Copyright Cormac Doyle © 2015

Edited by Peter Rudin-Burgess for The Guild Companion

"In the end, it was her ability to out-think the other challengers that won her the apprenticeship."

Aine astride a horse.

Artist: Stephen Youll

"Enough now. Break for supper. The sun is setting and so should we!"

Conchobar always sounded gruff, but he was one of the respected champions of the clan, and it was a great honor to be trained by him. Ciaran and Ailbhe, the twin sons of clan chief Daithe, were always assured of his attention, but when Áine had first stood forward in the tests, there were many of the clan who had felt that she was taking a place that their son should have. Conchobar only took four students. For Áine to merit a place as one of his apprentices, she had to win in a series of trials that tested their speed, agility, strength and endurance but in the end, it was her ability to out-think the other challengers that won her the apprenticeship.

Now, she walked with the other students, each aching from hours of practice. No champion practiced swordsmanship with a metal blade - they were too expensive, too easily damaged for such misuses; so instead, they learned the wooden practice swords that transmitted every blow, every parry through the grip and into the very marrow of her bones. Sword play had been this afternoon's lesson ... but this morning they had been sparring with spear and shield before practicing their archery skills.

They were all becoming proficient in each discipline, although it was obvious that each of the four excelled at a different skill. Skill with her bow was Áine's greatest strength; while the twins vied for mastery of the sword and spear. Oisín, her cousin, was an accomplished swordsman, but his skill with the javelin was unsurpassed.

The meal was eaten in silence. Conchobar was adamant that arguments and debates were settled in the training yard and they rarely had any energy for banter when the shadows grew long and the night closed in. Whereas mealtimes in any other home in the village would be a sociable time as the tales of the day were told and discussed Conchobar's apprentices shared each moment and none of it needed to be rehashed. As he was wont to tell them - A champion's tale was for a bard to compose, not for the champion to boast about.

After the meal, Áine helped clean up as they all did, before withdrawing to her cot. Clearing her mind much as she shut off the sights and muffled sounds of her fellow students but closing the curtain behind her, she knelt and whispered her recurring prayer:

Beidh na scáthanna den Aoife a neartú dom!

Sleep comes easily to the tired but it is often morning that seems to arrive before time. The morning bell woke her from a dream where she was standing before Aoife herself, the greatest of the Scáthanna.

A foolish dream. Morning is here, and with it, our run.

Dressing quickly, she joins Oisín and the twins in the yard. A five mile run before breakfast was how each day had started for them since mid-summer's day when their training had begun and today was no different.

They set out together. As always, the twins spent the first four miles trying desperately to out-strip each other, while Oisín and Áine kept pace and saved their energy. Then the last mile turned into a thrilling race across the rocky shore exposed by the tides. This morning it was Oisín feet that first crossed the gate to their training grounds followed soon afterwards by Áine. The twins were almost a minute slower and bickering as always over the pushing and shoving they indulged in on these morning runs.

"You'll stop that bickering if you want to eat!"

Áine's reminder stopped their argument moments before Conchobar walked out to them. Facing their master, she didn't see the glares she got from the twins, but their hi-jinks could cost them all their breakfast, and had before.

"Breakfast is ready inside, unless someone wants to begin sparring practice right now?" With a pointed glance at the now silent twins, Conchobar waves them in to eat, delaying for a moment at the door to watch the clouds scurry across the morning sky.

They had finished their meal and perhaps an hour into their sparring practice when a shout from the village aroused their attention.

"One of the horses has gotten loose again". Ailbhe snorted at Ciaran's quip, but when Eoghan stumbled through the gate the humor quickly drained away.

"Raiders ... the village ... they are killing everyone!"

His breathing was ragged and labored, and he collapsed before they could get any more information from him. The back of his tunic was torn and bloody, and the students as one looked to their master for guidance.

"Ailbhe - you and I will take the bronze swords. The rest of you take spears and javelins. It looks like today is no day for friendly sparring".

Donning armor is a slow and laborious process. Instead, the students simply picked up their shields, some spears and javelins, while Conchobar fetched the two good swords and the shield and helm he wore on ceremonial occasions, and they set out quickly towards the village.

As they approached, they could see several raiding ships pulled up along the beach on either side of the village and the raiders were now moving from house to house dragging the occupants out and ransacking the village.

"Burn their boats; kill any who stand in our way. They will flee if they see the boats burning!" Conchobar's logic was easy to understand but each of them had friends and family in the village. But arguing was not going to happen. The five of them ran towards the nearest of the boats hoping to encounter some raiders on the way.

The first couple of encounters were short and vicious and over before they began. The raiders were chasing the last of the villagers and were not expecting a fight. The appearance of armed champions would have been shocking but to suddenly fall with a javelin in their guts was even more so.

The third encounter, beside the closest of the raider's ships, was a different affair. Approaching the ship they could see two raiders on guard. The two appeared inattentive so Ailbhe and Ciaran tried to sneak close enough to attack but a third guard on board the ship saw the twins as they crept in and raised a hew and a cry and this time battle was joined. The raiders were armed with long axes and hauberks of iron and their shields turned aside the first flurry of javelins. Battle was met five on three and the outcome was never in doubt but Áine was sorely wounded with a blow to her leg that meant she could no longer fight.

"Go find the healer's apprentice. Devlin sent him to gather herbs this morning. He can help us when he comes." Conchobar's raised finger stopped her objection before she could even start.

"You can barely walk on that leg. If you stay here the raiders will get you. If you follow us we will be slowed down and fail or be captured. Devlin will have been captured already. It is his apprentice who can help you now!"

With a final glance back the four men hurried away towards the village to bring the fight to the raiders, while Áine could just watch and limp away in pain towards the woods where she could elude capture until she could meet up with her cousin Conn.