He stood watching Rick practice tossing knives at the wooden target. Rick had already cut himself three times.
“Ah! Stars!” Rick brought another finger to his mouth and sucked on it.
Firenx laughed. He held out his own hands and let them inspect them. They were covered in small white scars. “You’ve a long way to go,” he said.
Rick studied the scars. “I don’t know if I want to go that route,” he mumbled.
“Ah, then you’d better marry a Healer,” Firenx replied with a grin. In the time it took Rick to get one knife on target, Firenx loosed six in a perfect circle, each quivering in the wood.
Some of the onlookers in the bar clapped. Rick had hunted the streets of the city with Dar and Ander yesterday until they’d found the same little side-show from the other day. He then proceeded to beg Firenx to teach him to throw knives. Dar suspected that Rick was paying him a bit too much, for Firenx had agreed readily after hearing the terms.
Dar turned around. It was Emanuella. She rushed up to him.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, worried immediately. If Emanuella was seeking him out, something had to be wrong.
“Nothing, just come outside with me.” Emanuella hooked a hand around his elbow.
“Wait, what’s the matter? What’s going on?” Dar let himself be dragged toward the door.
“Nothing’s wrong, we just need you outside.”
Dar stopped, pulling Emanuella back. “Why? Did someone try to –?”
Emanuella stamped her foot. “No, nothing’s wrong, but we need you outside. Hurry,” she pulled at his arm again.
Dar cast a bewildered glance over his shoulder and made sure his sword was loose in its scabbard.
Ander followed behind him. “What’s going on?”
“Stars if I know,” Dar shrugged, letting Emanuella pull him down the street.
Rick ran up behind them. “Is something going on?”
Rick had no longer gotten those words out when a burst of applause sounded at the corner. A large group of people had assembled, many in the color-coded robes and uniforms Dar knew to represent students of the Academy.
As they drew closer, Dar could see that most of those in uniforms had arms at their sides. The crowd had formed a ring where one young man about Dar’s age was bowing to the crowd. Another man was leaving the ring, panting as he wiped his perspiring face on his sleeve.
“Anyone else care to try?” called the man in the ring. Dar leaned up casually against the wooden lantern post and crossed his arms, curious. A young man the same color uniform as the victor’s stepped into the ring and drew his sword.
“Ah, Banson, I knew you’d be back,” laughed the young man in the ring as he drew his own sword.
They began circling each other and suddenly their swords tangled in a loud clanging and scraping of metal. Dar followed the fight with interest, though he found it hard to believe that neither of the young men had yet nicked each other, since they didn’t seem to be holding back on their swings. They were both good, but Dar was able to pick out a few mistakes that they made, several of which Gabriella had made him practice over and over again until he could perform the techniques in his sleep.
At the same time, however, he picked out a block that he had never seen before. He was beginning to enjoy himself; he’d never had the opportunity to watch other people practice before, with the exception of his own comrades. Dar was surprised that Emanuella had pulled him out here… he would have to thank her later.
Just as he thought he understood how to perform the strange blocking technique, Banson made what would be a fatal error in a real fight and the victor grinned as he held his sword in front of Banson’s gut. The crowd cheered again and Banson bowed apologetically as he left the ring panting.
“He’s pretty good,” Rick mused at Dar’s shoulder.
“Is there another in the crowd who’d like to pit their prowess?” called the victor after he’d drank from a jug of water.
“My friend’s better than that!” Emanuella suddenly called loudly.
Dar leaned down and caught her elbow, staring at her. “What did you just say?”
“Well, you are!” Emanuella whispered.
In the ring, the victorious swordsman was peering into the crowd. “Who said that?”
“Over here!” Emanuella called.
“What did you just get me into?” Dar growled at Emanuella. No wonder she’d dragged him out here.
Ander was snickering. Dar, however, experienced a moment of panic. He didn’t have his old sword, he had this new, two-handed sword that he wasn’t accustomed to yet. And here that fool girl goes volunteering him in a sparring match! He thought he might be as good as Banson, but maybe not this several-time winner who was approaching Emanuella.
“Ah, yendra. We meet again,” said the young swordsman with a roguish smile as he bowed to her. He then proceeded to kiss Emanuella’s hand.
Dar bristled. Who was this guy? How did he know Emanuella?
“Where’s this friend of yours, yendra?” the swordsman asked.
Emanuella smiled smugly and patted Dar’s shoulder. “Right here.” She looked innocently up at Dar, her eyes mischievous.
The young man stood up and looked up at Dar. His eyes took him in for a moment and he said, “You’re not a student here. I don’t recognize you.”
Dar shook his head slightly. “We’ve never met.”
“Ah. Well, I’m Kenian.” Kenian bowed slightly, his blue eyes friendly.
“Dar.” He bowed in return.
“Well, Dar,” Kenian said in an undertone, “I’d understand if you didn’t want to fight out there. Women, you know, they do a lot of talking, but they don’t always know what they’re saying.” He clapped Dar in the arm in a sympathetic gesture.
Dar stared, amused at Kenian’s arrogance. Kenian looked to be about seventeen or eighteen Cycles himself. Dar liked him, he decided, but he could definitely use a bit of humility. Dar didn’t know if he was the one who could deliver it, but he’d certainly give it his best shot. He had never been one to take condescension well.
As Kenian started to turn away, Dar uncrossed his arms and said, “I’ll spar with you.”
Kenian turned around with surprise. Suddenly he smiled. “As you wish, my friend.”
As Dar started to follow Kenian into the ring, he leaned across to Emanuella and hissed, “You owe me for this one!” And she would owe him big, especially if he lost.
“What are the rules?” he asked Kenian.
Kenian stared at him for a moment, his blond hair ruffling in the breeze. “You’re not from around here, are you?” He grinned. “Two death hits and you win. Gut, side, lungs, heart, neck, head… all death hits.”
Another young man in a purple robe stood at the head of the ring. “Sword?” he asked, his hand out expectantly.
Dar raised an eyebrow. He unsheathed his sword and held it out with puzzlement but did not surrender it to the young man in purple robes. He looked at Kenian questioningly.
“That’s the Sorcerer – he has to dull the blade. We can’t be actually hacking and slashing each other up, now can we?” Kenian said in an undertone.
Dull my blade? Dar experienced his first moment of doubt.
Kenian held his own sword out to Dar. “Try to close your hand on the blade.”
Dar wrapped his hand around the sword blade and found that he could not touch it no matter how hard he tightened his fist.
“The only thing the blade can touch is metal,” Kenian explained.
“Just a sparring spell,” the young Sorcerer said with amusement. “I’ll take it off when you leave the ring, don’t worry.”
Finally, Dar surrendered his sword to the Sorcerer, who had to grasp the hilt with both hands to heft it. “What’s this thing made of, iron?” he panted as he handed it back.
Dar tested his blade; sure enough, he couldn’t touch the blade at all, a wall of air seemed to encompass it, like a scabbard.
“Ready?” Kenian asked. He seemed friendly enough, but he had a patronizing air about him, as if he felt bad for Dar, though Dar saw him eye his new sword warily.
Dar smiled at him. “Always.” He located and glared at Emanuella in the crowd as they moved to the center of the ring. She was going to owe him hugely. He caught a glimpse of Ander, Rick, and Fiorra assembled at the front of the ring with her. He hoped their faith wasn’t falsely invested….
For the sake of winning, Dar decided he would use his new blade as a one-handed sword, since he hadn’t practiced two-handed maneuvers before.
He waited for Kenian to make the first move. Kenian threw a simple enough cut at him, as though he were testing the water. Dar blocked it lazily. Kenian nodded and tossed a slightly more complicated maneuver at him. Dar parried it. He allowed Kenian to lob a few more offensive swings at him, simply blocking and parrying them. Then he assumed the offense and executed with smug precision the Melvarian uppercut. A look of surprise crossed Kenian’s face though he blocked it neatly. Dar smiled.
Dar tried the Silver Stag maneuver next, an offensive technique that had taken him over a month to perfect, though he knew it now like the back of his hand. Kenian smiled himself and counterattacked with a fancy version of Thunder and Lightning. Thankful that Gabriella had drilled him mercilessly on the offensive and the defensive of each technique, Dar blocked each swing.
The crowd clapped, with a few whistles and a “Well done!” here and there.
Kenian now looked alert, rather than bored, Dar was pleased to note. He felt a bead of sweat trickle down his forehead. He was rather enjoying this; he had come to predict Rick and Gabriella’s moves, but he found this new, unpredictable opponent challenging. He studied Kenian as they circled each other. Having already fought at least two other opponents, Dar’s opponent was tiring. About six feet two with fairly broad shoulders, Kenian was strong, yet quick on his feet, which was a good mix.
With little warning, Kenian let loose with the Rabid Wolf immediately following the Limba, which finally kept Dar busy enough to have to catch his breath. Kenian was working his way up the levels of difficulty, which meant that Dar could expect him to attack next with the Broken Dagger, the Windy Storm or maybe the Leopard’s Claw. Before Kenian could assume one of the offenses, Dar chose for him and watched Kenian jump around like a puppet on a string, parrying Dar’s personal combination of the Leopard’s Claw and the Broken Dagger.
Dar knew he’d gotten a cut on Kenian’s shoulder, but so, too, had Kenian gotten a cut on Dar’s leg, though neither were death hits. As Kenian counterattacked with several other maneuvers, Dar used as many surprise defensive tactics as he could and realized after a while that a larger crowd had assembled and that sweat was pouring down his face. How long had they been out here, anyway?
Suddenly, Kenian used the maneuver that Dar hadn’t recognized, gaining a death hit on Dar’s side.
“Cut!” called the Sorcerer. The crowd cheered. One more, and Dar would lose. He’d rot before he lost after all this time….
He tried a maneuver that Gabriella had taught him just two weeks ago; he was still a little shaky on it, but it surprised Kenian enough that, between his exhaustion and slowing response time, Dar gained a death hit to Kenian’s gut.
“Cut!” called the Sorcerer again through the crowd’s applause.
Panting now, Dar’s mind riffled through all the different techniques and attacks that he knew, trying to find one that would take Kenian by surprise. Kenian took the offensive then, spinning around with another rather embellished Rabid Wolf. Suddenly Dar saw the chink in Kenian’s armor – he left himself open. Dar managed to thrust his sword in just as Kenian realized his mistake and was bringing his own sword around to correct it.
“Cut!” yelled the Sorcerer as Dar’s sword touched Kenian’s side. The crowd’s applause was deafening; though all Dar could hear was the ringing of their swords in his ears. Slowly he brought his sword down, panting.
Kenian’s face was a mixture of dismay and respect. He brought his own sword down and bowed deeply to Dar. Dar bowed to him in return; he hadn’t had a workout like that in some time. For the first time, he turned and looked at the crowd that had assembled around him. He heard his friends hooting and yelling his name triumphantly. Dar smiled a little self-consciously and bowed to the crowd, knowing they expected him to.
“My friend,” Kenian panted beside him before he took a long drink from the jug, “have a drink. How did you do that?” Kenian asked.
“You cut up instead of down,” Dar replied after several long swallows of water.
Kenian nodded. “I thought so. Where did you train?”
Not sure how to answer, since he had never trained anywhere special, he said evasively, “Oh, down south of here.”
Kenian looked puzzled. “But there are no schools south of here…. Who was your trainer?”
Dar shook his head. “You wouldn’t know her.”
Kenian’s jaw dropped. “Did you say her?”
“You know, only two other people have been able to do that.” Kenian grimaced. “Three now. Where do you train now? Are you only here for Market? I’d like to spar again with you.”
“I leave tomorrow,” Dar said, pleased to have a sparring partner. “But I’ll be back in the fall.”
Kenian grinned as he accepted his blade from the Sorcerer. “Really? Accepted to the Academy?”
Dar mopped his face off with his sleeve and nodded.
“I’ll see you around then. It’s been quite the pleasure,” Kenian clapped Dar on the back and turned to gather his cloak as Dar left the ring, testing his blade with a wary thumb to be sure the sparring spell had been lifted.
“Our triumphant Shepherd returns,” Rick cracked. “That was great, O Eminent Leader.”
Dar grinned as he sheathed his sword.
“Somebody buy this man a brew,” Ander called.
“His ego’s going to be as big as his sword,” Fiorra laughed.
Dar’s gaze fell on Emanuella. Ah yes. He crossed his arms and looked at her expectantly. She owed him…. Dar saw comprehension slip across her face.
Rick jostled her, grinning as Ander and Fiorra turned to snicker at her. He saw Emanuella take a deep breath and step forward. She stared at him for a moment with a wry expression as she bit her lip. What was she trying to do?
Then she dropped into a long, low, graceful curtsy, bowing her head to him. Dar’s mouth fell open in amazement as she finally rose.
Still disbelieving, Dar bowed deeply to Emanuella in return, not knowing what else to do. He remembered her words from last night. It seemed he had earned her respect, after all.