Authors: Peter Kenson
“I've travelled all over but mostly in the southern regions. This is my first trip up North. And I learned the sword at my father's knee.”
“So your father taught you everything he knew?”
“Not exactly. He was killed in a swordfight when I was only twelve.”
“He wasn't the best then,” Torsten threw across the circle.
“He was to me.
“After he died, I sailed to the island of Nasaki
and enrolled in the sword school there. Best in the known world. They didn't want to take me so I had to insist.”
“And how exactly did you do that?” Manny asked.
“I challenged the leading student in the school and killed him in a duel. After that they took me in and I spent the next five years there, studying everything I could about the sword.”
“And then I went back and killed the man who had killed my father. Since then I've been all over. Wherever somebody needed a sword and was willing to pay for the best.”
“You think a lot of yourself, Held. We'll see who is best when you face my sword in the morning.”
“Torsten, for some reason you seem to have taken a dislike to me. I have that effect on some people. I don't understand it myself but it does happen. But if you let your dislike of me rule your actions tomorrow, then it is you who will lose my friend. Not I.”
With a roar of anger the giant surged to his feet. “Why wait for tomorrow? Let's settle this now, tonight.”
“I won't fight you now because you're drunk and I don't fight people who are incapable of defending themselves.”
“Incapable!” Torsten was incandescent with rage. He seized his sword from behind the log where he had been sitting and walked slowly around the fire. “I'll show you who's incapable. However much I've had to drink, I'm more than capable of splitting you into tiny pieces and barbecuing the lot.”
Held remained seated as the other fighters scattered, falling backwards over the logs in their attempt to create a space. Looking across the fire he could see that Manny was also sitting calmly, a half-smile playing across his face. As he caught Held's eye, he shrugged his shoulders but made no move to intervene.
“Stand up and fight or sit there and die,” Torsten yelled. “It's all the same to me.”
“If you make me draw my sword, I will kill you,” Held said and then rolled smartly to one side as Torsten's sword crashed down onto the log where he had been sitting.
It was an impressive sword, he thought and there was clearly no-one else in the group who would have been capable of wielding it. It was also embedded to a hands breadth in the log which quite firmly was refusing to release it. Held moved cautiously to the side, his own sword still in its scabbard and stood hands on hips, watching the giant struggling to free his weapon.
With a roar of fury, Torsten gave up his attempt to free the massive weapon and turned to the nearest fighter. “Give me your sword.”
Trembling, the man unhooked his scabbard and handed it to Torsten who drew the blade and whirled round to face Held. It was a fine blade but fully two feet shorter than the one embedded in the log.
“Don't do this Torsten,” he said. “Fight me tomorrow with your own sword.”
If the giant heard him speak, he gave no sign but charged straight at the smaller man, relying on his greater strength and momentum. Held stepped back one pace and swayed to his right. In one graceful, fluid movement, he drew his sword and dragged the leading edge across the giant's torso upwards from right hip to left shoulder. Continuing the turn for a full 360 degrees, he had returned
his sword to its scabbard and stood facing his giant opponent again before the latter even knew he was dead.
There were gasps of shock from the audience as an expression of surprise spread across Torsten's face. He dropped the borrowed sword and clasped his hands to his belly as if trying to hold together the edges of the wound through which his lifeblood was pouring. Slowly he dropped to his knees and then pitched forward onto his face.
Cries of anger came then from some of the fighters as their champion twitched convulsively for the last time. Held turned to face Manny who had risen from his chair, the smile now absent from his face. The leader raised his hand for silence.
“It was a fair fight and an honourable death. This man,” he said pointing at Held, “is still under the protection of my hospitality. He will not be harmed.
“You four,” he indicated a group of fighters, “prepare the body for burial. And you Held, get some rest. We will talk again in the morning.”
He watched as Held walked slowly towards the wagon where he had left his belongings, the crowd parting before him to give him passage. Then he called one of the archers to him.
“Ash, you lived in Gernia
for a few years before you came north. What does Held mean in the
The archer scratched his grizzled chin for a few seconds. “Held,” he said. “Held in the
Gernish tongue means hero.”
The dreams were always the same. White, brilliant white. White walls, white ceiling. He was in a room somewhere, all white but there was nothing he could identify. Nothing that would tell him where he was.
There were voices in the background too. Sometimes he thought he could recognise one or other of the voices but they were always changing and he could not put a name to any of them. He strained to listen but they were too far away or speaking too softly. They were discussing him. He was sure of it but he could never quite make out what they were saying.
When he woke the next morning, Held rolled out from beneath the wagon where he had spent the night. He felt refreshed despite the dreams which had come again. They seemed to come every night now but he pushed them to the back of his mind and stretched his muscles instead.
Dawn was spreading across the sky although the sun was not yet risen. The mist from the stream had spread a little but would quickly burn off in the morning sun. There was dew on the grass and his travel cloak was damp as he took it off and spread it over one of the wagon wheels to dry.
The camp was already stirring. One of the slaves was piling kindling onto the embers of last night’s fire. The kindling caught with a crackle and more substantial wood was hastily added. Two of the other slaves were struggling with an enormous cooking pot containing the morning's porridge, placing it carefully on tripods on either side of the fire.
All around the camp men were stretching, scratching and walking towards the trees to take a piss. Held was reminded of the pressure in his own bladder and headed in the same direction. The camp followers were active too; some of the tents were already being struck ready to load on the carts.
Once he had relieved himself and splashed some water on his face from the stream, he stripped to the waist and began his daily exercise routine; twenty minutes of concentrated effort to bring man and sword into perfect balance, a harmony of power, grace and efficiency. Such was the level of concentration required by the exercise that he was oblivious to his surroundings, and to the fact that all activity had stopped within the camp. When he finally stopped, drenched with sweat, there was a ripple of applause all around him.
He brought his attention back to the present and found that he was surrounded by a circle of fighters with Manny among them.
“Very impressive,” he said. “Is that what they taught you in
“It's some of it,” Held admitted. “They taught me to always start the day with a programme of exercise to clear the mind, stretch the body and create the balance for the day.”
“Balance. Yes, a swordsman needs balance. And that sword is an unusual design.”
“It's called a katana. The craftsmen on
make them. The best of them are better than any other swords I've ever come across.”
“That's a big claim. Let me try it, feel the balance.”
“No. Can't do that. Nobody handles this sword but myself.”
Manny’s eyes narrowed at that and other men who had stayed to listen to the exchange, started to drift away, all suddenly remembering some urgent task which had to be performed.
“Very well, I'll let that pass for now.”
He forced a more conciliatory tone into his voice. “Tell me, which direction will you head once you have broken your fast?”
Held shook his head. “Like I said, I'm just travelling. I have no contract to go to. I'm just waiting for something to turn up.”
“Then why don't you ride with us today? I lost a good man last night. I could use a good swordsman.”
“I don't take orders well.”
“Nobody's asking you to. Just ride with us for a day and we can talk as we go. See how we get on.”
Held considered for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders. “I don't have any better offers for today but I'm making you no promises.”
“Fair enough. Let's go eat.”
Without waiting for a reply, Manny turned on his heel and strode off towards the fire. Held picked his shirt off the bush where he had thrown it and pulled it over his head. He could feel eyes watching him as he walked back towards the wagons. As he passed the slave wagon, the hostage who Jaks had called Lady Falaise was standing there.
From close to, he could see that she was even more attractive than he had realised. She was tall, only slightly shorter than himself. She had shoulder length brown hair that shone in the early morning sunlight and soft hazel eyes that took in everything about a man in one look. Her figure was slender and she wore a dark green dress made of a material he did not recognise but which clung to every curve.
He made a formal bow. “My Lady.”
She looked at him as though appraising his worth and then turned her back and climbed into the wagon without saying a word.
They buried the giant Torsten at the edge of the clearing before they set out that morning. Held was surprised when, after the burial, Jaks turned up carrying Torsten's sword and a small bundle of possessions.
“'S yours now,” he said. “You kills a man in a fair fight, you gets all 'is stuff. That's the rules in this outfit. Manny says.”
They went through the meagre bundle together. Apart from a purse containing a few copper and silver coins, there was only a pair of oversized boots, some clothing in a poor state of repair and, of course, the sword.
“Lose the clothes,” he told Jaks.
d'ya mean, lose 'em. I can sell this lot. There's some of the women 'ere who are very 'andy
with a needle. Cut down, this could make a tidy outfit for any one of the blokes 'ere.
“Do it then. And if you make any coin from it, you can keep it for your trouble.”
“Blimey, thanks mate. You're all right, you are.”
Held lifted the sword. It was far too heavy for him to use but it was a magnificent weapon.
“This sword I would like to keep but I don't want it walloping around on my horse's rump all day. Can you find somewhere to stash it on one of the carts?”
“Consider it done, my friend. No problem.”
Jaks gathered up the clothes and sword and stood there, shuffling from one foot to another.
“Okay, out with it. What's on your mind?”
“Well, it's nothing really. Only I know it's a big ask but...”
“Jaks, whatever it is, spit it out. Otherwise we're going to be riding in the dust of the wagons all day, trying to catch up.”
“Well, it's just that... what you did to Torsten last night. I
never seen anything like that. Not even Manny could of done that and 'e's a pretty useful swordsman. I mean I don't expect you to teach me how to do that but I watched you doing your exercises this morning. Could you teach me some of '
Held looked the youth up and down. “How old are you Jaks?” he asked.
“I'm seventeen next spring. But I'm big for me age. And strong. Everybody says so.”
“By the time I was your age, I'd been in sword school for five years. And it's not all about strength. Torsten was the strongest man here. Far stronger than I am. And yet I killed him.”
“That's what I mean. That's what I want to learn.” Jaks looked at Held with a pleading expression on his face.
“Listen. I haven't decided yet whether I'm to stay or go. Ask me again when I've made up my mind.”
“But if you stay, you'll teach me?”
Held hesitated for a second then nodded. “If I stay, I'll teach you.”
The day was very mild. The sun was warm but not hot and there was a hint of a breeze that made it a very pleasant day to be riding. The sombre mood surrounding Torsten's funeral disappeared in the sunshine and the men were bantering happily as they rode along. Held spent some time with each of the different groups of men, both around the wagons and out with the scouts. None of them appeared to bear a grudge over the death of the giant swordsman and not a few expressed some relief at his early demise.
Even Manny seemed in good spirits as he pulled his horse alongside Held's.
“If this weather holds for another few days, we'll be out of here.”
“Going where?” Held asked.
“North. We collect the rest of our provisions tomorrow and then head north for the winter. With any luck we'll be long gone before the first snows arrive.”
“And if the village doesn't give you the provisions?”
“Oh, you heard about that did you?”
“There was some talk around the fire last night.”
“Well, if the village won't give us our provisions, then we'll just have to take what we need and we'll keep her ladyship too.”
“Your provisions. I thought they were sharing their provisions.”
“Our provisions, their provisions. It's all the same to me.”
“I see. And what do the villagers get in return for sharing their supplies?”
“They get freedom and they get peace. They give us supplies, we go away and they don't see us again until next year.” Manny looked across suspiciously. “You sound as though you don't approve.”