Song of the Blade


1. The first time Joshua ever holds a sword, it is not to use it in a spar against his mother (well, more likely Carlyle since she was always busy), or even to sharpen it--which would have held some merit in a seven-year-old boy's mind. It is to wrap the hilt, and Joshua doesn't really know why they'd given him a dead blade when a wooden one would have worked just as well for practicing something so useless.

The practical (and therefore useless) reason for hilt-wrapping is, as Carlyle puts in his dry teaching-tone: "to keep sweat and/or blood from interfering with one's grip during battle, and from corroding the hilt prematurely." Joshua looks at his sword, sighs, and starts wrapping it the way he wraps his own arm whenever he gets a scratch during training. Then Carlyle knocks it out of his hand.

"Not that way," the general snaps. Joshua makes sure to listen, not because Carlyle is particularly violent when mad but because whenever the swordmaster says something in that tone it is bound to be more interesting. "You are not bandaging the blade; there is no wound. To wrap the hilt is to clothe the sword. Here." He pulls the wrap loose and hands it to Joshua, who feels uncomfortable at the thought of something being naked in a desert. People get terrible burns from leaving more than their hands and faces exposed.

Then he realizes that is the point.


2. The first time Joshua actually wields a sword, he certainly does not think to use it like a switch, for the flat of a blade to a seven-year-old is even more useless than the hilt. Then he does something wrong and Carlyle whacks him on the shoulder with it. It hurts. A lot. Enough for him to drop his sword. Then Ismaire, who is watching, takes Carlyle to the side after the duel and says something to him.

Carlyle never does apologize, yet Joshua never gets hit that way again until years later, after he runs away and picks a fight. It isn't from his opponent, who has an ax and can't do that anyway. There is a passing swordmistress dressed all in white, with black hair that goes down to her back. She comes over while Joshua is still fighting and smacks him aside without a word. It hurts. A lot. Enough for him to fall over on the ground and clutch at his side groaning in pain (though he has since learned to keep a tighter hold on his sword).

"Is that your momma, boy?" the bandit jeers.

"Hey--I was winning!" Joshua yells at the same time.

"I could see that," says the swordmistress. "But you would not have won against five of them." Before Joshua can whinge about what that means and how it doesn't apply to his situation, the bandit gives a whistle and the swordmistress is surrounded. To Joshua's shock and awe, she kills all five of the bandits with one long stroke of the sword before they can lift a finger against her, and when she flicks the blood off her blade none of it gets on her clothes, and the blade is sparkling after she wipes it once and sheathes it. That is a mark of only the best sword-fighters; even more so because every move she makes is so beautiful it reminds Joshua of his mother.

The swordmistress gives him a long, level look as he gets up and brushes himself off in an attempt to hide his embarrassment. Then she tells him, "Little brother, I do not think you will see me again. But I hope if you are ever in my place that you will do what I did, and protect those who cannot protect themselves. It is the only noble reason for us to lift our blades." Swordmasters are full of words like 'noble' and 'protection' and (when he was younger) some diminutive form of address like 'little brother' or 'my son'. It was just that this swordmaster happened to say them after saving him in a very stylish manner, which was novel enough to stick.

Especially when, several more years later, he comes across a certain other beautiful woman dressed all in white with absolutely no means of defense, who he is supposed to be killing right now. But killing a cleric in cold blood, Joshua decides, is not a noble reason for him to lift his blade. So he doesn't, and that really awful nauseous feeling in his stomach goes away.


3. Marisa is a different story. Joshua had grown up with and fought enough female fighters to treat everyone equally as a possible threat. What he didn't count on was her blank, almost-confused look as he sings the first verse of the Song of the Blade, and her blunt "No" when he offers to teach her. After that, he remembers that not everyone grew up as a crown prince with enough ceremonial aspects in sword fighting to form their own religion, and not everyone who has a religion follows the same creed anyway.

Natasha sympathizes with his crestfallen-ness at Marisa's lack of faith, though; and he feels the white-clad swordmistress would have understood as well.


4. Joshua had not reckoned upon using his sword to subdue the guards in a prison (he checked and they were all still alive; so there) in order to free his sort-of-buddyish partner Caellach from execution for something he actually hadn't done this time. Well, not so much buddy(ish) as someone who Joshua didn't really hate, and could take care of the lancers before they could jab him. "Thanksh, Josh," Caellach says as the cell door swings open. Joshua frowns.

"You weren't drunk when they arrested you, man."

"For mah lash meal," the bigger man slurs, lurching over and leaning on Joshua as much out of alcohol-induced companionship as it is to keep from falling over, "They gave me boozh."



5. "Wh--you!"

Joshua drops Caellach to much cursing and then silence when the drunken man passes out. In one of the cells a familiar, if somewhat older face gazes calmly at him from the bars. In the faint torch-light her hair disappears, but her white outfit gleams. "I'm sorry?" the swordmistress asks.

"You saved me when I was younger! Five bandits... Little brother, I do not think we will see each other again... something about protecting people?'"

"Ah. Good evening, little brother. I had not recognized you."

"Yeah, I'm kind of... older now..." Joshua shakes his head quickly and then looks from side to side. The guards are still unconscious at the end of the corridor, so he has plenty of time to chat. "Why are you here?"

"They have arrested me upon false accusations. I could not prove them otherwise, and so I await my fate here."

"So... you didn't do it?" Joshua asks. Caellach mumbles something in his stupor, which is ignored by both of them.


"Why didn't you do something about it?"

"It would have been most ignoble to kill my captors as they were arresting me," she says. Then she holds up her sword sheath, which is empty.

"But you're innocent!" Joshua squints at the lack of hilt, before looking more closely at the swordmistress' dark blue sash while she lowers the sheath and rests her hand on her stomach, which is bulging visibly. "Also, you are extremely pregnant. This--this is death row you're sitting in."

"Yes, I am, and this is."

"And despite all of the above, you haven't gotten out yet?!"

"They will allow me to have my baby, and then I will be executed."

"That's wrong on so many levels." Joshua takes out a lockpick and starts fiddling with the lock. On the floor, Caellach has begun snoring loudly. "Come with us--I can at least get you out of here." She shakes her head, and he rolls his eyes. "You can talk all you want about being 'ignoble', but as you can see I am not lifting my sword, and you're pregnant, and I still owe you one." Before he knows it, she is standing up with her sword sheath in hand. "Good. What do you plan to do with that?"

She hits him through the bars, and it hurts. A lot. Enough for Joshua to drop everything and yell, "BY THE STONE OF JEHANNA YOU HAVE BROKEN MY HAND! AND THAT IS AWESOME, BUT OW!"

"There, now you have stopped. I will break the other if you try again." She glances at Caellach and, true to her word, keeps the empty sheath at the ready. "Do not fear for me. You have your own to worry about." Before Joshua can say something about not listening to more of that noble, spiritual nonsense, she continues, "And anyway, my husband is coming for me."


"All right then." She puts her sheath back where it was in her belt and turns to go back to sitting at the back of the cell.

"Wait--" Joshua thinks about what he could possibly say in return (besides "You're married?"), then draws his sword out of the sheath and holds it in front of him with a bow. "Goodbye, sister. I hope your child grows well."

She smiles. She must not smile very often because she looks very much the way his mother looks, only a slight upturn from the corners of her lips and a softening of the eyes. "From the moment I saw you, I could tell you were not born a mercenary. But then, neither was I. Go in peace, little brother." She reaches through the bars to take the sword, and sheathes it while looking him straight in the eye. Even in the dark, at the edge of his vision, it is beautiful. Joshua hadn't thought he would ever meet another person outside of the Hall who knew about this parting gesture, much less someone with enough skill to follow it through.

It's worth dragging Caellach's unconscious two-hundred-fifty-three pounds of muscle all the way out of the jail and back to their troupe by himself.

to be continued