Editored by B4Lurker and arthvr dragonsen – any remaining errors are my own work.
It was just a few days until the Vangon settlement celebrated the spring equinox, that precious moment when winter ends, when the nights are shorter, and when vitality rises again in the loins of man and woman alike. Each tribe and each settlement, from town to village to the smallest of hamlets, they each and they all celebrated that moment in their own manner.
For the Vangon, the whole of the People would draw together, from the Chieftain down to the lowliest craftsman and the mewling babe, and together they would crowd into the great Hall of the People where they would witness the dawning of the sun, its light pouring into the Hall along the main avenue of the settlement.
There would be no celebration. Indeed, their mood that morning would be quiet, reverent, and fearful.
As one, every adult and every child in training would know the dawning of the Spring also meant danger. Just as they felt the vitality rising in their blood, then so would the other tribes, and those other Peoples might be overcome by the fire in their blood and seek out another People to prove themselves against. Superiority is never proven until it has been tested, and in Nemi's world, that meant blood and steel.
That is not to say that such incursions and attacks were common, but they were watched for; they were always a possibility.
It did not do to be a stranger approaching a settlement in the spring. Such a move was, at the best of times, risky, but in the spring, it was suicide.
Indeed, from the day of the Equinox, the bounds-walkers no longer patrolled in pairs, but in small groups of five, four warriors and one runner. The runner's sole duty in such a unit was to carry a warning to the People at the first sign of danger. The warriors' duty was to give the runner the opportunity he needed to escape, their own lives a small price to pay.
With the slaughter of the Kilim that winter, the Vangon no longer had any immediate neighbours to fear. However, unable to fully occupy and hold the Kilim's old grounds themselves, the Vangon were forced to surrender much that might otherwise have been theirs to the practicalities of distance, or simple paucity of the land itself.
It was, then, a certainty that others would begin to move in, possibly even having already done so during the winter when, for a long time, it had been impossible to reconnoitre the more distant former Kilim holdings.
Such a thing could not be avoided; it was the way of things that villages grew from the most humble of beginnings, from hamlets and farmsteads that had been abandoned for one reason or another. It was also the nature of such things that those first settlers were always those who had left other Settlements, through war or discontent or exile or outlawry, and such people did not make for good neighbours. As time passed they may become so, but initially, they were to be wary of, to be mistrusted and, often, to be driven away or killed, simply for the security of the neighbouring Peoples.
Hence the strengthened bounds-walkers.
With the rising of Spring's vitality, the Vangon Hippeis, the elite cadre of the Vangon's fighting force, began to feel a certain offence towards Nemi.
At first it was a vague, unfocused feeling, not against her personally, for she had fought with them in the rout of the Kilim and had almost died at the hands of the traitorous Alban, but there began to grow a certain curiosity about the stories that reached the Hippeis of Nemi's having some new weapon, some new skill, something that, it seemed, they knew nothing about.
Initially those stories were dismissed, but as they continued, growing in scope and magnifying Nemi's skills, so did the curiosity of the Hippeis give place to a professional pride. After all, they were the Hippeis and didn't this mean that they should know how to fight with – and counter – every weapon that might be drawn against them?
And here was Nemi, armed and skilled, it seemed, in something they did not have.
The first seeds of discontent were thus planted.
Ironically it was Nemi herself who watered this seed.
If she had been more secretive and had practised her sword forms alone and against shadows, nothing would have come of it.
But she had not.
Rather, driven as she was by the need to spar against another warrior in order to prove and improve her skills, she was not as discreet as she should have been. Cautious as Nemi was, it was inevitable for some of her sparring partners to talk, some of them in awe, some of them in anger, but all of them in words that, one way or another, found their way to the ears of the Hippeis.
Ultimately it was Brestir himself who was the unwitting agent for Nemi's fame, his improved skills and acquisition of a woman being so outside of his expected fate that it became the final straw that provoked the warrior elite into action.
The senior Hippeis spoke of their concerns in the council of the Chieftain, and Nemi was sent for.
The day when everything changed began, as they always do, no different from every other day as Nemi breakfasted lightly on dried fruits, cereals and nuts cooked together into a pottage and washed down by a mug of goat's milk.
Though her home as a single warrior was small, Nemi took great pride in it, as she did in most things, and so she had no sooner finished her meal than she tidied it away, washing her utensils and leaving them to dry for later.
That done, Nemi stripped down to her skin, leaving her neatly folded sleeping clothes on her bed. For a moment she ran her hands over her flesh, pleased and taking pleasure from the feel of well-toned muscle just beneath her flawless skin. With a warrior's precision she continued to run her hands over her body, loosening up her muscles as she checked for any signs of stiffness or soreness.
She found none.
She did, however, find her nipples had begun to stiffen. Nemi sighed. Today was not the day for such things.
So, and with only a small feeling of regret, Nemi quickly changed into a loin-cloth and halter – both of soft grey moleskin. Next came her weapons belt, scabbards dropping into the fittings on either side of her waist. From the bottom of these scabbards fell a thin leather twine, and these Nemi laced to her thighs, loosely enough so they would be comfortable to exercise in, yet also available, should the need arise. Thus prepared, Nemi carefully slipped her dao swords into their scabbards, feeling the comfort that only another warrior can understand of the weight of a weapon in its place, at a warrior's side. Finally, Nemi slipped her feet into a pair of calf-length grey leather boots – matching, though unintentionally so when she had purchased them, her loincloth and halter – and which Nemi tied off with the knots to the outside of her calves, giving her a freedom when running.
In less time than it took to describe, Nemi was ready.
Quitting her home and locking the door behind her, Nemi set off on what began as a brisk walk until she felt her breakfast had sufficiently digested, whereupon she switched, from a light jog to a more strenuous jog to a yet more serious running pace as she headed deep into the woods far beyond where her practice ground stood; its trees were only now beginning to show the buds of the leaves to follow.
As anticipated, the woods were deserted for not even the most dedicated warrior would be expected, or expected to, exercise as hard as Nemi was exercising herself. So, instead of competing or avoiding other warriors on their own training regimes, Nemi was able to take the time and the opportunity to notice and enjoy the thrusting life of the woods. All around her, especially as she drew away from her practice ground, the trees were putting forth their leaves. What had been dull bark for so long was now putting on its costume of green. The floor of the woods was doing what it could to compete with the hurrying trees. Beds of flowers were bursting their way through the mulch and the undergrowth; some of them already opening their flowers, defiantly daring the frost to take their beauty from the world. In the branches of the trees, the first nests were beginning to show, and in the sky above, the smaller birds were wheeling and scurrying, seeking food and a mate for the summer.
Not so different, are we? Nemi thought to herself as she reached her half-way mark and turned to begin the path back home again.
It took Nemi a little more than an hour to complete her morning's exercise. She was still feeling the full flush of the joy of exercise, that aliveness that tells you your body is healthy and efficient, when, as she came round the side of her home, she was surprised to see three of Jatana's Hippeis waiting for her, two women and a man, all armed and none of them looking very happy.
Nemi slowed to a walking pace, still a good degree of separation from the trio. Caution when dealing with the Hippeis was always a good idea.
"Hallo?" Nemi called out, not so much a salute as an acknowledgement wrapped up with a question.
"Nemi!" called the taller of the women, a tightly muscled warrior, dressed in black leather and moleskin against the chill of the morning. She was also armed with a medium-sized sword which, Nemi noted, she had not drawn. Yet.
"Yes..." Nemi replied, giving away nothing until she knew why they were there.
"Where have you been?" the woman asked, unsuccessfully trying to hide her impatience.
"Out," Nemi replied flatly.
.... There is more of this story ...