The Roc Song Company – Episode 4

Zoiya: Sparring Practice

Zoiya has been swayed by Zachary to participate in the competition for membership in a new adventuring company…but only for sparring fun, of course.

The group is gathered in a circular fenced-off space at the back of the inn, the backdrop a full view of the sprawling peaks of the Squall Mountains, extending over the horizon. Standing at the far end of the arena, on the fence, is the town crier from the tavern the previous night. His half-orc height makes him taller than the rest, but now he balances perfectly on the top fence beam above everyone like a podium. Contrary to the commoner garb he wore yesterday, blending in with the tavern patrons, he now wears a cuirass with metal plates that cut off at his knees. The rest of his legs and feet are bare, seemingly unfazed by potential splinters or the cold. There’s no weapon attached at his belt—typical for a commoner, uncommon for an adventurer—just various pouches, and what appears to be a flute.

“Gather around, yes, we’re beginning shortly,” the half-orc says, wearing a wide grin.

The group forms a semi-circle around the half-orc. I count eight of us. Two other humans, three elves, a man that lacks the elongated facial features of an elf, fitting more those of a human, yet still shares their lithe body and pointy ears, and one dwarf, missing half the height of everyone else. Most carry weapons prominently displayed, standing with shoulders back and heads held high like they feel the need to compete for looking tough. 

I watch the dwarven woman’s eyes flicker over me, with my haphazard excuse for armor, and what I assume is a face pink from the cold. Not very intimidating, I imagine. The dwarf appears to think so too, sneering in a way that conveys she thinks she can eat me alive. If nothing else comes of this evening, I at least want to prove her wrong in that assumption.

These people have clearly spent days preparing for this moment, and I impulsively decided to join them. If I actually believe I have a chance against warriors like these, I’m just going to end up embarrassing myself. The last time I fought anyone was in the coming-of-age gladiator fights of my teens. Since then, I’ve only ever picked up my axe or drawn my bow when hunting—and that’s a very one-sided fight.

Before I get the chance to leave and save face, the trial begins with the half-orc’s introduction. He raises his arms, unfolding long sleeves that fall like butterfly wings of his bright gold cloak. “Greetings. Call me Tok. I’m gathering some hooligans to form a company of traveling adventurers to commission quests around the land.” So the man building the company happens to be the town crier who spread that very news. That’s one way to guarantee word gets around. “This evening, you will attempt to prove that you’re not a total idiot. If I like you, you’re in.” While the gruffness of orc voices are naturally intimidating, he negates all of that by how animated and smiley he is. Each word is overly enunciated, and I wonder how he can get away with moving his mouth so much without stabbing himself with his tucks. He speaks with grandeur that doesn’t feel justified for a crowd of eight in the back alley of a small town inn.

“A worthy warrior must understand what they are signing up for. We become battle brothers to traverse perilous lands. We protect each other while facing Vos’ahria’s most terrifying creatures. We live in the elements, with only occasional shelter when one can afford it from our hard-earned gold. It is a hard life and a dangerous life. I make no promises that you’ll return alive.”

It sounds like Tok is trying to threaten us, saying all this to scare those who are easily deterred. But despite the weight of his words, he is grinning through his entire speech. This is a game to him. Clearly he has already accepted the risks and still thinks adventuring is devilishly fun.

“With that,” he claps his hands together, “if that’s not a life you can commit to, you should leave now.”

There it is. My last chance to back out.

No one moves. I freeze awkwardly. I’m not really here because I’m seeking that future. I have my own quest, after all. But what happens after that? I wanted to see the world, then discovered I was naive to think I was prepared to do that on my own. The world breeds monsters a hundred times as fearsome as the worst I’ve faced. The kind that a single warrior, no matter how skilled, couldn’t possibly defeat on their own.

The dwarven woman stares directly at me as if she expects me to leave. As if she’s challenging me to submit to her expectations that I am weak, that I am a coward.

Sure, going looking for adventure is a lot more dangerous than facing it as it comes. But the world is dangerous as it is—now I will be facing it in numbers. While being paid to do so. That sounds good enough for me.

Either way, I have to actually be chosen into the company first, though. I can weigh my options and make a decision later.

And so I stay.

Tok claps his hands together. “Then let us begin. Introduce yourselves to the group, and everyone pay attention—this is the first meeting of your future brothers-in-arms.”

The eight contestants shuffle awkwardly to face each other. There’s a period of silence with darting looks between us while figuring out who should start. Until Zachary takes purposeful steps into the makeshift circle we’ve made, hips leading his gait. The green cloth is no longer tied around his forehead, instead used to tie his long black hair into a ponytail at the base of his neck. He winks at me for no reason, and I roll my eyes.

“Zachary,” he begins with a grin, “from Coniston. Left cause I was tired of being a big fish in a small pond. I solve problems with my smile and my fists and ask questions later. And, you know, swords too, but…eh.” He stretches his arms above his head, and when lowering them pauses to flex his biceps, trying to play it off casually as if the plan wasn’t to show off all along. “Pleasure to see you all on the battlefield.” He flicks one last grin and then rejoins the circle.

“I bet they love me already,” he whispers proudly to me as the dwarven woman takes his place in the center.

“I bet they think you’re an ass,” I snap back, “and they’d be right.”

The dwarf holds the pole of a large axe across her shoulders and shifts her weight to one side. “Name’s Jorta,” she says gruffly. “Larger the weapon, more fun to swing, that’s what I say. And the less likely to break. This is my second axe—hope it holds up.”

I see eyes widen across the group, understandably so. I do not want to be on the other end of a swing that can snap a battleaxe.

The next one is a human wearing what I decide is chainmail, fitting the descriptions I’ve heard. He carries a shield with remnants of a heraldry marking, the rest having been worn off or painted over. I don’t recognize the elements that I can make out. I wonder if he belongs to whatever noble family the symbol represents, or if he stole the shield after conquering their relative. Either one would be a trophy worth displaying.

The man bows formally. “I am Nevahl. I fight with the strength of my sword and the blessings of Sofya on my side. It would be an honor to fight alongside any of you.” He smiles warmly and leaves the center, tucking his shield close to his body to fit in the space.

I know very little about the pantheon of the civilized people, but I recognize Sofya as one of the names. Goddess of the Sage, I believe, part of the Champion triangle. If I knew more, it might give me a clue to where Nevahl is from. The worship of various gods and goddesses is heavily tied to the geography of the land.

I decide to go next, making my way into the circle. Suddenly all eyes are on me, and my palms begin to sweat at the attention. “Zoiya,” I start, “from the Skygrove Forest. Blue Wing Tribe.” Unable to think of anything else I want to say, I leave it at that and step back into the group.

The last of the humans goes next, a young woman without a weapon in sight on her person. “I am Margot. This company would be my first line of work after completing training at Helgerra Institute of Arcane Arts. I am looking forward to making use of my studies and years of practice.”

The Helgerra Institute is just outside Camoria, the capital city of Vos’ahria. That much I know. This girl must come from money.

The half elf, half human steps forward, holding what appears to be an oversized walking stick to the side. “I’m Landon. I used to work for Gorvan’s mercenary company, but that fell through. Heard about you all and decided to give it a shot.”

The two elves are left. One is a woman, appearing to be near middle-age, though honestly, who knows with elves. “My name is Enrel.” Her voice is soft and smooth. “I came to the Squall Mountains seeking peace and to hide from the evil of the world. In the end I decided I would rather take part in removing it.”

The man introduces himself as Qinlar, then says with a wicked grin, “This may be the only time you see me.”

I’m not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean, but Qinlar doesn’t seem to care to explain.

With introductions concluded, Tok jumps down from the fence and lands nimbly in the dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust. He claps to call everyone’s attention. “We start with mind challenges! Adventurers face traps and shifty magical evil people, and you must prove you can be smarter than them.” Tok points to each one of us and mouths along while counting, then frowns. “There are eight of you, so…make two groups of three and one of two. They’ll have to be uneven, I guess.”

“Why not just two groups of four then?” the elf woman asks, dressed in a cloak of red and gold. Unlike most of the others, she hasn’t drawn a weapon to her hand. It’s probably hidden under her cloak, as if she thinks concealing it will give her an advantage on the others.

The bard thinks for a moment, his eyebrows scrunched up as if the calculations were difficult to put together. “You know what, you’re right. That makes more sense. Two groups of four!”

We all shuffle to split the line. I’m with Zachary, the dwarf Jorta, and Landon, the man with the large walking stick. Tok walks up to our group and presents us with an object. It’s a small cube, the size of my palm, with a variety of colored squares on each of the faces. He hands it to Landon, then passes another of the cubes to the other group. “You have been presented with a magic puzzle box,” Tok explains. “Figure out how to open it. Go!”

Landon turns the box in his hands. “The first step in magical puzzles is to look for patterns.” He counts the different colors out loud. “Six colors. Do they repeat in any specific way?”

“If there is a pattern, it’s complicated.” I observe. Some of the squares of the same color are touching each other, whereas some aren’t. Groups of the same color have anywhere from two to four squares, in a variety of arrangements.

Landon brings the cube up closer to his face. “I don’t see a button to press of any kind.”

“Perhaps, we have to ask it nicely,” Zachary says smugly. “Please, oh please, magic box. Open up so we can win this competition.”

Unsurprisingly, nothing changes.

“Give me that,” Jorta snaps, and snatches the box from Landon’s hands. “Think I could break any magical barrier on it?” She begins turning the box around, same as Landon was doing, but much quicker. Her aggressive movements shift the cube slightly.

“Wait!” I say, and Jorta stops, with a blink of surprise that I made a new advancement. “You turned one of the sides. Look.”

The four of us look closer to find that the top group of squares has rotated off center, breaking the cube form. Jorta pushes it and the section keeps rotating.

“Good catch!” Landon says, and I’m jarred slightly by the praise. “I’m a bit disappointed I didn’t figure that out myself. Do the other parts do that?”

Jorta tries, but the other sections don’t budge. She turns the top section into place, reforming the cube in a new position, and tries again. This time, the other sections rotate just like the top one.

“So we’re not trying to find a pattern,” Landon concludes. “We’re trying to create one.”

This activity is nothing like I’ve ever done before, but I’m almost enjoying it. The socialization is very foreign. These people are strangers to me, and yet we are discussing and collaborating like a hunting party would track an animal. Why could it be so easy to harmonize with a group that’s missing that kin-like bond? “But what kind of pattern?” I ask.

Jorta taps Landon in a gesture for him to move. He steps to the side and she tilts the cube around in direct torchlight for a better look in the darkness of nightfall.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Zachary chimes in. We all shift our gaze from the cube to him expectantly. It isn’t obvious to me, at least. “Six colors. Six sides to a cube.” He pauses, as if waiting for it to click, but no one says anything. “There are nine squares of each color. We have to arrange the squares so it’s one color per side.”

Once he says it, I immediately realize he’s right. It makes sense. The question is, how do we do that?

Jorta begins rotating each side haphazardly, trying to get any and all colors to line up. “We have to start somewhere,” she responds to our worried looks. Landon watches her movements and makes multiple attempts to cut in and advise on which rotations to make. I look over at the other group and see that they’ve figured out the trick as well, and are now collectively arguing on who gets to hold and adjust the cube while the others observe or advise.

We spend the next ten minutes trying out best to line up the colors. It’s a lot easier said than done. We’re sure we have the solution to opening the box. It just turns out that the real puzzle was executing the solution. By this time, we’ve got about half of the sides of four colors lined up, and our progress slows down significantly now that we have to be more intentional about each movement not to mess up our progress. The other group doesn’t seem to be any closer. Tok has been walking around, observing. He asked what we are trying to do and we told him what we believe the solution to be. But now, the bard stops at the middle of the groups and tells us we can stop.

He says, “It appears it takes a lot longer than I thought to actually open the box, so we can leave it there. Given that both groups had the same idea on how to open them, I’m going to assume it’s the right one.”

“You mean you don’t know?” the young wizard girl asks.

Tok shrugs. “I bought those from a traveling magician. Might’ve spent a week trying to figure out how they work until I gave up. I must say, it’s impressive how quickly you all were able to solve that for me. I must be working with a very smart collection of recruits.”

I look between my group, thinking that their ability to solve a puzzle this simple hasn’t told me any more about their intelligence. Though I suppose he did say that these tests were to prove we weren’t idiots, and this puzzle did achieve that. But only just barely.

“I’m guessing our future company leader may not exactly be the brightest,” Zachary says under his breath, and Jorta snickers.

Tok retrieves the two puzzle boxes and announces the next task. “Now for the most obvious of trials: pitting you against each other in a fight! Fights will be one-on-one, paired with another of similar fighting style, until one surrenders. Only surface injuries please—we don’t want anyone to die from a contest in good fun. Winning doesn’t guarantee you into the company, by the way. Let me know your weapon of choice for the melee and we’ll create pairs.

When Tok gets to me, I tell him I’ll be fighting with my axes. While I’m stronger with the bow, I don’t spot anyone else with ranged weapons, so I imagine I couldn’t do much with a bow against someone swinging at me with a broadsword. I can be quick on the draw, but it’s hard to shoot accurately and run away at the same time. And I can’t pull punches with arrows—I’m not out to kill anyone today.

Tok pairs me with Qinlar, who battles with a dagger in each hand. Same setup, quicker maneuvers. I can win in a bind from force of strength, but his blades will be small targets to catch when attempting to block.

The fights awaken something in me that hasn’t been present for a while. It calls me back to the dirt arena, deep in the Skygrove Forest, where the young warriors of the new generation show the tribe everything they’ve learned. I can hear the clashing of blades, feel the dirt on my face as clouds of it are blown up only to be carried away by the wind. I see the crowd of eager spectators, cheering on a contestant just for the sake of battle rather than any personal stakes in the fight. We battled for the glory of the tribe, knowing our peers were watching us, our parents were watching us, our elders were watching us, our ancestors were watching us. It sounds like a lot of pressure, and yet it was exhilarating. Above all, we sparred because it was fun, and there was nothing like the thrill of battle.

My tournament had come and gone. I thought I would never spar to an audience like that again, forever a spectator for future generations to have their chance. And yet I am here, and this is the same. I become enthralled by the battle as soon as Zachary’s shortsword hits Landon’s staff braced between two hands raised above his head. The six others shout at the combatants, and I am swept up in the excitement, cheering for both of them and neither. My heart pounds, and I feel myself bouncing slightly from all the built up energy that I am ready to unleash when it’s my turn. There’s nothing like this feeling, and I’m immediately pulled back in, overwhelming any other senses.

Landon bludgeons Zachary in the stomach with the end of the walking stick that he apparently uses as a weapon, and Zachary doubles over and falls backward into the dirt. Landon presses his staff down on Zachary’s chest, pinning him against the ground. I roar and pump a fist in the air with the others as Landon cheers with us for his victory, then offers Zachary a hand up to his feet. He takes it, standing back up tall and shaking Landon’s hand before dropping it.

“Fair fight,” Zachary says as he rejoins the lineup. He spins around and points at Landon. “But next time, it’ll be you on your ass,” he shouts back with a grin.

Landon salutes him and leans on his staff slightly. “I’ve faced a lot worse than you. You can’t flirt your way around a giant. You’ve got a lot to learn. Maybe one day you’ll grow into that head of yours.”

Zachary only winks in response.

“Who next?” Tok asks the group.

Margot and Enrel, paired together, both step forward. Neither of them carry weapons or wear armor, instead adorned in fine cloaks. Those must be difficult to fight in. Enrel sneers as the two take their battle positions, contrary to her soft and peaceful nature before. Margot is clearly nervous and raises her arms stiffly to prepare. These are learned moves, and not yet natural.

Tok calls for the fight to begin. Enrel charges Margot as the girl backs away, waving her hands and speaking something. Enrel gets to her and lands two punches in her shoulder. The crowd flinches with each impact. Margot’s movements are interrupted, and she takes several hits before she gets a hand free to hastily draw in the air. And I realize, she is drawing in the air—where her hands go, a purple thread follows until it completes some sort of symbol. The words she says end with an exclamation, and suddenly Enrel freezes. She just stops moving, mid-swing, paralyzed.

The other recruits are tense as they watch this fight, with none of the cheers and the jests of the last. The energy of this fight is far more serious as if each feels like they have to prove something.

Margot doesn’t hesitate—she runs away from her opponent, all the way to the other side of the arena, far away from any of us. She gets to the end just as Enrel is mobile again and charges for the girl, but Margot is already speaking another incantation, drawing a different symbol in the air. A small ball of fire shoots through the air and slams into Enrel as she’s running. As soon as one is off, Margot’s drawing another, sending bead of fire after bead of fire. Enrel dodges the second but takes the third on her thigh. She lets out a yelp, stops in her tracks, and stumbles to the ground. Margot lowers her hands as Enrel shifts her cloak to show a circular burn spot on her leg, torn through her pants.

A few of the spectators gasp, but I’m still watching Margot. She had said she had trained at Helgerra Institute of Arcane Arts, so I should have been more prepared for what I was about to see. The elders would tell us fairy tales about wizards and warlocks and sorcerers while we were children. We knew magic was real, not just a lie the elders told us to believe the world held more secrets than it appeared, but our tribe was very removed from it all. I had heard tales, I had believed it, I had imagined what it would look like someday, but there’s nothing like actually seeing it.

I’m snapped from my daze as Tok walks through the crowd and stands beside Enrel. Margot’s joined us now, and stands seeing the damage she’s done. Tok takes the flute from a side pouch on his pants and raises it to his lips. He begins to play an upbeat and jovial tune, and after a few moments of listening, I feel a sudden rush of energy buzz inside me, like when Tokarl would pass me a cup of her strongest tea. I blink, a bit dizzy, and when my eyes refocus I realize that Enrel’s wound is entirely healed. There’s just a large hole in the thigh of her pants to normal skin as if nothing had happened.

Yesterday, I hadn’t seen any magic. Now I’ve seen magic for war and magic for healing. I’m already learning so much about the world.

“Right then,” Tok says. He offers Enrel a hand. She looks at it for a moment, then stands up on her own, leaving him there holding it out in anticipation. She does mumble a “thanks” under her breath for the healing before leaving his side. “Fight three of four, let’s go.”

One look at Qinlar and I realize that that’s our turn. I raise both axes out of the leather loops at my sides and grip them tightly. Only now that it matters do I register that night has fully fallen over the mountains, and now I’m left stranded to fight in the dark. The moon glows overhead, but dimly, hiding behind clouds that blanket the stars. The usable light is provided by torches with a caged head and flame spaced around the fence. I happen to know that elves are naturally more gifted at seeing in darkness than humans, and considering Qinlar is dressed entirely in black as opposed to my brown furs and pops of blue, I am beginning this fight at a grave disadvantage. I train my eyes on my opponent and steady my breathing.

The last time I fought melee to melee with a humanoid opponent was with a patrol party. We had caught sight of a renegade group of bandits but were unable to give warnings before they raided the tribe. I stood with my kin to defend my home, and we succeeded. But I wouldn’t have been skilled enough to take on any of the bandits alone. In that fight, I had many of my peers fighting at my side.

Ancestors, if you’re out there, I could really use your help right now.

They say the ancestors give us focus and precision, sharpening our minds to see through the haze of battle and land hits where they count. That is exactly the kind of guidance I need, given that my fatal flaw in battle has always been getting swept up in the heat of the moment and performing too scattered.

Qinlar doesn’t wait for a signal. Instead, he launches for me, daggers swinging. My surprised hesitation almost earns me a shot straight to the gut, but I have my eyes trained on his movements and am able to catch him before it connects. I blink and he’s blended into the darkness, only to find him with a slice at my side. I yell out in pain and frustration and lash out with an axe at the space where he must be. I feel something, but just barely. Not a solid hit like it could’ve been if I could aim it. A second later, my opposite thigh is slashed. Somehow he got on the other side of me without me even getting the chance to notice.

I have to at least spot him again if I am to have any chance in this battle. I sprint forward and hear a grunt as I assume Qinlar strikes the air where I once was. If he wants to catch me, he’ll have to run straight for me. I stop and spin, now twenty feet away from where I once was, and catch a shift in the shadow of the firelight. I strike and land two strong hits, connecting with quality armor that will likely convert what would have been axe blade slashes into mere bruises. I slash with full force, not wanting to waste needed battle energy in making sure I strike softer, so it’s probably a good thing Qinlar is well protected.

My instinct is to shift into a frenzy and swing wildly, the competitive rush of battle surging through me, but I force the fog clouding my eyes to clear. Focus. Focus. Think.

Those two good strikes were my last. I had the upper hand for a moment while darting around, but now that he’s reached me he resumes dancing around my eyeline. I receive a slash to my calf, my arm, and my shoulder. Lots of little marks, proving he could do much worse to disable me if he was trying. I keep swinging but never connect. After a slash across my lower back, an area not as protected under layers of clothing, I drop to my knees in surrender. The fog of rage fades, and only then do I realize how loud I am breathing, my chest heaving with each gasp, energy still coursing through me.

Qinlar comes back into view standing in front of my kneeling form, a black silhouette against the firelight to his back. I bow my head deeply in respect. If there was daylight I might have performed better, but Qinlar’s fighting style clearly thrives in the dark. I didn’t stand a chance.

Qinlar responds to my nod by laughing. “I told you you’d never see me.”

Is he joking or making fun of me? He steps aside, and I study his expression now washed in firelight, expecting to see the warm smile of friendly banter. But no, he’s smirking with his chin held high. He expected his victory, thinking he’s a better warrior than me just because he can meld with the dark. My battle peers of the tribe would never disrespect his opponent or treat any victory as more than good fun.

Are the others laughing at me? Do they think I’m a joke just because I lost the battle? Is this what society outside the forest is like—you lose once, and forever you are a loser?

I stand and turn to face the six other contestants. Their expressions are a mix of indifference, approval, and…concern?

“Zoiya, you’re dripping blood,” Margot says, pointing.

“I am?” I look down and spot a few specks of blood in the dirt. I can’t even tell which wound it’s coming from. “I hadn’t even realized.” In the haze of battle, I felt little pain, but now the wounds are beginning to sting, and I realize that I am in fact injured.

“I respect your resilience. You didn’t have to take that many hits and keep going, but you didn’t give up,” Tok says with a genuine smile to me.

I consider my response carefully, knowing there are several explanations but not sure which one he wants to hear. “I didn’t want the battle to end. It reminds me of fond memories from my tribe,” I say finally. Does enjoying the heat of battle make me a monster? Hopefully, these people wouldn’t see it that way.

Tok offers healing to Qinlar, but he refuses. I know I hit him at least once hard enough to hurt, but maybe he’s trying to play it off like I didn’t touch him. Tok shrugs and introduces the next fight between Nevahl and Jorta.

Nevahl’s shield blocks him from the worst of Jorta’s greataxe swings, and the sword on his main hand allows him the opportunity to strike while she lugs around the heavy blade. He’s knocked down several times from the force of her attacks and takes several heavy hits. Jorta appears to have been trained very well in offense, and is likely the most powerful fighter here. But she lacks the skill to block well with such a large weapon, and Nevahl ultimately wins the fight through targeted strikes to unguarded areas while she winds up for the next swing. I’m surprised, as she doesn’t seem like the type to lose very often. Nevahl offers a hand to shake in good faith, and Jorta takes it after a second, though by the way Nevahl flinches I guess that she gripped it a little too hard.

Tok calls everyone together for the last time. “One last thing, and then this will all end. There are probably skills you were unable to showcase in my two challenges for you all. So go around and each of you demonstrate a skill or speak on a talent you have that would be useful on an adventure. Tell us why you’d be a valuable member of our team.”

 Enrel volunteers to go first. She tells the others to make space, then faces Qinlar. She points to the daggers he holds. “Can you throw those things?”

Qinlar nods and raises to strike without another thought. He throws and the dagger soars through the air, straight on towards Enrel. She doesn’t flinch, and a moment later she lashes out with a hand. The dagger doesn’t implant itself in her head. Instead, she grips it in her palm. She caught it.

I clap along with the others, but I’m slightly offended she didn’t ask me to shoot at her with the bow that’s clearly displayed on my back. Maybe she didn’t believe I could shoot well since I didn’t use it in the fights. I had been thinking I’d mention my hunting and tracking skills when it becomes my turn since that’s my quality that the tribe was most proud of, but now I have a new plan.

Nevahl tells everyone that he has some healing powers like Tok does. No one’s injured, so he can’t demonstrate. “It isn’t much, but magical healing is a blessing in itself,” he says with a shrug. I had wondered if he would tell us something that would explain the history of his shield, such as having allies in high places. That would certainly be useful to adventurers. But maybe it’s a secret he keeps close to his chest. Or maybe it’s not important.

Landon says that while he’s not the strongest, he’s nimble, and is good at climbing. He would be the type in a hunting party that would climb a tree because they say they need the full perspective to get better bearings. That’s Sasu, from my training group. She’s not the brightest but can haul herself up branches like she’s climbing stairs.

Landon also reminds everyone that he has all of his experience as a former member of that mercenary company. As far as adventuring goes, he definitely seems to be the most experienced.

Zachary rests his elbow on Landon’s shoulder and leans against him casually, flashing a grin to the group. “I’ll be honest with you all, there’s not much to do in Coniston. Not many opportunities to take up unique skills or trade. The people were good though. They seemed to like me, but I’m not exactly sure why. They shouldn’t, in my opinion.” It’s like he’s having a conversation with himself, or giving a monologue to analyze his life. “I suppose that’s a skill. Getting people to like me without really trying. And, you know, if that doesn’t work, there are other ways to loosen tongues.”

“Your skill is threatening people?” Margot asks, seemingly shocked that someone would do this.

Zachary shrugs, still grinning cheekily. “If it works. But it’s not preferred. I’d rather just do the thing where I don’t have to put in effort and they tell me things anyway.”

Margot still looks taken aback, but she shakes it off and goes next. “Well, you know I graduated from HIAA—that’s Helgerra, by the way,” she pronounces the acronym like “high-ya”, the clarification like an afterthought as if that’s what all the students are used to calling it, “so I’m well-studied. Then, I can also do things like this.” She looks around for a moment, seemingly choosing her target. Then she swirls her hands in the air and spins a web of gold thread that I realize looks like a dreamcatcher, just as she completes it and the sigil disappears. Zachary immediately falls to the ground. Those around him yelp and back away.

“Did you harm him?” Enrel asks.

Margot doesn’t look concerned. She shakes her head. “He’s just asleep. Look.” She taps him a few times with her foot.

Zachary rolls over and begins to rouse. He rubs his eyes and stands, dazed. Then he laughs. “Did you do that to me?” he asks sleepily, looking at Margot and pointing at the ground.

She nods carefully.

“Nice,” he says, and stretches, taking up as much space as possible.

Jorta tells everyone that she’s really strong and can break things in the adventuring party’s way or move large objects. Essentially, she would be the brawn of the group. That is her role. Leave it to the others to do all the thinking or the planning or the careful and quiet work. Expected, but still interesting to see her describe it herself. She seems perfectly content with her place in life.

When she’s done, everyone looks to Qinlar to explain his skill. He shrugs.

“What? I already went,” he says.

Everyone is visibly confused until he moves his hands out from behind his back and reveals he’s holding a flute. We all turn to look at Tok, who’s patting his pockets despite it clearly being the same flute.

“How did you do that with at least one of us seeing you?” Landon asks.

Qinlar hands back the flute to Tok. “It’s my unique talent,” he says as if it’s no big deal.

I suddenly wonder if he’s taken anything else from one of us without anyone noticing, but there would be no way to find out unless someone realizes they’re missing an item. The thought makes me uneasy. I’m sure there are many in the world who can do the same.

Finally, everyone looks at me. It’s my turn. I commit to my new plan of a skill to showcase. Zachary insisted I demonstrate how good of a shot I am, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

I look at Tok. “You can heal anyone almost instantly?”

The half-orc nods. “Small wounds, yes.”

“Good.” I take a step out in front of the group, setting up a clear path while grabbing my bow from my back and taking an arrow in the other. Before anyone has a chance to react, I’ve drawn the bow and shot an arrow with barely any time taken to aim. The arrow flies in front of the crowd, doing no harm to anyone but my target. Zachary, standing at the far end of the line, was reaching up to scratch the back of his head when an arrow lodged itself in his palm.

He yelps out in pain, and I smirk slightly. Petty revenge for a few quips.

“Are you insane? You could’ve killed him! Shot right in the head!” Enrel says, stepping towards me. Zachary pulls the arrow out of his palm, and a red glow appears from the bleeding wound as Tok begins the healing incantation.

I ignore her, knowing that if I explain I’ll lose the power of the moment. I’ve seen enough from Gahlar success in commanding the moment to know that if you can get everyone’s attention, you use that moment wisely. The truth is, the shot was accidentally well-timed. I wasn’t intending to actually hit—instead, the shot was aimed to fly over the top of his shoulder—close enough to scare, but not to do any damage. The question about healing was in case I missed, which I suppose I did, though it’s working in my favor.

But I wouldn’t dare admit that. To do so would lose me my credibility, so instead, I choose to pretend like that was what I intended to happen. “Clearly you see I’m more skilled with a bow than an axe.” I walk over and pick up my arrow from where Zachary tossed it on the ground. He glares at me, and I respond with a wink. 

The eyes of the recruits still follow me, but I speak to Tok, who has now finished the incantation and watches me curiously. “I hail from the Blue Wing tribe,” I say, mimicking the commanding tone of the tribe leaders. “I’ve lived in the Skygrove Forest my entire life, so adjusting the wild won’t be any sort of problem for me. But I’m searching for something new, and maybe this could be it.”

Tok nods in acknowledgment. I can’t tell if he’s angry with me or impressed. I’m certainly proud of myself. News of a shot like that would have spread around the tribe like wildfire. Skill in combat is valued highly, showing that you will be a good protector when your family is threatened.

“I’m guessing you’re not typically a front-line fighter, then,” Tok says.

I shake my head. I am rather strong, and the tribe elders really wanted to put that strength to use in melee combat and save bows for the weaker fighters to specialize in. I was trained with the axes, but the art of the bow I taught myself on days when I would wander the forest alone. But no matter how hard they pushed the axes for me, my favorite was always the bow, and it’s a lot easier to get good at something that you really enjoy doing.

“Move on now,” Tok says finally. “Any more extravagant displays?”

I miss what the other recruits say because by then Zachary has made his way over to me. He’s rubbing his hand, though the arrow wound is completely sealed up from the magic. In the few seconds that pass before he speaks, I expect he’s about to shout at me, before he cracks a smile.

“I think you’re enjoying this,” he says.

“What, shooting you or showing off?” He rolls his eyes, and as my joking smile fades I say, “That is why I agreed to do this. Because I would enjoy tonight’s games.”

Zachary looks away towards the other recruits. “That’s not what I mean. You’re enjoying this. The idea of what this life could be. Traveling with these elite warriors and being considered their equal. A life of adventure.”

I uncross my arms and look away. “I have my own mission.”

“In life we all come to a point where we are faced with the choice between doing what is our duty, and doing what we really desire.” He pauses. “I recommend you really consider your decision.” Zachary turns and walks back to the other side of the group.

I’m a bit stunned. I did not take Zachary to be wise.

“Thank you guys for coming today,” Tok says. The last recruit must have just finished. “I’ll make a decision soon. After that, the members of the new adventuring company will have some time to prepare before we start our first quest. If I don’t choose you, I’m sorry, and I hope you find where you belong.”

After a moment, Nevahl begins applause. I join in with the others, and Tok takes a bow. As it dies down, the group begins to shuffle back to the fence gate.

“Who’s joining me for a drink?” Jorta shouts.

Various agreements pass over the group. When we reach the tavern door, Enrel huffs and starts down the hill. Qinlar’s already disappeared. I put my hand on my coin pouch, just in case.

My room is here, so I might as well join them. I can’t buy a drink, but I can sit for a while. I just can’t stay long—I will need the rest for tomorrow’s long journey ahead.

Jorta looks over the remainder with what appears to be respect. Her eyes fall onto Tok, taking up the rear of the group. He’s the last to exit the arena, swinging the gate in line with the fence behind him.

“You in for a round?” she asks.

Tok tucks his flute back into it’s pocket. “Of course,” Tok says.

She shrugs and heads inside, and the rest of us follow.