Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sevety-first excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

          Two weeks later, when the crew had departed and the family was getting ready for supper, Gwilym went to his scroll case and pressed something on the inside, releasing a flap on the bottom. Gwilym turned the box on its side so that the flap was facing up. The boys gathered around. The secret compartment was filled with a lustrous, black cloth. Gwilym removed the cloth and unwrapped the object covered by it. Inside was a long scimitar. The handle was gold coated and inscribed with Arabic script. The blade was curved silver with lettering running along the center.
       “Wow!” breathed Jac.
       “Can I touch it?” asked Llawen.
       Gwilym lifted it by the hilt and, moving outside the circle of boys, swung it around a few times to test the weight. His muscle memory returned and he practiced a few strokes. Then he returned it to the cloth.
       “This is a dangerous weapon, boys. The blade is sharp. It will take a man’s head off with a single stroke.”
       Jac reached out and touched the concave edge of the blade. Gwilym was prepared to stop him if he got too close to the sharp edge but withheld his hand when he saw the target of the boy’s touch. “It’s not sharp at all, Da.”
       “This isn’t a sickle, son. The sharp edge is the other side and I’ll ask you to keep your fingers far from there.”
       Bleddyn looked curious. “But why is that the sharp edge, Da? Wouldn’t it just slip off a man if you were trying to cut him? It would be better if you sharpened the other side so it worked like a sickle. Or made it straight like a sword and had both sides sharp.”
       Gwilym wrapped the scimitar back up and placed it back in the box. “I’ll show you why at supper, son.”
       Later, as they ate at the tavern, Gwilym took a piece of meat from the stew and placed it on the board resting between their knees. “Bleddyn. How would you cut this meat?”
       Bleddyn held the meat with his fingers and sliced through it with his knife. He looked up at his dad.
       “Now cut at it as if your knife was a sword and that was the neck of your enemy.” Bleddyn looked confused. Gwilym picked up his knife and swung it in arcs at the piece of meat, pushing straight down each time with the sharp edge, rather than slicing. Bleddyn and his brothers all swung their knives at the meat, damaging it but not cutting straight through it. Often it stuck to the knife and had to be knocked back off.
       “Do you see now why the scimitar is shaped that way? When you swing it at your foe, and it hits him, the continuation of your swing will pull the weapon along the wound, slicing it rather than trying to dig straight into the body. That’s the advantage of the scimitar. And it never,” he held Llawen’s wrist with his knife stuck in the piece of meat, “sticks in the body of your opponent. That leaves you helpless to a counterattack.”
       “If the sharp edge were on the inside curve, like a sickle, it would be even worse. The blade would never slice, and you would always stick to the wound.”
       Bleddyn asked, “But your scimitar has only one sharp edge. So you can’t strike both ways. Isn’t that a disadvantage?”
       “Aye, somewhat. But you learn different moves and use your wrists and elbows more than a British swordsman does. I’ll show you after we eat.”
       He took his boys out to the beach. The moon was full. The night was clear, though cold. The boys were bundled in clothes and blankets, but Gwilym was wearing little. He directed them to stay behind a line he scraped in the sand with his heel. He held the scimitar, and then started making moves with his feet, hips, and arms. He seemed to be tracing slow, deliberate dance steps, each one ending with a swing or two from his scimitar. His moves became more and more complex, until he seemed to be swinging at four imaginary opponents surrounding him.
       He took a deep breath then erupted into a whirl of legs and arms. After about twenty seconds of this, Bleddyn could make out the patterns his father was making to be the patterns he was doing earlier, but now at a speed that seemed ten times as fast.
       Gwilym stopped and raised his scimitar over his head, stretching his chest and rasping air into his lungs. His chest was heaving and his boys saw the muscles on his arms and legs twitching on their own. After about five minutes Gwilym’s breathing returned to normal. He went through the set of rapid motions two more times, stopping for breath each time.
       Then, covered in sweat, he handed his scimitar to Bleddyn, took his younger boys’ hands in his and walked back to the village. The boys were full of questions and they talked over each other, not waiting for the answers.
       “Where did you get the scimitar?”
       “Were you ever in a war?”
       “How did you learn those moves?”
       “Have you ever killed anyone?”
       “Did you take the scimitar from a fallen enemy?”
       When the questioning stopped and the boys paused to get answers, Gwilym sat down on one of the dunes and gathered his boys around him. “Boys, I want you to listen to me. War is a horrible thing. Killing a man takes something from you. The only thing worse than killing a man, is seeing that man kill your friends. There is nothing honorable about a battle. While a war may have honorable intentions, like protecting your family from invaders, battles are a terrible thing to behold. With arrows and rocks raining down on you it is a random mess. Your friends are killed right next to you and you don’t know who did it.”
       “Then one of the enemies comes close. At first you hate him because he killed your friend. But he wasn’t the one. And you see his face and he is human, just like you. And he’s scared. But then he tries to kill you, and you realize that you can’t act human. It’s kill or be killed and keep doing that until you win the field or run from the field or die or get injured and dragged from the field or be left there moaning in agony until someone comes to rescue you or finish you off. There’s no humanity on the field of battle.”
       “I was in the Holy Land during times of war. I was pulled into the army and taught the ways of war. I was given weapons and armor and joined in battles. I was on the winning side and the losing side. I was injured. I killed men. I saw many good friends die or become horribly wounded. I took this scimitar off an enemy chieftain that I had just killed. His scimitar was better than mine and I needed it. Mine had a big nick in it from his spine as I beheaded him. I was soaked in his blood and had to wipe my eyes clear of it to find his weapon. I needed it to protect me from his men. It is made of better iron and showed no damage as I killed three more men with it. We won the field that day and gathered much loot. But I also lost my best friend in that battle, and I gave all but the scimitar to his widow.”
       “I will be practicing with this scimitar because I fear that Palomides will come again and I need to be ready for him. I’ll tell you no more about war until you are about to enter one so please don’t ask me any more questions. Can you abide by that?”

       The boys all nodded and they walked together back to their lodgings. Every night, after supper, Gwilym practiced with his scimitar. Before long he had attracted the notice of the villagers and many started to line the dunes to watch his performance.

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

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