As they climbed up the miniature mountain, various plants and flowers caught Essairyn’s eyes. She inspected them before picking and placing them inside her magic cache for safekeeping. Like scrapbooking, most were kept because it tickled her fancy. A few, however, were apparently useful, according to Akari. They were herbs that could be formulated into salves, potions, and other concoctions. Although the medicinal, almost alchemical, applications intrigued her, Essairyn wasn’t currently keen on brewing anything up. That could be saved for later in her slack time if she ever so desired.
Soon, she neared close enough to the peak to see the hilltop. It was at this point that the knights group reached the base of the hill range. Proceeding onward, Essairyn gathered an assortment of grasses and stalks and fiddled with them. When she reached the summit, she had a spool of fibrous rope coiled loosely around her arm. Then, she discovered two sturdy, neighboring trees with low lying branches. She looped the rope around a branch from each tree and knotted the ends together. Afterwards, she began weaving a mat around the rope loop, creating a bed in-between the gap.
“Why’re you making a hammock? Of all things, you’re making a hammock in your free time before the bore gets here?” queried Akari with a conspicuous lick of her paw.
Essairyn understood that the ‘bore’ referred to the knight trainer, and a corner of her lip curled up in amusement. “Might as well rest now before working later. Besides, wouldn’t it be fun to greet the group by dozing away in a hammock?”
Akari squinted her eyes in partial incredulity. “Where the heck do you even get these weird ideas and notions?”
The girl shrugged at the fox’s words. “I just start something on a whim and it turns into something else. I wondered how the plants here were different from the Spirit-Demon Forest, so I tried entwining them into a cord. When I saw the trees at the top, the idea just popped up.”
“Huh.” The fox gave her a side-look but said nothing else. She just observed Essairyn weave grass from one end of the rope to the other like a loom. In an hour, she finished.
“Akari.” Essairyn gestured and patted the hollow of the hammock next to where she was sitting on it. The fox complied, curious to the durability of the girl’s creation.
“Hm, not bad!” commented Akari as she pressed down on the material. “However, in a few days this hammock will wither and become useless.”
Essairyn angled her head to the side to glare at Akari. “Tch, party pooper. It’s biodegradable then! Good for the environment!”
“Not for the plants you pulled out.”
“Peh.” Essairyn could only retort with a cough-snort at the fox’s comeback, making Akari’s eyes wink into an entertained smile.
For a short spell, they snoozed in the serene shade of the forest. Since the knights group hadn’t arrived yet by the time they aroused, Essairyn ventured to the skies to discern their location. Seeing that the group barely reached halfway up the slope, she frowned in disappointment. What do I do in the meantime? I still have an hour or two before they arrive. No wonder we had to get up so early this morning. It’s already the late afternoon. While a sun didn’t exist to approximate the time, the dimming of light intuitively signaled the passing of day into night. With nothing else better to do than collect plants or sleep, Essairyn opted to train her magic weapon summoning. Each successive summon resulted in quicker retrieval times. She didn’t expect to encounter dangerous beasts in the next two weeks, but it never hurt to raise one’s efficacy ahead of time.
In the middle of target practice with her magic bow, Essairyn heard the crunches of leaves and twigs nearby. The group had finally reached the crest of the hill. Before anyone could see her, she absorbed the bow and arrows back into her magic flow and threw herself onto the hammock. Essairyn managed to scramble into a decent position of repose just as the knight trainer swept aside the foliage blocking his path.
Espying the leisurely girl on a random hammock seemingly made of grass, Hætherin halted his new step, not quite knowing what to make of the scene before him. Recollecting himself, he strode promptly over to Essairyn.
“How did you get here before us? Didn’t I tell you to run twenty laps?”
His sharp gaze almost unnerved Essairyn, but she calmly searched the frontrunners for Darren instead of responding. Seeing that the boy wasn’t present, she returned her steady gaze to Hætherin. “I ran twenty laps and then ran here after I found out about the training location.”
The girl didn’t look to be lying; however, her words were unconvincing. Unless she reinforced her speed and stamina with magic, or flew here, then she couldn’t have possibly arrived here before them. With that consideration, Hætherin suddenly remembered a recent rumor about someone being allowed to join the knight cadet training without accepting the Oath. Although it wouldn’t explain how she made the hammock, Hætherin asked if she were that rumored mage. Essairyn directly confirmed his supposition, making him mentally note to keep a close eye on her.
The sparring sessions immediately began after this unforeseen welcome at the summit. Not all of the trainees had arrived, but Hætherin wasted no time partnering up those in attendance. Besides being a suitable exercise, the long run also naturally separated the trainees into groups of similar strength. Thus, he could be moderately certain of their potentials and create comparatively equal match ups. To the trainees, though, their hell merely continued. But even this was necessary to engrain into their bodies the importance of perseverance. On the battlefield, they would be weary all the time, but they would still have to fight with the best of their abilities by continuously drawing out hidden stores of strength.
Even so, the trainees groused about the unwarranted arduousness of the day’s activities whenever Hætherin was out of earshot. Of course, the middle-aged knight was quite aware of their complaints but paid them no heed. One day, they would be grateful for this experience. At least, that’s what the old-fashioned knight always believed even after countless years of relative peace. Rather than war, his generation and the ones before only fought skirmishes with demons and miscreant humans and the rare elemental.
Recently, however, the clashes with malefactors had markedly increased in frequency. And the discontent of the civilians grew more manifest with time. In the past few years, the understaffed Order of the Knights was running on overtime. It was because of this that they had to employ increasingly more Academy students on missions. Along with other senior knights, Hætherin reckoned that a revolution was on the verge of dawning. Perhaps, it had already begun in the restless stirrings of the mind.
Currently, the number of trainees were odd, so Hætherin opted to spar with Essairyn in order to ascertain the extent of her mysterious abilities before placing her with anyone else. Without an option to refuse, Essairyn agreed and accepted the blunt, wooden swords that Hætherin handed out to the group. Later on, if the trainees so chose, they could fight with different types of weapons other than swords. But as a foundation, swords were the standard of the Knights.
Essairyn was quite confident in her budding swordsmanship when they began facing one another. But as the seconds ticked by, she grew more apprehensive. Equipped with magic, her movements became as fluid and quick as the billows of air itself. But coordination that mainly relied on superior speed only achieved so much in light of entrenched experience and technique. In just a minute’s time, she was completely overwhelmed by Hætherin’s skill.
“Not bad, young lady. You have successfully surprised me,” praised Hætherin as he inspected the nicks that Essairyn served to his wooden blade. “If you were allowed to fully back your strikes with magic, then I certainly wouldn’t stand a chance against your might as a non-magical knight. But even with magic supplementing just your body’s motions, it is you who doesn’t stand a chance against me. Now try once more with just your raw abilities devoid of magic amplification. Let me see the true scope of your skill.” He pointed the tip of his weapon at Essairyn as if to egg her on.
She inwardly groaned at his candidly complacent remarks and glanced over at her sword which was lodged high up in the bark of a nearby tree. Just like how the Knight Bodraig tested Darren to discern his abilities in the entrance examination, this Knight Hætherin did the same. Both senior knights merely played with their challengers and didn’t end the bout even when they could have from the start. Essairyn was certain of this from their spar. He countered her strikes far too easily, almost as if he anticipated the exact angle and direction.
As she leapt in a graceful arc and retrieved the sword embedded several meters from the ground, Essairyn resolved to readjust her thinking. Magic was a trump card, but it didn’t guarantee invincibility. Once her magic was exhausted, she would be left almost defenseless. Starting from scratch, huh… I need to improve my basic techniques without relying on magic. She already had used various types of weapons since appearing in this world. But magic couldn’t replace true skill and weapon mastery. Essairyn gripped the handle of her wooden weapon in renewed determination. I’ll become a Knight as well as a Mage.