The training hall was in a separate building, next to the barracks behind the Palace. Soldiers were working out on gym gear or sparring with weapons when we walked in.
“Everybody out!” yelled Laney. They all stopped what they were doing, put down any equipment, and headed for the door.
“Hurry up! Or do you want to stay here and play dollies with me?”
I don’t know what ‘playing dollies’ consisted of, but you’ve never seen a room clear out so fast. There was genuine fear on the faces of the men who rushed past me. I had visions of burly soldiers being forced to march around a parade ground in frilly dresses and big bows on their heads.
Once they’d gone, Laney went over to a rack of swords and picked out twowooden ones. They didn’t look very fancy, just sticks with hilts.
“Here.” She handed me one. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Without waiting for an answer, she came at me.
In a game, you find the special training master and he teaches you a special move. Seismic Slash! Blade Fury! Leaping Hurricane! And then you go out and one-shot all the mobs.
My little sensei had something else to teach me—pain.
She wasn’t a big girl. Her arms were skinny and nothing about her would indicate she was any stronger than a regular teenage girl, so I didn’t feel too intimidated about getting hit. And the first couple of times, I hardly felt anything.
The tenth time it kind of hurt. By the twentieth hit, I was grimacing with pain. She was just too fast. All I was hitting was air as she smacked my knuckles, my elbows, my thighs—pretty much anywhere she wanted.
“Terrible.” Whack. “Where’s your defence?” Poke. “Block it!” Crack.
Laney did not hold back. The first five minutes were spent beating the crap out of me. She always knew where I was going to aim next, and sidestepped to avoid it, followed by a thwack against my leg or arm. If she’d had a real sword, I’d be cut to pieces.
“Did you really kill the Mouse King? I can’t imagine you hitting anything. You’d probably miss the ground if you fell over.”
I rubbed my arm where I had been pummelled with repeated strokes. “A little instruction might help.”
She rested the end of her sword on the floor. “You don’t know what you’re doing and you don’t know what your opponent is planning. Swordsmanship is about speed and anticipation. You have neither. You don’t even know the basic stances. You’re only hope is to learn oops.”
“Strike me on the head.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I took two steps forward and brought my sword down. She flicked her sword up and swatted mine away to the side. My arm went swinging wide to the right. Leaving me wide open.
“Now you’re out of position and I can do this.” She lunged forward and drove the point of her sword into my stomach, knocking the air out of me.
“Ugh,” I managed to say as I fell on my backside.
“Out of position. O. O. P. Oops. It’s what they teach women and children in case they get into a desperate situation. The way I see it, every situation will be desperate as far as you’re concerned.”
Really? My special move was going to be called ‘oops’?
“Will it actually work?” I asked through ragged breaths.
“You aren’t going to beat anyone on pure strength or skill, and as far as stamina, you don’t have any, so you’re only hope is to get them out of position. But even if you succeed, you’ll have less than a second to strike, so you’ll need what?”
“To be quick?” I said from the floor.
She cracked me on the head with her sword. “Good footwork.” Followed by another teeth-jarring tap on the noggin.
“Ow.” I covered my head with my arms.
She smiled at me. “This isn’t as boring as I thought it would be. Come on, get up. I’ll take you through the basics.”
We went through all the most common opening moves. I copied her to learn them, but my goal was to be able to identify them rather than be able to perform them myself. If I could predict which attack was coming, I could shove it out of the way and go in for the kill. It was a wild and reckless approach, and if I failed to connect I’d be left wide open to my opponent’s follow up.
“So make sure you hit something important,” Laney advised me.
It was difficult. I had zero experience of swordfighting and all the moves looked the same to me. Getting good would take years of training, not a couple of lessons. Even after she showed me the giveaway signs of my opponent’s intentions, I didn’t have time to read the body language and attack at the same time.
She rained down blow after blow without meeting any resistance from me. “If you can’t tell, then guess. If you get it wrong, you’re dead, but who knows, you might get lucky.”
The next attack, I just guessed and went for it. I guessed right and knocked Laney’s sword to the side. She was so surprised by my success, she hesitated and left her arm where I’d pushed it. Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, I brought my sword down as hard as I could, smashing it into her other arm.
The Princess screamed, dropping her sword and fell to her knees, clutching her arm.
“Shit, sorry,” I said. “I didn’t—”
“No, that was good.” Her eyes were ablaze and she was grinning like a lunatic. “Again.” She grabbed her sword and stood up.
We went at it over and over. Every time I got a lucky hit it—about one in ten—I’d hit her as hard as I could and her eyes would light up. I figured that although she had been trained by the best, they had probably held back. After all, you don’t want to end up seriously hurting the King’s daughter. I had no such qualms. For the first time in her life someone was treating her as an equal and she seemed to find it invigorating. Either that, or I had knocked her final screw loose.
Of course, when I whiffed, her counterstrikes would leave me reeling. My full out attacks encouraged her to do likewise and she roared with laughter every time I yelled out in pain.
There was some improvement—it’s amazing how pain can sharpen your reflexes and focus the mind—and my hit percentage went up. Two out of ten instead of just one. After about an hour of beating each other into the ground, we both ended up flat on our backs, gasping for air.
“That was fun,” said the Princess, panting. “We should do this again.”
I moaned. My whole body ached and throbbed, while the only sign of any real damage on her was a little bleeding from her lip where a wild swing had barely scraped her. Although, she probably had a few bruises under her clothes.
“Sure. Give me a week to recover.”
She sat up, eyes still dancing, but not with her usual madness. She actually seemed happy. “No, tomorrow.”
“Laney, I can hardly move.”
She punched me in the arm. Hard. “Man up, you bitch. You don’t have time to take it slow and steady. Death waits around every corner. You have to get good fast. Tomorrow.” She hit me again. “Tomorrow.”
“Okay, okay. Tomorrow.” I staggered to my feet so she couldn’t hit me again.
“Same time. I’ll leave your name at the gate.” She lay down and stretched like a cat in the sun, her eyes closed and a big smile plastered across her face.
I stumbled out of there and looked around. I only had a rough idea of how to get back and slowly headed into the Palace. I don’t know how long it took, but somehow I found my way back to the waiting area. The Avengers were still sat in the same seats.
“‘Sup,” I said as I shuffled past them, battered and bruised.
“Colin!” called out a voice from behind me.
I turned to see Princess Laney walking towards me.
“You forgot this.” She was holding my belt and sword, which I had taken off when we were practising.
“Thanks.” I took them from her and tried to put the belt on, but my fingers wouldn’t cooperate.
“Let me.” Laney took the belt and put it on around my waist. “Are you going to be all right getting back?”
“Probably not. You could have been a little more gentle on my first time. I can’t even walk straight. How about you? Are you still bleeding?”
“I told you, it’s nothing. If it doesn’t hurt, you didn’t do it right.”
I turned to look at our audience who were staring, open-mouthed. Jenny in particular was glaring at me. I thought about what I had said to the Princess. If you didn’t know what we were talking about, it might sound a little bit sexual.
“It’s not what you think,” I said.
Laney looked up at me. She was still fiddling with my belt buckle. She turned and saw the looks on their faces and then back at where her hands were. She jumped back like she’d been hit by a bolt of electricity.
“Wait, you don’t think that I… With him… Are you people crazy!? With him? I was just showing him how to use his sword.”
I wasn’t sure that made it sound any better. The Avengers just sat there, saying nothing.
“What’s wrong with you people,” she wailed at them. “Disgusting perverts!” She stormed off, turning just before she rounded the corner to point at me. “And you, don’t be late tomorrow. I’m going to give you a licking you won’t forget.” And then she was gone.
Anything I said would probably only make it sound worse, so I just turned and limped away as quickly as I could.