Chapter 37 of Lead Heart is up, please enjoy it!
Cries of frustration and exhaustion echoed through the night air. Thinly veiled anger simmered beneath a facade amusement as Leliana threw her hundredth empty blow. The Protector was a small, wiry man, and damn was he fast.
She feinted a strike and dropped to her hands, aiming a kick to his knee. Damn. Those blasted robes made it impossible to tell where to land a solid hit. The protector leapt gracefully over her outstretched foot and vaulted off of her unbalanced body. He soared a few meters to land on his feet while Leliana face-planted. She sputtered, scraping the dirt from her tongue.
“Are you just going to run away?”
“Are you just going to chase me?”
Her Blood raced. Was that the test, to catch him? She was beginning to hate the constant game of riddles their formal speech necessitated.
Leliana’s pulse hammered in her ears while the two played a game of cat and mouse by moonlight. Every time she got close, he danced out of reach. He used her momentum to power his own, spinning off in random directions. When she was forced to stop and catch her breath, the man wasn’t even breathing hard. Leliana grunted. “I can’t even touch you.”
“You’re impatient.” He pointed out. “You lack imagination. It’s likely you’ve made it this far in life through brute force and ample muscle, correct?”
She averted her eyes, not trusting herself to speak through heaving gasps.
“But I see a fire in you.” He continued. “A small spark, perhaps for now, but not unpromising. All you need is a little fanning of the flame, so to speak.” Moonlight shone off a glint in his eye she wasn’t altogether confident in interpreting.
She frowned. Before she made her next attempt, the Protector closed the distance between them in a blur. She blinked, and he was behind her. She whirled, but found herself back to back with him again. She spun left, he followed. Acting on impulse, she lunged forward and whipped around to grab him.
He wasn’t there.
The distinctive crunch of footsteps was the only warning before he wrapped her in those skinny arms. His breath was hot on her ear.
“Let’s fan that spark.”
Damn he’s strong. She fought to breath under that crushing embrace as he constricted further. Leliana’s stomach lurched as she was suddenly lifted horizontal; the Protector grunted and tossed her up to adjust his grip, then sent her sailing across the clearing. Air buffeted her ears while she flew blindly through the dark. “AAH!” Rough grass came to meet her faster than she’d have liked, bouncing and rolling until slamming to a stop against a tree. “Ow…” She coughed.
She stumbled to her feet, wary of the small man. “You’re stronger than you look.” Scat, she could barely keep up with her eyes, how could she catch him.
He smiled warmly.
“We all have our inner strengths, child.” The Protector fidgeted with the ornate clasp near his breast, letting the bundle of his robes fall with an explosion of dust. He was thankfully outfitted with another outfit underneath; a black set of shorts and a tight shirt displayed a ridiculously well muscled body. “I commend your efforts, Leliana. I doubt very much you’d be much of a threat in your condition, to my kinsman or to the monsters.” The words stung like fire as she realized they were entirely true. “But I would also like to test your defensive ability. On the ready, now.”
Wind howled through the trees as the words sunk into her skull like molasses. Test her defenses? So like…
The protector disappeared.
“What-!?” Glancing between Bristol’s smiling mug and where the protector had been moments before, Leliana almost missed the telltale sound of crunching grass. Meeting his outstretched palms with her own, she narrowly avoided another crushing embrace. She took a trick out of his book, pivoting wildly to grab his hands with her own, and put all her strength into sending him flying. To her dwindling surprise, she was the one who slid backward. Entrenched firmly in his stance, the smaller man smiled approvingly. “Very good.” He crowed, smiling broadly.
Alarm bells went crazy in her ears and her instincts took control before she realized it as a storm of fists rushed in to meet her. Dodging him was like fighting 5 men at once, she mused. Always a fist or a foot to run away from but never a man to throw into another.
Damn. Was all she had time to think. The symphony around them was interrupted with yelps and gasps as the two traded blows. Air whooshed from her lungs when solid blow took her in the ribs, the blow itself knocking her into the air. Before she could react, he was behind her. Strong hands wrapped around an arm and a leg and suddenly she was airborne again, the world spinning like she were some top in a children’s game. Bile forced its way up and she forced it right back down. She couldn’t help but growl in frustration; the last time she was this outmatched she’d been 12.
The bruises from that encounter had taken months to heal.
Red started to tinge the edges of her vision. Why was he doing this? Was he just taunting her, letting her know how weak she really was? The man clearly was out of her league. In fact, why was she still doing this? A whirlwind of questions and thoughts of failure kept her spinning mentally even after she’d rolled to a stop in the spiky grass. Little pinpricks against her forehead.
“You have a few tricks up your sleeve, yet. I’m impressed.” He admitted. “Though your reactions now are more in line with where I would assume in a layperson. Was the first then, a fluke?” The deep timbre of his voice, soothing and comforting at first, was accusatory and derisive now. Or was that just her? His words echoed in her mind endlessly until she couldn’t be sure he was ever the one who actually spoke them, a trick of her own loathing consciousness.
“Do you yield, child?”
His face was imperceptible. Leliana’s breathing was ragged, her mouth filled with the taste of dirt and copper. Even by moonlight she saw how much blood she spit out.
“No, I’m not done with you yet.”
Oof. AH! She caught a left and a right swing full-force in the ribs, vision swimming while she fought to keep breathing. The protector leaned just to the left and she got her hand up in time to catch it. He smiled. Blow after blow the two pounded fist against fist – he as a test, and she to survive.
She didn’t know exactly when it happened, but she found herself relying less and less on what she could see and more on pure intuition. More and more of his blows were glancing off forearm or hand, and she retreated much less than at the start.
A tiny shift in weight and she dropped, letting his foot sail harmlessly overhead before moving in to take advantage of that opening. The Protector, for his part, managed to get both feet on the ground in time to receive a barreling charge. He tossed her aside like a child. The crunch of grass on her left had Leliana’s guard up before she registered the sound, catching a wild blow against crossed arms.
Uh-oh, was that a crack? Quick shallow breaths were all she could manage. Her pulse was fast, racing even, though not from exertion. Every tiny beam of light, every insect wing, every single grasshopper song felt like they were clamoring for attention to her heightened senses as she strove to take it all in. It had been so long since she’d been free to feel this way. The Protector’s moves were almost predictable at these speeds. Leliana watched, frustrated when he dodged everything she threw at him.
He was smiling.
Let’s give him something to smile about.
Leliana kicked off into a near-horizontal charge at her opponent, wrapping one arm around his waist before he could move. He stood solid as she used her hooked arm to come up around him –
Then vanished from sight, letting Leliana fall on her face. Bone shattering force exploded into her left arm as she instinctively blocked. The same arm protested when she dropped to all fours and flung herself backward as far as she could. He spun to meet her, batting her aside one-handed. His brow furrowed, or she thought it did. What little light she could see by blurred suddenly, so much that she saw two protectors. She couldn’t breath. He said something, but she didn’t hear him. Fire coursed the length of her body, and something popped inside her chest. Packed soil scratched her up as she collapsed.
The world went dark.