Chapter 5 On The Road
Arran suppressed a yawn as he walked.
He had barely slept a wink the previous night, instead lying awake as he thought about the many things Master Zhao had told him. When he fell asleep it was near dawn, and true to his word, Master Zhao had come knocking on his door right at the break of dawn, once more wearing the disguise of Arran's 'uncle' Derrin.
Somewhere, the man had acquired a large cart drawn by two horses, filled with who-knows-what. Not long after sunrise they had left, Master Zhao riding the cart while Arran walked beside it.
He cast an annoyed glance at Master Zhao. When he had asked if he could ride on the cart instead of having to walk next to it, the man had refused, telling him that physical exercise was crucial to being a mage.
Apparently, that did not extend to Master Zhao himself. Comfortably sitting in the driver's seat of the cart, he showed no sign of wanting to trade places with Arran.
"How much farther before we rest to eat?" Arran asked. It was near midday, and his empty stomach was starting to rumble.
"Just another mile or two," Master Zhao said. "In the meantime, why not enjoy the countryside? It's quite beautiful, this time of year." He seemed rather pleased with the situation.
The surroundings were beautiful, that much was true. The road cut a path through rolling green hills, scattered with trees and the occasional farm or cottage. A landscape painter would probably have been inspired by the sight.
Arran, however, was no painter. What he was was tired, and hungry. Right now, he would have traded all the beautiful landscapes in the world for an hour's rest and a good meal.
Finally, they stopped next to a flat field at the side of a small stream.
"You water the horses," Master Zhao said. "I'll prepare us something to eat."
Arran obliged, unharnessing the horses and leading them to the stream, where they drank thirstily.
When he returned, he found that Master Zhao had laid out a blanket on the grass, atop which lay several hunks of bread and some dried meat. Without hesitation, Arran hungrily wolfed down.
After he finished eating he lazily stretched out, even more tired than before now his hunger had finally been sated. He idly wondered whether there would be time for a quick nap.
Master Zhao looked at him, then spoke. "If you're done eating, I think it's about time that we start your training."
Any hint of weariness forgotten, Arran sat up instantly. "You'll teach me magic?"
"Magic?" Master Zhao chuckled, then shook his head. "You're nowhere near ready for that."
He walked back to the cart and retrieved a small cloth bundle from which he took two wooden training swords, one of which he handed to Arran.
"Today, we fight," Master Zhao said with a grin. "If you manage to hit me at least once, I'll let you ride in the cart for the rest of the day."
Arran was disappointed that he would have to wait longer to learn magic, but he was eager to cross swords with Master Zhao.
Having grown up the son of a guardsman, he was naturally confident with a sword. After Master Zhao's display back in the Blue Angel Arran knew he stood little chance of defeating the man, but he certainly would not make a fool of himself, either.
He raised the sword in front of him, gripping it with both hands.
Master Zhao stood calmly, raising his own sword as well. Unlike Arran, he held it in a single hand. "Begin," he said.
Arran attacked instantly, his sword shooting forward in a series of wild blows.
Master Zhao barely moved, yet somehow, he narrowly avoided each blow Arran struck.
Frustrated, Arran stepped up his attacks, ignoring his defense to concentrate solely on attacking the man in front of him.
Master Zhao's wooden sword smacked into Arran's right shoulder, leaving a painful welt.
"Again," Master Zhao said. "And this time, don't drop your defense."
Arran took a more careful approach as he attacked once more, feinting repeatedly while taking care not to let his defense drop.
Several times he felt like he came close to hitting his opponent, but Master Zhao still parried or dodged each of his strikes.
Another painful welt appeared, this time on Arran's left shoulder.
He was confounded. Each time it seemed like he was about to break through Master's Zhao's defenses, yet each time the man just barely evaded or parried Arran's strikes.
Once more he attacked, paying close attention to his opponent's movements as he tried to understand his techniques.
Again and again, Arran attacked, attempting all kinds of different styles and tactics. Yet no matter how hard he tried, every attempt to strike his target failed, and each round ended with a single stroke of Master Zhao's sword.
"Why can't I hit you?!" Arran was panting, and his body was covered in welts and bruises.
"Control," Master Zhao said in response. "To control the sword, you must control your body. To control magic, you must control your mind."
"Pay close attention," he said, then showed Arran several sets of movements and techniques.
Arran watched intently, amazed at what he saw.
Master Zhao's techniques were much like the ones Arran had learned from his father, but somehow they were faster and sharper. It was as if every unnecessary movement had been trimmed away, leaving only the very essence of each sword stroke.
Suddenly, he understood. The techniques the man showed him were all about control. With each stroke, and with each movement, Master Zhao perfectly controlled both his body and the sword.
Filled with determination, Arran started to copy the techniques Master Zhao had just shown him. Even without magic, learning just a fraction of the man's skills with the sword would make him a formidable fighter.
He spent the next hour practicing furiously, repeating each technique time after time. Several times Master Zhao interrupted him to correct his form, but other than that, Arran swung his sword in silence.
After an hour he was bathed in sweat, muscles sore from repeating the same movements over and over again until his body felt like it could collapse from fatigue.
He tried to continue, but his arms trembled with exhaustion when he lifted the sword once more.
"That's enough for now," Master Zhao said. "Go wash yourself. After that, we'll head off."
Arran nodded. Exhausted as he was, further training would do him little good.
He washed himself in the stream, cold water rinsing away the sweat of training. When he returned, he was relieved to discover that Master Zhao would let him ride in the cart for the remainder of the day.
The weeks that followed saw Arran training every day. Sometimes he sparred with Master Zhao and sometimes he practiced alone, but each day he made some progress, however little it might be.
At first, practice was limited to the afternoons, following their midday meals. After each training session, Arran would spend the rest of the day riding in the cart, nursing his bruises and resting his body.
After some days Master Zhao decided that they would practice in the evenings as well, and Arran found himself collapsing with exhaustion each night, only to start all over again with each new day.
Apparently still not satisfied with Arran's progress, some weeks later Master Zhao further increased the frequency of training, making Arran spend an hour in training every morning before they left.
With three practice sessions a day Arran found his skill with the sword increasing rapidly, but the grueling schedule left little time for anything else. When he was not training he was resting, and when he was not resting he was training.
Absorbed in training, Arran barely noticed their travels. They traveled through hills, then fields, then forest, then hills again, but the only things that filled Arran's mind were the sword and his aching body.
Sometimes they would stop in towns and villages to stock up on food, and on those days Arran was granted a short reprieve from training. Too tired to explore the towns they visited, Arran instead spent these days to rest and recover.
Soon, weeks turned into months.
Under Master Zhao's tutelage, Arran's skills with the sword improved with leaps and bounds. And not just that, he found that the constant training strengthened his body as well. While he had been strong even as a child, now his body grew lean and muscular.
Arran realized with some shock that by now, he could likely already match the best fighters in Riverbend.
The constant improvement was like a drug to Arran. Eager to further his skills and increase his strength, he found himself looking forward to their practice sessions.
Occasionally, Arran would remember the Academy. Although the first month he had constantly looked over his shoulder, three months into their journey there had still been no sign whatsoever of any Academy mages.
Secretly, he was starting to believe that maybe they had escaped successfully.
Then, one morning, as they topped yet another tree-covered hill, half a dozen men suddenly emerged on the road, armed with swords and axes, and armored in mail.
When Arran saw them, his heart leaped in fear.
Had the Academy finally caught up with them?