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