In the Days of Misspent Youth
The sun beat down on the field, baking the already hard-packed dust even further. A young man stood under the punishing sun, his leather hauberk and helmet only compounding the heat, sweat running freely down his face and back. He faced an older man who wore only a light leather vest and held his weapon with the practiced ease of many years of experience. The younger man swiped his gauntleted hand over his forehead in a vain attempt to mop away sweat and grit, instead only keeping the sweat from running into his eyes for a moment. The older man smirked to himself and lunged, forcing the younger man back several steps before he was able to bring his own weapon up to block.
Pressing his advantage, the older man feinted for the young man’s legs, reversing his stroke at the last second; deftly avoiding a clumsy parry to bring his weapon around in what should have been a killing blow. Fortunately for the younger man, the wooden practice sword only left a stinging welt, despite the thick leather armour he wore.
William picked himself out of the dust and proceeded to brush himself off, muttering quietly to himself.
“What’s that, lad? I didn’t quite hear you. Are you making excuses for your poor performance?” the weapons master said with a smirk. His iron-coloured hair and beard were near white in the sun of the Eastern Reaches and his face showed the colouration of a man who had spent many years under it, though his Elmordran accent marked him as being from the highlands of the Empire, far to the northwest.
“Of course not, goodsire, I’ve no desire for another drubbing,” William said, trying hard to keep the grumble from his voice. He picked up the wooden practice sword and saluted the weapons master, adding a short bow to acknowledge his loss.
“Good! That shows you can learn! Now, why did you lose?” the weapons master crossed the practice yard, tossing the cudgel onto a pile of a dozen more just like it and taking up the ladle from a keg of drinking water.
William thought for a moment before answering. Simply saying that the weapons master was better then him would only get him another long duel and a dozen more bruises to match the set he had just earned. It was an answer like that which had landed him before the weapons master’s waster to begin with. He thought about the fight, seeing every error he had made, each of which had been pointed out with a bruise where those errors had cost him.
“I was sloppy and complacent. I expected you to go easy on me, but you didn’t,” William hoped that answer would be sufficient to appease Master Cuhal.
“You’re right, lad, I didn’t and that you expected me to shows you’ve got far more to learn about fighting than strokes and stances,” Master Cuhal turned to address the rest of the young men standing in a rough circle around the practice yard, “That goes for all of you. Just because this is only training, doesn’t mean you can ever expect any quarter from your foes. Expect just as much as you would give, which is none. Is that understood?” Heads nodded eagerly, desperate to get out of the blazing furnace of the practice yard.
“Well, that’s about enough for today, then, off with you all,” he paused long enough for the bulk of the young men to start leaving, “Except you, William.”
William froze in mid-step, silently cursing his luck at having been singled out. He sighed and trudged back toward the weapons master.
Master Cuhal chuckled quietly, “You act as if someone just killed your new pup, lad. It’s nothing so bad as you might think,” he patted William on the shoulder and smiled, “You were sloppy today, lad, and that’s just not like you. You’re the best in the class; almost good enough for your first steel, yet the kind of mistakes you were making today were the sort of thing I expect from the greenest of boys. Is something wrong, lad?”
William only half-heard the weapons master’s words, fear suddenly running through him like ice-water. Something was indeed wrong, but William couldn’t speak of it. The fact that the weapons master had noticed made him wonder who else might have suspicions. Only his servant knew anything and he had been sworn to secrecy. Would Ælf have said anything? William could all but swear he would not have. They had made so sure to destroy or hide the evidence of his illness. The weapons master’s voice snapped him from his racing thoughts.
William pushed a smile to his face, hoping his voice would be steady, “I-I’m fine, Master Cuhal. I think the heat is getting to me is all. Nothing to worry about.”
Master Cuhal didn’t look entirely convinced, but accepted the young man’s words at face value, “I’ll see if your father will go back to Caer Avondrev a little early. This heat is abominable and the roads should be sound enough by now.”
“Oh, no! That won’t be necessary, Master Cuhal, I just need a bit of rest, is all. There’s no need to mention anything to Father, really.” The mention of William’s father brought cold sweat to his brow once more. The last person that needed to know anything was his father. If he found out William was sick... Well, he just didn’t need to find out.
Master Cuhal nodded and patted William on the back, guiding him to the shade and the keg of water, “Well, get something to drink and try to stay out of the sun for a while, then, hey? I’ll go let your tutors know you’ve a touch of heat sickness and to excuse you from your lessons today. Get some rest, hm?”
William nodded and gave him a grateful smile, “Yes, Master Cuhal, thank you.” The weapons master smiled in return and walked from the yard, leaving William standing alone. He was able to wait just long enough for Master Cuhal to vanish from sight before he was brought to his knees by his guts suddenly twisting and causing him to retch and vomit violently. He felt like spears were being driven into his stomach with each retch, expelling less and less each time, but still the spasms wracked him. Even through the pain-filled haze, his only thought was, Please don’t let there be too much blood, please don’t let anyone find out I’m sick.
21 June 2009
In the Days of Misspent Youth