I'm not quite sure what happened last week, but here's Part 8 of "Swordsman." Enjoy!
"Einar! We're boarding!"
"Once more," I tell Magnus. We've been up since dawn practicing with his new sword. We each have an assortment of scratches--my Thjodhild will have a fit patching my tunic--and Magnus is tiring more easily with the weight of a metal sword. But he is eager to learn, and I--for reasons unknown to me--am hesitant to say good-bye to him.
I launch another attack on Magnus. He knows his parries well, but tends to block with the edge of his blade rather than the flat. Some time at the grindstone should help teach him.
He wraps his blade around my crossguard and flicks his wrist. I see the move coming and, for a moment, I tighten my grip. But I loose it again, giving Magnus the privilege of winning his last fight against me.
"Well done, my friend."
Magnus smiles. He is confident now--he has the ability to protect his home, the ability all men should have. And, for giving it to him, I myself feel no small joy. I shake his hand farewell. "We'll be hosting Althing on Hrafney next year," I tell him. "I hope you'll be able to join us." With a final clap on the shoulder, I turn for my ship.
I am not the only one saying farewell to friends. Handshakes and sturdy embraces are everywhere. With a deep breath and a renewed appreciation for solid land, I step foot in a ship and take my seat. In my horn, I have some of Magnus's stomach-settling decoction. Whether it works on seasickness or not is yet to be determined.
With a final glance at the shore and a hand raised in goodbye, I ply my oar. It does not seem as heavy as it did on our trip here. Perhaps, through training Magnus, I became stronger myself.
In the hustle of seeing everyone safely off, Magnus slipped unobserved into the forest. For about a mile he tramped through underbrush, finally emerging in a clearing with twigs in his hair and burrs stuck to his tunic. Now, a mile away from the nearest human, he was free.
"Lord, thank Ye," he said in Latin, approaching a grey horse tied on a tether long enough to reach a small stream nearby. He stroked its nose as it sniffed him, and he smiled. "Thank Ye fer Einar and all he taught me. I won't have to use it, though--will I?"
You will teach another.
"But when?" This he spoke in Gaelic. "By the next meeting of tribes?"
Have patience, My son.
Magnus--or the man who had called himself Magnus--mounted his horse with a sigh. Patience didn't come naturally to him. At least he had learned quietness enough to hear the voice of God; he would have lost his mind without it.
The grey horse picked up a deerpath and took it to what the Norse called the Haunted River, fording it without qualm. Magnus was ever alert, his ears attuned to every noise. No bird could take flight without his notice, no squirrel leap from branch to branch without a blue eye attentive to it. Eventually, horse and rider came to a monastery of stone, magnificent in build and structure, surrounded by fields and outbuildings. Magnus slipped off his mount, stabled it and currycombed it and ensured it had water, and entered the monastery.
His footsteps echoed through empty halls. He lit a fire and heated some tea, then followed a tug on his heart to the chapel. Kneeling on the stone floor before the altar, he thanked God for the wonderful week he'd had--the first time in eight years, since he was fifteen, that he'd seen people. He was not a hermit by choice but by violence, and fear kept him away from the ones who had murdered his brothers. For a week, he had lived among them--silent, for he neither spoke nor understood their language. That week had been worth the fear he'd felt at first. But that week and no more, for he was not strong enough to keep his hand off his hilt for long.
He rose from his prayer and remembered his tea. It was hopelessly over-steeped, but he drank it anyway.
Until the next meeting of tribes, he would remain a hermit.
When I was young, I would marvel at Brother Elias, for he was more accurate than a weathervane or a sailor's adage at predicting the weather. Some days, he would stand straight and spry, and on those days we knew the weather would be fair. But if he walked stooped, or slowly, and complained that the cold had gotten into his bones and stiffened them, we knew it would soon rain.
I am an old man now, and Alynn is starting to learn to tell the weather by me. I was moving slowly at breakfast this morning, and spiked my linden tea with willow, and she glanced at me compassionately.
"It's going to rain today, isn't it?" she asked.
I laughed at myself, though internally, lest my aching bones be set with a worse pain. "I wonder," said I, "why God made autumn. The rain, the chill--"
"But the trees turn," Alynn said, setting the porridge on the table. "And the asters grow, and the rabbits are fat, and the garden's ready for harvest--I don't mind the chill, the work warms me. I love harvest. Even the frost is beautiful."
"Frost kills the cabbages."
"Oh, come, Lukas. There has to be something you like about autumn."
"If you enjoy it, I'm content, my dear."
Alynn smiled. "Don't you enjoy going hunting?"
I'm rarely successful with a longbow--I make too much noise drawing it, I suppose, and frighten the deer before I can loose an arrow. But the rare successful hunt is enjoyable. "At times."
"You like fishing, don't you? All men like fishing."
"Fishing's a year-round sport, my dear. There's simply more pressure to get more fish in autumn."
"You like eating them, don't you?" A light shone in Alynn's eyes. "You like autumn because of the harvest, don't you? You can eat as much food as you like."
Out of all the things God made for our enjoyment on this earth, food is perhaps the most welcome to me. And small wonder, growing up with fasts and famines, and abundance of food associated only with Christmas and Easter.
Autumn may set an ache in my bones, but I'd nearly forgotten how well it quenched the ache of hunger. Even in the dreariest of seasons--in rains so cold it may as well be snow, in chill winds and hurried preparations for winter--there is some joy. I pray that I never lose sight of the flower hidden in the snowdrift.
This is going to be a short blog. I have an online author seminar to attend.
The other day, I had normal Coca-Cola for the first time in my life. I'd had Cherry Coke once, when my family and I were locked out of our cousin Chip's cabin and it was the only thing we had to drink. I enjoy noncaffeinated sodas from time to time, mainly Sprite and root beer, and I've been known to enjoy the occasional Dr. Pepper now that I'm old enough to make stupid decisions for myself. But, until we had an expired Coke at work that was given to the crew, I'd never had original Coca-Cola.
I'm a novelty at work; I'll admit that. Having been homeschooled for ten years, I'm a lot more innocent than most people. I don't swear, I play with bubbles, and I love poking my head out the drive-through window and watching the sun set. And, to be honest, I enjoy it when people look at me like I'm some sort of cute alien.
"I've never had Coke before," I told everyone as I poured a bit into a plastic give-away cup.
"Are you serious?" everyone asked. "You've never had a coke before?"
"Not an original one."
I took a few sips and threw the rest away. It was weird.
But it wasn't until a few days later that I learned that, in Texas, "coke" means "soda." Not "Coca-Cola" specifically, but "soda" in general. I was raised in Illinois, where we called it "soda" or, occasionally, "pop."
Something similar happened when I was reading Prince Caspian for the first time. Edmund mentioned a "torch" he'd gotten for Christmas, and I didn't realize until later that he was talking about a flashlight.
I'm just curious as to what name you ascribe to carbonated beverages. Let me know in the comments below, and we'll see if we can't get things sorted out. God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to Like us on Facebook!
Althing draws to a close. On the last afternoon, when the merchant's wares are thinning and friends prepare to say goodbye, I spy Magnus fighting a tree.
I have taught him the simple moves of swordsmanship--diagonal cuts across the chest--and he exerts all his strength, trying to break his toy sword on the oak bark. I laugh at him, and he turns, lifting his curls to mop his brow, and sits down, leaning against his foe. When he sees me, he smiles.
Drawing my own sword, I motion for him to stand. He does so, and taking his battered toy in his tired arm, stands to face me. His face has changed. No longer is he afraid. Courageous he is, almost eager for a fight, as if he finds the same joy in the art of sword fighting that I do.
I have not fought Magnus in three days, and already, he has improved. He holds his own well. He moves quickly, surprisingly quickly, and his speed is his strength. My family is said to have the fastest reflexes in Hrafney. My cousin Jormund can catch a fish with a bare hand; his sister Jofrid is the best fly-killer man has seen. I put the same speed and reflex into parrying blows and throwing thrusts of my own. Yet I am used to relying on my own speed as my strength.
Magnus's eyes flash; he knows my weakness. He wraps his blade around my crossguard and, flicking his wrist as I taught him, wrenches my sword from my hand.
"Have I taught you that well, or are you merely a gifted student?" I ask him. He hands me my sword back, smiles again, and stretches his sore arm.
"If you were given a sword, would you use it?" I ask. "The blacksmiths will sell their swords for less, since it is the last day of Althing. How much do you have?" I take my own purse from my belt and show to him the coins and bits of hacksilver given me for winning duels. Magnus has a purse at his own belt; what it holds I have not ventured to guess. Today, he shows its contents to be a misshapen lump of silver, melted from some other artifact, worth at least three-quarters of a logeyrir. It might buy a sword on such a day as today, but one of poor quality. I take him to the market anyway, to act as his mouthpiece and advocate.
Magnus seems to know the reason for our visit. He navigates the merchants on his own accord, finally selecting a single sword from a Gythian merchant. The sword is simple yet useful, and discounted to nine dirhams--and a dirham being the tenth part of a logeyrir. I smile. The Gythians are easy to intimidate, and I am quick to strike a bargain.
How a farmer came into the possession of so much silver remains a mystery. Magnus is no thief; perhaps he has a brother of baser morality than he.
As the afternoon draws closer to evening, I again find Hakon the learned man. "Ask him what he will do with his sword," I tell him.
Magnus smiles at the note, and crafts his own response. "I will practice with it," he says. "And when you return to this island, we will fight again, and you will find me improved."
"Will you not take vengeance against the man who has wronged you?" I ask.
I can see in Magnus's eyes that he struggles. He burns with anger and freezes with fear all at once, his emotions like a fever inside him. Finally, he writes, "The man who killed my family cannot escape the judgement of the gods. In them I trust."
Magnus is a strange man. It is his duty to exact vengeance from those who have wrought evil against him. And yet there is something nobler in forgiveness than there is in retribution.
I went to Sam's Club today, primarily to get one of their $1.49 four-berry frozen yogurt sundaes. But before I could even get halfway through the door, I was met with a large, light-up spider and a tree that moved. "Halloween decorations," I scoffed. I was raised to abhor Halloween to the point that I wasn't allowed to carve a Jack-o-Lantern until I was a teenager. We decorate for fall--we might put a scarecrow in the front flower bed, and we still have a bunch of crafts from Oriental Trading that my sister and I did as kids to put around the house--but we never decorate for Halloween.
The antithesis of my family lives in a cul-de-sac just down the road from us. They decorate for Halloween the way everyone wants to decorate for Christmas. They set up a cemetery in their front yard, complete with ghosts, goblins, spiders, and an incredibly creepy baby. Fortunately, they haven't set it up this year. Yet.
All this creepy stuff got me thinking about the American Literature course I just took. We studied the Romantic Period, and no, it had nothing to do with romance. It had more to do with a general feeling of creepiness than anything else. One of the more horrifying stories we read was "The Cask of Amontillado" by Edgar Allen Poe. In it, a man murders his friend by leading him down into his family's crypt, getting him drunk on the way there, then tying him down and literally building a wall around him.
I know. I'm glad my high school literature course stuck to "The Pit and the Pendulum."
The Romantics were experts at building a disturbing atmosphere in their stories. And to me, one of the most important things in a book--besides the plot and the characters--is the "feel" of the book. Fear Has a Name by Creston Mapes is one of my favorite books. You can feel the action, the fast pace, the heart-racing, adrenaline-pumping, edge-of-your-seat emotions that you might at a theme park. Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series is gentler: you can almost feel the coziness as you turn the yellowed pages. You feel Laura's security as a child, her free spirit as she grows older, and her maturity as she enters her teen years. Yet there's a simplicity and a kindness about everything that makes the series so endearing.
Writing style plays a lot into theme. So does setting--it's hard to write something dreary when your protagonist is in a sunny field of flowers. I've found in my own limited experience that descriptions are some of the best conveyors of theme. The following is one of my favorite thematic scenes from Where the Clouds Catch Fire:
"Half an hour later, Alynn was sitting down to dinner with Lukas. The sun had set, and the starlight was cloaked with clouds. All of the light came from the fireplace. It flickered on whatever it touched—shadowy faces, gloomy corners, and the lonely far reaches of the room."
If you want to, you can add symbolism to your writing to add a bit more theme. I like to use the language of flowers, although I don't do it much in Where the Clouds Catch Fire, primarily because it's late in the year and not too many flowers are blooming. But it's fun to throw in a linden flower to symbolize everlasting love, or a foxglove for insincerity.
Do you prefer books that are happy, sad, romantic, or action-packed? Would you rather read a cozy mystery or a thriller? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear readers, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
At the close of the fourth day, Althing is half over, and I am glad. I long for the solitude of my own woods, the tender embrace of my wife, and a decent home-cooked meal. My Thjodhild makes a delicious stew for the evening meal. I could eat it every night for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it.
As for the food here at Althing--too few men have brought their unmarried daughters and sisters, and the women of Diaparn can hardly be expected to cook for all of us. And so the cooking has been largely left to the men who know nothing about it, and as a result, I am suffering terribly from indigestion. The tent-flap opens frequently, proving that I am not alone. I try to roll over and sleep again, but I am forced to leave the security of my tent. A poorly-cooked pork stew affects the low and mighty alike.
On my return from my errand, moderately but not completely relieved, I notice a light at one of the cooking-fires. A figure stands near a pot, and five or six others have formed a line around him. I venture up towards them, and who should I see but Magnus, ladling tea into drinking-horns?
"What is this?" I ask.
A man of Eitravik, singularly affected by the evening's meal, stands in front of me. "Some sort of brew. My brother had some half an hour ago, and he said it helps," he says, paling. Poor fellow, he looks past the point of being aided by herbalists' teas. But I wait in line with the rest and take some of Magnus's tea. I nearly choke on it. It is hot, almost searing, and disgustingly strong.
Magnus is--or was, at least--as sick as the rest of us. But when he sees me, he smiles weakly, and a bit sympathetically. He sips his own brew straight from the ladle, wincing, and aids another ailing patient.
"Do you know him?" asks the man of Eitravik.
"I only met him here," I answer. "His name is Magnus, a farmer from this island deaf and mute, and given to the monks in childhood. I take it they taught him medicine along with Latin."
"A man of learning." The Eitravite nods, sipping his tea again. "Well, this tastes bad enough that it ought to do us some good."
The bitter taste I ignore as best as I can. I drink half the horn in a single draught, and though it is rude to put down a horn half finished, I cannot bring myself to complete the task. Already, my stomach churns less. "How long has he been here?" I ask.
"At least an hour," another man says. He raises his own horn cheerfully. "Sip slowly, man. It's medicine, not mead."
I scoff and down the rest of my mug. What is a bowl of pork stew, that it should affect Einar Shattersword? My body will heal from this just as it has healed from any wound--quickly and painlessly, so that no one would know that I was wounded in the first place.
Magnus kneels beside me, scolds me with a glare, and refills my horn, indicating that I should sip slowly. And, slowly, I begin to feel better--well enough to return to bed and sleep soundly until dawn.
Coupons are a wonderful thing. They convinced me to eat fast food this week--not once, but twice. Both times, I ate at Wendy's. Both times, I got a free sandwich with the purchase of something else. And, both times, they spelled my name wrong.
I know I'm not the only one whose name has been spelled wrong on a fast food order. The funny thing is that they spelled it differently both times. The first time, it was "Mykayla," and the second time it was the slightly-more-standard version "Makayla." My driver's license says "Micalah Elise Janelle Piazza."
I know it's a strange spelling. To be honest, when I was younger, I thought it was a strange name. Later, I learned that I was named after my dad, Michael, and partially after Michaela Quinn from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I was in fourth grade or so before I met another Micalah, and she had the old standard spelling of "Michaela." It was always so much fun to pass her in the hallways--"Hi, Michaela!" "Hi, Micalah!"
No one ever spells my name right. At this point, I don't care anymore. I'm used to it. I had my first book signing in July, and it was mentioned in the August issue of a local magazine. They spell my name two different ways in the two-sentence article--"Michela" and "Michala."
And, to be honest, when people read my name the way it's supposed to be spelled, they can't pronounce it. I've been called "Mickel-uh," "Michael-uh," and even "Malachi." This, along with my generally compliant personality, makes me answer to pretty much anything that starts with an M. Or a K, even. My cousin Caleb spent a week at our house, and half the time, we'd both answer when his name was called. That stemmed from years of being called "Calah"--or, more phonetically spelled, "Kayla."
And don't get me started on my last name. Yes, I'm Italian. Yes, I love pizza. Yes, I literally work at a pizza place. But my last name is "Piazza," not "Pizza" and not "Pizazz." We've been called both. My last name actually has no connection to pizza, or even food in general. It's actually an Italian word meaning "porch," which is interesting because my family has worked in the construction business for at least two generations. I was rather stunned to see my last name in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in literature class. Not as a name, of course, but as part of the Van Tassel's house.
The difficulty of pronouncing my name is one of the reasons I chose to publish under my initials, M.J. Piazza. There are other reasons--yes, I'm trying to blend in with "the greats" like C.S. Lewis and, more recently, E.L. Konigsberg and George R.R. Martin. And, yes, I'm trying to make it a bit less obvious that I'm female. But I'm mainly giving the world a break. There's too many convoluted names out there; you don't need mine added to the mix.
What's the most hilarious way someone's misspelled or mispronounced your name? Let me know in the comments below! God bless you, dear reader, and don't forget to like us on Facebook!
There is no need to fear the man who has practiced a hundred feats of the sword. However, when a man has practiced a single feat a hundred times--nay, five hundred times--then he is worth a man's concern. Any fool can swing a sword and kill an unarmed opponent. That is why I will teach Magnus to conquer any sword that comes against him. I buy a wooden sword-- a child's toy, but a decent one, and it will serve our purposes well. I lead him to the sparring grounds, but well away from the rest of the action. It would be better if none see me teach a grown man as if he were a child.
"What you do," I murmur as I practice the motions, "is you wrap the tip of the blade around their crossguard, and set your own crossguard against the tip of their sword, and--" With a single flick of my wrist, I wrest the wooden sword from Magnus's hand. He steps back, astonished.
I hand him his wooden sword and point to him. "Your turn."
At first, I hold my sword steady. The simple motions themselves are difficult to master; it took me many months to wrest a sword from even the hand of my younger brother Ebbe. But Magnus learns quickly. And well might he, for it may be that his life depends on it. On his fifth try, he twists the sword from my careful grasp, and again on his seventh and tenth. Then, slowly, I aim a blow to his chest. This time, there are twenty tries before he succeeds in knocking the sword from me.
I give him seventy tries, and twelve of them are successful. Then, I notice that his arm moves more slowly, and remember the days of my own training. I feel the cramp in my own shoulder and remember the stiffness the following morning. I sheath Neckbiter and give the wooden toy, battered as it is, to Magnus.
"You have done well," I tell him, adding an affirmative nod. "Come again this evening, and we will practice more."
I leave Magnus to rub the knots out of his shoulder. If he is wise, he will leave for the saunas and hot baths. Warmth does well for such strains. As for me, I leave to find a decent grindstone for Neckbiter. Seventy knocks, even against a wooden toy, is enough to dull a spot or two. In perfect condition I keep my weapons.
I purchase a grindstone from a Gythian man. Rather, I select a grindstone, then stand in silence while he tells a story to a group of children gathered at his feet.
"Aye, it was a pretty battle," he was saying. "The old ones didn't even try to fight back--they just prayed to their God. There were three or four younger ones, though--only three or four, out of the whole lot, who fought back. And one of those youngsters killed Gudmund, and it's his draugr that haunts the Haunted River. And that, children, is why you mustn't even go there."
"How many people did you kill that day?" a boy asks.
"Nine," the Gythian says. He might have killed twelve or thirteen, had he been in decent shape. "Three of them were old men, who ought to have died years ago anyway. Five were decent men--weak, of course, from spending so much time on their knees in prayer--but the last, though. I gave him an honest fight. He was hardly old enough to be called a man. He had some quick fists on him--he's the reason my nose is crooked. But he went down after a few good blows, and I threw in a few more for good measure."
My blood boils. "Who beats an unarmed man until he dies?" I demand.
The Gythian looks up, and I am able to see the extent of his disfigured nose. "I sent him to Valhalla. I did him a service, sir."
"That's murder, sir, not death in battle." I hold up the grindstone I want. "Five wooden pegs."
Handing the pegs to the Gythian, I turn and see Magnus--he must have followed me, the fool. But his fists are clenched and shaking, a fire in his eyes like nothing I have ever seen, fear and anger and hatred boiling all at once.
When he sees me, he blinks, then turns his back and hurries away. I lose him in the crowd.
He is lucky. Vengeance is a noble art, and I am an excellent teacher.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.