“Not like that,” I heard myself say. She scowled at me from under lowered brows. I started to take the knife from her hand, and then realized that would not do. I drew my own belt-knife. It looked like Molly’s, a short, sturdy blade meant for the dozen odd chores that might demand a knife during the day. I held it loosely in my hand, palm-up, the haft resting lightly. I balanced it. “Try this.”
Grudgingly, she reversed her grip on the blade. She balanced it in her hand, and then gripped it tight. She poked the air with it, then shook her head. “I’m stronger with it the other way.”
“Perhaps. If you have an obliging enemy who will stand still while you stab him. But you’ll have to get close to him. If I hold a knife like this, it lets me force someone to stay back from me. Or I can reach out and cut someone before he can get close to me. Or I may choose to do a wide slash.” I demonstrated that for her. “The way you were holding your blade, you can’t slash effectively. Nor hold off more than one attacker.”
I could see in her bunched shoulders how much she wanted to be right. It irritated her that she had to recognize she was wrong. In a small, gruff voice she conceded with, “Show me.” And even more grudgingly. “Please.”
“Very well.” I stepped well clear of her and took up a stance. “It starts with your feet. You need to be balanced and ready, your weight set so that you can sway aside, or take a sudden step forward or back without losing your balance. Knees a little bent. See how I can move my body from side to side?”
She took a stance opposite me and copied me. She was limber, my little girl, and slender as a snake.
I set my knife down and armed myself with the sheath. “Now here’s our first game. Neither one of us is allowed to move our feet. Or step forward or step back. I’m going to try to touch you with the tip of this sheath. You have to move aside and not let it touch you.”
She looked at the bared blade in her hand and then at me.
“For now, set that aside. Begin by avoiding my blade.”
And so I danced with my daughter, swaying counterpoints to each other. At first I touched her effortlessly, tapping her upper arm, her breastbone, her belly, her shoulder. “Don’t watch the knife,” I suggested. “Watch all of me. By the time the knife is moving toward you, it’s almost too late. Watch my whole body, and see if you can tell when I’m going to try to tap you, and where.”
I was not as rough with her as Chade had been with me. Chade’s jabs had left little bruises, and he had laughed at me every time he scored a hit. I was not Chade and she was not me. Bruising her or mocking her would not wring greater effort from her. As I recalled, it had provoked me to anger, and led to errors and swifter defeat. I was not, I reminded myself, trying to teach my daughter to be an assassin. I merely wanted to teach her how to avoid a knife.
She improved rapidly, and soon I was the one being poked at with a sheath. The first time I allowed her to hit me, she stopped and then stood very still. “If you don’t want to teach me, then say so,” she said coldly. “But don’t pretend I’ve learned something I haven’t.”
“I just didn’t want you to get discouraged,” I said to excuse my subterfuge.
“And I just don’t want to think I’ve learned something I haven’t. If someone wants to kill me, I need to be able to kill him back.”
I stood still and fought to keep a smile from forming in my face or eyes. She would not have taken it well. “Very well, then,” I said, and after that I was honest with her. It meant that she did not touch me again that afternoon, but it also meant that my back ached and I was sweating before she conceded that she’d had enough instruction for one day. Her short hair was damp and stood up in spikes as she sat down on the floor to thread the knife’s sheath onto her belt. When she stood up, the knife hung heavy on her child’s body. I looked at her. She didn’t lift her eyes to mine. She suddenly looked to me like a neglected puppy. Molly had never let her run about in such disarray.
I felt as if I were tearing a piece from my heart as I lifted Molly’s silver-backed brush and horn comb from my trove. I set it with her other treasures. I had to clear my throat before I spoke. “Let’s take these to your new room. Then I want you to use your mother’s brush to smooth your hair. It’s still too short to tie back. But you can put on one of your new tunics.” Her fuzzy head nodded. “I think we will keep the knife lessons private, shall we?”
“I wish you had kept all my lessons private,” she muttered sullenly.