Nessa was already up when Miran woke in the half-light. "Any advice?" Miran asked, pulling on some clothes.
"Remember to avoid the packs that form. It'll happen naturally as everyone settles into their pace, but don't get caught in there," Nessa informed her as she absent-mindedly itched her brow.
Miran's attention was drawn to a scar there. A war wound perhaps?
"Don't sprint it out in the beginning. You'll burn out. Conserve your energy. Use those long legs of yours to kill them on the home stretch."
Miran just nodded, she didn't trust herself to say much more. She was nervous.
The sheer amount of words from Nessa was indication that she was nervous too, "You're going to do great."
Miran wanted to believe her. Nessa looked so earnest. The problem was, Miran had seen the folks in her age bracket. Three of them were musclebound men with full beards. How was she supposed to compete with that?
Nessa would tell her that big men fall hard. They had a lot of extra weight to tote when compared to Miran's own slim build. She was all legs. She could do this.
The girl made her way to the start line.
When the drums beat to signal the start of the race, Miran tried to fall into her usual pace. She couldn't. Her whole body was on high alert. She wanted to bolt out of the starting gate and get it over with. It was only her good sense that kept her reined in.
She tried to think of other things Nessa had told her to keep distracted. Nessa had said Peacekeeper Trainees were a competitive bunch and the Entry Games were ruthless. It would set the scene for how people would be treated once they'd been accepted. To stand out, she had to show her full potential and hope the masters took notice. The risk was that every other Trainee would try and knock her down and hate her natural talent.
Miran's head was clear by the time she hit the second mile and she'd found her pace, safely away from the pack. She didn't pass them unscathed though. More than a few elbows had been thrown and not all of them had missed. A couple glanced off, but one caught her especially hard in the ribs.
The last quarter mile had Miran lengthening her stride as she ran full tilt toward the finish.
Master Muski stood as a stream-lined girl with a long dark braid bolted to the finish line.
"Swift," the master on his right noted.
"Remind you of anyone?" Asked the one on the left.
Trainee Lightfoot was who he was insinuating. She'd been missing for six months now. The High King was so furious he'd deemed her Rogue and sent Coursers after her, to no avail. She was a good athlete and a better fighter. They'd never find her if she didn't want to be found.
Muski believed she'd run off after being bullied into marrying the High King's son. She wasn't the marrying kind. Not for a prince.
Still, there were those that maintained she'd been kidnapped, despite the lack of evidence or ransom note.
Muski wished Lightfoot would come back and finish her training. He hated the thought of her half-formed skills toiling away in the wild. It was likely she'd returned to her woods with no intention of leaving. She'd never chosen to be a Peacekeeper. She'd been thrown into the life because the High King wanted to capitalize on her unique skill sets. They would set her up to be a formidable Peacekeeper. As a Trainee, she was unrivaled. The best Muski had ever seen. She listened well, wasn't afraid to ask questions, and always wanted to learn more.
It would be a long time before any of the masters forgot about Trainee Lightfoot. She had raised the bar on what was acceptable as a Trainee. Now, they were looking for someone as remarkable.
Muski recalled her entry year. The first test had been a paintball competition, it required mastery with a bow and moving through the woods. The object was to shoot as many opponents as possible and avoid getting shot yourself. Nessa was the only Trainee in history to emerge from the woods without a single mark on her. That was how she'd gotten the name Lightfoot. No one had seen or heard her in the woods that day, but her shade of paint marred every body.
"Swift," Muski echoed, listening to the herald shout the names of the finishers, listening for the name of the girl with the dark braid. Miran of Rakesh. He wouldn't make the mistake of forgetting her name again. She was the fastest female and third overall. It was quite an achievement considering the first and second place finishes were awarded to boys with a father who had been named Racer as a Trainee. Those boys were born to run. Their father could run a mile in under four minutes. Miran had set the new female record.
Miran paced the green grass at the finish line, trying to catch her breath. She saw a squat figure with a pitcher of water milling about. Nessa. It had to be.
The Tolinese girl made for the tiny figure and saw familiar amber eyes swathed with cloth. She wore a headwrap that covered all but her eyes. Extra clothes and cloth were stuffed about her person to disguise her form.
"Don't forget to stretch," Nessa advised, handing over her water pitcher so that Miran could have a drink.
She didn't stand out. There were a number of other supporters on the green, parents and servants among them.
When Miran was done drinking the water, she looked up to find Nessa gone. The Tolinese girl was not surprised. Nessa had expressed a desire not to enter the city and the footrace was one of the few events held beyond its walls. Still, it was probably too close for comfort.
The fact that she had come out at all had Miran feeling very proud. She had done well and Nessa had seen it.
More youths were finishing. Nessa turned her attention to them.
Once they were all in, a master stood to announce the next test. The last of the runners were still catching their breath.
Tomorrow would be the sword fight.
Swords. Miran marched off to find Nessa.
"It's not till tomorrow," Nessa said, finding Miran's sword and inspecting it to prepare it for the event.
"What do I do?" Miran wanted to know.
"Keep your head. Hydrate, stretch—and bathe," Nessa added this last part, wrinkling her nose.
Miran managed to laugh as she stripped off her armor, intent on the river.
"Good job out there today," Nessa said.
"Race you to the river," Miran grinned her challenge.
"A cool down is a good idea," Nessa acknowledged. "Stretch well."
Miran nodded and ducked out of the tent to make her way down to the river.
Nessa looked up after she'd gone, thinking about the Tolinese girl's results: first for the women, third overall. Not bad.
It would definitely get her noticed, by Muski at the very least. He felt that only women should be Peacekeepers. He liked their concept of justice. He'd like Miran, Nessa mused.
Nessa put the sword back when she was done and rifled through the armor.
It allowed for mobility and agility, which were favorable to Miran's figure. Apparently, they'd tried to put her into armor that provided better protection, but restricted her movement. She hadn't liked it. Apparently, the way they did things in Tolin involved fluidity. Her sword was light but well-made, a product of Cataire, the land of women warriors.
Nessa checked and double-checked the straps and the soundness of the equipment. Miran was a good swordsman. She'd been good to start, with a unique style that Catarans wouldn't know how to respond. The problem was that, in her armor, she was going to take a beating. Nessa had heard about the behemoths in Miran's bracket. There was nothing that could be done about it now.
"The sword competition," Miran explained once she'd cleaned herself up, "is a bracketed challenge." The kids in her group would be randomized and made to fight each other. Whoever lost was out. They would fight three opponents with an outcome of two finalists.
Miran was going to go back later in the day to see her bracket. She'd memorized the other fifteen kids in her group as they'd been lined up, so she would know what she was going up against.
"Pavel of Filas," Miran returned and sat. "He's small, but looks strong. Wiry."
"Filas, huh?" Nessa was quiet as she thought. "He'll wield a short sword. You should get the better of him because of your reach. His attacks will be quick and precise."
"Why do you know that?"
Nessa grinned, "Filas is an infamous pirate town."
"I'll be fighting a sixteen year-old pirate?"
"He's probably not attended the entry games until now because he's been at sea all the other times."
"That makes it so much better..."
"They take to sea as early as six. He'll have been on that boat awhile. He won't be used to fighting on land, and you've got your height in your favor."
"Pirates also don't fight with much armor, if I recall."
Nessa's smile was back, "No, they don't. First blood wins."
That became her plan.
Miran came out swinging, though to everyone else, it looked like a dance. The pirate-boy didn't know how to respond. He was used to doing whatever he had to, to get out alive. There was something about her artful demonstration that put him off his game.
He didn't stand a chance.
His only option was to play defense, and while his defense was good, it wasn't going to score him any points. It probably helped that Miran was able to make her body bend in ways that most normal people couldn't. She advanced on the youth and swung beyond the defense of his short sword. In a matter of minutes, he was done.
None of the other matches were decided as quickly, so Miran had time to catch her breath and research her next opponent. Lux of Fresia, was fighting Jem of Bernas. The former was long and lean. The second was blocky. Both were decent. In the end, Jem overpowered the other girl.
Miran stretched and suited up. This was going to hurt.
She wasn't wrong. Jem used her power to beat her opponents into submission. She was going to be dangerous in the hand-to-hand category. Miran had speed and agility on her side. She danced out of attacks and lashed out with her own assaults. She did take a beating before coming out on top.
Her final fight was against some well-trained noble who'd managed to take out both of the musclebound giants in her group. He was good, but Miran was better.
"That Tolinese girl is light on her feet," Master Yoshi noted, nudging Muski and grinning.
His choice of words did not escape Muski. They were only two events in and no one could replace Trainee Lightfoot so easily. On the other hand, they were two events in and Miran of Rakesh was proving to be someone worth remembering. She was the fastest woman and now, a swordsman finalist. She had a great deal of skill with the sword, however, there were more events to test her skills and she wasn't going to place so well in all of them.
As the competitors lined up for recognition, Master Yoshi announced what the next day would bring. There would be two trials because they were easily completed. A sprint and an archery demonstration. Miran huffed as she listened. The sprint would be in the morning. Each would have the opportunity to run three times. The fastest time of the three would determine the rankings. They would be made to run one at a time. Miran was better at running when someone was running after her.
The girl trudged back to Nessa, shed her armor and slipped into the river for an undetermined amount of time.
They wouldn't reveal the nuances of the archery competition until after the sprint series.
The master wasn't kidding when he said it was over quick.
Miran was the fastest for the women. No one was surprised.
The rules for archery involved moving down a line, hitting targets from various distances while standing. For archers with prowess in such situations, they could also choose to run a course and also ride.
Miran raced back to the tent and informed Nessa.
The redhead nodded and offered the bow they'd stolen from Hunter. Miran had used it a fair amount on the road, hunting game. She was more practiced with it than anything they might have borrowed from the Academy.
It just strange, relinquishing it, Nessa thought to herself. She had been keeping it close since they'd made camp, just in case. She supposed she would have Miran's sword, should a situation arise...
It was curious, Hunter's bow. Magen hunters used a long bow in their woods. The compact model they'd taken from Hunter was more common on the steppes, wielded by men on horseback. It was called a recurve. It had the same distance as a long bow, it was just easier to carry.
Miran came back looking as if she was returning from battle and not from the archery range. "What they failed to mention is that they would ask you to make two shots from the target, one from the left and one from the right." She collapsed on the ground, exhausted.
Nessa tried not to laugh, "That makes sense in the event you are injured, but that is a high standard to set."
"An eleven year old managed to make every shot. Her name was Fiona Nightshadow."
"Was?" Nessa asked, "Did you kill her on the way over?"
Miran laughed, "I thought about it." She paused, "How is that even possible?"
"You remember Shade?"
"The Nightshadows are her line."
"So she can see in the dark as well? I don't stand a chance."
"You're not in a bracket with an eleven year old. The archery competition is one of the few that overlaps despite the ages."
"Are they going to ask us to return at night and shoot again?" Miran was only half-kidding.
"It went that well?" Nessa asked.
"I was outshot by a sprig of a girl," Miran continued.
"How poorly did you do?"
Miran admitted that she hadn't done so bad, "I hit every target from a stationary position. Once on the move, my effectiveness dropped considerably."
"You aren't going to win every time. In fact, it's better that you don't so the masters actually have something to teach you," Nessa was smiling.
"You're enjoying this."
"You were top in the races and the sword. You have at least one of the masters attention. Focus on what's ahead. What event is tomorrow?"
"The lance," Miran groaned. "My arms are exhausted after fighting Hunter's bow."
"Go to bed."
"Because I'm being a grump?" Miran asked.
Nessa laughed, "No, because sleep will lessen the pain."
Miran growled and fell to bed.
While the girl slept, Nessa prepared for her day. The lance wore the worst on female Trainees. Most didn't have the upper body strength to carry the lance unless they had prior experience. Miran was stronger than she looked, but Nessa suspected it wasn't going to be enough. Not only that, the sport was rough on the body. Carrying the lance was one thing, but holding on when someone strikes you with their lance was another matter entirely. There's bruising, potential broken bones and head injuries to account for.
Nessa tried to take her mind off of things by inspecting the horses. They had the mount they'd stolen from Hunter, but there was no guarantee that the animal was familiar with the lance. Miran had brought one from the Academy, as well as a tilting saddle.
In between curses, Nessa had showed Miran how it worked. It was clear she had no love for the sport.
As Miran was getting ready for the day, stringing her armor onto her horse, Nessa disappeared. When she returned, she explained her absence, "I've been to the lists. Your second joust will be against one of the giants."
"You think I can win the first one?" The joust was to be in the same style as the sword competition: randomized, with elimination after a loss.
"I think you stand a chance. Just—don't fall off your horse."
Miran gave Nessa a surprised look. The redhead was tart this morning.
Despite her expressed desire never to return to this place and her hatred for it, Nessa had maintained good cheer for Miran. Was it wearing off or did she just hate the joust that much?
Miran brushed the remark off. She knew Nessa meant well. It was why she was here, instead of halfway to Tolin again.
The tall girl collected her horse and walked to the tilting yard, the armor clinking with the horse's gait.
Lances were to be provided on site by the Academy. There were too many injuries of people tipping their lances and causing unnecessary deaths. One would think children would not stoop to such a level, but some were desperate to get accepted by the Academy that they would go so far as to eliminate the competition.
Nessa watched the girl go, experiencing mixed emotions. As much as she hated the joust and couldn't bear to watch it, she felt she ought to go, because it was such a dangerous sport.
What if Miran needed medical attention?
Who would help her?
That was what decided her. She hadn't walked Miran all the way from Tolin just to let her go now. She'd been in charge of Miran's well-being since that day Miran had asked for her protection. She still was. She had to go.
Nessa readied her disguise with her headwrap and excessive layers of clothing to disguise her frame. When she was unrecognizable, she hurried through the gates.
The joust was being held in the training yards, in the style of the professionals, all the rage in this time of peace.
There were three ways to score points. If you unseated your opponent it was an automatic win. Three points. If you hit the face mask, it was two points. If you only made contact with the body, it was one point. The first competitor to accrue three points won the round.
Nessa saw Miran struggling to get into her armor. Tilting armor was hardier than that of the sword. Miran's sword armor was smaller and mostly leather. This armor was bulky and thick and all metal. The redhead bustled over and immediately began to tighten clasps and secure things.
Miran whirled when she realized she had help. When she recognized Nessa's tiny bulk, her eyes widened. "What are you doing here?" Miran whispered.
"Who's going to help you get into your armor? Or hold your lance?" Nessa wanted to know, her hands still busy.
"They provide assistants," Miran said hotly.
"None that you've taken advantage of," Nessa noted.
In a matter of minutes, Miran was securely snugged into her armor. Nessa declared, "I'll get your lance," and started for the rack that held them.
Miran started to object, but after looking around at her surroundings, she noticed that no one was paying them any attention. She decided not to do anything to change that, most particularly by making a scene.
Nessa collected a lance and returned to hold the horse as Miran mounted. The herald announced the two riders as they stood on opposite ends of a dirt track. The track was divided by a post-fence.
Miran's first opponent was a girl. When the herald waved his flag, the pair rode hard at each other. The opponent got lucky, glancing a blow off Miran's head.
When Miran rode back to collect her next lance, she knew what she had to do to win. Her only chance was to unseat her opponent.
Miran hit her low and hard, and the girl tumbled out of her saddle. Miran was declared the victor of the first round.
They had a break before their next ride. They had to find out who they would be up against. The big guy from Magen was one of two, and it was possible he could lose.
Nessa led Miran and the horse to a dressing tent so they could wait in private.
When Miran stumbled on her dismount, Nessa knew something was wrong.
After removing Miran's helmet, Nessa saw the tell-tale sign of a head injury: her pupils were mismatched. Nessa cursed. This was exactly what she hated about the joust.
"You can't ride again," Nessa said.
"I have to," the girl's eyes couldn't focus, but her brain still seemed to be intact.
"You have to withdraw," Nessa urged.
"Not after only one round," Miran said.
"I'm not letting you go up against that Magenite. He'll kill you on accident, simply by compounding your injuries."
"I will not yield," Miran's voice was strong.