“En garde,” said Prince Thomas Pendragon.
“En garde!” replied Lamorak Gwynedd, his duelling partner.
The two young men stared at each other down the levels of their blades. Every now and again a wrist turned slightly to one side, or a facial muscle twitched, or a shiver ran down the length of the metal, sending sunlight bouncing all over the room. Tommy’s left foot slid slowly to the left, followed by Lamorak’s right. Their swords met, touched, and jerked away again, like young lovers desperate to caress each other but too shy to manage more than a fleeting brush of skin-on-skin.
Then Lamorak finally lept forward, his sword whizzing through the air, and the sparring could begin in earnest.
Tommy parried the blow with ease — too much ease, really, Lamorak usually wasn’t this obvious — almost managing to send Lamorak’s sword sparking against the wall, but of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. Like a slimy fish Lamorak’s sword slid out from underneath Tommy’s, reaching instantly for a “kill” by touching the chest or unprotected neck. It was with a sense of relief that Tommy jumped out of the way of the blow, both because he hadn’t lost in the first few sword-touches, and because now, at least, Lamorak was fighting like the skilled swordsman Tommy remembered.
Lamorak hadn’t been in good form for weeks, which was a shame, really, since that cut down the number of challenging duelling partners to whom Tommy had access down to … one. Milo was at about the same skill level as Tommy, so while duelling with Milo was good for an old-fashioned workout, he wasn’t a challenge in the same way that someone better than Tommy was. Rob, on the other hand, could only use a blade to cut his meat. To make matters worse, he was inclined to watch the other boys spar with eyebrows slowly inching closer and closer to his hairline, then turn around, shake his head, and mutter something that sounded suspiciously close to, “Barbarians.” Duelling with someone who wasn’t from Albion (other than Milo, who didn’t count) was out of the question. Who knew what kind of bribes might change hands to ensure that a blade was “accidentally” sharp instead of dull, or too-heavily weighted, or poisoned? (Tommy had been, he would admit, a bit skeptical about poisoned blades, until Arthur mentioned that the current Emperor of Reme’s grandfather had met his end that way, or at least that was what everyone thought. Upon learning that, Tommy’s skepticism had been replaced by a sincere desire to not find out the hard way whether someone could actually die via a poisoned sword blade.)
That all left, however, only two more-challenging partners for Tommy on campus: Lamorak and Will. Now, no fault was to be given to Will, for he certainly was a challenge. He was quick on his feet and even quicker with his sword, and had a talent for guessing Tommy’s moves ahead of time, a talent that could be either extremely helpful (for it forced Tommy to be more creative) or extremely irksome (for, in the end, it made it very difficult for Tommy to win). But Will, though he had inherited the du Lac quickness and skill with a sword, was all grim efficiency when he fought: it was abundantly clear that he wanted to end the battle quickly and with the least expenditure of energy possible. This also was, Tommy suspected, owing to training from the great Lancelot. Any idiot could tell that this was a very sound strategy to pursue in battle, where the objective was to kill as many enemies as possible as quickly as possible, and to stay alive while doing so. And Will was always ready to fight two or three or even four or five bouts to get in the required amount of exercise. That didn’t make it any less disenheartening to get beaten so many times, though.
Lamorak, on the other hand, had style, had panache. His footwork was always fancy; his blade always managed to catch the sunlight and send it zooming about the room. He could do things with a sword that no man had ever seen before, much less attempted. (Whether he could always repeat his feats was another question.) When there were women about, they always drew nearer to Lamorak and to his magic sword like moths to a flame, and even if Tommy was bound to lose, the longer he drew the fight out, the better it seemed for him. For, after all, if he was able to hold his own against that, he had to be good, hadn’t he?
And Lamorak was easily distracted, something that Will was not. The sight of all those girls led Lamorak to become more stylish, more fancy — and, aye, more stupid at times, all attributes that made him that much easier to beat. Even when girls weren’t around, there were always distractions to be had.
Tommy decided to provide one.
“So, mate,” he asked, parrying Lamorak’s incoming blow with a ring of metal-on-metal that set both blades shaking and almost drowned Tommy’s question, “will you do me a favor and wish your niece a happy birthday for me?”
Truth to tell, Tommy hadn’t expected the question to be that much of a distraction, but it was the best he could come up with on such short notice. He certainly hadn’t expected Lamorak to stumble, and falter, and ask, “Wh-what?” He was barely able to send Tommy’s sword away when it moved in to take advantage of Lamorak’s surprise.
“Nimue? Remember her? Small, tends to cry a lot, poop a lot, look … well, all right, I don’t know what she looks like yet, not having seen her myself. But she’s going to be a year old now, so I assume she’s begun to look like a real person and not like a sort of red little lump that will someday resemble an actual Sim.”
“I — I — wish her a happy birthday?”
Tommy’s eyebrow rose. “Yes? At her party?”
“Wh-what — oh. Her birthday party. Of course.” Lamorak tried to chuckle, and it was almost a very good chuckle, except for the fact that Tommy was certain even one-year-old Nimue wouldn’t have been fooled by it.
“You are going, aren’t you?” Tom asked, trying to slip in under Lamorak’s guard and failing miserably.
“I … I’m not sure.”
“You’re not sure? Come now. It’s your baby niece, you sort of have to show up.”
“Not — not really. My studies …”
Tommy almost dropped his sword. He stared at Lamorak.
“Lamorak, my friend, you can, of course, tell your mother and sister anything you like — anything you’d think they’d believe, but please, don’t treat me like an idiot. Studies? You?”
“Stranger things have happened.”
“Not in recent memory!”
Lamorak almost seemed to shudder.
Tommy wondered, but said nothing. Instead, he continued, “Come on now, I’m sure the party will be boring as hell, particularly if they try to make it entertaining for the little one — but aren’t there other inducements to go? Lovely female company, for one?”
“No? Not even Garnet?”
The expressions that flitted across Lamorak’s face, too quick and too melded together to be called a true sequence, were odd. First there was something that looked almost like relief, then dread, then guilt, then — something Tommy couldn’t identify. Whatever it was, though, it didn’t seem very pleasant.
“I doubt,” Lamorak said slowly, his breath coming far too fast even for the pace at which they were fighting, “that I’d get to spend any time alone with Garnet anyway.”
“What difference does that make? In case you haven’t noticed, my own lovely betrothed won’t let me spend more than five minutes alone in a room with her before she’s running for a chaperone. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she didn’t trust me.”
He paused, waiting for the crack about how Lynn of course didn’t trust him; she was far too smart a girl for that. Lamorak’s sword made a half-hearted attempt at a kill stroke, but no crack came. Instead, he looked lost in some other world, and … worried?
Tommy knew damn well that Lamorak was easily distracted, but this was bad even for him. To test the depths of his distraction, Tommy made an obvious feint — a move so clear, so gauche, so bloody stupid that anyone with half of Lamorak’s usual skill would have knocked the sword from Tommy’s hand and gotten in a kill before Tommy was able to blink.
Lamorak was barely able to knock Tommy’s blade away before it touched his heart. And it was just a faint knock, at that. The only way Tommy could have been in less danger of dropping the sword from that blow would have been if he had somehow glued it to his hand.
He’d only meant to give Lamorak a small distraction to even the odds a bit — he hadn’t intended to suck out the other boy’s brain …
“Everything all right?” Tommy asked, stepping back, willing to let his sword down if necessary.
Lamorak looked up with an expression like panic. “Of course! There’s nothing wrong. Nothing.” As if to prove what he was saying, he redoubled his strokes.
Wright Almighty — I meant to give him a chance to recover, not to unleash a bloody cow-demon on my ass!
Lamorak pressed forward, sword flying, cutting the air into so many little pieces. Tommy gave ground, because it was really the only sensible thing to do. When even an unsharpened blade was moving that quickly, it was best to not get hit by it: not only would it hurt like a bear (which was admittedly the point, pain was an excellent teacher in the field of battle studies), it could cause serious injury.
So he backed up, he dodged, moved to the side and let Lamorak go barrelling into the wall. Well, almost, Lamorak course-corrected at the last moment. He turned to Tommy with a light in his eyes that was definitly angry, bordering on furious, and just shy of … mad.
Bloody hell. What’s the matter with him?
It was time to end this, Tommy thought. And quickly.
He had to watch for his opportunity — but with the crazed, frenetic way that Lamorak was fighting, it didn’t take long to come. Soon, too soon, a wild stroke left Lamorak’s wrist in hitting distance. Quicker than thought, and harder than was strictly necessary, Tommy’s sword went for it — and quicker than he could pull his sword back, Lamorak shouted and dropped his sword.
That was a good thing, since it enabled Tommy to quickly put his sword against Lamorak’s neck and announced, “You’re dead, mate.”
Frowning, the fight — thankfully — out of him, Lamorak rubbed his wrist. “Cheap shot.”
“Prince’s prerogitive.” Tommy flipped up the sword and handed it to Lamorak. “Did I hurt you too badly?”
“I can’t move my fingers.”
“Other than that?”
Lamorak glanced at his hand, shook it, and shrugged. “Been worse.” And he sighed.
Tommy knew for a fact that, over the course of their youth and training, Lamorak had sprained both ankles, pulled more muscles than most men knew they possessed, fallen from trees, been concussed, and broken the same wrist he was rubbing now … but somehow, Tommy got the feeling that he wasn’t thinking of any of these injuries as he stared at his hand.
The other young man looked up, edgy, his non-injured hand tightening on his sword. “I’m fine.”
“I didn’t –”
“I’m fine.” He shook his hand out. “But I don’t think I’ll be able to fight again.” And he stumbled over to the stool they kept in the corner for occasions such as this.
Tommy watched him go, frowning; then he sighed, shrugged and moved to the door. “Will?” he asked, sticking his head into the library. “Your turn.”
Will didn’t even have a chance to reply before Tommy said, “All right, all right, you can finish your chapter.” He stepped outside of the practice room and closed the door behind him, leaning one hand against it.
Will’s eyebrows rose. “I take it that I’m not going to be allowed to finish the chapter.”
“He,” Tommy nodded his head toward the door and the man in the room beyond it, “is acting like a head case, mate.” And he watched Will’s face.
Will wasn’t much for showing his hand — it was one of the things that would help him when he became a magistrate. But there was a difficulty with that. A stranger would never guess what Will was thinking. Someone who knew him well, however, would be able to guess it every time.
Like now. Nine people out of ten would have thought that the shift Will made had nothing more troubling at its root than inadequate cushioning on the seat. The tenth, however, provided that the tenth knew Will, would instantly guess that something in what Tommy had said had made Will uncomfortable. And he would probably be right.
The question, though, was what was making Will uncomfortable?
“Surely that’s Lamorak’s business, and not ours?” Will asked. A weak dodge if there ever was one.
“When I ask him if everything’s all right and he bloody near tries to kill me, I’d say it becomes our business.”
“Tries to kill you? Tom, be serious.”
“He was fighting like I was a real opponent, Will — trying to do as much damage as possible — and moreover, he was fighting like an idiot. Lamorak, when all is well, does not fight like an idiot. Something’s quite wrong.”
“I’m not disputing that.” Will shifted again.
Tommy crossed his arms over his chest and stared at his friend. “You wouldn’t happen to know what it was, would you?”
“When does Lamorak ever confide in me?”
The answer was quick, the answer was pat, and there was no visible sign of discomfort. It was all that an answer should be, except, of course, that it was no answer at all. Furthermore, it was exactly the wrong answer to come from Will. If the truth was that Will had no idea, he would have said so — or, if he decided to ask that kind of oblique question, he would have done it after shooting Tommy a withering glare, and asked it in as slow and annoyed-sounding tone of voice as possible. He wouldn’t have just tossed it out there like it didn’t matter at all.
So Will did know what was going on. But how to get him — or Lamorak — to tell?
Getting them in the same room ought to be a good start …
Tommy glanced at the door. “I think you’ve had time to finish your chapter.”
“If my prince commands,” Will said with a small smile. They went back into the practice room, Will grabbing his practice sword from the wall. The two young men stood blade-to-blade, awaiting the signal to begin. As soon as the opening pleasantries passed, Tommy leapt forward, his blade going for Will.
Will parried the thrust with ease and returned one of his own.
The fight went on — thrust, parry, thrust; thrust, parry, thrust — for a few minutes. Lamorak in his corner was well-relaxed, or rather, deep in his own personal hell from the looks of him. As for Will and Tommy, well, Will put up a decent defense to Tommy’s attempts at an attack, but didn’t offer much of an attack of his own. Clearly, neither of them were particularly interested in the fight.
So, with his next thrust, Tommy sent forth a request, “Have something to ask you, mate.”
“How much bodily pain would Leona put you in if you missed the first birthday party of her eldest child?”
Will tilted his head a little to one side. “Leona doesn’t have any children.”
Tommy allowed himself one brief glance over his shoulder at Lamorak, who wasn’t even looking up. “I know, I know. But hypothetically.” Will just looked at him. “Call it an … informal survey I’m taking.”
“I suppose it depends,” Will murmured. “What reason do I have for missing this party?”
“What difference does that make?”
“Leona’s reaction. I assume she’d have some sympathy for me if I missed the celebration for what she considered to be the right reasons.”
“Kidnapped by barbarians, forced to flee the country, on my deathbed …”
“And if you missed the party for any reasons other than those?”
“If I missed the party for any reason short of being on my deathbed,” Will answered, “I’d very shortly be on my deathbed anyway.”
“See, that’s what I was thinking about Jess. Of course, for me, it would be my death lily pad, because she’d turn me into a toad first, but you know what I mean.” Tommy grinned. “Dindrane, though, must be an uncommonly forgiving sister.”
Will stiffened. “Dindrane?”
“Aye. See, Lamorak here,” Lamorak actually looked up, “is perfectly willing to miss his little niece’s party, and doesn’t seem to be in fear of his life or anything!”
Will glanced around Tommy, at Lamorak. “And this party would be at the Orkney keep?”
“I would assume so. I hear toddlers are rather a pain to move, and since the Orkney keep is where said toddler lives …”
“That’s all you have to say? ‘Ah’?”
He shrugged. “It’s Lamorak’s sister, Lamorak’s niece, Lamorak’s evening or what have you — Lamorak’s choice.”
Tommy looked over his shoulder to see Lamorak almost smiling.
“But,” Will continued, and the smile dropped off Lamorak’s face, “if I were Lamorak, I’d go.”
“You–would?” Lamorak almost whispered.
Will looked at him — and Tommy, try though he might, could not for the life of him interpret that look. “Yes.”
Lamorak sighed. “Then I guess … I should write to Dindrane to let her know I’m coming …” He rose and walked slowly to the door, more like a man might mount the scaffold than one who was going to pen a short note to his sister to let her know that he was going to go to a party.
Tommy and Will both watched him go, then Tommy looked at Will and shook his head. “And you expect me to believe that you don’t know what’s going on.”