Clenching your fist about a smooth, dark stone you breathe deeply. Focus on its coolth, its stillness, its solidity. It is not enough. With an all-but inaudible cry you hurl the impotent totem into the churning water below and plunge your hand back into your pocket.
The crashing of waves against slick black cliffs is almost enough to drown out thought. Almost, but not quite. Still beyond the rush of incoming and sigh of outgoing sea there’s space – that stomach lurching lull of neither push nor pull. Space enough for memories to splutter to the surface.
You’ve stood here almost every night since the raid. Stood staring at the horizon where the boats appeared like a mirage, dauntless and damaging and barely real. As if watching now could make up for not doing so then. As if any amount of hue and cry could bring back what was lost.
You snap your eyes down from the mist-wreathed band of black – down to the furious spume about the rocks, all the whiter for the waxing moon. At first you do not see it, and then you cannot make it out – bright steel against white foam, dark metal against black rock. But the more you peer, precarious on the precipice, the more it can’t be anything other: a sword, long and left behind, gleaming beneath the glowering cliff.
Something more than vertigo leaps within you. Could it be the sword they took? Or one of their own in its place? Has the sea itself carried it back to you? And if so, what does that mean? What revenge does the sea ask of you now? With something more akin to hope than you’ve felt in months, you pick your way down the perilous rocks.
The snap of a twig beneath thick-soled boots breaks the silence. You choke back a cry with a nervous laugh. It’s only you. Only your own footsteps on the fabled forest floor.
There are stories told about these woods. Tales of children who never come back, of wolves who prowl along the path. And yet to recall only the darkest rhymes would be to forget the others: welcoming cottages and wish-granting grandmothers, fairy rings and forgotten castles. There are two sides to every tale, your mother always said. And this is yours.
Besides, you have the sword. Worthy of any story-book hero, smuggled out from beneath your mother’s bed and slung at your side. The weight of it comforts you, swinging with your stride. Your hand, trembling only slightly, finds strength in the unicorn curves of its copper-wrapped grip.
And now you see copper, glinting between shadow-trees. Your eyes, already acquainted with darkness, are confounded. A candle? It can’t be. And yet, drawing nearer, erring almost unconsciously from the safety of the path, you realise that’s just what it is. A candle, warm and welcoming, perched in the window of a cottage so small and sweet and unexpected that it may as well be made from gingerbread.
Strangely compelled, you slip from your hiding place and step toward the arched and bright-painted door. And then, with a start, you spy the knocker: a ribbon-like ring of black metal with two interlocking hearts at its centre. You’d know that symbol anywhere. Drawing your mother’s sword from your belt, you lift the black-hearted hilt to compare, finding just what you expected: the ring of the guard is door knocker’s twin.
Swallowing fear, you keep the sword in your right hand, ready to defend. With your left hand you lift the heavy heart-adorned ring, and let it fall.
Pale moonlight is all that illuminates the crumbling mosaic beneath your bare feet, but you know its design by heart. The snaking black patterns around the folly floor, and the three figures entwined at its centre: the Graces. Thalia and Euphrosina lounging to each side of the circle, and within their embrace, Agalia. Three sister goddesses, bringers of beauty and joy.
You never had a sister. Not one who lived long, anyway. As a girl, you liked to make-believe – to lay an extra place at the table, and insist that your mother serve the invisible other. Agalia, you called her, bringing to mind the tumbling hair and gleaming eyes on the folly floor. Bright, beautiful Agalia. But as with all make-believe, you grew out of such things when the war came. You stood then beside your brothers, sword in hand, every inch a woman grown.
You’ve not turned your mind to the Graces for a long time now. Gods know, there’s so little grace about. Beauty? Splendour? Brightness? What use are they in times of war? Better to be hard; to stick to the shadows. Yet something called you here, to the remains of the folly where you used to play – and you cannot help but find comfort in the once-loved image. Something almost like sorority. The slender, brilliant hand of a sister, reaching for yours across the ether.
With a sigh you draw the sword from your side, its laurel adornments sparkling in the half-light. The long metallic fingers of the guard cup your own in their silvery grasp – comforting, or leading you on into the unknown? A sister would do both, you think.
Smiling you fall into guard, moving at first clumsily through the cuts your brothers taught you. Perhaps, you muse, as you focus on finding fluidity, a little elegance is due.
They were always a strange spectacle, those splendid youths fencing on the riverbank. They were there every week, like clockwork – truly, like clockwork – feinting and lunging in near-silence as fine ladies on their afternoon strolls ogled behind lace fans.
It was not so much the appearance of the young men which drew people’s stares, though that was remarkable in itself. The two were unmistakably twins – from their like height and willowy build, to the neat plumes of copper hair tied at the napes of their necks, to the identical smiles on their angular faces when they drew back their odd wire masks.
No, it was not their like appearance, so much the identical way in which they moved. Each was always a step ahead of the other, long blades a maelstrom of silvery movement between the two dancing figures, yet somehow never touching. So rare, in fact, was a clash of steel on steel, that heads would turn across the meadow, keen to see which stately brother had gained the advantage. Otherwise their fight was ever one of slipping and ceding, neither blade ever quite where it was expected to be.
And the blades! Those fine swords, as same and as slender as the twins themselves, bright copper gleaming at their grips beneath certain steely shells.
Nobody knew where they came from, those brothers, or where they went once their fight was done. But if any passerby had once been unnerved by their presence, their ceaseless play, then that feeling had given way through sheer familiarity to a strange sort of reassurance. They were a fixture of our little town, as much as the weeping willows where lovers met, or the austere steeples across the water. They had become emblems – and in some way protectors – of the stately strangeness which marked us.
You turn the rapier over in your hand, marvelling at how the light plays off the serpentine blade like a cold steel flame. Steadying it on one white-gloved finger, you check its balance, sucking breath through your teeth in surprised admiration. It is a beautiful piece: the gem-like pommel and quillons, the almost aggressive elegance of its curves, the glimmering facets of its onyx-black guard. And a dagger to match!
As you go to pick up the main gauche, you are interrupted by a gentle cough. You turn to find the smith’s apprentice hovering behind you, a look of consternation lingering behind his polite facade.
“I am afraid that this set was made on special commission, your Honour. Made for a rather… particular client.”
“Come now,” you smile, turning the rapier in your hand. “How many years have I been your master’s patron now? He knows I take a special interest in his more unusual pieces. Surely we can work out an arrangement. Go on – name a price.”
“I can assure you it’s more than my master’s job is worth to cross this customer,” the apprentice responds.
“Alright then,” you laugh, “who do I have to fight for them?
You are surprised to see something like fear flashing behind the young man’s eyes. Annoyance you might expect. Temptation, certainly, or at least a battle between conscience and commerce. But this is something else – as if his own blood were on the line.
You are about to speak again when the door behind the apprentice opens with a jarring jingle of bells. You fight to retain composure as you take in the figure who enters – and yet your face must betray some of your shock. Fine of figure and dusky-grey of complexion, the newcomer moves toward you with discomforting grace. Her coat and breeches are unadorned, yet perfectly fitted, as fine as any courtly garb.
She eyes the extravagant rapier in your hand, the decadent dagger on the counter beside you. A dangerous smile spreads from her wine-red lips up the length of her knife-edge cheekbones, to the tips of her pointed ears.
“Good,” the elf murmurs, “good. You know I hate to be kept waiting.”