Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language and violence.
Jerica weaved her way through the City then slowed to a walk as she reached the Training Grounds. She was panting. She swallowed hard, regaining her composure as she strode across the open area with slow, deliberate steps. She turned towards the right and headed to the clearing where the men practiced hand to hand combat.
The sun was now visible in the distance, brilliant oranges creeping over the trees to the east. There were a few men milling about, stretching. She shucked her tunic off and sent it into a crumpled ball next to one of the nearby trees, then tugged her undershirt straight. She stretched her back and arms as she approached the nearest cluster of soldiers.
They eyed her warily.
“Threes and fours,” she ordered, looking between them.
Three men started towards her.
They were out of sync.
The first one got to her several seconds before his companions. He didn’t even manage to take a swing at her before she drove her fist into his face so forcefully that he fell to the ground. She whirled around in time to catch the next man’s arm. She hit him in the gut and then elbowed the man rushing up behind her, knocking him to the ground.
Another man approached from the left. She threw her forearm against his neck so hard he coughed and collapsed. Two men rushed at her from her left and her right. She caught the collars of both and slammed their foreheads together, then threw them to the ground.
The next several minutes passed in a blur.
She punched and kicked and elbowed and kneed each man that approached. None had managed to land a blow on her yet. Some stayed down when she got them on the ground – others approached a second or a third time before she hit them hard enough that they didn’t get back up. She whirled around once, only to find no one was approaching.
Jerica turned in a slow circle, shoulders heaving for breath. She still didn’t feel better. She flexed her hands. They were both bleeding at the knuckles. Men scuttled from the clearing around her, picking themselves up. Other soldiers huddled further away on three sides, staring at her with wide eyes.
“Next?” Jerica demanded.
No one moved.
“You.” She pointed at a man, then gestured on either side of him. “All of you. Begin.”
They weren’t her men. She was pretty sure these were swordsmen, so they answered to Rek. But King’s Assassin was an equal rank to General. And Generals could command any soldiers nearby, if their own General wasn’t present.
She waited a moment until the sea of men shifted, but this time, she didn’t wait for them to get to her. She ran towards the one to her left. She dipped her right shoulder at the last moment, driving it into his gut before she flipped him over her body. She grabbed the arm of the soldier approaching her and yanked him forward, sending her other fist into his nose.
She moved back towards the center of the clearing, punching her way through another half dozen men as she did. She whirled around, kicking one man in the face; punching another in the throat; picking up another man and slamming him flat on the ground in front of her. She saw a man approaching at the last moment. He had dark hair, fair skin – and for the briefest moment she thought she saw Stanton’s cruel gaze.
She threw her legs into the air, wrapping one around each side of his neck. She hooked her heels around his shoulders, ensuring that she wouldn’t actually hurt him as she twisted, throwing him onto the ground. She popped up to her knees, punching another man in the groin as he approached.
Jerica stumbled to her feet, eyes flicking around the clearing.
Akeno was standing next to her tunic, under the tree. His brow was worried as he looked at her. “Should you take a break?”
Jerica turned and punched the man nearest her, a fresh pang of anger running from her chest straight through her fist as she drove it into his jaw. This was the last thing she needed. She didn’t want to deal with any of them today. Not Akeno. Not Rek. Not Derik. Not Stanton. Not any other man in this entire damnable country.
She turned to the left – squarely into someone’s fist. She stumbled to the side, surprised. Her gaze flicked up towards a soldier who stared at her as if he’d never regretted anything in his life as much as he regretted this moment. She grinned ferally, laughing a bit too loud as pain throbbed in her face. “Good!”
She swiped his legs out from under him, kicking him in the side before she ducked under another soldier’s fist. She grabbed him by the arm and leg, lifting him into the air and throwing him towards two of the approaching men. The three fell into a groaning heap.
Jerica drove her fist into the blow she’d already started, then whirled back towards the tree. Rek was standing next to Akeno now, frowning as he looked across the clearing from her. They were about fifteen meters away – close enough to be unhappy, but far enough away they couldn’t do anything about it.
“Why are you here?” she asked as she grabbed the fist of another man and flipped him flat onto his back. “It’s the morning after your wedding.”
“Yours, too!” Rek shot back.
“Aye!” Why do you think I’m here? She stopped herself just short of saying it. She had to pretend not to loathe Stanton as much as she did; at least in public.
Jerica jumped over the man lying in front of her and drove her fist into his throat as she landed. She whirled around and took man after man after man. A few more landed blows on her. She was getting distracted. Why was Rek here? She didn’t want to deal with him. He should be with Nykim. Not here. She hadn’t expected to see him yet.
A few moments later, Jerica realized she’d made it through this platoon as well. Her chest heaved for breath; entire body trembling with the exertion of the fight. She still didn’t feel better. She looked at another platoon of soldiers and pointed at them.
“Get set!” she snarled, brushing her sweaty hair off her forehead. Her entire body was drenched. The sun was now well into the sky and the chill of the early morning replaced itself with a dry heat. She was going to have to stop eventually.
But not yet.
Neither Rek nor Akeno outranked her, so there was nothing they could do, outside of commanding their men to stop fighting her. But they wouldn’t undermine her authority like that. Besides, she’d just move on to the Calvary if they did that. She planned to keep fighting until the two of them finally got bored and wandered away.
Her mind was getting garbled. She didn’t have clear thoughts anymore – just feelings, as intense and uncontrollable as when she’d started. Hatred for Stanton. Guilt about Akeno. Dread about facing Rek. Fear about… everything? Nothing? Who knew, at this point?
She started working her way through this platoon. She took more blows with this one than the first two platoons combined. She was getting slow – it was too tiring to maintain the pace she’d started with. Her heart wanted to fight until she collapsed; her body wished her heart would calm down soon.
Jerica stopped mid-lunge towards a trainee, planting her foot. She knew that tone. And she knew what happened if she didn’t respond to it. She took a deep breath, setting her jaw before she turned towards Derik. He was standing next to Rek and Akeno with his arms crossed and brow drawn.
“I’m training,” Jerica said. Her body trembled. She took a deep breath.
“I see… what you’re doing.” Derik’s tone was terse. “And I’ll have a word. Now.”
Jerica glanced back at the trainee in front of her. He’d retreated several meters, and was looking at her with wide eyes. She glanced around the clearing. The men all seemed concerned. Or injured. She sighed.
“Dismissed!” Derik shouted to the soldiers. “Go get cleaned up!”
“Sir!” a collective shout went up.
The men began scattering. She looked down at her hands. They were trembling. The knuckles on both hands were split open and leaking blood so quickly it dripped down her fingers and onto the grass next to her. She swallowed hard, flicking her wrists to shake off the excess blood. She wished she could be dismissed.
Anxiety crept past the anger as she started towards the tree.
“How many had she made it through?” Rek asked.
“That was the third platoon,” Akeno answered.
“And I’ll kick both of your asses, too.” Jerica shouldered her way between them and bent swiftly to grab her tunic, then started towards the barracks. She carefully avoided all of their gazes and instead glared at the path in front of her.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Derik called after her.
“You said you want ‘a word’ which means you’re gonna yell,” Jerica spat. “May as well do it in your office.”