THE WEIGHT OF EVERYTHING.
Once upon a time the call to prayer awoke Mirabelle. The clean certainty of faith rang out, the notes rising into the sky like morning birds. Shimmering sheets of heat crashed against her skin like waves on the shore, and she reached to the wide flat bowl of water on the pedestal to her left, scooped up cool water and doused her face and neck with it. She threw on the scarf to cover her head and went to find Asra.
Mirabelle had been privy to state visits which were indolent affairs, fat slabs of indulgence and pomp wrapped around a single conversation which could mean shifts in power or deaths on the battlefield. She was not here as a queen, but a student and Asra’s lessons took different shapes. They would meet in the library in the morning and the garden in the afternoon, their routine broken by the regular adherence to prayer. Mirabelle would bow her head and fall silent, whilst people knelt down and prayed to Allah. She strode to the library. Asra was not there, but a servant passed on an instruction to meet her in the second garden.
Asra had buckled her sword belt, the twin scimitars rested on each hip and she grinned at Mirabelle’s confused frown as she wished her good morning. She had high, fine cheekbones and almond shaped eyes, dark with a self-knowledge, the eyebrows shaped to perfect crescents and her skin held a sleek, dusky gleam where the light fell upon it.
‘I’m not a warrior, Asra.’ She said.
She saw a rack of weapons set against the far wall. A bill, the heavy pole arm favoured by the common man rested next to a spear and a rapier with a carved hand guard. A wooden shield, bound with lengths of dark iron leaned at an angle alongside a short sword with a thin double edged blade.
‘You killed a man, Mirabelle to save your own life. What’s the difference?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle wandered over to the rack and picked up the short sword. What sword play she knew came from observation over experience, but the weapon felt good in her hand.
‘Wouldn’t blunt blades be safer?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra smirked and raised an eyebrow.
‘Yes, but who comes at you with a blunt blade?’ she said.
Mirabelle turned to face her, pointed the sword at Asra and fell into a competent stance.
Asra pointed to her shoulders and knees, barked out to relax the former and bend the latter before she slapped Mirabelle in the small of her back to correct her posture. She told Mirabelle to move the blade slow and watched her in silence. Her hands, warm and strong adjusted her arm and wrist which made the blade feel more natural in her grip.
‘You have knowledge, Mirabelle, but it is useless without intention and will. A sword focuses a mind as a book does.’
Mirabelle kept the point of the blade up as she sighed and swung the sword ahead of her in a slow arc.
‘We’ve the knowledge to know it won’t die by a blade, Asra.’ She said.
Asra told her to aim for the largest part of an opponent. The sword was thin and light, designed to stab and slash in quick flurries of skill.
‘A sword is a tool, the killing comes from the heart and mind.’ She said.
Mirabelle’s reserves of strength and stamina waned with the practice. Her arm ached, but, but the tension pooled in her hips and back as Asra checked her posture and moved her into place.
‘I’m not a swordsman. This insults the men who’ve sworn fealty doesn’t it?’ she said.
Asra looked around her.
‘When night fell, and your guards were outside whilst a man came to murder you, where were they?’
Mirabelle grunted and continued to swing.
‘Where was Eilhu?’
Mirabelle stopped and stared at her.
‘Hunting.’ She said.
‘Where was he?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle’s eyes prickled with unshed tears.
‘I sent him out. Away.’
Mirabelle swallowed, her tongue was fat and thick in her mouth.
‘He knew the woods and he was looking for his mentor.’ She said.
Mirabelle thrust the sword ahead of her, the motion came up from her hips and knees and concluded in a strike which had the flowing snap of competence.
‘I suspected him. I didn’t say but Eilhu knew my concerns.’ She said.
‘You abandoned him? Or did he abandon you?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle shook her head with passion.
‘It wasn’t a matter of abandonment. I wanted the assassin found. I never had to ask Eilhu.’ She said.
‘Ask him what?’
Mirabelle repeated the strike with good form but the transition to a parry proved awkward.
‘To act in my interest.’ She said.
‘Even if it meant capture or death?’
Mirabelle swallowed and lowered the blade. Asra’s hand came up and slapped her across the cheek. Mirabelle flinched from the blow, scuttling away from Asra but she followed her. Mirabelle swung the sword in her direction but Asra ducked beneath it and slapped her again. The blows were light but stinging as Asra’s hand circled around the bones of her right wrist and squeezed, which made the sword fall from Mirabelle’s hand.
Mirabelle bit back her cries of pain and reached for the sword but Asra put her hand on her throat, the fingers biting into the arteries on either side.
‘If you love him despite circumstances, if you believe he lives, then you owe it to him to fight, don’t you?’ she said.
Mirabelle pushed back but Asra slipped from her reach and slapped her again. She cried out and held her hands in front of her face.
‘I can’t. I’m bearing the weight of everything–‘
Asra sighed with disdain and went to grab Mirabelle.
They had been in the garden one afternoon, infected with a wriggling restlessness and drunk on the sight and touch of one another. They fought like cubs, and he had let her exhaust herself against him before Eilhu took her to the grass with a liquid ease, one arm beneath her to cushion her fall as he landed with her. The memory inflamed her and she turned her upper body to one side, grabbed Asra and tossed her to the ground. Asra grunted and rolled onto her side, but her eyes glowed with good humour.
‘See. Heart and mind.’ Asra said.
Mirabelle enjoyed learning, but this was a cruel lesson. Her heart sung with loss but she reached and helped Asra to her feet.
‘You made me act upon a cruel memory Asra.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra bowed from the waist and picked up the sword.
‘If it saves your life, then it is not so cruel.’
Mirabelle ran her tongue over her lips and tasted the fading copper of anguish and violence. She took the sword from Asra.
‘Teach me again?’ she said.