The Cantor: A Legion of Pneumos Novella

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Chapter Seven

That day, Keira received a rude awakening as to the reality of studying the fighting arts. Her first lesson in archery left her with raw fingers and split knuckles as she learned first to string a bow, plucking and adjusting its tautness. She’d practiced again and again, nocking an arrow, hooking it with three fingers, drawing it back to her ear, and then holding, holding, and yet more holding.

Nazor was merciless, slowly pacing behind her to correct every inch of her stance, posture, and shoulder position. Meanwhile, her muscles trembled under the strain of trying to hold the bow taught. Nazor had directed Keira to a smaller recurve bow, its tips angling away from her in generous sweeps, for her to start with. Yet even with its smaller size, it still stood past her waist, and she could barely hold it at full draw for more than a few seconds, her back muscles seizing with the effort. Keira couldn’t imagine actually having time to aim at anything. Nazor tsked her disapproval.

“A warrior should learn to shoot at least six times per minute, and from the back of a galloping horse, no less.” Seeing Keira’s dubious look, she amended, “You’ll get there . . . eventually.”

Keira had quietly hoped that her obvious ineptitude might spare her the promised hunting expedition, but no such luck.

“Even if you can’t shoot, it’ll still do you good to learn the woods.”

“Danny’s been showing me the woods. I’ve even learned how to set snares.”

She hated herself a little for the note of pride that crept into her voice. She was rewarded by the hint of a smile that flashed across Nazor’s face, soon replaced by raised eyebrows.

“Oya, very good, you can show me what you’ve learned, then.”

Oh, shit, Keira thought.

She glared at Danny, whose sudden racking cough sounded suspiciously like muffled laughter. He met her narrowed gaze with wide-eyed innocence, and she shook her head in exasperation, earning her an encouraging grin in return.

It didn’t go quite as badly as she’d expected. Her simple noose snare had, to her delight, actually caught a small rabbit, and she felt herself flush with pleasure at the sight of her handiwork. The trouble came when Nazor asked to see her reset the trap.

Though she’d practiced tying the noose repeatedly with Danny, something about Nazor’s dark, critical eyes made her fumble the knots. She could feel her ears burning with embarrassment. Then she balked when Nazor asked her to actually skin the rabbit she’d caught. She hadn’t gone over this part with Danny yet, and she spent a few moments grasping in vain for memories of her semester in pre-med anatomy, following strict instructions on precisely the best way to skin a cat. Finally, she admitted defeat and asked Nazor to show her.

Yet even these mistakes couldn’t sully the pride of gulping down big mouthfuls of the rabbit stew she’d helped provide herself. As they ate, Nazor gave them the highlights of her trip to Port Galaén.

“The Tramors had quite the variety this year. Apparently the faire in Port Tuálath had a poor showing. Port Cála’s racked with the blood sickness and so had to be avoided altogether. I got some wonderful prices.” Nazor turned to Keira, who’d been nodding off over her stew, to clarify. “The Tramors are nomads who journey south from the Arid Lands to the north. They head a summer caravan that passes through Port Galaén on its way to the capital in Crîd Eálas, far to the south. They’re known for their horseflesh and steel weaponry.”

Keira nodded sleepily, and the other three laughed before launching into a debate on the merits of Tramorian steel versus CrossSea stonework. Keira remembered wondering dreamily how exactly one made weapons out of stone before fully nodding off. She fell into bed later that night, exhausted and aching to the bone but profoundly pleased with herself.

Maybe I can do this after all.

#

The unceremonious splatter of wet rags against her face jolted her from sleep.

“Up! Wash yourself!” a soft voice commanded, cutting through the darkness as if shouted. Keira sat bolt upright, blinking sleep from her eyes and squinting against the early dawn light to see Nazor’s tall shadow framing the doorway to her attic room. Not waiting for Keira to finish rolling out of bed, she tossed her some soft buckskin leggings, a belted tunic with billowing sleeves, and small, flexible shoes with flat soles that bent easily down the middle.

“Five minutes. Meet in the drilling yard.”

Then she was gone, leaving Keira blinking and wondering, not for the first time, exactly what on earth she’d gotten herself into.

Outside in the crisp morning air, the sun was just beginning to rise, and dawn light glinted on the dew that brushed Keira’s ankles, making her shiver. She found Nazor and Danny in the dirt practice fields by the horses’ pasture. Danny smiled a greeting toward her in his typical, easygoing manner, while Nazor only grunted in acknowledgment.

I guess she’s not a morning person, Keira thought, wondering why on earth she’d woken her up this early then.

Keira was surprised to see that the four horses stood near the fence, fully groomed, their ears twitched toward the humans in interest. But when she turned to Danny questioningly, he merely shrugged.

“Nazor helped me. We figured you could use the extra bit of sleep after yesterday.”

Keira turned in surprise toward Nazor. She’d done the chores for her? Keira was beginning to wonder if there might not be more to this woman than her gruff exterior suggested, when Nazor suddenly barked out, “Let’s go!”

She took off at a slow jog around the practice field, and Keira fell in behind Danny, who immediately set about following Nazor. Their speed gradually increased until they were sprinting, and Keira soon found herself short of breath as she struggled to keep up with the others’ much longer strides. Nazor then led them through short agility exercises that emphasized rapid side-to-side movements and short-distance sprinting. When Nazor called for a break about half an hour later, Keira was gasping for breath and doubled over. She gladly accepted the ladle Danny proffered from a large water bucket.

“How often do you do this?”

He smiled, still breathing easily. “Every morning. You get used to it.”

Keira groaned, and Danny’s laugh was cut short as Nazor barked that it was time to stretch.

Now this, Keira thought, is more like it.

She luxuriated in the languid stretches, massaging her poor muscles in delight. She could have cried when the stretches ended all too soon and Nazor handed her, instead, a stick.

“I figured I’d at least get a wooden sword,” Keira muttered, eyeing the gleaming blade Danny drew effortlessly from its sheath. “This thing isn’t even shaped like a sword.”

In truth, she supposed it was closer to a small branch, but still she felt incredibly silly trying to mimic Danny’s “on guard” position as Nazor paced around her, correcting every minute detail.

“Square your legs,” she barked, rapping the back of one knee smartly with her staff.

“Right foot forward.”

“Bend your knees!”

“Lean forward slightly . . . No, no, too much!”

“Keep to the balls of your feet, not resting on your laurels. Are you at ease or at the ready?”

When finally Keira had assumed a stance that satisfied Nazor, she turned then to her grip on her sword-stick. Nazor explained that a single-handed sword is not, in fact, meant to be death-gripped with your entire fist. Rather, using her own sword to demonstrate, she showed Keira how most of the sword’s weight is held between the thumb and the first two fingers, while the remaining two are curled loosely around the hilt, truly engaging only at the peak of a sword thrust.

“The balance of a sword is absolutely essential to proper control, and its center of mass should rest precisely at the hilt so it may be wielded deftly by just these three fingers,” Nazor explained. “Now you try.”

From the corner of her eye, Keira could see Danny working through an elaborate drill, stepping lightly and moving his sword in long, elegant sweeps. She looked at her own stick dubiously but adjusted her grip and assumed the “on guard” position anyway. Nazor roughly adjusted the angle of the stick’s upward point so that more of Keira’s right shoulder was protected before proceeding to demonstrate the other seven guard positions, designed to protect the head, shoulders, gut, and legs on both sides.

Keira then had to proceed quickly between them, producing the correct guard to the various attack names Nazor called out. Two hours later, Keira’s arm ached, and she was fairly sure she had two good-sized knee bruises where Nazor’s staff had seen fit to correct a lapsed stance.

“Do I actually get to learn those attacks at some point?” Keira asked finally.

Nazor smirked. “I assumed you’d want to first learn how to avoid being skewered before doing any skewering of your own.”

“But how do I know how it all fits together?” Keira protested.

Nazor considered this, head cocked slightly, before calling Danny over from the tree-trunk dummy he was happily stabbing to death.

“You watch.”

What proceeded next seemed to Keira a strange mix between dance, ritual, and assault. Nazor and Danny squared off and faced one another before both assuming the guard position. The exercise began with both advancing and retreating in seemingly choreographed unity. Neither misstepped, keeping a constant distance between them, with swords held at the ready but unmoving. Then, with no sign of preagreement, Nazor began barking out attacks mere seconds before her sword flashed with lightning speed at the aforementioned location.

“High!”

“Low!”

“Middle!”

“Thrust!”

Each swing was met deftly by Danny’s block from the guard positions Keira had spent all morning learning, and he easily parried the rapid thrust to his middle as he twisted adroitly out of the way. Eventually, Nazor stopped announcing each swing before it occurred, and they quickly became more rapid, steel flashing as she whirled and spun toward Danny. He met each attack with a block that, with a flourish, transitioned effortlessly into the next attack.

They seemed well-matched. Nazor was an inch or so taller and quick on her feet, but Danny’s incredible strength gave him a slight edge. Eventually, though, Danny blocked an overhead swing too close to his own hilt, and Nazor quickly moved in to grapple with his wrist, bracing his sword arm aloft while her blade flashed in a backward arc over and inward, stopping a mere inch from his exposed left side. Grinning ruefully, Danny yielded, and the sparring ended, with Keira left to marvel at the skill and ease with which they brandished their one-handed blades. She wondered if there was any way she’d ever be that good.

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