The scent of bacon butties called to Mòrag from the waking world. She rubbed her eyes, opening them slowly, to allow herself to get used to the light streaming in the window. Brax sat on the bed beside her with a grin on his face.
‘I knew the smell would wake you,’ he said helping her up and handing her a roll.
The group exams began this morning. Rozzen had chosen to stagger the exams over the week but she had made sure to place their unit in the first section to go. Four units a day were to be assessed, and a lucky draw would decide who would face whom.
In these assessments, the four man units would fight directly; either you had to ‘kill’ all the members of the opposing team, by retrieving a red flag, which hung from the belt of each tyro. Or, they were allowed to surrender. They would be using the wood surrounding the castle as the staging ground for the mini battles.
Mòrag, Brax and Lennox had been sparring daily, learning every inch of the weapons they had chosen almost a week before. Ava had not joined them for practice. She had instead spent her time nursing Tesso who appeared to have caught the flu as Lennox had thought.
‘Do you think Ava is up to this?’ Mòrag asked between mouthfuls of her breakfast.
‘I hope so. I heard a rumour that her father is coming back to observe the assessments.’
‘I hope he’s late then, she needs more time away from him.’
The four of them met up outside the barracks, and made their way together to the main hall just off the parade grounds. Ava seemed confident enough that she was prepared for the assessment, even though she had not trained with them in almost a week.
In the hall, three other units were gathered. Mòrag’s gaze was immediately drawn to Fletcher Raine’s overly smug face, his constant air of self-importance made her skin crawl. He minced across the hall toward them, followed as always by his flock of fools.
‘Where have you four been hiding?’
‘None of your business, now kindly piss off, we have no time for you this morning.’
Ava giggled. ‘Straight to the point then, Mòrag.’
‘You had better make some time for me,’ Fletcher crooned, ‘you may be facing my team.’ He turned his attention to Ava, stepping closer and running a finger down her arm. ‘The barracks have been quiet without you.’
Ava glared at him. ‘Get your clarty mitts off me, Fletcher, before I break your fingers, or your face.’
Mòrag stifled a laugh, she’s been hanging around me too much, she is starting to talk like I do.
‘Watch who you are talking to, Marcs, my father out ranks your father.’
‘Oh, I am frightened. Truly, I am,’ she crooned theatrically, tossing her head back and touching her forehead with the back of her hand. ‘Oh, what will become of me for threatening the son of the almighty ego that is General Raine?’ She turned to the others. ‘Fletcher likes to play the “whose daddy has the bigger set of balls” game. His daddy’s balls are not all that impressive. Neither’s his dick.’ She grinned wickedly at him.
‘How dare you insult my father.’
‘Please, Fletcher, you are more of an insult to your father than I could ever put into words.’
Fletcher frowned, and then scowled, as Mòrag’s whole unit laughed at him.
‘Whatever. I will make you pay,’ he huffed. ‘Come on, men,’ he called as he turned and stormed off across the hall.
Sergeant Mullins sat behind a table with four envelopes. ‘Each unit, take an envelope, collect your selected weaponry and proceed to the gatehouse where your individual guides will meet you and take you to your starting positions. Understood?’
‘Yes, Sir,’ all tyros called in unison.
Mòrag stepped forward to receive their envelope, and they set off for the gatehouse. ‘Ava, what are you doing about weapons?’
She winked at Mòrag. ‘Not to worry, my end is covered.’
‘If you say so.’
Sergeant Grey was waiting for them under the gatehouse archway. She led them to an area in the centre of the wood that surrounded the castle grounds. ‘I will assess you from a distance. I will assess how you work as a team, how you follow instruction, how quickly you assess and deal with arising situations, stealth and if you triumph over the other unit; which, in my opinion, is highly likely; it is only a matter of how quickly. You may open the envelope now and see which unit you are to face. Proceed immediately in your objective.’
‘Yes, Ma’am,’ they replied in unison.
Mòrag ripped open the envelope and scanned the names on the crisp white paper. ‘Higgins, Dodd, Kilopp and Linnd.’
‘Higgins and Linnd are keen on axes, they are both strong, but slow, and tend to swing first, think second. Kilopp is a medic like me; she is quick and agile but weapon-shy. Dodd is an expert fighter in most disciplines; he will be their leader.’
‘Ava, do you know everything about everyone?’ Brax asked.
Ava let out a soft laugh. ‘Spymaster’s daughter. Of course, I do. Does it give starting positions of the other units, Mòrag?’
‘Yes,’ Mòrag held out the document from the envelope, which contained a small map detailing rough starting positions of each unit. ‘I think we should be aware that even though we are after this unit, it doesn’t mean that they’ll be looking for us. Any of the other three units could have us as their target.’
‘We need to move quietly and keep to cover. The downside to this is that all of us know these woods so well,’ Brax said.
That was true. There is no way they would be able to stay hidden, every unit will head for the same places. Then something occurred to her that made her smile. ‘Ava, how easy do you find shared sight?’
‘I am proficient,’ Ava said with a smile. ‘You have a plan.’
‘I do. Lennox?’
‘It’s one of my blood talents.’
‘Good. What we need then is a little Albannach mist.’ She felt for the water in the air, and for Ceò’s familiar presence. ‘I need a little mist.’
‘My speciality of course, though usually when I do this I am looking for my breakfast. For you Ban-Phrionnsa I will extend the curtesy.’
‘You are most welcome,’ Ceò’s whisper swirled around her as the mist formed and thickened to full blown fog.
‘What’s this?’ Ava asked intrigued.
‘She has the loyalty of the waterhorses,’ Brax said.
‘Do you really? I heard they take human form to lie with maidens before drawing them close to water and pulling them down to their deaths.’
‘Actually,’ came a watery voice from behind Ava. ‘Sometimes we just like to lie with bonnie lassies.’ He wound a hand round her waist and ran the other up her neck and along her jaw.
‘Ceò, now is not the time.’
He released Ava and bowed, his pearlescent locks of hair falling over his naked body with the motion. ‘As you wish, Ban-Phrionnsa. Your friend is particularly bonnie; I would gladly lie with her if she were willing.’
‘Now is not the time for romance, my friend. We have a job to do.’
‘Of course. This fog will move for no one other than you, when you wish it to dispel simply command it to scatter and it will.’ He turned back to Ava, took a deep breath — tasting her scent. ‘Aye, you would do nicely,’ he said as he faded into the mist.
Ava began to giggle. ‘A waterhorse want’s me, I feel so special.’
‘Not just any waterhorse, Ava,’ Mòrag said with a chuckle. ‘Ceò is their king.’
‘Well, he is very handsome,’ she said pulling a bag from beneath her trouser leg. ‘I figured that, even though we are on home turf, we cannot trust that we are safe after what happened in the winter. So I brought this.’ she pulled a leather-covered handgrip from the bag; a fine cord hung in a loop, attached to a point at each end of the grip. Twisting her arm so the looped cord dropped away from her body, she released a catch and two arms shot out from the grip pulling the cord taught. She handed the bow to Lennox whose eyes almost popped out of his head as she unfastened and dropped her shirt.
Helena had indeed made a matching get up for Ava as she had for Mòrag. Though Ava’s leather corset incorporated a removable section of additional leather, that when laced, became a quiver. It also had loops in the back, which held twelve hooded razor tipped arrows. ‘It is a good job I have a long body or this probably would not work,’ Ava said as she replaced her shirt, removed the hoods from her arrows and readied them in her quiver.
Brax stared at her open-mouthed. ‘What are you?’
‘Wouldn’t you like to know,’ Ava said with a wink.