Written for holiday 2003: a vigil on a winter Zexen night. (Zexen Knights, post-game)
Prepair thy creddill in my spreit
And I sall rock thee in my hart
And never mair fra thee depart
Bot I sall praise thee evermoir
With sangis sweit unto thy gloir
The kneis of my hart sall I bow
And sing that rycht Balulalow
Abiding in the Field
The cart track was silver with frost when the horseman came tromping down the path to Iksay village, his mount's iron-shod hooves leaving prints like dinner plates in the frozen tufts of grass. Bells rang from his harness in the crisp twilight. It was not the dull tin clunk of a cowbell, but a bright clear jangle ringing in time with the canter of the warhorse.
Children on their way in to supper stopped and stared, firewood bundles and baskets of eggs forgotten, eyes wide on the great chestnut horse and his magnificent rider. In the whole of the village there was only one other such steed, and it was never fitted with such finery. Few horses at all passed that way, and those that did moved with either the slow plod of boredom or a gallop of alarm. The horse, as if knowing he was being watched, arched his neck all the more, tossing his mane and lifting his knees higher with each step, prancing down the cart track as if to make a parade out of himself alone. The fading light flashed on the silver horn mounted on his shaffron, and his rider sat up as well, sensing his destination near and the pint of mulled wine-- that had so entranced his imagination all those last miles-- that much nearer to hand. His cloak slid back over the warhorse's shining flank, and the last rays of midwinter sun found enough strength to pick out the gold embroidery on his heavy orange surcoat, a crescent of light flaring over his polished breastplate, turning his sword hilt into a star.
The tallest of the girls had been keenly watching the rider through strands of hair that had escaped her plaits. She made a small noise, suspicions confirmed, as the knight swept by like sunset from another season. She pressed her load of kindling on a protesting sibling before sprinting up to the third house in the village and pounding on the door.
She had long since vanished inside by the time the rider reined up in the common, breath fogging in great white plumes, horse chewing comfortably at his bit and showing no signs of his deep desire for a trough of hot mash and a good rubbing down. His rider knew, even if the steed was too trained to show it, and gave the horse's shoulder a sympathetic pat as he dismounted. "You and me both, lad." He tugged at his gauntlets and frowned at the village shuttered against the night and the season. There was some life yet further up the road, in the fogged yellow windows of the pub, but the knight's business this night was elsewhere. Warhorse trotting obediently behind him, the knight rapped his iron-shod fist on the door of the small house by the common, and waited.
There was a pause, scraping chairs and muffled voices, the crack and pop of logs on the fire. The door opened, pouring golden firelight and warmth on the chilled traveler, and throwing a man's shadow long over the trampled snow in the common. "Elsa ran up to warn me that a knight was coming up the cart track, but I thought sure she was mistaken. No knight of Zexen would stray so far from his tankard on a night such as this."
"Nor would I," the knight answered evenly, although he was nearly blue with the cold. "Save but by the command of my Lady."
"/Your/ Lady?" The peasant in the doorway raised his eyebrows, mockery in his tone. "Have you gotten too familiar, Borus, without me there to keep you on your toes?"
The knight brought up his hand and smacked a rolled parchment into the peasant's chest, not entirely forgetting his hands were armored. "Are you going to let me in, Percival, or are you going to leave me in the cold and continue to let your mother's hearth heat out into the night?"
As if hearing her cue, the lady of the house came bustling out of the kitchen, wiping her large red hands in her apron, and hissing like an angry goose. "For heaven's sake, Percy! If you're going to aggravate the daylights out of the man, do it inside!"
Percival, unrolling the letter and reading the formal message in Lord Salome's hand, stepped aside absently to let Borus in. His mother threw up her hands.
"All the manners of a sack of sulfured apples." She bobbed happily, looking around for a good chair to offer her son's high-born friend. "I've got some cider on, my lord, it will warm you up in no time. Shall I take your cloak?"
Borus protested on account of his horse, and Madam Fraulein offered the spare stall in the stable and the barrel of oats, and that his cider would be quite ready by the time he returned. His mount seen to, Borus returned inside, shaking off the cold and his cloak, shedding his gauntlets and holding up his hands to the fire to warm them.
"Sooner than I expected," Percival said, from his chair at the table, smoothing a corner of the parchment.
"You did request a year," Borus reminded him, breathing deeply in relief as he closed his fingers completely for the first time in hours. "It's been that and then some."
"It has," Percival sighed, and slouched back in his chair. "Come and have your cider, Borus, you look done in." Borus settled in the chair across the table; Percival reread his message. "Immediately," he said, tossing the parchment down. "I have head no news of unrest, even up here. Is Tinto making a mess at our borders again?"
"Hardly." Borus took a long slow pull of his cider, and looked like a man who had just been handed ten years of his life back. "Oh, merciful Goddess, that's just what I wanted." He took his time on a second long drink. Percival drummed his fingers impatiently. "Zexen's as peaceful now as it has been since the war." Borus said at last. "Not that Chris and Salome think it will stay that way indefinitely, mind you, but it certainly is a nice change of pace."
"Illuminate me, then." Percival folded his hands on the use-smooth wooden table. "Why am I being called back to service now, in the dead of midwinter and not spring, a week before Yule with no enemy at our gates?"
Borus glanced at him sidelong over the rim of his mug. "Because, my dear brother knight, there is a young man to stand his vigil this Yuletide, and he has asked specifically for you to stand with him."
Percival stared. "Surely not."
"Louis turned full fifteen this autumn, man. He's three months older than when we had ours." Borus set his empty tankard down with a clunk, and Percival's mother, who knew the sound, brought him a new one before vanishing back into the kitchen. She sensed important conversation in the air and knew better than to linger.
"It seems like it takes less time now for boys to become men." Percival grinned.
"He's shot up like a weed," Borus said. "He almost got the better of Salome with staves a fortnight ago, and he's taller than me."
"Well, that wouldn't take much." Percival cracked his knuckles. "Yuletide in the village is merry enough, but I confess my heart has turned more and more to the halls of Brass Castle as the days shortened."
"You miss the wine." Borus swirled the cider in his tankard. "What say you then, to our Lady's command?"
Percival looked out the window, deep blue with snow and darkness. In the village there were full storehouses, roofs tightly thatched against winter, burnt timbers replaced and plastered over. "I have done what I came here to do. It is long past time for me to return to my calling."
"Your sword arm has been sorely missed, even in this time of peace." Borus's lip twisted. "Most especially by that gaggle of young girls that keep dragging their feet by the front gate and sighing, asking after you every other minute. Maybe now they'll leave us be."
Percival laughed, his chair rattling on the floor as he stood. "Oh, I hope not. What then could be said about Zexen tenacity?"
Fresh snow was falling in the pale twilight of early morning when Percival rode out of Iksay, not dressed in his worn work boots and woolen tunic but in the armor that had been carefully kept in the trunk at the foot of his bed. Since he and Borus had wanted to slip quietly out of the village and get an early start, naturally the entire township had turned up to see the two knights off. That one of the six great knights of Zexen was a festival boy out of Iksay was no small matter of pride for them, and it took the better part of an hour for Percival to finish being thanked, patted, and climbed on by most of the village children. He took to it remarkably well, but Percival's horse was known for its moody turns. He was in rare form today, having given up the worn leather harness he had used for the better part of a year in exchange for harness that matched Borus's, and having to carry a fully armored knight again and not pull a plow. This was after every little boy and most of the girls in the village begged to sit up on the great warhorse, which was no different in the horse's eyes than the times they rode him home from the fields, but the knightly trappings and high saddle made every difference to the children. It might have been why the horse set such a rapid pace into the fresh snow on the cart track once her was finally given rein, cresting through the drifts like a dolphin through boat-wake. Borus's horse was in no mood to bring up the rear, and the two knights spent most of the journey through the edge of the grasslands at full gallop, the sound of their harness bells shining in the air.
Percival stopped once they were well within the borders of the Zexen forest, slogging off the path and drawing his boot-knife to cut sprigs of holly from a wayside tree, thick with berries like fat rubies.
"I thought you were in a hurry," Borus said, from the saddle.
"Time enough for this." Percival whistled through his teeth, selecting branches carefully until he had a small armful. "Tradition, you know."
Borus arched an eyebrow as Percival murmured thanks to the tree, digging a coin out of his belt and tossing it into the snow by the holly tree's roots. "I don't know why you bother to do that," Borus said. "Someone will just come along and take it."
"Then they're in more need than I am, and they can deal with grandfather holly beating them black and blue." Percival swung back into the saddle, kicking his mount into a slow walk and picking through the holly bits in the fold of his cloak. "He likes wine better than coins, but I haven't got any, and I'd as soon not irritate any forest spirits. Gold will have to do."
"Heathen," Borus said, but with more affection than heat, reaching over to steal a small twig to stick into his horse's halter. "You have been sorely missed, you know."
"Aye." Percival looked at the twist of holly in his gloves, and smiled up at the pale aspen trees of the Zexen forest. "I won't be sorry to see the walls of Brass Castle."
The light snowfall had turned thick and insistent by the time they came out of the forest, however, and the crenellated wall of Brass Castle was almost within arm's reach before they could see it clearly, torches blazing though it was not yet noon. The guards on watch snapped to attention, even if they were not able to see much more than the bright orange livery on the two warhorses as they passed into the corridor of the keep. Borus handed their mounts off to a groom and Percival sighed, as if the smells of cold snow-wet stone, pitch from torches, and mulling wine could not be bested by any other welcome in the whole of Zexen.
"Good to be back, eh?" Borus asked.
"Feels like a thousand years." Percival watched their mounts being led away. "Let's go up and see if the others are in the war room. There's an old wager I want to bring up with Leo."
"You're not supposed to have wagers," Borus said, following him. They had just made it to the niche of the stairwell when Percival heard his name called, a clatter of footsteps, and found his arm clasped by a young man with fair hair and a considerable grip.
"You're here already! Lord Leo and Lord Roland said you wouldn't make it back before dark, but I knew you would get here before then. Lord Borus wouldn't stay away from his hearth any longer than he had to."
Percival blinked. "Louis?" They were of a height, if one was being generous, if not one might say Louis was an inch taller. "Sweet Sadie, lad, I might need that arm later."
Louis released him, apologizing. "Sorry about that, it's just that I thought the weather might keep you."
Percival shook his head, trying to remember now what Louis's voice had sounded like before, when it had come from an area somewhere around Percival's shoulder. "What in the name of the Goddess have they been putting in your food?"
Louis laughed and Percival recognized him at last, the boy he had left behind not so long ago. "Lord Salome asks me the same thing." His smile was a bit nervous, he seemed to be shivering for reasons other than the draft from the passage. "Did Lord Borus tell you my message?"
"I don't know," Percival said, hand to his face to cover the grin. "Borus, was there a message for me?"
"Don't torture the boy, Percival." Borus was mostly interested in stomping snow off his boots. "He'll be in your ranks soon enough and you can do it all you want then."
"Will you?" Louis asked, hands curled tightly at his sides. "Stand vigil with me, I mean, not torture me. Borus already agreed, but there should be two to stand with me."
Percival unhooked the wreath of holly from his belt, placing it lightly in Louis's hands. "Aye, lad. I will."
"Good!" Leo's voice boomed on the old stone walls of the passage as the walkway cleared, servants and soldiers eager to get out of the way of his massive chestnut stallion. "Because otherwise, I'd have to put up with it, and the very notion bores me stiff."
"Nice to see you again, too," Percival said. His eyes followed the pole mounted on Leo and Roland's shoulders, and the massive golden boar trussed to it. "Good of you to bring dinner."
"We had very little to do with it," Roland answered, as if he didn't particularly want to be associated with such a barbaric custom in the first place. "It was our Lady who brought down the boar."
"You're early." Chris's white destrier was delicate next to the mounts of her knights, her armor skirts swirling as she dismounted, spurs ringing on stone. "I was certain you and Borus would try to out drink each other, and wind up sleeping until noon." Her voice was disinterested as she tossed the reins to a groom waiting to take the knights' horses, but her eyes were warm as she held out her hand to her long-absent knight.
Percival bowed, touching Chris's gauntlet to his forehead. "I have been gone too long indeed, if my Lady could have such a poor opinion of me." Leo, out of Chris's sight, rolled his eyes, and if Roland looked any drier, he might have spontaneously mummified.
Chris arched one white eyebrow. "Eloquent, as ever." The corners of her mouth twitched. "But don't for a minute expect me to say I missed it."
"I wouldn't dream of it, my Lady." Percival rose, and looked around. "We are short one of our number. Where is Salome?"
Leo made a disgusted noise in his throat, but it was Louis who answered. "The Council called him to Vinay del Zexay only this morning, Lord Percival."
"On Yuletide eve?" Percival shook his spiky dark head. "Isn't that rich. I'm surprised they were willing to give up a day off just to bother us."
"Apparently there is no entertainment as fine as our inconvenience." Roland shrugged, making the boar bounce on its pole. "Salome will make them wish they hadn't, I'm sure. And he in no way will fail to be here by tomorrow supper, at the latest, or I'm no elf."
"As if we ever had cause to doubt that," Percival said.
Roland sniffed. "Isn't it about time for Louis to prepare for his vigil?"
"Even if it's not, we'd best get this gentleman to the cellar." Leo nodded at the boar. "I'm not a weakling, mind, but he's no ballerina, either."
"I trust you gentlemen can handle delivery of tomorrow's feast." Chris turned her smile on Louis, who turned pink under it as if it was the summer sun. "I'd like to have words with this young man before tradition monopolizes him all night."
"While I'm not opposed to the general idea," Percival said, doing the buttons up on the long cuff of his best tunic, "I almost wish a vigil was an all day sort of thing, as opposed to an all night one. The chapel is going to be twice as cold as the night we had ours."
"Could be worse." Borus said, from the chair by the fire. He had been ready quite some time before, but Percival had been obligated to go trawling through the storage room looking for the trunk with his clothes in it. "You could be wearing nothing but your initiate's robe, and not those nice velvet togs."
"Brr." Percival smoothed his tunic. "Remind me to smuggle in a cushion for Louis's knees. An entire night spent kneeling on cold flagstones never got anyone blessed with anything short of ague."
"I think they made the pillow part of the tradition," Borus said. "Since you spent the entire month after your induction in bed with a drippy nose."
"My contribution to the cause of squires everywhere." Percival swept his hair back and shrugged into his cloak. "Are you ready?"
"As I'll ever be." Borus left his chair with a regretful noise. "Although the only thought that got me through my own vigil was the fact that I wouldn't have to do it again."
"You could always have told Louis no."
Borus's cape snapped as he snatched it from the back of the chair. "And let you have all the fun?" He shook his head. "Not on your life, man."
The halls of Brass Castle were dripping with evergreen boughs and lit with red tapers for watch night; a myriad tempting smells wafted from the kitchens, already in full swing for the next day's feast. Borus and Percival's bootsteps rang down the corridor to the courtyard, most of the soldiers and servants were far too busy with their preparations to give the two knights more than a breathless nod as they tended to their work. Tomorrow would be a day of celebration and rest, but there was tremendous work to be done beforehand. All that was missing was Salome to direct the traffic.
At the small, brass-strapped door leading to the courtyard Louis was waiting for them, watching the bustle around him and looking like he would much rather be running errands as he had every year before than to be waiting for his vigil. He was wearing an initiate's white robe with the colors of Zexen worked into the border, and the holly wreath Percival had woven rested lightly on his hair. Chris stood by him, her hand lifting in greeting as she saw Borus and Percival sidestepping a large fir tree making its way to the feast hall, the knights carrying it lost in the mass of branches.
"There you are at last. How long does it take you to do your hair, Percival?" Chris ignored Percival's protest, and reached over to squeeze Louis's shoulder. "Come on, Louis. It's your vigil, not your funeral. Try to buck up a bit, right?"
Louis's smile was wobbly. "Yes, ma'am."
Chris squared her heels, nodding crisply to her men. "He's in your charge now, gentlemen. Do be good lads and go to the chapel, and not a pub."
"Nothing to be nervous about," Percival said. "All you have to do is kneel. And if you fall asleep, one of us will kick you."
Chris rolled her eyes. "Don't ruin him before I get him properly enlisted, Percival. I'll see you gentlemen in the morning." She paused, as if she would say something more to Louis, then turned crisply on her heel and strode down the hall, the crowd breaking against her like a wave against rock. Louis watched her go, his lips tight, and started when Borus pulled the door open, letting in an icy draught of air from the courtyard.
"Come on, then."
Louis took a deep breath and followed them.
The courtyard was blue-white with new snow and moonlight, sparkling under an endless clear sky. The path to the small knight's chapel was lit with candles in copper bowls, glowing cheerfully as if in small imitation of the lit windows of the castle. The knights' cloaks and the hem of Louis's robe made serpent-like trails in the snow, winding along their footprints to the door of the chapel.
The Knights' Chapel was not much, certainly not in comparison to the great cathedral in Vinay del Zexay, being smaller and darker, with narrower windows. It had been hung with pine branches as well, but it was small and chilly compared to the castle. Torches lit the walls, and beyond the small puddles of light Louis could see the effigies of Knights long gone. Tucked into the corner to his right the torchlight picked out the serene marble features of Sir Myriam, and even though the tomb was lost in shadow, Louis knew the reclining shape next to him was Sir Lanchet's resting place. On the altar lay branches of holly and pine, filling the air with the smell of evergreen. To the left of the altar was a stand with a sleek steel breastplate, to the right was a pair of mitten gauntlets and gilded spurs. On the steps of the altar was a white fur rug, and a brocade pillow.
"You needn't memorize it now, you know," Borus said, as Louis realized he'd been standing in the narrow aisle and staring. "You'll be looking at it longer than you want to be, I'm sure."
"I'm sorry," Louis said, sheepish. "I've never done this before. What am I supposed to do?"
Percival had turned somber, and expression that looked rather alarming on him, compared to his usual sleepy-eyed smile. "You go to the altar and kneel, in prayer. This night is for you to present yourself to the Goddess, and swear yourself as a knight in her service. When She accepts you--" Louis knew better than to interrupt, but something of his alarm showed on his face, because Percival continued, "--don't worry about that, lad-- the first part of the vigil is over. The rest of the vigil, until sunrise, is spent in meditating on your past life and preparing yourself for the one ahead."
"And then we get to go to the feast, and I'll be damned if I don't fill your first cup myself, Louis." Borus gestured to the aisle which, in spite of the small dimensions of the chapel, seemed awfully long to Louis. "After you."
Louis took a deep breath, and his first step. It was somehow easier after that. Far away, in the castle, bells were ringing the change of the watch. Louis sank to his knees, and waited.
He did not know how many hours it was later when Percival touched his shoulder. He had not been asleep, kneeling there and staring up at the statue of the Goddess in her armor and aspect of the Lady of Victory, but it had been something very much like it. If pressed, he might have said he was dreaming, eyes wide open.
"You can stand up, for a bit," Percival whispered. "It's not good to kneel the whole time; you aren't really expected to."
Louis nodded, pushing himself up from the floor and falling instantly back down as needles of sensation shot down his legs. Percival caught him, laughing under his breath. "Here, I've already waited too long to make you move, but I didn't want to disturb you."
"Why are we whispering?" Louis asked, hanging on Percival's arm and mincing from foot to foot in an attempt to get his circulation back.
Percival nodded to the first pew. "I don't want to wake Borus," he said.
Borus sat in the pew, his head cushioned on the high curved back, snoring gently.
"Poor Borus. In the saddle nonstop for two days, and then having to wait up all night for me." Louis pushed himself away gently and managed to stand on his own, stretching. "I tried to tell him he should rest instead, but he wouldn't hear of it."
"It is an honor to be chosen to stand vigil," Percival said. "When he wakes up I'll pretend he only drifted off for a moment. It will be better for his pride." He turned back to Louis. "It is well past midnight, did you know? Into the second half."
Louis blinked. "But the goddess hasn't said anything to me, yet."
Percival arched an eyebrow. "Hasn't she?"
"No, sir." Louis said. "I think I fell asleep by accident. I dreamed that the statue was--" Louis stammered, going pink.
"What, Louis?" Percival asked, gently. "It won't leave this room."
Louis struggled a bit with his words. "It-- it was Lady Chris, sir. And I was talking to her, like I had been talking to her just this afternoon. When she told me how grateful she was for all I'd done, and how she was proud to see my vigil night come, but she was going to miss me, as well."
"I think I'm a bit jealous," Percival admitted. "I never had near so good a speech from my old master. Go on."
Louis tucked his hands in his armpits. It had gotten colder in the chapel; their breath was fogging. "Well, then, sir. I asked her the same thing I had this afternoon: if she thought everyone had a moment in their lives that was more important than any other, a time when they had done what they we put into the world to do. When I asked her that this afternoon, she said she didn't know; she supposed it was true, but we would never know what our most important moment was until we were gone from the world, that there might always be something else we were meant to do."
"And what you dreamed was different?"
Louis said, "Yes. Well, mostly. In the dream I asked her if the last war was the most significant thing I would ever be a part of, if there was any reason for me to really be a knight after the most important battle of my lifetime was already over."
Percival was quiet a long moment. "And did she answer you?"
Louis glanced back up at the marble statue, but she was made only of stone and silence, staring fixedly into some distance that neither knight nor squire could see. "She did. She held up her hand-- the one with the True Water rune on it-- and she said the most important battle of my lifetime was my lifetime. There was light, like when Lady Chris used her rune in battle, and the rain would take away our wounds. I wasn't tired anymore. Then I sort of woke up, I think, and then you spoke to me." Louis went silent. Percival said nothing, looking at him. The entire chapel seemed to be listening, as if each interred knight were waiting for Louis's next words, as if the stone could breathe and it had stopped. "Was that what you meant, sir? Before?"
"It was," Percival said. "I don't think you have anything to worry about, Louis."
Louis swallowed. "Yes, sir."
"Go on then," Percival staid, taking up his place again beside the altar. "Morning is soon, but it is not here yet."
Louis obediently went back to his pillow in front of the altar, and settled his legs into the dents worn there, his hands raised in prayer. The chapel sighed into the night wind, and in the silence was the sound of hoofbeats from the gatepost nearby, a distant halloo, and the distinct sound of Salome's laugh, weary with travel. Percival lifted his head, smiling, to the narrow windows, dusted halfway with frost. The clear glass was not so fine as the patterns of gold and red in the Grand Cathedral, but through them Percival could see a star, shining like the light of a new day. He closed his eyes, and waited for morning.