The boy stood in the middle of the room staring blankly at the wall.
Choose well was all he remembered.
The room was about sixty paces long and probably half as wide. It was two stories’ high with numerous oil lamps set along the upper walls that provided more than adequate lighting for the entire room. A balcony ran along three of the four walls and provided a means to observe any event happening below. There was one door leading in and out of the room, but it was blocked by a large, well-muscled man dressed completely in black. His eyes were deadpan, like those of a cold-blooded killer.
The air was relatively cool, but the young boy felt a drip of sweat run down his back. He tried to hide his nervousness beneath a façade of serenity while staring at the wall, but he could feel the butterflies roiling in his stomach, threatening to unman him.
The wall the boy stared at contained all conceivable manner of weapons, from short throwing knives to elegantly curved swords to long-handled halberds with wickedly curved barbs and spikes. The boy had to choose something soon or forfeit his chance to test again for another year. He would not let this opportunity pass, because this was the day he had trained long and hard for, the day he had anticipated for the last three years, and the day when he would finally prove himself worthy. Today he would test to become an apprentice in the guild of assassins.
The rules of the test were simple: choose your weapon and fight. Any novice who aspired to test for apprenticeship had twenty short minutes to fight and draw blood from their opponent. Whatever weapon a novice chose to test with would be the school in which they would be apprenticed if they passed. There were five schools: Sword, Knife, Axe, Staff, and Bow. The tests were short, brutal, and bloody, designed to ensure that no one advanced who did not rightly deserve to. Their opponents were fully trained brothers of the guild who gave no quarter or latitude to the would-be contenders. Many tested for the honor, but few passed their first time, and some even lost their lives in the attempt.
Jeda had decided many months ago to choose a pair of fighting knives as his weapon of choice. He was good with knives, both in hand-to-hand combat and throwing, and liked the way they felt perfectly balanced in his hands. He had been steadfast in his weapon of choice until the moment he entered the room and saw Brother Mave waiting for him. A slight grimace passed over his face, but he quickly composed himself. The last thing he wanted was for Mave to see he was scared. Mave was dressed in the traditional, assassin color of black, but also wore a distinguishable symbol of red, crossed swords on the bandana holding back his hair. That symbol marked him as a preeminent sword expert within the guild, second only to the masters in the School of Swords. Knives were excellent, close-in fighting weapons, but Jeda was not good enough with them to draw blood from a sword expert like Mave. Now he stood immobilized, staring at the weapons wall, furiously trying to think of what he should do next. He knew he would have to choose wisely if he was to survive this day.
Damn, of all the brothers in this guild, how could I be so lucky as to get Mave? Jeda thought sarcastically. He stepped forward and reached for the weapon he thought he would have the most luck with.
No sense in changing now.
Mave saw the boy look his way and inwardly smiled. He knew the boy was scared, and rightly so. It was not chance that brought him here today, but a carefully orchestrated scheme to make sure he tested the boy. He felt Jeda was no more than a third-year upstart who did not deserve the opportunity to test for apprenticeship. Most novices trained for five or six years before petitioning to test. Mave was going to make sure that the boy did not pass. That was as it should be, for it was Mave who had brought Jeda to the guild in the first place. He should be the one to put the boy in his place and teach him humility.
Jeda finally reached up and took a pair of fighting knives off the wall.
Mave shook his head at the boy’s choice. I knew it. The boy may know how to fight, but he knows nothing of winning.
“Begin,” said the dispassionate voice of the master-in-attendance judging the test.
Mave strode forward, closing the distance and eliminating the only advantage knives would give the boy. Without the distance to throw them, they were completely useless against swords.
The boy stood stock-still, visibly trembling as Mave approached. His frozen fear was pathetic and almost embarrassing. Mave would cut him slightly with his first blade and knock him out with the handle of his second, putting a quick end to this charade of a test. Twirling his swords in a deadly dance, Mave felt no sympathy for the boy. Today’s failure would set Jeda back at least a year and give him more time to learn proper respect and modesty, traits Mave felt he was sorely lacking.
The young fool doesn’t know what he’s in for.
As Mave swung the first blade to catch the boy across the cheek, something unexpected happened. Jeda dove forward, under the first blade, and whipped one of his knives at Mave’s exposed side. Mave deflected the throw with his second sword. If he had not been such an excellent swordsman, the throw would have a scored a hit.
Maybe not quite the fool I took him for. Mave spun around swinging the sword in a deadly arc to face the boy as Jeda jumped to his feet. The swing cut the boy high on the arm and he cried out in shock and pain. The cut was deep and bleeding heavily, rendering the arm useless. The boy went down on one knee, but Mave moved cautiously forward. He would not be caught off-guard a second time by the boy’s cleverness. When Mave came within a sword’s reach of him, the boy jumped forward into a diving roll and threw his second, remaining knife. Mave anticipated the move and easily deflected the throw, shaking his head at the boy’s stupidity in throwing away his last means of defense. As he turned to face Jeda, he realized his mistake. He felt a blade slice through his trousers, burning and drawing a bright-crimson line along his leg. Jeda had used the second throw to distract Mave from his true objective: the first blade that Mave had deflected. The boy had used his diving roll to reach that first blade, left forgotten on the floor.
How did he get that knife so quickly and throw it so precisely? Mave wondered, looking down at his bleeding leg.
“Enough. Blood has been drawn by Novice Jeda,” said the master’s voice from the balcony. “He is elevated to the rank of apprentice.”
Mave studied Jeda with a smoldering anger. He was a good fifteen feet away and was wobbling on his feet from loss of blood. It didn’t seem possible that he could have thrown that knife in his condition. Mave knew the boy must have somehow cheated.
This is not over; no one makes a fool of me.
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