Whenever swords clanged against each other, Mara heard the ringing of the metal, clear and crystalline, urgent as a peal of church bells on a winter night calling the pure of heart from their warm beds to service. This was her service. She was guided by a higher power when she gave herself to swordfare. At this one moment, her mind was perfectly clear. She saw herself in motion. Her instinct never failed her if she acted instantly. Her faith was that of a knight in righteous cause. No candles, no chalice, no prayers save those she gave in the midst of battle—communion was achieved in the strike of blade against blade. The essence of life lay so near the danger.
Her opponent was her twin: the helm’s curving cheek-guards bracketed a dash of grim mouth and square-set chin like her own. The eyes, watching her movements through the visor’s grill, were blue while her own were hazel-flecked green, but the straight dark brows, drawn together in intense concentration, were nearly identical. The Shieldmaid’s braids were like her own—two thin cords tucked in at the collar to protect the throat, two thicker ropes clasped back by a bronze clip—but a red-gold shade lighter than her own dark chestnut. They were dressed as twins: leathern arm-guard strapped to the shoulder of the sword-arm and fastened close at the wrist by a studded band; field gauntlets; light chain mail shirt under a short white tunic; scabbard belted at the waist; tall flat-heeled boots which covered the knee from the front; brief soldier’s kirtle. Her opponent’s shield bore the scarred image of a golden harp on field azure. Mara’s own arms presented a hartshead argent, one star before its brow.
Left and right, left and right, Mara began to anticipate each stroke, to meet each blow before it fell. The dance was reflex. Abruptly, her foe swung left and left again lower, aiming at her knees. Mara leapt back to avoid the blade and swung at her opponent’s head. The other ducked and came up at her from beneath. Mara had to jump again to deflect the blow on her shield rather than catch it in her ribs.
“Sweet Jesus!” she yelped as she skidded on the muddy grass. “You and your damnable traps!”
Her opponent laughed. At every match, she was more difficult to defeat.
“When you are.”
The assault resumed. Left and right, left and right, but Mara would not be lulled into the same trap. This time, she was prepared for the abrupt break in rhythm.
When her opponent’s sword swung left and left again, Mara parried the second blow. The next feint came from the right in an undercut, then the blade arced to slice down from above. Mara swung up to meet it with her own sword. She was familiar with this tactic; her adversary meant to drive her back, to keep her maneuvers defensive. Each successive feint would draw her strokes broader, higher above, lower below, until she left her midsection vulnerable. She anticipated this too.
She broke the rhythm with a circular sweep. Her opponent’s blade twisted to one side, and she swung down and thrust forward to the unguarded right flank. Her opponent, watching the blow fall and seeing that she could not dodge, responded with an unorthodox and completely unexpected defense. With a cry, she leapt forward, head down, shield advanced. Mara brought her own shield up. The flat of a blade slapped her helm. Their shields crashed against each other, the full weight of their bodies knocking them both down. A jarring jolt of pain shot up her left arm and Mara cried out as she fell to her knees.
“Mara, are you injured?”
Kat, her cousin and sparring partner, knelt over her.
Mara let her shield fall and cradled her throbbing arm. Tentatively, she moved the ends of her fingers then, encountering no fresh pain, wriggled her fingers more boldly, rotated her wrist, swung her arm at the elbow and shoulder. “No. Nothing’s broken. Let’s go on. I’m ready.”
“We ought to stop if you’ve been hurt–”
But Kat had sheathed her sword. “You’ve said that before. Squire!” Their nephew Arthur, fifteen and bursting into ungainly adolescence, leapt down from the railings before the empty stadium seats. “Remember, you fell from your horse and broke an ankle at the tourney last winter, and got right back up and never said how it hurt until it swelled so great inside the boot they had to cut apart the leather to have a look at it.”
“Honestly, I didn’t feel it.” Mara rose to her feet. It was spring; the playing field was slick with mud and wet grass from last night’s rain. Her tunic and armor were spattered.
“You mean you wouldn’t,” Kat answered. “And only three months before that, you took a bad blow on that same arm. I won’t match with you again `til you tend to it. You play too hard, Mara, for sport.”
“Kat, understand this: in battle, we must overcome our physical discomforts and go on in spite of our injuries. Our lives depend upon it. A true foe would not be so merciful as you’ve been this day. For my weakness, I would’ve been cut down.”
“But this was no true battle. Why risk increase to an injury in play and cripple yourself before you are called to fight?”
“All my injuries have been at your hands, Cousin,” Mara answered, laughing. Young Arthur stood patiently at her side and she surrendered her shield to him. “In truth, I think you hold yourself back.”
Kat shook her head in disbelief. “I’ll never be so good as you, Mara.”