For: qzee, who requested "Archer/Reed set in the middle ages with Malcolm as a knight, Archer as a lord/nobility of some kind."
Genre: AU, Action/Adventure
Word Count: 13,016
Author's Note: You got an American history major writing this one, so it's about as accurate as I could make it with only a passing familiarity of European history. The English and HRE (German) political situations are taken from the Norman Conquest and the reign of King Henry IV respectively (near contemporaries of one another), but the rest (beer production, agriculture, etc.) is a bit of an amalgamation of 1066 to the thirteenth century and fantasy novels ;)
Apologies for the rushing near the end; the fic was starting to get out of hand and I wasn't trying to make a Clan of the Cave Bear-sized epic out of it. And then "a couple hours late" turned into twelve hours late because my internet went out. (Anything that can go wrong...)
The village was like any other he'd passed through in his travels, but Malcolm was no less on his toes and ready for action than he'd ever been. Most towns had been as poised for battle as he, which didn't come as much of a surprise. Wandering barbarians and common thieves alike pillaged the countryside, and Malcolm had bloodied his sword three times in as many days to drive them off. A solitary man and his horse made an appealing target. Fortunately he wasn't as easy a mark as he looked; his father had seen to that when he was still a boy.
It seemed almost a shame that he'd come to the village in the middle of the day. The inn looked inviting and he sincerely doubted it wouldn't have a sampling of the local meads and beers. Malcolm always found that the surest way to judge a village was by its production of alcohol; the better villages invariably produced finer brews, and Malcolm never said no to a fine brew.
But it was better to be in and out quickly, only staying long enough to replenish his supplies. Malcolm liked to avoid trouble, though trouble seemed to invariably find him these days, especially since he knew only a few words of the local language. Linguistic miscommunication always exacerbated a rocky start, and he was no stranger to misunderstandings. Sometimes he thought he would have been better off staying at home and not crossing the water to wander the world as he had.
But then he remembered watching his family bend to an awful change and he remembered he was far better off wandering by himself. Memories of the Norman Conquest always left a bitter taste on his tongue, so he dismounted quickly to distract himself. He threw the reins over the head of his warhorse – his well-trained warhorse, Dexter, was a weapon as valuable as his sword – and adjusted the light armour about his shoulders.
He greatly preferred this armour he'd modified before he left on his journey; it wasn't strong enough for jousting, not as though he enjoyed the sport anyway, but it was extremely effective for quicker swordplay. It still deflected most blows without denting, and he was quick enough in it to fight any unarmoured bandits. He'd seen enough knights go under a mob of people to be wary of that.
His gauntlets kept slipping, however much he tried to keep them up. He supposed he'd have to find a good leatherworker to readjust the straps, but he contented himself for now with just shoving them back up his arms a bit. He patted Dexter on the nose and led him toward the market street of the village, determined to find some decent fresh produce this time, no matter the cost.
An hour later found him haggling as best he could over the price of some slightly withered apples. The vendor was clearly accustomed to dealing with people who couldn't speak his language. Judging by the relatively large size of the village – Malcolm might even hazard to call it a town – and the river, he was probably at a crossroads on trade routes. The marketplace contained a decent selection of goods and Malcolm had already completed most of his purchases.
He finished with the apple vendor, not quite pleased with the final price but satisfied with the produce, and slid the small bag into Dexter's saddle bag. He'd just finished refastening the straps that kept it closed when the small frame of a woman brushed against him. Her dark hair hid her face, but Malcolm quickly grabbed her wrist and held her in place. Women were better thieves than men were, usually going unnoticed as children in a crowd and using their smaller size to an effective advantage.
Her head snapped up and she said something in the local dialect. He didn't understand a word of it, but he didn't think it was anything overly complimentary. She glared at him haughtily and he took a step back, shocked by her face. She was…she was yellow! Well, not yellow precisely, but her skin had a yellowish pallor to it that made her look as though she was ill.
He released her wrist with what he hoped wasn't an unseemly haste and muttered an apology, knowing she wouldn't understand it. He took in the fine cut and fabric of her dress and decided to play it safe; she was likely a rich merchant's wife, and Malcolm didn't need to be angering anyone in town just yet. He gave her a bow made stiff by his armour. When his eyes returned to her face he had only a moment to note her strange features before she gave him another surprise.
"You must be from the north," she said in his language. She darted a quick look over her shoulder and let out a sigh of frustration as she turned back to him. He followed her line of sight and realized the previously bustling street had been emptied, save for a small knot of men moving toward where he and the lady stood. "I don't really have time to talk with you right now, but—"
"Are they harassing you, my lady?" he cut in, his sense of honour overriding his politeness. He did so hate to see an unfair fight, and the group of men looked to number about ten. Only a few were armed, if one could call it that, with stout clubs of wood, but it was still a disgrace to see ten men take on one woman.
She put her hands on her hips and took up a decidedly defiant posture. "You'd think that they would be grateful for my assistance, but because I possess a talent for understanding language they call me a witch! Half the business in this town would never get done if I didn't help."
"Surely your…looks don't help," he said, almost embarrassed to have brought it up.
"I'm from the east. Very far to the east. If you find another like me at any point in your life, you've wandered too far," she said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I think your presence has given them enough pause for me to make my escape."
Instead of letting her go as he should have, he found himself relishing the thought of a street brawl. He usually avoided trouble at all costs, but he was warming to the idea of defence of an innocent woman. Not that he had any assurances she wasn't a witch, but Malcolm knew language was a learned skill. His father's bard had been able to speak three languages.
He put his hand out to stop her from leaving and said, "I'll chase them off for you."
"You're very kind, sir," the woman said with a dip of her head. "My lord will be quite pleased with you." She gave him an assessing up and down look. "I think he would be quite pleased with you in any case."
Malcolm pulled his sword from its scabbard and handed the reins to the woman. "Dexter won't hurt you intentionally, but he will defend himself. Stay here, my lady. I'm Malcolm, by the way."
"Hoshi," she said with a nod. Strange name, but she was a strange woman and it fit.
He stalked a few paces away and planted his feet shoulder-width apart. He drove the tip of his sword into the dirt between them and rested his hands casually on the hilt. His father had taught him a great deal about observing the proper forms as a noble knight, but Malcolm had learned that a solitary knight could be an intimidating presence if he assumed just the right posture.
Peasants and bandits alike feared a sword and the man who wielded it well, so Malcolm always tried to give the impression that he knew exactly what he was doing. He cocked his head at an angle, his chin thrust upward in what usually passed for an arrogant expression. He loosened his shoulders and settled in to wait for them to come to him. He didn't have to wait long.
The braver of the men, the ones with clubs, approached him and called out something that might have been a cautious greeting. He didn't say a word.
"They want you to move," Hoshi called from behind him.
"Tell them I said no." Her translation sounded a lot longer than "no," but he let it slide. If she translated half this town's business she was likely very adept at soothing out and antagonizing where it was necessary.
The lead man, an ugly fellow with a ragged scar down his left cheek, swung his club menacingly and growled something else, but the others behind him weren't looking quite as sure of themselves.
"He called me some very unflattering names that I'll not repeat and said they'd move you if they had to," was Hoshi's translation.
"They're more than welcome to make such an attempt, but I've beaten back twice their number before." He neglected to mention that he'd had some help of course, and it hadn't won him the war in the end. He had belonged to one of the better bands of those who resisted the Norman invasion.
The men seemed to shift amongst themselves for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Their leader finally shouted something and charged at Malcolm, who was quite relieved to see that only two men followed his lead. He judged the other man's speed and shifted out of the way just enough to feel the air as the man's club whistled down next to his head.
"Vertical attacks," Malcolm snorted as he drove his sword down on the club, cutting it cleanly in two. He pivoted and swung the flat of his blade around in a wide circle, finally coming in contact with the back of Scarface's head. The man went down and Malcolm knew he wouldn’t be getting up for a while.
He used the backstroke of his swing to meet the next club that came towards his unprotected head. This one was made of a tougher wood than the other, and his sword only bit into it halfway before it became stuck. Malcolm drove the hilt into the man's pug nose, hoping he'd have time to knock the wood off before he had to take on the next man. This one went to his knees with blood streaming from his broken nose.
Fortunately the third man didn't know enough to press his advantage while Malcolm's sword was disabled, so he had time to kick at the club before the man charged him. It fell off in one piece and Malcolm scooped it up and flung it at his last attacker. It struck him squarely in the stomach and he went down with a small "oomph" noise, clutching at his belly and gasping for air.
To Malcolm's surprise Scarface was slowly stumbling to his feet, holding his head in his hands and looking murderous. "You must have quite a hard head," he said as he struck out with his sword. He left a shallow cut along the man's right cheek, a near perfect twin to the one on his left. Malcolm admired his precision as the other man screamed and grabbed at his face.
"You're quite good with that," Hoshi said. He glanced in the direction of the other men before he answered her. Most of them had scattered, and the couple who remained looked like they were only there to retrieve their companions.
"I was aiming for his eye," Malcolm said, smiling to tell her it was a joke. Dexter was shifting on his feet, so Malcolm quickly went to retrieve the reins and calm him. He cast his eyes over the fallen men and nodded to himself. All around it was not a bad job, and it would deter anyone in the town from following him on his way out.
"I think the Burgrave would jump at the chance to enlist you in his employ," she said, surveying the destruction he'd wrought. "And he's a very persuasive man when he wants to be."
"Burgrave? I am unfamiliar with the title," Malcolm said.
"He's a local lord of sorts. He has a penchant for the strange and downtrodden folk. I myself came here on a slave train and he purchased and freed me after talking to me for five minutes." Hoshi smiled and nodded towards the east. "His manor house is a five minute walk from town, but you can walk for three days in any direction and find people loyal enough to die for him."
"Sounds like a good man," Malcolm said cautiously. He avoided politics and lords as a matter of personal safety.
"Oh, he is. The king fears him a great deal because he's so popular among the people he rules. He shall be very cross with me if I neglect to introduce you." Hoshi gestured this time with her hand toward the east. "Come, you shall enjoy his hospitality for the evening in exchange for saving my life."
Malcolm was hesitant to accept her invitation. Staying in a lord's manor house was not his idea of a good time, especially if the king of the self-styled Holy Roman Empire – a man who, according to rumour, had been excommunicated and allowed back in years earlier – had a grudge again him. That kind of association could be deadly.
On the other hand, a bed and hot meal sounded quite nice to a traveller who hadn't stayed at an inn for over a month. And hearing another voice speaking in his language was pleasant, if not downright homey.
"Lead on, fair lady," Malcolm said. Hoshi gave him a smile and they were on their way.
As they walked she explained the house politics to him. The Burgrave was married to one of the king's cousins, but it was widely known to be merely a marriage of politics and that the lady had her own sleeping quarters away from the lord. She was preparing at that moment to embark on a visit to her cousin's court; it was ostensibly for a vacation with her family but really it would be an attempt to smooth over the king's hatred of the lord.
"And we're all hoping he doesn't decide to order her head lopped off for trying it," Hoshi said. "She's not bad as far as ladies go, but sometimes you have to watch out for her temper."
Malcolm was reminded of his mother and simply nodded, hoping the lecture would steer off in a different direction. He wasn't disappointed.
"Now, Trip runs the Lord's estates for him. He's a bit on the friendly side, so don't let any of his pranks get to you."
"What kind of a name is Trip?" Malcolm asked. Did everyone here have strange names?
"He'd tell you it's his name and to mind your own business," Hoshi said. Her smile said that she'd received that response before. "The captain of the guard is a man called Hayes. He's leaving with the Lady, so you won't have to deal with him too much. And don't let the collection of individuals the Lord has gathered put you off too much. We're all really quite nice."
Malcolm just nodded again and studied the house peeking through the trees. It was a rather large building, much larger than the house of Malcolm's father. It was constructed of solid stone and surrounded by a stone fence that looked about ten paces high. From what he could see there were two wings branching off from a squarish central structure.
He didn't entirely like it, finding it a little under-defended for his tastes, but he supposed that was the style of the region. "Bloody vulnerable, is what that is," he muttered to himself.
"What was that?" Hoshi asked. She led him through the gate, which had opened without hesitation to admit them.
"Not too big on security measures around here, are you?"
Hoshi gave him a look before answering. "Why, looking for a job?"
"Certainly not," he grunted. The lord would likely be difficult to deal with, and Malcolm had never had much time for lords who couldn't listen to common sense suggestions about their own safety. It was the kind of thing that got the lords and their retainers killed. And it wasn't like he was looking for a job in the first place. Being a wandering knight had a romantic appeal to it.
"Suit yourself," Hoshi said with a shrug, "but I think you'll find a place here whether you want to or not. Come this way to the stables. They'll see to your horse."
"I'm leaving tomorrow," he said, following her toward a stable area on the far side of the yard. Dexter showed little interest in the other horses, only snapping at his lead line a bit and whickering softly. Malcolm smiled to himself; he'd trained his horse well.
"Michael!" Hoshi called to one of the stable boys. The dark-haired young man put down the bucket he was carrying and approached with a bow, eyeing Dexter with enthusiasm. Hoshi spoke to him in that language of theirs. Malcolm, only knowing a few words, thought he caught the words "horse" and "knight," but he wasn't entirely sure.
"Michael will take good care of your horse for you. Dexter you said his name was? Michael takes care of the Burgrave's stallion himself, so you can trust him with Dexter." Hoshi gestured in the direction of the other stable boys – all of whom seemed to be involved in organizing a large train of horses for departure – and Malcolm was shocked to see there were stable girls as well. "Trip has a real eye for talent with horses. They're all very good at what they do."
"You let women work in stables here?!" Malcolm asked, handing over Dexter's reins to the young man.
"Of course," Hoshi said, giving him another examining look. "They're usually much better at calming a mad horse too. I once saw a half-broken stallion buck off a man so hard he was unconscious for two days, but T'Pol slipped up to him and quieted him so well he carried her around gentle as a lamb."
"Who's T'Pol?" Malcolm asked, adding another strange name to cadre already in his head.
"Oh, she's a tribal priestess who's stayed here ever since her people thought we were getting a little too rowdy for our own good," Hoshi said, waving it off. "I'll introduce you later. She's quite a…character. Doesn't display emotions or anything. Mind your manners around her, or else."
Malcolm shook his head and retrieved his saddlebags before the stable boy led Dexter away. This was without a doubt the strangest place he'd ever found himself in his travels.
"And your Lord allows a heathen to remain under his roof?" he asked as he followed Hoshi toward the house.
"He says she's interesting. Actually I think he keeps her around because she and Trip get in so many fights and it amuses him. Amuses just about everyone, really." Hoshi certainly looked like she was laughing at a memory at the moment, so he let it slide. But how could two people fighting be funny? And why would anyone allow a backwards tribal priestess stay with them? Perhaps he had undervalued the danger in staying here.
Hoshi opened the door and he was instantly assaulted with the rush of people preparing for something large. Servants were bustling about among bags packed for a journey and a few of what were obviously senior staff members were shouting instructions over the noise. His companion wrinkled her nose and stepped inside. He didn't have much of a choice but to follow her.
Other servants were there instantly to close the door behind them and take their things. Hoshi said a few words to one who curtseyed at him and held out her hands to take his saddlebags. "She'll take your belongings up to a guest suite. Your sword will have to go with her as well. No one's allowed weapons in the house except for guards."
Malcolm was somewhat reluctant about handing over his sword, but he still had a few knives hidden about his person so he wasn't overly concerned about being unable to defend himself. Another servant appeared and gestured at his armour. He allowed himself to be divested of most of it, but kept his loose gauntlets and shin guards on; they were where four of his best blades were hidden.
"Oh," Hoshi said, interrupting his mental inventory. "There's the Lady Erika."
What a name for a lady, Malcolm thought to himself, quite amused. The woman at whom Hoshi was pointing seemed royal enough in a finely cut riding dress of some pale green material, and she seemed to be shouting just as loudly as any of her stewards. Hoshi grabbed a bit of his wool undershirt and gave it a tug in the lady's direction as she moved off. He almost swatted her hand away, but restrained himself. They had such strange ideas of casual touching here.
He followed Hoshi toward the lady, wondering again if this was such a good idea. The woman had a severe face made worse by the fact that her hair was tied back for travelling. She was gesturing wildly, and while she wasn't exactly yelling at her servants, she certainly was speaking very emphatically.
"Don't worry too much," Hoshi whispered to him, obviously sensing his apprehension. "Everyone's just a little frantic on the day of a journey around here. It's why the Burgrave is off hunting; he hates this kind of madness."
Malcolm raised his eyebrows at her, but didn't say anything. She smiled and took his arm as they stopped in front of other woman. It took her a few seconds to notice them, but she inclined her head at them once she did.
"Lady Erika, may I present Sir Malcolm, wandering knight and the man who saved my life from Martin and his rabble not half an hour ago," Hoshi said in Malcolm's language. He looked at her curiously.
"They were after you again?" Lady Erika asked. It took Malcolm a moment before he realized he could understand her as well.
"Yes," Hoshi said, breaking out into a grin. "But Malcolm here gave Martin a matching scar for his right cheek. I don't think I'll have to worry about them as long as he's around."
"Well, then you must stay for at least the duration of my absence!" the lady cried, reaching out to clasp one of Malcolm's hands. "Between you and me, Hoshi wanders off far too much on her own, but without Hayes around to find her I don't doubt she'll get into much more trouble than usual."
"Uhh," Malcolm said. It certainly wasn't his most articulate, but it was the best he could manage under the onslaught.
"Well then, glad that's settled." She released his hand. "You must be from the north then. I always did favour the cadence of your words, though I haven't had an excuse to speak the language for a while. You'll find many of us here speak it, but we don't seem to have many traders who do so any longer."
"We were conquered," Malcolm managed.
"Yes, I'd heard." She eyed him closely. "Shall I express my sympathies or not?"
"I left home over two years ago, madam, because I could not bear to be conquered any longer. Wandering seemed the only option." He bit back any number of harsher things he wanted to say.
"Well then, I can certainly sympathize with that. You must forgive me for not playing the proper hostess, but we are leaving shortly for the king's court and we're nowhere near ready to depart." She waved her hands at a guard who was helping shift things about. "No, no, Hawkins. That goes with the gifts, not with my things."
The young man looked at her blankly. She sighed and said something in her language. Malcolm presumed it to be a repetition of her words, so he took the opportunity to glance at Hoshi, who was looking at him with a decidedly amused expression.
"Was something funny?" he asked shortly.
"I guess I forgot to mention that a lot of us here actually can talk to you," she said with a dimpled smile. "You'll find that the Burgrave, his bodyguard, and Trip all speak your language as well. I wouldn't be surprised if T'Pol did too."
"You might've mentioned that," he complained. He turned his attention back to the lady, but she'd already moved away, gesturing wildly at two servants who were hauling a trunk across the foyer.
Hoshi smiled at him and took his arm again. "I'll show you to your room. The Burgrave will probably have supper with you tonight, but you can occupy yourself with wandering until then, right?"
The room to which Malcolm was shown a few hours later was neither grand nor opulent, but it was impressive. A fire roared on the hearth, combining with thick stone walls covered in beautiful tapestries to keep out the cold of a German evening. Having spent the last few weeks outside in it, Malcolm could appreciate the warmth. He planned on being out in it again as soon as possible, but that didn't mean he couldn't enjoy it for now.
A table stood between Malcolm and the fireplace, as did a man. Malcolm could only see his form silhouetted by the fire, but it was a safe assumption that this was his host, the much praised Jonathan, Burgrave of the region. Hoshi had gone on about him for fifteen minutes after she'd shown Malcolm to his room. He studied the tall man, seriously doubting the lord would live to expectations; no lord Malcolm had ever met had the gregarious personality ascribed to Lord Jonathan.
The firelight glinted off a half-drawn sword as the lord turned to face Malcolm, who immediately assumed a defensive stance. He knew he should have insisted on being allowed the privilege of his sword! This kind of treachery was not uncommon, though after the friendliness of everyone from the stable boy to the lady of the house it seemed quite a surprise. It also took a noble of a strong will to do the deed himself –
Malcolm gave a start as the fire flared enough for him to make out his opponent's features. Wide, grimacing mouth below a wide nose and intelligent, glittering black eyes, close-cropped dark hair, dark skin that Malcolm was sure hadn't been made much darker by the lack of substantial light. He was facing down a Moor!
It wasn't that much of a shock after the rest of the occupants of the manor. "I somehow doubt you're the great Lord Jonathan," Malcolm said, hoping his dry ton translated, even if his words didn't. To his surprise, the Moor gave him a half smile and shook his head.
"Just here to make sure nothing happens to the 'great Lord Jonathan,'" he answered flawlessly in Malcolm's tongue. He bared his teeth in what Malcolm suspected wasn't a smile and shoved his sword back into its sheath.
"No trust these days, eh?" Malcolm asked, not easing in his stance. "Not that I blame you, of course. I've had enough bad experiences with strangers myself to have known better than to let my sword out of my sight."
The Moor crossed his arms over his chest, his face twisted with reproach. "You honestly expect me to believe you're not armed in some manner?"
"Oh no, of course not," Malcolm assured. "That would be quite foolish of the both of us. I'm carrying four knives with which I'm deadly at twenty paces."
The Moor's reproachful grin widened at the implicit threat and he cracked his knuckles. Malcolm didn't doubt his own ability to take the man down, but the sword the Moor made the fight lopsided.
"If you two are done threatening each other, I'd like to eat sometime this evening." The voice from the far corner of the room startled Malcolm, and he wasn't sure where it had come from until his eyes picked out a shape moving in the darkness. By the time it joined the Moor in the firelight, Malcolm had realized this must be the actual lord of the manor. Interesting ploy.
"Lord Jonathan, I presume?" The man nodded, his strong profile outlined by the fire.
He reached out and patted the Moor on the shoulder. "You can relax now, Travis; I don't think our wandering knight here means to do me any harm."
"But, sir!" Travis protest, gripping the hilt of his sword. "You heard him confess to having concealed knives."
"And he would have used them by now if he wanted me dead." He patted Travis's shoulder again. "Get these candles burning so we can have some proper illumination."
"Travis." The lord's voice was a strict command that brooked no opposition. The Moor dropped his head in a curt nod and quickly set about lighting candles. The ambient light in the room rose.
"I'm sorry about our manner of greeting," the lord said, genuine apology in his voice. He waved at a chair. "Please, sit. I am, naturally, the Lord Jonathan. As my guest, you should feel free to call me Jon."
Malcolm was so taken aback that he found himself sinking into the offered chair without a single protest, the appetizing smell of roasted meat awaking his stomach.
"I hope you like venison," his host said, picking up a rather large knife and beginning to slice the meat. "I shot this one myself. Archery has been a family tradition for several generations."
He continued to chatter on aimlessly as he sliced; Malcolm soon discovered that the local inn served the same beer that was on the lord's table, that the local deer population was up from last year, and that the lord's wife was not expected back for at least six months. The lord was dishing out meat by the time Malcolm found his voice.
"You seem to trust easily, my lord."
"As I said, please call me Jon. And I trust until I discover a reason I shouldn't." The light from the candles made it much easier to read the lord's expressions than the Moor's, ad the lord gave him a near-inscrutable look. "I trust you won't give me any reason to think my faith in you has been misplaced."
It wasn't really a question and Malcolm found himself responding to the authority and air of command in the lord's voice. It was a strange sensation and he had to forcibly shake himself out of the desire to please. He'd watched the Moor submit without a fight, but Malcolm was the son of noble knights, and as such he wasn't about to give in just because a man's voice made him jump.
"If I knew what caused a lord such as you to lose trust, perhaps I could endeavour to avoid it." He hoped the faint touch of insolence was enough.
The lord nodded, his face turning serious as he passed plates to both Malcolm and the Moor. "A good question, Malcolm. You don't mind if I call you Malcolm, do you?" When Malcolm shrugged, he continued. "I am in the position of being well-liked by many. They like me because I protect and care for my own. Any who mean them harm lose my trust. I'm a simple man like that."
Malcolm studied the lord's features, his first real attempt to do so. He discovered his host had a handsome sort of rugged charm. It was the sort of bearing to which many men Malcolm had known aspired, but it was the sort of thing with which one had to be born. He'd thus far shown himself to be direct and trusting, a combination that could be deadly for any man who bore them. Malcolm would have bet his horse it had gotten the lord in trouble before.
A strong nose under a heavy brow gave him an impression of seriousness, but his eyes and mouth betrayed a gentle playfulness. An attractive physical form and attractive personality? Malcolm could understand why the king feared this man. Popular support could lead to revolt and an overthrow of the king, which was very likely when said king was attempting to consolidate his power base.
"I mean you and your people no harm, my lord," Malcolm said.
"I mean you and your people no harm, Jon," he repeated, trying to accustom himself to the idea of calling a powerful lord by his first name. "In fact I saved your Hoshi today from a small mob who seemed to think she was a witch."
The lord grinned and cut at his own slice of meat. "She seems quite taken with you, Malcolm." The Moor – Travis, Malcolm reminded himself – snorted in laughter from the other end of the table.
"I think she has a crush on our 'wandering knight,'" he said, gesturing toward Malcolm with a forkful of some sort of vegetable. "I'd be careful of Hoshi. She has a tendency of getting what she wants."
"I'd noticed she has quite the, ah, forceful personality," Malcolm said politely. Travis laughed and went back to his food.
The lord chuckled as well. "She and my wife get along well, considering how stubborn they can both be sometimes. It will be nice to be alone with my own desires for once."
Malcolm ducked his head in embarrassment. The lord was actually discussing his marriage with him! "And you do not have any children?"
"No," the lord said, shaking his head. "Never seemed to have the time for them." He paused to take another bite. "So, tell me about your travels, Malcolm. How did you end up in my part of the world? Hoshi says you left the north after the Norman Conquest."
"Yes, I couldn't watch my family continue to fall under the sway of the foreigners any longer. I prefer not to speak on that time of my life, sir."
"Well then, regale us with tales of your travels!"
"I'm afraid there's not much to tell. I've been wandering for over two years and the most that's ever happened is a few brigand attacks." Malcolm wasn't entirely sure what kind of stories he was supposed to tell.
"Tell us about your adventures with Martin today, then," the lord said, lounging back in his chair with a mug of beer. "That man is an insufferable git. Can't tell you how many times I've wanted to give him a good smack with the flat of my sword."
Malcolm, having just done that in fact, grinned and told the lord every detail of the fight. Both the lord and Travis were a good audience for the story, and he soon found himself telling them about the time he'd to fight his way through a bar brawl to retrieve his mead. That led to a similar story from the lord about sneaking into the local inn when he was younger and being discovered by his father who had done the exact same thing.
All-in-all Malcolm was startled by how quickly the evening went by. He even accepted Jon's invitation to go hunting the following afternoon and Travis's to have a sparring session in the morning before he remembered he had planned on leaving the following day. He shrugged it off and decided that staying an extra day couldn't be all that bad. It would be rude to back out of his acceptance now just because he felt like leaving.
His sparring session the next day with Travis ended up drawing quite a crowd.
"I was trained since I arrived to be the lord's bodyguard," Travis explained. "And I was seven when the lord's father purchased me."
"So I'm taking on the best fighter in the whole town, then?" Malcolm asked with a rueful smile. "Guess that's not very smart of me."
"Something tells me you can take care of yourself," Travis said with a wide grin. He tugged his tunic into place and took a few practice jabs into the air. "Don't think I'll be going easy on you."
"Uh-huh," Malcolm said, still trying to figure out if he was wearing his outfit correctly.
"Hoshi had them made," Travis answered when Malcolm asked where they were made. "She said when she was young her father would teach her hand-to-hand combat in something similar."
"A woman being trained in fighting?" Malcolm asked in wonder. "Where is she from, anyhow? All she said was 'far to the east.'"
"That's all she'll say, really," Travis said as he crouched down to stretch out his legs. "She only remembers some of what her father taught her, but most days she can take care of herself as long as she isn't in a dress. You won't catch her fighting then."
Malcolm grinned and stretched his arms above his head. The clothes really were quite comfortable, easy to move in. They didn't seem like they'd be well-suited to armour however, so he doubted they'd really catch on outside the practice ring.
"So, then, we going to fight or talk all day?" he asked Travis.
Half an hour later he was nursing a black eye and bruised ribs while cheerfully showing Travis how exactly he'd broken his grip and tossed him like a sack of potatoes. Travis had a black eye that matched Malcolm's and a sprained wrist to show for the encounter. He was clearly having a great time, whooping with delight as he performed the manoeuvre successfully on Malcolm, who landed hard in the dust.
He groaned and clutched his side, but managed a laugh. "I think you've got the hang of it," he said. Travis helped him to his feet and gave him a thump to his back.
"Now that's what I call a good fight," he said, motioning for one of their spectators to come over and talking in their language. "Malcolm this is Kemper. He's one of the guards. I want you to show him how to do that."
Malcolm winced but nodded and set about showing the nervous man how to twist his wrist the correct way. It was hard because of the language barrier, but Kemper managed to grasp the technique after a few tries. He spent the rest of the morning showing all the guards a few new moves they'd never seen before.
Hoshi showed up to take him to lunch, and not a moment too soon. He felt like he was going to pitch over from exhaustion.
"You look like you could do with some food," she said amiably as he scrubbed the dust out of his hair.
"I could do with a nap," he groaned. "I have to hunt with Jon this afternoon."
"He was here earlier, watching," she said, tugging on his arm. He assumed that meant he should follow her. Maybe he should tell her he didn't like to be touched. "He looked pleased that you were teaching so well."
"It seems a fair exchange for his hospitality and friendliness," Malcolm said. He fell in next to Hoshi as she walked to the main house. The practice area was behind it, near a few outlying buildings that served a variety of purposes. One was the guard barracks, which is why they'd attracted so much attention.
"The lord is like that. I see he gave you permission to call him Jon," she said. Malcolm frowned, realizing he had indeed called the lord Jon. He'd meant to avoid that no matter how many times Jon asked.
Oh, bloody hell. He was even thinking of him as "Jon."
"Yes, he did," he finally said. "Seemed rude not to comply."
"Well, good," Hoshi said with a nod. "The lord could use more company around. People closer to his own social standing, I mean. He and Trip have been friends since they were children, but Trip's been so busy lately. Not to mention he spends a lot of his free time with T'Pol." She frowned at that.
"Oh, well," she said, shrugging. "You're here now. Seems to settle everything nicely."
"I'm not here permanently, Hoshi," he said. "I'm leaving tomorrow."
"That's what you said yesterday."
She opened the kitchen door and inhaled deeply. "Mmm, smells delicious." She looked back at him, giving him another of her assessing looks. "I could try to teach you some of our language, you know."
He considered it. That could come in handy in the future; he'd been struggling harder than he needed to because he couldn't communicate very well. He'd been kicked out of one inn because of a misunderstanding over the drinks that had come about because he couldn't explain exactly what he wanted.
"We'll see how much I can learn over dinner," he said, his lip quirking in a half smile. "Because I am leaving tomorrow."
"Of course," she said sweetly.
The dinner lesson probably would have gone better if he hadn't been introduced to T'Pol over their meal. She was a small woman who seemed to have enough presence to fill out the entire kitchen. She had a habit of arching her eyebrow at people if they said something she found ridiculous, and apparently everything Malcolm said qualified.
She did however speak some of his language, and by the end of dinner she was much better at it. Malcolm had unfortunately managed to absorb none of what he was attempting to learn.
"Is she always that frustrating?" he asked Jon later as they were setting out on their hunt.
Jon laughed as he checked his bowstring. "I keep her around because Trip loves to argue with her. You should hear them when they really get going. Once you get a good grasp on the language, it's more entertaining than any bard I've ever heard."
"I fail to see how two people arguing can be entertainment."
"Malcolm," Jon said, clapping him on the shoulder, "the insults alone are worth it. Sometimes she calls him names in her native tongue. Then he follows her around for the rest of the day, demanding to know exactly what it is she called him."
"Does anyone do any work around here?" Malcolm asked curiously. It certainly didn't seem like it.
"You'd be surprised what we do," Jon said. He pointed off toward the east. "There's a good herd of deer about a mile that way. Or at least there was yesterday. We can track them from there."
As it turned out, Jon really was an excellent hunter. They'd tracked down the herd and managed to fell one within two hours. They chatted amiably as they gutted and skinned the animal, Malcolm finding the lord to be surprisingly good company. He didn't think he'd ever met a lord quite like this one.
Jon headed for the town when they arrived back at the manor house, still carrying the deer. "I've got to visit someone, but you're welcome to come along."
Malcolm glanced back and forth between the lord and his house, debating on whether or not he was too tired to continue. Oh well, it couldn't hurt to see who Jon was visiting. "I'll come. Where are we going?"
He fell in next to Jon as they walked along the road. "One of T'Pol's people lives on the edge of town. I visit her sometimes; make sure no one's giving her a hard time."
Malcolm was quiet until they reached a small house closer to the manor house than the town. Jon led him inside where he was introduced to a very old woman by the name of V'Lar, who accepted the deer and gave them both some sort of hot drink. She didn't speak his language, but he was comfortable just watching she and Jon chat away at each other.
No, he had certainly never met a lord quite like this one.
Continued in part two.