A Choice

The sun rose without any sign of Klaus, and Kaia’s frustration wilted into fear in the afternoon heat. Her eyes strained for any sign of movement or inexplicable parting of the yellowed grass. Her skin itched for an invisible touch, the lightest brush of the unseen. But there was nothing.

By the time the sun reached its zenith, she had made her decision. She dozed through the late afternoon and took her dinner with Madoc and his men, but from there, she walked through the dusk straight to the armory. Swords, spears, bows, and daggers lined the wooden racks along the walls in the otherwise bare room. She selected a light sword with good balance and belted it around her waist to replace the one lost to the river.

“Going somewhere?” Madoc tipped up his wide-brimmed hat to look at her.

“I’m going to find Klaus.” With the reassuring weight of the sword settled on her hips, she turned to where he blocked the door.

Madoc crossed his arms with a smirk, silvery tattoos trailing up his corded muscles into his short sleeves. “Do ya really need me to tell ya that’s not a good idea?”

“Sometimes bad ideas are all we have left,” Kaia replied, straightening under his mocking gaze.

Madoc chuckled to himself. “I s’pose I see where Klaus has gotten his sudden brash streak, but still, I think he’d put steel to my throat if I let ya go into Rastgol territory.”

“I thought you liked getting under his skin?”

Madoc threw his head back with a laugh. “Well, I s’pose yer right about that. But, I’m losing my ace here. I really don’t see how I’m coming out of this on top.”

“We’re bringing back information on the Rastgol which will help your cause, and we might even torch their Lost army while we’re at it.” Kaia crossed her arms in a mocking imitation of him. “I’m really doing this for you, Madoc.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That’s if ya come back.”

“I’m the Dragon Heir.” Kaia let an orb of flame spin in her open palm. “We’re either coming back, or I’ll burn the whole place down trying.”

Madoc’s grin widened, his teeth starkly white beneath his dark beard. “I do like the sound of that. But I thought ya wouldn’t use your fire on the Rastgol.”

Kaia rested a hand on the hilt of her blade. “I know this may shock you, but I do know how to use this.”

“Is that so?” He ran a hand through his beard and cocked his head toward the courtyard. Out in the deepening dusk, Madoc pulled his saber from its sheath. The steel glinted in the light of the flickering torches that lined the stone walls. “I’ll tell ya what then, Dragon, ya best me in a duel, and I’ll let ya go on yer merry way.”

Kaia shrugged and drew her blade. “If you insist.” Madoc was a head taller and at least seven stone heavier than her. Judging from the way he had fought at the bridge, he obviously knew how to use his size to his advantage and preferred to be on the attack. “To first blood?”

“Or yield,” he offered.

Kaia smothered a smile. Once, being underestimated might’ve annoyed her, but now she saw it for exactly what it was. An advantage. She held up her blade. “Shall we begin then?”

“After you.”

Kaia closed the distance between them and let her short sword blaze to life.

Eyes widening, Madoc raised his saber to defend himself. “I thought ya didn’t use yer fire on people.”

Kaia smashed her blade against his again and again, the steel ringing out across the square. “Have I burned you yet?”

As an Heir, Kaia was twice as strong as a man, but it was easy to forget when she looked like a normal blusheep girl. She drove Madoc around the grassy arena mercilessly, the sweat beading on his temple as he strove to parry her blows.

In another swirl of fire, she set her empty hand ablaze with a twist of flickering light. Letting her sword extinguish, she thrust her burning hand toward his face and in a knee-jerk reaction, Madoc lifted his blade to parry it. Taking advantage of the opening, Kaia lifted her still steaming blade and nicked Madoc’s neck, just above the collar.

Not just first blood. First blood could have been taken from a finger or a knee. Both easier to reach than the soft, protected neck. This had been to prove something. She had more skills than just her fire. She didn’t need to burn someone alive to take their life. And she was not to be taken lightly.

Chest heaving, Madoc stumbled back on his heavy feet. He brought his fingers cautiously to his neck and observed the red drop of blood on them, gleaming in the light still flickering from Kaia’s palm. Then, he tossed his head back and roared with laughter.

His booming laugh cracked the quiet of the night air until tears ran down his cheeks, and Kaia couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, Dragon, I deserved that.” He sheathed his saber. “I s’pose Thane’s not the only Heir half decent with a blade.”

Kaia shrugged and sheathed her sword. “Someone’s got to keep him on his toes.”

“Right ya are.”

“And since I won, can I ask a favor?”

Madoc opened his arms wide. “What would that be?”

Kaia’s smile faded, and she nodded to where Gus waited patiently in the corner of the courtyard, his tail wagging as she looked at him. “Look after Gus while I’m away.” She kicked the dust with the toe of her boot. “He seems rather fond of you.”

“Ah.” Madoc straightened, his expression sobering. He whistled sharply, and Gus ran to his side as if he’d belonged to him all along. “I can do that.” He tousled Gus’ ears, and the ragehound’s furry tail wagged earnestly. “And I won’t stop you from going after Thane. But… have you considered what’ll happen if Okarria loses both Heirs? If you’re sworn to protect the land, can you take the risk?”

 “Even if we were to fall, more Heirs would rise in our places.” Kaia twirled the flame in her hands into a long stream, bending it into an infinite loop in her palm. “To go or not to go is just as risky. There is never a choice without sacrifice. Like your request from yesterday… sure, if I burn a man, I could save another. But what would happen to me? To my soul? Would I even be worthy of Odriel’s gift to use it for something so base?” She let the fire spin around her wrist, sending it along her shoulder and down her other arm. “And for Klaus… if I go, perhaps I will be dooming both of us, leaving Okarria in the hands of the Western Guard and its madcap Captain.” She flashed a grin at him, but it fell away under her heavy words. “But if I stay, then I’ll sacrifice the piece of myself that I love the most, and the one person that makes all of my sacrifices worth making.” She let her fire grow into a flower in her palm, its petals blossoming in the night. “So while I won’t burn a man, I will run into flames for the sake of this one.”

Madoc pulled his hat from his head and put it to his chest. “Hell.” For a moment, he looked at the dirt, as though gathering his words from the grass-littered dust. “I see I’ve underestimated ya in more ways than one.” He pointed his hat at her. “When I first heard the stories of you Heirs and what happened in the south, I have to say, I thought it was a sack of bosh. No two people could defeat an army. They’d have to be stupid to try. Although, I s’pose that made sense in Thane’s case.”

Kaia laughed and Madoc chuckled along with her before he stabbed his hat in her direction again. “But yer certainly blessed by Odriel, Guardian Dashul, and regardless of whether ya return, I’m glad to have met ya.” With that, he lowered his head in a short bow.

“And I, you, Madoc,” she said, bowing back. “But since I do plan on returning, I have one more favor to ask.”

He straightened and replaced his hat on his dark hair. “What else can I do for ya?”

She smiled. “When you see the flames, I’ll need your men ready to fight.”

“Oh yeah, and why’s that?” he asked, crossing his tattooed arms.

“Because two Heirs are all well and good, but I too prefer the strength of numbers.”

“A wise Dragon Heir.” Approval glinted in his navy eyes. “Klaus Thane is a lucky man.”

The smile fell from Kaia’s face. “Let’s hope so.”

Thanks so much for reading! New chapters posted Mondays and Thursdays! Also, if you’ve found a typo, please feel free to give a shout, and I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks again!