I had the best time writing this, and I don't know why. I always loved the relationship between Tobe and Kel, and he seems the type for secret hero-worship ;)
"—and then the cavalry maneuvers around the infantry to attack the opposing army from behind, essentially sandwiching it between them. It's called the hammer and anvil tactic, and it's proven very effective in past wars."
The candlelight cast shadows on her strong hands as she moved pieces around on the board, deepening her puckered scars and somehow making them bigger. They were old ones, those scars on her hands, and Tobeis liked to make up stories about how she got them. He boasted to the other children about how she fought off a flock of vicious Stormwings without a weapon, how she wrestled with the kraken and won, how she chased all the monsters away at night. That's milady, he said proudly. She ain't afraid of nothin', 'cept Blayce, but she kilt him anyway.
Lady Keladry began to rearrange the markers again. She continued in her dark honey voice, "The pincer movement is self-explanatory, really. As your opponent advances toward the center of your army, your outside forces simultaneously attack the enemy flanks and crush them. Most wars involve this maneuver in some form or another."
Obediently, Tobe carefully followed her long fingers as they played out the strategy for him, but he was only half-listening. It was cool and dark in her chambers, with the windows shut tight against the winter's black night. A log snapped in the well-lit hearth. These were the nights he liked best, when she couldn't sleep and wanted to talk. Sometimes she got lonely, being away from her friends and family. She never said it, but she didn't have to.
"You take care of her," that Queenscove fellow had quietly told him once—when she was very far away. "She's precious to me."
It was the nicest thing Tobe had ever heard him say, but in the strange understanding of brotherhood he knew better than to repeat it. Some things girls just didn't need to know, like how much their menfolk needed them.
She smiled at him, and it was the wind rustling through dangling chimes. "Are you getting bored, Tobe? I'll stop if you're tired."
"No, milady," he replied truthfully. "I like hearing about that flanking maneuver thing."
She looked pleased, and something warm curled around his heart. Usually she looked so troubled all the time, always worrying after her refugees until they were nearly head over heels in indulgent exasperation, but they loved her too much to say so. Even scowling Fanche wouldn't hear a single word against her—and she could wield a mean ladle when she needed to—not that anyone at New Hope had anything bad to say. Except cranky old Valestone, but no one cared about him.
"The Old King Jasson did this," Lady Keladry was saying. Her hands mesmerized him, this piece this way, this one that way. "It was a bold move, but it won Tortall her war. King Roald I used the same method in the battle at the River Drell when we had to defend against Tusaine."
Tobe nodded along with her words. He was not stupid; he knew she yearned to partake in the battles of legends. With the absolute conviction of a child, he somehow knew that, even more than Blayce the Nothing Man, she was afraid of fading away. But she shone brighter than any light he had ever seen, like a beacon in the dark. She liked to tell stories about Alanna the Lioness with the Purple Eyes (whoever that was) and he heard the worship in her voice. He didn't care about any redhead boy who became a woman and killed some crazy noble, not when his brave lady saved them from ruthless child-killers.
"She's proven herself to me and everyone else twice over," he had once overheard that cool, balding knight say heavily to his horse when he thought no one was around. "Alanna may be a bit mad, but Mithros take me if Mindelan isn't the best damned knight I ever turned out."
There was a sudden lull in the current conversation, and Tobe came back to himself with a jolt. Lady Keladry was frowning down at the strategy board, idly tapping the table with a fingernail. She had nearly bitten it to the quick. She mumbled to herself and switched two pieces. He thought it was funny when she did that. A little strange, perhaps, but she was always murmuring to no one, awake and asleep.
"What time is it?" she asked, noticing Tobe stifle a yawn, although he tried very hard to hide it. "It's a bit late for you, I think. Why don't we go to sleep, hm?"
"Aw," he protested, disappointed. "I was just getting into the part about how old Roald surprised them Tusaines with his secret cavalry."
Lady Keladry flashed a grin at him, and it was a red sun exploding at daybreak. "Nice try, Tobe. You can barely keep your eyes open. I'm pretty tired myself. Maybe tomorrow night I'll finish the Drell conflict if you still want to hear it."
Reluctantly, Tobe slid off the wooden chair with one last hopeful look in her direction. Her expression was gentle but firm, and he knew he wouldn't be able to persuade her with just five more minutes, milady? tonight. He wiggled under the covers of his pallet, pulling his skinny knees up tight to his chest, and surreptitiously watched her. She moved around a bit, tidying things up the way she liked them, before she blew out the candle. Her bed creaked when she sat on it. She rolled restlessly around a little and then, with a sigh, she quieted.
The lady knight always slept alone. Tobe was not innocent to the ways of adults and he wondered if she wasn't just lonely for those she missed, but also for what she was missing. He didn't understand why she didn't just take a man to bed, if only to keep her company. He thought she was beautiful—her broad shoulders could carry any burden, her tan lent her healthy color, and her face was pretty and kind. But maybe a boy's opinion was not the same as a man's.
"Cleon is a silly dolt," Sir Merric had slurred one late night, deep in his cups. "Neal, let me tell you—and don't you dare repeat this, you understand me?—I'd just as soon be disowned than give up someone like her, to the Black God with mother and floods and stupid, squealing noblewomen."
Sleep was coming fast—perhaps Tobe was more exhausted than he thought. Leave it to Lady Keladry to know what's best, like she always did. He thought of his reflection in her silver armor as he polished it. He smelled horse and hay as he cared for Peachblossom; she smelled the same, too, but she was rich with soothing saddle oils and leather and spicy sweat. He loved her sweet smile and the way her scarred hands smoothed the wrinkles out of his first new tunic. She had saved him when he was nothing but an ill-spoken Scanran bastard, had taught him the meaning of words like "worth" and "generosity."
Yes, he lived his life by her hand. She was his beacon in the dark, the Goddess' own lantern. However black the night, he would always find his way back to her. She was the moon and stars that lit up his sky and she outshone the brightest, hottest sun.