“Name?” The man sat behind a desk with a ledger open before him. He looked hopelessly out of place in the arena, old and thin with only a few wisps of hair left on his head.
“Callindra.” She replied, watching as he marked it down. He looked up expectantly and she shook her head, “That’s it.”
He marked an X in the surname column, “Age?”
“Eighteen” she replied, staring down his disbelieving look until he shrugged, muttering and marked it down as well.
Callindra had given this a bit of thought. She knew she wasn’t supposed to mention her master. After all it was teaching her that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. Saying she was self-taught seemed to dishonor his teaching though; she was proud of the things he had shown her. After some consideration had decided to give a generic enough name that nobody would question it.
“Northwind.” He glanced at her briefly before marking that down as well.
“Classification.” He said patiently, obviously having had to repeat the same speech several times today, “The type of position you wish to try out for. I’m guessing light infantry?”
“No, I want to be a scout.” She said, having heard this was a coveted position.
“Everyone wants to be a scout. Can you shoot?” He asked, “I notice you don’t have a bow.”
“No, I never had a knack for the bow. I’m sort of a specialist.” Callindra said.
“A part of the trial for entrance into that particular group will be an archery contest. Only the best get in girl, it’s the only way they can maintain an elite unit.” He paused and set down his quill. “I can’t stop you from wasting your time, but I might rethink that choice if I were you.”
Callindra was surprised by this turn of kindness, “What would you suggest sir?”
“Take the trial for light infantry and if you do well enough you might convince some Lord or another to make you his daughter’s warden. It’s decent work, and since you’re a girl it would allow you to keep guard even when she is in places where her father would never let a man attend.”
“Sit in a room and watch some spoiled brat all day? I don’t know, sounds like a waste of my training to me.” She sighed, knowing he was probably right, at least about the Scout position she wanted. Maybe she could get some experience and try to join the Wolves after she’d proven herself. “Thanks for the advice, put me down for light infantry then.”
He marked that down as well, nodding in satisfaction that she had followed his suggestion. “You’re a little early, you can go warm up in ring six. Since you are a sword specialist, most of your testing will revolve around hand to hand combat, you will be provided with a practice blade.”
Callindra nodded and made her way past a lavish tent towards her appointed station. A man stopped her as she walked past, “You, girl! Where did you get that armor?”
“A master of leatherworking by the name of Markson made it.” She said, “His shop is in the–“
“I know where his shop is.” The man interrupted, “To think he would throw it in his lordship’s face.” He snorted, “You’re playing a foolish and dangerous game girl.”
“What do you mean?” Callindra asked, but the man had already spun on his heel, causing his richly embroidered cloak to flare as he stalked away. She shrugged, the fool didn’t even have a sword. Besides, wearing armor certainly couldn’t get her into trouble; even if it had once been intended for someone else.
Much to her surprise, the majority of the morning had been spent on drills, tests of military terminology and tactics. Callindra felt she had done fairly well, the books she had read were slightly outdated but much of the knowledge they contained was still relevant. She hoped it was anyway. The sun was hot and sitting in her armor was beginning to get uncomfortable.
“Right! Head to mess and report to your assigned ring for combat testing!” Said the man who had most recently been grilling them individually about infantry strategies.
Callindra rose and followed the rest into a large tent where bread, meat, cheese and water were being doled out in large quantities. She took her share with a nod of thanks and sat at the nearest table. In spite of the training she’d endured, the promise of a fight against an unknown opponent was a frightening prospect. The feeling seemed to be prevalent among many of her peers, there wasn’t much talking among them.
Between bites she glanced around the room, noting the wide variety of armaments and armor. Twice when idly looking about she caught a man in nondescript clothes staring at her. The second time he met her eye his mouth parted in a vicious grin and pushed through the line of people waiting their turn to eat.
She finished her meal, eating out of necessity rather than because she wanted to. She brought her plate back to the table and then returned to the ring. She sat cross-legged with Brightfang across her knees and allowed the trance of meditation to overtake her. Her breath was the breath of the Winds and calm fell over her like a warm blanket.
“Callindra of Northwind, you’re facing Fash Con’Anin from Stoneforge. Enter the ring.” The official looked at Callindra, “Leave your blade there.”
Reluctantly, she unbuckled Brightfang and lay him down on the sand. She stepped into the ring and took the bundled lath practice sword from the official, hefting it to feel the balance. It wasn’t too bad, although the blade was slightly too heavy. Her opponent was doing the same.
“The fight is over when one combatant achieves three hits. Hands, feet, neck, groin and face are off limits. This is a test of control as well as skill, you are not to hit full strength. Leave the ring and you are disqualified immediately. I want a clean fight.” Said the official, checking each of them in turn to make sure they understood. When they both nodded he stepped back, “Begin!”
Callindra could hear Glarian’s voice in her head, ‘When you aren’t sure of your opponent, attack quickly with a shallow strike that will not leave you vulnerable. That way you can set the rhythm of the fight and feel out your adversary’s skill at the same time.’
She leaped forward, striking like a whip crack at Fash’s right shoulder. He flinched backward and Callindra realized this practice sword was a hand span shorter than Brightfang. When her opponent offered no counterattack, she pressed on, striking a rapid series of blows. She struck chest, right leg, left shoulder in a flowing series of attacks, the bundled lath making a satisfying *clack* with each successful blow.
When she had struck three times, Callindra stepped back into the Ready Stance and waited. The official gave her an appraising look and nodded sharply. “Victory goes to Callindra of Northwind. You may rest in the shade until your next match.”
She put her right fist over her heart, still gripping her sword in her other hand with the blade reversed to run up her left forearm and bowed from the waist to the official and her opponent. Fash was staring at her in shocked disbelief.
“But you’re a girl!” He bleated, “Just a stupid girl!”
Callindra walked back and reclaimed Brightfang. Slinging his comfortable sheathed weight over her shoulder she turned to fix Fash with a baleful stare, “Take your loss and learn from it, never underestimate an opponent based on foolish prejudice.”
One or two of the other fighters assembled laughed as she walked the few steps back to a sun shade behind the ring. Callindra realized she was the only female she had seen in her group and scanned the others and only saw a handful of other women. She looked back at the fight in the ring before her; wanting to gauge the potential opponent’s strength against the chance she might be facing them across a blade.
While she sat, a young girl approached her. A man at arms was awkwardly accompanying her and holding a parasol to stave off the sun’s rays.
“Good morrow.” The girl said, bobbing a practiced curtsey.
Callindra glanced at her, and then turned her attention back to the current fight.
“My name is Miss Blackforge, Nina Blackforge.” The girl continued, pausing to see what affect her name had. When Callindra didn’t react, she pressed on. “Are you really a strong fighter? I mean my father wants me to have a protector but I cannot tolerate the thought of a man with a sword attending me all the time.”
The fight below was over and while the combatants were changing places Callindra looked directly at the girl, “Looks like you’ve already got a man attending you all the time Miss Blackforge.”
“Well, he is not with me all the time.” She blushed artfully, “Certainly you understand my meaning?”
“What are you worried about someone breaking in on you when you’re bathing or taking a shi- er potty break?” Callindra asked, watching as the next two fighters entered the ring.
Nina blushed a deeper shade of red, “I’m sure I don’t know, but I would just feel more comfortable with female company.”
“I don’t know about that, but I can understand there are times it’s better to have girls around than boys.” Said Callindra, “Listen, I don’t know who your father is and I don’t know why you think you need protection but if you want my honest opinion the only way to be protected is to take matters into your own hands.”
The guard holding the parasol gave her a shrewd look, half approving and half incredulous.
“What, you mean learn to use a sword?” Nina broke into a silvery peal of laughter, “You surely must be joking!”
“No I’m not.” Callindra retorted, “Why do you think I demanded my master teach me the Sword in the first place? I refuse to allow anyone else to dominate me. I won’t be subjugated because I’m too weak to stand up for myself.”
“But here you are, trying out for a position in the military. You do know that you will be required to follow orders in the military don’t you?” Nina raised an eyebrow, “I wonder just how independent you would be then?”
“I suppose that is true Nina but for me this is simply a means to grow stronger.” Callindra said, “I must have experience if I am to attain the strength needed. Training will only get you so far and I’ve reached the limits of what can be taught. Now it is up to me to bend the world to my will and wrest the knowledge I need from it.”
“What are you after that you need to pursue this kind of power?” The girl asked, “You can’t be much older than I.”
“I fear I’m older than I look. You are perhaps fourteen?” Nina nodded, “I thought as much, I’m four years your senior. It’s less what I’m after and more what’s after me but I am searching for someone as well. It’s complicated.”
Nina looked at her thoughtfully, “Well if you win I’m going to ask daddy to hire you anyway. Maybe I can help you find the person you’re looking for.” With that, she turned and glided away, her unfortunate soldier striding in her wake and holding the parasol to keep her shaded.
“Stupid to hold that damn sun shade, he’d never be able to draw his sword in time.” Callindra muttered, turning her full attention back to the ring.
Most of the other combatants were unremarkable; with the man she had seen watching her from the doorway to the mess tent being the only exception. He dispatched his opponent with brutal and precise attacks that spoke of an experienced warrior, not a green recruit. After his victory he came and sat next to her on the bench in the shade.
“Nice fight.” She offered, not sure why he had chosen to sit so close since there was plenty of other room.
“He was a weakling. I hate being forced into this stupid formality; the Lord should know already that I’m worthy.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t it good to test your skills against other schools?” Callindra asked.
“Why don’t you just quit. Quit right now and I won’t have to lower myself by fighting you.” He was looking at her with disgust on his face, “What sort of a test is fighting a stripling girl? It’s humiliating that I’m even asked to do so.”
“Why don’t YOU just quit?” Callindra’s voice lowered dangerously and a gust of wind blew dust into his face. “I will teach you the meaning of humility when I defeat you.”
The man broke out laughing, “You have spirit, I’ll grant that little one. Don’t let it put words in your mouth that you can’t back up though. It’ll be the death of you.”
“You aren’t the first to underestimate me. You’ve already seen what results from it in my last fight.” She gave him an evil smile, “Tell Lord Graylocke he should have just purchased this armor if he wanted to avoid humiliation, if he’ll even talk with you after your defeat that is.” A sharp gust of wind whipped between them, causing the canvas of the shelter to shudder and strain against its moorings.
Before he could respond, the official below called out, “Callindra of Northwind, you will face Genric of Stonearm.”
She stood and strode to the ring, closely followed by the man she had just been verbally sparring with. Once again, she reluctantly left Brightfang just outside the raised level of the ring before stepping up onto the packed sand. Once Genric entered on the other side, she assumed the Ready Stance.