Authors: R.L. Stedman
Tags: #romance, #fantasy, #young adult, #magic, #Swords
R L Stedman
Copyright © 2015 RL Stedman
First Published 2015
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner.
National Library of New Zealand Cataloguing-in-Publication Data:
A Skilful warrior/R.L. Stedman
Cover Design: Paper and Sage Design
Illustration: RL Stedman
To the wonderful men in my life.
This could never have been written without you.
And to Sina, for hanging in there.
Hopefully the next one won’t take so long.
breathed in the summer smell of crushed grass. Through the branches of trees stars winked, faint pinpricks of light against the black. In such a short time so much had changed. My home had vanished, my world had altered; grown larger, it seemed, overnight. I stared up at the night sky, wondering at this transformation. I’d never seen so many stars before.
A breeze rattled the leaves, sending them sighing. ‘Sleep,’ they seemed to say. ‘Sleep.’
My eyes closed. I dreamed.
stood on a stone wall, looking down at a city. Night, and the moon was high. Below lay a food market, full of red-hot stoves and shouting vendors; the smoky air smelt of roasting meat. It was like the Fire Festival at home, but warmer and far, far noisier. Drums throbbed, loud as heartbeats. Cymbals crashed, rockets exploded into smoke. Through the crowd a red-gold dragon danced.
At the far end of the courtyard stood a wide stage, crowded with drums and copper gongs. Laughing, men pegged a white sheet tight to a wooden frame, stretched it across the front of the stage, forming a screen. Their brown arms glistened in the torchlight. Flags cracked overhead; horses’ tails fluttered from poles. Musicians climbed onto the platform, took their place at their instruments. A show was beginning.
Behind the screen a lamp glowed bright against the darkness. A man’s strident voice cut through the crowd. Heads turned and people gathered, squatting on the ground before the stage. They cried out when the puppets appeared.
When we were little, my brothers and I had made stories from the shadows of our hands – our fingers and fists making dogs or butterflies, or the head of a goose. This dream was similar; puppets dancing in the light, casting their shadows on a screen. Their bodies were supported by long sticks and, as they gestured on the screen with long, insectile arms, they appeared alive.
A sudden roll on a deep, deep drum. Abruptly, the spectators hushed. Small infants pressed dark heads into their parent’s shoulders. Evidently this was a scary story.
One shadow puppet walked across the screen towards five smaller ones. As the lone puppet reached them, the five seemed to grow. They stretched twig-like arms towards him.
Abruptly, the bigger puppet fell. The five gathered around, dancing in a ring as the gong beat slowly. Finally, they stopped. One puppet reached towards the prone figure, towards his chest. The crowd gasped.
The five raised their arms, stretching them towards the top of the sheet. The audience fell silent. The drums were stilled. For a moment, the world seemed to freeze, to the sheet, to the shadows poised.
And the five fell upon the one, and tore him apart; scattering legs and arms. A child screamed. The drum beat like thunder.
The wind shook the sheet and the lamp shone in my eyes. I blinked, and woke.
full moon shone through the branches, bleaching the world white. In the distance an owl hooted. The forest seemed a place of peace after the rowdiness of the dream-crowd. What had I just witnessed?
It had been a true dream. Somewhere, probably far away judging by the warmth of the air and the smells, there had been a puppet show. Shadows, shaped like insects, had gestured and gamboled on a white cloth. But what was the sense of the dream?
True dreams, so my father had told me, were sendings to teach us. They should not be feared, for when dreaming a true dream a dreamer could not be hurt. But my father had been wrong. Terror made its own injuries; in a true dream, you might indeed be harmed.
Yet this dream had not been terrifying. Strange, certainly. And a little disturbing, to see a plaything torn apart. What legend had they been depicting? And why had I, on this particular night, slept and watched the show?
True dreams are strange; they may show things that have passed or events that are about to happen. I could not direct which dreams came to me. Not yet. But I could shift the dream; I could shape the story. In a true dream, I could fly. I could hunt, and I had killed. What sort of person could kill another in her sleep?
For a moment, the wind sounded like a person talking.
On the bank behind, Jed shifted, the moonlight gleaming on his sword. Will sighed and stretched towards me and I shuffled close to him, leaning into his warmth. It was good to be here in this moment, with him. A true dream was nothing to fear, my father had said. My eyes closed against the moonlight, and I collapsed into sleep.
stood in a forest clearing, facing myself. A strange position to be in. No longer Dana, no longer me. It was like regarding myself in a mirror, but subtly different because I watched myself through a stranger’s eyes. I looked pale.
I was someone else. Yet, somehow this body felt familiar, as though I’d been inside it before.
My dream self wore metal wrist covers and carried a sodden leather shield. My other hand held a sword with a curved blade. Blood dripped from its edge. The weight of the weapons was so familiar I barely noticed them. Sho and Jorghe, my captains, were at my back. I didn’t have to see them; I felt their presence. We had fought together so often that we knew where the other would be without even looking.
She and I, I and myself, began to circle each other warily. She had two blades; smaller, lighter than my own. Her eyes seemed to burn and her hair was bright against the forest gloom.
No time to wonder. This was a battle.
She struck with her blades, one at my face, one at my heart. Automatically, I stooped, bending away. The tiniest thing: rough ground beneath your feet, the tremble of a leaf, too deep a breath; all could shift the balance. Thus had I been trained. The warrior’s principal task: to make each moment count.
Time slowed, stretched, so her twisting and my feints seemed languorous, more dance than combat. Yet, even in this false slowness she was faster, stepping up and under my guard, into my upraised shield, and the shock shook through my arm. The leather split. I shook it free of my forearm as Sho and Jorghe stepped closer, covering me, trying to reach her.
She was too swift. Stepping close to Sho, her elbow raised, she sliced a blade across his neck. He slumped, a broken puppet, as the blood arced, but she had moved on. Dancing at my legs, raising her foot, kicking at my wrist. A flare of pain. My empty shield arm dropped. She sliced a knife across my face. Blood in my eyes, blinding.
I stepped back. The moment snapped and sped. She twisted in a blur, stabbing upwards into the pit of Jorghe’s, arm, exposed as he raised his hand to aid me.
My Jorghe! My Sho! No time for grief. A man falls, another steps forward to take his place. This is the way of the Shield.
She didn’t wait for him to fall, just turned to me, and I, stupidly watching this like a man set in stone, had no time. But, in the end, it wasn’t her blade that killed me. From the side, arching, stabbing into my chest. A flare of fire. Sudden, absolute, consuming agony.
I’d forgotten the other. Chest heaving, he stood beside her, watching as my chest lifted, bubbling and leaking and oh, the pain, such hurt that overwhelmed as I tried to grab the thing in my chest, to pull it out, but I could not breathe and my hand was red and sticky and slipped on the handle. My vision blurred as I fell and all I could think of was freedom and youth being spent without thought, and of Morque, my wife. Had death been like this for her?
‘I join you,’ I said, maybe out loud. The girl’s face was soft with puzzlement and anger, and radiant with power.
She was annoyed with the warrior. I was to be her prize, not his. I lifted my hand to tell them to stop, for a death is a death, but she turned away, shrugging her shoulders. As I fell into blackness it was only the boy, the warrior-to-come, the warrior-that-is, who watched as my breath throbbed and bubbled and stopped.
ana! Dana! Wake up!’ Someone shook me. I blinked. It was Will.
‘You were dreaming.’
I pushed at him. ‘Stop it.’ Sitting up, my eyes felt gritty with sleep. ‘What time is it?’
‘I don’t know. Night time.’
Two horses, dim shadows against the inky sky, the mottled glow of the fire. Gentle snores, strangely frog-like, from Jed. N’tombe lay silent, wrapped in her own mystery. Tendrils of gold enfolded her, cocooning her in a strange, delicate blanket. And Will. He must have been on watch. I hugged him, grateful that he had woken me.
‘Are you all right?’ he asked.
I nodded, breathing deeply. There was no knife in my chest, no blood and it no longer hurt to inhale. ‘I dreamt...’
‘Of the warrior.’
I nodded. ‘Yes.’ I had been TeSin. No wonder his body had felt familiar; I had inhabited it before. ‘And there were others. His friends.’
We had fought TeSin, the Noyan, the army’s general, five days ago. At the time I had barely noticed his men; they had been disposed of so easily. I wished the dream had not taught me their names. It is easier to kill someone when you know nothing about him. A name gives too much knowledge.
‘His men. And you. And him.’
Will shook his head. ‘I’m no warrior.’
‘He thought you were.’
‘How?’ Will stopped, brow furrowed. I reached to touch it, smooth away his concern, but fast as a snake, he grabbed my hand, holding it tight. ‘You dreamt
were the Noyan?’