Sunday, April 11, 2010

Chapter 1: Burning


The city bell struck seven; it was Amelia's hour. She briefly pressed to her lips the ruby she had been fingering for the last few minutes and made her way to the sparring room. Stepping over the threshold, she placed the gemstone back into the same small pocket that had kept it safe and close for years. Amelia then lifted her eyes and in a flicker caught the only face that now mattered to her. Roland Auterre, all brawn, all nonchalance, standing there, waiting for her. Their eyes locked at once. Neither said a word, yet as Amelia strode forward, taking her place at the other end of the sparring pit, she saw the corner of Roland's mouth curve into a smirk. She held her features steady, but her eyes blazed fiery in silent communion with his. The many voices of men and boys that filled the sparring room quickly died away as they saw the combatants readying themselves. This was a match no one in the Legion wanted to miss.
First - their armor. Piece by piece the two youths equipped themselves as the spectators hushed further. Then, after sharing one last mutual gaze, Amelia and Roland fastened their helms. The room was silent as the pages handed each fighter a long steel blade.

"Are you ready, Amelia?" said Roland, smirking still beneath his visor.

"Ready? No, Roland - I'm burning" said Amelia, also allowing herself a secret smile.

The brass gong sounded once - the match had begun. The tension in the room was high and expectant; no one had noticed that the combatants had not shaken hands.

The fighters approached one another slowly, blades up, stances low. Five seconds of deadly stillness passed. Then all at once - a rush of steel. Roland leapt at Amelia, his sword arcing through the air more quickly than the eye could follow.

Amelia's blade was up just as fast, blocking the blow. Moving swiftly lest she take the advantage, Roland followed up with an onslaught of attacks. Right, left, right, left, he swung towards her helm, keeping her constantly on guard. Amelia recognized his technique. It was effective, but predictable. She dodged rather than blocked the next strike, and flew for the opening beneath his extended arm. Swinging hard and fast, the edge of Amelia's sword clashed against Roland's chest-plate.

"Hit!" shouted Amelia's page.

"Aye, a hit" conceded Roland's. It was only too obvious. Everyone had heard the blow.

The flag bearer raised his right arm - a point for the red corner. The audience delayed its applause, stunned, but soon enough the clapping and shouting vigorously resounded from the room's stone walls. The gong sounded again to signal the minute-long break before the second round.

"Two points to win," said Amelia, keeping her eyes on Roland as she took a draft of water, "I'm halfway there."

"You'll lose," said Roland, stretching his neck and not deigning to take a drink. "But it'll be close. You're no pushover."

"Hmph! As if that was in question!" Amelia put on her helm again and readied herself. Roland did the same and they were up again in combat stances well before the minute had passed.

The second gong sounded. Amelia wasted no time. She lunged forward and stabbed twice at Roland's midsection. Amelia was too quick - Roland could only stride backwards to avoid the strikes. Amelia slashed diagonally against his right shoulder - again Roland had to back away.

She turned her wrists to slice back up across his chest, but Roland finally raised his sword in time and caught her steel shimmering. He surged forward and with a roar shoved Amelia backwards, pushing her almost a meter away, regaining the ground he had lost. Though she had great power in her arms, Amelia was no match against Roland in a test of strength.

The two fighters then swung their blades at once; a huge crash resounded in the air and some men in the crowd gasped - sparks had actually erupted from the collision.

Both Amelia and Roland rushed in close to try and out-manevuer the other. Their swords sliced down along the blades until their hilts clashed - their faces only inches apart.

Roland raised his arms - he had the advantage in height - and shoved downwards, striking Amelia's hands fiercely against the floor.

Hell! she thought, too late... All Roland had to do was bring his blade up quickly and swipe it against Amelia's left arm.

"Hit!" she shouted as soon as he had done so. "A bloody hit. Give him the point." The pages stopped their mouths and looked at the flag-man, who simply nodded and raised his left arm. A point for the blue corner, another gong, and two minutes until the final round.

Like tigers or some other beast of the wild seething with hunger and eyeing its prey, the two cadets paced the mat opposite one another. Some of the other boys in their class had begun to cheer and whoop for either Roland or Amelia, but she paid them no mind. She kept her eyes steady and her limbs taut. Focus. Focus. Focus, Amelia. Nothing exists but two bodies and two blades. Don't try any tricks and don't fall for any of his. In the end, it comes down to speed, strength, and skill. Nothing else in the world exists. Focus.

"The third round begins in ten seconds. Ready yourselves - and keep it safe."

Amelia could not help but smile at this. "Oh, I can keep his body safe, but as for his pride... I can't guarantee that won't be broken!" Amelia laughed, now full intent on showing her prowess against this man-boy, this Roland whom she had known for years, who had once put a spider in her pillow, who had a thousand and one bawdy nicknames for her, who--

The gong sounded. Amelia had been lost in her thoughts and she instinctively took a step backwards. Ah, losing focus so quickly! Come on, Amelia... Roland took the advantage and struck twice against Amelia's midsection. She blocked just in time, but the second blow almost caught her arm as she blocked and swerved to circle him. She swung an arcing blow against his head -

- but Roland sidestepped her blade and swung again at her shoulder. Amelia turned and knocked his blade away just in time to avoid being hit. It's not going to be that easy, buddy! She stabbed again at his waist and then spun to slice at his legs.

Again she had him backing away because of her quickness. Roland tried to retaliate with a stab of his own, but Amelia sidestepped his blade and readied herself for a blow straight against his extended arm. This will teach you to show me some more respect in the training room, you self-inflated prig... Amelia swung hard, putting her whole body into the blow, but it was a mistake - Roland had seen her priming herself for the strike. He ducked and let Amelia's momentum carry her arms over his head and away from the point of battle.

Amelia brought her sword back to the center as quickly as she could, but Roland was already upon her. He struck her with his whole weight and Amelia, already off balance, was thrown on her back. Roland stepped forward and tapped her boot with the tip of his blade.

"Hit," he said, already wresting off his helmet.

"A hit. Another bloody hit," said Amelia, whose helmet had been thrown off in her fall.

Roland extended his hand and winked. "You still look pretty. Even when you lose."

Amelia glowered at him and reluctantly took his hand. "And you... remain a jerk. Even when you win."

The tournament ended with Roland being declared victor. Amelia was disappointed not because she had lost, but because she had not fought her best. Though the mood among the cadets was celebratory, Amelia decided that she would be happier going to her father's house that night after the scores had been tallied, perhaps even a little before then. She knew exactly where she ranked - second place. She retreated to her room and packed up what she needed for the night into a small brown satchel. Moving quickly, she hoped to avoid the silly questions, jibes, and whatever other raillery the boys had waiting for her. Most were still mulling about in the training room and she immediately made her way for the side-door. Looking up, however, she saw Roland leaning against the far wall, near the other boys, though not among them. She said nothing, made no expression nor gesture towards him on her way out, but once again they shared eyes. Tense, though never hostile. Familiar, but never admiring. It was an odd alloy, that.

It was only a fifteen or twenty minute walk to the edge of town where her father's smithy shop could be found, under a great spreading chestnut tree that was the admiration of all passersby.

In truth, the blacksmith Amelia's adoptive father, though this fact was known only to a few. The difference was as good as nonexistent in her mind. He had taken care of her for the last seven years and had been infinitely more present in her life than the father with whom she had shared blood. The face of him appeared now in her mind's eye, and as it always did, in the guise she had last seen it in. Red, red, unbelievably red, twisted and obscene - she immolated the image in her mind as best she could and strode forward. Replaced it with the grand, furry face of the blacksmith. The chief and most skilled blacksmith in town, whose weapons supplied most of the city guard as well as the royal guard of the capitol city, called Hudoria, which lay just a half-day's horse ride beyond the mountain ridge that overlooked the coastal city of Aluvion.

It had been by his authority that the Aluvion Legion had reluctantly accepted Amelia as a cadet at their academy. Though there had already been a precedent set with the blacksmith's eldest daughter, Anna, the guards had secretly hoped that this would be a one-time occurrence, not to be repeated.

Amelia arrived at the blacksmith's house with still some minutes before twilight. She took the time to walk under the boughs of the chestnut tree. There, where the evening sunlight slanted across the grass, Anna had lain buried for the last seven years. Her resting place was marked only with a slab of marble, engraved simply:

Anna Lucia Smith
❧ b. 1143 - d. 1181 ❧

Amelia knelt down on the soft grass and closed her eyes.

"Thank you, Anna..." she whispered, "You're still with me. Always." Amelia touched the stone lightly, letting her thoughts linger just a few moments more before rising.

The blacksmith himself opened the door for Amelia and greeted her with a burly bear hug. "What a wonderful surprise! It's great to see you this evenin', Emily. We were just settin' down for dinner!" He walked her into the dining room where sat a young man and woman, hands folded across the other's on the table, smiling. "I've got my years growin' on me, but Hell's beans if I let Devon or Clarissa take over the cookin' for me! Hee-hah!" He roared with laughter as he bounded through the kitchen door.

"Hi, Amelia!" said Devon and Clarissa, "It's great to see you again!"

Amelia smiled and came up behind their chairs, hugging them both around their shoulders. "And it's great to see the two of you! How've you been? I'm sorry that I've been so busy the last few months... but my training is almost over - and graduation in a week and a half!"

"Oh that's wonderful Amelia!" The both of them beamed and hugged her again. Amelia couldn't help but feel, standing so tall over them, that she was the elder of the three. In truth, they were both five years her senior, and had been there the very first night she arrived at the blacksmith's house, seven years ago. Amelia felt towards them both as a sister might feel, yet they were neither son nor daughter to the blacksmith. Devon had been working at the blacksmith's since he was sixteen, one among several teenage volunteers hoping to be chosen as his official apprentice. Slowly but surely, Devon proved himself an indefatigable worker and was chosen without hesitation the next year. When he was eighteen, he moved in to live with the blacksmith. Since then the blacksmith had treated him like a son, and Clarissa was over so often that she may has well have been his daughter-in-law. The young couple had met when they were fourteen and had been inseparable since then, getting married soon after Devon was chosen as the blacksmith's apprentice.

The blacksmith burst through the kitchen door with a hot plate of pepper-roasted beef. "I'll be right back with the salad!" he said.

"Ah, I'll be all right without it," Amelia replied, laughing, "I made it to the final round of the tournament today and fought quite a match. I think I'll need to save room for an extra portion of meat." Amelia winked at the young couple, who giggled at her hardiness.

"Oh, Amelia!" Clarissa squealed, "You're such a warrior! Who did you fight today?"

"Waast full armor?" added Devon, eagerly. "And weaps?"

"It was. Standard-issue steel long swords and a full suit of mail. A little heavier than what we'd normally wear on duty, but we spared no blows. It was a 'live' match, like we'd be fighting in a war or against a criminal. I fought Roland..."

"Ooooooh!" Clarissa cooed, "Did you beat him?"

"It was close - but he got the third point before I did."

Clarissa slapped her hand on the table and said, "Oh, that rascal! He's such a tough guy. He makes me feel so odd whenever I see him!"

"Yeah, intimidating fellow!" said Devon, holding onto Clarissa's hand. "I look up and see the bottom of his chin!"
Clarissa giggled and said, "But that's how I feel about Amelia! Are you still growing, Emily?"

Amelia shrugged and sat down opposite the young couple, "Maybe," she replied absently (she had not grown since she was fourteen), "But he's still got a few inches on me, and that's not likely to change."

"Unless you wear some heels - oh! Amelia! Are you going to wear heels at the graduation? Do you even own heels?"

Amelia laughed and let the conversation drop at the entrance of the blacksmith, who held a large bowl of salad in one hand and an extra plate for Amelia in the other. Though she had a proud consciousness of her own strength, power, and physique, there was still yet some feminine part of her that felt uncomfortable talking about her size in the presence of such a petite as Clarissa, especially as she towered even over Devon, stout though he was. She had never met another woman who matched her in size except for Anna. But Anna had died when Amelia was still a young girl and she had only a faint picture of those days in her mind.

"You fought today! Did I hear correctly?" bellowed the blacksmith, taking his seat next to Amelia.

"Yes, my last sparring match of the year. I lost to Roland, but it was a good match. I smacked him quite hard against the ribs in the first point, but he got the last two - with tricky shots, mind you! He never had a clean hit on me. I expect he'll be chosen as captain of our squad, even if I had beat him today."

The blacksmith nodded and said, "He's a burly fellow, aye, I'll give him that. Not many men in these parts who can make me feel small."

"And what a barking voice! That guy can make a body jump!" added Devon.

There was a small pause as everyone looked towards Amelia, waiting for her to make a comment about Roland. Though she did not blush, Amelia spoke hurriedly when she realized all eyes were on her. "He - He'll do well, you can be sure of that. As long as he doesn't let his temper get the better of him..."

The others all nodded, familiar as they were with Roland's brusque and bold manner, and moved on to other topics, clearly perceiving that Amelia did not want to talk about her adversary any more than necessary. They ate dinner in merriment and conversed well into the night, talking about the townspeople they knew, the coming summer, what the caravans and merchant ships had brought in, and all other sundry topics that might concern a small seaside town. When dinner ended, the blacksmith made up Amelia's room. She almost always stayed the night when she visited the his house, since it probably meant that she was free from early-morning exercises or city-perimeter runs with her troop. Five years of hard training had steeled her to such tasks, yet any respite was more than welcome.

As Amelia prepared herself for bed, memories of her time spent at the Legion Academy floated through her mind. Roland was prominent in all of them, for he had been her rival and - with less certainty - her friend, from her very first days. It was hard to believe that her time there was coming to an end. She was soon to become a guard of the city, just as Anna had been before her. And it was only when she thought of Anna that Roland's likely nomination as captain stung her, since that was the position Anna had held before being sent to the capital, where Amelia wanted to be. To be at the castle. To be among those who now reigned after deposing the former king and queen. To be close to those who had sent them to their deaths. But those are later thoughts... Amelia turned herself over in bed and took out her mother's ruby from the pocket in her shirt that kept it safe. Turning it slowly in her fingers, watching the candlelight gleam and flicker in its crystals, she tried to concentrate only on the month ahead. It was a question now of proving herself worthy of more than second place. Falling asleep with the gem in her hand, Amelia dreamt that night of herself in the shining armor of a full Legion guard, though colored red - bright, fiery, blood ruby red.