An unexpected fencing match… in TORMENT by Lauren Kate
An echoing series of whooshes and clangs cut through the song of ospreys. A long, singing note of metal scraping metal, then the clash of the thin silver blade glancing off its opponent’s guard.
Francesca and Steven were fighting.
Well, no—they were fencing. A demonstration for the students who were about to stage matches of their own.
“Knowing how to wield a sword—whether it’s the light foils we’re using today, or something as dangerous as a cutlass—is an invaluable skill” Steven said, slicing the point of his sword through the air in short, whiplike movements. “The armies of Heaven and Hell rarely engage in battle, but when they do”—without looking, he snapped his blade sideways toward Francesca, and without looking, she brought her sword up and parried the blow—“they remain untouched by modern warfare. Daggers, bows and bolts, giant *aming swords, these are our eternal tools.”
The duel that followed was for show, merely a lesson; Francesca and Steven weren’t even wearing masks.
It was late in the morning on Wednesday, and Luce was seated on the deck’s wide bench between Jasmine and Miles. The entire class, including their two teachers, had changed out of their regular clothes into the white out/ts fencers always wore. Half the class held black mesh face masks in their hands. Luce had arrived at the supply closet just after the last face mask had been snagged, which hadn’t bothered her at all. She was hoping to avoid the embarrassment of having the entire class witness her cluelessness: It was obvious from the way the others were making lunges at the sides of the deck that they had been through these practices before.
“The idea is to present as small a target for your opponent as possible” Francesca explained to the circle of students surrounding her. “So you set your weight on one foot and lead with your sword foot, and then rock back and forth—into striking range and then away.”
She and Steven were suddenly engaged in a rush of jabs and parries, making a dense clatter as they expertly fought o3 each other’s blows.
When her blade glanced wide to the left, he lunged forward, but she rocked back, sweeping her sword up and around and onto his wrist.
“Touché,” she said, laughing.
Steven turned to the class. “Touché, of course, is French for ‘touched.’ In fencing, we count points by touches.”
“Were we fighting for real,” Francesca said, “I’m afraid that Steven’s hand would be lying bloody on the deck. Sorry, darling.”
“Quite all right,” he said. “Quite. All. Right.” He threw himself sideways at her, almost seeming to rise o3 the ground. In the frenzy that followed, Luce lost track of Steven’s sword as it crisscrossed through the air again and again, nearly slicing into Francesca, who ducked sideways just in time and resurfaced behind him.
But he was ready for her and knocked her blade away before dropping the point of his and striking out at her instep.
“I’m afraid you, my dear, have gotten off on the wrong foot.”
“We’ll see.” Francesca raised a hand and smoothed her hair, the two of them staring at each other with murderous intensity.
Each new round of violent play caused Luce to tense up in alarm. She was used to being jittery, but the rest of the class was also surprisingly jittery today. Jittery with excitement. Watching Francesca and Steven, not one of them could keep still.
Until today, she’d wondered why none of the other Nephilim played on any of Shoreline’s varsity sports teams. Jasmine had scrunched up her nose when Luce asked whether she and Dawn were interested in swim team tryouts in the gym. In fact, until she’d overheard Lilith in the locker room this morning yawning that every sport except fencing was “exquisitely boring,” Luce had /gured the Nephilim just weren’t athletic.But that wasn’t it at all.They just chose carefully what to play.
Luce winced as she imagined Lilith, who knew the French translation for all the fencing terms Luce didn’t even know in English, throwing her svelte, spiteful self into an attack. If the rest of the class were one-tenth as skilled as Francesca and Steven, Luce was going to end up a pile of body parts by the end of the session.
Her teachers were obvious experts, stepping lithely in and out of lunges. Sunlight glinted on their swords, on their white padded vests.
Francesca’s thick blond waves cascaded out in a gorgeous halo around her shoulders as she spun around Steven. Their feet wove patterns on the deck with such grace, the match looked almost like a dance.
The expressions on their faces were dogged and full of a brutal determination to win. After those /rst few touches, they were evenly matched. They must have been getting tired. They’d been fencing for more than ten minutes without a hit. They began to fence so quickly that the arcs of their blades all but disappeared; there were only a /ne fury and a faint buzz in the air and the constant crack of their foils against one another.
Sparks began to fly each time their swords connected. Sparks of love or hatred? There were moments when it almost looked like both. [...]
A cheer rang out from her classmates. It felt like Luce had only blinked, but she had missed it. The point of Francesca’s sword jabbed into Steven’s chest. Close to the heart. She pressed against him to the point where her thin blade bent into an arc. Both of them stood still for a moment, looking each other in the eye. Luce couldn’t tell whether this, too, was part of the show.
“Right through my heart,” Steven said.
“As if you had one,” Francesca whispered.“As if you had one,” Francesca whispered.
The two teachers seemed momentarily unaware that the deck was full of students.
“Another win for Francesca,” Jasmine said. She tipped her head toward Luce and dropped her voice. “She comes from a long line of winners. Steven? Not so much.” The comment seemed loaded, but Jasmine just bounded lightly o3 the bench, slid her mask over her face, and tightened her ponytail. Ready to go. [...]
“Miles,” Steven called. He was fully back in teacher mode, sheathing his sword in a narrow black leather case and nodding to the northwest corner of the deck. “You’ll match withRoland over here.”
On her left, Miles leaned in to whisper, “You andRoland go back a ways—what’s his Achilles heel? I am not going to lose to the new kid.” [...]
Miles patted her knee. “Luce, I was kidding.There’s no way that guy’s not going to kick my ass.” He stood up, laughing. “Wish me luck.”
Francesca had moved to the other side of the deck, near the entrance to the lodge, and was sipping a bottle of water. “Kristy and Millicent,take this corner,” she told two Nephilim girls with pigtails and matching black sneakers. “Shelby and Dawn, come match right here.” She gestured to the corner of the deck directly in front of Luce. “The rest of you will watch.”
Luce was relieved her own name hadn’t been called. The more she saw of Francesca and Steven’s teaching method, the less she understood it. One intimidating demonstration took the place of any real instruction. Not watch and learn, but straight to watch and excel. As the /rst six students took their places on the deck, Luce felt huge pressure to pick up the entire art of fencing right away.
“En garde!” Shelby bellowed, lunging backward into a squat with the tip of her sword just inches from Dawn, whose sword was still sheathed.
Dawn’s fingers were zigzagging through her short black hair, pinning sections of it back with a brimming handful of butterfly clips. “You can’t en-garde me while I’m prepping for battle, Shelby!” Her high voice got even higher when she was frustrated. “What were you, raised by wolves?” she huffed through the last plastic barrette between her teeth. “Okay,” she said, drawing her sword. “Now I’m ready.”
Shelby, who had been holding her deep lunge throughout Dawn’s primp session, now straightened up and looked down at her rough nail beds. “Wait, do I have time for a manicure?” she said, psyching Dawn out just long enough to allow her to drop into an o3ensive stance and swing her sword around.
“How uncouth!” Dawn barked, but to Luce’s surprise, she instantly ratcheted up her swordsmanship, swishing her blade skillfully through the air and knocking Shelby’s aside. Dawn was a fencing badass.
Next to Luce, Jasmine was doubled over laughing. “A match made in Hell.” [...]
The truth was, Luce kind of enjoyed seeing Shelby fighting for her life while Dawn happily attacked her.
Shelby was a steady, patient fighter. Where Dawn’s technique was showy and eye-catching, her limbs whirling in a virtual tango across the deck, Shelby was careful with her lunges, almost as if she had only so many to ration out. She kept her knees bent and never gave up anything. [...]
A loud thump snapped Luce back to attention.
Across the deck, Miles had somehow landed on his back.Roland hovered over him. Literally. He was flying.
The enormous wings that had unfurled from Roland’s shoulders were as large as a great cape and feathered like an eagle’s, but with a beautiful golden marbling woven through their dark pinions. He must have had the same slits cut into his fencing garb that Daniel had in his T-shirt. Luce had never seen Roland’s wings before, and like the other Nephilim, she couldn’t stop staring. Shelby had told her that only a very few Nephilim had wings, and none of them went to Shoreline. Seeing Roland’s come out in a battle, even a practice sword/ght, sent a ripple of nervous excitement through the crowd.
The wings commanded so much attention, it took Luce a moment to realize that the tip of Roland’s sword was hovering just over Miles’s breastbone, pinning him to the ground. Roland’s bright white fencing suit and golden wings cut a stark silhouette against the dark, lush trees bordering the deck. With his black mesh mask pulled down, Roland looked even more intimidating [...]
“Not the most sportsmanlike way to win,” Shelby said, sheathing her sword. “But sometimes that’s the way it goes. [...]
“Didn’t mean to unleash the wings on you. Sometimes that just happens when I get going.”
“Well, good game. Up until then, anyway.” Miles raised his right hand to be helped off the ground. “Do they say ‘good game’ in fencing?” “No, no one says that.” Roland *ipped up his mask with one hand and, grinning, dropped the sword from his other. He grasped Miles’s hand and pulled him up in one swift move. “Good game yourself.” [...]
“Want this?”Roland appeared at her side, handing her the mask he’d been using. “You’re up next, aren’t you?”
“Me? No.” She shook her head. “Isn’t the bell about to ring?”
Roland shook his head. “Nice try. Just own it, and no one’s going to know you’ve never fenced before.”
“I doubt that.” Luce fingered the thin mesh screen. “Roland, I have to ask you—”
“No, I wasn’t going to run Miles through. Why did everyone get so freaked out?” [...]
He pointed behind her. Francesca was beckoning toward Luce with a finger.The other Nephilim had all taken seats on the benches, except for a few students who looked like they were preparing to fence. Jasmine and a Korean girl named Sylvia, two tall, skinny boys whose names Luce could never keep straight, and Lilith, standing alone, examining the blunt rubber tip of her sword with careful scrutiny.
“Luce?” Francesca said in a low voice. She motioned to the space on the deck in front of Lilith. “Take your place.”
“Trial by fire.”Roland whistled, patting Luce on the back. “Show no fear.”
There were only five other students standing in the middle of the deck, but to Luce, it felt as though there were a hundred.
Francesca stood with her arms folded casually over her chest. Her face was serene, but to Luce it looked like a forced serenity. Maybe she intended for Luce to lose in the most brutal, embarrassing match possible. Why else would she pit Luce against Lilith, who towered over Luce by at least a foot, and whose fiery red hair protruded from behind her mask like a lion’s mane?
“I’ve never done this,” Luce said lamely.
“It’s okay, Luce, you don’t need to be skilled yet,” Francesca said. “We’re trying to gauge your relative capacity. Just remember what Steven and I showed you at the start of the session and you’ll do fine.”
Lilith laughed and whipped the point of her foil in a broad Z. “The mark of zero, loser,” she said.
“Showing on the number of friends you have?” Luce asked. She remembered what Roland had said about showing no fear. She slid the mask down over her face, took her foil from Francesca. Luce didn’t even know how to hold it. She fumbled with the handle, wondering whether to put it in her right or left hand. She wrote right-handed, bowled and batted with her left.
Lilith was already looking at her like she wished Luce were dead, and Luce knew she couldn’t a3ord the time to test out her swing in both hands. Did they even call it a swing in fencing?
Wordlessly, Francesca moved behind her. She stood with her shoulders brushing Luce’s back, practically folding her narrow body around Luce and taking Luce’s left hand, and the sword, in hers.
“I’m left-handed too,” she said.
Luce opened her mouth, unsure whether or not to protest.
“Just like you.” Francesca leaned around her and gave Luce a knowing look. As she repositioned her grip, something warm and tremendously soothing flowed through Francesca’s fingers into Luce. Strength, or maybe courage—Luce didn’t understand how it worked, but she was grateful.
“You’ll want a light grip,” Francesca said, directing Luce’s fingers around the hilt under the guard. “Grip too tightly and your direction of“You’ll want a light grip,” Francesca said, directing Luce’s fingers around the hilt under the guard. “Grip too tightly and your direction of the blade becomes less nimble, your defensive moves more limited. Grip too lightly and the blade can be spun out of your hands.”
Her smooth, thin fingers guided Luce’s to hold the curved grip of the sword’s hilt just under the guard. With one hand on the sword and the other on Luce’s shoulder, Francesca galloped lightly sideways one step, blocking out the move.
“Advance.” She moved forward, thrusting the sword in Lilith’s direction.
The redheaded girl ran her tongue across her teeth and glared at Luce with something like middle child syndrome.
“Disengage.” Francesca moved Luce back as if she were a chess piece. She stepped away and circled to face Luce, whispering, “The rest is just gilding the lily.”
Luce swallowed. Gilding the what?
“En garde!” Lilith practically shouted. Her long legs were bent, and her right arm was holding the foil straight at Luce.
Luce retreated, two quick galloping steps; then, when she felt at a safe enough distance, lunged forward with her sword extended.
Lilith dipped deftly to the left of Luce’s sword, spun around, then came back from below with her own, clashing against Luce’s. The two blades slid against each other until they reached a midpoint, then held. Luce had to put all her strength into stopping Lilith’s foil with the pressure of her own. Her arms were shaking, but she was surprised to /nd she could hold Lilith back in this position. At last Lilith broke away and backed off. Luce watched her dip and spin a few times, and began to figure her out.
Lilith was a grunter, making tons of effort-filled noise. It was a bit of misdirection. She would make a huge noise and feint in one direction, then whip the point of her foil around in a high, tight arc to try to get past Luce’s defenses.
So Luce tried the same move. When she swung the tip of her sword back around to get her /rst point, just south of Lilith’s heart, the girl let out a deafening roar.
Luce winced and backed away. She didn’t think she’d even touched Lilith very hard. “Are you okay?” she called out, about to lift her mask.
“She’s not hurt,” Francesca answered for Lilith. A smile parted her lips. “She’s angry that you’re beating her.”
Luce didn’t have time to wonder what it meant that Francesca seemed suddenly to be enjoying herself, because Lilith was barreling toward her once again, sword poised. Luce raised her sword to meet Lilith’s, turning her wrist to clash three times before they disengaged.
Luce’s pulse was racing and she felt good. She sensed an energy coursing through her that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She was actually good at this, almost as good as Lilith, who looked like she’d been bred to skewer people with sharp things. Luce, who had never even picked up a sword, realized she actually had a chance to win. Just one more point.
She could hear the other students cheering, some even calling out her name. She could hear Miles, and she thought she could hear Shelby, which really egged her on. But the sound of their voices was woven through with something else. Something staticky and too loud. Lilith fought as/ercely as ever, but suddenly Luce was having a hard time concentrating. She backed up and blinked, looking into the sky. The sun was obscured by the overhanging trees—but that wasn’t all. A growing*eet of shadows was stretching forth from the branches, like ink stains extending right above Luce’s head.
No—not now, not in public with everyone watching, and not when it might cost her this match. Yet no one else even noticed them, which seemed impossible.They were making so much noise it was impossible for Luce to do anything but cover her ears and try to block them out.
She raised her hands to her ears, which made her sword tip skyward, confusing Lilith.
“Don’t let her freak you out, Luce. She’s toxic!” Dawn chirped from the bench.
“Use the prise de fer!” Shelby called. “Lilith sucks at the prise de fer.Correction: Lilith sucks at everything, but especially the prise de fer.”
So many voices—more, it seemed, than there were people on the deck. Luce winced, trying to block it all out. But one voice separated from the crowd, as though it were whispering into her ear from just behind her head. Steven: “Screen out the noise, Luce. Find the message.”
She whipped her head around, but he was on the other side of the deck, looking toward the trees. Was he talking about the other Nephilim? All the noise and chatter they were making? She glanced at their faces, but they weren’t even talking. So who was? For the briefest moment, she caught Steven’s eyes, and he lifted his chin toward the sky. As if he were gesturing at the shadows.
In the trees above her head.The announcers were speaking.
And she could hear them. Had they been speaking all along?
Latin,Russian, Japanese. English with a southern accent. Broken French. Whispers, singing, bad directions, lines of rhyming verse. And one long bloodcurdling scream for help. She shook her head, still holding Lilith’s sword at bay, and the voices overhead stayed with her. She looked at Steven, then Francesca.They showed no signs, but she knew they heard it. And she knew they knew she was listening too.
For the message behind the noise.
All her life she’d heard the same noise when the shadows came—whooshing, ugly, wet noise.But now it was different. …
Lilith’s sword collided with Luce’s. The girl was snorting like an angry bull. Luce could hear her own breath inside the mask, panting as she tried to hold Lilith’s sword. Then she could hear so much more among all the voices. Suddenly she could focus on them. Finding the balance just meant separating the static from the significant stuff.But how?
Il faut faire le coup double. Après ca, c’est facile a gagner, one of the Announcers whispered in French.
Luce had just two years of high school French to go on, but the words touched her somewhere deeper than her brain. It wasn’t just her head understanding the message. Somehow her body knew it too. It seeped into her, right down to the bone, and she remembered: She’d been in a place like this before, in a sword fight like this, a standoff like this.
The Announcer was recommending the double cross, a complicated fencing move in which two separate attacks came one right after the other.
Her sword slid down her opponent’s and the two of them broke away. A moment sooner than Lilith, Luce lunged forward in one clean intuitive motion, thrusting her sword point right, then left, then *ush against the side of Lilith’s rib cage. The Nephilim cheered, but Luce didn’t stop. She disengaged, then came straight back a second time, plunging the tip of her foil into the padding near Lilith’s gut.
That was three.
Lilith dashed her sword to the deck, tore on her mask, and gave Luce a terrifying scowl before making quickly for the locker room. The rest of the class was on their feet, and Luce could feel her classmates surrounding her. [...]