Mia took her time getting to her feet, acutely aware of the Dragon watching every move she made. Her knee twinged when she put her full weight on it, and Mia fought for control of her face and her breathing. With as much composure as she could manage, Mia picked her way over to where her sword lay in the grass and tried not to let her limp show.
Her fingers shook as she wrapped them around the hilt of her weapon. Mia clenched her teeth and tightened her grip, willing her hand to steady before she faced him. Her heart spiked at Vander’s stance, at the casual way his sword hung at his side, as if it weighed nothing at all. Her own sword felt like a bale of hay, pulling her over to one side.
“Are you ready this time?” Vander asked.
His forehead lifted, forming lines in his tanned skin. Mia planted her feet and gripped the sword in both hands, holding it out in front of her. Her breath hitched. Vander took all of this in with a swift, condescending flick of his eyes and said nothing. His bearing changed ever so slightly, shoulders drawing back, chest going taut, and then he was moving. His steps were measured, even and deliberate, as he sketched a wide circle around her. Mia’s breath came fast as Vander disappeared and a wolf took his place, then she blinked and he was Vander again. Her mind playing tricks.
Not a wolf, Mia thought, turning her body to keep him in her sights, more like a cat. She recognized that gait, the subtle coiling and uncoiling of muscles that spoke of great speed and strength. Ithrielle had walked like that in the memory Orden had shown her of his meeting with the Pure One. It had unsettled Mia then, more so now. Now that she was the one being circled. A mouse frozen in terror while a gigantic cat with glittering eyes prowled, coming closer with each pass.
Mia’s arms burned and trembled with the unfamiliar weight of the sword in her hands. Sweat gathered along her hairline and dripped down her forehead, into her eyes. She blinked—and knew instinctively that she shouldn’t have. Mia heard the slight hitch in Vander’s breathing, a split second before he pounced. She jumped back and deflected one agonizing blow with the flat of her blade, and parried another in time to keep her nose.
Vander moved with stunning speed, a thousand times faster than someone his size had the right to. He gave her no opportunity to attack, no openings, no weaknesses—and he exploited every one of hers. It was mere seconds before Mia was on her back again, gasping for air after a well placed hilt to the stomach.
“I thought you were meant to have improved,” said Vander, his voice sounding far off and distorted through the ringing in Mia’s ears. “I see Orden was exaggerating.”
Mia groaned as she heaved herself into a sitting position, one hand fisted against her stomach, “Yeah well,” she said, blinking away the head rush, “I thought you were supposed to be a dragon, but I don’t see any tail. So I guess Orden was exaggerating about that too.”
Vander growled, a low feral sound that had the hairs standing up on the back of Mia’s neck. Careful, warned the little voice in her head. She watched as he drove his sword into the ground with vicious force and almost flinched when he looked her way—her bravado swallowed up by the animal fury burning in his eyes. “Get up.”
Mia simply obeyed, her body responding to the command in his voice.
“Leave it.” She froze in the act of reaching for her sword and shot him a questioning look, “No more weapons.”
Mia straightened, keeping a weary eye trained on Vander, “Why?”
“Why?” He looked her over once before meeting her gaze, “Because you obviously cannot manage it.”
“You’re weak and uncoordinated.”
“If you had to fight for your life this instant, you would be dead in seconds.”
“I beat you didn’t I?” It was a shock to find herself standing toe to toe with Vander, hands on her hips, neck craning so that she could glare up at him. Mia was close enough to smell the mint on his breath, and the sweat on his skin. Long golden lashes framed the green eyes that glared back at her with a blistering heat.
Vander’s eyes narrowed, “That,” he said, “was a fluke.” Vander stepped around her so carefully that not even the fabric of his shirt brushed against her.
Mia turned after him, “I’m not weak.”
He faced her, “Then why do your hands shake when you hold a sword?”
Mia’s mouth popped open and an unintelligible sound came out before she managed actual words, “Because I’ve never held a real sword before! Orden—”
“Do not tell me how Orden chose to train you.” He didn’t so much as raise his voice but Mia went still at the dangerous edge underlying his words. “I am your teacher now and I do things differently.”
I sure as hell didn’t miss that, Mia thought, holding Vander’s gaze. “I am your teacher now—” So this wasn’t going to be a one time thing. Orden had handed her off—without talking to her about it first. “Explain something to me,” Mia said, conscious of her nails biting into her palms, “why is it, that yesterday, the whole world was ending because we broke a commandment—”
“You broke the commandment.”
“And today, it is perfectly fine for you to be taking over my training?” Mia continued, “Forgive me if I’m a little lost.”
A muscle ticked in Vander’s jaw as he considered her. The silence stretched and filled with the innocent sounds of chirping birds and rustling grass. Vander lifted his broad shoulders and dropped them, “Ask Orden. We’ve wasted enough time with talk.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“And I am not going to. Now, do you see that stump?”
Mia folded her arms across her chest and jutted out a hip, “No.”
Vander looked skyward.
Good. He could be as frustrated as she was.
“You are wasting time.” Vander ground the words between his teeth before spitting them out, “ Time is not a commodity that we have.”
Mia said nothing.
“Fine.” Five long strides and Vander had reached the place where his sword stood, sticking out of the ground. Without breaking stride, he pulled the blade from the earth with a harsh upward yank. “If you will not train then there is no reason for me to remain where I would rather not be.”
“What?” Mia gaped as he scooped her sword up from the ground and with a quick glance at the trees behind her, marched toward the opposite tree line. “You’re just going to leave?”
Mia stared after him, “Fine! For the record, I don’t want to be here any more than you do!”
Vander stepped between the trees but not before she heard him grumble, “I highly doubt that.”