Unbowed (A Kronus Tale)
wooden rapier clattered against the sanded stones of the arena floor,
its hilt coming to rest near Brie's hand. She ceased her scrubbing to
consider the weapon, hunched as she was on hands and knees, then turned
her head to consider him. Her expression accused him of madness.
"Would you see me flogged?" she hissed.
"My father has an audience with the
king, and won't return before nightfall."
Kylac grinned. "Call it a birthday gift."
A flush stole across Brie's freckled cheeks. He'd remembered. Just as
swiftly, her familiar pout returned. "And a celebration it'd be, to see
your father beat you bloody."
Her gaze swept the edges of the chamber, as if expecting to find
someone spying from the shadows. "Go on. I've work to finish."
With emphasis, she dipped her sponge in her bucket of dirty water and
resumed her scrubbing. Kylac felt his smile slip. Mayhap her flush owed
solely to her exertions. Or frustration at being interrupted. Or alarm
at his proposal. Whatever, he felt suddenly foolish, having woefully
misjudged her imagined reaction.
"I just thought . . ." He
watched her reach her sponge blindly for her bucket, pointedly ignoring
him. "I mean, you've always said—"
He stopped as the bucket tipped, bending reflexively to catch it before
it spilled. She spun toward him as he did so, releasing her sponge to
take up the wooden rapier by its hilt. Kylac just barely managed to
slide his leg clear of its whipping arc—while righting the bucket—before
sliding back a pace. By then, Brie was lunging to her feet, pressing him
back farther. A skip, slide, and duck enabled him to avoid any stinging
bruises, and on her fifth strike, his own practice weapon came to
hand—with a sound block and swift counter that she deftly avoided, but
that finally forced her to pause.
"Why, did I just catch the masterful Kylac off guard?" she taunted. Her
eyes sparkled now with that fierce fire, her puffy cheeks set high and
wide in a proud grimace.
"Open your stance. And straighten your toes."
"My toes are fine. You're just embarrassed that I nearly took yours."
"Your front foot is pointed toward the side wall, when your enemy is in
front of you." He jabbed.
She parried, realigning her footwork. "The bucket was a nice touch."
"You underestimated me." She
lunged, choosing a simple combination that compensated with execution
for what it lacked in creativity. "You always underestimate me."
"I'm better than you." Kylac
blocked her advance, then fed her the same combination in reverse.
"There's a difference."
"One day, you won't be. And you'll be too stubborn to see it until it's
"Not before you
learn to focus your attack on my centerline," he countered, slipping
from side to side as her prodding strikes fanned wide. Brie's short
brown locks swished about her face, causing her to puff now and again as
they fell across her eyes. "You'd do well to crop that hair, too."
"And look more like you? I'd
caught him then with one of those stabbing lunges. Like an asp she was,
with that one, her reach swift and long. Too long, it seemed. For, as
usual, she failed to return her guard in time to defend her face against
a counterstrike that Kylac chose not to take. "You won't look a thing
like me when you lose your ear," he admonished her instead. "And you
will, if you don't remember to raise your guard when you snap back from
one of those."
Did I nearly lull you again?"
"Keep your elbow down. You're flapping like a wounded gull."
Brie just laughed, a sound so rare that it spawned a comforting warmth
in Kylac's chest. She had long yearned for this—a chance to try him in
the arena as though she were a fellow student, rather than a scrub girl
relegated forever to sopping up their blood and sweat. But Talonar was
the preeminent combat school in the city, in the land, likely in all of
Pentania. With the long list of wealthy, highborn students clamoring to
pay the school's prohibitive fees, Kylac's father flatly refused to make
room for those who could not.
Least of all some blind pauper's eleven—no, twelve-year-old
his father that Kylac should waste his time sparring with her at all.
But, at age thirteen, he was already the most skilled student at
Talonar, and had been for the past year. So long as he kept excelling in
his own lessons and exceeding every staunch expectation his father had
for him, he'd been allowed his "petty diversion with the rag," as his
father called her—provided, of course, he did not interfere with her
chores, and they confined their after-hours play to the parks and alleys
beyond Talonar's gates.
pair of stipulations they were breaking now, obviously. But then, it was
a special occasion. And truly, what was the harm?
Should it come to it, the memory of that laugh would be enough to
soothe the sting of a lash or two.
"Guard up," he cautioned her again. "That's twice already I might have
slit your throat."
boast. Feel welcome to back it up at any time."
And so it went as they danced their dance across the arena floor, Brie
letting loose some of that bridled fury of hers, and Kylac offering
admonishments where he felt them most needed. In truth, she was a fine
athlete, both vigorous and disciplined, with strong endurance, natural
instincts, and the even rarer skill of adaptation. She wasn't as fast as
him, nor as polished, but then, with her limited training time, how
could she be? Even among the
full-time students, he'd met only one or two others who could match
him—and they each had a dozen years on him. While they stood at or near
their full potential, his remained yet untapped.
"Faster," he coaxed her, and quickened his own pace, forcing her to
respond. "You've got to be faster. Weight and speed—"
"Breed power," she said. "Yet you never advise I grow thicker. If I were
to sprout breasts or belly, would you still fawn over me as you do?"
It was Kylac's turn to redden. As its warmth brushed his forehead, Brie
launched another diving thrust. "Guard up," he reminded her in counter,
this time razing her gently across the jaw.
Brie scowled. She was tiring, though neither torture nor deprivation
would lead her to admit it. Nor would she ever suggest they stop. Her
passion ran too strong, her pride even stronger.
"Open your stance. Guard up. Guard . . ."
He hesitated as a sudden darkness entered the arena. It might have been
a cloud shouldering past the setting sun, except that this was a
darkness felt, not seen. Brie pressed him as he slowed and withdrew,
perceiving some unexpected advantage, mayhap, or thinking it a ruse. But
it took her only a moment more to register the truth of his grim
expression. Her gaze lifted past him, and she gasped, drawing to a
Rohn," Kylac acknowledged, turning toward the near entry. "Master
Xarius." He bowed briefly to
the pair standing within the shadowed alcove, barely more than shadows
stepped forward from beneath the arch, his heavy brow pinched inward,
the corners of his mouth anchored low in stern disapproval. The
expression itself told Kylac nothing, for it was the only look his
father ever wore. But the weight of his silence felt heavy enough to
shoulder stood Xarius, arms crossed, smirking coldly. His father's
prized pupil and personal warder. Ever the first to taste it when Master
Rohn unleashed wind, as Brie had once whispered, though far from the
school's grounds. Xarius had killed for lesser insults.
"Your pardon, sir. I was only—"
"Reminding her to keep her guard up, by my hearing. Is that what you
heard, Master Xarius?"
"More than once, sir," he whispered, like a hissing reptile.
"Aye. More than once. Is your pupil deaf, Master Kylac?"
"Sir? No, sir."
"Then it would seem a more stringent reminder is in order."
Kylac glanced at Brie, who was doing her best to control her breathing.
"We were only playing."
"In this arena? You know
otherwise, Master Kylac. As does she. If you would train her on this
floor, you will finish the lesson."
"You have my apologies already. If I am to be punished—"
"Master Xarius, remind this new pupil of ours to keep her guard up."
"Sir," Xarius replied. He gave a crisp bow, then stepped forward, a
slender shortsword coming to hand. Light from the high, open windows
gleamed upon its steel surface.
Kylac felt Brie stiffen, pierced by a sudden panic. She dared not run,
but knew as well as he that Xarius would maim her with no more thought
than he might spend on the removal of a pebble from his boot. As Xarius
advanced steadily on soundless feet, Kylac instinctively stepped in
front of Brie, snatching the practice sword from her rigid grasp and
thus arming himself with the pair of wooden blades.
"The fault lies with me," he insisted. He twirled one sword and tossed
the other, testing their balance and heft, before raising them in a
defensive cross. "If any need reminder, it is I."
Xarius scowled, the predatory glint in his eye dimming with uncertainty.
He glanced back at Rohn.
Their headmaster only glared, saying nothing.
Xarius smiled, the cruelty in his eyes flaring. It was the only warning
Kylac received before Xarius attacked, a second blade joining the first,
whipping toward his face in a blinding flurry.
Kylac had anticipated nothing less. His own blades were already moving,
turning the strikes aside with deft twists and precise angles. He could
not harm Xarius with his training weapons, allowing the elder combatant
to press him with impunity. Yet it also enabled Kylac to narrow his
focus, to concentrate solely on defense.
Brie shied backward, retreating toward her bucket and sponge.
Thankfully, Xarius made no move to follow her. And why would he?
It wasn't often he found himself with an advantage such as this
against his only real rival. Kylac was not only the headmaster's son,
but roughly half Xarius's age—salts in the wound as Kylac had taken to
besting him regularly during their daily sessions. Given the chance to
reassert himself and deliver a scar or two in lasting insult, the
prideful Xarius would be determined to do just that.
Assuming he failed to simply take Kylac's head or some piece of it in
The fury of the
quicksilver strikes slashing and stabbing his way left Kylac little
doubt as to Xarius's preference. And by now it seemed clear he could
rely on his father not to intervene. Kylac had staked this challenge.
His father—his instructor—would let him live or die by it.
Thus far, his wooden swords were holding up well against the onslaught.
Hewn of granitewood from the deep Kalmira, thickly lacquered and well
polished with use, they were as strong as any oaken staff thrice their
girth, able to withstand the lighter blades with which Xarius was most
adept. Nonetheless, Kylac could feel the nicks and notches collecting
along their length. Be it late or soon, his opponent's fine steel would
hack and carve them to splinters, and Kylac's bones with them.
If he intended to end this in his favor, he needed to do so swiftly.
The lethal blades thrashed before him, a dicing whirlwind. Xarius was
unquestionably a master—precise, poised . . . patient?
Normally, yes. But as Kylac continued to weather the storm, he
could sense in his adversary a gnawing frustration. He had expected a
swift victory, in this instance. Denied that, and with his master
looking on, Kylac could see in him the mounting need for a decisive
victory—and the urgency that came with it.
So Kylac gave him the opening he sought, angling a wooden blade out
carelessly wide, inviting Xarius to disarm him on that side. Xarius did
so, and Kylac gave a startled yelp in feigned dismay as the practice
weapon skittered away. A somewhat reckless maneuver, but also fairly
obvious. He doubted Xarius would have taken the bait under normal
instance, however, the next strike took dead aim at his naked wrist.
Rather than shy from the advancing blow, Kylac rolled forward underneath
it, trading a small cut on the shoulder of his jerkin for his pursuit of
Xarius's retreating blade. His open hand grabbed for its hilt as his
remaining sword stabbed hard against a nerve in Xarius's elbow,
disabling his grip.
overhead block spared Kylac's head a cleaving, and enabled him to spring
up with confiscated steel in hand. By the time Brie had placed a hand to
her mouth to silence her squeak of alarm at Kylac's seeming
vulnerability, it was he who held the edge of a sharp blade against his
opponent's throat, drawing Xarius backward into a submissive stance.
They remained locked that way for a moment, Kylac triumphant, Xarius
fuming, neither making a sound. It was Rohn who finally shattered the
"I heard no one
Kylac glanced at
his father, then peered down into Xarius's livid face. In nine years of
training together, not once had the elder fighter admitted defeat. He
didn't have to. Both knew that Kylac wasn't going to slit his throat.
Even if Kylac couldn't guarantee the same were their positions reversed.
Rohn, too, had seen this stalemate before, and shook his head
disapprovingly. "Suffer the weak . . ."
He left the sentence hanging, waiting for Kylac to complete it.
"And you will suffer their weakness."
"Again you prove soft—a softness with which you would now infect
others." Rohn gestured
vaguely toward Brie. "You think you've defended her this day?
Shielded her with your coddling?
You've enabled a deficiency. Reinforced a flaw. Fostered a
failing. You have killed her, perhaps, and do not yet know it."
Kylac didn't dare face Brie, as he wished. Instead, he glanced down at
Xarius, who now wore a derisive sneer.
"We do not teach failure here," his father spat, and swept the arena
with his glare. "This lesson is over."
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