“Twenty push-ups,” Father Locke called out. He walked back and forth behind their line, assessing each student’s form and giving advice. 

At the end of the line, Elfric Tarbengar completed his twenty push-ups without much strain and then held the push-up position. He was first to finish, and the only one of his near neighbors who didn’t groan and collapse at the end. From the corner of his eye, he looked down the line. Only Private Taivas and Trainee Warhite were holding the position like Elfric did, signifying that they too were not challenged by a mere twenty. Next to Elfric, Trainee Cooper noticed the two young women also and raised himself, trembling violently, to attempt to hold the push-up position.

“Cooper,” said Father Locke, “this is not a competition. Do you really want to do more push-ups?”

Cooper trembled violently and then dropped back to the ground. “No, sir.”

“Good man. Push yourself, but not to the point of unnecessary damage. Taivas, Warhite, Tarbengar, do another twenty. The rest of you, rest where you are.”

Another set of  twenty push-ups was just right for Elfric. He completed them, feeling his muscles burning by the end, and lowered himself to his stomach to rest. He listened to the birds that argued together in the branches of the trees at the far end of the training field. 

At last, when Taivas had completed her second set of twenty, Father Locke called out, “On your backs for an extended v-raise.”

Several of the trainees groaned softly. Elfric was not one of these, but when Father Locke gave the command to raise legs, Elfric was one of those who had to do so with bent knees and arms at his sides. For this exercise, only Taivas and Warhite attempted the full extended position.

“One… two… three…” Father Locke counted the seconds. At “ten,” Allen dropped out with a girlish squeak. At “fourteen,” Waeber fell back supine on the ground. Moor lasted until “twenty-five,” Cooper gave in at “twenty-nine,” and Elfric himself cramped up at “thirty-four.” This left Taivas, Warhite, and Tate to endure. Warhite was shaking and finally admitted defeat at “forty-three,” but the other two seemed determined to wait each other out. At last, Father Locke said, “Sixty, and down,” at which point both returned to the starting position. 

Tate sounded pained when he laughed, “I kept even with you that time, Sanna Taivas!”

“Mmm,” she replied, a note of skepticism evident in the noise. “Say that when you aren’t whimpering by the end.”

“How do you do it? How did you get so strong?”

“Physical training was an expected discipline in my village. As soon as I was able to walk, I was expected to join the breakfast and supper exercises like everyone else. I found that I felt better when I kept active during the day; at the time I didn’t understand, but it was the only way to combat my sympathy. The stronger my sympathy grew, the colder I felt all the time, so I looked for ways to keep moving.”

“How many push-ups can you do?” little Allen asked.

“In the morning, after I get up, I usually do about fifty to warm myself up. I don’t usually do more than fifty at a time.”

“Why not?” the other girl inquired. 

Taivas smiled a little. “It gets boring.”

“No, I couldn’t possibly do another push-up,” said Tate suddenly in a falsetto voice. “I’m simply too bored.”

Taivas glanced at him. “Three-year-old.”

“Now I’ve gone from five to three? What happened to four?”

“It passed you by when you made the extended v-sit a competition,” Father Locke answered him. “We will be visiting the army spa this afternoon. There you will work with the trainers on targeted exercise regimens that will address your individual needs. Afterward, we meet on the front parade grounds in uniform. We are expecting a specialist disposal company from South Territory late this afternoon.”

Allen raised her hand. “Sir.”

“Yes, Allen?”

“Which company is coming?”

Father Locke almost smiled. “Company G.”

Allen gasped and said, “The Tiger Bush-cats! Little Beni!”

Father Locke, looking at the other students’ faces, explained for the benefit of all. “South Territory disposal companies all have a mascot animal that people call them by. Company G happens to have a tiger bush-cat accompanying them wherever they go. People call it ‘Beni.’ At any rate, we will be present to greet them when they pull in. Tomorrow, Company G will run training simulations with the Leeward troops. You will join the simulations as trainee observers.”

Even Waeber seemed excited by this news.

“From now until lunch,” continued Father Locke, “you are free to occupy yourselves as you see fit… except for you, Tate. You have an appointment with Dr. Rao.”

Elfric stood and trudged to the far end of the training field, where the line of trees stood. He found his bear cub there, dozing in the shade, and sat down to join the cub. The birds above stopped chirping at one another and began stridently scolding a squirrel that had intruded. The squirrel was young and timid, and retreated before the scolding birds.  It scrambled down the trunk of the tree next to the one Elfric leaned back against. The squirrel saw him, paused, decided he was no threat, and jumped to the ground. There it began nosing around for buried nuts. It noticed a fungus growing in the cleft of the tree roots and starting nibbling on it.

“Good for you,” Elfric murmured. “You found something good.”

The bear cub woke at the sound of Elfric’s voice and grunted. Elfric pushed the cub over each time it tried to rise. Playtime ended when the cub saw the squirrel dig up a walnut nearby. Then the cub pounced, stealing the nut.

Elfric took a packet of unsalted almonds from his pocket and scattered them in the grass for the cub to nose out and eat. This the cub did with evident enjoyment, continuing to nose through the grass long after all the almonds had been found. It fell to cropping the grass in the absence of nuts.

From the direction of the main building, a person approached. Elfric ignored this approach until the person was only a few feet away. Then he raised his eyes to find Private Taivas standing there, politely waiting with a white paper-wrapped bundle in both hands.

Elfric grunted with his eyebrows slightly elevated.

“The kitchen sent this for your cub.”

Elfric tilted his head toward the cub.

Taivas understood the gesture somehow and knelt down to unwrap the bundle and turn out its contents, which happened to be a whole cod fillet, onto the grass.

The cub loped over and started at once to devour the fish.

Elfric looked from the cub to the young woman. “Do you want to pet him?”

“Pet him? He isn’t a dog. Wild animals aren’t for petting.”

Elfric grinned. “Your friend, Allen, she was all for petting him. Wanted to know what was his name and could I understand what he said and wasn’t he darling.”

“Bear cubs are cute,” said Taivas, “but that isn’t why you’re raising him, is it. Was he orphaned?”

“A ranger found him next to his sow’s corpse in the woods, brought him to my mother for care. He’s missing an eye and won’t ever grow to his rightful size, so she gave him over to me to raise rather than try reintroducing him into the woods. He’ll live in the woods near my village as a lookout beast once he’s a little bigger.”

“What do lookout beasts do?”

Elfric shrugged his heavy shoulders. “They live their lives alongside ours. If the Decay ventures near, they’ll know it first and react according to their natural sense.”

“Why did you bring him with you, out of the woods?”

“This is as good a way as any to teach him not to fear humans but not to get close to them either.” Elfric shut his eyes as if dozing off, but he spoke again after another few moments. “Do they not bother you— the others? You come from North Territory.”

“Bother me? In what way?”

“When you came to the capital, were you not disappointed in what you found there? They care more for their comfort than their honor. No such insurrection would ever have allowed to happen in West Territory, nor in North Territory, I’m sure. They don’t think anything of the right ways of comporting themselves. You ought to know. Look at Tate. If he acted toward the girls in my village or in yours as he does at home, he would sting for it pretty fast.”

Taivas took her time to consider what he said before she offered her reply. “It’s true,” she began, “the first time I met him, the only thing that kept me from slapping him was the presence of Mother and Father Locke at my family’s table. And the general philosophy of living is far more relaxed in the capital than I expected. They live away from the edges, and that makes them too comfortable, I think. But I have received nothing but kindness from the capital folks I’ve dealt with so far. They are generous and friendly. As for Rusza Tate, his chief failing is a tendency toward heedlessness, and that must be mended by age, training, and experience. He is one of nature’s polygamists,” she added with a rueful shake of the head, “and he seems completely unaware of it. Heedless, as I said.”

“They may be generous,” Elfric growled, “but they don’t take their obligations to the Only One seriously enough. Shallow and worldly, that’s what they are. You say you’ve had nothing but kindness from any of them? What about Warhite?”

“What about her?” Taivas appeared genuinely surprised. 

“She shows you nothing but hostility. She and Allen are always sniping at each other and manipulating those around them for the sake of male attention, and both of them use you against the other. Why don’t you rebuke them?”

Taivas considered that for a minute or two. Her silence was accompanied by an incipient frown. “I’m not very good at reading people,” she said in a tone of confession. “I never noticed any hostility towards myself. They do treat me as a buffer between them, that I have noticed, but I supposed that to be an attempt at mitigating the friction between the two, since I know they dislike one another. Trainee Warhite is very competitive.”

Elfric gazed at her with a sort of wonderment. “Have you no mating instincts at all? You might as well be a man. They make you the buffer because neither considers you a threat to distract men away from them. That’s all either of them cares about.”

After a few seconds of surprised silence, Taivas started to laugh. “I’ve never heard it called mating instinct before, but you’re probably right. How could I consider taking a husband, when I could easily kill him with my sympathy without meaning to? No, such is not in my future. But you’re mistaken in thinking I never correct the two you mentioned. I’m not on terms of sufficient intimacy with Trainee Warhite, that she should accept correction from me, but I do speak to Lily sometimes, if I think she has acted inappropriately. I just do it privately, because she’s so sensitive.”

Elfric smiled reluctantly. “Tate isn’t.”

“No,” agreed Taivas, “but even so, I wouldn’t normally scold him in public, except that Father Locke asked me to do so.”

“Why?”

“I said Rusza Tate is heedless. According to Father Locke, he listens politely and even affectionately to the scoldings of his family and his elders, but then he forgets almost immediately when something else catches his attention. That something else is usually a young woman,” she said dryly, “so when a female his own age scolds him, he pays more attention. The trouble is that they rarely take him to task for anything. When it turned out that I would, Father Locke asked me to help him keep Rusza Tate accountable. I believe he has come to think of me as an older sister, although we are practically the same age.”

Elfric shook his head. “Is he a fool?”

“Strangely enough, I don’t think he is. A masochist, maybe, but not a fool.”

The bell chimed the noon hour. Elfric left his bear cub still licking the ground for scraps of fish. Following Taivas across the practice grounds to his own meal, he spoke to no one. When he passed Rusza Tate on the way to the mess hall, he paused to gaze at the other young man, who was standing too close to and chatting amiably with Trainee Warhite.

Tate slowly became aware of this attention. He looked away from the girl with questioning eyes toward Elfric. “What? What is it?”

Elfric shook his heavy head. In two long strides he placed himself near Tate and cuffed him alongside the head– not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to knock him to the ground in a startled, bewildered heap.

After lunch, the students gathered in front of the on-base spa. Father Locke escorted them into the lobby, where a line of medical staff awaited them. The men were separated from the women and brought into a physical exam room. “Strip down to your underwear and line up here,” said the captain among the staff. “We’ll weigh you in and check your vitals before training starts.”

Elfric submitted to this routine exam. He was by far the tallest and heaviest of the students. Cooper looked him up and down. “What do they feed you out in the western wilds, to make you grow like that?” It was a comment intended to sound jovial, but envy leaked from the words.

“Don’t feel bad, little Cooper,” said Tate with a grin. “You do the best you can with what you were given.”

Cooper lashed out with a kick.

“Quit horsing around,” said Lieutenant Jock Knox.

“Runner bean,” Cooper whispered.

Tate whispered back, “Kumquat.”

They were measured and weighed, tested for reflexes and sensory acuity, and then made to dress again. With the dark-skinned captain at their head and Lieutenant Jock at their heels, the male students were led through to an open area populated by exercise equipment. The women were already there, engaged in separate exercises under the supervision of female staff.

Father Locke appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and announced, “Each of you has the right to speak up, if there’s any specific training you’d like to attempt, but the final decision rests with your therapist.”

“I want to put on thirty to forty pounds of muscle,” said Tate in a pointed tone.

Father Locke coughed behind one hand. He glanced over his shoulder and said, “No good— she isn’t listening, Rusza. You do need to develop a build that can handle your energy better, however, so it isn’t a bad idea. The complication,” and with this he directed his words to one of the spa staff, “is that he needs to operate with minimum effective motion.”

“It’s a challenge,” the therapist said. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, a blond man with hazel eyes and a sunburn. “I’m acquainted with the theory, and I have a few ideas to start. I’ll send word to Ambrose and see what ideas he has.”

“He’s due to arrive here in a few days,” said Father Locke.

“Mother is coming? That’ll be nice,” one of the other therapists said. “She doesn’t come this way very often.”

The other therapists each claimed a student. Elfric was claimed by the huge captain. “I’m Stargrim Venn. Do you have an opinion on your training?”

Elfric shook his head. “Not really, sir.”

“You’ll work on flexibility and dexterity, then. This way.” Captain Venn proved quickly to be a taciturn, strict therapist. He gave orders and expected them to be obeyed at once. He ran Elfric through a series of footwork exercises, for which Elfric had no natural talent, demanding set after set until Elfric at least had the motions memorized.

Across the aisle, the blond therapist was laughing at something Tate said. The two appeared to be sitting side by side on the mat, just chatting. Elfric glanced at them several times between his own exercises. 

Captain Venn took note of this. “You disapprove of Sergeant Domville’s methods?”

Startled by the captain’s perception, Elfric only said, “It seems inefficient, sir.”

“Come aside for a few seconds.” They left their training, apparently to drink water at the nearest fountain,  but Captain Venn directed Elfric, “Look from this angle.”

They were behind Rusza Tate and Sergeant Domville, and from that angle it was apparent that each man was supporting his full weight— or nearly his full weight, in Tate’s case— on the palms of his hands. After a time, they lowered themselves to rest on the mat, only to resume the subtle balancing act a minute later.

“The principles behind minimum effective motion,” noted Captain Venn, “require largely isometric and stationary forms of exercise. Body weight is safer than free weights or bench weights, because the energy of any external form of weight gets added to the energy of the sympathist. As for the talking, well, Sergeant Domville was chosen to work with that young man because he’s good-natured and patient, just as I was chosen to work with you because I’m strict and less talkative than most. It’s all a matter of what the patient responds to best.”

They worked individually for most of an hour, and the students finished with a few laps around the open area before being escorted into the baths for a massage and a soak. Elfric kept to himself in the corner of the men’s circulating pool while Tate and Cooper splashed noisily and Moor talked generally to Waeber. Elfric was the first to leave, while the others were still playing.

Once dressed and on his way back to the men’s dorm, Elfric heard Father Locke’s female lieutenant calling, “Tarbengar! Over here!” Lieutenant Ietta Knox waved him over to a truck that sat idling by the covered walkway. When Elfric reached the truck, the lieutenant said, “Corporal Tezelin, this is Trainee Elfric Tarbengar. He can help get you and Beni settled in.”

The sun-browned man to whom she spoke was clad only in a pair of shabby army-issue pants. Even his feet were bare. He wore a shoulder guard strapped across his bare, hollow chest. Dark eyes gazed out from a shaggy mass of dark brown hair and beard. “Tarbengar,” he greeted Elfric.

Elfric nodded. “Corporal.” He turned to look at the open door of the truck just before a small, slender cat leaped out, caught her front claws in the leather of the shoulder guard, and pulled herself up to chew on a hank of the corporal’s abundant hair.

“Bag is in back,” said Corporal Tezelin, “the green one.” He started to trudge off toward the dorm.

Elfric circled around the truck, lifted the hatch, and found a large insulated case in the back instead of bags. When he unlatched the case, however, he found one dirty greenish duffel bag lying on top of a considerable amount of other bags and small cases.

Bag in hand, Elfric turned to pursue the corporal, but the man had vanished. Still Elfric set off in the general direction of the dorms, following his sense of the tiger bush-cat that accompanied the corporal, and caught up with the pair on the uppermost floor of the dorm. The cat prowled along the baseboards, sniffing and tasting the floor and wall. “Throw it in there,” Corporal Tezelin said to Elfric. “Doesn’t matter where.” He pointed toward a door.

Elfric glanced inside the room at a floor covered in cut grass. There was no bed, nor any other type of furniture, so Elfric set the bag behind the door.

“Problem?” Corporal Tezelin asked.

“No, sir.”

“Don’t lie. I’m out of uniform, my bag’s dirty, and my room’s a nest. I can see it in your face. You, you’re from West Territory, aren’t you? I can tell just by the attitude. I’ve dealt with your people before. Why are you here?”

Elfric replied with brittle courtesy, “Father Locke summoned me with an offer of a special leadership course.”

Corporal Tezelin grunted. “He called you, but why are you here?”

To this, Elfric could think of no answer.

“If you just mean to stay like you are, then nothing he can teach you will be useful to you. Might as well go back and be sanctimonious and separate with the rest of your people. If you stay and learn…” Tezelin shook his head, “you won’t be able to go back.” He flapped a hand toward Elfric. “Thanks for bringing my bag. This child’s in a foul mood from the drive, so it really helped me. You can go back to what you were doing.”

“Sir.” Elfric retreated.

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