For the curious and/or medieval history buff, this takes place around 1050AD in Burgundy, France.
Part the First: A Trip to Dijon
Snip, snip, snip.
Gustave tied the newly-pruned vine to a nearby stake and glanced at the cloudless, lightening sky above him. He frowned; if his guess was right, he would be hearing the Prime bells soon.
I need to leave soon, he thought. It'll take me til half-Sext to reach Dijon.
He heard the first clang of the bell.
"René," he said, "Are we almost done? I'm gonna miss it!"
From a few yards away, René Taichou looked up from the vine he had been tending. "We have this row and the next," he said. "You did promise Constantin that you would finish your chores before you left for Dijon. If you miss anything it would just be the minstrels and the competition of the squire candidates."
Gustave sighed. "I wish I could have gone to all the tournaments this year!"
"Well, at least you get to attend the final one—your lord father always permits you to go to the Nine Swords. What's so special about this year?"
"This year most of the knights are boys my age," Gustave replied, and he reached for another vine and snipped off a few bright green leaves. He ran callused fingers over the knobby bark of the vine, caressing it lightly as if to apologize for trimming it.
René straightened up and cocked his head while he gave Gustave a once-over. "Hmm, yes, sometimes I forget that you are almost twenty, petit." He grinned. "Do you wish that you were a newly-made chevalier too?"
Gustave glowered at him. "Don't call me petit."
The grin deepened. "Very well. But you didn't answer my question."
Gustave looked at his earth-stained hands. "Sometimes," he said. "I love to fight—my favorite part of the day is when I can have mock-battles with you an' Tenys. But knighthood is for the noble-born, not foster-sons like me. I'm content here, and I'm grateful to Lord Constantin for giving me a home."
"The tales say that King Arthur was a foster-son," René said. "He was his foster-brother's squire and he became king."
"That's just a story," Gustave retorted, and he returned to his work. "Besides, I don't want to be king."
René laughed, and then he walked over and dropped a hand onto Gustave's shoulder. "Knighthood isn't supposed to be for miller's sons, either, but I was made a knight. Tenys is the noble-born one." He clapped Gustave on the back. "Go, watch your tournament, and enjoy the day. I'd wager that you'll find you are better trained than most of them."
"You an' Tenys are good teachers," Gustave replied. "I can go now, really? It's all right?"
"Yes, go. I'll finish up here and tell your lord father that you did your chores. When you get back tomorrow you can help me in the smithy by working the bellows—I'll need some extra heat for that sword I'm working on."
"Thank you, René!" Gustave sheathed his pruning knife and then he trotted over to the small hut that housed their tools. Drawing a bucket of water from the nearby well, he went inside and quickly washed up and changed into his traveling clothes. When he was done he grabbed his straw hat and the pack he had prepared earlier and headed for the stables.
He was halfway to Dijon, and it was already shaping up to be a beautiful day. Spring rains had made the forest lush and verdant, and dappled sunlight filtered through bright green leaves. Gustave appreciated the warmth of the morning sun on his back as he rode along the winding, rutted dirt road. Easter had come early this year, and there was still a chill in the air that Gustave had not noticed earlier that morning while working in the vineyard. He drew his woolen cloak tighter about him.
"René's gonna work my arse off with the bellows when I get back, but it's worth it," he told the horse beneath him, and he patted a sleek, strong neck. "Just think, Hercule, we're gonna see all the best new knights in the kingdom challenge each other in the tourney! Well, I will—you'll be in the stables. Maybe you'll be in there with some of the knights' horses!"
The horse snorted and tossed his head in reply.
Gustave laughed and patted the horse again. "Not impressed, huh? I bet you'll be telling them all about your adventures with Tenys during the last war." He loved riding Hercule; it gave him a thrill to know he was atop a former war-horse, and despite his age the white stallion was still nimble and needed only the barest touch of Gustave's knees. His tutor had hinted that Gustave would be allowed to choose one of Hercule's offspring as a birthday gift, and Gustave thought the little white four-year-old he'd been keeping his eye on had his sire's dancing feet and flashing eye.
I will called him Mercure, Gustave thought, for he is as fast as the wind.
He was in the middle of telling Hercule about the latest exploits of the soon-to-be-named Mercure when he head a shout, a horse's high-pitched squeal, and the approaching thud-thud-thud of hooves.
"Look out, Hercule!" Gustave shouted, and he grabbed the reins he had been idly playing with seconds earlier. The stallion was ahead of him, though, and had already jumped to the side of the road just as a large, riderless horse came crashing through the woods and thundered past them. For a moment Gustave considered going after the animal, but then he decided it would be better to find the rider. Raising his hand to block the sun's glare, Gustave peered at the road before him and saw that there was a crossroads a few hundred feet ahead.
"I wager he's on that other road," he told the horse. "Let's go find him an' make sure he's okay."
A short ride led him to a scattered pile of leather bags, and Gustave slipped down from Hercule's back and led him by the reins as he followed a trail of broken branches into the woods at the side of the road. The horse they'd encountered moments earlier had been huge—at least sixteen hands—so Gustave was shocked to come upon a slender young man sprawled unconscious on the ground. A young man about his age, and about his height as well.
He was wearing maille armor, and a sword.
A knight? Gustave dropped the reins and walked over to where the young man lay. He knelt down and quickly looked over the motionless figure; no blood that he could see, and nothing appeared to be broken. He reached over and gently shook a maille-clad shoulder.
"Messire? Messire?" Gustave gave another shake. "Are you all right, messire?"
The young man's eyes flew open and for a second a startled, honey-gold gaze meet his. Then the knight quickly clambered away and reached for his sword. "What do you want?"
Gustave held out his hands, palm up. "I mean no harm. Did you have a problem with your horse? I heard a shout an' then a real big horse ran by Hercule an' me." He gestured at the white stallion behind him, who was now contentedly munching on some sweetgrass. "I was gonna try an' fetch him but I thought I should check on you first. Are you hurt?"
"I don't think so," the knight replied, and he flexed his hands and moved his arms and legs. He pushed back the maille coif he was wearing and rubbed a bruised spot on his forehead, revealing pale blond hair that was drawn back tightly into a single braid. "I must have hit a branch when Magnifique bolted. I told my lord father I didn't want to ride that damned horse to Dijon today—he is much too large for me—but he insisted, because he felt Magnifique would look more impressive. And for all that horse's hulking size, he is a great coward—he bolted when a fox darted across the road." He struggled to rise, but Gustave stayed him.
"You should just rest for a bit first. I'll go get your things out of the road." Gustave jogged back to the road and gathered up the knight's scattered possessions, and when he returned he set the bags down and then unfastened his waterskin from Hercule's saddle. "Here," he said, passing it over, "have some water; it looks like your waterskin is missing."
"Thank you." The young man drank deeply from the waterskin and then he glanced over at the pile of saddlebags. "Fortunately it looks like Magnifique only ran off with my waterskin and provision bag," he said. "My clothing and other supplies are in these bags, and"—he patted his hip and grinned at the answering jingle—"my money is still upon my person." His smile faded. "I am, however, now without a horse." He raised the waterskin to his lips again.
Gustave sat down next to him. "Did you just say you were going to Dijon? Are you in the Tournament of Nine Swords? Are you one of the new-made knights?"
"Yes, yes and yes," he replied, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of the cotton shirt he wore beneath his maille. "I am Nathanael Touton, son of Leonide Touton, Baron de Nevers. I have the honor of representing Tonnere in the tournament."
Gustave ducked his head in what could pass for a bow. "I'm Gustave."
Gustave shook his head and smiled. "Just Gustave. I live in the village of Tenkaillon, in Chalon."
A shrewd gaze flicked over him, taking in his padded leather gambeson and worn but well-made leather boots. "You dress far too well to be a commoner," Nathanael said, and then he nodded at Hercule. "And I would wager my entire purse that he is a courser, not a simple farm beast."
"I'm fortunate to be the foster-son of the Comtesse de Chalon's nephew," Gustave replied, completely unoffended by Nathanael's scrutiny. "His name is Constantin Duguet."
Nathanael's eyes widened. "You have met la comtesse? Her outrageousness is as legendary as her wine! My lord father says she is a wicked, meddlesome woman."
Gustave laughed. "She is a good, kind lady, although I think my foster-father might agree that she's meddlesome. Lady Bouchard found me when I was a small boy, left alone in the forest, an' she gave me to my foster-father's keeping. He wasn't happy about it at the time."
"Is he cruel to you?"
Gustave vigorously shook his head. "No! He treats me very kindly, even though he insists that he is not a kind man." Indeed, most people found Constantin to be short-tempered and rude, but Gustave knew it was bluster and loved him with all his heart.
Nathanael eyed him again. "You are most fortunate in your treatment, then. Not all fathers are kind."
Something in the young man's expression told Gustave that Nathanael was not treated kindly by his sire. He decided to change the subject. "I'm going to Dijon to watch the tournament," he said. "You can ride with me, if you want."
He was rewarded with a bright smile.
"I will accept your offer, Gustave," Nathanael said. "Thank you."
"Glad to be of service," Gustave said, and he rose and began to fasten Nathanael's packs to Hercule's saddle, as well as making some adjustments that would would make riding double a bit more comfortable. When he finished he turned and offered a hand to the young knight. "We should go now, you don't want to be late! I heard the Terce bells a little while ago, we should be able to get you there well before the None bells ring for the start of the tourney."
Nathanael gripped his hand and allowed Gustave to help him to his feet. "Yes, if I missed the tournament my lord father would be very angry. I am grateful that you stopped to help me, friend." He clasped Gustave's leather-clad shoulder with his free hand and smiled at him again.
Gustave felt heat rise in his cheeks. "I…I'm glad I could help," he stammered. He led Hercule back out to the road while Nathanael brushed bits of moss and leaves from his surcote and maille. When they reached the worn, packed earth of the road Gustave stopped and turned to face Nathanael. "You should ride in front," he said, "'cause it would look strange for you to be riding in back of me, if we encounter anyone." He wanted to try and spare the young man any further indignity.
Another smile. "You have my thanks once more."
Gustave watched while Nathanael mounted, and then he accepted the knight's hand to help him up onto Hercule's back. "Hercule responds more to your legs than the bit," he instructed. "Hercule, be courteous to our guest."
The stallion nickered in reply.
"Thank you for your hospitality, Hercule," Nathanael said. "Fortunately Gustave and I are not, er, tall in stature—"
"You mean we're short an' won't hurt his back," Gustave offered.
Nathanael laughed. "As you say. Hercule, as fast as you care to take us." He gave a nudge with his knees.
Gustave barely had time to slip an arm around Nathanael's slim waist before Hercule took off in a brisk trot.
By mid-morning, Hercule had slowed to an easy amble and Gustave found himself the object of Nathanael's curiosity.
"Your vineyard is run by two former knights? How can that be?"
Gustave smiled at the disbelief in Nathanael's voice. "Why not? No one wants to fight battles forever. René an' Tenys spent years in service to Chalon—they even helped keep the Romans from taking the eastern part of the county fifteen years ago. After that war Lady Bouchard sent them to our estate to live there an' work with my foster-father. Lord Constantin wasn't real happy about that."
Nathanael laughed. "That's what you said earlier about you being given into his charge."
Gustave's smile widened. "He likes to say that we're there to torment him, but I think he's secretly happy about having us around. Besides, René's real good at tending the vines an' dealing with the laborers, an' Tenys makes the best wine in all of Chalon—maybe even all of Bourgogne."
"Since you're Lord Constantin's foster-son, will you inherit the estate?"
Gustave shook his head, and then he realized Nathanael couldn't see him. "No," he said, "I can't. And my foster-father can't inherit it either; all of la comtesse's estates were part of her dowry an' will pass to Lord Bouchard's nephews, since they have no children."
Nathanael twisted around to look at him. "You mean you both will lose the the land when le comte dies? That's terrible; your father is her family—her blood relative."
Gustave shrugged. "It's the way of things with you nobles. But she pays Lord Constantin handsomely for managing the estate, an' the rest of us get good wages too. Lord Bouchard can't complain about that, an' we've been careful to save our money. Besides, I think he'll be around for a long time."
Nathanael frowned. "It's still not fair."
Gustave shrugged again. "I'm better off than when I was a small boy abandoned in the woods, an' even if le comte died tomorrow I'd still have Lord Constantin, Tenys an' René. They're my family, even though none of us are related by blood."
Nathanael didn't reply right away, and then he finally said, "I think it means more when you choose to be family." He turned back to face the road and said nothing further.
His new friend's mood had changed, and Gustave wasn't sure why. "I'm sorry," Gustave said, "I didn't mean to natter on. Lord Constantin is alway saying I talk too much."
Nathanael shook his head. "It's all right; I'm enjoying learning more about you. I guess…I'm envious of your family, of the love and affection you receive from them. My lord father is not a kind man, and I have been in his shadow and under his thumb all my life." The admission tumbled from his lips. "I hadn't even really wanted to be a knight—he wanted it for me, for the honor of our family—but I am beginning to see that he may have inadvertently freed me."
"Freed you? Aren't all men of Bourgogne free?"
Nathanael laughed, and to Gustave's ears the sound had a bitter ring to it. "In some ways you are fortunate to not be the son of a nobleman, and not be the heir to a title and lands. My lord father rules Nevers, and I must follow his wishes lest I bring dishonor on the family. But now I have been made a knight, and I won Tonnere's tournament and earned the right to compete at Dijon." He clenched a leather-gloved fist. "If I can win at Dijon I will be the best in all the kingdom, and I can enter the service of the Duc de Bourgogne. I would rather serve the ruler of our kingdom than my father."
Gustave leaned forward and whispered, "I hope you win, then."
There was silence between them again, but it was companionable and the tension had left Nathanael's shoulders. They stopped for a break when the road crossed over a small, rocky stream, and while Hercule drank his fill from the cold, rushing waters Gustave shared his snack of apples, bread and cheese with the young knight.
"Do you always attend the Tournament of Nine Swords?" Nathanael asked between bites of crusty bread.
Gustave nodded. "I love to watch all the newly-made knights compete with each other. I went to Chalon's tourney a few weeks ago." He took a drink from the waterskin and passed it over to Nathanael. "Once, René an' I went to every tourney—all nine counties!—an' then we went to Dijon for the Nine Swords an' watched all the winners fight." He bit into his apple.
"That must have been great fun."
"It was. I'm not sure we'll ever do it again, though, 'cause I had to work my arse off before an' after each tourney to get all my chores done." Gustave got up and re-filled the waterskin, and then he fed his last two apples to Hercule. "Time to go!"
A few more kilometers of travel took them out of the forest, and Gustave turned up his face to be warmed by the sun. He reckoned it was close to half-Terce; they had perhaps another half hour of riding, and they would arrive at Dijon well before the tournament started at the ringing of the None bells. There would even be time for lunch—Gustave was looking forward buying a large sack of the hot, flaky meat pasties that were sold in town. "We're almost there," he said. "Hercule has done a great job carrying both of us."
"He is wonderful," Nathanael said, and he leaned forward to pat Hercule's glossy neck.
The movement caused sunlight to glint off Nathanael's braid, and Gustave found himself mesmerized by the sway of the flaxen plait as they rode. Without thinking he picked up the end of it and brushed his thumb over the shining strands.
"Your hair is so pretty," Gustave murmured.
Nathanael turned and scowled at him. "I'm not a maiden," he snapped, and the movement of his head jerked his hair out of Gustave's hand.
Gustave smiled. "I know that, silly. I can still think it's pretty. Lord Constantin has long blond hair like yours—he binds his with a silk ribbon—but his hair is golden, like the honey mead that René makes in the wintertime." He reached out and ran a finger over the silken braid. "Yours is like early summer straw…no, it's like the Chablis that Tenys makes, pale an' beautiful."
A splash of pink appeared on Nathanael's cheeks. "T-thank you," he said. "I didn't know hair could be so poetic."
Gustave could feel heat rising in his own cheeks as he felt a strange flip in his belly, and he was suddenly very aware of the press of Nathanael's legs against his.
After a few moments Nathanael spoke again. "So…speaking of your two knights, have you trained with them? Have they been your sword-masters?"
Gustave was grateful for the change in subject. "Oh yes," he said. "I practice with both of them; sometimes separately, and sometimes all three of us have a mock-battle. Tenys is also my tutor, an' he likes to have wars on the banquet table using fruit an' sweets. He makes me lead one of the armies."
"Fruit and sweets! And have you won any of those wars?"
"I've only won once," Gustave replied. "Tenys is real smart, he was a marshal of the field. But I like it—I get to eat my army when we're done."
Nathanael's laughter echoed across the rolling hills of farmland that surrounded them, and Gustave soon found himself laughing as well.
The Sext bell was ringing when they finally arrived in the capital city. The streets of Dijon were packed with throngs of excited people, and Gustave kept a tight hold on both his money purse and Hercule's reins while he escorted Nathanael to the entrance to the tournament fields.
The sight of the fields and their brightly decorated stands and galleries never failed to stir excitement in Gustave's heart, as well as a vague sense of longing. "I bet you were here once, weren't you, Hercule?" he asked the stallion, rubbing a hand over a velvety white forehead. "This is the main gate to the fields," he told Nathanael.
Nathanael nodded. "This is where I am supposed to go," he said, and he slid off Hercule's back in one smooth motion. He patted the stallion's neck. "Thank you, Hercule, for your strong back." He held up a gloved hand to shield his eyes from the bright sunlight as he surveyed the fields. "This place is huge," he said. "Ive never seen such a large tourney field."
Gustave grinned. "Biggest in all the counties. It is the capital."
Nathanael continued to stare at the expanse of raked dirt ground. "I haven't been in Dijon before. Where will you be sitting? In the stands over there?" He pointed toward a long, ramped wooden structure that held dozens of wooden benches.
"Nah, I'll be standing way over there, in the side-yard by the fence," Gustave replied. "Only nobles an' rich folk can sit in the stands."
"Wait here," Nathanael said, and he strode over to the entrance to the stands. A burly guard stood by the gate, leaning on his halberd.
Gustave watched in fascination as Nathanael conversed with the guard; there was too much noise around him to hear what was being said, but he saw a flash of silver, a shaking of hands and then Nathanael was waving him over to join them.
"Gustave, this good man here is going to let you into the stands as a favor to me. See him when you get Hercule settled in, and he'll get you a good seat."
Gustave stared at Nathanael. "You don't have to do that," he protested. "I'll be fine over in the side-yard."
"Nonsense," Nathanael said. "You're the reason that I'm here in time for the tournament, and I would like to do this small thing for you." He looked up at the guard. "My friend needs to tend to his horse, and then he will return. He should come see you and you'll take care of him, like we agreed?"
"Yes, messire. I'll remember him when I see him again." The man looked Gustave over and then said to him, "Just make sure you come to me, lad, and not one of the others."
"Merci," Nathanael said, and then he turned and took Gustave's hands in his. "Thank you again, my friend, for your kindness to me today. I will never forget it." He leaned forward and kissed Gustave on his cheek; first on the right, then the left, and then the right again. "You will cheer for me, yes?"
The unexpected warmth of Nathanael's lips on his skin made Gustave's belly flip again. "Y-yes," he stammered.
Nathanael smiled. "Then I shall win," he whispered, and he gave Gustave's fingers a quick squeeze before releasing them.
The knight's long, Chablis-colored braid swayed as he walked away, and while Gustave watched he wondered what Nathanael's hair would look like unbound. He wondered what it would feel like to run his fingers through it.
This time heat flared in his groin, and Gustave quickly looked away.
"'E's awful small to be a knight, don't ya think?" the guard commented. "Some o' those boys are near twice his size."
Gustave grinned up at him. "I bet he'll beat them all."
"You want t' put some coin behind that, lad?"
"Sure." Gustave dug in his pockets for some money.
"Pierre!" The guard waved at a man who was stationed at one of the other entrances. "This lad here thinks le petite chevalier will win today! Wants to make a wager—come be our hold-man."
Gustave and the guard gave their coin to Pierre, and then he left to rent a stall for Hercule at a nearby stable. Once he had brushed the stallion down and purchased some feed he went off in search of his own meal. Gustave purchased his much-awaited sack of meat pasties, and then he returned to the stands and was given a spot on one of the benches in the front row.
While he munched on a pasty Gustave scanned the field and sized up the other competing knights. For the most part, they were a burly, muscular bunch, the type of young men who would be farm hands if their fathers weren't noble-born. Nathanael almost looked like a child compared to them, and Gustave frowned when he heard tittering amongst the crowd, and jokes about his size.
The first event of the tourney was a competition between the pages who were squire candidates, so before the younger men came out the knights took their places one side of the field and began to prepare for their melee, stretching and practicing with the weighted wooden swords they had been given. Gustave counted them, and was puzzled that there were only eight men; he wondered if the ninth knight had been delayed, like Nathanael would have been if Gustave hadn't helped him.
Nathanael stood at the very end of the field, and he was examining the wooden broadsword whose hilt came almost up to his chest. He gripped the hilt, raised the sword up, and then he began to move.
Gustave's breath caught. It was an amazing thing to watch; an intricate, deadly dance that reminded Gustave of the way Tenys moved when his tutor would stage a mock-combat with René.
The tittering and joking stopped.
I don't care what he says, Gustave thought. I think he is beautiful.
Gustave gripped the edge pf the rough-hewn railing and leaned over to peer at the knights' pavilion at the edge of the field, hoping to catch a glimpse of Nathanael.
The first two melees were over, and now the final two competitors—Nathanael was one of them—were taking an hour's rest before they met on the field for the last match of the day. Gustave had taken advantage of the break to check on Hercule, and now he waited impatiently for the melee to begin. All around him, bets were being made on the outcome, and Gustave had hopes of a nice bag of winnings.
A horn blast signaled the end of the break, and the troupe of performers who had been entertaining the crowd bowed and left the field.
Gustave could barely contain his excitement. One of his neighbors admonished him for blocking their view, and he reluctantly sat back down.
There was another fanfare, and the crowd cheered when the two knights strode out onto the field. Nathanael's opponent was from Auxerre, and the muscular young man was almost a foot taller than the diminutive knight. Gustave was relieved that the Chalon knight had been defeated in an earlier round; it would have been strange to root against his home county. Both men sported numerous bruises and were pale with fatigue, and Gustave wondered if this was the longest either of them had fought before. The Vespers bell had just rung, telling Gustave that the tournament was well into its fifth hour, and he marveled that they were still standing, much less about to have the most important match of the day.
They made their way to the center of the field, bowed to the ducal galleries, and stood, waiting for the signal to start. Gustave grinned and waved when Nathanael glanced over in his direction, and when their gazes briefly met Nathanael smiled and gave a brief nod.
The horn sounded a single note, and the knights erupted into a blur of of movement. The harsh clack-clack of the wooden swords striking each other echoed across the field, and the crowd watched, rapt, as the fighters circled, then clashed, then circled again.
For all their difference in build, they were surprisingly well matched; although Nathanael was much shorter, he was also quicker, and the knight from Auxerre made up for his lack of speed with brute strength. They were about a quarter hour into their match when a shove from the big knight sent Nathanael flying several yards to land in a heap on the ground. Gustave and the people around him gasped.
Get up, get up, Gustave mentally urged as he watched the young man slowly walk over to where Nathanael lay.
C'mon, get up. He clutched the hem of his leather gambeson in his fists.
The knight widened his stance, and raised his wooden sword to deliver the defeating blow.
It happened so fast, Gustave almost didn't see it. In a burst of movement, Nathanael tumbled between the knight's legs and rose to his feet behind him, and when the other man bent to try and catch him Nathanael leapt in the air and struck his feet against his opponent's backside, knocking him to the ground. The crowd fell silent as Nathanael reached out and touched the tip of his sword to the knight's throat.
"Do you yield?" Nathanael's voice rang out.
The other knight dropped his sword. "I yield," he croaked.
Gustave jumped up, clapping and stomping his feet as cheers and shouts erupted from the stands. "Nathanael! Nathanael!" he shouted with the others around him, and the cheers grew when Nathanael held out a hand and helped the other knight to his feet.
Horns sounded the ducal call, and when the Duc de Bourgogne rose from his chair the noise in the stands stopped.
"Bring all the knights and pages here before me," he commanded. The knights marched onto the field and stood in a row behind Nathanael and his opponent, while the pages formed several rows further back.
"You eight are the best of your counties, and you have done well by them today. All of you have fought honorably, and no one should feel no shame in their defeat." He beckoned to Nathanael. "Come, stand before me."
Nathanael walked over to stand in front of the ducal gallery, and then he bowed and waited.
"Sieur Nathanael Touton, of the Barony of Nevers, you have brought great honor on your house and county today. You have defeated these seven knights, and have proved to all of Bourgogne that while you may appear to be a mere cub, you have the heart of a lion." An attendant carried a small golden chest over to where Nathanael stood, and he handed it to the young man with a bow.
"Thank you, Your Grace." Nathanael accepted the chest and bowed again. The spectators cheered again.
Le duc raised his hand for quiet, and then he indicated the group of pages. "These young men are also their counties' best, and they have come here to Dijon in hopes of serving a knight of Bourgogne as their squire. You are the winner of today's tournament, and in addition to the coin in that chest one of your rewards is the right of first choice among these worthies."
Nathanael glanced back at the pages. "I may freely make my choice of squire, Your Grace?"
"Yes. Choose your companion."
Nathanael raised his hand, one finger held up. The pages stood ramrod-straight, each trying to look more impressive than they other as they vied for Nathanael's attention. The people in the stands murmured as they waited for the young knight to make his choice.
Nathanael swept his hand before the group of pages, moving until his finger was pointing at the stands.
"I choose Gustave, of the village of Tenkaillon, in Chalon," Nathanael announced.
The entire field fell silent.
Gustave blinked. "W-what?" he stuttered.
The page who had won his competition stepped forward. "Your Grace, that boy isn't even a page, he looks like a commoner—shouldn't Sieur Nathanael pick from one of us? We have proved our worth on this very field."
Nathanael gestured at Gustave. "His Grace said I could choose freely. I choose him."
"What? Hey—!" At this point Gustave's neighbors realized that Nathanael was pointing at him, and in a group they hoisted him up and over the railing to set him down on the field. Gustave's heart was pounding in his chest as he became aware of thousands of eyes focused on him. He scuffed the toe of his boot on the dirt beneath him, not knowing what else to do.
"Sieur Nathanael," le duc said, "take care how you choose a squire. This person will be responsible for serving you, readying you for battle and caring for your person and possessions. He must be prepared to fight by your side as well. Are you prepared to trust your life to this untested young man?"
"I am, Your Grace," Nathanael said, and he walked across the field to stand in front of Gustave. He pulled off his glove and held out his hand. "Will you be my squire, Gustave?"
Gustave stared at his outstretched hand. "But you just met me."
"You don't even know me."
Nathanael smiled. "I don't know them, either. But I know that you have a kind, generous heart, and that is worth more to me than winning any competition." He lowered his voice and whispered, "Will you adventure with me, friend?"
The flutter in Gustave's belly started up again when he met Nathanael's golden, intense gaze. "I will," he said, and cheers filled the air as he took Nathanael's hand.
Now this is a feast, Gustave thought, and he leaned back and contentedly rubbed his full belly. He'd been at a few of Lady Bouchard's banquets in Chalon-sur-Sâone, but even la comtesse's extravagance paled in comparison to the mountainous platters that had been set before them throughout the evening. It was nice to be seated with Nathanael as a guest, too—he had expected to be serving him, or at the very least be seated at a separate table with the other new squires. But every knight had his squire next to him, and they were served by a dozen Court pages.
Squire. It still all felt surreal, even several hours later. His first duty had been to help Nathanael purchase a new horse, and then they shopped to replace his missing supplies. After that Gustave had expected to bunk down with Hercule in the stables, not to be included in attending the celebratory feast, or to be spending the night in the ducal castle.
Nathanael stared at Gustave's pile of empty plates. "You ate enough for a small army. Are you finally full?"
Gustave grinned. "I probably should have warned you that I eat a lot." He pointed at the scattered remains of Nathanael's meal. "You didn't eat much."
"I was polite and tasted something from each course," Nathanael replied.
"I guess you must be pretty tired."
"God, yes. I can't wait until we're done—as soon as His Grace makes his speech to us I'm off to bed. Oh, look!" Nathanael nudged Gustave with an elbow. "I think he's about to stand. Pray for a short speech."
Le duc rose from his seat, and Gustave hastily stood with the others at the table.
"Today we were treated to a splendid display of swordsmanship and competition. Sieur Nathanael Touton of Nevers, you have our congratulations again on your victory this afternoon. You are very skilled for one so young."
The guests in the great hall applauded, and Nathanael bent in a bow toward the dais.
Le duc gestured at their table. "Here we have the finest warriors from eight of our nine counties, and they have chosen squires from a group of very capable pages—although Sieur Nathanael has decided to dance with Lady Chance and picked an untested young man to be his companion."
Laughter rang in the hall, and Gustave squirmed as attention was focused on him for the second time that day.
"I hope, boy, that you are worthy of the faith he has shown in you."
Gustave nodded vigorously and bobbed a hasty bow.
"Eight new chevaliers, with eight new squires, sworn to serve Bourgogne. You all may be wondering why there is not a ninth knight feasting with us tonight. That is because Hugue Moraine, Comte de Beaujeu, has decided to sever ties with Bourgogne and has declared that Beaujeu is now his own sovereign duchy."
Everyone gasped, and murmurs arose from the crowd of guests.
"This man was once the greatest knight in all of Bourgogne. He was my 'Prince of War' who served me faithfully for many years," he said. "I gave him a title and lands as a reward for his service, and now he has decided that Beaujeu will not be governed by Dijon. He even has the temerity to declare that he will allow no ships to sail on the Sâone river past the town of Anse." There were more gasps as he pounded his fist on the table in front of him. "I will not allow him to cut off our commerce and travel!"
He pointed at the knights. "Your time to serve me is now, and here is your task; the eight of you will travel to Beaujeu, and you will remove Hugue Moraine from his seat of power at Anse and return him here as a prisoner to face my wrath and judgment. Sieur Nathanael, you will lead your fellow knights—as well as two hundred men who will assemble at Mâcon—and if you succeed in this quest I will consider naming you my new 'Prince of War'. Are you willing to do this for me, mon braves?"
"We will!" Eight voices rang out in the great hall, and the guests clapped and cheered.
Le duc and his court left the room, and Gustave looked on while Nathanael went to speak with the other knights. People began to leave, and they clapped Gustave on the back and wished him luck and told him to do his best.
Wish me luck? Gustave thought, and he frowned. His Grace didn't say anything about the squires going. The doubt niggled at the back of his mind as he and Nathanael wished the others good night and then a page escorted them to Nathanael's rooms.
"Here are your quarters, messire," said the young man. He pointed to a door on the far wall. "That door leads to a small room where your squire will sleep." He bowed and left.
"I cannot believe that Lord Moraine thinks he can break away from the duchy and not have His Grace retaliate," Nathanael said as they entered the room. "Especially when he's attempting to cut off traffic on the river!" He sat on the edge of the bed and began to pull off his boots. "I've heard stories of his skill and bravery, it will not be easy to defeat him." He tossed the boots off to the side, and moved on to shrugging out of his tunic.
"I've heard stories about him too," Gustave said, and he walked over to help Nathanael with the rest of his garments.
"Thank you," Nathanael said, and he flopped back on the bed and watched while Gustave set the clothing on a nearby bench. "I told the others we will meet in Cluny in two days; no one expected to be given such a quest, and they all need to equip themselves. You and I can leave tomorrow so that we can get there ahead of time, and I will get you what you need in Cluny."
"Me?" Gustave turned around. "The squires are going too?"
A pale blond eyebrow raised. "Of course the squires are going too. A squire accompanies his knight everywhere."
Gustave frowned. "We'll need to go to Tenkaillon first, then. I have to let Lord Constantin know where I'm going."
Nathanael sat up. "Why? You are a man grown, you don't need his permission to accompany me."
"I don't need his permission, but I can't just disappear—they expect me home tomorrow afternoon," Gustave said, and he crossed his arms. "It wouldn't be right otherwise. Besides, Hercule isn't my horse, he belongs to Tenys."
Nathanael sighed. "Very well."
"You can stay the night with us," Gustave offered, and then he picked up his pack and headed toward the door to his room. He turned to face the young knight. "You can meet everyone an' we can tell them about all the things that happened today, as well as what His Grace wants us to do."
A corner of Nathanael's mouth quirked up. "I imagine that Lord Constantin won't like it."
Gustave grinned at him. "No, he probably won't."
When they arrived at Tenkaillon the following afternoon, Nathanael was welcomed and given a tour of the estate and vineyard by René and Tenys. By mutual decision, Gustave waited until the end of the evening meal to mention their quest to his foster-father.
Constantin Duguet was not pleased.
"You're telling me that you want to run off with a boy you met only yesterday, and you will be going after a man who is a knight of such skill that he was His Grace's Prince of War? Are you insane?"
Gustave flinched. "Nathanael's really good, Father, an' so are the other knights."
Constantin snorted. "I don't care if he is Launcelot du Lac incarnate, it's still lunacy. And you!"—he jabbed a finger at Nathanael—"I don't know what possessed you to choose a stranger for your squire."
"They were all strangers, my lord," Nathanael replied quietly.
"I've always wondered at the wisdom of having new knights choose their squires the day of the Nine Swords tourney," Tenys Marchon commented from behind the book he was reading. "Remember the oafs that we were saddled with, René? They had shown such promise during the Squires' Melee, and they ended up being entirely useless. And dead. I much preferred traveling alone with you."
"Gustave is not useless." Nathanael abruptly stood.
"No, he's not." Constantin flapped his hand. "Sit down."
Nathanael sat. "He is the first person who did not doubt my abilities," he said, "who didn't look at my stature—or lack thereof—and assume that I was playing at being a knight." He ran his finger along the edge of the table. "And he is the only person I have ever wanted to call my friend."
Gustave glanced over at Constantin. "I feel that way too, Father. We're kind of alike, him an' me."
Constantin gave him a long look, and then he returned his attention to his baked pears. "Do what you want," he said. "You're grown, you don't need my permission—or my blessing."
"I would like your blessing," Gustave said.
René poured more wine into Constantin's glass. "Oh, he'll be fine. Tenys and I have taught him well over the years, and the lad can acquit himself admirably—probably better than all those 'real' squires. Gustave is a demon with a quarterstaff." He glanced at Gustave. "Although personally, I would use the modified fauchard that I made last year."
Gustave wrinkled his nose. "The one with the really curved blade? I would cut off my own head with that, it's way too long for me." He shook his head. "Can I have the staff that has the round lead caps on each end? I like that one."
René grinned. "You may. That's a lovely weapon."
Tenys looked up from his book. "It will make an even lovelier dent in an enemy's head."
"That it would."
"A sword would take it off, though. Are you sure you don't want a sword, Gustave?"
Gustave laughed and shook his head. Nathanael looked back and forth between the two men in dazed wonder.
Constantin rolled his eyes. "Remind me again why I keep you two at my dinner table."
Tenys peered at him over his spectacles. "Because you would be bored otherwise, mon cher." He set his book on the table and leaned forward in his seat. "This will be good for him, Constantin. You have given Gustave a good home, but as a foster-son he is without title or lands. A squire can hope to become a knight, regardless of his station."
Constantin fiddled with his linen napkin.
"He's right, Cons," René said. "Let the lad make his own way in the world—we'll still be here when he's ready to come home. Gustave has been to enough tourneys with me over the years that I trust his judgment, and for him to say that Nathanael fights like Tenys is high praise indeed."
Tenys smiled. "Flatterer," he said.
Constantin threw the fabric onto the table. "It appears I'm outnumbered. Go, have your adventure," he said, "you have my blessing, for what it's worth. But if you get yourself killed I'll never forgive you."
Gustave jumped up from his chair and ran over to hug Constantin. "I won't die, I promise," he said, pressing a quick kiss on shining blond hair. "Thank you, Papa," he whispered, and then he yelped and jumped back when Constantin jabbed him with his fork.
"I've told you not to call me that. And stop mauling me."
"Yes, Lord Constantin." Gustave couldn't help but grin.
Tenys finished his wine and rose from the table. "It's settled then. Gustave, I think it might be best if Hercule continues to accompany you, he could use the exercise. When you and Nathanael are done here I would like you both to come to my study; I have some maps of that region that I think will be helpful." He picked up a dish of sugared almonds and held it aloft. "Shall we include Nathanael in our little game?" he asked, and then he continued, "Perhaps Nathanael can give René and I a demonstration of his swordsmanship in the courtyard tomorrow morning."
Nathanael smiled at him and inclined his head. "It would be my pleasure, messire," he said, "and I would be grateful for any advice you have to offer."
Constantin reached for his wine. "René, I want you to take both of them to that not-so-secret armory of yours and fit them with everything they need. Everything. The idiots are going to need it." He raised the glass to his lips.
Gustave felt a pang in his chest when he saw the almost imperceptible tremor in his foster-father's hand.
I love you too, Papa.
Part the Second: The Quest Begins
The next day, after the morning meal and Nathanael's promised demonstration, the two young men packed up their gear, saddled their horses and headed out for Cluny.
Gustave stifled a yawn as the winding road took them along a wide, sunlit field that was filled with wildflowers. Tenys had kept them up late the night before, poring over maps and deploying tiny armies of sugared almonds, and then René had rousted them up early to see to their equipment needs. His maille clinked softly as he shifted in his saddle, and Gustave was grateful that René had decided to not fit him with maille leggings—it was enough having to adjust to the extra weight of the shirt. He had worn the coif when they left, mostly to prove to Lord Constantin that he was fully armored, but as the morning went on Gustave found the headgear uncomfortable and had pushed the maille hood off his head.
"I don't know how you can wear a full suit of this all the time, Nathanael," he said, admiring the way the sunlight glinted off Nathanael's armor. Gustave envied the effortless way his friend moved with the heavy maille.
Nathanael laughed. "You'll get used to it," he said. He glanced over at Gustave. "You look very different than the day I met you, you're a proper squire now! You are fortunate to have Sieur René and Sieur Tenys as friends—they are amazing."
"And Lord Constantin?"
"He is frightening."
It was Gustave's turn to laugh. "No, I think he actually liked you."
Nathanael twisted in his saddle to stare at Gustave. "Liked me? He hit me with a sheaf of parchment and told me I'd better bring you back in one piece."
"He has trouble showing affection."
"He shows it when he wants to," Nathanael said. "I saw him with you this morning, when he mussed your hair even as he was calling you an idiot. He loves you very much, I think."
"And I him," Gustave replied.
"I envy you your family—and you are right, they are your family, all of them."
Nathanael's voice had a melancholy note to it, so Gustave decided to steer the conversation away from what was obviously a painful subject. "I'm really glad that Tenys allowed me to have Hercule again," he said, "an' I think Hercule must know that we're on a quest—he's acting all excited." He pointed at the young coal-black gelding that Nathanael rode. "Are you happy with Ebaine? He seems to suit you much better than that monster horse I saw the other day."
"Oh, yes, he is much better than Magnifique." Nathanael patted his new horse's sleek neck. "I am very pleased with him, and my lord father can't complain since I used my tourney winnings to purchase him. I am pleased with Placide as well," he said, waving at the pack horse that Gustave led behind Hercule. "He has proved very capable of carrying all our gear."
Gustave glanced back at the horse. "We have so many things! Why did you buy a tent an' bedrolls?"
"It's a pavilion, and it's for us to sleep in, of course—there won't always be an inn. In fact, when we reach Cluny and meet with the others we will all be camping tonight."
Gustave was used to bunking with his horse in the stable stall whenever he traveled by himself, so he looked forward to the novelty of staying in a pavilion.
A few hours later, when he was struggling to erect said tent while the other squires laughed and refused to help, Gustave decided that he preferred a stable. The knights were gathered in a large pavilion on the other side of the clearing, poring over Nathanael's copy of Tenys' map and discussing options, and Gustave was glad that Nathanael couldn't see him botching the set-up of their shelter.
Some squire I am, he thought, cursing when the center pole went down again. The other boys laughed, and one of them commented on how difficult it was to find good help.
"Go on, you lot! Leave the lad alone." The grizzled old man who was their hired cook stomped into the clearing and stood between Gustave and the squires. He lobbed a pot at one of the boys, who staggered back when he caught it. "You, get to work cookin' the capons."
"What? But I've never cooked a meal!" the young man protested. "And besides, that is not part of my duties."
"What are you, stupid as well as arrogant?"
"No! I've just never done it before!"
The old man grinned and spat on the ground. "Maybe 'e's never had to set up a pavilion before today," he said, jerking a thumb back at Gustave. "Are ya goin' to help 'im, or what?"
"I don't want their help," Gustave said. "I'll manage."
The cook glanced back at him. "Fair enough." He pointed at the remaining squires. "You lads will help me, then—you, with the pot, go fill it with water. The rest o' you go fetch me some wood. Duties, 'e says. Pissy little snot, I'll give you duties. Quicker you move, quicker you eat."
The squires scattered, and then the old man turned to Gustave and said, "They're jealous. I heard about Sieur Nathanael pickin' you over them at the tourney."
Gustave grimaced. "If he'd picked one of them this'd be up by now." He walked over to one of the fallen corners. "Once I finish this I can help you—I help with the cooking all the time at home."
"You're a good lad," the cook said. "'Ere, I'll help you with it—"
"No," Gustave said, raising a hand to halt him. "I need to do it. But thank you."
"All right, then, I'll just advise you to stake the walls first, then raise your center. You've been tryin' to do it backwards."
"Oh." Gustave stared at the pile of wood and fabric on the ground. "I didn't think of doing it that way."
The old man laughed and clapped him on the back. "When you're done come see me, I could use the help."
He left, and Gustave had the pavilion up within minutes. He stowed their gear inside and went in search of the cook to help with supper.
"Gustave? Are you awake?"
It was a mere whisper, but it startled Gustave from his slumber. "Wha—?" He struggled to sit up.
"It's okay, it's just me. I'm sorry I woke you." Nathanael reached up and hung a squat lantern on one of the wooden spokes that formed the pavilion's roof. The light from its single candle cast dim, flickering shadows on the canvas walls.
Gustave rubbed his eyes. "'S'okay," he said. "You an' the other knights have been talking all this time?"
"Yes. I didn't have any sugared almonds, but I showed them some of ideas that Sieur Tenys gave us last night." Nathanael pulled off his coif and surcote, and when he started to take off his maille Gustave scooted out of his bedroll and went over to help him.
"Here, let me help," Gustave said, and he nudged Nathanael's arms up so he could remove the maille shirt.
"I can do it." Nathanael's voice was muffled through his armor. "You were sleeping."
"I'm not sleeping now, an' it's part of my duties, isn't it?" Gustave tugged the maille up and off, and then he set the garment in one corner of their shelter. "Hold on to the pole there, an' I'll get your boots an' leggings."
"You're stubborn," Nathanael said as he gripped the wood pole and allowed Gustave to tug off his boots.
"Yeah, I've been told that." Gustave tossed the boots in the corner and then he began undoing the buckles that held the maille leggings in place.
"I heard about your trouble with the other squires when you were setting up our pavilion," Nathanael said. "Old Jacques told us when he brought us some mulled wine."
Gustave frowned. "He shouldn't have said anything. That was between me an' them." He let the leggings fall to the ground with a clink, and when Nathanael stepped out of them Gustave picked them up and laid them on top of the maille shirt.
Now clad only in his shirt and braies, Nathanael yawned and stretched, rapping his knuckles over the wooden support spokes. "He told us because he felt they had acted dishonorably, and he wanted their masters to know about it," he said. "He spoke very well of you, Gustave." He unhooked the lantern from the spoke and set it down in the narrow space between their two bedrolls. "Come on, go back to sleep."
Gustave yawned as well, and crawled back into his bedroll. "What's the hour? I think I heard a bell but I don't know which one it was."
"The abbey rang Nocturns a little while ago." Nathanael settled in his own bedroll, and sighed as he stretched out under the blankets. "Ah, this feels good. These were worth every denier I paid for them." He tugged his braid out from under his shoulder, and then he rolled onto his side to face Gustave.
Gustave yawned again, and rubbed his face. "Ugh. Only a couple of more hours til dawn, then."
"Yes. We'll sleep better tomorrow night, when we reach Mâcon." Nathanael opened the latch on the lantern and blew out the candle, plunging them into darkness.
After a few minutes Gustave's eyes adjusted to the dark, and he could see the shadowy outline of where Nathanael lay in his bedroll. "Nathanael? I'm sorry I embarrassed you today," he said.
"What, your trouble with the pavilion? That's my fault, really, I didn't even think that you might not be familiar with them. We're both new at this, we'll learn." Nathanael reached out and brushed his fingers against Gustave's cheek. "I'm still happy with my choice. Good night, Gustave."
The touch was unexpected, as was the wave of desire that coursed through Gustave at that moment. "G-good night," he replied, and he swallowed with some difficulty.
He waited until Nathanael's breathing changed to the slow, even rhythm of sleep before he raised a shaking hand to his face. He swept his fingertips over the spot where Nathanael had touched his skin, and then he squeezed his eyes tightly shut. He'd tried to dismiss what he'd felt the other day as excitement from the tourney, but now, in the darkness of their tent Gustave couldn't deny his racing heartbeat—or his stiffening erection.
What am I going to do? Gustave wondered, and he rolled over onto his side, facing away from his sleeping friend. I can't let him find out that I feel this way about him.
Sleep was a long time coming.
They broke camp at dawn and continued on their journey.
Nathanael rode toward the front of their party, and Gustave followed just behind him. Placide was living up to his name, stepping through the numerous streams that crossed their path without so much as a snort, and Gustave couldn't help feeling just a bit superior when the other squires had to coax their nervous pack horses across the rushing, icy waters.
Of course having such a sensible animal meant Gustave didn't have to pay him much mind, which left his attention free to wander in Nathanael's direction.
Infatuation is a pain in the arse, Gustave decided as his gaze was drawn yet again to that damned braid, which rolled and swayed along Nathanael's back while he rode Ebaine along the wooded trail. Gustave had managed to not make a fool of himself that morning while helping Nathanael don his armor, although he'd been at a loss to explain his reddened cheeks and sudden clumsiness.
He was going to have to get over it soon, because Gustave couldn't see how he could remain Nathanael's companion when he was afraid to touch him. Or worse, be touched by him.
"It's just a silly thing," he told Hercule quietly, "It'll go away once we spend more time together."
Hercule tossed his head and snorted.
When they arrived in Mâcon, there was plenty of work to keep Gustave from his thoughts, and he was grateful for the distraction. The promised soldiers had assembled there, and Nathanael and the knights were soon busy organizing their new army. When they left at dawn the next morning Gustave found himself carrying the cream-and-gold banner of Nevers while he rode along with several dozen soldiers, and Nathanael led their march with the other knights.
By the time the Sext bells rang they were marching onto the plains of Anse, just outside the town that held the same name.
Gustave gazed over at the high, stone walls before them. He'd seen walled towns before—Dijon was walled, as was Chalon-sur-Sâone—but Anse looked almost like it was an extension of the wooded, rocky hill that rose high behind it. Bedrock turned into mortared wall, which then continued on until it met the river Sâone.
Men were stationed at the top of the wall that faced them. Some carried pikes and spears, while others had bows.
Gustave and the other squires set up the knights' pavilion on a hill that overlooked the plain, while the soldiers prepared for their assault on the town gate. A loud crack echoed across the plain when the soldiers felled a tall tree in the woods behind them, and the air was soon filled with the sound of axes chopping at wood, as the tree was transformed into a battering ram.
From his spot on the far side of the hill, Gustave watched the men on the wall, and to his admittedly inexperienced eye their movements seemed strangely hesitant. "They look almost…scared, don't they, Raoul," he said to the squire who stood next to him.
Raoul nodded, and he raised a hand to shield his eyes as he tried to get a better look. "I don't think they are soldiers," he said. "They don't look comfortable with their weapons."
Gustave did the same and watched the men for awhile. "It's like they don't want to fight us."
A rustling sound, along with the crack of twigs from the nearby woods to their right caught Gustave's attention, and he touched Raoul's arm to alert him as he readied his staff and approached the source of the noise. "Come out," Gustave said, and he tightened his grip on his staff. "I know you are there in that bush."
A young, grubby boy of perhaps ten or twelve tumbled out from behind the bush. "Please help us, messire."
What is this? Gustave motioned for Raoul to check the woods behind the boy. "What are you doing here, petit?"
"They're keeping us in the back stables, messire."
"Who is in the stables? Who is keeping you there?"
The boy rubbed his face, and Gustave noticed scrapes and bruises on his skinny arms. "Le comte, his men came and made us all go into the stables and storehouse so that our papas would fight for him. Please help us."
"What?" Gustave knelt down next to the boy, and his nose wrinkled when he smelled the stench of manure. "You're being kept prisoner? How did you get here?"
The boy nodded. "There is a bad spot in the wall near the stables, and I was able to fit through it and come here. The other boys were too afraid to come."
Gustave ruffled the boy's hair. "But you did, because you are brave. What's your name?"
"Just call me Gustave. Can you show me this spot, Phillipe? Do you think we can fit through, too?" He gestured at Raoul, who was staring at the boy.
"He won't fit, he's too big. You can, mes-Gustave, you're small like me."
Gustave ignored Raoul's choked laugh. "Raoul, this explains why the men on the walls are acting so strangely!"
"You're going in there? Are you insane?"
Gustave stood. "Like he said, I'll fit. Come with us to see where we're going, an' then you can let the others know what's happened." He turned to the boy. "C'mon, Phillipe, let's see if we can get everyone out."
The boy led them down a twisting, barely-visible path through the woods. Gustave's heart was pounding with excitement and some trepidation, because the threat of a trap was very real. He kept a tight grip on his staff.
A few minutes' hike led them to where the stone wall met with the sheer rock face of the hill. Water trickled through various cracks and crevices, and in one spot a section of the wall had crumbled away, its mortar weakened by the constant damp. Gustave climbed up and peered into the opening, and he saw light on the other side. He caught a whiff of manure, as well.
He could definitely fit, but he doubted that many of the adult women would be able to get though the tight, narrow passage. The damaged wall reminded Gustave of the time a few years' back when he had to help René tear down a small storehouse that had been ruined by constant flooding. The stone blocks had just fallen apart, and one of the walls had been so weakened that they had been able to knock it down with just a few powerful kicks.
This wasn't the wall of a house, but he wondered if the damage was similar.
"Raoul, give me your poignard," Gustave said, and he ran his fingers over the crumbling rock. It was very damp, and the mortar was soft.
Raoul handed him the long dagger, and Gustave thrust it into one of the mortar seams near the opening.
"Hey! What are you doing?"
"Trying something," Gustave said, and he gave the dagger a violent twist. Several of the stones gave way and tumbled down the rocky slope.
Raoul cursed and jumped out of the way.
"Did you see what I did, Raoul? I think we can make this opening big enough for the women an' children to get though. If we rescue them, the men won't need to fight us!" Gustave handed the weapon back to him. "Go tell the others, an' bring them back here to work on the wall—I'll go with Phillipe an' help on the other side."
"I hope this doesn't get us killed," Raoul grumbled, and then he turned and ran back toward the field.
"Don't mind him," Gustave told Phillipe, "he's grumpy because he misses his maman." The boy giggled.
On hands and knees, he followed Phillipe through the narrow, damp crevice, and he was relieved to see that the damage continued through to the inner side of the wall. The smell of dung was much stronger now, and Gustave had a suspicion about where they would end up when they made it though.
His suspicion was confirmed moments later, when he crawled out of the crevice and landed in a manure-laden pile of straw. A pig snuffled at his hair.
He looked up, and saw that he was in the outer yard of a stable; specifically, the pig-pen. There were other large pens that held goats, cows and sheep, and the yard looked to be almost the size of a small field. The rock face rose high to his right, and Gustave could see several spots where water spurted out of a cleft in the rock and filled a stone trough that ran the length of the yard. One of the corners nearest him had chipped away, allowing water to escape in a steady stream that led to the wall. I guess that's what caused it, Gustave thought.
A large pile of hay bales loomed in front of him, and Gustave realized that the bales blocked the view of the break in the wall. "Have these bales been in front of this hole all this time?"
"It's been here awhile," Phillipe answered. "Sometimes my friends and I sneak out to pick berries, or play find-me in the woods. At first we didn't want to tell our mothers because we were afraid of being punished."
"Where are the guards? How many of them are there?"
Phillipe held up three fingers. "This many," he said. "They sit outside the entrance to the stables."
"Can all of you get here from where you are being kept?"
The boy nodded. "Yes," he said, "but the guards will see. They don't bother when it's only one or two people."
Gustave thought for a moment; there wasn't any point in gathering the women and children until they had a means of escape. "Go tell your maman to come an' talk to me," he said. "I'll hide here, behind these bales."
"Okay." The boy ran off, and while he waited Gustave unfastened his dagger and began picking away at the mortar. After only a few minutes' work, Gustave had managed to widen the opening by several inches, and he was pleased to hear his fellow squires working on the other side.
The softly whispered word made Gustave start. He peered around the straw bale and saw a woman standing on the other side of the pen, holding a bucket of slops. "Hello," he said.
She gripped the bucket handle. "You will save us, messire?"
"Yes," Gustave said, and while she filled the pigs' trough with the slops he asked her questions about their situation. By the time she was done Gustave had a plan.
"I have to go now," she whispered. "In a little while I will send my other son to wait for your signal."
When she left Gustave shimmied through the opening to meet with the others.
"Pfugh, Gustave, you stink!" Raoul waved a hand in front of his nose.
Gustave rolled his eyes. "We need to make this opening big enough for Louis to fit through," he said, pointing at a squire who was of middling height and weight.
"Shouldn't take us too long, this wall is a mess," said one of the others.
A thundering bang echoed through the woods, and the squires looked back toward the head of the trail.
"The battering-ram," someone whispered.
"Hurry," Gustave urged.
They worked feverishly, plunging poignards and daggers into the soft mortar and prying stone after stone off the opening in the wall. Their efforts were punctuated by the shouts of the soldiers in the distance and the slow repeat of the tree trunk landing on the town gate.
On his side of the wall Gustave removed stones and passed them through while a boy even younger than Phillipe sat on the edge of the pen and watched him with wide, solemn eyes.
Three times they tried sending Louis through the widening break, but the young man kept having trouble at the very end.
"Almost," Gustave said. "Please, hurry." He pushed more stones through to waiting hands.
A few more minutes of exertion yielded success, and Gustave pulled Louis onto the ground next to him and clapped him on the back. He turned toward the boy. "Go, petit," he said, "tell your maman we're ready."
The boy ran off, and Gustave stood and quietly made his way across the pen, easing his way around the pigs who were still snuffling at the trough for bits of food. Louis followed, along with Raoul and
another squire who emerged from the opening in the wall, until they were all flattened against the high wooden fence that separated the outer yard from the rest of the stables.
Gustave eased open the wooden gate and crept into the main corridor of the stables. The arched entrance was ahead on his left, and he could see the three guards laughing and joking with each other. He glanced down toward the end of the corridor and saw dozens of women and children standing silently in the shadows, their frightened gazes focused on him and the others.
For one brief, irrational moment Gustave wished he had sugared almonds. He studied the men, and chose which one was to be René, and which one was to be Tenys. Then he raised his staff and charged them.
The lead ball at the end of his staff landed with a thud against the first guard's skull, and the man dropped to the cobbled floor of the courtyard. Gustave then swept the staff around and knocked the second guard's legs out from under him, and the man's shout of alarm was cut short by two poignards being driven into his chest. The other two squires set upon the third guard, who had been in the middle of drinking a cup of ale. The wooden cup clattered on the stone floor, and the spilled ale mixed with his spilled blood.
"Allons-y!" Gustave called to the women in a harsh whisper. Louis led them into the outer yard, through the pens and then through the broken wall, where squires were waiting to help them climb down the rocky rubble. Raoul and the other squire moved the bodies of the fallen guards, while Gustave kept everyone moving. "Hurry, hurry," he begged. "We need your husbands to see you alive and free."
When the last child was helped down to the forest trail, the straw bales were moved in front of the opening and they made their way through the woods. Mothers shushed their crying babies while the older children led the little ones by the hand. They emerged from the woods, and the squires led their small, filthy army to the crest of the hill.
Gustave felt a small hand grasp his, and he looked down to see Phillipe grinning up at him.
"You did it, messire!"
Gustave scooped the boy up to sit on his shoulders. "You did it, mon brave, I just helped. C'mon, let's go wave to your papa." Exhilaration coursed through him as he stood and waved with the others. We did it! he thought. He craned his neck, trying to see Nathanael.
The men on the wall let out a cheer when they saw their loved ones, and they quickly lowered ropes to bring the knights up to join them. Gustave was relieved when he saw the cream and gold of Nathanael's surcote, and he felt a surge of fierce pride when he saw Nathanael raise his sword and disappear from view.
Moments later, the city gates opened, and the soldiers surged inside.
The knights secured Moraine in the keep's high tower, while the squires led the women and children back to the town and then took much-needed baths. Then it was time to tend to their injured, eat and rest. Gustave and Nathanael took one of the third floor rooms, and after Gustave fetched a few pitchers of water, a plate of food, and a flagon of wine he helped Nathanael remove his maille. He grimaced when he saw blood staining the white of Nathanael's shirt.
"Ugh, we need to take care of that," Gustave said, and he fetched a chair and sat it by the window. "Come over here and sit down, an' I'll check your wounds an' get you cleaned up."
Nathanael sat down on the chair. "Get your armor off first, I can wait. We still have plenty of light."
Gustave made quick work of taking off his maille and leather leggings, and then he returned to where Nathanael sat and undid the tie at the top of Nathanael's shirt. "Lift your arms up, nice and slow."
Nathanael complied, grimacing as he raised his arms.
Gustave eased the shirt off and tossed it aside, frowning when he saw the blue and purple bruises that blossomed along Nathanael's sides, as well as an ugly gash that was still partially bleeding. "I didn't know that he'd cut you," he said, and he dampened a soft cotton cloth and began to clean the wound.
"I think the tip of his sword got caught in my maille. It's not too deep, I don't think."
Gustave wiped away more dried blood at peered at Nathanael's side. "No, not too deep—a little bit of bandaging will stop the bleeding. I think you probably hurt more from all these bruises." He finished cleaning, and then he poured some of the wine on the cloth and wiped it over the gash.
Nathanael hissed when the wine-soaked cloth touched his injured skin. "Ow! What are you doing?"
"Tenys taught me to do this, he says the wine helps keep a wound from festering." Gustave set the cloth aside and poured some of the wine into a cup. "Here, drink some."
Nathanael took the cup and drank while Gustave bandaged his wound.
"I wish I could have seen you fight Moraine," Gustave said.
"It was pretty quick, actually," Nathanael replied. "Lord Moraine will always regret that he did not attend the Tourney of Nine Swords."
"Why is that?"
"Because I used the same maneuver on him that I did on Lucien, from Auxerre, in that last match." Nathanael drank some more wine.
Gustave laughed and finished his bandaging. "There," Gustave said, tying a neat knot on the linen strip, "that should help stop the bleeding pretty quickly." He refilled Nathanael's cup with more wine and then he set a small stool next to where Nathanael sat and placed the tray of food on it. "Here, there's some cold capon and cheese."
"I'm not hungry," Nathanael said.
Gustave scowled at him. "You have to eat something, even if it's just a little." He crossed his arms and waited.
Nathanael sighed. "You're stubborn," he said, and he took some of the meat. "You eat some, too."
Gustave poured himself a cup of wine, and then he sat on the floor next to Nathanael's chair and ate his supper, while he coaxed Nathanael to eat and drink more.
A companionable silence fell between them while they ate, and when they were finished Gustave took the empty plate and their winecups and set them on a nearby table. He returned to where
Nathanael sat and opened the window a bit to let in some fresh air. The faint sound of lively music and laughter drifted into the room. "Sounds like everyone is celebrating," he said.
"Yes," Nathanael said. "I was concerned that he had convinced the townsfolk to join his rebellion. But since he tried to force them—unsuccessfully, thanks to you—we won't have to worry about keeping order here while we take Moraine to Dijon."
Gustave shrugged. "It's really thanks to that little boy who sneaked through the crack in the wall to tell us what was happening. His name is Phillipe—I hope he gets a reward."
"I'll make sure of it," Nathanael said. "I wish I could have seen you, too. It was very foolish, what you did, but it was also very brave."
"I pretended I was having a mock-battle with René an' Tenys," Gustave confessed. He glanced at Nathanael's pale face and said, "Time for you to rest." He went over to the bed and drew back its curtains, and then he pulled back the bedsheet and coverlet. The bed was very high, so Gustave pulled one of the stools over and helped Nathanael climb up onto the bed.
"There you go," he said. "I'll just put these extra pillows on the bolster an' then I'll help you lie down." He leaned past where Nathanael sat and reached for a pillow.
"Gustave." Nathanael's hand landed on Gustave's shoulder. "You were magnificent today," he murmured. "We won because of you."
Gustave was very conscious of the warm press of Nathanael's hand through the thin linen of his shirt. "No, you won—you're the one who defeated Moraine."
Nathanael smiled. "If you hadn't led the rescue of their loved ones, the men of the town would have kept fighting us. Instead, they helped us take their town—and their county—back. You've brought great honor to us both," he said. "I'm so proud of you." He leaned forward and kissed Gustave on his left cheek.
Gustave's breath caught.
Nathanael then kissed Gustave's right cheek, but this time his lips landed at the corner of Gustave's mouth.
The feel of Nathanael's lips so close to his mouth made Gustave's heart pound hard in his chest, so hard that he was sure that Nathanael could hear it.
Lips brushed the other corner of his mouth, and suddenly the temptation became just too overwhelming. Gustave turned his head and met Nathanael's mouth with his own.
Their lips met, and pressed together for a few lingering seconds. Gustave's pulse was now thundering in his ears, and he could feel the first stirrings of arousal begin to coil low in his belly. Oh, no. He broke off the kiss and stammered, "I—I'm sorry!" He tried to step back.
Nathanael gripped his shirt. "Gustave."
"I'm so sorry."
"Gustave." Nathanael lifted his other hand to touch Gustave's cheek, and then he swept a callused thumb across Gustave's lower lip. "Do it again," he said.
Gustave's pulse raced at the request, and the sudden huskiness in Nathanael's voice. He surged forward to kiss Nathanael again, but right at that moment Nathanael did the same. Noses bumped together while teeth clicked against lips.
"Ow!" Nathanael touched his lip. "I don't think we're supposed to do it that way."
"Sorry," Gustave said as he rubbed his nose. "I've never kissed anyone before."
"I haven't, either."
"I am, too."
Gustave rested his palms on the mattress, on each side of Nathanael's legs, and moved in cautiously, tilting his head before their mouths met again in a long, slow kiss. When he felt his lungs would burst for want of air they broke apart, foreheads touching as their quickened breaths mingled together. Gustave realized he was now standing between Nathanael's knees, and he was very aware of the warmth of Nathanael's legs pressing against his hips.
He was also aware of the fact that they were both hard.
Nathanael's mouth sought his for another kiss, this time rough and hungry. Gustave opened his mouth, and they both groaned when their tongues touched. Nathanael's tongue pushed past Gustave's parted lips, and when Gustave felt it glide, warm and slick, along his own tongue he shuddered and suddenly felt the wet heat of his own spend on his skin.
Embarrassed, he tried to pull away.
Nathanael moved to draw Gustave closer, and then he grunted in pain and clutched at his side. "Ngh," he said, "I forgot that I was injured."
"But you are, so this has to stop," Gustave said. "C'mon, let's get you into bed." He helped Nathanael to lie down, and he tried to ignore the sticky dampness in his braies.
"Will you sleep here with me tonight?" Nathanael yawned and settled under the covers.
Gustave's cock twitched at the though of sharing a bed with Nathanael. "Not tonight," he said. "I'll be taking a shift soon to guard Moraine. A few of the other knights were pretty badly hurt, an' their squires will be tending to them all night." He reached over and brushed a stray length of hair away from Nathanael's face. "Good night."
When Gustave was sure Nathanael had fallen asleep he shucked off his braies and cleaned the mess he'd made of himself. When he finished he pulled a stool over to Nathanael's bed and sat down.
For a long time he watched Nathanael sleep, while the flickering candlelight bathed his friend's face in deep amber and turned his pale hair to gold.
Did I dream what happened between us? It seemed far away and surreal in the growing dark of the night. But he could remember the way it had felt when Nathanael's tongue had thrust into his mouth, how heat and pleasure had coursed through his body and sent him headlong into an unexpected climax.
No, it wasn't a dream.
A soft tap at the door interrupted his thoughts, and Gustave quietly dressed and headed to the high tower to begin his shift.
Part the Third: A Change of Station
It was a long journey back to Dijon. The soldiers had returned to Mâcon, but wounded knights and a prisoner resulted in slower travel. It was mid afternoon on the fourth day when they finally reached the capital city.
Sieur Lucien had left the night before to advise the ducal court of their arrival, so by the time they all entered the castle the main reception hall was packed with nobles and various court officials.
Nathanael and another knight brought Moraine before the dais where members of the court sat, and everyone in the room gasped when the Duc de Bourgogne walked over and struck Moraine across the face.
"You will hang, traitorous dog! Guards, take him to the tower, I do not wish to see his face again." He waited until the guards had left and then he returned to his seat and addressed the knights and squires. "Mon braves, I am very pleased with your service to me. Tonight there will be a feast in your honor, and every one of you will receive a reward from me. Sieur Nathanael, step forward—both you and your squire."
The two young men approached the dais.
"Sieur Nathanael, you have served me very well. Not only did you and your men end Moraine's rebellion, you did so with a minimum of bloodshed on both sides. You have proved to be a fine leader, and the best of all the knights in Bourgogne. Would you serve me as my 'Prince of War?'
Nathanael bowed. "Yes, Your Grace, gladly."
"My especial reward to you shall be the Comte of Beaujeu, both in title and lands." The announcement was met with applause from the nobles in the room.
Nathanael's eyes widened, and then he bowed again. "I…thank you, Your Grace."
Gustave smiled. His friend's title now outranked his father's, and Lord Touton would no longer be able to impose his will on his son.
Gustave blinked. Me?
"Come here, young man," le duc said.
Gustave glanced at Nathanael, and then he walked over to stand at the base of the ducal dais and hastily bowed.
"It seems we have another small cub with a lion's heart; Sieur Lucien has told me much about your bravery in Anse."
"Thank you, Your Grace." Gustave bowed again.
"Where are you from, boy?"
"Tenkaillon, in Chalon, Your Grace," Gustave replied. "Constantin Duguet is my foster-father."
"Constantin Duguet." Le duc drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Is he not the nephew of Caroline Bouchard, Comtesse de Chalon?"
"Yes, Your Grace, the very same."
Le duc cocked his head and peered closer at Gustave. "You must be her foundling, then—once at a feast she told me a tale of finding a young boy lost in the forest, and that she had given his care over to her nephew. I wonder why she did not raise you herself."
"Her lord husband wouldn't permit it, Your Grace." From the few times he had encountered le comte, Gustave was grateful that he had been given to Lord Constantin.
"Hmmm, it seems Lord Bouchard does not permit many things of his lady wife. Years ago, she petitioned me to allow her to deed her estates at Tenkaillon to her nephew. But her lands had become her husband's upon their marriage, and I had no other reason to approve her request other than her asking." He stood, and then he stepped down from the dais to stand in front of Gustave, waving a hand for Gustave to kneel.
His heart pounding, Gustave dropped to his knees.
"It seems that Sieur Nathanael made an excellent choice on the day of the Nine Swords Tournament, not only for himself but for Bourgogne; your bravery and noble spirit has brought honor to him, and to yourself as well. You may not know your parentage, but I know that the blood of Bourgogne flows like ruby-red wine through your veins. Will you serve me, Gustave of Tenkaillon? Will you be my steel?" He drew his greatsword and laid the flat of the blade on Gustave's shoulder.
What is happening? Gustave felt the weight of the sword on his shoulder, and when he looked up he saw that le duc was smiling at him.
"I-I will, Your Grace," he said.
"I shall give you the name of 'Saint-Tyssen,' to reflect your high and noble spirit. So arise, Sieur Gustave Saint-Tyssen."
Gustave rose shakily to his feet as applause filled the hall. He looked around; everyone was clapping, even the squires who had mocked him only days earlier.
Ahand was raised once more for silence. "And Sieur Gustave, my especial reward to you shall be the estates of Tenkaillon, for while le comte may own and govern his lady wife's lands, Chalon is part of my kingdom. As your bravery and sword are mine, Tenkaillon is now yours."
The hall erupted into applause, and cries of "Gustave Saint-Tyssen!" rang throughout the chamber.
"T-thank you, Your Grace," Gustave said. A large, ring-laden hand landed briefly on his shoulder before le duc strode from the room, followed by his attendants.
Gustave and Nathanael were immediately surrounded by the other young men, and he stammered his thanks for their well-wishes. He glanced at Nathanael; his friend seemed as shocked as he was, and in the middle of the crush of people he felt Nathanael's fingers twine with his.
I'm a knight, he thought dazedly. I'm a knight!
"I think that was the fanciest feast I've ever been to," Gustave said to Nathanael while a court page led them through the castle to their assigned rooms. "Thanks for loaning me this tunic; I would've felt silly wearing any of my clothes."
"Well, we are of a size, you and I," his friend replied. "You'll need to get some new things, though, to reflect your new station."
"I still can't believe it," Gustave said. "I'm a knight. With land. And you're a Comte. With a whole county!"
"It feels like a dream, doesn't it?"
"Did you see the way the pages were falling all over themselves to serve us?" Gustave asked. The same young men who had mocked him at the tournament had vied for his attention the entire evening, and Gustave had found it all highly amusing.
Nathanael shot him a wicked grin. "That's because they want to be our squires."
"I told them I chose Phillipe," Gustave said.
Nathanael elbowed him. "Phillipe is twelve."
"They don't need to know that," Gustave replied airily. He gave the page a playful poke. "Don't tell, okay? It's our secret."
The boy giggled. "I won't tell, messire." He stopped them near the end of a long hallway, and then he opened a door and bowed. "Here are your rooms, Sieur Nathanael," he said. "S-Sieur Gustave, your rooms are next door, just over there."
"Thank you," said Nathanael, and Gustave held a finger to his lips and gave the boy a denier.
As soon as the page left Nathanael pulled Gustave inside the room and shut the door, and then he pushed Gustave up against the wall. "These past four days, I have thought of little else but the way it felt when you kissed me," Nathanael said, and he gently touched his lips to one corner of Gustave's mouth.
Gustave shivered at the butterfly-soft touch. "Me, too," he said.
"While we were riding I would think about the noise you made when I put my tongue in your mouth," Nathanael said, pressing a kiss against the other corner of Gustave's mouth, "and my cock would get hard, just like it did that night in Anse."
The husky-voiced confession made Gustave's pulse race. He held Nathanael's face in his hands and kissed him, groaning when their tongues tangled together. He broke off their kiss. "Is your cock hard now?" he whispered, lips just touching Nathanael's.
"Yes." Nathanael's hand slid down to press against the front of Gustave's tunic. "Yours is, too."
Gustave made a strangled noise in his throat.
"Oh, I like that noise, too." Nathanael kissed him again while he tugged at Gustave's borrowed tunic, yanking it up and over his head. After that he removed Gustave's shirt, and then he fumbled with the ties on Gustave's trousers. "Sieur Gustave Saint-Tyssen," he said. "I want you in my bed tonight."
"Mmm." Gustave was too busy taking off Nathanael's tunic to properly reply. He tossed the garment across the room, and then he pulled off Nathanael's cotton shirt while he stepped out of his trousers.
More pieces of clothing fell to the floor as they stumbled toward the bed, and by the time they climbed on top of it they had wriggled out of their braies and were both gloriously naked.
Gustave pushed Nathanael onto his back, and for a moment he just sat there in the flickering candlelight and let his gaze travel over Nathanael's pale, slender body. He placed his palm on Nathanael's chest and felt the pounding of his heartbeat beneath his fingers, and then he brushed his fingertips across a taut, dusky nipple and watched Nathanael groan and arch his back in response. Gustave's hand traveled further down, sliding along a flat, trembling belly, and when his hand swept over the hardness of a stiff cock he was rewarded with a low, husky moan.
Nathanael reached up and hooked a hand behind Gustave's neck. "Come here, you are too far away," he whispered hoarsely, and he pulled Gustave toward him.
Gustave laughed as he tumbled on top of Nathanael, but his laughter choked off in a gasp when their erections bumped together. Nathanael groaned and shifted beneath him, and Gustave was soon lying between spread legs, rocking his hips while Nathanael bucked up against him. Gasps and moans were muffled by rough, hungry kisses, and after awhile Gustave lost track of everything except the friction of Nathanael's cock rubbing against his, and the wet heat of Nathanael's tongue thrusting in his mouth.
Nathanael shuddered as he climaxed, and Gustave followed close behind, hips jerking as waves of pleasure coursed through him. They traded sloppy kisses, and then Gustave rolled off of him and lay on his back, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath. The candle on the table sputtered out, and in the darkness smoke mingled with the musky scent of their sweat and sex.
Their exertions over, the room soon became chilly and they worked their way under the covers. Gustave rolled over onto his side and slid his arm across Nathanael's waist, sighing in contentment when Nathanael shifted to lie back against him. He pressed his lips to a naked shoulder. "Nathanael?"
"Do we have to choose squires?" Now that they were lovers, Gustave couldn't imagine having other people around them all the time.
"I don't think we have to," Nathanael replied. "It's a tradition for the Nine Swords tourney, but I think normally a knight can choose to travel alone, or with a fellow knight."
"I only want to travel with you," Gustave said, sliding a possessive hand along Nathanael's hip. "We can tend to each other."
"I think we tended to each other just fine a little while ago."
Gustave pinched him. "I'm serious."
"I know you are." Nathanael twisted around in his embrace, and sought his mouth in the dark. "I want it to be just us, too."
They kissed, slowly at first but then with an increasing ardor. Nathanael moved closer, closer until Gustave felt the hard press of an erection against his hip.
"Gustave." Nathanael's breath puffed hot and damp against his ear. "Tend to me once more."
Two days later, the two young knights rode out of Dijon and headed on the south road toward Chalon.
It was an easy, leisurely ride, since Nathanael had hired a man to take Placide and his traveling-gear to Anse. Now he and Gustave rode with just their packs of clothes and food—along with newly minted papers of lettres de chevalerie for Gustave and lettres patentes declaring Nathanael to be the Comte de Beaujeu.
Gustave had another paper, too, one that to him was far more valuable than his knighthood; a deed, signed and sealed by the Duc de Bourgogne, giving Gustave possession of the estates and village of Tenkaillon. A copy had been sent to Chalon-sur-Sâone, and Gustave could just imagine la comtesse cackling her glee.
He couldn't wait to show it to his foster-father.
They rode through a small clearing and Gustave's breath caught when the sunlight glinted off Nathanael's hair. Was this the spot where he had first been captivated? Gustave could still remember the silky feel of Nathanael's braid in his hand, all those days ago, and the sudden awareness of the press of Nathanael's body against his.
His mind flashed back to previous night; Nathanael's hair had been unbound, hanging like a shimmering curtain over Gustave's head and chest while Nathanael moved on top of him with slow, rocking thrusts. Earlier this morning they had explored each other's bodies with mouths and tongues, and Gustave had moaned and tangled his fingers in long, silken strands while Nathanael's mouth had moved over his hard, aching cock.
Now, hours later, Gustave could still see a trace of plumpness to Nathanael's lips. He brushed his fingers over his own lips, knowing that they were swollen too, and for the same reason. Nathanael gave him a sideways glance, and then his mouth curved in a mischievous grin. Their laughter echoed in the clearing, startling the birds out of nearby trees.
The Vespers bell was ringing in the distance when they approached Tenkaillon. Gustave's gaze roamed over the rolling hills of rocky red earth, and his throat tightened when he spied the familiar rows of vine-stakes standing tall like soldiers in the vineyard fields. Home. My home.
"Mine," he murmured.
A few more kilometers took them to the stone wall that made up the perimeter of the main estate, and they were soon in front of the gatehouse. Gustave slid from Hercule's back, and he pulled open one of the large, banded wooden doors. Nathanael dismounted as well, and they went inside.
A young boy was curled up, sound asleep, on one of the benches that had been built into the side walls, and he woke with a start when Gustave shut the massive door. "Gustave!" he cried, and he jumped to his feet. "Gustave, you're home!"
"Yes, I'm home, Stephane," Gustave answered with a smile.
"And you brought your friend with you!" The boy bounced on his toes. "Is it true? Is it true, Gustave?"
"Is what true?" Gustave could resist teasing the cook's youngest son.
Stephane flapped his hands. "That you're a knight! A proper knight! Just like Tenys an' René!"
Gustave grinned. "Yes, I am."
The boy practically vibrated with excitement. "Sieur Gustave! Sieur Gustave! Can I be your squire, Gustave?"
Gustave chuckled. "No, petit, Sieur Nathanael and I are going to adventure together for awhile, just he and I."
Stephane pouted. "Can I be your page, then?"
"Of course you can!" Gustave handed him Hercule's reins, and after he removed the leather bag that held his papers he said, "Here. Take Hercule an' Ebaine to the stables an' ask Thierry to help you brush them down an' get them fed, then take our things to the house. You'll each get a coin if you do a good job!" He pushed the inner doors open, revealing the dusty, tree-lined path that led to the main house and its dependencies.
Nathanael removed his bag and then watched while the boy led their horses away. "I wonder how long he was waiting there," he said as Gustave shut one door and left the other slightly ajar. Dust-motes danced in the filtered sunlight that streamed through the square, glassless windows at the top of the inner wall.
Gustave laughed. "Knowing him, probably since dawn, right after he finished his chores."
"How wonderful, to have such a family."
"You can be part of it, Nathanael." Gustave set his bag on the floor, and then he took Nathanael's hands and tugged, leading Nathanael next to the inner door. He slowly pushed him against the smooth, stone wall. "Let this be your home, too," he murmured, pressing his mouth against Nathanael's neck.
"I…I need to go to Anse, to take care of things there," Nathanael protested weakly. "Beaujeu is my responsibility now."
Gustave kissed the sharp angle of Nathanael's jaw where it met his throat, smiling as he felt Nathanael's pulse hammering beneath his lips. "Yes, you'll have to go there, since you definitely have to fix that broken wall in the back."
Nathanael snorted. "You destroyed my wall, you brigand."
Gustave ignored him and laid a soft kiss on the corner of Nathanael's mouth. "I know you might have to stay there for weeks, months even." He looked up, and met Nathanael's dark, golden gaze. "But this can be your home. Live here, with me—with us. Sometimes we'll go an' fight in service to His Grace, but then we can come back here, wash off the blood, an' then tend the vines an' feel life in our hands."
"I would like that, very, very much." Nathanael's mouth met his, and they kissed, slowly at first, and then with an increasing hunger that left them both gasping for air.
"We'd better get to the house," Gustave said after he caught his breath. "I'm sure Stephane has told everyone that we're home." He picked up the leather bag and hugged it tight against his chest. "I can't wait to show this deed to Papa." He opened the inner door and then he held out his hand to Nathanael.
"I wager that Lord Constantin will actually be happy about this," Nathanael said, laughing as he took Gustave's hand.
Gustave grinned. "Yes, I think he will."