In the ten winters since she’d come to this unbearably hot island, Lady Bludwerth found herself longing for the travails of her homeland more and more often.
The fact that “winters” was a definition of time that had little meaning here was only a small part of the reason. That there was a virtue in fighting for freedom that seemed lost when the battle changed to one of aggression loomed much larger.
Could it be, as her father had said, that there truly was no middle ground? That a victor always required a vanquished?
The clang of iron striking iron shook her from her daydream as an instinctive parry saves her from her opponent’s attack but leaves her wide open for his follow-through, a graceful end-around that finds the flat of his blade pressed against her unprotected throat, and his lips pressed against her uncovered ear.
“My Lady,” he laughs, “you insult me with less than your best.”
Regaining her senses, she throws back her head, arches her back and brings her sword full-circle, smashing its ornate gold-plated hilt into the side of his thick iron helmet. His sword falls from her throat, from his hands, to the floor with a loud clatter that echoes throughout the stone-walled chamber. Hers holds steady, left arm fully extended, the tip resting just inside his right nostril which is slightly flared as a result.
“I fear my best, dear William, might be too much for you,” she says, her voice husky and firm. “Don’t you agree?”
William Bludwerth stares at his younger sister in mock horror, stepping back from her sword, removing his helmet and shaking his head to clear the ringing in his ears.
As if the past thirty minutes of sparring had been five and he a simple mercenary as opposed to the royal man-at-arms, a single bead of sweat had formed on her lightly freckled forehead. He’d trained her since her thirteenth winter and her skills at swordplay were no secret but witnessing them firsthand had never failed to leave him in awe.
It was one of the reasons she remained respectably unmarried despite her twenty-three winters.
“Bravo, my sweet Catherine!” clapped Jasmine St. James, stepping between the two combatants to plant an open-mouthed kiss on the Lady Catherine Bludwerth’s full, unadorned lips.
Jasmine was a priestess of St. James, the Cambrian godfather of the downtrodden, and the other, less respectable reason Lady Bludwerth remained unmarried.
She returned Jasmine’s affection for a brief moment before sheathing her sword and planting a playful kiss on her brother’s cheek.
“I think you are getting old, brother,” she said with a smirk. “Perhaps these years of spilling the blood of defenseless savages has dulled your once formidable skills?”
“Catherine, you underestimate the natives of this infernal island. They are canny adversaries armed with dark magic. What they lack in iron, they more than make up for in witchery. It is the will of the Father that they be converted and saved from their hellbound path. You know this to be true.”
Lady Bludwerth looked her brother up and down, almost distastefully. He was fifteen years her elder and of a different mother but they both carried identifiable marks of their father: red hair, blue eyes, strong jaw and, most prominently, a raging fire in their belly.
“Do I? It seems more like it is the will of our father to steal all of their gold and women. The only conversion that comes at the end of a sword is that from living to dead.”
It was an old debate, one she’d pushed since her father had first sent for her to join him in his crusade to “save” this new world.
“Catherine,” his voice, rising a notch, took on a threatening tone, “you speak a blasphemy that even your name may not protect you from.”
The priestess Jasmine stepped between them.
“Enough! There is no victory to be gained from this discussion. Bludwerth’s do not know restraint and there will be no blood shed on my watch. William, the Lady is done with her training for the day. Please excuse us.”
And without waiting for a response, Jasmine pulled Catherine from the chamber, leaving William alone with his thoughts.
“Are you mad, woman?” she shrieked, once safely down the passage and nearing the Lady’s chambers. “Why do you insist on testing your brother so?”
“Jasmine, you know what we do here is wrong. We have invaded this island, slaughtered its men under the guise of conversion and taken their women as slaves. And for what? Gold?”
“I agree it seems wrong, Catherine, but it is the way it is. If the Father wanted it differently, would it not be so? Who are we to question his ways?”
“We do, in our own way. It is why I chose St. James for my service. I bring comfort to those I can.”
They entered Lady Bludwerth’s chambers and she went straight to her bed, removing her sword from its belt and throwing it across the room with a loud clatter.
“I fear it is nothing more than rationalization, Jasmine. A salve when a tourniquet is required.”
“It is a little thing, yes, but it is something.”
“It is little more than silence, which bloodies our hands as much as my brother’s and my father’s. Silence will not protect anyone, least of all us.”
“What would you have us do, Catherine?”
“We must make a journey. I believe there is one who can help us.”