Tested At Test

by Addym Kehris

People and carts were moving everywhere. Some of them engaged in the activity of selling, while others were doing the buying sort of things. Mostly it seemed to be activity that involved a tremendous amount of moving.

Words sprang to Shaen’s mind as he stood off to one side, out of the main flow of traffic, and tried to reorganize his stunned mind to the sight; hustle and bustle, rush, hurry, hasten, scurry, dash. It wasn’t just the sight of all this humanity in motion, however, that had him stunned. Besides all the movement, there was the noise, and it was blaring. Sellers were hawking their wares, while animals of every imaginable sort, and some not so imaginable, were snorting, braying, and honking their distress. All of this to the general background of conversation. Some of it quiet discussions as people passed nearby, but most of it boisterous as people attempted to make themselves heard above the cacophony.

To Shaen, it was frightening. This was nothing like the market at Fendei, the small village near his parents’ farm. Then again, this was Tolva, the capital of the kingdom; the largest city. What he was witnessing was the first market of the harvest season.

His mind drifted back to that small village as he remembered, fondly, the markets there. In Fendei, market was a time to celebrate, especially the harvest markets, of which there were three. The contrast to this market was startling. In Fendei, people were more subdued, more relaxed. Where this market assaulted you with its presence, the market in Fendei embraced you with its tranquility. The most boisterous of the Fendei residents were always the children. They were indulged because these markets were times when the children from the farms were able to renew friendships with their village friends. Their antics were most often amusing, adding to the festive atmosphere.

This market had none of that. Where the Fendei markets were conducted in a leisurely, quiet atmosphere, this market was hectic, rushed, and anything but celebratory.

It was the end of summer, with just the hint in the air that autumn was starting to set in. But of course, Shaen couldn’t smell that hint in this place. Here the smells were nearly as overwhelming as the sights. People, animals, foods that made the mouth water, and the inevitable miasma that accompanied the permanent settlement of so many people in one enormous, congested location.

So here he stood, not far from the gate through which he’d just passed. He wasn’t consumed with trepidation, but there was undoubtedly some of that. No, the dominant emotion, even in all this unfamiliarity, was excitement. This was market like he’d never imagined. But mostly it was excitement for his purpose. He’d made it after all. This is the time he’d dreamed of for most of his sixteen summers. He’d finally arrived for Test.

It was a simple word, but meant so much to him. It was the one time each year when boys and girls of his age could come and attempt to prove their right to be accepted into the Almedon Guard.

With his heart finally calmed somewhat, Shaen moved tentatively out into the churning mass of humanity and attempted, once again, to make his way toward the compound of the Almedon Guard. There was no doubt in his mind that this was going to be one very long trek. He’d never imagined a city could be so large or that so many people could be gathered together in it. And of course, since life was bound to have a sense of humor, he’d entered the southern gate only to learn that his destination lay clear across the city.

One of the harried guards at the gate had been taken somewhat aback by Shaen’s query about the compound. But when he’d paused to really look at Shaen, he’d smiled.

“New to the city, boy?”

“Yes, sir. I’m from Fendei.”

“Come for Test then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, good fortune to you.” Then he’d pointed out the three hills at the far side of the city, explaining that the center one was the palace and the right one the college. But it was the left hill he desired. Shaen bowed slightly, thanking the man and then walked the remainder of the way under the city wall and been momentarily stunned into immobility.

But now that he was moving again he had new troubles. Or, maybe not troubles, but certainly concerns. He didn’t have much with him; a pack with his few clothes, his hunting knife on his belt and a small dagger in his right boot. Oh yes, and the little purse of coins his parents had given him. It wasn’t much, but he treasured it because he knew that there hadn’t been much saved up by the family. That they had willingly given up some of it for his journey had nearly brought him to tears.

But now he was progressing through the strange city, reliving the many tales he’d been told of the thieves and pickpockets. He worried each and every time he got bumped and jostled. His left hand was in his vest pocket with the pouch of coins, while his right was never far from his hunting knife. And he was continually apologizing for bumping into someone.

He was beginning to think that just maybe he’d escape the press of people as the crowd started to thin. He’d been looking primarily downward, trying to ensure he didn’t step on feet when that forest of legs began to move to the left and right of him. That, finally, got his attention and he wondered what he might have done to cause these people to move away from him.

He stopped instantly and finally looked up. He could see that a wide lane had been created before him. He was unexpectedly nudged from behind. He spun around and found himself, literally, nose to nose with a horse. The animal whuffed immediately, and that surprised Shaen so much that he jumped back and tripped, falling on his backside onto the hard cobblestone. That elicited a verbal response from him.

“Ow.”

Immediately he saw in his peripheral vision two men in guard uniforms running to his side. He thought for sure he was about to be scolded for his inattention. But that is not what happened at all.

The men hurried to either side and helped him to his feet. “You all right, boy?” asked one of the men. He was, in fact, the same guard who’d given him directions only a short time ago.

“Uh, yes, sir.”

The man then looked up at the rider. “Well, Lord Captain, are things so quiet in the countryside that you’ve taken to vanquishing young men right in the middle of the market?” But he said it with a smile and a chuckle at the end. That got a flush of embarrassment from Shaen as the people in the immediate vicinity laughed at the remark.

“Actually, I think I was asleep in the saddle, guardsman,” said a pleasant voice from over his head.

That finally forced Shaen to look up past the horse’s head where he got a look at the rider. He was a man in his late twenties if Shaen was any judge. He had long fair hair, unlike Shaen’s near black. But what really got the boy’s attention was the tunic and cloak. Both were of the deepest blue. And both had the green leaf pierced with a sword that signified the Almedon Guard.

Every child knew that symbol of the elite guard. These were the King’s personal guard, the men and women who took on the hardest duties in the field. Only then did it register with Shaen that this rider was being followed by about a dozen more of the Guard, riding two by two in his wake.

“Well, Captain,” laughed the guardsman at Shaen’s side, “You’re supposed to test the boys and girls in the arena, not in the middle of the market.”

“Indeed,” answered the Captain. He finally focused all his attention on Shaen and raised his eyebrows at what he saw. This was not a tall lad, for sure. He stood no more than five and a half feet. But he was wearing a sleeveless tunic and vest, so the Captain could see that the boy was well muscled. This young man was no stranger to hard work. Still, what could the boy hope to accomplish with his handicap?

“Well, first things first; I am Captain Hal Meldanon.”

Shaen was near speechless at this unexpected meeting. To actually meet with a member of the elite guard was something he’d honestly never expected. Not like this anyway. But his well-ingrained manners asserted themselves.

“I’m Shaen Arwendth from Fendei, Lord Captain.” He bowed.

“Fendei?! My goodness, young Shaen, that is quite a journey.”

“Yes, m’lord.”

“Tell you what, Shaen Arwendth from Fendei, since I was so rude, how about I make amends by helping you get where you’re headed? As you might presume, we’re headed to the compound. There’s no reason you should have to try and negotiate the unfamiliar city. Come on, Shaen, climb aboard.” He motioned to his right out of deference to the boy.

Shaen was too stunned to move. His father had always spoken so highly of the Almedon Guard. There’d always been just a touch of reverence to his remarks. This all made him feel very uncomfortable about this situation. Should he really accept the offer?

The captain saw the hesitation and uncertainty on the boy’s face. He leaned forward in his saddle and smiled at the poor lad. This was not an uncommon reaction from someone from one of the smaller villages. “Come on, Shaen. We’re not deities. We’re men and women who serve our king and our people. Do you really want to have to fight your way through the crowds in the city today?”

Shaen took a look around the area as the people began moving again. “Uh, no sir.” He looked back up at the captain. “I never knew so many people could be in one place.”

“Well, come on then. Hop aboard, and we’ll get you safely to your destination.”

Once Shaen was mounted behind him, and he’d started his small column in motion again, Hal decided to learn more about his passenger.

“So, Shaen, welcome to Tolva. You realize, of course, that you’re a bit early for Test, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir. I hadn’t expected to be offered a ride by a farmer headed for Tolva. He and his wife were elderly and appreciated the help with camp chores. I’d planned to take three weeks to get here, not one.”

Hal pondered that for a few moments. “I hope you don’t think me rude, Shaen, but that leaves you quite a bit of time to kill before they start accepting candidates into the barracks for Test. What have you planned to do about living quarters until then? I can’t imagine that you really have enough money to afford nearly two weeks of lodging.”

“No, sir,” he answered shyly. “Like I said, I hadn’t planned to get here this early. I suppose I could make myself a campsite outside the city.”

“Uh, no, that would not be a good idea. The wildlife in this part of the kingdom can get far too curious after the gates are closed. And we have far more human prey than I care to admit. You wouldn’t last the night.”

Hal felt the boy stiffen at that last. “I’m not defenseless. I do know how to take care of myself, despite what you may think.”

“Shaen, relax, please. I meant you no disrespect. I have no doubt that you are a capable young man. But how capable would you be if set upon by half a dozen or more desperate men at once?” He felt the boy wilt behind him. “Look, Shaen, I’ve been in your part of the kingdom many times. You are fortunate to have lived in what I’ve always thought of as the most peaceful and pastoral part of the kingdom. Unfortunately, Tolva attracts far too much of the wrong sort of people. It’s far too easy for the riff-raff of the kingdom to make a living preying off the innocents that venture here. Please believe me, Shaen, even I wouldn’t venture alone into the countryside around here after dark.”

Okay, that got his attention. Surely if this captain of the Almedon Guard was reluctant to be outside the walls alone at night, then it was definitely no place for Shaen. “Uh, all right, I see your point. So now I have to admit that I don’t know what I should do.” He hesitated, but decided that the captain was going out of his way to be helpful. “Do you have any suggestions?”

Hal smiled and even chuckled. “Very good, Shaen. Never be ashamed to admit that you’re out of your depth. And in answer to your question, I believe I do have a solution for you. We’ll have to discuss it with my wife, but we have a spare room in the garden house. You could help out with some of the light chores around the house during the day while I’m away.”

“I’d be happy to help out, Captain. It’s very kind of you to offer.”

“Well good then. So, young Shaen, now I have to ask, why are you here?”

Shaen stifled the automatic response that he was here for Test. That would be obvious. Besides, the guardsman had already said something about that. So the captain was fishing for more information than that simple fact.

“I want to be more than just a farmer, sir.”

“How do your parents feel about that?”

Shaen chuckled. “They helped me pack for the journey. I have eight brothers and sisters who want nothing more than to continue working the farm. They wished me good luck when I left.”

“I don’t want to offend you, Shaen, but I have to ask how you feel your swordsmanship rates.”

Shaen chuckled again. “Well, that’s at least better than most people do. Most everyone assumes I must be incapable of anything. Actually, Captain, my father started teaching me three years ago when I expressed my interest in the Almedon Guard. He spent five years in the Fifth Cohort before he met and married my mother. She spent three years in the Cohort as well. It’s where they met one another.”

“And they encouraged you?” That was said with some surprise.

“Not encouraged, exactly. They worry, I know that. But they didn’t actively discourage me either. They helped me adapt what they’d been taught. We even created a couple of things that compensate.”

“Really. Perhaps you’d be willing to give me a demonstration.”

Shaen smiled and decided that since the captain seemed to be going out of his way to be friendly he could do the same. “I could do that, Captain. But maybe we should wait until we get wherever we’re going.”

The captain immediately laughed at the stab. “Okay, funny man, we’ll do that. And Shaen, why don’t we drop the formality, call me Hal.”

“Are you sure?”

“Why not? You’re not a part of the guard and you’re potentially a house guest.”

“All right…Hal. I’ll be happy to give you a demonstration.” Then he suddenly thought of a benefit he might garner from doing just that. “But only if you agree to bout with me so that I don’t lose my edge.”

Hal turned his head to look at Shaen, and there was a slight smile on his face. “Not only funny but smart too. Yes, Shaen, I think that’s a reasonable exchange.” He then turned back to the front. “So, have you had any education in military matters?”

“My parents taught me a lot about it from the perspective of the common soldier. Both of them were sergeants before they retired. But my best education has come from the local guard post. I’ve been spending two weekends a month at the post, reading their archives and getting instruction from their archivist. Last year they started letting me take material home to read between visits. It’s something my father arranged for me when it became obvious that I was serious. It’s the post where they mustered out, and they’ve maintained several friendships over the years.”

“Okay,” chuckled Hal, “I’ll quit asking so many damn fool questions. It’s obvious that you’re serious.”

The remainder of the journey passed in silence. Shaen spent that time contemplating what all he might be able to garner from this fortuitous meeting. There was no doubt that Hal would surely be capable of teaching him things his parents hadn’t known.

For his part, Hal wondered at the determination of this young man at his back. Rarely had he met a boy or girl that came to Test with any idea of what the life of a soldier could be like. Surely the boy’s parents didn’t sugar coat the realities. And to top it all off, the boy immediately recognized the advantages in accepting Hal’s offer and what it could mean to his bid. There was certainly more to this boy than first met the eye.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

“Shaen Arwendth from Fendei!” came the announcement.

Shaen had been sitting for nearly an hour as candidate after candidate stepped through the gates of the arena for this final test in a week of tests. It’d all begun when Hal had left him at the candidate barracks, a place filled with forty-five boys and girls, counting himself.

The process began with interviews. An entire day’s worth of them with four different men and women. Hal had explained that the interviews were designed to weed out the glory hounds and the truly ignorant. There was no place in the Almedon Guard for men and women of either ilk. By the end of the day, a third of the candidates had been sent packing.

Then had come two grueling days in which the physical conditioning and potential of each candidate was tested. This was the one area that Shaen felt he was infinitely well prepared. Not only had he grown up working on a farm, but once his parents had begun training him, they’d included the same military conditioning exercises they’d been taught. They’d lost another five of the candidates for various reasons. Shaen had lain on his cot that third night and smiled, knowing that he’d surprised all of the testers by finishing near the top of the rankings for every test.

The next two days were given over to educational progress. These tests had started simple. They lost three candidates during the initial testing for lack of any reading or math skills what so ever. They continued to weed down the numbers as the tests got more difficult. The Almedon Guard did not have the time to teach basic education. They required a certain level of ability to start. Eighteen candidates lasted through the two days.

The sixth and last day of testing was given over to matters of military strategy and logistics. This, it was made clear, was not a weeding process. They were merely testing the candidates on their knowledge with an eye toward placement in the guard should they be accepted. As each candidate reached a point where they were apparently out of their depth, they’d be excused. By the end of the day, only Shaen and one other boy remained.

The final problem of the day had been genuinely stimulating for both of them because they’d been given the opportunity to work as a team to formulate a solution to a question of strategy and logistics involving two full cohorts against a force half again as large. They’d been given one hour to formulate their best options for victory. Then they’d been led to a room that contained an enormous table with a scale model of the proposed battle site, complete with figurines and placeholders. They fought the mock battle against a man and woman who clearly knew what they were doing while another man and woman watched. The boys had not won the battle that ensued, but they had managed to fight it to a draw. No one said a word when it was all over; they’d merely thanked the boys and excused them for the day.

But all of that was history to be contemplated another day. It was finally time to put all of his training to the ultimate test. He stood and walked through the gates to the center of the arena. None of the candidates had been allowed to watch any of the bouts that preceded them. That would have given the later candidates an advantage over the earlier ones. So this would be the first Shaen saw of the arena and the men and women who would be passing judgment.

Shaen tried not to show his surprise when he faced the booth that held the judges. For there in the middle of them all, was the man who’d watched that mock battle the day before. But that was yet another thing that had to be put into the back of his mind because his opponent was already in the arena and advancing toward him, sword in one hand and stiletto in the other.

Of course, they both had practice weapons. But this was all happening just a bit faster than Shaen had expected. Hal had led him to believe that the bouts were designed to start slowly. The objective was to demonstrate how far each candidate’s training had taken them. But this man had genuine anger in his eyes, and his advance was a very threatening one.

Well, there was no option for Shaen. He had to defend himself. He stabbed down with his left arm toward his boot and got the satisfying click as his stiletto locked in place. He pulled it from his boot and took a ready stance.

The man didn’t so much as pause before engaging Shaen. He attacked. And he attacked with fervor. That forced Shaen into a defensive engagement, always retreating, dodging, parrying, blocking. His natural agility held him in good stead here, for he was able to avoid most of the blows. But he worried that his performance wasn’t going to impress anyone. Still, this man seemed awful determined to do Shaen an injury.

Fortunately for Shaen, he’d been well trained by his parents. Fear did not fill him, and his surprise lasted for only a moment. Yes, he was forced on the defensive, but he wasn’t running, and the man’s blows were not penetrating Shaen’s guard.

Now a less capable boy would have been focused on the weapons being aimed at him, but not Shaen. He’d learned that lesson very well from his parents. It wasn’t the weapons that were going to tell you your opponent’s next move or his intention. It would always be his eyes and body language.

He silently sent out a prayer of thanks to his parents. He’d told Hal only the truth when he said that his parents had not discouraged his dream. What he hadn’t said is that they’d been merciless in their lessons; at least once they’d gotten past the basics and worked out a way to alleviate his disadvantage. Once that had happened, they’d continued his training like they had always done with raw recruits. He’d spent many a night nursing bruises.

But not once in all those years of lessons had he been given any reason to nurse resentment toward his teachers. Not once in all the lessons had they apologized, but each day of bouts ended precisely the same way, one of them would come to his room after he’d bathed and tenderly seen to his battered body. During those nursing sessions, they’d quietly given him a critique of his performance. And no matter how Shaen had felt about his performance and progress, there’d always been an equal share of criticism and praise.

So this situation was not altogether a disaster. That is why he recognized the anger in the man and soon realized that the man considered Shaen as no sort of opponent. This realization gave Shaen the advantage, and he knew it. So long as he could maintain his own calm, Shaen could take advantage. It was only a matter of time.

Surprisingly, his moment came sooner than he’d expected. The man was certainly not using his own head. He was wide open for anything Shaen could deal him. Shaen chose to attempt a disarm. He blocked the man’s stiletto with his own and then brought his practice sword down hard on the exposed wrist, spinning out of reach of the man’s sword.

The man’s stiletto went flying and he bellowed at the pain from the unrestrained blow Shaen had delivered. But he never got an opportunity to retrieve his blade because Shaen went on the immediate offensive and hammered at the man, forcing him further and further from the lost weapon.

He didn’t delude himself, Shaen knew he’d be forced back onto the defensive soon enough. The man surely had better training, and he was undoubtedly larger than Shaen. Still, it was very satisfying to get in a bit of offense.

When the bout did once again turn against him, Shaen immediately detected a difference. There was still the anger in the man’s eyes, but the attacks were much more calculating than they’d been previously. The man’s sword was a blur, but with purpose. The man was much more conscious of the signals his body gave off, so Shaen wasn’t quite as good at anticipating. So it was bound to happen.

The man’s sword slipped right under Shaen’s left arm and hit him soundly. The blow knocked the wind out of him, and he fell to his back with a yelp of severe pain. At this point, it would have been a natural reaction to lose his sword and grope for his side. But he’d learned early and painfully that a man never relinquished his weapon if he could possibly help it. Perhaps he was down. Maybe he was in acute pain. But that did not end his ordeal. This was the point where an opponent dispatched his enemy. That, therefore, required Shaen to ward off the finishing blows.

And that was truly the most disturbing part of this whole ordeal. The man was, in fact, attempting to deliver a final killing blow.

Later, Shaen would never be able to discern how he’d been aware of what happened next. He only knew that he was able to relive the next few moments with crystal clarity as if he’d been a bystander, watching from the sidelines.

First came the gasp of disbelief from the massive crowd in the arena stands. But the sound that gave Shaen heart and the will to continue fighting was the yell that came from the section of the arena floor where the rest of the candidates had been sitting, watching.

“No!”

“Stop!”

“Hoi!”

“Argh!”

All those sounds came loudly and simultaneously from half the candidates as they jumped to their feet, weapons in hand and began racing toward Shaen. Just a moment after the candidates left their seats, Hal came storming through the open door below the booth, his sword already in hand. And it wasn’t a practice blade he carried. Shaen recognized it from the two bouts they’d had with live steel.

But what truly astounded Shaen was when he saw the central figure in the booth jump to his feet and fling himself over the rail and land beside Hal. The two of them were an impressive sight as they raced to Shaen’s aid, side by side.

As Shaen continued to desperately hold out until his rescuers could arrive, he realized in a deep little recess of his mind that he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. His breaths, what he could get of them, were shallow and frequent. He didn’t really register the enormous pain of his side.

Then, like a gift from the gods, the blows ended. And the reason they stopped is that Arnold, the boy that had been his partner at the mock battle the previous day, had thrown his wooden stiletto at the man and had landed it on the side of his head. Arnold had to stop to make the throw accurately, but that hadn’t stopped the remaining eight boys and girls. They were on the man in a moment.

Now, none of these boys and girls was any more accomplished than Shaen, but the fact that they were working as a group, and doing so with purpose and just enough ability, meant the man had his hands full.

“Way!” yelled the man from the booth as he approached the crowd of youth. They understood the unexpected command, surprisingly. They immediately jumped away from Shaen’s opponent and allowed the charging man through. He eliminated the practice sword by the simple expedient of shattering it into pieces with his steel weapon. Then he dispatched the man by landing a blow with the flat of his blade against the side of the man’s head. The man didn’t fall unconscious, but he was undoubtedly dazed. That was more than enough to allow the three largest of the candidates to jump in and roughly turn the man onto his stomach. Someone threw a belt onto the man’s back, and the boys rapidly bound his hands.

Meanwhile, Shaen was trying to find a position that would allow him to breathe. But it wasn’t working and he was beginning to feel lightheaded. That was when Hal and Arnold landed on their knees at his sides.

“Help me get him to his feet,” Shaen heard Hal say anxiously…from a great distance it seemed. But then, he was in agony of a different sort as the two of them grabbed his arms and eased him off the ground.

They started by pulling him into a sitting position, and miracle of miracles, something seemed to snap in Shaen’s chest and he was immediately breathing easier. It wasn’t full breaths he was able to take, but it was far superior to the shallow things he’d been trying to make do with.

“Stop,” said Hal when he saw Shaen taking easier breaths. “Let’s give him a couple of moments.” He moved in closer. “Try and relax Shaen, it’ll help. Just let Arnold and me support you. Let the tension go.”

It was hard, but he desperately tried to comply. The more he concentrated on Hal’s instructions, the easier it became. But he really felt the need to take deeper breaths.

Hal had been observing his reaction and detected that need. “Okay, Shaen, let Arnold and me lift you to your feet. Just leave them out in front of you. Don’t try to help.”

Shaen nodded his understanding. The two of them supported him by the elbow and armpit on each side and they managed to lift him effortlessly and quickly to a standing position. Two things happened the moment he was on his feet. The first and most important of them was that he was finally able to take a nearly full breath. He wasn’t able to fill his lungs entirely, but the larger breaths helped to clear his fuzzy head so that he could do more than think about his injuries.

That is when he noticed the other thing. The entire arena was on their feet, cheering. He could also hear the protests of the man on the ground.

“You pitted me against a damn cripple!”

Shaen looked over and saw the man from the booth standing over the bound man on the ground.

“I didn’t see a cripple, Corporal. I saw a young man more than capable of defending himself.”

“Ha! He wasn’t defending himself too well when I landed that blow!”

“True. But then, he wasn’t supposed to have to. You will pay dearly for the injuries you’ve done this candidate, Corporal. It might interest you to know that since your assault and attempt at murder will earn you a long stay in the stockade and permanent banishment from the Almedon Guard that there is now an additional slot in the guard to be filled. I believe I’ll let young Shaen have that slot.”

The man on the ground was sputtering as more of the guard arrived to remove him to his confinement. That was when the obviously important man turned finally to face Shaen and his two supporters.

“How’s he doing, son?”

“I’m pretty sure he has some broken ribs, Father,” answered Hal. That got Shaen’s immediate attention as he turned his head to stare at Hal. “I know, Shaen, I never mentioned it. But it wasn’t really important. All I gave you was a place to stay and a chance to stay in shape. My generosity had nothing to do with who my father is. I have no say in the decisions made here today. But let me introduce you properly. Shaen Arwendth, allow me to introduce the commander of the Almedon Guard, my father, General Harvish Meldenon. Father, this is the house guest I told you about.”

Shaen immediately turned back to the General and attempted to stand on his own, but the stab of pain prevented him.

“Easy there, young Shaen,” said the general in obvious concern. “Don’t go doing yourself any further injury.” Instead, the general held out his right hand.

Shaen reached to accept the handshake but found his hand full of his sword, which he still had not relinquished.

The general laughed lightly. “You weren’t planning on hitting me, were you?”

“Uh…no,” answer Shaen, clearly not sure what to do. He had no scabbard for the weapon, but he wasn’t about to just drop in on the ground. His father would have severely disciplined him for such an act.

The general now smiled as he reached up and gently took the practice sword and handed it to the nearest of the candidates. “I understand your dilemma, Shaen. The Sergeant Major would have you on KP or worse for abusing your weapon.”

That got all of Shaen’s attention. “You know my father, sir?”

“Oh, I most certainly do, Shaen. He and your mother saved my life when I was much younger. I won’t go into the details now, but it was during an operation that involved the Guard and the Fifth Cohort.”

Shaen was stunned by this. “They never mentioned it, sir.”

“No, I don’t imagine they did. Those two were adamant about not being recognized publicly. But their records certainly contain the report I made. I was a captain at the time.” He smiled once again. “They’ve obviously had a hand in your training.”

“Yes, sir.” Well, what else could he say? Between the slight disorientation from his injury and the surprise of this new knowledge, he just couldn’t seem to get his brain to function normally.

“We’ll talk at a later time, Shaen. Right now I think we should complete the proceedings so that you can be seen by the healers.”

The general then turned to the arena crowd and motioned them for silence and then revealed his decision concerning the candidates. The eight candidates who’d responded to Shaen’s predicament were immediately accepted into the Guard, while the remaining eight were dismissed with thanks. That left Shaen and Arnold standing there.

“That leaves me with Shaen and Arnold here.” He turned to address them directly, but spoke so that his words would be heard by all. “Arnold, I have to tell you that your swordsmanship is a little less than par for the guard. But that throw with your stiletto was spot on the mark. And Shaen, your swordsmanship is certainly good, and you and your teachers obviously put a lot of thought and effort into compensating for the fingers missing from your left hand. But I’d be hard-pressed to accept you into the guard as one of the fighters. There are just too many situations that we get into that would have you at a distinct disadvantage.”

Okay, yes, it was disappointing. But his parents had both tried to prepare him for this moment. Shaen was an adequate swordsman, they’d told him, but he wasn’t stellar. There were just too many ways that an opponent could take advantage of his disadvantage.

“Now, having said that,” said the general, “I’m still going to accept you both into the Guard, but not into the fighting units. Your combined performance yesterday in the mock battle was quite impressive. I really don’t have much problem finding boys and girls to fill the fighting ranks. What we have a distinct lack of is competent strategists. You two seem to have the type of minds for just that assignment. So, the two of you will be taking your place in the Guard in that capacity. Congratulations.”

“Thank you, sir,” the boys answered in unison. It was evident that they were both stunned by this.

“All right, enough of ceremony. Hal, Arnold, assist Shaen out of here and get him to the healers.”

The first thing that happened as the general walked back to the viewing box was that Hal reached out and disconnected the stiletto from the harness on Shaen’s left wrist.

“I’m not about to leave that here for you to hit me with,” he laughed as he slipped the weapon back into Shaen’s boot. Only then did the two of them begin helping Shaen to slowly walk from the arena. “I heard about your performance yesterday,” said Hal to the two boys. “Father was very impressed.”

“It was a great time,” answered Arnold. “Our opponents were awfully good.”

“They should have been. They are in charge of the strategic arm of the Guard. They’ll be your superiors. The colonel and major were already making space for you two before you entered the arena.”

The healers at the arena gates quickly wrapped Shaen’s chest before settling him into a carry chair, instead of a stretcher. Hal gave Arnold directions for where he was to report and the boy headed off, still looking a bit stunned by the outcome.

Then, just before the healers carried Shaen away, Hal gave him his instructions.

“The Colonel for the Strategic Group will send a guide for you when the healers are ready to release you.” He smiled. “You did well this week, Shaen. I’m really quite impressed. Now, the last thing you need to remember before you’re taken away is that my wife made it very clear to me this morning before I left for the arena that if you got yourself accepted that she expects you to become a regular visitor at our home.” He chuckled. “Seems she’s taken a liking to you, mister.”

Despite his pain, which was slowly dissipating thanks to whatever the healers had given him to drink, Shaen smiled. “I’ll be sure to take her up on that offer. She’s a marvelous cook.”

“Good. So, go get better…and welcome to the Guard, Shaen.”

He spent a week at the infirmary, most of it in various stages of discomfort. But there were bright spots during it all as the numerous friends he’d made here visited. The candidates from his class all had a great time describing their new places in life. Hal and his wife made a point of stopping by a couple of times. But what surprised him most was when the General stopped by and spent an hour regaling the boy with his experiences that had resulted in meeting Shaen’s parents. But best of all had been the total enjoyment he’d gotten from writing his family to tell them of his success and good fortune.