The grizzled old man glared around the courtyard at us as we stood, shivering and huddled together. Despite the chill in the air, he wore only a cuirass strapped over a thin shirt and a pair of trousers, and he didn’t show any sign of feeling the cold.
His pale eyes, unblinking in the weak sunlight, roamed over us. Most of my companions flinched away from that gaze. We all knew the stories.
Roland Amarain, former First Prince of the Sword. The man had stood in defense of the kingdom for decades, and I’d heard countless legends of him wading into battle, his great blade Calador slicing through hundreds of his opponents. He’d taken dozens of arrows and wounds, but stubbornly refused to fall, performing miracles to defend his Queen.
Now, no longer a bodyguard, he was tasked with training us. The next class of Guardians, men who hoped to one day stand beside their Queens and defend them against all threats.
Perhaps because I didn’t look away, Roland’s eyes fell upon me. “You, boy!” he called out.
I said nothing, waiting.
“What is your name?”
“Arlin,” I replied, my voice steady. I remembered my father’s instructions to remain calm, to not let my emotions betray me. I felt the fear flaring up inside of me, but I corralled it off, pinned it where it couldn’t run amok.
“Well, step forward, Arlin. You look fearless – let’s see if you’re deluded, or just stupid.”
I didn’t really need to move forward; the other boys around me stepped hastily back, leaving me standing alone. Roland stomped over to a rack, grabbing a pair of wooden sticks. He spun and threw one at me, overhand, and I just barely managed to snatch it out of the sky.
“Prepare yourself,” Roland snarled, and then launched forward at me, his stick snapping up to stab at me.
I knocked it aside, but I felt the sting of the contact between the sticks shoot up my arms, leaving tingling pins and needles in its wake. Roland caught the expression on my face, and he grinned at me – or rather, he flashed his teeth. I saw no happiness behind that expression.
“Gonna have to do better than that, boy,” he taunted me, lunging forward again.
This time, I turned his stick aside a bit more easily – but barely managed to catch his riposte as he angled the wooden shaft back towards my chest again. All of those hours of practice with my father, my brothers, flowed back into me, but I knew that Roland was far more skilled than I could be.
We settled into a flow, him driving me back around the courtyard as he launched attacks of increasing intensity, probing at my defenses. I watched my footwork, balancing carefully, somehow managing to turn his attacks aside, often at the last moment.
After what felt like ages, although it probably wasn’t any more than a few minutes, Roland paused in his attacks. “You’ve got some talent, boy,” he let on, grunting as if the words pained him to speak aloud. “But you’re sticking with defense. You know the job of the First Prince?”
I shook my head, not speaking as I focused on sucking air into my starved lungs.
“To identify the threats to his queen, and kill them,” he growled. “And you, boy, aren’t ready to kill.”
His glare rose up to take in the rest of the assembled crowd, who’d silently watched us fight. “None of you are ready, and that’s because you’re all still holding back.”
He paused for a moment, letting these words hit us with their full impact. “You’re afraid.”
Nobody nodded, nobody even moved, but we all knew that he spoke the truth.
“And that’s why they sent you to me,” Roland continued, his glare looking around at everyone. “Because I’m going to teach you how to die. Do you get it?”
His voice climbed to a roar as he spun around, stick in hand, a ferocious warrior who refused to ever lay down and die.
And then, in a flash so fast that I didn’t even see him move, he lunged for me.
The stick shot out; his defenses, in that brief second, were open. I didn’t even have time to begin to react, however, before his attack connected with me, and pain shot through my side, up and down my spine. Gritting my teeth, I dropped to the hard ground, Roland standing over me.
He looked down at me, no expression at all on his face – and, perhaps, that was scariest of all. “The only ones who should kill,” he said, calmly, “are those prepared to be killed.”
With that sentence, our instruction and training began.