Chapter One: Heroes
"Parry, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, thrust."
The air rang with the clashing of swords as twenty youths swung at each other. The steel gleamed in the sunlight, threatening to blind any unwary students. Traditional punishment was to receive a sharp smack over the head, whether delivered by your partner or the trainer it didn't matter.
"Parry, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, thrust."
The group was a mixture of girls and boys, none older than fourteen, and the youngest barely eleven. Some were short, some tall, some dark-skinned, some fair, some with cruel faces that spoke of battles and wounds, others so perfect they almost looked like statues. But they all shared one thing in common, their faces were determined and their eyes burned with concentration.
"Parry, thrust, parry, thrust, parry, thrust."
At the end of the line one of the boys was beginning to struggle. He had dark brown hair and pale skin tanned from being outside. His eyes were a warm brown and looked too sensitive to be at home swinging a sword. His nose was too big for his face, and sat uncomfortably over thin lips. He stood between the tallest and shortest child, and although his arms had the outline of muscles he was neither overly muscled nor lithe and flexible. His partner was a girl his own age, slightly taller than him, who was hammering at him as hard as she could with her sword.
"Parry, thrust, parry, pick yourself up Alassar, you don't want another trip to the healer do you?"
"No sir," the boy panted, trying desperately to stand straighter. His attempt failed almost immediately as the girl slammed his sword down so hard it knocked him on the forehead.
"Phon, unless you want to get in further trouble with the training master, please refrain from striking so harshly." The trainer sounded immensely bored, but the other children were snickering amongst themselves. Seeming not to notice, the trainer resumed. "Parry, thrust."
Phon relented until the trainer had stepped past them, when she swung hard again and once more sent their swords into Alassar's head. "Ow!" He yelled, and everyone turned to look at him. He stared at the ground, his cheeks burning with embarrassment. "Nothing, cramp," he muttered.
"Resume. Parry, thrust."
Phon gave him a mocking smile, deliberately holding her sword loose as she waited for him to strike again. Alassar glared and gave her blade the barest tap, whereupon she tightened her hold and pushed him back, forcing him to step out of line to avoid falling. He tried to hop straight back but the trainer was by his side in a flash.
"Is there a problem your grace?" He asked.
Alassar shook his head. "No sir. Lost my footing for a moment."
The trainer was obviously unimpressed with his answer. "Very well, back in line. Let's see if you can do this properly for once."
This time when the movements resumed Alassar swung as hard as he could, Phon responding in kind, and soon they were out of sync with the rest of the students, slamming their swords together hard enough to make marks on the steel.
"Give up high-born," she hissed at him. "Go back to having your hands massaged by servants, instead of trying to compete here."
"Not a chance," he responded, his sword nearly slipping from his hand as she hammered hard on it. His wrist was nearly wrenched from the abuse it was taking, but she wasn't hitting as hard, and her face was streaked with sweat.
"Alassar, Phon." The trainer was beside them again, staring at them impatiently as they swung their swords together once more. Instead of chiding them, he simply told them "we have finished the exercise." With a nod of his head he indicated the other children, who were watching the two of them from the weapons rack. "You may return your swords and proceed to archery."
Even Phon was red-faced as she took her sword to the rack, dropping it in and avoiding her fellow trainees' eyes. Squaring her shoulders she marched off, leading the way to the archery range. Alassar waited until the others had gone a few metres before returning his sword and trudging after them, trying to wipe some of the sweat off his brow with a shirt that was already soaked through.
It had taken him about ten minutes upon arrival to question his decision to be sent here. His father would have been quite content to keep him at home, but he had been adamant, he wanted to train, he wanted to be a hero. Then he met his campmates.
"Come on sweetblood," a yell came from the archery range. "Or is a hill too much for those delicate legs?" To be more specific, then he had met Phon Dalway.
Phon was the daughter of Traders, the nomadic tribes of merchants who roamed the land buying and selling from the towns and villages. She had taken an immediate dislike to the son of a king, and had decided from then on that the two of them were rivals. The trainers had recognised this, but instead of keeping them apart, had encouraging the competition, claiming it would build true character. Alassar could have done with a lot less true character if it meant spending less time in Phon's less than delicate company.
At the archery range they were paired off again by the archery trainer, meaning two would fire at once, the challenge a mixture of speed and accuracy against the other person. Alassar was fairly confident; he usually did better at archery than any of the other trainees. It might not have the same glory as being a master swordsman, but at least it was something.
He collected his bow and a quiver of fives arrows and stepped up next to Phon in his place in the line. The two of them were three pairs from the front. She elbowed him hard in the ribs and hissed, "don't mess up; I don't want extra kitchen duty."
He nodded, gripping his bow nervously and watching as the first two, Soren and Freya, stepped up and fired their five arrows as fast as possible. Their quivers were slung at their waists, which slowed them down a little, but not much as they scored a number of hits on the targets. They fired at straw filled targets shaped like men, for which the highest marks were over the heart and head, with limbs next and anything else with the least.
"An enemy cannot attack you with an arrow stuck in his brains or heart. With an arrow in his arm he will be weakened, but with an arrow in his flank? Painful, but he can still kill you with ease."
It was the mantra their archery trainer had drilled into them months ago, when they first arrived at camp, and he repeated it every time they trained. Alassar understood the logic, but there were plenty of things that weren't man shaped that could still kill you. There was no practice for that at camp, only against other people. Soren and Freya's arrows were collected and the next pair stepped forward and fired. They didn't fare quite as well, some of their arrows flying into the wooden back-boards.
At last it was their turn. Alassar stepped up and raised his bow, waiting for the command, next to him Phon mimicked, sparing a second to glare at him. Their quivers were on their backs, their hands hovering over an arrow.
They drew and fired as one, the arrows flying downrange to impact heavily with the targets. Alassar's went straight through his target's right shoulder and buried itself deeply into the backboard, while Phon's barely scratched the side of her target's leg. She scowled and rushed her next shot, missing entirely. Alassar took a second longer and his arrow went exactly where he wanted it to, right into the heart.
Phon glared at him again as she set her third arrow, but he ignored her, setting his own and aiming it. They loosed together and both arrows fell true, head shots that shook the dummies. He allowed himself a quick smile as he drew the fourth arrow and notched it, sighting quickly and firing before she could, prompting another glare before she scored a chest blow. In unison they notched their final arrows and steadied them.
The bows twanged and two more arrows sprouted from the targets, but once again Phon had missed in her haste to outdo him, while his landed in the target's neck, a difficult shot even for the best archers.
"Bravo young prince," the archery trainer said, trotting over to the arrows and noting the arrows, "all either killing or disabling." He went next to Phon's target, frowning at the results, "not so good Trader, but adequate, I suppose."
They pulled their arrows from the targets and went to sit in the raised benches to the side of the range. Phon threw herself down next to a group of commoners, clearly in a huff, while Alassar found himself on the other end of the benches with the other high-born children. It was a little more pleasant than being stuck with Phon all the time, but around him everyone else tended to get very wary about how they spoke.
The camp was fairly evenly divided between noble children and the children of commoners, but even out of the nobles he was unusual. Alassar's father was the king, which put him above everyone, nobles and common-born alike. He had friends among the noble born children, but it was hard to be friends when they were constantly reminded of his higher status. It was better than total isolation, but it was still lonely. He sat on the edge of his bench and watched as the final trainees finished the task, some better and some worse.
Eventually they were all seated on the benches and the head trainer stepped in front of them. "A good beginning to the day, but now we have a challenge more suited to you young heroes." Most of the trainees leaned forwards eagerly, wondering what exactly was considered a challenge.
"You will be divided into pairs, and sent into the forest." He gestured in the direction of the dense cluster of trees which sealed off the camp on one side. It was ancient and wild, the roots and branches so intertwined that it was impossible to get into except through special openings that the trainers kept clear. "Inside the forest are monsters of all varieties. The task is simple, survive for one whole day."
"What provisions can we take?" One of the noble children spoke up.
"Nothing but your weapons and armour. It isn't necessary that you kill any monsters, or that you even do anything other than find a protected spot and bed down until tomorrow."
Alassar glanced around and wondered if any of the trainees intended to just camp out. It might not have been necessary, but they had been training for three months already against nothing more perilous than straw filled dummies, and the fastest way to earn glory was a monster kill. Alassar wasn't exactly overjoyed at the thought of spending a full day in the cramped confines of the forest, but the thought of bringing back a trophy was intoxicating.
"Phon Dalway and Alassar of Amgothe, step forward."
Several of the other teenagers laughed as the two stepped forwards, but the trainers didn't acknowledge them. "You two are to be paired with each other in the forest. Until noon tomorrow you are to help each other, and keep each other alive. Do you understand?"
Phon clenched her jaw so hard her whole head shook but she nodded. Alassar felt like his energy was draining out through his feet, and only managed a dull sort of head bob. Stuck in close proximity to Phon for a whole day? He couldn't spend ten minutes with her before she tried to strangle him. And she wouldn't be one for finding a well-protected area and lying low.
"Collect any weapons and armour you may require, and return here quickly."
As the two of them jogged away Alassar heard him calling the next two, but he was quickly out of earshot. Phon rushed ahead of him, practically sprinting to get to her own cabin first, and he slowed a little to put more space between them. He shared a cabin with four of the other nobles, further up the hill, whereas Phon was down with the lowest commoners. She disappeared into her cabin and he sped up.
The cabins were never locked, since there was nothing to steal from them. All of the trainees had a standard set of weapons and armour given to them on arrival, and all other personal possessions were forbidden. A hero had to learn how to stand alone, they were told, before he could learn how to fight for others.
Moving quickly Alassar strapped on a chest plate, greaves and forearm guards, leaving the rest of the armour behind. He collected his bow and a quiver full of arrows, slinging them both across his back before he buckled his sword belt round his waist. He ignored the spear and axe, which he was utterly hopeless at using, and hung his buckler over the sword. The full shield would have offered more defence, but he had been told that against most monsters the best bet was speed and agility, instead of standing firm. His medicine pouch was already securely fastened to the back of his belt.
Wishing he had more idea of what to expect he headed back out, passing Etrian on his way out. The noble boy gave him a smile, "sorry about the pairs. Maybe you'll get lucky and Phon will get eaten by something in there?"
Alassar chuckled, "the gods are never that kind."
As he headed back down the hill he saw Phon already waiting at the edge of the archery range, glaring at him for taking so long. He breathed deeply and tried to ignore her, focusing instead on the head trainer, who was watching him expectantly. When he drew level with Phon they moved off towards the trees.
"Inside the boundaries of the forest you will have to rely on each other, or else you will not survive," the training master told them. "Your training has prepared you, but the purpose of this test is to show you where training will no longer help. Whether you learn the lesson or not is up to you."
They had reached the main entrance, a circular gap in the trees just large enough to admit two people if they didn't mind brushing shoulders. Phon shoved Alassar aside and clambered in alone, but at the very least she waited just inside instead of marching off. They watched their trainer walk back to the archery range in silence, then turned to face the forest.