The two of them didn't stay put long. Hardly a few minutes passed before Naida deemed it safe to start walking again. Derrek found it difficult to break the icy atmosphere. When she had identified the land as Gelbane, it left him feeling empty. If this wasn't home, how did he get there? From her blunt manner, Derrek found no reason for her to be lying; he lacked the conviction and bravery to challenge her further.
The dirt path of the forest was now lined with dense gravel; a glimmer of hope that civilization was ahead. They had been walking for most of the day and it left him skeptical he would ever see his neighborhood again.
He was getting tired; his heavy trodden footsteps left him exhausted. In contrast, Naida seemed fine, gliding along the path with little effort. She seemed focused wore a scowl when he managed to hurry his pace enough to walk alongside her. She was staring at something: a gathering of men ahead. They were armored, clad in matching suits of brown leather uniforms trimmed with silver chain metal.
Panic washed over him like cold water and sent a chill down his spine. He had taken a fair look at one of the men chasing Naida. While their armor was different, they had the same heraldry: two dragons poised opposite each other. In his eyes, they held the same threat. Chain jingled and leather creaked with their unified step; the sounds pierced his thoughts. It played back fresh memories of being unceremoniously tossed to the roadside. But this was different— this was a calm advance of a unit, organized and calm, not the sporadic foot falls of a group of men giving chase.
Derrek glanced over at Naida. She was steadfast and calm. There was no call to flee, instead she methodically stepped off of the gravel path and offered a solid salute. Derrek needed no motivation in moving aside, but he faltered in mimicking her.
When he began to raise his hand she offered a cool glare out the corner of her eye, one potent enough to discourage him.
The soldiers drew closer. One of them, who Derrek gathered was a higher rank than the others; wore armor lined with gold replacing the standard silver. He turned a wayward glance to Naida's sharp salute.
The lead soldier raised a calm hand to the unit and halted on the next step. He closed his hand, and the men fell at ease keeping their formation close. Some stretched idly while others watched Derrek and Naida like hawks, waiting for their next order.
"What platoon are you in, girl?" The man spoke in a tone as graveled as the rocks he stood on; it served well to make Derrek's skin crawl. His accent was stronger than Naida's and yet seemed infinitely more refined.
"I am not in one, sir. I am a civilian, sir." She maintained her salute.
"Ah, Militia then?" The man smirked approvingly. "Fine form, considering."
"Thank you, sir," Nadia said.
"What about your friend here?" The soldier pointed at Derrek.
"He is a refugee, sir." Naida glanced over at Derrek.
The soldier looked over Derrek; his grey eyes were visible from the veil of his helmet. He frowned with disapproval. "Looks to me, he's got some Desert in him. You sure he's not up to something?"
"His mother was raped by a Sandie sir. The rest of him is Erdaki. He has no love for the Desert or its people, sir," Naida said. "He's a supply runner, has enough blood to serve Gelbane's needs."
"Poor boy," The man said, fixing a glare on Derrek. "...but. It's likely a lie spun to gain your trust. Erdaki aren't exactly known for their reliability. We'll take care of this one and get answers out of him."
The captain reached to draw his sword. The men at his side tensed, their attention sharpened— it rippled through the unit until they were all on high alert, ready to heed the impending order. Derrek began to retreat a step but Naida's firm stance gave him strength. He relaxed seeing her so unruffled.
"I'm afraid I'll have to refuse, sir." Naida pushed between the Captain and Derrek, her expression dangerous.
The captain shifted his gaze to her, he relaxed his hand on blade and frowned. "You're opening a door best left shut, girl. I'd advise you step down if you know what's best for you. You're interfering with military matters and you know the penalty for that."
"Military matters?" Naida raised a brow. She gestured to the men as they began to surround them. "Perhaps if he was armed it would be. Even one full blooded Dendargian is a dangerous foe to a dozen of our men, but he has no blade. Hence he is a civilian."
"Are you back talking me, girl? Who do you think you are to question me? Some whelp out of Torgmoor no doubt. Is that where you picked him up, on the shores of the sea of people? We're here under orders and right now, you're interfering with them."
Derrek's stomach sank at the exchange. Some of the soldiers whispered and seemed on edge. Confusion trickled through their ranks.
"Are you just a bully then? Why not test your mettle against someone a bit more at your level, a friendly cross of blades between Gelbans."
Naida pointed back at her sheathe wryly. "I already told you, he isn't an Honor Bound, but I am militia, I should be more than a match for you if you just want a fight."
The men turned their eyes to their leader, looked for guidance. Naida had shifted the balance with her harsh words.
"Captain Greene, Sir. Allow me." One of his men broke ranks and approached behind him. "I believe the one we were looking for was travelling alone. "
"Corporal," The Captain glanced back. "I'll allow it. Just don't kill her— she's right in that, honor permits it. Clear the way, this wild-cat wants a piece of our best."
The man that stepped up was a strapping fellow, tall and broad shouldered. He was young from the tone of his voice and his bright blue eyes shone behind his helmet. He reached up and pulled it away revealing a mop of short light brown hair. His armor was plate, well forged and seemed to stand out more than his own captain despite the lack of gold trim.
"Forgive me milady. I can tell from your bearing that you are a formidable match. I'll try not to hurt you." The corporal handed off his helmet to a fellow soldier. "My name is—"
"It doesn't matter what your name is," Naida said. "I'd advise you not to patronize me."
"...of course." The young man frowned and drew his blade; a masterfully crafted long sword. It had a black leather spun handle and the head of a dragon on the base of the hilt. The blade shimmered under the light of the sun through the overcast day.
The young corporal stood firm with a shield with the green and blue dragon heraldry.
Naida drew her own halfway from the sheathe; it was lean and simple made of dull looking steel and a simple thatched leather hilt ended in a rounded knot. The blade was a commoner's sort but remarkably well forged. It was lighter than the corporal's sword, and far cruder. Naida only had to pull the blade part way from its cover at her back, a large notch at the sheathe's lip allowed it to wriggle free the rest of the way. Without it, Naida would have never been able to clear it comfortably.
The sword rested calmly in her hand, and looked at home there. In contrast to the corporal with his sword and shield, Derrek noticed that Naida's right hand seemed conspicuously empty.
"Did you need a shield Milady?" The corporal eyed her lopsided stance with concern. "It hardly seems—"
Naida's sword clashed into the corporal's hastily readied shield. The corporal buckled to his right, the sheer force of the preemptive strike caused him to slide across the ground nearly a foot. He struggled to maintain his standing.
The man around the combatants retreated to make room. They formed a tight wall on either side of them. It left them no chance to escape— they were trapped.
The young corporal regained his composure and pushed against Naida's blade, forced her away. She dodged a swift follow up strike swung at his feet narrowly.
"You're fast," he said.
"You talk too much," Naida said, "Come at me, or do you want to lose without raising that shiny sword of yours?"
"Fair enough!" The corporal charged with his shield raised and followed with a back handed slash at her, one Naida dodged effortlessly. She bounded back in short controlled hops. Derrek and the knights behind them were forced to retreat back even further, while the knights on the other side encroached in an orderly fashion.
The corporal loosed a wide arching swing. It fell short a few inches despite his superior reach. Without a need to dodge, Naida pressed on a counter offensive.
She swung again at his shield landing directly in its center, aiming for it. Derrek found that odd. The corporal flinched against the impact. He staggered back to a safe distance and raised his blade hand to his upper arm.
He cast aside the shield, rolled his shoulder, and shifted his stance. Wide scuffs marred the plate of his left arm; there was a clear dent in the armor and it was visually battered. His stiff movements hinted the arm underneath was in a similar state.
"Are you sure you want to do that?" Naida grinned; her expression akin to a hunting snake. It sent a shiver up Derrek's spine; Naida was enjoying herself.
"Ah. Now you patronize me, how very rude Milady." The corporal said with an easy smile. He placed his freed hand on the hilt of his blade.
Naida charged again, as the corporal caught Naida's flurry of strikes blade on blade and lost more ground to her onslaught. The corporal diligently parried each attack, but flinched each time their swords connected.
Naida wound up and swung a crushing lateral slash. The corporal pointed his blade downward and caught the brunt of the swing. The impact roared into the air as he braced to deflect the attack. Strain was clear on his face; the pain his arm gave him was clear as any scar or bloody wound. He shoved, hard, and pushed Naida away. Her arms were splayed out and her body exposed to a counter strike.
Derrek reached out helplessly. Naida would be gutted; it would be his fault. The corporal began his upward swing that would end the fight. Derrek tried to call out to her, to warn her, but his voice was caught in his throat.
The swing never happened. The corporal's slash faltered as the pain of impact took him. Naida had her blade firmly rested on the opposite side of her opponent's body. A look of confusion filled the corporal's eyes as Naida was not where she should have been. He glanced around desperately until they settled to his right. Her sword was laid against his ribs, fit snugly in the metal of his plate armor.
She had pierced the plate, but there was no blood. The even strike had dented his armor in and crushed his side. There were broken ribs, there was no doubt. The unnatural shape was proof of that.
His right hand relaxed, his blade fell from his hand, and his decorated sword jabbed uselessly in the soil. The corporal fell to one knee.
Derrek blinked absently; in awe of her power, restraint and control. Her expression reflected that focus, all doubts were cast aside. He was within arms-reach of Naida. He had thoughtlessly entered the fray in fear for her safety.
Naida wrenched her blade free from the steel place and hopped back to Derrek's side. She gently pushed him back with her free hand without talking her eyes off the corporal. Her eyes glanced about, reading the reactions of the men. They watched, some slack jawed, some muttering dissent with their champions defeat.
How could they not be? Derrek shook his head. What had even happened? Did Naida know how to teleport? She was wide open one moment, and striking the next. He played out the scene in his head and considered any and all possibilities.
Around: He realized. She swung into the momentum the corporal himself provided. Any fool would have expected her to try and recover to block... but Naida just kept moving. When he thought of it that way it seemed simple. It would just be a spin, a crouch and a strike; like a coiled snake.
"I yield..." The corporal raised his left hand to his side. He made a fine show of keeping a straight face. "That was marvelous, how...?"
Derrek's eyes widened. Had the corporal not seen it? He glanced around to the men. They were whispering to each other and offered shrugs. No one had seen it?
"I had a good teacher." Naida straightened calmly and sheathed her blade. "Sorry about your sword."
The corporal looked down baffled and attempted to stand up with it. Instead it broke at the handle. He shifted forward slightly. One of the other men ran up to help him to his feet.
"I see you've made your point." The captain looked down his nose at his Corporal, then to Naida. "I don't suppose you have a better reason to trust this Desert Dweller...? We were only thinking of you safety."
Naida's eyes lowered, guilt lingered on them. "I trust the father of my unborn child. If it turns out he is up to trouble I will kill him myself, Sir."
Derrek went pale; his mind emptied.
"I'm sorry I hid it from you," Naida said, her eyes drifted away shyly, a blush came to her cheeks. "Darling... but..."
Derrek calmed. It was a well-crafted lie, one he had played into. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. The blush on his face was genuine; he couldn't have imagined Naida like this. "No. It's fine. I can't be angry—"
She slipped her arms around his neck and embraced him. Her warmth deepened his blush. Derrek turned his eyes down at her and let his hands slide to her middle back. It was quite the convincing transformation from a sword toting soldier to a 'defenseless' woman.
The beaten corporal politely shooed his colleagues and discouraged their gawking. "Sir, that should be proof enough that neither of them are the one's we're looking for."
Captain Greene was rubbing his chin, his soldiers calmly filed back into marching position; skepticism still dotted his brow. "What are you doing here then?"
She glanced back with an expression of alarm, as if she had forgotten he was there. She squirmed away from Derrek's embrace and shifted her attention back to Capitan Greene. Naida was careful to maintain a hold on Derrek's hand. "Oh! We..."
Derrek found her hesitance overwhelmingly cute. But he knew— this wasn't real panic; a gentle squeeze of her hand confirmed his suspicions. It was a clear signal that everything was fine and going according to plan.
"Answer me, you being pregnant doesn't make this any less odd," Captain Greene said.
Derrek stayed calm. Naida had this under control; his trust sat firm.
"We're coming back from the clearing," she said as she regained her composure, "We needed some time alone. The village is so noisy."
"You are brave or stupid, girl. That isn't a campsite over there. It's a wonder the dragons didn't eat you whole, no matter how... formidable you are. You're heading back now correct?" The captain lowered his hands and folded them behind his back.
"Yes, sir." She lowered her eyes.
"Get there, and stay there. I'll be having some words with your commander on my way back. It's a damn shame he is rotting in Eswin with as much talent as he has. Then he has to deal with riff raff like you," Captain Greene said, "You've wasted enough of our time, out of the way."
Naida hurried Derrek to the side of the path to let them pass. She kept her arm on Derrek's and watched the soldiers continue their march down the gravel path. Captain Greene lingered behind long enough to give Naida a second look without a second glance at Derrek.
"Milady," The Corporal bowed. "My name is Fen Tullos, it was an honor. You do him justice. I thought I recognized that skill... but I couldn't believe it."
Fen glanced towards his leaving unit. "I met him once. And it I feel like I have just been graced the honor of fighting him."
"You honor me, thank you." Naida said. "But I'm not even half as strong as him."
"You're just being modest." Fen looked at the broken hilt of his sword. "It seems I have a long way to go myself. Safe travels Milady, and if you have need of aid in your time of sensitivity please do not hesitate to call on me."
"You might want to focus on getting a stronger sword than a shiny one first," Naida said, she leaned against Derrek endearingly.
"Point taken—" Fen straightened, even though he was in a great deal of pain. He stooped over and reclaimed the blade of his sword with a twist. The top of the blade was cleanly severed and he had little difficulty sliding the blade back into his sheathe. The corporal fixed his gaze on Derrek for a moment before he turned to follow after his unit. Sounds of leather creaking and mail jingling faded to nothingness as quickly as it came.
Naida let a mischievous smile creep out and gave her midsection a pat. "We better get moving; I think the baby is hungry."
"That's two I owe you now," Derrek said, still in awe of Naida's prowess and her beauty. "Where did you learn to act like that? It was... convincing."
"It's what I do." She shrugged lightly. "Don't worry about it. To be honest it's sort of fun."
"Does this happen... often?" Derrek stepped away from her and watched the men vanish in the distance. He could still feel the blush in his cheeks from their embrace.
"Not too often. The patrols aren't usually this close together... There might be something up." Naida stretched her arms as hard as she fought she was giving the impression she had been bored by the exchange. Derrek also was having a hard time dismissing the words of the Captain.
They were looking someone that was alone. Derrek couldn't help but wonder if that was him they were looking for.