tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Blood Pact Ch. 23

The Blood Pact Ch. 23


We arrived at the stables shortly after high noon so it was no surprise that we found most of the groom's helpers laying in piles of straw and dozing in the sun as they idly smoked their pipes or carried on in gossip. It was a shame I'd probably never experience that sort of camaraderie again. I was finding that the ways of women were often more intimate, but not nearly as comfortably raucous. Even if I did one day find a way to return my body to its true form, I'd never be able to remain in the palace with these men. Concern for my safety, if not my overwhelming embarrassment, would likely speed me on my way as far from here as possible.

A few of the men looked up upon our arrival, but they let Ramzi make the inquires. I flushed a bright shade of red as he approached. He might have kept the secret of our recent meeting, but what of Nathan or Geoff? Casting a wary glance over the men, I saw no sign of either. No matter how innocuous the looks I received from the others were, I couldn't help but imagine they all knew what had transpired in the storeroom. Hastily I pulled my eyes away.

"G'afternoon, ladies!" Ramzi said. It didn't seem possible that he could have forgotten what we'd done, but that's exactly how he was behaving, expertly pretending as if it wasn't the least bit awkward to see me again. "Will you be wanting Diamondhead again, m'lady?"

"I, um, no, not today," I stammered. Diamondhead was a fine mount when you needed speed and power, but today something less excitable would probably serve me far better this afternoon. "I'll, um, take Razor's Eye instead. And I think Bluefin would be well-suited to the Marquise."

"I will yield to your judgment in this matter," the Marquise said. "We'll also be requiring Dames Traemene and Wilone's mounts prepared as well."

"Very good, m'ladies," Ramzi said, knuckling his forehead as he backed away with a spirited bow. "Come on you lazy bums!" he cried out to the lounging stable hands as he clapped his hands. "We've got work to do! You can get back to your loafing once we're done."

They rose and got to work with only a few groans of protest. Even then, they prepared the four horses in little time at all, efficiently getting them saddled and ready to go. I did my best to chat with the Marquise as they worked so as to help fight the urge to lend them a hand. Some of those newer boys still hadn't figured out how to tie off the reigns correctly or to adjust the saddle straps the way they should have. Fortunately the more experienced men caught all their mistakes before I was forced to do anything about them myself.

However, even with all my fancied expertise, I still found the hem of my dress caught between the stirrup and my heel as I swung onto my chosen mount's saddle. If I just tugged at it, I'd probably put a disastrous tear in my new dress but if I bent over too far in my attempts to loose it more gently, I might very well unseat myself entirely -- certainly not a terribly auspicious start to what was supposed to be my first riding lesson for the Marquise.

"Here, let me help you, m'lady," Ramzi said, sweeping to my rescue as I struggled with the stirrup. With a deft hand, he lifted my foot out so that the dress could fall free.

"Um, thank you." Feeling his hand on me, even through the leather of my shoe, filled my mind with all those memories of the last time we'd seen each other. Blushing, I quickly busied myself by pretending as if my grip on the reigns was no longer to my liking.

As he went about double-checking all the saddle straps and working around the folds of my dress, he spoke in a quiet voice. "If you don't mind my saying, m'lady, I hope you're felling better than you were the other day."

"Um, yes. Quite." That is, if regretting what I'd done counted as feeling better. "Thank you for asking."

After making the final adjustments to the bridle, he leaned in with eyes lowered and whispered. "And you don't have to worry 'bout nothing that happened, m'lady. I made sure those other two have enough sense not to talk."


"Well, there you are, m'lady," he said suddenly stepping away and patting the horse's neck. "All ready to go. You ladies enjoy yourselves now."

"Thank you very much," the Marquise said, tugging a little fitfully at her reigns. "I'm sure we will. Lady Stephanie, we await your lead."

Rousing myself, I heeled Razor's Eye onward, leading the way down the palace hill. What a sight we must have made: four comely women with blonde hair riding out of the palace like an amazonian war band straight from the old Calagearan Empire. No doubt rumors of female marauders ravaging the countryside would be circulating amongst the peasantry by that evening.

Bakoro likely would have tried to join us on our excursion if it weren't for the fact he didn't know how to ride. I'd have to remember that little fact in the future. However, if he had come along, he quickly would have found himself bored to tears. We spent quite some time leisurely trotting around an open field so that I could make note of any shortcomings in the Marquise's horsemanship while her two handmaidens merely entertained themselves by riding along the forest edge, jumping haystacks.

The Marquise was actually a better rider than I would have guessed from her request for tutoring. She wasn't as confident on the back of a horse as she was on her own two feet but that wasn't anything that a little practice wouldn't remedy. I recommended she learn to relax and trust the instincts of the horse, walking her through a few exercises which greatly helped her achieve a more natural posture in the saddle. It would take time, but I was confident I could make an expert rider out of her.

After that, we rode into the greenwood along the paths I'd followed the last time I'd made this trek. In the heart of the forest, we came upon the royal hunting cabin, almost exactly as I'd last seen it.

"I think this will do nicely," the Marquise said. Having dismounted, she lead her horse up the front door and peered through a gap in the shuttered window. "Yes, very nicely indeed. Come along girls, let's get underway."

We pried open the doors with little effort. The heavy wooden timbers which supported the structure were dry and solid. A few small holes had developed in the roof which had allowed the entrance of squirrels and raccoons, and some of the floor boards creaked when trod upon, but otherwise the building was still quite habitable.

The interior was dominated by a soaring great hall with a huge fire pit recessed in the floor and a hanging copper hood above. A series of rooms opened onto a pair of hallways that stretched out to either side, forming the two wings of this royal cabin. The exposed timbers overhead imparted a feeling of vastness and wonder without the least bit of gilding or extensive carvings.

The majority of the shutters were left closed so the interior remained mostly in shadow. It leant a mysterious quality to the proceeding as we got under way. Standing near the center of the hall, I was instructed to draw my dagger while Traemene and Wilona took up position in the shadows.

"Baroness Stephanie; originally of Eagle's Head," The Marquise intoned as she stood at her full imposing height before me. "You are being inducted into the sorority of the knife. This is not a formal sisterhood. There are no rules, no meetings, no dues. Understand, however, that these lessons are not to be taken lightly. They have been passed down from mother to daughter in an unbroken line that traces its roots back to the earliest Calagearan tribes."

"Passed on from mother to daughter?" I said.

Hastily, the Marquise looked away. "There are occasionally extenuating circumstances: orphans and adoptees and the like. I think you more than qualify in this case." Quickly regaining her air of authority, she continued. "It is a sacred duty undertaken by each generation to ensure no woman is ever left defenseless. By accepting my instruction, you must promise to in turn pass on what you learn here to your own daughters."

I cringed in sudden revulsion as my gut twisted. I certainly hoped never to bear any daughters -- or sons either. But I suppose if I did one day SIRE children, I would want them to be able to take of themselves -- especially the girls. "Of course," I managed.

"Now take a stance. Let's see what we have to work with."

I did as instructed and the Marquise circled, looking me up and down.

"Most beginners lock their elbows," she said, taking hold of my forearm. "But not you. I can see you've had some instruction already."

"Some," I admitted. I hadn't consciously thought about what I was doing with my elbows, but Nikelle's harsh instruction was not a thing easily discarded.

"Though obviously not enough," the Marquise said, nudging my toe a bit farther inward. "This should prove interesting. We'll begin with some basic moves and see how you take to them."

Though they may have been basic, they were not simple. Each one required not only a fluid understanding of were my hand was at all times but also where it had just been and where it was going to be. The footwork was even worse. Having to keep myself balanced at all times, even when in motion, was a challenge made considerably more complicated by my dress.

However, the Marquise insisted I never attempt any shortcuts by practicing in anything less than what I was currently wearing. Even divided skirts and trousers were not allowed. As she explained, if the need should ever arise to actually use what I was learning, it would seldom happen under a circumstance where I would be able to choose my wardrobe beforehand.

Though the Marquise excepted nothing less than perfection, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride when I managed to achieve the proper stroke for a certain movement. Unlike Nikelle's crude Blood Dagger techniques, these forms were elegant. They flowed smoothly from one to the next like water. Once my body became accustomed to them, they felt as natural as breathing.

Though managing to combine them into a seamless attack and defense that could be executed on instinct would take much more work than a single afternoon, or even several weeks, of dedicated study. Watching Traemene and Wilona demonstrate the techniques for me, I often couldn't even follow what they were doing, let alone duplicate it. The look of frustration in their eyes as they slowed their actions to a speed I could manage was virtually tangible. My clumsy imitation of their techniques provoked even greater levels of annoyance.

However, no matter how long it took me to learn each move, I never allowed their irritation or my own doubts to discourage me. With each thrust of my dagger, I reiterated my aspiration to take back the course of my own destiny. Never again would I blindly allow myself be used as a tool in other people's plots. This was a new beginning, one crafted for my own good and no one else's.

I only allowed the day's training to end when the Marquise finally insisted upon it. I could have kept going all night, and the Marquise did indulge me for a time, but after sending Traemene and Wilona back ahead of us to make preparations for our return, she eventually drew the line when the sun began to set.

I was tired and sore, but invigorated at the same time. I didn't want to return to the palace knowing that I would have to wait until tomorrow before we could continue with these lessons. I'd found a new force of deniable strength unlocked inside of me and I didn't want to waste it on such mundane activates as eating or sleeping. I was ready to conquer the world that very evening. All I needed was a sword.

Unfortunately, even in my energetic state, I had to admit that if we waited any longer before returning to the palace, we'd risk doing so in the dark of night, and that could be dangerous, especially for someone less skilled in the saddle than myself, such as the Marquise.

If we couldn't have continued the training, I would have at least liked to remain in her company for the rest of the evening, but she had a husband and a household to attend to. She couldn't spend all of the her time with me (and very likely didn't wish to), but I thought I did detect a twinge of regret in her voice as we parted ways at the entrance to the noble's wing. It was with a heavy heart that I reminded myself that this was likely just another front put forward to keep me in her confidence. We were not really friends after all, only allies.

The halls of the palace were growing dark by the time I was nearing Lord Ruvano's chambers. I suppose I was going to have to spend the rest of the evening with him. Maybe I could locate a dark wine cellar somewhere and drink myself into a coma instead. There had to be SOME alternative to sitting calmly next to him all evening and pretending as if I was still passively accepting of my part in all his machinations.

I had yet to conceive of something better when a pair of dark shapes descended on me from out of a shadowed alcove. I cried out and reached for my dagger, but a gag was pulled across my mouth, instantly stifling any alarm I might have raised, and my arms were pinned behind my back before I could even lay hands on a weapon. Lashing out as best I could, I found myself face down on the floor and immobilized without even having gotten a glimpse of my two assailants. A silk sack was pulled over my head, and my hands and feet were wrenched behind my back and tied together. I couldn't move, couldn't speak, couldn't see.

So much for taking charge of my own destiny.

To Be Continued...

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