She gently took his head in both of her hands and turned it toward her so that he couldn’t look away.
“Listen to me, Palan” she said with a look of intensity. “I know you have doubts, but I’m telling you that you can do it.” She looked into his eyes for a long moment.
“I am unsure…” he started.
Wrapping her arms around him, she pulled him close. “I know,” she said in a whisper, smoothing his hair back.
“What if I fail?”
“You will not.”
“What if I do?”
“Listen,” she said forcefully, pushing him away. “I said you can do it.”
She placed her hands on his shoulders as much to keep him at a distance as to touch him.
Staring into his eyes, she asked, “Would I lie to you?”
He hung his head.
“No,” replied Palan, but it lacked conviction.
Groaning in exasperation, she took him by the hand and half led, half dragged him out of her bedroom into the large courtyard outside. It was cobbled with rounded paving stones and a huge oak grew in its center. The canopy of leaves above filtered out much of the harsh sunlight.
Against the tree leaned a great sword. Curiously unadorned, the blade, as long as a man was tall, was utilitarian in every way.
She let go of him and he stood there, shoulders drooped, and eyes downcast.
Taking the hilt of the great sword, lacking the strength to lift it, she let the point of the weapon drag on the ground as she brought it to him.
“There,” she said, positioning his hands on the hilt. “Now, remember what I told you?”
“That I can’t parry. That distance and the lunge are my only defense.”
“Right, and what else?”
“Keep the blade moving. Momentum is power.”
“Is that all?”
“No. Timing,” he said, a smile coming to his lips, “timing is everything.”
“Very good. Are you ready?”
He nodded again.
She waved her hand.
At first there was nothing, but then four man-shapes slowly began to take shape and solidify. They were rough-looking types, dirty, with unkempt beards, and they wielded and wore a chaotic collection of light armor and weapons.
The corners of Palan’s mouth turning down, he adjusted his grip on the handle of the great sword and began to turn, the big blade lifting off the ground as he did so. Increasing the speed of the spin, the tip of the sword hissed audibly as it cut through the air.
Still the ragged men advanced. One, an elder with a gray beard, moved his lips endlessly as if speaking. He swung a flail — three lengths of chain attached to a handle — overhead. Another, a smallish man with shifting eyes, held a dagger in one hand and a short sword in the other. The third, a rotund man with a big black beard, carried a hatchet and shield, but the one that caught his attention was the forth, a spearman, the only adversary who could match his reach. He would have to watch that spear.
Timing… As the great sword arced, pointing toward his adversaries, Palan darted toward them, flipping the huge blade up overhead, and pulling it down and around. In what amounted to a lunge the length of three men, he used all the strength in his shoulders to slam his weapon full into the midriff of the flail wielder.
The tip sliced through. A snapping sound. Bits and pieces of armor flew. Red blood sprayed. Jerking sideways, the old man fell to the ground, a deep, red gash across his chest.
Momentum… Palan carried the swing through, and when the blade pointed away, he retreated under it.
“Well done,” she shouted, clapping and jumping about in her excitement.
He flashed her a grin.
Still they came on, their faces expressionless, as if they were dead.
In that manner peculiar to great swordsmen, Palan lunged in once more. His target, the rotund man, braced his shield. The vibration of impact transferred down the length of the blade and stung his hands.
The crack of wood snapping… Biting through the soft iron banding — splinters flying — the great sword slammed into the fat man’s shoulder and stuck!
Running back as fast as he could — yanking with all his might on the hilt — he pulled it free.
With shifty-eyes and the spearman already rushing in to take advantage, it was all he could do to unceremoniously retreat, trailing the sword behind him like a child dragging a stick. It clanged as it bounced over the rough cobbles.
Building up to top speed, skidding to a stop, Palan let the heavy sword continue on. Grasping it with both hands, whipping it about, he caught shifty-eyes but a pace away. The impact knocked the small man to the ground as if he were smitten by the hand of a giant.
But it was too late. Charging, all of his weight behind that needle-sharp point, the spearman drove the head of his weapon deep into Palan’s chest.
He stood there, unsteady. Dropping his great sword, he stared first at the spearman, then at the spear haft that protruded from his ribs.
The ruffians’ outlines wavered for a moment, then they were gone, along with Palan’s injury.
She came from behind him and wrapped her arm in his.
“You know,” she said, “you don’t have to go. You can stay here forever.”
Palan looked at her. His expression changed with every heart beat as conflicting emotions struggled for supremacy.
Finally, after a long while, he said, “I’m ready.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
He lowered his eyes and sighed. “Yes.”
Slowly, deliberately, she reached up, put her hands behind his head and pulled him toward her. Light as the brush of a feather at first, her kiss grew more passionate with every passing moment. Embracing as if trying to merge with each other, they gently swayed.
Gasping for air, they stopped.
She rested her head on his chest. “I believe in you.”
“I know,” he replied.
“Come back to me,” she said.
The colors of the courtyard blurred and combined…
“… ye addled, boy?” said the graybeard, a flail in his hand, “I said we’ll be takin’ that sword, ‘n yer pouch as well.”
It all came back to him now: he was on a dirt road a mile or two from Dargon, and these four had come out of the trees to block his way. They were all there; graybeard, shifty-eyes, the rotund one, and the spearman.
“There be four ‘o us,” continued the old one, waving a hand at his comrades for emphasis, “just throw yer things o’er here, and we’ll let ya’s be.”
“Yah,” snickered shifty-eyes, “we’ll letcha be.”
Flipping the great sword off his shoulder, Palan began to turn. Soon the tip of the blade hissed as it cut through the air.
“Well,” said graybeard, “ya asked fer it. Get ‘im.”
The other three didn’t move. They stared at each other and their leader with uncertainty.
“Damn, he be only one,” he said. Graybeard hesitated for a moment. “He ain’t e’en right in the head. ‘e probably lifted ‘at swords from someones ‘imself. Looks, I’ll be doin’ it.”
“He bloody well looks like ‘e knows what ‘e’s doin’ to me,” whispered the rotund one to the spearman out of the corner of his mouth.
Cautiously, the old man advanced toward the spinning swordsman, the flail at the ready.
Dashing under his huge blade, wielding it up and around, Palan lunged a full three spans. The blade cleaved into graybeard and sent him stumbling into a heap.
Not slowing a bit — he spun about — lunged once more and clipped off the head of the spearman’s weapon.
The three, their eyes wide and their mouths open, froze for a moment, but only a moment. When their wits returned they bolted, dropping anything that might slow them down.
He stopped spinning and watched as they ran through the trees until they disappeared. The old man was moaning, but judging by the pool of blood that he laid in, he wouldn’t suffer much longer.
Palan walked over to a nearby stream and knelt next to it to wash the blood off his sword. Reaching down with a cupped hand to scoop up some water, he started at the reflection he saw there.
It wasn’t his. It was hers.
“Did I startle you?” she asked, her eyes twinkling.
“Maybe a little,” he replied with a grin that quickly faded. “Thank you.”
She was quiet for a long moment while she looked into his eyes. “It’s all you,” she replied.
They reached out to each other, but when his hand touched the water, the resulting ripples dissolved the reflection. He waited for a time, but she did not return.
Hefting the heavy sword over his shoulder, Palan started down the dusty road for Dargon.