It is not an easy thing, to learn how to handle a bladed weapon. It is much more than simply an issue of weight, balance, bone and sinew. The truth of this, so easily forgotten, so easily missed, can be found in the forests and upon the battlefields of Nemi's world, where the blood of the uneducated and the unskilled quietly enriched the earth.
To develop skill with a weapon, to progress beyond the simplest moves of block and lunge, requires many years of practise. Training begins in childhood, at first with wooden dummy blades, but soon graduating to dull-edged metal blades. No matter what natural talent a would-be warrior may have, it is nothing without training. There are no short cuts in developing the muscle-memory necessary for mastery of the warrior's chosen weapon. Without that, they are trapped, unable to learn more than the simplest of patterns.
It was with thoughts such as these that Nemi found herself remembering again the day when she had become one of the Vangon.
It had not been meant to happen that way.
Closing her eyes, Nemi tried again to conjure up in her mind what she could remember, though what she could remember were no more than broken images.
She had been into her fifth year when it happened. She was, she somehow knew, from the mountains, not the plains, not the forests.
She remembered there had been a wagon – part covered, so they must have been travelling, but where from, where to, she did not know.
They had left the forest that morning.
Nemi was asleep in the back. The wagon rocked her gently, and Nemi always slept well when it did that.
Drowsily she looked up through the front of the wagon. The patch of sky she could see was so blue it almost hurt her eyes to look at it.
Nemi closed her eyes, and slept.
Suddenly the wagon jolted to a halt, waking Nemi.
"Down!" the man at the front – her father?! – shouted.
The wagon turned sharply to the left – there was a snap – then nothing.
Nemi woke, feeling ill, with her head hurting and her vision blurred.
Silence answered her.
Nemi began to shake with cold shivers.
Later, awake again, her head clear now, Nemi could see the wagon was on its side. The sky outside was darker than she remembered it; she must have slept for several hours.
Confused, Nemi crawled towards the light.
Once she was outside, Nemi could see their horse was gone.
Taking careful steps, Nemi climbed out of the wagon and saw her mama, by the tree, asleep.
With a heart full of relief, Nemi dashed over to her mama, but, no matter how she tried, she couldn't wake her, couldn't wake her.
Confused, Nemi turned away from her Mama, full of guilt, feeling like she was deserting her, and looked for her father.
There was no answer.
Desperate and confused, Nemi began looking everywhere all at once, and that was when she saw that the front-right wheel was gone; she guessed that must be why the wagon had rolled over.
"Papa!? Please!?" Nemi cried, afraid now, but there was still only silence, just the breeze and the birds.
As she stood there, listening to the breeze, Nemi realised she was getting cold, so she went back to the wagon, climbed into the back, pulled out one of her Mama's jackets and put it on like a dress.
Her Mama always smiled when she saw Nemi dressed like that. Nemi's throat caught – she missed her Mama's smile!
Wiping her eyes and climbing back out of the wagon, Nemi froze – she could hear voices outside!
Her Mama asleep, her Papa nowhere in sight, Nemi began to be afraid. Carefully, as if even this movement could betray her, Nemi reached into her jacket and pulled out the little knife she carried on her belt.
Keeping as still as possible, peering over the edge of the wagon, Nemi saw the noise was a troop of warriors, all riding horses, six, no, seven of them. Their clothes were strange; they were not Nemi's people
"Halt!" the warrior at the front called.
"Bandits?" one of the others asked.
"Helots," one of the others said.
"Check for survivors," the leader ordered, and three of the warriors rode up to where Nemi was hiding in the shadows.
As she watched, one of them moved towards where her Mama slept –
"No!" Nemi screamed, dashing in front of the warrior, knife drawn, ready to protect her Mama...
Five years old.
Nemi had been just five years old when she had held a weapon for the first time – and meant it.
The first of the warriors had taken a gash to his thigh from Nemi as he tried to reach for her mother; she was, of course, already dead.
As the other two subdued Nemi, a cry came from one of the other warriors. They had found her father, dead as well.
Later, as they buried him, she had counted the crossbow bolts as they removed them from his corpse. Eight.
The leader of that troop, an honourable warrior called Purdink, had been so impressed by her fight, by her spunk, that, with the old Chieftain's blessing, he had adopted her.
She never called him Papa, but she shed fierce burning tears when, two years ago, he fell in battle.
Under Purdink's tutelage and encouragement, Nemi had been allowed to begin her training with a wooden sword not long after. Though not prodigious, still, her talent was sufficient that, by the age of eight, she had progressed to dull-edged blades of steel, moving on to full-sized weapons before she was twelve.
But it had not been enough.
Most recently, in raid after raid against the encampments of the Kilim, Nemi had come to recognise there was a lack in her swordsmanship. This lack, irritating her more and more with each passing day, had led her to visit the master armourer Xan in Fel-Sta.
He had seen at once the source of the problem – she lacked unity.
Though her patterns were good, Nemi still fought as a warrior and her weapon, as two, not as one. Somehow recognising this at an unconscious level, Nemi had begun to compensate for her lack of unity by beginning to over-reach, to bring the fight to her enemy, not waiting for them to commit. From such a small mistake, it was only a matter of time until she encountered a better warrior than herself. Her over-eager attacks would leave her at his mercy and a coup de grace that could well be something she could not heal from. Beheading was the kind of injury Nemi was pretty sure she would not be able to heal from.
Having identified her problem, Xan, for his own reasons, had agreed to trade her previous sword – which he recognised for the superior piece of workmanship that it was - for a pair of butterfly swords, 'dao' as he had called them.
So began a whole new phase of difficulty for Nemi. After almost fifteen years of fighting with a sword and sometimes a buckler, Nemi was once again a clumsy, untutored student.
The sooner she began training with her dao, the better.
That was where her problems really began, because nobody fought with two blades. Nobody. Indeed, Nemi had fought warriors who has used, or tried to use, two swords, but they had always died on the edge of her blade, often quickly. Two swords meant no coordination and a swift end. No. No serious warrior fought with two swords, meaning there was no sword-master Nemi could turn to in that method.
A little closer to her paired dao were those who fought with a combination of sword and dagger, a wholly different skill-set from double swords. Such opponents were harder to defeat, but again, their blades were rarely coordinated and, again, Nemi had triumphed. There were perhaps three sword-masters in the Vangon settlement Nemi could potentially turn to for teaching in this method, but they only taught the dagger as a defensive weapon, never as part of a combined attack. The level of awareness, speed, and coordination required were simply beyond almost all warriors.
Closest of all, though still not all that close and certainly not close enough to be of use to her, were those who fought with two daggers. Most double dagger fighters were the kinds of spies and sneaks who opened an enemy's gates, not warriors of the open battlefields. Nemi had met double dagger fighters on only two or three occasions, and they had fought well enough, but she had prevailed.
Her dao required a completely new approach, something Nemi would have to develop for herself, with no sword-masters among the Vangon she could turn to for training or advice.
She was on her own.
Nemi's self-directed training began with various exercises and activities to help her become more accustomed to her dao, something that was, by turns, easy enough in some ways, but more difficult in others.
The easy part was getting used to their weight, and to aid this Nemi began wearing her dao almost all of the time, soon only removing them to bathe or to sleep. In doing this, Nemi quickly became accustomed to moving with them, and her movements shifted from the consciously corrective to the unconsciously instinctive. Additionally, Nemi began a series of arm exercises designed to re-train her muscles to the different weight of the dao so that, when the training proper began, she would not tire over-quickly.
That was the easy part.
.... There is more of this story ...