The muscles in Vander’s arms and legs burned as he hoisted the large, gnarled stump against his chest. Rough bark grated the skin on the inside of his arms, his chest, through the material of his shirt as he caught his breath. With growing effort, Vander bent his knees, and flexed his biceps in preparation to propel the stump across the clearing. With a guttural bark, the stump went flying through the air and landed six yards away.
The heavy impact of the stump hitting the ground reverberated through the earth beneath Vander’s feet. He heaved an explosive breath and let his head fall back, enjoying the cool wind that stirred up the trees and smelled of rain. Thick clouds veiled the sky overhead and cast a heavy grey shadow over the clearing where Vander had been since the nightjars had begun their early morning song. He’d been unable to sleep, kept from it by the events of the day before and had needed to do something to rid himself of the visions that plagued him. Visions of Mia, eyes wide with terror, as he’d nearly choked the life out of her.
Vander pushed a long stream of air through his nose and let his eyes drift to the edge of the clearing. Nothing and no one. Not yet. Maybe not at all. Part of him hoped she wouldn’t come today. Vander’s stomach twisted at the thought of having to look at Mia and see the damage he’d done. He tore his gaze from the path hidden between the trees and fixed it instead on the stump lying on its side six yards away. Vander strode toward it.
After the events with Mia, Vander’s entire body had twinged and sparked with the after-effects of his Power. Some of the raw anger that had fuelled his attack had burned off, but a good deal still remained, boiling beneath the surface. He’d needed to shift. Needed to fly. Desperately. Vander had spent the whole day in the skies. Pushing himself to the highest altitudes where the freezing air turned his breath to ice. Plummeting from the height only to catch himself before he could crash into the unforgiving ground. He’d flown until his wings were shaking and screaming for rest, and even then he hadn’t relented. Nothing had helped, nothing had been able to soothe the uncomfortable weight that had settled deep in his gut.
Vander had been preparing for the scolding he’d known awaited him upon his return. It hadn’t surprised him when he’d scented the Olu waiting for him in the barn. Mia would have told Orden what had happened in the clearing, of that Vander had been sure, and although Vander felt his actions had been justified, he was not blind to the fact that he had acted poorly. He hadn’t needed to take things as far as he had.
Orden had disagreed.
The Keeper was of a mind that although Vander’s actions had been extreme, they had been necessary.
“In what way?” Vander had asked, his head reeling in confusion.
Orden had given Vander a look that seemed to say it was obvious. “She needed to see what is waiting for her beyond the ward—for you both. You made it real today.”
“But that wasn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Vander had stared at the old man, taken in the deep lines around Orden’s eyes, across his brow, and had been shocked by how exhausted the Keeper appeared.
“You must continue to push her Vander,” Orden had said, sounding as tired as he’d looked, “Challenge her, but be careful that you do not break her spirit.”
For what must have been the hundredth time that morning, Vander bent to retrieve the stump. He crouched before it, fingers curling beneath its bulk and took a deep breath in preparation to lift. The air was sweet and cool, rich with the scent of growing things and rain; pine, spruce, damp grass—lavender, hyacinth oil and sweat. A shudder of relief and apprehension went through him at her scent. Vander turned his head slowly.
Mia’s stride faltered as their eyes met and she lowered her gaze. A muscle jumped in her cheek as she clenched her teeth. Vander rose slowly and watched her approach. She had pulled her hair up and away from her face, the thick auburn mane cascading from high upon her head to caress her neck. Vander felt as if he’d had the wind knocked out of him.
She wore only a leather vest, no tunic beneath, her arms and shoulders bare to the biting wind. Her leggings were rolled up to her knees, her bare feet flashing in the grass. And there wasn’t a single mark on her. Every inch of her smooth, tan skin was pristine, wiped clean of the bruises she’d borne. Bruises that had been there yesterday. Vander was still staring when she stopped a safe distance away.
“You look surprised to see me,” There was no hint of a rasp in her voice, nothing to indicate what had transpired only yesterday.
“I thought—” Relief choked him.
“You thought you scared me,” Mia folded her arms over her chest. Vander’s eyes drifted down to them, drawn by the unmarked flesh. “Well, you didn’t.” He looked up. Mia’s throat bobbed, undermining the lie.
The impertinent tone failed to stir his anger. The careful look in her eye, the way she leaned away from him ever so slightly—it disgusted him. Vander ground his teeth against the roiling in his stomach and made himself say, “Then you are either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid.”
Mia shrugged her lean shoulders, “It doesn’t really matter either way. Does it?”
“No, I suppose not.”
They stared at each other. Mia uncrossed her arms and let one settle on a hip. “Then let’s get this over with, shall we?”
She did everything he asked her to do, and did it without her usual cheek. No rolling of her eyes, none of her usual grating questions. Through every drill and exercise that sickening, wary look remained, worse than any bruise.
Vander bit down hard on the inside of his cheek and resisted the instinct to strike where Mia had left herself open. It caused him physical pain to see her carelessly exposed ribs and not swipe at them with the blunt blade of his short ax. His muscles ached with restraint as he aimed an over hand swing at Mia’s head, one she easily deflected—and left her right side vulnerable in the process.
The grunt Vander let out as he caught both her axes in the cross of his, was not one of effort, but of exasperation. It was far too easy for him to lock Mia’s weapons between the shafts of his, and with a hard twist, wrench them from her hands. Mia ducked and made a small sound of surprise as she sprang out of range of Vander’s next attack—one that never came. Confusion quickly turned to caution as Mia sank into a half-crouch.
He watched her watch him. Vander took in the rapid rise and fall of her chest, the strands of hair that stuck to the flushed skin of her neck and face in thick swatches. Mia’s eyes were like deep pits in the earth, dark and bottomless. Some of that awful apprehension had gone from them, and in its place a keen edge of heated steel burned, growing brighter as her gaze narrowed.
“What are you waiting for?” Vander asked, “Collect your weapons.”
Her eyes slid to the side and darted from one ax lying haphazardly in the grass, to the other. When they returned to him, there was a flash of uncertainty and distrust.
Vander’s patience ran dry, “Go on!”
Mia flinched and Vander clamped his lips together.
Her movements were slow and careful, her body coiled and ready to spring into action at the slightest hint that he might attack. Vander followed Mia’s progress as she crouched down beside the first of her weapons, keeping her eyes fixed on him while she picked it up. When he did not attack, Mia clenched her jaw. She retrieved the second ax in silence and straightened, weapons hanging at her sides. Mia looked down at the ax in her right hand. Vander saw her knuckles pale.
“Stop going easy on me,” Mia’s voice was cold and flat, strangely at odds with the brown eyes that almost glowed from beneath her straight brows.
Vander stiffened, “I’ve just disarmed you for the fifteenth time.”
“You haven’t hit me once,” Mia replied sharply.
“I—” Vander didn’t know how to answer, “Did you want me to hit you?”
Mia charged on, “Do you seriously expect me to believe I’ve gotten that much better in one day? You think I’m that stupid?”
Vander opened his mouth to argue, to lie—and closed it again.
She took his silence as an admission. Mia tilted her head back and closed her eyes to a sky of fast moving clouds and glimpses of greyish blue. “You’re not doing me any favours by going easy on me.” When Vander again said nothing, Mia opened her eyes. She took her time meeting his gaze, “This is because of yesterday isn’t it?”
It was instinct to deny it, “What? No, I—”
“I deserved it.”
Vander suspected that his mouth was hanging open, but it was beyond him to care. He could do nothing but stare at her.
“I did.” Mia said. There was no sarcasm in her tone, no cheek when she continued, “I shouldn’t have attacked you.”
Vander chewed his tongue, not quite able to believe what Mia had done. Apologized. Mia had just apologized—to him. Vander didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected this. Hadn’t wanted it. Yes, Mia could have dealt him a serious injury, perhaps even killed him—the strength of her attack had noticeably increased since the last time she’d used her Power on him—but it hadn’t been without cause. And he hadn’t been defenceless.
At last Vander found his voice. “If you deserved it, then so did I.”
Mia lifted her chin sharply, “Don’t apologize to me,” Determination made the delicate bones of her face appear sharper, the color in her cheeks brighter, “and don’t go easy on me either.” She seemed to be giving him a chance to argue, to say that he hadn’t been doing just that. Vander kept quiet, and thought he might have seen a flash of gratitude in her dark eyes. He watched Mia plant her feet in the grass and sink into a ready stance, axes held aloft. “It might take a while but when I finally beat you, it’s going to be because I’m better than you. Not because you let me win.”
The corner of Vander’s mouth tugged upward at the steely edge in her voice. As she dared him to argue. “As you wish,” He said, flourishing both axes.