“Got the pools.” Coach Dan gathered the team around him, two sheets of paper in his hand. “Two strips today. Rex, Annie — ” he pointed off to his right –- “far strip. Rune, congrats –- you get Francis Pine in your pool.”
Rune’s reaction ejaculated from his mouth, as he flung his arms dramatically, wide and over his shoulders. “Oh God, not Frankenstein!” And as if on cue, the angular form of the Academy’s top fencer entered the team’s circle. A horrified look of embarrassment erupted on Rune’s face, although his placid countenance indicated he either had not heard Rune, or had chosen not to acknowledge him. His pencil-thin right index finger pointed at Annie — “Your brother goes to the Academy, doesn’t he?”
“Yes, I’ve met Si, good man. I’m surprised you don’t go to the Academy as well. Dual tuition too much even for the Hutchinson family?”
Rex’s eyes reflexively sought Rune’s face, saw the look of suspicion appear again, as Annie laughed. “No. Hutchinson women don’t go to the Academy. Only the males.”
“How — odd.” Francis’ expression was equally odd. “That must bother you.”
Annie smiled, shaking her head. “There’s no place I’d rather be. I grew up in Bark Bay, developed a lot of friendships that I don’t want to abandon. The school’s got a good reputation, I’m in the honors track, they say I’ll wind up in a good college. Me, I’m good.”
Francis nodded, looked thoughtful for a moment, then turned his head. “I’ll let Si know how happy you are next time I see him.”
Annie’s reply was dismissive. “I can tell him myself.”
“Bouts start in five minutes.” Coach Dan walked over to the canvas equipment bags. Rex joined him, stepped into his jacket, which Coach Dan zippered in the back. He then turned Rex around to face him.
“Size 10, right?” Coach Dan smiled with hidden knowledge.
Rex looked confused, until Coach Dan looked down at his feet. “Shoes -– yes, 10.”
“Then I have something for you.” Coach Dan returned to the equipment sacks, reached down for a duffel that Rex didn’t recognize. He opened the zipper, retrieved a short rectangular box. Standing, he offered the box to Rex.
“Found these when rummaging around in my closet the other day. They’re from my college days, never been worn. Bought them after my injury, when I still thought I could come all the way back. I bought these to inspire myself, said I wasn’t going to wear them until I won my next tournament, proved that I was worthy of wearing them. Well, that victory never came, and since I’d lost the receipt I couldn’t return them. Been carrying them around ever since, with the vague idea that they would come in handy some day. Well, today’s finally that day.”
Rex opened the box, immediately recognized the contents. Fencing shoes, similar to traditional indoor court shoes, but with additional padding in the toe area (important especially in epee, where every body part was a valid target and toes were often an inviting area of attack), and soles that were particularly skid resistant, providing extra stability for lunging and landing.
Rex looked at the shoes, feeling embarassed at the reaction that was welling up in him, the instinct to reject charity, to show his self-sufficiency. He knew Coach Dan would expect that reaction, would have a response at the ready. Rex could block this offering, but his attempt to riposte the gift back would be deftly counter-parried, and he knew that there would be no blocking his coach’s second intention.
Rex was embarassed to look up at Coach Dan. He looked to his right instead, and saw Annie, who smiled, and nodded in the direction of the box.
He had to try. “How much do I owe you?”
“Miles was a size 9,” Coach Dan explained dismissively. “He’d have been flopping around like a clown in these. No, you’re the only fencer I’ve had with the same shoe size as me, so face it – these are yours now.”
A white-haired man in the center of the court called for attention, and announced the first bouts were beginning. Coach Dan patted Rex on the shoulder, told him to relax — “checked the sheet, you’re up third.” Rex took off his running shoes with all the eagerness of a hospital patient undressing to put on a surgical gown.
Coach Dan handed Rune, Annie and Rex each a length of rubber-coated wire with plugs at either end. The fencers worked the wire through the inside of their jacket’s right arm until the end with a single-pronged plug emerged from their sleeves. They then worked the wire through to their backs, where the other end, which contained a plug with three prongs, emerged from the bottom of their jackets.
Butch walked behind Rune as the latter went to the end of his assigned fencing strip. Butch offered his assistance, and Rune responded by pointing to the clip protruding from the flat rectangular box on the floor at the end of the strip. Butch picked up the clip, which was attached to a rubber-coated wire that was coiled inside the box. Rune took this end of the wire from Butch, and hooked it to the three-pronged plug at the end of the wire which dangled from the back of his jacket.
Rune took the forward end of his wire and inserted its single-pronged plug into his foil, just under the hilt. The circuit was now complete, running from the tip of Rune’s foil through the wires inside his foil, connecting to the wire which ran from the hilt of the foil through his right arm down though to the end of his jacket, connecting there to the coiled wire running from the rectangular box at the end of the strip, which was in turn connected to the scoring device at the center of the strip.
The device had four lights, two for each fencer’s side, one white and another colored. When a fencer landed a scoring hit, his colored light would illuminate; the white lights illuminated for off-target hits.
Rex helped Butch with Rune’s connections, then Rune walked to the center of the strip. He held his foil straight up, hilt at waist level, and the referee placed a short cylindrical object on it. Seeing Butch’s questioning face, Rex explained. “It’s a weight, to make sure his foil can register a hit.” The white light on Rune’s side illuminated, and the judge removed the weight and walked over to Francis Pine to perform the same test.
“You ready?” A weak smile was the only response Rune could muster to Rex’s question. “Francis is pretty aggressive, likes to take the initiative. Parry/riposte should score you some touches.”
“Right.” Rune nodded with no enthusiasm. “Just like in practice.”
The referee called the two fencers to attention. Rune and Francis stood near the center of the strip, toes of their front feet inches behind lines of masking tape that designated their starting positions. The referee called for a salute, and Rune, mask tucked like a football under his left arm, brought his foil up to his face until the hilt was nearly touching his lips. A quick flick from his elbow indicated his salute to Francis, followed by another salute to the referee. Francis’ salute was more dramatic, a whoosh of his foil in front of his body, followed by a bow, first towards Rune and then the referee.
Rune and Francis then put on their masks, and crouched down into en garde position, foils pointed directly at each other. The referee glanced at each fencer quickly, then softly but firmly commanded — fence.
Had Rex been asked for his honest opinion, he would have confidently said Francis would win handily, that Rune would do well to score twice in this five-touch pool bout. Seconds into the bout, before the referee had fully brought his hands down from calling the start, Francis stepped forward once and leapt into a lunge, the point of his foil landing squarely on Rune’s chest, the colored light on the scoring device illuminating. Francis immediately lunged again when the bout resumed, yet this time swung his foil deftly under Rune’s attempted parry, his disengage scoring with as much authority as his first attack.
The referee called the fencers back to their starting positions, and when the bout resumed Rune reflexively stepped back, only to realize that Francis had not moved. Rune advanced towards him slowly, Francis still unmoving. A lunge from Rune was immediately parried, Francis’ forearm flinching with just enough force to deflect Rune’s foil, followed by a quick, elegant, almost gentle riposte. Francis’ feet never moved for this third hit.
Rune returned to his starting position, and when the bout resumed Francis again remained still. Rune swore softly, then advanced a step – his motion immediately met with a lunge from Francis, scoring a touch before Rune even moved to parry.
Four to zero. Francis again kept his feet silent when the bout resumed, yet this time pointed his foil down, the tip nearly touching the floor. Rune froze, stood thinking a moment, then advanced two steps, Francis maintaining his open, inviting stance. Rune stood in front of him another moment, clearly unsure what to do, and when he realized Francis was forcing him to make the first move, he lunged with an attack, not truly believing he would be successful but no longer comfortable waiting for what seemed the inevitable.
Francis parried – but instead of riposting, ending the bout, he retreated two steps, and again pointed his foil down. Rune advanced, lunged again, was met with another parry with no riposte – Rune disengaged, his entire arm swooping in a broad semi-circle that fully announced his intention – lunge, parry, another retreat from Francis, again the open stance, foil pointed to the floor.
Now breathing heavily, Rune stopped and looked squarely at his opponent. He saw the shadow of a broad smile behind Franci’s opaque grey mask, then saw him silently speak, with exaggerated mouth movements, Frank – en – stein.
Rune grunted and lunged. Francis parried, advanced forward, forcing Rune to retreat, Francis advanced forward again, Rune retreated, another advance from Francis and finally, when Rune seemed ready to turn and run away, Francis lunged, scoring a hit, Rune not even bothering to attempt a parry.
Total bout time, between the referee’s calls to fence and halt, was less than 30 seconds. Francis had disposed of Rune with minimal effort, like a man sweeping the dirt from the floor of his garage.
Francis turned, walked quickly back to his starting line, turned briskly on his heel and raised his foil to his chin, saluting Rune with a forward swoosh of his foil, his face expressionless, favoring neither a smile nor frown all the way through their concluding handshake.
Rex greeted Rune as he unhooked from the cord reel. “Better luck next time.” Rune, removing his connection with the swift desperation of a man escaping a swarm of enraged hornets, shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about.”
Rex heard his name called, saw Coach Dan approaching with The Bird and Annie, whose face beamed a contagious smile. “Off to a good start,” Coach Dan slapping Annie on the back, “5-2, against Han no less. Rune — ” his bearded chin raising in Rune’s direction — “how’d it go with Mr. Pine?”
Rune shook his head, without looking at anyone, his muttered lost barely audible.
“How many touches did you get?” Rune turned away without answering Annie’s question.
The team’s focus shifted to Rex’s first bout, a 5-2 victory. Coach Dan counseled Annie before her second bout, against a tall Academy fencer. “Bruce is an epee guy, he let his foil game slip last year. He doesn’t like infighting.” Annie nodded, walked over to her starting position.
Bruce, several inches taller than Annie, used his advantage in height and arm length to score the first two touches. He then over-reached with a lunge, the tip of his foil sailing past Annie’s head; she deflected his blade out of her path, and finding he had landed too close for her to effectively lunge, jabbed at his chest, the tip of her weapon landing squarely on his chest. Coach Dan clapped loudly, “there you go.”
They returned to their starting positions, and when the bout resumed Annie advanced quickly on her opponent, who retreated a step only to see Annie continuing to advance. After scoring a second hit, Annie continued her strategy of coming in close throughout the bout. Yet this was not the first time Bruce had seen this tactic employed against him, so the bout turned into a dance, Annie coming in close, Bruce keeping his distance.
Years of dance and gymnastics paid off for Annie, who never lost her balance as Bruce struggled to maintain his composure. The bout was close, Bruce nearly winning when he landed a touch on Annie’s right arm just below the shoulder, less than an inch from being on target, but Annie prevailed, 5-4.
“Nice work,” Coach Dan’s voice pleased as he assisted Annie in getting disconnected. “Bruce is the top rated fencer in your group. That was a great win.”