The fire leaps in its ornate grate, but a shiver struggles free regardless. You breathe on your hands and fold your arms for warmth, casting your eyes warily around you. You feel uncommonly small in the echoing hall, dwarfed by the heavy crimson curtains, drawn despite the early hour.
Comparatively, the vampire somehow fills the space. He rests one hand on the stone mantle, a vision in crumpled shirtsleeves, red wine staining the lace at his throat. There is a dominance to his easy stance – a clear message that he owns this place. Not just the bones of it, the red velvet and glossy stone, but the space itself. The vastness is his. The emptiness is his. And the silence is his to break.
“You have brought me the piece?”
You nod, words sticking in your throat, and open the case. The vampire’s eyes flash as they take in the silver flame of the blade, the blood red hide of the grip, the clawlike curl of the black crossguard.
“Yes,” he whispers, long fingers stroking the leather. “It has been too long… Much too long. You have done a good thing to return this sword to my care. You shall be amply… rewarded.”
You flinch and suddenly the sword is in the vampire’s hands, his pale lips parted in a peal of silent laughter.
When your passion becomes your profession, drawing the line between work and play gets increasingly hard. Take fencing events, for example. As artisans we’re keen to see our creations in action, meet our clients in person, and get some new ones on the books. As fencers, however, we can’t resist the opportunity to challenge ourselves, improve our own fencing, and cross blades with our international friends.
Taking our growing orders list into account, we’ve appeared at relatively few events this year. There was, however, one event that we couldn’t possibly pass up – our annual pilgrimage to Fort St Angelo in Malta, where the Malta Historical Fencing Association hold a long weekend of workshops, lectures, friendly sparring and camaraderie.
The MHFA kindly allowed us to run a stall this year, where attendees could handle the Angelo Broadsword, as well as purchase gorgets, frogs and baldrics. Thanks to the team’s laid-back professionalism, we were also able to spend plenty of time atop the fortress, fighting our friends in truly unforgettable surroundings.
While we were careful not to talk shop all weekend, the trip yielded business gems aplenty. For starters, we were reunited with swords and blades from across our two-year history, and heard many a tale of what they’d achieved. This was a wonderful insight into our swords’ stories beyond the workshop, and a great assurance as to the handling and durability we pride ourselves on.
We also enjoyed putting my new range of sword belts, frogs and baldrics through their paces, swanning up and down Fort St Angelo’s impressive flights of stairs with our swords at our sides. Not only did we feel like epic heroes of old, we also benefitted from free hands (which were soon filled with extra swords). Our stock swiftly sold out, but thanks to much positive feedback, I’m preparing to make baldrics the new black in 2020.
While fencing martial artists from around the world was a wonderful primer in the styles and treatises that are currently trending, the real R&D was done after sundown, in a cobbled street outside the appropriately named Pub, with a local beer in hand. Here, international instructors candidly discussed what’s new, what they’d like to see more of, and which weapons are on their wishlists. Our work may well be wreathed in history, but it’s no less exciting to look to the future stay get ahead of the game.
A sword maker’s trip to Malta would hardly be complete without a visit to the Oratory of St Joseph, home to all manner of historical ephemera – the prize of which is undoubtably the De Valette sidesword. Alleged to be the same sword that Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette laid down on the altar at the end of the Great Siege, it is of great symbolic importance to Malta – and not least to the Malta Historical Fencing Association.
With a replica of the sword on our books, we thought it only right to pay our respects. We were greeted by a contagiously enthusiastic guide, and ushered through to the side chapel where the sword resides. Seeing such a significant piece of history in person is always disquieting – particularly noting the notches in the blade, made in battle centuries ago. We were also taken by how slender the bars of the hilt are – a detail which we’re keen to recreate in high carbon steel.
Most poignantly for us, the MHFA event is a living reminder of what our work’s all about. We discovered the world of historical fencing as keen amateurs, heads swimming with storybook visions of heroes, castles and legendary blades. Thanks to Chris’s hard work and determination, that world soon became our everyday, along with the ins and outs of running a small business.
Once a year in Malta, however, we step back into the dream – the historic fortified citadel, the clash of a hundred blades, the larger than life characters, the bonds of brotherhood. To see the part we play in weaving that world is an unfathomable reward, and one that inspires us every year to forge on and constantly improve our craft.
We’d like to extend a huge thank you to the MHFA team for their hard work every year, and to every fencer we fought with, learned from, and shared a Cisk with. We’ll be back!
You wake from dreams of serpents.
Always the same: a nest of writhing coils. The cool, glassy sensation of scales against skin. The wordless hiss as the creature stretches its shovel-shaped head toward your ear. Then the gloomy quiet of wakefulness.
Disgruntled, you pull yourself out of bed and lean to light a lantern. Clutching the meagre light-bringer, you slip out onto the cool marble landing. Two months you’ve been a guest in this strange, silent house. And for two months, the snakes have come by night, invading your dreams, insistent, imparting unknowable warnings.
Something catches your eye as you make your way to the bathroom – a door ajar. Could it be that your inscrutable host forgot to lock his study? Consumed by curiosity, you peer through the gap. The lantern’s glow refracts from row upon row of straight, steel blades. Not a study, then – an armoury.
Heart pounding, you step through the door and pull it closed behind you, taking in the splendour and the sheer number of swords. Then you see it.
A black iron serpent, subtle and sinuous, recoiled around itself – and around a long, fullered blade. Entranced, you reach for it, fingers brushing the serpentine guard before curling around the green leather grip. And suddenly, you understand.
As a swordsmith, I spend a lot of time poring over auction catalogues and museum pieces for inspiration. So much so that I sometimes forget that other people may not have quite so obsessive a grasp of sword form as my profession has provided me. With that in mind, I’ve taken some time away from the anvil to create a guide to commissioning a custom sword from me.
There are two types of briefs that I love: the truly open ones, where a client has a general idea of the type of sword they want, but trusts me to make specific and stylistic decisions for them, and the well-thought out ones, in which I get to work closely with a client to realise their own vision.
If you’re the former kind of client, you can feel confident that I have an arsenal of resources and experience to draw from in creating a one-of-a-kind sword that you’ll love fencing with. If you have more particular requirements, however, the following may help you to set them out in an email.
White sky. White water. Grass bleached white and waxen. You step forward and let the camp fade out of sight, out of mind, into the white expanse. You imagine pulling the landscape over you, a pale and prickly blanket against the still, iced air.
“So this is home,” a familiar voice breaks your communion. The word seems as foreign as the horizonless vista. You repeat it, watching it drift and dissipate in a plume of steamy breath.
“Father said to give you this.” Your sister steps round beside you, a single-edged sabre in her hand. “He says we’re not to go wandering unarmed. We don’t know what’s out there.”
“There’s nothing out there!” You mutter. “Nothing at all.” You take the shashka, running your fingers over the smooth, dark bird’s head of its handle. Its red veins gleam, stark against your pallid skin. You grasp it tightly, willing some of its realness into you, half fancying yourself fading into the endless white.
“Spring will come,” your sister says, turning to leave. “You’ll see.”
As if in affirmation a movement catches your eye. You glance up to see a great bird circling the Wild Fields, its dark plumage laced with red.
Scowling into your empty cup, you skip the pewter bit between your fingers and wait. A meeting of three, the note said, in its cryptic, spidery scrawl. Three for beginning, middle and end. Mind, body, spirit. Maiden, mother, crone. They would know you, the letter said, by the coin.
You toss the metal disc into the air and catch it, slamming it down on the rough wooden table. A cast image glares back at you: an equilateral triangle, bisected by a sword. A cult? A guild? A secret order?
The second was discovered soon enough – sitting up at the bar, coin peeping conspicuously from between scattered change – though she was none the wiser as to the meaning of the note. She sits across from you now, and you can tell your impatience irks her.
Just as you make up your mind to leave, the door opens. You freeze as a figure pushes through the portico and shakes the snow from his hood.
The man may be remarkable, but it’s his companion your eye is drawn to: a slender greatsword, almost as tall as its wielder, with three fullers lining its blade and, at its centre, two blackened bars reaching down from the cross to create a protective triangle.
And there is no doubt.
You step onto the silent floor, and draw your partner to you. Even in this brief moment of stasis, you are struck by her power and grace. Though you know the steps by heart, she was made for this.
You make the first move, both followed and led, and sense her spinning out into a graceful arc. You smile as you turn a quarter step to meet her – you’ve had to work hard to keep up with her all these years, but you’ve still got it.
She’s urging for speed now – a slight shift of momentum, hungry for the fight. You tighten your grip only slightly – enough to remind her who’s leading the dance. It was always this way: even through the stone wall of your discipline, you cannot fail to sense her passion.
As she spins through another flurry of steps and cuts, you recall a line from an old story book. The one about the mermaid. “She laughed and danced with death in her heart.”
Caught in the beauty of her motion, you can’t help but laugh along with her.