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 Orla, the prequel to Hal.
This short story forms a kind of mini prequel to Hal. If you’d like to download it in PDF form, please feel free: Orla
Below is an extract from the story:
Chapter One: Daggers
“Hey! Give me that back!” Hal had been watching the thief as he worked the marketplace, threading amongst merchants and maids, street hawkers and senators, slipping coins from purses, bracelets from wrists, handkerchiefs from pockets.
The boy stood poised, fingers still furled around the jewel-hilted dagger he’d just plucked from Hal’s belt. “Say that any louder,” he whispered “…say that any louder and I’ll stick you with it.”
“Give it back and I’ll not attract anyone’s attention to their empty wallet.”
Uncertain, the thief hovered, clearly weighing up his chances of stabbing Hal and escaping without capture from a market place crammed with people; with the soar and clatter of their conversation, with the pressure and heat of their bodies, the sweet haze of their perfumes mingling with the ripe reek of their sweat.
“Alright, alright. I ‘eard you.” With a grimace, the thief handed back the blade, hilt first.
Hal breathed out in relief. The lad might have been desperate enough to carry out his threat for all she knew. And the dagger itself, a gift from her friend Franc Hannac, was of some value. She’d have a hard time explaining to him that she’d lost it after just a week.
“Bleedin’ mean sort, you duellists.” The thief turned to go. “Begrudging a girl a weak strip of a blade like that one.”
Hal reeled in slow surprise. “You’re a woman?”
The thief’s dark hair was cropped short like her own. A pair of dark brown eyes glittered back at her, loaded with sudden mirth. “As much a one as you are, yes,” she said with a smirk, poking Hal in the chest. And with that she turned on her heel and slipped, eel-like, through the crowd.
The thief’s head bobbed up again some distance away, as if she’d dived like an otter and resurfaced. Hal followed, intrigued. She knew of no other woman who looked as she did. No one else cropped their hair short, wore a man’s shirt and breeches or passed amongst her fellow citizens with a sword strapped to her side. And yet here, in the middle of the market place, it was as if she’d met her shorter, plumper double. Hal’s fascination thrummed and burned as she trailed the thief away from the market and down one alleyway and then the next, until at last the girl stopped, put her hands to her head and growled in irritation.
“Look, just leave me alone, can’t you? I gave it back to you.”
“It’s not that, it’s…”
“What?” The thief turned to face her. Her cheeks were flushed from running and sweat beaded her forehead.
“It’s just…I didn’t know people like you existed.”
“What do you mean?” The woman bent double, rested her hands on her knees and panted.
“Do you always wear those clothes or is it some kind of disguise?” Hal asked.
The thief’s laughter was a low, loud bark. “Well you tell me, duellist.”
“How do you know what I do?”
The girl straightened up, folded her arms and released a long, low whistle. “Well you are a thing of innocence, ain’t you? The Duelling Circle’s the most lucrative spot in town for a cutpurse. And especially when you’re entertaining.”
“Yeah.” She slid a sly hand across her chin, wiping away the sweat. “You’re a draw, girl. A woman who wields a sword. You’re a novelty…an attraction.”
“A novelty?” Hal asked, her pride punctured.
“Yeah. Well.” The woman lowered her hands to her hips. “Not that I’m watching. Some of us have real work to be doing.” She turned around again. “Which reminds me,” she said over her shoulder, “I should be getting back to it.”
But Hal’s curiosity had been piqued. A new world was opening up before her very eyes, a world so different to anything she’d ever known before: those twin, tight realms of the imperial court and the duelling academy. Here was a woman who belonged to that corner of Colvé which was always hidden from sight: the network of spies and cutpurses, whores and hired thugs against whom she’d always been warned. And forbidden to her, it called…it tempted. It sank its delicious, dirty fingers into her flesh. She shivered. And then she ran.
“You don’t give up, do you?” the thief moaned, shaking her head.
“I want to see Riverside.”
The city was already changing, its streets narrowing, the magnificent townhouses of senators and merchants giving way to squat, timber-framed workshops and low-roofed cottages. They turned a corner and there it was: the murky grey waters of the river Col itself, stinking and sluicing through the docks of Riverside.
“Why?” The thief asked her. “It’ll be trouble. For the likes of you.”
“The likes of me?”
“Yeah.” The woman’s lips curled into a sneer. “You’re one half aristo, ain’t you?”
“I don’t know,” Hal said carefully, “who my father is. Or my mother.”
“Well you’re the only one who doesn’t in that case.”
Hal decided against rising to the jibe. She clenched her jaw and fixed her attention on the docks, watching the lean-muscled stevedores as they rigged and loaded barges at the quayside. But the thief had read her anger for her brown eyes softened, her shoulders wilted and she held out a hand.
“Name’s Jools,” she said.
Hal placed her palm to Jools’ and summoned a smile. “Just Jools?”
“Yeah…yes,” said the thief hesitantly.
“Then I’m Hal. Just Hal. So show me Riverside, just Jools. There’s a few coins in it for you if you do.”
“What about a fine, jewel-hilted dagger?”
“That, I’m afraid, is out of the question.”
“Shame.” Jools jerked her head in the direction of a down-at-heel tavern, its balcony jutting out at a precarious angle over the river. “Well let’s start here, then. Thieving’s thirsty work.”
In spite of the bright summer light, The Emperor Tavern was a confined, smoke-choked hole. Drinkers lay slumped over tables in pools of spilt ale; arm-wrestled, argued, brawled or slapped down cards. And when the tavern door slammed shut behind them, Hal steeled herself against the urge to race back outside again, for the walls seemed to close in on her and the ceiling was just a little too low for comfort. But she was here now. Marc would have been horrified, Beric furious. Up every sleeve, she imagined, lurked a concealed knife; a punch lay behind every curled fist. And yet it was precisely that hint of danger which lured her on, which promised experience, adventure. And so she trailed on in Jools’ wake until they were almost at the very back of the tavern where she was pulled down on to a bench and a tankard pressed into her hands.
“Who’s this, then?” asked the tall blonde woman who settled herself across the table from Jools and Hal. Her face was lean and lined with laughter, her hair caught in a rough knot at the nape of her neck. She wore, like Jools, trousers and a loose linen shirt, her sleeves rolled up to reveal tanned, taut arms. “You’re always bringing strays home with you,” the woman said to Jools.
“This,” said Jools, wiping the froth of ale from her lips, “is definitely not an aristo, and definitely not anyone’s daughter. She is, however, a duellist. And for some reason she wants to see Riverside.”
“Does she?” The blonde woman cocked her head on one side and appraised Hal with inquisitive blue eyes. “Well she came to the right place then, didn’t she? Seeing as how we are the official guides round these parts.” Her lips twitched upwards into a smile and she stretched her hand across the table. “Kris.”
“And where do you abide, young Hal?”
Kris, Hal thought, seemed to be of an age with her, but she decided not to point that fact out. She shrugged. “I live at the duelling academy.”
“What do you mean?” Jools leaned forward, forcing her round, flushed face into Hal’s. “You ain’t got no place? What about the palace?”
That invoked a memory of the wards’ dormitories, of a dozen disinherited or orphaned girls sleeping in silent rows, dressing each other in the morning, attending prayers and study together, the presence of Cara Thæc looming over all of it like an angry hawk, poised to strike. “I don’t belong there,” Hal said, sipping her beer. “I prefer the academy floor. I sleep. I duel. It suits me.”
Kris snorted. “Sounds bloody boring to me. All those blades around – you might roll over in your sleep and get ‘urt. Listen, Jools, old Stevie don’t need that room of his no more, does he?”
Jools took a swig of beer, swilled it around her mouth as if in deep contemplation and then swallowed. “He’s dead, Kris.”
“Exactly!” Kris slapped the table. “That’s what I mean. What d’you think, duellist? Riverside pad. View of the docks.”
“Smell of the docks more like,” said Jools. “‘Course you’d have to scrub the bloodstains off the walls first. Unless you like them there, that is.”
But Hal’s mind was already racing. A room of her own. For the first time, true independence. No longer having to peel her cold, cramped body off the floor of the duelling academy, or to wake to Beric Thælda’s sharp whistling in the morning.
“Orla!” Jools grinned wildly. “Sit yourself down! Take a load off. Meet our duellist.”
Shaken from her thoughts, Hal watched as another woman seated herself beside Kris on the bench opposite. She was tall: almost as tall as Hal herself, and she carried herself with power, with a kind of certainty borne of her evident strength. Her long, brown hair was braided and swept back from a face which was all contours and hard angles; her eyes a deep, luminous green. The leather vest which clung to her torso hinted at worked, hardened muscles and her arms were as corded and sprung as whips. A sword hung from the belt of her buckskin trousers: not the fine, twisted steel of the rapier Hal was used to, but a cruelly angled sabre. Hal sucked in her breath.
“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,” Orla said. “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.
“‘ere!” Jools’ sharp voice cut through the space between them. “That girl over there. Do you know her, Hal?”
Hal forced herself to break her gaze: to turn from Orla and her hard, contemptuous smile. A young woman sat a few tables distant from them, dark hair bound up high on her head, nursing a cup of wine which she was evidently not interested in drinking. When she realised that Hal was watching her she raised the cup to her lips and turned away.
“No,” Hal said, her stomach queasy with unease. “No, I don’t recognise her.”
“Well, she keeps looking at you. Perhaps she’s an admirer,” Kris smirked.
“I find that unlikely.”
“Or a forlorn, abandoned lover,” Orla said, but though her lips twitched with amusement, her eyes clouded. And again Hal felt a heat rise within, but this time it was fused with embarrassment. Hal caught the hint of a scar feathering out over the top of Orla’s vest, and of the blush which burned across her neck. A fine bead of sweat rested at the hollow of Orla’s throat, and for the briefest of moments, Hal found herself wondering what it would be like to lick it away. Or to let her fingers stray between leather and flesh: to strip away the soldier’s hard shell of arrogance and contempt. To cause her to gasp and cry out.
“No,” Hal said, her heart slamming against her ribcage. “She isn’t. I don’t know who she is.”
The ale, the heat, Orla’s harsh words, it was all making her dizzy. She longed for the wide, cool space of the duelling academy: to roll out her sleeping mat and stretch across its wooden floor.
“I think I’d better go.” She pushed herself to her feet, swaying a little as she clutched the table for support.
“So soon?” Jools grabbed her hand. “I thought you wanted to see Riverside? Stay for one more drink, at least.”
“No, I really should…I have to go. Thanks…for not stealing my dagger.” She was already pressing her way out, swerving between the drinkers and the furniture, and the room really did seem to be closing in on her now, like a crypt or tunnel. She wanted to be outside, to be in the sunshine once again, breathing in the silty river air with space around her and clear, pure light.
She jerked open the door and stumbled, almost falling out onto the docks. That light she’d craved assaulted her eyes: she raised a hand against it, feeling her way along the tavern’s side, her fingers tracing its rough timbers.
But someone had seized her by the waist; was dragging her around the side of The Emperor and into the narrowest of channels, pushing her back against the wall. She sensed their heat, their scent of smoke and herbs and sweat. Hal opened her eyes and stared at Orla, her fascination hovering on just the wrong side of fear. Orla would overwhelm her, she would lay claim to her, of that she was certain. And while she resisted such abandonment with all she had, part of her desired it. Part of her wanted Orla to hold her, to gaze at her with those hard green eyes; to let her prove herself.
Orla sank forward. Her lips were against Hal’s neck, brushing and then kissing and then her teeth grazed Hal’s skin. She winced but gave way, clawing at Orla’s vest, easing beneath it, alive to the firm contours of her muscles, to the heat and hardness of her body. And somehow, the soldier’s mouth had found its way to hers, pressing unbidden against Hal’s lips. She felt herself slowly falling, craving, resisting and then giving way until at last they were locked in an embrace so tight it caused her pain. And when at last Orla’s hands slid from her body, when Orla’s lips slipped from her own, Hal gasped and held herself as if she’d been wounded.
The soldier stepped away into the street, and where her face had been lit with a raw hunger, she had now rolled back beneath the shell of restrained contempt.
“You’ll be back here again, duellist.” Her lips peeled upwards into the ghost of a smile. And then she was gone.