“Good morning, valiant soldiers, and welcome to our third annual Challenges!” Despite the nervousness flooding his body, Stylo couldn’t help but smile at Acher’s speech. Valiant soldiers? The majority were more like awkward young men, probably unfit even to join the king’s army. He still remembered that first year and the Challenges that had taken place shortly after they had joined. It was chaos. Pathetic, unskilled chaos. Most had never touched a sword before. Stylo hadn’t known how to shoot an arrow. Riider had only won out of brute strength–no talent at all.
Yet here they were, two years later–strong and smart and skilled. Their eyes were steady on their leader, their ears focused, their blood pumping. All anxious for the Challenges to begin.
“It brings me great joy to see you all here today, much different from the children I saw two years ago.” A murmur of laughter rippled through the group. “I have seen much improvement from all of you–but that does not come without sacrifice. Be proud of the costs you have paid to become the great soldier that you are!” Shouts exploded from the group and some began to disperse, but Acher put up a hand to stop them.
“As you know, the Challenges were designed for a specific reason in mind,” Acher continued. Stylo could feel his face grow warm with pride. Several people turned to look at him, and others looked at Riider. “Many believe it is to determine the best soldier, and while that is true, there is more to it. It is a test for the real reason of this training camp, something many have wondered about. The Challenges are a way for me to determine if all of you are ready to partake in the Real Challenge, the purpose of this camp. Do you think you can do it?” Everyone erupted into shouts and yells. Acher smiled as he glanced around and fixed his gaze on Stylo. “Fight fair, fight hard, and may the best man win!”
Although this was only the third Challenges, everyone knew what to expect. They had spent most of the year training for it, studying the different parts of the Challenges and memorizing each obstacle laid out. The first section was simple sword-fighting. Everyone was assigned a partner and given a dull sword. As expected, Stylo was partnered with Riider.
Because there was limited room, ten pairs competed at a time. Anticipation built as the others fought. Stylo kept glancing at Riider, who smiled at ease and with confidence. Of course Riider wasn’t nervous–sword-fighting was his specialty.
Finally it was his turn. This year, Acher didn’t put him and Riider with the last group of ten. They went alone, with dozens of people watching.
Stylo took his stance, holding the sword as lightly as he could. He hopped from foot to foot. Riider stared into Stylo’s eyes, daring him to try to win. Stylo replied with a brief smile and gripped his sword.
“One, two, four, go!” he breathed. Faces blurred, shouts faded, heart pounded. The only thing clear was Riider’s eyes.
His opponent attacked.
* * *