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Bronherrn found much to thrive on. After dinner each night, a group of the men he came to know as brothers gathered to spar with him in the common ground. The space filled with those willing to learn, along with curious villagers looking for entertainment.
Bronherrn struggled with his deformed hands. They shook under the blade, but the lessons his parents gave him remained. The weight of his weapon needed to be balanced differently. His grip, tightened.
He gave each opponent concise instructions, and laughed as he regained strength. The men grew more skilled. He rediscovered the warrior within, but found his abilities slackened. Still a worthy fighter, he drove his blade well and controlled it enough to never debilitate any of his opponents, though when bested he cursed his hands and the Zuthans.
After weeks of training, Vermeesh stood before Bronherrn. He held his sword steady in the center of crowd circling around the courtyard.
Bronherrn pressed his blade to Vermeesh’s. “Remember everything you have learned.”
“How are your hands today, Bron?”
Bronherrn swung his sword playfully. “Better than ever.”
“You’ve been a good friend, but taking orders from a lad as young as you makes me eager to gain the upper hand.”
Bronherrn nodded. He knew Vermeesh would not dare to strike first and made a controlled thrust. Vermeesh parried with ease. He moved in pushing Bronherrn back. A sound of awe escaped the onlookers and encouraged Bronherrn to move forward with vigor.
He had taught Vermeesh to rely on his movements more than his weapons due to his short stature. Even though Vermeesh was much older, Bronherrn found a sense of pride in rediscovering his skills with such a friend.
He dashed back and leapt forth, enjoying the exertion. Metal against metal, he dodged and struck. He ducked, then swung. Vermish tried to kick his legs out from under him, but Bronherrn jumped and eyed him with curiosity. “You’ve been listening.”
“I alway listen when it matters.” Vermeesh shook his head after receiving a slight blow.
Bronherrn spotted a few groups of young ladies joining the crowd. For a moment, he thought he saw Aethelwyn, but her image vanished when he blinked.
He growled as Vermeesh struck. He blocked just in time, locking their blades together inches from his chest. It was a fair enough move. He could only blame himself for hesitating.
Trying to regain momentum, Bronherrn exerted all his strength to jump forward and knock Vermeesh back. His blood warmed under the hazy sky, but his friend would not yield. They continued to clash again and again.
Every limb of Bronherrn’s body swelled under the heavy strain. For some reason he needed to win. He had to prove he was the warrior he used to be. The memory of his father flashed across his thoughts. He realized how difficult it must have been for his father to drop back at his son’s blade.
Vermish grunted and growled. His thick beard twitched. “I think we may consider this a draw.” He panted. Vermeesh staggered to his knees and dropped like chopped wood.
Instead of claiming victory, Bronherrn stood for a moment and then fell back. He lay still for a little. In that delirious span, he stared up and thought of his mother. She would have gained a good laugh. He smiled at the idea.
Unable to dwell on his homesickness, he refocused and sat up. Vermeesh chuckled before him, holding a lady on each arm. “How about we get a drink?”
A cry went up around them. Bronherrn nodded and dusted himself off.
“I’ll take a straight matchup to such a fighter. But I stood first. Remember that Bron,” Vermeesh bellowed cheerfully.
Feeling his head with his hands, Bronherrn noticed a girl kneeling beside him with concern in her mysterious almond eyes. He gaped at her. “Have we met?
She smiled and cast a gaze that took the ache out of his pains. “No,” her voice whispered just audible enough for him to hear her soft tones.
“Will you drink with us?” he asked.
“Too noisy in the tavern.” She shook her head.
He nodded. Unlike Vermeesh’s ladies, she stood out of place. Her long brown hair sat coiled in braids loosely woven around her head. She held a shy feminine air that he’d never experienced. “What is your name?”
“Janif.” The corners of her mouth twitched. “You bumped your head.”
Bronherrn sensed her embarrassment and lent her his hand as he stood. He pulled her up with a tender motion. “I thank you. But now I must go join my friend to celebrate our run.”
She looked down.
“I shall see you soon?” He gently pulled her round sienna face up.
She smiled and nodded.
A few days later Bronherrn spied Janif watching him as he sparred with Wilhelm. He attempted to fight with more flash than before, using every trick he had learned. He forgot his deformed fingers and wished to impress her. He no longer cared that Wilhelm was a sturdy opponent. Bronherrn foolishly swung his blade without thinking of the weight.
“I’m over here, Bronherrn.” Wilhelm struck him as his gaze continued to veer.
Bronherrn leapt back and lunged, but Wilhelm’s sword clashed with his and he lost his grip. Bronherrn stood defenseless, staring at his sword on the ground.
“Distrations are a plenty.” Wilhelm picked up the sword and handed it back to Bronherrn.
He pressed his steel to Wilhelm’s. “My hands aren’t what they once were.” He grumbled in embarrassment.
“Neither is your head.” Wilhelm smirked and bowed to Janif before marching off.
Bronherrn had no desire to speak with Janif after the loss, but she watched him with those big brown eyes. “You are very skilled.”
“As skilled as a Zuthan dog.” He glared.
She shrank from him and backed away.
“Janif.” He jogged toward her on the dusty pathway. She stopped and stared onward as if wishing to run. He sighed trying to walk with more grace.It made him feeling like a child. He drew closer and forced out smile.
She dropped her gaze to her feet. Her frail figure eased him. She did not exert any feminine energy over him, just true sincerity.
Bronherrn had grown accustomed to powerful women. His mother, Aethelwyn, even Prillani were very forceful at times. Janif’s gentle ways intrigued him. She was not a holy being or a high standing chief’s daughter. She was softer. More gentle. “Are you on your way somewhere?” he asked.
“No,” Janif’s tender voice sang in his ears.
He pushed back a grin. “You like to see me fight?”
“No.” Her slight answer began to gnaw at him.
Why would she not meet his gaze? “No? Why have you come then?”
She raised her eyes to his for only a second, then turned to walk away. He could not be sure, but he believed he had seen frustration in her features.
“Wait,” he called out working to keep pace with her. He fought the urge to grab her arm. Battlefield tactics could not help him here and he knew it. He brushed his hand over her shoulder instead. “I do not wish to join my friends at the tavern today. Would you be willing to accompany me on a walk?”
Her mouth froze and he watched her deep brown eyes flicker with interest.
“Why do you hesitate with me? I thought we had become friends.”
“You are a warrior. You don’t belong here.”
He furrowed his brow. “I have been welcomed by everyone else.”
She tiptoed toward the surrounding woods that bordered the village.
He stood still watching her.
“She turned and gestured for him to follow.
He jogged forward to reach her side. With each step, they moved farther away from the people he had come to know and he found himself staring in awe at the thickening forest. The trees were wide and dark with branches that reached taller than the plants in the mountains. He lost himself in the murmur of the forest. Birds chirped all around. A branch above rustled, exposing hidden animals wherabouts.
He caught Janif’s shining stare and said, “You do not wish for warriors in this peaceful land?”
A long sigh escaped her and she nodded.
“I do not intend to cause trouble.”
“But you may bring it.”
Pursing his lips, he pondered her statement. He could not hide forever, but he had planned to remain through the mining season. “Do you wish me to leave?”
Her silence spoke to him.
He leaned closer to her and asked again. “Janif, do you wish me to leave?”
She shook her head.
“Then please tell me what it is you want.”
As if making up her mind she clasped his hand. “What I want doesn’t matter.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I am a simple girl.”
“Simple or not, your beauty has power.”
Her cheeks flushed crimson and he pressed his hand to her face.
She pulled away turning her back to him. “Beauty fades, and so do blades.”
“I only offer my services to earn my keep.”
“You don’t wish to fight?” She peered over her shoulder.
“Right now, I wish to learn more about you.” He walked around to stand in front of her.
“There is not much to learn.” She dodged him and continued walking.
A flame of frustration grew inside him. He followed her in silence until she stopped at a stream and sat on a nearby rock.
He went to the water and bent down to drink, cupping it in his hands. When he turned toward her again, he cocked his head. “If you shall not tell me of yourself, I must explain why I have come here.”
He told her of the war with the Zuthans, his capture and escape. With each detail, he expected her to cover her mouth in shock but she sat still, eyes intent on him. When he finished, he said, “I am here to bide my time. But I mean to move on once the mining season’s over. Does that satisfy you?”
Again, she refused to offer the lengthy response he expected. His mother would have had much to say. Aethelwyn and Prillani would have both had their own little speeches, but Janif astounded him with silence.
Unused to this kind of response, he grew impatient. “And while I am here, do you wish me to be a stranger?”
“That seems unnecessary.”
“Because we’ve already met.”
He let out a growl. “Why do you not tell me of yourself, then?”
“It is no matter.”
“You are merely a girl with no family? No life?”
She nodded. Standing up, she set her footsteps back to the village.
Bronherrn stared at the laces spanning the length of her back as she trudged on. Her dusty rose skirt swayed with her movements and he let her go ahead as he contemplated the strange conversation. She may have been any village girl, but something told him that she had more to offer.