Danyelle nearly collapsed on to the field. Her clothes were drenched in sweat. Muscles she didn’t know she had ached.
The others were in no better condition. Half a dozen would-be adventurers fell to one knee or just dropped to the ground when the master-at-arms allowed them a break from their training.
The farmboys were in the best shape, but even they were exhausted.
The water in the buckets had warmed in the sun, but it was better than nothing. Several times over the past weeks, she wondered if she had made the right choice. But when she returned to her home and saw the trophies which adorned the lawn and walls, and when she heard the stories recited of Angelos and Mirabella’s exploits, she knew then what she wanted to do with her life.
All too soon, the master-at-arms called them back to their feet. The six picked up their padded wooden weapons and went back to their drills.
Her training started out as simple calisthenics. These progressed to intense cardio workouts and endurance tests. The sergeants began to systematically weed out those without the ability or the will to continue. At first he seemed harsh and cruel, but in time, Danyelle and those who did not quit realised that they were being tested to their limits. Four of their classmates had already abandoned the training.
It was neither easy nor comforting, but orcs and brigands and goblins cared little for the convenience of men, elves, hobbits and dwarves.
The world was a nasty, brutish place, and only those willing to face death would survive on a battlefield.
Danyelle was easily the smartest and most educated of her class. But the others were more proficient with weapons than she. The movements did not come naturally to her, but she excelled through perseverance and sheer will.
She was both taller and stronger than Cayleigh had been at her age, and no one dared question her sister’s prowess on the field. So Danyelle threw herself into the training determined not to dishonour her sister or wardens.
The group of trainees sparred, with each other and with the trainers. Some of the older boys had taunted her at first, but she put a stop to that quickly, trading lumps with the largest of them. Although she had a black eye and bruised knuckles to show for it, their respect was grudgingly earned.
In time, the wooden practice swords gave way to dulled iron swords which gave way to sharper steel blades, and the Osgoods ensured that she had the highest quality weapons and armour. It was during this time that Danyelle came into her own.
The other students soon looked to her for leadership. Even the older trainees saw that she was smarter and more determined than they. Her desire to prove herself set Danyelle above her classmates. As did her fear of disappointing Cayleigh, Angelos or Mirabella.
As their training progressed, the students stood watch and patrolled the lands around Bree, always under the watchful eyes of the sergeants and masters-at-arms.
On one of these patrols that Danyelle killed her first man.
They were brigands who were up to no good. Apparently, they thought the patrol to be wayfarers at first, but they didn’t back down when challenged.
The fight lasted less than a minute. Danyelle didn’t remember anything from the time she drew her sword until it was over.
A man—maybe only a year or two older than she—was impaled on her blade. He coughed up blood as his eyes glazed over, then went dark.
He fell limp as Danyelle drew the greatsword from his chest. His lifeblood spilled out on to the ground as his companions fled.
Dazed, she looked around to see her friends unharmed.
Danyelle fell to her knees, sick to her stomach.
Their dinner conversation was quiet. Even Angelos had little to say.
She only picked at her food, knowing that the master-at-arms had given the Osgoods a full report on the skirmish.
Danyelle returned to her room to prepare for the next day’s lessons.
There was a soft knock on the door before Mirabella entered.
The other woman sat on the bed as Danyelle tried to polish out the new scuffs on her armour.
“Does it get easier?” the girl whispered.
“No, it does not.” Those were not the words she wanted to hear. Mirabella absently traced the runes on her staff with her fingertips. “It’s not difficult to slay the goblins and the orcs and the wargs. They have been corrupted by Sauron’s taint. But not the men or women you will encounter.”
She paused for a long moment.
“Some of the men in this world are evil, through and through.” There was a hard edge to her voice. “They will slit your throat if given the chance. But there are others . . . others who think they have no other way. They steal because they are hungry. They extort caravans to put a roof over their child’s head. Or maybe that is all they know.”
Danyelle looked up and for the first time, saw Mirabella look weary.
“Every time you kill a man or woman, you take away someone’s sister, some mother’s son or some girl’s father. It is important to remember that while we kill monsters, we must not become monsters ourselves.”
Gently, Mirabella drew Danyelle’s eyes up to hers.
“There is darkness in this world. Mordor casts a long shadow over us all. But we will fight the forces of Sauron, and now the armies of Isengard, because evil can only win when no one steps forth to oppose it.”
“I will fight with you,” the girl whispered.
“Today will be repeated over and over for many days to come,” Mirabella cautioned. “You will have to kill your enemies without hesitation or remorse, for they will not hold back on you. It will take a toll on your body, your mind and your soul. But we do not fight for the sake of fighting. We do not fight for glory. We fight to see the people of Eriador free from the oppression of the Enemy. And one day, we will fight no more.”
The two sat in silence for several minutes. Danyelle’s mind raced with unbidden thoughts. Thoughts of taking lives and dealing death. Thoughts of duty and honour. Confusion. Dismay. Resolve.
“Has anyone told you the story of the Osgoods?” Mirabella asked.
Danyelle shook her head.
“Angelos is not of the ‘true’ Osgood bloodline.” The lore-mistress turned her staff over in her palm. Runes of power ran its length. Her fingertips traced the patterns. “Three hundred years ago–barely the blink of an eye to an elf, but half a dozen lifetimes to men–a soldier named Kael Osgood rose through the Free Peoples’s Army to the rank of Captain-General. He was a cooper until orcs killed his family and he took up his sword. He allied himself with Calebril, who even then was a legendary fighter.”
“Their friendship was a throwback to the old alliance between men and elves, which had faded over time.” Mirabella took Danyelle’s hand and placed it on a series of runes, which all bore the outline of the eagle. “Kael passed, and Calebril allied himself with Kael’s son, then his grandson, and then his great-grandson Brindon, who had no children. When Brindon was struck down, his herald took up his sword and banner and fought on under the Osgood name. Two generations later, that bloodline was also ended by the war. A companion of those Osgoods, Nari Baumgandenmueller, took up the name and banner. That man was Angelos’s great-great-grandfather.”
“Why carry on? Why would they not make their own legacy?” Danyelle asked.
“There is power in names, my dear,” Mirabella smiled gently. “Calebril and the elves, as well as the dwarves and Dunedain, all recognise that the spirit of those who fly our flag lives on, no matter whose blood flows through our veins. The orcs and the goblins also know the Osgood name and crest. They fear us, as they fear Calebril and his kin. They know that as long as there are Osgoods taking the field, their lives are forfeit.”
Danyelle saw a flash of pain in the other woman’s eyes.
“Both of our sons are dead. Angelos and I will not be making any more children.” Mirabella leaned in as if to let her in on a secret and winked. “Despite his efforts to prove otherwise.”
She paused for a moment, as if to let her next words sink in. “Cayleigh will carry on our name, and she will be the head of the household. But she is not a leader.”
That wasn’t a criticism. It was the plain simple truth.
“There is no more stalwart fighter in all of Eriador than your sister,” Mirabella continued. “But the armies will not follow her. She does not inspire men to take up arms. But you can. Already, we see that your classmates look to you for guidance. They seek your praise and your trust. And we see that letting down those around you is your greatest fear.”
Danyelle’s hands started to tremble.
“You remind me so much of Angelos and my son Garald,” she said gently. “I feared that when we died, there would be no one to carry on our tradition, but I can see now that our banner will be in good hands.”
“I will not fail you,” Danyelle said softly, and until her death, no truer words were ever spoken.
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