“Face it, Calenbry wench. You’ll never make it as a knight!”
The memory of Mord’s mocking laughter sickened Jess even now, three years after that bright-eyed, naive young version of herself had first attended this college of war. She still remembered foolishly accepting the young man’s challenge, despite dark whispers of what a savage he could be when he fought to win. How utterly confident she had been in her own skills, that day, more than willing to compete with the unofficial favorite for the approval of Lord Hyve, one of King Richard’s knight commanders. Renowned throughout Erovering, Lord Hyve was a celebrated warrior who was rumored never to have lost a jousting match while in his prime. Jess and Mord had both coveted the prize of victory that day, which was nothing less than a chance to squire under Lord Hyve himself, one's path to knighthood then all but assured.
It had been hot as a cook's griddle that day, with the crowd of noble onlookers cheering on their favorites, often as not their heirs. The training grounds proper, swampy with mud but days ago, had already baked to a near rock hard surface, most of the grass long since trampled away under the armored feet of endless scores of college students over the years.
Electing not to stay and witness the bouts lest he distract her, Jess's father bid her a gentle farewell the very morning of that first-year student competition, reminding her that she needed to pace herself, and not overly risk her person in any one competition on a mad gamble for victory.
“Many of the lads also vying for Lord Hyve's favor come from Houses with reputations for ruthlessness," her father cautioned with the stern blue-eyed gaze of a onetime general that had caused Jess to instinctively stiffen to attention before the man who meant so much to her.
He relaxed his gaze then, giving a fond shake of his head. “You are as fine warrior as any commander could hope to have under his wing, my daughter. It would ill suit us both for you to allow yourself to be used and cast off cheaply. Preserve your well-being above all else; these first, most perilous days, my Jess.”
Jess nodded in complete agreement, earning a faint smile from the man whose regard meant so very much to her. “Very good, my Jess. And fear not, Highrock is home to the finest generals in Erovering now that we live in a time of peace, however tenuous a state of affairs that it may be. Lord Hyve is not the only lord of note at this institution, for all that so many lads have their eyes on the prize of serving under him.”
Her father adjusted his stirrups then, observing the care of her own mount with an approving nod, the pair of them having ridden out together early that morning to view the training grounds, the future field of battle, much as any good tactician would. “I have no doubt that you will make nothing less than an excellent impression upon your future martial instructors, whoever they may be. I only ask that you be prudent in choosing your battles and allow conflicts to resolve themselves, when opportunity permits.”
Jess smiled in turn at her father, gently stroking her own destrier's mane. “You mean let the most brutal applicants batter themselves silly in the early bouts before accepting challenges to place myself, do you not, Father?”
Her father's bright blue eyes twinkled then, his oft times grim features softening, blond locks rustling in the wind, looking for a moment the mirror image of her brother Geoffrey, a recent graduate himself of Highrock, now content to learn the intricacies of Court by his father's side. "I know I trained you well, Jessica. Just remember that no matter how complicated and intricate your mother and sister like to make these things, politics and intrigue are but battlefields of a different sort." He chuckled wryly at that. "And for all that I have little more patience for innuendo and backbiting than you do, my daughter, the wise commander learns to recognize and counter his opponents, no matter the field of battle."
Jess smiled. “And the wisest commander of all leads his enemies to the terrain of his choosing. And if my opponents would rather fight amongst themselves than come for me, whether it be upon the training grounds or the field of battle? So much the better. And I know my strengths, Father. A sly wit and a cutting tongue will never be my weapons of choice. For anyone who slanders me with insults, sophistry, or nasty innuendo, it's a slap to the face and a challenge for the dueling grounds. I shall let my blade prove the worth of my character, and dare anyone to disparage me upon that most sacred of arenas, where steel takes precedence over a sly tongue.”
“Fortunate for your peers that all such contest are only to be conducted with wooden swords and wasters exclusively,” her father chuckled, before piercing Jess with a stare that brooked no argument, one that demanded instant deference. It was a look Jess knew all too well. “A true leader, however, does not make enemies unnecessarily, my daughter. Your blade is a tool. Not a crutch. Far wiser to take the time to learn the motivations and needs of the people before you, to forge alliances and accords and assure yourself fast friends to fight by your side when needed, than to allow arrogance or aloofness to turn every man's hand against you.”
Jess bowed her head with her father's gentle reprimand. “You are right, of course, Father. I will try to be worthy of your words.”
The baron's gaze turned momentarily wistful even as he fed his restive mount an apple. “I am fortunate to have your mother by my side, Jess. You, I'm afraid, are going to have to figure out the intricacies of school life on your own. Just remember at heart that you are a warrior first and foremost. So long as you take the measure of possible opposition, weigh carefully the honor of potential allies, and proceed cautiously into any new situation you find yourself in, I have no doubt that you shall prosper, even thrive, here at Highrock.” Her father hugged her farewell then, gently reminding her to write often, as her mother would worry.
Even as her heart ached to see her father's retreating form, she gazed back at the grim stone edifice that was Highrock college, feeling suddenly as if the future was comprised of limitless possibility, as if she had the entire world in the palm of her hand. Quickly she had donned her carefully packed and maintained gear the moment she had returned to her private quarters, her body well used to the weight and feel of padded gambeson, mail hauberk and a custom suit of brigandine armor, constructed of small plates of steel riveted to specially treated leather jacket and leggings, personally fitted to her frame by the master armorer who had constructed it.
Steel helm and sturdy reinforced gauntlets were donned last of all before she headed out to the training yard, feeling great pride in wearing armaments her father had gifted her with solemn ceremony, several months before. Jess had trained in them with a dedication that gave even her brother pause, till they were as comfortable upon her frame as a second skin. Armaments that would be the envy of many a knight, she knew, able to serve her well in any field of battle, so long as not upon open terrain in the height of summer.
Of course, being a bit too excited to memorize the route the first time, she earned more than one bemused glance by veteran students as she politely asked for the way to the training grounds from her quarters, for all that she knew the field like the back of her hand once she had made it through the endless maze of stone corridors that served as just one of the massive keeps that housed the students of Highrock.
Her first glimpse of the training grounds as she exited the stone keep had set her heart to racing. A sea of people roaring and cheering. Scores of students all sparring together, warming up before the formal matches were to begin. Jess calmly stretched even as she shivered with excitement, wondering in that innocent moment what it would be like if that sea of students and onlookers were all cheering for her.
© M H Johnson, 2019. All rights reserved.