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Aaron’s iron fist pounded against my rib cage. Tongues of pain flickered through my lungs and I clenched my jaw—I would not give in to the wail of pain that struggled to be heard. I jabbed hard, aiming for his left kidney whilst my dropped elbow shielded my enraged ribs. Aaron spun fast, striking out again before I could make contact. I dodged, turning lightly on my feet despite the tearing sensation in my abdomen.
As I whirled around him, I caught Aaron’s eyes. They were bright, alive—he revelled in the fight, the battle. I cocked my arm back. I needed to make him less happy.
My elbow connected with the base of his spine, and he doubled over, winded. I allowed myself a small, satisfied smile, but it lasted only a moment before he spun around, faster than I could respond, and thrust the heel of his hand into my rib cage. I collapsed to the ground, praying for an adrenaline surge to drown the searing heat that settled over my partially healed knife wound.
“You know, I can’t remember the last time I took you down,” he gloated, staring down at me. More than a little irritated by his smugness, I let frustration overwhelm my judgement. So, I cheated. I slipped into his mind and read his next move. Before he could lunge for me again, I rolled and twisted, sweeping his legs out from underneath him with my shins. He landed on his back—hard. I hastily struggled to my feet and stepped back, putting more distance between the pair of us.
“Was there ever a first time?” I asked, tenderly prodding my stomach and left side whilst maintaining my footwork. Aaron shook his head, smiling again as he flipped himself onto his feet. Considering his size, he moved quickly and there was no opportunity for me to find a defensive position before he was there—his fists and feet within easy striking distance. He swung from the left. I shifted my weight to my other foot, desperate to avoid the blow.
I was woefully slow.
His fist connected with the side of my head, and I stumbled. Black stars glittered in my peripheral vision; my stomach roiled as I struggled to find my balance. I tried to shake it off, to find a safe space, but Aaron grabbed me. Hands tight on my upper arms, he lifted me, and slammed me hard into the ground. The air in my lungs escaped with a groan.
Glancing up at Aaron, I saw concern wash over his features, his arrogance and teasing gone. He extended a hand to help me to my feet, and I sucked in a shallow breath. I reached again for the bandaged wound that crossed my stomach and left side. Gingerly peeling back my shirt for a quick examination, I shook my head. “Ugh. What a mess.”
“On the Spirits, Elora, why are you even here?” Aaron’s voice was calm, but his eyes conveyed a storm of emotions. “It’s too soon. Surely they could have given you more time to recover.”
“I didn’t want it,” I muttered, trying to resituate the reddened gauze and tape.
I looked up and caught his glare. I had to be here; I had to train. I couldn’t let up for a moment. Somewhere out in the world, my father and sister hunted me. Maybe even Zak—probably Zak.
Aaron nodded his understanding.
Frustrated, I dragged my hands over my face and rubbed my eyes. I had allowed him to distract me from my mission once before, gave him my heart and my head. Never again would I allow anyone to fool me like that. I peered down as the tape lifted up once again, exposing the stitches, and I let out a resigned sigh.
“I suppose I’d better get a medical pass.”
“I’ll come with you,” Aaron said, hefting his gear and mine. I shook my head and grabbed my own bag.
“I’ll be fine,” I told him. “I don’t need a babysitter or a nursemaid. A few new stitches and I’ll be ready to go.” For a brief moment, Aaron looked like he might argue with me but then thought better of it.
“I’ll call by on my way back to my dorm room, just to say hi,” I reassured him. I looked into his eyes and was reminded of the boy I once knew, the boy who was now a man standing in front of me. I squeezed his hand firmly—a silent gesture of thanks—and made my way to the door of the gymnasium. Vanguard Allen, who was leading tonight’s hand-to-hand combat, acknowledged me as I approached.
“Ma’am, I need a medical pass, please.” I gestured to the blood and went to move past her.
“Wait there, recruit. I just need to arrange an escort for you.”
I managed not to roll my eyes, or punch her, and drew a calming breath. “I’ll be okay, ma’am. No need to waste anyone else’s time.”
“I have my orders, recruit.”
The discussion was closed. Who had placed those orders? Vanguard Superior McCann? My mother, Nina? Perhaps Principal Hashkin? I didn’t see the point to it, really. After all, I had only left the compound, without much qualified back up, saved a village from destruction, and fought off the bad guys—who just happened to be my father and sister. So, it really made sense that I would need a bodyguard to cross the courtyard of our protected, heavily defended training camp.
“Ma’am? I can escort Recruit Walker, if you’d allow me?” Aaron stepped up behind me. Always my knight in shining armour, ready and willing to rescue me even when I didn’t need it. He must have watched the conversation, maybe even overheard it from his position at the back of the gym. Vanguard hearing—nothing was private.
“That will have to do as it appears her condition is worsening,” answered Vanguard Allen, her eyes glancing over me worriedly. “Send word when you arrive safely. Dismissed.” She returned her attention to the rest of the recruits, and Aaron swung my bag and his up onto his shoulder. He slipped his other arm around my waist.
“You really do look dreadful,” he muttered in my ear. I bit back a tart reply and allowed him to guide me through the doorway. Whether it was from the training, the blood loss, or the fact that I had barely slept in the week since we had returned from Havenswell, I truly didn’t feel well at all.
Outside, I gazed up into the dark sky and allowed myself a moment of peace, just a moment. The air was cool, the stars bright, and the night deathly quiet. I wanted to remember what life was like a year ago, when things had been simpler. When I was still a child. When I still hated my mother and she still tolerated me. When the lies were still hidden and the truth didn’t hurt every day. My eyes began to tear up, and I blinked furiously. Aaron’s voice cut through my reverie.
“It’s too much too soon, Elora.”
“I can’t stay in my room and stare at the walls. I’ll go crazy.”
“But after everything that happened, with Diana and . . .” His voice trailed off, but I knew who he meant. And Zak. My ex-boyfriend, my enemy.
“It’s happened, and I can’t change the past. I can do something about the future, though.” Silence surrounded us again as we made our way towards the medical ward. Nothing much had changed at Nikolai since our return. Sure we had won the battle, but we had also suffered great losses. The compound was in mourning. And yet, training and classes continued as rigorously as before, and I refused to be left behind.
We entered the medical wing of the compound to find Matthew already there, wringing his hands and wearing a pathway across the small waiting area.
“You’re all right!” he exclaimed and wrapped me in a light hug.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I winced, and he drew back as though he could feel my pain. How did he know we were coming?
“You cried out; I heard it.” Matthew tapped his temple, and I closed my eyes for a moment.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea why that happened. I wasn’t linked to anyone. I’ve been trying to keep all that switched off.”
Matthew watched me for a moment, his white hair flickering and twisting impatiently. “Well, you shouldn’t,” he continued, frustration seeping into his tone. “And I don’t know if anyone else heard it, or whether it was just me. Sometimes I think there’s this connection between us now that doesn’t break. Maybe it’s because of the magic from when you were born, or maybe from Havenswell. All that matters is that you’re going to be okay.” He greeted Aaron, who had placed our kit bags on the floor.
“I’ll go get some help,” Aaron said quietly.
“Thank you,” I said, slumping into the nearest chair as he left.
“Is he okay?” Matthew asked, nodding in the direction Aaron had taken.
“I think so. We were sparring when this happened.” I gestured to the weeping wound. “Probably blames himself. You know what he’s like.”
Matthew laughed a little and plopped down into the plastic chair next to mine. “We both know that there are probably other reasons for his worry.”
I shook my head. “No, it’s just brotherly guilt. He beat up on his little sister.”
“Are you sure? Seems to me he’s never going to be truly over you. You don’t think that he might still be in love with you? Not even just a little?”
“No!” I exclaimed, shocked. “Of course not. Aaron’s in love with Teya now, I’m sure he sees me just as I do him. We’re family, always will be.”
Matthew was quite for a moment, his brow creased in thought.
“We’ll get through this, you know,” he said eventually, “All of us. Together.”
I nodded in agreement, but inside had no idea how that could happen. Nothing had changed. We were still in trouble. Everything was just on hold.
*Check also "Foretold", the first instalment in the series*
Joanne Kershaw lives in Wakefield, England, with her husband, four young children, and an uppity cat named Dipstick. As a teacher of five- to eleven-year-olds, she spends her days playing at being a grownup, then goes home to delve into Young Adult dark romance and being sixteen again. Joanne lives and breathes books, whether reading, writing, or marking them. She wrote her first novel in six weeks. Encouraged to submit her work by a friend and fellow YA novel addict, Joanne now finds herself a signed author at Xchyler Publishing. Joanne’s Kershaw’s first book with Xchyler Publishing is Vanguard Legacy: Foretold.