The first day of his training had been hard. It had been a long time since anyone had bested him in the practice yard, least of all a man old enough to be his father. Who was, in fact, his father come to think on it. The defeat had come quickly too. Barely into his ready stance, Qalross had disarmed him and he had found himself on his back with water running from his eyes as he gasped for breath like a trout plucked from the Blackwater Rush.
At the time he had marked it as an anomaly, a freak event brought upon by the shock of meeting his father, being woken at a gods-forsaken hour, and the cup of wine that he had emptied. Except the second day had been much the same. Only this time Qalross used a training sword. And the third the same again but with a hammer. The fourth day, an axe. All in the interest of a ‘fair fight’ as his sire put it.
“You know what your problem is, boy?” Qalross had asked him on the fifth day as Desmond again stared up into the sky over Kings Landing with his father’s staff at his throat. “No focus.”
He offered a hand to help Desmond up off the ground. Wearing only breeches, a thin shirt, and his boots, Desmond felt every bruise Qalross had given him in the past week from toe to shoulder.
“You have skill, I’ll grant you that. But skill alone can’t be relied upon. Your mother would have beaten ya easier than I just did,” Qalross continued as he lifted Desmond to his feet. He grinned with the glint of memory. “Well, maybe not easier. But with less mercy. Was she a sight to behold! Nymeria herself would have been awed.”
This had led to a long conversation about Lady Annabyl and Qalross’ love affair. They’d been as discrete as possible and were careful to avoid arousing the suspicions of any of the nobles in Sunspear. Very few knew their secret. When she had become pregnant she fled the Dornish capital and returned to Redgate to protect him from the wroth of both the Princess of Dorne and Lord Nygel. They’d spoken but a few times before the Fowler attack outside Graybrook had taken her.
It was one conversation only and there had not been any others. Qalross outwardly showed no sense of connection or affection to Desmond. It had remained unspoken between them that they would continue to keep his parentage a secret and that was to the good as far as Desmond was concerned.
The following three weeks had been easier, if only marginally. Qalross had taken a break from the daily beatings and had passed Desmond off to the Martell guards under his command. The majority of these Des had handled with ease. But Qalross was critical of his performances at every turn. He either wasn’t keeping his guard up, or was making some small motion that foretold his next move, or was prolonging the duel instead of ending it as quickly as possible.
“Grandstanding and showing off just give your opponent an opportunity to catch their breath. If you have a man on the ground, finish him!” Qalross had barked more than once. “Does a snake play with a mouse? Nay, it strikes swiftly and swallows it whole.”
Desmond soaked it all in and utilized the criticism to drive him. Every cutting remark, every word of reproach, only made him push himself harder. He still hadn’t come to terms with the fact that this sellsword was his father but if he helped Desmond to become a better warrior so he could avenge his family and reclaim their honor then he would use him. No matter who his father was, he was still an Oakdown and the Fowlers must still be punished for their betrayal. Qalross was simply another means to their end.
And, so, Desmond found himself in the courtyard of The Blood Orange yet again ready to spar with whatever guardsman would still face him. He’d sent more than one to the healer, Willa, over the course of his training. This was to be the last day of instruction for an undefined period of time; the Oakdowns left on the morrow for the Iron Key, the Auros holding in the town of Goldway a short distance from Kings Landing, and when they returned were expected at the Sept of Baelor for Quinn’s knighting ceremony.
His black and red armor was in place and his small shield was slung over one shoulder as he approached the rack of training weapons Qalross had brought to the yard. He selected his favorite; an oaken shaft with a blunted iron tip, well balanced and worn. The spearhead, although rounded and unable to pierce, could still deliver a painful stab, this Desmond knew from his previous sessions. He moved his shield from his shoulder to its place on his forearm and spun the spear in a series of flourishes with ease. Over his head, behind his back, and around, the haft blurred in his hands. He yawned without breaking rhythm.
Gods, he amazed even himself sometimes.
Qalross stood with folded arms and leaned against the slender tree that bore the fruit from which the inn took its name while several of the inn workers – cooks, serving girls, and chambermaids – had gathered in the small courtyard. This had become a common occurrence. At first, they had merely come in to the yard at Qalross’ command to move the tables, chairs, and potted plants to the edges to make room for the training. And then one day one had lingered. The next day two more and by the end of a week a small crowd, one that began to include several of the inn’s guests, had gathered. It looked to be the same today and Desmond even picked out some of the Oakdown party; Ser Bennyn, Mauro Drokhe, Quinn, the stable girl, Ria, and even his lordship, Andros. Looking up at the balcony surrounding the courtyard Desmond saw Elyana and Charlotte amongst the faces gathered there, the former looking exhausted and wrapped in a heavy shawl while the latter wore a look of distinct disapproval. He had heard rumor that Elyana had taken ill. In fact, this was the first he had seen of her in days.
Not that it mattered one whit to him. The month in Kings Landing had done little to soothe his injured pride and he was still vexed by his family’s absence in Skyreach. If it weren’t for grandmother and his silent promise to his dead mother he’d have left Redgate long since. Did any of them think for a second that their presence at a lesson would make up for abandoning him as he risked his life for their house?
“Well, Master Qalross,” Desmond began as he continued playing to the crowd, “who have you brought for me to send to Willa today?”
Qalross motioned with his chin to one of the guards dressed in a long leather jerkin in the colors of Sunspear over mail.
“Moran, grab a spear from the rack and get in the ring with Master Sand,” he said casually. He sounded almost as bored with the exercise as Desmond felt.
Moran was a slender man, olive-skinned and dark of hair, but quick. Almost as quick as Desmond. But, he had beaten Moran soundly in their last three meetings. Well, if he was willing to take another drubbing Des would certainly oblige him. Desmond stretched and shook out his arms and legs as the guard did as commanded and retrieved a weapon. Moran entered the open space in the middle of the yard and faced Desmond, spear held at the ready.
Desmond whirled the tourney spear again, bringing it to rest in the crook of his elbow with the tip pointed toward the ground. With a crooked grin he beckoned Moran forward.
“Wait!” Qalross’ booming rasp called out. He pointed to another of the guards. “Danned, join Moran. Let’s see how well Master Sand fares against two opponents.”
Desmond looked around the courtyard and noted again the size of the crowd. You rotten old bastard, this was planned.
Moran shifted, putting himself on Desmond’s left, while Danned, short but powerful and like Moran wearing mail, took up a position to his right. Desmond shifted his stance slightly to balance his weight and looked from man to man.
Without warning he ducked as the two men thrust their spears simultaneously, the hafts banging together in the space he had just occupied. He twisted round and struck swiftly. Moran, now on his right took a hard stab of the blunted spear tip to his ribs that, judging from his grunt of surprise, the mail did little to protect against. Desmond lashed out swiftly with the iron capped butt and landed a solid blow in Danned’s shoulder joint.
They both recovered quickly and struck at Desmond simultaneously. He managed to deflect the majority of Danned’s strike with his shield but it still managed to slip down and strike a glancing blow to his knee while Moran managed to land a solid hit to his kidney. The blow to his back stung but nothing that caused him any worry. His armor would have guarded him from the worst effects of both and neither would have resulted in much more than a shallow cut had the weapons been sharpened.
He feinted toward Danned and struck at Moran again first, he was the quicker of the two and the more dangerous opponent. The feint had worked to perfection and Moran fell to the yard like a sack of grain as Desmond’s staff and its cap smashed into the side of his head with a crack that reverberated through the courtyard. As he whirled to face Danned, Desmond noted the blood that flowed slowly from the split his strike had opened on Moran’s skull. Willa would have some stitching to do. Let it never be said that he didn’t keep the smallfolk busy.
Before Moran’s head struck the ground Desmond’s spear flicked out quicker than lightning and landed squarely in his remaining oppenent’s midsection. Had it been anything other than a tourney spear in Desmond’s hands, Danned would have been impaled and dying. As it was his legs came up a hand from the ground before he landed off-balance and huffing for air. The guardsman spun away from a potential follow up attack and turned to face Des again. He had recovered his breath quickly but his chest heaved hard from the effort. As Desmond closed to finish the fight Danned surprised him by charging.
Fortunately for Desmond, he had listened to Qalross and learned over the intervening weeks to not underestimate a beaten opponent. He carried his shield up and spear point low beneath it. He was able to catch Danned’s thrust, strong and true, in the center of his shield. It shook him nonetheless, injured or not the man was still strong as an aurochs. He could have sworn he felt the shield flex as it smashed painfully into his forearm but it held. And more importantly, Desmond maintained his balance.
Faster than thought and with the ease of breathing, he slid the spear haft up in his hand so that he gripped but two hands from the butt cap and swung the spear around over his head and then low like a sword. Danned was unable to avoid the perfectly placed sweep and his legs flew out from beneath him. He landed flat on his back and before he could even so much as realize what had happened, Desmond’s spear point was at his throat.
The courtyard erupted in applause and cheers. Desmond had been so focused on his adversaries that he’d forgotten about the crowd of onlookers. Wincing slightly he turned to look around.
The kitchen staff, chambermaids, and stablehands were all smiles and ovations. Qalross stood silently but Desmond detected a faint smile of pride. Prince Oberyn, too, smiled and merely nodded. Quinn clapped excitedly and whistled while Andros simply stood next to him with a look that was difficult to read – somewhere between disdain and awe. Elyana and Charlotte gave reactions befitting their appearances and personalities. Elayna positively beamed and applauded fervently, while Charlotte gave a sad shake of her head with pursed lips and an air of disapproval before she turned and retreated toward the interior of the inn. Septon Connyr, Mauro Drokhe, Ser Bennyn, and the stable-girl, Ria, all stood near the front of the crowd cheering wildly.
Desmond basked in the adulation and leaned against his spear. It was an easy pose, arrogant and calm. Yes, there were enough people here. Between this little display and the fight in Skyreach, the Seven Kingdoms would soon know there was a force to be reckoned with in the Red Mountains. He looked pointedly at the two men on the ground – one writhing in pain, the other lying motionless – before addressing the crowd.
“Anyone else, then?”