That evening, when they had stopped to make camp, Roger approached Hannah.
“Say, Hannah. Could you teach me how to fight?”
“Huh? What happened to the part where you said you were going to be more careful?”
“Well,” Roger said, looking slightly embarrassed, “I just figured that if I was better at fighting I could defend myself. I’m not looking to win any battles or anything.”
Hannah considered for a second. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” she said before adding with a grin, “I’ll see if I can impart some of my innate awesome to you.”
They went off to one side, finding a space to practice, and Hannah found a couple of sticks that were about the same length as Roger’s dagger. She kept one for herself and gave one to him.
“Ok, so. Come at me,” she said.
Roger stepped awkwardly toward her. She poked him in the ribs with the stick.
“No good, try again.”
He tried to get close enough again, but she just poked him again.
“I feel like I’m missing something,” Roger said.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m poking you as you get closer. You need to prevent me from poking you.”
Roger tried again, this time trying to move out of the way of the poke as he got closer. Hannah just poked him from a different direction.
“No good, I still poked you,” she said.
“I get that, but what am I supposed to do?”
“Prevent me from poking you, duh.”
Hannah stopped and pondered that for a second. She crouched down and pantomimed some motions, looking thoughtful. She looked back at Roger again.
“Ya know, I don’t really know how to explain it. I just kind of do it, but I don’t know why.”
Father Miha came up behind Roger and put a hand on his shoulder. This surprised Roger, making him jump.
“I may be able to be of some assistance,” he said.
“I would appreciate that.” Roger replied.
“Rather than dagger fighting, though, I think it would be best if we started with wrestling. Wrestling is the core skill of all combat, you know.”
With that the abbot doffed his habit, and stood there, naked down to his braies. “In my day,” he explained, “We would have done this in the nude, but seeing how there are ladies about, I’ll keep my small pants on.”
“I'll keep my clothes on, thanks,” Roger said.
“Don't you want to experience true virility?”
“Nope. I feel plenty virile.”
“Suit yourself. Let's get started.”
The abbot demonstrated a few positions and actions that could be taken from them. Roger did his best to repeat what he was shown, but he wasn't so great at it.
“Don't worry,” the abbot said after they had finished, “No skill comes except by repetition and daily practice.”
“Sure,” Roger replied, “But should I really waste my time on something I'm so clearly bad at?”
“We will see if it's a waste, won't we?”
They settled in to rest for the night, and the next morning, when Roger awoke, Father Miha was there, waiting in his small pants. His thick, white chest hair matched the color of his beard so perfectly that it was almost impossible to know where one stopped and the other began.
“I think I'll pass this time, abbot,” Roger said, “I'm tired and I don't think I'll be much better than last night.”
“No time for that!” Father Miha said enthusiastically. He then charged toward Roger.
Partially from instinct and partially from the previous night’s lesson, Roger dropped his weight and caught Father Miha as he pressed down onto him. His shoulders and thighs ached, but he managed to bind against the abbot and push back.
Subtly, Father Miha shifted his weight, and Roger found himself pushing against air. He toppled forward as the abbot guided his body, none too gently, to the ground.
“Ow,” Roger complained.
“It's time for the next lesson,” Father Miha said, “Meet strength with weakness, and weakness with strength.”
“I don’t understand,” Roger said.
“Allow me to demonstrate again. Try to move me using what you learned yesterday.”
Roger pressed his body against the abbot, trying to move him off balance.
“Good. Push harder,” Father Miha encouraged.
Roger put more into his efforts. Suddenly Father Miha had swiveled out of the way, and Roger found himself pushing on empty air. He ended up in the dirt again.
“Try again,” the abbot said.
Roger stood back up, and did the same basic thing, except that this time he restrained himself so that he wouldn’t fall forward when Father Miha moved. The abbot overpowered him, flipping him back into the dirt.
“Ow,” Roger moaned, “I don’t really get the point of this.”
“Strength with weakness, weakness with strength,” Father Miha repeated, “This is the key principle that I want wrestling to teach you. How to read when your opponent is going to attack with strength, and how to respond to their weakness. Let’s do it again.”
The abbot tossed Roger another dozen times or so before stopping to put his habit back on. “Good, I think you’re starting to get the hang of it.”
Roger wasn’t convinced, but he decided to leave it for now. The group mounted up and continued on their way. They kept going until about midday, when they stopped for a break. Immediately Father Miha pulled Roger aside and stripped down to his underwear. His old muscles, though not as thick as Hil’s, were chorded and tough, and they moved sinuously beneath his skin.
“I really don’t want to do this right now,” Roger complained. His rump was saddle sore, and his body ached from the abuse it had already received.
“Don’t worry, Rog, I’ll cheer you on,” Hannah said, coming up beside him, “You really are improving. I can tell!”
“Alright,” Roger grumbled. That may have been the first time he’d received something approaching a compliment from a girl. He found it pleasantly invigorating.
Father Miha and Roger continued their wrestling, the abbot repeatedly tossing Roger, giving him pointers, and Roger listening dutifully while being concerned about the state of his back and shoulders.
They took another try at each other, and Roger managed to turn Father Miha. Following through, he was able to move the abbot into a position where he could easily have broken the abbot’s arm had it been a real fight.
“Nice move, Rog!” Hannah called from where she was sitting, munching on her lunch.
“Yes, well executed,” Father Miha agreed.
Roger felt a small feeling of pride grow within him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d learned to do something new other than how to be the best at a new game or the names of his new favorite characters from a book. He had actually learned a new skill, and a skill that required moving his body to boot. He had a feeling that he didn’t recognize. Maybe it was hope? Excitement? The idea that there was a world of possibilities that he’d never even explored before.
“I think it’s time you tested your skills against a different opponent. Not everyone will act as I do,” Father Miha said, “Ari, you know how to fight. Come over here and wrestle Roger.”
“Psh,” Ari said dismissively, “Like I’d let him touch me.”
The abbot gave her a slightly disappointed look, and then turned to Hil, “How about you? Want to give it a shot?”
“Sure, why not?” Hil said, smiling.
“Hey! What about me? I’m closer to Roger’s size,” Hannah said, voicing Roger’s exact same thought.
“I’m afraid you might actually kill him,” the abbot said.
Hannah stewed on that for a moment, “Yeah, that’s true. I don’t really know how to hold back. Besides, I’ve already–” She cut herself off.
Killed him once, Roger finished the sentence in his head.
Hil walked over, his huge size casting a shadow that completely enveloped Roger.
“I’m not so sure about this,” Roger said, eyeing Hil up and down.
“Don’t worry, I know how to not hurt people,” Hil said.
“Remember, meet strength with weakness,” Father Miha said, encouraging Roger, “You won’t always have the luxury of choosing who you fight.”
“Alright, here we go!” Hil said enthusiastically.
He moved in toward Roger, his hands reaching out to grab him. Roger, following the instruction the abbot had given him, allowed Hil’s strength and mass to flow past him, and Hil ended up stumbling to his knees.
“See? It works,” Father Miha said, grinning.
Roger was shocked, “I honestly can’t believe that just happened.”
“Well,” Hil said, looking a little embarrassed, “I’m actually not so great at hand fighting. There’s a reason I use a bow.”
Roger was incredulous, “But you’re so strong! I figured you’d be great at fighting.”
“Right, you have to be strong to use a war bow,” Hil said, grimacing, “I can get stabbed just as easily as anyone else though. I don’t really fancy being stabbed.”
Roger was surprised by that, “So you don’t really fight hand to hand at all?”
“Well, I can, but I’m not particularly good at it.”
“There are many things more important in fighting than strength, Roger,” Father Miha said, “While it’s good to be strong, if you can lift your weapon and use it for a while, that’s strong enough to start with. The rest is all down to training your body to know how to move, and that can only be improved by practice.”
“Huh!” For the longest time he figured that he was disqualified from doing a lot of things. Either he wasn’t strong enough, he wasn’t tall enough, smart enough, or old enough. Suddenly these barriers started to feel like they were slipping away. If this skill could be learned just by repeated practice and instruction, what other ambitions had he been missing out on all his life?
After that, the party mounted back up and continued their journey. That evening, after stopping for the night, Roger hopped down off his horse, and went straight up to the abbot.
“What else is there to learn?” Roger asked.
“Oh, many things, but I think you know enough of wrestling for now. With continued practice you should be able to handle yourself well enough there. Tonight I figured I’d show you a bit about how to use that dagger of yours.”
“Aren’t you going to remove your habit for this?” Roger asked.
“That’s just for wrestling. Knife fighting is a different business.” Father Miha walked Roger over to a clear space. “Knife fighting is similar to wrestling, except with more stabbing. Namely, you want to be doing the stabbing and avoid being stabbed. In order to accomplish both of these goals at the same time, you have to learn how to control your opponent’s weapon.
“And the first step in doing that, is to understand distance.” Father Miha turned, “Ari could you bring that staff of yours over here?”
“Fine,” she replied. Picking up her staff, she walked over to Roger and the abbot. “I’m assuming that the abbot wants me to demonstrate the basics of distance in combat?” She looked at the abbot, arching her eyebrow in question. He simply nodded in response.
“Right,” she said, “By distance we simply mean how far you are from your opponent, but there are a few different distances that are important to know about.
“Firstly, there’s the distance where you can strike your opponent without moving, and additionally, the distance where your opponent can strike you without having to move. These aren’t necessarily the same, and can even change in a fight. For example,” she held her staff with one hand on the end, the other close to the center. She stepped toward Roger, “I have to be this close to strike you with my staff when I hold it like this, but” she slid both hands toward one end, and stepped away, “I can be this far away to strike you when I hold it like so. What really matters is to judge what the striking distance will be in my next action.
“The next distance to remember is where you are too far from your opponent to strike them, but you can get close enough to strike with a single motion,” she said. To demonstrate, she returned to holding her staff with her hands spread apart. She moved to a spot, dropped into a low stance, and, stepping out and forward, brought the staff up to Roger’s head.
“See, I wouldn’t have been close enough to strike you without taking that step. Understand?”
Roger nodded, “I think so.”
“And the last distance to remember is when you’re too far away to do anything with a single motion. That isn’t too difficult to understand, so I hope you don’t need another demonstration.”
“I think I’ve got it,” Roger said.
“Good!” Father Miha exclaimed, “Because now Ari is going to try and hit you with her staff, and you’re going to keep enough distance between the two of you so you don’t get hit.”
“Wha–?” Roger began. He didn’t get to finish because Ari, grinning wickedly, took a swing toward his face. He barely had time to change his weight to his back leg and slip away. He didn’t have time to reflect on it though, because with Ari’s next motion she was within striking distance again, and he was forced to continue moving away. Every time she stepped, he would counter step. If she came straight forward, he would step straight back. If she passed to the side, he would pass back and to the other side. When he misread the direction she was going he ended up with a new bruise or bump on his head. After a while he had accumulated quite a few of them.
“Good! That will do for now,” Father Miha finally announced.
“Are you sure?” Ari said, “I could go for a while longer.”
“Let’s please stop,” Roger gasped, sweat running down his face and his breathing haggard.
“We’re going to stop doing that, at least,” Father Miha responded, “It’s time to actually start learning about using your dagger.”
The abbot called Hannah over, and once again they practiced with a couple of dagger length sticks. It turned out that dagger fighting was a lot like wrestling, except that sometimes you could skip steps if it meant getting a stab in with the dagger.
“Remember,” the abbot cautioned, “there are no second chances when you are dead. First, avoid death. If you do not have the advantage, you must react to her actions. Only after you have taken the advantage can you end the fight without dying.”
Hannah was a vicious opponent. She would frequently get carried away with what they were doing, and jab him hard with her stick. Before long he was covered in even more bruises and scrapes. To his credit, though, he did manage to return to her a number of bruises as well.
Roger went to bed that evening more sore than he had been since he’d come to this world, but he also felt more satisfied than he had in whole life. There was something different about himself, and it took him a while to figure out what it was. He had spent his whole life telling himself that he would or could be great at things, that if he ever felt like it he could easily go and conquer the world. He’d buried himself in stories of great people doing exactly that, and wrapped himself in their personas.
In the last few days, he had learned that none of that was true. He kind of sucked at lots of things, and he was nothing like the characters he had identified with for years. He had always known that, somehow, and yet, now he was fine with it. At least now he had done something to become the kind of person he wanted to be. He could point at his experiences over the last few days and say to himself, that is me. He was still only a tiny seed of the person he wanted to be, but now he had an idea of the way to move forward.
With that happy thought dancing through his mind, he rolled over in his blanket to find that his head was right next to a pile of Gallant’s excrement.