"He's mine," she growled.
Aaron nodded beside her. For though they argued incessantly, like dogs trying to ascertain pack leadership, he knew how much this meant to her. How much it meant to them and their community.
They flung themselves down from the trees; great black beasts straight from hell. It was Arianna's idea to use the clouds covering the suns to give their entrance even more doom. The element of surprise and both fear, which Arianna saw reflected in each of the well trained men's eyes, were to be their weapons before the real combat began.
Two minutes. They had two minutes to take advantage of the men's surprise before they would regain their wits and go into soldier-fighting mode. Which made them a very different type of opponent than less trained and largely untroubled guards with less combat experience.
But one of the reasons why Arianna had been such an effective assailant was because she always centred herself in the moment. The battlefield could be a rush of sights sounds and smells that the brain could not work out in time to fight your way out of a mess. But there was nothing messy to Arianna's method of working. No, she was at her calmest with a sword or an axe in her hand, lights and colours coming into sharp focus, sounds slowing down so she caught everything and her eyes able to see with pin-point accuracy the best place to strike a man. So that it never took her more than one hit.
Viper. Because she struck once, and that was all she needed before her target would fall.
The soldiers split up and rushed for Aaron and Arianna. It must have been the harrowing feeling her mask gave them because more of them went for her.
Which was fine. She fixed herself on the ground, waiting for the first one to rush at her. At the last possible second when the tip of his sword could have easily been buried in her chest, she side stepped him and brought the hilt of her own sword down hard on his head.
It was the sight she had needed - a soldier falling - for the rage within her to burst open like a fire consuming a house. She let it lead her in that way she always did during a fight.
So rage guided her hands in all manner of death inducing ways, from slicing into skin to stabbing short the onslaught of a soldier. Her heart hammered hard against her chest. She felt powerful with that rage, beginning in her core and spreading out through her body, extending right into her fingertips.
When she wasn't fighting it took all of her strength and willpower to contain it. Yet in situations like this, it was a living thing that was ecstatic about being set free.
With ease she took down the next five guards who approached her.
It allowed her a moment’s reprieve to check on Aaron. Goddess above, what was he playing at? He’d foolishly backed himself into a corner with six hulking men closing in. She raced over to his aid, slicing the legs of the nearest man to her, which caught the attention of the next nearest. His eyes were wide with the thrill of the fight she had become so used to seeing in men. There was also a challenge there, and instead of running to meet her, he stopped and waited. Holding up two fingers he beckoned her forward - like she was his slave.
It was another log on the fire for her anger.
So she met his challenge by barrelling towards him. Her small size gave her the necessary speed to reach him before he reached her. At the last minute she shifted her course to the left and rushed past him, but not before shoving a dagger into his abdomen.
She didn't need to look back to see if she’d hit her target. The thunderous crash of man to ground was confirmation enough for her. The sound of which made her purr with satisfaction.
She truly was a thing of artistic brutality.
There was Aaron, fighting off two men who were giving him a hard time of it. She was about to rush to him when there was the sound of snagging cloth and she was yanked back by her cloak.
It almost brought her to the ground but she shed the heavy fabric in time. It revealed all the weapons she had strapped to her, which wasn't a problem. Let the fool who had tried to stop her see the terror she was about to rain down on him.
When she turned round to face him, she thanked the goddess for smiling on her.
It was the captain. Up close he was taller than he had seemed, over six foot, with large square shoulders. Though his face was hooded and she couldn't make out any features, her senses told her of the honed muscles beneath the robes and the steady, expert combat hands with which he held his sword. Which was now pointing directly at her.
"Stand down," he said with a deep, husky voice. If she hadn't known better, she would have said it belonged to a young, despite the low tone.
"I don't think so," Arianna howled in response, rushing straight for him with all her speed and might.
If he'd been startled by her running for him, he didn't show it. He met her raised sword with his own, using his strength to shove her aside. She ground her teeth in frustration as she dug her feet into the dirt and used the foothold to swing herself round for another swipe. But he met her metal again, easily, calmly brushing her aside. They fought like this for a while, her throwing slash after stab after slice, with him blocking.
There had to a break soon, Arianna thought.
No one could defend for that long.
And as if the goddess had heard her prayers, it did. The captain blocked her first hit but wasn't fast enough to parry the second, with the tip of her sword cutting his left arm. He jumped back in pain. But Arianna wasn't about to give him a reprieve. She went back again, the sight of the Tiger Lord’s mutilated body large in her mind now. Knowing that she was close to revenge. Happy to be taking this news home to Mags. For them both to try and get closure...
He narrowly avoided the killing blow.
Arianna cursed loudly.
Strangely, he stumbled, as if her words alone had hurt him.
Nobility, she thought. The only reason he might have reacted that way to her foul language. Pampered toffs, she thought scathingly. I'll teach him a lesson.
Again, a killing blow that he just about recovered in time to parry.
Goddess above, he was good.
He had to be, it was the only explanation for why she hadn't gutted him yet. Because she was that good herself. Better than him, which is why she was now done playing games and going straight for the jugular.
Her attention was torn for a fraction of a second.
Yet in that moment she faltered and his large arm knocked her to the ground. As her back hit the floor, sending shock waves of pain up her spine, her mask was also flung from her face.
The captain double-took.
"You're a girl?”
Arianna let the growl that had formed launch her upwards. She had no sword - it had been knocked a few feet away from her - but she had one last weapon.
It was dagger against sword.
Which didn't faze her, since they had trained this way for years, learning to use cunning and speed instead of brute strength. And Arianna was the best at that.
Without her mask she felt exposed, and she sensed that the captain was shocked to the point where he wasn't performing at his best. This she despised more than anything. As if she needed him to go easy on her because she was a woman. No, he would pay for that and the death of the Tiger Lord. And it would not be a pretty death.
She was conscious that Aaron was still screaming. The need to end this dance was pressing on her and she went at the captain with rapid pace and all the might she could muster.
Still, he managed to contain her.
It annoyed her immensely that her opponent was up to her standards, if not just as skilled as her. Because there was no one as skilled as her. That's what she had told herself through all the years of gruelling training and getting up two hours earlier than all the others to practice the previous night’s lessons.
Arianna dared to call upon more of the anger that was locked away inside of her. There would be consequences. She didn't know anything about the ancient anger within her, other than the immense power it filled her with, as well as the overwhelming darkness.
But this was for the Tiger Lord and his revenge. So that he could rest in peace, like his soul deserved.
Fire seared through her veins. It hurt with endless pain, and made her feel as if she were going to explode sooner than harness it, but she kept calling it anyway.
When it felt like she had what she needed, she charged.
Accept that, from behind, someone whacked her head.
She saw stars.
Stars as her eyes lolled into the back of her sockets.
A strong aching followed. It reverberated around her entire skull. Her knees went weak, she knew she was swaying, before she eventually fell onto her back.
"Was that necessary?" she heard that deep voice ask.
Two men came to stand over her, odd shapes in her dissolving vision. Wow, whatever she had been struck with was hard. She wanted to feel for blood, which she was sure was running, but the hit had disabled her entirely.
The men stepped back.
"For your safety, your highness, yes I think it was necessary. And I'd like to finish the job-"
What looked like a raised knee. Arianna braced herself for more pain.
"Don't!" the deep voice commanded. Why hadn't she read the regality in his voice before this? Or noticed it in his movements? She had been fighting with royalty the whole time and it hadn't dawned on her.
"She is still a young girl and I would rather not see her harmed any further."
The darkness was creeping in much faster now. Arianna let it swirl around her, until finally, it claimed her.
Her last conscious thought was of the Tiger Lord’s face, his usually bright eyes now dark and wary. "Sorry," she called to him.
But he looked for all the world like a man who didn’t believe her plea.