolda's transformation began by exchanging her shimmering golden dress for a pair of black pants, a dark grey corset, high-heeled leather boots that reached to mid-thigh, and long leather gloves to match. She wiped off her usual bright red lipstick in favor of a more subtle pink. A bit of powder on her cheeks quickly removed her tan glow. The last order of business - and probably most important - was her hair. Isolda removed her black ironwood hairpin, being careful not to poke herself with the razor sharp point. It had been a gift from her father before he sent her up north to find a husband. "As long as you have this, you'll always be safe," he had told her. His promise hadn't been entirely true, as the hairpin had done little to protect her from being imprisoned at the end of the Wizard's War, but at least it had kept her alive. She tucked the pin into the front of her corset before securing her long golden braids underneath a curly black wig. A pair of odd little spectacles and a long brown cloak finished her transformation from Lady Isolda Hornbolt, Duchess of the Shield, to Lady Marsilia, the most notorious crime lord in Arwin's Gate.
Isolda had no trouble spotting Tobias on the crowded market street. His short stature would generally make him difficult to locate, but his tan top hat was more than tall enough to make him appear at least a normal height, if not taller. Tobias adjusted his glasses as he inspected the offerings of an ink merchant. As soon as Isolda caught his gaze, he finished his purchase of a new quill and walked in the opposite direction.
Isolda followed behind him. It probably wasn't necessary to keep such a distance, but she could never be too cautious. Her husband already had an innate distrust of anyone from the godless city of Techence. Rumors of Tobias being mixed up with Lady Marsilia would only deepen that distrust.
At first Isolda wasn't sure which of her establishments Tobias was heading towards, but as they continued, it became clear that he was taking her to their newest venture, the Razortooth Tavern.
The mud brick walls, thatched roof, and arched windows of the tavern matched the rest of the buildings in the city, but that was only because they weren't finished with the details yet. Men were hard at work fitting iron grates to the windows and chiseling away at a larger-than-life statue of a razortooth tiger standing guard at the entrance. Isolda waited a few minutes and then followed Tobias through the doors.
"Welcome to the Razortooth Tavern, Lady Marsilia," said Tobias with a grin. "What do you think?" He gestured around the tavern. The tables were all new, the seats looked as comfortable as you could expect at a tavern, and the bar was well stocked with everything from Fjorking ale to Barcovan wine.
"Everything looks just as it should," said Isolda. "But I assume you haven't brought me here to impress me with..." Isolda picked up one of the bottles she didn't recognize and read the label, "...Kraken Tooth rum."
Tobias adjusted his glasses and looked down. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean..."
"I'm not upset, Tobias. I just want to know what was so urgent."
"Of course you do. I would have just sent a letter about it, but I wasn't sure...well, you should just come look." Tobias led Isolda upstairs and ushered her into room 17, which turned out to be a secret passage to an entirely separate part of the tavern where patrons could purchase services that weren't entirely legal. After navigating a maze of hallways and staircases, Isolda arrived in a cavernous room bigger than the grand hall of Vulture Keep. Most of the foliage that would soon decorate the room was still in enormous crates and barrels, but it was doing its best to break free. Vines and leaves poked through every available hole or crack in the containers, and when their containers had no more cracks, the wild plants made their own. Soon they would be free to grow wild, blossoming into flowers the size of a man and climbing up the pillars to drink up as much sunlight as they could from the windows in the domed ceiling. Isolda wanted to open the crates and inspect the exotic plants, to get a taste of the poison jungles far to the south that only the bravest men in the kingdom would dare visit, but for now, she was content to follow Tobias to a small room off to the side that apparently held the mystery of why he had called on her for this meeting.
The room had been furnished with a tan carpet, an overstuffed sofa, and a lush bed, but they were all askew. It looked like the table setting a few years ago after Terric had attempted the old jester's trick of pulling the tablecloth off the table without disturbing any plates or cups. They had all gone crashing to the floor in a heap, just the way the furniture had been sucked into a sinkhole in the corner of this room.
"What am I looking at?" asked Isolda.
Tobias pointed into the pit. "There was a collapse this morning."
"I can see that. Was anyone hurt?"
"Only one. But the reason that we're really here is what they found in the pit."
Tobias grabbed a lantern off the wall and handed it to her. "Take a look."
She bent over the edge and peered into the pit. Through the darkness, all she could discern was the faint glimmer of gold behind a pile of rocks.
"Leftover gold from the old mine?" asked Isolda.
"Can you not see it?" Tobias shook his head. "More rocks must have come loose. I'll call for Owen to clear the path."
"No need," said Isolda. She handed the lantern back to Tobias, slipped out of her boots, and began climbing into the pit.
Tobias let out a little gasp. "My lady, are you sure that's safe?" Beads of sweat began forming under the brim of his hat.
"No, but I hope it is." When she reached the bottom, she turned back to Tobias. "Are you coming?"
"I, uh," started Tobias. "Climbing isn't really..."
"Then at least hand me the lantern so I can see."
Tobias refused. She insisted. He refused again. Eventually he found a rope and used it to lower the lantern to her. With the cavern now lit, Isolda picked her way through the rocks until she was face to face with a yellowed corpse dressed in golden armor.
She gasped. Not because it was a corpse. She had seen plenty of corpses during her time in the dungeons of Icehaven in the final months of the Wizard's War. No, she gasped because of which corpse it was. The body of Arwin.
Isolda had only seen it once when she was a young girl. As far back as she could remember, she had always begged her father to let her into his reliquary to see the corpse. But as much as she had begged, he had always refused. It wasn't until her tenth birthday, the day before she was to be sent to Icehaven in hopes of a betrothal to one of the Fjorking princes, that he allowed her to finally see it.
"This is the body of the one true God," he had told her. "Don't let those northerners poison your mind with thoughts of Throg or that two-headed ogre god. This is the one true God."
But to Isolda, it didn't look like a god. It looked like a decaying corpse dressed in a suit of bloodied golden armor. For years the image of the corpse had worked its way into her dreams, morphing them into horrific nightmares.
Isolda shivered at the thought and lost her grip on the lantern. The glass shattered against the rocky floor. The pit was bathed in darkness once more, but the sight of the corpse was seared into her memory and the icy feeling remained in her veins. She quickly turned and climbed out of the pit.
"Are you okay?" asked Tobias. He grabbed Isolda's arm to steady her. "Forgive me, I didn't realize it would frighten you so."
Isolda took a deep breath and tried to clear her head. How had her dead father's most prized relic ended up here in Arwin's Gate?
"How many people saw what's down there?" asked Isolda.
"Just you, me, Foreman Owen, and Henry. A couple others might have seen it, but I think they were more focused on helping Henry. His leg was crushed in the collapse. Compound fracture of the tibia and fibula. I fear there's more damage than that, but I won't know for sure until the swelling..."
Isolda waited for Tobias to finish his longwinded medical analysis of Henry's injuries. When she was sure his full attention had returned to her, she said, "Word of this must not get out. Do you understand? Tell Foreman Owen that I'm holding him personally responsible for the silence of his men."
Tobias nodded. "Yes, my lady."
"How many keys are there to this room?"
"Just this one."
"Good. No one is to enter this room." Isolda took the key, locked the door, and began the walk back to the dusty old changing room. Along the way, she tried to wrap her mind around what she had just discovered. For the first time in twenty years, she had a sliver of hope that she might solve the mystery of her father's murder.
Isolda's father once told her that any tournament worth talking about would feature at least three deaths. The first would be her son's dreams. The second would be her daughter's childhood. And with any luck, she'd find her father's assassin and drive her hairpin through his blackened heart. His death would be the third.
"I win!" shouted Warin as he dumped his final bucket of manure over the cliff.
Terric put his hands on his knees and looked back at his own side of the stable. Half the stalls were still filthy. Warin's side was spotless. "How is that..." He gasped for breath. "How is that possible?"
Warin laughed. "That's what years of practice does for ya, mate." He clapped Terric on the back. "Either way, I appreciate the help."
"I'll beat you next time," said Terric. "I was just distracted."
"By what? Did you climb over the bathhouse again and get another look at Bella dressing?"
Terric turned away so that Warin wouldn't see him blushing. "That was one time! And I didn't even mean to." It really had been an accident. He had been trying to climb back into his room in the castle, but a few vultures were blocking his usual path. He couldn't find any loose rocks to toss at them, so he altered his route. Along the way he happened to peer into the steam vent above the bathhouse and caught his older sister's handmaiden getting dressed. So yes, it had been an accident. The three times after that, however, had not been accidents.
"Suuure," said Warin. "Are you also going to claim that it was disgusting? Maybe you should show me how to climb up there so we can have a more educated discussion."
"Are you trying to end up in the stocks?" asked Terric. "I'd get a stiff warning from Mum if I got caught, but if someone saw you up there..."
"Yeah, yeah. I know they'd banish me. Maybe if your parents caught you, they'd finally realize that you weren't meant to be a priest. Watching ladies bathe is quite unpriestly."
"True, but it's not very chivalrous either. Really, if I got caught, Father would probably think a demon had made me do it. He'd lock me in the temple until I was declared demon-free." Terric shuddered at the thought. "Is there a demon in me?"
"If there is, it certainly hasn't made you any better at sword fighting."
"You sure about that?" Terric grabbed the two pieces of wood that they often used as swords and tossed one to Warin. "Defend yourself, Sir Wilmarc."
"You shall perish at my blade, Sir Oleg," declared Warin.
When the boys practiced sword fighting, they always pretended to be their favorite knights from the stories. Warin had no noble blood, but his ancestors were from the Huntlands, so Warin pretended to be Sir Wilmarc of Whitehall. A man besting an ogre in hand to hand combat was almost unheard of, but Sir Wilmarc had managed to kill three all at once.
Terric, on the other hand, had nobility on both sides of his family. His father's house, House Hornbolt, had been the dukes of Arwin's Gate for generations, bravely protecting the Shield from the Rashidi raiders to the east. There were countless stories of Hornbolts heroically defeating Rashidi, all with varying degrees of believability. And the Hornbolts had been in charge of erecting Arwin's Wall. But the tradition of second born sons in House Hornbolt becoming priests dampened his enthusiasm for that side of the family.
Terric found his mother's house, the royal House Talenov, much more appealing. He loved the stories of his grandfather, King Bogdan, leading expeditions into the poison jungles of Tujira, but most of all, he loved the story of Sir Oleg of Bloodstone, the man who brought House Talenov to prominence. At that time, the Talenovs were a minor house in the Shadowlands, so poor that Oleg was sent out to collect wages as a blacksmith's apprentice. When Oleg's father died and Oleg inherited the estate, he decided to sell it, and with the proceeds of the sale, he convinced the king to sell him a thousand acres between Ghostwood and the east face of the Deadstones. The land was thought to be haunted - the river there ran red, supposedly caused by giants on the Deadstones eating humans and spitting their remains into the river. The other nobles mocked Oleg, taking bets on how long he would survive. But Oleg knew better. From his experience as a blacksmith, he suspected that iron deposits were the cause of the red rivers. And how right he was. He founded the village of Bloodstone and began mining the rich iron ore deposits. Blacksmiths from all over flocked to Bloodstone, and before long it had grown into a thriving city. Even to this day, Bloodstone swords were unrivaled in quality and value.
Terric loved the story of Oleg. The storybooks never told of his ability with a blade, but Terric imagined that Oleg was quite a clever swordsman, able to take advantage of even the smallest weakness that his enemy presented. As such, Terric practiced dueling with that philosophy in mind. Pure skill was only a part of swordsmanship. The rest was about being clever and making use of your surroundings. His favorite trick was to push Warin into a spot where he would be momentarily blinded by the sun shining in between the cracks in the thatched roof of the stable.
As soon as Warin had a grip on the sword, Terric lunged at him. Warin easily parried it, riposting with a strike of his own.
The match went on for quite a while as Terric slowly worked Warin into the beams of sunlight. The sun was enough of a distraction for Terric to register the first strike of the day, even if it was merely a glancing blow on Warin's left arm.
"Well played, Sir Oleg," said Warin with a bow.
"Thank you, Sir Wilmarc. You fought valiantly. Another?"
Warin raised his sword and the two boys resumed fighting.
"How do you think I'd fare against Prince Rixin?" asked Terric in between lunges.
"The Shadow Prince has won every tournament he's entered."
"He has. But I haven't been a part of those tournaments!"
"Oh, right. He's only been jousting against the best knights of the realm. Yeah, you'd probably beat him." Warin laughed, and Terric used his friend's momentary lapse in concentration to slash at his arm.
Terric smiled triumphantly. "If he's as distractible as you, I think I'd have a pretty good chance."
The sound of the noon temple bells cut his victory short. Terric knew that he had to begin climbing back into Vulture Keep at the sound of the bell if he wanted to make it to the grand hall in time for supper.
He hated the bells ringing. Sometimes when he heard them, he thought about taking one of his father's horses and riding off. And as it began to seem more and more unlikely that he'd be able to avoid becoming a priest, his thoughts of running away intensified. He had even stolen a map from the library to begin charting his escape route. His most recent plan consisted of heading north through the Shield into the Huntlands. His reason for that was twofold. First, he knew that Warin would be more likely to come if he was going to the birthplace of the great Sir Wilmarc. But more importantly, the Huntlands were controlled by King Felix Gormont rather than King Ivan Talenov, and thus the lords there would be less likely to honor a request from the Talenovs to send Terric back to Arwin's Gate. Terric's father frequently referring to the Huntlands as a "lawless wasteland filled with thieves and backstabbers" concerned Terric slightly, but no plan was perfect.
"Better luck tomorrow," said Terric as he darted out of the stables toward the castle.
"Say hi to Bella!" called Warin.
Terric didn't bother responding. He was tempted to climb past the bathhouse windows, but he decided to take the other route. Terric had made a point to not memorize the verses that he would be required to recite before taking the oath of Arwin, but he couldn't help pick up bits and pieces of it during his weekly lessons with Father Percival. One thing he noticed in the stories was that sinners always got punished. Even if he didn't put much stock in Arwin's teachings, he couldn't help but think that he was tempting fate by spying on Bella while perched precariously on a slippery wall thirty feet above the ground.
Avoiding the bathhouse, Terric climbed up the west tower of Vulture Keep. When the castle was originally constructed, the sheer limestone walls would have been nearly impossible to climb. But centuries of harsh sun and even harsher summer thunderstorms had eroded the rock, necessitating patches of mud and plaster. Eventually they had added wooden beams to serve as a sort of permanent scaffolding to facilitate easy repairs. Those beams just so happened to also facilitate easy climbing. Despite that, Terric's muscles were on fire by the time he reached his room.
"Terric? Are you in there?" asked his mother through the door.
Just in time.
Terric wiped the dirt off his shoes, smoothed out his trousers, and sat down on the sofa with the Book of Arwin.
"Terric?" asked his mother again, jiggling the doorknob. "I'm coming in."
Terric jumped in surprise as she entered. "Oh, Mum! You startled me."
His mother raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"I was so enthralled with..." Terric stole a look at the page to see what part he had opened to. "...With Arwin's journey to Mount Peleus."
"You were enthralled by the story of Arwin spending fifty days in solitude? Don't tell your father, but I fell asleep when I tried to read that. I wish we had a copy of Throgtome so I could read you some real stories. Throg made a journey to a mountain too, but his ended with him fighting a dragon rather than reflecting in silence."
Terric perked up at the mention of Throg, the god of the Fjorkings. His mother mentioned him often, but only when his father was nowhere near.
"Can you tell me one of those stories?" asked Terric. "Please?"
"Haven't you had enough stories for one day? You've been reading since sunrise."
"Yes, but these stories are boring."
"If I tell you a story, will you be on your best behavior while we're preparing for the tournament?"
"And during the tournament?"
Terric nodded again, but less enthusiastically. Would running away to the Huntlands be considered bad behavior?
"Okay. Let me think." His mother scrunched her face to the side and adjusted her braids over her shoulder. "Have I told you the one about where your name comes from?"
Terric's eyes lit up. "No. Tell me!"
His mother moved the Book of Arwin off the sofa and took a seat next to Terric. "There was once a fearsome warrior who lived up north in the frozen city of Icehaven. He had hair of gold, and he was as tall as a sheep."
"A sheep? That means he was like four feet tall. He was a dwarf!"
"He may have been short in stature, but he was a clever man. His name was Terric the Terrible."
Terric crossed his arms. "I was named after a terrible dwarf?"
"He was invincible to most things, but he did have one weakness... Tickling!" His mother reached over and tickled Terric. He tried to push her off but soon gave in to a fit of laughter. She didn't stop until Terric looked like he might pass out. "Now, don't lie to me again. Just because I'm lenient doesn't mean I'm stupid. I know that you sneak out to sword fight with Warin every chance you get. You come back covered in sweat and dirt every day. What am I supposed to think, that you work up a sweat reading?"
"You know and you still let me?"
"Of course. It pains me to see you stuck in here reading while your brother is out there getting to live out your dreams. But you're the second born, and in your father's family, that means you're destined to be a priest."
"Can't you talk to Father?"
"I can. But talking to him and changing his mind are two very different things. And I have to admit, as much as I want you to be happy, I also want you to be alive. I don't love the idea of you running off into battle as the squire of some lord I've hardly met. I'll sleep much better at night knowing that you're right here in Arwin's Gate."
"But I don't want to be safe. I want to be a knight! I want to see the world. I want to fight dragons like Throg did! Even Oriana and Selina and Nesta are going to get to see more of the world than I will. I just have to sit in this stupid city my whole life. It's not fair."
Terric's mother ruffled his shaggy blonde hair. "Okay, I'll talk to him. But let's leave out the part about Throg and dragons. If your father does let you become a knight, he'll make sure you're fully dedicated to spreading the word of Arwin. Now, clean up and get ready for supper. Whether you're a priest or a knight, your father won't stand for you coming to the grand hall looking like this." She stood up and left the room.
Terric glanced at the other tunics that had been laid out for him, but he didn't feel like changing. Instead he just brushed the dirt off himself as best he could. It wasn't like his father was going to pay him any attention at supper anyway. He probably wouldn't even look his way.
Supper wouldn't be a total waste though. He was hungry, but more importantly, Bella would be there. His heart started to race at the thought of seeing her. Would she talk to him?
He looked back at his other tunics. Maybe he should change after all. Which one would Bella like the most? There wasn't really much variation - they were all black and gold with rhinos incorporated somehow. He finally settled on the one he had been wearing two weeks ago when Bella had smiled at him. It was hot and itchy, but if Bella liked it, that was good enough for him.
When Terric entered the grand hall, his mother looked up and smiled at him. She was seated next to his father at the head table on the dais. Just as Terric had predicted, his father didn't even look his way. He was too busy discussing something - probably Marcus - with Sir Aldric Alsight, the master-at-arms. As always, one of Aldric's prized hawks was perched on one of the two rhino statues that stood on their hind legs and formed an arch over the dais. The hawk's eyes immediately began tracking Terric's every movement, and so did Sir Aldric's. Terric felt like he was always being watched by Sir Aldric, or the Hawk, as he was often called.
A few years ago, Terric had been fascinated with Aldric. The knight was everything Terric wanted to be, with all his battle scars and his awesome helmet shaped like a hawk's head. He even told stories about his exploits in the Wizard's War. Aldric had put an arrow in the heart of all three Zaberwald triplets, and rumors had spread amongst the Huntlands that Aldric could see through the eyes of his hawks. That was how he'd been able to find and kill the Zaberwalds in battle. When Terric had asked him if it was true, Aldric had just smiled.
Terric had asked for more stories, but Aldric just wanted to tell that same story over and over again. Eventually Terric got bored with him.
Now Aldric was Terric's nemesis. The hawk was always watching him, always trying to prevent him from doing anything fun.
Terric looked down to avoid Aldric's gaze as he walked to his table. He usually sat at the table with the knights and squires, including his older brother, Marcus. But their table was empty. Terric frowned. Now Marcus was allowed to skip supper too? Terric didn't want to admit it, but he wasn't just upset that Marcus got special privileges. As jealous as he was, Terric still liked eating supper with him and the other men. They always had such entertaining stories of patrolling the savanna or hurting each other during training. One of them even had a story about visiting a brothel.
With his usual table empty, Terric either had to sit by himself or sit with the girls. Yes, he would have loved to eat with Bella, but he didn't want her to think he was girly. And he certainly didn't want to look like a loner. There was only one option. He grabbed a loaf of bread and a turkey leg and headed back to his room. His plan to escape to the Huntlands still needed work.
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★★★★★"I literally could not stop reading."
★★★★★"A huge hit!"
★★★★★"I was not expecting that finale. Mind blown."