Title: The Bondsman - Part 1
“Halt, who goes there!”
The shout was given with a fervour that told me the guard was very young and very nervous. I grabbed for the boy with my mind and Pushed him, lightly, but enough to freeze his hands to his sword until I was clearly in his sight. Then I pushed the hood back from my face.
“Only me, lad. Stand easy.”
He drew back, scarlet faced, and lowered his sword instantly. I gently released his mind without him ever having known I’d touched it.
“Your majesty! I beg pardon, I thought-“
“I was in the pavillions. Yes.” I passed him, nodded to the senior guard who was on duty and headed towards the tents. Everyone thought I was in the pavillions, except for a discreet few who were probably fulminating with drawn swords in Brandor’s tent, knowing perfectly well I’d trapped them inside the camp until I deigned to return. Several young soldiers passed me, fooled by the dark cloak, then hastily snapped to attention as they saw my face. All young lads. Half the camp was in mid to late adolescence, it was no wonder I felt ancient. This winter had been dragging on for ever and at my age – a ripe and past-it twenty six years old- the cold went deep into my bones. I toyed with the idea of going directly to my tent and to my bed, dismissing the servants and allowing my staff to stew until morning, but I was well raised to do my duty. At whatever personal cost. I pushed the cloak well back over my shoulders and headed for Brandor’s tent with a confident air that ought to keep everyone reminded that I was the king and therefore supposedly knew what I was doing.
The flaps were closed of course. Only proper when a council of war was being held inside. I tugged the strings loose and ducked inside, out of the icy wind.
“I hope to Haven you have something drinkable Brandor, otherwise I may be forced to abondon this entire campaign and go home.” I said cheerfully.
They were all huddled around Brandor’s small table, just as I expected. Seven faces looked up at me. Some in shock, some in growing relief, one with well concealed bitterness. And one with a grimness I knew very well. Rhyl rose and brought a flagon with him, coming silently to my right and putting the goblet into my hand as smoothly as he took the cloak from my shoulders.
“Perhaps your majesty should choose less stormy nights for his walks.”
“Jai where the hell have you been!” Brandor demanded with all the subtlety of a brick. “I all but turned the guard out an hour ago, for all we knew you’d been captured!”
“From my tent? With weapons and a change of clothes?” I asked him kindly. “Who set you straight, Bran?”
“Rhyl of course.” Bran nodded at my bondsman who had somehow exchanged my wet cloak for his own warm one and was still stood at my right hand. “He knew exactly where you’d gone. And why. Did you get it?”
I pulled the parchment from inside my jerkin. “Of course. Eris was serious. He always is.”
Bran grabbed for the map. He and the others from the military commands surrounded it. Roth gave me a sardonic smile across the table.
“Eris himself. No other information you could persuade him to, Jai?”
“A few names.” I said gently. “A few places. He asked me to meet him alone and we came to a gentleman’s agreement- the map was his part of it.”
“We’ll move out in the morning.” Brandor straightened up from the parchment, all business now. “I’ll pass the word now. If we move quickly enough we’ll have the valley occupied before the rebels get through the pass.”
“What did Eris want in return?” Rhyl said quietly behind me. I didn’t answer.
“Roth, would you collect the unit commanders outside my tent at dawn?”
It was only four hours away. Roth bent his beautiful and ridiculously groomed head and left. Two of Brandor’s juniors followed him to start turning out the adjutants and begin packing up the camp we had occupied for nearly three weeks. Brandor glanced up at me, unwillingly tearing himself away from the precious paper.
“You’d better get some sleep Jai. I’ll send the scouts off at first light.”
Four hours until black night turned to workable, grey morning. I returned his smile, ducked the tent flap and walked amongst low fires, knights sprawled in front of tents, mostly asleep. In the field beyond the slight hill, the foot soldiers were gathered around larger fires, the glare catching the few flicking pennants staked into the ground. Near four hundred men camped this hill tonight, and behind us, seven miles to our west, three hundred more awaited the messenger that would bring them to Ravenscar valley. I would stand to battle with just under a thousand men. Enough. Just enough, if the odds were in our favour.
Two guards stood to attention and pulled their pikes away from the entrance to my tent. The lamp was still burning, carefully tended throughout the night. The bed was neatly made although less than three hours ago I had lain in it, feigning sleep. I sat on the edge of it: an army cot, no more, no less, and stared at the grass below my feet.
A thousand men. And there was one single man on my mind tonight, who would sleep not four tents from me. I let my mind wander out towards those tents. I could feel the echoes of men around me, but the visions do not come at my bidding. And certainly not for my convenience. It was not safety that troubled me. Guards stood at the tent around the clock on Rhyl’s orders, and I slept with a knife within grasp. And Rhyl within grasp. I looked for him, woken out of my reverie. He was trimming the lamp. Bread was in my hand and I was draped in a dry shirt. I was so used to him handling me, he could dress, bathe and feed my body without ever distracting my mind. In camps, in court, in councils, I never noticed. My poor boy. The midwinter was not far away. Come the solstice, I would have some time alone to spoil him and make up for these months where I could forget altogether that he was with me.
He saw my eyes on him and accepted the information that I was now off duty and prepared for conversation.
“What did Eris wanted of you?”
“A personal favour.” I put the bread down and stretched, wincing as my shoulders cracked. As usual I was stiffening, my joints swelling despite the cold weather. He got up without a word, pulled the jar of salve from the chest and gestured brusquely for me to roll over. I lay down on the bed and shut my eyes as he sat over me, his hands sinking deep into my neck and shoulders.
“And what does this favour entail?” he inquired as though asking me about the weather.
“A few of your kisses.” I teased, stretching my shoulders under his familiar hands. “Which I promised on his behalf. Knowing you wouldn’t mind. Of course I know you’d rather it was Bran-“
One of his hands freed from its work to cuff me. Effectively.
“You can’t do that.” I complained, rubbing my ear. “I am the king in case you hadn’t noticed.”
“I’d noticed.” Rhyl said grimly. “You were conspicuous by your absence shortly after midnight when I came to check on you.”
I groaned quietly into my pillow. With only hours before we broke camp and after more than three days with little sleep at all, I was not at all in the mood for this. And I knew perfectly well I had absolutely no way out of it.
“Don’t mutter at me.” Rhyl said sharply over my head, working his way down my spine with ruthless fingers. “You know damn well who’s watching this camp, you must have been seen. God knows how many assassins you walked past tonight.”
“Most of those watching were in Eris’s pay anyway.” I pointed out. Rhyl pulled me over onto my back. “And you had no idea what he wanted. It was foolhardy and stupid, Jai, he could have done anything.”
“Not within half a mile of the camp.”
“How did he contact you anyway?”
“One of his men slipped in with the guard.” I pulled the message out and handed it to him. He scanned through it and glowered at me with his deep, dark eyes.
“If I’d have read this-“
“You would have insisted on going with me, and probably bringing half the guard along with us.” I finished for him. “He was watching every move we made tonight. If I hadn’t gone alone he would have told me nothing.”
“I could have followed. Watched.”
“He would have seen you. Besides which, I could handle any man who came too near.”
“If you can see his eyes and you hear him coming.” Rhyl said flatly. “And if you’ve the energy to spell at all. You can’t take that sort of a risk!”
I sighed. “Whatever you may think, I spoke to the man and we have what we want from him. The danger’s past.”
“And you could equally well be dead!” Rhyl said sharply in an undertone that wouldn’t reach the guards. “You have a duty here that none of the rest of us have, just to stay alive! If you die what becomes of us? Not just the lads in this camp but the entire bloody kingdom. This unholy mess won’t survive your death and you know it when you can be troubled to think! You’re no common soldier to do as you please or to think about your own pride or glory. You should be ashamed, Jai!”
I buried my head in my hands. He swatted them away, voice still biting for all it was so quiet.
“And you knew what I would say and that I would stop you. If you have to deceive me, Jai, you know you’re doing wrong.”
“What would you have me do? Let the information go untaken? Risk more lives that way?”
“Bring it to the council and accept that other minds may have other solutions.”
Rhyl is unresponsive to any attempt of mine to spell him. Partly through our bond and partly through natural immunity. I knew it, but at times like this, I longed to try take the ice out of his beautiful voice and make him stop saying these barbed and stinging words to me. There is no easy solution to Rhyl.
“I’m sorry.” I said and meant it. He shook his head at me in the dim lamplight.
“Not nearly sorry enough for my liking. You listen to me Jai. If you go from my sight again without telling me what you intend, I’ll follow you night and day and I swear to it you won’t have a moment’s peace.”
“In comparison to which, death is far preferable.” I said equally grimly. “At times, messages like Eris’s come as very welcome relief.”
Rhyl’s eyes crackled at me and I knew, instantly, I’d gone a step too far. He sat at the end of the cot and pointed at the floor in front of him, rigidly controlling his voice despite the fury in his face.
“I’m sorry, I meant-“
“If you want to behave like a spoilt child, I’ll treat you as one your majesty, come here! NOW!”
Oh lord. If I drove him to this point, we usually at least withdrew to a discreet distance. Or at least waited until we had a reasonable amount of privacy. There were two young guardsmen on the other side of the canvas and I was quaking. Rhyl was usually the one who worried about maintaining the dignity of the monarch within public sight.
“Rhyl there’s the guard not six feet away!”
“Then you’ll have to keep your mouth shut, won’t you?”
“In the morning,” I begged, “At least wait until we’ve got a few minutes privacy-“
“NOW, Jai I’m waiting!”
I went to him with what little self-respect I could muster and promptly lost it as he yanked my greaves down, and my hose, and pulled my wrist until I lay down across his leather britched knees. I knew that embrace so well: all his strength and efficiency combined so that I lay where he wanted me and knew I could not move an inch off his lap. He pulled my shirt down over my buttocks and smoothed it tight: enough to deaden the sound. If I could maintain a dignified silence, the guard would have no idea if it were a muddy tunic, a dusty cloak or my errant behind being whacked. I shut my teeth and my eyes and braced myself. His hand collided with my backside so hard I jolted headfirst into the unyielding blankets. I grabbed a handful and held on as the unbearable blaze of that hard smack was rapidly multiplied across other areas of my poorly shielded rump. He worked methodically from side to side, up and down to the edge of the shirt’s pitiful, linen protection, holding me effortlessly in place. I bit into my hand to stifle my gasps and yelps of protest and felt his leg round mine, preventing me from kicking. About the first ten to fifteen spanks were usually bearable although hotly uncomfortable: after that, the pain tended to double with each heavy, hard handed smack. By about twenty five, I was usually losing hold of my self control.
“Just what was it you swore when you were crowned?” Rhyl demanded, pausing. I was hoarse from panting and barely able to answer him.
“You know, you were there.”
He swiped my poor, burning bottom with his relentless hand. “What, Jai?”
“To protect- and defend-“
He swiped me again, two or three almighty slaps that made me bury my face in the bedclothes to keep myself quiet. Tears started to come in earnest.
“You’ve got a duty as much as any of those lads outside. More so because you know what you’re doing, they’re just following orders. Don’t you ever excuse yourself to me that you’re bored or tired of responsibility, don’t ever think I’ll let you get away with it. There are four hundred men outside and if they forget their duty they face flogging. Or hanging.”
“I know.” I sobbed under my breath, “I know, I’m sorry-“
“All you’ve got is me. You’re not going to lie to me, you’re not going to deceive me, and if you ever go off alone again to meet that murderer I’ll break your neck.”
I didn’t dare uncover my mouth any more. He spanked my hapless bottom until I was limp over his knee, sobbing silently and without dignity into the rough blanket.
When he was finally done with me, I crumpled to the grass between his knees and knelt there, the damp of the dew against my bare legs, the smell of the wet ground and canvas mixing with tallow and oiled leather. I pressed my hand into my mouth and leaned my head against his knee. His hand ran through my hair once or twice, then he stooped and pulled my head into his shoulder where I could bury the last gasps. His voice was low and fierce in my ear.
“What the hell is on your mind Jai?”
So he knew. He always knew. This spanking had been a warning as much as a punishment, he was guessing what desperation was in my mind. He shook me a little.
“Jai? What have you Seen?”
Nothing he wanted to know about. I twisted in his arms to lay down, pulling him after me. He drew me close, burying me deep against him and pulling the blanket out from underneath us. I was as sore as hell, but too tired to resist sleep. Somewhere in the camp, I knew, a man was talking softly to the guards, following the scouts out towards the river, following Eris north.