Loremageddon: Martial Arts in the North Ton-Ga, ca. 1290 V.R.

As promised, I’m starting the month of November off right with an immediate dive into scribing irresponsible amounts of lore! Below the break today: an in-depth look at the basic historical, cultural and practical factors shaping Tonnish martial arts, some of the favorite forms, and in-depth information about people beating the absolute hell out of each other in a dour no-man’s-land of overgrown foliage and murder-fauna.

Fun!

***

The Northern Ton have never been a gentle people. Gruff, frequently ill-tempered and unnaturally pale, their reputation for violence rivals that of Black Haveners. Many foreigners come to expect certain things of the Ton’s fighting arts–and their self-imposed isolation certainly doesn’t help! Meshing with the rumors forever swirling along the trade-winds between Ceslon and Anseth, the Ton have gone out of their way to perpetuate a myth of exotic and incredibly intricate martial arts.

Somewhere deep within the archives of every Ceslonian combat school, there is an exhaustive and bitterly-disappointed treatise explaining that this is preposterous.

Any given Tonnish martial arts school operates on the same basic principles as every other style on Canno. After reaching her wit’s end with a particularly block-headed student, the House Huan master Je-li is reputed to have screamed “Do you suppose I’ll teach you to grow extra limbs?! Of course it’s the fucking same!” The revered master may, of course, have oversimplified a little bit. What separated the Ton from every other people, in past ages as now, were the bogs.

Other Cannoan warriors cart around a dozen little assumptions about everything from their daily lives to the food they eat which simply aren’t practical in the murk and choking tangles of the deep bogs. A Murit warrior, for example, particularly if he comes from Hanir itself, will want to know why the Ton are so obsessed with thrusting weapons and short cuts. “Isn’t it better to put the full body behind the stroke? Your shoulders alone will never be as fast as all of you together.”

When staring at a tangle of vines almost as stubborn as tree-trunks and dripping maybe-toxic substances that bear no naming, he may start to get the idea. Any given pathway through the bogs will be only as wide as it was first cleared to be, and usually far narrower than that. The bogs grow swiftly, and the only humans who can safely clear them are mages who the Houses have better uses for. The trees grow dense and close, errant branches are everywhere, and if all this weren’t enough, there’s always the possibility that sweeping one’s weapon out to the side will bring it back with living cargo!

Even more basically, as so eloquently put by the early period master Lunja: “Bogs are wet.” This laconicism has some rather slippery implications for footwork. An aggressive lunge to take advantage of the enemy’s opening is all well and good when a warrior knows that her back foot will stay planted and her front foot will stop neatly. If the odds are high that she’s standing on slime or a thin film of mud or a wriggling Silverblood worm (less uncommon than one might think in duels, as the adults naturally seek the scent of blood), broad footwork becomes less attractive. Like all armor of its era, Tonnish lamellar covers most of the body well, but it must allow movement. There are always weak-points, and most of them can be exposed for just long enough in a fall.

The focus on tightly constrained movements not only flows from the terrain, but it’s enforced by health and diet. The high-energy movements favored among Ceslonian and Ansethi styles are the privilege of agricultural peoples with ample foods, fat and protein-rich diets, and far more importantly than either: a conspicuous lack of parasites. Over time the Ton have developed a range of curatives for the myriad parasites, bacteria and viruses which even the hardiest sooner or later contract from the bogs, but many of these purge the body of energy as well as sickness. A warrior who spends a third of her life recovering can never quite match the speed and training of one who doesn’t have to do so–unless she concentrates her lesser training into a smaller range of focuses.

If any rumors surrounding the North Ton hold true, it’s their people’s fiendish mastery over the spear. Every Ton child receives a wealth of practice in handling it precisely; many die if they do not, or their families go hungry for want of successful hunts. It’s for this exact reason that so many outsiders are disappointed when they first witness Tonnish martial arts; the lack of complex movements and aggressive fighting are immediately obvious.

The lethal precision of a thrust swift and accurate enough to lance the gap between war-mask and breastplate from ten feet away, on the other hand, is something seen only with time. The Ton have become so dreaded for this in martial arts circles that it’s received its own name: “Thread-splitting bolts.” This comes from an entirely true story–though it’s often denounced as otherwise–regarding Ten-Zai Lin, who drove Skybleeder’s point through a single silken thread in a straight thrust. This is one of the Inferno Matriarch’s few feats in which her own skill deserves sole credit; Skybleeder’s wickedly-curved blade makes it extraordinarily difficult to target the point accurately.

The advantages of a spear in the bogs become more obvious the more an outlander learns. Pools of near-black water lie atop mud or nothing at all somewhere along every pathway, and often run far too long to jump–besides which, jumping is the best way to slip and fall right back into them! For the Ton, spears evolved naturally from the long reeds their ancestors used to plum a given puddle’s depths. Often times it turns out to be but inches, and that’s wonderful to know. But it could be one foot, or two, or ten, and submerging a limb beneath certain bogs’ foul waters for any length of time makes a slow but inevitable death.

So it is that children are taught to work as pathfinders, carrying full eight-foot staves like their elders’ spears from the day their arms grow strong enough. There are ample grandfather-tales from other nations about youngsters whose very bones grew deformed from this work, but in truth they receive a progression of longer and longer staves as they grow towards puberty. Among the North Ton warstock, the most common children’s tradition is a contest to see how far in advance of her bloom a girl becomes strong enough to carry her spear all day without help.

Life in the bogs also provides the reason for the prominent prongs and lugs on many Tonnish spears, which have been adapted from staves intended to hook and part or push away vines, branches and undergrowth without getting close enough that the bogs’ vicious wildlife could endanger the pathfinder. Ceslonian spear-masters often object to these designs, believing they make the spears excessively forward-heavy and sapping its agility. The Ton, of course, find the idea laughable–what kind of weakling needs to strip half a pound of steel just to use the spear swiftly?

Perpetually handling the spear–or a stave which is the weapon’s ideal training form in any case–forces a Tonnish child, regardless of gender, social status or even stock, to reach a level of skill almost unheard of in other cultures. In binding up and pushing aside the undergrowth, she practices the same techniques she uses to manipulate her enemy’s weapon aside for a kill-stroke. In keep the spear from tangling on the terrain around and in front of her, she practices disengaging it from her enemy’s strikes, and in moving it forward into an open space before herself, she practices the dreaded thrust. Outsiders often attribute the Ton’s fighting skill to the brutality of life in the Ton-Ga, believing these hardships make them inhumanly resilient: the wrong effect attributed to the right pains.

Master Je-li’s childhood provides the perfect illustration. House Huan’s domain within the bogs is overrun by creepers and gnarled trees which usually grow over a hundred feet in total. The other plants merely cluster around these giants’ roots. The mix of moss, lichen and eternal damp mean that the “solid” footing easily deceives the unwary into taking a slightly wider stride, and just like that, they fall. Je-li grew up as one of three warstock girls in the borderland village of Shantin. With hunters always needing an armed escort and just over two hundred people to feed, she and her spear-sisters (who were unsurprisingly her birth-sisters as well) were forced into adulthood early.

Je-li was often forced to move quickly when a hunter–not always wisely, and rarely warning her first!–took off after prey. In following them at speed through the strangling jungle, she had to learn to draw her spear in closer and push it out into clear spaces ahead of her at a nigh-insane sprint. Her friends and enemies alike later said that the revered Master never slipped; she simply fell into a stance she liked better. More vitally, her skill in maneuvering the spear and changing her grip became seemingly superhuman. Not long after she founded her Piercing Hurtle school, she demonstrated this to fatal effect in a prolonged duel against Unin Hara, then-master of the mythic Knifestail’s Glare school.

Je-li challenged Unin after he killed several her students and boasted about it to her school’s discredit. At the climax of the duel, Unin drove Je-li from the center line by countering her thrust with one of his own. In the process, he briefly knocked her right hand from her spear. Je-li was able to recover so quickly that Unin impaled himself through the neck on her spear’s point when he tried to advance. Je-li was able to withdraw while winding her spear through his hands and disarming him. He thus died without a spear in his hands–a grave humiliation in the Ton-Ga, and one from which the Knifestail’s Glare school took half a century to recover.

In time, of course, Je-li’s Piercing Hurtle became just as renowned as any of the others, turning Shantin from a backwater village to House Huan’s martial arts capital. The master herself often lamented that the land clearances and slavish focus on the isolated practice of her school had destroyed the advantages the bogs gave her. It’s certainly true that even her best students never quite equaled her; though they often tried to repeat the raw intensity of her deep-bog training, it was always something they added rather than a bare essential for survival.

Though a marvelous tale, Je-li’s example was hardly unique. Most of the leading schools in the Ton-Ga have similar stories behind them, and the first master of every school always spoke of the bogs by focusing on this same dual nature: that even as these lands they live in try to destroy them, the bogs provide perfect training for the Northern Ton. The truth, of course, is that it’s always been the Ton who have developed this perfect training. The bogs do no more than frame those choices.

Every martial arts school in the Ton-Ga focuses on similar principles. Footwork is reserved and kept to a bare minimum; every step is another chance to slip or to wake the bogs. For the same reason, the Ton prefer longer weapons best suited to thrusts or narrow-angle cuts. The sole exceptions to this are the reaping spears wielded by House Matriarchs, which in themselves are a symbol of status as much because they remind the Matriarch’s opponents that she is free of the bogs as because of their imposing appearance.

Cuts lash out from further forward to begin with and reach full extension much closer to the target than in most Cannoan styles. This isn’t because the Ton believe narrower cuts function better–some masters feel much the opposite, and caution their students to practice broader cuts if they even vaguely think they might fight outside the bogs–but simply because the wider the arc the weapon travels through, the more likely that trees, hanging vines and furious Knifestail vipers will interrupt it. Defense focuses on straight blocks, parries and weapon-binds rather than dodges or wide deflections, and most masters advise linear footwork.

Hand-to-hand combat isn’t deemphasized as such, but it doesn’t form the basis of such rigorous study as weapon arts. Most North Tonnish masters focus on grappling for use against other humans when a fight with weapons moves in close. These techniques are intended mostly for armored combat or in particular types of duels, though some involve using a sword to bind up a spear before moving safely inside its reach.

Teachers drill punches, kicks and joint-locks with the same brutal discipline as everything else, but they consider more elaborate techniques like those popular among the coastal Ton to be supplementary. There’s neither room nor footing to try such things in the bogs, and it doesn’t help a warrior much to know a dozen open-hand killing methods when the enemy can stand eight feet away and poke holes in the poor fool who left his spear at home. Archery is prized as highly as spearfighting, but while most masters teach it, they can’t rightly class performing one action repeatedly with slight variations as a “martial art”.

Because the risk of slipping is forever on the minds of North Ton masters, most techniques and sparring matches avoid full contact. Instead, engagements end when one warrior’s weapon could clearly “kill” the other by extending it just a few inches. This vastly decreases the likelihood that one student will puncture the other’s trachea in a “safe” technique drill because they stepped on an errant leech or friendly thray. Both scenarios are uncomfortably likely in many places, though masters and students alike do try to clean the practice area before every session.

The Ton also assert that this teaches their students to recognize when they are under threat before it’s too late. Ceslonian and Ansethi masters will sometimes retort that if your opponent has to extend further to hit you in sparring, then you’re not really under threat!

It’s against reaping spears that both the strengths and weaknesses of the North Ton’s older styles first become apparent. In the deep bogs, a reaping spear is a laughably impractical weapon. With a minimum length of eight feet and balanced for devastating cuts and blunt-attacks with its counterweight, a reaping spear’s techniques inevitably hang up on everything around the wielder. The broad arcing steps demanded to keep the body in line behind each stroke are flatly impossible in many parts of the bogs, and trying to take them in any case would making countless openings for a skilled opponent.

Only, of course, a reaping spear isn’t intended for use in the bogs. It plays much the same role as a Black Havener halberd: splitting exposed bodies in half at a stroke, punching through armor by concentrating force in its vicious point through hooking strikes, and clearing space in all directions. As a dueling weapon in open ground and a battlefield weapon against armored targets, it has few rivals. Je-li suffered the worst defeat of her career at thirty-four, when she challenged Matriarch Peizhu Yao to a duel in her own hall. The Matriarch had a number of decisive advantages: a reaping spear, fully-enclosed lamellar, and a subtler one which never occurred to Je-li until it was too late.

Je-li grew up as a poor woman in the deep bogs, and preferred a sparse diet to “keep her lean” even after her skill made her a wealthy noblewoman in her own right. When Matriarch Weilei Huan gave her the chance to wield her reaping spear for a few moments–a gesture directly implying that she considered Je-li at least as worthy as her own daughters–the master visibly struggled with the weapon. She was famously overheard to remark that “it would take the strength of four women to make such a beast better than cumbersome.”

Peizhu, like all Matriarchs, trained with the reaping spear even as other Tonnish children trained with its slimmer siblings. More vitally, she ate a steady diet of rich and magically-decontaminated food which spared her the illnesses and stomach-cramps forever attending cuisine from the bogs. She grew not just taller but more physically powerful than less-privileged Tonnish women, with vastly superior muscle endurance. Je-li had the superior endurance in running–but a fight is not running. Moment to moment, Peizhu could hurl herself aside in a broad curving step as swiftly as Je-li could take her smaller ones. In combination with the Matriarch’s greater reach from her greater height, there was no real question as to how the duel would end.

Je-li’s art subsisted on deftly maneuvering the enemy’s spear and maintaining her footing at all costs. None of her subtle handwork and precision thrusts prepared her to face a master of the reaping spear. The weapon’s relentless, broad strokes so filled the air between them that Je-li could use no more than a fraction of her spear’s reach, or else have it thrashed aside. Her attempts to bring it back to center ended abruptly when Peizhu slammed her spear up and back. Je-li reflexively made a block which would easily have deflected a thrust or stopped the tight-but-weak cuts favored in the bogs. A tiny misalignment in her lead hand–a compromise for flexibility, no mortal sin on Je-li’s own terms–caused it to turn inward and shatter at the wrist on impact.

Peizhu remarked, not without sympathy, that she had faced countless banal spears–but she knew Je-li had never faced a reaping spear before. Peizhu was later killed by House Lin raiders from the north when they fell upon her caravan; her reaping spear embedded itself in a nearby tree and she was still trying to free it when a straight spear’s head punched through the mouth of her war-mask.

Everything said of the duel between Je-li and Peizhu can be said of the North Ton’s martial arts against those of other peoples. In their proper place, as with any other fighting art, they are the perfect solution. But when forced elsewhere or faced with enemies who have sufficient advantages, they are no more infallible than any others.

A few prominent schools of North Ton martial arts, their founders, and their hallmarks are below:

Lashing Rain: a school in its “first bloom”, which is to say that it’s now on the rise and still taught by its founding master, Hei Cho. Lashing Rain is one of the schools founded under Matriarch Mou-Chirin Lin’s Martial Reformations; like all such schools, it attempts to reconcile the Ton-Ga’s ancient traditions with the lessons of wider Canno. Its master believes that (to a point), the reserved footwork of the old North Ton’s traditions is a good thing.

Hei Cho does, however, prefer the sparring style of the Ceslonian masters; he argues that most deflections and defenses should take place close to the margin of error so that the opponent is committed to his attack. Teaching students not to hit each other in sparring, then, is teaching them to react too soon, and risk countering the enemy before he is truly open. Lashing Rain is one of only three schools in House Lin which currently bear the Sapphire Right: Hei Cho is permitted not only to teach, but to wield a reaping spear if he wishes. He is one of only a dozen male masters within the last century granted this right, and treats it with appropriate gravity.

Lashing Rain is known for its relentlessness, with each attack flowing back into the next in a way uncommon for older Tonnish styles. It favors quick thrusts and snap-cuts to interrupt an enemy’s movements between or after a defense, and decisive kill-strikes at the first instant the warrior makes a good opening. In this last context, Hei Cho advocates lunges and wider hip-pivots when the ground is trusty. Unlike many masters, he is sufficiently adept in swordsmanship and martial arts to teach these things as well; his students are known as much for fearsome versatility as breathless offense.

The school’s most fabled techniques are its Zephyr-cuts (blazing fast snap-cuts to hit weak points on an unarmored foe, interrupt attacks, and seize the center) and Thunderstrokes, a demanding movement in which the fighter reverses her spear and uses its counterweight like a mace while sliding her hands back towards its head for maximum reach and power. Hei Cho has crushed more than a few unwary skulls with his own Thunderstrokes.

Piercing Hurtle: Je-li’s mythic school. It’s currently in a low period–one of a few which any storied school inevitably experiences–with Matriach Huan’s mediocre third daughter in charge. Its hallmarks are rapid, light steps, demanding balance exercises, and extremely precise blade manipulations.

It’s best known for Je-li’s Twisting Vine, a rather complex handwork in which the fighter spins her spear’s wings around the enemy’s spear during a deflected thrust. Done right, her own spear’s wings hook her foe’s nearest hand and wrist while catching the enemy spear’s haft on the same wing. If the enemy tries to grab at the wings, the fighter immediately thrusts for the neck or heart with their sudden advantage in leverage. If the enemy doesn’t respond, the fighter either hooks the enemy’s hands as normal or pulls them off balance and likely into the spear’s point.

Knifestail’s GazeOne of the oldest surviving Tonnish schools; it dates from just after the Loar War and was founded by the House Yao veteran Taisin-lo. Earlier forms involved broader footwork because the bogs were less dense and drier from Loar bombardments, as well as due to Ceslonic influences from Taisin’s wartime comrades. Over time, these techniques became less and less viable until they were tweaked beyond recognition or thrown on the burning heap.

The contemporary form appears generic to outsiders because it’s the form which most other schools have copied. Many of the favorite spearfighting techniques can be traced back to Knifestail’s Gaze, but its modern masters have struggled to bring anything new to the school.

Arcing Severance: a House Sairo school, and one of the few dedicated swordfighting schools among the North Ton. Its founder, Qin Wa, served as a mercenary in Ceslon for many years and came to love the longsword as a weapon in armored fighting; she asserted that against plate armor, a two-handed longsword was preferable to the spear because it could be used in grappling without tripping or balancing oneself awkwardly. She was never persuaded to acknowledge that poleaxes existed, and might serve her purposes better.

Because of their reliance on fortresses and defensive warfare, the Sairos have also developed a keener appreciation for swords than most Houses. Unlike spearfighting schools, Arcing Severance uses long lunges, broad steps and more aggressive deflections. All these things rely on several assumptions: a swordfighter will be at a crippling reach disadvantage against spears, so must evade more desperately and move more quickly to close the distance without meeting death. A sword–at least of the kinds which currently exist–has less mass and comprises a much shorter lever than a spear, so it needs broader motions to cut effectively. Most of these ideas show clear Ceslonian influences.

While the school is well-respected, it hasn’t produced any noteworthy techniques. It also wars with the assumption, common across Canno, that the Black Havens and Firasca house the true souls of swordfighting, and any school founded elsewhere is a pretender.

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