A/N: after taking down the three chapters following the first one, I worked a lot more on continuing the story than editing it, so chapter two's far from completely ready, but eh, I'd like to update. If you'd be so kind as to review, I'd love you forever, and I'd review a story of yours in return. Hey, maybe you could even favourite or follow this! Uhm, I apologize profusely for the length. I hope you can get through it anyway.

Ch.2 Wordcount: 6600

Erina was quickly beginning to regret her decision. A misty dawn seeped into the mountains and rolling hills of Antrem, sun struggling to break the clouds, and even with her travelling cloak, she shivered a little. But the weather wasn't an issue.

How am I going to convince everyone I'm a boy? There was a mirror at their house, and when Erina ran it up and down her body, she admitted she didn't look very feminine. Even her face, with the short-cropped hair, looked a little male. But there was the whole issue of her voice—it never had been all that high, though girls did sound different from boys—and her choice of words, and how she held herself. Plus, there were her monthly cycles to think about…

At that thought, Erina halted her horse in horror and groaned. She hadn't thought about that.

I suppose I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Well, she knew how to act like a boy—Erina had seen enough of Chale and Felix and Cadman—but truly being one was different.

The biggest problem of all would perhaps be convincing, not boys from her village, but her own brothers that she was Felix Corr.

Oh. Erina rested her head on the smelly horse. No, no, no. They would never buy it. Cadman would find everything hilarious, while Chale, in a fit of horror and anger, would send her right back to where she came from. And Grandmother would be waiting with the whipping belt that she always threatened to use, but never did. 'You don't think these things through!' she would snap.

One thing Erina wouldn't be able to take was her Grandmother's anger. Because she didn't think it through. She didn't think anything through. She didn't think it through when, in a fit of anger, she tossed all their paraffin for candle making out the window into the street. She didn't think it through when, during a particularly pitiful hunting season, she took Chale's favourite bow and arrows out to hunt herself. She didn't think it through when, after a very nasty day, she went and punched Garith in the mouth, getting her into a lot of trouble and earning her something of a reputation.

For some reason, remembering the whole punching in the mouth incident made Erina sit a little straighter on the horse. She had punched a boy in the mouth. A boy! They had all called her 'Toughie' after that. Perhaps not affectionately, but still. There. She could punch a boy in the mouth! She would pull this off; she didn't care what Grandmother would say. She would avoid Chale and Cadman, even Charlie—though Felix and Charlie hadn't ever grown as close as she had with him, he would try to strike up conversation. He might even recognize her before Chale or Cadman, but Charlie would be less likely to grow angry with her.

'Eat your stew. You'll need it,' Erina remembered Grandmother saying. She thought back to last night, when she pictured Grandmother as being young like her. Did she mean that Erina would need her strength if she were to train for battle? Maybe the woman had known all along, ever since their conversation about the subject? The thought made her feel a little braver.

She had been riding for perhaps two hours now. She couldn't have left anytime before midnight, and it was dawn now. The training camp, upon consultation of the map, wasn't all that close to Erina's village. She checked her location, based on the two mountains to the north, and rode onwards. Part of her didn't ever want to reach the camp…perhaps she could go to the little southern village marked on the map and pass off as a refugee.

Erina shook the thought from her head and continued riding westward. She was going to see this through so that Felix could be safe. Grandmother, furious as she would probably be, would have to know what she had done; she'd have to understand so she could hide Felix.

Again, Erina shuddered. Felix would have to go outside in disguise, and Grandmother would have to pretend Erina had passed away from some sudden illness.

"Erina Corr is dead," murmured Erina to herself, disliking the way the words sounded on her tongue. "I am Felix Corr," she corrected herself, preferring the latter statement.

The horse rode obediently to the training camp, but a few minutes down the road. Erina tried desperately to steady her breath as she slowed the horse to a relaxed walk, dismounted and pocketed the map. A small sign was posted at the entrance to a forest, and the girl and the horse entered cautiously. She found quickly that the trees opened up into a clearing, with a small sign that read, Antrem Army. It was discreet, she knew; no one would want the Vihamies finding their training camp and invading. But no one had seemed to put any effort into constructing some sort of defensive wall.

An eerie sort of quiet spread over the empty camp as she wandered, noticing tents with a sign labelled 'sleeping quarters'. Different sparring rings and climbing walls and trailheads were scattered throughout. A big tent with the Antrem Kingdom seal suggested someone important stayed there. It was unsettling and the reality of everything smashed into her.

No choice now, Erina thought to herself. She was Felix, and the army needed Felix to show up. Everyone was in big trouble if she didn't follow through.

A madly barking dog rushed out of the large tent and made for Erina. Shocked, she took a step back. "Hey!" she exclaimed. "Easy…" Erina supposed she had never really been afraid of dogs—there were some living in her village—but when a big one came running out at her, she did feel nervous. Erina was an intruder here; by no means was she supposed to be at this camp.

"I am supposed to be here," she whispered. "I'm Felix."

A soldier—one of the two who had shown up at her house yesterday—came out into the yard, shushing the dog that was still barking at her feet. "Who are you?" he asked harshly, eyes narrowing. Perhaps he remembered seeing a silent blonde girl standing behind her grandmother yesterday? Erina ran a hand through her hair, still not entirely used to feeling it cut off around her ears. He could probably see straight through the breast band. She didn't have him fooled, did she? Her face and armpits grew hot.

"I said," the man glared contemptuously, "Who are you? What business have you here?"

"Uh," Erina said, then checked her voice so it was low-pitched, "Uh, I'm Felix Corr."

No, now her voice was too deep. She cleared her throat and continued. "You—I mean—some soldiers came to my house yesterday to pick me up. And my grandmother wouldn't let me go with you." And as an afterthought, "I brought your horse. See?"

"Yes…" the soldier said thoughtfully, "When I came to collect you yesterday, her kinship—your grandmother, I suppose—made it seem like you were pretty roughed up. You don't look so bad…actually, you look…well. It's of no concern."

Erina cursed herself internally for not having bloodied or bruised herself a little before entering. "Uh…she was lying. I wasn't too injured." She made a mental note to favour one leg for a while, at least. "She was just doting on me. I've got a limp and a…a small concussion, that's all. If I hadn't been asleep when you came, I would've gone."

The soldier raised an eyebrow but didn't question her. "Alright…you left in the dead of night, then, did you?"

"Um…yeah. Grandmother didn't want me going." Erina decided, last minute, to lay it on thick. "But I didn't see another option. Besides, I'm proud to fight for my kingdom, injured or not!"

Rolling his eyes a little, the soldier nodded. "Fine. Come with me."

As they walked, Erina made sure to favour her left leg a little. Left leg, left-handed; easy enough to remember. "Hey," the man said as they entered the big tent, "You have a sister?"

If only you knew, Erina thought bitterly, I am the sister. "Yeah," she said. "You may have seen her yesterday. That's her. My twin."

"Ah. Only I thought you looked familiar."

She exhaled a little; she had passed the first test. Even if it was a daunting soldier who had hardly glanced her way yesterday, it was a victory.

The main tent felt even larger on the inside; a table occupied most of its space and the ground was littered with sleeping men. Based on the one empty space, Erina supposed this was where all the soldiers and trainers slept. Her stomach stayed clenched in a knot.

"So," said the soldier, opening a large leather-bound book. Reading upside down, she saw only lists of names. He dipped a quill into an inkpot and flipped the pages. "You're checked in now." The man scribbled something beside the name Felix Corr. "You'll be given your supplies and a tent…it's only dawn, you have an hour before the morning run."

Erina had never run in her life. She shuddered inwardly. "Alright."

The soldier beckoned her forward. "Come with me." They went under a flap, into a back room stocked with supplies. The soldier went around, tossing her different items. "Blanket, change of clothes, bandages …" Erina hastily wrapped everything in her blanket. She was grateful for the large roll bandage; it would prove useful when she had to bind her chest. And perhaps she could use it during the time of the month…

"Actually, perhaps I could have another roll of bandage," said Erina quickly. "I have…a…a condition…I bleed easily."

"Fine," huffed the soldier. "Try to use the stuff sparingly. And do remember that if you're caught stealing from the back room, there's punishment waiting."

Erina nodded quickly and the soldier didn't wait before continuing. "We feed you three times a day with healthy food. You don't need to hoard or bother trying to steal it. You'll do as commanded without question. You'll go to the battlefield when asked. Cowardice is not met with kindness."

She couldn't help her gulp, but Erina knew she wasn't a coward. She had made it this far, hadn't she?

"I'll say, though, that we don't treat you badly here. And much of the front-lines fighting will be up to voluntary soldiers who have trained for years."

"What am I doing, then?" Erina asked, crinkling her nose.

Huffy Soldier—she couldn't think of another name for him—sighed once more. "It'll come to light, Corr. Defense, back-up fighting, that sort of thing. I'll give you a hint; you aren't likely going to be launching a high-scale invasion of Vihallen."

"Right." His words were not that consoling.

"Here," said Huffy Soldier. He took a scrap of paper from a table. "A map of the training camp. You're tent number six." They began walking out into the clearing.

Chale and Cadman couldn't be in that tent. If they were, it would all be over. Perhaps Erina could fool other people about being a boy—Grandmother sometimes said she looked too masculine for any man to take her as a wife—but people who had known her well in her village would see it, short hair and flat chest or not.

Cursing the fact that there was no casual way to ask who would be in her tent, Erina prayed to the gods above that she would not find her brothers—even Charlie might rat her out if her was shocked enough—and followed Huffy Soldier to the tents. Tent number six looked identical to all the other tents.

"There you are," said Huffy Soldier. "See you in…forty-five minutes, now. The bell will ring, to wake you. Get what sleep you can."

"Just great," Erina responded quietly, stomach rising in her throat as she opened the tent flap. She surveyed all of the sleeping bodies. It was a big tent, but not huge, with space for about ten people. Erina counted eight young men: two very small ones, a few regular sized ones, and two very large boys who had the bulk of trained soldiers, but clearly weren't.

No Chale. No Cadman. No Charlie. There wasn't even anyone she knew from her particular village. Erina exhaled deeply, finally able to breathe. She had to avoid her brothers and Charlie for a short amount of time; maybe if they were in different tents, but saw each other periodically during training, she could pass off as Felix. Her eldest brothers had never paid much attention to their younger counterpart. A glance in her direction wouldn't let anyone in on her secret, would it?

Erina arranged her blanket on the small layer of fabric that barely served as a mattress. At least she had a pillow too. She hadn't been given boots, and hoped that hers would serve as fine ones for running and training. She had, however, been provided with pants similar to the ones she had. She stuffed her extra clothes, bandages and toothpaste in the pillowcase. The map went in her pocket. Then Erina lay down on her makeshift bed, nauseous. She had seen the huge black sign-in book. There would be no escaping this.

A young boy lying beside her, with skin as pale as hers, a smattering of freckles across his round face, and carrot orange hair, began to stir. He looked like he could have been fourteen.

He groaned softly, rubbing his eyes and squinting at the sunlight that streamed through the canvas. Propped up on her elbows now, Erina waited for him to notice her. Last night, all that had been here was an empty bed.

The boy turned and noticed her sitting, waiting. He did a double take at the new face, staring her up and down. His mouth opened one, and closed.

Erina rolled her eyes when he didn't say anything. "Who're you, then?" she nodded towards him.

"Uh-" he was taken by surprise, his full cheeks a little pink. "Uh, I'm Pip."

She waited for him to elaborate, or perhaps ask who she was. When he didn't, Erina huffed and fell back on her lumpy pillow. He was still looking at her confusedly. She couldn't help feeling irritated by him.

"I'm Felix," Erina prompted him.

"Oh," said Pip. He nodded. "Felix."

"You gonna ask where I'm from or something?"

Pip shrugged, looking nervous, and Erina sighed. Perhaps she shouldn't have started off aggressive. "Where…where are you from?"


"No, no," interrupted Pip quickly. "I want to know if you were here last night. I don't remember…I thought our tent was one man short. And I had no one sleeping on my right."

Erina's lips twitched upwards. Now they were getting somewhere. "No," she replied. "I wasn't here last night. When the soldiers came to pick me up, I was asleep. Sick with a fever and concussion, right." She didn't mention her 'limp'. "And my Grandmother wouldn't give me up. I didn't know what was happening, course. So they tied a horse outside my house and gave Grandmother a map and said I had a day or something to come. She didn't want me leaving, but I went away in the night. 'Cause I knew I had to serve the kingdom."

Pip nodded at her explanation, but then he frowned. "Your Grandmother's probably sad you left her. Without telling, I mean."

If only you knew, kid, Erina thought humourlessly. Angry was more like it. "Maybe," she replied. "But it's better than getting in trouble with the army. They were intent on getting all the men they could."

"You'll get back to her," Pip said with a nod. "We all will."

Erina highly doubted that, but she didn't want to say anything. Pip seemed so innocent, bordering on naivety. "So…" she said, "What did I miss yesterday?"

Pip kept his voice quiet, as if he didn't want to wake the others. He was considerate, Erina realised. Actually, he seemed sort of kind. "Well…" he started hesitantly, "It started off, and we had to wait for everyone to arrive. Since my town is close to here, my group came first. And we got our stuff, our tents. No one really shares tents with their families. Mostly. Cause they said we would do things with this group. That is…everything. And so they separated people from their siblings and that. Because they said on the battlefield, they want us to fight for ourselves. Not sacrifice ourselves for our brothers. Or something ridiculous like that. I dunno… my friends," he halted, "They're not here. And I don't have any brothers."

Erina wanted to sing her praise and thanks and kiss the gods, but simply nodded. She could avoid Chale and Cadman long enough; until they were sent to the front, anyway.

"Thanks, Pip." Erina flopped back down on her pillow, cringing as her head hit a roll of bandage. It was easy to close her eyes and slip into sleep after an entire night of riding towards the unknown, but a second later, Pip was shaking her.

"Come on!" he hissed. "Morning run! You missed the bell."

She frowned. "Well, how long was I sleeping?"

"Bout twenty minutes. Let's go."

Erina gave a groan. She had been up all night, and the lack of sleep was catching up to her. The fact that she was at a rigorous training camp wasn't going to help. Erina knew she needed all the sleep she could get, or else she'd end up collapsing in battle or something equally embarrassing.

It was chilly outside the tent, but Erina had left her travelling cloak and swords balled up under her blanket. She wasn't going to need it during the run. Run. Erina let out a low groan. Though most people at the camp seemed to be in the same boat as Erina and Pip—skinny, just barely above the sickly look of the underfed—there were a few burly boys who she would mistake for trained soldiers any day.

"Greetings, men!" shouted none other than Huffy Soldier himself, looking strong and imposing in his uniform. Erina glanced around. They were a sizeable group—there could be easily a thousand of them, so she didn't see Chale or Cadman anywhere. Thank you, Gella, she spared a prayer for the life goddess.

"Your true training begins now. The morning run is a daily activity; your distance will increase by half a kilometre each day. Today you run five kilometres. The five people in the back will give me forty push-ups at the end of the race. If you find yourself falling behind me, who will bring up the rear, that's fifty push-ups at the end. Breakfast is afterwards."

People didn't make an effort to hide their clear distaste for the activity. Erina, though she said nothing, wanted to punch Huffy Soldier. How was she, a girl—a small one at that—supposed to beat grown men in a run?

Her only advantage was that the many of the other men probably hadn't run much in their lives. Erina envisioned a clean slate. She was Felix now. An untrained boy, just like the rest of them. Besides, who said females couldn't be strong? Surely there were boys of Erina's age that were much weaker and littler than her. Just because no one gave girls a chance to excel, didn't mean they couldn't. They led kingdoms in the south, didn't they?

Five kilometres isn't so long, Erina thought—though she had no idea how far a kilometre was. She then tried a stretch, reaching to touch her toes, and found she couldn't.

Huffy Soldier led them to a trailhead that had a little blue dot painted on a tree. "The man in the lead doesn't stray from the blue dot," said Huffy Soldier. "If he does, he'll do push-ups along with the five men in the rear. It's important to be able to read and understand directions."

Erina craned her neck around, unable to see Pip. Perhaps she'd scared him off. Dismissing the thought with a small shrug, she placed herself at the very head of the pack. She knew that she wouldn't be able to keep up—but every advantage was going to keep her from being found out. Erina wasn't interested in doing push-ups; she barely even knew what a push-up was.

"The trail is a loop," said Huffy Soldier. "So you should wind up where you began." A boy who Erina recognized from her tent nodded. He was a strapping sort of person, exactly the type who looked like he would win the run—the run that had now become a race.

"Well," Huffy Soldier called to the front, "You can begin any day now."

Erina and the other men started. She used her common sense for running; good posture, deep breaths, but this was no jog. The soldiers around her seemed to be moving quickly, as if they wanted to impress Huffy Soldier. Erina was already falling behind the person in front. Her brow furrowed.

Joke's on them, then, she thought to herself. They'll tire out and I'll speed ahead.

Running was much harder than Erina imagined. She had always thought she'd had good stamina, because she could whirl around with her dual swords for hours. At least, it felt like hours. But it took less than ten minutes for Erina's breathing to grow heavy and laboured. She tried to focus on anything but her thrumming heart and the burn that was blooming in her legs. The misty blue-grey sky. The evergreen trees. The dusting of powdery snow beneath her feet. Anything. It became useless, because whatever she tried to do, Erina's mind kept saying; it must have been at least four kilometres by now. It took a very short time for her to fall into the middle of the pack, and when they went up a hill, she tripped on a root. Even more people passed her. The pack found themselves turning more drastically, and Erina realized that this was where the loop occurred. They were probably barely half done. She allowed herself to glance backward, and found that she could see the back of the group. And the boy in the front, the one from her tent, wasn't even visible.

For a while, Erina managed to keep her pace near the back of the group, but not the very end. She was beginning to think this was ideal; after all, she wanted to draw as little attention to herself as possible. If anyone looked at her too closely, they might just…well, she didn't want to think about that. Regardless, it didn't take long for her breaths to grow ragged and for her to feel ready to vomit up last night's stew. Instinct told her they were nearing the camp, but like so many, fatigue was getting the better of Erina.

I must sprint at the end, she thought weakly, trying desperately to keep breathing. Otherwise I'll lose the race. She didn't want to do push-ups. There couldn't have been more than six or seven people behind her.

Light seeped through the forest, alluding to the clearing up ahead, and she knew the race was almost over. Good. She was stumbling, but she forced her legs—somehow, impossibly—to propel her forward. She didn't pass anyone, but maintained her position as she burst through the trees and back into the clearing. Erina heard Huffy Soldier's voice calling out to the five men who were to do forty push-ups now. Thank the gods he didn't call her. To her immense shock and relief, she found that she was the last one to make it without receiving the punishment.

Erina staggered into the woods to vomit, and thankfully, she wasn't the only one—though a few of the bigger boys were laughing at them. She was already beginning to despise a few people here.

There was a tub of icy water where people lined up to dip cups in and sip from, exhausted and grateful grins on their red faces. She surveyed the five men doing push-ups, and noticed Pip among them. His arms shook and his round face dripped with sweat. She felt a twinge of sympathy for the boy who wasn't meant to be here, but better him than her.

Breakfast came after the morning run. Since she hadn't eaten other than to swallow a few bites of stew, Erina was famished. She was disappointed to find in the dining hall—outdoor benches shrouded by a canopy—the only food offered was porridge and pomegranate seeds. Erina took her bowl, nodded thanks to the cook, and sat down at table 6. Curious, she looked around to see if she could spot Chale or Cadman. When she did, both far away from her, she sucked in a breath and put her head down.

To Erina's dismay, however, she wasn't alone for long. Two large boys—one of whom she recognized from her tent and the run—sat down across from her. She glanced around and saw Pip, face still red, taking his food in small spoonfuls.

The large boy scanned her face and sneered a little as Pip sat down beside her.

Erina was overcome with a surge of irritation. She saw judgment in his eyes as he surveyed her unacceptably delicate stature. "You looking at something?" she demanded, bothered by his rudeness. Beside her, she could feel Pip shuddering and shaking his head not so discreetly.

Big Boy snickered. "It's just that I don't remember you being here yesterday, runt. What's your name?"

"Felix," she spat, "and I got here this morning."

"You got a pretty girlie voice, Felix," Big Boy's companion noted. "You twelve years old?"

"I'm eighteen," corrected Erina, caving in her chest a little

Her tone of voice didn't really seem to bother Big Boy or his friend. Erina pursed her lips and waited for a response from either of them.

"Why'd you come late, Girlie?" Big Boy asked. "You too scared to go along with everyone else?"

Erina didn't answer him. She wasn't interested in saying she'd been injured. Besides, why would he laugh? Because she was more likely to die than he? "You got a name?" she asked.

"Sardona," Big Boy said, and then gestured to his left, "and Kelli."

Unable to help herself, Erina laughed, spitting out a bit of tasteless porridge. She pointed the dripping spoon at Kelli. "You're telling me that I'm girlie," she gasped, making a show of her amusement, "And you're name is Kelli? That's a girl's name if I ever heard one."

Kelli opened his mouth, but Erina wasn't done. She pointed to Sardona. "Now, Sardona," she said, "That sounds like sardine. Actually, it sounds girlie too. I can't believe it. I'm sorry you lot were granted with such unfortunate names."

"Hey Tiny," Kelli said to a silent Pip, "Your friend here's got a sharp tongue, eh?" Sardona glanced at his companion.

"Yeah," he said. "Tiny, tell Girlie to shut his mouth."

"He's right," Pip muttered, head ducked. "Be quiet, Felix."

But she was feeling cocky now, and Erina had never been good at quitting while she was ahead. She shook her head and shovelled porridge into her mouth. "You know," she sighed thoughtfully, "'You've got a sharp tongue' is just a stupid person's way of saying that I'm cleverer than you."

"Listen, Girlie," Kelli snarled, "I'll punch you out if you don't stop. No one will care."

Though she was tempted to bite back once more—Erina had a few choice words on her mind—she simply nodded and said, "Pity. I thought you'd have a better comeback than that."

With that, Erina went back to her porridge. Sardona and Kelli were fuming, but didn't say anything. Perhaps they didn't want to start a public brawl on the first day, which suited her just fine. Erina wouldn't last four seconds against either of them. In fact, she shuddered to think what sort of damage those boys could do to someone like her. It occurred to Erina that she might have to wrestle during her training, and was filled with a sense of dread. She—well, she did sign up for this, but she wasn't prepared to engage in a wrestling match.

Erina had barely finished breakfast when Huffy Soldier was calling, "Meal's over! Plates on the front table!"

"What's his name?" Erina asked Pip, leaning towards him.

Pip shrugged. "Captain Evans?"

She pursed her lips. "He doesn't look like a captain to me."

"What do captains look like, anyway?" asked Pip. "He's sort of in charge, I suppose."

"Come on!" Captain Evans called, waving everyone towards the door. Erina swung her legs around the bench, getting up to put her bowl away. Kelli, walking by, shoved roughly into her. Perhaps she deserved it, but Erina felt a surge of anger as she stumbled into the boy beside her and let her porridge bowl clatter to the ground..

To her horror, it was Cadman. She kept her head low as she snatched up her bowl. Thankfully, he didn't even notice her, just mumbled, "Watch where you're going," as he put his bowl on the countertop.

Erina's breath shook as she stepped aside.

She wasn't actually sure what would happen if her gender were discovered; what could they do? It seemed hard to imagine that they would actually kill her, but the king was famous for his harshness and constant killing of those who defied him; she wouldn't put it past them. At least, Erina knew that she would be harshly sent back to Adara, and Felix would be punished for her actions. And Grandmother, though neither of them had asked for her to go.

It was simple; she wouldn't be found out.

Once everyone was out in the yard, Captain Evans spoke. "Today we commence our proper training. It will go in rotations of one hour per station, with lunch at twelve-thirty. Tent One will start at Station One and so on. Each station will focus on a different aspect of training. Training occurs regularly, every day. Simple enough. One hour free time in the evenings. Dinner at nine, then bed."

Erina exhaled deeply and shook her arms loose. There were at least five people in this place who were in worse shape than she was. Say she trained hard. Woke up extra early to train—push-ups and the like. She could catch up. Erina could do it. Maybe she wasn't strong physically—yet—but she was mentally.

Station Six was at the far end of the camp. Erina felt a little relieved to know that it was sprinting: that would be easy, short bursts. Erina was pretty sure she was quick; at least, her speed had to be better than her stamina.

A soldier, someone other than Captain Evans, was waiting at the station. He looked a little younger and had a softer look to his face. Still, when the group assembled, he said nothing other than, "Wind sprints. One at a time. I will count your speed. Run from one wood block to the next, there and back three times. You'll be expected to improve, if not at least marginally, by the time the hour is up. How fast you run may well make the difference between life and death if you're trying to escape from an enemy. Line up, please."

Erina had no reason to be particularly nervous, not now. She wasn't expected to fight anyone. She didn't need to prove her superior climbing skills. Wind sprints were something Felix Corr would be able to handle: Felix was fast. But she wondered if he had been good at climbing, or popular around the tiny Adara training camp, or if he liked to use a bow and arrow. She knew barely anything about him. The realization made Erina feel strange. Most of her interaction with her brothers was to feed them supper, make a few idle jokes, play cards. They didn't talk.

But it was like that in all households, surely?

Sardona was the first to try the wind sprints. Erina, though she knew he was supposed to be her fellow soldier couldn't help being pleased that he was slow. If she could beat him, she would be happy.

Kelli was quicker than his friend, and he looked at Erina smugly as he finished his sprint. Pip wasn't impressive. There were a few average, unimpressive people who preceded Erina and a little black-haired boy who flew like the wind.

The army officer waved her forward. She took a deep breath and began, running at her full speed.

The blocks weren't all that far apart, but by the time she had run there and back three times, quickly as she could make her legs move, she was winded. She wasn't as fast as she thought she could be. Today had been a day of revelations, and running was surprisingly difficult.

"Not bad," said the army officer. "Twenty-one seconds."

Sardona had been worse than her and Kelli had been better. The black-haired boy—whose feet carried him like wings on a bird—got a better time than anyone.

Erina's time didn't improve in the second round. It's my strategy, she convinced herself. If I give the trainer low standards now, I'll impress him by improving later on.

Pip struggled even more than Erina, though. It was hard not to feel sorry for him. It was hard to imagine him gripping a sword, fighting for his life.

In the next station they scaled a climbing wall with few footholds and no ropes to support themselves. Ten feet up, Erina fell, and a dull pain seeped through her back. She groaned, but climbing proved much easier than running. It was nice to be good at something. For once.

When it was time to wrestle, her nervousness mounted again.

"Your primary focus will be learning to work with weapons," the burly army officer explained. "But there will be a time when you find yourself weaponless, and on the battlefield, you must at least be able to knock a man unconscious. Wrestling skills could differentiate between life and death." He strode back and forth in front of them. "Because in real life, you won't be able to decide your opponent's size, no one will get to decide their opponents here. They will be chosen at random."

He demonstrated several simple moves and forms with an average sized boy: how to stand, how to guard yourself, how to block a punch without being hurt. Erina knew her size would be both a disadvantage and an asset; she just had to learn how to use her strengths. She imprinted every tip for small fighters into her brain. Who knows, even if Erina got pummelled here, she might stand a chance in the battlefield. Maybe.

Sardona and Kelli were called up first. Their match lasted long and Sardona was sweating hard when he pinned Kelli down. Erina wrung her hands nervously. She wouldn't make it out of this sort of situation alive, not in a real war.

Pip and the swift boy fought next—Pip was no match for his quick opponent, who dodged and twirled with incredible grace and ease—then a short stocky boy and a lanky one, and then the soldier said, "You on the end there, and you…Blondie. Sitting in the middle."

Erina ran a nervous hand through her blonde hair, still not accustomed to its length. She stood up, hands sweating, sizing up the boy before her. The adjective she came up with was 'wiry'.

He's not going to hurt me, she thought desperately. This boy is just as afraid of me as I am of him. They stood before each other, no one throwing a punch, until Erina lunged out of impatience. She clipped his jaw, but the wiry boy was fast, and managed to miss most of the blow. Erina whirled around to face him; ready to dodge anything he threw at her. The soldier's advice rang in her ears. Don't leave yourself vulnerable. Stay low; it keeps you rooted and makes getting a shot in difficult for your opponent. Tripping is very effective.

Erina almost caught the wiry boy at one point. There was a lot of skirting around each other, a couple dodges and several sloppy punches and kicks, but eventually, he left himself open for an attack. She snapped at her opportunity. Erina got him in a headlock for a moment, before he elbowed her hard in the stomach and she doubled over. Seizing his chance, the wiry boy pushed her to the ground. She hit the rocks with a grunt of pain, and scrambled to get up, but it seemed her time was over. Wiry boy pinned her down, and though, and flailing her arms around did nothing to help.

"Alright!" said the trainer, gesturing to her. "Blondie, you're sloppy," he assessed. "Follow my instructions next time, and perhaps you'll do fine."

"I did follow them," Erina said bitterly, but he didn't hear her. Kelli guffawed as she walked by.

"You lost too," she said venomously, disappointment coursing through her. The small shard of success she felt at the top of the climbing wall had been short-lived.

The other stations were harder than wrestling, for other reasons. They did variations of sit-ups, planks and push-ups until Erina's stomach burned and begged for relief. Her and Pip, though they sat beside each other, didn't talk. They were too busy gasping for breath. At another station, Erina worked her arms. She rolled a small boulder up a hill, helped her teammates lift a log, and waded through waist-deep mud holding rocks in her hand while the trainer counted her time. It was a relief to reach the weaponry station.

Captain Evans waited for them. He went through each would-be soldier individually, assessing them and asking questions. Sardona and Kelli were given spears and broadswords. The wind-fast boy got throwing knives to train with.

Evans came up to Erina. "You used any weapons before, boy?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Dual swords," responded Erina proudly, "I brought them."

"Dual swords, Captain," said Captain Evans. "Alright, get to your tent and bring them here."

"Yes, Captain," she said, eager to be doing something right. It took a short moment to dash back to the tent with a painted 6 on the door and take Poke and Jab—the name six-year-old Erina had given to her father's swords—and return to the weaponry circle.

"Here," he offered, taking the swords and unsheathing them. "This is the basic grip, and the basic starting position."

It took only a few minutes for the captain to demonstrate a wide variety of blocks and slashes and patterns that she would never remember, and Erina couldn't help feeling as though she was starting from scratch. No one had ever spared the time to teach her these things before.

Free time, as it turns out, was actually chess, for sharpening the mind. She was horrible at chess, losing both of the games she played

Her stomach was screaming when dinner rolled around, and the meal of brown rice and tiny hunks of meat was not exactly satisfying. It quelled the fire in her stomach, though.

When Captain Evans bid everyone goodnight, Erina's eyes drooped. Her arms were sore, her legs were sore, her back was bruising from the fall, and her stomach ached. When she finally collapsed in her clothes on her bed, Erina felt a kaleidoscope of emotions—fear, pride, uncertainty, doubt, fatigue. She realised though, with the knowledge that Felix had been saved, that she did not feel a drop of regret.

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