Daniyah gripped her spear with pale knuckles, her heart somewhere in her throat as she stared straight ahead, motionless – outwardly, she was calm as a still lake on a cloudless day. But beneath the surface of her apparent indifference, she was roiling and frustrated.
Not for the first time, she found herself regretting the decision that had been made to send her back to Skaven. At sixteen, she’d only spent five years in the tutelage of her mother’s brother in arms, yet there was still so very much Sir Devlin Colville had left to teach her – it seemed bitterly unfair that she’d been sent back to her father’s house, to the man who had never once showed more than passing interest in her. So why was it, then, that suddenly her heritage was so important to both of her parents?
Lamya’s letters had been few and far between, though Sir Colville had been diligent in sending his own reports of her daughter’s progress; Daniyah couldn’t help but feel betrayed, when the letter informing them of her impending change in training had arrived. It was followed not weeks later by an escort rider from her father’s house.
An opportunity, they had called it, yet it felt like another shuffle in living arrangements – an inconvenient daughter, being shunted from one house to the next. One of Mahomet Sulayman’s uncles, a man of great repute, who’d finally returned from two decades of study in the Alik’r desert. He didn’t look like much to Daniyah, accustomed as she was to Devlin’s sheer physical presence and power; just a skinny old man with a long face and rime-grey hair. Already, she was homesick for the rainy farmstead, for Sabine’s endless attempts to teach her more ladylike behavior – even for Rickard’s constant attempts to engage her in battles of wit, so enamored of words he was like to drown in them.
The old man watched her with an expression of superiority that chafed at her, as he folded his arms and stared down his nose, lips thinning. Perhaps that is simply the way all Crowns look, she thought to herself, careful to stare straight ahead, motionless. Certainly her mother had never born such an expression.
“What is that, in your hand?”
Even his voice seemed weathered, his words slow and plodding. She felt her heart sink; what was she supposed to learn of a Knight’s duties from a hermit wearing such ragged clothing-? He was skinny and bent, like an old tree baked too long by the sun, never drinking in enough water to grow…. there had to have been a mistake. This was hardly the learned warrior she’d been told she ought to feel honored by.
Careful not to meet his eye, she spoke plainly, voice passive and each word pronounced carefully.
“It is a spear, sir.”
His gaze sought hers, but she wouldn’t meet his eye – a tiny stroke of defiance, not even technically disobedient. It was all she could muster, in light of that she’d been given to him for training. Perhaps, if she could prove herself a more capable warrior than the dusty relic before her, she might be allowed to return to High Rock…
The man’s lip curled. “Tcha. They told me you were a squire- not cannon-fodder in training! Why does a Redguard girl bear a spear, when our ancestors won their conquests by the might of the sword, when Onsi himself taught us the gift of drawing knife to blade-?”
Daniyah felt herself becoming hot beneath the collar of her gambeson, irritation warring with indignity. Cannon-fodder, indeed! And now the old man was speaking of the Yokudan Gods as though they were more than stories passed down from one generation to the next, embellished until they were grandiose legend that little resembled whatever truth there might have been. The sun beat down overhead, and she found herself re-evaluating his cool, flowing desert kit – certainly it would be more practical than her own padded gambeson and thick chain hauberk, just a little too big so as to leave room for her to grow into it.
He seemed to expect an answer, so she gave him one, voice still soft and low, eyes straight ahead; she allowed her expression to remain as bland as unsalted bread, almost, but not quite, reaching the point of insolence. She never would have dared speak to Devlin Colville that way. Sir Colville, however, had always accorded her a modicum of respect, which she was only too grateful to reciprocate. At least he’d wanted to train her, seemed enthused by her aptitude, unlike this man.
“I was well suited to a spear, sir. It allows me to make better use of my reach, as I am tall and may grow taller still.”
The old man narrowed his eyes.
“Very well then.” His voice cracked like a whip, and she suddenly found he wasn’t where he’d been a moment ago, his curved sword drawn and ready. So he can move quickly for an old man; what of it? Should I be impressed?
“Let us see you use your vaunted ‘reach’. Strike me down, girl; keep me from getting inside your guard. Are you ready? You stand there like a moon-eyed calf; did they not teach you how to stand, or were you waiting for someone to tell you differently-? This isn’t High Rock, girl, no one’s going to hold your hand and spoon feed you your directions!”
Anger prickled at her as the righteous, grey-bearded old charlatan jabbed at her with his sword with each word – mocking her to her face and insulting everything that she’d learned in Devlin’s careful tutelage. With a thin breath through flared nostrils, she chided her temper and allowed her body to guide her to a solid starting stance, pointedly ignoring his jibes. Now, at last, she met his eye, her spear drawn back and the point of it leveled at his unarmored middle. One foot back, the other forward, shoulders squared and tilted to present as small a target as she could – this was something she could do. Of course Devlin could still best her, even without his shield, but the man was a battle-trained Knight in the employ of the fighter’s guild – and if she focused on the defensive, a match could last for a long time. Against his son, a year her senior? At her best, she could trounce him; and at her worst, it was still a fair fight.
She allowed the faintest of smiles to touch the corner of her lips, waiting expectantly for the old man to make the first move – refusing to be goaded by his poor manners. He was old, and seemed half mad from those long years in the harsh landscape of the Alik’r desert; let him see, then, what it was like to fight a person and not the voices in his head.
He paused as she finally made eye contact, a heavy eyebrow raising as if uncertain. She felt her confidence, her pulse settling to a steady throb, her body light in spite of the days of hard riding and nights sleeping with a saddle for a pillow. The chain mail was heavy, but she was strong and well-practiced. As he moved forward, her own motion was less than his; he came at her at an angle, the curve of his blade seeking to catch the haft of her spear, and all she need do was twist and draw back a pace. She could feel the strength of his arm as their weapons collided, and it surprised her – it was more than she’d expected from him, being as he looked likely to be blown away by a passing breeze. Still, it did not perturb the young woman.
His footwork was unlike what she’d encountered before, moving from strange angles and with an alacrity she would not have anticipated from one who spoke as slowly as he did. His second blow with that blade did not come where she thought it would, and it was only dumb luck that she lurched out of the way instead of in to it – he was feigning, his movements were tricking her, and she was falling for it! Annoyed, she backpedaled, keeping the man in sight as she fumbled for the reach she’d so recently lauded herself on –
Suddenly there was a blade at her breast, the curve of it slashing from collarbone to the side of her ribcage – or would have, if not for the chain mail. The force of the blow sent her stumbling and she felt a brief moment of humiliation before regaining her balance, grunting as she swept her spear wide to keep the mad devil at a distance while she-
Somehow, he was behind her and then away, her knees kicked out from beneath her and his blade leveled at her throat.
He hadn’t even broken a sweat, wasn’t even breathing hard as he stared her down with contempt in his eye.
“Ra’gada do not focus on spears; not when Leki gifted us with the ability to make Shehai. You are young and you are filled with the foolishness that comes with being young, you think you know everything. You do not. I only agreed to teach you because my nephew assured me you were worthy of my teaching- he told me you had been taught the basics already, but you don’t seem to know anything. I am not so certain you can be taught, but for his sake, I will try. Stand up, and leave that thing there – you will not be needing it again.”
Daniyah frowned, her ears hot and her cheeks flushed as she carefully drew to her feet. The spear remained in the sand, and it was almost physically painful to leave it. She’d been instructed to treat her weapons with reverence and care, had had it drilled into her that one did not disrespect such instruments of death.
Still, she’d been bested, though his methods seemed like cheating – a knight is not dishonest – and she’d been told she was to do what this man said she had to.
Abruptly, the flat of his sword whipped out, smacking her on the hip in a painful blow. “What, are you even more stupid than you look? You don’t have another weapon, why would you leave that one there, on the ground-? You’ll have to prove to me you’re worthy of carrying a sword, you pup! Do you not question the things that are said to you? Eh? Eh?”
Anger surged through her and she lurched to pick up the spear, finding comfort in the well-worn haft. She bit down hard on her tongue, unable to suppress the sour expression on her face, and the old man let out a bellowing guffaw.
“She has nothing to say – too good for any of this, no? Arrogant, even after being kicked around like a dirty shoe. You don’t get to have such pride, not until you’ve earned it. Quit looking like you’ve swallowed an anthill and get moving; and you, rider!” He turned and offered a wide, leering grin to the liveried man who’d escorted Daniyah to Skaven. “Take those horses back to my nephew and tell him he owes me for this. I’ve never seen so hopeless a case in all my years.”