17. AerynMature

Aeryn shuffled impatiently in her seat as she sat in one of the great halls before a high man scholar. Around her sat various men and women - both high and low man - here to study and learn. Education in the "outside world" as it had been dubbed was only given to the high man, a fact she was not exactly bereaved about. Her way was the way of the sword and the stealth. She believed in combat and cunning, not in numbers and letters.

But here everyone had to have at least a basic understanding in everything. She was told that becoming literate would be useful to her in later life. But Aeryn could not understand how, when fighting to survive in such a volatile world, being able to write a letter would be more beneficial to plunging a dagger in a foe's heart.

She scrawled words on slate haphazardly, her attention drifting. Her arms ached from the combat training with crude swords and battered shields, but it was a good kind of ache. Her arms and legs were smattered with dark bruises and small nicks but she hungered for more.

In life, she had never experienced "battle", but she had had many fights. The feeling of adrenaline, strength, power and fear all mixed with the smell of sweat and blood made her feel alive. As her heart pounded in her chest and her vision focused to a lethal point, existence shrank to the world of a warrior - a man and their foe, locked in a mortal dance of blades and bows.

The binding ties of emotions and thoughts unravelled and the human skin was shed to the floor, exposing raw instinct and brute force. Passion ignited the veins and power shot through the limbs, acting on impulse and without hesitation.

How Aeryn longed to clash with her enemies.

Hatred had made a home in her heart many years ago when she grew to comprehend the hell that surrounded her. Now saved by a group of men and women whose adversary was simply "the outside world", Aeryn had a new determination in her soul to battle on and on until either the war was won, or she was slaughtered.

Sitting in a room learning sums and letters did not seem important.

The lesson ended swiftly to Aeryn's joy and she shot out of the large cavern into a series of winding dark corridors lit by flickering torchlight at uneven intervals along the walls. At first she had found it almost impossible to navigate the rooms, partly from the low light and partly because the tunnels were so intertwined and illogical that one could get lost in minutes. It was an ingenious defence though - if they were discovered by the enemy, chances were they would lose themselves before they could get out and tell others or mount any sort of attack.

It did mean that there was a real risk of getting lost and dying though, so you had to be careful to always watch your step and not stray too far from where you knew.

Aeryn was not concerned about getting disorientated. She had an innate sense of direction that had never failed her and her night vision was like an owl's. Jogging down back passages filled with loose rubble and dripping stalactites, she hurried to one of the combat halls where she would find Jacob and Nathan practising blows.

Aeryn emerged into the large flat chamber from a height where the tunnel she was following ended in a small drop. She jumped down adriotness and landed like a cat on all fours, grinning. Jacob hollered to her whilst in the throng of a vicious and reckless fight with Nathan, who was clearly winning.

Aeryn jumped into the fight, grabbing on of the blunt swords that sat in a rack in the corner. She challenged Nathan head on, pushing Jacob to the ground behind her. He cried out but did not make a move to stop her - he knew Aeryn was the stronger of them.

With uncanny quickness and dexterity, Aeryn deflected Nathan's blows and capered around him, waving her sword in front of her in taunt.

"Dammit Aeryn," said Nathan, breathless, "You're unfair, I've been fighting Jacob for ages. You're fresh."

"Am not," she said, putting in a few well timed manoeuvres catching Nathan on his shoulder and right leg.

With a flash of motion, she disarmed Nathan and pinned him to the ground, thrusting the tip of her sword against his neck.

"Yield," she commanded.

Nathan nodded, tutting, panting for breath.

She smirked and helped him to his feet.

"I've just been with Scholar William, so I am certainly not fresh," she muttered, swinging her sword around carelessly.

Nathan brushed down his clothes now dusty from the cave floor. He was a reasonable fighter, but lacked the creativity for improvisation to catch his opponent out. His moves were easy to judge and therefore easy to parry.

Jacob came over, "Think that's another victory for me."

Nathan scoffed, "Don't be ridiculous. I was winning before Aeryn got involved."

"I was feinting," Jacob shrugged, smiling sweetly at Nathan with pearly white teeth. Jacob was a high man, and at first Aeryn wasn't sure she liked the look of him, but he had become one of her best friends in the caves. He radiated charisma from every inch of him and had strikingly good looks. It was easy to judge him as obnoxious or selfish, but in fact he was neither of those things. He was a loyal friend with a good sense of humour and had wit in abundance. He was the least judgemental person Aeryn had ever met, and in world where everyone was scrutinised so fleetly, it was an invaluable trait in a person.

Nathan was a different sort of man - solid, slower and more readily angered. But he was also honest and genuine. He was a low man with plain features, slate skin and floppy thin dark hair that flicked and knotted at will.

"There's a new lot coming in tomorrow," said Jacob, chucking his sword over to the barrel that housed them, but missing.

"To our section?" asked Aeryn.

Jacob shook his head, "Nahh, somewhere down south apparently. Probably won't make much difference to us up here."

"How long do you think it will be before we do something?" Aeryn asked. It was a common question that came from her lips. She was known for her impatience - the day after she had arrived at the cave she had begun asking questions about their next steps.

Jacob laughed, "Probably sooner than planned just to shut you up."

She kicked him playfully, "I hate waiting."

"We noticed. You haven't sat still since you got here," observed Nathan. He lurched to his feet and grabbed his sword and threw it towards Aeryn. She shot out a hand and caught it deftly in her left, knocking her own sword over towards him.

Jumping backwards, she grabbed another sword and propelled it towards Jacob.

"Two against one," she announced, "Let's see how long you can last this time."

The End

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