Articles

28th July 2022

Story: Knives of a New Spring

Letters from an Unknown land is a series of stories about a world of fallen empires, magic, war, and power. Told through journal entries and letters written by travellers to their patrons, the story, place, and characters emerge piece by piece.

In this instalment, the traveller Kalik gives an account of the Knife Dances of the Vale that mark the coming of spring.


The Vale, First Day of Spring

The crowd is laughing and the blood is bright on the grass.

‘Someone’s going to get killed,’ says Tatyla. She is standing slightly to the side of the nearest circle of bare ground, on which two figures are moving, one frantically the other slowly. She flicks a look towards the pair as the crowd yells. A new cut, and more blood on the ground. There is scorn in her eyes, and she shakes her head as she winds worn leather strips around her left forearm. ‘It’s a waste,’ she adds, and checks how one of her five blades draws from its sheath.

The knife dances of the Vales are as ancient as the stones which edge the old roads. Every year, when the first leaves show on the trees, the people come and make circles on the grass at the base of their valleys. Sometimes a late frost covers the grass, but today the sun is high in a clear sky, and the air thick with the scent of a new year’s life.

From behind me another cry goes up, and I turn in time to see one of the two dancers crouched on the ground, his face pale, hand clamped over his left bicep. Blood is seeping between his fingers, and his knives lie on the ground at his feet. His partner circles him, hopping between stances, blades and hands rolling through the air. The man on the ground looks up and shakes his head. The other dancer stops moving instantly. Hands reach from the crowd, and help the bleeding man to his feet. Solis, the water clear liquor of the Vales, sloshes over the cut in his arm and down his throat. Someone has picked up his knives. A cheer rises from one of the other circles. 

There is a celebration in the bloodletting, but also an expectation. This is as much about gold as is it is about tradition. The blood dances have marked the year’s new growth since before anyone outside the valleys noticed. Poor year or good, these dances are celebration, augury, and libation. The blood on the grass, the scars for those for whom this is their first dance, and the voice of the crowd, all mean something. For the past it means the continuity of tradition. For the future, on this occasion, it means wealth.

The sorrows of other lands are the fortune of these knife dancers. The warlords and merchants fighting and traveling the border roads are willing to pay them a premium as bodyguards, and as the Kingdoms of the South pull themselves apart, the demand and price rise. It is boom time in the business of sharpness and blood, and every dancer knows that this year will be a good year.

Even the youngest dancer will earn a hand of gold for a season’s work, and those with a reputation many times that. For those yet to serve a season there is only one way to earn an early reputation, by dancing a good dance today, by being bold, by being skilled. By drawing someone else’s blood. 

Tatyla steps forward, a straight, single-edged knife in each hand. The pair of curved blades, and the leaf-bladed punch dagger stay in their sheaths, cinched tight across her back and stomach. Her movements are relaxed, as though out for a stroll, but this stroll has sharp edges. 

The people of the circle greet her with more cries. Her partner steps forward. He is a young man, with muscles taut under bare skin. There are no leather bindings on his forearms, and he only carries a single pair of knives, one hooked, one double-edged and straight. His eyes are fixed on Tatyla, as he rolls shoulders and neck. He has scars, just like everyone else around him, but compared to Tatyla’s a web of pale threads, his are fewer and brighter. They walk towards each other without pause, and, at a distance and signal I cannot read, explode into movement. The roar of the crowd rises, swellingto touch the sky. 

Both are fast, very fast, but the young man seems faster. He is a blur, springing backwards and forwards. Each time he moves the knives are in a different grip: one reversed, both reversed, both held loose like they were feathers gliding through the air. He slices, stabs and lunges, then changes angle and speed of attack in an eye blink. By comparison Tatyla seems like an unmoving tree waiting to be hacked to pieces. Except that not a single cut or lunge touches her. She is always just out of range, always just stepping or swaying back. 

I remember her holding up a knife to me when she was preparing. The edge on the blade was gleaming sliver, no wider than a thread of hemp. 

‘This is the correct distance for knife dancing.’

I now know what she meant. 

The dance goes on, the crowd roaring as the knives cut nothing but air. Then, so fast that I miss what had happens, the man is on the ground, and there is blood running from his forearm and shoulder. Tatyla is standing, face still impassive, her straight knives reversed and blood on their edges. I had seen neither the switch in grips nor the cuts, just a brief flurry as the young man had made another series of attacks. One of the men in the crowd, with grey stubble on his chin, and old scars on his cheeks, explains it to me later. She had reversed the knives and used one to hook her partner’s wrist as he cut, like a mantis trapping its prey. The other knife had cut the shoulder, and then the first had released the trap and sliced across the arm as it pulled back. All in a single beat of time. 

The young man manages to stand, but he is swaying. He had dropped the knife in his right hand and it has fallen on the edge of the ring behind him. I can see it, so can the rest of the onlookers, but he is keeping his eyes on Tatyla. The dance is not done. If he brakes his gaze he is as good as submitting. Tatyla jerks her chin at his empty hand. Blood is dripping from the finger tips. 

‘You are lacking,’ she says, and drops her own knives, point down, so that they stick in the ground. The crowd is grimly silent. They are all looking at the bleeding young man. I don’t realise it at the time, but Tatyla has just given him one of the greatest compliments that can be made in the dance. And also a chance to leave the circle now. She slips her other pair of knives from their sheaths. These are the curved blades, and she holds them both in reversed grips. She runs the blades through the air. There is just one dagger left in its sheath: the punch dagger with its broad blade.

Not a knife to dance with, but a point to end one with. The bleeding boy can see it. He knows that if he does not take this chance then he will not see another dance of the new summer’s grass.

Slowly the boy bends and picks up Tatyla’s knives, bows and steps out of the circle. The crowd cheers. It’s going to be a good year, a good and bloody year.

Yours in service,

Kalik


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Edited by Greg Smith

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