Alanna the Lioness strode quickly down the corridor, her face dark. She approached the bench where a slender young man with strawberry-blonde hair slumped, clothed in the uniform that marked him as a page.
"Well?" Alanna asked her son crisply. She folded her arms over her chest, and gave him a searing look.
"Yes, Mother?" Alan replied.
"Is there anything you want to say to me before I go in there to talk to the training master?" The look Alanna gave him would have made most men quake, but Alan only shrugged.
"I'm sorry Mother," he said with a sigh.
Alanna felt her heart soften, and she sat down next to her son.
"Alan, tell me your side of the story. I don't know what happened, but if it was some sort of misunderstanding, or a mistake, I'll stand up for you." She reached out to smooth Alan's messy hair out of his eyes, feeling worry overcome the anger.
haMinch had told her nothing, only sent a message at the crack of dawn explaining that Alan was in serious trouble. The training master requested a meeting with her, immediately.
This was highly unusual; generally the training master had free reign to discipline pages without parental involvement. Whatever the situation, it must have been pretty serious for haMinch to demand a conference. Alanna knew her son was prone to mischief, but she also knew that he truly wanted to be a knight, and he would be devastated if forced to quit because of some game gone awry.
Alan drew back from her hand and shrugged, his hair flopping into place again. "That's ok. I'll just wait here."
"Don't be ridiculous; let me help you. What happened?" Alanna felt herself growing cross again.
Alan shifted uncomfortably. "Well Mother, if I may be perfectly honest, I'm not actually sure which thing I've done he's called for you about, and I'd really rather not incriminate myself unnecessarily, so I was hoping you could just tell me what the training master says and I'll figure out my story based on that," he said in a rush.
For a moment Alanna said nothing, only stared at him as she breathed in deeply through her nose. She was thinking about how long she was in labor with her son, and tried to remind herself that it would be a shame to strangle someone she had put that much effort into creating.
After the urge to throttle him had subsided, Alanna stood and walked to the training master's door.
"Wait here, I'll talk to you when I'm done," she hissed, then knocked.
"Come in, please," called the low, male voice from within.
Alanna entered the study, quietly shutting the door behind her.
It was a smaller, more cramped room than Alanna recalled Duke Gareth occupying, but then perhaps that was because she had been much smaller the last time she had visited the training master's office. She peered around curiously. The room before her was meticulously neat, with not a paper or a quill out of place. A massive tapestry depicting a vivid hunting tableau hung on the wall to her right, injecting a blast of color and warmth into the otherwise austere office. Positioned by the back wall was a large and ornately carved desk, behind which Padraig haMinch sat.
"My lady, " he said, standing to bow.
She nodded her head politely, but couldn't resist getting down to business. "You asked to meet with me about my son?"
haMinch gestured for her to take a seat in one of the wooden chairs before his desk, then sat down himself. Alanna wiggled, trying to find a comfortable position on the hard unforgiving seat. These chairs make me feel like I'm the naughty page again, she thought resentfully.
"Yes, I'm very concerned about Alan's progress here," haMinch said, frowning slightly.
Alanna tried to keep her voice politely neutral as she replied, "I'm surprised to hear that. If I recall correctly the last letter you sent my husband stated that Alan was doing well. I believe the exact phrase you used was 'proficient with most weapons and competent with schoolwork.'" Alanna knew Padraig to be a man who was stingy with praise, so she had interpreted his lukewarm compliments as a glowing review.
"True, he performs adequately on the courts and in the classroom. That's not what I'm talking about." Padraig paused, seemingly searching for the right words. "Your son is…very odd," he said finally.
Alanna sighed. Oh, this. "My son can be somewhat eccentric, I know, but I assure you he's quite dedicated to-"
Padraig cut her off, "I don't mean his bizarre interests or oddball sense of humor. I don't care what he does in his free time, weird as he may be."
Alanna bristled, but she reminded herself that for Alan's sake she needed to remain cordial. "Oh? Then what are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the fact that your son doesn't think like a noble, at least not a proper one. I believe in the code of chivalry, my lady, I believe in it very strongly, and I do not believe that a m-" he coughed, then started again, "I do not believe that a person can be a successful knight without it. Alan doesn't appear to have the same beliefs." Padraig folded his hands and set them on his desk, serenely waiting for her reaction.
When Alanna first received Padraig's message she had wished George was there to meet the man instead. He was so much better at smoothing these things over than she. Now, after hearing haMinch's comments on Alan's lack of proper nobility she was glad George was still at the Swoop. She and her husband had very different views on chivalry. Listening to the man wax poetic about a system George viewed as inane on a good day, while also taking a subtle dig at Alan's noble pedigree, probably would not have resulted in a very productive meeting between the training master and her husband.
He was going to say "man" but he changed it to "person" for me. That's something, right? Alanna thought. It wasn't much, but for Alan she was willing to reach for any small sign of courtesy.
"What-" her jaw was so clenched with frustration that her voice came out strangled. She took a deep breath and tried again. "What does this have to do with the 'incident' you called me here to discuss exactly?"
Padraig regarded her with serious brown eyes. "Last night, long after curfew, Alan picked a fellow page's lock, broke into his chamber, and threatened the boy with a knife."
Alanna's jaw dropped. "That's not like Alan, he wouldn't, I mean he's never-" She swallowed, her feeble explanations dying in her throat. It was true, it wasn't like Alan. Aly maybe would do such a thing, but Alan was far too apathetic to bother putting that much effort into harming someone, although that wasn't exactly something she could say to the training master. Maybe this is about being separated from his sister, Alanna thought, maybe it was too soon.
Padraig raised a hand, "There were some…mitigating circumstances. Alan and the other boy, Brom of Groten, have had difficulties getting along for some time now. Brom says provoking things to Alan, looking for a fight, and rather than face him directly Alan retaliates by playing sly tricks on Brom." Suddenly Padraig slammed his hand down onto his desk, startling Alanna. "That is exactly what I'm talking about, exactly. Alan could easily best Brom in a fair fight, and he ought to just challenge the boy and get it over with, but instead he draws it out to torture Brom slowly. Brom insults Alan's father and Alan seemingly shrugs it off, but then four weeks later Brom goes to the healers, convinced that he's shrinking."
In response to Alanna's bewildered face Padraig sighed deeply. "Apparently someone had been breaking into Brom's room and putting slim wooden coins to the bottoms of all his furniture, so that it all rose, bit by bit, until Brom could no longer reach his bed. Of course, there is no way to prove that this is related to Alan, at least not officially."
Alanna's eyes widened. Perhaps not so apathetic after all, she thought.
Aloud she asked, "Is that what Alan was doing when you caught him last night? Messing with the boy's furniture?"
Padraig shook his head. "No. Last night Alan put a knife to Brom's throat and apparently said, 'Your artery looks like it's asking for it'. Thankfully he didn't follow through with it, or he'd be in chains right now. That's cold-blooded murder, one slip of the wrist and your son could have been looking at the inside of a courtroom today."
Alanna nodded solemnly, "I understand. I can't think of why Alan would have done something like this, it's very unlike him." She reddened as the words came out of her mouth, hating herself for the cliché. How many times have I heard parents say that to me as I have brought their sons to justice? But it was true, or at least, it used to be true. Children could change so fast, maybe she didn't know Alan at all anymore.
Padraig flushed slightly. "After talking with some of the other pages I may have an idea about why. Apparently a group of them were discussing the rising incidence of sexual assault in the city and Brom felt the need to tell them that, 'some lower city wenches just look like they're asking for it.' Obviously what happened last night was Alan's idea of making a point."
After a moment of surprised shock, a wave of rage washed over Alanna. Padraig must have seen the way her face darkened with fury, because he immediately began to splutter, "Of course I will be speaking to Brom as well, that type of talk will not be allowed to go unchecked."
"Good," she snapped. "Because surely, as someone who loves the code of chivalry as you say you do, you will recall the rather large section on a knight's duty to respect women."
"Certainly," Padraig replied, a slight edge to his voice. "Just as I'm sure you recall that no where does it suggest it would ever be appropriate to sneak into a fellow noble's room and threaten him with murder."
Alanna felt her heart pound with anger as she hissed, "Certainly."
Awkward silence stretched between them as both the knight and the training master struggled to rein in their respective tempers.
Finally Padraig broke the quiet spell. "I'm going to give Alan punishment work in the kitchen for two months. I'm also going to ask him to write an essay on the code of chivalry, and the way that proper nobles express displeasure with each other. Absurd as it may sound to you I would like to try to avoid any more midnight knifings in the page hallway. Any assistance you could give me in reaching that goal would be very much appreciated."
His snide tone made Alanna boil with anger, and although that was a more than fair punishment for senselessly threatening someone, it was an absurd overkill for the crime of defending women. Poor Alan, she thought as she stood to leave. Suddenly she was struck with inspiration.
"My lord haMinch?" she asked. "Might my son be excused from today's lessons? I would appreciate the opportunity to speak with him myself, at length. We need to have a family discussion about how we present ourselves as nobles." Alanna crossed her fingers behind her back.
Padraig looked relieved to hear she was finally agreeing with him about Alan's "problem".
"I think that's a fine idea. He starts in the kitchens tonight though, at supper."
Alanna nodded, then said as politely as she could muster, "My thanks."
When she exited the office Alan was lying across the bench, one leg dangling limply off the side. At the sound of the door clicking shut he sprang up, eyes wide and concerned.
"What did he say?" Alan asked breathlessly.
Alanna didn't answer immediately. She eyed her son thoughtfully, her violet eyes appraising as Alan shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot.
"Why did you tell that boy he was asking for a throat cut?" she finally demanded, her tone low and serious.
Alan flushed and clapped a hand over his mouth briefly in horror. "Oh shit, is that what this is about? Shit. Shit!"
"Just answer the question, why did you do it?" Alanna insisted.
"I don't know," Alan groaned. "Brom is such a worthless jackass, and he says really horrible stupid things to anyone he thinks is beneath him. A category, by the way, which includes pretty much all women, and commoners, and foreigners, and he probably kicks puppies too." Alan's hands gesticulated wildly as he rapidly spoke. "I just wanted to show him what it would feel like if someone treated him the way he talks about treating women." Alan panted slightly, his face pale and anxious.
Alanna stared at him nonplussed, and Alan began to consider making a run for it before it was too late. Before he could react she suddenly grabbed him and squeezed him into a painful hug.
"I'm so proud of you," Alanna whispered, and Alan wondered in alarm if she were having some sort of stroke.
"What's happening? Is this a trick?" Alan squawked.
Alanna pulled back and rolled her eyes. "No! Come on, let's go into the city, we can visit that shop with the paints that you like so much."
Alan hesitated, still waiting to be scolded. It wasn't like his mother to care so little about misbehavior.
Alanna sighed. "You're in pretty big trouble with haMinch, and from now on you need to try to play by the rules. No picking locks, no pranks. Just hit the idiot when the teachers aren't looking." She gave him a severe look, but quickly brightened. "I got you the day off though, at least until the dinner bell. Let's go do something fun, celebrate your victory over stupidity."
A slow smile spread across Alan's face. "Alright, let's go."
Suddenly Alanna grinned, and said, "Tell me true, did you really spend a month trying to convince that boy he was shrinking?"
"Oh yeah! It took forever, and I had to get those little wooden discs specially made too, such a pain," Alan whined. Alanna roared with laughter. As pranks went she had to admit it was much better than a frog in a bed.
They set off, rounding the corner and heading towards the side stair case that would deposit them by the nearest exit. The bright early-morning sun spilled in through the windows, glinting off of each of their matching sword belts as mother and son strode down the corridor, side by side.