The Secret Skill
SEEKER ADOPTED THE COMBAT STANCE KNOWN AS THE Tranquil Alert: feet a pace apart and flat on the ground, arms loose at his sides, head erect, balanced and steady. He softened the focus of his gaze so that his eyes became sensitive to the smallest movement. He calmed his breathing until his breaths were slow and even. For a single brief moment he attended to the feelings in his bare feet: the prick of grit on the worn pavers, the slickness of water on stone.
A chill winter rain was falling steadily from the gray sky. It soaked into his hair and his tunic and formed puddles among the loose stones of the courtyard.
He heard his teacher’s intake of breath and knew he was about to be given the first command. He exhaled a single long slow breath and slid into the attack stance called the Hammer and Nail. Two fingers of his right hand were the nail, tingling and still by his side. The entire combined force of his being, which his teachers called “the lir,” was the hammer. He had chosen his weapon and his initiating strike.
The scratchy voice came from his combat teacher, a short middle-aged Noma with a sleepy face. All his features—his eyebrows, his cheeks, the corners of his mouth—seemed to droop downwards, and his heavily lidded eyes were half closed. However, as Seeker well knew, he was far from sleepy.
Obediently Seeker bowed, first his upper body from the waist, then his head: paying respect. Only as he straightened up did he allow himself to see his opponent, standing a pace away from him in the rainy courtyard, beneath the shadow of the high dome of the Nom.
It was the Wildman: his friend and fellow novice, and the only one of their group of eight he had never yet defeated. In the course of nine months of training, during which Seeker had felt his body grow strong and the lir flow to his command, he and the Wildman had met in combat fourteen times, and he had lost every bout. He had never yet, facing the Wildman, achieved that sudden overwhelming strike which breaks the opponent’s guard and shatters his concentration. With Jobal he could do it, and with Felice, but never with the Wildman.
His friend was now also straightening up from the respect. Their eyes met, unseeing as strangers. Seeker tracked for clues over the Wildman’s beautiful rain-streaked face.
The throat. He’ll strike for my throat.
It was the Wildman’s usual move. But he was so fast and so strong that knowing it was coming was not enough. Seeker’s mind moved smoothly and rapidly, using the few seconds now left to him. When the teacher gave the second command, the combat would begin. It would last for one, or two, or possibly three strikes—no more. Trained Nomana did not require lengthy bouts. Each fighter had at his disposal a single devastating blow, the blow into which his lir was concentrated, like the force of a great river funneled into a narrow jet. If this win-all or lose-all blow was struck too soon, or fell wide, the fight was lost. Timing was all.
Seeker’s web of feelings, instincts, and thoughts fused into a single bright blade of decision. Roll the attack, play the riposte, follow with the kill. His plan formed, he let his entire body hang loose, dangle in the rain, swing in the wind.
Don’t think. Never think.
React into action.
Meet your plan like a stranger.
So much teaching. So much training. “Know everything and then forget everything,” their teacher told them.
To one side stood the line of silent novices, watching the combat that was about to begin. Morning Star, third in line, watched like the rest, hands clasped before her, silent in the rain. A thought flickered in Seeker’s brain.
Who does she want to win? Me, or the Wildman?
On the other side rose the stone pillars of the cloister, and beyond, the great outer wall of the Nom. Slots pierced this wall at intervals, and through the slots could be glimpsed the sea, stretching away, horizonless, into the iron gray sky.
The voice of the combat teacher sounded as if from far off.
The Wildman struck first, for the throat, as Seeker had guessed. Seeker swayed back, outreaching the strike hand, and stabbed at the crook of the attacking arm, but only playing the riposte. If the Wildman went for the kill now, Seeker knew he would break him.
No time to hesitate. On he flowed, pouring his lir into the about-to-be-launched strike, begging the Wildman to make his throw now, at the bait moment, when he seemed so vulnerable, on the second strike, which had always been the Wildman’s strike of choice.
But not today. With dismay Seeker realized he had committed, and the Wildman had not. His timing was off. In his frustration Seeker lost perfect concentration and felt the lir spreading from the two speeding fingers over his right hand and up his arm, dissipating his force. His blow powered through, hammer on nail, and caught the Wildman’s left shoulder, rocking him back, but it was not enough to break him.
At once Seeker sucked back what lir was left and locked himself to the ground, but even as he did so the Wildman struck, the heel of his hand to Seeker’s brow: the kill blow. Not all his power was in the strike, of course. Seeker was not killed. But he was broken.
He fell as he must, crippled by pure force and by shame. The Wildman had pulled his blow and had still broken him. The impact of the wave of power rippled from his stunned brow all the way down to his stomach, making him want to retch.
The teacher called the moves as if nothing of any significance had taken place. Seeker rose and bowed, a little shakily, and resumed his place in the line of silent novices, as did the Wildman. They stood still, hands clasped before them, maintaining the rigid discipline that had been drilled into them.
Their sleepy-eyed teacher now proceeded with the analysis, dabbing at his wet head with one end of his badan. His name was Chance.
“What did he do wrong? You.”
He pointed at Morning Star.
“He committed too soon,” said Morning Star.
“Could he have done otherwise?”
“Yes,” said Morning Star softly, glancing towards Seeker. “He could have waited. But he knew his opponent had the longer reach. His decision to attempt a first-strike win was sound.”
“Yes, Teacher.” The teacher nodded, then raising his hands above his head, he clapped twice. This was the signal for a break. The novices retreated into the shelter of the cloister—all but the Wildman, who stood apart from the rest, by one of the slots in the wall that looked out over the sea.
Morning Star came to Seeker’s side. The last nine months had changed her greatly, as it had changed them all. In appearance she was the same, with her round face and her little button of a nose and her gentle blue eyes; but she seemed to Seeker to have grown older and more serious. Seeker found himself admiring her more each day.
“Almost won that time,” she said.
“What do y...