“Dead!” Torie raised her sword above her head and pivoted to see who had been responsible for her most recent demise. She set her jaw and scowled when she spotted the blond hair and cocky grin that never failed to turn her stomach.
She glanced at her team and didn't see Anna Beth's red sash, so she slouched away towards their respawn area where her friend waited.
“Dead again?” Kal, another of Torie's friends, sat in a canvas chair and marked a tally on the clipboard he balanced on his knees. He was lean of frame and face, with too-large eyes that made him look younger than he was, and a little bit like an owl with dreads. Normally he donned a wizard sash for park class battles, but today he was recovering from a bad headshot and had volunteered to sit as life pool reeve.
“Dead again, and three guesses who killed me.” Torie had to fight the urge to toss her polearm to the ground.
Anna Beth folded her arms. “Buff, blond, thinks he's god's gift to amtgard?”
“And sloughs half the shots I throw? Yes. Him.” Torie griped, hoping Kal was counting her respawn time because she was too busy fuming. Her eyes sought out the hated figure on the field. As if he sensed her, he turned and met her eyes with a meaningful smile. Torie pivoted to face Kev and tried not to think about the fact that Shade was probably staring at her butt now. “He's been stalking me all battlegame, killing me every time my back is turned. He won't even fight me face to face.”
“Because he'll fucking lose,” Anna Beth pointed out. Torie looked gratefully up into her friend's warm features. If Torie was to look up 'Valkyrie' online, she knew none of the women pictured could hold a candle to Anna Beth. She was taller than half the men on the field with dark hair that she allowed to poof like a mane around her face. When she wasn't scaring the shit out of everyone in her platemail she was leveling up her healer. She gave Torie a sympathetic look with her dark brown eyes. “Next time I won't die like a chump and I'll rez you.”
“No worries,” Torie sighed, waving a dismissive hand. “I'll get over it. I just wish he'd take a fucking hint.”
“Some guys...” Kal rolled his eyes. “You're count's up, both of you. Get out there and kick some ass.”
Hauling in what was meant to be a cleansing breath and instead was more of a resigned gasp, Torie braced her polearm and charged out to help her team.
At the end of the day, battlegames lost and won, Torie and her friends were packing Kev's car. Torie was trying to lever her polearm into its perfect niche between the seats so it wouldn't shift and end up in Kev's lap, when she heard a voice that made her whole body stiffen.
“Hey, great fighting today.” Shade strolled over, thumbs hooked in his jeans pockets, faint grin on his thin lips.
Torie hastily scanned the park for her friends, but they had returned to the field to chase down a few of Anna Beth's missing spell strips. Torie cursed inwardly and turned back to the car, even though the polearm was already resting safely in its place.
Shade- she didn't know his mundane name- tilted his head to look through one of the car windows at her in a move she knew he thought was charming. Torie sighed and pulled back from the car, hands on hips. Shade was holding a sword out to her, hilt first. She looked down at it.
“Take it,” he raised his eyebrows significantly.
“So I can show you a few tips. Help your fighting improve.”
Torie chewed the side of her tongue. He'd tried this tactic before. She'd tolerated it the first time. New players were always excited to share what they'd learned. She decided not to mention (again) that she'd been playing the game two years longer than Shade, who had started a few months ago. Of course he had taken to it avidly and with an intensity that made Torie's entire friend group raised their eyebrows and chuckle. She didn't take the sword.
Shade's playful grin twisted in confusion. “Just a few tricks. C'mon, I'll show you how to dress up your darkside.”
“Thanks...” Torie ground between clenched teeth. “But my friends and I have to get going. Maybe next time.” The moment she said that she kicked herself mentally. Next time? Pivoting, she gave her polearm one last, unnecessarily cruel shove and slammed the back door shut, marching around the car and yanking the passenger door open. Before Shade could say anything else Torie threw herself into the seat and leaned across to the horn. As the horn gave a few jarring 'beeps' she shouted across the field in a faux jovial tone, “Come on you losers! We have places to be!”
Shade grimaced and tapped the roof of the car with his palm before finally taking the hint and sauntering away to inflict his personality on someone else.
“The hell was that?” Kev asked as he settled behind the wheel. Anna Beth shot Torie a questioning look as she joined her friends, tucking her long legs into the back seat.
“He wanted to teach me to fight,” Torie groaned, pressing her forehead against the window.
“Fuck him.” Kev snorted.
“He'd like that too much.” Torie said as she allowed herself a faint grin.
“If he's so annoying, tell him off,” Anna Beth said.
Torie heaved a dramatic sigh. “I told the champion about the sloughing, but Shade's crafty, and he doesn't slough everyone, just... me.”
“So kick his ass.” Kev jabbed his finger at the air.
“Kick his ass at the big kingdom tournament next weekend in front of everyone!” Anna Beth grasped the seat and leaned in between them, an avid expression on her face.
Torie winced. “You both know I suck at tournaments.”
“So? The only person you're there to beat is him.” Kev insisted.
“Maybe,” Torie sank into her seat, hunching her shoulders and making herself small. Now that her friends had planted the seed, a tiny spark was growing inside her that she wanted more than anything to tamp down. The vision of her, standing victorious over the cocky bastard sent tendrils of warm excitement through her chest and down all her limbs. Kev was right. Shade was the only person she needed to beat. In front of knights, in front of amtgard royalty. She dug her nails into the squeaky fake leather of the Kev's car's seat, already imagining the killing blow. Though she protested and insisted she was unsure as the three of them chatted on the ride home, she already knew what choice she'd make.
“Guys, I can't do this. Look, Sir Gallows is here. And Dame Raven, and Sir Jester.” Torie leaned out of the weapons check line to peer at the cluster of knights. Sir Gallows in particular. A sword knight who was reportedly brutal in combat. Sir Gallows was tall, angular, and wore his black hair back in a tail. His tunic, fashioned by Dame Raven, was flawlessly trim with white wolves embroidered around the jet fabric.
Torie snapped back from her admiration of the knights to blink at the weapons check reeve who was raising an eyebrow at her, hands outstretched for her gear. Grimacing Torie passed her weapons over and shot one last admiring glance towards her heroes.
The next hour was spent in a flurry of tense combat mingled with infuriating stillness. Torie caught sight of Shade almost at once. Mostly because he was trying to get her attention, strutting around and grinning at her every chance he got. Torie wrinkled her nose and pulled her attention back to her friends. Anna Beth was doing well enough in her fights, but Kev was already out. He shrugged as he strolled from the ring to plop down beside Torie on the grass. “Not like I'm trying to be a sword knight anyway.”
Torie did her best, keeping at eye on the brackets for when she and Shade might meet. So single minded was her quest that most of her other fights were a blur. She knew it was down to luck whether she would face the frustrating man, but that logistical issue had been left by the wayside with any other protestations she might have had.
As a well placed shot found its way around her shield and into her hip, Torie groaned and felt the usual, cold embarrassment of losing with all those eyes on her. This was why she seldom participated in tournaments. Even as she hated to admit it about herself, she grew tense knowing everyone was watching. Worse still, she knew that most people looked on with the expectation that she would lose. It was something both she and Anna Beth lived with any time they wanted to do more than ditch, or try a combat class rather than just being a healer or druid. Even impressive, intimidating Anna Beth in her full plate had seen the look in the eyes of the men who watched them fight, and it certainly didn't help them succeed.
“When someone expects you to be a certain way, it's really tough to defy that, even if it's only subconscious.” Anna Beth had griped once when Kev has asked the girls what the big deal was.
“Sigrun!” a reeve called. “Second ring!”
Torie almost didn't respond to her own persona name, caught as she was in the silent shame of her latest loss. She walked automatically into the ring and raised her sword to meet her opponent’s. Finally raising her eyes her breath hitched. Shade was grinning at her, expression already filled with the smugness of a bad winner. Torie swallowed dryly. A cold trickle of sweat hove its way down her spine and the breeze plastered her hair to the side of her face. Anna Beth and Kev's hope and encouragement was like a tangible thing, pressing against her. Almost as intimidating as the expectation of her loss from the rest of the onlookers.
“Ready?” Shade asked, lifting both eyebrows.
“Ready,” she snapped. Seconds after their swords met she stepped in and flicked her wrist. It was a gamble, but it paid off. Shade was not expecting her to swing into action immediately. Her shot was clean, undeniable, and the reeve caught it before Shade could even decide to try to slough.
Kev and Anna Beth whooped deafeningly from the sidelines until other people glared at them to shut up.
Shade's expression was twisted with frustration, as though he'd just swigged a big glass of pure lemon juice. “That's bad form, attacking right away like that,” he hissed.
“Is it?” Torie cocked an eyebrow, her tone flat.
He raised his sword again and she reached hers up to tap. This time Shade moved in first, expecting to catch Torie the same way she'd gotten him. Bracing, Torie cocked her shield and caught his attempted wrap with relative ease, bringing her own foam blade around, attempting to snipe his arm. He snapped the limb back just out of her reach. “Hand!” he crowed.
His stance was shit, Torie thought as she shifted, dropped lower, whipped out with a feint to see what he'd do. Even with a crap stance he was still taller than her, and he knew it. He'd used that natural gift to his advantage more than once, so she was not the least bit surprised when his next shot came from above, his long arms wrapping for her shoulder. She stepped out, cocking her body and shield to block the blow, but felt the faint sting of impact against the back of her shoulder. Her jaw tightened painfully, but she forced the word “dead” from her throat. It burned on the way out like bile.
“Good call,” the reeve nodded appreciatively.
Torie ground her teeth. Good call. Shade was smirking like he'd already beaten her. She could see him in her mind's eye, offering to teach her his winning moves. Her blood went hot and when she tapped swords with him a final time she put more force than was strictly needed into the gesture.
This time neither of them flew into the attack. His stance was still shit, but Torie guessed his size would make up for it. The shield he'd bought when he started the game easily covered most of his torso and compensated for a lack of skill with blocking. His eyes, just above the shield, sent Torie's blood boiling like magma through her veins. That cocky, confident, 'I'm going to win' look that she'd had to deal with her entire amtgard life.
Torie lashed out with a feint, gauging him. There! When her arm moved, so did his. He was hungry for that shoulder shot again. With a heart thundering so loud it blocked out the sounds of the birds and the calls of nearby reeves watching other matches, Torie flicked her sword out in a second useless shot towards the edge of his shield. There was his arm, just as predicted. In a motion so fast it could only have been muscle memory, Torie snapped her arm away, cleanly smacking his tricep. She drew her forward foot back to prevent him reaching her shoulder.
There. That was his arm gone and-- Shade ignored her shot, closing the distance between them immediately and swinging with an impossibly intact sword arm. Torie blinked and barely managed to get her sword up to block one of the fresh blows that came reigning in. He was using this abrupt, sloppy, kamikaze onslaught to mask the hit to his arm and catch her flatfooted. And it worked.
With a deafening 'smack' her arm was gone and as she struggled to switch hands he pressed in further, striking her shoulder.
“Dead.” The word, like her earlier attack, was muscle memory. She slumped back, Shade standing over her, grinning victoriously. Torie cut a pleading glance to the reeve. Tell me he saw that. Please?
The reeve said nothing, head down as he marked his clipboard with the win for Shade. Hot bile bubbled in Torie's throat and exploded in a snarl of fury and loathing that even she had not been expecting. Shade stepped towards her, hand outstretched, that infuriating grin plastered on his face. “Good fight.”
Torie stared at the outstretched hand for a moment. Her lip twisted and she dragged her eyes up to glare into the young man's. “Shade... you can just leave me alone from now on. Got that? No more lessons at park, not more hounding me during class battles. Am I clear?” She said it quietly. Too quietly for any of the onlookers to hear. She snatched his hand, ignoring his baffled, faintly insulted expression, slammed his hand up and down once, then pivoted on her heel and macrhed away.
She tossed her sword and shield towards the sidelines where her friends sat looking sympathetic. Even they had not seen the arm shot that should have ended the match. Torie didn't return to sit with Kev and Anna Beth, instead striding away towards the other end of the park, skirting the A&S competition and making for a small stand of trees, intent on cooling her head.
Her skin prickled where Shade's shot had landed, her arms were like putty, unless and hanging limp at her sides. Her frustration roared, an inferno in her chest, threatening to force tears from her. She refused to cry. REFUSED. Because that would be yet another way Shade could point at her frailty, her womanhood, her lack of skill.
Torie spun, wishing she'd brought her sword after all. She was ready to beat the shit out of whoever owned the masculine voice that called to her. Her fist rose fractionally, as though she could punch away another 'helpful lesson in fighting.' Her rage caught in her throat as she took in the tall figure loping towards her. “S-sir Gallows,” she choked.
The man came to a clumsy stop wearing a highly, un-knightly, lopsided smile. “Hey,” he said again, letting his long arms flop to his sides. Looking at him up close for the first time Torie realized how gangly he actually was. Fine tunic and pleasant face not withstanding, this man was just as much of a gawky nerd as she was, even though he was at least ten years her senior.
Torie folded her arms defensively and looking up at the man. She wanted to ask him what the fuck he wanted, but she was far too star-struck by that white belt so get any more words out.
Sir Gallows swiped a few strands of hair back from his high brow and shrugged sheepishly. “I saw what happened out there, even if the reeve didn't. I talked to him, but he won't overturn the loss, so... so I just wanted to tell you that someone noticed. You're a much better fighter than that jack-wipe you were up against.”
A stiff breeze could have knocked Torie off her feet. She peered up through her fringe of messy bangs at his face. Was he fucking with her? He wasn't here to 'teach' her some new move that would have helped her win? He... he knew she was a good fighter? Was she breathing? Did people need to breathe?
“I'm recommending you for a gryphon. You acted honorably in the face of serious douchebaggery.” Gallows nodded as if deciding his objective was completed, gave her one more crooked smile, and jogged back to the field to watch the rest of the tournament.
Torie's chest was filled with clouds. She might have floated away. She watched the figure of the lanky knight blend in with the rest of the bodies on the field, just another nerd in a sea of nerds. She allowed her hands to loosen from tense fists so tight her fingers ached. Her breathing was back to normal and something akin to joy was flooding her body where rage had been moments before.
With a nod of her own to no one in particular, Torie raised her chin, set her jaw, and strode confidently back to the tournament to see who her next opponent would be.