We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

Shadowblade: (A Dance of Fire and Shadow Book 1) – Chapter 8


I WAKE TO THE COMPELLING aroma of stew bubbling on the clay stove, reminding me how hungry I am. I open one cautious eye. Morning is already here, early sunshine filtering through the tiny window, silvering dust motes swirling in the air. I am lying on the floor near the stove, propped against a pile of logs with one of the charcoal burner’s coarse blankets wrapped around me.

“Here.” Marin kneels beside me and puts a clay bowl of stew into my hands. His face has lost its deathly pallor and he has even managed to wash the blood out of his hair. Now it tangles around his ears in a mass of dark-honey curls that are rather on the long side for the military, but then nothing about him or his little band of warriors quite fits any familiar pattern.

No sign of the others. I can’t hear their voices outside.

I have an uneasy feeling that something of the Blade’s coldness still clings to me and Marin can feel it. He is looking at me with an odd mix of suspicion and concern and it wrenches my heart. Yesterday’s ripple of intimacy and attraction has been pushed aside by today’s caution.

“What took you so long last night, Ariel? It’s obvious something happened to make you pass out like that.”

I give myself a little more time to reply by applying myself hungrily to the food but I had already figured out a story before I dared to open my eyes this morning.

“I went out hunting early yesterday. I had no sooner bagged that boar and strung it up for safekeeping when I got caught up in the aftermath of all the fighting and had no time to eat anything.”

He frowns, unconvinced. “Forest dwellers I know can fast for several days if they have to. We couldn’t rouse you enough to even drink anything last night. And here you are, partly recovered already.”

I try again. “You’re soldiers, used to all this slaughter. I’m not. Maybe it’s difficult for you to imagine how it affects anyone else.” It feels uncomfortable lying to someone who is trying to look after me but it feels worse to acknowledge that I seem to have buried my grief and shock so deep that I’m not really feeling it yet. The denial is helping me to function in a dangerous situation but I’m already wondering if I have started to grow into the coldness I sensed when the Blade touched me.

Marin stares at me but says nothing. I grab the opportunity to steer the conversation away from my own activities.

“Marin? How come we found you unconscious outside when we got back last night?”

He takes my empty bowl and turns back to the stove to refill it. Now I can tell that it is him playing for time and working out what to say. I can almost feel it in the air. He hands me the food.

“If you are going to hold back the truth you can hardly expect any of us to trust you with what we’re doing.” He searches my face for clues to what I might be hiding and I wish I could sink into the quiet, strong reassurance he seems to radiate to the whole world, but not to me. Not anymore.

Why are we suddenly treating each other as enemies?

“Marin, this is crazy. We’re in the middle of an invasion and we have to find a way to work together. All I’m trying to do is get to the city to find my sister and the people from my village who were captured as slaves. Maybe you could help me with that?”

Marin shakes his head. “Sorry. The Eldrin are sworn to protect the realm, even at the cost of our lives. Our orders are to try to liberate everyone, not just one special group.”

Hm. Not encouraging, but maybe we can find some common ground here.

“So you need every extra person you can recruit. I’m good with a bow.”

He almost smiles. “We noticed. Impressive shot you used to bring that boar down. But Nem tried your bow last night and said you would have to be incredibly close to get the arrow so deep. That says dangerously reckless to me.”

My turn to smile. Right appraisal, wrong conclusion.

“More careless than reckless. The thing was charging straight at me and I didn’t sense where it was until a few seconds too late. Well, almost too late.” I wave my bowl. “I’m still alive and the pig is in here. Dinner.”

This time he laughs and the heavy exhaustion fades briefly, letting his rediscovered strength and optimism shine through. The weight of responsibility vanishes for a few precious seconds across the handsome contours of his face.

“And a very timely gift it was. Thank you. The last few days have been… difficult. Hard work in more ways than just the physical demands of fighting a huge army.” He hands me a couple of throwing knives. “Can you use these?”

I carefully put down the bowl and flick the small, well-balanced blades at the wooden beam above the window, hoping to get them touching each other. At least they stick but the aim is dreadful. I grin ruefully.

“Never been my strong point I’m afraid.”

But I have his attention now and I seize my chance. “Will you teach me to fight?”

He considers. “I only have today while the others are collecting weapons. And neither of us is fully recovered––”

“Just a few basics? And if I’m not good enough we go our separate ways?” Even before he answers I know I have his interest. He is visibly restless to get moving and impatient already with the tedious task of recovering his strength. He moves to the pile of gear everyone left stacked in the corner of the hut and pulls out a bundle.

“Here. See how you get on with this. Jass didn’t survive the battle. The others buried her in the forest. Maybe you can take her place.” He helps me into the leather tunic and chainmail. I’m amazed at how light it is, nothing like the thick heavy versions used by the Rapathians or even the gear of our own regular soldiers. Marin watches me pulling at it, weighing it in my hands.

“Yes. You noticed. Everything the Eldrin use is designed for speed and agility. We have already practiced ways of using that to our advantage against the way heavy mail slows a warrior down, but after yesterday’s experience there are some new things I want to try.”

Seems I timed my request to fit perfectly with Marin’s own agenda. I watch carefully as he straps into his harness. I want to look competent, as if I’ll be a fast learner. To my surprise, I find my fingers imitating his movements almost perfectly. He notices, acknowledging with a slight dip of his head.

“Not bad. Shall we?” He waves me to the door.

In the clearing outside the hut I use my knife to shorten my green-camouflage shift to match the mailshirt. I stand watching Marin, following his movements to draw the twin swords strapped at my back. Then I test the feel of them. They are unlike anything I’ve handled before, so light and well balanced they seem almost an extension of my arm.

Then I hesitate, feeling a kind of elusive ripple running through the blade into my hand. A sudden intuitive awareness tells me they can inflict more damage than weapons four times their weight. How can this be? I move my arms slowly and deliberately, trying to understand what is happening here.

Marin watches me. “Crysteel. Used only by the Eldrin. A secret of forging known to very few.”

I’m still staring at the weapons in my hands. “There is more to these than clever forging and crystals.” Gendel had experimented with different methods a few times but none of the results had ever felt quite like this. Marin’s tone changes, becoming dismissive.

“Yes. There’s more. But to learn about it is a privilege that has to be earned. If we were not in the grip of an invasion you wouldn’t even get as far as touching them.”

Maybe I have been taking the apparent acceptance of this elite group a little too much for granted. I stand in silence, wondering what on earth step one is going to be and hoping it doesn’t involve slashing inexpertly about with the pair of razor-sharp blades in my hands. Marin flexes his arms a couple of times to loosen up and I nervously try to copy. Then I see him trying not to laugh and a flash of indignation runs through me.

“What? You’re not supposed to mock beginner’s ineptitude!”

“Sorry. I could read it in your eyes. You were getting ready for a full-on attack. I’d forgotten our own recruits get a chance to see how the moves are done before they ever get their hands on steel.”

Right. I’ve just learned something useful. Read your adversary’s face. Anticipate next moves. Inexpert attack must have been written all over me. I must learn to give misleading signals.

“Go on then. You move, I copy.”

He starts to go through the basic forms. At first it seems pointless, like dancing around empty air but at least it helps me to get used to the weight and feel of the things in my hands. Then the moves begin to take shape and meaning, the way words started to come to life when my mother taught me to read.

Move, turn, feint, slash. Step, recover, block, lunge.

I copy Marin’s every move, noticing the subtle differences and irregularities he is starting to introduce into the pattern. If we were sparring, those differences would throw me off balance enough to let him get through my guard. I will need to adapt the standard ones he first demonstrated––

How am I figuring all this out?

I notice Marin’s frown as he watches my performance and I have an uneasy feeling he has noticed something a bit strange in the accurate way I’m copying him. He sheaths his blades.

“A few minutes’ rest. We both have to be on top form again tomorrow ready to move on. Better not push too hard.”

I nod and put away my own weapons, noticing how easily I find the sheaths at my back even though this is only the third time I have done it. Seems like Marin noticed as well. I’m starting to wonder what else he has noticed about me, and whether the questions are going to start again. He cuts four hazel sticks from a tree by the fence and hands me two of them.

“Here. Try putting the same sequence into practice against me. That means instead of copying, you have to find the reciprocal moves that block or find a way through.” He steps back and repeats the first sequence in slow motion, his eyes moving deliberately ahead of his hands to show me which way to anticipate.

This is exhilarating. It’s so easy, like dancing and mind-reading at the same time. The slow pace is not tiring in spite of the fact I have not fully recovered all of whatever it was the Blade took from me last night.

We go through the whole set a few times before he starts to bring in the tiny variations that catch me out and I find myself being tripped and landing abruptly on the grass, or suddenly backed against the hut wall with a hazel point at my throat. Another few repeats and I know each variation as if I’ve been using them for years. By the time we have danced round five more times, I have worked out the counter-moves.

Marin increases the speed of his attack and stops giving me warnings with his eyes––and I’m flat on my back again.

Hell’s gates! I’m not having this. There has to be something that gives him away.

I watch for the tiniest flicker, but he’s good. His face is impassive and his movements smooth as water despite his strength and height. He is almost a head taller than I am and I can sense the latent power in the corded sinew and muscle even though I can tell that so far he has only used a fraction of what he is capable of.

What about balance? I notice him weighting his right foot in some parts of the sequence. Another round and I have him pegged for maybe a fifth of his forms.

I bide my time, letting him think I’m only going to block and parry. Somehow I remember to keep my own expression blank as I anticipate his step variation, then move to the opposite side of the parry I used each time before––and I’m through his guard. A foot behind his ankle and in a flash he’s on the ground with my boot on his wrist and my hazel an inch from his face.

I can’t resist a huge grin of delight as I step back. He will have to accept me now! I roll my shoulders and watch him spring back onto his feet, quick and graceful as a cat. I’m waiting for the words of praise, the acknowledgement that I am a promising student––

And then I see the expression of horror on his face.

“Ariel. What have you done?”

“Wh––”

He steps toward me and takes the wands out of my rigid hands.

“I thought I felt it last night when Brac carried you inside and we checked you over to find out what was wrong. You think I haven’t seen it before? Some of them think they can use it to get into the military––or even the Eldrin. We have to learn to spot it before they improve too much and get out of control.”

“You knew? Even before you started teaching me?”

“I needed to be sure. You’re right at the beginning of it aren’t you?” His look of horror has passed, replaced by such sadness I wish I could turn back time and reassure him I’m just an ordinary village healer and hunter. Maybe just special enough to rediscover that alluring ripple of attraction that flashed between us last night.

Suddenly I feel exhausted. I have overrun my reserves again. The best I can manage is folding myself onto the grass instead of collapsing in an undignified heap. At least I don’t have to lie to him anymore.

“Marin, I need every advantage I can get if I’m going to rescue my sister.”

I force myself to meet his eyes, not wanting to see the closed-off rejection there. I’m surprised at how much it hurts. Maybe if yesterday hadn’t happened it wouldn’t be quite so painful. If the enticing connection that sparked between us while I was treating his wounds wasn’t such a contrast to the way he is looking at me now.

It feels like a very long, awkward silence. Reluctantly I take off the harness and give him back the blades.

“I suppose I had better leave. Let you to get on with whatever your plans are.”

The hazel eyes are avoiding mine.

“I wish it were that easy.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know we can’t let Shadowblade adepts run wild in the country. The Eldrin are all under strict orders to prevent the murder and extortion they inflict on innocent people.”

I always assumed they were killed after they had committed a crime. No wonder my mother kept her gift secret. I am on my feet and starting to back away even though I know I won’t get far in my weakened state.

“Marin, I’ve done nothing wrong!”

“You will. It’s inevitable. It always happens. I’m sorry.” He moves suddenly towards me and grabs my wrist.

I don’t have the will to struggle, more aware than ever of his height and steely strength.

“Don’t… I won’t try to escape. Just give me a chance to explain.”

He releases me and steps back, waiting to pounce the moment I try to run. I turn away from him and walk into the hut. He follows, shuts the door and leans on it.

“Go ahead.”

I perch on the wooden bed, unsure if my legs are going to support me. I try to avoid the sense of attempting to justify my right to stay alive.

“Before she died my mother told me she had carried the gift her whole adult life. She said most adepts commit murder to gain the blood offering and because I didn’t do that I should be able to resist the temptations this kind of power will bring.”

For an uncomfortable instant the image of the drowning Rapathian and his horse pushes itself in my face. I force myself to ignore it. I had a right to defend myself. Hopefully something like that doesn’t count, especially in a war zone.

Marin isn’t convinced. “The problem is, you have no proof. Five years ago the king issued an edict that the Eldrin were no longer obliged to wait until an adept went as far as killing someone, seeing as they had already killed for the currency to buy the Blade’s power in the first place. We were tasked with removing potential threats before it was too late. It sounds harsh, but the fact is the number of innocents slaughtered by Blade adepts went right down.”

I think rapidly for a few moments. “If we could find the people from my village they would all testify that my mother was a good healer who helped everyone. Wouldn’t that prove I could do the same?”

He doesn’t reply and I pile in with another justification.

“I was taught enough history to know a lot of laws change in a war or occupation. You’re going to need all the help you can get. If I’m becoming such a skilled fighter, you need me––and if I become part of your team you would know straight away if I start to go out of control.”

Marin gives me a long searching stare and seems about to reply when I hear the others returning outside. He lays his hand on the latch.

“I’ll talk to the others. See how they feel about it.”

“But you’re their captain––”

“I can’t order them to work alongside a potential liability if they don’t feel they can do it. I’m asking them to put their own lives at risk based on the word of someone we hardly know. Someone who was willing to risk losing her soul for a chance to gain personal power.”

He disappears outside. I move closer to the door, trying to hear what is being said but I can only make out fragments when voices are raised.

“She helped us. We’ve never seen that before––”

“No! Abomination––”

“… get us all killed––”

Then things go quieter and I am left attempting to guess the outcome. I try to imagine how I would feel with a powerful unknown suddenly added to my team. An unknown who willingly joined a category of people whose reputation is disreputable and untrustworthy to say the least. By the time the door opens I have concluded there is only one sane decision they can make.

I’m sorry Alina. Looks like I failed you. Dead before I could even find you.

The four of them walk in and sit down. Marin glances round at the others before speaking.

“We decided to take you with us, to see if what you say is true. But you have to accept that we will be watching you and any action that shows you are just another ruthless, self-serving Shadowblade adept will be your last.” He hesitates, watching my reaction. “It won’t be easy, living under those conditions.”

It takes a few moments before it sinks in that I’m not about to be dragged outside and summarily executed. Reclaiming all the obligations that staying alive involves feels like a weight settling back on my shoulders. I can’t understand how Marin persuaded them to go along with this.

“Thank you. I don’t suppose it will be easy for any of you either.”

Nem’s grunt is a mix of agreement and contempt. I search for something reassuring.

“I took the Blade’s gift hoping I can beat the kind of corruption it usually brings. If I fail to do that, I would rather be dead than become the kind of murdering monster I’ve heard about in the stories.”

“Don’t worry. You will be.” Nem gets up and stomps out. Marin turns to Brac and Deris.

“Go and help Nem finish storing those weapons.”

When they have gone out the two of us sit in silence for a while. Marin hands me back the harness.

“Don’t mind Nem. She’ll follow orders on this. Just be aware she and Jass had a thing going these last few weeks and she’s taking the loss hard. Seeing you take over her lover’s gear so soon… I wouldn’t do it in normal times but we have an invasion to deal with.”

As if my questionable affiliations weren’t enough of a problem. It isn’t going to be easy keeping out of Nem’s way. So many questions I want to ask, but it feels precariously like the time I tried to cross the village pond when it froze over one winter and the ice started cracking when I reached the middle. One move in the wrong direction now and I’ll be in for more than a soak in freezing water.

Marin is an enigma once more. Whatever his personal thoughts and feelings may be, he has hidden them under the cloak of self-discipline that seems to guide his life. I decide to keep my questions simple.

“What happens next?”

“We leave tomorrow. Head for the city. If our two spies there are still alive we collect their information and then decide what to do.” Marin opens the door. He doesn’t smile. “Meanwhile we take another risk and I spend the rest of the day teaching you how to fight.”


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset