The Challenge: Part Three
A few days had passed, and Corran was officially allowed to continue with his training. He woke up bright and early the next morning (“If that oaf Jasper doesn’t stop blowing that trumpet in my ear, I swear I’m going to strangle him!” said Flame) and prepared himself for what was likely to be a much harder lesson than he was used to. More than a week of inactivity had put him a little behind of the other squires, but he made himself a personal goal to catch up quick.
He hastily grabbed his sword from where it lay on his bunk and rushed out to the castle courtyard. He, Torch, and Flame stood near the middle of the small crowd that surrounded Master Torak.
The huge blue Grarrl scanned each and everyone of them with his piercing gaze, then said in his rough voice, “Is everyone here then? Ah, Halcom’s back! I was hoping you’d be here for this, Squire. This could possibly be the most important lesson you’ve ever had.” His voice turned to a fierce growl, “This lesson is to see how you would fare out in the wild places of Meridell. When and if you all become knights, you’ll no doubt be sent on long and dangerous journeys for King Skarl. It is vital that you know how to protect yourself.”
He had now begun to pace around them, looking down upon them all, with his hands clasped behind his back, “As such, this lesson will take place over the course of a week. You have one hour,” he held up a single scarred blue finger, “one hour only to gather up whatever you think you will need on your journey. Normally, we would send you with one of our mounts, but we don’t have enough of those useful fellows to go around. You will be split into groups of three,” (Corran, Torch, and Flame all grinned at each other), “And your location will be given to you at the end of the hour, at which time you will flock in the Main Hall in your chosen groups.”
He continued his speech, still pacing around them and actually making a few of the newer squires break into a sweat. “You will be given a map, and an objective of your mission, which you must complete before the week is over. Throughout the journey, we knights will be creating obstacles for you to overcome.”
Most of the squires shuddered, including Corran. It was no telling what sort of obstacles Master Torak had planned for them.
“These obstacles,” he growled on in an intimidating way, “will show to us whether or not you have the true potential to defend this great kingdom someday.” He gave them all a slight nod. “Your hour to prepare has now begun. Go quickly!”
The fiery trio quickly made their way back into the castle for supplies. All three agreed that their most important supply would be food. The cooks in the kitchen weren’t very happy when they left with a sack stuffed full with bread and assorted fruits.
In their other sack they packed a standard first aid kit, in case one of them was injured, a few blankets, an extra map, and a few spare weapons. In their third and final sack they stuffed three pillows, three canteens, a compass, and a few simple potions for things such as Spyder bites.
Corran realized immediately why Torak had given them a full hour in which to gather supplies. What with the rush to grab everything they could think of, and running around the other squires that bustled about the castle, it was hard work. It certainly didn’t help when Flame made one of his typical wisecracks toward a chef in the kitchen and a butcher knife barely missed Torch’s head, which left him slightly flabbergasted.
Fortunately, they managed to gather in the Hall just in the nick of time. Indeed, the moment they halted, the sound of Torak’s clanging armor echoed into the Hall. Corran wondered if Torak would keep his armor on during the obstacles he and the other knights were doing. He doubted it seriously; he would be too easy to hear coming, and the last thing Torak would want would be to give the squires an easy time. Torak was a great instructor, but he could be a little hard on his students sometimes.
“Your hour is up!” the Grarrl boomed as loudly as he could muster, then began handing out maps to each group of three.
“These maps,” he said, “are not of all of Meridell, only the specific place where your objective is located. In other words, if you hadn’t thought of bringing an extra map, you’ve just failed the first portion of this exercise, unless you have a marvelous sense of direction.”
A few groups looked extremely crestfallen, and kept gazing back to the barracks as if hoping to make a break for it and grab a map, but Torak would never allow that. They had brought it upon themselves. It was lucky that Corran, Torch, and Flame had thought of an extra map, and they were one of the groups that were grinning proudly at their genius.
Finally, as their group was last in line, Torak reached them and handed Flame the map that listed their objective. Corran and Torch leaned in to see what they had to do.
They both gasped simultaneously. They had to retrieve a solid gold dagger that Torak had hidden...
In the Werelupe Woods.
Torak was speaking again, and the sound of his voice pulled Corran out of his shock slightly.
“You all now have your objectives, and a small map that may help you.” The grin he wore looked too big for his face, which was saying something. But, then again, the expressions on the faces of some of the squires were amusing. Corran felt that no one could possibly have a more dangerous mission than his group.
“And now your week begins! Good luck to you all, and...” He looked pointedly at Corran, Torch, and Flame’s group. The look on his face was one Corran never thought he would see. It was almost apologetic...
But, when he continued, it was his normal, rough, intimidating voice. “Try not to get yourselves killed.”
With that, the doors behind him opened and the bright sunlight poured into the Hall. Corran, Flame and Torch exited the castle, each feeling both excited and anxious.
Corran pulled the map of Meridell out of his sack as they exited the stone streets and made for the dirt roads of the Meridell Plains.
“So...” he began in what he hoped was a casual tone, “erm... about the Werelupe Woods. Am I the only one whose parents told them slightly disturbing scary stories about the Woods?” He handed the map to Flame, whose sense of direction was much better than his own.
Torch shivered a bit. “Father told Leaf and me tons of stories about that place, none of which sounded very appealing.”
Corran frowned. “Leaf?”
“My sister,” he answered. “I forgot I’d never told you her name.” Torch had indeed mentioned his sister several times, but all Corran knew was that she was a green Shoyru who lived in Illusen’s Glade.
“What about you, Flame? Did your parents or siblings try to creep you out with stories of that place?” Corran asked the fire Kyrii.
Flame acted as though he had not heard, and ordered them to turn left at a fork up ahead, staring intently at the map.
Corran gave a sideways look at Torch. The orange Shoyru just shrugged.
Now that he thought of it, Corran had never heard Flame mention anyone in his family. The only thing that Corran knew about his friend’s past was that he had lived in Meridell all his life, which Flame had told him when they first met. He wondered why he had never asked Flame about his family before. By the way Flame was staring at the map and refusing to meet his eyes, Corran figured that maybe asking him about it wasn’t such a good idea after all.
Torch had apparently tired of walking on the rocky dirt road, and settled instead for hovering about a foot off of the ground. Amusingly, this only made him a bit taller than Corran. The red Kougra laughed at this thought.
“Why Torch,” he began to tease, “I believe you’ve had a growth spurt!”
This seemed to break Flame out of his sullen state, and he snorted at the joke. Torch looked indignant. “It’s not my fault!” he argued, “It’s a genetic thing! All Shoyrus are... erm, vertically challenged.”
At that, Corran and Flame broke into fits of laughter. Even Torch joined in eventually, and the three of them were laughing so hard that they were actually forced to stop walking for a moment. It wasn’t that the comment had been that funny, but for some reason it was always so easy to laugh when you were anxious. It also released the tension that had been amongst the group since Corran had asked Flame about his family; a tension that Corran hadn’t even noticed was there until it was gone.
However, their laughter was short lived. There was a loud snapping behind a tree beside the path on which they walked.
Suddenly, they were all seriousness and had their swords drawn. Torch had returned to the ground, from which he fought much better. Well, except for that time when he had been tied to the chair...
The three friends turned in unison toward the tree, and at that moment, a net fell down on top of Torch, tangling him into a heap on the ground. Corran and Flame managed to move out of the way just in time. They spared quick glances at each other. This was no doubt one of Torak’s obstacles, and knowing him, there was more to come.
Sure enough, two figures in black chainmail and masks jumped from the tree, swords drawn. The shorter one headed for Corran, while the taller one went for Flame. They didn’t fight too hard; Torak had obviously not wished for any of the squires to get hurt too severely. Nonetheless, the blows were quite real.
Corran’s opponent played dirty. As he moved to parry the blow that was coming for him, he was kicked, none too gently, in the knees, and fell rather awkwardly onto his backside. His opponent let out a high pitched laugh, which sounded slightly feminine and vaguely familiar. “The bigger they are, the harder the fall!” said the voice, which definitely was female.
Corran just rolled around, trying hard to maintain his dignity, and untangled Torch from the net.
“If you two are quite done yet,” screamed Flame, who was fighting the other masked one, who was unnaturally tall, “Can we make a break for it?!”
“Don’t have to tell me twice!” said Corran, who had just been lifted into the air by Torch because his opponent had made a blow for his feet. Torch did not let him down, however, but was still holding him by the back of his shirt and heading for Flame. Corran couldn’t help but grin as he thought of Flame’s last reaction when Torch had hoisted him into the air; he had screamed rather girlishly.
Sure enough, when Torch grabbed the back of Flame’s shirt, bringing him into the air, Flame cursed rather loudly and yelped. The two black clad figures on the ground were shouting something that sounded rather like, “Cheaters!” but also seemed to be laughing. Torch touched down again as soon as he thought he should, eardrums probably throbbing from Flame’s endless squeals.
Flame fell to the ground rather lamely, then stood straight up and brushed himself off with dignity. “How many times,” he panted, “Do I have to ask you NOT to grab me when you feel like making a break for the clouds, you great flying lizard?!”
“And how many times,” began Torch, who was also panting slightly from carrying all of that weight, “Do I have to ask you to exchange your little squeals for something more manly?”
Corran sniggered. “I suggested he trade with a little Usul girl.”
Once more, they all laughed, even Flame. Suddenly, Corran understood fully why Torak had given the squires a week to complete the mission.
“Torch,” he began in an exasperated voice, “where exactly have you taken us?”
Torch’s eyes widened and he swept his feet across the ground guiltily. “Erm... I don’t exactly know. I was more focused on getting the heck out of there.”
Corran looked to Flame, who was checking the map, also looking exasperated. When he noticed Corran looking at him, he shook his head. “He’s taken us off of the map. I might be able to get us back onto the trail, but it could take about a day.”
Corran rested his head in his hands. “And after that?”
Flame shrugged. “As long as this flying lizard doesn’t get us lost again, we should still be able to make the deadline... if I can get us out in a day.”
Flame had obviously meant this to be reassuring, but it would have worked better if he had left out the last part of the sentence.
The first true challenge of squire training had finally come, and already they were lost.
To be continued...