I have more than once entered trance to do nothing more than remember the great hall at Almeda. The dust slanting down in heavy banners from the high windows, the shuffle of men stood on the rushes, the smell of the many tallow candles, and my father’s hand gripping my shoulder for support as the party approached us.
He walked in the middle of the group beside his own father, surrounded by men at arms for this was a formal ceremony performed only once in a generation, and due all possible pomp and circumstance. My father’s hand grew heavier on me as they reached the platform and I began to be aware of his tremor, a weakness he hid in loose fitting clothing and unshakeable dignity. My father was a living illusion of strength. The group halted before us. My father’s fingers gripped in signal to me and we bent our heads together as the men before us saluted. Then the men at arms stepped away and left only him.
He was then just twenty. A man in the first of his full strength, taller than any man stood around him and lean. Hard muscled. And there stood I, a sickly and undersized fifteen year old. It would have been hard to find two boys less likely to appeal to each other.
My father released me. I stumbled on the steps to the floor, landed on the rushes rather harder than was dignified, and found myself in front of him. My head reached the middle of his chest. There was no flicker of expression in his face as he knelt and drew his sword to offer it to me over his arm. It was a formal gesture. I should have performed a suitably formal nod in return and he would have sheathed it and stood. For some reason I put my hand on the smooth, silver hilt and drew it from his arm. It rose cleanly- rare for me- and balanced in my palm, the blade pointing skywards. It wasn’t merely immaculate, it was honed with expertise and visible love. His head had lifted to follow the blade, his eyes were on my face. Like his father’s, they were so dark a blue that they appeared at first to be black. I was swallowed alive in that colour. The weight in my palm of that perfect sword, the black of his eyes burning into me. There was nothing else in the hall.
He alerted me to the painful silence. I don’t know how. His eyes perhaps told me, a flickering glance towards my father. A warning to stay calm. The entire hall was watching and wondering what bizzare custom I was indulging in and just what I intended to do with the sword. I had no idea. Like most adolescents I was good at blushing and little else. His eyes held onto mine, he was still kneeling before me with his massive shoulders back and his head high. I slowly reversed the sword so that the cross of the pommel was before my face. I kissed the cross and let the pommel dip down to his hands until he took it from me.
I came to my feet without realising I had broken trance.
“The scouts are returned. Lord Brandor would have you come to him as soon as you are able.”
The boy looked flustered at issuing me with commands. Actually I would have obeyed Brandor like a page: on a battlefield he was more than my master.
We had taken shelter on the lee of the valley, less than two miles from the plain I intended to be occupying at dawn tomorrow morning. The rebels were making their way slowly down through the pass. They would find a thousand men stood with the ground to their advantage, fully prepared to meet them.
“Jai.” Brandor met me with a grim nod from the small knot of men beside the roadway.
A youngster in peasant clothes was standing with him, muddied and extremely nervous. Brandor indicated him. “Tell him what you told me.”
“The valley’s already occupied sire.” The young scout gave me a despairing glance, too overwhelmed now to be tactful. “I saw them arrive. Near eight hundred men a foot, two hundred mounted. They’ve taken the high ground and they’ve got guards posted, watching us.”
“Waiting for us to walk right up to them.” Brandor said bitterly. “We’ve been betrayed, Jai. They’ll take us while we’re still coming down through the marshland.”
“They would have done.” I said calmly. “We know in time.”
Brandor looked at me. I turned back towards the road. There was a pause, then Bran followed me.
“Jai, we can’t just advance down there against them, we’ll be slaughtered.“
The wind was coming in from the east. I shut my eyes to it, feeling and tasting the frost on it’s way.
The ordination was quickly over without a word required from either of us. The men at arms filed out. My father kissed us both, and then suddenly we were alone.
“I think the idea is that we get acquainted.”
He had sheathed the sword. Long sleeved arms crossed over his black leather tunic. He nodded down at me. “Rhyl.”
“I know.” He jerked his head. “There’s fields beyond the farm, come on.”
He covered the ground in clean strides: it quickly bore in on him how hard I had to struggle to follow. We paused on top of Coven hill and I dropped to the grass, panting. He knelt and watched with curiosity.
“Do you have the Blood?”
“Yes. From my father.”
“I’ve heard of it.” He said soberly. I took several deep breaths.
“Why are you here? You know what all this means. You’ve tied yourself to me, batchelorhood and servitude until death. Have you seen my father’s bondsman? He’s slept in the same room as my father for eighteen years. Look at me.”
“You will be king.”
“Is that all?” I sat up to watch his face. “You’re a soldier. Do you want to spend the rest of your life with this?”
I nodded down at myself. He pulled my hand away to get a proper look.
“Thin blood, isn’t it?”
“Among other things.” I showed him my hands, the swollen joints at my knuckles. He hesitated, touched gently, then got hold of one of my hands between both of his. Strong fingers, warm and merciless. I winced, but let him feel the heat in the bones.
“See what I mean?”
He let go. “I was bred for you. Trained. Bodyguard and armsman.”
“You had no choice.” I crossed my legs, propped my elbows on my knees. I remember exactly how the sun reflected from his dark hair. I don’t think I ever saw him so well groomed again.
“Do you know the rest of the ceremony? I’m supposed to cut my mark on you. A scar that says you belong to me body and soul.”
He pulled back his sleeve and bared his forearm, offering it with a half smile. I shook my head in disbelief. “You should serve a man who can use you.”
“I’m sworn to you.”
“Not yet.” I said narrowly. He let his forearm drop, eyes amused.
“They said you were fey.”
“I have the blood.” I edged onto my knees, facing him. “Twists the body but frees the mind. I can spell things you’ve never seen before.”
He watched me with calm trust, waiting. I had only ever done this with my father. I stretched out a hand dubiously. He took it and drew it the rest of the way to his face. My father and I reached forehead to forehead but my hand found it’s own way to him, cupped the roughness of his cheek along the hard bone and fused there. What would he like? I slipped into him as easily as breathing.
My father’s mind was an arboured, well ordered garden. This man was over the hills and far away, rugged and rocky with no borders in sight. He loved horses, water- I concentrated on the Cymreg falls that I’d seen in my father’s memory. The steaming, crashing fall of water, tumbling forever over the cliffs. He swore softly, standing with me under the spray, feeling with me the rush and power of it. Everyone brings themselves into a seeing, although it is only a replay of memory. My father had seen the power and the timelessness- just what appealed to my warrior friend. His eyes were dazed when I took my hand away. I leaned on skinny knees and waited until he came back to himself.
“Now do you see what you’re tying yourself to?”
He caught my hand before I could get up. “How did you do that?”
“I told you. I have the blood.”
“Your eyes.” He said unsteadily. “You’ve got silver eyes.”
I swallowed hard as he touched me, found the threads and Pushed at him.
“Get out of here Rhyl. Run. Find a life of your own before it’s too late.”
His eyes didn’t waver, never mind take on the blurred look of a spelled one. He took my hand and rubbed at the swollen knuckles, bullying the stiffness.
“You could be stronger than this.”
“I can’t keep up with arms practises.”
“You were quick enough with my sword.”
“I’ll be in trouble for that. Disrespect for tradition.”
“No you won’t.” he said with calm certainty. I sniffed.
“I could have put any sort of political implications into the melting pot. There were half the marcher lords watching.”
“You’ve been well trained.”
“How much longer do you think my father will last?” My eyes stung at the thought. “We die young in my family. The blood burns out fast.”
He pulled himself to his feet. “I’d say that depends on who’s looking after you.”
“My father says this kingdom is a dam. He’s spent his life going from one crack to another, stopping up each trickle to keep the wall from going down.”
“I keep forgetting how young you are.”
This time he put his hand to my face in a careful imitation of my linking and gave me the first, real smile. “I think we’d better do it.”
He took a dagger from his belt and held it out to me, hilt first.
I recoiled at once, feeling sweat break out across my face. “No-“
“They’ve told you what you have to do?”
“The rune letter J- I can’t..let me go, I can’t.”
I was begging, close to panic. I’d been told little about this, had various horrible dreams about it full of blood and screams. I had hoped when the moment came that my father would be on hand to control the situation or that better still it would just get forgotten. I saw the sun shine on the blade and made one last wild attempt to hit his mind, hard. Hard enough to send him running from here. Not even words, just the leap of mental sound I would send to a hind on the hunt.
DANGER. BLOOD. RUN.
His eyes would not respond. He looked at me with a strange smile, something very gentle. “You’re gifted.” I said in surprise. He laughed and shook his head.
“I told you. Trained. No bondsman can be spelled by his master.”
’The one critic I cannot silence’ I had heard my father say of Reinalt, his grey bearded, ghostlike shadow.
The knife twisted in his hand a little.
“Jaris.” I corrected.
“Jai.” His voice controlled me. Once more he held the dagger out. “It’s allright. Do it.”
I took it, trembling. He waited. I stared at the blade. Cut- living flesh- unthinkable. No.
He turned me like a puppet, his arms wrapped around me from behind and his hands closed over mine. I realised too late what he was doing. His sleeve split under the blade. He jerked the material aside and his hand forced mine over the hilt. Four deep, fast slashes, then I snatched my hands from under his and instinctively lifted his bleeding forearm to my mouth. He put the dagger back in his belt and I felt his hand pass over my head, then his arm slipped around my neck.
“Easy. You’re a bit young yet.”
It would be years before I understood what he meant.
The swat was sharp enough to snap me out of my thoughts and elicit a yelp. Rhyl grabbed my arm under my cloak, turned me back and administered a second discreet smack, still harder than the first.
“Jai will you answer me? Bran’s going out of his mind!”
And I was standing, gazing out over hillsides. I shook myself and turned back to face Brandor, bracing myself with a hand on Rhyl’s arm.
“Take them north, Bran. Six miles to the north you’ll reach the forests. Scatter. Send them home as they can get there.”
“And leave that rebel scum to sit in that valley-“ Bran started to protest,
“Winter will have them.” I said calmly. “With no help from us. They’re directly under the mountains and I doubt they know our weather patterns. In six weeks the solstice is upon us anyway. Scatter now, fight in spring. Take your men north.”
“Where do you go?” Bran demanded. I pulled gauntlets from my belt and drew them on, flexing the chill out of the leather. “Deinsted.”
“Get the men away, choose six of your best knights and meet me there. Swift as you can.”
“Who rides with you?”
“Find me four guards. Only those you trust.”
“You expected all this, didn’t you?” Bran said grimly.
I hesitated. “I knew we had a traitor friend.”
“I could have told you not to trust Eris.”
If it made him content to think that, so be it. Rhyl signalled the boy with our two horses and held mine, his eyes following me as I mounted.
I still do not know what he expected of me the day he was sworn to me. Slave to a lord and master. Squire to a knight. Keeper to a spoilt noble. The bondsman is all of those things. I don’t think he anticipated me as I was then. Weak, small, naiive, still very much a child. I wonder how many boys his age would have known what to do with such a charge: how many men would have been bored or exasperated. He had my confidence within hours. By sunset we were companions, playmates, brothers.
I would have been beaten for amending the ceremony, save that Rhyl quietly put my tutor out of the room and shut the door on him. I realised then what he had been trying to tell me. Every step I took now, I had the dark, looming man at my heels. He had placed himself and his scarred arm firmly between me and the rest of the kingdom, and it granted me a freedom and immunity I had never before imagined. It was an intoxicating first taste of power. Sickly as the line was and trained as I must be, my life had been packed with lessons. Rhyl complained bitterly when he discovered I not only spent most of my spare time reading, but had never had much idea of how to play. He spent that summer teaching me to be fifteen, shamelessly shed his newly attained manhood and chased me out to the fields and rivers where he taught me to fish and swim and laze in the grass, talking for hours at a time. He coerced me to truant from court and chamber sessions and stood between me and the consequences. I realise now that my father allowed us that time to bond and play, knowing the importance of what we built together in the fields outside Almeda. Not just our bond, but the first real training for my life after his. My first taste of freedom and the means to impose my will.
He must have known the danger of a strictly raised boy so suddenly finding the power to be wilful, but there were no lectures. No words of warning. Twenty years ago it had been him and Reinalt in the pastures and he left me to find my own way. We never knew how anxiously he and Reinalt watched, until the month moon turned and the fresh palfreys came to the stables for breeding.
Even at that age I was forbidden to ride. Like my father before me I had no strength for the lunatic mares we bred who needed brute strength behind their hard mouths and who sensed the electric crackles of the gifted all too clearly. When I had to ride, I rode with Reinalt’s hand on my rein and a stablemaster within reach.
But my father hated horses and I had been raised around the stables, knew most of them by name and could coax them to me in the open paddocks. Now at last I had the authority to order a horse to ride and no man in the stables would dare refuse me. I can only now understand what terrors my father must have suffered while he waited. Several times Rhyl stood with me in the paddocks, watching me with the mares that towered above my head and snapped at sudden movements, and he made his decision as I found the courage to order a mare to be saddled for me.
“She’s too much for you Jai.”
A month ago I would have meekly submitted, but he had trained me himself. I nodded again to the stable boy and leaned against the timber wall, watching the mare brought out.
“Who are you to decide for me?”
“Common sense.” Rhyl put a hand on my arm, hard muscle that I knew well now by sight and touch. “You’ve got the skill allright but these bastards need strength and you couldn’t handle any of them. Not even your father can.”
“How do you know if I don’t try?” I demanded. He shook his head once, sharply. I was to come to know that gesture so well I could reproduce it in my sleep.
“Watch.” I challenged. His hand tightened on my wrist.
“Bring her round.” I ordered the servant. Rhyl put his hands over mine and physically took me out of the stables, jerking his head at the boy.
“Put her back, she won’t be ridden.”
I waited until we were in the quiet outbuildings of the castle farm before I exploded, outraged and furious.
“You may not order me!”
“I said no.” Rhyl said bluntly. “Not now. Not ever. Not while I see those dragons in the stables.”
“Who’s orders will the stable boys obey?” I taunted him, trying to escape his grasp. He didn’t hesitate. “Yours. But you won’t give the order.”
“You can’t stop me.”
“I said no and I meant it.”
“You can’t be with me all the time.”
“I won’t have to be.” Rhyl steered me ahead of him into a barn and kicked the door shut.
“The first chance I get,” I promised him, “I’ll have that mare saddled and I’ll show you-“
He raised an eyebrow at me. And grabbed. We’d wrestled in play, I knew his strength, but he wasn’t playing as he turned me across his lap and pinned me there, his hands at my waist. I realised what he was intending and started to squirm in earnest, but he held me effortlessly, stripping my backside bare as my tutor would never dare to do.
My tutor’s occasional beatings were formal and precise affairs, painful but dignified, and I would have scorned to so much as flinch in his sight. Rhyl was entirely different. It was an appalling shock to find myself bare across his lap, ridiculously upturned and entirely helpless, and nothing more scientific than his palm slapped down across my behind with a sharp smack. I struggled more from indignation than pain, but couldn’t move an inch.
“Let me go!”
“Not until you swear to me you’ll never try riding one of those bitches. You won’t do it, Jai. I promise you.”
The proof was in his effortless grip on me as I struggled with him, starting to flinch as the smacks began to find already stung and smarting ground across my defenceless rump.
“You promise me.”
“I will not!” I kicked, trying to twist far enough round to bite his thigh. I couldn’t move an inch, and it was gradually sinking into me that he was neither playing, nor prepared to negotiate. Those heavy handed swats hurt, and I was starting to wriggle and flinch without being able to help myself.
“You give me your word,” Rhyl said genially, “And I’ll stop.”
“Be damned to you!”
“You won’t win, Jai.”
We’ll see about that.
Rhyl took no notice of my dignity nor my silence. Just patiently carried on spanking as if I were five instead of fifteen and a village brat instead of the heir to the throne. I couldn’t stop the tears coming to my eyes and when to my total indignation I began to cry, he still didn’t pause.
“You swear to me.”
I kicked, starting to realise that nothing short of capitulation was going to stop him continuing this dreadful, humiliating spanking for the rest of time.
“Allright!” I choked at last. After all, kings have wisdom beyond ordinary mortals and know when to retreat. “Allright, I swear!”
“On your honour?”
He pulled me to my feet. I put my hands behind me like a child and scrubbed hard at my blazing bottom. He gave me a wry smile in response to my look of resentment and touched my face before I could jerk away.
“Jai. Better a sore backside than a broken neck.”
I refused to speak to him.
“Thank the gods.” My father said fervently when I swallowed bruised pride enough to tell him. Rhyl’s arm slipped around my waist in apology. He had tried quietly to make it up to me, but I knew beyond doubt now that I could not coax, bully or beg once his mind was made up. I thought at first my father was rejoicing in the thought that I was safe from the horses, which only increased my bad temper, but Rainalt for the first time in my life, got off the window ledge and put his hands on my father’s shoulders.
“That was all we needed to know.”
From the way Rhyl looked at him I suddenly suspected that he and Rainalt were spending more time together than I had known. Rainalt glanced down at my father and came to sit in his more accustomed position on the edge of the dais at his feet.
“That is the only danger.” He said lightly. My father looked at Rhyl.
“A bondsman must be able not just to defer foolishness but STOP it. Without a struggle. A king can order the world into chaos, he must have one fixed point to move from. One thing he cannot bend to his will what ever he does.”
“But a king’s orders will always be obeyed.” Rhyl said slowly. “Even if the orders are to take his bondsman to the keep and hang him.”
I gripped at him in horror. My father smiled.
“If the king has lost his mind enough to die soulless.”
“This is not about force.” Rainalt said quietly. “It will never take more than the two of you, face to face. No matter how many men he surrounds himself with, he cannot defend against you.”
There was something in his voice that warned me. Now I remember the few times he and my father disappeared together. A few bruises never accounted for, a few days where although Rainalt was his shadow, they never spoke or touched.
“Flight hawks paired.” My father said, vibrant after Rainalt’s soft voice. I thought instinctively of the birds stooping in harness, a wild bird’s speed bound to a tame bird’s skill. I saw Rainalt look at him: the sparrow bound to the gyrefalcon, and glimpsed through the dignified shields of my father’s bonding.
Brandor rose in his saddle to draw his sword to salute in front of his face. A dramatic gesture from a beloved friend. His face was strained as he turned his horse about and began to dismiss my small army, rapidly and efficiently. They would survive the winter. That I knew. We were not doomed by battle.
Rhyl’s hand caught my rein, drew my palfrey against his and I felt the familiar yank of his hand on my belt as he checked the weapons I carried, the cleanness of their release, the sharpness of their blades. Four of Brandor’s own knights were mounted behind us, watching their comrades disperse towards the shelter of the forest. We would melt away like rain off these border hills. The real battle awaited me at Deinsted.