Tales from the Order of the Silver Sword
Updated: Nov 20, 2022
The Shield and the Flame
By C.E. Groom
“You ready, Benny-boy?”
Ben Buckler smirked and stood perfectly still in the center of one of the Silver Circle’s training rooms. His dark eyes were focused on the flickering flames at the tips of Enya Laflam’s fingers as she circled him in her dark gray PT gear.
“Oooh,” she cooed wickedly. “The fierce Pyro was met with brooding silence from the stoic Shield. Or was her opponent’s lack of response a tragic tell, revealing the intense concentration he required as he internally acknowledged how outmatched he was by his attractive yet deadly rival?”
The left corner of Ben’s mouth twitched, and he sent a tiny pulse of energy toward her, just enough to shove her backward half a step. She retaliated with an arrow of flame, which was repelled by Ben’s shimmering shield. Enya always preferred to spar like this, Gift against Gift, and she grinned in mischievous delight as she sent two more fiery blasts toward him. He maintained his barrier to deflect them, and then he used his Gift to seize her ankle in an invisible grip. A tiny tug was all it took to drop Enya onto her rear end.
“Damn it, Ben!” she grunted, rubbing her backside as she got to her feet. “I was just warming up.”
He shrugged. “You know I hate it when you narrate.”
“Yeah, well, I do it to fill your odious vacuum of silence,” Enya clapped back.
Ben shrugged again.
The Pyro gave herself a little shake, the flames returned to her fingertips, and she said, “Fine. Let’s go then. For real.”
Her green eyes seemed to glow with focused intensity, and he nodded once before moving to attack. If she wanted a real fight, he would oblige. An instant later, he was standing behind her, having used his Gift to enhance his speed, but Enya knew him well enough to anticipate his move, and she ignited the floor directly beneath his booted feet. He gave her another tiny Star-fueled shove before stomping out the flames with a whispered curse even as she whirled around to steady herself and shoot another fiery arrow toward his head. Ben ducked and rolled, holding his shimmering shield around him like a cocoon in case she decided to ignite the floor again, which she did, and he sent another pulse toward her stomach, causing her to stagger back with a grunt and giving him enough time to right himself without getting singed. Enya wasted no time in assaulting his shield once more, but his focus had returned to her ankles. Would she never learn to maintain a constantly shifting balance? With a rueful shake of his head, he tugged, harder this time, yanking both feet out from under her. She went down again with enough force to knock the air out of her lungs, and then he kept her pinned to the ground with his barrier.
She stared up at him with a grimace. “Best out of three?” she wheezed.
He allowed his shield to dissipate before reaching his hand down to help her up. She took hold of his fingers and groaned as she stood.
“Damn, Ben, you’ve gotten a lot better in the last few months.”
“Been sparring with Gavin Kingsley. He’s merciless.”
“Yeah, and so are you. You dropped me twice.” She was probably regretting her decision to stow their swords in the locker at the training room entrance, but it had been her idea to work off their pre-mission jitters this way.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
Enya’s red curls bounced around her face as she shook her head. “No more than usual.”
Ben knew from prior experience that she meant that nothing was broken, but she was clearly sore, and she’d likely have several bruises. “Seriously, En, why do you do this to yourself?”
“What do you mean?”
“Spar with me until you’re black and blue?”
It was her turn to shrug, but the movement elicited an unexpected wince.
“Where?” Ben asked in concern. Enya never displayed pain.
She pointed to her right shoulder blade. “Just a twinge. I’ll be fine.”
Undeterred, he stepped behind her and traced the medial edge of her scapula with his finger as he used the Spark to probe the area. He wasn’t a Healer, but he still had a touch of the Healer’s Gift, and he used it now to pinpoint the injury. “It’s just a bruise, nothing serious,” he spoke as he located the subcutaneous bleeding at the edge of the bone.
“Well, I could have told you that.”
Keeping his fingers against her back, he sent a tendril of Healing energy into the damaged tissue, and she drew a sharp breath. He could feel her tense beneath his fingertips as she shook her head.
“You really don’t have to do that. It’s nothing.”
Ben, however, did not withdraw his touch. “I don’t want anything slowing you down when we head into rebel territory.”
“Ah.” Then she laughed. “Wanna heal my bruised butt, too?”
His gaze inadvertently trailed down to land on her rather attractive bottom, and he was immediately thankful that the transfer of psychic energy that came from Healing only traveled in one direction. He didn’t need his longtime friend becoming aware of his shifting feelings toward her right before a mission. That was a complication neither of them could afford right now, not when absolute trust in each other and in their abilities would be essential to their survival. It was better for her not to know the stirrings he had begun to feel whenever he saw her; better for her to be unaware of the way she had entered his dreams of late; better for her to remain oblivious to how attractive he found her and how aroused she made him and how desperately he wanted to kiss her—even at this very moment. Better to hide it.
“And cue the Ben Buckler silence once again.”
“Sorry.” He withdrew his fingers and looked down at the floor. “Anyway, your shoulder should feel better now.”
She shrugged experimentally and replied, “Too bad Dual Gift Classes aren’t allowed by the Order, because a Shield-Healer would be a pretty sweet combination.”
Ben allowed himself a soft, nasal chuckle.
“And pretty sexy, too.”
The statement had been light, almost flippant, but Ben nevertheless felt his breath catch in his throat as he looked back up. He opened his mouth to attempt a humorous, dismissive reply, but his mind was frustratingly blank, and his mouth couldn’t form the words.
Enya spun around to face him, and Ben could only stare back into her bright green eyes. Damn it, but he knew her features almost as well as his own. She had been brought to Silver Circle a mere six months before he had, and the seven-year-old Pyro-to-be had gleefully shown him around like a pro, explaining the ins and outs of life among the Order of the Silver Sword to the shy and quiet newcomer he had been as a young boy.
He still had a reputation for being quiet, but he was a lot less shy now. At least, most of the time. The warmth in his ears and the funny feeling in the pit of his stomach were making him feel like that awkward little eight-year-old again.
“No clever retort, huh?” she asked, raising her thin, red eyebrows.
“I, uh,” he began, but he still couldn’t quite get his brain or his mouth to work properly. For Stars’ sake, he was twenty-four years old—far too old to behave like a nervous, love-struck trainee. But he continued to gape at her, unable to articulate anything at all amid the overwhelming surge of attraction, desire, and this undeniable feeling of profound love that had been born out of sixteen years of close friendship with the woman standing in front of him. He still didn’t know how, why, or even exactly when his feelings for Enya Laflam had shifted from platonic to romantic—or maybe he had always been infatuated with her, and he had simply resisted acknowledging it. And maybe, after the mission, he’d have time to sort it all out and determine if there was any chance that she could ever feel the same. Maybe.
An odd sense of disappointment washed over him as Enya stepped back and favored him with a polite smile. “Well, I’m going to go shower and grab something to eat before the mission briefing,” she said. “Guess I’ll see you there. And don’t be late.”
“Yeah, see you,” he croaked.
No sooner had the door closed behind her than rational thought seemed to return to Ben in a rush. Sweet Celestials, he had behaved like an idiot—a fool. It was a good thing he was keeping his feelings under wraps, because Stars only knew how she’d react if she uncovered them, and what impact such a revelation might have on the mission. Despite the number of times he and Enya had sparred in the past, he had never allowed his emotions to get the better of him the way they had just now. Was his odd behavior a result of his anxiety over the upcoming mission into Sandarr? Was it simply because he had only recently begun to acknowledge his feelings toward her, and now they were being deployed into enemy territory, meaning there was a chance that those feelings might never be returned?
Or. . . was it the sudden, shocking discovery that they would?
He blinked at the door through which she had just exited, and clarity hit him with all the force of a Star-fueled shield.
Rebound psychic energy, he realized. The aftereffects of using his latent Healer Gift. They only went one way, as he had been grateful to acknowledge earlier. But as the wave of intense emotion slowly receded in the wake of Enya’s departure, he belatedly understood that he hadn’t been experiencing merely his own tender longings. . . but hers, as well.
“Oh, Stars,” he whispered in comprehension. “Oh, Sweet Stars, she feels the same.”
He stood immobilized by the sheer weight of the discovery, and he had no idea how long the seconds had continued their forward progress before he found the ability to move again. He lurched clumsily toward the entrance to the training room, his legs feeling heavy and ungainly after the use of his Shield energy, the employment of the paltry Healer Gift he possessed, and the shock of knowing that Enya Laflam didn’t just love him as a friend as she always had.
She loved him just as he loved her.
Smiling, he drew upon the Spark to fortify himself and opened the locker with trembling hands. Then a laugh bubbled up from deep inside his chest as he stared into the locker. Enya had left her sword behind.
Stars, she had been rattled enough to forget her weapon like a green apprentice, and Ben withdrew both swords from the locker with a swell of giddy glee. Then, clipping his own weapon to his belt, he shut the locker and rushed to the door.
It opened to reveal Enya standing on the other side, a look of surprise on her face. “I, uh,” she blurted, fighting to regain her composure. She had evidently rushed back as soon as she had realized her mistake.
“Forgot something?” Ben finished for her, indicating her sword which he now held by the pommel.
Her green gaze locked onto the weapon, and she reached for the hilt. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Her fingers were soft and cool where they gripped the sword beneath his own, and he hesitated to surrender the weapon to her. He didn’t want to break the contact, and both the touch of her skin and the rising flush in her cheeks were making him feel unusually bold. “Rookie mistake,” he teased.
She blinked at him. “Yeah, well you know,” she quipped, “I think I might have a concussion. I kinda’ hit the floor hard.”
“I’m pretty sure you don’t have a concussion.”
Her brows shot up. “How do you know? You checked my shoulder, not the rest of me.”
He shrugged, still not releasing her sword.
Then she looked down at her booted feet and drew a deep breath. “Okay, whatever you think you may have sensed back there. . .”
With his free hand, Ben gently lifted her chin, bringing her gaze back up to meet his. Encouraged by the emotions he now knew she shared, he whispered, “So. . . pretty sexy, huh?”
Her entire face had now gone an adorable shade of pink. “Maybe.”
Keeping his fingers on her chin, he brought his face closer to hers, imploring her with his eyes. To his delight, she responded by bringing her lips up to press them against his. To be honest, it was a shy, awkward, gentle kiss, but to Ben it felt as though a billion Stars had gone supernova and his soul was awash in pure, golden, brilliant light. Even after she had ended the kiss, the light remained burning inside him, and he could see its reflection in her beautiful, emerald eyes.
“Stars, Ben,” she giggled, her lips hovering tantalizing close to his own. “I’ve known you almost my whole life, I spar with you until I’m bruised, we’re about to embark upon our first mission together, the very fate of the empire is at stake, and yet here we are.”
“Here we are,” he echoed.
“This is so messed up.”
“It kinda is.”
“You realize we have to keep this to ourselves for now, right?” she said.
“Nobody can know about this.”
He nodded again.
“For the moment, we just focus on the mission.”
“Pretty sure I can keep a secret, En.”
He watched the slow grin spread across her flushed face. “Obviously. I mean, I seriously thought—you know, I just—well, I thought this was all one-sided. I mean, Stars, I kept throwing you hints, but it was like trying to flirt with a wall. So, I just figured you didn’t. . . you know?”
“I’m sorry,” he said with a wince. “Blame it on the Shield’s curse?”
“Oh, you mean strong and dense?” she teased.
He responded with another nod and a grin.
She then smiled broadly and kissed his cheek. “Don’t be sorry. I mean, if you’re this good at hiding your feelings from me, not one soul is going to figure any of it out while we’re on this mission.”
“Not even Aros?” Ben asked, referring to the Sword who had been put in command of their scheduled foray into Sandarr. Lars Aros had a reputation for sussing out amorous attachments and being merciless when it came to teasing about them.
“Aros is going to have enough on their plate with this whole operation, so I doubt they’ll have the time to be focused on anything between us,” she assured him. Then she finally pulled her sword free from the grip Ben had unconsciously kept upon it, and added, “In the meantime, let’s just both do our best to stay alive. And then. . . once we’re back. . . we’ll see where things go.”
“We’ll see where things go.” Then he leaned in close again and whispered, “Now, about that bruised butt.”
Lars Aros stood with a smug grin as the black-haired, black-eyed Shield and the red-haired, green-eyed Pyro exchanged their vows. After the bride and groom had finally sealed their marriage with a kiss and the onlookers began to applaud, Lars leaned over and whispered, “Okay, it’s done, it’s official. No more excuses, so pay up.”
Cato Sorken let out a heavy sigh. “Damn it, Aros,” the Reader grumbled, handing over a gold sovereign. “But you need to tell me exactly how a Pyro like you is so good at rooting out blossoming romantic attachments. It’s uncanny.”
“I don’t have to tell you shit, Reader,” the Pyro replied, pocketing the sovereign. “Especially since I called this one before we ever left for Sandarr, but you made me wait to collect until the two of them made their union legal.”
“Okay, fine, then tell me this,” said Cato. “If you’re so in tune with the music of love, why are you still single?”
“Why are you?”
The Reader chuckled and did not answer.
“Uh-huh,” Lars murmured, before adding, “Ben and Enya have a bond that is truly special. Something that I recognized existed between those kids early on. And it’s something that I have not yet found with anyone. So until I do, the door to my heart stays wide open. I refuse to settle for anyone who isn’t my Celestial given soulmate.”
“Oh, is that your answer?”
Lars gave a single nod. “That’s my answer.”
“Stars light your way, then, and you find your soulmate one of these days,” Cato replied.
Lars smiled and continued to watch the happy couple make their way through the sea of wedding attendees.
One of these days, Lars silently echoed. One of these days, it’ll be my turn.