I entered one of the most revered short-story contests for sci-fi/fantasy: The L. Ron Hubbard Writers award (http://www.writersofthefuture.com). My story, ‘Might,’ received Honorable Mention. I just rolled my eyes at that, but turns out I’m in the top 1% of over 4,000 stories submitted (from all over the world) and was never “rejected.” I will receive a certificate and mention on their blog.
The Maiden’s Gash roared. Empty mugs thudded against ale-soaked tables. Travelers, beggars, murderers, smugglers, and one female Shiv stared at their cards, rolled their dice, and wished for the fortune of luck. The woman’s sly eyes skimmed just above the cards in her hand, measuring the three tense men who sat across the table. The Shiv pursed her lips, blew a lock of blonde hair from her dripping forehead, then dropped four cards onto the table.
“You BITCH! If you weren’t Shiv I’d carve off that pretty lil’ face of yours!” the man to her right yelled. His black beard obscured his pinched face from neck to cheekbones.
She smiled while scooping up her coins, then placed them in a small bag. When she rolled up the sleeves of her standard forest green uniform, the Shiv exposed tattoos from her wrists to where the shirt hid the rest. Bright colors and intricate designs danced along her arms, seeming to brighten up the dim table where they rested.
“Have a wonderful evening, gentlemen,” she said to the sounds of scoffs and empty threats. She rested her hand on the holster of her sheathed blade and turned from the table while strapping her rounded akiim shield to her back.
Although the shield emitted a dim, aqua luminescence from her neck to lower-back, the woman felt all eyes on her ass as she walked through the chaotic shack. Light-footed, she was careful not to sway into any of the whores who were doing more than their job required in the public setting. The stench of unwashed bodies was overwhelming. When the Shiv stepped out into the crisp night air, she momentarily closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Imperia had never smelled so pure.
Two blue moons illuminated the main path through the Crossroads. Though the middle of the night, the road was still crowded with merchants working their wares, and whores, working theirs. “Fine steel for sa—” a vendor’s voice trailed off after observing her uniform. No steel in Imperia could match the blade a Shiv carried.
Shella Spruance continued down the dirt path—observing just as much action outside as she had in the shack—then followed a dark forest trail to where she had tied up her horse. She remained on guard to the potential dangers, and realized for the first time her training was instinct and not forced. It wasn’t an ideal way to end your evening, but only a fool would use the Crossroads’ stables. Although she was only a week graduated from her five-year stint of training at the Arma, even she knew no one was to be trusted at the Crossroads, especially by a Shiv. The Arma had trained Shella and her comrades to kill, protect, track—whatever needed to be done to keep the citizens of Imperia safe. Shiv were well respected throughout Imperia—except in places such as the Crossroads.
The Crossroads wasn’t actually a real village of Imperia. It was more of a meeting place for gamblers, whores, and traders at the junction of the two main roads in the southern part of the country. Shiv units were not stationed at the Crossroads as they were in every other village, town, and prime city, in hopes that the shanty village would just kill and steal itself into non-existence.
Her body hummed from the ale she’d consumed—or maybe the shots of rye—and the walk took longer than expected. Shella’s mount would soon be ahead, and then only be a few hours ride to a comfortable night’s rest…if she didn’t decide to sleep under a tree.
Only a few paces away, the sound of dried leaves scattering behind a thick oak tree caught her ear. Just a rodent, or something. She continued a few more steps before hearing a slap, then a woman whimper. Immediately, Shella drew her blade and crept toward the noise. Another slap followed by the rip of clothing rattled through the quiet night.
The source of the sounds came into view; Shella saw a large burly man towering over a woman, her dress puddled around her ankles. He shoved the woman forward, pressing her against the tree with her backside toward him. When he reached to unbuckle his belt, Shella pressed the tip of her aqua-colored blade against his neck.
“One more move and the only thing you’re going to be spraying on this poor woman is blood,” Shella said, trying her best to hold the blade steady without piercing his skin.
The man slowly raised his hands into the air. “Ain’t none of your business—unless you want to take her spot—I suggest moving along,” he said, trying to turn toward Shella. She held her grip tight, not allowing the man to move a hair.
“Do you know what I am?” Shella asked, feeling a true Shiv advantage for the first time.
“Fucked and dead unless you take that sword from my throat,” the man answered.
A hot wave of anger rushed across her face. As quick as Shella removed the tip of the blade from his throat, she punched the man in the back of the head. His face jolted forward into the tree. Blood gushed from his forehead as he dropped ass first against the ground. The sting of the punch felt good, so good that it reminded of her of the many times she split her knuckles back at the Arma when using her fists were recreation and not a duty.
He’s going to get up and try to kill me now.
Before the man could rise to his feet, she jammed the heel of her boot against his chest—exposed and hairy from his unbuttoned shirt. “I am a Shiv, and I am placing you under my dominion until we get to a town that has a holding cell.”
“Under what charge? I did nothing wrong. She was paid like any other whore,” he said, white teeth tinted a shade of blue from the dual moonlight.
Shella snarled, “Just because you pay a whore for her services doesn’t give you the right to beat the shit out of her. Your charge is abuse.”
The man laughed. “Abuse. Ain’t nothing she hadn’t felt before. Plus, the nearest town with a holding cell is—”
“Chenith,” she answered for him. “Just a few hours from here. You’ll have an adventurous few hours being pulled behind my mount if you don’t keep your legs moving.”
By this time, the woman had pulled what up remained of her dress to cover her breasts. Shella kept her boot on the man as she glanced at the woman through the corner of her eye. Her face was bloodied, and both eyes were half-swollen shut. Rage tingled the hand that held Shella’s Shiv blade, urging her to shove it through the man’s neck and be done with him, but she wasn’t vengeance—she was justice.
“Are you alright?” Shella asked. Stupid question.
The woman did not speak. Instead, she just nodded as tears drained from her puffy eyes. “He’s a paying customer. It’s his right to—”
“To what? Beat you senseless before he fucks you? Is that a whore’s honor or something?” Shella asked, hostility flashing toward the wrong person.
“If word gets back to my boss about this, he’ll gut me. This is the only way I can make a living,” she responded, wadding strips of cloth from her dress into her fists. She was probably beautiful—or at least had been beautiful at one time.
Shella tugged at her belt and threw the woman the coin purse she had won nearly an hour prior. “Get out of the Crossroads. Go to Whale or Hedge and be a maid or cook…or something.”
The weight of the sack left the woman speechless.
“Go! Before I change my mind.”
The whore nodded and disappeared into the darkness, not back toward the Crossroads but in the direction of the prime town of Hedge.
“Up to your feet!” she ordered, lifting her boot and blade from the man’s chest.
He slowly rolled to his stomach, then to his knees. “I paid a lot of coin for tits like those. It looks like you owe me, seeing how you don’t have much in that area,” he said, tilting his head to the side. “That ass of yours could pay your debt, I suppose.”
Before another word could slip from his tongue, Shella rounded on the top of his head with her shield, knocking him unconscious. Fuck. Now how am I going to get him to my horse?
With each hard yank, Shella wanted to stop and catch her breath. At the Arma, she had been used to strenuous workouts, but pulling a large man across stone and soil was not a part of their training. The man must have been at least twice the weight of her, and his thick ankles were hard to grip even with her long fingers.
She refused to stop, satisfied with the sound of his teeth scraping pebble. His body jolted slightly as he awoke, and Shella felt the sudden resistance from his head to where she gripped his ankles. She scowled, then tugged the man through a small brush of thorns.
He yelled something unintelligible—something that let her know he was in pain. When he attempted to turn on his back, she released his legs, taking her blade into her throbbing right hand.
“You’re awake. Time to walk,” she said, flicking the flat side of the blade in the traveled direction.
The man tried to spit on the ground, but his mouth was so dry that it only dribbled onto his cracked lips and chin. Observing him for the first time, Shella noted he wasn’t an ugly man, not in the least. Neatly trimmed, his beard was well kept to blend with his short brown hair. His light-green eyes would undoubtedly turn a woman’s head, so why would he be paying for a whore?
“Okay you piece of horseshit, on your feet,” Shella ordered. Her shield clung to her back as her blade remained pointed at his chest.
As the man staggered to his feet, he let out a grunt. “You think this is the first time I’ve had one of those fancy Shiv blades pointed at me?” he said, picking dirt from his teeth as his gums leaked blood onto his hand.
“It will be the last unless you start moving. NOW!”
“Or what? You’ll gut me here? I don’t think—”
“You don’t want to test me.”
“You’re young, still a cadet I bet. Where’s the rest of your unit?”
“I said I was a Shiv, not a cadet. Do they let fucking cadets wander around the Crossroads? Walk in front of me with your hands in the air. My horse is just ahead.”
The man slowly raised his hands and looked around. “You mean to tell me that you could have gone and got your mount while I was unconscious, yet you chose to drag me instead?” he scoffed. Instead of spitting or cursing, the man simply smiled, displaying his crimson-dyed teeth. He wasn’t bothered by his scraped face, and that sent a chill down Shella’s spine.
“That’s exactly what I did,” Shella replied, planting the toes of her boot against his rear. He stumbled forward, then began to walk. Although it was dark, she recognized sound of the stream not too far out. Her horse had to be close. Usually not a wise move to leave a horse unattended in the woods, but with the Arma brand clear on the mount’s haunches, no one would dare steal it.
“It’s dark out here; I can’t see where I am going,” her prisoner grumbled.
“I can see you, and that’s all that matters. Now watch out for thorn trees,” Shella jested.
After a few minutes of hiking, she heard her horse ahead of them. When they reached the Arma-bred stallion, she ordered the man to his knees.
“Why?” he asked. His answer was the flat of her blade against the back of his legs. He dropped to his knees with a grunt, muttering curses even Shella had never heard before.
She approached her horse, gently patting him on the neck. “Look what we’ve got here, Might. A coward who likes to hit women.”
“Might’s a stupid name for a horse, if that’s what you think that thing is. Looks more like a pony to me.”
“Coward is a stupid name for a man.” Shella sneered.
“My name’s Borris, not Coward!”
Shella dug into Might’s saddlebag and grabbed a rope. While Might was a runt, he still rode with the power of a fine stallion. Her third year in the Arma, all cadets had learned to ride and care for a horse. Her unit had all laughed when she drew first pick, yet chose the smallest horse of the bunch. Shella herself had been scrawny. It wasn’t until her sixteenth year she had sprouted long legs, and caught the attention of many of the other cadets. In her eyes though, she would always be a runt, much like her beloved horse. Might had been more than Shella’s mount, he had been her silent friend that she often went and tended to when no one else wanted to listen. She told Might secrets, and he never judged her—plus he was a better listener than any man she had ever met.
“Men like you don’t deserve names, Coward. Now, lay flat on your stomach,” she ordered.
The man ignored her request as if it had gone unheard. Shella stood over him—blade still willing. “Lay down on your stomach, and cross your legs” she commanded again.
Frustrated, Shella reached down to cross the man’s legs. Borris abruptly swung his forearm. Muscle, hard as stone, caught Shella on the side of the head and knocked her off-balance. His speed was a surprise, but the blow did little damage real damage to the Shiv. Shella didn’t panic as she skidded to the ground. She had been trained in every aspect of combat—blades, hand-to-hand, bows, the throwing combat of juda—and could challenge anyone. She did panic, though, when she realized that her blade was no longer in hand.
She turned to her side. Borris was already charging her, Shiv blade in hand. He slashed the blade downward, and Shella rolled to her stomach. A loud clang echoed through the forest as the blade connected with the shield attached to her back—blocking a hack that would have cut her from shoulder blades to thighs.
Before Borris could thrust the blade again, Shella shot to her knees and rolled away from his sword-arm. The smooth whirl of the blade parting the air was too close to her head for comfort, so she kept rolling. Feeling his presence drawing near, Shella hopped to her feet and threw her body backward; her shield crashed into the man’s gut before he could take another swing. They both fell to the ground. Shella rolled her shoulders to loosen the shield off her back, hoping to use it to beat the man’s head in, but he was clearly well-trained in combat, as well. Borris backpedaled on his elbows before aiming the tip of the blade at her from the ground, where they both locked eyes.
“Drop it,” she said, nostrils inflating and deflating as she breathed heavily through her nose. Borris didn’t respond, but Shella knew she couldn’t allow him to his feet with that blade in his hand. She calculated the distance between them, considering how much damage her shield might do if she flung it at his face. Before she had time to decide, though, Borris scrambled to his knees. Shella immediately charged him with her round shield—body vaulting forward as if she had been thrown from great heights.
As their bodies connected, she closed her eyes, something she hadn’t done in years. One of the first things she had learned in combat training—boxing and blades—was not to close her eyes when she attacked or blocked an attack. Taking her eyes off of the opponent most likely meant she would be the first to die. Yet, here she was, eyes closed in the dark forest, waiting for the sting of the blade to lace her body.
Instead, there was no pain—only silence.
Shella’s eyes flicked open and she saw Borris, flat against the ground and wide-eyed. He’d released his grip on her blade. Her shield pinned him to the ground, pressed hard against his jugular. “I should remove your head from your neck right here. All I’d have to do is put my weight into my wrists,” Shella sneered.
“You can’t kill me,” he rasped, voice thin at the touch of the fine-edged shield against his throat. “That would make you a murderer.”
“Attacking any Shiv is punishable by immediate death.”
“You won’t kill me. You’ve never killed before.”
Shella pressed the edge of the shield harder against his throat. “You don’t know shit.”
The Shiv snatched her blade while releasing the hold on Borris, then stood. How did he know that she’d never killed before? Just because she was fresh out of the Arma didn’t mean that she had never killed in combat. The fact that he was right didn’t bother Shella as much as how he knew.
What gave me away?
“Stand up and walk to my horse.”
Borris grunted as he rose to his feet. Even in the darkness, she could see the red line her shield had left across his throat like a choker necklace.
“Are you going to let me ride with you?” he asked, slowly stumbling towards Might. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind that backside of yours rubbing against me. You may like what you feel up against it as we gallop—”
She’d heard enough. As soon as he was close to Might, she gently prodded the horse’s rear with the tip of her blade, just enough to irritate her beloved mount. Might’s hind leg erupted backward as if he were kicking through a stone wall and planted directly into Borris’ gut. The wind rushing from Borris’ body was satisfying, but watching him double over in pain caused Shella to crack a rare smile.
It was only a few hours until sunrise when Shella reached Chenith. The light of the two blue moons was hidden by thick clouds, but she found the way with ease by following the Perry Road. Chenith wasn’t a big town by any means but still had enough size to have a Shiv unit patrol regularly. Though not much larger than the Crossroads, Chentith presented more merchants and shopkeepers, instead of murderous gamblers. The town that existed to supply the fishermen of the Miist River and traveling civilians as they made their way along Imperia’s main road.
Shella jerked the rope she’d tied from Might’s travel-pack to her captive’s wrists. Borris grumbled behind her. “Looks like you won’t have much more walking to do, but I do hope Might has supplied you with enough shit to slip in. I’ve been feeding him onions and carrots this entire trip,” Shella mused, glancing back over her shoulder at the struggling criminal.
“I’m going to find you one day, bitch. I’m going to find you and take back what you owe me from releasing my whore. I’ll make you my whore.”
Shella kicked the sides of Might, causing the horse to jolt forward in a sprint. She halted the horse only after hearing Borris hit the ground.
“What were you saying? You seemed to have slipped, and I didn’t hear it all,” she said. Shella knew that it wasn’t wise to be toying with a man who obviously didn’t shy away from abusing women, and probably worse, but those kind of men were what had driven her to be a Shiv in the first place.
The road into Chenith was clear, as most of the village was still asleep aside from a few traveling fishermen who had just come in for the night. The paths were solid soil lined with stone, emptying to a dozen well-crafted stone inns and taverns.
The center of the town was wide open, often filled with tents and games from various fairs of the seasons. Solid housing wrapped around the village like a cozy circle of fellowship. The place Shella needed, however, was tucked back on the south side of town, in front of two tall buildings, most likely the bank and town hall.
As the sun rose, Shella got her first glimpse of Borris out of darkness. Aside from the gash on his forehead, and a several cuts along his lips and cheeks, there was little damage done to him.
“So, this is where I sit for the next few months until they decide I’ve learned my lesson?” Borris mocked, his hands still bound behind his back. “They better have a good cook in this town. If I’m gonna spend all this time chained up, they better feed me well while I think of how I’m going to hunt you down and fuck you stupid for payback.”
“Do you flatter all women with such beautiful poetry?” Shella asked, rapping on the town hall door. She thought she heard Borris laugh, but she couldn’t tell if it was out of amusement or irritation.
The door creaked open.
“A Shiv I don’t recognize,” a haggard old man said from the doorway, leaving much curiosity as to whether he was making a statement or asking a question. “Where are the rest of your unit?”
“Hello. I am Shiv Shella Spruance. I have a man for your cells,” Shella said, ignoring his question about her fellow comrades.
The jailer looked Shella over twice as long as he did Borris. “On what charge?” he asked, glancing up at Shella through thick, white eyebrows.
“Abuse. Abuse of a woman,” she said, knowing the gender of the victim would lengthen the sentence, “and attacking a Shiv of Imperia.”
“No. He just hit me in the head. Luckily, he hits softer than some of the girls at the Arma.”
“Sounds like a good man,” the jailer scoffed. “Looks like we will have him quite a while. No Shiv on duty here until the end of the week. Would you mind helping me get him to his cell?”
Shella glanced back at Borris through one eye. For the first time, he didn’t carry himself as arrogantly.
Borris winked at Shella as she checked the clamped shackles around his purpling wrists. They were crafted for a much smaller man, but they would do. He could lose his hands for all she cared.
“I’ll be seeing you soon,” he whispered. Shella felt his eyes burn through her as she exited the cell, which contained only two other criminals. The holding cell was in the middle of town, and an escape attempt would be visible to the townsfolk. While Shella worried that the cell had openings big enough to slide an ox through on the top, she was confident that the shackles would hold.
“The Shiv should be here within a few days?” she asked the jailer, clearing her throat once to gain his full attention.
“I expect them any time now. No worries, those chains have held scum much more slippery than him. You…you apprehended this man by yourself?”
“Yes. The rest of my unit are visiting family. We had a free week, so they all went to do separate things before we reported.”
“I don’t blame them,” the jailer replied, thumbing toward the Perry road. “Could be many years before they get another chance to see them. You have no one to visit?”
Shella had felt the question coming but still couldn’t think of a horseshit enough answer to appease the old man, so she just told the easiest lie. “Already saw them. They live in Whale.”
“It must have been nice to have family so close while you were training for so many years.”
Shella gritted her teeth into a small smile. “Lovely,” she murmured, aiming to change the subject. “Something’s off about him. Please keep a close watch.”
“Of course, of course. Will you be staying with us?”
The thought of a hot meal and an even hotter bath sounded more appealing than a golden horse to Shella, but she knew clean skin and a full belly would only make her want to sleep for a few hours in the inn. She still had three days to spare on a two day journey, but yearned to see her comrades now more than ever.
“I may grab a few carrots for my horse, then be on my way,” she replied as a small tattoos sign caught her eye on the side of one of the taverns. “When does the tattoo place open?”
The jailer looked her up and down as if she had asked where she could find the nearest whorehouse. “I don’t think they ever close, dear.”
Several miles outside of Chenith, Shella rode Might at a slow pace, feeding him a carrot as she ate one of her own. The sting on her shoulder felt like a familiar fresh scrape, blood gently sticking her uniform to her newly colored flesh. It wasn’t uncommon for her to get a tattoo at the Arma, but it was nice to see a different artist for once.
As midday turned to early dusk, Shella realized that she had not rested since the previous morning. Since there were no more towns between Chenith and her soon-to-be home of Damcar, the only option she had was to make a small camp and sleep for a few hours.
Once she had the fire blazing in a thicket about a half mile east of the Perry road, Shella ate the remaining dried duck she had carried with her from Whale, then tended to Might.
It was a peaceful night. Both moons were visible in the starless sky. Between the thick trees high above her camp, the blue moonlight made the thicket almost dreamlike. Not soon after putting out the fire, she barely got into her sleep sack before falling asleep, blade at her side.
Her dreams, as always, were filled with passion.
She lays in an enormous bed that cushions her arched back as if the bedding were made of air. Moaning and drawing in deep breaths, she looks down between her legs, meeting her love’s eyes for the first time—his sideways smile sending ripples of joy through her heart.
Shella hums his name as he returns to pleasure her more, this time with more intensity. Her eyes close and she runs her fingers through his hair—that thick, dark hair. “There you are,” she hears him mumble from down below. Smiling, Shella moans—lips gently quivering, “I’m where—”
“I told you, bitch. I told you I’d get you.”
The harsh words shattered the dream like a mace through a window. Her eyes flew open just before something heavy struck her head. There was a flash of light, then nothing but darkness.
A warm spray splashed against Shella’s face, snapping her from unconsciousness. It was sticky and thick and burnt her eyes as the distinct smell of iron filled her nostrils. Blood. The taste of it coated her lips like a wet sheet. She tried to wipe her eyes clear, but her hands were bound and roped to a tree behind her.
“Looks like ol’ Might was a little more lean than I like, but he was tasty enough.”
Shella pried her eyes open, ignoring the stinging pain of the blood underneath her eyelids. The blurred vision of Borris, knelt down just a few paces in front of her face sent her into a hissing rage.
“Sorry I didn’t save any for you,” he said, his putrid breath shadowing the scent of blood and alcohol. “Figured you wouldn’t wanna eat your own horse raw.”
“You sick fuck. Why?”
“The horse kicked me in the gut. I owed him one.”
“You just killed and ate a Shiv—”
“Yeah, yeah, Shiv this, Arma that. None of it will matter when I toss your headless body into that stream and travel west.”
“How did you get out?” Shella grunted, rubbing her wrists together, trying to loosen the rope around them. Keep talking. Buy yourself time.
“That old jailer didn’t like to clean up our shit, so he let us use the privy when needed. Didn’t like to wipe our asses either,” Borris gloated, licking the blood from his red-stained, saturated lips. “I only needed one hand free.”
“Did you kill him?”
“Who do you mean by him? See, darling, you need to be more specific. I’ve had busy travels trying to find you.”
Disgusted, Shella couldn’t help but flare her nostrils. “The old jailer.”
“Kill? No. Let’s just say he won’t be talking anytime soon, though.”
Shella could see the chain dangling from his left wrist out of her peripheral, refusing to give him the satisfaction of actually looking at it.
“And you tracked me here instead of fleeing? You know everyone in that village knows what you look like. When those Shiv do report to Chenith, you’ll have half the Shiv units in the southern region after you.”
Her blurred vision now becoming clearer, Shella now saw that Borris had poorly shaved off all of his hair and beard, with random patches of hair and small open wounds speckling his scalp. He now wore something a farmer would wear on a hot day in the field: rough trousers, rolled up to his knees, and a tattered shirt loose over his torso. The only thing that contradicted his identity as a farmer was the Shiv blade at his side.
Eyes wider than the moons themselves, Shella’s heart pounded against her ribs. She knew she was dead.
“Ah, you see that I have a new sword?” Borris asked, gently patting the glimmering hilt. “You know how much I can get for one of these?”
“You’ll be apprehended before you find a buyer,” Shella replied, chest bursting with panic. Fear turned to rage as her eyes left Borris and focused on the soil behind him.
Might—headless and hacked to close to a dozen pieces—in a pile of chunks on the ground.
Noticing Shella’s observance, Borris walked over to the horse and lifted its snout with the toe of his boot. “These Shiv blades are great for carving meat. Did you know that?” he asked, then let the head plop back onto the blood-soaked soil.
Shella refused to close her eyes. His satisfaction of her disgust was something she would not allow. If I can stall him—keep him here somehow, the Shiv may show up in time. Who am I kidding? No one will find us here for days.
“Well, as much as I’d love to stick around and fuck with your dead horse, I do owe you something,” Borris said with a leer.
He strolled to the fire pit from the night before, now embers and wisps of smoke, and withdrew a sword, slightly longer than a Shiv blade, but thinner.
“They say luck frowns upon those who kill a bound person with their own weapon,” he said, picking up Shella’s blade. He clanged the two blades together, forged akiim grazing solid steel Shella watched helplessly. He sauntered toward her, glinting eyes scanned her body, undressing her with each lazy blink.
“You’re already on your knees, so maybe we can start there,” Borris said. “Then again, you’re crazy enough to bite, so maybe I’ll just bend you over a chunk of that poor excuse for a horse and get it over with. I’m not even in the mood at this point, but you’re pretty, and it would be a waste to kill you before you’ve ever been properly fu—”
Shella spat, crimson from the blood on her lips. “You’re going to have to kill me. No way I just let you have me.”
Borris snorted a sardonic chuckle. “I don’t need you conscious. Shit, I don’t even need you alive.”
“What you’re used to, I bet. I doubt you get much reaction from women when you’re cramming your tiny twig in them.”
For the first time, Shella struck a nerve. “If you ever want to make a man stupid with rage, insult his cock,” she remembered Instructor Lake Murat telling her the first day of combat training at the Arma.
Borris’ nostrils flared and his mouth twisted into a snarl. He flung her blade and cut loose the rope around her wrists from the tree with his own sword. Seizing her blood-soaked golden hair, Borris launched Shella over Might’s headless body. He jammed the point of the blade against her spine, while untying his trousers. A chill raced down her spine as he removed the blade and ripped at the belt of her uniform.
That’s when she made her move.
Wrists still bound together, she clutched the discarded entrails of poor Might and flipped to her side, ripping intestines from the horse and hurling it at Borris’ eyes.
“Fucking bitch!” Borris clawed at his face, still holding the sword in his hand. Shella lunged, snatched her Shiv blade with both hands, and sprang to her feet in one swift motion. She barely steadied herself before Borris’ thin-bladed steel sliced the air. She ducked under it and stepped back causing his backswing to miss.
The two stood motionless—weapons drawn, each waiting for the other to make the next move. “You skinny bitch. You think you’re gonna best me in swordplay with your wrists tied together?” Borris said, shifting back and forth as the tip of Shella’s blade followed his head.
Shella knew not to respond. It was an old trick to take her mind off his attack, just long enough for him to gut her. Instead, she inched away from the heavy thicket where she had made camp, giving herself more open space.
Borris lunged, jabbing his sword at Shella’s chest. She smacked his sword down with her blade and spun to her right, throwing an elbow that clipped him behind the ear. He was knocked off balance momentarily before answering with a massive upswing that would have cut a tree in half. Shella jerked back as the wind from the edge of his sword tickled her face. Before she could retaliate, her momentum propelled her backward, and she slipped on bloody, dew-covered morning grass. As soon as her ass hit the ground she flattened herself, avoiding another swipe from Borris’ powerful attack.
Shella could tell that he had experience with a sword, but nothing as extensive as a Shiv. If she could absorb his hard swings with her blade, her speed and technique could be the end of him.
She leapt to her feet and dashed forward; steel clashed against her finely crafted akiim blade as he thwarted her attacks. She was testing his reactions, and he was failing. Predictability in a sword fight means death, and Borris was either baiting her, or truly fighting for his life.
Her bound wrists hindered her attacks, severely limiting her bladework, but she kept maneuvering Borris into the thicket where he would run out of room..
The two were now surrounded by trees—large oaks wide enough that one would have to make an effort to walk around. With each defensive turn of the sword, Borris grunted. He was tiring, and Shella moved faster. Seeking the right opportunity to disarm him, she had no intent to kill the man. That job was for someone else, though she had every right to kill him the moment he assaulted her. It would be her first kill. She wanted it to have meaning, not be some piece of shit in self-defense.
Borris mustered his last bit of energy, but Shella booted him in the stomach with a stout front kick—brown leaves swirling into the air from her feet. On his knees, Borris lowered his sword and released his grip. The thump of it against the ground was the loveliest sound Shella had ever heard.
“Yield,” he grunted between pants. “I yield. Just take me to whatever cell is next on your journey.”
Shella licked her blood-crusted lips, then spoke, “Damcar is a day ahead. Six Shiv units and a jailer worth a shit, so I’m told.”
Borris just nodded, too winded to make eye contact. “You’ll be walking in front of me,” Shella added, throwing a quick knee to Borris’ nose, “seeing that I have no fucking horse to ride on.”
Blood streamed from Borris’ nose on to the roots of the tree where he slumped. Shella turned to salvage what bit of rope was left to tie his arms, and heard his sword scrape off the ground. Before he could get to his feet, she whirled and thrust her blade.
She knew it pierced his heart by the way he strained before collapsing at her feet.
That was it. Her first kill. A moment of clarity, and she was ready to move on—so she thought. Pulling her blade from his chest, the ribs grated against the fine akiim edge, and felt as if part of his insides came with it. She stumbled away and knelt beside a large oak to vomit the dried duck from the night before. Shella sucked in deep, labored breaths as the chill of dread made her skin crawl. Water, I need water.
Each breath was a fight as she crawled through the remains of poor Might, scavenging through limbs and bloody chunks of hair for her saddlebag. She found her waterskin and gulped until it was empty. Her stomach unknotted and complexion changed from green to its normal creamy white. She staggered from her mutilated horse and collapsed, letting the frigid soil calm her as she exhaled the trauma. Killing is nothing like the songs. There’s no glory—not even justice.
A few moments later, she accepted that this man, by law, deserved death. She thought of her comrades back in Damcar, some who had already killed, and some who had yet to kill. She thought of her mother, wishing she’d had this training with a blade to defend herself. She thought of why she had joined the Arma at the young age of fifteen, and the eventual day that she would in fact kill or be killed.
Her scattered belongings didn’t take long to collect, and Shella was ready to travel the Perry Road north to her new life as a Shiv. Branches cracked beneath her feet as she took a few steps from her camp before she thought about owing him a proper burial. Shella, known to do the hard tasks but never voluntarily, spent the next five hours digging a proper burial hole with her bare hands. By the time she was done, the dirt caked under her nails felt as if it were part of her skin, and open sores along her hands and fingertips stung with nagging torment.
Under the midday sun, she struggled to place the remains in the hole, deep enough to allow her to blanket him with a sheet of dirt, and then turned toward the direction of her new home.
As she left the camp caked in dirt and blood, she refused to glance at Borris’ body—still limp against the thick roots of an oak. She kept her gaze forward with thoughts of her beloved horse heavy on her mind.
I wish I could have given him a better burial than that. Might was a good horse, even if he was a runt.