I was lying awake, trying hard not to remember all the days we'd been pitted against each. I was not succeeding, not even close. On the last day of every 'week' of our training, all four of our trainers would drag us out to the field for a competition. It wasn't much of a competition- I almost never won.
We would start with a foot race. The first one was a spectacular loss by me- Yumiko won easily, followed by Grigorii, Katsuo, Ardon, and Beniamino. I was terribly embarrassed, but after running another week, I passed my magic teacher and Ardon passed Katsuo who seemed too stocky to run in the first place. After that, we would progress to sword fighting. They would pair me and Ardon up, hand us practice swords, and start laughing. I didn't find it to be a very important part of learning. Most of the time, they didn't even try to be helpful. The first two times we went up against each other, Ardon was too nervous about hurting me to really try, and I was too nervous to get within swinging distance, anyway.
The third week of sword fighting was intensely interesting. For that entire week, Katsuo had promised (or threatened) to make me the best swordswoman he had ever seen. He goaded me, bruised me, punished me with exercises, and put a lot of emphasis on being aggressive. He said I really could learn to be good with a sword if I tried. When I was paired up with Ardon that time, only a few chuckles escaped in the beginning. Then I dashed forward and smacked him with the flat of my blade, startling a surprised yell from him. The easy grin that was a constant feature on his handsome face twisted into a smile that was delightfully wicked.
"So you learned somethin'," he had said.
There was no question after that- he was the better swordsman by far, but I had made the first move, and I was proud of it.
I blushed to myself as I remembered how he had come at me. I squeaked and threw up my sword to block him. He jabbed at my side, so I twisted and stabbed back. He twisted his blade around mine, thrusting down, and it clattered out of my hand. I leapt back away from his sword, but he swept my feet out from under me and I landed on my back, winded.
He didn't hold his practice sword to my chest or throat like he was supposed to, he just helped me up and apologized. I had almost laughed at how sorry he looked. "They were only practice swords," I told him. "Really, don't apologize! You were supposed to do that!"
He looked so upset about it, though, I felt bad.
"I can' believe I knocked you down, Saoirse," he'd fretted, hugging me right there in front of our guffawing teachers. "I can' believe I stabbed at you."
It was the best sword fight of my life, but it was nothing compared to how intense hand-to-hand was with him after the silly archery contest.
Grigorii was a very encouraging teacher, even through all his harshness, and he was my favourite after Beniamino. Hand-to-hand and knife fighting were the only skills at which I was clearly excelling- besides magic- and I overtook Ardon easily. The first two weeks were awkward for both of us. It was a close-contact style of fighting, and neither of us could shed the proper rules of polite society we had grown up with so quickly, but after having aggression drilled into my skull by Katsuo for the third week, after the surprising sword fight, our hand-to-hand sparring took another turn.
We started out slowly. I could tell he was afraid to hurt me; he didn't want a repeat of our sword mayhem. I decided to help him get over that. I darted forward like I had earlier, to hit him first. I slapped him lightly on the cheek- sure, it wasn't part of our training, but I had to make him want to fight first.
He looked surprised. I saw his nostrils flare a bit in irritation. I tried my luck again. I feinted, pretending to go for his other cheek, so he raised an arm to block and I prodded him in the ribs. I darted back lightly, laughing, clearly enjoying myself far too much. Grigorii laughed, too, and yelled "Come on, son, you can't be afraid of a lady!"
Ardon twitched a little at that, so I took my chance and swept him off his feet. He landed in the dust with a thump, so I started laughing again. That was my mistake- I would have to keep my eyes open in the future.
While I was holding my sides, Ardon got up and tackled me. He pinned me down, but I was smaller and quicker. I twisted at the waist and flipped him over with my legs, pinning him down instead, but he was stronger than me. I couldn't keep him like that, so I twisted my wrists from his grip and pushed off of him, giving him a chance to get up.
"You might have beat her with a sword, but I'd say you've got your work cut out for you in this situation," Grigorii had chuckled at him. The other trainers watched us quietly, letting out a stray laugh or cheer escape when we did something impressive or stupid. I barely noticed them- I was focused on my attractive opponent.
I wasn't stupid- I knew that this had to end quickly if I was going to win. Ardon had much more stamina than I did. I sprung at him, aiming a kick for his ribs, but he turned and caught me and half of me hit the ground. I ignored the bruising and used my other leg to swipe his feet out from under him again. He rolled, dragging me, but I ended up pinning him down again, to his dismay. I could tell he was giving up, so I thumped a fist lightly on his ribs, making him wince.
"That's for trying to stab me," I said brightly. I was about to get up, but he grabbed my shoulders and pulled me down into a tight embrace. There was a lady in my head yelling at me for allowing him to be so inappropriate, but I couldn't really hear her very well over the pounding in my ears and chest as he held me close.
"I really am sorry for tryin' to stab you," he murmured. He released me after a moment and I had leapt off him and fled to the farm house to calm down and prepare dinner.
"Good luck, you two," Catori said. She handed us each a pack stuffed full of things we'd need to travel and topped with a bedroll.
"Thank you for all your help," I said. "Thank you for everything."
Ardon kissed her hand and smiled. "If we come across anything of value in our travels, we owe it to all of you."
"Do not worry about repaying us. We are not centaurs- what you have is freely given. We live in a land of plenty. All these things we can spare." Cheveyo nodded to us and turned to leave with his wife.
Katsuo came up to us next, holding out two katana. "You have earned these- well, one of you has," he said with a grin at Ardon and a wink at me. I gave him a halfhearted scowl and we accepted the blades with fervent thanks.
"I think a bow would be wasted on you," Yumiko said. I had to agree with her. I just didn't have steady enough hands when I handled a bow, and I had yet to hit a moving target. "However, practice makes perfect." She handed each of us a longbow, oiled packet of strings, and quiver full of arrows and left before we could properly express our gratitude.
"She just doesn' like talkin'," Ardon said, amused.
Grigorii came up to us next. "I wish you good luck- be careful. Do not stray from the path too much, and all will go smoothly. I believe you would benefit from Sorin's knowledge, if you choose to go a day out of your way. It might delay you, but knowing the languages of the worlds...It is a gift that can only benefit you."
I shuddered when he spoke of the dragon. In our world, dragons were humongous snake-like carnivores that fed on people and livestock. They flew wingless through the sky and wrought destruction in their path. Though they promised us that the dragons here were different, I couldn't help but fear what would become of us if we went to see Sorin.
"We'll keep it in mind. If we can travel at a decent pace, I wouldn' like to miss visitin' him," Ardon said. He sounded much too confident, almost as if he thought we'd come back alive.
We thanked Grigorii- he had loaded us down with knives before we'd even finished training, so we didn't have to worry about holding anything else. Beniamino came up to us, our last teacher, our last goodbye. I couldn't help it- I threw my arms around his scrawny waist.
"Thank you! Thank you for teaching us- I know we'll be able to save her now, and it's thanks to all of you," I breathed. He patted me lightly on the back and chuckled as I drew back and bowed slightly.
"I think you were her favourite teacher," Ardon said with a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Thank you, for what you have taught us. I can now set out with a sure mind and a steady heart. We'll find Brannagh and be back to head home soon."
"Remember to keep a steady pace, and make sure to exercise your minds," Beniamino said. "Goodbye! Farewell, mia cara!" We waved as he walked away, and turned to travel down the road that, with a little luck, would lead us to Brannagh before it was too late.