By Claire Louise Aire All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 31

“Concentrate, Cassie! Stop letting your mind wander.” Cassie ducked wearily as Anna’s fist flew towards her head yet again. Jhi was sitting quietly in a corner, watching with a faint smile on his face. He had been working on Zephyr for three days now and said it would be some time yet before it was ready. Because Jhi was preoccupied with this, Anna had taken over Cassie’s training. Anna was working her hard and Cassie was exhausted but refused to stop or rest for longer than was necessary. So much had happened since that night in the storeroom when she found Zephyr.

The next morning, Cassie had risen early though she had slept badly, waking throughout the night with cramping muscles. Probably a combination of the hard training she’d done with Jhi and the fact that she’d done very little physical activity since arriving in the Mouse Hole.

For the first half of the day, Anna had made Cassie do gentle stretches to help ease her aching body. Cassie didn’t really see the point of this, apart from soothing her muscles. She said as much to Anna who told her there was more to learning to fight and defend than simply how to throw a punch or stick someone with a sword.

Once Cassie was able to move about relatively well without wincing, Anna started on another aspect she had never even considered she would cover while learning to fight – moving quietly. Under Anna’s watchful eye, Cassie felt almost as if she was learning to walk again. There were new ways to stand, to step, to balance her weight in order to walk without making the slightest sound. She began to learn how to watch for weak spots in the floor boards that might creak and give her presence away, or misaligned joins in the wood that could cause her to trip. An error such as this could slow her down, or even stop her escaping if someone was chasing her. Cassie finally discovered why she often missed a step or banged her toes when walking around the Mouse Hole. Much of the amorphous building had been designed by the Rat, including deliberately uneven steps that would catch out anyone unfamiliar with the layout, and alert others nearby that an intruder may be near.

The second day had been spent in much the same way, although this time, instead of just looking out for things that might delay her, Cassie was instructed to look for places to hide. In the afternoon Anna recruited a number of younger Mice to play a game in which they took turns hiding whilst one of the group would search for them. Cassie had played games like this in her youth, but never with this level of skill. Although many of the others were little more than children, they had a wisdom and knowledge beyond their years of the world around them.

The young Mice seemed to notice every tiny movement or stifled breath that allowed them to find someone hiding in the shadows, and slowly Cassie began to learn what to look and listen for too.

Now, they were back to sparring all morning. Anna had hinted that once Cassie could capably do all the individual components they were teaching her, it could all start to blend. Cassie assumed that meant something along the lines of a potentially more violent version of the hiding game. She wasn’t sure if she was excited or anxious.

Without warning, someone burst through the door. Jhi must have heard them coming because he was already moving to stand when the door opened. The sudden flurry of movement caused Cassie’s concentration to break and a split second later she regretted it as Anna’s fist caught her on the cheek. It stung but not enough to cause any serious pain. Anna must have known Cassie wouldn’t be ready and pulled the punch. Her suspicion was confirmed a moment later.

“I told you to keep concentrating. That includes if something, or someone, tries to distract you. You can take note of them, keep one eye on what they are doing, just don’t let it force you to lose sight of what you are doing.”

Cassie smiled ruefully at Anna and they started sparring again as the boy who had just entered began to speak to Jhi. After a few moments’ discussion the boy left again and Jhi motioned for Anna and Cassie to stop.

“He was updating me about the man who attacked you. There’s very little new information but he’s still looking. Clearly his employer doesn’t give up easily. Before he was searching mainly around the area you fled from. He probably figured you would have hurt yourself when you jumped from that window so you wouldn’t have made it too far. Now, he’s had to assume that either someone was hiding you well or you got further away, which of course you did. Despite that, he’s getting no closer to finding you, and nor will he for now. Mice, and our friends throughout the city, have been leading him astray. He spent two days searching the sewers for your body after a woman living in the lower districts swore she saw someone of your description knocked unconscious and dragged away by a pair of petty thieves.”

Cassie let out a sigh, part relief, part from working so hard all morning. It was good to know her attacker was very unlikely to find her here, but at the same time there was no sense taking chances. The others strongly agreed so Jhi returned to his work while Anna and Cassie resumed their sparring.

Later that afternoon Anna announced she thought Cassie was ready to start using Silver. In Cassie’s hands, when she picked it up, it was almost identical to Zephyr although it didn’t have that same feeling of recognition that Zephyr did. The plan, Jhi told her, was to learn how to use it as a hand held weapon first, before learning how to truly dance with it. That’s what he called it, dancing. Cassie smiled to herself when he said this, remembering she’d thought exactly the same thing watching him only a few days before. It was not just the beauty and the grace with which he moved when using Silver, but the way so many of the movements he used had been carefully designed to flow into one another.

Strapping Zephyr’s twin onto her arms Cassie tried repeatedly to trigger the release of the blades and catch the hilts in her hands. Many times she tried and many times she failed, the carefully covered blades shooting past her grasping fingers to thud onto the floor when they reached the end of their tether. After a while, Anna and Jhi departed to leave Cassie to practise on her own. It was time for Anna to return home and Jhi had some errands to run. The way he said ‘errands’ made Cassie think they were probably not regarded as legal by the City Guard, but anyway she suspected very little Jhi did was.

As the sun was setting and the last couple of rays only just lit the room, Cassie caught Silver for the first time. When she did she laughed with excitement. It was such a little achievement, but she was learning to cherish every triumph, no matter how small. She practised it over and over until it grew too dark to see properly and the cold started creeping into the room. She locked the daggers into place in the sheaths on her arms and scanned the room, peering for wherever she had left flint to light the small bundle of wood in the fireplace.

As her glance passed over the open door she froze. A soft glow from a torch down the corridor cast just enough light to reveal a silhouette at the door. It disappeared as soon as Cassie saw it, leaving behind the vague impression of a lithe form and strange yellow eyes. When Jhi returned late in the night she mentioned it to him. He told her not to worry, but wouldn’t speak a word more on the subject.

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