Naomi sat on a bench to one side of the training hall, staring hard at her boots. It was her third day of official training in Chloris Garrison, and she had been excited about this for years now. Master Gerrard had been teaching her himself since she was six, but now at the age of twelve, she had yet to test her lessons against other opponents. Naomi had worked hard under his tutelage, to make him and her mother proud, but also to grow up strong so she could protect others. She had never beaten him at anything so far except for archery, and now starting her official training to become a Knight, she was ready to see how she measured up.
The only other people her age she knew were Adrienne, who wasn’t allowed to use weapons, and Tristan, who she wasn’t supposed to be friends with. It had been both nerve-wracking and thrilling to finally have a chance to test what she had learnt against other people!
Unfortunately, here she was at her third sparring session, and here she was, once again sat to one side as little more than a spectator. At first she hadn’t understood why none of the boys had wanted to train with her. The Master had tried to pair them off to practice, but each new recruit and found ways to decline being her partner and the Master had given in with much more ease than Naomi had been hoping for.
Disappointed, but not discouraged, Naomi had spent the first day watching the boys training, looking for strengths and weaknesses in all of them and cataloguing the information away for the next day. When the next day had come, however, she had again found herself stuck on the side-lines, watching them all going off in pairs and the Master doing very little to see her included. When she had approached him, tentative of the stranger and the way he seemed to look at her with such disapproval, he had told her he would find her a partner soon.
Again she had taken up her spot on the bench, watching the combatants and trying her best to figure out why none of them wanted to spar with her. That morning she had woken up wondering if it had something to do with her father. She was terrified of him, after all. It wouldn’t surprise her if everyone else was, too.
Now here she was once more, sat on the bench and watching the boys fight, wondering if this was going to be all she did for the next five years…
But that wouldn’t do at all! How could she become a Knight this way? How could she get stronger and protect the people if she never learnt anything new? She had to do something. She had to make them spar with her.
Taking a deep breath and plucking up her courage, Naomi stood from the bench and picked up a practice sword. Rolling her shoulders to loosen up, she picked two boys who were taking a breather between matches and made her way over to them. As she did, she felt the weight of the others staring at her, but tried to ignore it. She noticed the way some of them moved out of her way, others looking nervous and uncomfortable, and became immediately sure that it was because of who her father was –who she was- that was causing a problem. Feeling more secure, she tried her best to appear friendly, smiling at anyone who made eye contact. She didn’t want people to be afraid of her. She didn’t want to be like her father.
‘Hello,’ she said, stopping before the pair of boys she had spotted resting and chatting. ‘I was wondering if one of you would spar with me? I know we were paired, but if there’s three of us, one of us can rest in between each match.’
They both stared at her as though she had just vomited a unicorn.
Naomi cleared her throat quietly. ‘Um. It’s just that I’m getting a little bored kicking my heels back there, and since there isn’t enough of us…’
She smiled again, trying to encourage some sort of reaction other than the blank staring. It worked, but only in so much as they glanced at each other instead, almost completely ignoring that she was stood right there.
‘I’m not doing it, Todd,’ said the first one, his accent thick and Southern as he addressed his companion. ‘I said I wouldn’t and I meant it. You can if you want, but I’m not.’
‘Nu-uh,’ said the other quickly, his accent the same, and Naomi realised they must both be from Vale. ‘My Pa said it was wrong, and so did yours. It’s one thing to piss off my Pa, but uncle Matthias would kick both our arses if he found out.’
Naomi knew that everyone here was of the nobility in some way or another, but now she knew these two as being the son and nephew of Vale’s provincial lord. Matthias. Some small part of her mind thought this might be useful in some way, but she pushed it aside. She could do this herself, without resorting to influence and politics and all that other underhanded stuff her father used to get his way. She could do this herself.
‘You shouldn’t even be here,’ the boy called Todd turned to her bluntly then. ‘I don’t want to be rude, Your Grace, but everyone says so.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Naomi frowned. ‘Where else should I be, then?’
Perhaps they thought she wasn’t ready yet? If they were afraid of hurting her while sparring in some way, she supposed it would make sense for them to be concerned she wasn’t up to scratch with the rest of them, but somehow that didn’t seem right. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but the way they had all refused to partner with her, to even test her skill, and the way even the Master had shooed her off to one side without even checking how capable she was didn’t make sense.
‘I don’t know, doing embroidery or something,’ muttered Todd, shuffling quietly on the spot. ‘Easy things… girl things. Not this. You shouldn’t even be here.’
His words hit Naomi in the face like a bucket of freezing water. It wasn’t who she was that was bothering them. It wasn’t even who her father was!
This time it was her turn to stare. ‘Wait. Are you saying you won’t spar with me because… because I’m a girl?’
She looked around the sparring hall to see all of the recruits and stopped and were watching this exchange with interest. They all looked so uncomfortable, but they were clustering together like a secret club she didn’t belong to. For years she had looked forward to this, wanting so badly to have friends her own age, friends who shared her interests. It was a blow she hadn’t expected to find she was an outsider here, and all because of something completely ridiculous.
She felt a snap of anger, but tried to smother it quickly. She wasn’t like her father.
‘It’s not safe,’ Todd tried to explain, some of his hesitation melting away as he stood a little straighter. ‘What if one of us accidentally hurt you?’
‘Yeah,’ said Lord Vale’s son, also becoming much more confident in the face of her shock and hurt. ‘We can’t all hold back for you. You’re just a girl, and it’s safer for everyone if you aren’t here.’
‘Hold back?’ Naomi repeated incredulously.
Didn’t they know she had been training since she was six? Didn’t they even care? Some awful dark rage twisted in her gut as she realised that they didn’t care at all. She was just a girl. Suddenly she couldn’t stop herself from yelling furiously.
‘You couldn’t get a hit in even if I had one hand tied behind my back!’
Spinning on her heel, almost blinded by a fog of anger, Naomi began to march towards the exit. Who did they think they were? She was better than the lot of them! She had been watching them for the past three days and knew she could take every single one of them down in a match. She had just wanted to participate! To be part of the group and learn with them! Instead they were treating her like some sort of lost kitten and it was insulting!
‘Your Grace!’ The Master stopped her in her tracks, and she turned. She saw the fear in his eyes, replacing that cold, sneering look he had been giving her the past few days that she now realised had been because he too thought a girl had no business being here. Oh, how she hoped he would go up against a Tsumetese woman one day… that would teach him!
‘There’s no need to go to your father over this, I’m sure we can work out something…’
‘I’m not going to my father, I’m going to get a practice dummy,’ Naomi’s nose curled in disgust, and she gestured to the cluster of boys. ‘Obviously it’ll put up more of a fight than anyone else in here.’
She would keep up her lessons with Master Gerrard, and use the time here to watch others and their techniques, and practice until she became completely fluid. One day they would see her as an equal, she would make sure of it. For now though, this was the best she could do.
She turned again to leave for the storage cupboard, but stopped again and turned to where Todd was standing, his face now very red.
‘And one more thing,’ she snapped. ‘Embroidery isn’t easy, thank you very much. It takes a lot of skill, and I bet none of you could do it!’