This chapter is a bit tamer than the previous ones, so I’ve decided to post the whole version on my blog. The rest of the story so far is available on Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story
Summer tipped over into autumn, dying out in a squall of storms and dark clouds. Rain lashed the windows of the academy and lightning tore the sky apart, throwing into relief the duelling hall with its racks of swords, its long, bare stone walls and panelled floors and those few remaining duellists who trained until the dusk, Hal amongst them.
One by one they muttered their goodbyes and left until she was alone, the light all but gone, left with the whirr of her rapier as it sliced the air, with the panting of her own breath and the ache in her muscles.
At last Beric emerged from his little room with the smoking wick of a candle, watching her for a few moments before shaking his head. “I believe you’ve got a home to go to.”
“You said yourself – Riverside’s a dangerous place after dark.” She lunged at an imaginary duellist, twisted around and sprang back again.
“I’ll have to lock you in if you’re going to stay for the night.”
With a sigh, she lowered the sword.
“Don’t like giving in, do you Hal?” He grinned, but his eyes carried no mirth.
“Sometimes you have to…you know. Let things go.”
Beric was sly. She’d learned that by now. For all his rough edges, he was quick to observe how his duellists weathered. A professional interest, perhaps: a troubled mind never fought well. But over the two years she’d known him, she’d discovered that behind his roughness lay genuine concern.
“And what would I need to be letting go of?”
He spread his hands wide and shrugged. “Well something’s eating at you, girl. When you’re not training, you’re moping. Is it your mother?”
With a hiss, she slid her rapier back into the rack and rubbed her hands across her shirt as if trying to clean them. “My mother…whoever she is…is no concern of mine.”
Beric swung open the high oak doors at the far end of the hall, ushering her out onto the steps. “Lying to yourself, Halanya.” He shook his head as she stalked past. “An ugly habit.”
“Prying, Beric,” she called back up the stairs. “An even uglier one.”
The rain had eased but the streets now ran with water and the chill evening air seeped beneath her shirt. She shivered and ran, skidding lightly over wet cobbles as she turned corner after corner, headed for her tiny room so that she could bolt its door against the world and sleep. But somehow, in spite of her exhaustion, Beric’s words still raced around her mind like a dog chasing a rabbit.
It has been two months since Orla left and no word. Not a letter…and Jools and Kris had heard nothing. Was she lying now in a ditch, drained of blood and her dead eyes fixed on those vast skies of which she’d spoken? Had she found a new love out there in the desert lands; was Hal a mere shadow, a distant memory?
I expected more of you. The jibe resurfaced, pricking at her thoughts like a needle. I expected more of you.
She let herself into the cramped chamber, throwing herself down on the bench which now served as both bed and chair. Hal closed her eyes and willed herself to sleep. But though her body craved it, her mind resisted and she spent a fitful night of scattered dreams, in which she fought Orla on the Circle to jeering crowds, until Orla became Cara who slashed and wounded and finally killed.
The next morning, however, she climbed the stairs to the academy to be greeted by Beric wafting a letter before her face. Sealed with red wax, it had obviously endured a long and difficult journey. The address was blurred, the paper curled limply at its corners and it was specked with dirt.
“Here.” Dangling the missive between thumb and forefinger, he dropped it into her hands. “This came for you.”
“A letter…for me?”
“Aye, lass. And I’ll thank you for reading it in your own time. This isn’t a library.”
She stuffed it into her pocket. “I had noticed.”
“If, that is, you can read. You can, can’t you?” He followed her into the training hall.
She duelled all day with the letter crumpled in her pocket. It wasn’t from Franc Hannac, her only friend outside the city – of that she was certain. The address was worded in neat, tight characters, and she’d have recognised Franc’s scrawl immediately. It could, then, only be from Orla. Impatient to read it, she ran the distance from the academy to Riverside, threw herself onto the floor of her chamber and tore it open.
Forgive me. These last few months, I’ve thought of nothing but you. Your name was on my lips when I woke in the morning to barren rock and dull sky. I saw you in the flames of our campfire before I lay down to sleep. And in my dreams, I was still beside you and we made love time after time.
Hal rubbed nervously at her lips, whispering Orla’s words to herself as she read them.
Now I understand that I wanted you to give me too much, too soon. I realise it, and I’m sorry. But you see, Hal, From the moment I first saw you I knew I had to have you. And not being with you now is like leaving a piece of myself behind. You think me cold, contemptuous of what you do, but that’s the only way I know of masking my true emotions. If you knew what I truly feel you’d be shocked, Hal. I’m afraid for myself at times. The strength of this desire…it overwhelms me.
Hal closed her eyes, resting her head back against the cold, bare wall. Was it possible that Orla had written the truth? That after mere days, she could experience such fierce passion, such need? Of course Hal had dreamed of Orla too…at night her own hands had strayed between her legs at the memory of their love making. And in her own way, she’d longed for Orla’s rough touch. But she’d never woken and called out Orla’s name, or seen the soldier in every passing shadow. Orla’s words worried rather than relieved. Where would such passion end?
My pride was wounded. I couldn’t write. I took your refusal to come with me as a rejection. But it wasn’t, was it Hal? Changes take time, now I understand that. When I return, we’ll talk about it once more. You’re made to be a soldier. You’d love this life.
Hal swallowed hard. Would I?
When I come back, I’ll take you in my arms. I’ll kiss your lips, your face and hair. I’ll…
She read on. Each word carried greater heat. Each word stoked a fire beneath her skin, until she found herself sweating, despite the cold. Orla wrote of all that she would do to Hal when she returned. She wrote in detail and at length, until Hal could bear it no longer. She cast the letter aside, splashed her face with water, lay down on the bench and tried to sleep. But rest wouldn’t come and instead she passed another night of fretful dreams, in which Orla came to her and took her and then left her time after time; her face twisted into that habitual mask of scorn.
It wasn’t the first letter. Now there was one waiting for her at the academy every fortnight, sometimes more often. Beric handed them to her, silent and bemused. Hal was grateful that they were sealed, for each time Orla wrote it seemed her passion had grown more intense, her desperation sharper, her descriptions more explicit. Occasionally, grains of red sand would spill from the parchment when she cracked the seal, and the letter would be stained with dirt as if Orla had written it while lying on the ground beneath those vast desert skies.
And then, one day, they stopped: the torrent of language dried up. The nights had grown colder; the first wisps of snow floating on the air, transformed to slush on the city’s streets…and there were no more letters. At first, Hal thought nothing of it, almost relieved that she no longer had to bear the weight of Orla’s passion. But then a slow, creeping anxiety took over. Where was Orla now? Images of her lover…of her glazed dead eyes and stiffening corpse resurfaced and intermingled with those feverish dreams. Was she lying in a lonely ditch, as Hal had once feared, drained of life and hope? A bitterness formed at the back of Hal’s throat when she thought of that: a regret that she hadn’t been beside Orla in her final hour. Hal shed silent tears and thought of what she’d lost: of what might have been, of the soldier’s hard, longing gaze.
Until one day when the snow was piled so high in the streets of Colvé that carriages could not pass, and people shuffled with their heads down, buried beneath mounds of furs. And in a desperate effort to keep herself warm, Hal either fought or drank wine, draped in blankets and tanned hides. That was the day when someone thumped at the door to her chambers, causing her to leap up in surprise and pull back the bolts with caution, Franc’s dagger gripped behind her back. And into the room Orla almost fell, still dressed in her gambeson and leathers and far thinner, her face far more drawn and pinched and shadowed than Hal ever remembered.
Hal found herself shaking, not with cold but with shock. And as she stood and stared at Orla, the soldier reached for her, threading her arms around Hal and drawing her close. Orla’s hair and face were wet with melted snow, but her lips were dry and cracked. Hal cupped her chin and drew her close, bathing in the soldier’s hot, sour breath before kissing her and drawing her into the room.
But Orla shook her head, her eyes haunted and distant. “No, Hal.” Even her voice had faded, as if she were speaking from the depths of some great cavern or well. “Just…please…just hold me.”
Hal nodded, guiding her to the floor amongst the pelts and blankets. And they lay until the morning in each other’s arms, Orla wracked with tears.