Tornmile: Part 19

Tornmile
Part XIX: Trading Blows

As she walked down the corridor Brielle’s skirts made sounds like waves breaking on a sandy beach, reminding her of a childhood trip to a cove outside the city. Her mother had been with them; it was very long ago, barely a memory at all, just a hazy collection of colours, sounds, and smells. White clouds hung like goose feather pillows in a sky bluer than anything she had seen before or since. The sting of the sea breeze on her face, the smell of seaweed drying in the sun, the tang of salt on her tongue; all these rushed back to her as if she were on that beach now. The sword and dagger in her arms felt out of place.

She carried them wrapped in a bundle, all the blades safely in their scabbards, except the misericorde, which had spent the night beneath her pillow and was now strapped to her thigh. She didn’t expect to need it, not here, but the weight of it was reassuring. It felt right. More than anything it kept her mind focused on her position; she had agreed to go to war and she still had vengeance to exact. No matter how comfortable the large bed was – she had sunk into a dreamless, peaceful sleep as soon as her head hit the pillow – and no matter how delicately tailored the spare clothes she had been brought were – she had picked out a blue dress that hung to the floor and had roses embroidered on the hem –  she had battles still to fight.

It was late in the morning now; the peaceful sleep had kept her in bed long after she would usually have been up cleaning the tables, washing cups, and checking on the stocks of wines. It felt odd to have no routine to stick to, no particular job to do. There was Ferrer, of course, but there was little she could do about that without talking to Darian. Even then, he seemed to be doing the planning; she wasn’t used to someone else being in control.

The sound of metal on metal drew her attention as she approached the armoury, and she hesitated at the doorway. Darian was there, dressed in breeches, but shirtless, working fencing forms against a dummy in plate armour. Sweat glistened on his skin as the midday sun shone through the skylight, illuminating the mat on which he was working through parries and ripostes, the thin sword a silver blur in his hand. Brielle leaned against the door frame, watching him flow from stance to stance, like water reshaping itself to a container, adapting his movements to suit his stance and exploiting it to make his attacks. With a sharp drive of the arm accompanied by a lunging stride, he forced the point of the thin blade forward, punching through the dummy’s steel protection.

“Enjoying the display?” he asked, without turning around.

“I was admiring your footwork,” Brielle said, hoisting the bundle and walking towards the mermaid marked cabinet.

“And how is my footwork?” Darian asked, turning to face her, a playful smile on his face. It reminded her for the briefest of moments of Léa’s brother when she had given him the honey cakes. Her eyes caught the scar on his side once more and she struggled to keep the frown from her face. She did not want to ask again after being so rebuffed the previous night, but it nagged at her.

“It’s very good,” she said, “perfect, in fact.”

“That’s good then,” he grinned, brushing the hair away from his face, “Would you care to have a go?”

“Oh no, thanks,” she said, pointing at the sword running through the dummy, “I think you’ve well and truly killed him anyway.”

“I didn’t mean with the dummy. I meant sparring with me.”

He pushed the dummy off to one side, drawing the sword from its chest, and sliding it home into a rack. Brielle watched him – his movements so deliberate, the sweat still glistening on his muscled back.

“I don’t want to end up like the dummy,” she said.

“Don’t worry, I’ve got practice swords. Besides, Konrad says you’re quite the swordsman.”

She raised an eyebrow and drew herself up, her hand closing around the hilt of the mermaid sword. Swordsman!

“His words,” Darian said, holding up a hand and giving her a grin.

She narrowed her eyes and regarded him imperiously, but then smiled as if it had all been a joke. She was a little insulted to be called a swordsman, but she supposed the comparison was meant to be a favourable one. Women didn’t generally learn the sword, or other weapons, in Tornmile – unlike those savage Stammish women who went into battle naked and wielding axes, or so the stories said. To Konrad, she suspected, saying she was a swordsman was saying that she was better than some men with the sword. That was encouraging. She knew Caiden had been a good swordsman, and she was glad that she had learnt so much from him when she had had the chance. It didn’t save him though, when the time came. The voice lurked in the shadows of her mind and it seemed to live on nothing but poison. Everybody dies, she told it irritably. Just once she would like to be able to think about Caiden without remembering that he was dead.

“Are you all right?” Darian asked.

There was genuine concern on his face. He held a practice sword halfway out of the rack, but he wasn’t giving it any attention, as if he had seen her and stopped mid-movement. Brielle felt her cheeks begin to colour, but she couldn’t say why.

“I was just thinking about my brother,” she said, “it’s hard to remember him without feeling the pain of his absence. Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t just be better to forget him altogether, but I feel terrible for even thinking it.”

“The dead should be remembered.”

He let his gaze fall to the floor, as if he too was caught up in some memory that he would rather not have. He studied the ground for a moment and then his eyes came back up to meet her own.

“But they wouldn’t want to bring us any pain. That’s how I see it. We haven’t a lot of time in the world and we never know where and when it will end. I’m sure your brother would not want you to be in pain – I’m sure he would want you to smile, to live.”

Tears filled Brielle’s eyes and she felt a lump in her throat. Not wanting him to see her cry this time, she turned away and placed the blades she was carrying into the cabinet. Her hands were shaking, which made it difficult to fit the blades into the small racks inside the cabinet. She forced herself to concentrate on the task, slowing her movements down, making them deliberate, like Darian’s. It was easier to move, easier to make them do what she wanted them to. The shaking subsided and before long she had everything in its place and the tears were drying on her cheeks.

“Forgive me.”

“What for?” she said, turning.

He had drawn two practice blades from the racks and held them lightly in one hand. He was stood a few steps away from her with a look of sadness on his face – quite the change from the little boy she had seen before.

“For upsetting you; it isn’t my place to speak on what your brother would have said or done. I’m sorry.”

“It was beautiful,” she said, “and no apology is required for kind words.”

He smiled again, regaining some of the boyishness, and then held out one of the practice blades, hilt towards her. She took it, and tried to make it feel comfortable in her hand, but the grip was much slimmer than that of the swords she had practiced with. The blade was thin and when she pushed it against the floor it started to bend, so much that she thought it might snap. She looked at Darian – his grip was much looser; he seemed to be holding the blade in a grip of two fingers. She tried it. It felt flimsy.

“Ready?” he asked.

She nodded and moved in towards the centre of the room, standing opposite him. He swept the blade up so that it was in front of his face – an honourable salute. She copied him, following his movements as he swept it down to one side. Then he levelled the blade towards her, setting his feet. She tried to focus on her own stance, which was different than his, made more for sturdiness than for agility. She knew that he would win this fight – this was his discipline.

Sure enough, as soon as their blades touched, his was snaking around her own moving towards her ribs. She managed to throw herself to one side, forcing a roll, attempting to keep the thin blade from snapping. Her hip bumped heavily against a sword rack, knocking blades from the housings to rattle noisily in the wood. She had no time to rub at the minor injury though, for as soon as she stood he brought the blade towards her again. She managed a few parries, but she could not bring her own blade to bear on him. As soon as she evaded one attack or fended it off, his blade had already changed direction and was coming to her again. Knowing that being trapped against the sword rack was not helping, she put all her strength into her next parry, pushing forwards as well as aside. He had not been expecting it, and it threw him off balance enough to allow her to roll past him. Her skirts tangled around her legs, but she stood as quickly as she was able, turning only just in time to stop another thrust. It was not enough, however, his blade moved around hers, flicking it from her grip as easily as if she had been a child, and then was pressed against the centre of her chest.

“Well fought,” he said, “do you yield?”

“Never,” she said, “but surely you wouldn’t run me through unarmed? Surely honour would only be satisfied if I were allowed to recover my weapon?”

His blade flicked back from her and he let it fall to his side. She did not let it fool her though; she knew that sword was as dangerous where it was as if he held it in a guard position. She looked to see where her own thin blade had gone. It had been carried across the room by the force of his disarming of her. She moved towards it. He followed her, sword still close by his side. She stooped to pick the blade from the floor and then noticed the rack behind it. In it there were practice broadswords. A small smile formed in the corner of her mouth. She flicked the light thin blade up into the air and saw him watch it rise into the air, puzzled. She drew the broadsword and jabbed it forwards.

His speed was not diminished, however, and even though he wasn’t looking at her, the thin blade came up to meet her own. Despite the two fingered grip, his blocks were strong. He smiled at the broadsword, though, and raised one eyebrow. She set her feet and drew the blade back from him. His needle came towards her and she turned her blade easily to knock it away, the smaller blade driven aside. Her blade punched forwards and he was forced to step backwards in that fluid way of his to avoid the attack. His attacks were still quick as lightning, but she could defend herself better with a sword she was used to and her attacks were all the stronger. They circled one another, exchanging parries and ripostes, in the centre of the practice mat. Before Darian had been playing with her – knowing that she was not a fencer – now he was watching her hard, concentrating on her movements. She smiled – she was making him sweat now. She jabbed forwards and he was forced to duck, bringing his blade up in front of his face. She flowed in her own stances, bringing the blade round and snapping the thin practice blade from its hilt.

“You fought well,” she said, “do you yield?”

He looked enquiringly at the hilt in his hand as if he was wondering whether he could still use it as a weapon. Looking up at her again from his position on one knee, he smiled.

“I yield.”

She held her free arm out, letting him take hold so that she could help him to his feet. That was her brother’s teaching – even a defeated enemy might have a dagger in their boot. If you offer to help them up make sure you can still use your blade. Not that Darian would try to put a dagger in her. She suspected he wouldn’t even if this had been a real fight. He was an honourable man. He was smiling when he stood, a few inches from her. She felt a sudden urge to smooth her hair down, knowing that it must look wild after the fight. He was looking at her in a strange way – his eyes locked on hers.

“What?”

“I was just admiring your… footwork,” he said with a grin.

“And how was my footwork?”

“Absolutely perfect.”

His lips brushed hers tentatively at first, but when she took his chin in her hands the hesitation was gone and the kiss became passionate. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her in, holding her body to his own. All thoughts were driven from Brielle’s head; she could only feel the strength of his body, the warmth of his skin against her own, the roughness of his stubbled jaw beneath her fingers, and the brush of his lips against her own.

“Absolutely perfect.”

It was a whisper, drawn from her as soon as his lips pulled away from hers, without her thinking it. She saw him smile and felt him tighten his grip around her briefly. Then his lips were back on her own and she stopped thinking again.

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