This is Chapter 1 of my next middle grade book. This is undoubtedly not the final version but it's pretty close.
I hope you enjoy it and comments are gratefully accepted. Try to be nice though, writers are fragile. ;-)
Jimmy smacked face first into the dirt. For a moment he lay there stunned, trying to catch his breath. Over the years, countless feet had pounded the surface of the practice area into a powdery grit that was now working its way into his mouth and down his throat. Jimmy coughed and a sharp pain shot down his left side. He groaned and rolled over onto his back.
The warm sunshine on Jimmy’s face was a welcome reminder that spring had finally arrived, but he would have appreciated it so much more if the entire left side of his body didn’t feel like it had been set on fire and the fire beaten out with a large stick. The boy who had hit him suddenly loomed over him, blocking out the sun.
“I can’t believe you did it again!” said his friend Robert who was sprawled across a bench in the shade with his feet propped up on an overturned bucket. “How many times do I have to tell you to guard your left side? Will always fakes right and goes left. He’s been doing it for years. It’s really the only move he has. If you guys had been using real swords, he would have cut you in half three times already this morning!”
“Grab a sword, big mouth, and I’ll show you who has only one move,” growled William while glaring at his twin. “I have lots of moves, but I can just use the same one to beat you over and over. You never learn either.”
Robert waved his hand dismissively at his brother. Will was the better swordsman, and they both knew it, but even the cruelest of torturers couldn’t have made Robert admit it out loud.
Jimmy rolled over and up onto his hands and knees and groaned again. His head hung down, sweat dripped off the end of his nose and splashed into the dust. “As it is,” Jimmy wheezed, gently checking his ribs with one hand, “I think you’ve broken a few ribs.”
“Not a chance,” Will said as he reached down to help Jimmy to his feet. “Those were just little taps. I didn’t put my weight into any of those swings.”
“Good thing,” Jimmy said. He reached back down to pick up his practice sword. Bending over caused him to wince. So did straightening back up. “I believe it’s considered bad form to kill your friend on the practice field.”
Jimmy twisted around a bit. Actually, nothing seemed broken. The slatted, wooden practice swords rarely broke bones, but they could leave nasty bruises, especially when swung by someone like Will who really didn’t know his own strength. Jimmy figured one of Will’s “taps” could knock over a horse if it didn’t have its feet firmly planted.
Jimmy, more formally known as Crown Prince James Henry Phillip Brindleworth IV, had known the twins all his life. Their father, Sir William, was the castle Sword Master and Jimmy’s father’s best friend. At fourteen, the twins were a year older than Jimmy but much bigger and stronger.
Sir William was a huge bear of a man. He had darker skin than most of the people in Burberry and wore a large black beard. His hair was cropped close to his head and he kept it shaved high above his ears as was the custom of warriors from Olmur, the mountain kingdom where he grew up. Sir William could swing a broad sword as if it were weightless.
The twins were just slightly smaller versions of their father and had been using swords since they were big enough to pick one up. No matter how hard he tried, and how much he practiced, Jimmy couldn’t best them in sword practice. This was something Jimmy considered a personal failure.
Jimmy was tall and lean like his father, the King. King James was a noted horseman, as were many in his clan, and Jimmy had been astride a horse as soon as he was old enough to be able to stay in a saddle. There were very few people in the castle, knights included, who could ride as well as Jimmy. However, because Jimmy found it easy, he thought it must be. He failed to notice how Robert and Will were uncomfortable around horses and needed all their concentration just to stay in the saddle.
Since he was next in line to be king, Jimmy felt he should be better than everyone at everything. No one had ever told him this he just felt it was the way things should be. Robert and Will practiced with him until he was exhausted, but he could never beat them. He rarely even landed a clean hit. When the twins practiced, they moved as if they were liquid, weaving and flowing through their practice patterns seemingly without effort. One form merged seamlessly into the next. It was beautiful to watch.
Jimmy knew the patterns just as well as they did but he also knew that his were mechanical and jerky. How can I inspire confidence in my knights if I can’t best them in every form of battle? The fact that his father would never even consider challenging Sir William to a sword fight never occurred to Jimmy. The fact that Sir William would rather fall on his sword than fight James didn’t either.
“I think we’d better call it quits,” Robert said noticing the dejected look on his friend’s face. He had seen that look many times before and knew Jimmy was beating himself up on the inside for not being a better swordsman. “If we don’t get cleaned up before class, Lady Carmen will have our heads on a platter!”
“If it wasn’t for this, it would be for something else,” Will said as he gathered up the practice swords. Jimmy laughed, causing him to wince and rub his sore ribs.
“I really don’t think she likes you two,” Jimmy said, trying to look stern. “You’re always causing trouble. I really don’t think you take your studies seriously enough.”
“Us?” Will cried. “I can’t believe you just said that out loud. It wasn’t ‘us’ that put the horse dung in Lady Carmen’s desk drawer and then tried to blame it on Mary Elizabeth. Nor, I might add, did we have to write out lines for a month as a result.”
Jimmy smiled broadly. “That was a long month! I was writing lines in my sleep after the first two nights.”
The boys walked over to a small stone building with a steep thatched roof that sat at one end of the practice area. The students used this building as a change area. Inside the building, Jimmy and Robert each grabbed a wooden bucket from a shelf on one wall while Will put the practice swords away. Will then grabbed a bucket and joined his friends outside.
Next to the change room was a well, and each boy took a turn attaching his bucket to a rope and lowering it down into the icy water. They dunked their heads in the bucket of water and half-heartedly scrubbed off a bit of dirt and sweat.
A little cleaner, they put the buckets back inside and changed from the tough leather pants and vests they wore for sword practice into clean linen shirts and wool pants that were more suitable for the classroom. They were slightly more presentable as they went back outside to enjoy the late morning sun.
Robert looked up at the cloudless blue sky and said, “You know, this looks like a great day to go for a hike in the woods. We haven’t done that for a while. Maybe we could hunt a few rabbits or something.”
“I’m in,” Jimmy said quickly as he pushed his fingers through his wet hair in an attempt to make it look brushed. He only succeeded in making it stick out in all directions. “But let’s go for a ride instead. Baron could use some exercise. I think he’s gotten fat this winter.” The twins glanced at each other. They hated riding, but they knew their friend loved it so they nodded in agreement.
“Okay,” Robert said trying to sound enthusiastic. “Riding it is, but I wouldn’t let Baron hear you say he’s getting fat. That horse has a mean streak a mile wide.”
“Are you kidding me?” Jimmy said. “Not Baron. He’s as gentle as a kitten.”
“Yeah,” said Will sarcastically. “Maybe like a mountain lion kitten—with a sore paw.”
“No way! You two just don’t understand him.”
“Us and every terrified stable boy in the castle,” Robert said. “The ones that even dare go anywhere near his stall, that is.”
The boys walked across the practice area and down the well-worn path that led to the castle. Will said, “You know, I’m not so sure this little adventure is a good idea. Remember how much trouble we got into last time? Jimmy, your mother will have a major fit and she’ll make sure Father has one too!”
Jimmy looked down at the ground and then up at the sky. It was a very nice day. “You’re right,” he finally said, “Mom will have a fit.” He continued to stare at the sky for a moment and then he looked at his friends with a grin on his face. “So when should we leave?”
The twins laughed. “I think we should go when the guard changes at the end of second watch. With everyone coming and going, we’re less likely to be noticed,” Robert said.
The other two nodded in agreement. “We’ll meet at the stable a few minutes before that then,” Jimmy said. “Sir Charles will be having his midday meal, and we should be able to grab the horses and go before anyone is the wiser. Speaking of food, we should get something to eat too before we go.”
This idea was met with great enthusiasm by the twins, who felt that three meals a day just wasn’t enough. The three friends changed direction slightly and headed toward the rear entrance to the castle kitchen, which was located near the back of the east wing of the castle.
According to Robert, one of the kitchen helpers, named Gwen, had a huge crush on William. “You should see her,” Robert laughed as he told Jimmy. “She follows him around like a lost puppy when she isn’t working in the kitchen.”
“She does not,” growled William. “Just because she thinks you’re a dolt is not my fault. I think it shows that she has good taste, that’s all!”
Robert nudged Jimmy with his elbow and winked. “I think Will is in love.”
William lunged at Robert. “I am not! Don’t be saying stuff like that. Someone besides Jimmy might hear you and think you’re serious.”
“Cut it out you two,” Jimmy said. “We’re almost there and Will needs to sweet talk his girlfriend into giving us something to eat.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” protested William as the three boys went into the castle.
A tall, slightly built girl stepped out of the shadows of the forest that surrounded the practice area and watched Jimmy and her older brothers go through the door leading to the kitchen. She was wearing snugly fitting pants and a loose blouse that laced up in the front. Her long cape hung nearly to her ankles and had a hood that hid most of her face when flipped up. All of her clothing was a mix of dark green and black splotches, which allowed her to blend perfectly into the shady areas of the forest. When she stood still she was nearly invisible. She carried a bow and had a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder.
Eribeth was very pleased with herself. She had been watching the boys practice all morning, slowly working her way around the practice field. She eventually crept close enough to hear every word they said, and they had not seen her. She thought this had to be excellent training for when she joined The Watch in a few years.
She pushed back her hood and stared at the castle for a moment. Her skin was a shade lighter than her brothers and father, and everyone told her that she looked like her mother, who had died two winters ago. Like her mother, she wore her long, black hair pulled back and braided to keep it out of the way.
Her mother had grown up in Theonada, a seaport on the other side of the mountains. Her mother’s people were all ship owners and sailed the world trading the spices that Theonada was famous for. Eribeth often wished to visit Theonada, to meet her mother’s family and see the ocean, but that would have to wait for a few years yet. For now she had to continue to hone her skills so that, when she was old enough, she could become part of The Watch.
Eribeth enjoyed spying on people, especially her brothers. They were always treating her like an annoying little sister and she got back at them by spying on them. Besides, she sort of liked Jimmy, and he was usually with her brothers.
Eribeth walked slowly toward the castle, keeping close to the protection of the forest. She knew they wouldn’t let her go for a ride with them even though she was a much better rider than either of her brothers. Will and Robert always said she was too little and everything was always too dangerous, “especially for a girl.” That really drove her crazy.
Well, she would show them! Eribeth had inherited enough of her father’s blood to be strong for her age and size. Under her father’s guidance, she practiced every day with a short sword and now she was as quick and lethal as a striking snake. Her uncle Jonathan, the commander of The Watch, had taught her how to throw a knife and use a short bow.
These were ideal weapons for someone smaller, he told her. If she was good with a knife and a bow then larger, stronger enemies would never get close enough to take advantage of their strength.
The Queen had watched Eribeth grow up and saw the potential in her. She knew Eribeth longed to be different from all the other young ladies of the court much like the queen had been as a young lady of the court. The Queen made arrangements so that, unlike the other girls, Eribeth received training in math, cartography, geography, history, politics, writing plus weapons training. Eribeth’s uncle had asked the Queen to personally train her in diplomacy and politics thinking that, as a woman, Eribeth would be able to go unnoticed to places a man could never go, something that would be a great benefit for a spy.
Eribeth was the only girl in weapons training with the other Watch recruits. The boys sometimes gave her a hard time so she compensated by being smarter, quicker and faster than all of her class mates.
Eribeth practiced for two hours every day, and now she could split an apple in half at twenty paces with her knife and hit the apple with an arrow while galloping past, guiding her horse with her knees. She kept several knives concealed on her person at all times, and her bow and arrows were never far away either.
Eribeth could look after herself and since she didn’t have classes with the Queen that afternoon, she planned on going with the boys when they went out on their adventures. She headed for her room, which was right across the hall from her brothers’, to wait for them to show up.