“Now pay attention, you two. This is an apple.”
Veximarl placed an apple on the ground and flipped through the book that he had borrowed from the library. Before him was Alex and Rite. The male of the pair was flicking his tail back and forth in an uncaring manner while the other tilted her head back and forth with curiosity. Her ears were flexing this way s she listened to her surroundings. She seemed to be the smarter of the pair, but Alex was more interested in listening than she was.
“The idea is for you to smell the apple and then figure out which of those boxes behind me also contains one… Wait, was that right?” He flipped through the dog training book again as he tried to find the right page. That seemed right. Anais had told him that talking to them as often as he could would help, but he didn’t think his words were getting through to them.
He let out a yelp of panic as webbing shot from Alex’s mouth and flicked the book away. The entire thing then erupted into flames. Rite charged forward during the distraction, knocking over all of the boxes first before picking up the apple. She then began to toss it in the air and knock it across the ground as she played keep away with Alex.
“It doesn’t seem to be going all that well,” quipped Anais from where she was watching. “Gwyn said that she had a lot of dogs at home. Maybe I should ask her for advice?”
Tish was amused, putting a finger to her cheek as she tilted her head. “Rite did at least find the apple.” There was a worry on her face as Alex started to set the boxes on fire. “It’s a shame she doesn’t like being summoned without her brother, as she seems to be the calmer one.” She winced as Veximarl began to stamp out the fire in a wild panic before it caught onto a nearby fence. “Is it really safe to do this within the fort?”
Being happy to be here at all, Peter couldn’t care what was happening. He was able to spend some time with girls while not being overshadowed by handsome men. It was also nice to feel like he had an individual presence, which was often lost when he was with the rest of Moontear.
“At least these foxes seem motivated by apples,” he said, grinning widely like an idiot.
“It doesn’t matter if they are motivated by apples if I cannot use that to my advantage.” Veximarl poked at the remains of the book with the butt end of his spear. The reason why Peter was here was that Basil said he was the best in Moontear with animals, but the teen wasn’t helping much.
Snapping to attention as Tish frowned at him, Peter gave a nod. “You said before that you didn’t know if they could smell, so we’ll look more into that. The next step is to take them out to a grass field. You’ll want to stomp on some blackberries and drop a trail of them while walking away. Try to have them come find you. The combinations of scents of blackberries on you, along with crushed grass, and your own scent, will get them used to the idea of tracking.”
“They’re my summons. It’s possible that they instinctively know where I am at all times.”
“And one of them seems to set fire to anything you draw attention to. I don’t know of any fireproof squires at the barracks. Do you?” Peter gave him a stern look.
Veximarl didn’t like the idea of being set on fire either. “How long do you think it will take before they are fully trained?”
Peter tilted his head back and forth as he thought about it. “They’re pretty bright, but I’d still suggest putting in an hour a twice a day for the next two weeks. If you want them to be serious trackers, it could take a month or more. You’ll need more than just blackberries if you want them to be that good.”
“I believe that they are worth the investment,” muttered Veximarl.
Unlike Martyr, who preferred to sleep as much as possible, these two got bitey with him if he went longer than two days without being summoned. He needed them to learn proper behavior if he was going to be calling on them that often. Tracking was a valuable skill that he would no doubt have many uses for, and training appeared to appease their need for freedom. Both of those facts made the process worth it.
But it was an effort that came with a great deal of difficulties. He would need to inform Stonetoe whenever he was leaving the barracks, and organize a unit to be with him whenever he let them out for a run. Tish appeared more than willing to help, but he didn’t want to waste Anais’ and Peter’s time with this.
He let out a low whistle and Rite trotted obediently up to him while Alex stared blankly. “You will need to sleep for now as I need to be with Grimhawk for a few hours. There is an evening patrol that I am assisting with. I will be summoning the two of you then so you may have some time to run about. Be sure to set fewer items on fire this time.” He picked up his spear and waved it about, unsummoning the both of them at once.
Now came the search to see where Grimhawk was hiding. That wasn’t the correct term, but Grimhawk had a habit of wandering around and not telling Veximarl where to meet him. Oftentimes, he was having tea with Tish, but she had been with Veximarl all morning.
Grimhawk wasn’t in any of his other usual haunts as well. Not in the kitchens, or wandering about the armory, or doing his meditations on his hill. Veximarl was beginning to feel concerned. The last place he checked was the infirmary, where he finally found the old man passed out on one of the beds. Strangely, Blu appeared to be absent.
He walked over and placed his hand on the knight’s wrist, closing his eyes for a moment as he scanned his vitals. With a shake of his head, Veximarl knew in an instant that he would be having the morning off. Grimhawk had been medicated recently, and he would be out until after Veximarl was due to go on patrol. The necromancer chose to hide away in the squadroom rather than risk being called upon to do something else. Plus it gave him a chance to fiddle with Archive.
Though he knew he shouldn’t, he decided to check in on Grimhawk’s medical records. There were several reasons why Veximarl had suspicions. Hugo Grimhawk was sixty-one years of age, yet he was forbidden from doing so much a man his age was still allowed to do. It appeared as though he tired easily, and Stonetoe was always speaking like Grimhawk was going to drop dead at any minute.
It didn’t take Veximarl long to find his answer. A heart defect from birth. Completely inoperable, according to Lady Blu’s notes. It was unlikely that he had much time left, maybe five years at most if he remained on light duty. However, his heart was only worsening with age.
Light duty meant that Grimhawk was restricted to giving instructions only. Veximarl laughed weakly to himself. No wonder Till had gotten so mad at him when he challenged Sybil during the entrance exams, and why he had seen other knights step in to cover for him during combat training.
Veximarl found himself wondering why the knight was still here and not with his family. He also wondered if this was a glimpse of himself in the future. After spending over forty years working as an instructor, perhaps he had nothing else to live for. There was, and has always been, Braytons. That man will truly be here until the day he died. Maybe he took after Grulick, who would have undoubtedly remained at the barracks herself if not for Veximarl’s rude appearance.
“What am I going to do about this?” He asked as he laughed to himself again. It seemed like the more he tried to help anyone, the more helpless he turned out to be.
Struggling to find an answer, weeks begun to pass. Sybil took to writing in a journal whenever Alton wasn’t around. Aside from Edwin, this would be one of the most difficult golem projects she had ever worked on. To be fair, it would be quite similar to how she and Caitlin had made Foggy, but there were too many risks she needed to account for. This made for a long planning process.
She finished one last equation and tucked the book underneath the mattress. Alton was never gone for long, and she was late for a dueling lesson with Vincent. The last thing she needed was for the paladin to show up again believing that she was up to no good.
Alton had no such plans though. He was up on the rampart, overlooking the eastern road. His eyes were kept on the mountains in the distance. This was one of the few spots within the barracks where he could talk with Lydia without worry of anyone hearing him.
“You know, I don’t mind being punished. Sybil, on the other hand, could always stand to get into more trouble,” he growled out. “What a shame it would be if we were somehow caught again.” He was getting tired of Lydia always dodging around the issue without giving him any answers.
“Alright fine!” She tossed her hands about as she finally relented. “I was never able to find out much about my father,” she muttered. “I knew he had spent some time in Carapace, and I wanted to go there to see if I could find out anything about my mother’s family. Perhaps even find a relative or two.”
“Did you?” Alton glanced over at her for a moment before his eyes went back to the road.
Lydia’s let out a long, depressed sigh. “No. They died when that plague hit the city a few decades ago. An associate of my father’s told me that he had attempted to bring both of us to her when we fell ill, but my mother didn’t make it. He left me under Lady Grulick’s care shortly after that.”
“An associate?” More like a witness that could tell Sybil exactly what happened to Erskine and Aeneas after they left Fogbloom. “Who were they?”
“Semira Morales,” replied Lydia. She then hesitated before speaking again. “I’m sorry to report that she isn’t in a state where she is able to tell anyone much of anything.”
“But is she how you ended up with Prince Erskine’s pendant?”
“And you never thought to pursue the issue?”
Lydia hesitated again. “Alton, my father abandoned me with a stranger. Of course, I pursued answers, but I abandoned those plans. He thought it safer if the world knew that I didn’t exist and for a seemingly good reason.”
Alton didn’t believe her. Lydia seemed like the curious type that would hunt down the truth. “That’s everything you know?”
“I fell in love,” she replied. “I met a man named Stallis Twist and tried to use him as an excuse to be in Carapace. Instead, I fell in love with a married man. Why go after the sins of my father when I had my own to account for? My father gave me the opportunity to live a life apart from his, and I chose to not follow his legacy and make a life for myself and Stallis. Your role should be to make certain that Sybil does the same.”
“As if she would listen to anything I have to say,” he muttered.
“That is true,” she whispered. Lydia waved her hands about as Alton glared at her. “Aren’t you late for a duel with Vincent and Sybil?”
“... Yeah.” He pointed at her threateningly. “We’re picking this up later.”
“Yes, yes, Mister Toval. Of course. I will be around.” As though she had anywhere else to go.
Alton walked down the stairs and past the forge, where Chickadee was finally allowed to work on the bodies of the foxes. Leading up to this point, he had made notes upon notes of everything he wanted to make. Looking over the quality of the materials… It turned out that these wouldn’t be good enough to achieve his dreams. He would have to settle with what he had.
The mundane routine the squires shared was something they had gotten used to. Even if there was the fear that something like Martyr would show up again, everything felt normal. Classes, chores, homework, it felt mundane compared to the thrills of the earlier weeks. Despite how boring it had become, there was a certain comfort to be had. A safety net that kept them contained.
Perched on an anvil, Zaniyah was watching the dueling field where Sybil was already dueling Vincent and his golem. Alton had approached and started to nag at the two of them, but she couldn’t make out anything they were saying.
“Chi?” Zaniyah glanced over her shoulder to where Chi was cutting up some fox leather.
Chickadee looked up and gave her a nod. He needed to have these trimmed for Miss Mandroux, but he could spare some time for her. “Yes?”
“Do you regret not being in Carapace right now?” She turned her head back to the duel but was unable to concentrate on it due to her own thoughts.
Setting his work down, Chickadee walked over and hopped up on the anvil. He leaned his head on Zaniyah’s shoulder. She, in turn, put her arm around his waist. “Do you?”
“I mean, I want to be there right now... I really do. I want to be beating up everything that is threatening our home. Not to mention that I miss eating my mom’s cooking, and I feel like I should be going out to find Zynn and yell at him for not being home as often as he should because I just know he’s not taking care of mom now.” She let out a pained sigh. “But I also told myself that I wanted to see the world. I can’t do that as the person I am today. This place might be the only thing that’s going to help me survive out there.”
He hadn’t put a lot of thought into what he wanted to do outside of Braytons himself. All he knew was that he wasn’t satisfied carrying on in Carapace under the name his mother had made for their family, which was what Caitlin was doing. Chickadee had always felt insecure about his place within his family. Being at Braytons gave him a lot of perspective on what else he was capable of. That turned out to be blacksmithing. His world hadn’t exactly expanded much as a result.
“I-” The sound of Zaniyah sniffling made him lift up his head. Tears were streaming down her face and she was trying her best to wipe them away with her hand. He responded by giving her a few pats to the back.
“I’m sorry. I got caught up thinking that we’re all here because we have our own dreams, but all of our hopes don’t include each other. Is it wrong for me happy here when all this is just going to end up with us parting ways? Thinking about it is really bumming me out.”
“We’ll always have each other.” Chickadee gave her another pat.
“No. We will always have each other, Zaniyah.” He pulled down his scarves so she could see him smile. “No matter what, no matter how far, you will always know that we are out there and that we love you.”
Zaniyah gave him half a smile in return. “Thanks, Chi. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that until now.”
They gave each other a hug and Chickadee knew that no matter what happened, he would be there to protect them. Both Sybil and Zaniyah felt the same way about him, and he took comfort in that.
Everything was different now. It was more difficult. They had drifted apart, but it wouldn’t last forever. He wasn’t going to let secrets and fear get in the way of him protecting his friends. Now and forever, they were always going to have each other.