Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
Teryn’s neck sprayed crimson blood across Jerica’s face as she stabbed the arrow into it. How he didn’t collapse she didn’t have a clue, but a moment later his hands wrapped around her throat and slammed her into the ground. She gagged as he pressed the palm of his hand down on her Adam’s apple.
Her elbow slammed into her pile of armor that she’d left behind when she entered the tunnels. She reached blindly into the midst of the pile, searching for her dagger, as she pressed her other hand into his face and tried to claw at his eyes. Her hand landed on the hilt of her weapon, and she yanked it from its sheath.
Jerica brought the dagger around and slit Teryn’s wrist in a fluid motion. He howled, blood gurgling in his mouth and spraying from his wrist at the same time. His hand hung limply, spurting blood every few moments onto her chest and neck. She brought the dagger up under his ribcage, sinking it into his lung through his side.
His eyes grew wide and then rolled back into his head, and he collapsed on top of her. She felt the blood welling on the floor, against her bare shoulder, and cringed, struggling to get Teryn off of her. She rolled him over and scuttled away on the ground, then flopped onto her back and closed her eyes, panting.
“Jer!” Rek was at her side in an instant. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” she huffed, swallowing hard. Her throat felt constricted; the memory of Teryn’s fingers still resting hard against her neck.
She opened her eyes and followed his gaze towards her left shoulder, vaguely aware of a throbbing pain. She sighed as she saw a long, horizontal gash across her upper arm, just below the shoulder. He must have gotten her with the sword as he fell. “Can you tie it up for me?”
“Of course.” Rek reached around her and cut the tail off Teryn’s tunic, and wrapped it around her upper arm, slowing the blood sliding from the wound in large droplets.
Jerica pushed herself up to a sitting position and took a deep breath. She was a sorry sight. Her thin tunic clung to her abdomen, soaked with Teryn’s blood. She rubbed her face and looked down at the blood smeared on her hand, wondering how much was still on her face.
“What’s going on?” Zaire’s voice was muffled from where he remained in the tunnel.
“Think we should let him out of the tunnel?”
“I’m going to put my armor back on, first.” Jerica pushed herself to her feet and strode towards her now-disheveled pile of armor. She flopped back down on the ground next to it and pulled her breastplate over her head, grimacing as she had to lift her arm to shrug the armor into place. She clamped her right hand over the cut on her left for a moment to calm the throbbing, then reached up and began cinching the leather thongs into place.
"This a good idea?" Rek looked down at her skeptically. "He'll want you to go see the physicians."
"It's better for him to order that." Jerica shrugged. "You know Levin and Biryn will twist it if I make that decision. Derik can send me back to the barracks if that’s what he wants."
Rek sighed then nodded. "Probably so. Here, let me help you."
He knelt and quickly fastened her remaining buckles, then offered her a hand up. She took it and allowed him to pull her to her feet. She unstrung her bow and put it back in its case, then strapped it onto her back next to the quiver, and fastened her sword belt around her hips.
"Let him up." Jerica gestured at the podium as Rek finished with his armor.
Rek stepped forward and pushed the podium out of the way, then opened up the hatch.
"Hand your sword up first," Jerica ordered. "Then climb up here."
Zaire's sword appeared through the hatch, handle-first. Jerica bent and took it with her right hand, left arm still hanging limply at her side. She stepped backward as Zaire climbed through the narrow hatch.
Zaire's eyes landed on Teryn's bloodied corpse. His face paled as he glanced at Jerica before fixing his eyes firmly on the ground by her feet. He sank to his knees in front of her, hands palm up on the ground in front of him.
"Why?" Jerica asked crisply, gesturing at Teryn's body with the tip of Zaire's sword.
"I had nothing to do with that." Zaire wet his lips, not daring to raise his gaze from Jerica's feet. "I swear on my life."
"Do you?" Jerica let her words hang in the air for a long, uncomfortable moment. She didn’t think Zaire was involved in the plot, but it was best to treat him like a potential enemy until he convinced her otherwise. "Look at me."
Zaire obediently lifted his chin and looked up to meet her gaze. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, the only indication of his discomfort. His face was neutral, expressionless – the result of a lifetime of service in the Rangers.
"You led a man who tried to kill me, directly to me."
"May I speak freely?"
"I swore an oath to your grandfather, Highness, that I would give my life in a heartbeat, if it would protect an Ainsley," Zaire said. "I reaffirmed that oath to King Levin when he took the throne. And I swore my loyalty to each of you when you ascended to Generalship. I would sooner put my own eyes out, than betray the family I've dedicated my life to protecting."
"Fine words.” Jerica kept her gaze fixed on him, unwavering. "And how would you ensure their veracity, if you were me?"
"There is no way, ma'am," Zaire answered. "If I were you… I would either torture or kill me." He swallowed again. "I am prepared for whatever course of action you deem suitable."
Jerica hesitated a moment, then turned his sword and offered him the handle. He hesitated, looking at her a long moment, brow furrowing slightly in confusion.
Zaire obeyed, but still didn’t reach for his sword.
“You’ve served my family well since before I was born.” Jerica pressed the pommel of the sword into his hand. “I don’t believe you to be a traitor, or a fool. Teryn clearly didn’t know any better, but I trust you don’t believe that a single trainee could best the two of us.”
“Only in his wildest imagination,” Zaire agreed, taking the sword. “He wasn’t skilled enough to best me, much less either of you – and certainly not both of you at once.”
Jerica nodded. “Go collect the Rangers. I wish to speak to them in conference room in the barracks.”
“Yes ma’am!” Zaire turned on his heel and took his leave.
A stab of pain shot through Jerica’s arm. She inhaled sharply, but waited until Zaire disappeared from sight before she allowed herself to look down. She cursed as she saw the bandage already soaked, allowing crimson droplets to track down the length of her arm.
“Let’s go find Father.”
Jerica nodded, glancing at Rek, before she started down the narrow aisle towards the outside world. She quickly retraced her steps along the path she’d taken to get here, and climbed up on the wall where the battle was still going strong. The droplets of blood were now dripping from her fingertips, and her entire arm felt tingly and numb.
She made her hand into a fist and kept walking, forcing herself to stay focused on finding Derik. Rek was at her heels, cursing as they stumbled past various scuffles on the wall, searching for their commander.
“Lord Ainsley!” Jerica shouted as she saw her uncle’s back just ahead.
He whirled around at the sound of her voice, a broad grin on his face as he started towards her. “By gods, you did it– what happened to you?”
His demeanor shifted instantly, jaw setting and eyebrows furling into a concerned glare. His gaze traveled over her shoulder towards Rek for a moment, then snapped back to her, darting over her body.
“You don’t look fine.”
“I’m fine,” she insisted, stopping just in front of him. “Most of this isn’t mine.”
“Then whose is it?” Derik stepped forward, cupping her face in his hand and tilting it to either side to inspect her head from various angles.
“A trainee’s.” She swatted his hands away, pulling her head backward. “Apparently we’ve got some traitors in the Ranger corp.”
“I told Zaire to assemble them in the conference room for inspection.”
“Let them sweat until nightfall; I want to be there.” Derik’s eyes landed on her arm and his eyebrow shot up in surprise. “A trainee did that to you?”
“It was a complicated situation,” she snapped.
“You can tell me about that tonight, too.” Derik gestured vaguely at the castle. “For now, go get cleaned up and have the physicians tend to your wounds.”
“I’m going to get my squire first.”
Derik nodded. “Very well. But then go. Straight to the Palace Physicians.”
“Not the infirmary?”
“Sir.” Jerica turned and started down the wall.
She found Kieran much like she’d left him; crouched on the wall, hastily filling up quivers of arrows for archers. Akeno stood nearby, shouting commands to their men and firing arrows into the midst of the Nykerians below.
Akeno snapped around. “Ma’am?”
“How are things?”
“We’re holding the line, ma’am,” Akeno answered. He stepped near to her, lowering his voice as he leaned close to her ear so that the other men wouldn’t overhear. “You look like hell. What happened?”
“I’ll tell you later,” she muttered, before her eyes locked with Kieran’s. “Come with me.”
“Ma’am!” he scrambled to his feet, pushing his helmet back out of his eyes.
“Lord Ainsley ordered me to the physicians,” Jerica said, carelessly gesturing at her arm, as if it didn’t feel like a thousand fire ants had taken up residence in her flesh. “Are you okay here?”
“Come on, Kieran,” she said, turning her attention back on her squire.
He trotted after her, close at her heel. She took a deep breath, trying to still the trembling in her injured arm. It was much hotter up on the top of the wall, despite the fact that the sun was beginning to sink over the distant hill. She was sick to her stomach, her head dense and throbbing as she walked, breaths coming as though she was trying to breathe through a damp bath towel.
“What happened to you?”
Jerica looked up as she heard Lord Biryn’s voice just to her left, and she saw him pushing his way through a throng of soldiers. He was tall and lean, with sleek black robes which now seemed as disheveled as they were dirty.
“I got stabbed.” She grabbed Kieran’s shoulder and pushed him forward, never slowing her pace, as she forced him to be opposite her body from Lord Biryn.
“Where are you going?”
Lord Biryn reached out and grabbed her breastplate. She twisted her arm, trying to force his hand off her, but her arm hurt too badly from the injury to have the strength to break his grasp. He slammed her into the wall behind her. “You don’t just walk past me when I’m talking to you, Princess!”