I stood off to the side of the warlord’s feast hall, near the wall. Beside me was a long, narrow side table, holding multiple pitchers of ale and other drinks, along with a few large serving platters. Music played near the fire, the male and female vocalists singing their low, soft duet against the backdrop of the strings and the deep pounding of the drums. The other serving girls were weaving in and out of the gathering of people, pouring drinks and serving food, while I stayed in my place beside the table. My job was a little different than theirs, in that I only served one person, and one person alone — the warlord himself.
Tonight, the warlord was meeting with a chosen handful of his weaponmasters from the garrison, the men and women responsible for training Seigan’s warriors. There was at least thirty of them, four of which were centaur. The trainers milled around, drinking their ale and indulging themselves on the meat and roasted vegetables the other girls were serving. Seigan himself mingled among them, discussing success rates of trainees, new teaching methods, and the upcoming weapons demonstration. From what I could gather by listening from my solitary place near the edge of the room, Seigan would be visiting the training halls himself in a matter of weeks, where select trainees from each hall would demonstrate their skills. Apparently it was something that only happened once a year, so it was kind of a big deal. I kept my attention carefully on the warlord’s cup as I listened to the conversations and the alluring lull of the foreign music, watching for his fourth sip, my indication to refill his glass. He’d just taken number three.
I glanced down at myself, shifting my weight off my crutch on my right side and onto my single leg. I stretched my right arm for a moment, flexing my fingers and massaging the sore muscles without being obvious about it. I was beginning to grow used to walking with only one leg and one crutch, but sometimes standing still for long hours was harder than anything else. I took a moment to ensure my decorative armor and furs were still in place, comparing myself to the other girls in the room who were wearing the same thing. I worked alongside the other girls all day long in the kitchen, but here, in the feast hall, sometimes it was still difficult for me to tell who was who under the heavy warpaint they wore around their eyes and across their cheeks and lips. I reached for a piece of hair fallen loose out of my warrior braids and tucked it cautiously behind my ear, careful not to smudge my own face markings.
I straightened, leaning half my weight against my crutch once again. My gaze moved back to the room, lingering subtly on the centaur trainers, wondering what sort of weapons they were best at. I wondered if they only taught other centaur, or if they taught human students, too. One of the centaur trainers was a female, tall and strong like the males, with a thick, beautiful coat and dark skin. On her face was inked a webbing of tattoos, thin lines that spiraled and wove like vines, intricately detailed along the left side of her face and up under her eye on that side.
One of the girls crossed to the side table where I stood, exchanging her empty pitcher with a filled one. It was Yrin, I could tell by her striking green eyes. She moved toward the group of trainers standing and speaking with the warlord himself, beginning to fill glasses as they held them out. They continued their discussion of which of their students had the most promise, with Seigan listening thoughtfully. It made me wonder if Aurora was being trained by any of them, and I found myself listening intently for her name.
Yrin moved to leave the group, but a husky man with rust-red hair and heavy braids in his beard caught her by the arm. She flinched, startled.
“Not yet, Thaelskja. You’ve given me a short cup.” With one hand still wrapped around Yrin’s upper arm, he thrust his cup toward her in the other.
Yrin flashed a swift, fearful look at him, and then with a shaking hand, added another inch of liquid to his cup. He kept her arm painfully clamped in his hand the entire time.
Seigan eyed the exchange while the others continued to talk, but he said nothing. When the man’s cup was filled, Yrin was released. “Better now, girl.” He gulped from his cup, brazenly swatting the girl on her backside as she turned away.
I glowered at him, hoping for his sake that Aurora never ended up in his training hall.
Movement caught my eye, drawing my attention away from the brutish man and the excess ale soaking into his braided beard — Seigan’s own cup lifting to his mouth for a drink. Four.
I lifted my own pitcher from the table in my free hand and limped toward Seigan. I gave Yrin an apologetic gaze as I passed her.
I could feel the bearded man’s eyes on me as I rounded the outside edge of the group, crossing toward the warlord. The man lowered his cup slowly, watching as Seigan, still in conversation, held his cup in my general direction.
I began to pour into the warlord’s cup, flicking my eyes to the bearded man for a brief moment. His face was written with amusement.
He bellowed a short laugh, cutting off the end of someone else’s sentence. “What’s this, Warlord?You let this halfling stand at your side as cup-maiden?” The man’s gaze raked up and down my crutch and my missing leg.
Seigan’s gaze narrowed in on the man, his eyes turning a shade darker. Obviously the man’s inhibitions were starting to drown under his multiple cups of ale.
A few of the other trainers glanced at me, and my cheeks began to heat under the warpaint.
“Why is she not in the stables, oiling war harnesses?” the man furthered as though this was all a big joke to him.
Seigan’s eyes fell on me as I continued to fill his glass, but I kept my own eyes on my task.
“She owes me a great debt,” the warlord said plainly. “She is to serve me until that debt has been repaid.”
The man huffed. “I would think the coin you would gain from selling her down to the plains would be worth far more than your patience at continuously waiting on her half-stride.”
One of the other trainers chuckled to himself, and Seigan sliced his laughter short with a sharp glare.
“Caution yourself, Bregan,” Seigan said, eyes back on the bearded man. “You are near to overstepping your place.”
Bregan withdrew, face sobered. Before he could stammer a word in rectification, another voice cut through the air, leveled and driven with hushed authority.
“The girl has skill.”
The group turned to see the source of the voice, none other than the female centaur, standing a handful of yards away from us.
All eyes were on her as she approached, even Seigan’s. I stayed at Seigan’s side, eyes on the floor, unsure whether to take my leave or not. I wanted to limp back to the servants’ quarters and slam the door behind me.
“The girl is skilled, Warlord,” the centaur said again, nearing the circle. “You have chosen your cup-maiden well.” I deepened my gaze on the floor.
“Any starveling can fill a cup,” Bregan said. “Even a crippled one.” Seigan looked as though he was about ready to order the man’s tongue cut.
The centaur came closer, her eyes spearing through the man in a quiet, powerful sort of way as she drew alongside him. Even with his height, she still towered over him by at least ten inches. “What you possess in skill, Bregan, you lack in perception.” The centaur’s gaze then fell on me. I could feel it. “This girl’s strength lies not within her stance, but within her eyes.”
My cheeks heated further as every eye in the circle moved to me at the same time. I shifted uneasily on my crutch, keeping my eyes buried in the stones at my feet. Seigan’s gaze was the strongest, looking down on me from my left. He could have ordered me to lift my eyes so that he could look into them himself, but he didn’t. I had no idea what this centaur was referring to about the hidden strength behind my eyes, or why she was choosing to advocate for me at all, but all I wanted was to melt into the stones and never be seen again.
“You see skill in her, Helja,” Seigan stated, gaze pulling away from me and to the centaur for one blessed moment. The centaur’s attention, however, didn’t leave me.
“I do. Forgive my boldness, Warlord, but while she makes an exceptional cup-maiden, I believe you waste her talents here in the serving halls. She could be set to so much more if she were only given the opportunity to train.”
I swallowed stiffly. What did she mean by that?
“You wish to train her yourself?” Seigan said.
The centaur’s eyes hovered on me for a moment longer, and then moved to her warlord, unafraid. “If you allowed me a matter of weeks with her, I can assure you that she would be of much more use than a simple serving girl.”
Seigan looked at Helja for a moment, and then down at the floor in thought. Silence fell over the circle, even Bregan held his tongue for once. I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening, I could only stand there, trying not to tremble, begging the exchange to end.
Finally, Seigan lifted his gaze and spoke. “You are one of my best trainers, Helja, and I trust your judgement. If you truly see potential in this girl, I would be a fool to deny you the opportunity to teach her.”
Helja stiffened, satisfied, and I stiffened, afraid.
“The demonstration is in three weeks’ time,” the warlord continued. “You may train her during the day and release her to me at night to stand as my cup-maiden. In three weeks, she will demonstrate her abilities with the others and we will see just what skills truly lie within her.” Seigan’s gaze shifted once more to me, and I felt compelled to lift my eyes this time. I looked at him, vulnerable and uncertain. Then I glanced at the centaur, to whom my life had just been sold. Her dark eyes met mine.
She nodded once, curious, purposed eyes locked with mine. “There is something about her that is different from the rest. Whether that skill is for marksmanship or for something greater still, we will see.”
She was going to train me in archery.