Seagate. Second week in the month of Natal (Mid-spring).
Her hands were no longer the soft, supple hands of a new acolyte. There were fresh callouses, and rubbing her thumb against the inside of her palm, she was starting to feel the small, tough hills of skin forming at the base of her fingers. Since beginning her training a few weeks ago, she didn’t remember a day going by where some part of her body, if not her whole body, was sore and stiff. But she knew she was stronger. She could feel how much tighter her muscles felt under the layers of her yellow acolyte robes she donned in the morning for prayer. And after prayer, when she had given herself over spiritually to the god, she would change into her loose-fitting cotton pants and prepare to give herself to the god as a warrior. She slipped a flowing, long-sleeved shirt with a standing collar over her head, and looking at herself in the full-length mirror, she admired the way the shirt laid softly against her body and cinched at the waist. She shook out her acolyte robes and hung them on the corner of her mirror. She still thought yellow was an awful color on her.
Chrysanthe combed out her long, flaming red hair which always seemed to be in a mess of tangles and curls. She looked at herself in the mirror, and in her reflection she glanced at where she had tossed her pale yellow acolyte robes into a pile on the floor. She scowled, pulling the brush harder through her uncooperative hair. Yellow was a terrible color for her. One would think the god of the sun and fire would plan robe colors which complimented those acolytes whose flaming hair reflected his blessings instead of choosing what had to be the worst color. It wasn’t even a brilliant gold to mark the brightness of the sun – just a big pile of pale bananas.
She already liked the loose-fitting pants and shirt required for her new training more than her robes, though she wouldn’t dare admit that to any of the other acolytes, especially Mistress Agatha (who still acted as though she had an axe to grind). The High Priest had sent one of the younger supplicants to her room with her new training clothes earlier in the week with the simple note, “May Sol’s light guide you. Good luck, and watch out for Master Lwazi.” She wasn’t sure who, or what, Master Lwazi was, but she didn’t intend let anyone get in her way. Not after she had come so far. Even though she could feel her hands shaking.
She tied up her hair in a bun, though sprigs of rebellious hair had already started poking out of her smoothing efforts, and huffed, her final “I give up” gesture. Before shutting the door behind her, she collected her robes in her arms and, without looking to see where they landed, she threw them in the general direction of her bed.
Leaving the Spartan cell of her room, she walked quickly down the wide hallways of the temple. The hallways echoed her footfalls. Although the temple seemed to almost always be in some flurry of activity, there were these rare, quieter moments between scheduled prayers or in the deep darkness of the evening where the entire temple seemed to be at rest. They had all just finished the high sun prayers, and now that she was an acolyte, she had recently joined the chanters. It was quite an honor for the temple’s newest priestess in training, but the practices really cut into her terribly limited free time.
At the main entrance of the building, the great double doors stood open, letting in a blinding ocean of light. The bronze mirrors scattered all about the room reflected it like the whole main area was on fire, and though she had seen it too many times to be impressed, she still felt the god’s warming energy filling her chest, like taking a deep breath of fresh air, and tingling at her fingertips.
Sol was a god of fire, revelation and battlefield magic. As such, his priests were expected to be able to handle themselves in a conflict. Some of the church’s sects were even considered excellent warriors in their own right. Chrysanthe was interested in following in her father’s footsteps: when he had been in the temple many suns ago, he had taken the route of an investigator. Regardless of where she planned to specialize, on or off the battlefield, at her stage of training, she didn’t get a vote and would learn the basics of combat before making a final decision. Some combat practice was done at the temple, but the temple worked with a respected warrior academy to handle most of the weapon instruction. When she had asked some of the older acolytes about training with Master Lwazi, most had hurried off without answering her questions with a mixed look of pain and fear. Despite putting on a brave face, the coltish young girl who had just started growing enough to become awkward was terrified.
Chrysanthe joined her brothers and sisters in training in the great hall as she had done every morning after prayers for almost a month. Several of the other young priests and priestesses were already gathered around stretching. Each priest or priestess had their thick metal training pole laid on the floor beside them as they stretched, and from the first day of training until the acolyte’s last day with Master Lwazi, their pole became a natural extension of their bodies and never left their sides. Even though each pole looked the exact same, it was rumored that, if all poles were taken from the students and thrown into a pile, every student training under Master Lwazi would be able to find his or her own pole with ease. As a student advanced under Master Lwazi, he or she would be given heavier poles with which to train, though all were cut to the student’s own height.
Students weren’t required to stretch in a certain way or for a defined time, so each student stretched as much as they deemed necessary and then they would gather their metal pole and run off into the crowded market square. After the first week, Chrysanthe had noticed that the older students always seemed to take longer in their stretches. She originally had thought it was because they were dreading returning to Master Lwazi’s arena as much as she was, but she started to realize that they weren’t taking longer to bide time. Their stretches were deliberate, powerful movements that seemed to engage each muscle individually. Even if the older students took longer with stretches, they always somehow were standing waiting with Master Lwazi at the warrior academy before the younger students, who had left many minutes before them, had breathlessly arrived. Some of the students would run together, but most went as individuals at the best pace they could maintain. Now, Chrysanthe could appreciate the physical exertion and almost ceremony involved in the stretch and the run before arriving at the academy, but she remembered that it seemed like a daunting, insurmountable task the first week.
Newcomers to the academy were not expected to participate in the run from the temple to the academy. On her first day, one of the lay followers of the temple, religious devotees who were not part of the clergy, had waited for her with a cart and horse. He was an older man as many of them were, and the way that he waited on her to arrive with a big grin dividing his fleshy tan face, she could tell he had waited to take many new trainees to the warrior academy in his rickety cart. Since spending time at the academy, Chrysanthe had learned that the man, Jorah, was specifically employed by the temple and the weapons academy to bring over newcomers and, along the way, to scare them the best he could. When Jorah had greeted her on the first day of her training, he’d said, “Come along little priestess. The weapons masters don’t like waiting!” and had helped her up into the cart even though he didn’t need to. He’d been hard and muscular in youth but had gone to flab while still being a big man. His once dark hair, common to the alliard people that dominated this area, had gone almost completely white.
In her naivety, Chrysanthe had asked, “So, do you know of the weapons master?” She had been so proud of not sounding nervous.
If she had known what she knew now, she would have caught his sly smile and chuckle before he had responded, “I do indeed. I’ve been taking young acolytes on this journey for a few years now. He’s a foreigner from way across the Salt Flats. His people are burned dark by the sun and are native to the great forests on the other side of the Marudar River. He’s tall, really tall, like an ogre or one of the gorellen, and slim. An older fella if not quite my age, but he doesn’t seek battle anymore as far as I know. He’s only spoken to me rarely, but has always been polite. I don’t think he’s as nice to the students.” She remembered shuddering then as the cart clopped along the cobblestoned path through Gelderland and into the Temple Reach, drawing closer to what she knew would be the site of her doom. Since her first conversation with Jorah, she had learned that his statement “he’s only spoken to me rarely” had been a boldfaced lie. The two of them swapped ales and stories of piss-pants new acolytes pretty regularly, and Master Lwazi was always coming up with new, terrifying descriptors of himself for the driver to embellish his stories with.
Each time Chrysanthe took up the run from the temple to the warrior academy, it became a little easier. She still was very much a rookie, and she wanted to be further along in her training at this point than she was, but Master was also trying to teach her patience along with her battle movements. He had told her that her strong will would benefit her weapons training greatly, but if her will turned into frustration, her training would become stagnated. Suring out of the temple in a sprint, her pole at her side, she tried to clear her mind for the long, physically and mentally exhausting day to come.
She kept her head lifted and her eyes on her distant goal. At the line of the horizon, the warrior academy could be seen from the temple, though it looked more like an out of focus mirage. There was another fuzzy shape on the horizon, and as she drew closer, she realized it was a cart in the road headed towards the warrior academy. She sprinted by the cart, nodding with a smile to Jorah who, by the look on the young boy’s face sitting in the cart, was already weaving stories of the monstrous, ogre-like weapon’s master.
She arrived many minutes later, somewhat breathless, but thoroughly stretched and warmed up at the reach’s main gate. The academy was located just inside the reach’s boundary. Unlike the sandstone and tile architecture in Gelderland, the temple reach was mainly gray basalt with marbled accents. There were wide sidewalks everywhere, and the crowds were heavy, though even with the crowds, the reach’s throng still seemed quieter and less rowdy than in her home reach. Here, the very wealthy strode along with frowning guards all around them. It was like watching brilliantly scaled fish surrounded by sharks.
She stretched her arms as she jogged through the street, though she made sure to keep her pole at a safe distance from the crowd of people mulling about the reach’s main thoroughfare. She turned to the left, and the familiar sight of the academy entered her gaze: built like a small fortress, it had thick granite walls three times the height of a man with horizontal slit windows across the top like dashes. The whole thing squatted out of place among the spires and shops of the district like an eagle sitting in a group of swans. Unlike the first day when she had approached the big double doors as if heading to meet her executioner, Chrysanthe greeted the academy with confidence and a healthy respect for the principles for which it stood.
She felt a familiar metal tap on her shoulder from one of their metal poles, and she turned to see her new friend, Olbere. They clasped their hands and tapped their poles together in greeting, a soft, muted metallic sound echoing in the hollowed pipes.
“It seems you bested me in the run today,” Olbere said, leaning a little heavily on his pole as he walked.
“Well, there is a first time for everything,” Chrysanthe said with a modest smile, though on the inside, she was thrilled. Olbere had started at the academy before she had, and though he often beat her soundly at the weapons’ drills, she had been working hard to improve her endurance for the run. He had been the first familiar face to greet her when she had arrived those many weeks ago.
The two huge iron banded wooden doors pushed open without a sound on well-oiled hinges. A flagstoned entryway had pegs to hang coats on either side. Forward it led to a sand covered courtyard. A metal on metal din rang from it. A couple of dozen people, mostly human but one of the snaky lizardmen called midniss and two gnomes, were wearing various types of beaten up armor and were either running or pounding on each other with dulled training weapons. A few were running around the oval of the training floor at a good speed. A vast ogre walked among the dueling warriors offering comments in a booming voice and once smacked a helmeted boy on the back of his head so hard it belled like a gong. A shorter man with the deep tan and brown hair of a human alliard carried a bamboo swagger stick and stopped a fight to instruct the fighters in the series of battle flourishes, brandishing the stick as though it was a rapier.
Standing as tall as the ogre in the arena, the tallest human Chrysanthe had ever seen stalked about the warriors. Most of the trainees were boys with a couple of girls scattered among them, but there were a few trainees of full growth. These students were much more adept at their movements and were conducting more complicated routines. Chrysanthe assumed these students must have chosen the warrior field as their specialization. Even standing among the older students, the lanky human looked like a heron fishing in tall grass as none of the trainees came up to his shoulder. Only the ogre was of his height, but he was blade slim where the huge ogre was broad like most of his people. The tall man’s skin was the black of midnight. She had never seen anyone with that coloration. The three she assumed were the instructors, the ogre, the alliard, and the towering human, all wore matching togas of white cotton, though the tall black man had a golden stripe on his toga’s hem.
Someone came in the doors behind her. She looked back, and it was one of the older acolytes. Like the others, he had run into the academy with his metal pole. He streamed sweat and was breathing heavily. Seeing her, he smiled, “Hey, Chrysanthe. Are you here to start training?” He was a few years older and easily a head taller than the girl.
“Hello, Olbere. I am beginning today,” her greeting came across as too stiff, and she realized her nervousness was showing. Clearing her throat, she added, “Why are you so out of breath?” She looked around at the swarming activity around the academy and played with the edge of her hair.
“Nobody has told you? We all have to run here. The Master thinks the most important thing is having good wind, so we are always doing endurance stuff.” He nodded towards the tall black instructor. “Also, don’t hesitate. He hates that. Go on up and introduce yourself.” Leaving her alone at the academy’s entrance, he clapped her on the back and turned to the left to do some more stretches.
Chrysanthe stopped twirling the end of her hair with a shake of her head. It was a nervous habit she was trying to break. “I am a child of the god. I have nothing to fear here,” she whispered to herself and boldly walked across the training yard. As she approached the instructor, he seemed to keep getting taller. He either had no head hair and beard, or he kept them trimmed with a razor because none was visible. She assumed the latter since bushy eyebrows framed his dark eyes.
He looked down at the girl striding across his training floor up to him. She held out her hand to shake his. “Hello. My name is Chrysanthe. I was told you are the master instructor here.” For a moment, he stared with those dark eyes deep into her own. He had to lean over, almost cutting his height in half, to get close to her face. His lips were pursed in a tight line, and she watched a drop of sweat sprout from his forehead and slide off his cheek; it formed a small, dark hole in the sand where it landed after its long descent from his face to the ground. All she wanted was to be miles and miles away from this strange place and this terrifying man.
His serious face erupted into a smile. He took her hand and did the warrior’s grip of grasping forearms. His hand was thick with callouses, and his hand enveloped her entire elbow since his forearm was significantly longer than hers. She wasn’t sure that her own grip even extended past the end of his wrist.
“Well, hello there, little string bean. You must be the new priestess I am training. I was told to expect you. Welcome to The Shimmering Crescent Salle de’ Arms. I am Master Lwazi. You may call me Master.” His voice rolled out the consonants and the vowels were often clipped. The accent told of far shores and distant lands. He squeezed where he held her arm in the warrior’s grip and said, “Don’t you worry. You’ll build muscles like mine in no time.” His laugh seemed genuine, but after just meeting this towering man, whose monstrous reputation preceded him, she wasn’t sure if he was making fun of her or if she should be worried about the process to building “Master-like” muscles. He wasn’t hugely thewed like some she had met but instead looked like a swimmer with long smooth muscle and very, very little body fat.
After they released the handshake, he gave some quick instruction to the nearby warriors and they continued moving through what looked like different fighting forms and styles. “Follow me acolyte. We must begin soon.” His long legs ate up the ground towards open doors on the northern side of the training area. She had to jog to keep up. “If you would be a warrior, you must gain strength of body and strength of heart. To master the arts of war requires strength of mind.
“I do not want to be a warrior. This is just part of my training as a priestess,” she said a little out of breath.
Master Lwazi spun to face her so suddenly that she almost ran into him. “Then leave my academy this moment!” His eyes were wide with ferocity and the girl shrank back. The students in the arena paused only momentarily at their Master’s raised voice, but they quickly resumed work when, seeing the cessation of movement in his peripheral, Master Lwazi jabbed a finger at them and shouted, ““You!” He pointed to them. “Why have you stopped working? Must we determine if you are willing?” They went back at each other with a flurry of blows clacking on their weapons or their armor. He turned back to Chrysanthe who, at this point, was almost cowering under his piercing gaze. “Many people desire to learn here and must be rejected,” he said, “If you leave a more willing student will be admitted.”
His voice grew softer, but it lost none of the seriousness in its tone. “Girl, you understand that only through the agreement I have with your temple were you admitted. I will train you, and you will excel. This is the arrangement. For that to work, you must be willing to go through what will come. We are born into this world in pain and blood. To become a warrior you must be born again, and it will be both painful and bloody as are all births. Choose now.” He folded his arms and loomed above her, eyebrows almost touching together as he scowled.
It took Chrysanthe a moment to find her voice. “I need to be trained here to become a priestess, so I need to stay,” she said quietly.
“That is not what I asked you!” His voice boomed in the arena again, but the warriors training did not make the mistake of halting their movements this time. “Will you suffer to be reborn as a warrior? Warriors are all I teach here. I care not for your reasons but only for your level of dedication. That is what determines if you can be successful.” He leaned forward a little and unfolded his arms to gesture widely, taking in the whole place with his hands as if indicating that, by her decision, she was choosing to embrace the academy as a whole.
“I will,” she said in a quavering voice.
The tall master warrior seemed to flow into his turn away from her with the smoothness of all his motions. “Excellent. You will certainly regret this for some time, but you will learn more than you ever have before. . . so long as your spirit does not break.” He began his ground eating stride towards the doors again with the girl jogging along to keep up.
The two entered a long gallery room that was certainly the length of the building. The sunlight coming into the slit windows at the top of the wall shone onto wide bronze mirrors that illuminated the room. The floor was a dark wood of some sort polished to gloss. The walls were lined with weapons of various types. Past the weapons, rows of metal stands were covered in armor. The whole place smelled like linseed oil. Master Lwazi walked quickly to a circular stand that held several dozen of the metal poles the other acolytes had in circular racks. They were many different heights and thicknesses. He turned suddenly and studied the girl. “Hold out your hands to me,” he said again in that curious accent of long consonants and sharp vowel sounds.
Chrysanthe held out both hands palms up. Master Lwazi placed his much larger hands over them. “Push my hands upward as hard as you can.” The acolyte pushed upward. “As hard as you can, child! Lift me!” he barked suddenly.
She flinched and then bore into it. Pushing upward as hard as she could against the hornlike callouses of the much larger warrior’s palms. After a moment of seeming to try to lift up a wall, she spread out her feet to shoulder width and leaned forward towards their joined palms. Master Lwazi saw her subtle shift in stance, and a slight smile tugged at his lips. Chrysanthe surged upward with everything she had. Still, their hands barely moved.
“Very good, child. You are stronger than I expected.” He turned smoothly back towards the rack of dull gray metal poles. Everything he did looked like a dance, and the image of a heron striding through grass about to strike stayed with her.
Lwazi began to pull many of the smaller poles out and lay them on the ground in size order. He took one of the larger poles in his hands and held it parallel to the ground. With it, he pointed to the smallest of the poles. “Take it in your hands like so.” and then he held it out horizontally between both of his hands at arms’ length. She moved over to the pole he had indicated and grabbed it. It was heavier than she expected, and her arms shook a bit holding it out.
“Very good. Now place it back in the rack and take up the next one. You must remember to respect your weapons and always place them back into their proper homes at the end of training.” She did so. The next pole was about the same thickness but was longer and was heavier than the last.
“Again.” he uttered in a single sharp sound. She put the pole back onto its rack and went to the next. Her arms visibly trembled as he held it out straight ahead of her.
“Again.” Once more pole was placed into its home, and she took the next one. Her arms wouldn’t straighten. The weight was too great. She tried once and couldn’t get her arms to straighten. The right one would, but the left could not.
“Straighten your arms.” Master Lwazi didn’t yell but his voice filled the room. In a surge of effort Chrysanthe straightened her arms for just a second before dropping the pole.
“Very good. That pole is now your guidon. You will have it with you at all times and will ensure it is clean and rust free. We will now fit you for your training armor.” He motioned to the racks of armor to their right.
Holding her pole in both hands, Chrysanthe walked over to the racks of armor. Most were of stiffened leather but many had bulky portions in them.
“These are primitive brigandine armor. Really the simplest and cheapest kind, but perfect for training. There are sections of them we use here at the academy. Each is composed of a jacket, vambrace over your forearms, a leather skirt, and greaves over your shins. In battle-ready armor, the plates would be good steel. Here at the academy for our training armor, the plates are made of lead. There are dozens of them in the jacket and a handful sewn in to the other pieces. Lead has the advantage of being soft, so it is easily repairable, relatively inexpensive and it is very, very heavy. This will aid you to gain strength as you proceed in training.” He took the smallest of the jackets and placed it on her. Chrysanthe bowed over from the weight. Lwazi measured the armor against her and cut a new notch in the belt to fit her narrow waist. He taught her how to stand with armor, rigidly erect, so the weight would be shared across the length of the spine instead of all of the weight pushing against one’s lower back as it would if you had bad posture. Over the next several minutes they found and attached vambraces and greaves, all of which were far too big for her slim limbs. The skirt of lead-weighted leather strips was supposed to go over the knees. On her, they went to mid shin. Lwazi fought a smile as they did the fitting. Once complete, she looked like a child in her father’s clothes.
“Now, young priestess, you will join the class. You have taken your last walking step here at the academy. If I see you walking, I will assume you have forgotten how to run, and I will ensure through repetition that you remember running. A strong wind is the greatest asset for a warrior. Now child. Run to the ogre. His name is Sir Udril.” He turned her towards the door and pushed her forward. Stumbling more than running, she headed towards the training area.
“Are you forgetting something?” Master Lwazi’s mild voice asked.
Chrysanthe squeaked and lugubriously turned back towards her guidon that lay on the floor. She almost fell when she bent to pick it up, and the weight of the armor shifted. Lwazi caught her shoulder before she could fall and straightened her. “You will get stronger.” He smiled and strode back to the training area, his footfalls eating the ground beneath him.
Without needing direction, Chrysanthe found her natural place in the arena after donning her armor. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she thought the leather strips on her skirt seemed shorter than they were on her first day. Their training worked in cycles, and so, after the first week, one was expected to know at which station in the arena he or she was to begin for the day. Although the training cycle had not yet officially begun, students were working through different choreographed fighting movements or trying to remember the battle movements they had learned the previous morning. Since the students at each station moved to different areas each day, Chrysanthe very rarely trained with the same group of students two days in a row.
A familiar booming voice surged from the armory room, and the students standing at attention all pounded their metal poles into the ground three times in quick succession. Master Lwazi, closely attended by Sir Udril and Artenes, the shorter alliard, emerged into the arena with his arms stretched up towards the sky.
“My warriors, let us be reborn into the blood and sweat and sand. Begin training!”
He passed from group to group, watching the students’ movements, and when he came upon Chrysanthe’s group, he paused their training. Borrowing one of the student’s poles, he tapped the pole against Chrysanthe’s own and entered a defensive stance.
“Okay, string bean. Let’s see how far you’ve come.”