Chapter Twelve

“Here,” said Marisol. “Take this one.” She handed Rachel the sword she’d taken from Julio César’s band of ruffians. Thanks to the six inches missing from the end, it was roughly the proper length for Rachel, who was a good deal shorter than her friend.

Rachel grimaced, but accepted the proffered weapon. “I don’t know what to do with it, though.”

“It’s all right,” said Marisol. “I don’t think it’s very complicated.”

After three days staying at the Maestro’s estate, Marisol had learned a great deal. She’d learned where the Maestro kept his firewood, and that a woodcutter delivered more every other day. She learned that the floors of the house were filthy because there was – or rather had been – no one around to clean them. She learned both that there were many pheasants nesting in the surrounding fields, and that she did not care for plucking them so they could be prepared. She learned that the Maestro preferred his breakfast precisely at sunrise, and that he did not like pepper.

She had not, however, learned anything about fencing. Each morning, she met Diego at the house, hoping to be invited to one of the training sessions that she’d witnessed in the barn. Each morning, Diego assigned her some other menial housekeeping task. Each afternoon, she gave up the task halfway through and climbed up the low hill by the barn to watch Maestro Lope and Diego practice. It was endlessly frustrating, and the three days had seemed like an eternity of pointless busy-work, an increasingly intolerable distraction from what she’d come here for. Rachel, meanwhile, was making great progress in painting impotent symbols on the walls of the Maestro’s house.

Sick of waiting to be taught, Marisol finally decided that she’d seen enough to start teaching herself. She convinced Rachel to stay at the estate again that night, and then successfully conscripted her into an impromptu training session.

The two girls stood opposite each other, feet together, backs straight, swords pointed at each other’s throats. Marisol held her arms straight out; Rachel let her free hand fall limply to her side.

“You’re too tall,” said Rachel. “I couldn’t hit you anyway.” This was correct. Marisol was a full foot taller than her Rachel, and had nearly as much reach on her.

“I don’t want you to hit me. Just put your sword against mine, and try to push it out of the way.”

Rachel had seen enough of the Maestro’s practice to know what Marisol wanted, but had never actually handled a sword herself, so she wasn’t quite sure if there was a trick to it. Still, she set her weapon against her friend’s and, emulating Maestro Lope, tried to slowly slide down Marisol’s blade, keeping her point in line, while pushing Marisol’s to the side.

Marisol, who was much stronger than her opponent, just pushed back; Rachel’s sword clanked off of Marisol’s hilt without deviating her point at all

“I don’t think that was right,” said Rachel.

Marisol shrugged. “Try again.”

They did, and continued to try again and again for an hour or more, with Rachel gamely taking whatever advice Marisol had to offer, while Marisol’s thoughtful frown deepened until it looked like her face might implode. She had Rachel trying to push with the middle of the blades, trying to push perpendicularly against her own, trying to push obliquely. She had her friend push the blade to the side first and then thrust, and then had her thrust at a slight angle. She had Rachel walk forward, lunge forward, lean forward. None of it seemed quite right.

Part of the problem was that Marisol didn’t know what it was she was looking for. The exercise had a certain intuitive sense about it, of course – if she were going to attack a man, she’d have to do it in a way that kept him from sticking her back. So, the best way to do that was to attack in such a way as to keep his sword pointed in a direction other than her vulnerable vital organs. Likewise, if she were being attacked, her best chance would be to respond to that gliding thrust in a way that pushed her opponent’s sword out of the way, and kept her own on target. But beyond that, the exercise seemed opaque. Was she supposed to just wrestle Rachel’s sword out of the way? To step back so that Rachel missed, and then thrust herself? To angle her sword around Rachel’s as she pushed?

Though it was clear that there was something she ought to be getting from the exercise, without knowing precisely what it was meant to feel like, she had no way of knowing if she was doing it right, and so didn’t know which of the many variations she proposed was the best one to practice. She and Rachel persevered nonetheless, though it did not take long for Rachel to begin complaining bitterly that her arms were tired and her wrist hurt.  Marisol found Rachel’s complaints distracting and it made her snappish and curt; this made Rachel more withdrawn, and though her wry grin was still steadfastly in place, her eyes took on a wounded quality that made Marisol feel guilty, which in turn made her even more snappish, and so the cycle continued until the atmosphere in the hot, stinking stables was stifling in every possible sense of the word.

Very near the end of the practice, Marisol had something that nearly bordered on an epiphany. As Rachel’s sword slid down her own, Marisol allowed her weapon to slide backward in response. It was a slight movement, but it prompted a very particular feeling that Marisol couldn’t quite put into words. There was a sense that the swords somehow bent around each other, that the pressure from Rachel’s blade rolled around Marisol’s and was suddenly pointed back at her.

Rachel squeaked as her sword flicked to the side and she found Marisol’s point right in front of her eyes.

Exhilaration took hold, as Marisol was suddenly convinced she was on to something. “Do that one again.”

“What did I do?” Rachel asked.

“I don’t know, whatever you were doing, just do that.”

It was no use; Rachel couldn’t quite remember how she’d approached Marisol’s sword, and she was exhausted anyway. Her weapon wavered and bounced, and boredom was written unmistakably on her face. Marisol contemptuously slapped the sword away then, in silence, put her sword back into the burlap sack in which she kept it, and sat down hard in the hay of the barn.

After a moment, Rachel put her own sword down and quietly sat next to her friend. “Sorry,” she said. Her voice was very soft, as though she were afraid to say the word too loud, like it might trigger in Marisol some violent rage.

Marisol said nothing, and the two sat in tense silence. Marisol stared at the two flickering candles on the floor, little droplets of wax dribbling down their sides. It was hot in here, and it stank, and she hated it. She was tired and terrified that she wouldn’t be able to learn to fight, and she hated that, too. She was frustrated that the Maestro was ignoring her and treated her like a servant, and she supposed she hated him, most of all.

She didn’t hate Rachel, though. “I’m sorry,” Marisol said. She put her arm around the smaller girl’s shoulders, and hugged her tightly.