The Red Blade
Part Three – The Swordmaster
The training sword, made of tightly bundled reeds, slithered through the air like a striking serpent, beating aside Carse’s flailing thrust with ease, before rapping him upon the ribs, adding yet one more blow to the numerous that had already slipped by his defences. Even though it was just a training sword, the arm behind it was like tempered steel and no leniency was given for his age. His weekly training sessions in the noble art of swordplay always ended with his ribs a mass of bruises.
“You must not think,” the swordsman across the training room snapped at him. He stepped back to allow the boy time to recover his breath and his composure. Not a trace of sweat marked the swordsman, who remained cool and unruffled, yet Carse was already drenched through, every part of his body aching from blows or fatigue. “If you must think to react, then already it is too late to respond. React, don’t think.”
Carse nodded wearily, taking the opportunity to stretch his aching shoulders and back. When he had first followed Master Athradies from the marketplace, he had not known what exactly to expect. The art of swordplay had never crossed his mind.
A gentleman must know how to fight, Athradies had explained when he had first introduced Carse to the swordsman, Ilafra, a slender Ishmarite from the far south, a man who could strike like a cobra yet also had an iron arm that belied his stature.
Six months had gone by since that first meeting, and every week since Ilafra had been training Carse, his instructions given in long, gruelling sessions that left Carse battered and bruised and weary in its wake. Ilafra believed that lessons were best soaked up through the skin. Six months of decent food had put some flesh on Carse’s limbs and strengthened his arm, and the incentives to improve had come quickly. Not every blow landed now, unlike during his first days of training.
“Again,” Ilafra ordered. The hawk faced man dropped down into a fighting crouch, his sword raised and dark eyes focused on Carse, watching his every move.
Carse readied himself again as Ilafra slashed his slender training sword through the air, cutting first to one side, then the other, rolling his wrists as he did. Despite the heaviness that burned at his limbs and the welts that throbbed along his ribs, Carse raised his sword, preparing to meet Ilafra’s attack. He had learned early on that not being ready would not prevent Ilafra from making his attack. It just made it easier for him to make a telling blow.
Then, as Ilafra continued to warm up by twirling his sword about, an opening revealed itself to Carse, a merest window in the Ishmarite’s defences that once he would never have been able to pick out. Without thought, he launched himself at the Ishmarite, driving home the unexpected attack. Never before had he initiated an attack, always instead simply reacting to Ilafra’s moves.
Even so, flat footed and presenting an opening, the taller swordsman reacted with whip like agility, his blade flowing smoothly into position to parry aside the thrust just short of impact. Carse pressed on, not wanting to relent in his attack lest once more Ilafra could gain the advantage. He drove home attacks with a desperate desire to break through the steely defences of his opponent, yearning for that which not once before had he been able to achieve; a hit upon the Ishmarite. Ilafra retreated with sure steps as he parried aside each blow with a minimum of effort. The, all abrupt, he stopped his retreat, twisting his sword about in a circular motion as he did so. Carse felt his grip on the handle of his training sword slip at the unexpected manoeuvre. The weapon fell away, clattering to the floor, followed by the familiar thwack of wood upon his ribs. Carse winced at the blossoming of well-known pain.
“Better,” Ilafra informed him. “That was instinct, and not thought, with which you attacked. Now pick up your sword. We will begin again.”
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