The time of luxury had passed quickly. Susurrus was still not used to freedom and had to be reminded numerous times that she was free to do nearly whatever she wanted. She was taken to Vantor to begin her training.
“Good morning, it’s good to see you shed the habit of sleeping in,” her new mentor said.
“It wasn’t easy.”
“I imagine not. But you won’t have that problem anymore now that you’re moved into the barracks.”
He showed her around while they talked.
“Today, you will start to learn hand-to-hand combat techniques. Before we begin, you should know that you will be the only female in the entire garrison. You will eat, train, bathe, and prepare for training with the men when not receiving special instruction by me and a few others. Your presence will cause a disturbance, I expect you to deal with it first; I will deal with lingering issues. What relationships you form are your own business, as long as your activities do not disrupt discipline, or interfere with your training. I recommend not forming any deep-seated feelings or long-term relationships, it will only compromise your duty.
“The only allowance made for your gender is giving you your own room away from the men. But you will be available for me to find at a moment’s notice.” She knew what that meant. “Having your own room will give you a bit of privacy on nightmare nights.” She reddened at the comment.
“Because of your unique position you will be given an extra stipend. Your allowances will include lastdays off, and you will be allowed a monthly visit to the Ithacarium, with massage privileges. I recommend you use it.” She planned to. “Any questions?” Susurrus shook her head. “Very well. When you have questions, ask. Assistants will help you prepare for training. See you in the training yard.”
When she met him in the training yard, he began, “What separates a soldier from a mercenary is honor and loyalty. What separates a Warrior from a soldier is philosophy. All are fighters, but each has a distinct focus and motivation. Along with weapons training, I will instruct you in Kundai, the Way of the Warrior. It’s more than just a way of fighting; it’s an approach to life. It is easy to say that a warrior must devote his heart to his cause, but very few can describe the fundamental meaning of the Way of the Warrior.”
“What is the fundamental meaning of the Kundai?”
“I will teach you how to find it, but you must discover that for yourself.”
“How many have you taught this Kundai?”
“Why have you selected me?”
“I believe you can benefit from the guidance it can provide. You also have certain traits that, when properly cultivated, will turn you into a great warrior. I could tell that from the way you fought your way free of the slave market.”
“You could tell that from just a few moments,” Susurrus said skeptically.
“Yes. You have to learn to assess your opponent quickly in combat. He will be doing the same. It can mean the difference between life and death. And given your task, it’s very important that assessing opponents is second nature. Some of the oldest tricks are to pretend to be other than you are, pretend to be compliant, and feigning injury. The faster you can assess an opponent or his agenda, the faster you can react, the better your chances of survival.”
“And what exactly is my task?”
“You’re being trained to be a bodyguard.”
Vantor moved with lightning reflexes and had Susurrus pinned to the ground with her arm behind her back and the flat of a dagger pressed to her neck. She was in too much shock to feel any pain.
“First, there is no more important duty than to protect a life that is entrusted to you. Second, and most important, you will be guarding my sister, if you fail, it better be because you are dead. Do not take this duty lightly.” He released her and pulled her up to her feet. “If you do not want the task, say so now, so that I will waste no more time. If you are not up to the task, then you waste my time and yours.”
Susurrus started rubbing her shoulder. “What if I don’t want it?”
“That’s up to the Maisxera. Whether you are made a common servant or put out, I don’t know. I will resume my search.”
“And if I fail?”
“I won’t let you.” He paused for a moment. “Do you want to be entrusted with my sister’s life?”
After she thought about it, she nodded.
“If you want it, then speak the words.”
“Yes, I want to be entrusted with your sister’s life.”
Vantor nodded. “That will do. Any questions?”
“Why did you attack me?”
“To instill in you the seriousness of your task. Until I feel you are ready, you will continue to train.”
She contemplated his words for a minute then nodded her head.
“Unless you have other questions, go and have the healers apply balm to your shoulder before we continue.”
That evening, assuming it was evening, which was hard to tell within the deepearth, she lay on her new bed within the garrison. She was sore beyond belief, but it felt good. The hard bed did nothing to relieve her pain and was worse than the one she enjoyed for the last, apparently, half month – she was going to have to get used to a longer year. She missed its soft comfort, but she was still better off than in Fabius’ kennel. She assumed it was intentional – Kundai, the Warrior’s Way. A constant supply of balm and healing prevented her from dying, she felt, but didn’t remove the soreness entirely. She let her mind drift to the day’s lessons in hand-to-hand combat – stances, thrusts, parries, and blocks. She spent a lot of time on the ground, but at least she was helped back up. She was taught the fundamentals of grappling and throws, and ways to quickly disable an opponent. They would go over them again in the morning and then move onto training with daggers.
She couldn’t help but think how she could have done things differently when she won her way to freedom in the one and only fight of her truncated life. Vantor questioned her distractedness and told her that they would reenact her escape so she could learn from it.
Not wanting to face the nightmares that instant, she dragged herself out of bed and headed for the baths. Once there, she immediately drew attention, but the lingering stares were the least of her concerns. She stripped down and piled her clothes on an empty bench and slipped into the nearby pool, letting her head lay back on the side.
The warm water opened her pores and soaked away the dirt and sweat. She drifted as the pain subsided a bit.
She came to when her head was seized and thrust in the water. One of the men forcibly grabbed her and was pushing his swollen member into her mouth. Another took her from behind. She complied, the habit of a lifetime guiding her reaction. Then anger filled her – she wasn’t a slave anymore!
She bit down hard. The reaction was instantaneous, he let go of her hair and tried to pummel her, but the water was making his attack ineffectual and muffled his scream of pain. She released him and came up for air. A fist driven into her assaulter’s throat cut off his screaming. She turned on the one behind her. Driving the heel of her palm into nose, his head snapped back and he collapsed into the water. Assessing her surroundings, she noted several other members of the House Guard had gathered around her.
“Come on,” she yelled, taking up a defensive stance. Surveying the situation, she expected another attack. The one nearest her held up his hands as he backed away. Looking at his comrade choking, he laughed and said something she didn’t understand.
When no attack was forthcoming, she relaxed her stance, but not her wariness. Other people, healers she noted, entered the room in a rush and dragged the two soldiers out of the reddening water. While they tended to the wounded, she got out of the pool.
“Stay,” said one of the soldiers in the trade tongue. “You are much easier on the eyes than any of these other oafs.”
“Not a chance.” She grabbed her stuff and left, leaving a wet trail in her wake. Surprised looks followed her dripping wet, naked passage on her way to her room.
Once she was prepared for her training the next day, Vantor began the lesson. “Let’s go over what you learned yesterday.”
“Hold on,” she insisted. “You don’t want to talk about yesterday?”
“I had not planned to, but obviously you do. Please, continue.”
“They attacked me, I was only defending myself.”
“I know. You put on quite a display.”
“And …?” She left the question hanging.
“You expect me to be angry that you almost killed two of my men? Sorry to disappoint you, but I am training you to kill. And I told you to handle it first. Had you not, had you let them all take advantage of you, I would have thrashed you for failure the instant they were through with you.
“As for your attackers, Halus and Tradorin will be disciplined. You sent a clear message to everyone not touch you again. Had you not, no amount of discipline on my part would alter their attitudes.
“Besides, they were healed, physically. Bruised pride, however, will take a while to recover. To be beaten by a woman is a lot more than most men can take. That’s another weapon to add to your arsenal.”
“Is that part of the Warrior’s Way?”
“Yes and no. You have to understand that nearly anything can be used as a weapon; some of the best are not armaments or even physical objects. An enemy’s pride, for instance, can be his greatest weakness. Exploit it and you can defeat him. Sex is another tool in your arsenal. You are intimately familiar with the ways of the flesh. Learn to exploit a man’s desires and you can control him. Also, being female means you will be underestimated to your advantage by most men. Be wary of the man that does not. Never rely on one weapon alone, always use multiple attacks. Just as I showed you yesterday, each thrust and parry is used to guide an enemy into exposing a vulnerability. If an attack doesn’t work, you better have another prepared or in play. Also, learn not to rely on these things. Putting total faith in one or two things will get you killed.
“Now, let’s continue your training.”
She regretted skipping the previous evening’s meal in anger.
That evening Susurrus walked to the bath. Upon entering she was greeted with silence. She proceeded to undress in a provocative manner, noting that all eyes were on her. As she slowly settled into the water, she could see several soldiers shifting uncomfortably. Once she settled in, laid her head back and closed her eyes. She listened intently for any movement in the water. After several minutes she said, “Are we going to have any problems this evening?”
“No,” someone responded
“Good.” She lay there for a while letting her muscles relax and the soreness soak away with the dirt. She doubted she could take on any of them if they pressed the advantage, but, as she had been taught, appearance was important.
Talking resumed in elven, which she was able to ignore, she found the language’s melodic rhythm soothing. The soldier’s baths weren’t anything like the city’s public baths, but better than nothing. She noted that everyone would glance her way periodically, but no one approached her. Eventually she finished bathing, got out, dried off, and left. She remained unclothed letting the cool air caress her skin. All eyes followed her. Pondering her discussion in the morning, she was aware of the effect she had on the men around her.
She put her tunic on and joined the men in the mess. She didn’t want to pay the price for skipping another meal.
* * *
Her training continued unabated in combat and Kundai, as she absorbed everything she could. What she could not absorb was beaten into her, as Vantor drove her toward her goal. She learned early not to protest, that only brought about a quick and severe rebuttal she wouldn’t soon forget. Pointing out the pockets of flab that she had gained on her new diet, Vantor added an early morning exercise regime. Tiring at first, she became fitter, and she found herself less tired and sore by the end of the day. She also used the opportunity to bulk herself up and make herself tone. Her apparent quick progress impressed Vantor.
Once she started joining her fellow soldiers with training, they became more amenable to her presence, and approachable. By the end of her second month, she was treated like one of the men; gambling and drinking during off hours. The alcohol blissfully stemied the nightmares. She continued to develop her feminine wiles by practicing on them, setting up a regular cycle of visitors to her room, when she wasn’t too tired. Her skills of seduction grew, and she found a thrill in controlling her prey through sexual manipulation; where once she was the slave, now she was the master.
She was surprised by the lack of Vantor’s presence in the evening. His only interest in her was training her, not visiting her bed. She tried once to seduce him only to receive a severe and humiliating punishment.
* * *
Susurrus learned to gamble. She had a lot riding on this roll, two Ithacarium tokens, twelve gold thillars and eighty seven silver varins – several months’ wages. After several rounds of betting and people being knocked out, there were only three gamblers left. The other two rolls were the knight in the fortress and the king with the dagger. She blew on her dice for luck and threw – maiden with the flame. A weak roll. At least she could nullify the king’s attack, but she could not defeat the knight. The king was too powerful for her to make an alliance with the knight and defeat.
She wasn’t out of the game as she understood it, but she wasn’t in a good position. Unless fate changed the roll, she would have to bet more to stay in, or bow out at a loss. Jeraoulim threw in four more silver drahz, confident that his luck would change. Grell matched his four and raised by six, his knight could still win if fate favored him.
Susurrus looked at the meager remains of her earnings, two silver drahz. She didn’t have enough. She looked at them and shook her head.
Grell said in broken trade, “You not able be betting.”
She replied in broken elven, “No money. Low.”
“You fold then.”
She shook her head.
She had a thought. She squeezed her breast and asked, “How much?” The stakes changed.
They looked at each other and spoke briefly before Grell said, “Ante.”
“I’m worth more than that,” she came back in the trade tongue.
“You want in? Ante.”
“Fine.” At least she has something to bargain with. “Call.” The betting went round one more time and she agreed to two sessions. She had been hoping to get away with one session being owed – she didn’t like someone else controlling her bed.
Grell rolled the fate die. The mask came up. The joker reveals all to be the opposite of what they are pretending to be. Susurrus’ maiden with the flame was now a devil with the dagger. Grell’s knight turned angel would have made them equal, but his fortress became a jungle and he was removed from the round. Jeraoulim’s king with a dagger was now the high cleric with the flame. Susurrus’s dagger was defeated by the light. As she understood it, the light of the flame revealed the assassin’s blade, negating the attack, but since she was two steps above him, hence stronger, she won.
She released her breath, which she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “Well, it looks like I won.” The others were disappointed, but took it in stride. She had learned quickly who to dice with and who to avoid. “I’ll quit while I’m ahead.” She took her winning and patted Grell on the back. “Better luck next time.”
“Susurrus,” Vantor called from behind.
“Yes.” She scooped up her winnings and turned to face him.
“You’re settling in. Good. Tomorrow we’re going to Steelbeard’s thanedom. You’ll mentor with his Daruun for the next three months. So pack your belongings tonight.”
“Yes, Battle Master. What will I be learning?”
“Whatever they teach you. Most likely how to wield the hammer, the pick or the axe, how to fight in confined spaces and opponents larger than you. It depends on how fast you learn. I’ll warn you. I’m an easy mentor by comparison.”