Of Swords and Other Things
I watch from atop the fences as two lanky boys kick up clouds of dust under shuffling feet. The sword master and a group of five other boys line the practice circle. The reek of unwashed bodies made worse by vigorous thrusts and parries catches on the breeze. Lantsida and her twin, Basina, escaped inside to finish their needlework rather than be subject to the rank odor for one instant longer. I’ve grown used to the musky roughness of young men. It sings of hard work and determination, an outlet for frustration and anger.
It’s home. It’s Hal.
The layered fabric of their practice doublets blunts the sound of a solid hit. Hal always wins and gives a raucous cheer, which most of the boys echo. He raises his arms in celebration, reveling a strip of bare skin that sends waves of delight through me. Even missing his left eye, Hal never fails to strike a killing blow. Basina says the other boys let him win because he’s their One True Prince. Mama slapped the back of her hand with a wooden spoon the last time she said it. We’re not to speak of Hal as anything other than the orphan boy we took in nearly ten years ago. He’s not His Royal Majesty Prince Henry Louis Philip Charles Valois. That name is supposed to taste like ashes in our mouth.
Instead, it tastes like hope. The royal line didn’t all expire in that tower.
Hal’s taller and more slender than most boys his age. Raven-haired and gray-eyed like his mother. The shape of his full bottom lip closely resembles his father’s mouth. Anyone who worked in the palace would know him, even with the ragged scar that mars the perfect symmetry of his facial planes. He wears his hair longer on the left side to hang down over the deformity.
He’s beautiful in ways that other boys will never be. His kindness shines like the stars at night: quiet and delicate.
“He’ll never marry a commoner,” Lantsida whispers into my ear, louder than she should. Her fingers are slashed red from plying wool into yarn. I wonder how long I’ve sat here instead of tending to my household duties. “And he’ll never see you as more than his foster sister.”
“I know.” I do. But every time he looks at me, hope flares bright inside my chest.
Lantsida never speaks to be malicious. Her words are only cruel because they’re true. I climb down from the fence and wait for her. She twines her arm through mine and drags me back toward the house.
To women’s work and the closeness of inside.
Little Simon beams at me, lifts his chubby arms to be picked up. His mouth and hands are smeared with sticky berries. He doesn’t stay still as I clean him off. Then I help Mama by churning goat’s milk into butter. The twins throw soda ash into the washbasin and brush and scrap our clothes clean. Mama dips wicks into the tallow cooling on the stone hearth. It smells far worse in here than outside because of the animal fat. All of our hands are rubbed raw and ugly.
I wish my hands were calloused from holding a sword instead of a butter churn.
The sword master, Sir Marellus, enters with Hal. He used to be something much more to the royal family, but we have no need for fancy titles and politics here. He sweeps a low bow to Mama who pretends to curtsy. She offers them both bowls of stew and a chunk of bread. Basina holds her nose and pokes Hal with the laundry stick. I think if Papa were here and not waging a holy war thousands of miles away, Sir Marellus would never have been allowed to take one step inside. If Sir Marellus had done his duty and protected the royal family from the harpy attack, Hal would never have grown up under our roof. The “if” game always gets complicated.
And I love Hal more than any complication, so I am glad for Sir Marellus’s grievous blunder.
Linus and Albert push and shove each other to sit next to Sir Marellus. A slop of stew hits the table and sets of grubby hands fight to wipe it up. All my brothers worship Sir like the Romans worship the sun. Simon calls him Papa, no matter how many times we correct him. The older boys stopped correcting him after the third month of Papa’s absence. He’s been away from home for two growing seasons now.
My brothers need a man to emulate. I wish they chose Hal, and not his cowardly servant.
Our eldest brother, Lucas, was killed in battle five months ago. They sent his bones home in a cart full of bones. The long procession of wagons stretched for miles. Each cart marked another dead son of France. Every day, Mama waits to receive Papa’s bones. Every evening she thanks God when they don’t arrive. I forgot how to pray the day Lucas’s cart stopped at our door.
Hal told me, “Feed the vengeance in your heart, Mellie.”
Sir Marellus stands to take his leave, bits of food in his unkempt beard. The boys trail him like baby ducks to the door. He promises to return tomorrow to give more lessons. As soon as he’s gone, Mama admonishes them for shirking their chores. Hal’s the only one who truly looks chided. The other boys grumble and head to the barn to feed the animals and muck out the horse stalls.
The future king of France shouldn’t lower himself with peasant work, but Hal never complains.
I follow him to the chicken coops, where he tosses them dried barley and seeds, then fills their water trough while I pluck eggs from warm nests and place them in my apron. We work in comfortable silence until I’ve gathered more than a dozen eggs. Later, we’ll check them by candlelight to make sure they’re not fertilized. We walk to the pigpen, the noisy squeals of piglets forcing a smile on his face.
“Do you think I could learn to fight with a sword?”
Hal stops the bucket of slops mid-pour to consider my question. He doesn’t know that he chews his upper lip when he’s thinking. Or maybe he does, but no one’s told him how un-kingly he looks when he does it. I don’t dare to be the one who breaks it to him.
He regards me with his gray eye, and I stand a bit straighter.
“Anyone can learn to fight with a sword,” he says. He empties the pail and rests an elbow on the sty. Summer’s balmy heat threatens more every day. “But are you willing to kill a man with your sword? That’s the real question.”
The honor code says that true loyalty lies in what a knight’s willing to do to protect the ones he loves.
“I don’t know,” I say at last, the eggs like heavy weights against my stomach. Somewhere behind us a cow lows in the pasture, reminding me how far I am from war and heavy things. “I’ve never faced that kind of situation, but I hope if my family were threatened that I would rise to the occasion.”
Hal flinches. “I couldn’t.”
I continue to stare at him until he turns away. In profile, his bad side reflects defeat and regret. Ashamed, I softly say, “Grown men couldn’t save them. Don’t blame yourself for something that happened when you were still a child.”
He leaves me without another word, as I clutch the eggs against my chest.
Stay tuned for extra content this week from Audrey. Return next Monday for Julie’s answer to this prompt.