Hello, readers! Nothing much to say in preamble to this very indulgent bit of worldbuilding. This does address the promised topic, but along the way it also ended up being something like a portrait of Stoßdär itself. I’m overdue for one of those, so I don’t mind that I went astray. This marks the first Cannoan worldbuilding dive written since I decided to reboot the planet, so you’ll note a mention of the Grast near the start.
Otherwise, this piece is written in the voice of a Tresar noblewoman by the name of Sevesta Perdit. A hint for those of you who enjoy digging for subtext: she is in no way as proper as she pretends…
In our recent sally from the heartlands of our forefathers to the storm-assailed princedoms of the Steel End, my husband and I had a chance encounter with a ghost-pale warrior of the fearsome Grast people. No less curious, her own tale is sadly little known to us. This warrior, of prodigious strength and eerie demeanor harshened further by the eerie snow-white skin that so separated her from the natural dark tones of her folk, named herself as the sole survivor of a slaughtered band.
Fireside laments may draw from us secrets we would not otherwise speak of. The ghost-flesh warrior proved as human in this as any. In tight-eyed recollection, she told us of a swordmaster named Bodo Haddenwich, and made mention of the peculiar art he practiced. She named this art as “Blitzhau”, and seemed still in awe of the ease with which her vanquished comrade had performed it when wielding the man-tall Zweihänder beloved of his fencing tradition.
She seized at this, deeming herself to have spoken too much.
Nor could my husband–for of course, the women of the Grast have more in common with men than they do a well-bred lady of Tresamer, and thus it would’ve been most improper for me to speak with her, no matter my curiosity–by any entreaty, persuade her to continue.
Being of a naturally weak constitution, I fear I delayed Mayuren as well as myself in our tent the following dawn. Thus the ghost-pale warrior had disappeared before we rose. However, in mimicking the dialect of Hafensprache she used to a local housewife, I gained a clue.
This good woman took visible fright at the sharpness of the dialect, and after reclining for a time to recover her strength, she explained: “That is not the way we speak in the Steel End. That is the dialect of Stoßdär.”
The reader can surely imagine the great terror in my heart at this knowledge if they have heard of that bloodthirsty kingdom–Stoßdär, of the lockstep host and the howling blade! Stoßdär, whose emblem is a black shark in the depths of a blood ocean, and golden fire in its gaze! Indeed, I fear I fainted dead away. Mayuren was able to rouse me only by great effort, and thereupon I fainted anew!
Still, by his gentle ministrations he at last steadied me, and promise he would safeguard my maiden’s heart against that fell region’s ways.
So did we take ship. Those who have seen the Steel End or read accounts of it–those who have not may take interest in my own upcoming “The Salt Mists of the Southern Coast–will know it is foreboding and dark-cliffed, but gentle inland.
Stoßdär is otherwise.
Long before the stately southern-crafted carrack brought us into the fortress-harbor of Helenenburg, we crept between black-rock pinnacles and jagged ocean-boulders like the fangs of the Black Shark itself. The wailing storm-wind took frightful pitches as it warped among them. Lightning and towering waves dashed us about, bruising us against the gunwales and threatening to splinter our meager vessel upon the rocks.
Many times did I wonder whether the ghost-pale warrior was in truth a ghost, or loose demon, tricking us into a quest for our own deaths!
By the grace of our Ancestors, the carrack passed safely through into the harbor’s heart. Before us rose the mountainous crags of Helenenburger Tor. What mortal pen could describe the aspect of that dread citadel and its ancient casemates, and the hulks of ages broken beneath? Though I confess at times I went blind with fear, or was so stricken that incomprehension mutes my memory still, I shall try.
Rusting and rotting on the salt flatlands to either side of the channel lie the broken ships of a hundred failed invasions, thousands strong. Their ragged masses run higher and narrower inward, piled first in twos and then by threes where the Spawn of the Black Shark saw fit to cast them in the aftermath of the battles that tore their hulls open to the sea. And still all their once-haughty sprawls do not reach but halfway to the top of the black cliffs and the poison-green vines, the unholy tropical ferns and fang-trunked trees that stand sentinel atop them.
The Tor sits athwart the split in the entry channel where water-lilies as large as a fishing boat stir to the lashing tales of the black sharks that inspire the flag.
One enormous brute drew alongside a local ship near us–and the crew laughed, and petted its upthrust snout!
Nor did our arrival in the ports quell my fear, so that I clung tightly to Mayuren all the while. For the architecture of Stoßdär’s capital is thus: half is of hollowing the innards of the archean black stone into austere corridors without altering the overgrown rock outside. The other half is that nightmare style of steeples, buttresses, and recessed walls known as Gothic–itself a word ill-omened, for no Cannoan scholar can trace its origins.
The bright colors of signs, flags, of hangings and the garments of the people are doubly garish for this.
Not four minutes after landing I saw a Wrath-Hewer for the first time–and I shall not blame the reader if they accuse me of deceit, for I must avow she was a young woman shorter even than I challenging a giant of a man in the street! Of course, I fainted when they drew steel.
This was fortunate, for it would have been most improper for a lady of Tresamer to witness what my darling Mayuren tells me transpired immediately thereafter.
His masculine word is, of course, beyond impugning, and so I may relate what he saw without fear of breaking taboo.
The girl, red-haired, sun-kissed in the florid slashed doublet and breeches beloved of the Black Havens, drew forth the straight long blade with its twin wicked edges. Though the clouds hid the sun, Mayuren promises that its polish was immaculate enough it flashed nonetheless.
The giant of a man she challenged drew forth his own, nor did he hesitate from the monstrous act of striking at a woman–though whether ’tis fit to call this Wrath Hewer a woman as though she were of Tresamer, I shiver to ponder.
In any case, it ended in the first move.
No sooner did the giant step in for his stroke than the Wrath-Hewer stepped in as well, and by the evil speed of her thrust at once interpose the cross-guard of her sword against his downward slash and skewer him through the gullet and into the brain upon the blade’s point!
Mayuren, who is much esteemed in the fencer’s art, tells me this nightmare mode of combat is revered in Stoßdär: not a civil parry and counterstroke, but a mad gambit of attacking into the attack and trusting that the geometry of the stroke shall serve to shield as well as slay.
Suffice to say, dear reader, I am much gladdened I was insensate.
By the time I woke, the Wrath-Hewer had cleaned her blade and replaced it. Here Mayuren and I were forced to navigate a most unsavory concern: which of us was fit to speak to this woman? As a warrior, it would seem only right that it be Mayuren. Yet as she was a member of the weaker sex unchaperoned and unfamiliar to either of us, surely it should be I?
We resolved this by the comforting rule that a wife should stay in her husband’s keeping whenever possible.
Thus reconciling ourselves with our Ancestors by electing to approach her jointly, I avoided one grave error only to commit another.
I fear it was a woman’s indiscretion which imperiled us, for I immediately asked, “Excuse me, young lady, but might I ask you of Blitzhau?”
The reader must surely have heard that the Wrath-Hewers are infamously protective of their ancestral sword-arts. So swift that she seemed to have changed postures by teleportation rather than muscular impulse, this slayeress fell to a crouch with her blade half-drawn.
“Tresarischer ausländer,” said she, “the Hews are not for sale in the street. If either of you have something of the true steel, seek a Fechtschule. Talk to its Meister. Learn with honor.”
After some breaths, she sheathed her weapon and departed. Thus we evaded death.
After Mayuren chastised me well for my airheaded clumsiness, and he made inquiries of which I as a woman necessarily took no part, we arrived at a Fechtschule–that is, a fencing school–that once knew as its Meister none other than Bodo Haddenwich! It transpired that the new Meister was a tall woman of scarified brown skin and eyes of a most incisive ice-blue, so muscular that there must have been something of sorcery in it. She named herself as Traudl von Brundingen, the star pupil of the late Bodo.
Here, fortune shone.
The lady Traudl, for in Stoßdär it is considered a mark of high honor rather than an abject disgrace for a woman even as high as a princess of the royal family to be a Wrath-Hewer, was grateful to learn her Meister’s fate with surety. Thus, she offered a boon. In Stoßdär there is a most barbaric custom called simply “measure fencing”, for it is said to show the measure of those who do it. In this, bound in heavy clothes so as to limit the vulnerability of the vital organs, the duelists stand in reach of each other.
Armed with narrow razor-edged swords, they hack away at each other with the purpose of inflicting grievous wounds on the face, which save for the eyes–protected by goggles of sturdy leather and clear-crystal lenses–is left exposed. The purpose of this evil assault is not victory or defeat, but to harden the spirit–to make the will iron.
I must beg the reader’s forgiveness. I should properly have hid away rather than see such a vile thing. Yet such was my fear for Mayuren that I could not bear to leave his presence. In any case our Ancestors punished me, for after long minutes marked by panting breath, the ring of steel, and the angry bloom of blood on my poor, brave husband’s cheeks far more than those of his foe–finally the countess struck with terrific force.
So awful was the clash that both her blade and Mayuren’s shattered, and some of the shards soared far across the room and gouged my cheeks where I stood. The scars they left are little less awful than those Mayuren took that day. I bear them with all due shame and penance. Traudl expressed remorse over this and promised to have the offending smith punished for the shoddy work, though in truth it was the will of our Ancestors rather than the strength of the blades.
In any case, she declared Mayuren worthy of her teachings.
Thus, after many trials, she collected her own enormous sword-of-war from the far wall and hung it from her waist. She inquired if I had a kerchief whose loss I should not mind. Though terrified to speak, I told her I did, and she asked that I throw it towards her.
No sooner did I oblige than it seemed as though the air itself were split wide open, and my poor kerchief with it!
By some mastery outside the comprehension of a meek and proper woman like myself, the countess von Brundingen drew her blade and cut with it in the same move! It was of course necessary that Mayuren explain to me the full awe of the movement–for though a mountainous creature of seven feet in height, Traudl was not taller than her great wavy-bladed sword was long. The reach of her mighty arms was no more an advantage in drawing the behemoth at her side than a shorter warrior would have found his own arms in drawing the smaller greatsword, or longsword, at his own.
Nor indeed was Traudl worried when I confessed that I desired to know of Blitzhau so that I might write of it. “You should have clarified to any Wrath-Hewer that you wished simply to know what it was, and not how it was done,” she laughed. “The first knowledge is cheap!” In truth, she avowed that if we paced longer about Helenenburg’s striped-brick streets, we would soon have seen it–doubtless when some hapless person thought to rob the wrong swordbearer, and was cut down in a blink!
For that is the purpose of Blitzhau: it is the art of freeing the longsword or zweihänder from its scabbard and delivering a one-handed slash in sudden attack or self-defense. This is the source of its very name, which in the tongue of the Black Havens means “Lightning Hew.” Nor could I dare to expose its secrets even if I wished to betray the trust of the countess, for I must admit that even with Mayuren’s wisdom it is most outside my cognition.
To teach all the clever rotations of arm, wrist, and joints, the flexings of the fingers–I could never.
And the Meisters who teach this art often disagree! Some, the lady von Brundingen told us, say the sword should be drawn with gentle pressure against its flats. Others that this is poor skill, and a true Wrath-Hewer can draw towards one edge without cleaving through the scabbard–the surer thereby to meld the motion of the draw with the motion of the coming strike, to greater speed and murderous effect.
The countess shortly delivered us another shock, and I was soon to have yet another fainting spell, for when she sheathed her weapon she did it by sliding its flat over her left hand’s web around the scabbard, and so guided it home without looking down at it.
The reader surely has not forgotten that many of the blades of Stoßdär are double-edged as well as razor sharp, and the same was true of the lady’s. Further more its undulating blade, that which is called the flamberge or flammenschwert style, made its slide unpredictable. Scarcely had Mayuren thought to ask the countess von Brundingen how she managed the last, narrowest, and sharpest portion of the blade without nicking her left forefinger and thumb when red lines swelled.
“I don’t!” she laughed, and again I fainted.
While in the process of again resuscitating me, Mayuren learned that this is a mark of pride for many who practice the Lightning Hew: that they know the sword shall bite their flesh in the sheathing, and are able to do it fluidly and with warrior confidence regardless. They show their skill not in that they do not bleed, but that in the bleeding is always quite mild and never goes deep enough to endanger the very tendons and finger-veins essential to wielding the two-handed sword to its fullest.
As to what clever adjustments in the scabbard-belt, what scabbard-hinges or loops and myriad other contraptions the Wrath-Hewers use to surpass the limited reach of their arms and draw great blades such as the lady von Brundingen’s from the hip–I understood naught that Mayuren related.
So at last we learned the mysterious art. Of course we were forestalled from a swift return to Tresamer by the sudden rise of that evil empress known as the Scourge of the Shards. It is only now that we return that I can muster the courage to write of this, and many other things.
So we lingered in that realm of black cliffs, and spent many nights tracing the fall of ash-flakes from the eruptions which forever stain the night-distance of Stoßdär the same red as the blood which falls on its streets–blood shed, often, by the fearsome art of the Lightning Hew.