The last of the wondrous meal was cleaned from each plate; Mrs. Haversbeard wrapped a good amount of leftovers for Paige to take with her.  As always, she was invited to stay the night; as always, she refused.
      Paige and Bemer shivered as they emerged from the stable, Nyx between them.  Bright stars were strewn across the black sky.
      “See you tomorrow, then,” Bemer said.
      “Wait,” Paige said.  She pulled a neatly folded, wrinkled piece of paper out of her pocket and opened it.  It was the flyer announcing the contest in Laverham.  Bemer glanced at it, then back at her.
      “You want to go, then?”
      She nodded her head and kept her eyes steady on his.
      It took him just a few seconds, then: “You mean you want to – ” 
      “You can’t,” he said flatly.  
      “I can if you help me.”
      “You’re a – ”
      “I know – ”
      “ – a girl!”
      “There’s never been girls!”
      More silence.
      Paige waited, feeling her heart pound inside her chest, wondering why it was so important, why it mattered so much.  
      Bemer saw straight through her.  “Why?”
      “Come tomorrow,” she replied.   “I’ll show you why.”
      The next morning, bright and early, Bemer arrived at the cottage.  The sky was thick with grey clouds.  More snow was coming.  
      Paige was waiting for him in the doorway.  Without a word she led him into Auntie’s bedroom.  The swords were laid side by side on the floor, on top of the weathered fabric they’d been wrapped in.   She heard Bemer draw in his breath sharply.  He reached out to touch them and then pulled his hand back.  He stared at them for a long moment.
      “Where’d they come from?” he whispered finally.
      “I guess Auntie brought them with her.”
      He swallowed.  “They’re … grand things, Paige.  I’ve never seen anything like ‘em.”
      She nodded.
      “These aren’t playthings, these are – are weapons.  They’ve been used, Paige, they’re not for show, not for sport – ”
      “She left them when she left me,” Paige interrupted.  “I’m going to use them as it suits me.”
      Bemer studied her, and nodded.  He wrapped the swords back up.    “Put them away for now,” he said, already assuming a voice of authority.  “You’ve a ways to go before you’re worthy of picking up those swords.”

“Strength.  Endurance.  Speed.”
      Those words barked, shouted, hissed, snapped, became their code through the winter months.   There was never a good enough excuse for failure. 
      If the snow blinded her as she ran or fired off arrows, then she ought well to be using her hearing – was she deaf? If there were blisters on her hands from chopping wood, then she must wrap ‘em and get on with it.  If exhaustion buckled her knees till she could barely force one foot before the other, then go for another quarter hour’s run.
      Then the days got longer and the heavy snowfalls weakened to a few flurries in the morning.  Spring was slowly wrenching free of winter’s fierce hold.  Bemer was more adamant than before.  There was not one day when he let her rest.  Nor did he bring out the swords hidden under Auntie’s bed.  “You’re not worthy of ‘em yet,” he said shortly.
      Running, shooting, riding … the more she did them, the less she felt as though she’d ever done them before.  Nothing was ever done well enough.  When Nyx reared up in exasperation one day at a particularly clumsy mounting and Paige slid over his rump and hit the ground, it was too much. 
      “Get up,” Bemer shouted.  “Do it again!”
      Paige tried to speak, couldn’t; she buried her head in her hands.
      “As I thought,” he snapped.  “Can’t do it.”
      Bemer flung his arms into the air and stalked off.
      Alone, she wrapped her arms round herself and rocked back and forth.
      Can’t do it, can’t do it, can’t do it…
      Moments went by.  The sun passed across her forearm and warmed it briefly.  She glanced down at it and saw tendons and veins she’d never been aware of before.  She clenched a fist and saw the muscle emerge on her upper arm.  She opened her hand and looked at the palm, rough and calloused. 
      She rose.  Nyx stood yards away from her.
      “Right, then,” she whispered.  “Here we go.” She whistled and Nyx came at once.  “I’ll do it.  I can do it.”
      Bemer watched from the shadows of the trees as Paige spit on her hands, rubbed them together and prepared once more to attempt the running mount. 

      It was hours later when Bemer reappeared in the clearing, carrying a large bundle with him.  Paige, still practicing with Nyx, saw him and reined in.  He put the bundle down, pulled an apple from his pocket and tossed it to the horse.
      “Here,” he said, crouching beside the bundle and unwrapping it. 
      Curious, Paige slid off Nyx; two steps towards Bemer, she knew.
      The final flap of fabric was pulled aside. 
      The swords gleamed in the late afternoon sun.
      “Spring’s come,” he said.  “It’s time.”
      They both stared down at the weapons.
      “Riding, racing, shooting arrows … that’s stuff I know,” he said, finally, “but I don’t know much about these.  I’ll find out.  I’ll learn.  Go on,” he said, gesturing towards the swords. 
      She reached out for the broadsword, curled both hands round the hilt.   Grasping it, she rose to her feet.
      “Go on,” he said again.
      Paige lifted it easily.  In the past months, her shoulders had broadened and her muscles grown hard; she was lean and taut.   She balanced her own weight against the weight of the massive weapon and raised it higher.  Her eyes narrowed and she swung it round once.  The wood chopping had done its job; though her arms shook a little and she had to steady herself, there was real strength there.
      “There’s one thing I know,” he said, after a moment had passed.  “All the other stuff – it’s done on your own.  This – you’ve got an opponent opposite you.  You’ve got to keep your eye on him.  Not the sword.  Not the ground.  Not the sky.  It’s how we’ll practice.  Looking in the eyes of the one you’re fighting.”
      Paige nodded.
      Bemer rose.  “Right, then,” he said.  “See you tomorrow.”
      “Tomorrow,” she replied.
      He started to walk away but stopped, turned back.  He seemed about to say something then didn’t, just cocked his head to one side and grinned.
      “This’ll be fun,” he said.
      She grinned back.

      That was the last mention of “fun”.  From the next morning on, as spring took firm hold on the hills, Bemer drilled her without mercy.  He found books with sword fighting skills in them; he spoke casually to some of the old warriors in the village; he devised exercises out of his own head.  He tied weights on her arms.  He blindfolded her.  He tossed things at her for her to strike away.
      In the beginning, these tossed things frequently got past.
      “Ouch!  Not so hard!”
      “Better than the edge of a sword.”
      As the weeks passed, her ability to hear things, sense things became so acute it was unnerving.   Her natural impatience to get on with it was replaced with an equally unnerving ability to wait.   Progress was being made every day.
      There was one problem, briefly touched at the start, that Bemer avoided until he could avoid it no longer.
      “It’s not on the entry form,” she said.  “It’s not like I’m lying. There’s no spot anywhere that asks.”
      “That’s because no one’s ever asked.”
      “We’re not asking either,” she pointed out.  “As long as I don’t look like one.  We can chop my hair off, that’ll help.”
      “It’s not like you’re … well, you don’t show or anything,” Bemer said awkwardly then, “Players wear all sorts of clothes, so we can cover anything – ”
      “Sure, so it’s not like we’re lying,” she said again.
      Probably you won’t last much more than a round or two, Bemer thought, so it’s not like it’ll be an issue.

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