Sir Wilbur called all the youths of the town to his supper table that night. “My thanks to the group of the hour. Without your help not only would we still be under the shadow of that dark tower, but Chanceux would have been lost with the others.”
Katrina wiped her eyes surreptitiously.
“However, Cole tells me that the tower has not been completely cleansed from the land. Even if the tower were not still a threat we would have to report it to the king in Capita.”
Everyone nodded their heads in agreement.
“Also, Percival and Francis returned from Capita this morning. Percival has brought me word from the king. It is something you are required to hear.” Sir Wilbur gestured to Percival who stood. “Please, skip the formalities.”
Percival nodded. His eyes scanned the document for a moment before beginning, “Sir Wilbur… as a peer of the realm… you must send a levy of soldiers to defend Capita… all the militia… as well as a representative of your person.” He scanned the document for a moment, “Members will be compensated according to their contribution at such a time that it may be made available… His royal highness… etc.” Percival sat down.
Silence permeated the room. Katrina used Finos’ hanky to wipe her eyes before handing it back to him, “Excuse me, my lord. But if we all go to war, who will till the fields?” She glanced to where Ellen was seated, “Who will prevent the strange beasts from killing the sheep? Or mating with the chickens?”
“As in any war time, some will make sacrifices to the kingdom. While you are away, there will be a group effort to come together and set things to rights.” Sir Wilbur rose again, “For myself, I would love to go and fight for my kingdom, but I am getting long in the tooth. So I have chosen to send my soon-to-be grandson Kegar in my stead.”
“Sir!” Kegar stood, eyes bright with unshed, manly tears.
Lizzy smiled looking at Kegar. That is, she smiled until she realized that Kegar was going to be her grandfather’s representative, not her.
“Kegar, you have always been like a son to me. I am honored to have you marry my granddaughter.” He took Elizabeth and Kegar’s hands and joined them, “Even if you are a dwarf!”
“Am I not worthy?” Lizzy looked at her grandfather.
“Lizzy, you are worthy of many things. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is better to be a man and a dwarf than a woman and a human. Though it is only slightly better, and only better in certain situations.” He looked around at the other women at the table and sighed, “Ladies. Your femininity does not save you from the draft. The lords are aware enough to realize that common women can fight. They do not however recognize a woman’s sovereign right over herself.” He sighed again, “It would be better for your sakes if Kegar was not a dwarf. But he is. Even so, he is a worthy man, one I put my complete faith in. He will lead you well.”
Each of them would be going off to war on the king’s command. Some of them – those unconsumed by duty – knew they could have shrugged off the king’s command. He was far away and his most intimate moment was sending his tax collector to hassle their parents. Sir Wilbur was different. His calm regard weighed on them. Even the most self-serving and disobedient among them would be hard pressed to willfully disappoint Sir Wilbur.
A collected mental sigh went up from them. They were headed for war.
The next morning, after they had said goodbye to their families, kissed their mothers, hugged their siblings and been pulled into hearty bear hugs by their fathers – with the exception of Katrina – they stood before Sir Wilbur who personally gave each of them a finely crafted weapon.
Once the weapons were distributed, the group started the weeklong journey eastward to Capita. As the days passed they fell into a routine and became increasingly annoyed with one another. As the sun set on the fourth day Kegar realized they were being followed.
He called his animal companion over to him. The two conferred for a moment. Kegar with whispers and Cat with hushed mmmers of a grumbling large feline, before Cat eventually stalked off.
Not long after, there was a shriek and Cat appeared with Lizzy in his mouth, “Lizzy?” Percival followed behind at a slow jog.
Faute exclaimed, “I’m glad to see you are no longer willing to let your man do your job for you!”
The long list of things that Lizzy had expected people to say when they finally knew she was following them had not included righteous indignation and accusations of cowardice. “What?”
Kegar looked at Faute for a moment in horror before turning to his betrothed, “What are you doing here? You could be hurt!”
“I couldn’t stay away knowing you could be hurt and I did nothing! Anyway, the king requested all the able bodied youths. It would be remiss of me, both as one such youth and as the grand daughter of Sir Wilbur to not come.”
“I will take you back myself!”
“And forfeit your responsibility?”
Kegar’s jaw clenched, “Very well. I will find someone in Capita to take you back.”
Percival stepped forward. “Kegar, did you stop to think why I was with her?”
Kegar was taken aback, “What? No…” He looked from one to the other, “Why are you with her?”
Percival shrugged and leaned against a tree, “Because Sir Wilbur didn’t have a problem with her coming. The lords won’t let her lead it because she is a woman, but that doesn’t mean she is any less able. Sir Wilbur hired me to be her bodyguard. But he also knew you would protest to her coming, so we were to follow behind until it was too late.” He shrugged, “I suppose it is too late now.”
Katrina watched the exchange with Broden. She signed to him, “There is so much honor here, it is a wonder they can move with the sticks up their asses.”
Broden signed back, “They let their honor get in the way.”
“Of what? Their relationship?”
Katrina laughed, replying aloud, “You said it Broden!” She slapped him on the back.
The rest of the group looked over at Katrina and Broden. Broden had obviously said nothing, though he seemed to be laughing in a grunting sort of way. This, on the whole, confused them. Ellen watched the exchange with interest. She had long known that Katrina could communicate with Broden in a way no one else could, though Ellen was one of the few that understood Broden wasn’t deaf and could understand when people made requests of him. Some of the others began thinking that maybe Broden could be communicated with. Others, though they were in the minority, thought Katrina must be crazy because clearly if there was a way to speak to the fool they would have already discovered it.
The rest of the trip was uneventful. With the exception of Cole pulling Katrina aside to talk.
“You shouldn’t lead him on.”
“Cole, I have no idea what you are talking about, let alone who.”
“Broden, he obviously cares for you, but you are already betrothed.”
“First off, I’m not betrothed. I turned you down. Which makes this none of your damn business. Second, I will not abandon my friend just because it makes you feel insecure about something you don’t have. Third, he likes someone else. We are just friends, something we can be since we both know the same language.”
“Broden doesn’t speak.”
“Yeah, and he is illiterate too.” She held up her hands, “We talk with our hands and our bodies.”
Katrina was talking about the complex language of flexing ones muscles and gestures that she and Broden had come up with. People constantly underestimated their intelligence. Cole, who didn’t really pay attention to what they did, hadn’t noticed it. He had really only noticed the amount of time she spent in Broden’s company rather than his.
“Next I’m sure you’ll tell me to spend less time with Ellen, Mary and Strozazand. I have friends and who they are isn’t your concern.”
“Your mother made it my concern.”
Katrina glared at him, “If you want to be in my family so bad, go home and marry my mother, but leave me out of your delusions.” Katrina rode off to chat with Mary.
Cole sat glumly on his mule. He wasn’t delusional. He wouldn’t give up on their parents dream for them. Unfortunately, Katrina was unwilling to talk to him for the rest of the evening and in the morning they saw the gates of Capita.