Hyoridise drilled them in the strange animal people's style of combat nearly every day for three weeks. During that time Nathan learned a lot, not the least of which was that he had no idea what he was doing.

As promised, Beltere had delivered his cadalshen the morning after their visit to the smithy. Somewhat in awe of the weapon, and admiring of it's beauty, Nathan had taken it to practice. Hyoridise, however, had kept him using the wooden practice swords. It wasn't until just that morning, three weeks into their training, that she had finally declared he might be ready to try using a real blade.

Nathan stood at the edge of the dirt practice ring, as nervous as the first day he'd sparred with the Weapons Master. Behind him sat his friends, in various states of exhausted and bruised from their turns at lessons. Behind them stood Ject, casually watching the proceedings, and no doubt highly amused. One of the fox brothers was always in attendance at these practice sessions. Sometimes Hyoridise called on them to help her in her instruction.

Hyoridise herself stood just opposite Nathan at the other edge of the dirt ring. As always she wore the sleeveless green tunic of Miarete's guard. That day, however, she also wore a gleaming sword belted at her hip. She drew the weapon in one smooth motion and held it almost casually before her. Nathan knew better than that. From his weeks of practice with her he knew that she was ready to spring into action. She raised one whiskered eyebrow at him, as he continued to stand and stare.

Nathan licked his lips and answered her by drawing his own sword. He didn't have a nice sword belt like she did, and he wasn't sure what to do with the sheath. Finally he simply thrust the metal scabbard into the soft dirt at the edge of the ring and let it stand upright there. Hyoridise looked mildly approving, then beckoned him closer.

"Stand beside me." She said firmly, as soon as he had stepped into the ring. "Move as I do. Move through the Forms, from the beginning."

Nathan nearly groaned aloud, but he did as she bade. The first thing she had taught them all were what she and the other soldiers called the Forms. They reminded Nathan a bit of what little he had seen of Tai Chi. The series of movements were slow, controlled, and ranged from simple stances to intricate fighting moves. Hyoridise had drilled them all over and over again. Every morning before starting practice, they were to run through the Forms, from the beginning stances to the more complex attack and defense maneuvers. Hyoridise was exacting in her expectations, and anyone who made a mistake, had to start over. Nathan was beginning to think he could move through the Forms in his sleep.

As he and the Weapons Master both began to shift into the first stances, she spoke again, softly but commandingly. "Learn the feel of your sword. Feel the weight of it, the balance. Learn where it begins and ends, then let the line blur as it becomes a part of your arm."

Nathan brought the weapon up into the next position, and was startled at how different it was compared to the wooden practice sword he was used to. It wasn't just that it was heavier, it had a completely different center of balance. Still, he found the familiar movements easy to adjust to the different weapon.

Like he did most times that he was running through the Forms, Nathan let his mind wander. He watched Hyoridise's sword as she swept it up into the first of the attack Forms. He mimicked her movements, but it was her sword that he studied. Unlike his, her cadalshen bore a slightly curved blade, wider at the tip like a scimitar. The hilt had a simple guard that wrapped protectively around her furred knuckles. In that curving guard was a deep indentation cupping her own colorless orb.

Nathan let his arm flow into the next motion, a sideways sweep of the blade. His arm was unsure of the new weight of the real sword in his hand, but he managed to keep the movement steady. He was getting better. The sword was feeling more and more natural to wield. Still it bothered him a little. The fact that it would drink his blood was a constant weight on his mind. He had to admit though, Beltere had crated a beautiful weapon.

As Jennar had suggested, the blade was straight and slender. It gleamed silver in the sunlight. The simple crossguard ended in an elegant loop that held his red orb snugly. The handle was wrapped with crisscrossing strips of dark brown leather, and topped with a coil of silver wire wrapped tight into a sphere for the pommel. It wasn't ornate, but it was handsome in it's simplicity. Not for the first time, Nathan wondered how much Beltere had learned about him through the measuring handshake.

Nathan almost laughed inwardly at those thoughts. A few weeks ago he wouldn't have known the terminology surrounding a sword, or even how to hold one properly. Though he still wasn't sure on that one. Hyoridise had told him what she knew, but her hands were fundamentally different from his. They had found out in the three weeks that there were some movements that she could perform that were not humanly possible.

Just then Hyoridise made a chiding noise in her throat, and Nathan knew he had let his thoughts wander too far. He had slipped a fraction in what were supposed to be fluid motions. He hadn't messed up enough for her to make him start over, though. The noise was just a warning.

Nathan moved gratefully into the first of the defensive Forms. He was nearing the end. If he was lucky, Hyoridise would grant him a break after they finished. He knew he had come a long way, but he could also tell they had a long way to go. The number of bruises he had from yesterday alone told him that he was no where near capable of keeping himself from being killed in a real fight. Hell, the very thought of actually fighting with his new sword terrified him. It was one of those things that they all felt, but none of them said.

Nathan could see it in his friends' eyes when they sat around the fire before sleep. They all complained of Hyoridise's strict lessons, but there was always a hint of gratitude in their protests. As long as they were still here training with her, they weren't out battling for their lives. She taught them all, though it was Nathan she worked with the most. They were all working under the assumption that it was he Paortsunazei would come after the most strongly. He was the only one to get a weapon specially made for him. Nathan wasn't sure if he considered that complimentary or not.

Colter had impressed Hyoridise with the strength of his baseball swing, but not his coordination. She'd also looked at the massive Mag-lite hanging from his belt and wondered why he thought he needed any other weapon. After a laughing attempt to explain that it wasn't just a club, Colter had shrugged and tried swinging it around. Hyoridise had also hefted it and given it a practice swing. When she handed it back she had a predatory gleam in her eyes and declared it weapon enough.

Joe proved to be less enthusiastic than Nathan would have thought. For all he had a passion for making period weaponry, he didn't seem very interested in wielding it. Perhaps it was just his gentle nature winning out. Still, he was competent enough with the wooden practice swords. After a few lessons Hyoridise tried giving him what looked like just a wooden walking stick. It was about three feet long, and maybe two inches in diameter, with blunt ends. She showed Joe a few different Forms with that weapon. It seemed more about tripping and pinning an opponent than the blades. Joe seemed to like that better, and was learning fast how versatile it could be.

Pauly was about the only one of them able to keep up with Hyoridise in terms of speed. In his first few bouts he surprised her with how quickly he could duck out of the way of her attacks. Unfortunately, that was about all he could manage. After a few more tries, she gave him a short, straight bladed knife and told him to spar with that. Without the cumbersome weight of the larger sword, Pauly did quite well with making the most of his shorter stature and quick agility. Unlike his brother, he thought the whole exercise a lot of fun.

Julia also found the lessons more appealing than the rest did. She had a leg up on them as well. Having been taking archery lessons for years, she was more than a passing good shot. There was some difficulty finding a bow sized properly for her, but once one was located she was immediately in Hyoridise's good graces. The cat woman had even gone so far as to let Julia pick out a close range weapon instead of just handing one over like she had done for the guys. Knowing that her strength was going to lie in her marksmanship, Julia had asked for a knife like Paul's.

Nathan sighed with relief as he stepped into the final stance. He was finally finished. As soon as Hyoridise too was done, Nathan let his right arm drop to his side. His muscles protested loudly at the extra weight they had been forced to swing around.

"Good." Hyoridise nodded her approval, but wore a truly sadistic smile. Nathan had a sinking feeling he knew what was coming next. "Now move through the Forms again, this time opposite Ject."

This time Nathan did groan aloud.

Hyoridise only smiled wider. "He shall tell you when you may stop." With that she dismissed him and beckoned to Joe.

Nathan moved reluctantly towards where Ject waited smilingly at the edge of the ring. As Joe passed they shared a tired smile and a tag team high five.

Nathan trudged over to the fox slowly, but without hesitation. Ject was practically beaming. They had been through this routine before. Nathan had even done it with Jennar a few times. This was just the first time with real swords. Nathan would run through the Forms, but instead of slow movements, he would perform each motion as fast as a real strike should be. Ject would provide the object to be struck and defended from. Because it was always the same pattern, Nathan didn't have to think about which move to make. It was simply practice to strengthen his arm, and get him used to aiming at a target.

Ject knew the Forms better than Nathan; he had to to be able to do them backwards as an opponent. The fox's grin never wavered through the whole exercise. In fact, the smile only spread at the clanging of the first strikes. Despite the initial oddness of the different weight and balance, Nathan quickly got the hang of swinging the real sword.

"You really enjoy this, don't you?" Nathan huffed the accusation between strikes.

Ject showed another inch of fang and swept his own cadalshen up to block the next Form. "Save your breath and strike harder!"

Nathan didn't respond, and tried to swing with more strength. Still, with the predetermined pattern to the strikes, Nathan had a chance truly look at Ject's cadalshen too. Like his own, it was straight bladed. The whole sword was wider and longer, even as Ject himself was considerably bigger than Nathan. The hilt was wrought out of gleaming brass. The guard was made of thick wires coiled into heavy circles that filled each other. At the center of the rings, just to the side of the blade, sat Ject's orb. Even the pommel ended in a wide ring of brass. Such geometric ornamentation seemed odd to Nathan. He couldn't quite call it beautiful, but it was fascinating.

Nathan swung into the last of the attack Forms, then abruptly found himself on the defensive. Now it was Ject striking and he defending according to each of the defensive Forms in turn. He threw every last ounce of strength he had into the sword, but he still felt battered by every hit. Ject was not taking it easy on him now that they were using real blades. The fox kept grinning and struck with exacting precision right up to the last move.

When at last they were finished, only the disapproving look he knew he would get from the fox kept Nathan from sitting down in the dirt right there. As it was he dropped the sword point first into the soft ground and leaned on the hilt.

Ject let his fierce grin fade to just a genuine smile. "You're improving by leaps and bounds. Truly you must have some natural talent."

"Sure." Nathan panted out. "If you say so."

"I do." Ject nodded towards where Hyoridise was drilling Joe still. "It takes more than being a soldier to be a teacher of soldiers. Before I followed Jennar into the cadal, I wished to be a teacher of soldiers here. I spent much time learning from Weapons Master Hyoridise. Not how to be a soldier, but how to be a teacher."

Suddenly Nathan realized he had no reference for the fox's age. He had always thought of Ject as young, but was that only in comparison to Timmolin?

"How old are you?"

Ject looked surprised at the question, but answered readily enough. "Thirty-two summers."

"Okay, so if you were to die of old age, how old would you be then?"

"If I don't fall in battle?"

"Right." Nathan almost smiled at the perplexed look on Ject's face. Though he was honestly curious how these animal peoples' ages corresponded to humans', he also knew a way to stall practice when he saw it.

"Well," Ject's brows furrowed in contemplation. "My sire's sire is nearing his hundred and tenth summer, and is expected to live at least ten more. How long do your people live?"

"If a human makes it to one hundred, it's a big deal." Nathan considered for a moment, then added, "My dad's dad died when he was only seventy-two."

"And how old are you?"


It was Nathan's turn to grin then. Ject looked completely flummoxed.

"Barely more than a cub!"

Nathan shrugged. "Where I come from, I'll be considered an adult in a few more months."

"So very different." Ject shook his head and ran a paw over his ears. "For us, we are no longer cubs when we have passed twenty-five summers."

"Ject!" Hyoridise's stern voice rang out over the practice yard. Both Nathan and the fox flinched at the sound and turned like scolded children. "Your time training here was not so long ago that you have forgotten what we do here, was it?"

Ject dipped his head respectfully. "No indeed, Weapons Master."

Hyoridise gave them both a stern look, then went back to practice. She had apparently finished with Joe while they were talking, and had moved on to Colter.

"You heard the Weapons Master." Ject softened his commanding tone with a saucy wink. "Once more through the Forms and I shall let you have a rest."