A Knight's Sacrifice

Chapter Two

It wasn't until mid-morning that the sunlight filtering into Audric's bedchamber finally roused him, and even then, awareness came slowly. All sense of memory seemed to have been lost in the haze of slumber. But then, that was why he sought that black abyss so often of late -- he wanted to forget everything. Everything that had happened in the last year. He wanted to forget the betrayal by his supposed allies in the neighboring kingdom, and the subsequent invasion of his lands. He wanted to forget the loss, destruction, and bloodshed that those months had wrought before he had pushed the invaders back. But most of all, he wanted to forget the moment after that final, gruesome battle when the captain of the guard named the knights slain in the fracas, and the name Audric most feared to hear was spoken in that list.

But the waters of Lethe were denied to him. As it did every morning, the haze of forgetfulness lingered for only a few moments before being ripped away, startling Audric awake with a wave of grief, no less powerful for being familar. Images of the battlefield assaulted him, the horror of it burned forever onto his mind. And yet, of all the bodies battered and broken during those days and weeks of combat, only one had managed to tear away a piece of him. He had suffered minor wounds, to be sure, but those had long since healed. The deepest injury of all had been to his heart, and that cut was as fresh as the day it was given, even after a full cycle of the seasons.

"Malin," Audric whispered to the empty room, cradling his head as he sat upright. His lover was gone, lost to the battlefield and the funeral pyres. Malin had always been such a bright presence in his life. It was Malin who had helped Audric overcome his quiet nature and take charge of a kingdom that had become his far too soon. When he took Malin as a lover, no one had openly objected. So long as he maintained the option for a strategic, political marriage, Audric's relationship was looked on by his advisers as a stabilizing and generally positive influence.

As the flood of memories began to catch up to the present, the events of last night returned to Audric's thoughts. He had not lain with another since Malin's death, but last night, the emptiness and grief had become too much to bear. Audric had sought to lose himself, even for a moment, in the arms of another. He had asked Holden to discreetly ask among the rest of the guard for one willing to offer Audric the sort of companionship he desired, and one had answered the summons. Jarrett, the knight who had been Malin's squire in his youth.

Just thinking of the young man brought back the rest of the night with startling clarity, and Audric groaned. Bowing his head forward into his palm again, he felt guilt bloom brightly in his chest along with the shock of what he'd done. It had been Jarrett in the blazing firelight, not Malin, but that hadn't stopped him from calling his dead lover's name. He had been so eager to lose himself to past happiness that his mind had woven an intricate tapestry of lies and excuses as to why Malin had been away for the past year and now newly returned. The small differences between Jarrett and Malin had been overlooked in favor of the similarities. Jarrett's slightly sharper features were easily hidden by the curtain of auburn hair the same shade as Malin's. Jarrett's skin may have shone a bit more pale in the candlelight, but the build was Malin's, and a long sojourn to the north could have stolen some of the color from the normally darker skin.

Yes, seeing Jarrett as Malin was easy enough, but touching him, kissing him, took a bit more effort. Jarrett was many years younger than Malin, and though he clearly had at least a bit of experience, the youth couldn't know Audric's body as well as Malin did after nearly a decade of sharing pleasure. And while Audric had enjoyed submitting to Malin's more dominant whims, that would be impossible with Jarrett. The touches, the kisses, the feel of Jarrett's mouth upon him, or even Jarrett's cock within him, would all be too different for him to ignore. His imagination had limits, and if he was truly going to pretend...

"By God, Audric, what are you thinking?" he suddenly asked, shattering the silence of the room with the realization of his shameful scheming. He rose from his bed and pulled his discarded robe over his nudity. His brows furrowed as he tied the sash at his waist and began pacing.

He shouldn't have done what he did, but, then again, who could blame him? It had been a long year, and he had needed the tryst. After spending most of his adult life in the company of his departed lover, of course Malin was on his mind when he sought intimacy again. Anyone would understand that. Even Jarrett didn't seem to hold it against him. The lad hadn't objected to being called Malin, after all. When he had asked Jarrett to stay, the knight could have declined and left, insulted by his behavior, but Jarrett had stayed.

Maybe Jarrett hadn't even heard him and wouldn't mind answering his summons again. Audric's scowl eased at that thought, and his pacing slowed. The young knight's behavior all seemed to point that direction, and if Jarrett consented, then there wasn't really a problem. It was only a little harmless pretending. People probably did that sort of thing all the time, letting their minds wander and perhaps think about someone else.

The knot that had formed in Audric's gut slowly unraveled. He may have pretended, but it was harmless, and he probably wouldn't even have to do it again. The once may have been enough and purged it from his system. Crossing his chamber with an unusually energetic gait, he pulled the cord to summon a servant who would bring him his morning meal. Though he had a lot of work in the hours ahead, he found himself smiling softly. He felt a bit better this morning than he had in a long while. Perhaps last night hadn't been such a disaster after all.

***

The clang of blades and shields rang clear in the early morning. The knights' morning practice was in full swing, and for the first time in months, Audric had joined them. He was already breathing hard from the exertion even though he had been on the field less than half the time of the knights who served in his inner circle. Part of that might have been due to his choice of sparring partners. As king, he had the privilege of working with the best armsmaster in the Five Kingdoms, but as his old reflexes failed him and he stumbled sideways over his own two feet, he wondered if he would have been better off sparring a less experienced knight.

Holden was the captain of his private guard, a broad and imposing figure on the best of days. In battle, the gray-haired warrior was terrifying to behold, and if Audric didn't know the man for the kind and caring soul he was, he probably wouldn't dare raise a blade against him, even to practice. Holden wouldn't hold back, wouldn't take it easy on him for his lack of recent discipline, just as the captain never allowed his father any special privileges. Kings had to be warriors as well, and with the way Holden kept landing perfectly aimed blows against his shield and blade, Audric resigned himself to being humbled.

"Hiding away in your room has worn you down, Your Highness." The robust voice carried easily, and Audric could have cursed himself for letting it distract him enough for Holden to land yet another blow. His shield arm was jarred by the impact, but he managed not to stagger backward. He lashed out with his sword in retaliation, but Holden just side-stepped the swing, and they returned to circling one another.

"I wouldn't say that," Audric argued, now that he had a moment to speak between his panting breaths. "The activity in my room enables me to draw my sword against you once more." He couldn't spot any weaknesses in Holden's stance, so he settled on the most unbalanced interval of his gait, striking out again.

Holden laughed as he easily blocked the attack. "Recent activities can hardly be counted as remaining agile and swift, lad."

"How would you know?" Audric countered with a smirk. "I wield my sword quite well in the bedchamber." His legs were growing more sluggish, and he knew he couldn't win in his current condition, but he wasn't going to simply wait for Holden to pummel him into the ground. He tried for a series of advances, seeking a weakness while being as creative as his sword and gear would allow. His efforts were rewarded only with blocks, and his last swing was a complete failure. Holden spun out of the way, and Audric was forced to morph his yelp into a grunt when the flat of Holden's blade collided with his ass. The bastard probably thought that was nothing but a 'light tap', too.

"So you and Jarrett are getting on well, then?" Holden asked, his voice thick with amusement as Audric struggled to recover with some dignity.

The question drew a blank in Audric's mind. Jarrett? What did the boy have to do with his bedroom activities? He had been with-- "Buck up, lad! Pay attention!" The shouted command was coupled with a thwap of Holden's shield to his, and he started, snapping back into his stance, which he hadn't even noticed had fallen completely while he was distracted. His eyes focused back on Holden again, his brow furrowed with concentration.

It took a few more seconds for realization to dawn, and Audric stuffed down a momentary jolt of guilt. "Well, indeed," he finally answered, trying to cover his pause by rotating his shoulder, which was sore enough to make the movement believable. Settling into his stance again, he charged, engaging Holden's blade.

"It must be, for you to call for him three of the last seven nights. He is late to morning training without fail the day after your summons."

Audric could tell from Holden's tone that neither he nor Jarrett were being reprimanded for their activities. He ground his teeth together with the effort to remain in position with his blade locked against Holden's. "I think it's just what I've been needing," he admitted through his clenched jaw, but even the small amount of energy it took to speak was too much. Holden shoved him back, and he skidded against the dirt, digging his feet in so he wouldn't fall.

Holden stood, steady as an aged tree, well-rooted to the earth beneath him. "I've been worried about you," the warrior admitted, the first signs of strain audible in his voice between panting breaths.

He struggled to control his raging pulse, to summon up the last of his strength, and when Holden looked up at the sun to check the time, he took full advantage of the distraction. He lunged forward, exerting all his remaining strength, but Holden was simply too quick to be caught unaware by his sluggish attack. It took mere seconds for Holden to engage, spin, and repel him, and the movements tipped him off balance too quickly for him to recover. He crashed into the ground and rolled over onto his back only to see the tip of Holden's sword pointed at his chin. Cursing breathlessly, he relinquished his grip on his own blade, acknowledging Holden's victory. "I'm a mess..." he panted, finally admitting to the obvious, "...but I'll get better."

Holden chuckled and switched his blade over to his other hand, offering Audric help up from the ground, which Audric took after about a minute of resting on his back. "No one expected you to be anything but a mess for a while," Holden assured him. "It's good you're pulling yourself together again. I'm glad Jarrett can help with that. He worshiped Malin."

Back on his feet, Audric stooped to pick up his sword. "Who didn't worship Malin?" he asked wistfully, his smile weighed down by familiar sadness. "But Jarrett learned everything he knows from him. It's only a matter of time before the lad... replaces Malin completely."

He caught an odd look from Holden as they walked off the field towards the armory. "Replace him? No one can replace Malin, Audric."

Realizing the mistake in his wording, Audric flashed Holden a smile, hoping that it appeared genuine. "No, of course not. You're right." He stifled a sigh of relief when Holden didn't press him and changed the subject instead.

"Has the council begun pestering you about the Lady Primeveire?"

Audric groaned at the choice of topic, wiping the sweat from his brow. "Pestering would be putting it kindly. They didn't even ask my permission before sending out summons for her. I'm now obligated to consider her or risk losing even more respect from my people and our allies."

"Ah, the sacrifices of a king," Holden chuckled, earning a half-hearted glare from Audric. "You knew marriage would happen, Sire. An heir must be produced." Holden defended his position. "She is said to be lovely to look upon, even if she possesses no sense of wit."

"Pity the two aren't exchangeable," Audric muttered. When Holden opened the heavy door to the armory, he stepped inside, letting his eyes adjust to the lower light. He glanced sideways at Holden, a glimmer of mischief in his expression. "Maybe she would benefit from a fortnight spent amongst the knights? If anyone could teach her wit..."

Holden all but roared his laughter, and the sound lifted Audric's spirits, helping him put aside the pain in his chest from talk of Malin. "Sire, I doubt many couldn't benefit from time spent with the knights."

They began taking their practice armor off, storing the pieces in their proper places throughout the room. "I don't know how I shall dodge this proposal, Holden. Politically, it is the right time to marry and strengthen our kingdom with an ally like Merindia."

Holden sighed, and Audric could see him cross burly arms over a broad chest. "Perhaps it is time, then to stop dodging, Audric, and marry."

He didn't much like that suggestion. He had never been overly attached to thoughts of marrying and settling with a family, even if he had always known it was his duty to continue on the monarchy of their kingdom. He had been even less inclined towards it when he had been with Malin. What need did he have for a wife beyond duty when he had someone like Malin to love and hold on the cold winter nights? But, at the same time, he wasn't fond of the idea of marrying a woman he held no respect for. That's why he had refused so many possible matches over the years. With Malin now gone and the kingdom in need of strong alliances that could be counted upon, he knew Holden was right, and he nodded his reluctant agreement as he racked his sword.

"You can have the agreement made to favor your other proclivities, Sire," Holden suggested softly, "so that you might share your wife's bed while a knight shares yours."

It wasn't unheard of, but Audric still hesitated. "I just miss him," he replied at length, his voice soft with restrained grief. "He would have known exactly what to do, exactly what to say to encourage me without giving up his place in my life."

When he looks up again at Holden, the man's eyes are gentle, his expression fatherly. "Of course you miss him. You'll miss him until the day you die, lad. But we both know what Malin would have encouraged: what is best for the kingdom while sacrificing as little of your personal comfort and happiness as possible."

Audric managed a small smile, soothed by Holden's manner and care. "Aye, that is what he would say. The kingdom always comes first." He ran a hand through his hair, which had fallen out of the leather tie he had used while sparring. "I'll speak to the council about the agreement. The envoy arrives in another three days. I haven't had a potential queen at the keep for several years."

Holden clapped him on the shoulder, almost hard enough to knock the breath from him, though he composed himself again in record time. "Not many matches are made for love, but if she is lovely and kind, then I advise you to consider accepting her as your queen. You celebrated your thirty-third birthday a full season ago. It is high time to wed and have a child."

"You're right," Audric was forced to admit, exhaling slowly. "I need an heir soon so the lad can grow before I reach my own end. No political match is ever perfect, but maybe I will be lucky like my father was. He learned to respect and love Mother, even after a rough start."

"Rough," Holden snorted. "What a pleasant way of phrasing it."

"All right, so she once pulled a knife on him and frequently threatened to poison him in his sleep," Audric chuckled. "It could have been worse."

Holden laughed as he nodded his agreement and held open the door again for Audric. "Luckily, it wasn't."

"At least my mother had wit," Audric pointed out with a smile, feeling a bit more optimistic. "I hope Lady Primeveire is a fair match. If I refuse her, the council will wish they had the authority to skin me alive."

"Best make certain you spell out all your needs within the marriage contract, Audric. Do not surprise the young thing," Holden warned, leading him from the armory back through the keep to the main hall.

He elbowed his captain in the ribs. "I may be grief-stricken, but I'm an honorable man. You know that. Whatever woman I marry will know precisely what she's getting herself into."

"Good. Jarrett seems fond of you. Always has. I would hate to see his current distractions cast aside for a marriage bed."

It took him a moment's pause to make the connection between Jarrett and said distractions, but he recovered much more quickly. "That would be a true pity," he agreed with a smile. "I'm glad he continues to answer my summons. I doubt anyone else would do." After all, no one else in the guard had such features. No one else could inspire his harmless little fantasies, which had been keeping him sane the last week.

"Why do you think no one else would?"

Holden's question broke through his thoughts like a rock through a pane of glass, and his mind scrambled to find an adequate excuse for his words. "Few have the... passion that our young knight does," he began, relieved that his voice was holding steady. "Even fewer would accept an invitation to another man's bed, even if that man is the king. I may be admired, but you know those who share my proclivities are in the minority."

Holden's severe expression smoothed out almost instantly. "Very true, Sire," the knight agreed, and Audric inwardly heaved a sigh of relief.

He hiked up an eyebrow to punctuate his excuse. "Unless you'd like to take Jarrett's place," he teasingly offered.

Holden obviously believed him, because the warrior snorted his amusement. "I think my Annie might take offense to that proposition, Sire."

Audric smiled and laughed, both out of triumph and genuine affection. "Along with your three children and four grandchildren. Or is it five grandchildren now?"

"Five," Holden corrected with a grin, pride positively beaming from his expression. "Young Jasmine is newly with child."

Audric shook his head. "Fortune smiles on your family. By God, you will outlive us all, and your clan of descendants will take over the kingdom at this rate."

More of that wonderfully uplifting laughter rang from Holden as the warrior countered, "You still have plenty of time to sire a dozen children, lad."

"Do me a favor and tell that to the council the next time they pester me," Audric scoffed, but his smile was soon to return, and he clapped his hand on Holden's shoulder when they came to the middle of the main hall, the action mirrored by his armsmaster. "I will find you tomorrow for a rematch... as soon as I can move."

"I look forward to it, Your Highness." Withdrawing his hand, Holden stepped back and bowed to him. "Good day, my lord."

"Good day, Captain," Audric replied. Turning, he made his way up to his chambers to cleanse his body and tend to his other, less enjoyable duties. It would be a long day, but at least the spar had left him feeling optimistic. The bruises and sore muscles were worth it.




All works contained here are copyrighted to S.L. Armstrong. No reproduction or usage is permitted without written, express consent by the author.