The delegates from Reis-Bohnen returned ten days later.
Lord Neil and his entourage rode into the Palace grounds and were met by King Ainmire and his daughter. As they were escorted into the Palace proper Lord Neil looked around curiously. “Majesty? Where is your son? And Dame Riva and Captain Bastion? I would have thought that they would wish to be present for our arrival.”
A sound escaped from the Princess that was suspiciously like a smothered chuckle. Her father looked at her for a moment before he answered. “The mood in the Palace, and in the Order, had become unbearably tense in waiting for you, so we sent them out to burn off their energy. Captain Bastion, with enthusiastic support from Dame Riva, suggested a new game, of sorts.”
“They call it ‘Capture the Flag’, and it seems to be remarkably similar to some of the wargames that the military uses for training purposes. The rules are deceptively simple. There are two teams, each with identifying colors that match the color of their flag. The flag is kept secure in a base of operations. The goal is to steal the opposing team’s flag and return to their own base with it. There was a great deal of negotiation at the outset about what Dame Riva called ‘house rules’.”
“I find that I am intrigued.” Lord Neil said. “Is Lord Kian participating also?”
“Yes. He is serving in an officiating manner as neither team wished the other to have undue advantage. As it is, one of the negotiations in the beginning was the demand that neither Dame Riva nor Captain Bastion be allowed on the same team.” King Ainmire led them down a hallway. “We have farviewers prepared so that we are able to follow the progress of the games, and gauge the skills of the knights and squires and even the trainees who are participating.”
“The whole of the Order is involved?”
“Down to the least trainee. It has proven to be quite entertaining, even for those of us watching from afar. Do you wish to observe the games?”
After a bare moment of consideration, Lord Neil nodded. “Yes, very much so.” He followed King Ainmire to an observation area prepared with viewers showing the activities in both bases and at several points between them. “You made mention of negotiations?”
King Ainmire looked at his daughter again as a sound like a laugh escaped her. “I know that you find this humorous, Daughter, but these are serious matters.” She shrugged in response and he glanced heavenward in frustration. Then he turned his attention back to the delegates. “Yes, Lord Neil. Apparently there is variation possible in how the game is played and judged. For a round to end, and a team to win a point, both flags must be present in the winning team’s base. The flag may change hands as it travels from one base to another. Blunted and wooden weapons only, and all defeats are for a time of ten minutes only before the defeated one is able to return to action. After the third round another rule was added, the one carrying the flag may not engage in combat.”
“How stands the score?”
Again Princess Keara laughed behind her hand, her eyes twinkling in merriment. Her father sighed in frustration. “In five rounds, Dame Riva’s team has won four. And that is even after they sought to handicap her from defeating them all single-handedly. She is demonstrating remarkable ability with strategy and leadership.”
Princess Keara pulled her hand away from her mouth and revealed a grin that dazzled for her delight. “Father, tell him how the teams are arranged.”
The King grunted in response and Lord Neil found that he was very curious. “Majesty? Is there something odd about the teams?”
“Dame Riva chose the trainees and the squires. Captain Bastion has the full Knights and the Knights-Captain. She is beating him using younger and inexperienced troops.” The King looked very dour and the Princess fell into full-throated laughter.
Lord Neil blinked several times in surprise. This looked to be something worth watching.
— — —
Brady ran into the base and stopped just inside the building, panting to catch his breath. Riva looked up at him from a rough table. “Did you get it?”
Brady nodded and pulled a large rectangle of fabric from his tunic. “The pole broke on my way back with it.” The fabric was blue, like the armbands that they wore; they and the rest of the squires and trainees in the area. There was a collective sigh of relief.
Riva sagged a bit. “We can cut another pole. At least we have our flag back. What about theirs?”
Brady shook his head. “Squire Caitlyn found herself facing down Captain Bastion. She couldn’t run away. She said to tell you that she’d be back as soon as her ten minutes were up.”
There was a groan of frustration. Riva glared at Brady. “And where was her escort? Any flag-bearer is supposed to have an escort on the way back.”
“Riva, none of us can take Captain Bastion. Her escort was counting down his ten minutes before he even got to her.”
Riva growled in frustration. “I’m going to have to go out personally, then.”
Brady shook his head. “But if they spot you leaving then they’ll swamp us to get the flag.”
She thought a moment. “Do they know yet that we have the flag back?”
Brady shook his head again. “I don’t think so. Why?”
“I’m going to bend the rules. It’ll only work once because if we manage this they’ll negotiate us out of it for any future rounds, but there’s nothing that says that the flag has to stay in the base if it’s in our control, just that both flags have to be in the base for a point to be made.”
Brady nodded slowly. “Are you going to carry it?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m going in to get theirs. If I go in with ours in my possession, they get the point. You’ll carry it. You’re my escort.”
One of the trainees stiffened in surprise. “But that means that he can’t fight, either.”
“Just on the way in. The way back is when things are going to get sticky.”
Brady nodded once and saluted Riva. “Lead on, Dame Riva. You haven’t failed us yet.”
“If that were the case the score would be five to zero, not four to one.” She looked at the other trainees. “Make sure you have a pole ready for me when I get back.”
— — —
They were going to have to do this quickly. Particularly once they came upon one of the outlying sentries and Riva had to take him down for ten minutes. She apologized, afterwards. He grinned and said that he was honored to be defeated by the only sword that could ever stand against Captain Bastion. Then he sat, leaning against a tree, whistling softly and counting down his time.
There were voices speaking in the other base as the two came up towards it. Riva waved Brady back, into the trees. He nodded in understanding and climbed up into one, hiding in the branches. Riva did so as well, but she climbed from branch to branch until she made her way to where she was above the base, and the circle where they kept their flag, standing on a pole.
She heard Bastion’s voice and paused.
“Have we gotten their flag yet?”
“Not yet. I lost track of the flag-bearer. He may still be trying to get back here. She’s got the area around her base crawling with people.”
She heard several voices groan in frustration. “If they’d gotten it back, we’d see the celebration.” She wasn’t sure about whose voice that was.
“Don’t be so certain.” That was Bastion again. “She’s good, and she’s been playing games like this for longer than any of us.” Riva grinned at the compliment, and then realized that she had paused too long. She couldn’t quite reach the top of the pole from her perch on the branch, so she lowered herself further down, holding on with her knees, until she could reach the top of the pole, grabbed it and swung back up into the foliage.
There were shouts behind her as she broke the pole below where the flag was tied and wound it around into a baton shape and then tucked it into her belt.
Bastion was startled by a voice. “Captains! The flag!” They ran out of their base quick enough to see the broken end of the flagpole falling from the trees. Bastion looked up and caught sight of Riva’s legs taking off, leaping from tree to tree.
“Heavens above, she’s running through the trees?” Bastion looked at the Captain beside him, who was incredulous.
One of the knights ran up. “I saw her drop from the tree branches long enough to pluck the flag up. She was holding on with her knees, I swear. The girl must be half monkey or something.”
Several knights and captains all looked at Bastion with expressions that made him wish that he dared flush with embarrassment. “You have been holding out on us.” There were a couple low whistles.
“I didn’t know. I tell you, I didn’t know.”
“Riiiiiight, you didn’t know. And you’ve been next door to that for how many months? All alone in the darkness? And everyone knows how fond of you she is. You expect us to believe that you haven’t enjoyed the benefits of her flexibility when you’re all but betrothed?”
Bastion sighed. “We can talk about this later. We’ve got to get our flag back. She knows where hers is, I promise you.”
— — —
Riva caught back up with Brady quickly and he passed her the flag he carried. Now came the tricky part. They had to move quickly, even more quickly than when they had snuck into Bastion’s base.
The problem was that Brady wasn’t as sure as Riva was in the trees, so they had to run on the ground, and being on the ground meant that they could be ambushed. Riva threw her head back and sent up a chilling wolfhowl. It also happened to be the prearranged signal for a flagbearer running back to the base and in need of assistance.
Squires and trainees fairly boiled out of the base and into the woods to cut Riva a path back. They’d won four times out of five, they knew that they could do this, and they knew that they would do this for Riva.
The first of them passed Riva and Brady in the woods with grins and salutes. They might have to sit out the negotiations for the next round, but they were going to give their lives so that they could have one more point to brag about against those older and more experienced than they, and it was a lot of fun to be on the winning team.
Even Riva had to slow the closer they got to their base. Brady was rapidly running out of running strength, and Riva knew that their fifth point wasn’t going to be this easily won.
Riva heard Bastion coming up behind them before Brady did. “Damn! It’s Bastion.”
Brady paled. “Go on ahead, I’ll delay him.”
“No, you take the flags and get up to that base. I’m the only one who can stand against him.”
“No, Riva, you are our best hope for a fifth point, and I will gladly wait my ten minutes to know that I purchased victory with my life. I learned from you, I might be able to buy you a couple minutes. And besides,” he grinned at her, “I’m your escort, it’s my job.”
She sighed in frustration and barreled on ahead. Brady slowed and brought his sword up to block Bastion’s path. Bastion looked at him and frowned. “This won’t accomplish anything. We took your flag; you still have to get it back before she can claim the point.”
Brady grinned as their swords met. “For Riva and the honor of my team, I will gladly surrender my life.” He tried to concentrate on the lessons he had received, on the moves that were being ingrained into his very muscles. For a moment it actually seemed to work.
Bastion blinked in surprise. The boy was actually quite good. He was still a bit rough and he had a long way to go in his training, but the boy was actually showing some real talent for swordwork. Too bad he didn’t have time to find out how good he really was. Bastion made the kill as quickly as he dared.
Brady fell to the ground with an exhausted laugh. “Oh, will I have a story for the others tonight.”
“Why? Where did you hide your flag? She wouldn’t have made a run for ours unless she knew where it was.”
Brady laughed again. “Catch her if you can, Captain Bastion, she’s carrying both of them.”
Bastion blinked once in confusion and then took off running after Riva’s retreating form. She was almost to the base where a trainee stood with a long pole. He watched her clamber up onto the roof of the base with foothold assistance from the trainee and then pull first a rectangle of blue from her tunic and then a rectangle of red. She tied both to the pole and lifted it up so that the wind could catch them, and the audience in the Palace could see the point won.
He had almost reached her, too.
He stopped still and bent over, holding his knees and panting for breath, laughing slightly. “Both of them, Riva?”
She smiled at him from the roof of the base. “Yes. I had Brady carry ours when I ran in to get yours and then I carried both of them back here. I wanted to hand them off to Brady when you showed up but he’s developing quite a chivalric streak. He just had to sacrifice himself so I could get the point.”
“You realize that we’re going to negotiate you out of that before next round. . .”
He was interrupted by the sound of trumpets from the Palace. Heads rose all through the woods. Riva turned pale and jumped down from the roof to run over to stand beside Bastion. “Bastion, those trumpets…”
“I know. Reis-Bohnen has returned with their decision.”