The next morning, Alistair performed his morning exercises with renewed vigor, even after listening to Jory's whining about latrine duty.
"Just do what you're told," Alistair snapped. "I don't make the orders."
Jory grumbled many colorful words as Alistair passed by. He couldn't help but feel a sting of irritation, even though latrine duty was nobody's favorite job. Soldiers were supposed to follow orders, regardless of how unappealing they were. It was a lesson Alistair learned long ago, and one that he would be happy to teach Jory if his foul attitude persisted. He expected this kind of behavior from someone like Daveth, not a trained knight who knew better.
After completing his exercises, the sun had barely crested the horizon. Yawning, Alistair made his way to the mess tent, hoping to eat a spot of breakfast before the other Wardens devoured everything in sight. If there was one advantage to waking up early, Alistair thought, it was that he got the best pick of food.
Entering the mess tent, he piled his plate high with eggs and fruit and took a seat next to a very drowsy Daveth. "Morning," he grunted, and proceeded to stuff his face.
Not five minutes passed when the tent flap opened once more. Alistair looked up, his mouth full of sweet apples, and nearly choked when Vera entered. She was garbed in light leather armor, both hatchets at her back. Daveth seemed just as surprised as he was to see the younger Cousland; it was the first time she had seen fit to join the soldiers for a meal.
"You're up early," Alistair commented as she took the seat across from him. For such a small person, Vera had quite the feast in front of her; breakfast ham, fried eggs, sliced peaches, and a hot cup of tea.
She stabbed one of her peaches and eyed it carefully. "I'm training with you, aren't I? Or has your offer expired?"
"Er—yes. I mean, of course you can join us," Alistair stuttered. He certainly hadn't planned on her to actually train with them, and did his best to hide it.
"Good. I'm out of practice."
They ate their meal in silence. Alistair snuck glances at Daveth every now and then, waiting for him to make an inappropriate comment, and was relieved when he did not. He watched Vera, too. She ate her meal with gusto, shoveling meat and eggs into her mouth and forgoing the manners normally exhibited by female nobility. He couldn't help but smile. If she ate like this now, he couldn't wait to see the size of her appetite after her Joining—that is, if she survived.
Once the servants cleared their plates, Alistair led his charges into the training yard. Jory caught up with them on the way, his mouth set in a frown. If the knight so much as breathed a word of complaint during their session, Duncan would hear about it; Alistair would make sure of that.
The three recruits began their warm-up exercises, each one of them stretching in their own unique way. Daveth, fancying himself quick and cunning, stretched his legs moreso than Jory, who preferred his greatsword and focused on his upper body.
Vera, however, was different. She sat down, both legs outstretched, and pressed her nose to the ground. She was flexible, Alistair noted. She would use speed and dexterity to best an opponent over the strength she clearly lacked.
"So how are you wanting to do this?" Vera asked, rolling her neck.
"Well," Alistair began, "Normally I pit Daveth and Jory against each other, and stand here laughing while they cut each other to ribbons."
"Actually, he's not far off from the truth," Jory muttered. "Except instead of laughing, he points out everything we do wrong."
"And how else are you supposed to get better?" Alistair asked brusquely. Any patience he had left for the knight was gone. "Shall I hold your hand instead? Stand idly by, waiting for you to strike? No one has time for that."
Jory stared at him open-mouthed, face flushed with embarrassment. Good. It would do for the knight to learn some humility. Not that Duncan would have approved of his methods, but as it was...
"Blight take you," Jory growled.
Alistair snorted. "If I have to rely on you to watch my back, it most certainly will."
They were interrupted by Vera's laughter. "You two are adorable," she quipped. "Daveth, perhaps we should leave them alone?"
Jory grew even redder. "Th-that's not what—are you implying—"
"Oh, anger. Good. Maybe we won't have to wait until the archdemon appears for you to start whacking." Alistair drew his sword. "Right, enough. Daveth, take Ser Knight and run through the drills I taught you yesterday. I'll be here."
A smirking Daveth nodded and walked off, half-dragging Jory, who was still muttering obscenities under his breath.
Alistair sighed and turned to Vera. "I'm sorry. That doesn't usually happen."
She glanced at Jory, who was now swinging at Daveth with a rather dangerous ferocity. "You did that on purpose."
"Provoked him. Look, he's already got Daveth on the defensive."
Alistair watched the two men thoughtfully. "Huh. So he does."
Daveth looked panicked as the knight advanced on him. From the look on Jory's face, any passerby would have thought that Daveth had caused him some unforgivable offense. The knight raised his sword and, with a feral yell, disarmed one of Daveth's daggers. It flew across the training yard and skittered to a halt at Vera's feet.
She stopped the blade with the toe of her boot and picked it up. "Well, that hasn't happened before."
Alistair's brow crinkled in surprise. "Have you been watching us?"
"On the standby," she remarked, tossing the dagger aside. "My brother once told me that a wise warrior observes his opponents before engaging them in battle."
"He's right, though you will find one rarely has the opportunity."
"True." She reached back and drew her hatchets. "But I have one now."
"Do you?" He asked, a smile tugging at his mouth. "And what have you observed of me?"
She started to circle him. "You're strong," she said bluntly, arms poised. "You easily batter down weaker opponents. Your shield protects you well, and you're good with a sword. Altogether, a real threat to someone like me." She smiled slightly. "But there's something I have that you don't."
"And what's that?" He asked, feet moving in time with hers. Something about how she watched him made his heart patter nervously, as if at any moment he would feel the brush of cold steel against his neck.
Suddenly, she stopped moving. Her stormy eyes flashed with what Alistair could only identify as laughter.
"Dashing good looks," she whispered.
Alistair paused, brows pushed together in confusion. "Er—"
With a wild cry, Vera leapt forward, her boot connecting solidly with Alistair's chest. The wind broke from his lungs in one fell swoop. He gasped for air, trailing his fingers over his cuirass. A small dent now marred the once-smooth splintmail.
Vera bounced back, lithe as a court dancer. She landed with one leg outstretched and hatchets at both sides, perfectly balanced.
Alistair shot her a poisonous glare. "You—" He coughed. "You cheated."
"Cheated?" Vera shook her head, her tone teasing. "Are you challenging my honor?"
"Maybe," he grumbled. If there was one thing Alistair prided himself on, it was his skills in combat. He was used to being outwitted, but he was not used to being caught off-guard, and he considered Vera's "surprise" an enormous blow to his pride. He could feel the need to prove himself rising in his gut, which confused him even more, given that it was supposed to be the other way around.
He resumed circling Vera, watching his opponent with narrowed eyes. She was short, skinny, lightly armored—a combination that told Alistair she could be easily overpowered. In spite of this, she didn't appear to be nervous at all. Beads of sweat began rolling down the back of his neck. The way she stared at him, so calm, so collected; it was enough to make any foe tremble with anxiety.
That was her advantage, Alistair realized, and it was effective. Well, he wasn't going to stand around waiting for her to make the first move...again.
He lunged. She met his downward sweep with both hatchets, resulting in a metallic clang that echoed across the training field. Alistair pressed down with all his might, trying to force Vera to her knees. It was a trick he had learned during his years at the abbey, designed to put weaker opponents at a disadvantage until they were forced to yield. The tactic rarely failed him, and he wanted to see if Vera was clever enough to get away.
Her face was pinched with tension, but Alistair could tell she was prepared for something like this. The veins in her arms stood out, blue branches against her pale skin, betraying how difficult it was for her to keep him at bay on strength alone. She peered up at him with disdain as her knees began to tremble, giving out under the force of his blade.
Then, with almost inhuman speed, she disengaged and rolled out of the way, causing him to stumble forward. She didn't waste a moment. While Alistair regained his footing, Vera feigned a hit that could have cleaved open his side had he been unarmored and she hadn't been holding back. Her goal was not to hurt him, he noticed, simply to show what she could do if this were a real battle and not a spar. He nodded his approval, but her face revealed no change in emotion. She appeared angry with herself. Someone with Vera's stature and shape could not afford to be overpowered, and she knew that. It must have taken years of training for her to learn how to get away from a stronger opponent. To get away from someone like him.
Vera was breathing heavily now, and from the haphazard way she gripped her axes, he could tell that her arms were trembling. She had been able to evade his maneuver, but at a cost.
It was a test of Alistair's patience as Vera began circling him once more. The anger faded from her face as she watched him, glancing upward every so often. Alistair moved opposite her and began to wonder what she was playing at when suddenly his gaze met the blinding light of the Ferelden sunrise. He squinted as spots danced in his vision and water leaked from the corners of his eyes.
Vera sprung, easily slipping past Alistair's defenses to feign a blow to his exposed chest. She stopped short, the blade of her axe barely kissing the metal underneath. Had she wanted, she could have crushed his chest plate and broken two or three ribs.
Angry at being outwitted by her a second time, Alistair shoved her axe aside with his shield and swiped at her blindly. She leapt backward a moment too late, and his sword left a long scratch that stretched across her leather cuirass. Forget testing, Alistair thought, Duncan was right. This woman clearly knew how to outmaneuver opponents regardless of strength.
He began delivering a series of downward chops, forcing her to remain on the defensive for quite some time. Vera used the spacious ring to her advantage, pulling away from his blows by ducking, dodging, and even rolling out of the way. He managed to deal a bit of damage, even inflicting a small cut on her arm, but he was wearing out quickly. His chest rose and fell at an increasingly rapid rate.
Vera noticed this, too. The corners of her mouth twitched upward as she sidestepped Alistair's thrust, barely avoiding the caress of his blade. She began backpedaling, stopping suddenly when her back hit the fence. A grin crossed his face; he had her now.
Just as he swiped his blade upward to stroke the skin of her throat, she dropped to the ground and slid between the wide gap of his legs. Before he could even register what happened, Vera was at his back, one arm snaked around his neck, the other holding an axe to his jugular. Her knees gripped his torso on either side; her height disadvantage had led her to jump on him.
"Am I cheating now, steelshanks?" Vera whispered, her breath hot in his ear.
Alistair gulped, feeling a blush creep over his face. "I...yield," he groused.
Vera dropped to the ground, sheathing her axes. At this point, she was breathing just as hard as he was. A wide-eyed elven servant rushed over and handed each of them a waterskin, of which Alistair was immensely grateful. He downed the liquid in one draught, sighing at the cool relief pooling in his belly.
"Impressive, both of you," said a voice from beyond the fence.
Alistair turned to see Duncan positioned just outside the training yard, face alight with a large, wolfish grin. He stood at the head of a small crowd of soldiers, some Wardens, some not. How long had they been watching? They must have been there a while, because all of them wore expressions of awe and some were even cheering. For himself or for Vera, he was unsure, but he assumed it was the latter. She had bested him with swiftness and guile. No one would question that.
In a way, he was glad he had lost. Word would get around, and the men would be more likely to show Vera the respect she deserved, both as a Warden and as a lady. Alistair met Duncan's stare, and he winked as if to say I told you so.
The Warden-Commander entered the ring to join Alistair and Vera, whose lacerated arm was being tended to by the same servant who had brought the water. Alistair hadn't realized how deeply his blade had pierced her. Shame settled over his face; she had made a special effort not to hurt him at all, and he had allowed his pride to guide his actions. He tried to convey an apology with his eyes, and Vera nodded, a smile still fresh on her mouth.
Duncan lifted his hand and motioned for Daveth and Jory to join them. The men were leaning lazily against the fence, having abandoned their drills to watch the spar.
"I have some news," Duncan began once they were all together.
"What is it?" Jory asked, clearly worried given the puckering between his brows.
Duncan cleared his throat. "I've decided to delay the Joining. You three have proven yourselves—there's no questioning that. We are, however, lacking in numbers...the more of you there are, the better chance Ferelden will have in the days to come. I'm going to scout the Brecilian Forest in search of another recruit."
"The forest? Who do you hope to find there?" Daveth wanted to know. "A hermit?"
Duncan's eyes flashed. "There are several clans of Dalish elves hidden beneath the trees. Their warriors are capable and strong. I would search elsewhere, Daveth, but the forest is close, and given that time is an enemy..."
"It's our only option," Alistair finished.
"Precisely," said Duncan, nodding. "I expect to return within a week. And when that day comes..." He looked over his charges, his expression slightly troubled. "We will begin the Joining."