Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Four
It was one thing to be told that Abyssal Acres was not allowed a military force and had not had one for generations. It wasn't until he found himself sleeping on a bedroll on the stone floor that the implications of this really hit Gary.
Much though Graham had been determined to bring along at least twice the number of knights he actually got, it was probably better that there weren't very many. Lady Ayame simply didn't have anywhere to put everyone.
When Gary woke the first morning after their arrival at Abyssal Acres, he was at a loss for what to do with himself. Normally he would have reported to the Man-At-Arms to find out who among the castle's desk knights he would be helping for the day, but that worthy was still back at Brightvale Castle. The squire briefly considered talking to Valrigard, but considering he was in charge of the entire operation he'd likely just be annoyed by Gary's badgering.
For lack of any better notions, Gary decided to head out into the storm. It was still raging from the previous day, and showed no signs of stopping anytime soon. It wouldn't do any good for him to come along on this trip only to fall out of practice just because no one was actively supervising him.
He was able to locate the room were the Unis were being housed after asking a few servants for directions. Once there, it wasn't at all hard to spot the great hulking brute that was his partner amongst his daintier fellows.
"Ohu?" he called, catching the Uni's attention.
"What is it, kid?" the larger Neopian called back, walking over to the squire. Gary rubbed the back of his neck, searching for the right words to explain what he wanted.
"I ain't a genius with a sword," he said slowly. "I gotta practice constantly, or I lose my edge. But there's no practice yard here and I don't reckon anybody'd appreciate me breaking vases by swinging a sword around inside. If I'm gonna be a proper knight I gotta learn mounted combat sooner or later, so I was wondering if you wouldn't mind goin' out to practice a bit."
Ohu tilted his head, a sardonic expression on his face. "I don't know if I should be commending your initiative or complaining about being made to troop out in the middle of a downpour. Still, you make a valid point, and this mess isn't going to go away."
The Uni cracked his neck and gave himself a hard shake before turning towards the tack room. "Alright, let's get this over with. You do know how to put a saddle on, right greeny?"
"Yes," Gary replied, a touch offended. "They teach us that as pages. I don't need a knight-master to show me how t'strap on a saddle."
Ohu turned back to the Bori, his expression hard. "Watch your attitude, boy. Remember that I'm your senior."
The boy winced, his ears going flat. "Sorry," he muttered softly. He didn't feel very sorry though. Mostly he felt annoyed. He couldn't get anyone to take him seriously because he didn't have a knight-master. He didn't have a knight-master because no one took him seriously. It was a vicious cycle. One that Gary had resigned himself to, but that didn't make the constant quips any less irritating.
As he was saddling the Uni, he cleared his throat softly. "So does it rain a lot here?"
"Almost constantly," Ohu replied. "They call this place 'Abyssal Acres' for a reason after all. For as long as anyone can remember, it has rained here about nine days in ten."
The Bori winced. "I can only imagine what a mort' o' problems weather like that would cause. How do the folks of this holding survive?"
"As best they can," the Uni said bluntly. He is expression was cheerless as he added, "The king provides a budget for the import of foodstuffs, but it never goes far enough. And every year this land dies a little more as the constant rain drowns the vegetation."
Gary pondered this in silence as he mounted up. His first impulse was to ask why no one just left and went elsewhere, but the truth was he knew the answer. Hadn't he grown up in poverty much the same as this? Most of them simply would not have been able to afford the expense of moving. He'd gotten lucky enough to be sponsored as a page. By royal decree no knights could be stationed at this holding, so unless a local child was visiting elsewhere and happened to be spotted by a knight doing something that looked promising, they would get no such rescue.
"Why does it rain so much here?" the Bori asked as the Uni paced out of the castle. "Hasn't anybody tried to fix it? I mean, they royal university has classes for sorcerers, so..."
He felt Ohu's shrug under the saddle. "I couldn't tell you. Some say this land is cursed. That it invoked the wrath of an air faerie and this is the punishment."
The squire frowned. It was true that air faeries had the power to summon foul weather when they were crossed, but wasn't it the responsibility of all faeries to oversee the balance of the elements in Neopia? To leave such a spell in place long enough to completely ruin the ecosystem just didn't seem right. What, if anything, could the ancient inhabitants of Abyssal Acres have done that would anger a faerie that much?
As they passed out of the city proper, a sheer rock wall rose up on either side of them. The pass through was fairly narrow; only three Unis at a time would have been able to walk through side by side comfortably.
Finally the path opened somewhat, to reveal a vast, fast flowing river. Across the river was a small, open field; just big enough practice mounted combat in. The small open area was fairly closed in. From what Gary could see, the only ways in or out of it were a large stone bridge across the river, a narrow pass on the far side, and a small ridge that went along the rock wall and curved away down the river.
Ohu stopped once he reached the field. "Alright, this is probably the best place for use to practice. No hills nearby to dump mud on us. Well more mud then we'll already be getting on us running around in this mess."
The Uni shook his head, splattering even more droplets on Gary's face. He ignored the squire's squawk of protest. "Best place to start is to let you ride my paces. You handled the flying pretty well yesterday, but I won't always have room to fly. I assume you learned how to ride a trot, canter, and gallop when you were a page but it won't hurt to refresh yourself a bit. And it'll get me warmed up."
The Bori nodded. "Sounds fine t'me."
Though he was a bit rusty, it didn't take very long for Gary to relearn how to adjust himself for the various gaits that Ohu was likely to use in battle. It wasn't as easy as it might have looked to an outsider. There were a lot of subtle mechanics to riding that had to be kept in mind, or else he was likely to get off of the Uni at the end of the day with a bruised backside from thumping around like a sack of grain in the saddle.
When they finally managed to get in synch for his fastest gait, the gallop, Ohu seemed to decide that it was time to practice something else.
"Alright, we don't have any dummies you can practice on, so you'll have to use your imagination. This afternoon you should go to the knight-master of that Aisha friend of yours and see if you can get permission for him to practice with you tomorrow. In the meantime, just do your normal combat exercises while trying to stay on my back as I run about."
"Aye, I can do that," Gary said grimly. He tightened the buckles on his shield and drew the practice sword from his belt. Ohu's muscles bunched under him, and then the Uni was off. He dashed about the rainy field, thrashing and twisting with agility that Gary would never have credited to a creature so large. Gary's instinctive reaction was to clutch the reins in a death grip, but after a moment he remembered that he was supposed to be practicing his mounted fighting skills.
No sooner had he let go of the reins than he went sailing off of the Uni's back. He cried out in pain as he slammed bodily onto the muddy ground. Ohu walked over to him, eyebrow raised.
"Well?" he said coolly.
Gary stood slowly, wincing as his bruised muscles protested. "Let's do it again, sir."
This time, the squire made certain to hold tight to the saddle with his knees before Ohu started moving. He tried to keep his balance, but again he was only able to hold on for a few seconds before he hit the mud. With a frustrated sigh, the Squire pushed himself upright again.
After the sixth time he found himself dislodged, it was clear that Ohu was getting annoyed. He stamped a hoof, his ears pinned back against his head and his blue eyes blazing.
"Are you even trying, boy? This is the least of the maneuvers I'll be using in combat! What are you going to do if I have to rear or kick?"
The Bori clenched his teeth, pushing himself into a standing position again despite the screaming in his back and arms. "Please, sir, let me try again."
"I'm starting to think all of those falls have scrambled your brain," the Uni said irritably. "Or do you just like rolling around in the mud?"
"No sir," the Bori replied, feeling the heat of anger rising in his face again. For all their condescension, at least the noble knights were polite to Gary to his face. Ohu's open scorn stung. He took a deep breath, clenching his teeth on the rude retort that was trying valiantly to escape. Finally, he met the Uni's eyes and spoke plainly.
"I ain't stupid. I know tha' if I keep climbing on your back I'm gonna keep falling off. 'Twas the same when I was learning how to use the sword. I ain't a genius like most knights. This stuff don't come natural to me. So if I wanna learn, I gotta practice. I'm gonna fall, and I'm gonna get hurt. Nothing new there. But I'll get it eventually, so long as I'm too stubborn to quit."
Ohu tilted his head, his expression unreadable. Finally he turned away. "Get up then; the sooner you get back in the saddle the sooner I can send you flying again."
To be continued...