~The Tarrenbash Heir~
Chapter One: Aiden
Olendia never had much need for war drums—the bash of our swords slamming against newly forged shields on an untouched battlefield was legendary. Our army's synchronized marching never failed to send our enemies running. The full force of our men, trained to the teeth for relentless warfare, haunted the nightmares of kings from neighboring realms, and it was because of this that I could not understand why my cousin, Lander, refused to flee.
But Lander never ran from anything. In fact, he embraced the dare of a fight. He stood, feet staggered, in a slight crouch while my older brother, Mathias, beat the flat edge of his sword against his bronze breastplate with unrelenting force. The two young men circled the training ring like lions about to pounce. Mathias's face was plastered with his infamous scowl, lips tight, eyes dead set, one gauntleted hand clenched around the iron hilt of a broadsword, his knees bent at the ready. Lander wielded a sword in one hand and a dagger in the other. In a cocky display, he flipped the smaller blade once in the air and caught it without batting an eye, smiling devilishly. Mathias responded with a grunt, clearly unimpressed. His eyes continued to size Lander up, scouring for some sort of target—a weak link in Lander's visibly resilient chain. The fight might not have yet come to blows, but both their brows were already bathed in sweat. The merciless Argarian sun washed down on us like fire from a forge.
Mathias, however, never let the heat distract him from a fight. Without shedding his guard, he blew a lock of dark hair from his eyes and leveled his sword, opened his mouth, and let out a conquering Olendian war cry that shook the ground we stood on. Lander had nothing but seconds to dodge the sword swinging for his throat. With a yell of his own, he rolled across the ground, tumbling head over feet, and landed, legs spread, in a cloud of swirling orange dust. His matchless agility was one of the reasons he survived as long as he did in a fight against Mathias. From across the grounds, he flashed an impish smile.
"Is that all you've got, Your Highness?"
Mathias hocked a wad of spit and mopped the sweat from his upper lip, looking untroubled. As usual. "The sun will wear you down, Lander. It always does."
"I'm not the one breathing heavily."
I smiled from my place on the sidelines. No one other than Lander had the power to get inside Mathias's head, and few knew why. Against any other opponent, Mathias was a mask of steel, unbreakable. Against Lander, there was always a breech. Sometimes, it was just as lethal as disarming him with a sword.
Mathias snarled and spit again. "Sword up, you scum."
Lander grinned before plunging in. A split second later, they rushed into close-range combat, their blades clashing with inhuman rapidity, the steel shrieking like tortured screams. First, Lander slashed, and Mathias reacted with an aggressive parry, the muscles in his upper arms quivering beneath the tight fit of his leather armor. Mathias then released the blow, sending Lander flying backwards, but he landed swiftly on his feet in a way that I'd always envied.
Quickly, Lander spun on his heels to deflect the next round of crushing blows. He and Mathias attacked and blocked, one after the other, until my brother jumped forward with a short-lived scream, cutting his blade sideways, eviscerating the plume of dust rising beneath their boots. Lander effortlessly supplied a block to protect his unarmored chest.
"I'll ask again, is that all you've got?" sneered Lander, their swords caught in a deadlock.
Mathias grunted, "I'll cut the wise-ass tongue from your pretty mouth, how about that?"
And just for a moment, beyond the veil of dust, I caught a rare glimpse of the haughty grin that, even without his crown, made Mathias look like the prince of Olendia. Lander laughed and pushed out of the lock with a burst of strength.
Moments later, the training grounds became a blur of rushing bodies, flashing steel, and abandoned pieces of armor. In a second of reprieve, Mathias ripped off his shirt and breastplate, revealing the hardened muscles that came from years of grueling training. His lean torso, darkened by the sun, carried the scars he'd earned from every slow parry, every negligent swing of his blade. In Olendia, scars were considered marks of wisdom—the more you bore, the more lessons you had learned. No man in the kingdom walked with unmarred skin, because Olendia would not be considered the strongest kingdom in the realm without mastering the fiercest tactics of warfare.
Only I, Prince Aiden Tarrenbash, second son of King Maddox and the younger twin brother of Prince Mathias, bore scars of shame. Whereas Mathias's wounds had scabbed and hardened until they were merely marks of his past, mine ruptured and bled every time the trainers put a sword in my hands.
As my friends sparred, I gazed down at my discarded blade. It lay unsheathed in the billowing dust, stainless and probably too dull to break skin. Only yesterday, I had raised it against one of Mathias's new recruits and gained a nasty bruise on my left side. The kid who'd beaten me could not have been more than sixteen years old, be he'd still managed to knock my sword from my hands and send me sprawling on my back, defenseless to the blows he then showered over me until the trainers had ordered him to stop.
The memory stung, and I tried not to think about how the other soldiers had laughed until Mathias warned them to shut up or lose their heads. It hadn't mattered that I'd searched the area around my head for a rock or even a stick to defend myself with while I'd endured the brunt end of the boy's steel—it only mattered that I'd lost my sword. And an Olendian without a sword was just as valuable as a stream without water.
The training grounds were empty now. After yesterday's training, Mathias had given his men strict orders to have their blades sharpened and their armor polished—just in case Father called for reinforcements on the front. But I knew this was just an excuse. Mathias wanted me to practice. He always said I fought better without an audience. I needed time to analyze my opponents, to study their movements. If I could do that, then maybe I would one day be as formidable of an opponent as Lander.
But Mathias knew just as well as I did that, at the end of the day, there was no hope for me. I was not born with Olendian strength. No amount of ruthless swordplay would change that.
Across the grounds, Lander cut his blade skyward in a move that would have taken off Mathias's head if Mathias had not been paying close attention. The move, though sharp and swift, provided my brother with the weak moment he'd been waiting for; in one fluid movement, he snatched Lander's wrist out of the air and twisted it all the way around until Lander yelped, dropped his sword, and froze at the touch of Mathias's blade against his throat.
"And that, you idiot, is why you should always leave one hand free in battle." With a grunt of laughter, Mathias then removed his steel and kicked Lander away.
Though visibly annoyed, Lander staggered to his feet, grinning as he massaged feeling back into his wrist. "So you say, but one day I'm going to hear your pleas for mercy as my dagger nicks your throat. But fine, I admit it, you won this round. You don't have to look so smug about it."
"I'm never smug. I'm disappointed you fought so predictably."
"Well, not everyone can be Prince Mathias Tarrenbash, can they?" After saying his name, Lander spat and gave a bow overflowing with mockery. Then he stood and brushed the dust off his trousers, carefully sliding his dagger into the studded sheathe at his belt. Mathias grinned and idly curled his blade through the air, creating a lazy swoop sound that bested Lander's teasing. His eyes ranged over the grounds as he licked the sweat off his upper lip and combed the matted hair from his forehead. Whenever he won a duel, Mathias seemed to escape to another world, one where thousands of voices cried his name in unison, celebrating his victory through rigorous applause. At least, that's what I guessed judging by the far-off look on his face as he gazed over the empty stands, his sword still spinning languidly through the air.
I watched him for so long that I should not have been surprised when his gaze eventually landed on me.
I looked back into Mathias's eyes—his so blue, they rivaled the ocean—and nodded without a word. With some difficulty, I hobbled to my feet, wincing only once at a brief spark of pain shooting up my thigh, and grabbed my sword.
Lander noticed our exchange and quietly stepped out of the ring, his face suddenly serious. On his way past me, he touched my shoulder and whispered, "Keep your sights on his sword, not his eyes."
I nodded and swallowed deeply. Mathias stood calmly in the center of the ring, like the soft breeze before a storm. He held his sword over his shoulders like it weighed nothing at all, and part of me wondered, like I usually did, whether or not this was his inadvertent way of showing off. Without moving an inch, he performed the ritual of sizing me up, the way he did with Lander, his recruits, and his enemies. Only with me, it barely took him seconds to gauge my weaknesses. As my brother, he knew them better than anyone. I just didn't like the idea of him using them against me.
But that was the very reason why Mathias brought me here today. To practice. Until he could beat the weakness out of me.
"You ready, Aiden?"
I lifted my sword out in front of me as confirmation.
Mathias began to circle. I followed suit. Mathias leveled his sword. I kept mine firmly at arm's length. The scowl appeared on Mathias's mouth. A wicked sparkle flashed through his eyes. Quickly, I fixed my concentration on the tilt of his blade. Lander was right—it was Mathias's eyes that were the constant source of my undoing.
"Head up, little brother. You don't want your enemy to strike while you're busy watching your boots."
I frowned, sidestepping to the right. I tried to move as agilely as Lander, but the faster I stepped, the stiffer my legs became. I gritted my teeth and kept going, determined not to let Mathias have his chance. I crossed along the perimeter of the ring, placing one foot carefully over the other.
Then it happened. It started behind my knee and quickly fired up through my thigh, blazing like a whip of fire across my skin. I yelped in pain and staggered. But only for a moment. Mathias let out his deafening war cry and sprang, sword raised.
Mimicking Lander, I rolled out of the way—only my roll was far less graceful. Sweat and tears poured into my eyes as I toppled over the gravel, but at least my sword was still in my hands. Cursing, I grappled to my feet, wincing at the pain cramping through my muscles, and spun just in time to deflect Mathias's next blow.
I knelt on one knee with Mathias shadowing over top of me, his face illuminated by the blazing sun. This close, I could see the faint outline of the only scar I'd ever left on my brother's skin. It crossed diagonally over the right side of his lip like a dim extension of his scowl, the same shape as the edge of the book I had been reading when Mathias thought it would be a good idea to call me a coward for hiding in the library rather than facing our fellow soldiers on the training grounds.
As Mathias pressed his sword deeper into me, I studied that scar and reminded myself that, at one time, I'd reduced Mathias to tears.
"Stand up," ordered my brother.
I attempted to rise, but my thigh seared in protest.
"Stand up," Mathias repeated.
"Yes you can. I know you can."
I clenched my jaw to keep from yelping. Mathias's crushing weight was nothing compared to the anguish in my muscles. But I had to do something.
"Come on, Aiden! Push back!" cried Lander.
I pressed upward, the edges of our blades slicing together. Mathias grinned. "Push harder!"
Wincing, I heaved until every last ounce of strength I possessed swiftly vanished from my bones. Between Mathias's weight and the damn pain in my leg, I would not stand a chance. Mathias's blade came down on me like the dull thud of a horse's hooves, bludgeoning the air from my lungs.
My back met the ground with a dizzying thud, and I spent the next several seconds choking on my own breath as pain roared through my body. For a moment, I thought Mathias might shower me with blows and force me back to my feet, but nothing came as I waited for the cramping in my legs to go down.
Damn them to hell.
Slowly, I rolled up into a sitting position, careful not to make any sudden movement. Beside me, Mathias crouched with his sword point driven into the ground. Beads of sweat dewed on the ends of his slightly curly hair, and he panted faintly. His face was solemn, and his eyes were no longer flashing with mischief or glee. In this moment, he was no longer my adversary.
He was my brother.
Under his breath, he whispered, "Are you alright?"
I quickly looked away from him. My skin felt dirty with dust from the grounds, but I knew Mathias would see my shame if he got a close enough look. "I'm fine."
After a moment of hesitation, he asked, "Can you tell if it's getting any better?"
"I know it's not. And you know it, too." Gingerly, I pressed my fingers behind my thighs, where I could feel the knotted wounds even beneath the smooth leather of my pants. "Dalton said the spear severed the nerves. It's never going to get any better, no matter how many times we come out here to practice."
Mathias opened his mouth as if to protest, but one look from me and he closed it abruptly. Instead, he tossed his sword to the ground, his expression contemplative and slightly annoyed. He ran a hand through his hair while I stumbled to my feet, clenching my teeth in preparation for a sudden spark of pain. If any of the recruits had been around, Mathias wouldn't have dared help me, but since we were alone, he wrapped his arm around me and helped me out of the ring.
Lander threw me a smile of encouragement once we approached. "That wasn't half as bad as your face suggested it was," he says to me, hurrying to retrieve my sword. Together, the three of us hobbled into the changing rooms just beyond the ring. The cool air inside was a welcome relief, as was the flagon of water a servant hurriedly brought forward.
Mathias dumped half of it over his head before passing it off to Lander and me. We drank greedily, and Lander sloppily tossed our weapons into a corner, throwing back his mop of shaggy blonde hair as he ordered a second servant to return them to their proper shelves.
All the while, I sat in silence, contemplating the extent of my failure. It was bad enough making a fool of myself in front of Mathias's regiment, but it was worse knowing that I had disappointed Mathias with my weakness. All my life, I had wanted to impress him. I lived to please him. Why couldn't I, for once, do just that? Instead, I felt like the names the recruits called me behind my back: Weakling. Worthless. Coward.
"I'm sorry, Mat," I finally summoned the courage to say.
Mathias turned to me, one eyebrow lifted.
"I can't stand knowing I've let you down."
Lander loped back around to the benches where we were sitting, his eyes narrowed. "You haven't let anyone down, Aiden."
"Haven't I?" I snapped. "I can't even stand on my feet long enough to fight back. It's pathetic. I'm pathetic."
The moment I said it, I instantly regretted it. Now I was just giving myself more reason to loathe who I was. I couldn't handle myself in a fight, and now I sounded like I wanted the world to take pity on me.
Thankfully, Mathias crouched down before I could speak again. He looked around to make sure none of the servants were about to come skittering around the corner before he placed his hands on my knees and forced me to look him in the eyes.
"You're not pathetic," he vowed, his voice deep and calm. "And I don't give a damn about what Dalton said. You're my brother, a prince of Olendia. And Olendians are strong. Power, grit, steel, and blood. That is what we are made of." He reached out and cupped my cheek in his hand, pressing our foreheads together with a rare show of gentleness that no one other than Lander and I knew he possessed. "And it doesn't matter to me that Dalton believes you will never heal. I believe that as long as there is fight in you, there is strength. You just have to tap into it. Find it, Aiden. One of these days, you may not have a choice."
I stared back into his blue eyes and nodded, my throat thick—probably just with dust.
Mathias took the moment to nod back and pull away. The sounds of quick footfalls had suddenly appeared, and Mathias would probably kill anyone who witnessed his brief display of brotherly affection. He stood up quickly, popped a few joints in his knuckles, and rolled back his shoulders. "What do you say the three of us do something to get out of the sun? We probably should while we still have the chance. It might not be long till the call comes to join Father in the hills." He winked knowingly at Lander. Unfortunately, I, too, knew what he had in mind. Typical Mathias. For every gentle demonstration, he had to compensate with hours of troublemaking.
Lander shrugged, and I shuffled to my feet. Ever since we were boys, Mathias led and we followed.
As we searched the changing room for our spare clothes, I wondered vaguely if that regime would ever end.