Dar was laughing with Kenian at a joke Mimbley had delivered as they walked out of the Dining Hall when he thought he caught sight of Rick. He rarely saw Rick in his own Cycle’s vicinity, rarely saw him at all, in fact, and was grateful to see him at the Sword and Stag just so they could catch up, renew their bond of camaraderie. Kenian was fast becoming a good friend, but he’d never be a brother, as Rick and Ander were.
Dar trailed behind, signaling that he’d catch up to the rest of his Cyclemates, and craned his neck, straining his sight for another glimpse of Rick….
There! Rick was hurrying toward the side of a building, glancing to either side of him, as if skirting detection. Dar pondered this as he quickly closed the distance between them. It was no crime to be on Upper Level turf, just… odd, perhaps.
He clapped a hand on Rick’s shoulder. “Rick!” he grinned. “What are you –”
Rick nearly jumped out of his skin and turned. “Give a man some warning, will you,” he grumbled, chuckling wryly at his response.
But Dar couldn’t continue, couldn’t quit staring. Rick had a purple eye, nearly black, a bruise that covered half his face nearly. Finally Dar raised his eyebrows seriously and pointed with a mild finger.
“Where’d you get that! Looks like you got damn near clobbered.”
Rick grinned. “This?” He waved his hand dismissively. “Nothing compared to the other bastard.”
Dar took hold of his chin to inspect the swollen discoloration, noting both that Rick hadn’t shaved and also that both his eyes were red, much like mornings after they’d been out celebrating all evening. He decided Rick’s demeanor was a bit too glib.
“What the seas happened? You know how much trouble we get in for fighting. Especially Weaponry students,” Dar admonished him. Weaponry students, being trained in fighting skills, received far more calamitous consequences for fighting than did the other Academy students, being more capable of injuring others.
Rick jerked his head out of Dar’s hand, though his upbeat tone belied this strange manner. “Between you and me, a couple of us, well, there was a bit of a misunderstanding over a girl, if you follow me? Someone’s sister… you get me. After Curfew in our Common Room… and it was a few of them against a few of my friends…. What was I to do but wade in?”
Dar raised an eyebrow skeptically. That did make sense… yet still. Something about Rick’s manner. And he wasn’t one to brawl.
“Don’t think we’ll be caught, unless someone reports us. No one’d do that, we’d all get demerits then.” Rick managed a grin.
“So you all walked into doors, did you?” Dar pressed. Rick could certainly handle himself, and much better than his Cyclemates, he’d warrant, taking a bit of personal pride in the training of him. Having worked so long with him, Dar knew just how dangerous Rick was, especially with a blade, of any kind. Between weapons and avril’shusta, Rick wasn’t likely to lose a fight. So if Rick looked this bad… Dar wondered how bad the other lad looked.
Rick chuckled. “All trying to learn avril’shusta after classes.”
Dar nodded. A good answer.
“Hey, I’ve got to grab a bit of food before my class. I’ll catch up with you later.”
Rick started off. He waved and Dar lifted his chin in a farewell gesture.
Something did not sit well, he thought as he watched Rick retreat at a quickened pace. Leaning against the building, Dar crossed his arms and wondered what was nagging at him. Not once had Rick met Dar’s eyes with his own bloodshot gaze. And if Rick were in a fight, he’d never let anyone close enough to land that kind of punch… unless… there was more than one attacker. Something was just not right, frowned Dar, as he watched Rick flexing his hand and massaging it before he turned the corner of the Dining Hall… but he didn’t know what.
Fortunately, as Dar fell in as quickly as possible, between Mimbley and Pavrick; he was grateful that Ker Milvern was as tardy as Dar this morning. Ker Milvern normally was early so that he could ridicule and terrorize his classes as they arrived, but upon rare occasions, he was known to be on time and even slightly tardy. Lugging new equipment explained his tardiness as he dropped it with a clamor off to the side of their neatly arrayed line.
“Where were you!” hissed Pavrick. Dar knew his Cyclemates were irate – any time tardy by one student was repaid doubly upon all students. Pavrick’s family could ill afford his Academy expenditures and so he worked part of them off as a squire for the lordlings in what time he had to himself. Demerits and marks against his record were the first things to spark his temper.
Fortuitously, Ker Milvern’s arrival relieved Dar of the need of an explanation. Ker Milvern began his usual fastidious inspection of his 5th Cycle Students, examining each of them from temple to boot tip. He paused in the center of the line briefly and Dar fervently hoped that Kenian hadn’t missed a spot shaving, that he had garbed himself with the meticulous detail that Ker Milvern demanded each day. He was known to pull a man out for the most inconsequential failure to meet criteria and have him run in place, do push ups for the entire class time, even give him demerits for not standing straight or not following Academy standard precisely. And he had, on more than one occasion, stripped a man down naked for the entire class time if the smallest thing was amiss with his uniform.
But then Ker Milvern resumed his heavy gait down the line, finding, Dar breathed quietly, no apparent fault. Ker Milvern then strode to the center before them as was customary after inspection.
Instead of delivering his customary insults and the day’s objectives, he growled, “Getchwick. Approach.”
Dar’s muscles, taut with the pressure of remaining motionless, still tingled with curiosity. From the vantage of his peripheral vision, Dar watched Getchwick, whom he hardly knew but who had impressed him as something of an arrogant bastard, salute smartly and march forward.
“Ker Milvern, Ker!”
Ker Milvern’s deep, resonating voice commanded, “About Face, Getchwick.”
“Ker Milvern, Ker!”
Dar stared in shock at Getchwick. Having just heard Rick’s tale, preoccupation and concern already troubled Dar. But Getchwick – gashes covered his face, all obviously seen to by a Healer, his eyes were both darkened significantly, and a deep cut ran up and across his nose. Dar forced his mouth to stay shut – though he knew he was staring. Someone had beaten Getchwick soundly.
“What under the bleeding stars happened to you?” rumbled Ker Milvern’s disapproving tone after the whole of the class had taken in Getchwick’s shame.
“I – I fell off my horse, Ker Milvern, Ker!”
Ker Milvern stepped up one pace and leaned over Getchwick’s shoulder, cocking his head just slightly, his hand to his ear.
“What’s that, Getchwick? I didn’t hear you.”
Getchwick, to Dar’s trained eye, trembled, just barely, either with suppressed rage or fright, and then taking a deep breath, yelled, “I fell off my horse, Ker Milvern, Ker!”
Quite obviously, unless his horse had thrown him from a steep cliff, Getchwick had not fallen from a horse.
“About Face, Getchwick,” rumbled Ker Milvern, his face inscrutable.
Getchwick turned immediately on his bootheel. He stood at sharp attention, facing Ker Milvern for several seconds, awaiting his next order.
Impatience began to build in Dar as silence settled over the Practice Yard. He did this, tortured them like that, just for suspense, fumed Dar.
He was not ready for what occurred next. Ker Milvern pulled a gauntleted fist back and slammed it into Getchwick’s face. So hard did it hit him that it knocked him over, blood spurting from his wounds.
“If your nose wasn’t broken before, it should be now. That should teach you better equestrian skills.” Ker Milvern looked pitilessly down at Getchwick, crumpled on the ground, bleeding before him.
Then he looked up at the line. Dar’s widened eyes snapped forward as if he had not witnessed anything that had just occurred, nor anything out of the ordinary.
“The rest of you – fall in behind me.”
Their salute was louder and stronger than ever it had been before, resounding throughout the yard.