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In which Arien is bored and Hawk is a wee bit tetchy.
ARIEN WAS BORED. He’d been in Royas Bay for five days and even though the weather had cleared, he was no closer to his original goal than he had been back in that dark forest. Apart from his first morning, he hadn’t spent any time in the mage school, having been given a room near Hawk’s in the page wing of the palace instead. It seemed Lady Evariste was worried about what he might do should his magic run amok amidst the tender students.
While Sidony remained at the school, presumably learning all kinds of useful magic-related things, Arien sat on a wooden fence around the back of the palace, watching a flock of pages spar. He supposed he was a quarter of a mile or so from the school, which must have been deemed a safe enough distance by the Mage-Mistress. Arien hadn’t bothered to tell her or anyone that it wasn’t. In fact, he was perfectly capable of counting not only the number of students in the school, but all the teachers, scholars, graduates and other sundry magical people in both the school and the palace. Possibly half the city too. If he wanted.
He didn’t. The thought of so much magic, so close, with so much knowledge that they were too frightened to pass onto him, made him depressed. Even the Hunger felt smothered by his low spirits. Then again, Arien had been holding it so tightly since he’d arrived that it had been squashed almost out of recognition. That wouldn’t last, but for the moment it was enough.
Dangerous or not, he was still left sitting on the fence while everyone else got on with their lives. At least he had Rowan for company, and most mornings Cyrus perched on the rail beside him too to watch his mage whack people with a blunted metal stick.
There were a lot of pages in the palace, ranging from ten-year-old newcomers to the sixteen-year-olds eagerly awaiting their elevation to squire. Hawk was a fourth-year and spent his mornings training with other fourth- and fifth-year pages. Arien had seen a few sparring sessions in his short life and could already tell which of these knights-to-be would turn into little more than glorified soldiers. They were solid fighters but rarely did anything outside the strict regime of the drill. No imagination, no innovation.
Hawk wasn’t one of them. He fought the same way he did everything else, intelligently and with full focus. There were no flashy moves from him, nor laughing insults either. He fought strongly and with one aim in mind: winning. As one of the better fourth-year pages, he often outshone the fifth-years too, for all he was the shortest of the lot.
In what had become a free sparring session, Hawk was fighting with his tall friend, Bertram. Despite the difference in their heights they were a well-matched pair. They’d obviously trained together for years and knew each other’s weaknesses; that was what made their fights so fascinating.
Where Bertram was grace and speed, Hawk was strength and thought. Bertram used impulsive, flashy moves while Hawk liked to defend and think before launching his own, frequently blistering, attacks. In the polite boundaries of the training ring there was little to choose between them, but Arien knew that in the real world where lives were on the line Hawk would win. Bertram was too courtly and honourable; he’d always stick to the rules. Hawk was too smart for that. If he was fighting for his life he wouldn’t hesitate to kick or punch his opponent to gain an advantage.
Luckily for Bertram, this wasn’t the real world, so he only had to keep moving long enough to land one of his fast moves, or wait until Hawk exhausted him. Their fights usually ended one way or the other, with their overall tallies coming out even. It was always impressive to watch and they never failed to draw an audience once they really got going.
Today was no different. Arien propped his chin on his hands and followed the action almost as avidly as the sparrowhawk beside him. The other pages slowly stopped what they were doing, while the viewing benches on the far side of the arena were dotted with fluttering courtiers and knights come to assess potential squires.
While everyone watched the two pages circle each other, Sir Tobias wandered over to Arien, groaning as he heaved himself up onto the rail beside him.
“What’s your wager?” the knight asked, as he did every day about the outcome of the final sparring match.
Not taking his eyes off the pages, Arien rubbed his nose. “Hawk’s angry.”
The knight narrowed his eyes, searching for the signs of tension Arien could see so clearly. It was there in the slight bounce of his stride, the flex and clench of his hand on his sword, the unnecessary force with which he met Bertram’s swift attacks.
Sir Tobias nodded. “He thinks you should be at school.”
It warmed Arien to think someone was angry on his behalf, melting away some of the cold disappointment that had settled in his chest. His arrival in Royas Bay had been one disillusion after another. First there had been that scene in the Mage-Mistress’ office where horrified silence had been followed by all the adults talking at once, as they quietly swept Arien’s revelation under the metaphorical carpet. Wrystan was a civilised country, people always said. They didn’t have slaves there. Not in bodily form, nor in conversation either it seemed.
His disillusion had only grown in the days that followed when he’d been put under Sir Tobias’ care, starting at dawn as the knight took the pages on their jog before breakfast. While the other young mages were given lessons in magic theory and academic subjects, Arien had to watch the pages fight. In the afternoon when Hawk attended the school for practical magic lessons, Arien joined the youngest pages in their academic studies.
He’d come to Royas Bay in search of acceptance, yet he was as much an outsider as ever. It hurt, but he’d long since learned not to let such things show.
Across the arena, Hawk made a two-handed swipe at his opponent. Bertram’s grunt as he blocked the blow and absorbed the shock of it was easily heard by the observers.
“If he’s not careful one of them will get hurt,” Sir Tobias muttered, watching as Hawk followed up his first brutal blow with a series of others. Left, right, jab, slice, he rained force down on Bertram’s blade, leaving the other page no choice but to give ground. Metal rang in a fierce chant as Hawk settled into his rhythm.
“Bertram’s letting him get away with it,” Arien murmured, earning himself a sharp glance from the man on his left.
“He’s acting like a friend, not an opponent,” Tobias agreed, and they watched the taller page sidestep to keep himself in the ring, barely getting his sword up in time to defend himself. “Idiot. Much more of that and Hawk will slap him around the head.”
As if he’d heard, Hawk wielded an overhead strike. This time Bertram not only caught the blow but returned the force, locking their swords together over their heads, muscles straining as they leant into each other.
“He’ll never beat him that way. Hawk has the strength advantage, even if he is shorter.” Arien chewed his thumb and saw Bertram’s lips moving.
“He’s trying to calm him down,” Tobias growled. “Rock heads, now is not the time.”
Before he could jump off the rail and remonstrate with them, Hawk stepped back, pulled his sword down and twisted sideways all at once, leaving Bertram unbalanced in a screech of protesting steel. The black-haired page stumbled and, before he could right himself, Hawk laid his sword across the back of Bertram’s shoulders with a heavy, final slap. Bout over.
“He shouldn’t have won that,” Arien said, disappointed.
“No.” Sir Tobias slid from the fence. “He shouldn’t. People who bring emotions to the ring get beaten. Deservedly.” Striding across the sandy arena, he took the practice swords away from the pages and started talking.
Since the knight kept his voice down it was too far away for Arien to hear the words, but he could read the anger in the jagged movements Sir Tobias was using, while Hawk lowered his head. Bertram started to argue but was cut off by a sharp word. Then Sir Tobias jerked his head to the right and walked off, leaving a subdued Bertram to follow.
Alone in the arena, Hawk took a deep breath and looked around. Spotting Cyrus perched beside Arien, he walked over.
“That was stupid,” Arien said as the mage-page ran the back of his fingers down the sparrowhawk’s orange chest. “Anyone else would have walloped you.”
“Maybe that’s what I wanted,” Hawk replied, low and gruff. He was still angry, but at himself now.
“Did it change anything?” Arien asked. “Has it made anything better?”
There was a long pause followed by a reluctant, “No.”
“Then don’t do it again,” he said firmly. “I won’t take the blame for when you get hurt.”
Hawk looked up, the golden light of his magic and anger glinting in his dark brown eyes. “Don’t you care, Ari? Doesn’t it bother you what they’re doing to you? You came here to learn. Have you given up already?”
Arien met that look while clamping down on the Hunger, stirring at the rising heat of Hawk’s magic. “No,” he said shortly. “But sometimes you can only wait.”
“Like in the forest, Ari?” Hawk questioned bitterly. “What were you waiting for then?”
Arien smiled. “I was waiting for you.”
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