The Duke of Westfields once allied himself with a wizard for protection against the northern raiders. The wizard received his fee, repelled the invaders, and departed for the mountains beyond the eastern borders. Ten years later, the Duke's health was failing. Regretting his debt and fearing the wizard's lingering influence, he hired a Quallin-trained swordswoman to put an end to the danger and insisted she take along one of his young officers as witness to the deed.
As they passed through the rich farmland of Westfields, Cinnabar and her escort stayed at inns when they could and camped in the fields when they must. They spoke only about incidental matters. His name was Lan or Lhon or something like that. At first, she took no particular notice of him, beyond observing he wasn't as arrogant or incompetent as she had feared.
Cinnabar rose early, as was her habit, when the light from behind the eastern ridge of hills was still tentative. Her tough little sorrel mare nickered softly from the picket line beside the soldier's brown cob and the pack mule. She picked up her sword and went among the trees. Here she knelt, her sword sheath tucked through her belt. Moments passed and her heart slowed.
In one fluid motion, she drew her sword and spiraled to her feet. Her body leapt and soared. She slipped between the trees, feinting around them. Their branches quivered as if they yearned to dance with her.
She felt the boy's eyes on her. He stood watching, leaning against a tree. She finished the sequence, ending as she had begun, on her knees.
It is a posture of infinite possibility, her Quallin arms-master had said. Even peace.
Cinnabar stood, her heart slowing to normal.
"I've never seen anything like that," the boy said.
Of course he hadn't, not with that graceless Westfields weapon.
"Get your sword. I'll show you."
He handled the sword in a manner that suggested most of his experience was on the training field, not in combat. "It's too long for your style."
"Every sword has its own rhythm," she said. "You've learned to fight from the straight lines. Now it's time to learn the circles."
Cinnabar tested the sword's balance. Even though she was strong for a woman, it was too heavy for her. The boy would have an easier time with it. This was not necessarily a good thing, for power too often dulled sensitivity.
She showed him the beginning position, not a fighting stance, but a learning stance. Using a light touch, she guided him through the opening moves. She stood in back of him, her fingertips resting on his arm and between his shoulders. She remembered how the arms-master at Quallin had taught simply by where she looked or how she stood.
A trickle of power flowed through the contact between them like river water seeping through a logjam. The boy stepped wide, knees bent, sword arm lifting like a crane spreading one wing to the cooling breeze. Steel caught the dawn light. Birds took flight, wheeling. Oak leaves, warmed by the sun, gave off a bright, pungent scent.
Step back, pivot... Cinnabar felt a line of fire between her hand and the body of the young soldier. Movement flowed like water pouring from one cup to another -- flesh to steel to flesh again -- until both came to rest. The closing posture was the same as the beginning.
He lowered the sword. She felt him trembling. He moved away from her, his face averted.
I dare not teach him more. It would change him too much.
She waited, alone in the grove, as he returned to camp.