(Go back to Part 37)
All Acolytes want to know about the trials, and how they will be tested. What are the trials about?
They are about skill at arms, but they are not.
They are about the techniques of healing, but they are not.
They are about cunning, they are about bravery, they are about intelligence . . .
But they are not.
Who are you, Acolyte? And what are you afraid of? The trials are my answer.”
–The Lexicon, Vorhall’s Letters to the Acolyte 129:3
The old knight led her out the back of the office and down a torchlit corridor. Another wooden door stood ajar here; he pulled it open and a blast of cool air struck Alex in the face.
They emerged in a huge cavern. The floor was loose dirt, smooth and dusty, and an opening high above let in the sun. The sound of wooden practice swords clattering against each other echoed in the chamber as a pair of boys sparred in the far corner. A latticed box ran high along one wall where observers could watch them, unseen, while a low barrack was half-built, half-carved into the cave wall opposite them.
Osmund led her across the floor to the barracks. Once inside, two big servant women got a hold of her. Despite Alex’s protests, they stripped her bare and dumped ice-cold water on her before attacking her body with soap and stiff-bristled brushes. Her hair was shaved off along with the lice that had accumulated in it. They left her eyebrows, at least, although Alex half-expected to lose them as well. The hopelessly soiled travel clothes went into the fireplace, and she was given a plain white tunic, breeches, and a belt.
They shooed her away into the bunkroom with her boots under one arm and her swordbelt under the other. She fumbled with the belt—it took some time to buckle around her waist again, with her stiff left hand. The scrubbing left her scars red and seeping blood again. When she looked up again, other Acolytes had gathered around.
“Who’s the new guy?”
“It’s a she, idiot.”
“She looks young.”
“What happened to her hand?”
There were nearly twenty boys and a half dozen girls, all bald and in white tunics. “I’m Alex,” she said, startled by the group’s focus on her. McCann was right; they were all older, taller, and more muscular than her. “Alex, from Goodhollow.”
“Michael, of Wroth.” A pale boy with thick black eyebrows.
“Ellsworth Tocklsey.” A stout figure with a pockmarked face.
“Karl McKribbens, of the Emerald Hills,” said a tall figure with dirt smeared on his face. A dozen more introductions followed; Alex soon lost track of them all.
“What’s all this? Another new one?” A loud, brash voice filled the barrack. The others moved aside for a hulking young man. His chest was wide and his face sported a full beard. The young man outweighed Alex by at least fifty pounds, but he moved with an easy, fluid, dangerous grace. His eyes were brown and quick.
“Alex, of Goodhollow.” Alex held out her hand.
The young man didn’t return her gesture. “Who’re your sponsors?”
“What?” she asked.
“Your sponsors! The knights who sponsored you for the trials?” He made an impatient gesture. “And where’s your sword?”
Alex answered the second question first. “I lost it in an accident—the same place I got this.” She held out her burned hand, hoping they would be impressed.
They were, but not in the way she hoped. Those who hadn’t seen it yet drew back in disgust, while the bearded giant didn’t move. “And your sponsors?”
“I rode south with Knight-Sergeant Tobias McCann.”
His eyes widened in surprise, and then he threw back his head in laughter. The other boys joined him; Alex frowned, uncomprehending the source of their sudden scorn.
“What? What is it?”
“Tobias McCann? What is this, a joke? He’s a disgrace!” The bearded young man made a show of wiping his eyes. “The Grand Master keeps him as far from the citadel as possible just so they don’t have to look at him, the worthless dog!”
“He’s not a dog!” protested Alex.
More laughter. “He’s an oathbreaker!”
“He saved my life!” said Alex.
“And I can see why you needed it—no sword, and missing half a hand! I don’t know why Osmund even let you in in the first place.” The bearded young man spat once on the floor. “That’s what Garth of Tunbridge thinks of oathbreakers.” He spat again. “And that’s how much I’ll have to do with you. Any friend of mine had better do the same.”
Alex felt her anger growing as she stood surrounded by scorn and laughter. Garth of Tunridge was far bigger than her, but so was Toro back in the hold of the baron’s flagship. Toro was dead now.
“Tobias McCann is no oathbreaker, and anyone who says otherwise is a damn liar!” The room quieted.
“Are you challenging my honor, Alex Red-Hand? Do you have any idea who you’re talking to?” Garth smiled and laughed once.
“You could be the son of the devil himself for all I care!” Alex had heard McCann use this particular oath before to great effect, and was not disappointed. Garth’s face reddened at once.
“Of course you’d have a dirty mouth, sponsored by an oathbreaker. Come outside and I’ll clean it out for you,” he said.
The other Acolytes roared their approval. Soon the group was outside on the cavern floor, formed up in a circle around the pair.
Alex reached for a wooden practice sword on the rack next to the barracks. “No, no, no, Alex Red-Hand. You challenge my honor? We use real steel,” taunted Garth. “That is, if anyone will loan you one.” The group laughed.
Another boy brought Garth his sword belt. It was made of fine worked leather, soft and wide. The buckle was silver, and the scabbard wrapped in inlaid silver thread. Alex looked at her own scabbard, stained with salt and crusted with swamp mud, the belt halfway worn through and notched. It was not much of a comparison.
Garth drew his sword. It was a flat blade with a single fuller, sharp and deadly. The hilt was wrapped in more soft black leather and studded with a pair of small jewels. She envied it even as she loathed the one holding it—it was a match for Headmaster Barrius’s blade back in Goodhollow.
“Will no one lend her a weapon?” Garth’s voice was mocking, laughing at her.
Alex looked around the circle. No one moved. Blades were in plentiful supply, but there were none for her.
“I will.” Another boy stood forward. He was tall, but thin, and had the look of someone grown a great height in a short amount of time. His eyes were large and expressive, dominating his face. He held the hilt of his sword out to Alex. “Here, take mine.”
She gave him a look of immense gratitude as she drew the sword. It was light, and a bit shorter than Garth’s, but solid and well-made. She swung it once or twice—the feel was different than her own had been, but her own sword was lying at the bottom of the river. It would have to do.
Garth frowned, but came forward to meet her. “All right, you oathbreaker’s whelp, are you ready?” He brought his blade up into a front guard.
“Yes.” Alex mimicked him.
It had been weeks since Alex had last handled a sword. She knew immediately that she was over-matched; Garth swatted aside her initial attack without a second thought and exploded with his own assault as soon as their blades touched. He was strong and fast, with no weaknesses in his technique—it was all Alex could do to keep Garth’s blade from her throat. Steel flashed and rang as they circled.
After a few minutes they paused. Alex’s chest was heaving, her arms aching from repelling the massive strength of Garth’s attacks. A line of fire ran down Alex’s forearm; she looked down to see a long shallow cut bleeding all over her fresh tunic. Garth was smiling, nodding to the crowd as they cheered him.
He’s toying with me, realized Alex. He’s toying with me, and this next attack will end it. I can’t win this way. And she remembered the fight on the deck of the Lysia.
Alex and McCann had talked about the fight with the Southerner for hours afterward, lying between decks on the baron’s flagship. McCann remembered every step of the duel and had walked Alex through it until she remembered it too. They’d talked about the Southerner’s strange stance, the ways his technique differed from the Curate tradition, and what was worth learning from it.
Alex shifted her posture, moving one foot back and taking the high stance of the Southern duelists. Garth noticed, although the others didn’t—they were still laughing and catcalling—and Alex saw a flicker of doubt in his eyes.
He’s never seen this before, thought Alex. “Now!” said McCann’s voice in her head. “Before he has a chance to think!”
They met again in the center. This time, her attacks had purchase—Garth was caught off-balance more than once as Alex appeared in places he didn’t expect. The bearded young man was still too large and fast for her to push back, but she wasn’t getting chased around the circle any more, either. His technique is flawless, thought Alex, but inflexible.
But Alex’s grasp of the strange Southern style was not as thorough as she’d hoped. When her foot slipped in the dirt—
There was a flash, and a twist, and Alex’s borrowed sword tumbled away. A huge hand grabbed her neck and smashed her face into the ground. The point of a sword pricked her neck.
“I . . . yield . . .” mumbled Alex into the dirt.
Garth’s face appeared next to hers. “Good. You know your place now, Alex No-Sword. And this is for that funny business at the end.” His face withdrew, and before Alex could move a massive boot smashed into the back of her head. There was a flash, a crunch, and blood began to gush into the dirt.
The others roared their approval and left Alex lying on the ground. A few spat on her as they went. She waited until the voices drifted away before hauling herself up on her elbows.
One boy remained. He sat on his haunches, watching Alex from a few feet away. It was the boy who had loaned Alex his sword.
“Danks for da sworb,” said Alex.
“Here, let me see your nose,” said the boy. He took Alex’s face in both hands—it was a strong grip.
“Wat bar you doeng?”
“Clench your teeth. This might hurt.”
Alex did. The boy grabbed her nose and popped it back into center.
“Argh!” Alex grunted.
“There. It should heal all right now. Sorry about the pain—there’s not much for it, but the sooner you set it the less it hurts.”
“Thanks.” Alex spat the blood from her mouth. “Now I owe you two favors.”
“Don’t worry about it.” The boy helped her to his feet. “I’m Darrin Leaf of Twinbridge, but they call me The Bookbinder. Binder, for short.”
“And do you think Tobias McCann is an oathbreaker, too?”
Binder shrugged. “I don’t much care, since I’m a bastard myself. Born of Garth’s uncle and a whore. There’s not much they can call me that isn’t true.”
Alex stared at him. “Garth’s uncle?”
“Lord Garin’s younger brother, Guy. Formerly of Westin, though he’s been dispossessed, and not just for whoring.”
Alex shook her head as they walked back to the barracks. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re a Northerner, right? Down here, it’s more complicated. You’ll get used to it. For now, just know that Garth has to cut me some slack because I’m of his blood.”
“Why don’t you challenge him?”
“Why do they call me The Bookbinder?” Binder shook his head. “I’m no knight; it will be the librarians for me, that’s for sure. The trials are mostly a formality.”
“The trials . . .” Alex spat up another gob of blood. “How long until . . . ?”
“Soon. Rumor has it that we’ll start when the Grand Master returns. He usually watches . . .” Binder gestured up to the grated booth, “. . . although who knows—maybe he’s watching right now, and the trials have already started.”
Alex choked out a laugh. “I’m probably not doing so well, then.”
“You did better than most. I think you scared him—he hasn’t broken anyone else’s nose.”
Alex paused, then shook her head again as they neared the barracks. “This is not what I expected. This is not how I wanted it to be.”
Binder shrugged. “Me neither.”
(Go on to Part 39)