Merin stood perched on the side of the stone wall, looking down. Kholinar’s walls were lofty and thick. Their sides smoothed by the drippings of winter storms, the wall’s blocks seemed to have melded together—almost as if the structure were formed of a single massive stone. The rock was dark, the color of crom buildup and winter lichens—similar to the buildings of Merin’s home village. Unlike many of Kholinar’s buildings, the walls could not be scrubbed clean or whitewashed. However, the unrefined look felt right—it made the walls seem more like a natural force than a man-made barrier.
Merin took a breath, then jumped off the side.
He had chosen a lower section of the wall—one of the shorter side bastions that ran parallel to the main structure. Even still, it was a daunting distance to the ground, thirty or more feet. Merin plummeted like a boulder. He tried to keep his eyes open as he fell, watching the ground approach. His feet slammed against it, the weight of his Shardplate throwing up chips of broken stone. He stumbled slightly, falling back against the wall and steadying himself.
He took a couple of deep breaths. Even after several tenset repetitions, jumping off the wall still unnerved him. Experience had proven that the fall would not hurt—though the impact shook a little, it was manageable. Still, there was something unsettling about falling from such a height.
Merin sighed, heaving himself away from the wall’s support to begin jogging back up the wall’s steps. Only sixty more to go. . . .
When he reached the top again, he was surprised to see Aredor waiting for him. Dalenar’s heir wore his customary well-tailored outfit, and stood leisurely with his back resting against the battlement. “My older brother once visited Shinavar,” he noted. “He said that there were animals there that could fly—strange, colorful creatures, some as large as a pig. I do not think, however, that they gained the ability through sheer force of repetition.”
Merin snorted, walking to his jump point, looking over the edge. A cool breeze was blowing, though the day was hot. Summer had almost reached the Searing, the forty-day stretch at its center when rain was scarce. The Searing was broken by only a single highstorm at its center—the Almighty’s Bellow, the most furious storm of the year.
Merin turned back to Aredor, removing his helmet and wiping his brow. “Vasher told me to jump off the wall a hundred times,” he explained.
Aredor raised an amused eyebrow. “Ordering you to eat in your armor for a week wasn’t enough for him, eh?”
“Apparently not,” Merin replied, shivering slightly at the memory of wearing his Shardplate to evening meals at Dalenar’s palace. Visiting lords had given him some very odd looks, but had received no end of mirth from the experience once Aredor filled them in.
“A hundred times, eh?” Aredor said. “What number are you on?”
“Forty-one,” Merin said.
Aredor grimaced. “You’ve been at it for several hours already!”
“It takes time to get up those steps,” Merin said.
Aredor just shook his head. Merin could see the amusement in his eyes, however.
“I know,” Merin grumbled. “I should have chosen one of the masters you picked for me.”
“Oh, I would never gloat over a friend’s misfortune,” Aredor said.
“I’m certain Brother Vasher knows what he’s doing,” Aredor said. “Why, if you keep at it, and he might actually let you fight with a sword.”
Merin snorted, and threw himself off the top of the wall again. The uncoordinated jump, however, flung him off-balance, and he dropped on his side, crashing to the ground in an unceremonious clang.
With the hard landing, it happened again—just like the first time he had put on the armor, and several times after. The air around Merin changed, becoming viscous to his sight, patterns forming and flowing. The air was still transparent, yet keenly discernible to him—like the waves of heat rising above flames.
Merin sat stunned for a moment. The Shardplate had cushioned his fall, leaving him a little dazed—but that was not why he remained motionless. He still had no explanation for why the armor changed his sight—Aredor seemed befuddled, and Renarin said he’d rarely worn Shardplate. However, every time it happened, it lasted briefly. Any motion disturbed the experience, ending the surreal moment.
He did not want it to end. There was something . . . transfixing about the motions in the air. The patterns were not random—they moved with the air. In fact, it was almost as if he could see the wind itself, flowing around him, pushed by people who passed, falling in currents beside the wall’s shadow, only to rise when it reached sunlight again. The air seemed to whisper to him, drawing him to it, embracing him. . . .
Almost reflexively, he reached upward with a gauntleted hand. The experience ended as suddenly as it had come, plunging him back into normality. He lay dazed on the stones below the wall. Above, he could barely make out Aredor’s concerned face looking down at him.
Merin sighed, heaving himself to his feet to show that he was unharmed. Several minutes later, he puffed his way to the top of the wall again. The armor might increase his strength, but it was still difficult to make the climb over and over again.
“That was quite a jump,” Aredor noted.
“Are you here for a reason?” Merin asked. “Or did you just come to mock me?”
“Oh, mocking, mostly,” Aredor said with a yawn. “You know, you look like you could use a break. Why don’t you leave the rest of your . . . training for tomorrow?”
Merin glanced over the side of the wall. He had a dueling session with Vasher in another hour or so. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to arrive fatigued from the jumping—the monk’s training was hard enough as it was.
“All right,” Merin said. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
“They said they were too busy with the harvest,” Merin said as he, Aredor, and Renarin made their way toward Shieldhome for evening sparring. “Or at least that’s what their letter said. The scribe says she copied down their words exactly, though.”
Aredor frowned. “Why wouldn’t your parents want to come to Kholinar? With a Shardbearer’s stipend you could surely give them a better life here.”
Merin shook his head. “It’s . . . difficult to explain.” His parents’ words, while disappointing, had not been surprising. “My parents are . . . happy as farmers, Aredor. Stonemount is a tiny village. Its people have no concept of the difference between tributing lords, ranking lords, landed nobility, and unlanded nobility. They’ve heard of Shardbearers, but none of them really know what that means. To them, what I’ve become is . . . something strange, something that shouldn’t affect one of their children. They do know that they have to get the harvest in, however, before the Searing arrives.”
“Still seems strange,” Aredor said. “You’re their son. Don’t they want to see you?”
Merin had visited once. Once their training as spearmen was completed, they had been allowed two months to visit their families before going off to Prallah. Even then, Merin’s visit had been awkward. None of his brothers had traveled further than the next two villages over. They had been fascinated by the stories he told, but reserved toward him. He had been . . . foreign. Merin remembered the awed hesitance he had seen in the eyes of his three friends that morning when he awoke to find himself a Shardbearer. He had no desire to see the same in the eyes of his parents.
“I’ll visit them once summer is over,” Merin said. “There’s no hurry—I’ve been away for three years now.”
They entered the monastery, where Aredor and Renarin split to walk toward the noblemen’s side of the courtyard. Merin was still a little surprised that Renarin came to the monastery—he would have thought the duels would be too strong a reminder of the lost Shardblade. Renarin, however, didn’t seem to mind—he and his brother spent many of their evening spars practicing with each other, using regular swords.
Something Merin still hadn’t been allowed to do. He sighed, setting his Shardblade against the far wall where he could keep an eye on it, then removing his slippers. He wore training clothing—a sencoat and loose trousers, much like the outfits the monks wore, though his was noticeably finer in make.
Vasher stood with his monk companions, drinking from a water barrel. Several of the monks nodded to Merin as he joined them. During his time training with Vasher, Merin had begun to understand a little bit of the politics of the monastery. At first it seemed like the only stratification in the courtyard lay in the division between lords and citizens. However, there was a more subtle distinction—one among the monks themselves.
While most of the monks ate together, shared the responsibilities of cleaning, and interacted with each other civilly, they always trained with the same group of men. The groups did not intermix on the sparring yard; they maintained strictly stratified cliques.
Vasher’s group seemed to be near the bottom. All its men were about the same grizzled age. They were different from the calm-minded weapons masters that trained in other parts of the courtyard. Vasher’s companions spoke less, and seemed to hide more within their troubled eyes. Most of them bore scars or other hints of battle. They were Oathgiven monks—men who had joined the monastery of their own will, after becoming adults. Merin wondered what it was these men wanted to escape, and whether the monastery provided the shelter they sought.
“How did the jumping go?” Vasher asked, lowering his ladle and wiping his mouth with a towel, then picking up his practice sword.
“I got about halfway done,” Merin said.
Vasher nodded, waving for Merin to follow him toward an open patch of sand. “Show me your stance,” he said once they arrived.
Merin fell into the dueling stance as he had been trained, hands held forward as if gripping a sword’s hilt. Vasher walked around him, eyeing the stance with a critical eye. Eventually, he nodded. “Good,” he said, tossing Merin the practice sword.
Merin smiled broadly, catching the wooden weapon. Finally! During the weeks of training, he had begun to desire the simple wooden blade with nearly the same zeal some men chased Shardblades. However, instead of power or title, the acceptance of this blade brought something else: validation.
Vasher walked over to the pile, picking through the practice weapons, acting as if nothing important had transpired. “Back into your stance!” he snapped, shooting a glance at Merin.
Merin did as ordered, falling into the stance, feeling the weight of the wooden sword in his hands. Regardless of its material, it was a fine weapon, well weighted and sturdy, bearing the nicks and bruises of countless matches. It felt good.
Vasher approached—bearing, Merin noticed with interest, a long, hook-ended polearm instead of a sword. Rather than falling into a stance when he arrived, Vasher simply reached out with the weapon, hooked the back of Merin’s leg, and flipped him off his feet. Merin toppled to the sand with a surprised grunt.
“Up!” Vasher said. “Quickly. Into the stance!”
Merin scrambled up, sand trickling from his sencoat as reassumed the stance.
“Not quickly enough,” Vasher said. “Again.” He hooked Merin’s leg with a quick gesture, throwing him to the sand again.
Merin did as commanded, this time making better time, jumping up and raising his sword as quickly as he could manage.
“Far too slow,” Vasher informed. “I want you to fall down and get up a hundred times.”
Merin groaned, lowering the practice sword. “I thought that since I had a sword now, you’d actually let me spar,” he complained.
Vasher snorted. “I just didn’t want you to get too accustomed to the stance with the wrong weight in your hands,” he said. “Now go.”
Merin sighed, falling to the ground, then scrambling back up. Vasher stood back, nonchalantly leaning against the polearm and watching as Merin worked. Sweat-stained sand was plastered to Merin’s forehead by the time he finished. However, he could already see improvement. Now, instead of rising and then assuming the stance, he could nearly step right into it from the moment he began to rise.
As he finished his hundredth rise, Vasher suddenly attacked, jumping forward with his hooked weapon. He swung the polearm like a staff, coming at Merin with both ends swinging in a flurry of attacks.
Merin yelped, bringing up the practice sword to block what blows he could. Vasher’s fury pushed him back across the sand, forcing him to retreat.
“Maintain the stance!” Vasher snapped between blows. “It will think for you. All of your strikes flow from the stance, all of your motions are fluid within it. In the stance, you are nolh, free as air, flowing into the next attack. If you break the stance, you become taln, and stone cannot change shape. Even a rock can be broken with enough force or persistence. The wind, however, can never be defeated.”
Merin tried to do as commanded, tried to keep his feet positioned as he had been taught, tried to step in the motions he had repeated hundreds of times. Even with the confusion of Vasher’s attacks, however, he could immediately see the truth of the monk’s words. When he didn’t misstep, when he managed to keep his sword placed in one of the five defensive positions, his body seemed to move without thought. The parries and retreats he had been taught came naturally, and Vasher’s blinding strikes were somehow blocked. However, when Merin misstepped, stumbled, or lost his focus for just a moment, a tenset blows seemed to strike his skin.
Vasher stopped eventually and Merin tumbled backward, stumbling and dropping to the sand, the practice sword falling from nearly numb fingers. He sat in the sand for a moment, gasping for breath.
Vasher planted the staff’s end in the sand and extended a hand, pulling Merin to his feet. “Go get something to drink,” he said.
Merin nodded thankfully, jogging over to the water barrel and grabbing a ladle. He drank thankfully, but sparingly. He probably didn’t need to be so frugal with water—not here in Kholinar, with its river and its lushness. However, his instincts still told him it was summer—back in Stonemount, water would be scarce until the fall highstorms began to pick up.
As he drank, Merin glanced across the courtyard, toward the sparring noblemen. Aredor and Renarin were there, as was Meridas and several of the other men Merin knew from the court. Apparently, many noblemen from Ral Eram came to Kholinar to train with Shieldhome’s respected master monks.
“I can’t help wondering if I should join those noblemen, Vasher,” Merin noted as his teacher approached. “When I was a spearman, the captains always emphasized how important it was to know the men you were fighting with, so you could trust them. How can I be expected to defend Alethkar in war if I don’t have the camaraderie of the other lords?”
Vasher shook his head. “When you were a spearman, your life depended on your neighbor’s ability to protect your flank. You’re a Shardbearer now; you can depend on no one. Even on a battlefield of a hundred thousand men, you will fight alone.”
“Yes, but shouldn’t I at least spend a little time sparring with them?” Merin asked. “Seems like it would help me learn how to duel.”
“I’m not teaching you how to duel,” Vasher said.
“What?” Merin asked, turning with surprise.
“I’m teaching you how to fight,” Vasher said.
“And the difference is?”
“One is contained in the other,” the aging monk said, turning to walk back across the sand. “Go and get your arrow.”
Merin sighed, putting away the ladle and walking over to the weapon pile to do as commanded. When he joined Vasher, the monk had retrieved a dark-colored sheath from the wall inside one of the rooms along the wall. The monk slid a bright steel sword from the sheath, its sheen reflecting the setting sun.
Vasher fell into his stance. “You wanted to spar?” he said. “Very well.”
Merin stood hesitantly, looking down at his arrow, then back up at Vasher’s sword. Its edge did not look dulled. “You have a very strange teaching style, old man,” Merin informed.
Vasher snorted. “Come on. Find the stance.”
Merin sighed, doing as instructed, holding out the long arrow as if it were a sword. He had pulled off the fletchings long ago, and held it in one hand as instructed by Vasher, but ready to use the second hand for power if necessary.
“This is the difference between dueling and fighting,” Vasher explained, stepping forward to strike. Merin jumped backward reflexively, resisting the urge to use his arrow to parry.
“Your noble friends,” Vasher continued, “they can only fight one way, with one weapon. If they lose their Shardblades on the battlefield, they become useless. Disarm them, and you’ve won. A real warrior, however, depends on himself, not on his weapon.” He struck again; Merin dodged backward, beginning to sweat. The sword stroke had passed far too close—did Vasher realize how dangerous his ‘training’ was becoming?
“You will study with the sword,” Vasher said. “And you will use a Shardblade. It will become part of you, like a limb of your own flesh. Sometimes, however, limbs must be lost to save the life. If you get too accustomed to the Blade’s lightness and power, it will become a crutch.” He swung again; Merin dodged.
“Come on,” Vasher chastised. “Fight me.”
“If I try to parry, you’ll just cut my weapon in half,” Merin complained.
“Then find another way,” Vasher challenged.
Merin continued to dodge, gritting his teeth. Each swipe was more frustrating, and Vasher’s comments began to sound like taunts. How did the man expect him to fight? This wasn’t a spar—it was a ridiculous farce.
Finally, Merin could stand it no longer. Vasher swung, and Merin struck, desperately lunging forward, driving the point of his arrow toward the man’s chest. The monk easily flipped his sword around, shearing the front off the arrow. Then he kicked, sweeping Merin’s feet out from under him and throwing him to the sand yet again. When his vision cleared, Vasher stood above him, sword placed against Merin’s neck.
“I want you to remember this,” Vasher said. “This is how every Shardless opponent will feel when he must face you. After a time, you will begin to think you’re invincible. But remember this feeling—the feeling that drove you to attack an expert swordsman with nothing but an arrow. That frustration, that hopelessness, drives men to recklessness and heroism. Perhaps, if the man you killed had remembered that, you would be dead and Alethkar would be part of Pralir, rather than the other way around.”
Vasher extended a hand, helping Merin to his feet. He nodded toward Aredor and the other noblemen. “They like to pretend that their duels are fair—they contrive ways to make them balanced. But no fight is ever balanced, Merin. One man is always better trained or better equipped. Some days, you will have to defend your life with a sick stomach, or with a dire thirst, or even after some woman has spurned you. It will never be fair. Honor and Protocol are fine ideals, but at the end of the fight, the one who is still alive usually gets to decide who was the more honorable. When you fight, you need to use every advantage you have. Understand?”
Merin nodded, reaching down to pick the arrowhead up off the ground so that no one would step on it.
“Good,” Vasher said. “Now, go jump off the wall some more.”