Young Steel

You’ve decided it’s time you taught your granddaughter to use a sword.

My granddaughter came up the path, as she did every Monday and Thursday. It warmed me, to still have visitors; the hike into town had grown difficult for my old bones, though perhaps it was just the townsfolk. So many bled for them, and they seemed intent on forgetting it. Not my granddaughter, though. She was blooming into womanhood, but still took the time to visit an old man. She always asked for the old war stories.

Today, though, she came up the walk with a new hairstyle. Over her shoulder, hiding one cheek. It was pretty. But the look on her face was shaken, nervous.  Familiar.  “Amanda. Always a pleasure.” I hugged her, as always, then brushed her hair behind her ear before she knew what I’d done, showing the bruise on her cheek. “Were we going to talk about this?”

“No.” She was direct. She didn’t argue or make excuses.  I liked that about her.

“Well then . . . you like the old stories, right?”

She looked up, hesitating. She knew I rarely told her the real stories. I told her about where we went and the things we achieved there, but not the real grit of it. There were war stories, and there were the ‘old stories’. “Will you tell one?”

“Just today. This story is about our advance into Cheverly. We had orders to secure the town and we had all we needed to do it. Infantry, archers, cavalry, overwhelming advantage. We marched right the hell in and spread out, securing everything important. Easy.  Boring, almost.”

“It wasn’t?” Her blue eyes watched mine, eager to hear about the realities of war.  She sat on the step at the foot of my chair, setting her back against the railing to look up at me. She loved the adventure of it. I intended to paint a different picture.

“It was up to us to secure the smithies. We’d make sure they weren’t making weapons for anybody except us. We had to burn a couple down. We beat up one guy pretty bad for selling weapons underground.  We just pressed them too hard. I didn’t see how it began, but one day I was going to relieve Crowder, and got there just in time to a blacksmith break a door down with Crowder’s back.”

I looked at her, and she stared back, confused.  This wasn’t the tale of glory and heroes she expected. “He told me not to interfere, but that smith had a Legion tattoo.  He swung a hammer all day.  Crowder thought he’d teach everyone not to mess with us. I killed the smith with a crossbow.  Crowder died later in the barracks, struggling to breathe – one punch had broken three ribs, and torn something inside.”

“That’s not a very good story, grandpa.”

“Nope. It’s the way things happen in war. They aren’t good, or bad, it’s just the way they happen. Sometimes, later, people decide it sounds good in a song, and people are heroes or villains. Get an old geezer some water, and I’ll tell you more, okay?”

She smiled and stood, going inside to get water for me, doubtless expecting the ending of the story would redeem it somehow, turn these dirty events into an adventure story.

No such luck. I took the water into my hands, drinking. “That’s better. So our men . . . we weren’t kind in the town. It was the women that drove us out. The women in . . . well . . . the houses of ill repute . . . they poisoned the barracks’ water supplies. They rushed in at night and anybody who wasn’t dead was too sick to really fight back. Four hundred men died in their beds that night, to forty women with stolen swords. We lost.”

“Gramps! I know you’re not like that!”

“Little one, this was before I was an officer. A soldier goes where he’s told to go, and does what he’s told to do. And that day, I was told to retreat. Good thing, too, or I suspect the whole lot of us would be dead. We lost our entire effective force and control of a city to women. They trained at night, in secret, and fought smart.”

“There weren’t any men that could have helped?”

“We had spies in the city.” Her brows furrowed, and she bit her lip. “You’re thinking they should have taken the risk. But we had already shown that we would kill anybody linked to an uprising. They involved only themselves.” I touched her cheek, brushing gnarled fingers against her soft skin, discolored by her bruise.  I made my decision and picked up a wooden sword,  much-battered.

She took it as I passed it to her, and after examining it, she looked up at me. “This was yours?”

I shook my head. “My captain’s. After I failed Crowder and got beat up by a girl, I swore to get stronger. I asked him to teach me, and we struggled every night to teach each other what strength was. I’ll keep on trying to learn with you, if you like.”

I knew she didn’t understand. The confusion on her face showed it – it was inconceivable that I might not know everything there was to know about strength. “You want to teach me?”

“There are rules. You never strike unless your safety is threatened. You never do more injury than absolutely necessary. You fight never fight unless you can fight smart.  And whoever gave you that bruise, stop seeing him. I’ve known men like that. They don’t change.”

Her eyes darkened, and she frowned. She was a grown woman; I didn’t have the right to question her relationships; she knew it, and she resented it. Then her eyes dropped to the wooden sword. It had the seal of the King’s Arm on it – an army that had been disbanded before she was born. She touched the dark stains on the wood, and her eyes widened when she realized that the varnish was discolored by blood, not age. What I’d given her wasn’t just a training tool, but a piece of history, marked by suffering and war.

“Will you tell me the old stories?”

“Give me two hours on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll give you an old story each week. But you said it yourself. Most of them aren’t good stories.”

She rose and leaned over my chair to hug me. “I don’t like people being able to hurt me because I’m a girl.”

“It’s not because you’re a girl, Amanda. It’s because you’ve only been taught to be a girl. I can teach you to be a fighter, too.”

“Teach me today?” She stepped back from the hug, whirling the practice sword around like a child with a stick.

“It’s Thursday. Lessons are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

“It’s the end of the week. You’ll have to tell me a story for this week, then a story for next week.”

I smiled. She was wily, and she’d do well when she took over her mother’s store. “Tricky woman.  I’ll give you a story tomorrow if you’re already rid of that louse when you get here.” I reached out and touched her bruised face to make my meaning clear.

“An old story.”

“Yes, yes.  Now, let me get us some tea.  No, don’t get up.  The day I can’t make my own tea is the day I die.”

She stopped me, though, and hugged me again. I put my arms around her, stroking her hair, and smiled sadly. She was far too eager, and she would make mistakes.  She’d hurt someone. I would have to teach her that the joy of mastery was not a reason to fight.

But it would be useless now. Right now she was infatuated with learning, and it was time to gain a foothold in skill before her infatuation faded; these first days would forge the blade she would become in the years ahead.

Author: Eric Eshleman

I'm not real.

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