Being stalked by a wolf, under the constant threat of attack, while being unable to retaliate, was horrible. Claude didn't get a moment's relaxation.
He stood now, watching the bastard sergeant-major yapping at some other poor sods. He bit down on his lips until he tasted blood, letting the pain and metal taste remind him to keep his guard up.
He'd been on edge for a month now. They had had just two days' respite in that time, and they'd been barred from leaving the base on those days. Claude had gone to the infirmary for that first day and chatted with Perunt. The slightly drunk man told him the peace wouldn't last for more than another six months. War was coming; faster than ever. Nothing of the sort had been spread down the grapevine; this was his own intuition.
As a result, even during the new year's celebrations, Claude had not had any appetite. Even the most delicious of food was tasteless to him. At first he'd had to fight with Fitney in the shadows, but now he also had the threat of war looming over him day and night.
The sergeant-major had been made one his tentsman. He'd showed nothing untoward in his behaviour. If anything, he had been the model sergeant-major thus far. He'd not broken character even when Claude had given in and asked him something on a couple occasions. His comrades had let their guard down eventually. They thought he had let go of his grudge, but Claude knew better.
He saw the man's hatred for him in his eyes when they met his, in that vile smile he always had on his face in those moments, and in the damned bleached teeth he was so eager to show the world all the time.
On the 2nd day of Year 577, the break ended and training resumed. Though heavy snow had fallen the previous night, they were told to clean the field and get started again.
The air was cold and their winter gear had long been issued. Each soldier had received woollen undershirts and long underpants. The uniforms were also changed from linen to fur. There was another black overcoat made from wool. It was still cold, but the soldiers could at least bear it now.
Last month's training was mostly marching and shooting in formation, but this time around, they would be given combat training. Even though they were in the age of firearms, close combat scenarios weren't that rare on the battlefield. Sometimes, a melee would decide life or death.
On the large field were thick straw mats lined up next to each other. Combat training was conducted according to tents. Each temporary tentsman would explain the ways close combat could be conducted on the battlefield and make sure their tent members learned them so that they would be able to stand a good chance against an enemy in close range. The staff sergeants themselves would be in charge of imparting the cadets with these techniques.
Fitney brought Claude and the rest to the side of one man and removed his black wool overcoat. He stood on the mat and started expounding on various takedown techniques and had a few cadets help him with the demonstration. He showed off a few moves and explained their rationale to them.
During the morning, Fitney guided them on the different fighting stances, how to throw faster punches and how to protect one's vitals. Everything was normal so far. In the afternoon, cadets would be faced off against one another on the mats and Fitney stood beside to comment on their inadequacies.
After one or so hours of training, Fitney gathered the whole group and told them that he would be asking a few of the cadets for a demonstration to show them how to obtain victory on the battlefield.
Claude watched Fitney attentively. He believed that the wolf was finally going to bare his fangs. What he didn't expect was that Fitney didn't ask him to be part of the demonstration. Instead, two other members of the tent were picked. He smiled and asked them to attack him.
The two were quickly rendered helpless. Fitney commented on their shortcomings and allowed them to back down.
"Looks like two aren't much of a threat," he said, "So let's have four next. I want to see whether you can make me sweat."
He picked Aboyev, Berklin, Moriad, and Dyavid. He said he did it because the four were friends and should be able to work together better, but Claude felt something was up.
"If you're surrounded by enemies, you must pick in which direction you want to break out, then charge with all your might, like this..."
Fitney charged as his last words left his mouth and sunk his fist into Moriad's stomach. The young man's mouth dropped open and he collapsed. Fitney brought his knee up and smashed the boy's face into a bloody pulp as he fell down.
Claude heard the sound of bone breaking as the knee connected and couldn't stop himself from wincing.
"When you're in this kind of situation, you must never hold back. The more you pulp the quicker, the better for you," Fitney's face cracked into that same vile smile he always had, "I now only have three enemies and I haven't taken a single hit. On top of that, I created a possible escape route should I need it."
Neither Berklin nor Dyavid knew how badly their friend was hurt. They were still processing the fact that he had been taken down.
Aboyev had caught a glimpse of the blood spewing from the boy's nose and mouth, however, and had a hint of what was happening and coming for them. He opened his mouth to shout a warning, but Fitney was already on him.
"When we realise numbers isn't a big deal, the best thing to do is to be the first to attack, and to never stop."
Aboyev was sent flying by Fitney's ram. He spat out blood and tumbled through the air, unconscious already.
"Stop!" Claude shouted, charging.
"Don't wait for the enemy to figure out what you're doing, take them out while they're still in disarray," Fitney said, targeting Berklin and Dyavid.
"AAAH!" Berklin shouted as an elbow rammed into his cheek, sending two teeth flying amidst a spray of blood.
Dyavid had no chance to cry out. He was knocked out with a series of strikes to his head, then slammed into the ground with a suplex.
"Never hold back. Never show any mercy."
Fitney stood on the mat like there was nothing amiss and eyed the frightened tent members before he set his eyes on Claude.
"Don't worry about them, they look bad but I made sure not to break anything important. They just need a few days in the infirmary. You more than anyone should know how difficult it is to go up against more opponents, and how dangerous such a fight can be, for both sides."
Claude glared at him, his eyes spitting fire. He never thought Fitney would go after his minions. Come at him, sure, but they had nothing to do with what he'd done.
"Anything against my methods, Claude? I won't fault you for having misgivings," Fitney said with his poisoned smile.
Claude gave him one final glance, then acted like he didn't exist and headed for Aboyev.
"Help me take them to the infirmary," he told the rest of the tent.
"Hold it! Where do you think you're going? You will not leave until I say we're done."
Everyone suddenly realised who was the real target of this massacre, so they took a couple steps away from Claude and stood like statues.
"What do you want? You said it yourself, they need to go to the infirmary, so I'm taking them." Claude said as if speaking to an idiot.
"They won't die if they get there in half an hour. I'm not done with training. Let's have a duel. You're pretty good in the ring, yes? That's what I heard, at least."
"Not interested," Claude said as if turning down someone vile asking for a date.
He passed Fitney without looking at him and checked his friends' injuries.
"A spineless coward, ey?" Fitney laughed. "You don't look very happy. Come on, I'll help you work out your frustration. Besides, I want to see if you got number one in your secondary school by fluke or actual skill."
Claude didn't hear a word the man said.
"Fine, enough for today. I'll just keep sending those four to the infirmary until you agree to duel me," Fitney said gleefully.
Claude turned around and removed his coat.
"So all I have to do is send you to the infirmary for the whole month."