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Chapter 7

Duncan tried to sleep in the room that Josten had offered him, but after quite some time tossing and turning he gave up. The air was too still; sterile, almost dead. With blanket, saddle bags and cloak gathered in his arms, he slipped out of the room and into the stall, where Swiftwing greeted him with a nudge. Out here the air moved, and he could hear the sleepy sounds of the horses in the night. Satisfaction slipped from him in a sigh, and he rolled up in his blanket in a pile of sweet straw by the side of the stall. Sleep claimed him immediately.

Swiftwing awoke Duncan from a dreamless night, nuzzling his ear. It was early; the gray light of dawn was just making its way into the stable. He arose, shook out his blanket and rolled it with his cloak, typing them both to his saddle bags.

“Early riser, are you?”

Duncan turned to see Mortz watching him, arms propped on the stall gate.

“Early enough. We’ve been getting early starts since we left the Highlands, and I suppose Swiftwing is expecting that’s what we’ll do today. He’s going to be just a bit surprised when I leave him here.” Duncan slipped out of the stall and joined Mortz in perching on the gate.

“I say again, that’s a good horse in there,” Mortz nodded. “But why would you pick a dun? I would expect a clansman to be riding something a bit more . . . oh . . .”

“Flashy?” Duncan prompted. “Showy?” At Mortz’s tilt of the head, he continued. “Swiftwing is strong, and has endurance. That’s what I was looking for when I picked him out. Oh, if my Da had had his way, I’d have shown up on his warhorse, Nightflame. A hand and a half taller than Swiftwing, for all that they had the same dam and sire, rather heavier in build, black as the night and a temper just as dark.”

“Sounds like a match to Goblin, then,” Mortz chuckled.

“Oh, I think he’d have overset your Goblin. Nightflame is almost like a force of nature when he’s riled; an elemental storm, he is. Da is the only one who can calm him when he gets like that. But when Da is mounted, it’s like they’re one being. There are clansmen with gray in their hair who have bred horses twice as long as I’ve been alive, and they marvel at that horse.”

“Is he cut, or does your father allow him to stand to stud?”

“Oh, he’s entire, and the bargaining that happens to allow him to cover someone else’s mare is something to behold. They’ll chaffer back and forth for weeks.”

Duncan swallowed the lump in his throat. Any more talk like this and he was going to choke. Either that or the anger in the back of his mind was going to flood through him, which he didn’t want to display to anyone right now. He pulled the saddlebags over to him, and dug through them to find the left over bread from last night’s dinner. It was a bit tough to chew, but he tore a piece off and stuffed his mouth with it.

“Well, Duncan, good to see you’re up already.” Master Josten walked down the row, side-stepping Goblin’s stall with care.

“Yes, he was telling me that his father has a horse that would overshadow Goblin,” Mortz said.

“Nightflame. I know. Truth to tell,” Josten leaned on the gate with them, “that’s why I finally bought Goblin. He reminded me very strongly of Nightflame, and if he sires colts that are half as good as Nightflame’s, I’ll be a wealthy man.”

“Wealthier,” Mortz smiled.

Josten clapped his man on the shoulder, then turned to Duncan. “I had an idea yesterday of someplace you can work to earn the coin you’re going to need to live in the city.”

Duncan swallowed his bread. “I’m in your hands, Master Josten. I don’t know the paths or landmarks of the city, so I will be guided by your wisdom.”

“Good. Come with me.”

Duncan pushed off from the rail and hurried to fall in step with the merchant. The destination for their steps was out the gate of the compound and two buildings to the left. The merchant led up the stone steps and through the double doors.

Inside the building was almost a shell. Almost the entire space of the building was open. The walls were whitewashed plaster, with racks of weapons spaced around them; swords, mostly, but knives and clubs as well.

“Elward!” Master Josten bellowed.

After a moment a door in the rear wall opened and a slender man stepped out. “Only you, Josten, would enter bellowing like a wounded auroch.”

“Me? Bellow?” Josten placed a hand on his chest and looked over at Duncan with an innocent expression.

“You. What do you want today, you peddler of butcher’s bait?”

Josten turned serious. “You mentioned the other day you were having trouble finding a teaching assistant.” He pointed at Duncan. “He may be your man.”

Duncan was now very confused. Teaching what?

Master Elward looked him up and down for a moment, then turned back to Josten. “Introduce us.”

“Of course, of course. Elward, this is Duncan corNial, son of one the best swordsmen of the Highland clans, as well as one of his best students.” He turned. “Duncan, this is Master Elward, sword master and arms instructor. Everyone who is anyone in Nika studies with him. A few of them even learn something.”

Ah, Duncan thought. Now he understood. That explained the size of the room, as well as the weapons around the walls. He gave a slight bow. Master Elward nodded in return, and continued his scrutiny. After a long moment, he spoke.

“Duncan corNial. A clansman.”

The sword master walked around Duncan. He stood still, feeling the other man’s eyes giving him a slow examination. Before long, Master Elward stood before him again, crossing his arms.

“Very well, Duncan. You come with Master Josten’s recommendation, but he is not an arms master. I am. Impress me.”

With the barest moment of consideration, Duncan flashed his sword from its sheath. In less than an eye blink his arm was extended straight out to the right from his body, holding the sword parallel to the floor, motionless.

Moments passed. Josten started to say something to Elward, who hushed him. The sword master was intent on Duncan now, lips twitching regularly.

Duncan stood like a statue. This was part of his father’s training, holding the blade straight out until the muscles quivered, until they burned as if fire were running under the skin. From the age of six his father had trained him until he could hold first a wand, then a knife, and finally a sword in that manner for counts of almost numberless dozens. Oh, how he had hated that part of the training, but it had given him muscles of iron in his arms and shoulders.

His breathing was even. Duncan wasn’t bothering to count heartbeats, as he was certain that Master Elward was. He focused his gaze just above the sword master’s head, and waited.

By now Master Josten’s eyes were wide. He stirred, but a glare from the sword master settled him down again. Duncan almost smiled at the sight.

Just as Duncan was starting to feel a tingle in his shoulder, Master Elward said, “Enough.” Duncan slowly lowered the sword and sheathed it, then flexed his sword hand a couple of times.

“Impressive,” the sword master allowed. “Nigh on to six hundred heartbeats, and the sword tip never wavered. So, you have strength and control. Do you have speed?”

“Try me.” It was a bit of a struggle for Duncan to keep his tone even. He needed this job; he needed this man’s approval.

The door at the front of the building opened. Master Elward beckoned to the man who entered the hall as he said, “Oh, I intend to do that, young clansman.” Duncan turned to watch a man dressed in dark blue tunic and trews walk toward them. He noticed a white disc on the breast of the tunic above a white sash around the waist.

“Lieutenant Cathor,” the sword master said, “meet Duncan corNial of the Highlands. Duncan, the lieutenant is an officer in the guard of the Temple of the Moon on the east bank of the Eigil River. He comes to me once a week for lessons in the sword.” Elward turned to the guard. “Cathor, Duncan has been recommended to me as an assistant. Oblige me by matching with him so that I can test his skill.”

“Certainly, Master Elward.” The lieutenant had a pleasant baritone voice. “Good day to you, clansman,” he added with a nod in Duncan’s direction.

“And to you as well,” Duncan replied.

Master Elward turned to the nearest wall rack, and turned back with two wooden practice blades in his hands. “Prepare yourselves,” was all he said.

Cathor began by taking off his sash and tunic and hanging them on a hook on the wall. This revealed a white loose-sleeved shirt, open at the neck. The guard began doing deep knee bends.

Duncan had left his cloak back at the stable, so he had nothing more to do than loosen the ties of his shirt. He rolled his head from side to side, considering whether to do some bends of his own. His father’s words, “A fight happens where it happens,” came to him, so he simply stood, relaxed, waiting on the guard to finish. When Cathor stood straight again, the sword master passed him one of the practice blades, then turned and handed the other to Duncan.

The basket hilt was a bit uncomfortable for Duncan, but he decided he could deal with it. He hefted the blade several times, feeling for the balance. Once he felt he knew it, he looked up to find the others looking at him.

“Ready?” Master Elward asked.

Duncan nodded.

“Right.” The sword master looked at one of them, then the other. “This is not a combat or a duel. This is simply a testing. Cathor, since you are older and presumably more experienced, I expect you to push Duncan. Duncan, do your best. Start when I say begin, and continue until I say stop.”

Duncan faced toward the guard, and waited for the word.


The first moves were all tentative and relatively slow, as Cathor began by circling and making feints and thrusts at Duncan, who turned in place. He defended the thrusts that were serious, waiting on the guard to make a substantial attack.

After making most of a circuit, Cathor lunged in with a series of thrusts. Duncan blocked each of them, although the last nearly got through to him. He noted that the guard was very much a point man who apparently didn’t use the edge much at all. His father Nial would call Cathor competent, he decided.

Again Cathor came in, and again Duncan blocked the attacks. After a few more circling steps, once again Cathor attacked. Duncan by now was beginning to get a feel for the way the man seemed to think, or at least about how he thought in swordplay. Again, no attacks got through. Duncan was beginning to think about how to attack in his turn. His opportunity came soon enough.

Cathor’s latest attack came in high. Duncan’s practice blade snaked out and twisted. A moment later, Cathor’s blade was on the floor and Duncan’s was leveled at the guard’s throat.

“Enough,” Master Elward called out. Duncan lowered his sword as the master walked forward, hands on hips. “So, clansman, you are at least competent with the sword.” Duncan bristled a little at that, but said nothing. “Let’s see just how good you really are.” Elward motioned Cathor to one side and bent down and picked the other practice blade up from the floor. “Attack me.” The master settled into a guard position as Duncan goggled for a moment. Elward’s voice grew stern. “I said, attack me.”

Duncan examined the arms master anew for a couple of breaths, then began to circle much as Cathor had done. After several slow sidling steps, he lunged and the battle was on.

He tried every feint and attack that his father Nial had taught him, as well as one or two that he had thought out for himself. Nothing penetrated Master Elward’s guard until one of the master’s feet slipped a finger’s width just as Duncan launched another attack. His final lunge went in over Elward’s blade and snagged in the shirt just beside the ribs.

“We’ll count that as a hit,” the master said. “My turn.”

And as quick as that, Duncan found himself on the frantic defensive, striving to block attacks that seemed to come from every direction. Master Elward proved to be adept at attacking from high or low, left or right. Duncan’s arm and hand seemed to be moving at their own will, blocking or slipping lunges, but even so, hits were being made on him: one . . . another . . . almost . . . three.

Master Elward stepped back and lowered his blade. “Enough.”

Duncan stood, chest heaving, practice blade tip on the ground. He hadn’t felt either that helpless or that exhausted since the last time his father had drilled with him. It did gratify him a little to see a bead or two of sweat on the master’s brow.

“I told you,” Josten said from the side of the hall, “I told you his father, Nial corAnuwn, was one of the finest swordsmen in all the clans. Duncan has learned from one of the best, and was the best of his year in the spring fair trials this year.”

“So how old are you?” Master Elward asked Duncan.

“Twelve and six summers,” Duncan replied, striving to keep his voice level as he continued to almost pant.

“Hmm. Eighteen. Very good for eighteen, you are. You’ve been taught well. I wouldn’t mind sparring with your father, if he’s teaching such as you.” The master walked forward and took the practice blade from Duncan’s hand. He turned back from the rack with another question. “Have you taught any at all?”

“Da had me helping with the yearlings. The first and second year learners,” he clarified as perplexed looks crossed their faces.

“Ah. In that case, I think I might take a chance on you, lad. Be here tomorrow morning at the second hour.”

Duncan looked over Elward’s shoulder to see Master Josten mouthing “Pay”. “How much will you pay?” he asked.

“A silver crown a day.”

Josten shook his head.

“Not enough,” Duncan said. “I’ve a horse to feed and care for, not to mention room and food for myself.” Josten nodded, smiling.

“Eight crowns a week payable at the end of the week. I have quarters upstairs, and I’ll let you sleep in the spare room there.” Master Elward had set his hands on his hips and wasn’t exactly frowning, but his expression was not jovial.

Master Josten held his hand out flat and wobbled it left to right, like a scale seeking a balance. Duncan quirked his mouth to one side, as if contemplating something distasteful.

“And your lessons with me will be free,” the arms master almost growled. At that, Josten nodded.

“Agreed,” Duncan said.

“Agreed.” Master Elward stuck his hand out. Duncan clasped wrists with him, sealing their agreement.

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