Chapter 15

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"Gods damned bastard," I mutter under my breath as I tromp after Hale in the cold morning forest. Dew drips off of branches and the sky slowly lightens as the sun starts to rise. True to his word, Hale had woken me up at dawn and we slipped out of the barracks into the frosty morning.

My sleep had been filled with dreams of drowning again, leaving me shaken and anxious. 

I understand that now is the only time we really have for extra training, but does he have to look so gods damned refreshed and perky? He looks like he just rolled out of bed and had a hearty breakfast after a full nights sleep. I, on the other hand, look like I've been up all night playing drinking games with the boys.

"Where are we going?" I ask his back as he leads me off the path and into the forest. But he just waves a hand at me dismissively and keeps walking. I add arrogant and annoying to the list of insults I'm silently hurtling at him.

We walk for a few minutes, the steady incline making my thighs burn. Finally, the ground levels out and I see where Hale has been leading us. It's a small, flat clearing set on top of a hill behind the castle. Through the trees, I can see the tips of towers poking through. It's secluded and private, probably near impossible to find unless you know where it is. I wonder how Hale found it.

He answers my question like he's read my mind. "I stumbled across this my first week here. I have a hard time sleeping sometimes so I go wandering, just to clear my head, and found this place."

He says it briskly, factually, but it still feels like he's offering me a glimpse of himself. What is it that keeps him from sleeping at night? He averts his eyes but I see the familiar tension around them and think that maybe Hale understands a thing or two about nightmares.

He walks over to a flat boulder near the perimeter of the clearing, setting down the pack and two swords he carries. Gesturing me over, he unsheathes the smaller of the two swords with a dry rasp.

"The first thing you need to know before I start teaching you, is that your sword is going to become your best friend." He hands me the sword and I take it, feeling the soft leather of the grip under my fingers. "A sword is a perfect weapon if you learn to use it right." He gently grabs my fingers, adjusting their position. Our eyes meet as his warm fingers pause against mine. He looks away first.

"This is the foundation of the sword," he says, gesturing to where my hand is. "Your point of contact with it, how you'll control it and learn how it likes to beheld. But here-" he takes my free hand and presses my palm onto the smooth steel of the blade. "Here is what kills. If you become good enough, this can hack through an enemy or dance around someone else's blade like a silk scarf. You can defend and deflect attacks, or stab and slice your way through someone else's defense. It's not the sword that does the killing; you become the sword when you fight and if you know it well enough, you'll kill and you'll win."

Abruptly he pulls the sword out of my hands, a satisfied grin curling across his face when I protest. "But first, we're always going to start with some basic exercises to warm us up. I hope you aren't opposed to running laps twice a day."

Gods damn him, the stupid, smug bastard.  

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By the time Sebastian finishes his demonstration later in the day and it's time to spar, I feel ready to collapse. True to his word, Hale didn't take it easy on me; making me run back and forth across the small clearing until I was ready to collapse, then ruthlessly diving straight into exercises with my sword. Just looking at it makes my blistered hands ache.

"Where were you this morning?"Gareth asks as we group up. "I couldn't help but notice Hale wasn't anywhere to be found either." He raises his eyebrows suggestively. "Quite a coincidence, isn't it?" He asks, turning to Elias, his constant shadow.

Elias, a tall, lanky boy with dark brown eyes and a small splash of freckles across the bridge of his nose has a constant look of seriousness on his face. He and Gareth are great friends, though I can't help but wonder why. Gareth is loud and ridiculous, always smiling and making crude jokes- Elias is usually silent, scowling at everyone. But for some reason, Gareth makes him laugh and they are almost always together.

As expected, Elias rolls his eyes, not responding.

"Knock it off." I can't help glancing over my shoulder to make sure Hale isn't listening but he's over talking with Sebastian. "I asked Hale to help me catch up so he's training me in the morning before laps."

"Training? Is that what they're calling it these days?" Elias mutters, almost like he's talking to himself.

Gareth laughs, looking delighted. "He made a joke! I must be a good influence."

I shoot Elias a filthy look. "Really, you too now?" 

He just shrugs, the serious look back on his face, but I catch him glancing at Gareth sneakily, who's still chuckling to himself. Color blooms across his cheekbones.

"Elias has a point though," Gareth points out. "You're basically the damsel in distress falling into Hale's muscular arms. It can't be a coincidence that the person stoic, scowling Hale finally chooses to reveal his warm, caring heart to is a pretty girl."

"Where do you even come up with this stuff?" I scowl at him. Why am I friends with this dumb boy again? "Apparently what they say about brains and beauty not going together is true. And I think we both know what's you're missing, pretty boy."

"Did you hear that Elias? She thinks I'm pretty. Maybe Hale should be worried, clearly he has some competition." He flutters his eyelashes at me ridiculously.

"You're right, he does..." I pause dramatically, then turn to Elias. "I mean, did you really think I'd be able to resist your charm and warm personality, Elias? I just can't help but admire a man with an easy smile.

He looks alarmed, taking a step back. His horror quickly turns to indignation as Gareth and I howl with laughter. Gareth actually bends over at the waist to try and catch his breath.

When I finally manage to reign in my chuckles, I feel much more awake and ready to face the rest of the day.

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