Sorry for the long delay in updating. I had a semi-crisis and rewrote parts of this chapter several times and with several different scenarios. (As well as traveling around Australia and then dealing with a crazy semester). Your patience is greatly appreciated. Thanks for all the reviews over the past months and even those readers who didn't review but still let me know they were reading by adding my story to their favorites list. I hope you enjoy the new chapter. FyreDragon
Dom looked across the campfire at Kel with her faithful dog curled up at her feet. He supposed the sparrows had retired for the night. Dom suspected she was the one who had been putting up the Protector of the Small posters, particularly since she and his cousin had suddenly become thick as thieves holing up in her tent for several hours at a time. If he didn't know that Neal was enamored with the Yamani, Yuki, he might have been horribly jealous. As it was he was still slightly jealous that Kel had confided in Neal and that Neal got to spend hours alone with Kel. Suddenly Kel looked up and caught him staring at her.
"Did you want something, Captain?"
Making a quick decision Dom said, "Yes. Could we talk for a moment, privately?"
Kel looked at him considering. Privately? Did she want to go have a private conversation with Dom who she had been studiously avoiding being alone with since Midwinter? She discovered the answer was yes when her mouth agreed without her brain's permission.
"Sure, right now?"
Dom nodded and motioned her to follow him. He stopped in the shadow of one of the large trees surrounding the camp. Kel followed with Jump trailing behind. The previous night he had tried to see what her reaction would be if he hinted at his suspicions in front of the men but Kel had not let the mask she had learned to use in the Yamani Islands slip.
Deciding the direct approach was best Dom said casually, "So do you think you'll be able to beat him tomorrow morning?"
Kel kept her face carefully blank, "I'm sorry, who are you talking about?"
"Come off it Kel. You and my Meathead of a cousin have been holing up in your tent for hours at a time for a week now. And the timing of these long interludes seems to coincide closely with the hanging of the Protector of the Small posters."
Kel didn't answer him.
"What I'd like to know though is what set it all off. I'm pretty sure you're not crazy enough to just decide that you should attack a squire from one of the oldest noble families in Tortall just for kicks."
After a long silence Kel sighed, "He was ganging up on Lerant and he insulted Raoul, the Bazhir and every female fighter. I was going to challenge him but Lerant pointed out that I'm not noble, or at least Kyle Mindle isn't noble, so I wanted to force him to joust with me. But, Dom, every one of those posters is true. I didn't even need to look very hard. Almost every servant has had a run in with Joren's gang and some of the stories Neal could tell you about when they were pages are horrifying. And no one has ever held them responsible for any of it."
Dom didn't think he'd ever heard Kel say so much all at once. He'd read the posters but he'd never really thought about victims as individuals. They were anonymous and distant to him but it seemed that Kel had met them personally.
"It's not even about his insults anymore, Dom, it's about getting justice for those he's wronged. They have no place to turn. If the servants report it they're more likely to lose their jobs than to get justice. And…"
Dom held up his hands, "I believe you. I agree that those people deserve something. But do you really think that defeating him in a joust is it?"
"What else is there? The King has yet to change the law and there is no current People's Champion since no wants the job."
Dom thought about it for a moment, "But perhaps he should answer to someone with more authority…"
"Now you sound like Neal."
"If I take everything I know to someone in authority first off I will look like a puling tattletale and second they will want proof and I can't give them that without exposing my friends among the servants."
Dom rubbed his face with his hands. He really had no other arguments other than the fact that he didn't want her to risk her future on a joust.
"As for your first question, yes I can beat him. He's decent; you'd almost have to be if Lord Wyldon trained you. But I'm better. I've been getting personal lessons from Raoul for a year now and I've watched Joren joust. I know I can do this."
"How can I help then?"
"You're not going to argue more?"
"No. I can't come up with anymore logical reasons you shouldn't do it. But have you thought about how you're going to disguise yourself? You're going to need coverings for Peachblossom, since I assume you're riding him, or everyone who knows you will recognize your crazy horse. Do you have armor that doesn't have either your own, Raoul's or the King's Own's symbols on them?"
"Yes, yes and yes. My armor didn't have anything on it to begin with since I got it from Alanna and she bought it before we knew for sure what I would be doing. And I have half armor for Peachblossom anyway I'll just use a full body blanket. I've ridden him a couple times with it on and he doesn't seem to mind."
"I assume then that you don't mind Alanna recognizing you. What about your face?"
"A helmet, of course."
"What if it falls off?"
"You're being ridiculous. Unless he aims for my head, that's not going to be a problem."
Having run out of problems Dom changed the topic. Moving closer to her he said, "I'm glad that the reason you and Neal were getting together so much was those posters. And it's a good thing my cousin is a Meathead."
Kel looked at him in puzzlement.
"See if I had been alone with you in your tent I would have wanted to do this," and Dom kissed her, slowly and thoroughly.
They were both breathing heavily when he finally lifted his head. Jump sat next to them looking bored.
"I don't know if I want this, Dom. I have so many plans. So many things I want to do."
Dom closed his eyes briefly, "I know and I'm kind of, although not really, one of your commanding officers. I don't want to take advantage of you."
"You're not. I am attracted to you Dom."
"Shhh. I'm not going to say we'll forget about this, because I know I'm not going to, but I won't bring it up again. But know that if or when you decide you're ready for this, I'll be waiting."
"No we're not talking about this anymore tonight. Go to bed. I'll tell everyone you weren't feeling well which will also give you an excuse to miss the joust that everyone has been anticipating anxiously for two days. Is Neal helping you with your armor in the morning?"
Kel swallowed the lump in her throat, "Yes and one of my friends who works in the stables is getting Peachblossom ready for me."
"Well then, good night Kel." He kissed her on the forehead and turned away back to the campfire.
Kel touched her forehead, "I'm so confused, Jump." Jump thumped his tail unhelpfully.
Kel shook her head. She needed to get herself ready to joust with Joren tomorrow. She would have to think about Dom and his mind fuzzing kisses later.
The morning of the joust dawned cloudy and drizzly. Kel left her tent early after feeding the gryphon to arm up in Neal's tent. She had had to tie Jump up inside her tent because there was no way to disguise him. The sparrows she'd managed to convince not to follow her to the jousting field. When she was armored she mounted Peachblossom who had been tied in the woods behind Neal's tent.
Neal looked up at her, "Are you sure?"
Kel sighed in exasperation, "Yes!"
She rode around the perimeter of the camp to arrive at the jousting field to avoid anyone seeing her. However, when she reached the field she realized she probably needn't have bothered since it appeared that every noble, servant and peasant on the Progress and from the surrounding area was squeezing in the stands. Even the King and Queen had decided to watch.
The tournament clerk knew who she was and waved her onto the field. Kel saw with considerable satisfaction that Joren was indeed on the other side.
Since she was already armed and mounted Kel settled in to wait for her opponent. She eyed his shield and his horse. The horse was dark, deep chested and seemed of good stock but as he stood fidgeting and restless Kel thought he was a relatively young horse. Peachblossom stood steady and calm beneath her. Perhaps she could use that to her advantage.
She saw Joren sneer when he finally noticed her. His notice drew the attention of the crowds whose voices rose to an even great pitch.
Finally Joren was ready. Trumpets announced the beginning of the match and the stands grew quiet. Kel accepted the lance one of the attendants handed her.
"Nobles," announced the herald, "You will have three tries to knock your opponent from their saddle. Abide by the Codes of Chivalry in this match."
Kel nodded. She knew that she would. She was just concerned about Joren; she wasn't sure he would recognize the Code of Chivalry if he tripped over it.
Trumpets sounded again. Kel lowered her lance and whispered to Peachblossom, "Charge."
Kel focused only on the shield in front of her. Just as in her practice sessions the target moved up and down in a rhythmic fashion as she moved closer to it. Kel matched herself to the rhythm and struck. At the same time she felt Joren's lance strike her own shield.
Compared to Raoul's the hit was feather light but it still made her shield arm tingle. As she rode back to her side she looked at the lance she held in her hand. She could see the large crack in so she handed it to the attendant. She also noticed Joren's young stallion fussing in the mud.
She knew she could hit him again in the same manner but she remembered a trick that Raoul had taught her. Kel was pretty sure she could pull it off.
Accepting a new lance Kel turned Peachblossom to face the lists again. When the trumpet sounded she again whispered, "Charge."
Raoul watched as Kel charged Joren for a second time. He had recognized her and Peachblossom almost immediately; you couldn't joust with a pair three or four times a week and not know their style intimately. Besides how many other jousters wore no spurs? He knew Peachblossom wouldn't stand for them.
Her first hit had been solid but unremarkable. He wondered what her plans were. He couldn't speculate with Alanna, sitting next to him, who he was pretty sure had also recognized the duo, because they shared the king's booth. Regardless of her strategy, though, he knew his student was better than the Squire Joren.
He quickly turned to Jon, "I'll put 5 silvers on the Protector."
Jon eyed him suspiciously, "Alright, I accept. Although, I don't know why since you obviously think you know something."
As the jousters reached each other Raoul suddenly knew what Kel was going to do. The slight lowering of her lance told him she would try to pry Joren out of the saddle. The two seemed to go into slow motion as they collided.
Raoul watched as Kel's lance caught Joren precisely as he had taught her on the lower rim of the shield and applied leverage to lift him out of the saddle. But then the boy's horse lost its footing swinging his rider around, perhaps unbalanced by the loss of his rider, and the lance which had been aimed at Kel's shield swung toward her head.
For Kel time seemed to slow as she watched the lance swing toward her head. She tried to duck it but couldn't move fast enough. The lance crashed into the side of her helmet. Kel saw stars but with the help of some quick stepping on the part of Peachblossom she managed to stay in the saddle.
Kel tried to collect her thoughts and assess the damage the lance had done. She was pretty sure the side of helmet had a very large dent in it which was causing the squeezing tightness she could feel. Hopefully the ringing in her ears would subside in a few moments and her eyes would begin to focus. She pointed Peachblossom in the general direction of her side of the field and he walked carefully forward.
When Peachblossom reached her side of the field she quickly ducked behind the flaps of the tent set up there. The stableboy who had tacked up Peachblossom was there.
"I need to go back out…"
"Let me fix y'er 'elmet first, miss." A few quick clangs with his fist had lessened the dent enough that Kel could at least wear it without pain.
When Kel walked back out of the tent Joren was still lying breathless in the mud in the center of the field. His second had caught his horse which had miraculously managed not to step on him but his servants milled about in confusion. He peered toward the group trying to see who had disgraced him. Kel approached him.
To the crowd the mysterious Protector of Small appeared still strong and confident in his victory. Kel was still dizzy and was glad Neal had made her practice her speech a million times since she doubted she would have remembered otherwise.
"Joren of Stone Mountain, you have treated anyone you perceive as lower ranking than yourself as garbage in some cases crossing the border into torture and rape. You are a disgrace to the Code of Chivalry which demands that a noble protect those weaker than himself. I stand for those people and I claim this victory in the name of all the people you have wronged both common and noble."
The commoners exploded into cheering but the reaction among the nobles was more mixed. Nevertheless, regardless of rank, everyone was wondering who this mystery warrior was. Granted Joren was still a squire but not an unskilled one.
Slowly the Protector of the Small turned away and began to walk back to tent that he had emerged from. Suddenly, Joren couldn't take the insult anymore and stuck his leg out to trip the still armored victor.
Kel saw Joren's leg but almost too late. She was still unbalanced, her ears were ringing and the armor was heavy but she managed to catch herself before she fell flat on her face. Unfortunately her helmet had not been put back on very securely and flew off to land a few handlengths away. Ducking her head and moving as quickly as her injured head would allow she scooped the helmet back up and crushed it onto her head but not before Joren had seen her face.
"You," he hissed. Kel turned around briefly as the crowd booed Joren's unchivalrous behavior. Luckily even the closest seats were still too far away for such a brief glimpse to have given her identity away to the crowd.
"Me," she calmly stated and walked back toward Peachblossom and her friends covered in mud and only wanting a hot bath and something to help her headache. She was too tired and hurt too much to think about all the problems that could arise from the fact that Joren had recognized her as Raoul's trainee.
Across the field Queen Thayet sitting in the royal box had a flash of inspiration.
"Jon, almost all of those posters were about commoners weren't they? Obviously this knight cares about them and they seem to support him, why don't we make him the People's Champion since none of the regular nobles seem to want the job."
Alanna and Raoul both nearly choked.
Jon eyed them suspiciously, "We don't even know who that was, Thayet."
"He seemed awfully young," supplied Raoul.
"And inexperienced," added Alanna as Raoul glared at her.
"And we don't know if he can repeat such a performance with any other weapons," responded Raoul and received a glare from Alanna in response.
The king watched them, "You two know something."
He watched in annoyed amusement as two of his closest friends attempted to assume expressions of innocent ignorance. Jon was not fooled for a minute but damned if he could how they would know the identity of the mysterious Protector of the Small. Unless they both knew him extremely well. But who would they both know that well?