Chapter 1: The Grand Master of Danafor
Chapter One: The Grand Master of Danafor
The dungeon was dark, the air a bit stale, but thankfully it was dry. It was even clean, against dungeon standards. The floor was stone instead of dirt, the wooden bench was in one, sturdy piece, and the bars on the tiny window and door were mostly free of rust. There wasn't even any hay or straw in the corners, discouraging rats from taking up residence.
Liz sat on the bench, her back pressed into the corner of the cell, her knees drawn up to her chest. She wrapped her arms around her legs, frowning deeply. Angrily she huffed the stringy bangs out of her face, her fingers clenching into fists before forcing them to relax.
She wasn't supposed to be here. This wasn't supposed to have happened. It was a guaranteed battle, an easy in and out. The intelligence had been clear, the weaknesses in the Danafor wall outlined. It was hard to accept just how bad her information had been. The moment the plan had gone into effect, she knew that they would fail. Her first mission as commander, and she had failed so very spectacularly.
Her men had been killed one by one as they refused to back down. That was the motto of the Pasilian army, what had been drilled into their brains from the first day. No retreat, no surrender, death first. So one by one the fools fell, idiots running straight for death that awaited them with open arms.
But not her. Liz was a survivor. She was nothing without knowing how to keep herself alive.
An hour went by, then another. She kept count of the minutes, using the thin strip of sunlight on the ground to help. The longer she sat, the angrier Liz became. It was bad enough she had lost to the Danafor army, but now she was being kept alive. She wasn't supposed to be here. She should be back in Pase, debriefing her commanding officer of the raid. Or dead. Not in a cell.
I shouldn't be here.
There were footsteps approaching her cell, which echoed in the emptiness. Liz did not look up when she heard the scrape of the keys in her door, even as her body tensed in anticipation. She would be damned if she was going down now. If they were going to kill her, she was going to make them. She hadn't fought all this time just to end up swinging on a rope. Her freedom had been so close, so damn close and her bitterness and fear bubbled up as boiling anger towards whoever was coming to fetch her to her fate.
The door creaked loudly as it opened and a pair of boots echoed as they stepped inside. Her eyes darted to the side, looking for a broken stone or glass that she could lunge towards and use for a weapon. But she had already checked, covering every inch of the cell when she was first deposited there. After she had been escorted in chains by some very unhappy Holy Knights on orders by their Grand Master.
That same Grand Master was now looking at her silently, his hands in his pockets. The wild blonde hair that was unmistakable caught her eye, and her focus shifted to the strange man who had saved her. The others had been calling for her blood, for her head, calling out the horrible things they wanted to do to her, calling her every name in the book. And she stood and took it, as Liz always had, as she had been trained to do even before becoming a soldier. She had been a soldier and a slave long enough to know what was coming. Resisting would just draw out the inevitable. The only choice was to shut off her emotions and erase her thoughts.
But the blonde looking at her now with raised eyebrows had silenced them all by proclaiming her off-limits. When the generals from the fight, still dirty and bloody from the battle that morning, started the protest calls, the Grand Master had told them that a strike against her would make them his enemy. That had been the end of that protest.
Exactly how powerful was this guy?
He didn't look like anything at all, just a kid really. She could not help but snort to herself as her eyes traced up and down. Her arms shook a bit with the tension, but managed to keep her voice even to hide the churning emotion. "I didn't know that Danafor made children into Holy Knights," she muttered.
"We don't," he answered simply. His gaze flickered over her face, and the sensation of those eyes examining her made her shiver. He was looking for something, but what?
"So, your name is Liz?" he asked. She simply stared ahead in answer, and he pressed his lips together. "My name is Meliodas."
The way he was looking at her was putting her even more on edge. Why was he playing this game—whatever this game was? "I don't give a shit," she answered tightly.
The knight gave her a half smile then, which was more disarming than if he had laughed, or yelled. "Well, it's Meliodas all the same." He looked around the cell once more and then tilted his chin to the side. "Come on with me."
Liz's body went rigid. This was it. He had saved her from the gallows so he could put a spear or a sword through her himself? Probably even worse than that. Well, she wasn't about to make it easy.
He was still staring at her as a plan clicked over in her mind. "I can see you are thinking of trying something," he said slowly. "But really, it's unnecessary. You don't have anything to be afraid of, not with me." Liz's eyes darted towards him. Extending his hand, he took a step forward. "Now come on, this place is awful."
A tense moment exchanged between them, and then slowly Liz stood. She kept her eyes on his hand, watching for any sudden movements; but what she was really looking at was the knife on his belt. He wasn't wearing a sword, which she found odd, but she supposed he must not have seen her as a threat. This was a mistake he was going to regret once she made her move.
Liz was only a few paces from him when she swung. He stepped back with a huff, dodging her easily, but she had expected that. The soldier in her moved, and as he leaned back she twisted her shoulder, throwing out the other arm to grab a hold of the hilt of the knife. With another twist it was free, her fingers spinning it expertly until she held it in her firm grip.
But then he had recovered, and was moving as well, his own hand thrusting forward for the weapon. He moved fast, too fast, and for a split second she wondered what his ability was even as she called on her own. There was no time for a smirk as he lost his balance and missed her wrist by barely an inch. It was enough of an opening, however, to allow her to grab him by the collar and stick the end of the knife against his throat.
Panting to catch her breath from the quick movements, she glared down at the blonde now helpless in her grip. "One move and I cut your throat open," she said simply.
Her left hand gripped his shirt, the right one holding the blade steady. Slowly his eyes slid downwards, staring at the knife. But then when a small smile ghosted over his lips, she realized he wasn't looking at the knife at all; he was looking at her chest under the black undershirt she wore.
"Liz," he chuckled, "if you wanted to get close you could have said something."
The comment made her angrier than she expected, but when she felt his hands slip up her ribs and cup the undersides of her breasts, she yelped furiously. Loosening her grip on his she shoved him backwards, where he went toppling into a laughing mess on the floor. In an instant he was back up on his feet, brushing the dirt from his uniform and completely unworried about the weapon she still pointed at him.
"Come on, we can play some more later. I'm hungry, let's go." The knight turned and headed towards the open cell door, and Liz shouted, "I'm not going anywhere with you!"
He paused, standing perfectly still for a moment before looking over his shoulder. "Do you want to stay here then?"
"I want to go home," she replied coldly.
"Home?" He sounded genuinely curious, which irked her even more. "Where is that?" Before she could answer, he turned back around to face her. "You're not from Pase, so where are you from?"
She refused to be baited. She refused to let him see any weakness. "You don't know a thing about me," she said slowly, menacingly.
"You're right. Which is why I was hoping we'd have lunch first." Meliodas sighed. "I mean, I would let you go, but you have no food, no weapons, and—"
"Wait!" she cried. He looked startled at her outburst, but Liz was too busy catching her own breath. "You're letting me go?" He nodded and she narrowed her eyes. "Why? What do you want?"
He shrugged. "I just wanted lunch."
This was a mistake, she knew it was a mistake. A mistake or a trick or some kind of awful, awful prank that he was playing on her. But Liz was determined to find out his angle, and to find a way out of Danafor, so she had followed him. When they left the dungeon he gave her a thin cloak that helped cover the blood and stains on her ripped clothing, and then led her through the city.
To her surprise, he never asked for the knife back.
It was just about spring, and the sky was overcast. The cloak felt good when the breeze picked up, and she kept her head down as they walked down one street after another. People were out, shopping, talking, hurrying children along, strolling as they enjoyed conversation. It was a perfectly normal morning in a perfectly normal city in Britannia.
But Liz was on edge. Where was he taking her? Were the gallows somewhere other than the castle? She took in her surroundings, trying to pinpoint where they were, east or west, north or south, where the castle was, where the city gates were. The streets were busier than she expected, having always heard Danafor was a small and simple city. Pase was an incredibly rich country, thanks to its capital. The city of Dolan sat in the direct center of Britannia, and made its citizens and its king very wealthy from trade.
This must be a trick. Maybe this wasn't even Danafor at all. Could he have moved her? Put her under some kind of enchantment? He took a sharp left, and a moment later led her to a pretty little house just off a side road. Liz slowed her steps looking around for potential threats, as he hurried up to the door and turned the handle. "This way," he called over, the first time he had spoken since they had headed out.
"I'm not going in there," she snapped, holding the knife out in a defensive motion.
Meliodas sighed. "Are we gonna do this again? Every time I say something, you refuse, and then you eventually give in. Can we just skip to the give in part?" He raised his palms and looked at her pointedly. "Might I remind you that you're the one with the weapon. So just come inside and get some lunch."
With that he turned and disappeared into the house. Liz's mouth popped open, looking around. They were completely alone, the house hidden a bit behind some cleverly planted trees. She could run for it right now, and even took a step back towards the road before pausing.
This must be some kind of test. He wanted to see what she would do, and since he figured she would run, whatever he had planned would not end well for her. Slowly her eyes returned to the open front door. This could not be a real house, but what else was going on? Indecision churned inside of her stomach. She pushed her senses outward, expecting to feel the presence of others inside, perhaps a group of Danafor's soldiers who wanted to take their revenge on her in private.
But there was nothing. No soldiers, no enemies, just the energy from the Holy Knight who had led her here. Deciding to take her chance, Liz went against her fighting instincts and cautiously followed into the house.
It was a simple affair, with a fireplace and chairs on one side, a rug under a table with benches, a stove and water basin under a window. There were stairs on one side that led to a loft, and it was all very cozy and simple, just the sort of house she would have liked, had she ever had the opportunity for such a thing. The thought made her chest constrict a bit. She had been so close to having a simple life, a free life, but the failed raid had ruined that.
The knight had shed his cloak onto the back of a chair, and was washing his hands with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. "Do you like whitefish?" he asked.
"What is this?" she demanded, and Meliodas glanced over. "This is my house," he replied.
"No, not this place. What are you doing? What do you want?" She cringed to hear a bit of panic creep into the way her voice strained, but Liz was determined to remain firm. However, he just looked at her as if she had asked if they were going to walk on the moon later. The blank confusion on his face irritated her to no end. "Why did you bring me here?" she shouted.
He opened his mouth and she interrupted, "If you say lunch one more time—"
"Well, yeah, that," he laughed. His hands went to his waist. "But you need a place to stay, so I figured you could stay here. That way I can keep an eye on you, and no one would come looking for you here."
The idea of staying in this house with the Grand Master hit her like a blow. She wasn't supposed to be here. "I'm not staying here with you."
"There you go with the 'I'm not doing this' and 'I'm not doing that'," he muttered as he turned and unwrapped a package on the counter.
"I'm not letting you touch me!" Her voice rose in pitch, making him pause. "I'm not a slave!"
Their eyes met as he said quietly, "I never said you were."
Quickly Liz raised the knife and placed it against her neck. "You can't use me like this. I'll kill myself first. I am not your slave."
His eyes were steady on the edge, which she had pressed into her skin. "So noted," he said finally, his face unreadable before he turned back to the fish that lay unwrapped on the counter.
There was not another word from either of them, and slowly Liz lowered the weapon. It was hard to believe him… how could she believe him? He was another man in control, another leader giving orders, another person standing in the way of what she wanted. Minutes ticked by, and he did not answer her; instead, he hummed a bit to himself as he bustled around the little kitchen. Liz felt her shoulders begin to relax, her heart beat slowing to a normal pattern.
She watched as he put a pot on over the fire, filling it with water before haphazardly ripping up some greens and throwing them inside. Still incredibly nervous, she allowed herself to regroup as she watched the knight move around the room, grabbing more vegetables, throwing in carrots and an entire whole onion, uncleaned, unpeeled, and unchopped. "What are you doing?" she finally asked.
"Making lunch," he laughed. "What do you think?"
Her situation momentarily forgotten, she watched with wide eyes as he stirred the pot, dumping some mysterious white powder in next. "That's… our lunch?" she asked.
"Yup." Another stir, another taste, and then the knight went to the counter. He grabbed the fish and carried it to the pot, and just as she shouted, "No!" he dumped the entire thing inside.
"Is this some kind of joke?" she yelled, hurrying over to the pot. She looked inside, and the contents nearly made her sick. The uncleaned vegetables floated on the top of what looked like mud, and now the newest addition stared back up at her through an unseeing milky eye. "You didn't even clean the fish!" she exclaimed.
"Clean? The fish?" Meliodas used a finger to scratch his head. "Are you joking? Fish come from the sea, they are already clean."
Her precarious situation momentarily forgotten, she could only gape at him. "You're an idiot," she said.
Liz stared down into her teacup, watching the sugar cubes dissolve in the hot liquid. It had been so long since she had had the sweet confection; the last time was probably at her former master's house, for some event or another when he brought out all his belongings to show off to his guests. The memory gave her a bit of a pang in her chest, and quickly she dragged her fingers through the bangs that hung over her right eye.
"Everything all right?"
She looked up quickly at the knight sitting across from her. His brows were raised questioningly as he sipped his own cup, placing it carefully on the table. "Don't they have tea in Pase? I thought they had everything there."
"Yes, I've had tea before," she answered irritably. Snatching up the teacup she took a large drink as if to prove it.
"Thanks for the lunch," he said. He leaned his elbow on the table and propped his chin in his hand. "You didn't have to do that though."
Liz could not help the snort that came from that. "There was no way I was eating… whatever you called that." She sighed and glanced over to the hearth, where the pot filled with the remains of the knight's cooking still sat. After a bit of arguing, Liz had taken it upon herself to find some bread, cheese, and tomatoes, grilling them together for a few minutes over the flame. The blonde had practically moaned at the first bite, proclaiming her the best cook he had ever met.
"Where did you learn to make food?" he asked.
"The army," she answered carefully.
"Where were you before the army?"
Her eyes slid down and to the side. Folding her hands in her lap, her back went a bit stiff, waiting for the questioning to begin. This must have been his plan all along; give her a meal to loosen her tongue, and have her spill her secrets before punishment. The knife was heavy in the waistband of her pants, where she had stashed it while they argued over the food. Without a conscious thought her hand began to slowly slide around her hip, ready to pull it free if needed.
But he did not interrogate her at all. Instead, he said, "I can see you aren't ready to talk to me, and that's fine. I am curious about the intentions of your raid, but we can get to that later." Still she did not look at him, but Liz could see him leaning closer out of the corner of her vision. "In the meantime, if you want to wash up, go ahead. I have some clothes for you too. I borrowed some things since you probably wouldn't fit mine. I can even heat some water up for a bath if you want—"
"A bath?" Liz gasped in spite of herself, looking up at the knight.
"Yeah," he laughed. "Don't they have those in Pase either?"
She frowned as she watched him chuckle at his joke. "Why are you doing this?" she whispered.
"What's wrong?" he grinned. "Hasn't anyone ever been nice to you before?"
The word had slipped out before she could stop it. There was a flash of something over his face, concern maybe, or even pity? It brought an unfamiliar feeling to her, and heat blossomed under her skin and behind her eyes. "No one is kind without wanting something," she said, her tone accusatory, her look daring him to argue.
There was a moment that passed between them, and again Liz felt the unfamiliar burning in her chest. It had been years since she allowed herself to feel anything but coldness; weakness, sorrow, self-pity were a death sentence. Feeling pain brought more pain. Slaves were obedient and silent. Soldiers were stoic and unforgiving. There was no room for kindness. There was no place for hope.
His smile cut through the tense air, and instantly the room felt at ease. "I don't think that's true at all!" he exclaimed. With a shake of his head Meliodas was up, gathering up the things on the table. "I'll get this cleaned up while you get yourself cleaned up," he said, nodding towards the washroom.
When his back was turned, Liz pulled out the knife she had stolen from his waist—which he still hadn't asked for!—and hurried into the washroom. She closed the door firmly, pulling over a chest and barring the door. She opened it and found some linens and towels inside, but nothing particularly useful, so she began scouring the rest of the room.
There was a basin for washing, and some shelves with different items, and just as he had said there was a small tub. To her surprise there was a water pump in the room to bring fresh water; only the most wealthiest in Pase had had such a feature. Of course this was the Grand Master, so it made some sense. Although with how simple the rest of his home was, it still caught her by surprise.
There was a small window on the side, and Liz quickly pushed it open. It would be a tight squeeze, but after a few moments of reaching through it, she amended that to being an impossible squeeze. Cursing under her breath, she opened a cabinet to look for something to help her escape, but instead just found more clothing.
With a huff she turned around, stopping short when she saw the Danafor uniform hanging on the back of the door. It was obviously for her, the tunic and leggings much too large to be the knight's. There was even a pair of boots sitting neatly to the side, and a pair of socks folded crisply on top. He hadn't lied; he had gotten her clothes, had planned for her to come. But why?
Slowly she turned, choking back the burning in her throat, when she caught sight of herself in a small mirror hanging on the wall. Her mouth dropped open in shock to see herself. Her hair was dull and dirty, hanging in strings around her streaked face; her neck was covered in grime from the battle; her clothes were caked and torn. The only thing on her body that was clean were her hands, which she had washed before they ate. She had not noticed just how bad she looked, still being wary of the knight's intentions.
With halting movements she crept forward, examining her face closely. There was a bruise on one temple, and she raised trembling fingers to brush on her skin. This was from a soldier who had grabbed her and threw her to the ground, and she had banged her head on the stone pavement. It would heal fine, she decided, turning her chin to take in the cut on her neck and the patch of blood under her ear. That injury was courtesy of the hilt of a sword, which cut into her as the owner swiped against the side of her head.
Her eyes traveled back up, and she took in her face again. They were puffy from lack of sleep—when was the last time she really slept?—her cheeks sunken in a bit, her lips chapped. For a moment she wondered what they all saw when they looked at her. What Meliodas saw when he looked at her.
With a sound of disgust she looked away. Who cares what he thought? He was using her, like anyone else. His kindness was false, it had to be. He said he wanted lunch, that she could stay with him, that he would like to let her go. Lies.
He wants a slave. The idea was like an icicle inside of her chest. Once more her eyes moved upwards, but this time they focused on the right side of her face… the side she kept hidden with long, pink bangs.
Pounding on the door jolted her out of her thoughts. "Hey! You okay in there?" The doorknob rattled as Liz jerked backwards, wiping the back of her hand over her eyes. "Did you block the door or something?"
"Get out!" she shouted. Angrily she pushed the chest back and yanked the door open a few inches. "You told me to clean up, what do you think I'm doing in here?"
"I was just checking," Meliodas laughed, then tried to peer around her. "Do you need any help? I can wash your back for ya—"
He lifted a hand to reach through the door, and yelped when she slammed it closed on him. With a smirk of satisfaction she pushed the chest back in place and began to undress, not even realizing it as her smile remained.
A half hour later, Liz was cleaned, dried, and dressed. She had tried to be as quick as possible, but the layers of grime and blood were worse than she had first thought, and the temptation to wash her hair proved too great to refuse. Luckily Meliodas did not try the door again, but she kept one eye on it all the same. The shaky trust that had been just a sliver between them was snatched away with his stunt at the door.
She had found a comb and brush and even managed to get her hair in order, carefully smoothing the sweep of bangs over the side of her face. The soap was a delicious sort of clean smell, so very different from the utilitarian bars that were sparsely dispensed by the commanding officers, and even more so from the spiced and flowery scents used by the slave masters. Liz found herself stopping to breathe in the scent as she dressed.
Once she was finished, she spent an entire minute staring at her reflection in the Danafor uniform, swallowing nervously at her appearance. Just wearing such a thing was treason, and a death sentence. But at that thought she had laughed bitterly. She was already under a death sentence, so what did it matter? If these Danafor soldiers didn't kill her for attacking, then the Pasilians would kill her for being captured. Forget the suspicion of defecting; she had worse sins to atone for first.
The final item was the knife, that now sat on the side of the basin. Liz picked it up and examined it, her mind clouded. The uniform pants actually had a place sewn in to hold the knife against her thigh; would she dare being so bold as to wear it and remind Meliodas she still had it? Deciding against that, she tucked it under the tunic, looping it through the waistband. It would come in handy when she made her escape.
Escape. The idea was tantalizing, and once more she looked at herself in the mirror. Escape was the prime task at hand. Get out of the house, out of Danafor, as far away from these horrible realms ruled by rich, fat men who used everyone else to wage war on one another. Liz wanted peace. She wanted security. She wanted to forget she was a slave, and a soldier, and how in many ways they had been the same thing.
Her fingers traced the hilt reassuringly before carefully replacing the tunic in a way to mask the small bulge. Meliodas had been kind to her, even if his motives were still suspect. For that, at least, she would not kill him. Not until he gave her a reason to, anyway, she decided.
She pushed the chest aside and began to open the door when she heard voices in the main room. Keeping the opening just an inch, she leaned in to listen to Meliodas say, "I told you, I will take full responsibility. I won't let her out of my sight, and she won't escape. There isn't anything to worry about."
"I'm not worried for you," a male voice replied. "It's what this looks like. An enemy invades Danafor, and you cook her lunch?!"
"Technically she cooked," he replied, which made Liz snort to herself; but the humor was short-lived when the other went on, "She needs to be executed. She was already sentenced. Just because—I don't know, you found her pleasing, that doesn't give you the right—"
"I am the Grand Master," Meliodas answered. "Any executions need to go through me. I revoked her sentence. She is under my protection. End of story."
Liz bit her lip, holding onto her breath. So he wasn't lying about that either… what did he want, then? "No one is going to let this go," the other growled. "She killed people, our people. She needs to be brought to justice."
"You don't understand her reasons," Meliodas said quietly.
"And you do?" came the shrill response.
There was a brief pause before he replied, "Yes. I do."
Chapter 2: Strange Comforts
Chapter Two: Strange Comforts
The afternoon passed slowly, quietly. When Liz emerged from the washroom, Meliodas had complimented the uniform, but he did not mention his guest, and neither did she. He asked her a few more questions, like how long she had been a knight and if she had any family; yet his questions were met with stony silence until he finally gave up.
She sat in a comfortable chair in the living area, watching Meliodas as he sat on the floor, surrounded by papers. Liz knew how to read a bit, and curiously she tried to peek over what he was reviewing without looking like she was looking. If by some chance she ended up back in the hands of the Pasilians, then she wanted to be able to give them some information on Danafor as a bargaining chip.
But the papers were lists of names and numbers, and without any context they meant little to her. So instead she studied her surroundings. Based on the light outside it seemed to be nearing 5:00, when families would begin to arrive home. For the first time she wondered if Meliodas had a family, but based on the lack of anything feminine in the home, she assumed not.
The furnishings were comfortable, but not fancy. The kitchen and cookware were basic. Even the few comforts, like the yellow curtains hanging over the window above the sink and the patchwork blanket that hung from the back of the other chair were more function than style. It was peaceful here, and calm, no children playing outside or visitors at the door. It wasn't quite spring yet, so the sounds of birds outside were few and far between. Overall, her conclusion about the Grand Master was that he was very… boring.
"Are you getting hungry?" he asked, not looking up from his paperwork.
"No," she answered briskly.
Meliodas nodded. "Well let me know when you do, and I'll start supper."
With a bit of huffed laughter she said, "Are you kidding? After that disaster of a lunch?"
He glanced up with a little grin. "Okay, fine then. We'll go out. I usually take my meals at the tavern around the way."
"I'm not going anywhere with you," came her firm reply.
Meliodas stilled, and then sighed. He placed his papers on the floor and looked up at her, his gaze piercing. "You still don't trust me?"
Blinking in confusion, Liz sat up a bit straighter. "Why on earth would I trust you?"
He raised an eyebrow as he considered her question. "I haven't tried to kill you yet."
"Except with your cooking."
A sharp laugh came from the knight, making her jump. It wasn't a cruel laugh, but filled with genuine amusement, but it made her uneasy just the same. "Your sense of humor is great. It's what I like best about you."
The insult was clear. Her sense of humor was not something to be admired. It had gotten her in trouble plenty of times, a quip or sarcastic remark slipping out, unable to stop it until it was too late, and a fist or a boot would fly to remind her mouth to stay closed. "You don't know anything about me," she bit back, her voice shaking a bit.
Suddenly she wanted him to lash out. She wanted his cruelty, his anger, she wanted to feel the back of his hand as he corrected her, wanted to be berated by her captain. That, at least, she could understand. She could handle severity. This easy, joking manner of his, the courtesy, the quiet, was completely unnerving.
"You're right," he agreed, which rattled her even more. "But I'd like to. I'd like to hear more about you, if you would just—"
"Why?" she suddenly shrieked. Was that her voice, so shrill and loud? The room seemed very still then, too still, as if everything was poised to pounce. "Who are you?" shouted Liz. "What do you want from me?"
She sprang to her feet, the knife in her hand in an instant, but somehow he was quicker. How was he quicker?
Summoning her power, she pointed the blade at Meliodas, who was reaching towards her, and called out, "Power Arc." She noted that his eyes went wide with her words, as if he was shocked to hear them; but a moment later he missed her completely, stumbling to the side as his swiping hand went wide.
Meliodas was crouched on one knee, staring at her, as she moved to put space between them. "How…?" he asked, his eyes wide. "Your power…"
Liz huffed a derisive laugh. "I'm a Holy Knight, don't you remember? Try coming after me again, and you'll find your attack does not land where you want it to."
His eyes seemed to suddenly focus again, and slowly he nodded. "So that is your ability? That's why I haven't been able to get my knife back."
Cautiously he stood and stepped towards her, and Liz took a defensive stance. "If you come near me, I'll kill you!" she shouted.
Meliodas pulled up short, looking at her with wide eyes. For a moment they stared at one another, and Liz was sure he was going to back off and finally let her walk out of there. She stepped to the side, her gaze steady on him, and prepared to run for the door.
Then suddenly he was behind her, his arms around her; but instead of disarming her, his hands were on her chest, giving her breasts a squeeze. "Don't get so worked up!" he said cheerily. "Come on, let's go out and eat."
With a scream of frustration Liz turned and swung her fist at his head, but Meliodas dodged her easily. Next she aimed a kick, then another punch, but nothing would land. Spinning the other way she swiped with the knife, the anger and humiliation driving her body now. Determined to get in one jab, just one hit, she sliced wide. The knight ducked, a few blonde hairs flying into the air as the knife sliced through the locks. "Hey, watch it!" he exclaimed.
Liz gave a breathless laugh, but then a moment later she found herself swept up into his arms, the knife clattering loudly onto the floor. "Let me go!" she shouted, kicking her legs and twisting furiously. With a yelp Meliodas lost his balance and tipped over, both of them crashing to the floor. She tried to scramble away, but again the knight was too fast, and ended up on top of her.
"There we are," he laughed. The adrenaline in her system turned sour, and as her hands went to his chest to try to push him off, a cold sweat broke out on her forehead. Meliodas suddenly frowned, planting his hands on either side of her head. "Liz? You okay?" he asked, drawing his brows down.
She took a deep breath, pushing up against him, but he would not move. She whipped her head to the side and saw the knife on the floor, just a foot away, and suddenly she knew, she knew, that the knight was going to kill her.
A cry tore from her throat and Liz began to struggle furiously. He was going to grab the knife and use it, carve into her, the pain would be sharp and intense and worse than her training. Her lungs hurt, pain shooting through her chest, as her vision tilted a bit. Her fingers gripped something as she pulled and pushed at the same time; her head banged into something hard, and she squeezed her eyes shut, waiting, waiting.
But the pain did not come. The only sound was her own breathing, the air drawing in and out shakily through her parted lips. Her fingers flexed against fabric, and curiously she opened her eyes. They landed on the knife, still lying untouched on the floor.
Her face spun around to see Meliodas peering at her with concern. Her eyes dropped to where her hands clutched his shirt, and immediately she released him as if she had been burned. "Liz?" he said as she shook her head, getting her bearings. She was sitting up now, leaning back against the wall. "Are you okay?"
"Who are you?" she whispered.
His eyes traveled her face before he smiled. "I'm Meliodas, remember?"
After a moment, Liz nodded. Breathing a sigh he said, "Good. Now come on, let's get some food in you." He stood and offered his hand, which she took; as he went to find her an extra cloak, her eyes landed on the knife, still laying on the floor.
The tavern was loud, bustling, and filled with locals; Liz hated it.
"I love this place!" Meliodas said over the din when they found a table. A waitress came over right away as several people called out greetings to the Great Holy Knight. "Here you are, Sir Meliodas," the pretty brunette said as she handed them menus. She gave him a wink before heading back to the bar, and Liz laughed. "Sir Meliodas, is it?" she asked wryly.
He shrugged. "I guess it's a title of respect."
Liz snorted. "You won't ever catch me calling you that."
Shrugging again, the knight turned his attention to the menu. Liz did the same, frowning as her eyes traveled over the words. Some were familiar, and some were not; the dishes seemed to be a very different sort of fare than what she was used to in Pase. "What do you recommend?" she asked evenly.
"Anything really," he answered. "But for now, let's do the stew."
The waitress returned with mugs filled with cold ale. Liz marveled at the condensation slipping down the sides of the glass, hearing him ordering for them, but not listening as her eyes focused on the drop of water trailing through the moisture. How did they keep the ale so cold? Danafor was supposed to be some kind of simple, unrefined country, nowhere near the wealth and power and sophistication on Pase.
"Liz? You okay?" Her eyes snapped up to see him looking at her curiously. "Don't you like ale?"
She ignored the question and snatched up the mug, taking a long, slow drink. It was cool and crisp and delicious, and she sighed in satisfaction as she sat it back down on the table.
Meliodas watched her from the corner of his eye as he drank his own. Occasionally he would wave to someone in the room, but for the next several minutes, they sat in an awkward silence.
Liz used the opportunity to size up her surroundings. Not that she needed to; her senses were flooded with assessing danger, the familiar alertness coming to her with ease. There were tables with soldiers, some families, some men, and men with women; no tables of just women, she noted. There was one exit that she could see, other than the windows, although it went to follow there would be one in the back. Three waitresses and a bartender, a guard at the door without a weapon. Five children at three tables, ranging from two to twelve. The youngest one was near the exit and would make a fine hostage, she decided, even as her stomach churned with the idea.
The noise around them was distracting though, pressure seeming to suck the air around as she focused on her surroundings. The table to the left was having an argument over someone named Fiore; the table to the right dropped a spoon on the floor. A fly hovered overhead and landed on the hat of a lady by the window, laughing a bit too loudly at the man across from her. She could smell a mixture of ale and bread baking mixing with wood burning and the scent of whatever harsh soap was used on the table that morning.
Her eyes returned to Meliodas, who watched her blankly as he sipped from his mug. They stared at one another for a long moment, and Liz was surprised to find her shoulders relaxing and the noise of the room receding a bit. She took a breath to clear her head as finally the knight said, "So tell me—"
"I'm not telling you anything," she interrupted. Meliodas pressed his lips together, but she did not acknowledge it, instead taking another sip of her drink.
"That's fine," he answered, and she choked a bit in surprise. "I'll do the talking then."
Liz looked up at him suspiciously, her frown not wavering even as he smiled and leaned his elbows on the table. "Anything you want to know?"
"How do they keep the alcohol cold?" she asked, just to see what he would say.
To his credit, he didn't react. "Not really sure. If I had to wager, I'd guess they use one of the mages that live in the city to make ice for them."
He grinned his infuriating grin, so Liz asked, "How old are you?"
Meliodas laughed in mock astonishment. "It's not polite to ask a lady her age, you know!"
She was caught off guard by a chuckle that threatened to surface. "I bet I can guess yours," he teased.
Liz leaned back in her chair and folded her arms. She kept her face stony as he pretended to examine her face, leaning forward across the table. "Are you… twenty-three?"
Her mouth dropped open before she could stop it, and he snapped his fingers and laughed. "Ha! I guessed right!"
"How did you do that?" she could not help but ask.
Meliodas shrugged. "It's a talent I guess."
Their eyes locked as he pressed his chin into his hand, his elbow on the table. Liz stared back at him, and she found herself leaning forward slightly, trying to figure out who he was and what he really wanted. His eyes were green, really noticing the rich color for the first time. It reminded her of a fresh field, somewhere to lay for an afternoon in peace. They narrowed a tiny bit as she continued gazing at him, studying him. There was something there, a mystery to solve, she suddenly thought; something more to this strange man that had rescued her from certain death.
"Who are you?" she whispered, and the smile dropped from his face. Their eyes remained connected together, and she felt drawn to him in an inexplicable way.
"Liz?" he breathed, but she barely heard the question; there was something there, something she could just make out, like a buried memory in her mind. She had seen this color before, this exact shade, but where? There had never been lazy afternoons in the grass; not for her, anyway. So where—
"Here we are!" The connection was broken as two large steaming bowls of stew and a loaf of fresh brown bread was dropped on the table. Both of them jolted up at the intrusion, but Meliodas recovered instantly. "Thanks! This smells amazing! Tell Sunny he outdid himself."
The waitress nodded and winked before heading off. Without a word he broke off a large piece of bread and dipped it into the stew, chewing and swallowing before giving a long sigh. "This is delicious tonight. Sunny makes the best rabbit."
She watched as he ate, her mind swirling in confusion. What was that? Why did she feel so connected to him so instantly? He was the enemy. She was in danger just sitting here. Quickly she looked around, feeling as though all eyes in the room were on her. Her hands trembled in her lap as she wondered what they were all thinking, seeing the slave and soldier who attacked them sitting at a table with the Grand Master. They all must know what he wanted with her. What they always wanted with her.
But Meliodas had said he just wanted lunch. He said she was under his protection. Her eyes darted back to him momentarily as he took a drink from his mug. Liz could feel her heart picking up its pace as it hammered in her chest, a line of sweat forming on her brow. What was she doing here?
"Aren't you hungry?" he asked, breaking her from the cloudiness. She blinked at him as he nodded at the bowl in front of her. "It's gonna get cold. If you don't like it—"
"It's fine," she interrupted, snatching up the spoon.
The stew was good, delicious in fact, and it was everything within her not to pick it up and devour it in one gulp. When was the last time she had had such a rich broth? When was the last time she had meat? Being a former slave, she had no privileges in the Pasilian army, even though she was an officer. Being a woman gave her even less of an advantage. They were lucky to have fresh bread every day, some rice or fruit or potatoes, enough to feed their stomachs but nothing more.
Meliodas finished before she did, and he watched her eat happily. "I had an idea," he announced, and Liz peered up at him over her slice of bread. "I want to learn more about you, and you seem to have plenty of questions. So why don't we do a give-and-take? You ask, then I ask. We both answer the question. Deal?"
Slowly Liz swallowed. "You're not going to let this go, are you?" she asked.
"Fine," she sighed, placing her spoon down with a thud on the table and crossing her arms. "Ask away."
Something flickered in his eyes before he asked, "How long have you been a Holy Knight?"
"Three years," she answered. "You?"
"Almost my entire life."
Liz snorted. "You still haven't told me how long that is, you know."
Meliodas shrugged. "Is that your question?"
"I'm older than twenty-three."
She rolled her eyes and he laughed. "Why won't you tell me?"
"Because you wouldn't believe me," he answered matter-of-factly. "Now it's my turn. Did you grow up in Pase?"
Clearing her throat, she replied, "I don't think so. I don't really remember that much." He nodded and she tilted her head. "And you?"
"No, I didn't grow up in Pase either," he answered.
Liz huffed in frustration. "Why are you evading all of these questions?"
With a laugh Meliodas shrugged, a response that was beginning to grate on her nerves. "Maybe you're just not asking the right ones."
There was a moment of silence between them, and then Liz leaned forward with her forearms on the table. She looked at him directly in the eyes and asked, "Why did you save me from execution?"
The laughter died away, but his smile remained as he looked back at her. "It wasn't your time yet," he answered.
"My time?" Liz blinked in surprise. "What are you talking about?"
"That's two questions," he scolded. "And it's my turn." Meliodas sat back a bit and tapped his chin. "What was your squad trying to accomplish by attacking Danafor?"
Liz heaved a deep breath and looked to the side. "Look, I get it," he said. "You don't want to give up your friends. You're loyal to your kingdom."
"It's not that," she muttered. Her fingers clenched tightly into fists, so tightly that her wrists hurt.
"It feels wrong to betray your officers, your fellow soldiers," he went on, as if he hadn't heard her. She closed her eyes briefly as he spoke. Why is he pressing this now?"But you need to know, whatever the plan was, it failed. There's no harm in telling me now, and in fact, it could help this—"
"It's not that!" snapped Liz, looking up at him menacingly. Meliodas pulled back at her sharp tone, and she grit her teeth in aggravation.
He opened his mouth but before he could ask his next question, they were interrupted by a group of knights approaching the table. "Captain," one of them said. "We need to talk."
The smile remained, but Liz could see clearly that it no longer reached his eyes. He seemed to communicate something as his gaze remained on her for another moment—let me handle this, it felt like—before it slid to the side. "Can I help you?"
Liz snuck a look of her own. There were about a dozen of them, in various states of armor, most of them scowling at her. She quickly assessed their power levels, something that she wasn't the best at, and determined she was on par with about half of them. Not that it would matter if it came down to it; one or two, sure, but six at once?
Each one of the knights was armed, and she shifted in her chair to feel the knife hidden in her tunic press against her back. The best she could hope would be to run at this point. Her eyes went back to Meliodas, who had stood and folded his arms.
She was struck by him in that moment. He only came up about chest-high to most of them, but the air of authority that came from the knight was unmistakable. Liz found herself swallowing nervously, and she sensed the others were as well; even the patrons in the tavern had gone quiet and were silently shifting out of his line of sight. But Meliodas had never stopped smiling, even as his eyes narrowed a bit, and she noted that not a single part of his body was tense.
He was in complete control of the situation, and everyone knew it.
The leader lifted his chin as the other others shifted uncomfortably. "It's just—it's her, Captain," he said, nodding at Liz. "She should be in the stocks, or hanging from a tree for what she did."
"Should she?" Meliodas asked pleasantly.
Liz stiffened. Her hands moved slowly from her lap towards her hips, ready to snatch the knife if any of them made a move. She gathered her magic inward, knowing if she sent a burst she could slip by them easily enough to get out and make a run for it. But there was no need; Meliodas took a step forward, as the others took a step back, and he tilted his head, the smile never wavering. "Are you questioning my decision, Hackett?" he asked.
Hackett sucked in a breath before he stammered out something, and Meliodas took another step forward. "This prisoner is under my direct supervision, and is providing valuable information on those who wish to attack us. Are you doubting my abilities to look after one prisoner?"
"No—no, sir, we—"
"Then perhaps," he continued, taking another step forward, "you'd prefer I just hand her over to you?" He looked back at her over his shoulder, and Liz was struck by the absolute coldness in his eyes, before he returned his attention to the knights. "Then you could do whatever you wanted to her."
"But sir! She—"
"Yes yes," he said with a small wave of his hand. "You made it clear she should be executed. But what you are really saying is you would put Danafor at risk before we learned all the intelligence we could. But what does that matter? Our families and kingdom aren't worth as much as your petty revenge, is that it?"
"No, sir!" another of the knights shouted, and Hackett threw a threatening look.
Meliodas nodded, pausing for a moment before saying, "Then we are in agreement. Any other objections?"
The tavern was absolutely silent as he looked each other the soldiers in the eye, each one withering a bit under his stare. Then Meliodas slowly turned and moved his gaze over the rest of the room. "This girl is under my personal protection," he said, his voice pleasant enough, but there was no doubt to the seriousness underlying his tone. "Any word against her, any action, I will have to take personally. She has agreed to provide information that will aid in the defense of Danafor, an admirable action that puts her own life at risk."
He turned and looked at her then. Liz's eyes were wide in shock, the knife forgotten as she listened to him. So this is what he wanted all along? Just information? Her chest was tight with fear, but at the same time, she believed his words. He would protect her from anyone, from anything, just as he had stood up to his own knights. That is what he had done that morning, when he stopped her from being dragged to the executioner's block. For the first time, she believed in someone else.
What an odd feeling.
The walk back to the house from the tavern was quiet. Meliodas put his hands behind his head, looking up at the stars peeking out from the clouds as he walked. Liz held the edges of her cloak tightly around her as she observed her surroundings. With the sun gone, the air had gone chilly, and it was more difficult in the twilight to figure out which buildings were which. But she was pleased to recognize a few things—a fruit stand, a tailor, a sign for a lost cat—for when she needed to find her way back.
They entered his home in silence, and Liz stood awkwardly by the doorway as he hurried to light a lamp. Despite what had happened at dinner, she was still completely unsure how to act around Meliodas. "You can hang your things on a hook," he called over his shoulder as he crouched in front of the fireplace. Carefully she removed her cloak and hung it up, and then walked into the sitting room. It was covered in shadow from the lamp, more light beginning to fill the cozy space as the kindling Meliodas threw into the hearth caught fire.
"There we are," he said, wiping his hands together. Turning to look at her, he nodded towards the chairs. "Why don't you have a seat?"
He hopped over to sit in one of the overstuffed chairs and sighed, sinking into the cushion and crossing his ankles. "I'm tired," said Meliodas. "But it's too early for bed. Have any ideas on what to do?"
Liz had watched him quietly the entire time, and now stood next to the other chair, her lips pressed into a thin line. Her nerves were roaring to life, her chest tightening as she realized she hadn't thought about bed. To be honest, she hadn't supposed she'd survive the day at all. Now she was here, practically a prisoner to this odd knight—a knight who saved her life—a knight she still knew nothing about.
Swallowing nervously, she sat on the edge of the other chair. Slowly she withdrew the knife from her back pocket, and Meliodas watched her curiously as she carefully laid it on the small table between them. "I still don't know what you want from me," Liz said quietly. Her fingers danced over the hilt of the knife before she finally let it go. "But you have been kind to me today, and I appreciate what you said in the tavern."
Meliodas turned his head to look at her, his fingers lacing together on his lap. "It was true," he replied. "You're under my protection. Nothing will happen to you here, I promise you."
"What if I… can't tell you what you want to know?" Her eyes flickered up from where the knife lay to his eyes. "If I don't give you the information you want, will you take back your promise?"
There was a pause before he answered, "I've never broken a promise yet, and I don't plan on starting now."
Liz was surprised by how easy it was to believe him, how easy it was to let his warm gaze wrap around her. But was she ready to throw away everything she knew to trust in him? Or was she so desperate to trust anyone she was willing to take this risk?
She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could answer there was a loud clatter at the window. They both jumped, and then Meliodas threw an irritated glance at the source of the noise. "What the hell-!"
Liz watched as he hurried to the window, unlocking it and sticking his head outside. "What do you think you're doing?"
"You locked the window!" someone shouted back. "I told you to leave it open!"
"I'm supposed to just leave the window open all the time? It's cold out!" He huffed and he came back inside. "You need to come back at a decent hour."
Her eyes went wide to see Meliodas stand up straight with a large red and white bird on his head. It had a long yellow beak and small dark eyes, and Meliodas huffed as he drummed his fingers on his hips. A moment later she shook herself and stood, looking around. "Who were you talking to?" she asked.
"Huh?" Meliodas stopped glaring up at the bird to look at her. "Oh! This is Wandle."
"You have a pet bird?" asked Liz with a laugh.
"Uh, I guess you could say that." He grinned at her sheepishly before looking upwards again. "Wandle, we have a guest, so be nice."
Liz cleared her throat to cover up a giggle. "Does he actually listen to you?"
"Not particularly," Meliodas admitted. He looked at her as she examined the bird, which seemed to be examining her back. Its eyes were bright and sharp, and if she hadn't known better, she would think it understood what they were saying.
The bird shifted from the top of Meliodas' head to his shoulder. "Wandle, you said?" she asked, and the knight nodded. "He's beautiful."
There was a pause, and then Liz frowned. "But who were you speaking with? I heard two voices."
Meliodas looked at the bird, and the bird looked at Meliodas, and then Wandle said, "She's not too bright, is she?"
"Behave!" Meliodas scolded, as Liz gave a shriek in surprise. "He talks!" she shouted, pointing a finger at the bird.
"Yeah… unfortunately," he chuckled. Wandle tittered in what could only be a laugh, and Meliodas shrugged his shoulder, effectively knocking him away. "What did I say about being nice?"
Wandle gave a squawk and flew over to perch on the back of Meliodas' chair. "Who is she anyway?"
The bird looked at her, and her eyes widened. "Um, my name is Liz," she stammered. "And I'm talking to a bird." She looked over at Meliodas. "I'm talking to a bird."
"Yeah," he chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck.
The rest of the evening was one of the strangest that Liz could ever remember. She and Meliodas talked very little; in fact, he spent most of the time just staring into the fire. Once in a while she would catch him staring at her, but his eyes would be back on the fireplace before she could blink and be sure.
Instead of conversing with Meliodas, Liz spent the time talking to Wandle. Once she got over the initial shock of a talking bird, he was actually a clever and witty companion. They took turns laughing over Meliodas' cooking and the cluttered state of the little house, until he finally huffed at them both and threatened to put them both on the porch for the night. She tried to ask Wandle some more probing questions, but the bird proved to be just as cagey as his owner, answering questions without ever actually answering them.
However, Liz was put at ease by the joking, and before she realized it found herself opening up to Wandle. Opening up to a bird, how ridiculous, she would think later; but for now, she answered his questions about her rank in the Pasilian army (sergeant, which she assumed Meliodas knew anyway) and her weapon of choice (a lance or crossbow, which she decided wasn't that big of a secret). She told him her favorite color was yellow and that she liked the taste of honey and blackberries. Wandle agreed that blackberries were superior to the other kinds of berries.
She giggled, not trying to hide it this time, and Wandle asked, "Are you staying with us long?"
Liz glanced out of the corner of her eye at Meliodas, who was looking at her the same way. "I… I don't really know," she answered truthfully. "I suppose that's up to him."
She nodded towards the knight slouched in his chair, and Wandle squeaked, "Well? How long are you gonna let her stay?"
Meliodas shrugged. "She can stay forever, it's really up to her."
Liz snapped her eyes at him. "What are you saying?" she asked with a twinge of anger. "Are you saying I can leave any time? I can get up and just… just walk out of here?"
He began to shrug again and she jumped to her feet. "Would you please just answer the damn question!"
Her outburst left the room silent as they stared at each other. Then Wandle said, "Well, she won't be around long if she's already this sick of your shit."
"Oh would you just put a sock in it!" Meliodas cried, jumping up himself and swatting at the bird. Wandle flew away to perch on a beam above the room and made what sounded like a mocking sort of snort; in response the knight shouted, "That's right, stay up there then!"
He turned back to Liz, who had watched all of this with a mixture of surprise and amusement. But underneath that simmered an absolute fury at Meliodas. "Okay," he said, folding his arms. "No, I'm not going to just let you walk out of here. If you had a really compelling reason why, like you had a kid or a family or a husband waiting for you, I would. But you don't, do you?" Heat flooded her face, and he nodded. "I thought so. So you have no real reason to leave—"
"I have my own reasons!" she insisted.
"You're just doing it to be stubborn," he teased. "You have no money, no food, no weapons except for my knife that you stole. You probably aren't totally sure exactly where in Britannia you are—"
"I know exactly—"
"And," he went on, raising his voice to match hers, "half of Danafor knows who you are and would love nothing more than to see your head rolling down the street."
That caught her attention. Liz was sure she was beet red looking at him, and Meliodas' normal playful demeanor had taken a definitive hard edge. "Now," he said slowly, "what I'm proposing is you stick around for a couple of days. Rest up, let me get you some things, and if you still want to leave by the end of the week, I'll even help you go. Deal?'
"I'm not telling you anything about Pase," she warned.
"I don't expect you to."
"And I'm not gonna be your servant or slave or lover, if that's what you're thinking."
"Wouldn't dream of it."
Liz sucked in a breath. "In fact, I'm probably going to kill you before this is over."
She had expected a reaction from him, but the laugh he barked out surprised her. "I'm sure you'll try. Anything else, or can we head to bed? I'm beat."
"Bed?" she squeaked. "What did I just tell you?" But he grabbed her arm and ushered her up the steps to the loft with a quick "good night" to Wandle, and a moment later they were inside the bedroom.
There was a large bed, a wardrobe, and a chest for furniture, along with a small table and wooden chair. Liz backed up against the door as she watched him kick off his boots, and then he closed the curtain over the large window. "So," he said, turning around to face her, "which side do you want?"
"Neither," she answered.
She scowled at him, which he ignored. "Ah, are you one of those that sleeps in the middle and hogs the covers?" Meliodas shook his finger at her. "I should have known this about you."
Suddenly he hopped on the bed, bouncing a few times before he flipped on his side, facing her. "If you don't want to sleep next to each other, we could do back-to-back if you want," he grinned. Then he flounced around the bed in a ridiculous circle until he was laying on his other side, his head propped into his bent arm. "Or, we could sleep head-to-foot, but in that case, we'd still be all lined up right at our—"
"Enough!" Liz would have laughed if the whole situation wasn't so absurd. With a growl, she climbed onto the bed, getting annoyed when his brows shot up and a silly grin broke over his face. But instead of answering him, she grabbed the blanket and yanked, flipping him off the side of the bed and onto the floor with a thud. "There, that's better," she said sarcastically.
When he didn't answer, she peered over the edge. Meliodas was laying on his side, curled up a bit, fast asleep. "No way," she breathed, and reached over with her foot to poke his leg. But the knight never moved, and after watching him for another minute or two, she determined that he really was asleep.
Liz sat on the bed, breathing slowly. Should she stay and get some sleep, or try to make an escape? This would be the perfect time for it, but she hadn't slept in days, and the bed was so comfortable… After another minute of wondering what to do, she removed her own shoes and pants and climbed into the bed, pulling the covers tightly around her.
As she lay in the dark she thought of the knife she left downstairs, and wondered if he would hear her go down and get it. Probably, she decided with a deep yawn, and figured she would stay there for the time being. After all, he had promised, and somehow, despite knowing how absurd it was to do so, she believed him. But all the years of being wary of sleep had her fighting to stay awake anyway, even though it was a rapidly losing battle.
Chapter 3: Many Challenges
Chapter Three: Many Challenges
There were voices calling her name as Liz slowly climbed back into consciousness. Was she late? What time was it? Groggily she tried to open her eyes, feeling as though she had been beaten badly. That hadn't happened in some time, though, and she tried to remember what she had done to earn such a punishment.
Her limbs were sore, her neck ached, her throat was dry as she tried to swallow. Then her name again, but this time, it wasn't a harsh command. This time, it was soothing and comforting and incredibly familiar, and Liz opened her eyes.
"Good morning!" Meliodas cheery greeting and happy expression assaulted her, and instinctively she yelped and pushed him away. Liz sat straight up in bed, ignoring the pain that flashed through her skull, and grabbed the blanket to cover herself. "What the hell are you doing?" she croaked out, shooting him an angry look.
"You were talking in your sleep," he answered, perched on the edge of the bed. "I was trying to hear what you were saying."
"I don't talk in my sleep," she muttered as she rubbed a hand over her eyes.
"Yes you do, you always have," replied Meliodas.
He hopped up and went to the closet, throwing it open and rummaging through. Liz took a deep breath as she squinted at the early morning light coming through the opened curtain. The pain in her head was fading to a dull throb, and as she stretched out her shoulders and neck, she concluded that she felt downright awful.
Silently Liz watched the knight as he pulled out a fresh tunic and pants. Then, without any thought he peeled off his clothes until he was standing in nothing but undershorts. She gasped and quickly turned away, her cheeks burning. "Do you have to do that here?" she asked tightly.
"It's my bedroom, where else am I supposed to get dressed?" Meliodas answered.
She peeked out of the corner of her eye to see him pulling on one pant leg, then the other. Her first thought was that he was much more muscular than his frame and his clothes had given away. In fact, his back and arms were incredibly toned, and another flash of heat went through her, to her annoyance. Liz had not begun to work out what his power and ability levels were, having not seen him in fighting action yet; but if the way the soldiers had reacted to him last night were any indication, he was an incredibly powerful knight. She had had a hard time believing it about someone who looked so young—someone who looked so very un-knight-ish, in fact—was a Grand Master.
Meliodas pulled out the tunic, fluffing out the wrinkles for a moment before slipping his arms through. Liz got a glimpse of his chest, which was just as carved as his bare back, and she turned away again as the fabric slipped down his body.
"Are you coming?" asked Meliodas, and Liz looked up to see him pulling on his boots.
He stood up with his hands on his hips. "Can't sit around here all day. I have a job to do, and since you're technically under my supervision, I can't leave you here by yourself."
Liz bristled a bit as she folded her arms. "I thought you said I could come and go as I pleased?"
"No," he laughed. "I said you could leave if you needed to. But while you're in Danafor, at least for now, you are gonna stick with me." He walked to the end of the bed and picked up her pants, which she had left carefully draped over the footboard. "Hurry up and get dressed and we can make breakfast at the base."
Meliodas tossed them at her as he headed out. Liz clutched the pants to her chest, and when he left the bedroom she finally slipped out from under the blanket. She had only one leg in when he suddenly appeared back in the doorway. "Hey! Did you want—"
"Get out!" she shrieked, pulling the cloth to cover her bare legs.
"Ah, come on, it's not like I've never seen legs before." Meliodas tipped his head to the side, then gave a grin. "Even though you do, however, have a really gorgeous—"
"Auugh!" she screamed in frustration. Liz bolted to the door and slammed it on him, pressing her back against the wood with a heavy sigh. If she didn't kill him for being an enemy, or kill him for keeping her practically a prisoner, then she would definitely end up killing him for his antics.
Quickly she slipped on the rest of her clothes and her boots, running her fingers through her hair to carefully comb the bangs in place before heading to the door. For a second she paused, wondering what was wrong in the room, before it hit her: Meliodas had left yesterday's uniform in a heap on the floor, and the linens on the bed were halfway pulled away from the mattress. A million lessons over the years, first from the orphanage, then her masters, and then the commanders in the army, cycled through her mind. There was no way she'd be able to function knowing there was a mess left behind.
Liz hurried over and scooped up the clothes, tossing them into a small basket in the closet and shutting it tightly. Then she closed the window, straightened the curtains, and set the bed, smoothing the blanket and sheets out to be perfectly symmetrical. Once everything was in place, she breathed a sigh of relief, then headed out and down the steps.
Wandle screeched a "Good morning!" to her, which she answered, still a bit taken aback. Meanwhile Meliodas was drinking from a steaming cup and leaning on the counter next to the sink when she reached the bottom floor. "Do you drink coffee?" he asked.
She shook her head and looked around the room. Yesterday had been such a whirlwind, she didn't notice until now that the remains from his disastrous lunch were still sitting in a pot next to the hearth, and the things from the one she made still piled in the sink, waiting to be washed up. Her head still throbbed a bit from the morning, but she felt as though she could assess the situation better. It was clear that although Meliodas was generally clean, he wasn't exactly tidy.
"You okay?" he asked, putting his empty mug in the sink.
"I just have a bit of a headache," she answered.
Meliodas nodded. "Probably from getting knocked around yesterday. Sometimes those things take a day or two to affect you. We can stop and see a healer when we get to the base."
"You better!" Wandle called over. "Take good care of her, I like her!"
"Of course I will," he huffed over his shoulder. "I like her too." He rolled his eyes at Liz as she blinked at him, wondering if she heard him correctly. But then he headed for the door, and she hesitated. "What's wrong?" he asked as he opened the door.
She looked around the room. "Are you really going to leave this mess?"
"What mess?" Meliodas asked, just was Wandle piped in, "He is a mess."
Liz stifled a laugh as he pointed up at the bird. "Watch it, or you'll find that window permanently locked." Then he shrugged at Liz. "We'll tidy up when we get home. Now come on, I don't want to miss breakfast. Otherwise I'll have to make something."
That got her moving. The morning was just brightening up with the sun, yesterday's clouds finally making their way out. Liz followed him as Meliodas walked at an easy pace, his hands behind his head again as they passed shops beginning to open, people hurrying by, a woman sweeping her doorstep, stopping for three young men carrying barrels. It was a typical morning, a typical day in any typical city in Britannia. For Liz, it was both soothing and jarring.
She watched two children pulling on their mother's dress as she examined a storefront window. Her own childhood had been spent with harsh mistresses in an orphanage. They were there to work and obey, no time for love or games or fun. Those who did not fall in line were punished, or worse. Some disappeared altogether. When the slave traders came to take their picks, it was considered a blessing. Little did they know, then.
A carriage drove by, and Liz paused to watch, catching a glimpse of a very well-to-do man inside. The ruffles around his collar and the flashing rings on his hand as he scratched his nose reminded her of her first master. He was pompous and moronic and it was so difficult at first to keep her comments to herself. But Liz had learned to bite her tongue eventually. Nervously she ran her fingers through her bangs and turned away from the carriage, hurrying to catch up with Meliodas.
"Everything all right?" he asked cheerily over his shoulder. She nodded, looking around, before realizing in surprise they had arrived at the base. In shock Liz followed; she had forgotten to plan her escape route.
The base was not entirely different from the one she was used to in Pase. There were buildings for dorms, weaponry, training facilities, meeting room, and offices for the generals. Meliodas pointed things out, promising a full tour later, while leading her towards the dining hall. "Recruits are required to live on site," he explained as they walked. "But once someone has been made a full knight, they have a choice to stay in barracks or move into their own home. Usually people stay until they are ready to marry or have a family of their own."
Liz murmured a reply, but she could feel heat slowly rising on her cheeks. Pase worked the same way, of course… except there, they had also had separate facilities for the slaves who were sold to the army.
Slaves that showed any inclination of possessing powers or special abilities were expected to be handed over to the kingdom. The army even paid generously for them, so many slave owners picked out their purchases based solely on whether they could make a profit later. Like any other tradeable good, slaves were nothing more than something to buy or sell, to take care of or discard.
Slaves in the army were guaranteed meals and a bed, but not much else. Their position in society had not changed; now they were simply fighters instead of servants or pleasure slaves or field workers. A slave could hold a rank, but only exert authority on other slaves. "Real" soldiers, those Holy Knights born free men and women, could refuse orders from even a high-ranking slave-born commander.
She was thinking about the orders she gave two days ago, the ones that were ignored as they made their assault on Danafor's west wall, when she realized Meliodas had stopped talking. "I'm sorry?" she said. "What did you say?"
He smiled up at her as he opened a door, gesturing inside. "Just that I hope you're hungry. The cook here is amazing."
"You think every cook is amazing," she muttered under her breath. He must have heard because he chuckled, and for some reason that gave her a flutter of happiness.
But that happiness was short-lived, because when they entered a heavy quiet slowly blanketed the room. All eyes turned to the Grand Master as he entered, many beginning to stand respectfully as he walked by, but the shock of seeing the prisoner, the one responsible for the comrades being killed and hurt not two days before, gave everyone pause. If Meliodas noticed, he did not show, walking confidently towards the tables where the food had been laid out for the soldiers. But Liz noticed, and for a moment she was frozen, pinned under their angry and accusing eyes. Nervously she folded her arms, hiding the Danafor symbol on her uniform tunic.
Her heart began to beat rapidly, and from the corner of her eye she saw two large men slowly stand from their table. It was immediately obvious from their stance and the tight way their shoulders hunched forward that this was not a sign of respect for the commander. Her lips parted as she took in a breath, her power swirling like warm liquid beneath the skin of her arms. She had no weapon, but a second assessment of the room allowed her identify some that she could overcome and steal from, or items on a nearby table she could snatch.
But would they really attack her, with Meliodas nearby? She glanced over at the blonde, who was happily filling a plate with pieces of ham. Her stomach twisted for a moment in hunger and in dread, but settled when he exclaimed over the fresh pot of coffee. He said he would protect her. He stood up for her in the tavern, in front of his own men and the citizens. He would not let them do what they planned to do.
Cautiously she turned her back on the menacing stares and walked purposefully over to the table. There were some whispers behind her, a few murmurs she couldn't quite catch, but with hands that only shook slightly she picked up a bowl and began picking out some fruit. "You want some of this?" Meliodas asked, holding up a large slab of buttered bread, his own piece hanging out of his mouth.
She nodded and extended the bowl, and when the bread was dropped on top, she followed him to a table. The men and women there were clearly officers, and the soldier within her hesitated as she approached. Slaves were not to fraternize with officers, and if two were caught together, the slave was always the one punished.
Meliodas sat down and called greetings to the others, who answered quietly and politely. Behind them, the rest of the room slowly came back to life, although many were still whispering and sneaking glances at her. Not knowing what to do, she looked down at her breakfast nervously. No one had invited her to the table, but she dared not find another.
Suddenly one of the officers, a woman well into her middle age and wearing an amazingly beautiful set of armor, stood furiously. She was one who had not responded to Meliodas' greeting, and now she glowered at Liz over her Grand Master's head. Meliodas did not acknowledge her at all, having leaned in to speak to the soldier next to him, but Liz watched her with wide eyes. For a moment, she thought for sure the woman would attack, if not physically then at least verbally; but then she slammed her hand on the table and turned with a huff, storming out of the dining hall.
"Liz!" Meliodas called, snapping her attention back to him. "Come sit next to me."
She walked up to him and leaned over. "I can't! I'm not an officer!" she whispered harshly.
"So what?" Then to her shock she felt his hand snake around her and grab her backside. "We don't have silly rules like that here. Sit." His hand squeezed her body and she yelped, jumping to get away from him. But his hand moved quickly to her hip, pushing her down to sit in a heap on the bench with him.
"There we are!" he said with a grin, taking her bowl from her hands and placing it on the table.
"You can remove your hand," she bit out through gritted teeth. His fingers were dancing along her lower back. Meliodas complied, but not before taking another handful of her rear first.
She knew her face must be bright red, so she began to eat furiously, ignoring him completely. The food really was as delicious as Meliodas had claimed, but after only a few mouthfuls she pushed the bowl away. Her stomach was still in knots from the hostile reception when they walked into the hall, her senses on such high alert under everyone's scrutiny that her nerves were getting the best of her.
Everyone ignored her, which was fine with Liz. She kept her eyes down but her ears open, and with glances around she sized up the rest of the knights. Most of them had gone back to their own food and conversations, only a few giving her the same occasional side-glance. Through her observations she concluded that things were much more relaxed here than in Pase. People intermingled easily, calls and hellos back and forth among soldiers and officers alike. The knights came and went as they pleased, and there was no reason to get permission for anything.
A young page approached the table, his voice breaking a tiny bit as he squawked out, "Grand Master Meliodas! Sir!"
Meliodas broke off mid-sentence and turned with a laugh at the boy, who was giving a bow. "Wow. Hi. What can I do for you?"
Liz pressed her lips together to hide her own giggle, hearing the others at the the table snickering too when Meliodas saluted him. "His Royal Highness requests you see him immediately, Sir!"
Suddenly the silly atmosphere turned cool as Meliodas sighed. "I wondered when I would get summoned to see that old skiver," he muttered. Liz looked at him in shock, but the other knights at the table just laughed, a couple shaking their heads. How could he speak so brazenly about the king?
Meliodas interrupted her thoughts when he said her name. "Liz? Did you hear what I said?"
"Cain here is going to show you around while I go and deal with this." He grinned at her and crooked his head towards the man who he had been speaking with throughout breakfast. The man actually seemed smaller than Meliodas, if that was possible, and he squinted at her suspiciously as he stroked his beard. "Cain will take good care of you, get you whatever you need. Won't you buddy?"
Cain snorted in answer, picking up his cup and taking a long drink. Liz noticed he had no food in front of him, and understood why his cheeks were so rosy.
"All right then! I'll see you this afternoon!" With that cheery good-bye, and a wink, Meliodas stood and headed out of the hall.
Liz turned and looked at the man assigned as her escort all day. He did not necessarily scowl at her, but his face certainly showed displeasure at his assigned task. Slowly his eyes dragged up and down the Danafor uniform she wore, and then he huffed and returned to his drink.
She looked away, uncomfortable, and cursed Meliodas under her breath. She should have taken off when she had the chance; why did she let him do this? Liz grit her teeth and eyed the door. Could she get out without being stopped? Possibly. Would she make it to the city gate? Probably not… but getting a tour of the place would certainly help.
Deciding to make the best of it, she straightened her back and returned her gaze to the knight. "Whenever you're done drinking your breakfast, we can go."
Cain snorted in shock, a bit of the liquid coming out of his nose, and her lips twisted to keep from laughing. "Come on then," he snapped, wiping his long moustache and beard with his sleeve, and with a smug smile Liz stood and followed him.
They walked in silence from the building, heading away from the main cluster. "Where are we going?" she finally asked.
Cain peeked up at her through his bangs. "Off for some practice. The Captain said you're a Holy Knight, hm?"
Liz did not answer, keeping her eyes forward, until he asked, "So what's your ability?"
She looked down at him sharply. "Like I would tell you."
He snorted, a sound with which she was becoming increasingly familiar. "Fair enough. I guess you're not completely brainless—"
"Brainless!" she cried. She halted and whirled on him, her hands clenched into fists. "Say that again and I'll—"
"I'll call ya brainless all I want!" shouted the knight back. "You attack Danafor when we got the greatest Holy Knights in existence? With the most powerful Grand Master in all of Britannia? Yeah, I call you brainless."
Liz frowned. Meliodas was the most powerful Grand Master? In all of Britannia? She still found it incredibly hard to believe. She thought of the strength of Pase's knights, the impressive commands they wielded, the extravagant weaponry of such a rich kingdom. She had seen men and women who could tear their enemies apart without losing their breath. If a Holy Knight was worth a hundred men, Pase's were worth a thousand. And that short mess who looked barely old enough to shave and was too incompetent to make soup was more powerful than them?
Rolling her eyes, she followed him as he continued walking. He led her to a training building, and at once her nerves were back on high alert. There were soldiers sparring, some obviously novices, but others getting in some practice or a workout. Most of them stopped what they were doing to watch her, but Liz refused to meet their gazes, her eyes remaining forward. She knew they would not try anything with Meliodas making such public gestures as her guardian. Yet there had to be some reason Cain brought her here.
That reason was revealed almost immediately. "Ready for a bit o' fun?" he asked with a rasping laugh. Several Holy Knights had gathered around the small area they had entered, no more than a rectangle marked in white chalk. Cain removed his long cloak to reveal an identical Danafor uniform to the others before cracking his knuckles and grinning at her. "Shall we go to three hits?"
"What?" She looked around unbelievingly. "You want me to fight you?"
Cain nodded. "Come on girl, I'll take it easy on you."
"Right." Was this why Meliodas had sent her with him? Getting summoned to the king could have been an easy lie. With a shake of her head Liz moved to the opposite end of the rectangle. Whether or not the Grand Master was a part of this scheme, it didn't matter now. Not fighting was not an option. Liz had no weapon, but neither did he; she figured he must have assumed she'd need one to fight.
"To three," he said, and she nodded.
There was a moment where they waited, and then he sprinted forward. Cain was faster than his old age would let on, and Liz just barely dove out of the way when he sprung into the air and bore down on her with his fists clenched together and over his head. He missed her by inches as her body slid to the side, his fists causing a small crack in the ground where they landed, where her head had just been. She scrambled to her feet as the small but growing crowd laughed, wiping dirt from the ground off of her hands and onto her pants. "Okay old man," she said. Her foot moved back and planted her weight as she lifted her arms.
They sparred with their fists and their feet, both moving fast and blocking blows from the other. At one point, Cain swept her leg and landed a hard kick on her thigh, pulling the first point. She grimaced a bit as she hobbled up, watching the knight raise his fists to the cheer from the others. But Liz remained calm, steady, as she always did in a fight. She had learned many years ago this was the last place for any type of passion.
She got in the next two hits, taking him by surprise on the chest and arm in rapid succession. The crowd grew restless as she passed his count, but Cain only laughed. "You haven't used any magic," he remarked.
"Neither have you," was her retort.
Cain folded his arms. "Ready to see it then?"
Liz swallowed and nodded. For a moment, the air was still, too still, before the oxygen seemed to disappear in a rush towards the old man. Then, just before his hand began to glow, she realized he was making fire. His cheeks went pink with the sudden warmth in his palm, the ball of flame flashing in a bright orange ball. There was nothing she could do without a shield or weapon, so Liz did the next best thing: she called on her ability, Block.
"Power Arc," she called out, and then dropped to the ground. A split second later the flame missed her by inches, but missed her all the same. Liz snapped her head up to see Cain regaining his footing, and she laughed as she climbed up. "Went a bit wide there, old man," she called out breathlessly.
Cain growled in frustration and summoned the energy again. But this time it took three seconds instead of one, which was plenty of time for Liz. She dashed forward and muttered, "Motion Block," the power tingling sharp like needles in her fingers with her words before she grabbed his arm.
Instantly he cried out, the arm holding the growing flame dropping like a sack. He stumbled again, but the ball flew and went wild, landing just in front of the crowd. The spectators who were nearly burned shouted at him, but Cain was too busy poking his arm, his eyes wide as it refused to move. Then he scowled up at her and demanded, "What did you do?"
"You said you wanted to see my ability," she smirked. Then she reached out her hand and flicked his nose. "There. That's three."
For a moment, he simply gaped at her, and Liz smiled despite herself. Then Cain threw his head back and laughed. "All right," he chuckled. "I may be an old fool, but I know when I'm beat."
Liz grinned proudly, wondering if this was enough to get him off her back. But then her stomach dropped when he turned to the crowd and said, "Okay, who's next?"
So that was their plan: take turns sparring until she went down or ran out of magic energy, maybe both. Either way she would be weak enough to take a real beating, and since it was all innocent, there was nothing Meliodas could do. Of course, she could refuse, but that would probably end up worse for her. With an uneasy gaze she scanned the crowd, which had grown to about two dozen knights. Would they all want a go at her? How long would her power last?
"I am," came a voice, and to Liz's dismay it was the knight who had stormed away from the table. She was fully armed, including a breastplate and armor in her legs and forearms, and the way the others stepped aside Liz could tell she was a high ranking official.
She swallowed and moved backwards to the end of the space. "Whatever you think I did—"
"I know what you did," the knight practically spat at Liz. The others went silent, the air thick in tense anticipation. "You killed my brother as he defended Danafor."
"I didn't kill anyone," Liz cautioned.
The knight raised her chin as her eyes narrowed. "Every last one of you animals are guilty. Now at last you will face your crimes."
The cruel smile that formed made Liz's stomach drop. The first punch happened before Liz even saw her move, and when it landed on her chin her first thought was damn good shot. The next was straight to her stomach, and she doubled over with a wheeze.
Liz was used to pain, to being hit, to taking a beating. It was something that had been a part of her life since as far back as she could remember: the switch of the mistress, the belt of the master, the fists of the other slaves, the flat of her captain's sword. She fought for breath, determined to stay upright on shaking legs. Liz peered up at her through her pink bangs, her own eyes barely more than slits in her anger, and wiped a trickle of blood from her mouth. "I said I didn't kill your brother!" she swore.
She managed to block the next punch, but then one caught her shoulder, causing her to lose her footing. Liz hesitated, which gave the knight another opening for a kick first to her thigh, then one to her ribs.
Before she could get in another shot, Liz planted her feet and twisted her body. She did not lose—she would not lose—yet she was closer to doing just that than she liked. But second Liz launched her fist at the knight, she knew it was misplaced. She was dizzier than she had originally calculated, and the swing was too wide, the power in her shoulder instead of her arm. The knight easily avoided it, bringing her elbow down between Liz's shoulder blades. With a grunt she went down, but before her opponent could do anymore damage, Liz reached out and grabbed her ankle, choking out, "Motion Block."
The knight stumbled away, giving Liz a moment to scramble back to her feet. When she was upright again, the knight was limping, unable to put weight on her right leg, and Liz huffed in satisfaction.
But the setback seemed to just add fuel to the fire, and the knight pulled her sword. Liz shouted and stepped back, looking around for a weapon, but there was nothing but watching spectators around them. "I'm unarmed!" she shouted.
"Do you think I care?" the knight yelled back. She thrust the sword forward, and Liz jumped out of the way. Her ribs were screaming, her shoulders ached, but she kept a fighting stance, pushing away the pain as she fought for breath.
The knight glared at her menacingly. Then she raised her sword, pointed the tip at Liz, and hissed, "Perfect Star."
A brilliant speck of light appeared on the very end of the blade. Liz trembled as her eyes went wide, the ball of power growing exponentially within seconds. She had no weapon, no shield, no one to help her. The crowd had moved back significantly, so all Liz could do was close her eyes and wait.
Maybe it won't be so bad, she thought to herself. Can't be worse than what I've had.
A second later, there was something pressing her down, and she tensed. But the pain didn't come; instead a familiar voice spoke, followed by a sound that made her ears ring and her head swim. She blinked rapidly, trying to get a handle on her surroundings. When someone said her name, he sounded like he was far away, down a tunnel or a long corridor.
"What?" she gasped. "What?"
"Liz? Can you stand?" Firm hands on her arms kept her steady, and Liz found herself placed on solid ground. Green eyes looked up at her through blond hair. "You're bleeding."
"You're here," she said stupidly, and he grinned. "Yeah. Told ya I would be."
Chapter 4: Difficult Truths
Chapter Four: Difficult Truths
The office of the Great Holy Knight was not what Liz expected. It was large, which was expected; but it was stuffed with about three offices' worth of things. Instead of the heavy, ornate furniture she had seen in the officers' rooms in Pase, Meliodas had filled his with mismatched, overstuffed furniture that looked like it had seen much better days. There were bookshelves stuffed to the brim with books and trinkets and weapons of all kinds, simply lying about in no particular order. She wondered as she looked around when the last time it had been cleaned; there were half-filled mugs everywhere, discarded teacups, and what looked like half a sandwich under his desk.
And his desk. It was large, but not large enough; it was covered in more piles than Liz had ever seen. Who knew this much paper even existed in Britannia?
She winced as the healer who was working on her ribs smoothed a salve that was incredibly cold over her skin. "Sorry," she mumbled. "But this will help."
"It's okay," whispered Liz. "I'm grateful for it."
The healer peeked up at her. "You're not what I expected."
Liz frowned. "What did you expect?"
"I was told I was healing the prisoner from an enemy kingdom, a warrior from Pase who went up against General Fay," she chuckled. "I was expecting someone else."
Liz did not know how to respond, so she sat in silence as the healer continued her work. Once her bruises and cuts were cleaned and tended to, and the ribs wrapped, Liz slipped back on her tunic as the healer cleaned up her things.
"You are staying in Danafor, then?" the healer asked, nodding towards the uniform.
Liz felt her face grow hot. "I… don't know."
"Well, you should feel better by tonight. That salve on your ribs takes about six hours." With an unexpected smile, the healer gave her a little bow. "If you have any pain tomorrow, just send for me. It was an honor to meet the warrior of Pase." Then the girl giggled and turned, her robes sweeping the floor behind her as she left the room.
Meliodas called a thanks from the hallway before popping inside. "All better then?"
"I suppose," she answered. "The healer said she was expecting a warrior."
He chuckled and walked around the room, sitting behind the desk in a rather ugly high-backed chair. "Lots of rumors floating around about you for sure. You're the only one that survived the assault, and you put some kind of spell on me, and you bested Cain, andyou survived Fay. You are a curiosity for sure."
"I don't want to be a curiosity." Liz hopped off of the table she was perched on, folding her arms and tilting her head as she looked at him sternly. "I want to know what I'm doing here."
"I'd like to know what you are doing here too," he answered mildly. "But first, can you tell me why you do that thing with your head? You always have your hair covering your eye. Why is that?"
Liz gaped at him and stepped backwards, embarrassed heat flooding up her neck and to her ears. "It's none of your business," she snapped at him sharply, turning away so he would not see the way her cheeks went red.
"Hey." A second later his hand was on her elbow, which she yanked away. "I'm sorry. The eye is off-limits. I won't ask anymore, and you can tell me when you're ready, okay?"
She moved away, desperate for some space. "Why are you doing this?" she asked for what felt like the millionth time. "Why aren't I in the dungeon? Why didn't you leave me to the other knights? I haven't answered a single question. Why aren't I in chains somewhere, you making me beg for my life?"
Of all the things Liz expected when she turned around, pain was the last thing she thought to see in the corner of his eyes. He still had the same easy smile, but it was sad somehow, smaller. Hollow. "Is that what you want?" murmured Meliodas.
"No," she admitted. "But it's what I expected."
There was a pause as they stared at one another, and then Meliodas sighed. It was the first time she had seen him so deflated, and curiously she watched as he crossed the room to hop up on the edge of his desk. He rubbed his palms on his legs before taking a deep breath. "A long time ago," he began, "I would have done all those things you said. Those, and worse. But that is in the past. It's not who I am now, and it's not what Danafor is now.
"I know that breakfast was difficult," he went on, and Liz looked at the floor in a fresh wave of embarrassment. "But I don't care what they think. I know what I'm doing is right."
"You don't know anything!" she shouted. Furiously she looked at him, her hands clenched as her shoulders shook. "You keep sayingthat, but you don't know me! You just met me yesterday! You don't know me, or what I've done, or what I've been through. So stopsaying that!"
Meliodas pressed his lips together before answering, "Then why don't you tell me what I have wrong?" With an angry noise she folded her arms, but he continued as if he hadn't heard. "You were a soldier of Pase. But I bet you didn't start that way, right? Your fighting style is solid but erratic. Which tells me you have raw talent that hasn't been developed. So you never went to regular training in your youth."
She looked at him with wide eyes, but he went on, "So that means you were poor, or a slave. I'm guessing slave, the way you keep insisting you're not one." His eyes searched her face, but she refused to give anything away, using all of her strength to keep her expression stoic, impassable. "You're strong," noted Meliodas. "Which tells me you worked your whole life. You said you had no family, so I figure you joined the Holy Knights as a bid for your freedom." Cautiously he tilted his head, one eyebrow raised. "Am I getting close?"
He was, god he was, and hearing this all from a stranger made everything worse. His kindness and his honesty and the sympathetic way his green eyes pierced through her made Liz feel pinned down. Her chest tightened as all of this truth came rushing at her at once. "No," she lied, her chin raised defiantly. "You're completely wrong."
Meliodas simply shrugged. "Wouldn't be the first time."
His affable demeanor was so infuriating, and combined with her already roiling emotions she spat out, "And what about you?" She walked towards him, hands on hips, eyes hard. "You said you used to be worse. So what happened? Too busy trying to grab tits to get your own house in order? Your soldiers are laughing at you."
Liz wanted to hurt him badly, but she could see he wasn't buying anything she was saying. "No one is laughing," he replied simply.
"They are," she insisted. "You think the Grand Master in Pase would have put up with the way everyone acted this morning? You talk big, but I can see you don't know what the hell you are doing."
"Really." He tilted his head to the side. "Is that what you think?"
"It's obvious." She tried to huff a laugh, but it came out shrill. "No one respects you here. You told those soldiers to leave me alone, and the second your back was turned they had me in the yard, trying to kill me."
Meliodas gave a miniscule flinch, which she absolutely relished. "Danafor is a joke." Her words came out slowly, succinctly. "Your knights are a joke."
With a triumphant smile she folded her arms, smirking down at the knight. But Meliodas remained calm despite her outburst, and when a moment without a response ticked by, then another, Liz felt incredibly foolish. Finally, he looked up at her, and when their eyes met, she was briefly taken aback. The hurt was there, unmistakable now, as well as something else, something deeper and richer and made her chest tight. But his sadness wasn't from her words; it was as if he was mourning something.
"I'm leaving," she said quietly.
When he didn't answer, Liz turned and headed towards the door. But then his voice stopped her. "What was Pase looking for when you attacked?"
Her hand stilled, hovering over the doorknob. "How did you…?" She glanced over her shoulder. "How did you know they were looking for something?"
"What was it?" Meliodas finally stood and approached her as Liz looked nervously back down at the doorknob. If she was going to go, it had to be now.
He was there, then, pulling her hand away with his own hand on her arm. Liz allowed him to turn her so her back was pressed against the door. She stared at him then with wide eyes, still seeing the emotion behind them, but it was harder now, somehow.
"I don't know," she admitted. It was the first bit of truth, and with it went the heavy feeling on her chest. "We were there as a distraction. The real mission was something else."
"Did they get in?" asked Meliodas quietly, earnestly. "Are they here now?"
Liz shook her head. "I don't know."
Meliodas did not allow her out of his sight the rest of the afternoon. Messengers came and went, other knights coming in for orders and updates, and Liz sat and watched it all from a chair in the corner. Lunch and hot tea were brought in at one point, but to her surprise the Grand Master did not touch his food. She devoured hers eagerly as she observed with a reluctant admiration for the way he spoke to the others. There was no threat or derision, only clear and concise expectations. The others accepted without question, and arguments were well delivered and received. Meliodas was an entirely different leader than her former Grand Master.
When he sat silently writing something, Liz poked around a bit. Despite the piles he seemed to know where everything was. He did not even look up when pointing her towards a particularly interesting book on defensive techniques that was easy to read and understand. What she could not make out with her somewhat limited reading skills she could figure out with the detailed pictures drawn to illustrate the instructions.
She was rather engrossed when Meliodas interrupted her. "Time to head home," he said with a yawn. "You can take that with you if you want."
"No thanks," answered Liz brusquely, making a note of where she stopped before tossing it onto a pile.
In silence they walked together through the building and across the yards. There were less Holy Knights around than there were that morning, but with the sun moving lower it seemed as though those they saw were heading to a shift or to home. Each time they had walked together, Meliodas would normally narrate on the way, but this time he did not speak until they were nearly to his house.
"Are you hungry?" he asked. Liz looked over and saw his eyes straight ahead.
"I'll take care of dinner," she answered. She stepped to the side towards a grocer, and Meliodas paid for eggs and mushrooms that they carried together back to the house.
Once inside he announced he was going to change, and Meliodas quickly disappeared into the room upstairs. Liz was left feeling a bit out-of-place, so she busied herself in the kitchen area. At first she tried to start preparations for the omelettes, but within minutes she realized there wasn't a clean bowl to be found. So when Meliodas emerged a short while later, she was huffing over a sink full of suds.
She looked up at the sound of his footsteps to find him smiling at her with wide eyes. "What's all this?" he laughed.
"This is called wanting to eat tonight," Liz muttered. "Now take that pot in the hearth and dump that mess you made outside."
"Hey!" he cried in mock offense. "I worked hard on that lunch!"
Liz removed one long, soapy wooden spoon and pointed it at him. "Do it."
Meliodas quickly scrambled away, and Liz caught herself before a laugh escaped her. "This is just for dinner," she muttered down at the dishwater. "It's nothing else."
When Meliodas returned, they worked together in a strange domesticity to prepare the meal. Liz did not allow him to touch a thing, but he did pull out ingredients for her, and even laid out utensils on the table. Wandle showed up while she was starting to cook, and sat on the windowsill to watch after a brief hello. Once she was finished frying the eggs and vegetables, they say together for the simple meal with only a few lamps lit in the growing twilight.
This was her second night staying in this little house, and Liz was amazed by how easy it all felt. She could do this, she could live this life, and there was a gnawing inside of her as she thought of it. How could she hope to ever have such peace and comfort? There was nowhere for her to go. Meliodas had been right: she had no money, no allies, no weapons. If her commanders in Pase ever got their hands on her, it would be worse than Danafor.
Danafor. Meliodas had said she could stay as long as she wished. But was it true? She looked over at the man happily munching away. She could never be accepted here, she thought sadly. In her mind's eye she saw the faces of the soldiers who had watched the sparring matches. They wanted her hurt. They wanted her dead.
All of them, except him.
"You're making a face," he commented with a raised eyebrow. "Dinner not to your liking?"
"It's fine," she answered gruffly. "I made it, after all."
Meliodas snorted. They continued eating in silence for another minute before he said, "I'm going to need to go out for a bit. Will you be all right here?"
Liz looked at him in surprise. "You're leaving me alone? What happened to being under your protection? I thought you had to supervise me."
Shrugging, he replied, "You can come if you want, but I doubt you will. I need to see the night guard commanders and review the changes since the attack." Liz pressed her lips together, and embarrassed heat rising on her cheeks. But Meliodas didn't notice, continuing to eat as he spoke, as if he wasn't discussing her own crimes against his kingdom. "It'll all be very boring. But I'll be back in a couple of hours, if that's fine with you."
He looked at her then, finally, and Liz nodded. Then Meliodas picked up the plates, dropped them unceremoniously into the sink, and headed for the door. "Wandle is here if you need anything," he called over as he placed his cloak around his shoulders. "See you in a bit!"
With that he was gone, and Liz was alone. Well… almost alone.
She looked over at the bird, and the bird stared back, until finally Wandle asked, "You're not gonna run off, are you?"
"No," replied Liz a bit indignantly.
"Good. I'm not interested in chasing you."
Wandle stretched his wings and hopped over to the kitchen sink, bending down to peck at the crumbs of food that had been left. Liz watched him for a moment before asking, "Where did you come from?"
"An egg," he answered, slightly muffled. Then she swore she heard him mutter under his breath, "What a question."
"No," she coaxed, "I mean, how did you meet Meliodas? How did you learn to talk?"
Wandle looked up at her. "How does anyone learn to talk? I listened and picked up bits here and there."
She had to stifle a laugh at the very haughty delivery of his explanation. "You know, most birds don't talk."
"Well most birds are idiots."
With that he went back to picking at the scraps, and Liz was left to her own thoughts.
She was tired, and still sore, and more than a little annoyed at the day's events. The one thing that she was actually thankful for was that she knew finally where she stood in Danafor. After the knights in the tavern had backed down, Liz had wondered if they would be forgiving her so easily. But the fight with Cain, and then Fay, had shown her otherwise.
Liz stood suddenly and began pacing. She remembered the healer that came in, pressing her hand briefly to her side that was now feeling fine. Meliodas had said there were rumors about her… and the girl had smiled at her. Smiled, and said she had expected someone else.
"Something the matter?"
She paused mid-step and looked at the bird. "What do you know about the Holy Knights?"
"The Holy Knights!" Wandle flew to the table and sat in the middle. "I'm a bird. What would I know about the knights?
Liz shot him a smirk. "Please, I bet you know more about this place than Meliodas. What can you tell me about Danafor?"
Wandle flapped his wings, as if to put his hands on his sides. "Why should I tell you anything? You're an enemy. You tried to invade Danafor."
"That's not what happened!" she insisted, suddenly offended. She felt her cheeks flush and folded her arms defiantly. The bird gave her a pointed look, and Liz huffed. How ridiculous, to feel ashamed in front of a bird! But nevertheless, Liz hurried on with a quick explanation, "Yes, I was part of the raid. But I didn't have a choice."
"That's nonsense. Everyone has a choice."
"You're a bird!" Liz snapped at him. "What do you even know about choices?"
"I know you have them," he answered simply.
She growled in frustration and spun around. "You're as crazy as he is!" she shouted at Wandle. At once she was rooting through the cabinets, banging things around, slamming the drawers shut. "Where does he keep his liquor?" she nearly hollared in her frustration. "If I'm stuck here with a talking bird giving me life lessons, I'm gonna need a drink."
When the collection of bottles with varying shades of amber liquid was found, Liz grinned. Selecting the one that looked the lightest, she sat at the table with a wooden mug and poured herself a drink. The liquid burned only a little going down, but it was also smooth, and warmed her stomach nicely. Slowly she drank, savoring the moment, the freedom to do this act. Slaves were not permitted to ever imbibe, although the officers would allow small indiscretions for those slaves they favored. She had only tasted liquor a handful of times, but never chose to indulge, always wanting her wits about her. But what was the point of remaining sober now?
It was thrilling and satisfying all at once, she decided, as the first glass was finished. The bird was staring at her when she refilled now that her cup was empty. "Want one?" she asked Wandle sarcastically. Her head was feeling a bit lighter, the anger from minutes ago melting away like snow.
To her surprise, Wandle hurried over. "Don't mind if I do," he chirped, and then nipped a drink from her cup.
"Hey!" she exclaimed, then snatched the cup away and took a deep drink. When she lowered the glass Wandle was staring at her expectantly, causing her to burst out laughing. Doubling over, she pressed her forehead on the smooth wood of the table for several minutes, until she was able to breathe without laughing. "I can't believe this," Liz wheezed, wiping tears from her eyes. "How did I end up here, drinking and talking to a talking bird?"
"Good question," quipped Wandle as he nipped another drink. "What were you guys doing in Danafor anyway?'
"Honestly? I'm not totally sure." Wandle tilted his head, making it look like he did not believe her. "Think what you want, but that's the truth." She pointed her finger at him for emphasis before taking another drink. "They don't tell slaves what the plan is. I wasn't consulted about what we were doing. I was given orders, and it was follow them, or else."
The cup was quickly drained on the next drink, and Liz refilled. "That sounds tough," Wandle commented after she offered him the first sip. "But I'm in a similar situation, you know."
"What?" She looked at him with wide eyes over the rim of the cup as another went down. "What do you mean?"
Liz wiped her mouth on the back of her hand as the bird said, "It's like me and Meliodas. I tell him what to do, and he has to follow orders or else."
She burst out laughing again, tipping a bit in the chair before grabbing onto the edge to steady herself. Wandle joined in as they both laughed for several moments, and Liz smiled a bit unsteadily at her brightly colored companion. "You know, Wandle, you're the first honest person I've met in this place."
"Really?" She offered another sip, and Liz giggled when Wandle looked a bit unsteady himself as he tipped his beak into the cup. Then she nodded as she took her own long drink. "Yeah," she panted as she swallowed. "Everybody else here… like, take those guys at the tavern. They wanted to kill me, Wandle. But they backed down like that."
Liz tried to snap her fingers, and frowned when at first it didn't work correctly. After a few attempts her point was made and she went on, "Then, Cain? Damn, he was so rude at first. But I flicked him and he likes me now." She giggled and took another drink. "That Fay… you should have seen her, Wandle."
"Oh, I've seen her all right," joked the bird. He took another sip from the offered cup, and then Liz took one of her own.
"Then you know. She looked at me, Wandle. She looked straight at me, and I'll tell ya… she knew I didn't have anything to do with that whole thing. I didn't kill anybody, and I said that, and she knew that." Liz paused to drain the cup again. "But she just didn't care. She was gonna take me out anyway. She was gonna make me suffer."
With a shaking breath she looked down at the empty mug. What was in this, anyway? The room was tilting in the corners of her vision. "But she didn't," Wandle interrupted her thoughts. "Right? Meliodas stopped her."
"Meliodas." Liz still didn't know what to think about him. Warden or protector? Friend or enemy? Knight or pervert? There was no way to tell what he was thinking or what he was going to do. And yet, she trusted him… but it felt wrong somehow. Liz never trusted anyone.
"So what is really wrong?"
She looked at Wandle with narrow eyes. "It's too easy," she confessed. "All of this is too easy. Everything in my life until now has been hard. And this…"
"So what? Isn't easy the goal?"
She peered over at him through her bangs, her mouth dropping open a bit. Then she blew out a deep breath and confessed, "My whole life I wanted freedom. I just wanted to be left alone, to get out and away from all the masters. But now that I have it…"
Wandle took a sip and looked at her curiously. "Now that you have it…?"
Liz frowned. "I think I'm going to be sick."
Wandle tittered in laughter. "Well that's one reaction to freedom for sure!"
"No," replied Liz uneasily. "I really think I'm…" At once she was up and hurrying to the sink, dispelling the contents of her stomach into the basin. When the heaving was over, she pumped water into the sink and splashed her flushed face. "What is in that stuff?" she muttered.
Suddenly Wandle was there, his wings flapping at her furiously. "Ugh, why did you do that? I can't take it when people-" Next the bird was retching, regurgitating something into the sink. At the sight, Liz bent over again, and the next several minutes were spent taking turns getting sick.
When Meliodas returned a short while later, he found the two companions lying on the floor of the kitchen, both groaning in pain. "What in the world-!" he cried. Liz peered over blearily to see him looking back and forth over the half empty bottle on the table, the tipped mug, and the contents of their dinner in the bottom of the sink. "Well this is a first," he joked, finally moving to stand over them with his hands on his hips.
"Meliodas," Liz groaned, and she felt herself very gently being picked up. She nestled against soft fabric and a hard chest, turning her head to press her forehead against the warm body that now held her.
"Wandle!" she heard him chastise the bird. "I can't believe you'd let her drink like this!"
"It's not my fault!" the bird protested weekly. "She wanted-wanted-" His voice cut off suddenly, and then Liz was moving, being carried up before being laid upon something very soft.
"Meliodas," she whispered, her hands around his neck. His face was outlined in the moonlight streaming through the window, his eyes soft as he gave her a small smile. "You'll be okay," he whispered.
He moved to stand, but her arms kept him in place. "You came back," she said, the words fuzzy in her mouth.
Meliodas nodded. "Of course I did. This is my house."
"Your house…" Her hands slid from behind his neck to his shoulders. He reached up to brush her hair back, to move her bangs, and she blurted out, "They were looking for something."
He shifted and sat on the bed. "Were they?" he murmured. Liz felt his hands rubbing her arms, and she suddenly felt very tired, her limbs heavy.
"I heard them talking," she whispered. She felt him lean forward a bit, and her hands slid further down, pressing on his chest. "They want something. From the goddesses."
Suddenly he stilled. "The goddesses?" His voice was still soft, but now it was tinted with something. Liz struggled against the sleep that was pressing on her mind. Was he angry? Would he hurt her? No, not Meliodas. But why not? His hands were on her arms. Was he holding her down?
No, not Meliodas. His thumbs were brushing on her elbows. "We can talk about it in the morning," he whispered.
"Okay," she sighed. "But why would they look for goddesses? They aren't real. They're just an old story."
"Shhhh…" Hands tugged off her boots, and then her pants. "I don't feel…" Liz groaned.
"Yeah, I see that. That stuff you were drinking…" Meliodas' voice trailed off as she rolled over a bit, and a blanket was pulled up around her. "Well, it's for little tastes. Not downing in an hour's time."
Liz nodded and mumbled against the pillow, thinking she had never felt such a wonderfully soft pillow in her entire life. Her head was pulsing, and the room swirled in a slow waltz, but she felt fine and grounded. The light went off and the door clicked shut quietly, leaving her to drift seamlessly into sleep.
Chapter 5: Night Training
Chapter Five: Night Training
Liz raised her shield, holding her sword out with the other hand. Her eyes focused on the Holy Knight in front of her, who was doing the same. With a deep breath she countered his slow advance, keeping her back slightly curved, the tension tight in her arm, her grip in the sword loose. He gave a little swipe to test her, and she deflected it easily.
Then he lunged unexpectedly, and Liz moved her arm in an arc, just barely missing having a piece of her chopped off as she brought the shield up. Her body twisted as she spun, slicing at him, but he saw her move. His own downward stroke was anticipated as well, however, so again and again the sound of metal against metal rang in the air before they finally stepped back a minute later.
"Better," said Cain, his face serious. "Not much better, but better."
Liz muttered under her breath. The Holy Knight was worse than any of the trainers in Pase, demanding more from her than they had in training. It was one drill after another, with only brief breaks for meals or water. More than a week had slipped by before Liz even knew it with this new routine, meeting with Cain daily to follow his barked commands. If she failed, she would be sent to run up and down the steps of the watchtower until she thought her lungs would burst; when she succeeded, her "reward" was to spar with Cain.
Not that she minded terribly… except when he gloated. "Almost got you there," he smirked.
Determined to wipe his smile away, Liz went on offense this time. Yet despite her best efforts, she never managed to disarm the knight, who always seemed to read what she was planning to do a split second before she did it. Yet when they broke apart again she was pleased to see him panting, and a line of sweat on his brow. Cain was having to put in effort.
With this realization came a feeling that was becoming familiar to Liz: pride. Cain did not tell her why he had appointed himself her mentor, or why he had started training her vigorously as if she were going to join the Holy Knights—which, honestly, she had not decided yet. But it was exciting to train, and fun to spend her time with the old man, who was a bit of tutor and grandfather and grumpy neighbor rolled into one. Liz was growing fond of him, although she would never actually tell him that.
"Again," Can said in his usual gruff manner, and they returned to the spar. He moved faster this time, and Liz found herself trying to keep up again. He always did this, fought with just a bit more speed and technique, pulling her into her abilities instead of pushing her, like the masters had done. Liz could see and feel the difference in her own limbs in just the week she had spent with him, and for that at least, she was glad. Who knew when her time in Danafor would be over, along with the lessons?
The thought of leaving Danafor, of possibly having to return to Pase, brought a surge of unexpected anger inside Liz. But instead of pausing to understand it, she used it to move, sharpening her technique and helping to focus her mind on her opponent. By the time they stepped apart again, Cain called a water break, and Liz grinned to herself.
"When are we using our magic?" Liz asked, accepting the water skin gratefully.
Cain snorted as he wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "When you're not such a green-assed apprentice anymore."
She huffed a bit, offended. "I'm a Holy Knight too," she muttered, taking another sip of water before closing the top.
At this the knight did more than snort. "A Holy Knight, she says!" he laughed loudly. "Not hardly! I dunno what kind of shit-ass knights they got in Pase, but here in Danafor, even the young ones know how to hold a damn sword."
Liz grit her teeth furiously. There was no point in arguing, something she had learned about men, and this man in particular, time and again. "Damn kids think they can make a little magic they can be a knight," he raved on to no one in particular. "Make a little spark, blow a little air around, they think they can call themself a knight? My farts have more power in 'em then some of these damn so-called knights."
She covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. "You doubt me, girl?" he snapped, and Liz quickly shook her head.
"No, Sir Cain," she answered quietly, but seriously. "I believe your farts are very powerful."
He stared at her for a full half minute before throwing his head back and letting out a huge guffaw. Liz simply rolled her eyes and started unbuckling her scabbard. She had seen what he had drank for lunch; Cain was not going to be much more good for her today.
The weapons were nearly packed up when a page arrived. Cain gave a bit of a clap to see the young man approach. "'Bout time!" he called out excitedly. "Thought I'd have to come track you down."
"No worries, Sir Cain," the man assured wearily. He made a note on the tablet he carried, then fished inside the pack strapped across his chest before producing a small red bag. He handed it to the knight, who took it eagerly.
"Hello, my lovelies," he murmured, shaking the bag next to his ear. The sound of coins clinking together made him chuckle.
"And you are… Liz?" Her name made her attention snap back at the page. He was looking at her expectantly, and when she did not answer he raised his eyebrows slightly. "Are you Liz or not?"
"Y-yes," she stammered in reply. Curiously she watched as he made another note, then pulled out a smaller sack, this one gray in color, and handed it out to her.
Liz took the small purse of coins from the page and looked at Cain. "What is this?" she demanded.
"It's your wages, you dolt," he laughed with a shake of his head. "Apprentices don't get as much as full knights, but you're still paid for your days."
Her cheeks flushed as she looked at the purse in her palm, too stunned to speak. Never had she been paid for a day's work before. It was astonishing and bewildering all at the same time.
Hands shaking, she could only stare at the cloth, held closed by a bit of twine. "What do I… do with it?" she whispered.
The two men exchanged a glance, and Cain waved him off. Once they were alone, he put his hands on his hips and frowned at her. "You never got wages before? It's your money. You do with it as you please."
Liz nodded and pocketed the purse, but he continued to look at her strangely. "First time getting paid?"
"In Pase I…" She swallowed thickly, squeezing her fists for a moment. "We didn't get paid," she finally admitted, figuring it wasn't a lie, not exactly. "Serving the king was its own reward."
Cain gave one of his signature snorts, and Liz breathed a sigh of relief when the air cleared. "Bet you have a hundred things you want to buy, huh? Let's call this off early. Need to spend some of mine down at the tavern."
Liz nodded and headed out, checking the swords back into the weaponry and swinging by the commissary to grab some food. It was still a bit odd to have such freedom; after two days Meliodas had told her she could come and go between home and the Holy Knights' headquarters as she pleased. The uniform tunic she wore allowed her to blend in easily, and even those who recognized the stranger with the pink hair were finally only giving her a passing glance as she walked the familiar route between home and training.
Home. Liz shook her head at the word, turning to take the long way. It wasn't home, despite the warm bed and the hot food and the pleasant baths. It couldn't be, not even with the quiet evenings, the games Meliodas would draw her into, the chatting with Wandle over coffee, their arguments about how much salt was too much. Not even with the few neighbors that would nod or even wave in greeting as she went by, the grocer who knew her by name, the other knights who would occasionally offer a good morning when she arrived for breakfast.
She paused when a hat shop caught her eye. Liz had never owned a hat, but she was drawn to the window where the beautiful ribbons and fabrics were displayed, the more elaborate ones ready for purchase sitting on stands. Through the glass she could see the milliner inside working with needle and thread, two ladies standing by a counter talking to a salesgirl, and a little girl sweeping up the wayward scraps of fabric on the floor.
The girl looked up and spotted Liz. Her eyes drew down the the Danafor symbol on her chest, and she gave a bright smile and waved. Liz waved back before she could catch herself, but then turned around, heat rising furiously on her neck.
Quickly she turned and headed back towards the house, deciding she needed to save her money for when she was forced to leave Danafor for good.
After dinner, Liz took her weapon outside for some practice. Meliodas' house had a bit of space outside, tucked away as it was, not much but enough for some movements. She warmed up with some drills for her footwork, which Cain reminded her was sloppy, slow, and a goddamned shame. Determined to tighten up her stances and become lighter on her feet, Liz went through the steps for each technique, keeping her sword up and tilted in a defensive hold until her arms and thighs began to burn.
Next came the strike drills. There were different angles, patterns, twists of her wrists and positioning of her elbows, the grip of the sword and the tightness in her back, the speed and cut and combination of steps… It was work to remember how the pieces fit together, but it filled her with excitement, and Liz enjoyed the layer of sweat that broke out as she performed the moves Cain had taught her again and again. She loved the strength she could feel in her body, the calm in her mind as instinct took over. She loved this.
Slaves who became soldiers in Pase were not put through the rigorous training that the free Holy Knights received. It was enough to have the basics in fighting, and most of that was taught well before entering the ranks of the knights, a part of life as a slave. A part of life in Pase, more or less. Her swordplay was nowhere near the level of the Holy Knights, her style basic and her technique nonexistent. At least, that is what Cain always told her, and it stung worse to know that he was right than to have it pointed out in the first place.
On the third pass through the drills, her powers began to awaken, like little pinpricks under her skin. Liz understood the need to learn these basics, but that did not do anything to appease her instinct to draw out her magic. "Never know who or what you'll be fighting," Cain had told her as he prodded her with a stick. "That person may be immune to your magic, and then you'll be up Shit Mountain with that pathetic swing."
"Damn old man," she muttered under her breath, but she smiled all the same.
"I hope you don't mean me."
Liz was startled out of her concentrated thoughts and swung around. Meliodas was sitting just outside of the door, his elbow propped on one bent knee, holding up his chin as he watched her. "I mean, I know I'm older than you, but—"
"What are you doing?" she interrupted, a bit out of breath. She swiped the back of her hand over her brow to wipe away the sweat, frowning at him in irritation.
"Just watching," he answered cheerily. "Don't mind me."
Gritting her teeth, she turned her back to him and took her stance again. But having those eyes on her was enough of a distraction that Liz could not keep everything straight. Her body refused to work together as her thoughts kept sliding back to the knight sitting and watching her every movement. Was he judging her? Was he disappointed? Did he like how she moved? Did he like her?
That last thought made her stumble, and with a little scream of frustration she dropped her arms and spun towards him. "Are you going to watch me all night?" she snapped.
Meliodas shrugged in that infuriating way he always did. "Probably. It's a good enough show."
"I'm not a show," she muttered. Her hand tightened around the hilt of her sword without her notice.
His eyes flickered over her and he shrugged again. "Perhaps not. But I can see that—"
"Don't say it!" Liz hollered. "It's bad enough I have one pain in my ass correcting the way I stand and move and wipe my own damn nose. I don't need lessons from you."
His brows shot up, and then Meliodas erupted into laughter. "Cain giving you a hard time, hm? Well, that's a good thing." Liz huffed at that, but watched him carefully as he stood and walked towards her. "What I was going to say," he went on, "was that you are strong. A lot stronger than you were, and good at this. A few more weeks you'll be ready to swear in as a Holy Knight."
Liz froze. "Join the knights?" she said out loud, almost to herself. Is that what she wanted? Is that why she was doing this?
If not for that, then for what?
"Yeah," he answered simply. "If you decide to stay, of course."
Liz nodded, completely unsure. She had stayed for the week he had asked for, and had been waiting for him to either send her away or demand she start working. But she was working, wasn't she? Her mind drifted to the board under the bed she had pulled up to slip the pouch of coins inside. Not that she imagined Meliodas would steal from her—the Grand Master's salary was probably highest in the kingdom—but it still felt like a good idea all the same.
"But while we're on the subject," Meliodas went on, "I noticed that when you drop your left elbow—"
She swung her sword out, the blade stopping just before reaching his neck. "What did I tell you about that?" she snapped.
The satisfaction of catching him off guard was short-lived. For a moment she was worried; what happens to a knight who pulls a weapon on the Grand Master? But Meliodas grinned and in a flash reached out, grabbing her wrist. A moment later he had her disarmed, her sword behind his back, while the other squeezed around her breast. "Now," he said thoughtfully, as if his hand was not where it was not supposed to be, "as I was saying, your left elbow—"
The criticism was cut short when she punched him across the face. "What is wrong with you!" she shouted, jumping back out of his reach.
To her satisfaction he stumbled, rubbing his jaw as he looked over at her. But instead of a frown or a scowl, he was grinning that grin that made her breath catch. "You know what you look like right now?" he mused.
"Like the woman that is going to kick your ass?" she shot back, raising her fists and planting her foot forward.
His eyes lit up, his brows darting up a bit. "Possibly. I have had my ass kicked by a woman before, by the way, although it doesn't happen often."
"What a shame. Then allow me to be the latest." She tilted her chin down, watching him closely for movement, when to her surprise he tossed the sword at her.
She caught it easily by the hilt, and Meliodas smiled. "Great! I've been wanting to see what you've been up to with Cain."
He trotted to a nearby tree and broke off a branch, and Liz rolled her eyes. "I'm surprised you haven't been watching," she teased. "A pervert like you probably knows all the best places to spy on women."
"Don't you know it," he answered. She laughed for a moment before abruptly stopping, wondering all at once if he was being serious or not. He pulled the leaves from the branch until it was a long stick in his hands. Meliodas gave it a shake to test, and then smiled over at her. "Let's do this."
Liz squared her eyes on him and advanced. She had yet to see the Grand Master in action herself, and was interested to see what exactly he would do. She had no illusions that she could best him with only speed and strength, that she could even take him down, but if she could find his weakness, then at least she could get in a shot or two…
Suddenly she had an idea. Deliberately she planted the sword in the ground and unbuttoned the fasteners on her tunic. Meliodas' eyes went wide as he watched, and she shrugged off the garment and tossed it away, now only in the tight pants and sleeveless undershirt that the knights wore as part of the uniform. The cool evening air felt good against her warm skin, and Liz licked her lips as she pulled the sword up from the ground and adjusted her grip. "There's that's better," she smiled.
The look on his face was worth it. She knew showing a bit of skin would distract him; as she carefully replaced the bangs over her eye, she locked gazes with him. "Ready?"
"Oh yeah." Green eyes flashing, Meliodas stepped forward. Liz stepped and thrusted out, going for a clean strike, but he dodged easily and rapped her arm with the branch. Immediately she twisted and sliced, again missing him, but managing to cut through the side of his tunic.
"Damn you're fast," he chuckled. As she breathed in deeply, she was surprised to find herself annoyed by him. How did he manage to miss blocking her shot? Either he was holding back and playing with her, or he was not as good as everyone made him out to be. As she wondered which was worse, however, Meliodas took a step back and pulled his own tunic off, tossing it to the side just as Liz had done.
Damn. Her brilliant plan had now backfired.
Meliodas rolled his shoulders. She took a steadying breath as his muscles flexed, and then he flipped the branch in his palm. When he caught her looking, he grinned. "See something you like?" he asked, wiggling his eyebrows.
She grit her teeth and tried to think of a good comeback, but all she managed to mutter was, "No."
"Well come closer if you want a better look."
He moved towards her and went to sweep her leg, but Liz was ready. She lifted her leg and kicked his side, sending him skidding a bit, then swung the sword around her body. Meliodas lifted his arm to block her as their arms connected, and she jolted against the sheer force that was just in his forearm. If he could stop the full momentum of her body just like that, how strong was he?
The second it took for her to marvel at the idea was enough for him to slap her across the rear with the switch. "What'cha thinking about?" teased Meliodas as he hopped away.
"Ouch!" She glared at him as she rubbed the offended spot. "Do you ever take anything seriously?"
"Just my drinking," he shrugged. Then he performed an elaborate maneuver with the stick, fencing an imaginary opponent.
Liz stood perfectly still, watching him for a long moment. It was almost insulting, the way he smiled at her then, and her hand squeezed around the hilt of her sword as a seething anger began to fill her. He was stronger and faster, that was for certain now. She was determined, then, to knock him off his feet, no matter what it took.
Meliodas stared back then, tilting his head. "Everything all right?" he asked lightly.
"How did you know that the invaders were after something?" she asked suddenly.
"It was obvious," he responded honestly, a bit to her surprise. "The attack was concentrated in one place. If you really wanted to take out the wall, you would have hit in at least three places. It couldn't have been anything but a diversion."
Liz kept her expression stoic, even as she felt her blood begin to boil, the frustration from this fight beginning to flare when she thought of the battle only she survived. She had said that, she had told the commander exactly that when he had handed her the order. She had argued that the attack looked cheap, that they had no way of infiltrating the wall that way, but he had poked her hard in the chest and told her to follow orders or else. With the paper containing her instructions gripped tightly in her hand, she had stormed back to where the other slave knights were waiting, her mind turning furiously to try to figure out why they would be sent on such an idiotic mission.
"You knew it too, didn't you?" asked Meliodas.
Nodding, she slowly walked towards the side, bringing her sword up. Her fingers faced inwards, nearly touching her shoulder as the weapon was held across her chest. She eyed him as he countered her movements, walking leisurely to complete the arc, the stick ready in his hand.
"What were they looking for?" Meliodas asked.
"I told you, I don't know," Liz huffed. "I was a slave. They gave me orders, not explanations."
"You said it was about the goddesses," he countered slowly, and Liz felt her eyes widen a bit. "Did you mean that?"
She froze for a moment and took a breath. "I don't know."
Meliodas scratched his chin. "You aren't lying to your Grand Master, are you?"
"You're not my Grand Master!" Liz shouted, and then she charged at him. Once again she swiped her sword, once again he evaded her, but this time she threw all of her strength and training into the spar. Meliodas matched her easily, but she avoided the playful blows he sent her way, until his brow was drawn down in a focused determination. The fight grew into a rhythm between the two, the only sounds the grunts of their efforts and the dull thud of metal against the branch. The adrenaline pulsed through Liz as she kept him at bay, every sense attuned to finding an opening.
When they broke apart, both were flushed and sweating. She was panting more than he was, but Meliodas was grinning. "I was right, you are getting good. Gotta watch that elbow though."
"Where are you from?" she asked as she wiped her brow.
"All over," he replied, and Liz chuckled and shook her head. "That's not an answer," she admonished him.
"Neither was yours," joked Meliodas.
She pursed her lips together. "I told you already," she said quietly. "I don't know what they wanted. I don't know what was really happening. I was a slave—"
Her words were cut short as he waved his hand in the air. "You keep saying that," he replied, his voice pleasant, but with a hint of… something. "Are you just using that as an excuse?"
"An excuse?" she cried. Now the fury roared back, her blood thrumming inside her temples. "How dare you say that."
"Well, is it?" Liz gaped at him, but he only looked back at her curiously. "I told you before how I knew you were a slave," Meliodas continued. "Would you like to know how I know you're not?"
She shook her head and stepped backwards, completely thrown by the change in conversation, the change in the air between them, the change in him. Somehow the air felt thinner, the late evening suddenly darker, as if the stars that had begun peeking were all at once snuffed out. There was more to him then, like a shadow that had begun to grow. But she wasn't afraid of him, still; instead, she felt as though she were seeing the real Grand Master, certain all at once that his playful buffoonery was all an act.
"Slaves are broken," he said slowly, quietly. "Slaves are obedient. Slaves are afraid." His words each dropped like a stone at her feet, and she remembered what he had told her in the study about being someone else, once. "But you are none of these things," Meliodas continued. "You are fierce. You faced down those knights even though you knew you would lose. You faced down me."
He stepped towards her, but Liz was frozen in place, her eyes unable to look away from him. "You are smart. You can read, you can write, you picked up that sword and learned what takes others months. You forgive those who hurt you. You have a spirit, despite what you've been through."
"I…" Liz struggled to find words to argue. He was cutting through her more surely than any knife could ever do, and she wanted him to stop. "You don't…"
"I've been to Pase. Many times, in fact." Now he was so close she could reach out and touch him, but her limbs would not listen. "I know what it means to be a slave there, and what it is to be a soldier there. I can assure you, there is nothing like that here."
With a shout, Liz forced herself to move. She lifted her sword and swung, the weapon heavier than ever with her sore arms. He did not make an effort to move, and she pulled just shy of slicing his throat; now they were in the same positions as when they had begun. "You may not be as harsh or as demanding as the other Grand Master. Any of my former masters, in fact." Her voice was cold, but even, and she was pleased with that. "But I am a slave here just as I was in Pase."
"You were paid for your work," he argued.
"Work I did not ask for," she replied.
"No one will hurt you here."
"There are worse things than beatings."
He flinched at that, but the satisfaction tasted sour. "You are not being forced to do anything."
Meliodas bowed his head. His bangs fell forward, making it impossible for her to see his eyes, and somehow that felt worse. "Then leave," he said finally. "I'd rather you be happy out there than miserable here, with me."
Slowly Liz lowered the sword. Now was the moment to choose: stay, or go? Her eyes darted from the house, to the path that led to the street, then to him, still looking at the ground.
She opened her mouth, not knowing what to even say, when the sound of footsteps pounding on the ground caught both of their attentions. "Sir Meliodas! Sir Meliodas!"
They both turned to the soldier running towards them. "Sir Meliodas," she said again, giving a quick bow. "There is something approaching the city. A force of some kind, but we don't have a solid number yet."
"Who is it?" he asked sharply.
The soldier's eyes flickered to Liz standing next to him. "We think it's Pase."
To her surprise, he nodded. "I was wondering when they would arrive. Send out the silent alarm, and have those on the wall begin the next phase. They can't know yet we're expecting them, or else they'd be here by now. I want everyone in place when I get there in ten minutes."
The soldier nodded before running off. Liz stared at him in shock, and after the messenger disappeared he turned to her. "I meant what I said." Their eyes met, and then unexpectedly, he reached out and took her hand. "You have never been a slave, Liz. Not now, and not then."
His thumb traced the back of her hand, sending a shiver up her spine. "If you want to go, then go. But please, just take care of yourself. You know where to find me."
Lifting her hand, he kissed it, his lips softer than she had imagined they would be. Then Meliodas let her go, jogging over to where his tunic lay, pulling it over his head and adjusting his belt as he headed towards the path. With a final look at her over his shoulder, he disappeared behind the trees, leaving Liz alone.
She was free. Absolutely, completely free. She could leave Danafor now, take her money and her weapon and make her way out into the world. It was all she had ever wanted, and she was absolutely terrified.
Chapter 6: Decision and Invasion
So very sorry for the delay! An awful lot of life has been going on. This fic is nearing it's ending, and I'm so pleased that so many of you have enjoyed it so far. Thank you for reading!
Chapter Six: Decision and Invasion
Liz flew up the stairs to the bedroom, nearly stumbling over her own feet. She had to go, get out of there, now, before he came back and changed his mind. Before she was trapped in Danafor forever.
Quickly she pushed the bed aside and pulled up the loose board. Her hand shot inside and fished around until her fingers closed around the fabric of the little bag. With a sigh of relief she pulled it out and shook her fist slightly, listening to the jingle of the coins inside. It was still something incredibly strange and overwhelming for her, but knowing she had money that was her very own gave her a much needed boost of confidence.
That settled, she grabbed her sack and opened it to pack, but then froze. She had no clothes of her own, just the uniforms and underclothes provided by Meliodas. There was one other outfit she had collected, an unexpected gift from one of the Holy Knight apprentices. Her cheeks felt hot for a moment as she thought of the girl who had approached her with a friendly smile and a pleasant introduction, the feeling strange all over again, remembering how she lifted her brows a bit as she extended her arms with an extra set of clothes. "You need these, right?" she had asked, her smile faltering just a bit as Liz had simply stared. "The Grand Master had mentioned you might need some things. Here, take these, they should fit."
"I don't need anyone's help," she muttered. She would leave as-is and make do with what she was wearing. The Danafor uniform would help her get past the walls anyway, and once safely outside she would ditch the tunic and carry on with her cloak and plain clothes.
Liz turned and hurried down the steps, dropping her bag on the table. She rifled through the pantry, pulling out some fruit, bread, and cheese, and grabbed a cloth to wrap around a bit of leftover pork. But as she turned back to the table, she found Wandle sitting on top of her bag.
"Move it," she ordered, but the bird did not budge. "What are you doing?" he asked curiously.
"I'm leaving," answered Liz. She crossed the room and pushed him off of her things, piling the food inside.
"Leaving!" Wandle cried as he hopped away. "But where are you going?"
"I told you!" she snapped as she returned to the cabinet, pulling it open to snatch up a few extra candles. The heat on her face and neck was returning again, angry with herself for being so harsh with him, and angry with him for pushing for answers. "I'm leaving Danafor."
The bird flapped its wings, a sign she had learned meant he was exasperated. "That wasn't my question!" he retorted right back. "Where are you going?"
"I don't know!" she admitted angrily. "Anywhere but here."
Wandle gave a huff, then planted himself squarely back on top of the sack. "That's stupid. You're gonna leave and not even go anywhere?"
"Oh, what would you know!" she growled, yanking the sack away from him angrily. "Meliodas said I could go. He practically told me to go."
"That's not true and you know it!"
She glared at him, her eyes narrowing. "How would you know? Were you watching us?"
He flapped his wings in a flurry, causing an embarrassed twist in her stomach. "Of course I was watching you! You were both outside making an awful racket, how could I not?" Liz ignored him as she lifted her bag and headed towards the door, but Wandle flew in front of her before she could reach the hooks where her cloak was hanging. "Why are you going? Did he do something?"
"No!" shouted Liz. "No, he didn't. I just don't belong here."
"What are you talking about?" he squawked. "You're becoming a Holy Knight. You're a part of this family—"
"This isn't a family!" she snapped. "I'm not a part of anything."
"So you come here, live here, eat our food, use our water—"
"Not by choice!" She threw her bag down in frustration and pointed a finger at Wandle. "Stop accusing me of doing things out of my control!"
The bird flew into the air, hovering so they could be eye to eye. "If you leave now, then you're just gonna prove that you are what everyone says you are!"
Liz stared at him in the shocked silence for a long moment, before asking harshly, "What do people say I am?"
Wandle landed on the shelf above the hooks, and he looked down at her with a sharp eye. "That you're a spy and a thief. That you are stealing secrets from Meliodas, and will run back to Pase and help them invade next time."
Anger and bitterness and shame churned uncomfortably inside of her. Liz whirled around and stomped back to the table, pulling out the sack of coins and throwing it on top. "There," she snapped out. "I've paid for my food and my water and everything else. We're even and I don't owe you or Meliodas or this place anything."
"You don't have to go. Even if you don't want to be here, you don't have to leave."
Hot tears threatened the back of her throat, making Liz absolutely livid. "I do," she whispered hoarsely, staring at the ground. "I have to—"
"I don't want you to go," said Wandle sadly.
A tear slid down her cheek, and Liz wiped it away furiously. Without another word she snatched up her cloak and fled the little house, not wanting to hear another word. He wasn't even a person! He was just a stupid bird, and there was nothing that was going to stop her from finally doing what she always wanted to do. She would never belong in Danafor anyway, so what was the point of staying?
Liz slipped through the shadows, trying to remain unseen from anyone out in the streets or anyone peeking out a window, in case Meliodas or any of the others decided to go looking for any witnesses to which direction she headed.
Her conviction to go was solid. This had to be done. She had to get out of there and start her life. But as she moved silently, her eyes focused forward to the nearest gated exit from the city's walls, her mind kept wandering backwards, back towards the house where her friend—he's not a friend he's a stupid bird—had looked at her so sadly. Back to where her mentor—he's not a mentor he's just biding his time—had spent hours working with her. To where the only person to ever trust her—he doesn't trust you he only wants to use you—was fighting, right now, risking his life, maybe dying.
A female shout drew her attention, and Liz froze, listening. It came again, and before she even realized it she headed left, in the direction of the noise. She could hear people moving, so she ducked around a building. The streets were incredibly silent, and Liz thought about what Meliodas had said about sending out a silent alarm. Where was everyone?
She flattened into the shadows as a group hurried by. Even in the dark she could see the spiked dagger on the front of the uniform, her stomach twisting at the familiar symbol. There was no doubt these were Pasilian soldiers; but what were they doing here? The assault was heading towards the north and eastern wall, but this was the western section of the city.
Then Liz remembered what Meliodas had told her: they were looking for something.
She growled to herself to think of how stupid her generals were, to try a failing strategy again. It had failed so terribly, their force not strong enough to ever hope to take the wall. And all those fools had died because surrender was not an option. Everyone had died, but her.
Before the first assault, after the general had ordered her to keep quiet, Liz had tried one more time before heading out to talk some sense into them. She didn't care if she was only a slave, she knew the plan was a huge mistake. So she had headed back to the tent where those in charge held a final strategy meeting and argued with the two men standing guard to let her inside. They never did, and Liz never had the chance to plead her case before the call to move out. But before she was turned away, she had heard a bit of conversation from inside. Something about a weapon, and something about a goddess.
Another cry went up, breaking her out of her thoughts. Liz looked up to see the group disappearing down another street so she followed their tracks backwards, until she rounded into an alley and found two Pasilian soldiers crouched in waiting. One of them was hovered over a young woman, his hand over her mouth, and as soon as Liz skidded to a stop, they both snapped their eyes up and spotted her.
The sight of the woman on the ground and the narrowed eyes focused on her caused something to click over in her mind. In a flash she had her sword drawn, and her hand flew out as she called on her powers. The unoccupied soldier lunged at her, but that was his mistake; the second he was within reach Liz pushed her magic outwards. He dropped on the ground, paralyzed, and with satisfaction she whirled on the other.
He had not moved, simply staring at her, and Liz spied the knife he held to the girl's throat. "I'll kill her," he said simply.
"Then I'll kill you," she replied, just as evenly.
Liz took a step forward, and he shouted, "I'll kill her if you come any closer!"
"So what?" she snapped back. "I don't know her."
The girl made a strangled cry, and Liz folded her arms. "Hurry up and slit her throat so I can kill you already."
The soldier glared at her in shock, but then slowly stood. Liz held the sword out, waiting for him to strike. Sure enough, he gave a snarl and threw himself forward, but she was ready; with a swipe and some footwork courtesy of Cain's exhaustive instruction, she had him disarmed and on the ground in a moment.
"You Danafor scum make me sick," he spat at her.
Liz snorted. "I'm not even from Danafor," she answered. She raised her hand as though to strike, and with some satisfaction she watched as he flinched; however, Liz called on her power instead, leaving him paralyzed on the ground next to his companion.
The use of so much magic after so long left Liz a bit shaky as she straightened. Sheathing her sword, she looked back over her shoulder at the girl, now sitting up on the ground and staring at her with wide eyes. "Get up," she ordered.
The girl scrambled to stand and ran over. "Thank you!" she hissed. "You saved me! That was amazing!"
Blushing, Liz turned away, and the girl followed, right at her heels, as she left the shadows of the alley to check if anyone else was coming. "I didn't know where you soldiers were—the signal to find cover went out but I—I heard a noise—I thought it might be someone who needed help—but they came out of—"
Liz stopped short, the girl nearly stumbling into her. She grabbed her by the arm and gave her a little shake. "Stop talking and get inside somewhere."
She nodded, and with another choking "Thank you!" she disappeared into a building. Liz blew out a long breath before looking back at the two on the ground. Fighting them had delayed her, but not terribly long. Even if she didn't care, even if she was leaving, it wasn't as if she could have just done nothing.
Quietly she stepped back into the street, turning to go back in the direction of the wall. But she only went a few steps before a nagging sensation gave her pause. There were more soldiers slipping through the streets right now, and no one from the Danafor army present to stop them. That left more citizens vulnerable, people could be dying right now—
"It's not my problem!" she hissed at no one in particular; then with a growl she spun on her heel and stalked down the street, following the energies she could sense that were far from friendly.
Liz told herself she wasn't getting involved. This was not her home, not her kingdom, not her people. This was not her problem. She was just going to find someone to tell, a soldier or guard or knight and inform them that there were men from Pase inside the wall. Just keep an eye on the intruders, follow where they were going, and debrief the first Danafor soldier she found. That was it. That was all she was going to do, and then she was leaving. For good this time.
Instead, she spent the next hour stalking the group through the streets. These were not the Holy Knights of Pase, but ground troops, presumably on a scouting mission. Only one of them had a true power level, the one giving commands to the others about their movements. They were looking for knights from Danafor, just as she was.
"Something's here," the leader called. "Everyone keep alert." Together the remaining dozen soldiers followed him through the streets, weapons drawn and on alert. Liz could only follow, knowing there was no way she could take so many at once. Thankfully the streets were clear from the alarm, and they met no one in the darkness. But it pleased her to sense the heightened anxiety, and the way the group switched their formation from offensive to defensive, all because of her.
Eventually she realized they were heading towards the city's center, where the castle was located. Everything was quiet, the only sound the group's quiet footsteps. They are looking for something… But what? Something in the castle? She started to get nervous the closer they came. There was no way she could take them all, but should she let them get any closer? Maybe if she just took out the leader, the others would retreat.
Suddenly there was the sound of an explosion far off, and Liz froze in shock. All at once she could hear the sounds of battle in the distance, coming from the northern side of the wall. The sky was dark, but bursts of light also came in that direction, flaring up as the knights used magic to repel the enemy. "Let's go!" the commander called, and together they moved quickly and deliberately forward, moving twice as fast towards the castle.
Liz hesitated. The assault had surely begun, but what could she do? Almost longingly she looked over her shoulder, back the way she had come. Now was the only chance to make her escape. But Pase was heading towards the castle, and the Holy Knights were on the other side, completely unaware. Could she really leave like this, leave Danafor when she could do some good?
She thought about the past week, of Cain's barking laugh and the not-entirely-unfriendly greetings from the others in the training fields and the expectant expression on the knight who offered her a spare set of clothing. She thought about Meliodas' ridiculous grin and his teasing pinches and the awful, awful things he did in the kitchen. She thought about the comfortable bed and the hooks on the wall for her cloak and the chair in the parlor she had claimed for her own.
A sting in her throat made her swallow thickly. Her stomach twisted as she thought of what he had said earlier, about her joining the knights, how her training was coming along. He had said she learned in a week what took others months. He had said she would be safe, and he had kept his word. He had said she was not a slave, and that she had never really been one. The idea had taken root in her brain without even realizing it, until now, when her heart was beating rapidly from the decision before her and the disappearing shadows of the soldiers heading for the castle.
But it was Wandle that convinced her to keep moving forward, in the end. He had made her laugh. He had listened to her. He had called her family.
Liz hurried to follow them, keeping to the shadows, staying as silent as possible. She looked for an opportunity to take out some of the group, but they stayed together, so all she could do was stay on the tail. They moved fast, and she picked up her own speed to keep up with them, cursing under her breath when they disappeared around another building. Sprinting to follow, she cut a sharp corner and skidded to a halt when she found the next street empty.
Immediately she drew her sword. Where did they go? There was nowhere to go, but there was no trace of them.
A shift in the air to the side had her spinning just in time. A lance came down on her just as she turned, and Liz managed to block the nasty blow. Still she was knocked backwards, falling to the ground, scrambling up an instant later. Then the leader of the band she was following stepped into the moonlight. "I knew we were being followed," he said coldly.
"What are you doing in the city?" she demanded.
The commander smiled. "I know you," he answered. "You were the leader of the slave division from the last raid." Liz bristled a bit at the word slave, and as he stepped towards her she stepped back to keep the distance between them. "We thought you were all dead. How did you survive? And why-?" His eyes flickered over her. "You're wearing their uniform now. So that's how you did it."
"You don't know anything about me," she hissed back.
He snorted and lunged a bit with the lance, and Liz snapped back, the tips of their weapons tapping together. The sound of the metal ping echoed in the alley. "I know that defensive move," he snorted. "You've been trained in Pase. Your masters aren't going to like this one bit."
"I'm not a slave!" hollered Liz.
He laughed, and it was awful. It was the laughter that she had heard a hundred thousand times before, every time one of the masters had called her a name or gave her an order or humiliated her. It was the laugh that came every time she had glared at them or tensed in anticipation of a blow; and once, and only once, she heard it after she lashed back with a harsh retort of her own. It was the laugh of someone who did not care, and it filled Liz with fury, because she did.
Instead of bringing her sword around her body, a move that Cain had told her was predictable and as useless as she, Liz thrusted up in a wide arc, and grinned as he leapt back in surprise. But then his lance was moving, slicing the air in a much more precise movement than she expected, and the two pressed forward and back as they sliced at one another, learning each other's moves, estimating each other's abilities.
The fight was thrilling as the blood pumped steadily in her veins. Unlike Cain who would guide her or Meliodas who would tease her, this was real. He did not hold back, and neither did she, allowing Liz to experience the rush of adrenaline and the excitement of reading his movements. There was a spark of electricity under her skin as her powers hummed in wait.
Then he jumped, and Liz pushed herself to match his movements; over and over he struck at her, keeping her parrying with her weapon or dodging his. Cain's words echoed in her mind: move, step, swing, arms up, grip loose, shoulders tight, eyes open. Think, anticipate, act instead of react. It all made sense in a way it never had before. She had fought so many times in her life, sparred again and again, but always for herself. It was never for someone else.
He was too fast for her to get a grip on him and use her ability; so fast, in fact, she wondered if this was his power. The thought was enough of a distraction that she did not sense the kick he aimed at her midsection. Liz crashed to the ground just as another kick landed in the middle of her back.
He grabbed her then, an arm around her throat, choking the air from her, the other tight around her waist. Liz clawed at his arm, trying to pull him off, and the commander laughed again, sending a shiver of fear through her. "No wonder you all died," he hissed in her ear. "Slaves that outlive their usefulness deserve nothing less than death."
The fear flared inside of her all at once, turning into hot, white rage. With every last bit of her strength she focused on pushing all of her magic out through her hands. The power nearly burned as it left her skin and shifted into him.
With an angry shout he dropped the arm around her neck, but the other squeezed tighter around her torso. "What is this?" he shouted in her ear.
Liz coughed as he forced the air from her lungs. Black spots entered her vision, but still she managed to raise her left elbow and strike him hard between the eyes.
Pain burst through her arm, but it worked. At once he let go, and Liz fell forward, pulling deep gulps of air. She pushed herself up on hands and knees and looked over at the knight, who was laying on his back, knocked out cold. Climbing up on her slightly shaking legs, she stepped up to the body and looked down with a smirk. "That's my sloppy elbow," she huffed out.
The victory was short-lived, however, as shouts came from the street. Liz jumped back, still catching her breath, and prepared to defend herself. She could tell her magic was weak, having put so much out already; but she tightened her grip on her sword, ready to fight the rest of the Pasilian soldiers.
"Over here!" Liz tensed, but then sucked in a breath as two Danafor knights turned the corner. Her shoulders relaxed in relief as they approached.
But after taking one look at her, they raised their weapons. "Drop the sword!" one shouted.
She recognized his voice from her first night in Danafor, when the group of soldiers had challenged her being there in the tavern. "I'm a knight just like you!" she answered back, even as she lowered her sword.
"You're the one from Pase," he growled. "I don't care what you're wearing, I'd recognize you anywhere." His eyes narrowed as he looked down at the knight on the ground. "And now we find you with them. What you'd expect from a traitor."
Liz began to stammer out an explanation, but he only stepped forward as the other screamed, "Captain! Over here, we got one!"
"No!" She looked around for a way to escape, backing away from the advancing knight.
There was another voice as more footsteps approached, and then she heard Meliodas' voice call, "Liz? Is that you?"
"Meliodas!" She swallowed thickly, her eyes darting to where he now stood, looking back and forth between her and the knight pointing his sword at her.
"What's going on?" he demanded, but before she could say anything the knight said, "She's with them! We found her with this knight from Pase. She probably let them in!"
"No I didn't!" Liz insisted, and to her relief Meliodas said, "Don't be ridiculous. Why would Liz let them in?"
He stepped around the knight, completely unafraid, and then crouched down to examine the still-unconscious body on the ground. "Did you do this?"
His eyes went up to meet hers, and he grinned at her as he studied her through his blonde bangs. Liz's mouth twisted a bit as she stared back. "Yes," she answered, her voice betraying a bit of a waver. "He was leading a band of soldiers through the city. Someone had to stop them." Then for good measure she added, "I'm not one of them."
"Of course you're not," he laughed, and then looked over at the soldier. "Really, Hackett? If she was one of them, why would she take out her own commander?"
The soldier frowned and lowered his sword, and shaking his head Meliodas called, "You two, take him into custody. The rest of us have to keep moving."
The squad went into action, and Liz blew out a breath and sheathed her sword. "There are more of them," she said, moving to stand next to them. "They came from the west side."
Meliodas nodded. "I know. I think there is another group too, although we haven't caught up with them yet. Any ideas where they are headed?"
"The castle," she answered. "They path they took, it's the only thing that makes sense."
"Ugh… now I gotta go save that idiot of a king." Liz looked down at him in surprise. Meliodas stood with his hands on his hips, shaking his head. "Damn."
She nearly laughed, the situation was so bizarre, when he gave her a look over his shoulder. His mouth was a half-smile and his eyebrows were raised as he asked, "You coming?"
Liz turned away, her eyes traveling back the way she came; back to the wall, back to her escape, back to freedom. A moment went by as she stood there, frozen, on the cusp of her decision.
Then she looked back at Meliodas and answered, "Yes."
He laughed, the sound cutting through the quiet, and she jumped as he grabbed her rear end. "Come on then!" he called, dodging her backhand; then he grabbed her by the hand and pulled her with him, heading towards the castle.
Chapter 7: Secrets Revealed
Special thanks to EJR Horselady who literally beat this chapter out of me and read about three thousand or so versions, each one more awful than the last. One more chapter to go!
Chapter Seven: Secrets Revealed
The evening had shifted over to night, and the darkness obscured the small squad of knights that slipped through the city streets. The fighting in the distance was dying down, the flashes of magic mixed with the glowing fire of torches growing fewer and further between. Either that, Liz assumed, or people were switching to hand to hand combat and weapons.
Liz was silent as she followed behind Meliodas, navigating the streets of Danafor expertly and with a keen eye. She kept her focus on both her surroundings and on the Grand Master, not wanting to be ambushed or to get separated. Getting surrounded would be bad enough, but at this point getting separated from Meliodas would be a death sentence: either from Danafor's knights thinking she was with Pase, or Pase's knights thinking she was a traitor.
She refused to think about which statement was the truth. This was not the time to figure that out, if ever.
They stopped at a point where the roads split in four different directions, leading to different entrances to the castle. "Which way?" Liz asked as Meliodas looked around, trying to spot any enemies.
"We're heading North." Without any further explanation he turned and gave orders to the rest of the squad, who separated and headed in opposite directions. Then he gestured to Liz, who followed him towards the north part of the castle.
She wanted to ask desperately what the plan was, and luckily Meliodas explained once they were alone. "The castle will be under lockdown, but there is a hidden entrance, known only to the royal family and the Grand Master. We can use that to get in."
"All right," Liz agreed.
Despite the sounds coming from the city the castle was comparatively quiet. They went slower now, keeping to the shadows while listening intently for movements or voices or some sort of signal which could alert them to the presence of enemies.
"Still, how did they get inside the walls?" Liz wondered aloud, but still barely over a whisper. She did not even realize that she had spoken until Meliodas whispered back, "Spies? Or traitors…"
Liz didn't bother to reply to that as she followed Meliodas under a hedge of some type and through the now opened door it concealed.
There was a tunnel that went completely dark once the door was closed. Liz stood perfectly still as the bolt of the lock clicked loudly. There was no light to see at all, but a firm hand took hers, pulling her forward. Instinctively she curled her fingers around the ones entwining with hers, and with the other hand on the wall, together she walked hand-in-hand with Meliodas through the darkness.
There were muffled sounds around them, which she figured must be from the castle on the other side; the only other sound was her own breathing and the steady thump of her heartbeat. If it wasn't for the hand pressed into hers Liz would have sworn that she was alone. It was so pitch dark she could not see a thing, and Meliodas moved so quietly she could barely pick up the swish of his clothing or the light tap of his footsteps. It was unnerving to be without the use of any of her senses, sending her mind into a state of high alert. The only thing keeping her quiet, keeping her from panic, was the hand grasping hers.
After what could have been several seconds, several minutes, several hours, they stopped. "I knew you'd come back," Meliodas said, the sound of his voice making her jump.
"What?" she hissed at him. Her free hand pushed against the wall, and she stumbled forward. The next thing she knew Meliodas was pressed against her, his body shaking a bit as he laughed.
"Did you arrange this whole invasion just to get me alone?" The hand holding hers pulled her forward, until her arm was wrapped around his waist. Meliodas gave her hand a squeeze, and then she felt him laugh again. "I mean I knew you wouldn't leave, but all you had to do was ask me out. I would have said yes."
"I didn't!" she snapped, realizing how foolish she sounded. He was teasing of course, but it left her no less annoyed. Liz pulled her hand away and reached out to steady herself on the wall, her palms coming in contact with his chest instead. Meliodas gave a noise of appreciation, so she grabbed him by the collar of the shirt. "Do you take anything seriously?"
"Relax," he whispered, his hands snaking around the backs of her thighs. "The guards are changing and in ninety seconds we'll be able to step through the hidden door. I bet we could think of something to do in ninety seconds."
Liz could not help the snort that escaped her. "If that's what you say to all the girls you bring in here, no wonder you're single."
"Hey!" exclaimed Meliodas, but at that moment there was a noise from the other side of the wall, and Liz covered his mouth with her hand. "Quiet," she breathed. "Someone is out there."
They remained still, pressed together as they listened. There were voices and then the sound of movement, and when it was quiet again Meliodas let go of her legs as she released his mouth. "Get ready," he whispered, reaching around her. At once there was light, and Liz was pulled forward. She blinked the spots from her eyes, wincing as she looked up. "Is this the castle?" she asked quietly.
"Throne room," he answered.
The throne room it was. A chandelier hung above all, dozens of candles lit on the ends of the arms that twisted outwards from the centerpiece. The crystals that hung reflected the light cleverly around the room, revealing the high ceiling and wooden beams. Tapestries hung on the wall, dark gray stone punctuated by gold-plated sconces burning low. The floor was dark pine, covered by a thick carpet that sat before the dais.
Liz's eyes traveled up the steps to the heavy wooden throne that sat atop. In the chair slouched a pouting middle-aged man wearing what looked like pajamas and wrapped in a plush purple robe. She frowned a bit as Meliodas walked forward, not bothering to bow or even salute the monarch. Hesitantly she followed, her hand on her weapon, her eyes sweeping the room for any threats.
The only other person there, however, was a Holy Knight who stood to the side as guard. Surprisingly, when Meliodas approached, the knight stepped up to block his path. When the king spotted him, he slowly sat up, looking down at the knight with tightly drawn brows and pursed lips. "You!" he shouted. "Where have you been?"
"The Pasilian army has been stopped at the wall, but there—"
"I don't pay you to stand around on a wall!" the king shouted. Wine sloshed out of the goblet he held tightly in his hand as he banged it on the arm of his throne. "I pay you to protect me."
With a bit of a sigh, as if he were a teacher scolding a tiresome student, Meliodas continued, "Protecting the wall was the utmost priority. If Pase was allowed inside the city countless citizens would have been hurt, or killed."
The king fumed. "I should have you arrested. Maybe a night in the stocks will remind you exactly who you are and who you work for. I am your king, it is my life that is important!"
Meliodas sighed and bowed his head as the stream of curses and threats continued, and Liz watched in shock. Was he giving in so easily? Liz did her best to feel out the king's power level, not surprised when she sensed none at all. For someone filled with harsh words and threats, he was certainly without his own strength to back it up. The king was wrong, so very wrong, and it turned her stomach to think of his words and how callous he was when speaking of the people. All the jokes Meliodas had made before suddenly made sense, but in a very sour sort of way. How could he stand to be belittled by someone so arrogant and weak?
Then she wondered, how did he get here, anyway? Was Meliodas as bound to this king as she had once been to Pase? But he wasn't a slave, unable to leave, living under the whip of the masters. He had a choice in his life and Liz found herself growing angry as she watched Meliodas choose to stand there and listen to the king rage at him. Why didn't he stop him? Why didn't he flatten that ridiculous ruler right onto his back?
As if he could hear her thoughts, Meliodas took a step up the dais, only to be stopped again by the knight. She wondered who would be so bold as to step up to the Grand Master, and when the knight removed the helmet she understood immediately: it was Fay, the knight who had tried to kill her even after Meliodas had made it clear she was an ally.
Liz seized as her heart pounded wildly in her chest. The woman had the same terrifying scowl she had when they fought, and it was everything within her to keep standing. The look of hate that filled the knight's eyes as they had sparred and Fay had done everything to cut her into pieces flashed in her mind, dousing her senses like icy water. She cursed herself for her fear, but no matter how she scolded herself, Liz remained frozen in her spot.
Meliodas, however, looked unfazed, even when Fay tossed her helmet to the ground. The metal made a loud clang as it hit the stone railing around the dais, making Liz jump and bringing the king's tirade to an end. "You dare to bring that murderer here?" she seethed. Once more he ignored her as he lifted his leg to step up towards the throne, but was stopped when she grabbed his arm.
"Don't you dare," she snapped. "I should arrest you for bringing the enemy here, in front of our king."
"The enemy?" the king echoed in confusion, but Meliodas simply shrugged her off. "Lovely to see you as always, Fay," he responded with a dismissive tone.
Meliodas did not look at her, but simply folded his arms and turned his full attention to the king. "We have stopped the attack, but there are at least two bands of soldiers who slipped into the city. I have every reason to suspect they are on their way here—"
"As if you care about that!" Fay shouted. Stepping around Meliodas, she drew her sword, her eyes cold as they locked onto Liz. "I see one soldier of Pase that made it inside."
Liz gasped, taking a step back as the knight was about to charge; but Meliodas stepped in front of her, blocking the tall woman easily with a foot planted on her thigh. "I'm going to have to ask you not to get any closer to Liz."
The knight sputtered in response as Meliodas looked around. A heavy silence fell on the room, the king plopping back down into his throne with an uneasy look on his face. But Liz felt herself trembling, angry with herself for not meeting Fay's challenge. She had come leaps and bounds in the week since they fought; how did this knight still hold any sway over her now? Would there ever be a day when Liz was not afraid?
Her hands shook as she balled them into fists as Meliodas asked, "Where are the other knights?"
Fay stepped back suddenly, her hand tight around her weapon. "The knights are out fighting—"
"No, I mean the ones assigned to the king's guard. It's policy that the king has no less than four guards at all times." Liz's eyes grew wide as she looked between the two knights. Meliodas looked genuinely confused, but something told her it had to be an act; Fay meanwhile was turning a bright shade of red.
She looked up at the king, who seemed to have forgotten his anger at Meliodas as he too looked shock at the exchange. "My knights?" he snapped. "You—you sent them out, you said you had orders!"
"There are soldiers from Pase who have made it to the castle," Meliodas answered slowly. His eyes slid to Fay. "You knew they were coming, that's why you sent the others away."
The king shouted again, but neither knight paid him any heed. Then a sickening smile slowly crept over her face as Fay said, "You want the king dead as much as anyone." Her voice was quiet and impossibly cold, the two soldiers locked on one another, the air beginning to grow electric with the unspoken threat surrounding them. "Do not pretend to care about this place or these people. You sold us out for a pair of tits and some pretty eyes."
Liz's face suddenly burned, but Meliodas only snorted. "Is that what I did? And what was the price of your betrayal, Fay?"
"My brother died defending Danafor from those animals. From her." The cold eyes darted to Liz and lingered on her for a moment before she continued, "He died defending this kingdom, but it was a soldier's death. An honorable death. And you spit on his memory by bringing her here, bringing her home, letting her play at being a knight of Danafor."
"I'm not playing!" Liz burst out, her voice shaking slightly. "I am a Holy Knight and I will do what I must to protect this kingdom, which is my duty!"
Fay turned her malicious smile towards her and laughed at the outburst. "What a clever speech from a clever liar. But even if I were to believe you, I would call you a fool. You would serve this idiot king and this crooked Grand Master only to watch them consort with the enemy." Liz swallowed, her own anger swirling at the insult; yet she tried to remain solid, and unaffected, just like Meliodas. "You'll do what you must? Even give your life? Then you deserve to die in their service for being such a fool to give it."
"Are you done?" Meliodas interrupted.
"Never!" Fay cried, and then at once the room exploded.
Liz barely had time to gasp as her body flew backwards. The sound of stone crashing echoed in her ears, the sound deafening as the world became a flash of white. Her body went through the air, and she screamed as her arms flung outwards, trying to grab anything to stop the momentum. The roaring grew louder and louder, the wind furious against her face, pieces of debris hitting her skin and arms and legs, the power and energy rattling her bones and her teeth and setting her lungs on fire.
An instant later there was a hand grabbing onto her arm, then a body pressed against hers, and Liz realized the blast was over. She was facedown on the ground, someone laying on top of her, and once the world stopped moving, she was able to take a breath and sit up. Blinking rapidly Liz looked around as Meliodas climbed off of her and the king, who was cowered and groaning on the ground next to her. In shock she spun her head back to Meliodas. How did he move so fast?
He still hovered over her, still shielding her, even though his face was turned to look over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed and searching the dissipating cloud where the antechamber used to be. "Are you okay?" he asked without looking back.
"I think so," she rasped. Her throat was raw, her ears were still ringing, but nothing seemed hurt. Liz was hauled to her feet by sturdy hands, and she blinked down at him and nodded. "What happened?"
"Fay attacked," he answered. "Are you hurt?"
Instead of answering, her eyes then looked over the wreckage of the room. The floorboards were broken, the stone of the dais in a crumble, the throne itself toppled over onto its side. If the king had been there…
Shaking her head, her gaze landed on Fay. The knight was face down, unconscious on the floor. If Fay had done this, then how did she get hurt?
Green eyes stared up at her in concern, and Liz blinked, her mind so filled with questions she could not hope to begin. Had she ever learned what his power was? Was it enough to cause this?
His brows went up in question, so quickly she looked down to assess herself. There were small cuts on her arms, her uniform was covered in smeared dirt, and she could feel a bruise forming on her side where she had landed on the ground. But overall she felt okay, her head clearing rapidly even as it pounded. The sense of urgency to get out of there beginning to sound an alarm in her mind. "I'm fine," she answered, her breath coming in short gasps. "Nothing serious."
Incredibly, Meliodas grinned, and then gave her a wink before letting her arms go. "This is some crazy date. Now let's get out of here."
"Date?" she squeaked, but he ignored her.
She watched as Meliodas hauled the king to his feet. Liz looked over at where the king lay moaning on the ground. He was definitely alive, grumbling himself as he teetered up on hands and knees, the blonde grabbing his elbows and heaving him upwards. There was blood and dirt in his hair and on his robe, but everything seemed to be in place, and no obvious injuries were evident. Meliodas looked even worse, his hair sticking in every direction, his tunic nearly disintegrated, the bottoms of his trousers torn to shreds. She needed to ask him how, how did he grab the king and her, how did he stop the blast and survive and be okay enough to joke, but she was still trembling and could not find the words.
"Your Grace," he said quickly, "we need to go. Get somewhere safe."
Suddenly she remembered again what Meliodas had said. "They are looking for something," Liz said out loud, frowning in thought.
"What?" snapped the king, leaning heavily on Meliodas.
"Pase isn't invading. They are here to steal something." Surprise registered on his face, and Meliodas pressed his lips together as she stepped forward. "Do you know what they are looking for? What could be here that they want?"
"Those bastards!" he shouted, struggling in Meliodas' firm grip. "They want to steal my gold? My treasure?"
The adrenaline that had been coursing through her made her anger flare suddenly. "You idiot," she hissed, and Meliodas snorted. "Pase is richer than you could ever hope to be. What do they need your money for?"
"You dare—" the king growled, but just then Meliodas interrupted, "You have a point. If it's not the treasury, then what?"
Liz took a deep, shaky breath as they stared at one another. "Something about the goddesses," she answered.
"The goddesses!" Both of them looked over at the king, who was now steady enough to pull himself away. "Could that be it? Could they…?"
Meliodas narrowed his eyes when his voice trailed off. "What are you talking about?" he growled.
It was a tone not to be questioned, and Liz could see the king knew it too. He swallowed visibly and then explained, "We found an artifact when exploring the caves underneath the city three months ago. It's something I've never seen before, made of a material no one knows. Like something out of legend."
Liz frowned, confused, but Meliodas pressed, "Which legend?"
"Danafor's founding," the king whispered.
The change in Meliodas was instant. "You found—" He sucked in a deep breath, obviously trying to remain in control. "Give it to me. Now."
Nodding, his eyes wide in alarm, the king hurried to climb through the rubble. He reached throne that had toppled over in the blast, pulling it upright so he could pull off the cushions. Liz watched, utterly baffled by what was happening, when Meliodas grabbed her arm. "Liz," he said quietly, and her attention snapped to him. "Liz, I need you to listen to me."
"O-okay," she hesitated.
"This artifact, if it affects you in any way—if it, I don't know, if it makes you feel anything, makes you remember anything, tell me right away. Promise me."
She blinked down at him, opening her mouth to ask why, but he squeezed her arm gently. "Please," he begged.
"I will," she promised.
"Here!" Both then turned to see the king standing up, and holding the artifact in the air. Meliodas hurried over, and Liz followed slowly, looking carefully at this thing that was the cause of all of this. It was a weapon of some kind, she guessed, the material twisted into a coil on one end. The other end was formed into the head of a dragon, its eyes made of flashing rubies. Three spikes stood out from the top, three more around the curve at the bottom, and the entire piece was carved to give the effect of scales. It was strange, and unsettling, and… familiar.
The king did not hesitate to hand the artifact to Meliodas' outstretched hand. Liz was surprised to see him shiver as he touched it, his lips parting slightly as he ran his fingers over the strange shape. "What is it?" she asked.
Meliodas did not answer; instead he looked darkly at the king. "You found this," he said slowly, "you found this, and didn't tell me? You have had this all this time, and have been keeping it under your chair?"
The king grit his teeth even as he took a step backwards. "Y-you can't s-speak to me—I-I-I am the—"
"You've had the dragon fragment. All this time. And you kept it under your ass."
The king opened his mouth to argue back, but then his eyes lifted and widened to saucers as he looked over them. Meliodas and Liz turned at the same time, and then Liz felt white hot agony searing across her stomach. She cried out, tasting blood, but her body moved on instinct.
Twisting around, she pulled her sword from its sheath, holding it across her chest—Never know who or what you'll be fighting, Cain barked at her as he disarmed her again—as she planted her opposite foot in order to step in front of the king—I am a Holy Knight and I will do what I must to protect this kingdom—drawing in her power and ignoring the pain, ready to face what it was, ready to die if she had to, as Meliodas did the same beside her.
I told you before how I knew you were a slave. Would you like to know how I know you're not?
The words came back to her as they fought, side by side, the soldiers from Pase finally having arrived. He blocked their attacks, a technique that was as incredible as it was unbelievable, and Liz covered him, acting as shield and guard for the king.
Slaves are broken. Slaves are obedient.
One soldier moved in a flash, practically disappearing and reappearing next to them, and Liz swung. He disappeared again a split second before the blade connected, but not before she sent a pulse of her own magic out. When he reappeared behind the king, the knight collapsed on the ground, and Liz wondered briefly what Cain would have to say about that trick. But there was no time to think, only to act, and she stretched out her sloppy elbow as she pulled the king back behind her.
Slaves are afraid. But you are none of those things.
By the time she turned again, another knight was there, weapon waiting, and Liz gave a shout in surprise to see it was Fay. No time to think, to wonder, and she moved, trying to stay out of the way of the lance she wielded while keeping the king out of reach and looking for an opening for her own attack. Fear pulsed in her veins, and she used it to move, to strike, her feet dancing in the steps she had been taught, her arms up and her shoulders relaxed, her grip tight, and she fought with all she had against the knight that scared her more than any other.
You have never been a slave, Liz. Not now, and not then.
She thrusted her sword upwards and twisted, and Fay ducked to the side just in time. "Where did you learn that?" she demanded, stumbling back to gain her balance.
"I'm a Holy Knight of Danafor," Liz laughed.
Fay's face twisted into an angry snarl, throwing her weapon out. There was a small burst of light from the end, and Liz knew suddenly that she had no time.
She pushed the king out of the way as it hit, the force of the devastating energy sending her skidding across the floor of the ruined throne room, her body tumbling until she slid to a stop. Liz gave a groan and lifted her head, her vision going blurry as another light appeared on the end of the lance.
Then he was there, again, her ears ringing and her eyes watering, her throat and her skin on fire, the cuts on her body screaming, but alive, and she watched as Meliodas swiped an arc with the dragon piece in his hand. The light bounced backwards, the room going white, and as Liz slowly closed her eyes, the last thing she heard was his voice calling her name, and the last thing saw were not green eyes, but black, with a mark of black ink swirling across his face.
Chapter Eight: Moving Forward
Everything was white. Why was everything so white? Liz had thought dying would be darker than this.
"Elizabeth, get up."
Who was saying that? She hadn't been called Elizabeth in…
Elizabeth, you're late. Elizabeth, your shoes are untied. Elizabeth, your hair is—
A hand smacks across her face.
Don't talk back, Elizabeth. Stand up straight, Elizabeth. Don't you dare—
Another smack, harder.
Give me that bread! You little bitch when I get my hands on—
A switch this time, across her arm, then across her shoulder.
Heads up, eyes forward! No one will buy you if you don't—
A kick lands on her ear, her elbows and knees aching from the hard ground.
Make it again, Elizabeth. Mop it again, Elizabeth. This isn't good enough yet—
A hand grabs her hair, twisting the long locks that hang to her waist.
Elizabeth, they said? So pretty for a pretty girl. I've never seen such pretty hair—
Sharp, hot agony across her face, leaving her blind in her screams.
Don't you ever think to refuse me again girl—
A punch, a kick, the flat of a sword across her back.
None of you are sleeping tonight until you get this right! Shields up—
Liz jolted, and found herself frozen. It was still bright, too bright too white, but she was awake, the nightmares shouting even as they began to fade. She tried to sit up, roll over even, and found it was impossible. Everything just… hurt.
Voices drifted over. "Has she woken up at all?"
"No, but she is healing faster than we expected."
Were they talking about her? Help me, she tried to whisper, but not even her lips would move.
"Liz has always been a good healer."
It was his voice, his voice, with the talking bird and the onion soup and the green eyes. The black eyes. The vision of that swirling ink down the side of his face swam in the whiteout. Who was he? Who was he?
She must have fallen asleep again, because the voices came back. They swirled in their descent into her conscious mind.
"Elizabeth, you wicked child. I'll show you what happens to little girls who don't show respect."
That was Auntie Ruth, who watched over her group in the orphanage. She knew her hands better than she knew her face. Eyes down, back straight, bed made, hair combed. It was simple and brutal and empty.
"All of you are here for one reason only: to make me money. You don't want to be the last one sold today."
That was Mardovan, the slave trader who took her and some of her sisters from the orphanage. Aunt Ruth had said they were finally going to be of some use. She tried her best to be pleasing, pulling her pink hair down from its bun, showing off the thick layers. Her eyes were bright and blue as they stared over the crowds walking by to inspect the merchandise.
"Never worked a day in your life, have you? You'll work here if you want to eat. Now move."
Madame Willa, the cook, did not like her and worked her hard. In the end, however, the kitchen wasn't the worst place to end up. At least she could sneak some scraps when possible. She was kept to the cleaning but picked up a few cooking lessons through careful observation.
"Elizabeth, is it? What a beautiful name."
Her obedience was noticed by the master's son. She was chosen to serve upstairs, under the careful eyes of the masters. He would smile at her when no one was looking. One time he caught her in the hallway alone, and pulled her into a room. She was pressed face-forward against the door, and after he untied her long hair from its braid he lifted her skirt.
"Look me in the eye and say that again."
Only once she had refused, the exact request he had made hazy because of what had happened next. That day was never clear again in her memory, as dim and blurry as the sight in her right eye. What she could remember was blinding white, just like now; it's how she knew she wasn't dying. And it wasn't just the pain and the injury of that day that stuck out; something else had happened, because once she felt his fingers he had fallen to the floor.
"Let's see what you got. If you fail, you go back. It's that simple."
She would not fail, she would not, she would not. For once she was grateful for the scrappy squabbles of her childhood, the slaves looking to torment the rest as they waited, the exacting perfection of the cook's standards. She was good at fighting, good at learning, good at being a soldier. Her uniform was clean and her bed was made and her salute was practiced until perfection.
"Bitch thinks she's something special, but you're just a slave. Gonna remind you of that."
How foolish to think that passing the ability tests and making it into the army would shield her from these things. The army was as difficult as the house, the free knights as unforgiving as the masters, and nothing, not her clothes or her weapons or even her own body, her own thoughts, belonged to her.
"You've done well, soldier. You're being put in as leader in the next assault. What is your name?"
In the weeks following her acceptance into the army, she had chopped off her hair to make it harder to grab, bound her breasts, kept her head down and a scowl on her face, holding everyone at a distance. It was too risky to be anything else. She even abandoned her name, the one that was shrieked at the orphanage and shouted in the trading hall and came out as a sickening grunt in the master's room.
"Liz," she said, and opened her eyes.
She was shaking, sweating, and Liz sucked in one tremulous breath after another. But the more she gained her bearings, the more the effects of the nightmare faded, so she focused on her surroundings. The ceiling was familiar, the pillows under her head and the cover pulled over her ones she had come to know well in the past week. She blinked, surprised at how relieved she felt. Not at being alive; if anything, the aching in her joints and the pounding in her head told her she would be feeling worse before she was better. No, the relief was to be here, in the bedroom that was nearly her own, in the house she had come to want and had left behind in a fit of regret.
"Hey, you're awake!"
The voice was so familiar and friendly she turned instinctively towards it. Meliodas was sitting there, next to the bed, his elbows propped up on the coverlet and a grin across his face. Her chest felt full at the sight. "How are you feeling?"
"Awful," she croaked. Slowly Liz pushed up on her elbows, and at once he was there, helping her to sit up. The movement made her muscles groan and her head throb. "How long was I out?"
"Almost two days." He must have noticed her wince, because he hurried on, "You didn't miss much though. Pase has retreated, the kingdom is secure, and His Royal Ass himself saved and fine, all thanks to you."
Liz huffed out what was not quite a laugh. "I don't think getting blasted off my feet was the thing that saved the day." Tentatively she ran her hands down her torso, as if checking to see if she was whole. "I survived though, I guess that's something."
Meliodas chuckled. He sat on the edge of the bed and offered her a glass of water. Her mouth and throat suddenly dry, she took it eagerly, sipping slowly and deeply. "Two days," she sighed when she was finished.
He took the glass from her, and when he turned to place it on the bedside table she noticed the dragon artifact strapped to his back. "You have that… thing," she commented.
"Yup." He lifted a hand and gave the top a pat. "I insisted on holding onto it. Safer with me than in the castle, and definitely safer than up the king's ass."
"But what is it?" she asked.
Meliodas stood. "Enough questions for now. I'll explain everything later, but you need rest."
Liz opened her mouth to protest, but instead a huge yawn came out. Meliodas simply laughed and pulled the cover up a bit. Begrudgingly she slipped down a bit to rest back on the pillows, looking up at his face hovering over hers, just an inch or two away.
"I'm glad you're back," he whispered. Then he placed a soft kiss on her cheek before leaving the room, pulling the door closed softly behind him.
The place where he had kissed her felt like a burn, and she stared at the wood of the door in the silence, her mind blank.
The next time Liz opened her eyes, the room was darker. The light coming through the window signalled that it was evening.
She was too warm under the blanket, her stomach churning a bit with a mixture of hunger and something else. Kicking off the cover, she carefully sat up. With one hand she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, her skin feeling tight and uncomfortable.
Liz had been dreaming, some kind of nightmare about the dragon artifact. Its ruby eyes had been staring at her, and Meliodas stood facing away from her, not speaking. She would call to him, and finally reached out to grab him; but she touched the dragon instead, and flames came out of its mouth to travel up her arm.
She rubbed her arm then, glad to see it free of blemishes, because the heat and the pain had felt very, very real. The dream spun above her head even as it faded, but she remembered when she had screamed Meliodas had finally turned around.
That is what had scared her, that moment. His eyes were not green, but black; circles of emptiness that held nothing. The darkness was bleeding over his skin, into a circular mark that fanned over his temple.
A knock at the door pulled her attention away, and the dream snuffed out of her consciousness like a candle. "Yes?" she called, still rubbing her arm as the doorknob turned.
"I thought you'd be hungry," Meliodas said as he entered with a tray, and behind him swooped in Wandle, shrieking excitedly as he flew in circles around the room.
"Relax!" chastised Meliodas, and the bird squawked a few choice words in response. He set the tray on her lap as she positioned herself back. "I'll get rid of him, just a minute."
"No, let him stay," she laughed, and almost immediately Wandle landed on the bed next to her.
She reached out a hand and ruffled the feathers on his head, and Wandle tilted his head back and gave a screech. "I'm so glad you're back!" he cried, hopping up and down on the bed, nipping at her fingers in what she assumed was a bird version of a kiss.
"I am too," she said quietly. Then she snatched the bird up in the crook of her arm, giving him a gentle squeeze. "I'm so sorry for the things I said," she whispered to him.
"Me too," he chirped back, giving her cheek a nip with his beak.
Meliodas did not say a word, simply arranging her napkin and pouring more water before lifting the cover on the tray. She looked at the steaming bowl of soup and the small loaf of bread, her stomach leaping to life at the delicious smell. But Liz eyed him suspiciously, and when Meliodas caught her look he laughed. "Don't worry, I didn't make it," he muttered, and with that assurance she eagerly dug into the food.
He pulled over a chair and sat next to the bed, watching for a minute while she ate. "Everyone is glad to know you're okay," he finally said.
Liz swallowed and looked over at him. "What do you mean?"
"The other knights, they have been asking after you. And the king sent someone here earlier to take in a report. He's very interested in you now that you saved his life."
An expected twist in her chest gave her pause. "I didn't—I mean, it wasn't really—I didn't even—"
"You stopped those knights in the city, and figured out what the enemy wanted, and stopped Fay's attack from killing the king." Her face heated as he grinned at her. "Yup, he's interested in you alright."
Liz snatched up her water and took a sip, unused to such praise. "Does that mean no one is going to try to kill me now?" she asked sarcastically.
"Yup," he answered. "You've been made a fully ranked Holy Knight, in fact. Cain sponsored the ask, and of course I agreed. When you're up and about we'll do the full knighting and all."
She nodded and looked down at her hands. There was a silence as she tried to figure out what to say, before Meliodas went on, "Of course, only if you want to, unless you still want to go—"
"No!" Her eyes snapped up to meet his. "I… thank you."
Meliodas winked at her, then reached over and pulled off a hunk of bread. He popped it into his mouth as Wandle jumped out of her arms, flapping his wings furiously at him. "That's Liz's dinner!" cried the bird.
"I'm done anyway," she laughed.
"See?" Meliodas joked, and then moved the tray from her lap. But Liz reached out and put her hand on his arm, and the blonde froze and looked at her, confusion plain across his face. "Will you tell me about… that?" she asked, her eyes darting to the dragon.
The corner of his mouth twitched. "I guess it's time for some answers? But only if you promise to give some of your own."
Eagerly Liz nodded. He picked up the tray and placed it next to the door. The room was darker now, so he lit the lamp, keeping the flame low. She sat up straighter and tucked her legs underneath her, and Meliodas climbed up to sit on the bed, facing her. He pulled the dragon from his back and laid it across his thighs. Wandle jumped into her lap, and both of them leaned closer to inspect.
"Have you heard of why Danafor was founded?" he asked, and Liz shook her head. "Have you heard about the Holy War, from three thousand years ago?"
"The… Holy War?" she asked. "With the goddesses and the demons and all that?"
She wanted to laugh, but something in his expression made her uncomfortable. "Yeah, all that," he said. "The demon clan was sealed away at the end to stop any more destruction. They were bound by a… talisman, I guess we could call it. It was broken into pieces and sent to different parts of Britannia."
"This is one of them?" asked Liz, confused. Her desire to examine the dragon closely vanished at the idea.
"Yeah," said Meliodas simply. "Danafor, Camelot, Liones, Marakia, Castellio. All of them were founded to protect a piece. But it's been a long time, so most people have forgotten."
Liz frowned. "But how did you know? How did you know what this was?"
His mouth twitched. "I have a friend who does a lot of… research, you could say. She's been keeping track of these legends. Once I saw the shape I remembered what she had told me."
Their gazes met, and he smiled. As Meliodas replaced the dragon piece on his back, Liz blurted out, "I was a slave in Pase." He raised a brow at her, and she chuckled. "Yes, I know you know, but I wanted to say it too." She took a deep breath, the distant memories her dreams had stirred pricking at her skin. "I don't know who my parents were. I grew up in a home for children, and when I was old enough to work sold to a kitchen in a wealthy man's house."
Wandle bopped his head on her hand. "That must have been hard," he said sadly.
"It was," she told him. Liz kept her focus on the bird, suddenly nervous to see Meliodas' expression. "I worked hard, though, and had a bed and food and it could have been worse. A lot worse." She brushed her fingertips through his feathers. "Something… happened, and I had this power to paralyze. So when it came time for the army to accept slaves as Holy Knight recruits, I was sold again."
Liz finally dared to look at Meliodas, but he was looking towards the window, his expression blank. "You were right, before. I joined because I had to, but when I was made an officer I had a chance to work off my freedom. That's why I was here."
She held her breath for his reaction, letting it go slowly as he nodded. "I'm glad you told me," he said, and then turned and smiled. "Are we ready for bed then?"
Liz nodded, and Meliodas was up. He scooped up the tray and called "Be right back," over his shoulder before disappearing from the room.
"He was worried about you," Wandle said.
She nodded, giving him another scratch. "Are you going to stay with us?" he asked.
"Do you think I should?" Liz wondered.
"He's a lot happier with you around," answered the bird. Meliodas appeared at the doorway, and Wandle flew out of the room.
Meliodas doused the lamp, and once the room was dark again Liz settled once more onto the bed. She listened as he moved around the room, feeling strangely relieved when he took his usual place on the floor. In all the days she had been staying with him, Meliodas had never once tried to get into the bed after that first night she had flipped him over.
"Are you okay down there?" she asked quietly.
"I'm fine," he answered. "I'm getting used to it. Might give up beds permanently." She laughed to herself as he went on, "I can look into getting another one, and put it downstairs. That way you can have this room all to yourself."
She wanted to ask why, wondering why he assumed she would stay in this house with him. But it seemed foolish to ask, knowing she was staying anyway. But there was something else on her mind, so Liz whispered, "Meliodas?"
"When we were fighting, in the throne room, and I was hurt, I saw you… And there was something different about you. Your eyes were dark, and there was… I don't know what it was, actually." He did not respond, so she went on, "I could have imagined it, I mean, I was hurt and going unconscious. It was probably my mind playing tricks on me."
There was a pause, and then Meliodas said, "You didn't imagine it."
Liz sucked in a little breath, surprised at his honesty. "What did it mean?"
"It's something I'm not proud of," he answered slowly. "Is it all right if I… leave it at that? For now?"
She murmured her agreement, and they went quiet again. For the first time since the day Meliodas had brought her here, she felt out of place, like she was intruding on him and his life. Her cheeks felt warm and her fingers clutched the blanket as she listened to him breathing.
Two days later Liz was able to get out of bed, for which she was more than glad. Having Meliodas hover over her was as exhausting as training, and she would have gladly run up and down the watchtower steps again than to have to listen to him and Wandle fight over bringing her tea. She had decided to get out of the house no matter how she felt, and was excited to feel enough strength in her limbs to get washed, dressed, and down the steps.
After a breakfast of fruit and bread, Liz begged for some fresh air, so they decided to walk to the Holy Knight's command. It was a beautiful day, and to her shock, people waved to her on the street, calling hello, one vendor even stopping her to press a bag of hazelnuts into her hands. "I heard you liked these," she had said with a wink, and when Liz looked at Meliodas in confusion, he only shrugged. "Lots of rumors about you still," he guessed.
They munched as the walk continued, but once they reached the grounds a nervous pit formed in her stomach. But if it was possible, the Holy Knights were even more welcoming, coming up to introduce themselves and say hello to the Grand Master, asking her questions about herself and giving their impressions of her actions and offering everything from lunch to practice to tours of the kingdom. Liz was overwhelmed by it all, but Meliodas would fill in with his easy demeanor, taking much of the pressure off.
When she saw Cain, however, he looked at her with such menace that for a moment she was afraid. "Meliodas?" she choked as the old man stalked towards her, her eyes going wide when she saw the deep scowl on his face.
He pulled up short an inch away, and the two stared at one another; then the old knight shouted, "You idiot! What did I tell you about relying on that pathetic magic of yours? You could have been killed and then I would have never gotten another 'prentice again!"
"I'm… sorry?" she stammered, peeking at Meliodas out of the corner of her eye. But the blonde was suddenly very interested in a spot on his tunic, and no help to her at all.
"Hmph. Maybe next time Danafor is invaded you'll try not to take so much glory you almost die again, huh?"
Liz frowned. "I didn't—"
"And don't think I didn't hear about that sloppy sword work. You're doing double drills starting next week, girl."
"Hey, I saved the—"
"Like that means nothin'!" he roared. Cain's face was very puffy and red, his long mustache practically standing on end. She glared at him as he glared back; but then, to her surprise, he reached up and patted her arm before turning and stomping away. "Monday at dawn!" he shouted over his shoulder.
Liz laughed and shook her head, glancing at Meliodas. "I don't think I can ever please him," she sighed.
The next week was very busy, as she was summoned to the king, who gave a very awkward speech about her bravery. Liz stood very stoically as he presented her with a new sword in thanks, remembering the things he had said about his own life being more important than those of the citizens, and how very foolish and childish he had acted when they first arrived. Afterwards Meliodas took her to the tavern to celebrate, where she proceeded to drink many of the other knights under the table; but no one could hold a candle to Meliodas.
She leaned on him heavily as they walked home. Her mind was only slightly groggy from the ale, but her body felt like lead, for once glad about the arm that held her easily by the waist. "That was fun," she laughed after waving goodbye to the others.
Meliodas turned them down the street that would lead them to his house. Their house, she thought. "Hey Meliodas," she murmured.
"How come you aren't married?"
Meliodas snorted. "Because I was waiting for you."
Liz threw back her head and laughed, swatting him hard when he pinched her backside. "No, really!" she laughed. "I mean, you're the Grand Master, right?"
"And you are nice."
"You're handsome, even though you're too short."
"You have a talking bird."
"Well, he's not really mine—"
"And a house!"
Meliodas stopped to look up at her. "Are these supposed to be my good qualities?"
"Good enough to get a wife!" she declared. Liz pulled away from his grip. "So why, then? Haven't you ever loved someone?"
His smile was devilish. "Yeah, I have actually."
The way he looked her then, easy to see in the moonlight, made her nervous, so Liz grabbed his arm and tucked her own through it. "I'm gonna find you a wife!" she declared to the night as they continued walking.
"That's really not necessary," he laughed. "Besides, if you find me a wife, I'll have to find you a husband."
That gave her pause, and they walked the rest of the way in silence. Liz rolled the idea over and over in her mind. Now that she was a free citizen, she could, she supposed. She tried to imagine what it would be like, having a man kiss her hand, whisper sweet words in her ear, be gentle and give her flowers and make her laugh. It was as alarming as it was thrilling, wondering what it would feel like to receive instead of give, to be asked instead of taken. She pictured herself in a white dress, waiting to hear the words, and when he lifted the veil hanging over her face…
"Here we are!" Meliodas announced. He led her into the house, taking her cloak and hanging it up, calling a greeting to Wandle as he went to light the lamps.
Liz was frozen by the door, and when he finally noticed Meliodas frowned. "You okay? Come sit."
Thankfully her legs moved forward, and when she sat in her chair, she turned and looked at him seriously. "Meliodas, I can't get married," she said.
He froze halfway down into a sitting position himself, and then shook himself and laughed. "Don't be silly, of course you can, if you want to," he answered.
"No, I can't. It wouldn't be fair."
Her face was on fire from her confession; but she was completely sober now, and feeling as though this must be said. "It wouldn't—I don't want to have this—this false hope. And it's fine, I'm okay with it. But I—I don't want you to think—"
"Liz." Meliodas leaned forward, worry etched on his face. "What are you trying to say?"
What was she trying to say? Nervously she twisted her hands together. "I don't know where I came from," she hurried on. "I don't know who my parents are, I don't know anything about myself. I don't even know if Elizabeth is my real name."
She noticed him flinch at that, and she nodded her head. "Yes, my name is Elizabeth. I shortened it to Liz because, well, I needed to be less… It was hard, in the army, to have such a feminine name, and I cut my hair and tried not to be so…"
"Liz," he murmured again, but she shook her head. "No, no, you need to—I need to—" Her shoulders heaved with a deep breath. "For slaves, we—I had to follow orders. Even before the army, in the master's house, and there were times he—" Her heart was pounding, and she wanted to crawl into a hole as she watched his eyes go wider and wider, but Liz pressed on, needing to do this. "I just don't think anyone would want me after I've—there's a lot you don't know about me, Meliodas, a lot of things I've done and—"
His hands were on her thighs, pressing reassuringly, and she jumped at the feeling. Liz blinked back tears she hadn't realized were brewing on the edges of her vision. Meliodas looked up at her from where he knelt on the floor, and slowly he rubbed up and down her legs, calming her. "It's okay," he whispered. "I don't care about all that."
"I said no, once," she said. "And…" Her voice trailed off, suddenly at a loss for words, so instead of explaining, she lifted the bangs that fell over the right side of her face.
Her eyes squeezed shut, not wanting to see him look over the scar that stood out on her skin still after so many years, or the milky color that swam in her right eye. She braced herself, waiting to hear a gasp or a curse or a shout, to even feel him shudder in disgust.
Instead, there was no word or sound or movement. Slowly she dropped the bangs back over her eye.
"Who was it?" he finally asked, quietly, his hands still and heavy on her thighs. The soothing calmness of his voice allowed her to answer.
"The master's son, I don't remember what he asked me to do, the whole day is just… but I said no, I remember that, and the next thing I knew he was on the floor, unable to move. When the master found out, he hurt me and demanded to know what I had done to his son, but I didn't know, then. I didn't know whathad happened. So he took me back to the slave trader, and when he told me to look him in the eye and say it again, I did."
She was shaking, then, her entire body trembling as she remembered the disgust on the master's face, followed by a fury she had never seen before from the slaver. There was a knife in his hand, and Liz sucked in a deep breath.
"What was his name?"
Her eyes flew open then in surprise. Meliodas' face was in shadow, but his eyes were bright and green, and Liz could have melted in happiness. "Mardovan," she answered. "He is a trader in the capital, Dolan."
Meliodas nodded, and then did something that left her utterly speechless: he leaned up and cupped her face before kissing her forehead, directly over her right eye.
Liz paced back and forth across the floor nervously, wringing her hands and muttering curses under her breath. "Where is he? Where?" she asked anxiously, no one there to answer.
She had sent Wandle out to look again, even though there had been no sign of Meliodas for three days. It wasn't like him to just go off and not say something. Not even his generals knew where he had gone, just a murmur about a mission he was taking, but no one knew exactly what.
Liz had been in Danafor now for three weeks. It was exactly thirteen days since she had saved the king's life, changing her own. She had taken her oaths as a Holy Knight, had resumed her training with Cain, and was now living a free citizen as she had always wanted.
Not to mention, still living with Meliodas. He never asked her to leave, and she never asked if he wanted her to, and in the days that went by they had fallen into a weird partnership that would have been, to the outside observer, somewhat spousal. That was a joke in of itself; she had no feelings towards Meliodas, and other than his stupid game of trying to grope her, he showed no signs of being interested in her either. He still slept on the floor at her insistence, and other than the night she had showed him her scar, there was hardly any moments she would consider tender between them.
But now he was gone, missing, and Liz was worried. So when the door opened and he stepped inside with a grin, she flew across the room to grab his collar with one hand and slam the door shut with the other. "Where the hell have you been?" she shouted, shaking him. "No one has seen you for days!"
Meliodas looked her over, and Liz became very aware of her unusually disheveled state; another reason to hate him in that moment. "I was on a mission. I'm the Grand Master."
"I know that, you ass." She tightened her grip as she gritted her teeth. "But no one knew where you were." Finally she let him go, folding her arms so she wouldn't clobber him. "How could you just leave without a word?"
"Awww, were you worried about me?" He reached out to squeeze her, and in her fury she snatched his wrists, ready to take his arm right off; but the sight of red splotches on his arms stopped her. "Is this blood?" she asked, her voice twisted.
Meliodas shrugged her off and moved into the kitchen, joking about something, and she heard the water start to run. But Liz only half-listened in her confusion. What mission would he go on, by himself, that would leave his hands bloody?
"Hey, do you want some tea?"
She heaved a sigh, knowing this was going to be a pain to get a straight answer out of him. Liz bent over to pick up the cloak he had dropped on the floor, getting angry at that as well, and snapped, "Tea? You want tea, and you… won't…"
Her eyes landed on something that had fallen on the floor. The size and the color and the shape of the paper was unmistakable, and her heart was instantly pierced with a sharp knife of ice. Her breath came in short gasps, and with trembling fingers she bent to pick it up.
Revulsion at holding a ticket from the slave market left her reeling, her stomach dropping to the floor and leaving her light-headed. It was too much to think about, so many questions, why was he there, and slowly she looked up to find him staring at her.
"It's not what you think," he said slowly.
"Is this—from Pase?" Her hand shook so hard the cloak slipped from her grasp to pool on the floor. "You went to Dolan? Was this your mission?"
Meliodas simply stared back at her, his face that same damn unreadable expression. Finally he walked towards her, and reaching out he gently took the ticket from her hand. "Yes, I was there," he murmured. "I needed to take care of something."
He was there? In Dolan? Where she had lived, where she had—
She gasped in a breath. "Take care of something?"
But there was only one reason to go to Dolan. Only one reason to have that ticket.
Her mind was so numb, the fear of what that meant and the betrayal from him so deep at that moment, that all she could do was watch as he walked over to the fireplace. He went there, he went there, and her eyes never left the ticket in his hand, not until he began tearing it into pieces before tossing it into the fire. "There," he said finally before giving her a small smile. "I'll spare you the details, but there is a slave trader there that won't be in business any longer."
Liz stared, her mouth dropping open in shock. It was too much all at once, the weight of his words and his actions and what it all meant slamming into her from every side. Then, suddenly, it was as if something shattered. The fear and the humiliation and the pain, the memories of then and the horrors she had imagined tonight, the rejection and denials, simply broke apart, leaving her released from it all. Leaving only Meliodas, smiling at her with a very tired smile.
Before she knew it she was moving, stopping just a breadth away from him, and the green eyes held something she could barely name. So she reached up and cupped his face, just as he had that night when she had shown him the scar, and then pressed her mouth to his.
It lasted just a moment, but any more and she knew she would have splintered herself; instead, she pulled back and whispered against his lips, "Thank you."
"Come on, you owe me breakfast," he smiled.
Liz laughed, nodding, knowing she owed him more than that. She opened her mouth to tell him what this meant, to try to make him understand how much all of this meant to her, but before she could get a word out he smacked her playfully on the backside.
That night, as Meliodas turned down the lamps as he did every night, Liz said, "Meliodas?"
"Come to bed."
She sensed him stop mid-stride, and to her relief he did not say anything. He simply picked up his pillows from the floor and tossed them onto the mattress, heading towards the window to pull the curtains closed.
Liz watched him, and then her eyes fell to the pillows. She was filled with a sudden nervousness, but she knew this was the right thing to do. He had risked his position and his life to deliver payback on someone who had hurt her; the least she could do was let him sleep in his own bed.
But it was nerve-wracking all the same, so as he finished undressing she stuffed the extra pillows in between them. It was foolish of her, she knew, as if that barrier would stop him if he wanted her. Plus, it was a silly gesture; even if he did want her, he wouldn't ever do that. Not Meliodas.
He didn't comment on the barrier either as he climbed into the bed, so she left it as a bit of security, a wall to defend the very mixed feelings dancing inside of her. The room was quiet as she listened to his breathing, now so startlingly close, but not unwanted.
The fear that had lived inside of her for so long was gone, and it had left her heart empty. His smile and his presence had easily filled it with affection and contentment. But a bit of uneasiness had also settled in, tinged with a sourness as she wondered what exactly her confession had made him do.
"Meliodas?" she finally whispered.
"Hm?" he whispered back.
Liz swallowed. "Did you really go to Dolan?"
She nodded, glad to hear it again. "Did you kill him?" she asked.
There was a tiny pause before Meliodas responded, "No."
For some reason, Liz was glad about that too, although she did not understand why. "Did you hurt him?"
The uneasiness lifted, and now all Liz could feel was relief. Meliodas' presence was warm and reassuring beside her, and for the first time in her entire life, Liz slept soundly.
There you have it, the conclusion of this story, which actually started months ago when I wrote The Night Market. Those of you who have read that oneshot will recognize the end of this fic. As soon as I was finished writing that one I knew I wanted to write this one, and end it in the same way.
Endings are so bittersweet, and I am very proud to have shared this with all of you. I must give another very heartfelt thank you to EJR Horselady for encouraging me to write this fic and providing me valuable feedback, particularly with the final chapters. I am indebted to your kindness.
If you're a fan of Meliodas and Liz, I do have a couple of things brewing on the horizon. Meanwhile I have already begun my next pieces, so you will be seeing more from me soon. Thank you so much for reading, and please feel free to let me know what you thought!