The Noon Bells rang, calling the faithful to prayer and signalling the change from the morning guard to the afternoon guard, tolling out across the small training field I had set up behind the tower and barracks. A few archery butts sat untouched against the barracks wall, unsurprising considering only a handful of my men were competent with anything other than an arbalest, while a rack of wooden weapons and shields stood beside them. A third of my men trained on the field around, against each other in competitions of strength and speed, or alone surrounded by deadly flashes of steel. I stood alone in the middle of the field, flowing through a series of drills stitched together from the fragments of unarmed combat styles I had picked up on my travels. With a final leaping strike, I sucked in a breath and paused in my exertions, only to look up and find a small crowd of my men watching me intently.
“Thremsold? Why are all of you watching me like star-struck lovers?”
Out of the crowd of ten or so, both of the twins were present, so I made the safe bet and called out. In response, one of the twins stepped forward and smirked.
“Sorry, sir, but you were so into it that you didn’t even notice us, and I felt it would be a good display for the new fellows.”
I sighed, then nodded in agreement and wiped the sweat from my brow with the rag I had requisitioned for exactly that purpose. Glancing down, I considered trying to wipe the sweat from my shirtless torso, but quickly abandoned the idea as futile- The blazing sun had never managed to darken my pale northerner skin, but it certainly had found success when it came to drawing sweat from my pores.
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. Make sure that the new ones get extra training duties and lighter watch rotations until they match up to our standards. Then-”
An amused, feminine voice cut me off from behind my back.
“Mmm, well would you boys look at that- Will without a shirt! And here I was, thinking that such a show would at least be charging admission.”
I bit back a grimace and turned to find that the circle formed by my men was now occupied by both myself, and a lean woman clothed in nothing but an old tunic and a pair of worn trousers much like the pair that I wore.
“Jules. I’m surprised to see you up and about so soon.”
She smirked at me as she reached up with one dainty finger to tap at the reinforced leather band, wrapped at an angle around her head, that covered up the gaping hole where her left eye had once been.
“Oh, don’t worry Will. Even with one eye, I’m still more than your equal when it comes to the blade.”
There was challenge in her voice, and while most would have missed it, I could also hear rage buried deep in her supposed amusement. Jules never forgave a slight or humiliation, so I knew she would never leave my side until she had killed me in the most horrific way she could concoct. But that wasn’t what this was about- This was about humiliation, or more specifically, her humiliating me in front of my assembled forces.
I sighed- I had known that I would need to deal with her sooner rather than later, but in front of half my forces was not exactly what I had in mind, especially not after I had already worn myself down with training. On the other hand, this would be a good opportunity to show off and instill some awe and fear into my new recruits, and if I could show Jules that she was no longer my better with the blade, I might even buy myself some time before I would need to deal with her permanently.
Plastering a fake grin over my face, I turned and gestured for two wooden swords to be brought to our make-shift ring. Neither me nor Jules fought defensively, so no one bothered suggesting a shield, and so the circle waited silently as Jules stretched and I calmed my breathing and knelt to fasten my boots. As I knelt I discreetly checked to make sure the knife hidden in my boot was secure and ready to use.
Just in case, of course.
Reassured, I rose and rolled my shoulders a few times to loosen the muscles before settling into an easy stance- Knees bent, weight forward, blade held loosely in one hand. Ten steps away, Jules went through her own little ritual as she stretched and began to control her breathing. I waited patiently- The fight had started the minute I had straightened up, and Jules was naturally as flexible and as quick as a cat. She was trying to bait me in, but that was a game she was doomed to lose- My patience had always exceeded hers, and I knew that the hatred she was hiding beneath the surface would compel her to attack me before long.
“It really is a shame, Jules. About your eye, I mean. It’s truly unfortunate that the Guards mutilated you like that- You always had the prettiest eyes.”
I barely managed to raise my blade in time to intercept her strike, a downward slash meant to bisect my head as cleanly as an apple. Snarling silently, I knocked her backwards with a kick and slashed at her gut, following up with a rain of blows that she managed to block just as effectively as the first.
“Going for my blind side, Will? How dishonorable.”
Even missing an eye, she was a monster. She chuckled nonchalantly as I furiously rained blow after blow upon her, then lunged forward in a strike meant to take me in the gut. I barely deflected it, and she brushed past me like a dancer at a ball before spinning on the spot to slash at my back.
“Careful! You might bite your tongue.”
I shot back, blocking her strike and snapping a kick up towards her chin. She managed to avoid the worst of it, but I still jared her jaw somewhat and caused her to stumble backwards with her composure broken- For the moment.
Capitalizing on my opportunity I lunged, snaking my blade past her guard in an attempt to crush her throat and end the fight decisively, but she twisted aside and brought her blade up to lock with mine, leaving us standing motionless as we silently snarled at each other over our crossed blades. I acted first, winding my free arm past past the blades and around her sword arm even as she slammed her knee into my side. It wasn’t enough to stop me, however, and I succeeded in locking her arm straight out with my forearm pressed tightly against her elbow, forcing her to twist so as to avoid breaking her own joint.
Now we were at a true standstill- Jules with one arm trapped, sword forcefully extended past my own chest, and myself struggling to keep her restrained while keeping my own sword imposed between her blade and myself.
It hadn’t been enough of a clash to make me lose my breath, but it had been a close thing, and so I had to pause for breath before I could speak again. But as I opened my mouth, Jules spoke.
“‘Well?’ Will, whatever could you mean? I doubt that you’re done, and I’m certainly not finished.”
Before I could react, or even do more than begin my aborted question, Jules lashed out with a kick to the back of my leg that sent me to my knees and forced me to release her arm, allowing her to whip her blade across my cheek as she spun away. The blades were only wooden, but that didn’t mean that they were harmless, and I couldn’t help the growl of pain that escaped from my lips as I rose to my feet. I was greeted by a vicious strike to my shoulder that I deflected, and a punch to the jaw that sent me reeling as the world began to ring around me. Shaking my head to try and clear it, I regained my footing just in time to intercept another slash towards my cheek, to which I responded by throwing a flurry of shallow cuts aimed at Jules’s chest and sides. These were all deflected, and again I was forced on the defensive as she returned her own flurry of strikes, not all of which I managed to fully defend against.
A poke in my thigh, a burning line down one shoulder, a single scrape across my forehead- None of these wounds were fatal, but I was rapidly becoming irritated and more than a little impatient. Behind me, I could hear the sounds of people talking in animated tones, but I couldn’t make out the specifics while I was dueling the female killing machine whirling about before me. I did make out the occasional shout here and there, though.
“Boss, just watch your temper…”
“This is bad. Wait, what are-”
A sudden pain on the side of my face jerked my attention back to Jules, and the open handed slap she had just delivered. I could see her mouth moving, probably something about me being slow, but I could no longer make out her words as a rushing, gushing roar filled my ears and red began to tinge the edges of my vision. I growled and leapt forward, slamming my blade into her own in a savage blow meant to throw her off balance. I knocked her back, but she kept her footing and began to dance around me again, trying here and there to break through my guard.
But I was no longer in the mood to play her games.
I charged forward, slamming her blade aside with my own as I plowed into her and sent us both tumbling to the ground. I lost my sword in the tumble, but in the brief moment I had before her elbow snapped into my face, I saw Jules’s blade lying on the ground as well. Twisting my head away from her flurry of elbows, I sank my fist into her side even as I tried to reach up and around to seize her throat. She anticipated my move, however, and threw herself backwards as she grasped my clutching arm to her chest. She wriggled furiously, attempting to pin my body to the ground with her sinewy legs whilst simultaneously trying to leverage my arm into position to snap it like kindling.
I was too strong for her though, and I managed to fling myself sideways between her legs, leaving her trapped beneath me with one hand on her throat and the other helping to keep my balanced while my legs fought with hers for purchase on the slick grass.
In case I haven’t made it clear yet, Jules was a deviant in every sense of the word. Her love of violence and blood aside, her taste in lovers alone would have earned her that title- Old men, young men, young women, muddy soldiers, ruthless bandits, pious priests, bloody murderers with blades still dripping… You get the idea.
But even in combat, she was abnormal. She delighted in torturing her enemy, in breaking them, all whilst holding a conversation with them. She would chatter away like an old friend while sliding the knife in, and would whisper sweet nothings into her victim’s ear as she stole the life from them.
“Well, Will. This is quite the position you’ve got me in.”
Jules grinned up at me, even as she savagely drove a knee into my side.
“Why don’t we give these boys a different sort of demonstration, Will? Show them a bit more of the… dirty work.”
Her voice became raspy on the last few words, and her grin became a touch more fiery. She also weakened her struggles slightly, which allowed me to straddle her waist and plant my weight fully on my legs, freeing up my hand.
Looking down on her, I flashed a grin of my own. Then I slammed my fist into her jaw.
Her eyes glazed over, but she was still conscious, so I did it again. And again. Then I grabbed her head and smashed it into the ground, hammering it in so hard a dent was left in the dirt. I paused then and looked down at her- Jules was well and truly out now, her body limp and her eyes empty. But still, her aggravations had gotten to me more than I liked to admit, and I reared back for another strike, this time to crush her nose. Suddenly, a vice-like grip seized my shoulder and dragged me backwards, off of my prey and through the crowd of spectators, back towards the wall of the barracks. With a sudden, jerking motion and a hard stop, I found myself pinned against the wall by the armored forearm of Conrad the Knight, whose young face was twisted in anger.
“What do you think you’re doing!?”
His voice was deeper than I expected, though his rage may have had something to do with it. Now that he spoke, I could see that he wasn’t just angry, he was furious, and I have to admit that for a moment I was at a loss as to why. But as I stared up into the giant’s face, my gaze drifted over his shoulder to settle on the crumpled form of Jules, being hauled to her feet by the twins, bloodied and dazed still as her loose hair twisted in the breeze.
“Chivalry, is it, Sir Conrad? While that is a noble sentiment indeed, I must advise against attempting to embody it on the battlefield.”
His face twisted into a snarl, a comical expression on his boy-like features.
“This is no battlefield, mercenary, and that was no enemy soldier. You were beating an unconscious woman!”
I grinned sardonically, unconcerned.
“So? A woman with a sword will gut you just as quickly as any man, and Jules over there will get you even faster. But you know…”
Until now, I had remained limp in his grasp, but as the last words escaped my lips I reached up and savagely drove my fingers into the nerve endings within his unarmored elbow, causing him to shout in pain as his hand spasmed open and I dropped into a crouch. From there, it was a simple matter to slip around the giant whilst simultaneously drawing my hidden blade to brandish as I danced away.
“… I’m still the fastest when it comes to taking a life. And I don’t discriminate by gender, by class, or by age. So if you truly want to serve your lady, I would advise you to do away with any silly notions of honor or chivalry. Such pageantry is fine in times of peace, but make no mistake, we are at war. And in war, casualties take many shapes…”
Such as foolish young knights, and irritating maids. But I didn’t need to say that, and I couldn’t anyway, as from the corner of my eye I could see a petite figure in a black and gold dress approaching, accompanied by a taller female and an armored male- One of my men, on escort duty. Behind me, I heard Thremsold or Kresol bark a command for all the men still on the field to kneel.
I glanced back to Conrad’s face, then swiftly knelt and sheathed my blade before rising again and reaching for the tunic I had set aside before training. Dusting the worst of the dirt from my worn attire, I put on my most innocent smile as the princess approached.
“Milady. What can I do for you?”
She gazed at me silently for a moment, trying to take my measure, guess at the machinations within my mind.
I betrayed nothing- It wouldn’t do to traumatize my little royal with the bloody thoughts circling through my brain. Well, traumatize her more, in any case.
“Drakson, attend to me.”
I quirked an eye at the command, but swept into a bow, subtly dismissing the escort with a wave of my hand.
“As you command, milady.”
She nodded at my response, then turned on the spot and began to walk towards one of the many hedgerow mazes that made up a good portion of the castle’s verdant gardens. I followed silently, and was in turn followed by the knight and the maid. I could feel their gazes carving holes into my back as we walked, and I had to resist the urge to flash a grin at them. It took us only moments to reach the welcome shade of the maze, and barely more time than that for us to find ourselves within a secluded courtyard, far from prying eyes and listening ears.
“Drakson. You once questioned whether I should trust you, and I told you that I had no choice in the matter. But the truth of our situation is such that, with both our lives hanging in the balance, we cannot simply rely on the deterring threat of death to tie us together. I- We need to be able to trust each other, all of us gathered here today. Consta, Conrad, I know you find this difficult. But I ask of you this- Do you think we can survive without Drakson at this point? With my brother’s gaze focused on me, we would have almost no chance to escape death, let alone claim victory.”
The knight scowled, but looked away without a word. The maid’s expression was so pinched in displeasure I didn’t think she could speak even if she wanted to. With only silence to greet her words, the princess seemed to shrink a little, but after a moment she turned to face me and spoke again.
“We can exchange words all day, Drakson, but we will never get the true measure of each other if we are constantly putting up facades. And without that measure, neither of us can ever truly trust the other. And in this precarious, deathly dance we have found ourselves partners in, trust is something I believe we must have. And so, to that end…”
The princess drew in a deep breath, as though to steel herself against her coming words.
“To that end, I wish for you to assume more than just Clause’s position in title. I wish for you to meet with me daily, to discuss with me and teach me of those things that which I lack knowledge of. In exchange, I will give you full access and control over the royal stipend I receive, to spend as you see fit. It’s not as though I have any real use for it, anyway.”
As she finished speaking, the princess watched me carefully for any sign of a reaction, and while I don’t believe I betrayed anything, I must admit to being rather surprised. The princess had clearly put a lot of thought into this, and she was right, to a degree. She did need to trust me, both so that my plans could be enacted with limited resistance from her, and for her own mental health. If she was unable to trust the only man capable of saving her and hers from their situation, then she might rapidly fall into despair. I actually had no reason to refuse, as having greater access to the princess would allow me to influence in ways both faster and more effective than if I had to do it through meetings. And the extra funding would be useful as well.
I still chose to remain silent for a few moments longer, drawing the beginnings of an anxious look from the princess, then spoke.
“I would be honored to accept such responsibilities, milady. And I will certainly put your money to good use. Unfortunately, our lessons will need to wait for a few days, because as I mentioned this morning, I will be heading down into the city to meet with, and reaffirm, my contacts. However, once that is complete, I will gladly-”
The princess cut me off with a raised hand.
“There will be no need to wait to begin our lessons, Drakson. In fact, they can begin tonight.”
I frowned in genuine confusion.
She smirked. It was subtle, but it was there, and I realized that my mask had finally been cracked, if only for a moment.
“They can begin tonight, Drakson, because I will be accompanying you into the city. It should serve as an interesting lesson, don’t you agree?”
The maid’s eyes bulged. The knight’s head had snapped up and his jaw was working furiously to hold back his surprise. And myself?
I grinned in genuine delight.
The princess’s soft laughter filled the courtyard as the bells rang again, signalling and end to prayers.