Thirty Sword

By Medieval unknow author (Bibliothèque nationale de France - Banque d'images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Penthesilea, an Amazon who fought at Troy. Anonymous medieval illustration.

This is where I started with Sulien’s world. I made up the entire world-background, all the plot and all the characters who don’t appear in this poem, to be a support structure around this. It’s a terribly feudal poem, which I was writing to explain the place in the middle of the feudal system (to someone who understood the top and the bottom) and everything else followed from it. (Feudalism sucks in many ways, but it’s better than what came before, which was chattel slavery. In the ancient world there were towns and farms, and they both had slaves. In the medieval world there were very few towns, but lots of the villas on the farms became villages, with their own crafts and industries, and the people doing the work might not have had much fun but they were people who swore oaths, as their lords did, people who were seen as people with a choice to make and a word to give, not as goods that could be sold. Slavery in the ancient world shouldn’t be confused with modern slavery, but it was still awful. Feudalism really was an improvement.)

If you’ve read the books you might notice that this scene doesn’t happen like this, and some of the details are wrong, and also that this scene happens about a quarter of the way into The King’s Name or well over two-thirds of the way through the story. But all the same, this is where I started with the whole thing, with Sulien’s voice at that point, with the person who had been a knight for the fun of it and was now a responsible grown-up coming back to fight because it was important, and this time understanding what she was doing. It was the “she” in that, which was as inherent to the character as everything else, that made me make a world and write 300,000 words of it rather than just slot the poem in somewhere to history. Women have fought all through history, but almost always as exceptions, because they wanted to. There isn’t anywhere in history it was a feudal obligation in the way it was in this poem. So I made up the world and wrote the books to give this scene somewhere to happen.

Incidentally, when I wrote this I knew precisely what they were fighting for (the Peace, in all the implication of the book) but not the faintest idea who they were fighting against. I had to figure all that out later.

By Deutsch: Aison (Hahland); vielleicht Shuvalow-Maler (Diepolder) English: Aison (Hahland); perhaps Shuvalov Painter (Diepolder) Français : Aison (Hahland); peut-être Peintre de Shuvalov (Diepolder) (User:Bibi Saint-Pol, own work, 2007-02-13) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Amazon on horseback, red-figure vase

Thirty Sword.

“My lord, this day I bring you thirty sword.”
…And sixty hands, and thirty hearts and minds
Who trust in me, as I do trust to thee.
Yes, thirty lives I place between thy hands.

So here I kneel, bareheaded in the mud,
To give my oath, this time, for all my folk,
And not myself alone, as once before,
I pledged myself, my single sword, to thee.

In hallows then, with bishops by my side
In witness to my pledge I should be true
And to thy vow, when thou didst raise me up,
That thou shouldst keep me as I did deserve.

A little thing, to swear myself to thee,
Relying on thy honour and thy word
With faith in all thy known long-mastered skill
At arms and on the field: thou knowst thy craft.

This life of mine, which is my own to chance,
Whole-hearted, open-eyed, assigned to thee,
For such a gain as could those days be won,
For glory and renown, for flashing steel.

To pit my skill at chance and hazard all
As thou confide the charge into my hand
Was what my life was for, who lived to fight,
Before my father’s fall, my brother’s wound.

(I’ve named my sister’s second son my heir.)

Not now my life alone, not this time, lord.
Now I hold land and lives and those who swore
To serve my honour and defend my fields,
My fighting-folk in times of good or ill.

They are a charge I shall not lightly risk
For chance of glory, laughing in the din,
At broken shields and heads: they trust in me
To bring them safely home, as I shall not.

(I know me well enough some always fall.)

To die upon this battlefield myself
I should account a good, a life well-spent,
Had I no oath-bound duty to my kin
Nor lives set in my hand I must protect.

But thirty living, breathing, folk of mine,
Not swords alone, and not alone their vows,
But thirty folk who live within my care
Are risk of other kind, requiring cause.

(As cause there is, my lord, I trust thy cause.)

There comes a time when adults too must stand
To break a line of battle, knowing well,
The cost in lives and blood, responsible
For those who fall, and those who limp away.

This is a time of war, we must stand firm
We need to make a stand and hold the line
Against the fearsome foe, not waste our lives
For youthful dreams of glory or of skill.

All lives have worth, including this of mine
I lightly held so long, and those who die
Are spent to save the fire in the corn,
The hungry winter, and the homes destroyed.

We stand to fight, for if we did not stand,
Far worse would follow than the battlefield,
More deaths than these we count, the land aflame,
And all the Peace we built so long forgot.

So “thirty sword” I say, not “thirty lives”
But as thou claspst my hand and raise me up
I know thou always valued mine a life,
Always esteemed what I did not hold dear —

And count each one of us thou lose a loss.

And on this field when soon, too soon, we fight,
We shall withstand this foe and win the day.
We fight to keep the Peace, the chain shall hold,
That we have forged from such strong links as this.

1996, Lancaster