Chapter Seventeen

The sun's rays were reflected sharply back off of Raoul's shield, and Kel turned her eyes away. She looked back just in time to be treated to the sight of an armoured Joren flying through the air and landing with a hollow thud on the far side of the arena, his helmeted head smashing soundly off of the wooden fence. Joren stretched a weary hand to remove his helmet, and as Kel saw the expression on his face, she couldn't help but smile slightly – his mouth was set in a thin line, and he had a respectful, yet murderous look in his eyes. Kel couldn't blame him though, after having gone three rounds with Raoul even the most seasoned knights would have thrown their hands – if they could still move their arms – in the air and resigned from the match. As his squire, Joren didn't have that luxury, but Kel didn't think he would have taken it – he was inordinately stubborn.

"Still masquerading as a fighter, Lump?" a cold and cultured voice asked from behind her.

Kel turned, and saw Garvey sitting atop his mount, his brow wrinkled and nose turned up as he sneered disdainfully at her. She smiled to herself, and bowed to his knightmaster as he approached. She saw Garvey make a rude gesture in her direction, and followed his gaze to where Joren stood, watching the two of them.

"I would have thought by now that you would have shown her that fighting is a man's job and not one for a slut like her," Garvey commented to him.

To Kel's surprise – and presumably Garvey's – Joren just shrugged and turned back to Raoul. Kel saw Garvey's jaw and fists tighten at this, and he jumped from his horse and over the fence in one movement.

"Has she got you as well?" Garvey demanded almost angrily.

Joren sighed. "I have to work with her, Runnerspring, and it's not wise to make enemies of someone that I'll probably rely on to save my life one day – and I'd be an even bigger fool to do that under the eye of such a progressive as my Lord. Out of my way, I've got another few rounds to go yet." He pulled his helmet onto his head and swung into the saddle, leaving Garvey standing staring at the spot where Joren had stood. Garvey looked like he was about to spit in disgust, but he caught the watchful eye of his knightmaster and instead settled for an aggravated glare which turned to loathing when he looked at Kel.

"You've no right to fight among men – your squabbles should be limited to verbal arguments with your servants," he muttered to her as he vaulted smoothly over the fence and led his horse away to a different tilting area.

"Trouble?" Dom inquired as he walked up behind her.

She shook her head as Joren went flying again. "Not really."

"You could have fooled me," Dom replied with a slight grin on his face. He watched with something akin to admiration as Joren managed to avoid flying across the arena again. "He's a pretty good jouster," Dom commented as the pair squared the horses up for another run.

Kel nodded. "I suppose he is."

They stood, leaning on the fence, in companionable silence and watched as Joren was battered time and again, until Raoul called an end to the tilting.

"Well," Kel said to Dom, "that provided some amusement, but I'm off to find your cousin." She started to walk away, but a slightly feeble and hoarse call of her name caused her to turn around. She looked questioningly at Dom, who nodded to Joren.

"Mindelan, could you…could you take my horse to the stable please?" he asked hesitantly.

About to scoff in his face and walk off, Kel saw Dom's reproachful gaze and she sighed then nodded. "Sure."

The water felt gloriously cool against her chapped face and she resisted the urge to throw herself into the oasis and drink from it. There was a loud bellow followed by a splash, and Kel looked up quickly enough to see Lerant splutter as he surfaced in the pool. Standing on the edge, Dom and Zakit were laughing and Raoul stood a few metres away, watching their antics with the air of a father resigned to having his room messed up with his child's toys and drawings.

"Oh Mithros," Kel said to herself, shaking her head in amusement. "Did he fall or was he pushed?"

"He fell," a voice said from beside her, and Kel turned around with a start. She hadn't thought anyone was near enough to hear her talking to herself. It was Joren.

"How in the name of the Goddess did he manage that?" she asked with a smile, and then regretted it. This was Joren, he'd only use his answer as an opportunity to insult Lerant in some way, or if he was feeling clever enough, he'd insult her too.

"Well, Mindelan, you ought to bear in mind this is Eldorne we're talking about. He's a gift for managing things like this," he replied as he bent down to wash his face.

Kel paused for a moment, trying to find the hidden barb in there or a nasty jibe and finding none, she responded with, "True. A bit like the time that he forgot to look where was going and fell into the river at Queensview?"

Joren half smiled, and half smirked at the memory, and nodded. "Exactly like that time…" he hesitated and then continued, "Only, I think last time was funnier."

Kel chuckled. "Well, his face was quite a sight when he came out covered in river plants!"

Joren nodded. "And, you can't deny it, you'd quite like to be in that pool. It's hot enough for all of us to wish that we were in Lerant's shoes. He ought to enjoy it, I think it's the only time that it'll ever happen!" With that comment, he walked off to stand with Aiden, leaving Kel behind, staring at where he had been standing and wondering what trick he was setting her up for this time.

"Not good enough again Mindelan," Joren told her almost condescendingly as he placed her king in check-mate with a mere pawn.

Kel cursed for letting herself be beaten again, although she had to admit Joren appeared to have a flair for tactical and strategic games like chess. Perhaps that was what Lord Raoul had seen in him and was the reason that the commander had selected the blond-haired boy to be his squire. Riding with the Own gave Joren a unique chance to develop tactics and strategy with Raoul – one of the realm's leading commanders and tacticians – guiding him.

"How goes the game, Stonemountain?" Zahir asked as he walked into the tent.

The Own were staying in the desert, recruiting new fighters to train up to replace the ones they had lost over the past year, and were staying with Zahir's tribe before moving on next week. Zahir was staying the year out with his own tribe with his knightmaster, Sir Gerhart of Levin. Levin was an academic knight who was doing a study of the different dialects among the Bazhir tribes – which was the reason he had taken Zahir as his squire.

Kel was surprised to see that Zahir and Joren showed no signs of the friendship she had seen in the year she spent at the palace. They were civil to one another – and surprisingly, they were both civil to her. She'd half expected a torrent of rude words and tricks from Joren now that he was back with one of his old cohorts, but as yet, it hadn't happened.

"I won again," Joren informed Zahir with a slightly patronising smile in Kel's direction.

Zahir looked at Kel in askance as he gestured to the board. He was challenging her to a match.

Kel smiled ruefully and replied, "Thanks, but I think I'll decline. I've beaten enough for today." As she said it, Joren held up three fingers – the number of times he had beaten her.

With a grin and a nod, Zahir sat down in the chair that Kel had just vacated and began to reset the board. "Looks like I'll just have to beat you, Stonemountain."

As Joren and Zahir played, they talked and included Kel in their conversations.

"Oh, and his face, that was just priceless!" Joren said of the occasion when Neal had forgot to look where he was walking and had slipped on a wet floor, slid head first into a bucket of water, soaked himself through and continued sliding down the hallway until he came to an eventual stop at the feet of King Jonathan – much to his utter dismay, King Jon's amusement and to the entertainment of the pages.

Kel felt uncomfortable to be laughing at her best friend's misfortune, but she did have agree with Joren – Neal's face when he saw King Jonathan was priceless. And his stammered apology which was followed by the monarch's stony silence and icy nod only made it all the more amusing. One of the older pages had reported seeing King Jonathan with his Prime minister laughing uproariously a few corridors away. Neal was the only one of the pages who maintained that the two events were entirely unconnected.

Just as Joren was about to recount yet another of the more amusing stories from the palace – doubtless as Neal's expense – the tent flap opened to admit Lerant and Dom.

"If you're all quite finished being anti-social," Dom started.

Joren glared at him, and Lerant sniggered. Lerant had a theory that he had shared with Kel last night in a voice deliberately pitched to just reach Joren's ears. The blond haired squire was staying in the tent and away from most people for two reasons: one was that there were no women that interested him and nobody that was interested in his showing off [a theory that Kel thought a little cruel and secondly, he was afraid of getting sunburnt!

Dom ignored the glares and continued, "There are some horse races between us and the Bazhir. You coming?"

Kel rose to join them, and so did Zahir. Joren, however, remained seated.

"Come on then, let's go – the races will start soon," Lerant urged, being all too happy to leave Joren behind.

"You coming Stonemountain?" Dom enquired, and Joren shook his head.

Zahir smiled. "He's just afraid that I'll beat him." His voice made it clear that the statement was meant more as a jibe to get Joren to join in, rather than as a boast of his – Zahir's – own skills.

Joren shook his head vehemently. "I could beat you anytime I choose. I simply don't feel like racing today."

"Uh huh," Zahir replied with a disbelieving tone. "Sure you could!"

Kel didn't believe that Joren would fall for something so blatantly obvious as that, but either he did, or he actually felt like racing and just didn't want to admit to changing his mind. "I'll prove it to you then," he said as he stood.

He won.

That didn't surprise Kel, what did surprise her was the way he took the congratulations upon his victory. He didn't gloat, and what surprised her even more was that he didn't insult her or make a lot of the fact he had beaten her.

Zahir walked over to where she was standing watching some of the younger men challenge Joren to an archery match.

"He's a different person." Zahir commented. "When we were pages, he never would have talked to a Bazhir who was anything less than a headman."

Kel looked questioningly at Zahir. "And yet he talked to you?"

"I'm a headman's son. I suppose that's good enough for Joren. And you, I haven't heard him say a bad word about you all week!"

Kel just stared at Zahir, one eyebrow raised.

"Admittedly I haven't heard a good word either, but a few years ago he would have spent every spare minute slandering you."

"I don't think that he's had a change of heart," Kel said with a smile. "I think it's far more likely that he's realised that being rude to me is no way to keep in the commander's good graces."

"Whatever it is, it's chanced him for the better, and that can't be a bad thing, can it?"

"Depends on how you look at it," a voice said from behind them. Turning, Kel saw Raoul and he continued, "An outward chance in his behaviour is good for now, but what good is it in the long run unless he changes the way he thinks about those around him?"

"Why, my Lord?" Zahir asked. "Surely if the end result of the good behaviour is the same, it doesn't matter?"

Raoul smiled at Zahir. "It matters a great deal squire. Has Levin taught you nothing? The Chamber sorts those who will hinder the realm from those who will help it. I doubt Joren's current attitude would be considered helpful."

"So why did you take him on if you think he will fail?" Kel asked bluntly. Why he had chosen Joren of all the possible squires was a question that had always puzzled Kel.

"Call it instinct," Raoul replied and turned and walked away.

"Well that's certainly food for thought," Zahir said slowly as if still thinking over what Raoul had said.

Kel nodded in agreement, although she doubted that Raoul's words meant as much to her as they did to Zahir. After all, she no longer had to face the Chamber, but Zahir did.

"I just don't see why we have to run around looking after them! Surely they're not so incompetent that they can't do this sort of thing themselves?"

'This sort of thing' was hunting. The Third Company, along with the Commander and his squire were back at Haresfield helping out the village again. Raoul had divided up his men into groups. Some groups were chopping wood, some were fishing, and the group that Kel was in [separated from Lerant because he was much better at fishing were hunting.

They'd started hunting deer after lunch, and now it was dusk they were waiting for the rabbits to appear so that they could hunt those. And unfortunately for all concerned Joren had spent his free time obnoxiously airing his views on helping those less fortunate than himself. As Kel and the rest of the hunting group had found out, Joren didn't believe in helping anyone unless there was something in it for him. He was in a thoroughly objectionable mood today, and all those around him just wished that he would snap out of it.

Kel breathed in sharply as she felt a sudden jab in her ribs. She turned around, a glare on her face ready for whoever had poked her. It was Dom.

"What's gotten into him today?" he hissed nodding his head towards Joren. "I thought he'd turned nice!"

Kel shook her head. "He's obviously changed back!"

"Actually," another voice said. "I think he's just a tad grumpy from missed sleep." It was Raoul who was speaking, keeping one eye on Joren to check his squire couldn't hear him. "Some of the lads from Aiden's squad decided to settle a few old scores with some practical jokes last night. He was up until the early hours of the morning picking thorns out of his sleeping roll and his night clothes. And then he – and those around him which unfortunately included me – were woken an hour or so before dawn."

"How?" Dom dared to ask.

"Joren woke from the cold water that fell onto him, and the rest of us from his yells and from the laughter of the perpetrators!"

Kel tried not to laugh at the mental image of a soaked through Joren a few hours before dawn.

Dom grinned and he looked in Joren's direction with a Machiavellian glint in his eye. "I believe I may just go and talk to our friend over there!" He sauntered over to where Joren stood. Dom had his hands in his pockets and was whistling under his breath – a picture of perfect innocence. Most of Dom's squad would have run a mile at that look, but Joren obviously didn't know the mischief that usually followed that entirely innocent look.

But thankfully for Joren, he was spared his merciless fate by the soft call of "Rabbits!"

The soft light of dawn which spread over the camp and brought some of the smaller animals out of their shelter signalled the end of Kel's watch. She let out a yawn and stretched, then looked around the Third Company's campsite for signs of life. There were none. After having brought in enough meat in yesterday's hunt to last the village the winter, the village council decided to throw the Third Company a party. And this party had a lot of ale. The only people not drinking by Kel's estimation were those taking one of the night watches and Raoul. Joren had been seen by Lerant with ale in his hands, but no one could see any evidence of effects of him having drunk too much.

Kel smiled slightly; it was foolish of her to have even thought that there would possibly be movement when the likelihood was that most of the Third didn't even consider crawling into their tents until a few hours ago. She looked around again for Aiden, who was meant to be taking the watch after her. He was no where to be seen, so she headed for the large healing tent where Aiden usually slept. There were no patients in the healing tent, so Kel strode over to the small compartment that was Aiden's.

"Aiden?" she called through the closed tent flap. "Aiden? You're on watch duty now?"

There was no reply, so Kel opened the tent flap and slipped through. Aiden was sprawled, fully clothed on top of his blankets. This surprised Kel. Aiden was never one for drinking to excess – and when she had left the party, he'd been drinking juice, not ale.

"He was up late looking after some of the townsfolk who drank a little too much and fell off of or over things," a quiet voice said from behind her. "Leave him be, I'll take the watch."

Kel turned and smiled at Lerant. "But you've already done a shift today." Lerant had been on the same watch shift as she had been, only he had been guarding the north side of the camp and she had been stationed at the south.

Lerant shrugged. "And? I'm more than capable of doing another shift." He put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a gently shove out of the tent. "Besides," he said a little quieter and with an expression on his face that Kel couldn't quite place. "I still owe him for when he saved my life. It's the least I can do."

Kel smiled at this. It was so typical of Lerant – he felt like everything had to paid back. He could never just accept anything for free. If someone did him a favour, he was forever looking for ways to repay that favour, and didn't rest easy until he felt that he was on an equal footing with the person who had done him the favour.

Grinning slightly, she replied, "Alright then, be a madman and take an extra shift."

Lerant nodded. "I shall be."

They walked in silence to where the south guard usually was placed and where Kel had left her things. Lerant settled down on a rock, and looked out across the lake. Looking at him, Kel saw he had a thoughtful, almost pensive look upon his face, and she collected her belongings together quietly so as not to disturb him. As she picked up her flask and put it in her bag, he caught her arm and she turned to look at him. There was an almost pleading look in his eyes.

"Stay?" he asked, and then almost as an afterthought added, "Please?"

Trying to keep the curiosity out of her eyes, Kel dropped her bag to the floor and leapt nimbly onto the rock so she was sitting beside him. In her mind, she ran over all of the possible reasons he could have for asking her to stay, and promptly discarded them all.

"Kel," he said, but his tone of voice made it sound like a question. She looked quickly at him in interest and then returned her gaze to the lake and the early dawn light which reflected off of the water. Bulrushes rustled as a duck slid into the water and on the far side of the lake, a small cat could be seen weaving in and out of the long grass. "You are being careful, aren't you?" Lerant asked.

With one eyebrow raised, she replied "Careful? About what?" He hardly meant the…obvious connotations that came with the word 'careful'.

"Stone Mountain."

"What about Joren?" was her suspicious reply.

"He hates you!"

Kel blinked. Lerant's reply was vehement and the way in which he spat it out made it sound as if it had been painful to say. With no idea as to what her reply should be, she opted to stay silent.

"However he is acting, it's all just…just an act!" Lerant gestured energetically – too energetically for the time of the morning – and his eyes pleaded with her to believe him. "Just don't trust him, please. No matter how he behaves, he's still the same old Stone Mountain that we all hate. And he hates you most of all. You seem to represent everything that he hates. Don't get too friendly with him. He's not worth it – at all."

"What brought this on?" Kel asked in confusion.

"Just be careful, please?" Lerant begged, and all Kel could do was nod. He smiled slightly and made shooing motions with his hands, saying "Now go and get some breakfast!"

She could feel his eyes on her as she chased the little girl around in a circle. The black-haired child laughed as she tripped over a large stick and ended up sprawled on her front on the grass. As Kel stopped her chasing to allow the child to get back up, the girl picked up the stick and, holding it in both hands, tried to swing it at Kel.

Kel laughed as she easily ducked the swing. "Not quite like that."

Small, dark eyes looked inquisitively at her and held out the stick.

"You want me to show you how?" Kel guessed, and was rewarded with wide eyes and a nod. "Well then, you want to hold it like this." She positioned her hands evenly on the stick, her right above her left and held it at a slight angle. "You try?" she asked, passing another large stick to the girl. Kel watched as, after several attempts, the child placed her hands on the stick exactly as Kel had and she gripped so hard her knuckles turned white. "No," Kel said gently. "Don't grip quite as hard." At this, the child's grip relaxed considerably. Kel smiled. "Good. Now, swing like this," she instructed, demonstrating and being careful not to hit the child. As the child repeated her movements precisely, Kel was aware of him shifting position slightly and he now stood leaning against a tree, his arms in his pocket and hair tucked behind his ears. She smiled as the girl put a little too much effort into a swing and almost toppled over. "Now, when I try to hit you, you put your stick in the way to stop me. Understand?" Wide eyes looked up at her and the girl nodded slowly. "Good." Kel moved her stick up so that it was at chest height for the child and moved it forwards gradually, giving her plenty of time to block the stick. The girl looked at the stick as it approached and slowly raised hers to prevent Kel from getting too near, but she had her hands position unequally, and even Kel's gentle force caused the stick to fall from the girl's hands. The stick was picked up, the instructions repeated and again, the stick was dropped, but this time because the girl seemed to shy away from Kel's impromptu weapon. Sighing, Kel turned to look at the figure watching them with what looked like disinterest. "Care to help?" she asked.

"You needn't make it sound like asking for help is so painful," Joren replied as he picked up the child's stick.

Kel rolled her eyes at him, then turned to the child. "You watch, and then we'll try again. Yes?"

The child nodded, regarding Joren with a look of curiosity that was overshadowed by the fear that Kel could see n her eyes.

"You attack, I'll defend. And slowly so she can see what we're doing," Kel instructed.

Joren gritted his teeth – apparently he didn't like taking orders from Kel, but nonetheless, he advanced slowly in her direction, swinging his stick with style, grace and confidence. Or perhaps it's cockiness, Kel thought as she saw the slight gleam in his eyes. She recognised that gleam – one she'd seen many times in her first (and only) year as a page. It was the 'I know I'm better at this than you' gleam, but she knew that at this one thing, she was better. Perhaps Lerant had been talking more truth than she gave him credit for. Kel winced as Joren's stick smashed into hers with a force she had, perhaps foolishly, not expected. The next strike though was more restrained, and she pushed him away, causing his stick to fall to the floor.

As Joren bent down to pick the stick up and handed it to the girl, he turned to face her and said grudgingly, "Good fight, Mindelan."

Or then again, Kel thought, perhaps Lerant was wrong. "Right," she said, addressing the child. "You try again. This time, hold on to the stick. Don't flinch away."

Gently, Kel swung towards the child, and, when her stick met the child's, the stick again fell to the ground. "Try again," Kel instructed.

This time, as the two sticks met, neither fell to the floor. Kel looked up in surprise and saw Joren standing behind the child, his hands next to hers, steadying the stick. His eyes seemed to dare her to say something. She was about to open her mouth to make a pert comment when the child standing between them grinned at her. "I did it!" she shrieked, her joy at her success evident.

A/N: Well…that has to be a record. The longest break I think I've ever had…Sorry!!!!

I'm not going to promise to update soon though, because if I do, you can guarantee I won't!! But, I have started work on the next chapter, which should be easier. This chapter was more of a chapter filler and I hated writing it. Hopefully, back to plot points next chapter, instead of setting up for future possible plot points!