6. Two Cups of Tea

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Moribus awoke in the still hour before dawn. The air was cool and misty, spiced with damp moss and fragrant pine. A leaf pirouetted in the starlight, settling on the loamy earth with the sound of an angel's tread. All was calm and tranquil. All except for the gravelly modulations of the knight's snoring a few feet away.

With every passing day Moribus grew more resentful of his master. It wasn't the overbearing air of command, the constant stream of invective, or even the lack of appreciation. What really stuck in his craw was the knight's refusal to pitch in with even the smallest of tasks. On the farm, every man worked and received the just rewards of his labor. The man who shirked his duties, be he landowner or hired hand, was regarded as no better than an outcast.

Feeling agitated, Moribus pushed back his bedroll and quietly slipped on his boots. A fog was drifting in. He headed deeper into the woods away from the Elyddon Road, not wanting to chance upon any stray travelers. Soon, the knight's snoring was replaced by the tiny scritch of insects and the woeful hoot of an owl. The sense of solitude was absolute. Time itself seemed suspended, as if everything that had happened to him since leaving Twin Oaks was only a poorly remembered dream, a story spoken into the mist.

Had fate not intervened, he might be back on his father's farm right now, drawing water from the well and preparing for the day ahead. He remembered the taste of cool cream in summer and mulled cider in winter, downy fields of buckwheat rippling in the sun, the open faces of the townsfolk, and the well-trodden paths to the mossy pond, the watermill and the climbing oak.

But such memories were like paths in the wind, leading nowhere. The Twin Oaks of his youth had long ago ceased to exist. First his mother had been driven away on the back of a mule and then, a few short months later, his sweetheart had been carried away in a gilded chariot. He had chased after one and tried in vain to forget the other. Perhaps he had chased after the wrong woman? Would his mother have demanded ballads, white horses and the head of a dragon?

His mother had been the unmovable maypole of his youth. After a full day of cooking and house tending, she would rock sanguinely in front of the fire, her face glossy with sweat and strands of hair sticking to her flushed cheeks. A torn garment would be spread out in her lap, maybe a pair of his breeches with ripped-out knees. Barely glancing down, her fingers worked expertly in the dim light, applying old scraps to new wounds.

Moribus found himself at the edge of a clearing. The fog was in a slow roil, tinged with the first rosy hints of dawn. He drew his sword and took a few practice swings. The blade felt light and kinetic in his hand. He moved through a series of warm-up exercises, loosening up the tightly wound muscles before progressing on to more rigorous maneuvers. The deft coordination of muscle and steel demanded his full concentration, focusing his thoughts. His pulse beat out a steady rhythm in his temples. Sweat beaded on his skin, turning it cool and supple. Time passed in a blur of steel.

"Hey, you there, boy!" Lord Manerion's voice boomed across the clearing. Still in his body-length undergarment, he looked like an angry black bear.

Moribus came to, looked around. The fog had mostly evaporated away, leaving only a few drifting wisps. There was dew on the ground, sparkling like shattered glass. His leggings were wet up to the knees. "Sorry, m'Lord. I must have lost track of time."

"I'd say. And just what in Orduvan's ever-loving name are you doing out here?"

"Sword drills."

"Is that what you call it? Looked like you were scything down grass."

"I want to be in top form for the dragon."

"Ha! Top form indeed! If you want to join a knitting circle that is. How about you put that darning needle away and practice brewing up some tea before I kick your jolly arse all the way back to Alvaron." With that, the knight turned and stumped away.

"Lazy chorl," Moribus swore under his breath.

Back at camp, Lord Manerion passed the time fatuously, reclining against a trunk and whittling away at a stick. "Tea ready yet, boy?"

"It's still got to boil, m'Lord," Moribus replied with some satisfaction. At least the laws of nature were not subject to the knight's whims.

"Hmph."

The water finally came to a boil, and Moribus poured two cups. He handed one to the knight and sat his own on the grass to cool.

Lord Manerion downed half his cup in one gulp. "Seems like you've got this whole dragonslaying business figured out, don't you, boy?"

"I beg your pardon, m'Lord?"

"I said, it seemslike you've got some silly-ass notions in that piss-addled head of yours aboutwhat it takes to slay a dragon. While we sit here and sip our tea, you're goingto tell me all about them."

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