4. Campfire Stories

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Moribus felt like he had been thrust into a fairy tale. Mere weeks ago he had been a no-account servant, and now here he was squiring for the most vaunted dragonslayer in all of Alvaria, sharing a meal around a campfire.

To say that Lord Manerion was a big man was to not give him his proper due. His muscled frame was so immense that everything within visible range appeared diminished by comparison. Plates were reduced to tea saucers and saddlebags to purses. His steed, a great palomino that stood eyes and ears above other horses, looked more pony than stallion when he mounted it. Even the woods around him appeared slightly off-scale. If size alone wasn't enough to inspire awe, the knight wore such a garment as Moribus had never laid eyes upon, a sable neck-to-ankle undergarment interwoven with shiny threads that winked in the firelight. Such a garment might have sold for a team of oxen back in Twin Oaks, had anyone possessed a team of oxen to spare. And those were just his skivvies.

"What are you gawping at?" Lord Manerion growled.

"Nothing, m'Lord." Moribus quickly averted his gaze.

"Never seen a knight in his skivvies before, that it? Say, you're not one of them jolly boys, are you?"

"I'm not a—that is, I'm betrothed," Moribus stammered.

"So you are." Lord Manerion motioned with the hunting knife he used to carve up his food. "And if you intend to ply that fair maiden of yours, I suggest you keep your jolly boy eyes to yourself."

"Yes, sir." Moribus swallowed. It wasn't the first time that evening he'd felt the caustic lash of his master's tongue, but it still took him aback. Was it possible that this man, coarse as a drunken sailor in private, was one and the same as the genteel knight he had admired from a distance, a man who never set foot outside his estate unless he was wearing a gilded suit of armor and never encountered a lady but he did not stoop to kiss her hand?

"Hey, boy," Lord Manerion said. "Any more of that mutton left?"

"No, sir. Only the two chops."

"What's that there on your plate, a toadstool?"

"A mutton chop, I suppose," Moribus admitted. In an attempt to display refined table manners, he had gone about trimming off neat, nibble-sized pieces. That was why, even though only a third the size of the knight's portion to begin with, most of it still remained on his plate.

"Not planning on finishing that, are you?" Without waiting for an answer, the knight reached over and speared the slab of meat. He ate it right off the blade, careless of the juices flowing down his chin. "Ah, now there's a good mutton chop." He rooted in his mouth with a pinky finger and extricated a slimy piece of gristle. With a belch, he flicked it into the fire. "Fire seem a bit cold to you? Toes feel like they're going to freeze right off."

Moribus figured the knight's toes would be sufficiently baked were he to move them closer to the fire, but what he said was, "Yes, a bit chilly, I guess."

"Why don't you stop guessing then and throw some more wood on it."

Having already burned through that night's supply of wood, it befell to Moribus to gather more. He was returning to camp with an armload when he heard the sharp ring of steel. Dropping the load, his right hand leaped for the slingshot at his hip. Even after five years of working with a blade, it was still the first thing he reached for.

"Good reflexes," Lord Manerion said as he struck his knife on a whetting stone. "You'll need those."

Moribus collected up the fallen wood and piled some onto the fire.

"Ah, that's better." Lord Manerion leaned back and stretched out his legs. "Feels right cozy now. Say, this calls for a spot of diversion. Have you any useful skills, boy? Do you sing or dance? Juggle knives? Play the hand pipes? Tell bawdy jokes?"

Moribus could carry a fair tune but feared this might incur more accusations of being a jolly boy. "No, sorry."

"Certainly you must know some good lays, then? Why, everyone knows a lay or three." The knight had hit upon something there. Back in Twin Oaks, Moribus had loved nothing more than to sit around a campfire with the summer hands, swapping tales of far-off adventures. But such tales felt paltry and dull when held up to the famed dragonslayer in his sparkling skivvies. He felt like a child being asked to recite his letters.

"Are you deaf, boy, or just slow? Now do you or don't you know any good lays to pass the time?"

"No," Moribus said at last.

"'Shame." Lord Manerion shrugged and went back to sharpening his blade.

"I bet you've got some stories to tell," Moribus ventured.

The dragonslayer held up the knife to examine its keen edge by the dancing light of the flames. "You could say that."

* * * * *

The next week passed in a bleary haze for Moribus. Lord Manerion lifted his hand to his mouth to feed himself. Any labor beyond that he considered the domain of his squire.

Moribus's work commenced before sunup and was not finished until well after dark. Tea and breakfast had to be ready by the time the knight's eyelids fluttered open with the dawn. After breakfast, while the knight took his morning constitutional, Moribus was left to clean up, make up packs and load the horses. Then the morning ritual of accoutering began. This was a task Moribus took pride in, notwithstanding the verbal lashings that accompanied it. Any common slave might brew his master's tea or scrub his master's pots, but the outfitting of a knight was a job truly befitting a squire.

The knight's armor was as beautiful as it was fierce: the crested helm with its golden visor, the ribbed breastplate and tri-form shield, both etched with the figure of a rearing dragon, the layered fauld with its interlocking rings, and the shining arm and leg plates. The sword that fit within its felt-inlaid scabbard was the crowning masterpiece. The cross-guard was burnished silver, the grip rose-black ironwood wrapped in the supplest leather. Set into the pommel was an ebony stone with a topaz crease resembling a dragon's eye. Held aloft, the mirror-pure blade caught the sun from any angle. In motion, it vanished into a blur of light. Surely, the man who wielded such a weapon need fear no man or beast.

Once accoutered, knight and squire set on their way. Lord Manerion set a steady and relentless pace. Unaccustomed to long hours on horseback, Moribus was soon feeling raw and bruised. That first day, he learned an especially cruel lesson. Though the knight had quaffed half a pot of tea, he stopped only once before midday to pass water. By that point, Moribus was ready to burst his skin. From that day on, he strictly rationed his drinking.

The end of the day's riding brought little relief. The instant Moribus's leaden feet hit the ground, he was expected to pitch camp and attend to any whim that struck his lord's fancy, of which there were not a few. For all his efforts, he found he could do little to the knight's satisfaction. The tea was either too weak or too strong, the stew too salty or not salty enough. These complaints did not prevent the knight from eating like three men, and their provisions were nearly depleted by the end of the first week, at which point it fell to Moribus to hunt and forage. Fortunately, his backwoods upbringing had prepared him well for this and he relished the time alone in the woods. Even so, he was hard pressed to hunt, butcher and cook with enough alacrity to satisfy the knight's prodigious appetite and discriminating palate.

When Lord Manerion finally drifted off to sleep, Moribus's work was far from over. The knight's armor had to be cleaned and oiled every night, a task which took the better part of two hours and was subject to harsh scrutiny in the revealing light of morning. Before the cleaning could commence, the armor first had to be carried some distance from camp so that any noise would not rouse the knight from his light slumber.

"Is that you, boy? Or is that an army of sotted blacksmiths I hear?" Lord Manerion barked one night when Moribus accidentally banged two pieces together.

"I beg your pardon, m'Lord. It won't happen again."

"You're bleeding right it won't. Or I'll tote your jolly arse back to Alvaron and sell you to the rock crushers. I made you a prince, and by Rho I can unmake you one just as easily." With that, the knight rolled over and promptly began to snore.

As the days wore on, Lord Manerion's words were never far from Moribus's thoughts, and he resolved to never give him a reason to be displeased. It was an oath he would find it increasingly hard to keep.

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