Saturday, July 14, 2012

Chapter Two, Sample #2

A few days later, Balfrith had some free time and found himself at the base of the stairs up to his father’s private chambers. And he noticed a thing which he’d overlooked a thousand times before: a narrow window slit on the southern wall, that opened to the roof of the great hall below. He’d glanced out the window numerous times in his life, but had never really paid it any attention. This time, he looked out of it, and wondered - was there another window on the floor above?

He thought about the treasury - a room which he’d been forbidden to enter, or even wander the same floor - and he remembered the window in that room. His curiosity drove him to these thoughts, at least that was what he told himself, though perhaps there was some bit of rebellion against his father’s will mixed into his decision to disobey.

Whatever the case, he looked out of the narrow window slit now, then down at the roof only a short drop below. It looked sturdy enough, and indeed he knew it was for in the winter, the snows would pile high on this roof and even cast a shadow over this window itself. So, he turned sideways and leaned out through the slit just a little, testing its width. He found that if he exhaled a bit, then his chest sunk just enough that he could slide himself all the way through and into the fresh air outside.

Balfrith pulled himself back inside, then looked around to be sure that no one was watching. And then, he leaned out one more time, getting his entire upper body out through the slit, and used his arms to pull himself out even further, so that his legs hung inside only from the knees down. It was easy after that, to pull a leg out and put his foot on the roof, then pull the other leg out likewise. And turning around, he smiled, surveying the scenery all about.

He breathed the fresh air for a few minutes, savoring the feel of freedom, and then turned back toward the wall of the second story and inspected it. It was cut stone, of course, like the rest of the manor-keep. And while the cuts were clean and of good workmanship, there were still spaces aplenty between one stone and another, so that he had little difficulty in placing his fingers in those gaps and climbing up a few feet. His toes, likewise, easily fit into many of the gaps, and so he began his ascent. There was no window above, but Balfrith reasoned that he could reach the rooftop easily enough - it was only about sixteen feet, he thought. And so it was, after a quarter hour of careful climbing, his head poked above the edge of the upper wall, and he could see the wooden rooftop that was above his father’s private chambers.

Balfrith quickly scrambled up the rest of the way, both from fear of falling - a fear which had grown upon him as he ascended - and fear of being seen by someone below. It was the latter which frightened him more, for it would certainly lead to disciplinary action by his father. Once on the roof, he sat with his legs crossed, once again looking around. People moved in the yard below, and he was satisfied to note that no one seemed to ever look up.

Thinking back to the treasury, Balfrith calculated that it was in the southwest corner of the third story. He stood, but just then a stiff wind came up and almost pushed him right over the wall’s edge! Dropping quickly to his knees, Balfrith crawled over to the western wall, and looked down - sure enough, there was a window just a few feet down in the wall. It looked to be about the same width as the one he’d climbed out - and was therefore just wide enough to climb into.

Now came the moment of truth. It wasn’t just the climb down, although Balfrith noticed with some trepidation that along the west side, the manor-keep had a single straight wall all the way to the ground. Funny that he’d never noticed that before. And assuming he successfully climbed down the wall and in through the window - what if a servant, or a guard, or even his father, came along and found him again? What would happen to him this time?

It didn’t matter. He wanted to see that sword again, to look it over and memorize every detail, to hold its weight in his hands and feel its perfect balance. He’d never before been as intensely interested in anything like this, certainly not anything of the martial world. He would rather run wildly through the woods than march across the drill field. He would rather practice archery than the sword. His day-dreams focused themselves on forests and Elves, rather than battlefields and soldiers. And yet, he was drawn to this blade as the proverbial moth to flame.

Balfrith took a furtive glance down to the people working and moving about below and, assuring himself no one was looking up in his direction, lay down on his belly and slid one leg out and over the edge. Gripping the edge of the roof tightly in his fingers, he slid the other leg over, and slowly moved his feet around until he found a crack big enough for his toes to fit into. He lowered himself bit by bit, hanging on with his fingers while his left foot quested downward for another crack. Finding one, he anchored that foot, then released his right hand and again searched down along the wall, until he found a gap that he could lock his fingers into. Minute by minute, Balfrith climbed downward, one limb, one foot or hand at a time, always ensuring that the other three were able to hold his weight should something go wrong.

After what seemed a long time but was in reality less than a quarter hour, Balfrith found himself beside the window, opening in the wall to his right. He inched himself over, until he was able to reach his right arm in and grasp the stone corner of the inside wall. That gave him confidence to slide his right leg around and in, and finally to bring his torso around and through, so that he straddled the stone window frame with his legs while he leaned inward with his body and looked down at the floor below.

The sword hung from its pegs directly below him - something to be careful of, when he dropped to the floor. Reaching up with his right arm, Balfrith got a good grip on the wall, then lifted himself just enough to draw his other leg inside, until both feet were anchored in the wall. Then he moved to the right a few feet, and allowed himself to drop to the floor. Balfrith was only about eight feet up, so the landing wasn’t bad.

Turning around and standing up, he saw the sword waiting there on the wall, as if it had never been touched. The only sign of prior entrance was the fact that the room was now cleaner than the first time he’d been there.

Balfrith stepped up to the hanging sword. He looked it over very closely, suddenly wondering if there were strings attached, or something that might set off some sort of trap or alarm. Looking closely and assuring himself there were no such things, Balfrith reached out with two hands and grasped the scabbard, lifting it slightly off the wall pegs, and then lowering it down and walking it over to the table. Laying it there, he looked over the scabbard once more, noting that the leather had been recently treated. It was still cracked and a bit worn, but now had the sheen of fresh oil, and was much more supple than before.

He drew the sword, and it slid freely this time with minimal resistance - the interior had clearly been treated as well. But while the blade showed evidence of recent care, it still hung alone in this armory, unused and ignored. He supposed his father would prefer to forget the thing existed, but his own recent discovery of it had kept that from happening. He examined the edges of the blade, noticing again that it was remarkably free of any nicks, as if it had never been used in battle. Even a well-maintained blade should have had some nicks or scratches that proved impossible for the owner to work out, but this one was pristine.

Balfrith lifted it from the table, marveling once again at its perfect balance at the cross-piece. He allowed its weight to rest on a single finger, noting how easy it was to keep in balance, as well as its relative lightness. Though a large sword, this would be unusually fast, giving any swordsman an edge in combat. He looked more closely at the blade now, noticing that it had shallow runes etched into the fuller at the base of the blade, near the hilt. Translating in his mind, he whispered the words: “I am Battle-wolf, forged by Sørkell.” Balfrith smiled, saying “Branulf - battle-wolf,” and he took the blade in both hands and raised his guard, like his father had taught him long ago.

He began the steps of the first form he’d ever been made to learn with a wooden practice stave, when he’d been just five years old. The moves came to him like a reflex, with no thought required - the memory of those steps was in his very sinew and bone. Forward, side-step, block high, side-step, block mid and counter, and on and on. Balfrith completed the form in mere moments, and realized he was smiling. He moved into the second form, learned a year later after he’d mastered the first. Again, the moves came to him without effort, and he found himself practically dancing from pose to pose. When he was done, it wasn’t only a smile on his face - he was laughing out loud.

And then he heard the faint scrape of metal on metal, the door opened with a groan, and there stood his father. “Balfrith - how did you get in here?” Then, noticing the blade in his son’s hands, he said, “You’ve decided you enjoy sword-play now, eh?” The look in his eyes was of mixed anger and cruelty. “Well boy, let’s go out to the practice yard and you can show me your forms.”

“Father, I -”

Enough,” his father said sharply, cutting the air with a hand. “Put the sword away - I’ll not have that cursed thing leaving this room, not while I draw breath. It’s brought enough heartache to me, by its mere existence. I’ll not have you drawing the gods’ ire upon this family with your foolishness. Put it away, and come with me.” He waited then, as Balfrith did as he was told.

Balfrith preceded him out of the room. His father locked the door again, then pocketed the key, and led the way without speaking out to the practice yard. Balfrith followed, also silent, a pall of dread coming over him. He knew what was coming, and could do nothing to prevent it - only endure.

Out in the practice yard, his father unlocked the arms locker with a different key, then entered and returned with two staves. These were hardwood shafts, carved to resemble the shape of a sword, with a hilt end and a blade-tip end, and having the full length and weight of the real item: they were meant for hard combat practice. They could be as deadly as a cudgel if used improperly, so it was normal to have a trainer nearby to observe and ensure nothing got out of hand. Balfrith noted, with some trepidation, that there was no trainer present. It was also normal to use shields in practice, as the sword and shield was the common panoply of the Nûmidëan knight, but his father left the practice shields hanging on the rack. This would be combat along the lines of a personal duel. Fitting, thought Balfrith.

His father tossed one of the staves at him, and Balfrith caught it in one hand. Testing its balance, he couldn’t help but compare it with Branulf - and there was little comparison. But it was a serviceable practice stave, no better or worse than the one his father would use, and therefore neither would have an advantage in arms. This contest would be one purely of skill and experience, and Balfrith knew he lacked both. Though he could do the beginner’s forms well enough, he’d not progressed very far in one-on-one combat practice, and his father knew that, too.

Stepping back on guard, sword-arm forward and shield arm (without the shield) behind, presenting the narrowest profile he could, Balfrith waited. He thought briefly that he might make one last appeal for mercy, but the look in his father’s eyes told him it would be useless. Alright, he thought, Let the punishment come. His father stepped forward and raised his guard, matching his own pose although with better poise, and they each raised their blade to the other in salute, before lowering the point to begin the contest.

His father said, “Begin.”

Balfrith circled right, turning slightly to present his shield side, though he had no shield. And realizing that, he faced himself forward once again, to present the maximum blade length forward and keep his father at a distance. Balfrith was younger, and possibly faster, but that would be little advantage against his father’s experience, skill, strength and reach. He was taller than Balfrith by at least a hands-breadth, and had the full weight of a mature man, compared with Balfrith’s lanky limbs.

Balfrith stepped right again, circling, waiting for an opening. He saw a blur of movement, and his father’s blade whacked him high on his left arm, leaving it tingling all the way down to his hand. He shifted his grip slightly, and continued circling, looking into his father’s eyes and seeing the glint of satisfaction there. He made his own attack, stepping forward in a thrust that should have struck his father square in the chest - if his father had been standing still. But he quickly side-stepped, and tapped Balfrith in the same spot on his left arm, a bit harder this time.

“That’s going to leave a bruise,” his father said, grinning. Balfrith stepped back and raised his guard again, standing still for a moment. His father feinted an attack, and he stepped back quickly while keeping his guard up.

They stood facing each other for a long moment, then his father began circling left, forcing Balfrith to do the same. He also advanced, forcing Balfrith to retreat. Left, back, left, back, and back again, they moved about the yard, never stopping. Balfrith tried advancing a step, and was treated to another hard smack of the wooden stave, this one coming under his right arm and striking the thin skin along his ribs. His father said nothing, but Balfrith could tell that one would definitely leave a bruise.

He stepped back and brought up his guard quickly, but this time he didn’t wait for his father to take the lead. Instead, he paused for half a breath, and attacked, a wild swing that caught his father by surprise and struck his left hand, hard. He actually dropped his practice sword, and leaped back, shouting “Hold!”

Balfrith stopped and stepped back, honoring the call to stop while his father retrieved his stave from the ground. He wiped sand from the stave, inspecting it briefly to ensure it wasn’t cracking, then brought it on guard, and said, “Begin.”

Balfrith stepped forward to lunge again, hoping to take his father off-guard, but it didn’t work: his father knocked his blade aside, and then whacked him on the side of the head with his counter-attack. Balfrith staggered sideways and fell, dazed, and felt the warmth of blood trickling down the side of his face.

“Get up, boy, you’ll not get off so easily today. A little blood loss won’t hurt you - it might even save your life, if you remember this lesson.”

Balfrith shook off the dizziness, wiped a hand across his face and then on his breeches, then grabbed his stave and stood up, immediately on guard.

“Begin.” Whack! He was on the ground again, having been struck in the ribs again, just under his left arm this time. Balfrith took a deep breath, and felt only the deep throb of a bruise, but not the sharp pain of a fractured bone. He’d managed to hold on to his stave, and he used it to lever himself up to his knees, then stood up and raised his guard.

“Hold. Take another deep breath,” his father said. Balfrith did as he was told, but this time he felt a slight stab in the side. He held the wince, and refused to gasp or show weakness. He didn’t want his father to take advantage of that and strike him there again, so he did his best to brush it off.

“Can we continue? I feel fine, you just knocked the wind out of me.”

His father looked him, seeming to not believe him, but Balfrith held himself still and took another deep breath, ignoring the pain, blocking it in his mind, and holding his guard.

Finally, his father visibly shrugged, and said, “Begin.”

Balfrith stepped back immediately this time, and it was a good thing he did - his father’s stave reached forward and then flicked across in front of his face. It would have struck him in the side of the head again, if he’d done anything other than step back out of reach. His father smiled, and advanced. Balfrith stepped back again, keeping his distance, then circled right a step, another, and lunged. His father tried to parry, but Balfrith managed to connect with his shoulder anyway. It was a light tap, but still counted - that was two strikes he’d managed, compared with his father’s five.

Both of them raised their guard, squaring off, and his father advanced once again, forcing Balfrith to retreat. But he wasn’t fast enough, and his father’s stave reached out once again, this time in a straight thrust that caught him in the center of his chest, and knocked him backward. Balfrith landed on his back-side, the air whooshing out of his lungs forcefully. His father backed off a step, returning to guard, and waited.

Balfrith got his feet under him, and stood, raising his sword to guard. He was breathing hard now, and a bit raggedly, the pain in his ribs much more sharp now. It was all he could do to keep on fighting, but he was determined to take whatever his father threw at him and not back down. He knew it was stupid, but he didn’t care this time.

“Begin,” his father said. Balfrith leaped forward, lunging as hard and fast as he could, but he gave up his fine control in the all-out attack. His father backed up quickly and moved to the side, parrying his attack with a hard smack, and Balfrith was far over-extended and out of balance. As he tripped and fell forward past his father, he felt the sting of the wooden stave on his buttocks, smacking him hard.

His father’s voice came from behind him: “Foolish, boy, to over-extend like that. You know better - and if you didn’t, let this be a lesson to you.”

Balfrith, on his hands and knees, reached out and grasped his stave, stood, and turned around to face his father, bringing his sword up to guard and saying nothing.

His father nodded, satisfied that he’d driven the lesson home, and raised his own guard. “Begin,” he said, and Balfrith launched forward again, lunging hard at gut-level. His father moved faster, however, knocking aside his blade again, and countering with a solid thwack! to his shoulder.

Balfrith recovered quickly, getting his feet under him and bringing up his guard before he received yet another strike. His father was already circling, not waiting, and Balfrith barely had time to react before the next attack came. He parried, knocking his father’s blade aside easily enough, but his counter was too slow and his father danced back out of reach.

They circled a few more steps, and his father stepped back, opening his guard and drawing Balfrith to him, taunting him silently. Balfrith didn’t take the bait at first, keeping his pace, chasing his father around the yard step by careful step, not willing to waste another lunge on empty air. Finally he realized that he’d drawn ever closer to his father, so that he knew he could make a quick lunge and score another hit. Balfrith launched forward with a quick step and thrust of his arms, but his father had clearly seen it coming - or perhaps even planned it, as he knocked Balfrith’s blade aside easily, and countered with yet another solid strike to his ribs, knocking the wind out of him again.

Balfrith didn’t fall, though he wanted to lie down and die. But he kept his feet under him and backed away a few steps to give himself room to breath, and his father stood his ground, not moving. Finally Balfrith raised his guard, and his father did the same. He nodded, and they both lunged forward at the same time. Balfrith tried to parry, but his father was stronger, and parried his stave downward, even managing a solid counter attack that struck him hard in the thigh.

He fell forward, but caught his balance before hitting the ground, and whirled around to face his father, bringing up his guard. But he was too slow, and his father struck quickly, knocking aside his blade and jabbing him hard in the chest. Once again, Balfrith was pushed back a few steps, the wind knocked out of him, and he struggled to raise his blade to guard while catching his breath.

His father waited on guard, watching him impassively, not even breathing hard. Smiling slightly, he asked, “Had enough yet?”

Balfrith growled through gritted teeth, “Have you? Are you done punishing me yet?”

His father glared at him for a brief moment, then said simply, “Begin.”

I guess he’s not done yet, thought Balfrith. He stepped forward, stave raised on guard, and his father did the same. They faced one another, paused, and then his father stepped forward to attack. Balfrith was ready this time, and he parried upward, driving his father’s blade up and away, while countering with a solid strike back down upon his father’s left shoulder. It caught his ear, and drew blood, but his father jumped backward and didn’t seem to notice. He was on guard immediately, and Balfrith started returning to guard as well, but not before his father was already attacking, driving inward past his loose guard and punching him in the gut with his left fist, then swinging down with the stave in his right, and smacking him hard in the ribs again. This time there was a noticeable crack!, and Balfrith fell, gasping for breath and holding his sides in pain.

His father took the stave out of his limp grasp, and returned both weapons to the locker. “Now I’m done - and so are you. Go see the doctor, it sounded like you cracked a rib in that last attack,” he said, and he turned and walked away.