It was another week before there was a break in the routine. Tythel woke up early in the morning, no longer needing Nicandros to force her to wakefulness. Fishing, eating, cleaning, and dressing were done in under an hour, and she headed to the circle of stones that was their practice ring.
This time, however, Nicandros wasn’t waiting for her alone. Armin, Ossman, and Eupheme were all there as well, and each armed with a practice weapon of their own. Tythel blinked happily as she saw them, and then with a nod of encouragement from Nicandros, forced herself to smile as well. None of them looked uncomfortable at the expression, so Tythel assumed Nicandros warned them how unnatural it looked. Or maybe Haradeth is just the worst, she thought as she got into speaking range.
“So this is a change,” Tythel said. Her practice weapon was stuck into the sand in front of her with the shield laying next to it. She reached out to delicately rest her fingers on the pommel, a gesture Nicandros had been working on with her. If she felt a fight might break out, according to him, it was a good way to send a message she was ready to engage without provoking an immediate response.
“Yes,” Nicandros said with a grin. Tythel still wasn’t learning the complex language of smiles that was employed universally by humans, but she was picking up on Nicandros’ unique dialect of that language.
This grin meant she was going to be far more sore by the end of today than normal.
“Nicky here-” Armin started, but before he could continue Nicandros grunted and looked at him. That was it. A grunt, a level look. No shouting, no narrowing of the eyes.
Armin tried to give Nicandros a grin, but it quickly wilted. “Erm, I mean Nicandros, the great and wonderful teacher of swordplay who does not believe in punishing young Mages’ fool mouths with beatings they probably deserve,”
“That’s quite the title,” Eupheme said in a low voice only Ossman and Tythel could hear.
Ossman had to put his hand over his mouth to not laugh as Armin continued, “he believed that you need to start learning to fight larger groups, and since your highness trusts us for, as Nicandros the Merciful put it, ‘some damn fool reason,’ he thought we’d be useful for helping you learn that.”
Tythel took a couple moments to piece together what Armin said, since his phrasing was as obtuse as always. “So I’m going to fight the three of you at once?”
“At first just defend, girl,” Nicandros said, that wicked grin not fading. “I don’t expect you to be able to do much else. If you do strike back, remember your control. You could crack one of their bones, and we need them intact.”
Tythel nodded, and grabbed her practice sword out of the sand, already rolling and picking up the shield as she did.
She brought the barrier up in time to block Ossman’s attack, a heavy downswing with a practice axe. She caught the weapon on the haft, and just as she realized she could jerk her shield back to try and disarm him, he was already pulling back for another attack.
Armin nearly tagged her before she could respond, a bolt of light leaping from his outstretched fingers. Her falling back from Ossman’s blow caused the attack to hit the shield. It didn’t leave a mark, assuring Tythel it was harmless, but she treated it as seriously as she would arcwand fire.
Ossman came back with the axe, and between his furious slashes and keeping her shield to protect against Armin’s barrage of light, she was being slowly forced back to the edge of the line of stones.
She was just getting the rhythm of defense down to the point where she thought she could find an opening in Ossman’s strikes to counterattack – when Eupheme popped out of a stone behind her and struck her across the lower back with a quick and furious slash. As Tythel turned to meet this new threat, Eupheme struck her in the hip, shoulder, and then the hand, causing her to drop the shield.
Ossman finished her off with an axe to the back of the skull.
“Light and shadow, Ossman, I’d already lost!” Tythel hissed, rubbing her head. Eupheme bowed to her, an odd gesture that Tythel was too frustrated to take much note of at the moment.
Ossman blushed at her exclamation, “Nicandros said not to quit until we’d struck a lethal blow.”
Tythel leaned to peer past Ossman’s bulk to glare at Nicandros. “That’s never been the way we’ve done it before!” She protested.
Nicandros shrugged. “Your hide is thick. Even for a normal person, a single blow doesn’t mean the fight is over. For you, it’s time you learned to fight through it.”
“Sorry, your highness,” Ossman muttered, and Tythel shook her head at him.
“It’s not your fault. And Nicandros is probably right.” Her glower deepend at admitting that.
“For what it’s worth, I shot her a couple times too. If anyone saw that?” Armin glanced around, then turned his gaze to Tythel. “I did manage to shoot you.”
Tythe shrugged. “I didn’t feel it. Which is probably good.”
It was Nicandros’ turn to frown. “If you can’t feel it, we’ll miss it. Is there anything you can do about that, Armin?”
“The lumwell I’m tapped into isn’t particularly full.” Armin said, spreading his hands, “I need to save the power for charging arcwand packs.”
Nicandros tapped his chin. “What if you cut the strength of an arcwand? Enough to feel it, but where it won’t actually hurt her?”
“I’d prefer you didn’t,” Tythel said, but Nicandros paid her no mind.
“I’m not able to modify the things. I’m one of the best flathing shots in this army, doesn’t mean I know how to work on arcwands.”
“I can,” Eupheme said, speaking for the first time since the fight ended. She mouthed ‘sorry,’ at Tythel before continuing, “I’ll need the night, though.”
Nicandros nodded. “Good. Then we’ll stick with the light show for today, and tomorrow use that. Now-”
Everyone besides Tythel was still holding their weapons. Nicandros’ rules meant they were still in a fight, and Tythel was frustrated. As soon as Nicandros’ said now, Tythel dove for her practice sword and flung the weapon at Armin. It stuck him in the stomach, and he let out a whump of air. Before either Eupheme or Ossman could response fully, Tythel had grabbed and lunged the shield to bowl over Ossman.
The giant of a man was stronger than Tythel expected. Stronger than his earlier blow had indicate. Strong enough to match Tythel’s strength, and tear the shield out of her grip. She was forced to leap back from his axe swings.
Doing so meant she took her eyes off Eupheme for a half second. In that instant, Eupheme had vanished. She came at Tythel from the other side, striking her in the back again and coming around for another flurry of blows as Ossman readied his axe strike again.
Tythel fell forward, her hand burying themselves in the sand, and as the axe came down she let out a scream of frustration. Unbidden, dragonflame leapt from her hands into the sand, and the sudden burst of heat cause Ossman to redirect his blow, and Eupheme to stop her flurry.
The backed away, and Tythel had learned enough to read that expression in their eyes. Fear.
“Sorry, sorry,” she said, casting her eyes back to the sand.
“What the flath was that?” Nicandros growled, helping Armin to his feet. Her friends’ expressions softened just a bit. Less fear, more…concern, maybe?
“I just…I’m not getting any better,” she said, pulling her hands out of the cooling glass puddles before they got stuck. “I still can’t manage ghostflame! And I keep getting my flathing arse kicked!”
Nicandros walked over to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “You keep losing, girl, because you’re fighting someone who’s been training since before you were born, and now you’re fighting three people. One’s been training most of your life, one’s got the most brute strength I’ve ever seen, and ones’ a flathing mage. You’re getting better.”
Eupheme nodded in agreement. “Three on one is not easy. I bet the three of us could give Nicandros a tough show. Maybe even win.”
Tythel wiped her eyes, looking at the them all, especially Armin who was still rubbing his stomach. “Sorry,” she whispered again.
Armin grinned. “What, for hitting me in the gut? Just gave me the blow Nicandros, in his infinite mercy, spared me. Who were you supposed to hit? Ossman’s got a gut like a barrel and Eupheme’s slippier than a butter soaked eel that you’re trying to grab with soapy hands.”
Tythel choked out a laugh at that.
“They’re not going anywhere. Neither am I.” Nicandros’ voice was so soft no one else could hear it, but it made Tythel blink back happy tears. “Now,” he said louder, “get up and try again. We’re far from done.”
Gritting her teeth, Tythel got to her feet.
By the end of the day, she was sore and tired but happier than she had been in days. It might have been that happiness that brought her to, at the council, tap the map. “Tomorrow,” she said, her voice resolute. “We have to go tomorrow.”
Haradeth snorted. “Have you had a breakthrough with the ghostflame? We still can’t hurt their ships.”
Tythel shook her head. “I don’t know when I will, or even if I will. I’m getting closer, I’m sure of it, but if we keep waiting it could be months, and the opportunity will pass. Tomorrow, we need to go.”
It took some arguing, but at the end, the council agreed, and when she finally went to bed that night, Tythel slept more soundly than she had in days.