This chapter has been edited and extended from the original version posted on 7/3/13.
Chapter 9 (part 2 of 2)
The blade cut a shining arc through the air, polished metal gleaming in the early morning light. I couldn't help but smile as the sword passed neatly through the space I'd left behind. Twisting in mid air I avoided the follow up strike before landing behind my opponent. "Very close," I remarked, bouncing lightly on the balls of my feet.
I had to lean slightly to the left to avoid that same blade from sliding into my skull, as the third attack came, riding just behind my comment. The stab came from over the shoulder with a twisting motion before retreating along the same path, brushing past wavy brown hair.
"Stop," I said, righting myself before Redda could spin around with the backhand stroke her shoulders betrayed. "Enough for today."
The brunette sheathed her weapon with a faint click of metal against metal and the scrape of leather. Turning, she faced me, sweat slicked hair clinging to her forehead in strands. As usual, I'd run her ragged, through forms and then finally a few minutes of sparring. Stepping back, she put ample space between us and bent at the waist. I held the whittled branch I'd been using to my side and bowed in return.
It was one of the few customs I'd insisted on imparting when I began training her in earnest. I was determined to hold onto tradition in this respect, as even my shitty old man had insisted on the same. Even if I disagreed with almost everything else he'd said and done, his honor when it came to the Art was still worth something. As the sole Saotome in this world, I had a name to uphold, if only to myself.
"Thank you for the lesson," the shorter girl said as she straightened. Redda looked exhausted, but not out of it. Which was the point for most of her training. While she wasn't as criminally gigantic as her father, the brunette was still strong for her size. It made wielding the blade at her side that much easier. Still, though her grip didn't falter, her shoulders had needed more strength to keep up the taxing work of swinging the weapon with the precision that I required and expected.
A month of effort, sweat, and a little bloodshed, had done wonders for her condition, but it wasn't quite enough to satisfy me. Pushing her as hard as I did, she came to expect more of herself along the way. It might have also had to do with the big guy. He'd taken to watching the lessons from time to time, but refrained from stepping in himself, at least in the beginning.
Mostly, he'd just sat quietly on a tree stump nodding to himself, or frowning, when his daughter made obvious mistakes. After a week of hanging out, Cygnus had apparently come to a decision. I thought he meant to step in and take over. Back then, none of this had been official, not really. So I figured he'd seen enough and had a problem, mostly because he had a look I didn't quite get, plastered across his face. Maybe the thick graying beard threw me off.
It didn't help that back then I was still trying to wrap my head around the language here. I could understand bits and pieces, but that was mostly for day to day stuff. I'd already taken to using a substitute sword, just to go through the motions with Redda, and to use as a prodding tool here and there. If there were practice swords available in the village, I'd never seen one, and neither the chief, nor Redda had thought to mention otherwise. So I'd been working with what I could scrounge up in the forest.
I didn't recognize any of the trees around the village, but some had wood hard enough to withstand repeated blows and were still flexible enough not to splinter easily. I'd gathered a bundle of varying sized branches that weren't completely dried out to use as practice swords and help with Redda's strength training, but every so often I had to scrounge up some more since they eventually wore out.
The chief passed by my pile of practice swords and picked up the largest one, the sort I had Redda use to strengthen her shoulders. The repetitive overhead strikes with the thick branch was a tried and true method toward developing the muscles in her back and shoulders. She'd already put in thousands of swings so far, and had the blisters to prove it.
Though, in her father's case, the hefty branch was made into a toy. He rolled his broad shoulders and tilted his head from side to side. I could hear the cracking from across the several meters that separated us. He said a few words then, a short mouthful that I didn't catch. Redda did however, and stopped the arm numbing drills I'd been having her work on. She lowered her own wooden weapon and stepped back, some distance away from her father and myself.
Cygnus held his weapon at the ready, end of the branch angled slightly, and definitely leveled in my direction. He spoke again, repeating what he'd said. But I'd pretty much figured out what was going on at that point. I'd been challenged more times than I could count. The only problem here was I didn't know the rules, or the reason behind the fight. That had happened more than once before too, and it usually ended up making my life more interesting than I might have liked.
On the plus side, he wasn't exuding any killing intent, not that I could sense. But, he certainly looked serious, and that was reason enough to not brush this off. I wondered if maybe he was just bored, stuck sitting around most of the time. I'd be itching to throw down too, if I was just stuck sitting on my hands. I knew exactly how that felt.
Raising my own wooden blade, I mimed his stance and was rewarded with a simple nod. That was the only warning I had before the big man moved. I didn't want to be standing there when he arrived like an avalanche.
Darting to the side, I felt the pressure of the branch as it passed, and I had to keep moving because the blow didn't carry through like I imagined. The slightly carved blade passed over my head as I ducked the follow up arc. Intending to capitalize on the open space he'd left in his guard, I darted my own weapon in toward his armpit, but the 'hilt' of his weapon dropped down and robbed my strike of its intent.
Shifting my feet, I slide toward his rear. Cygnus followed along, attempting to keep me from having his back. He lashed out with free hand as he turned, still guarding with the bottom of the branch. For having to move around that kind of bulk, he was quick, and almost connected with a knee aimed at knocking the wind out of me.
Using that massive limb as a pivot point, I rolled with the blow and pushed off, tucking into a backward roll that put more distance between us. Distance that he ate up in a heartbeat with two long strides. For the first time in a good while I smiled, nice and sharp, as I darted forward wooden blade at the ready.
This wasn't like facing the idiot Kendoist. No, my opponent understood that these weapons were only another tool to be used. Not something to be relied on to make up for a lack of martial skill. Anyone could be trained to swing a sword, or stab with a spear. But, that left the wielder diminished when those same tools failed them, or were lost, taken away.
Disarm Kuno and he was just another moron parading around in a Hakama. Take away Ryouga's umbrella, and you were left with a pissed off Martial Artist who would just as soon crush you in a bear hug, shattering bones as easy as he cracked walnuts in his palm. That was the difference, and one that this man lived and breathed.
Not that it was a good time to be reflecting on the past, I realized as soon as the next flurry of blows rained down, whip cracking with displaced air. Countering the onslaught, I slipped in a few quick punches across the big guy's left side, and a minor tick beneath his eye told me he'd taken notice.
But, like my Bakusai Tenketsu trained buddy back home, Cygnus just grinned, I was close enough to see teeth through the wiry beard that covered the lower half of his face. It wasn't a pretty sight. Reminded me of the panda when he got it into his head to be a nuisance.
It was also all the warning I had before another knee snapped up and nearly clocked me in the chin. At best even in my guy form, I only came up to the center of the chief's chest. Honestly, the guy could probably stare down Akebono, and Akebono was huge.
Skirting to the side, our swords clashed as he brushed aside the jab that I'd aimed at his throat. Darting away from the heavy blows, the clash of wood echoed in the small field behind the chiefs house that I'd been using to train Redda. Most of the ground underfoot was flat, though it rolled in a few places, and there was a nasty hole near the well that just begged for an ankle to get broken in.
Back and forth we traded strikes, and the blades held up for longer than I thought they would under the pressure. It probably helped that neither of us were fully committed, or the swords would not have lasted past a handful of attacks. Tumbling, I rolled away from another series of cross slashes that I countered as I vaulted over the final sideways strike. My returning counter aimed at the top of his bald head, shining in the rising sun, a prime target.
I must have been caught up in the memory, because the next thing I knew, a tanned hand was waving in front of my face, and Redda was a whole lot closer than she'd been a second ago. Blinking back to the present, I tried to play it off and just ended up scratching at the back of my head. A little embarrassment kept you humble, I guess.
The brunette just shook her head. She was probably used to a few of my quirks, but I guess being confused for some kind of shape-changing fairy or something, had its good points. I could do pretty much whatever I wanted and no one saw fit to complain.
It was a welcome change of pace from the crazy that followed me around back home. It was quiet here, and I was free to focus on training, though I helped out now and then. Small chores and carting stuff around, things like that. The weather was beginning to cool down, and the village was getting ready to head out into the fields, so I had a feeling that there would be a lot more work to do soon.
I also felt a lot more comfortable with talking. Of course, I could pretty much only get basic ideas across, though I'd take victories wherever I found them. On the other hand, I was a lot better at listening now. Which was a big help. Reading though, that was a pain in my side.
If I was being honest, my education hadn't been the best. Growing up on the road had kind of short changed me. Cracking the books had always been a sore point, and that was in my own language. I didn't feel too bad though, because it didn't seem like the villagers did a whole lot of reading themselves. I wasn't even sure if all of them could in the first place.
Not that they needed to. Maybe some of the shop keepers, and merchants. But the rest were farmers, farmers that worked all day, and spent the nights at home or at the tavern attached to the small Inn up the road. The only books I'd seen were up at the shrine, and one that Redda had.
She said it was her mothers, and mostly old stories at that. She'd read her favorite to me, after she thought I was showing just enough interest. It had been about a witch living in the mountains, one who kept fairies as pets, and kidnapped children for some dark purpose. It was pretty detailed really, I just wasn't able to follow along as well as Redda clearly wanted.
On the other hand, the book had given me an idea, and I spent some time digging around the old storage on the hill behind the temple. The temple was one place I could go and no one batted an eye, so I didn't feel bad about poking around the stuff they were slowly putting back after the priest was kicked out. It was there that I came across a second book. I couldn't read it, but I had no trouble looking at the pictures I found on several pages, pictures that reminded me of the story that Redda told.