“To know one thing perfectly is to know all the world.”
– Extract from “Ten Sun”, famous swordsmanship manual of Saint Felipe the Duellist
Montfort was a dead place.
It was a pretty little town by the river, near sunlit woods rich with fruits and game. The harvests were lush, the weather good and the taxes low. The town was close enough to the good road north for peddler caravans to pass, but not important enough to pay it attention when wars swept through. There were some who might have called Montfort a taste of the Heavens in the mortal realm, but to Laurence it was bloody torture. Nothing ever happenedhere, save for the same things as last year with some slight deviation. Someone’s son married someone’s daughter, the same feasts were thrown on the same days and the same peddlers came out to sell the same trinkets.
Laurence thought it must be the deadest place in the world, like an apple with crinkling flesh but only dust at the heart of it. None in Montfort seemed to agree with her, though. She was the cradle maker’s daughter, and she was proud of her father’s work – he made these beautifully sculpted cradles entirely by his own hands, even cutting the tree himself – but she had no interest in taking up his trade. Neither did she want to follow in her mother’s footsteps, to run a household and raise children. And they tried, they did, but they worried that without a trade or a family she be imperiled when they passed.
There were only so many times Laurence could be introduced to young men or asked to help in the workshop before wanting to scream.
And she knew what she wanted to do, she did. Laurence might only be thirteen, but she’d felt her calling: she was going to be a swordswoman. A three-sun duellist had blown through town, when she’d been younger, and she still remembered the way his blade shone in the sun as he demonstrated his skill for the townsfolk. She wanted it for herself, the masterfulness he’d shown that day. It was why she had begun to chop firewood for her family and the neighbours’ as well – a swordswoman would need muscle – and she had traded with the blacksmith for him to make a sword out of scrap iron. It was not much, but she could practice swinging with it and wasn’t that a start?
She’d thought her parents had made their peace with it, but she’d been wrong.
“It is time to set aside that silly toy,” Mother firmly told her, on a summer morning. “You will be a young woman soon, we can no longer indulge your fancies.”
“It is not a fancy,” Laurence bit out, mortified. “And I am not playing.”
Yet Mother was unmoved, and when she appealed to her father he was of a similar mind.
“There is no need for a swordswoman in Montfort, Laurence,” Father told her. “It will not feed you, child, and we have not had a militia since before my birth. I will not force you to follow my trade or wed, but you must find some sort of occupation.”
It was unfair and they understood nothing, but Laurence bit her tongue. They loved her, and she them, so she would not speak words she’d regret. Instead she bade her time, and when the caravan came in the weeks before the summer solstice she spoke with the hard-eyed woman who led it.
“You hire guards, I hear,” Laurence boldly said, and showed her sword. “I would offer my services.”
She kept the blade in the sheath she’d cobbled together, so that the older woman would not see it was iron instead of steel. The merchant looked as if she would laugh, for a moment, but mercifully she did not.
“You want to leave Montfort?” she asked.
“I do,” Laurence fervently replied.
“I would have too, at your age,” the woman said. “But I have no need for more guards.”
Laurence’s heart fell.
“I’m told you work hard, though,” the merchant said. “Chop wood and fetch water. I could use another pair of hands to handle chores while we travel.”
It paid with nothing but meals and a roof, though Laurence was promised coppers if she helped move merchandise and raise stalls when they passed through towns. It was not the glorious beginning Laurence had wanted, but it was a beginning.
When the caravan left a sennight after the solstice fair, she left with it.
It was months of hard work without the slightest glamour to it. Laurence walked besides the wagons and did as she was told, sometimes scraping together a few coppers always spent too soon. She tried to talk some of the caravan guards into teaching her a few tricks, but they looked down on her. Just a servant, they said, and that she had no business pretending to be like them. The sole one who warmed to her was an older boy with Thierry, and it turned out it was not the metal kind of sword he was interested in teaching her to handle. She scorned him harshly when he grew too insistent, which further soured the caravan guards on her when a reprimand came from the caravan mistress in the wake of the scuffle.
It was in the town of Souquet that she found her opportunity. Well, her and half a dozen of the guards. Souquet was but a small town on the side of the road in southern Lyonis, one rumoured to be on terrible terms with the lady ruling it from a nearby estate, but it had come to host a duellist. A five-sun duellist, Laurence overheard in the tavern, and one who was about to open a school in town with the local lady’s own blessing. There would be a public test on the morrow that all were invited to attend, and among those who did well Master Guillaume – the duellist – would choose pupils. The test was at midday and the caravan left with dawn, however, so Laurence had a choice to make.
The months on the road had not quelled her conviction: she took the chance without hesitation. It was fate for her to be chosen, though she rather hoped that fate did not end up saddling her with Thierry as a fellow pupil. He was among the six guards that left the caravan to try their luck the same as her. The guards had some silver, though, so that night they slept in rooms after a nice meal while Laurence swept the floors and did the dishes in exchange for being allowed to sleep in the stables afterwards. She even had to mop up when an old drunk threw up on the floor, some ragged one-handed fantassin that was said to wander around drunkenly during the day and return on evenings for his drink. Laurence had seen he had a well-worn scabbard and figured his spirits might just have been broken in war so out of pity she dragged him into the stables too, in the stall next to hers.
The test came at noon, as had been ordained, and Master Guillaume strolled in with the air of a proper duellist. He was a tall and muscled man, his cuirass and coat pristine while his broad-rimmed hat was extravagantly large and the swords at his hip bejeweled. He played to his audience, which consisted of mostly of travellers and would-be-pupils like Laurence. Few townsfolk came, and all those wary. Laurence had overhead last night while working that the duellists’ endorsement by Lady Ninon had the townspeople suspicious of him. After a speech and some displays, Master Guillaume got on with presenting his test.
“I am a practical man, but I have studied deep of the philosophies of my art,” Master Guillaume said. “And so I cut to the heart of it with this test. Footwork and technique can be taught, but swordsmanship needs one thing of all its students: the willingness to cut.”
And so the duellist had a menagerie led out into a pen he’d erected in the public square. There were two sickly pigs in there, several hens past their prime and even an aging dog gone blind. Laurence had thought there would be fighting or perhaps a test of pain to measure their determination but it was not that the duellist asked of them.
“To all those that would become my students, I give you this task: cut and cause death,” Master Guillaume ordered.
There was rippling unease in the small crowd for a long moment before the first woman stepped up with a hard laugh and bared a blade. After that it was as if a dam had broken, nearly all of the fourteen people who’d come to be students stepping up. Laurence lingered with the two who backed out, hesitating for a time, but then she forced herself. Already the pigs had been butchered under the assessing gaze of Master Guillaume, the hens running away as the dog began to growl in a corner. Laurence unsheathed her iron sword and stepped into the pen, but she could not make herself go through with it. What kind of a sick test was this?
She was to be a duellist, not a butcher. A sword should not be used for the likes of this. Yet she was the last who’d gone into the pen not to have struck any animal, and now all that remained was a hen bleeding out from a blind hack at her wing. All eyes were on her, even Master Guillaume’s. Hands trembling, Laurence strode back out of the pen.
She did not know who started laughing, but the sound was as a lash against her back as she fled back to the tavern so she might hide.
All was not lost, Laurence learned. One night’s labour in the tavern had turned into a way to have a roof over her head and the coppers she was saving up were not meant to get her back to Montfort. Master Guillaume had, while scornful, still informed her that though she was not to be one of his true pupils should she save enough coin she could pay for the right to sit in on his lessons. And she wanted to, for though the test had been ugly the duellist was said to have chosen his students with care. He’d not picked those who butchered the most beasts but those who had struck most ably, most precisely. It had been a test to weed out the fumblers as much as the faint-hearted, the townsfolk gossiped. Thierry had made the cut, along with three more of the caravan guards. They made up a significant part of the twelve pupils chosen, so when one day Thierry greeted her loudly by saying, ‘ah, but is this not the fool who cut nothing?’ the mockery took.
It was not repeated by the people of Souquet, who had become sullenly resentful of the duellist school ever since Lady Ninon leant coin to raise a hall for the duellists even as she still refused to help fund the town militia, but it was how all of Master Guillaume’s students had taken to greeting her. Somehow, Laurence came to grasp that mocking her had become one of the bonds that kept their lot together. The lot of them were certainly prone to quarrelling among themselves, and with townsfolk as well. Yet Laurence would not be cowed and so she put her back into the work that saw coppers slowly accumulating in her bag.
Work always came easier to her when it was a fight, and it was a fight she had on her hands in Souquet.
The days and nights passed, somehow both too quick and too slow, and Laurence did not slacken in her training even after gruelling days of work. Nighttime in the stables saw her take up her iron sword and try to mimic forms she’d seen the duellist pupils use during the day, and though it was frustrating she thought she was beginning to grasp some parts. The one-handed drunk she’d helped on her first night disagreed, and often made fun of her from the stall where he had continued to come in to sleep. Laurence had taken to bringing him the scraps of her meal, since he blew all his coin on drink and she’d never seen him eat otherwise. His name, he told her, was Ortega.
“Sounds like a surname,” Laurence said.
“It is,” the drunk agreed. “Lost the other one.”
It was the kind of things drunks said, she figured. She had no idea what the man did during the day, it was like he just went wandering off. Ortega was usually decent enough company, but sometimes his teasing got on her nerves. And one night, after a day where some of the pupils had come at the tavern just so they could drink a single ale and pass an hour ordering to fetch things, she lost her temper when he mocked her guard as being more open than a barn door.
“If you can do better, why don’t you show me?” she snarled. “Unless that sword you’re lugging about is just rust in a scabbard.”
“It’s worthless,” Ortega shrugged. “And your Master Guillaume, he’s all over the place. The stance is Miroir Verdant, those monastery monklings, but he drills his pupils the same way the Sparrow School in Cantal supposedly does.”
She started in surprise.
“Were you really a fantassin?” she eagerly asked.
He bore no suns, so he could not be a duellist, but there were others ways to make a living with a blade.
“I fought in battles,” Ortega said. “A long time ago. I did not care for it.”
His tone had become rougher near the end and Laurence winced in sympathy. He must have been on the bad end of a rout, to become like this. She could not ask him to teach her, not if it was going to get him to drink himself into the grave. So when he offered a few words about how to fix her guard before retreating into his empty stall with a bottle of cheap swill, she did not ask for more. However it was he’d lost his hand, she doubted it’d been pleasant. Instead she spent her days working and her evenings practicing, counting down the days until she could afford to pay for proper lessons. There was some trouble when a young boy disappeared after having gone to fetch water one afternoon, and Laurence heard of it for a week when townsfolk came to vent over drinks.
It was not the first disappearance, she heard. Over the last few years six more children had gone, taken by bandits or animals, and the town was boiling over with anger. People wanted a militia to make the region safer but they needed the coin and permission of Lady Ninon to raise one and she’d denied both. The mayor had tried to convince Master Guillaume to go looking, but he’d refused and it had only embittered the town to the presence of the duelling school. Coin that could have been spent making them all safer instead, folk said. Laurence thought it unfair of the lady to behave this way, but it was not her trouble and she would not go borrowing it.
She would only stay in Souquet until she had learned enough to be taken on as a caravan guard and she could join one to find a better school to study under.
Laurence was only three coppers away from her first lesson when the world went mad. Just after sundown some servants from the estate came running, claiming that Lady Ninon had been murdered by some assassin and that no one was safe. Her guards, they claimed, had gone mad with grief and now knew neither friend nor foe. They’d killed other servants, some of which had family in town. The mayor was furious and called for all able men and women to take up what arms they could, which was trouble. Laurence dipped out of the tavern to go take her things, just in case, but when she went to the stable she found people already there. Three men, including a smiling Thierry who had her bag in his hands and was riffling through it.
“How dare you,” Laurence hissed.
One of them looked guilty, but none chastised.
“We heard you’ve been stealing from patrons,” Thierry informed her in a righteous tone. “Looks like it’s true.”
He was shaking the coppers she’d painstakingly saved up, a smug smile on his face. Laurence shifted. They were large and she was not, all three armed when her iron sword was still in the hay.
“They’ll string you all up for thieves,” she bit out. “If you don’t drop that and-”
“Who will?” Thierry smiled. “Lady Ninon, the corpse? Or a pack of shopkeepers and an idiot mayor? Best you shut up now, Laurence, before our school takes offence to your accusations.”
“Could be trouble,” one of the others muttered. “All this for coppers?”
“One thing’s still true, Thierry,” Laurence snarled. “I would still rather fuck the wagon, splinters and all.”
Ugly fury streaked across the boy’s face and he threw down her coin, reaching for the sword at his hip. Before he could bare it, though, someone stumbled through the stable doors. Ortega, still messy and unshaven and stinking of wine, came to a sudden halt as he took in the situation. He had a slender longsword at his hip, and the same old battered scabbard slung across his back.
“Run,” Laurence hissed. “Get help.”
“Enough,” the largest of the three men snarled, unsheathing his blade. “You, the drunk. Drop to the floor. And you, girl-”
Casually, moving with unearthly lightness, Ortega punched the man in the throat. He dropped like a sack of flour, choking, and it was with calm eyes that the harmless drunk Laurence had befriended considered the other two.
“Take him and get out,” Ortega said, tone even.
Not even the slight slurring of the words was enough to entirely unmake the impression that single casual strike had made.
“This isn’t over, cripple,” Thierry sneered.
The other man, warily, picked up their accomplice.
“I know your type, boy,” Ortega snorted. “You’ll die young and ugly. Hurry out of here and to that end.”
Angry as hissing cats they were, but the duellist pupils still retreated with their moaning friend in tow. In shock, Laurence was staring at the man she’d thought she had pegged.
“What,” she began, and stopped.
She had so many questions she was choking on them.
“Ran a little late,” Ortega shrugged. “Ninon was a better enchantress than I’d figured, and those guards were mad in the head. Time to leave, girl. Take your things, we’re heading east. Heard interesting rumours about a town in Brabant.”
“Why do you think I’ll go with you?” Laurence replied, falling back to the comfort of defiance.
“Those little shits will beat you and rob you blind,” Ortega said. “You know it, I know it.”
“I want to learn the sword,” she insisted. “And for that-”
“So you’ll learn the sword,” the one-handed drunk said, tone entirely sober. “I’ll teach you to the best of my abilities, I swear it on the Gods Above.”
She shivered, for that was not an oath lightly taken. Yet she was not of a nature easily moved.
“Why?” she asked. “Why now, why make the offer? I did nothing but wield a broom and wash dishes for week.”
“Because you did not cut frivolously,” Ortega said with a smile, “and stayed true to yourself in the days that followed.”
Laurence hesitated, then bit her lip and nodded. She shoved back her coin purse into her bag and snatched up her sheathed sword, turning to tell the dr- her teacher now, she supposed, that she was ready to leave. Instead, she caught sight of tall silhouette strolling into the stables. Master Guillaume idly tossed his large hat to the side and offered them a toothy smile. Behind him, crowded near the door, where his twelve pupils. Thierry was among the closest, grinning nastily.
“I hear that you assaulted my pupils while they apprehended a thief,” the duellist idly said.
“Liar,” Laurence snarled. “You fucking liar.”
Ortega cocked his head to the side.
“You’re not a fool, so why?” he asked.
“Reputation is a fragile thing,” Master Guillaume said. “It must be carefully tended to, lest it wilt.”
Laurence’s would-be teacher frowned.
“If you bare that blade,” Ortega said, “you’ll be a man willing to kill the innocent for the sake of reputation.”
“What else is worth killing for?” Master Guillaume laughed.
“And you lot?” Ortega asked. “Do none of you balk?”
“Teach them their place, Master,” Thierry called out.
Others jeered and laughed, and though some looked uncomfortable none objected.
“So be it,” Ortega shrugged. “Name yourself, duellist.”
The tall Alamans jolted in surprise, eyeing the cripple with some degree of wariness.
“You have a sun?” he asked.
“I do,” Ortega said. “Speak, before your honour wiltsalong with your sense.”
Anger did away with Master Guillaume’s hesitation.
“I am Guillaume of Sarcella, and I bear five suns,” the duellist said, hand on his sword. “I have studied under Mistress Joannie Sandrault of the Sandrault school and earned all my marks in killing duels.”
“And now you, cripple,” he said. “So I might have you buried under a name.”
“I am Saint Ortega,” the one-handed drunk simply said. “I studied under many masters, killed many men. I named my school Lament.”
Master Guillaume flushed red with anger or fear, baring his blade without waiting for the beginning.
“Blades out,” he screamed at his pupils. “All of you, help me with-”
Laurence froze, a gentle hand being laid atop her head as Ortega smiled down at her.
“Watch closely,” he said. “And listen. Try to hear the Breath.”
He unsheathed his sword, then, and moved. As if bespelled, Laurence did not move a hair. Her eyes were wide, her breath so distant it did not feel as her own. She felt Ortega – who had named himself Saint, those hallowed few who stood beyond even the tenth sun – move before his limbs did, a smooth and lazy river that swept forward. Over the span of fifteen breaths, thirteen men were killed with a single stroke each.
Laurence de Montfort had found herself a teacher at last.
They’d fled under cover of dark, hitting the road east. To Laurence’s displeasure, the drunkenness had not been playacting – when they stopped, it was to drink in taverns or buy drinks from taverns. Ortega, who refused her the right to call him a saint, spent coin on drink freely but was stingy with lodgings and food. Still, even though they often ate slop Laurence never went to bed with an empty belly.
“Why are we headed to Brabant?” she asked. “What’s there?”
“A beautiful man whose voice bewitches all who hear it,” Ortega said. “I believe him one of the fae, slipped out of Arcadia and making sport of mortals. They say he sows discord for amusement, ordering families to fight for his love while he holds courts with animals in the woods.”
“Fairies aren’t real,” Laurence flatly told him.
“They aren’t?” Ortega asked, sounding pleased. “Lovely to hear. I expect I’ll be getting my name back any day now, then.”
Laurence gaped at him, for he seemed entirely serious, but aside from the jibe he gave her nothing when she pressed. Instead he began to train her, which she’d been awaiting eagerly. Only he did not teach her guards or stances, but instead the ‘proper way to walk’. And when she failed to do as he did, he threw pinecones at her.
“Duels are won and lost on distance,” Ortega said. “And you are, again, dead.”
Laurence was beginning to despise pinecones. But she was not a quitter, and she kept at it. And though he was always drunk, the few times he’d sparred with her she’d not come even remotely close to landing a blow. She’d noticed one detail, though.
“Why do you always use the same sword?” Laurence asked. “The plain steel one.”
“Did I not tell you the other one is worthless?” Ortega smiled.
“You say a lot of things that are only true in a twisty way,” she frankly replied.
“It is worthless to me, though I paid a great deal for it,” Ortega conceded. “I keep it with me only so that I might one day finish a conversation.”
“So you’re not going to teach me a two-sword style,” Laurence muttered. “Good to know. So when am I going to meet your other students?”
“My other students?” he repeated, sounding surprised.
“You said you had a school,” Laurence reminded him. “Called it ‘Lament’.”
He laughed, belly-deep and genuinely delighted.
“My dear,” Ortega said, “you are half this school, and speak with the other.”
She grimaced. So half the school was drunkards, then.
“I thought schools were supposed to have lots of people,” she said.
“Most do,” Ortega agreed. “But I was, in my youth, known as the lone swordsman.”
Laurence almost mocked the shitty sobriquet, until she felt the way the world shivered at the words. No, he’d not been the lone swordsman. He’d been the Lone Swordsman. Chosen. Ortega had been of the Chosen, once upon a time. Awe almost still her tongue. Almost but not quite.
“Was,” she said. “No longer?”
“Now I am a drunk,” Ortega grinned, raising a bottle. “Much better, in my opinion. But it is enough of me, my dear. Close your eyes, we will try for the Breath again.”
“Again?” Laurence whined. “It never works.”
“You felt the shiver when I spoke the Choosing, yes?” Ortega smiled. “You are not deaf, then, simply obstinate. We will break through your block.”
She wore the eyecloth and tried to feel what was in front of her, but to no avail. She bruised her forehead on an oak tree. Master Ortega said that hearing the Breath was what separated wheat from chaff, that no one could become a Saint without it, but Laurence simply could not. She thought perhaps she had on that first night, when she’d felt him move before he did as he cut down those men, but not since. The failure was frustrating.
“You cannot force it,” Ortega chided her.
Their campfire was warm and the stars bright above them. It would have been a beautiful night, if not for the anger in her belly.
“What’s it even supposed to be?” Laurence bit out.
“The breath of the world,” he replied, suddenly serious. “Everything breathes, Laurence. Most of us stumble through Creation blindly, but for the few who can listen? It is… beyond what words can explain. As if you suddenly cease to move against the current of the river and instead move with it.”
The simple reverence in the way he spoke gutted her frustration.
“How did you do it?” she asked. “Learn how to listen?”
“I tried many ways,” Ortega said. “I was young and skilled and thought I could force understanding. I bargained to learn the sword under the Prince of Nightfall, at great cost, but it was not enough. I thought perhaps an artefact would allow me to surpass myself, but it was utter failure – and that debt is yet unpaid. In the end, Laurence, I learned to listen after I buried my father.”
She clenched her fist.
“Grief?” she roughly asked.
“In a way,” Ortega smiled. “I drank myself unconscious after, and in the moment just before I fell unconscious I heard… everything. As if a veil had been lifted.”
Laurence’s eyes moved to the bottle in his hand, horrified.
“My body is too loud, you see,” he said. “I need something to silence it, and only then can I… drift with the current.”
“I don’t even like wine,” Laurence confessed.
“It is a different path for everyone,” Ortega dismissed. “You will find your own, my dear. There can be no gain in trying to fit your boots to my footsteps.”
And on they went, following the road wherever it took them. In Brabant they slew the fae, Laurence holding back a thrall while her teacher tore through its veils and took its head, and from there they moved south. In Aisne they fought a tax collector who turned into a wolf at night and ate travellers, in Bayeux they broke a curse that made maidens drink the blood of their beloved. In Orne they took the head of a lord who raped young men and had them hung as thieves afterwards.
“He wasn’t magic,” Laurence quietly said as they fled afterwards. “Not like the others. Nothing made him like that.”
“He made himself like that,” Ortega replied. “There are three enemies with which no truce can be had, Laurence: time, love and evil. Do not forget that. The only one of these that can be struck down we must, wherever we go.”
For two years they followed the road, and with every day Laurence felt herself… sharpen. As if the travelling was whittling away at her, taking away the impurities. She was a fine sword now, good enough to shame even two-sun duellists in display duels, but it was not enough. Master Ortega kept trying to teach her how to hear the Breath, and she kept failing. They tried everything. She was put under a spell that took all her senses away from her, she was made to drink a brew that gave her strange and wondrous dreams, she was made to fight nine duellists in a row – and there almost touched it, she felt, but not quite – and twice she ran until she fell unconscious.
“These are not failures,” Master Ortega insisted. “You learn the limits of yourself. The broader your mind, the broader your sword.”
Laurence agreed, of course, but knew better in the deep of her own mind. She must try harder. Yet in the month just past their second year together, as the first winter snows began to near, Master Ortega told her that they must head to Iserre.
“Why?” Laurence asked. “That rumour about the manticore was from Aequitan, by the lakes.”
“I have a debt I must settle,” Ortega softly smiled. “It will be my fiftieth nameday soon, you see.”
“Fae?” Laurence asked, hand dropping to her sword.
She would not let the creatures take her teacher from her, no matter what bargain had been struck.
“Oh no,” Saint Ortega smiled. “Something altogether more dangerous. She is known as the Ranger.”