Soldier, p.29Part #3 of Talon series by Julie Kagawa
The chamber, I realized, had grown deathly silent. Everyone was watching me, waiting for my answer. Martin stood in front of me, solemn and grave, knowing either choice could change the Order forever. Tristan remained at my side; he hadn’t moved the whole time, silently telling everyone where he stood. And looming over us all, the Patriarch watched me with a faint, sinister smile, knowing that, whatever my decision, he could still win the day.
I couldn’t let that happen. For the innocent lives I’d taken, for Riley and Jade, and for a fiery red dragon who completely owned my heart, I would not let this man be responsible for any more deaths. And if the Order was destroyed as a result, let that be the beginning of the change. Let it start right here.
I raised my voice, and the room seemed to hold its breath as I made my decision.
Nearly midnight, and still no Garret.
I sat on his bed, gazing at the clock on the nightstand and feeling the silence thud in my ears. The rest of the rooms were silent. Wes was huddled over his computer and Riley, after his defiant confession that had made my insides ache with longing and guilt, had left me alone. Waiting for a soldier that might not come back.
The clock flipped to midnight, and my heart twisted with every minute that passed, every moment that went by not knowing where he was, what was happening to him. Was he okay? Had he managed to get to the Patriarch and the rest of the Order? Or had St. George imprisoned him, or even killed him? The worst part was, if Garret was in trouble, if he’d been taken captive or struck down by the Order that raised him, I’d never know.
The door opened and closed quietly, and I looked up, heart pounding. Soft footsteps walked down the hall, and then Garret appeared in the door frame, looking grave and exhausted, but alive. He gave a weary smile as he stepped into the room.
“Hey, dragon girl. I’m back.”
I skirted the bed, crossed the room and launched myself into his open arms. He hugged me tight, desperate relief flaring around us both.
“So, it worked?” I whispered, pulling back to look at him. “The Order actually listened to you?” Of course, they must have, otherwise he wouldn’t be here now. I gave a breathless laugh and grinned up at him. “I can hardly believe you pulled it off.”
But Garret’s eyes clouded, and he shook his head. “Not yet,” he murmured. “It’s not over yet. There is one more thing that I have to do.”
* * *
Dawn. On the salt flats just outside the city. Stepping out of the car, I gazed around in amazement. The ground beyond the railing was white, like snow, and stretched away before us, so flat and empty it seemed you were looking at the edge of the world. The splash of red against the horizon seemed a million miles away. Lifting a hand to shield my eyes, I stared over the landscape. There was absolutely nothing out there; no grass, no trees, nothing but a cracked, brittle layer of salt, glittering coldly in the predawn light.
“Well,” Riley said, exiting the driver’s seat and coming to stand beside me, “this is it. Hell of a place for a duel to the death, St. George. I’d make a comment about rubbing salt in the wound if it wasn’t so obvious.” He turned as Garret’s footsteps crunched over the ground, a moment before he appeared on my other side. “You’re absolutely sure this isn’t an ambush? I don’t like the idea of being out here with the Order, in the literal middle of nowhere.”
“I’m sure.” Garret didn’t look at Riley as he said this, his gaze on the barren flats before us. “The Order is bound by honor and tradition. That’s why they let me go when the challenge was issued. If I ran, or refused to show up, the Patriarch would automatically be the victor. There would be no question of my guilt. The same is true for St. George. Two parties agree to meet on neutral ground, and no one except the combatants are allowed to attack or harm the other. If the Patriarch breaks the rules, he declares himself guilty in the eyes of the Order. His seconds are there to ensure the fight is fair, and that everyone heeds the rules.”
Riley scoffed. “So, you’re saying that the Order of St. George is just going to stand there, in sight of two dragons, and once this duel starts, they’re not going to doing anything?”
“Yes.” He finally glanced at us, his gaze solemn. “And I need you to do the same,” he said. “We’re allowed up to three witnesses each, and there’s no one else I trust. But...” His gaze went to mine. “Just remember, if I fall, you can’t help me or attack the Order. No matter what happens, even if the Patriarch kills me, you can’t interfere. Doing so will forfeit the battle and mark us all as the guilty party. And the Patriarch will win. So, promise me, Ember. No matter what happens to me, promise you won’t interfere. Even if the worst happens.” He reached out and squeezed my arm, his eyes soft. “No turning into a dragon and setting the Patriarch on fire,” he said with a faint smile. “That would defeat what we’re trying to do here.”
I glared at him. “All right, but you’d better win,” I whispered, wondering how he could be so calm about this. When he first told me what he had to do, I’d been shocked. A duel to the death with the leader of St. George? I knew Garret was a skilled soldier and that he could handle himself better than any human I’d seen, but still...it was a duel to the death! If he screwed up, or if something unexpected happened, I would lose him. “You can’t let him beat you,” I said, gazing into his eyes. “You have to win.”
He nodded once. “I intend to.” And in an even softer voice, added, “I finally have something worth living for.”
We started across the flats, the brittle, crusty salt crunching beneath our footsteps. The alien landscape stretched on, white and barren, so empty you could see all the way to the distant, hazy mountains. Nothing moved on the flats, no grass, trees, animals or anything. The only sounds were our footsteps in the salt and the occasional mutter from Riley.
After a couple minutes, a group of small black dots appeared in the distance, growing larger and larger, until I could recognize them as people. A man stood in front, tall and striking, waiting for us with his arms loose at his sides. He was dressed in a uniform of brilliant white accented by red, the symbol of the scarlet cross and shield on his shoulder. A sword, straight edged and lethal with a cross-shaped hilt, hung from his waist.
I felt Garret tense, just as I glanced from what had to be the Patriarch to the three men standing behind him. Two I didn’t recognize. One was an older man with dark hair and stern eyes, and the other, with his snow-white beard and black eye patch, was older still. But the last, standing a little ways away and not quite meeting my gaze, was Tristan. All three were armed, but then again, so were we.
We came to a stop about twenty feet from each other, Garret slightly out in front, Riley and me to either side. I looked at the Patriarch, saw the instant, venomous hatred the second our eyes met, and swallowed the growl rising to my throat.
“These are your witnesses?” The Patriarch’s voice was deep, commanding, yet full of unbridled loathing. His cold blue eyes raked over Riley and me, and it took everything I had not to curl a lip in return. “Dragons,” he stated flatly, turning back to Garret. “I should have known you would bring demons as your seconds. Can you control them, traitor? Do they understand they are not to interfere?”
I bristled. “Don’t worry about us,” I said. “We’ll behave, as long as your soldiers remember they’re not allowed to shoot us in cold blood.”
“Do not fear, dragon,” the Patriarch replied, making the last word sound like a curse. “They understand honor. They know what is at stake.” He looked at Garret, a faint smile curling his lips, dismissing the rest of us. “I thought it fitting that your treasonous former partner be here to witness your destruction,” he said in a low voice. “The true soldiers of St. George will follow the rules of this challenge and will make certain your witnesses do not interfere.” His voice dropped even lower. “But know that when
I felt Garret’s anger, saw it in the way his jaw tightened and his eyes grew hard. But his voice was calm as he answered. “Judgment has yet to be decided, sir.”
“Indeed.” The Patriarch nodded, and straightened. “Lieutenant Martin,” he called without taking his eyes from us. “Please give Sebastian his weapon.”
One of the older men approached and held out his arms. Resting in his palms was the sheath of a long, straight blade, much like the Patriarch’s, with a black cross handle poking out of the leather.
Riley snorted. “Longswords?” he stated in disbelief. “I know the Order never got past their medieval glory days, but still. Are we back in the Dark Ages? Why don’t you guys just mount a horse and charge each other with lances?”
Both men ignored the rogue, though the man called Martin gave him a black look, obviously not pleased with being so close to his ancient enemy. “Trial by Combat is one of the ancient rites of St. George,” the Patriarch told Garret. “Therefore, we will fight as the knights did before us, long ago. No guns, no modern tricks. This shall be between two warriors in the eyes of God.” He gestured to the sword. “Take your weapon, Sebastian. And don’t worry about balance, or inferiority, or keenness. It is a perfectly efficient blade. I sharpened it myself.”
Garret reached out and took the offered sword, then drew it from its sheath. Bared to the light, it glimmered coldly, a simple-looking weapon without color or adornment. Not as fine as the Patriarch’s blade, I noticed, but I guessed a sword didn’t have to look pretty. It just had to kill.
“We’ll begin momentarily,” Martin said, looking at Garret as he stepped back. “I suggest you use that time to prepare yourself. Pray, settle any final accounts and say your last goodbyes. The duel starts in five minutes.”
Garret nodded. We retreated until we were about fifty feet away, well out of earshot, before Riley let out a breath and shook his head. “Well, isn’t he a charming bastard,” he muttered with a quick glare back at the Patriarch. “You sure you got this, St. George?”
“I don’t know.” Garret looked at the sword in his hand. “We’ve trained with knives and blades in the Order, though not as extensively as everything else. The Patriarch, though...it’s said that he collects swords and medieval weapons. I have no idea if he knows how to use them.” He, too, glanced at the men behind us, silhouetted against the stark white of the flats. “I guess I’ll find out soon enough.”
“Yeah, well, try not to get yourself killed, Sebastian.” Riley’s voice was begrudgingly concerned. “Flipping the Order off is a lot easier when you’re around.”
“Thanks,” Garret said drily.
“No problem. Although, if you do get splattered into eighteen parts, that will make certain things easier for me, as well.” Riley gave a slightly evil, almost triumphant grin, and his eyes glittered in the dim light. “So remember that, human, because I plan to be around for a long time. I’m not going anywhere.”
I scowled at the rogue, but Garret gave him a wary, almost puzzled look. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to make certain I win,” he said.
“Perish the thought, St. George,” Riley said breezily. “This is a win-win situation for me. You kill the Patriarch and deal a devastating blow to the Order, awesome. You get yourself killed, the Order is still in chaos over the scandal, and I can use the confusion to make sure my underground is safe from both them and Talon. No more human, no more agonizing. Win-win.”
“Riley,” I growled, and the rogue gave me the most unapologetic, shit-eating grin I’d ever seen. He was, I thought in dismay, completely confident about his earlier declaration. I didn’t know whether to feel angry, relieved or terrified.
“Sebastian!” the Patriarch called before either of us could respond. He had walked to the center of the field and was standing tall with his sword held at his side. “Two minutes, traitor!” he warned, as my heart jumped up and lodged in my throat. “Two minutes until God’s judgment is upon us. I have made my peace with the Almighty. Have you?”
Garret looked at me. In the shadows of his gaze I saw longing and determination, and something so strong it made my stomach dance. I knew Riley was watching, but I didn’t care. This was a fight to the death.
Stepping forward, I grabbed the front of his shirt, leaned up and kissed him. His arm wrapped around my waist, pulling me close, crushing me to his body. I heard Riley snort and turn away, and then I forgot about him, Talon, the Patriarch, everyone. I was only aware of this spot, this moment in time and the human in my arms.
“You’ll win,” I whispered as we drew back. “If there is a just God, He won’t let you lose, not with what we’re trying to do. But you don’t need His help, Garret. You’ve got this. You’re going to beat the Patriarch, and St. George will see him for what he really is. And then we can finally put this whole stupid mess behind us.” He blinked, and I gave a wobbly smile. “Until the next catastrophe, anyway.”
Garret pressed his forehead to mine. “I love you, Ember,” he whispered, making my insides knot. “I never...thought I could feel this way, especially for a dragon. But, if this is the last time we’re together, I want you to know. Nothing has changed since Vegas. Since Crescent Beach, really. You’re still the most important thing that’s ever happened to me, and if I die here trying to protect your kind from St. George, I have no regrets.”
“Don’t say anything,” he murmured, smiling a little as he pulled back. “It sounds like a goodbye, and I still need something to look forward to. To help me win. Just be waiting for me when I get back.”
He brushed a thumb across my cheek, turned and walked to the center of the ring, where the Patriarch waited in the bloody red light of the rising sun.
I hadn’t been entirely truthful.
When Riley asked me if I could handle this, I’d sidestepped the question. I’d told him I didn’t know if the Patriarch could fight. That was a lie. Not only did the Patriarch collect swords and ancient weapons, he trained with them extensively. When he invoked the right of Trial by Combat, it wasn’t the desperate, last-minute ploy of a man with nothing to lose. It was a strategic gamble that would give him all the advantages. I knew little of swordplay; we’d trained with blades in the Order, but it was only a small part of our education, being seen as mostly impractical and taught more for the sake of tradition than for actual use. The Patriarch probably had this plan in reserve all along, knowing that someday he might have to use it. I knew this wouldn’t be an easy fight. I wasn’t even certain that I could win.
But I couldn’t concede. The Patriarch held the advantage in this duel, but there were too many counting on me to fail now. Including a certain fiery dragon girl who would be waiting for me when this was over. She was the reason I was doing this, the reason my life had changed. If I died here trying to change the Order, if even a few in St. George began to question things, it would be worth it.
In the center of the imaginary circle, the Patriarch waited for me, a bright, motionless statue in white and red. Martin stood to one side like a referee, facing us both, his dark figure silhouetted against the pale ground. There was no breeze, no breath of air that stirred the flats, no sound except my footsteps crunching over the salt. I halted ten feet from where my opponent stood, and for a moment, absolute silence descended over the world.
The Patriarch’s cold blue eyes met mine over the arena. “Blasphemer,” he said softly, the whisper full of horrified loathing, perfectly clear in the complete stillness. “Demon lover. You’re enslaved to the she-devil, aren’t you, Sebastian? Your soul is tainted beyond redemption. I don’t know whether to hate you or pity you. But don’t worry.” He raised his sword very slight
I almost smiled. The Patriarch’s words meant nothing to me. Perhaps a few months ago, when I’d first realized I might be falling for the creature that was supposed to be my enemy, perhaps then I would have cared. But it was far too late now. I’d accepted the truth—I was in love with a dragon—and I wasn’t ashamed.
“You both know the conditions.” Gabriel Martin’s firm, quiet voice carried over the flats. “The duel will continue until one of you concedes or is killed. There will be no interference or intervention, and no weapons except the ones you carry now. Breaching any of these rules means that you forfeit the duel. Do you both understand and accept these terms?”
“Yes,” I answered, while the Patriarch simply nodded.
“Very well. The duel will start at twenty feet. When I give the signal, you will begin.”
Gripping my sword, I retreated the specified length and turned as the Patriarch did the same. I could feel Ember’s and Riley’s stares at my back, and saw Tristan several yards away, watching with his arms crossed and a grim look on his face. Martin raised his hand, paused a moment, then clenched his fist and stepped back, getting out of the way. The duel for my life, Tristan’s life and the lives of all the dragons I’d sworn to protect had officially begun.
The Patriarch sauntered forward, confident and self-assured, the blade still held at his side. But he moved with a lethal grace I’d seen all too often, in both enemies and friends. There was no question that he knew how to fight, and fight well. Raising my sword, I stepped forward to meet him.
We circled each other a moment, looking for openings, probing defenses and weaknesses. Our feet crushed salt beneath them, the noise rippling over the absolute silence as we circled warily, just studying our opponent. The Patriarch was taller, stronger and had a longer reach than me. I’d have to get well inside his guard to land a blow, while he could keep me at a distance.
Soldier by Julie Kagawa / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes