The rain had stopped during a snatch of sleep the man managed to seize sometime in the night. The clouds had parted to reveal a sunny sky. His clothes were drying and dewy grass clung to them. The girl was asleep, her short sword by her side. The man considered testing her again. He could put his dagger next to her ear and unsheathe it. But as he crept closer he saw the girl pull her short sword closer to her chest. He decided not to try it. He could use some sleep himself, anyway.
He awoke a short time later to a scream.
The girl was howling, her short sword stuck through a bandaged head. Small red spiders scuttled down the length of her blade before dying. When the man stood, he saw two more Swarm straggling up the hill. They were burnt with claws of black reaching up their bodies, but they were very much alive.
“I didn’t want to!” the girl screamed into the face of the crumbling rags “I didn’t want to! Leave me alone!”
The other two raced for her, but the girl sprang to her feet, and as the two stragglers crested the hill she hewed one down and stabbed the other.
But she didn’t stop.
“Leave me alone!” she shouted. Her short sword came down hard and fast but cleft only mud and grass. It came again and again and again into the pile of limp cloth in the muck. “Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!”
The man walked up to her and caught her arm. She turned and punched him, uselessly, and then sank to her knees. “They wouldn’t leave me alone. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he said, “You did well.” He lifted her chin up. “It’s time to teach you how to use that properly.”
He found two sticks and tossed one of them to her. “Get ready.” He said.
* * *
By the time they were done the girl was spotted with purple bruises. She grew angry and blamed her stick. “Stupid, stupid!” she had muttered as she began to glow. By the end of it, she was so frustrated that she had clutched the stick in both hands and turned it into a smoking ruin.
He had left her with bruises, true enough. He told himself that it was nothing to be ashamed of. As the day wore on he would say as much to her.
The tears came anyway, on and on throughout the day, only to dry and steam on her face as they had before. She wanted to be better with her sword, but skill came with practice she had not the patience for.
They were on the trail again at dawn. The girl kept her head low, watching her own feet. “When will I be better?” she asked.
“Tomorrow,” the man said.
“But I need to be better now!” She stomped her foot.
“You get better every time you fall over.”
“I do not,” the girl said. “Falling over is getting worse. I want to stand up like you.”
“Like me?” The man echoed.
The girl nodded.
The man barked out an unmirthful laugh “You don’t want to be like me.”
* * *
He tossed her a stick twice more that day. “Right, left, right left, left,” he would call out as he pressed his attacks, pushing her back atop the hill, until she would trip over a rock or he’d smack his stick against her thigh. Sometimes when she was lasting too long or he thought he was becoming predictable, he’d call out left and go right. The bruises left by those lessons angered the girl more than any other.
“You cheated!” she would scream and shout and stamp her foot. “You said you were going left!” she’d cry.
“I said as much, yes,” the man would concede. “Which means you weren’t watching me.”
“I was so watching!”
“If you did, you’d be ignoring where I said I was going to hit you. You’re too reliant on what I say, girl.”
“I am not,” she screeched. “You cheated!” the girl snorted her derision.
The man left it at that.
She ended all of her lessons with more bruises. But by the end of it she’d managed to hold her own a little longer.
He’d bought her a few more seconds to live if she had to put steel before herself and an opponent. Tomorrow, he decided, he would buy her a few more.