I Am Stone

The page's wing of a palace was deserted; the first, second and third years had gone to their summer camp with the training master, and the fourth years had either moved into the squire's wing or left with their knight master.

Except for one, who frowned at his reflection in the mirror as he reached a hand up to gingerly touch his sun burnt cheek. The ruddy color certainly did not compliment his blond hair, bleached white by the summer sun. But he'd been so determined to be out there training, every day, that he'd forgotten the ointment meant to block the burning rays. He had to prove himself.

But the facts remained hard and clear. After the scandal his brother had caused four years before, no knight wanted to take Aubrey of Stone Mountain.

It didn't help that the odds had been stacked against him from the beginning. He was a year younger than the other new squires; his father had insisted that he begin his training immediately after Joren had died. To bring honor back to the family, he'd said. Personally, Aubrey thought that his father was out of his mind for even suggesting such a thing. Joren had been the pride of the entire family, while Aubrey was just… Aubrey. He wasn't fast, or strong, or exceptionally beautiful. He'd always been small for his age, and skinny to boot, so he couldn't begin to comprehend why his father had chosen to pit him against boys a year older than he was.

Perhaps he'd thought that the struggle would bring out whatever masculine strengths Aubrey was lacking. He'd never know; Lord Buchard never left the fief anymore, and he hadn't even written to Aubrey in a year. Shame kept him from doing so, of that much Aubrey was sure.

He sighed as he rubbed a healing salve over his face. He still looked ridiculous, but at least it stopped the sting when he touched it and the persistent itch.

"I have a better balm, if you're interested," said a voice from his doorway. "It's got a bite to it, but tomorrow you won't even know you had that color."

Aubrey turned toward the voice, and promptly backed into the dresser behind him in his surprise. Keladry of Mindelan lounged against the frame, watching him with a steady, slightly bemused expression. He remembered, after a moment, to bow and invite her in – she was, after all, a Knight of the Realm, and the code of Chivalry demanded that he show her respect. Even if she had been the leading factor in his brother's demise.

"I was watching you practice earlier," she said, settling herself into his desk chair while he perched on the end of the bed. "You've got some speed with that sword."

"Only a practice blade, my Lady," he said, a hint of embarrassment – weakness, his father would call it – coloring his voice. "I'm afraid the real thing is still to heavy for me to swing properly."

Kel waited until she had his eye contact again before responding. "I could show you exercises, if you'd like, to strengthen your arms. Gods know I learned enough of them as a page."

"I'd be honored, my Lady," he said, as politely as he could. "But I can't see the time. I should be starting my squire duties soon." He hoped she didn't know that no one had come to offer him a place yet.

"Well, Aubrey," she said, in a tone that made him sure she did, in fact, know of his predicament, "I was actually hoping you might let me take you on as Squire."

Aubrey stared at her, unable to respond. Of course, he'd heard all about from Joren: about their fights, the tricks he pulled on her, how he'd plotted against her and financed the kidnapping of her maid. Which meant she was taking him for one of two reasons – either she was looking for revenge she could no longer inflict on Joren, or she pitied him. He didn't know which was worse.

"I'll let you think about it," Kel said after a while. And, while Aubrey was still puzzling over their encounter, she left, shutting the door quietly behind her.

Very fortunately, a messenger arrived from Stone Mountain the next day, sparing Aubrey the need to respond to Keladry's request. It wasn't that he didn't want to be her Squire – she'd probably take him north to New Hope, or out with the King's Own, where he knew he would have work that wasn't beyond his skill – he just didn't want to be disowned by his highly conservative family. As far as they were concerned, a woman's place, particularly a noble woman, was in the home, sewing and raising children. They didn't even believe women should be merchants, which made Mindelan zero for two.

So when one of the Stone Mountain men at arms had ridden into Corus and requested that Master Aubrey be allowed to return home for a month, he hadn't questioned the rather odd message. Apparently whatever reasons he'd given were being kept quiet from the court, and with good reason, Aubrey found out on their third day in the saddle.

"Your father is very ill. The healers do not think he will live into the fall. Your mother thinks you should be with him before…"

"He dies," Aubrey finished, feeling rather frustrated. "I'm thirteen, and about to be a squire. I can handle the truth."

The man at arms didn't seem so convinced.

They reached Stone Mountain two days later. Aubrey greeted his mother and sisters, who all made the same general comments about how he'd grown, and was beginning to resemble a man instead of a boy. Aubrey was just glad his sunburn had finally faded, and they didn't fuss over that too.

His father stayed in his study, and Aubrey didn't even see him the first four days that he was home. He was beginning to wonder why the family had summoned him when his father finally demanded his presence on the fifth day.

Lord Buchard was in his chair next to the fire. At first Aubrey could see nothing wrong with him, but then he noticed the lines etched over his face, they way his skin seemed paler than usual, as though he hadn't seen the sun in a year, and how his once deep, commanding voice had lost it's edge and become little more than a murmur.

"My son," he said, so softly that Aubrey had to move closer to hear. "You've come home to me."

"Yes, father." Aubrey laid his hand gently over Buchard's. "I'm here."

Buchard started at the contact, drawing in a sharp, audible breath, and looked up at Aubrey with wild, haunted eyes. "There is something I must say. You must hear me."

Aubrey tried not to let his unease show in his voice. "Of course, father."

He seemed to settle a little. "Whatever I have said to you, whatever I have done, you must know… I am not ashamed of you, Joren."

For a moment, Aubrey's heart had leapt, only to be replaced by an awful hollow feeling. He doesn't even know me anymore, he realized. And he wanted to scream at his father, tell him that Joren was dead, that he was sorry he couldn't be as perfect a son as Joren had been… but he couldn't. His father was still holding his gaze with that haunted, pleading look, and Aubrey could only blink his tears back furiously and pretend.

"I know, father. Thank you."

Buchard seemed content. He squeezed Aubrey's hand gently, and murmured something in which Aubrey could only make out the words "at peace." He took his leave as quietly as he'd come in, and went to fetch his mother. She'd keep vigil over her Lord tonight; they both knew what the morning would bring.

Aubrey didn't cry until after the funeral. He wandered the castle, keeping to the areas not occupied by servants or family. His mother and sisters were too busy entertaining the extended family come to pay respects to notice that he'd gone anyway.

He wasn't surprised; this was how it had always been. No one had ever taken special notice of Aubrey except to compare him to Joren.

He wondered if Kel had also compared him to his brother, and if she had, what she'd seen. Then he wondered if she'd even still want him as her squire, of it she'd found some other boy better suited to the task.

Only one way to find out, he thought, making his decision.

More than anything now, he wanted to stand out to his family. And if he couldn't do it by being what they'd wanted, he'd do it however he could.

If anyone at the palace was surprised by his early return, they didn't say anything. Aubrey didn't even bother to unpack his things; either he'd be leaving with Keladry, or he'd be leaving court soon anyway.

He found the Lady Knight in one of the outdoor practice courts, fencing with another young knight.

"Ouch." He doubled over as Kel whacked him hard in the side. "Don't you ever tire of giving me bruises, Kel?"

"Never," she replied, half mocking. "It's just too easy, Neal."

Nealan stood straight again with an over-dramatic wince, and noticed Aubrey standing in the doorway. Tilting his head to get a better view over Kel's shoulder, he grinned impishly. "Why Kel, I do believe you have a visitor."

Keladry turned around and smiled warmly. "Aubrey, good to see you. I hope your visit home was pleasant?"

"As pleasant as could be, my Lady," he replied, trying to keep his voice as calm as possible. "Might I have a word with you?"

"Just a moment, alright?" She apologized to Neal, who didn't look sorry at all to be finished sparing, and started to remove her padded practice gear. When that was done, and Neal had left the room, Kel moved to one of the benches and motioned for Aubrey to sit next to her.

"I'm sorry for your loss," she said. Then, in response to Aubrey's confused look, she added: "Your father. The details are being kept quiet, but everyone here knows something unpleasant happened. You don't have to share if you don't want to."

Aubrey told her anyway. He hadn't meant to, but as soon as he'd opened his mouth, everything had kind of spilled out. He shut his eyes as he felt two warm tears fall down his cheeks. "And now I'm crying like a – like a girl. No wonder you wanted me."

Kel let him finish, fished a handkerchief out from one of her pockets, and handed it to him. "That isn't why I offered to take you as squire, Aubrey."

"Then it was pity! You knew I couldn't handle a normal squire's duties!"

Once again, Kel let the emotion run its course as she schooled her own voice into calmness. Obviously, he'd been taught that he was weak by somebody, and Kel would venture a guess that it began when he was young.

"This isn't about your abilities either. In fact, you'll probably do harder work with me than any other Knight."

That shocked Aubrey into silence.

"Becoming a Knight isn't about innate skills. Joren had the talent, and that didn't get him through his Ordeal." Aubrey flinched a little at the comment. "I don't mean to poke at a fresh wound, but you have to understand. Either you want this, or you don't. I saw you out there, practicing day and night. You want your shield; I can see it in you."

"I do want my shield," he said, after a moments thought. "I just don't want to get it because someone feels sorry for me."

Kel grinned in a manner that would have pleased Lord Raoul. "Oh, believe me Aubrey, people will pity you, but not for the reasons you think. No one is going to envy your situation. I mean, you are getting stuck with 'the Girl.'"

Aubrey chuckled a little at her joke, and when Kel stood up and offered him a hand, he took it without question.

"When should I report, my Lady?" He didn't think he needed to formally tell her he'd accepted her offer – the pair of them already knew.

"We start now," Kel said, and Aubrey looked at her incredulously. "I do believe Sir Nealan left a practice sword over there."

Never in his wildest dreams had Aubrey thought he'd look the way he did now. Three and a half years after he'd begun serving Kel, and he'd added muscle to his scrawny frame, grown taller, and – best of all, he thought – finally gained a little permanent color to his skin. He wondered vaguely if his family would recognize him.

It had been Kel's idea to stop at Stone Mountain on their return to Corus. After a weeklong debate, he'd finally relented. After all, when he turned eighteen he would be coming into his inheritance, including management of the fiefdom.

Although originally hesitant to take such a position – it certainly hadn't been intended for him, the second youngest child – Aubrey now felt that, in a year, he'd be ready. He'd spent most of his first two years as a squire helping to manage such affairs at New Hope. Then Kel had given over the command there, and taken them west for an extended visit to Mindelan. There, he'd studied politics with Baron Piers; it was a subject he thought he might continue to pursue.

That summer, they'd gone south with Lord Raoul's company of the King's Own. Kel maintained that it was good for him to see the entire Realm, even if at a glance. Aubrey, being a northerner by birth, maintained that he wasn't meant for that kind of heat. Then they'd taken a vacation of sorts, sailing from Pirate's Swoop to Blue Harbor.

"I like to try new things," Kel had said, as she coiled the thick rope that held the sails. "Keeps your mind sharp."

Aubrey agreed; he'd liked the open sea, especially once a whether mage on board ship had taught him a simple spell to make him tan instead of burn.

And then – all too suddenly, it seemed – they realized it was mid-September, and in a few short months Aubrey would face his Ordeal. So they began their lazy trip back to Corus, and Kel had very conveniently gotten them lost and turned onto a road that lead toward his home fief.

It was dusk when they arrived there. The family was dining in a private room when a serving man announced a visit from Lady Knight Keladry of Mindelan. They exchanged curious glances: what business could she possibly have that would bring her to Stone Mountain?

When Kel entered the room with Aubrey in tow, his sister nearly dropped her wine glass, and in the dead silence that followed their arrival, he could hear his mother gasp. All of them stared.

"Aubrey, you wicked child," Kel said, her apparent ease a strong contrast to the nobles who sat before her. "You never told them, did you?"

"Whether I'd told them now or before this, they would have reacted the same. I figured if I was going to disgrace the family, I might as well be able to look them in the eye when they found out. And besides," he added, "if I am being wicked, I learned it from you."

Kel shook her head. "You, squire, have been spending far too much time with Neal." She turned back to Aubrey's family. "I apologize on my squire's behalf. I'm afraid somewhere in his studies, he discovered that he liked irony and sarcasm."

While they'd been speaking, serving men had set two more places at the table. Aubrey gave Kel a good-natured smirk as he took a seat next to his mother. Two more servants came bearing plates of roast venison and pitchers of wine and cider. Aubrey reached for the latter and filled both his and Kel's cups before returning his attention to his family.

"But enough about me," he said, carefully cutting up his meat and avoiding their eyes. "How has life been progressing here without me?"

His sister – Lynette, the youngest of his siblings – made a timid little noise before answering. "Well, mostly I've been worrying about you."

Now Aubrey looked up. His mother swallowed a sip of wine before she met his gaze evenly. "We all worried about you, Aubrey. All we knew was what the training master told us. You'd been picked as a squire; you no longer lived in Corus under his command. We wanted to write you, but we didn't even know where you were stationed."

"A letter to us would have helped." That was his uncle, his voice gruff and stern, though his eyes betrayed his true feelings.

Aubrey, suddenly caught in his own pent up emotions, looked at each of them in turn. "I – I thought you'd be disappointed in me. Because I couldn't be like – like –" He couldn't finish. Kel laid a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"You're not at fault, Aubrey," she said, in the same tone she used when explaining a new lesson to him. "Nor is your family. All the same, though, there's business that needs setting, and I'll leave you to it."

Aubrey waited until the door had shut behind her before he got up and embraced his mother. Both pretended to ignore the tears shining in the other's eyes.

Aubrey found Kel the next morning at dawn, when she practiced with her glaive and he with his rapier. They'd worked out a routine for him some months before, and though he'd practiced it every morning religiously, it still left him winded when he and Kel finally finished.

"So tell me," Kel said, handing him a water flask, "what transpired last night after I left?"

"I told Mother we'd spend a few days, at least. Don't make faces – you were the one who wanted to come here in the first place."

"Only to settle things with your family; I didn't want you facing your Ordeal with that hanging over you."

Aubrey was silent for a moment, lost somewhere in his own thoughts. "Things are far from settled," he said, still staring off into space. "But they're mending."

Kel glanced sideways at her squire. "You're still wondering why I chose you, aren't you?"

Aubrey blinked and resettled his gaze on Kel. "Not at the moment, but yes, I do wonder from time to time." Then, to Kel's surprise, he shook his head when she started to speak. "If it's all the same to you, my Lady, I think I'd rather not know. Not now anyway. One less thing to think about."

Kel nodded in understanding. They sat in comfortable silence as the sun continued to climb in the sky. When a bell overhead signaled the hour for breakfast, they returned to the small castle at an easy walk.

"Aubrey," Kel said suddenly, causing the squire to stop in his tracks. "I've just noticed… I think you're taller than me."

The blond straightened his stance as much as he could, and looked at his Knight Master. "I do believe you're right," he said, after a moment. "When did that happen?"

They left Stone Mountain in the second week of October. A cold wind blew down from the north, the first sign of an early winter. Aubrey hoped his mother and uncle made it to Corus before the snow began. Although traveling wasn't impossible under those conditions, it certainly wasn't pleasant, and both had expressed their desire to be at the palace for Aubrey's Ordeal.

They met up with Sir Nealan and his new squire – a lanky, raven-haired boy nearing his fifteenth birthday – at the crossroads, and the four settled into the routine of travel. In the morning, Kel lead weapons practice while Neal (glad to be excused) cooked breakfast. They rode through the afternoon at a leisurely trot, and stopped when the sun started to set. If they'd reached a village, they stayed there; if not, they camped under the stars. They ate, cleaned their armor, and groomed their horses. Neal taught his squire mage-craft during the evenings, while Kel and Aubrey had another practice session, followed by meditation.

I am stone, he thought, using the Yamani teachings Kel had taught him. He pictured smooth rock in his mind, worn down by wind and rain, but always enduring. And then, as his unconscious mind took control, he found this image replaced by that of a smithing-hammer crossed with a sword; the device of Stone Mountain.

I am stone, he thought again. And at Mid-Winter, I will make them proud.