Path to Honor – Alexa Aston

NAN DE MONTFORT held the tip of her wooden sword to Drewett Stollars’ throat, daring the page to move. He lay flat on his back, his face red from anger and exertion. She had a feeling that he might begin to cry if she did not let him sit up soon. It would serve him right for all the taunts he’d thrown her way since he’d come to foster at Kinwick last autumn. Drewett had returned early from his summer visit to his home and already she wished him gone again. “You’re a cheater, Nan,” he loudly complained as his eyes darted around to see if anyone within hearing distance might be listening to his accusation and come to his aid. The sound of clanging steel continued around them. Nan gave Drewett a triumphant smile, knowing none of the pairs of soldiers in the training yard would come to the grumbling boy’s rescue. A shadow fell across Drewett. “What have we here?” Nan recognized Gilbert’s voice but refused to acknowledge his interruption. The murderous look in Drewett’s eyes told her that she didn’t dare look away for even a moment. “I bested him,” she said with confidence, making sure not to sound as if she bragged. She knew the captain of Kinwick’s guard would be proud of her. She’d overheard Gilbert confiding to her father how lazy and untrustworthy Drewett remained, despite everything Gilbert had tried to teach the young boy. “Let this page up,” Lord Geoffrey de Montfort instructed as he joined Gilbert.

Reluctantly, Nan took a small step back and let her sword hang at her side. With her father present, she knew Drewett wouldn’t try anything foolish—but she would have to remain on her guard for the next few days. The page had a long memory and a short fuse and would do what he could to make Nan pay for embarrassing him, even though she doubted any man in the training yard had paid a bit of attention to the two tussling seven year olds. “Stand alongside one another,” her father instructed as Drewett rolled to his feet and reclaimed his sword that lay in the dirt where she had kicked it beyond his reach. Nan held her ground, which made Drewett have to come to her. He stood so close that their shoulders almost touched. She knew the boy wanted to intimidate her. Little did he know that nothing he could do could ever intimidate her. Growing up with three older brothers had already taught her to be fearless and strong. Besides, she was a de Montfort.

De Montforts never feared others. They created fear instead. “She cheated, Lord Geoffrey,” whined Drewett. Nan cringed inside, knowing her father hated anyone telling tales. She almost felt sorry for the boy standing beside her. Almost. When Geoffrey remained silent, Drewett continued. “I know Lady Anne is your daughter but she does not fight fair. Knights are supposed to be fair.” The page glanced in her direction and sneered.

“You can’t even be a knight. You’re just a girl. You have no idea what fairness is about.” Nan didn’t know what irked her more—hearing herself called Anne or having Drewett point out that she was a girl. She never went by Anne. And she was a girl who could do anything a boy could. Even be a knight if she put her mind to it. “Aye, Drewett, knights do act honorably,” Geoffrey agreed pleasantly as he came to stand in front of the pair, towering over them. Then the warmth left his voice. “But in war, all is fair.

You have a definite height advantage over Nan. A longer reach, as well. You also outweigh her and might have worn her down in time.” Nan bit her tongue to keep from speaking. She could have danced circles around this stupid boy for hours if need be. Though irritated, she allowed the lesson her father was trying to teach the fool continue to unfold. “Nan, what did you do to secure such an advantage over Drewett? When I arrived, your opponent had a sword at his throat and his weapon was well out of reach.” Keeping a smile from her face, Nan solemnly replied, “I snaked my foot around his ankle in order to trip him, Father.” Geoffrey also kept a stern look on his face but Nan knew he was secretly pleased. He directed his next words to the fostering page.

“You must always fight to win, Drewett. ’Tis important not only to protect yourself but those around you. Moreover, you must be able to count on the man next to you. These are important things to remember.” “But she isn’t a man, my lord,” the boy huffed. “She shouldn’t even be in the training yard. Lady Anne will never be a knight. I don’t see why I have to partner with her.” Nan froze at the page’s words. She wanted to turn and shake some sense into him.

Geoffrey knelt so that his eyes were level with Drewett’s. Nan glanced at her father and saw the ice in his hazel eyes, which now burned bright green as he glared at the boy. “Lady Nan has more integrity and honor in her smallest toe than you do running through your entire body, Drewett Stollars.” His tone was ever so soft but one that frightened Nan. She’d only heard it on a few occasions and vowed never to do anything to disappoint her father so that he used it with her. “Today is a turning point in your young life,” he told the trembling page. “Either you will move forward and choose to become the best man you can be from this moment on—or you will go elsewhere. I’ll not have someone I’m responsible for with such an abysmal attitude. “The choice is yours.” Nan held her breath, wondering what Drewett would do.

The boy turned to face her. She saw both misery and regret mingling on his features and knew it was time for her to take the high road. Nan gave him an encouraging smile. She saw him relax and heard the long breath he exhaled. “Lady Nan,” he began, “I am sorry that I have offended you in the past.” She noted the use of her preferred name and inclined her head slightly in acknowledgement of it and their unpleasant encounters over the past several months. “You are not a cheater. You are an excellent sparring partner and I can learn much from you. Will you accept my humble apology?” The hungry look in his eyes begged not only for forgiveness—but acceptance. Nan decided that, mayhap, she had intimidated this boy and he now offered her an olive branch.

“I will,” she assured him. “I hope that we can be not only sparring partners but also friends.” For the first time since he’d arrived at Kinwick, Drewett Stollars smiled. Nan beamed at him. He gave her a stiff bow and she returned it. A glow filled her. She believed that she had made a friend. “Well done,” pronounced Geoffrey as he rose to his full height. “Gilbert, will you see young Drewett has something to occupy him. I am in need of time with my daughter.

” He smiled at her. “Let’s walk, Nan.” “I’ll care for your sword, my lady,” Drewett said eagerly and reached out. Nan passed the weapon to him, amazed at the change that had come over the boy. Her father took her small hand in his large one and they set out from the training yard. These were the hours Nan cherished most. Geoffrey de Montfort was a busy man so when he made time to spend just with her, she treasured every moment. He’d recently returned from London, where he’d left her brother Ancel to protect Richard, the king’s grandson, so this was the first day since he’d come back that they’d been alone together. They walked in companionable silence through the castle grounds and out the gates. Geoffrey headed toward the meadow.

Nan had roamed the estate since she could walk and knew more about it than anyone except her father. She often brought things to his attention that she had noticed, whether it was a fence needing repair or how a tree was growing. Finally, he spoke. “King Edward has died. I received a missive from court this morning. It happened a little over a week ago.” It saddened Nan to think the old king had passed. He had come to Kinwick on summer progress several times. Though she could only recall a vague image of the monarch, she remembered him being kind to her, even slipping her a sweetmeat when no one was looking. He teased about how they both had a sweet tooth and that one day, he would be successful in stealing Cook away from Kinwick.

He would bring the servant to the Palace of Westminster and be able to eat her fruit tarts every day. “That means Richard is our new king? Even though he’s so young?” she asked. “Aye. The old king had an idea he would not last long. ’Tis why he requested I bring Ancel to London to watch over his grandson. Your brother will be a member of King Richard’s royal guard. Richard knows how loyal de Montforts are to the crown and that Ancel will look out for him and always keep his best interests at heart.” Nan would miss Ancel. Living in London or at the other royal residences, he wouldn’t be able to come home very often. At least she still had Hal and Edward with her.

They fostered at Winterbourne, which was directly to the north of Kinwick, and both brothers were home now on their summer break. Nan had begged Hal to teach her how to shoot a bow and arrow yesterday and he’d promised they would start their lessons this afternoon. Excitement filled her at the idea of learning how to use a new, powerful weapon. “Have you thought anymore about fostering?” her father asked. “Only if Lord Hardwin lets me serve as his page,” she promptly replied. At seven, Nan could leave Kinwick to foster. Boys always did and sometimes girls did, as well. But Nan wasn’t interested in learning anything some older noblewoman might try to teach her. She’d never been interested in anything remotely involving a castle, unless it was in regard to its defense. Who cared about how to make candles or scent rushes? “Fostering with Hardie is not a choice for you, Nan.

Nor is being a page at any nobleman’s estate.” He paused. “Mayhap your mother and I should send you to court for a few years as we did Alys.” “No,” Nan said forcefully. “Besides, Alys only stayed at court until the queen died. Then she was allowed to come home.” Geoffrey squeezed her hand. “I suppose we could come to a compromise and allow you to stay at Kinwick. I will teach you what I can and your mother could do the same.” Nan stopped and tugged on him.

“You’ve already talked about this with Mother, haven’t you?” she asked. He grinned. “How did you become so clever? You must take after Merryn.” He searched her face. “This will give you the best of both worlds.” Nan decided she could tolerate whatever her mother wished her to learn. She even promised herself she would do it with a smile on her face because she would still have plenty of time to learn what she really cared about—everything Geoffrey de Montfort could teach her. He was a great soldier and nobleman. He had been to the wars in France and advised the king at court. She would soak up everything he shared with her—and still learn how to make those stupid candles.

“So, Happy Wanderer, what do I need to know?” She loved her father’s pet name for her. Every time he used it, she stood taller and radiated happiness. “I think we should go see Joseph,” she suggested, knowing the falconer always looked forward to showing off his raptors to the earl. “He has been training three new eyases. You will be surprised how much they’ve grown, Father, since the last time you saw them.” “An excellent idea,” Geoffrey proclaimed. They crossed the meadow and headed toward the road. From there, they would cut through the woods to reach the falconer’s cottage where he trained Kinwick’s peregrines. As they left the road to enter the woods, an odd sound brought both of them to a halt. Nan cocked her ear upward, listening.

A faint cry sounded. She wondered if it belonged to some animal in a trap, yet something told her it was no animal. It was human. “This way,” she said, pulling on her father’s hand and walking rapidly. Nan spied a basket and slowed. Another tiny mewl sounded. She broke away and ran toward it. The basket was large and had a tall handle. Cushioned in the bottom was a wool blanket of dull brown. Atop the blanket lay a small babe.

Its bare feet kicked out. Nan had seen a few babes around the estate when she had been dragged along by her mother to visit tenants, but as the youngest of the de Montfort children, she had no experience being around any. She gently touched the babe’s head and a coo came from the infant. Nan would have sworn the babe actually smiled at her. She took its tiny hand in hers and was surprised by the strong grip as the littlest fingers she’d ever seen wrapped around one of hers. Her father knelt beside the basket and smiled. He lifted the babe and brought it to his chest. “What are you doing here all alone, little one?” he asked softly and brushed his lips against the blond fuzz of the child’s head. A sick feeling overwhelmed Nan. “Someone left it here.

” Geoffrey nodded. “Her,” he said. “’Tis a girl.” “Why would someone do that?” Nan asked, anguish filling her. Then anger replaced it. “She could have died out here, Father.” “But she didn’t.” He paused. “We will do our best to find her parents but if we can’t—or if they don’t wish to be found?” He smiled at the child, whose feet continued to dance back and forth. “Merryn and I will take you in,” he promised the child.

He placed the girl gently back into the basket and rose. Nan wrapped the blanket around her protectively. “Something tells me that you have found the newest de Montfort, Nan. This child will be your sister. You’ve been close to Hal and Edward since they were near your age and they’ve influenced you quite a bit. I think ’twill be good for you to have a sister to care for.” Nan knew how much her mother loved babes. Her parents had recently returned from visiting their first grandchildren, Philippa and Wyatt. Her sister, Alys, had given birth to the twins in March and had begged them to visit. Nan had chosen to remain at Kinwick, having no interest in people who couldn’t talk or walk, much less how all the conversations her mother and Alys had seemed to revolve around herbs and healing.

But this babe called out to something deep within her. Though she had no interest in the womanly arts, Nan felt a strong pull toward this child. “If we cannot find her parents, can I name her?” she asked. Geoffrey lifted the basket by its handle and smiled down at the babe. “I think she’d like that.” “Jessimond,” Nan said. “I want to call her Jessimond.”

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