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Historical Fiction

Steel against steel, my blade swam through the air, as swiftly as the eels in the depths of the famous river. The sounds of metal clashing and the smell of sweat around me stimulated the pumping blood in my veins.


I stepped left and then right, dodging the sharp edges of my opponent, counting my movements in preparation for a strike. I feinted one last time – sliding neatly to the left, as my adversary attacked right, and spun around just in time to place the cool, sharp edge of my blade against the back of his hairy neck.


He gasped in disappointment as he fell to his knees, long blades dropping from both his hands. He raised them up, empty in surrender.


I smirked. And then neatly removed my sword from his flesh.


“You’ve come a long way,” my partner said over the grunts and shouts of the other fighters, busy with their own brawls. He rubbed the back of his neck and stood up slowly. Glancing at his hand, he chuckled when he found blood.


“If this is how you practice with your own army, I would hate to meet you as an enemy in battle, Princess,” he said bending to collect his swords. He turned around and bowed his head at me at the mention of my title.


I breathed rapidly to catch air, feeling the heat of the exercise. Unlike the bare arms and muscled torsos around me, I was covered from head to foot in a tight black suit.


The material was glued to me with sweat, running from the top of my head and trickling down my face, which was hidden. Only my eyes were visible through a rectangle slit, and I turned them now on the military man expectantly.


“Isn’t that what I’ve been training for?” I asked, raising my eyebrows and running my exposed fingers along the sharp edge of my sword, to remove the fine specks of the First Lieutenant’s blood.


He coughed self-consciously, averting his gaze. “Your training has progressed it’s true-” he began.


“So, I am ready for battle, you agree?” I asked, taking a step closer to him. I held my sword at my waist, blade pointed in his direction.


“Your Highness must know that this is really not up to me,” he replied, eyes flicking to the blade and then back up to my face. “This decision is one for your superiors,” the First Lieutenant said, suddenly stern.


He looked and sounded his age now, I thought. Scolding me like I was one of his lambs at home.


“My ‘superiors’,” I said stepping back and lowering the sword. “Will listen to you if you persuade them of my skill.”


“I will do all in my power to help the Princess,” the First Lieutenant said, bowing his head again. “But I am not convinced of my authority in this regard. I believe that your brother, the Prince, and your father, the King, may yet be convinced by yourself.”


I scoffed loudly, my brows knitting in irritation. “Your Lords require much more than the appeal of a sister and a daughter. I need the recommendation of my teacher, sir,” I said firmly. I turned the sword at the hilt, offering it up to him. “Please,” I said, bowing.


He paused. Then he sighed, reaching for the hilt warily. “As you command, your Highness,” he spoke formally, bowing back deeply. He stood upright and walked backwards from me, then turned and disappeared into the depths of the cave.


I stood still in the middle of the sparring arena, surrounded by the dirty, sweaty army. Then I turned and walked out of the cavern, into the blazing sunlight of the desert, feeling deflated despite the day's victory.


I undid the covering over my head, allowing the slight breeze to cool me down, and took a sip of water from my skin.


Suddenly, I spotted a small cloud of dust in the distance. I squinted. Two horses I counted, pulling a closed chariot, flying the flag of my family’s emblem. I sighed and mounted my horse. No doubt this caravan was here for me.


I rode fast towards the messengers, who stopped upon seeing my approach. I paused in front of them, palace guards.


They bowed their heads and began speaking. “Your Royal Highness, King’s Daughter, Princess-”


“Oho! Oho! Is she out there?” a high-pitched squeal interrupted. “Oho Princess! Princess!”


My lady’s maid pushed her head out of the window of the chariot and wagged her finger at me earnestly. My mouth curved to smile automatically.


“Princess! Princess!” she called beckoning me urgently now. “You are not supposed to be here, no!”


I laughed and dismounted. Walking to one of the palace guards, I handed him the reins to my horse.


“And yet you are here, Merit!” I exclaimed running to her and grabbing her fingers. I kissed them and she pulled them away in disgust, clicking her tongue.


“Inside! Inside at once!” she squeaked crossly. I laughed, obeying her, pulling open the door and sliding into the cramped space.


Merit hit the roof of the chariot with her palms to signal to the guards, and the horses began moving.


“Don’t be angry my favourite one,” I said, pouting. “It was only a little training.”


“A little – oho!” Merit huffed. “You should not be training at all Princess! No no, you should be practising for the banquet.”


I scoffed. “The banquet is nothing to me.”


“For shame, for shame!” Merit cried, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping sweat from her face. “This is a very important night for the royal family – for your father, the King!” she squeaked pointing at me sharply.


I rolled my eyes, setting her off on a string of rebukes.


The chariot slowed as we neared the gates of the city, and slowly wheeled through the arches. I looked outside the window as we passed through the bazaar – full of shining wares, delicious spice, and crowds of my beloved people. We passed by a cook and the smell of smokey meat entered the chariot.


“Mmm, I’m famished,” I said flopping back against the velvet seat.


“What – where you even listening to me?” Merit demanded huffing.


“Yes, my sweet Merit of course I was,” I said leaning forward to take her hand. She drew them to her bosom tightly.


“No, no touching,” she said shaking her head firmly. “You stink of man sweat!”


“Man sweat?” I asked, bursting into laughter.


“It’s not funny Princess, it’s unbecoming!” she squeaked sternly. “You shall bathe in milk and lavender as soon as we get to the palace. Pray to the Gods that we do not encounter your brother or father.”


I stared at Merit in amusement but said nothing. She was right about me, I needed to get cleaned.


She was also right to be cautious: I had yet to tell either my father or brother that I had been training at the cavern all these months.


But it was time, I thought. War was coming and I was ready to fight.


***


“The King’s Daughter smells as fresh as the perfume of a flower and looks as clean as the linens in the King’s court,” Khaem said handing me a grape.


I grabbed it from him and popped it into my mouth hungrily.


“You’re welcome,” I said swallowing. He offered me the whole bunch and I took it readily, pulling at the green fruit and shoving the sweet globules into my mouth.


“Hard to believe then, that just a few hours ago, the Princess was seen in the training caverns sparring with the First Lieutenant.”


I stopped chewing and swallowed hard, choking and spluttering. Khaem sighed irritably and handed me a skin of water. I took a sip and swallowed.


“You- you know?” I said, wiping tears from my eyes and taking another sip.


He sighed again. “Did you think that this would go unnoticed, Kiya?” he asked seriously. “I knew about it after your first visit all those months ago.”


“But – But you didn’t say anything to me!” I said searching his face hopefully. “Did you tell father?”


“Of course not!” he said, eyes widening. “He would be furious, you know that.”


I stared back at my brother defiantly. “Maybe he wouldn’t be angry if he knew how well I fight now, Khaem.”


My brother scoffed at me and grabbed the skin of water from my hands.


“I’m serious!” I said loudly. Some heads around court turned their gazes at us, whispering. Khaem looked back at them smiling politely.


“Keep your voice down,” he said, his expression fixed.


“Khaem if you knew about me training, then you must know of my skill,” I said, attempting to speak quietly. “I’ve been training everyday for almost a year. Even the First Lieutenant thinks I’ve improved-”


“I know. He told me so,” Khaem interrupted, passing his hand over his eyes wearily.


I grabbed his fingers and held them in my hands.


“So – so you think I could fight? I could join you and father on the frontlines?” I said, my eyes lighting with excitement.


Khaem turned to me and smiled sadly. I knew that look. My face fell and I dropped his hands. He caressed my cheek.


“Kiya, sister,” he said kindly. “I believe you could fight. The First Lieutenant would have never dared approach me in such a way if he didn’t have faith in your abilities.”


I looked up at my brother, anger and sadness mixing behind my eyes, forming involuntary tears.


“But you know that father will never agree to it-”


“Even if you ask him, brother? Even If it comes from you?” I begged, tears falling now. I wiped them away impatiently.


“I fear that I am not as brave as the man who trained you. Even I do not dare make such a request of the King,” Khaem said quietly. He pulled my head to his chest and held me, allowing me time to collect myself.


I wiped my face on his shirt and pulled away, picking up the bunch of grapes and attacking them.


“I’ve – I’ve worked so hard Khaem,” I said looking down at the green pulp, speaking through gritted teeth. “All I want is to protect the kingdom, to fight in my family’s name, for my family’s people.”


“There are other ways for you to do that,” Khaem replied gently.


I laughed derisively. “By hiding under the city? With the woman and children?”


“They look to you for courage and guidance Kiya,” Khaem said patiently. “Riding into battle, wielding weapons, spilling blood. Those things are easy. But protecting the innocent and vulnerable, being a symbol for the people and leading by example, that is strength.”


“Don’t patronise me!” I said quietly, swallowing tears.


“I wouldn’t dare. I heard you drew blood today.”


I looked up at Khaem, he was grinning. I laughed in spite of myself. He leaned over and hugged me.


“I suppose I should go back to practising for the banquet then,” I sighed gloomily.


Khaem pushed me away from him and smirked. “Oho! What’s this hasty change of heart?”


“I don’t know what you mean,” I said untangling from his arms and looking away.


He laughed and shook his head. “I expect you will be back at the cavern tomorrow?”


“I will be practising for the banquet, as I am required to,” I replied in monotone.


Khaem laughed and pushed my arm playfully. “Save your theatre for Merit. She’s more willing to play the fool for you than I am.”


I laughed.


I rode to training as usual the next day, and for weeks afterwards.

Nobody came to collect me, not even Merit. I had a suspicion that

Khaem had a hand in that. I didn’t complain, it gave me hope.


My swordsmanship was improving and fighting had made me stronger. It had given me purpose, an occupation that made me feel worthy and useful.


I spent the mornings in training and the afternoons practising the arts: dancing, singing and playing the harp. The people deserved a well-rounded princess.


We opened the city gates for the banquet, unlocked the palace doors. My father thought a celebration would lift the spirits of the people, and it did.


Until night fell.


Thousands of enemy soldiers exposed themselves amongst the crowd of revellers. Fine clothes were torn off to reveal battle armour beneath, concealed weapons were unsheathed and utilised swiftly. Blades flew threw the air, spilling blood and turning the celebration into hysteria.


I stood on the balcony looking down at the chaos, suddenly shocked into paralysis. I looked behind me and saw fighting in the King’s Court, my father shouting a war cry, his swords held high.


“Princess!”


My limbs felt cold, as women screamed and ran in every direction, taking the nearest means of escape. I saw Merit’s face, white with terror, rushing towards me in the throng.


“Princess!” she cried slamming into me with the weight of her full body, waking me from my daze. “Princess! Oh! We have to get beneath the city! We must go now!” she cried grabbing my arms and turning to run.


“What- wait,” I said trying to stop her. “Khaem and father-”


“They will take care of our enemies!” Merit screamed as the body of a soldier fell in her path, bloodied and dead.


I stared at the face of the man, eyes open to the sky. Merit was pulling me away, dragging me back inside the palace.


“Kiya!”


I spun around, Khaem was running towards us.


“Oho my Prince!” Merit cried in fear. Khaem ignored her and grabbed me by the shoulders.


“You have to follow the women and children to the caves beneath the city,” he said urgently, pushing me towards the staircase. His blade had a crimson sheen, his face was sweaty and bruised already.


“Khaem, I- I’m afraid,” I cried, the words escaping my lips unexpectedly.


“You’d be a fool if you weren’t!” Khaem replied strongly, he glanced back anxiously, looking at our father. “Listen to me Kiya, you have to do what I said.” From his back he unsheathed his long blade and handed me the hilt.


I hesitated. Then took it from him and looked into his eyes and nodded. “For your Kingdom, for your people,” he nodded back, and shoved Merit and I down the stairs.


I ran then, dragging a hysterical Merit behind me. Outside, a few enemy soldiers came running towards us. I pushed Merit from me and raised the Prince’s sword, stepping and slashing as I had that very morning in the training cavern.


Two soldiers fell at my feet bleeding, but one dodged and slid his blade across my arm. I cried out in pain and anger, shouting a war cry and turning my sword to attack. He pulled back in surprise and I struck him before he could recover.


“Your Highness!”


I put my blade through all three soldiers to finish my work and ran to Merit who was screaming – in terror of the soldiers or of me I could not tell.


“Your Highness!” the First Lieutenant came running towards me breathlessly. He glanced at the dead soldiers, then back at me and bowed.


“We have begun moving the women and children into the caverns,” he said quickly. “Some of the other lieutenants and I sealed off the entrances, only one remains open. We need you and the rest of the subjects to make their way down.”


“Understood,” I said nodding firmly. “Lead us, Lieutenant.”


He bowed and we began running towards the last entrance of the underground caverns. Soldiers came for us left and right, and we fought them off. When we reached the entrance to the tunnel, a small stream of women and children were trickling through.


I turned to Merit. “Inside, now!” I commanded. She whimpered and nodded, running to obey.


“These are the last of them, or the last we could round up,” a palace guard said bowing.


I nodded and turned to the First Lieutenant. “I suppose there’s no chance of me staying above ground to help you fight?”


He smiled sadly and shook his head. Then he took my hand, lowered his head and kissed it.


“It has been an honour training you, Princess,” he said. I clasped his hand in mine for a minute. And then he straightened, nodded to the palace guard and both set off running towards the fray.


My eyes glistened as I turned and ran towards the tunnel, I nodded absently to a guard as I flew in and heard the stone door shut behind me. I ran down the stairs and walked through the cavern, sand raining down intermittently as war thundered above me.


When I reached the open plateau, a hundred or more faces turned towards me.


“Oh King’s Daughter!” an old woman cried bowing. “What is to become of us?”


I looked over at their faces: children and women looking up at me, pained yet hopeful. I remembered what Khaem said to me.


“Whatever happens,” I cried back gripping my blade tightly. “I will protect you, my people!”


I raised my sword into the air. “For my Kingdom, for my people!” I shouted.


“For our Kingdom, for our people!” The crowd chanted back in unison. The chant echoed through the cavern, the strength of our voices soaring high over the battle above.  


June 03, 2020 15:15

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