Klaus adjusted the Linoone skin around his shoulders as he stood watch at the gates of Castle Weyon, or “Castle Cold” as it was known among the other squires. The gates stood high in the mountains, at the southwest border of Glacia. Despite being the southernmost castle of Glacia, it was also the highest in the mountains, and the coldest. Klaus doubted any small-scale attack would happen here, but it was still his watch.

“Holding up, lad?” It was Sir Rory, Klaus’s knight and the most senior knight of Castle Weyon, with another knight Klaus didn’t recognize. They walked up from behind, and Sir Rory towered over Klaus. Sir Rory was easily over two meters tall, and always carried his greatsword with him. Klaus had never seen what powerful creature had been bound to the weapon, and Sir Rory refused to tell. The other knight appeared almost fragile next to Sir Rory; he was short and slim, and carried two sabers at his hip.

“Yes, sir. Everything is fine.”

“It’s a cold night,” the second knight intoned. “Coldest since before you were born, I figure.”

Klaus let out a small laugh. “Sir, I was born during the Darkfrost.”

The knight bowed his head. “My apologies. You appear younger than you are.”

Sir Rory nodded. “Lad’s almost eighteen! His swordplay’s brilliant, he has a firm grasp of battlefield tactics…” Sir Rory shivered from the intense cold. “And he’s not even bothered by the damn cold! All that’s left for him is his first battle.”

“What do you have bound in your blade, boy?”

“Feral Vulpix, sir.” Klaus drew his sword from his right hip for the knight to see, and the knight realized for the first time that Klaus was left-handed. The hilt was in the style of a saber, with a knuckleguard. The knuckleguard was shaped after the six tails of a Vulpix, with the pommel displaying the distinctive swirl of the tips of a Vulpix’s tail. The double-sided blade, by itself, was unremarkable beyond the fact that it was well oiled and sharpened, but reflections danced along the blade from lights that weren’t there. The knight nodded in approval.

“It’s a good sword, and a strong binding. Feral ones are much better than bred, and Vulpix are rare, and strong fighters.”

“I strive for nothing less than the best, sir.”

The knight smiled. “Of course, boy.” He turned to Sir Rory. “It’s been great seeing you again, Rory, but I need to get back north and report to Queen Gloria.”

Rory nodded. “Give my regards to the little princess, Jack.” Sir Jack waved him off as he headed past the gate, into the nearby town, where Klaus assumed his Ponyta was stabled.

Suddenly Klaus had a very heavy hand on his shoulder. “Klaus. Duke Weyon seems to be under the impression that his daughter spends too much time with you, and may be doing… learning, unscrupulous things.”

“Sir, I can honestly say I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Sir Rory sighed. “Lad, everyone from here to Castle Greyson in the west knows you spend almost every free moment with Catelyn-”

Klaus stopped him. “Sir, if I managed to bed Catelyn Weyon, I would make sure everyone from here to the southern peninsula would hear of it from my own mouth.” Sir Rory paused for a moment, then grunted in agreement.

“Agreed, it would be a small miracle for anyone to woo Catelyn. But that’s not what I’m talking about.” Klaus’s cheeks turned bright red as he realized what had been discovered. “You know it’s bad form to teach a woman swordplay-”

“She insisted! Who am I to refuse a Duke’s daughter?”

Sir Rory glanced at Klaus, but continued. “It’s bad form to teach a woman swordplay. And worse form to… to…” He began to snicker. “It’s terrible form to lose to one, boy!” He erupted into great guffawing laughter as Klaus tried to make himself as small as possible. “You two really are two sides of the same coin. Duke Weyon simply suggested that ‘a more suitable teacher’ be found for her once he learned the extent of her training. I told him there was nobody but you that could teach her more, since left-handed techniques are entirely different than the standard, and you’re the best at them.”

Klaus nodded, trying to keep his blush to a minimum. “Thank you, sir.”

“Well, lad, what do you think we should bind for her?”

Before Klaus could answer, a signal flare rose from the nearby town, along with a column of smoke. Klaus and Sir Rory stood for a moment, dumbstruck, as the flame rose higher and higher, before…

“Klaus!” Sir Rory roared as he drew his greatsword. “Sound the alarm and come with me!”

***


Sir Jack jumped onto the back of his Ponyta after it sent the flare up and drew his two sabers. Frost formed over the bluish blades as he turned to the burning building and the band of brigands around it.

“Halt, in the name of the Queen!” he called.

The apparent leader of the brigands laughed. Over his shoulder was a massive length of wood, nearly the thickness of a tree trunk, spiked and thorny with steel barbs and sectioned. Despite its girth, the huge man seemed to carry it with little difficulty. To the man’s right there was a man in many layers of dark cloaks. To his left was a man without a left arm, carrying a sword of a curious design, with a jagged edge. Behind the three stood a few more men, but less well armed. Jack heard the alarm bell begin to ring.

“Does the lone knight think he can stop us?” he mocked in a strange accent. “Little knight, I have a revelation for you.” The giant of a man lifted the length of wood he treated as a weapon and pointed it at Sir Jack. “We do not bow to your queen.”

Sir Jack struck first. He swung his sabers, sending deadly shards of ice flying at the brigands. The giant blocked them with his weapon, and the one-armed man and cloaked man dodged. Behind them, though, many men cried out as they were struck and found their blood begin freezing in their veins.

Suddenly, the cloaked man was beside Jack, and struck with a blackened fist, barely missing Jack but driving deep into the Ponyta’s neck, killing it quickly. Jack rolled from his mount and raised his swords in a defensive stance.

The giant’s weapon had begun to spin, each section opposite the ones surrounding it. What strange creature is bound within? Jack thought. The one-armed man’s jagged blade began to spark as he raced towards Jack. He struck, and Jack parried and countered. The one-armed man dodged, and struck again. They traded blows for a few moments before the giant’s maul came crashing towards Jack. He ducked and rolled away, sending out more deadly icicles. More grunt brigands fell, but not the main three. Jack knew there was no possibility of him defeating them all by himself.

The giant circled around as the one-armed man closed in slowly, his sword sparking faster and faster. The cloaked man always seemed to be where Jack wasn’t looked, even as he turned to check behind and around him. The grunt brigands were wary of Jack. In fact, they barely seemed to know what to do, not just in combat, but why they were here in the first place.

Suddenly the cloaked man was beside him, and he struck. Jack twisted away and slashed, but missed, and the strike hit his side, wounding him. Jack brought his other sword to strike, but the cloaked man simply… vanished, and Jack’s blade ate only air.

What trickery is this? Jack thought. He staggered, and the one-armed man chose that moment to charge. Jack parried his strikes, but each time their blades met, Jack’s side pained him worse and worse. He was wounded badly, he knew.

Suddenly the giant was behind him, and Jack knew he was going to die, crushed and ripped apart by the spiraling maul weapon. The enormous weight was brought down upon him. Jack closed his eyes, prepared to die.

There was suddenly the sound of steel grinding on steel, and Jack opened his eyes to Sir Rory, catching the maul on his own greatsword.

“Back with you!” he yelled, matching the giant’s strength and then some, pushing him away from Sir Jack. Klaus, Sir Rory’s squire, rushed in afterwards to strike at the one-armed man, who disengaged Jack to defend himself. Jack turned to find the cloaked man, but he had disappeared again. Jack held his side, trying to staunch the bloodflow.

Rory struck blow after blow upon the giant, who deftly blocked them all.

“You’re a strong one,” Rory said.

“As are you,” the giant replied. He suddenly jumped back and smashed the base of his maul into the ground. A powerful shockwave sprang from the strike, and knocked Rory backwards. The giant rushed forward and brought down his maul, but Rory blocked it easily.

“What strange binding do you have?” Rory asked.

“A murderous beast known as Excadril,” the giant replied. “What’s hiding in your blade?”

“A calamitous dragon.” The giant’s eyes widened as he realized who he was struggling against. Before he could react, a great roar erupted from Rory’s blade and it parted the maul like a knife through butter, before continuing on through the giant himself.

Across the courtyard, the one-armed man was momentarily distracted by the roar. Klaus capitalized on the opportunity, driving his opponent into an alley between two houses. They traded blows, neither able to call upon the powers sealed in their blades for fear of a quick strike from their opponent. Suddenly Klaus dodged far to his left, going around the corner of the house. The one-armed man overextended in pursuit, and Klaus struck him. The one-armed man reeled in pain while Klaus struck again, this time with deadly precision, at the heart. However, the one-armed man’s reel was a feint, and he twist and stabbed at Klaus. Klaus’s blade rose to parry, and he deflected the blade just past his cheek before plunging his blade into the one-armed man’s chest. The man saw the blade enter his chest, then looked at Klaus, a deep, primal fear in his eyes. The fear quickly faded as the man’s lifeblood drained out.

As the adrenaline faded, Klaus realized there were many more fighting men in the courtyard, many riding down fleeing brigands. Klaus looked at his blade. There was blood on it. He realized he had killed a man. His hand was shaking. Violently. Everything was shaking. Klaus took a step backward and tried to breathe deeply.

Suddenly Klaus had a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Everyone reacts differently, lad.”

“I… I’ll be okay,” Klaus said. “I… just… his eyes… he…”

“He looked like a human, instead of an enemy?”

“Yes.”

Rory sighed. “I only wish more people saw that before the killing blow. Let’s get you back to the castle. Sir Jack’s badly hurt. The Duke wishes to know what happened.” Sir Rory continued, but Klaus didn’t hear. It was surreal. Not a quarter of an hour ago he had been chatting with Sir Rory. Now, suddenly, he had killed a man. The blow was so easy to make. He didn’t even think about it- he just reacted.

Klaus breathed deeply. I have killed another man. That I killed him is not a cause for joy. That I survived is.

The shaking stopped.