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Chapter 5 - Skirmish at Josiah's

Introduction

I hated English class in school but have since discovered I enjoy writing...when there is no silly assignment guideline like "Write about what fruit you are and why." Yes, I was given that assignment and no, I didn't do it. I came up with my own assignment that I thought would be more educational. I researched fruit and wrote about that. The teacher was not happy, lol.

I'm planning to mess around with writing in this section and find out if I might want to get something published one day.

Interestingly, JK Rowling's first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected 12 times.

The goal for me would be to enjoy the journey I invent in my own imagination, and hopefully write something that just might be enjoyable for others to read.

I know reading is less popular than it used to be, since audio books and movies and TV and video games have taken over, but reading is still magical for many people, an escape into a different world and an exploration of another human's mind.

Some characters in my story may be lightly inspired by people I've come across in Warcraft 2. Some may be completely contrived.

What follows is a work of fiction.

Chapter 1 - Cidolfus

As night began to fall, three cloaked figures moved with great speed across the countryside on galloping horses. From the distance they were being watched by a grimacing witness, no sound could be heard. They seemed to float across the sparsely-treed fields towards the woods like phantoms.

The agitated distant observer, chopping wood outside, rested his axe on his shoulder and soon saw that the three riders were being pursued by a larger band of armed riders. He murmured, "Damn thieves!" and hoped they would be caught.

Thieves they were not.

The three fleeing riders vanished into the woods.

When the larger band of riders was nearing the treeline, suddenly one cloaked rider came flying out of the forest heading at full speed in the direction the pursuing riders were coming from.

This caused an upheaval among the pursuers, with many breaking to slow down, and some breaking apart from the group attempting to turn around. Some came to a complete halt. Several of the horses ran straight on into the woods.

Their band was now scattered and confused, unsure whether to chase the lone rider or carry on into the woods after the other two.

Two of their most hard nosed members turned as quickly as they could reverse their horse's direction to chase the lone rider, whose horse was remarkably fleet of foot.

The rest were restlessly reconvening, circling, shouting amongst each other.

The two riders who had chased the fleeing riders into the woods did not re-emerge, but one of their horses did, running without a rider and having an arrow embedded in its saddle.

"Into the woods! After them!" shouted Lord Orta, drew his sword, and kicked his horse's ribs, urging it toward the woods.

Just then, another cloaked figure on horseback was seen emerging from the woods at a run.

"Wait!" Lord Orta shouted. "Big Kid, Amnon, Karl, you get the one in the woods! Take him alive! Everyone else, with me!"

Three broke off from the group and headed into the woods. The rest followed Lord Orta after the cloaked rider.

The cloaked rider seemed to have no control over the horse, who was haphazardly running through brush, eventually being knocked off by a low leafy branch, flinging him backwards, feet over head onto the ground, now with the long cloak wrapped over his upper body as he lay face down in the ground.

Lord Orta's band soon caught up to the grounded cloaked rider.

Lord Orta dismounted, ran up to the man on the ground, kicked him in the head through the cloak that covered him, and sneered, "Thought you could get away with that, you rat?"

He then shouted to his men, "I want him alive!"

His men also came to a halt and dismounted with haste, and ran at the fallen man with swords drawn.

Lord Ballad called, "He's not moving. Might be too late."

Ballad stooped down, rolled the man over, and lifted the cloak that had gone up over his head.

It was one of their own men, hands and mouth bound. It was Morgan.

An uproar ensued among those present.

"It's Morgan!"

Ballad felt for a pulse. He was alive.

"Dammit, wake him up! Get him some water!"

"Morgan!"

Morgan started to come to. As soon as his consciousness allowed, his face morphed into a scowl.

"It was Cidolfus," he raged.

Chapter 2 - At the Prison House

A man stood crouched with his face pressed against the bars of the prison window, trying to see who was being led to the gallows ahead of him and he wondered how many necks he would watch snapped at the end of their ropes before it was his turn. He warmed his cold hands with his breath and rubbed them together, then was struck with a mental picture of his hands completely cold and lifeless in a grave. He grasped and attempted to shake the unmovable metal bars of the window again, knowing it was futile, but knowing that not trying to escape was equally futile in the face of imminent death.

Behind him, the prison door opened with a creak, and an underdressed, frail-looking elderly man was shoved into the prison cell, landing with a light thud and a weak, high-pitched grunt on the ground as the prison door slammed shut.

Ricardo Iglesias stepped away from the window towards the old man, who was already visibly shivering.

After the guards left, Ricardo asked, "Are you alright, sir?"

"Our time has come," answered the old man weakly, staring blankly past Ricardo.

Even though he himself was cold, Ricardo removed his cloak and laid it on the shaking old man, who was muttering unintelligibly.

Ricardo leaned his back against the prison wall and slowly slumped down to seated position. The cold of the wall against his back made him pull slightly away from it as thoughts of his life that was about to be extinguished replayed through his mind.

He saw his beautiful wife Sofia dancing with him on their wedding day. He saw her holding their newborn daughter Ana with an exultant smile. He remembered his second daughter Natalia collecting pebbles into her skirt from a riverbed. He put his hands over his face and felt the agonizing grip of despair at the thought he'd never see them again. He wondered if his wife and daughters were among the crowd watching the public hangings.

The old man was still shivering in spite of Ricardo's cloak. Ricardo wondered whether the poor old man freezing to death was a better fate than the hanging that he was queued for. All the same, he tried to lift the old man towards him to share some body heat, but the old man's shaking body seemed almost paralyzed. Ricardo lay next to him and tucked the edges of the cloak in under the old man to try to help him retain warmth. They lay there for some time. Ricardo noticed the old man's shaking had stilled, his mutterings had ceased, and his eyes had closed.

"Sir?" Ricardo said, nudging the old man's shoulder several times. "Hey!" His fingers flew to the old man's throat to check for a pulse. He found a weak rhythm still beating.

He climbed on top of the old man to maximize the warmth, even though in his heart he could see they were both as good as dead already.

The sound of armor, boots, and keys clinking loudly rang down the corridor.

One of the approaching guards bellowed out a roaring laugh, then, "Attempted murder, now attempted rape! He likes men!"

"Just in time to put an end to the perverted killer!" another jeered.

"Let's get 'em hung!"

More laughter followed. They grabbed him by the arms and started leading him forcefully out the cell towards the corridor that led outside to where a gallows awaited him.

Ricardo thought about fighting. Had it not been for his fear that they would go after his family, he would have. His jaw was clenched and his dark eyes were full of fire, but he went with them quietly.

Chapter 3 - Lady Vivian's Entourage

As the guards were making their way down the hall, roughly grasping onto Ricardo from both sides, a voice from behind them called, "Hold up, you're all needed up here, now!"

"But it's this murderer rapist's turn to die!" one of them called back.

"Lady Vivian is here. Throw him back in the cell for now!"

The guards turned around and as they opened the cell door, one of them stuck out his leg in front of Ricardo and another gave him a sudden push on the back to land him facedown on the ground, causing them all to erupt into another round of laughter as the door slammed shut before heading the other way down the prison corridor.

As the guards approached the prison's main entrance, they took in the sight.

A grand white carriage with covered windows pulled by six white horses adorned with jewelled harnesses and bridles stood in front of the prison house. A lavish black carriage pulled by four unmatched horses wearing matching black and gold caparisons stood behind that.

Their parties were presumably still inside, except for the elegant lady who stood in the centre of everything and a large armed man in full body armor, including over his face, who held a delicate tasselled lavender parasol over her head, hiding her face from view except for her chin and numerous tendrils of wavy dark brown hair.

What could be seen was her ornate and enormous-skirted gown of soft violet that reached the ground and piles of shiny jangling bangles on her wrists. She stood with the poise of a queen, chin held high, shoulders back, and was in the process of reprimanding the prison keeper.

"...seating is hard and terribly uncomfortable. No cushioning at all, in this day and age! And how are we supposed to see anything past such dreadful crowds? The viewing area is quite unacceptable."

"My apologies, madam. We should be able to clear some space for your party. And cushions..." he scratched his head.

He addessed the guards who had been escorting Ricardo.

"Get some cushions for the lady and her party. And go down to the spectator seating and clear some of the front row benches. Go, now!

"What cushions? Where do we -"

"Figure it out, go, go, go!"

The group of guards left to fulfil their mission.

The lady in violet gave a slight nod, then strode towards the first grand carriage. The large man holding the parasol followed her closely until she and the parasol had disappeared into the carriage, then stood in front of the carriage door.

Inside the carriage, the lady was hurriedly unpinning the elaborate heap on her head, soon releasing a massive dark brown wig, which she tossed aside, letting her own golden waves cascade down her back. She gave a soft tap-tap on the carriage door, opened it a crack, and whispered, "I need you to unbutton the back!"

The man outside looked back and forth, and seeing no eyes on him, he swiftly stepped into the carriage and closed the door, then pulled off his helmet.

She glanced up at his bearded face and firmly soft brown eyes, then turned her back to him and lifted up her hair out of the way with her now bare arms.

He started with the top button and unlooped it, following speedily with the successive buttons which continued down to her waist.

As the material of the dress started to fall to the sides and the white corset underneath started to show, she whispered, "I need out of this too," indicating the corset.

"We are in a hurry, you know!" he whispered back.

"Need to be able to run and ride!"

He quickly started unlacing the corset strings.

"Don't look!" she whispered.

His eyebrows raised, amused, as he hurriedly continued undoing the row. "Kinda hard to fiddle with these tiny strings with my eyes closed, Elena!"

He fiddled a bit longer while she gathered and tied her hair into a smaller bunch that would be hidden under her helmet, which she put on. He realized their urgency and pulled out a dagger and sliced through the corset material.

"Thanks," she whispered as she started to lower and step out of the elegant gown. "Turn around."

When he did, she quickly pulled on gray wool hosen, loose baggy trouser shorts over top of those to hide her female shape, a linen tunic, a small man's breastplate, cuisses, boots, a cloak, a dagger, sword, and bow and arrows.

When she was changed, he put his helmet on and stepped outside. She followed.

He turned to face her.

"Stay behind me. If anything should happen to me, you run. Got it?"

Elena looked directly into his eyes and gave a terse nod in agreement, knowing she would do no such thing in such an event.

He entered the prison house, where the only person who could be seen in the main entryway was the prison keeper, who was making entries into the log book for the next load of incoming prisoners, expected to arrive at any moment. She stood near the doorway to keep an eye on the building's exterior.

The large man adeptly pulled out his sword and struck the prison keeper with the hilt, dropping him to the floor. He went behind the desk, crouched down, pulled the keys off his waistband, and ran down the corridor.

Ricardo was laying next to an old man who was covered in a cloak. As Ricardo lifted his head and saw him unlocking the cell door, he exclaimed, "Cid!" and got up quickly.

The noise of distant trotting horses approaching could be heard.

"You came!" Ricardo said with enormous relief, and embraced his friend as soon as the cell door was open.

Cid returned his embrace briefly. "Of course I came for you, fool!" Then Cid took off down the corridor. Seeing Ricardo hesitate, Cid stopped.

"What are you waiting for? Let's go! Or did you want to die?"

Ricardo looked down at the old man. He quickly stooped down and started trying to pick him up.

"What're you doing?"

"We gotta take him with us."

Cid was ahead and could see the doorway. Elena wasn't there. Just then, she ran from behind the corner and whispered loudly, "They're coming! Hurry!"

No one could see Cid's equivalent to an eyeroll behind his helmet's face shield, but they heard a tiny growl as he turned back to pick up the old man from Ricardo, who was struggling to hold him.

Elena ran to embrace Ricardo with a smile.

Cid lifted the old man over his shoulder with ease and ran to the second carriage and put him in it. Elena and Ricardo followed Cid, and after the old man was inside, Cid told him, "You're gonna have to drive!"

Ricardo climbed into the black carriage's driver seat after the old man was safely in the carriage with the door closed.

Elena started jogging to the first white carriage, but halted as she saw what had arrived.

A cage on wheels filled with chained men, pulled by two horses, was escorted by six guards on horseback.

Seeing the unusual caravan parked in front of the prison house and two armed people acting peculiar, one of them called out, "What's going on here?"

Cid answered casually, "We have had a fantastic visit here and are now heading out. Take care, guys!"

Behind her helmet's face mask, Elena couldn't suppress a smile, but said nothing, and in spite of the smile felt her hands prepare to grip her weapons.

Cid opened the white carriage's door and motioned for Elena to enter. She paused, wondering if the arriving posse would really just let them leave. She got in, but moved one of the window coverings a little so she could see through a crack.

He got in the driver seat and commanded the horses to start moving.

The carriage driven by Ricardo took off after the first one.

They made it some distance before they heard a commotion behind them at the prison house. Men were shouting.

Elena moved the back window covering, but couldn't see past the large dark carriage Ricardo was driving. She moved the covering of a side window, opened it, and stuck her head out to see.

She saw the prison keeper outside the prison gesturing wildly with his arms, and pointing at his head and at the prison house and at their carriages, but was too far to hear what he was shouting to the guards who'd arrived.

The six guards on horseback started coming after them.

Elena opened the front carriage window and told Cid, "They are on to us. The guy you knocked out woke up! Six in pursuit. Shall I shoot?"

Chapter 4 – The Horse Breeder

“Do you have a clear shot?”

“Ric's kind of blocking my view with the other carriage but I can see two of them to my left.”

Elena moved to the other side of the carriage and opened that window and peered out. “And one on my right. The other three are behind Ric.”

“If any die and we get caught, it will be us in line for the gallows.”

“They can't catch us if they're all dead.”

“Do you have the six hundred arrows it would take for you to hit that many targets?”

“Do you want to switch places with me?”

“I would if your driving weren't worse than your aim!”

Mildly irked, Elena took aim at the most visible rider's right shoulder and released the arrow just as their speeding carriage was jostled by a bump in the road. It missed completely, but alerted the riders they were being shot at, and they were heard shouting as much to each other.

She reloaded the bow, aimed again, released, and hit the shoulder of that rider, knocking him off his horse.

“Got one.”

“Looks like I taught you something!” Cid replied.

She took aim again, but the other riders moved to behind the black carriage so she couldn't see them anymore.

“Cid, if you slow down, Ric can pass us so I can see to shoot!”

“Gotcha. On it.”

Elena started yelling and motioning to Ricardo to pass them.

Once the black carriage started moving out of her way, she took aim at the nearest rider's shoulder and hit her target. He teetered on the horse, then started to slow down. The other four remaining riders, on seeing the aim of the shooter, also slowed and seemed to call off the chase for the moment.

“They're turning around,” Elena announced.

“They'll be back with more guys. We need to ditch these carriages or we'll be really easy to find,” Cid said.

Ric didn't know where they were going, so he slowed down and let Cid pass.

“Yeah, the plan was to hide them at Josiah's place until we could get them back to their owners.”

“Josiah is the friend you were referring to before? He agreed to this?”

“I didn't exactly tell him what we were doing, but yes,” Elena answered.

“You didn't tell him...oh my, Elena. Josiah is great but you know he's in Lord Orta's pocket.”

“I trust him.”

“Which is why you didn't tell him exactly what it was for,” Cid retorted.

Elena didn't have a good response to that, so said instead, “What are we supposed to do with that old guy Ric has in there?”

“He can be Josiah's new buddy,” Cid grinned.

They had driven for a good hour when Josiah's large house became visible in the distance. It was a large private estate nestled in acres upon acres of gently rolling hills dotted with numerous pastured horses and edged by woods on three sides.

A maid was hanging up clothes outside and a young lad was leading a horse along the road towards the pastures.

Cid parked the white carriage near the sizable house, and hopped down from the seat. Elena opened the door and stepped out.

“He is expecting us, right?” Cid asked.

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Why does he think we're here?” Cid started moving towards Ric's black carriage.

Ric jumped down from the driver's seat of the black carriage and climbed into the carriage to check on the old man.

Elena followed Cid to the black carriage. "I am here," Elena grinned, "to practice my swordsmanship. He doesn't think anyone else is coming."

"I'm gonna go talk to Ric for a sec," Cid said. "You should go talk to Josiah. Tell him I'm here."

Elena took off her helmet and walked to the large front doors of Josiah's house. A little window in the door opened and the doorkeeper asked, "Who's there?"

She goofily annunciated each letter.

"Elena Hayward of Anwick."

"Master Bennett is expecting you. Come in," he said as he opened the door.

"Thank you kindly, sir," Elena said with a nod.

She stepped into the vast and elegant house and remembered colorful parties with feasting, music, and dancing from days gone by.

Josiah emerged into view walking regally yet casually with a pleased look growing on his face as he approached Elena.

"Elena," he smiled.

Elena curtsied with a smile while Josiah picked up her hand and kissed it.

"It's good to see you, Josiah."

"Likewise, you little pretender." Josiah's voice flowed like honey as he grinned a charming grin.

Elena wondered if he knew more about their recent escapade than she thought, but suspected he was referring to past events.

"How have things been going with you?" Elena inquired.

"Just sold a stallion for double what I expected. The mares produced well last year. I did lose one from one of my top breeders last week, though."

"Belladonna?"

"Yeah," he answered. His smooth voice sounded disappointed.

"What did the foal die from?"

"I'll show you," he said with a smile as he led her to another grand hall.

He gestured at the wall.

Elena looked up and saw a wolf's pelt hanging.

"It was this exact wolf?"

"Sure was," Josiah said. "This is what happens to anyone who crosses me."

"I'll remind your maids not to accidentally leave a speck of dust in a corner so as not to imperil their lives."

"You do that and your carcass will be my next trophy," Josiah grinned again.

"I may not be as easy to exterminate as you think," Elena retorted.

"For me, Elena, besting you will always be like swatting a fly."

"Maybe the flies where I come from are a little faster than you remember!"

An amused expression fell on Josiah's face and he walked down the hall and pulled some body protection off the racks on the walls, and pulled two swords down.

He walked a little nearer and tossed her a sword, which she caught by the hilt, then fastened on his chosen protective pieces to cover his chest, back, arms, and head.

Last, he came up to Elena and added some protection to her arms.

She slid her helmet back on.

"Ready?" Josiah's tone was more serious and low now.

Elena felt a slight shudder ripple through her.

She gripped her sword and took a step forward and crouched slightly while holding her sword hilt straight up shoulder height.

"Cid is coming," she said.

"Cidolfus is coming now?"

She nodded.

"I didn't realize you two..."

"No!" Elena maintained. "It's not...no...we are friends...he's been teaching me."

Elena couldn't see his face, but she sensed a sudden tension.

Josiah didn't say anything, but stood poised with his sword in fight stance, motionless.

Just then, there was a knock at the door. The doorkeeper went to open the little window. "Who's there?"

"Cidolfus," came the answer.

Elena stared at the door for a moment, then glanced at Josiah. She couldn't read him behind his face mask.

Chapter 5 - Skirmish at Josiah's

The doorkeeper opened the door.

Elena had left her weapons in the carriage, on purpose so she would have a reason to go outside to check on Ric, but noticed Cidolfus had his on him. The warrior standing tall in the doorway, with his helmet under one arm, made Elena feel a flutter of something she couldn't quite name. His expression managed to be both firm and soft at the same time. The power behind his eyes made Elena's blood tingle. An image of herself running her hands down his beautiful beard flashed in her mind. What? She asked herself. No. She pushed that thought away and stepped towards Josiah and handed him back his sword.

"I actually want to use my own. Be right back."

She walked towards the doorway and past Cid without looking at him.

Elena walked to the black carriage first and knocked on the door.

Ric peeked before opening the door. Elena climbed in. She hugged Ric again.

She looked at the old man half-laying, half-sitting on the seat.

"How is he? How are you?"

"Both starving," Ric said. "He seems weak. He needs water and food and some clothes."

Elena crouched down and rifled through the underseat storage compartment and found some of Cid's clothes for the old man, as well as a skin of water, and handed them to Ric.

"Here you go. I'll try to get you some food but it might take awhile since I can't let Josiah know you're here. And of course, it's not my house!"

"What's the plan?"

"We are gonna have to improvise as we go. Josiah doesn't know you're here. Yeah, you better stay in here. And him too," Elena said, gesturing the old man. "I know it's less than ideal but we have to figure out how to get out of this alive! There are some complications now and this old guy is one of them! What are we supposed to do with him?"

"I don't know. But Elena?"

"Yes, Ric?"

"Thanks. For coming for me. You guys saved my life."

"You woulda done the same for me, Ric. Look, I have to go in or Josiah will wonder what's going on. I'll try to come back as soon as I can."

Elena stepped out and closed the black carriage door. She walked to the white carriage and entered it. She picked up her own sword, then headed back to the house.

She knocked on the door. The doorkeeper peered out and then opened it upon recognizing Elena.

She heard pleasant-sounding male laughs as the door opened from further in the house, though she couldn't see Cid or Josiah.

Elena remembered the older doorkeeper Josiah used to have, and wondered what had happened to him.

"Thank you, sir," Elena nodded at the doorkeeper, then walked down the hall towards where the jovial laughter was coming from.

Josiah apparently had taken Cid to see his new canine wall decoration as they were now standing in front of it looking at it.

"Yeah, you will end up on that wall, Cid, if you do anything to annoy Josiah. So watch it," Elena grinned.

"I'd like to see him try. Last tournament didn't go too well for him," Cid smiled.

"Heeeey," Josiah protested. "The sun was in my eye that day."

"I'd like to see it, too," said Elena, "but I know one of you will come up with an excuse to avoid being embarrassed by your opponent. Let's see who is more scared. Bring forward your excuses now!"

Josiah's gaze on her was unwavering. "Elena, moments ago you were eager to fight me yourself when you suddenly ran out the door. Looks to me like you're the one who's fixing to dodge after your big talk."

"Of course not!" Elena threw back, drawing her sword from its sheath and tossing the sheath down towards the nearest wall. "Nonsense. I just know when I'm outclassed by a the arrival of a superior force."

"Funny you don't recognize the same about me," Josiah said, covering his face with his helmet.

"I've beat you before. I can do it again," Elena asserted as she slid hers on too, and adopted fight stance.

Josiah waited for Elena to deliver the first strike. He blocked it easily and slid his sword down in a sudden twist that nearly made her drop her sword, but she gripped it with all her might and held on to it, jumping back into a cat-like crouch, and sprung with a leap to behind Josiah and aimed to strike an opening, but his blade was already there.

She knew locking blades with sheer strength was not a feasible strategy against a much stronger, larger opponent. She had to be fast. She depended on footwork and speed.

Cid had taught her some footwork and had her practice speed and dexterity.

Elena danced around with unexpected twirls and somersaults and jumps, managing to avoid or block Josiah's blade over and over. Elena remembered Josiah's hits having more power and precision than she was experiencing now. Have I gotten that good? Elena asked herself.

Cid watched her dodge and stop Josiah's first handful of blows, and was surprised at how clumsy he seemed when she repeatedly avoided being hit while also getting in position to deliver some of her own. He then quickly noticed something Elena didn't.

"Ahh," Josiah groaned as one hit near his neck and shoulder, hitting worryingly close to unarmored flesh.

Elena resisted the urge to ask him if he was okay, and used that moment to attack again, a winning chest strike to his breastplate. She felt both surprised and triumphant. Josiah was one of the top fighters in tournaments and well-respected for his skill.

Elena looked over at Cid. She was in disbelief about having won round one. His expression revealed little. Why doesn't he look more proud of me? Elena thought, crestfallen.

"Re," Josiah said, moving his sword from his left hand to his right hand and using his left to rub his shoulder where he'd been hit.

Elena forced her gaze away from the unresponsive Cid and turned back to Josiah.

"Okay," Elena said, not having noticed that Josiah had played round one left-handed. She knew he was playing from the left side, but it hadn't yet dawned on her that he wasn't left-handed like some opponents were.

With his right hand controlling his sword, Josiah had masterful control. His blows, though delivered at a fraction of his full strength, made contact. He didn't aim to win quickly. He wanted to wear her down so she would feel weak, so she would know the power she was up against.

Elena had to adjust her movements to his right-handed attack. She felt a little confounded and out of sorts as to what had changed for round two, when suddenly it hit her. Josiah's blade struck at her, but she blocked it just in time. As she held her sword against his, catching her breath, she panted, "You...played round one...left-handed!"

Josiah smiled with a wicked glint in his eye.

"So I did."

Having tested her abilities with his weaker hand, she had surpassed his expectations, but was still not any real challenge for his battle arm.

He wanted to test something else. He landed one of his blows to Elena's unarmored left buttock and thigh, but he wasn't looking for her reaction. He didn't hear the yelp he expected, just a quiet growling exhale.

"My bad," Josiah said, sounding sincerely concerned. He was looking for Cid's reaction. He saw what he expected to see. Cid's hardening eyes and tightening jaw were barely noticeable, but Josiah noticed.

He kept her moving, jumping, twirling, dancing. He now blocked her blows with ease, even her sneakiest moves.

When she somersaulted to avoid his blade to a position where she could aim for his unguarded side, he anticipated where the pointy end of her weapon would be by the time she got there.

He was surprised at how long she lasted at the end of his sword before he saw her slowing down.

Elena went for a sudden blow, Josiah moved back, grinning, his hand lightly holding his sword's tip relaxed near the ground in a show of being entirely unworried.

She moved forward with poorly calculated, increasing frustration, striking air as Josiah moved to avoid her blade.

She chased him as he effortlessly avoided her mad swings without even lifting his sword.

Suddenly he flicked his wrist as her sword's swing came at him and knocked her sword out of her hand, sending it clattering loudly to the floor.

"You're using too much energy. A smart opponent can just tire you out, Elena."

"What option do I have?" Elena.

"You could leave the fighting to the men," Josiah grinned, knowing that would infuriate her.

Her face was pink from the prolonged exertion, and now the ferocity in her face amused Josiah immensely. She struggled to come up with a satisfactory retort after having been bested so thoroughly by a bigger and stronger male person that she simply sputtered, "Okay! Let's see it then! You two fight!"

"Cid is all fresh," Josiah said with a smile.

"Ahh, you're warmed up," Cid said.

"Keep the excuses coming, o noble men," Elena gibed. "At least the women here dare enter the fray!"

"Hey, I didn't insult womankind," Cid protested.

"Accepting biological reality isn't really an insult," Josiah said in a belittling tone that somehow managed to ooze his usual charm anyway. "I enjoy women. I also enjoy being stronger."

Josiah slid his sword into its sheath and set it aside.

"So, you two fighting or excuse-making?"

"You guys are probably hungry by now. Ready for dinner?" Josiah asked in a playful, intentional excuse tone.

"I could eat," Cid grinned.

"Beatrice!" Josiah called.

Shortly thereafter, a young maid appeared. Beatrice had shoulder-length dark brown hair and bowed her head toward Josiah upon entering.

"We have two extra for dinner, Beatrice," Josiah said in that smooth voice of his. "Let's bring out some of that good wine we've been saving."

"Yes, sir," Beatrice said softly, and exited.

"Josiah is afraid of you, Cid. Has to hide behind the servants to avoid sparring with you!"

"He has reason to be, after that last crushing defeat." Cid inserted with an impish grin, recalling his victory over Josiah in the last tournament's semi-finals.

"You really wanna go, Cidolfus? You got it, brother!"

Josiah picked up his weapon and unsheathed it. He tossed the sheath aside. He stepped up and gave a coltish nod at Cid, indicating he was ready to battle.

Cid took a step forward, stood still, glaring dauntlessly toward Josiah.

Elena, watching Cid's magnificent manly form in his resplendent armor, unexpectedly noticed her breath catch as she admired the beautiful bearded warrior square off with Josiah like two male lions about to encounter each other's power.

Cid's face silently spoke to the unbridled maleness of this sublime warrior.

Cid slowly pulled his sword from its sheath and tossed the sheath aside.

Elena swallowed hard and felt her blood start pumping a little faster.