Jenny: The Naked Blade

"Sa ha!" said Jason, and it felt good to laugh a little. "And I think having a woman - or the hope of having one - is something to make your knees a little more sure when you stand."

He returned to his burnishing. The house had fallen completely silent: a tense, waiting sort of silence, like a thing lying under the heather, waiting to spring. The thing between his hands caught and lost and caught the light as he moved it. He rubbed and rubbed and rubbed rhythmically until the thing shone, and still he rubbed, thinking with his mind far away as he did so.

It had been a cool night, like this one, with the primroses just coming into bloom, and Artos all over sweat from a match he had won with Kay. Jason could remember being only chest high to the young man in those days, having to look up into the olive-dark face with its faint lacing of silver scars and fierce, storm-grey eyes. He had stood watching on the outskirts, heart a bloom of eagerness in his chest as he had seen Ambrosius' cub throw the wiry Kay to the ground. And then Artos had come up from the level before the Long Barn, shaking sweat from his face, half-laughing as someone tossed him a towel. The lamplight of the early spring evening, coming out of the lowering shadows, had glowed on his dark, damp skin. And as the young man looked up through the dark into the lamplight, the grey of his eyes sparking into blue, Jason was hearing the words of a Wandering Singer who had come through only a few nights before.

"Ah! Unferth, my friend, your face is hot with ale, and your tongue has tried to tell us about Brecca's doings. But the truth is simple: no man swims in the sea as I can, no strength is a match for mine. As boys, Brecca and I had boasted - we were both too young to know better - that we'd risk out lives far out at sea, and so we did. Each of us carried a naked sword, prepared for whales or the swift sharp teeth and beaks of needlefish. He could never leave me behind, swim faster across the waves than I could, and I had chosen to remain close to his side. I remained near him for five long nights, until a flood swept us apart; the frozen sea surged around me, it grew dark, the wind turned bitter, blowing from the north, and the waves were savage. Creatures who sleep deep in the sea were stirred into life - and the iron hammered links of my mail shirt, these shining bits of metal woven across my breast, saved me from death. A monster seized me, drew me swiftly toward the bottom, swimming with its claws tight in my flesh. But fate let me find its heart with my sword, hack myself free; I fought that beast's last battle, left it floating lifeless in the sea."

And Artos must have seen the images in Jason's face, for he had paused at the doorway, checked, and swung round, crouching down on the step where the boy had sat, the black pup sprawling at his feet. "This is quite the vantage point," he had said companionably.

"Yes, sir," Jason had said, not sure what to do with the Merlin so near. Then, as the silence stretched out between them, "You...fight very well, sir."

The Merlin had cast him a sharp-toothed smile. "You think so? It is not much more than dogs learning their own pack between us, the fighting you saw. Kay is fast, and best at the sudden strike. I can go in for the long haul. But we would not know this, you see, if we did not fight. See, here." He spun his knife out of its sheath, fondling it even as Jason fondled his pup's ears, and held it up to the light, flat across his palm. The lamplight ran down the silver lines of the watered steel, lines like the scoring across the Merlin's temple, and woke sparkling in the cut semiprecious stones of the hilt. "We are like this, my men and I," he said. "There is a whole fineness in this weapon, a sureness and a beauty that one takes in at once without realizing it. But looking closer, one sees the particulars of the piece. Without the hilt, the blade would be a naked piece of metal; without the gems, the hilt would be unlovely. But the blade, too, gives a hold for the hilt, and the hilt gives a bed for the stones. We each have our important place, and together - " he spun the thing again and brought it up with a force that could have severed a rib " - together we make a skillful weapon."

And Jason, with that bloom of red earnestness in his chest still, had liked that, and had smiled back.

The lamplight flashed off the blade into his eyes, bringing him back to the present.

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