Keeping Reese a Secret

At the appointed hour, not so early that it might inconvenience Berengar's breakfast, the camp assembled for the dire business of discipline. Berengar, regal-seeming enough, and presiding on scarlet draped over the only comfortable stump, fixed his attention on Khoreia.

"You ought to dress as befits a lady of my court," Berengar had said, implying no mere suggestion, some days before.

As at court in the capital, where the King's eldest as a rule ignored the dog, the dog's small suggestion of simplest dress solution for the Usurper's unkempt witch passed unacknowledged, those days before, but the seed of it took within the Prince's mind and sprouted, like a weed, as Calla knew it would. In his next breath, Berengar had insisted a bath be prepared, for no lady of his forest court should offend the nose. Esben grit the pipestem in his teeth at that: and the lady puffed and met no man's eyes. Berengar swiftly amended orders: all wanted a bath. His hunt for his younger brother veered southwest, all of one day, at His Highness' insistence on bathwater enough. And so the late morning's business was convening among familiar beeches once again edging the great marsh.

All had freshly bathed for the spectacle: the Scarlets, Esben's common ranks, even those increasingly churlish camp followers. Berengar excused the dog, naturally, and the Prince's witch from inspection. Only the marsh's biting midges visited her, bathing in her reedy puddle. Heeding his Dono's advice, Berengar scrutinized his Scarlets the evening before, found fault with one — for long'ish nose-hairs, or such — and summarily relieved the unblinking man of his cape. Then noisily ordered the unblinking and no-longer scarlet Scarlet — "Lost, I say — somewhere in the back, where the man should not distract my eye."

So morning saw the witch trussed up in scarlet. Khoreia struck her best and most ladylike pose before the assembly, the girl clean as a marsh could clean her and knowing she held all eyes. She tipped her face sunward, just the right angle of tip, and to the side, just that right angle too. Esben earlier had shooed away young troopers, fascinated by the sight of the washed witch drawing a potbrush through her hair: those same boys stared so now, as if any of her angles might seem more pleasing in the morning light.

Sunlight flared over the silver bauble Berengar had hung round her throat. A pretty silver horse. She took it for his appreciation of her treasonous efforts against his Most Royal father. She could not have known it was Dono's suggestion. She did not accompany the dog, creeping on his belly, beneath bushes. She did not hear the unwholesome pair of them, snickering, deciding in the night.

"Get on with it." said Berengar.

Facing him, smiling, and her lips dabbed with late summer berry, Khoreia dipped her neck in showy deference. The little horse swung away from her heart and returned with a tap.

Around she swung, faced her audience, one hand lifting the hem of her scarlet gown. Sunlight glinted: every pin in camp pinned that scarlet to her figure. The glimpse of her leg and soldier's boot was wasted on Esben, though. He merely squinted at her. His pipe unlit, even so he grit the stem of it in his teeth. It was most insubordinate of the sergeant, a pipe in his mouth, and while on parade. Still, he had nothing to fear from Berengar: the King's eldest was no military man.

Every inch of her a performer, Khoreia swept her eyes over the parade assembled for discipline, parted her stained lips, appeared this time about to speak. Donovan, splendidly fitting in green shirt and feathered cap from the Prince's baggage, fidgeted by his friend's shoulder. His royal friend sighed. Behind the tents, one of the pair of oxen that hauled his royal friend's baggage cart chose the moment to splashily relieve itself. Silence returned. The birds, gathered in surrounding trees, even paused their twittering.

The witch cracked the morning — "Captain Reese. Present yourself."

Her plan the simplest, she whispered to Esben last night — "My dear sergeant, we saw this inevitability. Keep your Reese a secret, by hiding him in the common ranks? For a time, perhaps. The time has passed. His presence rankles my Lord Berengar. Especially as You persist in addressing him as Captain. By my efforts on the morrow, I shall endear your captain to His Highness, who — perhaps you've noticed — has a fondness for belittling others."

Esben did lace a clean shirt on his captain: apparent as the man rushed from the ranks, that unmistakable gleam in his eye. Khoreia had not so much as sneered at him in days. Their reunion knocked the witch back two steps. She fended him off. His hands fell to hers. Ever the agile cat, she slipped free, and caught his wrists.

She narrowed her eyes at her ruined toy, said, "Behave."

Plainly ecstatic she again deigned to speak with him, he loosed familiar burbling at her — "Only say your will! — I am yours —"

Berengar propped out one leg: a sign he felt at ease. There already hung that sneer of his, that the dog knew so well. Donovan smirked, a hand tap'tapping the Prince's shoulder.

"Hush. NOW." warned the witch, angling her face close, perhaps so Reese should see something commanding in her eyes.

Perhaps she should have expected his reaction. The captain could not have resisted the temptation, not in his unnatural state. The man, like a puppy, went for her painted mouth, lunged, withdrew with his stolen peck.

Khoreia recoiled. Teeth began showing in Berengar's sneer.

"On your knees!" shouted the witch.

Obedient, Reese kneeled in the sedge, and gazed expectantly at his lady.

She had regained her composure. She kept her distance, though. And she belittled him, for all to hear — "You are broken, man. Useless as soldier. Useless as captain. You are captain no longer, in fact. You are amusing, certainly. As a clown is amusing. That, perhaps, is how you can best serve now. Do you hear?"

Plainly the return of her attentions was all he cared for. "Yes, ohh'yes, Dearest. They're Esben's. I'm free to love you now —"


"As you wish, Darling."

CLAAP. CLAAP. CLAAP. Berengar's gloved paws clapped his approval. His ugly smile hung there for all to see. Khoreia, clever girl, she had managed it. Made Berengar an amusing court jester from a bewitched captain. And she had saved Reese: so could expect to keep Esben on side. Perhaps a while longer, mused Calla.

KRAK. It was Esben. The clay pipe he grit in his teeth, even unlit. He had bitten through the stem of it.

The End

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