The stone circle dug into the hill next to it, holding flat as the ground rose around it, so that the whole thing had the feel of a theater. Tall grass rose on the other side in a swaying green backdrop. The path leading up to the circle stayed straight like the aisle between seats. The breeze smoothed small sounds away, hushing the audience.
Toar came to a stop just outside the circle, motioning for Jaera to pass him. She stepped over the line, holding his gaze questioningly. On his other side, Branten pushed his apprentice, Royse into the circle. Royse spun around to face him, suspicious.
“Which of you can tell me where you are?” Branten asked, quick, before Royse could open his mouth.
Royse and Jaera glanced at each other. Jaera turned slowly back to Toar. Royse shrugged.
“Back side of the world’s arse?” he asked, peevishly.
Branten stared at him, shaking his head. “That doesn’t even exist.”
“It took four hours to get here!” Royse returned.
Toar tried not to laugh at the dumbfounded look Jaera gave him out of the corner of her eye.
“Do you remember how to get home?” Branten asked.
“No,” Royse said.
“Then shut your mouth and listen, or I’ll make sure it takes twice as long to get back.”
Royse clamped his lips together. Jaera looked like she swallowed her back teeth to keep from snorting.
“You’re in a sparring circle,” Branten told them, splitting his attention between both apprentices again. “Probably the oldest one on this island, and the farthest away from anything anyone cares about, which means the two of you can make any prodigious mistake you care to make, and won’t hurt anyone but yourselves.”
“And you,” Royse said.
Branten glared at him. “You think I got this old without the ability to protect myself from the untrained hands of a couple of sixteen year olds?”
Royse looked at Jaera. Jaera was looking at the deep groove that ran around the outside of the circle.
“The rules are simple,” Branten continued. “You can do anything you want inside the circle. You win as soon as you knock the other person down. You can seriously hurt each other if you want, but it’s a waste of time. Understood?” Branten was looking at Royse again.
“Take your places,” Toar said, nodding out to the center of the circle.
Royse took the escape route, and stomped off.
Toar grabbed Jaera by the shoulder before she could follow. She let him hold her where she was, resting back on her heels. Looking up at him, she leaned in for what she assumed was going to be a private conversation.
“Different rules for you,” Toar murmured. Branten was close enough to hear if he wanted to, but the breeze was doing a good job of hushing his voice. “I know you can beat him in a blink. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for you. I want you to stay on your feet as long as you can.”
Eyes narrowing, she tilted her head. “All right…” she said slowly.
“Stay in one place, while you’re at it,” Toar said.
She looked at him sharply.
“Too difficult?” Toar asked. He gave her a thin smile.
She hesitated. “No,” she said, grudgingly.
She waited for him to take his hand down, then walked carefully out to meet Royse. He was shuffling against the stone, stretching his shoulders, rolling his arms backward and forward, getting ready. She stopped a dozen feet in front of him, hands down at her sides, spine relaxed, and set her feet.
“It must be nice,” Branten said, stepping in shoulder to shoulder with Toar. He crossed his arms over his chest.
“What?” Toar asked him.
“Oh, having the good apprentice,” Branten told him, eying Royse. “The one that follows orders without arguments. Doesn’t spend an hour trying to get the last word.”
Toar watched Jaera turn toward him, and very deliberately tuck one foot up behind the other ankle, off the ground. Toar shook his head.
“It’s fantastic,” Toar muttered.
And then he had to turn away as the first flash of blue-white flared between the apprentices. Great fluid spouts of ice-white air rolled off Royse’s hands, wove toward Jaera and disappeared in a clear circle around her.