He hit her right between the ribs.
Aderyn stumbled backward, fighting for breath. She held out a hand, either to ward off the next blow or to submit. In her confused, desperate fight for air, she wasn’t sure which one she meant to do. Opposite her, Kendrick sighed and stood up straight, stretching his arms above his head.
“You know, if this had been a real fight, you’d be dead right now,” he said.
She was interrupted by another coughing fit. This one went on longer than the others. Finally, fresh air began to fill her lungs, relieving the aching, burning pressure in her chest. The whole while, her brother stood there, giving her a wry smile.
“Not… not fair,” she said. “You’re bigger than me.”
“So?” he said, squaring off again.
“Stronger too, of course you’ll beat me!”
She jumped back as he attacked her again. Shifting, she tried to remember the stances she’d studied, the forms of Terasai. It all fled her and she was just reacting, slapping his blows out of the way in a desperate, wheeling defense that soon knocked her flat on her back.
She growled and slapped the floor, rolling over and getting to her knees. “I thought you said you’d teach me,” she said, staring at him. She was furious with him. Why would he agree to teach her while father and Caiden were away if he was just going to humiliate her?
“Attack me,” he said, squaring off once more.
“Come on, Aderyn. You wanted to learn.”
“I wanted to learn, yes! You’re not teaching!”
“You’re not moving, you’re holding back,” he said, his intolerably calm voice irritating her. He was always so calm, so patient, so very unlike her father and her oldest brother.
“I am moving!”
“No, you’re stepping away, reserving your strength when you attack.”
“That’s moving! That’s… no I’m not!”
“Don’t you trust me?”
The question brought her up short. She swallowed what she was going to say and frowned, feeling a sense of shame come over her. Of course she trusted him. How could she not? When they were little, they would lay up nights, talking about the grand courts they’d visit once they both got their Sparks. As she grew older and he got his and she did not, he still talked with her, still called her ‘sister.’ And in time, he saved her life when she became caught in one of Caiden’s rages.
“Yes,” she said, sniffing back a sudden bout of tears. “Yes, of course.”
“Then attack me.”
She took a deep breath and went after him. On the offensive, she remembered the forms easier, faking one way and jabbing another. Her brother parried them but left an opening. She took it, aiming high on his neck. He moved with the blow and suddenly she was losing control of her own punch, her body sailing past him. His arm guided her body and soon she was falling, landing hard on the floor.
“That took no strength at all, little sister,” he said, kneeling down to her. “If they’re bigger, heavier, use it against them.” He brushed some of her hair from her face and smiled. “I can’t always be there to protect you.”
She nodded, slowly and reached out to squeeze his hand. He squeezed back and then drew her to her feet. Steadying her, he grinned.
“Again,” he said. “And this time I expect you to move and hold nothing back.”
Aderyn sat in the darkness of her cell, her eyes fixed on the small bar of light that glowed beneath the door. He would come very soon. It was nearly time for her morning meal. I’ll move this time, I promise.
The time she’d spent training with Kendrick had been brief, but she remembered them. She’d had to. Caiden was often left in charge of the Starkeep and when his rages were on him it was often Aderyn who would find herself their recipient.
She hated him, hated him even more fiercely than she hated her mother. It occurred to her that she didn’t even look for him in the battle. She felt no satisfaction in knowing he’d died out there, but she didn’t mourn him. Instead, Aderyn simply felt her hate sated. He’d gotten what he deserved but it had happened out of the way, without her even seeing it. Did that bother her? She wasn’t sure.
What she was sure of was that the shadow interrupting that bar of light was her jailer. She stood and walked quietly in bare feet to the side of the door. The door unlocked and slowly it opened. The man stepped forward, his hand extended to drop the plate on the ground.
She turned toward him and then grabbed hold of his collar and wrist, shifting her weight and using his forward momentum to send him tumbling. There was no thought, no plan, she simply struck and struck quickly. He’d fallen on his side and she sliced and open palm into his throat, her blow just hard enough to drive the shout from him. Her fingers found the plate and smashed it hard against his head. She was quick and she had held nothing back.
Horror washed over her. The man lay there, blood pooling from where his skin had broken from the force of her attack. Was he dead? She reached out to check but stopped, too afraid and too unwilling to know the answer. Instead she got to her feet, then rummaged for… what had she seen them use? Keys! Yes, they opened doors…
Her fingers found something metallic and thin and she yanked them free of the man’s belt. This had to be it. It had to be! She turned away and went to the open door, peeking out to see that the hall was empty. When she was confident it was, she slipped out and crossed the hall to the door where she’d seen them take the Queen.
Please, by all the Blood of the Stars, be here.
She looked at the metal ‘keys’ she’d taken from the jailor and frowned, not quite sure how they worked. They’d placed them into the locking slot that much she knew but how? Fumbling, she took one at random and pressed it to the slot. It didn’t fit so she tried it upside down. Still nothing so she tried another and another.
A sound caught her attention. She turned, her heart pounding and stared down the hallway. Voices, there were voices approaching! She heard their footsteps now as well, soft and steady. There were at least two by the sound of it, both male.
No, she thought. No, oh no!
She scrambled for another key, her fingers shaking and sweating now as she pushed it against the slot. It didn’t fit. Neither did the next nor the next. The voices were getting closer, their footsteps echoing so close, so near.
“…move the lot tomorrow, I think.”
“Won’t that be dangerous?”
Aderyn found another key but her fingers were shaking so bad she dropped them and she clapped a hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. Sweeping them up again she selected another key at random and shoved it against the slot.
It clicked into place.
“Maybe but we have to. It’s too dangerous for them there.”
Aderyn turned the knob and pushed the door open. The voices were turning the corner just as she slipped inside and quietly shut it behind her. Her heart was pounding in her ears, sweat breaking out all across her face as her chest threatened to twist itself into knots from anxiety. I’m okay, I’m okay. I made it.
Aderyn turned and nearly screamed.