The next morning a loud rapping on the door to my chamber startled me awake and sent several thousand spear-points lancing into my brain.
I sat up immediately and tried to get my bearings, then immediately regretted the sudden movement. Unfamiliar room. Bed. And oh so much pain in my head.
“Hel’s sagging tits,” I mumbled to myself as I stumbled from my bed and swung open the door, still wearing naught but my blouse and undergarments.
Harald stood in front of the door. He’d a sword slung on his hip, and a second sword in his hand. His other hand carried a shield.
I rubbed my eyes blearily, trying to make sense of it.
“Get out of bed!” he barked. “Thor’s twisted hairs, you’re late!”
Late? What in the world was he talking about? I just stared at him, blankly, my mind trying to slosh its way towards some sort of meaning.
“Whu?” I said eventually.
“Late,” he said. “For morning training.”
“For…” I said. I blinked at him a couple of times. “Training?”
He sighed. “Anklesbane, you’ve won exactly one fight. Don’t think that means you can skip out. There’s plenty more for you to learn, regardless what gifts the ‘Gods’ have chosen to bestow on you,” he said, emphasizing the words Gods to let me know he really meant Erik. “You’ll be on the training field every morning by the first light of dawn from here out. Now move!”
I began to scurry past him, and he sighed mightily. “But…put some clothes on first,” he said, looking at my state. “Best not fight half-bare, though it may prove a useful distraction to some.”
I flushed—I’d forgotten my state of dress in the rush to obey him. He handed me the sword in his hand. “Also,” he said. “You left this in the main hall last night. That’s going to be the last time you leave your sword behind.”
I looked at it—Thyge’s sword. I took it from him, slowly, almost reverently. I remembered how it felt to slice that man’s tendons. To drive my seax into his back. “Of course,” I said quietly. I owed it to Thyge, if not myself, to treat his sword with some respect.
“Good. Now get dressed, and on the training field—with your weapon in hand. And do it now.”
I think I saw a smile begin to curl its way up the sides of Harald’s face as I closed the door, but I couldn’t be sure.
I don’t know why I expected it to be just Erik and me on the field. Habit, I suppose. But three other boys—and two other girls—had joined Erik before Harald, and all of them gawked at me as I ran up. They all wore mail and carried shields as well as weapons—I had only Thyge’s sword.
Harald stood before them, and I noticed that he’d positioned the crowd around the blood-stained grass where I’d killed Thyge. I gulped as I took that in, remembering the desperation I’d felt in the fight, but still tried to smile at everyone.
“Hej,” I said in greeting. “I’m—”
“Anklesbane!” one of the boys said, cutting me off. He had a messy ruffle of bright blonde hair. He ran a couple steps towards me. “Harald, you didn’t tell me we were going to be training with Anklesbane! I watched her slay the giant Thyge Jormundsson yesterday, she was incredible.”
“We all watched that, Hammond,” one of the girls said in a snippy tone. Her more golden-blonde hair was tucked back in a long braid and her eyes were the green of a deep lake. “It’s not like you’re special.”
“Actually,” said Harald in a voice somewhere between a shout and a conversation. My fellow trainees stopped talking to look at him. “That brings me to an interesting point. We all did watch the fight between Aelfwyn, here, and Thyge Jormundsson. For most of you, it was the first time you’d seen actual combat, even if you weren’t a part of it. Can anyone give me their impression of what happened?”
“She was amazing,” said Hammond immediately. “The Gods blessed her with speed, and she moved like lightning struck from Thor’s anvil itself!”
The snippy girl made a little “Hmph,” sound, then said, “She got lucky. She made a wild dive and happened to connect. Gods or no, she flailed about wildly and managed to connect.” The girl fixed me with a cold stare.
“Anyone else?” asked Harald. I watched Erik, seeing if he’d respond, but he chose silence.
It was one of the other boys—a boy with light-brown hair—who spoke in a cool, distant voice. “They’re both wrong,” he said. “He underestimated her. She feigned weakness to invite it, then risked an all-out attack on an unarmored area.”
Harald nodded. “Very good, Einar.”
“Isn’t that sort of thing exactly what you tell us not to do?” asked the third boy. His voice carried an excited edge, as though he were scoring a point on Harald with this observation. “I mean, I try to do diving, rolling maneuvers all the time, and you’re upset with me when I do. She does it, and they call her a hero. I do it, and you chew me out. Why’s that fair?”
Harald sighed—a long-suffering sigh of someone who’s had this conversation before, and likely will again. “Well, Colborn, why don’t we ask the Anklesbane herself,” said Harald, gesturing to me. “Aelfwyn, tell us—is that your standard maneuver in a fight?”
I laughed at him—he couldn’t be serious.
“That’s a no,” said Harald.
“Why not?” asked Colborn in a plaintive tone. The snippy girl whose name I still hadn’t caught rolled her eyes.
“Because,” I said. “there’s no way that works if he’s anything near ready. I exposed my entire back to him. It took him off-guard, and his instinct was to block my attack with his shield. If he’d reacted differently and brought his axe down first, I’d be dead and we’d be out one sheep meadow. It was one of the most reckless and foolhardy ways I could do things.”
“But…” said Hammond. “But you won!”
“I did,” I said. “Doesn’t mean it wasn’t risky as trying to play fetch with one of Loki’s cubs.”
“So why do it, then? I mean, if you knew it was stupid,” said the snippy girl.
“Tut,” said Harald. “She didn’t say it was stupid, Audhild. She said it was risky. There’s a big difference between those two things. Thyge Jormundsson stood taller that Aelfwyn. He had a longer weapon, and more strength to wield it.”
“So…” said Hammond, thinking about it.
“So, I couldn’t think of anything better to do, and doing nothing would have gotten me killed,” I said, shaking my head. “A chance of victory seemed better than sure death, so I…well, I went with risky.”
Harald nodded. “Just so,” he said with a wink. “But that’s why you’re here. So let’s see if we can’t come up with a couple more options together, shall we?”
And with that, he launched his attack on the students.