Keith Kennedy is a Pushcart and Rhysling nominee living in Vancouver. He's recently handed bio-writing duties over to his lovely wife who still fits in her old jeans, thank you very much.
Gabrin dismounted at the edge of the village, leading Cloud Dancer by the reins as they made their final descent. The old mare was still fast and light in the open, when she was running or dodging small obstacles. Downhill had become more of a chore over the last few years. The village had a minimal wall constructed of wood from the nearby forest. It was of a simple design; pilings dug into the earth, each pole strapped together and burned tight with pitch. The forest didn't possess the tallest trees, and the holes had to be dug deep enough that the trunks would stand firm, so the height of the wall was only eight feet, ten at its highest points where lookout platforms had been added. There was a fat, young girl on a stool at the open gate, her face drawn and sleepy. "Who are you?" she asked, pointing with one sausage-like finger. Gabrin wanted to laugh at her rudeness, but held back. "Just a traveller. Are you the guard? The official sent to welcome visitors, perhaps?" "Are you mocking me?" said the fat girl, standing up and crushing her massive bosom to her chest with folded arms. "Trying to joke with you, not mocking you," Gabrin said. "Wait, are you a girl?" "Yes." "You're dressed like a man. Where are your riding skirts?" "Where I come from, we don't wear skirts," Gabrin said. She peeled back the scarf at her face, let it slide down onto her chest, flashing her tilted eyes and sharp, dark chin. "Where are you from?" "East," Gabrin said. "And a little south, I suppose." "I've never, I mean, your eyes…" "May I come inside? My horse is hungry and tired." "You can do whatever you want," the girl saidas she gestured for Gabrin to go into the village. Her tone had changed, now filled with awe and confusion. Inside, it was nicer than Gabrin had expected. The main road was covered in black gravel, a sort of stone that sparkled at the edges. Buildings were constructed of the black stone, as well as reddish clay bricks and here and there some wood. It looked like a village in transition, and she wouldn't be surprised if over the next five or ten years, the wooden wall around the perimeter was also upgraded to brick and stone. "Good thing we found her now," Gabrin said, patting Cloud Dancer on the rump. The stable was easy enough to locate. Another fat little person, this one an old man, took Cloud Dancer by the halter, looking her in the eyes like he was doing an appraisal. "Two coppers a night," he said. "I'll give you a silver, up front, to take care of her proper. Understood?" The man nodded, jowls wiggling, and held out a stumpy, greedy hand. Gabrin placed the sliver in his open palm. "I'll take good care of her. What's her name?" "Cloud Dancer," Gabrin said. She put one hand to her sword hilt as she said it. The fat man stopped smiling. "Odd name for a horse." "Not for my horse." "I see. Are you here looking for someone?" "Why would you ask me that?" "Just saying, for a little more silver, I might know who it is you're looking for." Gabrin considered the man for a moment. Greed was one of the few reliable things in the world, she decided, and with a nod pulled her hand away from her sword hilt, exposing the gold threading on the seashell pommel. The man actually took a rearward step. He did it so abruptly that Cloud Dancer was forced to come along or have her neck twisted. "Careful," Gabrin said. "Never seen a…never seen the gold before," the man said. "But you've seen silver?" she asked, holding up another coin. "Silver. Yes." He reached for the money. "Silver," she said again, pulling back. "Of course, silly me. Julic Endarrion, on the rise. He might even be in the Duke's yard as we speak." "The Duke?" "Not a proper title. No one cares what we call our leaders, not this far from Brinian." Gabrin handed him the second silver coin. "Thank you for your help. If things go sour, I may need to leave in a hurry, so after you've brushed her down, saddle her up again for me, will you?" Not waiting for the answer, Gabrin moved on down the black stone road, soft leather shoes silent against the rough edges. A man. She hadn't expected that. Where she was from all the best Dancers were women. It was such an accepted fact that men rarely bothered to learn the sword. More and more, the further west she travelled, she witnessed men filling the positions of high-ranking soldiers and mercenaries. It was not odd to see them at the very heights of society, in all areas of commerce and business. But this would be her first male swordswoman. She smiled to herself and covered the hilt with her palm. It was forbidden to hide the gold threading from sight with any sort of permanent covering. There were ways to keep it from being announced to the world, one only had to know where to rest one's hand. The Dancer was in the yard, it turned out. Not exercising, just leaning against a wooden fence, eating some dried, dark thing. He pulled pieces out of it with his teeth, looking more a bear with a fish than a man breaking his fast. He wasn't overly big and possessed slender muscle not dissimilar to the best fighters. He had a short beard that matched the black of his thinning hair, and a mustache that wound around his mouth and out toward his ears. "Early for swordplay," called another man. This one, taller by far than the first, was wearing the burgundy red of royalty, with a silly, fluffy hat and matching robe. Stout boots beneath, she noticed; a man who hadn't always been accustomed to nice clothes and stations of office. This was a self-appointed Duke, not a hereditary one. "Never too early for a Sword Dancer," replied the mustachioed man. Gabrin frowned. A classless thing, to speak of what you were in such an open forum. Not that there were people around to hear it. As she drew closer, the men saw her, and turned. Each one's hand flared to his hip as they realized what approached. "Julic Endarrion?" she asked, letting her hand slip away from the gold-threaded pommel. "Who's asking?" the man said. His eyes found the gold and didn't look away. Gabrin felt of roil of pleasure in her stomach. She enjoyed this part. "Gabrin Gaisa of Bock Hold." The Duke backed away, hands in front, palms out. "How did you find me?" Julic asked. "I bested a contemporary of yours in Audville." "Bested?" Gabrin inclined her head. "And you've come for me?" "It would seem that way." Julic set his jaw. "Allow me to get my elixir, and we'll begin." The man strode past the Duke, chin low and eyes on the ground. Gabrin moved to the center of the yard, placing her own elixir upon the ground. She kept it in a simple wine goblet, made of antler and stoppered at the top. The mixture inside, a combination of acids, would be used to mark the bloodline on her blade, to make permanent the kill. Julic returned. His elixir was strangely similar, a round-bottomed, leather goblet with a wooden stopper. He sat so they faced one another, backs straight and legs folded beneath them. "For the Dance to continue, we must teach harsh lessons," Julic said. Gabrin nodded, then repeated the ceremonial phrase. As the lesser, Julic drew his sword first, laying it before him. It was a single-edged, folded blade – quite possibly a hundred layer sword – with a slight arc, the sort of natural curve achieved in the forging itself. There were three distinct marks on his blade, one high near the hilt, the other two nearly overlapping at the tip. Sometimes kills were deep and hard, sometimes just the nick of an important vein. Gabrin drew her weapon. Hers was a hunting sword – an elongated falchion – with a diving, double-edged, clipped point. The Eagle Sword to match her preferred technique. Along its length were more than a dozen wavy, dark lines, at least a third so dark they lost all their redness. Repeated kills to the same depth. A sign of precision, excellence and best of all, experience. Julic's eyes grew wide and his lips opened, nearly letting a whimper escape. He was new to his silver thread, and badly outmatched. "For the Dance to thrive, we must stand on each other's shoulders." "For the Dance to thrive, we must stand on each other's shoulders." The ceremony didn't specify that the shoulders stood upon were attached to the defeated, face down on the ground, bleeding out from a nasty wound. Gabrin and Julic stood as one, stepping away from their elixirs. Julic looked once toward the Duke, who'd drawn himself to the edge of the yard and no farther. Again it was the silver thread's duty to be first. He took his stance, a typically low one with hands at the crotch, sword tilting forward and upward. Gabrin crouched then straightened her legs, finding her center. She put her hands forward, elbows locked, sword parallel to the ground. Eagle Stance was an advanced technique, and she knew her level of mastery would determine the fight to come. "At your leisure," Gabrin said, indicating she would not move first. Julic, a fighter, would not prolong what was to come. He stepped in and swung at Gabrin's mid-section. With a shuffle-step, Gabrin brought her broad blade downward, crashing it hard into the spine of Julic's sword, driving the point into the ground. He came again, and once more she performed the heavy, downward block, once more finishing in exactly her starting position. Sadly, there would be no variation. Julic's technique was too weak. He would continue to be battered, having to make greater and greater efforts to fight upward. Most lesser opponents tired before variation was necessary and Julic would likely be no different. Again he charged in, aiming for the feet this time. Gabrin raised her foot above his swiping blade and returned it to the ground in the same place. If he came close enough to cut her back foot, she'd drive the point of her falchion into his skull. He tried to rotate her, attacking first the left side, then the right. All the attacks were below her block, and she was able to chop down, briskly and firmly, to negate the efforts. In five exchanges, her activity had been minimal, while Julic had already become winded from excessive effort. Now, the feinting began, the attempt by the victim to be creative, to draw his opponent off-balance. Gabrin had seen it all before. She took a sip of breath through her tightly closed mouth, re-focusing. Balance was the one thing Gabrin couldn't relinquish. It was Eagle Stance's greatest strength, and other Dancers were forced to attack it. In general swordplay philosophy, attacking a strength made little sense, save for special occasions when the strategy was a decoy, a trick before changing tack to assault an opponent's weakness. Only, there was no obvious weakness in Eagle Stance, or at least none that was easily devised within the confines of a fight. There were philosophies that could be attempted, but once the blood began to flow, fighters inevitably reverted to their comfort. The longer a fight progressed, and the longer she could remain stoic, the more helpless her opponents became. Julic's comfort was a low-stance, and creative or not, a low stance fighter he would remain. No matter how many feints – already growing less convincing due to fatigue – or creative endeavors, he was going to lose. Finally, they stood still again, six feet apart. Julic was blowing heavy, sweat running down his brow. Gabrin remained composed. A single bead of sweat caught the edge of one thin eyebrow, hung there momentarily as a bead, then sunk across the length of the tiny, grouped hairs. She'd carved her eyebrows precisely to act this way, to wick away sweat from her eyes. She hadn't achieved gold thread status without some effort. Julic gathered himself for one last attempt, diving in, side-stepping, and aiming an upward attack. It was an attempt to force Gabrin to break stance, and was effective in doing so. The small victory left the man in a bad position for a counter, if Gabrin could block firmly with a short motion. And she could. And did. But the return stroke did not go as planned. What should have broken through the man's flailing guard did not. "There it is," she whispered, the breath of her words spilling across the adjoined steel. Julic had put his palm to the spine of his sword, just a hand's-breadth above the guard. He was holding Gabrin's blade away from him with the extra leverage. With a sneer, Julic pushed with both hands and sent Gabrin shuffling backward, separating them. "Where did you learn that?" Gabrin asked, lowering her blade in one hand. Julic smirked. It was his first victory of the day, if a small one. "That what you came for?" he asked. "Yes," she said. "I've been following the technique for months, now. This thing, this set of moves that makes strength more relevant to the dance." "And you don't like that, do you?" Julic asked. "Because I'm stronger than you." She almost laughed. "No. Because we must stand on each other's shoulders for the Dance to thrive. I must know where you learned this." Julic glanced at the Duke. The man was now standing a few paces away from the fence, closer than before. Had he been wearing those brown gloves earlier? "What if you let me live?" he asked her. Gabrin straightened. "You'll tell me if I do?" "Yes." "And otherwise, if we continue – " "You kill me and learn nothing." "Is everything all right?" called the Duke. "Not now," Julic shouted. "Do we have a deal?" Gabrin sheathed her sword. There was nothing in the laws that said a duel had to end in death. "Sheathe your weapon, and tell me what you know," she said. As she bent to scoop her elixir from the ground, she sensed motion. It was the Duke, and it happened far too fast for her to react. He'd swept aside his burgundy robe, revealing a long, dual-edged arming sword. In a manner of three purposeful strides he closed on Julic and drove the sword through the man's neck, just below the ear. Julic's eyes clouded, and his chin tilted forward. The Duke had a strange expression on his face, one of surprise and grief. He looked about to let go of the sword, gloved fingers gripping and re-gripping the long hilt. "I couldn't let him tell you," he said. "It's not allowed." Gabrin stepped away. She had to get a hold of her frustration. The man had been about to tell her the origin of the technique! "You and I have a problem. You've killed a Dancer. I am sworn to avenge him." "No, it's not like that," the Duke said, pulling his blade free by putting a foot on the dead man's hip. "See?" He showed Gabrin the hilt of his longsword as Julic toppled to the ground. There was copper threading crowning the simple, black pommel. Gabrin remembered those first moments when she'd come upon the yard. How both men had flinched when they'd heard her approach, hands instinctively going for their belts. A ball of bile rose in her throat. She'd missed that, been too excited, too narrowly focused. "You're his student?" Gabrin asked. "Was." "You're new. Perhaps you don't yet know the laws." She gestured to the dead body of Julic Endarrion. "This sort of behaviour rarely stands." "Laws?" said the Duke, looking at her with one eyebrow cocked. "You think your eastern laws matter here?" "Dancers have no boundaries." "You're only the third one I've ever met," he said. "I don't know about your rules and your boundaries." "Not mine. All Sword Dancers." The Duke shook his head. "Not all." "I'm sorry you were not taught better." Gabrin wanted to ask questions of the man, to discover if he too knew of the technique. Instead, her duty won out. "I challenge you, to revenge this needless killing of a Dancer." "Needless?" Gabrin stared at him, not understanding his demeanor. He was new, poorly instructed in the ways. It would not be so wrong to show pity, and she'd not come for a kill; she'd come for information. He stared at her, eyes wide, stance unbalanced and ungainly. She was not bound by duty to be the bloodthirsty killer of newcomers to swordplay, she decided. Gabrin held one hand aloft to indicate there was still another possibility. "Unless you tell me where he learned the technique. Has he passed it on to you?" "Are you foolish, woman? I just killed him for fear he'd tell you!" "And what have you to fear?" "The man who taught him." "The man?" The Duke nodded. "In the west, not all blades go to the women. Things are changing." She wanted to argue, tell him the best fighters were always women, no matter where in the world they hailed from. Instead, she remained silent. This strength technique alone could be altering the old ways. "Are you going to come at me, then?" asked the Duke. His eyes were full of fear, and yet he was managing a modicum of defiance. "I won't be telling you a thing about our master." "Have you an elixir?" "Not yet." "This is highly irregular." She wasn't sure what to do. The Duke decided for her, coming at her with bull-like intent. His stance was barely discernable, a cross between Fox and Wolf. She herself had blended Fox with Rose in her youth, what she now called White Fox. As Fox counters Fox best, she fell into her crouch, brought her legs tight, and spiralled up, driving his attack away with such momentum that he fell forward onto the ground. The big man got to his knees, looking at his gloved hand. There was a smear of blood across it. He'd fallen on his sword and cut himself along the sternum. "You filthy cat!" he screeched and came at her again. This time he swung left and right, an old form of Heron. His feet were stupid but his attack was straight and true. Gabrin had to block it with firm wrists. The man stepped in, putting one hand to the mid-point of his blade and grabbing hold. With a grunt he pushed through Gabrin's block, bringing the point of his sword down toward her eyes. It was too aggressive, and yet it almost worked. As the sword point dove, she stepped under, trailing her blade as she slid past, opening the man along his side. The Duke tried to turn, to gather himself. He took a shaky step, followed by a tepid curse, and knelt. "You're undisciplined, yet somehow your strength makes you formidable. I must learn who your master is." "Go bury yourself." "You must tell me, for the Dance to thrive," Gabrin pleaded. "Who is this man who brings so much strength to his technique?" "Bear," the Duke spat. "It's called Bear." "Who? You must tell me! Is he to live in obscurity now that his disciples are dead?" "You think he has no others?" Gabrin felt cold sweat between her shoulder blades. "Other men?" she asked. "Of course. The stronger of us." She didn't know if he meant the stronger among men, or if he was saying that men were stronger than women. "Strength has always been relevant," she said. "So has balance and speed, agility and timing; intellect and inspiration, if you're good enough." "No," the Duke said, falling to one haunch, held up by his sword in the ground. "Only strength matters. You'll see." "You're dying," she said. "Do you want it to matter not at all?" He looked up at her, hatred flaring. "Brinian." "He's in Brinian? What's his name?" "Look for the bear," the Duke said. He expired, slumping to the ground. Gabrin crossed her legs and sat, considering. He hadn't had an elixir. And he'd killed his teacher, another Dancer, outside of proper combat. She thought maybe those things balanced out. And she had been anticipating a new line on her blade. Gabrin opened her elixir and treated the blade where the bloodline ran. She waited until the acid had taken hold, then wiped along the edge with careful precision. When she'd finished, she descended the hill. There were more people about in the village than there had been, though none seemed on any business that would take them to the Duke's training yard. She arrived at the stables once more without seeing anyone climbing the rise. Standing with the overweight groom was the girl from the gate. Now that Gabrin saw them together, she could tell they were related. "Everything go well?" the groom asked. "I wouldn't classify it as such, no," Gabrin said. "I'd like my horse." "So soon?" "Did you kill him?" the girl asked. "My horse," Gabrin re-stated, bringing some authority to her tone. The groom skittered off. "Did you?" the girl asked again. "Yes," Gabrin answered. "And no. I killed a man who killed a man." "So Julic is dead." The girl smiled. "He touched me, once. At the fair. Curled his fingers around my bottom so hard it made me grunt. I'm glad he's dead." "Death is not such a simple thing. One shouldn't be glad." "He had no right," the girl said, crossing her arms. "Men shouldn't be allowed to do that, touch a girl's nethers whenever he chooses." Gabrin nodded in agreement. "Where I come from, had you reported that crime, he'd have lost a hand." "No one here believes me. Not that they'd do anything even if they did." The girl's relative – father, most likely – returned with Cloud Dancer. "Don't suppose you'd return one of those silvers?" Gabrin asked. She was trying to joke. The man's expression told her she'd failed. She reached into her pouch and tossed him another silver. "That's in case anyone asks questions about what happened on the hill." "Is it?" the groom said. "And what do we know?" "You know nothing. I don't trust you with gold and a story. Silver's enough to be ignorant." The man looked about to argue, to make his case that he was worth a piece of gold. The girl interrupted him before he could get started. "Where are you going?" she asked Gabrin. "That I can't say," Gabrin said. She mounted Cloud Dancer and spun the horse away from the pair. "Good morrow to you both." "You're going to Brinian, aren't you?" the girl asked. "I know. Because the man, the one you're after, I've seen him." Gabrin stopped. She looked up the hill. It would be good to go, now. To get away before the bodies were discovered. She looked back at the girl, saw the intelligence flashing in her eyes. With a curse beneath her breath, she asked her question. "Who have you seen?" "The man from the city, the one who visits with the Duke. He wears a pin, right here," she said, pointing between her two, large breasts. "Keeps his fancy cloak on with it. The pin is a bird of some sort, wrapped 'round with a feather or a leaf. I hear it's the symbol for the Council of Thanes in Brinian." "You hear?" The man and the girl looked at each other. "I've seen," she said. "I've been in the city." "You know it? Your way around? And you think you could point out this symbol, or maybe even this man?" "I could." "Does she own a horse?" Gabrin asked the groom. "Now wait a moment," he said. She thought he was about to protest her leaving. "What's the payment involved for my wife's service?" "Wife?" Gabrin said. "Yes. Wife," he said. "She can't just go gallivanting off without a promise of payment." The girl looked like she believed exactly the opposite. She'd leave right now, run alongside Gabrin's horse just to be out of there. "I'll discuss payment with her as we travel." "Saddle up Swatter," the girl said. "Now don't you be giving me orders, girl, I – " "Saddle up Swatter and do it fast if you ever hope to see me again," the girl said. The presence of Gabrin had empowered her. "The lady and I will discuss payment as we travel, like she said." In half-an-hour they were riding from the town, the first signs of commotion rolling down the hill. The groom had followed for a while, shouting instructions and demands. With each step they put between him and the horses, his words became weaker and more pleading. The girl was flushed, face and bosom red, long hair shinier now that she was atop a horse and in the sun. "You handle her well," Gabrin said. "Been riding all my life." "Good. You know how far?" "Best part of a day," she said. "Then I'd better at least hear your name, girl." "Elleen," she said. "Little young to be married, aren't you Elleen?" "Not around these parts, not that it's your business." "He's a little old, too." "He can still make a staff in his trousers." "That the reason you married him? His bed prowess?" Elleen scowled and looked over at Gabrin. Then, her face broke into a smile. "He's the richest man in the village, is the truth." "Ambition," Gabrin said. "That I can understand." "And he gets in there pretty good, for an old chap." They both laughed. Dusk was upon them when they brought their horses to a halt at Brinian's eastern portcullis. The drawbridge was down, traversing a moat that had dried to nothing from lack of rain. "You women have business in the city?" called one of the guards. He was atop the parapet, conical helmet reflecting light from the freshly-lit torch beside him. There was another figure across the portcullis, equally obscured by the ensconced torch atop the wall. "Yes," Gabrin said. And that was that. They said nothing else. Elleen started her horse forward and Gabrin followed. "That's it?" Gabrin asked once they were safely through. "What were you expecting?" "Questions, at least." "Big city like Brinian gets a lot of people coming through. They don't mind much what you look like or what your business might be." "How do they keep the ruffians out?" Elleen laughed. "If they kept the ruffians out, Brinian would fall in on herself. They need that sort to run the parlours and the brothels and the dice games." The first few streets within Brinian's stone walls didn't indicate any sort of lawlessness. The place was orderly, symmetrical, each and every building built from the same grey stone. Businesses showed their colors on banners hanging over identical, brown wooden doorways. Other than the individual banners, the place was uniform, with few places for shadows to gather. "Nice city," Gabrin said. "I'd wait before drawing that conclusion." Gabrin didn't know what they were waiting for. Men in blue, velvet smocks appeared, shaved pates sticking out the top of their matching garments. They hurried to the sconces and began lighting the place against the encroaching darkness. But encroach it did, despite their efforts, and nearer the center of the city, the blue-coated men disappeared. Sconces became fewer and further between, and filled with ragged torches that burned unevenly. Here, toward the very middle of Brinian, all of the shadows had gathered. "I can smell it," Gabrin said. "Which smell are you referring to? Sweat? Shit? Calf's head broth?" "Corruption." "Ah, that. Speaking of, we shouldn't go right to the center; it's not safe for young women." "I want to see." Brinian had been built so the sewers led toward its center, all the streets running downhill in that direction. The decline was fractional and hardly noticeable, yet enough to accomplish the task of keeping shit running in the right direction. Gabrin stopped her horse near a widening runnel, the stench of its contents making her gag. "Why?" she asked. "There was a natural feature here, a deep crevice. The town was built around it, and they decided to make use of the place. Only problem was, the water runs underground and comes out on the west side, into the moat. The place began to stink so much they sealed the moat, and have been letting all the filth sit beneath the city. Some claim it's going to be full before much longer." "Aren't they going to do something about it?" Gabrin asked, covering her mouth and nose for a moment of relief. "You'd have to talk to the Thanes. They're the biggest landowners outside the walls and so they dictate much of what goes on in the city." At the center of Brinian was a fountain. It was made of a different sort of stone, maybe marble, black with yellow striations of color. The figure at its center was a large bird, an albatross, holding a fig tree branch in its long beak. Around the outside, to hold the water, was a simple, stone wall that came halfway up Cloud Dancer's legs. "Where's the water?" "Water made the shit smell worse. And it fills the hole too quickly." "It's sad, this in the center of…of this." "I've always found it all rather dull," Elleen said. Two children skipped past, one holding a hoop of rope. The contrast of seeing them run past the fountain, laughing amidst the darkness and the smell of refuse and fecal matter made Gabrin frown. "You need something?" She spun Cloud Dancer, sending the man stumbling back. He had a companion, who was also forced to retreat or get bowled over. "Hold that torch up," Gabrin said, not liking the look of either man. They were both filthy and their clothes smelled badly enough that she could detect the scent of sweat beneath the other layers of garbage and shit. The man, surprised, did as he was told. Gabrin tilted her sword, to let the hilt reflect the gold threading on her pommel. "Not a chance," said the second man. "Not all the way out here." "You know the mark, yet you still stand near me," Gabrin said. "Were you not educated?" "Come," Elleen said. "We should go." Gabrin almost told her to relax. They were in no danger. Then she saw two other men, equally ratty and caked in dirt. And two more, across the way. Gabrin chuckled. "This really happens in the west? They attack innocent people?" "They might not attack if you give them some money," Elleen said. "I don't have any money." "What? You gave – " Gabrin cut the woman off with a gesture, driving the flat of her hand through the air between them. Elleen wasn't discouraged. "You're going to get me killed," she whispered. There was enough harshness and volume in her tone that the whisper was rendered unnecessary. "You've got coin?" asked the man with the torch. "That's good, because there's a toll for riding horses this near the albatross." "And what's that toll?" Gabrin said, already bored with their idiocy. "Am I to watch you bathe each other? Maybe touch each other's pricks?" Elleen gasped. "What are you doing?" A real whisper this time. Gabrin leapt from her horse, handing the reins to her young companion. "Stay still, don't get involved. Which one of you wants the sort of trouble I bring?" "She's bluffing," said one of the men from the dark. "Take her now, Willace." "Yeah, get her. The fat one says she's got coin." "No need," said Willace. He eased the torch closer to Gabrin. "You can afford gold thread on your little sword, girly, you maybe got some more. I think three will do. Three gold coins of the King's weight, good and proper." "Thank the gods," Elleen said. "I don't have that," Gabrin said. "You do!" spat Willace. Gabrin put her hand to her hilt. "You're right. I have it. It's just not expendable. It's mine and I need it. You, however, are expendable. "She talks real nice," said the man next to Willace. "Maybe she really is a Sword Dancer." "Stupid," said Willace. "Don't you know your gold thread don't mean nothing, not anymore?" Gabrin spread her legs. "Kill her, take her fucking gold." "Get the fat one." "Let's get out of here, Willace." Gabrin held up a hand, silencing them all. "You've obviously never met a true Sword Dancer. I'll teach you a lesson on behalf of our kind." "I've met more than one," said Willace. "And men, too, not whatever you think you're doing. You call yourself Dancers? You going to prance all around me and poke me in the bum with that? Can you even manage to break the skin with your puny girl arms?" Gabrin looked down at her arm. She disagreed with his assessment. She was a good height and a good build, as stout and lithe as any swordswoman. "Puny?" she said. "Elleen? What's the law in Brinian when it comes to killing? Can I kill them because they threatened me?" "Aye. Self-defence is the law." "Good." Gabrin drew and stepped-in, bringing the tip of her sword across Willace's throat. Blood erupted, his clutching hands incapable of keeping it all inside. He collapsed in a soaked, sobbing mess and died. Gabrin caught the eye of the other man. "Lucky me. I managed to get through the skin with only these puny girl arms." The man fled into the night. Elleen leaned over and vomited from her saddle. Gabrin spun in a slow circle, looking into the darkness. She'd killed the man holding the torch, so now she was in the circle of light alone, a visible target for the rest of them. "You killed him," Elleen said. "You sound surprised." "I've never seen anyone killed before." "What do you think happened to the Duke?" "I know, but I didn't see it!" "I don't have all night," Gabrin said into the dark. "I think they're gone," Elleen said. She wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. "I can't see them anymore. Let's go." "Gone?" "They're just thieves," Elleen said. "They don't want to die." "Why'd they make me kill one, then?" Gabrin asked, lowering her sword. "I showed them my threading." "I guess they had to see it for themselves," Elleen said. "So it was spectacle that stopped the attack. Interesting." "Can we go? Before someone else decides to accost us?" "As I've travelled, I've noticed an increasing lack of confirmation when it comes to my status as a Sword Dancer. This, however, I did not expect." "What, exactly?" "Lack of memory? Lack of comprehension? I'm not sure what. Has the city of Brinian fallen so far?" Elleen sighed. "Get on your horse. We can talk on the way to the inn." Gabrin obliged. She cleaned the blood from her blade; you didn't etch a kill from a non-Dancer. She replaced the hunting sword in its scabbard and climbed atop the horse, snatching up the torch as she went. "Perhaps compared to what you're used to, Brinian seems a lesser place," Elleen said. "I think thriving cities like this create their own rules; their own legends and fears and lifestyles. They may know of Dancers, but they don't see them. What they do see, they react to. Like two women in a part of town they shouldn't be in. Maybe in the east flashing that gold of yours makes everyone lick your boots. Not here. Here people have their own agendas, their own needs. If they need to eat, to feed their families, your legend becomes dimmer." Gabrin shook her head. "It is still the same problem. This far from civilization, they've forgotten what's important." "You think being a duelist is important because you're a duelist. Why would that matter to someone here?" Gabrin straightened. "I am no mere duelist." "Don't get pissy with me," Elleen said. "I'm just trying to help you understand." "I don't get pissy. That wouldn't be productive. Here," the Dancer said, tossing the torch to Elleen. The woman caught it with a little shriek. "If the magic users ever return, if they ever come across the wide seas again, places like this, like Brinian, will be sorry they ever forgot about the importance of Sword Dancers." "The what? From where?" Gabrin looked at her, eyes wide. "I think you've made my point with your ignorance. These lands truly are lost if you don't remember." "Remember what?" "Is there no library here, even?" "What's a library?" Gabrin made an awful noise in her throat. "Let's just get to the inn." The inn Elleen led them to was called The Trawler, and the placard above the main doors showed a man being hung by his boots over the side of a low, thin sea vessel by two other men. It was a marvelous piece of craftsmanship. They left their horses with the inn's groom, Gabrin giving him a silver piece to take extra care, and entered beneath the hanging man. The room was half-filled. Gabrin took note of the men who bothered to look up when they entered. None of their gazes lingered long. The inn was long and thin, not unlike the boat on its sign, and had two hearths near the far wall. One was lit, and a few men sat around it, lazing on the ground atop fresh straw. There were two benched tables at the center of the room and half-a-dozen two-man tables against either wall. The floor was old stone, the walls wood with some greenish brick. At the front of the room was a short bar covered in playing cards. Two old women were seated behind the bar, only one of them bothering to look up as Gabrin and Elleen approached. "Fancy a real game?" Elleen asked the woman. She nodded. "I'd have better from you than Marta, that's for true." Marta didn't respond. She leaned forward and with a creaky hand laid a Fool atop the pile of cards. Elleen turned to Gabrin. "This is Arri and Marta. They own the place, took it over from their father when he died." "Had it dropped into our laps," Arri said. "And who might you be? Awful pretty face for a man. Or are you a man? "I am not," Gabrin said. She was beginning to grow weary of the confusion. At home, it was clear to all what she had – or didn't have – between her legs. Movement alone indicated that, if one bothered to notice. One couldn't be graceful with something dangling around down there. Arri squinted. "Foreigner?" "I am that." "What are you bringing her in here for?" Arri asked Elleen. "This is an inn," Gabrin said. "You could get rooms anywhere," Arri said, laying a Queen atop the pile. "I thought I'd show you a kindness," Elleen said. "This one tends to pay well." Arri frowned over at Marta. "You're going to take all night on that Queen, now, aren't you?" Marta moved only her fingers, splaying out her handful of cards. Arri returned her attention to Elleen and Gabrin. "Pay well? We've got a set rate." Gabrin produced a gold coin and placed it atop the pile of cards, covering the face of the sneering Queen. "I like to be well taken care of." Arri stood up, putting her hand of cards down. "I see. I don't know that we have enough to take care of you that well." "A decent bed and some anonymity is all I ask for," Gabrin said. At that, Marta's head came slowly up from her cards. Her eyes settled somewhere on Gabrin's belt, and the old woman got up even faster than her sister. She started to speak, a loud croak, then covered her mouth with one, withered hand. She shrunk down, spreading her fingers to talk. "That what I think it is, m'lady?" Marta asked, her voice shaky. "M'lady?" Arri said. She snatched the coin up and looked at it. "I suppose you can earn a title by paying over well." Gabrin pulled her coat back a little further, revealing her hilt to the light. "I was beginning to think no one in Brinian remembered." Arri's eyes found the gold threading on Gabrin's pommel. "Ah." She looked at the coin again, then back to Gabrin. "Anonymity might be difficult, you wearing that." Elleen laughed. "Not the way it's been so far. Seems like nobody cares." "Fools," Marta said. "Fools not to remember." Gabrin nodded. "My thoughts exactly." "Why have you come so far west?" Arri asked. Gabrin glanced back across the expanse of the room. No one was watching. "It's okay. You can thrust these old hags," Elleen said. "I'm searching out a technique. Something new that's been spreading east. I've tracked it all this way." "Hope you weren't planning on finding it here," Arri said. "Duels aren't even legal in Brinian." Gabrin had to take a moment. "Have you fallen so far?" "Farther," Marta said. "Women, younger women, are being discouraged from following the old ways." "Explain," Gabrin said. "In our day," Marta went on, "the best of us were recruited. The most agile, the most athletic. I nearly made it. Now, most don't even know about sword dancing." "Discouraged may be a strong word," Arri said. "It's just the way things are, now." "No," Marta said, her wiry fist hitting the bar. "There's a movement, a plot, something. I can feel it in my bones." "What about you?" Gabrin asked Elleen. "You're young. What is your experience with this?" "I've always been a fat girl," she said with a shrug. "What would I know of such things?" "Your size is not relevant," Gabrin said. "Working the sword changes a body anyway, turns it into what it needs to be to wield the blade in the best possible way. Some get smaller, some bigger, some grow more plump, some more muscled. You should've been given the chance. I've seen you ride; you're not without grace." "Nice of you to say," Elleen said. She almost reached sarcasm, trying to keep the flattery from affecting her. "If there is some suppression, some active quashing of the old ways, I must root out its source," Gabrin said. "And men," Marta said, her voice lowering to a whisper. "I've seen men about with blades. Not just soldiers and guards; I've seen threading." "Once or twice," Arri said. "A rarity." "There are men in the east who are given the opportunity, who are trained in the dance," Gabrin said, again checking over her shoulder to make sure no one was paying attention. "That is not so uncommon. Are you sure they are really Dancers and not just sporting the threading falsely?" "Why bother?" Elleen said. "Why pretend the status if there's no one to acknowledge it?" Marta nodded. Arri had begun to look worried. "Perhaps it's an indication that their numbers are in fact growing," Gabrin said. "Can you recall any of the men you've seen wearing threading on their pommels?" Marta nodded. "I've seen four, and only four. There is one I've seen more than once, and the only one who wears the gold." Gabrin swallowed a lump. The thought of a western man earning gold threading…it was not something she'd been prepared for. "Where are you seeing all of this?" Arri asked. "I don't spend my time yammering with slapping lips," Marta said, her voice suddenly harsh. "You think I can't see because I don't speak incessantly like you do?" Arri leaned away. "Tell me," Gabrin said. "Who is this man?" "I know not his name," Marta said. "He wears the symbol of a Thane, here, on his cape." "This must be the same man," Gabrin said, putting a hand to Elleen's shoulder. "Where can I find him? Where is this Council of Thanes?" "It doesn't meet openly," Arri said. "And no one is sure just how many there are at any given time." "Thirteen large holdings," Marta said. "Near about that many Thanes, I gather." "We just need a look," Gabrin said. "Elleen saw this man in her village. He's the one behind the training of these men. Where is it that you've seen him, Marta?" "Here," she said. She smiled, showing a mouthful of old, broken teeth. "He likes our mead." Gabrin and Elleen waited in The Trawler for three days. They drank, ate, played cards with the sisters and talked idly of unimportant things. At times they would take turns venturing out into the city, never far for fear the man would show up. He never did. "I'm going to have to return at some point," Elleen said on the third night. "If I stay away for too long they're going to start saying I killed those men in the yard." "That's preposterous," Gabrin said. "Your husband knows very well I was the one." "If he wants me back home, he could say all sorts of stupid things," Elleen said. Gabrin stood up from the bar. Marta had already gone to bed, and Arri had been dozing, hands under her breasts, leaning back in her stool. Gabrin's sudden motion woke the older woman. "What?" she said, her voice loud enough to draw the eyes of all ten patrons. "He's not coming," Gabrin said. "He knows by now what's happened to his students. He's known for days. I'm a fool!" "Calm down," Elleen said, tugging at Gabrin's tunic. "I am calm. I've just seen the truth of it. I'll bet this man of yours hasn't been out of doors since I killed the Duke," Gabrin said. "He's in hiding. He won't show up here ever again." "Why would he hide?" Arri asked. "From me," Gabrin said. "A true Dancer in his midst; a real swordswoman, not some facsimile." "Maybe he's just been busy." "No. We're done waiting." Gabrin turned to Elleen. "I need you to guide me through the city." "This is madness," Arri said. "Where are you going to go?" "I don't know yet. My mind has grown too idle. I must start the hunt anew and see where it takes me." "Avoid the center of the city," Arri said. "There's been a lot of city guards down there. Rumour is they're investigating something. The sort they send into that mess don't treat people all that well. They'll be ornery and looking to lay down some beatings." Gabrin's mouth fell open. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" "Tell you what?" The Sword Dancer slapped her hand on the bar. "They're looking for me. They're looking for the woman who killed the ruffian. He's trying to find me!" "We don't know that for sure," Elleen said as Gabrin tugged her from her seat. "It's something. Let's go!" Gabrin tapped her foot impatiently as she waited for the grooms to retrieve their horses. She'd been still for too long and her body was begging to move, to be about something, to dance. Elleen looked tired and worried, older than when Gabrin had first laid eyes on her. Adventure didn't sit well with some people. "Must we go back? Of all the places we could go," Elleen said once they were on their way to the center of Brinian. "If you're so sour about it, you can leave me once I'm close." "I'm not sour. I just don't want to get attacked again." "The more it happens, the more you'll grow accustomed to it." "You're a hard person to talk to sometimes." At the edge of the central hub, just in view of the great, shit fountain, Elleen reined in. "Maybe I should turn back." There were three people near the fountain. All wore the garb of the city guard, red and white stripes above black trousers, matching black cordons at the shoulders. One of the three was slightly different. His stripes were odd; not equal in size and more white than red. On his shoulders were braided epaulettes in bright gold. "My word," he said, his voice carrying through the silence as he noticed the newcomers. Gabrin leapt from her horse and strode toward the man. Elleen hopped down to grab the mount's reins and follow closely behind, leading the horses with only a small amount of struggle. "I'm surprised. I told him you wouldn't come back," said the man who'd spoken, straightening with one hand on his sword hilt. "You were wrong," said Gabrin. "So you admit you killed the man? Here?" "I did. He accosted me." "I gathered as much." Gabrin stopped a yard before the man. "It's real, then," he said, looking at the gold threading on her pommel. "You killed the others as well? In that village?" "Who's asking?" Gabrin said. "I'm Kayl Ossen. Head of the city guard in Brinian." "Gabrin Gaisa." "No titles?" "I need none but the gold on my sword." "So did you do it?" asked Kayl. "Did you kill his brother?" "Brother?" Elleen said. Kayl looked between them. "You didn't know? Could it be some accident, then? You didn't come for him?" Gabrin shook her head, not understanding the man. "I followed a technique. It has led me to a Thane here in Brinian." "A thane," Kayl laughed. "The Thane. Thane Julin Endarrion, the most powerful landowner in three cities." "Julin Endarrion?" Gabrin said. They were brothers. No wonder the man was looking for her. Kayl gestured to his men. They closed on his position, hands on hilts in mimicry of their commander. "We've got some wet-ears, here, gentleman. In deep beyond their capacity." "Who are you calling a wet-ear?" Elleen said. She folded her hands across her breasts, reins in each fist. Gabrin was impressed how annoyed she managed to look. "There's been no crime," Gabrin explained as the men drew nearer. "The Duke killed the brother. I killed the Duke. It was a fair duel. The words were said, the rituals followed." That wasn't quite the truth, but she knew not to complicate things further. Not when men with swords were closing on her. "We don't care for your eastern witchery here," said one of the city guards. "Witchery?" Gabrin said. "Do you not have educators in Brinian? Is it all sheep fuckers with no sense of the world outside their barnyards?" "Who are you calling –?" Gabrin drew, placing the tip of her sword at the man's chin to halt his advance. The third guard leapt for Elleen. She punched him in the face, reins still in her hand. The horse bucked and reared, clubbing the man across the face as he stumbled. There was a sickening crunch and they all turned to watch the dead man crumple to the ground. Elleen looked at Gabrin apologetically and shrugged. Gabrin sighed and plunged her blade into the guard's neck. "You're mad!" Kayl said, stepping back. "The law is self-defence," Gabrin said, getting an affirming nod from Elleen. Kayl took another rearward step, eyes darting between the women though he was the only one in motion. "Are you going to reveal it or not," Gabrin said, gesturing with her naked blade. Kayl looked down at his hand, still locked – palm down – across the hilt of his sword. "Reveal what? I'm a guard, nothing more." "Show me," Gabrin said. "Or give me the name of the third man Julin's been training." That caught him off guard. He hadn't expected her to know anything. He had no idea it was a gamble, a guess based on Marta's claim she'd seen four different men bearing thread. "I don't want to fight you," Kayl said. "You have more sense than the ruffians who attacked me here," Gabrin said. "He's highborn," Elleen said. "You can hear it in his accent." "You all have accents to me," Gabrin said. "Do I have to remove your hand at the wrist to see your threading, sir?" It was an idle threat, something a Dancer would never do. But they hadn't been properly taught, and it felt right to exploit that weakness. Kayl backed into the fountain, nearly sitting down on the rim when his heels touched. "He wants to meet you. I can take you to him." "I'll not go to him as a prisoner." "No. He'll fight. It's him you want to duel with, not me." "Wrong. I want to duel with everyone," Gabrin said. She flashed her sword, showing the myriad streaks along its length. "You know why I killed this one? Because once one was dead, there was no point leaving any witnesses. What makes you think you're not a witness?" "I can vouch for you! Prove that you were attacked." "By the city guard?" Elleen said. "Sounds preposterous." "You have to die," Gabrin said. "I'd rather do it the right way." "No, I won't," Kayl said. "Look, if you want, I can – " His hand moved with wretched speed, throwing something into Gabrin's face. Elleen stumbled back with a yelp and one of the horses joined her in surprised song. Gabrin swept her blade across the intervening space, trying to keep Kayl at bay. The dirt or powder, whatever it had been, had clouded her vision with great speed and efficacy. He came on, hacking at her. She saw the shape of the glinting steel at the last moment, one, two, three times, barely getting a block in place. The fourth cut took her high on the shoulder. The blade cut through and dug into the bone along her collar. Kayl tried to tug away and couldn't. It was simple a task to put together his position from where the blade had landed. Gabrin didn't need sight for that. As she promised, she took his hand at the wrist. It hit the ground with a thud and Kayl bawled like a pregnant cow. She stabbed toward the sound of the idiot's mewling, driving her blade along the side of his face, catching the tip in the crook of his open jaw. His song changed to something even more terrible. She brought the blade across his face, then drove it hard through the back of his skull. The song stopped for good. "You have water on your saddle?" Gabrin asked. Elleen helped get the dirt from her eyes. The mess on the ground was considerably worse than she'd imagined. "You didn't throw up this time," Gabrin said. "Don't talk about it." Elleen had retrieved the man's sword. There was no threading on the hilt. "Guess he wasn't a student after all," Gabrin said. "You ever used one?" Elleen turned the blade in her hand, examining it like it was an insect she'd never before seen. "A little, when I was younger. My father said I swung it too hard. I whooped my brothers in the practise yard but I was told I wasn't doing it fairly." "You like it?" It was a simple blade, straight with a broad base and twin-runnels, a frowning crosspiece tipped with bronze spirals for a guard. The pommel was a half-moon with a decorative crescent inside. "I do," Elleen said. "Seems like a good idea to keep one around, if I'm to be near you." Gabrin nodded. "Now what?" Elleen said. "Now we have a name. Time to find Julin Endarrion, Thane of Brinian." It didn't take long, once they had the name. Julin Endarrion lived in the place one might expect; the largest house on the west side of Brinian. Gabrin wanted to walk right in. Elleen convinced her to wait, at least until nightfall, and suggested they camp out atop the inn across the way. Arri and Marta knew all the innkeepers in the city, and the women – old and accomplished as they were – were well-respected in that community. It took only a word from them and Master Enlard of The Nesting Goose allowed them access to his roof. They watched while nothing happened. No one came or went, no guards were visible. Endarrion's house was a mausoleum. It even looked like the sort of place that might house the dead with its harsh angles and plinths of corded stone near the front archway. After Gabrin's fifth or sixth exhalation of boredom, Elleen held up the sword she'd gathered from the city guardsman. "Show me," she said. They backed away from the edge, so as not to be seen, and Gabrin gave Elleen her first instruction. The simplest parts of swordplay: the basic tenants of blocking. "One, here, blade horizontal, tip to the sky; two, here, blade horizontal tip to the sky; three, here, blade horizontal, tip to the earth; four, here, blade horizontal, tip to the earth." Elleen tried it. Her blocks were too far-reaching, her blade arced and imprecise. "Again," Gabrin said, keeping one eye on the archway across the road. Elleen tried again, and was terrible. "I have questions," Elleen said. "No. Just do it." "Why can't I ask questions?" "That's a question. Do this," Gabrin said, showing her once more. Elleen watched, eyes focused and licking her lips. "Once more. Show me again." This time, Elleen was better. In half-an-hour, her blocks were firm, her blade erect and precise. When she stopped, she was sweating from exhaustion. "I've never used those muscles," she panted. "If you keep that up, the muscles will learn, and when you need to keep a blade from your flesh, the muscles will bring your sword up for you and put it where it needs to be." "What of attacking?" Elleen asked. "Take a break. We don't want you dying of exertion." They watched the Endarrion residence for another hour. Once a man walked down the street, though he never once looked in any direction but forward and didn't slow as he passed the house. "All right," Gabrin said. "Attacking." She put Elleen through the paces of some of the basic forms of the sword. Fox at first, to teach Elleen to move swiftly from a low stance, then Kestrel, to show her arms how to sweep her sword high and long, and Heron, to teach her to lunge and recover. Elleen responded in a similar fashion. Confused and stumbling at first, like an uncoordinated child, then quickly improving once she watched Gabrin go through the motions herself. "Still nothing," Gabrin said, looking over the edge. Elleen was on her bottom, legs out, feet lolling back and forth. She was smiling from ear to ear. "I don't think you should go in at all. He may be waiting for you." "When the sun sets, this ends," Gabrin said. "I've waited long enough." "Show me something else. We have an hour at least before the sun starts her descent." Gabrin eyed the big woman. She was flushed and sweating so hard the neck of her dress had darkened, but she was aflame with the joy of learning. For the first time, Gabrin let her mind clear, and realized what she was seeing. "You're a swordswoman," she said. Elleen chuckled. "Already?" "Let me show you something. Something I created." Gabrin reminded Elleen of the elements of Fox; the low stance, the upward cuts that moved your position forward, the half-retreats and the counter lunges. Then, skipping the base tutelage of Rose – a series of spiralling, twisting feints and blocks – she taught Elleen the basic tenants of her hybrid style. "This is White Fox," she said, positioning Elleen's elbows and hands. "It takes Fox and spreads it toward the edges of a dance. One must be very solid on their feet, very strong in the haunches without being too focused on the tip of their sword. Centered, here," she said, tapping Elleen's hips, "and here," she said, smacking her on the inner thigh. Elleen took to White Fox as quickly as Gabrin had expected. Gabrin had left the style behind as she grew greater and greater in her knowledge of swordplay. The Eagle stance made far more sense for someone as quick and advanced as she was. White Fox required a dancer's grace, not a sprinter's ability to accelerate. Gabrin had been graceful enough to create it, but not enough to make it sing. Elleen had the potential to do just that. With only basic comprehension, Elleen moved through the forms of White Fox with ease. "Like a dancer," Gabrin said. "Huh?" "Nothing. Keep going. Keep those thighs curved!" It had never occurred to Gabrin to take an apprentice. She was in the prime of her fighting years and some Sword Dancers never took an apprentice at all. Only a third ever tried, and most failed to connect with their chosen students, failed to pass on their knowledge well enough for the students to earn the title of Dancer. This was accredited to the fact that to be a Sword Dancer, one had to be a certain kind of person with a distinct sort of selfishness and drive. That demeanor, that dominant ambition, made it hard for Sword Dancers to instill the right lessons in their students. For the first time Gabrin wondered if she was a capable teacher. Her mind wandered to her own teacher, one of those rare Sword Dancers who'd been great at mentoring, though Gabrin hadn't known it at first. It took years of improvement and reflection for her to appreciate Catalania's methods. "I was thinking," Elleen said, again sitting upon the ground. Gabrin had a foot on the parapet, hands on her knee, looking so hard into the archway across the street she might soon bore a hole. "Best not to." "This technique you're after, what's it for? What does it do?" "Bear." "What?" "It's called Bear. That's what the Duke said. Said I should look for the bear." Elleen stood up at speed. "Look for the bear? That's what he said?" "Yes. Why?" "Why didn't you tell me that?" "I don't know. I didn't?" "On the east side of the central hub, near the worst of the brothels and gambling houses, there's a bear." "An actual bear?' "Yes! He was captured. In one of the parlours, they make him dance. They taught him to walk upstairs and down, to wave his hands about at their command! Thanes frequent the place to do business off the books." "He's there!" Gabrin said, starting across the roof. "Wait! It's almost nightfall." "So? He might not come back. I won't wait any longer. You can show me to this place?" "It's dangerous." "Tell me, then. You don't have to come." Elleen scoured her face with a look. "How dare you?" Gabrin froze, one foot hovering over the ladder. "How dare I? I don't –" Elleen waved her quiet. "Bear, you say? That's the name of the technique? Is it about strength, then?" "How do you know that?" Gabrin asked, heading back toward Elleen. "Because it's the one thing you don't have." "Pardon me?" Elleen, quicker than she looked able, pushed Gabrin and sent her stumbling backward. "You have balance and agility, and you're strong for a woman of your size. But you have no weight. You're a precision fighter." Gabrin suppressed her anger, made herself listen. "You're following this bear technique because it scares you, or because you want it," Elleen continued. "Or both. Maybe you just need to understand it." "What's the point, girl?" "I understand strength. To do something with your weight behind it. To have the weight to do it. You need me." "I don't need anyone." Elleen shrugged. "I'm coming anyway." "Fine. Do what you want," Gabrin said. She realized, as she descended the ladder, that she was glad for the woman's company. As they rode, Gabrin stole glances at Elleen. The woman had reminded her of Catalania from the start, something in her eyes, in the set of her hips when she was seeing things clearer than those around her. Now, after the physical display, the woman seemed even more like her old mentor. On more than one occasion Catalania had imposed her physical will upon Gabrin to teach her a hard lesson. She'd been a tall woman, and thick, bigger than many men, and she'd been a masterful Sword Dancer. Perhaps Elleen's size could aid her; perhaps she could become a great swordswoman with the right teacher. The parlour was called The Fighting Eel and the picture above the doorway was an abstract work of thrashing waves and dark, sinuous lines. They left Cloud Dancer and Swatter with a man down the street, paying him handsomely to keep the horses saddled and ready. "We're just walking in, then?" Elleen asked. "Straight on is the best way," Gabrin answered and swept through the door. The place was gaudy and dark with soot from two much smoke and too many sconces. It smelled of wine and fur, an odd combination, and it took Gabrin no time at all to count thirteen golden broaches, the heron wrapped in laurel leaves, on the coats of the present Thanes. The bear was in the corner, standing on a short, wooden set of stairs. It still had all its fur, though around the collar – an angry, steel monstrosity – skin was beginning to show from the wear. A man in a silly hood held the bear's leash, a string of chain a tad longer than the bear's reach. Ten or so handmaidens tended to the Thanes as they drank and caroused, watching the bear wave its arms from the top of its little staircase. They were veiled in translucent green, with skirts to match. Across their chests they wore sashes of black that barely covered their breasts, nearly as transparent as the veils. The Thanes touched and caressed at their leisure as the maidens navigated through the tables. Gabrin didn't have to decide what was next. A man on the far side of the smoky room stood. All the sound was sucked from the air, and every head looked first to him, then followed his gaze. "You've come at last," the man said. It was Julin Endarrion, of that there was no doubt. He looked the same as his brother, though without the thinning hair or extravagant mustaches. His hair was full and coiffed, his beard the same, extending barely beyond his lips and no further. Julin was shorter than his brother and thicker through the shoulders. Not overly muscled; just enough to be able to properly perform the Dance. "If you'd shown yourself sooner, in the city, there would have been no waiting," Gabrin said. "Are we to have the sport you promised, Julin? At last?" one of the Thanes asked. "I believe so. Clear the space," Julin said, waving his hands. The man who held the bear's leash nodded and began pushing the stairs away with his foot. The maidens helped the Thanes near the front of the room shove the tables away, making room for what was to come. "You're sure this is the best way?" Elleen whispered. "I'm sure of nothing. But this is the only way for our kind." She pulled her elixir from her pouch and walked to the center of the room. Julin snapped his fingers and drew one of the maidens. With a whisper in her ear, she was off, returning promptly with a stoppered goblet of horn nearly identical to Gabrin's. He moved to the center of the room and joined her. They both sat, legs crossed, elixirs at their sides. "Your students have been teaching me to grow unaccustomed to formality," Gabrin said. "That is your failure as a teacher." "Young and foolish. They were not taught as we were." "And what would you know of how I was taught?" Julin raised a black eyebrow, saying the ceremonial words. Gabrin offered her response and they stood. They were eye to eye; she was tall for a woman and he was short for a man. They were built nearly the same in all aspects, save where the soft bulges were. She turned away and went to Elleen, handing her the elixir. "I'll need this before long." "Be wary," Elleen whispered. "He's far more confident than he should be." "I've handled worse." A maiden came running from the rear of the room, a blade in her hands. She held the scabbard as Julin Endarrion drew. It was a single-bladed sword, hooked a little near the top, clipped like her own. A falchion, a hunting sword; broad through the center and deadly at the tip. At the engraved pommel, there was so much gold threading that no one could possibly miss it. It nearly resonated with reflected light. "That was earned?" Gabrin asked, still finding it hard to believe these men had been so bold as to play at dancing. "You'll soon see." Gabrin stood erect in Eagle Stance. Julin copied her, then took one hand from his hilt and flattened the blade before his eyes. She'd never seen that before. Her moment of concern was dismissed as he attacked, dropping the formality of the stance and forging forward with a typical Fox-based series of motions. Gabrin held her place, beginning her campaign of downward, demoralizing blocks, while seeming stoic and completely unbothered by having to participate in a swordfight. After only the fifth block, the fight changed course. Julin took her downward cut high on his blade and pushed it aside with great strength, sending her slightly off-balance. She moved her front foot only a half-step, but it was enough to get her into his range. Instead of coming back over the top or through the middle with a parallel cut, the attack came from the other side. From his hand. His fist smashed against her temple, sending Gabrin reeling backward. One of her legs tightened – then loosened – and she almost toppled. In that moment, for the first time since she'd sworn the oaths and earned the title of Sword Dancer, she thought she might be in trouble. Julin Endarrion didn't come on. He raised his hands and chuckled, playing to the crowd. "I feel for you," he said. "I do. There's no way you could've known what you were getting yourself into." Elleen helped Gabrin to her feet. "Don't," she said, her voice sounding a little thick in her own head. "Quiet," Elleen said. "If that's Bear, if he's going to strike you like that, you have to watch out. There may be other non-bladed attacks in the technique." "Preposterous," Gabrin said, barely forming the word. She pushed away. "Don't touch me again." It didn't take long before Elleen was proved correct. Gabrin's Eagle Stance was working as it always did, when Julin did something new. This time he allowed a downward cut to come very close, rotated swiftly with his back against the flat of Gabrin's blade and elbowed her in the face. She didn't fall back this time, instead stepping away in a flurry of feet, already reaching for her jaw. She poked once, found the culprit, reached inside and pulled out a tooth. The crowd of Thanes cheered with delight. "What kind of bear throws elbows?" Gabrin snarled at Elleen. "If his strength is winning out, you have to be less predictable. Don't be where he can hit you, don't be so static," Elleen said. "I don't need your advice on swordplay," Gabrin snapped, rubbing the side of her face. It was nothing Gabrin wouldn't have thought of on her own, if she'd had a moment to clear her head. It was hard to fight when a person kept smacking your thoughts loose. "This isn't supposed to be a fistfight," Gabrin said, starting back toward the center of the room. Julin smiled. "It's within the parameters of the Dance. It's not illegal." "How would you know?" "My mentor." "I don't believe you. Who would train a man from the west?" "So you think I figured this all out myself?" "No," Gabrin said, feeling a fool for having nothing else to say. Of course he'd been taught. She straightened and regained Eagle Stance. "Come, then. Flash your hands and see if they don't get cut away." He attacked again, whooping with the fun of it. She withdrew and crossed her feet in White Fox, spiralling upward to meet his blade with all the force of her legs. Julin didn't careen backward as expected. His blade didn't fly from his hands and his head didn't conveniently come away from his body. He blocked and remained still, the metal of their swords grinding together in a mutual moment of stillness. They were face to face, blades crossed to make an X. Julin put his palm to the spine of his sword. In mimicry, Gabrin did the same. She wasn't weak; if they wanted to beat her with strength, they would find out she wasn't – He kicked her hard in the shin. She lost the point of pressure and his blade slid along the length of hers. She pulled her hand back just in time, nearly losing her fingers. "Scoundrel!" she said. "You can't match his strength!" Elleen said. The men laughed. Julin shrugged. "I fear your fat friend is right." "You're not helping," Gabrin said over her shoulder. "You're not strong enough," Elleen reiterated. "Quiet!" She was right. Even before the kick, facing him head on, chest to chest, she knew she wouldn't have been able to hold for long. "White Fox?" Julin said, circling back to get into his own, Eagle-like starting position. Gabrin's stomach turned completely over and she nearly dropped her sword. "How do you know about that?" "That's your technique, isn't it? The one you created? I was shown that, as a stepping stone in my teaching, an example of how to extrapolate on the old forms. Without White Fox, there would be no Bear." There was only one way he could know. Since coming west, Gabrin had only spoken of White Fox to Elleen, and the woman had hardly been out of her sight since the moment she'd shared it. Only one other person who'd travelled this far west knew the true name of her technique. "Not possible," Gabrin said. Julin smiled. "You just got it? Did you see that, everyone? She just got it! You've witnessed the moment she realized she was defeated. What a rare and glorious sight." "Say it," Gabrin said. "I want to hear you say her name." "Catalania," Julin said, his smile akin to a snake about to strike. Gabrin's stomach became a rock, sinking. "How?" "She came looking. I was willing." "No Sword Dancer takes a second student," Gabrin said. "You didn't know her very well if you think her the type of woman who follows rules." Gabrin shook her head. She couldn't believe what she was hearing. "This is truly her doing?" Julin nodded. "You really think only one half of us can fight? That only women possess the ability? You think you can protect us all when our enemies return across the sea?" A second shock. "You know of them?" "We are not all ignorant," Julin said. "Catalania taught me the histories. She believes what your kind can do, but also that men will be needed. That all of us will one day have to pick up the sword and use it to defend our nation, our families." "We will not win with strength," Gabrin said. "Did she forget to tell you that? That they will outnumber us at least ten to one?" "But to ignore strength? To ignore half the population, to assume them incapable of helping?" "It's not like that. It's just the way you are." "Men? We are not so different, you and I. Are men, then, so different from women?" "Men are impetuous, bullheaded, rife with violence," Gabrin said, not sure she believed it, grasping at things she'd always heard, trying to find purchase as this man tore her apart with his words. "You are not those things?" Julin asked. Gabrin boiled. "I am control. I am elegance. I am grace." "Wonderful words for the stone on your grave," Julin said. "Is it to be a play or a fight?" one of the Thanes called out. Gabrin returned to Eagle Stance, sword high and straight. "You can't override tradition with brute force. You can't take away the power of ritual with a closed fist. It takes control and elegance and grace to overcome." "Hard to overcome anything when your face is purple with bruises, your ears are ringing, and blood cakes the inside of your mouth," he said, and came at her once more. Gabrin swallowed her anger, and breathing through tight lips, found her focus. Calm that had been taught to her since a young age flooded in, calm that she'd practised until it was always within her reach. Calm that allowed her to move as though she had no encumbrance, allowed her to flow and become one with the sword, with the Dance. He met her downward strike with strength as before. Elleen's voice flared in her head. 'You can't match his strength.' It was truth. She couldn't compete with his strength, so she flowed aside. He came again, and this time she didn't bother to strike down. Her skill, her precision; they did nothing to intimidate or demoralize this man. They were ineffective tools if she wished to devastate his sense of competition, to make him feel he could not win. She flowed aside, lowering her blade, not giving herself an avenue to strike back. He stumbled when she didn't take his contact. With a snarl he came again, faster and harder than before. Which made it even easier to step aside and let him careen past. "Fight me," he said. "What is this? Use your techniques, woman!" "You don't know this one?" Gabrin said. She flashed her most brilliant smile. It defeated him more than any precision strike could have. With a roar he came on. This time, already enraged, he overcompensated. She was able to avoid him and still leave room for a counter. Instead of going for the kill, instead of the risk of a full lunge, she let the very tip of her blade scrape along his cheek, opening him like a filleted fish. He turned on her in a rage, sword at his side, one hand at his face. "You bitch!" he snapped, blood coursing along the creases of his mouth, dripping from his chin. "What are you doing, Julin? Finish her!" cried a Thane. "He can't," Elleen said, matching the man's volume. Gabrin could've hugged her. She saw Elleen's ploy, to infuriate the man, to turn the room against him, to make him conscious of his own vulnerability. "She's an undefeated Sword Dancer," Elleen continued. "Look at the etchings on her blade!" "Shut your mouth!" Julin said. Gabrin had always clashed with Catalania over one thing. The woman's fire. She had a temper in her, a rebellion against all that opposed her. Gabrin was not the same. She'd been able to find calm in the face of her mentor's anger, a calm that allowed her to think clearly and overcome. In Julin Endarrion, Catalania had found a perfect student. A man who shared her fire. Just as White Fox came from two clashing stances, sometimes the best fighters came from two clashing personalities. Catalania and Gabrin had pushed hard against each other, and Gabrin the Sword Dancer had been forced out by the pressure. And she was a diamond. Julin came forward with all his mentor's fire. His strokes were strong, if not controlled, fast if not elegant, effective if not graceful. She turned them aside as best she could until he bullied her into another lock, blades crossed, hands to the backs of their swords. Gabrin smiled and gave the slightest impression that she was pushing hard against him. Then, as he gritted his teeth to overpower her, she let go of her sword and stepped to the side. Julin Endarrion fell flat on his face. As he turned to rise, Gabrin – with all her grace – leapt atop him and punched him hard, bursting his nose and sending crimson in all directions. He exhaled, the fight leaving him as blood covered his entire face below the eyes, bubbling and welling and spreading beneath his head. "Bear," she said. "I think I get it." She retrieved her sword and held it to his throat. "Finish it," he said, the fire gone from him. "What are you waiting for?" "I found what I came for. I needed to source the technique, to absorb its lessons into the dance. We will need your Bear for the coming tide. We will need all the knowledge available to us to fight the inevitable." She pulled her sword away and offered her hand. "What?" he said, his eyes wide with surprise. "And we'll need men," she said. "Male swordswomen." He took her hand and let her lift him. She was strong for her size, after all. "Swordsmen," he said. "Swordsmen," she repeated, trying the word for the first time. It felt funny on her tongue. Some of the other Thanes began to protest and Julin had to calm them. He was given a cloth which he held tightly to his face, keeping the folds together until the bleeding stopped. While the men were distracted, Gabrin and Elleen went to the bear. Elleen punched the man who held the leash right in his stomach, bending him over. Gabrin cut the chain with an arc of her blade. She waited until the bear understood that he was free, then fled The Fighting Eel. In the street, the man ran to them with their horses. Thanes poured out, screaming and clawing, trying to get away from the rampaging beast inside. "Though you needed men, for fighting the enemy?" Elleen said. "The good ones will escape. Call it selection of the fittest. By angry bear." Elleen laughed as she took Swatter's reins. Julin appeared among the thanes. "Come east," Gabrin said to him. "If you want to continue." "I may," he said. "I may do just that." "And get that stitched," Gabrin said, gesturing to his cheek. Julin's ire rose, but he controlled himself. With a nod, he started off down the street at a trot. "Lesson learned?" Elleen suggested. "He is full of vigor, like his teacher. Calmness will always be tough for that one." Elleen nodded. "And what of you?" Gabrin said as she mounted Cloud Dancer. Elleen climbed atop Swatter. "You know what of me. I'm coming with you." "Thanes?" Gabrin shouted, spinning her horse with expert ease as the men drifted away from the Fighting Eel. "Have any of you the power and inclination to annul a marriage?" Elleen laughed. "That won't be necessary. He'll wait. Who's he going to find better than me?" "Agreed," Gabrin said. She'd not only found the technique, she'd found a student. It was time to head east, and consider herself lucky the journey had been so fruitful.