Chapter 4:


The Hero's Shadow

On the following morning, Manfred woke up just as the sun was rising and slipped out of the room before Roland got up. He wanted to go for a run, as he had started doing most mornings under Graham’s direction, but he wanted to go alone. He assumed that Roland would desire to join him when he found out about the habit.

It was strange for him to awaken in a stationary bed surrounded by four solid walls. He relished the luxury and determined that soon he would set aside a day to sleep in for several hours when he had no classes.

There were a number of other students leaving the dormitory to exercise at dawn. He supposed that there was probably one at least who had risen long before and set out into the darkness. Some set off jogging in groups, Manfred started off on his own. Some used a path inside the fence and ran around the academy’s yard, others went out to run around Central Park, and he left the park to run through the streets of the city.

He was used to weaving around trees and charging through underbrush, but now the only obstacles were shopkeepers preparing for the day and the early crowd of businessmen stalking along the sidewalks.

He ran, putting all thoughts from his mind and pushing himself at the balancing point between speed and exhaustion.

When he returned, Roland was sitting at the table with a book spread out before him. A look of intense concentration occupied his face. Several minutes elapsed before he acknowledged Manfred’s presence.

“I forgot to ask about it last night; which schedule do you have for classes?”

“History today, enchanting tomorrow, gymnasium, mathematics.”

Roland nodded along, then stated cheerily that he was on the same schedule. Manfred wondered if the farmer’s son was educated well enough to be useful as a study partner. He left his roommate to his reading to go shower before their first class.

The first year history course was taught by Graham Aimar in a large lecture hall on the top floor of the main building. When Roland and Manfred arrived, he noticed from the number of people in the room that some of the upperclassmen appeared to have returned to sit in on the class. It wasn’t surprising, considering Graham’s charisma and the respect he was given as a historian and archaeologist. Only a few seats remained by that point.

Graham sat at his desk ignoring the crowd to quickly hammer away at a typewriter. It looked as though a portion of a museum had been dumped out around him on the desk. The time came for class to start, but he said nothing and continued typing. Finally, having seemed to notice what was happening around him once more, Graham pulled out a textbook from the mess at hand. Still with one hand on the typewriter, he held the volume aloft. A matching book was set out on each student’s desk.

“This book is considered a prime selection for world history courses at scholarly colleges. Flip through it for a few minutes, and then I want you all to pick out which section you each think is the most important to study.”

The older students smiled knowingly while the freshmen leafed through the texts in front of them confusedly. Manfred was already used to exercises like this which were part and parcel of Graham’s method. After some time, their teacher rose from his chair and walked to the front of the classroom. He surveyed the faces of the students, looking for someone with whom to begin.

“You there, what did you select?”

The boy to whom he’d pointed said with confidence, “The chapter on the Roman Republic.”

“Why? Justify your choice.”

“Well our society is essentially a continuation of that culture mixed with some other European cultures conquered by the Church of Mithras, right?”

Graham nodded slowly.

“Raise your hand if you also picked that chapter.”

A number of hands went up.

“Now, raise your hand if you picked the chapter on the Greeks. You, back there, why did you pick the Greeks instead of the Romans?”

“That same argument applies to Romans from the Greek influence on them. The Aeneid even claims that the Romans can be traced back to Trojans resettling after the Trojan War, so reading about the culture from which the Homeric epics emerged is important,” the student replied.

Manfred suppressed a smile. He knew that his mentor wouldn’t reject such answers outright, but there was clearly some trick he had for the exercise.

“I see. Is that kind of influence the only thing that could make a culture vitally important to study? Who else has a different idea?”

He ended up selecting a short, but rather vicious looking student who projected a strong aura of virya along with his voice as he said, “Look at the Mongols. They get a rather small part in the textbook, but don’t you think they are the best example of what is expected of us? They didn’t make their mark with extensive works on science and philosophy; they aren’t known for their grand architecture; we respect them as unparalleled conquerors.”

“But that means we’d be better off studying their tactics and the sagas of their warriors with Master Herrington instead of looking at their history here,” another person interjected. “The British Empire has control over a much greater part of the world than the Mongols ever had and they’ve done it not just through force of arms but also by spreading the grand culmination of those Roman and Greek influences the others have mentioned.”

Graham remained quiet as discussion broke out among the men. The debate went back and forth, around and back again, as factions vied to make the best argument for their selection. Finally, the historian raised his hands to calm the students who had become excited almost to the point of fighting. He indicated Roland, who had remained on the sidelines the entire time, and asked about his choice.

“I chose the chapter on the monarchy of these United States,” he said, drawing a chill hush over the room. “While the Civil War altered the political system so that the federation of state governors replaced the king and we seceded from the British Empire, not much else has really changed from what was established during the monarchy, I think. After Lucan di Verona was brought in by the British to defeat the Revolutionaries, he still implemented many of the reforms they’d demanded after taking the colonies as his prize in the form of a client kingdom.”

The teacher headed off any dissent from the students, many of whom probably came from families who had joined the Lord Governors in revolt, by stating, “That’s a fair point. It wasn’t the governors who changed the colonies into the states. Even this school was founded during the era of the monarchy and was originally called the Men’s Royal Knight Academy, as I’m sure you all know.”

Whispered debates scattered across the room along with antipathy toward Roland. Manfred couldn’t fault his roommate for the choice, certainly it was as important to their understanding of themselves as the Hellenes and Latins, but it was idiotic to say as much publicly.

“Okay then, let’s get one last opinion. Mister Fehl, what do you have for me?”

He had assumed this was coming and recited his prepared answer calmly, “This section here: the authors’ introduction. The information found in all the following chapters can’t be trusted if you can’t trust the authors of the textbook. If they are biased, or just plain ignorant, then your view of everything will be skewed if you take their words at face value, so you have to evaluate them first of all.”

That answer drew a flurry of whispers as well, but these were quickly drowned out by Graham’s laughter.

“You’re on the right track, but you haven’t taken it far enough,” he said with a chuckle. He waited a few moments to build suspense. “What are you going to do if the authors aren’t up to your standards? How would you even be able to tell that they’re wrong if they don’t make it obvious? Here! The bibliography. With this guide, you can check every bit of information they’ve put in the text, and every bit they’ve left out. You can evaluate the authors of the sources they’ve used for that insidious error of bias. Or, you can figure out where to look if you decide you want to start learning more about the people and events that interest you most.”

Graham set the book down atop a pile of others, all of which were included in the works cited by the text. The room remained silent.

“If you learn one thing from me, it’s going to be how to do your research. There are two ways to pass this class. You can pass all the tests drawn from the material in this textbook, or you can turn in a report on a topic branching off from it. To that end, I’ve made sure that each book referenced by the authors of this text is in the academy’s library. Of course, there are hundreds of other texts covering all sorts of things as well.”

With that concluded, he launched into a self-introduction for those few who didn’t know who he was and then began explaining his view on why their study of history at the academy was important. It was nothing Manfred hadn’t heard the man rant about before around the campfire. He specifically pointed out that those who had studied history closely weren’t blindsided by the breakout of the Great War, and that these people were not under the same illusion as those who claimed that the monstrous destructiveness of that war had taught humanity a lasting lesson on the value of peace.

When he was finished, he dismissed the class for the week. The students began to file out of the room, Manfred noticing that many were not only giving hateful looks toward Roland as they passed but that some of these were directed at him as well. However, the upperclassmen seemed different, a few clapping him on the shoulder as they passed by. He figured that these fans of Graham’s favored him as he was one of those chosen by that knight.

Manfred turned to Roland and commented, “Let’s go into the city for lunch.”

Sensing hesitation from his roommate, he offered to pay. The other admitted that he was planning to save as much of his student’s stipend as he could to send back home. It was a consideration few of their peers would ever have to make. The two walked from the park to a cafe Manfred had spotted during his morning run. A lunch time crowd gathered at the restaurant forcing them to wait a short while to get a table.

While standing around, Manfred weighed how to handle his roommate. He had thought to make the boy an ally, and Roland certainly seemed to desire friendship, but it had become a matter of balancing what he stood to gain from their relationship against what he would lose being associated with someone who went around making faux pas such as praising the old monarchy. That they were both commoners would only add to the negative milieu surrounding them. He decided to probe a bit further.

“Do you realize the sort of mistake you made today?”

Roland answered without hesitation, “I’m not terribly concerned with the opinions of others. Maybe they can make things harder for me, but that won’t stop me. They aren’t capable of stopping me.”

“What about the people around you who might get into trouble when you charge ahead without tact?”

He didn’t answer, at least not for some time. Once they had gotten a table, Roland eventually replied.

“I see what you mean. My first instinct was to declare that I’d simply make up for that with my own two hands, but it’s not like I can force open the doors of society as if they were actual doors,” he said with a smile. “I suppose I will have to learn some manners along with everything else. But there are some things on which I will never compromise.”

Manfred sipped his coffee while considering the response. He wondered just how strong willed his roommate was, if he really could back up what he said. To some extent, it seemed they had similar views of the world. He considered himself an enemy of the world because he recognized the tyrannical, abusive nature of society and wanted to avoid being devoured. Roland, however, was an enemy of the world because he held himself to a higher standard and would not back down from it. But he hadn’t taken the time to think through the consequences, not in full at least.

“Tell me, how does a farmer gain such an appreciation for a knight’s honor?” Manfred asked, genuinely curious.

“Some of my ancestors were knighted. We’re talking during the era of the monarchy, that long ago. I grew up hearing stories of the past, and once I could read I started on all the old books we had laying around. One time I found a chest with some scraps of armor that hadn’t been sold off yet. For a few days I ran around doing all my chores with a makeshift suit of plate armor.”

Roland stopped his story to finish his sandwich.

He continued, holding back laughter, “But part of my armor was made from pots and pans so my folks put a stop to that. In any case, that’s how I gained this interest. Instead of being raised on fairy tales, I had stories about the glorious knights of the past and I never grew out of them.”

He stopped there, but Manfred could detect that there was something else that had been left unsaid. Feeling that he needed to trade something for the answer he’d already been given, Manfred drained his cup and started speaking in a low voice.

“My father was a student at the academy. The members of the Fehl line have been knights for many generations. Toward the middle of his third year, he met a woman who was a student at the school beyond the woods. She was arranged to marry my uncle, but she and my father fell in love. They eloped, moving to Chicago before either had graduated. Both families were furious, not just because the marriage arrangement was ruined but also because of the scandal of it all. Also…” he trailed off his speech, checking to make sure Roland was following.

His roommate was leaning forward most of the way over the table in order to hear over the other conversations in the cafe.

Manfred went on with a tone that was increasingly as bitter as the coffee they’d been drinking, “When they were leaving, my uncle confronted them, tried to stop my father with the intent to kill. My father had to maul him pretty badly to get him to back down. Because of that, my uncle was too injured to compete in the rest of his matches; he failed to graduate. He at least got to keep some of the privilege of being the son of a noble, but my mother and father were disowned by their families.”

He considered the young man across from him and asked, “Your father, he was exempted from the draft because he’s a farmer, right?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Roland said. He scrutinized Manfred closely. “You don’t!”

He nodded.

“As a commoner, my father was drafted and went off to Europe as an ordinary soldier even though he’d probably have beaten many of the knights sitting behind the front lines waiting for duels. He met the same fate as so many others in the trenches,” Manfred said with enough emotion in his voice that Roland needed only a little imagination to begin to understand how he viewed the world.

“That…” he started before breaking off, unsure what words were appropriate. Roland was aware that ordinary condolences and pity were sure to be things that Manfred hated.

They sat in silence for a while with the noise of the lunch rush at the small cafe ebbing and flowing around them. The taller boy, used to being the center of attention in a small community where everyone knew and was on friendly terms with each other, experienced for the first time a sense of isolation that emanated from Manfred. The tide of life crashed against him like storm surge breaking around a jagged rock, whirling and churning against the rest of the sea. Roland sat enveloped in the deadly calm, feeling unsettled and small.

The spell was broken when the sound of a chair clattering against the floor resounded through the room. All heads turned to see what was happening. Two men stood at a table where an elderly gentleman had been sitting. He was now sprawled out across the floor, having been dumped from his chair by the men. Sensing that their actions were now under scrutiny, one of the two spoke to the crowd.

“This peasant was refusing to turn over his table to us. As knights we’re taking what is ours by right.”

The men were dressed well, but there was a clear martial edge to their outfits. The one who had spoken wore a sword at his hip. Knowing that it would do him no good, the older man remained quiet as he tried to pick himself up. Before he could rise, one of the men took his plate off the table and dumped what was left of his lunch over him.

Another chair clattered loudly as Roland leapt up and started toward the men.

“What’s with that look, kid?”

Instead of responding with words, Roland threw a fast right hook that caught the sword-bearing man hard and unprepared. He would have fallen onto the old man if not for the student catching him and holding him upright until he regained his balance. The knight swung wildly at Roland who swiftly ducked out of the way.

Manfred stalked across the room as the two brawled. He could feel virya beginning to surge from the sword-bearer as his strikes became more serious. What amazed him was that Roland continued to thrash the man without augmenting his own movements. It was clear that Roland was large and well-muscled, but to out-fight a knight without even sharpening his senses was impressive. Not that the sword-bearing knight particularly impressed him. He was the disgusting sort of low tier noble who hid behind his status to bully those who weren’t even allowed to fight back.

The room cleared of patrons so that the dance between the two fighters could continue.

“You students, who do you think you are!?” The sword-bearer shouted in frustration.

The academy’s uniforms made them instantly recognizable.

The other knight, who had remained at the sidelines, added encouragement to his partner by saying, “It looks like he needs to be taught a lesson. Use your Swiftshadow!”

Stepping back to create space, the belligerent knight went for his sword. Roland followed unrelentingly and clapped his hand down on its hilt to prevent the man from unsheathing it. As they struggled, the other fellow casually walked toward them while manifesting his own ergaleion. With a dull flash, a small axe appeared in his hand.

Manfred shadowed the axe wielding knight, preparing to dive into the melee while still withholding his own weapon. He didn’t want to show it in public if possible, but he was also quite ready to exercise the vitriol that had recently been stirred up by the conversation with Roland. He willed the knight to raise his axe, daring him to provoke a response.

Just as the axeman tensed his muscles, a strange glare stole Manfred’s vision for a split second. He feared that this was some effect of the opponent’s weapon and his blood ran cold in that instant, but immediately it was apparent that something else had occurred. Another student wearing their uniform had appeared at the center of the skirmish.

A beautiful saber rested at the sword-bearer’s neck.

It shone even inside the cafe owing to its composition which looked like polished glass or crystal. The youth wielding it was equally captivating with shimmering blonde hair that caught the light in much the same way as the blade. Seeing his face in profile, framed by a shaggy mane of golden hair, Manfred could only think that this was a statue of a gorgeous hero which had walked out of an ancient Greecian temple.

“I believe this situation can be resolved peaceably, but I’m prepared to prosecute it to a more violent end if you disagree,” the stranger said with a raspy voice barely more than a deadly whisper.

The two knights and Roland all stepped back, their fighting intent banished entirely. Manfred had kept himself coiled, ready to spring on the axe wielding knight, and this drew a raised eyebrow from the newcomer. He let out a long breath and relaxed his posture. The glittering saber swung away from the knight and returned to its sheath.

“You might think it an outrage to be treated this way by mere students, but to be involved in an unsightly event like this is no better for the academy’s reputation,” The interloper said with the same chilling tone. “Still, I think it would be worse for you to go around whining about having been pummeled by a child, so why don’t we all just forget what happened here.”

With graceful disdain, the stranger motioned for the two knights to leave, then he turned the same motions on Roland and Manfred to herd them from the cafe. Roland looked like he wanted to say something, but kept his mouth shut. Manfred simply complied. He had sensed in this other student something which frightened him. It was not ill intent residing in the depths of the blonde; he felt profound capability as a fighter gathered there. If he had been a coiled spring a few moments ago, this one had been a loaded cannon.

When they were outside, the stranger departed with a brusque farewell and a demand that they return to the school in haste.

“Do you know who that was?” Roland asked after regaining some of his composure.

Manfred shook his head.

“That was Volta Avarra; he’s something of a legend at the academy, and around town. He’s one year older than us and in his first year he went completely undefeated as a duelist.”

“Is that so?”

“Master Aimar never mentioned him?”

Another shake of his head.

“Volta was mentored by him too.”

Manfred didn’t think it was surprising that Graham had never brought up the topic. After all, how many people must he have tutored over the years? He had only ever discussed a few of them and only when there was some instructive point to be made. Now the potency of Volta’s presence made more sense though. The other three had stopped fighting as soon as he’d appeared because they knew about his reputation.

As they walked back to the school, Roland spoke at length about having come to the city the year prior to watch duels at the arena. Volta was apparently the most awe inspiring of all of their upperclassmen. Manfred did not need to have it spelled out for him because it was so apparent from the enthusiasm with which his roommate spoke. Even still, it wasn’t long before the topic started to shift to other students he had watched, and then to the tournaments for fully fledged knights.

The one point of interest that came out from the discussion was that Volta had won every match at the academy, but had turned down all of the special invitations to tournaments that were the reward for those who excelled at the school. Manfred wondered why such a fearsome warrior would do such a thing, but then he realized that he would likely decline as well unless some extraordinary prize awaited him. 

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