Elora was avoiding me.
At least, during the waking hours of the day. At night we would sleep together in the same wagon, mercifully empty of supplies, which had been our little home since the start of our expedition. But whenever I tried to engage her she would merely shake her head and curl up beside me, falling immediately asleep.
It had been three days since she had created the Forge, or been present for it's creation. She had explained what had happened inside my soul. Told me of the voice that spoke to her, that had destroyed her half-made Forge and replaced it with something entirely different.
She had explained as much as she could. The altar, the throne. How it had scared her. How it had terrified her. But that wasn't the worst part of it.
She had seen a part of me. A memory that was steeped in trauma and pain. It had taken me a long time to come to terms with what had happened back then. As a child I had thought I was helping the Sister by subjecting myself to torture like that, but I knew it for what it was now. She had found out, of course. I couldn't hide the wounds forever. I had never seen the Sister cry like that. I swore that I would never make her cry again but, according to little Delithia, I hadn't managed to keep that promise.
Elora woke screaming that first night. I had experienced my soul's defences myself, so I knew that it made you feel like you were really there, locked in one spot. It made you feel the emotions I was feeling at the time, made you experience the pain of every stinging blow. Elora had not had the most alluring of upbringings. She was oppressed and held down by rules and regulation at every turn but she had never experienced pain. True pain, that made you want to just die from the sheer agony of it. I wanted to take the pain away from her, but how? I could only be glad that it wasn't the worst of my memories that she had been subjected to. I wondered if that was my soul trying to protect her and, from what Elora had told me about our connection, it was definitely possible. It was Bonded to her, after all.
When she woke up, I would pull her over our little line of separation in the small space we had and into my arms. She would fall asleep soon after, but I would be left awake, holding onto the Princess of the realm and trying, desperately, to think of a way to help her.
But some things just needed time.
Those were the Sister's words. It was what she had told Pater and I after Leila had died. I had thought I had known better at the time. It was one of the rare moments in our lives where Pater didn't support me in something, where he had trusted the Sister in what she said. I was more cynical, but I had learned their value as I grew.
Time healed all wounds, as the saying went, but we didn't have time. Dunwellen was just around the corner. Elora and I needed to be ready to fight, but how could I do that if the very thought of going anywhere near my soul fills her with dread? I wished that the Sister was there in that moment, to help guide me through this mess that I had indirectly created.
The other mysteries, the self-made Forge, the voice and everything else that Elora said was strange hadn't really affected me quite as much. After all, all aspects of Knighthood were strange to me and while I will grant that it was weird to have a disembodied voice in my soul, I had been rolling with shit like this since Craven and his corrupted fire. After all, if it was capable of, or wanted to, harm me or Elora then surely it would have done so by now. No, my focus remained firmly on the mindset of my Smith.
On the third day on the road I awoke to find her missing, as I had the two mornings prior. I wasn't worried at all. There were few places that I considered to be absolutely safe in this world, but the band's camp was close enough. I had also spoken to Mildred the day before. Elora was becoming quite the popular figure among the young women in camp and would be with them again today, no doubt helping with the many chores that had to be completed as we prepared to leave tomorrow. That was another thing she had been frustrated with: time.
She was constantly on edge about our schedule and, despite my constant assurances, I don't believe that she thought we would be able to get to her parents before disaster struck. In terms of distance, Myrin wasn't that far from Dunwellen on the border with Dunhold. A reasonably experienced traveller could make the journey in three days if they pushed themselves. Boldrin had stated, and I agreed, that we would get there in six or seven days at the most. The reason we were stopping an extra night here was because we were at the edge of the forest of Estalin, which covered much of the area west of Myrin. After leaving, our ability to hide in the flatlands that followed would be severely restricted, meaning we would have to push ourselves to avoid discovery. There would be little rest once we left the forest's border. It wasn't ideal, especially after what Elora told me about how severe the situation was with the King and Queen's supplies, but it was the best we could do in the time we had. Especially as we had to stay away from well-established roads in favour of more isolated paths, both to avoid any followers from Myrin and scouts from the Dunholdian army ahead of us.
Not that I was worried about enemy scouts in that regard. Alec and his team were experts at what they did and were used to going without sleep for large periods of time. I had a huge amount of faith in their abilities as I had relied on them nearly constantly during my time with the band.
I went about my day as usual, starting with training up my familiarity with Boldrin's gifted sword. It was only slightly heavier than the blade I had been using when I had first arrived home, but it would add up over the course of a protracted battle if I wasn't used to it. Combat was all but a guarantee in the days to come, so staying sharp was a necessity in my mind.
I left my shirt off while I worked, not caring if the other members of the band, or Elora for that matter, saw my scars. They had grown used to them during my time as mercenary and I wasn't the only one with a past that they would rather not talk about, scars included.
I moved through the forms trying, and failing, to incorporate some of what I had seen of Vera's style of combat into my own techniques. I had only glimpsed it briefly during the battle with Craven, but what I had seen was beyond anything I myself was capable of. Vera was a veritable dancer of death, an artist whose every attack, be it with sword or glaive, ended the lives of those around her. There was no wasted energy, no pirouette or back breaking contortion to appear beautiful. No, Vera's style was graceful in the way it served it's function.
I had tried many times during my brief time in the palace to replicate a particular technique she had used after I had thrown the knife that set her free. Using only a dagger, she had killed three men in quick succession with what appeared to be a single blow. I tried once again to learn even the fundamentals of such an attack but found myself to be woefully ignorant of how it was performed. It was giving me a good workout, though, and I knew that it had at least made me more aware of my footwork, something that Boldrin had made sure to hammer into me over the years. If I didn't die in the next few days and wasn't thrown in prison for kidnapping a Princess, perhaps I could ask her how she had done it? The very thought of that excited me. Strength drew me like a moth to the flame and no one in the land was as strong as Vera, Knight or no Knight.
“Well, look who it is, guys. Baby Orin back from Myrin, tail between his legs,” The voice came from behind me and I could barely hold back my breathy sigh of annoyance. Of all the fucking times, now was not one I had hoped for.
“Hello, Dumas,” I grunted, straightening myself up and stabbing my new blade into the soft earth beneath my feet.
We were out of sight from the rest of the camp, behind the wagon Elora and I slept in. While I didn't mind people seeing my scars, I didn't go out of my way to show them off, especially to someone like Dumas who always had a comment to make. I turned to face the trio that was approaching me and was once again hit with just how large my self-proclaimed rival appeared to be.
Dumas had definitely taken after his grandfather, Lothmire, who, I was told, was a giant big enough to rival Boldrin himself. Dumas was a few inches shorter than the Brigade's leader, with blonde hair cut down to the scalp and muddy brown eyes. He was a handsome man, with a sharp jaw and a consistent smirk that could almost be misconstrued as charming if looked at in the right light. He was much loved by the young women of the camp, which was another point of contention for us when we were younger. He was always bigger, stronger and more skilled than I, which translated to lot more attention from the fairer sex. After all, I had always been of slight build and significantly shorter.
“Been some time, Orin. I'm sorry that I haven't been able to visit, but seems that we got a contract from a Princess and you know how I like to please the ladies.” Dumas spoke smugly, his smile turning into a full-fledged grin.
He wanted to get a rise out of me, that much was certain. It was childish, it was inane and beyond idiotic. Still it annoyed me, as it had done since I was fourteen.
“Have no fear, Dumas. The Princess Elora has no need of you. After all, she has her Knight with her,” I replied just as smugly, knowing that I shouldn't even as I did it.
Dumas and I have been playing this game for a long time. I think somewhere along the way we both began to enjoy it.
“So I heard,” Dumas muttered, his hand falling to the large blade that hung at his side. It was near twice the size of my own, a two-handed bastard that he could draw and swing within a second if pushed. “But we both know that I'm the better choice. I'm sure this Princess will realise her mistake in Knight when I save her parents from their tragic fate.”
“Of course, of course,” I nodded along with the larger man, “You are welcome to try, but I'm afraid it takes brains to be a Knight. You, my friend, are many things, but a scholar is not one of them.”
Dumas sneered at me and I returned it with just as much venom, my hand already on my new blade.
A snort arose from one of Dumas' companions, “By the Spirit, you two are worse than Mildred and Alec. Just kiss already and get it over with.”
I turned to the speaker and recognised the face of one of the band's greatest female warriors and Dumas' sister, Padma.
Padma is the younger of the two siblings, only a year between her and I. While I had grown up in the dark of Myrin's Commons, Padma was, like her brother, raised among the warriors of the band and took the principles of those hard taught lessons to heart perhaps even more than her great fool of a brother. Padma was slight where Dumas was large, but in the art of combat she was every inch his equal. They spent most of their time together and often fought together as well. In terms of who was the most powerful sibling, I would have to give that title to Padma. Not for prowess of the sword, but a sharper tongue. I even have one memory of Padma ridiculing Dumas so intensely that he ran off in embarrassment. He had been drunk at the time and had played it off as nothing the next day. Still, it had been a sight to see.
“Padma,” I smiled at the young woman, who nodded and returned my smile with something slightly more intense.
“Orin,” She breathed, her face turning red, “You've grown since I've last seen you. You look... stronger.”
Dumas frowned at her tone of voice and it was all I could do to not slap my palm against my head in futile defeat. I had thought perhaps that she would stop that in the short time that I was away but it was apparently too much to hope for. She knew that it would annoy her older brother, that's why she did it. Padma had no interest in me. I knew this for a fact because two years ago I, heavily drunk, had tried to do something about her incessant compliments and blatant flirting. That had gone about as well as I should have expected, with her laughing at me and walking away. I had been heart broken for a good week after that night.
“You should stop that, your brother gets confused easily,” I said wryly.
“No, I don't,” Dumas broke in, sounding a little like a lost puppy. “Padma, stay out of this. We will have battle. It is our way.”
“Yes, Padma! It is the way of warriors to shed blood and embrace pain!” The dramatic tone could only belong to Tacitus, the resident 'bard of the band' as he liked to call himself.
He was dressed up, as he usually was. His clothes were a mix of bright reds and verdant greens, with a yellow hat and matching sash strapped across his waist, all draped over his extremely thin frame. His black hair was immaculately combed beneath his hat and he had a twirling moustache that he boasted about constantly, though it took him near three years to actually grow the bloody thing. Despite being a self-proclaimed bard, I had yet to see him actually play an instrument. Despite his lack of musical, or combat, ability, Tacitus was liked by every member of the band. No one really knew where he had come from, with the possible exception of Boldrin. He had just turned up one day and started telling stories about his life, ones that changed as easily as the tides. Could he be annoying? Sure, but at least he provided entertainment on the cold nights between jobs. Now that I thought about it, I didn't even know how old the man was.
“I would be honoured to face you in battle, Tacitus, should you wish to join in the blood-letting.”
The man paled, his glorious moustache twitching in the wind. “N- no, noble Orin. I thank you for the invitation but I lost my weapon in an earlier battle, before you arrived.”
“Lost your courage more like,” Padma smirked, causing the blubbering bard to bristle at her.
“Padma, I would love to take part in this highest of callings. Unfortunately, there are no ladies here to fight for.”
Padma's eyes narrowed at the skinny man, “One day, Tacitus, I'm going to kill you.”
Tacitus' eyes widened, but he still managed to push out something that sounded like a cross between a dying pig and squawking crow. I think he was laughing at her, which showed he already had more courage than most.
“I-I'd like to s-see you t-try.” He really should have made that sound more convincing.
“Enough, both of you!” snapped Dumas, “I've come to battle Orin, why don't you go bother someone else?”
“Why? So if you lose no one will be here to see it?” Padma grinned, “Oh no, brother dearest. I will watch as Orin kicks your ass and then report every detail back to the entire Brigade. You know how grandmother laughed last time.”
Dumas turned red, “It wasn't that funny. She was milking it,”
“Come round, everyone! Baby Orin has challenged me once again! Watch as I thrash him!” Tacitus declared in his best impression of Dumas which, to be fair, was actually rather accurate.”You remember, Dumas? That's what you said last time.”
“Yes, I remember, Tacitus!” Dumas hissed at his friend before burying his head in his hands, “Please, Spirit, save me from these harpies!”
“Dumas, are we going to fight? Or are the three of you going to carry on for a little while longer,” I asked calmly. The three would never stop at this rate and I wanted to go and speak to Elora before long. For some reason the Bond was humming within my chest during Dumas, Padma and Tacitus' little argument.
Dumas grinned cruelly and hefted his huge blade, drawing it with one clean motion. Despite knowing how easily he wielded the bloody bastard, I was always surprised by the casual way he did so. As a person, Dumas left a a lot to be desired, but to not respect his skill as a warrior would be the height of foolishness.
He held the blade out in front of him, his reach giving him an edge that he would take full advantage of in the sparring to come. I say sparring, but our swords were sharp and one wrong move could end with the removal of my head. Dumas' style of swordplay was bombastic, with large, great strokes and slashes that could cleave a man in two. To the untrained eye it would seem that he was leaving himself wide open to a counter-attack, something I had assumed during our first ever bout near three and a half years ago. I had underestimated his speed back then and paid the price with my first defeat. It had taken me years to adapt to his style and improve my own, but every second of pain and humiliation was worth it for my eventual triumph. It was proof to myself that I was a true swordsman, one who could stand shoulder to shoulder with those in the band without fear of holding anyone back. I would win this fight, as I did the last.
I settled into my stance, making sure my feet were securely placed. That was my first mistake. Dumas noticed my wandering focus and attacked, his huge size allowing him to swallow the few feet between us in three enormous strides.
I cursed within my own head and raised my sword, catching his huge blade with difficulty. The ringing of his weapon striking mine almost causing the thing to vibrate out of my hands.
“Keep your head, Orin!” Dumas grinned and yanked his blade back, lifting it above his head and preparing to strike a mighty blow.
I sniffed and stepped into the strike, not surprised that he would pull a trick like that. A warrior takes any advantage they can find on the battlefield. Honour was all well and good, but staying alive was all the sweeter, especially if survival could be measured by a hair.
His sword came screaming down towards my head and I used my own sword to deflect it to the side, lashing out with a fist to crush the man's nose flat against his face. Dumas yanked himself back, showing off some of that prodigious speed, and spun on the spot. Twirling and building up momentum, he tried to flank me, aiming to crush me with the sheer weight of his weapon.
I ducked and rolled under the attack, the air above me screaming as his bastard cut through it with ease. I jumped to my feet and pushed back, my sword a whirling dervish as I sought to cut through his defences. I opened a small gash over his eye with a well-timed stab, a wound which he returned a moment later when he smashed his pommel into my ribs and slammed his forehead into my face.
I bent over, the wind leaving my lungs as Dumas grabbed my hair and spun me, throwing me across the grass and into one of the wheels of my wagon. He came at me again, not letting up for a moment and stabbing down on the spot where I lay. I was starting to see spots in front of my eyes and already my body was bruised and beaten, but I was smiling none the less. It had been some time since I had felt this alive. Not including our little escape from the palace, my last dance with death had been the battle against Craven. I felt the blood pumping through my veins as it had then. I needed this.
Dumas' sword near impaled me, but I rolled out of the way in time and kicked at his knee. With a yelp, he buckled and used his sword to take his weight. I jumped to my feet and slashed at his throat, my blade whistling towards him at speed. But Dumas wasn't my self-proclaimed rival for nothing and abandoned his bastard, throwing himself to the side and barely avoiding death as I followed, hot on his heels.
Dumas scrambled across the grass as I sought to put him down, my sword missing by inches, or even closer at some stages. Eventually, he managed to get his footing near Padma and Tacitus, who both moved out of the way with a curse. This battle was all but mine, now. Dumas had been confident and over-extended, his large sword was still impaled in the grass and there was no way I would let him reach it.
Then Dumas did something I did not expect: He charged me. Only the Spirit knows how much he weighed but being bowled over by such a beast would no doubt end with a few broken bones at the very least. I slashed at him, hoping he would move out of the way but was very surprised when he didn't. He was cut across the chest, the cloth of his tunic giving way easily to my sharpened sword. The wound wasn't very deep, I hadn't been in a position to put much power behind it, surprised as I was. He smashed into me, his hand slipping down to my right wrist and his elbow coming up to smash into the side of my head. I saw stars and lost my concentration for a second. Dumas, using his much greater strength, lifted me bodily from the ground before slamming me back down again. The air left my lungs for the second time this fight and it was all I could do not to pass out from the pain. My sword was gone, thrown off to the side during my descent. I knew what was coming next, but I was so dazed that I couldn't bring myself to prevent it. Dumas jumped on top of me, his fists raining down on my face at speed. Each blow rocked my head back and forth. It was all I could do to stay conscious during the storm of attacks and try to guard with my arms. The battle was far from over, I just needed to pick the right moment.
Finally, there was a lull. Dumas, breathing heavily, slowed in his assault. I kicked up with my knees, hitting his back and forcing him to fall forwards with a muffled yelp. I wrapped both of my arms around his neck, using his weakened grip and balance to secure a choke and squeeze for all I was worth.
Dumas bucked like a raging bull, his huge body trying to escape my already fragile position. Each time he slammed into me it was like being struck by the broad side of a horse and I feared for the stake of my poor ribs after this bout. I roared and redoubled my efforts. I could feel his strength fading. Soon he would pass out and this fight would be mine!
But then I felt him get up. Slowly, but steadily the mountainous man got one foot under him, and then another. I felt myself rise with him. All I could hear was the ringing in my ears and pathetic gasps of a choking Dumas. He stood tall, pulling me up to the peak of his height and wrapping both arms around me before he threw himself forward and onto the earth beneath him.
It may have been grass and soft dirt, but it might as well have been stone. The impact sent a shock wave through my body and I definitely felt something crack inside me. My grip was broken and Dumas rolled away, gasping for air as he sought to climb to his feet once again.
I joined him as fast as I could, scrambling towards my sword which, luckily, hadn't been thrown too far away. I clenched the hilt in a white knuckle grip, hopping unsteadily to my feet and spinning to find my opponent. I found him standing next to the wagon, some feet away from me, leaning on the hilt of his bastard, his face red and bleeding, hands trembling. A purple bruise had already begun to form around his neck.
“You've gotten faster, baby Orin,” Dumas spat, blood hitting the soft earth beneath him. “But it'll take more than just tricks to beat me.”
I smiled at the larger man, showing him my bloody teeth, “And you've gotten stronger than before. Can't see how, considering how freakish you are already.”
Dumas returned my grin and hefted his sword, preparing for another assault with his huge blade. I made to meet him, my soul singing and ready for the coming conflict.
Then the Bond screamed.
It was worse than at the gazebo, worse than on stage during the wedding. It was searing pain that attacked the very heart of my being. My black flames warped and contorted, burning brighter than they ever had before. Elora was in trouble, Elora was in danger. My vision turned red, my sense of self slipped away until I became nothing but instinct, nothing but destructive possession.
I lost myself as the Bond took control.
* * *
Elora had always had an affinity for nature.
The palace gardens were her escape, a home away from home. She knew every inch of that botanical paradise, every line and curve of the intricately designed flower arrangements. Since she was a little girl it had been a haven for her, a way to avoid the trappings and double-speech of court. She would lose herself for hours in that immaculately maintained wonder and she would always find something new. A new type of flower she had never known existed, or even a secluded path that led to depths unseen.
But as she grew older she realised the gardens for what they really were: a gilded cage. Pretty to look at but hardly what one would call the real world. What had once been the height of beauty and exploration for her young self had become something far more sinister. It was a symbol of everything she could never have. Was it not a common dream among the peasantry to look up at the palace of Venos and wish that they could live there, among the greatest minds and mightiest warriors of their country, and call themselves equal? Well, the Princess Elora had been looking right back and wishing for the exact opposite.
It was when she was eight years old that the first thought of escape had entered her mind. When she had reached that age she was deemed fit to be presented to the common folk of Myrin and a great parade was arranged. She remembered the excitement she had felt getting ready that morning. Holonzo the tailor had outdone himself and made her a splendid dress, the colour so blue that she had thought it must be what the ocean looked like. She had spent extra time getting ready that morning and Elora remembered the maids smiling at her, happy for her happiness.
Then had been the parade through the inner city and Commons. So many sights, sounds and smells! So many children lining the streets, all of them waving at her and hoping to catch a glimpse of the young Princess. Then there was the boy, one she couldn't quite recall fully, his face obscured in her mind's eye. The incident that followed, which at her young age she didn't understand. It was the first time she had ever seen a sword being drawn. She remembered thinking his gesture was sweet at the time, though she had been unaware of the connotations.
That was when escape first entered her thoughts. She wondered if the whole world was like the Commons of Myrin? It was so different from life inside the palace. There were no rules out there. You could be whoever you wanted to be, live the life that you wanted to live. That idea had griped her most of all. For a long time Elora had wanted to be anything but a Princess, to be free from her responsibilities, to let someone else take up the mantle. But it was not to be.
Her parents had no other children and, as the oldest, she would have been expected to become queen eventually unless she abdicated. Something that was considered among the most shameful acts a member of the royal family could commit.
She had planned everything out. Just like she had told Orin. She would have a maid impersonate her, jump over the walls and live among the children of the Commons, maybe find that boy again who she considered a friend merely because they had spoken once. She settled into her role eventually, one which cast her as doting daughter and loving Princess, but the ember of adventure still clung to her heart.
It had taken some time to sink in, but she had finally done it. She had escaped the palace and even the city itself. Now she was surrounded by nature. Real nature, not the false perfection of the gardens. Everything in the forest of Estalin was rugged and overgrown. There were no clear paths, no true way forward. If you wanted to get past these mighty trees you had to forge your own road.
She knew about the forest of Estalin, of course. It was a part of her training as a young Princess to be aware and knowledgeable of every rock and stone in her Kingdom. It had been named by the first King of Venos, Gilderbrand, back when he had laid claim to this land. He had named it for his daughter, Estalin, his favourite child. She went on to be a prominent Knight in her own right. In fact, her mother had once told that many of the Elemental techniques used by Knights of the royal bloodline were first created by her. Sadly, she died well before her time, killed in a duel with a Knight in a battle long forgotten. At times, it was strange for Elora to realise that these men and women, titans of their time, were her ancestors. The same blood flowed through her veins. A bloodline of strength, courage and fearless resolve.
Why then? Why was she so weak?
She was sitting at the very edge of camp, as far away from the sounds of the band as humanly possible without disappearing into the trees, trying to clear her head. She had been trying to do this for the last two days.
What she had seen inside Orin's soul had terrified her. For years, she strove to master her emotions. To train her mind to the point where she would be able to run circles around any political adversary she ever had to face. War was made on the battlefield, among the Knights and soldiers. But Smiths waged a very different war, one of words and underhanded intent. They were the backbone of every country on the continent and it was their battles that set policy, ensured the hungry were fed and the borders protected.
She had thought herself prodigious in such matters. Even her father, one of the greatest political minds in Venos, often complimented her on her progress and offered constructive criticism when needed. Those lessons, more than any other, she had loved. Yet all that training in keeping a level head had meant nothing when it mattered most.
That was only half of a Smith's job, however. The other was no less important: They were to support their Knights. Be it with advice during battle or through the use of Gifts, Smiths were the voice of reason in the souls of their Bonded. They were to lead them down the right path, to steer them towards the right goals. A Smith was a Knight's support system; There would be no Estalin without Forhast, no Longdan the brave without Wester and no Vera of the Frozen River without Annabelle.
Yet she felt she couldn't help her Knight. Even thinking about going back inside Orin's soul again caused her hands to shake, her lips to tremble and her breath to quicken. The very thought set her to panic. What kind of Smith did that make her? She could almost feel her ancestors laughing at her for her weakness. She had come so far, to give up now? No, she couldn't accept that.
Yet not accepting it didn't make it any easier for her to try. The forge, the voice, the black throne which haunted her dreams, they frightened her more than she could put into words.
Then there was the memory. The one of Orin, young and frail, beaten to within an inch of his life all in exchange for some lousy copper. Elora lifted a hand to her mouth to stifle her sob at the very idea of it. She had cried for hours after leaving Orin's soul. All the while he held her and reminded her that it was just a memory, but that was the point! He had gone through something like that, it had happened and no one had been there to protect him. She hadn't been there to protect him.
It was an impossible, stupid thought, but Elora blamed herself. As she gallivanted around the palace, miserable in the knowledge that she could never escape her luxurious life, Orin had been doing everything he could to try and provide a better life for his mother, for his brothers and sisters. Even if it was at the expense of his own body. It made her own self-pitying thoughts seem laughably absurd in comparison.
She had been avoiding him because she felt like she had let him down. Whatever had happened inside his soul was not his doing and he was probably just as afraid as she was. She even failed in her efforts to find even the slightest hint that there was a Smith among the mercenaries of the band. That was yet another excuse she had used to explain herself away from Orin's side and yet she couldn't even do that right. He was looking to her to guide him through this and yet she felt unable to do so. She felt useless. Less than useless.
“Look at the little Princess, all sad and lonesome,” The words emerged from nowhere and Elora jumped as she spun to face the speaker.
Lady Tessa walked towards her, the epitome of confidence and grace despite her appearance. Her hair was auburn in colour and roughly cut, as though she had taken a dagger to it herself. She was beautiful in the sense that a lioness, or a tiger, was beautiful. In the depths of that beauty was a danger that was as vast as it was enticing.
Her eyes pinned Elora in place. They shone a bright and vibrant grey, reminding the Princess of the colour of Orin's sword. She imagined this must be what it was like to be stared down by one of the great beasts that roamed the jungles to the south east. Terrifying. With one wrong move she felt like her life could be in danger.
“L-lady Tessa,” Elora replied, curtseying out of habit rather than propriety. She couldn't help but feel slightly off balance in the presence of this woman. The way Tessa had shouted at her after she had arrived at the orphanage with Orin was not something she would soon forget.
“'Lady Tessa', she says,” Tessa muttered as she meandered past Elora to look into the trees, “Keeping watch, Princess? Trying to make yourself useful?”
“Excuse me?” Elora asked, putting a little sharpness of her own into her voice. Her body may be alive with fear right now, but she was still a Princess of the realm of Venos.
“You are excused. I thought I might find you here. As far away from Orin as possible, yes? What a way to treat your Knight,” Tessa walked over to a tree and pulled an apple from inside her pocket, rubbing it against her torn tunic before taking a large bite. The sound caused Elora to flinch. “But then again, he's just a commoner, isn't he? You could snap your fingers and have another one of him begging to make you their Smith.”
Elora gritted her teeth, what was this woman's game? “Orin means quite a bit more to me than that, Tessa.”
“Oh? Are we dropping the formalities now? Do you have a little steel in your spine, after all?” Tessa grinned, her canines looked larger than normal to Elora's eyes, “No, I doubt it. If you did care for Orin you would have healed him right up after that little jump over the wall, but instead you dragged him half dead through the streets of Myrin. Seen enough Knights do battle to know they mend fast with a Smith inside them. Not something you do to someone if they actually mean something to you.”
Elora flinched when she said that, her hands curling into fists. A fact that did not go unnoticed by Tess.
“Hah, you gonna try to fight me now, Princess? Is the truth too much to handle?”
“I couldn't Bond with Orin and heal him without alerting Lady Vera and Lady Annabelle. There was no other choice.”
“There is always a choice!” Tessa snapped, throwing her apple out and into the trees, “You placed your own plan above Orin's life. What is all the more sickening is that he lets you do it. You're going to get him killed.”
“I think Orin is old enough to make his own decisions, Tessa,” Elora growled at the sharp-eyed woman, “He doesn't need a guardian.”
For some reason, it was Tessa's turn to flinch. She snarled like a wild animal and took a step forward, looking for all the world like she was going to attack the Princess.
“A Smith? What kind of a Smith are you? On the eve of battle and you are anywhere but with your Knight. I've seen you moping around for the last couple of days, avoiding Orin at every turn. So what? You got out the palace and don't need him any more? Or are you still pining for your little Duke? No doubt he's crying waterfalls now that you've run away.”
After Tessa said that, Elora felt like she was drowning. She could feel the prickle of tears at the corners of her eyes. The young mercenary had struck at the heart of the issue, the heart of Elora's insecurities.
“Why do you care so much?” Elora whispered, allowing her hair to fall in front of her eyes to hide her distress.
Tessa went quiet for a moment, her head turned as though in thought, looking directly at the Princess with her twin orbs of sharpened steel. “You would never understand, Princess. I see him going down a road that will lead to his death. Dragged down by the weight of a useless royal who couldn't tell which end of a sword was pointy even if her life depended on it.”
Elora tried to think of something to say in response, but she agreed. Everything Tessa had said was true. She had placed her plan to save her parents over Orin's life. She could have Bonded with him and healed him in an instant, but that would have meant being caught by Vera. Even now she was avoiding him as often as she could. She didn't believe she was good enough to be his Smith, wasn't good enough to guide him down the path of Knighthood. He looked to her for answers and she had none to give. What good was she?
The image of a back filled her mind then. One which was leaden with scars, brown hair moving with the wind and sword held in one firm and unyielding hand. Her saviour, the one who had stood by her side when all others had fallen away. The one who had promised she would be safe even when he himself didn't know it for certain. He simply believed.
For as long as she lived, Elora had been alone. The problems she had faced as Princess and even her training as a Smith, her life had been a solitary one. Even Cellus was distant, at arms length, close enough to touch but too far removed to ever be of any real help. She was expected to grin and bear it, to tackle an issue head on and rely upon no one for aid. She had done the same thing with Orin. She had pulled everything onto her own shoulders, refusing to let him be pulled into her problems. But they weren't her problems. Elora realised this simple and irrefutable truth, one which made her heart sing and her soul swell.
She was not alone.
Strength filled Elora, she felt the Bond hum with renewed certainty. It was thicker than it was before, stronger than it had ever been. She didn't know if she'd be the Smith that she always imagined herself to be, didn't know how she would deal with things with Orin and she certainly didn't know how everything would go over the next few days. But she would try. No, they would try.
Elora straightened her back and looked Tessa in the eye. “I am a Lady of House Brand, the Princess of Venos, future Queen of this country and Smith to Orin of Myrin. I have made mistakes, Tessa, but making Orin my Knight isn't one of them. He is mine and I am his. For him, I will do better. I will be better,” Elora turned to leave, her resolve remade, her goals clear in mind. “You are right. I've been wallowing in self-pity, too concerned with my own problems to see what was right in front of me. I am not one person any more: I am two. I never have to face my problems alone again.”
Elora headed in the the direction of her wagon. The Bond had begun to flair up. It didn't feel too concerning, so Orin wasn't in any real danger. Still, it felt like a cut on the roof of her mouth, an annoyance that wouldn't quite go away. She needed to make sure he was alright. She was his Smith, after all.
“Empty words,” Tessa snarled, walking in front of Elora to cut her off, “Nice speech, Elora, but you couldn't back it up on your best day. Tell Orin to stop this madness and to take you home. Only warning I'm giving you,”
Elora gave Tessa a level gaze, “You don't scare me, Tessa-”
The impact of Tess' fist in Elora's stomach was something she did not see coming. Immediately Elora fell to her knees, her hands pressed against her chest, her lungs suddenly empty of air.
The Bond screamed.
“I won't let you ruin everything!” Tessa aimed a kick at Elora's head.
“Fight!” Elora heard Orin's voice roar through her mind and she raised an instinctive arm to block the blow, her body shaking under the impact of the strike and sending her skittering to the side.
The Princess had never been in a fight before. In fact, that was the first time she had been struck by anyone. She had never been hurt herself, but she had felt tremors of the pain Orin felt when they battled together. It really was so much worse when it was happening to you directly.
Elora scrambled to her feet, nearly tripping over the dress she had borrowed from Jeannie, one of the followers of the band. She spun to face Tessa but was having trouble focusing. It was much easier when she was inside of Orin and could look at things objectively. Now that she found herself in the thick of combat all she could hear was the ringing in her ears and the feeling of adrenaline flooding her system. She raised her fists in a copied stance, one she had once seen Orin practising with when he trained at the palace.
“Weak!” Tessa cursed and bounced forward, her speed devastating and more than Elora could keep up with.
The Princess threw a clumsy punch which Tessa easily avoided before sinking her elbow into Elora's ear. The ringing became all the more intense and Elora fell to the side once again, flailing her arms and trying to keep the woman at bay. It didn't help.
Tessa comfortably dismantled Elora's abysmal defence, striking her face multiple times and when she couldn't reach that, her legs and chest. Elora tried to focus but each blow disrupted her concentration. How did Orin do this?!
Tessa grabbed Elora's arm and twisted, easily taking control of the Princess and bringing her to her knees.
“Can't defend, can't attack. What good are you, really? Maybe we should give you some-” Tessa didn't get the chance to finish before Elora threw herself to her feet, ignoring the painful protest from her arm.
The back of her head collided with Tessa's nose, causing her to release the Princess and move away. She had done it! Elora winced in pain, her hand immediately going to her arm that throbbed with a biting sting.
The Princess tried to limp away, her left leg making that particularly difficult as it had been victim to more than one of Tessa's sharp kicks. She needed to find Orin. All she wanted was Orin.
“We're not fucking done here!” Elora barely had time to react before the world spun and she was on her back, Tessa on top of her and holding her down by the throat.
“Tell him! Tell him this is idiotic, tell him you're a coward and want to run home to your Duke, I don't care! Convince him that this plan is going to get everyone killed or I swear, Elora of Venos, I will beat you half to death and damn the consequences!” Tessa's face was red with rage and blood from her bleeding nose. Stranger still were her eyes that glistened with barely contained tears.
The Bond's scream reached a fever pitch.
Elora laughed, both hands wrapped around Tessa's arm. She thought of her Knight fighting Craven, how he smiled in the face of defeat, how he shone like a sun in battle.
“What's so fucking funny?” Tessa roared, her pressure on Elora's neck increasing.
“I... I told you before, Tessa. I am weak. I make mistakes that I wish I could take back. Sometimes, I feel like I don't have the strength to carry on alone. But I am never alone. I am not one person,”
Orin's knee appeared at the edge of Elora's vision. Faster than even the lightning fast Tessa could react to. It collided with the sharp-eyed mercenary's face with a sickening impact, causing her to fly off of the Princess, her Knight hounding the mercenary in a roaring pursuit. Tessa's expression could only be described as one of extreme surprise.
“I am two.”