Authors: Aaron Pogue
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy
I opened my mouth to answer but Cooper interrupted. "Guard wouldn't have him. He's got no family, no name, no skills. Leave the boy alone, Bron, he's just a little jealous."
I was already on my feet, and in an instant I whirled on him, my rage erupting. "My skills dropped you dead yesterday, Cooper, and you know it. After winning three other fights that day, too! I—"
"You cheated," he said, lacing his fingers behind his head. "If you'd fought fair I would have torn you apart."
Kyle laughed uneasily, "Come on, Cooper. Calm down. Daven's never cheated, he's just fast...." He pressed a hand against his side where I'd accidentally bruised him the day before, winced, and continued. "Calm down, both of you. It's all just a game."
I took a step back and placed my hand on the hilt of my sword, my chest swelling in my fury. "It is a game. Maybe. Here. But in the Guard it will be real."
Cooper shrugged. "I'm ready."
"No," I said, and the sick fury in me boiled in my stomach. "You're not. You're arrogant and pampered and a fool. And the first time you get a break from guarding pig farmers and building roads, Cooper—the first time you face an enemy with a sword—you're going to die." I took a deep breath, trying to see clearly, and let it out slowly. "Or maybe you'll remember your fights with me and turn and run."
"I think not." He rose gracefully, slowly like a cat uncurling, and I saw the shiny hilt of a new sword at his side. He hooked a thumb behind his belt. "Your
amount to one simple reminder: real foes cheat."
My voice dropped to a whisper, "I never cheat."
He snorted. "You
cheat!" He took a step closer to me, too close, and looked down his nose at me. "It takes honor to stand. It takes honor to face the charge. You run and sneak and hide and attack from behind and the sides like a coward—" he hesitated only a second, but his cruel eyes were locked on mine when he added, "like a criminal."
I bit back my anger, forced myself to stillness before I answered. When I did, it was in a normal voice. "There is one thing you always forget, Cooper." I turned to the others, slipping unconsciously into my lecturing voice as I repeated words I'd told them time and again. "When you face a stronger opponent or a larger opponent, remember this: you'll rarely win a game of subtlety with a brash charge."
I expected nods from them. I'd been teaching them for years. But now instead they just turned, all as one, to get Cooper's assessment of my advice. In one day I'd lost everything, because his father bought him a commission.
Cooper spoke with patronizing indulgence. "This is not a game to be won whatever the cost. This is a nobleman's sport, and you
it when you...you...."
Bron gave a tired sigh. "Coop, we don't even duel that much. Mostly we fight, and that's
a nobleman's sport."
"And that's what you'll be doing in the Guard," I said. "Fighting."
Behind me, Bron grunted his irritation at my interruption. But then he went on grudgingly, "It's true. And Daven does it right. Just let it go. Here, on this field, he's the best of us."
Cooper sneered. "You're far too kind. I'll say it like it is, like none of you has ever dared to say. He's a dirty little sneak. He's the least among us!"
Bron didn't answer right away, and that hurt. When he did, his words were measured. "If you mean in wealth, you've got it and I don't think he'd argue. But if you're talking skill with a sword...the shepherd will probably still be better than you even
the Guard teaches you how to do it right." For a long time Cooper only glared at him over my shoulder, and knowing Bron he met the stare levelly. After a minute Bron added, "He's just good."
Cooper opened his mouth to respond, then shut it. Still looking past my shoulders his eyes went wide. Then a stern, dark voice fell among us, "Better than Guard training, eh?" There was a slightly foreign lilt to the words, but more compelling was the authority and power behind that voice. Coop let go of me and took a long step back. I took a quick step away, then turned to see who had spoken so.
A man stood just at the head of the little gravel footpath, his shadow darkening the ground between us. His condescending gaze ran over the line of boys seated on the bench, then back to Cooper and me. Finally he gestured at me with the riding crop he was carrying, "You're more skilled than a Guardsman? Eh?"
The crimson sun behind him buried his features in darkness. His face was narrow and bony, his eyes deep and lost in shadow. His lips twisted in a mocking smile as he took one long, fearsome step forward. His clothes were much finer than any worn by the people of the village, but my gaze kept drifting to the heavy broadsword that hung on his belt.
When I did not answer, he seemed to grow impatient. "Well, you are the boy Daven, no?" I could only stare at him, and his brows came together in anger. "Answer me, boy! You are Daven, son of Carrick the Thief, correct?" I flinched at the name he used, but after a moment I stammered an answer, nodded, and he seemed to relax a little.
"I have been sent a long way to find you, Daven, with little explanation as to why a penniless peasant should command my attention. But now I understand. Everything is clear, yes? Here is a boy with no training who could school the soldiers of the Royal Guard." For the first time I noticed the greens and browns of his uniform, the crest on his shoulder, and recognized him for a Green Eagle, a member of the king's elite guard. He saw the recognition in my eyes, and his shone with malicious glee.
With a slow gesture he reached up to unclasp the cloak hanging from his shoulders. "This is something I must see," he said. He glanced at my eyes, but I couldn't find any answer. I gave a tiny shake of my head, but he pretended not to see it. He folded the cloak neatly, then dropped it on the end of the bench Coop's dad had made. He passed a gaze over the row of boys sitting in rapt attention. They all stared back in awed surprise, Cooper with a satisfied grin across his face.
The Green Eagle shook his head and strode out past the stump to our sparring ground. He turned in a slow circle, taking in the terrain, and I watched him note the mud-slick patch at the edge of the stream, the treacherous little pocket where a groundhog's burrow had sunk the earth, the knotted root of the oak that broke the ground more than four paces from its trunk.
Then he turned to me, his left hand resting casually on the hilt of his sword. "Well?" he asked.
I licked my lips. "I...I can't fight you."
The soldier grinned. He looked like death. "You must."
"No, I'm sorry. It was just...I'm not as good as a Guard." Beside me Bron nodded fervent agreement, and I felt the stab of it in my heart. Everything I'd fought for, lost. I sighed. "He spoke in haste."
"Regardless," the Eagle said, and his voice was hard. "I have come all this way, and I find you all dressed up for battle. I would see you fight."
Bron jumped to his feet. "I'll show you," he said. "Let him fight me. You can see why I thought—"
The soldier's terrible gaze swept to Bron, and the young man stammered to a stop. For a long moment the soldier said nothing, only stared, and then Bron took a long step back.
The soldier nodded. "I don't want to watch you," he said. "I want you to watch me." He ran his imperious gaze down the line a third time, this time commanding each boy's attention before moving on. "I want you to see how a king's guardsman handles himself."
Then his gaze snapped back to mine, and he drew his sword with a long, whispered rasp. He ducked his chin, and said, "Ready?"
Now I looked down the line of boys. Bron, who had spoken up for me. Kyle, who always had to find courage to face me, and always listened so carefully when I explained what he had done wrong. Dain who had been my first friend in town, though he had grown distant when the stories followed me in from the City. Gavin was strong and slow and shy, but he had found the worn-out old scabbard I wore on my belt and made it a gift to me. And even Cooper was impressed enough with my ability to feel threatened.
And now, in the dying light of a beautiful day, I would be made to look a fool. I took a deep breath, and let it out. I nodded once, to forestall the old soldier's impatience, and drew my sword. It was dented all along the blade, rusted so deeply in spots I couldn't possibly polish it away. The fine silver chain meant to wrap its hilt had been replaced with tight straps of leather, and even that was getting loose, now, and almost worn through. It usually felt easy and familiar in my fingers, but standing before the Green Eagle it felt like a frail and broken thing, and so did I.
For a long minute I stood there on the edge of the circle. I could feel the others watching me, waiting, and I nodded again and stepped forward. As I went to meet him I spoke the words out of long habit, "Watch over us, keep score for us, decide for us." The soldier tilted his head in curiosity as I invoked the spell, then he chuckled.
"You say prayers for yourself, too. I should expect as much. Well, God watch over you, boy, because it's time for us to begin." I had no response to that, but it mattered little. I fell into the stance I had learned, shoulder and elbow in line with the soldier, narrow blade held blocking everything from my waist to my eyes. He took a place in front of me, body turned differently and both hands gripping the short hilt of his broadsword. Gavin always liked to play at two-handed weapons, but I knew my victories over his clumsy thrashing were no preparation at all for the style of a true soldier.
He flexed his arms, stretching, then relaxed into a ready stance. "So, you have the skills to train a Guardsman?" He mocked me, low enough now that only I could hear. "You're so certain you will live through
first encounter?" My eyes went wide, and he nodded knowingly, "Ah, yes, I heard it all. You're a little arrogant for the beggar son of a thief. They think highly of you, though." Somehow, I didn't think he meant the boys watching us, but I couldn't guess who else he might mean. He gave me no time to consider it.
"We shall see," he said, and like a whisper he glided across the grass. He flowed as he moved first to one side and then the other. At the last moment his blade darted out and crashed against my own, flinging it from my hand. The soldier stopped in his tracks, his weapon hanging forgotten at his side.
For a long moment he stared at me, then shook his head in disappointment. He stepped up until I could feel his breath hot on my ear and spoke in a quiet voice filled with terrible menace, "Retrieve your weapon, child, that we may finish this. I mean to see these skills of yours."
I glanced over at him, and felt a blush beginning to burn in my cheeks. "I'm sorry—" I started, but he shook his head.
"I don't want your apologies. I want to see how you fight." A smile creased his cheeks. "I want them to see."
I closed my eyes and clenched my stomach against the sudden flurry of fear, then swallowed hard and turned aside to recover my weapon. When I turned back he had reclaimed his position near the center of the circle, and I moved opposite him. I lifted the sword again, but this time I could not hold it steady. Fear set my arm to trembling, and in my fear I squeezed the hilt too tightly. The muscles in my legs and stomach were tense. Everything was wrong, but I knew no way to make it right.
I took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the terrain. He stood a pace closer to the brook than Cooper had yesterday, but there was no way I could force
back. I had at least ten paces to the edge of the clearing, but he could easily press me so far. The tree was to my right, so it would hamper my swing much more than his. I tried to clear my mind, to release myself to the habits of the fight, but terror kept intruding.
He raised an eyebrow at me, smile still on his lips. Then suddenly he lunged, the tip of his sword just barely striking the middle of my blade, and I responded perfectly. Half a step retreat, withdraw and replace the blade, setting it familiarly instead of responding to his beat. He nodded, ever so slightly, and came at me again, this time swinging a wide and powerful swipe that would have caught my sword near the hilt, but I dipped low and reached for his wrist. I recognized the practice forms he was using against me, and instinctively responded. He was teaching me a lesson from the fourth chapter of my book.
I relaxed a little, then. He
said he intended me to have a lesson, to see my skills, and that was just what he was doing. Perhaps, I thought as I parried a half-hearted thrust, perhaps I could impress him, too. As I fell back a step I noticed my left foot slid a little too easily over the grass and remembered the splash of the stream in spring slicked the ground over here. I adjusted for it, retreated another step, always parrying his blows. Maybe if I did well, I could get invited to join the Guard myself. Right in front of all of them, as I fought a Green Eagle.
I built the daydream in my head as he pressed me back, but as I retreated I slowly, subtly moved with the hope of placing the tree at his disadvantage. White light danced around the back of my right hand and fingers and I realized there was a very light trickle of blood running down to my wrist. I checked quickly, trying to see two things at once, and saw several tiny nicks on my wrist as well, and one on my shoulder. Of course, there were no marks on my opponent.
I focused too much on these little injuries and was caught by surprise when he suddenly fell back, then came on me
, darting forward and lunging with a low cut that scored my hip. I felt blood flow, damping my leggings, and there was a flash of yellow at the hit. For a moment the soldier looked puzzled, but he pressed his attack. I fell back quickly. He made a move from chapter six, a clever strike, but I danced aside and came back with a variation on the normal riposte that nicked the edge of his hand. His brows came down, and he came forward.