Aaron wished he could defeat his younger brother, Tomas this one time and prove to everyone that he was as good as him. He shifted his feet in the muddy, snow-patched practice field behind the main building on the campus of the Dietfreid Academy. The sun winked between the gray clouds as winter and spring dueled. Aaron lost count of how many times he had faced Tomas on this very field and lost. He looked at his brother, standing there primping himself as if it was a foregone conclusion that he would defeat Aaron in this challenge. Aaron inhaled. Memories from a similar day, two years previous, came flooding back. He and Tomas stood on another training field, closer to the village of Jena, a kingdom outpost and their home. Once every six months members of the faculty at the Academy traveled to the villages and tested the young people who had reached or would soon reach the age of thirteen and recruit them for the Academy. This was Aaron, Tomas and Ciara’s year for testing.
Winter had yet to release its hold on the land and they stood shivering in the biting wind. Ciara passed her tests easily and now it was the boy’s turn. His stomach knotted.
“Out of my way, you oaf.”Tomas ran past and pushed Aaron to the ground so he could get to the field first. Aaron rose to his feet and chased Tomas only to slip on an icy patch. His hands shook and his stomach rolled as he stood and walked onto the field. Scanning the people on the benches, he had found his Mama, Poppa, Ciara and most of the twenty or so townspeople of Jena. King Joachim had sat among the royal guard watching the entrants with a keen eye as was his custom during the academy tests, and nearby, several instructors from Dietfreid had seemed to note every slip and fall he made.
Aaron and Tomas had raised their swords and bowed. The adjudicator nodded for them to begin. In spite of the cold, Aaron’s sword had slipped from his sweaty hands and clanged on the frozen ground. He had felt everyone’s eyes boring a hole in his back as he bent to pick it up.
After that Aaron remembered very little. It was all a swirl of Tomas’s sword and Aaron backing up and raising his sword and hands to defend himself. He had spun away and Tomas smacked him on the back with the flat of his sword. He tried to run and Tomas had grabbed a hold of his chain mail vest and spun him around only to lift his sword to Aaron’s throat. Aaron had fallen to his knees and Tomas had stood over him, sword pointed at Aaron’s heart. If they had been in a battle Aaron would have been dead. He had thrown up all over Tomas’s sword and boots.
Aaron had failed, Tomas would go to the Academy and Aaron would wait six months. His younger brother had shamed him yet again.
Tomas rushed Aaron. “Quit dreaming,”
Aaron lunged at the oncoming Tomas. He focused on Tomas’s chest and swung his sword in a wide arc. Aaron, facing the western gate of the field, caught the reflection in his eye as it flashed off Tomas’s sword. Aaron’s foot slipped in the melting snow and he fell to his knees. Tomas dove out of the way as the sword just missed his ear.
Catching his breath, Tomas laughed. “You almost got me.”
Aaron planted his sword in the mushy soil and stood. “I’ll c…c…catch you one of these d…d…days.” Turning, he pulled his training sword out of the mud and handed it to his friend Gorou in exchange for a towel and his cape. He wrapped the cape around his shoulders and wiped the sweat from his face.
Aaron watched as Gorou hobbled over to the equipment storage room and grabbed an oil skin from the wooden shelf. He dribbled a little oil on the blade and with a cloth cleaned the sword before putting the sword and the cloth in the weapons cabinet.
Tomas wiped his own weapon and put it in his scabbard. “You’re still slow at the beginning. Cut a few seconds off there and you’ll have me. Of course you have to stay on your feet too.” He threw a cape over his shoulders and walked to the viewing stands. “You’ll do fine on the tests. However, you might want to say a prayer or two to Asha to ensure that you’re apprenticed to someone who’s faster than you so you don’t get killed.”
Aaron looked at Ciara, Tomas’s twin sister, who sat on the wooden benches that lined the field studying her weaponry manual. She glanced at Aaron, closed her eyes, while rubbing her temples. “I’ll be happy when this testing’s over and we know if we can move on. I can’t stand all the tension. It’s giving me headaches.”
Gorou reached into the purse hanging at his waist and pulled out a small vial. “Here, rub some of this peppermint oil on your temples. It will help to relieve those.” Aaron winced as he watched her rub it on. If only she didn’t study so hard. She was already so smart, but kept pushing herself. It was as if she had to prove something to someone, but Aaron didn’t know who that would be.
Tomas straightened his cape. “Maybe you should get your nose out of those books and go riding with us. That would get rid of your headache.”
Aaron shoved Tomas. “Why can’t you leave her alone?”
Tomas jostled Aaron. Ciara scowled at them and said, “If you boys spent less time riding and more time studying you wouldn’t have any worries. “
Tomas turned toward the equipment room. “Whatever you say, Red, we’re going riding.”
Ciara pushed her jumble of red hair away from her face, hiked her skirt above her knees, leaped over the rail to land in front of her brothers. She charged Tomas and pushed him. “Riding won’t be on the exams, but doctrines will. In fact they’ll be a big part of the written test.”
“How do you know that?” Aaron paced in front of Ciara. “Did you tap into Old Man Gerkin’s mind and see the test? Are you a mind-reader or something?”
Tomas gave Ciara a little shove. “Or something would be my guess.”
Ciara rolled her eyes in frustration. “Don’t you listen at his lectures? He tells us exactly what will be on the exams. No mind reading necessary. Just studying and listening.”
Aaron stopped and ran his hand through his long brown hair. “Maybe she’s right. I think I’ll go study.” Aaron signaled to Gorou to follow. Gorou nodded and joined the trio.
Tomas shrugged. “Go ahead, I should have figured you would let a girl tell you what to do. You’re such a poltroon.”
Aaron turned to hit Tomas, but Gorou stepped between and with a growl knocked Tomas to the ground and into a huge puddle of slush. He straddled Tomas, “Don’t talk about Aaron that way, he’s my friend.”
Aaron and Ciara stepped back suppressing giggles. Tomas kicked Gorou’s injured leg. Gorou leapt out of the way, yelping with pain before he could be kicked again.
Tomas stood and tried to wipe the mud and snow off of his lanky frame. Failing that he smoothed his once perfectly groomed blonde hair. “A cripple and a stuttering infant, what would you know about friends? I’ve had enough of this, I’m leaving.” He stomped through the gate and slammed it behind him. His left foot landed in a puddle and splashed mud and water on his pant leg and boot. Aaron, Gorou and Ciara burst into raucous laughter at his retreating back. He glared one more time, and then entered the stable.
Aaron opened the gate and waved for Gorou and Ciara to follow. “Come on. Let’s get to the library.”
Ciara caught up with them. “Don’t mind Tomas. He’s in love.”
“Do tell. Who’s the unlucky girl, the goofy one in the stables?” Gorou giggled. “She’s the only one who will look at him.”
“Gorou, don’t say things like that,” Ciara said. “Her name’s Enit and she lives on the Adept campus.”
“Oh, she’s one of them. Aren’t the girls over here good enough for him?” Aaron grunted with disgust.
“Hey, be kind.” Ciara shook her head and sighed. “I don’t exactly see you hanging out with any of the girls around here either.”
“I don’t have time for girls,” Aaron said. “Besides, they’re a nuisance. Give me a good horse and a mission to accomplish and I’m in the Final Resting Place.”
“If we don’t get on with studying, you‘ll never get the mission, the horse, or the girl,” Ciara said.
Later that night darkness engulfed the cramped room Aaron shared with Tomas and Gorou. Aaron lay on his back in an attempt to sleep. When that didn’t work, he flipped to his stomach. The blankets twisted around him while he wrestled with the two pillows. Finally, he tossed one to the floor and straightened the blanket. Nothing worked, so he started all over again.
“Stop moving and get to sleep,” Tomas roared from across the room.
“I can’t, I’m too nervous.” Aaron picked up a pillow and pounded it back into shape. Tomas jumped out of his bed and stormed out of the room slamming the door behind him.
Aaron flipped over and faced the wall. He couldn’t stop thinking about the test. I’m not ready. Tomas is much better at sword fighting than I am.
In fact, he’s better at everything. The only reason I’m here is because Tomas and Ciara are my siblings. Otherwise, I‘d be working on Father’s farm for the King. Aaron shivered with doubt as he stood and paced the small room.
Not that I’m terrible, but Tomas is better. He reminds me every chance he gets and he’s cruel when he does it. What he did this afternoon was unnecessary. Gorou doesn’t deserve to be teased that way. No one does. It’s all right for Tomas to call me names; after all, we’re brothers. Gorou can’t help that one of his legs is shorter than the other. Tomas should be more understanding. Aaron stopped his pacing and punched the wall angrily then resumed pacing.
How can Tomas and Ciara be twins? She’s so different from him, so compassionate and understanding, nothing like Tomas. Aaron sat down on his cot and rubbed his throbbing knuckles. He felt his eyes drooping and lay his head down on the pillow. Soon he fell into a fitful sleep assaulted by nightmarish dreams disturbing the respite sleep usually provided.
Two infants, a boy and a girl, sleep in their cradles in the palace nursery. A nursemaid sits in a rocking chair watching the infants. A dark figure walks into the room. He waves his hand. “Sleep, the sleep of the dead.”
The nursemaid falls to the floor in a lifeless lump. The stranger creeps over to the boy’s cradle and picks him up. “Hello, my innocent nephew. I’m your Uncle Brandan. You and I are going on a journey.”
As Brandan left the room carrying the infant a black mist materialized in the passageway. The mist parted and a wispy wraith floated out.
Brandan bowed. “Sidramah, I have done as you asked. I have taken the boy child. What shall I do with him, my Lord?”
The skeletal visage of Sidramah floated over to the cradles. “Take him to the Ndor Forest. There you’ll find a childless couple. Place the child underneath a tree. They’ll find him and think he’s their own. They’ll have no memory of finding him and will raise him until he comes of age.”
“And then, Master?”
Sidramah floated back to the mist. “When he’s old enough you’ll kidnap him again and train him in my dark ways. He’ll be your heir. He’s destined to be a mighty wizard.” With that, Sidramah, the wraith, was enveloped by the mist and disappeared.
Aaron woke up. Sweat bathed his body. What did the dream mean and who was the dark man? What would Sidramah want with an infant? He sat up and looked around the darkened room. “You’re just nervous about the tests. Go back to sleep, silly.”
Over the next few days, the grounds were quiet and the students restrained. Aaron and Tomas stood outside the arena. Ciara was on the field, finishing her test.
Aaron paced and fingered his sword handle while they waited. “Tomas, do you think anyone would notice if I just disappeared?”
“Stop acting like such a pidgekin Aaron. I’m tired of your whining. It‘ll be great to get out of here and away from you and Gorou. You two give me a headache.” Tomas stepped in front of Aaron and took the sword out of his hands. “Quit playing with your sword. You’ll get it all greasy and lose points for not taking care of your weapons.”
A tall, brawny man with a pointed nose and close-set eyes stepped through the gate to the practice field.
Tomas and Aaron saw him and bowed. “Master Gerkin.”
Master Gerkin returned the bow. “Aaron, it’s your turn. Get in here.”
“Yes, master, right away.” He grabbed his sword from Tomas and followed the instructor as Ciara came off the field. She gave Aaron a hug as she passed him.
“Good luck, I’m sure you’ll do well. This is a piece of heatherkin cake.”
Aaron wanted to stay and hold her. But instead, he released her and headed for the gate with slow, dragging steps. “Thanks, I’ll see you when I’m finished,” Aaron said to Ciara. This is it. After today I’ll no longer be a student. It’s either farming or knighthood apprenticeship for me.
With the exception of several instructors and the Sword Master the arena stood empty. They all sat on low benches beside the field. Master Gerkin stood next to Bryan, the sword partner and signaled Aaron to begin. Aaron assumed the opening stance as his short, stocky opponent did the same. Master Gerkin stepped from between them and nodded. “Bryan, you know what to do.”
Once the master stepped out of the way, Aaron lunged at Bryan. Bryan deflected a blow from Aaron’s swinging sword and nicked Aaron on the elbow before Aaron got out of his way. Another lunge and Aaron’s blade met his opponent’s right shoulder. Jerking out of the way, the boy pulled a knife with his left hand and swung, striking Aaron on his right hip. Aaron fell, rolled away and jumped to his feet. Bryan followed and lunged. Aaron raised his sword and struck the partner on the center of his chest scoring a point.
Out of the corner of his eye, Aaron observed the Sword master nodding in approval. When his attention returned to the practice field Bryan was rushing toward him. With a quick adjustment in his stance Aaron prepared for the attack.
Bryan danced around him and Aaron looked for a weakness. He saw it, when Bryan moved to the left he dropped his sword arm. The next time Bryan shifted left, Aaron lunged and struck him. A victory blow. Bryan laid down his sword in defeat and Aaron bowed to him and then to the Sword master.
Aaron stood upright just as another partner came running out of the equipment room. The new opponent stopped and swung his sword at Aaron, striking a glancing blow off of Aaron’s shoulder.
I didn’t realize they would send in a second attacker and Jared, no less. He’s one of the best senior partners. That was pretty dumb. Master Gerkin warned us to be prepared for anything. I shouldn’t have been so positive it was over.
Jared rushed him. This time Aaron was ready. He dropped to his knee and struck him in the abdomen with a blow that if not for the blunted training sword would have killed the opponent. Jared fell to the ground as if dead and Aaron dropped his arm in shock at what he had done. Where did that come from?
His head felt as if someone had struck him with a wooden mallet and a black shroud covered his eyes. Dropping his sword he fell to his knees. He heard Master Gerkin’s voice, but it seemed far away. Then a, booming voice overshadowed the master’s voice. “You have done well, you are ready. SOON.”
The inky darkness lifted as the pain subsided. Aaron saw Master Gerkin return his sword and help him stand. “Are you alright, Aaron? Should I call a healer?”
Aaron shook his head. “No, thank you, Master, I’m fine. How is Jared?”
“No worries, he’s unhurt.”
Aaron scanned the arena for more attackers and seeing none wiped his sword and replaced it in his scabbard. He offered a hand to Jared on the ground to help him stand. Aaron bowed to his opponent. “Well fought, I never expected you.”
The boy returned the bow. “Thank you.” He turned and left the field.
Aaron turned and bowed to the instructors as a gesture of respect.
“Good, Aaron, you may go now.” The Sword master returned the bow.
Aaron turned and left the arena. As soon as he got through the gate, he slumped against the wall and sighed with relief. The results were now in the hands of Asha.