Well. I certainly got this started a bit faster than I had expected to.
As I mentioned in the previous draft that I posted (Kings, Heroes, and Cowards) this is a rewrite of the same story. Actually, it's a different story, but the same world and main character. Why a different story? Because the old one was like trapping myself in a box. Not much fun, and I'm rather claustrophobic. So this one has a larger plot, more characters, and more fun. Enjoy.
The sun was but a handsbreadth above the horizon, its light brilliant after being gone for so long. Those just wakening in the Keep opened their curtains to wince in surprise at the sudden brightness of the sun reflecting off the miles of snow, blinking away the glare. The air was clean and pure after so much snow, and the veiled silence that snow brought was gone to be replaced by the loud, boisterous sound of cheering men in the courtyard, each of their voices raised in shouts or laughter.
Savilcrsn frowned disapprovingly as she looked out of the window into the courtyard. "We're marching to war on the morrow, and they're down there playing as if there was nothing to worry about," she said. "Half of them haven't even seen a real war."
Cerventia chuckled to himself as he sipped at his tea, shifting through the papers on his desk with an absent hand. "A little bit of light-heartedness isn't bad for your health," he replied. "Besides, it's the first sunshine in over three months. Perhaps it's a sign."
"I don't believe in signs," the woman grunted, her brow still knotted in disapproval. Cerventia glanced up at her. Her hair was pulled back in a severe bun, and she wore men's clothing without discomfort. Her body was a knot of muscle, though not as obvious as a man's, it was quite clear that she could break a small person quite easily in two. "Eoliren has never given us a sign before, so why should he grace us now?" She added after a thought; "begging Your Majesty's pardon."
He shrugged and went to the window next to her, still holding his tea as he looked down into the snow-thick courtyard that was filled with men. "Who can guess what is in His mind?" he said, sounding much like the priests that had taught him. He smiled as he watched the men below. They were surrounding a small cleared area where two of his Valor Guard dueled with live steel. "Is that Vorchayrsn fighting Geavilcrsn? I'm always surprised at how talented that young woman is. It always seems that when someone is about to get one up on her, she surprises him."
"Vorchay Deu Giras has many surprises," Savilcrsn murmured, glancing to her King. "Some not as pleasant as others."
"Oh get over it, Savil," Cerventia said bluntly. "Just because you don't like the fact that I put her in my Valor Guard, you don't have the right to insinuate anything else unless you have proof."
"I don't trust her and I don't know why," Savilcrsn said bluntly. "You know I would never be this cautious unless I had a bad feeling."
"Is part of it because she's a woman?"
"Of course not. I'm a woman too, you'll remember. I just don't think you should trust her overly much."
He waved his hand dismissively, suddenly no longer interested in bickering. "I don't wish to argue with you, Savil. I've listened to you, but I've decided to reject your advice to demote her. Unless she does something directly treasonous, I will do no such thing."
She sighed and turned from the window. "Yes, Your Majesty. If you'll excuse me, I wish to go meet with Duke Havilrsn about the troops." She bowed gracefully, then left, her back stiff.
Cerventia turned back to the window after the door had closed behind her, looking down at the two Valor Guardsmen. The smaller form of Vorchayrsn was nimbler than the larger one of Geavilcrsn, dancing around him and avoiding attacks as much as she blocked them. He wondered where she had learned it, then remembered he was told she had taught herself before coming to the Keep in search of work as a soldier, an eager youth at the time.
For a moment, he saw it through Savil's eyes. Vorchay kept her distance from her opponent, moving slower and weaker, until a weakness would appear in her enemy and she would snap forward with her renowned speed to strike with the flat of her blade slapping against his side or leg with a loud 'thwack'. He imagined it not as the flat of her blade, but the edge, and in his mind he saw someone who always waited for the right moment.
He shook himself. Vorchay was no traitor. She was a talented, untested Guardsmen that fought differently because she couldn't compete with the strength of her male opponents, so she made up for it in tactics. That was all.
He turned from the window and went to his desk, his mind already leaving his Guardsman and turning to the upcoming battle instead.
His sword was quick, trained and experienced, old but shrewd. It snaked into her defenses and she ducked, her knees touching the ground as her back bent backwards, the live steel whistling past her bare ear. Fear came to her at it being so close but she easily pushed it aside. The small fear that came with every duel was a simple matter to deal with.
Her falchion whipped around her back, her wrist twisting, and she tapped the point of his blade away before he could change its direction of momentum and slap the flat against her neck. Straightening and keeping her falchion between herself and him, she slid the steel with a hiss up his blade, made a twist, and pushed his blade away even as her foot cracked up to hit him in the gut. He made an 'oof' and stumbled back, smiling.
"Gutter!" the other Valor Guardsmen shouted, laughing, referring to her kick. Only gutters, men who fought hand-to-hand in the streets, used those tactics.
She grinned at their jokes as they jovially shouted curses at her, and danced away from Geavil's blade as it danced for her once more, the sun flashing off the shining steel. This was why they liked her. Because she fought differently than the rest of them. She fought with skills that she had learned in her village back home, tussling with the bullies that liked to pick on a shepherd girl and scatter her sheep.
Of course, with live steel and no armor involved, there was a little more at risk than losing a sheep –it was more along the lines of losing an arm- but the adrenalin that came from that was only slightly touched with fear, so she ignored it. She had learned to ignore fear since her first lesson with the sword, when the un-warrior-like feeling had first entered her heart.
Geavil attacked viciously, bringing her thoughts back from wandering, and she hastily defended herself, letting his blade slide from hers instead of trying to pit her strength against his. Though she was strong, Geavil was a huge, burly man packed full of muscle, and there were other ways of beating an opponent larger than herself.
She saw her chance and darted around him, escaping from the storm of blows. He seemed to turn laboriously slow to her bright gaze, like a tree falling in the forest, and she was quicker than the birds as she lunged forward, poking the center of his back with the tip of her blade. The men rose up in cheers, still laughing.
Geavil blinked as he stopped, then looked over his shoulder to the small nick she had made in his boiled leather vest of black. They all wore black, as was their due as Guardsmen. "I can't compete with your speed," he said with a sigh, shaking his head mournfully. "Vorchay, you're one of the best now." He grinned through his bushy beard. "I'll never regret beating you into the ground for your training again, that's for certain!"
She laughed, wiping the sweat from her forehead and pushing back a few locks of black hair that had escaped from her high braid. The hair was long, never cut, and the braid reached past her buttocks. None of their hair was cut, since honor was kept in their braids. "Ah, the days of sympathy for the poor country girl are over!" she said, panting slightly but content.
Behrencrsn stepped forward, slapping her on the back and almost making her fall. "And now you're going to war with the King and the rest of us!" he said, grinning. "Excited?"
A shadow flitted across Vorchay's fickle face, but he didn't see it. "Aren't we all?" she said with a forced laugh. "I'll finally be able to test my skills against real enemies."
"There's a good lass," he said, then turned away as he was called to a group of others that were dispersing.
Vorchay sheathed her blade, going to the water barrel. Breaking the ice on top with a fist, she splashed the freezing water over her face, immediately quelling the heat under her skin. Shivering slightly, she shook out her braid.
Her mind, as it wandered, turned to the coming battle. The thought crawled up under her skin like a persistent itch, lifting the hair on her arms. She rubbed them, her callused hands warm against her cooler skin. She wore a short-sleeved tunic even with two feet of snow on the ground, with only a boiled-leather vest over it. Her boots went to her thighs to keep out the snow, and under them she wore wool hose. The battle would be in snow just as deep as that around her, she realized, looking around. Could Avin, her mount, maneuver well in such deep snow?
Of course she could. She sighed, knowing she shouldn't let her own self-doubts spread to her mare. But it was hard, and harder still to stuff away the feeling of oncoming dread.
Struggling to turn her thoughts away from a subject that made such strong self-doubts blossom in her chest, she moved across the courtyard quickly, going for the stables. Avin could calm her.
The stables were large and had the strong, musky smell of horse soaked into every piece of wood and leather. She moved down the stalls until she came to a large one that opened out into a field behind its open door.
"Avin!" she called out the door to where the mare was digging for the grass beneath snow, pawing with one monstrous hoof.
The gray mare lifted her huge, blunt head, shaking the shaggy fur from her eyes. Seeing her mistress, she snorted a cloud of hot air into the morning cold and trotted easily through the snow back to her stall. Vorchay's doubts about her horse were immediately set to rest as she saw how easily the monstrous mare moved. Her hooves, at least as large as Vorchay's outspread hand, could kick through anything, and for those who grew up on Maelurphon, walking through snow came easily, man or beast.
She dug a carrot from her pocket, letting Avin lip it from her palm. Her ears flickered to and fro, listening to the hubbub outside of the stables. Vorchay smiled. "You sense something going's on, don't you?" she said, patting the mare's thick neck. Running her fingers through the shaggy fur, she sighed and leaned against the stall door. "Just one more evening, you know. Tomorrow we march for war," she said quietly, letting doubt cloud her tone since no one was around to hear her.
Avin snorted and looked up at her inquiringly with a large, brown eye.
"Don't ask me, you silly mare," Vorchay replied to whatever question the horse was asking, then pushed away from the door. "I'll come back before dawn to get you ready, all right? Right now I better get to the hall for breakfast." She turned, stuffing her hands in her pockets and she moved quickly, even jauntily, to the dining hall as the sun began to steadily rise, the last day of peace passing too fast for her comfort.