Her bags were packed, her room was clean, she was ready to go to bed and leave at dawn – there was just one thing left to do before she could let sleep take her for a few hours.
She tied up her long braid into a club and crossed to the door in a few easy strides. Opening it and stepping out in one fluid motion, she bumped into the figure who stood there, hand poised to knock.
“Yarrow,” said Caelum.
She had to stop herself from fleeing back into her room.
Instead she stood, arms crossed, waiting for his follow-up statement. “Yeah. What do you want?” she asked when he didn’t say anything.
“I….” He coughed and shuffled his feet. An awkward pause, and then he shrugged, quickly, and said in a rush: “I just wanted to talk to you.”
Goddess, why? Conflicting emotions nearly tore her in two, but she kept herself together. Somehow. Barely. “I don’t want to talk to you.” Will that make him leave? Please.
He sighed, looking resigned. “I understand….”
Good! Leave now – stop tormenting me!
“But it’s important. Please hear me out.”
With the barest modicum of control, she resisted punching him. Time was running out for her to file those travel papers! “Important. Right. Speaking of, I have to file some paperwork before leaving tomorrow, so can you let me go?” Just. Step. Aside.
“Leaving?” he jumped on her words. “Where are you going?”
Feck. “Mudflat. Regiment business.” Let that end it. “Need to file my requests if I want to leave at dawn.” There – one last tidbit. Leave now.
He looked stricken, and for a moment she wondered if she’d lost control and had punched him. “So you’ve arranged your escort, then.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes.” What else could she say?
“And you didn’t ask me?”
She lost it. With no regard for fighting in a castle hallway, close to her troops’ barracks, she shouted at him: “I didn’t want to talk to you, Caelum! Period. Just as I don’t want to talk to you now, and somehow you’ve managed to keep me here when I could be finishing my business!” And sleeping. “Let me go file my papers.”
He leaned in then and planted his hands on each side of her door, pinning her to it. Her heart skipped a beat at the intense look in his eyes, but all he said was “On one condition. Include me in your escort.”
What? “That’s not even logical – I don’t want to see you and so will include you in a ride that will have us in close quarters for a sevenday at the very least, mayhap more? No, Caelum.”
He shrugged, as if it didn’t mean a thing to him. “Then I guess you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to file those papers. Good luck leaving on time.”
Her jaw dropped in her incredulity. “You’re going to keep me here if I don’t agree to take you with me?” He nodded nonchalantly, looking for all the world as if they were discussing which dessert pastry tasted best.
She was mad now. She straightened until her face was inches away from his and glared at him. “Oh yeah? You and what Regiment, Major Caelum?”
He gave her a pitying look and she resisted the urge to squirm. “I’m stronger than you, Yarrow,” he said simply. His eyes flickered to her waist. “I notice you forgot your new sword in your room.” He left the thought unfinished, letting her decide if it was a threat or not.
She decided it was.
She let herself slump against the door, eyes downcast, letting him think himself victorious. He relaxed just a fraction and she took her chance, pushing him with all the force she possessed. He went sliding back across the floor and stumbled, but did not fall.
Yarrow dropped into a fighting stance and waited – she had no weapon but doubted Caelum would draw on her, unarmed as she was. I can take him – strength does not conquer all. It was the first lesson of basic training, and one the skinny thirteen-year-old she had once been had learned well.
He came at her then, and she tensed, waiting to move. He feinted to her left and she fell for it, realising too late her mistake. She crashed to the floor, bruising her ribs, and then he was on top of her, crushing her further. They grappled and rolled, fighting for dominance, until she pinned him, digging her knees into just the right spots on his thighs. He grimaced in pain and Yarrow bared her teeth, grinning as ferally as her sister might.
“Give up?” she asked him.
He glared, grunted, and then, in a display of strength, flipped her up and over his head. She landed on the stone floor, her head making a sickening ‘crack’ noise. Dizzily she looked up to see him leaning over her. “Not hardly,” he whispered in her ear as his hand grabbed her braid, free now, and he pulled her up by her hair.
She snarled and kicked and moved, trying to spin around to fight him, but he had her in a headlock then. He tightened his grip and the loss of air to her brain made her realise the futility of struggling. The only way to free herself would be to break his foot or his groin, and she just didn’t have it in her actually to hurt him.
At least not in the castle, so close to good healers. She could hurt him in Mudflat.
“Fine,” she choked out, trying to catch her breath. “You can come.”
He loosened his hold but did not let go. “On your word as a bellica?” he asked her.
She almost changed her mind about hurting him. When had she ever betrayed him? But he was being smart about it, and she couldn’t begrudge him using his mind for once. “Yes. In Bellona’s name I swear it. Now let me go!”
He released her and she stumbled away, coughing and hacking, getting air back into her lungs. To her relief, he didn’t try to help her but stood, waiting to be sure she was okay.
At length she stood and glared at him. She’d be lucky to make Provisioning and Requisitions on time now, at all. “Be ready to leave at dawn – Main Gate,” she said. “If you’re late, we leave without you,” she added over her shoulder as she walked away.
Heading to the offices, she thought about the new Caelum she’d seen tonight and wondered about the change that had come over her oldest friend. He seemed…smarter. More courtly. Which was strange, considering he’d been raised a farm boy – he couldn’t even read when she’d met him, and he’d been seventeen. He could now, of course, but words certainly were not his strong suit.
He had gone to Southland for leave and his uncle had once been been a courtier. Perhaps Pieter had given him a few tips.
She shook her head, accepting that as the most likely explanation. He certainly was different.
And I’m not sure I like it.