Not much to preface here; Chapter 8 is done, and at a rate of 3-5 days per chapter (which is hopeful extrapolation but not completely unreasonable), the book should be done by the time summer is in full swing. And typing those words just made the bottom fall out of my stomach.
There was a beautiful dance within his movements. Gabby could see it for what it was, as could a few other members of the King’s Guard. The rest weren’t consciously aware of the details of what they were seeing, but even still could tell that there was something different about Henry, something both graceful and deadly. He’d only been in their ranks for a few weeks, but could already easily handle everyone else in their daily sparring and drills, and even Gabby, and that was no easy feat.
The only bump in the road so far had been introducing Henry to his sword, first the weighted wooden boken they used for training, then the lethal steel blade. It had initially felt awkward to use and trust a specific weapon when fighting, instead of his own body and hands–even now, weeks later, he carried the dwindling ghosts of serious welts on his arms and legs from those first few days, when he’d underestimated what a sword could do in trained hands and just swung wildly, trying to close in for the grapple–but after a short while something had clicked for Henry. It was one of many things in the past weeks that had suddenly, seemingly in a matter of moments, made complete and total sense to him. His mind had never worked very well before, slow to pick up some things and hopelessly incapable of kenning others, but the daily martial training had awakened a part of him that didn’t hesitate, didn’t doubt.
And now, the welts ended up on his opponents. Though he still spent a good bit of time each day sparring with Gabby and the few other members of the Guard who could keep up with him, he spent most of his time working by himself with his live steel, practicing forms and counters, making the blade even more an extension of his body with each passing moment.
That’s where he was the next time Tynnalus came looking for him: at the side of the yard, sword in hand.
Henry wasn’t wearing his armor–there’d been no serious threat to the crown in a generation, and so the guard kept their official raiments, armor and uniforms, in the armory, cleaning, polishing and mending them once a month, reserving them for ceremonial functions (which hadn’t happened yet since Henry had joined the Guard)–but had been wondering lately how the extra weight and constrictions would effect his movements. So despite the heat of the midday, without even a breeze making its way into the yard, he was bundled in three layers of heavy winter wear, sweat streaming down his body like a river. So far, he’d discovered how much easier it was to overbalance, and was trying to find a middle-ground between keeping centered but still being able to put the desired force behind each swing.
Tynnalus walked across the yard, nodding briefly at Gabby but ignoring everything else, making directly for Henry. He stood and watched Henry for a moment–as everyone in the yard stood and watched him watching Henry–as they boy went through a complicated series of twisting counters. After a few swings he overbalanced again, stumbling slightly, and was so involved in what he was doing that he didn’t notice his Captain standing behind him until he spoke.
“You’re extending too far on the second pass. It only takes a small twist, with the wrist.”
Henry stumbled again–feeling more awkward than he usually did–startled by the sudden comment. Then he realized who was speaking to him and tried to pull himself to respectful attention, knowing that his labored breathing was seriously undermining it.
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Tynnalus appraised him for a moment, then drew his own sword. It was longer than those the rest of the Guard used, thicker, with an ornate hilt covered one end to the other with carvings and gems; it should have been an effort just to raise it, if it were true steel and battle hardened, but the Captain raised it easily with one hand. It rasped against the scabbard as he drew and assumed a defensive position.
“You must learn to use your opponent’s efforts against him. Here, come, I’ll show you.”
Henry paused for a moment, realizing that his mouth was hanging open and unable to do anything about it. He gestured over to the rack where they kept the wooden practice bokens. “Sir, are you sure…?”
“I think we can avoid doing any serious damage, don’t you? Now come, High Guard.”
Henry hadn’t spent any time practicing the High Guard position–he found that a lower approach, something Gabby called Sweeping Bow, allowed him to better use the strength of his legs to augment his attack, which made up for his shorter reach–but he’d watched enough of the other guardsmen use it, both against him and each other, to have picked up the basics. It was another thing that had simply made sense to him after just a short time observing. So he faced Tynnalus, left foot slightly forward, right slightly back, sword raised high in the air, pommel slightly forward, with one hand controlling it and the other guiding, chest square to his opponent. He heard the conversation around him go quiet, knowing that everyone in the yard had completely stopped what they were doing to watch, and tried to put it out of his mind as he advanced.
Tynnalus was standing almost casually, legs barely wider than a normal non-combat stance, sword loosely in one hand, still at his side, and Henry brought his first swing in at the Captain’s unguarded left side…though not quite at full force, still a little worried about using live steel against a friend. Just a breath before his sword would have struck its target, the Captain whipped his own around, the blade moving almost too fast for Henry to see, and his attack was simply and easily deflected away.
The tone of Tynnalus’s next comment was not as friendly, though the expression on his face hadn’t changed.
“Am I a woman? Come at me you fuck.”
Henry gathered himself, trying not to let the words make him upset while accepting their intent. He resumed the High Guard and attacked again, this time holding nothing back.
And was deflected again, with ease. This time, Tynnalus flowed easily from his defense to the attack, whipping his sword one-handed at Henry with a flurry that forced him quickly back, needing to expend all his effort just to keep the attacks from landing, with no thoughts of a counter possible.
After a few moments, Henry felt himself overbalance, just a hair, the unfamiliar weight of his gear combining with the unfamiliar High Guard pushing him half a step further than he’d intended, and before he could correct himself Tynnalus took full advantage of the opening, bringing his sword around to land on Henry’s shoulder. At the last second he turned his blade so the flat landed instead of the edge, and while he was spared a wound that could easily have sent him back to the kitchens as a one-armed freak, Henry still felt his entire arm go numb from the impact. Tynnalus immediately backed off, having scored his sparring point, and looked to Henry for his reaction.
“Are you okay?”
“Yessir,” Henry said, shaking his arm until a bit of feeling returned to the hand, heat tingling from his fingers up his arm.
“Do you know why that happened? You invest too much of yourself in each swing. It is an easy thing, even aged veterans do it.
“The sword is not a club. It has an edge, and a bite, and a heart of its own, a silent life. Find that life, and allow it to breath.
Henry gathered himself, trying to resume the High Guard with an arm still in pain. He wasn’t sure exactly what Tynnalus had been talking about–it was a bit too poetic for him to wrap his head around–but he thought he understood what the Captain was talking about. Gabby and the others referred to the sword as an extension of themselves, and it was, but that didn’t mean it was the same thing. Holding a sword didn’t just make your arm thirty inches longer. It was as different from the rest of him as his hand was from his stomach. As the image memories of the last few moments played over again in his head, he saw that he was still clinging to his original notions, moving his entire body in the same way he would in a fist fight, only making allowances for the increased distance and the slightly longer time each swing took. Tynnalus, in contrast, had barely moved his center; at times, his upper arm had been locked to his side, and the only part of his body in motion had been his wrist and hand.
As Henry struggled to wrap his head around this new concept, a much deeper understanding of what was possible with this sword in his hand, Tynnalus interrupted his thoughts.
“You don’t prefer the High Guard?”
Henry stared at him, still somewhat lost in the cascading chain reaction of understanding that was breaking over him.
Henry shrugged, knowing the answer wasn’t profound, but true.
“I have short arms, sir.”
Tynnalus chuckled, but not unkindly. “I see. Well, maybe you will come to a different understanding later…about the position, not how short your arms are. For now, I’d rather see you comfortable. Come at me as you will.”
Henry sighed and lowered his blade. He spread his feet wide, chest turned now to present the smallest target area to his opponent, blade held behind him as though it were a heavy sack he were dragging. Tynnalus tilted his head briefly in recognition of the position–it was not often used in Heroland–and then resumed his own defensive position.
As he began his attack, Henry felt his mind clicking into place, a sensation that was becoming addictingly familiar over these last few weeks. He was barely focusing any of his conscious thought on his opponent or his moves, trusting that whatever new understanding was unfolding within him would take care of the immediate details.
And it was doing an admirable job of it. Henry did not find himself fully on the attack, but neither was he frantically defending the way he had in the first two passes. He was able to observe, even while it was happening, how the tiniest of movements could shift the tip of his blade several inches, and that was all that was needed to guide Tynnalus’s sword wherever Henry wanted it to go. Henry noted that Tynnalus was using two hands now, and breathing through an open mouth.
The two of them sparred back and forth, feet shifting around motionless centers and only then to maintain balance, neither giving up an inch to the other. Henry’s new understanding came pouring out of him, his sword carving profound patterns of intent before him without the ultimate design ever crossing his conscious mind. But Tynnalus was no slouch either, better by far than anyone Henry had sparred with since joining the Guard, including Gabby (which was saying a lot), and the ultimate design of his own patterns did cross his conscious mind, evolving with each passing moment as more and more of this prodigious boy’s skill manifested itself.
Finally, just as Henry’s weariness was starting to catch up with him, the adrenaline rush of new understanding fading into the also (unfortunately) familiar dull crash that seemed to always come after new insight, Tynnalus stepped back, raising his sword in a formal salute to signify the end of the match. Henry was too tired to respond correctly in kind, but he did what he could, and Tynnalus sheathed his own sword and came to Henry’s side.
“Good,” the Captain said. “You learn quickly. I see what Gabby was talking about.
“Remember: your sword is a tool. Use it. Don’t let it use you, or your opponent will take advantage and use it against you. The battle is not won with the hardest swing; the slightest of hits in the proper place can end the fight.”
Henry nodded, not sure if the words he was hearing matched the understanding he’d just been given, but he was grateful for the lesson regardless. He was aware that Tynnalus rarely spent time with the rest of the Guard, and it was an honor for him to have visited today, and even more so to have given Henry a personal lesson. He looked up into Tynnalus’s face, and out of nowhere had a momentary flash of fear: it seemed that the Captain was looking at him as a tool, no longer a person, little more than another sword to be bent and whirled where he wished it to go. The moment passed quickly, but Henry felt goosebumps rising under the layer of sweat coating his body.
“Follow me,” Tynnalus said, and turned and began walking to the rear of the yard. Henry rushed to catch up, sheathing his own sword and trying to peel the extra layers of padding off as he jogged after his Captain, tossing them into a pile near the door.
Tynnalus led him through the Guard’s armory, turning left at the end of the long room instead of right, which would have led them to the mess and dorm halls. Instead he came to a small door, one Henry had noticed in passing before but never wondered much about, and pulled a small ornate key from a pouch at his waist. He unlocked the door and stepped through, Henry following closely behind.
A sudden acrid smell hit them, an old burning that immediately coated the back of Henry’s throat. It wasn’t from the torches–there weren’t any. Tynnalus instead sopped to light a small glass-enclosed lamp that he took with them. Before them were stair, a spiral winding down narrow and tight, so much so that Henry had to stoop over and Tynnalus was nearly bent completely at the waist. They descended only a short distance–something Henry’s legs were glad of, given how sore they already were from the day’s training–before coming out in a dusty room. It was entirely walled in stone, with an earthen floor. There were several masoned bins along the back wall, each filled with a coarse gray powder Henry didn’t recognize, though the smell seemed to be coming from them. Set into the wall to their left, like in a mausoleum, were several recessed metal boxes. They were crudely made, with no ornamentation on their blotchy doors.
Tynnalus walked directly to one of these boxes and began searching in his pouch for another key.
“You’re a special case, you know? It’s rare that a low-born is chosen for the Guard, rarer still for one to come to us nearly full-grown.”
Henry wasn’t sure what to say, but it was apparent Tynnalus was waiting for a response of some kind, pausing in his action and tilting his head in Henry’s direction. Henry went with a basic, “Yessir,” just to keep things moving along. It appeared to be enough.
“But you are definitely special, hmmm? I thought so, when I first heard what you did in the store rooms, three against one… They call you ‘Onion Boy’ now, don’t they?”
Another “Yessir.” Tynnalus found the key he was looking for and bent to open the box in front of him.
“You’re not bothered by it?”
“Good. It’s a sign of respect, that you have a place among us.” A pause, as he reached intot he box with both hands, then, “And Gabby tells me you’ve earned your place amongst us already, easily, with your skill.” Tynnalus turned back to face Henry, a bundle wrapped in cloth in his hands.
“Do you like fighting, Henry?”
“No. Ah…well, not for real, sir. The practice is alright, I guess.”
“But you’re good at it?”
Tynnalus chuckled. “Yes, you are. I’ve been watching you since you joined us. And our little match…not really a test, though if it had been, you would have passed.
“This is yours.” And with that he handed the bundle to Henry.
Henry took it, surprised at its weight, and peeled back the outer layers of cloth, revealing the oiled leather, polished wood and dull gray of metal within.
“Only the King’s Own Guard and those of his heir are allowed to carry firearms. As one of us, this is yours.”
There was an odd, steady cadence to Tynnalus’s words that Henry didn’t understand but responded to nevertheless. He understood that there was something more happening here than just just passing to Henry a new piece of equipment. It reminded Henry of when Gabby had presented him with his sword, though that had been in the training yard, surrounded by the rest of the Guard and plenty of cheers and jeers (and not a few cries of “The Onion Boy!”) from those watching. Here, in this still, quiet room, there was a solemnity that was threatening to steal Henry’s breath.
Henry took hold of the revolver’s grip, a deep, dark wood the color of old, dried blood, and pulled it free from the holster. He was surprised to find it light in his hand–much of the weight of the bundle was in the belt and holster. He brought the gun up to his face, noting how the lamplight failed to reflect off its surface.
He’d never seen one up close before, certainly never held one before, but he knew what they could do, and he could immediately feel the inherent violence waiting within its folded chambers.
Tynnalus reached out for the bundle and asked, “May I?” Henry was nervous for a moment that Tynnalus was taking it back, that this was some sort of cruel joke, taunting him with something he would never, could never have (he’d suffered more than his fair share of like treatment while growing up). But he handed it back to his Captain, who replaced the gun in the holster and then unfolded the belt.
And then, in a moment that Henry would remember for ever after–no matter what later fell between them, in this moment there was no guile evident in Tynnalus, no plotting…this act was as close to something holy as the man was capable of understanding, regardless of his motives and loyalties–he knelt before Henry, paying no attention to their wildly differing ranks nor the dirt underneath his flawless uniform. He reached out and fastened the belt around Henry’s waist, bowing his head as he did so. And then looked up, into Henry’s face, repeating the words, “As one of us, this is yours.”
The next few moments were a blur. The weight of the belt was firm about his hips, its purpose evident as Henry began to move about: it kept the holster from flapping all around as he turned. Tynnalus regained his feet–the moment clearly over–and led Henry back upstairs, explaining to him that his training would be far more intense with the gun than with the sword, that he wouldn’t even begin to use live ammunition for months, but that Gabby was a good teacher and would be able to prepare him without needing that final explosive consummation. And then, as they were passing through the armory, he instructed Henry to remove the belt and place it entire into his locker, where his armor and uniform was kept: the guard did not make a habit of carrying their guns with them when out of uniform. And then he was gone, back to whatever circles he moved through elsewhere in the capital…though not without passing on one cryptic thought to Henry.
“You’ll remember me, yes? I think it important that we remember those who’ve remembered us.”
Later that evening, after their shared meal, Gabby called the Guard together and explained that they were expecting visitors from Innias the next day, so it was time to get out the “pretty bits” and get them all polished up. Before tending to his own gear, he began circling the room, checking in on everyone else’s progress. He started with Henry, coming up behind him, watching him from over his shoulder.
“You haven’t done one of these before, and there’s been no time to drill you since you joined us, so here’s what’s to happen…it’s thankfully simple:
“We’ll be in two lines, one to each other side of the Hall. That’s long before they show up, so you don’t have to worry about making an entrance with us. None of us are particularly ready for that kind of bit neither. Just focus on standing still, keep in line. We’re decorations, see. Part of the furniture, and furniture doesn’t draw attention to itself.
“They’ll come in eventually, and say some stuff, and then His Majesty will say some things, and other folks if we’re especially unlucky. And then His Majesty will leave, and the rest of ’em, and we’re done.”
Henry continued to work on his sword, grinding out the nicks left from his match with Tynnalus earlier.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That’s it. It’s His cousin what’s coming to visit, so it shouldn’t be too formal, though His Majesty does like for things to look nice.”
“Okay, I can do that.”
“Now, don’t worry overmuch about how you’re fixed tomorrow beforehand. I’ll give you at least a once-over before we head in, and the Captain will definitely do the same, though he won’t be with us in the actual moments. He’ll stay up by His Majesty’s side.
“As for that,” and he pointed to where Henry’s gun sat, still in its holster, next to him on his bunk, “the rest of us will be carrying live rounds, but as you’ve only just earned your piece, you’re to keep it unloaded. We’ll give you enough bullets to fill your belt…it’d look odd without them…but none in the chambers, not until you and I have spent at least a month at the range. Understand?”
The Sergeant reached down towards Henry’s gun, pausing to glance at his face, asking unspoken permission to handle it. Henry nodded assent and continued to work the stone against the edge of his sword. Gabby pulled the revolver free from its leather home and held it up, first checking to make sure the chambers were empty, then holding it out, looking down the sights, hefting it to feel its weight and balance.
“I thought so,” he said.
“Hmm?” Henry asked.
“This. It’s not a Trainer. I keep those myself, locked away tight.” He turned to look more closely at Henry. “You said he took you downstairs, to the magazine?”
Henry nodded, not sure where Gabby’s train of thought was going. He’d already told the Sergeant everything that had happened. He’d been obviously puzzled by the tale, but if he’d had any questions he hadn’t asked them then. Now, though…
“I don’t know why…” Gabby started, “It’s unusual, you know?”
Gabby took a deep breath before continuing.
“Everything. Bringing you in like he did. Can’t say it was a bad call, not with what you can do, but…
“Who are you, really?”
“I– I don’t understand.”
Gabby opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it and reached down to re-holster Henry’s gun.
“Watch yourself, is all.” He took Henry’s hand in his own, pausing the work the boy was doing with his sword, gently demanding the boy’s full attention.
“There’s us that protect, for all that’s worth nowadays…His Majesty’s got more to worry about from a chicken bone than he does someone wanting to hurt him where we’d be called in. But we’re ready for that, if that call ever comes.
“And there’s some of us what wants to rise a bit higher, ’til they’re the ones needing protecting, without having to get their hands dirty.
“Just… Keep your eyes open, is all.”
Henry really wasn’t following what Gabby was trying to say, wasn’t sure he was capable of piecing it together anyway, so he just nodded. Gabby returned the nod, sighing.
“It’s probably nothing. I’ve spent too many years cooped up in here, fit to jump at shadows.
“Tomorrow will go fine. With any luck, we’ll be back here in plenty of time for supper. And ale: we’re getting some extra casks set out, since we aren’t actually invited to the party. It’s long past time we started in on that part of your training.”
Gabby clasped Henry’s shoulder, firm but friendly, and moved on to continue his inspection rounds. Henry went back to work on his sword, wanting to be ready for tomorrow, whatever might come.