Chapter 1. The One Thing I Do Well
“What’s your name?”
I pressed the point of my wooden stick gently into the softest part of his neck when he asked the question.
“Do you concede?” I responded.
“Of course I do. Were these real swords I’d be dead and we both know it. You fight well.”
Yes, I knew that, too.
My opponent, a tall skinny lad with light brown hair, lacked the skill to bring out my best, but I didn’t say so. He’d agreed to spar with me; it was more than many males did. And this young man from somewhere in Bisu had told me I fought well, not that I fought well for a girl. That earned him an answer.
“My name. It’s Sulphur.”
He laughed and I pressed the stick back into his flesh.
“Hey, I meant no offense. But that is one odd name.”
I shrugged. “I come from one odd family. Seven daughters.”
“Wait. I’ve heard of you people. Your dad studies rocks?”
“That’s us. We farm, too.”
“And you fight. Are all your sisters like you?”
Not even close.
“No. None are like me.”
“Then we’ve something in common. I’ve three brothers and none are like me either.”
I stepped back, freeing him to move. As I dusted myself off, I surveyed the damage. I’d torn my dress in two places and covered one side with mud. My mother would not be happy to see another ruined frock.
“Thanks for the chance to practice,” I said. “If I run into you again, maybe …”
“Sure. Any time.” He laughed. “I don’t mind getting beat by a girl if I can learn from her.”
After I got on my horse and rode away, I realized I hadn’t asked him his name. Well, Bisu wasn’t far from my home. Perhaps I’d see him again.
As one of the oldest three daughters, a few anks ago I’d been gussied up in a gown that appeared to be made from spun gold. The seamstress said she’d hoped to match the color of my hair. I’d shocked everyone by chopping it short, but she insisted it remained my best feature. The dress must have cost a fortune and it was varmin uncomfortable. But because I and my two older sisters had all finished our advanced studies without finding a husband, my distressed mother thought it best to send us to the Kolada ball at the palace in Pilk.
She put Ryalgar, our oldest, in a rich red get-up that got the job done. An actual prince of Pilk took a shine to my academic sister and by the end of the evening a courtship began. My mother’s eyes shown with joy when she heard the news.
Coral, my next sister, had been packaged in a soft pink confection that I think even she hated, and she’d landed with some oaf she despised. Me, I’d been as polite as I could be for as long as I could, then I’d taken a brisk walk around the grounds alone until it got late enough for me to retire to my quarters and get out of that dress.
Now, clothes were a problem again.
I’d torn more than my share of them and my mother’s frustration at the state of my last ripped dress worried me. I’d already claimed to have been chased by a bull in Bisu, to have slipped and fallen into a creek bed in Gruen, and to have climbed a tree to rescue a neighbor’s cat. I’d run out of plausible excuses. I needed special clothes to train in.
I’d never been good with a needle and thread, but I had two sisters who could sew anything out of almost nothing. One was away at school, so I asked the other for help. Coral made two pairs of strong trousers and a couple of long tunics with split sides from scraps she found. Modest yet functional, and they fit in my saddlebags so I could change in the barn.
As Svi neared, the dropping temperatures forced me to cut back on my workouts. Instead, I helped my father around the farm. Dad seldom asked his daughters to do heavy chores but I knew he appreciated it when we did. He didn’t often ask his daughters questions, either, but as the wind blew through crevices in the barn on this cold afternoon, he made an exception.
“Why do you want to fight?” he asked as I set a broken wagon axle on his worktable.
When I was young, Dad indulged me by teaching me how to handle weapons and even sparred with me on occasion. He’d stopped as I grew into a woman, of course, but he’d probably heard about my begging men to help me with my training. I guess I had to be grateful he hadn’t discussed it with my mother, at least not enough so that she tried to intervene.
“It’s bad enough when a man has to fight,” he said, picking up the wooden mallet he used for pounding joining cuffs together. He bent down, his grey hair falling forward, and slammed the mallet against the cuff a few times before he continued. “It’s a grisly, sad business. Life dealt you a lucky card not having to raise a weapon to harm another. Why do you want to throw that card away?”
I hadn’t thought of it that way.
“I’ve had to fight all my life, Dad. It comes naturally to me.” I hadn’t meant to say that, but perhaps he needed to know what went on when he was gone.
“No you haven’t. Why would you say such a thing?”
I knew my answer would hurt him, so I tried to soften my response.
“You gave us a better life by teaching all over the realm. Mom had help in the kitchen and you had farmhands for the heavy work. We had, we still have, many things other families don’t. I appreciate them.”
He looked at me in surprise, but I went on. “You know Ryalgar stepped in and took charge of the farming things while you taught. Even when she was young, she kept things going here. And Coral, well, she became Mom’s right hand, soothing whatever kid needed it.”
“I recognize that. Big families ask a lot of their older children.” He tapped the mallet against his other palm, giving his hands something to do.
“Yeah, well, while they were busy, someone had to keep the farmhands’ sons from trying to do things they shouldn’t with Celestine. And the neighbor boys from picking on Iolite. Seven girls? There were plenty who tried to push us around, Dad, and you never heard about it. By the time I turned eight, I was your biggest and strongest child, so I pushed them back. For you. I got you to teach me more every time you came home, so I wouldn’t get hurt. Somewhere along the way, I learned to enjoy protecting others.”
He gave me a look I’d never seen before, a look holding both sorrow and disbelief.
“Please understand; I don’t want to hurt people. I want to keep those I care about safe. It’s the one thing I do well.”
The various expressions on his face coalesced into one, and to his credit appreciation won out.
“I should have paid more attention. … your mother never mentioned such troubles to me. I’m sorry, Sulphur. I had no idea.”
“Don’t apologize, Dad. Mom didn’t always know about it, and we managed fine. I like who I am. I just don’t want to pretend I’m some helpless woman, okay?”
“I understand.” He chuckled. “You are not helpless.”
It was the opening I’d been waiting for. There would never be a better time to ask.
“Then would you support my joining the army? It means the world to me.”
“Oh Sulphur, please no. That is such a hard life for a woman. And I don’t know how your mother would feel about …”
I interrupted him with a laugh. “Dad, you know exactly how she’ll feel about it. Come on. My whole life she’s told us ‘it’s just as easy to fall in love with a prince.’ The truth is, I’m in no hurry to fall in love with anyone, and no princes are standing in line to fall in love with me.”
I’d lost his attention. His thoughts had gone elsewhere.
“Maybe I can help. I know someone who’d work with you if I asked him to. He once mastered these, um, unusual fighting techniques.” He paused. “You really want this?”
“It’s everything I want.”
“Okay then. If you’re going to be a Svadlu, I want you to be a good one.”
“And I want to be a good one too. I’ll learn anything your friend will teach me.”
Days later, Dad came through. His contact lived at a nearby farm and invited me to visit the next morning.
Winds from the north blew hard as I rode, reminding me the winter storms hadn’t finished for the year. When I arrived, a tiny elderly man with withered skin met me at the side of the road bundled in blankets. He waved me down the path to his barn.
We spent the morning in the big empty building, with my horse at one end and a lone horse of his at the other. The two horses stared at each other while the man gave me instructions in a high squeaky voice that I strained to hear over the jangling of wind chimes that hung inside the barn windows.
I followed his directions as best I could, squatting down then jumping up then balancing on one leg as I raised the other high behind me and stretched my arms over my head. The variety of exercises had no clear connection to fighting, but the workout he foisted on me was thorough, so I accepted his invitation to come back the next day.
As I prepared to leave, I asked him about his contacts in the Svadlu, and he told me he had none. He’d learned his techniques as a young man working as a mercenary in another land.
“Your father says you want to join the army bad,” he said “Those who trained me would see such a strong desire as a weakness.”
Hmm. Not many of those types in the Svadlu.
“Do you think my desire is a fault?” I asked.
He laughed, a high little laugh that sounded eerily like all the wind chimes he’d made from tiny bits of glass.
“No one gets anywhere interesting without some wanting. You seem like a nice girl, though. Be sure you’re headed somewhere you want to go.”
By the time I left, the wind had died down but the chimes still tinkled as loudly as when I’d arrived.
After a few mornings, I felt aches and pains in parts of my body where I’d never felt them. I’d experienced similar soreness before when I’d worked to get stronger. Apparently, I had places I didn’t know I needed to strengthen.
The man promised my father he’d see me first thing each morning for as many days as I wished through the rest of the winter. I showed up almost every day for the next four anks and eventually his increasingly complex regimen of balancing and stretching felt less odd. By the time spring came, I heard his tinkling wind chimes in my dreams.
Then, I added his jumble of moves to my normal workout. Whatever challenges lie ahead, I liked the idea of being strong everywhere.