If you had told me that I, a lay-about squire with no ambition beyond draining tankards and laying on the hay with paid tavern wench after paid tavern wench, was to be called into the nave of the Blue Cathedral on the morning of my twenty-fifth birthday for initiation into the King’s elite Yellow Order, well… I probably would have believed you. After all, my father was Sir Peter Cardiff, one of the most respected generals in the whole of the kingdom. And Sir Peter Cardiff commanded the Yellow Order.
On the eve of that birthday, I recall stumbling home after a day of training with the rest of the squires, bloodied and bruised and wondering whether or not a change to another vocational discipline was in order. I would say that Eric Wellan, the squire with whom I was training that day, got it as good as he gave, but that would be a lie. I took a severe beating and barely managed to touch his shield with my training sword, let alone land a blow.
As I trudged along the muddy brown dirt of the path near the homestead, I contemplated talking to my father about laying down the sword and taking up the priest’s robe. Not that I had a great thirst for sermonizing and benedictions. But something - anything - would be better than this.
Ha! The thought of it! To ask the great Sir Peter Cardiff if he would allow his son to abandon his military training and deal in scrolls and censers instead. I would have been more likely to receive a series of lashes in the yard and weeks of thin gruel on the table than anything that even smacked in the slightest of support.
It was with these dark thoughts of defeat that I ambled along the fields of the Cardiff estate, ignoring the serfs as I wound my way through the path that crisscrossed the waves of nearly-mature grain stalks. They were no doubt smiling at me solely in light of my position as the Lord’s son, not for any great love of the rake that walked before them. After what seemed like ages of plodding, I finally crossed the threshold of my father’s rather unremarkable cottage.
I could never understand how a man with my father’s wealth, accumulated over decades of successful border campaigns on behalf of the King and indentured servitude from the peasants who tilled his fields, would choose to live in such a small and boring hovel. I heard my mother, when she was alive, henpeck my father to no end about building a bigger residence near some of the fallow land close to the forest. My father would just respond with a hostile silence or change the subject, usually to some mind-numbingly boring monologue about the ever-present threat from neighbouring Liseria. I was bent over, unlacing my boots, when he started at me.
“I see you have had another lesson from the greatest teacher: pain.”
I ignored him and finished the labour of undress. I winced from the stinging of the bruises, but I refused to cry out, to give the bastard any satisfaction. Unfortunately, that kind self-denial only generated pride in the twisted old man. Not that he ever had much call to be proud of me. I felt rage burn in my cheeks. After what seemed like an eternity of discomfort, both from the aftermath of the beating and from the piercing gaze of my father as he stood there, immobile in his judgment, I finished and rose to face the man.
“You received this missive from the rectory this afternoon.”
He handed me a piece of folded parchment. A relief of the Blue Cathedral of Isha had been pressed into the glob of wax that formed the seal.
A seal that had been broken.
Rather than engage in useless indignation with my father, I bit my tongue, unfolded the paper, and read the words on the page. I was to ascend to knighthood. Tomorrow, no less.
“You have been given a great honour, my son. I am proud of you.”
It was the most emotion I had seen out of the man for the entirety of my life. I would have reacted with some measure of surprise and wonder, if not for the anger boiling in my chest.
“Proud of me? Me? I just received a humiliating beating from the most useless of all the squires in training on the grounds today. Most useless, of course, next to me. My sword did not once touch the man. And he’s seven years my junior!”
I did not pause for long enough for my father to interject. Instead, I began to pace.
“You want me, your cowardly son, the oldest squire in training, the failure who gets passed over year after year, to finally come be with you on the fields of battle? To perhaps join you in a border skirmish against Liseria, so what? That I might make you proud? I will only disappoint you, and you know it! I hoped you had realized this and were preparing to give me a position as provisioner or to tend to the sheep or something more in line with my ‘talents.’”
My skin was burning and my chest began stinging, but I pressed on.
“But maybe that’s not it. Maybe you know that I am a useless shit and you are counting on it. It would be perfect for you if I had my head caved in by a Liserian mace or chest peppered with their poisoned arrows. With mother gone, and me to join her, you will be free to remain alone in this place, hoarding your gold and telling your terrible stories. Only whose ear will you bend, with me gone? Will you bore your serfs? Yes, perfect, that will give you opportunity to discipline them if they make the mistake of letting their boredom be known. Or maybe you will preach your drivel to the sheep and cattle. Beasts cannot demonstrate any dissatisfaction with the braying of a tired old widower.”
When I came back to reality, I realized my left fist was clenched at my side and my right finger was pointing at the man who stood across from me on the wood of the cottage floor. Behind him, I noticed the eyes of my mother staring out from a portrait on the wall. The anger dissipated. I let my arm drop. Shame now crept in to burn my face.
My father, characteristically silent, stared at me. Where I expected my rage to be returned in kind, or at least a fuming passive aggression in answer to my anger, there was only sadness in his eyes. After a little while, he spoke.
“I have always been proud of you, my son. It may be difficult for you to see that at times, but it is truth. I know that life has been… different, since your mother passed. It has been hard for me, too. I would give away all of my wealth and fortune to have her back again.”
My cheeks and chest were aflame again. I would be needing some ale, and soon.
“If you truly feel this way, I will speak to the Bishop. We will cancel the ascension ceremony and I shall make you a member of the supply train. You are right: you have always have been a good hand at tending to the cattle. Perhaps you can find your peace there so doing in the rear guard.”
There it was, a kindness offered up by my father. A mercy that I had neither expected nor for which I had hoped. I wanted so badly to agree to the proposition. And yet, now that escape from the hell of military life was before me, I couldn’t bring myself to welcome it.
“No, father,” I said, my head hanging in shame. “I will take the knighthood. I will redouble my efforts in training so that I am prepared for combat, whatever may come.”
I pulled on my cloak and beat a hasty retreat from the cottage, down the path and into the city. The sun was setting and I was hurrying to avoid having to deal with any of the lantern-lighters on the main road. I paused before pushing open the great oak door of the Green Dragon, long enough to make sure that the hot tears were off my cheeks and I had composed myself.
They would take my money and give me service, but the wenches were never happy to see sadness upon a man.