Daniel’s chest heaved with tension as he waited for Reuben’s next words, and with each breath the point of his blade moved first farther from, then nearer to the knight’s throat. Reuben’s eyes were hard, and they held Daniel’s fast; there was no fear in them.
When at last he spoke, Reuben’s words were measured, the extraneous phrases suddenly gone from his usually-verbose speech. “I have seen what that weapon can do in your hands, but if you offer up a challenge, as a knight, even a poor one, I cannot refuse it, though it cost me my life. If you will relent, then perhaps there will be many more dark mornings to discuss what one of us owes to the other, apologies and otherwise…but the trumpets of the last judgment will sound on high before I ask forgiveness of anyone under the threat of a sword at my throat. Strike or stay, Daniel. You will hear nothing more from me until you do.”
Daniel did not look away, but he could feel himself blinking. He realized that what he was asking of Reuben, the way he was asking it, could not be given, not if the knight were to keep his honor unsullied. The sword offered him no music now, in the usual sense, but rather a kind of drumroll that sounded like nothing so much as a low, rumbling growl. Daniel sheathed the sword, and the sound in his mind intensified, growing more urgent; the blade seemed desperate to be drawn once more, and in the relative quiet of that simple sound, Daniel heard something he had not before. It isn’t angry, he realized. It’s anxious. It wants to be drawn because it’s afraid for me, afraid that Reuben has become my enemy. It needs to protect me; that’s why I drew.
As Daniel wrestled with his thoughts, the knight had regained his feet. “It is that I spoke most hotly,” he confessed. “You may not be pleased to hear that I regret little of it, but of calling your holy weapon a stolen sword, that I should not have done. If it was that I thought you such a churl, I most certainly should never have made you my page. For that I do offer contrition. I hope you will excuse my words.”
“I will,” Daniel replied, his own anger subsiding, and the sword went quiet once more.
“Other things were said, Daniel,” Reuben continued. “I do prize Aidan’s friendship and occasional patronage most highly, and he is a man worthy of much honor. I am, as you have said, a poor and landless knight, and so it is that I have received more than my own earned share of scorn from my noble brethren, more perhaps than you have, for the value of a peasant’s life cannot be so easily dismissed as a peasant might himself think, even if the value is seen only in the work they do produce, and beyond that the highborn might take little enough notice of them for the good or the ill. Myself, on the other hand, I produce nothing of worth, and on the strength of name and blood I have often requested lodging and provender that lords were obliged to provide, though my errands in their lands had no great benefit to their own ends. It is, therefore, an easy thing for even me, with my noble blood, to understand why a common man such as your very self would see great promise and worth in a man such as Lord Aidan. Most especially when he is the first noble, this knight suspects, other than his own self, to look you in your eye and call you by your name.”
Daniel eased back down to the floor, noting the sounds of the estate outside beginning to stir to life, and waited for Reuben to continue.
“The truth is, I am sorry to explain to you, that you are mistaken in Lord Aidan’s worthiness for kingship. I rescind nothing I have said of his honor, but there exists quite a difference between ruling a small and prosperous holding surrounded by allies, or at least swearers to the same liege, and presiding over a kingdom in its entire, a thing by its very nature eyed by ambitions men on all sides. The decisions faced by a monarch of such a kingdom are of the highest difficulty, and the consequences far more grave. Lord Aidan his very self, if my most ardent page had asked him, would tell you the very same. It may be as you say, that heredity by its own merit is a most poor way to choose a leader, but in the now it is that way most people of means and power are willing to accept, and so it is by these conventions that we must find ourselves to be bound. Remember, young Daniel, that our goal here is to avert a civil war, not to start one. Is all of this clear to you?”
“I’m not sure it’s right…but I understand why you say it’s the way things must me,” Daniel replied.
“Perhaps I can offer you this,” Reuben said. “It has not escaped my attention, dim as it might at times be, that you do voice great objection to the assumption of Count Rickard’s worth without having had any fair opportunity to make measure of it yourself. It may be that I can make modifications to the plans I had so painstakingly arranged for our travel, and so doing contrive for you to meet Count Rickard sooner rather than later in our progress through the nobles we do hope to rally. Should it be that you cannot in your fervent conscience grant support to Rickard, I will release you from your bond as my page and put what coin I can in your purse for passage to wherever yourself might wish to go, to begin life anew by whatever means you may.”
“And the sword?”
“If it wishes to leave you, I defy you to keep it, and if it wishes to stay, I am not fool enough to try to take it.”
Daniel nodded. “Your words are fair, Reuben. I can’t ask more than that from any man, whatever kind of blood he has.”
“Then you have learned a lesson in youth that many cannot grasp even in oldest age,” the knight replied.
Their conversation had made Daniel thoughtful, and he was poised to ask Reuben more questions, but before he had the chance a servant appeared in the entrance to the stables, the gray of dawn now fully upon the bailey.
“Sir Reuben,” the boy said, “you and your page are requested to ready yourselves for an audience with Lord Aidan. He would have the privilege of your support when he begins his interrogation of his would-be assassins.”