The border between Samaro and Almet grew restless, the centuries-long fight between the two countries grew more heated, and the tremors of discord flowed into the heart of Samaro. Outlaws took advantage of the distracted armies and roamed the countryside, preying on travelers and villages too weak to defend themselves.
In the soldiering camp of Kyrog, men and women trained to fight Almet and the bandits that threatened the citizens of Samaro. Training was a constant duty for every soldier, and for one Adrian Rydaeg, it was a pleasure as well.
Right now, Adrian was running late for a meeting with her captain. He had requested her presence in his office, but she had been delayed when she stopped to speak with a visiting soldier from Roua, a soldiering camp far to the east.
Adrian wound her way through the back streets and alleys of Kyrog, taking a shortcut to the captain's office.
She turned right, in the direction that would take her back to the main street, and was surprised to find Lieutenant Nissen coming toward her.
"Lieutenant," Adrian said, standing at attention. Her urge to be on time for her meeting didn't supersede the need to show respect for a soldier of higher rank.
"Adrian." The smooth voice would have been pleasant if it was not accompanied by those cold green eyes currently running over Adrian's leather-clad body, lingering on her breasts and the flare of her hips. "What are you doing, sneaking around the back of the officers' hall?"
Adrian swore silently to herself. "I'm on my way to meet with Captain Garrett," she said.
Nissen smirked. His combination of light skin and green eyes was rare this far south of the Almetian border, and Adrian thought the man should have been attractive, but whenever she saw him she got a creeping feeling along her skin and wanted nothing more than to get away.
"I need to go. I'm running late." She tried to duck around him, but Nissen moved to block her way.
"Surely you can spare a few minutes," Nissen said. "I want to talk to you."
"Perhaps later." Adrian tried once again to get around Nissen.
"Join me for dinner," he said, moving closer to her, crowding her against the back wall of one of the buildings. "We can talk then." His hand traveled to her waist, resting on the curve just above her hip. "Or we can do...other things."
Adrian's hand reached reflexively for her sword, but his body was blocking the move, and it stopped her just long enough for her to come to her senses and realize that she could not attack a lieutenant.
"No," Adrian said, slipping to the right, "I can't."
Nissen's other hand came up to block her escape, and he moved closer so that his body was pressed against her. He moved his mouth next to her ear. "I think you can."
Adrian froze. Over the years, other soldiers had made occasional passes at her, but never had a superior done so. With another soldier, Adrian would have blown him off or forcibly ended the encounter. Despite being the only female soldier currently serving in the camp of over two thousand people, she was one of the best fighters there, and never worried that she would start a fight she couldn't finish.
But she couldn't fight Lieutenant Nissen. Attacking a superior officer was an act of insubordination, and Adrian wouldn't risk being expelled from Kyrog.
"Lieutenant Nissen, please," Adrian said, "I'm supposed to meet with Captain Garrett."
"You'll have more fun with me," Nissen promised, nuzzling her neck. When she tried to break free, his hand on her waist tightened painfully and he gripped the arm that tried to push him away. "Now, now, Adrian, don't fight me." His mouth moved to hers, and she brought her knee up reflexively.
Nissen was well-trained, and twisted so that her knee connected with his thigh instead of the more vulnerable area she had been aiming for. He made a tutting sound against her lips. "Bad girl," he said. "I'll have to teach you some respect."
He grabbed her other arm when she began to struggle in earnest, pinning it above her head, but pulled back abruptly when someone else entered the alley.
"What in the flaming Abyss is going on here?"
Adrian looked to her left and saw Ricco standing there. He was built like a pago tree, not much taller than Adrian but with a thick body and limbs. He could move deceptively fast for all his apparent bulk, and the rage on his dark face made him look lethal.
Adrian had always respected Ricco's fighting skills, and at the moment she was very glad that he was not looking at her with such a savage expression.
"Soldier Rydaeg and I were having a discussion. A private discussion." Nissen's smile was tight, and he moved slowly away from Adrian.
"We'll continue this later," he said before leaving the alley.
"Are you okay?" Ricco asked. She could see the effort it took for him not to yell or go after Nissen.
"I'm fine," she snapped, but the word wavered at the end, and she realized that her hands were shaking.
Adrian crossed her arms in a move meant to hide her traitorous hands. His anger came back as he caught what she was doing. "What did he do?" Ricco had come in just as Nissen had moved away, and he wondered what he had missed.
"Nothing," she denied, but the look in his eyes, so unexpectedly gentle and concerned, was too much for her to resist. She couldn't help the words that spilled from her as she told Ricco about everything Lieutenant Nissen had said and done.
She had barely reached the end of her story when Ricco started heading in the direction the lieutenant had gone.
"I'll kill him," Ricco growled.
Adrian quickly stepped in front of her friend, blocking his way. "Ricco, no."
"I can make you move," Ricco said, reaching out to grab her by the arms.
"I'll bloody you if you try," Adrian said, but her voice lacked heat, and it wasn't the customary bad temper that he saw in her eyes.
She was more than merely shaken by the encounter with Nissen, and Ricco's hands moved up to rest on her shoulders.
The weight was comforting, not threatening as Nissen's touch had been. "If I can't kill him, at least go to the captain about this. Captain Garrett would never stand for what Nissen did."
Adrian knew that was true, just as she knew that she could never go to the captain. She had worked hard to build up a reputation that she could take care of herself, and she couldn't have a man--even the captain--solving her problems.
"You know I can't do that."
Ricco looked pained. "Ade, you can't expect me to just let this go."
"I can handle it," Adrian said, lifting a reassuring hand to his forearm. The nickname Ricco had given her soon after he had come to the camp reminded her of everything they had shared in their years of friendship and some of the tension left her.
Finally he nodded and let his hands fall back to his sides. "I came looking for you because Captain Garrett was wondering where you were."
Adrian had almost forgotten about her meeting with the captain. "I have to go see him," Adrian said.
Ricco looked about to protest, but he saw the conviction in Adrian's eyes and didn't bother. "Okay," he agreed.
Adrian turned to leave, then looked back over her shoulder at her closest friend. "Thank you." She didn't want to dwell on what had almost happened, but she knew that things could have been much worse had Ricco not happened upon her and Nissen when he did.
Adrian took a bracing breath before entering the building that housed the captain's office. She announced herself to the page, who turned and knocked sharply on the captain's door before opening it. "Soldier Rydaeg has arrived, Sir."
"Send her in."
The captain was sitting behind his desk when Adrian entered. His stern face, weathered and marred by a thick scar just under his right eye, was not smiling. "You're late."
"I'm sorry," Adrian said. She didn't offer an excuse, or an explanation.
Captain Garrett glanced down at the pile of paperwork on his desk, then back up at Adrian. "Now that you're here, I have an assignment for you."
Adrian nodded, and Captain Garrett studied her carefully out of his gray eyes. She hadn't asked about the assignment, and although he knew Adrian would not balk even if he told her to clean out the latrines by herself, she usually showed more curiosity in what she was being asked to do.
"Is everything okay?" he asked.
Adrian nodded again. "Everything is fine," she assured him, trying not to think about what had happened with Lieutenant Nissen. "What was it you wanted?"
Garrett knew Adrian well enough to know that something was wrong, but also knew that if she wanted him to know about it, she would tell him. "There's a new recruit here, from Roua," he said.
"I spoke with the soldier from Roua earlier," Adrian said.
"Not Freder," Captain Garrett told her. "A young recruit. Jeral Rosch. I want you to test him and ascertain his skill level."
"Will he be in the Pen?" Adrian asked. Kyrog was an elite training camp, and soldiers from other camps would occasionally train at Kyrog for a year or two to further develop their skills. The short-time recruits were called Yearlings, like fractious yearling stallions with more brawn than brains, and their training grounds were jokingly referred to as "the Pen."
"He should be. I want you to spar with him, then report back to me."
"Yes, Captain Garrett."
Adrian saluted and left in pursuit of Jeral Rosch, forcing herself to block out what had happened with Nissen so that she could focus her full attention where it belonged.
She found Rosch in the training yard, and though her reputation preceded her, the young soldier was eager to face her and try his strength and the skills he'd gained in Roua against hers. They would fight without weapons today, and Adrian had no doubt she would win.
They circled each other for only a minute before the Yearling made a move, lunging for Adrian. She could see training in that move, but also a lack of finesse, and she sidestepped him easily. They repeated the maneuver again and again until Adrian tired of the game. She ducked under a wild swing from Rosch and landed a hard punch in his gut. He doubled over and barely avoided her knee in his chin.
He staggered upright and back a few steps, and Adrian kicked out high, her foot stopping a bare six inches from the Yearling's throat.
Rosch stood frozen, the arm he had moved instinctively to block her kick only halfway raised.
Adrian lowered her leg, planting both feet firmly on the ground with her weight balanced on the balls of her feet in a fighter's stance. "That kick would have crushed your windpipe," Adrian told the young man, her brown eyes hard and a little mean.
Rosch was breathing heavily from the short match, and his eyes were wide with shock. Maybe he was surprised that he had lost so quickly, but Adrian suspected the surprise had more to do with the fact that he had lost to her, a young woman who stood only as high as his shoulder. Many men expected the only female currently serving at the camp to be weak, or to hesitate to deliver the final blow in a fight.
A session with her taught new soldiers not to make assumptions about their opponent based on such trivial factors as gender, and that was one of the reasons Captain Garrett used her to test out new recruits.
"I realize that," the young soldier said stiffly, struggling to maintain some dignity despite the sweat dripping down his dark face. Adrian knew it must be hard for him to maintain dignity when he would be dead or dying, unable to breathe through his ruined windpipe, had the fight been real.
"Maybe you're just slow, then," Adrian said bitingly. "Or maybe you are too damned naive to realize that female soldiers can be as great a threat as men. Whichever it is, you'd do well to remedy it before you wind up in a situation where your opponent doesn't stop the kick short."
Adrian turned on her heel and left the green recruit and the crowd that had gathered to watch her at work. She moved with the sleek, predatory moves of a panther, her thick black braid swishing behind her. She was aware of the bustle of soldiers and working civilians around her. Kyrog was always full of people, but they did not grab her attention as she made her way to the captain's quarters.
She welcomed the anger she felt over the soldier's ineptitude. It helped to push away memories of what Lieutenant Nissen had tried to do earlier, before Ricco had interrupted.
Her anger at the Yearling's lack of skill was very real. With the constant threat from Almet to the north, and groups of bandits roaming the plains of Samaro looking for travelers or defenseless villages to plunder, soldiers were important for the safety of Samaro's people.
Although there had been little more than skirmishes with Almet in the last decade, everyone in Kyrog knew it was only a matter of time before they were called to war against the large military force Almet could raise. Not only would Rosch and soldiers like him be useless against the soldiers from Almet, he would be a liability to the men fighting alongside of him.
Her anger carried her back to Captain Garrett's office. The captain looked up from the stack of paperwork on his sturdy wooden desk and nodded at her.
"I finished sparring with Rosch."
He raised an eyebrow. "And?"
Adrian began to stalk around the small space, and Captain Garrett's lips twitched in humor at the temper rolling off the young woman under his command. She cut a figure in her dirty leathers with the sword at her hip slapping against her thigh with each turn. Whatever had been wrong with her earlier, it seemed that her anger had pushed it away, at least for the moment.
"He was horrible," Adrian said when she finally came to a stop before the captain's desk. Her dark complexion showcased her expressive brown eyes, and those eyes were fierce. "We were sparring without weapons, and I had him beat almost before the match began. If this is the best we can expect from the east--"
"Rydaeg," Captain Garrett interrupted. "He is young. He only recently reached his majority, though he has been training at Roua for the past two years. He is inexperienced, and was probably surprised by your talent."
"I understand, Sir, but--"
"I don't think you do fully understand," Captain Garrett interrupted. "You are an exceptional soldier, and I rely on you as a teaching aid and for your exceptional skills."
Adrian waited, knowing the captain was not done.
"Part of the reason you are so exceptional is natural talent, and that is why you cannot fully understand soldiers like the one from Roua. It is possible that the soldier you sparred with this morning can spend the rest of his life training and never reach the level you have attained already, though you are hardly older than he."
"But natural talent is not the only reason you are good," Captain Garrett said, ignoring her. "How long have you been training?"
"Sixteen years, Sir."
"And how many of those years have you trained at Kyrog?"
"Twelve," Adrian said, reluctantly following his line of logic.
"Twelve years. Over half of your life has been spent at Kyrog being trained by some of the best soldiers in Samaro, yet you expect a soldier who has trained for less than a handful of years, and spent only a few days at Kyrog, to present a challenge for you?" Captain Garrett's eyes bored into hers, and Adrian had to force herself not to look away.
"Some of the Yearling recruits have been better," Adrian said, though she knew it was a weak argument.
"Yes, and others have been worse," Garrett said calmly. "Would you rather no one came to train at Kyrog?"
"Of course not," Adrian said. "Kyrog has produced some of the finest soldiers in Samaro, and it should continue to do so."
Captain Garrett smiled. "You are worried that recruits such as this latest one will hurt Kyrog's reputation."
Adrian struggled with that truth, then sighed. "Yes," she said, her tone taking on a distinctly defensive note. "I am not an elitist, but if we continue to accept soldiers such as this one, how can Kyrog stay at its peak? How can Kyrog remain the best with substandard soldiers making up its ranks?"
"Soldier Rydaeg, I have no intention of letting Jeral Rosch become an instructor," Captain Garrett told her, his lips twitching slightly in what might have been amusement. "He, like others before him, will receive a year or two of intensive training at Kyrog before returning to Roua." Adrian looked about to say something more, but the captain held up a finger to stop her. "Kyrog breeds elite soldiers, but not everyone can train here. To help the larger war effort, we train some soldiers for a short time before they leave to share their increased knowledge and skills with others."
"Is it enough?" Adrian asked.
There was no hint of a smile on Captain Garrett's lips now. His dark face looked even more tired, his scar more apparent as his mouth hardened. "Every year, men from Kyrog go to the borders of Almet to support the soldiers already stationed there. They fight, and few return despite their superior skills. Almet is large and prosperous; it can summon vast armies. I don't know if our efforts are enough."
It was not what Adrian had wanted to hear. She had hoped to have her doubts dispelled, not to hear them again from her commanding officer. "Do we keep doing what we're doing?" Adrian asked when the tight feeling in her chest was too much to bear.
"You have spent your life training and learning to be the best. Do you wish to simply leave Samaro to its fate?"
"No." Adrian didn't need to think about it. "I will fight to my last breath to defend our country."
Captain Garrett looked as though he had expected no less from her. When Adrian had arrived at Kyrog twelve years ago, Garrett had already been a lieutenant, and he knew her as well as anyone could. Following her mother's death, Adrian had been enlisted into the army by her father, who hadn't been able to afford raising four children by himself. Soldiers had become her new family, and Samaro was the cornerstone of that family. Losing one meant losing the other, and Garrett knew giving up soldiering was not an option for Adrian.
"Then we continue on and hope that something turns the tide in our favor." He looked down at his stack of papers. Adrian saw that the paper on top of the stack was a page from an old manuscript. The age was revealed as much by the language it was written in as by the yellow, cracking paper. The text was Old Samaroan, a language few now were familiar with.
"Do you have a translation?" Adrian couldn't help but ask, gesturing toward the page of Old Samaroan script, trying to read what it said upside down without being obvious about it.
The captain nodded, not surprised by Adrian's question. He knew as much of her love for reading obscure texts as her artistry with a sword. "Yes. I won't need you to translate for me this time. You're dismissed, Soldier."
Adrian straightened, saluted, and left. She did not head immediately to her barracks, nor to the grounds where the experienced soldiers drilled.
Instead she headed back to the Pen, where Rosch would be recovering from their recent session. For the most part, Adrian had always regarded the Yearlings as a nuisance: a waste of space, resources, and the time experienced soldiers spent training them. But after talking to Captain Garrett, she felt she now understood their purpose in the larger efforts to keep Samaro a country free from Almetian rule. Kyrog could elevate those inexperienced soldiers in a way few other camps could.
"Soldier Rosch!" she shouted in a loud, commanding voice that filled the training yard.
All movement--all sound--in the Pen stopped. Most of them had already fought Adrian during their short stay, and knew that she had a reputation even amongst the experienced soldiers for being hard and having a temper that could flare at a moment's notice.
Adrian caught movement out of the corner of her eye. She turned and very nearly smirked as she saw three soldiers putting distance between themselves and Jeral Rosch.
Jeral's swallow was nearly audible across the intervening yards, but he stepped forward and presented himself gamely. "Yes, uh, Sir?" he asked with polite caution, not sure how to address her.
Adrian nodded her approval. "Come with me," she said. Yearlings all but leapt out of the way to clear a path for her as they left the yard. She stalked through the crowd of young men, plans coalescing in her mind. When they reached a nearly empty area of the shaded courtyard, Adrian turned to face Jeral and knew that he was working to control his nerves.
She respected that.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
"You told me to follow you, Sir," Jeral said, looking confused.
Adrian sighed, reminding herself that he was young and hopefully more nervous than stupid. "Why are you here in Kyrog, Rosch?"
"My lieutenant in Roua recommended me to come here and receive more training. He said I was quite talented." He blushed, no doubt remembering their earlier sparring match and his humiliatingly easy defeat. Whatever talent his lieutenant had seen had not been in evidence that day.
"Roua is not Kyrog," Adrian said. "However, if you are serious about wanting to learn, I will teach you." Lieutenant Mylig was in charge of training soldiers in Kyrog, but she doubted he would be opposed to her taking over the training of one Yearling.
Rosch's look of shock did not surprise Adrian. Although she made a point to ignore the Yearlings when possible, she still knew what they said about her. Though she participated in testing the recruits, she never, ever trained them, and it was well known that she preferred it that way.
"What?" Jeral asked. "Why?"
"If you want to be the best, you have to train with the best," Adrian told him. "And I am one of the best here." She knew he would benefit from one-on-one training, even if she had limited experience training others.
"I will not be an easy teacher," Adrian warned him. "I have spent years learning what you must learn in months. I will push you hard, every day, and I will expect you to give me everything you have."
Jeral nodded, his tawny eyes looking dazed by the unexpected turn of events.
"If you train under me, I will see to it that you too become one of the best," Adrian said, her eyes trained on his.
Jeral licked lips gone suddenly dry. This was why he had left Roua, to train at Kyrog under the best soldiers Samaro had to offer. And he was being given a chance no one else ever had. "When do we start?"