A passage of years, yet no sight or reliable rumor of Thane Gehir. I stood often upon the Wall wondering when he might come again, by horse, by foot, perhaps as he had once before through the trapdoor near my feet. Season followed season, in the natural course of things, and my people defended the Wall against all comers. Queen Heme had birthed a son late in the third year of her marriage, but Prince Daniel did not ease our worries for the succession, for he seemed sickly, and talk of evil magic abounded in the busy nattering streets of our city. As years passed, no other children came to our royal house.
When the next testing came for the soldiers of the Wall, I held my place both in the written and oral examinations, though I had wondered if Mell would beat me. If she had, King Matthew would have the option of giving her my Corpsmaster position. I believe she did not want to rise to it, but I didn’t ask. Mell would never give an answer to a question like that.
In the physical trials that year I drew a soldier called Jaston as my opponent. He stood tall and comely with yellow hair, gifted in stealth work. I did not like him. He had tried to kiss me with those pretty lips, and since I saw no reason for him to do so other than advancement, I felt about him an unease that Mell told me he exploited. However I had no doubts about besting him on the field.
He had a peculiar mixture of assurance and nervousness about him this overcast afternoon, I noted, passing him while he sat honing his personal blade. In fact he started as he looked up, his blade skidded off the stone and cut me upon my leg.
I could not keep a curse from my lips, for he had ruined my second-best leggings. I should have known better than to wear them anyway on a combat day. Vanity. The cut itself needed not even a binding, being shallow, though long.
“No, it doesn’t signify,” I said as he came to his feet all graceful and anxious with apology. He made me feel that I was the one in the wrong, and I walked away more irritated with him than usual. He made me want to wash my hands. I noticed young Prince Daniel observing our interaction from the royal stands, and I nodded to him, hoping I did not show my feelings as clearly as I experienced them. Prince Daniel should never need worry that his warriors had sentimental divisions of significance. In battle my dislike of Jaston would not matter. He belonged to me, I would best him without doing grievous harm.
I checked over my shield carefully, feeling a little sleepy even though I had not eaten any food at midday break. We did not always use shields. We allow choice among our warriors in real combat, so in practice we try every technique to master all skills. Shields tend to be heavy, and while they can provide protection, an ax or well-used mallet will make them a weighty agonizing drag bound on your broken arm. Only a frontal assault upon ranks of troops demands the sort of confidence shields give. I admit that I have seen times that a shield becomes a weapon. Today I planned to use the shield for variety, to challenge myself.
Mell matched Cascada. I watched them with a distant sort of pleasure in the warm afternoon. Thrust and parry; riposte and disengage, almost like a dance, I felt the drowsiness of still humid air settle around me. Afterwards, two young unoathed girls fought, for practice only, since they could not yet compete for standing. About ten years of age, they had moved into the apprentice barracks only a few months ago. I made an effort to remember the faults I saw each commit. Flaws in fighting can be as distinctive as fingerprints are said to be, and the sooner they can be weeded, the better the fighter you raise.
Because I had a place in the combat, I did not have to give scores, though I saw King Matthew consulting with the Prince. They discussed earnestly together, the King clearly instructing Prince Daniel on relative merits.
I nodded to Mell as she came to where I sat. She settled herself upon a rock, slipping off her gauntlets.
“Are you prepared?” she asked. “You look more ready to take a nap than fight.”
I nodded, but indeed the drowsiness of the day had a grip on me. In answer I stood up and stretched, yet that seemed to increase the sensation. Well it would pass in a moment; adrenaline clears the mind like no other drug.
I walked out to take my place when a Guard called my name, but I could not shake this curious uncaring lightheadedness. I bit my lips, and looked across at my opponent standing tall and fair, and I felt that something I did not understand was wrong in the picture.
He stood as a confident man does. That was the problem. That was the difference. I shook my head, and the dizziness I had denied sprang at me, even as Jaston did, his blond head shining. I parried successfully and gave my riposte. This felt wrong. I met his eyes. I saw that he knew he would win. He seemed a different man now, all focused, all strung to his best. He meant to kill me, and knew he could.
Of course deaths happen on trial days. Accidents or ill-judgment, lost temper, or some old grudge surfacing. But not this kind of thing, a planned death, and I felt the heat of shame, that Jaston could have ever become one of us. That I had accepted him. Was this what Mell had meant? Blinded by my own dislike, had I made for him excuses he never deserved?
The puzzle of it cleared my brain slightly. Jaston had been one of my forty officers; he had scored high in the rosters on both verbal and written exams. If he could take me down now, show his ability by my death at his hands, could he take my place as Corpsmaster? He? Over soldiers like Mell and Berann? Then the rage I needed flooded in.
I tightened all my senses, pushed down that dragging uncaring dreaminess, deliberately fed my adrenaline. As he came at me I feigned slowness, and he, impatient, (his greatest flaw), went for a flashy cut to cripple my shield arm. Not a good choice — the straight sword is meant to be used in a thrust. I blocked it, seemingly at the last moment. Effort cost too much. I couldn’t fight off my illness for very long– I must bring this to a close or die of sleep.
In that dizzy moment my eye wandered and I thought I saw Thane Gehir behind the Prince’s seat, bent as if he spoke private words in the Prince’s ear. I blinked and the illusion was gone. However it woke me, and in that instant I could act.
I knew Jaston’s weakness. At his next pass I went for his face. He loved his face, he cherished its perfection. Once I had surprised him glancing in the mirror and twisting a curl over his forehead, and now I would take him down by his own vanity. He flinched from my attack, shifting his footing as he passed, and I stuck out my foot and tripped him.
He landed well, but I cut on the backhand at his face, violating my own principle, successfully widening all his future smiles by a generous inch. It was a sloppy stroke. If I hadn’t anticipated his habit of rising with his left foot first, I couldn’t have done it.
Jaston lost his temper. He had more reach than I, and I was falling asleep on my feet. I knew my shield arm carried low. How could I care– when in the growing haze I found it hard to care about anything? Still I caught his next blow on the boss, then managed to nick his sword arm. I saw his blue eyes blaze, which cheered me. I managed to grin at him.
“Aren’t we having fun?”
He understood me even though my words came out slurred like a drunkard’s. He came straight in, trusting my apparent inability in spite of all the warnings I had given him for years to never make assumptions. His blade ran raw pain through my forearm between the bones. I jerked down against my bone, yanking his sword grip out of his grasp and I spun, leaving him with only his shield and personal blade as arms. The Guards erupted onto the field before either of us could take it further, and pulled us to opposite sides of the field.
I closed my eyes and slept. Only for a second, it seemed, though I am told I passed out for ten minutes, which the field doctor used to draw the sword blade from my forearm and clean and tie my wound. Then I woke to a drenching of ice water. Two Guards supported me to the stand where sat the King.
“Corpsmaster, what explanation have you for appearing drunk upon this field?” he questioned me.
“I’m not drunk, my Lord King,” I stammered. “Jaston contrived to wound me with his personal blade before our match. It must be drugged.”
The world spun about me and I heard the doctor’s humble voice.
“I smell no liquor upon her, Lord King.”
“Take his blade and test it then,’ the King ordered.
I passed out again. They woke me again the same way. I must have looked a drowned black rat, especially contrasted with Jaston’s fair boldness. He pressed his fingers to his wounded mouth, his eyes hot with fury. The doctor came to him and began to clean the cut.
“There is no drug upon his blade,” King Matthew told me.
Before I could think through what this meant, Prince Daniel spoke, his brown eyes sure, his thin dark brows straight.
“Test the blade Jaston hid up under the bench where he was sitting to whet his knife. I saw him seem to slip and cut our Corpsmaster’s leg. Then he looked about and slid that knife into hiding under the seat. The personal blade he has with him now is not the same.”
The King looked with amused pleasure at his son, and nodded to the Guards to obey this instruction. I looked muzzily across at Jaston’s ruined face. I knew there was no need to test the second blade. His horror at exposure showed even to the white rings in his eyes. He pushed the doctor aside and held his mouth with his shaking bloody hand.
“That was well done, my son,” King Matthew said to Prince Daniel. The king’s voice was cast low enough for privacy. I waited, as one who is still herself on trial.
“This blade is smeared with Atura sap, my Lord King, and a little blood as well,” the doctor reported carefully, having tasted the blade and scraped it for traces.
The King looked silently at Jaston, considering him in a way that made my flesh creep.
“Then before you go for a much needed rest, Corpsmaster Ti,” the King said, “how would you dispose of this offal?”
“My Lord King, I beg pardon. Pray do not let your Corpsmaster decide this one’s fate,” Mell dared speak before me.
“You tell me she is ill-chosen?”
“No, not as Corpsmaster,” Master Mell said fast. “But in an issue of insult against herself…”
“I have already put the matter into her hand, and I will not break my word,” the King answered her.
I shook my head to clear it.
“Cast him into any street of the City,” I enunciated carefully, “he might still make an honest thief.”
And then, I bowed in thanks to the Prince, slapping my good arm across my breast in salute. I came within a rat’s whisker of falling asleep before both King and Prince, but Mell jostled me in my wounded arm and that pain sufficed to save me. They turned away, and I permitted my legs to bend. Mell and the others could take me to my bed; I could do nothing more this day.