She flinched as her sword rang against his. Her teeth were clenched, and her knuckles white. She saw his muscles shaking beneath his sleeves and could tell he was getting tired. Her endurance and speed would be her saving grace. She disregarded everything but his face while they fought.
She swung around, spinning his blade with her own and throwing him off balance. Her arms burned with the strain. He stumbled slightly, but regained his footing quickly. They exchanged blow after blow. Beads of sweat flipped from her face despite the chill morning, as she ducked quickly away from his slash. Suddenly, he kicked the loose ground and dust flew into the air.
She coughed as he spun away. Shaking her head through the gritty cloud, she looked up just in time to block his next attack. Her eyes burned, and her mind flared at his cheating. That was not proper dueling etiquette. She went at him with a flurry of blows.
“That’s not allowed!”
“Oh come on, I’m just using my – AAH!”
She landed a strike on his shoulder, and he flew backward over a hay bale into the horse’s water trough.
Kolina lowered her blunt sword, breathing hard. She wiped a few strands of wispy brown hair from her face and surveyed her younger brother as he tried to extricate himself from the trough. He was soaked.
“Why’d you do that?”
“Why’d you throw dirt in my face?”
“You were beating me!”
“Ugh, now I smell like horse… stuff...”
She scoffed. He glared. She spat at the dust in her mouth, hearing laughter from the barn rafters above.
She looked up. Her best friend Gunnar smiled before moving to jump down to the dirt floor. He landed softly, making his blonde curls bounce. She smiled at the effect.
“You both know we have sparring practice later too, right? You don’t have to kill each other yet.”
She sighed. “Yes, but he’s my brother. I attempt to kill him whenever possible.”
As she said this, Dax stumbled out of the trough, falling face first onto the hay strewn floor. Kolina rolled her eyes.
Gunnar laughed. “Well just make sure you don’t actually kill him. He’s the only one as good as I am that’s not better than me.” He gave Kolina a look, and she grinned. He was stronger, but she was faster. She could beat him every time, and they both knew it. Gunnar rested his elbow on top of her head.
“Stop that,” she said, pushing his arm away.
“Sorry, you’re the perfect height,” he laughed.
“Are you ready for a go, Gunnar?” Dax said as he joined them.
“Nope. Sun’s up and we’ve got to get to breakfast then archery and, as soon as the ground warms up, out to the fields.” Gunnar said, frowning.
“He’s right. Put these away, will you?” Kolina said, handing her sword to Dax.
He took it, and Gunnar’s and took them to the armory; a single horse stall dedicated to housing all the practice equipment for everyone on the farm.
“Ugh, I need a drink now,” Kolina complained, running the back of her hand over her grit-filled mouth.
The three of them left the barn just as the sun crested a hill to the east. The distant forest trees filtered the light, throwing shadows over the farmstead. The late winter air was crisp and refreshing after the strain of the duel. Kolina could see movement through a number of windows, indicating that the rest of the farm was waking up. She and the boys made their way back to the lodge building to clean up a bit before breakfast.
“I’m going to go wash this dirt off,” Kolina said, throwing Dax a dirty look.
He shrugged. “I suppose I should join you. We’ll see you in the meal hall, Gunnar.”
Gunnar waved to them, as they made their way to the water pump. Kolina let Dax pump while she ran her hands under the pulsing stream and tossed the icy liquid into her face. A towel hung nearby, that she took up to dry. People passed them on the way into the meal hall. More than once, Kolina saw someone shake their heads at her or roll their eyes, or otherwise show disapproval.
One of the older women, the mother of Dax’s friend, paused in her progress and said, “Good morning Dax, how are you today?”
Dax nodded, “Fine, thanks. And you?”
“Oh alright.” She gave Kolina a look that plainly said, don’t speak to me, as she looked between them. Then she said, “See you at breakfast.”
“Yeah, see you,” Dax forced a smile.
They stood in silence, waiting for her to get out of earshot, before Kolina let out a moan of frustration.
“Just ignore it,” Dax said, shaking his head.
She threw the towel she was holding at his chest. “I do, Dax. Every day I ignore it. Except that they don’t really do much for me to ignore do they? They don’t speak to me, they don’t look at me – unless it’s to scowl, of course – and they certainly don’t yell at me. I’d almost rather duel someone over it and be done than have to wonder if today’s the day they’ll come ‘round.”
“I know, Koli.”
She sighed. “Sometimes I wonder if Gunner would still be acting like them if his mum hadn’t told him off.”
“Koli, come on,” Dax groaned. “Gunnar is your friend. He thought it was silly so he laughed! I can’t believe you’re still going on about it. It’s been nearly eight years since Sage died. You two were so close…”
“She was my big sister, of course we were close!” She flinched at the mention of the memories. “But I know what you mean. People wondered if it was our play-acting like royalty that brought her sickness on. Some kind of God-given-curse or something. Mum says when I kept doing it they got scared again.” Which was why I started weapons training when the rest of the girls turned it down. She looked away, her hands twisting in front of her.
Dax nodded. “Exactly. So they don’t like you. Do you… I mean, do you still think about…”
She looked up. “About my dreams?”
“How can I not?” she asked, throwing her hands out. “They come every night whether I will it or not.”
He flinched. “Still the same?”
“Every time.” She stared at him. It was obvious he thought there must be something she could do, but he didn’t voice it. “I’m going to change. I’ll see you at breakfast.”
She turned away and went into the lodge building. The walls were old and tattered wood, reinforced by newer planks in some places. The floor squeaked as she made her way down the narrow hall.
A muted groan made her stop outside one door. She smiled and moved quietly to open the door.
Grampa Ton, her father’s father, lay on his bed sideways, his feet dangling off the edge. He was the only family member as short as she was, so his toes didn’t even reach the floor. As she entered, she smelled something off. A tray of food from the previous night sat on the nightstand, half eaten, half played with. Whoever had brought it must have forgotten to take it back to the kitchens. She opened the window to vent the smell, then went to move Grampa Ton back onto the mattress.
He barely twitched while she worked. He was always tired lately. As she tucked the thick blankets up around his chin, she recalled only a few months ago when he’d given her new throwing knives, and even practiced with her. He used to be so alive. Now, he was a shell of his former self. She looked at his lined face and tried to imagine him as a young man, what he might have been like…
She closed the window, and picked up the tray of old food, closing the door behind her.
She went to her room and set down the tray so she could change. She preferred to wear her trousers, chemise, and corset all day, but people were even more hostile to her if she did. Instead, she changed into a sturdy wool dress during the morning and midday meals and while she did chores. Then, when she went to train, she would change back.
Once dressed, she slipped her soft boots back on. While tying one, she noticed the hilt of a throwing knife protruding from under her bed. She pulled it out and examined it. They were beautiful – silver handles, with a single black stone at the base of the handle. Small, nothing fancy, but still elegant. She loved them. Normally she left them in her room, but now she smiled to herself and strapped them onto her ankles.
She took the tray to the kitchens, and made her way to the meal hall. She must have taken quite some time, because everyone was already seated, just murmuring quietly to one another. The cool late winter air blew past her as she entered. From round disks hanging above, fires flickered. As she sat at the head table, her mother stood across from her.
“Good morning everyone,” her mother said. “Ian is in town today, so I’ll offer our word of thanks.” He paused as everyone grew quiet. “Dear Gods, we thank thee for the bounty with which thou hast blessed us. We pray we might know thy will and do it. Amen.”
“Amen,” rang throughout the room.
Plates and bowls began to clatter, taking up the space left by the prayer. Kolina reached for a slice of toast and took a large bite. “Mum, instead of archery today could I practice with the knives Grampa gave me?”
Her mother looked up from her plate. “How are you doing in archery?”
“Terrible,” Dax said.
“Hey!” Kolina shouted
“What? It’s true.”
“Is it?” their mother asked.
Kolina rolled her eyes. “Yes. But only because I don’t like it. For some reason, the fact that I’m not actually holding the arrow makes a difference for me. Feeling the knife in my hand… it gives me more control.”
Her mother thought about it. “Well… alright. But I want you to promise me you’ll do double archery time tomorrow.”
“What?” Kolina asked. “Why? I can get a target with a knife just as easily as –”
“No, you can’t,” she cut her off. “Arrows can travel much farther than throwing knives, Kolina. It’s always to your advantage to be able to kill an enemy from a distance.”
Kolina slumped. “Alright. I’ll do double tomorrow.”
“What’s Father in town for?”
Mother shook her head a little. “There were some supplies the kitchen is running low on, sugar, spices, that sort of thing. And we’ve also been hearing rumors that he wanted to check on.”
Dax perked up. “What kind of rumors?”
“The kind you needn’t concern yourselves with,” Mother said sternly. I’m sure it’s nothing dears, now eat up.”
“But…” Kolina started. “If you’re sure it’s nothing then it couldn’t hurt to tell us, could it?”
“Kolina, I’m not planning on telling you, and I don’t want you asking me again. Is that clear?”
Kolina went back to her toast.
Across the room, she saw Gunnar stand from his table. He smiled in her direction before kissing his mother on the cheek and leaving the room.
Kolina hurried to finish her food then said, “Mum, I think I’ve had my fill. May I be excused?”
She stood and smiled at Dax, who wiggled his eyebrows at her. She gave him a playful shove on her way past.
Outside, the wind bit into her. She wrapped her arms around her chest and ran toward the barren orchard. The ground was hard as she ran, the tree branches looked like cracks in the sky above her. She slowed to catch her breath when she saw Gunnar sitting on the ground beneath one of the trees. He had his guitar leaning against the tree trunk beside him.
Kolina stopped and began to creep slowly around behind him. Stepping carefully to avoid making any noise, she came closer. When she was about to let loose a punch to his shoulder, he spun around and tackled her at the waist, lifting her into the air.
She laughed and shouted, “Put me down!”
“No! It’s what you get for trying to sneak up on me.” He held on to her and spun around giving her a pleasant knot in her stomach. When he set her on her feet, she teetered for a bit. He said, “Woah, here,” and offered her his arms to lean on. For a moment she stood still, waiting for her balance to return. When it did, she looked up at him, ready to laugh it off, but saw him gazing at her with something else in his eyes.
She quickly let go and dusted off her skirt. “Thank you,” she said, smiling. Why did he have to do this? Weren’t they a good match as friends?
As though he could read her mind, his silly nature came back in an instant. “You’re welcome. And don’t make me do it again,” he said, pointing a finger in her face.
He resumed his seat by the tree, and she plopped down next to him, everything back to normal, thank goodness.
“Anything new?” she asked, nodding to his guitar.
Gunnar shrugged. “Just a little thing I did on my birthday last week.” He played out a quick little melody.
“I like it,” she said. “It reminds me of the songs we’d sing around the bonfires as kids.”
“Good. That’s what I was going for.”
“Not really,” he looked disappointed. “Haven’t had time. It’s nearly planting season, so I need to be in the fields as often as possible to help with plowing.”
She nodded in understanding. “And after the planting you’ll be tending, and after tending you’ll be harvesting,”
“And after harvesting I’ll have plenty of time to make new songs.” He strummed out a chord for emphasis, and Kolina laughed.
“Any requests?” he asked.
She made a show of thinking, putting her finger to her mouth as though in deep concentration. “Play that one that’s kind of slow.”
She’d asked for this one before. He smiled. “Is that really your favorite?”
She stiffened. Gunnar was rarely this inquisitive. Usually he could tell what she was thinking almost exactly. It bothered her to hear him being so curious. “I… I can’t say.”
He scoffed, “Yes you –”
“NO, I can’t.”
Gunnar paused watching her closely. She looked away, if he really didn’t know, then she wasn’t about to tell him.
“Koli, you know you can tell me anything.”
“You’d laugh at me.”
“I would never…”
She shot him a look that plainly said, don’t you dare. He’d laughed at her before and she wasn’t about to be laughed at again… not by him.
He sighed. “I made that mistake once. It won’t happen again.”
Kolina’s face fell. Yes, he could still read her like a book.
“I’m your friend, Koli,” he said. “Haven’t I proven that? Why do you still hold it against me? You know I’m sorry, so why won’t you forget about it?”
She shook her head, staring at the ground. “You don’t know how much it hurt.”
“You’re right.” He set his guitar aside, giving her his full attention. “And I won’t know unless you tell me.”
She swallowed, and bit her lip. Gunnar was her best friend since Sage died. One time, years ago, he’d laughed at her for wanting to live in a palace someday. Like she didn’t deserve it. Afterward, Kolina refused to talk about the detail of her dreams to anyone. Although, no one had ever asked… not like Gunnar was now.
She took a deep breath and braced herself. “Gunnar, she was my sister, my best friend. When we were together anything was possible. I truly believed that. When she died… I don’t know, I hoped that maybe you’d be able to fill the gap she left behind. So when you laughed it just seemed to open the gap wider.”
“Kolina, I am so sorry. I didn’t know.” He never called her Kolina unless he was being serious.
She sniffed. “It’s not your fault.”
“Still. There’s not a day goes by I don’t wish I could take it back.”
She looked up at him. “Really?”
“Of course!” he said, almost in disbelief. “You are my best friend. Why would I ever want to hurt you like that?”
She forced a smile. “I understand. It’s alright. Will you play that song?”
“Yes,” he said, taking up his guitar again. “I still want to know why you like it so much, but you can tell me when you’re ready.”
Kolina sighed and closed her eyes as he strummed out a chord progression and hummed the wordless melody. She could feel him watching her, but chose to ignore it.
When he finished they sat in silence for a time. Then Kolina said, “Do you really want to know?”
He looked directly at her and said, “You know I do.”
She bit her lip, bracing herself to be truly honest with him. “It reminds me of a dream.”
A crease appeared between his brows. “A daydream, or a dream-dream?”
She gave an awkward laugh at his query. “A dream-dream. The same dream I always have.”
His look became even more confused. “What do you mean?”
She took a deep breath and dove in. “The things Sage and I wished for, we always talked about them as though they were things we’d made up during playtime. Things we thought on our own. But the truth is…” She paused, afraid again.
“The truth is, we didn’t think of them on our own. At least I didn’t. For as long as I can remember I’ve had a dream – always the same thing – every night. It’s a castle. Sometimes I see different parts of it, but I can tell they all belong to one place. The decorations have the same look in every room, and the colors are always similar –”
“Describe it to me.”
She looked up, defensive. “Gunnar, stop trying to make up for something.”
He blanched at her accusation. “Make up for… Koli, I really want to know.”
She could hardly believe what he was saying. It threw her off guard.
“Al - alright. The room I see most often,” she closed her eyes, trying to bring the image up in her memory. “It’s large. The ceiling is so high I think we could fit the lodging house inside. On the walls, there are tapestries… they’re color is so beautiful… deep blue, with black and white accents. And there is a blue carpet running down the length of the room, ending at a dais. On the dais are two thrones made of a white stone that I’ve never seen before, backed by more of the hangings. There are seats and tables all around, with plates and utensils made of silver I think. For some reason there are always people around, but I don’t recognize any of them.” She paused, and opened an eye to look at him.
He let out a breath. “And my song reminds you of that? My little song makes you think of all that beauty and grandeur?”
She stood. “I knew you wouldn’t understand.”
“No! No, stay!” he reached a hand out and took her arm to stop her. “That’s not what I meant. I mean… I just didn’t think I could make a song to inspire that kind of… richness.”
She shrugged and sat back down. “Well you did.”
Gunnar smiled rather sheepishly, and Kolina couldn’t help but return the look.
The sound of people shouting reached them. “We’d probably better be heading back,” she said.
“Yeah. Yeah you’re right.”
They stood and began walking toward the buildings, the sun now just above the trees.
“Koli, I have a question.”
“You said… back then… that you felt like you were meant for more than just a farm life.”
Kolina tensed at the mention of her past, but made herself keep walking. “Yes, I did.”
It sounded to her like Gunnar forced out the next words. “Do you still honestly feel that way?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “Yes, I do.”
Gunnar nodded, withering at the severity of her voice.