Four arrows with adhesive blocks on the ends stick to the bullseye of a wooden target. Pan yanks each one off with a grunt, her bun coming undone in the process. She crosses to the other end of the room and stands behind a yellow line. After positing the arrows in her quiver, Pan pulls her hair back and reforms her bun, knotting it tighter than before.
“Keeping the hair out of your face,” calls a voice from above. “Nice.”
“Don’t think I asked you,” Pan fires back. She shuts out the racket her observer makes, opting to get right back to practice.
Pan lifts the short bow from the floor. She inhales deeply as she arms and draws back the bowstring. With both eyes open she releases a short and shallow breath. The arrow flies and swiftly finds itself in the bullseye, though nearly landing outside having struck the edge of the top right corner.
“Almost missed,” Pan’s observer taunts.
Pan grabs a second arrow and prepares to fire. She takes another deep breath and lines up her shot. She shuts her right eye, allowing her left to lead her aim. The rubber head of the arrow lands closer to the center of the bullseye.
“Is she onto something?”
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll be onto you- and shut up, that’s not what I meant!” Pan shouts, turning her face down to hide her reddened cheeks. Her observer lightly sniggers, a slow creaking echoing alongside it.
The young archer huffs and runs a hand over her head, knocking loose a lock of her light brunette hair. It hangs beside her right eye like a drawn back curtain. For this shot, she decides to close her left eye. She pulls the bowstring back.
“Tick, tock,” the observer obnoxiously states.
Pan’s fingers slip and her shot misses by a mile, the adhesive rubber head sticking to one of the room’s windows, leaving a small crack. She growls as she grabs her final arrow, then turns and aims up at her agitator.
Aven catches the arrow with one hand, then smirks as he twirls it. “Now, that wasn’t a bad shot.”
“If you wanted me to shoot at you, all you had to do was ask,” Pan spits venomously.
“No, I wanted you to shoot faster. On instinct, not aim.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember that you’ve lost to everyone here. It’s because you take time to aim. In real combat, your instincts will guide your arrows. It’s like Tameri said, a fight involving weapons favors the one with more patience, cunning, and speed. You have the patience and some cunning, but your speed is sorely lacking.”
“I don’t see you doing any better,” Pan says defensively.
Aven jumps down from his perch on the lamp hanging from the ceiling. He collects the other arrows and snatches the quiver and bow from Pan.
“Watch and be amazed.”
Pan crosses her arms and watches him prepare with an arrogant grin. It takes twenty-four seconds- six for each arrow- for her arrogance to melt into embarrassment. She turns and gapes at the tight formation of the arrows in the bullseye. She fumbles the bow when Aven thrusts it at her.
“Doesn’t seem so hard to me.”
Aven leaps vertically and grabs the edge of the lamp above. He flips on top of the lamp and lies across it on his back. “It’d be a real shame if the archer in the room couldn’t beat my time,” Aven taunts.
Pan gazes at the daunting challenge ahead of her, the tiny space inside the diamond formation of the arrows reflecting what she feels of her skills at the moment. She calms her nerves as she plucks the arrows off the target, easing her frustration by breaking the diamond.
Wouldn’t be much of a legacy child if this deterred me.
Pan takes aim once more, smiling as she fires.
Rum and Shuri clash metal in all corners of the black mat. Rum engages Shuri in one corner until he finds to break away. He watches as Shuri fights the need to correct his advancing stance before pursuing. Rum waits and allows Shuri to meet him in another corner and they exchange sword strikes. Rum groans as he forces himself to not swing as strong as possible, but to swing while keeping the weight of his weapon in mind. Despite the stress, he smiles as he fends off Shuri’s attacks.
Still far from amazing, but I’m getting there.
Rum takes a step forward to lead a powerful swing, hoping to disarm Shuri. He flinches when the boy scout steps to the side and swirls around behind him. Rum hastily brings his blade back to parry the blow, but fails to stop Shuri from tapping his exposed shoulder with the sword’s guard. Rum sighs and straightens, lowering the tip of his blade to the floor.
“Where’d that move come from?”
Shuri chuckles nervously. “It’s one I normally only do with my twin swords. Doesn’t feel right using it with just one sword. Even worse, to use it without my twin swords. But without it, you would’ve had me.”
“Barely. I didn’t have any confidence in that thrust. I just hoped for the best,” Rum says.
“Seems your best is pretty good,” Shuri compliments. “Which is what I need mine to be.”
“I don’t think you give yourself enough credit,” Rum says. “Whoever trained you growing up, they did a good job. Actually, given your position in the school, I’m surprised Jojen hasn’t been your trainer since you could hold a sword upright.”
“Nobody trained me growing up,” Shuri admits sourly.
“For real? That’s crazy. I wish I had that kind of talent.”
“That’s why I’m here. Well, why I wanted to join in on your steel debt. I anticipated that it would help me be more than talented. To be skilled,” Shuri explains. “Like you.”
“Is that why you asked me to train through lunch in exchange for your help cleaning? You think the extra half-hour will help that much?”
“That extra half-hour is all I have. When I get back to campus, my –”
“Oh, good, it looks like you’re already done.”
The young Ohaida gentlemen turn away from the reset lines to face their professor.
“I come with some bittersweet news, gentlemen. Today, we end your steel debt, Aurum. And by extension, that means yours is coming to a close as well, Shuri.”
“Does that mean –”
“Yes. Jojen is taking you to the basement today. Our final month here is now starting, so I want to fulfill your obligations in order for you to focus solely on your training. Shuri, you’ll be going back with the others today. Meet Stark outside, please.”
Rum loses his smile when he sees the pronounced rage on Shuri’s face.
“Is this your idea, or the headmaster’s?” Shuri asks.
“Shuri, he respected your wishes, as did Stark and myself. Now is the time to reciprocate that respect.” Tameri steps to the side and sweeps her arm to the now open doorway.
Shuri tightly clenches his sword until he reaches the respective shield of the pair, the starry night scutum from his photo album. He storms out of the spar chamber with a fraught and disgusted expression.
Rum raises his hand meekly. “It may be none of my business, but is everything okay with Shuri and the head- his grandfather?”
Tameri pastes a faux smile on her face. “Don’t fret over it. The headmaster is just worried.”
Guess Auriel can be the same way sometimes, but this feels different, more extreme.
Tameri claps and bursts Rum’s internal dialogue. “Anyway, you have forging to do. Let’s get a move on.”
The stairs lead to a heavy black stone door. Tameri leads Rum inside and the scent of smoke takes a backseat to the scenery. The floor is comprised of the same dark stone as the door, as are the walls. Half a dozen torches illuminate the room. The smoke from the forge billows out through a grated vent resting above it. The forge itself is built like a tub, the concaved area curving around in a semicircle. Above the mantle of the forge hangs a shield in the shape of two connected vertical trapezoids. Unlike all the other shields, this one has no design and is solid steel.
Must weigh nearly 80 pounds, at least.
Rum surveys the rest of the room and sees a well, several anvils and hammers scattered about, and a pulley system hoisting a metal bucket with a chain.
Tameri points Rum toward a stone beam where a couple of aprons hang. He brings them back to her and stands still as she assists him put his on.
“Today, Aurum, you and I will be Jojen’s strikers. Those –”
“Are a blacksmith’s apprentices,” Jojen says.
“I kind of like it. Striker Sparks.”
“So, what’s first?” Tameri asks, also jabbing Rum lightly on the elbow to correct his focus.
Jojen ignites the forge and allows the coals to reach the optimal temperature. “I need the two of you to carefully lower the bucket over the forge. After I’ve deposited the iron inside, you’ll have to hold the bucket in place until it’s melted all the way.”
“And after that?” Rum asks, his excitement bubbling.
“Slow down, Striker Sparks,” Jojen mocks. “One step at a time.”
Rum takes point on the pulley and grabs the chain. Tameri aids him in carefully feeding it through the pulley until the bucket rests right over the forge’s fiery eye. Rum holds a staring contest with the eye. As the roaring flames heat the iron, Rum starts to imagine Nuria before him, the image of her body positioned so that her hand is where the forge’s eye rests. As the flames flare up and shrink, he imagines Nuria effortlessly commanding her flames.
“Okay, hold your positions while I remove the bucket from the chain,” Jojen orders.
Rum braces himself, locking his fingers around the chain.
Jojen uses his gloved hands to unlock the bucket and carries it to one of the anvils. He pours the molten metal between two halves of a broken sword. He secures the bucket and beckons Tameri.
“Lock the pulley with the lever at the bottom. Striker Sparks, grab the hammer by the forge.”
Rum slowly releases the chain, giving his professor time enough to lock it in place. He hefts the hammer, relishing the feel of a heavy tool in his hands again. He joins Jojen at the anvil with a wide grin.
“I think I’ll like this step,” Rum says, but his smile doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Just be cognizant of the fact that this is an exacting process. You screw up here and I’ll have to restart a new mold. So, if you have somewhere to be, take your time and be careful.”
“I’m good to go,” Rum boasts.
“Just slam down where I tell you,” Jojen replies crossly. “Tameri, hold onto the other end with these and don’t let the sword move.
“Yes, sir,” she says as she accepts the tongs.
“Whenever you’re ready, Striker Sparks.”
Rum tames his enthusiasm once again and focuses on the glowing red metal. He follows Jojen’s orders and slams down the hammer repeatedly, pounding the heated mass into the desired shape.
I can’t lose myself like that again. I will not disrespect these kids or this school again. I need to control my anger.
Rum backs away and watches Jojen cool the fresh sword mold in the well. As the steam rises and fills the room, Rum follows the steam all the way to the vent above the forge. The fiery eye there helps him comprehend his real flaw.
Jojen hangs the sword, freshly reforged as strong as before, on the same mantle as the steel shield.
I need to learn to properly control and utilize my lightning. Until then, my steel debt is not fulfilled. And I get the sense Shuri’s isn’t either. Perhaps our deal can continue, after all.
“Okay, Striker Sparks, we still have one sword left,” Jojen says.
Rum faces him with a renewed resolve, the hammer resting comfortably on his shoulder. “I’m ready.”