Late summer. Long grass waving, dried and waxen in the sun; downy heads tickling the backs of your legs as you run across the meadow; a stream of seeds taking flight in your wake. It’s days like these that make you never want to return to the city – to the vomit-splashed cobbles and oppressive, leaning towers. To the purpose and the pressure to prove yourself, the constant critique of your master, the endless drills and duels. What wouldn’t you give, in this moment, to leave it all behind and stay here beside the jingling brook, trade your rapier for a sickle, and till the fields beside your brothers?
And yet, as you let your knees crumple beneath you, tumbling against the cushioning grass to watch the clouds above, a streak of red catches your eye against the flaxen gold. You raise your head, resting your elbows on the dry ground, and watch as a solitary ladybird makes its slow, solemn pilgrimage to the tip of a straw-hued stalk. You marvel at its graceless yet gravity-defying determination, tiny legs at work beneath the hard, polished shield of its wing cases.
As you watch, you cannot help but recall another gleaming shell: the steel dish of a rapier guard, steadfast about your hand, granting you assurance as you line up your opportunity. You recall how it flashed in the lamplight as you lunged, twisting your wrist just slightly, your opponent’s counterstrike slipping from the beetle-like shell as your blade found its mark.
With a wry chuckle, you pull yourself back to your feet. So this is love, you think. You can’t live with the sword, and you can’t live without it. There is truly no escape – nor, truly, do you want one. Winding your way back to the farm, you pause to cut a switch of ash from the bramble-bound hedgerow, brandishing it as a make-shift blade. Your master will be pleased to know you practiced.
The sun streaming through the clear glass window is too hot on your maille-coifed neck. The crack between stone flags wears hard on your knee, and your upper arms ache from holding their pious position, palms upraised to the heavens. You utter another silent prayer: please, Lord, let this be over soon.
“You’re slouching again, boy” the cowled brother snaps, peering around his wooden easel. “Tilt your chin. Hips forward.”
You groan, rolling your aching shoulders, before settling back into the uncomfortable pose. Keen as you were when the abbot suggested you pose for the illumination, the honour is wearing a little thin. You could be out in the training yard now, trying your new sword for size. Instead it hangs spotless at your side, brass pommel gleaming in the high noon sun.
Your fingers itch to grasp the ridged red leather of its grip, to draw it from the scabbard with a flourish as you rise from your cramped and buckled knees – a glorious knight, rather than a penitent one.
As if reading your thoughts, the monk cranes his neck over the easel, eyes narrowed, and shakes his head slowly.
You give what you hope is an inaudible sigh, and turn your eyes heavenwards again, trying to block out the blade’s siren call.
By this point the corridors have all blurred into a singular indistinct passageway, its rounded marble walls pristine and unmarked, save for the occasional six-sided doorway. Not six-sided like a hexagon, you think with a twinge of superstitious discomfort, but like a coffin. And each with the same strange sigil carved into its lintel – the crude image of a six-legged insect, cruel pincers extending from its elongated abdomen.
A crackle over your headset makes you jump, the sound echoing uncannily down the tunnel.
“I think this is the one,” reports the muffled voice of your research partner. Safe above ground, she’s been monitoring your progress via electronic trackers, guiding you through the geometric turns of the six-sided maze that you are too close to decipher.
“You sure about this?” you say, pausing before yet another identical coffin-shaped door.
“I’d wager my life,” she replies.
“Too bad it’s mine that’s on the line,” you jest, before taking a deep breath and stepping over the threshold.
Nothing happens. You open your eyes, uncurl tightly clenched fists, let your shoulders drop. The atrium is eerie white, just as the corridor that led to it. White and echoingly empty, save for the plinth in its centre: an altar, perhaps? Or simply a convenient surface for the sword that rests upon it.
“You got it?” your assistant asks.
You murmur an affirmative as your fingers run over the weapon. It is as lovely as it is grotesque, the tapering curves of its crossguard segmented by carved lines – almost like insect antennae, you think. The ridged grip rises to a a split pommel, two smooth, dark fangs extending from its ribbed centre. No, not fangs, you realise, recalling the strange sigil above the doorways. Pincers.
You can’t say how long you’ve been aware, on some unconscious level, of the rising sound behind you. You only know it’s no surprise. Like a distant and tiny orchestra tuning, the woozy discord of multitudes – a symphony of scuttling legs. You’ve seen enough movies to know how this ends. What can you do but clutch the sword close to you, grit your teeth, and await the swarm?
From the moment you first wrapped you hand around that broad leather grip, in turn embraced by swooping whorls of black metal, you knew there was no turning back. The image of the thing was imprinted on your mind, and you would not rest until it was yours.
You remember kneeling that night at the foot of your bed, the leather bound Bible – your most prized possession – open on the blanket before you. Yet as your lips formed the words of familiar psalms, it was not the sounds you fixated on – no, it was the letters. The beautiful, printed letters, bold and black on the off-white page.
You traced them with careful fingertips as rote praise spilled from your mouth, noting how each oft-read symbol was an artwork in itself: the rising and falling curves, swelling then slipping just as swiftly into a whisper-thin line, the flares and flicks of terminals. How the proud, bisected round of the capital “G” in “God” was so very, very reminiscent of that dark, elegant hilt which had enclosed your fist only hours before. Was that a sign? Did the book of Ephesians not bid you to “take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God?” You smiled and shook your head – the thought was close to blasphemy.
Nevertheless, the following morning found you guiltily leaving the bookseller’s shop with a heavier purse in hand, a prayer of repentance on your lips, and a lilt in your step as you made your way to the armourer’s.
A slow exhalation forces its way through clenched teeth as you fight to clear your head. To push back the hot wind of anger, knowing how it turns cyclonic. You recall the words of your teacher: temperance, boy. Temperance and discernment. That’s what wins a fight – not a blaze of righteous glory, nor a clumsy, tell-tale rage. Only moderation.
Your senses reel and you clutch the spiral-bound grip of your sword for balance. You are almost dwarfed by her, yet she moves with measured certainty. You open your eyes to recall those familiar features: deep blue leather, fullered steel, the resplendent sun on the cap of the pommel. These are the things you can trust. The straight, sharp line between right and wrong.
As your breathing slows and the heat fades from your cheeks, you take in your opponent with renewed passivity. You’ve seen his kind before, you realise. All baiting, leering show. You will not rise to it this time. Instead, you step coolly into measure with an ascending cut from the right. He is not expecting it – nor the next one – nor the thrust that finishes him.