The Way West #14

This is my NaNoWriMo project for August 2012.  I’m posting one chapter at a time (Monday,Wednesday & Friday).  To see earlier chapters click here.  All comments welcome.  Story copyright Jemima Pett.

Chapter 14: Back to School

In which Humphrey raises a long sword and his team builds a tower in ten minutes

Humphrey woke to the sound of the seven o’clock bells. He groped his way to the window and confirmed that day might have just about dawned but the fog was back.  He sat back on his bed watching the other three groan and stretch.  It was the third day of their training, and their muscles were complaining about the unaccustomed exercise.  All were used to exercise; it was just that they were using muscles they hadn’t known they had.

He sent his hearing across to the field on which the races had been run a couple of days earlier.  The king had been criticised for allowing them to take place as if nothing had happened, but he had given a speech.

“We will not give in to terrorism,” he had said. “We will carry on with our lives as normal. Our special forces will track down and avenge those innocent people whose lives were lost.”

There had been a lot of people whose lives had been lost, including the visiting Narrator from Buckmore, the young apprentice, the announcer and all of the poetry competitors bar one.  That one was Winston, who was now getting to his feet and preparing for the day.  He had answered the summons in his head just as Humphrey had.  So had Glory and Bertie.  That the message had been personalised to each of them made them wonder how, but Fitzroy had cleared that up for them on the first morning of their training.  It was a technique they would learn in time, he’d said.

Humphrey listened to the people on the fields now as they too started getting ready for the day.  He had recognised a number of the people from under the hill, including the person that had told Humphrey off for watching him and his family.  He hadn’t located Chester and Shel though.  They must have led the other parties further east.  Into danger, he thought, remembering that he had heard sounds of people suffering.  He hoped he would be able to go and help them when his training was done.

He brushed himself down and joined Glory, Bertie and Winston as they left to go down to the breakfast hall, not the one by the outer courtyard, a separate one in the main castle. None of them talked a great deal. He knew nothing about their backgrounds, just as he had said nothing to them about his own.  Fitzroy had even said on the first morning that he wasn’t going to ask them about their background till later.  “You need to develop some trust in each other before you can tell the truth,” he had said.

One of the other groups was very chatty among themselves, the other was quiet like their own.  They generally did different things from each other, but judging from the way they passed at least other group in corridors between sessions, Humphrey suspected they just did the same things in a different order.  Fitzroy joined them just as they finished their breakfast.

“This morning we’ll go down to the armoury,” he said. “You can try out a range of weapons and we’ll look at techniques for defending yourself from attack by them.”

Humphrey pursed his lips. He was interested in the weapons, but didn’t want to have reason to defend himself from them.

The armoury was opposite the library, beside the main gate between the inner and outer courtyards.

“I never knew this was here,” said Winston.

“Most people miss it,” agreed Fitzroy, “although it’s the obvious place if you think about it.  Inside the inner defences of the castle, but close to the exit, which is most likely where anyone needing weapons would be going.”

“Do people often need weapons?” asked Bertie.

Fitzroy sighed.  “Not in my lifetime so far, but I fear they will be needed soon.  That’s why we’re training you.”

“I don’t want to use weapons,” Humphrey muttered.

Fitzroy glanced at him. “We’ll start by looking at the different types of sword,” he said, as if Humphrey had not spoken.  He unlocked a bar that held the doors of a cabinet shut, and swung the doors open.  The dim light glinted on the shafts of metal, row upon row all held in racks.  Fitzroy picked out six swords, seemingly at random.

“Foil, epee, short sword, long sword, sabre, halberd,” he listed as he laid them on the table in the centre of the room.  “If you meet any other types they will be variations on these; use an appropriate technique according to the characteristic of the sword in question.”

Sometimes Fitzroy sounds like he’s reading from a training manual, Humphrey thought.  Then he realised he might sound like that if he ‘read’ his books out loud.

“Foil – thin, flexible, deadly.  Used purely for the point.  It’s needle sharp.  Pierces armour, although I’ve not known anyone wear armour other than for a pageant.

“Epee – similar looking, uses the point and the side.  Flexible again, very whippy.

“Both of these would be used by someone who is an artist with a sword.  Someone expert, who likes the elegance of the weapon.  An aesthete,” he added, as if he had someone in mind. “If you meet either of these, you will need to use your agility to avoid contact but to disarm your opponent.  If you can tell the difference between them, you can grab the foil and yank it, but do not try that with the epee or you will slice your hand open and possibly lose a number of fingers.”

Winston and Bertie exchanged glances. “Nice,” one of them murmured.

Fitzroy moved along and picked up a large wicked-looking curved blade.

“Sabre, and the scimitar is very like it. Curved blade as you can see. Extremely effective when used in a slicing motion.  Can carve you into little pieces very quickly. Some mercenaries used to come at you whirling a pair of these, one in either hand.  Slip inside their guard and disable them at close quarters.”

Humphrey looked at the blade and felt sick.

“Short sword,” Fitzroy said, picking one up then putting it in front of them, “long sword, as you can see, is the same but longer.  The most common weapons, used extensively in the army, by pirates, renegades and other undesirables.  Also used by many householders to defend themselves.  You need at least to be able to defend yourselves.  Have any of you used one before?”

Bertie nodded. “My Dad had one.  I picked it up once when I was little.  He laughed at me when I dropped it, it was so heavy. He found me using it later, trying to use it. He said he’d teach me properly when I was old enough.”

“And did he?” asked Fitzroy quietly.  Bertie shook his head and just stared at the weapon.

“You will learn to use a sword so that at worst you can defend yourselves long enough to use your special talents.” Humphrey looked rebellious. “You will practise with wooden swords among yourselves, then the best out of this group will practise with the best of the other groups, the worst with the worst of the other groups and so on, until you have improved sufficiently. Then you will practise with real swords.”

Glory stepped forward and lifted the short sword.  She needed both hands but she swung it around experimentally.  She spoiled the display by lowering it with a clang to the table, barely under control.

“Now try the long sword,” smiled Fitzroy, gesturing at it.

Glory grinned but stepped up gamely.  She raised the handle off the table, added the other hand and raised the handle another few inches.  The point remained stubbornly on the table.

“Anyone?” asked Fitzroy as Glory stepped back, unabashed.

Bertie lifted the handle then added the other hand to raise the point off the table, but only about six inches before he dropped it back.  Winston managed to raise it about a foot.

“Humphrey?” asked Fitzroy, expecting him to pass.

Humphrey had been watching carefully.  He stepped forward, and slid the handle along the table towards him, then let it drop into his hands below the table edge, levering it about a third of the way along the blade.  When it was much closer to vertical he pushed upwards, got the handle in balance underneath him, and kept it balanced there, to the applause of his colleagues.  He was just wondering how to let it down again when Fitzroy stepped forward and took the blade between two fingers, helping him to lower it under control.

“Well done,” he smiled. “Never forget, all of you, that your brain is your most powerful weapon.

“The long sword is a formidable weapon,” he continued, “if you are approached by someone wielding it in one hand, use your talents or run.  Most people will wield it two-handed and, like the sabre, will require a sweeping movement, whereas the short sword can be used to stab, or thrust, as well as slash.  You should be able to step inside a long sword’s swing.  The short sword is the most difficult weapon for you to defend with your talent.  So you must learn to defend with a sword.”

The four trainees looked pensive. Swords were going to be hard work. They moved along the table to the halberd, a fearsome looking weapon.

“The halberd is a combination of a spear and battleaxe, in essence,” Fitzroy said.  “Axes are different from swords but your defence against them is very similar.  Keep out of the way of the swinging end.  For the likes of you, the only thing to fear about this weapon is fear itself.  Both the weapon and its wielder are likely to inspire fear in the opponent.  Just slip inside his guard and upset his balance at a critical time and the weight of the weapon will bring him down.”

Fitzroy made it sound like the easiest thing in the world.  The four trainees exchanged worried glances.

“Of course, the weapon you need to be most worried about it this one,” he said. He flicked his wrist and a knife flew across the room to land in a beam on the other side, point first, its handle quivering with the impact.  “Easy to disguise, to hide, and can come at you from anywhere. If you can gain facility with knives it may come in useful.”

He strode across the room and took the knife out.  “You also need to watch out for darts, especially of the poisoned variety,” he added.

“When you get your swords, your real practise swords, rather than your wooden ones, you will need to have one that is appropriate to your size and strength.  The armourer will assist you, but make sure you are comfortable with the balance in your hand.  The reach should be about the same length as your arm, maybe a little less, but not more.  Having manoeuvrability with your sword is more important than weight or reach – for you.  Remember that the armourer will not be familiar with your talents, and will not know that you are anything other than ordinary swordsmanship trainees.  Stick to the sword you find most comfortable.

“Now,” he continued, “take the rest of this session to handle the other swords and see what you think of them.” With that he settled himself in a corner and watched them.

Humphrey was becoming used to this tactic Fitzroy used at the end of a session.  He wondered what he learned from their reaction to this free time.  The four of them usually continued what they had been doing, exploring ideas or trying things out.  He thought he could play the game and look at the swords.  Fitzroy probably expected him to avoid them though.  He had shown already that he was extremely averse to fighting.  He walked past the swords and found a case of knives.  There were a lot of different types.  He looked at them carefully, studying the size, length and shape of the blades; the handle; the handle guard, imagining how each would best be used, what its characteristics might be in flight or to wield.  He felt more comfortable with these weapons than he did with swords, or with the staves they had tried the day before.  He had flatly refused to take part in a mock fight with them.  Now he could imagine a knife flying through the dark at him, and he knocking it out of the way with… with what?  With whirling knives, he visualised, with surprise.

The session ended, Fitzroy locked the weapons away and they went up to their exercise room.  Bertie and Winston were discussing swords, Humphrey thinking about knives flying through the dark.  Glory was also thinking about knives.  Her own.  She hoped they were safe where she’d left them.

~~~

The last session of the day saw all three groups in the same room for a change.  Humphrey had enjoyed the day. The second session had involved exercises in dodging flying things, climbing ropes and walls, and leaping.  He wasn’t good at the latter two but he was good at dodging, and Glory was brilliant at leaping, so she had given the three others plenty of tips and guidance.  The session after lunch had tested their eyesight, hearing, touch and smell. Humphrey felt he had done well.

Now they were together, and had been given instructions to build a tower out of blocks.  They got points for how few blocks they used and for how high they could build it.  They had forty minutes to prepare to build the tower then ten minutes to build it from scratch.  The group with the most points would win.

Humphrey wasn’t worried about winning, but he could see that Glory and Winston were very keen.  Bertie thought it was an enjoyable game, a bit of a rest from all of the physical exercise they’d had.  Humphrey sorted through some of the books in his head and suggested that they should try just building a single block tower and see how high it could go before working out whether some clever design was needed.  They crowded round their test tower so that the other groups couldn’t see what they were doing.  To their surprise, they managed to balance all the available blocks one on top of the other without the tower falling over.

“Is that all we have to do?” asked Bertie.

“Well, how high was that?” asked Glory.

Winston made a rough measurement and looked at the points table.  “That would get us one hundred and ninety points, about.  But we’ve used all the blocks, so that would lose us fifty points.”

“One hundred and forty, then.  What’s the highest tower we could build with the least block points deducted?” asked Glory.

Humphrey looked over Winston’s shoulder at the points table. “How high is a tower with all but twenty blocks?” he asked.

They build the tower again with twenty blocks less, and measured it, that would give them one hundred and forty-nine points. “Try two blocks,” said Winston, understanding Humphrey’s idea.

“One hundred and fifty three,” said Humphrey after they’d measured it.

“Take one off,” suggested Glory.

“Try one more,” suggested Bertie.

“One fifty-two,” said Humphrey, once they’d tried it with both one more and one less block.

“So we build it with all but eighteen blocks, then,” said Winston. “Is that all?”

They looked round the room.  They had only taken about half the time, according to the timer, but they had a plan and they had tried it out.  The others were talking a lot, one had blocks scattered all over the floor around them.  The other seemed to have two designs they were trying out with half the blocks in each tower.

Fitzroy noticed their relaxed pose and smiled, turning away and commenting to his mentor colleagues.

The four of them relaxed until the time came.  Glory carefully put the eighteen blocks they weren’t using to one side.  The mentors told them to stop planning, and start building.  Humphrey watched as Winston held the bottom block steady and Glory and Bertie took it in turns to build.  They finished, and stood away from it.

“Are you finished?” asked one of the mentors.  He received a ‘yes’ from the four, so he called his colleague over and they measured the tower, took the blocks off and counted them, and wrote their score on a paper: Fitzroy – 153

Howls of anguish came from one corner as their tower collapsed, blocks falling everywhere.  They scurried to collect the blocks and start again.

The time ran out.  Fitzroy measured the other two towers or what was left of the other tower and passed the results to one of the other mentors.

“The results,” he said, and read out. “Harris – 25, Lundy – 132, Fitzroy – 153, so Fitzroy are the winners!”

Smiles from Humphrey, Bertie, Glory and Winston; mutters and a few arguments among the other groups.

“The winners will have a nice relaxing meal in their room tonight, the others will dine in the hall as usual,” the mentor added.

“Well done,” Fitzroy said as he came over to them. “You can say no, but may I join you tonight?”

The group looked at each other.  “You’ll be very welcome, Fitzroy,” laughed Bertie and they all nodded.

“Thank you.  It is supposed to be a relaxing evening, but it would be useful to talk to you about what’s really going on and what you could be doing as early as next week.”

It doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a relaxing evening, thought Humphrey.

I quite agree, thought Glory.

Go to Chapter 15

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