Judoc walked aimlessly through the castle, not certain who to approach, feeling all over again like he was the farmer’s son who had nothing to his name and had fought every step of the way to get to this point. All around him, his fellow trainees were gathered around greater knights and aloof lords, accepting their challenges to pass the last of their tests before winning spurs.
The final test for all knights-hopeful was to approach a lord or knight in need and meet three Challenges of Chivalry—to prove that a knight was not simply his horse and his sword, was not simply a soldier, but a good and honorable man beyond the battlefield. A knight at war was useful, a knight at peace was invaluable.
He saw his fellows clustered around all the usual knights and lords as he wandered, and he knew from gossip amongst them that the lords and knights always handed out the same challenges, to help the students on their way. The professors had assured him that all lords and knights would participate, and play fairly, and be good to all students–
But Judoc still was reluctant, as he looked at each and every one of them. None of them drew him, none appealed. He was not certain why, or what he was looking for—or why he was looking for anything other than a quick and easy test to pass like the others—but he knew he would not settle until he found the elusive something he sought.
Eventually, he grew frustrated and tired of wandering, and settled in a chair by the great fire in the public hall. He scowled at the floor, annoyed it provided him no answers, and raked a hand restlessly through his red-brown hair.
A sigh that seemed to echo his frustrations made him look up, and for the first time he noticed who else sat before the great fire—Lord Rozzen, a scholar of some sort. Judoc had never crossed paths with him, really; everyone knew Lord Rozzen kept to himself. Judoc has once seen him yelling at the Consort about something, and had been surprised the Consort only seemed amused about being taken to task by a lord he could have had thrown in jail for such an offense.
Presently, Lord Rozzen only looked tired, frustrated, and in pain. He had a large book spread across his lap, the words written in old script, faded and smudged. Curious as to why he was so frustrated by a book, Judoc asked, “You seem troubled, my lord. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Lord Rozzen jumped, clearly startled, head snapping up—and he had the brightest golden eyes Judoc had ever seen, large behind the gold-rimmed spectacles perched precariously on his nose. He was handsome, in a quiet sort of way—like his books, Rozzen thought. His features were tidy, soft, pretty but not ornate. He also, Judoc noted for no good reason, had a great many freckles and a small scar under one eye. “Oh, that time of year is it? Why the devil are you here? The others manage that nonsense, unless they’re so overfull they sent you here.”
“What—oh, no, my lord. I mean, it is that time of year, but—well, I only asked to ask, not because of the challenge. I wondered why a book would make someone heave so great a sigh.”
“Oh,” Lord Rozzen said, staring at him, and for a moment he seemed almost disappointed. Before Judoc could say anything, however, Lord Rozzen continued, “This book is causing a lot of sighing because it is hard to read, and my eyes are tired from the strain, but I need to know what it says in order to break the curse I am working on.”
Judoc looked at him in surprise. “You’re a curse breaker?”
Lord Rozzen looked disappointed again, but it was quickly buried. “Yes, I am,” he said stiffly, and bent back to the book.
Reaching out, Judoc took it from him and turned it so he could read it. “This is a grimoire,” he said, impressed. “These aren’t even legal, without the King’s consent.” He looked up and smiled, “My grandfather had one; it was a gift from the crown for killing a curse mage during the war. Where did you stop reading?” He looked down before Rozzen could reply, and simply started reading from the top of the first page. It was slow at first, and the firelight did not completely make up for a good lamp, but it was no worse than reading for his grandfather.
He kept reading, absorbing himself in the complicated text, forgetting everything else. He read the way his grandfather had taught him, steady, even, and clear—until suddenly he realized he was finished. Judoc stared at the book a moment, then shook himself and looked up with a smile.
Rozzen was staring at him, a slight flush to his cheeks. “You’re very good at that.”
Judoc laughed, scrubbing at his hair. “My grandfather made me read to him. He liked books, but his eyes went bad as he got older. No one else had the patience, if they could read at all. So I did it every night until he fell asleep. I liked doing it.” He hadn’t realized until then just how much he missed it, he had been so busy with sword, lances, horses, drills, dancing, etiquette—being a knight, it was easy to forget all the things about home he had liked even as he had remembered all the things he’d hated.
He closed the book and handed it back, “Uh—did it help? With that curse?”
“Yes,” Rozzen said, and seemed to collect himself. “I needed to know how this particular curse mage wove a particular curse, since it forms the basis for the curse I am trying to break. I think I have a better idea of what to do now, thank you.” He stood up, and pulled something from his finger, tossing it to Judoc. “For your chivalrous deed, knight.”
Judoc caught it deftly, and stood to bow politely as Rozzen departed, staring after him a moment. He resumed his seat, feeling lost again, and stared at the gold ring in his had—Proof of Challenge. One down, two to go.
Several days later, he was trudging home from being sent to deliver a message—work normally reserved for heralds, but the area was dangerous and the message unpleasant, so they had opted to send a knightht-hopeful. The others being too busy with their challenges, and Judoc at loose ends because he would not approach anyone, they had sent him.
He was glad he had not worn his armor on the way back; there was so much rain pounding down he shuddered to think how much more miserable he would be in cold, wet mail. Judoc sighed and tried futilely to wipe rain from his face, pulling his hood further down. Another hour or so, and he would be home; he could clean up, dry off, and fall into bed—and he dared anyone to make him stir before he wanted.
It was dreary going, and the clouds and rain were so heavy he could not see very far ahead—and dark was coming far too fast, curse it. He should have stayed put another day, but he had thought he would be able to beat the weather.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he almost did not see the figure several paces ahead of him, off on the side of the road. Drawing his own mount to a halt, Judoc stared at the figure huddled by a horse that lay dead in the road. He dismounted, the jangling of his spurs muffled but still audible, causing the man to look up.
Lord Rozzen, and he looked even more miserable than Judoc—covered in mud, his face scratched and bleeding, and he was definitely holding his arm gingerly against his chest. “My lord,” Judoc said, kneeling beside him on the muddy ground. It took only a glance to see what must have happened—the horse had taken a fall, broken its leg, and Rozzen had been forced to put it down. But the fall had cost him not just a horse, but clearly an ability to travel well on his own. “Let us get you home,” Judoc said, and quickly gathered up Rozzen’s saddlebags and knapsack.
When the bags were settled on his own mount, Judoc returned to Rozzen and carefully helped him to his feet. “Can you mount?”
“Yes,” Rozzen said, pale with pain but manner one of stubborn determination.
Judoc nodded and led him to his horse, then helped him up. When Rozzen was settled, Judoc swung up behind him, wrapping his own large cloak around them both as much as he was able as he ordered his horse to go. It was slow going, but suddenly it did not seem so tedious—even if they never spoke, even if Rozzen somehow managed to fall asleep.
When the castle at last came into view, Judoc could have wept from relief. He rode through the gates, across the yard and right up to the keep proper. Only then, as servants came rushing out to help, did he finally dismount and slowly help Rozzen.
Rozzen, who looked even worse than he had before. Ignoring the servants, save to order them to bring supplies and determine the location of Rozzen’s rooms, Judoc led Rozzen away. In Rozzen’s chambers, he stripped Rozzen down and cleaned off with the hot water servants quickly brought. Toweling him dry, Judoc pushed him into his bed, made him drink a potion, and then finally let him go back to sleep.
Only after Rozzen seemed to be resting well did Judoc finally depart to tend to himself, sneezing the whole time.
When he woke some time later, his room was lit by a single candle—which gleamed on a gold ring, set upon a scrap of parchment. He picked up the parchment, read the words of thanks, stared at the wax pressed with Rozzen’s seal.
Picking up the ring, he slid it onto his finger to join the first, then pulled the blankets back up around him and returned to sleep.
Judoc should feel like panicking—well, really he should just be panicking. The challenges would close in just three more days, he was a challenge short, a vassal short, and soon would be a knight without his official spurs or a lord to offer is fealty. He would, in three days, be entirely useless.
He was too busy daydreaming of Lord Rozzen to care, and what a great fool that made him. Judoc sighed, and wished again he could get the man out of his head—but everywhere he turned, something else reminded him of Lord Rozzen. Of their two encounters, and the strange disappointment he felt that each time he was given a token and brushed aside.
Tokens were the very least of his concern, but it seemed a stupid thing to say when of course he should want tokens—he was in a mess now because he had not sought them. Now he would sit alone while his fellows celebrated and moved on with their lives.
Making a face, thoroughly sick of himself, Judoc decided to go for a ride. Returning to his room, he changed his courtly clothes for an older tunic and leggings, and light leather armor. It took him only moments to ready his horse and ride out, urging his horse to a steady pace as he traveled the countryside in search of an answer he knew he would not find.
He was far too intrigued by Lord Rozzen, and letting that hopeless infatuation damage the rest of his life. He needed to move on, especially as there was, strictly speaking, nothing at all to move on from—it was all in his own head.
The sound of screams and shouts jerked him from his thoughts, and he stopped his horse, looking for the horse—and saw farmers in the midst of a half-harvested field waving their arms. He left his horse and ran across the field to them, immediately seeing the problem.
One of the men lay on the ground, shuddering and twitching, spittle covering his mouth, eyes rolled to the back of his head. To judge from the smells of burnt flesh and hot metal, the way his hand was blackened, the ruined water jug beside him–
“He’s been cursed,” Judoc said quietly. He looked up at one of the women, “Go to the castle, fetch Lord Rozzen. He is a curse breaker. You, take him to the road, tend him as best you’re able. Has anyone else been afflicted?”
“Aye,” an old man said. “But he died in the night, we thought from illness.”
Judoc nodded, and gestured. “Go to my saddlebags; there is a bottle of purified water in them. Test everything that might possibly have a curse placed in it.”
“We’re never going to get the harvesting done,” the old man said, looking all the older suddenly. “That is four people now who will not be in the field.”
“I will help make up for the four, until the curse breaker comes and set all to rights,” Judoc said, and stripped off his armor.
The farmers, almost a dozen of them gathered by that point, eyed him critically—knights and lords were all well and good, their expressions said, but they did not make good farmers. Judoc only smiled and threw his over tunic to join his leather armor. Then he picked up the cursed man’s abandoned scythe and started working. He had not worked in a field in a long time, but his body had not forgotten the rhythms of reaping the crops his family worked so hard to plant.
He might be a knight because he had never wanted to be a farmer, but he had not forgotten how to be a farmer. Time passed as he worked, and he was aware of others in the field, of a commotion by the road—but the harvesting came first, because the harvest must always come first.
When it grew too dark to work, he finally stopped, sore and filthy and exhausted—but the farmers were happy, making him feel awkward with their praise.
By the roadside, the cursed man was awake, pale and shaky but recovering. Lord Rozzen stood nearby, speaking with a cluster of villagers. He turned as Judoc approached, and smiled warmly. “Greetings, Knight. Thanks to your opportune arrival, a terrible curse was broken well before greater damage could be caused. The villain was just taken away by the Sheriff. You move in the field like one born to it.”
“I was born to it,” Judoc replied. “My family works the land of Lord Grayso, nine days’ journey rom here. I am glad I was able to help. So all is well now?”
“Yes,” Lord Rozzen said. “You were smart to have me sent for, and his Majesty is not pleased that the farmers were put in danger because lords were squabbling.” He drew from his finger a gold ring, but this one was set with a small ruby. Not just a token for a challenge met, but a token for a challenge well and honorably met.
In reply, Judoc stripped off the two gold rings he already wore and dropped them into Rozzen’s palm. Rozzen frowned at him. “I do not understand.”
Judoc shrugged, tired from work, angry for no good reason, and completely disheartened. “I do not want rings for reading books and helping injured travelers and cursed farmers. I am not so desperate for tokens that I expect reward for ordinary behavior. Give my tokens to the farmers, if someone must have them. Their daily deeds accomplish far more than I.”
Turning sharply on his heel, he stalked to his horse and yanked his tunic back on. He bundled his armor up and attached it to his saddle, lacking the patience to put it back on as he should. Swinging up into the saddle—he stopped short to see Rozzen approach him. “Yes, my lord?”
“I’ve lent my horse to the farmers for the night, to help transport those still weak from the curse—we found more afflicted in other fields. Would you give me a ride back to the castle?”
“Of course,” Judoc replied, surprised that Rozzen was being so pleasant after Judoc had so rudely rejected all his tokens. He held out a hand, and helped Rozzen swing up into the saddle behind him.
Trying to ignore the arms that wrapped firmly around him, the body pressed up against him despite the fact that Judoc could use a very thorough bath, he spurred his horse into motion and returned to the castle before it grew full dark.
Reaching the castle, he rode until the reached the steps of the keep, silent as Rozzen dismounted. Rozzen climbed the steps, then turned around and suddenly asked, “Why do you think you do not deserve the tokens offered?”
Judoc shrugged irritably, not entirely able to put it all into words. He had not acted as he did for tokens, and nothing he did had required he be a knight. Anyone could help as he did, and they did so every day. He should not be rewarded for the ordinary—and even if he had done the extraordinary, he did not want any reward but Rozzen’s regard.
Two encounters with Rozzen should have engraved him so deeply into Judoc’s skin, but his mother had always said he was, regretfully, an all or nothing sort.
“I have done nothing to merit them,” he finally said, weary of the whole matter and his own stupid head. “I am only a knight-hopeful too distracted by wanting your regard to focus on improving myself as a knight. I have met no challenges, accomplished no deeds, that prove me suitable to be a knight. Rewards are for real accomplishments, not smitten fools who accomplish nothing. Good night, my lord.”
He turned and rode off to the stables, not looking back, trying hard not to think about all he had said—or that in three days he would have little choice but to become either a mercenary or a farmer, as he clearly would never be a knight.
Judoc finished his third cup of wine as the last of the knights were finally given their official spurs. He wanted to be anywhere else in the world right then, but could not do his fellows the discourtesy of seeing them attain what they had all worked so hard and long to gain.
He also could not stop staring at Lord Rozzen, who sat at the high table and chatted easily with the King and Consort, the other nobles invited to sit with them. He was no one who would ever take real notice of a lowly farmer’s son who had not been able to win his spurs—never mind his rude rebuff of the tokens.
Snagging the wine pitcher, Judoc refilled his cup and drank deeply. Soon, he hoped. It looked as though the Consort was going to make another speech, and then at last would be able to slip away.
“As I earlier stated,” the Consort said, as the hall fell silent, “The goal of these challenges is to prove that knights have their uses in times of peace as well as times of war. Tales of knights run amuck continue to haunt the good name of chivalry, and we work hard to ensure such tales will remain firmly in the past.
“As every knight here has proven, there are ways to make use of sword and shield beyond the field of battle. The people will always need someone to fight bandits and robbers, to slay ogres and dragons, to brave lands that no ordinary man can face. But being a knight is more than wielding sword and shield, more than facing danger and opposition.”
The Consort paused, moved around the table to stand at the top of the steps that led to the King’s private dais. “Sometimes,” he finally continued, “the greatest deeds a knight—indeed, any man—can perform are the smallest. It is easy, in the glory of slaying a great dragon, to forget that not everyone needs a dragon slain. Sometimes, the problem is simply a book that needs to be read. Sometimes it is being alone and injured on the side of the road. Sometimes, it is a harvest that needs to be brought in. All of these deeds were small, easily dismissed an ordinary and therefore unremarkable—but each of these small deeds saved a life, in some ways they saved many lives. A good knight can go to war, slay dragons, fight bandits, attend tourney. A great knight eschews all these things to read a book, to help a wounded traveler, to pick up a scythe.”
Judoc, staring in open surprise, jerked as the Consort suddenly looked straight at him and ordered, “Knight-hopeful Judoc, rise and kneel.”
The command made him move while his mind was still seized up. Setting his wine hastily aside, Judoc rose and strode to the bottom of the steps, then knelt, head bowed low. “You were offered three tokens, Knight-hopeful,” the Consort said. “You refused them all, for deeds you considered unworthy. Is this true?”
“Y-yes, Consort,” Judoc said.
“One of those tokens was offered by the King himself, and still you refused it,” the Consort continued. “The easiest thing for a knight to forget is humility. It is not for a knight to reward himself, after all, but to serve his lord and King faithfully and be rewarded by his service. But,” he added, a smile in his voice, “he may and should accept those rewards bestowed to him upon others when they feel his service merits such reward. You do yourself, your lord, and your King an injustice by refusing the displays of their admiration.”
Judoc looked up in surprise, “Consort–”
“In future, when your lord rewards you, accept it,” the Consort admonished, smile widening. “Also remember, Knight, that you are not the one who decides if you have earned your spurs. For proving yourself to be not just a good knight, but a great one, you are also made welcome into the Order of the Star.”
Judoc opened his mouth, but no words came out. Rare was the knight admitted to that order—they numbered not even a hundred, and all of them veteran knights. He had never heard of a knight with new spurs being bestowed such an honor.
“Rise, Knight, and allow your lord to place your spurs,” the Consort ordered, and stepped aside as Judoc rose.
All questions, all words—all thoughts fled Judoc’s mind as Lord Rozzen descended the dais, a set of jeweled spurs in his hand. He knelt before Judoc and removed his plain spurs, replacing them with the new. Standing again, he smiled and said quietly, “I hope you do not object to being my knight. You might have asked about my regard, instead of assuming you did not have it.”
Judoc only nodded, still not able to speak.
Rozzen laughed, and kissed each of his cheeks, then his mouth—lingering a beat too long for it to be counted as entirely chaste. Then he stepped back, and swept his new knight a bow. The Consort stepped forward and bellowed, “All hail Sir Judoc, Knight of the Order of the Star.”
Judoc barely noticed, eyes only for the way Rozzen smiled at him, the warm regard in his bright gold eyes.