First Purity above all else, unwavering moral will.
Wood practice swords cracked and shouts echoed from the training field of Northridge. A contingent of fighters and Arcanists arrived earlier in the week on their way to Glacierift. Though the faces in each group seemed either older or younger than they ought to be, the townsfolk seized a rare opportunity. Young men who often trained in the arts of combat with their fathers, uncles, or older brothers now stood against true soldiers of Aulivar. Several women practiced alongside the men.
Sweat beaded on foreheads and glistened under the noonday sun. Gentle breezes swept away the odor of exertion. Three teens wearing the banner of Aulivar took turns swatting a portly youth with the thick wood shafts. Their laugher carried to the other side of the field, where a father and daughter squared off in mock combat, decked in padded armor.
“Been a few months since your friend lost her mother,” Camden said. He swung with his quarterstaff. It made a sharp clack as it bounced off Josephine’s upraised shield.
“Quit trying to distract me,” Josephine said. “And Lyllithe’s not my friend.” She sprung into the air over the sweeping arc of Camden’s staff. Then she came down into a spin, wooden hammer extended.
“She ought to be.” He jabbed at her wrist. She pulled back and he advanced with a series of quick thrusts. “She needs a friend more than most.” A smirk cracked his firm demeanor. “You aren’t giving as much ground as before.”
Josephine dodged left. “She’s got a Mark, she’s one of the Devoted. What does she need me for?” Then she lunged with an overhead strike.
Camden spun out of the way, quarterstaff flying toward Josephine’s back.
She let her momentum carry her into a tuck-and-roll underneath his strikes.
“She has a double Gracemark,” Camden said, “not the typical Gracebrands the Abbey gives.” He paused, staff at the ready. “They don’t treat her like one of their own. Haven’t you noticed?”
Maybe I’ve got him distracted. Josephine lowered her hammer and planned her next strike. Keep him talking. “I don’t pay much attention to how the Abbey does their business.”
Camden tipped his staff up. “It’s not about the Abbey, Jo. A Soulforged needs to pay attention to the weak, the downtrodden, the outcasts.” He pointed a finger. “You’re to be strong, yes. Not for yourself, but for them.”
She sprang into motion. Her hammer cut low under the point of Camden’s staff. He shifted back to dodge as she hoped. She swung her left arm, shield edge out. He brought his staff up to counter the attack. The edge of the shield smashed into the staff, and it shuddered in Camden’s hand.
His grip held firm. He swept the staff behind Josephine’s leg. Wood thudded against padding, threatening to take Josephine down. She stumbled and jumped back to regain footing, only to find his staff point thrusting into her chest. Camden’s strike glanced off her armor, but it tipped her off-balance. She hit the earth hard and lay there gasping.
Camden stood over her, his staff pointed down at her face. “Do you yield?”
“Good.” He laughed and extended a hand, helping her to her feet. “Then you’re acting like a Soulforged. Five years Marked, you should know something by now.”
Josephine unbuckled her shield and turned toward the weapon racks. I am one of the Soulforged, father. Sealed with a Gracebrand of Justice on my thirteenth Markday. She glanced at the silvery metal etched on the back of her right hand as if for proof. A single vertical line with two downward arms extended, the symbol sparkled in the sun. I am Justice reaching out to bring Order to the world.
“You tried some new tactics there,” Camden said.
“Not sure I can call them tactics.” Josephine sighed. “More like mistakes.”
Camden nodded with a smile. “Some of those were new too.” He placed his staff on the weapons rack. “What were you trying to accomplish swinging your shield like a blade?”
“You taught me to use every resource available,” Josephine said. “I thought perhaps it might surprise you if I struck with my shield.”
“Certainly. But remember, any moment not spent using your shield to defend, you leave yourself open.”
Always a critique, Josephine thought even as she bowed her head in deference. Will you ever tell me when I do something right?
“You’ve improved,” Camden said, hand clasped on her shoulder. “But you have much to learn yet.”
He paused at the laughter from the teenage soldiers tormenting the chubby Northridge youth, a Markless boy named Dabry. Despite the odds, Dabry swung his sword in a weak defense. One teen knocked it aside while another rapped him on the rump. The third leaned on his own wood weapon and chuckled.
“I meant what I said about Lyllithe,” Camden said, eyes on the boys. “She could use a friend right now.”
Josephine set her shield on a stack, then ran her fingertips over her Gracebrand and looked at the teens. She took her shield up again and put her arm through the straps, buckling them tight. “She’s not the only one.”
She jogged over to the teens. The first two were distracted by their sport. The third, a ruddy, hairy lump of muscle, turned narrow eyes her way. “You want no part of this.”
Dabry looked up with a quivering lip but said nothing.
“Maybe you boys want to see what Northridge folk are made of,” Josephine called out. Now all three faced her.
“Then run and fetch one of the men, girl,” the third replied. “Not this bleating sheep.”
“They’re attending to things that matter.” Josephine slipped her practice hammer from its belt loop. “I’ll handle this.”
All three roared with laughter. “Brazen girls and blubbering boys,” the first said. “No wonder the Lord Mayor sent us up this way. I do like them feisty. They’re the sort that will slip behind a barn and—”
A hammer thrown from ten paces smashed into his mouth. Teeth and blood flew, and he crumpled. Josephine rushed the other two, their eyes fixed on their injured friend. The Devoted can heal that. I hope they won’t.
The muscular one looked back to Josephine in time to see a balled fist. It connected with a sickening crunch. Blood spurted from his nose. He flailed and lost his balance. The practice sword clattered to the ground.
The second teen swung his sword at Josephine’s head. She let the momentum of her punch carry her into a counterclockwise spin, thrusting her shield out. The unexpected charge overpowered the teen’s attack. Josephine’s shield connected with his chest and cheek, knocking him back.
To his credit, he kept his sword and flowed into a new form. Thrusts and jabs tested Josephine’s defenses, but she dodged or blocked each one.
The mountain of meat is up. Behind her, the burly teen roared and lunged.
Josephine ducked right to avoid another thrust, then spun again. Her shield slammed into the second teen’s back, sending him into the larger teen’s charge. They collided and fell in a heap.
“Pardon me, Dabry,” Josephine said, plucking the shaft from his hand. He stared, slack-jawed, but managed to nod assent. A crowd of onlookers laughed and cheered.
The big teen rose on shaky legs, hate in his eyes, blood running down his face. Josephine walked up and shoulder-checked him with her shield, laying him out on the packed dirt.
She planted a foot on his chest and pointed the sword at his throat. “Do you yield?”
He threw a weak fist into the air and cursed. “Scar you, wench, and your whole scarrin’ town! Shade-wrought take the lot of you!”
Josephine clucked her tongue. “Manners, boy.” She rapped him in the groin with the weapon then returned the rounded point to his neck.
Wide wet eyes looked up at her as he wheezed.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she said and walked away. Applause erupted from the folk of Northridge, and from many of Aulivar’s soldiers. Josephine headed toward the weapon rack to return her gear.
Her father stood, arms crossed, one eyebrow raised. Wonder what he thinks I did wrong this time?
At that moment, Josephine realized she didn’t care.