Tavi didn’t get his sword up in time, and Max’s downward stroke struck his wrist at an appallingly perpendicular angle. Tavi heard a snapping sound and had time to think Those are my wrist bones before the world went suddenly scarlet with pain and sent him to one knee. He keeled over onto his side.
Max’s rudius, a wooden practice blade, hit his shoulder and head quite firmly before Tavi managed to wheeze, “Hold it!”
At his side, Maestro Magnus flicked his own rudius at Max in a quick salute, then unstrapped his wide legion shield from his left arm. He dropped the rudius and knelt beside Tavi. “Here, lad. Let me see.”
“Crows!” Max snarled, spitting. “You dropped your shield. You dropped your bloody shield again, Calderon.”
“You broke my crow-begotten arm!” Tavi snarled. The pain kept burning.
Max tossed his own shield and rudius down in disgust. “It was your own fault. You aren’t taking this seriously. You need more practice.”
“Go to the crows, Max,” Tavi growled. “If you weren’t insisting on this stupid fighting technique, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Magnus paused, and exchanged a look with Max. Then he sighed and removed his hands from Tavi’s injured arm, taking up shield and rudius again.
“Ready your shield and get up,” Max said, his voice calm as he recovered his own rudius.
Tavi snorted. “You’ve broken my bloody arm. How do you expect me to–”
Max let out a roar and swept the practice weapon at Tavi’s head.
Tavi barely threw himself back in time to avoid the stroke, and he struggled to regain his feet, balance wavering because of the pain and the heavy shield on his left arm. “Max!” he shouted.
His friend roared again, weapon sweeping down.
Magnus’ rudius swept through the air and deflected the blow, and then the old Maestro shouldered into Tavi’s shield side, bracing him long enough to get his balance underneath him.
“Stay in tight,” Magnus growled, as Max circled to attack again. “Your shield overlaps mine.”
Tavi could hardly make sense of the words for the pain in his arm, but he did it. Together, he and Magnus presented Max with nothing but the broad faces of their shields as a target, while Max circled toward their weak side—Tavi.
“He’s faster and has more reach than me. Protect me or neither of us will hold a sword.” Magnus’ elbow thumped swiftly into Tavi’s ribs, and Tavi pivoted slightly, opening a slender gap in the shields through which Magnus delivered the quick, ugly chop Tavi had been less than enthused about learning.
Max caught the blow on his shield, though barely, and when his reply stroke came whipping back, Tavi stretched his shield toward Magnus, deflecting the blow while the Maestro recovered his defensive balance.
“Good!” Magnus barked. “Keep the shield up!”
“My arm—“ Tavi gasped.
“Keep the shield up!” Max roared and sent a series of strokes at Tavi’s head.
The boy circled away, staying tight against Magnus’ side, and the old Maestro’s return strokes threatened Max just enough to keep him from an all-out assault that would batter through Tavi’s swiftly-weakening defenses. But Tavi’s heel struck a stone, he mis-stepped, and moved a little too far from Magnus’ side. Max’s rudius clipped the top of Tavi’s skull, hard enough to send a burst of stars through his head despite the heavy leather helmet he wore for their practice bouts.
He fell weakly to one knee, but some groggy part of his brain told him to keep his shield close to Magnus, and he foiled a similar strike Max directed at the Maestro on his return stroke. Magnus’ rudius flashed out and tapped Max hard at the inner bend of his elbow, and the large young man grunted, flicked his rudius up in a salute of concession, and stepped away from the pair of them.
Tavi collapsed, so tired that he felt he could barely keep breathing. His wounded wrist pounded in agony. He lay there on his side for a moment, and then opened his eyes to stare at his friend and Magnus. “Through having fun?”
“Excuse me?” Max asked. His voice sounded tired as well, though he was barely panting.
Tavi knew that he probably should keep his mouth shut, but the pain and the anger it begat paid no attention to his reason. “I’ve been bullied before, Max. Just never figured you’d do it.”
“Is that what you think this is?” Max asked.
“Isn’t it?” Tavi demanded.
“You aren’t paying attention,” Magnus said in a calm voice, as he stripped himself of the practice gear and fetched a flask of water. “If you got hurt, it was a result of your own failure.”
“No,” Tavi snarled. “It is a result of my friend breaking my arm. And making me continue this idiocy.”
Max hunkered down in front of Tavi and stared at him for a silent minute. His friend’s expression was serious, even . . . sober. Tavi had never seen that expression on Max’s face.
“Tavi,” he said quietly. “You’ve seen the Canim fight. Do you think one of them would politely allow you to get up and leave the fight because you sustained a minor injury? Do you think one of the Marat would ignore weaknesses in your defense out of courtesy for your pride? Do you think an enemy legionare will listen while you explain to him that this isn’t your best technique, and that he should go easy on you?”
Tavi stared at Max for a moment.
Max accepted the flask from Magnus after he finished, and drank. Then he tapped the rudius on the ground beside him. “You cover your shieldmate no matter what happens. If your other wrist is broken, if it leaves you exposed, if you’re bleeding to death. It doesn’t matter. Your shield stays up. You protect him.”
“Even if it leaves me open?” Tavi demanded.
“Even if it leaves you open. You have to trust the man beside you to protect you if it comes to that. Just as you protect him. It’s discipline, Tavi. It is literally life and death–not just for you, but for every man fighting with you. If you fail, it might not only be you who dies. You’ll kill the men relying on you.”
Tavi stared at his friend and his anger ebbed away. It left only the pain and a world full of weariness.
“I’ll ready a basin,” Magnus said quietly, and paced away.
“There’s no room for error,” Max continued. He unstrapped Tavi’s left hand from the shield, and passed him the water.
Tavi suddenly felt ragingly thirsty, and began guzzling it down. He dropped the flask and lay his head on the ground. “You hurt me, Max.”
Max nodded. “Sometimes pain is the only way to make a stupid recruit pay attention.”
“But these strokes,” Tavi said, frustrated but no longer belligerent. “I know how to use a sword, Max. You know that. Most of these moves are the clumsiest looking things I’ve ever seen.”
“Yes,” Max said. “Because they fit between the shields without elbowing someone behind you in the eye or unbalancing the man on your right or making your feet slip in mud or snow. You get an opening for maybe half a second, and you’ve got to hit whatever you’re swinging at with every ounce of force you can muster. Those are the strokes that get the job done.”
“But I’ve already been trained.”
“You’ve been trained in self-defense,” Max corrected him. “You’ve been trained to duel, or to fight in a loose, fast group of individual warriors. The front line of a legion battlefield is a different world.”
Tavi frowned. “How so?”
“Legionares aren’t warriors, Tavi. They’re professional soldiers.”
“What’s the difference?”
Max pursed his lips in thought. “Warriors fight. Legionares fight together. It isn’t about being the best swordsman. It’s about forming a whole which is stronger than the sum of the individuals in it.”
Tavi frowned, mulling the thought over through a haze of discomfort from his throbbing wrist.
“Even the most hopeless fighter can learn legion technique,” Max continued. “It’s simple. It’s dirty. It works. It works when the battlefield is cramped and brutal and terrible. It works because the man beside you trusts you to cover him, and because you trust him to cover you. When it comes to battle, I’d rather fight beside competent legionares than any duelist—even if it was the shade of Araris Valerian himself. There’s no comparison to be made.”
Tavi looked down for a moment and then said, “I didn’t understand.”
“You were at a disadvantage. You’re already a fair hand with a blade.” Max grinned suddenly. “If it makes you feel any better, I was the same way. Only my first centurion broke my wrist six times and my kneecap twice before I worked it out.”
Tavi winced at his own wrist, now swelling up into a large, plump sausage of throbbing torment. “Naturally, it only stands to reason that I would learn more quickly than you, Max.”
“Hah. Keep that talk up, and I’ll let you fix that wrist on your own.” Despite his words, though, Max looked concerned about him. “You going to be all right?”
Tavi nodded. “I’m sorry I snapped at you, Max. It’s just . . .” A little pang of loneliness hit Tavi. It had become a familiar sensation over the last six months. “I’m missing the reunion. I miss Kitai.”
“Can’t a day pass without you whining to me about her? She was your first girl, Calderon. You’ll get over it.”
The little lonely pang went though him again. “I don’t want to get over it.”
“Way of the world, Calderon.” Max reached down to slide Tavi’s good arm over one of his broad shoulders and lifted him from the ground. Max helped him over to their camp’s fire, where Magnus was pouring steaming water into a mostly-full washbasin.
Twilight lingered for a long time in the Amaranth Vale, at least compared to Tavi’s mountainous home. Every night, the trio had stopped traveling an hour before sundown, in order to give Tavi lessons in the use of legion battle tactics and techniques. The lessons had been arduous, mostly practice exercises with a weighted rudius, and they’d left Tavi’s arm too sore to move after the first couple of evenings. Max hadn’t judged Tavi’s arm ready to train until two weeks of exercises had hardened the muscles in it into sharp, heavy angles beneath the skin. Another week had served to thoroughly frustrate Tavi with the seemingly clumsy techniques he was being forced to learn—but he had to admit that he’d never been in better fighting condition.
Until Max had broken his wrist, at least.
Max eased Tavi down beside the basin, and Magnus guided the broken wrist down into the warm water. “You ever awake through a watercrafted healing, boy?”
“Lots of times,” Tavi said. “My aunt had to see to me more than once.”
“Good, good,” Magnus approved. He paused for a moment, and then closed his eyes and rested the palm of his hand lightly on the surface of the water. Tavi felt the liquid stir in a swift ripple, as though an unseen eel had darted through the water around his hand, and then the warm numbness of the healing enveloped his hand.
The pain faded, and Tavi let out a groan of relief. He sagged forward, trying not to move his arm. He wasn’t sure it was possible to fall asleep sitting up, and with both eyes slightly open, but he seemed to do so, because the next time he glanced up, night had fallen and the aroma of stew filled the air.
“Right then,” Magnus said wearily and withdrew his hand from the washbasin. “Try that.”
Tavi drew his arm out of the tepid water of the washbasin and flexed his fingers. Soreness made the movement painful, but the swelling had all but vanished, and the throbbing pain had faded to a shadow of what it had been before.
“It’s good,” Tavi said quietly. “I didn’t know you were a healer.”
“Just an assistant healer during my stint in the legions. But this kind of thing was fairly routine. It’ll be tender. Eat as much as you can at dinner and keep it elevated tonight, if you want to keep it from aching.”
“I know,” Tavi assured him. He rose and offered the healer his restored hand. Magnus smiled a bit whimsically and took it. Tavi helped him up, and then they both went to the stewpot over the fire. Tavi was ravenous, as always after a healing. He wolfed down the first two bowls of stew without pausing, and then scraped a third from the bottom of the pot and slowed down, soaking tough trailbread in the stew to soften it into edibility.
“Can I ask you something?” he said to Max.
“Sure,” the big Antillan said.
“Why bother to teach me the technique?” Tavi asked. “I’ll be serving as an officer, not fighting in the ranks.”
“Never can tell,” Max drawled. “But even if you never fight there, you need to know what it’s about. How a legionare thinks, and why he acts as he does.”
“Plus, to play your part, you’ve got to be able to see when some fish is screwing it up.”
“Fish?” Tavi asked.
“New recruit,” Max clarified. “First couple of weeks they’re always flailing around like a landed fish instead of a legionare. It’s customary for experienced men to point out every mistake a fish makes in as humiliating a fashion as possible. And in the loudest voice manageable.”
“That’s why you’ve been doing it to me?” Tavi asked.
Both Max and the old Maestro grinned. “The First Lord didn’t want you to miss out on too much of the experience,” Magnus said.
“Oh,” Tavi said. “I’ll be sure to thank him.”
“Right, then,” Magnus said. “Let’s see if you remember what I’ve been teaching you while we ride.”
Tavi grunted and finished off the last of his food. The practice, the pain, and the crafting had left him exhausted. If it had been up to him, he would have simply laid down right where he was and slept – which had doubtless been intentional on behalf of Max and Magnus. “I’m ready when you are,” he sighed.
“Very well,” Magnus said. “To begin, why don’t you tell me all the regulations regarding latrines and sanitation, and enumerate the discipline for failure to meet the regulations’ requirements.”
Tavi immediately started repeating the relevant regulations, though so many of them had been crowded into his brain over the past three weeks that it was a challenge to bring them up, tired as he was. From sanitation procedure, Magnus moved on to logistics, procedures for making and breaking camp, watch schedules, patrol patterns, and another hundred facets of legion life Tavi had to remember.
He forced his brain to provide facts until weariness was interrupting every sentence with a yawn before Magnus was finally said, “Enough, lad, enough. Get some sleep.”
Max had collapsed into lusty snoring an hour before. Tavi sought his bedroll and dropped onto it. He propped his arm up on the leather training helmet as an afterthought. “Think I’m ready?”
Magnus tilted his head thoughtfully and sipped at his cup of tea. “You’re a quick study. You’ve worked hard to learn the part. But that hardly matters, does it.” He glanced aside at Tavi. “Do you think you’re ready?”
Tavi closed his eyes. “I’ll manage. At least until something beyond my control goes horribly wrong and kills us all.”
“Good lad,” Magnus said with a chuckle. “Spoken like a legionare. But bear something in mind, Tavi.”
“Right now, you’re pretending to be a soldier,” the old man said. “But this assignment is going to last a while. By the time it’s over, it won’t be an act.”
Tavi blinked his eyes open to stare up at the sea of stars now emerging overhead. “Did you ever have a bad feeling about something? Like you knew something bad was about to happen?”
“Sometimes. Usually set off by a bad dream, or for no reason at all.”
Tavi shook his head. “No. This isn’t like those times.” He frowned up at the stars. “I know. I know it like I know that water’s wet. That two and two is four. There’s no malice or fear attached to it. It just is.” He squinted at the Maestro. “Did you ever feel like that?”
Magnus was silent for a long moment, regarding the fire with calculating eyes, his metal cup hiding most of his expression. “No,” he said finally. “But I know a man who has a time or two.”
When he said nothing more, Tavi asked, “What if there’s fighting, Maestro?”
“What if there is?” Magnus asked.
“I’m not sure I’m ready.”
“No one is,” the Maestro said. “Not really. Old salts strut and brag about being bored in most battles, but every time it’s just as frightening as your first. You’ll fit right in, lad.”
“That’s not something I’ve had much practice in,” Tavi said.
“I suppose not,” Magnus said. He shook his head and took his eyes from the fire. “Best I rest these old bones. Best you do the same, lad. Tomorrow you join the legions.”