The Quercus Smallsword

 

∴ A Branch Extended ∴

The oak dominates the dusk-lit landscape, outspread arms dripping with bearded moss, a primordial giant stepping from the still-darkened bayou.

You shudder to think of such things – of the mangrove stench of the swampland, gators lurking anciently beneath the pea-soup waters. Of the stories the grandmothers tell in the town. If the oak tree were one of their saints or spirits, what manner of thing would it be? Would its arms be stretched out in a loving embrace, or would it be vengeful, terrible, intoxicated by the blood shed on its roots?

You shake yourself from such superstition. It is only the twilight talking: the low mists and the long shadows of near-dawn. If a shadow shifts against the tree’s broad trunk, it is only your challenger. A nice, simple threat in the face of the sleeping city’s strangeness. Just a man’s wounded honour, and a strong sword arm.

The figure takes form as you near him, and you take a moment to size him up. Slight, but self-contained, like a chambered bullet. At his side hangs a simple duelling sword, but a proper one: you nod in begrudging appreciation to see the folded forte of a colichemarde blade beneath the black shell guard. Your opponent will parry well, and thrust unforgivingly.

“What’s it to be then?” you bark as you reach measure. “Death or first blood?”

A pained look crosses the man’s youthful face.

“You mistake me, sir,” he responds. “I came only to seek your pardon. I spoke rashly last night, believing you to have been the source of a certain rumour. I have since discovered that I spoke in vain. I say we should make our peace at once.”

You smile at the deflated young swordsman, and he stares back in dumb bemusement. Behind him the moss-robed oak god stands tall, primal patron of youthful pride.

“Where would the fun be in that?” you ask.

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The Spindle Smallsword

∴ A Curse Come Good ∴

“Briar Rose,” the old cook shouts as you streak through the kitchen, snatching an apple on your way.

“That girl will be the death of me,” she grumbles, watching you disappear into the maze of corridors beyond.

You do not pause to apologize – Cook is used to these fleeting visits. They keep her on her toes. Besides, the one-eyed ginger tom is already getting away.

It’s a rough-and-tumble fondness you have for the old mouser – you’ve been chasing him since you were a bairn, and he never fails to lead you somewhere strange. After twelve years, you’d think you’d have seen the castle in its entirity, but somehow there’s always someplace new.

Had it not been for the curse, you might have spent your days docile at your mother’s side, teasing and tatting the flax and learning the dainty motions for spinning thread. But cursed you were, and the spinning wheels were cast from the kingdom – and for lack of ladylike pursuit, you made your own fun.

Chasing the cat was always a favourite, or creeping across the steepled rooftops, watching slate tiles skitter to the guttered edge. Then there was fighting the stable lad. At first you brawled with fists and feet until the horsemaster sent you scurrying. Then you played at knights with sticks, clashing and clattering until they splintered. Once you tried to rescue a real sword from the wall of the great hall. But the Castellan spied you smuggling it up the horse stairs and sent you to bed with an earful.

The old tom takes a left, then shoots up a narrow wooden stair. You don’t recognize the spiderweb-rimed staircase, but you fancy it might lead to the servants’ quarters. You could play a prank on Cook, you think, as you scurry after the beast.

The door at the head of the staircase opens with a creak like a crone’s laughter. Beyond is an empty attic room, all loose floorboards and gnarled beams. And there, in a single shaft of sunlight dancing with motes of dust, is a sword.

It lies quite unassumingly on the ground, as if placed there by someone who went to fetch something then forgot about it. You walk toward it with unfaltering steps, and crouch down to examine it.

It is small and wiry like you, with beautiful braided wire and a black guard shaped like a butterfly. Or like the symbol your father’s alchemists use to mean eternity. The blade is narrow and straight, like a needle. You lift it toward the light, wide-eyed, and do you hear for a second time the creak of crone’s laughter?

“This sword will be the death of me,” you murmur.

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The Hermia Smallsword

∴ A Fierce Contender ∴

You curse as your finger finds the errant point of a hairpin, then glance about to be sure no one heard. It isn’t decent, apparently, for a lady to use such language. Pressing the pin more firmly into your tightly wound bun, you pluck another from between pursed lips and fix the last curling tendrils in place.

You step back to appraise yourself in the mirror: small, as your opponents do not hesitate to mention. Petite, if you’re being polite. A small, heart-shaped face stark against the severe hairstyle. A high, unadorned neckline, a tightly cinched waist – and a red heart sewn over your left breast. You always were the sort to wear your heart for all to see – your opponents learn all too quickly that this is not a weakness.

You cast a wicked little smile at the prim reflection. The truth is, you will always be underestimated in this game. For your sex, your slightness, or your sentimentality. Somehow, after all these years of duelling and winning, they still refuse to see you coming. And that is your greatest weapon – or one of them, at least.

The other is propped against the wall beside the mirror, always in sight – always in easy reach. Small and neat like her wielder, she is adorned in swelling black bars and simple brown leather; a pattern of five flowers for luck, should you need it. There is something of the magic wand to her nimble elegance – and that is proper, too, as there are certainly those who would call you a witch.

Closing your hand around the familiar leather grip, you part from your image with a last curt nod, and turn toward the door. It’s time to prove another opportunist wrong.

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The Dyad Smallswords

∴ A Certain Duology ∴

“It’s your right to choose”, the copper-haired man says, opening the case.

Loathe as you are to show admiration, you cannot repress a low whistle as he pulls back the ivory satin, revealing a pair of slender yet sturdy smallswords with blackened guards and gleaming wire grips. Half-reverently you lift one, then the other, keen to claim the better. At last you glance up, brow furrowed. 

“What is there to choose?” you ask. “The swords are equal in every way.”

“I’ll choose then,” the challenger grins. He curls his hand round the copper-wrapped hilt, leaving you its steelier brother.

Shrugging, you take your weapon and step onto the field of honour. As you salute and fall into guard, your opponent effortlessly matches the the grace that you studied for years, mirror-like in his precision. As the bout begins, the similarities grow only more frustrating – every move reflected, every feint forewarned.

You cannot say when it is that frustration gives way to a flurry of excitement. The precise moment when a battle of wills becomes a meeting of minds. You dance with the copper-haired man, daring him to surprise you, even as he draws out moves you never knew you had. You are certain that, standing against one another, neither can be truly victorious.

But together?

You catch your opponent’s eye. His reckless grin is contagious.

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The Maristella Smallsword

∴ A Siren Call∴

A lone and late-to-bed gull makes its keening call, your sole companion as you gaze upon the brooding waters. You can’t explain what wonder this half-rotten wooden groyn holds for you – only that every night since the news of the wreck, you have found yourself here – waiting, willing.

The moon leaves a long path, stark and silver against the ebb. You imagine stepping from the worn planks onto the trail of light. As you trace the beam down toward your feet, your eye is caught by a glimmer between barnacled rocks. Entranced, you clamber toward it, little caring for your torn and sodden skirts. A silvern shell sparkles between stones, as if some siren’s gift.

Heart pounding, you fall to your knees and grasp the tiny, hand-hewn thing. To your shock you find yourself clutching not a shell, but the pommel of a sword. Bathed in moonlight you rise, and draw it, Arthurian, from the depths.

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