2. Meeting

Light hit the walls of the castle first, then ran down to bless the inner and outer courtyards, the houses and the market. The high walls that surrounded the castle and its town also enclosed the soldiers’ barracks, several paddocks and a sea of thatch that had risen up as the war spread across the borderlands. More and more people seeking refuge. The King helped them raise simple huts but hoped that it was only a temporary solution. They were promised annually that this was their last winter within these walls, that they would be going home soon.

Huntsman rose with the dawn and strode into the outer courtyard to splash water on his face, straight from the fountain. The air was already warming and his skin quickly dried as he stretched. By midday the air would be baking hot. It was promising to be a glorious summer.

Back at his bunk, he tugged his jerkin over his head and tied the laces. The cotton shirt was the one he had slept in and he noted idly that he would need to have it all washed soon. The washerwomen at the castle had too much to do with their hands and nothing to do with their heads so they gossiped all day. Nicknames were born at the washing house, and scandals spread.

His arrival had not been too much of a scandal- he was one of many promotions to a position in the castle since the beginning of the war. Strong men were scarce and guards were always required. Yet they had known of him. Since the first day he had step foot in the washing house he was ‘Huntsman’. Regardless of his position now, his father had been a huntsman, his grandfather had been a huntsman, and to them he was one still, new uniform or not.

To their annoyance, he hadn’t mind in the slightest; he had always enjoyed working in the forest, and the name reminded his captain that he had skills to be utilised in ways other than standing in the throne room, bored out of his mind. It was for this reason that he had been assigned today to the back paddock, to assist and tutor where he could.

When he arrived several men were already there practising. Riding their horses down the length of the paddock, they had to ready their bows and shoot at a target before reaching the end, where they would turn and canter back down again for another go. Half of them missed the target. One threw a small axe instead of shooting, which hit the target edge and stuck hard.

Huntsman whistled, there was a strong arm on that one.

He turned at the sound of his name and paused in surprise. Tarkin, the stable master, was gesturing him over to the next paddock, where the Princess Ella herself stood waiting. She was lean and serious-looking, dressed in protective leathers, a short skirt hid some of her riding trousers, and her feet were clad in worn black boots. Her dark eyes ran over his face as he assessed her in turn, noting her thick hair was braided up into a cascade like a horse’s tail. This was clearly not her first practise session.

“Your highness,” he bowed, approaching the fence.

Tarkin gestured to the Princess, “Sir Jay Ren would normally spar with her but he’s pulled half the muscles in his back.”

Huntsman nodded slowly and turned back to the Princess as Tarkin left. The old knight, Sir Jay Ren was the head of the armoury, it made sense that he had taught the Princess some protective manoeuvres. Climbing through the fence into the paddock he smiled at her encouragingly. It was good for women to learn to fight. He had taught his sister back home, and he would be happy to teach her some tricks too. He pulled his long axe from the straps on his back and leaned it up against the fence.

“What do you normally use to fight? Daggers, a knife?” he asked, his hands on his hips.

“Sometimes. Today, I just felt like some straightforward swordplay,” she answered, chin up, daring him to contradict her. He had no idea why anyone would. Even if she were not the Princess, she had a conviction about her that came naturally to those born to lead.

“Not a problem,” he answered with a small smile, drawing his own blade from where it hung at his hip. She strode to a rack of swords on the edge of the paddock and selected one, testing its weight. He was struck suddenly by the impression that she had probably been doing this for years. He mustn’t go too easy on her then.

Turning to face him, she stepped forward and raised the weapon in front of her face, closing her eyes. He waited for her attack, watching her controlled breathing, the way the breeze tugged at stray strands of her hair around her pale neck.

When her eyes opened the attack came fast; a slash, a stab, a feint to the right and another slash at his body. She fought intelligently. She had to, slight as she was, when facing his strength. He blocked her cuts, trying to decipher a pattern to her attack, but it was seemingly at random, a mixture of feints and blocking that carried his weight onto the wrong foot, creating openings. Huntsman found he was working quite hard to keep up with her and beginning to enjoy himself.

The longer they fought, the faster she seemed to move her blade, focusing more on speed than strength, darting past his defences. A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead as they twisted apart and started to circle, swords raised. Despite the uneven ground, she never misplaced a step. He had to admire her, even as he looked for unguarded areas- she was certainly far better than he had expected.

With a clash, their shining blades came together again, before she whirled to place her back against his chest, pulling his sword arm closer with one hand and and with the other reversing her sword to aim into his body. But he was already moving, twisting out and stepping forward to carry her momentum backwards and trip her. But she’d rolled into the movement, dragging him forward, staggering to stay upright. He turned, adrenaline turning to anger, in time to see her flip back onto her feet and charged her quickly to regain the upper hand. Their swords clashed and he put all his weight into each swing, forcing her to bare the brunt of a full on attack.

“Ha!” he cried, as he feinted, giving her an opening, then finally got in under her guard. His sword hovered by her neck and he licked his lips, suddenly aware of how dry they were from the blazing sun. “Do you yield Princess?”

She smirked at him, eyes bright and skin flushed from the exercise, “Do you?” She glanced down and he became aware of the pricking of a dagger against his stomach.

Releasing his position, he stepped back and lowered his weapon, smiling despite himself. “Very good your highness. Have you practised all your life?”

“Since I was fourteen,” she grinned at him, returning the slim dagger to a nearly invisible holder under her left hip. “So, about ten years. I can shoot and ride but I must admit I prefer a straight fight sometimes.”

“I’m not surprised. You must enjoy the look on men’s faces when you dump them in the mud,” he chuckled. He couldn’t stop his eyes flicking back to the secret knife at her thigh. Women rarely wore such figure-hugging clothes and she was no average woman.

The Princess nodded in agreement, still smiling. “You were disappointing in that way,” she commented, but she didn’t look disappointed. They both stood for a moment, allowing their breathing to slow, enjoying the feeling of exertion. Around them, guards and civilians practised manoeuves. He noticed her eyeing the axe he had left by the fence.

“You fight with that?” she asked quietly. The large blade of the axe shone bright in the sunshine.

“I can do,” he shrugged. “Or I can chop wood, or kill a deer, or protect my lady.” He fell quiet wondering if he was saying foolish things.

“So you are a huntsman in more than just your name,” she pondered. Walking over, she tossed down her sword to lift the axe with both hands. She felt its weight for a moment, then smiled ruefully and carefully placed it back down. “You must be even stronger than you look to wield that in battle.”

Huntsman nodded seriously, “It’s too heavy an axe if I only used it for battle. Adrenaline counts for a lot. My muscles ache for days after hours of fighting.”

She bit her lip. “So you’ve been in battle then?”

“Once or twice. My parents live in the borderlands and the fighting sometimes spills over.” He watched her expression as she listened. At the mention of the borders her eyes had darkened, she frowned at the ground.

“People should not have to fight to protect their homes.”

“I agree Princess.”

She grabbed up her sword and settled back into a fighting stance, “Again!”

“Is that why we practise your highness?” Huntsman asked, knowing he was overstepping his boundaries. He couldn’t help it, the idea of her in a battle, expert fighter though he knew she was, was not an idea that sat comfortably with him. She was more than his Princess now, faceless, living in the castle, she was the beautiful warrior in front of him. Quick with a blade she was, but he would step in front of any harm before she would need to defend herself.

She just smiled grimly, “again.”

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