Prince Jonah and the Lady Faith stand at the edge of the courtyard. The noon sun bears down on them, heavy with heat, and the air rings with the sound of metal, blunt edges meeting blunt edges as the squires trade blows before them.
Faith scans the scene, and every time her eyes fall inevitably to a pair in the near corner.
“Her,” she says, elbowing her cousin, and indicating her choice with a sharp jut of her chin. “I want her.”
The Prince narrows his eyes, as though considering, but she notices a sudden tightening of his jaw, a tensing in his shoulders, and wonders.
After a long pause, he responds. “Are you sure? She is skilled, to be sure - one of our most promising wards, and hard working besides. But she is still unpracticed, and far from our strongest fighter. Either Will or Harry may suit your needs, and both are well-trained already.” He points the boys out as he says their names, and in the spirit of fairness she gives each a cursory once over.
Both are capable fighters. Technically flawless, their strikes are swift and their movements precise, and they match and counter attacks with stoic ease. An aura of quiet confidence surrounds them both - a natural consequence of being the oldest and broadest of their peers, she assumes. They seem immovable.
The girl is anything but. Nimble as a squirrel, she dances and weaves about her opponent’s blade, ducking at once beneath their guard and then darting back far beyond their reach.
Her form is atrocious - the scourge of her tutors, she’s sure. Her footwork is quick and effective, but unpredictable, and laced with the same uncertainty that seems woven throughout her body. She wields her broadsword as though it is an extension of her own arm, but acts as though it is rapier instead, favouring sharper, more restrained thrusts over wild, powerful swings. There is no solidity in her ever-changing stance - if her partner could only land a hit, he would knock her to the ground with one blow.
She watches as the girl feints, lunging to the right. Under the Lady Faith’s keen eye, she bends low, and tosses the hilt to her left hand. She straightens, her blade turned in towards her, and as her opponent raises his own weapon to defend, she catches his hilt with her own, and twists.
Metal clatters upon stone, and she unfurls her sword to rest the point at his throat. The boy gulps, and half raises his hands in surrender, and Faith knows.
“Far be it for me to speak out against King and country, but my cousin… he sometimes lacks tact.”
In all the days that pass, and all those still to come, Faith only nears regretting her decision once, and it is here, when she first meets her champion, brought to her chambers late at night, with shuddering breaths and eyes rimmed red.
The girl - Eleanor, she has been told, “our Nell” - looks up at her, confusion replacing her sorrow, and obeys when Faith motions her to sit on the bed beside her.
“He has sent you to me, as requested. I take it he did not tell you why?”
Through hiccuping words, the girl speaks. “He said - he said, simply, that - that I was, not fit - that is, not to train as - a knight, any more.”
“I see. Well, that much is I suppose true.”
For a moment, shock quells her tears and Eleanor looks at her aghast, before resuming her sobs in earnest. Faith reaches out, and rests a hand on her shoulder.
“What I mean to say, is that… You are aware of my position and status, yes?”
She nods. “You, are, Lady Faith, niece of the King, seventh in line -”
“Yes, and godsbewilling it remains so.” She ignores the murmured reply, ‘godsbe’. “But I mean if you have heard tell of my position - the command I hold.”
Once more, surprise glances across her face. Faith allows herself a small, if bitter, smile.
“From your face I see that you have not. Good - it means that we are doing our job. Suffice to say, I lead an outfit of, very, specialised, individuals, who are able to carry out tasks that civilian soldiers or even knights may not be so… suited, to.”
“Would not be an, inaccurate term. Espionage and intelligence. The occasional assasination.”
She sees the girl flinch, and almost chuckles, despite herself, but otherwise ignores it for the time being.
“We operate, for the most part, at my own discretion, but we are still, however secretly, a part of His Majesty the King’s Military Service. And so, as a personal favour, His Majesty occasionally allows me to pool new recruits from the squire wards of the castle. And, if you would be willing…”
As close as they are, she can sense, even in the dim light, the girl relax at her words.
“You were not sent here because they thought you were not good enough,” she continues, taking a risk and wrapping an arm around the girl. She melts into her side, quiet now but exhausted, nearly a decade younger than Faith herself, with all the same old insecurities.
“Take a moment - a night - and think on it,” she says into the dark, but - and perhaps to do so is arrogant - privately, she suspects she already knows what the girl will choose.
“Why did you ask for me?”
Nell sits atop a low cabinet, swinging her legs. Faith looks up from her letters.
“Why? Well, look at you. You were not made to be a knight.”
Nell scoffs and Faith, sensing her mistake, quickly sets her work aside and moves closer, hands up and placating. “You could have been a knight, and a great one at that. But many people can be knights - you would have been wasted there. I saw you fighting, you know.”
Nell, still with her hackles raised, says nothing, and Faith struggles for a moment, casting about for the right words.
“You are, quick. Agile. You could be - and can, and are being - well moulded for subtlety, and that did not hold true for many of your peers. To be a knight - often, it is to fight in battle, upon a horse, and to survive speaks more highly of your endurance and luck than skill. You hold firm and withstand blow after blow, land strike after strike, and by the sun’s set if you are still upright you have done well. Out of necessity, lacking the advantages of height -” Nell kicks out at her at this, and Faith laughs, catching her ankle and reaching up to ruffle her hair, before falling back - “you taught yourself other ways to fight. You made use of your surroundings, and acted with precision, and you were fine with a sword but you are a natural with a knife. It will serve you well to not repeat this around your old companions, but you would not most suit a knight - you are made for more.”
Nell’s cheeks tinge pink, and she settles back, mollified. Faith sighs, dramatic and performative.
“Ah, would only that I had found you sooner, before they had ruined your mind with these petty ideas of honour and chivalry.”
Her cheeks redden further, now fuelled by righteousness, and Faith, satisfied, returns to the writings at the table.
Several minutes pass in silence. When Nell speaks again, her voice is soft.
“I had thought - feared, perhaps - that His Highness dismissed me, sent me to you, because I had refused him.”
“Oh?” It does not shock her, precisely, for she had suspected even at the courtyard that Jonah’s steering her away from Nell may have been less than altruistic. Still, she recognises the potential dangers lying in the water ahead, and strives to keep her voice open and neutral.
Her eyes are downcast. “He had come to me, claimed he, loved, me - that he was mine only to claim. I would not hear of it.”
“Well. I assure you he had not confided such a thing to me - in fact, I rather think he had hoped to tempt me with some other squire he could bear to lose. As for the other matter, I think I am rather glad. It will do my fool of a cousin some good, I hope, to know that he can not always have what he wants.”
Curiously, at this her face flushes, and Faith ponders her miscalculation.
“Unless, perhaps. You did not wish to refuse him, entirely.”
“A knight cannot be with a knight. I knew which I would rather give up.”
“Besides, it is a mere fantasy. The prince may not marry some common girl.”
“Right too, though I dare say you are selling your family status short, if you were warded at the castle. Certainly you would be a suitable match for a third or second heir, and Jonah has never been much for convention anyway.”
She shrugs, unconvinced.
“And besides, a knight very well cannot be with a fellow knight, or a Prince, or a commander.” She moves closer once more. “But you, are no knight.”