Excerpt: Always There

“You can tell Chastaine that we are slaughtering two cattle for tonight, not three, and if he thinks that insufficient then he and the hunters should learn how to aim.”

A familiar laugh came from behind him, and Lyon whipped around to direct his scowl upon the proper target.

“Lyon.”

“Chastaine.” To judge by his appearance, the hunt had gone well. He always came back looking relatively clean when it went poorly, and right now his pale blonde hair was matted with sweat, spattered with dirt and a stray leaf. Though it was only mid-morning, he looked tired – but satisfied, yes that was definitely satisfaction filling Chastaine’s dark blue eyes. “Did you fail so miserably in your hunt that you are still demanding we slaughter three cattle?”

“Nay,” Chastaine replied lightly. “I did quite well, as you will see. It is only that I think you are underestimating the number of people we shall have this year.”

Lyon shook his head and began rapidly to list off the numbers he had calculated and gone over a hundred times or more, until Chastaine at last held up his hands in defeat. “Satisfied?”

“Certainly I have given up arguing the matter. Very well, Lyon, slaughter your two. I have set half my men to assisting in the kitchens, and go now with the other half to bring up the ale and wine. If you ask me nicely, I might see to it a cask of brandy is fetched as well.”

Rolling his eyes, Lyon turned away to resume supervising the cleaning and setting up on the grounds just outside the castle wall. Only last year they had finished laying the stones which had turned the space into a proper pavilion, even managing the pattern of three interlocked circles at the very center.

It was a thing to be proud of, and only one reason this year’s autumn festival would be especially joyous.

“I will ask nicely the very day you do the same.”

Chuckling, Chastaine turned away to stride back over the drawbridge, across the courtyard, and vanish into the keep.

“Ho, there,” Lyon bellowed as he turned back around, startling all the men into stillness. He cast his glare at the two offenders. “This is not the hour of revelry. Finish setting that table proper, then fetch out the dunking barrels. If I catch further laziness, you will be celebrating on night shift at the far pastures.”

“Yes, Sir Lyon,” the two men quickly replied, then bent to their tasks with renewed diligence.

The work continued apace, steady and sure, and in due course the pits were readied for the main fires, posts set up for the torches when dark fell. He kept glaring, ensuring the proper pace was kept.

He was interrupted reprimanding another pair by laughter. It was soft and rippling, full of amusement rather than designed to acerbate. “La, Lyon. I hope you intend to put that scowl away when the festivities begin.”

“As my Lady commands,” Lyon said, sighing. “What do you beyond the walls of the keep? You should be safely within, Lady Winifred.”

Winifred grimaced. “I needed a breath of fresh air. You are here so I am safe enough for the moment. Do not shove me back inside quite yet, else I shall command you to dance with every maiden in attendance this night.”

With an effort, Lyon repressed a shudder. “I beg of thee, my lady, to spare me that grim fate.”

Laughing again, Lady Winifred motioned to the work that was very nearly completed. “As every year these past six, all is perfect. Did you and Chastaine settle the matter of how many beasts to slaughter?”

“I said two, therefore we shall slaughter two. Now if my lady will pardon me, I must go ensure the kitchen workers are not eating the food they are preparing.”

“Go, then. I will shout at this lot in your place, if you like.”

Lyon frowned. “I do not like.” He grasped her wrist before she could dart away and dragged her back across the drawbridge and into the castle bailey. He did not let her go until she sighed in exasperation, the closest she ever got to conceding defeat. “You will remain within the walls, where my lady is safe.”

“I will go where I please,” Lady Winifred replied, delicate brows furrowing in annoyance, pale pink lips turned down in a deep frown. Though short of stature and as full-figured as it was preferred genteel ladies be, there was very little genteel about her. She was tough, far tougher than most anticipated – unfortunately it meant she was all too willing to do as she pleased, rather than listening to and obeying her protectors.

“You will do as you are told,” Chastaine said as he came up behind her.

Lady Winifred glowered at them. “I realize the danger to my life, dear knights, but after—”

“But after so long the threat has not waned, which means it only grows stronger,” Chastaine cut in. “Had your sire his way, my lady, you would be locked away in a convent tower with him holding the only key. Do not think that after so many years the danger has abated. Such recklessness means that tragedy is guaranteed to befall us, and should your father’s enemies not take our lives, your father will have our heads for failing to protect you.”

“Aye,” Lyon agreed.

Reluctantly, Lady Winifred nodded. “I understand your words, my knights…I apologize. I fear I grow restless and discontent with the changing of the seasons. Thank you, at least, for indulging me in the festival.”

“It is our honor and privilege, my lady,” Lyon said, Chastaine nodding beside him.

She knew very well they would never turn away the festival – it was the highlight of their year as much as hers.

“Tell me, knights, how go the preparations? Chastaine, fair you well on the hunt?”

Chastaine nodded. “Aye, my lady, most well indeed. There should be boar and venison aplenty to make up for the beasts Lyon refuses to slaughter, as well as several sheep. It will be a fine feast.”

Lyon refused to rise to the bait Chastaine offered. “Did you bring up the spirits?”

“They are being brought up this very moment,” Chastaine replied, and even as he spoke men came spilling from the side of the keep, laboriously pushing massive barrels of ale, smaller ones filled with wine, and carrying several casks of brandy and whiskey.

Chastaine spoke just as Lyon did, telling the men to set it all to the left as Lyon ordered them to the right. They broke off to glare at one another.

Lady Winifred laughed. “I say put it to the south end, that any would be attackers shall be forced to destroy good food and drink ere they can cause us harm. That should make them think.”

The two knights rolled their eyes.

“Put the ale to the right,” Lyon commanded to the men who stood exchanging amused glances as the joint Seneschals of Castle Triad clashed yet again. “See you line them up proper. Put the rest to the left, that it is readily available to my Lady’s fancy.”

“You just want me drunk so I will do as I am told.”

Lyon did not reply.

Chastaine snorted softly and followed the men from the courtyard, through the portcullis and back across the drawbridge and to the pavilion, closely supervising as the spirits were set out according to Lyon’s orders.

“What is left to do, then?” Lady Winifred asked.

“Only the food, my lady.”

Lady Winifred nodded, staring through the gate at the pavilion, watching as the women trickled out to begin decorating all that the men had set out, a pensive frown on her face.

It was coming on late morning now, the late autumn air surprisingly warm, brisk enough for his heavy tunic but not so sharp he required his cloak. He likely would need it later, but for now was pleased to leave it in his wardrobe.

“Do you think my father will ever recall me to his presence?”

Lyon frowned, brushing back a strand of his thick black hair, delaying his reply. He hated the answer he must give, but he hated lying more. “Aye, my lady. You are of marriageable age, and I have no doubt there is someone in need of a bride whom your father would like to please. ‘Tis the way of things, though that way is not pleasing.”

“Naught but a tool of negotiation, aye,” Lady Winifred said sadly. “I much prefer being a Lady to a Princess.”

Lyon did not reply.

Eight years Chastaine and he had served as guardians to her royal Highness Princess Winifred Bethany de Chiel, only daughter of his Majesty King Gwenfrew of the Kingdom of Chieldor.

Six of those years had been spent here, at a neglected castle for which no one had been able to recall the name, barely even the location. Upon arrival, they had learned the natives called it simply the Abandoned Keep. That first year had been hard, none among the three of them pleased at the results of victory their battle to keep Winifred – and her guardians – from a prolonged stay in a convent at the ends of the earth had won them.

They had not let it defeat them however, but had made of it a worthy castle, while miles upon miles away the King continued to wage his bitter, bloody wars against enemies whose languages did not seem to contain the word defeat.

He should resent it, being banished to a forgotten corner of the country to play Seneschal for a castle and lands which had done well enough, if not grandly, without their presence. Chastaine should resent it more. His family, most believed, was older than even the King’s. Though he was the youngest son of several, Chastaine could – should – be doing far more than guarding the King’s third child, albeit only daughter, and sharing the responsibility for a keep that would fit inside his family’s chapel.

They were all of them younger children; it was perhaps what had bound them together those earliest days. Each had felt the sting of being not quite as worthy of their parents’ affections, unfit for the splendor and attention lavished upon their elder siblings. It was only because of their guardian status Chastaine and he had been knighted at all.

In the course of six years, the derelict keep had become Castle Triad, their home.

He did not want Winifred summoned home and finally forced to marry.

“None may say what the future holds,” he said heavily, heart not really in it. “The greatest of misfortunes oft prove to be the grandest of blessings.”

Lady Winifred smiled fondly. “Stop being nice, Sir Lyon, and resume scowling before our people mistakenly think the revelries have begun.”

“Aye, my lady,” Lyon replied with a brief smile. “Go select what robe you shall wear this eve – after you finish reviewing the accounting I placed upon your desk.”

“Yes, my lord,” Winifred said with another roll of her eyes, then with a laugh spun away to return to the keep, dark violet robes and waist-length chestnut hair flowing out behind her as the wind snatched at them.

He waited until she was safely inside, then turned and strode to join Chastaine on the pavilion. They bent to the task of the final preparations, working seamlessly together, calling orders and encouragements, supervising the food as it was set out, the readying of the torches, the fire pits and roasting spits, and even their occasional argument fit into the rhythm of it.

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