Readers Note: This isn’t a single chapter, but three different mini-chapters that are flashbacks to several youthful misadventures of one of my main characters, Ryn, with his siblings.
THE BATTLE PLAN
Tomer, true to form, didn’t let his role as co-conspirator in the affair conflict with his usual inclination toward naysaying. “We might be wiser for doing as father says.”
Ryn hissed in exasperation. “You always say that.”
They had a clear plan—it lay right there on the table before them, lit by the light of a single candle, documented to the last detail. Only Aegias had ever done better. Ryn should know—he’d studied every one of the Prince Messiah’s battle plans with old Master Brydan, his tutor in history. Of course, Aegias had said even the best-struck plan seldom survived the first clash of arms…
“And I am usually right,” Tomer said. He put fist to chin and chewed on his thumbnail, a habit Ryn often teased him about for being just a half-inch short of thumb-sucking. “Look at what happened with—”
“That was nothing like this,” Ryn said with a snort.
Tomer waved his fist in the air between them. “No, it’s worse—we’re talking about crossing the Sheriff.”
Ryn rolled up the parchment. “It was your damned idea!”
“I confess to a moment of weakness. I’m feeling much better now.”
“Do you want to go through with this or not?” When his brother didn’t immediately answer, trapped by his chronic indecision, Ryn smacked him in the side of the head with their plan of attack. “I’m not risking my neck for nothing.”
The door opened without any warning, giving them both a start. Their plot undone for want of a lock—or the sense to shift over a barrel and block the door.
Because of course, being lads of thirteen and fourteen, they hadn’t thought that conspiring in the privacy of one of their bedrooms carried the proper degree of intrigue. Nor in a more practical sense did it provide a reliable measure of privacy. At the age of eight, their younger brother Del had the worst knack for poking his nose where it didn’t belong, and blurting out things he’d sworn not to tell at the worst possible time.
Instead, the conspirators had opted for the cold cellar below the summer kitchen. But they’d made the fatal mistake of underestimating their most dire obstacle—Mother.
She stood there, plump frame silhouetted in the doorway by the daylight that spilled down the stairs. “And what’s all this now?”
Ryn said nothing and let his hand holding the rolled parchment slip behind his back. “Just an exercise.”
“Hmmm.” Mother crossed her arms and stepped further into the pantry. “But the study where you take your lessons doesn’t serve well enough.”
“We can’t let it happen!” Tomer blurted out, as if he’d already been strapped to the rack and the rachet cranked a few clicks to give his joints a stretch.
“Let what happen?”
Ryn scowled and gave his brother a short punch in the ribs that left Tomer gasping. “Ruffe the stableman—it’s not fair that he’s facing a charge for this.” Ryn took a step toward his mother, chin out. “It’s not just.”
“I see.” Mother held out her hand and snapped her fingers. She had a way of making the gesture ring like a pistol shot. “Let’s have it then.”
Ryn reluctantly passed over the parchment. Mother turned away and stepped out into the light as she unrolled it. Her brow furrowed and lips pursed as she studied the sketch and its notations. Ryn and Tomer exchanged nervous glances. Then Mother gave an appreciative whistle. “This might actually work.” She looked to her boys. “Whose idea was this?”
Ryn waited for Tomer to speak, unsure if the architect of their plan faced praise or punishment. Tomer had that shifty look in his eye that proved he didn’t know either—the odds were even he’d point the finger at Ryn.
But he didn’t. “It was me.” Tomer cleared his throat and stiffened his spine. “All me, Ryn was just helping. If there’s trouble, it should all fall on me.”
Ryn just stared at him, overcome with affection. The nervous waver in Tomer’s voice made it clear he fully expected trouble to result. And yet, he still meant to spare his brother from sharing in it.
Mother rolled the parchment back up, her expression flat. “Say you managed it—left the sheriff’s men chasing their own tails so Ruffe could escape—what then?”
Ryn and Tomer looked blankly at one another. “We’d celebrate?” the latter ventured.
“You might, but what of Ruffe?” Mother said, with a crisp edge to her tone. “If he took the chance, he’d become a fugitive, wanted for fleeing the King’s Law. The penalty for that is far harsher than what he faces now.”
Ryn sighed and examined his shoes. “We hadn’t thought of that.”
“Obviously not—and what was it that your father said about this?”
“To never mind it and leave him to take it up with the magistrate,” Tomer said, in a dejected tone.
“And why did you not consider that sufficient?” Mother asked.
“Because Ruffe’s been charged with stealing from a nobleborn and there’s a witness, but me and Ryn know it’s a false witness and no one believed us when we said so,” Tomer said in a breathless rush.
It had all started a fortnight before, when Lord Rothslanyn’s son and daughter had stopped by during a ride and silver hair combs the latter had left in her saddlebag had gone missing. Both Ruscroft stablemen had become suspects, and young Ollie had come forward to bear witness against Ruffe. The damning evidence had been found in Ruffe’s own quarters—one of the missing items, stashed in his straw tick. The grizzled old stableman continued to protest his innocence. Ruffe had been with the family for years and doted on all the Ruscroft children like some indulgent uncle. None of them could believe his guilt.
“No one believed you out of hand because you had…no…proof,” Mother said.
“But Ruffe could lose a hand, or worse.” In the dim candlelight, Tomer’s face appeared to turn a few shades whiter at the very thought.
Ryn looked his mother in the eye. “Who do you believe?”
“I believe your father will see that the truth comes out.” She applied the rolled parchment as a shepherd would a crook to herd her boys from the cellar. “We won’t say more about this, or plan any more jail breaks—is that clear?” When she had grudging “yes, ma” from them both, she wrapped her arms around their shoulders and hugged them tight. “Oh, my little paladins, you’ll be the death of me yet. Now, how about some pie?”
In the end, the truth did come out and Ollie’s guilt laid bare. The young stableman could have lost a hand for thieving and his tongue for bearing false witness. An impassioned plea for leniency from none other than Ruffe left Ollie with only a year of prison instead.
Ryn never forgot how Ruffe had shown such mercy and compassion for the man who had wrongly accused him. Aegias’s highest ideals, taken to heart by a humble stableman. Nor did Ryn forget how willing Tomer had been to take the rap for both of them that day in the cold cellar.
PUKE STAIN and PUMPKIN SEED
Lise’s begging had a way of worming into the ear worse than the whine of swarming mosquitoes. “Come on, Ryn, just for a short spell.”
Ryn paused in his efforts to fork stall muckings into the barrow and considered the merits of just shoving her face into the horse manure to shut her up. Of course, that would only rouse the ire of their mother. He settled for rolling his eyes to the cobwebs of the stable’s ceiling and repeating himself for the third time. “NO.”
Briann had never been this much of an annoying brat at nine. Of course, she hadn’t been the sort to crop her own hair short, to their mother’s utter horror, and run around in trousers that she’d “borrowed” from her brothers’ closets, either.
“Father already had you slicing melons from horseback at eight,” Lise said.
Ryn thumped the tines of his pitchfork against the floorboards. “From a pony, with a small sword, and I wasn’t slicing so much as giving them a nick.”
“Come on, just one pass, and I won’t go faster than a trot—what could go wrong?”
What indeed. Lise was all scrap and bluster distilled into a twig of a thing with more brass than sense. Night Swift, on the other hand, was a battle-hardened charger who demanded a strong hand and the occasion smack to keep him in line. A mass of muscle eighteen hands high at the shoulder with a thick mane the color of ripe wheat and a hide that shimmered like black silk.
“Halfbloods aren’t like regular horses, it’s the Teishlian blood in them.” Ryn leaned over his sister and spoke in a dramatic tone, eyes bulged and teeth barred. “They say Teishlian purebloods are meat eaters. They’ll feast on their slain enemies after battle.”
Lise scoffed. “That’s just a story.”
“Is it?” Ryn pointed to the big dark eye that regarded them both in a rather predatory fashion from the shadows of the stall. “Tell that to him.”
Night Swift had been a gift for Ryn’s sixteenth birthday. Father had bought the halfblood from Lord Rothslanyn for twice what any regular heavy breed native to the Four Kingdoms would command, and only that cheaply because at nineteen summers, the stallion was considered past his prime for the tourney. Even so, the transaction still left Rothslanyn with stud rights at quite favorable terms.
“Pleeeease,” Lise said. “I promise I won’t call you Puke Stain no more.”
“So you keep saying, Pumpkin Seed.”
Ryn was likely the only lad in all the kingdom with such a mount who wasn’t some snot-nosed brat of the nobility. Of course, his father intended to rectify that soon enough, as he curried favor and greased palms with both their lord and, for good measure, their bishop, to earn title for the family. But Ryn preferred to think the princely gift simply bespoke his father’s affection and nothing more.
Lise pulled from her pocket a small apple and held it up on her palm. Night Swift stretched his thick neck over the stall’s gate and gave it a sniff, then plucked the treat up with those rubbery lips and chomped it down. He snorted and nudged her for more, almost knocking her onto her skinny rump. “See,” she said, staggering to keep her footing. “He likes me.”
Ryn growled low in his throat and put aside the fork. He might have to cut new notches to shorten his stirrups enough to match her short legs. “Just don’t make me regret this.”
Lise, being Lise, didn’t keep it to a trot. Afterward, except for a brief squeal of distress as their mother set the broken bone in her arm, no amount of pain could wipe that grin from her face.
’YOU’RE NOT A LADY, YOU’RE JUST A GIRL’
After the challenge had been met, Ryn expected his father to tear a strip from him and was surprised when he didn’t.
Kalen Ruscroft rarely resorted to blows, barehanded or otherwise. While some men who’d suffered the physical wrath of their fathers were bound to be just as violent with their own children, Kalen had vowed never to be. As Ryn had grown older and come to understand such things, thanks in no small part to what his mother told him in private, he realized how it made sense. Kalen Ruscroft had no intention of being anything like the peasant’s son who’d sired him and raised him. The fact that noblemen beat their children too was beside the point.
But Ryn’s father still had a way of cowering and belittling his children that served better than a clenched fist. It didn’t come from his size – the average height and build Ryn had inherited came from him. There was just something about the way Kalen’s posture would tense, his eyes narrow, his tone hoarsen, his every word fling with a barb attached. Only their mother could face that down and counter it.
This time, Ryn expected to bear the full brunt of his father’s ire, standing there with skinned and bloodied knuckles because he’d not thought to put his riding gloves on before getting down to business. Laying a beating on a visiting nephew of their own lord, at the very time when father worked the politics to earn the Ruscroft family its own title, couldn’t be seen as anything but disastrous. What the lout in question had done to Ryn’s sister, to Kalen Ruscroft’s own daughter, hardly mattered.
Father just stood there, regarding Ryn with lips pursed. “He’s almost eighteen, isn’t he, been training as a King’s dragoon?”
Ryn folded his hands behind his back and ignored the way his left eye continued to throb. He didn’t expect to be able to see past the swelling come nightfall. “Yes, sir.”
“Was he standing when you left?”
Despite the gravity of the situation, Ryn’s chest swelled with the pride that any self-respecting sixteen-year-old would feel. “Not with any great success.”
A generation ago, a commoner striking his better would have lost the hand, if not his life. But things had changed. It had been Tomer’s idea to make a proper challenge before witnesses, and let that lousy libertine swing first. This made it all proper and legal for Ryn to hit back, despite their difference in station.
“Good.” His father leaned in till their noses almost brushed. Ryn matched him in height now, so the gesture didn’t consume the whole of the world like it once did. Still, Ryn found it decidedly uncomfortable and fought the urge to step back. That would be a mistake—Kalen Ruscroft had little tolerance for any behavior from his sons that smacked of cowardice. “If you are going to come into my house, having done such a thing that has consequences for us all, don’t ever do it as the loser.”
Ryn swallowed under the pressure of that stare, conscious of how he could smell his father’s sweat and the hard cider on his breath. “Yes, sir.”
His father stepped back. The corner of his lip twitched with what couldn’t possibly be a smile—could it? “You’d best go have your mother tend that eye.” He turned and walked away without another word.
Briann, on the other hand, saw no reason to show their father’s restraint. Both her palms slammed Ryn in the chest and knocked him back into a chair after she’d cornered him in the kitchen. “You presumptive oaf!”
Mother had left Ryn holding a cold compress over his eye while she’d gone off to tend to a matter with a shipment of cider. His other hand held a cup of her analgesic tea that he’d somehow managed not to spill during his sister’s assault. “I think you mean ‘presumptuous.’”
Briann glared at him, crossed arms tight to her chest. “I know what I mean.”
Ryn sipped the tea—mint and honey did little to smother its bitterness. “You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Welcome…welcome?” Tears brimmed in Briann’s eyes. “Gods’ Grace, you’ve gone and ruined everything!” She flounced down beside him on a sack of flour that was propped against the wall. “No one decent will ever come calling on me now.”
Ryn just stared at her with his good eye, trying to fathom if the blow hadn’t jostled something loose in his brain, or if her whole response to the situation wasn’t supposed to make sense to anyone unaccustomed to wearing skirts. “You’re barely thirteen.”
“Most girls round here are betrothed by your age—how do you think that happens if they’re not courted beforehand?”
Ryn hadn’t thought about it that way, despite the fact his father had been nudging him plenty in recent months to take a more active role on the opposite side of that equation. As much as a bit of behind-the-barn frolicking and flirting got his blood racing, the prospect of betrothal and marriage made him itch in a whole different way—like a spooked horse desperate to bolt.
But this was his little sister—the quiet one, who liked to read books, even if they were romances and not proper ones about history and such. “The bastard had his hand on your thigh, and it wasn’t content to stay there.”
“But it got no further did it? And I didn’t need Big Brother charging to my rescue.” Briann sniffed and flicked a stray wisp of auburn hair from her temple. Her spine straightened with sudden poise. “A proper lady knows how to manage such things.”
“You’re not a lady, you’re just a girl.” Ryn realized how poorly that sounded as soon as he said it, without needing the cue of Briann’s white-faced expression of shock. “What I mean is, no lady, or you, should be having to manage it.” Her brow furrowed in confusion. He couldn’t decide if that had sounded any better, either. “Damned be it—no one who still cares to be dress-making for her dolls should be having to worry about some loose-handed libertine five years her senior!”
There, that sounded about right, even if the effort to craft it had left his head aching. He forced down another swallow of this wretched tea and wished for ice instead of just a damp rag.
Briann drew a measured breath and placed her hand on his forearm. “Just promise me you won’t be calling out for fisticuffs every fellow who happens to give me a look.”
“I promise—not every one,” Ryn said, with all earnestness. “Tomer can handle some of them.”
In the end, to mend fences and cool the ire of that smarting libertine and his trouble-seeking friends, Ryn had to give up Night Swift as a gesture. He could have refused, but as much as he’d come to love that crusty old horse, Ryn preferred not having to look over his shoulder every time he stepped off the Ruscroft estate. Regardless of what the law might say, a grudge left to fester could still lead to a knife in the back.
On the other hand, that libertine did keep polite and decent to a fault for the remaining month of his visit.