Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Duel - An Essay

The Duel

by Jean-Loup Rebours-Smith

André and Zack had been training together for a few years now and though there were others they normally trained with in the salle, they more frequently ended up paired up doing drills and other exercises. You start to know someone after training with them for a while. You see their play change, evolve into something smoother, sharper and less predictable. Yet at the same time your own play follows a similar path. An awkward dance becomes a continuous flowing motion. The body starts to move almost by itself, reacting rather than responding.

That night André felt particularly clear headed. When the time came to stop exercising and to start duelling he was more ready than he had even been. There was a twinkle in Zack’s eyes too that suggested a similar readiness and somewhere, as if coming out of thin air, a pulsating rhythm started to play, like the drumming of a distant tribe in the jungle.

Their swords firmly gripped, thumb gently resting behind the ricasso, they entered the duelling arena holding their masks under their left arm. At the call of the judges, their swords clashed and swooshed in a determined and respectful salute as is traditional. Having paid their respects to the judges and everyone watching, they assumed an en-garde position, left hand on one hip and sword pointing forward both shielding and threatening at the same time.

When the call was given, André quickly opened his play with a cut to the head. A swift parry and riposte from Zack forced him to drop his guard low to protect his right flank. Just as quickly he riposted again but Zack blocked him and took a step backward. Openings are often used as a test to feel your opponent’s swiftness to respond and as such there is little point to keep the flow going for too long. When the stream train gets on its way it must first start at a slow pace before accelerating to full speed.

André attacked again, this time with a beat, but Zack knew better than to let his sword taken offline and he evaded the beat responding with an attempt to thrust directly at André’s chest. This was a clever and swift move but not one André was unfamiliar with. He dropped his blade to close the door to Zack’s thrust sending it offline. A good fencer never over-commits however and André’s returned cut was once again parried.

And then time started to slow down. As each cut and thrust was parried the riposte was sent to a precise opening only to land again on the other’s parrying blade. Again and again the blades clashed like a clock ticking inexorably setting into an unbreakable rhythm. Even as each of them looked for alternatives to their play, so swift was their response and so clear was their minds that there seemed to be no way to escape save through sheer exhaustion.

But exhaustion wasn’t an option, not when euphoria was driving their swords back and forth. Breaks were taken only to preserve energy and look for alternative strategies but with each return to guard another lock on rhythmic exchanges was the only possible result and it was hypnotic.

Nobody knows how long they spent fighting each other. It seemed like time was now determined by the clockwork of their clashing blades forming a bubble that isolated them from the outside world. The judges and the public were trapped inside the sphere, wondering who would come out victorious eventually.

Whilst dances are rehearsed, duels are drilled into the swordsman and the sword becomes both arms and armour. Victory isn’t about who hits most often but how easily you can slip into the duelling dance. That night, André and Zack knew they were now ready to take on anyone who would dare challenge them.