The swords met in sixte, and Tracy used her wrist to deflect Mindy’s lunge, then parried en fleche, lunged low and deep and scored the hit on the inside. They stepped back.
“Wow, you’re really improving. I don’t know many people who can pull that off, even after years of training. What grip are you using?”
Tracy displayed her new sword – an epee with traditional hilt rather than the pistol grip so many in the sport favored.
Mindy frowned at it. “A traditional grip? You must have really strong wrists.”
“I just like the feel of it more that I did the pistol grip. It sort of fits my hand better.” She couldn’t of course reveal that she had chosen a grip that would be similar to the swords she would really be using, not to score points, but to kill, so she lied. She seemed to be lying a lot these days.
“And of course it would!” Martin’s voice boomed out. “Swords came down to us from many, many generations of fighters, and they never changed the grip. An oval cylinder to fit the curve of the hand, that and a strong arm is what’s needed.”
“Martin, hi.” Mindy was not pleased, Tracy could see. “I’m not sure if you remember Tracy, she joined us a month ago.”
“I don’t remember her from then, but I will remember her from now on. That was superb, that last passage. Come here and try a pass or two with me.”
Tracy shrugged at Mindy, picked up her epee and pushed her mask back into place. She took up her position opposite Martin, blade poised, en garde. Martin moved forward, and she went to meet him, and the blades engaged. The next minute was a flurry of blade work, as each sought the other’s weakness, spiraling blades down to forte, then back out, taking up high or low lines, but with each attack that Martin made, Tracy would be able to parry and launch her own attack, attacks he avoided simply by his longer reach and amazing recovery.
“Enough!” he called, and lowered his blade.
“I am going to take over her training, Mindy. I think I have finally found the Olympic medalist for the next games! Come, Tammy.”
“My name – Tracy!” She was panting from the exertion.
“Of course it is. Come over here, we need to go over your schedule and training.”
Mindy watched ruefully. She had had dreams of being the trainer of an Olympean as well, but Martin was the head coach. And, she knew, Tracy would be pushed mercilessly into a training program that would leave little room for anything approaching a normal life. Poor kid!
Tracy, however, was jubilant. Training with Martin, bigger, stronger, with a longer reach, would prepare her for real combat much better than fencing with Mindy and the other beginners would. Her muscles, already well-honed, had responded to the new regime and she now had strong, supple wrists and tendons like wires running along her forearms. However, a recent conversation with Neil had set up doubts. He had made sure to bump into her in a fairly secluded spot on campus, as she was heading home, and raised the question of engaging in another martial art as well as fencing.
“Why? Surely I’m getting enough training right now?” Tracy had countered.
“Sure, in one single form of combat. You need to be able to turn your mind into a fighting computer, where you can read the intent of a foeman whether they come at you with bare hands or weapon. There is a group practicing kendo that you could join, or maybe you need to do some tai chi. But you do need to diversify.”
Neil’s answer had been to sweep her legs from under her with a kick, then drop on her with both knees, winding her. As she lay gasping for air, he had picked her up, propped her against his knee and rhythmically massaged her solar plexus.
“That’s why. You need to see intent even when it is only a fleeting thought.”
“The only reason,” she had gasped when she could speak again, “that you could do that was because I trusted you.”
Neil had grinned. “Sure, and how will you know a traitor from a loyal follower until the moment when the treachery is revealed?”
“But I barely have time for anything else right now. Between the fencing and the Sunday outings with Miss Jonker and my mom, and the research for my essay, and the walks with Julian...”
“Julian? You’re seeing Julian?” Neil had not been pleased, she could tell.
“Yes, we’ve got so much in common and he loves walking round the marshes and spotting birds and composing new melodies based on their songs…”
“Now there’s something more important than saving a world.” Neil had gotten up and walked off before she could respond to that. Since then she hadn’t seen him or heard from him, and although it worried her a little, she was, indeed, as she had said, very busy.
The essay she was working on, a holiday assignment for extra credits in English, entailed long hours in the library as she tried to get all the facts related to the founding of the village that would later become their town. The problem was that many of the sources seemed to be far removed in time from the dates they claimed to report, and so were open to interpretation, and she had in fact found at least two people who were reported as being the first mayors.
And of course, the time she spent in Julian’s company was magical, and she grudged any moments away from that. He was a silent companion, but not remote. She felt, when she was with him, that he was communing with her in some elemental fashion, without words, but with small gestures, looks, a trill on his flute that made her aware of a feeling, an atmosphere in the air. She knew it was strange to even think that way, that it smacked of the mystical, but it was nevertheless true.
Their souls, she felt, were connected in some way.
And then, too, there was the fact that when he touched her hand or smiled, her heart stopped and her breath caught and she felt her knees weaken. She was attracted to him in such a sensual way that she knew if he laid hands on her in lust, she would allow him to do whatever he pleased with her. This was a new and strange feeling for her, as she had never been able to understand what the other girls spoke about when they exchanged confidences about how some boy could just look at them and they would fall. Now she knew, only too well.
Yet, he remained perfectly gentlemanly, talking to her about music, art, dance, the place of the artist in society and the importance of art to the human spirit, and never showing that he desired her in that way. Yet, when he looked at her, sometimes when he thought she wasn’t looking, she caught a look of longing, of yearning, instantly veiled when he thought she had noticed.
Maybe she’d have to make the first move?
Her mom and Miss Jonker had struck up a firm friendship as well, spending Sunday afternoons listening to the music, watching Tracy move to it, and sipping mulled wine or Earl Grey tea, depending on their mood. She wasn’t sure what they talked about, but they had long conversations that left both of them smiling.
In a way she was glad that they had found each other as friends. Since her dad’s death her mom had smiled all too little. And, she had to admit, it relieved her mind of the worry about what would happen to her mom if she, Tracy, should vanish. If she died in the unknown land, she would surely be dead here too, and how her mother would handle that was worrying. Now at least, there would be a friend to lean on. Simplistic, she knew, but a small comfort.
Anyway, as she walked home after the latest fencing practice session, she was thinking of nothing but the ache in her muscles and the new move Martin had shown her, and all the other thoughts gave way before the weariness of bone and muscle. She was so deeply lost in thought that when Julian stepped out in front of her she actually did not see him until she walked into him, a solid thump that knocked them both off their feet.
“Oh God, I’m sorry, I didn’t see you!”
“Yes, I realize that now. Let me help you up.” Julian, who had seemingly bounced back onto his feet, took her hand and pulled her up. She stood, swaying, weary, aware only of his strong arms and his dark hair falling on either side of his face, his hypnotic eyes and soft mouth, and without thinking she stretched her mouth up and kissed him.
For a long moment there was no response from him, and she drew back, ready to step back and apologise, and then his arms tightened around her, he bent his head an claimed her lips again, uttering the softest of moans as he did so. The kiss was everything a kiss should be. His lips were soft, yet insistent, his tongue darted briefly, teased and then gave way to his lips again, lips that demanded a response, that promised passion and pleasure to come while delivering both now.
When he finally released her, she was breathless and so was he.
“Oh wow.” She opened her eyes and looked into his.
“As you say, oh wow. I’ve been w-wanting to do that for the longest time.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Uncertainty about how you felt, fear of rejection, fear of the future.” He took her hand, and placed it over his heart, holding it there with his own. “The first time I saw you I felt this stop, and then start again, and ever since then it has beaten with only one purpose – to keep me alive for you.”
“What?” She wanted to hear it again, the courtly words, words from another time, surely not what a modern boy said to a modern girl as a declaration of love.
He smiled. “I love you, Tracy, and I have from w-when I first saw you.”
“So have I.”
With a mocking smile he said: “Loved yourself from the first moment…okay, okay.“, as she raised a threatening fist, “I’m sorry, I’ve never done this kind of thing before.”
“Me too. And I’m not sure how it goes but I know that what you said the first time was real. You’re not like the other guys at school, and the girls, who keep sending those silly text messages or going ‘I heart you’. What you said about your heart stopping, then starting again, that’s what it feels like. That’s what I feel like. When I’m near you it’s like I stop breathing, yet somehow your breath enters me and keeps me alive. Oh, damn, I wish I was a poet so I could say it better.”
Julian stepped back, lifted the flute from his pocket and started playing, a song that was them, the longing, the breathlessness, the passion, the quiet, the love – all of it pouring out in a wave that lifted Tracy’s feet and set her dancing. Yes, she thought, dancing. Not just movement, but true interpretation of the music, of its soul, of her soul and Julian’s soul. For what seemed like hours he played and she danced, and then the music drew her into his arms and his lips relinquished the flute and claimed hers. But even as the passion of the kiss grew, they became aware of a disapproving audience of two.
Julian let her go and she looked into her mother’s face, and her teacher’s face, and saw the disappointment in the one and the mistrust in the other. She was in for it now, she knew, and she thought longingly of fighting a simple war to rescue a kingdom. Maybe she would slip over now, and leave all these complications behind, but then she realized that she couldn’t, even if she wanted to. She had not yet found a sword, nor the crystal. Julian put one arm around her, and drew her close.
“W-well, now you know.” he said.
“Know what exactly? That you’ve been seducing my daughter behind my back? That you enjoy underage girls? That you’re a pervert who had better get his hands off my daughter right now, as we are going home right now, and if I see you anywhere near her I’m calling the police.” Tracy’s mom grabbed her arm and pulled at her, but Tracy did not go along. And in such a tug-of-war, she was bound to win. Her mom stumbled forward and nearly fell, but Julian caught her and steadied her.
“I love your daughter, and I w-want to keep her safe. I have never kissed her before, today was the first time, and it w-was just a kiss. I promise that I am neither perverted nor a predator, I simply adore her.”
Her mom shook his hands off. “She’s a child!”
Tracy broke in. “No, I’m not! Julian is only two years older than I am! If I was dating him in high school you wouldn’t say a word. I’m seventeen, and I’ll soon be eighteen! And you’re being irrational. You love him and you loved the music we make together, well, this is part of it. I love him! And nothing you do or say can change that.”
“Stop! Stop! He’s nineteen? Only nineteen? You’re only nineteen! You let me believe you were older and cared for me!” Miss Jonker was nearly hysterical as she screamed this at him. She was backing away from the pathway, stumbling on the grass lawn of a neighbor.
And then Julian raised the flute, played three notes, lowered it and said in a quiet voice: “I think we are all getting too emotional about this. Please calm down, take some deep breaths. W-we’re going to your house, Mrs. Pike, and w-we’ll talk about it quietly there. Christine, I’m sorry, I do care for you, let me help you to the path, there’s a rough place just here. Be careful.”
The two older women, strangely, did calm down. It was almost magical, the way they responded to his voice and his manner. As the group walked to the house, Tracy whispered to him: “Did you hypnotize them? I thought we’d have a shouting match for the rest of the afternoon.”
“Not really, I’ve just always had this talent for persuading people to do w-what I w-want, another reason why I didn’t want to make a move on you. I w-wouldn’t have been sure that it was you really in love with me, or me persuading you to love me.”
“That’s the most romantic thing you’ve said so far.”
“I know – now let’s talk to these two and persuade them together.”