Traitors And Warriors: Part Three
At last, the battle faerie spoke. She sucked in her cheeks and said, “You are Preluna, I presume.”
“You presume correctly,” I replied, speaking boldly even though I kept my eyes lowered to the ground as a sign of respect. I did not want her to know that I feared her.
“You impudent wretch,” Alluvia said coldly. “I will teach you manners if nothing else. Stand up straight. Let me take a proper look at you.”
I stared up at Alluvia. With her arms folded, the battle faerie was the very image of power and superiority. Her face was hardened by her proud, disdainful gaze. She eyed me from head to toe, before unfolding her arms and sucking in her cheeks again.
“You’re not afraid of me, are you?” she asked. “Tell me, whelp - do you have any particular talents? Are you gifted in any way? My cousin,” she added, before I could reply, “clearly has faith in you.”
“Queen Fyora does not know me particularly well,” I replied. “We mean very little to each other.”
Alluvia shot out a long, white hand and grasped me by the throat.
“Never, never be disrespectful towards your queen,” she snarled. “You are a mere child - an ignorant, ill-mannered brat. I will snap your neck like a twig unless you apologise at this very moment.”
“I’m - I’m sorry,” I spluttered, too startled and frightened to say anything else.
“Good,” Alluvia said, releasing her grip and pushing me away. “From now on, you will show respect to anyone in a position of authority. Especially me. If Fyora believes that you have potential, I will believe it too - even though I cannot see it myself. You will be my student and I will be your teacher. You must work hard to earn my approval. I am accepting you solely because it is the wish of Fyora. But although I am obliged to train you, I am free to turn you away if I wish. If you do not work hard, or if you make me angry, I will send you away in disgrace. Do you understand?”
I nodded, my hair falling into my eyes.
“You will only speak when I ask you a question,” Alluvia said firmly. “You will obey me, no matter what. Always remember that you are not here for your amusement, nor for mine. You are here to learn. In return for your obedience, I will teach you the greatest arts known to faeries. You must prove yourself worthy of such knowledge. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” I said, raising her eyes to meet Alluvia’s. “But may I ask what you are going to teach me?”
Alluvia gave a snort of contempt. “You are here to learn how to be invincible. You are here to learn the highest form of martial arts. You will become a scholar and a warrior. You will learn everything to make you stand above the others. You will learn how to fight with your fists and with a sword. Your education will enable you to surpass all others. Do you believe yourself to be ready for this challenge? I certainly do not,” she said nastily.
“I will do my best,” I said. I felt that I could promise nothing else.
Alluvia snorted again; I soon realised that she made this sound a lot when she wanted to laugh at me. “I’d be surprised if your so-called best was anything better than mediocre,” she said, folding her arms. “Let me see what you can do. Come on,” she said, seeing my bewildered expression. “Try and defeat me. Attack me with all your strength. Come on, air faerie. Show me your pathetic talents.”
Incensed, I threw my bag to the ground and ran at her with my hands ready to strike. Alluvia stretched out her arm and entwined her fingers around my wrist, flinging me effortlessly to the ground. Furious, I jumped to my feet and tried again. I rushed at her and she spun in the air, kicking me away as if I had no more strength than a leaf. Again and again I charged at her, and again and again she brushed me off. After only a few attempts, I was getting tired. Alluvia yawned, looking incredibly bored. I was filled with frustration. I had always imagined myself to be a skilled martial artist, but now I saw myself for what I really was: a pathetic, weak novice with no idea how to defend herself or land a blow on an opponent. I grew angry at myself and at Alluvia; she just stood there, mocking me with her cold eyes. Filled with sudden anger, I snatched up a loose pebble from the ground and flung it at her.
Immediately I got a reaction. Alluvia caught the stone in mid-air and threw it away. In a flash, she was on me, seizing me by the collar and shaking me violently.
“Never, never do that again,” she hissed. “If you want to fight dirty, you can go elsewhere. I’ve no idea where you’ve picked up these tricks but it’s going to stop now. You’re not a dark faerie - you’re not a coward either. Now get up.”
She herself was on her feet, standing over me like a terrifying statue. She sneered down at me.
“Get up,” she said, and kicked me in the ribs.
“I can’t!” I wailed, aching and feeling sore all over from landing on the hard ground so many times.
“Get up,” Alluvia said for the third time. “Get up - or get out.”
The choice was mine. I could beg for mercy and leave. I could leave and never return. I would never have to see this fierce faerie again, and never again be humiliated or insulted. But then I would know, for as long as I lived, that she had got the better of me. She had kicked me as I lay on the ground, and defeated me, and ridiculed me. Something inside me raged like a wild animal. Although bruised and exhausted, I forced myself to my feet. I staggered a little, since I had twisted my left ankle badly during one of my falls. I looked up at Alluvia and willed her to hear my thoughts... I am staying. I am not giving up. I am staying until I can defeat you. And one day, believe me, that day will come.
I expected mockery from her, but instead she gave a little smile of satisfaction and said, “Good. You’re tougher than you look.” Then she turned away and took a few steps, before turning back to me and adding, “Your training will begin tomorrow. In the meantime, get yourself cleaned up.”
* * * * *
Alluvia revealed very little of her life to me. From her manner of dress and the style of her home, I imagined that she was fond of Shenkuu and had perhaps spent many years there before re-creating a miniature Shenkuu on a faerie cloud, all for herself. She carried folding fans and wore jewelled hairsticks in her hair. The only thing which was not of Shenkuu design was her sword: it was long and straight, and the blade shone like a cold star. It was as beautiful and unyielding as its owner.
As Alluvia’s student, I had to lead a life of hardship - the greatest hardship I had ever encountered. Learning self-defence from books and learning it from Alluvia proved to be very different things altogether. And although Alluvia provided me with a beautiful home and everything else I needed, I found my new life difficult. Alluvia was very severe; she would accept nothing if it was second-best. Every morning she trained me, and we fought each other with every last ounce of strength until I collapsed. Every punch and every kick was agony since I had trained myself solely from diagrams in books and therefore, not having a proper tutor (or a proper opponent), had become used to taking a rest whenever I felt like it, free from injury. But Alluvia pushed me to the limit - and beyond. It was a very hard lesson for me to learn, especially since she was a very unsympathetic teacher. But although my progress was painfully slow, I sometimes let myself think that Alluvia was secretly impressed. I was by no means a skilled warrior, but I thought that she was sometimes surprised at the amount of knowledge I had mastered. For a self-trained warrior, she once told me (when she was in one of her better moods), I had done very well. Other than this single compliment, sharp words were the only encouragement I received.
Our afternoons were spent in one of Alluvia’s studies, a large airy room beside my bedchamber. After lunch, Alluvia shifted from fearless warrior to academic tutor. Skipping lessons was out of the question now, and it was another hard lesson for me to learn since it did not come naturally. Alluvia rapped my hands with a birch rod if I ever made a careless mistake or was too relaxed about my work. As a result, I was often in agony after indoor lessons as well, with blood on the backs of my hands from Alluvia’s rod and every inch of my body aching from long mornings of fighting.
Once she was certain that I had mastered enough moves, Alluvia abandoned self-defence and moved onto swordplay. The early sword fighting lessons were the worst - for Alluvia had very unorthodox methods. When I entered the courtyard on the first morning of sword practice, around six months after my arrival, Alluvia was waiting there with her sword in her hand and a very strange idea in her head.
“There is a stick on the ground,” she said. “Pick it up.”
I looked and saw a long birch rod, about the length of a sword (and rather like the cane which Alluvia used for punishments), lying on the ground. It was stripped of branches and leaves.
“Don’t just stand and stare,” Alluvia snapped. “Do as you’re told.”
I obediently picked up the slender stick.
“If you misbehave today, I will beat you with a stick like that,” Alluvia said calmly. “But for the time being, you may wield one for yourself. I am going to teach you how to swordfight. And I mean real, serious fighting, not play-fighting. If you want to hold a sword like an amateur, you can leave.”
“But how will I learn to fight at all with a branch?” I asked.
The battle faerie smirked at me. “Your inexperienced hands are not yet worthy of holding steel. Until you learn how to handle a weapon in theory, you cannot do it in practice. If you can fight with a stick, you can fight with a sword. Now,” she said, lifting her own weapon, “we are going to fight for real. And I want you to defeat me.”
“With a stick!” I exclaimed.
“A true warrior can defeat a swordfighter bare-handed,” Alluvia said casually. “By giving you a stick, I am being more than generous.”
So, armed only with a birch rod, I fought Alluvia with her sword. Within seconds the slim stick snapped, and in order to defend myself, I had to fight without a weapon. I did this very feebly, until Alluvia cursed at me and set her own sword aside, and taught me there and then how to aim a deadly punch or a powerful kick at even the most experienced swordfighter.
When I progressed with martial arts, I was promoted from stick-fighting to proper swordplay. My first swords were made of wood, and only after two years was I allowed to use swords made of steel. By that time, I was more than ready. I could disarm Alluvia: I could knock her back with a strong move, even when I was weapon-less and she had two swords. She said nothing, but I knew that she was awed at my progress. I could conquer her steel with wood and my powers grew every day. And like the swords, I myself began to toughen. I grew taller and stronger. And I walked with poise.
I was a quick learner too. Even though I never completely defeated Alluvia in combat, I often came very close. On several occasions, when our swords met in the cool morning air, I could see a momentary rush of panic on Alluvia’s face as she realised that she may be defeated. But she was always able to recover herself in time. I had the skills but not the refinement: I could copy a fighting move with ease but could not always use it to overcome Alluvia.
“Everyone has a weakness,” the battle faerie said one morning. “You must train yourself to look for your opponent’s weakness, and use it to your best advantage. Watch me, and then tell me what I am doing wrong.”
She moved about, swinging her sword through the air for a while, as if fighting an invisible partner. I watched, and then said, “You are too hesitant, and your moves do not flow. It would be easy for someone to disarm you if they moved quicker.”
Alluvia allowed herself to smile.
“Precisely,” she said. “I was mimicking the way you fight. You must not hold yourself back. I am teaching you a dance. Move without restraint. Move quickly. And copy me. As your teacher, I am the expert.”
After another year, the battle faerie told me that I had developed a fascinating talent for imitation. If Alluvia performed a move - even a very complicated one - I would copy it without hesitation or difficulty. As the months wore on, Alluvia sometimes seemed at a loss when it came to training me. It was as if she had run out of ideas. By then, I think we both knew that I would surpass her one day. But she still refused to admit it to herself, and I knew this because of a conversation I overheard when I had been her student for around four years.
One afternoon Alluvia went to her study. It was her private room which could only be accessed through her bedroom, and I had never been allowed inside. Alluvia liked to keep her secrets. I knew better than to pry into her business, but on that particular day, I was returning a book to the shelves in Alluvia’s bedroom. I liked to read her books and discreetly borrowed them whenever I could. Alluvia had apparently not noticed. As I slid the volume into place on its shelf, I heard faint voices coming from beyond the door to Alluvia’s study.
Curious, I crept forward. I heard Alluvia’s voice. It sounded as if she were talking to someone, but we lived alone and she never had visitors. I had never seen another faerie for four years. Wondering who it could possibly be, I pressed my ear to the door and heard another voice. It sounded like Fyora: her voice was very distinctive, and I had not forgotten it. She asked, “How is your student faring?”
“She learns quickly,” Alluvia replied. “How long am I to train her?”
“Until she defeats you,” was Fyora’s reply.
“No one can defeat me,” Alluvia snorted.
“Not yet,” Fyora said, and I imagined her with one of her mysterious little smiles. “When she is ready, let her return to me.”
There was a long silence, and then suddenly the door opened. I sprang away in fright, knowing that I would be punished for eavesdropping. Sure enough, Alluvia’s face was cold as marble as she stared at me, but I was more interested in seeing the room behind her. Fyora was not there, which surprised me: but then I saw a circular mahogany pillar in the centre of the room, with a clear glass globe resting on it. I remembered a similar, if not identical, crystal ball in the Faerie Palace. I realised then that this was the way Fyora and Alluvia communicated with each other.
Alluvia slammed the door behind her and glared at me. Even though I had grown quite a few inches in the last four years, she still had the height advantage. Her skin seemed very pale against the dark violet of her hair, which was still long and thick and showed no signs of greying. I drew cautiously back, waiting for her to shout at me or strike me with the back of her hand.
But she did nothing. She merely sucked in her cheeks, as she often did when she was exasperated, and then swiftly moved away. She left the door unlocked, and never locked it again. From that day onwards, Alluvia’s study was no longer a mystery, and I occasionally sneaked inside to take a look around. It had taken Alluvia four years, but she was learning to trust me.
And so more years passed, and we reached a quiet understanding. Alluvia came to respect me more. Occasionally she became irritable and lost her temper, but she had stopped regarding me as worthless. Sometimes I liked to imagine that I was her long-lost daughter, because she came to replace the mother I had never known. She was certainly the closest thing I had to a friend and a mentor.
All the while I continued to learn under Alluvia’s tutelage. I mastered every move she taught me and even invented a few of my own. When I had a sword in my hand, I felt complete. I saw myself as if I were a separate being: I saw a tall air faerie, her azure eyes glittering like steel, her pale hair flying around her face as she fought with unwavering skill. If Alluvia ever managed to knock me to the ground, sending the sword flying from my hand, I would jump up again and immediately grab another weapon to retaliate. Nothing would stop me.
One quiet day, as I finished my afternoon lessons and stacked my books away, I saw that Alluvia’s eyes were glazed and faraway. Forgetting that I was only supposed to speak if answering a question, I asked, “Are you all right?”
“I have just realised,” Alluvia said in a vacant-sounding voice, “that I have taught you everything I know. Do you understand how lonely and empty I feel? It is no small thing. But I have achieved what I had dismissed as impossible. I have trained a faerie to defeat me. And soon, very soon, I shall put your skills to the final test.”
To be continued...