“I think you’re getting soft,” she said, and switched to a single-handed grip. He tightened his own two-handed grip on his practice sword and swung hard, hoping that he had not telegraphed his move.

But he had.

His weapon floated along the edge of hers as she turned her wrist to guide the force of his strike away, exposing his flank. He watched in horror as she flicked her sword down and slapped the flat of it hard against his ribs. He felt the blow reverberate through his bones, and his organs quavered in their moorings. He wanted to vomit. He turned into the blow and attempted to sweep low, almost dragging the tip of his sword in the dirt as it arced toward her ankles. She hopped up on the blade as though she was mounting a curb and he felt the hilt wrench from his hands, where it snapped down along his calf strong enough to shred the skin there before slapping into the dirt. In a flash, the point of her sword was under his chin, and she was standing with both boot heels on his only defense.

“Perhaps you’re right,” he admitted, then the pain in his flank flared up and brought him to his knees. She kept her sword at his neck.

“This will not do, Declain. You are supposed to improve with age. The greatest sword master who ever lived—”

“—died fighting at the ripe old age of ninety-three, yes. I’m familiar with the legends.”

“Not only legends, but there are some still breathing who have already lived twice your span and could fence you into the dirt far easier than I.” She tutted and withdrew.

Declain stared down at his grounded sword and meditated on the burning fire in his ribs and the ease with which she had disarmed him. He replayed the last minute in his mind and saw how he had let his emotions overrun his reason. The correct move would have been to wait and riposte, or at least initiate a standoff with his opponent, to steal the time necessary to catch his breath and consider other strategies. Instead, he had gotten angry and attempted to brute-force his way through the duel.

“You see your mistakes, Delcain, and that is enough to prove that you still have the will to be a swordsman. Your defeat is not total; you possess the capacity to learn. And so, I will teach you until you have regained your form and surpass the man you were before we took you in, battered and bleeding and thrown across death’s threshold. Do not make us regret pulling you back from that eternal brink.” She spun and trotted back across the courtyard to attend to other students.

Declain sighed, retrieved his sword from the mud and, with a pained effort, rose to follow.

2015.01.22 – 2023.08.19

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