Hugh was peeling a potato-like thing as the sky faded, gazing off at the distant mountains where the sun had just ducked behind a peak. He seemed to be lost in thought, totally unaware of the sword swinging at his head. At the last possible second he reached up and blocked not with his knife but with the potato, casually deflecting Errod's sword so that it narrowly missed his shoulder. He then turned in a flash and stepped on the blade as it continued downwards, causing it to twist and pull out of Errod's hands - now standing on the sword, Hugh slowly pointed the knife at his opponent's neck.
"I told you to choose your time wisely. You had all night to pick your time of attack, and you come at me while I am armed and alert?"
"You! But! You didn't even use the knife, you... if you can do that with a root then you always count as armed."
"Yes! Excellent, a good lesson for you. Your enemy is always armed. But you had not learned this lesson, and still attacked me while I held a knife, yes?"
Errod collapsed to the ground and threw up his hands. "You were distracted, watching the sunset."
"You had all night. I would be even more distracted while I sleep, no? That is when Calliope plans on attacking me."
He was completely correct on that one. I had decided right away that the best way to succeed in Hugh's challenge was to just sneak up while he was asleep and kick him as hard as I could. The potato move had me reconsidering - it must have been force magic, but it was a reminder that he could do things I wouldn't be able to plan for.
"I can't attack someone in their sleep. I'm destined to be a knight of Brynnklar."
"I am a... partially retired... member of the royal guard of the kingdom of Erathik. It is a very important, very honorable position. But there is no honor in killing people. The honor is in protecting. So you protect people however you can, and if that means stabbing the other man to death in his sleep then that is what you do. If you are so busy treating your enemies with respect that they are able to take advantage of you and murder the people you were trying to save, then you have lost. It is as simple as that, yes?"
Errod shrugged, clearly unconvinced, though he hadn't seemed bothered by attacking someone from behind. I wasn't sure what the specific rules of chivalry he was trying to follow.
"What do you mean, you're destined to be a knight of Brynnklar?" Brinkmar sounded better. I could see why they changed it. Who had written the Jake Ross books? The name on the cover was Marjorie West - had she been here? Did she know the real Jake Ross? It wasn't exactly an urgent mystery, since whatever had gone down had happened a long time ago, but it did imply there was a way to get back to Earth and that others might have made the trip before. That wasn't exactly a huge revelation though, I'd already assumed as much.
Errod finally replied, while gazing wistfully off into the distance, "I mean that I've seen a vision of the future where I am wearing the mystic armor of a knight of Brynnklar, and am the greatest swordsman the land has ever known."
Katrin snorted. "He had a dream a month ago and has been insufferable ever since."
"It wasn't just a dream! And look, here we are traveling with a member of Erathik's royal guard who has volunteered to teach me to fight!"
Hugh snorted as he went back to peeling the potato thing. I was tempted to attack him right away, on the theory that he wouldn't think I would be dumb enough to do that, but I decided to wait.
I had until we started riding again to injure him - he didn't want any shenanigans that might hurt our mounts. Those anvil-headed dinos were amazing, and we had been making good time. We were already past Ulthus - we hadn't stopped there, which was a disappointment. We'd seen it in the distance for just a moment at one point, a dark blob on a hill with one ridiculously tall tower sticking up. I was eager to get another shot at exploring a city in this new world, but that would have to wait for Handoleren.
Errod excused himself and wandered off to practice his sword forms, something he always did away from Hugh so that he didn't have to listen to the snickering. Hugh was training us, a little each day, but he said he wouldn't teach Errod anything about using the sword until he had more of the fundamentals down. We practiced standing right, so that we couldn't easily be knocked down. We practiced dodging, and standing up quickly, and falling down - I'd never thought about the right and wrong way to fall when someone knocks you over. Hugh said that I had a lot of natural talent but also a lot of bad habits, and warned me that it would be a long time before I could hope to attack someone with proper training.
Errod, on the other hand, didn't have any specific bad habits and was eager to learn everything but had so little natural ability that Hugh had to take frequent breaks as he barely resisted screaming in frustration.
I'd have happily traded talent with Errod if it had meant I would be able to use magic. I was beginning to think I just didn't have the knack.
"I can't read this. It's just gabbledygook."
"I didn't recognize that word. Is it from Arizona?"
I'd had to tell Katrin I was from an isolated town called Arizona, where the local lord had outlawed magic. This was, apparently, a plausible enough story to avoid any awkward questions. "Kind of, but it just means that it's nonsense. I can't do this."
The language in Katrin's very stereotypical book of spells was some sort of angular runic script that - according to her - you should just be able to understand magically after getting into the right mindset and concentrating on it.
"We'll keep trying. You might be forcing it too hard? I'm not sure. I taught myself so I don't really know a lot about this."
I closed the book - I'd been staring at the page for half an hour and it was starting to make me angry. I decided I needed to remind myself why I gave a shit. "Show me the light thing again."
Katrin smiled and closed her eyes. I could see her lips moving, just slightly, though she had insisted she wasn't saying anything. After a moment a ball of white light appeared in the air between us - it was about an inch across, but very bright. It was that cold light like an LED or something, and she could mentally control it in order to move it around.
"Ugh, I'm so jealous. I want to do magic so badly. Look at that!"
"It will just take time. I'm sure you'll be able to learn it eventually. I can feel it." She was being extra reassuring like I was a little kid with hurt feelings, even though she was two or three years younger than me. Something like that, but I'd have to get some scratch paper and do actual math to be sure. Seconds, minutes, hours, and days were suspiciously similar to Earth measurements - enough so that I had assumed everything would be. But while talking to Katrin she'd mentioned that she'd just had her thirteenth birthday and I knew she had to be at least a few years older than that.
I'd pulled Hugh aside and he'd confirmed that there while there were still the familiar twelve months in a year, each of them had exactly thirty-six days which meant a full year was more than two months longer here than on Earth. I couldn't figure out why that one thing would be different when everything else seemed the same. At any rate, it meant I was approaching my sixteenth birthday here, rather than my nineteenth.
There was no official age where you counted as an adult, but at the very most it would be fourteen (which some back-of-the-napkin style math told me was something like sixteen and a half Earth years) so it didn't really matter to me. I was an adult either way. It did mean yet another thing on top of the base-six counting to confuse me around numbers.
I opened the book again, and tried just looking at it without really thinking. I went back to my project of whittling down a stick into a essentially a toothpick, and let my mind drift.
"I've got a relative in Theramas," I lied, "and they have some influence. So I think I'll be able to get into a Duminere before long. But I wanted to learn magic like this, too."
Katrin looked up, eyes wide. "Do you think you could get me in?"
"You already have a spellbook, and you can do the light thing and that fire starting thing and the shield one. What are you so excited about?"
"I keep forgetting you don't know how this works. Well. Everyone has some sort of magical potential. Some more than others. Some races on the other planes have specific magical talents, but normal humans like us just have three types of gift: we can cast spells, we can read and write using runes, and we can do wild magic. But wild magic is almost as hard to learn as spellcasting, and way more dangerous. If you go into a Duminere, you get a Dumine whether you want to or not - you can't leave without one, even though for some people it doesn't give them a gift at all.
"This locks you out of using your mana for other things. You can't do wild magic - even races that have natural abilities - and it gets harder to learn spells. You can still cast them, but you're always going to be at a disadvantage. Except!" she leaned closer, excited. "One of the thirty-six individual gifts your Dumine can grant is increased ability at spellcasting. That means you get way better at it, learn spells faster, all sorts of things. And the Duminere at Theramas is one that always has that gift available."
Wait. "Hang on, it changes? Like, if I go in to get fire powers or something it could just... be all out of stock that day?"
"It's complicated. Some are always at a given Duminere, some are almost never there, and some come and go depending on the situation. Could be related to the alignment of the planes, or what your personal talents are. I've heard of some showing up when someone is selecting their third gift, presumably because of what they picked for the first two. But there's a lot we don't understand about it. That's all second hand though, they probably know more in Theramas since that's where the Duminere is."
"Okay. But if you go in you might get nothing, right?"
She nodded, and made the little light do figure-eights in front of her. "Yeah, most people get a dud. It's like a Dumine, but it's just silver and it doesn't give you any gifts. If that happens I'll be slightly worse off but... I really don't think it will. I've been asking around, and it seems like there's at least some correlation to your natural ability. I was able to read this book the very first time I looked at it, and learned spells without any help. That has to mean something, right?"
What Katrin hadn't said is that the same logic implied I would just get a dud.
I was planning on sinking into a funk, but right then Errod started screaming. We all jumped up and ran to where he had been practicing his forms, and there he was in the fetal position with blood everywhere. He was clutching one of his shoes, and his sword was thrown off to one side. Hugh ran past and began scouting for enemies, while Katrin crouched down to calm Errod down. I ran and grabbed my stolen first aid kit, and by the time I got back Katrin had figured out what happened.
She told me, I did a great job not laughing, and then I called Hugh back and told him we weren't under attack. "He was practicing some kind of lunge, and he stumbled. He uh... planted his sword right down on his foot and lost a toe."
"Ah. The large toe?"
"No," Katrin chimed in from the ground next to her brother, "the one next to that."
Hugh relaxed. "Good. Then it should not cause him trouble once it is healed."
"Can we heal it back on? I just have that goo."
"Not with the salve you stole from the soldiers, it is good for stopping bleeding but not for delicate healing."
"It doesn't matter," Errod muttered, "she took the toe anyway."
We all just stared for a moment in silence. Katrin finally spoke up, and if Errod heard the concern in her voice he didn't acknowledge it. "Err, uh... it's just us here. Nobody took your toe. You cut it off yourself."
"No, I did but... she popped out from behind that bush and grabbed my toe when I pulled my shoe off and it fell out. She was wearing a plain wooden mask and holding a staff, and... oh god, she's going to curse me."
Hugh met my eyes and shook his head. There hadn't been anyone there. I decided it was just blood loss or shock or something, but I'd be lying if I said I slept well that night - and we never did find the missing toe.
In the morning there was another foot injury, this one much less serious. Hugh pulled his shoes on and stamped them down as always - then screamed out a word that my bracelet didn't translate but which made Katrin blush so hard I thought she would give herself a sunburn. Hugh pulled his left shoe back off and reached inside, retrieving the tiny sharpened spike I'd been whittling the day before.
"You told me to injure you," I said.
"In combat, Calliope."
"If you are so busy treating your enemies with respect that they are able to take advantage of you..."
He scowled at me, but I think he was faking it.