A sword slashed through the air, missing Art’s shoulder by a hair. Her brown eyes widened as she regarded her attacker with half a grin. “You’re going to have to try harder than that,” she teased.
Before her stood a stocky teenager roughly the same age as her. He was tall and thick, the type of boy one might expect as the local butcher’s son. His pale, freckled face broke into a smile, “I was just getting started.”
Raising his wooden shield before him, Bors charges forward with all the force of an animal that shared his name. His style was all strength, no dexterity. His ability to move quickly and shift directions was different from his forte. Dodging before his wooden sword would have rammed her shoulder, Art bent down slightly, slapping her wooden sword against the back of Bors’ calves as he passed her.
Knees bending far more than he anticipated, Bors nearly fell forwards. “By the stars!” He grunted, turning quickly and clipping her shoulder with a swing of his sword. That was unexpected, Art thought, frowning slightly. It was a quicker move than she had been anticipating. The hit throbbed. Even though they were practicing, it hurt.
Art braced herself, holding her shield up and eying her foe. Seeing Bors attempting to reorient himself, she knew she had to strike immediately. Lunging forwards, Art managed to weave her own sword under his shield, prodding his tight belly.
“Give!” Bors grunted with a wince, sweat dripping down his face and soaking his tunic. “We’ve been at this for hours, Art.” He lowered his shield and sword with a loud sigh, “You’re amazing, I get it.” He added with a rueful smile.
Art practically bobbed on her heels, wiping the sweat off her brow. “Practice is what makes a man,” she chirped, repeating a phrase her grandfather often repeated.
Bors’ dark eyebrows raised, “You’re not a man.”
Art shrugged, her dark brown hair moving with her gesture. “The statement is not meant to be specific to a gender,” she huffed, elbowing her friend as they turned and began walking back towards town.
They decided to practice on the edge of the woods surrounding their village. It’s barely a village, Art often remarked, more of a hamlet. There were scarcely three hundred people within it, only in the winter months when hunting was scarce and movement difficult. Within the summer months, the population dwindled as the men traveled far and wide hunting elk and boars. Art’s village was famous for its leather goods. Well, that and a notorious incident that was not spoken of by those who lived there.
They passed tiny homes made of wood, with multiple tanning racks set up in the cool autumn air. Chimneys released smoke streams, giving the entire area a smoky scent. “I really think we’ve improved,” Art insisted as they passed the stables. She waved at the lanky stable boy, Gerard, as they passed.
“You need to stop teasing him,” Bors muttered as Gerard blushed and dropped the pile of hay he was shoveling.
Art grinned, “Come off it. He’s just clumsy.”
Bors snorted, “Only when you’re around.”
Art never considered herself pretty. There were certainly more beautiful girls in the village, like Lyones, the red-haired baker’s daughter. She had waist-length red hair that fell in wild ringlets which shone like molten fire. “He’s just nervous because you’re here.”
Her friend rolled his eyes with a slight smile, “I love my fearsome reputation.” Bors was all muscle and easily one of the largest men in the general area. Despite his stature, he was not the kind to start a fight. Growing up, he had always been the one who kept their group of friends out of trouble. With the group they ran around with as children, Bors had his hands full.
As they walked passed an abandoned cottage, Art felt slightly tense. “That place still scares me,” Bors whispered as if voicing her own thoughts. Ivy covered most of the cottage’s walls, while the openings where windows had once been looked like gaping holes into the darkness inside.
“Someone should just clean it up and move in,” Art suggested as they passed it. “It’d be less of an eyesore.”
Bors all but gasped, “Art, it could be cursed.”
She rolled her eyes. “I heard curses don’t last after a witch dies.”
Her friend crossed his arms, “And how would you know that? You’re no witch expert.”
“I read it somewhere,” Art fibbed, only to break out into giggles. “You’re right. I have no clue.”
They chatted about the possible theories about a witch’s powers but remained inconclusive when they arrived at Art’s home. “I’ll see you later,” Bors said with a wink before heading toward his home. Art waved at him as he left before entering the fenced garden surrounding her home.
It was a tiny cottage with a thatched roof and a delicate chimney with a small smoke coming out of it. The garden was in a bit of a state, and Art knew she would have to attend to it soon or else their harvest would be ruined for the winter. Weeds sprouted amongst the potatoes, and Art knew she had to pull them before they ruined the crop. Sighing at the mere thought, she placed her wooden sword and shield down beside the doorway.
Pushing it open, the smell of lamb stew wafted to her nostrils, and Art inhaled deeply as her stomach began to growl. The large room was cluttered with knickknacks and assorted objects from Art’s childhood. Dried bouquets of herbs hung on the walls, giving the room an earthy smell. An old wooden table, rubbed smooth with age, sat near the fire with four chairs around it. Two of the chairs looked less worn than the others. The fireplace was a haphazard construction of stone, though a fire burned happily within it.
“Hello Artie,” her grandfather’s voice called from his bedroom. Art heard him shuffling a bit before he walked into the common area from his bedroom on the far right side of the cottage. “Were you out with Bors again?”
“Always,” Art replied, going to the cabinet to grab the bowls and utensils for dinner. “The stew smells delicious.”
Her grandfather chuckled, the laughter deepening the laugh lines on his face. “You know how to warm an old man’s heart.”
She grinned, “I try.”
They sat down after Art ladled the meal into their bowls and ate in companionable silence. This was not abnormal behavior for them. They had been the only two in the household for many years. After her parents died when she was eight years old, Art was taken in by her grandfather, who had raised her since. Despite his lame leg and reliance on a cane, he did his best to keep up with her energy and give her a stable upbringing.
Art always did her best to assure him that he did.
“I hope you weren’t near the edge of town,” Her grandfather said after a thoughtful sip of soup. “The tanners say there’s a large beast lurking there these days. Several sheep have gone missing.”
“Could just be a bear,” Art suggested while chewing on a large chunk of lamb.
Her grandfather shook his head, “The bears here don’t usually come near the village nor are they interested in sheep.”
True, Art admitted mentally, they’re small and mostly eat small game. A part of her hoped it was a monster, though the more reasonable part knew that was a terrible thing to wish for.
Unlike simple wild animals, monsters or beasts were magical creatures. They arrived into this world by two means: through a rift from another world or if a witch created them. Most monsters came from the latter. When a monster was sighted in an area, it was near impossible to slay it by mortal means.
When such creatures appeared, the Holy Knights were summoned. Using special blades forged by the Sightless God, they could channel their spirit into the blade giving it a light blue sheen. These blades could dispatch any witch’s creation, and often the witch. Almost every child in the land dreamed of becoming a Holy Knight, and Art was no different. She might have a shot of finally meeting a Knight if it were a monster.
At sixteen, she was too old to be selected as an apprentice, nor did she possess any divine energy. At least, if she had any, it had never presented itself to her. Usually, the powers manifested between the ages of seven and ten, and it was often so obvious that such children were taken directly to Stonehaven for training.
No one had ever gone to Stonehaven from her village, but Art had hoped to be the first. She still trained daily with Bors as if she could still join the Holy Order. Her skin remained hardened and bruised from all the hits from Bors’ wooden sword. A part of her still hoped that a miracle would occur and she would be whisked away to Stonehaven. Though, she knew that was only a dream.