Authors: B.T. Narro
Warrior Sneary came and called for them to form a line shoulder to shoulder. Cleve had him as an instructor last year as a Group One warrior and looked forward to training under Sneary again, this time without the constant threat of battle looming over them. Sanya took her place in line far from Cleve, probably embarrassed at the thought of anyone finding out he was watching over her. She drew some gazes, but it was nothing compared to when Sneary pointed at her and told her to step forward. There was an audible reaction of surprise as whispers whisked around Cleve’s ears.
“This is Sanya Grayhart,” Sneary announced. “She is the first woman in the Academy as a warrior. However, do not treat her any differently than you do each other.”
“That’s not fair,” someone commented. “She has extra armor around the chest.”
The line of men broke down as they laughed and made more comments to each other. The only surprise to Cleve was that this had taken five seconds instead of one.
What does Terren expect me to do about this?
If he tried to defend her honor with a comment of his own, it would only provoke their taunting further.
I hope she can fight. It’s the only way to earn respect among these kinds of men.
“Shut up!” Sneary yelled as Sanya looked ahead stoically. “Get back in line, Sanya.”
He went on to explain evaluation week. Cleve had heard the introduction before, so he took the opportunity to study each warrior he could lay eyes on.
It didn’t take long to realize that he knew every one of them or at least had seen them before. They were
second- or third-years, which meant all of them had seen battle. Sanya was the only first-year.
What could Terren be thinking?
Even a first-year male warrior shouldn’t face solely men who were older and far better trained. Then Cleve realized that was the point. His uncle wanted to scare off Sanya.
I’m not here to watch over her. I’m just here to do what I can to prevent them from breaking her bones.
Some of these men had the instincts of animals, though. There was one in particular, a third-year named Peter Kirck, who preyed on the weak. He always looked for chances to injure his opponent when he could get away with it, often bending the rules yet rarely breaking them.
Soon Sneary got to the end of his speech and told them to find a protective tunic among the pile beside him that fit, because dueling was about to begin. Cleve reached for what seemed to be the biggest one, but Peter grabbed it the same time. Their eyes ran up and down each other’s torsos as their grips tightened. Peter seemed to have gained another layer of muscle since Cleve had last seen him, and now he was close to Cleve’s size. He let him have the tunic of boiled leather when he saw another of the same size nearby.
Sneary ordered them back into a line and started reading names two at a time from his list. Those called out would duel. Sneary made marks after each victor was decided as he called the next two.
Cleve could see the disappointment of his comrades increasing every time someone was called who wasn’t Sanya. But when Cleve’s name was announced, they seemed to stir in anticipation.
His opponent was a third-year by the name of Ashton who he’d fought many times before. They’d been in Group One together last year, and Ashton was a disciplined man who worked hard and respected his allies, unlike Peter. He’d never beaten Cleve, and he never would, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a skilled fighter.
Cleve was almost caught by a lunge halfway through the bout, for Ashton surprised him with a change to an aggressive strategy. But Cleve managed to dodge it and counterattack with a quick punch to Ashton’s gut.
There were no surprises in the next round, as Cleve claimed his second point easily.
“Sanya Grayhart,” Sneary announced, and half the warriors clapped and hooted.
“Been waiting to see how Teats can fight,” was the only taunt Cleve managed to catch out of five others called out at the same time.
“And Peter Kirck,” Sneary announced.
The warriors lost control, shouting and breaking the formation of the line as they hopped around in excitement. It turned the gazes of men in the other evaluation groups surrounding them, though Sanya ignored the attention well, as if she’d had experience in front of a crowd.
Peter came forward with a snarl, heading straight for Sneary. “Do you expect me to fight at half speed? Because I—”
“As I said earlier, you are to treat Sanya like anyone else. Fight with your full strength.”
What is Sneary doing?
Sanya finally let out some emotion, looking like a child pretending to be brave as she faced Peter and stood as tall as she could.
Sneary called for them to fight and Sanya immediately took the defensive, staying just out of range as Peter chased her around. Then she made her first attack, a quick swipe at his knee. He batted her weapon away with ease and lunged. But he stopped himself before poking her vulnerable stomach, then backed off.
To anyone who didn’t know Peter, it would’ve looked like he was being merciful by not taking the point. But Cleve knew Peter was just waiting for an opportunity to do more damage.
“Dammit, Peter,” Sneary yelled, “take the chance when it’s given to you or I’m giving the point to Sanya next time.”
“She needs to learn why women stay off this field,” Peter replied.
“Shut up and fight.”
Sanya’s brow creased in worry as she caught on to the type of man Peter was. She deflected two strong attacks, one after the other. Then she ducked under a third and brought her sword up with both hands to block a fourth that would’ve struck her in the head.
With their weapons locked, Peter grabbed her arm and stepped in so she couldn’t kick. He sneered, knowing she was in trouble.
She clenched her teeth and tried to fight back, but he was too strong for her. Peter wrenched his weapon downward, taking hers with it. With both their arms extended, Sanya was wide open to any attack. She tried to step away, but it was too late.
A more honorable man would’ve taken the easy point with a quick punch to her stomach. But Peter, grunting as he let out all of his strength, slammed the blunt end of his weapon into her temple instead.
She lost her sword as she collapsed to her hands and knees, her hair falling over her face and hiding the wound. She brought up one arm to press her hand against her temple over her hair. Cleve hurried to her as the rest of them were surprisingly silent.
“That bastard,” Cleve muttered. “Are you all right?”
“I will be in one moment.” She stayed on her hands and knees. “Please go back to the line.”
By the time Cleve had returned, Sanya was already on her feet, ready for the next round as if nothing had happened. The gash on her temple said otherwise, though. The cut was small at least, only a little blood, but it would swell tremendously over the next few hours and was close enough to her eye that it might impair her vision.
“Damn, woman!” Peter said in some amazement. “I must’ve hit you softer than I thought.”
“Are you certain you wish to fight?” Sneary asked her.
“Yes,” she answered confidently, refusing to take her eyes off Peter.
She stayed farther back during their next duel, clearly trying to prevent herself from becoming entangled with Peter again. Unfortunately, she moved slower than before, and each of Peter’s flurries came closer and closer to hitting her.
Sanya went on the offensive only for brief moments, then danced around blocking and dodging. It didn’t look like she was used to fighting men as strong and fast as Peter. Cleve did see that she had good instincts and form, at least, able to deflect many attacks that would’ve disarmed men weaker than Peter. But her stamina dwindled quickly, probably from the injury, while Peter’s agility only increased as the fight went on.
Sanya was forced to block one of his overhead attacks, and again they became locked as he grabbed her arm. In a fluid sequence of motions, he disarmed her with a hard flick of his wrist, lifted her, and slammed her to the ground.
She came down hard on her back and immediately started gasping for air. Sneary ran with Cleve to ensure she was able to breathe. She coughed and wheezed violently but waved her hand to show she was all right.
“Peter, come here!” Sneary yelled, as he drew his own wooden sword from the sheath on his belt. “You knew you’d earned the point as soon as you’d disarmed her. There was no need for brutality against your own ally. Stand still.”
Sneary swung his sword and struck him hard in the calf, forcing him to wince sharply. “Now take a lap.”
Peter limped into a jog as he started around the enormous field. Some of the other men circled around Sanya, asking if she wanted to be taken to the medical building. The levity from before was gone as they waited for her to find her breath.
She rolled off her back and onto her feet, hiding her pain flawlessly, as if this injury was nothing compared to others she’d endured. They remade their line. The day was still young. Sneary called more to duel.
Eventually Peter returned, winded and sweaty. The moment he got back in line, Cleve was called to face him.
Cleve knew this was part of Sneary’s punishment for Peter, forcing him to fight the most skilled warrior while he was tired. Cleve made quick work of him, locking swords and disarming him for the first point and then again for the second. Each time, Cleve flung Peter’s weapon as far as he could so he was forced to fetch it.
The duels went on without Sanya’s name being called again. Cleve figured Sneary would let her rest until after lunch, but then she was announced.
Ashton was called to face her, meaning she was to fight the same two men that Cleve had. There were many others more suited to her size and skill, so again Cleve wondered what Sneary was trying to prove.
It wasn’t long after they started fighting that Sanya’s attack was blocked and Ashton punched her near her eye. Ashton had fought her as if she were a man, as he was supposed to, so he couldn’t apologize without insulting her. But by the pained look on his face, it seemed he wanted to desperately.
Cleve was beginning to realize that Sanya had been trained well for sword fighting but not for fights with punching, kicking, or grabbing. It seemed that Ashton had become aware of this as well, for he methodically made his way in close, and when he did, he struck her in the stomach with a quick yet hard punch.
Sanya stood straight as if he hadn’t even touched her. Disappointed, she walked back to the line. No one appeared to be amused by her disgraceful showing.
“Sanya, can you fight again or do you wish to give up?” Sneary asked her.
“I want to fight again.”
“Then step back out here.”
This time, Sneary chose Alex Baom to face her. Cleve’s friend was yet another man who had to be nearly twice Sanya’s weight and strength. Cleve’s confusion turned to anger.
Alex seemed frustrated by the whole thing as well, scowling at Sneary as he came out of the line. But as Alex turned to Sanya, his expression softened.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but I can’t be the only man to lose a point to a woman. Please give up.”
A trail of blood had run down from the wound on her temple, now dripping from her chin. “I will never give up. Fight with your full strength.”
The first point came quickly when Alex tripped her, as she was too slow now to defend herself as well as before. But she seemed to gain some energy in the next round, keeping her feet away from his and nearly getting a clean strike after a flurry of swipes and lunges. But she couldn’t regain her stance quickly enough and soon found herself entangled with a stronger opponent once again.
She fought hard, clenching her teeth and letting out a guttural scream as she tried to wriggle her way out of Alex’s grasp. But the distance she created only allowed him to knee her in the stomach.
She fell to her knees, then to her hands, looking as if she might vomit. He kneeled beside her to put his hand on her back. “Shit, I’m sorry.”
Sneary yelled, “You’re coddling her just because she’s a woman! Run a lap.”
Alex muttered another curse as he sprinted off.
Cleve could hold back no longer. “Sneary, never has a first-year been put in an evaluation group of all older and bigger men and forced to fight continuously even while injured. You give her no chance to prove herself…and why do this?” he asked rhetorically. “Because she’s a woman! You’re the one treating her differently!”
Damn, he’d let his anger out toward the end, raising his voice to his instructor.
Sneary put himself right in Cleve’s face. “I don’t care if your last name is Polken—you speak like that again and I’ll see you put in Group Thirty. Now run two laps, and you’d better finish before Alex or you’re running a third.”
Cleve sprinted off, overhearing Peter’s remark to Sanya as he left: “Look at what you’re doing by being here. You need to leave.”
Cleve soon caught up to Alex, who had slowed for him.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Alex said with a slight grin. “As true as it was.”
“And you shouldn’t have apologized.”
“Do you plan to tell your uncle what Sneary is doing?”