Great limestone walls towered over the grasslands, reaching like blades into the clear sky. Songbirds danced through wildflowers thick with plump insects. Metal clashed in defiance of the peaceful atmosphere. A raucous cheer shook the training circle as Finora stumbled to catch her balance. She drew a gauntlet across her lip and glanced at the blood that smeared the iron fingers. Her opponent had found a gap in her defenses—an admirable feat. But as he boasted his would-be victory to the throng of other recruits, she spotted his weakness. For the third time since their match had begun, he exposed his left side. His buckler pointed at the sand uselessly.
Finora struck like a viper while his leering comrades distracted him. Her fist impacted under his ribs hard enough to dent his armor. She dropped into a crouch and kicked his leg from under him. He flailed like a doll and landed on his back. Winded, he grasped for the sword that had fallen just beyond his reach, but then froze and looked up at the woman who had bested him. Finora’s sword touched his neck, the cold tip announcing her victory.
With a triumphant smirk, she threw her buckler to the sand and spun on her heel to face the officers who lined the fence opposite the recruits. Two lieutenants muttered to their captain as the latter regarded her calmly. He was a broad-chested man with thick brown hair and a beard he hadn’t trimmed in days. His brown eyes sat below an unyielding brow. He had a strong jaw and neck, along with an almost regal bearing that commanded the respect and obedience of all who sought a military career. Finora had heard countless stories of Captain Kyr Rondera’s accomplishments both in the city guard of Raitom and in the war. He was a legend among his people and abroad.
“I cannot argue your skill, Finora Kaiyta,” Kyr called. The way he casually leaned against the fence stoked a fire in Finora’s chest. She held up her guarded mask as she lifted her chin. He wouldn’t… “I am afraid that I cannot override my superiors in this,” he continued. “Your persistence is commendable, but you will not find your place here amongst Raitom’s military forces.”
Finora took a rebellious step forward. “I am stronger, faster,” she cried, “than any of these men! I have bested them all. Why would you turn away your most skilled prospect?”
“Tradition, girl.” Kyr canted his head. He seemed more curious than antagonistic, but Finora didn’t care. She had worked too hard, trained too long, for him to give her gender as the reason that she couldn’t join the greatest military outpost in all of Camriiole.
“Tradition paints you a fool,” she snapped. She ignored the tense excitement that surged through the recruits behind her. Kyr’s eyebrows lifted with amusement, but the gesture only angered her further. “Where I come from, skill and a capacity to learn and grow determine one’s lot in life. Not the weight which lies between one’s legs!”
But her argument struck a solid wall and could not breach their obstinacy. She departed the outpost as she had every day for two weeks. She retrieved her weapon from the quartermaster and left behind the buckler and thin sword they had loaned her for sparring purposes.
She had already explained her reasons to them. The story she had woven had carried with it the stubborn diligence one could expect of a woman like Finora. She had told them of a man from a village far to the north, who had dreamed all his life about going away to Raitom to join their prestigious military. He had stumbled upon a family before that had ever happened, and so he had relayed his imaginings to his most attentive daughter. He had abandoned his dream, but Finora now carried his drive to pursue a military career. She had trained obsessively for years.
None of that had mattered to these stubborn pigs. The captain’s final decision had been nothing more than a convenient excuse. His superiors—a council of five elderly bureaucrats—would do anything he suggested. What did a handful of old clerks know that surpassed the great Captain Kyr Rondera’s expertise?
No, he had all but taunted her with his response. Only one last thing remained to win his favor. If she challenged the captain to a duel and won, then he would have no choice but to accept her application to join. To deny her even then would let shine his bigotry.
And then she would leave and find another way to fulfill her personal mission.
Finora traveled south until she found her camp off the main road, where a copse of trees grew alongside a bend in the river. The path between Raitom and the north training outpost saw no activity during the summer, so her campsite had remained undisturbed. She changed into her leathers, setting aside her metal armor to clean later.
By dusk, low clouds blanketed the heavens and carried a cool breeze from the north. To the far northwest, the sky was black despite the orange and red glow of the setting sun. The storm would reach her camp sometime in the night, so she reinforced her tent with stray rocks and the metal pieces of her armor. She was grateful for the presence of the trees. They could act as a wind screen when the storm arrived.
She could have avoided exposure to the storm and simply returned to Raitom, but the City of Swords was more than a day’s walk from the northern outpost. Even a horse couldn’t reach the outpost before late afternoon, and this little copse of trees was the best form of shelter out here in the plains.
Finora spent much of the night fighting to keep her tent in one piece. Everything she owned lay in a pool of water by the time the roaring winds and torrential rain subsided. Only a few hours remained until dawn when she finally collapsed onto her soggy bedroll. A few hours of sleep were better than none, she reasoned. So she closed her eyes and opened them a moment later. The morning sun snuck through a tear in her tent’s east wall only long enough to wake her. The light then vanished behind the clouds and did not break through again.
Finora donned her driest clothes and toted her campsite in her sodden backpack. Regardless of the outcome of her challenge, she would not spend another night on this road.
The gate guard allowed her entrance to the outpost, where a few trees that lined the road south lay mangled in mud and roots. A thin track cut across the field, a crooked and tumultuous path that hadn’t been there yesterday. The outpost’s limestone walls stood mostly undamaged except for a few cracks where thin chunks had fallen.
Inside, debris littered the ground. All the training circles had disappeared beneath broken planks of wood and clods of mud. Some of the fences still stood, but most lay scattered and splintered. The grounds teemed with recruits as they tried to restore order after the storm’s chaos.
“It was a cyclone.”
Finora turned her head toward the captain’s voice, but her gaze lingered on the destruction. “I see that,” she replied. “Are they common here?”
“Common enough.” He shrugged and hooked his thumb on his belt. Like Finora, he had set aside his heavy armor and wore simple leathers. “I knew you were relentless, Kaiyta, but it is early and you are here. I trust that means you spent the night in the rain and wind.”
She wondered if she looked as disheveled as she suddenly felt, but she just shifted her backpack on her shoulder and looked at him. He must have slept as well as she had. He appeared weary, but in good spirits. No one had been injured in the storm, then.
“I have returned one last time to challenge you to a duel,” she said quietly, turning her gaze back to the mess. A recruit knelt before a broken fence, using tools to fix it with salvaged materials. “But I suppose you do not have time for that now.”
“You suppose right.” Kyr brushed his hand over his beard, contemplative. His gaze lingered on the woman before it drifted to the recruits who toiled over the restoration of the training pits. “But stay. Help us restore our outpost and we will have our duel this evening. The damage is not great enough that twenty strong soldiers cannot piece this place back together by then.”
For all their previous harsh judgment, the men were grateful for Finora’s presence. She was just as tireless now as she had been in her military pursuits. The lieutenants barked their orders to maintain organization, but all the officers assisted their subordinates with the manual labor. In time, they worked into an efficient system of cleaning and gathering and rebuilding. The grounds weren’t as pristine as they had once been, but late afternoon arrived and the outpost returned to its proper function. The recruits laughed and celebrated the swift restoration.
Finora returned to the far western corner of the interior wall, where she had stowed her backpack. The day had been long and difficult, but adrenaline banished her weariness. The duel would take place soon, if Kyr held true to his word. And then she would fight for her place amongst the other recruits one last time.
She inhaled deeply through her nose and let her gaze drift longingly west. She would not return home for many years, whether she won or lost this duel. If she won, then she would know the kind of man that Kyr Rondera was. And if she lost, she couldn’t go back home immediately. She refused to return in failure. Somehow, today or some other day, she would show everyone who she was. She would assure her family that they had rightly placed their faith in her.
Finora left her armor plates in her backpack. The leathers would have to suffice, for this battle would require more than just strength and stamina. She also needed the flexibility to respond to the captain’s attacks as swiftly as possible, so she couldn’t don the restricting metal armor.
She attached her sword’s scabbard to her back, buckling the strap across her torso from one shoulder to the opposite side of her belt. The sword was large enough that she had to hold the hilt with both hands, which was a definite disadvantage against a warrior accustomed to fighting with both a sword and shield. But she knew how to fight Kyr’s renowned brute strength.
She was quicker.
He met her as she made her way across the grounds after a quick supper of trail rations. His charming smile and polite manner disarmed her for only a moment before she threw that hard mask back up over her face. She folded her arms as he addressed her cheerfully.
“You worked diligently today, Kaiyta,” he remarked, again hooking his thumb on his belt. “But I expect you are ready to move on to other matters, no?”
“Are you going to accept my challenge or not?” she demanded.
He lifted his eyebrows and some of his mirth faded. “I have already accepted it, good woman. If you prefer to skip formalities and pleasant conversation, so be it.” He pivoted on his heel and gestured to the nearest training circle. “By all means.”
Guilt gnawed at her stomach, but she pushed it aside and approached the indicated circle. The layer of clouds had thinned over the last few hours, leaving spots of blue throughout the sky. Finora hopped over the mended fence, one hand on the top plank, and took up a position on the far side opposite Kyr. The captain followed her into the circle. When he drew his sword with a slow, metallic ring, his two lieutenants joined them. Most of the other recruits followed suit, spreading out around the fence so each had a favorable view of the fighters.
Finora studied the captain with a frown. “Where is your shield?” she observed.
He rolled his shoulder. “I see your weapon of choice and wish to make it an even fight,” he answered. He twirled his weapon in one hand and moved his right foot back, taking a defensive position. “Draw, Kaiyta.”
She was unsure if his decision was favorable or not. He had changed into his armor, at least partially, so he was still slowed by the cumbersome metal, but without the shield, he suffered less restriction in maneuverability.
No matter, she thought. I will just need to watch him a bit closer.
She drew her large sword and held it expertly in front of her, angled in such a way that it cast a reflection from the sun as the orb of light peeked around patches of clouds. Silence settled over the grounds in anticipation of the duel. Even the birds and insects quieted.
Finora attacked first. Her long brown hair whipped around her face as she darted forward. Kyr lifted his sword to deflect her attack, but she had feinted. She bent her right knee and swung her fist at his abdomen. Just when she thought she had struck the first blow, pain shot through her left side and she tumbled into the hard sand. She rolled and quickly sprang back to her feet, holding her sword before her defensively. Kyr shifted in the sand. His expression was light and friendly.
He had kicked her and she hadn’t even seen him move. She shook her head lightly. She had to pay closer attention if she wanted to win this duel.
He lunged at her then. She ducked to the left to avoid his fist, and then raised her blade to parry his near-simultaneous attack with his sword. Her larger weapon knocked his away easily, the momentum opening his right side more than he had intended. She fell into the direction of her swing and buried her elbow into his ribs. He grunted and stumbled back a step, partially winded.
But he did not relent. His sword cut through the air so fast that she barely lifted hers in time to stop it. And then his arm wrapped around her shoulder and he threw her to her left, trying to knock her off balance. She hooked her leg around his to stop him, and then arched her back and hit his mouth with the back of her head.
Kyr spun around and drove his elbow into her side, ignoring the blood that trickled from the corner of his lip. She cried out in surprise and pain, but then grasped his arm and twisted her body, her leg still locked around his. He lost his balance and they both tumbled to the ground. Murmurs rose from the gathering around them, but their audience was rapt, unable to look away from the display of skill from both of the fighters.
Finora wrestled with the captain, their swords discarded. She punched his jaw and tried to pin him into the sand, but he was strong. His muscles taut, he fought her grip and finally wormed his hands around her wrists. He heaved her up above him and then threw her aside. She rolled once through the sand, her head striking the ground and momentarily clouding her vision. He twisted his body and leapt after her. He drove a knee into her stomach as he leaned down and grasped her wrists above her head. They panted as they glared at one another, their hearts racing.
Kyr’s expression softened with amusement. “Your eyes are fierce, Kaiyta,” he taunted. “Blue and beautiful and deadly. I pray I am never truly your enemy.”
“We are not finished yet, Captain,” she hissed.
She struggled violently against his grip, gasping for air as his knee dug harder into her belly. A shout burst from her lungs as she twisted and brought her knee up to dislodge his leg. His balance swayed and she finally knocked him to the side. She freed one hand and strained to reach her sword.
Her fingertips just brushed the hilt of her weapon when their audience erupted into a flurry of panicked cries. Kyr’s grasp on her other wrist disappeared and she scrambled to her feet, hauling the heavy sword with her. The captain stood opposite her and they both locked their eyes on a new enemy.
A dragon the size of a small inn crashed into the east wall of the outpost, raining stone upon the grounds. The beast lifted its long, sinewy neck and roared. The sound was chilling, deafening. The recruits scattered in a frenzy of screams. None of them had the skill or knowledge to face such a terrifying beast.
The dragon’s slender body was covered in a sea of inky black scales that rippled over its muscled body. The frills that lined its spine were crooked and short, with torn membranes stretched between each one. Horns jutted out from its jaw and brow, swept back to create an overall sleek profile. It stood poised, cold yellow eyes watching with satisfaction as the men became frightened children before its glory. Long black talons dug into the limestone wall, etching deep lines into the surface whenever it shifted. Its tail coiled over the edge of the wall.
“Get them all out of here!” Kyr suddenly cried over his shoulder. Finora glanced back, but her gaze didn’t linger on the retreating lieutenants, for the captain had already jumped over the fence in front of her. He shouted at the dragon and drew its attention. “We warned you last time, Varixi! You will not know mercy twice!”
The dragon’s laugh sent a shiver through Finora’s body. Slowly, the woman climbed over the fence. She didn’t take her eyes off the dragon.
“Mercy!” Varixi howled. “Your guardian is not here, little bug. There will be no mercy this day!”
The dragon spread its wings wide and dove from its perch. Kyr bolted to his left to avoid its pounce, but the creature’s talons knocked him into the dirt. Two jagged slits appeared in his breastplate, but no blood seeped from the damaged metal. The captain regained his footing and ran straight to the dragon, his sword angled down. Varixi sneered at him, but missed when she snapped her long jaws at him. Kyr rolled through the grass and thrust his sword up into the dragon’s neck. The creature shrieked as the sword tip bored between two scales, but the blade didn’t catch. Kyr pulled it free easily and leapt over the dragon’s foreleg to escape another wild swipe of claws.
Varixi spread her wings and hissed as she stepped aside so she could locate him. But then she bellowed with rage when another blade plunged deep into her shoulder. She whipped her neck around and focused a single eye on Finora, who released the hilt of the blade she had buried behind the dragon’s shoulder blades. The woman scowled.
“Hard to fly like that, is it not?” Finora goaded.
Varixi’s slitted pupil narrowed until it almost disappeared within the yellow inferno. The dragon’s roar this time was crazed. Finora gritted her teeth, but she knew that she had just thrown kindling over an already raging fire, and had then become the target of that searing fury. She had meant to distract the beast, though. That damned captain had to realize that.
The dragon lashed out at Finora. It swung its claws and gnashed its teeth, but it was slower now that a blade as long as a human had lodged into its shoulder. Finora avoided most of its wild attacks, but one finally made purchase and sent her skidding across the ground. She curled her knees to her chest and gasped, pressing her hands to the deep gashes spanning her left side. Blood seeped onto her hands and her vision swam.
The dragon spun. Its wild eyes settled on Kyr, who stood so close that the creature’s hot, rancid breath washed over him. The captain smirked, and then drove his sword straight into the dragon’s yellow eye. With a sickening slurp, the blade sunk into the dragon’s eye socket. It slid through the soft tissue until it pierced the brain. A tremor shook the dragon’s body, and then it fell and did not move again.
Kyr raced to Finora’s side and dropped to one knee next to her. She had sat up and had already peeled her leathers away so she could press fresh fabric to her wound, torn from her sleeves and trousers. He heaved a relieved sigh and looked up when one of his lieutenants arrived with medical supplies. She accepted the lieutenant’s offer of aid, especially a bottle of whiskey.
“You are far too stubborn to die from a wound like that,” Kyr offered. She squinted up at him and he smiled. “Not the smartest thing you have ever done, I would wager.”
She grunted as the lieutenant slapped a thick paste over the gashes covering most of her ribs on that side. Slowly, some recruits began to gather around them in a wide circle, while the braver men drew close to the dragon’s corpse with a mixture of awe and lingering fear.
“You mean giving you every opportunity to end the bitch?” she growled. “Perhaps not the most enjoyable, but it was smart.”
He chuckled and stood. “Go back to Raitom,” he told her.
She looked up at him with wide, perplexed eyes. “You cannot be serious!”
He hooked his thumb on his belt. “I am absolutely serious,” he went on. “You have been coarse and at times altogether unpleasant since you first arrived here, Kaiyta. You have been persistent to the point of madness. And you held your ground against a dragon. You stood with me and fought when you had no obligation to do so.”
He leaned down and smiled faintly. “So go back to Raitom and heal up. Then join us here. I think we will all have much to learn from you.”
Finora started to answer, but the lieutenant chose then to tighten a bandage around her torso. She could scarcely breathe through the needed constriction. So she lay back on the grass and closed her eyes. The pain had abated after several mouthfuls of whiskey, but her side still throbbed. The cuts hadn’t reached her bones, and the dragon had missed her organs, so she just needed time to recover.
The woman exhaled slowly. She had done it, after all. Her victory against their prejudice shone as bright as her pleasure that her actions had led to the dragon’s death. Pride swelled in her chest, but she quelled it under the reminder that she still had so much to do and learn. Next time, whether she faced a dragon or a man, she would not leave the battle as injured as she had this time.
She opened her eyes. Kyr still stood nearby. He spoke quietly to both of his lieutenants and occasionally indicated the dead dragon.
“Captain,” Finora coughed. Kyr turned his head. “We still need to finish our duel…”
A smile spread across his lips, but she ignored his response and just relaxed in the grass again. The gentle breeze that tousled her messy hair was warm and soothing. The birds and insects returned to their songs.
Background Music: “Cloaking Device” by Miguel Johnson.
Header Image by: Samuel_Manopo.