I sat up slowly and watched Jason practice. His twin blades, one short and one long, danced gleaming through the air. He positioned his bare feet surely on the wet grass. His long legs slid in unison with every motion of his body, perfectly in tune with his rolling shoulders and hips. He turned again and I saw the deep, ladder shaped scars on his left side; six instead of Friss’ seven. He moved with pure grace and there was a peace and purity of purpose that pervaded him while he moved.
”You’re a master swordsman too, aren’t you?” I whispered.
He checked his movements and looked at me. “Almost. I have all the training and I’ve taught students, but Friss hasn’t released me yet so I can’t call myself a master.”
“Why not? You’re movements are beautiful.”
He nodded to a space behind me. “Ask him yourself.”
I turned, already knowing what I would see. Friss sat behind me on the grass, calmly eating his breakfast. He was within an arm’s length of me and I hadn’t even known he was there. I scowled. The bastard had wanted me to know when he came to wake me. He had known what I would do. The big man chewed calmly in my direction, pushing a pair of bowls my way. One was heaped high with cooked oats and the other held a steaming soup.
The smell hit my nose and I yanked the bowls to me, turning back to watch Jason practice and stuffing myself silly before slowing my pace. I studied Jason’s motions, learning as much as I could from watching. “Why won’t you release him?” I asked over my shoulder. “He’s amazing.”
Friss nodded, pride filling his voice. “He’s one of the best I’ve ever trained, but he still has one more test to face.”
“Which is?” I prompted.
“Jason has never been in heavy combat. He’s only seen a few skirmishes and some duels. He’s never had friends at risk, never known what it’s like to see the very land give birth to a sea of enemies bathed in raw hatred and screaming for his blood. Until he does, he won’t know what it means to face a swordsman’s true enemy.”
I wrinkled my nose at him. “I thought the people trying to kill you were a swordsman’s true enemy.”
He snorted. “They’re just a nuisance.”
I expected him to say something else, but he just sat, eating his breakfast. Finally, I cleared my throat. “So, what is a swordsman’s true enemy?”
He met my gaze steadily. “Fear.”
I looked back at Jason. He had moved away and sat with the others to lace up his boots. I twisted to face Friss. “He’s your son.”
Friss looked at me oddly for a moment and only nodded briefly when Tara yelled for our dishes. I shook my head, struggling to stand, but Friss snorted in amusement and grabbed my bowls, walking them back to the fire. My entire body screamed at me, every joint and muscle hurt.
I moved slowly, struggling to make my body respond. The pre-dawn air was cool and fresh, but I could barely move. I heard movement in the grass behind me and looked up. Friss knelt in the grass behind me and grabbed my arms. I shouted in pain, but he pulled them out behind me. He didn’t pull hard, or even fast, but his grip was iron hard. Just the pain of the muscles stretching forced me to whimper through clenched teeth. I had tears in my eyes after the first few seconds, but he didn’t stop. He put me through a series of stretches and exercises that made my body feel like it was on fire. I tried to bite back on the screams, whimpering only occasionally.
We started walking again in the cold gray twilight. Yesterday’s rain returned in the form of a cold, persistent drizzle. The shifting weight of Friss’ pack ground my muscles into shape, and I spent much of the day drawing my sword from my side and putting it away again until Friss gave me back my stick and told me to practice.
The next week of travel was entirely too much like the first day. We began hiking each day at least an hour before sunrise. Friss’ pack got heavier with each passing day. I marched with the others, consciously shifting my walk into the casual glide required by the shifting weight. Back and neck straight, head high but tilted as I lifted my stick and went through the motions I was taught the day before. When it got light enough to see Friss would show me some more movements to practice along with the others I had learned.
The only difference between each day and the one before was one of pride. Each night, when we finally stopped, I was able to do a little bit more before collapsing. Each harshly muttered phrase or purposeful footstep was an accomplishment. They were little things and largely meaningless, but they were still a victory and I clung to them.
Late on the ninth night I woke to the feel of a soft touch, the hands of a man on my legs. I rolled on to my back, exhausted but excited. Thomas. I thought, my body arching as my eyes fluttered open.
I tried to scream, but a hard heavy slap knocked me sideways, stealing my breath. The face hovering above mine slobbered in lust, barely recognizable as human. A great scar ran diagonally across his face, leaving one eye a lifeless, milky white blot against his dark skin. Black chain armor hung loose from him as he pushed my legs open. I screamed again, forcing the sound out as he slapped me, struggling against him with every muscle. His pants were already open and his weight crushed against me. His clenched fist caught me under the jaw, snapping my head upward. I went limp as he yanked my face to his, forcing his lips against my skin. In the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my yellow hair covered in mud and froze. The beast continued to slobber, but I focused all of my attention on the hair. Something was wrong. Something didn’t fit. I fought past the welling disgust and hatred and concentrated every thought on that single strand of mud-covered, straw yellow hair. Finally, it was there. I knew what was wrong. My hair was black.
The vision snapped like a bowstring and I gasped awake. My stomach twisted within me and I rolled out of my blankets. My hand closed around my sword hilt. I twisted around, snarling at every shadow and half staggering toward the light of the fire.
A figure rose in front of me, tall and lithe. Her pale eyes glimmered even in the darkness. “Tara.” I croaked, still half blinded by the vision. “They were here. The main group camped over there.” I pointed toward a small copse of trees I couldn’t see about half a mile away. “The soldiers brought some women, bound and gagged…” I stumbled and fell into the huge arms that appeared out of the dark. My eyes were still fixed on Tara. “…One of the men was riding my horse.”
Moments later, Serena and Jason were running to where I said the camp had been. Friss worked nearby, searching the ground for any tracks the rain hadn’t destroyed. Thomas eased more soothing balm onto my skin and murmured softly. Tara sat across from me at the fire and listened. “I saw them Tara. My horse was off to the side with someone sitting her. He was holding a long dark spear and was standing watch.”
“Can you remember anything else from the dream?” She asked.
I started to shake my head and stopped, remembering something. “Th… there was something the woman was afraid of more than she was of being raped. Being raped was almost a relief. I could feel her fear running through her, but I don’t know what it was from.” I paused thinking. “That’s it. That’s all I can remember.”
“Okay.” She looked up, checking the stars. “It won’t be light for another few hours. You should try and get some more sleep.”
“No.” I said. “I need to be part of this.”
She sighed. “No Cary, there’s nothing you can do. Not even the Landsmen will be able to do much at this time of night. Get some sleep. You’ll need all the rest you can get.”
I tried to protest, but my eyes drooped shut and I leaned back, sliding into Thomas’ arms. The warmth of his body flooded into me. His smell filled my nostrils. The soft murmuring sound of his voice tickled my ears like a spring breeze and my eyes snapped open. I could feel his voice hit me, pulling at my mind. The world melted slowly in my vision and Tara smiled softly. I tried to scowl and mumbled curses as Thomas’ spell pulled me toward sleep.