She danced, and her blade danced with her. Her feet and arms had found a pure rhythm atop the smooth and verdant grass, her whole body one with the elegant elven blade she held. This felt right to her. She saw the pattern of how any blade, any spear, any whistling arrow could come at her..and knew she could be hurt by none of them. The dance was a deadly one, the blade feeling as light in her hand as the grass at her bare feet, the breeze at her bare chest. It was also fatally sharp, she knew somewhere in the back of her mind, the part of reason and cool logic and forewarning that was too slow to join her thoughts here. This was not so different from a reverie of its own, this athletic introspection and exhibition of form, of grace, of prowess. Her form was unbound by anything here but the limits of its own muscles and her will, no clothes or armor in the way of the near-ritual blade dance. The wind was her ally here, caressing her cheek and keeping every errant strand of hair away from her closed eyes. It was her moment of solace, her moment of perfection-
The sharp voice cut into her crystalline peace, shattering the pristine state of mind and body Til’Ellaniel had acquired in the blade’s dance. Rather than recover smoothly at the interruption, she stumbled at the jarring arrest to her movement, her footing in that moment not lending itself to grace. Her ankle twisted painfully and her knee had to meet the ground to support her, lest she fall entirely. Her head angled down towards the ground, silver hair acting as a curtain to her flushed cheeks, colored in a mix of rising anger and shame. The anger was rising a little faster than the shame, granted. She waited for the laughter and the jibes from the rest, but aside from a single set of circling and immobile feet about her, the ring was quiet. The other six..or, rather seven, kept their silence.
“There, you see it. You were off balance, your foot was too wide, your arm too close. I thought you had been practicing, Til’Ellaniel.”
The voice was male, cool and curt. It was not as sharp as it had been before in that single damning word, but worse yet, it was disappointed; given how little he had expected of her in the first place, half-blooded thing that she was, disappointment was especially abrasive. Without much thought for her words, she lashed back, half hissing the words out.
“You make a fool of me. I have practiced, the dance was right-“
“Was it?” His tone had a challenging edge to it, his words forestalling her own. Was it mocking as well? With this sun elf, almost everything could be.
“It was right.” She maintained, but weaker. This time, she finally raised her head to look to him. Except, he had expected that too, and he had made the fool of her even more. Where she expected him to stand, where she last heard his boots stop, was but grass. He was behind her and to the left, softly stepped such that she did not even notice. How could she, with the blood rushing to her slanted ears. She had to try and recover the glance, veil her brief surprise, but he knew. They all knew.
“Until it was not. How can I do my duty to teach, when you do not do yours to learn, Til’Ellaniel. Rise, unless you feel you belong on your knees.”
She did, turning towards him in the same motion. Her hand was tight on her sword, as she had to cling to something. Now he was playing his upper hand, making the fault of his failed lessons hers. Now, he was staring at her down his nose, though he was not so much taller. A talent the Ar’Tel’Quessir must learn from birth, she had to guess, as each and every was so adept at it. A dozen different quips, complaints, excuses flooded up to the surface, but her thin-set lips did not let any of them breach. A little too hastily she had reached for the scabbard at the edge of the grass circle and sheathed the elven blade, her eyes on him. He returned her look, arrogant and level. And stoic, and solid. And handsome, and talented. And right. She knew he was, and Til’Ellaniel’s shoulders slumped. Her eyes, a deep brown remnant of her wood elven heritage, had passed over the rest of the Furies, and their single distinguished guest. There was no lower among them than her, none with more to prove. She was young, and had won no name. Worse, she was of mixed blood, moon and wood both of some bastard lineage, and had no legacy to be shielded by. They had names worth something, family or earned, and she had none but her own to make something out of.
Til’Ellaniel walked to the edge of the circle and reclaimed her spot at the end of the line of elves. All of the Furies wore matching deep green tunics, long enough to come just to the ankles. Hers was donned again, the silky protection of the thin garb going a long way to cool the heat at her cheeks. She felt far more vulnerable undressed, as if all her flaws were written on her skin and in the slight tonal difference of muscles when she moved. Perhaps many of them were, to a trained enough eye. Sol’Valinar’s might have been sharp enough for that, too see wrong and right in how taut her legs and stomach were, but perhaps she was doing him too much credit. Perhaps, she was wishing he stared at her form a little too much. Her eyes watched him, the dark-haired elf marking a few paces around the outer edge of the circle. He was the only one of the Furies not in a training tunic, their captain clad in shining breastplate. Him, and their one guest, standing separate from the elven unit with his hands held behind his back and expression lofty, superior, judging.
Til’Ellaniel had never been sure what to make of Dhoradin’ael Halnaran. At first blush, he seemed like he could have been a brother to the arrogant Sol’Valinar, his skin the same golden Ar’Tel’Quessir hue, his shoulders just as rigid and gaze just as condemning. It was not a month among their unit, the “Furies of Corellon,” that Til’Ellaniel was able to see the mistake of that assumption. There was no fiercer rivalry in Everska, and no colder and deeper one. Halnaran was responsible for a full half of the small elven units in the elven home, and the Furies of Corellon was but one of them. He did not have pride of Evermeet at his back, like Sol’Valinar always did, but instead drew on the fact that he was born and schooled in Evereska itself, that this was his home they all in their own way intruded on. Into his home, a mere half a year ago, had come a stranger that walked it with entitlement. They had not been friends for an instant of their shared life here.
“Will any others set an example for those of us yet too young?” Sol’Valinar stood across from the six, Halnaran the seventh somewhat to one side. He wore his elven mail too, his weapons at either hip. Twin shortblades, the blades of which Til’Ellaniel had never seen. She knew their reputation though that of the blades and the hands behind them. It was Halnaran that interjected before any volunteers could step into the circle and shed their robes.
“Do your Furies fight, Sol’Valinar, or do they just dance?” The other sun elf drawled out, his gaze passing over the six, unimpressed. It seemed to the young Til’Ellaniel that he looked at her longest, though she could read nothing on him aside from lofty disapproval.
“They fight, as well as any ranging unit in Evereska does.” Sol’Valinar kept the rebuke out of his tone, instead making it somewhat patronizing as he continued his explanation.
“Soth’Kinian is a wizard of the fourth circle already, and has watched the forests with his scrying since before you could don armor.” The elf indicated did not look like much, rather plain and lithe in his green robes. He wore a blade like everyone else, but all knew where his specialties truly lay. He seemed not to even note his own mention, standing with closed eyes atop the training hill.
“Red Feather and Lehanian are well chosen; I chose them myself for my command. You know their merits.” Til’Ellaniel did not, yet, and found herself childishly wishing that Sol’Valinar had talked a little more for once instead. She knew that Red Feather was an archer, her name coming from the cardinal fletching she always chose for her arrows. She knew Lehanian was as much a student of the shield as of the elven blade he carried, the same style Sol’Valinar himself had chosen. Her imagination let her envision fields of goblinoid corpses, red-feathered arrows in one half and vicious cuts having felled the other. Perhaps it was not so far-fetched a thing to imagine, these two could have their place in any company they wished in Evereska. Why they had chosen this one..as they had the right to choose as much as Sol’Valinar did, she did not know.
“I know your unit, captain. It is under –my- command. Every member.” Unusually blunt, but perhaps one sun elf had gotten under the other’s skin. Their ranks differed, their authority was not the same.
“I ask if they fight, or do they grow dull without anyone to keep them sharp? Perhaps the Furies would be more celebrated if they were led more by merit than a family name alone.”
Til’Ellaniel flinched, and she could see at least one other in her minor array of six, the moon-elven Aol’Vathilan, had done the same. This was no subtle jibe, it was as broad a challenge as Halnaran could have offered. Her eyes a little widened, her breath held, Til’Ellaniel watched her commander, Silverwind. She saw the muscles in his jaw restrain his welling anger, the creasing of his gloves as one hand tightened over the other behind his back. This was how an elf should show anger, she thought: Barely at all. It very vaguely pleased her to see the smug take on the self-righteous, and after Sol'Valinar's rebukes against her earlier, she was guiltily aware of it.
“Then let us sharpen them, Halnaran. Show them your celebrated blades, and I will show them something to aspire to instead.”
Halnaran’s mastery of his expressions was more flawed than Sol’Valinar’s was. As Sol’Valinar stepped into the circle, his shield calmly attached to his arm, the other sun elf followed. His blades were drawn first, the bare elven steel cold in the encroaching twilight. Sol’Valinar’s blade did not rasp against the scabbard as it was drawn, smoothly hissing instead. Bare steel was held on either side of the circle. It was for training, mostly, used to show the allotted space one could and should expect to move in a battle without turning a company to chaos. It was small, and enough for a dance. Or a duel.
In this once, there was no signal given, no announcement or preamble or useless boasts anymore. Both elves knew when the other was ready, and both moved in unison to close the distance between them. The boasts were done, the focus was singular. Til’Ellaniel’s understanding was rudimentary, but she could follow the opening of the exchange. Sol’Valinars blade was longer, and his reach known to be a slight bit extended as well. For some it could be a mistake, but Sol’Valinar had his footwork and the shield to only turn it into an advantage. Dhoraidn’ael’s blades were quicker but far shorter; he thrived when he was close. She remembered to watch their feet, not a step or inclination towards one misjudged or without purpose. Everything was either deliberate or a feint, and it extended to their hands, their eyes. The first half a minute did not see a single sound as the two measured and found their distance. Then, steel fell unrelenting upon steel. Halnaran’s blades led the way for him, never in one place for too long, testing every angle and corner and aiming to drive the man’s feet back. The first step, Sol’Valinar gave. The second, he seemed ready to, but reversed with an extended shield. A risk to that, it could cost him his arm if Halnaran simply took advantage of it, but the sun elf’s blade went in pair with the shield, and to stay and test the chances would be to be impaled by Sol’Valinar. Halnaran retreated, making distance, but his feet were slower than Sol’Valinar’s arm, and the Silver Wind harried the other with shield rim and blade alike. So smoothly did defense turn to attack, and then to opportunistic defense again, that Til’Ellaniel’s attention had missed it. She noted that every other elven face was rapt now, aside from Soth’Kinian’s. His eyes were closed still, listening to the kissing of blades rather than needing to see them.
Til’Ellaniel was a novice in the face of this, and Sol’Valinar had been right. There was something else to aspire to here, in this little duel of clashing arrogance. Neither man’s pride was unfounded. The battle had become what her dance almost was. There was awareness of nothing within the circle, but the duel itself. Even that awareness was now relegated to instinct and physical perfection honed by centuries, the match too fast to follow with the eyes. Til’Ellaniel’s mind was always three blows behind, her eyes widened to take in every detail of the lesson. The last exchange came just as she was ready to watch for it. Sol’Valinar’s distance had become too close, too forgiving for the shorter blades Halnaran wielded. He had suffered a pair of scratches along his armor already, and it was inevitable that deeper ones followed. Halnaran had his moment, a perfect one during the recovery of a shield’s swing from Sol’Valinar. His left side was exposed, his blade could not be there in time. Til’Ellaniel’s breath had caught in her chest, her heart had stopped as she saw the blades come in. Was he going to drive them home, into the Silver Wind’s side?
He was not given the chance. It was a wide, dangerous feint, but it had paid off. Sol’Valinar’s body twisted to earn no more than a scrape against his armor, trapping the one arm in exchange with his own. His shield flew out once and then twice, the rim striking the other elf in the neck and the second blow sending him sprawling, halfway disarmed. He struggled for breath, a hand at his reddening throat, while Sol’Valinar stood above, his expression marble. The moment stretched, where in a real duel a life would be ended. Sol'Valinar's expression towards his superior in name only was cold, not likely to forgive having to make the challenge in the first place. He spoke first, glancing towards the six under his command.
“Let us thank Dhoradin’Ael Helnaran for this demonstration. Find education and wisdom in it. You are dismissed. Tomorrow, we leave Evereska down the northern slope. Prepare for five days, we will join the dawn.”
And that was that, the sun elf sparing not another glance at the other on the ground. Halnaran’s breath had recovered, though a hand still covered his throat. His eyes were anywhere but on the elf that had bested him, the supposedly useless Ar’Te’Quessir from Evermeet. Til’Ellaniel knew better than to pity him.
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