That had been a week ago. Jane had borrowed a replacement from the knight’s armory, but it was poorly weighted, too thin for her scabbard and pitted with iron blight. So she was eager to see what kind of repair Smithy had been able to do.
‘Oh, it’s wonderful Smithy!’ She turned the sword, inspecting the blade on both sides. There was no sign of the repair work. None! She stared up at the young blacksmith, surprise and delight written across her face.
‘Pleased you like it, Jane.’
‘I can’t see the repair! It’s like a new blade. How did you do this?’
‘I had help. My furnace can’t get to the temperature needed for this work. Your big friend lent me his breath.’
‘That was good of him.’
‘That’s not how he put it. Atonement, he said. For breaking it.’
‘Ah, he told you. Not a word to Theodore, he said to be discreet.’
‘Understood,’ Smithy watched as Jane slid the sword back into its scabbard. There was no friction. He smiled and folded his hands, pleased at a job well done. Then his face hardened as Gunther entered the forge.
‘Ready my horse, Smithy, there’s a good fellow.’ Gunther stepped between them, his back to Jane. ‘The King has received word of this visit from Haroldus and requests a guard of honor ride out to meet him.’ He turned and pretended surprise at seeing Jane behind him. ‘Ah, Jane, sorry didn’t see you there. Come to pick up the broken toothpick, have you?’ And away he went, a skip in his step.
‘Does everyone know?’ sighed Jane.
‘I believe they do,’ said Smithy. ‘Dragon told anyone who would listen that his teeth are more powerful than a shortlife blade.’
‘Wonderful. What other gifts will the day bring. Thank you for the work, Smithy, and would you ready my horse too, I will not be riding that wretched green frog today. He can go to his cave and pick his entire mouth clean for all I care.’
Jane crossed the practice yard and climbed the steps to her room at the top of the corner tower. She needed to get out of her patrol clothes and put on something half decent if she was to join the greeting party for Haroldas. She loved her room in the tower. It was her sanctuary from the chaos of castle life, and it was a statement.
The room was hers alone, and it stood closer to the knights’ quarters than her parents’ chambers in the main keep where she had been raised as a member of the royal court, daughter to the Queen’s companion and to Lord Turnkey, the King’s chamberlain.
Here, in this small tower room, she Jane carved out a unique place in the hierarchy of the court, a place that had never existed before. This tower room, set halfway between the royal keep and the knights’ quarters, belonged of the first girl ever to train as a knight.
‘A coin for your thoughts,’ said Dragon as he squeezed his head through her open window.’
‘My thoughts? I will spare you my thoughts, Dragon, for right this minute they are too colourful to be expressed aloud.’
‘Try me.’ Dragon closed his eyes as if preparing to listen.
‘Did you really tell the whole castle that you broke my sword using it for a toothpick?
‘Not the whole castle. There are some I still need to speak to.’
‘We broke my sword cutting willow branches. That was our story, we agreed on it.’
‘No Jane.’ Dragon opened his eyes again. ‘We agreed nothing. You lectured me, I listened. Very big difference. I decided on telling the truth. Another of your lectures by the way. Truth, the knight’s code, all of that fiddle fuddle.’
‘Sometimes discretion is more important.’
‘Discretion, right,’ Dragon nodded wisely, then shook his head. ‘No, sorry, what does that mean?’
‘You’ve heard Sir Theodore speak of it often enough. Discretion is the better part of valor.’
‘Oh, THAT. Yes of course. Erm, what does valor mean?’
‘Argh! You are impossible.’
‘Ah, impossible. That word I know. People say it to me all the time. Dragons are impossible, they say. The stuff of fairy tales. And yet here I am, in all my magnificence. Truth wins Jane, in the end, truth wins.’ And with that Dragon pulled his head from her room.
Jane stepped to the window and watched him take off, three great strides and up he went.
‘Knock, knock, I’m coming in!’ Princess Lavinia burst into the room and threw herself on Jane’s bed. ‘What are we doing today? I thought you could teach me archery again. I promise not to kill anyone of importance.’
‘That’s good to hear, your Little Majesty.’ Jane set her sword on her mantle, kicked off her shoes and sat down beside Lavinia. ‘But Jester will have the joy of tutoring you this morning. I must ride out with Sir Theodore to welcome our guest.’
‘Haroldus, yes, I heard. I want to hear more of his adventures.’
‘As do I, now if you would afford me a little privacy, I need to get out of my patrol clothes.’
‘Because you pong?’
‘Yes. While you smell delightfully of lavender water.’
‘I don’t want to smell of flowers, I want to smell of blood and battles.’ Lavinia leapt from the bed and pulled the sword from the mantle, knocking Jane’s ornaments to the floor. One, a candlestick carved from olive wood by Rake, splintered as it struck the flagstones.
‘Oh no!’ Lavinia dropped to her knees, lay the sword on the floor and gathered up the broken pieces. ‘Rake can fix it for you, I’m sure he can.’
‘No, take it to Pepper, she can use it for kindling.’
‘Burn it!?’ Lavinia stared up at Jane, her eyes brimming with sudden tears. ‘You love this candlestick! You love all the things in here.’ She looked around at the ornaments. ‘And so do I, your room has been like this forever Jane. Forever! I came here to play the first day you moved in. I helped you make it pretty and perfect.’
‘I love it, too. I love everything in here; but these are all the pleasures of my childhood, and that time is over. I am a Knight of the King’s Guard, your Little Majesty, and you know what that means.’
‘Yes, I do!’ Lavinia handed Jane the broken candlestick, ‘go and instruct Rake to mend this. I command it.’
Theodore eased himself up into his saddle. Jane’s admiration for the old knight was matched only by her concern for him. His age had become the subject of whispered debate around the Court. The man remained agile, and his mind and eye were as sharp as ever, but he would be no match for a younger man in combat. In the two years since Jane and Gunther had completed their training, there had only been small border skirmishes with neighboring kingdoms, nothing for Jester to write a balled about, nothing to test Sir Theodore’s stamina in battle.
It was midmorning, and already the day was as hot as Pepper’s oven. They had saddled up in a narrow band of shade still afforded by the high stone walls of the stable yard. No-one was dressed in heavy armor, they were greeting a known friend, their escort a simple sign of respect.
‘Come,’ Sir Theodore turned his horse to the main gate and led them out. ‘We shall meet our guest at the causeway.’
‘I wonder if he will bring gifts again,’ said Gunther. ‘I still have the drinking horn he gave me last time.’
‘He can keep his gifts,’ Sir Ivan snorted. ‘The man gave me powder for my bed lice. I think it fed the wretched things. Fat as slugs the next day, and twice as many.’
‘I remember,’ laughed Sir Theodore. ‘I believe he was sporting with you. We shall take him up on it tonight.’
‘He gave me a hair clip,’ said Jane, ‘Very pretty and much more suited to Pepper, so I gave it to her. I wasn’t offended, he didn’t know me well enough. I was just another girl.’
‘And impressionable,’ Sir Theodore slowed his mount so that the four were riding side by side. ‘You were rather taken with him as I remember.’
‘Not with him. With his stories, his tales of high adventure.’
‘Is that so?’ the old knight raised an eyebrow, ‘I don’t see how, given that Haroldus only read them in the tavern.’
‘Indeed, he did,’ Jane dropped her voice to a low growl to mimic Sir Theodore’s own. ‘A knight of the King’s Guard will learn to creep up on the enemy unannounced. Practice this at all times, Jane.’
‘Ha!’ Sir Ivan slapped his thigh. ‘She has you there, right enough.’
‘Then I must learn to be more specific in the future.’ Sir Theodore raised his hand and brought the small company to a halt in the shade of a large tree, the last shade on the road down to the wharf. Haroldus was riding across the causeway towards them.
‘We can watch him do the last furlong. My relationship with him is too old, and the day is too hot, for me to afford him more effort than this.’
Jane watched their visitor approach. From this distance he looked just as she remembered him, and far younger than Sir Theodore. Jane looked sideways at her captain. When had these two been brothers in arms?
‘Greetings,’ roared Sir Theodore as their guest drew near.
‘And to you, my dear Theodore,’ Haroldus called back. Jane instructed her mount to step sideways, clearing a space between herself and her old captain. The mare was well behaved, trained by Smithy who had coached Jane on how to get the most from her. Haroldus nodded to her as he walked his mount into the vacant space.
‘It’s been too long,’ he said, as he grasped Sir Theodore by his forearm. Then he turned to Jane.
‘And greetings to you, Jane Turnkey. You were but a string bean when I was here last. Now a full knight of the guard by all reports. My heartiest congratulations to you.’
‘Thank you,’ Jane dipped her head in acknowledgement.
‘The first girl to become a knight in these parts. Quite a novelty, but then Theodore has always encouraged roads unknown.’
‘As have you.’ Sir Theodore turned his horse. ‘Come, let us escape this heat. It may be fierce, but it’s no match for the stone walls of the castle.’
Sir Theodore and Sir Ivan took the lead, with Haroldus riding between them. Jane and Gunther fell in behind.
‘In these parts,’ whispered Gunther, ‘did you hear that? So, you are not such a novelty after all, Jane.’
‘That’s a comfort, Gunther. I thought I was the only woman who could knock you from your horse. It will be good to share that burden with others.’
‘Once! You did it but once, and only because your green frog unsettled my poor horse.’
‘Then we must arrange a re-match. Without Dragon looking on.’
‘Done.’ Gunther stuck his chin out. ‘Name the time and place.’ Jane glanced sideways at him. Why did Gunther always set himself up for failure like this? They both knew he was no match for her.
‘This evening,’ she said.
‘Yes, first thing after supper. Why, is that a problem? Will you be swooning under the balcony of Lady Rose again?’
‘I do not swoon, and yes, I will be seeing her. But then you knew that; we have arranged to walk the palace gardens after supper, which is why you were so quick to set that time.’
‘Then, tomorrow evening.’
‘Fine, tomorrow evening it is!’ Gunther, who had raised his voice above a whisper, fell silent as Sir Ivan turned and glared at them.
‘Can you two stop your ridiculous prattling, it’s far too hot to be boxing your ears today.’ He shook his head and shrugged an apology to their guest.
‘So, Haroldus,’ said Gunther. ‘What brings you to Kippernia? Did you come all this way just to see old friends?’
‘In part,’ Haroldus turned in his saddle and smiled at Gunther, ‘but I have other business.’
‘Do you indeed,’ Sir Theodore grunted, ‘I trust you are not here petitioning the King to finance one of your ventures?’
‘You think I have come asking for money?’
‘You are travelling with no retinue, money is an issue, is it not?’
‘Blunt as ever, dear friend.’
‘At my age I have precious little time to waste.’ Sir Theodore gifted his guest a wry smile, ‘I have found that bluntness is economic with time.’
‘Then let me put that concern to rest. I have not come here to seek patronage from your King.’
‘I’m very glad to hear it.’
‘There would be little point given the rumors that flourish on this subject.’ Haroldus made no attempt to lower his voice. ‘It is said that this small kingdom of Kippernia is in debt to a dozen long suffering cousins hereabouts.’
‘I place no weight in rumors,’ said Sir Theodore.
‘Can we debate that?’ said Jane. The old knight looked round at her and gave a long-suffering sigh.
‘If I say no, you will persist anyway?’
‘Almost certainly she will,’ said Gunther.
‘A point of clarification, that’s all,’ said Jane. ‘On occasions you have pressed upon us the need to listen to the idle fireside chatter of any strangers passing through the kingdom.’
‘I have indeed.’
‘She makes a good point,’ said Haroldus. ‘Gossip can be gold.’
‘It can,’ Sir Theodore dipped his head to Jane. ‘I concede the point, Jane. I place a great deal of weight in rumors. So, Haroldus, why are you here?’
‘Provisions, I have come for your town’s famous salted herring. My ship is being loaded as we speak.’
‘You are setting off on another great adventure?’
‘I am indeed, the biggest yet. You should join me; it will be like old times.’
‘Ha!’ Sir Theodore snorted and shook his head. ‘Old times can rest where they lie. My duties stand here in the present.’ They had almost reached the shadow of the castle walls.
‘This approach is well devised,’ said Haroldus. ‘I have always thought so. Half a dozen men could stand against an army. For a while, at least.’
‘It has been years since we needed to test that,’ said Sir Ivon. ‘But you’re correct, a deal of thought and sweat went into this.’
As the party approached the drawbridge, Dragon chose to make his grand entrance. He rose from his hiding place in the steep drop to the left of the track, a dark green shadow against the darker shadow of the castle wall, a creature summoned from the pit of hell itself.
‘Really?’ snorted Gunther.
‘He’s just jealous,’ whispered Jane. ‘All our talk over breakfast of the great Haroldus.’ She watched their guest as she spoke. The man’s expression was difficult to read. If Dragon’s intent was to scare him, he appeared to have failed.
Dragon settled on the drawbridge and folded his wings.
‘Welcome to my mountain, shortlife.’
‘It talks!’ Haroldus clapped his hands in delight. ‘It really does talk; the stories are correct. Astounding!’
‘I did tell you this,’ said Jane. ‘On your last visit here, though you never saw him, Dragon was...’ she paused. ‘In his cave.’
‘Studying,’ said Dragon. ‘A fellow scholar. A creature of letters.’
‘I can hardly believe it,’ Harold stared up at Dragon. ‘You told me all about it Jane, and word has been spreading; and yet to see it with my own eyes, a living breathing dragon, the greatest species ever to walk this world.’
‘You ARE well read! I like you already.’ Dragon spread his arms wide. ‘Hug?’
‘Incredible?’ Haroldus turned to Jane. ‘Have you named it?’
‘Named it?’ Dragon frowned and glanced at Jane. ‘My name is Dragon. One of a kind, you see.’
‘One, yes!’ Haroldus nodded. ‘And here you are! Magnificent!’
‘You were right, Jane,’ Dragon patted Haroldus gently with the tip of one claw. ‘This is a wise man. A true scholar.’
‘Come, let us get inside,’ said Sir Theodore. ‘Will you stay the night while your ship is supplied?’
‘I heartily accept.’ Haroldus eased his horse on. ‘And I must hear more about this fantastic pet of young Jane’s.’
‘Pet?’ Dragon put a foot down in front of Jane, preventing her from riding on with the others. ‘Pet!? Like Smithy’s little friend, the one with the spiky fur and attractive bacon odor?’
‘He means no offense by it. Can you move your foot please? I have to get inside.’
‘I have duties to attend to.’
‘Really? Duties to your stomach, no doubt. You’ll be going straight to the kitchens. To eat again. You have worms. WORMS!’
‘Yes, I do,’ Jane jumped her mare over Dragon’s front foot. ‘One very large, green worm.’