Blinding flash of spring’s early morning sun caught the metal of his armor as he moved to avoid the attack. Parry, his mind warned him and his hand followed like a sheep to the shepherd. He felt the smoothed edge of his protective chest plate rub against the inside of his bicep. It didn’t hurt, at least not anymore. Older now, he had muscles there to protect from its bite.
The soft earth shifted underfoot as he added to his smooth battle dance. The weight of his chest plate had once made him slow. Had once made him an easy target but now his legs were strong, his back too and he moved with ease against the weight of his protective chest plate.
Another parry, strike! His mind focused on how he should proceed. His hand did as it was told because that was the way of things. Jab and a wide arc, swing and a miss, his mind admonished, followed by the inevitable thunk of wood versus metal. The attack struck Lyr on the side. If the opponent’s blade was made of metal, then he’d be bleeding. Luckily, it was only a sparring match this time.
Another flash of light caught his gaze. This one came from a set of wicked pearly fangs amidst a set of plump pink lips. The smile teased him. It was responsible for her beautiful emerald eyes disappearing beneath her lashes. It was a good strike, one worthy of praise, yet Lyr wasn’t sure he should be angry or not. No, he couldn’t be, not with her smiling at him like that.
The ginger cat stood across the field of battle; she flourished her blade in a victory dance before striking the pose of a well-trained knight. Her blade rested across her chest. It was a symbol, a salute of respect from soldier to captain. Captain? Lyr’s mind chastised the thought. Twenty years old and not an ounce of real-world combat experience between his ears. Even entertaining the slightest idea of being a captain was blasphemy to those that came before.
Still, Lyr smiled and returned the salute before slipping down to one knee and holding up the hilt of his wooden sword to the victor. The ginger cat touched her lips, stunned by the offer. A giggle slipped free as she graciously and gracefully took the blade.
Even amidst her tattered play clothes and worn soldier’s armor, there was a beauty. Her thin feminine, yet barely womanly frame filled Lyr’s old training armor almost perfectly. Her plume of wavy apricot hair threatened to tear free from the moppish bun that rested atop her head. It was endearing to see her highness so disheveled after a morning of play.
“What a glorious strike, Princess Roslynda.” A thick voice called from the edge of the courtyard.
Both the ginger cat and the calico looked away from each other towards the voice. A large man strode across the way. His polished leather boots sunk heavily into the morning dew soaked earth. His large Maine Coon ruffle was barely contained by velvet collar of his courtly garb. The scarlet fabric of his tunic was accented with maroon and trimmed in gold. It showed beautifully against the dark wavy grays of his thick fur. He stood before them with his broad chest out. One hand rested on the hilt of his sword at his hip. The other hand held slacked with his thumb tucked in the decorative belt across his midsection.
“Alteir,” The princess spoke coyly. “How many times must I tell you to call me Rose?”
His large amber eyes, shifted from the calico boy, still on his knees, to the Princess that stood before him in prestige. A smile found its way to his dark lips; it only worked to punctuate his long white fangs.
“For as long as I live. I shall never reduce your status by referring to you as your pet name.” His voice rumbled on an affectionate purr.
“Master tactician first, Godfather second, as always.” Rose giggled and did a curtsy.
Alteir responded with a bow. “As always, now let me have a look at you.” He swiveled his head on a thick neck as if studying her. “Odds blood, child. You’re the visage of Queen Victoria, god rest her soul.”
“Thank you,” Rose smiled. Her chest was so full of pride it strained against the old leather armor. “I like to think my mother would be proud.”
“Even in her absence, you know your mother well.” Alteir’s sharp pupils looked down to Lyr, who hadn’t moved an inch. “Though, I don’t think she would much care for this ragamuffin you pal around with. Come on, boy, get up and let me have a look at you!”
“I’m sorry,” Rose gasped, having forgotten about Lyr still on his knees. She rushed to help him up. “I completely forgot about you.”
Rose had no trouble pulling the calico to his feet. Even under the weight of his armor and his newly formed muscles. Even for his age, he was still thin and favored a much younger man physique. The shifting caused his mop of his orange hair tapered from white roots, to fall down over one of his yellow eyes. The other one was encircled by an orange patch of fur. They were the same orange patches that littered the entirety of his lanky form beneath his clothes.
“It’s all well and good, Rose. Never draw attention from royalty, they always say.” The boy’s voice was soft like cotton linens on a freshly made bed. It also betrayed how old he actually was. “A princess should never apologize to her underlings.”
“Not true, Lyr. A princess should always be willing learn from her mistakes. It shows she had faith in her people and is willing to learn.” The contest, if it could be called that, yet again tilted in Rose’s favor.
“Well said, Rose. It’s nice to see your lessons resonate with you so soundly.” Alteir smirked.
“Lessons, yes, but they’re my mother’s lessons that ring the loudest. Not the ones Simon forces me to endure.” Rose smirked in spite of herself.
“Forcing you to endure?” Another voice came from the direction of the door that led from the courtyard.
Lyr looked around Alteir’s broad frame to the cat that strode across the lawn in a delicate fashion. The nasally tone belonged to a black cat, impossibly thin beneath his pearl and plum courtly garbs. A pair of gold-rimmed spectacles was pinched onto the bridge of his nose, most likely the cause of the hum in his nasal cavity.
“I assure you, having you ignore my forced lectures day after day is no picnic for me either, Princess Roslynda.” The cat smiled warmly, in spite of the acid in his voice.
“I apologize for my careless words, Simon.” Rose recovered.
“No need. My wife never lets me forget how boring I am in my old age.” Simon chuckled.
“Hm, just in your old age, huh?” Alteir added, earning the ire of the professor’s pointed glare.
“Piss off, old…der man.” Simon pricked back.
Alteir rested a strong hand on the smaller male’s shoulder. They both shared the laugh of age-old friendship. It pushed a smile to Lyr and Rose’s lips. Their family-like banter felt warm like a hearth around the holidays. Lyr knew Alteir had been with the kingdom for a long time. He’d grown up alongside Simon and King Reiner; they were schoolmate or something like that, back in the day. When Reiner took the throne, he appointed them to his court the first day.
“It’s good to see you, old friend,” Simon smirked. “Please come by and see Margret when you get the chance, she’s missed you something awful.”
“Yes, I’ve been away often of late.” Alteir pulled at his chin fur. “I will. Tell her I’ll be by this evening.”
“She’s making lamb joint in a wine sauce, it should be spectacular.” Simon snickered.
“Odds blood, that woman can cook. How do you stay so thin?” Alteir rubbed his flat belly. “I’m glad she chose you over me, else I’d be a fat, lazy, contend house cat for the remainder of my years.”
“Well, we find a way to work it off.” Simon’s playfully lecherous comment caught a deep belly laugh from Alteir.
“Not in front of the children.”
“Yes, Simon, please.” Rose reeled at the implication. Her disgusted look mirrored on Lyr’s face.
“Easy children, we all grow old in the body, so it’s good to stay young at the heart,” Simon added a firm slap to Alteir’s shoulders.
“Truer words were never spoken.” Alteir sighed.
“But for now, lessons are on the horizon. We must go.” Simon looked at the princess.
“I’m afraid so.” Simon pushed the point.
“Then I’ll have my lessons in my chambers. I wish to have a bath before breakfast.” Rose’s voice sounded more like a suggestion rather than an order.
“Certainly,” The black cat responded. “Let’s go.”
“Hold up, old man,” Alteir added. “I need to have a word with Lyr before you trapes them off.”
“Oh right, the whole bodyguard-to-the-princess, business. I suppose I’ll never get used to the idea.” Simon sighed.
“Well, it’s only been six months since I appointed him. Give yourself time.” Alteir nudged the smaller man.
“I’m getting old; I don’t know how much time I have left to give.”
“Years, old man, enough talk of that.” Alteir’s thick brows bent sharply.
“Right,” Simon nodded firmly. “I’ll go see to your bath and gather up my teaching supplies. I’ll meet you in your chambers, princess.”
“Thank you, Simon. I’ll be there soon.”
Alteir and Lyr both bid the professor a fond farewell before taking a small stroll around the courtyard for a moment of privacy. The older cat kept looking down at the calico with a smile. It was the same warm smile that his adopted father always carried for him. There was a pride in his amber eyes that warmed the smaller male’s heart.
“Look at you, all grown up now. Soon you’ll be taking on muscles and becoming as battle hardened and scared as your old man.” Alteir laughed.
“We can only hope. As of right now, I’m not large enough to scare a goat.” Lyr smirked.
“Fighting and war aren’t always about size-”
“It’s also about your mind and pure strength of will, I know.” Lyr welcomed the heavy weight of his father’s arm across his shoulder.
“You were always a clever boy. Look to that to give comfort in the coming day.” A fond laugh caught in his father’s throat.
“Something’s wrong?” Lyr couldn’t miss the tone.
“Nothing’s wrong, but I’m…being sent on another secret mission, far to the south this time.” Alteir’s lips drew tight.
“Another one? So Soon? You only got back last week.” Lyr pulled away from his grip to look up at him. “And they’re sending you to the south of all places.”
Alteir tensed up at the mention of the south, his eyes growing wide in remembrance. Years ago, when Alteir was a young man, he and a group of younger knights went to the south lands for tactical maneuvers. Alteir disappeared for nearly a year. He’d been gone so long without a trace that King Reiner actually signed his death certificate and they held a funeral for him.
Then one day, a battered and bruised Alteir stumbled out of the woods just outside the keep. He was immediately rushed to the castle, where King Reiner oversaw his medical treatment personally. Alteir physically recovered but never told anyone about what truly happened to him in the Southlands. Since that day, the master tactician avoided that part of the realm at all costs. Lyr wondered how the king convinced him to venture there now.
“I know, but the tides of the world are shifting. There are things happening to this kingdom that will soon change the realm, for the better I hope.” Alteir looked towards the sun that sat on the far rampart.
“You hope? It sounds bad.”
Alteir laughed. “No, I wouldn’t say that. King Reiner is merely taking into account the uneasy rumble off the southern seas. He looks to make an alley of Lord Vincent Du Mont.”
In earnest, the name escaped Lyr at the moment but he played it off with a knowing nod. “Should strengthen our borders considerably then?”
“Now you’re thinking like a tactician, boy.” Alteir paused in his stride and looked a Lyr. “I have a gift for you.”
Alteir drew his sword and Lyr immediately noticed that it had been altered from its former glory. The once tempered broadsword had been huge and cumbersome for the small cat to even lift. But now, the shimmering silver blade had been slimmed down to half its original width and shorted at least ten inches, for weight and maneuverability. The hilt and cross-guard had been changed as well, shorted and reformed for smaller hands.
“No, it’s your blade, my son.” Alteir smiled and passed the sword to the younger male hilt first. “I had it altered just for you. It’s balanced and weighted perfectly for you. It’s still stronger than any blade you’ll find and the more you grow, the easier it will be to manipulate.”
“This is…” Lyr felt the sting of hot tears coming to his eyes.
“Now, none of that,” Alteir touched his shoulders. “I’m old and libel to sob like a baby in need of a boob if you do.”
“Thank you, father.” Lyr lunged at the male’s broad body and hugged him with his free arm.
“No, thank you, my son. You’ve filled this old man’s life with happiness.” Alteir ran his fingers through the calico’s hair messy hair.
Lyr didn’t know what to say instead he hugged his father harder.
“Now, don’t keep Rose and Simon waiting. It would be rude.” The Maine Coon leaned away and looked down at his boy. “Look after the princess while I’m away.”
“I will, sir.”
“We’ll go fishing as soon as I get back.”
“I promise.” Alteir laughed. “Oh, and I left you a sheath propped against the doorway from the courtyard. It’s best to not run around with a brandished blade.”
“Thank you, sir.” Lyr bowed and hurried off to join the princess while Alteir headed the other way towards the barracks.
When Lyr reached the princess, he held his sword aloft excitedly but she didn’t see it at first. Instead, she stared at something on the other side of the courtyard and Lyr followed her gaze. There was large crow sitting on the lip of the well. Its dark cavernous eyes stared back at them. The bird was huge even by crow’s stature.
“That’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Lyr spoke, his words strained from his studying gaze.
“Never seen one so big before,” Rose said before she looked down to see the weapon in his hand. “Whoa, you have a real sword now?”
“Alteir made adjustments to his old blade just for me.” Lyr shifted the weight of the blade in his hand, immediately forgetting about the strange onlooker.
“Can I hold it?”
“Yeah,” Lyr offered her the hilt.
She hefted the weight and laughed as it almost escaped her grip. “It’s still heavy even after the alteration.”
“I know; I can barely lift it.” Lyr started off towards the doorway into the main hall.
“Soon, though, we’ll have to start training and get your muscles built up, so you can protect me.” There was a teasing tone in Rose’s voice.
“Judging by how you whooped me today, you don’t need me for protection.” Lyr propped the heavy wooden door open for her.
“Aw, that’s sweet of you to say.”
Lyr picked up his sheath that leaned against the wall just inside the door and followed her inside. “It’s only the truth, my lady.”
The door closed behind them as they started off towards the dull lessons that awaited them.
Once the pair was out of sight, the crow called to the morning sun before bolting away into the blue. Alteir didn’t miss the cry. He turned and shielded his eyes against the sun at the black speck that disappeared over the rampart. Concerned filled his eyes. Crows were a dime a dozen in this region of Neballia, but one that size came from the swamps to the south and with them usually came ill omens.