“Come on! Stop trying to fight and fight!” Gwen cried as she brought her practice sword up to meet her opponent’s.
The sound of metal rang throughout the forest meadow as they clashed and whirled. She ducked to one side as he pivoted and swung his sword, narrowly missing her leather-armored side.
“What are you waiting for?” she snarled as his blade met nothing but soft grass. She twisted to one side, her arm raised to meet his attack.
Steel clashed against steel. Gwen’s blood sang in her veins.
Again and again, the movements so ingrained in her muscles that she didn’t even think as she raised her sword to defend against her brother’s strike.
Ronan’s face twisted with effort as the side of her blade came within inches of his face. Their blunt-edged practice swords wouldn’t cut skin, but they would leave a nasty bruise.
Sweat poured down Gwen’s face. They’d been at it for so long that the sun had made a wide arc across the clearing. Their shadows stretched long over the grass. Neither of them had given so much as an inch since the duel began.
Ronan’s chest was heaving, his movements growing heavier with every clash. Although a year her junior, he had more than a foot in height over Gwen. And with it, the benefit of reach.
But Gwen had the advantages of speed and determination.
As did her refusal to wear any sort of armor.
Ronan’s heavier practice gear weighed him down, and several times she had been able to get within his range to deliver quick, brutal blows to his torso and kidneys.
Now she spun, adrenaline coursing through her veins, to meet Ronan’s latest blow. The steel sang as their swords rippled against each other, bringing their faces close together.
“Yield,” Gwen hissed.
“Never,” Ronan panted.
She was unwilling to go back to the castle. Not just yet. Not until the sun had finally completed its lazy descent into the horizon.
Ronan knew it too, had skipped all of his lessons this afternoon to come out and fight with her until Gwen’s limbs ached and her mind was finally too tired to think.
One day closer to her eighteenth birthday. A landmark she could not bring closer merely by sneaking off with a stableboy.
What was to say the Fae would come for her two days from now?
What’s to say that they wouldn’t?
There hadn’t been an ambassador to the realm of the fae in more than a century. The rumor was that the last one had been sent back alive, but missing his eyes, tongue, and thumbs.
So he could not speak or write about what he had witnessed.
An icy shiver ran down Gwen’s spine and she redoubled her efforts, pushing back hard enough that Ronan was knocked off his feet and tumbled to the ground.
With a guttural cry Gwen launched herself at him, knocking aside flailing limbs and shoving one knee into his chest, the dull tip of her sword poised an inch from her brother’s throat.
Ronan rolled his eyes and released the grip on his weapon, admitting defeat. The sword clattered onto the damp grass.
“You fight–like a madwoman,” he said, groaning as Gwen pulled the sword from his neck and stood aside, pressing a hand to the stitch in her side.
“You fight–too much–like a knight,” she managed to gasp between breaths. “You just–stand there–hoping your armor will protect you.”
Ronan raised himself into a seated position and tenderly felt his ribs and torso. They would both be stiff and dotted with bruises the next day, as they always were after one of their more ferocious training bouts.
Four years ago, when Gwen had first expressed interest in learning to fight alongside her brother in the training yard, Ronan had balked.
Then only thirteen, it had wounded his young pride to have his sister train beside him in skirts.
But the king’s master swordsman, had recognized in Gwen an apt and hungry pupil.
Lorcan Wolfsbane had gotten his nickname at the age of twelve, when he had been attacked by a pack of four starving wolves in the forests outside his native Andorral. He had slaughtered them all with only a small dagger, and dragged their pelts back into his village.
Perhaps it is because he knew what it meant to face great odds, but Lorcan did not object to Gwen’s desire to fight. Knowing that King Cormac’s guilt-riddled leniency might not extend to the sight of his eldest daughter sparring with grown knights twice her size, Lorcan arranged for she and Ronan to practice outside of the castle grounds, in a wide meadow surrounded by a thick copse of trees.
Here they could wail on one another until they were both drenched with sweat, Ronan’s natural competitiveness having long ago won out over his reluctance to strike a girl. They would battle for hours, at first with clunky wooden swords and later, once Gwen had improved, with blunt-edged practice swords.
No one expected Gwen to be a knight, or to fight in battle alongside the men of her father’s armies, so her training differed vastly from Ronan’s.
Recognizing within his young female charge a deep-seeded desire to fight, to survive, Lorcan vowed to do all her could to teach her to defend herself. Where Ronan was taught to face an oncoming force without flinching, Gwen was trained to know when to flee. Unburdened by the heavy hammered-metal breastplate and helmet of a warrior, she learned how to protect vital areas and to keep her body turned to the side, to present a smaller target.
She made up for her lack of height with speed and a calm head, essential tools to surviving battle that few soldiers possessed.
She was also ruthlessly single-minded, unwilling to give up while there was a shred of fight left in her.
All of this, however, only served to help even the odds against her brother. Ronan had been raised to lead legions, to command the armies of Dunnhawke in war, and he had been raised as a warrior from the time he could walk.
He might be slower than Gwen in his armor, but the extra weight had also developed his muscles. He was far, far stronger than she could ever hope to be.
But for the moment they were both utterly exhausted. Gwen’s red curls dripped sweat down her neck under the tightly-fitted cap she wore for training.
She extended a hand towards her brother, and Ronan grasped it tightly, pulling himself up with a grunt.
“Filthy wench,” he hissed, rubbing his backside.
“Stupid jackass,” she grinned back at him.
Once she had put on some weight and muscle through training, Gwen showed no mercy during Lorcan’s supervised training bouts. Ronan’s initial sullen attitude wore down quickly when he realized he was going up against an actual rival, not just a sister.
“I would have beaten you in the end,” her brother grumbled.”
“As you say, Prince Ronan,” she said with mock obeisance.
“Both of you were shoddy in your footwork,” Lorcan interjected, dragging at his stubbly cheeks. “And Ronan, you’re so focused on the short-term jab that you forget the killing shot. You had Gwen three minutes before she pinned you. But you were too focused on taunting her to see it.”
“I saw it!” Ronan snarled. “I was just…trying to see if Gwen could get there on her own.”
“Well, that was very grand of you indeed, your highness. I’m sure your backside will be thanking you for your sacrifice in the morning.” Lorcan couldn’t hide the grin from his face.
Ronan’s furious expression flickered, then vanished, and he let out a snort of amusement. “That it will,” he said, rubbing his tailbone. “Well struck, Gwen.”
“Well struck indeed. But if I don’t get you both back to the castle, it’ll be hell to pay. ‘Specially for you Gwen,” Lorcan said with a dismal look. “I reckon the Queen has noticed your absence.”
Gwen looked at the sun, which was far lower in the sky than she wished.
She should have been back at the castle hours ago, to begin the arduous process of bathing and washing her riotous hair into some semblance of order.
They turned towards their horses. Gwen felt a chill as the sweat began to cool on her skin.
The thoughts she’d been trying to keep at bay all afternoon began to force their way back into her mind.
Everyone was saying the Fae would come for her tonight.
But they’d said that before.
Click here to read Chapter Six: The Birthday!