Nahlia had to jog to make it through the courtyard in time for her first combat lesson. By now, most of the ice had melted in the afternoon sun, and the cobbles were clear of snow.
Small signs hung over the doors of the various training dojos. Pieces of wood with Valaysian characters painted in red. Were those supposed to be numbers? It was impossible to tell, and she had to ask several passing students before she could make heads or tails of them.
She pulled open an oaken door and felt a gust of warm air from inside the dojo. A row of boots sat in the entryway, and Nahlia pulled off her own, feeling the polished pinewood beneath her bare feet. Dark pillars climbed the canvas walls, angling up past the high screen windows.
Half a dozen students huddled near the north corner of the room while others sat on wooden benches against the wall. They weren't tall or intimidating like the battleclans. In fact, most looked no older than twelve or thirteen.
Nahlia frowned and pulled out her schedule for Kaladal.
Second Bell: Beginner Martial Arts, Dojo Four
The day and time were right, and another student had assured her this was dojo four. Still, this had to be a mistake. All her other classes had students her own age or older.
She turned to leave, then jumped when she almost ran into Elias Raider.
He grinned, inclining his head. "Going somewhere, Apprentice Cole?"
"Oh." She brushed a strand of hair from her eyes. "Yes. I think I'm in the wrong room."
"Hmmm." Elias glanced down at his ledger. "Nope, I have your name right here."
Her mouth fell open. "You're the instructor?"
He smiled again. "It could be worse, you know. They could've put you in my sister's class."
She shook her head. "That's not what I meant. It's just ... you're a student here. We have History together."
"Well, I wouldn't go that far. I've only known you for a week."
Nahlia groaned. "You know what I mean."
He gave a small chuckle, then nodded. "I am a student here, but sometimes the best way to learn is by teaching. You didn't think Vash handled all the beginners himself, did you?"
Wonderful. She grimaced back at the crowd of twelve-year-olds. The boys' faces were as smooth as hers, and the girls barely had any curves yet.
"They've been training for years," Elias explained. "You, on the other hand, have some catching up to do."
Nahlia gave a slow nod, fighting down her disappointment. Of course it was foolish to think she'd be training with anyone older. Considering her lack of experience, she'd be lucky just to keep up.
"By the way," he began, " 'You can call me 'Elias' outside of class. But here, it's 'Master Raider'"
Nahlia rolled her eyes as he strode to the front of the dojo. Another of his hilarious jokes, no doubt.
"Good afternoon, Master Raider," the other students said in unison.
"Good afternoon, class." He stood straight and formal in front of a massive metal gong. "Pick up your swords and let's get started."
Nahlia followed the others over to the weapon racks where she retrieved a wooden katana. The leather grip felt strong and smooth in her hand, but the blade was far heavier than she'd imagined. To think the Raider twins made it look so effortless...
Elias spent the better part of an hour demonstrating Sunform, the most basic and ancient of the seven fighting styles. It had simple footwork, and wide, sweeping strikes, fit for a variety of confrontations.
This is what they call simple? Nahlia thought as she and the others tried to copy his stances. He criticized their every move with excruciating precision. Don't point your toes at that angle. Turn with your body, not your head. Keep your core tight. Breathe out as you strike.
It wasn't as gruesome as running the Gorge, but her muscles still ached with the effort of repetition. By third bell, she was covered in sweat and thankful for the chill mountain air.
Elias gave them a moment to catch their breath before they paired up for sparring practice.
Nahlia found herself on a circular mat with a girl named Trinadara. She was skinny as a twig, and shorter than her by half a foot. Her short brown hair was pulled back in a tail, and her blue eyes were huge in her tiny face.
"You know the rules?" Elias asked her as he passed their mat.
Nahlia shook her head. She'd seen more than a dozen duels since her arrival in Whitecliff, but they always happened so fast.
"Your goal is to either force your opponent off the mat"—he gestured toward to where the bamboo met the pinewood floor—"or to score a solid hit. You can strike hard, but nothing with the intent to injure. Avoid the face and the neck, and yield if one of you gets a submission over the other. Today's goal is to learn, not to win."
Elias left them to it, and Trin raised her blade. Her eyes had a quiet intensity, and it was obvious she was sizing her up.
"Are you ready?" she asked.
Nahlia nodded just as the other duos began exchanging blows all around them. The hairs on her neck rose as the swords clanked together. Instead of wood, she heard steel, gunshots, and screams.
Her body stiffened, and a whirlwind of memories clouded her mind. Her father swinging a sword outside a burning house. The sounds of gunfire, and the scents black powder of burning hair.
She thought she was ready, but she froze when the younger girl darted forward.
Trin's sword took Nahlia in the ribs, and she caved in, gasping for breath.
Trin scowled. "What's wrong with you? You could have blocked me."
"Nothing," Nahlia retorted. "I'm fine." She pushed the pain away and regained her balance.
Trin shrugged and attacked again. Her next blow took Nahlia in the hip, then the upper-arm. Nahlia deflected the fourth, but her muscles had none of their usual strength. Trin forced her sword back, and it hit her hard in the chin.
"Stop," Elias's voice from across the dojo.
Trin lowered her sword as he strode over. "She said she was fine."
Elias turned to her, his face unreadable. "Go help Maroc and Carsoron."
Trin did so, and Nahlia crossed her arms and waited.
"You alright?" Elias asked.
Nahlia nodded. "Still getting the hang of swords, I guess."
He took a step closer, keeping his voice low. "It was more than that. You froze. I saw it in your eyes."
Nahlia averted his gaze, arms still crossed. "I'm not scared if that's what you're implying."
"You weren't afraid of getting hit," Elias agreed, "but you were afraid to strike back."
Nahlia opened her mouth, then closed it. Was that what happened? She always imagined herself as being aggressive when the time came to fight, but her body refused to comply.
Elias took a deep breath. "If this is too much for you—"
"Why would it be too much?" She didn't mean for the comment to sound so pointed, and she bit her lip as soon as she said it.
"I know you've been through a lot," Elias began more cautiously. "You were shot just a week ago. And before that..." He shook his head as if to clear it. "What I'm saying is that we all handle trauma differently."
"I already chose combat as my calling," Nahlia said. "I don't think I have much of a choice."
"Of course you do. No one's forcing you to be here, or to progress faster than you feel comfortable."
"I—" She glanced around the dojo. Thankfully, the other students were too wrapped up in their bouts to listen in. Maybe she did freeze up in conflict. Maybe her past experiences made her weaker when they should have strengthened her. Still, she couldn't let any of this stop her.
"I want to learn how to fight," she finally said. "I've wanted this for years."
"Why?" Elias asked. His tone wasn't confrontational; he seemed genuinely curious.
"Why do you want to fight?" she countered. "Why does anyone?"
"Me? Elias considered for a moment, then shrugged. "As a descendant of Raiden, most people would say it's in my blood. And It's the only thing I've ever been good at."
"Well," Nahlia let out a breath, forcing herself to relax "you're not a terrible teacher, you know."
Elias flashed his usual smile, and she was relieved to feel some of the tension fade between them.
"Now it's your turn," he said more seriously. "Why do you want to fight, Nahlia Cole?"
"I want to protect the people I care about, and to make a difference in the world."
"There are other ways to do that," he replied. "The healers save lives without hurting anyone, and the scholars work to prevent wars in the first place."
Nahlia paused again, feeling the uneasiness of the clashing swords around her. Memories flashed through her mind again. Memories of running, and of weakness.
"Fine," she said. "Maybe I am scared. Scared of feeling helpless the next time I face the Templars."
"You could talk to someone about that," Elias offered. "The academy has physicians who help people recover from trauma."
"No," Nahlia said, forcing herself to sound calm. After her talk with Zidane, she was done confiding in people. "Just let me try again. I won't freeze this time."
Elias let out a sigh, then extended his arms with raised palms. "Alright. Hit me."
She frowned. "What?"
"You didn't flinch when Trin hit you," Elias said. "But you were afraid to hit her back. You should practice on an unarmed opponent."
"I'd rather have you fight back than just stand there."
"I will, but we need to start small. Just prove to me you can do this first."
She raised her sword and hit him lightly on the shoulder. So light, it was almost embarrassing.
Elias gave her a flat look. "You'll have to do better than that, Apprentice Cole."
"I don't want to hurt you."
"I've been hit by Vash a thousand times. I guarantee he hits harder than you ever will.
Nahlia clenched her teeth. Zidane said the Trelians weren't warriors, and now she was proving that to be true. She was already failing as a spy, she couldn't fail at combat too.
She grasped the leather hilt and swung with all her might, striking his arm with a solid sound.
Elias didn't even flinch. Still, she could imagine the bruise there beneath his leather jerkin, and she winced as his pain became her own.
"Good," he said. "Now do it again. Sunform, strikes one through three."
Nahlia continued striking, forcing herself to concentrate on her stance instead of the damage she caused. Elias Raider wasn't lying about his resilience. Hitting him was like hitting a tree, and it wasn't long before her arms started aching again.
After a dozen strikes, he raised his own sword and deflected. The clashing wood rang like steel in her mind, and she heard sounds of battle once again: screams, gunshots, and breaking flesh.
She saw Uncle Locke swinging his hatchets, his face spattered with blood. She saw Father hacking off a Templar's arm. Saul Mason lifting her mother by the hair and plunging his dagger through her heart.
Her eyes burned, and her body went cold and hollow. Nahlia dropped her sword and staggered forward.
"Woah." Elias dropped his sword and caught her. "You alright?"
Nahlia blinked. The night faded, and she was surprised to see the bright wood of the dojo with the sunlight streaming in through windows. She glanced down at the sword again. It all felt wrong. Weapons, training dojos, battleclans ... this wasn't her.
How did she get here? Two weeks ago, she was a barmaid in a Northshire, spending her days in the library, cooking, or gardening. Her conscience told her she didn't belong here, but her experiences in this world said otherwise.
It was either fight or forever be a victim to people like Ciena Raider.
Fight, or sit idly while people she loved fought and died for her.
"You're doing well," Elias told said as he helped her to her feet.
Nahlia ground her teeth and raised her sword again. She refused to be weak. She would keep fighting, even if everything in her being screamed at her to stop.
She stepped forward and their blades clashed again.