Helena woke with excitement. This would be the day the task was finished. She blurred through her daily chores at the little chapel and made her rounds delivering tinctures and poultices.
Burn salve for the smiths and a white root infusion for the cooper's child with a hacking cough. Helena crept her way into the farrier's stall, shushing the irritable stallion while she re-wrapped a snake-bit leg with ground queens wart. Finally she went dashing up the attic stairs of the inn to leave a bundle of fresh ginger and ginseng root for the wizard before heading back to the chapel.
Settled before the small alter in the quiet dark, Helena meditated on the nature of light until a candle flickered to life in her hand. At last she cooked the morning porridge and was still at the wood pile before the sun cleared the east wall of the fortress.
Callouses forged over weeks spent with the axe pressed into the oak handle as she stropped the blade against the long stone mounted in the tool shed. Keeping a keen edge was the most enduring thing she learned in her struggle with the woodpile.
The first hours she'd spent at the pile had been fruitless and frustrating. Her hands blistered and tore. The axe blade turned or became lodged in the logs. On the second day, the smith's youngest son had mercy on her. Not ten winters old, he carried over a wide blade and a heavy hammer. He placed a log on the block, tapped the blade into the rings, then struck the blade with the hammer. He walked off without saying a word, leaving the tools next to the split log. She left the heavy wedge and mallet in the shed, having not needed them since the first week of soreness had faded.
The young guardsmen were gathering in the yard for morning drills, most of them pausing to throw her a hand in salute before beginning their exercises. Helena held up her axe in return and placed her first log on the block. Stretching her arms high, gripping the axe as low on the shaft as she could, Helena let the head fall a few inches before pulling with her back and stomach as hard as she could. Two clean halves fell to either side of the block and Helena straightened her legs from the follow through. Heaving a ragged breath of exertion she knew would soon become a rhythmic flow, Helena smiled as she reached for another log.
Weeks worth of her efforts piled up in neat rows to her left, cord upon cord, while to her right the stack was down to a few dozen logs. Her task would be done by noon and her debt to the captain paid. Across the small dusty lot of the training grounds she could see the hilt of her blunted sword jutting from one of the heavy, tar soaked posts the soldiers used for practice.
Among the numerous demands placed on her by the companions of Graywind Hold had been learning a weapon. Maloss, de-facto captain of the small fort garrison wasted no effort disguising his contempt at her early efforts.
"Up! Up! Get your arm up! You pathetic little chit! Weak as city brewed mead you are! It's a sword not a battledore! Watch your blade girl!"
By the third time she bent a practice blade by swatting it broadside against the training post, Maloss declared her unfit for sword work and suggested she find a nanny to teach her needle work instead.
Trembling with exhaustion and indignation, Helena stood her ground against the auburn haired giant.
"Perhaps it is your cheap steel and weak instruction which is at fault! For all your mad barking,these boys, all of the hold, may be better off fighting with a good darning spike!"
She reached up, way up, to poke him in the chest and found herself lying in the dust. Maloss stepped over her, picked up the bent blade and with a guttural shout, hurried the un-sharpened blade hilt deep in the post.
"It is the hand that wields which makes a weapon child. Now draw it out."
Helena scrambled to her feet, aware of the dust clinging to her sweat and the eyes of the young guardsmen upon her. She had promised the priest she had what it took to travel in the Elderwilde, that she could win the trust of the companions. That she could win a way to avenge her parents.
Helena gripped the sword haft and gave it a savage yank, determined to hold her ground against the overwhelming demeanor of the knight. Nothing. She planted a boot against the post and heaved. Then both boots, screeching in frustration. She ended back in the dust when her hands slipped, looking up at the disgusted face of Maloss.
"As i thought. Come with me…girl." Turning on his heel in crisp fashion, Maloss marched off the drill yard and behind the barracks.
One of the older boys, Dunvin, gave Helena a hand up and gently nudged her after the captain. Her hands were red and numb from the days training, her eyes stinging from rage and torment. She clenched her fists, wiped her eyes and followed her trainer.
Behind the barracks was the now familiar wood pile. Enough to heat the barracks for the long northern winter setting up to cure.
"You may have border blood in your veins child but you are weak as a mewling kitten. This could be forgiven with enough finesse, but such takes much longer to develop than the basic, and I do mean basic maneuvers you have repeatedly failed. So. Until such time as you have the strength of arm to return me the sword in yon post, you will make yourself useful to this garrison by splitting wood."
To Helena it seemed there was enough wood to build an armada of ships. A forest of trees crumpled in a pile. Maloss reached into a little lean-to and handed her the axe. Coarse, weathered wood scoured her tender hands. Looking from the mountain of short logs to the small crowd of guardsmen still gawking at the buried sword, Helena hefted the axe to her shoulder and looked Maloss in the eye.
"And if I finish this pile before I can free the blade, then what?"
Maloss almost smiled before turning his back on her as he made his way back to the drill yard. In tones Helena felt would carry like drums across a battlefield he barked a farewell of, "That too I would call a victory…girl".
Each morning she tried the blade. Never a hair's width did it move. She had even seen the boys attempt to shift it when not overseen by the morose and taciturn captain, with no more success than herself. So she pushed herself, determined to prove her worth and refusing to give up. Now, nearly three turns of the moon later, her goal was nearing end.
During that time her body had turned out new lines of muscle. Her hands had hardened to match wood. Heart and lungs worked in tandem for hours without break. She may never draw the blade from its impossible sheath, but she was eager to test her new strength against the captain's drills.
She laughed as the log pile dwindled. Laughed through the sweat and the ache and the heavy breathing her pace demanded. Come noon she would toss the axe at the giant's feet and await her orders.
So engrossed was she in her impending victory that the horses were upon her before she ever saw them. A team of draft mules pulling an impossibly long wagon piled high with fresh cut logs.
Helena gawked as the drivers pulled reigns and hopped down to begin tossing new logs onto her nearly empty pile. The men hardly looked a her, dipping a hat brim and focusing on unloading. Graywind hold was small, and these men familiar. Helena knew all in the hold were aware of her task. A pressure at her back caused her to turn to the training yard. Maloss stood with arms crossed watching.
Gripping the axe in white knuckles, Helena all but ran across the grounds to confront the…cheater, a pure cheat he was.
"You! You arranged this! Foul petty loser that you are you fixed the game! It is not fair and you know it! You know it!"
A butterflies wing would stir a mountain more than her words seemed to affect those sharp green eyes.
"If you have not met my terms it is your fail girl. The needs of the keep will not wait for your pleasure, and take no pleasure in your pain. I see three strategies on your table. Return my sword, finish the task, or beg travel back to the city-states and forget you ever glimpsed the Wilde".
Forget the Wilde. Forget her father. Forget her mother. Forget the bloody hands of the senate who murdered them. Forget her roots.
Helena barred her teeth to the stoic face of the eastern warrior. She hefted the axe and turned toward the post where the bent sword was entombed. Two measured steps then a short run brought her to the thick tarred post. She swung her axe without breaking stride. What started as a scream of rage came out as a guttural howl as she brought the blade to bear.
A wedge of blackened wood spun from the post which shuddered from the impact. Four more howling stokes and the post toppled with the impaled sword in he half that hit the ground. Straddling the post, Helena lifted the axe high and brought it down in a killing stroke that sparked off the training sword and sent it spinning free into the dust.
Hooking the hilt with the axe blade, the lost daughter of the borderlands slung the practice blade at Maloss' feet.
Helena stood panting between gritted teeth, the tool of her torture impossibly light in her hands.
"There is your precious blade. And you can split the wood for your dinner fire yourself."
She punctuated her words by hurling the axe next to the sword.
Maloss had moved not an inch. He considered the objects at his feet for a few moments, then nodded.
"That'll do young Helena. Guardsmen! Be this a lesson! Your objective may not always be achievable by raw force, yet training and the right tactical approach can still win the day. "
Helena struggled to catch her breath, still unsure of what was happening. Maloss stepped to the severed post and considered.
"Still, I think the sword is not your weapon. Dunvin! To the armory and fetch Helena a Calvary mace. Double-time! The rest of you! Today this yard is Helena's and I will spend the day training her. I want those split logs stacked and a shelter erected to keep it dry till winter! No good burning rotten logs! Get moving you maggots!"
Hooting approval, the guardsmen jostled Helena briefly before jogging off to task. She found herself alone with the towering knight who looked not one whit moved by events. For her part, Helena was torn with pride and anger. She saw Dunvin from the corner of her eye approach with what looked like a long hammer with a round head. He pressed it into her hand and slapped her on the back before joining the others.
Maloss picked up the bent practice sword and gave Helena a hard look.
"Welcome to the borderland, Helena. Now show me what you've got".