A Song of Steel #1

The Cure (1)

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As part of tradition, I will record your first memory put down in your first journal, now in this new one. I’ve condensed your life, Carth. So you can learn about yourself in an easier way. Here is what you have written:

You saw the black cloud before the soldiers.

You had, before the cloud emerged, been playing on a field, swinging sticks about with the other children and pretending to be a hero. The grass bowed, weighted with wind, at your progression. “Fool!” you cried to the boy. “You’re mine!” and you roughly smacked the boy on the shoulder with your stick. He backed away, checking three blows until he tripped over a root.

“Bastard!” he called, bringing up the shame of your birth. “Bastard!” The boys joined in.

“Stupid woman!”

“Bitch!”

“Bastard bastard bastard!” they chorused.

“I still won,” you proclaimed. “I still beat you all, I—”

That was when you saw the cloud. Black dust rising at the far end of the field, and a rumble off in the distance that you could feel in your stomach.

“An army!” your brother, Sagrimor, shouted. “There’s an army! Over there!” You and the boys shifted your attention away from your games.

“They’ve come back from battle.” You children waved and cheered.

The House of Maugrim was the King’s House. But that King had been sick, of late. And the usual factions staked their claims. There was The House of Orm, who brought giants from the Never, the House of Em, who opposed all magic that comes from the Never, the House of Ath, whose lord had his baby stolen, and the House of Maugrim, who forged a sword from the Never.

You lived in the House of Orm’s territory. The House Orm and the House of Maugrim, were bitter enemies, which led to constant skirmishing along their common border. One year, Lord Ysbaden Orm’s troops crossed the border, set fire to the villages, and trampled the crops. Legends said his son Crom put peasants to the sword. But King Maugrim’s Housemen rushed to Orm’s undefended castle and seized it, while a group of Housemen loyal to their King routed the enemy and cut them down to the last man.

This was the first battle that the House of Maugrim and the House of Orm had fought in years. Tensions were high but with King Maugrim’s ailing health, who was to say who could lead the Kingdom? And the House of Orm had let their hostility fester.

You had seen and heard as much since the time you were born, and when you saw the Lords and Housemen of your land, you felt as if you were seeing yourself. A warrior, I suppose, is in your blood. Nothing excited you more than the sight of men-at-arms.

“Let’s go see!”

You and boys headed toward the soldiers, breaking into a run. Only you and Sagrimor paused. “I’m sorry I called you a bastard,” he said. He put a hand on your shoulder but you angrily jerked away. But with your brother on the brink of tears, you softened. “It’s just that you join in with the others when they say bad things about me. Have I ever made fun of you?”

“I guess not…”

“Even a bastard could become one of you guys, isn’t that what you said. Even a woman, too!”

“That is so.” Sagrimor said. His tears cleaned the mud from his face in clean streaks. “I’m sorry. Come on. Let’s go see the Housemen. If we don’t hurry they’ll be gone!”  

War-horses and banners loomed out of the dust. There were some mounted Housemen and three hundred walking soldiers. Some were standard-bearers, carrying the wolf-sigil of The House of Orm. Others carries pikes or speaks or bows. They cut across the plain to the King’s Road, toward the rushing river foaming at the foot of the hill you were playing on.

You children scrambled up the embankment, picking flowers and throwing them in the air, yelling for the sound of your own echo, “God of Nails, Lord of Iron! God of Nails! Lord of Iron!” The chant of the followers of the Nailed God when folk went to war. “Victory for the valiant Housemen!” You were always quick to yell this whenever you saw warriors.

The general, a mounted Ser, and common soldiers dragging their feet through the mud were all silent. As the dust settled and you saw them clearly, so did you. You went wide eyed and your mouth dropped. They gave you not even a grin and you understood why. It was clear that the battle against the House of Maugrim was bitterly fought. The horses were heaving as much as the men. Blood-smeared soldiers leaned heavily on their fellow Housemen. Dried blood glistened blackly on their face like a lacquer mask. It gleamed on their shining armor and spears and swords. Their eyes shone through faces masked with dust. You weren’t entirely sure that those were not masks they were wearing.

An officer spoke. “Water for the horses,” he said. The Ser passed the order along, in loud voices, and another Ser ordered the others to take a rest. Some men collapsed then and there, falling like sacks of flour.

Men bound up arm and leg wounds. From the pallor of their faces it was clear they had suffered a great defeat. This did not matter to the you. When you and your friends saw blood, you yourselves became heroes bathed in blood; when you saw the glitter of spears and pikes, you were convinced that the enemy had been annihilated, and they were filled with pride and excitement.

“God of Nails, Lord of Iron! Victory!”

When the horses had drunk their fill of water, you children threw flowers at them, too, cheering them on.

A Ser standing beside his horse spotted you and called, “You’re Desmon’s daughter! How is your mother?”

“Who, me?” you asked.

You walked up to the man and looked straight up at him with his grimy face. With a nod, the man put his hand on your sweaty head. The Ser was no more than twenty years old. You felt the weight of the mailed gauntlet on your head. And having seen that he had just come from battle, you were overwhelmed with glory. You wondered if your family truly knew such a Ser. You saw your friends out of the corner of your eye, watching you.

“You’re Carth, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“A good name. Yes, a good name.”

The young Ser gave your head a final pat, then struck the waistband of his leather armor and straightened up a bit, studying your face all the while. Something lade him laugh.

You were always quick to make friends, even with adults. Perhaps because you could never remember them. To have your head touched by a stranger—a Ser covered in mail and leather with a sword at his hip—it made your eyes shine with pride. You began to speak.

“Some people don’t call me Carth, you know,” he said.

“Why would that be? What do they call you?”

“Most people think my name is bastard. It’s not, but they think it is!” You grinned, though understanding seemed to dawn on the Ser’s face, and he shook his head. “Well, it’s good that you know it.”

“That’s what everyone calls me.”

“Ha, ha!” The Ser had a laugh as loud as his voice. And other men joined you.

“How old are you?”

“Six.”

“Is that so?”

“Ser, where are you from?”

“I know your mother well.”

“Huh?”

“Your mother’s younger sister often comes to my house. When you go home, give my regards to your mother. Tell her Ser Uthrik wishes her good health.”

When the rest break was over, the soldiers and horses got back in line and crossed the shallows of the river below. With a backward glance, the Ser re-mounted his horse, clad in shining mail. He radiated nobility. A nobility you wished to join. He called out to you one last time: “Tell your mother that when the fighting is over, I will be stopping at Desmon’s house.” He booted his horse in the ribs and the horse beat its way through the shallows, sending up sheets of water with every step.

* * *

You were bounding back to the house, straw cracking under your bare feet, wisped away by the wind.

“Mother.” You called. She was in the storeroom fetching vegetables. She turned at the sight of you and laughed softly. “Mother, where are you.”

“Over here, Carth!”

You ran toward your Mother’s voice, and then took the basket from her arms.

“What a strong little girl you’re becoming,” your Mother beamed. “You’ll be a warrior in no time.”

“Today, at the riverbank, I met someone who knows you.”

“Who?”

“A Ser! He called himself Uthrik! He said he knew you and wanted to let you know that, or something like that. He ruffled my hair and talked to me, Mother.”

Her face paled, though you did not seem to notice this.

“He was with a bunch of Housemen coming back from a battle. His destrier looked mighty too. Who is he?”

“He lives near the Temple of the Nailed God.”

“Does he?” You asked, and then: “Mother, there’s a sword about this big in the storage shed, isn’t there?”

“There is. What do you want with it?”

“Will you let me have it? It’s all beat up, and Father doesn’t use it anymore.”

“Playing war games again, Carth?”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“Absolutely not!”

“Why not?”

“A farmer’s son has no business wearing a sword.”

“Well, one day I’m going to be a Ser! A Houseman for Lord Ysbaden and the House of Orm!” You stomped your foot like a spoiled child, thinking the matter was closed. But you saw your mother’s eyes welling with tears.

“You are only a child,” she told you. “Yet how can you be so foolish?” She wiped them away with the back of her hand. “Go help your brother draw some water by the well!” She clutched your forearm and dragged you back into the house.

“No!” you shouted, mashing your heels into the dirt. “No! Stop it! I’ll be a Houseman! You’re stupid! No!”

Your Mother just dragged you along, disregarding your remarks. You could smell the smoke from the hearth and hear your father coughing. You heard your Father’s voice and you seemed to shrivel up and fall silent. He was only forty, and with a lamed leg he was of little service as a Houseman or a Ser. But that raspy voice chilled you to the bone

“Carth—be a good daughter and let your mother be! Do not go giving her such trouble,” your father said, loosening her grip. You covered your face with his hands and wiped your eyes as you cried softly.

He then addressed your Mother. “Mai, what are you doing shouting at Carth again! You know she cannot remember your lessons! We’ve given her lessons in letters for a reason! Give the child her journal and let that be the end of it. What business do you two have fighting and making each other cry like that?”

“Well why don’t you scold him?” your Mother insisted.

Your father laughed. “Why? Because she wants to play with my old sword?”

“Of course!”

“That’s what children do, Mai!”

“She shouldn’t. It is improper.”

“Improper is a word to be used by adults for foolish things that are arbitrarily decided Is it really so bad? Give her the sword!”

“What if she cuts herself?”

“Mayhaps that will be an important lesson and she’ll give up her dreams of being a Houseman to Orm. Then you’ll finally get your way.”

Your mother’s only recourse was to grunt and bite back a scream. You were elated, enjoying your victory that was soon swept away by the sight of your mother in tears. The sword had hollowed out your victory.

“I, uh, changed my mind,” you insisted. “I don’t want the sword anymore. I can go help Sagrimor—” He was bent over the hearth. It was more smoke than heat, and he was trying to blow it back up into a roaring fire.

You scurried into the room. “Can I help?”

“No thank you,” he said.

“Well, what can I do?”

“Go cut yourself on Father’s swor—” he paused, seeing the look on your face. “I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry.” He leapt up and hugged you tightly. “I told you I’d stop doing this. I’m sorry, Carth.”

Your father called from the other side of the room. “Carth! Come here right now!”

You swallowed hard and prepared for what was to come. Your mother came in and stood by the entrance, dismayed at what was happening.

It is my firm belief that you have the most frightening father in the world. Frightening—yet still the softest. You sat up straight and looked at your father, sitting in front of the hearth.

He drummed his fingers on the staff he needed to walk—even to use the chamber pot. His grip on it tightened, knuckles white. His frown was stiff—every part of him was stiff and unmovable.

“Carth!”

“Yes, father.”

“Don’t be a nuisance to your mother.”

“Yes.”

“And don’t argue with your brother. Think of the impression you make. What should your conduct as a woman be, and how should you behave toward others?”

“I-I didn’t mean—”

“Silence! I have ears. I may be a cripple, but I can still hear you. I know what you are doing, Carth.”

Your father could not suppress his affection for you, however. At least you assumed he was affectionate toward you. He was the best judge of your character. Or so he seemed to deem. But he could do little to foresee how you, the little brat that you were, would rise above the family name and finally give your house a noble history. Then when he looked at you again, and his mood changed. “The sword in the storage shed—do you want it, Carth?”

You thought of your Mother, and turned to look at her, but your father would not let you.

“Make this decision on your own, my daughter.”

“I…um…”

“Would you forsake it?”

“I wouldn’t. I want to have it, but I mean—”

“Then why do you say no?”

“Because Mother forbids me.”

“Your Mother is wise to say this. I agree with her.” He paused, and your stomach sank with your head. After a pause, your father continued. “But…you should be allowed to make your own mistakes. Wait here.”

“Father,” you said. “Tell me what you want. I can get it.”

“I’ll not have my duty done by a child,” he scoffed. He took his staff and limped into the other room, where your grandparents had bedded before they died years before. You felt uneasy waiting, but when your father returned with an arming sword tucked under his armpit.

“Carth, this is yours. Wear it whenever you like.”

“Mine? Really?”

“I’d rather you do not wear it in public. Someone of your station seen wearing this sword would only gain mockery. Grow old enough to wear it without dragging it on the ground, and it may be otherwise. Your grandfather had this sword made when he thought he had something to gain by joining the House of Orm. He thought he could be a Houseman to the giants. He told me that he traveled to the Never itself to cleave the materials for this sort from a mountain there. It was a wonderful tale, though I doubt it was real. I used it in service to the giants of Orm’s house, too. Neither of us did great deeds. Mayhaps you will be different. I do not profess to know our lineage. We are of a low birthed stock. Especially you.”

The words rang in your head. Bastard, bastard! Bastard, bastard!

“But I’m sure some in our family were great men. Mayhaps some were Housemen. If the blood of such ancestry flows through you, perhaps you may use this sword to make our family proud. I don’t know who our ancestors were before your grandfather’s time, but I’m sure that some of them were great men. The blood of such men continues to flow, and it’s been transmitted from me to you.”

“Yes.” you nodded again.

“However, I’m of no great stock. I am crippled. I am nothing. It is up to you to be a great woman.”

“What of Sagrimor?”

“He will get this same talk when he is old enough.”

“But how do I do it?” you asked. “How do I become a great woman?”

“If you are courageous, and face every task with as much energy and determination as you can afford, I will have lived a life of no regrets.”

 

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Author: Connor M. Perry

From an early age, I learned how to divide by four. See, two minutes after I was born, I discovered three other newborns hot on my heels. I was a quadruplet. And I needed to learn to how to share. Everything. At an early age, I took to writing so that I could have something unsharable. I began writing small stories online for my own enjoyment, and gradually moved to more ambitious ideas. I've been running my blog The Mythlings for two years now, publishing a new installment every Friday. I've enjoyed creating different worlds, characters and relationships in my stories. I currently live in Worcester, MA with my girlfriend, two cats, and a collection of swords.

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