Finn was exhausted. He had been forced to spar against superior opponents using sword, spear, axe, hammer and mace. He had lost every fight so far, but he was yet to feel humiliated. He had been disarmed every time, or forced out of the arena. He had yet to be hit, and he took a small victory in that. It was stupid of course, in a real fight he would have been killed every time, but still, with a concerning crowd gathered around he had take pride in something. If he didn’t he would give up, and he was not losing his sword.
A cheer erupted from the crowd. Finn had no idea why. He looked up to see Quinn approaching. She was holding his sword in her hand. She threw it to him. She picked up a great sword from the rack.
“Defend yourself” she said.
He didn’t have time to raise his sword before she was on him. He managed to parry a number of blows, until he thought about what he was doing. As soon as he did his speed dropped. Quinn snuck her sword in the gap. He managed to stop it hitting him, but he knew what she truly looked to do. She yanked on her sword, and it was almost enough to make him lose his. Any other sword he would have let go, but not his sword. He kept his grip, even as he felt his muscles rip and agony fill his body.
The movement left her open, and he moved to strike, a killing blow. She deflected it, forcing him down to her right. Her head connected with his, and he went down hard. He knew his nose was broken. Quinn looked angry.
“Never lose your head. A head is to be used, but never lost” she said.
She took his sword, and he knew he was not ready for it. Bryce had been right. He needed to earn that sword. And he would. He would pass the test, and become a paladin. He saw Bryce, and he saw disappointment on his face. He knew then he had failed. He had lost his sword. He rushed Quinn, he needed the sword back. He felt the arrow pierce his chest, and he fell to the floor.
How much time passed Finn didn’t know, but he did know he was surprised to come back. He was sure he was dead, would swear he had been. Yet he knew the pain he now felt was the pain only life could give. His eyes would not open, but his ears could hear sounds. They were muffled and incomprehensible, but they were sounds.
It was his chest that burned. Pained blossomed from their with every beat of his heart, but at least it was beating. Still, the pain made it seem more hassle than it was worth, and he wondered if life was what he wanted. He had lost his sword, a sword he swore to himself he would keep forever. If Bryce kept to his word the sword would be destroyed, meaning he would never get back. It amazed him how well his mind was working, and he kept using it as it seemed to dull the pain.
The more he thought, the more he knew the test was rigged. Every time he managed to survive a bout, another fighter had entered to test him. He never had a chance of beating Quinn, so he was always going to fail.
Or, maybe fighting was not the test. Maybe the test was about keeping control. Five times he had lost, but stayed composed throughout. Seeing his sword, holding it again, realising what he could lose, he had lost all composure. Had he failed the test?
No. It had been rigged. Bryce wanted his sword. He was never going to destroy it, he just wanted it! At least that meant he could get it back. As long as he still lived, he could get the sword back.
Some pungent odour filled his nostrils, and suddenly his eyes burst open. Strong arms kept him pinned down, and he had not the strength to throw them off. He soon calmed, and was relieved to see Steve standing over him. He tried to speak, but could not.
“He is alive, but he will be weak for a long time. How do you intend to get him out of here” Steve said.
Whomever Steve was speaking to Finn did not know. The man holding him down was not listening, so there must have been at least one other in the room with them. He tried to turn his head, but his neck was having none of it.
“You did tricks I have never seen young priest. You are a wonder to behold. I have tricks of my own. Where I am forbidden to bring people back from death, I am not so forbidden from healing them” a male voice said.
Bright light struck Finn then. At first it burnt, but it soon became calming. He could feel the pain leave his body, replaced by strength. In seconds the pain was gone.
“Keep him pinned down. Finn, stay still. You feel better but your body needs more time to adapt” the stranger said.
He flexed against the powerful arms holding him down, but they did not budge. He did turn his head. The stranger was an old man. He leant heavily on a carved iron staff. Long white beard covered his face, and a hood covered his hair. The beard looked fake. Still, he had helped save his life, so Finn would give him some time. The fact he couldn’t escape from the arms holding him down had nothing to do with it.
“Who I am is not important. You, on the other hand, are. The paladins have rejected you, as I thought they might. They believe you dead. Both of these are good things. You are to join the Watchers. They will tell you all you need to know. They wait for you back in the city, for they have much to do there and will train you on the job” he said.
Finn did nothing. If he was meant to know who the Watchers were, well, he didn’t. He was also pretty sure going back into the city would be a mistake, as he was sure Kole would be after him. Trusting the words, and orders, of a stranger? It seemed like a very bad idea to him.
“Release him” the stranger said.
The strong arms released him, and he was amazed at how free he felt. He stood, slowly. The stranger had been right; healed he may be, but his body knew he shouldn’t be. He felt dizzy, but he did not fall back. He fixed his eyes on the stranger, and cursed the man for whirling around. He sat on the bed and the stranger stopped moving. That was better. He watched as the stranger drew his sword, his sword.
“Where did you get that!” Finn said.
The stranger smiled.
“This is your sword. Bryce will be angry at me, but a man should never lose his weapon. I give it to you as a symbol of trust. I trust you with your sword, so you will trust me. Enter the city. Head to the Golden Raven and ask for Cindy. I need your help Finn. Will you help me?” the stranger said.
He saw his mother, impossibly he saw his mother. It was a day long after she had left. He was thirteen or thereabouts. He was in a park, playing with friends, and his mother (he knew now that was who she was) strode over to him. She had pointed to his sword, her sword.
“One day, an old man will give that back to you and ask for your help. Trust him. Give him your all”.
That was all she had said, and then she was gone. That mad woman from the park, his mother. Tears threatened his eyes, but he battled them back.
“Of course I will help you” Finn said.
The stranger smiled.
“We will meet again once the city is safe. Listen and train well, Finn” he said.
The stranger left, and the large man who had pinned him down followed after. Steve stood in a corner, transfixed. Finn smiled at him.
“I guess I owe you my thanks again. You saved my life. Should you ever need me, and if I am able, I owe you a debt” Finn said.
He strode over and hugged Steve then. It was awkward at first, but soon it felt right. Then it felt wrong again, so the hug was broken. With a manly cough Finn left too. It was only after he walked out that he realised he had no idea where he was.
The tunnel was head height at first, but it soon narrowed and he crawled into the blazing sunshine. He emerged atop a hill. He could see the city, a rough half days walk to the east. He could see the snaky dust trail of the paladins marching away, leaving the city unprotected. He could see the sun starting its quick descent, and knew darkness would soon be upon him. He leant against a tree, hugged his sword close to his chest, and fell asleep.
He dreamt of his mother, a paladin hero. He dreamt of the stranger, standing atop a mountain surrounded by fierce looking creatures. He dreamt of Ariel, waiting to greet him. He dreamt of Steve and knew they would meet again. He dreamt of his sword, and saw his death. Come the morning, he remembered none of his dreams.