Jerica walked slowly, grumbling to herself as she patrolled the mountain leading up to the castle. Her task was simple: find and execute any enemy scouts looking for weaknesses in their defense, and to do it in such a way as to discourage any further attempts.
“Patrol the mountain, Jerica,” she muttered, kicking a small rock out of her way. She watched as it rolled down the rocky outcrop below her. “Clean up my messes, Jerica.”
She turned and looked back the direction she had come. The roar of the battle was still loud, despite the many hundreds of meters between her and the main battle. She could barely even make out distinct people in the crowd for how far away it was. Rather, she saw a seething, bleeding mass that cried out in pain as individual men fell in the fighting.
“I’m such a terrible king that my own subjects want to kill me,” she continued complaining as she resumed walking. “Thank the gods I’ve got a niece I can hide behind.”
Jerica huffed a sigh and clamped her mouth shut. It didn’t much matter what she said out here, all alone on the side of a mountain, but she never could be too careful. A surprising amount of what she said and did got back to Lord Biryn, and she didn’t want to risk adding the label of ‘traitor’ to her growing list of descriptors.
She jerked her cloak straight, mentally cursing at having to wear it in the first place. All of the other soldiers were dressed in the standard Atraian soldier garb; but not her. No, Lord Biryn had insisted that her most important contribution to the war was her public image. She barely had armor at all – only a breastplate and wrist-braces – and was forced to wear a flowing black cloak that got in her way.
Thankfully this morning had been rather slow – she’d only killed two or three scouts in the many hours she’d been wandering around the back side of the mountain. Then her eye landed on the prize. Barely a hundred meters in front of her was a man crouched behind a boulder, peering in the opposite direction. She sighed softly.
Here we go again, she thought. Silent as the wind, Jerica closed the distance separating them without the man so much as glancing in her direction. She extended the tip of her blade towards his neck. “Stand up slowly and turn around.”
The man’s body stiffened, and he was still for a long moment, before he finally sighed and stood. He flipped the hood of his cloak off his head before he turned to face her. Jerica scoffed when she saw who stood in front of her.
He was nothing more than a boy, probably twelve or thirteen. He stood a few inches taller than she did herself and had shaggy brown hair and mischievous green eyes. She looked him for a long moment curiously. He didn’t wear the crest of any duke. He also didn’t look particularly scared. “You’re just a boy.”
“You’re just a girl,” he countered.
“A girl who can kill you.”
“You can try,” he answered, smirking.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She’d only held the title of King’s Assassin for a year, but already she’d established a reputation and was used to people cowering and showering her in flattery. She hadn’t had anyone dismiss her ability to kill them since she’d first began the executions and proved her prowess.
“It means I’ve been wanting to fight you for the past year, Princess,” he said. “I’ve heard grand things about you, and I hope they’re true. It sounds like a fun match.”
“Fun?” Jerica was intrigued. “Who are you?”
“Oh, I’m just a no-one right now. A father’s disappointment, if you will,” he answered. She lifted an eyebrow. He shrugged, meeting her gaze evenly. “But one day I’ll be a Dragon Keeper, and then I’ll keep you from hurting anyone else.”
“Is that so?” she snarled. “And just where do you plan on finding a dragon?”
“I’m heading to Crevon soon,” he answered. “You’ve heard of Crevon, right? All the fantastic beasts that are there? You should come with me. It would be more fun than being your uncle’s assassin.”
“Maybe I enjoy it.”
“Maybe you don’t, either,” he said. “It seems dreadfully boring.”
“Well I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got a fun match now, then,” she said sarcastically, tightening her grip on her sword as she prepared to launch an attack. She didn’t want to kill the boy. He was an enigma that she would much rather argue with for a bit and possibly befriend, if time allowed. But if she didn’t continue her patrol soon Lord Biryn would find out, and then terrible things would happen to her.
The boy grinned as he took his sword from its scabbard and evaluated her stance. Then, suddenly, he launched an attack, bringing an over-handed blow down on her head. She blocked and threw his blade off, swinging her sword around on his right side. He blocked her blade and reached out to give her shoulders a push.
She stumbled backwards and came at him again with a hasty combo – bringing her sword down over his head, then at his left side, at his right side, a jab towards the middle, a pass at his knees. He blocked or dodged each of the blows, grinning like a maniac. He advanced on her with an equally skilled set of attacks.
The force of his blows drove her backward, forcing her to give some ground as he advanced on her with an expertise she hadn’t seen in anyone but her Uncle Derik. She took another step backward as he brought down another over-handed blow, then tripped over a large rock just behind her feet.
She fell onto her back heavily, sword flying to the side. She scrambled to her feet, lunging for her sword, but his hand clamped down on her arm and threw her back to the ground. The tip of his sword landed on her collarbone before she could move again.
Jerica froze, her eyes snapping up towards the boy’s face as her heart leapt into her own throat.
He wasn’t smiling now.
This was just the reason she hadn’t wanted to be a part of this stupid war in the first place. Panic surged through her body as she took a shaky breath, trying to wonder if she still had time to talk her way out of the mess. “That was… fun.”
“It was.” The smirk came back. He pulled his sword away and leaned down, offering her a hand up. She looked at his hand incredulously for a long moment, before she slowly placed her own in his and allowed him to pull her to her feet. He stepped away and gestured at her sword. “Again?”
“Of course.” Jerica swooped swiftly to grab her sword. She rubbed her neck with her left hand, unsettled by the feel of his sword resting on it.
He watched her with the same smirk playing at his lips. “Not used to being on that end of the sword, eh?”
“Not really,” she agreed.
“Then let me give you more practice.” He lunged forward again with another quick volley of blows. She dodged each, the intensity of his attacks making her sweat.
The battle raged on for much longer than the first one had, each party having solid footing this time. They were evenly matched. No matter how fast one attacked, the other was just fast enough to block the blow before it could make contact.
Jerica tried to stay serious, to remember that this boy was nothing more than an enemy to be eliminated, but deep down she was enjoying herself. She hadn’t had an evenly matched opponent in months. Uncle Derik could still best her, and her cousin Rekard usually didn’t lose as quickly as her other sparring partners did, but this boy was at the same level as herself and she savored every moment of it.
Finally, a stab combo that ended with an overhanded blow sent the boy’s sword flying from his hands. She hooked her toe behind his ankle and sent him tumbling to the ground, then brought the tip of her sword down on his neck.
“Bravo.” He was smirking again.
Jerica smirked despite herself as she stood over him, panting. She slowly removed the sword from his neck and offered him a hand up, reciprocating the kindness. He recovered his sword and sheathed it, then bowed to her. “Good day, Princess. I’ll likely kill you the next time I see you.”
“You can try.”
Jerica trailed off as her story ended, realizing that she had yet again failed to come up with an impactful ending. She looked towards Aerik. He was silent for several long moments, staring at the far wall with his eyes misty and unseeing.
Jerica looked at him curiously, wondering what he was thinking about. She didn’t press him. Instead, she took the opportunity to examine the machines more closely, though she didn’t dare get up from the bench. Regardless of how kindly he treated her, she was still a prisoner, and didn’t want to test her luck quite yet. Her side still hurt terribly.
The training machines were fantastically simple, yet they looked like they’d be quite painful if one of the branches came around to whack you. She wondered how many times Aerik had been whacked before he was able to fight them as swiftly as she’d seen. She wanted to know how well she’d do against them.
Suddenly Aerik roused, as if he’d just noticed she stopped speaking. He cleared his throat and locked his eyes on Jerica. “Right. That’s… quite the story. Ever figure out who he was?”
Jerica hesitated, then shrugged. “I’m afraid not.”
“That’s unfortunate. I’d like to know if there was another Dragon Keeper out there to worry about.” Aerik stood and moved towards Jerica again. “Are you feeling better from your ankle being healed?”
“Um.” Jerica hesitated again, recognizing the loaded question. Her breathing had returned to normal and she felt much stronger than she had, but part of her was afraid to tell him as much. “Slightly.”
He grinned knowingly at her hesitation. “I need to heal your ribs, you know.”
“Well… those will heal themselves, eventually.” She put her hand over her abdomen protectively. The last bit of healing had taken a considerable amount out of her, and she wasn’t too keen to go through it again. Especially not for an area as sensitive as her ribs.
“I’m healing them,” he stated firmly.
“They’re really fine.”
“They’re really not.”
She snorted. “Why are you being so stubborn?”
“Pot kettle, eh?”
“I believe the expression goes,” Aerik said. “That’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black.”
“Which means that the most stubborn girl in all the kingdoms isn’t allowed to call anyone else stubborn,” he said, kneeling in front of her. “It’s hypocritical. Now lie down.”
Jerica hesitated, looking at him resentfully. “I really don’t think—”
“I’m sorry, did that sound like I was asking? Let me try again. Lie. Down.”
Jerica glowered at him. He lifted an eyebrow challengingly, daring her to resist. She took a deep breath, then sighed reluctantly and carefully lowered herself onto the bench. She swallowed hard, fighting against the sense of vulnerability that enveloped her, and locked eyes with Aerik, aware that she was completely at his mercy.
“There’s a good lass.”