What follows is a short story set in the same fantasy world as my upcoming novel, Sword of the Feara. This is a stand alone story taking place in a different part of the setting. I hope you enjoy it and I welcome comments.
A Daughter of House Soolvain
by Dan Kretzer
Invada walked with wide eyes and a thumping heart through the dark halls of her family's villa. The servants whispered as she passed dark doorways down shadowy halls. The whispers were pitched so that she would hear them, of course. In House Soolvain, even the servants were wolves at heart.
Two left feet and laughs like a braying ass, came a hiss.
All the magical talent of this mop, answered a mutter.
She’ll never find a husband with that plain face, put in a snicker.
Why would they set upon her so? She had never tattled on them or framed them for her own trespasses. Her brothers relished getting servants put beneath their mother’s lash. Her sisters had raised it to an art form; so subtly did they manipulate that only their victims knew they had a hand in their pain. Invada had never done any such thing to the servants. Perhaps that was why they whispered so boldly.
The voices all fell silent, like the birds in a forest when a monster comes. Invada stepped into the shadows beside a cabinet just as the dark form Dominatia Soolvain, crossed the hallway behind her in the distance. The richly dressed woman paused and inclined her head, spilling ebony hair down over a bared shoulder the color of rime. The silhouette of her impossibly beautiful face was caught in the light from a window, but she did not look Invada’s way.
Then she was gone, and soon the whispers came back.
The mistress has given up on her youngest, recounted the hiss.
Worthless to the family, agreed the mutter.
Oh, not entirely worthless, countered the snicker with ominous glee.
Invada stepped out hiding and continued toward the east wing. “There is one path still open to me,” she growled low at the shadows. They answered her with silence, and she picked up her pace to leave them behind.
Then, just at the point where she could barely hear them, a whisper piped up. The east wing? For a girl? And her mother says she has no sense of humor.
* * *
The dueling hall was damp and cool, with walls of gray stone and a slate floor. High windows lit the room inadequately at that early hour. Kolderan loomed at the far end of the chamber by the rack, considering the various weapons as a woman picks out a dress. He was lean for a man of Aupuk, with sinewy arms exposed by his sleeveless shirt. He wore his hair short so that none would fail to see the ragged scar across his throat.
Invada’s shuddered and felt dizzy as she tied her dark locks back out of her face. “I am ready to begin!” she barked, her voice ringing off the walls. Wide, dark eyes fixed the unimpressed sword master with a hard stare. Kolderan was just another servant after all, and she was still a daughter of House Soolvain. At least for now she was.
Without so much as a nod or a bow, the man retrieved a pair of wooden practice swords and two dented shields from the rack. He strode across the wide floor and offered her a weapon hilt-first. She took the mock sword and was surprised by its weight. It must have had a lead core inside. Then she took the shield and fumbled for a few moments strapping it to her arm.
“You’re serious then?” the man asked in a bland tone. Invada nodded impatiently. “House Soolvain has never had a female slayer. They are rare, but there are powerful men in Aupuk who covet such women as brides. Is that your game? Looking to land a high-born man despite that uninspiring face?”
“I said I am ready to begin,” repeated Invada, trying to mimic her mother’s withering gaze.
Kolderan only smiled and circled behind her sniffing the air. “No, I think this smells more like desperation. Homely and graceless by your family’s standards, so what good are you, except perhaps as payment to an ogre or wizard? Or maybe a hostage given against a promise that your parents do not intend to keep.”
“Do not make me tell you I am ready a third time,” the girl snarled through clenched teeth.
“Very well.” The sword master smiled and slashed his practice sword in a figure eight. “But when you fail, I do not wish to see your face in my hall again.” The girl stood silently, meeting his gaze.
“Show me a fighting stance,” Kolderan said softly, like a lion’s quiet growl. Invada had never used a shield before, but she had seen one used and had some idea how to hold it. The sword was much heavier than the toys that her brothers regularly thrashed her with, but she dared not let the sword master see her strain against its weight. She brought the blade up and, with some effort, held it steady.
The man nodded, looking down at her feet, which she knew were properly placed. “Did your brothers teach you? Or did you learn by watching?”
“They taught me,” she responded. They taught her enough so that she would provide at least a little challenge during their brutal play.
"Stand ready!” The lean, scarred sword master’s voice suddenly exploded, filling all the corners of the hall. What followed was a flurry of blows from his wooden blade. He beat aside her shield and smacked her shoulder. Then he lunged and poked her ribs. Invada flailed with her shield, trying to block each thrust with little success. Desperately she struggled to bring her own sword to bear. It was useless. Even if she could find an opening to strike, his shield blocked out that entire side of her target.
"Halt!" Invada instantly dropped her guard and stood stiff and straight. She had watched her brothers in training and knew that to continue after a command of halt brought swift punishment.
Kolderan walked in a slow circle around her. “You anticipate blows fairly well. I suppose you have your siblings to thank for that.” His voice had gone soft again, and she strained to hear over her beating heart. He stopped in front of her and regarded her scornfully. “Your capacity for attack is pathetic. I was in more danger from my own fork at breakfast”
“The sword is too heavy,” said the girl.
Kolderan lashed out from his relaxed stance and jabbed her hard in the solar plexus with his sword tip, dropping her to her knees. “No excuses! If you can lift a weapon, then it is not too heavy to harm someone with!”
Struggling for breath, Invada squeezed the tears out of her eyes. “I don’t see how to get my sword past your shield,” she rasped. “You’re too big for me to knock it aside!”
“No excuses,” he rumbled dangerously as she got back to her feet. “If you see no way through my defense with your sword, then find another avenue of attack.”
“Teach me!” she bellowed, covering her frustration with the airs of her superior station.
"You’ve used one of these before?" he asked, poking her shield with his sword.
“Yes,” she lied. Her brothers had never been so sporting.
“Then what is it?”
"My shield, of course."
"No! What is it?"
"A thing I use to..."
"No! Damnit, girl! What kind of thing is it?"
Invada thought for a moment. "A type of... armor, I suppose?"
"It's a weapon!" roared Kolderan. "Your shield, your feet, your elbows and knuckles... that chair, the wall, those pretty eyes, that empty head, the spit in your mouth! All weapons! Do you think female slayers survive by brute force? If a skinny thing like you wishes to survive in a fight you must constantly be bringing all possible weapons to bear on your opponent! Attack, attack, attack! At all times! If your sword is out of position or you have no opening, then use something else."
"Show me," she commanded.
"Stand ready!" Invada tensed and assumed a fighting stance. Her sword arm ached from the exertion, but she would not let the weapon quiver in her gasp. Kolderan turned his right shoulder toward her and unleashed a low backhanded slash. Invada dropped her sword to parry. In that instant the man pivoted and brought his left shoulder forward. His arm flashed out and cracked her in the face with the forward edge of his shield. She fell backwards hard, her sword clattering on the slate tiles.
"V'Azmalada nass!" she shrieked in the dark tongue, clasping her ruined nose and squeezing her eyes shut tight. "My mother will have your skin for a parasol!" It was no idle threat; Dominatia Soolvain owned several such parasols.
Kolderan only laughed. "For an ugly duckling’s face? I think not. Maybe a good kink in the nose is what your face needed. Now, stand ready!"
Invada did not get up. Instead, she collapsed back on the floor in despair. Her eyes filled with tears, and she let out a soft, high-pitched moan. The sound was hopelessness. The ceiling above blurred and her future as a pawn to be sacrificed came into focus. Then the tears spilled forth. Invada closed her eyes and began to shake.
“Are we finished here?” Kolderan asked with a contemptuous shake of his head.
The girl only lay there and sobbed. “Oh, for the Dark One’s sake!”
“Get off of my practice floor!” The sword master placed his sword in his off hand and stooped to grab the child and drag her out of there himself.
Invada sprung into a crouch and ducked his gasp. With malicious joy welling in her chest, the girl drove the edge of her shield into the man’s exposed shin with all her might. The splintering clang of steel against bone echoed through the hall and the sword master cursed in pain and alarm. He hobbled backwards, barely escaping a vicious stroke from the girl’s quickly recovered practice sword. When he rubbed his shin, his hand came away dripping red.
Then Kolderan smiled. “Yes, those tears in your eyes, too, girl. Those are one hell of a weapon.”
Invada gave a wicked smirk and spat away the blood flowing from her nose. It took most students years to earn a compliment from Kolderan, and she had one on her first day. The man would make her pay for it of course, but with each payment she bought herself a new future.
“House Soolvain has never had a female slayer,” Kolderan said again, but this time his words held no scorn. “Now, stand ready!”