Planting the sole of his foot on my chest, he pushed me back onto the icy ground with a contemptuous shove, sending my sword skittering across the cobblestone. My entire body ached, and my breath came in ragged gasps. It had been an agonising effort to force myself to rise to my knees—and now here I was again, a shuddering mess of sweat and grime.
As I lay there panting up at the night sky, a pair of steel-clad boots thudded down in front of me, signalling the arrival of my assailant. I fought to raise my eyes to their owner, blinking away the spots of light that were dancing at the edge my vision. Failure to show respect was not a matter treated lightly, and I had no desire to discover the consequences.
The Captain's cobalt eyes regarded me emotionlessly. "What is your name?"
If I had not been almost delirious with exhaustion, I would have been confused by the question. In that moment, however, I would have done anything to appease him—to earn a moment's respite.
"S-Sa..." I coughed, struggling to keep myself from retching. "Sabre, Captain. M-my name…is Sabre."
Gods I sounded pathetic.
"Sabre?" His short bark of laughter resounded inside my throbbing head, and it took everything I had to not squeeze my eyes shut against the stabbing pain. "I see no Sabre here—only a weak-willed wench grovelling at my feet."
In the windows behind him, I could see dark figures silhouetted against the frosted glass, watching me. Mocking me.
Captain Arcturus dug the toe of his boot into my side, as if to remind me of the reason for their unfailing attendance every week. "You wish to end this? Then best me."
I struggled to lift myself off the sleet-covered ground, arms shaking under the weight of my armour. Dimly, part of me realised that much of next day's free time would be spent in front of the anvil, hammering away the blows rained down upon it by the Captain's tireless arm.
As I began staggering towards my sword, its muddied blade glinting defiantly in the scattered torchlight, his voice followed me across the courtyard. He was trailing behind leisurely, each one of his footfalls precise and calculated.
"Do you know what I see?"
I could not answer. It was hard enough to keep stumbling forward in a straight line.
Another step. "I see someone who has lost the will to fight."
I watch her kneeling at her place before the bonfire, hiding from the world behind a veil of silver-blonde hair.
One of my feet slipped on the slick ground, and I fell sprawling into a pool of sludge and half-melted snow.
A third, closer this time. "I see someone who has lost all hope."
The flame sputters, and I see her nibble at her lower lip uncertainly. After a moment's hesitation, she reaches into the folds of her ash-blackened robes and produces a single twig.
Reaching out unseeingly, I felt my clammy fingers close around the sword's hilt.
A fourth step; his shadow fell over me. "I see someone who has lost to will to live."
With a murmured prayer, she feeds the tiny branch into the fire, coaxing a few sparks from its yellow core. My heart clenches in my chest, and I step out into the wavering light.
With a strangled cry, I lurched to my feet and lunged at him. The clash of steel rang off the grey walls as I hacked and swung blindly, nine years of gruelling drills being consumed in a blaze of anger—a cloud of fear.
She smiles up at me weakly as I approach, sweeping loose strands of hair away from her face with a pale hand. She tries to hide it, but I can see the wet tracks where her tears have run down her soot-streaked face.
The sound of breaking metal penetrated the haze in my mind, and I found myself crushed against the far wall.
As my vision gradually began to clear, I could not prevent the gasp that escaped from my chapped lips.
Arcturus was panting heavily before me, his breath hot on my exposed face. Blood was trickling from a gash on his brow, thin rivulets seeping into his greying beard. He had abandoned his weapon, and was using both of his hands to pin my sword arm above my head. Looking past him, I could see the reason why.
His sword was jutting out of the snow in the centre of the courtyard, its blade snapped clean in half a few inches above the guard.
Staring at Arcturus in shock, I heard her hitching voice in my head before slumping unconscious to the ground, overwhelmed by fatigue.
"F-forgive me, sister."
A musky scent welcomed me back to the world, and I kept my eyes closed as I waited for everything to settle inside my battered skull. All the muscles in my body felt as though they had been beaten by the blacksmith's hammer; I had never felt so completely and utterly spent.
Gingerly, I sniffed at the air again, taking care not to move my head any more than my neck could bear.
I could smell myrrh. I was in the infirmary then.
A wave of relief washed over me, and my fingers released their anxious grip on the bed sheets. I had not been taken to the cells after all.
The rising smile died on my lips as I recognised his gravelly voice.
Stepping through the doorway and into the dimly-lit room, Captain Arcturus pulled a chair over to my bedside. Its wooden legs scraped against the floor loudly, and I lay in trepidation as he arranged himself leisurely in his seat.
"That was quite a feat you accomplished tonight, Sabre." His eyes gave nothing away.
"Captain, I have no words to express my—" I began.
He cut me off. "Spare me the apology."
I swallowed nervously as Arcturus leant forward, the lines of his rugged face illuminated by the lone candle on the bedside table.
"You achieved what I have asked of you—all of you—since you arrived as mere children."
He sat back, and I could feel the confusion etched into my face.
"But Captain, I marked you...it is forbidden."
His eyes glinted in the candlelight. "And is this not the night you forgo the law?"
I remained silent, and he rose from the chair.
"Return to your chambers within the hour. You will need the rest."
With that, the Captain strode out of the room, leaving me alone with my thoughts.