The next morning was a blur. We woke at least two hours before dawn with Friss squatting quietly in front of the hearth, stoking the waning embers back to life. Serena was cool, collected and looked perfectly refreshed, while Tara and I both grumbled heavily when she pulled the blankets away from us. My usual morning ritual was replaced with splashing my face from a bucket of cold water and forcibly dragging my fingers through my unruly hair. Serena led me to a chair and attacked my head mercilessly with a brush, braiding my hair tight enough to sting. Breakfast consisted of the same stew as last night. I wasn’t hungry, but I sat at Serena’s scowl. “We waste nothing and we won’t be stopping until it’s too dark to walk.”
I nodded and swallowed, grimly shoveling down the two bowls she threatened to force feed me. The others began a final sweep of the house and area, obliterating the traces of our presence. I started cleaning our dishes, making certain to claim a wooden bowl and mug from the smith’s cupboard, along with utensils, and stuff them into my pack. I also grabbed a small copper cook pot, a long wooden spoon, the smithy’s supply of coffee, and a bar of soap, packing everything carefully so it wouldn’t make any noise as I moved. Jason returned from his canvas of the area as I pulled the drawstring on the pack closed. There was a smile in his voice. “You can’t hang your sword like that.”
“What? Why not?”
He stepped forward and grabbed my belt, tugging hard. The heavy saber swung forward, almost punching me in the belly. “If you tie it like that, it’ll not only swing too much, but it’ll bind if you have to draw it quick.” He tugged the leather ties free, resettling the sword on my hip and tying it in place. “Hang it like this.”
I smiled as he whispered. “If you can, see me in the morning before Friss sees you and I’ll check it.” He winked at me. “Trust me, you do not want him to catch you doing it wrong.”
Gathering outside the smithy, the others waited as I walked around the building, shivering in the morning mist and saying a final goodbye to everything I was leaving behind. The sky was still black as pitch, but I used what little light there was to double and triple check my bag, standing to heave it onto my shoulders. Friss’ massive hand caught the bag halfway up, easily slinging it over his shoulder and pointing at his. “Your training begins now.” He said, his voice soft. “Your first lesson: Balance and strength are the same.”
Jason gave me a sympathetic look and moved off with the others. Friss’ pack weighed almost as much as I did. I couldn’t even heave it onto my shoulder without help. The weight inside kept shifting, sliding out of balance with the slightest movement. My first few steps were halted stumbles as I tried to adjust, scowling at Friss. He just smiled and pointed, motioning me to walk. I stumbled forward, forced to stop every few steps and let the weight settle.
The other Landsmen were already disappearing in the darkness in front of me. I stopped moving waiting for the shifting weight to settle, but Friss dropped his hand on my shoulder and shoved, sending me spinning into the ground again. I scowled and grit my teeth, dragging myself to my feet with his help. He gave me a challenging smile and looked away, moving easily alongside me.
I breathed deeply and swallowed the string of curses threatening to bubble free. Jason walked in front of me, easing his way forward with a steady, casual glide. He looked like he were striding at ease through a field, rather than hiking wooded trails in the near dark in pursuit of bandits. He paused a moment to resettle his pack. He glanced back at me from the corner of his eye, slipping his leg forward with exaggerated care. My eyes widened and I smiled my thanks, watching the others. Serena had the same ease to her walk, her hips rolling beneath her, her shoulders steady. I swallowed hard, raising my head and holding my back straight, rolling my hips beneath me. The first few attempts were disastrous, but each time I tried I got it more under control and by the time the sky started to lighten into an ugly gray, I was keeping pace.
An hour later it started raining. An hour after that we took a short break while Serena scoured the road ahead for signs of the trail. Friss handed me a long heavy stick while we waited, using it to teach me the proper way to hold a sword and six movements. Three blocks, two cuts, and a thrust. We practiced the movements until it was time to begin walking again and Friss actually laughed when I tried to put the stick down. “True understanding only comes from practice. You’ll practice those movements on the march as well. You stop when I say you stop.”
I practiced. And practiced. When my right arm could no longer lift the stick he made me practice with my left arm. When my left arm went out I went back to the right arm and I continued like that for the entire day. Near midday I was so exhausted in body and mind that everything beyond that faded to vague impressions of sound and movement.
When I wasn’t moving fast enough, Friss would attack me with his own stick, forcing me to react. If I wasn’t walking properly he’d give me a shove to send me tumbling until I got my feet under control again. By the time the sun was setting and it had stopped raining, I had already been walking in darkness for hours. When we finally stopped Friss had to hold me in place because my feet wouldn’t stop moving. When they did finally stop I fell where I stood, exhausted and already unconscious.
I fought briefly back to consciousness later, lying in the long grass at the side of the camp. My dress was open and Thomas’ warm strong hands gently massaged soothing ointment into my back and shoulders while Serena’s strong fingers worked it into my legs and arms.
In the morning I woke with the others, laying still and breathing slowly, my hand gripping the curved stick I’d practiced with the day before. Someone moved nearby and I felt Friss’ massive presence. Pain fueled anger rippled through me and I rolled to my side, lashing out as fast as I could and fueling my swing with frustration.
My training stick whistled through the air and slammed hard into the practice stick Friss swung casually into position. The sound of the clash echoed through the pre-dawn, sounding like the hills were laughing at me.
Friss smiled down at me. “Good, you’re up.” He said, turning to walk back to where the others were eating.
Jason’s voice sounded on my other side. “You must learn faster than other people.”
I turned. He stood shirtless and barefoot in the grass near the foot of the small hill on which I rested. “What do you mean?”
“Most people don’t try to hit him until the third day of training.”