Svara was used to teaching large groups of students. This audience consisted of foreigners, however, and her students were thirteen seasoned warriors; taller, bulkier, and riddled with far more scars than children of the warrior caste. She was used to large classes, but such large students made her feel small.
“Is this everyone?” Svara asked Cascata. “With the size of your clan, I would have expected more warriors.”
“There be more. Many more! But they all huntin’ right now,” Cascata explained.
Svara felt yet another pang of guilt. These people probably weren’t accustomed to a chronic threat - at least, not a human one. Most militaries wouldn’t have much interest in a group of nomads, even a tribe of this size. The clan was probably aware of that, so they weren’t likely to worry about such a threat. If an army found a reason to conquer them - like the reason Svara had given her countrymen - she couldn’t imagine a way for the clan to resist.
At least there was only one small unit on her trail. With the war in the east, the military wasn’t likely to devote more resources to chasing one young traitor; even one with her status.
“Well, it’s not like I need to teach them how to Breathe, right?” Svara asked. “You’re confident you can pass this on to the others when they return?”
“Aye. These twerps be diff’rent types o’ learners,” she gave her fellow hunters a smirk as they playfully protested her insult. “If I ‘ave trouble teachin’ somebody what yer dance is like, these’n’s can think of another way ta ‘splain it.”
“That’s a relief.” Svara turned to address the warriors.
“Ya do know you’re welcome ta stay, right?” the hunter matron preempted Svara. “If ya run and they don’ visit us, we can’t stop ‘em from chasin’ ya. If ya stay, we can protect’ ya.”
Svara clenched her jaw as the audience voiced their approval of the matron’s words. Practically everyone she’d spoken to had made the same offer. It would be a difficult transition, to go from clergy to nomad, but Svara had almost forgotten what safety felt like before Evan rescued her. She was immersed in the feeling here, among these brazen outdoorsmen. It was tempting.
It was wrong, though. While she was desperately afraid of resuming her flight, to stay was to doom these people. This exercise was her contingency plan; the best meager hope she could give them if her pursuers abandoned Svara’s trail in favor of revenge against the clan. Their best chance was for her to leave them behind, to hope her enemies’ leadership valued their orders more than vengeance.
“Thank you, but I can’t do that to you,” Svara made sure everyone present could hear her. She spotted Jedrek and Dahlia in the audience, among a group of their peers. Svara had never asked their age, but she expected they were close to hers. “The people chasing me are dangerous, and there are many of them. You’d lose much more than you’d gain; they might be strong enough to take everything from you. You’re better served if I lead them away…”
“Ya think you’re the only one who’s told tha’ story?” Cascata grinned at Svara. “The clan was started by people who had no place ta go. We made a new place, just for that type o’ person. Most families go by blood, but ours is linked by bein’ outcast. In our eyes, yer already one of us. If ya want in, all ya gotta do is agree. We’ll ‘andle that other nonsense.”
Svara envied these people. It took a special kind of insanity to think there were new places in the world. That audacity is probably what allowed them to survive so long in such an unforgiving habitat. If only the world were a better place, maybe their plan could work.
“I’m truly grateful and flattered,” Svara was afraid that if she kept protesting in this manner, they’d find a way to convince her. She’d try another tactic. “But I have some ideas on how to make the enemy lose my trail, and of places that are certain shelter me. I have options that don’t involve putting you in more danger.”
The assertions weren’t true, but Cascata seemed to believe they were. She shrugged. “As long as ya know yer welcome, we’ll respect yer decision. I’ll let ya get started.”
Svara looked to her students and again wondered where she should begin. Which assumptions were safe; did they know the elements? Did they have any understanding of human anatomy? What about the relationship between weight, momentum, and blade?
They’d exceeded her expectations before. She supposed they might be qualified.
“Breathing, in some ways, is as simple as it sounds. The art is simply a mastery of what we all do without thinking. Every living thing breathes, but our subconscious will never take more than it needs. To Breathe as an artist, we ask the air for more than sustenance. In the northern faith, the wind is believed to be a gift from one of the three faces of God: the Sustainer.”
Curiously, she had to make an effort to not stray off-topic and inform them of the recent resurgence. Spreading word of that superstition couldn’t possibly help. She veered back to the course.
“A normal breath helps power the body, but only takes a little of the air’s energy. That’s why we have to take so many breaths. A Breather’s Breath extracts the maximum amount of energy, and it also activates the air we always keep in our bodies. It’s always there, in our gut, our bones, our blood. When activated, our bodies exhibit more attributes we associate with air. It even inspires our earth and water to behave more like air; we become lighter, faster, more flexible, and much more difficult to exhaust.”
Svara inspected the faces of each student. None of them seemed lost, so she turned to Cascata. “Allow me to demonstrate. Matron, may I?”
“O’ course, lass.” Cascata extended her left arm straight out and widened her stance, making it easier for the audience to see the areas a Breather was likely to attack.
Svara brandished her stick as she would a scimitar. “A Breather will select which vital to strike before closing the distance. Usually, it will be an artery; in this case, I’ve chosen one in the neck. Now that I’ve chosen…”
Svara Breathed, and she was instantly invigorated. The sensation made her want to run, so she did. She closed the ten paces in an instant. After a squat with her right leg, she was airborne, sliding her “blade” over Cascata’s throat as she flipped past.
Her left foot returned to the earth, and she was running again. Two seconds later, the matron would have needed a bow and arrows to have any chance of retaliation.
Svara released her Breath. “... I execute the associated routine. As you can see, the speed of the strike doesn’t give me any time to change my mind.”
The audience whooped and applauded at the display. It wasn’t the reaction Svara expected, and she beamed like a simpleton until her wits returned. These people really were unusual.
“I’d give a thing or two ta watch ya move that way more often.” Cascata turned and grinned at her. “Like a leaf on the wind, only the leaf’s in control o’ where it’s goin’.”
“That’s very gracious of you,” Svara hoped she wasn’t blushing. “As pretty as it might seem, it’s not without its weaknesses.”
“Aye, s’pose that’s why we here.” Cascata nodded. “How would you have stopped yerself, if you’d been where I was?”
“There’s a couple things to consider,” Svara began. “First, my attack was chosen and practiced in advance. Most Breathers are assassins or scouts, so the idea is to kill your target before they even know they’re under attack. As such, one of the best things you can do is force us to fight in ways we haven’t practiced.”
“How do we know whatcha practiced, though?” An unfamiliar hunter asked.
“I got ideas fer that.” Cascata offered. “Can ya attack me again, lass? I’ll dance back this time.”
“Absolutely. I’ll aim for…” Svara started.
“Tha’s alright, lass. We’ll learn better if we pretend you’re really tryin’ ta hurt me.”
Svara shrugged and nodded. She took a Breath and sprang forward.
Using the same routine felt merciful, so she again aimed at the matron’s neck. This time, as she was flipping over the shoulder, she was startled to discover that the matron had caught her stick - when? - and was preventing it from making contact with her neck.
To Breathe was to forfeit contests of strength and weight; Svara let go of her “blade” and completed the routine without it. The audience gave some muted applause, giving Svara the impression that they weren’t surprised by Cascata’s success.
“I’d ‘ave cut m’self a li’l, if this was a blade. They ain’t heavy enough ta cut through bone, though, that’s why they aim fer art’ries,” Cascata explained. “Also, This one only works durin’ the day. If we fight ‘em while we can see ‘em, then watch their eyes and think o’ what she said about art’ries. It’ll tell ya where they aimin’.”
Svara regained her composure. The art of Breathing taught her how to avoid telegraphing her attacks, but clearly, it wasn’t perfect. Maybe it wasn’t so much a matter of imperfect training as it was the caliber of her opponent.
Cascata pulled a blindfold from her pack and held it towards the younger hunters. “Somebody tie this fer me."
The matron wanted to demonstrate a technique for fighting at night? That made Svara nervous; she was sure she’d embarrass herself if she had to Breathe while blindfolded.
Fortunately, there were no signs of a second blindfold. The matron called to Svara as one of the students tied the strip over her eyes. “Come at me again once ‘e’s outta the way.”
“You have a preference where I aim?” Svara struggled with the idea that Cascata was comfortable with so many handicaps.
“Won’t matter on this’n.” Cascata assured. “My plan is ta control where ya go.”
The matron tossed the stick back to Svara, whose knuckles went white when they closed around it. She definitely hoped the clan could emerge victorious, but it was still difficult to accept the idea that Cascata could deconstruct Breathing so easily.
She chose a femoral artery and charged. As her first step landed, the matron slid to one side. Svara compensated as Cascata skipped backward. That new distance could be closed in an instant; fleeing a Breather was always a bad option. Svara concentrated on where the targeted thigh would be once she arrived.
Cascata reversed course once more. The unexpected maneuver brought Svara far too close to strike. Before she could change her momentum, the matron’s shoulder was against her stomach. The next thing she knew, she was draped over the matron’s left shoulder and being carried towards the audience.
The matron had won, again. Like the matron had suggested, ny changing direction so much, she’d controlled how Svara would move. If she knew where Svara would be, Cascata could react more quickly.
“They got extra senses, these Breathers,” Cascata explained. “Not sure how, but they’re able ta find their way through th’ woods with more’n just hearing and touch. I dunno who’s better at sensin’ things in the dark - us or them - but like she said, bein’ unpredictable really throws ‘em off.”
“You’re better in the dark,” Svara wasn’t as certain as she sounded, but if Cascata could do that while blindfolded, it had to be true. Breathers were nearly silent when they moved; their reduced weight made it easier to keep twigs from snapping, leaves from rustling, sand from shifting. That didn’t help them hear other people do those things, though. “We get the information from the air, when it’s in our lungs. It tells stories of when it blew through trees and skimmed along the ground. It’s mostly useful for larger targets, or stationary ones. The wind has to be perfect to know what someone of your size is doing in the dark.”
It was hard to not feel discouraged. Rumor had it that potential Breathers were identified by how jealous they acted, that the wind was a jealous element. Svara definitely felt it now. Why couldn’t she be as special as Cascata? Why was the childhood she spent practicing so useless against this opponent?
She made a conscious effort against the envy. If the matron was special, she was made special by enduring a special kind of hell.
After Cascata set her down, Svara turned to the audience. “I’m quite good at Breathing, but only average compared to those who chase me. Some - about half - will be better, and among that half there’s bound to be a true prodigy or two. Only the best are chosen for active service, and none of these soldiers are reserves. Be prepared for faster and more experienced opponents. They may be savvy to these tricks.”
Svara doubted the last part. Breathing wasn’t designed for consensual combat, though it certainly had its uses there. It was ideal for taking the enemy unaware. Most of the enemy Breathers had probably killed before, but she doubted many had needed to deal with a warrior who was aware of their presence. They were likely as vulnerable to the matron’s techniques as she had been.
“Your most difficult task will be preventing them from taking you by surprise,” Svara concluded. “And they will try to hide until the last moment. I’m not sure how they’ll attempt to sneak up on you, they’ll have learned that after they learned to Breathe. I can’t tell you the best way to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. Still, I do know if you take surprise away from them, you have a real chance.”
The last part felt more real after her spar with the matron. Svara expected Cascata was selected as matron because she was the best, but she also knew Cascata no longer hunted because of her injury. She couldn’t use her right arm, but that hadn’t stopped her from dominating Svara. Did the injury really prevent her from hunting? If so, didn’t that mean the other hunters were even more formidable?
Before this lecture, Svara didn’t really believe the clan could defeat the people chasing her. Now, however…
No, she decided. Even if they could, I shouldn’t risk their lives. I have no right.
“We’re ‘spectin’ the fastest ‘unters ta be back tomorrow,” Cascata said. “Once we got enough ta cover the camp, we’ll start makin’ patrols ta watch fer these Breathers. We don’ get visitors often, so even if they don’ seem ta care about hidin’, assume anyone ya see is an enemy and call fer help. If they act friendly, they could be tryin’ ta trap ya.”
Cascata turned to Svara. “Anythin’ else ya wanna tell us?”
Svara shook her head. “I think we’ve covered everything.”
“Ya mind dancin’ with us a bit?” An unfamiliar hunter asked. “I learn better by doin’.”
“No, I don’t mind at all.” Svara lied. She hoped she wasn’t about to humiliate herself. “I’m spending the night, so we can practice ‘til the sun goes down.”
The woman smiled and stepped forward. As Svara took a Breath and chose a target, she pushed her apprehension aside. These people didn’t seem interested in humiliating her, and they were grateful for her participation. Why not use the opportunity to practice her Breathing, to figure out how to use it against wary and worthy opponents?
Svara rushed forward.