Two people were standing on a covered bridge that connected two high towers in the Palace. A girl in a gold dress that fluttered in the wind was sitting on the railing. Her hair was the color of the midday sun and her beautiful face reflected her melancholy mood.
A tall young man stood beside her. His black hair lay across his shoulders. Heavy bracelets covered his wrists and, along with his blue, expensive clothes, clearly showed that he was someone important.
“I told you, Elaine, that’s what dad decided.”
“We can still ask him to change his mind!” The Princess insisted.
“Do you really think that’ll accomplish anything?!” He chuckled. The handsome young man was Eren, Primus’ son. “He’ll just end up giving me a lecture about what I need to do and what my duty is.”
“But he wants you to join the Army.…”
“And what’s wrong with that? He doesn’t want me to be a scholar. He hates them. Considers them to be spineless worms.”
They looked at the garden. The nameless tombstone, illuminated by the sun, stood near the lake. They’d never liked it, but the King hadn’t allowed them to demolish it, no matter how much they asked.
“Everything will be fine, Elaine,” Eren approached his sister and hugged her tightly. “I'll be back soon, scarred and decorated.”
“And all the maidens will be yours!” The Princess smiled sadly, kissing her brother on the cheek.
“You'll find yourself a fiancé, too.”
“No, I won’t!”
Eren laughed and let go of his sister.
“It's not normal for you to not even be engaged at your age.”
"It’s fine," Elaine snorted. “Not like I could ever be interested in any of the local weaklings.”
“Should I bring you a general then, when I return?”
“And he’ll bring a heap of whores and concubines with him. No, thanks!”
“You’re too fussy!”
“You’re a fool!”
They argued jokingly for some time and then grew quiet. Their faces were caressed by the East wind.
Elaine covered her eyes slightly. The Palace would be even more lonely after her brother left. All she’d have to keep her company would be her dreams. A lonely figure often appeared in them.
It was a man, standing on a hill, his sword drawn, facing a thousand ferocious warriors fearlessly.
The figure was always as calm as the rocks beneath him. His clothes would flutter in the wind, a bottle tucked under his simple rope belt. Rags wound around his feet were the only shoes he had.
But despite all of that, the figure was majestic.
Like the rocks beneath him.…
Elaine, for some reason, felt a kinship with this figure. It was strange, but she kept waiting for him to come, and each day, she felt that he was getting closer.
The Princess hoped that her wish would come true and her betrothed would come for her. The one who the heavens themselves had decided she would be with. She heard bits of his name sometimes, in the wind.
If she listened carefully, she could discern some of them:
“Add one more stone, please,” Hadjar asked the girl who had surprisingly bright, black hair. It was the color of a crow’s wing or a moonless night.
“Don’t you have a lot already, Bull?” Lida laughed.
She used a mechanism Hadjar had built, easily bringing over and putting one more flagstone on his back.
Hadjar grunted and continued to do pushups. He’d spent the last week in the village shocking the people with how rapidly he was recovering.
He’d been able to re-learn how to use his legs in just a week. With the help of long meditation, he’d gone further down the path of cultivation in this short period of time than during the five years he’d spent in the Palace.
His body responded to long, strenuous hours of exercise like it craved being pushed beyond its limits.
With six flagstones weighing twenty pounds and Lida (who hardly weighed more than two of the stones) on his back, Hadjar did three hundred pushups.
[Progress gained: Strength+0.01. Physique+0.007]
The messages from the neural network motivated Hadjar even more.
“Look! Bull’s lifting Lida again,” the girls that were on their way to wash clothes in the creek laughed as they went past.
The locals didn’t call Hadjar ‘Bull’ because of his might. There were much stronger people than him around. Some of them could turn a cobblestone into sand by just squeezing it. Hadjar had personally seen Robin amusing the village children by doing that.
Hadjar got that nickname for his... inability to be helpful. The villagers knew he’d been ill and therefore didn’t condemn him for staying behind when everyone else was working in the field, crafting or helping the village in other ways.
The former Prince knew that it was wrong to not help them. He owed them his life, after all. And so, one day, he decided to help out in the rice fields.
It was a disaster. Hadjar had had no idea that rice was planted in the water in straight rows, without straightening ones back. That was why the Prince had managed to screw up something that, normally, would be impossible for someone to screw up.
The peasants thanked him for his eagerness to help and then hurriedly escorted him far from the field.
And when Hadjar tried to help the potters... well, it’s best not to mention that at all.
The Prince was allowed to work on his recovery, given a not too offensive nickname and never bothered again.
“One more... stone,” Hadjar croaked out while moving on to the next set of one hundred pushups.
“As you wish, Bull,” Lida laughed and, as if on purpose, got off him way too suddenly.
The Prince’s arms nearly buckled because of this. But he managed not to fall. He felt he was now in a better position than when he’d been training in the Palace.
And not because he’d been six then, and was now almost nineteen.
No, it was his body... it had changed a lot. His instincts had become sharper, his vision had improved greatly, his reaction time was much faster, and his strength was noteworthy now. What most people would’ve achieved after many years of training, Hadjar had gotten after a bit over a decade of suffering and one lucky coincidence…
Lida dragged another stone onto his back and then sat on the pile.
“Is it true that you can play the Ron’Jah?”
“Yes,” he replied with difficulty.
“Will you play it for me?”
“In the e-e-evening,” he groaned out.
“Great!” Lida clapped her hands and jumped slightly. Hadjar groaned even louder at that, to the amusement of the people passing by.
He mentally ordered the system to show him his status.
[Name: Hadjar. Level of cultivation: Bodily nodes. Eighth stage. Strength: 0.9; Dexterity: 1.1; Physique: 0.9; Energy Points: 0.7]
Despite his love of tables, Hadjar acknowledged the convenience of the default setting, so he left it that way.
His characteristics had been growing at an astonishing rate... in the first few days of training. Now they were improving at a much slower pace. Hadjar was doing pushups, squats and running because he was anxious to get acquainted with his new body and its capabilities, not purely for the improvements.
“Wanderer,” the Prince discerned his ‘landlord’ through the sweat blurring his vision. “Would you like to fight?”
“Lida…” Hadjar’s voice sounded hoarse.
“Well then!” The girl sighed in mock annoyance, jumping off of him again.
She removed the stone slabs one by one with the help of ropes and Hadjar, his back creaking, stood up. He took a deep breath and began to warm up.
He suddenly realized that he wasn’t much shorter than Robin. Hadjar only came up to the man’s chest, but that still meant that the Prince was just shy of six and a half feet tall.
Haver would’ve been proud... He'd always dreamed of having a tall son.
“I’m ready,” Hadjar said with a nod.
They went to the square. About once a week, the villagers measured their strength there. The locals checked how much they’d cultivated since last time, when the guys weren’t just showing off for the girls, that is. It was spring, after all—everyone was looking for a mate.
They walked along one of the central streets. ‘One of?’ you might ask. It being a village, usually even one street would be a point of pride. But don’t forget that the village was small only by the standards of this world. There were, in fact, almost 150 houses in it, and several thousand people lived there.
Hadjar understood how lucky it was that one of the many hunting squads had noticed him. And that the village chief—a thin old man— had allowed a stranger to stay in the village.
The guys were already at the square, warming up. Compared to them, the slender, elegant Hadjar looked like a reed amongst trees.
Every single one of these young men looked like they could easily crush Hadjar with their bare hands. None of their physiques were inferior to Robin’s, and many of them were even more muscular than him. In any case, each of them could have, without any ‘Photoshop’, been on the front page of a fitness magazine.
“Look, Bull’s here,” the female spectators laughed.
“Hadjar!” The young men, who sometimes joined the Prince when he trained, waved to him.
He waved back.
Various boulders were rolled out to the central square. A handle had been carved in each of them, making them look like abnormally huge kettlebells.
These kettlebells varied in size—from ones as large as a basketball to ones that were a yard in diameter.
Hadjar hadn’t seen anyone lift the biggest one yet. There wasn’t an adept here that could hold three tons of weight above their head and stay upright.
Robin went first.
Single guys usually tended to be the ones lifting the stones, as it was something of a local ‘courting’ ritual. And, besides his granddaughter, Robin was alone—he had lost his family in a forest fire.
At first, he picked up the boulder weighing forty-five pounds, and then he grunted and went for the one which was ten times heavier. Groaning, he put it on his shoulders, and, with a loud “Eh!”, he lifted it pretty high up and then dropped it to the ground immediately.
The crowd applauded.
The atmosphere was competitive, but very friendly.
After the old man went, the other guys approached the stones one by one. Some of them lifted two hundred and twenty pounds, while others lifted three hundred and thirty pounds. Only a few of them could match Robin. And it was only later that two young men came to the fourth row of the stones and lifted the ones weighing six hundred and sixty pounds. The girls rewarded them with especially enthusiastic applause and exclamations.
Finally, it was Hadjar’s turn.
He spat on his palms and went to the second row, where the stones weighing 220 pounds were placed. Groaning under the tension, he lifted the boulder and put it on his shoulders.
He was sweating buckets and gnashing his teeth, but, with a loud “Hoof!”, he lifted it pretty high up and then dropped it to the ground immediately.
The observers... laughed and applauded a little.
The locals believed that a boulder from the second row could be lifted by a ten-year-old boy. Hadjar was supposed to begin with the third row.
Of course, none of them knew that Hadjar couldn’t have held an empty basket a fortnight ago. So, the speed of his progress and recovery was already abnormal by his standards.
The Prince’s eyes were full of joy when he looked at his hands which were trembling from the exertion. He felt alive again.
“You are recovering quickly, like a young dragon,” Robin gave the Prince a pat on the back. The old man didn’t know how right he was. The fact that a dragon’s heart was actually beating in Hadjar’s chest made him ... What did that make him, he wondered. He needed to ask someone who knew more about these things.
“But I’m not strong enough yet.”
“Well, lifting the stones won’t make you stronger. You need something else.”
Hadjar turned to the old man.
“What are you talking about, Robin?” the Prince asked.
Robin glanced at the guys standing behind him. They looked at each other and then nodded and smiled kindly at him.
“I’ve talked to the others—we’re going hunting soon. It’s not that we need an extra pair of hands, but you strike me as a smart guy. Would you like to join us?”
Join the local hunters? The hunters that kill animals which aren’t lower than the fourth step of the Awakening of power? Animals that can crush the boulders from the first row with just a single blow of their paws?
“Of course I would!”