It was early in the morning, the sun just barely visible above the tree line, and already it promised to be a scorching hot day. Mia wiped the sweat from her forehead with the back of one hand and kept walking, dragging her feet toward the clearing and the coming ordeal that awaited her there.
Mia had returned to the homestead the night before to find Breahn sitting high on the back of a black mare, the horse pawing the ground impatiently as Hanna adjusted the bit in its mouth. By the set of their faces Mia had known that something was wrong; she just hadn’t realized that it had anything to do with her. Breahn had seen her first and Mia had had only the briefest of moments before she’d been accosted by both women.
They peppered her with questions; where was Orden? What happened? Apparently Orden had neglected to give a reason for dropping everything and sprinting off into the woods. They didn’t know about the beacon Mia had created when she’d used her Power to blast Vander. They had never felt that strange magnetic draw. Mia had answered their questions honestly, but as briefly as possible without skimping on the details. Details they could easily get from Orden or Vander if they asked. She had preferred that they hear it from her.
Hanna had gone still as stone, the color bleaching from her skin as Mia told them about her first encounter with the Dragon, and everything that had followed. Breahn had only grinned and said wistfully how she would have given her right hand to have seen it.
“Ya well,” Mia had said, refusing to be cheered by the other girl’s obvious delight, “I broke a commandment and now Orden is pissed at me.”
Hanna had looked toward the trees then and Mia had half expected to hear the sound of footsteps on the grass. But the two men had not returned and remained missing as the three women began unpacking and distributing the goods Vander had brought back with him from Keswick. There were twenty pint size jars filled with honey that had to be moved to the small out building where Orden brewed his mead. Another five ceramic jugs of milk had to be carried into the house and down into the cellar to be kept cool. Two heavy sacs of sweet oats were taken to the barn and added to the half empty barrel next to the tack wall which gained a new set of reins. And then the mare had to be rubbed down and a stall made ready for her.
Every shuffle of feet had had Mia looking up, expecting to see the men returning, but still they’d stayed away. She’d wondered what could be keeping them and realized that she didn’t want to know. They were probably talking about her and what a problem she was. The thought had only turned her mood darker. Mia had refused to muck the stalls again, not after she’d literally just done them the day before. But, unable to shake the niggling certainty that there were worse punishments Orden might think up for her, Mia had gone to check them— if only to make sure that he wouldn’t find anything else to hold over her head. It had given her a headache, how mad she was.
There wasn’t so much as a breeze to alleviate the suffocating heat that hung in the path to the clearing. Sweat gathered on her upper lip and plastered loose bits of hair to the hot skin of her neck. Mia hadn’t even set foot on the training ground yet and already she was fantasizing about jumping in the pond. She had half a mind to turn around now and do just that. Maybe it would help to cool the heat of anger and hurt that had the blood simmering under her skin.
Once she had finished her chores and had been forced to eat some stew, Mia had retired to the sitting room with a book, prepared to wait all night for Orden to return—she hadn’t particularly care if Vander came with him. They had things to talk about, things that couldn’t wait, and Mia hadn’t felt like being dragged out of bed to do it. But Orden hadn’t come—Vander neither—and Mia had fallen asleep in her chair by the fire, the book about Northmen and their gods open on her lap.
Neither Orden or Vander had been at breakfast when Mia had stumbled into the kitchen on stiff legs. She hadn’t seen them when she’d gone to feed Seinfeld—or on her way back from the horse’s pen. Not knowing what else to do, Mia had gone for a run. Ten laps around the alfalfa field later, and she had worked herself into a healthy temper.
What was the idea exactly? She broke the commandment, so now they were just going to avoid her? How was that going to affect her training, or hadn’t they thought of that? Were they hoping to shun her into feeling guilty? Was she guilty? Mia went over it in her head for what felt like the hundredth time and came to the same conclusion: How was she supposed to have known that it was Vander coming home and not someone—or something—else? Mia had only done what had made sense at the time. Yes, she probably could have run home and alerted the others, but she’d made the decision not to. It was unfortunate- and oh so embarrassing—that she’d fallen—but that didn’t give them the right to treat her as if she’d thrown herself into Vander’s arms on purpose! Orden had treated her like a child, dismissing her like that, and in front of Vander. Mia’s eyes stung and her face heated.
If Orden thought she was just going to roll over and take whatever punishment he had planned for her, then he was mistaken. She was going to take her pound of flesh off him for taking Vander’s side over hers. She may have unintentionally broken a commandment, but Orden had deliberately betrayed her. Her hands were sweating as she neared the clearing, and her heart was beating in her throat; was it too late to turn back? Mia was barely breathing as she stepped into the clearing. What air there was in her lungs burst from her mouth at the sight of him.
Vander raised his head, face strained with effort as he completed a push up, and locked eyes with her.
“Uh—” Mia didn’t know where to look as Vander, without acknowledging her presence beyond a grunt, did another push up and then got slowly, almost lazily to his feet. “What are you doing here?” She mumbled, and was oddly relieved when he pulled a shirt over his head, covering all that tan skin.
He ignored her. “You’re late,” he said, his tone rough as uncut granite. Vander picked a pair of swords— real swords, not wooden blades— out of the grass and then straightened. His eyes, when he deigned to look at her, were cold and unreadable. The ticking muscle in his sharp jaw was less so. He clearly didn’t want to be here. But why was he?
“Late for what?” Mia asked, an edge creeping into her voice. She stood at the edge of the clearing and crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the cue to take a sword.
Silence and a long hard look.
A sneaking suspicion took form in the back of Mia’s mind and she vehemently hoped she was wrong. She raised her brows.
There was no way to predict what Vander did next. One moment he was standing there, still as a statue, the next he’d whipped his arm and sent one of the swords flying through the air in her direction. It was instinct to catch it; it was either that, or duck out of the way, and Mia refused to look like a wimp in front of him. No sooner had her fingers closed around the leather wrapped hilt than the full weight of the sword dragged her arm down, sinking the tip of the blade into the grass. Mia looked down at the sword in her hand and frowned, it was heavier than the wooden blades she and Orden trained with— much heavier.
“Make yourself ready.”
Her eyes flicked toward him. Vander stared back at her. “Where’s Orden?”
Her grip tightened around the hilt of her sword. “Why?” Mia ground out.
A muscle ticked wildly in Vander’s cheek as he fixed her with a look of incredible exasperation.“Are you going to continue to waste my time with questions you already know the answers to, or may we begin?”
Hmmm, it would seem she had managed to get under his skin—and she hadn’t even tried. Mia gave him a long considering look, as though she was thinking how best to answer his question, then she said, “Begin what?”
He came at her with a feral growl. Mia just barely got her sword up in time to catch his vicious blow with her blade. The shock of impact sent her reeling back, every bone from her fingers to her shoulders screaming. Vander didn’t stop and Mia was too slow, her sword too heavy to fend him off. It took all her effort to keep out of reach of his deadly attack and she was tiring quickly. Fear spiked her blood and turned it to lead in her veins. He was insanely fast, and strong—and pissed off. He took the ground she gave him in silence, the only sound in the clearing that of his sword whistling through empty air and Mia’s harsh breathing.
She had to stop. She had to stand her ground. Mia’s hands were slick on the handle as she forced her mind out of survival mode long enough to make a plan. She couldn’t match him in strength, he was absolutely monstrous—but maybe she could be faster. If she could get around him, catch him off guard—she just needed an opening—there!
Vander swung at her head and Mia threw herself into a roll, coming up behind him. She was poised to strike as she twisted around, her blade singing as it sliced through the air—but Vander was ready, had anticipated her move. He deflected her blade with a seemingly effortless twist of his wrist and sent Mia’s weapon flying out of her grasp. She stared numbly after it—then she heard the whistle of steel and nearly lost her head in the time it took for her to react.
“Hey!” Mia ducked out from under his attack and jumped back as he swiped at her again. “Hey stop! What are you doing?” She screamed as he pressed on, ignoring, or simply not caring that she was weaponless. “Are you insane?”
Vander didn’t so much as pause as he spoke, “Do you think your enemies will stop because you’ve lost your weapon?”
Her protests fell on deaf ears. Vander did not stop, he gave no quarter, no chance to think—and then Mia was falling, tripping over her own feet in her rush to get away from him. Her ass hit the ground first, then the back of her head with a sickening thud that reverberated through her skull and down her neck. Mia grit her teeth and scrunched her eyes shut against the pounding in her head. Did she have a concussion? Had she hit her head that hard? A secret part of her hoped she did, only so that she could guilt Vander with it. Would he even care though? Mia thought maybe not. She swallowed a mouthful of spit, tinged with blood—she must have bit her tongue when she’d tripped—and went stiff as a board at the icy touch of steel against her skin. Mia cracked her eyes open and wanted to close them immediately. Vander stood over her, staring down the blade of his weapon to where she lay prone on the ground. Mia swallowed again and winced as her throat bobbed against the tip of the sword held against her neck.
Vander’s green eyes were as cold as the gem they resembled, glaring from beneath thick, fair brows. He wasn’t even breathing hard, not a single hair on his golden head was out of place—Mia wished she could say the same for herself. His lip curled back from perfect, blinding teeth, “Pathetic.” He stood, sneering down at her for a moment longer, then lowered his weapon and turned away. Mia sat up slowly, squinting at his powerful back as her head throbbed. He stopped about three yards away and faced her. “Get up,” he barked, “we go again.”