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Eldan again stood in the weapons room on the lowest floor of the Court, this time lined up against the wall with his fellow students. They had been assigned new number badges after changing into training clothes, and Eldan had the number 23 pinned to his chest. Stal had dropped from number 4 to 19, so must have at least performed adequately in the aquatics test after all, while Amuel had held her position at number 31. If Stal had looked grim prior to the swim, he looked positively miserable now, his lips pressed thin and turned down at the corners, and his brow furrowed. Amuel, by contrast, appeared to be nearly vibrating with anticipation for the assessment to begin, and her eyes flicked excitedly at the equipment around the room.

The Ironkeeper stood in the center of the training mats, the Captain and Sergeants off to the side, as she began to speak. “This test will operate differently from the previous two, testing potential in addition to present level of skill. We do not expect all students to arrive at Court with weapons training, and those that have experience will also be tested using weapons unfamiliar to them. To begin, those with experience with the stave, please raise your hands.” Eldan lifted a hand, along with quite a few other students, and the chiseled blonde Sergeant, Devis, noted their numbers in a ledger, nodding at the Ironkeeper when he finished.

A smaller number of hands, including Amuel’s, went up for the bow and arrow, and fewer still each for crossbow and spear. The boy who had come first in the running assessment was the only one to raise his hand as having experience with a sword, and Eldan noticed his hand had also gone up among the stave users.

“And as for our Heliotian student, am I correct in thinking you have received training in the use of a scimitar?” Stal gave the Ironkeeper a curt nod, which she acknowledged, ignoring the slight of a non-verbal response, with a gesture toward Sergeant Devis to note the experience in his ledger. “And our coalition delegate I believe will have knife skills?”

Amuel inclined her head. “Yes, Ironkeeper, and throwing knives.”

“Excellent. Do we have any other students experienced in uncommon weapons?” The Ironkeeper looked around the room and one hand slowly went up, raised by a tall, stocky boy with thick, dark hair pulled into a tail and what looked like the barest shadow of a mustache on his upper lip. The Ironkeeper motioned for him to speak.

“M’Da taught me the mace, Master,” he mumbled, looking stricken.

The Ironkeeper raised an eyebrow as Devis dutifully noted the skill. “Quite uncommon, and very interesting.” The boy looked like he hoped to vanish into the wall, closing his eyes and making a gulping swallow as the Master studied him for a moment. “Very well then,” she clapped her hands together and waved for the officers to join her. “We will divide into groups, working with your familiar weapons first. Number 12, join the stave wielders for now, we will assess your swordsmanship afterward. Number 31 will join the archers, and 19 and 40 with me, I wish to see your techniques.”

The Sergeants began calling the groups together and Amuel bolted to join the archers. Stal and the mace user trailed after the Ironkeeper as she strode across the mats, both boys looking somewhat nauseous, and Eldan watched as she unlocked the massive wooden ball and chain from the rack and handed it to the stocky boy, who hefted it easily in one hand.

Eldan had to look away after that as the stave users were herded to the side of the room, led by Sergeants Strake and Filon. The sword wielding boy, wearing the number 12, puffed his chest out proudly as he marched behind the officers, looking every inch the natural athlete he had proclaimed himself to be after the first test. He was tall for his age, his body compact with lean muscle, and his movements smooth and confident. His skin was bronzed from the sun, his chin length, wavy brown hair streaked with blonde, and when he flashed a smile his teeth were white and straight. If Sergeant Devis had the looks of an idealized soldier, this boy looked like the ideal recruit, and Eldan wondered why he had not tested directly into the military at the outset.

The Sergeants selected staves from the racks, handing them out to the students. When Eldan reached out to take the one being offered to him Sergeant Strake held on for a moment, looking down at the bandages exposed below Eldan’s short pants meaningfully. “You sure about this?” He asked quietly, his expression concerned.

Eldan nodded, meeting the Sergeant’s eyes and closing his fingers tightly around the stave. The Ironkeeper expected him to participate and he would not fail to meet that expectation. Sergeant Strake sighed softly, releasing the stave to his grasp and moving on to the next student.

They were put through a series of exercises, first mirroring the Sergeants as they went through moves and positions on the mats, and then moving on to the training dummies. Eldan felt painfully weak and unsteady executing the familiar strikes, blocks and sequences, stumbling or pulling up short again and again as he aggravated his injuries. The wide-armed grips left his arm shaking, his left shoulder unable to maintain support, his right leg buckled during deep lunges and back-steps, and every twist, jab and stretch inflamed his abdomen with agony, causing him to jerk back out of position or stutter to a stop each time he pushed too far into a move. Strake and Filon took turns making notes and moving among the students, adjusting stances and demonstrating forms, but they left Eldan to fumble through alone, apparently deciding he was too compromised to train.

Finally the group was pulled back for one on one spars, and the students collapsed on the mats to be called up four at a time, one pair for each Sergeant. The winner of each spar would stay to take on the next, and the final two would spar each other. Eldan sat at the back of the cluster of sweaty students waiting to spar, trying to catch his breath and watching the spars distractedly. His attention roved between Amuel, who was loosing arrows into a target with alarming speed and accuracy, firing at easily twice the rate of the other archers, and Stal, who was performing a flowing series of sequences with a training sword that looked like an incredibly complex dance, his loose robe drifting around him so it was nearly impossible to predict his movements. Occasionally his eyes drifted to the boy with the mace, who was pummeling a training dummy so hard that it was listing to one side, obviously on the verge of breaking.

The skill levels among the stave users were mixed, and the dual weapon wielding boy easily outclassed most of the students. He had been one of the first called up to spar and was now systematically working his way through his opponents. A serious looking girl wearing badge number 28 had held her position in the second set of pairings through a couple of opponents now, but it seemed clear she was struggling to keep her place as champion. Eldan realized his turn must be approaching so narrowed in to study the spars more closely, focusing on number 12. Despite the boy’s boasting and bravado, his fighting style was efficient and restrained. He easily defeated many of his partners but never crushed them, trading a few strikes and blocks before almost politely ending the fight, usually with a single, precise move, disarming or breaking their guard to land at a vital spot. Eldan thought that if he were at full strength he could at least block some of these finishing strikes, but in his current condition he doubted he stood a chance. He clenched his teeth, wondering why the Ironkeeper had been so adamant that he join this assessment.

When the second to last fight concluded Eldan worked his way to his feet, walking around the already defeated students who sat splayed out on the mats, to take his turn against the boy with the number 12 badge. The serious girl continued to trade blows with her last opponent on the other side, both fighters red-faced and sweating. Sergeants Strake and Filon gave each other a look as Eldan approached the tanned boy, making a quick bow in greeting and settling into a loose stance, waiting for the command to begin the spar.

“Number 23, you are not required to join this exercise. Do you wish to withdraw?” Seargent Filon called from the sideline.

Eldan shook his head, “no, Sergeant, I do not.”

Filon nodded curtly, picking up her pen to note the spar in the ledger. “Very well, then. You may take your positions.”

Eldan wasn’t sure why it was important that he be there but he did not intend to back down, even if he would likely summarily fail. He saw the Captain walk up behind Sergeant Filon out of the corner of his eye as he waited for his opponent to take his starting position. The boy made a stiff bow and slowly began to settle into a stance, then straightened back up, lowering his stave and shaking his head slightly.

“Is there a problem, number 12?” Sergeant Filon asked, sounding tense under the Captain’s observation.

The boy looked extremely uncomfortable, his blue eyes darting between Eldan and the officers. “Respectfully, Sergeant, number 23 is injured and I don’t think he should spar. I want to win but I don’t want to hurt him.”

Captain Gelth reacted immediately, seeming to swell with anger as he stalked forward. “Your partner presented himself and your commanding officer approved the spar, ordering you to take position. Are you under the impression your Sergeants haven’t noticed this boy’s injuries?” He towered over the two students, even the taller number 12, blood rising in his face.

“No, Sir.” The boy held the Captain’s stare without flinching, though his knuckles were white from gripping his stave.

The Captain snorted, “if this boy was foolish in his decision it is not your concern. If he hurts himself in a fight he isn’t prepared for it is not your concern. All that you need to know is that your officer instructed you to take position. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Sir.”

The anger began to drain from Captain Gelth’s face at the boy’s quick, clear, response, and after staring him down for another moment he nodded in grudging approval. “You show promise, boy. Don’t destroy your opportunity here by ignoring orders.” He turned on his heel, glancing at Eldan with his lip curled into a look of disdain, and walked back to take his place behind Sergeant Filon.

Eldan lowered himself into an opening stance, tucking his left arm to his side to keep it steady, and this time his sparring partner took position across from him, dipping his head respectfully toward Eldan.

“I’m Mercad. What should I call you, 23?” He asked quietly as he adjusted his grip.

Surprised, Eldan answered, “I’m Eldan, and thanks for the spar.” Mercad smiled at that, seeming to relax, while Eldan rapidly reevaluated his initial impressions. Mercad might be somewhat arrogant and overbearing but there was obviously more to him than that, and he certainly had the skills to back up his boasts.

Sergeant Filon called for the spar to begin and Eldan immediately stepped back and began circling warily as he waited for Mercad to take the offensive. The boy came in with a few testing strikes, making no real attempt to pierce Eldan’s defense, then held back, clearly expecting Eldan to come back at him with strikes of his own. When Eldan remained on the defensive, making no move to attack, Mercad looked briefly confused, then came back in significantly harder, with a flurry of quick strikes and jabs.

Eldan managed to barely meet the wave of attacks, twisting and blocking, the strikes that met his stave ringing up his arm to his damaged shoulder. When Mercad stepped back again Eldan released the stave with his left hand momentarily, shaking the tension from his arm. Mercad set his jaw, an expression Eldan had seen him make in the earlier spars just before moving in with one of his lightning fast finishing moves. Eldan clenched his own teeth, determined to block at least one of these attacks.

Mercad lunged forward, flicking his stave up in a disarming strike, and Eldan spun out of the way, crouching to sweep toward Merced’s ankles, forcing him back. He felt some of the stitches in the back of his leg straining and then tearing from the sudden extension but Mercad was already back on him, swinging down at his side from above. Eldan rolled under the strike, leaping to his feet to catch the next blow directly on his stave, then kicking up on Mercad’s thigh, using his bent leg as a launching pad to jump backwards and force back the follow-up strike heading up toward his chin. Mercad staggered backwards from the kick as Eldan landed in a crouch. He could feel blood trickling down his leg under his bandages but a strange elation was creeping through his body, and his wounds were beginning to burn with the same hot, needling sensation he felt in the river. He closed his eyes momentarily, drinking in the heat.

When he opened his eyes Mercad was coming in with a ferocious jab toward his stomach that Eldan had to contort to avoid, bringing up his stave vertically so Mercad had to swing his head back to avoid slamming into the pole. He jabbed down with the butt of his stave toward Eldan’s foot in response and Eldan snapped his up to deflect, dancing backwards.

Mercad came in again and again, his strikes increasingly harder as Eldan continued to dodge and deflect. His expression changed from confusion to grim determination and sweat started to trickle down his face, plastering his sun-streaked hair to his head.

The training room fell away around Eldan, everything fading except the two staves crashing into each other. He had worked hard to develop his skill with the weapon but he had never experienced such assurance in his movements or responded to an opponent as naturally as he did now. He felt liquid, his body flowing around blows with bare inches to spare, finding impossibly small gaps to slide through to slip from a domineering attack. He could have used this same fluidity to pierce through Mercad’s defenses but somehow he knew that when the bout ended his pain and stiffness would surge back, and anyway he didn’t want the experience to end. He clung to the sensation of ichorous movement like a life raft, buoyed by the freedom of feeling nearly weightless.

Mercad rushed toward Eldan, feinting toward his side and spinning at the last moment, using the momentum to launch himself upward and swing down, holding the stave like a bat, in a ferocious overhead strike that would likely break bones if it connected. Eldan simply stepped to the side, the wind from the stave ruffling his hair as it passed down his side to slam into the mat. Mercad swept outward immediately, driving at Eldan’s ankles with the stave still clutched at one end with both hands, extending a leg in line with the sweep with the intent to propel himself up into his next strike in a single motion. Eldan leapt over the sweep, bringing up his stave toward the anticipated attack only for Mercad to surprise him by lunging back off his extended leg and swinging backwards in a rough, one-handed swipe at his knees. The swing didn’t have enough power to knock Eldan’s legs from under him, the momentum lost when he reversed directions, but Mercad was strong, and he was using his other hand to push off the floor to add weight to the move. Eldan knew that even if it wasn’t disabling it would hurt, and put him on the back foot, which Mercad would mercilessly exploit. His body thrummed with heat, and he had the sensation that he was at the threshold of something, not quite understanding how to grasp the limits of this sudden agility. He slammed the butt of his stave into the mat and swung his knees up to his chest, hanging briefly as if he were climbing a pole while Mercad’s strike smacked into his stave instead of his legs.

Eldan dropped back to the mat in a crouch, holding his stave horizontally as Mercad drew to his feet and regarded him for a moment, slowly spinning his stave in his hands. Mercad came back at him in an erratic zig-zag, twirling his staff from side to side in rotating strikes so Eldan was forced to dodge back and forth, his hands at the center of his stave like a fulcrum as he snapped the ends up to catch the flurry of downswings. Mercad made a sudden, tight spin, bringing his stave down in a brutally powerful swing.

Eldan felt the thump of a heartbeat and heat sang in his veins, followed by an icy rush that flooded his muscles, like the shock of diving into the frigid river on the first warm day of spring. His breath caught and he froze for a second before exploding into motion, invigorated by the cold, but the hitch in his movement had been enough, he would not escape the strike. He twisted, bending backwards and flinching as the stave approached with terrifying force directly toward his wounded shoulder.

Eldan pushed desperately against the insubstantial barrier he could sense, feeling as though he was pressing in a direction that could not exist, pushing both inward and outward, toward a space between spaces. He somehow felt the pressure of the air bending as Mercad’s stave was about to connect with his skin, and then his body rippled, flowing around the weapon in a sinuous, impossible movement. The stave passed through him and around him and past him as though those distinctions didn’t matter, Eldan’s senses spiraling out in tendrils of awareness, stretching his body like taffy as his mind flooded with information. He instinctively dove into the some of the channels for movement that were suddenly available to him, finding space to spare within the collision of body and weapon, and a susurrus of whispers rose briefly in his ears in an excited chatter. A pale, barely visible light flickered across his skin and his hair began to rise, fanning around his head as though he were underwater.

As the stave whistled through the air, passing beyond him, Eldan gasped, straining to feel his feet planted on the ground. He fumbled to find the place where he had pushed through, finally releasing the pressure and snapping back behind his eyes, strands of awareness coiling into a single thread. His stave, which had already been in motion as he tried to bring it up in time to meet Mercad’s strike, now pointed just below Mercad’s chin. The two boys stared at each other, Eldan shakily lowering his stave as Mercad let his fall to his side, loose in his grip.

“23 Forfeits due to injury, win to 12.” Captain Gelth barked, pulling both of their attention to the sideline. Eldan stared dumbly, not quite comprehending the words, while the Captain stared back with an expression of seething disgust.

Sergeant Filon looked surprised but didn’t hesitate in her call, “23, step down, 12 will spar with 28 at second bell. All are dismissed until that time.”

Mercad gave a short bow, stepping back with a final, hard look at Eldan as the other students began getting up, forming around the two Sergeants to hand back their staves. Eldan shook his head quickly, trying to clear his thoughts and ignore the confused and alarmed glances being thrown in his direction. He wondered what the spar had looked like from the perspective of those watching, whether they had seen..whatever happened at the end.

The Captain walked past him, sneering, “take yourself to the medic, boy, and clean yourself up. You look disgraceful.” He stalked on without waiting for a response, his blue cape fluttering behind him.

Eldan looked down at himself, realizing the Captain was right. He had a large bloodstain on his tunic at his stomach that was slowly creeping outward, blood trickled down his arm from a second, wet stain on his shoulder, and the bandages on his legs were soaked through, the top of his boot smeared with blood. He stumbled when he turned toward Sergeant Strake to hand in his stave, hit with a staggering wave of exhaustion.

The Sergeant looked up, stepping away from the last few students and reaching out to take the stave from Eldan, leaning in as he did so to speak quietly. “I don’t know how you pulled off that performance in your state but it was impressive. For what it’s worth, from what I saw you won.”

Eldan looked at Strake blearily, letting go of the stave in his hands and trying to form a response with his cottony mouth. Sergeant Strake gestured behind him with his chin, “I think your friends are waiting,” he said with a small smile.

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