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An Untoward Induction - Michael McGuire

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This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.

An Untoward Induction

Copyright © 2015 by Michael McGuire

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.

An Untoward Induction

Michael McGuire

Also By Michael McGuire

The Way of the Redeemer

A Harrowing Education

For Anne, Reader One, My Greatest Supporter

CHAPTER ONE

The Old Bastard

I wake to pain and darkness, a dull ache moving up and down my spine. More urgently, there is a pounding in my head like an angry heartbeat, punctuated each second by what must be a drumbeat elsewhere in the room.

The darkness may be explained by my face resting upon my arms. Wincing, I raise my head, unwilling to open my eyes just yet. I must have fallen asleep in a chair, much of my upper body sprawled across the table. This would also explain the discomfort in my back. I summon what remains of my strength and channel it into my voice. Will someone stop that incessant noise! My tongue feels large and dry in my mouth. I lay my head back down.

I see you are awake, the Old Bastard says. He laughs. The only sound is my boots upon the floor. I refuse to lift my head again, fearing the light of day. The noise stops, then grows louder. A great deal louder.

Simply breathing leaves my stomach churning, and is made worse by the fact that I must breathe through my mouth. I find my nose is still useless from congestion brought on by a recent illness. At least that has almost faded.

I force my head up again and crack open my eyelids. The table before me bears an empty bottle of spirit lying on its side, an inverted pitcher of ale, and a clean glass. By some measure of fortune, I sit with my back to the windows, sparing my weary eyes from the sun's glare. My partner is stomping on the heavy oak floor. I know what he wants so I force myself upright. The soreness in my back spreads to my arms and legs, but I have achieved the desired result...the Old Bastard's boot stops an inch from the ground.

You were in rare form tonight, Elliot. Cullath, known only to me as the Old Bastard, throws a rag down on the bar and crosses his arms. Even for you.

His dark grey hair is cut short and begins well back from his forehead, the result of age. The Old Bastard's face is a sea of wrinkles that provide only the slightest hint as to the depths of his wisdom and experience, not to mention the hard years we have seen together.

Have I done anything I will regret?

Do you ever regret what you cannot remember? He approaches the hearth. A pot is set over the flames. I see he carries a clay pitcher in a strong hand that, on its own, one might assume belonged to a much younger man.

I do not wish to stay awake, I say. I intend to disappear beneath the comfort of my sheets. Ignoring me, he ladles boiling water into the container. I shake my head sharply in an attempt to clear it. My stomach performs a somersault. What time is it?

A bit past two, the Old Bastard says, then adds, In the morning. It would appear my concern for the sun's rays had been unwarranted. He picks up a mug from the bar as he passes by, then approaches me. I watch warily as he sets it down and fills it with an unappealing brown liquid. The bean water will do you good.

Why in the name of the King would I wish to remain awake at two o'clock in the morning?

He points to the mug. You are oath-bound to me. Drink. He returns to the bar. It is a simple thing. Thirty feet wide with no sides, but none of our patrons would be fool enough to attempt to step behind it. That is our domain.

I agreed to write it down, not when. Fuck it. I am going to bed. I rise but, impossibly, the entire tavern tilts to one side. I place my right hand on the table to steady myself but, finding a wet spot, it slides a few inches. I manage to grip the table's edge with my left hand.

The Old Bastard is sixty-five-years-old, fifteen my senior. He has been my partner for the last thirty. Yet somehow, old or not, he can still move. He vaults over the bar and, with a few long strides, stands before me. I sway a bit as he squints, looking me over. I do not see his hand move, but there is no mistaking the sensation of his open palm striking me in the back of the head. Bright balls of light explode across my field of vision.

I shout in pain, but he raises his hand again and I shut my mouth. I needn't tolerate this, I say, rubbing the tender place just above my neck. I am the P. E. motherfucking D. Then the room turns black.

The Purse

I wake up on the floor, something heavy across my chest. I suspect it is the table. The smell of bean water is all around me, my clothes are wet, and I ache everywhere.

Welcome back. The Old Bastard's voice is dull.

How long?

Ten minutes. I hit you left-handed. Saved you your jaw.

I close my eyes. The pain in my head remains, but the pain in my jaw is new. I gather as much strength as I am likely to summon without proper sleep and push the table aside. Slowly, I turn over onto my hands and knees, then rise to my feet. I take an unsteady step forward and hear the crunch as I grind shards of glass and clay into the floor.

You agreed, he says. Part of that agreement was that you would have the chance to begin on your own within thirty days. It feels like he is standing over me, but we are about the same height. You've become a bitter shit...a disgrace to your name and family.

My brother is my only family.

For a brief moment, the Old Bastard looks wounded. The lines on his face deepen, and his eyes sink further into his skull. I regret my words but, just as quickly, his normal, irritated look returns. You once believed we must honor those who came before. I called it horse shit but, over time, you convinced me otherwise.

I laugh lightly, but even that is an effort. The room threatens to pitch sideways again. I wonder if I can grab onto the massive wooden chandelier suspended above me. Then I recall it is four feet out of reach. I was once a naïve child who convinced you to work for me.

I recall that conversation differently, the Old Bastard says. But no matter. The pages and quill are in the first booth. You will write your past, and you will recall a time when you possessed both pride and honor. Do it, or I will blacken your eyes.

I stare at him. We are at a stalemate. If I do not do as he says, I will never get any rest this night. There is also the oath. Despite what I have said, I take my word seriously. I turn to the row of booths along the wall and shuffle to the first, grasping each table and chair I pass for support. A stack of blank paper and a fresh quill lie on the table. There is an inkwell and a box of matches beside an unlit candle.

In truth, I do believe the writing will help, but I refuse to grant the Old Bastard an ounce of satisfaction. I reach for the tattered old curtain to pull it closed and secure some privacy, but before I can grasp it, the Tankard's heavy old door opens. I watch a man about my age enter. The stillness of a frigid February night follows him in, then is lost as the door thuds closed. Relief washes over his face when he sees the Old Bastard standing in the middle of the room. He looks gratefully at the dying hearth. The fact that I do not recognize him sparks some small amount of interest in me, but I choose to allow my partner to deal with him.

We are closed. Have been for nearly half an hour. I turn in my seat and see him squinting at the man. I have seen you in The Worm of Five, but only as of late.

Looking miserable, the man nods. His back is slightly bent so he stands a head shorter than the Old Bastard, but may have once been just as tall. I work there, it is true. But I have not come here for a drink, or to discuss my work.

I smile from my place in the shadows. We have work, although I remain bound to my oath. No matter. Perhaps I can delay the writing.

I look the Purse over. My initial assessment was correct. He is about my age; he has reddish stubble upon his face, which is being overtaken by grey; his head is shaved, although I can see new hairs emerging; his eyebrows are black as the night sky; he has a portly belly that spills over his belt; and his arms are thick and flabby. It remains curious to me that I don't know him, but I have had little cause to wander The Worm in the past few years. If the Old Bastard says he has seen him there, I accept it as fact.

Why do you bother us at this hour? I say.

The man looks at me and his relief doubles. Thank the King you are here!

You can stop right there, my partner says. You are aware of the rules?

The man shakes his head, and the Old Bastard points over his shoulder. There is a sign above the bar, suspended by rope from the ceiling. The words carved into the old wood form two rules, left there by the previous owner. At the bottom of the sign are two large, iron rings connecting it to a newer sign, which hangs beneath it. Newer, but still two decades old itself. I hung it in a time of plenty.

What does the lower sign say? His eyes never leave the man.

The Purse reads aloud, 'Requests for assistance will be considered at The Bakery by The Bridge. NO EXCEPTIONS'.

Of course, there had been many exceptions over the years, but no matter. There would be no unreasonable exceptions, to be sure. We may not be able to turn them away, but we can see them on our own terms. Those terms always included our space on King's Arc that, a generation ago, had served as a bakery.

This cannot wait, the man says, as they often do.

Yesterday, the Old Bastard told me he was considering moving on. He said we’ve been too successful. Between us and the army of fools in steel, who would be so foolish as to break the King's Law? I knew it to be bluster then, and I know it now. He has been at my side for thirty years. He will die here. The only question is whether it comes of boredom or blade.

The Old Bastard's eyes meet mine and we each know we will not send the man away. Not after three months of staring at one another day after day, waiting for nightfall so we can open The Tankard and serve ale to tired farmers and bored knights. Or, more often than not, so he might serve ale and I consume it.

Come. Have a seat, I say.

The man hurries over and sits opposite me. He curiously looks at the blank paper, but his attention quickly focuses on me. There are more important matters on his mind. I look at my right hand and find it is shaking. I place it in my lap before the Purse sees it.

My partner draws up a chair beside us, slamming the back against the table, causing the Purse to jump in his seat. The Old Bastard sits with his arms resting across the top. Out with it, he says.

My wife has been kidnapped. She is my whole world. You must find her. We mustn't delay. The words pour out, and I watch him closely. Either they are rehearsed or they are true. Or both.

When? I say.

Two nights ago.

Her name?

Ellandra.

Where did you last see her?

She worked in a kitchen in The Worm, directly across from my establishment.

Worked? I suspect a combination of exhaustion and the amount of ale and spirits I consumed earlier in the evening have prevented me from keeping the suspicion from my face.

But the Purse nods, as though pleased I would pick up on this detail. He strikes me as eager to provide his ready response. His expression now reflects sadness and frustration. I wonder if he realizes how transparent his thoughts are. I begged her to stop. The people there... His voice trails off and he shudders.

The Old Bastard leans forward and slams a hand on the table. You live in The Worm, you imbecile! All the people are scum, yourself included.

The Purse shrugs, his eyes fixed on me. He is not an imbecile because he has identified me as the sympathetic one. A reasonable assumption, given our behavior thus far, but not entirely accurate. If he is new to Castle Hill, he may be unaware that we have no choice but to assist him.

I say, What is your name?

Gallan Grood.

And hers is Ellandra Grood?

Grood glances at my partner, who says, Well?

Yes.

Why was she taken? I say.

I don't know.

Then how do you know she was taken?

She is my wife. She is missing. Why else would that be?

Perhaps she got sick of living in The Worm, the Old Bastard says. He is in rare form this evening. I begin to worry that he will go for the dagger that I know is tucked into the rear of his trousers. It has been years since we'd hidden a corpse. My mind turns to where we might put him. There are several options.

No. I frown. What is Grood responding to? Oh, yes. The suggestion his wife has fled on her own. She would never leave me.

Yes, of course, I say. You are much too charming. At any rate, is there anyone who would wish her harm?

The Purse shakes his head. You will find her? I cannot afford to lose her. She is more valuable to me than I can ever describe.

My partner rises and walks away in disgust, leaving the empty chair as a reminder of his displeasure.

Yes, we will find her, I say.

Thank goodness! Grood reaches out to shake my hand.

Before you do that, the Old Bastard says from across the room, where he has begun wiping down the bar, remember that the P.E.D. never said he'd find her alive.

I shrug. My partner speaks the truth...if indelicately. If Ellandra is already food for wild dogs somewhere in the wood, I will learn what happened to her, but will not be able to bring her back. I smile. Unless she wandered off into the wood on her own. Then we may never know.

Grood's expression turns grim. He slowly pulls back his hand. I am relieved because grasping it would have revealed the tremor. Please try, the Purse says.

The room is quiet for a moment, and the last small piece of wood in the fire emits a loud crack before crumbling into the coals. This results in a brief, bright flicker of flame. Is there anything you can tell us which may be of use? I say the words slowly and carefully, allowing him to determine what might be helpful. It is often surprising what they come up with. Or confess to. If she is truly missing, finding her soon may be critical. The difference between life and death often comes down to hours and minutes.

Grood furrows his brow. He seems to be thinking hard. From the corner of my eye, I see my partner shake his head. His back is to us so I am unable to confirm if this is out of irritation or amusement.  Well, Grood says, there is one thing, but I am sure it is nothing.

The Old Bastard throws up his hands and whirls in our direction. Tell us already, you hideous idiot! He walks back to the booth and kicks his chair aside, standing over us. This is no time to hold back.

Grood hesitates. I cannot give you all the details. It is a royal matter, and silence is insisted upon by the King. I glance at my partner but, for once, his face is blank. How could this Purse, living in The Worm, possibly be involved in anything related to the King? I recently entered into a business arrangement with a nobleman. He has secured Royal support. That is the only recent change in my life.

The Old Bastard's voice is nearly a growl. What is the manner of this business?

I cannot give you the details, as I said. It is at the King's request. Grood looks at me.

I ignore him and stare into the coals. I am through speaking with him. We now have enough information to get started. My partner opens the door, and Grood takes the hint, leaving without another word.

Once he is gone, the Old Bastard bars the door.

That was a bit much, even for you, I say.

This idiot probably killed her himself...either directly or by forcing her to live in The Worm.

Not ours to determine, I say. The law is the law. Besides, King Henrick left plenty of room in that decree for us to do as we please. If he killed her, we'll turn him in…unless she deserved it, in which case we'll have the more interesting task of finding out why he wasted our time.

Lost in thought, my partner does not respond. Then his eyes flick to the paper before me. Start writing. You can get an hour in, then some sleep before we see to this missing woman.

The Old Bastard walks away, and I lift my hand, placing it on the table. The words will not be neat, but I suspect that I can still write legibly. I look at the blank paper and wonder where to begin. Of course, everything would have to begin with Keldara.

CHAPTER TWO

The Curse

Kneel, the King said.

And, believe me, I knelt. I would have kissed the stone beneath my feet if King Henrick had asked. I'd have even kissed my own ass, although I am not very flexible. I suppose I was more so then. I remember thirty years ago as though it were a single day, crouched down on the floor like an insect waiting for the boot. I can still taste the sweat on my lips, smell the cold dampness of the Throne Room. I was young and naïve, knowing not what fortune had in store for me. In other words, I was a fool.

But I am rushing. What is the sense of a cathartic memoir if you don't squeeze it for every last ounce of sentiment? The Old Bastard says I am too cynical now, and it is affecting our work. At any rate, I will move further back in time, ever so slightly.

It was less than two full turns of the clock's small arm before my infamous time before the King. The midsummer sun beat down upon us. I was glad my tenure as a squire was swiftly drawing to a close. So much change was ahead of me, and I was eager for it.

I shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench, then placed my elbows on my knees. Between my legs, I watched some ants carrying their prizes back to the hill. They were as uninterested in the activity in the center of the courtyard as I.

A large boot appeared before me and ground on the anthill. I blinked and looked up, blocking the sun's glare with my hand. Malby stood over me, glowering. Enough with the bugs. Sir Jallay says you are next. My enormous friend sat down heavily beside me. He was built like a mountain, ill-suited for the duel, although not for lack of effort. Don't forget your turtle, he said, extending his hand, which held the hard, semi-circular shell. I grimaced as I rose. Must he disrespect everything? Yes, the practice helmets were made of tortoise shells, but none called them turtles, save Malby.

I began to realize that everyone was watching me from the various benches arranged around the edge of the courtyard. Oh, the hell with it, Malby said. Here you go.

What he lacked in grace, Malby did not make up for with subtlety or a gentle hand. I felt the helmet roughly flatten my sandy curls, then smiled at him. Do you think I need it today?

My friend shrugged. I now saw the bruise on his face. He must have lost again. Someday you will, Elliot. Then he ran the back of his hand across his wet forehead and sat down. With the sun directly overhead, the castle walls provided no relief from its rays.

Slowly, I carried my sword to the center of the green space. Each step was an effort. My training leathers slid slickly against my skin. Sir Jallay had allowed all the other squires to take their turns before me. Now I was to suffer in the hottest part of the day.

I approached our knight instructor, and could not help but admire him. He wore the blue steel proudly, although it must have been as hot as coals. His only concession was having left his helmet to the side. I glanced at the sword at his hip. In less than a day, one would be mine.

The knight met my eye, and I was reminded that his knighting had only been two years before. He was among the youngest instructors and we had much in common. We were each slightly over average height, fit but not overly muscular. And then there was our talent with the sword. A bit of a treat now for those who have fought so valiantly today, Sir Jallay said loudly, winking at me. He had something planned. Although I liked him, his sense of humor made me nervous at times. As the rest of your fellow squires know, Elliot, in your four years of training, you have never lost a duel. Did he mean to cross swords with me himself? There is only one other squire who has never lost. Even though it is generally unheard of for squires from different Grades to duel, I think those who have already suffered this wretched heat have earned some entertainment.

Sir Knight? I said. What was he saying? I was to duel a younger squire? I'd had more training than whomever he'd selected. Who would be talented enough to overcome such a disadvantage?

The answer dawned on me just before Sir Jallay spoke his name. Squire Lathier.

There was little interaction between the Grades, and an undefeated Second-Grade squire was not unheard of. It was much less common for a squire on his last day to have never lost. I steeled myself, refusing to permit my emotions to play a part in this contest. My opponent would have had additional training time with the finest knights. I would need my wits to defeat him, and he would want nothing more than to blemish my pristine record at the duel. This seemed so important at the time. Now, I can recognize a cost that I should eagerly have paid.

The other squires parted and my opponent entered the courtyard. He glared at me, but there was no time to respond because Sir Jallay called the orders. Cross and declare your intentions.

We took two strides forward, and the ends of our wooden swords met lightly. He was slight of frame, but several inches taller than me. I wondered if his longer reach would outweigh his lack of endurance. He removed his helmet and pushed his brown, sweaty hair on top of his head before replacing the only real armor we wore. I intend to defeat you, I said. I spoke these words every day in training, and now tried to focus on them. This was routine. I duel, and I win.

His icy blue eyes burned with passion. I intend to humiliate you. This was more than I could bear. I rolled my eyes.

Sir Jallay said, Begin!

He came at me aggressively, as I thought he might. Though I'd never seen him duel, I knew him to be impulsive, always taking what he wanted. I easily parried his frantic slashes. I could see he had tremendous skill, but it was his hate for me that ruled him that day. Such a waste.

Predictably, he began to tire, and that’s when I began my counteroffensive. With two hands on the hilt of my blade, I swung from high over my left shoulder toward his neck once, twice, three times, each strike easily defended, as I expected. Then I dove, rolling under another wild slash before standing up and planting my boot squarely on his rear. He fell face-first on the ground, his wooden sword skidding several feet away, kicking up dirt and surrounding him in a cloud of dust. My fellow Last-Grade squires laughed. I tapped him on the back, and Sir Jallay said, Once again, Squire Elliot is the winner!

I joined the others in returning our practice swords to the rack. That was unnecessary, Malby said. I know he's a little shit, but that shit will be your king someday. He isn't likely to forget you kicked him in the ass the day before your knighting.

He is as likely to forget it as he is to learn patience. Prince Lathier is nearly as talented as I, but he lacks the appropriate temperament.

And you mean to teach him? Malby shook his head. As you've taught me? He grunted, but it turned into an unpleasant laugh. I wish you luck with that while he is making your life miserable. I curse the day our kingdom is led by that twig-like fuck.

Shall we then call him King Twiggy Fuck? Sir Jallay said, approaching. Or perhaps you would like another hour of practice instead of the dinner tonight? Have you not yet tired of this heat?

No, of course not, I said, then frowned. I mean, yes. Of course we are. We are done here, and short on time.

I am not concerned with your time, Sir Jallay said. Only that the wrong person will hear your wholly accurate descriptions of our future monarch. The knight smiled and walked away.

Malby and I laughed as we left the practice yard and entered the castle's Great Hall. The walls were three-stories high and decorated with tapestries depicting glorious battles from centuries gone by. Several corridors led off from the room, along with two strikingly different sets of stairs. The first was old, grey stone, and led to the Knights' Tower. The second was grand, polished marble, leading to the Royal Apartments. There were other, smaller stairways that one might easily overlook, as they were tucked into shadowy recesses. I knew not where those led.

We took a turn into a smaller passage toward the armory. We were the last, the other squires having already changed from their practice leathers. As we placed ours in the soiled bin, Malby said, So, have you considered the curse?

Which one? I said. The Curse of the Unknighted Squire?

No, you fool. He gave me a hearty shove, nearly throwing me into the wall. No one believes in that old tale. You know to what I am referring.

I shook my head. For three weeks, I'd heard of little else from him. You know I don't believe in such things.

No, I don't know that, Malby said. And you could disbelieve in the sun yet, each day, it would still rise and set. He folded his arms across his massive chest and blocked the exit. I know you are unwilling to risk that the curse is real because you think if you mount some desperate peasant girl, it will ruin your chances with Keldara.

Thank you for that, I said, and grimaced. I often thought he spoke that way only to irritate me. But I'll not be mounting anyone today. I simply wish to go home and rest before the dinner.

Suit yourself, Malby said, stepping aside. But you know that, before the dinner, every eligible girl within a day's ride will be wandering the streets and drinking at the tavern. For the farm girls around here, it's considered an honor to be defiled by a squire the day before he becomes a knight.

Well, then, I leave you to the defiling, I said, and patted my friend on the back. And do these virgin farm girls know they are far from the first with which you have lain? That is what you tell them, is it not? That they are all that stand - sorry - lay between you and a life-long curse?

Well, ah… What is it that Lord Sir Parinax says? Malby scratched his head. 'Not all are meant to know all'.

I believe he was explaining why knights do not question their orders, I said, shaking my head.

Malby grinned, then placed a hand on my shoulder. Honestly, Elliot, all jokes to the side. His easy smile had disappeared. Malby rarely looked serious, except when the tavern's kegs ran dry. Your lifelong dream of Keldara is over. It is time to move on, be it tonight or some other. You will never be with her now. Then he grinned. So you may as well screw a peasant girl and avoid the curse of the unfucked knight.

I forced a laugh and left him, walking back through to the Great Hall and out of the castle. As I headed back to the stable, I slowed. Did I hear footsteps just behind me? There were many lesser-nobles about, in and out of the shops, but I turned around. A hooded figure approached, and said, Is he home?

What? No, I don't believe so, I said. Why was she disguised? Kel-

Hush, she said. Can you not see I have masked my appearance? Follow me.

And so I did. As I expected, my stepfather was not at home. Keldara, still hooded and cloaked, quickly climbed the ladder to my loft. I followed and, upon reaching the top, found her standing and facing me. She pushed back the hood and smiled warmly. I haven't had a moment to speak with you in weeks.

I am glad you are here now. I felt an oafish grin cross my face. I hated it, but it always seemed to greet her. But why?

I had to wish you well for tomorrow, Keldara said, slowly approaching me. We both know there is only one way to ensure a virgin knight has the luck he needs, and that is to lie with a virgin maid.

She untied the laces at the top of her cloak and let it fall to the floor. I found I had no words, as my eyes roamed over every inch of her unclothed body. She'd traveled the streets in nothing more than a cloak? I'd known Keldara my entire life, and loved her for as long as I knew what love was, but never had we so much as held hands, believing that things should be done the right way and according to the traditions of our families.

Keldara, are you certain? I said, knowing I was not. In my chest, I felt that this was right, even as my mind screamed for me to put a stop to it before we went too far. There was danger, as well, but that only added to the excitement. Looking at her now, more beautiful than I had ever imagined, I knew there was no turning away.

Keldara took my hand in hers, kissed it, then placed my palm upon her breast. It was warm. I supposed this was due in part to the heavy cloak she wore in the summer heat. This meaningless thought was erased by her lips upon my mouth. After a moment, I realized she had released my hand, yet it hadn't moved. Keldara withdrew from our kiss and said, Come to bed, you adorable fool. We can't risk you being cursed for the rest of your days, can we?

Keldara

The bells in the castle's highest tower chimed nine times, chasing away my tranquil thoughts. Keldara slept beside me, seemingly unfazed by the commotion. The most significant night of my life had arrived.

I smiled. Even were I not to be knighted in the morning, Keldara had ensured the memory of today would stay with me forever. A long, deliberate breath did little to slow my heart. I turned to her, finding broken pieces of the hay that was my bed tangled in her long, red hair. The moonlight shining through my one small window washed over her. Did a slight smile cross her face?

She looked content, but only a few hours had passed since she was thrashing beneath me, each of us stifling moans lest Degor return and hear us. I reached over to pull back the sheet, wishing to see more of her, but her hand found mine and held it still. Had she been awake all along?

Not now, she whispered, her smile widening as she stretched. I was lost in her dark green eyes, the color of the forest's deepest, darkest pines. There will be plenty of time for that once you are knighted.

Keldara stood, taking the bedclothes with her and leaving me exposed. She raised an eyebrow as her gaze darted below my waist, then hurried to the corner where her cloak lay. Still holding the sheet up to her body, she pulled the cloak on as modestly as she could, as I pondered what she'd said. Time was something we had little of now, and it would only dwindle further. I pushed these thoughts away, not wanting to taint the moment.

Keldara dropped the sheet then and I saw she wore the simple summer dress I liked so much. Where had it come from? Then I noticed the small satchel at her hip. I became uncomfortable with my own nakedness, but Keldara placed a hand on my arm as I reached for my trousers. Her lips found mine, her fingers tracing my chest and stomach until they grasped me below. She had my full attention and spoke softly in my ear, I expect your knighting will cause the girls to flock to you, Elliot. You won't forget about me, will you?

I kissed her again and felt myself responding to her hand. She released me and said, If only there was time, but I must be back to the castle. Duty calls.

Another kiss and then she was at the hatch. She listened briefly for any sound, then climbed down the ladder as easily as when