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(1617: Dori is 24.)
Sword Hall at dawn is a quiet place, deceptively peaceful. The thick walls cut out the noise of the great city of Nochet beyond, and the early morning light brings out the classic, formal beauty of the colonnade. It does not seem a setting for violence. The few early risers move about their business, conversing quietly, preparing for the new day. At the far end, a tall woman turns and twists a wooden practice sword in the slow-motion perfection of drill. Sunlight glints on her pale blonde hair as she goes through the kata, her movements almost a dance in honour of her god.
There is a sound of running footsteps outside the door, and everyone's attention shifts, with those little movements that mark the change from a soldier at rest to one alert for instant battle. The onlooker is suddenly reminded that these are not merchants or scholars: this is the house of Death, and the centre of worship for the finest warriors in the world. But the newcomer is only a girl: perhaps fifteen, no more. Dark hair, a grace of movement that promises beauty to come. And for now, there is fear bordering on panic in her face: a child, seeking protection. “Dori!”
The blonde woman swings round. “Gemma? What's happened?”
"Mother…” She gulps, catching her breath. “Mother says I can't come here any more. Can't train. Can't keep learning….” she sweeps an arm round, embracing the whole temple, “all this. She says I've got to, to… be betrothed. Before I get corrupted any more - no, that's what she said! Dori, it's this afternoon! I can't….”
She stops, catches herself. Her fists clench as she regains a tight, thin, control. “I swore I'd carry on training until I was ready for initiation: swore I wouldn't give up. I can't break that oath. But I can't disobey Mother, either. That's the law, I'm not of age yet. Dori, what can I do?”
The blonde racks the practice sword automatically, frowning. “I don't know… there's no obvious way out of that. Is there any chance of her changing her mind? Perhaps letting you carry on training even after the betrothal, you're almost ready, after all.”
The girl shakes her head. “I've tried, and tried. Just the association with Death is wrong, to her, she won't even acknowledge our own temple guardians for fear of contamination, much less you. If she knew I was here now…” Dori raises an eyebrow, and she adds hastily, “but she didn't give an order, it's all right, she just doesn't know…”
"If you initiated now, early, you could formally sever from your kin. She'd have no authority over you then." For a moment there is a flash of hope in the young eyes, then that near-adult control damps it down sternly.
"Use that to avoid obeying an order from my commander? Use Humakt to avoid the consequences of an oath? Would he take my vows? Would you?"
Dori sighs. "No. Not when you put it like that. If it was before she gave that order, then yes, but it's too late now."
“Shame… it would have worked, too. It counts as death, and death releases all oaths and obligations, I remember that bit. And I'd rather die than be a…. nothing. You know that.”
Dori's expression clouds. “Yes…. Oh, yes. I know that one.”
“It's sort of tactics, isn't it?” The girl's panic has gone, fascinated by the conceptual puzzle. “Can't go forwards, can't go back. Only two options, and I'm foresworn if I choose either. What's the answer to that?”
“You mother would no doubt say there is always another way.” Dori smiles thinly, picking up her personal kit from the neat pile at the edge of the practise area and buckling on her own sword-belt. “Picking a third option is the answer, but I don't see one myself. Or limiting your objectives. If you can't achieve all of them, just choose one. The most important one.”
The girl watches her routine absently. “That's honour…..” Dori nods without speaking: the statement is self-evident to both of them. “Not breaking oaths. The rest is irrelevant. But how…. Oh. Oh, of course! If I forget all the other objectives, just deal with that…” She raises her eyes to her teachers', with a smile that is perhaps not quite sane. “You'll help me, won't you?”
“Naturally - as long as I don't have to break any of my own oaths, that is. What did you have in mind?”
“Oh, I wouldn't ask that. All you have to do is keep your oaths. And there are enough witnesses here…” She raises her voice slightly, to carry around the temple. “I challenge you. For that sword. To the death.”
Dori freezes, the colour draining from her face. “No! Gemma, there's got to be another way!”
“Name it. By noon, remember? I don't have time to sit and think of a better plan. No oaths broken, no important objectives missed. Perfect.”
“Except that you'll be dead!”
“Yes. And?” The girl is as white and as hard as one of the marble statues, daring her to answer: to answer as anything but an initiate of Humakt. “Are you going to refuse to accept my challenge?”
“I can't. As you know. I can't.” Dori stares at her pupil as if seeing her for the first time, still in shock, but starting to think past it. “If you lose, yes, this works, if you can call that working. What do you plan on doing if you win?”
“Win? Against you and that sword?” They both stop and look at it. Quiescent at the moment, sheathed, but the runes shimmering on the hilt and scabbard, and those out of sight on the blade, show what it can be capable of, even when not being used against its chosen foes. Dori knows this all too well. Too many of her former friends have also found it out under similar circumstances. The sickening dread in the pit of her stomach is all too familiar. And they had been seasoned warriors, expecting to win…. I can’t do this. Got to. Can’t. No such thing. Got to. The only “can’t” is I can’t let her know how much this is hurting, she’s scared enough already, it wouldn’t be fair. So think. And hope she isn’t.
“As challenged, I have choice of weapons....”
“Not when a Lottery Sword is the subject of the challenge. Or so someone was teaching me the other day. And anyway, it doesn' t matter. Even if you take a dagger, you're still going to win. We know that. Unless…”, she draws in her breath sharply, as a horrible thought occurs. “No! You wouldn't! Would you?”
“Throw the fight? Throw my honour away as well as yours? If I thought it would stop you… no. Not even then. Or I would have against Petro, last week....” she shakes that off, fast: no, don’t remind her: don’t remind myself… “I doubt if Humakt would appreciate that sort of behaviour. And you do your best, too. This is a duel, not a suicide, the whole point is to leave the decision up to him. If he wants you to win, you’re going to win.”
“Then that answers your question, doesn’t it? If I win, it’ll be because Humakt has plans. So that’s what I do after that. Whatever he tells me.”
For such short notice, the audience gallery was surprisingly full. And quiet now, even the hustlers calling the odds silenced, as the rules of the ritual combat were recited once more. “….no magic but that of our Lord, and from that, only the touch of death to be disallowed. Prepare!”
Dori drew her sword, and saluted – her opponent. Don’t think of the name. She had to do this well, as well as she knew how. The blade shimmered as she called up its powers, feather-light in her hand, the edges gleaming, eager to strike. For a moment she almost hated it: but no. It was a tool. As was she. Then she called the Daylight, adding to the Deathlight that only initiates could see. It would have no effect here, but she owed it to the girl to make this fight as memorable as possible. Finally her own magics, small as they were in comparison. The touch of Death, to make the blade, to, to…. no. Don’t think about it. To make it strike harder. Honour, to make each stroke clean. That was easier. Of course, Gemma had no magics to prepare at all….. “Hereward, help her!”, she murmured. Was there a whisper of wind in response?
The girl moved awkwardly at first, the borrowed sword clumsy in her hand. Dori did not rush her. She started as always by testing her defences, experimental attacks with no commitment behind them, just enough to draw her opponent out. Never underestimate... who was she kidding? She knew this girl, knew every move she would make. She even knew the sword she held, remembered using it herself at the same age. Still, that was no reason not to take her seriously, to do the job properly. And she could put off…. No. That was not, could not be, her intention. This delay was for honour, for fairness.
A few minutes practise, and Gemma started to relax, gaining confidence in the unfamiliar weapon, her own attacks starting to flow. Dori nodded: she had been waiting for this. She changed pace: the fight moved up a level. Now she led the girl through all the moves she had taught her: attacks that expect standard defences, openings that invite specific attacks. Some got through. You cannot leave your defences open without risk, no matter by how much you outclass your opponent, and Dori acquired two narrow scratches where her recovery from the impossible position she had put herself in had not been quite fast enough. The girl had followed her lead, making every move with the fluent ease that showed just how skilled she would be in time. But she did not have that time. What had become almost a demonstration combat slowed and paused, as Gemma reached the end of her repertoire. She was good: for her age, very good, and now the whole temple knew it. She was not good enough. She did not, yet, have the reach, strength, speed, or skill to match Dori in a conventional fight, or with the conventional moves she had mastered. It was time to try the unconventional, and the tricks she had only just started to learn.
Dori considered her, speculatively, before trying the next move. She should have at least seen this one: a complex feint and counter-feint that tempted a head-level block while the real attack came in at ankle level. Almost… Gemma fell for the second feint, but skipped aside from the final sweep. The pass-over, twisting in from behind: again, her defences were shaky, but adequate.
And then in the next pass, her defence was not there at all.
There is a move called the Jasper Cut, designed to disable an opponent who outreaches you. Instead of defending yourself from their attack, you evade it by the narrowest possible margin, and direct your own counterattack at their sword-arm, a small, fast-moving target, in the moment that it is outstretched and vulnerable. It requires perfect timing, perfect control and a great deal of nerve. Gemma had seen it done once. And her own first attempt had just missed.
Dori withdrew out of range. "Close", she remarked: detached, analytical, her breathing still as easy as if this had been another lesson, or a stroll in the park. "You need to flatten your blade angle more, you're losing two inches of reach there." And she moved in again with a low-level swing, exactly the attack that the Jasper was intended to counter. This time the girl's evasion was slow, and the swordpoint caught her shirt as she moved back. But only her shirt. Dori had pulled her blow.
Genuine anger fired Gemma's next attack: a crude hack, avoided easily. "You're supposed to be trying to win!"
Dori's eyes glinted, still icy calm. "No, I'm not, and neither are you. We're here to honour Humakt. Never mind winning. Concentrate on making every move perfect, and leave winning or losing up to him. Having you trip over your own guts isn't my idea of perfection, so I’m not going to do it. Now. No anger. Remember, let the blade flow. No intention. Don’t think about it, let it happen.”
She had said this before, and Gemma still hoped that one day it would make sense. Dori was leading the fight back into the moves that she already knew, where her timing was already perfect. The patterns weren’t really a ritual: and yet they were. There was an ideal response to each attack, they both knew what it was, and within these limits there would be no opening unless one of them made a mistake. And there was no reason to make a mistake. Counter and riposte followed each other with smooth inevitability, question and answer. It was not so much as a duel now as a duet. The rest of the temple had faded out of her awareness a long time ago, it was just the two of them as the moment stretched out to infinity. Partners in the dance…. yes, it was a ritual. Easy. Perfection. So automatic that it was as if her blade was guiding itself.
Of course… this was what it was all about, not just the pleasure of learning, of testing yourself, but the simple joy of perfection as a goal in itself. She almost laughed aloud, and saw Dori’s eyes smile in answer as she recognised her new level of understanding. But there was still something missing. Yes, it was a ritual. But it needed…. something? It wasn’t, yet, going anywhere. Wasn’t complete, somehow. She was being guided: somewhere? She had to let herself be guided to find out where….
Watching her body from the outside now, she realised that her last riposte had been chosen, not because it would gain her an advantage, but because it fitted the dance. And that it was not a move that she had known before making it. Also that while she had been thinking about that, she had responded to another five attacks without consciously noticing any of them.
Feint... counter... parry… in came a low-level back-hand swing….
Almost as if in a dream, she watched herself slide back just far enough to avoid the blow, saw her arm move forwards, in apparent slow motion and perfect timing with the duet, and felt her sword bite deeply into Dori's forearm. The glowing blade dropped from fingers suddenly too weak to hold it. A perfect Jasper. Her first.
The ecstasy of success was still on her face as she died.
Dori had ignored her injured arm, caught her sword left-handed as it fell, and lunged, up past the ribs and straight through her heart.