Part 3 - The Test
As sure as the sun will rise in the morning, the afternoon arrived sunny and bright like any decent spring day.
Her amazed eyes ran over the main practice grounds, also used for the Royal Tournaments, that had been laboriously prepared to host that afternoon’s Tests.
Although, as Kahor had stated, she had joined them not that long ago, she now felt proud to have taken the time to learn a little about the event that was about to start.
Contrary to what she had initially thought, Kahor’s wasn’t the only Test to take place on that day, quite the contrary. On that afternoon all cadets that had been found fit to challenge the next level of training, and that had managed to be recommended by a full-fledged Knight, had the right to take up the challenge. According to what she'd read, every time a cadet passed a Test he was bestowed a ribbon of the color correspondent to his level. One of those nights Kahor had convinced Mihail to show them hers. The young woman had already conquered four ribbons – the green, representing Truth, the white for Virtue, the blue for Honor and the purple one, symbol of Humility. She was only missing one more, the red of Courage, and only then could she be ordained Knight of the Dark Order, for only then would she had attained the five essential qualities of a true Knight.
Allana had found the entire process truly amazing and now, that the day had come, she could almost feel it in the air – the tension, the anxiety and the pride of those that had been chosen, that had been granted the opportunity to give another step forward.
A set of wood stands had been placed on both sides of the rectangular shaped field, awaiting the numerous guests that had already started to arrive. Everything had been carefully prepared and arranged, and even the sittings followed a rigorous order, according to the level and color of each cadet.
On the stand on the other side of where she stood, on a squared platform connected to the test grounds by a small flight of stairs, three throne-like chairs awaited empty, the tall wooden back of the one in the center carved with Mithir’s royal coat of arms. She knew without a doubt that that would be Elian’s seat, the sole Heir to the Throne. The places at the right of the platform had been reserved for the true Knights, those that had already conquered all ribbons. The ones on the left had been left unmarked, awaiting those that wished to watch the tests but that didn’t belong to the Order, such as friends and family. There were even a few places reserved for the White Order.
With a sigh Allana left the testing grounds and headed to the zone behind it, where tents had been raised in order to provide a safe and quite place where the Test challengers could rest and prepare themselves. Finding the one where Kahor was staying wasn’t hard, Karl standing by the entrance, keeping watch with a serious expression.
“How is she?” Allana asked as she approached him and Karl shrugged, darkly shaking his head. She knew all too well that, like her, he didn’t like what was happening one bit, but, also like her, didn’t feel the right to stop her.
He stepped aside, granting her passage, and Allana dived into the shadowy tent.
Kahor was dressed on a new uniform, all black as usual. Her dark curly hair was tightly secured at the top of her head, the sword that she held in one hand flashing coldly. She seemed alright, Allana thought, at least at a first glance. Her eyes, on the other hand, told an entirely different story, alight with a feverish painful glow.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, although she already knew the answer, and Kahor smiled, obviously lying to her.
“Good, I think.”
“Kahor, you know … You can still give up on this crazy…”
“No! And you promised, Darna!” she cut her off on the spot and Allana sighed in defeat. “How’s everything outside?”
“People are starting to arrive. You’ll be the last one to go. You’re the only challenger for the green ribbon.”
“I know. Let’s go outside. I want to be there when everyone arrives.”
When Larrisse and the others arrive, Allana thought as she followed her. She wanted to be there, looking strong and unaffected as if nothing had happened.
Karl joined them.
“Do you know who’s going to be your jury?”
“No. Denar is the one who chose them.”
“Denar? Why?” Allana asked, watching her amazingly unwavering steps as she walked with her, head raised high.
“It’s always like this. If the cadets are under Denar’s responsibility, Elipson chooses the jury. If their under Elipson’s, Denar is the one who selects them.”
When they reached the testing grounds the two large stands were practically full. Kahor looked at the places at the right of the platform, her expression hopeful, wishful, and Allana knew she was looking for Kai. But he was nowhere to be found. And so the girl ended up lowering her gaze with a deep, disappointed sigh.
“We should find a place to sit. You better save your strength for later.” Allana suggested and Kahor nodded, following her to some free seats not far from where they stood.
Not long after, the clear sound of trumpets echoed through the air and, as silence was established, everyone watched as a gray haired Knight stepped into the platform, raising his surprisingly strong voice.
“His Highness the Royal Prince, Elian Darclya of Mithir!” he announced and Elian stepped onto the platform, all regal in his Dark Knight uniform, a deep blue velvet cloak pending from his shoulders, a single thin circlet of gold encircling his head as symbol of his standing.
As soon as he appeared all the Knights and cadets, and everyone Allana could cast her eyes upon, stood up and bowed their heads respectfully. And she couldn’t help feel amazed by that solemn silence … by the expression of respect and admiration on the faces of the young men that surrounded her. None of it coerced, none of it ordered. Pure respect, and love, and appreciation. All directed towards that young boy with black hair sprinkled with silver. And then she looked at him. She hadn’t seen him in few days … a week? Maybe more. And she suddenly felt as if it had been too long, and she knew she had missed him, although she couldn’t really explain why, since he had never been part of her life to begin with.
Elian smiled and took his place on the throne-like chair that awaited him and, in doing so, allowed everyone else to sit as well; people that, in any other occasion, would have laughed, talked and even touched him freely, as Allana had witnessed more than once. But not now. Now Elian wasn’t their comrade. He was their Prince, representing the Royal Family, and everyone revered him the same way they would have revered the Queen or the King.
At a sign of his hand two Knights approached him and took their places, one at each side, and Allana recognized them immediately – Elipson to his right, Denar to his left, both dressed in the Order’s uniform, the silver sword and moon on their shoulders glowing as the sunlight fell upon them.
Elian smiled once again, facing all the presents, and raised his voice so that it would be heard all over the testing grounds.
“It is my honor to bid you all welcome, Knights of the Dark Order, as well as to those of you on the path to acquire this noble title, and all who have come today to watch over our bravest, as they challenge their own strengths! Today some of you will be asked to show your worth and all that you’ve learned with those that have taught you for many moons. And so, to evaluate your performance, your value and courage, I call upon Sir Denar Etien’s jury – Sir Lamar Darnel, Sir Arkel Lasien and Sir Mahel Lasien.” He announced and Allana looked down as the three Knights stepped onto to the testing grounds, respectfully bowing their heads towards their Prince. Each one of them carried the colorful ribbons they would bestow on the cadets, should they pass their Test, and Allana couldn’t help noticing the green one, held by the tallest man.
“They’re the ones who’re going to evaluate you …” Karl whispered, almost as if he feared them, but Kahor didn’t answer as Elian went on.
“By your honor, may you be truthful and fair on your judgment.”
“So it shall be!” the three answered in unison, bowing again before leaving the grounds towards the chairs that awaited them, placed on the testing ground itself.
“I now call upon Sir Elipson Demor’s jury – Sir Salnar d’Andrios, Sir Talio Lianor and Sir Mentar Morian Laos,” he announced and another three Knights stepped into grounds bowing has the others before them had done.
“By your honor, may you be truthful and fair on your judgment.”
“So it shall be!” They also answered and joined their Brothers.
“May the Tests begin!” Elian added and the sound of the trumpets echoed again, amongst all the cheering and clapping that suddenly stormed all around her.
“Maragar of Entlar!” The old Knight that had announced Elian shouted above the collective noise and a tall thin boy, his coppery hair aflame in the sun, entered the testing grounds, trying to look determined and sure of himself, although he was obviously quite nervous.
He paused in front of the platform, bowing towards his Prince, and then turned to face Elipson’s jury, head raised and hand clasping the pommel of his sword.
“What do you seek here, Maragar of Entlar?” one of the Knights asked as the crown went silent again.
“Humility, Sir,” the youngster replied.
“Have you come in search of the purple ribbon?” another one asked and Maragan nodded firmly.
“And are you willing to face the Test we have in stored for you if that’s the only way to attain it?” the third one asked and Maragar stood straight, looking even more confident.
“Prepare yourself then, Maragar of Entlar. For your Test as begun.”
What came afterwards left her completely glued to her seat. Not that she was watching something unusual or even strange but, by the fifth challenge Maragar had to face she began asking herself when would it be over, if ever, and if she’d be able to remember all the tasks he’d been asked to perform. Sometime in between, a horse was brought into the testing grounds and the tasks required went from wielding a bow, sword and shield, to focus on spear and horseback fighting. The Knights of the jury themselves were Maragar’s opponents, always serious and without the smallest sign of empathy towards the young man who panted heavily, surely hoping in vain for a moment’s rest. Sure, that was one of the last level’s Tests, Allana recalled as Maragar turned his horse around readying himself for another charge. But still, she could have never imagined that the Tests would consist of a such heavy, tiring and hard tasks.
Finally one of the Knights of the jury raised his hand and the trumpets sounded, marking the end of the Test. Maragar dismounted his horse drawing heavy breaths, his black uniform stained with white dust from all the fighting, his coppery hair glued to his sweaty brow, and another Knight approached him, smiling.
“Tell us, Maragar of Entlar. Have you found here what you were looking for?” he asked and Maragar lowered his head, looking weary but still somewhat proud of himself.
“I believe I did, Sir.”
The Knight that had ended the Test turned to the platform and bowed lightly before raising his voice.
“Our Test is over,” he announced towards Elian. “And it is our belief that Maragar of Entlar showed, this day, his value and worth, becoming deserving of the purple ribbon of Humility.”
“Then that he may receive what already belongs to him,” Elian answered and Denar stood up, heading for the stairs that took him down into the testing grounds, where one of the Knights from the jury handed him a purple ribbon. Maragar took a knee to the ground, smiling proudly as he lowered his head, and Denar placed the ribbon around his neck.
“I bestow upon you that which was born from your hard work and dedication. That amongst truth, virtue and honor you may always find a bit of humility, for only then shall you find true courage,” Denar said, surprisingly solemnly, his clear voice echoing all around them, and the sound of cheering that followed made the stand beneath her feet tremble, before the trumpet sounded again, announcing a new challenger.
“These Tests … they’re not a game, Kahor! You won’t be able to …”
“Darna!” she cut her off, facing her almost angrily. “I’ve made up my mind! I’m not turning back!”
Allana sighed as she saw her look intently towards the stand on the other side, where the Knights had been seated. She was searching for him again, she knew … but not even the strongest of wishes could make her see that which wasn’t there.
After Maragar another cadet was called to prove himself, and then another, and another, and little by little, as the afternoon approached its end, the levels tested begun to decrease, and Kahor’s turn became closer. Almost no one failed their Test, but Allana had heard others say that the first level’s were the ones with the highest percentage of failures. And yet, even as the levels went down, Allana couldn’t help thinking that the tasks required were simply too hard and too numerous.
On the other hand she clearly understood the need for such hard tests. In the time she had spent amongst the Dark Order she had came to understand that many of those young boys were only there because they had nowhere else to go, and because the Order offered them a clean bed and a warm meal without questions asked. However, becoming a Knight was an entirely different matter, and she was sure many of her fellow cadets didn’t have what was needed to become one.
Her golden eyes lingered once more over the place where Larrisse sat, with her two friends, Freda and Tereze. For an instant she thought they had seen her too, but if they did they pretended they hadn’t. Unforgivable!, she thought feeling her insides burn. And for a moment all she could think of was how she’d like to beat the crap out of them, and how pleasurable it would be to see their faces become an unrecognizable mass of blood. She immediately cast those thoughts away the instant she became aware of them, feeling her insides freeze as she forced herself to watch the Tests. Thoughts like that were too dangerous, she reminded herself, and decided on the spot that she would not, for the love of God, touch any of the girls. They would end up getting what was coming to them, she told her darkest side, trying to comfort her. Although she couldn’t really stomp the outrage she felt, seeing them there, with those smug expressions on their faces, absolutely certain Kahor wouldn’t report them; that she would either give up on taking her Test, or would take it anyway, even as hurt as she was. Useless, stupid bitches, the other part of her spat with despise. All they were good at was spreading their legs at the male dorm every night, in hopes of catching some rich noble Knight, too naïve to see them for what they really were!
Kahor at her side seemed restless and Karl took a deep breath.
“Only two to go. Are you sure …?”
“Never been so sure of anything in my entire life!” the girl replied and, for Allana’s dejection, none of the previous Tests had been as fast as those two last ones. Even as she was trying her best to find yet another argument that could convince Kahor to change her mind, the girl was already standing up, taking a deep breath as she readied herself for what was coming.
“Kahor …” she tried, unsure of what else to say, and the dark eyes that faced her told her as clear as any words could be that there was nothing else to be done. “Good luck!”
She smiled briefly but with all honesty, and then raised her head high as the trumpets sounded yet again.
“Here I go …” she murmured, her gaze searching the stands on the other side one last time, the disappointment taking over her initially hopeful expression before she turned towards the stairs.
“Kahor!” Allana called her at the last minute, making her turn back for a moment. “He’ll come! A Knight never breaks his word!” she told her with all the certainty she could master and Kahor smiled once again, nodding with renewed confidence as she went down the wooden stairs.
“Kahor of Nrahon!” the old Knight announced as the girl crossed the testing grounds, stooping before the platform to bow respectfully as all the other cadets before her had done.
Allana sat down, nervously clasping her hands together as she watched the three Knights of her jury stand up, the green of Kahor’s ribbon standing out amongst their black uniforms. Karl, by her side, wasn’t any less nervous, constantly chewing on his lower lip. And, even at the distant, she thought that even Elipson seemed to sit up a bit straighter, although her expression would never show the slightest hint of preference towards the young girl.
“What do you seek here, Kahor of Nrahon?” one of the Knights of the jury asked, following the same ritual Allana had seen take place all afternoon.
“Truth, Sir,” Kahor answered, her voice loud and clear in the cooling air of the evening.
“Have you come in search of the green ribbon?”
“And are you willing to face the Test we have in stored for you if that’s the only way to attain it?” the third one asked and Kahor faced him unwavering.
“Then prepare yourself, Kahor of Nrahon. For your Test has begun.”
Kahor unsheathed her sword, saluting the Knight that approached her and that she would have to face and, for an instant stood there, her expression filled with disbelieve, her gaze lost in the platform where Elian sat. And there he was, Allana noticed with a broad smile, a tall Knight, all clad in black standing right behind Elian’s chair. His unkempt uniform indicated that he’d most likely just arrived, and that he hadn’t taken the time to get changed. By his side stood a young boy and Allana couldn’t help blink twice as she looked at him. A sense of peace and tranquility surrounded him as he smiled, almost unconcerned with the world around him.
Kahor, on the other hand, held her sword high, flexing her legs into a defense position, her strength renewed, and faced her opponent with a fierce look.
The swords clashed midair, filling the air with that familiar sound. The Knight sparring against her attacked her merciless in a sequence of fast, agile blows, which Kahor easily avoided and defended, making use of her small weight and speed. However, she couldn’t fool Allana’s eyes, not after they'd spent all those hours sparring together. Her steps were shorter than they should be, as she tried to defend her injured leg and, more than once, she thought her knee wouldn’t resist and would succumb under her weight. Every time she noticed one of those small mistakes she couldn’t help look towards the platform, where Elian and Elipson sat. Wouldn’t they notice it too?, she wondered, half hoping they would so that someone could put a stop to that madness; half hoping they wouldn’t, for Kahor’s sake.
At every new attack, every new stance, every new defense, she couldn’t help feeling increasingly more anxious, her mind fighting alongside her, almost as if she could command the other girl’s body.
Suddenly someone squeezed her arm, startling her, and as she looked at the man sitting beside her she knew she’d been right, and that there was no way others wouldn’t notice that something was wrong with her friend.
“Were you the one who practiced with her while I was gone?” he asked in a soft but cold tone, almost as cold as the uncaring expression of his beautiful face, and Allana nodded a confirmation. “What happened to her? She’s hurt, isn’t she?”
The answer got stuck in her throat. After all, she had promised Kahor not to tell. On the other hand she couldn’t quite lie to him either, especially since he obviously already knew the answer.
“It happened this morning …” she told him capturing Kahor’s painful expression as she fought to stand her ground, her sword firmly held between her hands. “We tried to stop her but …”
Kai nodded in silent understanding and didn't say another word as he turned to focus on the combat.
She seemed tired, Allana noticed tensely squeezing her own fingers. She was sure the pain on her leg was getting worse, after all, how could it not? She took a peek at the Knight sitting beside her, his expression unmovable, almost as if he were unable to feel or care, but his eyes closely followed every move she made.
A stronger attack forced Kahor to spin her sword to the side in order to stop her opponent, but the speed imprinted on the blow was too much for her to bear and her leg failed, making her drop a knee to the ground. Pain took over her sweaty face as she clenched her teeth hard, and Allana jumped to her feet practically running towards the stairs, if not for the hand that held her back.
“Sit down and be quiet!” he ordered her in a cold whisper, pulling her back to her seat, and she looked at him, half outraged half pleading.
“But Kahor …”
“Do as I say!”
And she did, crossing her arms, truly angry, while Karl by her side practically cowered in his chair. And this was the man Kahor loved? This cold, unfeeling bastard, that could just seat there watching as she suffered?
The Knight fighting against her approached her and told her something, but Kahor firmly shook her head and stood up. On the platform, Elipson had lost her composure, bending forward on her chair as if she were about to stand up at any moment and put a stop to that stupid Test. Even Elian and Denar looked apprehensive when Kahor raised her sword again, reading herself for the next attack. And so the Test restarted, and Kahor defended her attacker’s blow once again, although she had obviously slowed down, her stance weaker and easily unbalanced.
All around the grounds tension filled the air and the silence was absolute as more people began noticing that something was definitely wrong. Even the Knight fighting her seemed to hesitate at each new attack, his eyes constantly going for the platform, hoping for an order that would allow him to stop the Test.
As she tried to defend a new blow her leg failed her again and the pain was so strong she couldn’t help dropping her sword, falling on the ground, grasping her injured knee. This time, however, Allana was on the move even before Kahor hit the ground, having successfully eluded the Knight beside her that had seemed unable to react in time. She ran across the grounds as murmurs filled the air, and dropped to her knees right beside her, holding her gently, the girl’s sharp pain filling the air around her, making her tremble with fury as she tried to sooth her.
“Go away … you can’t be here …” Kahor ordered between clenched teeth, but Allana had already made her mind and stood up again.
“No. I’m ending this!” she stated, ignoring her friend’s protests, and faced the Knight right in front of her, prepared to take Kahor’s place should he insist in attacking her.
The young man, however, didn’t seem to even consider that option, his clear green eyes wide as he looked at her in disbelief. All the better, she thought turning to the platform, bowing her head as was expected from someone in her place.
“I beg of Your Highness that he may please end this Test!” she firmly requested, facing him unwavering, ignoring the protests that rose all around her as well as Denar’s angry expression.
Elian sat still, unsure about what to do, although her golden eyes told him, without a doubt, that she wouldn't take no for an answer. However the Knight’s rules were very clear about the regulations of the Tests, and only the cadet taking the Test could make that request …
“Kahor is hurt! She can’t fight anymore!” Allana added, as if she had heard his thoughts, and Elian nodded in accordance.
“Very well then. I determine that this Test is officially over,” he declared as a choir of voices rose all around them, but by then Allana couldn’t care less, releasing a sigh of relief.
She turned back to help Kahor stand up, but Kai was already there, carefully raising her from the ground, almost as if she were weightless, and then he carry her away, her small body encased between his strong arms.
“No … please don’t …” Allana heard her complain as she followed them.
“Be quite, now. You were too reckless, you know?”
Kahor didn’t answer, hiding her face against the Knight’s chest, but Allana could hear her soft sobs even though she tried to muffle them.
Kai took her to a place where Allana had only been once, on the day of her arrival, when Kahor had shown her around – the White Order’s headquarters. Inside the big compound the corridors were wide and well lit, filled with closed doors and tall windows. Even though Allana had gotten lost after the first three turns, Kai seemed to know exactly where he was going, nodding politely every time he passed one of the White Knights, even though some of them seemed too immersed on the books they were reading even while walking to even acknowledge their presence.
Without asking permission or even knocking, he opened a door and entered what seemed like a medical office. A young girl with bright red hair stood up with a startle but seemed to recognize him immediately. Without a single question she ran to another door, opening it, and Kai carried Kahor inside, to a well lit, clean room, where he softly placed her on the bed.
“He's not in, Sir,” the girl answered, her dark green eyes fixed on Kahor who seemed to have lost conscious, although her whole body trembled slightly.
“Can you get him?”
“It would take a while. But I’ve been studying under him for four years now. If you could trust my skills … I believe she’s going into shock.”
Kai spared her one look, his expression grave as he took her in even though she seemed immune to his disturbing gaze, and nodded.
“I trust your skills, Serena. She hurt her leg.”
“Dislodged her knee,” Karl supplied having just arrived. “It happened this morning.”
Serena nodded as she filled a glass with water and then sprinkled it with a white dust.
“Can you please make her drink this while a take a look at her leg? It will take the pain away and allow her to rest.”
Kai took the glass she had prepared and sat on the edge of the bed, carefully holding Kahor as he raised her head and pressed the glass to her lips.
Serena didn’t even bother to undress her, cutting her pants with a pair of scissors, avoiding having to move her any more than necessary.
“Who did this bandages?” she asked, observing them before starting to cut them, and Karl stepped forward, his face bright red.
“They’re quite good. It may have saved her leg,” Serena stated and Karl sighed in relief, as the girl felt around Kahor’s swelled and darkened knee, trying to evaluate the extension of the damage.
“Well … it really looks bad, but it’s not as bad as it looks,” she said walking towards a cupboard from which she took a small leather pouch. She seemed to look for something inside it and then stopped, raising her head. “If you don’t mind, I’d prefer if you waited outside,” she practically ordered politely, and Karl nodded, obeying without a question. Allana followed him, after taking a last look. Kahor seemed to have fallen asleep, her expression calm and free of pain. She would rather have stayed. After all she didn’t really know that Serena girl.
“Not you, Sir. Please, I’d like you to stay,” she heard her say and turned back, seeing that Kai had also stood up and was now nodding and sitting down again. Well, at least he’d be there, Allana thought as she closed the door.
“Why didn’t she allow us to stay?” she asked, still unhappy with the outcome, and Karl took a deep breath.
“Sometimes treatments aren’t all that pretty to see. Maybe she was afraid we’d be badly impressed.”
“She’ll be alright …” Allana wished and Karl nodded, agreeing.
“I hope so. She’s so stubborn! She should have listen to us in the first place! And now we’re all in deep trouble!” he added, almost as if he had only thought about it then. “I mean, we knew she was hurt and kept quiet. And on top of that you interrupted her Test, which most definitely is against the rules!”
“I had my reasons!”
“Yeah. But did it cross your mind that they all knew what you went there to say? I mean, it was obvious Kahor was having trouble fighting, and we all know it wasn’t due to lack of any skill.”
Allana averted her gaze and crossed her arms. Well, she knew all that all as well.
“They should have stopped her sooner, then!”
“They didn’t because they couldn’t. Only the one taking the Test can ask for it to be stopped.”
“That’s really stupid …!” she spat with despise, sitting on one of the chairs to wait for her own trial and verdict.