“Bace? Yeah, I remember him. Short idiot with the shady eyes. Always watching. Like some demented hawk. He was full of himself. I mean- he could do anything and he knew it like some stuffy-headed ass, er, mule. Sorry, Sir. Saved my life once. Guess I owe him.” The Battlemaster slid the file out and placed it at the back of the stack. The man behind the desk folded his hands and placed his elbows on his desk.
“Bace is a legend; a story that parents tell to their children at night to make them go to sleep. Nothing more, nothing less. What is this about?” The husky voice asked and then drowned itself in more ale.
“Sir, we have over two hundred written accounts of witnesses saying that Bace is real. Real life accounts of men growing up with him or meeting him. Everything in this file is all we have on him.”
“Please. I’ve had a very boring day, add some colour would you.” The Battlemaster cleared his throat and opened his mouth. “Is it still raining out?” The man asked before he could continue. The room grew silent and they could hear the rain hitting the stone wall outside. The Battlemaster glanced at the window nervously. A flash of lightning lit up the room.
“Yes sir.” He licked his lips and the room grew silent again. The Battlemaster waited.
“Young man, have I not made myself clear?” The Battlemaster stood with his mouth agape, freezing in fear. “Colour!” He yelled. The Battlemaster looked down at his papers, focused on keeping his hands from shaking so he could read.
“Bace was short with dark hair and eyes that could curdle milk and turn the heads of every woman he passed by. Never took notice though. You know how many women he could have bedded by the time he graduated? It’s embarrassing. For me anyway.”
“Enough. Did you come to read to me the jealous ravings of young men?” The man asked.
“No Sir, sorry Sir.” The Battlemaster leafed through a few pages. This one is from the Academy’s late Doctor. Doesn’t have a name listed. Just ‘Bloodmaster’. He said the following. ’Bace was a puzzle. I saw him often during his time at the Academy and I sometimes felt as if I was his personal medic-”
“Next.” The man interrupted.
“This one is from a man registered as Knight Bree, though he referred to himself as Mash during introductions. He was brief. ‘Bace was a friend to anyone who needed. He’s as real as your Grandmother and I’d treat him just as well. Wouldn’t want to get on his bad side.’”
“Boring.” The man interrupted again.
“Bace was a machine. He pushed himself harder than any other kid I have ever taught and it showed. He was slight but adapted quickly to make himself just as broad as any other student. He knew how to throw his weight around and he was as agile and quick thinking as my wife when there’s a sale on fabric down in the market on a Saturday morning. He didn’t say much but I can remember the look on his face when he drew that bow of his for the first time. He caught on to anything you taught him faster than you could teach it. By the time he was sixteen he knew over three languages. Not sure how many he knew by the time he graduated. Kind of lost touch with him in his final year; I had taught him everything I knew by the time he was in his ninth year. I didn’t tell anyone though; just kept on helping him along.’ That was the Swordmaster. The next one came from a man by the name of Nick Copper. He was deaf, you see, so he wrote down his account himself. I’ll read his now.
‘Bace was a man of few words. He kept to himself mostly but my being deaf had given me an insight into him which I fear none will ever come close to doing. Bace was alone. Though he wouldn’t admit it I saw a man who was within a swords’ length of being given the title ‘inhuman’. There was something about him that, within the first year of meeting him, left me incoherently confused. He seemed impossible. He had arrived at the Academy when he was ten as we all did but he arrived alone. The Headmaster refused to let him join without a parent’s consent so he was taken on as a work horse. He lived in the barn and put his back into anything that was asked of him. It only took three months for the Headmaster to take a liking to him so it didn’t take much convincing from the Skillmasters to register him into the Academy. Not only did Bace come with his brilliant mind and determination but he also brought with him a long bow, hand-crafted by himself, with an 80 kilo draw weight. When asked why they should take him on to train at the Academy Bace presented the long bow and strung it before the Master.
“That’s all I can do with it now, but some day I will draw back this bow and release my arrow just as easily as it is to lift a finger.” It was only when I had been rooming with him for three years that my insight finally devoured him. Bace had nerve and a mind of his own but he was infested. You see, Bace was a natural protector. I will do my best to explain for I feel as if I have been leading you down a lot of rabbit trails. I liked to think of Bace as having many layers to him. I realize that all people do but Bace was different. On the outside it was clear to all that he had a thick shell. This was his protection. Anything that the world could throw at him would first have to penetrate his thick skull. Like a rock born deep in the earth, he had a natural resistance to the outside world and as it continued to throw a new obstacle at him he would only hold up his shield and let the world press in on him like the weight of the earth to form a new shell over top of the old one. The next layer I liked to call his ‘obscurity’. This was the layer between his shell and his core. This layer was a lie; a fake identity. You see, I theorize that when boys become men they go through a time where they establish their personal identity. It is the time in a young man’s life where he could become anyone. Through this stretch where Bace was discovering who he was he had somehow convinced himself that the best way for him to go through life was to be a moot, introverted wall. This was his infestation. A monster bred by misunderstandings and misgivings. This monster was a terrible thing for him and it was this that confused me so much; for deep, way deep inside of him was a brilliant and loving protector. Some call it a heart of gold. But to me, it was nothing more than a heart of pure character. It was Bace. One moment he would be sitting in a corner eyeing the room as if it was only there to remind him that it was in fact made up of four walls, a ceiling, and floor and then the next he would be beating the brains out of some kid for looking at another student the wrong way. Bace was a crisis and an explosion waiting to happen. It was only in his last year when he met a kid named Stephen that he changed. And I don’t mean he had a gooey change of heart. I mean he finally discovered why the world needed him.’”
About Three Years Earlier
“Respect seems to resonate off of every student who comes within six feet of him.” The Swordmaster crossed his arms, watching Bace in the lunchroom. The Horsemaster snorted.
“Looks more like fear to me.” They laughed.
“Respect. Fear.” The Swordmaster unfolded his arms and held up his hands like a scale, weighing the two as if equal. They laughed again, their laughs booming across the room to mingle with the rumbling chatter of the barrel-chested boys and young men.
“One shilling says their laughing about their fat wives.” Keel laughed and slapped a coin on the table in front of Bace before setting down his breakfast. Destre, who was close behind barked and then slapped his lunch on the table before he dug out a coin.
“Two says it’s something about what happened in bed last night.” The two snorted in agreement.
“Betting on something that will never come to knowledge is pointless.” Bace said and grabbed one of the coins and snapped his wrist before they could stop him. The coin whipped between their heads and they spun around as an audible ‘clunk’ echoed through the room and then the coin clattered to the floor. Bace continued eating as if nothing had happened, not even glancing up as the tall second-final year yelped and then rubbed the back of his head and stood. He slowly turned and the room grew quiet. He scanned the only three sitting at the lone table behind him. Keel and Destre stared with eyes wide. Bace glanced up and then back down at his food, trying to stifle a grin.
“Something wrong Devon?” Bace managed to scoop the final bit of his meal into his mouth before he felt a heavy weight crash into him. The young man had a habit of sitting with his back to a wall to eliminate the fear of having someone surprise him from behind. The weight of the crashing force threw both of them against it but Bace quickly recovered and managed to throw the bigger man off. Before Devon could turn on him again the two Masters that had been watching in on Bace before sprinted across the room and jumped over the table, pulling the two apart. Bace, never raising his shoulders in defense, walked away with the same look on his face that he had worn since waking up. As the Swordmaster lead him out of the lunchroom Bace suddenly felt a sharp pain on the back of his head. He winced and brought his hand up. When he pulled it away his fingers were coated with blood, his hair felt matted. He looked over to the master who was already leading him to the Doctor. Bace caught the Doctor’s glancing gaze in the corner of his eye as they passed by his office and heard the Doctor sigh and rise from his seat. Bace held the record for the most medical visits over every student that had ever been to the Academy but had the fewest medical absences. The Doctor entered the room as the master pushed Bace roughly onto the bed. Bace sat and then turned, crossing his legs on the bed so the Doctor could examine him. He found the wound in an instant and began roughly wiping away the blood.
“It would do you and the entirety of the student population some good if you’d stop bringing trouble, Bace.” The master barked before leaving the room. Bace had his back turned and he found the white washed wall comforting. He focused on slowing his breathing and tried to block out the yelling from the hall.
“Devon, Devon! Don’t you walk away from me.” The Headmaster suddenly yelled. Bace felt the pressure on his head stop and he heard the footsteps of the Doctor lead to the door. The door suddenly closed, shutting Bace and the Doctor into a very intimate and quiet world. The Doctor sighed and continued wiping at Bace’s head.
“Well, you’re lucky this time Bace. No stitches required.” The Doctor clapped Bace on the shoulder. “Looks like most of the bleeding has stopped. Careful when you wash though.” Bace spun around and thanked the Doctor before opening the door to an empty hallway. He walked past the Doctor’s office again and then turned left and pushed through the door, leaving the lunch room behind him. He blinked as he walked into the sunlight and then quickly ran past a small group of girls that had wandered in from the city. They smiled at him but when they didn’t receive a single glance in return they rolled their eyes and continued searching for a more willing young man. Bace was rugged and extremely skilled but he was far from what some called a ‘people person’. What Bace presented on the outside was far from what he really bred on the inside. Bace was a master of disguise which led everybody to believe something different about him. Every skill he had mastered was simply a highly effective wall that he could throw up at any moment to protect himself. By being forced to balance being constantly in the spotlight for his talents and not wanting to draw attention to himself, Bace had created a mask; his face hardly changed from the straight, unreadable expression that he wore. The longer he hid his emotions the more he came to believe that he had none, relying solely on solitude. It was his silent demeanor that drove everyone away from him. Many liked him but none were sure why. Bace had happened upon the solid relationships with Keel and Destre by chance in his third year. The two were a perfect match for him, loud to draw attention away from him but holding a deep bond to him through his sturdy willingness to accept that Keel suffered from dyslexia and a stutter and Destre hadn’t been able to speak a word of English when he had first arrived. Bace had been willing to help Keel become an accomplished reader resulting in the disappearance of his stutter and Destre was speaking English fluently only year after Bace had started teaching him. Both were light enough to easily shrug away Bace’s often depressing demeanor and they respected his privacy, letting him draw quietly away when he needed and never asking questions. Bace appreciated them now more than he ever had before. Among the hundreds of other students were four others that Bace trusted.
‘Mash’ who was known for his ability to shovel in mashed potatoes, without stopping, for a full minute before throwing up was a stocky final year with short black hair and a carnivorous grin that had won Bace’s trust when the two were paired up and Mash was able to match Bace’s bow skills.
Keviin was a tall and slender tenth year with flamboyant blond hair and an unfortunate moustache. He had never been thrown from his moody mare and showed such skill in the saddle that Bace wondered whether he had indeed been born in the saddle. The young man had approached Bace with an addiction to a highly debilitating drug leaving him with the inability to focus on his studies. Bace had managed to wean him off and find ways to keep his damaged mind from wandering, once leading Bace to pull him away from an attempted suicide.
‘Scale’ who was known for his ability to climb anything and everything found himself particularly fond of Bace as he had first approached him in their fifth year when Scale was struggling with constantly being the center of all pranks to the point of being physically abused. To make matters short, Bace discovered that a certain amount of a particular substance stolen from the Doctor’s office lead to a very uncomfortable two days on the toilet for three very unfortunate bullies. Then a week later they were caught behind the Hall after dark with a considerable amount of alcohol in their bellies after spending the evening with a very sneaky Bace who had brought them hot coffee made not with water but a very potent bottle from the Headmaster’s private store. Since then the Headmaster kept the bottles under lock and key although he had on few occasions felt sure that he was missing a bottle.
‘Shag’, known for his unbelievably dark and messy hair no matter how hard he tried, had been abused by both a father and an uncle since his first memory. Bace had met him in their first year and couldn’t help but notice the boy’s constant trembling. He still trembled but much less after many years under the constant reassuring time spent with a silently encouraging Bace.
Other than these six men Bace had nothing and he cared little for any who didn’t respect that. Not only did he help these men but any Skillmaster that was asked would have remarked at the improvement of all skills in every man Bace came close to connecting with. He had, however, begun to notice whispers of some sort of prodigy at the Academy. He quickly learned that the student had just begun last year even though he was sixteen which was unheard of. Bace wanted to shrug it off but when he heard more than one envious rant about the student he immediately made it a priority to find the kid. Bace hadn’t yet realized that one of his strongest characteristics was protection. The moment he heard of someone in trouble he immediately pursued the problem in order to neutralize any situation that might arise. Bace was wired to care for only those that needed it and he was particularly skilled at discovering those in need. If you didn’t need help Bace couldn’t care less about you. The protective instinct came from a past he had long forgotten and wished to never remember again. One evening, after dark when only final years were allowed to be out, Bace pulled aside a first year. He held him firmly by the arm and pulled him into the large shadow cast by one of the living buildings.
“What’s his name?” He asked the young boy.
“What? Who?” The boy whimpered.
“The kid that everyone’s talking about.” The boy raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, that’s K-Kale.” He swallowed loudly and stumbled under the piercing gaze of the dark brown eyes. When Bace didn’t say anything further the boy figured he should stumble on, giving as much information as he could. “He’s some kind of prodigy. The guy only started a year ago and he’s only seventeen. Some sort of weird exception the Academy made.”
“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” Bace mumbled and held out a warm bun freshly stolen from the kitchen for the following day. The kid relaxed slightly when Bace released the firm grip on his arm and snatched the bun from Bace’s hand. Bace could remember how hungry he always was at that age. The first five years were a mix of juggling academics, fitting in while dealing with a changing voice and working hard with a rumbling tummy. Bace swore that the first to fifth year students should be fed more as they were going through massive growing spurts. Their meals were rationed so midnight kitchen raids were not uncommon. Bace had been one of few to dare to leave the safety of their living buildings, often called their ‘Sections’, after curfew to raid the kitchen. It was the final year student’s jobs to reprimand anyone else out after dark but they had to catch them first. Bace had an uncanny way of slipping into the shadows making him one of few to never get caught.
“Thanks Stephen.” Bace nodded and then realized the kid was about to say something but he had to finish chewing a mouthful of the warm croissant.
“He’s in Section C.” He said after swallowing loudly.
“What does he look like?” Bace asked.
“Tall, muscular, shaggy blonde hair, I think.” Bace couldn’t control a loud sigh from escaping from deep inside.
“Great, you just described about half of the guys in Section C.” He grumbled.
“Sorry, not much else I can do.” By now Stephen’s natural confident nature had taken over. Now he was wondering why the older man had pulled him aside in the middle of the night without punishing him. Bace turned then and strolled quietly away. Stephen quickly swallowed.
“You shouldn’t pick on him so much; it’s only making things worse.” Bace stopped and turned, raising an eyebrow. “Devon. I know he’s a bully but bullying him back will only aggravate him. If you think about it, you’re kind of being a bully too.” Bace stared back at Stephen, holding his gaze.
“Good night, kid.” He whispered and then spun around, walking quietly back to his Section for the night. He had only made it so far when he heard footsteps following him from behind. He spun around.
“What are you doing? Don’t follow me.” He said to Stephen who crouched behind a barrel to try and conceal himself. Being only in his first week of training, he hadn’t yet learned the skill of following unseen. Bace stared at the boy who stared back without saying a word. Bace suddenly took a step forward which sent Stephen into a startled sprint back to his Section, stumbling over a few things as he went. Bace watched the boy run until he was confident that he wouldn’t see him again that night and then quietly stole back through his window and into bed.
The following morning Bace woke early as he always did and quickly ran the daily ten-kilometer jog before sitting down for breakfast. The cook grinned at him. Despite all his efforts, the elderly woman had taken a liking to Bace almost from the moment they met. Bace had somewhat adopted her as a grandmotherly figure. He gently thanked her and then sat down at the table in the farthest corner. One by one the older and fittest of the students started filing into the lunchroom. A few mock stares were thrown his way by the first few returning but as the room began to fill he was no longer identified as a ‘show off’. Bace secretly grinned to himself. The grin broke a second later when he felt somebody sit down across from him. He snapped his head up.
“Hi.” Stephen grinned at him. The boy was ten and about as social as a butterfly but sadly accepted by none; most found him overbearing or simply annoying. He had taken quite a liking to the older man since their meeting the night before. Stephen averted his eyes and began shoving mouthful after mouthful of the wet oatmeal into his mouth, fully aware that he was being watched like a hawk by the man across the table. Suddenly Stephen looked up, and then stuck a thumb towards the line-up by the food. He was careful to keep the pointing below his shoulder in an attempt to keep the attention away from them.
“See him there?” Bace flicked his eyes over to the line without giving any direct signals of where his attention lay. Stephen looked over his shoulder. “He’s grabbing an apple now.” Stephen turned back around and realized that his older companion was nodding very slightly, taking in every square inch of Kale. When Bace looked back at Stephen he noticed the boy looking at him expectantly. Realizing why Bace threw an extra biscuit he had acquired into the boys’ plate and then went back to the remaining food he had left on his own. He finished his meal quickly and then, without saying another word, strode to the counter to drop off his dishes. It was Friday. Fridays were given to all of the boys as a reward for working hard. They were allowed to choose any skill to work on throughout the day as long as they were always doing something. It gave them a chance to either focus on skills that they hadn’t perfected yet or work on something they wished to specialize in. Bace made an effort to walk a mere inch from Kale on his way out to size him up and then stalked out of the room, eager to get on with his day.
As Bace stepped out of the lunch room and into the hall he felt a heavy shoulder collide with his. Bace was solid but small and the impact twisted his whole body around. He felt the bruising on the back of his head begin to throb for the first time that day. The other student had turned around as well, only he had done so on his own accord with a challenging look in his eyes.
“Where are you off to in such a hurry, Bacey boy? Gonna go for another run, or did you lose your chair again? You know, the one that helps you reach the stirrup.” Devon looked down at the man that he had grown up hating. Bace felt likewise but looked down at his pocket, digging around until he found what he was looking for. He looked back up and grinned, flicking a coin into the air. He braced himself as the familiar rage came into Devon’s eyes. Without saying another word the bigger man slammed Bace in the chest with the flat of his hands and stepped forward with the snakelike reflexes of a trained battle-master. The coin landed on the ground and sent an eerie ringing down the hall as it rolled away in a semi-circle before dropping. Devon was one year older than Bace and mean to the bone. When he hadn’t passed final exams a year earlier he had been held back, forced to take another year. The humiliation had turned his whole personality into an overly defensive and equally nasty bully.
Bace was about to return the challenge when a loud voice boomed from the hallway. Neither man took an eye off the other but each took a step back. They waited as the loud footsteps grew closer. When the big man known as the ‘Headmaster’ reached them he bent down and picked up the shilling and then stepped in between, turning to face Devon.
“I believe it is breakfast time.” He said without raising his voice. Devon nodded and mumbled a ‘Yes’ir’ and then walked into the lunch room. Bace scowled at the young man but only for a second as his Master turned around.
“Master Jarold-” He started.
“Enough, Bace. I expect better from you.” Bace nodded and breathed in deeply. The Master met the young man’s gaze for a few moments longer and then turned and entered the lunch room, leaving Bace alone in the hallway. Bace swallowed and regretted the hesitation as Stephen suddenly turned the corner. He grinned. Bace turned around and rolled his eyes.
“Wait up.” The young voice yelled behind him. Stephen joined the long strides of his older friend and walked out of the hall with him. “What are you working on first?” Stephen asked.
“Archery.” Bace replied. The archery field gave a good view of the whole training field. He would be able to study Kale at a distance without focusing on an intensely defensive task.
“Me too.” Stephen answered and hopped a few steps to keep up with the older youth’s pace. Stephen was flighty and he would admit it any day but he was also an excellent judge of character. He found it easy to read people. Bace was much harder than anyone he had ever read before by Stephen was beginning to catch on to the young man’s habits and flaws.
When they reached the archery field Bace drew his long bow and braced it along his back so he could string the eighty kilo draw weight. Stephen didn’t give a sideways glance as he reached for the smallest and lightest recurve and then strung it after carefully watching the older man. Stephen had little experience with the bow and he was nothing compared to the slender young man beside him. They were first on the field. Bace drew the bow experimentally and then nocked an arrow to the string. He drew back and fired in a matter of seconds before reloading and firing again with barely a breath in between. He shot all twelve arrows in a matter of fifteen seconds before laying down his bow and turning to wait for Stephen to finish. Stephen was drawing back his third arrow. Bace stepped forward before he could stop himself, silently correcting the boy’s stance and form and then stepping back. Stephen fired and grinned madly as the arrow volleyed one of the inner rims of the target. Bace waited for him to draw again and then corrected any slips forgotten from last shot’s lesson. Bace was by far the best archer within the group of students and Stephen knew it. He knew he was being taught by the best on the field. It took a few more minutes for Stephen to finish and then both students walked across the field to their targets. Bace removed all twelve which had dug into all the precise spots he had chosen and then showed Stephen how to properly remove the arrow. As they were walking back together Bace felt an irrepressible liking towards the boy spread through his chest. When they turned around again Bace was surprised to see Kale walking up the hill towards the archery range. Bace remained quiet and volleyed another dozen arrows across the field and then aided Stephen again with his.
Kale was good. Not as graceful with the bow as Bace had expected based on rumors but he was still impressed by the young man’s casual confidence. For the second time that day he felt a distant liking for the young man creep in which wasn’t something he felt often, especially not towards the ones with such a big reputation. Boys with a reputation were often arid and arrogant which immediately dispelled any of Bace’s efforts to enjoy their company.
As the three students were slowly joined by others Bace suddenly felt overwhelmed and unstrung his bow. He walked back over to the barrel and slid the bow back inside. As he started down the hill he felt a presence coming up behind him. He turned, expecting to see Stephen but stopped when he saw Kale following him. The younger man walked up to him. He already stood a few inches taller than Bace but he approached cautiously.
“How’d you learn to shoot like that? You’re amazing.” The younger man smiled as he pointed back at the range. Bace glanced behind Kale at Stephen who stood at the top of the hill. He shrugged and then turned back to his firing as a trainer walked up to him to tune his focus. Bace focused back on Kale who had one eyebrow raised. Bace thought back to the question.
“I guess I’ve been training a few years longer than you.” Bace looked the man over for any signs that he expected to see from one so highly recognized but picked up on none. Bace started to second guess the way in which he worded his reply but Kale nodded and stuck out his hand.
“Then I only hope to get there someday. Sorry, I’m Kaled. Most of the guys just call me Kale though.” The two men shook hands. When Kale turned eighteen he could move onto the Third Class where he would begin his last section of training. Training was split into three parts; first, second and third class. The higher the class, the more respected you were. Kale was well beyond the ability of even an eighteen-year-old which left him at an impasse. He couldn’t move into Third Class without being eighteen which meant that he couldn’t progress. Second class didn’t get the best instructors, Third Class did. The instructors couldn’t teach him anymore because they simply didn’t know how.
“Bace.” He introduced himself quietly.
“Where are you going now?” Stephen suddenly ran up to them, breathless.
“I usually head to the stables now.” Over the years Bace had figured out what areas were quiet at what time. He based his Friday schedule on when he was most likely to be able to avoid the mass of student groups that mingled and moved together throughout the day.
“Mind if I join?” Kale suddenly asked. Stephen looked up at Bace, not sure what his reaction would be. Bace nodded his head slightly, focusing on the sloping ground. When they reached the stables Stephen suddenly realized that he would have to part from the group to saddle his horse in the second barn. Bace saw the look of worry on his face.
“Meet you in ten.” Bace said quietly and pointed to the barn where Stephen kept his mount. Stephen nodded happily and then ran off to the barn. Bace and Kale groomed and saddled quickly, then led their mounts out to Stephen’s barn. Kale glanced at the large mount that his new companion led. It was a dark roan, built heavily in the front for endurance rather than power. He glanced at his own; unknowingly comparing the two to make sure he would receive the older man’s approval. He couldn’t believe the hierarchy that came along with horse owning in the Academy. Bace however showed no interest in prejudicial sidings and noted to himself that Kale seemed to appreciate the effort. Kale led a similarly bred husky mount by the reins except his coat shone a silky black, an admirable and intimidating looking charge for battle but the horse was starting to show signs of aging. When they rounded their way into the barn they came upon a frenzied loose horse which tried to shoot out of the doors. Kale caught it as it shot by and focused on gathering the wits of two headstrong horses. Bace, on the other hand paid no attention to the horse and lunged toward the three older boys who were hitting Stephen to the ground. Bace had one on the ground with a broken nose before they even knew he was there and then a second one in a headlock and a few bruised ribs in the making before the third caught on to what was happening.
The third boy, who happened to be only a year younger than Bace, sent out a hard left-hook. Bace let go of the boy in his grasp as he felt the solid blow slam into his face and then a follow up to his gut. As he staggered back he watched the second boy drop to the ground and then struggle to his feet and bolt out the door. He was soon followed by the first that Bace had dropped. Bace stumbled straight into Kale who threw him aside and stuck an unexpected boot which came up all the way to the charging man’s face and threw him back. Kale, who hadn’t been expecting that much force, tripped backwards and slammed against his sturdy mount which stood solidly at his master’s side, sensing the sudden call to action. Kale jumped forward, realizing the Bace hadn’t had a moment to recover yet and planted himself firmly between Bace, who was trying to catch his breath, and the older student who held his bleeding nose shut.
“This won’t be the last time you hear from me.” The young man called and then turned on his heels and ran out the barn door. Kale quickly turned his attention to Bace as the man’s coughing filled the barn. The horses snorted and watched intently from their stalls. He knelt beside him but Bace pushed him away without taking his forehead off the ground. He mumbled something improper and then pointed towards Stephen who had already escaped Kale’s mind. Kale ran over to the boy who was holding his nose shut.
“You alright?” He asked the boy. The boy sniffed and then removed his hand.
“I’m Stephen.” He said enthusiastically. Despite the beating he had taken he was quite enthralled by his two saviors. Kale grinned and shook the boys’ hand. Then he remembered Bace again. He helped the boy to his feet and then quickly walked back over to Bace who had managed to recover slightly and now lay on his back. As Kale approached, he noticed the older man gently testing out his swollen jaw.
“I’m fine.” He managed to mumble. Bace rubbed his jaw and then massaged the muscles as he sat up. “You okay, kid?” He asked Stephen. The boy nodded. They had obviously taken it easier on the small boy. Neither of the younger students knew, as Bace did, that a young man who was in his second last year was able to give a blow with about the same power behind it as the angry kick of a horse. Stephen hadn’t met the full force of the furious man known as Bower, a friend of Devon. Bace had had the mind to stay well away from the built younger man until now. He cringed as the two stood on either side and helped him to his feet and Stephen suddenly held up a canteen of water to Bace’s mouth.
“I’m fine.” He coughed and then grabbed his own from his saddle. After they managed to mount the trio started for the woods across the field. When they reached the trees they slowed and entered the narrowed track. Bace let Stephen go in first and then Kale took his place before falling in behind. The line diminished with age, each one older and with more experience to watch the other’s back.
Once they were fully surrounded by the trees Bace relaxed. When he let out a long sigh Kale turned to look behind him. Seeing the difference in the man’s shoulders he turned back around and smiled. It was impossible to know exactly why but Kale was content with the fact that he knew one more thing about the quite soldier behind him.
The three companions grew quite relaxed in each other’s company throughout the day, stopping often for rests and taking as much time as they could. By the time they ambled back into the stables the sun was just beginning to set. They dismounted and rubbed their stiff legs before brushing down their mounts. Kale noticed Bace keeping a close eye on the barn where Stephen was now unsaddling. Earlier he had heard the older man telling Stephen to snuff out the lamp if trouble arose. When they departed that night, each to their own Section and Class, Bace walked away rubbing his swollen jaw.
Bace hated Saturdays. Saturdays consisted of a variety of games throughout the day in order to practice skills without the hammering drills and tiring sessions that made up Monday to Friday. At the end of the day the scores of each student were added up and whoever had the highest score would win the prize. The prize was usually something sweet or rare from the market but occasionally something big was shipped in. The big prizes made for the most competitive and the most dangerous days. Bace was good at the games and that was why he hated them. Every game he won drew him into the spotlight. That was why Bace never won the games anymore. Over the years he had learned to almost win. He would work hard and then at the last second he would pull out but still make it look like he had ‘lost’. Tomorrow Kale was going to win. He didn’t know whether Kale ever had but tomorrow he would see to it that he would. Tomorrow was a big game day. The rumor was that a prize stallion had been shipped in from over-seas. A pure-bred built for stamina, speed, and agility making it the perfect battle horse. Bace had heard that they were intelligent horses, quickly attaching themselves to their master and bonding with them for life. Bace didn’t want the horse. He really didn’t. He wanted Kale to have it. Kale’s horse was old and would soon tire. He wouldn’t doubt it if the horse didn’t make it to the end of the year.
“Bace!” A voice suddenly called out and he recognized it instantly as his Master. Bace turned on his heels and stood with his chest out and saluted his respect.
“Yes Sir.” He replied evenly.
“Ease up.” He said as he approached. “Let’s walk.” Bace followed him to the main Hall at the Academy. Bace was surprised to feel himself growing nervous as they neared the building. When they drew inside his suspicions were immediately eliminated.
“This is not about the incident in the barn, though I do expect a full written report on the account by tomorrow morning.”
“Yes Sir.” Bace replied, dropping his shoulders.
“You are familiar with Kale then?” The Master suddenly dropped the formality and spoke to Bace more like a close friend.
“Yes, we just met today, Sir.” He replied.
“And you are aware of his... talents?”
“I have- heard rumors, nothing more.” His Master nodded several times before answering.
“Well, most rumors are true; the one’s that I’ve heard anyway. He learns quickly and seems to have a special, how do I put it- gift when it comes to fighting. He’s well beyond any other student his age and it’s been especially hard to-”
“I would like to mentor him, Sir.” Bace interrupted. The Master stopped, his jaw dropping. He recovered quickly and straightened, seemingly pleased. Bace had just solved his problem.
“Yes, very well.” He cleared his throat. “I mean you have my approval. You may take the boy on as your apprentice as you wish. As long as it won’t interfere with your final studies?” He asked. The Master thought Bace let out a small smile.
“I should hope not. Thank you, Sir. I also wish to mentor Stephen as well.” At this the Master hesitated.
“Two apprentices in your final year?”
“Yes Sir.” Bace replied, suddenly quite content with his decision.
“Very well. You may mentor Stephen as well.”
“Thank you Sir. Is that all for tonight, Sir?” Bace asked.
“Yes, have a good night.”
“You too Sir.”
As Bace strode away from his Master he pulled his hood over his head to keep the cool air from chilling his neck. When he rounded the corner he suddenly heard his name. He turned and looked down slightly at Stephen.
“Get back inside Stephen, it’s after dark already.” Bace whispered and looked around. His voice was muffled from behind his cowl. The hood he wore shaded his face but he could still see the shining eyes of the young man who was obviously pleased to see him. There was no fooling Stephen. Even if from his own imagination. He saw what he thought he saw and believed that to be true no matter what. Stephen was not complicated. He preferred the phrase ‘do it’ as opposed to ‘well, if you would like to we could consider the possibility of plan A which could be modified into a few various forms to suit you if you wish, plan B which is quite straight forward if you think about it or plan C which I sort of think is a good idea anyway, although it could use some touching up if you want.’ Stephen was the simple ‘hit or miss’ sort of guy. Bace appreciated that in him but worried it would lead to rash decision making in the future.
“I know, but I needed to talk to you first.” Bace stopped and turned towards the boy. “First of all, I wanted to thank you for today.” He waited but Bace simply nodded, seeing no need for a verbal response. “And I also heard you talking. I know I shouldn’t have been listening to your private conversations with the Master but I couldn’t help it.” Bace drew in a breath slightly to scare the boy and crossed his arms as he straightened. Stephen blinked nervously.
“And- are you okay with what you have heard?” He asked. Somewhat taken aback but also immensely relieved Stephen let out a loud breath that he had been holding in. He thought he would be reprimanded for eavesdropping.
“Well, yes. Very much so.” He replied. Bace stared at him a moment longer and then turned on his heels.
“Good night Stephen.” He called softly behind him. Stephen smiled.
“Good night.” He replied shortly after. He had always wanted an older brother.