Son Of The Black Sword – Snippet 44
“Excellent,” Ashok told Jagdish. “You almost hit me. Good work.”
The risaldar stumbled away, one hand pressed to his bruised ribs. He caught himself on the prison wall and held himself there, trying to catch his breath. If they’d been using real blades, Jagdish would be dead, and they both knew it. “That was good?” he gasped.
“Well…Better.” Ashok respected Jagdish. Ratul had taught them there were two types who could become great swordsmen, tigers and hounds. Tigers were naturally gifted, fast, graceful, and everything came easily to them, but tigers were proud, so were resistant to learning. Hounds were not born lucky, but they simply would not quit, and they just kept grunting along until the job was done. Jagdish was a hound. It was too bad Vadal hadn’t obligated him, because he would’ve made a good Protector. Jagdish’s skills had improved greatly over the last few months they’d been training together, and if he’d done this well during their knife fight Ashok might have gotten injured.
Jagdish pushed himself off the wall, lifted his shirt, and grimaced at the spreading bruise. “Damn! That hurts.”
“My swordmaster told me it has to hurt, or you can’t learn.” Ratul may have lost his mind and descended into the madness of religious fervor, but he had been an excellent teacher before that — among the best there had ever been. “A balance must be struck between severe injury — which makes you unable to train further — and the tag and slap games those who play at combat mistake for training. So, as my master used to ask, is it squirting blood or is a bone sticking out?”
“Then we can continue.”
“If it wasn’t for this bum leg, I could take you,” Jagdish lied. They both knew his leg was completely healed at this point, and besides, Ashok routinely defeated everyone, so it wasn’t like Jagdish needed an excuse. “At this rate, by the time I’m ready to retire and you’re about to die of old age, I’ll be ready to duel you.”
“Keep winding your little clock, but I don’t think time will save you. The judges may move like snails, but they’re not that slow.” It had been fall when he’d faced Bidaya, and winter was just starting. He’d been imprisoned here for over a year now. Even by Capitol standards, he must have given the judges something interesting to argue about. “Justice isn’t swift, but it is by definition, correct. My corpse will be decorating the Inquisitor’s Dome long before either of us can grow old.”
Jagdish picked his wooden sword out of the dirt. “Then I’d better work harder.”
“A wise answer.”
“How in the ocean’s name are you this good? I’ve trained my whole life.”
Ashok shrugged. Fighting had always come easily to him. “Strike your opponent while avoiding their strikes. Hit them before they hit you. If they put something in your way, move it, then hit them. They’re easier to hit if you knock them down first. There is no showmanship, no flash, only hitting and not being hit. Don’t make it complicated.”
“Yes, yes, I got the fundamental philosophy the first hundred times you said it, but I was the best in my class, from the house with the greatest warrior tradition in Lok, and this is ridiculous. All of the legends about Protectors are true!”
“Warriors train to fight other warriors. Protectors fight everything.” That was only part of it, but he’d made a solemn vow to never speak of the Heart of the Mountain. The truth of it was, ever since touching the Heart, the movements of regular fighters seemed sluggish in comparison. It wasn’t fair, but anyone who got into fair fights could expect to lose half the time.
“It’s like you know what I’m going to do before I do it, every single time!”
“I don’t have to have Angruvadal in my hand to feel its influence. Every fight it has ever experienced, I’ve experienced. It makes you predictable.”
“Then perhaps I should be unpredictable!” Jagdish must have picked up a handful of dirt when he’d retrieved his sword, because he threw it at Ashok’s eyes.
With Angruvadal helping, he could pick out every grain of sand suspended in the air. Borrowed lifetimes of experience enabled him to respond without thought. Ashok simply closed his eyes and felt the stinging bits bounce off his skin as he swayed to the side. He felt the wooden sword pass through the ragged remains of his shirt as he calculated all the angles and the most efficient way to respond to Jagdish’s lunge. Time returned to normal and Ashok was already turning, bringing his own blunt practice blade up, and he struck Jagdish in the armpit with a push-cut that was hard enough to break skin and toss the young warrior on his back.
Jagdish landed hard and swearing. The guards watching along the wall had a good laugh at their commander’s misfortune. He was enough of a man to let them watch, and they’d gained respect for their leader seeing him try to beat the unbeatable, without fail, every single day. So the laughter was all in good fun. Soldiers fought harder when they knew their leader had guts. “Are you all right down there, sir?”
“Get back to work!” Jagdish shouted at them.
“Come on, Risaldar! You think in a thousand years nobody ever thought to throw sand in a bearer’s eyes?” Ashok tapped two fingers to the side of his head. “I’ve got the memories of someone who fought a duel where both combatants stood on the back of an elephant in here!”
Jagdish groaned as he sat up. There was a dark spot of blood showing through the side of his shirt. “I’ll have Wat fetch us some elephants for tomorrow then. That’ll give the men a good show.”
Ashok extended one hand to help him up. It was an unconscious movement, something an equal would do for a friend. Ashok realized too late that he’d just broken the Law, but the warrior didn’t seem to notice and he took Ashok’s hand anyway. Jagdish might have hesitated to accept the help before, but when you fight against a man every single day, it became easy to forget the caste of their birth. Ashok hauled him to his feet.
Jagdish leaned his practice sword against the stone wall. “I’m done.”
“Calling it a day already?”
“I don’t think I have a choice.” He pointed at the highest guard tower, where one of the men was waving a flag. Red was for potential danger, green was for regular business, and blue was for high-status visitors. This flag was blue. “They must be flying heraldry. Someone important is coming to visit. Damn it, I wasn’t told of any inspections.”
“Perhaps it’s a judge, finally come to condemn me,” Ashok said hopefully.
“Don’t say that,” Jagdish said as he picked up a towel and wipe the sweat from his face. “I’d miss our practice sessions.”
“Don’t worry, Risaldar. After they execute me, you could still try to become Angruvadal’s bearer.”
Jagdish paused. The idea of becoming a house’s bearer wasn’t something any honorable warrior took lightly. “Do you truly believe I’m worthy?” he asked earnestly.
Ashok thought that over. It was a curious thing for an honest whole man to ask a vile criminal about worthiness. “I only know of one man who may be more deserving, but it is Angruvadal’s decision to make, and no one can truly understand how black steel thinks. However, I’ll put in a word with my sword and ask it to not mangle you too badly if it finds you unworthy.”
Jagdish paused, thoughtful. “Does that work?”
“I don’t know. There’s only one way to find out, but I won’t be around to see if it cuts your hands off or not.”
“Maybe I won’t miss these practice sessions that much after all…” Jagdish muttered as he limped toward his office. “Wat! Return the prisoner to his cell.”
Ashok enjoyed the bright winter sun on his face until he was put back in his hole.