Learning to fight

I wish I remembered who offered Mernath as an example of what happens when someone who is intrinsically absolutely good gets in with the wrong side. It sounds like Airath.

The next morning my jaw felt like nothing had ever happened to it. When I got to the workshop it was Jichan opening up, “it’s Cynla’s late morning”, he said, but Cynla came from upstairs as soon as I was in and started to put bread and cheese and small beer on the table. I’d eaten some bread from home on the way, but I didn’t mind another breakfast!

“It’s only a half-day,” Master Mernath said, “so let’s get in some practice!” And he showed Cynla how a sword was put together and let her make different sorts of pins to attach the blade to the hilt, and Jichan and Jeran and I got more sharp edges to do. The master must earn a lot from the things he finishes if he can afford to let us do so much work that doesn’t bring in money! At the end of the morning he told us to stop working and took a bit of steel, about the size for a knife, and showed us how to work it so it got that blue sheen that Iss-Peranian swords have. He was doing most of it with his mind! “Wow,” I said.

“In a year or so I’ll teach you that, too,” the master said. “Did you talk to your — you’re not married yet, right? — well, to your beloved about the lesson tonight?

“Yes, we’ll both come,” I said, and Jichan promptly promised to go to our house to keep any other rowdy men away. He was the only one in Master Mernath’s workshop who wasn’t gifted. “A quiet place at the riverside is just the thing in this weather,” he said.

“As long as you don’t take a jug of beer or wine along for the evening,” the master said, “you’ve heard about Ferin’s landlady, she shouldn’t have too much temptation.”

“No, just a hammer,” Jichan said with a grin.

Then we all went to the House with the Otters. I knew that Master Mernath could make swords, but not that he could fight with a sword! Everyone except me had leather jackets. “They’ll give you one,” Master Mernath said, “and you can have your own made later.” Cynla had an iron-and-leather helm, too.

The house was all around a sandy yard and lots of people were already fighting with swords or sticks or knives or just their bare hands. Two women in soldiers’ uniforms looked as if they were in charge, and one of them came up to us. “New apprentice, Mernath?” she asked.

“Journeyman from the west. Well, from the north.”

“Can you do anything with that sword?” the soldier asked me.

“Not enough,” I said, and then she called a man who had been watching some young boys and girls doing exercises. “Jeran!”

This man was as tall as me, and already old but he moved like a much younger man. He looked me up and down. “Didn’t I see you in the hospital last night?”

“Yes, someone socked me on the jaw and broke it, and Doctor Faran fixed it.”

“Good to know,” he said, and had someone bring a helmet with a padded strip along the jaw and chin. “No good damaging it again. Where have you been learning until now?”

“At the Order house in Valdis,” I said. “From Master Aldin.”

He lifted his eyebrows. “The Order!”

“Well, not for long. And then Vurian astin Brun taught me some things. Young Vurian who is learning to be a doctor, not Lady Rava’s husband.”

“We’ll see. But you need a different sword, that one is no good for you.” He took me into the house, upstairs, through a big hall where more people were fighting. Even I could see that they were much better than the ones in the yard. Someone fell down, slid right between his opponent’s legs and sliced the bottom of her breeches with the tip of his sword! It all went so fast that I didn’t realise what had happened until the woman turned around, felt her breeches, felt her skin. “Not a scratch, I promise,” the man said. “But you owe me at the tailor’s, Radan!” the woman said, and then they were at it again.

On the other side of the hall there was a door to a smaller room, and that was full of weapons! Jeran measured me with his eyes. “Right-handed or left-handed?”

“Right,” I said.

“And you’re still growing, right?”

I nodded unhappily. Even the travelling clothes from Liorys were too short now and the jacket pinched my chest.

Then he handed me the largest sword I’d ever seen, with the point on the floor it almost came to my armpit. “Hold this for a moment. Stretch out your arm, point it away from you.”

It was heavy! I could feel the muscles in my arm protesting: they’d been handling heavy hammers only yesterday. But I kept my eye on the point of the sword and tried to keep it steady.

“All right,” Jeran said, “try this one.” He took the huge sword away and gave me one that was longer than the sword I’d brought, but when I had it in my hand it felt like it weighed nothing! “Yours is more suited to a random soldier, dies on the battlefield, next guy picks it up.”

“It’s a training sword from the Order!” I said.

“They’re not exactly random soldiers, granted. But I’ll bet most of them don’t match you in strength or size. Let’s see what you can do. And more importantly, what you can learn.”

He ran me through the exercises I’d done at the Order house too, but he was much more patient when I put my feet wrong. Then he stood opposite me with his own sword and told me to attack him. He blocked me every time. After a while he started to fight back, as if it wasn’t hard enough already! When I thought he was going to drop, he took a step back and held up his hand.

“Enough for now. Let’s have a drink of water, and then I’ll teach you some theory and we’ll have another bout.”

I didn’t know what theory was, but it turned out to be knowing what you’re doing and why. Jeran had me stand on the sand and feel power come up from the earth, and when it came it was all bubbly, like the water in the trough when we’d quenched the steel in it. “Pull that into yourself,” Jeran said, “cover yourself with it like an extra skin. Speaking of skin, look.” He pulled open the neck of his shirt and I saw that he had a lot of little scars there, at the top of his chest between the collarbones. “At the Games it’s first blood to win, and that’s where it’s easiest to hit. You don’t stab through, of course, it’s not the war, only make them bleed.”

“Just scratch the skin,” I said.

“Yes, and that precision is one thing I’m going to teach you, but it’s too early for that. Now we’ll have a couple of rounds with all you’ve learned, but only with your body, and then one with semsin.”

He took it very slowly. Good thing, because I was so busy putting my feet in the right place that I hardly knew where my sword was most of the time. And then we didn’t only use our bodies, but our anie as well. I thought that would make it harder, but it made it easier, I could actually see where our swords were going to be in time to react. The layer of spirit I was still wearing felt like it was really protecting me.

It went faster and faster, and at the end Jeran lifted my sword out of my hand with a quick stroke of his and it fell at my feet. I stood on the sand panting.

“Enough,” Jeran said, and made me sit on a bench and brought me another mug of water.

Cynla and another woman were fighting with sticks — poles, really, half again as long as they were tall. Suddenly Cynla hooked hers between the other woman’s legs, and threw her into the air, making her do a somersault over Cynla’s head and crash to the ground. I thought I heard something breaking.

“Damn, I thought you’d have learned to fall by now!” Cynla said, running to help her.

The soldier who had called Jeran came to ask me “Can you take her to the hospital?” so I hoisted the woman on my shoulder and carried her off.

There was a different young priestess of Naigha at the door. “You’re the young man who was in here yesterday with a broken jaw, right?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, “Doctor Faran fixed it, I’m not here for me, but for her. Fighting accident.”

“Bring her in here, I’ll send for the doctor.” She showed me to a room with a sort of high wooden bed and we laid the woman on it. People started to come in, first another nurse, a couple of young people who might be students from the school, then Doctor Cora herself. “Have you been fighting again?” she asked me. “Boys!

“Not me — well, I was fighting, we were all training at the House with the Otters. But they were both girls. She got thrown in the air with a stick and then fell the wrong way.”

“Wrong way, you can say that! This’ll take a while.” She looked hard at me. “You’re gifted and solid, want to stay and help me?”

“Sure.” I didn’t know what I could do to help, but one of the students said, “Doctor Cora can’t get anea from the world like other people, so we give it to her. You’ll probably faint before she’s finished, but fainting gets you tea and a meal in her own house.”

“That’s a strange thing not to be able to do!” I said.

“Well, she grew up in a country where women learn that they can only have a thing if someone else gives it to them, or something like that. Not take what’s there for everybody to use. Silly way of thinking but it’s probably hard to change if that’s what you’ve been learning all your life.”

Doctor Cora was examining the woman. “Broken pelvis, kneecap, dislocated shoulder. Headache?”

“No,” the woman said, tried to shake her head but then yelped with pain from her shoulder.

“Did you faint at any point?”

“Don’t think so.”

“I don’t think so either,” I said, “I’d have noticed when I was carrying her!”

The nurse got a pair of scissors and cut the shirt and loincloth from the woman’s body. The hair between her legs was as red as the hair on her head! “Velain?” the doctor asked.

“My grandmother.”

“And most of the rest from Velihas, I suppose. Well, let’s see what we can do.”

She stripped to her bare skin herself (“she always works like that, even if there’s no blood,” the student next to me said) and laid her hands on the woman’s hips. I saw that she was using a lot of power — and felt that she was using a lot of power! First the ‘extra skin’ that I was still wearing, then whatever I had myself. I couldn’t get anything more from the ground here. And I have a lesson from Master Mernath tonight, I thought. Well, cross that bridge when I come to it.

When the doctor was finished I was swaying on my feet but still standing. “Now tell me,” she said, “how did you do that?”

“I didn’t,” I said, “someone else did, but I can show you how it happened.” But trying to do that made me faint! And I woke up in Doctor Cora’s house, on the cushions in the carpeted corner. Doctor Cora, dressed again, gave me a large mug of tea and a bowl of soup with bread. Two students were already eating soup next to me.

“Master Mernath tells me that you’re excused from the lesson tonight,” the doctor said. “I’ll send someone with you, you can probably walk but you’re likely to be very weak.”

I didn’t even notice who it was who went with me, except that it was a woman in a headscarf. Jichan was at the riverside behind the house, teaching the children to make willow whistles. “Ashti left you a note,” he said, and ruffled each child’s hair, and left.

It was such a sweet note! “Gone to Master Mernath’s lesson. Love you.” With hearts around the words! I folded it, put it in my purse and went outside with a blanket. Now I saw that Arni was there already, sitting against the wall dozing or thinking.

“I’m going to sleep now,” I said to the children, “I think it’s a good idea if you get your blankets too.” They had to think about that for a moment, but they agreed it was a good idea.

When I woke up in the morning there wasn’t only Ashti snuggled next to me, but also three half-grown kittens! When I picked one up it spat at me and tried to claw me, so I put it on the ground in a hurry. “Where did those come from?” I asked.

“We got them from the neighbours,” Raisse said, “for the mice, you always get mice in a brewery.”

When Ashti and I were both up, I showed her why I hadn’t been at the lesson — the fight, the fall, Doctor Cora’s work — and asked how the lesson had gone.

“Master Mernath is so strict!” she said, and I could see that she thought that was a good thing. “So precise! And the things he teaches! Look!” She stood straight and stretched out her arms, and I could see anea from the river flow towards her and into her so she was all full of it, and then she started to sing the invocation to Anshen and the power went away, or not away so much as into the prayer. It made me look forward to the next lesson, when I could be there too!