The caravan had stopped at a wooded creek for shelter from the wind, while Emile and I stayed back to practice. Sebastian watched us from the wagon. Someday he’d join us, but there was no point in asking. I had hoped it would be warmer this close to the coast, but it kept getting colder. Grey skies threatened rain. I was getting sick of the weather, and thankful we were only a week away from the grand market.
Despite the cold, she was making me sweat. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to hold back without getting hurt. The clash of our wooden swords filled the desolate farmland. She was starting to move like a fighter. We trained twice a day, every day, and it was showing. Since her nightmare, Emile had become more focused – even angry while we sparred. It wasn’t a bad thing.
She circled away from me, baiting the step in. It takes patience to wait for the killing moment, but I waited. She blinked, and I stabbed at her chest. I was too far away to reach her, but it didn’t matter. Her sense of range was still developing. Emile jumped back and smashed my sword down, uselessly. The block was too hard and left her open. I lunged two full steps and grabbed her sword arm.
With a laugh, she drew the wooden dagger on her belt and thrust at my stomach. I let go of her wrist as I backed out and let our swords click. I loved the smell of training weapons burning from impact. We trained so much because we enjoyed it.
Emile went back to circling. Black hair clung to her face. She kept the dagger low in her lead hand, threatening to draw it up if I grabbed her. Her sword twirled once in a simple flourish. I threw a few more unconventional attacks, slow enough for her to defend them. Eventually, she’d be good enough that I wouldn’t be able to play around.
A rider on a tall horse was approaching from the caravan. I didn’t recognize him. He wore the green cloak of the Southern Wolves and a shesh of the same cloth. His dark brown skin had wrinkled around his eyes. Old for a traveling swordsman. I didn’t doubt that he could handle the scimitar on his belt.
Emile stood beside me. Her confidence made her seem taller. The swordsman dismounted and shook my hand, introduced himself and greeted me more warmly than anyone had in a long time. He had the accent of men from across the southern sea.
“Joining with the caravan?” I asked.
“I am,” said Yidir. “I saw you practicing on the ride up. Your technique is interesting.”
I listened for challenge in his voice, but couldn’t find any. “It’s a duelist style popular in Nantes. I adapted it for her.”
“Her form is good. My son and daughter are with me. She could train with us while we travel,” he said. “My son would benefit from seeing the duelist’s technique, and your student could learn our grappling style.”
I looked at her. “What do you think?”
Emile took a slow breath. “I would be honored.”
I walked back to Sebastian while Emile fixed the oxen to the wagon. She stood between them, holding the hundred-pound yoke. Her body trembled under its weight, but she was getting stronger. Her shoulders had filled out a little over the last month and she didn’t groan while handling the equipment.
Seb was back to wearing a chainmail shirt and carrying the heavy crossbow while we traveled. Emile’s nightmares had unnerved him. The fact that she had stopped singing and laughing in her sleep worried him even more. Whatever dark cloud hung over her, shadowed him as well. He was still staring down the road behind us. I had thought he was watching us spar, but something else must have had his attention. “What’s up?” I asked.
He shot a glance over his shoulder at the newcomers to the caravan; five more carts and four horsemen had arrived with Yidir. “I think they were following us the last few days.”
“No doubt. It’s a straight road.”
“No.” Seb’s brow furrowed as he watched Yidir. “I thought I saw horsemen after dusk the last two nights, but they were so far away I couldn’t be sure. Once I saw the Chiktani guy up close, I knew it was him.”
“He seems alright. He’s eager for his son to learn something about dueling.” The wagons had lined up on the road, ready to travel. “I’ll jog up front and see if Alvaro knows him.” Alvaro seemed to know all the Southern Wolves.
“Good idea.” Seb rubbed the oxen’s necks and climbed onto the cart. “Get-up.” He gently tapped them with his goad stick. They plodded along behind the next wagon in line.
There were only a few groups behind us. Most of the other forty were ahead. Oxen aren’t known for their speed; I quickly moved up the line and found Alvaro running my way. His huge feet were springs for his tiny frame.
“I was just looking for you,” I said.
He pulled me off the road by my sleeve. “Come here,” he whispered, harshly.
“What is it?”
“Yidir the Mage Killer is here.” He looked down the caravan suspiciously. “He killed a client of mine last year. Where’s your girl?”
“Shit.” I ran for the rear cars with Alvaro. I didn’t know where Emile was. She had disappeared right after handling the animals.
We found her walking on the other side of the caravan with a boy and girl near her age. They had dark brown skin and wore wool clothing with sheepskin coats. Emile had her arm around the girl. They were laughing. Yidir was riding behind them.
I paused on the opposite side of the wagons. Yidir had to have seen me jogging. Everyone had. He hadn’t hurt her yet. That was a good sign. I decided to walk nearby and keep my eye on them.
We had covered three or four miles. The caravan master called for a stop, which was echoed down the line. You had to be gentle with oxen to get much work out of them. They were only willing to walk about five hours a day. Any more and you risked them quitting.
Emile walked with Yidir’s kids a short distance and stopped in a patch of grass. They demonstrated the best way to take a fall and some other gentle exercises. I was nervous. My hand was resting on the hilt of my sword. I didn’t try to hide it when Yidir stepped off his horse to join me.
“I’m a man of my word,” he said. “I don’t mean her any harm.”
“Mage killer, huh?” I looked him in the eye. “It’s no coincidence you ran into us.”
“No,” he said. “I heard about her last week and wanted to see for myself. Have you ever wondered why so many magicians go bad?”
I hadn’t given it much thought. It was the way of the world. “Not really.”
“Power corrupts. Magic even more so. They think they’re becoming gods and start to look at regular people like tools.” We watched Emile giggle as Yidir’s daughter shot under her legs and picked her up on her shoulders. “The fighting arts are truth. Training reminds you that you’re nothing special, something most wizards would do well to remember.” He turned to face me. “She could be a good person. I want to give her a chance.”
We watched the girls trade lifts for a while. Emile was a natural. She kept her back straight, even while dipping low to get under her partner’s legs. Eventually, they finished the throws. Both girls took the fall with grace. Yidir’s son practiced nearby with a live blade. He spun the scimitar in quick, dangerous motions. Not bad for someone so young.
“You don’t have to worry about Emile,” I said. “You’re right, though; this will be good for her.”
We watched them train until the carts were ready to move again. “Why bother hunting magicians? Why drag your kids along?”
“This is the first time I’ve taken them with me. They’ll be doing this in my place soon enough.”
“But why?” I asked.
“It’s what we do.”
I smiled and thought of Erland. “There’s someone I’m going to want you to meet.”
Midday, a week later, I could see the coast. Steep cliffs of jagged rock dropped a hundred feet to the shore. We were only miles from the Laon Peninsula Market. I was getting tired of the road. We’d been traveling for more than a month and I was ready for some fun. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take long to unload these pelts and make some money.
Emile’s training sessions had been growing more intense. I sparred with her and Yidir’s son Rezki at lunch, and Yidir coached them in the evening. The caravan had stopped for the day. We gathered in a circle of trees where the grass was soft. I sat on a small boulder and ate my dried fish and cheese, watching them train.
Truthfully, there wasn’t much else to do.
Rezki stretched his legs. He was a little taller than myself and lean. “Emile, want to spar?” he asked as he picked up his wooden scimitar. His accent was barely noticeable. They must have come to Aquitani when he was little.
Emile walked out to meet him. She looked serious with straight lips and narrowed eyes. “Sure.”
They were wearing leather gloves and caps. It wasn’t much protection – better for protecting skin than bone or brain. Emile had been training hard, but I don’t think she knew how long the road was. I sat forward and kept my mouth shut, hoping Rezki wouldn’t hurt her.
They touched swords as a sign of respect. Emile circled him with a high guard, the way I had taught her. Rezki moved left and right, twirling his scimitar. She flinched at every movement he made. Her arms jerked up and down with nervous energy.
I had thought she would keep backing up. No. Emile lunged at him. I spit my food, surprised. She was going to take his head off.
Rezki was quick. He jumped back, clearing enough room to avoid her swipe all together. His weapon was still high. He smashed his sword against hers and knocked it from her hand. Emile cursed and rubbed her fingers with a look of shock on her face.
He didn’t give her a chance to recover. Rezki dropped low with bent knees, rushed in and picked her up on his shoulder. Her legs shot out straight, rigid with fear. He dumped her from standing. She hit the ground with a dull thump and groaned.
Emile got up, grabbed her sword, and readied herself. Tears were streaming down her face. Yidir watched from the other side of the clearing with his arms crossed.
Rezki faked a step in and smiled. Emile took the bait and swung for his head. She was out of position and lost her sword a second time. He shot in under her legs again. This time, she bent with him and put her forearms against his neck, but it barely slowed him down. She yelped as he lifted her on his shoulder and dropped her.
Emile left her sword on the ground and walked over to me. Tears silently ran down her face. I choked a little, not knowing what to say.
“What’s even the point,” she said. “Fuck.”
“I told you, this wouldn’t be easy. You’re little, so to go even against him you’ll have to be twice as good.” I looked her up and down. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head.
“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.
Emile walked back to the circle and picked up her sword.
Rezki wasn’t laughing, or even smiling. He nodded to her respectfully and held out his sword for her to click. “You’ll get there.”
Emile was more careful this time. She stuck to the game plan and kept her distance, taking clean strikes at his arm to keep him off of her. Rezki was able to do whatever he wanted, but he had to take his time coming in.
“You’re doing good, Emile.” Yidir was smiling.
He had told me that they were planning to stay in Laon for the winter. I was thinking about joining them. It would give Emile time to train with some people her own age. Better, they could protect her while Seb and I doubled back to find Erland. I was sick of running and wanted to finish it.