She wheezed hard as her cheek struck the ground, air heaving from her lungs as the impact to her tightly bound chest danced along her ribs. Blood and spit on the ground, dirt under her nails. She was quicker to her feet than her opponent had expected, and quicker still to take advantage of it. There was the hard crack of her wooden sword to his spine as she twirled across his shoulder and drove a heel hard into the back of his knee. He sunk and stumbled forward with a grunt and a curse. “Fuck you, Shy, you couldn’t pull that in full plate.” The older knight gasped, wincing when he twisted to face her but grinning through the tail of the grimace. Shy shook her head, doubled forward to rest with her hands against her knees as she panted to catch her breath. “We’re not in full plate.” She said, which was true, if ignoring the point. It was clear from their sweat soaked brows and the crusted blood on their hands that it was time for their match to end. It was for that reason only that Marius didn’t press the point further. She flashed him a smile as he held out his sparring blade to her to put away. When she had taken the crude training weapon from him and ambled off, strutting like she hadn’t noticed the weariness that clawed at her aching shoulders, he watched her go. Strange boy, that Shy. He’d come from some small village with an unquenchable enthusiasm and called himself Will. The first time he’d refused to strip down and wash off in the lake with the other warrior-hopefuls, they’d started calling him Shy. Shy was smaller than the other fresh faces, but twice as fierce. Marius thought he was a bit like a feral cat that way. He was also wholly confident that the stringy young man would be snapped up by the first commander recruiting knights to take across the border. There was something hellishly compelling in Shy’s green eyes. The campaigns were becoming more common, spurred on by their ambitious crown prince and recent successes on crusade. Young men dreaming of heroism flocked to these border town barracks now, mouths watering for the taste of victory. Shy didn’t seem so dazzled. Rather, Marius thought there might be something grim under his quick smile. It concerned him, then, that rumors were whispering the arrival of Kedrick Silverum and his Namer by week’s end, recruiting for a stab into the ambitious wilds across the northern wall. If there was any man who’d snap at such loosely contained fire, it was Silverum. An inferno unto himself. Shy, who had first called herself by her brother’s name and nearly forgotten the sound of her given Lark, shoved the wooden swords onto their haphazard stands and went rummaging for a water flask in the pile of discarded training supplies by the door. She wanted to slip away to wash the dirt off her face and the blood from her mouth. Marius was always exceptionally tough on her. She liked him best because of it. It was a bit of an ordeal, finding a place to bathe. The barracks, run by town guards that were mostly has-been or would-be knights, abutted the largest of a series of small lakes that plunged deeper into the woods fringing the town of Staghorn. The proximal lake was a convenient place for the hordes of dirtied trainees and returning hunters to cleanse away the day and was both frequented en masse by the hard-working town’s guardians and modestly avoided by Staghorn’s female populous. Shy was inconveniently left to straddle both demographics. Thus, her evening bathing routine took her further into the dark trees. The lone patron of a pool fed by a spilling fall of water that pierced the wild thicket of foliage. At first, her trips there had been nerve-wracking. Then, it’d become familiarly inconvenient, and now she felt it might all just be some form of meditation. As night fell, Shy peeled away her leather jerkin and breeches. She breathed deeper when she unbound her chest. Modest, but telling, breasts flushed mottled and red as she made her way into the water. It was cold, sending shivers up her spine, but the wet earth felt good as it swirled and silted between her toes. She submerged herself up to her shoulders quickly, gasping at the chill, but it was safer when her secrets were concealed in the dark water and only her long lashes and softly bowed lips were left to confuse the hearts of her fellow guardsmen. Three days later, Shy stood in full plate—a hodge-podge assembled out of the smallest pieces of their old veterans’ dusty sets of armor—with her helm under one arm. She’d trimmed up her strawberry blonde hair so that it didn’t brush the tops of her ears, neat and orderly, and she held her back stiff as Kedrick Silverum came slowly down the line.