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Left jab. Right hook. Uppercut. The young man was letting his blows get predictable again, and worse, his building frustration translated into clumsy swings as Owen blocked and weaved out from every haggard attempt at a haymaker. Owen knew exactly how to handle Henry, they’d been sparring partners for a week now, and while he’d been improving, Henry was far from a trained fighter. Owen just had to wait for a particularly forceful swing to bring the rookie off balance and-
Henry was looking up at Owen, silhouetted by the overcast light that bled into the open practice grounds of the arena. Owen offered a bandage-wrapped hand, pulling the young man from where he lay on the sand.
“C’mon now, we went over this last time, ya gotta stop reaching for those reckless hits. Leaves ya open for the leg sweep every time.” Owen dusted the sand off Henry’s somewhat fallen shoulders.
“Worked well enough on Phillip earlier,” Henry quipped, gesturing to a pudgy half-orc sitting and nursing an impressive goose egg on his head.
Owen glanced and smirked. “Yeah well, ya ain’t trainin’ to fight Phillip are ya? You’re trainin’ to fight people who actually know what they’re doin’. Now go ahead n’ catch your breath, we’ll go over some positioning drills once you’ve cooled off.”
As Henry staggered off, Owen wandered to a nearby bench, and pulled his pack from underneath. He freed a rag from inside and wiped off the light sheen of sweat across his chest and shoulders. A slight breeze and the cool autumn air provided a welcome relief as his heavy breathing eventually slowed. Pulling his arms in a stretch behind his back, Owen’s wiry frame complained with a series of cracks; a result of the daily abuse he had been putting his body through. A weary sigh worked its way from his lungs as the twinge of pain ran through him. Hand-to-hand had never been his specialty, and he certainly wasn’t half as muscled as some of his recruits. But by the gods, someone needed to train them if they wanted to last more than 10 minutes in a guard uniform, especially in the slums of the new Dawn District.
He took a seat on the bench. Slowly unwrapping the bandages from his hand so his battered knuckles could breathe. Holly had given him guff the last time she saw him. She called him a fool for letting the gashes and bruises heal on their own time, when he had all kinds of magical means at his disposal. She wasn’t wrong, he thought, as he washed the dried blood away with a splash from his waterskin. He stood and headed for the training staves on the wall rack. But then he heard shouting from the opposite side of the arena.
There stood Karnak, an absolute brute of a dragonborn with the stature of a small mountain, looming over the less impressive Henry. Owen had had the displeasure of dealing with Karnak in the past; he was nothing more than a bully that frequented the arena to pick fights and push people around just to show that he could. This time however, he was in a full-on rage, and poor Henry must’ve done something special to have earned the current onslaught of roared curses and threats centered on him.
To his credit, Henry was standing his ground, not letting the bronze-scaled bully intimidate him. To his detriment, Henry was also too daft to start backing away when Karnak brandished the dagger from his belt, pointing and waving it at the young man’s face. This quickly transformed Owen’s jog into a dead sprint, hoping to reach them before Karnak did something that couldn’t be forgiven. But before he could he even make his way across to intervene, someone else seemed to notice the potential threat.
With surprising speed and the swing of a practice staff, the dagger was swatted from Karnak’s fist. A woman with dark skin and a flowing trail of black hair quickly stepped between Henry and his aggressor. She stood tall and defiant against the dragonborn, eyes narrow and grip tight around her weapon. Karnak wasted no time in turning his rage towards her. Owen wasn’t close enough to hear their voices, but it wasn’t difficult to tell that the brute’s approach was less than diplomatic. The woman did not move, but lowered her staff in a defensive stance, spitting a warning through gritted teeth.
Owen expected a fight, a bad one if he knew Karnak. What he didn’t expect, however, was how quickly the dragonborn was dispatched. Karnak managed one step forward before the woman jabbed the blunt end of her staff into his windpipe. His face twisted in shock, and he barely had time to stagger back and open his eyes before she swung back and whacked him in the head, dropping him to the sand. Karnak stopped moving, and the woman spat down at him. Owen hurried and knelt down to make sure the idiot was still breathing.
“That was mighty impressive there,” Owen said, standing, “Ain’t seen a fella like him go down so quickly in quite a while.”
The woman grinned. “Yes, I get the feeling it has been some time since he took a proper hit. It is like he did not even try to block.”
Closer now, Owen took a chance to size her up. Pointed ears hinted at elvish heritage. Her angular features were tattooed with flowing lines of black ink. Meaningful or ornamental, Owen had no idea, but they were clearly made with great skill and care. The sides of her head were shaved, dark hair tied up behind. She held herself confidently, her toned arms crossed as she studied Owen in turn. He looked to the young Henry, standing sheepishly behind her.
“Very kind of her to get ya out of that mess, wasn’t it, Henry?” Owen chided. Flustered and red in the face, Henry gave a small nod and a mumbled ‘thank you’ to his rescuer. She gave a slight laugh, her bright smile in stark contrast to her intensity moments before.
“My pleasure. It is always fun to teach a lesson to the ones like him.” She casually pointed her staff Karnak, still unconscious on the floor. “He was big, but there’s always a bigger fish, yes?”
“It certainly seems so.” Owen chuckled and gestured to her staff. “You’ve obviously got a good bit of trainin’ with that. Weapon of choice?”
“Well, of what is available to train with here, yes. Outside, I prefer spear and shield. And yourself? Do you have a style you favor?”
“Saber and short-blade mostly,” Owen shrugged. “I usually try to keep them as a last resort if I’m bein’ honest.”
“As it should be,” she nodded. “Knowing when to keep your blade sheathed is a sadly rare skill in these times.”
“Indeed it is,” Owen agreed. “Ya know, I’ve been doin’ my best to teach these knuckleheads there’s more to fightin’ than just swingin’ harder than the other fella, but I could certainly use another fighter to show ‘em a thing or two. You ever consider workin’ with the guard?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly as she cocked an eyebrow, “No. I feel no need to deal with petty thieves, or noblemen whining about stray children in their yard.”
Owen laughed and shook his head. “Well, that certainly wouldn’t be an issue over in the Dawn. Most’ve the district’s barely got two copper to rub together. And if you’re worried about gettin’ bored, let me tell ya things are anything but calm right now.” His smirk faded. “Fact is, things’ve gotten a bit out of hand since the King kicked the bucket, and we’re doin’ our best to keep the peace, help folks figure out what happens next. We need all the help we can get.”
The woman met his eyes, attentive, curious. A grin slowly spread across her face. “Who are you? You’re very bold.”
“Apologies.” He dusted off his hand and held it forward. “Name’s Owen, at your service.”
“Meera.” She reached out to shake Owen’s hand. The half-elf’s grip was firm and steady, and she held his gaze.
“Pleasure to meet ya Meera.”
“The pleasure is mine, I am sure.”
“So, are ya at all interested in working with us over in the Dawn? Come
bust some heads, feel good about protecting folks while you’re at it?” Owen released the hand shake and hooked his thumb into his belt.
Meera tapped a finger on her chin, considering the proposition. “How much does this pay?” she asked.
“Short answer, it doesn’t. We’re volunteers.”
She burst out into laughter, almost doubling over. Owen patiently smiled and waited.
“I saw that you are bold, but this is impressive! And you have convinced people to agree to this before?” She eyed him incredulously.
Owen shrugged. “Folks respond well to a good cause.”
“So it seems.” Amusement still clung to her voice.
Owen gave her a small smile. “I understand if you’re not interested, I was simply-”
“No, I did not say that,” she interrupted. “You have me intrigued, at the very least.” She kept studying him. “ I will consider this. Where can I find you, if I decide to accept?”
“Either down in the Dawn, or over at the Beerforge in Barrel Run. Depends.”
“Very well, Owen. If I am so moved, I will seek you out. No promises.” She balanced her staff across her shoulders.
“I’d be most appreciative.” Owen smiled and gave a very slight bow. “Thanks again for saving Henry’s hide.”
“Think nothing of it.” She stretched and gave a small wave to Owen and Henry as she turned to leave. “I rarely turn down a challenge.”
Owen watched her leave. Hopefully she’d change her mind at some point. He could teach these recruits quite a bit on his own, but she’d certainly be invaluable. He checked on Karnak one last time, making sure he was just sleeping it off, and then Owen picked up the discarded dagger and slid it into his own belt for safe keeping.
“Alright Henry.” He turned to the sheepish young man. “Don’t think that lil’ episode got you out of runnin’ drills. Get your ass over to the equipment shed and grab us some practice sabers.”
“Yes sir!” Henry blurted out. He jogged off obediently.
Funny, Owen thought. He hadn’t needed to teach him that.
He straightened his back and ran his fingers through his hair to tame it. Wandering over to the bench for his pack, he pulled out his waterskin and splashed his face. He looked out over the sands of the arena. For a second, the din of training and weapons seemed to fade away. For what felt like the first time in weeks, Owen allowed himself a deep breath and closed his eyes. He was tired. More than tired. For a moment he considered calling it a night.
“Alright, got the sabers, ready when you are!” Owen looked up to see Henry offering the hilt of a wooden blade to him. The sun was setting, the overcast sky now a deep red mixed with gray.
A slight smile crept onto Owen’s face. “Let’s see what you remember.”
Wood struck wood, and the sounds of sparring filled Owen’s ears. Jabbing and poking, pointing out every false step Henry made, Owen couldn’t help but think that nothing had really gone to plan. Plans rarely ever did. The city was falling apart, and no one knew what would happen next. But, even though things may have gone to shit, they just might make something worthwhile of this city yet.
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