The sky was dark blue, the blue of early morning not yet touched by sun. A few stars still glittered, faintly, in the dying reaches of the night. Their light, and that of the full moon still gleaming in the sky, silvered the dew on the grasses, and gleamed on the armor of a figure galloping over the wild moorland.
His armor was sleeker and lighter than that of his ancestors, yet they bore unmistakable traces of his Anglo-Saxon and Welsh heritage – after all, he was a Highlander, of the system of planets called the United Kingdom, and nearly all its inhabitants bore the blood of the nations of Old Earth that it was named for. His head and forearms were bare; a sword was scabbarded against his back.
He rode a stallion, a fine champion-blooded one. As far back in the wilderness as his destination was, none of the other, more modern ways of transportation could reach it so quickly, or with less hassle. Anyway, he was a superb equestrian, who preferred the ancient way of horseback to the hovercars and other machines everyone else used. It was an attitude unique to those of the United Kingdom.
As the moon began to set, his horse topped a hill, and his destination came into view. It was a massive castle, wrought of stone dark as the gray of a wolf's pelt. It, like his armor, was a sleeker but mostly faithful reproduction of the ancient things of their Welsh heritage – in this case, of a Welsh lord's keep. It had many modern conveniences, but little evidence of that could be seen from the outside. A banner whipped in the air from the highest point of the northern and tallest tower – a unicorn in full gallop, one foreleg raised, white with a golden horn.
The sigil of House Rider.
The man finally pulled his stallion to a more sedate pace, letting him trot slowly towards the drawbridge being lowered for him. At long last, after years of absence, he had returned to his lord, to his best friend, to his one true home. Adian Lowe had returned to Caer Rheidyr.
He rode into the foreyard, where servants and stablemen in livery helped him down and led his horse to the stable, where a warm mash and a comfortable stall awaited him. Adian looked around, expecting but not finding two faces. He turned to a tall man, the butler of the household.
"Where's Stephen and Ceri, Finn?" Adian asked him.
"Lord Rider is with Lady Rider in their quarters. The Lady has gone into labor…"
"Myn duw!" Adian swore, already running for the entrance of the castle. "Already? Aw, man, I was hoping I'd get here before that! How long?" he asked the butler as they pelted up the wide, spiraling grand staircase in the entrance hall.
"My…lady's….water broke…an…hour ago," gasped out the older man. Adian was a fast runner.
Adian nodded, then upped his speed, leaving poor old gasping Finn behind. He turned a corner, sharply, into a corridor he knew led to the master bedroom. His years away had not dimmed his memory of the castle's layout. He skidded to a stop when he saw a familiar dark-haired young man, his own age, pacing impatiently in front of a pair of carved wooden doors.
"Stephen!" he called out, hurrying towards the man who was the closest thing to a brother he had ever had, his best friend, and his liege lord. "Stephen!"
Stephen looked up sharply, brown eyes widening in astonishment. "Adian!" He hurried forward, his concern for his wife momentarily pushed aside – though never forgotten - in the reunion with his best friend. "You're back!" Laughing, he seized the other man in a hug. They pounded each other's shoulders when they separated, asking questions.
"You've returned? Really returned, not just for a visit?" Stephen asked, leading Adian to a bench before the wooden doors he had been pacing in front of not a minute ago.
"The knight-masters never let their students out for a vacation, you know that, Stephen," Adian told him mock-admonishingly. "Of course I'm back for good. You can't get rid of me that easily, old friend."
"That means you've finished your training?" Stephen inquired, eyes boyishly wide in astonishment. "You're a blademaster?"
In reply, Adian reached behind him and slid the sword a little ways free of the scabbard – just enough for Stephen to see the eagle engraved upon the blade.
The engraved eagle – the mark of a fully-trained blademaster. Here, in traditional Highlands especially, a man caught bearing an eagle-mark blade illegally could be punished most harshly. The knight-masters who were the only ones who could appoint a man blademaster were jealous of the prestige the mark gave, and protected it vigorously. Adian had been training with them for eight years now, and he was no fool – he must have earned it.
Stephen smiled proudly. "My best friend, a blademaster." He chuckled softly. "Who would have thought it, eh, Adian? Back when we were children and played at soldiers with sticks? Or drove old Finn mad when we set loose the hounds inside the castle or stole the sweetmeats for father's banquets? Now I am a lord and you are one of the finest warriors in the kingdom."
Adian smiled back, but there was worry in his dark blue eyes. "Stephen…how is my sister? How is Ceri?"
Stephen's smile vanished. "I don't know," he sighed, running a hand through dark brown hair already made rumpled with hours of stress. "Her water broke an hour ago, almost two months ahead of her due date. The doctor's with her now, but he looked worried…and they won't let me inside!" This last in a tone of absolute bitterness, the bitterness of a man in love afraid for his beloved and not allowed to see her.
Adian's eyes were worried, as well. Ceri was his sister, his beloved younger sister. They were a year apart in age, but were as close as twins. Ever since they had been orphaned and come here, to be fostered at Caer Rheidyr, he had been fiercely protective of her. She was his only family left. He had pledged his loyalty to Llewellyn, Stephen's father, then to Stephen himself when the time had come for him to take the lordship, but it was for his sister that he would lay his life down.
"My lord…" the voice of an old man pierced the silence that had come between them. Both young men bolted to their feet at the doctor's words, never mind that he had addressed only Stephen.
"It is done. Your wife is safe, and you are the father of a baby boy." The doctor smiled. No matter how many times he brought life into the world – he had delivered Stephen himself, as well as countless others – it was still a rush that suffused him.
"Thank god," breathed out Stephen in fervent thanks, a sentiment echoed by Adian who begun to mutter a quiet prayer. He nodded to the old doctor. "Thank you, Doctor Renn…I mean…"
The white-haired old man chuckled. "Why don't you just get inside, Stephen?"
Stephen needed no more words. He ran inside, Adian at his heels. The room was large, as wide as many houses were, but he crossed the distance in double-quick time, at his wife's bedside as soon as he could get there.
She was propped up against the ornate headboard with pillows, cradling something in her arms. Her long blond hair fell over her face, hiding it, as she bent her head; but then she raised it as she heard her husband approach.
She was glowing with a sort of happy contentment that seemed too much for any mortal – a golden, shining light in her face. She smiled as she saw him, a smile that welcomed and comforted and enraptured him. It seemed that no more happiness could be in her face then there was now – yet somehow, impossibly, her smile widened and her blue eyes – so like Adian's own – brightened further as she saw her brother striding in behind her husband.
"Adian!" she cried out in gleeful surprise. "You came back!"
"Yes, love," chuckled Stephen, "he has. Hasn't it been a wonderful day? I have gained a son and regained my best friend, all at once!"
Ceri smiled, Adian smiled, the two siblings looking nearly identical in their happiness. All three of them stood in a circle of shared joy.
The bundle in Ceri's arms stirred, and a thin wailing pierced the air. Stephen and Adian stepped back, startled, and Ceri laughed at the look on their faces. "Haven't you ever heard a baby cry before?" she asked them. She offered the baby up to Stephen. "Here, Stephen, hold him – hold your son."
If anything, the startled surprise in the Highland Lord's face increased to something quite like terror. Yet, quaking slightly, he took the proffered bundle – awkwardly, yet gently, knowing instinctively how to hold his infant son. The infant's crying quieted as his father held him, till he was only making quiet coos and hiccoughs.
Stephen stared at the baby he held in his arms, at the sheer perfection of the tiny thing. He found himself counting fingers and toes, laying a gentle finger on the small nose, amazed that all of it had come together so well, so perfectly…
Adian peered over Stephen's shoulder at his newborn nephew. The child had a peach-fuzz of fair hair on his head, and his eyes, when they opened, were a clear blue. Adian felt his own face splitting into a grin nearly as foolish as the one on Stephen's face.
"My son…I have a son….I'm a father…" Stephen mumbled softly, as if saying these facts out loud would cement them into reality.
"What do we name him, Stephen?" asked Ceri, watching her brother and her husband's obvious adoration of her little son with amusement.
"Stephen Jr? Adian Jr? Llewellyn Jr?" rattled off Adian. Ceri could not help but giggle.
"Saber…." Stephen said. He looked at his wife and his best friend, seeking approval. "We've always been a family who values skill with the sword," he said. "And he was born on the day Adian came back a blademaster."
"Saber it is, then," Adian said, unexpectedly touched. "Saber Rider."
The years rolled by as happily as they could be. Adian, as was rather expected, was made into Stephen's Captain of the Guard. Aside from his excellent performance in training the Rheidyr men-at-arms and ensuring the safety of the Rider family, Adian became, for all intents and purposes, Stephen's right hand in governing the Rheidyr dukedom. Saber grew into a sturdy, laughing little boy, running all over the castle and inevitably getting into mischief. He was quite adored by his parents and uncle, and would have been quite spoiled if it weren't for the sensible head he already had on his shoulders.
He hero-worshipped both his father and his uncle, and his greatest pleasure was watching them practice the swords; either by themselves or fencing against each other. He would gape, blue eyes wide, at the silver flashing blades as they would go back and forth across the mat.
It was on a sunny spring day that it happened. Saber had celebrated his fifth birthday two months earlier. Stephen and Adian were in the castle's huge library, maps spread out in front of them. Red lines snaked across both the paper maps and the digital screens that displayed maps, as Adian and Stephen discussed how best to deploy the border guard. Their neighbor, Baron Macduff, had recently died, and now his three sons were fighting for control of their father's lands. The concern that the fighting would spill over to the lands of Caer Rheidyr or that a defeated son would seek for conquests further north was one that had been occupying their thoughts for days now.
They had been at it for over three hours, without break, now. Adian gave a jaw-cracking yawn and stretched. "Stephen, let's take a break," he suggested. "We can't do much good if we're too bleary-eyed to see the maps."
Stephen sighed. "Alright. But we get back to work in ten minutes."
Adian stood up and walked over to the coffee machine. As he poured himself a cup of steaming brew, he looked out the window which was next to the table. There, in the sun-drenched courtyard, was Saber. He held a long stick in his hands, and a cooking-pot lid was strapped to his arm with a belt. A sword and a shield.
'Playing soldier again,' he thought to himself, laughing a bit at the earnest look on his nephew's face as he thrust out with his stick. Saber moved with a certain purpose and determination that was a little bit odd on such a young fellow.
He tripped over a loose cobblestone and fell. He sat on the ground, looking for a moment like he would cry. His face was scrunched up, at least. But then he shook his head, and the tearfulness disappeared. He scrambled to his feet and hefted the stick again. He moved carefully, as if through a set of forms painstakingly memorized.
Adian narrowed his eyes. Somehow, the way he moved tugged at his memory – a tickle of consciousness that he should know. He studied his nephew's play more carefully. Right slash, left slash, parry, parry, block, weave, weave, parry - the boy at least wasn't doing the idiotic bash-and-smash that most children (and many young men) took as swordplay, his movements were somewhat authentic - riposte, slash-and-slash, parry, thrust, upward slash. Adian frowned. It looked familiar....and then it came to him.
'He's doing the Claws of the Dragon!' he thought, with rather more than a mild sense of shock. The Claws of the Dragon was one of the sword-forms that he had learnt under the knight-masters, and a rather advanced one. And here was a five year old, doing it! True, Saber moved awkwardly, with none of the fluidity of a true blademaster, but still…
"Stephen…" he said, quietly. "Come here."
"What is it, Adian?" asked Stephen, walking to his brother-in-law's side.
"Look at Saber."
Stephen did, smiling at the sight of his young son playing. "What of it?"
"He's doing an eagle-level sword form."
Stephen stopped smiling. "What?"
"He's doing an eagle-level sword form. That's the Claws of the Dragon he's performing."
"I don't know," Adian admitted. He shrugged. "Maybe he saw it in a book – he's known how to read for two years now, after all. Or maybe he saw me practicing. I don't know," he repeated. "All I do know is, that boy's got serious talent. Look at him!" Saber chose that moment to pull off a whirlwind of thrusts, completing the move with a grace that should have been out of reach for his five-year-old body. Both men gaped.
"He was born to be a lantriath," Adian said fervently, like a prayer. "Can you imagine what he'll be capable of with training?" His eyes gleamed with excitement. What a find! What a discovery!
"Adian…" Stephen's voice was grave, snapping Adian out of his daydream of Saber arriving at the Palace of Swords - the training place for aspiring blademasters - and beating the snot out of the other students. Funnily enough, the boy he was defeating was looking very much like a young version of his worst enemy back then....he shook his head and focused on his brother-in-law's words.
"I will not let my boy be sent to the knight-masters. Not yet, anyway…he's too young!"
"I didn't mean that, Stephen!" Adian answered, waving his hands in placation. "Ceri would kill me if I ever suggested it." He smirked slightly at the idea of his sweet, gentle younger sister threatening him…which he knew she would do, without pause, if he ever mentioned an idea like that to her. Ceri was very protective of Saber.
"But let me begin training him," Adian pleaded. "Saber would love having fencing lessons anyway; you saw how much he likes to watch us. The boy could become one of the best, Stephen."
Stephen looked out at his little son.
"Alright. You can start tomorrow. But Adian…don't push him too hard. He's only a little boy. He has all the time in the world to become a blademaster."
"Of course, Stephen. I love him too, you know."
AN: My first foray back into the world of fanfic in a year! And you can tell…this needs serious revision. Oh well, I pulled it together in one day (a speed record for someone slow as me) And it will be revised, and it will be continued. I swear.
Okay, about the story. I'm making up the geography of the Highlands where Saber comes from. Assume that it's part of a planetary system called the United Kingdom, with planets corresponding to Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, and England. It is one of the systems closest to the Sol System, one of the oldest colonized. It is, in fact, been colonized for so long that it is hardly considered Frontier. People have lived there for hundreds of years already. Each planet has a king; the High King rules from Planet Breton, and is overlord over the whole system. Saber's family, House Rider, lives on Planet Antir, which is populated mostly by those of Scottish descent but has certain Welsh influences as well. More about the United Kingdom government later.
Caer Rheidyr: Rheidyr is Rider in Gaelic, actually knight, but it has the same meaning.
Lantriath: in Gaelic it's lord of the blades, loosely translated.
Myn duw: my god in Welsh