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“Roger Buys a Sword”

Copyright 2001 Diana Gabaldon

He’d handled eighteenth-century broadswords before; neither the weight nor the length surprised him. The basket around the hilt was slightly bent, but not enough to interfere with fitting his hand inside the grip. He’d done that before, too. There was a considerable difference, though, beyond reverently placing an antique artifact into a museum display, and picking up a length of sharpened metal with the conscious intent of driving it through a human body.

“It’s a bit battered,” Fraser had told him, squinting critically down the length of the sword before handing it to him, “but the blade’s well-balanced. Try the feel of it, to see if it suits.”

Feeling a total fool, he slipped his hand into the basket and struck a fencing pose, based on memories of Errol Flynn films. They were standing in the busy lane outside the smithy in Cross Creek, and a few passersby paused to watch and offer helpful comment.

“What’s Moore asking for that bit of pot tin?” someone asked disparagingly. “Anything more than two shillings, and it’s highway robbery.”

“That’s a fine sword,” said Moore, leaning over the half-door of his forge and glowering. “I had it from my uncle, who saw service in the Low Countries. Why, that blade’s killed a-many Frenchmen, and no but the one wee nick to be seen in it.”

“One nick!” cried the disparager. “Why, the thing’s bent so, if you went to stick a man, you’d end up cutting off his ear!”

There was a laugh from the gathering crowd that drowned the smith’s response. Roger lowered the point of the sword, raised it slowly. How the hell did one road-test a sword? Ought he to wave it to and fro? Stick something with it? There was a cart standing a little way down the lane, loaded with burlap bags of something– raw wool, from the smell.

He looked for the proprietor of the bags, but couldn’t pick him out from the growing crowd; the huge draft horse hitched to the cart was unattended, ears twitching sleepily over his dropped reins.

“Ah, if it’s a sword the young man’s wanting, sure and Malachy McCabe has a better one than that, left from his service. I think he’d part with it for nay more than three shillings.” The cobbler from across the land pursed his lips, nodding shrewdly at the sword.

“‘Tisn’t an elegant piece,” one middle-aged ex-soldier agreed, head tilted on one side. “Serviceable, though, I grant you that.”

Roger extended his arm, lunged toward the door of the smithy, and narrowly missed Moore, coming out to defend the quality of his wares. The smith leaped aside with a startled cry, and the crowd roared.

Roger’s apology was interrupted by a loud, nasal voice behind him.

“Here, sir! Let me offer a foe more worthy of your steel than an unarmed smith!”

Whirling round, Roger found himself confronting Dr. Fentiman, who was pulling a long, thin blade from the head of his ornamental cane. The doctor, who was roughly half Roger’s size, brandished his rapier with a genial ferocity. Obviously fueled by a liberal luncheon, the tip of his nose glowed like a Christmas bulb.

“A test of skill, sir?” The doctor whipped his sword to and fro, so the narrow blade sang as it cut the air. “First to pink his man, first to draw blood is the victor, what say you?”

“Oh, an unfair advantage to the Doctor! And isn’t drawing blood your business, then?”

“Ha ha! And if ye run him through instead of pinking him, will ye patch the hole for no charge?” yelled another onlooker. “Or are ye out to drum up business, leech?”

“Watch yourself, young man! Turn your back on him and he’s like to give ye a clyster!”

“Better a clyster than a blade up the arse!”

The doctor ignored these and similar vulgar observations, holding his blade upright in readiness. Roger shot a glance at Jamie, who was leaning against the wall, looking amused. Jamie raised one eyebrow and shrugged slightly.

“Try the feel of it,” Jamie’d said. Well, and he supposed a duel with a drunken midget was as good a test as any.

Roger raised his blade and fixed the doctor with a menacing look.

En garde” he said, and the knot of onlookers roared approval.

Gardez vous,” replied the doctor promptly, and lunged. Roger spun on one heel and the doctor shot past, rapier pointed like a lance. Moore the smith leaped aside just in time to avoid being skewered for the second time, cursing fluently.

“What am I, a friggin’ target?” he shouted, shaking a fist.

“You’re too big to miss, Will!”

Disregarding the near miss, the doctor regained his balance and charged back toward Roger, uttering shrill cries of self- encouragement.

It was rather like being attacked by a wasp, Roger thought. If you didn’t panic, you found it possible to follow the thing and bat it away. Perhaps the doctor was a decent swordsman when sober; in his current state, his frenzied thrusts and mad flurries were easily fended off–as long as Roger paid attention.

It occurred to him early on that he could end the contest at any time, merely by meeting the Doctor’s slender rapier edge-on with his own much heavier weapon. He was beginning to enjoy himself, though, and was careful to parry with the flat of the broadsword.

Gradually everything disappeared from Roger’s view but the flashing point of the rapier; the shouts of the crowd faded to a bee-buzz, the dirt of the lane and the wall of the smithy were scarcely visible. He grazed his elbow on the wall, moved back, moved in a circle to gain more room, all without conscious thought.

The rapier beat on his wider blade, engaged and screeched loose with a whinggg! of metal. Clang and click and the whish of empty air and the ringing beat that vibrated in his wristbones with every blow of the doctor’s sword.

Watch the stroke, follow it, bat it away. He had no idea what he was doing, but did it anyway. The sweat was running in his eyes; he shook his head to fling it away, nearly missed a low lunge toward his thigh, stopped it close and flung the rapier back.

The doctor staggered, thrown off-balance, and feral shouts of “Now! Take him! Stick him now!” rang in the dust-filled air. He saw the expanse of the doctor’s embroidered waistcoat, unguarded, filled with silken butterflies, and choked back the visceral urge to lunge for it.

Shaken by the intensity of the urge, he took a step back. The doctor, sensing weakness, leapt forward, bellowing, blade pointed. Roger took a half-step sideways, and the doctor shot past, grazing the hock of the draft-horse in his path.

The horse emitted an outraged scream, and promptly sent swordsman and sword flying through the air, to crash against the front of the cobbler’s shop. The doctor fell to ground like a crushed fly, surrounded by lasts and scattered shoes.

Roger stood still, panting. His whole body was pulsing with every heartbeat, hot with the fighting. He wanted to go on, he wanted to laugh, he wanted to hit something. He wanted to get Brianna up against the nearest wall, and now.

Jamie gently lifted his hand and pried his fingers from the hilt of the sword. He hadn’t remembered he was holding it. His arm felt too light without it, as though it might fly up toward the sky, all by itself. His fingers were stiff from gripping so hard, and he flexed them automatically, feeling the tingle as the blood came back.

The blood was tingling everywhere. He hardly heard the laughter, the offers of drinks, or felt the blows of congratulation rained on his back.

“A clyster, a clyster, give him a clyster!” a gang of apprentices was chanting, following along as the doctor was borne off for first-aid in the nearest tavern. The horse’s owner was fussing solicitously over the big bay, who looked more bemused than injured.

“I suppose he’s won. After all, he drew first blood.”

Roger didn’t realize that he’d spoken until he heard his own voice, strangely calm in his ears.

“Will it do?” Jamie was looking at him in question, the sword held lightly on the palms of his hands.

Roger nodded. The lane was bright and filled with white dust; it gritted under his eyelids, between his teeth when he closed his mouth.

“Aye,” he said. “It will do.”

“Good,” said Jamie. “So will you,” he added casually, turning away to pay the smith.