So, I've been toying with this story idea for years, never really did anything with it. I don't often ask for critiques so early on in my process. Hell, I usually don't ask for them at all, but I'm trying to be more serious about my writing, so I'd like some thoughts on this. It's only the first little bit, what I've written this afternoon.
No one had told her exactly what to expect when the door would be opened in front of her. She was nervous, trying to keep her breathing under control as she couldn't help but squeeze the hilt of the sheathed sword at her hip. The weight of the armor she wore and the shield on her back was oppressive, weighing her down like it had never done since the day she first put it on. She wanted to fidget but didn't allow herself to, worried that if she did her armor would clink, giving away her discomfort. The men in the room were people she respected, feared, and loved all at the same time. She wished someone would talk to her, tell her that she was going to do fine, but she was alone. She tried to remind herself that it could be worse. If she had to wear her helm as well she'd likely to be soaked from head to toe in sweat. Forcing herself to take a deep breath, she released the hilt of her sword and stared at the knots on the oak door in front of her until, with a creak and a groan, the door swung open on it's iron hinges into the room.
Colored light streamed in through ornately designed stained glass windows. Blues, purples and oranges mixed, the dust motes that swirled through the sunbeams lighting up like tiny fireflies in the air. The entire eastern wall was glass and color and iron frames that glowed in the morning sunlight. No picture was obvious, no figures or shapes that resembled anything that she recognized. It was all abstract angles and hues, warm colors that filled the room leaving no shadow on the stone masonry. A red carpet began where the door frame joined the floor in front of her, stretching forward in a straight line. Gold patterns inlaid on the crimson edges of the carpet reflected the various colors and seemed to glow. Unlit torches were arrayed along the walls in regular spacing, wooden shafts held in place with iron weaving. At the entrance, not ten feet from where she stood, two heavily armored figures held still, their swords unsheathed with the tip of the blades pressing into the stone floor. The two figures rested their hands on the pommel of their swords. They watched her from the dark recesses of their helms. At the end of the room stood two more figures, armored like the first two, but without helms and their swords were sheathed. She recognized the faces of Eric, her master, and Wesley, representative to the throne. All four men were Paladins, the order of knights that stood apart from the kingdom. The order of knights that answered to no one, not even the king. The order of knights that was charged with ensuring the sovereignty of the kingdom against all who would undermine it.
The moment that she stepped forward into the room, Morgan of the Easterlin family, daughter of Timothy and Alice, would be leaving her life behind forever. She thought about what brought her to this place, the choices she had made, the mistakes along the way. She thought of her mother, dead from a wasting illness when she was a child. Her father, succumbing to the same illness even as she stood in this place. She thought of the friends she would never again join in laughter and sorrow. She was here because honor demanded it and the pride and dignity her father had given her forbade even the slightest hesitation. Steeling her nerves she stepped into the room. The two Paladins that stood at the doorway watched her enter, their helms turning silently as she passed. She could feel their eyes on her back and wondered briefly if they had any doubts about what they were about to do. She pushed the thought away and kept her strides calm and even, resisting the temptation to hurry to the end of the room. Eric and Wesley watched her approach, the only sound the small rings of metal plating sliding against metal plating. In a moment she was there. She did not bow or drop to one knee or show any fealty at all. She stood and faced the two men, looking them each in the eye in turn, Eric to her left and Wesley to her right. None spoke until a groan and a thud marked the closing of the door that Morgan had entered through. It was Eric who spoke first.
"Morgan of the Easterlins, you stand before us as a subject of the king. As a child did you swear a vow of fealty to that king?"
Morgan met her master's eyes. "I did."
"And did you not choose a life that would force you to break that vow?"
No hesitation. "I did."
"Then as your master, and your friend, I give you one final chance to recant and reaffirm your devotion to the king."
Morgan couldn't help but show surprise on her face. There was no turning back, no second chances. She had never heard of another being given a chance to go back to their old life before. She looked at Wesley, the only man who's influence stretched to the crown. His face was impassive, stoic, but he looked at her intently. Stared at her eyes, searching her. There was something there, something...
"I stand by my choice." Was all she said.
"Then you are no longer my apprentice."
The sound of swords being sheathed filled the quiet after Eric spoke those final words. Morgan could hear the approach of the two Paladins from the entranceway, their footfalls seeming to echo in her ears. She sensed them behind her, very close as the sound they made died away and once again silence filled the hall. There was a scraping sound, and then the rustle of leather on skin, and she knew that both of the Paladins had removed their helms. It was Wesley that spoke next.
"There was a time when I thought I knew what people expected of me. I was raised with my life already planned out, my destiny already known. Everything changed in a moment. Some would say it was a moment of insanity, or of desperation. The four who surround you now, Morgan of the Easterlins, all know it was neither of these things. It was devotion that brought me to this place. Devotion, honor and hope. And now you too know of what it is I speak."
She felt weight on her armor, saw the leather gloves with armor plates over the back of the palms on her shoulders, each man behind her placing his hand on her. Eric put his hand over top of the hand on her left shoulder and Wesley put his over the hand on her right. Wesley spoke again. "I may have lost a subject to my crown, but I have gained something so much more on this day. I have gained a sister. Welcome to the Paladins, Morgan of the Order."
Morgan fought against the impulse, trying to remain as stoic but her lips fluttered in a smile. "Thank you, your majesty."
"No, no," Wesley said, grinning. "I am not your king, not anymore. I am your brother."
"As am I," Eric said.
"And I," Came the voices she recognized as Steven and Christopher from behind her.
Morgan stopped trying to fight it and her face lit in the joy of the moment. Eric clapped her on her upper arm and drew her into a hug. "I knew this day would come, little sister," He said. "I never doubted it, not even for a moment."
"Thank you, Master," She said, then caught herself. "Eric." She wanted to say more, but her mind could not express what she was feeling in words, so she just repeated, "Thank you."
Eric withdrew from the hug, but didn't let go of her arm. He looked at Wesley, a question in his eyes. Morgan creased her brows as the two men exchanged silent words. Finally Wesley nodded. Morgan tilted her head and looked at Eric. "Let's go see your father," He said.
"I know, Paladins are supposed to leave their old life behind forever, but your father has but a small time left. He should see you one last time." Morgan stepped back a half step, Eric's hand falling down her arm until she held it in her grasp. He squeezed her hand. She swallowed, her mind fighting against the swarm of emotions that tumbled inside of her. She hadn't seen her father in several months, the last test of the Paladin ensuring that any who were admitted could let go of all ties. She had known he was dying, already barely mobile when she said her goodbyes. Even then there had been doubt and she would've died before returning to him in dishonor, preferring he believed her absence to be proof of her success. But now she may be able to seem him again, to tell him herself that she had done it, to hear it in her own voice. But as when Eric had offered her a chance to return to her old life, a question filled her mind. Paladins don't return. Never.
It was forbidden.
"Eric. Wesley. I have said my goodbyes." She took a deep breath. "My father loves me and is proud of me and he will die knowing that I have honored him as best I can." She paused and looked at each of them in turn. "My only family is the order now."
Wesley leaned forward towards her, nodding as he said, "Then let us go drink to your father." Morgan nodded at him and he grinned and stood straight. "And then we will drink to our sister! Treban dannocht inno della tie ybena!"
Eric, Morgan, Christopher and Stephen all responded in unison, "Della tie ybena!" The four Paladins clapped her shoulders again and then began filing out of the room ahead of her. Morgan hesitated before following them, eager to join, but taking a moment to press her fingers against the breastplate over her heart, over the small pendant that hung from her neck and rested against her skin underneath the armor and leather she wore. A gift from her father. "Honor and truth," She whispered to herself, saying the words in the common tongue that the Paladins had taken as their motto in the language of the Elders.
"Loyalty to none save honor and truth."
- - -
"I'm standing there, muddy as hell and cold as ice when the bastard has the audacity to tell me I'm going to catch my death standing like that!" Stephen was saying, a half full mug of ale in his hands as three maidens sat beside him at the bar counter, completely entranced by his story. "I mean, I've got a sword at his throat and I'm mad enough to tear his heart out with my bare hands and he's still taunting me." Stephen took a swig of ale and slammed the mug down on the countertop with a bang. A barmaid started near the end of the table and glared at him. Stephen grinned drunkenly right back at her.
"What did you do?" One of the maidens, a blonde who came from an obviously wealthy family, judging by her clothes, said breathlessly. The other two leaned in towards him.
"What did I do? I tossed my sword aside, picked him up by the neck and told him I'd be plenty warm wearing him like a cloak!"
"Did...did you kill him?" Another maiden, this one a brunette from a less wealthy family asked in a whisper.
"Of course not!" Stephen roared good naturedly. "But let me tell you girls, I was plenty warm after I was done with him!"
Christopher shook his head, grinning. "I swear with all the maidens he takes to his bed, we'll never lose Stephen to an assassin or in battle, no. He's going to end up dying of some strange disease that rots his cock off." Morgan smirked and shook her head.
They were sitting at a table with Eric and Wesley in the Open Gate. It was a small but well kept tavern that was situated near the barracks that the Paladins called home. Or, at least it was when the Paladins were here in the city of Auren. Auren was the capital of the kingdom, the seat of the king's power. The most dominant feature was the fortress that was the king's Citadel, a massive castle that had been built a thousand years before and slowly expanded ever since. Back when the fortress had been built the city was a satellite of the kingdom of Pasbenry, an outpost to house guards to the envoy of the wild folk. Of course, that had been where there were still wild folk. The Dentar and the Ellten had lived in the forests then, but exposure to human civilization had taught them the benefits of living in houses and running shops and farms. Since the fall of the Pasbenry line a lot of the northern cities had fallen into ruin. Now Auren, the largest city left, was the capital and the fortress that used to be an outpost was the king's home. Of course, that was before the king had become a Paladin. Now a council ruled the kingdom and Wesley would often have to return to keep things in line.
The Open Gate, though, was a place he returned because he wanted to, not because he had to. All the Paladins loved to come here when they were in town. The construction was mostly wooden, the only masonry serving as the foundation. Great beams stretched across the ceiling, creating strength in this building that would withstand much punishment. White walls that were cleaned often and were crossed with brown stained wood kept the cold out and warmth in while clear glass windows would bathe the interior with sunlight during the day. Of course, now it was night and the flickering light of lamps and torches filled the air with orange and yellow.
"Well, he gets more women than the rest of us combined, that's for sure," Eric said, taking a drink from his mug after speaking.
"I'm not sure how," Morgan said, "He's pretty scruffy. Needs to trim his beard. All that red scraggly mess."
"Idiot needs a haircut, too," Eric said.
"It's those boyish good looks, Eric," Wesley taunted. "Something you haven't had for twenty years."
Eric put his mug down and turned to Wesley. "Boy, I've had more women in my bed than you've got rings on that shirt of yours!" He said, jabbing a finger into Wesley's chain mail shirt. The five of them had left their plate armor in the barracks, but you never knew when you had to act, so it was normal for Paladins to wear some kind of protection at all times. Morgan nursed her ale and listened, amused.
"You know what, old man? You're probably right. Of course, I'm not sure the women
in the stables count."
Morgan choked on her ale and stifled a laugh as she coughed. Eric glared at her as she recovered and smiled sweetly at him. "Why Eric, I'm sure any women here would be overjoyed to have you in their bed," She said.
"You're goddamn right they would," He said, eyeing her suspiciously.
"To have a man of your obvious talents and experience
, I shudder to think of the state you would leave them in," She continued. Wesley started to chuckle and Christopher stifled a laugh with a drink. "Your talented hands would make a wreck of the poor girl, but when it comes time to finish her off, well, even steel droops after so many years." (Note: I know this isn't very funny yet, but it's a placeholder until I can improve the joke. You get the idea. If you have any suggestions, I welcome them)
Wesley and Christopher howled with laughter loud enough that even Stephen looked over, distracted as he was by the three lovely maidens. Morgan tilted her head and grinned at Eric as she drank from her mug, meeting his glare with raised eyebrows, but even she could see the laughter in his eyes. Eric sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. "All right, Morgan," He said. "You've earned this. Tomorrow. I'll meet you at the yard after breakfast. Not only will there be quite the maiden stumbling around looking like she got fucked by a horse, but I'll show you that you still have a lot to learn from this old man."
"I'll be there Eric. Should I bring a sword? Hammer? Or do you think you can take me armed as I am right now?" Morgan said, closing her hand into a fist and raising it in front of her, giving it a little shake.
"Unarmed sounds good to me. Now if you'll excuse me," Eric said as he stood up, finishing his ale. "It's time this old man went to bed. Gentlemen. My lady."
Morgan chuckled as he left, draining the last of her ale. Setting the mug down, she noticed that Stephen had disappeared with all three of the girls that had been listening to his stories. She sat back in her chair, adjusting the dagger on her hip with her left hand as she did so. "You know, Morgan," Christopher said. "He's probably going to wallop you tomorrow."
Morgan laughed, "I know. But it'll be fun. I haven't sparred with him in a while and I haven't been in a fistfight since that brawl at the Slippery Frog."
"Ah ha," Christopher chuckled. "I remember that. You took on what, like three people? At once?"
"Not by myself. The prostitute they had been harassing took one out with a club when he turned away from her." Morgan saw the barmaid waving to her. She shook her head and placed her hand over the top of her mug. She was done drinking for the night. The barmaid nodded and turned to another of her remaining patrons.
"I remember being left a bloody mess once at the Slippery Frog," Wesley said, his eyes unfocused as he remembered. "Any time you want a fight you can find one there. I always wonder how the owner stays in business with how often chairs and tables are smashed."
"He's a woodworker," Morgan said.
"Huh?" Wesley asked, refocusing his eyes on her.
"My dad used to work with him. The owner of the Slippery Frog builds his own furniture. His wife runs the place, tough as she is, while he makes sure there's somewhere to sit and a place to put your drink."
"I never knew that," Wesley said.
"Me neither," Christopher added. The table was quiet. The night was starting to wear on and the crowd in the Open Gate was thinning. Christopher stood. "Well, I may not be Stephen, but I'm going to try my luck before it gets any later. Have fun getting beaten tomorrow, Morgan."
"Oh, I will, Christopher. Don't put your cock anywhere you'll regret."
"I'll be sure not to. Night Wesley."
"Christopher," Wesley said, nodding.
As Christopher walked away, Morgan sighed. "I'm always going to be a little bit different, no matter what." Wesley looked at her. She met his gaze, saying, "I don't have a cock to put anywhere I may or may not regret."
Wesley didn't say anything, idly spinning his mug, watching it turn slowly in his hands. It was quiet for a while as the two of them sat in silence. Eventually he spoke. "You know, most people don't recognize me as...as what I used to be. What I still am, a little bit anyway. I guess that's the idea. Since becoming a Paladin I've loved my life just a little bit more every day. Going to the castle and dealing with that life, that's not who I am. It was the life I was born to, but not the one I want to lead." Wesley looked up at Morgan. "Sometimes my brothers have to go in my stead because of my other duties. The kingdom holds no real sway over me, my loyalty is to the order, but until there's a proper heir..." He trailed off. "I'm just a little bit different, too."
"Sometimes our choices make us prisoners, sometimes they set us free."
"Yeah." They sat in silence for a while. "Morgan, Paladins aren't allowed lifelong attachments. They complicate loyalties. I'm sure you've noticed, however, that there's nothing saying Paladins can't take women into their beds. And there's nothing saying a woman who is a Paladin is subject to any rules that men don't have to abide by. We stand outside of normal society, we are subject to no one but each other and our ideals."
"Are you trying to say I should take a woman into my bed, Wesley?" Morgan asked, her eyebrow raised.
Wesley grinned and shook his head. "No. I'm saying the expectations that were placed on you as a woman are no longer yours to bear." He looked down at his mug and started to spin it with his hands again. "When I was in training the demands placed on me were extraordinary. I had no time for recreation. No time for women. When I was...When I was living in the castle as a fourteen year old, my father would bring me girls on a regular basis, let me have my choice of them. A couple years later I began training to be a Paladin and I wasn't with a woman for four years. On the night of my ceremony, I got drunk and slept with two girls. And at least one every night for a week." Wesley gave a small chuckle and looked up at Morgan. "Being a Paladin is romantic to a lot of girls. We're mysterious and heroic and our training keeps our bodies in top form. Most of the unmarried ones jump at the chance. Even some of the married ones, although we had a long talk about being discreet after one particular incident. Anyway." He looked back down at his mug. "You've been in training for four years and if you want some companionship, then don't deny yourself. Take what precautions you think necessary and if there are consequences, if you become pregnant, you won't be shut out." Wesley looked back up and met Morgan's eyes. "But you can never keep the child. Ever."
"No attachments," She said. Wesley nodded.