In the Royal Order, soldiers are born and bred for combat. Literally. Centuries of carefully arranged marriages between the Order’s male and female warriors, along with some extremely strict rules and the best combat training known to man, have allowed the kingdom of Lince to maintain the best fighting force in the world.
Moments after their arranged marriage—an event conducted with as much emotion as being fitted for a new set of armor—swordswoman Hesk and axeman Bram are sent on a mission to rescue a princess.
As wedding nights go, it gets bloodier than most.
Hesk smiled when her husband-to-be walked into the chapel and she saw that it was Bram. The Order elders, it seemed, wanted big babies.
Bram stood head and shoulders above most men who weren’t Order-born and at least half a head above those who were: a mountain of pure, massive muscle. His size exaggerated every movement, including the hurried clip to his steps. When he reached the front of the chapel, he bowed his head to the three elders. “I’m sorry, Elders,” he said in a voice not as deep as Hesk would have expected. “I was delayed at morning training. One of the children’s sword slipped—”
“Yes, we heard,” Elder Krilik cut him off. “But you are here now, so perhaps we can get on with it?”
A faint flush of color came to Bram’s cheeks, but he gave no other response. He took his place beside Hesk, glancing at her for the first time. Recognition sparked in his eyes. “You’re Hesk, right?”
“I saw you lay Ricter flat. Impressive.” Bram leaned closer and whispered, “He complained about his sore tailbone for a week.”
Elder Krilik cleared her throat. “I don’t know about you, Bram, but the rest of us have other matters to attend to after this.”
“Sorry, Elder,” Bram said, ducking his head.
In a cool, official voice, Krilik said, “Bram of the Axe. Hesk of the Sword. It has been determined by the Elders of the Royal Order that it is in the Order’s interest for you to become one another’s assigned spouses and the children resulting from your union to be given in service to the Order and the royal family. Do you submit to this assignment and arrangement?”
“Yes, Elder,” Bram and Hesk said.
“Do you willingly agree to enter into a marriage union with one another?”
“Yes, Elder,” they said. Not that they could have said anything else. The words were a formality because the law required marriages to be entered into willingly by both parties, but no one in the Order had refused an assigned spouse in over three hundred years.
Krilik held up a hand before each of them. “By the power of the Royal Order and the royal family of Lince, I acknowledge your union in marriage.” Her hands fell to her sides, and she turned to the elder on her right. “Make sure this gets added to the news ledger board as soon as possible. Yesterday’s was missed. I understand it resulted in quite a disturbance in the men’s barracks.”
“Of course,” said Elder Jant.
The elders dispersed without any further concern for the newlyweds.
Bram let out a long, relieved breath and ruffled his shaggy hair. “I know it’s foolish, but being around elders always makes me feel like a child again.”
Hesk chuckled. “Bram, trust me, no one ever mistakes you for a child.”
He raised an eyebrow at her, nodding to indicate her own impressive mass. “You either, huh? Heaven above, what are the elders thinking?”
“Big babies,” Hesk said.
“Ha!” Bram laughed. “No kidding. Maybe they’re trying to eliminate the need for battering rams.”
Hesk wouldn’t have been surprised. The elders were always trying to improve the Order in some way. Better weapons. Better armor. Better warriors. It had been that way from the very beginning, almost eight hundred years ago, when King Dasek had gathered the best warriors from around the world to form his own elite warrior class. It was the reason the Royal Order was still the best fighting force in the world.
It wasn’t all bigger and stronger, though. There were small, lithe fighters whose specialties were speed, infiltration, and stealth. Their archers were lean and steady, with sharp eyes and ears. They had aquatic fighters who could swim like otters and hold their breath for twice as long as anyone else. The Order had warriors who specialized in every weapon imaginable, for every circumstance imaginable. If there was a task that involved—or even might involve—fighting, the Royal Order could get it done better than anyone else.
And sometimes that meant bigger and stronger. The elders weren’t going for anything creative when they paired Hesk with Bram. Not like when they paired Hesk’s friend Palla, a willowy archer, with the short, stocky, and solid-as-a-boulder Crin. As huge and muscular as Bram was, Hesk was his female equivalent. She stood taller than all other women in the Order and most of the men, with enough muscle mass to put any non-Order-born man to shame.
She walked with Bram out into the daylight. “Mid-day,” he observed. “Want to get some lunch?”
Smiling apologetically, she shook her head. “I already ate. And I’ve got a sparring match with Thia I have to get to.”
His eyes widened. “She’s sneaky. Watch her left foot.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“I guess I’ll see you tonight. We’re in room three-eleven now, right?”
They started walking in opposite directions down the cobblestone pathway when the chapel doors opened and Elder Jant burst out. “Stop!” he ordered. Hesk and Bram spun to him and stood at attention. Jant held up a piece of paper. “Urgent orders. We have a mission for you two.”
It was a simple rescue mission. A foreign princess who was betrothed to the second-eldest prince had come to Lince for her wedding. While strolling through the market, she’d gotten herself snatched by brigands. It wasn’t the sort of thing that would have happened if Order members had been guarding her, but apparently whoever her caretaker at the palace was hadn’t thought a shopping trip dangerous enough to merit proper guards.
Not that Bram or Hesk harbored any resentment to the unknown caretaker for the oversight. It was their duty to complete the missions they were sent on, not to question the decisions and circumstances which led to those missions.
Some peasants had spotted the brigands heading north toward Eld Forest. By early afternoon, Bram and Hesk were riding up the north road as fast as their enormous war horses could carry them. Which wasn’t particularly fast, but the brigands were a large group including at least two wagons, so they weren’t concerned.
Countryside gradually gave way to woodland, and by evening the trees had grown dense along the roadside. In the dim light of dusk, they could see fires in the distance.
Hesk tugged on her reins, slowing her horse to a walk. Bram followed her lead with the immediacy of instinct. “They’re making camp,” she said.
He nodded. “They’ve pulled off into the forest. Our horses will not be of much help in such close quarters.” He snorted. “Nor do we need their help for common thieves.”
Hesk concurred, and they dismounted and led their horses off the road, looping the reins around a branch. The horses were strong enough to snap the reins or break the branch if they needed to, but it would dissuade them from idly wandering away. Hesk patted the frothing neck of her mare. “There’s a good girl, Fion. Once we get the princess, we’ll see about getting you some water.”
Bram adjusted his gear, resettling what had been shifted during the ride. They hadn’t come out in full armor—not to fight a band of thieves—but they wore everything short of their plate mail: linen garments under chain mail tunics and leggings, and thick leather jerkins over the top. On Bram’s back were strapped his two great axes, each technically a two-handed weapon.
They went back to the road and continued toward the thieves’ camp. As effortlessly and smoothly as other men pull a dagger, Bram reached back and plucked the two massive axes from their straps. Hesk allowed herself a small smile. She had not seen him wield both at once before. Not in action. She was looking forward to it. When the sounds of voices came to their ears, Hesk drew her longsword from its sheath on her back and slung her round, iron shield across her left forearm.
They didn’t approach cautiously. If the elders had thought this mission needed stealth, they wouldn’t have sent Bram and Hesk. The thieves had left a lookout near the road. They spotted him scurrying off as they approached. By the time they reached the thieves’ camp, a line of twelve men were arranged to greet them, swords drawn and mouths sneering.
Hesk and Bram came to a stop, standing inside the rough circle formed by two carts and a few rough-made tents. Around them in all directions, more men, older boys, and a few women were waiting with hands on weapons. Orange light from two campfires cast a glow of damnation on the unfriendly faces.
“Give us the princess,” said Bram. He didn’t shout or command or sound in the least bit threatening. He didn’t need to use his voice or his words when the mere sight of him with axes drawn conveyed the “or else” in far more explicit terms.
A rangy, middle-aged man with a scarred face stepped out from the line. “What princess?”
Hesk pointed with her sword. “The one behind that cart. I can see the skirts of her fine dress.”
A small, frightened cheep came from the skirts.
“Oh, that one,” said the thief. “No.”
Bram shrugged and started toward the poorly hidden princess. An arrow struck him in the shoulder. It barely penetrated the thick hide of his jerkin and had never had any hope of getting through his mail. It was a statement more than anything, the flag dropping to signal the start of the bout.
Brushing the arrow away with one axe, Bram spun to the nearest thief and used his other axe to lop off the man’s head. In the same moment, Hesk charged toward the thief who’d shot the arrow, sword and shield raised. A second bolt pinged off her shield, but before the archer could nock another, she skewered him through the gut.
Another thief swung his short sword at her. She severed his arm at the elbow before he could finish his swing. She turned from his scream of pain to face another five thieves. A thrown knife flew toward her face, but she raised her shield, knocking it off course, and it lodged in the screaming man’s throat. With one sword thrust, she impaled two of the thieves attacking her, then slammed her shield into the face of a third while planting her foot and shoving the dying thieves off of her blade. The next two hesitated, a glimmer of sense entering their heads, but Hesk didn’t. Before they could decide whether to run or keep fighting, she stepped up and gutted them both with one swing of her sword.
When she finished off all the thieves nearby, she turned to see how Bram fared. Though bodies were piled at his feet, some of the older, bigger thieves were still coming at him. Bram swung his axes with a grace and strength that momentarily stunned Hesk with the beauty of it. The thieves shouted and screamed as they fought, but aside from a few grunts or sharp breaths, Bram was silent. That was the way of the Order. Shows of intimidation were for lesser fighters.
Ten seconds later, the only thief still alive was the one that had spoken to them. He stood backed against a wagon, looking around desperately for salvation. Hesk could see it in his eyes, the moment he decided on one last ditch effort. An expression even meaner than before crossed his features, and he darted toward the wagon the princess was crouched behind. His nimble fingers plucked a small knife from his boot as he ran. Bram turned and saw him, but the thief was quick and already half-way to the other wagon. Hesk didn’t have to think about her actions. Somewhere in the back of her brain, calculations were made, and her muscles did what they knew they needed to. She dropped her sword, took her shield in her right hand while releasing it with her left, and threw it spinning toward the thief. It slammed into the side of his head, knocking him toward Bram. As smoothly as if they’d been practicing that particular move for months, Bram stepped into the thief’s new path and cut off the thief’s head with one graceful, arching swing before the man’s body hit the dirt. The head bounced and rolled under the wagon he’d been running for.
The princess screamed. It was the only sound in the suddenly peaceful camp.
Bram and Hesk wiped their blades clean on the clothes of dead thieves and sheathed them. The princess kept screaming. Bram picked up Hesk’s shield, dusted it off, and handed it to her. She thanked him and returned it to its strap on her back. Then they went around the wagon to retrieve the princess.
When she saw them, the princess stopped screaming and froze like a startled deer. She was of an age with Bram and Hesk, though with the soft, slender build that only royalty could afford to have. The princess’s hair didn’t seem to know whether it wanted to be blonde or brown, so it had decided to be something in between. Her dress was indeed fine, though muddy at the hem.
The princess looked from the two of them to the severed head at her feet and back to them. “Don’t kill me!” she cried, backing away with hands out as if that could ward them off.
Hesk held her own hands up to show they were empty. “We’re not going to hurt you. I’m Hesk, and this is Bram. We were sent to rescue you.”
“And now we have,” added Bram.
The princess stopped backing away and gaped at them. “Save me? Oh no. Ohhhh no.” She caught sight of the carnage in the camp and promptly vomited. “No, no, no,” she said, still bent over.
“You’re . . . welcome,” Bram ventured.
“These thieves kidnapped you,” Hesk told the princess, unsure why she had to explain this.
The princess tried to stand upright but swayed and put a hand on the wagon for support. “They weren’t thieves; they were merchants. And they didn’t kidnap me. I asked them to take me with them.”
Hesk and Bram looked over the wagon to the bodies lying strewn around the camp. To the numerous swords and knives. To the rough, dark clothing. To the many, many scars. “No,” said Bram. “I’m pretty sure those were thieves.”
The princess let out a loud groan. “I’m telling you, I ran away! I convinced my chaperone to let me go to the market, then I slipped away and found these merchants who were about to leave the city, told them who I was, and begged them to take me with them!”
Bram and Hesk shared a confused look. “You ran away?” Hesk asked.
“Yes,” said the princess.
“From my wedding!”
Bram and Hesk shared another look. “I don’t understand,” said Hesk.
The princess ran her hands over her rumpled dress and leaned against the wagon, facing away from the massacre on the other side. “I’m Princess Illia of Gen. Do you know of Gen?”
They both nodded. “Very small kingdom,” said Bram. “Borders Lince to the northwest.”
“Yes. We’ve been getting harassed by a kingdom on the other side of us called Moldok. They’ve been raiding our villages, burning our crops. For the past few years, they’ve been getting more and more aggressive. My father, the king, decided to make an alliance with Lince. Gen gets troops and supplies to strengthen us against Moldok, and Lince gets me. My own father offered me up like some—some piece of property. Just shipped me off to Lince to marry Prince Drennik.”
“You don’t like Prince Drennik?” Hesk asked.
“I’ve never even met Prince Drennik! And now I’m supposed to marry him and spend the rest of my life with him and bear his children! And all without anyone even asking what I thought about that!”
“And that’s why you ran away,” said Bram.
“Yes!” Princess Illia sounded relieved that he understood. “So please don’t take me back. I can—can take one of these merchants’ horses and keep going on my own. You can tell them you couldn’t find me or . . . something . . .” She trailed off when she saw the frowns descending onto the faces of her rescuers.
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