25

May

by thefourpartland

The sound of a bell startled Yaden awake from where he had been dozing, nose down in a particularly dry and academic tract on the families of the High Arcanist, and what had caused each one to rise to that position.

Across from him, Canere was still awake, although with bags under his eyes. And sitting to either side of him was two stacks, one much taller than the other. As Yaden watched, the pamphlet in Canere’s hand was dropped onto the shorter of the two stacks.

“Canere, what time is it?”

The first answer he got was a yawn, followed by a stretch.

“Canere?”

“I think that was the dawn bell, although I’m not sure. I lost track a while ago. It’s the downside of being tucked into these archives.”

“The dawn bell? I said I was going to be finished at the midnight bell! Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was too busy studying. You’ve known me how long and you thought I’d remember what time of day it was when I found something interesting?”

Yaden sighed. That comment was, sadly, entirely true. Canere had never been able to devote anything less than his full and undivided attention to something he found interesting. Hence why he was so suited for the life of an arcanist.

“Fine, fair point. But what do we do now?”

“Well, I have to go to classes soon.” The young mage paused. “Blast. No, I don’t. I have to teach the children’s classes. That’s much worse than I thought. You sure you don’t want to cover for me, Yaden? I’m sure you could cope…”

“I just spent a night helping you on your newest crazy idea and now you want to drag me into that? Not a chance. Me, I’m going in search of a good breakfast, and then a bed. It will at least keep up my reputation as the last roustabout of Yn Dref, provided no one knows why I was up all night long. If you want to rope someone into help you, I suggest Ira. She’s going to be fresh this morning.”

Canere snorted. “I prefer my legs unbroken, thank you. Her denials can be rather… vigorous sometimes.”

Laughing, Yaden waved goodbye to his friend as the two departed the archives.

***

Ira, for her part, was in fact engaged in something vigorous at the precise moment of Canere’s comment. And in much the same vein as he had meant it.

“No, you dolt. You don’t try and block like that, you step to the side. It’s much easier and doesn’t risk your weapon being broken. You really should have learned that by now, I’ve shown you enough times.”

The trouble of it was, the lad that Ira was instructing as part of guardsmen training was making the block work. He was the second son of one of the few remaining blacksmiths, and much like his kin, was the size of a small stone tower. And about as rugged. Which meant that if he wanted to block a strike and got his training blade in the way, the strike was going to be blocked, whether it should have been or not.

And no amount of shouting, cajoling, instructing, or other techniques had been able to get the trainee to adjust what he was doing. Yes, it worked, but it wasted energy and meant that the lad would eventually run up against someone with enough skill to take advantage of the hole.

That was the theory, at least, although in Ira’s experience, the only enemy the guards ever defended against was the wild and sometimes starving predators that roamed the peaks of the Ogleddol expanse, and against those creatures, brawn counted for far more than almost anything else.

There hadn’t been an actual invasion of Hania since the collapse of the skycities. Why should there be? If someone wanted the fabled magical artefacts of the Hanians, they could easily find a fallen skycity and plunder it, rather than invade the lands of the last working one. And no doubt that had been done, although the truly inhospitable terrain and hidden valleys that had proven so useful to the Hanians in the past were no doubt still serving to keep most treasure seekers away.

Frustrated with everything, but perhaps herself most of all, Ira waved off the few trainees, sending them to get some food and water. Trainees… There were eight of them, six boys and two girls, and that was the entirety of this year’s guardsmen class. And four of them would be useless in a fight. No courage, no willingness to take a hit, and no hint of skill with a blade.

Sitting as she was, she could only hear the approaching footsteps.

“Another rough day, Ira?”

A glance up showed her Vendol, Senior Guardsman and what passed for the leader of the ragtag Hanian fighting force.

“Even in the year I joined, some of these would have been turned away.”

“Aye, I know. But we make do with what the gods have chosen to give us, not what we wish we could have. I could wish for the serried ranks of the Dark Havoc to rise once more, but that elite corps is consigned to the pages of history. And so we take gutter orphans and make them soldiers.”

“How? I always thought I was good at training, until I met this lot. The blacksmith’s boy will be the best of them, but that’s his father’s gifts, not mine. Several of the rest will be functional, and the bottom few little more than animal feed. Three of them against a single of the winter wolves would probably see them all killed. And when the news of that filters back, it will come to rest on my head.”

Vendol clasped her shoulder, turning Ira to face him. “No one else’s death is on your head unless you run them through. I’ve done my best over the years with the guards, but that doesn’t mean no one has died. If someone’s standing livestock duty alone, and an ice bear charges him down, unless he’s got Fasnachu’s own luck, he’s dead. Doesn’t matter if it’s you, me, or anyone else. Not one of us can manage an ice bear solo. And you’re selling yourself and the students short. They’ll turn out to be better than you think in the long run, and you’ll be the one who put them there. So smile and bear up, because the gods know we need every living soul who can.”

That drew a slightly pained grin from Ira, but a grin it was. “Fair enough, Ven. And while you’re here and in a good mood, do you mind if I take the kids down below? There’s been reports of some wolves harassing the outlying livestock pen, and I’d like to check it out.”

“Just remember to issue them real armour. Having any crippled this early on would set back the whole class.”

Ira nodded. “I understand. Was planning on bringing my homemade bow as a just in case.”

Vendol sighed. “That monstrosity? Fine. But if you break your back carrying that thing through the brush, it’s all on you.”

“Always is, chief.” Sketching a rather jaunty salute, Ira trotted off towards her home.

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