by Raven Blackmane
July 2, 707 CR.
Merai's eyes grew wide as she narrowly escaped being struck by a wooden sparring axe, rolling to one side and quickly regaining her feet. Her opponent, a massive black bear morph named Garulf whom she had come to respect a great deal in the last year, grinned as he let the weapon sink heavily into the padded surface of the sparring ring.
"Be careful with that thing!" she snarled, slashing out with her saber at the bear's left arm. He twisted so that the blow fell across his mail-covered ribcage.
"Don't worry, Lightbringer," he said, grinning as he raised his axe again. "I won't hurt you ... much." He swung the weapon in a level arc, aimed at Merai's midsection.
Merai saw the attack coming and leapt straight up into the air, divine power augmenting her natural feline athleticism. She pulled her legs up beneath her body, hurdling the axe, then brought her sword down hard with both hands against the side of Garulf's neck, eliciting a bellow of pain from her larger opponent. Landing lightly on her feet, Merai quickly stretched out her left hand again towards Garulf's face, summoning a light-spell that flashed suddenly and brilliantly before the bear's eyes.
"Ashes!" Garulf cursed, flinching away from the light. As he blinked, trying to banish the spots from his vision, Merai ducked behind him and drove the pommel of her sword hard into the back of his head. The loud thud was followed a moment later by a louder one, as Merai used a modified shield-spell to push her dizzied opponent unceremoniously out of the ring.
"Hold," commanded Jack, stepping up to the edge of the ring.
"Gladly," Garulf muttered, rubbing the back of his head.
Jack turned to Merai and crossed his arms, a satisfied look on his mulish face. "Well done, Merai," he said. "You're putting your training to good use, in all its aspects. Only take care not to depend too greatly on the gifts of the gods. The day may come when they choose not to help you, and then you will have to rely on your skills."
"Aye, sir," Merai said, bowing to the castellan. "Thank you, sir."
Jack walked over to the edge of the ring and looked down at Garulf. "As for you, Master Garulf," he said sternly, "you would do well to remember that some enemies fight with more than sword and shield. I suggest that you put more effort into studying battle magic and ways of countering it. If Merai here had truly meant you harm, that might have been a blast of flame directed at your backside and not merely a shove." He frowned. "And find yourself a good helmet! You haven't worn one since the Curse took you."
Garulf winced and nodded. "Aye, sir. I'll visit the armory today."
"Good man. Go on now and clean yourself up."
"Thank you, sir."
Jack turned his critical eye toward the other men and women awaiting their sparring matches. These combat evaluations were conducted regularly for the younger citizens of Metamor, to ensure that they were learning the combat skills they needed to defend the Keep. His eyes came to rest on Tessariel, who had been standing beside Merai before the priestess was called forward to fight.
"You there," he said, gesturing to the woman. "Step forward, please."
Tessa did so. She had come to the training hall today for her first combat evaluation, and she was dressed for battle -- though, to Merai, her choice of equipment was curious. She wore light leather armor designed to emphasize flexibility over protection: a sleeveless cuirass that stopped just below her ribcage, strap-on guards that fit over her shins and forearms, and a belt with hanging dags of hardened leather to shield her groin and backside. Strapped across her back were two scabbards that held a pair of small, light swords that she had brought with her from Aelfwood. Her shoes were soft, flexible, and unlikely to provide much protection from an enemy blade. Underneath her armor she wore a simple grey tunic and shorts, leaving much of her lightly-tanned skin exposed. Around her neck she wore a small wooden twin-cross, the mark of the Lothanasi. Her dark eyes gazed questioningly at the castellan.
"What's your name, miss?" Jack asked.
"Tell me, Tessa -- do you plan to go into battle dressed like that?"
Merai saw the half-Elf bristle. "It is how I was trained, sir."
"Where are you from?"
"East," Tessa said firmly, her eyes hardening just a bit.
"And how long did you receive this training?"
"I began when I was eight years old."
"And you are ... what? Fifteen? Sixteen?"
Jack raised an eyebrow. "You look a bit young for a woman of twenty-two."
"I was a flower late to bloom," Tessa retorted, dark eyes flashing. "Sir, do you wish me to display my abilities or not?"
Merai felt an uneasy sensation rise in her stomach as the castellan locked eyes with the Lightbringer initiate. For a moment she was afraid that Tessa would be punished for insubordination.
But only for a moment. Though his gaze remained steady, Jack stepped aside, spreading his hands. "Very well," he said. "We'll see what you can do. James?"
A tall and imposing wolf morph stepped up into the ring. He was dressed in studded leather armor with a steel breastplate and an open-faced helmet. A longsword hung in a scabbard at his hip and he carried a round shield on his left arm. "Aye, sir?"
"Please put Miss Tessa through her paces."
Tessa stepped forward, drawing both swords in one smooth motion and bringing them up to a ready position.
"Hold," Jack said, putting up a hand. He turned a serious gaze toward the woman. "Are those practice blades?"
"Then bate them, if you can. If not, you'll have to use a different weapon."
"I can, sir. One moment."
Replacing one of her swords in its sheath, Tessa then removed two strips of leather from a pouch on her belt. Each one had a slit down its center and small leather straps at either end. The half-Elf fitted the blade of her first sword into the slit and fastened the straps, thus covering the weapon's entire cutting edge with leather. She then quickly did the same to her other sword. Bringing the blades up again, she took a few practice swings, then turned to the castellan.
"Ready," she said.
"Very well," said Jack. "Begin."
The wolf-man James raised his sword and shield and assumed a cautious battle posture. On the opposite side of the ring, Tessa flipped her left sword around into a "blade-back" position and extended her left arm in front of her, the blade jutting out to the left with its cutting edge facing outward. At the same time she raised her right arm so that the second blade was above her head, while her left foot came forward so that her body was turned to the right. She stayed in that position for a moment, but when James remained where he was, she began to move.
In that moment, though, Merai would have found it difficult to say that Tessa was actually moving _forward:_ she took broad, sweeping steps that seemed to move toward the wolf's left, then bob, turn, move back towards his right, then change direction again only moments later, always moving towards him little by little as she did so. All of this shifting, weaving motion was perfectly fluid, like the writhing of a snake, but it was very difficult for the eye to follow and even more difficult to predict. Merai found herself several times expecting the half-Elf to move one direction, only to see her a moment later in another place entirely.
All the while that this was going on, Tessa was moving her arms as well, sweeping them this way and that in broad, artful patterns. The flashing of the steel blades created an almost mesmerizing effect, making it even more difficult for Merai to follow Tessa's movements. All told, it looked more like a dance than a fighting style.
James, apparently having had enough of Tessa's artistry, moved to attack, bringing his shield up and striking out with his longsword in a few quick, careful slashes. From Merai's perspective it looked like he had the openings he was looking for -- but each time he swung, one of Tessa's swords would inexplicably appear to counter it. Her smooth, artful movements never faltered as she danced all around the wolf, blocking his attacks without any apparent effort. James slashed at her at least a dozen times, from several different angles, but never even came close to scoring a hit.
James' attack faltered, as the wolf apparently decided how to deal with this strange opponent -- and then Tessa moved to the offensive. There was no disruption to her dance, but the blades she had been swinging in defense now subtly shifted to assault. Swords struck at James' arms, legs, neck, sword, and back, seeking out joints in the armor and other vulnerable spots with blows that seemed elegant, precise and deceptively slow. James tried to block the attacks, but most of the time his sword or shield ended up in a place entirely different from where Tessa's blade struck. None of the half-Elf's blows were particularly powerful, but had her swords been unbated she would have been systematically cutting the wolf's armor to shreds.
Snarling, James upped the intensity of the battle. Sweeping his shield out in a broad arc, he forced Tessa to leap back. She landed gracefully, glaring at him with obvious irritation, but the rhythm of attack and defense that she had established was gone. The warrior pressed his attack, rushing forward and swinging his shield again. Tessa rolled off to his right and leapt up to her feet again, lashing out with a kick to James' sword hand before he had even finished his shield bash. The kick was well-placed, and James visibly had to fight to keep from dropping his weapon. In that moment's pause in the wolf's attack Tessa spun around his body to his left side, quickly trapped his shield arm under her wrists, and drove her knee up hard into the middle of his forearm.
There was a loud crack, and James cried out in pain as he dropped both sword and shield.
"Hold!" Jack shouted, sounding angry.
Tessa paid him no heed, turning to face the crowd. Her face showed no sign of concern, only a cool determination. "Merai! Come quickly!" she called, her voice as even as her expression.
Merai did so, leaping up into the ring and running over to kneel at James' side. Placing her hands on his arm, she felt around for the break. It seemed clean, and with one sharp motion she reset the bones in place, earning a scream from the poor wolf-man. That done, she reached out with the Light Healing. Her mind spun down, to the left, and in, and there before her were the two cleanly snapped bones, now properly aligned. Directing her power into the gaps, she willed the bones to fuse and become whole again. After directing a little additional energy into healing the surrounding tissues, she spun back up and out and snapped back into her own body. James was kneeling there before her, breathing heavily and looking down at his arm with a slightly perplexed expression.
"That should do it," she said, getting to her feet. Surprisingly, she did not feel at all drained by the healing, even though her own fight had only ended a short time ago. "I would suggest that you be careful with it for the next few days, Master James. Avoid using your arm for anything too serious."
Dumbly, the wolf nodded.
Looking up, Merai saw that Tessa and Jack were engaged in another staring match. The half-Elf woman stood there confidently, swords clenched in her fists at her sides. Jack had his arms crossed and gazed at her fixedly, his face betraying nothing. For a long moment silence hung in the training hall.
It was Jack who finally spoke. "James," he said, though he kept his eyes fixed on Tessa. "Go have the healers examine you."
"Aye, sir." James turned and headed for the door.
"Tessa. Merai. You're dismissed for now. I want to see you in my office at sundown."
"Aye, Master DeMule, sir," Merai said, bowing.
"I'll be there," Tessa said, her gaze steady.
The hint of a scowl crossed Jack's face. "Dismissed."
The half-Elf nodded once, sharply, then turned, sheathed her swords, and strode toward the exit. The crowd parted as she approached. Quietly, Merai followed after her.
"... There. That should do it. Try this."
Raven took the piece of parchment offered to her and peered at the markings on it. Her eyebrows went up. "A diminished ninth?" she asked dubiously.
"It will work, trust me," Wanderer insisted, picking up his own sheet and holding it close to his face. "Start from the beginning of the last line."
Raven shrugged and sighed. "All right..." Balancing the music sheet on her knees, she placed her hands on the strings of the lute and began strumming out the chords, as Wanderer sang along in his rich baritone voice:
"... All things wild and beautiful love Thee..." He paused and held up a hand, as the diminished ninth chord hung in the air for a moment. Then, lowering his hand, he finished, "Queen of the woodlands, Queen of the heights!"
The strings fell silent, and the bard looked over at Raven with a smug expression. "I told you it would work," he said.
Raven chuckled. "Very well, I confess it, you were right," she said, setting the lute on the bed beside her. "So are we finished, then?"
"For now. I still have to compose the other verses, of course, but that should go quickly now that we have divined the proper melody. I only wish I'd had it ready for Artela'kema."
"I only wish I'd been _here_ for Artela'kema," Raven sighed. "Byron handled it capably enough, from what I hear, but I still dislike being absent from the Keep for so long, even if it is for the gods' work." She looked up and rose to her feet, giving him a small smile. "But come, let's not think of that right now. Are you hungry?"
"Dearest Karenna, I have been in here working since daybreak. I am quite sure I could eat a galumph."
"If it didn't eat you first," Raven quipped. "Come on, then. I've prepared a basket for us -- we can have dinner on the roof of the Keep and watch the sun set." As she spoke she retrieved the basket from its place by the door, holding it up for Wanderer's inspection.
The bard smiled broadly. "My dear lady," he said, "that sounds positively enchanting." Joining hands, they walked out of Wanderer's room and off toward the stairs that led to the rooftop.
Outside the training hall Merai hurried to catch up to Tessa, who was stalking back toward the gates of the Inner Keep. The feline woman fell into step beside her companion quietly, casting a sidelong glance at her as she did so. The half-Elf's dark eyes were hard with suppressed anger, and stared straight ahead as she walked down the streets of the town. Merai debated internally with herself about whether it would be best to say something or hold her tongue. Eventually, she decided on the former.
"That was amazing, Tessa," she murmured.
Tessa slid her eyes over toward Merai, then turned her gaze back to the path before her. "I appreciate the compliment," she said, with that cool, polite tone she used when she was doing her best to conceal her emotions. "I don't deserve it, though."
Merai shook her head. "Don't blame yourself for his arm. People make mistakes, accidents happen--"
"I'm not talking about his arm," Tessa snarled, cutting her off with a glare. An instant later a look of what seemed like surprise crossed her face, and she looked away again, blushing slightly. "I'm talking about myself," she said, her voice quieter. "I lost the Cadence."
Merai frowned. "What's the Cadence?" she asked, puzzled. "And what in the name of Dokorath was that fighting style you were using, anyway?"
"The style is called Megilir, the Bladesong. The Cadence is the rhythmic pattern of thought and motion that governs it. When the wolf came at me with his shield, it surprised me, and I lost that pattern. I failed."
"As failures go, I've seen less impressive victories," Merai said, suppressing a smirk. "I didn't know you were such a skilled fighter."
Tessa shrugged fractionally. "Elves revere the sword, almost as much as they do the bow. When you've spent the last thousand years slowly having your land chipped away it teaches you to learn to defend yourself. Everyone in Quenardya learns the Megilir, even the half-Elves and humans -- though our attempts are usually mediocre, at best," she muttered.
Merai let out an exasperated sigh. "Gods, Tessa, why are you being so hard on yourself? Elves have _centuries_ to hone their talents. Why would you even try to compare yourself to that, when you've trained for only fourteen years?"
The half-Elf stopped suddenly and turned on her, eyes flashing. "Because _they_ are a standard worth reaching for, Merai!" she said fiercely, leaning into the priestess's face and clenching a fist. "I have seen too many humans who settled for lives filled with nothing but mediocrity! They spend their days chained to a rigid schedule of tasks and duties. The farmer in his field, the smith in his forge, the cobbler in his shop, even the footman in the army -- all of them are resigned to simply fill their hours, doing what is expected of them and not a pixie's hair more! They have no love for what they are doing, so they put no love into what they do. They have no fire, no passion -- and so nothing that they do ever lasts." She paused and straightened, and when she spoke next her voice was calmer. "The Elves don't live like that -- their spirits are too free. They do many things in their long lives, but everything they do is done with love, with a concern for beauty and excellence. There is no task so menial that it cannot be done passionately -- and if there is, it isn't worth doing. That's why I strive for perfection, Merai. Settling for mediocrity is a human failing -- and I will _not_ let myself fall into it." She turned and continued walking.
"You're still a prisoner," Merai murmured.
Tessa stopped and looked back, frowning. "What do you mean?"
Merai shrugged. "You're condemning yourself for failing to do something perfectly. Perfection is a wonderful thing to reach for, but humans can never achieve it." She smirked. "I'd wager the same is true of half-Elves. If you make yourself a slave to it, you'll spend your whole life feeling frustrated and unfulfilled."
"So does the human who spends his life on soulless drudgery."
"But you can acknowledge your limitations without settling for mediocrity," Merai countered. "You can aim for perfection without punishing yourself when you fall short of the mark. A painter goes through life without ever creating a perfect painting, but most painters don't feel like failures because of that. They only hope to be closer to the mark than they were on their last attempt." She smiled. "Consistent improvement is accomplishment enough for our short lives, don't you think?"
Tessa's expression had become distant and thoughtful. "Perhaps," she admitted, after a pause. "I'll have to think on that."
"Fair enough," Merai said. "In the meantime, could we perhaps go have dinner?" She grinned. "That, I assure you, is something I can do with excellence!"
Tessa laughed, her eyes sparkling with the life that they showed on her better days. "Fair enough," she agreed. Without another word, they turned and walked together back toward the castle.
"... by then, unfortunately, there was no dissuading her. The Countess dragged yet another poesy out of me, this one based on her name. I had only just finished when Thalberg dragged me away behind the arras. I'm sure he would have put those remarkable jaws of his to more than berating me, an he could have explained the blood-stain on the carpet."
Raven laughed, shaking her head. "Oh, gods," she said, taking a sip of the wine they'd brought with them to the roof. "You certainly have a knack for putting yourself in trouble's way, Charles."
"What sort of bard would I be if I didn't?" he asked, his eyes twinkling. "At any rate, the Countess was quite disappointed when I returned to tell her the Duke had bated my tongue. We talked for a short time, and then she asked me to dance with her." He smirked. "I imagine it was as much to escape her attendants as for any other reason."
"Mmm." Raven smiled knowingly, leaning back on her elbows. Beyond the towers of the ducal palace the sun was setting over the mountains, painting the sky in brilliant shades of red and gold. A warm breeze was blowing up through the valley from the south, rustling her hair as it passed over the Keep. It was on its way to being a beautiful evening.
"Do you remember the last time _we_ danced together?" Raven asked.
Wanderer's face grew contemplative. " 'Twas some time ago," he said at length, frowning slightly. "Christopher still had the use of his legs -- I remember him holding my lute for me when we went out onto the round. It was a state dinner of some sort ... the Duke's birthday, mayhap?"
"Aye, two years ago," Raven agreed.
"Two years? Gods, has it been so long?" Wanderer murmured, half to himself.
"Far too long," Raven said. Setting aside her glass, she rose to her feet and began placing the remains of their meal back in her basket.
"Is the meal over, then?" Wanderer asked, looking up at her with barely veiled disappointment.
"The meal, aye. The evening, however, is just beginning." Setting the basket in one corner of the rooftop, Raven walked over to the door that led inside. She rapped on it twice, and it opened to reveal a procession of five acolytes carrying lutes and woodwinds of various kinds. The Lothanasa directed them to a spot some distance away from where Wanderer still sat, then walked back to him with a smile on her face.
"As I said, it has been too long," she said, offering him her hand. "Dance with me, Charles."
Slowly a grin spread across the bard's face. "As you wish, my lady."
The acolytes raised their instruments and began to play, a bright and cheerful tune with an upbeat tempo. Raven was wearing a simple tunic and breeches, having taken the day off from priestly duties to spend with Wanderer, so she didn't have to worry about being entangled in the folds of her robe. She and Charles stood facing each other for a moment, letting themselves grow accustomed to the rhythm, then started into a lively folk dance that was often called the Pixie's Folly. It had been a long time since Raven had participated in the dance, and a few times they ended up running into each other when she spun or side-stepped in the wrong direction. They both laughed good-naturedly at the collisions, neither one of them concerned any longer with keeping up appearances in the other's presence. After the third such incident Wanderer grabbed her waist from behind and drew himself up close to her back, eliciting a squeal and a giggle from the surprised Raven.
"Methinks I shall be safer back here," he joked.
"Perhaps so," Raven replied, turning around to wrap her own arms around his neck. "But there's more fun to be had facing this way," she added with a sly smile, then kissed him.
After they ended the kiss they remained in a close embrace, and the acolytes shifted to a slower song with a smooth, flowing tempo. Raven and Wanderer naturally moved in time with the music, swaying back and forth as they danced in simple circular patterns around the rooftop.
Raven soon lost track of time. They moved from one song to another, one dance to another, the tempo shifting up and then down again, as the sun passed behind the mountains and night fell on the valley. The moon shone bright and full that night, painting the countryside in lovely shades of silver and blue, but Raven's attention was focused solely on Charles and the music that bound them together. The last dance finally came to an end, the music fading into silence, and they were left standing in a warm, tender embrace. Raven heard the acolytes quietly file back into the Keep, shutting the door gently behind them.
"Thank you," Charles said, his voice soft, as if he were afraid to break the moment with his words.
"You're welcome," Raven whispered. With her chin resting on his shoulder, her head nestled against his, Raven looked up at the towers to the west. In one of the nearer ones she saw a lamp burning ... and for a moment she thought that she could see someone standing behind it.
"Charles?" she said softly.
"I ... think we'd best be going. Before we let our bodies begin to make our decisions for us."
There was a moment's pause, and then a chuckle. "I think that would be a wise idea," he agreed.
Disengaging from their embrace, the two shared one last brief kiss. "I shall walk you back to the temple," he said, taking her hand. "I imagine someone shall be waiting up for you."
"Well, I wouldn't want Merai to worry," Raven said, smiling. "Lead the way, darling."
Merai and Tessa stood before Jack's desk, where the burly mule-morph sat gazing at them with those stern, level eyes of his. For a long moment he said nothing.
"Coe says that James' arm should finish healing without any trouble," he said at last, steepling his fingers before him. "Merai did a fine job of fusing the bone, or so he tells me. There should be no long-term complications." His eyes shifted to focus more fully on Tessa. "But that doesn't excuse you from responsibility for your actions. I don't take too kindly to people breaking each other's arms in the ring, Tessa. We call it sparring for a reason."
Tessa raised an eyebrow. "Sir, by that time I had already scored half a dozen serious blows with my swords, and you still had not called the match in my favor. I saw an opportunity to end the match, so I took it."
Jack smiled slightly, a small twist in the corner of his lip. "I can respect that," he said. "I always encourage woman fighters to seize the opportunities they find. But you could have made the point without breaking his arm." He leaned back in his chair. "You're right, though. I let the match go on after you reasonably should have won -- but I did so in order to test your limits. You're new to this part of the world, Tessa, and there's a lot you probably don't know yet. There are creatures in the Giantdowns that could take twice the punishment you inflicted on James and still keep fighting. As a Keeper, you'll have to prove that you can stand against those sorts of enemies and still hold your own."
Tessa nodded, the defiance draining from her expression and posture. "I understand, sir."
"I thought you might," he said. "You commended yourself well today. You're obviously not the novice I thought you were. That style of yours is bloody odd, but clearly effective." He smiled grimly. "But don't think that makes you an expert. There are at least two dozen warriors in this Keep that could see through that dancing of yours in five minutes and find a way to cut you to ribbons. You're good, kid -- damned good. But you're no master. Don't fool yourself into thinking you have nothing left to learn."
The half-Elf gave him a wry smile. "Believe me, sir, that is the furthest thing from my mind," she said. "Most masters of my style spend far longer studying it than I have." She paused, and her expression turned serious. "Sir, I realize I was a bit ... confrontational earlier. I felt like I had to prove the validity of my training, and I became angry when I failed to perform to my own expectations. I'm sorry if that anger led me into poor conduct." She smiled apologetically. "I am more than willing to learn, sir. I ask only that I be treated with respect."
Jack gave her a small smile. "Around here respect is earned, Tessa," he said. "You've earned a good piece of it today, in my book. Just don't get lazy."
Tessa bowed. "Never, sir."
The castellan dismissed them, and Merai and Tessa walked out of the office and began heading back toward the temple. It was getting late, and Merai still had to perform the evening sacrifice.
"So, Tessa, is this going to be the last clash between you and Master DeMule?" Merai asked casually.
Tessa smirked. "Oh, I doubt that very much," she said. "He's stubborn, and so am I. I don't doubt we'll have our share of disagreements. Still, I've seen at least one thing I like about him."
The half-Elf nodded. "Aye. He strives for excellence -- both in himself and in his students." She shot Merai a sidelong glance and grinned mischievously. "Maybe there's hope for your species, after all."
Tessa ducked Merai's swat and started running.