Steel, p.1Carrie Vaughn
To my family
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Jill shook her legs out one at a time. Rolled her shoulders. Loosened up. Rearranged her hold on her weapon once again, curling gloved fingers around the grip. It nestled into her hand like it had been molded there, the épée blade becoming an extension of her arm.
Across from her, on a long, five-foot-wide strip of combat, stood her opponent, a tall, powerful-limbed girl in a bleach-white fencing jacket who seemed more like a linebacker than a fencer. Her face was a shadow behind the mesh of her mask. Jill bounced in place, flicking her épée so it whipped against the air, as if she couldn’t wait to start.
The score was tied. This was the last point. The air seemed to have gone out of the room, a cavernous gymnasium where two dozen fencing strips had held competitors fighting and winning and losing all day. Only a few fencers remained now. The winner of this bout would get third place for the tournament. Bronze medal. The loser, fourth place, and nothing else. A pat on the back. And Jill needed this win to qualify for the Junior World Fencing Championships. This was her last chance.
Let it all go, Jill told herself. It was just another tournament, one of hundreds she’d fenced in. Let her muscles do what they knew how to do. Remember why she loved this: With a few flicks of her sword she would outwit her enemy, and even through the mesh of the mask, Jill would see the startled look on the girl’s shadowed face when she scored a touch on her.
The official glanced between them, judging their readiness. “En garde.”
Let it go, do your job.
Épées raised, they approached, step by careful step. Jill knew her opponent, a girl from Texas, was cautious, but when she finally committed herself she’d be strong. She’d plow Jill over if she could, sending her into a panic, and score the point before anyone could blink. So Jill wanted to strike first, before her opponent had a chance to gather herself.
Arm outstretched, Jill feinted high, wagging her blade up in a move that looked like it would strike her opponent’s mask, her footwork carrying her too fast to back out of the commitment. As she hoped, the Texas girl lifted her sword to parry, exposing her legs and the lower half of her torso—all targets waiting for a good, clean hit.
But the parry itself was a feint, and the Texan was ready for her. When Jill circled her blade to avoid the parry, the other blade circled with her, blocking her intended target, knocking her out of the way—leaving Jill exposed. Quickly—now she was the one in a panic—she scrambled back in a retreat and yanked her blade up to parry.
Steel struck steel, moving too fast for Jill to feel it much. Her hand was already turning the sword to its next motion, to counter the Texan’s concerted attack.
Jill pulled it together. Kept her focus on the job at hand.
Her mind seemed to fade as her body moved by instinct, and it felt wonderful. Her motions flowed, her steps were easy—she could almost see where the Texas girl’s épée prepared to strike. Then, she saw her opening. Her opponent kept attacking low, trying to sneak under Jill’s defense. All Jill had to do was use that pattern against her. Wait for the next low attack, sweep up, strike home as the Texan’s sword was also extending toward her—
A buzzer rang, the signal from the electronic scoring box.
Buttons on the tips of the épées recorded hits. Signals traveled from the button along a wire nested in the blade to the back of the guard, then through cords laced up the sleeve and out behind the jacket to plug into the scoring box. Often, the movements happened so quickly, the touches from the other sword were so light you couldn’t feel them. The lights on the box told the truth.
Jill had hit the Texan, she knew she had, right on her breastbone. She’d felt the pressure through her hand and arm. But her opponent’s sword had slipped inside her defenses as well. Jill looked at the lights—her opponent’s red light buzzed brightly. Jill’s light should have been green—but it was dark. She had hit a fraction of a second after her opponent had killed her. Her point didn’t count.
Last touch and the bout went to the other fighter. The referee called it. There was cheering.
Jill stood dazed a moment, breathing hard, still locked in the fight, her muscles lost in instinct, waiting for the next attack to come. The Texan pulled off her mask and tucked it under her arm. She had a round face with strong eyebrows, dark eyes, and black hair tied in a long braid. She didn’t look pleased that she’d won—no smiles, no flush of victory. No, she looked smug. Like she hadn’t expected any other outcome.
Slowly, Jill took off her own mask, shook out her short, dark hair, turned her sword away, and stepped forward to take the winner’s hand. She had to be polite. Had to be a good sport.
Her fingers fumbled, trying to unplug her body cord from the socket behind her.
Coach Martin, a honey-haired thirtysomething woman who’d fenced in the Olympics back in the day, took the plug away from her and detached it. Smiling, she patted Jill on the shoulder. Jill still didn’t feel anything.
“It was a good bout. You did fine,” Coach Martin said.
All Jill could think was, half a second too slow. That was all it took.
Habit more than anything guided Jill through putting her gear away: Wipe down her weapons, roll up her body cords, track down her gloves, fold up her jacket and white knickers, and put them along with her mask and the rest in her bag. In the locker room, she showered, though for not as long as she’d have liked because there wasn’t any hot water left. She dried her hair without looking in the mirror. The bout with the Texan had been the last of the day, and Jill had dawdled—which meant she had the locker room to herself. She didn’t have to face anyone and try to smile like a good sport.
When she came out of the locker room, she looked like a normal kid again, in loafers, jeans, and a sweater, bag over her shoulder, scuffing her feet as she walked. Her secret identity—Jill the amazing swordswoman—was packed safely away. After today she wasn’t sure her secret identity was all that amazing. She was just another kid fencer who wasn’t going to the championships.
Just like the locker room, the lobby of the arena had cleared out. A few volunteers and officials were taking down signs, but the competitors, coaches, and families had all gone. Only Jill’s entourage remained, waiting for her: Coach Martin, along with her parents. The coach said something to the couple, then stepped forward to meet Jill, who must have looked particularly dejected, because Martin put her arm around her shoulders.
“Jill, you did fine out there. You did great. The competition was tough. Really tough.”
Standard pep talk. Sometimes it made Jill feel better; this one just sounded like platitudes. “I wasn’t good enough to qualify.”
“You can try again next year,” said Coach Martin. “And in a couple of years y
But when it counted, when it all came down to one touch, Jill had been half a second too slow. How close had it been, really? What if she missed qualifying for the Olympics by half a second? She’d come in fourth in a national tournament. She ought to be celebrating, but she felt like she’d been hollowed out.
“Well, how about it? Ready to take on the Olympics?”
“I don’t know,” Jill said. She wasn’t thinking much beyond the next five minutes and getting back home.
Martin patted her shoulder and turned to walk with her to her parents. “Come on, kid. This wasn’t your day, but the next day will be.”
Her parents were smiling.
“I’m so proud of you, Jill.” Her mother came forward to wrap her up in a big hug, like Jill was still a little girl, even though Jill stood three inches taller than her now. Dad patted her on the shoulder. Jill tried to smile back, but it was hard, and they noticed. It made them even more enthusiastic. They’d always been supportive, shuttled her back and forth to practices, funded her without complaint, and it made her want to win even more. She sometimes wondered if they were hiding disappointment when she didn’t win.
And sometimes she wondered if maybe the pep talks were wrong—maybe, no matter how hard she worked, she just wasn’t good enough.
Lying in a hammock tied between two palm trees, a closed book in her hands, Jill thought about Errol Flynn. And Zorro, and lightsabers, and what it would be like to fight from the rigging of a sailing ship. Really, though, she was still thinking about that slow half a second and fourth place.
She could still feel the moment, staring down her opponent, the weight of her épée pulling at her hand, her arms and legs itching to move. She only fought for electronic points, but she could imagine she was some blazing hero. But the hero wasn’t supposed to lose by half a second. She’d been afraid to tell Coach Martin that she did want to compete in the Olympics—the modern equivalent of battling pirates on the high main, as she saw it. But what if she got close and missed, like she had in the tournament? How empty would she feel, then? What if, after all was said and done, she just wasn’t good enough?
A mild sea breeze blew. The palm trees creaked and the hammock swayed, just a little, reminding Jill that she was supposed to be relaxing. A month after the tournament, the family—Jill, her parents, younger brother, and even younger sister—was in the Bahamas for spring break. Their plane landed two days ago in the middle of the afternoon, and when they emerged into the open, the sun blazed, and Jill squinted and ducked away like a mouse creeping out of a dark hole. Her parents rented a car in the colorful town of Nassau with its old forts, sparkling resort hotels, and rows of cruise ships; then they drove the family out to a tropical village and a vacation house they’d rented for the week. Beach, sun, swimming, snorkeling, golf, hiking, and all the rest.
But Jill had spent almost two days now lying on the hammock, pretending to read, and thinking too much. She’d only been to practice a couple of times since the tournament—usually, she went nearly every day. Coach Martin said it was fine to take a little time off, and they’d talk about a new training schedule when she got back from the trip. That would be in a week, and Jill would have to have an answer. Did she want to keep going? Try again next year, like Coach Martin had said? Go back to practicing every day—so she could come in fourth? But it wasn’t about winning, or the medals, or all that. All the familiar clichés. She was supposed to be doing this because she loved it. She had to keep reminding herself.
“Jill!” her mother called from the house. “We’re going to the beach, don’t you want to come?”
Sighing, Jill squinted at scattered beams of sunlight shining through palm fronds. “Not really.”
The next time Jill’s mother spoke, she was standing at the house’s back doorway, shading her eyes and looking out. Slathered in sunscreen, she had on her one-piece swimsuit, a towel wrapped around her waist, and flip-flops on her feet. She already had a tan and seemed to be enjoying herself.
“Jill, this is a family vacation. Come to the beach with us. You can bring your book.”
“I don’t really feel like it.”
Mom put her hands on her hips, and her brow furrowed. Her “concerned” face. “What’s wrong?”
It would have been easy to say nothing. Jill shook her head. “I should have won that bout.”
“You’re still on about that? You’ll win next time.”
“But what if I don’t?”
“Jill, don’t worry about it, you’re supposed to be on vacation. Now come on.”
Clearly, her mother wasn’t going to let her mope at will. Giving in was easier than arguing at the moment. Jill went.
The bright sun, soothing white beaches, and picture-perfect views of palm trees and bright blue ocean didn’t do much for Jill’s mood. Gray skies would have suited her better. But she tried to make a good showing, for her mother’s sake: lying on a towel on the beach while eight-year-old Mandy and ten-year-old Tom ran around screaming, splashing in and out of the waves. Her siblings kept yelling at her to join them, that the water was warm and she should try snorkeling, it was so clear and they could see rocks and fish and shells and everything. At least they were having a good time. Mandy hadn’t stopped talking since they arrived, going on and on about sharks and seashells and where they should go looking for pirate treasure. That was after the visit to the Pirates Museum in Nassau. Apparently, the island had been covered with pirates some three hundred years ago. Jill kept telling her that all the pirate treasure had been found a long time ago, and real pirates didn’t bury treasure anyway. Mandy didn’t care; she was still going to talk about it.
Jill hadn’t even put on her swimsuit, but wore a tank top and clamdiggers. Her one concession was going barefoot, and she dug her toes in the warm sand.
Her father had gone to play golf. Her mother stretched out on a lounge chair beside her, sipping from a fruity drink with a paper umbrella and a pineapple rind sticking out of it. Jill had asked for a taste, and her mother had refused. “It’s got rum in it,” she’d said.
Maybe the trip would be more fun if Jill were old enough to drink.
Reading in the sun, even wearing sunglasses, gave her a headache, so she set the book aside and tried to take a nap. Then she gave up on the nap and stood. “I’m going to take a walk.”
Her mother blinked awake—she’d managed a nap. “Where to?”
“Just down the beach,” she said. “I’ll go for a while and turn around and come back.”
For a moment, her mother looked like she might argue. But she didn’t. “All right. Be careful.”
Jill started walking.
The beach wasn’t crowded, but it wasn’t empty, which she would have preferred. Lots of families seemed to be on vacation, as well as couples of every age. People, greasy with sunscreen, lay on towels and baked on the sand. Some played volleyball. Some, like her, walked barefoot on wet sand, at the edge of where the waves reached. She kept going, past the people, to where the more attractive, sandy portion of the beach narrowed, and palm trees grew almost to the water. Voices fell away, drowned out by the sound of waves. She kept walking.
She could understand how someone could lose herself, walking along a beach. It was meditative: the roll of the waves, the repetitive movement of water and patterns of froth that traveled back and forth along the sand were constant, along with the noise—the rush, splash, echo of always-moving water. Beautiful, entrancing. It never changed—but at the same time the pattern the breaking waves made was always different, and she could just keep watching it. The waves, the surf, and the ocean that went on to a flat horizon.
Walking in sand was a lot of work. Her feet dug in, slipping a little with every step. Her legs had to push harder. This was a good workout. Then again, she was probably moving faster than she needed to. You were s
She could just keep walking, never go back. She could turn into a beach bum and never make another decision about what to do next. The idea sounded enticing.
When her bare toe scuffed against something hard in the sand, she stopped. It was too heavy to be a shell. Maybe a stone. She knelt and brushed the sand away, feeling for the object her foot had discovered.
It was a slender length of rusted steel, flat, about six inches long and a half an inch wide. It tapered to a point at one end and was jagged at the other, as if it had broken. A thousand people would step over it and think it trash, but not her.
This was the tip of a rapier, the solid shape of a real sword. The original source of the modern, flimsy weapons she fenced with. Every fencing book she’d ever seen had a picture of rapiers like that, to show where the sport came from. This tip must have broken off and might have been rusting in the ocean for centuries, waves pushing it along the sandy bottom until it washed up here. Dark brown flakes came off in her hand. The edges were dull enough that she ran her finger along them without harm—though her skin tingled when she thought about what the piece of steel represented. Was it a pirate sword? Had it broken in a duel? In a battle? Maybe it had fallen from a ship. Looking around, she studied the sand as if the rest of the sword might be lying nearby. She imagined a long, powerful rapier with an intricate swept hilt, like something from a museum or a movie. An Errol Flynn movie. But that was stupid. The tip had broken, and it would have washed away from the rest of the sword a long time ago.
Maybe there was a sword in a museum somewhere, missing six inches. Maybe she should tell someone about this. Maybe the pirate museum in Nassau would want it.
Steel by Carrie Vaughn / Fantasy / Young Adult / Actions & Adventure have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes