Swords in the Moonlight
Jade lay on her cool, silky bed, eyes squeezed shut. She tossed and turned endlessly, trying in vain to fall asleep. One tanned leg kicked up as she turned on her side, mumbling softly to herself. Her blanket twisted around her ankle, unbeknownst to her. She turned yet again, and this time, she tumbled to the ground with a startled yelp. Her eyes flew open as she propped herself up on her arms. She knew that she would be facing another sleepless night, one of the many she had experienced in the past month.
A shaft of moonlight peeked through the slight gap in the thick, blood-red curtains. She got to her feet, moving to close it. Her breath caught in her throat when she saw what lay beyond it, as it always did.
The training fields. A wave of nostalgia hit her with a strong force.
Whirling blades of bronze and steel. The soil beneath bare feet. Gusts of wind pushing through soft brown hair. The harsh clang of metal.
She sighed as she raised her hand to the cloth, moving to cover the painfully tantalizing sight. Once, she had been free to train with her twin swords to her heart’s content, from dawn to the late hours of the night. She had been far younger than, perhaps nine or ten summers old, yet her memories of the place were as sharp and clear in her mind as if the events had occurred the previous day, rather than nearly five years past. As she had gotten older, her duties had piled up, suffocating her until she could barely breathe under the heavy burden that had been placed on her young shoulders.
There was no longer time for fun and games, no picnics in the courtyard, nor sword fighting in the field. Of course, it had not normally been this bad, but the situation with Shadowdale had worsened. Its relations with Zodiia were… unstable at best. Her father had, albeit regretfully, started training her to rule the kingdom earlier than he had planned to do, in hopes that his daughter could perhaps even out the workload, which was proving to be far more than he alone could handle.
While Jade was not averse to helping her father, the small, selfish part of her greatly resented giving up her childhood and freedom. Oh, how she longed to hold those weapons in her hands, to run amuck outside, rather than sit in some stuffy council room.
And yet…why couldn’t she? There was nothing stopping her now, and it would certainly be better than uselessly sitting around, waiting for sleep that would never come.
The idea, fantastical as it was, steadily began to take root in her mind, and before she could weigh the logic of such a thing, she had already made her decision.
She padded soundlessly towards her door, creaking it open to take a quick peep into the hallway. She took special care to ensure that she was not seen by the guard who took the night watch, patrolling up and down the corridor at an even pace. The good thing – or bad thing, depending on how one looked at it – about patrols, was that they were perfectly timed and coordinated, right down to the second. One only had to watch for the gaps in order to sneak out, and it would not differ any other night.
Jade took a quick glance at the old grandfather clock down from across the hallway. The hands showed half-past-eleven. She silently withdrew her head, grateful. There truly could not have been a better time to go about her business without disturbing anyone, and without being disturbed by anyone.
She slipped on one of her spare riding breeches, grimacing at the rough material. It was one of the few pants she owned, so she would have to make do. Jade still failed to understand how everyone- or at least, a fair amount of people -expected princesses to wear gowns and not much else. She did not particularly mind the gowns, but she did find it constricting to wear them every minute of the day. After all, she could only take so much inconvenience, and if there was one thing those gowns were made for, it was not functionality.
Forgetting her discomfort, Jade felt a rush of thrill engulf her as she carefully opened her window. It creaked as she slid the protective mesh to the side. She winced. One would have thought a king would keep the doors and windows of his home more well-oiled.
With mounting trepidation and excitement, Jade climbed out and inched towards the end of the sill, before dropping down to the balcony below it with practiced ease. It had been a while since she had last done this, but it was nice to see that she had not lost her touch. She had used the window for many purposes over the years- whether it was sneaking into the kitchen for a late-night snack, pretending to be a spy, or simply for the thrill of it. It was harder of course; she was taller and heavier. She misjudged the height of the jump several times, often losing her footing. But Jade did not let that deter her.
She kept going. Inching, sliding, jumping. She worked slowly and rhythmically, soon finding her form. It was not long before she reached the bottom, setting one foot down, then the other, onto the soil of the gardens. She exhaled softly at the soothing feel of the rich, loamy earth beneath her bare feet. The pleasant aroma of flowers was in the air, instantly calming her racing heart. There was something about the outdoors that always made Jade feel peaceful, comfortable, and right at home.
Snapping herself out of her reverie, she walked down the paved path, making her way towards the field where she had trained as a little girl.
That was when she heard it. A soft, almost imperceptible thud. Jade Stopped dead in her tracks, looking around warily. Her heartbeat wildly in her chest as she searched for the source of the noise.
Perhaps this was not the best idea.
Panicking now, she turned to hurry away from the gardens, out of the shade and into the moonlight, somewhere where she could see better. It made her feel somewhat safer, but not much.
” Going somewhere, Princess?” came a deep, rumbling voice. Jade jumped ten feet in the air. She whirled around, terrified, as she came face to face with her pursuer. She could have cried with relief when she realized who it was.
“Don’t scare me like that, Aiden!” she whisper-yelled at her personal guard. Aiden. Not a kidnapper, not a Shade, not some malevolent spirit. Aiden. Her protector, her friend. Slowly, breathing evened out.
Aiden raised an eyebrow. “Like when you just scared me to death when I realized that the very person that I was supposed to be guarding wasn’t in her bed, where she should be?” he retorted evenly. He was beyond furious. How could his charge have been so careless with her own safety?
“What if it was not just me, your guard who only has your well-being in mind? What if it was someone who meant you harm? You could have been killed!” he seethed.
“Or do you not remember that Dark Pixies can infiltrate the palace?”
“I do remember,” she said quietly. How could she not? Her brother had been taken by those monsters inside the palace. Nearly four years later, the event still rankled in her. Ashamed, she stared down at her feet. The palace may have grown better fortified since then, but it was not without its risks.
It was only then that Jade realized the magnitude of his anger. Even when he was annoyed with her, he stayed calm, cool, and collected. For as long as she had known him, he had only ever lost control once. Which meant that he was positively enraged.
“I am sorry.” She whispered. Aiden only nodded curtly. “I will be escorting you back to your room now.” He said firmly, holding her arm and pulling her in the direction of the castle, gentle yet strict.
Jade bit her lip as she was dragged along like a misbehaving toddler.
“I am barely two years younger than you are. You don’t have to treat me like a child,” she muttered.
Aiden stared back at her; bright eyes boring into hers. “Then stop acting like one.”
“I just wanted to be free… just for one night. Free to walk the earth and feel the wind. Is that so much to ask?”
Aiden pursed his lips. He wanted to reprimand her for her lack of judgment. But then, as he looked into her wide, wistful honey-colored eyes, he had to remind himself that she was only fourteen, a girl who had been forced to grow up too fast. He relented.
“Well, next time you feel like going on a midnight stroll, at least take me with you. I do not mind being woken up in the middle of the night if it keeps you out of trouble,” he said, crossing his arms over his broad chest.
Jade nodded and fingered her riding shirt, still feeling considerably guilty. Aiden’s sharp eyes caught the movement, before glancing down and noticing her breeches. He narrowed his eyes into slits.
“You’re not just going on a midnight stroll, are you?” he asked suspiciously, his analytical and skeptical mind going through the various possible reasons a princess would want to wear roughly made riding clothes.
Jade rolled her eyes at his typical adult-like behaviour, sniffing out and putting a stop to mischief instead of joining in. But then, acting older than he was might have had a role in securing him the position of a guard in the first place. Indeed, she was glad for it, for Aiden was one of the most hardworking, faithful, loyal, yet dangerous guards that she had ever known. He was better than men twice or thrice his age, and there was no one else Jade would rather trust him with her life. Or her secrets.
“I was planning to get some sword practice in,” she admitted. “It’s been years.”
Aiden’s eyes widened. “You know how to fight?” he asked, slightly shocked. He had pegged the younger girl as many things, but a sword fighter had, admittedly, not been one of them.
Jade nodded shyly.
“But I’ve never seen you train,” Aiden said. It was not a question, but Jade knew that he expected an answer all the same.
“Yes, I haven’t been training. Not since…” her voice broke. Aiden nodded in understanding.
“The Dark Pixie infiltration. You were otherwise occupied.” Jade nodded once more.
Aiden’s brow furrowed as he did the calculation. “You were only ten.”
They stood in uncomfortable silence, before Jade broke it hesitantly.
“Would you like to join me? I could use a sparring partner.” She said softly, fervently hoping that the stoic guard would concede to her request.
“I have no objections,” Aiden replied flatly, his voice betraying no emotion at all. But before he could mask it, Jade saw the spark of excitement in his eyes. While many things about her guard were still a mystery to her, Jade was sure that she could get a basic read on his emotions. A slow grin spread across her face.
” Last one to the field is a pile of dragon dung!” She yelled, aware that she was being quite loud, but could not really bring herself to care if anyone had heard her. She took off, knowing full well that Aiden, a trained combatant who ran frequently, would have far more stamina, therefore surpassing her, but she enjoyed it all the same.
Upon arriving at the courtyard -Aiden first, Jade panting behind him- they took up their favorite blades. Aiden looked on in pleasant surprise as she chose a familiar pair of twin short swords from the rack, while he himself unsheathed his broadsword from the scabbard at his waist.
They dropped into basic fighting stances and began to spar. It was slow, hesitant at first. Aiden aimed his blows carefully in order to avoid harming his opponent. Jade fought haltingly as she tried to remember the familiar swings and steps she had not performed for a long time. Soon, however, the awkwardness fell away, as did the hesitance. The moves became fluid, strong. A graceful, deadly dance. Jade’s body hummed in contentment with every step she took among the grass and mud. Her veins buzzed with energy, brimming with power. Elation spread through her, temporarily lifting away the burden she bore. She was floating. Their blades clashed time and again, two pairs of feet dancing to a song of rhythm and steel.
By Nivedita Kasi,
Grade 9A, Ekya School, JP Nagar