The Last Stand (The Eleven Years War: Book One)

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Chapter Forty-Two

The castle was busy that day, busier than Kael had ever seen it. Then again, that was the first day since Raul had arrived that he was allowed to roam the castle without having to ask Polain’s permission. It was annoying enough that Kael even found himself loathing the life of royalty. Yes, all the perks that came with it were really nice, but was it really necessary for Eza to follow him around every time he wanted to leave his room? It wasn’t that he hated Eza or anything, but as a military officer, didn’t she have anything better to do than guard him every second of the day?

With a battle on the not-so-distant horizon, his day was much more exciting. That afternoon, after having a fine lunch of mutton with fresh fruit and Vercourian wine, Eza walked into his room. She was dressed in her usual baggy shirt, brown trousers, riding boots and black cloak, with the sleeves of her shirt tucked into two leather armguards. As always, she had her Jotiese fighting staff in hand. However, she was now wearing a simple, leather breastplate.

“You finished eating?” Eza asked as she leaned against his doorframe. He nodded as he stood up, putting his dishes neatly on his table.

“Then, come on,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”

Kael stood up, confused. What was she talking about?

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You’re planning to fight when those Gisken bastards come back to burn Semata to the ground, aren’t you?” Eza asked. Kael nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “General Polain said that he wouldn’t let me, though-“

“To hell with that,” Eza said. “We need every man we can get when Raul comes knocking.” She turned around and began walking away. “Now, come on; we’ve got some training to do if we’re going to be ready.”

Kael found himself smiling as he followed Eza out the door. Since he’d talked to Polain about fighting his countrymen when the time came, he’d been worried that he’d be hidden away with Princess Marion in some secret room in the castle like some coward. He was happy to know that he would get to fight.

“How long have you trained with swords?” Eza asked as they walked down the grand stairs on their way to the practice grounds.

“Father trained me a little, but I didn’t get serious about it until a little over five years ago,” Kael said. “Have you trained much with swords, or do you only know how to use staffs?”

“As a Rook, I’ve been trained in every type of weapon,” Eza said. “Pole arms just happen to be my specialty.” Once they were at the bottom of the stairs, they turned left and entered the practice grounds.

Once they were there, Kael saw that he and Eza wouldn’t be the only ones training that afternoon. Silas, Olrick, and Marion were all already in the yard, dressed in similar fairs as Eza, though Marion had her armor over a simple, white dress that went down to her knees. Marion had an intense look on her face as she tried to hit a very calm, relaxed Silas with her sword, while Olrick was sitting on a bench beneath an awning, wiping the sweat from his brow and getting a drink of water from a servant who manned a wooden barrel filled with water and a ladle.

“When did you get back?” Eza called across the yard as she and Kael walked over to the supplies. Olrick looked up at her.

“As it turns out, Raul wasn’t exactly following the peace conference code of conduct, either,” he said. “One of the servants caught one of his men trying to break into Polain’s last night, before Elise even had the chance to go to Raul’s room.” Eza whistled as she helped Kael into a breastplate.

“Sounds messy,” she said.

“Believe me, it was,” Silas said as he easily parried one of Marion’s hits. “There was a pretty big debate about it, but Polain wouldn’t let up. Who knew that Jotiese bastard had the balls to do something like that?”

Kael could feel his cheeks beginning to burn red as he pulled on some shin guards. Back in Gishk, talking about a general like that – even if it was behind his back – was something that could be punishable by death, even before Raul took over everything. Was Polain really so confident in the loyalty of his officers that it had become normal for them to talk about him like that?

“Are you ready?” Eza asked as Kael picked up one of the wooden practice swords. It felt good in his hand, like his own sword.

He nodded, and the two of them walked onto the training field.

To Kael’s surprise, Eza wasn’t fighting him with a practice sword. She still had her staff in hand as they prepared to fight.

“You aren’t going to practice with a sword?” he asked. “Won’t you be fighting with one at the battle?”

“No,” Eza said as she held her staff up, ready to fight. She said it as if fighting swords with staffs wasn’t a big deal. “Are you ready?” Kael nodded as he held his practice sword up, confused. How could anyone in their right mind go into battle with a staff when their opponent was armed with swords?

“You attack first,” she said.

Kael nodded and swung the sword at her head.

A child may as well have delivered the blow. Eza easily knocked the sword out of the way and smacked him on the side with her staff, hard. He yelped and stepped back, rubbing his now throbbing side.

“You aren’t going to go easy on me, are you?” Kael asked.

“Not as easy as you may want me to, no,” Eza said. “The Giskens won’t, will they?”

Kael got ready to fight, again. “No, they won’t.”

Eza raised her staff. “Begin.”

This time, Kael waited to attack. He quickly looked Eza up and down, trying to find a weak spot. Her stance was solid; she didn’t seem to have a weakness, other than her height.

Kael made a quick jab at her chest, which she blocked easily. Her reflexes were fast, fast enough that he doubted he would be able to get through her defenses without getting hit by her staff.

Kael made a jab at Eza’s legs, but she seemed ready for that, too. She stepped to the side and knocked the wooden blade away, making Kael stumble forward, and smacked him on the back.

He turned around and held his practice sword up, again, frustrated. He knew that he wasn’t the best swordsman in the world, but he’d thought he was better than this.

“Don’t feel too frustrated, kid,” Silas said as he blocked Marion’s thrust without even looking. She was so mad; her face had turned red like a cherry. “Eza’s been using staffs since she could walk; I’ve only beaten her a few times with them, and I’ve known her for almost a decade.”

“It is rather embarrassing, though, isn’t it?” Kael looked up to see Raul, standing on a balcony above them. He had a few soldiers standing on either side of him, holding some of the trunks he brought with him to Semata. “One would think that a soldier like yourself would be able to beat a little girl.”

Kael found himself frozen to his spot. Raul hadn’t recognized him during his time in the Gisken army, but he’d made sure he hadn’t looked anything like an Althaus. Now that he’d started to allow his almost black hair to grow out and had filled out on the royal sized portions he’d been eating at the castle, he knew that he probably looked a lot more like the son of Alberich Althaus than he had in almost eleven years.

He prayed to the gods that Raul couldn’t tell who he was. He was too close to being able to reclaim his throne to be caught, now.

“It is, yes.” Kael did everything he could to make himself sound less like a Gisken and more like a Caithian: he made sure that he didn’t pronounce anything from the back of his throat and that he didn’t over pronounce his s’s. “I think I’ll end up getting better at fighting with her than with someone who will go easy on me, though.”

Raul, nodded, seemingly intrigued by what he said. Kael found himself wondering if he’d given himself away. Did the Althaus’ speak differently than other Giskens, and Raul was able to detect that?

Thank the gods, that didn’t seem to be the case. He began walk away with a flick of his wrist.

“Carry on.”

Marion looked back at Silas and began swinging at him, muttering angry curses at Raul under her breath.

“You seem uneasy,” Eza said as they got ready to fight. “Are you alright?”

Kael nodded as he held his sword point up. “For a second, I thought he knew who I was.” Eza nodded in understanding.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “If he were interested in arresting fugitives while he was here, I’d be halfway to Kurzh, by now.”

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