Eithne could not stop thinking about the poster outside of the village hall, or, more precisely, the information on the poster. She had always been discontented with her place in the village. No one living in the village would ever understand why, of course. She came from a respected and loving family, and though Eithne had no suitors presently, it would not be difficult to find one given her family’s status. Everyone thought she was a bit odd in personality, but most simply assumed it was a case of extreme shyness on her part. The poster seemed to offer an avenue out of her boring, dissatisfying existence, which she found herself desperate to escape. The poster stated that the Captain of the Guard would be selecting a group of warriors to go with him on an important mission that would take at least two months. Those who wished to be considered for the mission were to meet at the training fields tomorrow at sunrise.
Eithne felt that she had to be good enough with a sword to be selected, but, as a female, she wasn’t even allowed on the training fields. Let alone trying out for the mission. To Eithne, the solution to her problem seemed obvious. She needed to disguise herself as a man. She could only hope to pass as an adolescent male elf who was barely old enough to try out, but that was all she needed. Besides, she was certain that a good number of young boys would be trying out. Adolescent boys are always looking for ways to prove themselves. Eithne was trying out for several reasons, and she did have to admit that proving herself was among them. However, the more persistent reason was her ever-growing need to leave the village. This seemed the perfect opportunity to do so to her. There was safety in numbers, and after she became comfortable with her own fighting skills, it would be simple to sneak away from the rest while on the trail so that she could start her own life.
Eithne had already prepared her disguise. Just some of her father’s old clothing that he wouldn’t think to miss, a pair of beaten-up work boots, and a hat that flopped over her eyes. She would rub some dirt on her face to give the appearance of immature male stubble, tie her red hair back in the fashion of the men, and wrap her chest to flatten her breasts. She was still terrified of being discovered. If she were, the punishment was sure to be severe, but she had never heard of this particular crime being committed, and had no idea what the punishment would be. Perhaps the tribe’s elders simply would not know what to do with her. Eithne did not want to find out.
Tomorrow morning she would sneak out early for the try out. Her stomach was certain to be in knots all night. At least she would not have trouble waking up on time.
The early autumn morning had a damp and bitter chill to the air. Though Eithne shivered beneath her wool shirt, she was in a cold sweat. She was one of the first to arrive at the fields. Darian had been there before anyone else, of course. He casually paced the fields while he let the crowd of hopefuls gather. He looked impressive with his easy gait and sword in hand. His eyes drifted over those gathering now and then, and Eithne could tell that he was sizing them all up. Pre-determining whether or not he thought they had what it takes for the quest. Eithne swallowed hard as his judgmental gaze passed over her. The way Darian looked at her made her feel like an insert pinned down, wriggling frantically, but to no avail. It felt wrong and uncomfortable. Like he were starring the longest at her. What if he was? Was Darian taking a closer look at her than anyone else? Her heart leapt into her throat and beat wildly. Did he recognize her? Eithne looked away and stiffly swung her sword a bit. She told herself that he didn’t recognize her, that she was just being overly nervous and paranoid. No one else was giving her a strange look. They all accepted her disguise. She ventured another glance at Darian. To her great relief, his scrutinizing eyes had moved on to other prey. He must not have recognized her after all.
After some time, and more participants had arrived, it was time to begin the tryouts. Darian stepped forward and commanded that all present form a shoulder-to-shoulder line in front of him. Many had shown up to participate. Eithne guessed at least fifty. Darian paced once up and down the line, looking at each of them.
“Anyone under the age of eighty, leave now. I won’t have mothers crying over those of you who still smell of milk.” Darian ordered plainly. As elves were a very long lived race with an average life span of roughly seven hundred years, those under the age of eighty were still considered to be adolescent, and not grown enough for adult matters. Darian himself was aged one hundred thirty years, which could be roughly equated to someone in their twenties by human standards.
Several of the younger boys kicked at the dirt and hung their heads as they left, disappointed. Eithne probably looked so young in her disguise, but the truth was that she was one hundred twenty three years old and she was staying. She thought she imagined the steely blue flash of Darian’s eyes at her, but she told herself not to be so paranoid. Once the younger ones had cleared out, Darian pointed at a few others and told them to leave for various reasons: too old, still too young, handicaps, and one or two because Darian knew they had just been married or started a family. Eithne held her breath with each person he eliminated. She thought that she would be next for certain, but he did not dismiss her. It was time for the tryouts to truly begin.
First, he began pairing people up in twos to fight each other. Eithne found herself paired with a tall, skinny elf, who probably weighed about as much as she, but with a much better reach. She would have to close the distance on him if she wanted to win. She had never sparred with a partner before, and though she logically and practically knew what she should do to win, she was only all the more terrified of the situation. What if she was actually terrible with a sword? What if she was just fooling herself that she could do this? Eithne had picked one hell of a way to find out.
Darian shouted for those who selected to begin.
The tall elf swung at Eithne in a wild arch with his two-handed sword. She barely managed to recover from the shock and leap to the side in time. Her opponent had surprised her already. She could see by the smug look on his face that he thought he was going to win. Eithne was determined to prove him wrong. He made several other swings at her. They were aggressive, but sloppy. Eithne could work with that. She continued to dodge them while she worked out how to close the distance. A few swings and parries later, and she saw her opportunity. He swung his sword in a high arc again over his head, leaving his body exposed. Eithne rushed forward, kicking dust up under her feet. She slipped in underneath his sword and thrust the butt of her sword up hard into his chest just below the ribcage. She knocked the wind cleanly out of him. He froze with his sword still above his head, and made a little wheezing sound. He dropped his weapon and it fell to the ground behind him before staggering to the ground, desperately trying to retrieve his breath. Eithne took her chance to calmly walk up to him and put the tip of her sword to his throat. Darian came over and curtly declared her the winner of the match. It took a moment for the overwhelming feeling of the pride to seep in. She had won! She had won well! Maybe she wasn’t half-bad with a sword after all.
The other matches began to wind down as well. One by one, Darian waited for the finish of each match and declared the winner. It seemed to Eithne that he kept glancing her way, and she felt the icy fear and paranoia grip her again. Did he suspect? She turned her face away from him once again and prayed that it was just her imagination.
Darian set up the matches again. This time Eithne was more intimidated by her opponent. He was a bit shorter than the other one, but still taller than she. Also, he was much boarder and more thickly muscled. She glanced around at other matches, and couldn’t help but notice that hers seemed the most unfair. She risked a glance at Darian. To her surprise, he was looking right back at her, and even seemed to have a smile on his lips. He shouted for the matches to begin. Her opponent had a different, and much more effective fighting style. He closed the distance between them quickly and swung at her hard with his weapon. She managed to parry, but the force of his blow caused her to slide backwards. He was strong. Much stronger than she. He came at her again like a charging bull. Eithne leapt out of the way in the nick of time, but he diverted his course just as fast. He was too quick! He just kept coming no matter how she tried to evade him. She barely had time to think about getting out of his way let alone figure out how to best him. Eithne did not know how to fight this elf and win. Obviously, she faced a skilled and experienced fighter. She darted away from another one of his advances. He followed and swung at her again. She managed to block the bone-crushing blow, but found herself gritting her teeth with the effort. She tried to advance on him. To her dismay, he seemed to welcome the challenge and dispatched her all too quickly. Eithne was getting very hot, tired and frustrated. This swift brute was standing between her and her chance at freedom, and it looked like he was going to win. Even worse, she was going to lose. She realized that she had one chance at beating him, and that was to get creative. A little dumb luck wouldn’t hurt either. Eithne wasn’t particularly proud of her plan, but she had to win. She had to! She waited for him to charge her again, and then she took the chance of her life. Eithne propelled herself downward, and using his forward momentum, easily skidded toward him, creating a cloud of dust in her wake. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion to her as she slid at him and swept his legs out from under him. Basically, she tripped him, and she wasn’t proud of it, but it seemed to do the trick. Her opponent was genuinely shocked by the technique. His eyes wide in disbelief as he comprehended what she had done. Eithne looked at his face as he sailed through the air above her. He landed on his face, he had been stunned, but he did not lose his grip on his sword. Eithne scrambled to her feet as soon as the space above her head was clear. He would recover quickly. She practically leapt through the air herself to close the distance, so she could put her sword to his neck before he got up. She was nearly upon him, her victory within her grasp, when there was an interruption.
“That’s not how you win a match.” It was none other than the authoritative voice and steely blue glare of Darian MacAllow.
Eithne froze where she stood, sword in hand, like a doe come upon suddenly in the forest. Her opponent also remained still. Her heart thudded rapidly in her chest, her eyes had gone wide with horror. Darian looked angry and his tone was none too pleased. She locked eyes with him and saw everything then. He had recognized her. That’s why he had put her up against someone obviously superior in skill and strength: to get her off the field as soon as possible. But she had ruined his plan when she pulled her little stunt. Now she was in trouble.
“I guess pretty boys don’t think they have to fight fair.” One of the other fighters sniggered to his friend. Eithne’s heart dropped to her feet when she realized that her hat had come off when she dropped down to trip her opponent. How couldn’t Darian recognize her now?
Darian continued to stare at her for what felt like an eternity. She had been caught in her great lie, and now he was going to report her to the tribal council, and she would be dealt a punishment too horrible to imagine.
Once again, Darian surprised her. He drew his sword and gestured sharply for her to go over to him. He meant to have a match with her. Eithne gulped down hard, still frozen in place. She couldn’t believe this was happening. Darian had just challenged her to a match! She knew she would lose against him. Darian was an excellent swordsman, with total superiority not only over her, but all other warriors in the village. He gestured again, annoyed with her dallying. With a great effort, Eithne somehow began to move her feet toward him and stiffly ready her sword. Vaguely, she was aware of her former opponent getting to his feet, and the rest of the fighters present gathering around the two of them in a wide circle. Somehow, she found her way over to stand in front of Darian with her sword poised. She very much doubted her ability to move, however. Frozen with fear, she probably wouldn’t even react to his attacks. At least it would be over quickly.
“The conditions, boy.” Darian put sarcastic emphasis on the last word. “If you can beat me in a fair match, then you will be recruited for the mission. Understood?”
All the blood rushed to Eithne’s face. Was he serious? Of course, he knew as well as she that he was going to win, but to make such an offer was still a huge shock. There was still that smallest of chances that Eithne actually might best him, and he was willing to take that risk. All knew Darian to be a man of his word. If by some miracle, Eithne did win, she would get out of the village. She knew that he recognized her. Why didn’t he just tell her to leave? Eithne managed a nod to show that she understood. Her grip on her sword tightened and every muscle in her body tensed. She had to try her best just in case luck was with her today. A lot of luck.
Darian did not rush at her as the other two had done. No, he bid his time and circled for a few moments before closing the distance between them. It seemed that he was a calculating and methodical fighter. When he did come at her, he was so swift, that Eithne could have blinked and missed it! Their swords clashed in a series of parries. Eithne got the feeling that he wanted to see what she could do before disarming her. She felt like an insect again, an insect being toyed with by a cruel cat. She was certain that, even though she could barely keep up with his blows, he was only casually testing her abilities. Why was he fighting her, knowing who she was? Eithne could not banish the question from her mind. It distracted her from concentrating on the fight. A moment later it no longer mattered whether or not she could concentrate at all. After a few more blows were traded, Darian reached out his hand with lightening speed and painfully gripped the wrist of her sword arm. He gave it a little twist and Eithne dropped the weapon. She just managed not to yelp from the sudden pain. She couldn’t do that. Not in front of Darian. Not now. Then, he jerked her in close to his chest. She practically stumbled into him as she had been thrown off balance by the sudden movement.
“Eithne, this is not your place.” Darian whispered to her in low, cold tones. “Leave your sword where it lies and go home now. You are lucky that I am not reporting you to the council for the second time. However, if I see you with a sword again, I will not be silent any longer. Do I make myself clear?”
Eithne wanted to sob and she could almost feel her lip quivering. She couldn’t allow for such weakness to be seen, especially not at this moment. Darian’s words cut her deeply, but at the same time, she owed him much gratitude. She managed to keep the choking out of her voice as she whispered back that she understood him. He released her once he had his answer. She did as he bade her and left her sword on the ground. Darian was very good at giving orders. She hung her head and left as quickly as she could without breaking into a run. Several elves in the crowd jeered at her as she left. They called her ‘pretty boy’ and told her to fight fair next time. Eithne didn’t care what they said, and she didn’t look back at any of them either. She needed to get off the training field and be alone for a while so she could cry away the utter humiliation.
Darian’s eyes followed Eithne as she left. He probably shouldn’t have let it go so far. Honestly, he had not expected her to make it past the first match. He ought to have dismissed her at the beginning with the others, but he was too curious. There was a part of him that simply wanted, or needed, to know if she could actually do it. Stand up against male fighters. Eithne had not only stood up against them, but had actually fought impressively. Darian would never admit it out loud, but he was really quite taken with her tripping maneuver. It was creative, practical, and a complete success against one of the best fighters in the village.