The battle was a rumble and clash through the stone walls, waves of orders being passed along the lines on sharp tones.
Seryn turned her sword to look down the length of it. Her gaze drifted, unfocused, while she listened.
More whispers behind her, hurried, breaking.
She heard Macsen’s voice crack over the fight. Closer than the others. Or she imagined it.
She took another breath, let it out.
And Aled stepped inside, boot heel clapping on the stone floor.
She met his gaze in an instant, flicking her eyes up before she lifted her head. He had abandoned his coat somewhere, and his jacket hung open, unbuttoned so he could move. His sword hung from his hand, point down, but it was already striped in red. She acknowledged the blood coldly. Indifferently. Her sword was bloodier.
Inside the door, he hesitated.
Still too far away to read his expression, she appreciated his stillness.
He took a careful step forward, toward the mess of benches and tables that separated them. Turning from one side to the other, he glanced warily at the otherwise empty hall. Then he faced her again.
“Are you going to make me fight you?” he asked. His voice was light, low. Sad with a smile in it, as only Aled could manage with any sort of honesty.
Seryn blinked dully. “You could put your sword down.”
“You could, too,” he said.
She said nothing.
In careful, measured strides, he started forward. He nudged benches out of his way with his toes, slowly, and kept his eyes on her.
“Imer is dead,” she said, when he was close enough for her to see his expression shift.
His eyes sharpened for a moment, and he hesitated. “Are you sure?”
“Whose side was he on?” Seryn asked.
Aled cleared the tables, still half a dozen strides from her, and hesitated before he continued on. “Yours,” he said. “I’m sorry. But at least you can still call him a hero.”
She brought her sword up with just enough space between them to straighten her arm and point the tip at the center of his chest. He stopped before it touched him, but didn’t look at the long line of steel. He held her eye and would not look away.
There were things he meant for that look to say – something pleading, something appealing. She blinked and did not read into it, did not care. He was not surprised to find her standing in his way, and there was no heartbreak in the gentle smile that was so hard for him to shake.
“We’ve had this fight before,” she murmured. “Nine times out of ten, I hand you your ass. You like those odds?”
“We’ve never had this fight before,” he said simply.
And he was right. When he lifted his sword, he knocked hers to the side, and lunged as close as he could, aiming straight for the soft skin of her neck.
Seryn ducked, spun under his arm and brought her knee up into his ribs as she twisted around him. Her thigh burned when she put all her weight on it. Too close for swords, he tried to spin with her, keep her in view, and she brought the butt of her hilt down on the side of his face. He reeled back, and she let him, helping him with a kick in the thigh that pushed him toward the tables again.
“Did I scare you?” he asked, holding his face. The skin was broken over his cheekbone when he pulled his hand away.
Her heart was pounding.
She pointed her sword at him again, tip toward his chest, and waited for him to knock it away. When he swung, she pulled the blade back, avoiding it and aimed for his shoulder. He ducked, parried, caught her next blow as she cut in toward his knee. Seryn wished instantly that she was holding her own sword, a blade that turned that much faster for its familiar weight and the way it knew her fingers. This would be good enough, but she could have gotten closer.
He swung for her neck again, feinted and turned the blow toward her stomach at the last moment. Beating him back, she pushed forward, closed the gap just enough to make him slide back as well to gain the room he needed.
She cut toward his ribs again. He blocked, darted in quickly and pushed her back two steps while she met his next series of sharp, quick strokes. He had aimed to be faster than her since they were small, and he was good at it. She blocked each one closer and closer to her shoulders until she finally spun far enough back that she could see the swings coming and his reach forced them back into a more even exchange.
And she took an easy breath.
She swung. He parried, sliced toward her head. She ducked, and spun back for her next cut.
For a minute, it was almost thoughtless. They had fought each other so many times, in the yard, on even ground. They had trained against each other, learned how to make a strike sharp and make a parry hold. It didn’t matter that the floor was stone, and the blades were honed, and no one would call a halt when they had performed well enough. They sank into the motion the same way they had a thousand times.
And then Seryn yanked the two of them out of it.
She ducked under his next quick cut, let its weight carry him too far and came up behind his guard to slam her shoulder into his. He stumbled. She followed. She slashed a deep cut into the meat of his upper arm. Slashed, cut, stepped in, and brought her elbow in hard across his face.
Aled stumbled, and stared, and she didn’t hesitate.
He drove the hilt of his sword down into her thigh as she barreled in and she screamed, but still locked his sword against hers and shoved. He tripped over the bench behind him, caught himself by barely found his feet before she was back on top of him.
Seryn hit hard and the shock of it ran up her arm as their swords skidded together. The steel only sang for an instant. Then it cried.
Seryn drove her fist into his ribs.
Again and again.
And pulled away before he could return it, swung and kept him back with the tip of her sword.
Aled swore, a whole string of curses she barely heard as she threw herself at him again.
She hit him in the stomach and he lost air. She threw her sword into her let hand, locked it against his, and drove three hard punches into the tender points of his arm. His blade clattered to the floor somewhere between them.
Shoving one more time, she bent him back over one of the tables, and stopped, breathing hard, her sword at his throat.
He stared up at her.
“You chose wrong today,” she told him, her own voice barely above a whisper. He swallowed, and she felt the shake come down her blade. “I think you must have forgot what we are.”
“Seryn, please…” Aled said. She realized after too long a moment that he was trying to look at her hands out of the corner of his eye, trying to catch a glimpse of her right hand where they were pressed flat against his ribs. “Please just do it quick.”
She wanted to yank her hand back, but she kept pushing in against him, hard, to hold him in place. “I could,” she hissed. “I should.” She took a sharp, jagged breath, two pulls in before her lungs were full and she flushed the air back out. “But I’m going to let you run away from here. I’m just not going to let you take anyone with you.”
He barely looked like he believed her, eyes wide, mouth open. He swore at her when he found the words.
“Leave,” Seryn said. “I don’t want to be the one to kill you. And you tell all the other cowards that if I ever find out who put a blade through Imer, they’re not going to get this chance. I’ll murder them in their sleep.”
She yanked him up by the front of his jacket, noting which way his sword had fallen, ready to throw him away from it and toward the door.
He locked his hands around her collar just before she shoved him away.
“You’re going to die if you stay here,” he told her.
“You’ll die first,” she promised.
She hit him across the face with the hilt of her sword again, and kicked him away from her.
He ran and Seryn listened to the echoes of his footsteps in the hollow stone room, then watched him disappear out the doors.
She forced another breath into her lungs, tried not to make it sound like a gasp.
Her leg was burning hotter now, biting into the muscle like a living thing. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t stay here. She counted to twenty, just to let him get out of the hall, out the gate, into the battle on his own before she stepped out into the yard herself.
It was almost empty except for the supply lines running from the armories to the wall. The battle roared with a hundred voices, and Seryn let them wash over her in the clear morning air. The sun’s heat was just beginning to settle in. The air would reek of sweat and blood and meaner things inside twenty minutes.
She started for the gate, knowing where she was meant to be.
She caught sight of Macsen on the wall as she ran. His face was dark, eyes stony, and she tried not to feel the weight of it as she pushed herself back into the ranks of soldiers.