With Captain Burns’ help, I put on the armor and stood for a moment, trying to acclimate to the feel of the metal’s weight. It was lighter than I’d been expecting, but it was still much heavier than anything I’d ever worn before.
I wrinkled my nose and stared at the Captain. "How the hell am I supposed to move efficiently in this? I’m going to get the crap kicked out of me. I feel like an awkward turtle."
Burns snorted a laugh. "You’ll get used to it. Necessity is an incredible motivator."
I pursed my lips and shook my head. "I doubt it."
"Kieran will whip you into shape in no time."
"Oh, I bet. He’s probably been waiting for a chance to whip me ever since I took off from the camp and almost got captured by the queen’s Elite Guard."
Burns frowned. "The boy needs someone to give him hell on occasion. He’s got an attitude problem. It would be nice to see someone put him on his heels."
Lauren cocked an eyebrow and grinned. "I take it he’s not your favorite person, even if he is Rolf’s kin."
Burns shook his head. "Not by a long shot. Now, let’s get several weapons for you to test out with Kieran, so we can find out where your strengths are."
I cringed and groaned, but he took me by the shoulder and nudged me back toward the cavern with the weapons. He picked out a rapier, a dirk, and a recurve bow with a quiver full of arrows. "I’m telling you, this is a really bad idea," I muttered.
"Quit your grousing, girl," Burns snorted. "If you’re smart enough to know as much as you do about weapons, you’re smart enough to figure out how to use them quickly enough."
"And I’m hardly ever wrong. I have faith in you."
I shook my head slowly, a frown creasing my brow. "Also a bad idea."
He shot me a disapproving glare. "You’re certainly not going to inspire confidence like that, and inspiring confidence in these people is something you need to do if you plan on surviving what’s coming."
"Well, that’s encouraging."
He led me out of the armory and back into the daylight, which had me squinting. "Try getting a feel for the weapons while I fetch Kieran. See if you can be comfortable with any of them."
Burns placed the weapons on a bench and strode off, leaving me eyeing them with a bit of a queasy feeling in my stomach. "This is going to go very badly."
I walked over and tentatively plucked up the rapier, studying the intricately crafted hand guard with a sense of awe. "I definitely like the dwarves’ taste in shiny objects."
"Just like a woman." Kieran’s sarcastic drawl made me jump and spin, instinctively pointing the rapier at his face.
He studied it with an utter lack of concern and flicked it out of the way with a brush of his long fingers. "I think it’s best if we start small and work our way up. Grab the dirk and let me show you the most important things you need to know."
Kieran pulled a dirk of his own out of a sheath that hung from his belt and studied me as I laid the rapier on the bench and picked up the dirk. "Which way do I need to hold this damn thing?"
"It’s a curved blade, so you can hold it either way, but I find a backhanded grip to be more efficient."
I blinked at him. "Uh-huh."
Kieran rolled his eyes and sighed. "You have no idea what I’m saying, do you?"
"Nope. Not even a little bit."
"Here, let me show you." He took my hand and wrapped it around the hilt so the blade was curving outward and the point curved back toward my elbow. I felt heat rush up my arm and shoot straight down to my stomach. My lips parted on a gasp as I fought the flush creeping up my cheeks. Our eyes locked for a moment and he leaned down. I was almost certain he was going to kiss me when he brought my hand up and pressed the blade against his throat. "See how holding it this way would make it easier for you to cut an enemy’s throat? You’re petite, so you’re likely going to have to sweep up if you do have to resort to the dirk. Move just like you’re throwing a punch, but make sure the edge of the blade is what makes contact with the throat...like this."
I pressed my lips together to keep them from trembling as he brought my hand down to my side and then guided it up in a sweeping motion, dragging the edge of the blade across the pale skin just beneath his Adam’s apple. My eyes locked on the scratch the blade left, the small beads of blood popping up on it. "You drew blood," I murmured, frowning.
"Aye, and you’re going to have to learn to if you want to have any hope of surviving a battle."
My eyes drifted to where his large hand was still engulfing mine, along with the dirk’s hilt, and when I looked up, I found that he was staring down at me with an unreadable expression. An instant later, he’d slipped the dirk from my grip and tossed it so it was quivering and sticking out of the ground. My eyes followed it, so I was stunned when I felt his hands close around my arms as he pulled me against him.
He bent his head and pressed his lips against mine in a fierce kiss that robbed me of breath and seemed to turn my legs to jelly. I grabbed his shirt and kissed him back, feeling an overwhelming fire scorch through my chest. It was unlike anything Neal had ever elicited. I got lost in the feeling, and I could have let the kiss last for eternity. Unfortunately, the universe didn’t seem to agree with me. We heard a pointed cough and jumped apart as if a bucket of cold water had been dumped on us.
A hot blush refused to leave my cheeks, and Kieran’s expression soured when we spotted Sam smirking at us. "What the bloody hell do you want?" Kieran growled.
Sam laughed and shrugged. "I just came to let Lauren know that the charging spell is complete. I wanted her to give it a listen and watch what happens. I can also invoke a small amplification spell if you’d like to give things a listen while you’re training."
I grabbed Kieran’s hand and dragged him with me over to where Sam was. He resisted at first, but after a moment his fingers tightened around mine. Sam held the iPod out for me, and I took it with a grin. I gave Sam a nod. "Do the amplification spell. Music could make this training thing a lot more fun for me."
"Gladly." He wrapped his hands around mine and the iPod, and I didn’t miss how Kieran’s lip curled with displeasure at the contact. I squeezed his hand and slanted an amused smirk up at him as Sam chanted. I saw a glow out of the corner of my eye, but I resisted the urge to look and instead stayed focused on Kieran’s face.
"I can’t wait to see what you think of the music from my world."
He frowned a little, and Sam laughed. "Oh, that should be fun to watch."
I turned and cocked an eyebrow at him. "I don’t remember saying you could stick around to watch me make a fool of myself in this training session."
Sam locked eyes with me and gave a suggestive smirk. "What you were doing when I showed up didn’t look much like training."
"That didn’t help your case. Now you don’t get to stay. Finish up with the amplification and then get going."
Sam pouted for a moment, and I snorted at how ridiculous it was. "Pouting doesn’t work on me anymore. Have you even seen Gabriel? You have nothing on those eyes."
Sam sighed and shook his head. "Never thought I’d see the day when a dog outclassed me."
"I’ve always found dogs quite superior to you," Kieran quipped, a goading grin tugging at his lips.
Sam gave a haughty sniff and walked away, leaving us to get back to the training session. I took the iPod over to the bench and set it down, scrolling through my playlists until I found the one I’d entitled workout. I grinned and set it to shuffle, thoroughly enjoying the way Kieran jumped and his hazel eyes went wide when "Iron Man" by Black Sabbath filled the training area.
He recovered after a moment, though, and laughed. "I was skeptical about your plan to use music to frighten Sigrid’s forces, but now I’m beginning to see its merits."
"Just wait," I grinned, "It gets better."
After about 10 minutes of training me with the dirk, Kieran took it and laid it down on the bench. "I think you’ve got a pretty good grasp of that." I felt a glow of pleasure at his praise, but it was short-lived. "Let’s move on to the rapier, shall we?"
I groaned with dread, and he gave me a stern look. "You’re going to have to learn it sooner or later." When he saw me examining the rapier, it must have struck him that dealing with such a novice might be more dangerous than he’d anticipated. "Hold on a minute."
I watched him disappear into the armory, and he returned shortly after in a full breastplate. I studied him with a frown for a moment. "I thought they only had women’s armor in there."
"I had this specially made before I came here. I keep my armor hidden away, just in case."
I felt my forehead wrinkle with confusion. "Hidden away? Why?"
He gave me a grim smile and tapped the crest stamped into the breastplate. "Daraglathian royal crest. Most people here don’t realize that I’m Sigrid’s son, and they’d probably flay me alive if they did know."
"Wait...what?" I stared at him, entirely incredulous.
"Ah," he sighed. "I assumed Sam had told you."
I crossed my arms and stared at him. "No, Sam did not tell me, but what I want to know is why you didn’t tell me yourself. Explain. Now."
Kieran ran a hand through his hair and shrugged, suddenly finding something about his boots fascinating. "Who I was isn’t important. I haven’t been a prince or considered Sigrid’s son since she abandoned me when I was fourteen years old."
"Oh my God," I whispered, unable to resist the urge to step forward and wrap my arms around his waist in a fierce hug. He couldn’t possibly feel it through the steel breastplate, which was cold against my cheek. "Kieran, I am so, so sorry."
He sighed again and absently ran a hand through my hair. "It’s all right, Lauren. That was a long time ago. It doesn’t matter anymore."
I looked up at him with a frown. "Are you sure?"
Kieran nodded. "Yeah, I’m sure." He cupped my cheek and kissed me again, this time more slowly and gently. Without thinking, I stopped hugging him and let my right hand slide up the breastplate and around the back of his neck. My fingers tangled in the curls at the nape of his neck, and his hand that had been cupping my cheek mirrored the movement. After the best few moments of my life, Kieran pulled back and leaned his forehead against mine. "This is probably a very bad idea."
Our noses grazed as I nodded. "Yeah, probably."
He stared into my eyes, and his were warmer than I’d ever seen them before. "Do you want me to stop?"
"Not even a little bit." I kissed him and enjoyed it when he slipped his arms around my waist and pulled me tight against him.
When we finally came up for air, he gave my hair a playful tug. "I see what you’re doing."
I chuckled and cocked an eyebrow at him. "Really? What’s that?"
"Trying to avoid weapons training by distracting me with your feminine wiles." He shot me a smug smirk, and I couldn’t help laughing.
"You kissed me first. Twice."
"Hmm. Guilty as charged. I blame you, though. It’s not my fault you’ve got some irresistible magnetism about you." His smile made me hot from head to foot, and I brought my hands up to hide the blush on my cheeks. "Come on, now. Let’s get to work."
The moment Kieran charged at me with his sword raised, I flung my rapier at him on instinct and bolted. When I realized what I’d done, I turned around and came back. I could feel the embarrassed blush creeping up my face as I turned and saw Kieran doubled over with laughter.
I stomped back over to him and snatched up my rapier from where it had fallen after bouncing off his breastplate. He shook his head and grinned at me.
"Well, at least we know you have some instinct for self-preservation. We can work with that. This time, try to resist the urge to throw the sword and run."
I tried to steel myself, but the second he advanced, the sword catapulted from my hand and clanged off his breastplate as I turned tail and ran again. His laughter grated my nerves as I turned around and walked back to him again.
"You’re never going to be able to stop throwing the sword, are you?"
My face felt like it was on fire. "I can’t help it! It happens before I can even think about it."
Kieran laughed and shook his head. "Burns said something about hunting down some throwing axes and knives for you. Did you tell him about your sword-flinging habit?"
When I spoke, it was through gritted teeth. "I told you, I can’t help it."
He reached out and gave my arm a gentle squeeze. "I was just teasing you, Lauren."
I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Now might not be the best time for teasing, you know. I am armed."
He laughed and shook his head. "I hope we can get you those throwing knives and axes soon. I think you’ll do much better with those."
"I hope so," I grunted, embarrassed by my incompetence. "Is there any chance we could detour from the swordplay into something else?"
"We can give archery a shot, but don’t think for a moment that this will get you out of the lessons with the sword indefinitely. You need to be at least able to use any weapon you pick up, even if not entirely proficient with it. What if you lose all your projectiles, and an enemy is advancing on you with a sword? You need to be able to pick up a sword of your own to defend yourself, okay?"
"I know," I grumbled.
Kieran sighed and closed the space between us. I tried staring at the ground, but he lifted my chin and forced me to look him in the eye. "I’m not doing this to embarrass you and make you miserable, Lauren. This training is a matter of ensuring your ability to survive. Do you understand?"
I nodded, words having escaped me for the moment because all my attention was drawn to the heat radiating from the place where his fingers had captured my chin. Please kiss me again and forget about this stupid training, I thought. He must have seen it in my eyes because he shook his head.
"Let’s move on to archery training. As tempting as you are, your safety is more important."
Kieran handed me the bow just as an unmistakably bossy voice rang out over the courtyard. "You’ll have to get back to that later. Rolf wants to see you again."
The young woman’s face wasn’t a familiar one, and her tone didn’t make me want to do as she said. Instead, I shot her a forced smile. "I’m sorry, but I don’t believe we’ve met."
She looked me over with her hands planted firmly on her hips. Her assessment seemed interminable, but she blew out a sigh and returned my smile with a grimace. "Tamara...Tamara Lindsey. I’m the blacksmith’s daughter, and I’ll be in charge of helping produce this Linothorax you told Captain Burns about."
I couldn’t help sizing her up in return. She was short but still taller than I was, with light brown hair cut in an angular bob and dark green eyes. While she was feminine and curvy, she still looked like she could hold her own in a fight with just about anyone. She smirked at my blatant assessment and cocked her head, a challenging glint in her eyes. Something in her expression reminded me of the Velociraptors from Jurassic Park, and it sent a chill shuddering through me. At that moment, I knew it would be in my best interests to make friends with her.
I cleared my throat. "I guess Rolf wants to see me right now?"
She gave a sharp nod. "He does, and Sam wants to see you after that." She looked me over from head to toe once more, and turned on her heel, striding off with what looked like distinct purpose. Her tone had a distinct bite to it, and I frowned over at Kieran.
"What the hell is that girl’s problem?"
Kieran’s face held a broad grin. "She’s been in love with Sam for her entire life. I think she believes you’re trying to steal her man because Sam’s been seen trying to flirt with you. If I were you, I’d watch my back. Tamara’s a little crazy. I don’t think her setting you on fire while you sleep is outside the realm of possibility."
My mouth fell open, and I was stricken with momentary abject horror. "Please tell me you’re kidding!"
He laughed and shrugged. "I am...mostly."
"Boy, that’s comforting," I snorted, shaking my head. "Just what I need...one more crazy woman who hates my guts for something that isn’t my fault. Awesome."
"Sarcasm isn’t attractive to most people, you know."
My only answer was a glare at Kieran over my shoulder as I turned to walk back to the fortress.