Chapter 14

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After explaining to Willow why I decided to stay with the recruits, I headed back to the clearing. She'd been surprised and concerned, but conceded once she realized I was serious. I promised to bring her stories and updates on all the good looking recruits, something she looked suitably thrilled about. 

My heart is telling me that this is the right decision, and after assuring myself that this is the best way to ultimately protect Willow, the impulse to go running back to her and tell her that I've changed my mind fades.

As I join Gareth and the other boys in the clearing, a sort of relief sweeps over me. Looking around at the young men that I'm starting to call my friends, I think that maybe the position isn't the only reason I've decided to stay.

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After speaking with Sebastian- who was surprised but whole-heartedly supported my decision to stay- I come to a realization; I need help. I'm woefully behind the other recruits since I started late, on top of being naturally behind due to my physical disadvantage. If I want to stand out and be eligible for the royal guard, dead last won't do. However, with Sebastian already too busy with General Wyngard gone and the rest of the recruits still amateurs, that really only leaves me with one option.

Feeling emboldened by my decision to stay and lighter than I have all week, I decide to just take a chance.  As everyone heads to dinner, I grab Hale's arm. "Can I talk to you for a second?"

As I'd hoped, curiosity gets the better of him and he allows me to lead him to the side of the clearing. 

Hale watches me with cool eyes as I debate how best to proceed. Sebastian told me that Hale being here is really more of a formality, a requirement he has to meet to move on. So despite the lack of experience that being a new recruit implies, he's been training almost as long as Sebastian. Apparently, a majority of their childhood was spent together, clashing swords and wrestling in the mud.

Taking a deep breath, I decide that for a man like Hale, bluntness would probably be most appreciated. He already disliked me so I had nothing to lose.

"First, I want to say that I completely understand your distrust of me. Sebastian explained the nature of your relationship and if there's anything I understand, it's being overprotective. I have a little sister that I would kill and die for." I keep my eyes locked with his, willing him to see the honesty in mine. "I can promise you, swear to you on my deceased mother, that he is my friend and I mean him no harm. Nor am I here for any nefarious reason. My situation is simply a strange one but one that I can't reveal out of respect for someone else. It really isn't my story to tell. I hope you can understand and respect that and trust your friend's judgement."

His expression doesn't change and I almost don't continue. Then I remember his hand pulling me out of the dirt, the way his eyes told me keep fighting. I choose to trust that glimpse of him I'd seen.

"That being said, I need your help. I'm behind and making progress too slowly. I'm tired of being unable to fight back and I plan on staying here until the end. And I'm guessing you're by far the best and most experienced recruit here."

"That I am," Hale finally says in a serious tone. But the lift of his eyebrow challenges me to call him out. Relief and something that feel like giddiness flashes through me at his playful response. I might actually pull this off.

"With such an abundance of experience, it really only seems fair to share." My own eyebrow goes up, mirroring him.

Hale sighs wearily, looking me up and down. I hold my breath, letting it out in an audible rush of relief when he nods. "I respect and appreciate your honesty. I'll help you."

A slow, surprised smile spreads across my face. 

"Plus, if Sebastian trusts you, that's good enough for me."

"I don't know, his taste seems a little questionable." I give him an obvious look over.

He laughs loudly and I realize that he's rather handsome when he isn't scowling. His angular features soften, that crooked smile making him look more boyish.

"Sebastian did warn me that talking to you is akin to walking through a blackberry thicket." Oh he said that, did he? These poor boys can't handle a little backtalk without going and crying to each other about it.

"I'll warn you," Hale continues, "I won't go easy on you just because you're a girl. I've seen your determination and guts, I know you can take it. But-" his eyes betray his amusement, "if you keep talking to me like that, I might get extra creative with your training."

My chin lifts. An image of Hale smirking while he makes me run with a boulder strapped to my back pops in my head. I'd like to see him try. "Like you said, I can take it. I've met ladies in dresses that scare me more than you." Lady Bedivere in specific pops into my mind. Any woman with a smile that sharp and heels that tall is meant to be feared.

Hale isn't impressed. "I don't want you to fear me. I want you to listen to me and learn."

Fair enough. "I can promise to try my best." And I will. That, at least, I can give him.

He nodded as if satisfied with my answer. "Then we'll start tomorrow." He smirks at me. "I'll wake you up at dawn."

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