Blood dripped from the tip of the curved seax in her hands. Dust was settling around her as her foe fell to the ground, choking on his own blood as he drew dying breaths. She looked up, seeing ten men laying around. The roar of a crowd was deafening, but the pounding in her ears drowned out the noise. A bead of sweat ran across her face, reminding her to draw a breath. She hadn’t meant to kill them, but they wouldn’t stay down.
The crowd began to quiet then, and she turned her eyes toward a platform, where the banners of House Erdos fluttered in the breeze. A man stood, his white beard curling under his chin and across his thick belly. A crown sat on top of his head, and he looked like he would pass out from the weight of the clothing he wore despite the scorching heat.
“Congratulations, winner,” he said, his voice echoing across the arena. “This was quite a spectacle.” He laughed. “You are much stronger than you look.”
Thyra drew a steadying breath, clutching the seax tighter in her hand. “Thank you, Highness,” she said strongly, forcing her voice to deepen. The sound echoed inside the helmet she wore, ringing feebly in her ears.
The king waved his hand, beckoning. “Come,” he said. “We shall celebrate your victory, warrior.” The king began to walk down a set of wooden stairs from the platform to the arena floor. A handful of guardsmen stepped out of his way as the king came toward her.
Thyra felt her breath catch. King Brieuc was much fatter in person. His beard was tinged with hints of blue curls, as was his now-white hair. A thick, gold chain hung around his neck, with the crescent of House Erdos etched into it.
“Tell me you name, warrior,” the king said, smiling as he hooked his fingers in his belt. “Remove your helmet so we may see your face.”
Thyra’s mind ran dry suddenly. She hadn’t thought this far ahead. All she needed was money and a boat to cross to the western kingdoms. She realized how stupid and short-sighted she’d been. “I prefer not to, Highness,” she said meekly.
The king’s face pulled into a mild frown. “No need to be shy, son,” he said, shifting his bulbous weight. “Let us see your face.”
Thyra drew a ragged breath, feeling her hands shaking. She dropped the seax in her hands, hearing it land with a loud ringing. Her brother’s armor clacked, too big on her, as she lifted her arms. Slowly, she pulled the helmet from her head, blinking against the bright light of the midday sun.
The air around the arena shifted, a murmur running through the crowd as Thyra’s plum-colored braid fell down her back. She watched as the king’s brow lifted as she tucked the helmet under her arm.
“This is unexpected,” the king said slowly, taking in her face.
“Looks like your gatekeeper needs to open his eyes.”
Thyra’s eyes shifted to a man that was standing just beyond the king’s shoulder. She tensed as he drew a sword, his cerulean eyes pinning her darkly.
“Stay your hand, Kegan,” the king said quickly, lifting his hand.
“But Father, it is against the law for a woman to impersonate a soldier,” Kegan said hotly.
Thyra shook her head. “I never impersonated a soldier, my king,” she said desperately.
The king frowned. “Then whose armor do you wear?”
Thyra bowed her head. “My brother’s,” she said quietly. “He was slain in the Eastern Wars.” She looked up, seeing the king’s confusion and Kegan’s blazing anger. “I only meant to win the contest. Nothing more.”
Kegan lowered his sword as he looked to his father. “She needs to be punished,” he said sternly.
The king’s grey eyes were appraising suddenly. “No,” he said slowly. “My gift to her is amnesty.” He looked to his guardsmen. “Bring her to the palace. We will still celebrate in her honor.”
Kegan’s face twisted with anger, his jaw clenching. He shot Thyra a death glare before rounding to chase on his father’s heels. “You can’t be serious,” he whispered vehemently. “You’re just going to let her get away with this? She dishonors you, treating you as if you were a fool.”
King Brieuc paused, turning to face his son. “You let your temper control your hand too often, Kegan,” he said quickly.
Kegan straightened slightly, his eyes offended. “If I am to be a just king, I must uphold the law,” he snapped.
“Some laws are meant to be broken,” King Brieuc said, offering a wry grin. “Besides, aren’t you in the least curious about where a woman like her came from?”
Kegan drew a slow breath, glancing away. “What does that have to do with anything?” he asked, sighing shortly.
Brieuc clapped his son on the shoulder. “Think about it for a moment,” he said. “Who teaches a maiden to wield a sword? Much less to wield one like that.”
Kegan frowned then. He glanced back toward the arena, seeing the girl looking around at her escort of armed men around her. His father was right. What in the world was she doing here?