by Michael Kingswood
The humid air seemed to drag and flail, resisting being inhaled, as Patros made his way from his little cell in the trainees barracks and across the carefully-trimmed field of grass toward the testing ring.
Five years he’d been here, at the martial academy. Five years of running and jumping and study and sweating and pushing rocks and sparring and taking beatings and giving them back…all leading up to this day. Today, he was prove his mettle, and be allowed to join the ranks of the Queen’s Wardens.
Or he would be sent north, to the farmlands away from the border with the Josian Empire, there to tend the fields that produced the food for the warriors who patrolled, fought, bled, and died to keep the Empire from gobbling them all up.
Patros had done his share of tilling and planting. It was tough, necessary, noble work. But it wasn’t for him.
So as his sandaled feet pressed down the short strands of grass and the testing ring drew nearer, he found he was bursting with nervous energy. His arms and legs were quivering, and his stomach was doing leapfrogs in his belly. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck, making the rough fabric of his blue trainee’s jerkin stick to his torso.
But that was mostly from the warmth and the humidity.
Or at least he told himself that.
The testing ring was familiar; he’d sparred inside it countless times over the years since he’d first arrived here, before his voice had even thought about cracking into manhood and when his arms were spindle-thin.
Now he was sixteen, a man in all but name, but as he approached the brown-stained wooden fence surrounding the dirt of the ring, the gate nearest him open invitingly, he felt the same eleven-year-old he had been, way back when he’d first set foot on the martial academy’s campus.
A number of other trainees were lining the outside of the fence; there always were spectators for sparring sessions, but especially for the final trial. They stood in clumps, divided by age ranges. Most were in the year below Patros, boys who knew their time was coming and who were beginning to feel the pressure. But there were a few from the youngest class as well. One, a sandy-haired lad whose head barely reached Patros’ chest, was standing just to the side of the gate.
As Patros passed, the boy said, “Good luck,” in a voice that cracked slightly at the end there.
Patros gave him a smile that he hoped was confident, then stepped into the ring.
Someone closed the gate behind him, and he heard the clack of the latch coming down distinctly, even above the murmur from a dozen conversations among the spectators all around.
Someone else said something over to the left, triggering soft chuckling from his group, but their humor washed over Patros without touching him.
Across the ring, through its other entrance gate, his foe for the trial was entering. Tall, broad-shouldered, and well tanned, with a shaved head and closely cropped black goatee. He was bare to the waist, revealing bulging muscles and a puckered scar that went from his left shoulder to right hip, the leavings of some battle back before Patros was even born.
Seeing him, Patros’ heart sank and his confidence, already mostly just propped up, wilted.
Karmac. Why did it have to be Karmac?
The instructor stopped three paces inside his own gate and looked Patros up and down, his expression blank though his eyes were probing. After a few seconds that felt to Patros like an hour, Karmac spoke.
“Patros Ingeltan, you are called to prove your worth to the Queen. How will you answer?” Karmac put a little extra bass inflection into his words as he said them; a trick he had learned from his own mentor twenty-some years before. It added a bit of gravitas to the moment, and a bit of extra intimidation.
And even after all this time, he still was sometimes amazed how well it worked.
Across the ring from him, the trainee visibly drew a deep breath to steel himself. He usually did that. Everyone got nerves, but Patros always seemed to feel them a bit more deeply. Not that he had ever let them stay his hand; if he had, Karmac’s peers in the staff would never have allowed him to remain at the academy, let alone recommend him for the trial.
Karmac still wished he wouldn’t show it so much.
Still, when the lad made his response, the slightly-higher than baritone of his voice—supposedly he was quite a singer, though Karmac hadn’t heard him—was steady, his tone resolved. And completely to script, to fulfill the formality of the trial.
“I answer with muscle and steel, and will that will not break.”
Karmac nodded. “Then choose your steel, and show your will.”
With that, the instructor turned to his right, where a rack of weapons stood waiting. Patros would have an identical selection on his side of the ring. The sunlight shown brightly off the steel blades: swords and daggers, hammers, and axes. All were blunted for training, but even with that, they could injure or kill.
That was not the intent, of course, but it happened.
Karmac picked up his favored weapon, a battle axe with a broad crescent-moon blade on one side and a spike—blunted into a round nub on the training model—on the other.
The leather wrapping the handle was worn, but still gave good grip, and he took a couple swings with it to loosen his shoulder. It felt good in his hands, and Karmac had to stop himself from smiling at the little rush that he always got when hefting it.
It was like recovering a part of himself.
When he turned back to Patros, the lad had selected a bastard sword: blade of comparable length with a standard longsword, but with the hilt sized so he could grip it with both hands if he wished.
He did so now, his wiry body turned slightly to put his right shoulder back from his left and his weight balanced on the balls of his feet. The blunted tip of his sword pointed toward Karmac’s eyes, and his mouth was compressed into a determined scowl that didn’t quite hide the nerves he clearly still felt.
Well. He’d sweat those nerves out quickly enough.
“Are you ready?” asked Karmac.
Patros heard the words, but it was more like he felt them. The import of their meaning struck at his soul, and for a moment he could not answer.
Karmac. He should have known it would be him.
Patros had sparred with every member of his class, and faced all of the instructors at one point or another in his training. Against his classmates, he had always done well. Against the instructors…not so much. Until recently. Recently he found he was able to hold his own, and sometimes prevail.
Except with Karmac. He had only ever faced him in the ring twice. Memories of those thrashings had left him red-faced for weeks.
The other instructors told him there was no shame in his losses. Even the other instructors lost to Karmac more often than not.
But now here Karmac was. The obstacle between Patros and his manhood and entry into the Wardens. The one man he’d never been able to come close to besting.
Might as well give up and go north now, save himself the pain and humiliation.
Patros snarled inwardly, forcing that voice of doubt down. He may end up being sent north. But if that was his fate he’d meet it straight on, like a man.
He forced, “I am,” out in as clear and steady a tone as he could.
The words had barely left his mouth, and Karmac was on him.
The instructor closed the distance between them at a speed that Patros almost couldn’t believe, and he’d faced the man and watched him in the ring before.
His axe swept through the air toward Patros’ neck, and he was only just able to duck beneath it.
A riposte was out of the question, unbalanced as he was. But he tried anyway, his sword cleaving only air in the instructor’s wake.
Patros backpedalled, parrying another attack as Karmac came on again, a low cut this time. But before he could maneuver his sword for his own counter, Karmac twisted his wrists and the axe caught on his blade, forcing it away.
And then Karmac was twisting his entire body in the opposite direction, and –
The instructor’s sandaled foot caught him in the side, and he staggered away, sudden pain making his vision go red for a second as he frantically worked his feet to stop himself from falling.
This was not going well at all.
But it should have been. The boy was better than this.
Recovered from his kick and stalking forward toward the still stunned trainee, Karmac was tempted to ease up, allow Patros to regain his equilibrium before coming at him again. But he could not. There would be no quarter in battle against the Empire, and he would be doing Patros no favors showing any here.
Inwardly, he screamed for Patros to right himself, and fend off the attack he was about to send. Outwardly, he snarled out a death cry as he raised his axe and brought it down toward the back of the boy’s neck.
He was sure it was going to land, and end Patros’ trial in dishonor and defeat.
Instead, the boy got his sword up at the very last second, coming in behind the swing of his axe and knocking it upward just enough that it passed over his head harmlessly.
And then he countered with a backswing that made Karmac have to leap backward and exhale loudly to avoid being cut across the ribs.
That was better.
He landed to find Patros was advancing with a thrust toward his belly. Karmac went to knock it away with his axe, but the thrust had been a feint, and Karmac found himself having to duck the true attack.
Patros came on again, willing the pain in his side to silence as Karmac backed away again. He was too quick, too strong. Patros knew his only chance lay in taking and keeping the initiative.
So he kept on. Attack after attack after attack.
Karmac avoided them all, but he continued to retreat, and Patros began to lose some of the crushing doubt that had almost done him in so early in the fight.
He still didn’t know how he’d managed to make the parry that had started his assault, and he didn’t care. Analysis could come later.
Now, attack. And again.
And again Karmac avoided Patros’ blade. But this time he reversed his swing instead of continuing it, and the nub that would normally be a spike came hurtling toward Patros’ eye.
He ducked his shoulder and hit the ground, rolling to his feet and spinning away from a proper axe cut, then flicked hiss own blade Karmac’s way.
The instructor retreated a half step, then began circling to the right, both hands on the haft of his axe. His eyes twinkled in the sun, and sweat ran down his bare torso, but his breathing was slow and steady, his steps smooth and even.
He began spinning the axe in his hands, turning the haft and blade over and over in the air in front of his body almost the way a man would with a quarterstaff, and his lips turned upwards ever so slightly.
Licking his lips with a tongue that was dry despite the sweat running freely down his own body, Patros retreated in time with Karmac’s circle, eyes locked on the instructor’s. He knew better than to be taken in by the spectacle of the axe flourishes; it would be the eye that announced the next attack.
But it was difficult not to look down, even if just for a second –
The boy’s eyes dropped, and Karmac surged forward, driving the haft of his axe straight forward toward his belly.
As expected, the boy dropped his blade down to knock the attack away. So Karmac flipped the axe over, removing the haft from the path of Patros’ parry and dropping the blade down toward the boy’s shoulder from above.
Patros’ eyes widened, and he twisted his torso, releasing the grip on his sword with his left hand so as to remove his shoulder from the path of the cut.
As Karmac’s axe passed harmlessly through the air, he felt an impact on the side of his head, where the skull met the neck.
Now it was the instructor’s turn to go reeling.
Patros was actually surprised his pommel strike landed. He hadn’t actually meant to do it; he was only reacting from desperation to avoid being cut by the axe. But when he twisted to get out of the way, his sword arm came up, and…
This wasn’t time to congratulate himself. Though he surely wanted to. He could count the times he’d been able to land a blow against Karmac before on one finger.
The instructor had staggered forward two steps, and Patros advanced toward his exposed back. A thrust would have been fitting, but his sword was low from the follow-through of the pommel strike. So he cut upward, from the left.
Karmac felt the trainee coming, a mixture of decades of fighting instincts mixed with his other senses telling him exactly what was going on behind himself.
His vision was blurry from the unexpected strike and his ears rang, but he’d long ago learned to trust his instincts even when he couldn’t think to do so.
He surged forward, and he felt the air displaced by the trainee’s sword as it just barely missed his exposed back. Then he rounded on Patros, raising his axe back up to a guard.
Karmac was swaying on his feet; he could feel it. And he had to blink to not see a double-image of his foe.
He had backed off when Karmac turned back around, falling back into a defensive stance. Through the blurry vision and lack of equilibrium, Karmac noted that, and anger reared up within him. Not anger at the blow; he’d taken plenty of those over the years. But over Patros’ timidity.
The pup could have done him in, if he’d just committed fully. Now…
Giving his head a quick shake to clear his senses, Karmac charged forward on the attack.
Patros retreated, parrying the instructor’s blow, and inwardly cursed at himself. This could be over now. Should be over now.
Grinding his teeth, he parried another blow, then another, and retreated faster.
Karmac was coming on with the same blurring speed he’d used in his initial press, and there was something like rage on his face. It made Patros’ belly go liquid, and he felt he first real quivers of fear.
He’d never been truly afraid of the instructors before; he’d known from the start that they were not out to intentionally harm him, however cruel they may have seemed at any particular moment.
He’d landed a blow. Something Karmac had almost never allowed him to do before. Bruised the instructor’s ego. Now he was going to make Patros pay for that slight.
The fear grew strong and blow after blow came at him, and he could tell his reactions were slowing because of it. But he couldn’t force it down.
In desperation, he repeated the mental chants that would guide one’s mind to stillness, but it would not come.
And then a high cut met his parry, and his sword became entwined in the notch between the axe’s blade and its haft. The angle was wrong, so he couldn’t pull the blade back, and it was only the strength of his arm and shoulder against the weight of Karmac’s body and weapon, and the the instructor bore down and pressed.
Slowly, inexorably, the entwined blades inched downward, and the axe blade approached Patros’ face.
The boy’s cheeks puffed outward as he breathed in and out in quick, exhausted heaves, and his eyes were wide with exertion and fright. He saw the end of his trial coming, and with it the end of his hopes, and the strength of his shoulder alone was not enough to stop it.
There were half a dozen ways Patros could get out of this situation that Karmac could think of without difficulty. But the instructor could tell he was frazzled, locked into just this one struggle.
That would be his undoing.
Don’t give up, boy. Think, and move.
Karmac continued to press.
Patros had moved both hands to the grip of his sword, and it still wasn’t doing any good. His arms were quivering from exertion, and he was beginning to become overbalanced; Karmac’s press was forcing him backward farther than his back wanted to bend.
He was going to fall, and then the instructor would get him, and the trial would be over. And he would be sent north.
All his labor, all the discomfort—downright pain—of the last five years would be for nought.
Karmac’s face loomed over his, beyond their interlocked weapons. He could practically feel the man’s breath; smell his the stink of his sweat.
He pressed all the harder, and from the grimly determined set of his jaw and the glint in his eyes, he knew Karmac intended to finish him now.
“No!” Patros heard himself shout.
Without thinking, he reversed his direction. Where before he had been pressing against the instructor’s press, now he went with it, ducking his shoulders and twisting his torso even as he crouched down.
Karmac made a grunt of surprise, and then he went stumbling off to the right, thrown by the force of his own press.
Patros’ sword was yanked from his hands; it flew away from him to land on the dirt several feet away. But he didn’t look to it; only to the instructor, who and gone to one knee, left hand pressed to the dirt to stop himself from falling completely.
No time to get his sword; Patros had to press the advantage now.
He charged forward, then leapt.
The trainee’s weight struck Karmac as he was just beginning to regain his balance and rise.
The unexpected force knocked him down fully. He landed on his side and rolled, but then found himself unable to move, as Patros was atop him, forcing his shoulders to the ground with his knees as his fist came up.
Karmac worked hard not to cringe as the punch came down.
He didn’t succeed for the second one.
The third punch made Patros’ knuckles scream. But he threw another one.
Karmac’s nose was flattened across his cheek, and his eye was welling shut. But the battle fury was on Patros, and he forced his aching fist to ball again. He raised it.
And something caught his hand before he could let the punch fly.
He looked to the right and say Tomas, another of the instructors. Short and thin, he was whip-fast both in wit and in limb. He usually wore a jolly smile, but now his expression was grave.
“Enough,” Tomas said.
For a second, Patros actually fought against him, but then he tightened his grip.
“Enough,” Tomas said again, with a cold tone of command that could not be disobeyed.
Patros relaxed, and sat back, then pushed himself up and off of the prone Karmac. He stepped—no, stumbled—a couple paces away, and only then noticed the absolute hush that had fallen over the spectators. One and all, they were looking at him with expressions ranging from shock to amazement to awe.
Patros found he could hardly breathe, but whether from the weight of those stares or from the absolute exertion of the trial, he did not know.
Hell, he didn’t even know whether the trial was over or not. Tomas had halted it, but would it recommence?
Or would he be sent north after all?
Over where he had fallen, Karmac was getting to his feet, aided by Tomas. The big instructor looked like hell.
He felt like hell too.
Karmac had taken many a punch in his time. He’d had his nose broken a time or two. But he couldn’t remember such a pummeling from so few blows before.
The boy must have been really worked up. And no wonder. It was the most important event in his life, so far.
Karmac waved off Tomas’ fretting over him, then he turned toward Patros. The trainee was trembling visibly, his chest heaving and his eyes haunted, like he wasn’t sure what had just happened or what would come next.
Karmac new that feeling.
He took a moment to crunch his nose a bit better back in place, wincing at the pain of it but knowing it would have to be done.
Then he took a step toward Patros, who unconsciously retreated a half-step in response.
Smiling, Karmac raised his hands, palms out, and said the ritual words.
“Patros Ingeltan, you have proved you will, and your skill.”
The words swept over Patros, and a feeling of relief went with them, followed by a sense of wonder. Was this real?
“Now join us as a brother. Warden,” Karmac said, and he held out his right hand to him.
Patros grasped the instructor’s forearm, and felt the other man’s hand do the same to his. The vice-like grip was somehow also gentle, companionable.
Karmac’s grin grew more broad, actually companionable. For the first time Patros had ever seen.
Then he said, in a lower tone that didn’t carry past the two of them, “You scared the hell out of me for a second there. Thought you were going to quit.” He shook his head. “Glad you didn’t.”
More loudly, Karmac said, “I don’t know about you, but I need an ale.” Releasing Patros’ arm, he clapped him on the shoulder, then turned away, toward the gate he had initially entered through.
Patros watched him go, still unable to process all that had just happened for a moment.
Karmac must have sensed he hadn’t moved, because he looked back and raised an eyebrow—the one over the eye that was quickly growing completely black from Patros’ punches. “Coming?”
Patros nodded, then moved to walk with his instructor.
No, with his new brother.
He felt his lips turning upward into a smile. Part wonder, part relief, part pride, and part anticipation. A new world, a new life, awaited.
He stepped forward eagerly to meet it.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: