An ocean wave, or a tongue of flame? You never could make your mind up. You smile to yourself, turning the thick, wavering blade over in scarred hands, eying the twin fullers, the blackened rib cage of a basket, the copper strands that glimmer in the braided wire grip. The ceiling of your low, sparse cabin coughs dust as heavy footfall sounds above.
You pull an oil-slick rag from the box on the table, and run it over the rolling waves of the blade, humming an old shanty song to yourself. It is not one of your own crew’s – you must have picked it up in some port or another. A resounding cannon blast shatters the last bawdy chorus, but you do not look up from your task til the blade is bright and gleaming.
Only then do you rise to your feet, taking your time, relishing the feeling of the firestorm building within you. Sword in hand, you step without stumbling over the rough wooden boards, despite the alarming pitch of the ship. As you mount the steps to the deck, shouts and shots breathe a flurry of sparks into the very embers of you.
True, the waters ever did call you – but there’s always been fire in your heart.
The breeze is sweet-scented with mellowing hay and the air is thick with the raucous song of insects. A strand of bearded grass tickles the back of your neck as you crane it to gaze – languidly and longingly – at the stars. You recall those long-sago stories that join the brilliant dots – of heroes and monsters, and gods walking amongst men.
It was those tales, of winged horses and warring giants, that first made you hunger – so many years ago – for a sword in your hand. You smile and spare a glance for the gleaming weapon that still lies at your side. The pierced spiral of stars on the guard winks back at you – your lucky stars, you like to call them, on account of how many times they have saved your hands.
Turning back to the heavens, you feel your eyes attune to take in their sheer magnitude. Even the spaces between the stars aren’t truly black, peppered instead with distant clusters and undiscovered constellations. And are you imagining it, spurred on by the sword and the summer and the song of insects, or can you see a faint white spiral of heavenly bodies, glimmering eons away?
You blink, and it’s lost again.
You remember the first time you held it. You knew so little then – of defence, of attack, of war. But you knew it felt good in your hands. A sensation you didn’t yet have words for – of the blade almost guiding your arms as they rose and fell, crossed and uncrossed.
You smile as your fingers play over the lined blue leather and curved guard, recalling the countless times your long-suffering master corrected your hand placement to take in that rounded pommel. You recall, too, how many fires you sat beside, years later, cleaning the blood from that deep-fullered blade.
You are old now, and scarred in more ways than one from your years of battle. The rack above your hearth bears finely engraved blades, and hilts wrapped with precious metals. Pretty trophies, you think, and each with a story – but tonight it’s an old friend’s company you crave.
With a pounding heart, you shoulder through the osteria door, keen to keep pace with the taciturn Italian. For months now you’ve been on the trail of the Order, enquiring at inn and abbey alike as to its members, its location, and chiefly, how you might join.
For the most part, you’ve been met with blank expressions from laymen, or sneers of derision from rival knights. But tonight, unexpected, as you nursed a cup of souring wine in a dim-lit traveler’s inn, the Order found you.
Wiry and wryly smiling, the knight announced himself with a hand on your shoulder. Turning with a start, your eyes flashed briefly to his face before widening to take in the embroidered crest on his doublet. A cross of seven hearts, and atop them, a phoenix.
“You’ve been asking questions,” was all he said, before turning to the door with a gesture.
Outside, he turns to face you with an expectant look. But as you sift through your wine-fogged memory for the speech you’ve had long prepared, he shakes his head with a look between amusement and disappointment, and reaches to his hip.
A slender sword is whisked from the folds of his cape, three elegant steel rings encasing his hand as it sweeps upward in the form of a salute. With a sudden sinking feeling, you realise that this is all the conversation he means to have.
Well then, you frown, reaching for your own sword, you’d better make it good.
The stone flags bite at your knees, cramped as they are with time and tension. Ignoring the pain, you roll polished beads between your fingers, murmuring familiar incantations, willing your prayer to drown out the sound of cannon from the fortress above. The noise is bone-shaking, bombastic, at odds with the quiet sanctuary of the chapel – but, you remind yourself, as long as it rings out, there is hope.
Your pious petition is shattered by a new clamour – the insistent thud of a fist against the chapel door. Heart leaping, you scramble to your feet, pressing the rosary to your lips in one last silent appeal before stumbling toward the portico.
“Who is it?” you demand, your voice thin and frightened on the incensed air.
The reply is so familiar, so commanding, that your knees nearly give way again as you scramble to unbar the heavy door. Behind it stands an imposing figure, face obscured by a wide-brimmed black hat, the glint of steel armour just visible beneath a tabard of red and white.
“Grand Master,” you greet him, agape.
He lifts his eyes to meet yours. “It is finished,” he announces solemnly, “by the grace of God.”
You want to cry out, dance for joy, even throw your arms around the marvellous man at your door. But the solemnity of his gaze holds you immobile.
As he sweeps past, he draws his sword. You choke back the urge to protest, and watch as he makes his way to the altar. The sword is no jewel-encrusted ceremonial piece. Like the man, it is simple, stately, worn by battle yet no less elegant for it. As he kneels, he places his gloved left palm beneath the flat of the blade, and raises it in both hands toward the cross.
“Deo Gratias,” you whisper.