Read An Excerpt

PASSION PLAY
by Beth Bernobich

Genre: General Fantasy, Fantasy

 | Read Book Review

...Kosenmark led her down by the back stairs and out a side passage into the courtyard where Benedikt Ault waited, arms folded and smiling. He was a lean spare man, his dark hair brushed with gray, clipped so severely she could see his scalp. Though he stood a head shorter than Kosenmark, he had an air of strength and speed. He smiled faintly at them both. "Another session, my lord? Or was I too easy on you this morning?"

"Both and neither, Benedikt. Here is your newest student."

Ault nodded, but he was studying Ilse with narrowed eyes—assessing her, she thought. She glanced from one man to the other. "Swords?"

"Knives, then swords," Kosenmark said. "But first, the hand-to-hand techniques—if you agree. And if Maester Ault agrees. Benedikt, can you teach her enough to do battle with me?"

"Certainly, my lord. Stand to one side and watch," he told Ilse. "I want to demonstrate first on Lord Kosenmark. Then you shall try the technique on me. Lord Kosenmark, if you please."

Kosenmark took a stand opposite his teacher, feet planted apart. "See," Ault said to Ilse. "Square, like his. Now watch. My lord?"

Ault held out his right hand and made a fist. Kosenmark gripped Ault's wrist. "Open the hand like so," Ault said, demonstrating as he spoke. "Now step left, outside the attacker's foot. Roll the wrist toward you, lifting your elbow. So."

Ault broke free of Kosenmark's grip, whipping his elbow whipped past Kosenmark's throat. One, two strikes toward Kosenmark's face and his groin, stopping short each time. Then he swiveled around, swinging his other hand in an arc toward Kosenmark's temple.

"Again."

He repeated the movements slowly, explaining as he went. Then he dismissed Kosenmark to one side and told Ilse to take his place.

Kosenmark sat by the wall, while Ilse took his place. Ault studied her stance a moment. "Almost, Mistress Ilse. More like this." His hands pushed and pulled her arms, shoulders, and feet, until he was satisfied. "Now, hold out your left hand and make a fist."

She did so. He grasped her wrist.

"Think of someone you hate," Ault said under his breath. "Imagine they have just captured you."

Her father. Alarik Brandt. Theodr Galt.

"Which one?" she whispered.

"The one you wish most to break free of."

Ilse looked into his face and tried to picture Theodr Galt. No, she had escaped him thoroughly. Brandt, then. For a moment, she panicked. She took a calming breath and fought down the panic. Concentrating on doing exactly what Ault showed her, she stepped left and pulled hard. Ault gripped tighter. Ilse jerked her hand back. When she felt him loosen his grip, she twisted free. What came next? A strike. And another. She tried copying Ault's fluid movements, but she could guess how clumsy she looked

"Make the fist before I grab you," he said, as she rubbed her sore wrists. "Then relax your hand and move fast. We'll do it slowly until you learn the motions, however."

They practiced that move a dozen times. Ault showed her two more techniques, both starting from the same position. Once she had them memorized, he made her repeat each one slowly at first, while he critiqued her every move. The next round he exhorted her to move as quickly as she could. By the time he announced the lesson was over, her arms and wrists ached.

"Good enough for one day," he said, nodding. "We'll repeat these techniques tomorrow and the next day and the day after that. Now sit over there and watch. You might learn something from Lord Kosenmark's lesson." He turned toward Kosenmark, who was already standing. "Shall we show her steel, my lord? Or do you prefer the wooden practice blades?"

Kosenmark's teeth flashed in the bright sunlight. "Steel, Benedikt. It fits my mood today."

Ault and Kosenmark selected their swords from the rack. "First position," said Ault, raising his sword.

"Ready."

Ault's blade swung toward Kosenmark's. A quick series of strikes and blocks followed, the swords moving so fast they changed into bright blurs as metal caught sunlight. Ilse held her breath. There was a pattern, she could almost see it from how one blade turned and twisted and met the other in a crash, and then the same happened but in reverse as Kosenmark and Ault each took turns advancing or retreating across the yard. Ault, of course, was the master, and every movement showed it, but Kosenmark was far faster and more agile than she had expected. He was strong, too; more than once, he caught Ault's sword and nearly wrenched it from his grip. 

It made Ilse think how strength and skill were not enough. So many other factors could change a man's life within a heartbeat. 

I believed I was safe, too, she thought. Safe from Brandt. Safe from her father.

She began to see why Kosenmark had offered her the gift of these lessons. There were no guarantees, but with the right instruction, she could learn how to keep away from dangerous choices such as those which led her into servitude with men like Alarik Brandt. 

Or if she could not avoid them entirely, how to break a hold, turn a weapon, run toward freedom.

Kosenmark sent her a glancing smile as he dodged a thrust from Ault. He was still smiling, grinning as he parried the next stroke.

That is what I want, Ilse thought. I want to be fast. Strong. Like him.