Call of Descent

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Summary

Reniko stirs up a conflict with the oppressive Ruk on Vespen when she meets Malik, a member of the human resistance, and Orric, his dragon companion.

Genre:
Scifi / Fantasy
Author:
B. M. Polier
Status:
Complete
Chapters:
43
Rating:
5.0 21 reviews
Age Rating:
13+

Chapter 1

They were both breathing deeply, exhausted, but determined not to show it. The ringing of metal on metal resounded in the room with every contact of the two swords. A sudden silence enveloped the room as they parted from their last contact. They took a step back to calculate their next move, knowing the victor would be whoever harboured enough reserve to carry their strategy to completion.

The younger one, the girl, hesitated. Aggression had never been her style, and her opponent knew this, noticed the weakness in this choice, and moved to take advantage. The girl’s heart beat rhythmically in her ears. She tightened her breathing, trying to keep it under her control. She watched the man, watched as his body gave a slight twitch, as he made his decision. She waited, watching the man flick his wrist, running his sword forward directly at her, his speed incredible. The moment lasted far longer in her mind than the few seconds of reality, and she knew what she had to do. No longer hesitating, she spun to one side just as the man’s sword reached its contact point. She was no longer there; the man’s sword only managed to tear her shirt. She continued to spin as the man’s momentum carried him forward, and it was over. The girl stood, sword extended gracefully backward, grazing the back of the now still man. With only a slight flick of her wrist, it would end, the sword plunging through the man’s back, a fatal blow. However, she waited, her free arm above her head, as she restrained her weight on the killing stroke.

“It is finally done,” the man spoke, his voice calm and filled with pride. “The student has become the master. This is a great day.”

The girl eased her stance and removed the sword from the man’s back.

“I never doubted you, Reniko,” the man said, and the girl bowed her head, hiding her prideful smile.

“I never expected to beat you, Dertrik,” Reniko replied as she examined the rip in her shirt.

Dertrik looked at Reniko, saw her examining her shirt, and began to speak once again. “The victor doesn’t always go unscathed. I believe you passed your final test more intact than I.” Reniko looked up from her shirt and watched Dertrik pull up the sleeve on his shirt, exposing his left arm. She reached forward and ran her hand over the livid scar that she saw running across his biceps. It was only then, as she touched her teacher’s wound, that she realized what she had achieved. It was hard for her to understand the dangers of what she had chosen to do with Dertrik. They both knew that they would never hurt each other, not intentionally, which distanced Reniko from the danger. It was small moments like these – when Dertrik chose to remind her – that she felt sobered by her accomplishments.

“How long, Erik?” Dertrik asked as he turned toward his eight-year-old son, who had been watching the fight from the sidelines.

“Twelve minutes, father,” Erik replied.

Reniko was still breathing heavily from the battle but was trying to control it. Dertrik had told her control of breath was the key to victory or one of the keys. Without enough air, the muscles became sluggish, so Reniko always tried to exercise control over it. The adrenaline she was feeling from the fight, from winning, had not yet worn off, and she was fighting to control her body. Dertrik glanced over his shoulder at Reniko, who was still standing in the middle of the room and sighed. “Come on, Reniko, I think you’ve earned your rest.”

Reniko glanced at Dertrik. She was starting to feel in control again, the epinephrine was beginning to break up, and she slowly walked toward Dertrik feeling suddenly sober, the smile she had harboured turning to a frown. “I hardly feel I’ve done enough, Dare. I feel as everything is just beginning.” She fell in step beside her former master as they walked out of the training dojo, both of them feeling the weight of her words.

Dertrik handed his sword to his son and muffled a laugh, “I think you’re right, Renny. I have taught you all I know, but your journey has just begun.”

“I doubt you’ve imparted all your wisdom, Dare,” Reniko said, handing her sword to Erik and gave Dertrik a playful shove. Dertrik paused in his step and looked at Reniko.

“Knowledge can be told, yes, but for wisdom to spring from the knowledge, you must first have experience. I have taught you all I know, Reniko; it’s up to you to figure out what I meant.” Reniko wrinkled her nose at the thought, but noticing Dertrik’s attitude toward the subject, she thought seriously about the comment and nodded her head slightly.

“When I stumbled upon you and Claire sparring all those years ago, I knew that you were different from everyone else. Your sword fighting intrigued me, and I knew that I would learn to handle a blade as gracefully as you.”

“I’ve waited a long time to have a student with your capabilities and talent. I am surprised to hear that your mother let you come here today. It wasn’t like our other spars; there was quite a bit of danger involved in this test.”

“Where did you hear that my mother knew about this?” Reniko quested. She was trying to hide the surprise and horror she felt. The whole conversation could turn quite ugly.

“I didn’t. I just knew that she would disapprove.”

“Well, if I followed everything my mother laid out for me to do, where do you think I would be now?”

Dertrik laughed; he knew what Reniko was getting at. “Well, I doubt you would be here, and you most certainly wouldn’t be studying the Blade with me.”

“Exactly. Instead, I would be stuck in my home being primped and prodded while my mother tried to shape me into an heiress. My mother is too protective of me, and you know that. If she would just let me breathe, I wouldn’t have to sneak behind her back so much.” She couldn’t remember how many times she had told Dertrik this. Reniko’s mother had her on a short leash. Reniko sighed; she did wish she could tell her mother about her and Dertrik’s lessons in the Blade. It meant so much to her, and she wished her mother could understand that and would just let her be herself rather than always trying to make her into something she was not.

Their conversation had taken them out of the training dojo, through the courtyard, and into Dertrik’s main house. At the entrance to Dertrik’s home, he paused.

“You need to tell her, Renny. You can’t keep this secret much longer, for your sake as much as hers. Living secrets is a regrettable path. She’ll understand your decision if you trust her with it.”

Reniko nodded thoughtfully. She knew Dertrik was right. He always was. But she couldn’t help thinking that she could forget to tell her mother since their training was over now. I think I’ve lived with enough guilt over this. I think it’s time to come clean. She sighed.

“I’ll tell her today. You have my word. I just hope that what I tell her doesn’t come to backlash you, Dare. She tends to blame others for my recklessness, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Dertrik said, his shoulders shaking with silent laughter. Reniko could only imagine the hardships that Dertrik had suffered under her mother’s hand.

“She thinks I’m so fragile,” Reniko said; it has always irritated her that her mother knew so little about her. That would change soon if her mother would listen.

“All parents feel their children need to be protected. I’m no different with Erik.”

Reniko clenched her fist. “I don’t know why I find it so hard to listen to her counsel. I just feel–” Reniko’s sentence trailed off, as did her thoughts. She couldn’t seem to grasp what she was feeling. Frustrated?

Dertrik looked at Reniko, who was tense with her unsaid words and put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “You’re meant for great things, Reniko. Remember that.” He gave her shoulder a light squeeze and disappeared from view, leaving Reniko to stare after him in puzzlement. Reniko shook her head and headed to her car. Once inside, she placed her palm on the scanner and heard the engine roar to life. Putting it in gear, she started back toward home.

Reniko recalled her first encounter with Dertrik. She had been seven years old and having her first riding lesson. Her instructors were showing her the right way to ride a horse, but she insisted that she knew what she was doing, and before anyone had time to stop her, she had put her horse into a gallop and wandered off into the woods. Smug, she had forgotten to pay attention to her surroundings and had gotten lost amongst all the oak, beech, and holly trees. Having no one to put up a brave front for, she had started to shiver with sudden fear and heard steel clashing with steel. The sudden noise in the silent woods startled her at first, and she realized that someone could help her find her way home if she went toward it.

The forest trickled to a halt on the outskirts of the Ravvon family estate, and after dismounting, Reniko hid amongst the trees watching Dertrik spar with his graceful wife, Claire. The sweeping dances that their movements made had her entranced, and she walked out into the sparring match before she realized her feet were moving. Neither of the participants noticed the small girl that stood in their midst until a move sent Dertrik sailing back in her direction. She tensed when she realized that he was going to collide with her and closed her eyes in anticipation of the impact. When it never came, she looked up.

“Where did you come from?” Dertrik asked. Reniko, who had been quivering like an autumn leaf, realized she had been spotted. She stood tall again and faced Dertrik with a resolute face.

“I want to learn how to fight like that,” she had announced. Claire, who had come to stand behind Dertrik, smiled at her.

“You look like Dorsalin’s daughter. Why would you want to learn such an unladylike thing as the Blade?” Claire asked. Reniko turned to regard Claire.

“If it is so unladylike, why are you doing it?” Claire frowned. Dertrik let out a hearty laugh at the expression on Claire’s face.

“This little girl has some spirit. What do you think, Claire, should I train her?” Dertrik asked. He and Claire exchanged meaningful glances as the silence prolonged.

Claire spoke cautiously at first. “I don’t think the Dorsalins would be too pleased if their daughter came to have Blade lessons on our estate, my love.”

“You’re right. They wouldn’t,” Reniko said and grinned, “but they don’t need to know that I am.”

Dertrik got down to Reniko’s level, and they locked gazes. “This is not some trivial thing that you can try on to see if it suits your taste and throw off if you find it doesn’t; this is a serious calling. Maybe you should think about it.”

Reniko returned Dertrik’s solemn gaze and said, “I think you already want to train me. You tell me all the rules, and after, I’ll decide. Does that work for you?”

Dertrik grinned and patted Reniko’s shoulder, “I think you’re much older than you look –” he stopped suddenly, and Reniko realized she had not given her name.

“Reniko. Reniko Dorsalin. Your lady friend was right. I live on the Dorsalin estate close by,” Reniko stopped for a moment and looked at Dertrik, suddenly remembering what had brought her here. “I got lost riding my horse. Would you mind helping me back to my home?” Friendly smiles greeted her inquiry.

Reniko opened the door to her home and met a range of noise as house staff fluttered to and fro doing her mother’s bidding. Reniko ignored it as best she could, as she did every other day, and instead dodged past the activity, heading to the stairs. Her mother intercepted her just as she touched the banister. Reniko looked at her and tried her best to smile. Her mother didn’t return the gesture but instead looked at her with a piercing gaze. Reniko could feel her mother’s eyes looking over her dishevelled hair and sweaty features. She watched as her mother’s features went from disapproval to horror as she noticed the torn sleeve on Reniko’s arm.

“Reniko, what happened to you? You look as if you’ve been in a fight, and you’ve been gone all morning.” Her mother’s face was a cross between concern and irritation.

“Well, I have,” Reniko said. Now is as good a time as any.

“Have what? Been gone all morning?” Her mother said, perplexed by her daughter’s answer.

“Well, yes, that too, but mostly the fight.”

“With Dertrik, I presume,” her mother said. Her eyes now lost the concern, and all that was left was the annoyance.

Reniko opened her mouth to reply, and her mother’s words registered. “How did you know?” Apparently, she hadn’t been as good at hiding that as she had thought.

“I’m not as daft as you think I am, Reniko.”

“So you know I’ve been studying the Blade?” The answer was obvious, but it was all that Reniko could think to say. This conversation had taken a strange turn, and she was suddenly unsure where it was going.

Monica Dorsalin sighed, “Yes, Reniko.” It was a sign of how tired she was of her arguments with Reniko that she didn’t continue on a tirade. The simple answer had not been what Reniko was expecting.

“Well, why did you let me continue? I thought you hated anything to do with swords.”

“I do, greatly. But, when I confronted Dertrik, he told me that you had been studying the Blade since you were seven. I could hardly stop something now when it had gone on unchecked for so long.”

“How long have you known?”

“About a year now, I was waiting for you to tell me. I’m hurt, but I understand.” The look her mother gave softened as she spoke. She seemed to be getting used to the idea now that it was out in the open.

“You would have locked me in my room for the rest of my life,” Reniko replied, and her mother nodded.

“I’m just trying to protect you.”

“I know, but I don’t need protecting anymore,” Reniko whispered.

“I’m not sure you ever did,” Monica exclaimed, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. “I forgive you. Just go wash up before you come down for lunch; we have guests today.” As opposed to any other day? Reniko thought as she hugged her mother and rushed up the stairs and into her room.

Her eyes didn’t even glance around her room as she wandered to the adjoining bathroom and turned the taps on the shower, causing a burst of water to rain forth with steam fogging the room. She made quick work of her clothes, stripping off her pants and the now ruined shirt and stepped into the cascade of water. It stung her sweaty skin like hot needles, relaxing her muscles almost instantly, which were still tight from her spar. Reniko let her thoughts become as fogged as the air around her. Her thoughts began to flit across her mind like damselflies in the rushes, so fast that she could only catch fleeting glimpses of them.

Water did that for her, let her mind wander from now into a blank space of suspended time, small moments lasting forever. She needed this small calm in her day, after preparation and the spar, as well as the events to come: an afternoon filled with entertaining and arranged meetings. This moment was her time to be herself before becoming Miss Reniko Dorsalin, the perfect daughter. She had a feeling today it would be harder than ever to act the part as winning against Dertrik was too fresh on her mind. With a mournful sigh, she twisted the taps off and watched as the last drop of water fell from the faucet above.

When she finally came out of the shower, there were towels set out on the counter. She pulled one from the pile and wrapped it neatly around her frame, then taking another from the stack, she towelled her long brown locks and tossed them over her shoulder. When she finally opened the door, steam billowed out, mingling with the cooler spring air making her skin ripple with goose pimples. She shuttered, rubbing her arms lightly.

Ava was in the corner of her room, laying out fresh clothes for her. The sight of the older lady gave her a start. Ava had been her nursemaid since she was nine. Reniko didn’t usually see much of her now that she was older, and the presence of her maid gave her mother’s intentions away: she had a gentleman caller.

“I expect there will be some sort of escort waiting for me downstairs,” Reniko said as Ava laid a pale summer dress on her bed.

“You should be glad your mother is concerned with your well-being. You can’t live here forever. Don’t tell me you don’t want to get married,” Ava said teasingly.

Not really, Reniko thought fleetingly, her eyes a gathering storm. “So, I gather you’ve had a look at this one?” Reniko asked as she let the towel drop to the floor and grabbed her undergarments.

“He seems gallant. I think his standards closely follow the old court. You know, when they still had chivalry. I thought him quite striking, really,” Ava was flushed just talking about the young man, and Reniko had to smile. She was sure Ava enjoyed her suitors more than she did. At least they keep someone entertained, Reniko mused as she thought about the dreadful evenings she had spent with men in the past. I was hoping mother had gotten the point by now.

“Appearances aren’t everything, Ava,” Reniko said teasingly as the smaller woman helped pull the silky fabric over her head.

“It was his manner; he seemed genuine.” Ava tied the sash of Reniko’s dress and began smoothing the fabric of her skirt, unaware that Reniko had not been taking the conversation seriously at all.

“Genuine? I don’t know, I feel –” Reniko’s words caught in her throat for the second time that day. That feeling was back. I feel I’m losing control. Going in the wrong direction. Trapped. She shook her head and wandered to her dressing table. A few pieces of jewelry were hanging on the mirror, and she slid her hand across them, letting the swaying jewels cast dancing rainbows across the mirror. She lifted one of the necklaces from the row. It was the one that Dertrik had given to her many years ago. The two of them had just finished a lesson in the Blade, and she had been sitting on a grassy hill breathless and vexed. She had been twelve at the time.

“Not all battles are won by steel alone –” Dertrik said as he sat down beside her on the hill.

“It was an unfair advantage, Dertrik,” Reniko said through clenched teeth.

“–and not everyone you fight will be honourable.”

Reniko turned and faced Dertrik. “You teach me about honour and show me on the field that you cheat just like the rest.”

“In your final test, you have my word I will be honourable. No tricks. I just want you to be prepared for the world out there, Renny.”

Reniko was still rubbing the dust from her eyes, which were now tearing from frustration and embarrassment. “How can I trust you after today?”

Dertrik stared past her, lost in thought. “When we first married, Claire gave me this pendant as a symbol of her loyalty to me. If it would restore your loyalty in me, Renny, I would gladly give it to you.”

Reniko looked up wide-eyed as Dertrik removed a silver chain. Hanging from it was a tiny jewelled sword, sheathed in an opaque blue scabbard. Silver threads danced across its surface, and the mere sight of it made Reniko breathless. It was like nothing she had ever seen.

“It would, Dare, but I can’t accept this. Not when it means so much to you. That you offered such a treasure is enough.”

“It’s the fact that it means so much to me that makes me give it to you now. As long as you wear it, you have my loyalty and my trust.” Dertrik placed the pendant in her tiny hand, and she clasped it tightly to her chest, smiling.

“I will wear it always.” She turned to regard the sword at her feet and, picking it up gently, she ran her hand over the surface of the blade, testing its sharpness. “Now, what was it you were saying about not all battles won by the sword –”

Reniko’s thought drifted back to the present, and clasping the pendant, she wrapped the thin silver chain around her neck. Ava persistently brushed the tangles from her damp hair and arranged it playfully on top of her head. When Ava was finished, there were strands of hair dancing around the frame of Reniko’s olive-toned face while the rest was piled tantalizingly on top of her head. It was a definite change to the effect that Reniko had on her own hair. The most she could get her hair arranged into were simple tails or braids. It reminded her that everything took talent, even styling.

“I take you for granted; you know that? I don’t know what my hair would look like without you,” Reniko said, smiling. She knew that Ava prided her ability to weave magic into her hair even if Reniko could not care less what it looked like as long as it was out of her way.

“Well, someone has to make sure you look presentable. It’s not like you can take care of yourself,” Ava said as she added her finishing touches with a smile. Reniko grinned, “You better get going. I imagine your mother is pretty anxious by now. You’ve wasted enough time daydreaming.”

Reniko cast one last look in the mirror and, with an exaggerated sigh, got up from the chair and left the room. As she wandered down the stairs, she gathered the encumbering folds of the fabric away from her feet. She was silently cursing the man who had instituted the wearing of dresses as ladylike when she made her way into the garden, spotting her mother with two guests.

Monica Dorsalin was sitting impatiently in the garden, which covered a quarter of the Dorsalin estate, idly talking with her two companions. Despite the idle chatter, she only had one thing on her mind, her daughter Reniko. When Reniko finally rounded the bushes that hid their dining spot, she relaxed slightly, hoping that her guests didn’t see the apparent distaste that was in Reniko’s eyes as she politely smiled. So help me, Monica thought as she rose and gestured for her daughter to take her seat.

“My apologies to have kept you waiting; I’m afraid I was quite unprepared for the luncheon,” Reniko said, keeping the false smile plastered on her face. She took the hand of the older woman seated at the table and squeezed it gently, ignoring the young man looking her over. “Reniko Dorsalin.”

“Olivia Kolasko,” the woman replied, releasing her hand from Reniko’s grasp and gesturing to her side where the young man sat. Reniko let her eyes follow the woman’s gesture, trying to keep the smile from turning into a grimace. “And this is my son Vaughn. We are so pleased to have you join us, Reniko.”

Reniko glanced from Olivia, taking in Vaughn fully for the first time. His smile seemed as false as hers, and Reniko could see him gauging her value as his possession. He stood to greet her, taking her hand in his and lightly kissing it, though his eyes never left her face. The courteous gesture would have meant a lot more had it covered his arrogance, but it did not, and Renikowas left playing shy so that she could remove herself from his lustful grasp. Ava is too quickly brought in with such acts. I’d rather marry a pig.

“It’s a pleasure, Reniko. Your mother has told us so much about you,” Vaughn said as he retook his seat. Dishes were set promptly before them, the smell enticing all present. Reniko, who was rather hungry after her spar with Dertrik, was torn between being cheeky or just playing along with her mother’s never-ending games.

“All of which I assure you is not true,” Reniko replied, cheek winning out over hunger. She peered coyly at Vaughn, setting the little trap for him. Reniko could see her mother squirming in her chair as she realized where this was heading. It almost made Reniko laugh. Trying to head off the game, Monica let out a shrill laugh which Olivia Kolasko closely followed. Vaughn, however, was already caught.

“That’s a fascinating necklace you are wearing. May I ask, does it reflect a part of your personality since you so candidly say your mother is mistaken?” he asked.

Reniko ran her fingers over the surface of the miniature sword and smiled. Checkmate. “It does.” Monica’s face went pale.

“Enlighten me, please,” he said, sitting back in his chair and grabbing the goblet that was in front of him.

“I’ve studied the Blade since I was seven. I’ve was delayed for that very reason.” She said this casually, taking up her glass and sipping at its contents.

Vaughn straightened up in his chair and set his goblet down. “Oh? Is that so? I have not heard of many cultured women who hold that as one of their interests. Are you any good?” She could hear the contempt in his voice, like the mere mention of a woman in the Art, soiled its name. She cringed at the comment, balling her hand in silent rage, but showed nothing on her face. Good enough to pass the Guardian exams.

She set her glass down and leaned forward on her hands, her face inches from Vaughn’s. “Care to find out?”

Vaughn, caught up in her proximity, grinned. “I wouldn’t want to wreck such a beautiful face.”

“I’m sure I can keep myself under control enough not to touch your face,” Reniko replied. Vaughn backed away, flushing slightly. He looked irritated, and Reniko thought for a moment that she had pushed him too far.

“Well, shall we eat first or second?” Vaughn replied, loosening the collar on his shirt.

“Second,” Reniko said and stood up from her chair. She glanced at her mother before she left. She was stiff in her seat, stunned at what had happened. Facing the dawning horror in her mother’s eyes, Reniko just smiled, trying to reassure her. Her mother’s only response was a silent plea for Reniko to stop. Too late for that now, Mother. Finally, turning aside from her mother, Reniko disappeared into the garden, with Vaughn following closely behind.

“Why are we going to your stables?” Vaughn asked when he noticed that instead of heading back toward the estate, they turned away from it. “Don’t tell me that you keep your swords in the stables.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Reniko replied. “We don’t keep any weaponry on our estate. My family isn’t licensed for that.”

“How do you intend for us to spar?” Vaughn said, finally catching up to Reniko as she was pulling the stable doors open.

“I intend to take you to my neighbour’s estate. We’ll find what we need there,” Reniko said as she came up beside her horse, giving him a slight pat before she saddled him up. Once finished, Reniko pulled herself up onto his back and turned to Vaughn. Seeing him standing there looking up at her, she laughed. “Well, go on, saddle up so we can go.” Vaughn’s eyes seemed to widen at the idea of saddling his horse.

“Do you want me to do it for you?” Reniko asked. She wasn’t given a reply, but she could see the very idea of being outperformed by a woman in any way railed against his pride, and finally, he grabbed a saddle and fitted it clumsily to the nearest stallion. When Vaughn was settled, Reniko gave her mount a nudge, rearranging the folds of her skirt for a more comfortable ride as they left the stables and entered the bordering forest.

It wasn’t until they were near Dertrik’s estate that Reniko began to feel nervous about her brashness. She couldn’t help thinking that Dertrik would deny her challenge. This was just the sort of thing that he had told her not to do. When she emerged from the forest on the edge of Dertrik’s estate, she saw Erik. Well, it’s too late now. Erik was working on one of his outdoor projects, and when he heard the sound of horses, he looked up and regarded Reniko with a playful smile.

“Erik, would you find your father. Tell him I need the use of his sparring equipment,” she said with a tight smile.

Erik’s eyes widened in surprise, and he left his project and headed toward the manor calling back to Reniko as he went: “Go ahead and prepare Renny, I’m sure he’ll say it’s okay.” As Erik disappeared back to the manor, Reniko nudged her mount in the direction of the dojo behind the estate that she had been in just that morning.

It wasn’t long before Dertrik joined Reniko and Vaughn in the dojo. He entered the building just as Vaughn was sizing up the weaponry in the room. Reniko watched him inspect each of the blades that hung around the room since she had already removed her preferred blade. When Dertrik entered the room, Reniko blushed with embarrassment. So much for being a master. I think I just proved to Dare that I’m still a student. She bowed slightly to Dertrik, who responded with a question.

“Who rose this challenge, and for what reason?”

Reniko was the first to respond. “It was me, Dertrik. The reason…” Reniko paused and glanced at Vaughn, who had finally chosen his weapon and was waiting for the challenge to begin. He was standing like a lord, fully confident in his ability. Dertrik could already guess what this was all about; however, he let Reniko formally announce the reason behind the fight. “To uphold my honour as a Blade master.” Reniko looked at Dertrik again, her eyes full of defiance. She’s waiting for me to say that the challenge can’t take place, Dertrik thought and smiled. He nodded vaguely in contemplation.

“I will be witness to the challenge. Results will be final, and all participants will abide by the outcome. Vaughn Kolasko, since the challenge was issued to you, please set the terms.” Reniko looked at Dertrik, shocked. Not only was she startled that Dertrik had agreed to the challenge, but he already knew who Vaughn was as well.

“Since this is a fight of honour, I issue that the first one to draw blood wins. If you are as good as you think you are, blocking should be no problem.”

Reniko tried to hide her smile but failed. “I agree to your terms. Shall we begin?” She stepped into the middle of the room and took her beginning stance.

Erik raced into the room at that moment, followed closely by Claire, who had flour dust all over her dress and hands.

“Hold on,” Claire shouted as she dusted off her hands and pushed the loose strands of her blond hair behind her ears, the silver in her hair catching the light of the sun. “A challenge does not take place on my estate without my presence.” She took a seat on the floor and gave her husband a steel gaze.

“Begin,” Dertrik said, averting his wife’s attention from him onto Vaughn and Reniko. As the clashing of metal rang around the room, he moved to join her, glad that Erik had remembered to call his mother to the challenge.

“What is this about, Dare,” Claire asked as Dertrik sat down next to her. She watched as Reniko parried an aggressive attack from Vaughn and quickly retaliated with a few blows of her own.

“It’s an honour fight. As far as I can tell, Vaughn doesn’t think Reniko can handle herself in battle. It’s just like his family to take that stand. His mother is stuck in old values, as are most of the men and women around here. His upbringing taught him that women are fragile and need a man’s protection. Reniko will teach him a thing or two about that,” Dertrik replied. Claire grinned and grabbed hold of her husband’s calloused hand. Dertrik, seeing that Claire was mollified, continued watching the spar.

Vaughn seemed to be the better fighter to a casual observer, though he had yet to land a single blow on Reniko. Reniko was taking the defensive, forcing Vaughn into the offensive. The fight would have seemed near equal to the casual observer; however, to Dertrik, a man who had trained vigorously with one of the fighters, something was amiss. Reniko is far better than this. What is she doing? Could it be that she is taunting the boy? Dertrik’s face spread with a grin as he watched the agile fighters. It was Reniko’s nature to do this. Though to her, she was merely letting Vaughn feel that he could match her. She was saving him from a potentially embarrassing situation. The boy was untrained. He probably hadn’t handled a sword in years, but Reniko had somehow figured that by a swift defeat, she would be humiliating Vaughn more than he could take. But it’s an honour fight, so even though she would probably lose to him in any other situation, she won’t today. It’s my honour, along with her own, that she is upholding, and she knows this. What a brittle problem. For not only did she have to keep her honour, but she also had to do so in a way that ensured the Kolasko family would not publicly deface the Dorsalin household. Vaughn had the power and, with the right incentive, the desire to do so.

A sharp tearing sound of material cut by metal woke Dertrik from his thoughts. Reniko had been fast enough to avoid the blow, but her dress, which was whirling in folds around her, had not been as fortunate. A piece of her tailored dress sat neatly on the floor under her feet. Dresses should be relics of the past, Reniko thought. She decided to end the battle with a sudden huff and took Vaughn off guard by dancing forward and to the left when he had expected her to fall back after the close contact. With the slight advantage, she made for his sword hand and grazed it with her blade, creating a line of beaded blood on the back of his hand. Vaughn dropped his sword from the shock of the sudden pain, and Reniko backed away.

“Well met,” she whispered between breaths.

“I should say. I didn’t think you had it in you. It was a pleasure, Milady.”

“It was thank-you,” Reniko replied. Satisfied now that she had proven her ability, she felt able to continue the charade her mother required.

Claire, by this time, had scrambled from her position on the floor and was immediately by Vaughn’s side, cradling his hand while Erik grabbed some medical supplies from a nearby cabinet.

“Well, you’ve proven yourself. I concede,” Vaughn said, and turning to Dertrik, who was just now getting up from the floor, he said, “You’ve trained her well, for a woman.”

Reniko was looking at Dertrik, who now had an oddly similar look to Reniko’s, that of irritation. “I gather since we rushed off in such a flurry that your mother and my own will be awaiting our return. Should we go and enjoy some of the food we left behind?” Reniko asked before Dertrik could even speak a word in response to Vaughn’s comment. Holding out her arm for Vaughn to take, they began walking out of the dojo. Reniko passed Erik her sword as they passed, and she glanced at Dertrik. Their faces both carried the same message; we must talk later. Without the slightest hesitation to relay the intimate look, Reniko disappeared through the doorway, leaving the Ravvon family alone.

Claire was the first to speak. “I don’t know how she puts up with that young man. The games her mother makes her play. Erik, you are never to become a thing like that boy, you understand?”

Erik nodded, not entirely understanding what his mother meant.

“I’m proud of her. She is still true to herself despite the confines of her station. I’m glad she demanded to train with me. I wouldn’t have sought her out otherwise. I would have left her to her life. I sometimes wonder if she would have been better off that way,” Dertrik pondered as he watched Vaughn help Reniko onto her horse, the two of them now engaged in idle chatter.

“We’ll never know, Love, so it’s best not to dwell on things we cannot change,” Claire replied.

“I’m just now realizing how much harder I have made her life. She’s going to want to take the Guardian exams, and I think that is beyond her mother’s limits.”

“It was inevitable with her; she wouldn’t have had it any other way. She’ll find her way, I’m sure,” Claire said as she wrapped her arms around her husband and watched Reniko and Vaughn disappear into the forest.

Erik listened to his parent’s conversation in silent contemplation with a frown on his brow. Shrugging off the cryptic conversation, he followed behind them as they headed back to the manor, setting the sword Reniko had handed him in its rightful place.

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