The arrival of the Dragon was like the changing of seasons; some things changed while much stayed the same.
Mia’s daily routine went—for the most part—unchanged. Wake up just before dawn—which felt like it came earlier with every passing day. Go for a run around the alfalfa field, the green sprouts now nearing almost a foot in height.
And then there was her training.
Weapons with Vander.
Power with Orden.
Back to back sessions with little rest in between. A potent mix of frustration and irritation, fuelled by the increasing heat of full blown summer.
It was surprising, and a bit alarming how much Vander’s presence—even just knowing that he was around somewhere— impacted Mia’s mood. A feat made all the more impressive, considering how little time they actually spent in one another’s company.
Of course there was their daily training session; an hour—two, maximum—of blunt force trauma and mutual dislike, but outside of that allotted block of time, Mia rarely saw head or tail of Vander. Literally no tail! Two weeks of goading and nothing to show for it. Though admittedly, it was difficult to deliver insults when she could barely get enough air to say them.
She really didn’t mind not seeing more of him. By the time they finished their sessions, Mia would have been more than happy to never have to see his furious face again. Ever. After that first session, Mia had quickly realized that training with Vander would be different—she just hadn’t realized how different. Where Orden had been harsh with her, Vander was brutal. Calm—fuming. The two could have been from separate universes for all the similarities they shared.
Vander’s expectations were monstrous, and that was putting it kindly. He had her running extra laps around the clearing, doing push-ups and sit-ups, even hauling the stump from one edge of the clearing to another. All before she was allowed to look at a sword, or ax, or bow—or whatever weapon he’d chosen for the day. And when she finally did lay a hand on a weapon, a world of pain awaited her.
He called her weak when he sent her weapon flying from her hands. He called her slow when she failed to block his strikes. He called her stupid when she tripped over her own feet or when she became disorientated. Insults were nothing new. Orden had fed them to her like candy every day for almost two months but this—this was different. Maybe it was the way he curled his full lips in distaste. Maybe it was the sharp angle of his jaw when he clenched his teeth in frustration, or the ice in those startlingly green eyes when he looked down his nose at her. Or maybe it had nothing to do with Vander at all and everything to do with her.
She was supposed to have been getting better. Mia had let herself think that she was. Orden had let her think that she was. It had been a fantasy; an illusion that sparring with Vander had shattered mercilessly. No. It wasn’t the insults that wormed their way under Mia’s skin, it was the ring of truth, impossible to ignore, that dug its nasty little claws in with a grip she couldn’t shake. Like splinters with sharp little barbs at the ends. It made Mia unreasonably mad, which in turn made her reckless—and stupid, as Vander was so fond of reminding her. God, she hated him.
That simmering hate made it almost painful to keep her temper in check; to hold back—to keep from pushing Vander too far, as Orden had warned her not to do. Mia saw it every now and again, the dangerous glint in the Dragon’s jewel-toned eyes; felt the barely restrained animosity that rolled off him in tangible waves. It made her careful. It made her wonder—was she afraid of him?
Honestly? Yes. A little—okay, maybe more than a little.
Mia had never met anyone more intimidating in her life. Not Orden—and definitely not someone who looked like he was only a year or two older than herself. His size alone was enough to make Mia think twice about pissing him off. Six foot five at the very least, Vander was taller than Jake. Broader in the chest and shoulders too. She would have to be missing more than a few brain cells not to be a little scared of someone who could easily snap her neck—and often looked like he wanted to.
Sometimes remembering that she was Chosen was the only thing that stiffened Mia’s spine and gave her the steel to lift her chin and bare her teeth in challenge. Vander couldn’t hurt her. Not seriously, anyway. He could cover her in bruises though, and seemed to relish the task.
Maintaining some semblance of dignity was an uphill battle. Bruises couldn’t be hidden, not when they marked every inch of her skin in a patchwork of deep purple-blue, green, and sickly yellow. Exhaustion and aching muscles were easier to conceal, but not the bags under her eyes. Those remained, no matter how often Mia dozed off while reading, or as she performed the small, menial tasks that had been delegated to her since Vander’s return.
Mia supposed she should be grateful that she hadn’t been asked to haul a single hay bale or muck out the stalls—but she wasn’t. If anything, it just pissed her off more. Why was she forced to perform mindless tasks like polishing Orden’s endless supply of weapons? Tasks that offered little distraction from the thoughts that kept her up at night and haunted those few hours of sleep she did manage to get. Thoughts that made her heart spike and her blood run cold.
The combination of it all—the lack of sleep and the worry, the physical pain and Vander—made for an extremely foul mood. One that irritated Orden to no end and provided endless amusement for Breahn.
“Did that horse of yers knock you in the face, or did you walk into a tree?” Breahn asked Mia one evening, just moments after Mia had slumped into a chair at the kitchen table.
“What is it we’re—Oh!” Hanna dropped the dough she’d been kneading on the counter and bustled over to grasp Mia by the chin, inspecting the welt that coloured the lower half of her jaw. A bruise Mia had earned while failing to get out of the way of a nasty, underhanded swiped of Vander’s elbow. “Really!” Hanna tutted crossly as Mia shot Breahn a foul look, “That boy.”
Breahn chuckled and went back to stirring whatever simmered in the iron pot hanging over the fire in the hearth. “I hope ye’re landing as many blows ye are receiving.”
Mia twisted her face out of Hanna’s grasp and was about to make some snarky retort when the door to the yard opened and the room went still. She knew—before the smell of sweat, mint and horse invaded her nose—who she would find standing in the doorway if she cared to turn. Mia didn’t, and Vander left without so much as a breath, slamming the door behind him.
“That’s not obvious at all,” Mia remarked wryly, sliding her eyes toward Breahn, gauging the other girl’s reaction.
Breahn was staring at the door, mouth turned down at the corners. When she looked toward Mia, there was no hint of amusement in her gaze, “Not at all.”
Hanna nodded her head in silent agreement.
That was how it went every time Vander found himself in the same vicinity as Mia.
He never spoke to Mia outside of their training and was quick to find an escape, should he accidentally find himself in her presence. If it weren’t for the occasional sightings of him doing chores or walking through the farmyard intent on some task, Mia might have believed that the Dragon had never returned in the first place. She couldn’t have cared less, would have preferred it even—except that he was so obvious about it.
In the evenings Mia would sit in the parlour, sewing and mending clothes with Breahn and Hanna, while Orden read aloud from books about the history of Nethe, and wonder if they resented her. Vander was, after all, a part of their family. Something Mia wasn’t, even though it felt less that way with every passing day. Did they resent her for keeping him away—intentionally or not? It had bothered her so much that Mia had to ask.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hanna scolded as she braided Mia’s hair before bed. “That boy has a mind of his own. No one blames you.”
Hanna’s words helped to soothe Mia’s worry. And added fuel to the flame of her dislike for Vander.