For years Arghen has been the model warrior Under-elf. He trains and battles with the others from his underground city-state. He lives an unremarkable life. Then, one day he mercy kills an enemy soldier instead of capturing the elf for his commander to torture. Stripped of his rank and banished from his home, Arghen must find a new purpose for his life. Discover how Arghen came to find himself on the Surface in this prequel novella to Mist Gate Crossing Series.
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Old Disciplines, New Uses
A Mist Gate Crossings Novella
By Susan Bianculli
Children's Brains are Yummy BooksCopyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli
All rights reserved.
Arghen Spinam sat on his sturdy black-and-green dranth at his end of the Relkanav arena, waiting for the signal to start the passage at arms. His blackened chain and plate armor had been securely tightened, his white hair had been tucked up under his metal cap, and his blunted wooden spear was couched under his arm. He wasn't exactly nervous, but he wasn't his usual calm and collected self, either. Under-elf and dranth were about to participate for their first time ever in the highest level of mounted practice training: the dranth corps Skirmish. Though perhaps 'practice' was not quite the right word. At the Skirmish level, Under-elves had been known to have been laid-up afterwards in the healing wards if they did not acquit themselves well. But Arghen and Stalker had regularly proven themselves to Sub-leader Marceus and Captain Petrai of Tenax dranth corps, Arghen's company, as a capable pair during their scheduled mounted training sessions. Arghen's performance improvements had been so steady of late that it had forced his Captain to put Arghen's training to the test. That was what had brought Arghen to where he now waited.
The city-state's arena was set in one of the smaller high-ceilinged caverns that made up the Martial Ring's training grounds. Most of this particular cave was given over to the field, a large encircling stone fence and a compact dirt floor to define the area of combat. Between the moss and the lichen, the cavern of the city-state's arena was very different than anywhere else in Relkanav. The white air moss, which covered the cave walls everywhere within the city-state limits, was grown especially thick in this cavern. It went all the way up the walls to cover the ceiling as well, blurring the hard brown and grey stones into a softer outline. Luminescent lichen grew mixed in with the air moss and provided the soft ambient lighting everywhere in Relkanav. The lichen was also encouraged to grow on the stone fences surrounding the ring. That was to make sure the field of combat was extra bright by Under-elven standards. Arghen ignored the extra light around him — his attention was concentrated on the dranth-mounted figure across the way, wondering who his opponent would be.
"Are you certain you are ready for this?" a well-known voice said behind him.
Stalker wasn't bothered by the unanticipated speech, just like his lizard ancestors wouldn't have been. But Arghen turned with a start. He hadn't heard Captain Petrai's approach, and he mentally cursed himself for focusing so tightly on what was about to happen that he forgot to be aware of his surroundings.
She frowned up at him. "Always keep an eye or an ear out, warrior. Always. You will not know from what direction an attack may happen. Remember, there is nothing stopping the Skirmish level organizers from starting you on your feet, having knocked you off your dranth once the signal gong has sounded. Be primed — not passive."
Arghen reddened but nodded his understanding and acceptance of both the rebuke and the reminder. The Captain turned and marched back to her place at the front of the crowd gathered behind the fence.
Not only could the Skirmish levels in both dranth corps and battle corps be dangerous to the participants, there was the added flavor of possible social humiliation were a warrior to perform badly. Skirmishes were always well attended by the inhabitants of the Civilian and Leadership Rings of Relkanav, as well as by the inhabitants of the Martial Ring. The victors of each Skirmish were rewarded with either gold, favors, or prestige. Arghen knew he would choose the prestige if he won because he wanted to advance in rank. Every Lightening and Darkening, every Brightening and Dimming, he worked towards that goal: performing hard, being more than punctual, never missing a question thrown at him by a superior, obeying all orders — these were the tools by which he tried to increase his worth. But if he gained prestige in the Skirmish level, that would practically assure that his advancement would come, and come soon.
The high pitched warning gong sounded, and Arghen settled himself deeper into his saddle. Stalker picked up on his rider's movement and coiled his six legs under him, preparing to explode out onto the field. The tones of the deeper starting gong rolled through the air, and Arghen kneed Stalker into action, Skirmish spear at the ready. Cheers accompanied him as he rushed to meet his charging opponent, dirt flying out from under Stalker's claws. The armor that his opponent wore effectively disguised who it was until they were about to meet. It was then that Arghen realized he faced Sub-leader Lapideus of Gravis House dranth corps. A surge of pride mixed with concern burst in his chest. Was he really considered good enough to go against a Sub-Leader his first time out? He hoped he was.
He hunkered down further and presented his blunt wooden spear at an angle, planning to smash into her plated shoulder armor, a match of his, if she didn't block it with her spear. But she did. Both weapons shuddered, but they did not break. They passed each other too quickly for either combatant to take a chance at shoving the other out of the saddle. Arghen rode hard for his opponent's starting point and then veered in a wide turn, spear once more settled in position, to ride back at her. To his dismay he discovered that she had spun around early and was already on her way towards him, so he would not get the full amount of power behind a long charge. He gripped Stalker with his knees as best he could and prepared to block her attack. Lapideus charged him, and at the last minute Arghen swung Stalker out of the way so that she barely missed them. Excited comments and boos changing to cheers from the crowd accompanied his spinning Stalker around in a tight circle to try and get a return advantage on her. The Sub-leader must have realized what the crowd was reacting to, because she did not ride hard away to set herself up for a long charge. Instead, she also turned her dranth about as quickly as she could and met him spear-to-spear just in time.
A few strikes and blocks later, Arghen's spear broke in half. Cheers and boos rose from the watching crowd, but Arghen had been prepared for that to eventually happen. Without pausing he whipped his wooden sword from its saddle sheath. He blocked her incoming spear swipe, intended to knock him off his seat, and her spear tip shattered. To the sounds of more cheers and boos she threw aside the useless wood to the dirt of the arena and grabbed for her own wooden sword. Arghen and Lapideus fought furiously sword to sword, circling about each other while directing their dranths to bite either the opposing rider or the opposing mount. Arghen now not only had to keep himself whole but Stalker as well while guiding him successfully in the fight. The cheers and boos of the crowd made ordering harder to do, but the noise helped to simulate a real battlefield, which was part of what set the Skirmish level apart from regular training.
The battle between them went on for several more strikes, and then Arghen took a daring action. He leapt for Lapideus and bodily knocked her out of the saddle, tumbling them both to the arena floor. The two fighting dranth, feeling their riders leave their backs, immediately disengaged from each other as they had not been ordered to continue the fight. Arghen managed to be on top of Lapideus as they fell, and a knee to the chainmail protecting her midsection caused her to expel her breath forcefully. That gave him enough time to whip out his personal dagger and hold it to her throat — a winning move. The crowd went wild, and the brass voiced, round-ending gong sounded.
"The winner of round one Skirmish — Arghen Spinam!" came the organizers' excited voices, amplified through cone-shaped, dried out mushroom stalks placed around the ring.
Arghen felt justifiably proud of himself as he put away his dagger. He had just won a Skirmish his first time out! Lapideus quirked a rueful smile up at him from where she still lay regaining her breath on the arena floor.
"Good Skirmish," she said, taking off her metal cap and wiping the sweat off her pale-skinned forehead. There was a faint trace of surprise in her pale amber eyes.
Arghen stood a little taller at the praise. "Thank you, Sub-leader. Your skills and your timing are impeccable, and I am fortunate that I was given the ability to stretch myself against them. I could not have asked for a worthier opponent than yourself, and I am grateful that I was given this opportunity. You, and your example, are what I hope to continue to emulate," he said smoothly as he bowed his neck to her.
She looked pleased. He offered her a hand up which she accepted, and she turned it into a warrior's grip on the field. Cheers from the sidelines grew loud again at sight of their contact. He gladly returned it before turning and heading back to his starting position. He faltered only a little when he saw a sour-faced Petrai glare at him as she handed over a small, fat pouch to the smiling Captain of Feldspar dranth corps.CHAPTER 2
"Arghen? Let me accompany you," a voice said from behind as Arghen left the Skirmish field to walk Stalker back to his stable.
Arghen slowed his steps until Fulvus caught up with him. Fulvus was the rider positioned at his right in the dranth corps when on maneuvers and was someone whom Arghen considered a friend. They had grown up in the Military together.
"Good Skirmish!" Fulvus said.
Arghen smiled a satisfied smile, but he said nothing for fear of seeming to brag.
"You are lucky! You get to have the rest of this Lightening and the following Darkening off and will not have to report in to training until next Lightening," Fulvus finished, a little envy in his voice. "In just a short while, at the start of the next Brightening, I am going to have to report in for the usual drills. Next up for me is battle corps."
Arghen nodded but still didn't say anything. Fighting practice was a several times daily event for military members, and even those who were in the dranth corps had to participate in the battle corps exercises. Rote practice kept a warrior's moves sharp, and free-form practice allowed warriors to put their rote training into use. The Captains who closely watched all the practices reported to their Tertiusi on the status of their companies after each session. But with Arghen having competed in — and won! — the Skirmish, his time was his own until the next Lightening. That was a rare occurrence in Military life outside of the scheduled relaxation times permitted.
Fulvus sighed. "But you! Not only did you get to do a Skirmish, you were matched against Sub-leader Lapideus! How did it feel?"
"It felt good," Arghen replied. "She and I fought like equals. I think that I might have impressed her even if I had not won. I am trusting that the Tertiusi, the Secundusi, and the Primus were impressed by both of our performances."
The upper echelons of the Military always came to a Skirmish, as the matches were not scheduled all that often. Cheers and boos sounded behind Arghen and Fulvus as the next set of competitors started their Skirmish. That reminded Arghen he would need to return to the field at Darkening to receive his approbation and choose his reward from Tertius Stiractus, who commanded the forces where Arghen's Tenax corps belonged. With his prize choice to be prestige, Arghen was sure that a promotion to Sub-leader would soon follow. Both Sub-leaders of his dranth corps had been looking more pleasantly at him lately, which could mean that Marceus and Silex were starting to consider Arghen their equal. If so, that was a good sign that promotion was already nigh, meaning the prestige would clinch it.
"Let us take care of Stalker, and then go to the refectory and eat before I have to attend the next call-out," suggested Fulvus.
"All right," Arghen agreed. "I could eat."
In fact, after a Skirmish like he'd just had, eating should be something both he and Stalker should do. Arghen and Fulvus took Stalker to his home stable where the two Under-elves rubbed the dranth all over with an oil created to clean the dranth's smooth scales and then filled his double feeding troth with chunks of meat on one side and water on the other. The dranth ignored the meat at first in favor of a long drink. Arghen and Fulvus good naturedly stood back so that the dranth's eagerness would not get them soaked. It wasn't until Arghen saw Stalker actually eating that he consented to head for the refectory. The pair of Under-elves started for the nearest tunnel leading into the Martial Ring. Once in the main tunnel they turned almost immediately off into one of the twisty passages with its profusion of unmarked doors, and they headed for the particular door that opened into the refectory for the dranth corps.
The refectory was a large room of smooth stone walls sparsely decorated with the banners of the various Relkanavian corps symbols. The structural support of the room was provided by carved pillars of stylized dranths colored muted blacks and greens. They were spaced fairly far apart in a measured line, with their stone noses to the ceiling and tails firmly braced against the floor. The air moss and light lichen on the ceiling had also been cultivated into interlocking pictures of dranth.
Arghen and Fulvus headed to the long, polished, wide ledged serving window cut through the back wall of the room, which allowed them to see into the food preparation area. They were served their meals and utensils with the customary swiftness by the team of pale grey Kobolds who ran the kitchen. It wasn't before long that Arghen and Fulvus joined the other members of the varied dranth corps who were there ahead of them. Arghen was greeted by several of his fellow Tenax riders as he sat down on the padded benches at the polished stone table.
"Arghen, congratulations!" and "Well done, Arghen!" were some of the greetings he received as he ate. Arghen nodded thanks at each who spoke to him. Even Marceus and Silex dropped by to congratulate him before leaving the room for other duties.
"Congratulations, warrior! If I had had more confidence in you, I would have wagered on you instead of against you," said Captain Petrai, coming up quietly behind him all of a sudden and speaking to him.
Her mouth twitched in annoyance when Arghen did not jump in surprise again. He nodded at her politely, his mouth full. Petrai looked at Fulvus, who slid over on the stone bench to make room for her to sit down beside Arghen.
"Thank you, Captain. Logic would dictate that a bet be placed on any Sub-leader against a mere warrior such as myself in any contest," Arghen said diplomatically, swallowing. He changed the subject slightly, not liking the way she eyed him. "But I was unaware that betting was sanctioned at a Military function, like it is at the civilian fighting arenas?"
"Oh, it is not officially sanctioned. But as the Primus turns a blind eye to what happens during upper echelon, ah, socializing ...," she said lightly, letting the sentence trail off with a forced smile.
Behind her Arghen could see Fulvus roll his eyes, and he fought not to grin.
"I believe I can guess what you will claim as your prize," Petrai went on. "You will choose prestige, will you not?"
Arghen bowed his neck to her. "You are correct, Captain."
She looked annoyed, although her words sounded normal. "I was certain that would be the case. Be careful, near-Sub-Leader, that you do not get too big for your armor just yet. That should wait until after this Darkening."
With a sour smile she stood and left the refectory. When she was gone, Arghen's whole table exploded into more well-wishes and congratulations on his almost promotion.
Fulvus, sliding back over to clap Arghen on the shoulder and grip his arm in a warrior's grasp, said, "Congratulations! And can you believe it? The Captain made a joke, and not entirely at your expense!"
"It does seem unlikely, does it not?" Arghen agreed. "But the important thing is that she has nearly confirmed my promotion. I am to be a Sub-leader!"
The congratulations spread as word did, and soon Arghen was surrounded by Under-elves from the other dranth corps as well as his own. Even Sub-leader Lapideus, whom he had beaten in the Skirmish, came over to give him congratulations and a warrior's greeting.
Excerpted from Old Disciplines, New Uses by Susan Bianculli. Copyright © 2015 Susan Bianculli. Excerpted by permission of Children's Brains are Yummy Books.
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