After the swordsmen fought, they were supposed to wait along the side of the training center for everyone to finish so Warrior Marne could select twenty to join the Academy. But out of hundreds, only about fifty stayed. The rest knew their embarrassing beating wasn’t good enough and had promptly left. Alabell treated many of them before watching them hobble away.
It was painful to watch so many men have their spirits crushed. But that didn’t compare to the wrench of her heart when she saw the impoverished brutally beaten by the rich. It was like watching a cat terrorize a trapped mouse. The less-trained man often spent most of the match retreating with nowhere to go before taking the inevitable strike, which was often done hard and with obvious malice, as if the experienced swordsman wanted to teach a lesson to stay out of his training center. This seemed to be the thought shared by everyone waiting as they cheered for blood.
Somehow the cloaked young woman at the back of the line had remained anonymous. As her turn came up, Alabell moved closer to watch.
The young woman turned away from Warrior Marne as she unfastened her cloak. Seeing Alabell watching, she stopped to twiddle her fingers in a playful wave. Alabell chuckled and waved back, hoping that whatever affliction drove this woman here wasn’t insanity but something Alabell might be able to fix once she was shooed away from competing.
The woman dropped her cloak and spun on her heels. She walked toward the warrior recruiter with marvelous confidence, as if to deliver retribution for all the men shamed before her, and drew her wooden sword from its scabbard like it was her tool for justice. There were three men around her: the recruiter, the impoverished man who’d been in line in front of her, and a recent warrior graduate who had been in the same grade as Alabell, a towering swordsman whose success fueled his arrogance. He was there to fight the more apt recruits when their opponent didn’t give them enough of a challenge for Warrior Marne to see their true skill, and everyone still waiting had faced him and lost without landing a strike.
These three men had the same reaction to the woman as those waiting behind them: utter and unamused shock. No matter how long they stared, they just couldn’t seem to believe what they were seeing.
Marne was the first to compose himself as he faced her squarely. “Lady, this line is for warriors trying to join the Academy.”
“I realize that, sir.” She raised her eyebrows as she gestured to her sword. “I’m here to prove myself.”
The quiet evening air was split by the crowd’s collective sound of entertainment. Their shrill expletives of surprise came out the loudest as they slapped each other’s backs and chests, many addressing this young woman with insults toward her sanity.
Alabell had seen women who looked formidable, with broader shoulders or thicker arms than others. But this young woman had no such traits. She was slightly tall for a woman but still shorter than all of the men left in the training center. Her thick brown hair was so light it was almost gray, and it fell freely to her shoulders. Her form-fitting tunic stopped at her elbows and knees, clearly to give her limbs more mobility. There was some tone to the muscles of her slender arms and legs, but nothing more than Alabell had on her own calves and forearms.
The woman’s face was kind and gentle, her chin round and soft and her eyes large. Even when the laughter of her audience had flattened her smile, her expression still held as amiable. She was a woman Alabell wouldn’t hesitate to ask for assistance, but certainly not someone Alabell could imagine sword fighting with men.
“If you’ll just allow me to show you,” the woman said, “you’ll see that I deserve to be accepted to the Academy.”
“Not as a warrior.” Marne’s tone left no room for argument. “Come back next year with a wand, or apply as a chemist or psychic.”
She gestured at the impoverished young man standing before her. “You gave these hopeless invalids a chance, just to watch them beaten by men with a hundred times their skill.”
“My ass I’m an invalid,” the man retorted. “Mind your tongue.”
The woman clenched her teeth in regret and dropped her gesturing arm. “I apologize. I just wanted to prove a point.” She gave a stern look to Marne. “The fastest way to get rid of me is to give me the same chance as them.”
Marne tossed up his hands in surrender. “Fine. Do you know the rules?”
“The winner is the first to score two points. No head-butting, biting, or spitting.” An excited smile broke out as she took a fighter’s stance against the impoverished man. Her opponent mimicked her, though he didn’t seem nearly as comfortable in the slight crouch as she did.
“Fight,” Marne called, and the woman began bouncing forward and back, light as a feather. Her opponent advanced and attacked. She deflected his lunge and kneed him in the crotch.
He dropped his weapon as he grunted and fell.
She sucked in air through her teeth. “Sorry.”
It was probably the first time anyone had apologized after scoring a point. Those in the crowd voiced their anger as they yelled out that she needed to fight a real opponent.
But the impoverished man struggled to his feet and readied his weapon, his face red with rage.
“Fight,” Marne called again.
After some initial hesitance, the impoverished man attacked again. She ducked under his powerful yet slow swipe at her head and poked him in the stomach with the tip of her sword.
It was the swiftest yet gentlest match Alabell had seen.
The poor man muttered some curses at her as he walked out of the training center with a slight slouch.
“What’s your name?” Marne demanded.
“How old are you?”
The warrior recruiter looked at the scroll he’d been writing on all day, though he made no marks. It seemed to Alabell that he was trying to think of some sort of excuse.
“If she needs to prove herself more,” Alabell called from outside the training center, “then have her duel someone else.”
Sanya straightened her back. “I’ll duel anyone you want.”
The recruiter turned his head toward the recent graduate. “Kann, get in position.”
As if hoping for that very request, Kann’s teeth came over his bottom lip in an ominous smile.
Sanya’s eyes widened. “You’re large.”
“Kann will need to fight with all of his strength as he did against the others to test you equally,” Marne warned. “You can give up at any moment by saying so, and I advise you do so now, before the bout.”
“Let’s see how this first point goes, shall we?” Sanya’s tone edged toward teasing.
Alabell held in a squeal of worry as Kann came at Sanya with two hard and fast swings. Sanya danced backward, barely dodging each attack that seemed too strong for her to deflect.
Kann stopped chasing her, annoyed. “Are you going to run until the sun sets?”
Her face hardened as she galloped forward, her sword leading the charge. She motioned as though going for a massive blow to his head, only to arc her sword down onto his thigh as he calmly lifted his weapon to block.
Surprise widened his eyes. It was only a light prick. Even a true sword wouldn’t have gone far enough into his flesh to maim him for long, but it still earned Sanya a point.
The crowd groaned at Kann as the haughty warrior inhaled a sharp breath of anger.
“Come on, Kann,” Marne added to the noises from the angry crowd.
Alabell was more than disappointed with the Academy instructor. It seemed that no matter how well Sanya performed, it would be Kann’s fault if she won rather than her earning it.
Kann glared at her and twirled his wrist and arm to spin his weapon around each side of his torso. “I was going easy, but now I’m going to make you regret coming here.”
There was no clear aggressor as they engaged in combat again, both dancing in and out of range as they tried to find an opening. It went on for longer than Alabell had seen any of the other fights, until Kann seemed to anticipate one of Sanya’s lunges. He smacked away her weapon as he spun and brought his wooden blade all the way around for a vicious strike to her shoulder.
Alabell expected to see Sanya fall and yelp in pain, but she only frowned, lowered her arm, and grunted out a disappointed gah.
“Bastial hell,” Alabell muttered. It was as if Kann had simply tapped her.
He seemed horrified that his blow hadn’t crippled her, while the warriors behind him were no less shocked. Sanya calmly lifted her weapon. “Ready for the last point?”
Kann’s teeth clenched and his face reddened. No doubt he would hurt her if it was the last thing he did.
The moment Marne called for the fight to begin, Kann charged. But his obvious anger was his undoing as Sanya avoided his overhead slash and prodded him in the stomach with ease.
He threw his weapon against the ground. “We’re fighting to three points, you bitch!”
“All right, but you might want to calm yourself first.” Her voice held at an even tone. “Wait, that wasn’t nearly insulting enough. I’m trying to learn to be a warrior, so I’d better start talking like one.” She cleared her throat. “You might want to calm yourself first, you bitch.”
As he snatched up his weapon, Kann muttered that he would kill her.
Marne seemed content with all of this as he folded his arms. Alabell hurried toward the gap in the metal fence, wishing she’d brought some sort of potion that could subdue Kann. She didn’t know what to do without one, but she had to try something.
“Fight,” Marne called out.
Alabell got within the training area just in time to watch Kann overpower Sanya with a flurry of attacks and create an opportunity to slash at her unguarded collar. She ducked, but Kann spun around and struck downward in an attempt to cleave her head in half. She barely managed to lean out of the way, but his sword continued down and cracked against her knee.
This time she did yelp and puddle to the ground. But then, amazingly, Sanya gingerly climbed back to her feet and pointed her weapon at her opponent, completely hiding the pain behind a calm expression.
A strike that hard should’ve stopped her from walking for a few hours, if not days. Kann looked as though he couldn’t decide whether to be angry or shocked. Marne had a matching countenance.
Sanya took a step forward, but her knee buckled. She caught herself, sucked in a breath, and then tried another step.
She seemed steady again. “I’m ready.”
As if about to have a tantrum, Kann pressed his lips together while he got in position.
“Stop!” a familiar voice yelled.
Alabell turned to find Terren running into the training center. The headmaster of the Academy must’ve come by to check on the results of recruitment day. Whether or not he’d seen Kann striking Sanya, he seemed enraged by the sight before him.
“Marne what in the bastial hell is this? She’s a woman!”
“She demanded to fight and wouldn’t leave until I gave her the chance.”
“So you pitted her against Kann?”
Sanya put herself between the two men. They looked like giants beside her.
“You must be the head of the Academy, Terren Polken.” She extended her hand. “I’m honored to meet you, sir. Please allow me to continue the fight. I’ve already bested one opponent, and the score against Kann is two to two.”
He raised one eyebrow as he shook her hand. “Two to two?” His gaze lifted to Marne. “Is that right?”
“Seeing as how the last point went to Kann,” Terren said, “she must’ve scored the first two. And it should’ve ended there.”
So he had seen Kann’s strike.
Marne turned half his face away. “Yes, sir.”
Terren glanced down at Sanya’s knee, which was starting to bruise. But Sanya spoke before he could say anything. “The strike looked worse than it was.”
“Your skin seems to disagree.”
“I’m fine. Truly.”
Terren straightened and looked down at her as if she were a lost child. “You really beat another opponent and then scored the first two points against Kann?”
Marne cleared his throat. “Her first opponent fought as though he’d never wielded a sword before.”
Terren furrowed his brow. “And what of her points against Kann? What excuse do you have for those?”
The silence that followed was uncomfortable.
“She got lucky,” Kann finally answered.
“Did anyone else score two points against you today?”
“No,” he said sullenly.
Terren walked over and grabbed Kann’s practice sword out of his hand. The headmaster pointed it at Sanya until she raised her own weapon. Slowly, he trudged toward her, not attacking but threatening to do so as he shifted his weapon to different angles. Sanya’s sword came alive as she rapidly moved it to fend off any chance he might have of reaching her.
Without a word, Terren lumbered back to Kann and shoved his weapon flat against his chest, sending the young man back two steps. Then Terren headed out of the training center, calling out, “Give her a scroll. I want to see how she does during evaluation week.”
After staring in disbelief for a moment, Marne quickly scribbled her name and class on a scroll and tossed it at her feet. Sanya scooped it up and hurried out of the training center.
“Come with me, please,” she whispered to Alabell as she passed by.
Alabell needed to jog to reach her side. “That was unbelievable, but how are you not in pain?”
Sanya flashed a smile. “Hold that question for the moment. Please bring your cart of potions over to the other side of the street. I’ll be waiting.”
Though slightly confused, Alabell retrieved her cart and brought it over to Sanya, who stood in the shadows of the wand shop. Sanya took Alabell’s shoulders. “Will you stand right here?” She guided Alabell until she was directly between Sanya and the training center. “Thank you.”
A loud groan sputtered out of Sanya’s throat as she keeled over. She held her shoulder with one hand and her knee with the other. “Bastial hell, it hurts. That bastard put all of his strength behind those strikes.”
Alabell barked out a laugh. “You’re insane! He would’ve put his sword through your skull if you were a hair slower.”
“I want the caregelow.” She reached out and made a grabbing motion. “Give it to me, healer.”
Alabell laughed harder. “That’s for the dying, and it will make you lose your mind for hours. Take this instead.” Alabell offered a keyfar potion, a powerful ointment without side effects. “Apply it directly to the injured area right now and tomorrow as well.”
But Sanya wouldn’t accept the potion. “I need something stronger than keyfar.” She shoved it away. “I’m going to be fighting more bastards like Kann tomorrow, and I need to be healed before then. Have any repair potions?”
It impressed Alabell that this woman had recognized the keyfar, but did she truly know what she was asking for? “If you think the pain is bad now, you won’t be able to endure what the repair potion will do to you. Like the caregelow, it’s only given to people whose injuries are life-threatening because of the terrible agony it causes.”
“I know. I know.” She waved her hand as she straightened. “But as you witnessed earlier, I can handle pain better than most.” She completely hid her anguish once again, proving her point.
“If you’re certain.”
Alabell offered the repair potion. Sanya took it and gulped down the bitter substance right there. If she minded the taste, she didn’t show it.
“What’s your name?”
“Alabell. And I already heard yours, Sanya. A pleasure to meet you.”
She nodded. “It is. I would stay and ask polite questions and be formal and such, but I’d better get myself in bed before the pain sets in.”
“A good idea, indeed. Good luck at the Academy. I feel the need to warn you, however, that most of the men there are no less hostile than those you met today.”
“I’m well aware. Thank you for your help.”
“Anytime.” Wish there was more I could do.
After Sanya walked away, Alabell got her cart in order. She needed to return it to Oakshen’s royal chemistry building.
It had been a long day. She wanted a large supper before making the walk back to Kyrro City. The thought of her trek drained her. Perhaps I’ll just stay the night at an inn here.
She pushed her cart down the street but stopped when she heard someone calling her name. She turned to find a gorgeous man jogging toward her. She knew him, but how? Her mind strived to remember as her eyes pleaded not to look away.
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