The sword - the staple weapon of most self-respecting characters who roam the realm of High Fantasy. They're fascinating things - even those that don't flash colours in face of danger, cleave through the flesh of icy-eyed killer wights, or have properties that ward off the dreaded Lesser Spotted Pygmy Possum. Carrying a sword in a fantasy environment pretty much makes your character cooler by about 20% right from the off - irregardless of whether they actually know what they're doing with the thing!
Perhaps as a result of this, I've always been rather fascinated by swords - though if you handed me one, and I was by some miracle able to lift it off the ground, I would most likely kill or maim myself before I got a blow on anyone standing within a ten feet radius of me. I used to be able to delude myself that, if I practiced or joined up a fencing club or some sort of mediaeval weapons enthusiast society, I might be able to use one ... until a particularly entertaining escapade in an interactive weapons demo made a complete fool of me, and I realised I'd best stick to pointy sticks and pus-popping insults.
But, of course, just because I can't use a sword doesn't mean my characters can't! As most of my work are high fantasy, I have plenty of sword-wielders roaming around. Even my Science Fiction 2009 NaNoWriMo novel involved a much-abused katana and a pair of throwing knives.
However, my general lack of knowledge regarding swords left me with some terribly large plot holes in lieu of the (in)famous Aeserion trilogy. However many people he's run through with it, I'm pretty sure Rin's sword wouldn't "shatter like glass" when hit with a mace. Sneaking suspicions regarding his ability to throw it so that it miraculously speared an enemy through the face are also beginning to creep in here and there...
So, because of this, I started doing that which every writer's worst nightmares are haunted by, alongside the giant spiders and Furbies. Research.
Inevitably, I was soon distracted by an excuse to do my favourite thing. Worldbuilding.
Making a sword, as I discovered, is a long, hot, exhausting process for the blacksmith and his helpers, and one small mistake can render the whole thing useless. While reading about the use of bellows, hot coals and regular dousings in freezing cold water, I began to wonder how attached a man would get to a sword he could spend days creating? I can imagine it would be a bit of a wrench letting go of something that became pretty much a part of your arm, knowing full well that the idiot who wandered off with it would probably break it, lose it or have it stolen and come back to you for another one within the week.
Then, by some marvellous act of cosmic serendipity, I came across the Viking practice of naming swords, and passing them down as treasured heirlooms and sources of pride for generations (provided the thing didn't get too old and become too useless to be much more than a decoration over the hearth, next to the polar bear head that your Uncle Ulfbjorn brought home after getting lost after that one drunken Christmas party).
And thus, the idea of Swordlore was born. Here follows an extract from Lord Bayard's Ways of Lore, found in the Great Library of Tearcallon:
Before the first Lady's Missionaries appeared on Errion's shores, the Old Way dictated that any man who seeks to truly call a sword his own must have a hand in its crafting. That role depends on his ability - if he is strong, let him wield the hammer; if he has a good eye, let him dictate the time to pull the blade from the fire; if he is determined, let him be the one who pumps the bellows to keep the fire burning. With a little of his own blood added to the steel in its molten form, he must endure alongside the blacksmith, night and day, to bring his blade into being. And then, when all is done, before he can truly call the weapon his own, he must bestow the final mark of ownership: a name.
Inevitably, as the new faith arrived and Errion began to mix and trade with its neighbours to the south, the Old Way began to fade away until, at the time of the Aeserion trilogy, little of it remains in its original form. Swordlore, though, is part of that "little".
However, it wasn't attachment to the old faith that drove Rin Takarsson, otherwise known as Swiftblade, the famed northern mercenary, to go through the ancient rites when he made his own sword. It wasn't even his occasionally swollen pride.
Nope. He made his own sword so that no one could laugh at it.
You see, Rin's sword isn't like many others. The favoured blade of Errion is the strong, sturdy broadsword - it's been that way for as long as anyone can remember. Occasionally you'll find a looted Skerabian sabre or some strange hybrid sword from immigrant blacksmiths out of the south, but for the most part Errion sticks to its roots. The broadsword is a nasty thing - some weighing up to nearly 40 kilos and requiring massive amounts of strength to swing, relying on the force of the wielder to smash the enemy's skull in, or drive its pointed end through some vulnerable orifice.
And Rin's too much of a weed to lift one. He can't help it - he's tall and skinny by default, and not even his wicked speed can make up for his lack of beef. Like me, he denied that he was entirely useless, until a similar sort of public humiliation convinced him he needed to try another tack.
Rather than following me and sticking to withering words, Rin decided that if he wouldn't fit the sword, he'd fit the sword to him. And thus Whisper came, hissing and spitting, from the blacksmith's forge.
Whisper is longer and thinner than your average blade, made using a technique I unashamedly pinched from the Japanese katana makers - folding the metal over on itself to make it light, but hard. With a little adaption and some suspense-of-belief that comes with fantasy, the resulting sword allows for its wielder to use his speed to his advantage, before darting in at the last second to either slice the foe's head off with the sharp edges or drive the point up his nose. Cleaving in skulls is somewhat beyond his repertoire, but anyone who taunts him for it will soon find Whisper's point worryingly close to their own nasal cavities. That usually puts them off very quickly.
Even Errion's neighbour and arch-nemesis-for-a-reason-that-no-one-really-remembers, the wild nation of Skatha, has its own take on Swordlore. To the south, Errion's many trading and diplomatic partners hold their own views on the use and creation of swords. Even the desert nation of Skerabia hold some respect for them, though bows, spears, poisons and even the occasional vegetable are their preferred weapons of choice. But, strangely, only Errion and Skatha hold to the importance of naming the swords.
Swords in Errion have all manner of strange names. Part of Swordlore is that the weapon's name should tell the observer something about the nature of the blade and, by extension, something about the owner. Whisper was named for its size, its speed, and ability to scare the heebies out of people unexpectedly - much like Rin, if you catch him in one of his moods. A pair of brothers in his company have given their two swords the collective name of the Wicked Sisters (though the names of the actual swords are somewhat less exciting). A man who is known to the gang as Awkward called his Blunder, because he liked the match, and the blade itself is somewhat less than attractive due to a small mishap in the forging process. Even Rin's unpleasant little dagger, which was made using the leftover steel from Whisper, has become known semi-affectionately as Hiss.
And does anyone remember Florien? Well, believe it or not, Mr Run-and-Hide does have a sword - and he knows (vaguely) how to use it! As he didn't actually make the blade, though, he has no real right to name it, but Rin and his company - witty and wonderful as they are - decided to use it as a means to poking fun at their favourite tagalong and have saddled it with the name Hearthwarmer. I'll leave you lovely people to work out the logic behind that one.
What about you, dear readers? Has boring research ever lead you down tangents that would later become rather crucial parts of the story? Is there any particularly fun piece of lore from your own settings and stories you would like to share?
- Charley R