There are few things I hate more than training with wooden weapons. They always felt slick in my grip, as though they would tear free at any moment. The weight was another problem. How was someone supposed to receive proper instruction in training with any weapon while wielding it's wooden equivalent? Boldrin had advocated the practice quite strongly when I was with the band but it had always felt off to me. I found myself sneaking off to train with proper steel whenever the opportunity allowed.
Unfortunately, it was the only thing that I was given and I hadn't complained. According to Elora, just allowing me into this small training ground had taken her two days of needling and when I asked her if I could train with a real sword she had said that Vera wouldn't allow it after what happened at the gazebo.
That was strange in and of itself. I had stopped myself from hurting Cellus, hadn't I? For Spirit's sake, I should have been rewarded for managing to stave off the Bond for so long, not punished because of the actions of an idiotic Duke.
These thoughts were part and parcel with my mood over the last few days. When I wasn't practising how to bring my soul under control with Elora then you would most likely find me here, honing my craft and staying sharp.
The Princess had confirmed, in no uncertain terms, a few days ago that I was safe as long as I was Bonded with her, reinforcing what Yale had told me during our short meeting. It was nice to know, but it meant nothing if the Duke or some other Noble who felt like slitting my throat just waited until after the Bond was broken. Elora probably wouldn't even know it was happening. She might never find out. I don't think she expects to stay in touch with me after all this is over. The worst part of it was how happy Elora was when she told me, apologising for not informing me of the fact sooner. For some reason she thought that it would assuage my fragile nerves and reassure me that everything would be okay. I had tried to look relieved for her sake but it had merely put a time limit on what I saw as my inevitable fate. At least it was something, I guess.
I was trying to enjoy the time I had, losing myself in Boldrin's forms and listening to the small fountain that burbled away in the centre of this small arena. It was a nice enough place, to be sure. Far removed from the sights and smells of training with Boldrin in some field, but that was the problem. It felt too sterile, too safe. Not to mention that everything looked flawless; from the carefully leaden stone floor to the pillars of marble that ringed the circular arena.
At least it was open air, with sunlight and the bright blue sky hanging above me. The sun was beginning to fade as we moved from summer, but it was still hotter than was expected and I was painfully aware of the sweat running down my back. I wanted to rip off my shirt and practice but that would no doubt be unseemly in such a place as this. Plus, Vera had seemed to be really interested in my scars and there was a few I just didn't like talking about. I was surprised I had even talked to Elora about her. That scar was the freshest one I had and despite how I had played it in front of the Princess, it still filled me with sadness at the thought of how it was gifted. I didn't think she'd actually try to kill me. It was my surprise that almost cost me my life and Tessa who saved it. Something I had thanked the young woman for profusely but she brushed off my every attempt at gratitude with a comment about being too relaxed in a potentially dangerous part of the world.
I couldn't help but agree with her. But in my defence it was my first real relationship apart from tumbles in the hay with random women I met on our journeys across the continent. I had fallen hard for this girl, whose name I purposely chose never to mention, or think about. It didn't work as well as I wanted it too and she popped up in my head more often than not, but it had gotten easier over the last few months. I wonder if she still thought about me? Still remembered the good times we spent together? I doubted it. I'm almost positive that she was working me from the start, though I don't know why she had kept up the facade for so long if she had just wanted to end my life. I had been asleep with her in bed enough times that her killing me would have been almost pathetically easy.
I shook my head of the stray thought and began to run through Boldrin's forms again, quick and aggressive, meant to overwhelm and destroy as quickly as possible. Boldrin was not a subtle man and it showed in the way he fought. Of course, he wielded a battle axe in one hand and a sword in the other, making the mounting of a stout defence all but untenable, and his size was another factor which aided him in making the most out of the style he taught me. I had added my own spin to it over the years, of course, seeing as how I wasn't nearly as strong as Boldrin and couldn't effectively wield two weapons at once without running the risk of hurting myself. My own version of his techniques were faster and make use of having an extra hand free to attack as needed. Boldrin had always told me that people tend to forget that while one hand may hold a weapon, the other limbs are far from being harmless. A well-timed kick or even a rap of knuckles against a helmet can confuse an opponent as they tried to figure out what you were doing. It was something I was still working on mastering, having not really been able to focus on anything else but the sword after Boldrin had gifted me one. Turning one hand into a weapon had been hard enough, doing it with my whole body was another matter entirely.
I breathed heavily and struck the blade of my wooden sword against the ground, leaning against it as I rapidly drew in the heated air. As I did, my eyes could not help but wonder towards my 'bodyguards'. Though I would prefer to call them jailers.
I had tried to speak with them several times after I had first awoken, but to no avail. From the white cloaks they wore I could tell that they weren't part of the normal palace guard, which wore a bright red, or the Princess' guard, whom were all female and wore a dark blue. After asking Elora I had discovered that these were the guards that protected the King and Queen directly. Though most of their number had joined the Royal couple on campaign, some had been made to stay behind as a symbol of the authority of the Steward of Venos. Apparently, they were absolutely loyal to the Crown and the Princess had claimed they were incorruptible. Then again, a few days before she might have make that same claim of the palace guard, which would have been woefully false.
How in the name of the Spirit did I end up here? Up until the wedding all I had been worried about was getting a job and settling down in my home town. Instead, I now found myself neck deep in the politics of the realm and surrounded by the most powerful men and women of the Kingdom, more than a few of which I suspected would much rather I was six feet under than anywhere near their Princess.
“Well done, sir!” A familiar voice called at me from the shade of one of the towering marble pillars.
Beatrice was clapping her hands and staring at me with undisguised awe, her smile so large it threatened to consume her freckled face entirely. I bit back a weary sigh at the sight of my personal maid.
As much as I had enjoyed Bea's company over the last few days, seeing as she was the only person I had any real interaction with outside the Princess, her painfully cheerful demeanour was starting to grate on my nerves. Since what happened at the gazebo, the red-haired wonder was never without a smile on her face. I suspected that it was forced at times because, despite the assurances of the Princess, Beatrice still believed she had done something horribly wrong when she had brushed against me during that ill-fated lunch. It had taken me and Elora nearly an hour of coaxing and needling to get her to touch me again and test my progress with controlling my soul, something the maid had been vehemently against. I could tell that the young maid was interested in me from the way that I caught her looking from the corner of her eye, but her refusal to go anywhere near me, even if I was just in her general vicinity, was putting something of a dampener on my non-existent love life.
Not that I could complain too much. Beatrice was so innocent and pure-hearted that I don't think I could do anything even if she had been willing and she was nothing if not an attentive and well-trained maid. Often seeing to my needs before I'd even voiced them myself.
I should stop being so ungrateful, but being locked up had a way of getting under my skin. I wanted to go outside, and not to the fucking Gardens! They may be beautiful but it reminded me of being inside some kind of exotic animal exhibit that I had often seen in the south. It looked nice enough but it was still a prison, and the one time I had wondered towards the gates I was told by my guards, in no uncertain terms, that I was to go no further unless I wanted to be bashed over the head and dragged back to my room.
There was one upside to all this, of course. That being learning more about Knighthood. It had been fascinating during that first meeting with Elora. Learning more about what made a Knight was something of a dream of mine and I was finding it a lot more complicated than I had been envisioning it in my head. The meditation that Elora had taught me was something that I still found incredibly difficult. It took me a long time to 'think of nothing but the self' as she put it and even the smallest of distractions could remove me from the state easily. This was something Elora said that all Knights went through, though from a young and malleable age. Apparently my troubles stemmed from the fact that I was old, a complaint I had never heard before, considering I'm only eighteen.
The exercises themselves were rather strange. On the rare occasions that I had somehow managed to maintain the empty state that Elora demanded of me it was just like when we Bonded for the first time. I was back in that void, filled only with the growling black flames of my soul that were speckled with silver sparks. Elora had told me to ignore those sparks for now, despite that they may hold the key to my primary element. What a strange system for discovering what someone's power was. How did streaks of white across Vera's blue soul mean ice? How do they know that is the primary affinity and not the secondary? What did the sparks mean and how did they affect my soul in any meaningful way? They were so small, dwarfed by the flames that surrounded them, so much so in fact that I had dismissed them as non-consequential. Elora had told me that I would figure it out in time but I couldn't see that happening. Of all my virtues, or lack thereof, patience was definitely not one of them.
These questions and more had broken my concentration more times than I could count so I had forced myself to place them to the back of my head for now and accept the explanation of 'just because'.
I had started to compress the flames where I could. It involved taking control of the fire, soaking them with my consciousness and pulling them to their core that sat at the centre. It was a surprisingly painful and strenuous exercise. More than once I had emerged from the depths of my soul covered in sweat and my body racked with a biting pain. It was an exhaustion I had never felt before, even when compared to spending hours on the battlefield and it made me not want to do the exercise again. If not for Elora's insistence that it would help with the Bond then I would have seriously considered just leaving it be, especially because the training led nowhere.
Vera would never allow Elora to Bond with me again, so it was all a moot point. It had helped the Bond's neediness, however. The test with Bea had proven that. The Princess' eyes had flared with rage briefly when the young maid had touched me, causing the red haired woman to freeze and tremble beneath her intense gaze, but no other troubles had become apparent. It was great progress if I had ever seen it and I had been rather happy that Elora had been able to control her temper.
The Princess shot me down quite ruthlessly, however, when she said that the fact that she could better control herself meant I could effectively control the flames in my soul, not that I had made any real progress in compression.
For a split second I had thought that maybe I was some kind of prodigy, but reality gave me good dose of humility and a slap on the face. The worst of it was that Elora had immediately seen my downcast look and tried to comfort me with awkward pats on the back. I'm unsure what was more humiliating.
I swiped the wooden sword through the air and returned it to it's sheath, only to realise that it didn't have one on account of being wood. I could barely contain my dismay but it was better not to complain, lest they take even this small concession from me. I wiped a hand against my brow and checked to make sure my hair was secure tightly behind my head before walking towards my nervous maid, who all but threw the towel she clutched in her hands at my face as I approached. I chuckled at that, and began to dab at my body.
“Thanks, Bea,” I replied half-heartedly and indicated for her to lead the way back to my room. “How are you? Haven't seen you since last night.”
Beatrice immediately looked contrite. “Apologies, sir, but some of the others were meant to help in the great hall but had to aid the Princess in getting dressed this morning, so I had to assist with some chores.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Elora can't dress herself?”
“N-no! Of course she can. But her Highness had a meeting with the royal council this morning and the dresses for occasions such as those are rather difficult to get into.”
“How about getting out of it?” I teased, unable to help myself and laughing at the slow blush that crept up the redhead's cheeks.
“Sir! You mustn't speak like that.” Bea whispered hoarsely, though loudly enough for me to hear, despite her being six feet away. I could almost feel the glare of the two guards behind me. Vera would most likely get a detailed report on how the 'common mercenary' was undressing the Princess with his eyes.
I rolled my eyes. “Just a joke, Bea, don't have a heart-attack.”
Despite my words the maid, right on cue, began to hyper-ventilate and I gave her a moment to calm down as we walked. This sort of behaviour didn't even faze me any more. Beatrice was a fragile thing and, in my opinion, woefully unprepared to work in such a high stress environment as the Venosian palace. I would never say that to her though. If I did she might just drop dead on the spot. I wonder if she was this stressed when she worked for her previous patron?
“Y-you shouldn't joke, sir,” Beatrice said leaning closer, though not close enough to touch her. “The guard take every comment rather seriously.”
“Yes, I'm sure they do,” I replied before turning and giving my grim-faced guardians a cheery wave that only resulted in their expressions becoming darker. “You'd think that they would lighten up after a while. We're basically friends now, ain't that right guys?”
The younger guard on the right glowered at me. “Eyes forward, Sir Orin, sir.”
And there it was. It must have been the nicest way of telling someone to fuck off I'd ever experienced. I suspected that when the Bond eventually was removed that those two would be the first in line to give me a beating. It was something that, despite my own paranoia, I was very much looking forward to. After all, I was a fighter and who could say they'd ever fought members of the Crown's personal guard? Not me, that's for certain. Not yet.
“So did you see Elora at all this morning, Bea? Did she say if she was stopping by later?” I asked, trying to keep the eagerness out of my voice.
Beatrice's company was nice and all, but she was just as subservient as everyone else in this palace. While it was fun to tease her now and again, it got old after a while and I just wanted someone to talk to who would actually listen. Someone to shoot the shit with, so to speak. It was something I missed most about being in the band.
“I'm afraid I didn't get to see her, sir. But I would think that she would be too busy today. I heard last night from her assistant that she has meetings arranged over the next few days. I'm unsure if she'll be able to see you anytime soon.”
“Ah, of course. She's a Princess, after all. Couldn't expect anything else.” I said, trying and failing to keep the bitterness out of my voice.
Elora had said that she was going back to work yesterday and I understood that meant she would have less time to spend with me. After all, the Princess of the realm didn't just stand around looking pretty, she had meetings with Nobles from across the country, discussing various issues that I'm quite sure would go right over my head. I was surprised to learn that, but it made sense. Elora was to be the future ruler of this country and apparently it was a common fact that Smiths tended to most affairs of state while the Knights were responsible for very little besides making sure their combat abilities were up to snuff. Of course, Knight rulers were expected to lead during times of war but in all other affairs, it fell to the Smith to handle the politics. I don't know how she did it. Elora seemed to be a woman with a good head on her shoulders and a firm grasp of reality. How could she stand to listen to some Noble waxing pretty about how his farms aren't doing as well as he thought they would and blaming the Crown for the trouble? Spirit, it was giving me a headache just thinking about it.
We arrived back at my room in short order and Beatrice asked if she could do anything else for me. I had already broken my fast so I just shook my head and watched the young woman bounce down the corridors, no doubt on the hunt for more work to do. Say what you want about the flighty maid but no one could accuse her of having a poor work ethic. I was almost sad to see her go in a way, but I couldn't keep her here just to have someone to talk to, that would be too selfish of me. Beatrice was the new girl here and a commoner besides. She needed to make a name for herself as a good worker for her employment to continue and I could understand that.
I walked into my opulent room and closed the door behind me, not even sparing a glance at my guards before walking to the room's centre and plopping down on the floor.
The curious thing about the floor in the palace was that it was inscribed to be hot in the winter and cool in the summer, which felt nice as I crossed my legs, feeling the cold marble relieve the almost unbearable heat from my aching bones. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to rest. Not with more training to do. This, however, was nowhere near as enjoyable as swinging a sword. Even a wooden one.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on my 'inner self' as Elora called it. I had taken to calling it the void, but what did I know? I'm just a commoner, after all.
I shook my head and silently rebuffed myself. I really needed to stop doing that. Elora wasn't my friend, not really. Training me how to do this was for her benefit as much as it was mine and I knew that. I had a small, childish hope inside me that she liked me at least a little bit, and that my presence here wasn't some kind of burden or drain on her time, but I couldn't help feeling that way sometimes. I believe that might stem from some residual childhood trauma, the need to be liked and treated as an equal was a strong pull for me. It had helped push me into becoming the man I am today, but I had learned long ago that one couldn't base their entire lives purely on the opinions of others. I could usually suppress that side of myself but sometimes it just popped out of nowhere and steered my actions independent of my own thoughts. It usually involved the bigger influences in my life, like Boldrin and Sister Erin. I didn't want to let either of them down, so I tried my best to ensure that I was always doing what they expected of me, regardless if I wanted to do it or not. For some reason, these same emotions had risen upon meeting the Princess and speaking to her privately for the first time. I'm not saying it makes sense, it's just the way I felt. I was silently crushed that she had to go back to work and I had taken it as something of a personal slight, when I knew, logically, that I really shouldn't. She was the Princess of Venos, after all, and had great responsibilities that she needed to attend to. To keep her away from her place in this Palace, from the people who relied on her, would be the height of selfishness.
I frowned as I realised this revelation of mine let me understand Cellus a little bit more. Cellus knew that Elora loved him, I was sure of it, but, like me, he felt rejected and slighted by her actions despite them having nothing to do with him as a person or a paramour. Perhaps he was doing the exact same thing that I was doing? Trying to figure out where it all went wrong, what he had done or what she had done, going around and around in circles but reaching no satisfying conclusion.
I felt myself empathise with him a little more. He was still a dick, though.
My concentration was broken because of my line of thought and I opened my eyes and stared off into space. Why did she matter to me at all? I don't think that I had any significant feelings towards her but I did like having her around. I wondered again if it really was just loneliness or something else? She was beautiful, smart and had a knack for seeing through people that I found quite refreshing. These qualities were tempered by her innocence and supportive nature. She was nothing like I thought she was going to be. I had imagined her being quite unapproachable in the sense that all Nobles were. They were the upper echelon in society after all and the Princess stood above them in every way. She was more like the Sister in a lot of ways, caring about the people around her at the expense of her own happiness. Maybe we suffered from the same condition. We tried our hardest to ensure we didn't let anyone down and berated ourselves constantly when we did so it didn't happen again. I had felt stressed enough when I was only worried about the Sister and the kids, not even mentioning the lives of the other members of the band that fought beside me. How much worse would it be to be responsible for the fate of an entire Kingdom?
I closed my eyes yet again and settled down to begin to work. Elora was still at the forefront of my mind but I found that thinking about her soothed me in a way, allowing me to more easily slip between the spaces of my own self and settle next to the burning inferno that was my soul.
It took me a while but, finally, as my breathing evened out and my body became still, the feeling of falling overcame me. This had been another lesson from Elora. She said not to fight against it, to merely let it take me where I wanted to go. My unconscious self knew what I was attempting and I could almost feel the pull as I began to descend deeper and deeper into my core. Struggling against the current would break the spell over my body and move me back into the physical realm, but I had been getting better and better at allowing myself to go with the flow.
It didn't take long to reach that black void, the endless expanse that surrounded my black flames. If I was asked how I could distinguish my flames against a background of the same colour I would just shrug and shake my head. I just knew, there was no other way to describe it. Of course, the silver sparks were a help in that regard, but I would always end up where I wanted to be.
I looked at the flames with my mind's eye, watching them dance and spiral beautifully into the air. Comparing my turbulent fire to the almost sedate pace of Vera's once again, I couldn't help but think about how far I had to go. In my honest opinion, my soul didn't look any closer to compressing into that tiny core than it had when Elora had first started training me and I no doubt would have gotten more frustrated if I hadn't seen an example of how it was working in Elora being able to resist attacking Beatrice.
I took in a deep breath, both in my real body and the spiritual body that I had instinctively created, and got to work. Elora had said that Vera was impressed that I was able to construct a body in my soul's domain without any training but I didn't feel so good about that when I learned that Cellus had been able to do it since he was nine. Kind of took the wind out of my sails if the only Knight I could effectively compare my training to had done it before he was even old enough to shave.
I banished those thoughts from my head and concentrated. Just because I had gotten in here didn't mean that I could lose focus now. A stray thought or emotion might be enough to pull me out and viscously slingshot my consciousness back into my physical body. The backlash from such a thing resulted in me being basically useless for a couple of hours after the fact, though I didn't know why that was. I just knew that trying to even stand up after experiencing such a thing caused shooting pains to run through my body like nothing I had ever felt before and even if I was successful here, I knew that I would still feel some portion of that pain. It seemed to be an unavoidable consequence of tampering with the heart of one's very being.
I reached out without reaching out. My mind merged with the dark fire and I braced myself for what was to come. Emotions and memories rose up into my mind, just like they did when I had first Bonded with Elora during the wedding. I had asked Elora about this and she said it was something like a defence mechanism that the soul was capable of utilising. It used my experiences to try and torment those with approached, burning them with negative emotion rather than heat.
There was an odd degree of separation between the soul and myself. Shouldn't we be one and the same? I mean my soul is a part of who I am. The part, in truth. So why did it attack me like I was some kind of intruder? It was something that I hadn't found the time to ask Elora about purely because I had been too focused on the task at hand. The more time I spent here, in this black void, the more questions rose up in my mind but that didn't change my purpose.
The memories it showed me were horrific and had left me scarred when they actually happened, but they were just a shadow of that pain now, nothing that I had to be afraid of. Having had all the things it was showing me already happen, it was almost an non issue just to dismiss them and begin the slow and arduous process of bringing the black fire to heel. At least, that's what I told myself, but it was easier said than done. There was a part of me, no matter how small, that flinched at the mere thought of these past experiences. I fought against it, as I usually did, and triumphed, but seeing all that again was something that I didn't believe I'd ever get used to.
It took me a few moments before my sense of being had completely suffused the burning flames and I began the hardest part of this training. I began to pull the flames towards their natural centre, the core from which they sprouted. It was strange to be like fire, feeling the way my soul moved. It was without rhyme or reason, but hypnotic in it's own way. It was made all the more awe inspiring when you realised that this was the source of a Knight's power. While most came from the Smith there were a few things that only the Knight could do. Tempering the Soul was only one facet of this, another would be learning elemental control, but I was a long way from being able to even attempt such a thing.
To begin to develop my element, which would be Dark, I needed to compress my flames until they were at least half the size that they were now. I wasn't really optimistic about reaching this milestone any time soon. Even Cellus had yet to progress so far in his training and he had been at it since he was capable of understanding the concept. Something Elora also mentioned was that the reason that it hurt me so much to compress my soul was because of my age. If I had been doing it since I was very young, my body would have naturally gotten used to the stress that it was put under from compression. Because I hadn't gone through that process I would feel pain every single time I attempted the feat. It was annoying, of course, but I had felt pain before. Nothing quite as gruelling and draining as this, but enough that I knew it was only temporary. Part of me welcomed it, though it was a small part. Just like building your body, feeling uncomfortable was a way to know it was working. You had to break yourself down before you built yourself back up.
It hadn't been the first, the second or even the third time that I had come to appreciate this, but now I did. As much as I felt discomfort, I also felt a great sense of satisfaction after a period of compression, something I was enjoying more and more as the days passed. It was a far cry from my stance of wanting to pack it in all together that I had expressed to the Princess at the beginning of our training together, though I still found myself grumbling about it when I was in her presence, for no other reason than to elicit sympathy from the beautiful woman.
I smiled at that, but I didn't allow myself to lose focus and doubled my efforts. Though it didn't really look like it, I was sure that I had pulled in the flames by at least half an inch since I had begun to train. It was this, more than anything else, that let me know I was on the right track. Having Elora tell me I'm doing well is one thing, but actually seeing the results of my hard work was quite another and I felt validated upon seeing my progress.
I don't quite know how long I spent down there, in the bowels of my soul, in a silent war with the very core of my being. Time was a difficult thing to keep track of when you were surrounded by an endless void and I usually just kept at it until I physically could do no more. I would never do something like this if I was exercising, as working your body until it could be worked no more usually did more harm than good, but the kind of exhaustion I felt from compression only lasted for a few hours before fading entirely. It felt a lot worse, but I had accepted that by now.
When I had finished I pushed myself out of the void, allowing my consciousness to rise out of my inner sanctum by itself. I let out a groan of satisfaction and pain as I was once again felt my body, felt the sweat pouring down my back and face and aching bones that accompanied a successful foray into my soul.
This I expected. What I didn't expect upon opening my eyes was the face of a certain Princess to be merely inches from my own. Her face was red, her eyes wide, and her lips pursed as if she was trying to stop herself from screaming at me.
I yelped in surprise and fell backwards, smashing my back into the floor and causing my already hurting body to hurt all the more.
“By the Spirit, Elora! I nearly had a heart attack.” I winced and pushed myself to my feet, the Princess doing the same, but she didn't speak. It was only then that I noticed how red her eyes were. Had she been crying?
“Elora? What's wrong?”
The Princess opened her mouth to speak, before closing it again. She looked conflicted. Conflicted on a level that I had never seen before. She tried to speak again but all that emerged was a choked sigh. I walked up to her and placed my hands on her shoulders. She was shivering beneath my grasp and I knew that something was very, very wrong.
She started crying then, great tears falling down her cheeks as she threw herself against me and started to sob, her face pressed against the damp, sweat covered tunic I wore and her arms wrapped tightly around my torso.
I was so surprised I didn't do anything at first and simply stood there, dumbly, wondering what had happened. I had never seen her like this before. It only took me a moment before I returned the hug and held her close, not saying anything, the only sounds being her muffled cries as I held her gently.
“It's all gone wrong, Orin. Everything. It's all gone wrong,” Elora sobbed, her hands tightening around me. “My parents. My parents...”
I pulled away from the girl and held her at arms length, my hands on her arms and looking at her searchingly. “What's happened to your parents?”
Even before she answered I had some feeling where this was going. All I really knew about the King and Queen was that they were currently locked in conflict with Dunhold, a small Kingdom to the west of Venos. I had never been there personally but I had heard the stories, like everyone had, of Felman and his brutality towards his own people. I knew that he thought of himself as some kind of God-King, which was one of the reasons that Boldrin never wanted to take any jobs there. In a place like that, it would be all too easy to find yourself suddenly locked away in some dank prison for no other reason than failing to kiss the feet of the King's statue or some other such nonsense.
“The Council... they said... they said,” Elora was finding it difficult to even speak and her breathing was becoming heavier. I gently took her by the shoulders and led her over to the bed, sitting her down and taking a seat next to her. I took her hand in mine and held it comfortably until she had begun to calm down. She pulled her hand free from my own and wiped at her eyes.
“I'm sorry, Orin. I'm fine, just been holding that in since I saw the Council. Couldn't show weakness.” Elora chuckled and dabbed at her eyes.
“Couldn't show weakness about what?” I asked quietly, afraid to set her off again with the wrong words.
“Word has come from Dunhold. Mother and father are trapped behind the walls of Dunwellen, surrounded on all sides by an army that is more than double their own!”
“Double their own? How is that possible?” I asked, bewildered.
Elora explained what the council had discussed and then the decisions that followed. The problem was that Elora seemed to be looking for me to figure out some kind of solution. Short of somehow conjuring more Knights out of thin air, I couldn't even begin to see how,
The situation was easy enough to follow: The King and Queen had been outsmarted. It seems like they had been all set to simply destroy any resistance that Dunhold put forward because they had believed this war would be like the ones that had come before. Dunhold, or more specifically it's King, would talk a big game and inevitably fall to the superior army of Venos. This hadn't happened this time. In fact, the opposite had taken place. The enemy had even been blatant enough to walk through Venos to attack the Venosian army from the rear, which took balls big enough to sink a ship. I asked Elora if the King of Dunhold, Felman, had been the one to formulate this plan, but the Princess didn't know. I doubted very much that King Felman had managed to pull off an maneuver like this, not only pulling the wool over the eyes of a vastly superior foe, but also using their own assumptions against them. Whoever came up with this plan was surely someone with a tactical mind. They would suspect that Venos would discover that the King and Queen were under siege and send an army to their defence. Could Vera not see this? It was a trap. Well, most likely a trap.
“But what choice does she have?” Elora asked after I had explained my theory to her. “She can't just ignore that the King and Queen are in danger. She is the Steward of Venos, she has to respond.”
“I get that, I really do. Are you positive that she or Yale mentioned nothing about whose leading the Dunholdian forces?” I asked again, the question niggling at me.
Elora shook her head dejectedly. “No. But even if they did know, they wouldn't see the need to tell me about it. What can I do? I'm just a Princess, and how would that help things anyway?”
“If you know whose leading them, then you can take steps to plan for how they would react. Wars are fought by soldiers, but won by the commanders who lead them. You beat the commander, you beat the army.”
I shrugged. “By knowing who you're fighting. Especially in a situation like this when the enemy outnumbers you by so much. Vera going in blind like this is... well, it's definitely not ideal.”
Elora's eyes suddenly got wide and intense, her stare striking to the very heart of my soul. “How would you do it? How would you beat the Dunholdian army with ten thousand men?”
'I couldn't' I thought, trying to keep my face neutral.
How would I defeat an army with only a tenth of their number? It wasn't long before I came to a conclusion and while it was plan, I would hesitate to call it anything close to actionable.
“Sabotage and harassment.” I stated grimly.
Elora nodded. “Okay, what does that mean?”
“I would use a smaller force to...” I sighed. “Elora, this is getting us nowhere. I know you want to help your parents and I know this means a lot to you. But if I can think of this, then Vera and Annabelle will have. If that's the case then they already decided it wasn't something they could do with any degree of success.”
“But it's something!” Elora shouted, jumping to her feet and pacing back and forth, her hands scrambling against each other like she was trying to grab a hold of something that wasn't really there. “It's something that you can do. That we can do.”
I stopped and stared at the Princess, not attempting to hide the suspicion in my eyes. “Elora, why did you come here?”
“I... I just...” She ran over and sat next to me, taking her hand in mine. “We can save them, Orin. I know we can. We're stronger than any newborn pair-”
“Nope.” I cut her off, pulling my hand free. “That's insane. We're not going to run off and fight against an army by ourselves. Have you lost your mind?”
“But, but we wouldn't be alone! You could ask Boldrin! He'd come with us if you asked. I know it.”
“How do you know it, Elora? Spirit, Boldrin is a mercenary. He likes me, he trained me, but goodwill only gets you so far with someone like him. He'll want money, gold.”
“I can give him gold. I'm the Princess of Venos. I can promise at least that!”
“And that's the problem,” I said pointing at her face. “He'll see the desperation in you and use it for all that you're worth.”
“As long as he helps us beat back Dunhold, then I don't care.”
“You don't care now, not until it's time for him to collect. What if he asks to become a Knight? What if he asks for a Noble title and all that entails?”
“Will he ask for that?”
I grit my teeth. “Probably not, but the point still stands. You are putting yourself into a situation that puts you on the losing side. Never be on the losing side.”
“But I'd have you with me, wouldn't I? You'd make sure he didn't take advantage.” Elora batted her eyelashes at me. Literally, batted them. I could tell she hadn't done it a lot because she ended up doing some kind of half wink thing that was probably doing the opposite of what she was expecting.
“Cute.” I chortled.
“I know this is a lot to ask, Orin,” Elora said desperately, on the verge of tears once again. “Spirit knows I've asked enough of you already. But I need to save them. The Council were talking about them like they were already dead. The looks they were giving each other.... It was like they were resigned to it. I can't do that. I won't do that. What if it was the Sister, Orin? What if it were the kids? I need you. Please.”
“And if I say no?” I asked softly, watching her closely.
“Then I'd go anyway. I'd find a way to get there, with or without help and I'd try to stop them on my own.” The Princess said earnestly, her little hands tightening into fists.
I snorted. “You know nothing of war, Elora. You going there alone won't do anything but get you killed.”
“Yet I'd go anyway.” She said defiantly. “I'm tired of people telling me what I can and can't do.”
There it was. The fire in her. The one I had come to identify with. Had she always been like this? I didn't know but I liked to see it. It proved that she wasn't just the Princess of the people that she so often seemed to be. The soft hearted and dainty lady that would wilt under any amount of pressure. I had been in the palace long enough to know that everyone, including Vera and Annabelle, treated Elora with kid gloves. She wasn't an equal so much as a charge. She was told what to do, what to wear, when to laugh, when to smile. Her whole life was a series of instructions and now, when the time came for her to break free of those bonds, she didn't hesitate for even a second. For a moment, I glimpsed behind the facade that she had been building her entire life. The demure and fragile Princess fell away and displayed in it's place a Queen, a ruler of nations and leader of armies.
Shit. I might be in trouble here. She meant what she said. Even if I ran to tell Vera right now, she'd find a way to do it. She was committed, wholly and completely, even if it led to her eventual death. The very thought of that made the Bond scream with protest within my chest.
Could it be done? My gut says no, every fibre of my being is telling me that this is a terrible fucking idea. Boldrin has eighty swords, not enough to make any sort of difference against one hundred thousand men. We'd have to be smart and lucky. Really lucky. We can't fight the army, but maybe we could save her parents. A plan began to form in my head. It was insane and Boldrin would no doubt laugh at me for even bringing it up. It was almost as ballsy as walking an army half away across an enemy country. But... it might work. It could work. The Bond hummed with pleasure.
“You are... not what I expected, Princess.” I stated.
Elora blinked, confused. “Oh, and what were you expecting?”
“Not this. Definitely not this,” I smiled wryly at the Princess, making my decision before jumping to my feet. “Fuck it. If nothing else, it'll help me get out from behind these damned walls.”
“Really?! You'll really come?!” Elora shouted and joined me on her feet.
“Yeah, why not? I've been itching for a fight for a while now. If nothing else, it'll be an adventure.”
“Orin, thank you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Elora threw her arms around me, weeping and laughing in equal measure as I grinned and patted her back awkwardly.
“But, and this is a very big but, you do exactly what I say, when I say it. I mean it, Elora. No going off on your own. From the time we leave this palace to the time we get to Dunhold you are glued to my side. Got it?”
“Yes! Yes, anything else?” The Princess pulled away and beamed at me.
“Yes. We may have to Bond during this trip. In fact, I would count on us Bonding. It could cause it to become permanent. I'm going to ask this one more time. Do you really want to do this?”
She gave me a look of such intensity that I almost took a step back.
“Orin, I knew that when I came to see you. I know we might have to Bond, have to fight, have to... kill. But if it helps me save my parents then I would do anything. Besides,” Elora smiled, “There are worse things in the world than being your Smith.”