Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for violence.
After a short hiatus, I'm back! Things start getting a little darker as momentum begins to pick up, so as a forewarning this chapter has been rated for violence. As always, I appreciate your feedback and look forward to hearing what you all think of the story as it progresses!
Her heart racing with the speed of a quicksilver stallion, Eona cursed her own fear as her body froze.
Foolish girl! she scorned herself as her eyes flickered to the stranger's blade. What good were all of those lessons if you're unable to use them when you need to?
The stranger smirked at her through the shadows. "Poor little princess, lost in the dark," he jeered, spinning his blade around with the flourish of a man who had just been reunited with a missing limb. "With no one around to hear you bark."
Eona bristled at the man's mockery, her muscles flexing with the memories of Daveth's lessons.
Looking over her, the stranger laughed. "Even your bodyguard can't save you now!"
Behind her, Eona could hear the clatter of Daveth's hurried footsteps and the fear in his voice as he called out her name. He was closer now, but even without glancing she knew that the stranger's words rang true: the captain couldn't save her.
And I don't need him to.
In that instance, time seemed to slow down around her. She inhaled deeply as the past six years of training in secret—six years of preparation for this very moment—came flooding back in waves, thawing the icy fear that had immobilized her and fueling her anger.
Eona took a step back and bent her knees, her body tensing as she focused her gaze on the glint of silver in his hands. In the dark it would look to the stranger as if she were a helpless victim cowering before him.
Let him think what he will, she thought with a smirk. She only needed to buy herself a few more seconds; surely the gods could spare her that much.
"Such a waste," he mused as his eyes glanced over her body one last time. Then with a huff, the stranger pulled back his blade. "But now you die," he gloated as he drove the dagger towards her belly.
"Not today," she whispered as she rocked back on her heels and sidestepped.
His thrust was quicker than she had anticipated; her right arm burned as the edge of his dagger bit through the fabric of her robe, grazing her skin and drawing blood. Clenching her teeth against the sting she grabbed his outstretched wrist and spun around, balling her fist as she used the propulsion to slam her elbow into the middle of his back with force.
The stranger hissed in pain and stumbled forward, thrown off balance by her surprise counterattack. Clearly he had not expected her to fight back, but despite herself Eona knew that he still maintained the upper hand—he was still armed.
And now, he was armed and angry.
"You bitch!" he spat, whirling around as he swung his blade at her head.
He was quick, Eona observed as she ducked and rolled out of his way, but his form was shoddy and he let his frustration influence his attacks.
The biggest mistake any swordsman can make, Daveth's voice echoed in her mind as Eona dodged another blow, is to let their emotions control the fight.
But she knew that it would take more than provoking him to win this fight. Gods, Daveth, hurry!
"An angry swordsman is a sloppy swordsman," Eona chanted as she sidestepped another attack, the blade narrowly missing her cheek as the force from the blow caused her to stagger back. But she had forgotten to mind her surroundings; as she stepped back her heel nudged something soft, tripping her and sending her careening backwards.
The stranger laughed as he gestured to the obstruction at her feet. "Looks like you found your friend," he said, pointing to Paschel's lifeless body.
Eona struggled to push herself up, but the stranger was already upon her. Aiming the point of his dagger just under her chin, the man grinned down at her.
"You can't dance your way outta this one, princess," he said, pressing the tip against her throat. The metal was slicked with blood—her blood; Paschel's blood. The coppery scent was overwhelming so close to her nose, and Eona felt nauseous as her fears resurfaced.
Not like this, she silently pleaded as she watched the stranger draw back his dagger. Lady's breath, not like this!
"Enough games," the man sneered, sensing his victory close at hand. "This match is over—"
He never got the chance to deliver the killing blow.
Eona watched, transfixed, as his arm was severed from his body, bones snapping and tendons ripping as a blade cleaved straight through the flesh. Blood splattered on the cobblestones, dyeing the snow a deep red as the detached arm flopped to the ground, the dagger still clutched in its grasp.
An agonized scream bellowed from the stranger's throat as he sank to his knees, staring at the stump in his shoulder. "My arm!"
Eona stood as Daveth moved to her side.
"Are you alright, milady?" he asked between breaths, placing a hand on her wounded arm. She flinched as the sudden pressure sent a sharp pain rippling through her side, but her gaze remained fixated on the stranger.
He had retched on himself, his shoulders quivering in the dark as he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the ground. Eona wrinkled her nose at the sour odor as it mixed with the coppery scent of blood.
So this is the smell of a dying man? she thought as a thin ray of moonlight broke through the clouds, illuminating both the courtyard and the stranger in a pale glow.
Upon closer inspection, Eona noticed that he bore no armor. He was an older man with a rugged face and a haggard body. His clothes were stained and tattered, and rusted iron manacles were bound around his wrists and bare ankles; the chain that had once linked them together was severed, the halves dangling loosely from each band.
"He's a prisoner," she muttered in disbelief. No enemy of her father's would be dressed so poorly, nor would they allow themselves to become so unpracticed in their swordplay.
Daveth squinted against the dim light and cursed. "So he is. How the devil did he escape?"
"It doesn't matter now."
"What do you suggest, milady?"
Eona paused as she considered Daveth's words, weighing the prisoner's fate in her mind.
This man tried to kill me, she thought, her heart pounding as she fought to stave off the fear that clutched at the edges of her mind. Who else has he killed tonight?
"Secure his weapon," she replied after awhile, her gaze unmoving as she watched the prisoner writhe in shock. Her eyes hardened as she placed a boot to his heaving chest and tipped him onto his back. "Let him bleed out in the cold."
Daveth shifted next to her. "He deserves to die for his crimes, milady," he said, his fist tightening around the hilt of his sword. "But even for him, that sentence is cruel."
"Then kill him yourself!" Eona snapped, turning on the captain. "But be quick! If he escaped then there could be others, and that puts my family in danger."
Sensing the urgency in her tone, Daveth nodded and requested that she step aside. "You don't want to see this," he advised.
Eona stepped back, but she did not avert her eyes.
With one stroke Daveth shoved the point of his sword into the man's heart. She heard the prisoner gasp, his legs twitching as his eyes bulged in their sockets, and then he lay still. Eona watched with grim fascination as blood pooled around his motionless body, an unexpected grin spreading across her lips as the man exhaled his last breath.
Daveth withdrew his blade from the man's chest and crouched over his body, examining the severed arm. "Lady's breath, this is one of ours!" he exclaimed, motioning to the dagger still clasped in the discolored hand.
Eona only nodded, clasping her hands together as a shiver wracked her body. Her mind lingered on her fascination with the prisoner's execution. She had watched men die in her father's arena before and, regardless of the fact that this man deserved the justice that Daveth had given him, she could not recall ever finding death intriguing.
I'm just shaken is all, she tried to rationalize, but even she could not bring herself to believe those words.
Wrenching the dagger free from the dismembered hand, Daveth stood and offered Eona the blade. "There may be others," he said. "You need to be ready in case I can't protect you."
Eona stared at the dagger. It was of fine quality, with a leather grip and the roaring lion of Sternhelm emblazoned on the silver pommel. The blood it had drawn was caked onto the blade like dried paint, dyeing the steel a deep maroon.
Red paint on a metal brush, waiting for the next stroke...
"Take the dagger!"
Eona shook her head as Daveth's outburst snapped her out of her daze. Wrapping her shaking fingers around the hilt, Eona lifted the hem of her dress and wiped the blade clean. She did not want to be reminded of whose blood was on this dagger.
Glancing her over, Daveth finally nodded and grabbed her hand. "Come, my lady. We need to move."
Eona allowed herself to spare one last glance at Paschel's body, her lips moving in a silent prayer to the gods for his soul to find peace, before following Daveth through the shadows of the courtyard and into the quiet of the keep.
"Where are the guards?" Eona asked as they wove their way through the torchlit passageways. Normally there were several armed men scattered about; some would be slouched against the stone walls as they rested their eyes for a moment of sleep while others patrolled the halls, laughing and jesting with their comrades.
Tonight, however, the dim corridors were silent and empty. With each cautious step she took, Eona felt her chest tighten.
"I don't know," Daveth whispered as they rounded a corner. His voice was strained and his muscles taut with unspoken dread as he guided her, and Eona's fears deepened.
By the grace of the Firstborn, let my family be safe, she pleaded, though the words did nothing to ease her concern.
As they came to an intersection, Daveth stopped and held up his hand. Eona glanced over his shoulder, and her heart froze. Before them, two great wooden doors hung ajar on their hinges, their dark faces intricately carved with the crest of Sternhelm. The warm glow of a fire flickered through the thin crack, but it did little to melt her trepidation—they were just outside the dining hall, where her father was hosting a feast for his honored guests.
No, guest, Eona corrected herself as Paschel's murder flashed in her mind, and her heart thumped with a pang of sympathy. What a dreadful thing it must be, to lose one's children so soon and to such gruesome ends. I hope Uncle Dominik hasn't suffered the same fate.
Daveth leaned forward, tilting his head as he listened for any signs of life beyond the open doors; where Lord Azir's raucous laughter should have been heard above the clatter of silverware and the hurried footsteps of servers as they shuffled between tables with pewter platters in hand, only silence greeted them.
Turning his gaze to Eona, Daveth frowned. "Wait here, milady," he bade her, raising his sword. "I'll make sure it's safe."
She heard his words clearly, but she felt their implication even more: Let me go first so I can prepare you for the bloodbath that awaits inside.
Shaking her head to rid herself of such thoughts, Eona turned to the captain. "No," she said, her words catching in her throat as she clenched her fist around the dagger's hilt. "I need to do this." I need to see for myself.
Daveth watched her for a moment, searching her face as the shadows danced across the walls. Then, with a brisk nod, he motioned for her to follow.
She trailed wordlessly behind him as Daveth crept towards the light; his movement was wary as he carefully pushed the doors apart with the flat of his blade and peered inside.
Vigilance. Lesson number two, she reflected as Daveth slipped through the gap and disappeared from view. Gods, let that be the last lesson I have to use tonight!
Eona drew in a sharp, shaky breath and held it within her chest, savoring the pressure until her lungs burned. Then, raising the dagger and exhaling slowly, she stepped through the doors.