Iona grunted as she was thrown to the ground, air exploding out of her lungs.
“Point!” The arbitrator yelled. “Match! Winner – Hrund!”
Hrund grinned down at Iona, offering a hand. Iona took it, letting herself get pulled up by Hrund.
“Good bout.” Iona said, keeping the bitter feelings of loss out of her voice.
“Good bout. Hey, maybe if your dark class wasn’t restricted, it’d be a better fight.” Hrund said.
Iona let the bitter feelings of loss wash over and through her, letting her normally cheerful disposition show.
“Yeah! Hey, you did great. Regardless of how restricted I am, you would’ve beaten me. You got this! You can win the tournament!” Iona said, patting the shoulders of the shorter girl.
Hrund’s face lit up.
“You really think so?”
“Yeah! You’re strong, and you’re fast. Hit ‘em before they know what’s coming. Who knows, maybe you’ll impress the Valkyries so much that they’ll call it your feat of bravery!”
Hrund pumped her fist.
“Yeah! Although, it’s usually a feat of bravery in battle to get promoted from squire.”
Iona shrugged. She knew that was the case, but she was trying to pump Hrund up. Iona would feel a heck of a lot better losing in round one if her opponent managed to take down the entire tournament.
Wishing Hrund luck once again, gathering her practice weapons – a wooden shield and a wooden axe – Iona carefully and neatly put everything away, then headed down to the stables.
Being a squire sucked in a bunch of ways. She had to run around, do all the chores of her knight, then do chores of other Valkyries, depending on if they had a squire or not, and if their squire was around or not. “Cleaning the stables” was high up on the list of shitty tasks, but work was work.
One day Iona would be a Valkyrie, then she’d be the one with a squire to do her tasks.
Sure, she’d probably have even more on her plate, but the tasks would be more fun. In theory.
Iona shook off the negative thoughts, and focused on the positive. Training. Resources. A big honking castle to live in. Friends, companions. A mission.
“Heya Iona!” Alruna called to Iona as she trudged through the stables. “How’d it go?”
Iona wanted to shoot Alruna a glare that said “I’m here mucking out the stables how did you think it went”, but instead sighed, and bent the knee to Alruna, clasping her hands awkwardly in a salute.
Saluting with a pitchfork was strange. Iona had a brief flash of regret that she didn’t drop the pitchfork beforehand. Whatever.
Alruna gestured for Iona to get up, which Iona promptly did. She gave a glance to her knees. The day, somehow, had managed to get even shittier.
“Hrund beat me in the first round. She was too fast and strong.”
“Happens. Don’t let it get to you. The tournaments aren’t that important anyways.”
“Yeah, but I wanted to get permission to class-up!” Iona said, no small amount of frustration in her voice.
“You’ll get it eventually. Patience. It’s not like classing-up is a guaranteed reward for winning. Heck, getting permission from winning a tournament has only happened what, three times in the last ten years? Plus you’re here, and not, oh, mucking out the stables in some village.” Alruna said, having Iona wince at how accurate the comment was. Without Alruna’s generosity, without her agreeing to take Iona with her, Iona would be a farmer’s wife in all likelihood right now. The unspoken message, “be grateful for what you have”, was all too clear.
Still. Right here, right now, there wasn’t a lot of difference between “Mucking out the Valkyrie stable” and “mucking out a normal stable”. The animals were a bit larger, much deadlier, that’s all.
“Your build – heck, my build – isn’t suited to fancy tournament fights and flashy displays. You knew that when you decided to follow in my footsteps. Is it any surprise that someone with a build dedicated to single combat beats you?”
Iona frowned over piles of muck that she was cleaning out of Trikey the Triceratops’s stall. Alruna had the worst naming sense.
Second worst. Sigrun’s was terrible, and she was in charge of titles.
“No…” She said reluctantly.
“Cheer up!” Alruna said, grabbing a package off a shelf. “I do believe it was your birthday last week. A little late, but the delay was worth it. Our best Enchanter worked on it!”
Iona stepped up the pace. She’d love nothing more than to just throw the pitchfork to the side, and tear into Alruna’s present, but she did things properly. Correctly. Slowly and carefully, making sure all the t’s were crossed and the i’s dotted. Which sucked when there was a birthday present waiting – especially a 16th birthday.
Alruna kept playing bonding with Trikey as Iona worked around them. Occasionally Trikey would rub her tail up against Iona, but apart from that, the two of them were in a world of their own. Companions. Partnered, probably for life.
Squires weren’t allowed companions. Instead, they were expected to learn how to treat and handle a massive variety of animals, from small, knee-high shadow cats, to the powerful Griffin fliers, all the way up to the largest beasts. Sigrun, the grandmaster of Order Valkyrie, commanded a massive Spinosaurus, which towered over most of the other creatures.
Serratrix had a separate pen. Not only did rank hath its privilege, but size, power, and pure logistics did as well.
Sorok, and a few other “supermassive” creatures also got their own place. Squires generally didn’t tend to them. Too easy to get squashed.
It made Iona wonder – given the chance, would she take a supermassive creature? They were superexpensive to go along with supermassive. She had a shortlist that was much too long of creatures she’d like, with a triceratops topping it. Alruna’s influence.
The philosophy was to expose the squires to a wide variety of creatures, and see which one clicked and meshed with their way of thinking. Years of working with the animals, becoming accustomed to them and their needs also helped dramatically with bonding down the road. A few Valkyries were unable or unwilling to bond to a companion to use as a mount, and while they were still Valkyries, they were lower down in the invisible pecking order among them.
Still heads and shoulders above the squires.
Who in turn were slightly above a number of the support staff, but that relationship was tricky, to say the least. On paper, a squire outranked a [Scribe]. In practice? It came down to years in service.
Trikey’s stall cleaned, Iona decided to forgo her usual generosity, and not clean a bunch of other stables, instead carefully unwrapping the present Alruna had gotten for her.
She weighed the flat, heavy package, about as long as her arm. Heavy. She had an idea what was waiting for her inside.
She slowly, carefully unwrapped the package, carefully preserving the paper wrapping. A gleaming axe, curved with a wicked edge, revealed itself. A leather grip, a slight bend. A short axe designed for war, for killing.
“Enchanted for durability and sticking to you, mainly.” Alruna said, letting Iona admire the weapon for some time. “With your skills, you don’t need sharpness. Also. I’m looking to do another round through the kingdom soon – or even through Lithos again! You’re skilled. You’re brave. We can probably find you some scrap that’ll count as a feat of bravery. Anyways. You’ve got years before you’re 22 and need to find something else to do. I know you’ll make it.”
Overwhelmed with emotions, Iona wanted to hug Alruna. Holding a deadly weapon was not proper hugging procedure though, and it’d have to wait.
Trikey nuzzled Iona, almost bowling her over.
Alruna smiled, seeing the look on Iona’s face.
“Again. Happy 16th birthday. Why don’t we do some training together, while everyone else is busy watching the tournament?”
Iona wanted to pump her fist. Years of discipline drilled into her stayed her hand – but not a grin on her face.
Woo! Personalized training time with Alruna!
Iona was on a run around the castle. It’d been a week since the tournament and Alruna’s present. The sun was shining, and Iona’s long strides were eating up ground, long blonde hair tied into a neat braid. She was running with a bunch of other squires, all of whom were at level 128 in both classes, all waiting for permission to advance.
The squires with a Wind-aligned class took the lead, followed by the Fire-aligned squires, then the Water-aligned. Wind was speed, and Fire being strength let those squires abuse their power, to convert it into speed. Water was careful and flowing, elegantly and precisely placing their feet in the right places.
But as time went on, the Fire-aligned classes flagged and fell behind, as they burned energy faster than anyone else. The Earth-aligned classes plodded along, massive endurance letting them keep going at their slower top speed for longer. As Wind and Fire classes became exhausted, they fell back, behind the Earth-aligned classes. And the Light-aligned classes.
Light didn’t directly help. Iona wasn’t faster, wasn’t stronger, nor was she tougher. What she did, better in some ways than Earth, was last. [Overflowing Invigoration] gave Iona nearly endless energy, allowing her to run, and run, and run, and run, and run. It’s why if she got lucky in the first few rounds of a tournament, she had a strong shot at winning the entire thing. Everyone else would be exhausted, and Iona was there, fresh and ready, eager to go.
It was a toss-up if the Light class or the Earth class was better in the long-haul. It really depended on the respective stats everyone had, skills, and most importantly – grit.
There was one other squire with a Light class, and she also had a Wind class. She was aiming to be one of the light, fast Valkyries, riding a pterodactyl, griffin, or some other fast flier, screaming from the sky to hit and run.
At the end of the run, Iona was in 7th place. The Wind + Light runner was in first, and a number of non-human recruits were between Iona and her. Most were beastkin of various sorts – Rabbit, cat, dog, fox, even a lumbering bear-kin – and the last was a werewolf.
The bear-kin was also the only one taller than Iona, and it was by a hair as the bear-kin was 6 foot 2/ 188 CM.
Really, it was frankly unfair how much of an advantage the System gave non-humans. They were showered with physical stats, while humans had to deal with only a +1 Free Stat. Not only that, but raw, baseline, they were significantly stronger than humans were. A bear-kin with 500 strength would be able to beat a human with 500 strength nearly every time.
At least humans had the flexibility to assign their stats where they wanted to. It made them better casters, better mages, by a small margin.
Iona was toweling the sweat off of her when the grand central bell started to toll. She frowned – it shouldn’t be the top of the hour, that bell had gone off recently near the end of their run.
It kept going, and going, and Iona looked around at the other squires.
Something was wrong.
At first one squire, then the next, then all of them, abandoned the next part of the daily training, and started to stream back to Castle Valkyrie, to find someone who knew what was going on, and ask them for help.
They weren’t knights, they weren’t Valkyries – yet. Still in training. They’d brag and boast how they were the future leaders, the knights in shining armor that everyone would look up to. Yet, when push came to shove, they were lost, still looking for guidance of their own.
The Valkyries had a grand hall, a room where they could all fit. Iona squeezed in the back, seeing over most of the heads of everyone there, to where Sigrun was standing, in fierce discussion with a number of other senior Valkyries – Alruna included – along with a scout.
Iona couldn’t quite tell which organization the scout was from, but he was the center of attention.
A decision was reached, and Sigrun made an announcement to the room.
“A goblin horde is coming from the mountains, tens of thousands strong, if not larger. If they make it through the Wobby pass, they’ll spill out into the plains, scatter, burn, murder, loot, and pillage their way through the kingdom – and others nearby. They’ll be nearly impossible to stop. The mountains force them to come through the pass though, and we’re going to head off to stop them. We’ll be calling for reinforcements from the Order of the Red Lions and the Righteous Divine Fist Sect, along with calling for the King’s army. We’re also sending out messengers to as many other organizations as possible.”
Sigrun took a moment, a heartbeat, letting it sink in.
“Valkyries. Move out.”
Iona had to rescue one of the smaller squires from the sheer crush of bodies as everyone tried to leave through the same door at the same time.