Chapter 3Mature

Chapter 3

            The banging on her door jerked her awake, and something was different.  The heavy weight on her shoulders was gone, her dreams were strange yet peaceful.  There had been one, quite near a nightmare, but all she could remember was a dark voice. 

Sleepily she sat up and went to open the door.  The breeze from her tail reminded her of her problem.

            Andrea raced to the mirror, thinking it might’ve been a dream. Her green eyes stared back at her and thinking it was a dream she smiled, revealing her new fangs. “Oh my it was no dream!”

            There was another knock at the door. “You alright?”

“What do you want?” Andrea called out, trying not to sound nervous.

            “Going to sleep all night?”  Jerick called from the other side.

            “Hadn’t meant to sleep so long,” cracking the door she acted as if she was yawning, and looked at him, “guess I was tired.” 

            Jerick reached out, and tousled her hair. “Coming to dinner sleepy head.”

            Trying to smile without him seeing her new teeth she nodded, and pulled away from the doorway. “Let me get dressed, and I’ll see you there.”

            Laughter carried down the hall as he left, and Andrea went back to the mirror.  Staring at herself she took a deep breath. “Why did the eyes change, but not my teeth or tail?”  She tapped one of the fangs, mumbling, “Real enough, and obviously not going away, so I need to hide them.”

Looking through her bag she found a pair of pants she needed to grow into, and quite baggy.  Took a while but she managed to slip the tail inside the leg, so it didn’t show.  She tried sitting on the bed, but this proved to be a bit difficult without being painful. With a little practice she found leaning to the left it was tolerable, at least for a short amount of time.

Staring at the mirror Andrea turned this way and that, judging what would and what would not show her new fangs, which was pretty much everything. Untying her hair she placed half on each shoulder to hide her problem from the sides, and with her head slightly down the fangs were barely noticeable. She tried laughing, but anything more than a faint smile was out.

She crossed the room and tried sitting, keeping to the left, and on the third try got it right. With a deep sigh she thought, ‘as long as she could keep her teeth hidden she’d be all right.’

            Standing at the door for a moment she debated going.  The growl in her stomach pushed her out the door.  Getting her tray as normal she found the group at a central table.  Soon as she walked in the dining hall it felt like she was being watched, and the feeling was not going away.

            Andrea fought the urge to turn and leave, knowing she would just draw more attention to herself. She wanted to go straight to the table, but needed to stand in line for her plate and utensils. Keeping her back to the wall she went down the back side of the table, then headed for the table. Sitting down silently she listened to the others talk, managing not to attack the almost rare steak laying in front of her. 

Gaby kept glancing at her with a worried look on her face.  “What’s the matter Andrea?  You seem distant.” She leaned forward on her hands waiting for Andrea’s answer.

            “Sick, that’s all, exhaustion catching up with me.” Her hand stayed in front of her mouth the whole time she spoke. 

As the conversation carried on Gaby kept watching her.  The guys excused themselves to refill the ale pitchers leaving the two women alone.          

            “Andrea if it’s your womanly cycle I can share an herb mixture my mother gave me.  It helps quite a bit.”

            “No it’s not….Gaby…..oh god….Gaby I’ve a huge problem!” She could hear the panic in her own voice.

            “Andrea what in the world is wrong?”

            Motioning her close Andrea smiled.  Gaby gasp, scooting back,  “Oh dear…” she laughed softly, “you’ve gone and tried to use your powers without any training. Let’s get you out of here.”

            Jerick came back as they stood.  Gaby made their excuses, and they left quickly heading back to Andrea’s room.  They turned the corner and ran right onto Valr. 

Panicking she stepped out of his wa without looking at him. Trying to meet her eyes he stared at her for a few moments before moving on.  Glancing back he was still watching her, his nose wrinkled, looking confused.

            After fumbling with the key Andrea managed to get the door open.  Soon as she got the door closed behind Gaby she sighed and slid down it.  “What am I going to do?  I’ve tried to change back, but can’t.  Was just curious, didn’t think I wouldn’t be able to change back.  Gaby you’ve got to help me!”

            “First thing you have to do is calm down.  If I can’t help you get changed back at least Old Rat can.” Gaby stooped down in front of her and lifted her lip. “Is it just the teeth?”

            “No, by the gods no.  If it was I wouldn’t be so upset,” standing she pulled the tail out of her pant’s leg. “When it happened my eyes changed too. I tried reversing it, but fell asleep, and when I woke eyes were normal.” She sighed. “But tail and fangs still there.”

            “Goodness Andrea.”  Walking over to the bed Gaby sighed, “However, you did revert back some, so let’s start with focusing.  Sit on the bed and try to relax.  Have you ever meditated before?” 

            Still shaking Andrea tried to calm herself as she slid next to Gaby on the bed, “No, my weapon’s master suggested it but I never could get interested in it.”

            Laughing Gaby smiled, “You better get interested.  I don’t see you getting out of the temple much looking like that.”

            Andrea started to snap at her but realized Gaby was just trying to get her to relax.  Laughing she took a deep breath and crossed her legs.  Taking a deeper breath she closed her eyes as Gaby joined her.  It took forever but she seemed to finally reach a point in her mind where she could be still.  As soon as she got to that state she lost it with a swish of her tail.

            Screaming in aggravation Andrea stood, “Oh this is never going to work Gaby!”

            Gaby patted the bed. “Are you still tired?”

            Plopping down on the bed Andrea nodded.  Gaby smiled, and holding up her finger slipped out of Andrea’s room.  It was a few moments before she returned holding a packet in her hand.

            “This is a mild sleep potion my granny gave me.” Gaby poured a glass of water from the pitcher in Andrea’s room. “I think if you can rest peacefully tonight you should be ok, just think of you as you.  I’ll even tell you a little story too.  Jerick swears by them when he can’t sleep…” she cut herself off, sporting a curious look, “…huh, wonder if that means I bore him?”  Fixing the drink she handed it to Andrea. “Drink up.”

“Smells great, like oranges and cinnamon,” Andrea sipped it, “tastes good too.”  Halfway through the random thought of her waking in the middle of the night howling at the moon popped into her head, causing her to spit the mixture back into the glass and cough a bit. “Sorry, I pictured me howling at the moon.”

“Well,” Gaby snickered, “keeping your sense of humor can’t hurt.” She patted Andrea’s arm. “Since the power is in you, just try to think of being yourself, relax, and don’t hurry, I’m sure this will work.” She wrinkled her nose. “I think confidence is very important too, now drink it down.”

Finishing off the potion Andrea laid back on the bed. Gaby started off with her favorite tale about a farm girl, a runaway prince, and a unicorn, but halfway through Andrea was fast asleep. Smiling Gaby stroked Andrea's hair, knowing she could not be too troubled, as this was the point Jerick usually fell asleep.

*   *   *


            Gaby’s cheerful voice woke her early, but Andrea was afraid to open her eyes.  What if she still had a tail?  Sighing she sat up and walked to the mirror.  She laughed as a huge grin spread across her face.  It was gone, the teeth and the tail were both gone.

Jerking the door open she pulled Gaby in and hugged her.  “I don’t know what you did but thank you!”

            Gaby laughed, returning the hug.  “Get dressed if you’re going to sword practice.  Master Guard won’t let you in if you’re late.”

            Groaning Andrea let go of her and headed to the closet for her clothes, “Why is everything done at the butt crack of dawn around here?”

            Gaby laughed, and plopped down on the bed.  “You’re a lazy thing.  How you’re ever going to fulfill…”  Gaby suddenly turned red, and stood, “I’ve got to go.  I forgot I’ve…got…to uhm…meet…well, I’ll see you at breakfast.”  The girl rushed out of the room like a demon was after her.

            “What?  Well ok,” Andrea answered.  Shaking her head confused Andrea grabbed a loose pair of brown doeskin pants and a baby blue sleeveless top.  Carrying her sword and bow she ran to the practice field.

Right off she made note there were no other women on the field.  This she thought was an oddity, seeing as it looked to her as if there was an even amount of both sexes in the school.

Master Guard Milak smiled at her.  “Not feeling too worse for wear after our encounter?” He walked around her in a circle with his hands behind his back.

            Excited to get back into the habit of practicing Andrea smiled, “No sir.  Just means I have to improve.  So, I can best you one day sir.”

            Milak looked at her confused for a moment then began to laugh, “Well said young one.  We’ll go over your bow after class.” He walked down the line as everyone gathered.

            Strapping on her sword belt Andrea smiled at the familiar comforting weight.  Looking up her smiled vanished as fast as it had arrived, Valr stood two men down from her.  Frowning he looked at her oddly and Andrea glared at him till he broke the gaze.

            Milak began the class with an inspection of weapons.  Checking her sword carefully, and longer than the others, she began to get nervous.  After several quiet moments he looked up at her and winked.  “Think you all need to take a lesson from the new girl, she knows how to take care of a blade.” 

            He grunted, “And a fine blade it is,” he ran a hand down the bow, “goes for the bow too. Both built when you took pride in the weapons you made, heirlooms no doubt.”

            “Yes,” Andrea held her head high, “they’re all I have left from my parents.”

            “Aye,” extending the sword Malik wove a figure eight in the air, “far more than I had when I arrived here child. Only minor powers too boot.” Laying the blade on his off-arm he presented her the sword as warrior to warrior.

            Blushing she took her father’s sword back from the Master Guard, and sheathed it.  “My thanks,” she gave him a bow, “for your kindness.”

Valr made a face at her. 

Andrea just shook her head, and sighed thinking, ‘He was so childish, or was it disdain for being an orphan.’ She made up her mind, ‘If he ever voices said opinion I’ll show him a bit of swordplay.’

“Alright,” Milak clapped his hands, “I don’t want to see any fancy moves, we’re stretching here, and you younglings better damn well act like what you are beginners, til I say different. Steel swords will be fine, now line up, two lines should do.”

With little fuss the lines were formed, then Andrea drew her weapon, getting oohs and aahs at the fine sword. The silver-blue steel blade was enough to catch your attention, and the inscribed runes was enough to keep it.

The guard was a simple silver ‘x’, with a bone hilt, and silver nugget pommel, or so it seemed. But if inspected closer one could see the bone was actually a single dragon’s tooth, the pommel a wolf’s head. Blue steel denoted it as an Easter weapon, from the Eastern Woods, and pommel insignia of the royal house. The dragon’s tooth was a symbol of the victory over the dragons shortly before the weapon was created hundreds of years ago.

The pair of weapons signified the joining of two enemy houses and the marriage of her parents, meaning a peace accord. With the Eastern Woods and Northern Highlands united it made for the most powerful alliance in the country. This fact was not lost on the powers in the capital, and new alliances were formed to keep control of the region.

“Alright,” Milak waved his sword, “blade in hand,” he waved the small round shield, “buckler in the off hand.” He put his right foot forward, sword and buckler extended. “Guard position, coda straight.”

Barking out the other eleven guard positions Milak demonstrated each, then went on to the six attacks. The routine was finished off with the six parries and six lunges. “Huh,” Milak sheathed his sword, “looks like we got some work ahead of us, people. Alright, again.”  They repeated the moves, as he walked through and corrected posture and movement.

Following the fifth set of moves Andrea’s arm was starting to ache from lack of previous practice.  Her shirt was clinging to her, damp with sweat. 

A comment came from her left.  “With breast like that she oughta be workin’ a pleasure barn not studying here. Just saying–” was a grunt, as a landed blow cut off the speaker. 

She reasoned it couldn’t have been Milak, cause he was standing off to her right.  There was no way she could glance over to see, plus there was no way she was messing up on her first day.  The master guard called a cool down, then put them through stretches and had them clean their blades.

Ignoring the growing whispers Andrea went over picked up her bow, and strode to the first shooting table. It was hard not to notice the small talk slowly ceasing on the practice grounds, but she concentrated on stringing the odd-looking dark stained bow, with aged copper plates holding the recurved arms and encasing the riser. Not as wide, or thick, and near two foot smaller than the common long bow most carried it was drawing plenty of stares.

It was a Norther’s horseman bow, as her mother’s family were mountain people. This was an ancient weapon, ancestral bow to the house of third ascension to the chief of the tribes, and the engravings told its story. It too was created after the dragon wars, commemorating the alliance of the two territories that helped defeat the dragons, and fitting to commemorate this one.

Might not look like it, but the bow was as powerful as a long bow, and Andrea needed a stringer to properly string the weapon, which caused a bit of snickering. She ignored this too, but it didn’t sit well, and she drew out five arrows after the bow was strung, sticking them upright in the cork beside the table.

Getting into her shooting stance Andrea adjusted the arrows so the fletchings were in line, then took a quarter step closer to the table. It was clear she would be aiming at the target two hundred feet away, and more murmuring erupted. Nocking an arrow, arm extended she raised the bow directly over her head, bringing it back down she drew the string back.

P-hing, f-fwt, thack! The arrow struck the target in the half foot wide center. Before anything could be said, it was heard again, P-hing, f-fwt, thack, then three more times in rapid succession. Bow in hand Andrea headed down to collect her arrows, as the small group of people started murmuring.

On the way back Andrea mumbled, “Two on the border, I really need to practice.” Her belly echoed the sentiment with a bit of growling, and she looked down. “Haven’t forgot about you, just thought these idiots needed a lesson.”

“Aye, right nice, little one.” Rista was at her shooting table, a standing bow in hand, which was just like it sounded, taller than a long bow. “Near good as me be at that there distance.” He gave her a wink. “But, me can go a might bit farther with me lil’ Nell here.” The big man stroked the bow, which was a straight piece of yew wood.

Twice as tall as her bow, Andrea looked it up and down. “Goodness, I don’t think I could even draw that back.”

“Not with those titties, I’d like to–” Again the offensive remark was cut off, as the person lost his wind.

            Looking around she couldn’t tell who had made the comment, or who had stood up for her again.  Being as Rista happened to be standing in front of her, he probably wasn’t the earlier gentlemen either, whom she was sure had done it.  Shrugging she headed over to where Milak stood. 

He had his back to her working on something or other. Andrea cleared her throat to get his attention, getting him to jump. “Damn girl you’re a quiet one, never heard a sound.”

            “Surprised you didn’t hear my belly, sir.” Laughing Andrea smiled. “Could I go eat before we drill?”

            “Yeah if you don’t care to practice on a full stomach, go eat and return.  I’ll be back in a cycle if you want to meet me.”

            Nodding she took her growling stomach to the dining hall.  First thing she grabbed was a plate of flat cakes, smothering them in butter and syrup. She resisted the urge to wolf them down and get another plateful. 

Remembering last night’s problem she snickered at the thought as she was handed a huge glass of milk.  Server gave her a look, as if Andrea had been laughing at her, but she didn’t try to explain herself, instead she went and found the gang at a corner table.

            “Well ain’t we being the right proper warrior?” Rista chided, as she sat.

            “Wasn’t any point in putting the sword or bow up since I’m going right back to the field after this,” she managed to explain between bites of the sweet flat cakes.

            “I can’t swing a sword for anything.” Gaby sighed and smiled. “Learning the bow though.”  Jerick rolled his eyes, but his sister ignored him.

            “That’s great,” Andrea dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, “I’m testing with Milak after breakfast for that class.  I wish I’d know Valr was in my class, I’d asked for private study time.”

            Jerick laughed around his biscuit trying not to choke, “Oh you so fit in here Andrea.  I’m glad you came.”  He was grinning from ear to ear.

            “All in all I am too.  I’m surprised to be sure, but glad all the same.” Wiping the syrup off her face she tossed her napkin in her plate and sat back.  There was a growl in her stomach and Rista looked at her funny.  It only took a second and Andrea belched loudly then blushed. “Sorry milk does me that way.”

            Everyone starred at her for a moment then burst out laughing. Several of the other tables turned and looked their way.  Andrea blushed as some of the older residents just shook their heads.  The group chatted for a bit.  Andrea could feel her muscles getting tight.  Stretching she stood and began to excuse herself.

            “Don’t be forgetting about Lee little one,” Rista patted her on the back as she stood causing her to move forward a few inches.

            ‘Damn he’s strong,’ Andrea thought as she turned back to him. “I won’t, going as soon as class is over.  Hope you know I can eat a lot for girl Rista.”

            Sporting a half grin Jerick glanced over at the big man.  Rista looked at him, and shrugged, “I think I be out a lot of gold ‘fore this be over.”

            Laughing she headed back out to the practice range.  Valr sat off to the side eating his breakfast.  Andrea shook her head, it was sad he alienated himself like that.  At the center shooting stand Milak waited, and waved her over. 

He had better than a handful of targets set up across the field every hundred feet or so, the farthest three hundred yards out.  Her ‘M’gra’ bow in hand she knew a decent shoot of more then one hundred yards was unlikely.  She pointed at the farthest target, and nodding Milak motioned for her to string the bow. 

With her stringer it took her mere moments to string the intricately carved teak bow.  Running her hands over it she smiled thinking of her mother, astride her white mare, shooting targets as they loped past.  Sighing she walked up to Milak waiting on him to instruct her.   

            “Want basic shots in three closest targets,” he walked past her, hands behind his back, “once those are done I’ll be causing interference.  I want to see what level your concentration is at.”  Stroking his jaw he pursed his lips.  “You seem to be well trained, you mind if I ask by whom?”

            “Not at all sir, Kerick.  Don’t know what rank he held cause he never told me but I know he was a member of the King’s army in the capital.  He never spoke of much, but is fiercely loyal to my parents,” she paused, “well, he was.”

            Milak raised an eyebrow. “Know the man you speak of, a good man, no wonder you’re trained so well.  Shall we?”

            Inclining her head towards him she waited as he pointed where to stand.  He held a handful of arrows, passing her one. Nocking the arrow she drew back on the tight string, and bow bent without a sound.  Carefully lining it up she released, and hit within a knuckle or two of a perfect bull’s eye.  At a hundred feet it was an easy shoot, and Andrea wasn’t too impressed.

Nodding Milak pointed at the next target with an arrow, then handed it to her.  Repeating the same performance, with near the same outcome, he smiled faintly, then pointed to the third.  After hitting the bull’s eye three hundred feet away he stated, “Not bad for a M’gra bow, good weapon, but as you know a limited range.”

With a head bob Milak motioned to the fourth target, but didn’t hand her an arrow.  “Target is five hundred feet out, an average shot for our long bows, naturally you on horseback is no average shoot. Still, hard enough to hit accurately with the best conditions, but can you do it while distracted?” 

Andrea wasn’t sure how to answer and her brow furrowed.

Handing her an arrow he grinned. “It’s easy, shoot the target.”

Being as this had never been part of Kerick’s training Andrea’s breathing was a bit anxious. She nocked the arrow, raised the bow up high, drew the string back as she lowered the weapon towards the target.  Milak began to make grunting pig-like noises, which were funny, and creating a slight breeze behind her ear he slammed the buckler against the stand.  Blocking out the noises and motion, she let her world fade to nothing but the target. 

P-hing, f-fwt, thack!

It was not a perfect shot, but in the center circle.  “Have to say I’m impressed,” he poked her in the side with an arrow, “luckily we don’t have much wind today.” She starts to turn back, and he waves her on. “Come now, next one, same thing lass.”

Six hundred feet out, was an impossible feat for the small bow, which is why she had never attempted one before. But Andrea didn’t protest, wasn’t like a miss would be the end of the world. Instead she took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly as she nocked the arrow. She raised the bow, started to draw back the string.

This time he poked her in the butt with the arrow, and she shook it off drawing the string back. He got in her face screaming as the bow was fully drawn.  Once again her focus narrowed to just a thin tunnel, as she brought her bow down.  She received a nudge in the back and cursing she watched the arrow stick in the outermost edge of the target.

Taking a deep breath Andrea turned and gave Milak a major dose of stank eye. “Not bad, not bad at all,” he waggled his hand, “I’m impressed.” He wagged a finger. “Concentration and small corrections on accuracy are all you need to have this skill under your belt.  I’m sure Lt. General Kerick would be proud of you child.”

            “He was that high in rank?”  Mouth agape Andrea turned fully to look at him.  “I really had no idea.”

            “Yes, he grew weary of all the wars so he retired.  Great man and very loyal, you described him well,” Milak smiled, and patted her shoulder. “We’ll be starting sword practice again in a bit.  I’m sure most of the moves I did earlier doesn’t seem like much compared to Kerick’s teaching.”

            “Oh no sir, it was fine.  If you don’t practice the basics you’ll never master the harder stuff,” Andrea blushed, as Milak smiled at her nodding, “at least that’s what Kerick always said.” She rolled her eyes. “We started and ended our sessions with positions, sir, different combinations might be worked on, but that was a constant.”

            “He’s right, we do the same here, and glad you understand Andrea.  Now, if you’ll excuse me,” he bowed, and went towards the stables.  Watching him leave Andrea saw Rista and Jerick watching her from the stable.  Smiling and waving she jogged over to them.

            “I feel for you being in class with Gaby,” Jerick laughed as Andrea joined them on the haystack they now sat on.  “My poor sister is a true danger with a long bow.”

            “Surely she can’t be that bad.” She sat on the hay, then leaning over she bumped shoulders with Jerick and smiled. “Got to be brotherly teasing.”

            “No he be tellin’ the truth little one.” Rista’s eyes grew big.  “Gaby be lucky not to be hurting someone with that bow, and me not be talkin’ about enemy types.”

            Laughing Andrea grinned at the pair, and just as she opened her mouth Jerick nudged her, “Ah, don’t look now, you’re being watched,” he nodded Valr’s direction, “even seems impressed.”

            “Let him stare, it’s his own fault no one likes him.” Andrea stuck her nose in the air.  “I don’t care what he thinks of me.”

            “Me thinks,” Rista’s elbow found its way to her ribs, “perhaps he be taking a fancy to our new pretty lass here.”

            Frowning at the big mountain of a man she groaned, “Don’t bring that kind of black luck down on my head, thought we were going to be friends.”

            Jerick was laid back on the hay laughing as Andrea pretended to puke.  He sat up and wrapped his arm around her shoulders, “You’re great Andrea.  Truly great.”

            Blushing she smiled.  The practice group was gathering again, and she slipped off the hay with a sideways glance at Jerick.  He had her thinking.  Shaking her head to clear it of romantic thoughts she slipped into line for practice. 

            “Awright, practice swords this time,” Milak barked out, “start with simple combinations. Front row, turn around and meet your competition.”

            Andrea turned and let out a half groan/half growl as she faced Valr. Head bowed he was in a warrior’s formal greeting stance. She brought her feet together, put buckler over her heart, held her sword straight up in front of her and bowed.

            She didn’t want to, but he was first in the stance so she mumbled, “Well met.”

“Awright,” Milak clapped his hands, “those of you who turned are the attacker, I call out position, defender defend.” He looked up and down the line. “This is your first day so there shall be no penalty for mistakes.”

He let the silence hang a bit. “As for mistakes tomorrow… Well, lets say you better get used to running, both of you.” He slapped his thigh. “That’s right, your ass depends on his and his yours. Look across from you, that’s your partner for the next month, either have weak moves work on it in practice. Problems?”

Gritting her teeth and glaring at Valr, but didn’t voice her opinion on the matter. Although in her head she was cursing the fates sense of humor.

“Good,” Milak went into a stance, “coda straight.”

The class went through the basic moves, with the master pointing out his charge’s mistakes, mentioning those that might force a pair to run laps. Valr was handling his blade well and Andrea was confident they would not be doing much running, til they got to the positions leading with the left foot.

Milak pointed out the flaws three times and Andrea envisioned a lot of running in her future and glared at the clumsy lad. She made a mental note to wear looser clothing to practice on the morrow, and leave any extra weight in her room.  To make matters worse the master gave Andrea a pat on her shoulder. “Exceptional form lass, while running wouldn’t hurt for you stumble bums to study a natural blade dancer.”

Valr grumbled, and Andrea blushed, as other comments were uttered.  Kerick had mentioned a blade dancer before but never told her what it meant.  “Awright,” it looked to Andrea she wasn’t about to find out any time soon from Milak either, “you in the front line switch to defense.”

They ran through the positions twice, Milak had them run two laps around the exercise yard before going through the positions twice. “That’s all for our long session today.  Hourly till the last day of the turn then another long session.  Those of you coming back for bow class, be back a cycle after midday, gives you two hours to eat lunch and catch your breath.  Won’t take no excuses for tardiness, it’s two laps.”

            Andrea was tired but felt good.  Taking her bow over to Milak she left it with him, after he nodded his approval.  Stretching as she walked, she returned her sword to her room, nearly running into Gaby. 

Laughing the girl grabbed Andrea’s arm, “You headed into town?”

            “Gotta go see Lee.”  Andrea laughed as Gaby spun her. “But, I have no idea where I’m going.”

            “Well,” Gaby took her arm as they headed back to Andrea’s room, “I have to go that way too.  I’ll show you Lee’s, and we’ll get lunch, my treat, at the Running Wolf.  They’ve the best chocolate pastries in the town, just won’t tell the boys where we are.”

            Andrea looked at Gaby slyly out of the corner of her eye. “Woman like the way you think, deal.” Tossing her already cleaned sword on the bed she pulled the door open.

            Gaby chattered all the way to Lee’s.  There was a ‘help wanted’ sign out front when they walked up, and the shopkeep didn’t greet them as they entered.  Both fine omens to becoming an employee here, far as Andrea was concerned.

Gaby shrugged, heading over to the bows, oohing and aaahing over the wonderful fletching job on the feathers, while Lee just shook his head.  Trying to gauge the man Andrea walked over and looked over a rack of swords, inspecting most superficially. She finally picked up a beautiful two-hand sword, and soon as she lifted it she knew something was wrong.  Holding it out steady the blade ever so slightly dipped in the middle throwing the balance off.

Pointing it towards the floor she glanced at the pommel.  “Five crenne for this piece of shit, utter madness.”

At her voice the shopkeep walked up, and jerked it out of her hand.  “Obviously you can’t afford a good weapon like this, furthermore what would a female know about the quality of a weapon such as this.”  He snarled, as he held the blade, “It’s not a pot or pan for cooking.”

Taking a deep breath she recalled something her mother taught her. ‘Smiling at your enemy is more painful than any knife blade.’ With that in mind she smiled sweetly. “Assume you’re Lee, owner of the finest weapon shop here in Virgash?”

He swelled up like a rooster fixing to crow, gripping his shirt as if it were collared. “Ah, yes lass I’m Lee, but you still got no business here, nor I expect can you afford my fees.”

“Name’s Andrea, and you’re right I can’t afford a weapon like that.” She stuck her nose in the air.  “I can’t afford to ride out with a blade so warped with a proper blow snap in half or shatter.  Can’t afford to risk my life on a blade so out of balance it’ll twist on me first time I use it, leaving me open to attack while I try to untwist my blade.”

The shocked expression on his face was more than she could have asked for.  Holding up the blade he looked it over, then anger burned in his eyes.  He began to curse the blacksmith, and swore man was trying to do him in as he threw the sword on a scrap heap.  “Doing so much business I don’t have time to check my wares right!”

“Yep,” Andrea cleared her throat, “works for me. But, if I survived the encounter I’m not apt to buy a thing from you, might come ask you a question or two, hard like.”

“Word of this gets out I’ll be the laughing stock of the town.”  He sighed.  “How much coin you want to stay quiet lass?”

Thoughts of Rista buying her dinner later made her smile, “Don’t need much good sir, would be willing to help you out even.  If you hire me to check your items and mind the shop while I train at the temple, then word of this will never leave these walls.”

Lee stared at her for a moment, then broke out laughing. “Lass, you’ve brassier balls than most men who walk in here.  Aye it’s a deal and I’ll sweeten it for you.  You’re the first lass I’ve met with a bit of sense about such things.  Perhaps I could get a wider customer base if I opened my eyes a wee bit you think?”  Still laughing he motioned her to follow him.  He led her into an office and sat down with a paper and quill.  He scratched on a paper his offer. “We’ll do this bargaining right.”

Taking the offered paper she read it over, an offer of a double copper every turn with her choice of a weapon every half rotation. This was more then she could have hoped for. Not only was she making good money she’d have new weapons to take when she went to face her uncle and bring him to justice.

            Trying to not seem too excited about the agreement she glanced over the paper a moment longer.  “I think this will be agreeable sir.”

Looking up he handed her the quill so she could sign it.  “Want this nice and legal, don’t want to chance anyone saying I didn’t do this proper or spreading rumors about me hiring a lass.”

She took the quill, scratched her name on the paper and handed him it. “What time do you want me here?”

            “Come by at the first of the turn, one of the lads, Breen is a student too so I know classes start then.  After your first day of classes you’ll know what time you’ll be done with classes.  We’ll set your schedule then.” He held out his hand to her.

            Taking it she said her thanks, then went and gathered Gaby.  Pulling the girl quickly down the street, Gaby started laughing. “What’s wrong with you Andrea?”

            “Wrong?  Not a damn thing.  Did you not hear?  He hired me.  I’ve got a job plus Rista has to buy dinner.” Andrea laughed, and was grinning from ear to ear. “Now where’s this Running Wolf, I’m ready for those chocolate pastries.”

            “Oh Rista is going to die,” Gaby laughed, “I heard you arguing and then you were gone.  I wasn’t sure what was going on.”

            Gaby locked her arm in Andrea’s, and steered her through town to a small tavern two streets over from Lee’s.  The lady behind the bar greeted Gaby while bringing them two glasses of wine to the table.  Andrea wasn’t much for wine but this was sweet and slightly warmed. 

            “Mind if I order for us?” Gaby asked, as the lady waited.

            “No you know this place, be my guest,” Andrea motioned for her to continue as she sipped the wine.

            Gaby wasn’t shy about food.  The girl ordered them both a steak, quartered potatoes soaked in a garlic butter sauce, along with steamed green beans, rolls with honey, and more wine.  Just hearing her order made Andrea’s stomach growl.

            Gaby sipped her wine. “You’ll love this.”

            “Sounds great at least, so what’s your story Gaby?  Where are you from?  Why are you here?” Andrea realized she’d been so worried about her own life she’d never talked to any of her new friends about why they were here.

            “Nothing as sad as yours.  Jerick and I are from a small coastal town called Port of Mist.  Our entire family is gifted so I was just natural once we hit an age where it was safe for us to travel alone, we come here. We were going to leave earlier, but father was sick and needed us.”

Gaby smiled so softly Andrea didn’t dare ask about her father. Instead she changed the conversation with, “Have a strapping young lad waiting for you at home?” She wiggled her eyebrows. “Pretty as you are, probably a handful.”

Blushing Gaby shook her head. “Goodness, pretty, no way, there were far more pretty girls at home than me.” She blushed a bit more and leaned closer. “Gandy, cause of our names he always sat behind me and we liked each other. How about you?”

“Me?” Andrea yelped, “No way, was taught at the manor, so wasn’t many boys around.” She grinned. “But, there was a summer misadventure from time to time, just no one special.”

“And what was your plan,” Gaby turned a tad red, “I mean before all this happened to you.”

“Ah,” Andrea shook her head, “seems so long ago, ah, I guess run the family manor, which my parents were teaching me.”

“So,” Gaby sipped her wine, “you never had the calling?”

            Andrea reached up and pushed her hair behind her ears, “Nope not me.”

            Gaby sighed, “Must be a reason, but it’s really strange.”

            “Maybe,” Andrea began, “It’s because the Lyotians called early are elf got like the old women in my home used to say. Maybe it’s cause I’m human and you’re not.”

            “Elf got?  Do you really believe that?”

            Andrea reached up and touched her ears, “Nah, my twin was blessed and he was orc got not elf got.  Mean little thing he was.” Andrea waited a bit before she began to smile gauging Gaby’s reaction.  The food showed up just as Gaby began to giggle.

            Gaby continued to laugh as they began to eat. The food was rich and delicious.  Andrea was feeling lazy after the meal was over.  She didn’t think she could eat another bite until the woman brought out two plates.  Each one held a huge pastry.  It was soft flaky dough that was covered in chocolate.  Picking it up and biting into it she found the center was filled with a chocolate pudding that tasted faintly of raspberries.

            “Oh wow that’s delicious!”

            “I told you it was the best,” Gaby managed to mumble between bites.

            Andrea finished the pastry and sat back with her hands on her stomach. “Oh lord and I have archery when we get back.  I’m going to die.”

            “You and me both! I’ve got to be at practice too.  We can suffer together.” Gaby laughed and laid a double copper on the table. Andrea was surprised.  That would be a whole weeks wage for her. Following Gaby out they headed back to the temple with almost a half cycle to spare.

            Sitting in the shade of the stable as they waited for class to start Andrea and Gaby talked to Rista. “I already asked Gaby.  How’d find out you had been blessed?”

            “It be an accident really.  I be getting headaches every time I be in the barn.  Be telling my old man and he sends me down to the healer in town.  She be spotting it right away.  I be the only one in my family.  Old rat says I can be talking to animals when I be done training.”

            “Old Rat?  Oh, you mean Master Sturat.” Andrea laughed softly, “So what about your home? I’ve never been out towards Reed.”

            “Oh it be beautiful.”  Rista grinned as he thought of his home.  “Nestled right below the Drove Mountains, plenty of hunt and fishing, land be fertile and grows us some amazing crops.  You be needing to come see it little one, it’s beautiful.” 

            “I’d love to one day.” Andrea smiled at the big man.  Gaby was watching him smiling.  There was a look on her face and Andrea laughed softly.

            “How old are you Gaby?”

            “Uh?  Oh, I’m 20, Jerick’s older them me he’s 24.”

            “What about you Rista?” Andrea wanted to get to know these people.  She would be here with them for a while and needed some good friends.

            “Oh looks like I be stuck in the middle.  I be 22.  What about ye little one?”

            “Sounds like I’m indeed the little one,” She laughed softly, “just turned 18 before my parents died at the first of the winter.”  Her mind drifted back to the party, Tristin, her twin hadn’t been there to celebrate.  His internship at a new Lyotan temple in Sunde had started that summer.  Shaking her head she cleared it before she could get submersed in the memories.

            Milak was walking out on the field as they finished talking. Andrea and Gaby stood up to walk across the field.  Gaby turned back to wave at Rista.  Andrea turned and waved to but he was intent on watching Gaby.  Andrea laughed and focused her attentions on the field in front of them.  Valr was already waiting as they approached.

            Milak was busy setting the targets up for class as they strung their bows. Several of the boys sniggered as Gaby struggled with hers.  Andrea shot them a look and they moved out of ear shot. Walking over she showed the girl an easier to get the cord set and smiled at the look of relief on Gaby’s face.

            “Thanks.  I really want to learn, but weapons are not something I’m good at,” Gaby admitted as she tested the cord.

            “It takes time.”  Andrea put her hand on Gaby’s shoulder, and smiled.  “I’ve been doing this since I was old enough to pull a bow, didn’t learn overnight and neither did any of these idiots out here.”

            Nodding Gaby walked with her over to the end of the line targets.  There were quivers on stands spaced every ten feet.  Andrea couldn’t help but wish Kerick had one of those when she was learning.  Would have been a lot easier for target practice, but it was too late now.  Valr walked by grinning smugly as he carried his long bow, which was silver tipped, and the riser engraved.  He wore a forearm and finger guards, as if he would have the luxury of either in the field.  Andrea took a second quick glance at his equipment and grunted as he stood on the other side of Gaby and held his nose in the air.

            Sighing, Andrea ignored him and listened as Milak instructed them on how the future practices would go.  There would be various target situations, different ranges, angles, and even some shots from behind shelter, explaining he was trying to give them real world situations to work with.  He walked the line checking the cords on the bows.  Grinning at Andrea he handed back her bow as he moved on to Valr, who seemed more confident with the bow than his sword.

After checking everything he had them work on accuracy.  Walking out to the field he moved Andrea and Valr’s targets back a hundred or so feet from the others, “You two are already proficient at the lengths they’re doing.  I want you working to improve, not stay constant, want all of you to ALWAYS work to improve. Never settle for what you can do, you can always learn something new and get better.  Remember that!”

Everyone nodded at his words.  Andrea smiled softly, at something Kerick had drilled in her head long ago.  So had her parents when it came to her studies as she had grown.  Glad to have a fond memory for a change she began to work on this stage of practice. 

Target wasn’t at the maximum range of the bow, but it was farther than her normal practice.  As for Valr, it was mid-range for his long bow, and he acted near bored to tears as he kept hitting the center.  Her shots were also close to center, but off just enough to irritate her. 

Taking a deep breath she stopped and stretched her arms.  Gaby’s arrows were mostly landing on the ground.  Andrea smiled at her as she struggled.  The poor girl was trying so hard.  One of her arrows flew wild and hit Andrea’s target.  Blushing Gaby apologized.

“It’s ok,” Andrea softly smiled at her, “keep working at it.  Don’t sweat it.”

“She better sweat it,” Valr laughed from her right, “Gotta be the worst person with a bow I’ve ever seen.”

“Why don’t you mind your own damn business?” Andrea growled at him.

“You’ll agree when she hits you with an arrow instead of the target,” he glared at her before going back to shooting.  All of his arrows were closer to center than hers. 

Taking a calming breath Andrea went back to her own practice. The snide comments about Gaby’s bow work continued to flow.  Milak came by, and whispered to her, “I won’t let it get to far out of control, lass does better when she’s angry.  Right now her biggest issue is trying too hard.”

Frowning Andrea nodded and tried to ignore it.  Valr’s comments never carried farther than Andrea could hear.  The stuff he mumbled was twice as harsh as what the others said.  His arm was tiring as his shot wavered.  Andrea’s began to improve despite the ache in her arm. Valr’s comments trailed off as he began to concentrate on his own practice.  As they fired Milak came through and tried to distract each student at various times.  Some managed to ignore him while others missed shots completely. 

Andrea tried not to laugh as Valr’s shot went wide right when Milak yelled in his ear.  Keeping Milak in the corner of her vision she was prepared when he walked up next to her but wasn’t ready for what he did.  Prepared to be yelled at she barely corrected her shot as he blew softly into her ear making it tickle.  The arrow hit the target but it wasn’t in the center instead it was in the ring right out from the bull’s eye.  Grinning she looked at him and shook her head.  He was laughing as he walked away.

Shaking her head she smiled over at Gaby.  He was right.  The girl was ridged and nervous.  Perhaps she could get some free time and work with her until she learned to relax.  Gaby pulled the bow back and fired.  The arrow hit a bull’s eye, in Andrea’s target.  Smiling Andrea touched her shoulder as Gaby blushed.  Valr was laughing out loud and pointing.

Milak called a halt to practice as the other students joined in, “That’s enough for today. I expect to see you all back here after lunch tomorrow.  I also expect to see a few more adults here and not a bunch of brats!”

Andrea sighed and nodded to Milak as they headed off the practice field.  Valr was standing around watching everyone leave.  He hadn’t even unstrung his bow.  As she watched he snapped his fingers and one of the other boys ran over to do it for him. “What a total spoiled brat!” Andrea frowned as they left the field.

“Hey you didn’t tell Rista about Lee!” Gaby smiled as she wiped the sweat from her brow.

“Right! I was going to head to the bath.  I’ll catch up to you later ok?”

“Bath is where I’m headed to.  See ya there,” Gaby waved as she headed down the hall towards her room before heading to the bath.

Andrea hurried to the stables hoping Rista was still there.  He was just closing a stall door when she ran inside.  Looking up at her he grinned, “You look like you be very happy ‘bout somethin’ little one, what be the hurry?”

“Oh I’m always in a hurry when I win a bet,” Laughing she told him what had happened at Lee’s.

Hanging his head he took his coin purse off his hip, and grunted, “Me and me big mouth, there be a treat for ya horse lass.” He pointed to an apple on the hay pile. “I gotta be getting finishing chores, gotta be heading up to the hayloft.  If’n ya still be here when I be done we’ll talk ‘bout this dinner I be owin’ ya, otherwise be seeing ya at dinner.”

Watching as the huge man hurried up the ladder she sighed.  There was a climb involved with getting that apple, and she was just too tired.  The thought of her powers came to mind.  Holding out her hand she motioned the apple towards her.  As she did it hit an oil lamp that was burning on a table next to the haystack.  As soon as it hit the hay caught fire.  Andrea dropped her bow and hurriedly ran over to grab the lamp.

“Andrea? What’s that I be smelling?”  Rista jumped down from the hayloft cursing as he helped her put the small fire out. 

“Sorry Rista, I didn’t mean to.  I was just too tired to climb up and get it,” she hung her head as she spoke.

“No worries little one.  We be fixing it.  No harm be done,” he patted her on the shoulder with a smile.

Smiling she took the apple that had landed on the floor and gave it to Destry, “I’ll see you at dinner Rista!”

“Aye, be seein’ ya there lass.”

Running to her room she unstrung her bow and laid it on the bed.  It would need oiled after dinner.  Grabbing a clean change of clothes she ran for the bath.  Valr was just coming down the hall as she made the door for the bath.  Chewing on a piece of straw he looked at her oddly and walked by without saying a word.

Andrea panicked a bit, did he know about the tail thing or the lamp she’d knocked over?  Taking a deep breath she shrugged the worries off, who cared if he did?  No one liked him, so who would listen to his mouth if he did see anything? Gaby was splashing around when she walked in the door.

Andrea called out, “How’s the water?”

“Wonderfully warm and relaxing, hurry and jump in.” Gaby called from inside the fog, created as the cooler air hit the warm water after the door was opened.

Going inside the changing room Andrea slipped out of her sweat soaked clothes and into the robes the temple provided.  Dropping it at the edge of the pool she slid in with a sigh. “Oh very, very nice.”

Gaby laughed, and moved over near her, “Here’s a bar of soap.  I’m done, need to go see Old Rat before dinner.  I’ll see you there.”

“Try not to fall asleep,” Andrea laughed as she started working on getting clean.  Once she was done washing she soaked her sore muscles in the warm water for a while.  A string of voices echoed down the hall as she soaked, and she oh so wanted to stay in for an hour or so. But, her stomach told her it was near time for dinner. Groaning she crawled out of the tub and got dressed.  Her wet hair she tied in a low ponytail before heading off to meet the others for dinner.

Jerick came down the hall just as Andrea closed the bathing room door.  Smiling he waved as he walked up, “So, how’d Lee’s go?”

As she opened her mouth to answer Gaby came running down the hall, the bells in her hair ringing softly.  Out of breath she stopped and looked at Andrea, “Old Rat wants to see you, he seems upset about something.”

Panic gripped her heart.  Why would he want to see her? “Ok, lead the way.”

On the way there the pair passed Valr, and he wouldn’t look either in the eye.  “Figures,” Andrea growled, “he’d rat me off.”

Gaby was frowning as she stuck her head in the door and told him Andrea had arrived.  He waved her in, and Gaby shrugged as she moved to let Andrea through the door.  Andrea’s heart was pounding hard as she sat in the seat he motioned to.

“Have to say,” his face was quite grim, “I am very disappointed in you.”

“Sir, I don’t understand,” Andrea didn’t know what she could’ve done to make him angry, “I’ve been at weapon’s practice all day.”

“You have grossly misused your powers in the last day or so child.  You were told in this very office not to use your powers until graduation, or given permission by your teachers.  I’m very disappointed in you.” His arms were crossed and the scowl on his face told her it was more than disappointed.

“I’m sorry sir.”  Sighing Andrea looked down at the floor in front of her chair. “Know you told me, just so stressed lately guess it didn’t sink in my hard head. I promise it won’t happen again.”

“I’m afraid that isn’t going to be good enough child.”  Master Sturat was shaking his head, as she looked up at him from her seat.  “You broke the rule and have to pay the price for that.”

Andrea felt her heart skip a beat, what was he going to do?  Make her pay more to train, or throw her out?  There was no way she could bring Stefyan to justice without this training.

Reaching behind him Master Sturat held a bracelet in his hand.  It appeared to be white gold with a black oval stone in the middle of the band.  There was no latch on the solid band.  “This is a restriction band.  Since you cannot follow rules you will be restricted in the use of your powers.  This ban will block your mind from accessing them except from first meal till after classes done for the day. Hold out your hand please.”

Turning blood red she held out her left hand.  Saying a few words she didn’t recognize the band opened and slipped around her wrist. Turning her wrist she looked at the band.  It fit snugly but not so tight it would interfere with her sword or bow.  There was no seam on it.  No way to tamper or pry it off and there was no hiding it.  Even her longest sleeved shirts would leave it showing just a bit.

“I didn’t hurt anyone.  How long do I have to wear this?” There was a bit of panic in her voice as she looked at the bracelet.

“Until the day you graduate.  Those are the rules.  I had better no hear of more of these actions Andrea.  You could have seriously hurt someone or yourself,” frowning he crossed his arms.

Eyes on the floor Andrea sighed, “Sir how did you know I’d used my powers?”

“I’m head master here.  It’s my job to know and check on anything I hear. I’m not doing this merely to punish you.  I don’t want you hurt.  I know you’ve been through a lot, but rushing your training and doing things like you’ve done them is not the way to reach your goals.” Kneeling in front of her he lifted her face to his, “Do you understand?”

Andrea nodded softly as she looked him.  Someone had told him she had used her powers.  The thought of Valr seeing her in the hall when she had gotten stuck with the tail and then him leaving here today just before she walked up, a piece of straw in his mouth, confirmed her thoughts.  He had ratted her out.  There was going to be swift repercussions for this.

Standing Sturat held the door open, “Everyone will know what that is so try to be civil if asked what you did.  You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t want to, but I’ve seen you upset.  You have quite a temper on you young lady.  That’s another thing you’re going to need to learn to control while you’re here.”

With a deep breath she nodded and walked out the door.  Not even ten steps down the hall Valr crossed her path.  Mumbling about him being big mouthed and many other nasty things he turned to look at her.

“What did you just say about me?” Valr stood across the hall from her his chest swollen with pride ready to defend himself.

“Was just saying what a pompous windbag you are,” Andrea smiled coldly as his eyes flashed with fire.

“It’s not my fault Gaby is no good with her weapon,” snorting in disgust he started to walk away from her.

“Just like it’s not my fault you’re a waste of air and space,” spitting at him she walked off growling as she headed towards the dining room.

“At least my ass is worth something to the world!” Valr yelled as she walked away.  Forgetting the bracelet she threw her hand in the air dismissing him.  He started laughing, “You’re pathetic.  Haven’t been here two days and already in trouble.”

Taking a deep breath she turned and walked back to him, “Yes and I had some help getting there.  Wonder who that might have been?”  Fighting the urge to hit him she walked away.  Her words seemed to have left him slightly puzzled as she had turned to leave.  Let him wonder how she knew. 

Trying to hide her hand as she walked in the room was impossible.  Voices whispered as she walked by the different tables to get her food.  Even the people serving the food starred at her openly.  Practically growling she glared at the room full of people before sitting down.

No one at the table said anything as she sat.  Taking a deep breath she looked at Gaby and Rista, “Seems someone ratted me out to Master Sturat.”

Gaby looked shocked and began to shake her head, “I didn’t Andrea I swear!”

Rista frowned and looked around the room, “I not be saying anything about ya lass.  I be asked about the burning smell and said I be a clumsy oaf and dones it me selves.  I never be one to turn on me friends.”

“Did Valr come by the barn after I left?”

“Aye he be there little one.  Be looking around all funny right after ye be aleavein’” Rista rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

“He was in the hall when Gaby went with me to my room last night too.  I bet he saw and told Sturat.  Now I’m stuck with this damn thing.” Picking at her food she growled as Valr walked by the table headed to the practice field to eat. 

Stopping at the table he smiled, “Perhaps you should take the far side of the field.  That way everyone will quit talking about you and starring.” Laughing he walked on out the door. 

Andrea started to stand but Jerick grabbed her, “You’re in enough trouble.  Let it go.”

With a deep breath she sat back down, “All right.  Let’s change the subject.  Rista, when’s dinner?”

Rista laughed loudly in the silence of the dining room and the rest of the room returned to normal as if it was a sign that everything was ok.  “Whenever ye be wanting it little one.”

“Tomorrow sounds good to me.  Are we allowed to take our horses out into the country side or are we supposed to stay in town?”  Andrea could use with a long ride tomorrow since weapons classes were only an hour before breakfast and an hour after midday meal.  That would give her a lot of time to think between classes.

“Yes, but try not to stray too far outside of town.  You need to back before dark,” Jerick said between bites of food.

Smiling she smack his shoulder, “Talk when you have your mouth empty.  I won’t be out that late.  I have weapon’s practice all week before classes start.”

“Would you like some company?” Jerick asked eyes sparkling.

Andrea blushed as he looked at her smiling, “Sure, all of you could come if you’d like.”  He looked a little upset that she had invited the whole group but didn’t say anything as everyone agreed to ride out with her after breakfast.  Dinner finished in the usual lighthearted banter as the previous two nights despite the events of the day.


The End

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