“Move forward, pivot right, backhand sweep, underhand, backhand underhand sweep. Remember to flick your wrist as you bring the overhead down.”
Aaren stood observing Eamonn’s technique with the sword, his back resting against a pillar of his home. Eamonn had been positioned by his practice post with few breaks. He swung his sword over and over again, feeling the heavy thud of the hardwood jolt his arm all the way to the elbow. He stunk, he was hot, sweaty and exhausted but still he kept on as Aaren called his movements. His wrists were aching and the repetitive impact with the wooden pole had him tensed up.
“Stay relaxed, if you’re tense you’ll only put yourself under added strain, you need to flowing and smooth with your actions.”
Aaren’s instructions weren’t helping. At first, Eamonn had been crisp and strong with his attacks, as time wore on, he was losing his power, timing and motivation. He was beginning to sway and lose his balance at the end of each sequence.
“Thrust, side cut, overhand cut, pirouette, fake the backward thrust and underhand sweep through.”
Aaren grimaced at the sloppy movements. Eamonn’s sword struck the wood with a dull thud and where he would usually use the impact to help push himself through the pirouette, he was sluggish and slow to respond, delivering the overhand cut only to stop momentarily and then shift to deliver the follow up.
“Time.” he called mercifully.
Eamonn dropped the drill sword, breathing hard and hunching over, hands on his knees just to keep himself upright. He was a physical wreck.
“You were sloppy.” Aaren admonished.
Eamonn swallowed hard several times, gathering himself and stood up angrily. “Of course I was sloppy.” He shouted, “I’ve been working my backside off for hours repeating these same attacks in the heat while you stand by criticizing and berating me any time I do something wrong. This isn’t easy you know.”
Aaren stood there, taking the abuse without flinching. “I know only too well.” he replied.
Silence hung in the air, interrupted only by Eamonn’s continued attempts to catch his breath.
“What you don’t seem to realise is that you can’t afford to be this sloppy after two hours of hard work. That’s not what we’re about. People will depend on you, and they’ll keep depending on you until the job is done or you drop dead. It’s your choice really.”
Aaren’s words were harsh. If he were in a good mood, Eamonn might have been willing to listen to him, right now, they only added to his frustrations. “Why do I have to do all the work? I rarely ever see you so much as pick up your sword.”
Aaren shrugged, the gesture doing nothing to abate Eamonn’s frustrations. “It’s because you don’t need to see me pick up my sword.”
Eamonn picked up his drill sword again. He held it by his waist, aiming its point out provocatively towards Aaren. Aaren merely raised an eyebrow at the act. “After the performance you’ve just given, I’d advise against doing that.” He said, pre-empting Eamonn’s next course of action.
“I’ll give you twenty minutes rest to get some fluids into you. Then I want you back here, we’ll work on your defense I should think.”
Moodily, Eamonn resheathed his sword and walked quickly to the bench by the door. There were several rags there and he picked one up now, discarding his drill sword and belt in the process. His boots rang on the timbers of the front decking as he carried himself to the watermill at the rear of the house. He shoved the covering aside, heard it clatter against the side boards and tossed the rag in. He let it soak until it came up sopping wet and clumsily wiped his face, used his thumb and middle finger to clear out his eyes from the sweat and grime that had built up over the past few hours. It provided him with a small respite before the heat of the day started to take over again, expelling the cool sensation of the water quickly, leaving a drop to hang from the end of his nose.
It wasn’t enough. He tried it again and there was the same few moments of relief, only now the effect of the water seemed to be having an opposite effect. He whimpered quietly, wishing for the everlasting waves of comfort to take him that a mere trickle of water would never give him.
He plunged his head into the mill, feeling the flood of water and its restorative powers course through him, it enveloped him, it soothed him, it was everything he had hoped for. Carelessly, he pulled himself free, sending a shower of water everywhere, the waterline splashing over the side, drenching his shirt front. Eamonn didn’t care, he drove his head in again, the cold sending a shiver down his spine and eventually, almost starved of breath he withdrew himself. He left the rag in a pool of water on the bench and collapsed into the chair. He’d neglected to return the mill lid to its rightful place but for the moment, he didn’t feel up to it.
He remembered the still-wet rag and dragged it towards himself, draped it across his neck and closed his eyes, expecting the rag to remove the lingering blemishes of heat from his body.
There was a slight knock on the doorframe and Eamonn groaned. Twenty minutes couldn’t have passed already. Aaren slipped a mug of something into Eamonn’s hand, “Drink that, it’ll help.”
Eamonn straightened slightly so that he could take a drink and gagged as he took a mouthful, “Why did you give me a hot coffee in this heat?” he demanded after he gathered himself.
“It’ll help you. You’ve been working hard and that’ll be better for you than simply dunking your head in the mill again.”
Eamonn put the mug aside, coffee and hot weather didn’t mix well in his opinion.
“Let’s get moving then.”
Aaren shrugged, he seemed to be enjoying Eamonn’s struggles. “I said we were going to work on your defense and I meant it.”
Aaren handed Eamonn his proper sword and belt. For the sake of drills practice, Eamonn would use a wooden drill sword, the handle and crosspiece were practically identical to that of his real sword. The one exception was the blade, in place of the metal steel there was a hardened blade of word, cut down and worked so that it resembled the weight and balance so that he couldn’t notice the difference. That morning, in the heat, Aaren had insisted on introducing a challenge. A set of weights attached to the hilt and pommel made it bulky and difficult to maneuver. They were designed to add extra strain to the wielder of the sword. Aaren saw them as a way of promoting the growth and dexterity in the muscles of Eamonn’s arms and shoulders.
Aaren clipped on his sword belt and calmly strode out near the practice post, resting his elbow atop the pole to wait for Eamonn.
Eamonn reluctantly stood, his muscles cramping in a sign of protest as they were stretched again after their earlier efforts. Eamonn strapped on his belt and clipped the sword scabbard to it. The steps down onto the grass reverberated through his tired body, each one worse than the previous. The short break had done their job in relaxing and cooling his muscles, the added strain and tension of him standing again hurt like nothing before.
“You’ll feel better once you warm up again.”
The words I doubt it echoed in Eamonn’s mind as he ambled across to the post.
Aaren didn’t let his apprentice the opportunity to stop, instead he removed his sword from its scabbard and moved three paces away from the post.
“All this time, you’ve been working on your attack, that’s key to battle of course, there is another part of it that is possibly more important to fighting. That’s your defense.” Aaren said.
“When you move in to attack,” he started, moving in and miming a basic side cut to the practice post, “you’re looking to breakdown your enemy’s defenses or find that opening to exploit.” He looked to Eamonn to confirm the words, this wasn’t new information for him. “However, there is a saying “A good defense is the best offense”, does this make sense to you?”
Eamonn nodded, “It suggests that if you have a good defense, it gives you a better opportunity of defeating an opponent than all-out attack.”
“Correct.” Aaren acknowledged. “If you build yourself a solid defensive, you don’t have to rely on your attacks to beat down an enemy, if you can nullify his best strokes, you can look to take advantage of their attacks and retaliate, most of the time it’ll come to great effect.”
“Up until now I’ve been teaching you how to aggressively attack your enemy. The drills I’ve given you and the sessions I’ve had with you have seen to that. Now it is important that you learn how to protect yourself, you can’t hope to win a battle without that,” he added. “Learning how to attack first is important, you’ll find that these fundamental techniques will stand you in good stead for defending, it concentrates highly on the hand-eye coordination and footwork you’ve learnt already. You’ll begin to see patterns and favoured attacks in your enemy, sometimes you have to wary of them, for others they’ll give you an opportunity, you’ll learn about that with practice. For one, you’ve already developed a strong backhand sided attack, where you come through from your left side and attacking across your body. It can leave you open when aren’t fully in control of yourself and it’s something you need to work on, something that I will make sure you work on. Now, grab your sword and we can begin.”
Eamonn watched as Aaren moved away to the center of the area, for the moment Aaren kept his sword lowered, but that could change quickly.
Obediently, Eamonn drew his sword and strode to his spot, some five meters from his teacher. “When your enemy attacks, you need to keep an eye on his wrists as well as the blade, it can be all too easy for them to flick their wrists and you can miss their attack and you’ll find yourself very much short of life. When they attack, keep yourself moving with the attack, don’t get too far ahead or behind the stroke though or they could easily fake the attack and come at you from a different angle.”
Aaren mimed several slow and deliberate attacks at Eamonn, making sure that Eamonn had time to bring his sword up in response. As he mentioned the fake attack, he shifted his shoulders and rotated his wrist to catch Eamonn out. He nodded curtly towards Eamonn as if to say “See what I mean” and continued on.
“You need to make a slight counter attack,” he said, putting in another side cut, “when you were attacking the practice pole, you were able to use the impact of your strokes to help give you extra momentum for the next one, yes?”
Eamonn bobbed his head in response, he was always watching his teacher’s sword. “Against a real enemy, you can’t afford to let them have the same luxury, they’ll soon dominate you.”
Aaren let a bit more power and speed into his attacks and Eamonn grunted at the change in pace as their swords clanged together. “The small counterstroke prevents that and gives you extra time to search for where the next attack will come from.”
Aaren gestured for Eamonn to attack him now and showed him the subtle difference it made to the fight, “Now you don’t have the extra time to deliver that attack you want to slip in to catch them off guard, it’s a small tensioning of the wrist but it makes such a massive difference.”
They upped the pace as Eamonn became keener with the fight. A side cut, a thrust followed by a flurry of overhand side cuts coming from either side of his body. Not one of them threatened to get through Aaren’s defense, though he did manage to drive Aaren back some meters. Aaren retreated slowly, watching the attacks coming at him, knowing that the opportunity would come, an underhand, a backhand side, the thrust and overhand side. There it was. Aaren leaned back to parry the attack, then pushed himself forward in response, stopping Eamonn’s follow through and sliding his own blade down Eamonn’s to where his blade met his crosspiece. Aaren stepped around Eamonn’s blade, using his wrist to knock his sword away and bringing his sword around his student’s throat.
Eamonn’s eyes went wide as he realised the implications in the swift attack. Aaren held him tightly in position for a moment or two longer and then let him go, lowering his sword and sheathed it.
“Good.” He said simply. “That was much better than your efforts earlier.”
Eamonn blinked once or twice uncomprehending what had just happened. “How did you do that?”
“Hmmm…” Aaren looked up again, as if he didn’t understand the question.
“You did it so quickly. How?”
Aaren smiled, “That was the lapse I was telling you about. It’s not always there, I’d say nine out of ten times you attack from that side you protect yourself, its that one in ten though that will get you killed. I wanted to show you before anyone else did.”
Eamonn looked at him angrily, it wasn’t fair, he thought, for Aaren to simply end it there. “Why do that?”
Aaren became serious again, “You need to know that anyone you face in a fight will mean to kill you, they will look to achieve that any way they can, even if that means surrendering to you and slitting your throat with the knife you’d forgotten to look for in their boot as you lay sleeping with them your prisoner.”
Eamonn looked appropriately chastened, “Yes, Aaren.” He muttered.
“I need to head to the castle grounds shortly to meet with Maddox about this mission of ours. While I’m gone you should wash up. There are some rabbits still left that I’ve jointed from when we went hunting the other day. You can use them and get dinner ready if I’m not back before sunset.”
Eamonn looked at his shirtfront, it was still wet, though it more so from perspiration than from when he had drenched his front from his earlier antics with the watermill. He peeled his short off, placing it on the bench outside the front door and used a rag to dry himself. He’d wash and hang the shirt up to dry later, for now, he needed a wash.