From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

September 3, 2011


Posted by Megan Arkenberg with 3 comments
First published in A Fly in Amber, January 2008. Full story behind cut.

* * *
Beryl’s footsteps are very heavy. The whole floor shakes as she moves around, and doors rattle in their frames. I often wonder that she doesn’t notice these things, but then again, her eyes are not blind like mine.
She stands still behind me now. I know because the floorboards stop creaking and the air fills with her metallic scent. She thinks that I won’t be able to find her if she doesn’t move, but she is wrong.
“Girl!” She barks like an angry dog. “Where is my training sword?”

This is a favorite game of hers--to hide her things when I am finished cleaning them, and then to make me hunt for them.

“I left it on the desk in your room, lady.”

“Well, it isn’t there now. You’d better bring it back, girl, unless you want Mother to hear that you’ve been stealing again.”
I grit my teeth. The sound is grating to my ears, but I know Beryl can’t hear it. “I’ll look for it when I’m finished with the tablecloth.”

The cloth is a soft weight across my knees. It is slightly damp and still smells fresh from the thyme-and-lavender soap. I run my fingers along the smooth linen, searching for any irregularity. When I find one, I carefully sew it up with short, even stitches.
"Never mind the cloth, I have lessons with Master Lanthan in an hour. I need my sword by then."

Heavy footsteps, and then Beryl is gone. I set the tablecloth down on the floor with a sigh. There’s no telling where she might have put the sword this time. I could ask help searching from Niobi, our old cook, but her eyes are hardly better than mine.

I stand and make my way to the sewing room door with careful steps--it would delight Beryl to no end to leave obstacles in the way for me to trip over, and I wouldn’t be able to hear her dragging it over the sound of her own stomping. Sure enough, the hem of my skirt catches on something. I reach down with one hand and feel the warm coarseness of my wicker sewing basket. I carry it back to my chair and finally make my way out of the room and into the servants’ hallway.
Beryl’s room is three doors away from this one, mostly because this room is directly above the kitchen. I run my hand along the uneven plaster wall and count the doorways until I reach one of heavy ironwood. Because of Beryl’s childhood passion for slamming doors, her mother had this one made specially. It is hard to open, though years of hauling wood and water have made my arms strong.
The door pulls back. I take a deep breath and go in: I hate the smell of this room. It is all sweat and metal and oily soaps. But it is here that Beryl often hides things, for she is a girl with little imagination. I search the obvious places first: the desk, the bed, the top of Beryl’s clothing chest. All are clear. I start riffling through the drawers of her wardrobe, shifting through layers of mixed silk, velvet and leather until my thumb comes across something sharp and hard. Quickly, I pull my injured right hand out of the drawer to keep from getting blood on the expensive fabrics. With my left, I grope along the cold blade until my fingers brush the fine gems and metal work of the sword hilt.
I am so focused on my task, I don’t hear the footsteps until they are directly behind me.

“You’re bleeding,” Beryl says, her voice thin with distaste. For such a vicious girl, she cannot stand the sight of blood.

“Yes,” I say. “I know. Now take your sword and get ready for your lesson, or you’ll be late.”

The hilt is roughly yanked from my fingers. “I don’t take orders from you, girl,” Beryl snaps. “And before I leave--make sure you refold the clothes.”
“Yes,” I begin, just as her mother screeches from downstairs.

“Girl! Isn’t that tablecloth done yet?”

* * *

When I finish folding Beryl’s clothing as neatly as possible with only on hand, I return to the sewing room, only to find that my needle has been unthreaded. Rage makes my hands unsteady, for of all Beryl’s tricks, this is the hardest to remedy. I have learned to do much without vision, but I still cannot thread a needle on my own.

At the beginning of each week, Niobi threads a whole line for me to use. I open my sewing box and feel the tiny needle ends for one with a bit of thread still attached, but all are empty, either used up or undone by Beryl’s malice.

“Girl!” Mistress shrieks like metal on slate. I slam the sewing box shut in frustration and lean out the door.

Scuff, scuff, scuff-a, Mistress’s slippers whisper on the floorboards. The sound comes from my right. I turn to face it, and immediately my mouth is filled with a musky taste. It’s patchouli, Mistress’s favorite perfume. I hate it almost as much as Beryl’s room.

“Vanad isn’t able to take Beryl to her lessons today,” Mistress chirps. “You will have to go with her instead.”

“Why can’t Beryl go on her own?”

“What? At this hour? If you stand on our front steps, you wouldn’t be able to see across the street for all the people! However would she find her way?”
“I wouldn’t be able to see across the street anyway,” I say quietly. “And I’m perfectly capable of finding my way around the city.”
Mistress inhales sharply. Sometimes I think she forgets my blindness.
“Go to her, now,” she says, with what passes for a commanding note in her shriek-owl voice.
I want to protest, but I feel a rush of cool air on my face as she turns her back to me and slips back down the hall.
With a sigh, I feel my way towards the staircase. It is right next to the sewing room. Though I have traveled up or down it every day for years, I am still uneasy about the narrow, uneven steps. There is no railing. I stretch my arms out and, pressing my hands against the walls on either side of me, slowly inch forward and down.
I have never bothered to count the steps before, but I know there are more than twelve. It seems to take forever for me to reach the bottom.
At last, I feel the cold stone of the kitchen floor beneath my feet. Beryl is down here, I can hear her stomping around.
“Your mother says I am to take you to lessons,” I say, facing the noise.

Beryl snorts in response. I open the kitchen door: it leads out into an alleyway. Outside, the air is still. An echo of loud voices and rushing bodies reaches my ears from the street beyond. I pause at the door for a moment, trying to remember which direction Master Lanthan’s school is in before I reach the busy roads.
Beryl’s footsteps sound behind me, and I feel her hot presence at my elbow. “Come on,” she says, clenching my wrist.

I allow her to drag me down the alley and into the street, where we take a right. A horrible combination of smells fills the air, musky scents like Mistress’s and heavy metallic scents like Beryl’s. We walk by a dye merchant’s stall, and the sour smell is so strong I hold my breath.
Beryl tightens her grip and pulls me in another direction. I hope Mistress was wrong and that Beryl really does know where we’re going, because I don’t think I will be able to find my way home by myself. We walk past a group of young men: their laughter, low and musical, follows us down the street. I feel Beryl stiffen beside me and wonder just what they’re laughing about.
Suddenly, Beryl stops. I cannot feel the sun on the top of my head, so we must be standing beneath a roof of some sort. Door hinges creak somewhere near us.
“What do you want?” a woman calls. Her voice is throaty but not unpleasant.
“I’m here for Master Lanthan,” Beryl says.

A door opens. I can suddenly hear the clash of metal on metal and a firm male voice calling out directions.

Beryl steps inside, pulling me along after her. The air within is cool and faintly rose-scented. I hold my hand out in front of me, and my fingers brush against a column of icy marble. I reach higher, and feel something dry and round winding around the pillar: a rose vine. My fingers close around a globe of soft petals, but Beryl drags me away before I can investigate farther.

“Stay here,” she commands, shoving me against a wall. I slowly sink to my knees as she walks away. The floor feels hard and cold through the thin fabric of my dress.

The metallic echos grow louder as Beryl draws her sword and joins in. I can pick her hits out of all the others: like her footsteps, they are heavy and without rhythm. She is strong, but does not have the grace to be a truly talented fighter.
As the hour flows by, I find myself caught up in the ringing music of the weapons lesson. Master Lanthan’s voice is firm and clear, like the sound the swords make when they strike each other. I hear the door open several times as more students join the class. Each time, the sudden smell of the air from the street makes me grateful that I’m not running errands for Mistress today.
The sound stops suddenly as the class pauses to rest. All is silent for a few moments, and then I hear the sound of liquid pouring. A chorus of light clinking follows as glasses of water are passed around.
A group of girls gathers near me, speaking in low whispers. One of them bursts out in jarring laughter. It is easy enough to guess the object of their derision. I press myself farther back against the wall, wishing I could vanish into the stone.
Beryl is coming near. Something has made her angry: I can hear it in her breathing. Short, shallow snorts, like a wild animal about to charge.
The girls stop speaking. One steps forward, the light tap of her sandaled toe on the floor echoing through the hall.
“Well, if it isn’t Lady Beryl,” she says. Her voice is taunt with scorn. “Have you picked a fight with someone already today, or am I to be the first?”
“You aren’t worth my time, Magne,” Beryl returns.

“Oh?” Magne’s friends chuckle half-heartedly. There is a tight cord of danger rippling through the air, and I wondered what Magne is playing at. “What about Rheni? She was worth your time, wasn’t she?”
“She earned every blow,” Beryl snapped. “And you will too, if you don’t be careful.”
“What are you going to do, stomp me into the ground?”
The girls laugh again, this time with Magne at the head. Her laugh is like a clear hawk’s call. I can’t help it--I join in.

The sound is barely out of my throat when I feel Beryl’s crushing grip on my shoulder.
“You think they’re funny, do you?” she growls in my ear. “Do you find them amusing? At least they can fight for themselves.” She drags me to my feet. I try to shrink away, but her clutch is powerful.
“Are you ready to fight me?”
I try to protest. The other girls gather around us, blocking my escape routes. Someone presses the hilt of a sword into my hand and closes my fingers around it.
“Come on, girl!” Beryl laughs. Something swings by close to my head. I duck down as the others back away.
This time Beryl stabs. Her blade bounces off the floor beside me. I wonder if she is missing on purpose, or if anger weakens her aim. I crawl back on my hands and knees, listening hard for the sound of Beryl’s following footsteps.
“Stand up, you fool!” someone shouts. I am too scared and confused to tell if it’s Beryl. I swing my sword in an arc high above my head, and a shiver runs down my arm as it connects with metal. From Beryl’s grunt of pain, I know it is her armor and not her sword.
I leap to my feet and swing again in her direction. This time, my blow is blocked. I feel a cool rush of air as her blade swishes downwards at my stomach. I jump back. Her heavy footsteps move to my left. I follow them with my sword, stabbing out just ahead of her. Her armor rings out as it collides with the blade.
And then suddenly I am gasping for breath on the floor. My side burns, my lungs burn, and a horrible grinding noise fills my ears. The flat of Beryl’s blade comes down on me again, driving all air from my chest. I want to scream, to shout at her to stop it, but I can’t speak. I can’t move. I can only lie here and wait for the next blow, and this time I know it won’t be the flat edge...

I am standing. I don’t know how I got to my feet: I only know that I am standing and clutching my sword high above my head, ready to strike. My sides are unprotected, but I can hear Beryl’s harsh breathing, I can feel the presence of her sword far below me, and I know she will not attack, not before I‘ve had my chance to strike. I hear gasps of surprise behind me, Magne’s clear voice louder than the rest.

I hurl my sword down with all the strength in my body, thinking of all the hidden swords, the unthreaded needles, the bruises I’ve received at Beryl’s hands. It connects solidly, ringingly. Beryl moans in pain. I hear the clatter of her sword falling to the floor.

And then the room is silent.

I drop my sword down beside Beryl’s. My arms are trembling, but not with pain. I feel the press of bodies around me, but no one speaks. Even Beryl’s ugly sobs are muted.

The silence stretches on. Finally, it is broken by one curt word in Magne’s sharp tone.

“Girl.” The sound comes from directly in front of me. I resist the urge to reach out and feel exactly how close we are standing to each other. “Girl, where in the world did you learn to fight like that?”
A chorus of voices join in. “Yes, impressive!” “No one’s defeated Beryl for months.” “Are you sure she’s blind?” I try to face all the speakers at once, but it is impossible. I can only listen to their voices, listen to the sounds of praise and--could it be admiration?

“And you say she’s a servant?” The male voice is full of indignation. “She could be trained as a warrior! Girl, what would you say to attending lessons here with your mistress?”
I stammer out a reply, hardly knowing what words passed my own lips. The noise dies down, but someone hands the sword back to me and a guiding arm is wrapped around my shoulders.
As the group of delighted fighting students leads me to join in their lessons, I can hear Beryl’s heavy footsteps tramping out the door and into the dusty street beyond.


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