Jyl Lafli wasn’t supposed to have a Pact Spirit. She knew that. Her family knew that. Everyone who’d ever met her knew that.
The Lafli family were minor nobles, more honored army captains than true nobility. As such, they were entitled to bear arms for the crown and rely on the crown’s funds to support them in a lifestyle which would be considered lavish for a peasant but only barely adequate for true nobility.
Families like the Lafli’s weren’t uncommon in Gallagrin. Between the threats of border fighting that had gone on since the formation of Gallagrin and the various non-sapient monsters that lurked within the dark corners of the kingdom there was always the need for a plentiful supply of soldiers and skilled captains. Good fighters could demand high pay for the work they did but Gallagrin found it useful to offset some of that expense with the social prestige and privilege that came with a noble title.
The Lafli’s had been as pleased with the arrangement as any other family. There were things which gold alone could not buy one access too after all, and like many of the lesser families the Lafli’s had seen their title as the stepping stone to consolidation with a larger, more influential family through marriage or treaty.
Those dreams had come crashing to earth with the coronation of Alari, the Red Handed Queen because, like many others, the Lafli’s had aligned themselves with the wrong faction in the civil war.
In their defense, in the early days of Alari’s revolt against her father, her cause had seemed like a dangerous gamble at best. King Sathe held ancient power at his fingertips both in the Pact Spirit of Gallagrin and in the defense of Highcrest. Those advantages were layered on top of a strong reserve of Royal troops and the armies of many of the country’s noble houses. Viewed with a coldly analytical eye, the Lafli’s could be forgiven for siding with the known power of the legitimately crowned King of Gallagrin.
And so they were. One of Alari’s first acts as Queen was a review of those who had sided with her father during the war. Most of her enemies were granted pardons or forgiven their misplaced loyalties. Alari had inherited a realm divided and painted in deep shades of kin-shed blood. Healing the wounds that she had helped cause, and lancing out the truly depraved malignancies that had grown in the course of her father’s reign had been the focus of Alari’s early years as queen.
It was work that ongoing as well, though some forgivenesses came slower than others.
In Jyl’s case, the Lafli family had been reinstated to their traditional position, but requests for new Pact Spirits had been stonewalled. There were fewer available in the wake of the war when so many had geared up for combat. Those men and women who’d taken on full or partial pact bindings had settled into quieter lives, but the spirits they were bound to were with them for the rest of their lives.
Neither Jyl nor her twin sister Jain were even interviewed to become Pact Warriors. As scions of a lesser house, they would have normally held the right to compete for a full Pact Spirit binding. The families who had allied with Princess Alari in the civil war were given priority though and in the time of shortage that meant few of those who didn’t stand with her were granted the opportunity to advance.
Jyl had looked at her position and seen that she was destined to be part of a generation which fell behind. It wasn’t fair, but she’d also seen, even as a young girl, what life under the Butcher King had been like. From the partial understanding she had as a child and the stories she collected as an adult, she couldn’t fault the Queen for her actions. Gallagrin had been injured by the civil war. There were great pains which the country was in the process of healing, and that healing had come at great price, both to Gallagrin and to Jyl’s family, but it had been worth it.
That wasn’t a popular opinion to hold in the Lafli family. Jyl’s two eldest uncles and six of her cousins had perished in the war. Jyl didn’t see that as Queen Alari’s fault. It had been her grandfather’s decision to openly support King Sathe in an attempt to wedge the family deeper into the King’s good graces.
Once upon a time, she’d hated her grandfather for that decision. That had been an easy path to take when her mother returned home from the first campaign of the war with horror stories of the manner in which the King’s forces were made to fight.
Her mother had refused to return to battle and had been disowned from the family for cowardice but in Jyl’s eyes no braver woman had ever lived.
That was why she’d refused to give up when she grew old enough to call for a pact bonding.
The noble families of Gallagrin held the runic stones on which were inscribed the true names of the Pact Spirits that were passed down from generation to generation. Those were not the only Pact Spirits one could call upon though. When the Sleeping Gods walked the earth they crafted many spirits and set them to many tasks. Once those tasks were completed, the spirits either returned to the god who formed them, or fell into a slumber of their own, usually within something they were invested in.
With no ancestral Pact Spirit to call her own, Jyl had been required to forge her destiny and seek out one on her own. All the work that had gone into that though, all the trials she’d overcome and in the end she’d failed anyways.
“You didn’t fail,” Daelynne Akorli said, throwing a dry towel to the small, sweat covered girl.
“I didn’t make it to the top,” Jyl said, wiping her face dry and uttering a silent prayer that her workout had left her flushed. Standing before the Queen’s Knight, the daughter of the Lafli family felt every bit as insignificant as she’d ever imagined herself to be. Being able to hide her embarrassment behind her labored breathing was an unexpected mercy on a trip that had seen her hopes crushed under the weight of her own inadequacy.
“The test wasn’t to get to the top of the mountain,” the Queen’s Knight said. “I was looking for something else there. Can you tell me what that was?”
Jyl hid her face in the towel for a moment to buy herself time to think.
They’d been tasked to climb a mountain without the use of their Pact Spirits. So it was a test of their bodies, rather than their mystical might. Except the Queen’s Knight was saying that she hadn’t failed. So not her body then, which she knew to be woefully unprepared for the task, but perhaps her spirit?
“You wanted to see if we would give up?” Jyl asked.
“I wanted to see a lot of things. That was one of them. What else though?”
Jyl tried to remember the climb. The long, brutal climb. What had it shown about the applicants?
“If we would cheat, if we could take orders,” Jyl said working through the question as she spoke. “You wanted to see how we would approach an obstacle like that. One that we weren’t trained for.”
“Yeah, you didn’t fail at all,” the Queen’s Knight said.
“But I gave up,” Jyl said. “Before the storm.”
“Let’s talk about that. Why were you climbing after the storm?”
“I hadn’t reached the top yet,” Jyl said. “I was hoping if I continued on I wouldn’t be too late, but then you and the others came down first.”
“And why did you turn back?”
“The storm was too close,” Jyl said. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it and I didn’t want anyone to have to risk themselves rescuing me.”
“Flying’s pretty fun too isn’t it?” The Queen’s Knight handed Jyl a canteen filled with a sweet and slightly salty beverage.
“I’m not very good with it,” Jyl said, draining the canteen. She was thirstier than she’d noticed, which wasn’t necessarily a good sign. Checking in with her pact spirit, Jyl saw that her companion was feeding her a slow trickle of magic to ward off the effects of mild dehydration.
“You reached the base camp and didn’t break any bones. Somedays that’s good enough.”
“It’s difficult to practice with,” Jyl said, finding it easier to talk about the intricacies pact magic with the legendary Knight than about personal matters, especially personal failings. “It takes so much magic to power the wings that it’s hard to have any left for control.”
“I can give you some pointers on that,” the Lady Akorli said. “The most basic trick is to use the air around you rather than fight with it.”
“Thank you,” Jyl said. “I’ll probably need to go back to my family in a few days though won’t I?”
“That all depends,” Dae said and took her cloak off. “Want to go a round?”
“With you?” Jyl asked, coughing in surprise.
“Yeah, light sparring,” Dae said. “We don’t have to count points, I’m just curious about something.”
Jyl’s mind went fuzzy for a moment, but her mouth blessedly worked on its own.
“Yes! Certainly!” she said.
The two women stepped into one of the open sparring circles and a crowd began to gather to watch them. This did nothing to alleviate Jyl’s nervousness but at least when she got her butt handed to her no one was going to say it was because she was weak.
All I have to do is last till the end of the round, she told herself, knowing that even a simple action like that would win her back the respect that her trick on the mountain had cost her.
“When you’re ready,” Dae said and in the blink of an eye the Queen’s Knight was garbed in a set of basic grey steel armor, fitting for a senior guardsman perhaps.
Sharply aware that she had to make the most of the time given to her, Jyl followed suit and transformed in a blink into the strongest, fastest armor she could conjure forth.
Dae offered a cheerful salute, and assumed a basic ready stance with her sword held in front of her.
Jyl knew an instructor’s invitation to begin a battle when she saw one. She’d trained too long in various fighting arts under her mother’s tutelage to miss either the opening that was provided or the various traps for the unwary who tried for too aggressive an offense.
When she was a young girl, Jyl had tried any number of wild and unpredictable openings but time and experience had taught her that, against a more experienced foe, wild opening attacks translated to wildly unpredictable gaps in her defense which her foe was better able to see than she was.
Her initial attack therefore was a probing series of blows. The first few lacked commitment and served to simply ask how aggressive the Queen’s Knight intended to be. If Dae had answered them with a blistering offense, Jyl was in her best position to fall back and parry any blows that were sent towards her.
Dae’s response was measured though. She had the height and reach advantage on her foe and wasn’t going to be drawn into over committing herself easily.
With every nerve singing with excitement, Jyl stepped up the pace of the battle. Her armor was focused on granting her speed over strength, but she was small enough that even the mild improvement of her physique allowed her to project force that seemed out of place with her stature.
Dae wasn’t fooled by the size disparity though. Any experienced Pact fighter was used to discounting their opponents appearance when it came to evaluating their capabilities. Despite that though, Jyl’s speed did take Dae off guard.
Pressing her advantage, the smaller fighter stepped in quickly and bound Dae’s sword arm in a grapple. Jyl wasn’t able to hold the grapple longer than a second, but that was enough time to get in a long slash across Dae’s back and a stab into the armor of Dae’s upper arm.
Neither attack penetrated Dae’s armor, but Jyl felt wildly ecstatic that she’d managed to land the blows at all.
Her delight turned to terror as she saw that she’d left herself open for a takedown to the floor and that Dae looked to have every intention of driving her into the earth.
Jyl rolled at the last fraction of a second, taking Dae down with her but managing to ensure that they landed on the ground side by side.
A whistle blew, signaling the end of the round and Jyl danced up to her feet breathless and blown away by the struggle. She’d expected to be unconscious, or at least knocked out of the ring and instead she’d landed two blows and escaped a grapple. She wasn’t certain but she thought that if she died that very moment, she’d leave a very happy ghost behind.
Then it got better.
“I was going to offer you a job, but after that display it’s not an offer anymore,” Dae said. “Pack your things, you’re coming to work with me.”