Six months passed in a flash. AGI and END both went up by 1 from the sprinting I'd been doing No upgrades to STR yet, despite working out every day. This didn't include the plus one from completing my fourth year. As promised, Dad would take me to the training grounds in the afternoon today instead of the morning so I could spar with the trainees.
Mary was crawling already and was sleeping much better than she had at the beginning. Mom and Dad looked like they had a lot more energy as a result, which was both good and bad. The good was that Dad could train with me more, but the bad was that Mom watched me like a hawk. Now that I was four and had her blessing, it would be a little easier to practice. As best as I could understand, fighting people at my level and winning would finally allow me to level up... something I would otherwise be unable to do against Dad since he was too strong to beat in a fair fight. The only alternative was fighting monsters, something Mom would never allow that.
I spent the morning helping Mom with the chores. After Dad came back for lunch, I joined him on the walk to the training grounds. The major difference between the morning and afternoon was the sheer amount of people present. In the morning, some of the guards would train or spar, but it was far from mandatory as I'd figured out from conversations with some of them. The afternoon crowd, on the other hand, looked to be students as young as six all the way to fifteen or sixteen. There was a large number of them, too. Not all of them would end up being guards, though. About half--the better ones, really--would likely be hunters.
"Kim!" Dad called out to one of the instructors near the sparring area when we arrived. She was a woman about his age or maybe a bit older.
"Harry, I see you've brought your boy this time."
"Yeah. He's four now, so he finally has permission to spar if he wants to."
"Are you sure that's ok? The youngest ones are six. Isn't that too big of a difference?"
"He's been training with me for about a year now and he was stronger than his brother before he joined this class."
"In that case, welcome! What's your name?"
"James," I said.
"Well, James, why don't you suit up and go over there," she pointed to a part of the sparring field where the younger students were, "and see if you can find a partner."
"Thank you," I added.
I headed in the direction she gave me. The sparring fields were a dusty mess from the lack of rain recently. I spotted Max among the students. He was standing with a small group of what I assumed to be his friends. They were watching one of the sparring matches.
He turned to the sound of my voice.
"James? Why are you here?"
"Dad brought me."
"Well, when this match is over, I'll show you how it's done."
The match they were watching was already nearing its conclusion. It wasn't too bad for that age, but it wasn't anything spectacular either. When the kid on my right knocked the other down, the match was called.
"I'll go," Max said.
"Ok, Max. And... Katherine, you'll go up too."
"Yes, Mr. Lowrie."
Max took a strong stance on the left side of the sparring field while Katherine readied herself on the right.
Max lunged at her with a quick jab. She moved to the side, parried, and countered with a rising blow. He jumped back and swung across his body while her sword was in the air. Their wooden blades cracked together as she brought her's down to meet his in a striking block. Both fighters took a step back and began to circle each other, looking for an opening. Max would poke her defenses and would get rebuffed. She would, in turn, make probing attacks with the same results. They seemed evenly matched, overall.
The end of the match came when Katherine dodged one of Max's strikes by stepping to the side and bringing the pommel of her sword into his chest with a lunch forward while, at the same time, blocking his attack with the blade.
"That's the match. Good fight, both of you."
Katherine seemed happy enough by the result, but Max looked a little down.
"That wasn't bad, big brother."
"But I lost!"
"It was close, though. Next time you'll win!"
The sounds of wood-on-wood action could be heard while we talked. The next fight was already in progress.
"Thanks. So why did Dad bring you here?"
"Mom said it was ok for me to spar, so I came to join your class this afternoon."
"Dad's been teaching me in the mornings sometimes. I wanted to fight someone I had a chance to beat. Dad is too strong."
"Well, why don't you go up and take the next match?"
"Volunteers?" Mr. Lowrie called.
"I'll go," I said.
"Who are you?"
"Max's brother. Dad got permission for me to spar today."
"Oh, yes, that's right. Um... Pete, how about you?"
"But he's so little! It won't be a fair--"
"Pete, how many times have I said in class that you can't judge strength by how something looks? There are monsters out there that are extremely dangerous and ridiculously cute at the same time that have claimed lives from being underestimated. Don't make that mistake."
"Fiiiine," Pete said, rolling his eyes.
"Nice to meet you," I said, taking my spot.
Pete swung at me the first instant he could. If I hadn't seen how fast Dad was for myself, it would have caught me off guard. Instead, the only thing I caught was his blade with mine. I kicked at his shins but he jumped back to avoid me. My sword followed the kick since I planted the kicking foot on the ground and used the momentum to swing at his torso. He moved just barely out of reach and grumbled something to himself.
We countered back and forth for maybe half a minute before I could see that he was starting to tire. His breaths were coming much heavier than mine. Although I could feel some strain by now, the longer this went, the greater the advantage. When Pete made a rather sloppy swing toward my head, I shifted to my left and swung for his hip. The sound of wood on leather was overshadowed by the yelp from his mouth. He dropped his sword to grab the bruised area. The match was over.
"Good fight. Who wants to be next?"
"Good job, little bro," Max told me with a smile. The look in his eyes was a little envious, not that I blamed him. I would have felt something similar in his shoes.
"You should fight Micah later. He's the best one in our class. I think you might be able to beat him."
"Ok, I'll try it."
I sat down with some water and watched the fights while I regained my energy for another bout.