My friends at Pulp Literature are running another crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for their second year; I have greatly enjoyed the four volumes of short stories, novellas, poetry and artwork that constituted year one. One of their founders, Jennifer Landels, runs the mounted combat program at Academie Duello, and writes and draws swordfighting scenes (yes, chaps, huge chunks of Pulp Literature have no swords in them at all. And are STILL worth reading. Amazing.) So I sent Jen the current draft of my next book, Swordfighting, because it has advice for writers on creating good swordfights. She has been following my advice (not that she necessarily needed it!), and allowed me to share some of the results with you.
Here is a previously unpublished exclusive excerpt from Allaigna’s Song, which has been serialised in Pulp Literature issues 1-4, and will continue in 5-8; this will be part of issue 6 or 7.
We were almost at the end of the alley, when something else that glittered caught my eye. I pulled Chal by the sleeve into a swordsmith’s shop. Hundreds of swords and dirks hung from their hilts on the walls, and more sat scabbarded in bins behind the counter. I paused for a moment, stunned by the bristling array of steel: great swords and long swords by the dozen, short broad blades and long slim duelling swords, hunting daggers, ceremonial daggers, throwing knives and poignards sharp as hat pins. It seemed there was more weaponry in this tiny shop than the whole of the Bastion’s armoury.
Enraptured, I wandered slowly around the store under the silent, watchful gaze of the shopkeeper. When the sense of impatience from both her and Chal became oppressive, I stopped at the furthest case. Catching my breath, I pointed at a slim short sword. Page’s training aside, I still found it terrifying to talk to strangers, so I allowed myself no time to think.
“Can I see that one … please?”
The storekeep looked at me appraisingly. “That one? You’ve good taste, young lady,” she replied, but made no move to open the cabinet. “Do you know what it is?”
Chal save me from answering. She was as aghast as I had been in the apothecary.
“A sword? What do you need with a sword? Don’t you get enough of that with arms practice? And what’s wrong with the ones they give us, anyway?”
“They’re heavy, clumsy, and too big for me,” I snapped back at her.
The shopkeeper still stood with her arms crossed.
“That’s good training, that is,” she finally said. “Learn with a heavy practice sword and you’re twice as fast and strong when you get a good one in your hands. Like that one there. Ilvani craftsmanship. No child’s toy.”
My ears burned.
“I’m not a child! I’m –” I stopped. “I can afford it,” I challenged, not knowing if I really could.
“Perhaps. But can you use it?”
I nodded sharply.
“Very well, then. Show me.” She unlocked the case and brought out the sword. It was a beautiful thing. The handle was wrapped in green and gold threads, ending at a carved brass pommel. The swept knuckle guard was minimal and elegant, and the blade itself, just as long as my arm, was no more than a slim two finger-widths at the hilt. The unsharp portion was etched with delicate tracery my eyes couldn’t quite follow, of flowers and beasts intertwined in a continuous river.
It felt almost weightless compared to the clunky swords we drilled with, and it sliced the air with an easy thrum when I gave a few tentative cuts.
The shopkeep was out from behind the counter now, and for the first time I noticed her size and the muscles of her arm. No doubt she could use any blade here, but in her hand was a short sword, of a length with the one I held, though not so beautiful. She handed a blunting scabbard to me.
“Let’s see you use it, then,” she said, tying a matching scabbard on her own blade.
Chal gasped. I stepped back and looked the shopkeeper in the face to see if she was joking. She stood in a casual guard position, sword point level with my head.
“Here?” My voice came out in timid squeak as I glanced at the narrow space hemmed in by cabinets.
She nodded, the barest smile lifting the corners of her mouth. “Don’t break any glass or you’ll be paying for that.”
“No … thank you. I don’t think so.” I turned the sword over to my left hand and proffered it, hilt first.
She gave the blade a smack with her own, sending it spinning from my hand. Without being aware I was doing it, I caught the hilt in my right once more.
“No, I think so,” she said, her smile stretching.
That smile was the goad. With trembling fingers, I tied the blunting on, not daring to look at her face till it was done. Stepping backward I lifted my sword into a guard that matched hers, though my point dipped and wavered while hers hovered steady before my eyes.
She began slowly, circling my point with hers to cover my sword. I stepped back, nerves making me disengage her blade with a jerk too fast to be polite. Still smooth and smiling she followed my turn and ended up on top again. We spent a few moments like that, me flicking my blade back and forth, down and around, trying to gain advantage; and she never losing her unruffled calm or her superior position.
Frustrated I swung the blade around in an arc, smashing against her sword, which came up to meet mine invisibly fast. The impact shuddered down my arm and threw my sword away. Hers hardly moved.
She stepped forward, laughing, and tapped my exposed side with the flat of her blade.
“Never throw your weight against someone who weighs four times as much, little bird.”
The blow stung, but not as much as the words. Only Rhiadne was allowed to call me that. I ducked low and cut at her feet and legs. She stepped back almost casually and caught my sword again with hers. I flicked my hand over, hoping to catch hers in an upswing, but she countered easily. Neither Baredh nor the weapons master at the Bastion had ever moved so fast. I knew she was toying with me and it was infuriating.
I ducked again and lunged, this time driving my sword upward under hers, careless of the fact she could bring her blade down fatally on my unguarded head if she chose. With a turn that happened so fast I didn’t see it, she locked my hilt and twisted the sword from my hand.
“Tt,” She shook her head, holding my blade in her left hand. “It’s not done, aiming for the vitals in a friendly match. Especially when you want something from me. Or were you planning to walk past my bleeding corpse with a new sword?”
Fury and humiliation welled in my eyes. I blinked them back down, but said nothing, having no faith in my voice.
She put both blades down on the counter behind her and folded her arms across her broad chest. Head cocked to one side she peered at me once more with skin-flaying eyes.
“The sword is yours if you can afford it.”
I blinked again. “How much?”
“A hundred and forty.”
I sagged. It was at least a hundred more than I had. The tears fought their way back up. I had come into the shop on a whim that had been transformed to an obsession. The newfound object of my desire pierced my heart and stayed there, burning. I thought bitterly of the jewelled gold cups and flagons I filled and refilled every day. A single one would pay for this treasure. What good was having a prince for a grandfather when I lived on a page’s allowance?
I shook my head, and swallowed the fire. “It’s too much.”
Her eyes, for once, looked sympathetic. “I have others – less costly.”
She offered me the one she’d wielded.
I eyed it without moving. It was a plain, sturdy sword, almost identical to the ones we polished every day. I shrugged and crossed my arms protectively against despair.
Chal, who’d stayed pressed in the corner till now, came forward.
“I could lend you some, Allaigna. I’ve got twenty or so left.”
I shook my head. Not enough. I looked up, still hugging myself.
“Could I,” I hesitated, desperately unbold, but desperate enough. “Could I pay you some now and some later?”
“Why certainly little bird. But I’ll keep it here till you’ve paid in full. Twenty falcons a week for twelve weeks.”
I did the sums in my head and opened my mouth to protest.
“And I’ll throw in a lesson each time you come.”
I was torn between outrage and hope, but my lust won out. I fished twenty falcons worth of mixed coin from my purse and spilled it on the counter, though my hand hovered over the pile.
“How do I know you won’t just keep my money and sell the sword to someone else?”
“Well, you don’t know, do you? That’s the nature of trade. We can shake on it though.”
She put a fist to her heart, spat in her hand, and held it out. I did the same, clasping her large hand with my tiny one. She scraped the coins off the counter and passed them back to me.
“You can start paying next week. This lesson was free.”
I nodded, and backed toward the door.
“And what about you, young lady, she called to Chal. A dirk, perhaps? A fine stiletto?”
“Do you fight with all your customers?” Chal asked warily.
The shopkeeper smiled. “That depends on what they want.”
“No thank you, then,” said Chal as we made a hasty exit into the chilly winter afternoon.
Now, as if that wasn’t enough, she has also shared some of the early sketches for a mounted combat scene in one of the stories; oh you lucky people!
So, if you like this stuff, as you jolly well should, then hi thee to the Starter of Kick, and part with some of your hard-earned. Because if you don't, they might not make their target, and then I won't get my next four issues, and that will make me grumpy and sad. And you wouldn't want that, now, would you?