A ceremony was held for those who had died later that afternoon. Kale and Stephen paid their respects but then left the families to mourn on their own. Kale seemed quieter than usual but Stephen didn’t know whether he should bring it up. As always, his nature eventually got the better of him.
“Why don’t you say something?” Stephen asked as they groomed their mounts together.
“I just don’t understand why Bace didn’t show up for the Ceremony. It’s just bugging me.” Kale grumbled but Stephen was relieved it wasn’t because of anything he had done.
“Maybe he just needed some time alone.” Stephen shrugged. Kale stopped grooming and looked at Stephen over his mounts back. He watched the young boy for another minute before noticing a dark figure emerging from the trees across the field. Kale sighed and went back to grooming. As the limping figure drew closer Stephen suddenly noticed.
“Hey, look who made it.” Stephen said. Kale straightened and they both stopped to watch Bace plod across the grounds and then down the road to the grave sites. Kale turned away again. After a few minutes Stephen suddenly came around and stood beside Kale.
“What?” Kale asked.
“Look.” He said. Kale dropped the hoof he was picking at and turned to where Bace had gone.
“What’s he doing?” Kale asked.
“I think he’s putting something on each grave. Let’s go see.” Kale stuck a hand in front of Stephen as he started forward.
“Give him time. Like you said-” Kale bent down again and grabbed the same hoof. “He might need some time alone.” Stephen watched for another minute before returning to his work. It didn’t take long for Bace to return but when he did neither Kale nor Stephen saw or spoke to him again that evening. When they woke in the morning they met for their morning run as usual but Bace seemed to have constructed another face overnight. Stephen didn’t like how cold the new one was. It reminded him of the first day they met and Kale wasn’t in the mood to talk so they started running without a breath of hesitation. They ran their usual path but when they reached the halfway point Bace stopped and turned them into the trees, motioning them to follow. Kale and Stephen looked at each other but then followed. Bace led them down a rabbit trail until they came upon a small cave dug into the side of a hill. Bace disappeared inside but Kale and Stephen stopped. Kale pushed aside the long grass that draped over the top and then looked back at Stephen who flinched as Bace struck a firestone against the cave wall. A few sparks jumped off and lit a torch in his hand.
“It’s just a little further.” Bace said quietly as he held up the torch to light the way. Kale stepped in after glancing at Stephen once more and ducked to follow his shorter friend who had no trouble standing in the tunnel. Stephen followed after Kale who grunted as a root smacked his head. Stephen ran his hand along the cool wall to steady himself as they walked. They were only twenty feet in when the tunnel widened and a larger domed room suddenly appeared as Bace’s fire touched the walls and reached to the ceiling. Kale stood and glanced around the room. A flat shelf had been carved out of the rock at waist height around the perimeter of the room and on it were dozens of random objects. Bace lit the other torches lining the wall and then stepped back and watched as his students eyed up the array of colors decorating the room. Some items hung from the ceiling and others were sitting in crevices carved into the wall.
“This is mine. Or- I gave it to you at the beginning of the year.” Stephen said and held up a small wooden horse he had carved with the help of his dad. Bace nodded.
“What is this place?” Kale asked as he ran his fingers through the array of objects hanging from the ceiling. Stephen looked up as the objects started knocking into each other and filling the room with a hollow longing. Kale lowered his arm and brought his gaze down to the short man standing at the entrance.
“In my culture, when we care for someone we collect an item to represent them. The item acts as an oath and a promise to protect and treat them as family. When someone dies, we return the item to thank them for giving us something to live for. My grandmother believed that the items held every fond memory we had of the person which would be enough to even make the dead smile.” Bace picked up a small item and examined it quietly. Kale felt his anger subside immediately and gazed with new eyes around the room again.
“So these are all yours?” Stephen wondered aloud, amazed that Bace actually cared for so many people. Kale smacked him in the stomach and caught the grin that rolled into Bace’s eyes.
“No, a few other students come here too.” Bace leaned against the wall, sending a puff of dust into the air. Kale and Stephen watched as Bace coughed maniacally as he bent over and pulled a few dozen rolls of parchment from a dark crevice in the wall.
“You okay?” Stephen asked. Bace ignored him.
“Well, here’s why I actually brought you here. I’m going to need your help. Here, spread these out, Phen.” Bace passed a few rolls to Stephen and then to Kale and soon the whole floor was covered with the thin sheets. Kale was bent over a few as Bace and Stephen struggled to find more weights to hold down the curling edges.
“What does this mean?” Kale asked.
“What do you see?” Bace asked as they threw on the last few weights.
“These sheets are all covered with names. Some are stroked out, some are circled. Why?” Kale asked. Bace crawled over the papers towards Kale and Stephen followed behind, fixing the destruction Bace left behind as he disturbed the weights. Bace pointed to the sheet Kale was looking at.
“These are lists of the names of every student at the Academy this year. I’ve been- let me back up.” Bace sat back and though for a second. Then he began slowly.
“Just over seven months ago over two dozen men captured and demanded ransom for a few dozen citizens in four- just wait.” Bace scrambled over and pulled a big map out of another crevice and spread it before them. “-In four different cities, all at the same time on the same day. One in Norden, one in Westfold, one in Southrow, and one in Eastwood. One city in each of our four Kingdoms and each city was home to each Kingdom’s Academy. A few months later the Great Pirate Dar shows up in a small tavern in Port Gail just two days after being seen in Cacely, nearly a two-week journey from here. He then shows up in Adeley on the same day which we know is a solid four or five days of riding from here. Then go a few more weeks later and you’ll find that two of our Academy’s buildings mysteriously started on fire in the middle of the day. Strange, but not unheard of until you find out that a week before the same occurrence happened to the Academy in Southrow, and a week before that the same in Westfold and then finally a week before that-”
“In Norden.” Kale finished quietly as the wheels in his head started turning.
“Yes.” Bace replied and scanned each of his students to ensure that they were still following him. “What makes it more odd, however, is that forty were caught in the fires in Westfold and eight-teen died, forty in Southrow and eight-teen died, and forty in Norden and eight-teen died, forty in our Academy in Eastwood but only seven-teen died.”
“Something went wrong.” Kale’s eyes widened.
“You mean someone trapped them inside and started the buildings on fire?” Stephen exclaimed.
“Yes, each student I found was locked in their room. I had to break down their doors.” Bace said.
“How do you control who dies in a fire?” Kale asked.
“Or maybe, how do you control who dies after a fire?” Bace asked.
“You think someone killed the right number of people if it didn’t happen on its own?” Kale asked and Stephen quickly looked over to Bace who was nodding.
“But what if too many die?” Stephen asked.
“Well, if you only lock in eight-teen the chances of the others getting out are pretty high.” Kale suggested but looked to Bace for the answer. Bace was busy scanning the map when he realized the room had grown silent. He looked up and retraced the conversation in his mind.
“Oh, I don’t know that one yet.”
“Who do you think it is?” Kale asked.
“Don’t know that one either. That’s what I need your help with. Throughout the year I’ve been getting to know everything I can about every student. Some I’ve been working on for a few years now. I watch them and figure things out about them, ask them questions, listen in on conversations. It’s a process but I only have a few dozen names left that I haven’t been able to work on yet. Any names that have been crossed out have been ruled out but any that are circled I think might be possible candidates.”
“You think they’re Daini.” Kale sniffed.
“Yes. I think that Daine has been sending in students to train at our Academy so they learn our ways and then bring everything they’ve learned about us back to Daine during summer break.”
“Wait, so when you picked me out the first night we met, you were trying to figure out whether I was Daini or not?” Stephen asked excitedly.
“What did you think of me?” Stephen asked.
“Your eyes were too innocent, Stephen. Too kind to have anything boiling deep inside and too naive, haven’t seen things like I have.” Bace forced a grin as Kale snorted and ducked as Stephen’s fist flew towards him.
“Ow.” He said as Stephen accidently hit his bad shoulder.
“I suspected you, Kale. You didn’t make sense. For the Academy to break tradition and take you in at your age, it wasn’t adding up.” Bace pointed a finger at him.
“So what gave me away?” Kale asked as he warded off Stephen’s playful wrestling. A few parchments skidded away as they scuffled.
“The way you treated Stephen the moment you met him. Like he was a brother; sincerity like yours can’t be faked.” Bace suddenly looked wounded but he stood and turned. Kale pushed Stephen away and they settled.
“So you want us to talk to the remaining students?” Kale asked and Bace slowly turned.
“Yes, I want you to learn as much as you can about them. I’ll observe. I’m a little better at that than getting people to talk.”
“Well, you’ve obviously been talking.” Kale said as he leafed through the pages on the floor.
“Pick a few names to work on, write them down and then show me so I know who you’re following.” Bace said and watched as they started finding names together.
“Do you have a list of the students you suspect are Daini?” Kale asked, suddenly looking up. Bace passed him a parchment. On it was a list of names. None were circled or crossed out.
“Bace, this is almost half of our student body.” Kale said looking up and swallowing.
Almost Three Years Later
“I wouldn’t say Bace was an odd kid but he wasn’t exactly normal either. He could outsmart almost anyone and he always seemed to have a solution. We grew up together along the coast in a small village called Barde. He was a year older than me but we got along just fine. He had two younger brothers. One was four years younger, his name was Collin. The other was six years younger. I can’t be sure but I think his name was Carter. Bace was ten at the time of the accident. I don’t think he ever forgave himself.”
“And who gave you that account, a priest? Ha, forgave himself.” The man laughed dryly.
“No Sir, a man by the name of-”
“I don’t care about the names. What happened? What’s the mystery man’s young childhood tragedy?” The man behind the desk folded his hands.
“Um- nobody knows.” The Battlemaster lied. “Whatever happened remained a secret. All we know is that it drove Bace from home. That’s of course when he fled to the Academy. The- uh- Academy that put two Kingdoms between him and his family. Odd, wouldn’t you say?” The Battlemaster asked quietly.
“Not at all. Sounds like he just didn’t like his parents.” The man smiled.
“Sounds like he was running to me, Sir. Like he was guilty. Or something like that.” The Battlemaster shifted nervously.
“Do you have anything else you’d like to bore me with?” The man asked.
“Sir, Bace is a real man. He disappeared and maybe he’s trapped somewhere! What if he needs our help?”
“This character, Bace as you call him, sounds like a man who appreciates solitude. If he is real, then I’m sure he would appreciate being left alone.”
“But you haven’t heard the end of his story yet, Sir.”
Back to the Story
The last three months passed by quickly and before they knew it all the seniors were on the road to Adeley, their country’s Capital, to compete in the Finals. The rest of the students had been released for the summer but Kale had gladly postponed his journey to travel with Bace and support him throughout the week. Stephen, eager to get home to his family, had said goodbye but insisted that Bace send him a message describing, in full detail, everything he missed and whether or not he Graduated. The journey from Gail to Adeley was an easy ride but still took a full four to five days. Bace and Kale had reached it in three. Bace straightened his uniform and looked down again for the hundredth time since waking. Kale stirred in his bed but then settled down again. Bace was eager to get outside but didn’t feel like wandering the streets again; he had already explored them earlier that morning. Slowly the people of Adeley started to stir so the man stopped his pacing and threw Kale’s uniform at him and then walked into the hallway. A few other students were already outside the motel.
“Today’s the day, Bace.” Mash called to him across the street. Bace pumped a fist in the air and then ran into the meal tent. The Cook was already at work along with a dozen other workers preparing to feed over two-hundred men for the day. He was much older than Marta but kept to himself. He passed a small breakfast to Bace and then quietly went back to work. Bace sat down and eyed the back of Devon’s head as he sat down across the room.
“Eggs.” Destre said as he sat down across from the quiet man.
“I feel like a King.” Bace replied.
“Not for the portion size, though.” Destre tried smiling but was lost without a companion to keep his jokes going.
“You guys ready?” Kale asked as he approached with his uniform half on.
“Oh, right. Finals today. How could I forget?” Destre joked as Bace started rubbing his temples. Kale noticed.
“Better get that under control.” He said as he tried to peel a large orange.
“Why don’t you try?” Bace replied as he finished his breakfast.
“Good luck.” Kale said as Bace stood and left the room. He finished eating and then carried his tray over to the counter. Before leaving the room he unfortunately connected with Devon’s gaze. Devon watched him until he was out the door but the moment he was free of the gaze Kale sprinted down the street until he found the stables where he knew Bace would be prepping.
“You better watch your back today. Devon has something serious planned for you.” Bace laughed. Kale rarely heard him laugh and this short bark of amusement was enough to stop him in his tracks.
“Devon’s been planning this day since the moment we met, Kale. And if you don’t think that I have too, you’re in for a big surprise.” Bace slipped into his leather and then quietly focused on doing up the four ties down his torso. He slipped on his arm guard next and then looked up at Kale again.
“Did you finish the list?” Kale asked. Bace straightened and glanced around but didn’t recognize any students in the barn yet. He reached into his pocket and drew out a long sheet of parchment.
“We made it through everyone so that’s it.” Bace passed the sheet to Kale who opened it and glanced down the list.
“So what do we do now?” Kale asked.
“You watch your back. That’s all you can do.” Bace replied as he checked over his saddle and weapons.
“But what if-” Kale stopped as a student walked past them and started prepping. Bace shook his head and Kale folded the parchment. Bace motioned for him to keep it and they were soon joined by others getting ready for the day.
“No holding back today, hey?” Kale warned his teacher before leaving.
“No holding back.” Bace repeated and listened to the sound of Kale’s feet taking him away. Devon entered the building shortly after and glared at Bace as he prepared. Bace tried to ignore the man and focused on controlling his headache. His horse seemed to pick up on his headaches and for some reason whenever they were together his four-legged friend insisted on pressing his soft nose to Bace’s head. Bace felt the familiar pressure of the warm snout as he sat on a stool and polished his boots but this time he didn’t push it away. Devon was still eyeing him up and Bace tensed as the big man suddenly stood and started across the aisle.
Kale was chatting with a group of students outside the arena when he heard a loud rumble of cheering coming from within the barn. A large group had gathered inside and Kale could have guessed why. He stopped talking and sprinted away but when he entered he couldn’t push his way through the crowd. A Headmaster from another Academy was right behind him. His booming voice silenced and scattered the group in a second. The only two left in the center of the scuffle was Devon and another final year from a different Academy. A repetitive scrubbing sound filled the quiet room. Kale looked at them confused and then glanced over to find the source of the odd sound. Bace sat quietly on a stool leaning against his stall polishing his boot. His horse was pressing his nose to his master’s head. Bace glanced up and grinned as the Headmaster booted the two students out of the barn. Kale glanced back and watched them go, then turned back to Bace.
“Wha-” Kale began but then stopped, not able to find his words. Bace shrugged.
“Guess we’re not the only ones who don’t like him.”
Bace performed flawlessly throughout the morning but when lunch hit Kale noticed him rubbing the back of his neck. He found the man sucking back a skin of water outside the arena during one of the intermissions.
“What’s wrong?” He asked.
“It’s my head again.” The bearded man was squinting at him. Kale looked away, frustrated.
“How long has it been since the last one?” Kale asked.
“Not long enough.” Bace drained the last of his water and then tossed the skin aside as he ran back into the arena. Kale ran back to his seat. When he sat down Bace was just stepping forward. Each student was paired with another from a different Academy and twelve pairs could compete in the area at one time. The arena was something Kale had never seen before. The oval pit, about five meters dug into the ground, was at least six-hundred feet long. The arena was only entered through one of four large gates that were reached by a ramp connecting them to open ground above. Well-built stands rose up around the hole so spectators could have a good view from above. Bace faced a tall man with broad shoulders but a kind look in his eye. His hair was long and pulled back in a seaworthy braid. The man sensed something was wrong the moment he shook hands with his opponent.
“Sven.” The man said.
“Bace.” His opponent was small but Sven was just as capable of sensing danger in another man’s eyes. Always calculating, always thinking. The trumpet sounded suddenly but unlike most eager students this man held back. Sven decided to strike first and immediately discovered the solid defense his opponent possessed. He decided to change his approach. Bace could easily match his strength but could he match his speed. Bace caught the switch in the man’s eyes and knew what was coming but his movements were slower than usual as his pounding headache threatened to blow his eyes from his skull. Bace ducked and jumped back a few paces as he struggled to keep up with the rapid strikes. The sudden weight of a final blow threw him to the ground and he felt his head crack against the dirt. He quickly stood again and fisted his sword to the proper position. Sven stepped back and circled, watching the man carefully as he continued calculating. Bace struck first and Sven was surprised for the second time that day at the power behind the blade. Bace drove him back a few feet but then faltered as his head throbbed again; giving Sven the opportunity to gain the upper hand. Bace felt himself faltering further as his vision swam and knew that he was only a few blows away from being driven to the ground. He stumbled backwards and then with a final desperate effort he threw himself back.
Kale gasped and stood but a pair of hands quickly grabbed him and pulled him down. He could tell that Bace was faltering but suddenly, with inhuman speed, Bace flipped backwards. His feet connected with Sven’s jaw but his body continued over and he landed lightly back on his feet as Sven flew backwards and the ground drew him in. Bace quickly dropped his blade as he realized what he had done and jumped forward, sliding along the dirt on his knees to Sven’s side. The crowd continued cheering on the other teams as a Doctor ran forward. It only took a moment for Sven to be on his feet again and he walked off with Bace, now deep in conversation. Bace was clenching his fists nervously as they walked out of sight. Kale looked down at the pair of hands that had pulled him back into his seat. It was a young woman with two younger children sitting on the other side of her. The crowd was cheering louder yet but the woman looked over and smiled.
“Sorry, I didn’t want you getting wacked on the head by the fellow behind you.” She mothered. Kale glanced back at the dark figure behind him and then thanked the woman. After the rest of the teams cleared out Kale found Bace and his opponent alone as another dozen started inside the arena. Sven was rubbing his jaw and Bace, still squinting, was rubbing his shoulder as their conversation continued.
“If you don’t Graduate I fear nobody will.” Kale heard Bace say as he walked up. The man laughed in return.
“I’d say the same for you.” He said as he noticed Kale eyeing them up but not approaching. Bace gestured towards him.
“Sven, this is who I was telling you about.” Kale stepped forward and Bace introduced them.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Kale. Bace was telling me that you and I have a similar technique. Says you can match anybody’s speed.” Kale opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out. He was shocked that Bace had brought him up so instead he continued shaking the man’s hand and flushed excitedly. Bace watched with growing amusement until he realized that neither man was ready to say anything more.
“Kale, if you wouldn’t mind filling my skin.” Kale gladly took the offer and ran off to find the well.
“Bace, I’m afraid to say that you’ve been lied to today.” The man said and Bace looked back at him confused.
“Lied to?” He asked.
“My name is Master Sven, I’m a Swordmaster at the private Academy here in Adeley. The judges wanted a student to be selected at random to face me so I could tell them whether your Academy was keeping up and still matching the skills from ten years ago and you happened to be the one they chose.” The short man seemed to lose color in his face. “It’s nothing to worry about. You did fine. You show remarkable skills that can’t be taught at an Academy. You have a natural skill for adapting and fighting in whichever way you have available. Headache or no headache, when it comes to fighting for your country you need to be able to do what needs to be done and you proved that today. You have a natural unpredictability that I rarely find in students your age.” The Master said encouragingly but could tell that the man was still searching for something to say. Thankfully the silence was interrupted by Kale as he returned with more water.
“Thanks.” Bace said quietly but Kale could sense the tension.
“Everything okay?” He asked, glancing back and forth at each man. Bace pulled the skin to his lips again and sucked back the warm water.
“I guess I should be getting back. Well done, Bace, and the best of luck to both of you.” Sven slapped each of them on the shoulder and then ran off. Bace looked over at Kale who was watching him closely.
“What’s wrong?” Kale asked. “You did great. Didn’t you?” He continued.
“It was supposed to be a clean fight, Kale. Nobody should have ended up on the ground.” Bace replied huskily. He noticed the Doctor and his Headmaster heading towards them. Kale turned to follow Bace’s gaze and then turned back around and raised his eyebrows. Bace nodded and Kale ran off.
“You know, Bace. You’re not simple.” The Headmaster said as they approached.
“I know.” He replied but wondered whether the Headmaster knew who Bace had just fought. The Doctor stepped forward and examined Bace’s eyes before pushing the skin of water Bace was holding to his lips.
“Drink more.” The Doctor said. Bace drank as the Headmaster continued.
“I don’t know how the judges are going to take that little stunt of yours. I can’t promise you anything.”
“I know, Sir.” He replied evenly.
By the time Kale returned to his seat Bace was being called on again. The mother smiled up at him but Kale had his eyes glued to his companion.
“Your friend is doing well.” She said. Kale suddenly realized she was talking.
“What?” He asked and she pointed down at Bace.
“That’s your friend, isn’t it?” She asked.
“Yeah, we go to the same Academy.” He replied over the yell of the crowd.
“He’s doing well. I have no doubt he’ll make it through.” She said. “It’s nice of you to come along, I’m sure he appreciates the support.” She yelled a little louder as Kale leaned in.
“Well, I’m not sure he’d be doing any worse if I wasn’t here.” He said.
“You’d be surprised.” She winked up at him. Kale nodded and then watched as all the seniors were split into groups of five. It didn’t take long before all but five were left in the arena, ready for the final test.
“What’s this one for?” The woman asked. Kale looked down at her again.
“It’s for testing teamwork and strategy. They’re all given a random item, no weapons, and they have to defeat something. Nobody knows what though.” As if in answer one of the large iron gates opened slowly and two teams of heavy draft horses pulled a large wooden box into the arena. The crowd grew quiet when a long howl suddenly caught on the wind. The howl grew quieter after a moment and rolled into a few low chuckling sounds with a rumbling groan at the end. Kale’s breath caught in his throat and the woman beside him didn’t appear to be breathing either. Kale looked down at her and she quickly met his gaze. They looked back at the arena and watched as the horses strained against their harness to pull it through the door.
“They must have an awful lot of those horrible things to have one for each group.” The woman said but Kale was too enraptured by the box to hear her. The group met in the center of the arena and conversed quietly, casting nervous glances towards the terrible noise. Kale leaned forward as the poor man standing on the box pushed the door open from above with a pole. Kale could scarcely follow the creature as it whipped around the arena. His eyes widened.
“Isn’t that your friend?” The woman asked. Kale looked over to the group and saw Bace running towards them. A student, who seemed to have fainted, was being carried out. He watched the creature carefully as it lunged at the tall wall surrounding them, scattering the crowd just above. It fell back down in a huff and then ran for another spot. The horses quickly cleared the box from the arena and then the gates closed. Kale watched Bace closely as he took charge and started talking calmly with the group. They separated suddenly and all ran in separate directions as the creature bounded towards them. The woman beside Kale watched with horror on her face as the creature ran past them. It ran like a well-muscled wolf but snarled with the force of a wild cat. Its coarse hair seemed to shine a sickly pale green in the sunlight but its head was black. Even on all fours Kale could tell that the creature’s shoulders were matching Bace’s height and its long tail swept hungrily back and forth as it hunted. It suddenly slid to a halt as it finished its frantic lap around the arena and lowered its slick head to the ground, sizing up its five opponents and making the same low grunting sounds. Bace had made it to a spot just below the section of seats Kale was sitting in. The creature settled its gaze on him with a knowing look in its eyes. Bace seemed distracted, even more so than before.
“He doesn’t look very well.” The mother said next to Kale, voicing his thoughts. Kale watched as Bace suddenly stumbled and fell to the ground. The students noticed him fall and immediately started running for him. The creature had already started towards him, seeing him as the weakest member and looking for an easy kill. Kale was bounding down the aisle the moment Bace fell and suddenly found himself standing over the edge. Without hesitating he jumped down and rolled to cushion his fall but his legs sang with pain as he stood. The crowd was screaming as Kale ran for Bace. He was closing in fast but the creature was coming in much faster. It was clear who would make it to the fallen man first so Kale acted quickly and drew his dagger. His wrist flicked and the crowd caught the glint of the weapon as it spun through the air and ripped across the creature’s shoulder. It screamed and turned sharply to avoid more stings. Bace was already trying to push himself up by the time Kale reached him. The other four students, realizing Bace was being taken care of, started distracting the animal to draw it away from the pair.
“Bace!” Kale yelled as he slid to a stop. Kale tried to pull him up but Bace pushed him away. He grabbed for him again and pulled him to his feet. A few Masters were waiting at the gate and quickly pushed it open so Kale and Bace could slip through. Two Doctor’s quickly ran over and dragged him to a tent. Kale was shut off and told to wait outside. He paced frantically until he caught Devon smiling at him from further down the line of medical tents having a wound on his shoulder nursed. Kale stopped his pacing and stared back but the tent door suddenly opened and drew Kale’s attention to Bace sitting up in bed. He dove through the curtains but a Doctor held him back.
“Let him in.” Bace quietly said and the Doctor slowly stepped aside and left the tent. Kale took a step forward and then froze.
“Well I know you didn’t faint like the first guy. What’s wrong with you?” Kale asked, furious. Bace looked away sheepishly. After contemplating his next few words carefully, he spoke.
“I let my guard down, Kale.” He said quietly.
“What do mean?” Kale asked.
“My water skin is missing.”
“I was drugged Kale.”
“Someone drugged you?” Kale asked. Bace refused to meet the gaze of the tall student that bore down on him.
“You know why Devon didn’t pass last year? You ever been told why?” Bace asked and Kale sat down on a chair at the other side of the tent.
“I thought he wasn’t good enough.” He said. Bace was quiet for another minute.
“I switched his bow out, Kale. I found one that looked exactly like his but with much more power. Made a proper fool of him; he couldn’t even draw it.” Bace paused, keeping his eyes on the ground. “I loosened his stirrups too; came right off as he was riding.” Bace pressed a wet cloth to his eyes. “Guess it’s my turn now.” He mumbled. Kale looked down at the ground then stood and left the room, leaving Bace to mend on his own. He thought about returning to his seat but then stopped and turned. He saw Devon, still sitting where he was before. He hesitated but then started towards him. Devon saw him approaching and smiled. The smile lessened and he stood as he saw something in Kale that he had never seen before. Kale had never felt this way before. He marched up to Devon and before he could stop himself he grabbed the man’s shirt and threw him back. Devon felt his feet leave the ground. Kale heard gasps around him but he started forward again and quickly planted his foot over Devon’s wounded shoulder. The man cried out and the Doctors rushed forward. Kale pressed harder and then bent down and grabbed Devon’s shirt in his fists.
“You better watch your back.” Kale hissed before four Doctor’s managed to pull him up. He held up his hands and backed away.
“Enough, walk away, son.” One of the Doctors pointed. Another shoed him away. He turned and then stuck his hand in his pockets and grinned.
As it was every year, all the students were gathered as the sun began to sink. Bace had managed to sleep off the drug as the remaining students finished their final test. He lumbered, defeated, into the ring and felt as if none of those cheers were for him. As the judges gathered before them Bace felt Devon step in beside him. He glanced over, unwilling to submit to Devon, and offered something that looked more like a snarl than a smile to anyone who saw. Devon was grinning madly.
“Heard the final test didn’t go too well for you. Shame. I’ve heard though, that sometimes if you don’t pass all of the tests you can still make it through.” Devon smiled again but Bace didn’t give him the pleasure of a response. The judges introduced themselves quickly and then started calling names. As the name was called the student would step forward and receive a banner and a Knights insignia was pinned to their chest. They were then free to leave the arena. After a few minutes the crowd was starting to noticeably thin and Devon had lost his smile.
“Bazil.” The name was called.
Bace was repeating the name in his head. Something sounded familiar about it.
Baz-il. He tried sounding it out. The student to his left nudged him. He looked over.
“Bazil. That’s my name.” He said. The student nodded.
“It sure is. And you’re holding up the line.” He said. Bace started forward, hardly believing that the insignia was now pinned to his chest. He clenched the banner in his fist and made his way out of the arena. He ran into Kale at the top of the ramp leading out. Kale was smiling. Bace shook his head.
“This is impossible.” He said and looked down at the insignia. Kale held up the skin and a small vial.
“I showed the judges your skin of water and the vial I stole from Devon’s pocket. They had a Doctor come down and he identified the drug. You’re a free man, my friend.” Bace’s eyes widened, showing more expression than Kale had ever seen on his face.
“Where did you find my skin?” Bace asked.
“What’s your best guess?”
“And how did you manage to steal from Devon’s pocket?” He asked. Kale was silent for a moment and they could hear the announcer from in the arena.
“And that concludes the graduating class. Best of luck for those who did not make it through. Please report to your Masters immediately to register for next year.” Bace looked back at the arena and then turned to Kale again and smiled.
“I distracted him.”