The wind felt like it had broken glass in it. Ælithil squinted, trying to keep the figure of his new Shan’do in sight in the white haze of Winterspring. Just ahead of him, Silannah trudged up the path towards a small cabin. Kicking snow from the base of the door, she pushed her way inside and tossed her pack in the corner, then turned to observe her nephew struggling up the path. She shook her head, slightly disgusted, as he stumbled and cursed his way up to the house.
“Do you ever stop bitching,” she asked. He glared back, preparing a retort, but the look on her face stopped him. She grunted and said, “Maybe you’re not as dumb as you look. Stow your gear over there,” as she indicated the south alcove of the small space.
Ælithil stepped inside, shaking the ice crystals from his long, unkempt hair. He moved over to where she had indicated and discovered a low ledge. Hard, with nothing but a thin blanket and a small pillow on it. He looked her incredulously, “Am I supposed to sleep on that?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, does His Majesty require more creature comforts,” Silannah replied sarcastically.
Scowling, he slammed down his gear bag and muttered to himself. Silannah was fairly certain she caught the words “sucks” and “sabreshit”.
Grinning wickedly, she said, “Don’t get ahead of yourself, little man, things are about to get much worse.” Before he could object, she reached out and grabbed his elbow. She did something with her thumb to the joint that felt like she’d slammed it with a hammer. He yelped in surprise as she dragged him back out into the snow and wind.
She hauled him out away from the house, to a small clearing off the path. Shoving him into a snowbank, she barked out, “Down to your skivvies. Now!”
He gaped at her, sure he had misheard. “What the fel are you talking about,” he asked.
She began unlacing her tunic and answered, “Strip! Down to your skivvies!”
“It is freezing out here!”
“That’s why you’ll want to keep moving. Now strip!” As she was speaking she had already discarded her tunic and pulled off her undershirt. She began shimmying out of her trousers as he stared, disbelieving. “Do it, bandu, right now. If I have to rip your clothes off for you, it won’t be pretty.”
Awkwardly, Æltihil tried to obey. His hands were shaking; from cold and the fear that his aunt was insane and meant to murder him. As he struggled out of his tunic, he glanced over to see Silannah had fully disrobed, except for undergarments. She now wore nothing but functional briefs and a halter. Carefully, she wrapped heavy cloth bandages around her hands and feet, in the fashion of troll pit fighters. Æltihil’s fear and confusion grew with every passing moment. Eventually he managed to remove his clothing, and stood shivering in the snow with no idea what to do next.
Silannah tossed a roll of bandages at him, saying, “Wrap up. It will help prevent lacerations.”
Æltihil, confused, fumbled the roll and had to retrieve it from the ground. “Lac…what,” he asked, bewildered.
“It will keep you from tearing the skin on your hands and feet, genius,” she replied, sneering. She watched him nervously trying to wrap his hands and added, “Elune! You really don’t know how to do anything.”
“I don’t even know what the fel I am supposed to be doing,” he shouted, angrily.
“Oh hey, a little fire at last, instead of just the whining. You keep hold of that, you are about to need it,” she said with a laugh. Then her whole mood and manner changed. The mocking smile on her face went deadly serious, and she settled into the ready crouch of a trained fighter. Balling her hands into fists she lifted them up and said simply, “Defend yourself.”
Before Æltihil could even process what she had said, she was on him. She came in with a left cross that connected with his jaw and made his head spin. She followed with with a series of kicks to his left side, staggering him to the ground.
She backed off and resumed her ready stance again, saying, “Again.”
“Wha…fel…” Æltihil sputtered, trying to stand.
“On your feet, bandu! Don’t make me kick you while you’re down.” Fear gave Ælithil surge of strength, and he lurched to his feet. He tried to copy her stance, raising his own fists. Seeing it, she smirked and shook her head, saying, “Well, that’s just pathetic.” Then she was on him again. A flurry of kicks and punches had him reeling immediately. She was faster than he would have believed. Stronger too. He tried to keep his guard up, but he could barely see her through the whirling snow and she always found a way through. His defense was useless, and his offense simply did not exist. Soon he was staggering backwards, holding his arms in front of his face, too frightened and overwhelmed to do more. Seeing him back down so quickly sent Silannah into a rage. She unleashed a trio of body blows underneath his guard, then followed that with a punishing kick that hit his right arm with the force of a hammer. He heard the crack of abused bone before he felt anything. Like a felled oak, he toppled into the snow, shrieking and curling into the fetal position as the pain of the broken arm hit him. Silannah, looking disgusted, hauled him onto her shoulders and carried him inside.
Later that night he lay on the hard shelf that was to be his bed for the next year. She had dumped him there after carrying him inside. Silannah had examined the broken arm quickly, then set the bone without so much as a warning, at which he had passed out from the pain. When he finally woke, she was beside him, carefully wrapping the arm and putting it in splints.
“Do you know what I do when I am not fighting, Æltihil?”
Gritting his teeth, Ælithil replied, “Kick babies or something?”
Laughing, she answered, “I’m not cruel, bandu, I do what is necessary. No, in my downtime, I work the forge. I am a blacksmith.”
“So you beat something pretty much all the time.”
Laughing again, she replied, “I suppose I do. But do you know what a blacksmith really does?” He shook his head, sulking. “A blacksmith takes the rough metal from the earth and makes it into something useful. Raw metal is basically worthless. It is brittle and has no form.” She inspected her work, seeing that his arm was bound securely and the splints would hold. She nodded her satisfaction and looked him in the eye. “You are the rough metal, bandu. Your Uncle Forosuul has directed me too mold you into something useful, and I will do so. And much like the metal in my forge, I will beat you into the proper shape.” With that, she rose and went to the other side of the small house, crawling into her own bed.
Æltihil stared after her, his eyes filled with terror at what his future might hold. Sleep was a long time in coming.
The next day they did it again. Nearly naked, out in the snow. She bound her own right arm to her side, in order that the contest would be even, she claimed. But he knew no contest between them would be even. Not for a very long time, if ever. He was slightly luckier that day, she broke none of his bones. He was covered in new bruises by the end, however.
Every day went that way. Two days after his arm was healed, she broke two of his ribs. The next day she broke another one. She would bind his wounds and treat him, but no magical or holy healing was allowed. He had to endure the pain and learn. Each night she gave him books to read. Books on fighting technique, treatises on strategy. He broke both arms at different times. He was fairly sure every one of his ribs was broken at one time or another. He spent three months wrapped in bandages, like some mummified troll from an ancient tomb. There were no other lessons during that time. Nothing on weapons. Just naked snow boxing and books at night. His days blended together so much that soon he could not have told you how long he’d been there. Sometimes he wondered how his sister was doing with the Shan’do she’d been assigned. He hoped she was having a better time than he was.
As the days passed, he got stronger. He no longer cried when she beat him. He learned to block some of her attacks. He even started making some of his own. He could never make it past her defenses, of course. She had thousands of years of experience. He began to despair.
Ninety days went by, give or take. Ælithil was leaner, his muscles more defined. He no longer craved ale or wine like he used to. But the fights went on.
They were out in the snow again. They’d been at it this time for a while, probably an hour they’d been trading blows. He was pretty happy with himself, he’d been avoiding or blocking most of her strikes. He might end the day with nothing broken. At least nothing new.
Breaking her usual silence, she mocked him, saying, “Are you going to actually hit me at some point? It’s been three months and I am bored.” He glared back, trying not to let her get in his head. She came at him again, throwing punch after punch. None of them got through. He grinned at her triumphantly.
It was a bad move. She saw his grin and became enraged. She assailed him like never before. The first two blows took him across the jaw. The third he managed to block. He took three steps back, resuming his guard, shaking his head to clear it.
“Knocked that grin off your face, you little shit,” she said, and charged in. He set his feet, determined not be hit again today. He blocked a series of body blows, but then she feinted another. For the first time, he realized what she was doing and altered his guard, just stopping the other fist that was aimed at his face. Growling, she brought the other back around, he ducked under it. As her swing whooshed over his head, she used the momentum to spin her leg up and over, bringing it down on his neck.
For Ælithil, time seemed to slow. He knew what she was doing. He knew her leg was about to come down and drive him straight into the dirt. He knew it was her heaviest strike, and the force behind it could break a man.
So he used it.
He threw his own weight forward, twisting his legs into a spiral. The blow landed on the back of his shoulders rather than his neck, and along with his own impetus, flipped him over like an acrobat. Somehow, he managed to land on his feet. He was three feet forward of his last position, to her side.
Inside her guard.
Using the last of the force from his impromptu somersault, he brought his right fist around in a crushing blow. He saw her head begin to turn, her eyes wide with surprise at the maneuver. His fist connected, sending her reeling to the ground. As she tumbled into the mud he froze. He’d never managed to hit her before, he had no idea what to do next.
If time had slowed before, now it stopped. She sat on the ground, putting a hand up to her jaw and giving him an appraising look. He just stood over her, unmoving. After a long moment, her face split into the broadest, most genuine smile held even seen on her.
“It is about gods damned time, bandu,” she said, spitting bloody saliva into the snow. With that she stood and walked back towards the house, unwrapping her hands as she went. “Tomorrow we start on weapons training,”she said simply, and went inside.