Raven

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CHAPTER 29 – Getting It Right

Charlie’s blade slid off Billy Ray’s, and he swung it around and into his foe’s other side. At least, that was the intended target. But Billy Ray parried that blow, too. Charlie swept his sword back toward the first side, then, as Billy Ray moved to block it again, he switched his attack to a double-handed one to the top of his foe’s unprotected head. With reflexes equal to his own, Billy Ray moved his blade up in time to save himself from a vicious blow. Both blades, being mere crude, wooden copies of those still held in reserve, splintered.

“Dammit, Charlie,” Nate said from the side. “D’you think those things grow on trees? And, what if you had gotten through his defense? Without a helmet, he could be sportin’ a cracked skull about now. I told you guys to stay away from the heads – remember?”

“I guess we sorta got carried away,” Charlie said, matching Billy Ray’s snicker. “Come on, Big-n-ugly,” he motioned for his sparring partner to join him at the side of the practice area to hammer together some more swords from the stack of raw materials piled there.

Charlie watched Nate turn back to another pair of wooden-sword fighters, Rachel and Matti, going at it. Damned if he don’t act like that drill instructor I had back in boot camp. The little runts both act like bantam roosters struttin’ around. I never realized Nate had such a cocky side to him.

“Hey, you gonna gimme a hand with these?”

Charlie turned back to join Billy Ray in sorting through long and short pieces of wood to be nailed together. When they had usable weapons, again, though, Charlie felt less like resuming sword practice than he had since Nate had first begun the sessions almost a week before. Nate’s words were still sitting in Charlie’s gut, turning sour and beginning to spoil his whole day. He knew it came right down to having his feelings hurt by a scolding from someone he had considered a friend. Of course, he’d never admit that to anyone, especially Billy Ray. Meanwhile, he’d have himself a good sulk.

“Let’s take ten or so,” Charlie said as he tossed his new sword on the ground beneath one of the few remaining shade trees. “Wouldn’t mind one o’ your beers, either.”

Billy Ray grabbed a couple of warm cans from a bag at the base of the tree and tossed one to Charlie. “I think The Judge was a little surprised when I come walking in with a coupla cases, the other day. He sure didn’t have no problem downin’ one, neither.”

“I told him you’d be the one to find it if there was any left in town.”

It was warm and fizzy, but it was all Charlie could do to keep from chugging the whole thing down at once. Damn, why’d Nate have to go and act like that? He didn’t have to make a fool of Billy Ray last week, neither. I bet he thinks he’s really something for getting to a man twice his size like he did and not getting his ass stomped. Hell, Billy Ray never went after a man with an axe handle, before, not for real. How’s he supposed to know how to use it except for chopping wood?

Charlie glanced over at Billy Ray who was just finishing his own beer with long, slow swallows. With a loud burp and a grin, Billy Ray dropped his crushed can into the bag.

‘Course, if the big dummy hadn’t started walking off, he never woulda got taken to task like he was done. I guess he shoulda given Nate the chance to show us how to use his staffs. And I suppose he didn’t really hurt Billy Ray, not like I guess he coulda done. From what Matti told us about the way he handled that mob when she met him, I guess the old guy really does know something about fightin’. Hard to picture the scrawny little guy really tearin’ into someone like she said and actually goin’ for the jugular. Don’t know if I could do it. Well, maybe if I was really fightin’ for my life – or Vonnie’s. Yeah, I’d do it for sure if someone threatened Vonnie. And, I know how to do it, now, too. With a quarterstaff or a sword. After what Nate showed ….

With his eyes closed as he rested his back against the rough bark of the tree, Charlie tipped up his can to drain it. In the darkness behind his eyelids, the similarities were becoming clearer between Nate and the little runt of a drill instructor who had taught him unarmed combat almost twenty years ago.

“Okay, Rachel, why don’t you take a break?” Nate’s voice brought Charlie out of his soul-searching. “Matti, I’ve noticed you handle that thing like you know something about using swords.”

“I was in a local fencing club,” she answered. “Marisa, a friend of mine, was about the best in the area. She said I was the only one, except, maybe, the coach, that could give her a challenge, so I helped her practice.”

“Really? That’s wonderful. Fencing’s not easy. Which weapon, foil or epee?”

“Epee.”

“Really? Oh, my. I may have found someone I can talk to. Would you like to show me what you can do?”

“Okay. Sure. But I don’t know how you can judge much with these wooden practice things? In size and technique, they’re more like broadswords.”

A broad grin spread across Nate’s face. “Now that you mention it … don’t go away; I’ll be right back.”

A couple of minutes later, he came back out of the house cradling a long bundle in his arms and the fabric grips of a gym bag hooked over a couple of his fingers. Charlie heard a faint muffled clink as the bundle passed by him, and he sat up straighter to see what new game was to be played.

“I almost left these behind,” Nate said as he unwrapped the bundle. They aren’t really much good for real weapons, although, I suppose they’d be okay with the tips removed.”

Charlie watched Matti’s eyes light up as she took one of the narrow-bladed swords from Nate. She examined it briefly before assuming a pose that was sort of like squatting sideways with her feet planted wide apart as she swished the blade around off to her side. In Charlie’s opinion, she looked awfully awkward and off balance, even downright silly.

Next, Nate removed a couple of what turned out to be facemasks from the bag and handed one to Matti. As he donned the other, he said, “I couldn’t find any other gear. You feel comfortable to try it without body protection?”

“Yeah, I guess so. If you do.”

“Okay, we’ll just have to keep in mind that we aren’t protected except for the tips. En garde!”

Charlie watched in fascination as the two faced each other behinds their masks. They crossed their blades with a light rasping sound, and Charlie peered at the fragile looking things. The three-foot blades appeared to be almost rigid, but they were slim, no thicker than the tip of Charlie’s little finger. They appeared to have no cutting edge, although he thought he could just make out what looked like a triangular shape to their cross-section. The handles almost looked like pistol grips instead of knife handles like real swords, and bowl-shaped, metal cups protected the fencers’ hands. Instead of a sensible, sharp point, the final inch of their tips were enlarged back to the size of Charlie’s little finger and with a blunt end. Probably a good idea, he decided, if the two swinging them weren’t out to kill each other. With what seemed to be little more than flicks of the duelists’ wrists, the blades began looping and flashing about almost too fast to follow.

As they swept back and forth on feet that seemed to have sprouted wings, they followed their blurring blades as they lunged and retreated. They no longer looked awkward or off balance, and sure as hell not silly. He sat up straighter.

Charlie became aware of Billy Ray sitting beside him, also watching intently. He would normally turn and comment to a fellow bystander about such a display, but he didn’t want to take his eyes off the pair. Too much was happening too quickly; he was afraid he would miss something. Although, he didn’t really understand what he was watching. He knew it was sword fighting like he had seen in the movies and briefly during Olympics telecasts, but he had never realized just how fast and varied it could be.

He became aware that others had come out of the house and were gathered behind him. They must have heard the rasping clash of the blades.

Charlie almost felt ashamed for the way he had dismissed Nate as a no-talent windbag that just liked to toss orders around. The little guy apparently really did know a thing or two about swords. And, he could really move.

But – damn! – just look at Matti!

The pair continued to move back and forth, almost bouncing as they advanced, thrusted, retreated, feinted, parried and lunged in ever changing combinations. But, their arms and blades moved so fast Charlie could hardly follow the action. Unlike those choreographed scenes that Hollywood presented where some muscle-bound warrior exerted more energy dancing with his own blade as he whirled it about his own head and even behind his back than against his opponent – Charlie always got a good laugh at them – these two clashed blades several times per second.

How in the world can they tell what each other’s doing? How can they observe, interpret, and respond to a move moving so fast I can hardly see it?

The match had been going for only a minute or so, even though it seemed to Charlie that it was much longer. They seemed to be evenly matched as they moved about, each one going on the attack, then, quickly reverting to defense as the other took advantage of some minute opportunity. Brief pauses gave them a chance to back off and begin again, each seeking what was beginning to appear to be non-existent openings to make a scoring touch.

Or is that all there is to it? Do they just waltz around slamming their blades together? Are they really trying to get through the other’s defense to attack the person, or just his sword? Is it all just putting on a show? Maybe they get scored by how they hit the other sword.

With Nate’s back to Charlie, he began backing up under Matti’s assault, which suddenly took on renewed vigor. Where before she would press the attack for several blows and then cede the offense to her opponent, now she continued to press forward. Each movement of her arm seemed to get stronger, faster. Her thrusts, parries and swipes became a hailstorm.

Nate backed up quickly, but not quickly enough. Under her unrelenting attack, all he could do was parry and block and keep trying to move back out of her range. But she moved forward as fast as he moved backward. In the limited room of the back yard, Nate quickly ran out of space into which he could retreat. He also was unable to keep up with the speed of her attack and over-adjusted. With her bearing down on him, he leaned away from her enough so that his legs were no longer beneath him, and he toppled backwards.

Before Charlie could scoot on his butt out of the way, Nate landed on his back with his head and shoulders in Charlie’s lap. Matti followed him in his fall and stood over him, her weapon’s tip pressed lightly against Nate’s chest just over his heart.

Her other hand slowly raised her mask, and, grinning with every tooth in her head and her eyes sparkling, she said, “Touché.”

Charlie felt awkward. When Nate had landed in his lap, he could feel the old man squirming, desperate to escape the blade that came at him like a striking snake. But there was no time, no chance to evade the touch from who had turned out to be the better fencer. Now, Charlie wondered what the defeated master would do. How would the old man handle getting bested by such a young opponent? Would he tear into her like he did with Billy Ray? Would he wait until he got back to his feet to start belittling her, or would he just lie there in Charlie’s lap and berate her for not squatting correctly or something?

Nate’s hand moved to the bottom of his own mask and lifted it off. Charlie couldn’t see his face, but he could picture the glower that must be there.

Nate’s mask fell to the ground beside his sword, and the old man began applauding. “Bravo!” he declared. “Bravo! Wonderful! Marvelous!”

He pulled himself to a sitting position in front of Charlie but with his back still to him. Then, with a grin almost as wide as Matti’s, he turned to face Charlie, Billy Ray and the crowd from the house. “Did you see her? Did you see her moves?”

Then he reached over and slapped Billy Ray on the thigh, still grinning with the satisfaction of a proud mentor who has discovered that the pupil’s skill is beyond his own. Beaming, he said, “That, Billy-boy, is how to swing a sword. Did you see her? Did you see her?”

Charlie recalled, then, how his runt of a Marine drill instructor had applauded him as the little guy had lain on his back where Charlie had thrown him. Grinning just like Nate, he had praised Charlie with words as sincere as Nate’s for finally getting it right. Charlie felt a smile and what he hoped was an unnoticeable blush creep into his face as he thought how he had, once again, finally gotten it right.

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