Caoinlin was true to her promise, as always. She spent the next week combing the libraries for any references to witches and sorcery. He could see a part of her dedication was a redirection of her energies that were not being expended during sparring with Begley. Even though Begley hounded her and insisted that she was being ridiculous, she firmly refused to practice with him anymore.
On the day that Begley was set to spar with Gus, Caoinlin crept up to the arcade above the training courtyard and hovered in the shadows. She let Fee out of his pouch, so that he could watch from atop the balustrade.
A light breeze cooled the heat of the last of the summer days. Scant drifts of clouds floated across the fierce blue sky. There was no shade in the courtyard at midday and Gus’ men were soaked in sweat from their early sparring. The courtyard was as large as the great hall, the dull yellow dirt hard-packed from centuries of warriors training upon it.
Gus was Ruairi’s champion. The best of his knights. He stood in for Ruairi on the battlefield. To defeat him was to defeat the king.
When Begley stepped into the courtyard, Gus’s shadow encompassed the boy entirely. Gus wasn’t a tall man, but his flat, wide face always seemed to look down upon any who stood before him. And to look on him was like gazing at sheer cliff and to have that cliff sneer back. Time was the only foe that would wear him down. His hair was prematurely silver. He wore it in a ragged mane down to the middle of his back, braids along his temples knotted around symbols of his victories—colored twine or thread, bits of enemy’s armor, glass beads for every man he’d killed. Every exposed part of him bulged and was scarred or branded in the style of Southern warriors. If Begley was accepted as a novice, then his forearm would be burnt with the Redthorn family crest like the others.
Watching the men assemble filled Fee with a longing he had not felt in years.
The other men stepped aside, some novices, sons of noble lords and dukes, a handful born to the skilled trades, blacksmiths, millers, artisans, most only soldiers now, the incident of their birth eclipsed by their service. All were shirtless and clothed in the same loosen linen pants.
Gus’ voice might’ve shaken the stones from their fittings. He had only one voice and it was always loud and commanding.
The audience shifted as Callan, son of a duke and undoubtedly the most skilled of the novices stepped forward. It was rumored that, had Caoinlin not been betrothed to Brogan, she would’ve been married to Callan. It would’ve been a more suitable match in that he was no coward. At seventeen, he was battle-tested and had killed five men in a tussle last fall with Gaibrial’s men. He had the stature and demeanor of a sun-god—lean muscle and sculpted features. His hair and his eyes were burnt gold with none of the malleability and all of the luster. He moved like a lion, hungry, cautious, aware of his power.
Fee stole a glance at Caoinlin to gauge her reaction as Callan stepped into the middle of the courtyard. She was as inscrutable as ever.
They had watched Callan spar many times before, he lost a bout as rarely as Caoinlin did.
Gus slapped a sword into Begley’s hand, grabbed the boy by the back of his hair and said, “Draw blood and we’ll take twice as much from you! Go to!”
He shoved Begley roughly forward.
Begley stumbled. The crowd laughed, this immediately erupted into a clamor of insults and stomping of boots which grew in volume as the bout began.
Callan did not take up a readied position, but half-circled Begley, his sword point lowered. The others hooted and hollered as Callan prowled. They hurled insults at him, about his station, his orphan status, his dead parents, but Begley had not built up an ego to be bruised. He drew his sword up and to the outside and pivoted as Callan stalked him.
Just as Callan raised his sword, Ruairi entered the yard and stood beside Gus. The King’s presence seemed to antagonize the onlookers, who let spit fly with each curse they spewed at Begley.
Callan thrust inward, toward Begley’s face and forced Begley to move his face in when he parried. Callan thrust again, in the same manner, but instead moved in to force Begley’s face to the outside and weaken his position. Begley countered, set to regain his stance, but Callan moved his leg behind Begley’s, pushed his crossbar forward, and forced Begley to the ground.
Harried, Begley scrambled again to his feet.
Fee looked again to Caoinlin. The fierceness of her expression made his throat dry. He could see her mind working, though she remained perfectly motionless. He knew she saw the mistakes Begley made as clearly as he did.
By the time Fee looked back, Begley had again been forced to the ground. The men’s derision swelled to vicious roars. Begley once more bounded to his feet. Dust matted to his hair to his damp scalp, rivulets of sweat cut fresh paths through the dirt on his back.
Calllan routed Begley again and nearly had him in winning position, but for Begley’s quick dodging, he would’ve been done.
Ruairi leaned in to Gus and said something. Gus nodded.
“He’s actually doing quite well,” Fee said.
Caoinlin said nothing.
Begley held his own for a moment, but then was locked sword to sword, to his disadvantage. Even from his heightened perspective, Fee could see the boy strain. Callan would overpower him if he didn’t break free.
Caoinlin stepped closer to the balustrade, into a sliver of sunlight, her hand balled tightly against the pillar. That unyielding shield was up in her eyes. Fee could not tell whether Begley saw her, or if anyone saw her, but a sudden silence fell over the men. Fee turned back in time to see Begley strike Callan in the back with his pommel, knocking him facedown to the ground.
The stableboy stepped upon the sun-god’s sword hand and placed the tip of his blade to Callan’s neck.
Caoinlin scooped Fee up and carried him back inside just as the onlookers erupted in cheers. Against his skin, her sweaty palms throbbed.