Other Worldly Ways (Anthology 1) (2 page)

BOOK: Other Worldly Ways (Anthology 1)
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"Bout ended," the officer called. Simmas stalked away, cursing again. "Be here, same spot at a click before midday," the officer instructed. Giving him a respectful nod, I left to watch other bouts going on nearby. There was room between fighting squares for spectators to watch, and I was one of the first entrants to wander through the matches.

I found Camala—she fought a stocky, well-muscled Falchani. Camala was better with her blades, however, and won the bout in less than fifteen ticks. Briefly, I wondered where my tentmate was, but didn't see him while I wandered from this match to that, sizing up potential opponents for my next bout.

* * *

Back at my designated fighting square ten ticks early, I settled on the ground to meditate. "Always let your body recall the moves. At times, the brain only gets in the way," Crane's oft-repeated instructions sounded in my head. "Meditation helps," he'd remind me.

I faced a more experienced opponent, this time, although he fought with a single blade, just as Simmas had. At least he wasn't cursing as he stepped inside the square and settled to the ground, sitting cross-legged, just as I was.

I summed him up in a brief glance—taller, heavier and with a longer reach, I knew he'd last longer than Simmas. Lowering my eyes, I studied my hands. Let him make of me what he would.

Rising at the officer's commanding "Up!" I prepared myself. He attacked quickly, but Crane would have put him to practicing pulling the blade from his sheath for an entire day—he lacked a smooth draw. After three ticks of sparring, during which I measured his strokes and considered his training, I parried with one blade while the other went to his throat. He backed away immediately.

"Bout over," the officer declared. "You," he turned to me, "Be here at two clicks past midday." He strode away, leaving my opponent and me behind.

"My compliments to you and to your Sursee," he nodded to me before stepping out of the square and walking away. Sighing, I resheathed my blades and began walking toward the cooking tents for lunch.

Some contestants were already leaving, I noticed, as I walked the distance to the cooking tents. Most of those carrying their belongings were the newly-trained who'd been sent by their Sursee or commander because they showed promise—they'd gain experience at the Trials. These were stopping off at the cooking tents for a meal before they left.

"I'm off to my unit," the young man who sat down beside me said. "My Sursee and my commander say that in maybe two or three sun-turns, I might make a good run," he grinned at me. "What about you? Where you off to?"

"Back to the trial grounds after my meal," I said. "I got lucky and drew single blades my first two matches."

"Wow. That usually doesn't happen. And you're new? I don't see many newly-trained who can handle two blades."

"You should see the man who trained me. He wouldn't settle for anything else."

"Ah. One of those," the young man nodded his head. "Dalfar," he extended his hand.

"Devin," I took his hand in mine. "Good luck in the next Trials," I said.

"Good luck in this one," Dalfar grinned. We ate and talked while the heat of the Falchani sun bore down on the tent over our heads. Very little breeze filtered inside, although all the sides were rolled up to allow air inside.

I drank extra water so I'd be hydrated for the afternoon match. While I considered how long I might last against my next opponent, I listened as Dalfar described his position in the army. He seemed proud that he'd already seen battle, and had a new panther tattoo as a result.

Falchani rewarded those who'd distinguished themselves or were successful in battle with a tattoo. A full set—chest, back and both arms—meant the warrior was among the best Falchan had to offer. Crane, Dragon and Veykan had full sets. I had none and honestly, I preferred my skin uninked.

Often, I imagined that part of any Falchani's prowess was in getting the full set of tattoos to begin with—they often described the pain they endured to be covered in art. Shaking my head, I politely inquired about Dalfar's single panther on his right bicep.

"Tough at first, then I got used to it," he lifted his cup of Falchani black and drank. "Look, I have to get started now if I expect to make the first post by nightfall. I'm glad we met, Devin of the Mountain Hawk."

With a heavy sigh, I watched him shoulder his pack and walk out of the cooking tent. Then, smiling slightly, I recalled that he wasn't wearing underwear and likely didn't own any.

* * *

"Up." The command was becoming familiar. I faced a woman this time, but Crane and Veykan taught me not to see gender when I fought. Crane even altered his appearance with power on several occasions, just to teach me what it was like to face a female opponent.

After my initial bout of the giggles, Crane proceeded to beat me soundly in front of his twin brother, Dragon. I learned quickly to see only an opponent—gender didn't matter. "A warrior will take any advantage he can," Dragon informed me on a rare occasion—he always left my instruction to Crane and Veykan. "You must take care not to give an enemy that advantage. Instead, look for his weaknesses and use those to your benefit. You'll live longer." There was a reason Dragon was now First among the Saa Thalarr. He had the experience of command, as well as tactical expertise in the field.

My female opponent fought with a single blade, just as the first two I'd faced. Wondering if I'd see a two-bladed warrior before getting ousted, I concentrated on blocking the warrior's blows. She was taller than I but in the end, two blades beat back the single sword.

"Bout over," the officer called when I drove the woman past the boundary of the fighting square.

"You fight very well," she offered her hand to me before leaving. I thanked her and nodded respectfully, as any good Falchani warrior should.

* * *

After a short trip to the nearest bucket of water for a drink, I wandered through the maze of fighting squares, watching the bouts still going on. A time limit of half a Falchani click was placed on the bouts. If the fight went to the limit, two officers had to make a decision on the winner. I watched as two bouts, both fought between warriors wielding two blades, were called because of time constraints.

* * *

"Up."

I faced my first two-bladed warrior in my final bout for the day. Considering it might be my last bout in the Trials, I watched him carefully as he gripped both swords in his hands and came after me.

This one taunted me as we fought. "How long have you been off your mother's breast?" he jeered. I ignored him and paid attention to his feints and blocks. He was weak—very weak—on his left side. No surprise, as he was right-handed. I focused my attack on that side, ignoring his insults. Those became fewer and farther between as he struggled to block my attack on his weak side.

"Do not leave the fighting square," the officer warned as my opponent's heel came close. He attempted to rally against my attack, but his blows were going astray; his left arm was tiring.

"Always press your advantage," Crane said. I did so now, my blades ringing against his in the heat of the Falchani sun as he labored to parry my strikes. The heel of his left boot scuffed across the line in a puff of dust as I lunged forward to tap his chest with my right blade.

"Bout over," the officer called. Blowing out a breath, I watched as my opponent sheathed his blades and stalked away.

I'd survived my first day of Solstice Trials.

* * *

If my math skills were correct, the first day had whittled the competition to a fraction of what it had been in the beginning. I stopped to watch a few bouts on my way to the shared tent—I needed a bath before going for the evening meal.

With a clean, white gah, the rough bar of soap and a comb in hand, I walked toward the bathing tents. There would only be three bouts the second day; two in the morning, one in the afternoon. The same schedule would be used on the third day, with the final match on the afternoon of the third day, marking the solstice on Falchan.

The water in the bathing tents was tepid at best, but it was welcome as I cleaned the dust off my body and out of my hair. I averted my eyes whenever someone walked past my open bathing cubicle, but they had no aversion to staring.

Most Falchani resembled Crane and Dragon, who seemed Asian in appearance with long, dark hair braided at their backs. Many of those who wandered through the bathing tents had tattoos as well—some with full sets, others with only arms or backs done. The chest was always the last area to be inked. I was the only one there with no tattoos at all.

"Look at that," a Falchani with a full set of tats pointed in my direction. "Have you ever seen hair that color?" He studied my light red hair with interest. "And see—it's the same below." He laughed when I went pink and wrapped a towel around my body.

He stayed to watch as I dressed in my white gah—everyone else around me was dressed in black gahs. They were seasoned warriors; I was the neophyte. Grabbing my leathers, boots, comb and soap, I walked out of the bathing tent with as much dignity as I could muster.

My tentmate lounged on his narrow pallet when I walked into our shared tent. "Staying to watch the Trials?" His voice held contempt.

"No, I'll be competing tomorrow," I replied, refusing to look at him.

"You made it through today?" He didn't bother to hide his incredulity.

"I sure hope you take a bath while you're here," I snapped. "I can smell you from here." He laughed as I walked out of the tent, leaving him behind. I shouldn't have said anything, but honestly, there was no excuse for him to smell as he did. At least the cooking tents waited, and I hoped they'd have something vegetarian on the menu.

* * *

"Still here?" Camala smiled as she set her bowl of noodles down next to me and climbed onto the bench.

"I'm just as surprised as anybody," I replied. "Noodles are good." They were good, just not as good as what I'd gotten from Turtle's bar in the past. Turtle's bar was far away—on the border before you reached the mountains and the domain of the enemy. I wouldn't be going there this trip.

"You must have drawn the weakest of the lot," the mountainous Falchani dropped his tray on the table across from me.

"Is rudeness how you defeat your enemies?" Camala snapped at him. "I hear she dropped Simmas before he could draw his blade."

"Simmas went down?" the mountain blinked at me.

"In his first bout," Camala replied smugly.

"Look, I've been lucky," I said as the air between Camala and the mountain became frosty. "Simmas didn't expect me to have any talent at all. I was faster drawing my blades."

"He always has been slow at that," the mountain grunted before spearing a chunk of meat and stuffing it in his mouth. "Who taught you?"

"Veykan of the Wildcat Tribe," I replied.

"Hmmph. Never heard of him."

"She fights with two blades, and I heard from Deena that she's good with them."

"Deena still in?"

"No. This one here took her out, too."

Mountain chewed noisily while he studied me with new interest. "I'll see how good you are tomorrow. The Trial Masters will determine those bouts."

He was right—the weaker ones always went against the stronger when the Masters chose opponents. It was like a college basketball tournament, where the lowest seeds faced the higher ones. That didn't mean that a low-ranking team wouldn't be on the rise, however, and take down a better-positioned club. At least I comforted myself with that notion while I remained quiet and ate my noodles as silently as I could.

* * *

Jugglers, acrobats, minstrels and storytellers provided entertainment that evening on the grounds. I went to watch and listen for a little while, hoping my tentmate had chosen to bathe while I was out. I didn't see him; I knew that much.

In the distance, on the northern edge of the trial grounds, stood the Warlord's and General's tents. Brightly colored flags lifted occasionally in the evening breeze but those tents and those of officers around them, were too far away to glimpse any activity.

The warrior who won the Trials would be invited to the Warlord's tent to receive the prize. If there was any space left for a tattoo, that would be given as well. Hunching my shoulders, I turned away from the troupe of tumblers before me and began the trek back to my tent—I needed a full night's sleep if I were to be any good at all in the morning.

My tentmate was missing when I arrived and I was grateful. My gratitude was short-lived, however. I'd been asleep for an hour at most when he arrived, bringing a woman with him. The shrieks, grunts and other noise they made while coupling had me stuffing my head beneath my thin pillow in an attempt to shut it out.

Sleep didn't come until the woman left, and even then, the noise of my surly tentmate's snoring woke me on occasion. In the morning, while preparing to go to the cooking tents for tea and breakfast, I decided that Surly was a good name for him since he hadn't bothered to introduce himself.

* * *

"That's Iver—Lord Inver's brat," Camala informed me quietly as I pointed Surly out to her. He'd wandered into the cooking tent without bothering to bathe or comb his hair. Others stepped away from him—no doubt he now smelled of sex as well as sweat.

BOOK: Other Worldly Ways (Anthology 1)
6.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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