The First Fight: Chapter Seven

the first fight

The full version of Chapter Seven of The First Fight is now available on Wattpad. As this was one of the steamier episodes, I can only publish an extract here. Final chapter next week.

https://www.wattpad.com/583034434-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-seven

Chapter Seven (excerpt)

Early spring and the first thaws saw water cascading from gutters and rooftops; slabs of snow thudding to the ground and splintering to be trodden beneath passing boots into a grimy mush. The river rose: there was talk of flooding, and Hal wondered whether to seek refuge in the academy. But she had grown to love her little refuge too dearly. And eventually the Col sank back in upon itself, as if it had stirred briefly like a restless animal and was now lying back down to sleep.

She sought to push thoughts of Orla far from her mind; rarely visiting The Emperor in case their paths crossed. A part of her still yearned for the soldier’s embrace, but she couldn’t allow herself to be swept up again in all that fury; all that rage and pain. Hal felt for Orla; for the wounds to her mind and body which the desert had inflicted. And, the duellist told herself, she would have done all she could to help heal those wounds. But Orla had seemed intent on turning her own anger against Hal. And that was more than she could bear.

So Hal channelled her own energies into duelling, surprising herself and Beric: delighting those who crowded into the arena to watch her fight, her fame spreading as word leaked out of the courtier who’d exchanged wealth and privilege for a rapier and the duelling circle. Until one evening, when the sun had almost bled out and the streets were rich with shadow. And someone rapped hard three times on her door.

Weary after a day of training, Hal hauled herself up off the bench and padded barefoot across the floorboards, easing aside the door.

She stared into green eyes and cursed. “I thought I said it was over between us.”

Orla had regained some of the muscle she’d lost after Yegdan. She was dressed not in gambeson and leathers, but in linen shirt and canvas breeches; greatcoat and boots. And her gaze was cool, not crazed, as she leant against the door frame with her hands in her pockets, her lips sealed and fine and her face unreadable. Hal shivered.

“I suppose I owe you an apology,” Orla said.

“You suppose?”

“Yes. And I’d rather not deliver it out here in the street.”

“I’m not sure I want to hear it anyway,” Hal said, closing the door.

The soldier wedged her boot between frame and threshold. “Just give me a chance.”

Resting her head against the hard, damp oak, Hal sighed. “You set out to hurt me.”

“I didn’t! I didn’t know what I was doing. I was injured; torn apart. I’m better now. I’m whole again.”

“Are you?”

Orla paused and turned to look back up the street, chewing on her lower lip. “Yes,” she said after a few moments. “I am.”

Hal sucked in her cheeks, deliberating. She had the strength to kick Orla’s foot out of the way, slam the door in her face and bolt it fast. But part of her had tensed under Orla’s gaze. Part of her wanted her lover back; the woman who had drawn her on with hard words, who’d made love to her in the street, whose body had curved into her own. With a groan, she pulled open the door. Orla’s smile was brief and tight as she pushed past Hal and into the room.

“Still living in this dump, then?”

“And where else would I be?” Hal asked, closing and locking the door.

“Well, I’d have thought…with all your renown…I heard you’re drawing in the spectators.”

“But it’s a mere performance,” Hal said through gritted teeth. “Isn’t it?”

They stared at each other, the silence prickling Hal’s skin. And then Orla lowered her head.

“I am truly sorry,” she said at last. “After…after all that happened…down there in the south. I wasn’t myself. I … came loose for a while. I fell apart.”

“And now you’re back?”

When Orla raised her head, Hal saw that her eyes were glistening. “I’ve stitched up the holes,” the soldier said.

“I see.” Hal folded her arms across her chest, sinking back into herself, unable to look back at Orla. The soldier stood and she stood, as if waiting, hovering on a mountain ledge or cliff, daring each other to jump.

“Hal, I missed you. I understand why you walked away…”

“You hurt me, Orla! You humiliated me; and yourself.”

“I was at a loss! I needed you, but my mind was a wild place. I had such thoughts, Hal…such dreams after….after it all. Just the thought of sleeping filled me with dread. My dreams were full of horrors.” A single tear spilled, inching down her cheek. She trembled. And without thinking, Hal took her in her arms. Against herself, against her own will, she revelled in the heat of Orla’s body; in the hint of sinew and muscle beneath her fingertips, in the brush of Orla’s lips against her ear.

“I’m sorry. I truly am.”

Hal framed Orla’s face between her hands. “Don’t hurt me again, Orla.”

“I won’t.” Orla spoke through a kiss. “I promise.”

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The First Fight: Chapter Six

the first fight

Just two chapters left to go until I finish writing “The First Fight” – a mini prequel to Hal. The story follows Hal’s turbulent relationship with Orla, and the full version is available on Wattpad here: https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

Once finished, the story will be available as bonus material in Hal and the box set of The Duellist series.

 

 Chapter Six: “Chaos:”

 

The sun cast no warmth, its weak light pushing at the dirty pane of glass, the room now sliding into sight. That meant the morning was well advanced and Hal was already late for training. Extending a hand beneath the heap of blankets and furs, she touched Orla’s shoulder, shaking her awake…

…and within seconds found herself pinned to the ground; the fine edge of a knife blade nicking at her throat. Hal stared up at Orla, paralysed with shock. The soldier seemed not even to see her, her sleep-blind eyes wild, her fingers pressed around Hal’s neck.

“Orla!” Her voice came out as a strangled whisper. “Orla! It’s me!”

Orla grunted lightly, still clutching her neck. A thin skein of blood trickled over Hal’s skin, spooling onto the floor.

“Orla!”

The soldier shuddered as if she were being dragged from one reality and into another. Her eyes sharpened and focussed and the knife hit the floor with a metallic ring as she loosened her fingers from Hal’s throat. The duellist breathed out hard in relief.

“Hal?” Orla’s face crumpled with grief as she sank back. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s…” Hal put her fingers to the tiny wound, stemming the pulse of blood. “…it’s alright,” she lied.

“It’s not alright. I could have killed you.” She cradled her head in her arms, her entire body rocking.

Warily, Hal watched until compassion overcame fear and she slipped an arm around Orla’s shoulders. “Orla, what is it? What’s wrong? What happened to you?”

With a low moan, Orla rested her head against Hal’s shoulder. “We’re not to say.”

“What?”

“We’re not to speak of it.”

“Orla…” but she couldn’t frame another word. The soldier had staggered back into her arms: weakened, changed, and now alluding to…what? A crime? An event too awful to be spoken of…something which had drained her of her very self; which had chipped away the hardness and the scorn to reveal the brittle, damaged woman beneath.

She loosened Hal’s embrace and then unlaced her gambeson. Hal stared: horrified, transfixed. A fresh scar ran from Orla’s hip to the base of her ribs: a livid stretch of flesh, butchered and then healed with rough stitches.

Lowering her head, Hal kissed the wound before turning grave eyes on Orla. “What happened?”

“You…can’t speak of it. You can’t tell anyone.” Orla swallowed another sob. Her face was red with weeping and a string of mucus clung to her nostrils.

“Here…” Hal passed her a handkerchief. “Dry your eyes, Orla. Tell me what happened. I have to know.”

Orla blew her nose, sat up and buried her face against her knees. “They were just children,” she said at last, raising her head. Her lips trembled as she spoke. “Just…children. They told us there’d be rebels there, but there weren’t. It was just…”

“Spirits!” Hal stroked Orla’s hair.

“A village. Just a village, like any other. They told us it was a nest. That the rebels would be there, hiding. Armed. They said not to spare them…that it would put an end to their resistance.” She howled with sudden violence, her entire body shaking. “We surrounded it, cut off their escape. Threw in brands onto the thatch of their crofts. Waited.” She raised her face, her cheeks shining wet with tears and her eyes once more fixed on the past. She was no longer with Hal in Colvé. She was back in Yegdan in dry, dusty lands as flames caught and ate at the straw rooftops of a few makeshift huts: as sparks whisked upwards into the dull afternoon sky and children began to scream, running, their hair and clothes aflame. “Oh, Hal!” Orla cupped her hands over her own mouth. “They said it was too late, it had been a mistake. They said that in any case, they were the children of rebels. I rode..as fast as I could…away.” She swallowed. “I couldn’t look, couldn’t stay. I couldn’t bear it.”

“And how…” Hal ventured to speak but the words dried in her throat, her own eyes clouding with tears. She pressed a light finger to the wound on Orla’s side.

“We found them, eventually. We caught up with them…the parents. And I…I wanted to blame them. For leaving the children. Not me, not us. It was their fault…” words tumbled from her lips now. A confused torrent of sounds. She made little sense. Hal understood only of a fight, of great losses to the army and the enemy. The Yegdanians fought with axes, spears and knives. When they’d opened Orla up they left her for dead, to bleed out into the sand and dirt. But the wound had not been so deep and she’d crawled her way out of that nameless ditch. Dragged back to life by her fellow guards, she’d spent months lying on her back, tipping between life and death. And eventually, she’d recovered.

The room felt somehow stale; the air weighted with Orla’s memories. Having cried herself dry, she lay slumped in Hal’s arms. Hal lowered her gently to the floor. “I must go, Orla. Just for a moment, but stay here. Sleep. I’ll be back soon. I promise.”

Orla wrapped her fingers around Hal’s wrist. “Don’t go. Stay with me. Please.”

“Orla, I have to. I’ll race back here to be with you, I promise. You need to rest. Here…” she draped blankets over Orla, wresting free of her grasp. “Sleep,” she said. “Sleep now.”

The soldier’s eyes closed as if consciousness were too much of a burden for her to bear. Dragging on her clothes, boots and greatcoat, Hal slipped outside into the icy, snow-laden city, trudging forwards with her hands buried deep within her coat pockets and her eyes fixed on the slush and mud of the streets; her mind and heart numb.

***

“You’re late.” Beric glared at her from the top of the stairs with indignant eyes. “And you’ve got blood on your face.”

“I have?” She wiped at her skin, staring in dumb surprise at the thin red streak across her palm.

“What’s the matter, Thæc?” someone called over the clash of steel. “Cut yourself shaving?”

A chorus of harsh laughs rippled around the duelling hall. Hal stormed forwards towards the voice. Orla’s reappearance, her tale of horror, the way she’d clung to Hal’s wrist and begged her not to leave…it had left her raw, nervous, on edge. She unsheathed her sword. The laughter dried up.

“Hal!” Beric caught her arm. “I’ve told you before, I’ll not have common brawling in my academy. Leave them,” he added under his breath. “You should know by now that no good’ll come of rising to the bait.”

She bit her lip, staring in blind fury at the small group of men and boys huddled in a corner of the room, quaking with suppressed laughter. And then she relented, lowering her blade.

“You’ll train with me today, Hal,” Beric said, releasing her arm. “I need my duellists intact.”

She nodded, shrugging off her coat and throwing it into a corner.

“And wipe your face, girl. I don’t want blood on the floor.”

Though she duelled, it was with little enthusiasm. She could think of nothing but Orla lying on her floor back in Riverside, and of the gash which someone had opened up in her side. She thought, too, of how Orla – powerful, arrogant Orla – had been so reduced that she had clung to Hal as a drowning woman might cling to driftwood

“For the spirits’ saintly sakes, woman! You’re duelling like you’d never set eyes on a sword before. What’s wrong with you?”

Hal bent to retrieve the blade she’d just dropped, and caught sight of Orla leaning against the doorway to the hall. How long had she been standing there, watching? Unease stabbed and ground away at the base of her stomach as the soldier walked towards her, and her fellow duellists turned to watch.

“Who is she?” Beric hissed.

“A friend.”

“She’s drunk.”

“I can see that.”

Orla listed slightly to one side, surveying the room with a half smile twitching at the edges of her lips, her eyes bright with scorn.

“Get rid of her, Hal,” Beric growled. “Take her out of here. And don’t…” his fingers settled into the flesh of her arm until she winced. “Don’t bring your problems here again.”

“Hal!” Orla reached her, throwing her arms around Hal’s shoulders. “So this is where you’re hiding from me!” Her breath was thick with the reek of alcohol.

“I’m not hiding, Orla. Let’s…let’s take a walk.”

“You said you’d come back.”

“And I will be!”

“It’s been hours.”

Hal glanced back at Beric’s scowling face. “Come on, Orla,” she said quietly.

Gripping the soldier’s arm, she dragged her outside. Orla stumbled as they headed down the steps and once in the street, she tried to kiss Hal.

Hal broke away. “Not here…not now.”

“Why?” Orla slurred. “No one’s watching.”

“You never know.”

“You know, Hal…” Orla pressed Hal against the wall, smothering her with another kiss “…you promised me a fight once.”

“I did?”

“Yes. A real fight. Not this…playacting that you learn here.” She flicked her fingers dismissively in the direction of the duelling hall.

“I’m not sure that now would be the best time.”

“Why. Are you scared?”

“No. But you’ve just recovered from a serious wound. And besides, you’re…”

“I’m what?” Orla exhaled another breath tainted with spirits.

“It doesn’t matter. We can go back to Riverside and talk.”

“No!” Orla yelled suddenly. “No, Hal!” She buried her face against Hal’s shoulder. “I want to go back to the barracks. I’ll teach you how to fight. How to really fight.”

A few faces turned in their direction: curious, amused or disgusted. Orla was broken. The soldier hummed half-remembered refrains from marching songs as she leant against Hal. She laughed to herself and then sobbed, tears freezing to her face. And at times, she dragged the duellist into an embrace, kissing her openly and fiercely. Where once her passion had been tempered, now it ran wild and unchecked. And as they neared the barracks – a solid sandstone block of dormitories, training grounds and armouries – Hal started to sweat with worry.

“Come in,” Orla said, pulling her towards the gate tower.

“I don’t think…”

“I said…come inside!” she snarled, shoving Hal in the back. A pair of barracks’ men pulled open one of the iron barred gates and Hal found herself propelled into a courtyard surrounded on every side by high, pale yellow walls and the tower bolted shut behind her.

She scanned the practice yard. A few soldiers sparred with swords, spears or axes; tilted at sandbags hanging loose from poles or fired arrows at wooden targets. The snow had been cleared to reveal the wet, brown gravel beneath and the place smelt of horses, damp earth and leather. Hal’s breath spooled into patches of vapour before her face. She rubbed her hands together for warmth, and stamped her feet.

“Well, duellist…” Orla slapped her shoulder. “We don’t play with rapiers here. Either a sabre or a broadsword. You choose.”

“Orla,” Hal swallowed, “this is not a good idea. Perhaps when you…”

“When I what?” Orla eyed her unsteadily.

“Sober up.”

The soldier snorted. “You’re worried I’ll beat you even when I’m drunk?”

“No, but…”

“Hal, you’re not leaving here until I’ve had that fight. Here..” she drew a fine hilted broadsword from a stand and thrust it into Hal’s hands. “Take this…and this,” she said, forcing a helmet and visor down over Hal’s head and face.

“Orla…”

“The duellist promised me a fight!” Orla yelled out to all those in the yard. Heads turned; weapons were lowered. Hal’s heart thumped against her chest. To leave now was to lose face, but Orla was in no state to fight. And neither, she felt, was she.

“Brave woman!” a mocking voice called out. They encircled slowly: jeering, jibing, placing bets.

“Orla, why? You’re barely healed!” Hal stared through the visor’s dark mesh at the soldier who slashed at the air with her sword, taking wide strides across the practice ground.

With a smile, Orla slipped on her own visor. “When you’re ready, duellist.” And then, without giving Hal any chance to prepare, she lunged.

Hal blocked, testing the weight of Orla’s sword arm against her own. In spite of her injury, the soldier was strong; her muscles taut and trained. They broke apart to sneers and catcalls.

“Take her, Orla!”

“Stop playing, duellist and fight!”

They crept in ever closer: a mass of bellowing mouths and shaking fists. Frustrated, her anger brewing, Hal attacked…and found her blows blocked again by Orla’s might and muscle.

But, she realised, the soldier was already tiring. Half drunk, half crazed, crushed by the horrors of what she’d seen and heard, by fire and children’s screams and her own grief, Orla’s strength waned; her sword arm shuddering as she held the block. With the lightest of moves, Hal drew away and arced her sword towards Orla’s waist. The soldier leapt back, slipping as she moved, and their audience lapsed into silence. Hal would win this duel: she knew it now. But to humiliate Orla in front of her comrades, in front of the men and women with whom she lived and fought…that she couldn’t do. She lowered her sword.

“Enough, Orla. Enough.”

Orla froze, her sword poised. And then, with a harsh cry, she ran at Hal who twisted with lithe, supple grace out of reach before swinging her blade upwards and into a frenetic volley of blows. Orla was breathing heavily: mistiming, misjudging the angle and sweep of her movements, until at last Hal cut upwards to conclude with the tip of her sword hovering before Orla’s throat.

“Enough,” she said quietly.

The soldier stood, wavering, her weapon sliding lower as she conceded defeat, silence mingling with the snowflakes which fell to land at their feet. With heavy, uneven breaths, Hal tugged off the visor and handed back the sword. She had no wish to stay: no wish to speak to Orla’s broken spirit once more that day. It was too much: it cut her to the quick. It rested like the weight of lead upon her own heart. Turning, she headed for the gates without another word…when a sharp pain cut across the backs of her knees, and she sank onto the sodden earth of the training ground. Orla stood over her, one fist raised, her visor up and her face fixed in fury and despair, her fist hovering just above Hal’s right temple.

Hal stared up at her, unsure of how or whether the day could descend into any further chaos. And then she caught Orla by the wrist and rose.

“Don’t come near me again, Orla. It’s over between us, I swear.” She didn’t look back. She couldn’t: even when Orla howled out her name as she slipped through the gates.

Out on the streets again, the bolts clanged into place behind her and snow soaked the leather of her boots. She shivered, swallowing down bile, tears, fury. She would have extended a hand to Orla; she would have enfolded her in her arms and held her until the soldier’s memories had lost their weight and she could sleep once more without terror. Instead, she’d found relief in violence and drink. That rejection struck Hal like a blow to the body.

A cold whisper of wind tugged at her coat and hair. She hugged herself, walking between the silent rows of houses, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the barracks. But another figure moved up ahead, emerging from behind the side of a warehouse, in a blue cowl and dress sodden with the slush of the road and her dark hair piled high up on her head. Hal cursed and ran.

“You…what are you doing?” her voice shook with suppressed rage as she seized the spy by the shoulder and span her round.

This time there was no fear in the woman’s eyes. Her smile was slow to rise, and insolent. “Your mother’s bidding. It turns out she’s more forgiving than you thought. She’s watching you, Halanya. So go on…threaten me. Do what you will. She’s anxious to hear all about it.”

“Just leave me alone. I thought I made that clear.”

“When things are starting to get so interesting? I don’t think so. The soldier returns from war…makes her way to your door… and then turns her sword against you. But where will this end?” She ran a gloved finger down Hal’s cheek and turned to look back towards the barracks. Hal followed her gaze. Orla was standing at the gates, staring down the street and watching them.

“There,” said the spy, and before Hal could push her away she’d drawn the duellist into a kiss, her lips cold and her breath warm.

“Stay away from me! Please!” Hal broke from her, rubbing her mouth.

“And now you kissed me. I wonder if she saw.” The spy nodded towards the gates. Orla had gone. “Your mother, I think, will be fascinated to hear that you tried to seduce me. But of course, I resisted.”

“Just leave me alone!” Tears clouded her eyes as she ran, until the street became a blur of snow and stone. And behind her, the spy’s laughter rang in peals, like cracked bells.

 

 

 

 

 

The First Fight: Chapter Four

the first fight

I’ll probably be renaming this short story “Orla.” Once completed, it’ll be available as a bonus story for anyone who downloads Hal or the virtual ‘box set’ of the duellist series.

For now, however, it’s very much a work in progress. The full version of this chapter is available on Wattpad here:

https://www.wattpad.com/572282857-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-four

And below is a short excerpt from this chapter:

 

***

 

“You can’t escape your own beauty, Hal.” Guiding her to the floor, Orla bent down and kissed her. “It’s in every fibre of your being: in your muscles and your skin. In the way you incline your neck or in the way you walk. It’s written in the creases of your eyes.”

“Stop it!”

Orla gazed down at her with grave, green eyes. “I  mean it.” She straightened up and looked away. “My battalion leaves tonight.”

Something held Hal pinned to the floor, too stunned to move: a deep, sudden, desperate thirst for Orla coupled with the slightest, finest breath of relief. Disturbed, she pulled herself upright. “Where?”

“To Yegdan. To the southern provinces. To fight for the Emperor in his glorious war.” Her voice trailed irony. “To reclaim land for the empire from the desert and citizens from its people. It’s a different world down there, though.” She closed her eyes, fastening back her braids as she remembered. “We sleep beneath vast skies, wake to bird call and the wilderness. It…it helps a woman understand herself, it reveals her to herself, Hal.” She seized Hal’s hands suddenly, squeezing them in her own. “Come with me. We’ll fight together, train, eat, sleep. You’ll be free…free of Colvé, of the court and the city with its prying eyes and wagging tongues.”

Hal bit her lip, working at it nervously. She’d always wanted freedom, it was true. Always dreamed of releasing herself from the limits which life imposed. But was that what Orla was offering her? Would she really let Hal follow her own path and walk away, if she chose to, into those vast nights? And besides, there was nothing about strict military discipline, about the blind following of rules and orders which appealed to Hal.

She let go of Orla’s hands. “I can’t.”

The First Fight: Chapter Three

the first fight

The full version of Chapter Three of The First Fight is now available on Wattpad here:

https://www.wattpad.com/569658971-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-three

This is where things hot up a bit which is why it’s not available on the blog. But here’s a short extract:

The tavern acquired a strange harmony, its patrons swaying and singing; shifting and regrouping. This was a world she’d yearned for, she realised. A world beyond rules, with a logic all of its own. Where she could hide amongst the crowds and sink into its shadows.

Orla’s arm pressed against her own; the soldier’s thigh was warm against her leg. She slid a glance over the contours of Orla’s bare arms as they flexed and unflexed when she raised her tankard or wiped froth from her lips. Against the murky light, the soldier carried the grace and strength of a sleek, wild cat. Her skin was tanned and weather-beaten where Hal’s was pale. She was a study in raw power.

“Alright, duellist?” She broke into a sudden smile and Hal turned away, aware of the blush blooming across her throat and chest.

“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.”

“The ale.” Jools nodded solemnly. “Strong stuff.”

“Indeed it is.”

“You…” for once, Orla appeared hesitant. “You perhaps need some air?”

“I…er…perhaps.”

“Come on then, duellist.” Orla was already on her feet, even as Hal stared up at her. The moment that she stepped out of the tavern door, it would be straight into Orla’s arms. Everything would change. She’d witnessed time and again the desire lurking behind Orla’s mask of scorn. And she wanted now, more than anything, the touch of those powerful hands against her skin: the brush of Orla’s lips against her neck. Part of her rang like a chimed bell at the thought of being overpowered by Orla: of surrendering her whole being to the soldier’s embrace. And yet it also stirred a deep-seated fear: an anxiety which would not wash away. She peered down at the table, dragging her nails across its soft wood, aware of Orla’s gaze, of Jools and Kris now also silent and staring. Slowly, she rose.

Orla’s lips flickered with the barest hint of  a smile, as if this were indeed a duel in which she’d just bested Hal. And then she led the way across the tavern, the palm of her hand slick and hot against Hal’s own.

They were outside once more, out in the late evening haze, although the heat had barely relented and a distant rumble of thunder hinted at the onset of a summer storm.

“Come.” Still holding Hal’s hand, Orla headed from the tavern and along the same channel beneath the eaves where they’d shared that first kiss.

“Orla, no.” Hal broke away. “No. Not here.” On the city streets, to the sounds of broken music and human voices? Here, beside a Riverside tavern crammed with cheats and thieves?

The First Fight Chapter Two: Excerpt

Sooner or later, Halanya, you’ll fall so far that my spies will make no difference. The city itself will turn against you. 

As mentioned last week, I started posting my short story “Hal: The First Fight” in full on Wattpad as it will – eventually – have some steamier scenes in it which probably wouldn’t be appropriate on my blog. Here’s an excerpt from today’s chapter and a link following it if you’d like to read the whole thing:

the first fight

Heat now baked the streets of Colvé and the city stirred like a restless, angry dog, ready to snap at her heels as she plunged down the hill from the palace and back towards the duelling academy, aware that she’d promised Beric to be back by noon. But the main square was a heaving, confused mass of people and passing amongst them was like swimming against a tide. Hal squeezed through the crowds, her hand to her belt, aware now more than ever before of the hidden threats of cutpurses and thieves.

“Hal?”

Her blood quickened at the call of her own name, and she turned in surprise. “Orla!”

The soldier was sitting by the fountains which looped and cascaded at the heart of the square. Hal bent to drink, splashing her face with cool water, ridding the palace from her skin and hair. She rose, aware of Orla’s gaze, and of Cara’s words which still reverberated through her head. Unnatural. Freakish. Was that how others saw her?

“You look tired duellist,” Orla said at last.

Hal bit her lip. “I’m alright.”

There was no trace of that arrogant air which Orla had carried at The Emperor, but her eyes betrayed a bitter, desperate hunger which stirred something in Hal: a curious fusion of desire and fear. The soldier put an arm to Hal’s shoulder. “Perhaps you’d care to continue your exploration of Riverside?”

Orla’s touch was like the first heavy fall of rain in a summer storm. Hal sucked in her breath. “I have to practice, Orla. I promised my duelling master…”

The hunger vanished and Orla’s lips sealed into a hard sneer. “Well if you must, you must.”

“It’s not…it’s not that I don’t want to.”

“Run along, now Hal. Back to the academy. Back to the Circle. Or perhaps the palace?” Orla’s voice cut like a blade. “Anywhere you feel safe.”

She recalled her encounter with they spy. “Nowhere is safe, Orla.”

Hal tore away from the fountains, pushing on again through the crowds back to Beric’s insults, back to the hard, bare boards of the academy and the ring of steel. She would close the door, she would pick up her sword and fight. And Colvé would vanish from sight for a few more hours.  

Full Chapter: https://www.wattpad.com/565995741-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-two

 

Hal: The First Fight

the first fight

Hal is young, naive and hungry for adventure: a former ward of the imperial court who has exchanged aristocratic privilege for the life of a professional duellist. A chance encounter with a thief leads her into the dangerous underworld of Riverside, and to Orla – a battle-weary soldier. Passions flare as summer heat bakes the city streets. But Orla is fierce and possessive in her love. Will Hal survive it? Find out in The First Fight, a short story…

OK so slight alteration to my plans with regard to The First Fight: I am publishing the first chapter on Wattpad, and you can now read that here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

However, I decided – for the time being – against publishing it on my blog. This is because WordPress require that mature content be reported as such, which would then severely curtail what I could do with my blog in terms of appearing on reader lists etc. As I’m aware of the sensitivity surrounding this issue, I decided to make it exclusive to Wattpad – for the time being. I expect to publish it elsewhere and in other forms in the future.

The story will be somewhat darker and will have  more erotic content than anything else I’ve ever written. This is not a direction I’m taking in general with my writing – it just seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

If you’d like to get an idea of what it’s like – and the first two chapters will be pretty mild – then I’ve posted a sample below.

***

“Duellist, eh?” Orla stretched her arms along the backrest of the bench, and folded her right boot over her left knee. The languid drawl of her voice, the way she took up space as if it were owed to her – it all came across as a kind of challenge. “On the Circle? With the men?” her eyes hinted at contempt.

Hal swallowed, unsure of how much care she should take: of whether to answer the implied insult with her own, or to bite back her words. “Yes,” she said, steadying her voice. “Accounted one of the best.” Unaccustomed to self-praise, she downed a hurried mouthful of ale.

“Ha!” Orla barked. “Duellists. Players. Actors. Entertainers.” And the look she threw at Hal was a clear challenge.

This time, Hal struggled to hold back the irritation which pressed against her sides, struggling for release. “What do you mean?”

She caught the anxious glance which passed between Jools and Kris but ignored it, transfixed by Orla’s cool, contemptuous gaze.

“I mean that’s what it is. A show. If you want to prove your mettle, duellist…if you want to show me you can really fight, come down to the barracks. I’ll give you a duel which will have you running back to your duelling master in tears.”

So she was a soldier. “Why would I want to prove anything to you?” She leaned forward, her heart racing. Something about this whole exchange had shifted or altered: she felt the change but couldn’t place it. And in the slight gestures that Orla now made: in the way her shoulders shifted and the fine muscles of her cheeks flexed…in the way her eyes hinted almost at a kind of hunger, she knew that the soldier sensed it too.

“You’re right.” Orla pulled out a slim clay pipe, dangling it from her lips as she hit strike to flint and lit it. She closed her eyes, drawing down a mouthful of smoke which she exhaled directly at Hal. “You don’t need to prove anything to me. But to yourself? Now that’s another matter.”

Silence balanced between them as Orla smiled, waiting for her words to hit home, and Hal fought against the urge to lunge: to seize the soldier by her shoulders and shake her. They’d only just met and here she was goading, pressing, prying: with no true knowledge of who Hal was or the decisions she’d made, the risks she’d taken.

 

Writing updates – The First Fight

Just a heads up to let people know – I had an idea for a short story which might work as a kind of mini prequel to Hal. It will focus on Hal and on her stormy relationship with Orla so it’s going to be a lot darker and probably – warning – more of an erotic piece than any of the other things I’ve written in the series.

If you like the sound of that, I’ll be posting it here on my blog in (hopefully) weekly installments and also on Wattpad. So watch out for part one of The First Fight this week!

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Release of The Duellist Trilogy

I think I started writing Hal around 2012 and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I knew there was a story there, but I largely wrote for my own entertainment. And as I had a lot of other commitments at the time, I ended up stuffing the thing in a drawer and doing my best to forget about it.

It was only when I discovered the online writing platform Wattpad that I decided it might at least be fun to share Hal with a few other people. And it was a really pleasant surprise when I received some positive feedback, constructive criticism and encouragement. So I thought, what the hell? I’ll carry on writing.

Both Hal and Hannac would have stayed on Wattpad, however, were it not for the help of Rob May (author of the Dragon Killer Series) who set up Firebound Books together with two other independent writers – T J Garrett and Matthew Olney. Rob suggested publishing the books through Amazon, and although I was initially sceptical about the idea, I decided to give it a go. I’m enormously grateful to Rob and Firebound for all that support. With hindsight, I now realise that there was nothing to worry about, and the books have now reached a much wider readership than they had on Wattpad. Publishing on Amazon has given me the push I needed to keep going. I’m now in the process of writing the second part of the Artist Enchanters series (The Fresco and the Fountain) and I’ve got ideas for several other future projects.

The internet has really changed the way people write fiction. I see it very much as a collaborative process, and I’ve changed quite a few of my ideas as a result of readers’ suggestions. In fact, I almost see writing online as akin to the old oral traditions of storytelling in which the narrative might alter with each retelling, or listeners might offer their own ideas which would be incorporated into the plot. This is really what writing on line has given me – the opportunity to learn, to grow and develop as an author and to respond to readers’ suggestions in a way I’d never have been able to do in a traditional context. Add to that all the possibilities for engagement through social media and sites like goodreads or Wattpad, and the idea of writing as a solitary process goes out the window. I feel I have a long, long way to go as a novelist, but I am certain that the interaction I’ve enjoyed with other authors and readers has helped to get me to the stage where I’m now writing my fifth book.

So this is a long-winded way of saying thanks to everyone who’s helped me, whether it was through reading and commenting on Wattpad, helping me with the technical aspects of publishing, buying my work on Amazon or engaging on social media. I am absolutely certain that were it not for that kind of support, I wouldn’t be releasing The Duellist Trilogy today.

The Duellist Trilogy – Sample Chapter

As the whole of the Duellist Trilogy will be available on Amazon from 18th February, this is a sample chapter from Hal.

I’m trying to decide whether or not to do an author reading of this chapter. If I finally take the plunge, I’ll link it to the blog.

 

Chapter Three

Books

“Was this the book you requested, Miss Léac?”

The librarian craned down at Meracad from his ladder, swaying beneath the dusty weight of a leather-bound volume. Standing on tiptoes, she studied the engraving on its spine: The Imperial Chronicles, Volume Two.

“Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”

He staggered down the rungs, laying it with reverence upon the reading desk. “Are you certain that you wish to read this?” Grey-flecked eyebrows shot up above a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.

“And why not?” Her voice echoed around the silent, empty vault of the reading room.

“It is not common reading matter for young ladies, Miss Léac.”

“And who would it be common reading matter for, then?” Try as she might, she could not quite keep the defensive note out of her voice.

He shrugged. “Senators, courtiers…”

“I wish to know how my ancestors lived, Sir. How our empire came into being…why Colvé was built.”

The librarian raised a bony, nervous hand to his thinning hair, patting down a few loose strands. “Of course, Miss Léac. An admirable pursuit, if I might say so. Now I really must be…” he gazed around absently as if he had forgotten what he ought to be doing. “I must get back to my work.”

She sat down and began to leaf through The Chronicles, inhaling the delicate, woody scent of ancient parchment. She disturbed him: she could see it in his milky, half-seeing eyes. Every time she entered the library he studied her, followed her, interrogated her with stammering questions about her choice of reading material. Would she not, perhaps, prefer some courtly romance? That was what the young ladies craved these days. Or Mistress Egré’s latest guide to etiquette. He was not, after all, certain that Master Léac would approve of her choice of books.

Meracad stifled a sigh, pressing down a time-stained page to reveal a fresh chapter in the empire’s glorious history. Would he pass on details of her reading habits to her father, she wondered? Would she now find herself forbidden to enter the library? Colvé was a maze. She ran along its avenues, only to find them sealed.

“I thought it was you.” The voice pulled her from a world of battles and sieges and back into the cool, musty reality of the library. Frowning, she raised her head and stared at Hal Thæc who had planted herself on the opposite side of the desk.

“I’m sorry,” Meracad said, her fingers fidgeting with the edges of the parchment. “I didn’t see you.”

Hal Thæc offered her a lop-sided grin in response. “Must be a good book.”

“It is – The Imperial Chronicles.”

The Chronicles?” Hal feigned a yawn. “They made us read some of those when I was a ward.”

“You didn’t enjoy them, I take it?”

“Well I wouldn’t read them out of choice.”

Meracad closed the book, running her fingers along the impressions upon its spine. “So if you’re not fond of reading, what are you doing in a library?”

Folding her hands behind her head, Hal leant against the backrest of the chair. “It’s cool in here.” Her blue eyes danced with irony. “And it’s hot out there.”

Meracad smiled in spite of herself. The duellist appeared calmer, less frantic than she had done a few days before at Remigius’s party. Cropped, coal-black hair threw the paleness of her skin into relief. Her long-limbed, wiry frame was wrapped in leather vest and trousers.

“The public baths are the place to cool off, I believe,” Meracad said.

“I’ve tried them. They’re full of courtiers.”

“Oh yes. I’d heard you had an aversion to courtiers.”

Hal leant forward, her bare arms forming a frame upon which to rest her chin. “Really? Who told you that?”

The conversation was already sliding into treacherous terrain. Meracad shrugged. “I thought it was common knowledge. You left the court because you couldn’t stand it.”

“I left the court in order to duel.”

The librarian limped forward, hobnails clipping on the polished marble of the floor. Hal raised her head, acknowledging him, Meracad noticed, with a provocative grin.

“Mistress Thæc,” the old man began, “you seem to be making a habit of turning the library into your own private forum.”

“I was sharing my appreciation of The Chronicles with Miss Léac,” she replied, her voice low and lazy.

“Miss Léac’s devotion to the library is admirable. She comes here to read!”

“Miss Léac is to be admired, I agree.”

The librarian turned on his heel and stamped away, fuming. Meracad grew uncomfortably aware of the blush which now worked its way up her neck, and of Hal’s steady gaze.

The duellist leant forward as if conspiring against the librarian. “Why do you love to read so much?” She asked, tapping a finger upon the cover of The Chronicles. Meracad smiled, sensing that the conversation was back on safer ground.

“To take myself beyond this cess-pit of a city.”

The duellist’s eyes rounded in surprise. “You hate it so much?”

Meracad felt her pulse quicken. No one, she had learnt, was to be trusted ─ not maids, dancing tutors, librarians, servants. Not senators, courtiers or her father’s fellow merchants. Gossip ran rife as plague around the city. A single word whispered in a moment of forgetfulness would work its way back to her father’s house. So why did she now find herself so desperate to reveal it all ─ all the misery and frustration ─ to this strange woman?

“Don’t all prisoners hate their cells?” The words slipped out as if on their own accord. And once out, they couldn’t be unsaid.

Hal’s sharp features softened, the easy smile dropped from her face, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Your prison is in here, Meracad.” She put her fingertips to her temples. “Within, not without.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Why easy? We live in the same city, don’t we? We’re bound by the same rules.”

“Not you. You’re of noble birth. Your privileges are assumed ─ were assumed until you left court. My father clawed his way up to wealth and position. He expects my appreciation ─ he demands my respect.”

The smile returned to Hal’s lips. She stretched with fluid grace. “So you’ll simply do as you’re told then? Lie to yourself that these books offer you freedom, however fake that freedom really is? You’ll marry who you’re told to marry and move from one prison to the next?”

“It might get better.”

“It won’t.”

The librarian was hurrying towards them again, huffing and snorting like a small, irate dragon.

“Miss Thæc, I must ask you to leave! This is a library, not a public house.”

“Well I’m certain Miss Léac would never find herself in a public house,” Hal drawled.

Meracad glared at her, resenting the jibe, wishing Hal gone and at the same time willing her to stay.

Hal rose but kept both hands flat on the desk as she stared down at the merchant’s daughter, her eyes flecked with a cool arrogance. The librarian put a hand to her arm, guiding her away.

“I don’t expect to see you in here soon, Miss Thæc.”

“I don’t expect to return. But if Miss Léac wishes to discuss the empire’s history with me some more, she knows where to find me.”

“Why would I want to find you?” Meracad called out to Hal’s departing back.

The duellist turned round and shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The doors opened, rays of sun channelling through the library’s dusty haze, and for a moment Meracad saw Hal’s sleek form silhouetted against the light. Then the doors slammed shut and all was silence.

“My apologies, Miss Léac.” The librarian bustled forward once more, smoothing his hands down his apron as if to wipe them clean. “The woman knows no bounds, it would seem.”

“No, Sir. She doesn’t,” murmured Meracad, gnawing on a nail. A sudden wave of disappointment descended upon her, like clouds cancelling out a sunny day. The Imperial Chronicles no longer seemed a haven of romance and adventure to which she might escape. Grimacing, she pushed the volume back towards the librarian. “My father will be expecting me. I had better go.”

“Should I keep the book for your return?” His gaze was, she felt, just a little too intrusive.

“No, Sir. That won’t be necessary.”

Meracad threaded her way between the reading desks, eager to escape the suffocating gloom of the library. What had appeared a place of refuge now seemed just one more closed avenue of the maze, an illusion of freedom. Pushing open the door she lost herself amongst the dizzying play of courtiers, merchants, street-hawkers, of children, senators and thieves, the heat so intense it carried almost solid weight. She peered up and down the street but the duellist had disappeared. Biting her lip, Meracad set off in the direction of home, confused and alone