All For One (Chapter Five)
5. The Training of Athos
Athos, as he now was called, decked out with a new sword, made his way, head high, back to the office of Des Essarts the next day. After signing his commission papers with the King’s Guard, he made two significant financial arrangements: he rented a small apartment in the Rue Ferou, at two paces from the hotel owned François Duc de Luxembourg. It was two small rooms in a very nice house, whose mistress was an attractive young widow. In this small apartment he hung the portrait of his grandfather, kept the small jeweled chest, and mounted his grandfather’s sword. As much honor it would be to wield the sword worn by his honored ancestor, he couldn’t bring himself to risk damaging it. His new sword was a swept-hilt rapier, with gracefully curving knuckle bows and two large rings on each side designed to protect the back of the fighter’s hand. The thin scabbard was attached to his belt with a small leather connector called a frog. It hung low to his belt and he rested his left hand on the pommel, allowing the blade to swing behind him as he walked.
Although he still felt terrible guilt for the murder of his wife, he believed that he was on a path of redemption. For the first time since that fateful day, he felt good. He strode confidently into the main hall. Des Essarts was waiting for him. The captain looked Athos over, paying attention to his sword.
“I see you have your sword,” he remarked. “Very good. Follow me.”
Athos followed des Essarts to the back of the building, though a small door that led to a large hall. The room was cavernous with a few small windows allowing light to pass through. It was sparse. This was not a room for decoration, but for action. The floor was dirt, but flat. Athos’ attention focused on a man in the middle of the room in his late thirties. Tall and blond with a pointed moustache and beard, he was armed. He held his sword in his hand, and was methodically advancing and retreating. The man looked up when the two men entered.
“Captain,” he said, jauntily saluting with his sword.
“André, I would like you to meet one of our new recruits,” des Essarts began. “This is Athos.”
“Athos?” the man called André said. “Like the mountain?”
The captain smirked and turned to Athos. “Athos, this is André du Toulon.”
Athos offered his hand, and André graciously took it.
“He’s green, André,” des Essarts said. “He needs your personal attention.”
André’s eyes flicked up and down Athos, who wondered what the older man was scrutinizing him for. “I see. I need Carte Blanche with this one.”
“Understandable,” des Essarts replied, then turned to Athos. “Do everything he asks, no matter how unusual.”
“Everything?” Athos asked.
“You heard me,” des Essarts said without a trace of humor. He turned back to André. “He’s all yours. Don’t break him.”
Des Essarts left Athos with the tall blonde André, who stared at him with an imposing look. He walked around Athos, appraising him as if he were a horse. Finally he strolled over to a wall and removed his sword belt. He leaned the weapon against the wall. He walked back and faced Athos.
“Well let’s see what you can do,” he said.
Athos nodded. “Very well,” he said, and waited for instructions.
André waited for a moment. When Athos did nothing, André sighed. “Your sword?”
Athos held his tongue as he slowly brandished his sword. If André had wanted his sword out why didn’t he tell him? André took a few steps back and waited.
“Well,” he said, “are you going to attack me?”
Athos was confused. “But you’re unarmed,” he pointed out.
“I am aware of that.”
“Didn’t your captain tell you to do everything I asked of you, no matter how ridiculous?” André asked.
“Yes, he did,” Athos replied.
“Then attack me, you fool!”
Athos swung his sword at the irritating André, but discovered that André was not where he had been just a moment before. André was fast; he simply stepped to the side as Athos’ blade sliced past. Undaunted, Athos stepped forward and swung again across his body. Even before the blade began its descent, André slipped back. Frustrated, Athos swung his blade high in the air and dashed towards André, intending to bring the blade crashing down upon his new mentor’s head. André simply spun out of the way, and when Athos passed, planted a swift kick on Athos’ backside.
Infuriated, Athos spun and lunged with his sword, the point aiming directly at André’s heart. In a swift maneuver, André caught the sword under his armpit, snaking his left arm around the blade. His right hand grabbed Athos’ wrist right before his foot found his way into Athos’ stomach. Reflexively, Athos let go of his sword and dropped to the floor. Doubled over in pain, he saw André standing over him, shaking his head disapprovingly.
“Pathetic,” he said. “I took your weapon from you and I wasn’t even armed. Imagine if I had a sword. You would look like a boar on a spit.”
Athos’ face flushed with anger. “What did you expect?” he spat. “This is my first day.”
“Is it surprising that I expected more?” André replied. “I actually estimated a higher proficiency from you. However, this is not as bad as you might think. Many times I’ve see green recruits like you enter the service thinking they know how to fight. They have an entire repertoire of horrible habits that they have practiced over and over. Bad habits are difficult to shatter. You, however, have no habits whatsoever. I am therefore free to mold you as I see fit.”
Athos nodded as the pain in his gut ebbed.
“On your feet,” André ordered. “Your rest is over.”
Athos scrambled onto his feet and faced his mentor. André held Athos’ sword in his hand. “You don’t get to play with this yet,” he said, holding up the sword. He crossed the room and hung it on the wall. “You will not touch this weapon until I say that you are able to, but I shall leave it on this wall, so that you may look upon it and it will inspire you.”
Athos nodded, but said nothing. He fought down his humiliation. It was his pride that got him into trouble in the first place. A little humility would not be wasted. This is what he was there for, after all. He followed André to the wall.
“Stand against the wall,” André said, and Athos complied. André stood next to him. “Do what I do,” André said. He stepped forward with his right leg in a giant step, bending his right knee into a lunge. Athos imitated him. André repeated the action with his left leg, taking another stretching lunge. Athos followed suit. André and Athos continued lunging until they reached the opposite wall. Instead of stopping, as Athos expected, André turned around and continued back to their starting point. When they reached their original point, André stopped.
“I want you to continue doing exactly this,” he said. Athos nodded and started taking his lunge-steps across the room. André watched for a while, and then left without saying a word. Athos continued in this way for an hour. His thighs started aching after about twenty minutes, but he kept going. He didn’t want to see André’s disappointment if he had decided to quit or lesson his intensity.
After the first hour, André returned with two small cannonballs in his hands, each weighing about five pounds each.
“How do your thighs feel?” he asked. Athos merely moaned. André laughed. “Then you’re on course. Stop for a few minutes.”
Athos flopped on the ground.
“I’m surprised,” André said. “I thought you would have stopped after I left.”
“Should I have?”
“No,” his mentor said. “You did the right thing. That shows character. Stand up again.”
Athos climbed to his feet. André placed the balls in each one of Athos’ hands.
“Continue what you were doing, but hold on to these. Keep them down by your legs.”
Athos gripped the cannonballs and continued his exercise across the floor. At first he noticed no difference, but after a few lengths of the room, he felt his thighs aching again. He continued in this fashion all morning until André allowed him to eat lunch.
That afternoon, André advanced their lessons.
“You will do an hour of lunges each morning until you no longer feel sore,” he ordered. “I am now going to show you the advance, the basic movement in sword fighting.”
André stood facing Athos. “Place your feet at the same width as your shoulders.” Athos looked down at his feet and complied. “The proper stance is essential,” André continued. “Flexibility and balance stem from the proper footwork. It is for this reason that we shall devote quite a bit of time to your feet. Take a step forward,” he said, placing his right boot about a foot in front of his left. Athos imitated.
“Now bend your knees slightly,” André said, demonstrating. Athos’ thighs protested as the student complied.
“This is your basic stance. It will enable you to move forward,” he demonstrated, advancing on Athos, “or to the side,” he continued, side-stepping to Athos’ left.
“Now watch my feet,” he said. Athos observed as André put all of his weight on his back foot and slid his lead foot forward in a small step, his heel barely leaving the ground. As the lead foot stopped, the lag foot followed in the exact distance and André stood in the exact starting position, but a foot closer to his destination.
“The advantage is that you never leave your fighting stance, and you never become off-balance. Sure you can easily step forward, but, as I said, flexibility and balance is crucial.” He gestured to Athos. “Try it.”
Athos did his best to repeat André’s advance, leaping forward, his head bobbing.
“Not so easy, is it?” André remarked. “You’re lifting your foot too much. You just want to glide over the ground. Here,” he said as he pulled a gold coin out of his purse and placed it under the ground. “You want to be able to move the coin along with you.” He stepped on the coin and settled into his fighting stance. He advanced and Athos could hear the metal coin scraping the ground at it slid under André’s boot. André advanced four times, with the coin traveling with him with each step. He stopped, picked up the coin and tossed it to Athos.
“I think you know how you’re going to spend your afternoon,” he said, smiling.
Athos sighed, but made no complaint as he dropped the coin to the ground, stepped on it with his right foot and attempted to advance like André, keeping his foot close to the ground. He struggled with the exercise, sometimes sending the coin flying across the room. However, Athos was nothing if not determined. By the time the evening sun started to fade through the windows, Athos had managed to cross the room several times without losing the coin.
“Go home, Athos,” André said. “And come back tomorrow.”
Athos stumbled home without his sword, still hung in his training room. He ambled through his door, ignoring his landlady. He collapsed on his bed and soon drifted off to sleep. If Athos dreamt that night, he didn’t remember it when he woke up. The only thing he could think about was his aching thighs.
The rest of Athos’ week progressed in much the same manner. He began each day with an hour of lunges. André insisted he practice unceasingly on his advances. When he could move the coin across the floor for an hour, André placed an inflated bladder between Athos’ legs in order to control the length of his steps. Too large a step and the bladder falls, too short a step would be impossible. After he had mastered that, André had Athos hold a cup of water in his right hand while advancing with instructions not to spill a drop. Athos had to concentrate harder on making his advance smoother.
After André felt that Athos had progressed in his advances, he started him on the exact opposite: the retreat. In the retreat the lag leg moves backwards first, followed closely by the lead leg in reverse sequence of the advance. Athos went through the same paces, using the coin, the bladder and the water to perfect his form. Athos spent two weeks advancing and retreating across his training room.
Athos progressed to different moves. He mastered the circle steps, what the Spanish call lineas infinitas, creating two parallel circles with his feet. He learned the evasive maneuver called the volte where the fighter slides his lag foot behind him, slipping his body away from an advancing thrust. He learned the lunge
Finally, after three weeks of footwork, Athos entered his training room to find André standing in the middle of the room with a paintbrush and a small bucket of paint.
“Athos, take your sword,” he said.
Athos leapt to the weapon hanging on the wall. He carefully, reverently removed it. The sword had become a symbol, a reward for his hard work. He brought it back to André.
André held it in his hand, showing Athos the proper placement. Athos took the sword in his hand, and André adjusted his grip. He rotated Athos’ wrist so that the back of his hand faced the ceiling.
“Pronated,” he said. Then he turned the wrist so the palm faced the ceiling. “Supinated.”
Athos nodded in understanding. His brow then furrowed in confusion as André attached the paintbrush to the end of his sword. André lead Athos to a recently painted wall.
“I want you to paint circles on the wall with your sword,” he said, smiling. He took Athos’ sword to demonstrate. “Use only your wrist,” he added after dipping the tip of the brush into the paint. With ease he painted a perfect circle on the wall. Then he handed it back to his student.
Athos spent the first day painting circles, covering four walls with increasingly accurate circles. He left that night with a sore right forearm. When he returned the next morning, the walls had been painted with a fresh layer. This time he had to create figure eights, followed the next day with diamonds, then four-leaf clovers. By the end of the week, Athos was writing the alphabet over and over. Smiling, André challenged him.
“Try it with your left hand,” he said. “If your right arm is injured, you still have to fight.”
Athos shrugged and switched hands. His writing was slower, but still clear to the amazement of André.
“Phenomenal!” he exclaimed.
“I’ve always been able to write just as well with my left hand,” Athos said casually.
“Yes,” Athos replied.
“Well why didn’t you tell me?” chided André. “What an asset that is!”
So Athos alternated hands throughout his training. Athos was pleased, for he noticed that his right forearm was becoming much more muscular than his left.
- All For One (Chapter Four)
The next chapter in the prequel to The Three Musketeers
- All for One- Chapter Six
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