Authors: Heather Brewer
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Love & Romance, #Fantasy & Magic, #Action & Adventure, #General
That got my attention. Mostly because it confused me. I was wearing my sleeping clothes, so just what exactly did Maddox plan to do to get me out of bed, strip me down and shove me out the door? Knowing Maddox, it wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities. As I begrudgingly sat up in bed, I muttered, “Fine. I’m up.”
She tossed a wad of clothing at me and grumped, “Don’t forget. You asked for this.”
After a very quick, very cold bath, I hurried into my clothes, and Maddox led me out the door and across the courtyard. I thought about Trayton the entire way. How his lips had felt against mine, but more so, how much it hurt that he’d refused to arm me with the knowledge that I’d need to defend myself in a war that I hadn’t even volunteered for. Comforting myself as well as I could with the knowledge that I’d have that training despite Trayton’s reluctance to break a few rules, I followed Maddox around the cottage once again to the shabby wooden door. She knocked, just as she had last night. Only this time, there came no answer.
Not in the form of words anyway.
Darius opened the door, his eyes falling on Maddox, then me. At first, the look in his eyes was one of surprise, but it quickly grew into irritation. He closed the door again, but had apparently underestimated Maddox’s reflexes. She shoved her foot in the door, stopping it from closing all the way. “Come on, Darius. You promised.”
“I never promised this.”
“You promised me you’d train a Healer how to fight. Does it really matter that much that it’s Kaya?”
As if her insinuation had to be immediately refuted, he yanked the door open again and met my gaze. “Maddox will bring you here every morning at four. Don’t be late. If you’re not here by four, I won’t train you anymore.”
I shook my head, all business now. There was
nothing I was willing to do to fak this up. Darius was my last chance at learning how to take down a Graplar. My only chance. “That’s not a problem. Anything else?”
His eyes oozed a stern coldness that chilled me to the bone. There was no arguing with Darius. I immediately felt a bit sorry for the students he taught. “You will obey my every order, without question. Training will be difficult, painful, and at times, agonizing, but you will not quit until you are worthy of being called a warrior. If you can’t agree to these terms, then walk away now, because once we start training, I won’t let you quit.”
Straightening my shoulders, refusing to show him any weakness, I said, “I’m ready for whatever you can throw at me.”
“No, you’re not.” He flicked an unforgiving glance at my guard. “Maddox, stay here. Out of sight. We’ll be back at dawn.”
Darius was wearing a katana on his back, but he picked up one more, along with a bag, and thrust them into my arms. His voice was a monotone growl, not revealing so much as a hint as to what he was feeling. “You play, you pay. Carry your own equipment.”
I didn’t have time to speak before he turned around and moved out the door, didn’t have time to assure him that I had planned on carrying my own equipment and that I was fully capable of handling myself. He was there one moment and gone the next. Throwing a glance at Maddox, I hurried out the door after him before he
could leave me behind for good. Something told me that if Darius could find a reason not to train me, he’d use it and damn my need to learn. He had been excited about the idea of training a Healer, about teaching a Healer to fight against the rules of the academy. Until he discovered that I was that Healer, it seemed. I caught up with him about twenty yards from the cabin, moving along the wall at a steady pace for a Barron, a fast pace for me. As we approached the south gate, his steps slowed. He whispered to me without looking at me or even turning his head my way. “Put your face mask on. Don’t speak. Don’t move. Wait here.”
I did as I was told, slipping my mask on and freezing myself to the spot. As Darius moved closer to the gate, the quiet darkness enveloped him. Moments later, a hand was on my biceps. I jumped, a yelp readying itself inside my throat, but then Darius whispered again. “Come with me. The gate will only be unattended for about a minute. We have to hurry if we want to avoid being caught.”
I nodded and Darius led me to the gate, opening it just wide enough for us to slip outside. Keeping my eyes on the wall, I watched for the on-duty gate guards, but saw none, and instantly wondered how Darius had pulled off this magical feat. It wasn’t like Barrons to abandon their post. Not without a damn good reason, anyway.
We walked down the hill for some time, and then Darius turned and led us east. He seemed to relax once
we were out of sight of the academy wall, and honestly, I did too. There was something unnerving about that enormous, ominous wall. Not to mention the fact that ten skilled Barrons should have been posted outside the south gate, and that who knows how many more Barrons would be doing perimeter sweeps on a regular basis. The farther we got away from the school, away from that wall, the better, and it was clear that we shared that belief, at least.
Darius came to a stop in a small clearing. The forest floor had been emptied of all rocks, twigs, and undergrowth, and the ground looked unnaturally smooth. I didn’t speak, didn’t comment on my observations. I got the feeling that Darius wouldn’t appreciate my deciding when it was a good time to betray his order of silence. If I was going to do this—and I was determined that I was—I was going to do it right. And if that meant adhering to Darius’s orders without comment, doubt, or question, then so be it.
After a moment spent surveying the area, Darius said, “I cleaned it up last night. Took a lot less work than I figured it would. It amazed me that an old training area would still be in such good shape.”
I nodded as if I had any idea at all what he was talking about. But in my mind, I was thinking about something completely different. “How old are you?”
“Seventeen.” At my surprised eyebrow raise, he smirked. “What? You expected me to be older?”
I shrugged. “Well…yeah. You’re an instructor, after all.”
It was his turn to shrug. “Let’s just say I was a fast study.”
I looked around the clearing with a frown. It just seemed so…exposed. “Why don’t Barrons train here anymore?”
“Several years ago, the Graplars in this part of Kokoro became pretty unbearable. So they had to move everything inside. It’s not safe out here. Especially for new troops.”
Casting a nervous glance around, always on the lookout for free-roaming Graplars, I said, “Can I ask why exactly you’ve decided to train me here?”
“No one will see us here. No one will ask questions. It’ll be just you, me, and the blades.” He straightened his shoulders, stretching slightly, and inhaled deeply through the nose. It was easy to see how much he enjoyed being free of the academy’s walls. On that, we could definitely relate. “I’ll have to work on a more efficient way of getting you outside the wall every morning. Telling Raden to gather the south gate guards to warn them about a potential weakness in the wall’s western side won’t work twice.”
Tilting my head, I cast a nervous glance up the hill. I couldn’t see the wall from here, but the idea that it might have defense issues sent a nervous chill up my spine. “There’s a weakness in the wall?”
“Of course not, but I had to tell them something. They wouldn’t have let you outside the gate without permission from the headmaster. Not even if you’re with me. Besides, even if they did, there would be questions. Questions on where I was taking a student Healer and why. It’s too complicated.” As if answering a question that he’d silently asked himself, he said, “The training mask might work to hide your identity. If they don’t speak to you. But we’ll need a good story. I’ll work on it.”
“This…” He slipped a katana from its sheath on his back—the metal singing in the quiet woods—and held it out in front of him. “…is a katana, the preferred weapon of Barrons everywhere. It’s lightweight, easy to maneuver with a bit of finesse, and if used correctly, deadly. I’m not going to teach you how to swing a sword. I’m not going to teach you how to utilize a blade. I’m going to teach you how to kill. To survive, you must be fast. You must be vigilant. And above all, you must be scared.”
I hadn’t expected him to say that. What I’d expected was for him to talk about honor and bravery, not fear. Flashing him a questioning look, I parted my lips to speak, but he answered before I could.
“Bravery gets you into trouble. Bravery leads you into battle. But if you really want to survive that battle, you must first know what it is to fear death.”
The way that Darius was speaking to me, the way that he was teaching me, was completely different than
how Trayton had approached the subject of weaponry. Whereas Trayton had been gentle and informative, Darius was straightforward and didn’t shy away from the uglier aspects of fighting. I appreciated both approaches, for very different reasons. With my eyes on the katana, I said, “My parents are both Barrons. My father showed me a bit when I was younger. We used to spar.”
“That is playacting. A father would never put his daughter in true danger. By the end of your training, I will be coming for your life. It’s the only way you’ll learn to truly defend yourself against an enemy.” He cocked an eyebrow. “Are you ready for that?”
My heart pounded within my chest. “I will be.”
Flipping the weapon around, he held it out to me, handle side first. “Show me how you hold a katana.”
Wrapping my fingers around the sword handle, I took the blade from Darius and held it like Trayton had showed me to, building on what my father had showed me.
“Like this?” I hadn’t meant for there to be a question at the end of my sentence, but there it was, brought on by the knowledge that someday, maybe soon, Darius was going to try to kill me—and he’d succeed if I didn’t train as hard as I could.
Furrowing his brow, Darius shook his head. “Spread your hands farther apart. A broader grip means more control.”
I spread my hands some and looked at him,
seeking his approval. With a nod, he said, “We will begin with proper fighting stance. You have an advantage over many Barrons, as you’re female. Girls tend to be smaller, leaner, and with practice, can move in ways that are delicate and fierce, just like the weapon in your hand. Now spread your legs apart and lower your center of gravity.”
Sliding my right leg over a few inches, I squatted down some and awaited further instructions. Darius walked around me in a circle, scrutinizing my stance. With a chuckle, he said, “What are you doing, sitting down? Straighten your back. And spread your legs farther.”
I straightened my back, but apparently didn’t move fast enough for Darius’s tastes, as he kicked the inside of my foot with his toe until it was a few more inches away from my other foot. From behind me, he said, “Better. Now hold up the blade at a forty-five-degree angle. Keep your grip firm, but gentle. Work with the weapon, not against it. It’s an extension of you, not a foreign object to struggle with.”
His last words reminded me of Trayton, of what Trayton had said about katanas. It was almost verbatim. I couldn’t help but wonder if Trayton had merely repeated what Darius had taught him in class. I held the sword up, angled it slightly, and remained as still as possible. A long, silent moment passed before Darius spoke again. “Now raise your arms, keep that angle, and bring the katana down in a long slash. Remember, the katana is a
slicing weapon. Not a stabbing weapon. Be smooth. Be fluid.”
As instructed, I brought the blade up, my shoulders already burning from holding it aloft for so long. The blade sang as it cut through the night air, and I stopped short before I got it too close to the ground. Darius moved in front of me, his silver hair bright even in the darkness. I imagined it was a disadvantage for him on the battlefield. He must have stood out. He withdrew the katana on his back from its sheath and held it in front of him in proper form. “Snap the end of your stroke. Otherwise your cut falls weak. Snap it forward and it ends with strength. Like this.”
He whipped the blade forward effortlessly, snapping his wrist forward, stopping his blade work with a short angular cut. I copied him several times. By the fifth time, I felt like I had it, but my arms were screaming in pain. Despite Darius’s assurance that a katana was a lightweight weapon, it grew heavier and heavier every moment it was in my hands. After another three strokes, Darius nodded. “Good enough. For now. Now let’s work on those arms.”
Lowering the sword, I blinked at him. “What’s wrong with my arms?”
“You have no muscle. Strength is lurking under the surface, but without utilizing the muscles there, you’ll never be able to wield a weapon in the long term of a
battle.” He took the katana from me, returning it to its sheath. “Push-ups. Now.”
“As many as it takes.”
“To do what exactly?”
“To make your arms shake. To make you feel so weak that you can no longer stand to hold up your own weight. Then you can stop for the day and we’ll go back to proper form.”
At first, I nearly laughed, but I swallowed that laughter when I realized that Darius wasn’t joking. He fully intended to make me do push-ups until I fell over from exhaustion. And though I was sorely tempted to tell him where he could stick his push-ups, the fact was that Darius was right.
He held out a hand and I placed the katana in it before dropping to the ground in a push-up stance. Darius counted off as I lowered myself to the ground and lifted myself up. As I hoisted myself up again, I could feel Darius’s foot on my butt, pressing down. “Keep your body perfectly straight. At a forty-five-degree angle, just like the blade.”
I lowered myself again, my shoulders and chest and back burning, and he counted off another. After a while, the numbers that he was saying didn’t matter anymore. I listened to the rhythm of my movements, punctuated by his voice, and fought off a cramp in my right shoulder
blade. But I kept doing the push-ups. Down, breathe, up again. Over and over again, until Darius wasn’t counting anymore. My biceps trembled with exhaustion after a while, but I swore to myself that I would not fall, would not show such an incredible sign of weakness. I was better than that. But fak, my right shoulder blade was cramping and my nose tingled with the threat of tears. My body hurt in places I hadn’t even known existed, and it would never, ever stop. Not until the sun came up.