“Arrrgh!” Rick twisted his shoulder grimly. “That’s all it’s going to take today, I think,” he grumbled.
Dar nodded and sheathed his sword. He was pretty sure Rick had the hang of that new Windy Storm anyway. He slid down his saddle and patted Valor on the neck, eliciting a pleased whinny.
After they had curried their horses and set them to their hay in the stable, Rick and Dar entered the cabin.
“Where’s Emanuella? I could really use one of those backrubs,” Rick announced as he hung his sword on the wall next to Dar’s.
Gabriella was overseeing the chess game that Fiorra and Ander were playing, directing Ander to change the appearance of the Illusionary board and game pieces.
“She left early this morning to find some dewsfoot for me up the river,” replied Fiorra absently as she studied her options.
Dar wandered over to the game in process. It looked as though Fiorra was in the lead, but was also about to lose it, judging from the strategic location of Ander’s knight and bishop. Fiorra moved her rook out of danger and looked up at Rick.
“If you want to wait til I finish here, I’ll give you a backrub.”
Rick rotated his sore shoulder with a grimace. “I think I’ll take you up on that.”
Dar frowned. “She left early this morning and she’s not back yet? How far did she go?” It was late afternoon, after all. Plus, he was still feeling guilty for yesterday.
“Oh, she’s fine. We’ve been there plenty of times. It’s about a two or three mark trip there.” Fiorra glanced up at him. “She’s got Fiaz, remember. Nothing’s going to hurt her with him at her side. Besides, she should be back before dusk.”
Dar nodded and sighed. He had expected to begin Emanuella’s sword practice today, but now that his afternoon was open, he didn’t know what to do with himself. He could study the books on strategy that he had for his up and coming classes, but he just didn’t think he would be able to concentrate. No hunting had to be done; the better part of a galdor remained in the shed. And still there were several marks in the day left.
“What’s the matter?” Gabriella eyed him.
Dar shrugged and paced the length of the room. “I don’t know. I’m just….” He stared out the window, searching for the right word.
“Restless?” Gabriella supplied.
Perfect. He nodded. “I think…. I think I’m just going to go for a walk.” Dar buckled his sword back on to his broad belt. He realized he would have little use for it in the forest, but he felt more secure with it at his side. “I’ll be back after a while,” he said as he pulled his bow and a quiver of arrows off the wall.
He spent some time wandering through the forest, tracking animals for practice when the opportunity arose. Dar rarely ventured this far north; his wandering usually took him to the east.
Finally his aimless roving bore him to the creek, much wider here as it was closer to the mouth of the Illyth River. A small beach on the shore of the creek offered a shady haven which Dar took advantage of. He laid the bow on the grass next to him and leaned against a large rock, watching the trees sway overhead gently in the breeze, listening to the musical murmuring of the creek. The peaceful scene relaxed him enough to let his mind wander.
After some reflection, Dar identified the source of his restlessness. He was worried about his future, and that of his so-called (sheep) flock. Sure, he was good with the sword, and at tracking, and so was Rick and even Emanuella. Fiorra’s skills would always be in demand, and Ander’s skills would be equally valuable to a company. But did that mean that becoming a mercenary company was their only option? He was excited about going off to school, learning about this new world that he lived in, interacting with its people. Yet part of him just wanted to stay here in the Illyth, sequestered from the world, hunting for his food, with no responsibilities beyond those that survival demanded. As a mercenary or a soldier, moments like this one would be scarce. War was war, and Dar wasn’t sure that he wanted to spend his life dodging death.
Furthermore, what about his comrades? He just couldn’t see them all going off to war. They had done very well in the two skirmishes they’d had, especially for the beginners he knew them all to be. But war was different. Good men died in war, talented, exceptional warriors, who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Odds were odds.
Of course, he knew that they probably would hire out to a mercenary company, which during peace times just escorted caravans and wealthy travelers. But it wasn’t peace times that worried him….
Abruptly, he shook himself. He stretched, amused that he had dozed off, and wondered how long he’d been asleep. When he turned to get up, he caught sight of an animal print and decided to track it. Further inspection revealed it to be galdor. He tracked it a league up the creek and gave up once it joined the prints of a small herd of galdor. Dar decided to follow the creek home, since it was the most direct route.
He felt much better now that he had confronted his fears. As a student, he would have the opportunity to learn more about this new world he lived in, and perhaps new options would reveal themselves to him and his flock of sheep. Dar was pretty good with people, and so was Rick – maybe they could become merchants. They could sell Healing and kyor supplies, maybe....
Loud splashing sounded just ahead of him. Dar froze for an instant, his eyes darting in every direction. He dropped behind the high bushes on the shore of the creek, loosening his sword in its scabbard as he quickly scrutinized the ground around him, but found no prints that would identify the source of the splashing. He heard no voices, either, though the splashing sounded more (Kinkeska!) human than animal. Surely no Kinkeska had penetrated this far into the forest!
Crouching carefully behind the bush, an arrow nocked and ready for flight, Dar peered through the foliage. There was indeed, a human in the creek, kicking as he swam in the water. A quick glance about told Dar that no other humans were nearby. He briefly entertained the thought of stepping out and introducing himself, but decided to wait and watch first. The person surfaced in front of a large, flat group of rocks in the middle of the creek. Something about the way the person moved as he hoisted himself easily onto one of the rocks….
Dar’s mouth fell open. It was Emanuella. Her long, wavy hair distinguished her as it cascaded down her bare back in a river of water.
Dar relaxed his hold on the bow and put the arrow back in the quiver, running a forearm across his temple. (thank the stars!) Relief flooded through him as he let out a long breath and peered through the bushes again. Should he announce his presence? She was probably still mad at him from yesterday’s events… maybe he should just sneak away and pretend he hadn’t been here. Emanuella’s a good tracker - I’ll have to erase my tracks or she’ll think that Kinkeska are in the vicinity, he mused.
And then he realized something. (!) She was completely nude.
For a second, he stared at the girl. Her back was to him. All that was visible was the long, graceful line of her back below the length of her wet hair….
Then Dar shook himself. What under the stars was he doing! Not to mention what Fiaz was probably telling her at this very moment… that beast knew exactly what a man was thinking at any given time, somehow. Dar glanced around for Fiaz, waiting for some rude comment to rip through his mind unbidden.
None came. Electing to ignore the more obvious state of affairs, he looked carefully up and down the shores of the creek though the foliage but saw no sign of the protective zary’andu. Why had Fiaz left Emanuella alone? Dar didn’t like the idea of her all alone out here.
He glanced back at her. She had sprawled out on the rock in the sun, letting her feet trail in the water. Propped up on her elbows, she let her head fall back, her eyes closed, looking content and happy.
A warning bell tolled in Dar’s mind. Look away while you still can, his mind insisted. What was he doing? This was one of his sheep, one of his group, his family! What was he doing, watching her like this? There was something terribly wrong about this!
Just as Dar steeled himself to turn away, Emanuella moved again. Dar willed himself to look away, but his eyes remained fixed to the girl on the rock.
She slid fluidly into the water, disappearing beneath the surface. She reappeared several feet away and swam back to the rock. Pulling herself agilely onto the rock again, water ran off of her tanned skin in streams and rivulets.
With an effort, Dar looked away guiltily. He couldn’t believe himself, Emanuella was a part of his family now, a younger sister, and here he was… watching her like… like….
Disgusted with himself, Dar tore his eyes away and pulled his bow back down over his head. What had gotten into him!
A small part of him that would not be ignored reminded him as he shouldered his quiver again that he had always been attracted to her, regardless of her cool demeanor toward him. The first day he’d seen her, he’d been attracted to her, though immensely more important matters had insisted upon his attention that day. She was a striking girl, with that black wavy hair and contrasting bright blue eyes….
Though Dar willed himself to turn around and leave quietly, his eyes were drawn slowly back to Emanuella.
He bit his lip. She was facing him now, basking casually in the warm sun. She swung her wet hair around, sending droplets of water to arc in a rainbow in the sunlight. It clung to her rounded white breasts alluringly. Drawing up her long tanned legs to her and wrapping her arms around them, Emanuella leaned her chin on her knees, lost in thought.
At last, Dar wrenched his eyes away from her and turned around with his newly found momentum, irritated to find that his heart was racing. With careful determination, he moved away from the creek and into the cover of the trees. Intent on forgetting what he’d just witnessed, Dar marched away resolutely, memorizing the dates of battles and names of kings and generals that he’d learned from the books he’d been studying for classes. When he’d run through each of them at least twice, he started on the military tactics of famous strategists and leaders.
And while he was able to make his way up through history to the fourth age of the second era, her image kept appearing in his mind. Finally, he abandoned all pretenses and gave in to the contemplations his mind was set on investigating.
How, Dar wondered, could this be happening? When she’d been little more than civil to him? He had already admitted to himself that he found her attractive. He knew himself well enough to know that had she shown the slightest bit of interest, he would probably have pursued the possibility.
But that was just wrong. She was a little sister now, essentially, the way that Ander and Rick were now his brothers. Experimentally, Dar considered Fiorra. She was pretty enough, reddish blond hair and brown eyes, sweet personality. But he’d never thought of her as anything more than a sister. And certainly not… in this way. Why… this, with Emanuella? Of all people! Of all the girls in the whole world!
Maybe it was just because matters of… sexuality were so slim here in the forest. He’d certainly taken advantage of The Pearl in Velvet while he’d had the opportunity, as had Rick and Ander. Maybe that was all it was, just lack of… prospects. And yet, while he recognized the possibility as a plausible one, somehow he knew with a deepening dread that it wasn’t the answer. Now that he had acknowledged the feelings that he had been stowing in the darker corners of his mind, they weren’t about to let him forget.
This was the last thing he wanted. His mind recoiled from the sheer irrationality of the idea of being… (infatuated) interested in someone who barely tolerated him.
Frustrated at losing the sense of peace he’d found earlier, Dar jerked his sword free of its scabbard and sent it swooshing through the air angrily. The irony was astounding. How had this happened? Why? He growled and slashed at an imaginary foe. Again and again and again.
He was being punished. That was all it was. That was all it had to be. Punishment. He sagged against a tree and slid down it, panting, relishing in the sweat running down his face. Although what he’d done to merit such pitiless cruelty, Dar thought, he was sure he didn’t know. He wanted to hit, punch, kick… anything to purge himself of this new… this…
With a snarl, he leapt to his feet again.
“You’ve been gone a while. Find anything interesting?” Fiorra inquired as Dar threw his swordbelt on the wall with a satisfying clank, trying only to stomp the dirt from his boots rather than to kick the walls down. Dar snorted inwardly. No, he thought, just a naked girl on a rock. He was much relieved to see that Emanuella had not yet returned.
“No. Just practicing,” he replied tiredly as he pulled the bow from over his head and hung it on the wall next to the others. He’d been too wound up to come back, so he’d practiced every sword maneuver, both offensive and defensive, that he knew, over and over and over, hoping to tire himself out. Wearied with the results, he asked if he had time to change before dinner.
Rick was spooning stew into their bowls while Fiorra tore hunks of bread from a freshly baked loaf. Gabriella motioned him through the kitchen in reply.
Once inside the dark bedroom he and the boys had constructed, Dar pulled his sweat-soaked shirt over his head. Just as he turned to dip a towel into the basin of cool water to quickly cleanse himself, a soft noise caught his attention. He looked over his shoulder, surprised that Fiaz was inside at dusk. This was his hour to hunt usually -
Emanuella had just hurriedly pulled a tunic over her head and was pulling her damp hair out from inside it.
Dar groaned inwardly. Wasn’t once enough? He immediately spun around so that he couldn’t see her at all.
“Sorry, didn’t know you were in here,” he muttered. He should have known. The other bow had been on the wall, after all, now that he thought of it.
“It’s all right,” she replied softly. “Accidents happen.”
And was it an accident, he wondered bitterly, that he found the prospect of catching her in the middle of changing vaguely arousing? He felt her brush quickly past him. Hastily, he washed himself off and yanked a clean shirt on.
Dar gave Valor a final pat on the neck and tethered the black stallion to the shed, giving him a long lead. Dar worried about leaving him tethered to the shed but both Ander and Gabriella assured him that several spells were set around the area to discourage hunting predators from considering the horses prey. Fiaz had also long ago established the surrounding several leagues as his territory and asserted that only a young fool would attempt to hunt in what was essentially his den. Dar would nevertheless feel much better when the rest of the stable was built. That, he decided, would be a chore he would begin today, though he would have to find a grove where the trees were of good quality.
He strode around to the front of the cabin and nearly stumbled over Emanuella sitting on the ground, tightening her hair behind her neck, waiting for him. Dar controlled the urge to grimace.
He sighed and said, “Ready?”
By way of response, she stood and picked up a large jug of water. He said nothing and stalked irritably to the cleared out field they used for sword practice.
“So.” Dar was suddenly unsure where to begin. A few days ago, he reminded himself, he had had several ideas, and his stomach roiled at the idea. “What Cycle are they starting you?”
Emanuella cocked her head. “Third.”
Dar chewed his lip thoughtfully and tried to assess her muscle tone.
“Do you know?” she asked.
“What Cycle they’re starting me?” His Cycle had nothing to do with it, he thought crossly, controlling the temptation to roll his eyes.
Dar shot a glance at her, but her face was a passive mask. Of course. “Fifth, I think,” he muttered. She had a penchant for making him feel foolish. He put his fists on his hips and faced her. “Do you know the King’s Cross?”
“Both defense and offense?”
“What about Inner Upper Out?”
Emanuella nodded, her eyebrows raised slightly in an expression he couldn’t read. Dar quizzed her on several other basic maneuvers as the sun beat down on the back of his neck.
She cleared her throat while he was running defensive exercises through his mind. A doubtful expression slipped from her face just as he looked at her. Her mask of respect quickly slid back into place, but he could see that she knew it was too late. She folded her lips and took a deep breath.
Scowling, Dar nodded.
“It’s one thing to ask if I’m familiar with these moves, and I am, but I may need work on some of them.” She was careful to keep her tone even and quiet.
He glared at her, but he knew she was right. He just – did not want anything to do with her right now, and certainly didn’t want to spar with her. He gestured curtly at her to don the wooden practice sword he’d brought while he unbuckled his swordbelt. His broadsword would only get in the way.
He turned to find her ready, waiting quietly. “Come at me, then.”
She looked at him doubtfully, faltering.
“Come on,” he beckoned her on with his left hand, hating the feel of the wooden sword in right.
“But you’re - you’re better than I am,” she mumbled, her sword lowering.
“And so is Gabriella. Have at it, you’re stalling.”
Emanuella flushed. “What I mean is, shouldn’t you attack first?”
Dar smiled grimly and said, “How often will the better swordsman attack first? What if both swordsmen are evenly matched? What if it’s a war? Chaos rules war and no one thinks, they just swing.” He watched pitilessly as she flushed even darker. Evidently, Gabriella had attacked first. That would be the first thing he changed. Versatility would become her bedmate, and from what he had witnessed at the Academy, she would need that where they were going in the fall.
She did not run at him and attack him blindly, hacking and slashing as he expected, out of fury at being verbally bested. Instead, she circled around him, eyeing him carefully, watching how he held his sword, studying his stance, noting how closely he kept his other arm to his body. Forced to rotate in her radius, he realized belatedly that he was now at a disadvantage, however brief. Pride surged up, though he controlled a grin. She was taking his measure. The image of a cat painstakingly stalking its pray in the bushes, muscle by muscle, surfaced just as she dove at him. He raised his sword and easily countered her, though her offense was smoothly executed.
Dar kept his defenses among the first dozen that he had learned, pushing only a few tricky ones to keep her off balance. Her defense was strong enough, but her offense, while well-executed, was not strong. He knew her teachers at the Academy would exploit this weakness. He found that while she had been introduced to the rudiments of some intermediate levels, such as Thunder and Lightning and the Malverian Uppercut (neither of which she quite had the grasp of), she had mostly mastered what he considered the basic levels of swordsmanship. Only a few combinations needed attention yet.
Her hands were on her knees as she struggled to slow her intake of breath.
“I didn’t call for a break. Let’s go,” he growled, moving in.
Emanuella propped herself up on her wooden practice sword, a stray black curl matted to her face. “You won’t get much practice out of me,” she panted, “if I have passed out,” she pointed out, her eyes blazing. She stood and moved for the water jug.
Puzzled, Dar glanced at the sun. Hardly a full mark had passed. He suffered a few of her thirsty gulps and then clapped his hands, returning to the practice field.
Emanuella shaded her eyes with her hand, her chest still heaving. “You’re joking,” she stated flatly.
“What’s funny? Let’s go.” He crossed his arms on his chest and frowned, waiting for her.
Emanuella glared at him a moment longer before she gulped down a few more swallows of water. Donning her practice blade once more, she reluctantly entered the field once more. What, Dar wondered offhandedly, was the girl’s problem?
“Come at me.”
This time, she did not circle him but sized him up as though looking for footholds on a rock wall. As their wooden swords clacked in engagement, Dar found her much easier to drive back than she had previously been. As her Silver Stag defense trembled beneath his Scythe offense, he hissed, “You can do better than that!”
She glared up at him and retorted, “I’m slightly outmatched!”
“I’m not using anything against you that you don’t already know.”
“I’m referring to strength,” she returned as she disengaged her sword, panting.
“What are you doing? I didn’t tell you to quit,” he glowered at her.
“Dar, this is the longest I’ve ever practiced before.”
“’Without effort, there is no growth,’” he quoted.
She ignored that and said, “The very longest I’ve ever practiced was a mark with Gabriella.”
Dar could hardly believe his ears. A mark? That was it?
His face must have betrayed his disbelief because her mask of respect dropped and she snapped, “Had it escaped your notice, you big brute, I’m a girl!”
His jaw clenched. Oh, he’d noticed, quite against his will. He swallowed back any memories of yesterday and replied evenly, “What has that got to do with anything?” Too happy to end the practice session, Dar swept up his sword belt and vowed to work on her strength and stamina.