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.
Much harder was the conscious and dedicated development of the ability to use each hand and arm equally well, to become truly ambidextrous. In the past Nemi had learned how to fight with her left as well as her right – a precaution against injury or capture, as well as occasionally useful as a feint – but she had never really progressed beyond the necessities of survival.
She still fought and led with her right, and, now, this had to change.
Entirely practical in achieving her goal, Nemi took to performing all her single-hand chores around her home with her left rather than her right, and using her left to lead in all double-handed chores. She often forgot, to begin with, but it didn't take too long before she became comfortable using either hand around her home as the situation demanded. Once again, a consciously willed act slowly became an unconsciously instinctive one.
Meanwhile, as time passed, as she gained new musculature and dexterity, Nemi began visualising patterns...
Almost three weeks after her return from Fel-Sta, Nemi felt the moment had arrived when her real training should begin. There was no more dexterity to be gain, no more patterns to visualise. Moreover, the sun was shining and spring was not long away.
Nemi was sure Rikatia blessed her.
On the chosen morning and after clearing away her breakfast things, Nemi quickly dressed in an outfit of white and black leather, the colouring a conscious attempt at camouflage. Her destination that morning was a small birch wood that stood nearby, selected as offering the best combination of seclusion and a dynamic space in which to train. Over a fresh loincloth, Nemi pulled on a pair of heavy but moveable leather trousers, their ability to protect her from accidental strikes of her training blades recommending them the most as opposed to other, lighter options. Pausing to re-braid and pin up her thick brown hair, Nemi pulled on a lightweight but warm tunic, to keep her warm against the chill of spring. Over the top her tunic she added a utilitarian leather bodice that, again, would protect her from herself while giving her the range of movement that only nudity could surpass. That was not an option on a pre-Spring morning. Next Nemi snuggled into a pair of matching calf-length boots, into which she hid a couple of smaller throwing daggers. Finally Nemi tied a wide leather belt about her waist, a belt that disguised a set of throwing stars, and whose loops at the back were perfect for the long-bladed daggers Nemi fastened into them, protection against the unwanted and uninvited, bandit or otherwise.
Satisfied with her preparations, Nemi tied her dao scabbards to her thighs, leaving her bladed dao behind and substituting them for their wooden duplicates with which she practiced.
Pausing only to pick up a flask of water and a small cloth to wipe herself and her weapons' hilts, Nemi closed the door to her hut and set off on the hour's hike to the birch wood.
As the oaks of the forest began to give way to the birch whose enclosed wood she sought, Nemi smiled to herself, confident she had chosen her practice ground well. The birch wood sat on a small rise within the wood, giving her visibility and earshot of all who might come her way, but Nemi had little expectation of this. Indeed, since leaving the bounds of the Settlement, she had neither seen nor heard anyone; she had only the beasts and the birds of the forest for company.
As she climbed up to the level of the birch wood, Nemi saw how the trees were yet to regain their vigour in the aftermath of the harsh winter they had endured. Though their trunks looked healthy enough, there were few leaves seen, even fewer leaf buds. Perhaps another two weeks, maybe more if the weather turned cold again, but, for now, the birch wood had a certain skeletal aspect that Nemi found fitting to her purpose.
Hanging her cloth and flask on a convenient branch – though not relinquishing her daggers which remained in their place – Nemi stepped forward into a small clearing of a dozen feet or so across, and slowly drew her wooden dao substitutes...
For the first few days, Nemi's weapons practice was nothing more complex than moving with the dao in her hands – no conscious patterns, only the free movement of Nemi and her dao as they got to know each other, learning what they could and couldn't do. Sometimes Nemi would move slowly, feeling her way through her movements, adjusting them from moment to moment, transitioning from one pose to another. At other times, Nemi would move with all her speed, responding to imagined and remembered opponents, sometimes coming to an abrupt halt, adjusting her pose, and continuing on.
Day after day this continued as Nemi learned how to move with her dao, how to initiate, how to respond, how to adjust, and even how to improvise beyond those patterns which she began to discover for herself.
Arriving at her private practice space each morning not long after her breakfast, Nemi would work through until late afternoon, pausing only for water, to wipe down her daos' hilts, or to lunch simply on bread and fruit and fish. Each evening, tired but satisfied, she would return to her hut, washing herself down fully, and rubbing healing oils into her muscles before settling into the sleep of those who are content with their day's work.
After only a couple of days, Nemi began to gain an appreciation for all the various advantages – and drawbacks – of her dao.
Some warriors would have mistaken her dao's lack of a full edge, they only had an edge for the terminal eight inches or so of their length, as a drawback but, to Nemi's mind, they would be wrong. True, Nemi herself could imagine scenarios where that could be a problem, but the dull edges of her dao outweighed all of that, not least in the option of using them as a cudgel, stunning rather than killing her opponent. Further, if her dao had been ordinary swords then she would have worried over her sharp edges being overworked, soon losing their sharpness, but Xan had promised her that Hel-Dẅr's blades never lost their edge. Better yet, if an opponent mistakenly thought they would wear her blades into ineffectiveness, they were in for a sudden and fatal surprise.
In its own way, the same was also true for the blade-snappers. In and of themselves, they were difficult to use in that way, requiring coordination and, as Nemi thought, a pretty boneless wrist in order to twist and manoeuvre your opponent's blade into the place where it could be snapped, a move then requiring that previously flexible wrist to be transformed into a heavily muscled wrist in order to actually snap that blade. Such a move was technically possible, but practically almost impossible, especially against thicker, heavier blades. A much quicker option instead was just to slash him with her other blade. However, those blade-snappers also offered a way to hook, to poke, and even to bluntly stab at your opponent, all of which were useful and unexpected options for her opponent to have to counter.
But the real surprise for Nemi were the patterns themselves.
Even while she was simply exercising and moving and learning to move with her dao, Nemi could sense a connectedness she had never felt with her sword. There was something very different about her dao. They felt themselves an extension of her, and they felt very, very natural.
It was as if they were the weapon she had been born to master.
To Nemi's surprise, that mastery proved much easier and progressed more swiftly than she had ever expected or hoped or dreamed.
It had begun in the patterns.
During her acclimation to her dao, Nemi had imagined how to adapt the first patterns she had learned when she had learned her sword work But even as she danced with her dao, Nemi realised it would not be enough. Her dao called for something different, something she would have to improvise for herself – hence her extended period where she learned how to move with her dao.
That was all at an end now.
Her muscles had adapted.
Her movements flowed.
It was time to build her patterns.
With spring rapidly approaching, with the sun high in the morning sky, and with the birch trees coming into first bud, Nemi drew her wooden dao and shifted into what was to be her first pose, a resting pose with both blades drawn, leading with the right – no! – leading with the left for misdirection, with her knees flexed, her elbows flexed, shoulders soft. It was a comfortable pose, a pose she could hold as she waited for an opponent to commit.
Picturing an opponent in front of her, coming at her in a basic attack pattern, Nemi found her resting pose positioned her almost perfectly to respond, either to flow into a lunge of her own, a single-bladed or a double-bladed block, a block-and-lunge, or simply retreat a step.
Surprised by this development, Nemi practised the same response-from-rest again and again, her imaginary opponents drawn from memory, the tales of other warriors, her own imagination. Every time, from that first pose, she could safely counter, often with what would be a fatal response.
Pausing a moment to re-evaluate what she had discovered, Nemi took her first pose again, this time conjuring opponents who were able to react to her initial response.
Slowly Nemi began to develop her two-stage patterns, the 'doubles' of block-block, block-attack, block-retreat, attack-kill, etcetera. It took her two days and most of the third, but by then Nemi was confident what she had developed sufficient two-stage patterns to be able to successfully handle most combat situations. As she knew, as she had been taught in her first lessons, so long ago, most battles being in fact over in seven seconds; her patterns would already hold her to fifteen.
The longer Nemi worked with her dao, the more thoroughly she dismissed the idea that her swiftness at learning her dao was somehow related to her previous skills with a sword. It was more than that. She found herself moving so quickly through the patterns, she could feel her patterns within her muscles, even before she had visualised them. More, her patterns not only flowed themselves, but they flowed into and through each other, allowing Nemi to improvise from mid-pattern, to switch mid-pattern, to become a warrior of instinct.
Nemi had never expected this, and was dutifully thankful to Rikatia.
Pausing a moment in reflection, remembering what Xan had said, that her dao would become an extension of her, Nemi also remembered Xan's advice to her; find someone to spar with.
Nemi smiled, and began to plan.
On the evening of the first night of her plan, there was still a chill to the air, prompting Nemi to dress warmly. Pulling on a fresh loincloth, Nemi stood before her meagre wardrobe, wondering exactly to accomplish her goal. She began making her selections for night's coming activities, obviously enough, with a pair of warm moleskin trousers in black. To this she added a simple tunic of white silk, open at the front and which she only lightly laced. Taking a moment to look at her reflection, Nemi lamented, for perhaps the only time in her life, that her breasts were not larger; they would have to do. Nemi fiddled with the lacing, opening it a little more. She knew full well how the sight of cleavage, and especially the hint of a nipple, could distract a man, or a woman for that matter. A little distraction was exactly what she needed.
She didn't need people figuring out quite what she was up to, at least not until it was too late to matter.
Turning back to her wardrobe, Nemi closed the door and from the hooks on its side took up her habitual winter coat, a padded jacket in bole.
She completed her look with a pair of black calf-length leather boots in black.
Now for the important part, Nemi thought – weapons!
The pair of daggers had taken to carrying in the loops of her belt were a given, as were the throwing stars that looked like decorations on the wide belt she had chosen for that night's activities. The difference was her dao. Previously, Nemi had done all she could to keep their existence as secret as possible, but that was all over now. So, for the first time, she could wear them, strapped to her thighs, over her trousers, in plain sight.
It was time.
Patting them affectionately, Nemi closed the door to her hut, hunching up in her jacket as she made the short journey to the Settlement's only inn.
It had no name, nor any need of one. It was The Inn and that was enough.
Tucked at the farthest point from the Chieftain's Great Hall, it was the place where, in the winter, you could expect to find farmers skulking near the hearth, artisans hawking for business, and the more confident, overconfident, or just plain lazy warriors drinking their ales, spinning their yarns, and burnishing their own legends.
With spring desperately trying to break the hold of winter, Nemi knew there would be fewer farmers amongst the inn's customers. They were too busy with fields and livestock. No, the inn would be packed – it always was – but at this time of year it would be a mixture of tradesmen, those too old to be warriors any longer, and those warriors who valued the telling of their stories more than they should.
Nemi sighed. It was not the ideal place to seek out a sparring partner, but it was the best opportunity the Vangon Settlement offered outside of the Chieftain's own armed forces.
Nemi had no desire to draw that kind of attention, at least not until she was much better prepared for it.
That preparation began by working through the ranks of second-rate warriors, such as those who drank the nights away.
Committed to her path, Nemi pushed the door of the inn open and stepped inside.
At once she was assaulted by the almost physical blow of the combination of heat and noise and the smell of spilt ale.
A quick glance confirmed her worst fears. A couple of pornê, simple prostitutes of agreeable beauty were trying to earn their living, spending enough time with a warrior to gain their measure, either staying until they earned their money, or moving on. Nemi shook her head sadly. Pornê were often those women who lacked the skills to be warriors, and the charms to be wives. With nothing else to offer, they offered their bodies. Nemi had spent many a quiet time with one or another of the Vangon pornê, finding their unsophisticated company easier than the more demanding hetaera. For a moment she concentrated on the two pornê she could see, but neither was one she recognised. Not surprising as often a warrior would marry them off, especially the kinds of warriors who drank at the inn, who had little chance of convincing a female warrior of their worth.