Authors: Connie Suttle
The tent next to ours wasn't occupied—both men had been defeated in the Trials, leaving their space empty. Gathering my things while Iver rutted shamelessly nearby, I walked out, hoping to get my first full night of sleep since I'd arrived.
* * *
"Up." The command sounded. I'd made it to the third day of the Solstice Trials. Crane should be satisfied with that, I mused, as I studied my opponent. He wasn't tall—perhaps five-eight or nine, but was well-built and wiry, with muscles bulging on his arms and chest.
Wearing only an open, black leather vest, he bore a full set of tattoos; a coiled snake prepared to strike covering his chest. Figuring that was how he fought, too—striking quickly and then pulling back to lure in an adversary, I watched for him to make a move as soon as the signal flag dropped.
I wasn't wrong. He came after me so quickly I had difficulty matching his blows. "Don't let your enemy outmaneuver you," Crane always said. This one worked to throw me off balance. I worked to keep that from happening. Then I realized that he was keeping me on the defensive and preventing me from going on the offensive. I also discovered that although his pattern was an uneven one, it was still a pattern.
Blocking blows that caused my blades to clang in protest, I waited for the best opening, when he drew back before striking like a snake again. Instead of pulling back just as he did, I followed him. He never expected it and frankly, my muscles were screaming as I forced them to move faster, compelling him to block my blows.
My breathing labored, I grunted and groaned as I pounded his parries as hard as I could. He fought to meet me, blow for blow.
Don't let your guard down
, I could hear Crane screaming in my mind. I didn't let my guard down. My opponent did and I held a blade tip at his throat as he stared at me in surprise.
"Bout over," the officer declared. My shoulders slumped and I lowered my blades wearily.
* * *
"Are you going to tell me that the girl has now taken down Zedru?"
"I wasn't aware that you knew the schedule," The General responded dryly to the Warlord's question.
The Warlord sighed and looked up from another pile of papers. "Where is she fighting next?" he asked.
"In the center square, Warlord."
"Is the canopy set up yet?"
"Good. Make sure we're unobtrusive. I don't want to be a distraction."
* * *
My second bout that morning was an unwelcome one. Iver stood before me. He didn't sit to meditate, choosing to stand over me with hands on hips. Pheran Tiger's words came back to me—
A sure sign of the poorly-trained
. I wanted to snicker. I didn't. Closing my eyes, I returned to my meditation.
"Up," the officer called. I rose in a single movement.
"It'll be a pleasure taking you down," Iver sneered.
"It'll be a pleasure never to smell you again," I countered. Several in the crowd gathered about our fighting square laughed.
"Quiet," the officer warned. I remained silent, waiting for the signal. The flag dropped. I went to work.
"You may have done me a favor, taking out Pheran and Zedru," Iver grinned maliciously at me as we traded blows. "Saves me the trouble."
"I think that Pheran and Zedru are fifty times the man you'll ever be, you rutting swine," I snapped. "Let's get this over with." I was sick of Iver and his rudeness. If I'd ever been motivated to defeat an opponent, it was multiplied by a thousand now. Without waiting, I attacked Iver with a vengeance.
It took the officer at least two seconds to realize I had Iver on the ground, both blades at his throat while he whined that I'd cheated.
"There was no cheating," Pheran Tiger stepped inside the square.
"Bout over," the officer declared. "The Lord Marshall has spoken."
Iver pulled himself up and looked to be walking away when he whirled and struck at me. Pheran, unarmed, pulled one blade away from Iver while I blocked the blow from the other side.
"Toss your blade aside," Pheran held the filched blade at Iver's throat. Iver dropped the second blade in the dust at his feet.
"Lord Marshall," a runner made his way through the crowd and stopped beside Pheran. "Message from the General," the boy handed a folded paper to Pheran. The thin paper crackled as Pheran opened it and read it quickly.
"Well, Iver," Pheran glared at my erstwhile opponent, "it seems that not only have you disgraced yourself, your father has been interfering with the matches. He and several officers have been arrested for arranging bouts to further your advances. They're scheduled to be caned and sent home. You'll be joining them." Pheran grinned as two warriors stepped forward to take Iver into custody.
"Wash him—before and after the caning," Pheran called out as Iver, struggling against his captors, was led away. "He stinks."
"Thanks for the compliment," Pheran turned to me, then.
"Huh?" I had no idea what he meant.
"When you said that Zedru and I were fifty times the man Iver would ever be," he grinned.
"I'm glad you appreciate the compliment instead of telling me what an idiot I am for not knowing who the Lord Marshall is," I muttered.
"I found it refreshing," he replied. "Want to have lunch with me? I need a beer."
* * *
"So, your Sursee insisted that you come," Pheran said later as he and I had lunch inside his tent.
"I didn't want to. He made me."
"How long did you train?"
"Nine moon-turns?" Pheran took a swallow of his beer.
"I don't know how you can drink that stuff," I struggled not to grimace. "It just smells nasty." Pheran laughed.
"You're not like anyone I've ever met before," he said, holding his mug out for the attendant to refill.
"You probably should be thankful for that," I muttered. "If nobody recognized the Lord Marshall, imagine the chaos."
"I think you could have taken out any opponent, if you'd gone after them like you did Iver," Pheran grinned as he changed the subject.
"Iver provided motivation," I admitted. "Do you think he's been whacked, yet?"
"Most assuredly. The General doesn't waste any time."
"Ah." I nodded and sipped my tea.
"He and his father will be sent home in disgrace, and banned from future Trials," Pheran said.
"That sounds fair," I replied.
* * *
"I had lunch with her after the bout. I had a beer, and she had tea. She thinks beer smells foul and won't touch the stuff."
"What else have you learned?"
"That she has only trained for nine moon-turns, and her Sursee forced her to come to the Trials."
"She isn't lying?"
"She's not lying. You know I can tell."
"I do know that. We haven't seen a natural in a very long time."
"I know that, General, but this is certainly looking more and more like it. Did you see that last takedown?"
"Twice. The official and then the unofficial one. Iver and Lord Inver won't forget that for a long time, I think."
"No, I would imagine not," Pheran smiled.
* * *
I meditated in my tent while I waited for the call to the final bout, and wondered in a distracted moment what the Warlord might be doing. I also wondered if he sparred every morning like Crane and Dragon did, or if he had other, important, Warlordy things to do. Yes, I realized that
likely wasn't a word.
* * *
My adversary resembled the bull of his tattoos with wide shoulders and narrow hips. I didn't think he worked much with his legs; they weren't nearly as developed as his upper torso, and wondered if he was from the cavalry.
"Up," came the call, and then the signal dropped.
My opponent had a bull's strength, too, and waiting for him to tire would be the wrong thing to do. He wasn't going to tire before I did. I'd have to best him with speed, if I were to have any chance at all. His reach was long, too, and coming up under his guard was dangerous. He fought like a shredder, and I felt like a branch waiting to be turned into chips.
* * *
"She fights well," the General commented as he accepted a cup of tea from an attendant.
"Quite well. You could have taught her," the Warlord agreed. "That's how well trained she is."
"I would have relished that training," the General agreed. "I do not recognize this Veykan, who signed her in. He would be a welcome addition to our training staff."
"Find him, then," the Warlord shrugged and went back to watching the bout.
* * *
I met my adversary blow for blow—he wanted me to tire while he pounded away at me. I was worried he might succeed. He stalked me, too, whenever I pulled away to gain a few needed breaths. That's when it hit me.
The next time he stalked me, I whirled away instead of meeting his blows. He wasn't used to walking, just as I thought. The weakest muscles he had were in his legs. He rode—and fought—from horseback.
He struck out again, and again I evaded. He attempted to back me up against the edge of the square, but I didn't allow it. I'd whirl toward a wider space within the square every time.
"Stand still and fight, dammit," he shouted.
We both knew time was ticking—the bout would be called at the half-click mark and the officers at the bout were all counting time. My opponent cursed; his anger was rising as he slashed out with his blades once more. I came after him after ticks of whirling away, while he pulled his blades back into position. I had him, one blade at his throat, the other at his heart at three ticks before time ran out.
"Bout over," an officer called. The bull warrior dropped his blades on the ground and bellowed as he stalked away.
"Little warrior," Pheran Tiger—the Lord Marshall—stepped forward and gripped my arm. "Come." He pulled me away from the fighting square while my victory was still struggling to sink in. .
"Where are we going?" I asked, my mind still in a daze. I almost had to trot to keep up with Pheran's long strides.
"To the Warlord's tent," he said.
"Somebody told me that, I think."
"You don't want to meet the Warlord?"
"I never thought I would," I mumbled.
We walked through a wide tent flap and past guards who bowed to the Lord Marshall. That's when I realized I should have been bowing to him all along. Too late for that now.
"Wait here," Pheran led me into a wide receiving area. Several low stools and plenty of cushions were placed throughout this portion of the enormous tent, and I didn't want to make any mistakes as I drew shaky breaths and prepared to meet the current Warlord of the Falchani. I hoped he wouldn't force me to stand—I suddenly felt exhausted.
Two guards appeared first, before holding a thick curtain back to allow the Warlord and his General inside. I was so stunned when I saw them I almost forgot to bow. Thankfully, I remembered before I was sentenced to a caning for not being properly respectful.
Bowing low to the Warlord first, I then turned and bowed to the General as was expected. The Warlord sat. Then the General sat. I remained standing. I did know two things as I stood there under the scrutiny of these two—one, this was Dragon the Warlord and not Dragon the Saa Thalarr. The telltale feather tattoo was missing from his hand. The second thing I knew was this—I hadn't been trained by Crane. I'd been trained by the General, at the command and under the watchful eye of the Warlord.
I struggled not to give in to the trembling that threatened to engulf me—this had been carefully planned from the beginning. They hadn't told me I'd be taken into the past to participate in these Solstice Trials. Somehow, I'd met them in the past, and they'd taken care to make this happen in the future.
"I haven't seen a newly-trained fight this well in years," the General spoke first.
"Thank you, General," I nodded respectfully.
"I have not heard of your Sursee, but he has done well," he continued.
"As you say, General." I nodded again while wondering if the Warlord would allow the General to do all the talking.
"Has LaFranza been summoned?" The Dragon Warlord asked, proving me wrong.
"Yes, Warlord," one of the guards answered. Forcing back my fear, I lowered my eyes. LaFranza. The tattoo artist who'd designed Crane and Dragon's tattoos. He was a legend from that time, and he'd be tattooing my skin shortly. At the Warlord's direction. I swallowed with difficulty.
Pheran had disappeared, leaving me on my own with Crane and Dragon—the General and his twin, the Warlord. "Pheran says you play a good game of Irzu," the Warlord studied me from hooded eyes.