Cassidy had been at this for breaks by now. His arms felt like rods of iron, muscles dragging heavy with exhaustion. Any callouses he had on his hands had been sliced off by his bow string, bloody blisters now forming in their place. Sweat poured from his body, not from the heat of the day but from the sheer effort it took to loose arrow after arrow into the rows of targets before him. The rhythmic twang of his bow, matched swiftly by a deadening thud of arrowhead punching through wood, had by now become a maddening sound to to his ears. Still, Cassidy couldn't stop. Not unless he was ordered.
He would have pictured Ray's face in place of the target, but that would have just made him angrier. Cassidy couldn't aim angry, and if he was going to be spending the trial shooting at still targets he at least wanted to improve. Another recruit with the same punishment might have just gone through the motions of the exercise, but not Cassidy. He was still placing every arrow he loosed. His arms might have shook from the effort, his eyes may have burned from the strain, but the Kane would be damned if he didn't prove he was putting himself in every single shot.
"You shoot like an outlaw."
Focus slipping, his shot went wide. An frustrated growl rumbled to life from the pit of his stomach and sang free from his lips. For the first time since he walked into the archery range, his eyes turned from the target. What they saw surprised him. A slight woman with an inquisitive grin and a mane of red hair leaned against the wooden safety railing which separated the range from the rest of the barracks. She tilted her head as she examined Cassidy, and he could feel her warm brown eyes take him apart. Her eyebrow cocked in curiosity, it occurred to the youth that she was waiting for a response.
"That would be because an outlaw taught me how to shoot," he replied to the woman, matching her casual smile with a grin of his own. The woman found something in his response amusing, her laughter ringing across the otherwise empty training grounds. It was light and full of life, and something that Cassidy could listen to all day.
"Trixie," she offered, hand sticking out from behind the safety railing. Cassidy slung his bow over his shoulder and strode over to where the woman stood.
"Cassidy," he returned, clasping her hand with his own. His smile swiftly shifted into a grimace as the sores on his hand screamed in protest at the contact. Again, the woman's laughter filled the air. The pain was worth that at least.
"Been shooting for awhile, have we?" she inquired, a soft and sympathetic tone infiltrating her inflection. Cassidy simply nodded in response, massaging his wounded and offending appendage. Trixie's eyes flicked over to the targets littered with the arrows, shafts bristling outward like angry quills of an animal. "Well, that'll happen when you piss off Ray."
"Word travels quick around here, doesn't it?" He sighed, still trying to force the kinks out of his hands. Seeing his struggle, Trixie took his hands into her own. She kneaded the cramps into dull submission, rough hands working with shocking delicacy. If Cassidy had to guess, he'd say this woman had dealt with pains like this on her own before. After a few ticks, she released his hands from her grasp. Cassidy stretched his hands, testing every finger as he inspected the extremities. Surprisingly, his hand felt leagues better.
"Like you wouldn't imagine. Scuttlebutt is how soldiers stay sane around here. You'll get used to it if you stick around long enough," she smiled, brown eyes meeting his blue briefly before they turned back to the range. Cassidy watched as she took in every arrow carefully, as if she were trying to dissect something about him from the echoes of his archery. The Kane wished he could read the woman, see what thoughts went through her head as she inspected his shots. Why bother talking to a no-named recruit who managed to piss off the boss on the first day?
"What showed where my training came from?" Cassidy asked, breaking the comfortable silence which had slowly filled the air. Trixie turned to look back at the youth, her careful gaze reminding him of a hawk. Again, she smiled; a simple, patient thing that put him instantly at ease.
"Nobles are trained to shoot for competition. They're slow, aiming every arrow as if they have all the time in the world, because they've been taught they do. Soldiers are drilled to shoot in sequence, every arrow falling into a rhythm that is conducted by their commanding officers," she paused, pointing to the range littered with the evidence of Cassidy's effort. "Outlaws, bandits, and brigands, however, shoot selfishly. Like individuals. They put themselves into every arrow, because they know every shot they take might be their last. You hold your bow like a highwayman." Trixie laughed lightly as she spotted his furrowed brow, aware of how confusing it might be to have a soldier compare you to a criminal. "That's a good thing, Cass. It makes you unique, and it makes you dangerous."
"And here I thought the Iron Hand didn't do 'unique'," he joked, still taken aback by the woman's unorthodox perspective. Cassidy couldn't help but feel a surge of pride as Trixie's laughter filled the air. It was a deep, honest, and full thing: the type of laugh that one had to earn in order to enjoy.
"Oh trust me, they don't, and Ray likes it the least. I imagine he's going to send you here as many times as he can before you make Sergeant," she said, meeting his eyes before continuing. "Don't let yourself lose it though. You may suffer for it here, but it'll keep you alive out in the battlefield. And at the end of the day, a soldier that is alive is infinitely more useful than a soldier that followed orders into his grave."
"How do you shoot?" Cassidy asked suddenly. He needed to know more about this women, who appeared out of nowhere and seemed to understand him so deeply but revealed nothing about herself. His interest was piqued, and, like a true archer, his eye wouldn't be shaken for the target.
She looked thoughtfully at Cassidy, as if considering if she could trust the man enough to show him this part of herself. Then, with a wink, she moved. She snatched the bow from his shoulder and stole an arrow from his quiver. Surprised by her sudden closeness, the Kane felt an uncharacteristic blush creep up his neck. If she noticed, she didn't react to it. Instead, she strode forth further down the range, nocking her arrow and choosing her target carefully. In one fluid motion, she drew and released; her fingers moving across the bowstring like a poet's quill across paper. In that single shot, Cassidy caught his first true glance of who this woman was. There fierceness hidden behind that patience, an intensity that could not be contained by the chains of command. A wildness that roared to life as the arrow screamed through the air, sinking into the target as lion's claws would sink into the kill. She had an anger in her, an anger that Cassidy had seen in himself before. In that moment, he saw a side of Trixie that he doubted he would have spotted if she had not allowed him to look. She was beautiful.
His question answered, the woman handed him back the bow.
"I think you've been punished enough for one trial. I'll take you to the medic to treat those sores, and then I'll drop you off at your bunk."
"Wait, why are you helping me? I don't want to get you in trouble with Ray." he insisted, slinging the bow back across his shoulder.
"If Ray tried to discipline me, he would have to train the archers. Trust me, he'd spend the night with Chrien than deal with that," she answered, her eyes once again turning sympathetic. "Besides, I wanted to show you that not everyone is against you. That there is a place for a Kane among the Skyriders. If you work hard enough. If you want it."
"I want it." His answer was instant, words flowing before his mind could even register he was speaking. After meeting Trixie, after seeing her shoot, he knew that could do this. That he needed to do this. He could put flame that raged in his veins to good use, just like the woman before him was doing. He could be an Airman. He would be an Airman. He would take to the take skies for his family. For his country. For Faldrun. Or he would die trying. After all, he was a Kane, and Kane's never did anything halfway.
"Then come on, lets get you to bed."
"You know, you could join-"
"Ha! You're funny, Flyboy."
"I'm more than funny-"
"Keep talking and I'll send you back to the range."
"Shutting up, ma'am."
His muscles burned with exhaustion, he had no idea where anything was in the Barracks, and he was fairly sure that he wouldn't be able to move his fingers for a week, but he had made it through the trial. He was a part of the Iron Hand. A Skyrider in-training. Now all he had to do was survive the experience.