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Tchak. I turn in the blankets to cover my ears. Tchuk. Tchak. Tchak. I groan and shift. Tchuk, tchak. I reluctantly open my eyes, finding the room empty but the window’s flap open to let the morning sunlight in. I get up and doze over to throw a look outside. Tchak. Tchuk.

Leomi is striking a wooden pillar that used to support a building with one of the three swords she took from the others, there is a golden one-winged jay on her shoulder. It surprises me because, while it has appeared on its own before, I haven’t seen the jay show up without me present for a few days.

As I think, she keeps hitting the pillar from different directions, using footwork to circle around it. I pick up a small stone and wait for Leomi to turn her back on me before flicking it at her.

The jay’s head snaps to the small projectile and she makes a sidestep a moment later. She avoids the stone by a hair’s width, which is pretty impressive. Leomi snaps to me with her left hand raised, I’m pretty sure she could assemble and fire an air-needle in moments.

Did I wake you up?” Leomi asks, lowering her arm.

Yup, but it’s okay.” I reply, noticing the sweat on her brow. “You should keep the bird, seems like it can spot attacks.”

Isn’t it just because it was you?” She questions in return.

If it is, then you can make it so that it works with everything else.” I shrug. “Besides, it warned you of the rock’s trajectory, not merely my presence.”

Interesting.” Leomi ponders. “Come.”

I nod and gather our things to make my way downstairs. Thuck. She’s still going, her pride must really have been bruised to be training so hard. I grab the thieves’ food and drag all the luggage outside.

I put it all next to the saddle and the rest of our things while Leomi picks up the scabbard she left next to the pillar to sheathe the sword. The horse is grazing in a field in the distance.

Are you up for sparring?” She asks me.

Sure.” I agree.

She picks up another one of the swords and throws it to me. I catch it and throw her a curious look. She grabs a piece of rope and ties the guard to the scabbard by using the belt loop.

I nod understandingly and let her do the same for mine. The swords will be unbalanced but that’s better than using wood sticks that are much too light. Besides, I have some experience with top-heavy weapons.

I’m faster and I have two arms.” Leomi says, pointing out the obvious. “We’re about as agile as each other but we make different uses of our dexterity. I use mine to chain attacks together in order to increase my speed while you use yours for misdirection.”

Go on.” I encourage.

We’re different in terms of footwork as well. You favor slipping into close range for rapid exchanges of blows to forcefully create openings that put a swift end to the fight while I favor seizing control of the pace at a distance before closing in for the kill.” She exposes. “Your issue is that I’m not only more experienced in footwork but I have two hands so I don’t have to fear you closing in because it’s to my benefit.”

You still avoid it.” I note.

“Because your style is unpredictable so it’s a risk I don’t need to take.” She explains. “You need to learn to make use of your light weight because, at an equivalent skill level, that and your average height should give you the edge in footwork. You need more experience but I can’t directly teach you because we’re too dissimilar in how we overwhelm our opponents.”

Agreed.” I say.

This field of ruins is a good opportunity for you to practice footwork because you’ll have to pay attention to your every step and find solutions to approach through the obstacles.” Leomi tells me.

Flow?” I ask.

Lion’s step and strikes only, take what you need from me when you run out.” She replies, raising her sword and dismissing the jay.

I shake my head at her, telling her to give me a moment. I run my gaze over the area. There are quite a few walls left standing while the rubble is mostly stone with wood and tiles scattered on top. Unstable, but most ruins will hold my weight, I only have to be careful.

I hop on top of a pile of rock while Leomi stops on a stable wooden beam. I make my way around her in circles, scouting the terrain. She stays where she is, waiting for me.

I pick a path that passes next to her and over the beam to see if my weight can destabilize it. I rush over, sliding from rock to rock. Some buckle but I merely have to bend the knee to lower my stance and buy enough time to move or recover my balance.

It doesn’t take me long to realize that it’ll be very difficult to land a good strike without steady flat ground to step on while the beam she chose is stable enough for her to slam her foot down and increase the power behind her frontal blows.

The path I chose crosses the beam so I’ll be flanking her, she’ll have to face the same problem I do. This will be a battle of skill with few opportunities to land a finishing blow. She picked this to extend the duration of each engagement and allow me to learn more.

I rush in her direction with light steps, counting on speed over power to skirmish with her. Leomi shifts on the beam to keep facing me. Instead of stepping off the beam, she chooses to stand with her feet spread apart.

That’s not right. I change direction and avoid confrontation, hopping over a small chunk of wall. That stance of hers makes her unable to block head-on or she’ll fall backward.

I frown and decide to try anyway, making mistakes is a good way to learn after all. I rush to pass by her left, planning to use a large angled block behind her as a stepping stone to redirect my momentum.

Two steps away from her, I bring my sword across my chest to deliver a backhanded left to right horizontal slash. She takes hold of her sword with two hands and raises it vertically to block, exactly what she shouldn’t be doing with her feet aligned and spread apart.

I lion’s step to flash by her while launching the lion’s strike. She intercepts the tip of my sword with the base of hers which almost completely nullifies the impact, the last of it she handles by turning her waist and right leg, preserving her balance.

It doesn’t bother me because it’ll delay her from turning around but I am still impressed by how razor-thin a margin she bet on to block me. I recover my sword and prepare to kick the slanted block. Buk. Something hard slams into the top of my head, making me miss my step.

Rhm.” I grumble from the pain.

Did you see it?” She asks casually.

I turn around, finding that instead of turning around, she kept twisting to the point where her waist is now at a right angle with her legs. She’s holding her sword horizontally with crossed wrists and at shoulder height.

Seriously?” I grumble, having expected to lose but not lose.

Want me to explain?” She asks with a cocky grin.

Please.” I humbly reply.

First, you approached too aggressively. Second, you chose the wrong side to flank me. The rush meant you had no time to adjust, the backhanded swing meant your reach was short. Both made it easy for me to intercept the tip of your sword.” Leomi says. “Lastly, you lacked knowledge of the crooked strike.”

Is that another drunkard technique?” I ask, a bit annoyed that she would fault me for being unaware of an unorthodox technique.
“No, this is one of the basic techniques but there aren’t many who use longswords or hand and a half swords so it isn’t surprising you haven’t run into it before. Soldiers tend to use one-handed swords or greatswords for obvious reasons.” She tells me.

Hm. One-handed swords because you can use a shield, greatsword because you can crush shields?” I ask.
“Exactly, although few can afford the latter.” Leomi nods. “But Nobles like to carry longer swords because many fight without a shield like I do outside battlefields or in duels.”

Alright, show me.” I say, facing her.

She brings her sword up to a vertical position, a stance that allows for much versatility in attack or defense. Half her left palm over the pommel and half on the handle while the right grips the sword as close to the guard as possible, which leaves a gap of about five to seven centimeters in-between.

I can do just about anything from here.” She tells me.

Leomi demonstrates by pulling the weapon back and letting the tip fall forward only to reverse and swiftly launch a quick stab that’s somehow perfectly aimed at my throat. The waving motion makes this usually ordinary attack confusing.

That’s what I would have done if you went for me head on. If your weapon is sharp and precise enough, there is no need to add power behind it.” She explains. “There isn’t even a need for an armor-piercing construct if you find a weak point.”

I’ll remember that.” I nod.

With the reflexes I had, it would have been easy to deal with this even without counting on the Little one to intercept. Leomi returns her sword to the vertical stance she held. She immediately swings downward to the left, her wrists meeting at the end of a wide arc.

That’s the crooked strike.” She tells me. “I understand it’s unfair of me to say your lack of knowledge is a mistake but excuses won’t save your life in a fight. My failure last night reminded me of this.”

So, you twisted to attack me from behind with this crooked strike.” I suddenly understand.

Yes.” She nods. “It wouldn’t have worked on flat ground but you were slower than usual.”

On flat ground, you could have used footwork to dodge and still make it land since your reach is longer than mine with this compared to my backhanded slash.” I shake my head.
“Exactly.” She smiles. “What I used was still footwork even if I merely turned my leg.”

I nod, caring none about the semantics. I jump on the spot a few times, settling myself into the right mindset for battle. We need to keep our distance to attack her static position and grind her down. No.

I slowly walk around the beam she’s standing on to climb on the end of it. Leomi’s eyes narrow as we face each other with our profiles. I move my feet one by one to the edges of the beam, left and right.

I start rocking side to side, making the wooden beam shift on the rubble. We both bend our knees to keep our balance. I charge, realizing that this is more troublesome for her than it is for me because she’s heavier and taller.

You need to lose weight.” I throw out while charging.

Leomi doesn’t even flinch at my provocation. She settles her sword into a diagonal guard and takes a step back. I wait until the last moment to arrest my rush, causing the soles of my boots to slide for a few centimeters.

As she rises to prepare to strike, I abruptly shift my weight to the left. I extend my right arm out to counter-balance, causing Leomi’s body to wave and almost destroy her balance.

I lion’s leap into range, using the burst of speed to add power to the fast hacking swing I launch at her center of gravity. Leomi pushes out with one leg, leaping backward while striking out with her sword to intercept mine.

Our scabbards collide with a muted sound, Leomi forcefully redirects mine over her head with a twist of her wrists. She lands with one foot laying precariously on the edge.

I spring off the beam, kicking it to further destabilize her. I throw a brief gaze at the ground to pick my landing and leap at Leomi with an upward slash. Despite the fact that she’s stumbling back, she manages to bring her sword flat in front of her and block my strike.

She even uses the momentum to retreat further and find her balance on a pile of rubble by the time I recover mine. I swear inside but decide to keep pushing her with quick and wide attacks that I’m starting to realize are almost impossible to dodge in such terrain.

I follow a chaotic rhythm, attacking with violent lion steps and strikes that force her to sidestep or retreat even if she blocks. It preserves my initiative but it isn’t enough to score a win because the pauses between each of my assaults allow Leomi to recover enough for the next.

She’s managing the distance between us in such a way that I can’t link two strikes together. Each of my slashes may be fast but she’s right to say that my overall style clearly isn’t focused on speed.

If the roles were reversed, she would be launching twice as many attacks. The issue is that I can’t do that, it’s not that I don’t have the skill or physical capability but that I lack the experience to use that method.

Besides, that style doesn’t suit our personalities. I nod, Liz is right. I seize a dozen portions from Leomi’s reserve and let my instincts take over while I inspect the terrain, following the clue she gave me.

I find an area to my right with several blocks suitable to use as footholds because they’re at an angle and seem firmly set inside the rubble. I keep searching even though that spot is perfect to overwhelm her.

Once I find a second one on my left, I launch a series of lion’s leaps with heavy strikes that cost me much in endurance but force Leomi to retreat. I occasionally gaze at the secondary area and pressure her to move towards it.

Leomi doesn’t disappoint me, she notices my glances to my left and doesn’t block my overhead swing to launch a counter-attack as she leaps back and to my right. I’m forced to bend my back in mid-air to avoid being struck.

The tip of her scabbard grazes my left side while mine scrapes her left breast. The muscles of her jaw contract but she lands on a patch of red broken tiles without a hitch.

I make a mean grin because she just gave me an opening. I launch at her like a wild monster, stomping forward while bringing my sword up in a violent diagonal slash from the bottom right to the top left.

Her traits twist in worry. She barely manages to dodge with another lion’s step back and to the right. She lands in the middle of the perfect group of slanted blocks. I leap past her left side to begin my plan to harass her until her defense breaks.

Unfortunately, the fact she hasn’t used her sword in the last exchange allows her to attack me on the move. I barely manage to slam her weapon away with a downward lion strike.

Shit, I should have kept pressuring her instead of giving her space just now. Slight miscalculation, it isn’t over yet. I kick the slanted stone, redirecting my trajectory and smothering my momentum.

My boots scrape against rubble and I come to a stop. I don’t waste a split-second trying to figure out her next move by hearing because it would spell my loss. I immediately crouch while crossing my ankles to give my body a spin as I slash out behind me at thigh height.

Leomi enters my field of vision, hurriedly stopping her charge before she runs into my attack on her own. I jump back up to my feet before she can take advantage of my screwed up stance.

You’re such an aberration when it comes to combat.” Leomi says with an admiring expression. “Freakishly talented doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

She throws a stab before even pronouncing the last word. I dodge to the side, resolved to show her exactly how true her words are. I kick another slanted block to circle around her while delivering a lightning fast slash that she easily parries and counters.

I block to use the force behind the blow to land before I would have and lock swords with her. Leomi’s eyes show panic as she realizes her mistake. I make use of lion’s steps to forcefully push with my feet, throwing her back.

She can’t help but stumble back, which gives me an opening. We break sword contact together. She launches the quickest swing she can, a short swipe with the tip of her sword towards my face.

I smirk, having read this response of hers a split-second in advance. I easily dodge with a crouch and angle my wrists to aim at the center of her chest. I extend my arms out in a strong upward stab.

Just as the blunt scabbard slams into her torso, I notice a flicker of silver. A brief moment later, her left hand hits my right shoulder, preventing me from putting all my weight behind the attack. She takes a few steps back with a grimace.

My loss.” Leomi declares with a sigh but a slight smile in the corner of her lips.

How bad would it have been?” I ask, curious.
“You used a lion strike so pretty grievous, I would at most have broken your shoulder in return.” She responds. “That was a great exchange.”

You couldn’t have hit my head?” I question.
“I could, but I didn’t choose to because I thought I could make it in time to stop you and save myself.” Leomi shakes her head.

You’re too much of a perfectionist.” I criticize. “If you struck my head, you would have knocked me out and won the fight even though you would have received a worse wound.”

Well, in this way we both have lighter wounds and can retreat. Either way, this is just a spar, what matters is that we’re learning.” Leomi tells me.

We keep training throughout the morning, past lunch, and well into the afternoon with intermittent breaks for me to recover. I achieve about three wins in every ten spars but I don’t take any pride in it because Leomi clearly put herself at a disadvantage.

Not only does she not try to make use of her superior endurance with intense exchanges but the terrain is easier to navigate for me. I’m quite certain that part of that is due to the fact I experienced far more battles than she has.

She makes use of something she calls the ‘drunken escapade’ a few times which is pretty much advancing while stumbling in the most unpredictable ways. Her lack of true success with that move makes me realize that she’s trying to expand my horizons more than use it a real tactic.

To her credit, it does allow me to learn a few tricks to both recover my balance and pretend to lose it as a feint. She also demonstrates for me a wide variety of orthodox stances and strikes like the crooked strike.

— — —

We make use of the supplies we took from the people who ambushed us to spend a few days riding across the region, enjoying each other’s company. We train, kiss, flirt, train, and laze about in each other’s arms.

That much is the limit for me, though, as I grow anxious at how little I’m getting done. I do work on my perception construct but it burns a lot of Leomi’s flow to experiment with intent and then create a functional core.

So we return and she drops me off at home to return her horse to the village. I hide two gold coins in the cache and make the laundry while waiting for her to return with an axe.

— — —

That week, we cut a half-dozen trees down and into transportable chunks that we store on the handcart. We bring the wood to the carpenters’ sawmill to cut them into planks that we then use to build a slightly clunky chicken coop. Leomi even hunts down a deer for leather that we dry and nail on the roof to waterproof it.

All that remains is find someone willing to trade chickens, which is the easiest part. Yet, I don’t because the two weeks Leomi told me she could stay here are about to run out so I’m more focused on that upcoming fight. Not to mention that I might leave soon after she does.

— — —

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