“Parry!” Milady ordered the young prince. “Riposte!”
Prince Corin deflected his older brother’s dueling rapier with a mighty swing and made a heavy return thrust, only for Prince Auric to easily sidestep and avoid the attack. A clack of metal on metal signaled that Auric touched Corin’s armor with his sword for the third time, winning the duel.
Auric removed his steel helm and shook his mane loose. He had a cocky grin as always.
The younger lion tossed his own helm to the training circle’s grassy floor. Corin’s mane had barely sprouted, yet he behaved as though he were a mighty paladin already. Other than the petulant frustration, that is.
Milady, a slender cat clad in a finely-woven tunic, cape, and light leather armor, folded her arms and sighed. “You shan’t surrender that easily, darling,” she said to Corin. “Put that helm back on and we’ll take it from the top.”
The training grounds were situated in the royal courtyard of Vangaard Castle, home of the King of Everia and his children. It was a beautiful day with just enough cloud to prevent sun blindness, so Milady wished to use the opportunity to continue her dueling lessons with the Ironmayne princes.
But Prince Corin didn’t have the patience for it. The young lion dropped his rapier and growled at Milady, “You keep telling me what to do! It confuses me and tells Aurie what I’m going to do next.”
Milady examined her nails. “I’m here to train you, darling, not babysit. If you don’t like my instructions, follow your instinct.”
“Cut him some slack, my lady,” Auric said, showing his shining white teeth. All the Ironmaynes referred to Milady as “my lady,” even though she was merely the captain of the Royal Guard—a servant, if a high-ranking one. “He’s still a cub,” Auric went on. “He’s got some growing to do if he’s going to best his big brother.”
“It’s not about raw strength, Aurie dear,” Milady said for the thousandth time. “It’s about finesse.”
Nearby movement caught her keen eyes. A rustling in one of the nearby hedge bushes. Her hand had fallen to the hilt of her rapier, but she relaxed it. The youngest royal cub, Princess Felice, often sneaked into the training grounds to watch the duels. She wasn’t allowed, of course, but Milady didn’t mind. She pretended not to notice the rustling, and turned back to her pupils.
“Try again, darling,” Milady told Corin. “This time I won’t shout advice. Just remember that your opponent is larger than you, but that size means nothing if you can move faster. Speed and positioning—not strength. From the top, now.”
Auric chuckled. He was a gifted paladin, no doubt a champion in the making, but he needed to be taken down a peg. He would be King one day, like the father he was named for, and an overconfident king can be dangerous for the kingdom.
Corin glared at his older brother. He was headstrong, but eager to improve his skills. Defeating Auric in just one duel would be the best thing for both of them, Milady thought.
The brothers put their helms back on and moved into dueling stance, their rapiers held in front of them.
“Begin,” Milady ordered.
Corin rushed in as fast as he could, hoping for a quick touch, but Auric swept the thrust away. To Corbin’s credit, he dodged Auric’s riposte without pause. Milady saw more rustling from the nearby hedge and smirked. It must have been an exciting show for little Felice.
Sadly, though Corin moved quickly and never paused long enough to expose himself to attack, Auric was still the better fighter. He caught each of his younger brother’s strikes and swatted them away as though bored. Eventually Corin’s stamina ran low and his speed faltered. He thrust a little too slowly, giving Auric the opportunity to catch his brother’s gauntlet with his off-hand and hold back any more attacks. With three consecutive clangs of Auric’s rapier on the top of Corin’s helm, Auric won the duel.
“Better, Corin,” Milady announced. “Much better.”
“I still lost!” Corin whined.
“But you are improving,” Milady said. “Aurie is not. Once you learn to manage your stamina along with your speed, you will be victor, but you must have the patience to learn, darling.”
Auric snorted at that. “Tell him what you like, my lady, but the truth of the matter is that Corin would be better suited to wait until he grows a real mane before challenging me again. I’ve no interest in beating up cubs any longer. I’m a paladin now.”
“My lady could still beat you with one hand behind her back,” Corin said to Auric. “And she’s a quarter your size.”
Auric looked at Milady and appraised her. She folded her arms. “I am not the pupil, here,” she said.
“Neither am I,” Auric said. “Not anymore. Maybe you used to beat me, but that was before I was sworn in as paladin. Before I was a grown lion. I doubt I need a Royal Guard any longer. Meaning no offense, my lady.”
“You shan’t be rid of me that easily, dear,” Milady said. “But enough silly talk. One more duel.”
“Yes,” said Corin, tossing his rapier to Milady. She caught it easily, even though she had her arms folded. “One more duel.”
“This is absurd. I’ve nothing to learn from Aurie.”
“So you say,” Auric grunted. “Prove it.”
The hedge bush rustled some leaves loose. Felice was just as excited, it seemed. Perhaps it was time to give her a real show.
“As you command, my Prince,” Milady said, her voice dripping with graciousness. She unsheathed her personal rapier and placed it on the rack next to the dueling swords, then stepped into the training ring.
“You need armor,” Auric said. “Real armor, I mean.”
Milady flashed her teeth. “Steel armor is for cubs, darling. But don’t hold back on my account.” She turned side-face and held one hand behind her back. The other held her dueling rapier before her.
“Begin!” Corin shouted.
Auric took one step forward, and in that time Milady had pounced to his side, striking his breastplate with her rapier. Surprised, he turned to face her again, but she was behind him now, clicking her sword to his back. He turned with a full downward slash of his blade, but Milady was gone again.
“Over here, darling,” she said from her original position when the duel started. She held her rapier completely vertically, a small smirk on her face.
Auric snarled and led with his blade, thrusting straight for Milady with all the strength of his arm. Had he struck home, he’d have skewered her through-and-through, but he was too frustrated to realize it.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Milady pounced straight up, the thrust narrowly missing her tail. She then landed deftly on the tip of Auric’s rapier, somehow balancing on the thin steel. Auric was too surprised to react. All he saw was Milady’s grinning teeth before she tapped his visor with the end of her sword.
Three touches. She won the duel.
She sprung off the end of Auric’s sword and landed lightly on the ground. Corin cheered in triumph. So did Felice, from her hiding spot in the hedge bush. Except something was wrong.
Felice wasn’t in the bush Milady thought she was.
Milady spun to look at the one that had been rustling before, only to find a tiger emerging from the brush, daggers in his hands and a snarl on his face. An assassin!
“Get back, children!” Milady ordered, dropping her dueling sword and reaching for her own rapier. But it wasn’t there.
She’d left it on the weapon rack.
The tiger rushed in faster than she expected. She only had time to pick up her dueling sword again before the tiger leaped over the short fence of the training ring and brought his daggers down with a roar. The blades caught hers, and she used the tiger’s strength and momentum to shove herself back.
“I have him!” young Auric bellowed, striking at the tiger once he and Milady had some distance.
“No!” Milady warned, pouncing back into the fight. The tiger matched Auric’s snarl and slapped away the sword with one of his daggers. Before he could bring the other dagger down, Milady stabbed the tiger’s wrist.
The dagger still caught Auric’s mane, slashing some golden threads clean off, but it missed his neck as the tiger hissed in pain. Since Milady was using a dueling rapier, it was too blunted to pierce the tiger’s flesh. He only gripped the dagger tighter.
Auric attacked again, shoving Milady aside with a sweep of his paw. She grunted and fell back as the tiger slashed furiously, ignoring Auric’s attacks since he knew the swords weren’t sharp. The dagger blades screamed off Auric’s iron armor, and the futile rapier attacks were only making the tiger angry.
Milady rolled to her feet and tried to catch her breath. She knew the assassin waited until she and Auric tired themselves in a duel before emerging to strike. It was smart, and proving effective. She wasn’t as fast as she could have been, and Auric wasn’t as composed.
She tried to get a strike in, but the vicious battle between the lion and the tiger made it difficult to attack without putting the Prince at risk. Besides, her weapon was blunted, and weighted for Corin, not her. It would only be so effective.
Thinking of Corin, she turned to make sure he escaped with Felice. But they were still here, their eyes wide with surprise. Felice was outside the hedge bush, tiny and innocent. They were like younger siblings to Milady. She wouldn’t let them get hurt. She couldn’t.
“Argh!” Auric snarled, making Milady turn back to the fight. He’d been gashed open at the shoulder where his armor was weak. The tiger roared, ripping his dagger back, a trail of blood following in its wake.
Milady hissed and leaped back into the fight, slashing at the tiger’s daggers in a vicious fury, driving the assassin back. The tiger had been focusing attacks on Corin rather than her, so she needed to distract him.
“Take the others and go!” she ordered, repelling the daggers. “Get to safety!”
She pounced to the tiger’s side, but he was quick and she was tired. Every flurry of blows from her rapier was either ignored or pushed away by the tiger’s blades. And the assassin showed no signs of exhaustion. Eventually he’d get through her onslaught. She had to have hope that the children would get free before that happened. If only she hadn’t sent the other Guards away when she began her training lesson…
It happened sooner than she thought: the tiger pushed her weapon to the side and brought his dagger down for a killing blow. She didn’t have the stamina to dodge it in time.
But blessed Illuna was on her side. Corin appeared, parrying the tiger’s strike and following it up with a quick riposte, just like Milady always instructed him. And he was using Milady’s rapier—which wasn’t blunted in the slightest.
Corin pierced right through the tiger’s leather chest armor. He didn’t strike deep, but it was enough to push the tiger back. As the assassin snarled in pain, Corin continued the assault, slashing his enemy’s wrist and causing one dagger to fall.
“My lady!” Corin called, tossing her rapier to her. She caught it mid-air and pounced for the tiger with renewed vigor.
The assassin tried to defend himself, but Milady’s attacks had real bite now. She nicked him here and there, pouncing around him in circles and raining a blade storm down on him until he was immobilized, trying in vain to defend himself.
Milady didn’t need to strike a killing blow. Such a fate was too good for him. She brought him down with a thousand cuts instead.
No one attacked the Ironmaynes in her presence and got out easily. No one.
Finally the tiger dropped the second dagger. It landed blade-down in the grassy soil. The assassin fell atop it soon after, striped all over with red as well as black.
At last the rest of the Royal Guard burst into the courtyard, immediately forming a defensive circle around the Ironmayne children.
“We’re fine,” Corin complained. “My lady has eliminated the intruder.”
“Go Milady!” young Felice cheered.
“It’s ‘my lady,’” Auric told her. “Honestly, you sound like a peasant…”
But Felice only hugged her oldest brother tight. He chuckled and hugged her back, and pulled Corin into the embrace for good measure.
Milady saw this and smiled. She kept her sword pointed at the assassin, but he wouldn’t be getting up or gripping a weapon again after the tendon damage she inflicted.
“You’re hurt, my lord!” one of the Guards told Prince Auric.
“Flesh wound,” Auric said, touching his shoulder gingerly. “Corin’s quick thinking saved us and allowed Milady to finish the assassin before more harm could be done.”
Corin gazed at his brother with wonder. Auric pretended not to notice.
“Just get the assassin to the dungeon,” Auric said to the guards.
They looked at Milady. “You heard him, darlings,” she said.
The Royal Guard obeyed immediately, dragging the tiger away. It was then that King Auric Ironmayne, father to Felice, Corin, and young Auric, entered the courtyard in a panic. He saw his children first, then the dispatched assassin, then Milady, who was cleaning her bloody sword with a dainty handkerchief.
The royal family embraced once again. Young Prince Auric was sent to meet with the physician, while Corin and an excited Felice explained to the King what transpired. When the story was over, King Auric took a knee before Milady in humble gratitude.
“You’ve come a long way from being an alley cat, my lady,” he said when he stood up again. “But I still wonder: how did the assassin hide in the royal courtyard of all places?”
Milady looked down at Felice. “Sorry, dear,” she said. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to give up your favorite hiding place.”
Felice shrugged. “I’ll find some more. I always do.”
Milady laughed at that. “My liege,” she said to King Auric, “you might consider putting your daughter in charge of castle defense. She may just prove to be better at keeping away assassins than I am.”
-Written by Kyle Hubbard