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Chapter 2 Meeting

Carolin laid her burden of flowers on the graves, carefully arranging them so that the wind would be less likely to blow them away, and crouched down so that she was at eye level with the headstone.

She'd used her power for the first time to make the graves and the headstone. She hadn't had the tools to do the job the way it should be done, otherwise. Nothing fancy; their names, the day of their death - since she didn't know when they were born. She'd used her Sorceress' magic to shape and polish the stone so that it reflected the light, as if the gray rock were encased in glass. She hadn't used her power since, but the single use had taught her that they had been right to tell her to be most careful in using her birthright. She'd had to fight the urge to do stupid, silly things with her magic for weeks - the power trying to find a way out.

Her parents. Two years since they had died to the monsters that surrounded Timber on all sides, sacrificing themselves to keep her from using her magic. Fourteen is not a good time of life to begin complete independence, but so far she'd managed. Her father had taught her everything he knew about the bow and spear, reminding her that if she could use conventional weapons she should. And the weapons improved her aim, which had its own bonuses. She wouldn't call herself a hunter - not by a long shot. But she could shoot rabbits and squirrels enough to live on, and if there was one advantage to living in Timber it was that the growing season was very, very long. Fruit didn't require any special skill to gather.

That had been her father's gift to her - just training enough to survive. Eventually she might hunt larger game, but right now it would be more than she needed. She traced his name on the headstone with one green-linen-gloved finger. Would he be proud of her for surviving, or disappointed that she had used her magic to dig his grave, when he had died to prevent her using it at all?

Her mother...Carolin laughed quietly. Her mother's gift had been quite a bit more subtle. Her mother had told her everything she knew about the Knights and their role in the world. She had assumed that her daughter would seek one as soon as possible; after all, many frontier daughters married at twelve or thirteen. Knights were the other half of a Sorceress' power, she'd said. A Sorceress must always listen to her Knight so as not to be corrupted by her magic. To keep the Knight from completely controlling her, she must have as many Knights as she can, so that none are too powerful.

Ha. If there was one thing Carolin had carried away from that discussion, it had been an iron-bound determination to have no Knight at all. Bad enough to be expected to marry. But to have to marry many men in rapid succession?

But since there were no Knights in Timber, nor Squires, all three had agreed that the best possible solution would just be to avoid using the power at all, so that it could not corrupt. She hadn't had to argue with them that she didn't want a Knight. That she wanted to see how far she could go on her own first, before being tied to the fate of another - or several others, for that matter.

Carolin frowned at the headstone. What would her parents want her to do now, with a Knight and his Squires in Timber?

Since they were dead, and her love couldn't reach them...did it matter?

* * * * * * * *

"Hold up, hold up, damn your eyes," panted Quenlin. They wound the practice match down, sheathing their swords and bowing. Quenlin's breath came fast and hard; the Old Lion would probably have his head for that later.

Jian backed off, sweating just as heavily as his opponent, but controlling his breathing. "What's your problem?" he asked, managing not to pant.

"You fight like a demon, that's my problem," gasped Quenlin. "Don't you ever take a break?"

Jian looked around. The Old Lion had turned his Squires into construction workers, building a large wooden building with a courtyard, and surrounded by a wooden barricade. "And do what, exactly?" he asked.

Quenlin blinked as if the answer were obvious. "Go into town," he said. "Meet girls. Socialize. We're allowed to do that, you know. Just 'cause the Old Lion doesn't go out, doesn't mean we're forbidden to."

Jian considered the idea, then shook his head. "There's nothing out there," he said. "Timber's basically just a meeting place for hunters and traders. When a ship's not in, the place is practically empty. You're too used to the Empress' city, Quenlin." Quenlin's auburn hair flew out behind him as he delivered a hefty kick to the wooden barricade that surrounded the Old Lion's house. His hair was the envy of women everywhere; they always wanted to play with it. But out here, it did him no good at all. "Why'd he have to come here, anyway?" he grumbled. "Timber is nowhere, man."

"I think that's why he came here, my friend," said Jian with a grin. "But you can always go on up and demand an explanation of him, if you like."

Quenlin visibly paled, eyes wide. "No, no, that's all right," he said. "I'll take my beating like a good squire and...ah...just go give the others a hand with the barricade, shall I?" And he quickly strode off in that direction, not looking back.

Jian shook his head and laughed. He had no idea why the others were so afraid of the old Knight - the Old Lion as the squires called him. The man had never once meted out a punishment that was undeserved, in any way. Harsh, yes, and rather grim - but fair. If you toed the line, you knew exactly where you stood. Even his dark moods were understandable; his Sorceress had died. It was every Squire's dream to be chosen by a Sorceress, and to lose one was a heavy blow.

And if one were not chosen - as it was quite likely none of the Squires here would be - the training offered by a Knight could net you an officer's rank in the army or a fairly high position in government. It was worth the work. It was entirely possible that one of the Squires now attempting to build a decent wooden fortress would - at the very least - be running Timber at the end of their training.

Jian did not elect to join the others. Each of the twelve Squires had a particular specialty, something that they were better than the others at. Half their time was involved in that specialty; either receiving special instruction at the hands of the Old Lion, or teaching the others as much as they would absorb of that skill. In Jian's case, it was swordplay. Quenlin's was social functions, not surprisingly. Out here, Jian's skills were far more in demand than his friend's, so it was not surprising he was happier. The only use for swordplay in Centra was to duel. Jian headed for the great house where they all lived now, to make his report to the Old Lion.

* * * * * * *

The 'Old Lion' was looking out the window at the work his Squires were doing. He didn't have a great deal of faith in the goodness of the human spirit; he was quite sure that if the boys weren't watched, at least a few of them would try to explore the town. He didn't consider any of them ready for that yet. He turned when he heard the door behind him open; as he had expected, it was Jian.

He rather liked Jian, at least inasmuch as he liked anyone. At seventeen, he already had the poise and confidence of an adult, mature beyond his years. The boy wore his hair long, probably in imitation of the Lion himself, straight black hair in a single braid that extended halfway down his back. His oriental features allowed him to get away with more vivid personal colors than most of the squires; his chosen emblem was a golden dragon on a scarlet field. If he ever made Knight, that emblem would grace his right shoulder as the red Knight's Cross graced his left. An odd choice, given that most Squires chose an emblem that reminded them of their training; by that light, a demon's horned head would have been more appropriate.

The Knight stared at his Squire, more or less just to see if silence could disturb the boy. He was pleased to note that it didn't; eventually, all the Squires would have such poise. He nodded toward a chair; granting the squire permission to sit. Jian did so immediately, still watching his leader.

"How are they learning?" said the Lion.

Jian shrugged. "Quenlin is picking it up slowly, sir, as you expected. Lan is doing all right, Wilhelm and Stef need more work on their off-hands, Cori, Gavin, and Tim can't handle defensive stances, Dorin, Kyle, and Elric persist in attacking my shield, and Twyl keeps dropping the sword every time I hit it."

"So, by your standards, I have you and Lan - is that it?" said the Knight. From anyone else, that tone would have been accusatory. Jian had learned to interpret it as teasing. He nodded.

"For now, sir. With monsters all around, I'm sure the others will pick up speed soon."

The Knight stood, walked over to the wall where his own shield hung. It was quite impressive, as a named Knight's shield should be - not mere painted patterns over hardened leather or steel, but a molded metal shield with its blazon embossed upon it. His crest was a silver lion on black, the creature reared up as though to strike the viewer, and where its heart would be was set a ruby. How he got the thing to stay on given the beating the shield took, or kept the lion's shape true, was anyone's guess - but such were the mysteries that gave Knights their power. He lifted his shield off its hooks, took his sword down from the wall. He turned to Jian. "And you? How shall I judge you, Jian?"

Jian understood this to mean: it is time for your turn to take a beating. To be released from training, a Squire had to pass two tests; one was to defeat his Knight with his own specialty, and the other was to defeat his Knight in his own worst field. By those rules, Jian might never be released from training; he had absolutely no ear for music. He picked up his sword and shield and followed his Knight out to the practice yard. All work stopped; the other Squires loved to see Jian beaten at his own game - and the Old Lion could fight.

The two entered the fighting circle and stood on opposite sides of its circumference. Training practices were governed by traditions older than time, to allow a Squire to learn to fight without taking mortal injury. Jian chose to move first; that way, if by some miracle he won, it would count towards his release. He raised his sword tip from the ground and held it so that the crosspiece was just under his eyes.

"I am Jian of the Dragon, and I challenge you," he said, sweeping his sword out to one side and then drawing it in, to hold in a ready stance.

The Knight's expression turned wry as he returned the salute, understanding his Squire's reasoning. "I am Leonhart of the Sorceress Marie, and I accept the challenge," he said to complete the formula, and then twirled his sword in an overhead chop that Jian had to dodge.

Of course, if he offered first challenge and lost...his Knight was not required to spare his life. The Old Lion was well known as a superlative fighter. Jian lashed out in a sideways slice, only to find his leader's blade already there, blocking. He spun the blade back around, aiming for the legs...blocked there, too. Damn, the man was over forty years old. He shouldn't be so fast.

The Lion took the offensive then, a diagonal stroke that could have taken Jian's head off - but he just barely managed to parry it. A quick flick of the wrist and it was aiming for Jian's stomach; he leaped back and slashed out; not trying to wound, only intent on keeping that sword out of reach until he got his balance back. That almost worked, but the Lion simply caught the swing on his shield and thrust straight forward; blade wide out and off balance, Jian landed flat on his back in the dust.

He'd lost, and fairly quickly. But the Old Lion didn't seem offended. Instead of following up on his advantage, he sheathed his sword and offered Jian a hand up. "Not quite ready for Knighthood yet," he said, "But better. You'll take care of the laundry by yourself for the next few weeks, for overestimating yourself. That's on top of your usual duties."

The other Squires backed away; they heard anger and they feared it. Jian did not. He had crossed the line, daring to offer challenge, and now he was paying for it. But the Old Lion knew that it was what his squire had to do to be free one day, and did not hold the attempt against him.

He would have had the day free now, having completed his other duties. Instead he carefully sheathed his sword and slung the shield over his back, freeing his hands to carry laundry baskets. The nearest stream was a quarter mile away, and there were monsters around.

* * * * * * *

Carolin looked at the great wooden monstrosity and wondered what the hell the Knight needed with so much personal space.

The private compound was easily the largest building in Timber, and consistently noisy as work went on within it. She - and every other resident within a mile or two - could find the place just by listening for the sound of hammering.

So far, none of the thirteen had ventured out of their self-made prison. Carolin got only as close as was needed to watch the place from a treetop, just in case that too-sensitive Knight left the area. A Sorceress had many advantages beyond merely being able to use magic; all her senses were heightened, and she was physically superior to the average person in almost every respect. But Knights - even Knights whose Sorceresses had died - could be incredibly astute at spotting those differences, and they were trained to deal with them. If a Sorceress went to the bad, a Knight would know it before anyone else, and would know what to do about it.

Carolin wondered why her mother had thought this would make her feel better. It sounded to her like putting a collar around your throat, and handing the leash to a stranger - and telling that stranger to kill if you struggled. After all...if the Knight knew before anyone else, what was to stop a corrupt Knight from killing a Sorceress out of pique, and claiming it was because she was going bad? Who would know the difference?

She watched the place and sighed. She really wished she knew what to do about it being there. This was the only colony on the continent; she could leave, and perhaps find a place with the aboriginal tribes until they learned she was a Sorceress and tried to set fire to her. Or avoid humanity altogether and see how long she would live. But neither prospect really held much appeal. She wished, not for the first time or the last, that she had not been born a Sorceress. Her parents hadn't had a trace of the magic in their lines. There was no reason for her to have it. She didn't want to bother anyone, and she only wanted people not to bother her in return. Timber had been ideal; people when she wanted them, silence when she needed it.

Ha. Leave alone an orphaned, Knight-less, sixteen-year-old Sorceress. People just didn't think that way. Too many people would want to get involved 'for her own good'. Carolin was wise enough to know that the magic was just an added reason; quite a few people would just be interested in a sixteen year old orphaned girl, if she were pretty enough.

She blinked. The gate was opening! She fought down the urge to hide herself with magic; on top of the chance of it getting out of control, she had no idea whether whoever was coming out would be trained to sense magic.

Oh, thank Hyne. It was not the Knight; even from here she could tell that. Apart from the hair being the wrong color, and braided, she rather doubted a Knight would do their own laundry. Whoever it was was almost buried under a stack of laundry baskets.

Well. There was only one place the washer could be going; the river. She could find out how sensitive this person was - and if they weren't able to sense her magic, she might even get some information out of them. Quickly she climbed down the trunk, and when she reached the ground she sprinted for the river.

Jian managed to get all the baskets down to the river's edge without dropping anything, and found a wide stone ledge where he could do the washing without having to worry overmuch about mud. Branches would have to do for drying lines, though. He sighed; the rules said the clothes had to be spotless and neat, but whoever had written the rules probably hadn't had to try doing laundry in a riverbed. At least Elric had described the soap-root to him, so he didn't have to work quite as hard. Elric had gotten laundry duty far more often than Jian ever might.

He'd gotten the baskets sorted by owner; the Old Lion's stuff would go first, while Jian's eyes were keenest. Hyne only knew what would happen if he left some stain on the Lion's clothes; screwing up a punishment duty usually meant something painful rather than something humiliating. He set his shield on a reachable branch, re-strapped the sword across his back, thunked the basket down and got to work.

Carolin noted the black, square cross on the boy's shoulder - so, this was one of the Squires. Quite flamboyantly dressed for someone out here; he wore scarlet with gold trim. It presented an odd picture; the richness of his dress contrasting with the meniality of his task. She grinned, wondering if the reputed servitude of Knights really extended to household chores. She gave herself a mental shake; that was not why she was here.

She moved a little closer, staying out of sight, watching to see if he sensed something amiss. When he gave no indication of being aware of company, she moved a little closer, and a little closer...

In the end, she had to conclude that sensing Sorceresses was one skill this boy hadn't learned yet. She was quite comfortably sunning herself on a rock about ten feet away, and got to watch him from that point for about half an hour before he noticed her. He was quite handsome in an exotic sort of way, really. That was hardly unusual - since Knights were always chosen by Sorceresses, one of their nicknames was 'the beautiful ones'. It would be logical to assume the same went for Squires. Sorceresses were also always beautiful; even if they picked up the gift later in life from another Sorceress, magic could do wonders for just about anything on anyone. Beauty was actually sometimes used to find Sorceresses who were born with the gift. She wondered vaguely if they held beauty pageants for men, in Centra.

He had remarkable poise, too. When he finally noticed he had company, he - unfortunately - completely failed to do a comical fall into the river. He did start a bit, but recovered and gave her a full bow from the waist, quite courtly given that he was up to his knees in river water and holding what she devoutly hoped was someone else's boxers. "I hope I'm not crossing any boundaries, miss," he said politely, "but I'm under orders to get these cleaned and this seemed a good spot."

That tore it; Carolin laughed. He looked like a leader, someone used to giving orders, but he sounded like a boy and was being ordered to do laundry. The split between what he looked like and what he actually seemed to be was just too much. "Oh, you're just fine," she laughed. "Nobody owns the river. Actually, there's a story that its source lake is haunted."

He looked upstream, frowning a little. "Really?" he said. "The Lion will be interested in that. He likes poking around such places."

Ah, opportunity. She blinked. "You serve a cat?" she asked innocently.

He looked at her oddly, dark brown eyes looking slightly demonic. "No," he said, as though that were obvious. "Oh - you wouldn't know all the Knights out here, would you? They all get nicknames like that." He bent down and continued his work while talking to her. "Just so you know - and I bet it'll end up all over town - he's Sir Leonhart of the Sorceress Marie; the last Sorceress-Empress. A lot of us call him the Old Lion, or the Lion. If you ever meet him, you'll know why."

Carolin pretended nervousness; not a real stretch at all. "No, I don't think I want to meet up with anyone who has a nickname like that," she said. Or anyone who can sense my presence the moment he sets foot on shore. "But if he's one of the last Empress' Knights, why does he still have the title? She's dead, isn't she?"

The squire scrubbed industriously at a dark gray cape. "He hasn't got any political power, no," he said absently, "But he keeps the title until he dies. He's still got most of the powers of a Knight, you see. Given the state Centra's in, he could probably have kept his position as a city governor for at least a few more years, until Marie's daughter names a new Knight for his old city. He just didn't want it. So he packed up everything - and that includes us - and came here."

"He packed you up? You mean, all the squires? Couldn't he just dismiss you or something?" It seemed odd, to leave civilization and a position of power, to take a dozen boys to the frontier.

The squire paused in his work long enough to look at her. "If you think he'd do something like that, you really haven't heard of the Old Lion," he said, and got back to his scrubbing. "If he agrees to do something, he does it. No backtracking. He'd taken on us twelve when Marie died. We're his until we either pass muster, or drop out. He won't abandon any responsibility he takes on."

Carolin pulled off her green, thin leather boots and dangled her toes in the water; a slight risk, but she was by now almost sure this squire couldn't sense anything unusual about her. And he seemed to be proud of his leader; that served her well, since she needed to know as much as possible about someone so sensitive. "He left his old city, you said, when he could have governed it a few more years. Isn't that abandoning a responsibility?"

"Look, lady," said the squire, "I don't go around badmouthing Timber. If you start badmouthing the Lion, you're going to find out just exactly how much trouble a dozen squires can start. He left the governorship when Marie died, all right? His contract was up. That's the law. He could have chosen to stay on, sure, but that was a choice, not a requirement."

Carolin raised her hands in surrender. "All right, I'm sorry, I'm sorry!" she said. "I didn't mean any disrespect. I'm from around here, remember? We don't get any of that sort of politics around here." She paused, watching him. "You're very loyal to him, aren't you?" she asked.

The squire grinned. "Yes," he said. "He does that to people. You'll either love him or hate him, right off the bat. I don't have to tell you how the twelve of us feel."

Carolin looked at him; he acted as though she had offered him praise by calling him loyal. Perhaps she had, though she hadn't meant it that way. To her, it was strange that anyone could speak so glowingly of a person who had probably only recently sent them to wash a great many clothes in the river. The people of Timber had a strong independent streak. On an impulse, she reached out a gloved hand. "I'm Carolin," she said.

He took it, and shook. "Jian," he said. "Squire Jian of the Dragon, under Leonhart."

Well, it wasn't wisely done, but at least she now knew he couldn't sense magic. "I think I'll just stick to Carolin," she said lightly. "You can get it out in one breath."

He chuckled a bit as he got back to work. "It's just heraldry," he said. "Squires abandon their family names and pick a unique crest, and that becomes their name until such time as a Sorceress gives them one. I picked the dragon," and he pointed up at his shield, "so I'm 'Jian of the Dragon'. Since I'm still a Squire, I have to say who I'm serving my term under, and that's the Old Lion." He paused. "You ought to talk to Quenlin if this stuff interests you," he said. "He does much better than I do at the courtly stuff."

She had no idea who Quenlin was, but surely all the Squires couldn't be this insensitive to magic. "No, thank you," she said. "I'll get it from you, if that's all right with you."

He lifted his head to look at her, grinning as he flipped his long black braid to his back. "You have no idea how disappointed he's going to be when he hears about this," he said. "Just this morning he was after me to socialize, and now I get to socialize on punishment detail."

Carolin grinned back, but she wasn't done with her questions yet. "So, if you're 'Jian of the Dragon', then what is Leonhart's 'of the'? Or would that be too long to say?"

"That is his 'of the', as you put it," said Jian, pulling the last basket of dirty clothes into the river. Finally, he got to do his own. "He used to be something else, a long time ago. A 'someone of the something' sort. Well, rumor holds he saved the Sorceress Marie's life once. Something big, you know, looking into the jaws of death and all that. Whatever it was - and I can give you at least sixteen different versions on that - it really impressed Marie. She made him a ring, using her power, and gave it to him as a sort of personal thank you. He's still got it on his finger, very impressive if you ever meet him. It's got a carving of a lion on it." He grinned, proud of the recognition his leader had received. "Anyway, it rocked him to his boots that she would do that, and he changed his name to Leonhart, and took the pouncing lion for his crest. I'm really kind of surprised you haven't heard any of this, even out here. It was all over Centra."

Carolin shook her head. "We don't hear much about that sort of thing out here," she said casually. "No Knights out here before now, and no Squires, and very little chance of getting either. So...'leonhart'? Not 'lionheart'?"

"Old spelling," said Jian. "Same meaning, though. Besides, it looks better. Anyway - if you meet him - you'll find he's a bit of a traditionalist. He took the name to honor the gift, not his own accomplishments."

And Jian was really, truly envious, Carolin could see. And he wanted her to meet the Knight, so as to prove how great the man really was. Carolin had absolutely no intention of doing that. He could probably sense her even if she were outside his little fort by several feet.

Jian stood up, and started gathering the cleaned clothes into their assorted baskets from their drying branches. "Well, that's my work for the day done," he said. "Thanks for keeping me company; I've got to do this for the next few weeks and it wasn't something I was looking forward to." He hesitated. "Um...would you be here tomorrow?"

Carolin smiled; he was safe enough, it seemed. "Sure," she said. She'd be busy telling the townsfolk what he'd told her, so that the squires would believe her to be a town girl when they were finally let out of their pen, but it was worth it. "I'll look for you here, if that's all right."

"Sounds good. Thanks, Carolin." He stacked his baskets, and carefully made his way back to his master's house. Carolin dried her feet, pulled her boots back on, and headed for town. Armed with all that Jian had told her, she could probably trade the information for a few of the more interesting foodstuffs. Rabbit wasn't bad, but it could get awfully boring after a few months.

Chapter 3

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