Chapter 30 - Training

Guard Trainee's Practice Session Plan:

Step 1: Introduce yourself and tell them why you're here – five minutes

Step 2: Pick some to spar together in groups – thirty minutes

Step 3: Check how they're doing

Step 4: Fix any mistakes, have good ones demonstrate?

Link went to scribble out the last step from his 'strategy,' but stopped himself. It wasn't his best plan – even as a third attempt – but there were barely minutes left before they'd start, definitely not enough time to start changing things now.

He ran his hand through his hair. It wasn't much, but the action soothed his nerves, like they were being distracted by the behaviour. Neatly folding the sheet, he placed it in his pocket as he scanned the training grounds.

It wasn't the largest area in the castle courtyard, maybe enough for twenty people at most, but was still fancy enough to have a grand wooden observation platform on one end, with fences marking the edges to separate them from passers-by. Regardless, stood between the equipment and benches running either side, the crowd of guard trainees gathered in the centre looked larger than any group he'd ever seen.

Link recognised a few of them; Parrow was the most obvious – towering over almost everyone else there, Link included – talking with Pipit and a group of other boys. There was also Fledge, rosy cheeked and shaking so much just holding his sword that Link still wasn't sure he'd even be able to swing it; he also vaguely remembered Zelda pointing out Karane and Ashei before, as the only girls in the group; but otherwise he could safely say he didn't even know the names of most of them.

The trainees hadn't seemed to notice him, or were trying to avoid it at least; even Parrow had only given him a passing greeting before joining the rest of the trainees. Oddly he found himself relieved at that. In some ways it made sense; he had practiced in the courtyard before without directly joining them, so how would they know he was supposed to be teaching them today?

The muscles in his back tensed at the thought. How had he let Zelda convince him to do this? It'd only been a couple of days since she'd first brought up the idea after Niko's funeral, and he'd foolishly accepted. Frankly the lack of prep time wasn't something he'd considered in the moment – between being half asleep and just how comforting it'd been to have Zelda around, he hadn't really been thinking – but in hindsight it made him all the more nervous now.

That didn't really help though, he was as prepared as he was going to be, may as well make a start. He took a deep breath, letting the fresh feeling run through him, and turned to face the group.

Spirits that was a lot of eyes on him.

"I used to hate looking back at crowds – so I started picking out something to focus on and imagined I was talking at that instead," was what Zelda had told him after he'd sat on the council pulled his eyes away from the group, and focused on a fence post just behind them.

"Right, everyone at attention!" He cried, accidently making his voice deeper than normal, trying to copy how Alfonzo had always sounded back when he'd first started training.

The trainees jumped at that, glancing at one another then to him. Nerves boiled in his hands – were they not going to listen?

Finally Fledge – thank the Spirits – moved into position, with Parrow leading his cohort to form up behind the shy boy. From there it didn't take long for the rest to join in, though they still seemed to eye him curiously.

Adrenaline filled his legs and, unable to keep still, he began pacing in front of the group.

"So, I'm Link. Hi." He gave a small wave to them, and he swore he heard a quiet chuckle in the group. That was good. Probably. "Zelda asked me to oversee your training today – apparently you lot are practicing for the Champion's Festival in spring – so we're focusing on swordsmanship. I…don't really know what you're capable of – obviously – so let's start by sparring, everyone find a partner and spread out." He gestured towards the open area within the training grounds, and they all began peeling off.

Sword clangs soon echoed around the grounds as the trainees clashed. Link took the time to observe, casually walking around them all as he watched.

They weren't awful – not ideal either, they all moved rather slowly; but they appeared to have a good grasp of basic stances, so had clearly been trained fairly well – even if most of them seemed to think just swinging harder was the way to win. To be fair, among the group, that wasn't wrong.

He stopped near the edge of the grounds to watch Fledge clash with his bluenet opponent – though that may have been generous. While Fledge was a good head taller than the other trainee, every swing of the shorter boy's sword shook Fledge, who flinched before he was even hit.

Bluenet reeled his sword back – leaving a perfect opening. Fledge didn't move though, still cringing away from the previous attack. Bluenet slashed his sword hard at Fledge's; flinging it, and Fledge, aside. Bluenet stamped forwards and charged towards the staggering Fledge – who was completely defenceless.

Link jumped, throwing his own sword between them.

Bluenet's sword smacked against his own, sending ripples up his arm. Link slid his sword down, carrying Bluenet's with it, burying them in the ground.

"Ok, stop there," Link said, pulling his sword away from Bluenet's, "you're not wrong to charge there…?"

"Cawlin," the boy muttered at Link, barely hiding a glare.

"Right…so that wasn't bad Cawlin, but we're sparring – no need to go for a kill," Link said, turning towards Fledge, who'd righted himself by now. "You were struggling Fledge, any idea why?"

"Cawlin was…he kept swinging really hard, I couldn't block it," Fledge said, still shaking from the throw.

"That's pretty spot on, but the problem is that you keep assuming you'll lose – it makes you unsteady," Link said; taking a firm, defensive stance with his sword drawn across himself. "Take a swing at me."

Fledge glanced to Cawlin, hesitance clear on his face, "we were told that stance is no good, you can't attack well."

Link chuckled, "it's fine, just watch what I do."

Taking a second to consider, Fledge eventually threw a regrettably slow swing. Link caught it on his own blade and shifted his weight, flinging Fledge past him so he tripped and fell to the ground. Link casually moved his sword, so it was resting next to Fledge's head.

"Two things; defending first is useful if you're unsure, 'cause if your opponent attacks you can throw them off like that," Link said, holding up two fingers, "and second, everyone has their own preference – you're not the type to attack, so don't, and focus on protecting yourself till you can." He held a hand out for Fledge, pulling the trainee up once he accepted it. "So, think you can give it a go?"

Fledge nodded slowly, before forming into something close to Link's own stance – constantly checking his footing as he did. Link pushed him down a little so his posture widened.

"Ok not bad. Cawlin have a go, and you can try knocking him down this time."

Cawlin muttered something Link couldn't hear, and stepped up before Fledge; who seemed nervous, but was holding his stance.

The bluenet's sword swished with power as it slammed into Fledge, but little skill – his swings too wide for practical use. Fledge's face drained of colour; but to his credit he held strong – even when the slash bounced off his sword, he stayed unmoving.

Cawlin didn't let that dissuade him, and stepped forward to attack again. And again, the attack bounced off. This continued for another minute, Cawlin's attacks becoming all the more desperate and Fledge's stance becoming shakier and shakier, until both trainees were stood with shaking legs, panting opposite each other.

"Good, you can stop there," Link said, though Fledge's legs stopped holding him up the second he began. "See, you did much better that time, just focus on practicing that for now."

"I'd have won eventually anyway," Cawlin muttered, "it's not like he'd actually do anything."

Link glanced to him, "And you're lucky for it, keep swinging as wide as that and a monster would've stabbed you before your first attack."

Cawlin turned bright red, and gathered a glare on his face. Maybe that'd been too harsh.

"You weren't bad though, it's just something to work on," Link said, trying to smile softly, "try to be more compact, it could keep you alive. Now go on, you two can take a quick break."

Link turned to leave the two, only to find a sea of eyes trained on him. All the trainees were watching.

A shock got caught in his shoulders, tensing his nerves. What was that about? Were they really that interested in the pairs one to one? Or two even.

"That…That'd be good practice for you all – you can't just rely on hitting hard to win a fight, especially against monsters, most are too gigantic." He ran a hand through his hair, and his nerves loosened just a little. "So…so, I want you all doing what Fledge and Cawlin were, one defending one attacking. We'll do that for five minutes each then switch over."

A chorus of groans rose from the group, though they started doing as he asked. Link chuckled, he could sympathise; Alfonzo had been similarly cruel with his own training – maybe he'd be nice and give them a break soon.

He spent some time patrolling around the group – stopping every now and again to advise trainees, or correct their stances. It wasn't as bad as he'd thought it'd be really, once he got into the swing of things. Maybe he could get into the habit of doing this every now and again?

He didn't have time to ponder the question further, as he caught sight of a new, small regiment approaching the training grounds; though unlike his group, this faction was decidedly not dressed for sparring – unless the guard had started issuing elegant dresses as standard gear.

"Link!" Zelda greeted, grinning widely as she hopped onto the fence surrounding the training grounds – waving at him and leaning on the top slat. Her smile was infectious, and he couldn't help but feel lighter for seeing it. "You all seem to be doing well."

"We're managing, honestly I'm quite impressed with the group," he replied, leaning next to her on the other side of the fence, "although I think they need practice against more than just each other – they're a bit limited experience wise."

"We'd noticed, although it's funny – it almost sounded like Alfonzo was training recruits again earlier," Zelda said, smirking at him.

Spirits, of course she'd been listening, her office was above them after all. Had he sounded as ridiculous as he'd thought? And how did it somehow make him feel even more embarrassed now than he'd been at the time?

"You seemed to enjoy it though, Princess; you should've seen the look on her face, Link," a familiar voice said. He glanced past Zelda, revealing that Mila – who'd spoken – and Maggie had also come down.

"I hope we're not disturbing," Maggie added.

They had heard him too? That was just perfect; Zelda he could trust but – while they were nice enough when he'd met them – he had no idea who those two would tell.

"Yet you were the one eager to come down," Zelda said to Mila, "almost like you couldn't wait."

"Ijust couldn't bear to keep you up there any longer – besides you didn't take much convincing, Princess."

Zelda glared at Mila, though quickly glanced to him, before stammering, "Yes, well, I wanted to…come see the trainees! It's part of my duties you know."

Huh, that was…decidedly un-Zelda like.

"Of course, but we'll be in the way down here, so shall we observe?" Mila asked, gesturing to the yard's observation deck.

"You two may, I want their trainer's opinion first, he's an expert after all," Zelda replied.

Mila caught his eye, before rolling her own. "Well of course, we'll leave you two alone together then." With that she left them; with Maggie following, who whispered a quiet "good luck" as she did.

Link shook his head once they were alone. "You two are friends, right?"

Zelda looked like he'd just asked her to pull a train by herself. "Of course, what makes you think we aren't?"

"It's nothing," supposedly it was just one of those things between friends, after all he was well aware that he and her had their own shared quirks. "So, what did you want me for?"

"Hmm? Nothing in particular, just needed those two on their own," Zelda replied absently, as her gaze danced between her friends and the trainees. Between Maggie and Parrow. Ah, that explained it.

"Maggie's still not told you, has she?" Link asked

"I genuinely can't believe it, she's normally awful at hiding things!" Zelda exclaimed, gesturing towards the girls, "I mean even you saw how clear her crush was."

"And you can't just ask her because?"

"That'd be against the whole point!" She exclaimed cutely, placing her hand on her chin so her thumb cupped her jaw. "And if I ask first she'll just turn it back on me. No, I need to get her to admit it somehow."

How was she so unbelievably cute when she got this worked up about things?

"I'm a little hurt, for a minute I thought you actually wanted to see me," Link teased.

"I can plan for both," Zelda said, putting on her mock hurt voice, "honestly, do you have so little faith in me?"

"I'd have been disappointed if you hadn't," Link said, tapping a finger on his chin. "Although, if you want some help, I do have an idea."

Zelda grew a cat like grin on her face, "what do you have in mind?"

"Just watch, and keep an eye on her," Link said, stepping into the centre of the grounds and raising his voice again. "Right, quick break, but I want everyone watching this – Parrow, Pipit; you're sparring with me!"

The pair – from what Link'd seen probably the two best trainees here – stepped out of the group to oppose him, brandishing a sword each. He caught Parrow glancing over to Maggie, no doubt he'd want to look good in front of her.

Perfect.

Link countered by drawing his own sword and shield and crouching into a defensive stance.

Both stayed back, waiting for him to attack, not taking their eyes off him. Good, they'd learned from his earlier lesson at least.

Instead of charging forwards, Link shifted slightly, inching towards the duo. The two noticed, stepping back to keep distance. Their dance continued; though every few paces one of them would try and get around him, a quick step and flash of his sword chased them back into place.

Link continued herding them, moving back and forth in a small arc so neither could try to run past him. With each step he was guiding them, gently pushing them toward the ground's surrounding fence.

Pipit bumped against the fence and swore, apparently realising what'd happened.

'Good', Link thought, they'd attack now. He loosened so his shield was further from his body than normal.

"Together?" he heard Parrow say, and Pipit whispered something back.

They charged in sync; though Pipit was slightly quicker, and swung hard at Link's shield arm first.

Link's shield caught the blow, compressing to his side. Link used the momentum, twisting his body and slamming his sword's hilt into Pipit's side. Pipit stumbled away, sword clattering to the floor. In one motion Link kicked it away, spinning to Parrow, and braced his already positioned sword to meet the second trainee's own as he swung it overhead.

Parrow's sword slammed into Link's, force rippling through him. His arm felt like it'd shattered, even bending his knees barely dampened the shock.

Parrow kept pushing down, forcing Link closer to the floor. Not good; it wasn't the right moment, but if he wasn't careful he'd lose his chance completely. Squeezing all the power he could from his legs, Link pushed upwards. It was barely enough, and he only just managed to force the larger trainee back. Then the weight from above vanished.

Link hardly had time to register the moment. Parrow had finally pulled his sword back, readying to swing again, but leaving him open. Exactly what he'd been waiting for.

Link leapt at the chance, legs exploding with force as he sprung upwards and forced his shield into Parrow's chest.

Parrow gasped, staggering backwards as air fled his lungs, and fell to the floor. Link landed on his feet, though didn't miss Maggie's clear cry echo around, nor how she fled from the observation deck a moment later.

He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment. Maybe he was the one who needed more sparring, he'd been far too close to losing there. He sheathed his shield and sword, spinning to find where Pipit had landed.

"That was good, you two attacked together well," Link said, offering a hand to Pipit.

"Like it did any good, you were too quick," Pipit countered, taking Link's offer.

"Is that so?" Link asked, turning to the rest of the group. "How about you, do you think I was faster?"

A few of the group muttered, though no one seemed to want to answer.

"You must be, we attacked first," Parrow said, still fallen but now sitting, his sword dropped a few feet away, with a small but fresh cut on his arm.

"Ah, you see you're thinking about it wrong. You guys moved first, and I'm no quicker, but I did hit first. Any ideas how?"

He scanned the group, glimpsing Maggie hovering around the back. She could wait though, as he also noticed how a couple of trainees averted their eyes when he met them…and how no one was speaking up.

Had he done something wrong? But they must've had ideas, right? Maybe he'd been too cryptic? Spirits, what if he'd done this completely wrong? But how could he say anymore, at least without giving away the answer?

"Because you planned ahead?" Zelda asked from the fence, drawing the groups attention. She clearly didn't mind having it – typical Zelda, he'd never understand that confidence of hers – and continued, "You always prepared for what they'd do beforehand, like you knew what was coming next."

"Exactly! Thank you Zelda," Link smiled, he definitely owed her for speaking up. "You two were focused on what I was doing in the moment, it meant you weren't thinking ahead; but I was ready for what you'd do ahead of time, so could respond sooner."

The group was looking at him wide-eyed, as if he'd just insulted their mothers, a few even seemed to be whispering to each other. Was he still not being clear?

"It's…it's like a train," he said, pointing off into the distance, "when you're driving you don't look right in front of you, you look as far ahead as possible, so you can react as soon as you see something."

Nerves took hold of him and he rubbed the back of his head. Had that all made sense? He had rambled a bit and…had he actually used a train metaphor? These weren't engineers, would they even understand that?

"A-Anyway, point is I want you guys to practice that, it's the only way to learn," he continued. "Group up with another pair and watch each other spar, see if you can figure out what they'll do."

The group rumbled to life, mixing around each other – probably grouping up with friends. Link sighed, at least they weren't paying attention to him now. As the trainee's split up, he caught sight of Maggie; still hovering around, worried eyes trained on Parrow.

Speaking of; Parrow was still on the ground, though Pipit was offering him a hand up. Link grabbed Parrow's discarded sword before reaching them.

"You two can take a break, sorry if I roughed you up a bit." He leant in to Parrow before whispering. "Besides, I think someone wants to check on you anyway."

Parrow looked past Link and, clearly catching his meaning, chuckled a little before hobbling to the rest benches along the ground's side – uttering a soft "thanks," as he went. Maggie didn't even wait for him to sit before rushing over and making a fuss of him.

Pipit's face practically fell at the sight, and he skulked off to join Karane and Aeshi's group, leaving Link alone.

"I'm impressed, that was smoother than even I expected."

Well, nearly alone.

Zelda had hopped over the fence, and was now approaching him, hands clasped behind her back.

"Should I be worried? I may just be spending too much time with you," Link replied, catching Zelda roll her eyes with a smile. "There's no way Maggie can hide that now though, you're welcome."

"Oh that wasn't what I meant, although I do owe you some thanks for that," Zelda said, watching as Maggie inspected Parrow's wound, "but I was referring to your lesson, you've been handling this well."

"Eh? Really? I've barely been keeping it together," Link muttered, planting Parrow's sword on the ground and twisting it into the sand.

"I'd wager no one else has noticed, though I did," Zelda said, lightly jabbing her elbow into his side.

Link squirmed under her touch. "Ah, no! Don't do that!" He exclaimed, dropping Parrow's former sword as Zelda exploded into laughter.

"You're so tense!" Zelda giggled, barely keeping herself upright. "Relax, I promise you're doing well."

"I wonder why?" Link muttered, "you know you don't make things easy, I'm definitely not letting you trick me into something like this again." He punctuated his point by bumping Zelda back.

Zelda nearly went flying, clearly not expecting that, and lashed out to grab his arm. Her weight pulled him with her, toppling them both. Link stomped into the ground, barely freezing them mid fall as he held both their weights up.

"You ok?" He asked, surprising himself with how much worry was in his tone. Zelda let out a shuddered breath, and he slowly pulled her upright.

"Yes I'm…I'm quite alright," Zelda almost whispered, focused on smoothing out her dress rather than looking at him. "What…what about you?"

"I'm fine?" Link said, gesturing to himself, "I wasn't the one that fell."

"Well, good," Zelda said, picking up Parrow's sword and letting it shine as she inspected it. She wasn't looking at him now, and seemed far too interested in the weapon. "You know I used to have lessons on using these when I was young, but I've barely had chance as of late," she said, giving it a few practice slashes. "I should have you train me sometime."

Was…was she trying to change the subject? Apparently that'd embarrassed her a little. "Really?" Link asked. "I didn't think you'd need to know something like that, doesn't really come up as a princess."

Zelda seemed to consider this for a moment. "I suppose not, honestly it was just tradition really; Mother taught me, and Grandmother her. I just fell out of practice after she passed." She held the sword out to him. "But given how useful using one was as a Phantom, it's something I'd like to pick back up." She winked at him, apparently regaining her composure. "Besides, I have an expert right here; I'd be silly not to make use of that."

"I mean I wouldn't mind." He said, taking the sword to the equipment barrels. "Although an expert, really? Overselling me a bit aren't you?"

"Am I wrong? I'd wager you're good enough to win the next Champion's Festival if you entered."

Really the idea had been a pipe dream since he'd first begun his training, between the prestige and money he could win. "It's a thought, I'd need a sponsor though; there's no way I'd be able to afford all the gear." Plus, given that Alfonzo had been the champion for years, he'd never been given the chance.

"I'll sponsor you, if you want."

He froze at that.

"Really?" He asked, whipping round to face her. "You'd actually do that?"

"Why not?" Zelda asked, listing off on her fingers, "Alfonzo fights as a lone entrant, the guards always pick a representative for themselves, and I haven't had my own knight since I was little." She smirked at him. "Plus you'll be my secret weapon – since you know how Alfonzo fights as well as he does."

This was actually happening, wasn't it? When would he get a chance this good again? To have his entry be completely covered. He'd be able to test himself against some of the country's best, he'd potentially almost double his savings, and get to be Zelda's knight of all things; and all he'd have to do is fight a few people…

…in the festival grounds…

…for everyone to see.

"You look worried," Zelda said plainly.

"It's just…well there'll be a lot of people watching…I'm not sure if I'll be able to fight without messing up."

"Did you notice all of us today?" Zelda said, gesturing around the sparring students with a knowing smile. "I'll wager you completely forgot in the moment, especially when you sparred just now. In fact, I'd say you've been too focused on the lesson to think about anything else at all!"

That…was a thought actually, he'd hardly noticed the class at all when he'd fought Parrow and Pipit. In fact, he'd barely even thought about what he was doing at all today, really. Which was a little odd, given how he hadn't even been able to focus on his engineering projects after Niko's…funeral…

That was when she'd suggested this, wasn't it? The night she'd visited after Niko's funeral. So had that been Zelda's plan all along? To distract him? It had seemed odd that no one else could've taken the lesson; but if Zelda had manipulated things, it made a little more sense.

That would mean she'd set this entire day up just to help him. More than that, she'd even come down to check on him. It was even possible the whole training her thing was just adding to that.

It was funny, not even a year ago he wouldn't have even considered actually participating in the festival; or even speaking up in front of a group this large, let alone teaching one. But she'd helped him with his confidence, and now she was helping with Niko too.

He really didn't deserve her.

Zelda was looking at him, pouting a little as she awaited his answer.

"Yeah," he finally said, "I definitely want to be your knight."