He didn’t even bother with en guarde.
There was no salute. No acknowledgement. No sneer, even, to throw off my concentration. A thrust of his longsword was my opponent’s only ritual—and that, aimed straight at my heart.
No sooner had I raised my blade than his came crashing against it. My hands buckled under the sheer force, then regathered their strength.
Adrenaline washed over my senses. Alive as never before, I pushed with all my might. He stumbled back.
This time, I took my cue from him.
I advanced into his space, attacking with a grace and surety that had long been dead to me. His promise had worked. I was sure of it. In that moment, I was the fencer I had not been for many, many months. As the realization grew, so did my boldness.
But it was only for a second. Inertia caught up with me soon enough, hauling me back in her iron grip. That cursed lethargy. That clumsiness, seemingly from nowhere.
They had dogged me for almost a year. And now, they caused me to miss my swing.
The only big of him I saw as I lurched past was a white streak of his helm in the blinding sun. The sight of it scorched my eyes. I blinked to clear the burn . . .
Just as a sword crashed into my back.
Laughter erupted around the square, serenading my plunge into the dust. “Pathetic,” my opponent’s voice hissed in my ear. “The weight of mortality lies on your shoulders, and that cannot induce you to conjure any amount of skill.” At that moment my mouth filled with dust as bitter as his words. “What ever happened to your skills?”
Anger burned my eyes as I spat out a mouthful of dust. “I know what you’re doing.”
“Oh, do you now? And pray tell, what is that?”
“You’re trying to throw off my concentration.” Heaving myself up, I snatched my sword and swung it around until it leveled at his neck. “What happened in the past has nothing to do with why I lost my fencing skill.”
He barely flinched at the proximity of my blade. “The past is always is always in the present, just as the history of bloodshed is in every modern fencing fencer.” He stepped closer, daring me to thrust. “Violence—not safety—is in our DNA.”
Without warning, I thrust the blade forward.
He ducked just in time.
For the next few moments, I knew nothing but the crash of steel and the merciless heat that wrung sweat from my body as I parried each blow he dealt. I managed not to lose my head (lucky me!), but neither did I advance the match in my favor.
Had I not known better, in fact, I might have thought I heard the rustling of cloaks and skirts and horses’ tails as the crowd grew restless.
I had been fencing long enough to know one thing: real matches are never as long as they are in the movies. We should have been on the ground by now, swords cast aside as we grappled for our lives.
He knew this, too, I wagered. At length, he grunted: “You fence like someone who is afraid of the sword.”
“It’s a powerful weapon.” By now, I was so out of breath I could barely eke out the words.
“Everyone knows that. What you know is much more. You know the damage it can do.”
A stunning blow to my shoulder punctuated his words. I staggered back. “I don’t know what you’re . . .”
“Admit it!” he cried, stopping short for a few terrifying seconds. “Admit it right now! You wielded your sword too strongly once, and you witnessed the damage it could do.” A moment later, he staggered back under my angry advance. “That’s why you’ve lost your edge, and so has your blade. You are afraid of what you can do . . . together.”
I ducked his next blow, but this time, I was too late. His blade grazed my arm with a warm sting that foretold of the blood to follow. Losing my balance, I landed on my knees. Another near-miss, and my hands landed squarely on the ground.
The crowd’s rustling turned quickly to murmurs that bored through my ears.
“Admit it!” he cried. “Admit you injured someone in a match. And a female opponent, at that. To this day, she bears the scars of your ambition and recklessness.”
I tried to rise, to face him. But I could not. “I see now,” I whispered, sinking back onto my haunches. “You must be her brother, or her boyfriend? A relative? A team member, come back to avenge her?”
“I am whatever you want me to be.”
His face was inscrutable, and it terrified me. “I paid her medical bills,” I cried. “I visited her in the hospital, even when she didn’t want to see me. I wrote letters of apology to her family, and sat out of fencing for three months as a penalty!”
As the words fell silent on my lips, the guilt washed over me afresh. She had been a slightly-built girl. Despite the warnings of both our coaches, I had counted on her speed to counterbalance my brute strength. Yet in the end, my desire to win—and my vanity about my skills—had carried my offense over the edge of reason.
To this day, I could see her crumpling on the mat, the blood running from the one open seam where two plates of protective gear came together. I could feel myself drop the sword as if it were on fire. Only one question ran through my head over and over, even long after it was settled in the negative: Have I killed her?
That was the day I had lost my skill. The day I had lost part of myself.
He was standing over me now: a fearsome giant of steel and leather, the scion of justice from another age. The shadows of his visor obscured his eyes, but his lips were set in grim line, and his arms were crossed, the full weight of his longsword dangling from one hand as if it had been nothing more than a dagger.
“You know full well,” he muttered, “that your offerings of goodwill can never erase the memories of that day.”
I shuddered, then nodded. What else was there to say? The crowd was calling now, in that tongue which I did not recognize. They were chanting for my death, surely.
Hadn’t he said that I would die here? And if this was only a virtual reality, then why did it feel so terrifyingly real?
My shoulders slumped. “Go on,” I said bitterly. “Avenge her injuries as you have planned from the beginning. If this is a judicial duel, then I have been found guilty.”
I lowered my head, waiting for the blade to fall, once and for all, against my neck. But the only swift move was that of the wind shivering over the exposed skin between my helmet and my collar.
Laughter raked across my consciousness. “How noble of you,” I heard my opponent say, somewhere above me. “At the slightest provocation, you drop your sword and accept your fate. You do not deserve to live at all . . . and yet you shall.”
“What?” I stuttered. “What do you . . .”
Quick as lightning, his blade flashed under my chin, pushing it upward. Then it slid out again, twirling to the side so the flat of it could push my cheek toward the dais, where the worthies of the town sat watching in silence. The woman in green was among them, her dark skin now pale with dread.
As I watched, a posse of men appeared seemingly from nowhere, swirling over the dais in some sort of chaotic order until all had surrounded the seat of the woman in green.
They lifted her to her feet and began to bind her hands. She, for her part, only looked at me with a fearsome pity: not fear for her life that was forfeit, but regret that I had failed her.
I sprang to my feet and spun on my opponent. “You told me if I failed, I would die in here!”
“I merely told you there would be death,” my opponent said coolly. “I never said it would be yours.”
To be continued.
* * *
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