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I sat on the stone home-field fence, watching Lemming in the meadow. The big, ugly smith was doing his sword drill, as was his daily custom. Dividing an unseen circle in the air again and again, swinging Smith’s Bane, the heirloom sword Erling Skjalgsson had given him, with a corded arm that never seemed to weary, making whistling sounds in the air. It was a beautiful bright day in spring, an uncommon enough event to make me wish to sit in the sun and revel a bit. A seagull lit a little distance away to make a meal of something he’d snatched. Another gull flew in to dispute it with him, and they squabbled loudly, using their beaks on one another. The disputed prize, I saw at last, was a bloody seagull chick.
“He’s good,” said a voice, and I turned my head to see Erling Skjalgsson coming up behind me, tall and fair, dressed in a blue linen summer shirt.
“I suppose he is. He’s been in fights enough and he still lives. I’m no judge of swordsmanship. My folk weren’t fine enough for swords. An axe for me, when I must needs fight.”
“Would you like to learn?”
I smiled. “Steinulf once told me, ‘Seven days to learn to fight with an axe. Seven years to learn to use a sword.’”
Erling smiled too. “That’s about right. Still, you’ll be that much older seven years hence whatever you do. If you’d like to add swordsmanship to your skills, you’ve but to ask.”
“Thank you, but I think there are better ways for a priest to spend seven years.”
“Please yourself.” Erling settled his elbows on the stones and watched Lemming. “I wonder where he learned,” he said.
“What do you mean? He practices every day.”
“As you yourself pointed out, it takes seven years, more or less. It’s not been that long he’s had the sword. He was skilled from the day he filched that weapon from my father’s dead hand, though only new-freed, and no thrall is trained to the sword.”
“How do you explain it then?”
“I think Lemming wasn’t born a thrall. I think before his enthrallment he was raised as a warrior. We contrived to get a little of his story from him, as one pries meat from a mussel, how his brother was sacrificed and how Freydis is his niece, but there’s more to the story.”
“I suppose we could ask him.”
“Do you think it would do any good?”
“With Lemming? No.”
“I agree. But I do wonder.”
“And now so do I.”
We were quiet for a bit.
“Smith’s-Bane has a name,” I said. “Most Northmen name their swords. I’ve never heard you call your blade by name.”
“No. I chose not to do that.”
“The followers of the old gods think giving a sword a name makes it a living thing, gives it a spirit. I’m not sure I want my sword to have a spirit.”
“Is that the true reason you refused to bear Smith’s Bane, when your mother offered it to you?”
“Perhaps that was part of it. But more than that I simply like my Frankish sword better. The balance is better, and the pommel doesn’t dig into my hand. And it’s of better steel, from the workshops of Ulfbehrt. No twisting of rods of iron and steel in a forge, muttering spells and quenching the blade in blood.”
“Ah,” said I. “Like your ship, then.”
“Yes, like Fishhawk. I give her a name, because a ship must have a name, but I don’t set a figurehead on her prow, lest I think my ship a god, or a friend. She’s a tool, without sense or feeling.
“Isn’t it strange, Father, when you think of it? We treat our tools as if they were men, and our thralls as if they were tools.”
Erling left me then, to attend to one of the hundred business matters that concerned him. I stayed and watched Lemming, wondering what dark and bloody story (for all stories in the North are dark and bloody) the man hid behind his gravestone face.