Cobbles bite into soft leather soles as you round the corner at a run. Glancing left and right, you clamber atop a convenient barrel, then scramble over a wall into the alley below. A heart-pounding part of you registers shouts growing closer, angrier, hungrier – but you must shut them out. You must focus. You must maintain the advantage.
These streets were your playground, for a start. This is far from the first time you’ve sprinted along shortcuts with brawling bullies in hot pursuit. The difference is that this time, they’re armed. This time, they won’t stop at a few thumps behind the stables. This time, they want blood. You are hopelessly outnumbered, and entirely unarmed.
Skidding around a corner, you rear up in horror as you spy a shadowy shape slumped against a wall, dressed in fine silks. Your first wild thought cries murder, but then you remember where you are. The alley behind the tavern. Not a corpse then, but a drunk – yes, mumbling into his cup. As you turn to run, relieved, something else catches your eye: the black ribbon of a guard and a flash of steel blade tucked beneath the sot’s arm.
An angry shout breaks the silence from the alley’s mouth. You hesitate for the slightest sliver of a second, then the hilt is in your hand, blade drawn from the drunkard’s side. With a grim smile you turn to greet your pursuers. Your odds just got a lot higher.
You can’t say what it is about the young woman that sets your teeth on edge as she brushes past you. The marketplace is as busy as can be expected for a feast day – children and livestock darting between carts, hawkers crying their wares, giggling handmaids spending spare silver on ribbons and lace.
Dozens of rough youths must have elbowed past you on their way to greet friends or unload wares – but this one felt different. Something had drawn your eye to the woman since you’d first glimpsed her sliding, ghostlike, between the shoppers and the charlatans. It was the way she moved, you realise – direct yet dynamic, slipping this way and that to avoid obstruction yet never slowing. She moved like a dancer. No, you realise suddenly – she moved like a fighter.
She moved with enough grace and purpose that there’s no way she should have knocked into you so carelessly. Unless…
Your hand flies to your hip to find your fear confirmed: gone. Your weapon is gone. The nimble little sidesword you’d picked up in Verona. God’s wounds, you had loved that sword. It was lightweight and lethal, as gracefully ruthless as the rogue who, sword in hand, was already lost in the crowd.
You kick absently at the grey slate wall, as anxious and impatient and full of desire as you ever are when you wait here. It is the furthest border of her father’s lands – the nearest you dare go, or at least the nearest she’ll have you. Sometimes she is already here when you arrive, impatient and impassioned. Other times you wait for hours before trailing forlornly home in the dark.
Over the course of the summer you’ve grown achingly familiar with the slick grey of the stone, the heart-shaped leaves and five-petalled blooms of the woody nightshade that climbs it. Bittersweet, your mother always called it, and warned you not to be tempted by its pretty red fruit.
You look down again at the sword and venture a little smile. You’ve been saving for months, and at last here it is, steely and sturdy and yours, emblazoned with the familiar five petals of the passion-hued bloom whose bower became your heaven. You asked for that especially, so that every duel would be won in her honour. So that nobody would know but the two of you. You can’t wait to show her when she comes. If she comes.
You sigh, and the little purple flowers nod in the breeze.
“I used to have a ship, you know,” the old man says. He sighs heavily and stares across the water to the brightly-painted war vessel. “Nothing fancy like this ‘un mind, but she knew what she was doing out there. Aye, that she did.”
You grunt an indifferent response, eyes fixed on the approaching craft. You pat the left breast of your doublet, satisfied by the slight scrunch of parchment – the papers that will grant you a new start, another chance at glory.
“You’ll be off after the French then, will you?” the old man tried again. “Light some powder under their arses and show ’em what’s what, eh?” He chuckled to himself. “Well that’s a fine thing, I suppose.”
You wish the old sot would find some other seafarer to bother and leave you to your thoughts, but he persists.
“It won’t be a long life, mind. Never is. They all find their way to the bottom in the end. Boats, that is. An’ if you’re lucky, they’ll take you down with them.”
At this you tear your glance away from the incoming ship, irked. “If you’re unlucky, you mean,”
The old seadog grins showing stubs of brown teeth, and holds his palms out to either side as if to present himself.
“Look at me, lad,” he cackled. “Do I look like one of the lucky ones to you?”
You shift awkwardly, taking in the man’s haggard physique and straggly hair, a shirt that’s seen better days and battered leather boots. At his side hangs a sword, incongruous with his shabby appearance. An elegant basket of crossed black bars encloses a gold-patterned lining, crested by a large segmented pommel.
He sees you staring, and his hand flies to the hilt. Slowly, so as not to cause alarm, he draws the weapon and holds it out to you.
“You looking at this? Ah, she was never mine to keep either. May as well send her back to the sea. Go on, go on, take her! And may she bring you better fortune!”
Wide-eyed you reach for the brown leather grip, barely daring to believe your luck.
“They all find their way to the bottom, you know,” the old man repeated. And then he was gone, lost in the burgeoning crowd, leaving you dumbfounded, a sword in your hand, and a ship on your horizon.
Shoulders back. Feet together. Eyes forward. Crush the nervous urge to giggle. Breathe.
You thought this morning would never come – the first day of your long-fabled training. But even here, heart pounding in the dusty yard as the master at arms and his squire approach, you hardly dare believe it.
The master is stern-faced and solidly built, steely hair cropped short and blue eyes sparkling beneath a heavy brow. As he strides toward you, he reaches to his side and – with the utmost elegance – draws a slender sword. It is all you can do to keep your mouth from dropping open in astonishment as he holds it out for your appraisal.
Never did you imagine you’d wield such a thing of beauty – and so soon as well! Its brass disc pommel gleams in the afternoon sun, and the motto engraved into its long, narrow blade seems to speak to you directly. Uncertain yet enthralled, you reach out a hand to receive the stately sword.
At this, the master gives a short barking laugh. You raise your eyes to meet his, and find their mirth not unkind.
“One day, perhaps,” he says, returning the blade to its sheath. “If you work hard. A sword such as this one is not for the uninitiated.”
Cursing yourself for your eager folly, you glare at your shoes and begrudgingly accept the blunt, rusted weapon offered to you by the squire.