Cullen squared off and brought the wooden waster sword into position.
“Are you prepared?”
Red sighted, cross-eyed, down her nose, sticking her shield-side thumb out as a guide. She checked her feet, her knees, her right elbow.
“Alright, this round we’ll take three blows on you, one on me. I’m only going to throw at your head, got it? Just focus on blocking your head.”
He waited patiently for her to throw, while she looked desperately for gaps that didn’t exist. Even though she knew perfectly well that he was lightyears the better fighter, it still burned to be coddled so. She tried a low-high shot, but each time his shield was easily there before her. Her head rocked violently under the force of his first blow, and she whooped with the rush and called out, “One!”
She paced a moment longer, and then lunged right for a deep rap aimed at the back of his thigh, but again he was there before her, effortlessly, and again her spine compressed under his return shot as if her shield had never existed.
“Your shield is drifting. Up and out.”
“I’m trying! You’re above me!” She bit back the frustration in her words and heaved up the shield until she could hardly see anything at all. She threw a flurry of blows—shield, all shield, every time nothing but shield—and he let her go for a minute, until there was a third musical clang—almost gentle. Just a reminder. “Three. Three. I can’t…” She cut herself off, glad the helmet hid her red nose and glossy eyes.
I don’t know what to change! I’m too small. I’m too weak. I’m too slow. I can’t. I just can’t. I didn’t block anything, not anything.
Cullen sighed. “I’m told you’re making gains with your archery. Perhaps…” He was too kind to say it.
“I want to protect people. I want to be in front. I want to be the shield.” Angry tears stung her eyes as she fumbled her chinstrap with sweaty fingers.
“Here, let me.” His fingers slipped along her jaw, dealing easily with the buckle there, and he lifted the helmet off.
“Red, everyone on the field protects everyone else. You can protect with a bow as well as with a shield. And you cannot protect Thedas from the rifts if you die in a misguided attempt to master a form you…may not be suited to.”
“I don’t want to be small. I don’t want to be weak! I don’t want other people to take the hit for me. I just…want to be someone different. Someone capable. I just…” She caught herself before she flung her helmet, tightening her fingers at the last minute.
“I’m going to get a drink.”