Before there was the novel, there were the stories...

by Nan Hawthorne, who also writes under Christopher Hawthorne Moss, Books and Stories b ChristopherHawthorne Moss at

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Stories: Jo and the Sword (Cut)

The Queen found the chamber empty as she entered. It seemed the King had stepped out of his council room. She came in to wait for him, wanting to discuss the boy Osric.

Her eyes settled on the long gleaming object on a chest along one wall. It was the King's sword, "My Honour". She stared at it speculatively. Then she stepped over and reached for the hilt, part of one long triple forged piece, the whole of it made of iron that was folded over and over and threaded with steel to make it strong. Her fingers went around the leather thongs that had been wrapped to make a grip. She knew from having held the weapon before that it was heavy, so she added her left hand to her right and gripped and lifted.

It was heavier even than she had remembered. Perhaps, she thought, it was because now she was testing it to see if she could herself wield it. As she stepped back away with it from the chest where it had been resting she found she had to struggle to keep the tip level, no less raised. It angled down from the hilt, but she steadied herself, took a deep breath, and lifted it so that the tip was higher than the top of her head. She let it go up and back further, then swept the blade down in an arc, almost upsetting her balance, but she managed to slow it and stop it, then raise it again for a second sweep.

She was concentrating so hard that she did not see Lawrence in the doorway. "I yield, sir knight!" he called with humor in his voice. She looked at him and frowned. He was standing with his hands slightly raised, laughing at her. She realized she was facing him, that he was reacting to the face off. She made herself smile.

"It is heavier than I recall from the last time I held it." She continued to heft it, trying for a better grip on the hilt.

Lawrence came around behind her. He put his arms around and put his own hands over hers on the sword. She instantly felt the lessening of the weapon's weight. He murmured in her ear, "I did not know you wanted to learn to use a sword. Let me show you." He proceeded to move the sword, still in her hands, in arcs, adding jabs, parries and other moves. She could feel the movement of the muscles of his arms as he demonstrated how the sword should be moved. She could also feel his chest muscles harden and relax, and his belly against her back. The feeling was intoxicating against her body.

When he breathed against her ear she said, "Please, Lawrence, let us stop!"

She almost dropped the sword when he loosed his grip. He deftly took it, and stood with it held in one hand. He looked at her with concern. "Are you hurt?"

Still a little breathless, she shook her head, but took one wrist between the fingers of her other hand and massaged it. "You are! Just a moment." Lawrence stepped over and returned My Honour to its former resting place, then he stepped back to her and took her wrists in his hands. He felt them with his fingers and thumbs. He looked into her eyes.

"I am all right, Lawrence," she said firmly.

The King let go of her wrists and stood back. He gazed at her, his look guarded. He waited for her to speak.

"Why are they so heavy?" Josephine asked, peevishly. She looked evenly into his face.

"They have to be. If they are not, they do little damage," he explained. "Or they break."

"But is it not stabbing, or hacking with the sharp blade, that is what they are most used for?" she asked.

Lawrence answered without a trace of mockery, "That is how you finish an opponent off. If you have not already crushed his skull. But the first part of fighting is trying to knock his own sword or other weapon out of his hands and to break bones. That is partially why they are so heavy.. and because the are forged of so much iron. You don't want your sword to break when the other man's sword hits the blade. You do want his to."

He considered her. "Do you want to learn to use weapons?"

She turned and walked idly over to the work table in the chamber. She let her fingertips glide on its surface as she passed. "I did once, I was taught to use the bow." She was not looking at Lawrence, so she did not see his silent nod. "But I should like to be able to defend myself. I would like to learn to use other weapons.. like the sword." She turned to look at him, and to her pleased surprise he was looking thoughtful rather than discouraging.

"Hmm…" he began. He had his index finger on his right hand crooked and pressed under his lower lip, the elbow of that arm cupped in his left palm which was against his chest. He looked at her and asked, "Would you come with me,.my lady, to talk to our weapons master?"

"Uthred?" she asked, her eyes round. He nodded and reached for her hand. She took it and let him lead her out of the keep and to the squat stone building where the weapons were kept and the master worked.

Uthred was not a tall man, but he was powerfully built. His Saxon heritage was unmistakable, the fair hair, the vlue eyes. He greeted the King and his wife with a bow more graceful than such a brawny man should be able to effect, but Josephine thought, "Well, of course, he is a swordsman. They must be very graceful."

"Uthred, the Queen wishes to develop some weapons skills. What can you advise?" the King said, his voice communicating that this was a serious matter. Uthred did not dissemble.

The man stood and considered her. He came to her and, with a glance at the King who responded with a nod, he took her hands in his. She felt how rough they were against her own skin. He turned them over, felt her wrists and forearms, then he pulled them out to their full length stepping back himself. Then he kept her left arm outstretched, pulled it to her side. The action made her right arm come across her own chest in the attitude of an archer.

Uthred asked, "Did my lady have a weapon in mind?"

She looked at him frankly. "A sword."

He raised his eyebrows, looking doubtful. He still held her hands, although he had stepped back in front of her. He looked at her wrists again. "I do not know.. mayhap with a leather brace…"

Lawrence explained, "He means for your wrists.. yours are too…" He reconsidered the word "delicate" and instead said, "slender. The weight of a sword would sprain or break your wrist.. either when you swung it back or when you struck your opponent."

"Sire," Uthred put in, "I do not think my lady could heft a sword in battle even with the braces."

Lawrence nodded. "That is what I was also thinking."

"Can I not strengthen my wrists?" the Queen appealed. "Or could I not carry a lighter sword?"

Both men shook their heads at once. Uthred said, "The wrists, perhaps, but not a lighter sword.. It would be useless, hardly more than an ornament. It would break."

Josephine was dismayed. Was her plan to gain weapon skills to be blocked? She had no reason to believe that Uthred was in league with the King to prevent her. She cast down her eyes.

"But, my lady, there are many other weapons." She looked up at Uthred hopefully.

The weapons master looked over at Lawrence. "A seax?" he inquired.

Lawrence nodded thoughtfully. He went over to where many large knices were resting in racks on the wall. He traced his hand over several in a row and settled on a large knife with a stag horm handle. He took it and brought it to his wife and offered it to her to take. "What about this?"

Josephine took the hefty weapon. The seax was the preferred hand weapon of warriors all over Northern Europe. In the future it would be designated a "migration weapon" meaning that it had traveled with the many migrating tribes of warriors and their clans across Europe to the north and west and over the Channel to Britain in the hands of the Saxons the Britons hired to fight the Picts and then had had their own land taken by. The seax was similar to a hunting knife.. sharp, the blade on one side of the shaft, long, broad, and bearing a horn or bone handle. It was no mean knife. Josephine took it and turned it over in her hands. It wasn't a sword, but it was almost as frightening looking.

The Queen looked up at the two men. "But if I am attacked by a man with a sword, can I defend myself with this?"

She had to stifle a flash of anger as Uthred gave the King a dismayed look and Lawrence himself let out a short laugh. He saw her look and hurried to apologize. "My darling, I am sorry.. I did not mean to laugh at you. It is just that if you are attacked by a man with a sword.. as unlikely as that scenario is to come to pass, well.. then.. you would be dead."

"Why?" she asked.

Uthred tried to soften the approach. "The only thing besides another sword that you can defend against a sword is a spear or axe."

Lawrence suddenly said, "Wait here," and left the little building. Josephine watched as Uthred looked at some spears leaning in a corner. By the time Lawrence had come back with Rory McGuinness, the latter looking mystified, Uthred had selected a spear and stood with it before her.

Rory stood just inside the doorway looking at the Queen. "Fine weapon ye have there, me lady," he said, nodding to the seax which she still had in her hand. He drew his own dagger, which was less prepossessing by comparison, but nevertheless a stout blade itself. Josephine smiled to herself at having the larger hand knife.

Lawrence was scanning the racks of weapons. "McGuinness is the axe man here.. the gallowglass, is that right?"

Rory bowed slightly, "Aye, sire, that was me weapon in the service of the Ui Neill - the Chieftain O'Neill, I am meanin'."

Josephine asked him, "And did you not also use a sword, Rory?"

He nodded, "Aye, that I did, me lady."

Lawrence said without looking around, "Her majesty wishes to learn to use a sword,." Josephine could detect no judgment one way or another in his voice. She knew she was expecting some sort of opposition from him, but so far he seemed at least to be open. That is, if he was not just humoring her. That was certainly not out of the question.

Rory shook his head, "Och, nay, me lady.. 'twould be too heavy for ye."

Josephine pressed her lips tightly together, disappointed. She did not say anything.. Whatever Lawrence might say or do to try to dissuade her, she knew Rory was as straight as an arrow.

"The bow! What about the bow! I have already had some training with that," she spoke up hopefully.

Lawrence had come back carrying a very long shafted axe. The flaring metal blade was not overlarge. He handed it to his Queen. "Definitely the bow. With your sharp eye, you will be a fine archer. And you could hunt with me as well.. I should like that. If you wish, that is." He watched as she tested the weight of the gallowglass. "But it would not be much use in close fighting."

Josephine began to realize that Lawrence was not at all playing with her. He was being as straight as Rory. He wanted her to learn to defend herself. She looked at him with new eyes.

Rory put in, "I dinnae know if this weapon will be of use, me lord, for it is difficult with all its weight at the far end."

Lawrence said, "Let's go into the courtyard and try it out."

The three men and the woman passed out of the armory into the courtyard. There were curious eyes all around them. Lawrence told Rory to take the gallowglass and demonstrate it.

When the minstrel had it in his hands, Josephine admired him. His eyes changed, he lost some of his mildness, and she even saw a gleam there. So he was a soldier, it showed. He put his hands on the weapon much like a man uses a quarterstaff. He took a solid stance and brought the axe up and swung it in a wide arc. She heard the whoosh of air as the blade cut through it. "Will ye try it now, me lady?"

Josephine stepped up and took the weapon, placing her hands where she had seen Rory place his and her feet in the stance he had used. A crowd had gathered now, and she heard their murmuring. She gritted her teeth, determined to show she could manage the weapon, and mimicked the swing he had just performed. The crowd's cheers informed her of her success. Then she saw Lawrence's admiring look and her heart danced.

Rory stepped forward and asked Uthred for a sword. "Now let's be after tryin' somethin' else." Uthred gave Rory his own sword from the scabbard at his belt.

Rory came over to her and said, "That was grand, me lady. Ye have a strong stance. Now I want ye to face me and try what ye can to disarm me."

Josephine nodded. She went back to the stance she had used before. Rory backed away and got into an offensive stance of his own. He held the sword aloft, balancing himself with his other arm, and starting to advance.

"Rory!" the Queen hesitated. "I might hurt you!"

"Dinnae worry, me lady.. I can manage." She did not see the exchanged smiles between Uthred and Lawrence.

Rory advanced and Josephine swung the gallowglass at his sword, which Rory deftly pulled away. He then stepped forward quickly as the long handled axe was no longer between them. She saw that he could then defeat her if it was his design.

Lawrence called, "Let me try," he said. He took the gallowglass from Josephine and she stepped back to watch. Rory advanced on him now, and Josephine saw the gleam now in both men's eyes. As Rory came forward, Lawrence did not swing the axe but thrust it towards the Irishman, hooked the sword handle with the curve of the axe and pulled. The sword came free of Rory's hand. He grasped that hand where it had been cut and was bleeding, but neither he nor Lawrence seemed the least bit concerned. Josephine went to Rory and took his hand. "Lawrence, you cut him!"

Lawrence replied matter of factly, "Aye.. that's what blades do."

Rory said gently, "Dinnae trouble yourself, me lady, 'tis but a scratch."

Josephine stepped back and considered the men. "I see," she said.

Lawrence stood smiling broadly at her, his hands on his hips. "So what is it to be? The seax? A spear? The axe?"

She looked from each of the three faces to the others. "Who will teach me?"

Lawrence answered, "If it is the gallowglass, then McGuinness is the man to instruct you best."

Rory smiled modestly, "And if ye want to learn to use the seax or a dagger, then I can teach ye, but the King is the master there.. as well as with the bow. No one can match him."

Uthred offered, "I shall be at your pleasure, my Queen, for any weapon."

Lawrence said, "Or someone else, if you prefer. Percy. One of the other knights."

Josephine looked around at them. "I thank you, good sirs. I shall give it some thought and let you know my choice."

Walking back arm in arm into the keep, leaving Rory to help Uthred put the weapons away, Josephine noticed that her husband was smiling contentedly. "Lawrence, I thought you would be against my learning to use a weapon."

He looked at her and smiled, "Nay, it should give me much comfort if you learn to protect yourself.. how I wish you could have in that… other time.." He let his voice trail off unhappily.

Josephine put in, "And so you think I can? Learn to use them well, I mean?"

The King stopped and faced her, putting a palm to her cheek. "Aye, my lady, I think you have the heart of a warrior."

Next: Queen of the Angles

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About the author

Nan Hawthorne now writes under the name Christopher Hawthorne Moss. You can contact Christopher at .