Castle Faln looked stolidly out over the grasslands, its grey granite
walls looming over the fields and the teeming city within its ancient
perimeter walls. Long ago, it served as the court of the king of the
Falnish Territories, and held about it ghosts of grandeur. Now, it had
been set aside by the king and his heir apparent, and was passed on to
the second-born prince. Suffering from age and decades of neglect, it
brought to mind a dying warhorse garbed in pennants of the royal blue
and gold, trying to maintain a certain if fading nobility.
Within its crumbling walls, the lives of courtiers and castlefolk went
about, and within the honey-comb of streets and alleys, two lives were
of special interest.
One, quite obviously, was mine.
The other was coming at me with a sword, and I'd say that's reason
enough to warrant special interest, wouldn't you?
I slashed out with my blade, slamming a foot down to buttress my blow.
I phased him enough to make an attack of my own, and was duly fended
off as he recovered. I jumped back, hoping for a moment's time to
reconsider a plan of attack, but received no such luck. He lunged at
me, sword in the lead, and with his longer limbs, I was forced to back
away with no chance of counter-attacking. Faster and faster I backed
away (I wouldn't be so crass as to say it was retreating) until he was
practically chasing me more than he was lunging, and then I stepped to
the side and then forward, stuck out a foot, and tripped him. As he
fell past, I whirled and brought my blade down, administering it to
his backside as he was thrown to the cobblestones.
"Got you, Kren," I said, smiling victoriously and bringing
blade to rest lazily on my shoulder. I looked down at my friend,
breathing slightly heavier than usual, and flicked a bothersome lock
of hair out of my face. That was the problem with late summer; all
these vagrant breezes that blew in gently to coax damnably long hair
into your eyes.
Kren glowered up at me as he rubbed his posterior. "Oh, like that
any great surprise."
"Of course it was. You really had me running there."
His look was murderous enough to make me think twice about what I had
said, which, admittedly, hadn't been too bright. This little practice
skirmish hadn't been our first. I had lost count, but I'd say it'd be
up in the hundreds range, and in each of those mini-battles, it hadn't
been he who'd won. And, admittedly, losing all the time had a souring
effect on a person. Especially when he was a trainee for the Royal
Guard. Especially when I wasn't getting the sword-coaching he was.
Especially, even, when I was female.
In what was perhaps the wisest move I had made that day, I switched
topics. "Hey, today's Market Day, isn't it?"
Kren nodded as he picked himself up, taking time to stiffly dust off
his rear end. "Well, I've got a few coins. Let's go see if we can't
buy something to eat."
I smiled hopefully and prayed fervently. Just between you and me, I'll
tell you that Kren was terrible company when in a foul mood. Sometimes
the only way out of it seemed to be through his stomach.
A small smile broke through his clouded expression. "Sure."
My smile grew from hopeful into something beaming.
And then my smile grew into something grimacing. Cheerika, by the way,
I spun around and shot a bereaved glance down the alley, only to
confirm my worst suspicions. Of course, I didn't know who I had been
trying to fool; there could be only one voice in all of Castle Faln
that could bellow like that.
"My brother," I sighed. Then, hardening and looking at Kren,
"Run for the market."
Without a word or second glance, my blonde-haired friend took off,
because he, like just about everyone else in this castle, was scared
witless when it came to the Captain of the Guard. He wasn't well-known
for his congeniality, if you know what I mean. For his raging temper,
his nastiness, his quickness of applying the back of his hand to your
face, these things he was far more famous for.
Lucky to be related to him, wasn't I?
Of course, there could be worse, I suppose. I could be sister to
Sherdon, God of Damnation and the Underworld. I could be sitting in
the purgatories right now, the Damned God poking me with His
pitchfork, wanting to know where His latest batch of sinners were.
Torture, torture, torture, that was the business.
"What in the name of Sherdon do you think you're doing?!"
into my face.
Well, maybe Sherdon and company wouldn't be so bad after all.
"Hello, Hebthar," I said, smiling weakly. Belatedly, I thought
hiding the mock sword, and surreptitiously tried to hide it behind my
back. Unfortunately, he noticed, and ripped the wooden blade out of
my hands and neatly cracked it in half over his knee.
"How many times have I told you? How many? You do NOT play with
I almost flinched in the face of his fury, but again, I say almost.
When you've been the sister to this demon for the past fifteen years
of your life, the fear runs out of you. All right, half-sister, but
still, the blood ties were enough to entitle him to guardianship when
my parents had died, my father in an ignoble hunting accident, my own
mother while trying to birth another sibling, who hadn't survived,
either. Whatever happened to his own mother, I'm not sure. We never
spoke of it, and seeing as it was sometimes the well from which he
drew his bitterness and resentment, our silence was for the better.
"Too many times," I shot back, my own temper finally catching
"Time and time and time again! What is so wrong with it? Can you
me? I can do it better than most Guard trainees..."
"Shut up! Shut up, Cheerika, or by Sherdon, I'll..."
I shall admit it, when my anger swallows my head, it swallows any
semblance of intelligence, too. I say stupid things, like asking what
he would do to me for disobeying his void on my swordplay, when I had
felt the painful results enough times to know better.
Before I could blink, he had resoundingly swept the back of his hand
across my face, sending me reeling back a few feet. I staggered a
moment before straightening and glaring up at him, hoping the world
would stop spinning.
"Sherdon spite you, Brother," I spat, pronouncing the last
word as if
it tasted rancid.
This time he hit me hard enough to throw me to the cobblestones, just
as deftly as I had thrown Kren earlier. Bitterly, I reflected on how
the deities must have seen this as poetic justice. Bitterly, because
just as surely as I was Kren's superior when it came to the sword,
Hebthar was my superior in all matters of brute strength and general
viciousness. Our father had stamped us with his good size, which
showed in Hebthar in height and burliness, but still, my brother was
good decade my senior, and had that much more on him with which to
knock the stuffing out of me.
"Enough!" he roared, hurling the remnants of the mock blade
"One more word out of you and you'll find a real sword sticking
"You, you will answer my summons next time I send for you!"
snarled, face purpling with rage. I hoped that particularly
unappealing trait hadn't been passed on to me, too.
Summons? Oh aye, I remember now. Hmm. Oops.
My mind wandered a moment, and seeing as how my brother was ranting,
it was an easy thing to do. I snapped back to attention only when he
came around to another relevant point.
"You are coming to dine with me tonight, and shall be properly
attired, for once!"
For once? I wanted to sputter, but I had a little more common sense
than that (surprise, surprise). Jerkins and breeches were among my
favored clothing, whereas gowns and dresses ranked somewhere among the
distasteful. Oh, I admit, it was pretty scandalous, a girl in
breeches, but a dress is a damnably hard thing to fight in. I bet you
could trip on the skirt and fall on your sword. Pardon me for saying
so, but that's hardly the type of glorious ending that I was looking
With a spurt of fire and reprimand, Hebthar turned sharply on his heel
and left, not even bothering to wait for an answer. And, if you would
believe it, that angered me more than anything, more than even the
blows that he had dealt against my face.
"Tell me gods," I muttered, "What have I done in past
lives to deserve
They were silent on this matter, not surprisingly. I rubbed at my
cheek gently, feeling around the tender flesh. Leave it to Hebthar to
make sure both blows landed on the right. Double the pain, double the
resentment. Sherdon damn him for this.
"Cheerika?" Kren called meekly, approaching slowly. "Cheerika,
I twisted to glare at him. Did I look all right?
"Oh Sherdon, you're going to have a hell of a big one, right under
eye," he said, pointing at my face.
Well, thank you very much, Sire Genius. It wasn't like I couldn't tell
that on my own. Not like I could feel the whole right side of my face
purpling beneath my fingers, not like it was ablaze in pain. Nothing
like that at all.
"Thanks for the news," I muttered, picking myself off the ground.
Gingerly, I dusted off my backside, and then went to pick up the
sundered pieces of the practice sword. I sighed heavily, looked over
at Kren. "I need you to help me get a new practice sword from the
Kren's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "What? Cheerika, are
crazy? Hebthar'll kill you next time, for sure!"
I suppose this was the last straw for Kren, and maybe I couldn't blame
him. It was no secret that Hebthar beat the daylights out of me every
time I disobeyed him, to which my bruises and his furious screams
(usually heard throughout the castle) were testimony. If I were a
contributing factor to such violence, I guess I would bail out, too.
Well, that and if Hebthar ever caught Kren... You understand the fire
Kren was playing with here. The only shock here was that he hadn't
I scratched my head with the hand that wasn't holding the splintered
wood and sighed again. After a moment, I favored Kren with hard eyes
and in a resigned tone said, "Really, Kren, what more can Hebthar
Either you help me or I'll do it alone."
"You can only die once," I interrupted.
His horrified expression showed me how quickly my humor had failed.
"Kren, joke, okay? Ha, ha. Joke. Hebthar isn't going to kill me."
Well, not while I had some say in it, of course. Seriously hurt was
"Cheerika..." he whined, shaking his head doubtfully.
"Look, he's not getting me away from swords, end of story. Now,
you coming or aren't you?"
Kren hesitated, and again, I didn't blame him for it. We were friends,
but I certainly didn't expect friends to throw themselves to Sherdon
"All right," he said, joining me in my walk towards the armory.
a moment, he said, "What is it with you and swords, anyway?"
I shrugged in answer, and that was all I offered. We had been through
this before, and well, Kren couldn't understand. I had once asked him
what he felt when he fought with the sword, and he had given me one of
these puzzled looks that told me that he questioned my sanity. So, I
knew then and there he didn't feel what I did.
"Every time you do it, you're just kicking Mischief in the tail,"
"I don't kick it in the tail," I protested, pouting. "It
picks up its
huge rear end and throws it repeatedly against my foot."
Kren chuckled, breaking out of his dark mood for a moment. Then, "You
know, you'd probably kick Sherdon in the tail, too, if you could."
I laughed to myself, thinking about how true it probably was. But Kren
hadn't meant that as a joke. Sometimes he was too much of a nag and a
worrier for fun's sake. What did I tell you about him being lousy
company when foul-mooded? "Look, Kren, do you still want to go to
Market? After we get a new practice blade, of course?"
I do declare, his expression cleared just the slightest.
"Sure. Besides, you'll need it. The swordmaster said he's going
teach us some new moves in a sennight's time, and I'll need the
More like he wanted the opportunity to knock me off my high-horse, was
what it was. Still, if this was what it took to get the job done, far
be it from me to complain.
Kren was right, though. I was looking for trouble when I kept up with
my swordplay. It wasn't really my fault, though. Swords were something
I had to go to when called, something I couldn't stop tinkering with.
They were worth ten times any amount of trouble they might cause me.
Surely, you must understand that type of passion, must have been party
to one, once. Surely, you understand what it is like, when the gods
have touched you with that type of enthusiasm.
And if you don't, let me explain.
There was among the Falnish, probably among the Northerners and the
Oceanlanders, as well, a belief that the gods granted a gift to each
person. Sometimes it was wealth, good fortune, beauty, and the like,
but more often than not, it was a skill of some sort. Undoubtedly, you
have heard a great bard sing, or seen some poet pen his lines, or
blacksmith work his craft-Didn't you also notice the ease with which
they did these things? The joy they received, the joy they gave? The
rightness of everything they did? Each note was sweet and pure, each
line was poignant, every blow of the hammer accurate in wending the
metal. It was just right. Even they didn't know what or why they did
what they did. They only knew that it was right.
Swords were my gods-granted gift. Every time I fought, something
clicked inside of me. I didn't have to think or ponder each move; I
just moved, and each time it was right. It was pure revelry, it was
freedom. It was experiencing the joy in doing something that you do
well. Swords were this to me, and then some, because they were written
in my soul. Like all gods-granted gifts.
The gods are fickle creatures, and why Daquar, God of War and Patron
of Warriors, chose a girl to touch with the gift of war-tools was
beyond me. All I knew was that I had it, that I loved dancing His
dance, wielding a sword. Have no doubts about it; I was talented. Even
the swordmaster of the Guard Trainees had said so, and that was no
light comment, coming from an old chauvinistic goat like him.
I guess Hebthar didn't understand that, didn't understand having how
following a gift filled the heart and mind. That would be the only
reason I could see why he denied me my love, why he tried to rewrite
my passions. He didn't understand that swords were written on my soul,
and that a soul is a terribly, terribly difficult thing to rewrite.
My brother and I were nothing alike. Where he was tall and burly, I
was gangly, awkward, and out of sorts. Having two different mothers
must have helped the dichotomy some, but still. You would think two
people sharing some common blood would look more alike. I mean,
Hebthar was blonde, for heaven's sake. Blonde! That was no big thing
in the Falnish Territories, where practically every Falnish person is
blonde and fair of feature, but it was a big thing when I was
raven-haired. Brother and sister! Blonde and black! The logic defied
All right, so my mother was a Northerner, that should explain the
color change. Still, still... I mean, my father-our father-had been
Falnish. It was just too bizarre. You would think that something
might've carried over. I mean, if you wanted to hold up examples of a
Falnish and a Northerner, you could've held up my brother and me. We
were that different.
And, if you'll allow me my biased little opinion right now, I'd like
to add that the Northerners were far more beautiful people.
But, these were not such fine thoughts to think as I sat across the
table from my brother, swirling my spoon around in my soup. I had been
looking at my reflection, which had prompted this whole train of
thought. Dull as a sight as that might have been, it was better than
locking gazes and trading looks with him.
"Don't play with your food!" he barked suddenly.
I glanced up at him, surprise written in my features before they
curled into those of annoyance. Brazenly, I picked up my spoon and
slurped down the soup to the noisiest of my abilities. His face
purpled with anger, and again I caught myself wondering if I looked as
horrible when enraged. It was not a pretty thought. It was not pretty
face, either, for that matter.
"You are not dressed properly," were the soft words he reproached
with, and each was loaded with anger that was literally waiting to
All right, so my best pair of breeches and a black jerkin over a white
blouse weren't exactly the makes of a gown. Just a picky little
"And you're ugly, so what's your point?"
Let's give some serious consideration to what Kren said about me
kicking Sherdon in the tail if I could...
Hebthar slammed his spoon down onto the table with enough force to
make the plates and goblets clatter. If I were not the slightly more
mature than a child type of person that I was, I would have said that
they were shivering in fear.
The plates were smarter than I was.
Surprisingly, he didn't pick something up-like his drained goblet-and
hurl it across the table at me. Don't look at me with those accusing
eyes and say I was exaggerating; my brother was well-known for those
sorts of things. It especially baffled me because we were dining
privately in his study, and the plausible excuse of preventing a
public scene wasn't present.
"Cheerika," he said through a tight grin, "Let's not fight
Stranger yet, he was appealing to me politely, instead of the usual
barked command and accompanying threat. I really started to worry
earnestly, then, because that straw stuffing I called a mind realized
that my brother wanted something from me.
"Sure," I said slowly, eyeing him from across the table, glad
there was several feet of horizontal wood and a myriad of dishes and
candlebras between us. The right side of my face was swollen and
purple, thanks to a certain idiot Captain of the Guard I knew, and I
couldn't ogle him as long as I would've liked. Eventually, I had to
close my right eye, press my hand over it to soothe its throbbing, and
gaze at my brother one-eyedly, which didn't make me look all that
Hebthar picked up his spoon, resumed eating in what was probably a
normal fashion if you didn't know him any better. But I did, and I saw
that he behavior was tense and forced. These were all bad signs, and
it was confirmed when he paused, dabbed at his face with a napkin, and
plunged the knife into the heart, so to speak.
"It's time you married."
It was a good thing I was holding my hand over my right eye, because
at those words, my eyes widened, and in its poor and mistreated
condition, I was sure my right ball would've jumped right out of its
socket and into my vegetable soup.
I guess I shouldn't say I hadn't been expecting this. I was fifteen,
closing in on the ripe marriage age of sixteen come next spring. I
shouldn't say that I hadn't been expecting it, but in all truth, I was
going to tell you just that. I had been too busy developing my
sword-skills to pay attention to the more mundane (Hebthar would say
practical) details of everyday life, marriage among the many that I
neglected. Marriage was just one of the farther-reaching ones, unlike
my abandoned lute lessons, the skipped etiquette sessions with Jali,
the riding lessons at the Royal stables, or trips to the seamstress
for "proper attire." Undoubtedly, I was scheduled for a backlash,
ignorance of reality non-barred.
Of course, I had expected Hebthar to just beat the stuffing out of me.
Marriage... Well, this was something far worse.
"Who," I croaked, pausing to clear my throat, "Who's the
Hebthar's fingers thrummed against the table, series after series. It
simply was not a good sign, just not a good sign. I pressed my hand
against my eye more firmly; I think I was developing a headache.
"Prince Sanri," he said at last.
Prince Sanri? No, no, and again, no! It was impossible!
For you, imaginary readers, I'll expound a little more. Prince, or
really, Princeling Sanri, is son of the second-born Prince Sanlar. In
the royal hierarchy, that's really not very impressive. King Sangel
thrones himself at Imperial Faln, to the South, presiding over the
Falnish Territories with Crown Prince Sanlon. Now, unless death should
visit both King and Crown Prince Sanlon within Sanlar's lifetime and
Sanlon bore no heirs, there wasn't much of a chance that Sanlar or
Sanri would ever really rule. As it stood, King Sangel had granted
them a token kingdom, a dukedom, really, here at Castle Faln.
I, in case you are sitting there sputtering in disbelief or wracked
with laughter at the hilarity of the proposition, will inform you that
I was of equal station to the Princeling. My father was Hebnor,
Captain of the Falnish Royal Guard, and in the Territories, it was no
light title. It carried honor, weight, power. My mother, my mother and
not Hebthar's need I remind you, was the fifth-born princess of a very
minor, very obscure Northern territory. So, if you followed down the
bloodlines and multiplied this factor with that and cross-canceled,
what you got was me at dilutedly royal station.
Which, of course, was still more than my brother, and that he did not
like. The fact that I was a very loud-mouthed brat of a sister (and
not that I claim to be something else presently) who didn't mind
exploiting that particular non-genetic advantage probably did not help
his resentment any much more.
"Are you mad!?" I sputtered after some time. "He'd sooner
daughter of a mule merchant than he would me!"
"A wise man," Hebthar said, smiling lupinely over his bowl.
I grimaced at him. "What do I care? After all, it's not I who loses
One more thing to remind you imaginary readers of: brides didn't pay
the grooms anything. After all, when a woman bears the children,
secures the bloodlines, manages the household, and acts as emissary
and diplomat between the houses, she was worth quite a sum. Men do
not, after all, bear children. Hence, if a woman was of good stock and
fair talent, she was worth her weight in gold.
I didn't think I weighed a particularly substantial amount at this
Hebthar realized that, too, for his arrogant grin disappeared the
moment my words flew into the air. It was a skill I of which I was
particularly proud. It was also a skill that was known to earn me a
couple good beatings, and the problem was, I often forgot that little
fact until my brother was fast on my tail as I fled down the castle
"Oh, you will care, care very much, or I'll take several inches
I snorted in a failed attempt to keep down the laughter. Stop gaping
at me like that; no, I've not yet lost my mind. It was just so odd
that with something this important at stake, Hebthar was threatening
me with the most mundane, commonplace thing there was. As if he
weren't beating me once a sennight already, or every other day when I
wasn't nimble enough to escape his very large and capable hands. As if
this were supposed to inspire me with great fear-spurned motivation!
Although, mind you, I was not fond of having the pulp beat out of me.
Still, I had a little trouble suppressing that chuckle, although when
I did, I looked up and saw a violent face, and then judged by the
intense shade that perhaps it was time to leave. Stand up and leave
the table. Take off. As in flee.
I leapt up and was hauling open the oak door by the time my chair had
hit the floor and Hebthar had risen from his chair and started around
the table. Actually, I was quite surprised he hadn't lunged across the
table, never mind the dishes and silver. Again, it was not unheard of.
With a decent headstart, a profoundly accurate knowledge of all the
various escape routes, and a calmness that comes with repeating a
routine all too many times, I eluded Hebthar. One black eye a day was
quite enough, so I thank the deities for gracing me with such small
mercies. Unfortunately, this probably meant I had to bunk down in the
stables tonight, as Hebthar wasn't above sneaking in at midnight to
whip the senses out of me (happened once and never again. I can learn
quickly, you know).
So there I was, the sister to the Captain of the Guard, exiting the
castle and starting down casually towards the stables as the shouts of
my raging bull brother echoed somewhere in the wings above. Just
another clueless person, all too content with the thought of finding
place to rest my head for the night rather than dealing with the
problem at hand. But then again, considering it was going to be a
problem that wasn't going to go away but was going to keep popping up
everyday for the rest of my unwed life, I guess I had good reason for
not wanting to deal with it. What a shame that the deities so very
rarely shared their designs with little ole mortals like me. Then
maybe I would've had an idea of what I was in for.
"Evening, Dalan," I said, strolling into the stables.
Dalan, the white-haired and wrinkled old stablemaster, smiled warmly
at me and seemed none the bit surprised that I was here at such an odd
hour. Usually, I came around during the daytime, to help with the
horses, to run little errands, like oiling the tack or occasionally
mucking out a stable. It was a habit that had formed a couple years
back, when I was a much feistier, far more tactless thing than I was
now. I had more or less marched into the stables, demanded to be
taught how to ride, and then ended up coming around every day to
pester the poor aging fellow until he consented. Well, all right,
that's not really how the story went. He more or less ignored me until
after a fortnight or so snapped at me around the context of at least
making myself useful and no he still wasn't going to teach me, Sherdon
confound tomboy alley-cats like me. Still, I did get the lessons in
the end, and Dalan got a girl who came around frequently enough to
work and to listen to his complaints and tales of yester-year. It
worked out well enough.
"Bring me that halter, from over there," he said, returning
over the bridle he was currently working on.
"This broken one?"
"Aye, the same."
It appeared it was going to be business as usual, never mind the hour.
I fetched the halter and settled down onto some bales, watching him
work. He was silent for some time, concentrating on working the
leather, but eventually asked, "Do you think there will be a raid
I went to the stable entrance and gazed out at the ink-stained sky,
squinted a moment, as if I could descry the future in the darkness. I
would have shrugged, because I didn't know and for the most, didn't
care. But don't ever let it be said that I didn't have a heart. Dalan
was an old man, terrified of raids and the Raiders, as the pitchfork
he often kept by his side was proof of.
"No, I doubt it. It's cold tonight. They'd be wiser to stay in
whatever hole they reside than to venture out tonight."
An obviously transparent lie. It was only early autumn, and by no
means cold enough to drive a person indoors, or to even take on
heavier clothing. Dalan knew that as well as I, but his shoulders
relaxed the slightest, and his face lost some of that tenseness that
made his age stand out in sharp relief on his face.
Why he was so frightened of the Raiders, I had a hard time
understanding. They were a pack of Northern thieves, a bunch of
sword-wielding brigands who came, fought our Guardsmen (and usually
stomped them underfoot), stole a lot of things we'd rather not lose,
and then left. End of story. It had been happening on and off for so
long it had become rather dull and commonplace for me.
All right, at this point it would be a safe conclusion to say that I
was an idiot. I was living with that confidence that all young people
have, that confidence found in thinking that you're going to live
forever. It never really occurred to me that Guards were being killed
out there, that they were lying in the healer's wing in the castle,
groaning out terrible things and slowly dying. A bloody soldier trying
to hold in his entrails while lying at my feet was not something I had
seen. Wisdom, or even a sense of what was going on out there, was
something I lacked.
Not uncommon in people that age, so kindly don't nag me about it.
Dalan returned to working with the worn leather and I began to pick at
the blades of straw poking through the bales. If you want to know, and
I'm sure you've guess it by now, I don't have too many friends over
here at Castle Faln. Okay, not anywhere, really. I had Kren, and then
I had Dalan, who was more like a non-enemy than a friend. So, in times
of trouble, I did a lot of relying on myself, and in times of trouble,
I usually lamented my dearth of allies. It's not always a great thing
to be entirely alone, fighting your own battles.
"How is the Captain?" Dalan said slowly, between weaving new
leather into the halter.