For warriors the stones of this arena can be treacherous, weathered for millennia and loose underfoot like broken teeth in a skeletal jaw, or mere centuries old, worn but firm enough for combat.
There’s always ivy, either in sparse creepers or sometimes giant gnarled boughs of tangled and impenetrable thickets.
I’m alone in this secret place until the image of a friend appears – a friend not here.
“Don’t even think about sticking that thing in me, not while I’m eating ice cream – it’s bloody oriental ginger.” A sea zephyr blows strands of hair across Elanor’s lips, where they linger. She looks at me through fierce eyes, ready for any sign of assault. “Want some?”
I take the proffered cone, slimy paper disintegrating around it. “Where are you?”
“On a beach somewhere. Ice cream tastes better on beaches. Where are you?”
“Hmm, oriental ginger. How many have you had?”
“I don’t know; I’m going to be sick though. Finish that one for me. Are you still in the arena?”
“Yes, I blinked and you were gone. After a single lonely nanosecond you reappear with ice cream.”
“Wait.” Elanor shudders in the force of a wave. Her school uniform is soaked, crumpled, and looking a bit pornographic. Scooping water she washes her face. “I’ve been on a journey. A long one to far far away.”
“Is it over?”
She screws up her face in thought. “It’s only ever over when you can sit down and tell someone about it,” she sighs, “and then it’s time for another.”
“A bit like ice cream, then…”
“Yeah … gimme that back, pig.” She reaches out.
“No, it’s oriental ginger and I’ll die before I let you have it.”
She steps towards me and onto the arena, seawater draining from her skirt and legs, running in lines between pavés. “Fine then, what do you want me to kill you with?”
I raise my sword. “I’m on rapier at the moment.”
“I’ll get a gun. Do we have any?”
“This is a dream; you can have what you want.”
“I’ll take my ice cream back then.” She leads and we move to the arena’s edge and towering arch.
“Are you going to tell me about your journey?” I ask.
Over her shoulder she calls back, “No, you’ve been on it too. I can tell. That’s why I’m back here. You’re going to take me on another; I can feel it.” Elanor pauses, waiting, taking the ice cream and my hand. She joins in step with me. “You’re my interesting person, remember?”
“Aye, that’s exactly how you should feel. I think you could help. I want to fight. Maybe I need to wake up in the real world and deal with Mhairhie: she’s a problem.”
“No she’s, not: you are. You need to sort yourself out.”
Elanor tosses the papier-mâché mess of paper up. It vanishes: she’s tidy at least. Turning to me she says, “You are in huge trouble when you say things like that.”
“Excellent. I want to know all your weak points because I’m going to make you miserable and furious.”
“Gobshite, you tosser. You have no power over me.”
“Naturally, but you have less over yourself and are about to see I’m right and you’re wrong.” We stroll under the arch and into a lofty vaulted armoury, Elanor glancing at me. Her lips compressed, she’s flushed slightly. I don’t want flushed: I want pale and murderous.
I wonder if Elanor is the job I’m here to do? Maybe I’m just hanging around in this dream because I’m too lazy to go elsewhere. Did I think ‘lazy’? There’s none of that nonsense here. I can do what I like.
She’s dreaming so I’m not real; I’m dreaming so she’s not real. However, I’ve adopted this wonderful world as my home and have it sussed. I also know that, real or unreal, Elanor is a person which means if I’m going to do something for her I will put everything into it at whatever cost.
She’s responding, tense and focussed, glancing at my rapier and studying a rack of swords, lifting a beautiful bronze kopesh and posing with it, cutting air.
I decide to take her through an emotional progression in tiny steps so she doesn’t realise what’s happening and withdraw through fear.
I also need to be devious. “In the moment you were away, I went to see a friend of yours. Oh, she’s lovely; charming, charismatic: gorgeous eyes and lips…”
Elanor selects a heavy rapier and frowns at the hilt and guard. Her eyes narrowed a little at my words, features hardening. “How am I supposed to hold this thing?”
I wave mine. “Like this, index finger round the quillon, crossguard … this bit. Incidentally, your friend…”
Elanor interrupts and snaps at me, “If you’re talking about Mhairhie … you are, aren’t you? … you can stop right now.”
I scrape the sword tip along a wooden bar of the rack. “But she’s your beautiful friend…” She tenses more. This process seems to be going a lot more easily than I anticipated.
“Shut up and teach me how to use this.” She’s hunched now, and paler: glaring at me.
“That she’s you friend is a good thing because…”
She turns to me, testing the blade in hissing arcs. “Would this this be any good against yours?”
I’ve wound her up a bit but either I’m failing to enrage her or she has amazing control or ability to distract herself. “That’s what’s commonly called a sidesword now. Stronger than mine but a tiny bit slower. I’ll go for a longsword then.”
“Rubbish,” she answers, pinning hair out of her eyes. “We’re doing Romeo and Juliet in English so I know rapiers are better than longswords.”
I pull a slim and beautiful Italian example from its scabbard. “Seriously? You think your knitting needle will trounce one of these?”
“This isn’t fair; you know what you’re doing with all this stuff.” She pauses, looking away. “What did Mhairhie say to you anyway?”
Ah, the hook is in! “First you should understand that a determined attack from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing is one of the greatest fears of experts: they haven’t a clue what to expect. Second, I saw Mhairhie both in the present and future.”
“And…?” The tip of her sword points exactly at my chest. This is rarely a happy situation.
“I may have said the wrong things to her which led to some unfortunate outcomes – unfortunate for you that is.”
Elanor strides towards me, still leaving splats of wet footprints. “What the fuck did you do? Tell me!”
“Do you know she actually hates you? I mean totally loathes you. I’ve never met someone so jealous of another. She can’t keep up with you in the classroom or in sports. You outshine her by far. The only thing she can do is control you with the threat of social rejection. That’s her battleground and you fail every day, every minute, because you’re weak and terrified. The slightest confrontation with her and you’d be alone, humiliated, scorned by all your friends. They’d be talking behind your back, spreading rumours, whispering, sniggering… You meekly give in every time. All her plans, or those she gets the rest to dream up, are about getting you into trouble, slowing you down in class – anything. You are the clique’s clown. They’re all laughing at you.”
At last, she’s going pale – apart from a stark pink circle on either cheekbone. Eyes wide, pupils dilated, I’m getting there. It’s time to push her over the precipice. “I saw her about fifteen years in the future. She succeeds in her plan to seduce your sweet gullible brother, get pregnant, have twins, marry, have the house … the one you grew up in … given to her, get rid of your brother and install someone richer. The icing on her cake is to allow you to visit your nephews while making you feel unwelcome – in your childhood house – and making it clear you’re utterly beaten.” Here we go… “I’m so sorry; I didn’t realise she was talking about your brother or I wouldn’t have suggested all that to her.”
She’s rigid, fingers blanched, one in a fist the other around the sword hilt. “My brother … Mike?” She’s not talking to me though. Blank eyes: I’m no longer a person but the focus of Elanor’s fury – fury built over years.
I expect a wild slash, descending right to left. Instead I get a shriek and lightning lunge for the throat. My awkward parry, unprepared, deflects her point but not…
The blade plunges into my left elbow, grinding between bones. But worse, a savage twist severs a tendon as she pulls back.
It’s too early for pain but I’m down to one handed fighting – with a two handed sword. My arm flops: Elanor knows what she’s done. Shit, this lady understands more about combat than she let on. Another deadly lunge sings against my blade as I knock it aside and have to leap away, having left myself open. Crashing against a rack, weapons tumble but Elanor’s in there, pushing me back and back. Her sword cuts a bar of sunlight. Another flash and she pierces my right knee, draws back, rises, thrusts feinting, drops and hits the same place. Now I know some of what this lady was up to while she was away. Hair flying wild again, it glues to her face with spit.
I’m outclassed and stumbling. Her slash slices from my forehead to jaw – half blinding me with blood. My knee again! Head cracking on the floor, I try to roll aside. The hilt of her sword hits my face: she’s thrown it. There’s a clatter of metal and wood. What’s she doing? Trying to wipe my eyes, I scream as a mace crunches a foot … now my pelvis … now my chest: again and again.
Ribs pierce lungs, blood covers my face in hot sprays.
Elanor yells, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” her words tangled in screams, “Oh, God, oh, God…”
I am so glad we’re here and not what is often misnamed reality. Drawing myself back together, I rise on my elbows. “That was pretty good, Elanor. My other knee feels a bit left out though, and you missed some ribs.”
She grips the mace harder but slumps, the steel shaft clacking on stone. “Fuck. I’m so sorry, so sorry: oh God.”
“What you should be sorry about is losing control. Let’s do it all again but try to keep calmer this time.”
“What? are you…? How…?”
“I’m totally fine.” Rising to my feet, I add, “I’ve had worse. This is a dream, remember?” I check every bit of me works and I’m not still leaking everywhere. “What shall we use this time … I mean what swords are you only moderately exceptionally brilliant with?” I walk towards the mess of weapons we disturbed. However, Elanor remains silent. I turn and look. She’s pale, trembling and hugging herself: few people are happy to discover the monster within. Yes, Elanor, the monster in us who can kill, torture, rape and enslave.
Good. I walk back and wrap her in a hug. “Now we’re going to start from the beginning: kill me again.” Taking her hand, I lead back to the broken rack. “Quarterstaves versus escrima? I’ve never tried that.” Giving her a shove with my hip, I add, “Get a grip or you’re in for what you just gave me.”
She still doesn’t respond so I lift a staff, whirl round and smack her kneecap. “Stings, doesn’t it?”
“Back off, you moron! I’m not in the mood.”
“You will be.” One end of the staff thuds into her right shoulder just enough to hurt quite a lot. “Um…” I say, “Where…? Oh, yes, knees.” This time she dodges but just enough, with no wasted energy. Elanor really knows her stuff. I keep attacking, always herding her towards weapons as she backs away. Two more hits and she’s among them, enraged again. This is like tormenting a hive of giant carnivore slaughter-bees – but that’s the point.
I ignore Elanor’s cries of, “Stop, stop,” until, back in fury, she snatches up a short sword in one hand and an escrima in the other. Her circling and hesitation, as if sizing me up, hints that she’s not used to this type of combat. However, I’ve learned my lesson and keep safe, jumping about, feinting and dodging to see how she handles herself – and to keep her boiling over.
She’s adopted high and low guards, too weak against a staff but she’s nimble and can … oh well: here goes. I leap in. My quarterstaff whooshes through air but I pull it back to avoid her blocks, and stab instead.
Elanor’s weapons drop: she wasn’t going to use them! Grabbing my staff and twisting her whole body, she tries to tear it from my grip – and almost succeeds. Instead I’m pulled towards her and get an elbow smack in the face. When will I ever learn?
Stunned and disarmed, but still mainly whole, I roll over a clutter of weapons – none of them designed to be comfortable. Attempting to grab something with which to defend myself, I stand and find I’m holding one of the rack bars, about half my length again and as wide as a hand. Shit.
Elanor stops, her mouth open in astonishment. “Oh, lumps of wood, is it?” Nails screech as she levers another bar free and a line of polearms thunders to the floor. “I’ll bloody plank you to death.”
I only have a moment to recognise this as a major intellectual and emotional shift in her before she roars and the bar descends towards my head. It is the most ridiculous choice of weapon here; side-on air resistance and no counterbalance make it slow and hopelessly predictable. I step back, and back, through the arch and onto arena paving. Sunlight dazzles me for a moment so I hasten my retreat until it affects her the same.
She slides to my right even so and my strike clumps on the ground. Dust whirls up and the wood vibrates so hard I feel my teeth hum. Elanor’s riposte is delivered with such force her bar breaks. Now she’s holding a more manageable weapon with serious stabbing potential. I give in, drop mine, turn to run, but fall – tangled in ivy that absolutely wasn’t there before.
Elanor flops beside me and rolls on her back, laughing, kicking the ground with her heels. “You’re buggered now. Just wait until I get my breath back. Then I’ll kill you and you’ll be sorry.”
“What if I get my breath back first?”
“You’ll just have to wait.” She snorts, laughing still. “That was fucking brilliant. We all have that – that anger – inside us, don’t we?”
“Or the potential. It’s only a case of accepting it and choosing to use it the way you want instead of letting it control you.”
She takes a deep breath to talk, “Exactly. I went to find the truth; it seems to have made me see things … learn things faster. I was frightened by myself – what I could do if I went apeshit. I mean I actually lost control and killed you.”
“It was beautiful. Tell me where you learned to fight. You’re amazing.”
“Here, you taught me: it’s complicated.”
Really? That sounds interesting. I’ll ask her later. Meantime… “Are you going back to sort out Mharhie?”
“No; on second thoughts she’s on her own journey and I won’t intrude. I think she’s trying to get the acceptance and respect she never got as a child. Poor Mhairhie has the anguish stored like energy in an overcharged battery but doesn’t explode like me, just leaks that sticky acidy stuff into everyone around her. Anyway, I’m not ready to help yet and don’t think I’d get permission anyway. Plus I can’t go back to being totally human and all the ignorance that comes with it until I’ve finished something here. There’s a healthy balance between knowing everything and knowing nothing. I’m happier somewhere around this level just now.”
Join the club, Elanor… “Sometimes I wonder if ignorance is how we start off, realise I’m probably wrong, then I get confused and give up because I don’t actually care.”
“You total fiend. Now I need Ice cream.”
©Gary Bonn, 2021