Tal jumped up from the bench, shivering, as the great door-hinges suddenly squawked and the door rattled open, echoing in the narrow hall. The wet, rank stink of horse and hound came first, followed by a man whose white-haired head brushed the doorframe as he strode in.
"Are ...?" began Tal, voice breaking as he glanced over. He had a face like a statue, a guardian statue, impersonally threatening and lifeless. His eyes were the same unseeing grey.
"Are you Sir Tintauri?" Tal tried again.
"No," said the man, and then a damp, musky weight blocked out the world for a moment. He had tossed Tal his cloak. "Hang that up."
Clean, sharp footsteps strode away as Tal tried to fight out from under the heavy furs. A short laugh came from the direction of the doorway, and when the cloak finally fell away, Tal saw another pale man approaching with a faint smile on his lips. He had the same snowy hair and grey eyes as the first, but looked everything the first had not - young, bright, almost soft. He was a perfect youth frozen in ice, beautiful forever.
"There's no talking to Scadamain, I'm afraid," said the young man with a cool laugh. "He has the personality and the sense of humour of a rock. Don't go near Auridine either - darling little bitch will bite your head off. Possibly literally."
Tal didn't know what to say. Nothing seemed the safest option.
"When did you get here, lad?" asked the beautiful knight.
"This morning," Tal replied in a tiny voice. "M-my father sent me ... to the Queen. I'm going to be here a long ... a long time, I think."
"Well, let's hope so," came the reply. "The life of a hostage is often rather compli- oh, what's this? Tears? You poor lad."
The knight smiled again, pulling off a riding glove, and forestalled Tal's efforts to scrub at the tears by brushing them away himself. His hands were long-fingered and white, like a maid's. "I'll take care of you. Don't you worry about that."
"The Queen s-said I was to serve as your squire ... while I'm here," said Tal, unable to check the fresh tears that here
brought forth - here, here, frozen here, far from home. Memories of the Queen's voice and laugh were still cold like ice inside, slow to melt. The black-on-white of her colourless skin and raven-dark hair still branded Tal's eyes like the afterimage from staring into a light.
"My lady's often thoughtful like that," replied the knight. "You'll see. Come and let's get you warm, yes? Poor little boy. You're still shivering."
"Thank you, sir ..."
, my dear brother vulture, do you never take a day to rest?"
The beautiful white knight turned his head, and so did Tal, as a third voice called from the doorway.
It was, of course, another winterknight, pale as all the rest. He did not have the strong build of the first or the beauty of the second; there was more of a carelessness about his appearance, loose posture and wild white hair.
"You were actually less than an utter bore on the hunt, Tintauri," replied the fairer knight with a martyred little sigh. "Don't go spoiling it now."
Sir Tintauri gave a twisted smile without reply, shoving the door closed with his shoulder, shutting out the drizzle and light from the outside. The smell of horse and dog and man became worse.
"Sir Tintauri?" asked Tal, looking uncertainly from one knight to the other. "The Queen ... she said I was to be your squire ..."
"Never mind Tintauri," said Sir Madaire, putting a hand on Tal's shoulder and giving it an encouraging squeeze. "Honestly, if you try serving any period of time as his
squire, you'll soon die of boredom. Or any number of other things, of course. You've heard of him, haven't you, lad?"
"I don't know much about foreign places," replied Tal, clutching the heavy, stale weight of Sir Scadamain's cloak a little tighter. "I've never been more than a mile away from home before ..."
"The Queen said you're to serve me?" the slightly more distant voice of Sir Tintauri asked, a puzzled or amused little lilt in it. "Wait - you're one of those noble definitely-a-guest-and-not-a-hostages?"
Sir Madaire gave another little sigh. "Does it matter, Corpseraker? - Thatís what they all call him, lad. The Corpseraker. - Look, don't bother yourself with it. You wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with anything with a pulse. I've had squires and guests before."
"Yes, we know you've had squires before," replied Sir Tintauri, laughing a brief, thin little laugh. "Many squires and many guests. Don't get in a flap - I couldn't care less. If you want to explain it to the Queen, explain it to the Queen."
The winterknight started walking down the hall, shrugging off his cloak and shaking his hair out of his face as he went.
"Wait!" exclaimed Tal. "The Queen ... she might be angry at me ..."
"The Queen's a very noble and reasonable lady," Sir Madaire replied soothingly with another squeeze of the shoulder. "Don't worry. I'll explain everything to her. Tintauri's not really good with people if they're upright at the time - she knows that."
"You're very kind, my lord," Tal replied, bobbing in a sort of bow, "and I'm very grateful to you, but she ... but she ..."
"Scares you," surmised Sir Tintauri further down the hall, chuckling again.
Sir Madaire smiled and nodded. "Don't be scared, my lad. She looks fearsome, but she's as gentle with a lamb with those she loves. No doubt she'll come to love you, too - an earnest, sweet young thing like you."
Tal looked down at Sir Scadamain's cloak rather than Sir Madaire's wide grey eyes. "I'm very sorry, my lord, but I think ... I think I should obey her very carefully. At least at first. She ... said so." 'Said' was not quite the word for something spoken like an absolute truth, as if she had already looked into the future and knew
she would be obeyed.
"Well," said Sir Madaire, with a little sigh of irritation, "don't say I didn't warn you. Perhaps you'll be about long enough for us to discuss this again."
He turned away, still all grace and measure, and glided past Sir Tintauri in the hall. Sir Tintauri laughed as the other winterknight passed, another crooked little grin on his thin lips.
Tal approached Sir Tintauri cautiously as Sir Madaire left without a word through the far door.
"Isn't that Scadamain's?" asked the knight, glancing at the cloak Tal was wringing in both hands. "I wouldn't try wearing it, if I were you. He wouldn't like it. Here, hang mine up as well."
Catching the second cloak more ably than the first, Tal hurried over to the pegs on the wall and wrestled the furs up into place. "My name's Tal, my lord."
"Good," replied Sir Tintauri. It was a bit unclear whether he referred to the fact that Tal had a name, or the hanging of the cloaks. "Now, I'm a bit tired after all that riding today, so I'll see you in the evening."
"But Sir Tintauri ... what should I do until then? And where should I be sleeping?"
"Not a clue," the knight replied with another short little laugh. "I know where you shouldn't
be sleeping. Actually, if I were you, I'd find somewhere tucked up out of the open. Don't let you-know-who know where!"
But Sir Tintauri had already opened the far door, and although he turned to give Tal an unexplained little wink after that last cry, he left the hall without saying another word.
Tal spent the day wandering cautiously around Ceorlhold. Compared to the keep - rich and palatial to house the Queen, thick with the warm smell of charring pinelogs - the towers were military and austere. It was a huge castle, though, planted tall and regal on the hill, the crown on its kingly head. There were three concentric walls to it, all visible from the innermost rampart, and the town of Ceorlhold crouched like a child at its mother's skirts in between.
Everything was bigger and louder than it was back home. Not brighter, though. It was hard to say whether war-readiness had subdued the place, or whether it was something altogether different, but there were very few smiles to be seen - behind the innermost walls, at least.
The morning's steady spring drizzle had turned into heavier showers by the time evening approached. Tal abandoned the courtyard and the Queen's rather small rose garden to skirt the inner walls again, watching workmen and kitcheners alike bustling about their duties, and wondering what a squire's duties were.
The knowledge came by chance in the end. As Tal wandered past the stables - crossing the inner road and staring up at the sharp-toothed barbican again - and paused for the warmth if not the stench, a tall boy in white and grey emerged with an array of tack slung over his shoulder.
"Who're you?" the boy demanded, halting mid-step.
"I ... I'm Tal. I'm from Narraine -"
"Let me rephrase. What are you doing here?"
"My father sent me to stay with the Queen ... I'm Sir Tintauri's squire, I think."
"I'm Lady Hanalia's squire and I've never seen you before," retorted the boy, though it seemed more of a statement than a challenge. "What do you mean, 'you think'?"
"Well ... he hasn't really given me anything to do."
The boy rolled his eyes. "You're lucky you're not Sir Scadamain's, I'll tell you that. Look, the lords and ladies aren't going to stand and list your daily itinerary for you! Get a look at Sir Tintauri's stuff and see what needs doing! Clean things! Repair things!"
"I don't know where it is," replied Tal, spreading both hands. "I don't even know where Sir Tintauri sleeps."
"South Tower, same as all the winterknights except the old nine!" Lady Hanalia's squire snapped. "Sweet divine, you're not going to last five seconds around here - I can tell. Wait, is Sir Tintauri back in Ceorlhold?"
"Then get your behind to the dining hall, quick! In the keep! Dinner's at sundown!"
"What do I do at dinner?" Tal asked, starting after the boy as he tried to stride off again. "I've never done this before! People used to wait on me!
"They used to wait on me too," retorted the squire sharply, glaring back over his shoulder of tack. "But that was eleven years ago in Massiel. I've survived more than you can imagine - yet
- and it's all because I used what's in my own damn head. Do the same while you've still got one!"
Tal left the squire be, infected by the urgency in his voice, and dashed towards the keep. The doors were open, flanked by a dozen guards who listened to Tal's gasped plea for directions without emotion and then pointed towards the first flight of stairs.
It felt like the steps were multiplying each time a boot fell on them, but at last Tal reached the second floor - and there through the door on the landing was a still half-empty dining hall. Dinner had not started yet.
Tal stepped inside, chest heaving for breath, and looked around in hopes of more visual clues as to what on the sweet, living earth a squire should be doing next. There were none. Tall Sir Scadamain was already in the hall, listening silently as a female knight with braided white hair bent his ear, but there was no-one dressed like the boy from the stables that Tal could see ...
"Are you acting as my own personal door as well?" asked Sir Tintauri's voice from behind, half-dipping on another odd laugh.
Losing a little recovered air in a gasp, Tal leaped aside, unblocking the doorway. Sir Tintauri passed through with the same crooked smile, pointing to the back wall. "See over there?"
"The big tapestry, my lord?"
"No, my squire - the more mentally gifted boys standing underneath it. They're the other squires. When their lord wants something to drink, they pour it."
"Oh! I've seen them at feasts before!"
"I daresay," replied Sir Tintauri. "Go stand with them. If I raise my cup, please be so kind as to come and fill it for me."
Tal nodded. Sir Tintauri left, still grinning that grin - very, very different to Sir Madaire's flashing smile - and went to sit by Sir Scadamain and the other knight.
There were two squires standing where Sir Tintauri had indicated, though shortly after Tal joined them, another boy with lowered face also came through the door and stepped silently into line. A servant came up to them both with a pitcher of wine for each, then left without a word.
"You're new," remarked the first boy in line, not looking at Tal.
"I arrived today," Tal replied in a faint voice. It didn't feel like today. This had been one of the longest, most wearing days ever. Being delivered to this cold, cold castle by retainers and not family had been bad enough, but then even the retainers had wept like mourners at a funeral, not like dear ones taking a long but temporary leave of each other ...
"Oh, you're that new? Bet you'll try to run. You look the type. Already want your mumma back."
"Whose are you?" the second in line asked.
"Sir Madaire offered to take care of me, but the Queen told me to go serve Sir Tintauri."
The two boys in front both started to laugh, trying to hold their pitchers carefully for all their mirth. The latecome boy, by contrast, lifted his lowered head and shot Tal a slicing look like hatred.
"Sir Madaire!" snorted the first. "What a shame, he's real nice to us boys - isn't he, Keal?"
"Go to hell," hissed the latecomer.
"Maybe you can still swap, new boy. Try asking the Queen. She'll be surprised, but I'm sure she won't mind!"
"Jeys!" the second squire warned. "Cup!"
The first went both quiet and pale, looking over to where Sir Scadamain had silently lifted his cup, and went hurrying over with the pitcher. The knight didn't look at him as he approached to pour the wine; he simply let him finish, still listening to whatever the female winterknight was saying to him, and then grabbed and twisted the squire's unresisting arm.
"If my arm gets tired again, Jeys," they all heard the winterknight say, not a trace of anger in his voice, "yours gets broken. Off you go."
"This place is horrible," murmured Tal.
"Wow, well-spotted," the second squire muttered, all contempt. "Sweet divines, you really are going to be dead in another week, aren't you?"
Tal spent the entire night after that staring fixedly at Sir Tintauri, and more specifically the winterknight's arm, watching for the slightest lift of the cup. He was not the biggest drinker at the table - though by sheer dint of diligence Tal didn't notice who that actually was - but his behaviour seemed to hint at intoxication; he had a thin, birdlike whoop of a laugh, and loosed it at the slightest remark.
He didn't mention anything about breaking arms, though, on any of the five visits Tal actually paid to his place at the table. In fact he said nothing to Tal at all. It was only the other winterknights who paid anything resembling attention.
"Oh, another one?" was what the female winterknight, Lady Auridine, said on Tal's second approach. She wasn't actually looking at Tal, and not until Sir Scadamain answered did the subject of the remark become clear.
"Narraine," the big knight replied laconically. "Lord Caul's son."
"I didn't realise the Queen had demanded Narraine's submission yet."
"I think Caul saw it coming and shortcut the inevitable," said Sir Scadamain. "A pity, in some ways. He was a good and strong ruler in his day."
On Tal's fifth and last errand to the table, Sir Tintauri's cup was just about full when Sir Madaire gave a grin and lifted his as well. "Why don't you fill mine as well, young mouse? Nothing to say you can't do two knights at once."
"Or two squires, Madaire?" asked Sir Tintauri, setting his refilled cup back on the table.
"You're vile," Sir Madaire replied. "He's a vile creature, young one. You let me know the moment you've had enough of him."
It was a long night. Tal was tired long before the end of it, when the diners rose and the servants descended on the scraps. It was impossible to keep track of Sir Tintauri in the chaos, and by the time Tal realised he was gone, it was too late.
Mildly panicked, Tal spotted one of the squires - the quiet one, Keal - eating stewed carrots and whitespice at the end of the table. "The knights have gone! What do we do now?"
"Eat," snapped the hollow-cheeked young man. "And hope they go to sleep before we're finished."
"Where are we supposed to sleep? Sir Tintauri hasn't shown me anything!"
Keal shot Tal a long, flinty stare, the bitter curl still sitting in one corner of his mouth, and then put down his bowl. "South Tower," he said after another of those long, oddly angry silences. "Third floor. Got it? Third floor. You sleep outside your master's door."
The boy turned away.