A Dance with Fate – Juliet Marillier

It’s a glorious day. The sun is warm, the clouds are high puffs of white, the sea is as calm as it ever gets around Swan Island. We’re sitting on the bench seats at the combat area, tingling with anticipation, knowing today’s celebration marks the end of many months of gruelling work. Work that we’ve loved and hated. Work that has tried us to the edge of our endurance and stretched us to the furthest bounds of our ability – though, as Archu has told us, in a crisis you can always find a bit more to give. Work that has forged not only four warriors fit to join the island’s permanent force, but also four true friends. They don’t choose many. When we started training there were twenty in our group. Fifteen went home. My brother Brocc was lost on our first mission. Not dead; gone to the Otherworld, in a strange and baffling series of events. I miss him every day. I think of him every time I sing. I’m afraid he will never come back. ‘All right?’ murmurs Dau, who’s sitting beside me.

‘Fine.’ I sound sharp, but I can’t help it. I so wish Brocc was here with us, enjoying this day, sharing our success. ‘Look, there they are!’ We jump to our feet, shouting encouragement as our fellow trainees walk out onto the combat ground, staves in hand. They have the next display bout, then it’s Dau and me. We’re well warmed up, ready to go, but we’re not going to miss watching Hrothgar and Yann show their talents. A great noise goes up, the voices of every resident of Swan Island cheering the combatants. There’s nobody off on a mission at present, so there’s a crowd of nearly sixty watching: fighters, trainers, the folk who support the work of the island, and the elders: Cionnaola our leader, Archu our chief combat trainer, Brigid and Eabha and Haki and the others. They’re the best of the best. Those lucky enough – and talented enough – to be trained here are highly sought after when kings and chieftains need a task completed that’s beyond the ability of their own men-at-arms.

Or their own spies, if they have them. Sometimes our missions fall somewhat outside the rules of law. We do covert work. Secret work. That’s why we live and train in such an isolated place. It’s why few outsiders come here. And it’s why the training period is so long. They’ve not only been testing our physical skills, they’ve been making sure we’re trustworthy. Making sure we won’t crack under torture. And making sure we can think for ourselves.

It’s unusual for them to take four new fighters at once. We know how lucky we are. And we know we’ve earned it. Hrothgar and Yann enter the combat space. The field edge is marked by a circle of rope laid on the ground. The combatants halt, facing the elders, and with staves held upright they bow. Cionnaola gives a grave nod of acknowledgement. The crowd is quiet now. ‘Three coppers on Hrothgar,’ whispers Dau in my ear. ‘Done.

’ Hrothgar, a Norseman, is taller and broader than Yann. But the Armorican has a talent for deception. That makes him dangerous. Yann’s beaten me once or twice, using that skill, and I know it’s a mistake to underestimate him. The two turn to face each other and bow again. They assume a fighting pose, staves gripped in both hands, one near the end, one partway up the shaft. They move about, backward and forward, jabbing in turn, each looking for an opening. Both men wear protective leather helms – those things get hot as an oven and you end up with sweat obscuring your vision, but for this sort of fight you need them – and padded jerkins over their trousers and tunics. ‘Wait for it, wait for it,’ murmurs Dau. ‘Ah!’ as Yann loses patience and rushes forward.

His intention is clear: to knock aside Hrothgar’s staff, then jab his own toward the other man’s midriff. But he’s not quick enough; the end of Hrothgar’s weapon strikes Yann’s arm hard. I know what that does: your fingers go numb for long, precious moments. Yann skips back out of reach, winces, shaking his hand, flexing his fingers. ‘Play-actor,’ mutters Dau. I can’t argue. When Yann grips his staff again, he’s moved his hands; now they’re a handspan further along. This will place the staff slightly further away from Hrothgar than before. Yann’s used his own error to his advantage. And now, under cover of a momentary hesitation, he puts one foot forward but leans his upper body back.

‘Clever,’ I murmur. Hrothgar thrusts high to low, aiming for his opponent’s chest. If Yann hadn’t tricked him, this would be a bout-ending move. But Yann is closer than Hrothgar expected. The Armorican shifts his weight to the front foot and slides his staff through his front hand straight into Hrothgar’s chest, between the lower ribs. Hrothgar folds. He can’t breathe. His hand goes up in the gesture, I yield. The crowd roars. Yann steps back, waits for his opponent to catch his breath – it takes a while – then stands beside Hrothgar again as they acknowledge the applause.

Dau and I don’t wait to see them walk off. It’s our bout now. The last of the day; an unarmed combat, best of three rounds. ‘Can’t bet on this one,’ says Dau with a crooked smile as we make our way down to the combat area, where someone is raking the ground, getting it ready for us. Folk do have a habit of throwing things when they get excited. Dust rises around the rake. ‘But if you could, you’d bet on yourself to win, no doubt.’ ‘No doubt. I’d wish you good luck, but I want Bran’s Blade, so I won’t.’ ‘Skill beats luck,’ I tell him, pausing to put on my helm.

Gods, I hate these things! They get even hotter when you have a lot of hair to squash in, as I do. I’ve been tempted to cut my hair short, but when I’m not fighting I’m a musician, and the long hair feels right when I dress up to perform. And useful when I’m working under cover and needing to look more like an ordinary woman and less like a Swan Island warrior. At a gesture from Archu, Dau and I walk together into the combat space, where all is now in readiness. Folk cheer and shout as we go; this is a joyful day not only for us but for the whole community. A special day. Bran’s Blade is displayed on a cushion, next to Cionnaola. It will be awarded to the most outstanding fighter, not only of today but of the whole training period. It’s an old, well-kept dagger, beautifully balanced, of plain design apart from the tiny image of a bee in flight carved on the oak hilt. This weapon is said to have belonged to the man who founded Swan Island long ago, a man who was called an outlaw but who showed great heart, spirit and generosity to his fighting team.

His son and his grandson were in their turn part of the island community, and there are descendants of that original crew still among us. Nobody gets to keep Bran’s Blade forever. One of us will be given it today, to look after and to use until a new custodian earns the privilege through some act of outstanding valour or skill. A training and testing period such as the one that saw me and my three comrades win places on the island happens only rarely. It’s more usual for fighters to join the community one at a time, each coming here by his or her own path. You have to be capable. You have to be skilled. And you need the right attitude. I thought Dau lacked that when I first met him. His manner was arrogant, scornful, aloof, as you might expect from a chieftain’s son.

The mission changed my opinion. It changed both of us. But the old rivalry still remains. We both want Bran’s Blade. We both want to be the best. We salute the elders, bow to Cionnaola, position ourselves within the rope guideline. ‘Three rounds,’ calls out Archu, informing the crowd of what we already know. ‘Win two and you’re the victor. Set foot outside the boundary and you lose that round immediately. No eye gouging.

No groin strikes. Remember it’s a display bout, not a fight to the death. Break those rules and you’ll not only forfeit the fight, you’ll be emptying privies and hauling goods up from the ferry for a good long while. Understood?’ This is probably meant for me. I do have a reputation for using dirty tricks to win if the situation requires it. But I know better than to try that today of all days. Dau and I both nod and murmur, ‘Understood.’ ‘Begin,’ calls Archu. I have a plan. As we dance around, I edge toward the rope.

Close enough? Yes! I dive for Dau’s knees, aiming to send him toppling back. But as he falls he twists, managing to land inside the field. I grab at his leg. He slips from my grasp, and almost before I know it we’re both on the ground. He’s got me in a hold we call the crab, with him underneath me on his back, his legs hooked over my hips and his arm around my throat. Shit! It’s yield or pass out within a count of five. I lift my hand and make the yield sign to show I’m forfeiting the bout. Dau relaxes his grip. I suck in air. I’m shaking with fury as we disentangle ourselves and rise to our feet.

Not angry with Dau. Furious with myself for not seeing that coming. For being too slow. A pox on it! Now I have to win both remaining bouts. I stand. I make myself breathe. This wretched helm is driving me crazy, it’s so hot and I’m sweating like a pig. I unbuckle the strap and take the thing off, throwing it beyond the field edge. It’s not compulsory to wear them for unarmed bouts; we’re supposed to use our own judgement. After a moment, Dau takes his own helm off and discards it.

Gives me a little smile, or more of a smirk. In that expression I see the old Dau, the one I didn’t like much, and I grit my teeth. I’ll win this one and the next. I want Bran’s Blade. If I win it, I’ll be the first woman to do so; even Brigid, a seasoned fighter and a combat trainer, has never had custody of the weapon. ‘Go, Liobhan!’ yells someone from the crowd, and a chorus of shouting follows, some for me, some for Dau, some for both of us. I steady myself. Bout two and I need to get the advantage quickly. ‘Begin!’ calls Archu. Dau closes straight away for a grapple, but I’m expecting that after the last bout.

I duck under his grab and drive my elbow into his liver. Cruel. But effective. He groans and collapses, curled up on himself in agony. When he can make himself move, he stretches out a hand and signals yield. I help him to his feet. Part of me wants to say sorry. He’s my friend and I’ve hurt him. But you don’t let friendship get in the way of a good fight. One more round and I’ve got it.

Dau’s weakened by that blow. I can do this. I look across and meet his eye. He’s a bit pale and he’s breathing hard, as I am. Sweat sheens his face and darkens his fair hair. His eyes are narrowed; his jaw is set tight. I glare right back at him. ‘Begin!’ comes the call. We circle. No sound from the crowd now; a deathly silence lies over all.

Then, lightning quick, Dau feints a straight punch at my stomach. I grab his arm and pull him further off balance, then hook his foot out from under him. He stumbles, rolls, recovers, is back on his feet. Keep moving, Liobhan. I go for his waist. I’m a better fighter on the ground than he is. If I can tackle him down . He slides free and ankle-taps me. I stumble, fall, roll to my feet and put a few steps between us to buy time. He grins.

Too cocky by half. I’ll win this. I have to. I grab for Dau’s leg. He skips back out of reach, catches his foot on something and falls heavily. His head hits the ground so hard I hear the thud. I move to leap on him and get him in a leg lock, but suddenly I’m still. The crowd falls silent. Dau is lying face up on the hard-packed earth, with his arms flung out wide like those of a sleeping child. His eyes are closed.

His face is a ghost’s, sickly pale, and he’s very, very still. My heart skips a beat as I kneel down beside him. There was a time not so long ago when I thought I’d killed a man simply by pushing him away a bit too hard. That man lived, and so will Dau; he’s breathing. ‘Step back, Liobhan.’ Archu is beside me, and others are striding toward us: Cionnaola and Swan Island’s resident healer, Fergus. I move out of their way, but I’m not going anywhere until I know Dau’s all right. People do get knocked out from time to time during our practice bouts; you can’t run a school of warcraft without people sometimes injuring each other or themselves, though all our training is carried out under strict rules to keep us safe. Dau still hasn’t moved. Fergus performs various checks, then shakes his head and murmurs to Archu, who calls out, ‘Stretcher!’ Two men bring the stretcher; four men, under the healer’s direction, lift Dau extremely carefully onto it, keeping his body as still as they can.

I want to help but Archu motions me away. They carry the stretcher out at a snail’s pace, as if the slightest jolt might do the occupant damage. Archu and Cionnaola stay behind. They’re examining the spot where Dau fell. As I watch, Archu lifts something out of the earth. It looks like a leather cord with something strung on it, maybe a good luck charm. The sort of thing that folk throw, sometimes, when they get excited. Too small to be dangerous. Or so one would think. ‘He may have tripped on this,’ says Cionnaola.

‘Easy enough to miss it with the rake.’ He glances toward the onlookers, who are talking together in hushed voices. ‘Sheer bad luck.’ He turns to look at me. ‘You didn’t see this?’ He shows me briefly, then slips the little item in his pocket. It’s a token in the form of a bird, and I know who it belongs to, as Cionnaola likely does – the daughter of one of our cooks. A child of five, so excited by the fighting that she threw her lucky charm into the ring. I didn’t see that, but I heard her screaming, Come on, Liobhan! ‘No. It must have been partly buried. There was a lot of dust blowing around.

’ I glance over toward the gate, where the stretcher is at this moment being carried out of view. ‘Will he be all right?’ ‘I can’t answer that.’ Archu sounds grim. ‘You’d best go back to your quarters, Liobhan.’ Perhaps seeing something on my face, he softens a little. ‘I’ll make sure you’re kept informed.’ I go to my quarters and fetch clean clothing. Then it’s the bathhouse, where I strip off what I’m wearing. I scrub every inch of my body. I undo my hair from its tightly plaited combat style and wash it.

I dry myself and get into the gown and over-dress I’ve brought with me, slipping my feet into soft shoes. I bundle up the shirt and trousers to wash later. I go to the armoury and clean my leather jerkin, my belt and my boots until they’re spotless. One or two people are about, but I don’t look at them and they don’t speak to me. By the time I get back to the women’s quarters – much smaller than the men’s, since most of the island’s population is male – I have my fears under better control. But I can’t get the image out of my mind. Someone once described Dau as a handsome prince from a tale. That was how he looked: a dead prince, fallen on the battlefield in the flower of his youth, golden hair dusty and bloodied, lids closed over the sky-blue eyes, skin shadowy pale. How long will it be before Archu has news for me? Dau must be conscious by now, surely? I hang around outside the women’s quarters for a while. Everyone’s left the combat area.

People have returned to their work, and outwardly this looks like any clear spring day on the island. The breeze has got up. It’s turning the sea to whitecaps. Gulls circle and wheel overhead, crying out. Everyone will be busy. Some will be preparing the evening meal, tending to sheep or chickens, repairing drains or buildings or dry-stone walls. Some will be practising with weapons or maintaining their fitness by climbing or running or doing exercises. Some will be doing other forms of training. Swan Island must always have people ready to be sent on a mission. Calls for our expert services can come at short notice.

That’s what happened last summer, when we went under cover as travelling minstrels – Brocc and I were chosen because of our experience singing and playing back home. Oh, I so wish he was here with me now. Why hasn’t anyone brought news of Dau? I pace up and down awhile, asking myself questions with no answers. In the end I go to the infirmary to find out what’s happening, even though Archu told me to stay in the quarters. The door to the stone building is ajar, but there’s no sound from inside. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I stand outside waiting until Archu spots me and comes out, closing the door behind him. ‘Liobhan. Best if you are not here right now.’ His carefully controlled tone makes me sick with worry.

His expression is sombre. A flood of words is ready to burst from me, but I hold it back. Instead I say quietly, ‘I just want to know how he is.’ Archu sighs. ‘That was a severe knock to the head, and Fergus tells me it was in a particularly delicate spot. Dau has regained consciousness, but he’s not well. He’s in pain and confused, as you might expect. And . it seems his sight may be affected.’ A chill breath of dread passes through me.

‘You mean – how bad – may I see him?’ I put a hand up to my mouth, press the back of it against my lips to shut myself up. Otherwise I’ll wail or curse or do something stupid. ‘Fergus says no visitors. He requested the assistance of another healer, and we’ve sent for that man. Until he arrives, Criodan’s helping.’ Archu folds his arms and gives me a direct sort of look. ‘I see you’re upset, and I understand why. But you’re not needed here at present.’ ‘But –’ But Dau’s my friend. I want to know he’s all right, I want to know that he’ll be able to stay here and fight and have a future.

‘Liobhan. Go. And stay away this time. Make yourself useful elsewhere.’ Yann and Hrothgar find me as I’m washing my clothes with such violence that they threaten to come apart at the seams. One of the good things about living on Swan Island, and there are many, is that you’re surrounded by comrades, and those comrades understand how it feels when you get things wrong. Hrothgar, the tall Norseman, hauls himself up to sit on the workbench with his legs dangling, and Yann asks in his soft Armorican accent if I’m all right. I shut my eyes for a moment, my hands still in the washtub. ‘Want to talk about it?’ asks Hrothgar. I lift the trousers out of the trough and wring them out hard.

Yann reaches past me without a word and does the same with the shirt. ‘Have you heard anything?’ I make myself ask. ‘Any news on how he’s doing?’ ‘Nothing yet. I heard him shouting, earlier. Sore head, I suppose. He went down hard.’ ‘Shouting what?’ ‘Not words. Just angry noises.’ I’m silent as I go out the back to hang the garments on a line, where the wind will dry them quickly. The two men follow.

We stand there awhile looking out toward the mainland. There’s a small settlement over there, part of the Swan Island community. It houses a secretive training establishment known as the Barn, a stable block and exercise area for horses, and accommodation for the folk who work there. Dau and I trained for our mission in the Barn, with my brother. Gods, was that only three seasons ago? The mission, losing Brocc, having to go home and explain to my parents, then coming back here and working myself to breaking point to win a permanent place – all of that between one summer and the next spring? Today’s display should have been a celebration of our achievement. It still can be. Dau may appear at suppertime, a little pale and unsteady but managing a wry comment or two and a bite to eat. He may be back to his old self by tomorrow or the next day. ‘I heard they were getting a healer from the mainland,’ I say, wondering if what I see out there is one of our boats or a fishing vessel from elsewhere. The men don’t comment.

‘He tripped on something so small. Just a strip of cord and a tiny amulet. I don’t know how it could do so much damage.’ ‘He struck his head hard.’ Yann’s voice is grave. ‘These things happen, even when you are careful. Simple bad luck.’ ‘It was my fault.’ I make myself say it. ‘If he’d been wearing his helm he wouldn’t have been so badly injured.

He took it off because I took mine off. To make the bout fair. And look what happened.’ ‘You can’t blame yourself,’ says Hrothgar. ‘This was pure accident. And removing the helm was Dau’s choice.’ There’s a long silence then. I suspect the two of them are thinking what I’m thinking. Eventually I say it; better to get it out now, to my friends, than have to ask Archu or, worse still, Cionnaola, who is the highest figure of authority on Swan Island. ‘What if he’s really badly hurt? So badly that he can’t stay on here? What would happen?’ ‘That’s a question for the elders, not us,’ says Hrothgar.

‘Folk do sometimes stay on after injuries,’ says Yann. ‘If there is other work they can do, something that is needed.’ That’s true, as far as it goes. A person with a lame leg could still maintain weaponry, draw maps, devise strategy, teach others. A damaged arm would mean no more combat, but that person could still keep night watch or help look after the sheep. A head injury is more challenging, but the codes of Swan Island, the ones we all live by, mean the community stands by its wounded and broken. There’s a warrior named Guss on the island, a man of around forty who has bouts of dizziness and confusion from a blow to the head. He’s big and strong but he can’t fight any more. They could have sent Guss home. But Swan Island had been his life since he was a young man of our age, and he had no other home, so they found a job for him.

He lives in a lean-to at the back of the druid’s hut. He fetches Criodan’s meals, helps tend his little garden and does other useful things such as mixing ink and gathering quills for pens. He and Criodan watch over each other, and the whole community watches over the two of them. Swan Island may be full of fierce fighters, but tolerance and compassion rank high on its list of codes. And there’s work for everyone. Or there should be. I can’t think of any job on the island that would be safe for a blind person, and from the looks on my companions’ faces, I deduce they’ve reached the same conclusion. Nobody’s asking the hardest question: What if he dies? ‘He’ll get better,’ Hrothgar says. ‘This is Dau we’re talking about. He’s unbreakable.

’ ‘Unstoppable,’ says Yann. ‘Before you know it, he will be fully recovered. Meanwhile enjoy the reprieve from his biting wit.’ Suppertime comes and there’s still no news. The mood in the dining hall is subdued. On most nights we have music after the meal, and sometimes dancing – we work long, hard days and that’s a good way to end them. Generally the band consists of Archu on the bodhrán, me singing and playing the whistle, a woman named Eimear on a second whistle, and whoever else feels like joining in. My brother Brocc is a skilled harpist whose singing voice could melt the stoniest of hearts. Every time we play without him, I feel his absence as an ache in my chest. There will be no music tonight.

I don’t even bother taking my whistle with me to the hall. There’s a chill in me that runs deep. I can’t keep my thoughts in order. If he’s going to die, they would have told us. That’s no comfort at all. Maybe they just can’t work out what’s wrong. Very possible, since they sent for the second healer. And if that man is not yet here, we may have to wait until morning for news. The healer might have been in the middle of setting a broken leg or delivering a child. He might live some distance away.

‘Liobhan?’ Hrothgar digs me in the ribs, jolting me back to the here and now. How long have I been sitting over my untouched meal staring at nothing? Archu is in the doorway of the dining hall. He looks tired and sad. The whole place has gone silent. ‘We’ll be moving Dau across to the mainland in the morning,’ Archu says. He’s working on sounding calm and confident, with some success. ‘Fergus will go over with him, and the other healer, when he arrives, will meet with them there. We can look after Dau more effectively at the Barn, at least until we have further insight into his condition.’ A pause. I glance at my companions – Yann on my left, Hrothgar on my right – and hope someone will ask the question I can’t ask.

It comes from Brigid, who is seated at a different table. ‘How is Dau faring, Archu? Has his condition improved at all?’ A murmur goes around the hall; everyone is concerned. Dau may have a habit of rubbing folk up the wrong way, but he’s one of us. ‘I wish I had better news for you,’ says Archu. ‘He’s drifting in and out of consciousness. In pain and not making much sense. He still has no vision. We must hope that condition is temporary.’ Before anyone else can get a word in – it’s clear people want to speak – Brigid says, ‘No more questions now. You can see Archu’s tired.

Someone fetch him food and drink. And let us eat in peace. We’re all concerned. And we all know Dau will receive the best care that can possibly be provided. In the morning you get up as usual, you eat your breakfast and you get on with your work.’ Archu leaves most of his supper. He drinks his ale, has a quiet word with Cionnaola and Brigid and some of the other elders, then leaves the hall. Since he’s given no sign of wanting to talk to me, I don’t follow him out with my own questions. I’d like to go to the infirmary and offer my services. My mother is a healer and I couldn’t have grown up in her household without learning useful skills.

I could sit up with Dau overnight so Fergus could catch some sleep. I can make poultices and administer draughts, and I know when to call in someone with more expertise. But it feels like I’m the last person who should offer. The night is endless. Either I’m lying wide awake on my bed trying not to disturb the other women, or I’m having nightmares so black I wake drenched in sweat and shaking. Before dawn I get up, dress and walk all the way to the other end of the island and back, so fast that if Brigid could see me she would reprimand me for taking unnecessary risks on the cliff paths. Which would be funny if I could find the least scrap of fun in me anywhere, because when Dau was asked to assess my performance in our shared mission – Archu does that kind of thing – he identified my tendency toward risk-taking as both an asset and a liability. When the community buildings come into view I slow my pace to a brisk stride. I’m not a great believer in gods or their capacity to respond to our prayers. But I pray now, a childish sort of prayer to anyone who might be listening. Let him be better today. Let him speak properly, even if it’s only to curse his misfortune. Let him open his eyes and see. Archu is up early too. He’s coming along the path toward me, wearing his big fur cloak as if ready for travel. We meet and halt. ‘Liobhan.’ His tone is grave and kind and deadly serious. ‘We’re taking him over on the boat after breakfast. He had a restless night and is much the same this morning. I want you to come with us. Go and pack a bag. The healers need an assistant who knows what she’s doing.’ ‘Of course. I’m glad I can be of some help.’ Archu folds his arms and looks down at the ground. ‘There’s something further you need to know. We’ve sent a message to Dau’s family, telling them he’s been seriously injured and asking what they want to do. If they send someone here it’s possible, even likely, that the person may want to speak to you. You understand why we would not want their representative on the island.’ I do understand. The code of secrecy is long established in the Swan Island community. The more folk learn about what we do, the harder it becomes to keep missions covert and the less likely it is that we’ll be hired. That’s not all. Many of our folk have secrets they don’t want known, dark events of the past that are best set behind them. The island code forgives the time before a person joins us; all that is asked is that the new arrival treads a different path from that moment on, a better, wiser, braver path. So yes, I understand what he’s saying, and in Dau’s case it’s horribly ironic. His kinsfolk possibly coming here? That can’t happen.

.

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