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.