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Tasia could feel her whole body ache as she drank the water and looked to Brynden as he spoke. Her now short hair stuck to her forehead with sweat as she struggled to her feet. She followed Brynden, no energy to argue as he asked her what her story was.
[b “Right on the mark, sir.”] She said as she looked to him when he mentioned the Captain.
Tasia just wanted to fall into bed right that moment, at this rate she would have preferred the old masters.
[b “Excuse me-“] She wiggles slightly when he took off her armour and she sighed, huffing like a brat as she gave in. Brynden knew how to make this convincing and honestly, each piece of armour removed only unveiled more bruises on the part of her skin that were uncovered. Once Brynden was finished, she adjusted the clothing, a stark bruise forming on her cheek from a failed block earlier in the day. She supposed she had asked for the training though. She looked to him. She had taken armour off of men before, the same as she had removed dresses from women, it had been her job since she was twelve.
[b “You would do well to remember that I’m not a boy, no matter how much you want to pretend.”] Her voice was low, [b “I bruise and break easier.”] She said as she reached up to undo some of his armour, hissing in annoyance as her body screamed protest.
She was gentler than Brynden, mostly because anytime she had rushed at the house she had been punished. She knew Brynden was no Lord, and he was no King or man of high status but old habits died hard.
[b “What does the Captain want?”] She asked him and the tent opened and in stepped the captain himself. She rolled her eyes a little and set aside Brynden’s armour. She hated this, every inch of her ached like she had been trampled by a horse, she had lost all of her hair and given the clothing she was wearing, she really did look like a young boy.
[b “How long until I go home?”] She asked the Captain and glanced to Brynden.
[b “Not that Brynden hasn’t been…. Accommodating.”] She chose her words carefully because no matter what she felt right then, she knew it was down to pain and exhaustion. She had to keep telling herself that everything he was going was for her benefit. If she was left alone then she surely would have been taken advantage of, or beaten to death. She didn’t expect any luxuries here but a little compassion wouldn’t have gone amiss. So far Brynden has been hard and cold, a horrible mixture for a a young woman who’s entire life had been stolen away in and instant and now resided with men who terrified her.
When she had armed herself, he adopted a sideward stance. [b ''You must focus on avoiding the enemy. Staying a live is better than killing your foe only to be cut down.''] He stressed. And then, the battering began. Brynden delivered a veritable flurry of blows, the clangorous din of wood on wood indicating that she had succesfully blocked or parried him being rare. He peppered advice at her throughout the session, and kept up for a good while, only stopping when he was satisfied her arms, thighs and torso were bruised beyond recognition, and he could see the tears forming in her eyes.
He finally let up, panting, his hair clinging tightly to his sweaty forehead. He wiped his brow with the back of his glove. [b ''Next time, don't clench your jaw so hard, Tobias. You're wont to shatter your own teeth that way.''] When her retort came, the question asked [i ad hominem], he could not help but smile at her. [b ''A good question, and it seems you know mercenaries well enough. Me, I'm all three. A bastard-born son of a minor lord who killed his dog of a father and fled his home.''] He spake convincingly, and every bit of his mimicry would reinforce the lie. He had little use sharing with her his past, for now, and would only do so should it benefit him. A young page-boy came running, handing them both waterskins, and Brynden drank greedily. He gestured for her to follow him.
He made for his tent, chatting all the while. [b ''And you? The [i son] of a nobleman who did not wish to bear his offspring's presence, so he shipped you off? But still, an heir is a valuable thing in times as tumultuous as these, so he'd pay dearly , of course, to keep his darling boy - and more importantly, his legacy - secure. How far off the mark am I, Tobias?''] He opened the flap of his tent and spurred her in with the flat of his wooden sword. Inside was Captain Evin, sat carelessly on Brynden's bed. He studied Tasia, long and hard, his thin lips drawn into a wry stripe. [b ''The Captain has decided to grace us with his presence to answer your questions. I'd ask away if I were you.''] With that, Tasia found Brynden would soon rid her of her wooden sword and stow it away, before he'd begin to remove what pieces of armour she might have worn, as men do to one another after combat.
Tasia watched Brynden. Usually she was quick to judge a character, quick to work out their intentions and their wants but she was struggling with him. He killed for money, unsurprising in these times but it did shake her faith in him slightly. She was sure many people wanted the escaped handmaiden slaughtered before she could drip feed secrets, and if the price was right, she knew her head would be removed from her before she could object. At least she was going to learn to defend herself with his help. She sighed out when he mentioned masquerading as his squire.
[b “Very well.”] She said, surgeons and such seemed a little intense but she would do as she was instructed.
[b “I am nothing if not a servant.”] That remark was more cutting than she intended as she got to her feet and paused for a second to ponder a name.
[b “Tobias.”] She said before dismissively saving a hand and daring to venture sleep. It didn’t come easy, tossing and turning much of the night as she struggled to come to terms with everything. As much as she did not like serving others, she knew it was her only way to survive.
At break of dawn, she was up and changed, briefly forgetting her hair had been raggedly cut off. She stepped out the tent, looking to the green to see Brynden. She sighed and approached him, having to force herself not to curtsy to him out of habit.
The weight of the sword took her by surprise as she swayed slightly with the weight of it. She had no doubts Brynden wasn’t going to go easy on her, after all they had to put up the illusion she was a humble squire. At least she would have a story to tell if she ever made it home. She set her pale eyes to Brynden’s.
[b “Forgive me, [i my lord], I am not well versed with conflict.”] Perhaps she meant to remind him and although she was polite, she was still frustrated. The sword seemed too heavy, even if it was a practice one but she found her hands. She had seen how some guards of the House had carried them and she attempted to clumsily mimic them, pointing the blade at Brynden. It was evident she had never practiced. As a child she had only ever been allowed to do archery under her father’s watchful gaze, nothing else. And even then she wasn’t sure she could remember much about her lessons as a child.
Then again, what would happen if she just left? She pondered in a flash, probably be hunted down and outridden before the night was out because even horse riding was foreign to her these days. She snapped out of it.
[b “Why a mercenary?”] She asked, wanting to pull some information as she kept a close eye on his lessons.
[b “Mercenaries are runaways, bastards or criminals, usually. So which are you?”] Tasia was perhaps trying to look bold, unafraid as she shifted her feet to move around him. She wouldn’t win a fight with him, he would easily best her but if she could at least act confident and remind him that she was not just a servant anymore. Her chains had been broken long ago.
He wasn't a particularly skilled barber, but then again, the ragged, wild haircut would fit right in with the unkempt, dirty men who paid little attention to their personal state and hygiene. He was silent throughout his butcher's work, after which she finally found her tongue. [b ''Tasia. You're welcome. You may call me Brynden.''] After having handed her her meal, he sat on one of the few stools in his tent and drew his blade and a wetstone, setting about the mind-numbing yet strangely therapeutical process of sharpening it meticulously. It was an elegant blade, a slender one, which did not look out of place amongst his possessions. She could see the armour on the rack behind him, light mail and plate, all beautifully engraved and adorned, with crimson tassels embroidered with silver silk attached underneath the rondels. It was crowned by an armet helmet, plumed with a great bush of red and white feathers, a suitable display of splendor for a man such as himself.
He looked up, his dark, smooth voice barely overpowering the rasp of wetstone on steel, replying to her in a clear bass. [b ''I do not know how much your life is worth to my Captain, Tasia, nor do I or any of my brothers in arms know of what schemes took place in dark halls or narrow hallways. We are not here for politics - we are here to kill, and to make money.''] He explained, managing to deliver his blunt statement quite carefully. They locked eyes, and her brow raised. Brynden answered with a false smile so convincing that she'd be hard-pressed to believe him not to be a schemer, of sorts. Through his body language, he made it abundantly clear that he did enjoy her conversation at least to some degree. [b ''You wish to work? Good. You cannot and shall not be a leech on the company without providing - be it through helping out the surgeons, who do the bloodiest of jobs, or through digging latrines so the men can spew their bowels out after drinking bad water. Work, you shall. Defending yourself is another matter entirely, you'll likely remain in camp with the other camp followers if a battle is to take place, with a small rear guard. If you insist on learning how to wield a weapon, however, fetch a spear and a sword from the quartermaster tomorrow. The former is a simple weapon which requires little practice, but if you wish to learn how to use a blade, I'll have to teach you, and teach you myself I shall. You will masquerade as my squire. What is your name, [i man?]''] He asked, deliberately and thoughtfully stressing his words to make it very clear to her what he'd implied.
It wasn't long after that he had sent her back to her tent with little words, the one beside his, that he might intervene in the night if someone were to sneak in. A quiet night followed, and at dawn, Brynden stood waiting on the green in the middle of the camp, where a makeshift fighting ring had been set up, large enough to allow grown men to bludgeon eachother with practice weapons. When she came to him, at last, he handed her her practice sword - a wooden blade, of similar shape and weight as a real one. [b ''Let us commence.'']
Of course she was frightened, even if the treatment in her previous employment had been poor, she had been shielded from the men and it had offered some form of protection. She was silent as she watched Brynden, he seemed to be the one in charge of this whole thing and she watched him go through the pavilion and listened to his words. When he returned, she was alarmed somewhat by the skinning knife, even more so when he took her hair and bunched it. Tasia was not a woman who would weep over the loss of her hair but it still hurt more than she cared to admit as her light hair was cut and ragged. She wanted to protest but her voice had fled her beneath the grey eyes of the man. She figured she would do as she was told here, the same as she had done in the house, she swapped one master for another; at least that's how she felt right then. She had seen the carnage of wars, albeit from a safe spot within the house, but her father had warned this time the house would be laid siege to and she would not be spared, regardless of her having no involvement. For a second, the woman seemed lost, well, she was lost. She was very far from home and any pleasant company and friendly faces. Her father likely wouldn’t recognise her, she’d been taken as a child to the service of the her former masters, barely twelve. She was fully grown now.
When Brynden finished, she ran a hand through what was left and drew in a shaky breath. The food and drink was welcome for now at least, her gaze flickering to Brynden. Hair would grow back in time, no use getting upset about it, despite the fact she look remarkably different without her long locks hanging down her back.
[b “Thank you.”] She finally spoke, finding her voice and inspecting the man before her. His sharp features reminded her of a stag, as did his attitude. Fierce, proud and with some mystery. Tasia had no experience with men, as much as she wanted to point out she could defend herself, she knew that would be a lie. The most she knew was how to serve others and treat some injuries, it was unsurprising she was scared of what could await her. These were men, hot blooded and ferocious. These were not noblemen or gentlemen, then again, she had seen even the richest of men act like a gutter rat.
[b “Tasia.”] It felt better introducing herself properly than Brynden simply knowing about her from her father.
[b “How much is my father paying you, for my safe return?”] She asked. Evidently she was smart enough to know that everything came with a price these days, nothing was free. She had seen schemes, coin passing hands and plots being put into motion. She was not stupid or foolish to think Brynden was doing this out of the kindness of his heart. Pale eyes surveyed the area, she didn’t particularly want to be here, she could have used the stallion to ride for as long as she needed. She supposed her father was a wealthy man.
[b “I’m not sure what my father told you, I’m under no illusions that my masters were kind people. And I’m sure you know most of the schemes that went on in that house. There are things even my father doesn’t know.”] She muttered before taking a drink. Handmaidens saw everything, they heard every conversation and felt every tension. Pale eyes met with Brynden’s grey ones and she raised an eyebrow, she was well spoken, her time as a handmaiden had educated her on how to speak.
[b “If I am to travel with you, I don’t doubt there will be dangers. I’ve heard the stories, creatures and men with dangerous intent, will you teach me to at least defend myself? I have spent too long relying on others for protection.”] She pointed out and set her cup aside. Water was fine for her, she never drank alcohol, she’d served it most of her life. She supposed she didn’t look particularly pretty anymore, her hair short and cropped around her face, eyes tired and waning, her clothing was dirtied. Her father had been clever enough to tell her to not wear her dresses, so she hadn’t. A loose off colour shirt and riding trousers had done the trick with boots.
[center [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBF-3DgciSc ♫]]
He passed through the aftermath of the day's carnage, his dark leather jackboots oft failing to find purchase on the ground, muddied by sweat and blood. The sword in his right hand was still awash with crimson ichor, his hair stuck to his forehead, and his eyes stung by salt. He passed men here and there; surviving comrades, who he'd give a nod or a pat, or even a debonair greeting, whereas fallen foemen unlucky enough to have survived their grievous wounds were granted mercy in the form of castle-forged steel. His captain had brought him to these lands with a purpose: they were to let their purses grow fat by fighting another man's fight, and if they had to turn their cloaks to do so, then so be it.
That had been what happened. Brynden had no clue for what young lordling they had marched out, but when they found their company and their noble contractor's forces vastly outnumbered, they were quick to turn on him. They wreaked havoc in the young man's rear lines when the charge came, decisively finishing the fight. Those who could, ran, and those who could not would soon have no need to worry about their continuing survival.
That evening, after all wounds had been washed and men were busy sharpening swords and axes or otherwise repairing their kit, huddled around their cooking fires, Brynden was ordered into the Captain's tent.
Brynden entered, saturnine and august, relatively so to the company present in the tent. Eyes so grey they'd give the winter sky a run for its money flitted about the large pavilion, to find the Captain, Evin, in conversation with two of Brynden's fellow serjeants. He beckoned the tall, swarthy man over with a wave of his hand and explained his conundrum, as a page boy handed Brynden a cup of wine with more resemblance to vinegar than anyone would like. [i ''Brynden, good of you to join us. Here, I've a letter from some man, Dregory, or the like. Matters little. He speaks of his daughter, see, some lass serving as a handmaiden in a castle, nearby. Luck would have it that we, brave dogs of war that we are, happened to clap that castle's owner in irons earlier this day. Our man Dregory claims he has sent word to his daughter to flee, and promises us a fat sack of coin to keep her safe. I want pickets in the forest in anticipation of her arrival, and I want you - Brynden - to lead a small party of scouts to intercept her, least some bored nobleman's servants stumble across her and decide to have some fun.'']
That had concluded the meeting. As Brynden and his fellows left the tent, they were given a final [i ''And no hair on her head is to be hurt!'']
Soon, accompanied by ten men, of which four skilled trackers and hunters, he was out in the dark woods. The sound of songs and laughter slowly faded behind him; he was wary of every sound and even the tiniest movements startled him. Had he been less arrogant, he'd admit his fear, having been raised on tales of deadly lindwurms and nasty goblins.
They had known she was there before she realised the inverse. Her horse came to a skittering, panicked halt as it nearly collided with Brynden's piebald mare. His men lit torches, casting long shadows on Brynden's face and a bright, orange glow on that of the lady. To his disappointment, he saw what he considered little more than a frightened girl, unfamiliar with the world and with life. He stared her down as he reached over, his hands ushering her stallion's reigns out of her hands. [b ''Miss Dregory?''] He asked, needlessly, in the common tongue. Without speaking, he guided her towards the camp, where at one point he barked an order to his own men in his foreign tongue, an elegant language. He seemed impatient, at the least, as he helped her out of his saddle and brought her into a pavilion.
[b ''You are in a camp full of men - Tasia, was it? - who haven't felt the touch of a woman in months. Men, who with curved dirks, are not afraid to slit throats, cut purses, and more crucially, take what they want. We are to keep you safe, however, and see you reunited with your father. To that end -''] He spoke as he busied himself throughout the pavilion. When he returned to her, he had rid himself of his great, leather coat. He was a sight to behold, hair loosely bound back, sharp features accentuated by firelight. He clearly had an expensive taste, betrayed by the telltale cloth-of-gold embroidery on his short-sleeved, navy blue tunic. He wore a golden torc around both of his forearms, and an engraved silver ring on his right hand - which she could now see was holding a skinning knife. [b ''I have to ask you to be still. Weep not for dignity lost, for this is far better than the alternative that would otherwise inevitably await you.''] Pulling her hair taut, careful not to hurt her, with his left hand, he'd set about his work, determinedly trimming down her hair until it looked passable as that of a man, after which he finally offered her food and drink.
A most hospitable man, to be sure.
A letter had been such a rare thing for the female to receive. No less from her father. At fourteen she had been sent to serve one of the greatest and most powerful families the lands had ever seen. It was beyond all comprehension but she was all well treated, for the most part. As long as she was quiet and obliged her mistresses whims.
Tasks was older now. Twenty eight, had spent most of her life in seclusion serving whatever command was ushered to her. The young and clumsy girl she had once been had been put aside some time ago. She had long hair that was usually tied up and had become fairer and more mature in her features. Her pale eyes were a direct match to her father’s pale ones.
The letter had gone unread for most of the hot day and it was only when she had retired for the evening, did her nimble fingers finally manage to undo the sealed envelope. There was talk of a war but the walls were thick here and she had been kept mostly in the dark. The contents of the letter were dark and disturbing. Her own family, her family name being pulled into the war and Tasia’s life was at risk if she stayed in plain sight.
Escaping such confines and deserting her duties was not something greatly admired by people. But if her life hung in such balance then she had no choice. She had no worldly possessions and she dressed as plainly as possible. A cloak wrapped thickly around her shoulders and a cream oversized dress. She did not want to draw any attention as she scraped her hair back from her face.
The letter had told of the thick forests a short ways from here, at least by horseback and that would mean stealing. Tasia has never been a bad soul, she had asked for very little in her short time but she knew her father would not be so light about death and her life hanging in the balance.
A black stallion, perhaps slightly older than others and one she was sure would not be so greatly missed was her chosen steed as she mounted and pulled herself up, the letter and some water was all that was tucked close to her person as she spurred the horse into action. Under cover of darkness she went mostly unnoticed as she swallowed her fear and her nerves.
After an hour, perhaps more, she reached the forests and dismounted, catching a glimpse of a distant fire burning. That must be the mercenaries her father was talking about, at least she hoped so or she would meet her end soon. She looked to the stallion who seemed wary of the forest at nighttime with its thick trees and Tasia drew her hood up. She was not a fighter, she had never learned in all her years how to wield a blade or fire a bow. It wasn’t something she was accustom to.
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