“Keep your guard up, Alma!” the Fencer orders from the raised stone platform at the end of the large exercise room. “Faster on that response! Melinor, she is your opponent now, not your sister.”
Melinor’s blows are quick and relentless. Stronger and much more experienced than Alma, the grim-faced god bearing a deep gash that exposes the muscle and bone of his left cheek wields his sword with a cold, calm precision that catches the young goddess off guard each time. She tries her best to defend herself, parry his blows, risk her defense in weak, slow counterattacks that do nothing against Melinor’s blade. He is holding back, she can feel it, his heavy muscular frame tense with the effort of controlling the strength of his strikes, but even as he does so, his ability with the sword is beyond anything that she could ever match. He sweeps his blade against her legs, startling her and making her jump back clumsily. The next sweep is at face level.
Alma feels the sharp metal bite her skin and leans back to try and escape it. Her foot gets caught on the hem of her long, black dress. She falls backwards, unbalanced and unprotected, hitting the floor at full speed, rear first.
“Ouch!” she complains, untangling her foot from her skirt. “Demons! Again!”
“Get up, Alma!” the Fencer orders, unmoving.
“Are you all right?” Melinor asks in that muttered, grumpy tone of his.
Still, he moves closer to Alma and kneels by her to check the small cut on her cheek that is just now beginning to bleed, the handsome right side of his face showing his concern for her. The young goddess beats him to it, covering her cheek with her hand.
“Yes, brother,” she says. “It is a small cut.”
On her raised platform, the Fencer grows impatient. “On your feet, Alma!”
“I will take it slower,” Melinor states, seemingly ignoring the imposing, fearsome instructor.
The Fencer, meanwhile, has crossed her arms over her chest. Her orders are now bellowed across the room. “Alma, now!”
Alma glances at her in fear, but still manages to ask her older brother, “No, please. I will learn.”
“It is fine,” Melinor argues, patting the hand that Alma keeps over her cheek. “I am here to help you, not hurt you.”
Suddenly, the Fencer is standing by their side, now silent in her anger. She moves quickly and stealthily without effort, Alma has noticed, gliding more than walking, constantly surprising people who dare to blink in her presence. Melinor stands to attention in reflex, holding his sword by its blade and offering her the hilt, in a customary sign of reverence. Alma, however, lowers her hands to her lap and stays seated and still. It is only her second lesson with the Fencer and already she can tell that this will not go smoothly. She can barely remember herself in the presence of the fearsome warrior.
“Melinor, leave us,” the Fencer orders drily.
“She is a beginner, Fencer,” Melinor mutters an argument. “Needs to take it slowly.”
“Oh, really?” the Fencer replies sarcastically, looking him up and down, her jaw tense with anger, her arms still crossed over her chest. “And what kind of an expert are you to decide how she must be trained?”
Melinor’s eyes widen and he bows immediately in response. “My apologies, Fencer. I–”
“Stop muttering and leave us, Melinor,” the Fencer cuts him off. “Go practice by yourself.”
She holds her silence as she watches him leave the room, half-walking half-stomping on his way out. Alma takes the opportunity to examine the Fencer more closely. Owner of a tanned complexion topped by short, straight, fiery-red hair, the goddess exudes command and utter dominance. Even with one blind milky-white eye, product of a duel with a terrible opponent, she maintains perfect depth perception through the spell that makes her left eye, crimson by nature, shine eerily with silvery veins. Her posture is strict, rigid, military, her stretched skin and well-toned muscles impressive only in their grim efficiency, making her look like the Insula’s deadliest ballerina. No ballerina would be clad in thick, aged leather and white linen, however. Her tall boots show signs of ruthless wear and tear. Around her slim waist, a narrow silver belt engraved with swallows in flight holds the sheath of her sword, known to many as the Soul Taker. There is grace in her, a masculine, strange kind of grace that is far different from the established definition of the word. Her beauty is unusual in that there is no single element of beauty in her. She is, however, fascinating, imposing.
She is Varah, the Fencer, the Death by Blade, Subcommander of the Guardia Dei.
And Alma’s aunt. The young goddess feels herself become smaller and smaller as the sheer tension that Varah emanates pounds against her, pinning her to the floor. She wishes Melinor would turn around and come back, if only so that she would not be left alone to deal with the Fencer’s obvious anger. Eventually, the uneasy quietness becomes just too much to bear.
“He – He did not mean to offend, Fencer,” Alma stutters weakly. “He was just trying to help me.”
She regrets her words immediately. The Fencer turns her angry gaze to her, glaring at her as if offended by the most unthinkable of acts of defiance. It is all Alma can do to stop herself from backing away, crawling out of the sight of that terrible magic-infused eye. As it is, she wishes she could somehow melt into the obsidian floor beneath her. Varah is famous for smacking difficult students around until they lose their senses.
The Fencer raises her fisted hand above her head and Alma cringes, prepares for the blow she know must come.
The Fencer exhales deeply and lowers her hand. In her palm is now a small box of ointment. She must have summoned it.
“I know what he was trying to do, Alma, and that is part of the problem,” Varah says as she opens the little box and kneels by Alma’s side. “He cares for you and so you become his weakness.”
Alma is shocked into silence for a moment. The Fencer dips the fingers on her left hand in the ointment and reaches for the young goddess’ cheek. Alma forces herself not to flinch at her touch.
“I don’t mean to,” she mutters her frustration. “I just keep trying and failing.”
“You need to try harder,” the Fencer says dryly as she closes the boxes.
Alma feels her heart grow cold. The lack of sympathy from one who is supposed to be a teacher, a mentor, a proper aunt drives her to distraction. Does anyone in this family actually care about others? How can they be so physically incapable of speaking a word of encouragement? And besides…
“Why do I even need to learn this?” she asks, her fear forgotten in her anger. “I thought Father wanted me to become a lady so that I could help his political career.” She turns away from the Fencer’s wide eyes to add bitterly. “Maybe marry someone that will make him an Archon.”
Varah snorts, summoning the ointment box away. “I know what my brother wants. It wasn’t he who insisted you learn to fence; it was I.”
“Why?” Alma insists.
“Because that is no life for a death goddess,” the Fencer replies matter-of-factly. “Is that what you want to be? A pretty face for a lost cause?”
Alma shakes her head, keeping her eyes on Varah’s chest. Whether milky-white or silvery-crimson, both of the older goddess’ eyes are too intimidating to gaze into.
“My wants do not carry much weight with Father, Fencer. I am not even a proper death goddess. Keep shaming him with the powers I got from Mother’s side.” She hides her face against her knees, feeling the full weight of her helplessness fall on her shoulders. “It is easier if I just submit.”
The Fencer’s rough hand touches her cheek, moves down to her jaw to pull her head up. Alma resists at first but, unused to being affectionate, the Fencer merely keeps pressing against her jaw until the pain is too much to bear. Alma raises her head to find Varah’s eyes locking on hers. The silvery lines on the Fencer’s seeing eye crawl and writhe slowly in an almost hypnotic dance before the young goddess as she struggles not to look away.
“It is a cruel fate for a delicate thing like you to be born into this clan,” the Fencer states, without compassion or frustration. She lets go of Alma’s chin before rising to her feet. “My brother is a stubborn soul, used to getting what he wants sooner or later. It is a trait of our kind, I guess.”
Alma shrugs. “Death comes for everyone,” she notes bitterly.
“Yes,” Varah replies walking over to a rack on the wall, where many practice swords – all quite sharp and lethal – are aligned and displayed. “We are not required to be strong, Alma, just patient, resilient. All things fall before us if we await long enough,” she explains, picking a short sword and swinging it a couple of times to test it. In its wake, the slender, simple blade leaves ghostly, icy white traces of light, as if the Fencer is somehow sending her power through the metal, making the narrow blade broader through magic.
“You need not be stronger than your opponent, you need merely to outlast him, to use your powers to take away his stamina and make it your own,” she goes on, picking a small dagger from the bottom of the rack and walking back to where Alma is still sitting. “This is the secret to the way we fight. It is this that you must learn to do.”
“Why?” Alma asks one more time.
“Why? Why? Why?!” the Fencer hisses, losing what is left of her sparse patience. “So that you will stop being a self-pitying burden and start carrying your weight in this clan. Do you not understand?” she demands, kneeling, slamming sword and dagger against the floor by Alma’s feet before poking her young pupil’s chest with a thin finger. “We are a family. If you fall, we will always help. But if you keep falling, then we will always be too distracted with helping you to do anything worth mentioning. And you will be our downfall.”
She gestures at the door, her voice now loud enough to fill the room. “Like Melinor. If he is forced to keep protecting you, who will protect him in a fight?”
“But why do I have to fight?” Alma yells back desperately. “Why do you fight?”
“So that I don’t become a silly pawn in someone else’s game!” the Fencer bellows, turning away.
Silence falls between them. Aware of it or not, the Fencer’s words cut through Alma and leave a searing pain behind them. Silly pawn? What can she do to liberate herself from her parents’ will? She is little more than a child, after all! With just seventy-five years of age, she is just at the dawning of her adolescence. What other paths are there for her to follow?
“Is that why you joined the Guardia?” she asks in a low voice filled with hurt.
“Yes,” the Fencer answers, her tone restrained, nearly apologetic. “And no one but myself was happy about it. And no, it was not easy. But my freedom was worth it.” She shakes her head and gestures at the sword and dagger that lie just by Alma’s left foot. Her voice sounds gravelly and commanding again as she orders, “Now get up and let us start again from the beginning.”
Alma nods and picks up the sword, this one far lighter and more comfortable to grip than the one she was wielding before.
“Yes, Fencer,” she says, standing up.
“And tuck that skirt into this belt,” the Fencer orders, removing her belt and throwing it at Alma. “That damned thing keeps making you fall.”