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

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Stories: The Sword Challenge (Cut)

awrence leaned in the door to the Queen's chamber as she was get ready for the day.

"My lady, I shall be occupied with council all morning, but mayhap you would like to join me in sword practice after midday?"

Josephine turned quickly on her stool. "Aye, my lord!" She added, "With you, my lord?"

He smiled. "Aye, with me. And bring your sword." He slipped back through the doorway, an affectionate grin on his face.

Josephine was animated throughout the morning. She spent almost every morning in the nursery with her small children. Peter was now nearly two and a half years old. The twins were fourteen months, and their adopted son Tavish was seventeen months. The Queen would help bathe and dress them, play with them and simply spend as much time with them as she could. As often as possible Lawrence would steal time away to join her.

Peter was a stout young boy with pale hair and large blue eyes. He was a happy child, energetic but also inclined to be serious and thoughtful. "Where's Papa?" he asked this morning.

His mother was pulling his small tunic over his head. "He is busy this morn, my love, I am sorry. He must meet with his ministers."

The boy accepted the explanation. He brightened when the Queen assured him that his father would see him later that day.

After a midday meal in the nursery, Josephine went to her chamber to dress for the practice. It was a chill December afternoon but the swordplay would make her too warm, so she made sure she was well covered but able to take off layers as she warmed up and that her movement would not be hampered by cloaks or other loose clothing.

Then she went to the chest where her sword was stored. She opened the lid and reached in for the long wrapped article. She lifted it reverently, unwrapped the cloth, and took the hilt of the beautiful instrument in her right hand. "Why has my lord asked me to bring my sword, I wonder? And will he have his own? Surely he does not plan to spar with me this day," she thought.

When she reached the practice area in the courtyard Lawrence was there already, turned away from her, stretching his arm and back muscles. She admired the look of him as she advanced to meet him. Rory and Shannon and one of the young knights had gathered to spectate. They all made short bows to her as she approached, the young knight, Lucullus, greeting her with a respectful, "My lady."

Lawrence turned to face her with a look of welcome. "Dearest, you are here. You look well bundled up. 'Tis a chill day, but not windy." He went to her and kissed her lightly on the lips.

From their viewpoint, Shannon cast a sidelong look at Rory, who returned one that was chiding. He did not appreciate Shannon's constant attention to his own affectionate regard for the Queen.

Josephine looked up at her husband's face. "What is it to be them, my lord? Am I not to practice with Rory?"

Lawrence grinned. "Nay my lady, with me. 'Tis important that you spar with different opponents so that you know the many ways you might be approached. Rory, I know, has held back. He is not primarily a swordsman, but he is skilled enough to best you at this point in your training. You shall continue to practice with him, though I have commanded him to make his best effort. But I have also asked Lucullus to spar with you from time to time, and I shall myself when I can take the time. They, however, shall not use steel.. I draw the line there. But I shall."

"With your leave, sir, I must say there is no better teacher than you," Rory spoke up meaning no flattery.

The King just nodded to him, turning back to his wife. "And I think 'tis time you became used to the heft of your sword. So that is why I asked you to bring it this day."

The Queen nodded, her face serious. "Aye, my lord."

Lawrence looked at her earnestly. "I know that you know I am not intending to discourage you in any way. It does you no good, ultimately, if you are not challenged. You know you must practice long and hard.. the merest squire spends years at this."

"And knights continue to learn for all their lives," young Lucullus added.

"I do understand, my lords, and agree that I shall have to face constant defeat to learn. But 'tis my wish to learn to move and think like a swordsman and to defend myself. I shall not be facing an enemy in war."

Lawrence nodded. "God be praised." He went to the various weapons the armorer Uthred had brought out. "Shall we start by warming up with a short match with you, Lucullus? My lady, watch and practice alone." He picked up a helm. Once that was on his head, he drew "My Honour" from his side.

"Sire, are ye not usin' the grand new sword that the smith made for you then?" Shannon asked. He was without his lute as the chill air would be damaging. He sat instead with his arms crossed, caught between interest and boredom.

"Nay, this sword has served me well for many years. She and I shall keep faith, methinks."

Lucullus had also donned a helm and stepped to face the King, his own sword drawn. "Call it, Rory," the King commanded.

With the sign to begin, the young knight crouched and held his sword in plow ward. Josephine carefully attended to this and the King's answering side ward. Neither was using a shield, she saw. The younger man stepped forward to make a jab at the King's side. The King blocked the blow with his own sword, pushing Lucullus back a step. Then the King swept his sword in a clockwise arc and made as if to bring it down on Lucullus' left shoulder. The young man deftly blocked the blow by raising his sword and clanging it hard against the King's.

Josephine had been watching and trying to match the men's moves with her own body and sword. Rory stood and come around the combatants to stand by her. Shannon appeared to be losing whatever interest he had had.

"Why no shields, Rory?" Josephine asked.

"They are just after warmin' themselves up then" he replied.

Josephine made a sound of affirmation, continuing to watch and imitate what the men did. Then the King said, "Enough." She noticed that while the younger knight was breathing more rapidly, the King was relaxed. She firmed her resolve to give this challenge her all.

The Queen went to get a helm, sliding it down over her golden hair which she was wearing in one long plait down her back. The nose guard was too long for her, the bottom end extending over her mouth. "No matter," Lawrence had said, unless you want a helm made. This one is for training only. I should think you shall not be wearing one in your daily travels."

He stood now before her. Her own heart beat faster. This was not a position either of them would have imagined for themselves just months before. He still held his sword "My Honour" and she wondered that he would risk using it on her. She thought, "He must be that good that he can make blows and know they will not draw blood."

Then the King answered her unspoken question. "For now I shall only defend myself. I want you to make every effort to wound me, my lady. Do you understand?" His voice was stern, but not critical.

The Queen replied, "Aye, my lord, I shall." She hoped she could bring herself to.

Lawrence took a defensive stance. Josephine observed him carefully. She was glad to see how serious he was about this. She had long worried that he would either forbid her or would not understand or respect why she meant to gain this skill. She now learned that though he may have been taken aback, he was intent on her getting the very best from the training.

Josephine lifted her sword high and advanced on her royal husband rapidly. He blocked her blow but did not return the attack. She followed her high cut with a sweep of the sword to her left, then down at an angle to his chest. The difference in their heights was not new.. Rory was even taller than the King and she had learned her current skills with him. The King knocked her sword away with a practiced sweep of his sword.

The practice went on like this for several minutes, the Queen making attempts to strike her husband. Her inability to make any contact tired and frustrated her, so any concern she had about hurting Lawrence was replaced with a desire to prove herself. That was just what he had intended. "That is it, that is good.. do not hold your hand, my lady," he coached.

"So this is fruitless," Shannon complained from the sidelines.

Lawrence looked over at him. "Not entirely so, but we shall go on to something else."

"Really, Shannon, I am learning. I am learning that everything I do has a defense. And that like as not I shall e'er face a superior opponent."

Shannon chuckled, "Aye, then, ye are that dauntin' a foe to me. I should not be after likin' to come upon ye on a lonely road."

Lawrence, who had sheathed his sword and gone over to where the weapons were, laughed. "And that is her second lesson.. oftimes 'tis of more use to look threatening than actually to be so."

Shannon replied, "Och, and me lord, 'tis a fine talent ye have.. I am always terrified of ye."

Lawrence looked at him squarely, his expression saying, "'Tis just as I intend." Rory turned away to hide a smile.

Josephine saw that Lawrence had taken up a wooden sword. "My lord, shall I change swords as well?"

"Nay," he said as he came back to position. ""Though we shall spar in earnest, I would you had more time for gauging the feel of the steel." He had picked up two shields and handed her one.

This time it was the King who made the first attack. He smiled when Josephine blocked the blow with her shield. "Excellent," he said with pride. She came back at him with a blow that he deflected as well. It was not long before a block from the Queen's sword made her right side vulnerable. The King spun and brought the "blade" of the practice sword down on her right shoulder where it joined the neck. She cried out with surprise as much as pain, though Lawrence had not hit her hard.

Rory started forward but stopped at a look from her. "Nay, Rory. I am all right."

The royal husband and wife of course had drawn quite an audience. They were themselves so intent on their challenge that they did not notice the murmuring and amusement when the group first gathered around, nor the "ahs" of admiration for many of the Queen's moves. The crowd had gone dead silent when the King had struck Josephine on the shoulder, but then murmured in approval when she had taken the blow bravely.

The Queen was never able to break through the King's defenses. One blow from her sword however did connect with the King's hand as he blocked a clow, slicing his leather glove and drawing blood. This almost stopped the battle, as Josephine had been surprised and alarmed, but she recalled the King's words about "that is what blades do" and determined to not let it deter her. She did however finally call a halt to the practice.

"My lord, I am sorry, but I am exhausted. Methinks you could continue all day and into the night.. but I cannot as of yet, if ever."

Lawrence took off his helm, handed it to Lucullus who had quickly moved to take it, then handed the young man the shield.

"Aye, it does you no good to fight too tired.. that will be something I hope you shall never have to do." Lawrence sheathed his sword, then made a low, smiling bow to her. "You do me honor, my lady, to fight so well."

The Queen could not help a delighted smile. She made her own curtsy. "And you do me the greatest of honor, sire," she said.

As the two walked back to the keep arm in arm, Shannon, who had stood and come to stand with Rory, observed, "Now I should be after likin' to see their arguments now that both man and wife have steel."

Rory glanced at him, "Och, nay, so they dinnae fight."

Shannon considered him, "Aye? And how is it that ye are knowin' this?"

"I just know."

Shannon stared at him a moment, then shook his head. "I hope, me darlin' man, that ye marry someday so ye can learn the truth of man and woman." Shannon shrugged, "Well, methinks I shall go not fight with me own wife now.. "

Rory smiled at his friend's retreating back.

Next: Mischief Afoot in Affynshire

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About the author

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