"Well fought, m'lady."
I glanced over my shoulder at the voice I didn't recognize. A young man stood there, a boy really, not more than 12 summers old. He was smiling brightly, and holding out a flask to me. He was missing a tooth, and I could see the slave's brand peaking out of his tunic.
It was early morning still, and thick grey clouds hid any sign of the sky. I stood in the arena, which had been hastily re-built to work as a dragon ring again. Bronze netting covered the top, so the dragons couldn't fly out, and barrels of river water were placed around the ring to drench any fires they might start.
The wound in my back was still deep, but not so much I couldn't work with one or two dragons a day. I needed an army that would listen to me, and for that to happen, the beasts needed to trust me. To trust me, I needed to show them that I was strong enough to lead them. Dragons only respected those they could not beat in a battle. Progress was slow, but it was still progress.
I'd just managed to defeat a Sliver Flier, a smaller dragon with glittery scales that moved faster than their enemies' eyes could follow. They did not need to be large or fierce when they can attack and retreat faster than their enemy could move.
But the smaller the dragon, the more easily I could grab hold of their mind. I was finding I could do it more and more now with other dragons, though never as easily or as deeply as with Crow. I was able to latch onto the Flier's mind and slow him down enough to get a few good strikes in. I never hurt the dragons truly – just showed them I could if I wanted to. Then once they stopped trying to attack, I would invite them in. More often than not they were curious about what I was.
The dragons here were scared, and angry. They'd been captured from their freedom, or spent their entire lives in captivity. They hated humans with such a passion that I found myself hating them sometimes too. But they were also desperate for a bit of kindness – some were more nervous than others, others more angry and bitter, but eventually they would take some meat from my hand and allow me to run my hand over their scales. I would open a feeling of love to them, which they were never sure what to do with.
With each dragon, my heart broke a little more, and my resolve to free them grew a little stronger.
I took the flask from the slave boy, but didn't put it to my lips. "Who are you?" I asked.
His smile grew, "Milo, m'lady."
"I am no Lady, Milo, I'm like you," I said, tugging down the neckline of my tunic to show him my branding scars.
He shook his head refusing to accept it, "Maybe once, m'lady, but now you are a Knight of the Eastern Kingdom, and King Elroy's Lady."
Rumors of Elroy's proposal had begun to flutter about, as rumors do, but this was the first time anyone had said anything to me directly. I squinted at this dirty small boy in front of me. "Milo, why are you here?"
"I am a gift, m'lady, from the King. He's giving me to you to use until you select a proper Squire."
"Is he now?"
His smile faltered, "Would you rather have another attend to you, m'lady?"
"Not at all. I only have one job for you, and I believe you shall do it wonderfully."
The smile grew on his small face again, revealing the hole where a tooth should be. His head was shaven, his hair no doubt sold to a wigmaker. "Anything, Lady Kamryn," he knelt in the dirt at my feet, as slaves were expected to do, "My life and blood are yours."
I held my hand out to him, "Stand up."
He did, but without taking my hand. Slaves were not permitted, ever, to touch the nobility. I asked quietly, "Milo, do you have a family here?"
He looked up at me startled. Terrified. "I – um – yes, m'lady, but –"
"You don't have to be afraid, I'm not going to hurt them. But your parents, they're alive?"
"Yes, and my six brothers and sisters," he looked paler with every word.
"Six? Goddess, your poor mother. And they all serve here in the castle as well?"
"Good," I waved Gavrel over. My guard had been standing a few paces off, watching the entire exchange. "Gavrel, Milo and his entire family shall no longer be slaves. I'm releasing them. See to it that they are given as much gold as they can carry, food, clothing, and 2 fine horses. Anyone who has any questions about this can come talk to me."
I turned to the boy, who was gawking at me, "Milo, I want you and your family to ride North. They have no slaves in the Northern Kingdom. You will be free."
"You-you can't mean it, m'lady," he squeaked.
"I do, but in exchange, you must do two things for me, alright?" I asked kindly.
"First, on your way out of the castle, you and your entire family must tell everyone you possibly can, that I am not, and have never been, King Elroy's Lady. I belong to no man, and certainly not him. Can you do that?"
"Yes, m'lady, of course."
"Wonderful. The second thing – I need you to give King Elroy a message from me. Please tell the King that if he ever gives me a slave as a gift again, I'll cut the shaft of cock off and feed it to my dragon."
Later that day I stood in the ring with Crow, running a cool, damp cloth over Crow's scales to wash away some of the mud and dust. The grime never seemed to bother him, but I enjoyed it, and he would lie down patiently and let me fuss over him.
I still felt so grateful that Crow had come back so easily. He'd stayed close, anxiously waiting for me to call him back. Our connection, it seemed, could withstand a much farther distance than I'd thought.
I was standing at his shoulder when he curled around me protectively, a hint of a growl low in his throat. I turned around to see Nax, standing a few paces off with his arms crossed.
"A threat to the King is treason, you know. Punishable by death." He didn't sound angry, more exasperated.
"He shouldn't give me idiotic gifts then," I growled back, the rage welling up in my chest again.
Nax sighed, "No. He shouldn't."
We studied each other for a moment before I asked, "Would you like to meet him?"
His brows drew together, "Who?"
"Crow," I brushed away another fleck of dirt, opening a feeling of comfort to my still tensed beast. He relaxed, but his eyes never left Nax. I walked toward Crow's head, dropping the rag back in the bucket and wiping my hands on my tunic. I put my palm on his neck, and looked to Nax, who hadn't moved. "Come here."
He hesitated, clearly not sure about this. "I won't let him hurt you," I teased.
Finally, slowly, Nax walked over, keeping his eyes on Crow the whole time. I fought back the smile. When he reached me, I took his hand, and placed it on Crow's neck, keeping my hand over his. We stood like this for a moment, Crow peering back at us curiously.
Nax's eyes were wide, almost as though he couldn't believe what he was seeing. Crow sniffed at my trouser pant leg to see if I had any treats before letting out a sigh of disappointment, and lowering his head, ready to continue his nap. Nax cautiously ran his hands over Crow's scales, marvelling. He smiled at me, and it was so innocent and amazed, that I couldn't help but smile back. After a second his smile fell away.
"Is it true, that Elroy proposed to you?" Nax asked quietly.
I didn't answered, just gave a whisper of a nod.
"Do you… Do you plan to accept?"
I jerked back from him, making Crow tense again. Turning away from Nax, I grabbed my rag out of the bucket, and swiped angrily at the dirt, "Of course not. If I haven't made it clear enough to you already, I will not marry anyone, and Goddess help the man who tries to force me into it."
"You have to admit though, the match would be – it would give you the freedom you want," he managed to keep his voice flat.
I turned on him, brandishing my rag, and snarled, "Freedom that would be his to give or take away! I will not marry the King!"
I could hear the relief in his voice as he said, "Right. Of course."
"And if you ever say anything so moronic again, I'll lop your cock off too!" I snapped, poking him in the chest.
He raised his brows just a fraction, before muttering quietly, "I don't think either of us would enjoy that, in the long run."
I glared at him, then turned back to Crow, "Was there a reason you came to see me, Your Royalness?"
The amusement playing on his lips suddenly disappeared, "Yes. The King has called a meeting of his advisors. It seems the South has accepted our challenge. They have a champion."
"Could it be a Weirborn?" I asked.
Once I had told Reystone my idea that the South may already have a Weirborn, I hadn't thought much more about the possibility. Now it seemed more likely than ever.
"We have no reason to think so," Lady Casyia responded, "We have more spies down there than ever. If they had a Weirborn in the South, we'd know."
"Who else would they pit against me in a fight though?"
She shrugged her delicate shoulders, "You are not permitted to have a dragon fight for you, and you are still a young woman, with little training. Perhaps they believe a seasoned warrior will stand a chance."
"Have the other Kingdoms responded to the challenge?" Elroy asked.
"The West has declared forfeit. Nothing yet from the North." Reystone answered.
"The South called our bluff," Nax said quietly.
Elroy shot him a glare, before continuing, "And they will pay dearly for it. Reystone, make sure the preparations are sufficiently handled. This is going to have to be an extravagant affair. The ceremonial ball will take place two nights before the summer solstice, the feast the day after that. The war games themselves will be on the day of the solstice. If the North also forfeits, we declare a trial by combat."
There were some murmurs of agreement around the table. My brows drew together, "What is a trial by combat?"
"If there are only two Kingdoms involved in a Tournament, it's declared a trial by combat, which is a straight fight between champions." He glanced at Reystone, "Going forward, I want Kamryn's training to focus on swordplay, and close-quarter combat. Start again as soon as you can. She must be able to hold her own against anything."
"She is right here, and can already hold her own," I growled at Elroy.
He glared at me, "A straight fight is more difficult than war games. In the war games, it is a matter of being the best at the challenge, and warriors only die when something goes wrong. That is not the case in a trial by combat. You have to be ready to kill their champion, before he can kill you. At this point, we can only hope the North will also send a champion."
We stayed like that glaring at each other, until Reystone cut through the tension, stating calmly, "We will continue Kamryn's training as soon as her wound has healed enough to do so."
"Perhaps, since we do not have enough information to make any educated guesses about the Tournament, we should waste our time instead considering the possibility of a true war, regardless of it's outcome," Lady Casyia interjected, sounding almost bored.
We stayed in that room, planning and mapping out the potential war until the late hours of the night.
The formal response arrived from the North the next morning – they had officially declined the invitation to participate in the Tournament. There would be a trial by combat between the East and South, and on the summer solstice, only one warrior would walk out of that ring.