I grimaced. The emotional pain from my contrition was not easy to swallow, but Silah's turnabout in mood made me feel slightly better about it.
The things I do to keep the peace. I thought sullenly.
Silah gave a gentle squeeze to my arm and we moved from the stable and out into the yard.
As we approached, Duncan smiled as he saw Silah. He glanced briefly above my shoulder where the sword was just moments ago. He was still bewildered by the thought. I wasn't surprised at this since much of the time, even I wasn't certain how all this worked.
Both Duncan and Tagaern had settled into a spot at the tables. They rose to their feet as we approached. Both of them offered greetings suitable for a noble woman and Silah returned in kind with a deep curtsy. I smiled to myself as I watched. Her ability to smoothly ingratiate herself was unmatched and, perhaps, just a little terrifying.
Duncan did the introductions between Tagaern and Silah as we settled in. Amalia approached and leaned in with some whispered words to Duncan, then he spoke to her.
"You're in charge for the night. As soon as Falk and Keval are done with the carts, have them wheel them into the stables. If you need any help before then, get Harney to help. That poor boy needs to know he's useful." He said all of this very quickly, already knowing his plan for the night. "Oh, and a bottle of Old Law? He's buying."
I shook my head at the finger that Duncan had leveled at me. I had just come into money, it was not going to flow away from me that easily.
"You're here to train, right? Call it part of my fee." He gave a crooked smile.
"All right. On me, then." I conceded.
Amalia smiled. I'd half expect her to be annoyed with Duncan's request, but she was very capable and seemed to delight in taking charge. Duncan took note of my thoughtful gaze toward Amalia.
"She's something else. She'll run this place someday, no doubt. That is, if some whelp doesn't steal her from me first." He grinned at the thought and turned his eyes back to Silah. "Are you drinking with us tonight?"
"Why, yes, Duncan." She gave a sly smile and continued, "Is there a wager involved, perchance?"
"No, no." Duncan looked at her warily.
Tagaern's eyes danced between Duncan and Silah, casting about a befuddled expression. Quietly, Amalia slipped between us, put a bottle of Old Law, as well as a cluster of glasses, then disappeared as quickly as she came.
"For her size, Silah's … formidable." Duncan said as an aside to Tagaern, nodding toward Silah.
"You boys are no fun." She reached for a glass, righted it, and filled it halfway.
"Easy, Silah. Save some for the rest of us." I said looking sternly at her as she poured and she returned a sidelong glare as she sipped from her glass.
The night wore on. Before long, another bottle of Old Law found its way to the table.
Duncan waxed on about his times training side-by-side with Tagaern and how they rose through the ranks together. Duncan mentioned to Silah that the Red Shields had the Grasslions' back on the final push to end the Ten Years War. There were heavy losses as the Red Shields dealt with the counter attack. Word of the fall of the Mad Elven King took time to reach the front, which meant that much of the loss of life happened after the war had already ended. It was a sad thought. There were numerous stories like these that made me resent those who scripted the these battles on paper, but were not there in person to see the aftermath. They were not there to see the blood soaked fields and the weak cries from the dying.
It seemed that Tagaern was haunted by those cries, holding the line as his forces did. Forming up as his men fell, closing ranks and pushing on until those that we fought against realized the futility and laid down their arms. As they weren't there to see the Mad King's blood spilt, they didn't receive the same notoriety that the Grasslions did. Yet, they were essential to the success of the final push. The memory of the Red Shields faded thanklessly as the sigil of the Grasslions became widely recognized.
The two of them had lost contact after the war. Tagaern fading into a dark place that he seemed only recently able to climb out of. He had found Duncan by chance, traveling the realm on the scant money that remained. Though he looked haunted, he had a fiery glimmer of fight still in him. It showed that he had more to offer. Whatever words he had exchanged with Duncan, they must have brought him back from the brink. Duncan was more than persuasive, in every sense, he was a natural leader.
"What brought you up here?" I slurred, thinking clearly, surely, but completely unable to control my tongue.
"I found a map. Actually, it was given to me. A keep to the South and East."
Silah's sharp eyes and ears were turned to us. Completely untouched, unfairly, by what she had been drinking. Though, I didn't know if it was unfair for us or unfair for her. Sober people, I always assumed, had considerably less fun with drunk people.
I thought for a moment about what was South-east and tried to picture it in my head.
"A … keep? The road South leads right to Hlofreden. Is it in Hlofreden?" I said, squinting at him, my eyes lingering on the scar that ran down his face.
He wagged his head, his jowls jiggling in the process.
"No idea what you are saying. I've never heard of the place." He said, his eyes foggy as he attempting to focus.
"Hlofreden is the next city—the last city—on this road." I waved my hand emphatically, sending Silah ducking away. She back came up with a grimace, looking at me warily.
"Sorry, love." I gave her a bleary eyed look with an apologetic smile.
"I … don't think I've seen a half-orc apologize for anything. Where in the hell did you get your manners?" Tagaern leaned in with the question.
I nodded and raised a glass toward Duncan, who had stopped drinking a while back—the poor sod—now he seemed to be simmering on the edge of soberness.
"To Duncan! For so so many reasons." I said, giving a toothy grin to the man himself.
Tagaern smirked and met my glass with a clink.
"Well said." Tagaern agreed as he tossed the last of the Old Law back. "Duncan teaching you manners. Hah! That's like a dog teaching a mule to sing!"
I looked at Tagaern confused, trying to work out what he was saying in my head. I couldn't. For a moment I wondered if I should feel insulted.
"For your benefit, gents," Duncan said with a widening smile, "We're starting training first thing. As soon as the sun shows, be out in my yard, ready. If not, you'll get a bucket of water over you in bed."
My mood immediately soured and I gave Duncan a sulking grimace. Tagaern's head slumped forward, thudding into the table. If that was intentional, he probably hit harder than he meant to.
"I want to take that toast back." I furrowed my brow at the shapes of Duncan that swam in front of me.
I rolled my head toward Silah who wore a satisfied smirk.
"Shhh…" Silah whispered, "Let's get some water in you then get you settled for the night."
"A lovely evening, as always, Duncan." She stood and vaulted over the bench, then simpered at him with a slight curtsy.
Duncan returned with a polite bow and smile. Silah grabbed the thick straps holding my breastplate in place and lifted me out of my seat, but also steadying me. I trembled and looked anxiously back to her, feeling like a puppet on a string.
"I can carry you or you can walk. Your choice." She said evenly.
Tagaern, who had raised his head from the table, was wide eyed with the display, blinking in disbelief.
"I can walk. I can walk." I grunted putting a steadying hand on the table.
"So you can." Silah said flatly. "It's a miracle."
I rose through the layers of sleep just as it felt like I was descending through them. I awoke just in time for Silah's prodding to send me off of the edge of the bed, thudding to the floor. I was naked, and I didn't remember getting that way. She was also naked, a wispy sheet draped over some of her form. She looked down at me from the bedside with a perturbed expression.
"What did you do that for?" The blood pumping thickly through my head evoked a blistering amount of pain which coupled with the effort of sitting up from the floor.
"I've been trying to wake you for while now. You really have gone soft." The annoyed look on her face softened, "I know that I said you weren't a soldier anymore, but today you are."
The sun was just peeking up from the horizon. Being high on the plains meant the sun came up far earlier than Hlofreden, being cloistered in the walls of the bluff.
"Where are my clothes?" I cast around, blinking the film of sleep from my eyes.
She sat forward on the bed, letting the thin sheet slip from around her. She lifted a delicate arm and pointed toward the foot of the bed. She had a smile on her face as she watched me fret while I scavenged my scattered clothes.
"I should do this more often." She tilted her head as she commented, looking at me playfully.
I returned her gaze with a dirty look.
"Oh, and no food. Just water." She said, as her graceful form glided across the floor, retrieved her dress, and slipped into it effortlessly.
"By whose orders? Duncan's?" I said, feeling the authoritative snap return as I slipped back into form.
"Mine. I've been feeling that poison run through you all night. I doubt you'll hold down a meal." She said, fixed in place, watching as I sluggishly tugged at my boots.
"Try me." I grumbled.
"No, soldier, those are my orders. Burn that … poison off first, then you can eat." She put her hands on her hips as she gave me a determined look.
I glared at her, but she shook her head, standing her ground.
"We'll see how this goes." I growled as I moved out of the room.
After guzzling nearly a bucket of water and a visit to the privy, I was in the yard just as the sun had lifted off of the horizon. Tagaern was there looking as worn as I did, but his body had taken the effects of last night a bit more personally. You could tell by the sallow pallor of his skin that he was not feeling well.
Silah looked on while all three of us used our respective campaigner swords with aggressive striking forms. Duncan led us, shirtless, muscles rippling under his dark skin. Tagaern matched the motions, seeming to fall into a rhythm while his muscles seemed to remember more than he did. I was familiar with this process and knew that this was just the beginning.
The acrid smell of a distillery rose from my skin as I worked up a sweat. The throbbing headache still raged on, at moments, the pain made me nauseous, but I kept pushing, willing my body to get in line. We had gained an audience of more than a few travellers who were enjoying their morning meals while watching us worked to a fine lather by Duncan.
Silah had retrieved two buckets of water and had them perched on one of the tables. Amalia had delivered a plate of fresh eggs with bread and small tub of butter.
Duncan finished the forms and, immediately, Silah took one of the buckets and splashed me with it, soaking me from head to toe.
"Could you, at least, let me do that?" I said, sputtering and skimming the water from my face.
"What fun would that be?" She said as she handed the other one to Tagaern who leaned forward and dumped it over his head.
We sat and ate, Duncan was watching the skies. I could tell, by the look on his face, that this break would not last. I wolfed down my food in anticipation.
"You used to be a Captain?" I asked Tagaern.
"Yes. Why?" He grumbled through his food, knowing what I was going to ask.
"What happened?" I gestured toward all of him.
He gave me a scathing glare, lifting his head from his breakfast, eggs unceremoniously clinging to his stubbled chin.
I put my hands up in retreat. I tore off a hunk of bread and smashed it into the tub of butter before taking a bite out of it. Silah looked at me with distaste as I stood, chewing loudly.
"Looks like you two know the drill." Duncan said, glancing at the sky. "And, here, I was going to give you another moment. On your feet, Tagaern."
"How about we practice with each other." I gestured to Tagaern.
Duncan had a smile slip across his face.
"How do you feel about that?"
Tagaern nodded curtly.
"Rules: Tap, do not strike. I want to see control, precision, not raw force." Duncan said loudly, tossing us thin wooden poles with a crossbar, his eyes burrowing into me as he said raw force.
The crowd had grown. I grimaced at the men who seemed to be actively taking wagers. Although, it was flattering, because I could see more gesturing my way.
We squared off and launched forward at Duncan's command. Tagaern had been primarily a defensive fighter, so, without a shield, he was primarily keeping me occupied with light attacks while looking for openings.
I could see he hadn't fought in some time. I took some chances with spinning, losing sight of him, and repositioning quickly. We were both exhausted, but it was harder for him to recover. The first two taps went to me within the first moments. But, I saw a change in his approach. He pulled his arm behind him, locking it tight against his lower back. All of his focus was on dancing his blade in front of him, sparring with me expertly.
There were moments where he overextended himself, unused to his body in its current shape. And, again, it took longer to recover, but as he corrected and learned, then he pushed forward. He struck me, the blow rattled off of my collarbone, sending a shock down my sword arm, weakening my grip. I clenched my teeth, anger setting in, I switched hands, gripping the practice sword in my left.
"Tagaern! Tap do not strike!" Duncan called out.
We continued sparring. Trading blows regularly, his prowess became more and more apparent the longer we practiced. The match eventually became something of a game with insults and encouragement being shouted from both sides. But the competition remained fierce. He was watching my moves, analyzing my weaknesses, but my ability to catch my breath more quickly allowed me to edge ahead in the end.
The cheers from the tables escalated until Duncan finally called the match in my favor. We had been at it until late afternoon with the skies starting to gain a hint of yellows and oranges from the early evening. There were numerous angry bruises swelling on both our arms and exposed portions of shoulders. We shook hands, exhausted but with respect, letting any aggravation slip away with the exchange. Silah joined us, smiling, as we bonded over ales. We pointed out each others bruises and replayed the combat through words and gestures. It was strange to have a man that I had bested give good advice on tactics.
"If you had a shield, I would be hard pressed to get through." I said, pointing to an angry welt on his left shoulder. "I've let go of my shield, though. After using it in the war for so long, it was hard for me to do."
"Defense is my strength. I was Captain of the Red Shields, after all. Duncan has always been more aggressive, which wholly suits you." Tagaern nodded toward the hand and a half sword that I had re-sheathed. He paused for a moment then looked again.
"Where's the other blade you came with? Seems a shame not to be wearing that."
There was an exchange between Duncan, Silah and myself.
"Always close at hand." I smiled widely.
He glanced around, curious, but then shrugged not pursuing the question further.
"Duncan mentioned that you and your friends have need for another strong arm?"
"Yes, I get a little anxious when there isn't another soldier on the front lines with me." I said, but, even while saying that, I felt hesitation.
Unfortunately, I doubted my usefulness with another formidable soldier, a Captain no less. I have gotten used to being the one that the others depended on. I felt secure in my place, but, knowing Tagaern's prowess and previous position, I felt my own inadequacy start to creep in.
"I will vouch for you when they get here. I believe they will be heading this way tomorrow. They have a shipment of gunpowder to deliver." I said, looking toward Duncan who nodded, remembering our previous conversations.
"As long as we get a chance to visit this keep, I am up for anything that will get me back out into the field." He said, nodding appreciatively.
A bone deep fatigue was starting to settle into me, my eyes drooped as the sun sank lower and lower.
"Bright and early shouldn't be a problem tomorrow, right?" Duncan said with a chuckle, "I'm all sorts of fresh from watching you two spar. But, tomorrow, we'll take turns. I can't let you two have all the fun."
Tagaern stood shakily from the table, arms and legs weak from the effort. I felt it, too. But I was glad I didn't have to show it yet. Silah leaned up against me at the table.
"And, about you two." Duncan looked sternly at me then to Silah as he spoke, "You depend on her more than you should."
Silah's brow furrowed.
"How do you mean?" I looked at him crossways, feeling a bit of trepidation.
"Watching you spar was eye opening. Silah fills a lot of the gaps, but I also know that she has a tendency to pull you forward." He said frankly, "And I mean no offense, it works, for now. But you don't seem to realize where it may make you weak or where it may make you strong. I want you to practice on focusing past her."
"I'm not sure if I should be offended." Silah said flatly.
"Why would you be?" Duncan said, "You are a driving force for Hakaar. But, as with any relationship. Any relationship of strong wills, you can cooperate, but also may hamper each other without realizing it."
I nodded and Silah nudged me in the ribs hard, glaring at my acknowledgement. Duncan smiled.
"You realize that you're only proving my point." He said to her with a chuckle, "You depend on his willpower more than you realize. If he just bent to your whim..."
"Yes, yes. I understand." Silah said settling a steeled gaze at Duncan.
"Then, tomorrow, we'll practice. I bet you'll both learn something new. Which I'm surprised to say, Silah." Duncan smiled kindly and nodded toward her.
Her face was an unreadable blank. That usually meant something dangerous was flitting through her mind.
We moved back into the tavern, grabbing a small meal on the way up to the room. I sat on the side of the smallish bed, feeling beaten and worn. Silah didn't speak, but she set to kneading the muscles around my neck and shoulders, finding just the right amount of pressure with only brief bursts of nearly unbearable pain.
"I can feel every muscle in you vibrating." The tone of her voice was warm as she ran her thumb firmly along the trembling bands of muscle along the back of my neck. "It's been some time while since you've felt like this."
"It's time to get back to it. You're right about me getting soft. I don't need to be a soldier, but I need to get back into the habits I've lost." I said, cringing slightly as she pressed through one of the bruises. "Tagaern stopped, it looked like, because the war seemed to have gotten to him and he tried to escape it. While I've acted like I never left the war until recently. I'm sure there's a balance between the two."
"You seem to have bonded with him." Silah said, her voice quieted slightly as she nodded, "And, yet, you're afraid?"
A half-smile slid across my face.
"Yes, and you could just come out and ask instead of poking around in here." I pointed to my head, "I just don't want to become obsolete."
She chuckled softly and then entwined me with her arms from behind, kissing me gently on the cheek.
"Very doubtful." She whispered in my ear.
We were in the yard in the crisp morning air before the sun was halfway above the horizon. Silah was now in her greatsword form, sheathed and standing superior above my right shoulder. The campaigner was over my left, prompting, again, strange looks from both Tagaern and other stolid fighting types in the yard.
Forms were first, then sparing. Duncan chose to engage Tagaern first, while he was still fresh. Duncan was a ferocious fighter, and he seemed a little disheartened as Tagaern failed to keep up. He scaled back the engagement, fighting with less ferocity and giving in a little easier. I took me a few moments to recognize that this is how Duncan also fought with me.
We moved through this same exercise during the morning hours. After a quick meal, Tagaern was tasked with engaging and hacking at a large standing log with a beaten practice sword to strengthen his grip as well as hone his follow-through.
"For you, Hakaar, I'm asking Silah to distract you." He said this while looking at her as the greatsword in his hand, admiring the runes that ran down the length of the blade. "You need to quiet your mind and resist."
Duncan motioned for me to sit down, resting the campaigner blade in my hands with palms up.
"Find the quiet and hold to it. Do not move a muscle." Duncan said low as he moved forward and replaced the blade with Silah.
Immediately, chaos erupted in my mind. There was a tumult of picking and scratching while her massive, intimidating form struck at me, sending the stage in my mind into splinters with mighty blows. I winced, panic welling up in me and my eyes shot open, trying to push the tides back.
Duncan looked at me with surprise as he took the blade back.
"What did she do?" Duncan asked curiously, "That was not quite the reaction I anticipated."
"I … you don't want to know. Suffice it to say, she can be terrifying." I said, getting control of my breath.
"Well, you can fear her or you can fear me." Duncan said, picking up one of the wooden practice swords. "You move, I hit you. Hard."
I furrowed my brow and looked up at him. He returned a steely look, letting me know that he meant every inch.
I centered myself again, quieting my mind and clearing my thoughts. As Duncan lifted the campaigner blade from my hands and I immediately sparked my rage within me. As the greatsword touched my palms, Silah started her menacing and I mentally roared in response. The world quieted and I could feel her influence held at bay.
"Yes!" I shouted, opening my eyes.
The wooden blade swatted me across my left cheekbone, immediately raising a stark red welt that oozed a trickle of blood.
I let Silah drop from my palms and pressed my hand to my face while springing to my feet, gripped with rage. I roared loudly at Duncan, whose eyes sparkled at my menace.
"Shall we try that again?" He said evenly, his mouth lined with a subtle smirk.
I glared at him while, reluctantly, returning to my position. I picked up Silah to hand to Duncan.
"I admit," her whispered words boomed from her hulking armored form, glowing eyes glittering with amusement, "This is much more fun than I expected."
By early evening, I was nursing a number of superficial wounds. I had taken a moment to bring Silah back to her human self while out of sight. She was tending to some of the splitting welts, dabbing at me with a wet cloth. It had been an inadvertent part of the training, but when I would fail to sit still, Silah began to warn me where Duncan's blows would come from.
There were points where I could react and block the wooden blade before it landed. Duncan was both annoyed and appreciative. Realizing that she was doing her part to protect me.
"That's not quite what I had in mind, but it's something." Duncan had said, annoyed, "We'll keep working on your ability to focus in the future."
Now it was the four of us, Tagaern and myself resting heavily on the table while Duncan sipped at an ale, looking on his work with satisfaction. Silah had been in quiet conversation with Duncan where my focus faded in and out. It was then that I heard familiar voices float over the light din of the outdoor area.
I felt a slap on my back.
"It looks like you've been through the worst of it." Bromm's voice held a tinge of humor.
I took a deep shuddering breath, feeling pain ripple through the various aches and pains that dotted my frame. I looked up, but didn't feel capable of saying anything.
Danin, Sig, and Floki all settled in around the table.
Duncan went through introductions, which I was too weary to follow up on. He explained to them how he knew Tagaern.
"You two hadn't met?" Sig looked to me.
"I showed up later, so there wasn't much time for introductions. I knew of the Red Shields, but I hadn't met Tagaern himself." I said, having trouble both thinking and talking clearly. "I had only been a member of the Grasslions for six months before the Mad King fell."
This surprised Sig; he looked incredulous.
"You've been telling us you're a veteran of this Ten Years War for how long, now?" Sig said, raising his hands in disbelief, "And you were only in it for six months?"
"Six months in the Grasslions, yes. I was a soldier long before that. I grew up in the camps, after all." I grimaced at Sig. "Why does it matter?"
"Well, calling yourself a veteran of a war seems pretty impressive when you leave off the six months part." Sig followed on.
Floki sniggered and I grit my teeth.
I looked between Bromm and Danin, checking their responses, but they didn't seem to be as concerned as Sig and Floki.
"You're saying I haven't proven myself? I'll kick all your asses." I growled.
"Calmly, my beast." She voiced aloud, her words oozing over me, quieting my temper while she continued to dab at my wounds. "Don't let them get to you."
I slumped again feeling every ache. I realized that I was also annoyed by Duncan's quiet, but he seemed to be watching my response, noting how I handled the conversation. I wasn't sure what kind of reaction he was expecting, though.
Bromm discussed the recent shipment from the go Brach brewery and, of course, there were Shatterhammer ales passed around, delivered by the ever present Amalia. I practiced focusing inward, feeling myself become insulated from both pain and the voices around the table.
"I'm exhausted." I announced, breaking into the conversation while sitting up, "I've got another day of this ahead of me, so I'm going to turn in."
I glanced at Duncan who gave me a slight smile and nod.
"And, Tagaern, these are the friends I mentioned, of course." I looked toward the others, "He's looking for work and I fully vouch for his ability."
I rubbed at the bone deep bruise on my collarbone that, over the course of two days, had turned a blotchy gray through my green skin.
"Can you join us tomorrow?" Bromm immediately turned to Tagaern with the offer. "We'll need some muscle for our stay in Dowry."
"I'll be ready." He nodded with a grin.
(Get to know Akeron.)