Slish! The third cut split the farm-girl's cuirass. Ruined. The cheap leather gave way as she tried to turn away. Too late. Her armor was not only worthless now, it would be a hindrance. Gudrun sneered. Spun. Drove her bodkin into the girl's abdomen. Then she twisted it. Tore it loose. Blood sprayed from the wound. The girl collapsed with a heavy grunt.
“Stupid cow.” Gudrun watched the girl thrash about on the cold sand. It didn't satisfy her. It wasn't anything to brag about. She easily outmatched the heavy-boned low-land girl. That had to have been plain to see. It hadn't been much of a contest. Certainly not any sort of challenge. What was Mistress Eberhard thinking?
Gudrun wiped the blood off of her blade. The girl stopped kicking. Lay still. Unconscious or dead. Neither mattered to Gudrun. She was done for the night. Three wins. No losses. As usual.
She stepped over the prone, still form of her opponent. It was time to leave this place. She headed to the locker rooms. A long hot shower sounded lovely.
“You have a fine way with a blade.”
Gudrun stopped. Glared at the interloper before her. She wasn't interested in making friends. Not here. Maybe never. She had a brother to avenge before she would even consider such things. She had taken a vow and sealed it with blood and fore and salt in the old way. There was no room in her for anything but her hatred, her mission. She lived for revenge.
The Corbin—no this wasn't a Corbin, it was a Prushain, one of the blue-plumes. He, she?--it was a long way from home. They didn't normally come this far West. It stood there. Stared at her.
“You'll get a personal demonstration of my 'fine way with my blade' if you don't get out of my way.” She scowled at the Prushain. The black, blue and white feathers forming it's head-crest looked dusty, but unruffled. She could swear that the damned thing was restraining itself from laughing. Her face flushed in rage.
It nodded once.
“Perhaps another time. I have been instructed to give you this...” The Prushain held out a vellum card delicately balanced between two sleek, black talons, “...and I am to return with your response.”
She took the card. The bird-thing bowed ever so slightly. For a moment it was impossible to tell who was mocking whom. The card had one word scrawled on it in deep violet ink, done an elegant hand:
Gudrun crumpled the card in her fist. The Prushain stared at her. Waiting for an answer.
“Who sent you?” She felt her blood go cold. This could be a trick. A trap. There were rumors that Bujilli had made quite an impression on Mistress Eberhard and others. Even that old hag Hedrard seemed to take an interest in him. As if it wasn't already bad enough that he was personally sponsored by Gnosiomandus.
“I would like to meet with your employer.”
“But first I need to take a shower. Make myself presentable. You can wait for me here. I'll only need a few minutes.”
The Prushain nodded once. It would wait.
Gudrun forced herself to walk to her locker. Her hands were shaking when she tried to open the lock. The shower calmed her down. She barely got dry before she pulled on her clothes and her leathers. She considered suiting-up in her white fighting gown, but decided to go with denims and a lacy blouse instead. She took the new armor, not the nicked and notched-up stuff she wore in the arena. The extra blades slipped perfectly into place up her sleeves and down her boots. There wasn't time to brush her hair, so she twisted it up in a knot using the pen-stilletto she had received from Sprague. Bujilli wasn't the only one with sponsors or a mentor.
The Prushain regarded her coldly as she approached. It nodded once. Turned. Strode off down the rampway towards the Pens. But that was Hedrard's area. She didn't like going down there. They kept wild animals and twisted beasts there. Things that might catch her scent. Things that she might have to face in the Arena.
The Prushain turned down one of the side hallways, away from the pens and Hedrard's menagerie. They passed numerous glass cases displaying samples and examples of things from various countries and worlds. The crowd parted before the tall, sharp-beaked Prushain. Students gawked. Some of the staff and instructors stared. Gudrun reveled in their attention.
They stopped. A door opened. She was ushered into a courtyard. The door slammed shut behind her.
“What?” Gudrun was startled. She had been so caught-up in the reactions of those she had passed that she did not pay attention to where they were going. She had no idea where she was. The hallways were notoriously mutable. Ten steps could take you a lot farther than you'd ever know, especially if you weren't focused on a particular destination.
“Mirik is dead.”
“Lijji is dead.”
Gudrun drew out her bodkin. There was no sign of whomever was speaking. But the voice...she thought she recognized the voice.
“Kalfer, Rombur and Glus are all dead as well.”
“Who are you?” hissed Gudrun.
“”In fact, I'm the only one who is still alive. Even Unfred is dead, I think. I didn't have a chance to check into that just yet.”
“What do you want?”
“You hired us, remember?”
“You! I know who you are! Sharisse. You stupid whore--”
Clack! Snap. Gudrun whirled out of the way of Sharisse's scalpel only to turn into the follow-up by her cleaver. It was precisely the same trick she had used in the last two matches earlier today. She pushed Sharisse away, drew her off-hand knife. The one with blood-threads embedded in the blade.
Sharisse laughed. Pushed back. Slashed Gudrun's cheek. Blood. Gudrun's blood. She slashed at Sharisse in a frenzy of attacks. The bitch had cut her.
No one cut her.
“Recognize this?” Sharisse flipped the cleaver at her feet. It clattered on the paving stones of the path. Gudrun glanced at it. She froze.
“He gave it to me right before he went into the Arena that last time.”
“But--” Gudrun reeled. Her brother had been with this...this...
“We were lovers.”
Gudrun screamed. Reckless in her fury she hacked, cut and stabbed, twisted, lunged and relentlessly assaulted her tormenter. Both were wounded. Bloodied. Sweaty. Gudrun's clothes were slashed, her armor scored and scratched, no longer pristine and perfect. Sharisse wasn't much better off. They were too evenly matched. But Gudrun had already fought three matches this night. She was tiring more quickly than Sharisse. It was a clever ambush.
Feint. Thrust. Back-hand cut. Parry. Jab. They fought with a grim determination neither had ever brought to bear in the Arena before. Sharisse slipped. Went to her knee. Gudrun stabbed. The bodkin slid across Sharisse's side. Twisted. It bit deep.
“Ha! I'll carve your heart out--”
Sharisse stood up quickly. Too quickly. It had been a trap. Gudrun's arm was caught. The Bodkin clattered to the stones. The scalpel was at her throat.
“Go ahead. Kill me.” Gudrun glared at the other girl.
“You'd like that, wouldn't you? Idiot. I beat you. Now you will listen to me.”
“Good. You hired us to kill the new student. The foreigner. Bujilli. You said that he killed Gabreel.”
“He did not. He never even met Gabreel. They never crossed paths, let alone blades. Gabrell was cold and dead on the sand before Bujilli even arrived in Wermspittle.”
“No. I'm not. And you know it. You just won't face the truth. You've let his lies twist you.”
“Who? Who's lies?”
“Sprague. Your precious mentor and master. He was the one who brought the Muck Raker into the pens. He's the one who sent Gabreel into the Arena as part of the second group to face the thing.”
“But...” Gudrun twitched. Her hands shook. Not in rage but from something else. Something was making her hands move without her volition.
“See—you're little better than a puppet.”
“Stop it!” Gudrun screamed. Sharisse released her. Stepped back.
Gudrun fell to her knees. Her hands shook. Scrabbled at the blades hidden in her sleeves. Tears ran from her eyes. She was fighting to reclaim control of her own body. Her hands were being directed to kill her. She could feel it. She knew it.
Her mentor had manipulated her. Used her. Like she was disposable. Inconsequential.
But Gudrun had taken a vow in the old way. She knew now that the person she blamed for her bother's death was not to blame. She had been set against Bujilli as though she were some mindless pawn in a sick and twisted game. She felt betrayed . Used. The subtle distortions that had been worked upon her mind collapsed. The dreams evaporated. Gudrun stood up. Her hands curled into fists.
She looked at Sharisse.
They stared at one another.
Silently. They stared into each others eyes.
Bleeding. Ragged. Betrayed.
A cold spring rain began to fall.
It washed away the blood. Most of it.
“I intend to kill him.”
“Will you help me?”