The Hand That Steers A Kingdom – Part 1
Sarai didn’t expect the Swordmaster to be a woman. Still, she bowed her head respectfully. In the tiny forge attached to a cottage in one of the outermost colonies of what was once Vamaser, a broad form turned.
“What do you want?” The words fell like ash from coals long spent. Sarai shivered in the chill outside the workshop. Her thin dress and the even thinner did nothing to fight off the late autumn winds.
“The villagers said a Swordmaster lived here,” she whispered. Her voice was too rough, scraped raw by nights traveling through the ruins of their once peaceful home. The Swordmaster rose, towering in her doorway before emerging. In the bleary predawn, the Swordmaster was no longer a hulking monster. Instead, she was an older woman, her face lined with age and soot from the fires she tended. Her torso was mostly bare, tight bindings the only thing hiding her breasts from the world while her legs were covered in billowing pants made of dense cloth. Heavy muscles moved and shifted in her abdomen as she walked, her footfalls sending up small clouds of dust. Stiff tails of hair hung to her bare shoulders, braided close against her tan scalp, the thistle-like ends dangling against her shoulders. She looked down at Sarai with a blank face, expression carefully neutral as she took in the young black-skinned woman on her doorstep.
“What does an amputee need with a Swordmaster?”
Sarai growled, and gripped her empty left sleeve, kept pinned at the hem. She was becoming used to her new status. The Survivor. The War Orphan. The stinging bite of the Doerman sword slicing through her flesh was one that haunted her nights. The dull phantom pains that followed accompanied her days. The stump of her arm, ending a few inches above her hand, was part of the reason she was here.
“I want you to teach me.”
Sarai gasped at the refusal. “Please,” she cried. “I want to learn to be strong! I want to-”
“You want revenge.” The Swordsmith turned around, ready to leave the girl to the empty sky.
“Yes,” Sarai hissed. “I want revenge.” The Swordsmith paused. Curiosity forced her to turn around. “I want revenge on the soldier who took my arm. I want revenge for all the girls robbed of their childhood, and the boys stolen and forced to play soldier for the mad Doerman king. I want to drag King Bankin back into these lands and make him drink all the blood that he’s spilled by hiding away in his tower.” She paused to take a breath. “But I can’t have that. I can’t have it, so I want the next best thing. I want to be stronger. I want to never be helpless again. Please, teach me!” She bowed once more, her body snapping taut. The empty sleeve dangled in the air.
The older woman hummed.
“Have you a name?”
“Hm, a common name,” Tutti tutted. “Have you anyone who will miss you?”
Sarai shook her head, her face wrinkling in pain at the reminder. “No one.”
“Good, you may call my Tutti.” She gestured for Sarai to follow her into the house.
The inside was deliciously warm, the fire licking up coals in the hearth and sending soot and heat throughout the forge. It smelled of iron, leather, and sweat, a comforting combination that reminded her of her father’s ferrying days. Tutti led her to a corner filled with stacks of wood, iron stock bars, and lumps of bloom. Next to it was a pile of swords, some with hilts, others unornamented iron blades. From the pile, she pulled two completed swords.
“Pick.” Tutti hefted the swords in front of Sarai’s face, who hesitated. The last sword she’d handled had been her fathers, now lost to the pillaging. “Go on,” Tutti urged.
Sarai took the shorter sword. It was nearly as long as her arm, single-edged, slightly curved, and flat on the top with a fuller, leaf-shaped cutting edge. To her unskilled eye, it reminded Sarai of a machete. It was lighter than she’d expected but still heavy. The hilt was a simple wooden handle that curved around her hand in a hook shape. There was no guard, just a smooth transition from iron to wood. She gave it a test swing. It was clumsy and imperfect, but the blade only wavered slightly. Sarai smiled a bit before handing it back and taking the second sword from Tutti’s other hand.
The second blade was much less comfortable but more familiar. The sword was similar to the kind soldiers carried, the kind that had been used to sever her arm, though this one was significantly shorter. It was a thin, double-edged piece that ended in a straight hilt. It, too, was lighter than she’d thought, but it still felt unwieldy. Unwilling to put it aside just yet, Sarai positioned her hand close to the guard and gripped. This sword was not as easy to swing with just her one hand. The simple swipe left her unbalanced and frustrated.
“Well,” Tutti interrupted her musings. “Which do you choose?”
Sarai considered her options. On the one hand, it would be satisfying to use the kind of blade that had dealt her her own destruction, but on the other, the curved sword had been much easier to wield. She handed the straight blade back to Tutti and gripped the first once more.
“This feels more comfortable,” she announced.
“It has no guard,” Tutti said, placing the other sword back in the pile. “It would not be of use in a duel.”
Sarai shook her head. “As I am, I would lose every duel I participate in. I’d do much better to hack away and run.” Tutti nodded like that was exactly what she’d wanted to hear.
“You have good instinct,” she said. “A falcata is much better suited for smaller fighters who don’t want to engage the enemy for longer than they have to, and it has its own hidden strength.” Without hesitating, Tutti turned and brought the blade down on a log of wood. With a resounding thud, the blade embedded itself deep in the log, a mere fingers-width away from cutting it in half. Sarai gasped. “You will train with this.” She handed the blade back to Sarai.
“You’ll teach me?” Sarai couldn’t believe it. After the journey here, through the abandoned battlefields and the messy ruins of towns and refugee camps, she’d still expected to be turned away.
“Yes. You will swear an oath to follow the ways of the Swordmasters, and you will die one of us or disgraced.” She paused to lean back against the work table. “We do not fight the wars of empires or kings. We do not seek revenge. We live to perfect our craft and protect the innocent. Justice is our trade. You will follow my orders until I deem you worthy of your title. Can you swear to it?”
Sarai’s head bounced on her shoulders, nodding so fast her hair escaped it’s bonds and fell into her eyes and mouth. She had to set the sword down to maneuver it out of her face. The gravity-defying curls clouded around her shoulders and resisted the pins she’d tried to set them with earlier that day.
“Come here.” Tutti maneuvered Sarai into place. Her rough hands gathered Sarai’s hair and settled it into a braid tied with a leather cord. The tail fell between Sarai’s shoulder blades.
“Thank you,” Sarai said, bowing respectfully again. “I haven’t been able to set it since…” she gestured at her stump.
“Come with me.”
She followed Tutti back down to the village, bypassing many people up and working. Some regarded Tutti with a nod; others avoided her entirely. Her broad shoulders, now covered with a heavy coat, moved easily through pedestrians, Sarai stumbling along in her wake.
They passed through the village, taking a trail that led into the woods and a small cottage situated deep within the blazing autumn trees.
“Copper,” Tutti called. “Come here.”
“What, Woman?” A bushy-bearded man emerged, his skin a few shades darker than Sarai’s, nearly blue-black. He regarded them over his pipe, a long, thin spout flowing into an intricately carved bowl made of pale wood. The bowl resembled a slick aquatic creature with slender fins and a long blunt nose, its tail leading into the stem. Sarai had never seen anything of its kind. His clothes were simple, much like Tutti’s, except an undyed, home-spun linen shirt gaped around his chest. He was taller than Tutti, lean and angular with sharp features.
“I have a request,” Tutti began.
“You always do,” Copper drawled.
“Shut it,” Tutti snapped. “This is my student, Sarai.” Sarai bobbed a curtsy in greeting. Copper squinted and blew out a long stream of sweetly scented smoke.
“A bit small, isn’t she?”
“She’ll do.” Tutti waited for him to finish his perusal before continuing. “I was wondering if you could do something for her?” She nudged Sarai’s stump. “Show him.”
Sarai almost protested. She was still getting used to her mangled stump of an arm even months after the attack. The longer she held back, the harder Tutti’s gaze on her became.
“Remember what you agreed to.” Molten steel dripped from her words. Sarai flinched and undid the clip. Slowly, she rolled the material up over the stump of her arm. In the light of day, it was easy to see where the skin had been stitched together. It was lumpy and ugly, a rush job from a healer that had too many injured and not enough time. Sarai couldn’t bear to look at it longer than she had to.
“May I?” He gestured at her stump and waited for Sarai to nod before taking it in hand. As he leaned this way and that, Sarai caught sight of the pointed tip of his ears amongst the tight, curly, mesh of his hair. Her mouth fell open in amazement.
“You’re an elf,” she blurted. Copper smirked.
“Don’t tell anyone.” He turned to Tutti, giving her his pipe, which she started smoking in his stead. “I can make something.”
Copper raised Sarai’s arm until the stump was eye-level, then reached into a pouch at his waist and drew out a seed.
“Hold still,” he commanded. The seed was placed on her stump, and Copper started to sing.
Sarai couldn’t have picked out the words, much less the language he sang in, but it was mesmerizing. The sound was fluid and soft but strong. It wove around the cottage and Sarai, seeping into her bones. Nothing happened, so she began to relax, then a crackling filled the air.
The seed burst to life, tendrils shooting out and taking hold in her skin. A shriek bubbled up in Sarai’s throat. Tutti’s hand stopped her mouth from opening.
“It’s never good to distract an elf when he’s magicking,” she hissed against Sarai’s hair.
Copper sang on, and slowly the shoots began to form a shape, growing bark and sprouting even more tendrils that wove in and out of each other. In front of Sarai’s eyes, a hand started forming, one completely made of living wood. Copper stopped singing.
“Well,” he said. “Give it a try.” He snagged his pipe out of Tutti’s mouth. Sarai slowly tried to wiggle her new fingers. They twitched in response. The laugh that dragged its way out of her throat was a gurgled, messy thing, intermingled with tears of joy. She made a fist, then touched each fingertip. The bark was rough on her skin, but she could feel the touches, muted, but there.
“You can take it off,” Copper said. “I don’t recommend it for long periods of time, or sleeping, but it’ll do for forge work.”
“Thank you,” she gasped. Tutti nodded approvingly.
“Now,” she said. “We can begin your training.”