My nerdiness revealed. Here is a little character sketch I wrote based on a D&D campaign.
The lady knight rubbed the balm on her cracked and weathered hands and thought of her mother. Her mother’s hands were calm, cool and soft, except for that sewing callous on her index finger. Once, Marion bought her four silver thimbles for the Harvest, one for each finger. She was six years old. She had had to win a lot of races against the boys to get the coin for those thimbles and when she gave them to her mother, wrapped in a colored scarf, her mother had laughed. That was before Martin. All the silver thimbles in the world couldn’t cover what the knight had done to her own hands and she had a feeling that they wouldn’t have had much effect against who (and what) Marion had had to kill.
She could hear the rest of the band outside her tent, settling down after a day’s journey. Bahb was swigging beer, loudly clearing his throat and hoping to drown out Isis’s wretched fiddle-playing. Leah was gently, patiently trying to play along on her lute. Marion really didn’t understand elves’ tolerance. If she had tried to play that cursed instrument that way at home, her brothers would have put her face through it. Zefania had started taking long walks since Horace joined the group.
Horace may be an extraordinary bastard, but the man knew battle tactics, weapon technique, military discipline. King Dominic’s gracious bestowal of knighthood was more than Marion could have ever dreamed for herself, but it wouldn’t replace the training in the palace that she missed as a wandering warrior, learning the sword from those she paid. It wasn’t that Marion had no compassion for Zefania—the thought of her own mother’s body, cold and bloodied, made her hands itch for her blade. Martin had taught her a lot about men, more than she would ever learn as a woman, and Horace was a different breed, to be sure. More disciplined, less rash. But Marion knew arrogance when she saw it and his religious fervor made him self-righteous (second ear down from Bayon, donchaknow). All the better. Let him show her up, again and again. Beat her with his practice weapons, cluck when she failed. In between the humiliating illuminations of her lack of formal training, she was learning. Oh, was he good. She would get faster, stronger, better. Sometimes the best way to beat your enemy is to become him.
Replacing the lid on her balm, Marion quickly rose and immediately regretted it. Suppressing a yelp, she forced herself to stretch her protesting muscles. She could almost feel the bruises on her arms, legs, and middle coloring deeper. Horace had obliged her a sparring lesson during the midday break. She perhaps should have paid attention to the rest of her companions’ warnings (blah blah blah treaty blah blah). She also probably shouldn’t have called Horace a grub-eating priest-licker. She was paying for it now–his teaching skills went into serious decline when he was angry. And sitting on that damn horse across a rocky beach for the rest of the ever-loving day really didn’t help her soreness. What a bastard.
The salty air soothed her sun-scorched face as she emerged from her tent and slipped her feet into her boots. She squinted against the sharp wind and sun’s last rays glaring off the choppy ocean. Leah was attempting to explain music theory to the wizard, which had convinced Horace to join Bahb in drinking.
Marion watched Leah, her slender hands caressing her instrument, her silvery hair cascading down her shoulders instead of tied up neatly as usual. The elf’s lips betrayed a smile at Isis’s humor, her eyes creasing in silent merriment. The men eyed her, though they pretended they weren’t. There was just something about a pretty female, Marion supposed, no matter what you did in this life, that’s what everyone noticed first.
Annoyed, Marion turned her gaze back down the beach to the small fishing village. They had passed it earlier before deciding to camp upwind, a decision finalized after witnessing the fishwives gutting the day’s catch. Rubbing her fingers into her rough palms, she headed toward the cluster of buildings.
“I’ll be back,” she called over her shoulder. She hoped that Horace hadn’t noticed her favoring her right leg.
A particular shop had caught Marion’s eye when they passed through earlier. Women in dresses streamed inside, and out wafted the scent of cinnamon and secrets. She knew it was the sort of shop that her mother would have visited to buy perfume, after expressly promising her father she wouldn’t. Now Marion stared into the window, her hazel eyes filled with the beautiful things that lined the walls—hats, scarves, and shifts made of velvet, linen, cotton, dyed in all the colors. There were racks of feathered hairpieces and cloaks. There were mirrors and shells everywhere. You won’t beat Horace wearing one of those dumb bonnets, thought Martin treacherously. The shop was mostly empty except for three women, maybe sisters, who were laughing and chatting. One was playing with another’s long black hair. Marion watched them for what felt like a long while.
“I’m just going to look,” she said finally. She secured her belt and sheath and straightened her green linen tunic. Steeling herself, she opened the door, which jingled. Marion inhaled the scents of perfumes, candles, and potions.
The three women turned and looked at her. Three sets of eyebrows raised. One of the women, who wore a magnificent purple robe, wrinkled her nose.
“Can I help you?” The woman with the long black hair sounded like chocolate.
“Yes. Yes,” Marion said, clearing her throat. “You have, err. . . nice things.”
Marion couldn’t think of anything else to say. She stood in front of these three feminine creatures, all wearing dresses, jewelry, and beauty paint, and with their dark hair styled like pretty girls, and lost capacity to speak. I’m more of a man than I thought, she thought wryly.
The proud, purple-robed woman asked, “Are you looking for a gift, sir?”
Marion opened her mouth to answer when she caught her reflection in a particularly large mirror. Martin stared back at her. Red hair, matted and sweaty, cropped short like a sheared sheep. Cheeks were tanned and cut, peeling nose crooked from one too many hits to the face. A muscular body, square in the shoulders. Marion shoved her rough hands into the pockets of her breeches so they wouldn’t see. You’ve battled demons and won, Martin hissed. Do you really give a damn what these three harpies think?! Marion examined the floor.
“You know she’s a woman, idiot,” the chocolate voice answered testily.
“I was hedging my bets, Emmaline.”
“Don’t be such a slag, Tillany.”
The scent of lavender soap was suddenly unbearable. She should have stayed where she belonged, with warriors, outcasts, and, yes, even witch-hunters. To think she had any place where real women gathered was laughable. When Marion lifted her eyes, Emmaline was standing in front of her.
Without breaking her gaze, Emmaline spoke. “Tillany, heat some water for a steam. Marla, prepare the oat bran mask.”
“Emmaline, you can’t be serious!”
“Do what I say!”
Marion grinned. Emmaline returned the smile.
“What is your name?”
“Sir Marion Barinor,” she said, chest swelling. “I am a knight of Zevos.” She had hoped that this would cause some sort of stir. A gasp, a bow, respectful lowering of the eyes. Something. Maybe that stupid wench would drop her water bowl. But the women didn’t seem that impressed, just amused.
“Well, Sir Marion, Knight of Zevos,” purred Emmaline, black eyes twinkling, “I think we have some work to do.”
Marion was seated on a short velvet stool in front of a mirror. Martin’s visage mocked her again, the contrast even more startling when Marla appeared behind her, mixing something with a mortar and pestle. Marla was beautiful—no, stunning. Her dark hair was piled on her head and adorned with tiny seashells. Her eyes were large and liquid, her mouth small and pink against her smooth complexion. Marion’s ruddy face was a squawking gull in Marla’s beautiful seascape.
A heavy cloth was unceremoniously thrown over Marion’s head. Ignoring the knight’s muffled cries of protest, firm hands pressed Marion forward toward a large steaming bowl of fragranced water, tenting her with the cloth.
“Hush up and lean forward. It’s for the steam bath.”
She winced at the immediate heat on her tender, sunburnt face, but soon calmed as she breathed it in. Muscles relaxing, Marion surrendered to her dark warm sanctuary, enjoying the beading of sweat on the bridge of her nose. She tuned out the chattering of the women behind her and allowed herself a private smile. Perhaps being a woman wasn’t so hard–water that smelled good, warm blankets, laughter. It was like any new skill, as soon as she learned the rules and exercises, she would be just as good as the three sisters. Too soon, the cloth was removed and Marion squinted in the light as the women sat her upright again. Without a word, Marla administered a thick, warm paste to the knight’s face.
“Aww goat guts, does this stuff stink! What the hell is in this?”
“Goat guts,” said Emmaline flatly from somewhere.
“You’d better be kidding.”
“You’d better be still or you’ll get it all over. It’s mostly sea plants, but also oat bran and poppy seeds.”
“So you’re rubbing my face with a moldy bread loaf. You know, I’ve killed ogres that smelled better than this. And why does my face itch? What the hell was in that water?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t kill them with your own stench. Is ‘rancid’ the going scent for knights these days?” That was Tillany. Marion decided she didn’t like Tillany.
“Your face itches because we’ve steamed out all the impurities,” said a soft, quiet voice. Marla. “After the mask, I will put calendula-”
“That sounds like a disease you get from sleeping with a-”
“-and comfrey root will stop your face from peeling and help smooth the roughness. But first we have to let the mask dry.”
As the seaweed mixture tightened and tingled, Emmaline fussed with hairpieces, ones with feathers, ones with jewels. She finally settled on a teal headband with pearls and shells stitched along the sides. Her sisters murmured their agreement. Marion tried to catch a glimpse in the mirror, but was distracted by the ghoulish shade of green the mask had turned her face. Before she could protest, Marla gently began rinsing Marion’s face with warm water. “Do you have a gentleman, Sir Marion?”
Marion’s blush sent the three sisters into a fit of giggles.
“You do, you do! What does your gentleman look like?” The mask gone, Marla applied a clear, cool sooth onto several scabs.
“I don’t know. He’s a man, I guess.” Marion mumbled, “And I’m not so sure he’s my gentleman.”
“Well he must be powerful, or else why would he court a lady knight?” Tillany was playing with Marion’s hair, curling pieces around the fabric.
“He’s just there, that’s all. Pftoo! What are you putting on my mouth?”
“It’s lip stain. You’ll like it. Look.”
Marion’s eyes softened when she saw the red-headed woman staring back at her. The sisters had done a good job, all things considered. The face ointments and lotions tempered the redness of her cheeks and nose. The cuts were barely visible and the color of the hairpiece glistened in her eyes. For the first time in a long time, she didn’t see Martin and was surprised to feel relief. She was pretty. Marion swallowed a lump in her throat.
“Sir Marion!” Gasped Marla. “Your hands! Your poor, poor hands!”
Oh please don’t ruin this for me, thought Marion weakly. Just be quiet a little longer.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk, dreadful. . .”
She could see Martin in the mirror. Marion shut her eyes. “They’re working hands,” she answered gruffly. “They’re hands that have saved lives.”
“I just don’t think you can ever fix them,” lamented Emmaline.
The child screaming as he clutched the edges of the broken raft, the rapids boiling over him and threatening to sweep him away. Her hands grabbed his jerkin and pulled him to shore, into the arms of his weeping mother.
“What a horrible shame.”
The brutish man, lustfully pawing at that barmaid, who had asked him to stop and asked him to stop and asked him to stop. Her hands made short work of him.
“What if your gentleman wants to stroll along the beach and hold hands with you?” said Marla, rubbing the knight’s palms.
These hands gripping her greatsword and swinging, deflecting demons, prophecies, and murderers. These hands would cut them all down if it meant she could look her king in the eye and say that she had won.
Tillany sniffed. “Mother said you could always tell a lady by her hands.”
And yet, they could never be that.
Marion stood hastily, ignoring the women’s protests. “Here.” She tossed a fistful of coin on the counter. “Enjoy your evening, ladies. I’ve had enough.”
Without looking back, the knight stormed out into the darkness, ripping off the hairpiece and hurling it into the sand. Scrubbing her eyes with her sleeve, Marion trotted toward the ocean. She should have worn gloves. She shouldn’t have cut her hair back at Clive’s. She shouldn’t have let her imagination get the better of her.
You should have married that old man Father did business with and had babies. Would you take that back, too?
In a fluid, graceful motion, Marion drew her sword and slashed the air, her roar joining with the crashing waves. Weaving intricate patterns in the black, she eviscerated invisible enemies, her feet fleetly dancing up and down the beach. Then, heaving, she fell to her knees and rigorously washed her wet face in the gritty surf.
The party groaned as Marion returned to camp. Horace, in spite of himself, sighed. Even with the bad fiddle-playing, it had been a peaceful evening.
Marion stood on the opposite side of the fire from Horace and squared her shoulders. If anyone noticed her red eyes or her damp hair, they said nothing. “How about you show me more of your fancy tricks?”
“I think that one trouncing is sufficient for the day, don’t you?” Laughed the witch-hunter, clasping his hands behind his head.
“Come on, old man, let’s see what you can really do, unless you’re scared I might win!”
“Marion, Marion, still you insist on pretending to be some thick farm boy. Aren’t you tired of that yet? You were a noble’s daughter, once.”
Marion kicked the beach, sending a spray of sand sizzling into the fire. “You don’t know me.”
“Neither do your party members,” countered Horace with relish.
“Erm, if I may interject,” said the wizard, who had taken a few steps back. “Are you sure this is wise, young lad, er, lass?”
“Yeah, you may not care about your own hide,” grumbled Bahb, “but don’t you think the rest of us would like to live?”
“Let her do it,” said Zefania. She had returned from her walk and sat away from the rest, sharpening her bolts, eyes fixed on the witch-hunter.
“There ain’t nothing in the treaty that says we can’t spar,” said Marion. “Unless Horace needs to get permission from his bug god first.”
“That won’t work, Marion,” said Horace, but his voice had developed a familiar edge.
“Much like your backbone, I’d imagine.” Marion grinned.
“Tell me, does your king know what an obnoxious little scut you are?”
“Tell me, you gutless puppet, do you ask your Almighty before you take a piss, or do you beg forgiveness afterward?”
Horace smiled solely with his mouth and finally rose, eyes flashing. “Alright, lassie. Since you clearly want to be taught a lesson, I am more than happy to oblige. All friendly-like,” he added for the rest of the party’s benefit. Suddenly he was beside her. He grabbed her by her upper arm and frog-marched her away from the campfire. He released her roughly and indicated a practice sword stuck in the sand.
She was barely in position before he barked, “Widen your stance.” He kicked the inside of her right ankle, none too gently. They both knew her stance was perfect. She welcomed the new pain.
“You could be good, you know,” Horace said with disgust, circling her. “You could be very good if you would just stop acting like an impulsive manchild. You call that a grip?” Without warning, he brutishly slapped the sword from her hands, driving splinters into her palms. Leaning in inches from her face, he snarled, “Pick it up, my girl.”
Marion picked up the weapon and held it at ready. She smiled, though she felt cold sweat beading at the base of her neck. If there was a line to cross, it was way behind her now. “You can’t hurt me,” she said, just in case.
The witch-hunter was about to reply when a strange look overcame him. He sniffed the air, bemused. “Are, are you wearing perfume?”
Afterward, Marion wouldn’t let Bahb or Leah heal her. Instead she limped to her tent and guzzled potions in private, ignoring the burning as it drizzled over her fat lip. Too exhausted to feel, she fell onto her pad in a heap and lost herself to sleep, though not before hearing the soft, accented voice of the witch-hunter from outside her tent.
“You’re welcome, my lady.”