The strike of staff against staff echoed dully across the knights' courtyard. The two men sparring in the center of the yard edged back and forth, eyeing one another, their boots moving from stone to stone in an unseeing dance. To one side, a handful of others sat honing their weapons in the shade of an overhang, while on the far side of the court an octet of knights moved almost noiselessly in double file through a series of exercises. A spindly young tree rising up in the corner of the yard bent in the wind as if mirroring them.
The two men sparring with staves were matched in height and build, and apparently in skill as well. One, sporting short, dark hair and mustache, kept his jaw set and his lips tightly pursed, underscoring his concentration. The other, fairer and longer of hair, bore an expression rather more dour. The pair exchanged a longer series of blows, each blocked in turn by the other's staff, until the fairer man stumbled and stepped back with a grunt. After a momentary pause, the other advanced again. The fairer man extended his staff to parry and swore. "Hold!"
"What's the matter, Kevill?" asked one of the men who sat sharpening his sword. "Staff need sharpening?"
The fairer man returned a scowl to the speaker but, as there was no smirk, only an inane grin, on the latter's face, gave it up in favor of a verbal reply. "Thy wit, rather, my good Alling. I merely misstepped. These new boots are not yet broken in." As if to give evidence of his claim, he squatted down and flexed the leather boots by hand.
"Aye," said Kevill's sparring partner, who stood leaning attentively on his staff. "New boots can make your feet sore."
Kevill straightened up and faced the other, eyebrows raised. "I? Sore?"
Alling broke in before he could continue. "You're an eyesore, all right."
"Let us pause for a drink, Kevill," said the other, forestalling an argument.
Kevill turned to him as if dismissing Alling. "An excellent suggestion, George. A quick draught from the court well will refresh." The two stepped into the shade, to draw up a bucket from the well just outside the door to the keep.
Alling, a tall, lanky man with pale face and hair, rose at a leisurely pace to join them, apparently unaware of his provocations. He spoke as George and Kevill were drinking. "Here comes Signet, bearing the stamp of his master's disapproval." With this, half the knights in the yard looked up to see a small, stout man with a fixed squint descending the exterior stairs from the keep.
"Oy, let it not be Ivrey again," said a fourth knight, balancing daggers at a table nearby.
"Hush, Roger. Come, George," said Kevill, walking from the well to take up his staff again. George followed and picked up his own.
The messenger of the lord of the keep, meanwhile, had entered the yard not far from the well. "Good day, Signet," said Alling blithely and not altogether sincerely. Signet favored him only with a brief glare, and the tall knight turned away, back to his sword.
As no one paid the man any further attention, Signet was obliged, after some moments, to make his announcement to the walls. "I bear unfortunate news. The Lady Ivrey has been taken captive once more by the ravenous dragon which has been menacing our woods this past week."
George, sparring, groaned. "The Maker save us!"
Signet turned on him like a dog on a fox at bay. "You may so pray, Sir George, for I am come to send you to the lady's rescue."
The news fell more heavily on the young knight than any of Kevill's blows. The sparring stopped, and George's eyes scanned the yard for anyone to come to his aid. "But... the Lord Eiss knows of the recent theft of my charger. Am I then to be given a new mount?"
"There is no time to find you a horse," replied Signet diffidently. "Go now, and bring the lady back, ere the dragon make quick work of her."
"But the dragon will be miles into the wood. Is Lady Ivrey to walk back?"
"Do your papa proud, George," said Roger with a snicker, flipping his daggers. Kevill chuckled.
Signet continued, "As this is a personal mission of honor for Eiss, you will wear full dress armor, and here is your sash. See that Lady Ivrey is back in her chambers by sundown." He extended a wide green sash to George, who took it numbly, and then Signet left without further ado. There was silence as the knights watched him return the way he had come.
When he had disappeared within, he turned to his fellow knights nearby. "Is any of you willing to lend me your steed for this mission?"
Alling shook his head despondently. "Mine threw a shoe escaping that scaly rascal three days ago."
"Don't look at me," Kevill growled. "I was the first to rescue her, and I don't want my mount near a dragon again. It would drive the poor creature out of its mind."
"Me either!" said Roger. "And Jorel did it two days ago."
George's brow darkened. Finally he said, "Very well," and stormed silently out. The others watched him go.
"I'll give three to one against," said Roger. Kevill and Alling looked to him with interest.