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.
"What business is that of yours?" Nemi asked, keeping any note of challenge out of her tone.
It didn't work, and the other woman noticeably stiffened at her words. The man, though, remained alert but... amused?
"You know who we are?" the woman continued to ask, her tone suggesting she thought Nemi should be more respectful.
"Hippeis," Nemi answered. By now she had stopped approaching the warriors and had began what looked like warming down exercises. They were, but they were also exercises to keep her muscles warm and supple, should the need arise. There was now a scant dozen or so yards between Nemi and her 'visitors'. She was in no mood to reduce that distance any further just yet. Though it wasn't much, it could still be useful, if things turned bad; the space, her home, her surroundings, they all made it too confined for them to try to take her en masse.
Of course, they all knew that.
"You don't sound impressed Nemi!" called the man, still smiling.
Nemi turned to regard him more closely, dismissing him as the kind of nondescript individual who mistook muscle for power. He hadn't moved from his position, leaning back slightly against one of the many trees surrounding Nemi's home. He was also carrying a broadsword that Nemi knew had to be compensating for something else.
Nemi ignored his challenge. "What do you want?"
"You!" the man called. Still, his position remained unchanged.
Nemi dropped her hands to the hilts of her dao swords.
"Nooo, Nemi," the man said, his tone conciliatory, his head shaking gently, though he never took his eyes off Nemi. "Jatana wants to see you. You are summoned."
Nemi nodded. She'd guessed this day might come.
An official summons.
You didn't ignore a Summons from your Chieftain. No matter how politely it was worded, it was still an order to attend him.
"Do I at least get time to wash and change?"
The man smiled, "Midday, Nemi. Just don't take as long as did with your exercises. And don't forget to bring your little swords with you," he added, his tone humorous but not mocking.
Nemi smiled. He may be over-muscled, but he was not the fool she had imagined him to be.
"Midday, Nemi," he repeated before, with a nod to the two women, he turned and headed back to the Settlement proper. Of the two who followed him, the woman in black was clearly still unhappy with Nemi.
Nemi quickly dismissed them from her thoughts, opening the door to her home as she took a moment to remind herself not to pay so much attention to first impressions and prejudices in the future.
Once inside, Nemi dropped the bolt on her door. Though she had a feeling that she could trust the unknown male warrior, that her three 'visitors' had left for good, she still took no chances. True, the bolt, the door itself even, would not hold them for long, but it would be long enough to warn her of their return.
Shaking her head, Nemi stripped once more, the sweat of her morning's exercise had already begun to dry on her skin. As she checked the water in the cauldron in the hearth, Nemi offered a brief prayer of thanks to Rikatia that there was still some heat in it.
Quickly, Nemi used soap and cloth as she scrubbed herself clean once more.
Towelling herself down lightly, Nemi picked one of her muscle rubs from the mantle over the fireplace, a rub that would keep the heat in her muscles, and began to rub the oil into her skin. Massaging as much as oiling her skin, she studiously kept the oil from her face and cunt, the oil far too astringent for these.
Even as her skin began to absorb the mildly heating oil, Nemi reached for another small bottle from which she poured a handful of lightly scented oil, and this she worked into the skin of her loins, and into her face.
Finally, Nemi took down yet a third bottle of oil, and this she worked into her hair, using a comb to ensure it was worked through. Satisfied that it was, Nemi took a horn comb and used that to comb her hair once more before plaiting it into a single braid that she bound every inch or so with a length of black leather. Her braid complete, Nemi finished it off by making sure it was securely pinned to the top of her head.
If it came to a fight, Nemi need not worry about her hair costing her her life.
Naked, oiled, her skin glistening in the beams of sunlight, Nemi stood for a moment, lost in thought.
She had been summoned to the court of her Chieftain.
From the words of the male warrior who had told her this, it was clear she had been summoned because of her dao swords.
Clearly, she would have to answer for herself, perhaps demonstrate of herself. Even, perhaps, fight.
Thus she needed to dress for display, and also for the possibility of combat.
As one of Jatana's irregular troops – but not one of his Hippeis – Jatana would know that Nemi did not have any ceremonial clothes, so he would not be offended by her failing to wear such.
Yet Jatana would also expect that Nemi should not disgrace herself, the Great Hall, or her Chieftain.
All of these factors competed in her mind as, from her wardrobe, Nemi carefully selected and drew on a fresh and brief loin-cloth. Over this she drew soft black hose, both to keep her warm but also that left her mobile; something she might need, should the need arise, whatever that need might prove to be. Around her waist Nemi tied on a skirt of panels of black and red leather, fashioned after sword blades, each 'blade' no more than eight inches as they hung from the waist. Standing still, the skirt would seem unremarkable, but as soon as she moved, the 'blades' would move independently, again giving Nemi freedom of movement.
Nemi hesitated. She was, she realised, planning for the worst.
Shrugging off the thought as nothing she could do anything about, nothing she could change, Nemi next selected a tunic of softly woven lamb's wool, black, with full sleeves and a high neckline, though low enough to help her keep warm without over-heating her. On top of this, Nemi fastened a simple leather bodice of black leather, laced in red, and which, again, left her plenty of freedom of movement. It was not true armour, but it represented the idea of armour, something Nemi knew Jatana would notice, and even appreciate it perhaps. Finally came the leather boots, almost knee-high, and again in black and laced in red, with various words of power worked into the leather in red. Nemi had no idea if those invocations held any power, but like most warrior's, she wore them 'in case'. True to her warrior's knowledge, Nemi made sure to only lace her boots tightly as far as her calf muscles, double-knotting the laces there to hold their tension before lacing the rest of her boots more loosely. It was a compromise between strength and sureness, between suppleness and movement.
Nemi had just reached across for her sword belt when she heard the quarter bell strike three times from the Settlement.
A quarter of an hour until noon.
Quickly, Nemi finished tying on her belt, slipped the scabbards into their place, and dropped her dao swords into their scabbards.
Dressed and armed, Nemi took one last look around her home, closed the door, and headed for her appointment with Jatana.
She didn't lock it; either she would not be returning, or her return would be such as to dissuade any potential thief ... or assassin.
The Great Hall of the Vangon was a place of stern authority. Set in the heart of the Settlement and at the end of the Great Avenue, it had been the first civic building erected, built when the rest of the Settlement was nothing more than a loose collection of huts. With the building of the Great Hall, however, all that had changed, the original huts had been swept aside, and the Settlement had grown up around it as it had grown itself. But, in all that time, no building was ever constructed that was so large or so high as the Great Hall, not the grain barns, not the Chieftain's personal building, nothing. The Great Hall was and is and always would be a constant visible reminder of the power of the chieftain, whose meeting place it was. Built of lath and plaster, the exterior walls of the Hall were decorated with simply executed murals in white paint upon the dun plaster and depicting heroic victories of past Vangon battles. In contrast, the interior walls were plain, austere, undecorated, reflecting the belief that the rulings of the Chieftain should be more thought out, less impulsive.
All this passed through Nemi's mind, though not, truthfully, her awareness, as she made her way along the avenue to the Great Hall. All around her people were going about their daily business, uninterested in her unless it was to try and persuade her to buy something. Even these were not so bothersome, there being something in Nemi's manner that suggested interrupting her thoughts might not be the best idea. True, people were not killed for such casual rudeness, but it could always happen, so best not to take that risk.
Nemi's awareness was necessarily elsewhere as she considered the possibilities and options that could present themselves to her in the coming minutes.
Busy as she was with her analyses, this did not prevent her from feeling that this was not a good Summons to be attending.
One set of possibilities revolved around Jatana forcing Nemi to fight to prove herself. If the fights were to spar, all would be fine, but if not, there was the risk of death, or the risk of discovery of her talent for healing, and this second possibility was something she was desperate to avoid. Whatever discovery of her healing would mean – banishment, imprisonment, outlawry, attempts to kill her in various ways until successful, even recruitment for what would otherwise be suicidal missions against otherwise unattainable objectives – none of these were something Nemi wanted to be exposed to. If she fought, she had to win with little or no injury; certainly she could not take – and survive – a seemingly mortal wound.
A second set of possibilities was exile, not from discovery of her healing gift, but from her wielding dangerously unknown weapons. This was a possibility, but not a strong one. Nemi was well aware that neither Jatana nor the Hippeis would want her roaming beyond their lands, free to teach her new techniques to the enemies of the People.
A yet further third possibility, now promoted to consideration all on its own, was simply for Jatana to order Nemi's death. She considered this unlikely, especially given the way she had been summoned. And yet. And yet she found herself wondering how many mortal wounds she could survive before one of them worked? And, in the back of her mind Nemi wondered if even she could heal from impalement? Beheading? She did not want to find out.
Recruitment to the Hippeis was also an option, and not one Nemi wanted. She cherished her individual freedom too much to want to enter into the regimented, barracked life of the Hippeis, honour that it would be or not. Elevation to the ranks of the Hippeis was generally earned through service to Jatana, and that was a service Nemi was not prepared to pay.
Unconsciously Nemi shook her head. She had traded in her sword for the dao swords for the best of reasons, but the consequences were all grim.
Silent, determined, dismissing all such considerations and options from her mind, Nemi strode up to the first of the small rise of steps that would lead her into the Great Hall.
Nemi paused, and offered a quick prayer to Rikatia, that she would watch over Nemi, and that Nemi's interests might coincide with the goddess'.
Taking three more steps, Nemi stood at the threshold of the Great Hall, its great wooden doors open, waiting. Also waiting, and seemingly equally impassively, were two Hippeis, both male, each standing to one side of the doorway, and each of them armed with a halberd constructed from a single branch of ironwood some seven feet in length and topped by a foot long blade of the finest steel, probably from Fel-Sta but maybe even from further away than that, Jatana's pride and his gold demanding only the best for his honour guard.
Nemi strode past them without pause, without slowing, but as she did so the guards turned to face one another and dropped their halberds until they crossed. No-one else was to enter the Great Hall until whatever was happening inside was concluded.
Nemi nodded, and moved on. At least that meant that all those who she might meet – or face – were already inside.
Two more strides, and Nemi passed through the inner door of the entrance and passed into the great open space that was the Great Hall proper.
Though she had been there often in the past for ceremonial occasions, the interior of the Great Hall always impressed Nemi.
She remembered her first time as clearly as though it were yesterday, the sense of awe at the vast openness of the Great Hall. Perhaps fifty feet wide and probably three times that deep, the wooden beams overhead seemed almost woven into a weirdly carpentered spider's web that supported the whole of the thatched roof beyond. There were no interior chambers. Instead the interior of the Great Hall consisted of regimented ranks of supporting posts, benches and tables. Almost lost in the distance, the Chieftain's dais was set against the far wall and behind which were, she knew though she had never seen, a series of small chambers. Some of them were ornately decorated for receiving guests, others less so for holding prisoners.
On those other occasions, festivals and other celebrations, the Hall had been loud with joy, but today was different. Replacing the hubbub of revelry were the quiet tones of whispered conversations, the revellers being long gone, and in their place were many of the Vangon's warriors – and all of the Hippeis not otherwise on duty.
In its way it was rather daunting. Whatever happened in the next few minutes, it would happen in public, and not that she had ever done so, but in the future there would be no denying of her dao swords and her skills.
Everything was coming to a head, she was uncertain how things would go for her, and her misgivings were made all the more uncomfortable by the sheer number of warriors and Hippeis in attendance.
As she drew towards the dais, and as Nemi expected, she saw that Jatana's throne was flanked by two his most senior Hippeis, that he might seek advice and guidance from them, should he so choose.
When she was a respectful twenty feet in front of the dais, Nemi came to a stop, her posture as neutral as she could make it whilst still seeking to establish her right to being there, whatever that might mean.
For the first time, Nemi felt her isolation, both physical, and also potentially from the Vangon. It was not a comfortable feeling.
Around her, the warriors and Hippeis of the Vangon drew back, a living wall of muscle and steel, all of them desperate to know why Nemi was there and what she could say or do to justify it.
There was no-one within fifteen feet of Nemi.
Surrounded by such a force, Nemi's feelings of isolation began to grow to dangerous proportions. With a moment's concentration, she dismissed them, pushed them back, and reminded herself that the only person who matter at that moment was the man atop the throne of the Vangon, Jatana himself.
"Nemi," Jatana said, his voice calm, quiet, and grimly authoritative. At once, all such muttering that there had been from the assembled warriors ceased.
"You know why you are here?"
"Sire," Nemi confirmed, her voice deliberately confident sounding.
"Talk to me."
Mentally, Nemi took a deep breath. It was time to justify herself and her choices before her Chieftain.
"Sire, I had a problem. My swordwork was... wrong. So, when the weather permitted it, I went to Fel-Sta, and there I spoke with Xan. It was his suggestion that I change from my sword to these, dao swords, " she explained.
"So, it was Xan's doing?" Jatana asked, knowingly provocative.
Nemi shook her head. "No, sire. He showed me the option, but the choice to take them was mine.
Jatana nodded a moment, then waved an authorising hand. "Show me."
Nodding her understanding, Nemi very carefully and very slowly drew the dao sword from the scabbard on her left hip, holding it up for Jatana – and others – to see.
"It is called a dao sword, sire. As you can see, it is shorter but deeper than a sword. The back of the blade is dull, and so is the first four inches or so of the blade. Also, the guards have been extended out into blade-snappers. A dao sword can be used on its own, but they are better, more commonly used as a pair."
"Commonly used? By... ?"
Nemi smiled weakly. "I do not know, sire. Xan said they were from far from here, and it was he who told me," Nemi confessed, in her confession realising that Xan may have simply said as he did in order to sell two swords rather than one sword.
"Hmm. Dao swords?"
"Sire," Nemi confirmed as she continued to slowly demonstrate the blade, catching and reflecting the flickering lights of the oil lamps that lit the Hall, all the while being cautious not to say anything in case it might be too much.
Nemi was, she knew, on unsafe ground.
Jatana, as her Chieftain, would be fully within his authority to forbid her to carry her dao swords if he so chose.
That was the moment when Nemi's life changed. For, in the realisation of the possibility of prohibition, Nemi recognised that she would defy such an order, risking, no, accepting outlawry if necessary.
Nemi's obedience had shifted from Jatana to herself and her own, unclear, unknown destiny.
"Gislí?" Jatana asked, turning to the warrior to his left and interrupting Nemi's thoughts.
Though their paths had rarely crossed, Nemi knew of him as all Vangon warriors knew of him. For her part, Nemi had served with him, in a very junior capacity, on a few raiding parties. He was, she judged, a sombre individual, a man given to brooding when at rest, but almost unopposably fierce in battle. Many mistook him, from his build, from his fighting style, for a berserker, but he was not, matching that thoughtful, strategic intelligence with his strength. A worthy leader for the Hippeis.
Gislí shook his head as, taciturn as ever, he said, simply, "No, sire. They are unknown to me, personally or by reputation."
"And you, Oyglo?" Jatana asked, turning now to the female warrior on his right, a tall, vital, rare red-head. Nemi had never served with her, but Oyglo's reputation was as a tactician, whether it was organising a guerilla attack or a charge en masse.
"No, sire. They are as new as snowdrops," she answered. For a moment she cast a look at Nemi, but what it meant, Nemi could not tell. It was not sisterly, nor was it collusive, but nor too was it negative. It, too, Nemi filed away for later.
"Snowdrops," Jatana muttered, though whether in humour or contempt, none could say, holding Oyglo under her gaze until, uncomfortable, she turned away to face Nemi once more.
Jatana returned his attention to Nemi, stroking his blond beard as he considered. "I hear you have become ... adept ... with your 'dao' swords Nemi?"
"I believe I have, sire," Nemi replied, careful to remain confident without braggadocio.
"Indeed. I further hear you have defeated, how many, a score of the 'Inn Corps'?" Jatana asked, rousing chuckles from the Hippeis, the 'Inn Corps' being the name given to those who drank too much and practised too little, at least in the eyes of the Hippeis, for whom their own opinion was the only opinion they cared about.
"Sire," Nemi confirmed, not wishing to correct Jatana – she had actually defeated almost two score, not one.
"But only with wooden dummies?" Jatana asked, his double-meaning drawing more knowing laughter from the warriors gathered in the Great Hall, as well as some grumbling from some of the other warriors, warriors who, though not members of the 'Inn Corps' themselves, had friends who were, as old soldiers often were.
There were, of course, none of the 'Inn Corps' themselves actually present.
"Sire," Nemi confirmed, unsure where this was leading.
"Hmm, show me, Nemi."
"Sire?" Nemi asked, confused; she had already drawn and displayed her swords for Jatana.
"Draw your dao swords, Nemi ... and take first position," Jatana instructed, and the Great Hall was again silent. Everyone there present knew that something important was about to happen, though what that might be, they could not yet say.
Slowly and cautiously – drawing a blade in the Chieftain's presence was not done lightly or threateningly, such mistakes only being made once - Nemi drew her second dao sword, crossed them over her chest a moment in salute before, still with cautious slowness, she moved into her first position, that resting position from which she could attack, block, or retreat, as the situation developed.
"What is that?" Jatana asked.
"It is my first position," Nemi cautiously responded.
"Who taught you this position?" Jatana asked, Nemi's pose radically different from the first position taught by the sword-teachers of the Vangon.
"No-one, sire. It, it is my own."
"Are all your positions also self-taught?" Jatana asked, unable to mask his dismay, his distaste even.
Nemi nodded. "Sire."
Around the Hall, a murmur of dismay was heard. Though it was commonplace for a warrior to improvise during combat – those who did, survived, those who did not, were not in the Hall – it was almost unheard of for a warrior to develop their own patterns. Not even the sword-teachers did such a thing.
"So," Jatana began, and at once the Hall again fell silent, everyone deeply interested now in what was happening. "How is it, that you are so good with this 'dao sword', Nemi, that you can ... develop ... your own patterns?"
Maintaining as self-confident a posture as she could, Nemi did her best to return the intensity of Jatana's gaze as she answered. "I don't know sire. They feel ... comfortable, part of me somehow," Nemi said, ending with a shrug for, in truth, she did not understand for herself how it was that her dao swords felt so right. There was no way, then, she could have explained this to Jatana.
Jatana nodded, thoughtful. "Is this why, Nemi, that you are seemingly unbeatable?"
Nemi carefully shook her head. "No, sire. I do not know that I'm unbeatable," she began, her words cautious, deliberately unchallenging, "But I seem to be hard to defeat. Whether it is the dao swords themselves, or my comfortableness with them, I don't know. Perhaps both."
"Perhaps," Jatana mused. "Or perhaps it is that you have only faced the Inn Corps."
Nemi nodded, once. "Perhaps, sire."
To Jatana's side, Gislí leant down and whispered something in the Chieftain's ear. Jatana clearly gave the matter some thought, and waved for Gislí to ask his question aloud.
"But Nemi," Gislí began, his tone already one of disbelief, almost patronising. "They are so short. How can you defeat a normal sword with them?"
Nemi made to speak, and thought better of her words. Gislí was not insulting her, he simply could not imagine that she could fight so well with her dao swords. He was, she realised, a conservative. And after all, Gislí was a respected and proven warrior, so Nemi rephrased her words before she spoke. "Their shortness is their strength, sir. For a swordsman to engage me in combat, he has to come too close, losing whatever advantage his longer blade would have. His movements become shortened, his patterns disrupted. He is not used to small movements. I am. His sword is not meant for close combat. Mine are. So far, I win."
Jatana nodded slowly, having watched their exchange with interest. "Show me, Nemi. Gislí, spar with her."
"Sire," said Gislí as he drew his sword – also slowly – and descended to the hard-packed floor of the Great Hall, carrying his sword point down as he went.
For a moment he stood before Nemi. Turning to face his Chieftain, Gislí asked, "Sire, what are the rules?"
Jatana smiled wolfishly. "From what I hear told, Nemi fights for the kill-stroke, wagering her cunt to motivate her sparring partner. Is that acceptable for you, my friend? Defeat her – not kill her, mind – and take her for a night?"
Gislí smiled, satisfied, but not filled or distracted with lust. "Sire."
"Sire?" Nemi began.
"Sire, I respect Gislí, have seen him often in battle, but what is my prize, if I should win?"
From around the hall a murmur of professional laugher and doubt broke out, not at Nemi herself, but at her confidence.
Jatana raised a hand, and at once the laughter stopped. "What would you have, if you were to win?"
Nemi hesitated. She had not imagined she would be asked to spar in front of her Chieftain. She certainly had not imagined becoming Gislí's fuck-toy for the night if she were to lose. Dismissing her frustration at being trapped so, Nemi quickly turned her thoughts to what prize that was in the gift of Jatana that she would want. Self-contained as she was, there was little she wanted ... except, "A horse, sire. A war horse."
Jatana arched an eyebrow. War horses were normally the privilege of the Hippei, but there was something about the way Nemi asked, an unwillingness to be placed second, not to Gislí, not to a man, not to anyone, that Jatana was forced to admit a grudging respect for. "Agreed. Should you win, Nemi, you may take a horse from my own stables."
Nemi smiled and nodded. "Sire."
"But not my horse, Nemi," Jatana warned. "Positions!"
Turning to face Gislí, Nemi took three steps back, matching Gislí's own movements as he drew his sword up and moved into his own first position.
Blocking out everyone and everything else, Nemi concentrated all her attention on Gislí. He was strong, heavily muscled, but for all the advantages that gave him, it also gave her the advantage of agility. It was not a fair exchange, but it was something she could work with. She had to use that, though; if he even made one blow count, it would all be over. Her only recourse was to somehow ensure he had no opportunity to make such a stroke. Thinking back to his words, his disbelief, only moments ago, Nemi realised that that might make the difference, even tilt things to her advantage – his unfamiliarity with her style. Having intuited her own positions and movements, she knew she would move and react in ways wholly new and unexpected for him.
Just as long as she kept out of the way of a stunning blow from his blade.
Nemi also knew Gislí was more than smart enough to have figured this out for himself.
As Gislí came to rest in his first position, holding his sword in his right, not even tensing his grip on the hilt of his sword, Nemi shifted her first position slightly so that her left blade was leading, with her right blade defending or following, as need dictated. Leading from the left was a feint, but it was worth it – a war horse!
As Nemi and Gislí locked eyes, the assembled warriors fell silent, fascinated, enthralled, and absolutely uncertain of what would happen next...
"Begin," Jatana instructed, neither a shout, nor betraying the excitement he felt at this strange, unprecedented combat.
Jatana's command had not even died away, and at once Nemi found herself easily slipping into the more-than-real focus of combat as she faced her opponent.
For a moment, Gislí held his position, then took a measured step forward, closing the gap, seeking be close enough to strike while remaining beyond Nemi's reach.
Just as Nemi had expected.
Gislí was still in the act of raising his blade when Nemi suddenly dashed forward, her right arm moving to block Gislí's blade, her left ready to follow.
Momentarily panicking to have lost his advantage, his pattern interrupted, Gislí stepped back, trying to drop his elbow and bring his blade down before Nemi was ready for it.
Instead, Nemi used her left hand to swat Gislí's blade away across his body, threatening to unbalance him, and stepping smartly in the other direction, out of his reach, turning and resuming her first position, poised, ready.
Around her Nemi was aware of muttered praise, but she ignored it, maintaining her focus on Gislí as he took up his own first position again, shifting into a two-handed grip this time.
Two-handed grips Nemi had sparred against, and knew how to counter, but she saw that Gislí was feinting with his left, would withdraw it at the last moment.
And in that moment, Nemi realised she would win.
It was now simply a matter of the manner of her victory.