A muffled curse had her looking back. Below her the humans struggled with the climb up the steep rocky slope. The curse came from a young male who, from the sight of him fighting to regain his foothold, apparently was having trouble with the climb. Try as she might, Seella couldn’t stop a tiny grin from lifting her lips. ‘Goat hooves’ are not so bad now, are they? She looked down at her hooves and the grin became a full-blown smile. These same parts of her body that had been derided by many of the men behind her now showed their advantage. Nimbly leaping another few feet up, she turned to look back at the men again; several were having real difficulties. Though a small part of her wanted to gloat and watch her detractors continue to struggle, she descended to where they were to give them a hand. As she reached to help one soldier, another further down the line slipped, this time losing his balance enough to have him begin toppling over the cliff. She instinctively leapt forward, using the added purchase of her hooves to grip the mountain side, and grasped his hand. Pain shot through her leg as a hoof spit from the impact and pressure of holding the man back from certain death. The others scrambled, hanging onto rocks and outcroppings to help pull the soldier back over the edge to safety. After the soldier was secure, Seella sat down and insisted on examining him at least cursorily to make sure he suffered no injuries. A barking order from below has them scrambling again only this time downward; due to the accident, the exercise was cancelled to resume at a later time.
The sound of the familiar voice had her turning quickly, causing the split hoof to flare with pain. “Yes, Wilks?”
“The Grand Marshal wants to see you.”
Seella glanced down at herself. She was dirty from both the climb and the effort to save the man’s life plus her hoof ached abysmally. “May I go change and clean up first?”
Wilks suppressed a grin and shook his head. “He insisted you come immediately.”
Nodding, Seella moved over to him, gritting her teeth at the pain each step caused. “Lead the way.”
He shook his head again. “He wants to see you privately.” His grin returned. “He heard what happened earlier. We all did.” Sobering, he gave her a nod. “That was pretty amazing. Howes would’ve died if not for you.”
The praise brought out a small smile. “It is something soldiers do, yes? Save each other?”
“Yes, it is.” Waving towards the keep, Wilks grinned again. “Since the Grand Marshal doesn’t like to be kept waiting, you’d better hoof it over there.”
She blinked. “I always hoof it wherever I go since I walk on hooves."
Wilks just shook his head again and laughed. “It’s a human expression. It means to move fast. And it was a pun.”
“Ah. Well then I will hoof my way to the Grand Marshal’s office,” she replied, returning his smile. Waving goodbye to him, Seella made her way across the grounds and into the keep. By the time she reached Ace’s office and knocked on the door, her hoof and leg were throbbing.
Unable to walk without limping, Seella moved slower than her normal gait across the room, keeping the change in her stride caused by the injury to a minimum. “You wanted to see me, sir?”
Ace looked up as she entered and watched her walk to his desk, noting the limp. “I’d like your report on exactly what happened during the exercise.” Seella complied, giving him as much as she knew. Watching her as she spoke, Ace saw the pain lines around her eyes and mouth tighten more and more. He raised his hand to silence her. “Where are you hurt?”
“I-I am fine, sir. It is just a scratch.”
“Lying to your mentor isn’t a good thing, Neophyte.” He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’ll ask again. Where are you hurt?”
Chagrinned, Seella waved down to her hooves. “It is a minor injury, sir. I am sure it will be fine.”
Ace rose and walked around his desk, his eyes wandering down to look at the injured hoof. It was apparent she’d performed some healing on it since it wasn’t bleeding but it was just as apparent that the split in the wall was causing her severe pain. Frowning, he looked back up at her. “Why haven’t you gotten that tended?”
“We do not have anyone here that can work with hooves like mine, sir.” Her face flushed crimson. “I do not want to go to the farrier since I am not an an-” she caught herself and adjusted her words, “since he only works with hooves that are like horses have.”
“Who’s called you an animal?”
“No one, sir.” Seella ducked her head, unwilling to cause trouble among the men no matter how they felt about her.
Ace’s eyes narrowed at her obvious omission, but he let it pass. Returning his gaze to her injured hoof, he said, “I was raised on a farm where we had animals that had hooves like your race’s. Your injury was a common enough occurrence that I know how to fix it.”
“You do?” Her surprise was obvious. “But you are the Grand Marshal, sir.”
“I was not always a Grand Marshal, Neophyte.” He smiled at her gently. “Some of us are not born into greatness, but have to earn it through hard work and dedication.”
Seella nodded her head, solemnly. “It comes from devoting your life to something to benefit others more than yourself.”
“Yes, but you must always save some time for yourself. Finding a balance between the two is key. If not, then you will lose focus and then lose yourself.”
“Yes, sir.” Her hoof throbbed with every beat of her heart and try as she might to hide it, pain continued to etch its signature across her face and in her posture.
“Have a seat, Neophyte. Let’s have a look at this hoof.”
Flushing, she took an involuntary step back and winced. “I have already healed it, sir. It will be fine.”
Pointing to the chair behind her, he said in a commanding tone, “Sit.” Seella dropped into the chair quickly, her body reacting to the stern order before her mind processed it. Ace strode to the door and opened it, calling for his lieutenant. They exchanged a few words before Wilks hurried off. Returning, Ace knelt in front of her chair and began removing the greave partially covering the injured hoof.
Seella jumped at the touch of his hands. “Sir, what are you doing?”
A brow arched over his eye as he said matter of factly, “What does it look like, Neophyte? I’m going to fix your hoof.”
“But …” Her face was a combination of shock, consternation, and embarrassment. “But, you’re the Grand Marshal and my mentor. You have more important things to do than to mess with the hoof of a woman who was foolish enough to split it.”
“I am, indeed, a Grand Marshal,” he replied calmly. “One could say that I have more important things to do than fix a woman’s hoof that she injured while saving her fellow soldiers’ lives. It comes back to what you said earlier – devoting time to benefit others.” Before Seella could reply, there was a knock at the door. He gently set her hoof down and rose. “Enter.”
Wilks hurried into the room and set a bucket of warm water and a leather satchel down at Ace’s feet. “He said if there’s anything else you need just send word, sir.”
Nodding, Ace glanced at the materials. “I don’t want to be disturbed, Wilks. Dismissed.” Wilks saluted, then hurried back across the room and closed the door quietly behind him, a grin lifting the corners of his lips as he returned to his desk. Once they were alone again, Ace resumed his position and lifted her leg to gain access to the injured hoof. Seella stared at him, torn between knowing this needed to be done and having a grand marshal do it.
“Sir,” she attempted protesting again.
“We can do this one of two ways, Neophyte.” Ace’s face grew stern, but the corners of his eyes crinkled as he held back a smile. “You can sit still and let me do this, or I can stun you and do it anyway. Your choice.”
Seella drew in a breath, about to protest again, but sighed and nodded instead, defeated. “Yes, sir. I will sit as still as I can, sir.” She opened her mouth to say something again, then changed her mind. “The hoof is … sore, sir.”
Ace studied the crack for a moment. “I would think so. But, it doesn’t look too bad. Should only take a few minutes then you can walk without pain while it finishes healing.” Setting the hoof in the bucket of water, he opened the satchel and pulled out the tools he’d need. Seella watched him as he carefully selected his materials then proceeded to clean and repair her hoof. A shiver ran along her spine and she closed her eyes. Her pulse and breathing rates increased, causing a mental groan. Light, I should have told him.
Noticing the slight changes in her, Ace continued the repairs nonchalantly, but filed the information away for further examination. After he finished and set the soft leather boot over the hoof to protect it, he looked up at her. At some point during the repairs she’d reopened her eyes, eyes that were now wide and dilated as they looked back at him. Flushed cheeks and continued rapid breathing confirmed what he’d been thinking. Rising, he extended a hand to her. “Stand for me, Neophyte Seella. I want to see how well you can walk on it now.” The hand that grasped his trembled, a further indication to him of her current state. Pulling her smoothly to her feet, he placed a firm hand on her upper arm to steady her. Swaying slightly, her partially glazed eyes focused on him, seeing only an attractive man she desired holding her. “How does it feel?” he asked, looking for any signs of pain and ignoring her discomposure. She leaned in, eyes still unfocused and, for a moment, he was sure she was about to kiss him. His eyes searched hers then blinked, and he leaned back, repeating himself. “How does it feel, Neophyte Seella? Is there any pain still?”
“I …” Seella shook her head, trying to clear the thoughts running rampant through her mind. “I … “ She stepped back a pace, running into the chair and beginning to fall back into it.
Ace stepped forward, shifting his grip from her hand to her arm, and caught her before she fell. Easing her down into the chair, his brow creased slightly. “Are you alright?”
“Y-yes,” she stuttered, her mind still struggling to shift from what her body wanted it to do. “I am fine. The hoof … the hoof is feeling better. Thank you, sir.”
“Good. Take it easy for the next few days. No more rock climbing, understood?”
“Yes, sir.” She stood and dropped her eyes, flushing with embarrassment over her actions. “My apologies, sir.”
Raising an eyebrow, he said in a low tone. “Eyes up, Neophyte.” He paused while she complied. “If you can’t see the incoming trials, then you won’t be prepared for them.” When he was sure she caught the double meaning in his words, he smiled and nodded at her. “Dismissed.”
“Yes, sir.” She walked across the room, limp noticeably lessened, then hesitated at the door. “There are ways to care for and repair hooves that do not … elicit reactions if you care to learn them, sir.”
“Then one day you can show them to me.” After she left and closed the door, he walked behind his desk and sat down, placing his head in his hands. Shaking his head as if to clear it, he picked up the piece of parchment waiting for him and began to read.