The wind nipped at the young man’s face as he trudged up the path towards the stones, fresh lilies clasped tightly in hand. Another blizzard on the way, he thought. The worst is yet to come.
All too soon, he arrived. As he knelt to replace yesterday’s offering, Francel’s eyes drifted to the shield leaning against the marker. A red unicorn, erased and wreathed in thorns. And below…
He shuddered, and looked away. “You just couldn’t help yourself, could you?” he muttered through clenched teeth, twisting and crushing the flowers in his hands until there was nothing left.
Fifteen…sixteen years now, Francel reflected. A boy of six summers, yet nevertheless old enough to assume his social responsibilities. Father had told him the dinner party at Fortemps Manor was to be the first of many.
The lords and ladies had treated him with predictable kindness as he made his rounds with the count, carefully repeating the phrases he had been taught. “This one is a baron, but you mustn’t address him as such in person,” his father whispered as they moved on. “That one is sworn to our house. You met him when you were…”
It was altogether too much.
But he pressed on, as instructed, until he had spoken with every individual of standing. Utterly spent, he duly begged his father for a moment’s respite and was surprised to find him amenable to the request. Moved by my efforts─or mayhap the wine.
After the count set him free, Francel made straight for the doors, pausing only to snatch a serving of pudding from a nearby table. Outside, under the starry sky, he breathed deep of the cool night air and savored the silence.
“Come! Have at thee! For the glory of House Fortemps!”
The shouting seemed to be coming from the nearby gazebo, where Francel had hoped to eat his pudding in peace. He crept closer, unsure what he would find.
A silver-haired boy twice his age was swinging a wooden sword with reckless abandon, his bare chest glistening with sweat in the moonlight.
“What are you doing?” Francel was surprised to find he had spoken. The older boy whirled about, briefly falling into a half crouch. He blinked, then drew himself up to his full height. “What does it look like? I’m practicing!”
Francel was at a loss. His father had stressed the importance of the evening’s festivities. “But… The party… Shouldn’t you be─”
The older boy snorted. “The countess forbade it. Father wanted me to come, but I told him I wasn’t interested. It’s just as well─what good’s a knight who can’t fight?”
It was better when I didn’t know. Trueborns, bastards, baseborns…
The older boy simply stood there, hands resting on the pommel of his wooden sword, point planted in the earth. Francel suddenly remembered the pudding in his hands. “Would you like to share?” he said, proffering the sweetmeat with trepidation.
Haurchefant arched an eyebrow, then grinned. “I would like that very much.”
They complemented each other rather well. So far as a fourth-born and a bastard could.Quiet and reserved, Francel’s inclination was ever to bury himself in a book, but Haurchefant was wont to appear without warning and spirit him away on some grand adventure. Six years his senior, the older boy continued to pursue his study of swordplay, spurred ever onward by his dreams of knighthood. For we all must serve, each in our own way.
In later years, Haurchefant’s impromptu visits grew more frequent. The more he grew to resemble his father. Francel came to recognize the signs he would be along shortly─muffled shouts from the manor, a door slamming shut, the patter of running feet across the cobbles.
And there he was, huffing and puffing, eyes red and full of anger. I’d touch his shoulder, and he’d remember where he was. “Where shall we go today?” I’d ask. “Anywhere but here,” he’d say.
He shifted in the saddle and kept his eyes firmly fixed on the horizon. The trackers were off watering their chocobos, leaving Francel alone with his father, who continued to speak.
“Many of your peers are avid falconers, you know. And with good cause─not all bargains are struck over wine. Out here, in the wilds, astride a chocobo, men are more like to speak with candor…”
To celebrate his eleventh birthday, his father had insisted they go hunting in the eastern lowlands. Father always had a way with gifts. Glancing at the trackers, Francel saw a shock of silver hair and smiled, before returning his attention to the skies. One small concession, at least.
The black speck in the fading daylight had begun to circle above the woods on the far shore of Clearwater Lake. He felt the count squeeze his shoulder. “You see? All you have to do is follow the falcon. He knows where to go.” The count paused, then turned to face him. “He was born for this─as were you.”
The falcon’s cry was a blessing. “He’s got something!” Francel yelled, then dug his heels in and spurred his mount forward. He was dimly aware of his father shouting as he gripped the reins tighter and urged the chocobo on.
If there’s one thing Haurchefant managed to teach me, it was how to run away. Francel grinned as he lowered his head and rode light in the saddle. His father’s men would not catch him before he made it to the trees.
When he was nearly upon them, a flock of pheasants burst from the underbrush.Towards me. Francel reined his mount in, puzzled, and squinted into the gloom, only to feel a sharp pain in his head. And then he was tumbling from his saddle while the world went black around him.
He awoke with a start to a dull throbbing at the base of his skull and the taste of blood and cotton. Moaning, he tried to reach up and feel his head, but found that he could not.Sawdust and hemp. Oh how it chafed.
“Oi, the little lordling’s awake!”
Gradually, the world came into focus and Francel found himself lying on the floor of a candlelit cabin. A woodcutter’s shack, long abandoned and forgotten. The door on the far wall appeared to lead out into the night…but sat on a stool across from him was a balding man in boiled leather, with a nose which had been broken at least half a dozen times and teeth which had fared still worse.
The man leered. “My mates was afeared I hit you too hard, but I told ’em blue blood skulls’re thicker’n you’d think.” A knobbed wooden club lay across his knees. An ugly, misshapen thing, not unlike its owner.
Francel tested his bonds once more, and the coarse rope bit into his wrists. He tried to speak through the gag. “Quiet, boy, or I’ll send your tongue back to the count before your fingers,” the man growled. An empty threat, but how was I to know?
Horrified, Francel pressed himself against the wall and stared up at the bandit, who smiled. And was all the more terrifying for it.
“That’s better. Now then─”
The door flew open, and the bandit rose to his feet and whirled about, club in hand, just in time to catch a glimpse of the silver-haired youth who barreled into his chest, dashing him to the floor and driving the wind from his lungs.
The bandit clawed at Haurchefant’s face, spitting curses as the youth fumbled his knife. Beyond, in the doorway, a man was lying flat on his back, staring into space. Unblinking.Haurchefant groped blindly for the knife, found it, then drove it home between the larger man’s ribs. Again and again, long after he had stopped moving.
He lay there for a time, face buried in the dead man’s chest. The cabin was silent save for his labored breaths. Less a man and more a beast, his tunic dyed red, his hands trembling. Slowly, he pushed himself up and looked into Francel’s eyes. “It’s over. They’re dead,” he whispered, leaning forward and pulling the wadded cloth from the boy’s mouth.
“All of them?”
A man filled the doorway, arrow nocked and drawn. “You little shites!” he roared, and the bowstring sang.
I shut my eyes, but I heard it strike─heard him howl, heard the pounding of the floorboards. Heard them wrestling, two voices grunting…then one wheezing…
When he opened his eyes, Francel saw Haurchefant kneeling next to a third bandit. “Right. Now it’s over.” He rose to his feet, swaying slightly. A thin stream of blood trickled from the broken shaft embedded in his left forearm. He looked down and almost seemed surprised. “Best not try that again without a shield, eh?”
The third one lived to tell the tale, Francel mused, as he traced the sigil on the battered shield. Of how an untrained, unseasoned bastard of seventeen summers saved a lordling with naught but his knife. And so the Silver Fuller won his spurs.
His fingers came to the hole.
“A knight lives to serve—to aid those in need,” he managed, his voice trembling. Beyond the descending veil of white, the city rose to meet the day as Francel, kneeling in the snow, smiled and wept.