Defender of Crowns by Tanya Bird

CHAPTER1

Aflash of silver in the creek made Eda still. She watched the water down her arrow, the string of her bow pressing into her fingers.

‘Come on,’ she whispered as she waited for the trout to reappear.

Birds took flight behind her. She whipped her head around to look. Nothing moved, but the small hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. She waited, gaze darting from tree to tree. Someone was watching her.

Lowering her bow, Eda stepped back from the water’s edge and moved up the muddy bank, taking cover behind the thick trunk of an oak tree. She stood with her back pressed to it, holding her weapon in front of her.

Snap.

The sound of debris breaking underfoot had Eda holding her breath. Emerging from her hiding place, she swung her bow left and right, searching.

A defender swooped into her vision. She barely had time to register the face before her bow was torn from her hands and the tip of a sword was pointed at her neck.

Oh, he’s good.

She ducked, reaching for the knife at her hip in the same motion. The sword came for her, and she fell backwards out of its way. She kicked out, forcing him back. That was her opportunity to get back on her feet. She shot up, knife pointed at Roul Thornton. His copper eyes locked on hers as they circled one another.

‘Are you aware that you’re fishing on private property?’

The corners of her mouth lifted. ‘Oh, that’s what this is about?’

‘I’ve received complaints.’

‘Complaints from whom, may I ask?’

‘The commander who owns this land.’

Eda pressed her lips together to stop from smiling. ‘I’ve no idea why Commander Wright would be complaining since the fish I’m catching is for his dinner.’ Spinning her knife, she added, ‘And what is the punishment for illegal fishing nowadays?’

‘A finger.’

‘But I didn’t catch anything.’

‘Then two fingers.’

Her eyebrows rose. ‘Why two?’

‘One for the crime and one for your terrible aim.’

Eda whistled, noting the amusement in his eyes. ‘I guess I’m just going to have to make a run for it, then.’ She sheathed her knife and took off, arms pumping.

Roul’s feet pounded the earth behind her, less than six feet between them. She was fast, but his strides were long.

Through the trees she fled, until Wright House finally came into view. ‘If I make it to the door, you have to catch the fish for dinner,’ she called to him without turning her head.

‘You won’t make it to the door.’

He was just a few feet behind her now. She could hear his breath.

Leaping over a fallen log, she prayed he might trip. But defenders were not allowed to fall. She heard his feet land right behind her, within reach of her, so she pivoted.

When she reached the soggy lawn, she realised she was not going to make it to the door. She reached for her knife and turned, swinging it at him as she ran backwards. But he was ready for her dirty moves. His sword was already drawn, and he stopped her knife in its tracks, then pushed her back. Eda’s heel caught on the uneven ground. A moment later, her back slammed into the grass, but even in her slightly winded state, she managed to keep a hold of the knife. She fought him as she lay on the ground until he finally lost patience and disarmed her. She reached for the other dagger hidden beneath her skirt at the same time the tip of Roul’s sword went to her neck.

‘Yes,’ he said, panting, ‘I know all about the dangerous things you keep hidden beneath your skirts.’

She slowly raised her hands, breathing hard as she waited to see what he would do next.

The back door of the house swung open, and her mother stepped outside carrying a tub of wet laundry. She stilled when she caught sight of Roul standing over Eda with a weapon pointed at her neck. Then, shaking her head, she kept walking.

‘Afternoon, Thornton,’ Candace called as she went to hang the laundry.

Roul cleared his throat and sheathed his weapon. ‘Afternoon.’ He extended a hand to Eda, but she slapped it away.

‘Don’t try to be all chivalric now just because my mother’s here.’ Eda pushed herself up and went to retrieve her knife. Turning to him, she held up both hands and said, ‘Which fingers will you be taking?’

Candace glanced in their direction. ‘Do not dare cut off any of her fingers, defender. Her contributions here are already minimal.’

‘That’s not true,’ Eda replied. ‘I was just down at the creek catching our dinner.’

Candace laughed. ‘And where are the fish you caught?’

Eda swallowed. ‘In the creek, awaiting certain death.’

‘My fault,’ Roul said. ‘I distracted her.’

Candace hung the final sheet and picked up the empty tub before turning to them. ‘Well, if you intend to eat with us this evening, might I suggest you help catch the key ingredient.’

‘Of course’ was his reply.

‘Better get the big pot out, Mother,’ Eda said, taking hold of Roul’s arm and dragging him off in the direction of the trees. ‘There’s about to be a massacre in the water.’

‘Three fish is plenty,’ Candace called to them as she headed to the door. ‘Not every hunt and forage needs to end in warfare.’

Eda let go of him and broke into a run. He jogged after her. When they reached the trees, they slowed, walking in silence all the way to the creek, where they retrieved Eda’s bow from the shrubbery before returning to the quiver of arrows she had left at the edge of the water. They removed their boots, Roul rolling up his trousers and Eda hitching up her skirts, then waded into the water, taking turns with the bow.

When Eda caught the first fish, Roul said, ‘Took you long enough, soldier.’

She kicked water at him before fetching the dead fish, pulling the arrow from it, and tossing it onto the riverbank. It was always ‘soldier’ when he was in a good mood, ‘Eda’ in front of her family, and ‘Suttone’ when she was in trouble. ‘Don’t see you with any fish.’ She handed him the bow. ‘I’d improve much faster if you let me train at the barracks. I’ve been asking both you and Harlan for months.’

‘And we’ve both been telling you no for months.’

Her feet were beginning to ache in the cold water. ‘How am I to improve if the only people I ever spar with are you two?’

‘Improve?’ Roul stilled, took aim, and caught the second fish of the day. He rushed forwards to retrieve it, throwing it onto the bank beside the other one. He held the bow out for her. ‘Your skills are more than adequate. I’ve watched you train with Harlan. He teaches you the same things he teaches the recruits—but in the safety of your home.’

‘Can you hear yourself? “Adequate. In the safety of your home”.’ She loaded the bow and watched the water for a minute. ‘Queen Artemisia did not settle for adequate in the safety of her home.’

‘Was she the queen of Halicarnassus? The one who broke her own neck in the name of love?’

Eda glared in his direction. ‘She fought and won the battle of Salamis.’

‘Perfect. Will you be asking for a boat next?’

Glimpsing spotty scales beneath the water’s surface, Eda released her arrow, catching the final fish of the day. She retrieved it, but instead of throwing it on the grassy bank, she threw it at Roul. He caught it a few inches from his face. His smug expression made her temper flare.

She splashed through the water towards him. ‘You once told me I was better than some of your recruits.’

He threw the fish onto the riverbank. ‘You are. But you’re also half their size.’

‘That just makes me nimble.’

‘It makes you fragile.’

She flicked water up at him, hitting him square in the face.

He wiped a hand down it. ‘You’re also twice as tiresome. There would be no tolerance for your bad behaviour in that environment. You’d spend the whole time running off your bad attitude.’

‘I happen to like running.’

‘I’ve noticed.’ He exited the water. ‘Sure, you could probably knock some of the recruits off their feet in the first few weeks, but they’ll get stronger and better—you won’t.’

She followed him out and bent to collect both their shoes since he was carrying the fish. ‘I might.’

He turned to face her. ‘Then what? Will you be miraculously content then? Once you’ve proved yourself?’

It was a valid question. ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’

Roul exhaled and brushed the back of his hand over his clean-shaven jaw. ‘There are no female defenders. And even if there were, you couldn’t do the job. You going to put on a uniform and hang merchants from the wall?’

‘No.’

He began walking, and she followed him.

‘I thought your uncle was busy finding you a husband,’ he said when she fell into step with him.

‘He is. He wants me to marry some widowed bootmaker in the merchant borough.’

Roul squinted in her direction. ‘At least you would be in the merchant borough. You always say you don’t belong among the noble.’

She let out a breath. ‘I’d quite like to live somewhere quieter, more reclusive.’ She gestured behind them to the clearing by the creek where they had stood moments earlier. ‘I’ve daydreamed about living right there.’

He stopped walking and looked back, eyebrows drawn together. ‘You want to live in a creek?’

‘Not in the creek.’ She pointed. ‘I’d build a house in that spot right there. When the sun returns, it’ll be drenched in sunlight each morning. At night, I would have owls and insects for company.’

His eyes returned to her, his expression softer now, something resembling pity in his eyes.

Colour filled her cheeks. ‘Perhaps I’ll suggest it to the bootmaker.’

He searched her face for the longest time, then resumed walking without saying another word.

She jogged to catch up to him. ‘But before I settle for my reclusive existence, I’d quite like to see what’s outside Chadora’s walls first.’

He sighed. ‘Of course you would.’

‘Don’t you ever get restless inside these walls?’

‘I’ve certainly noticed that you do.’

He was an expert at deflecting personal questions.

Eda looked up at the heavy clouds. ‘Sometimes I imagine going over the wall or boarding a ship to Ireland.’

He stopped walking and turned to her, visibly agitated. ‘What for? To witness more suffering?’

‘They’re just thoughts. I’m allowed to be curious about the world. Or is that a hangable offence now too?’

He ran a hand over his crop of black hair. ‘Are they just thoughts though? You’re always testing boundaries and trying to prove yourself in some way. You seem to think you have to fight men twice your size, scale a wall, or board a ship—’

‘I don’t have to do any of those things.’ She searched his eyes. ‘Did you hear the part where I said I want to?’

‘You only want to because you’re not allowed to. That’s how your brain works. You hear the word “no” and off you go on one of your little tangents.’ He took a step back from her. ‘You’ve not even met the bootmaker, but already you don’t want to marry him because someone is telling you to. You are your own worst enemy.’

That stung. ‘My own worst enemy? For not wanting to marry a stranger whom my uncle has selected?’

He wet his lips and looked away.

When he did not speak, she went on. ‘I’m not allowed to seek new experiences of any kind or step outside of what’s comfortable for everyone else, is that right? To seek some purpose in this miserable life is selfish. Noted.’

Roul lowered his brows. ‘You have the shop and the almshouse. Is that work not purposeful enough for you?’ He shifted his feet. ‘And you know what? You can always choose your own husband if you’re unhappy with his choice. I imagine your uncle will agree to any match at this point.’

‘Well, that’s rude.’

‘Or if being someone’s wife is so below you, why not tell your uncle you’re committed to keeping your mother company through her later years in place of marriage?’

Eda pressed her teeth together. ‘So many inviting options.’

He rubbed his face tiredly. ‘Forgive me for trying to prevent you from scaling the wall or stowing away on a ship thinking there’s something out there that you’re missing.’

Of course Roul knew what was out there. He had been born and raised in Carmarthenshire, a region that had been abandoned by King Edward when it was taken over by rebel groups. While the English king maintained control of the north, everything between River Wnion, the Welsh Marches, and Chadora was now referred to as the Carmarthenshire wastelands.

Roul had fled. He had boarded a ship along the coast and arrived at Chadora’s port, where he had caught the interest of the warden. That was all she knew of his past, small snippets, mostly from other people. Whenever she asked Roul questions directly, he immediately grew uncomfortable. She would be met with vague responses or a change in subject. When she had asked Harlan about him during training once, he had said that sometimes people prefered to keep their pasts buried.

Roul was waiting for her to respond. She dropped his boots on the ground and took the fish from him. ‘I should get these cleaned up for dinner.’ Then she walked off before he could reply.

‘Wait.’ He picked up his boots and followed her. ‘I’ll help you.’

‘It’s all right,’ she said without looking back. ‘You’ve helped enough for one day.’