It was another sleepless night. Elemir was on watch, standing in the doorway of the barn, and Darrien and Radolf both were snoring, but Lady Shadryn had been silent since supper, and now she rose from her bedroll and sat with her back to a stall door, her eyes heavy with worry. I had seen many moods cross those eyes, but not this one. I watched a moment, then rose and cautiously approached. “What troubles you, my Lady?” I asked.
She was silent a few moments, considering her answer. “I suppose that, after what you said earlier, it all has become real.” When I tilted my head in incomprehension, she explained. “Until now, I have known,” she touched between her eyes, “that this journey was full of peril, the danger of the wild lands, the threat of the Corsairs. I have known this, but I haven’t felt it.” Here, she touched over her heart. “My feelings have been ire, at all the inconveniences and discomforts. Or I have thought of the journey as if it were already over and a story I could tell to my friends on my return, of all the frightening turns, the triumphs, the discoveries of far lands, the adventure and derring-do, the rigors of the road. It would be quite a tale, would it not? And that is how I have felt it, as if I were hearing the tale, or writing it. But when I heard you speak of the Dunlendings, of what lies ahead, tomorrow… for the first time, I’ve felt that this is real. That on the morrow, you may have to lay down your life for me, that your family may have to mourn you for me. And that, soon after, without you to protect me, I may be the next to fall. That my cousin may grow old never seeing me again, never even knowing where my bones lie. That my body may molder on some forgotten hill, picked over by vultures, the Prince laughing to himself that I deserved it.” She was trying to hold her courage in place, but I could see fearful tears forming in her eyes. “That these are all real things, even probable things. How foolish I feel to have spent days weeping for the loss of a few worthless books.”
“There is nothing worthless in books, my lady; many of my days have been spent with them and most happily,” I said, trying to be comforting, and that did indeed elicit a smile, but a short-lived one. “I am sorry that you have had to come to this realization, but glad that you have come to it today, not tomorrow.”
“And now I feel like a burden,” she continued. “Here are four men, good men of Gondor’s army, putting their lives at risk, enduring every discomfort I am, being away from home just as long and just as far, just to protect me. But what am I enduring it for? Who am I protecting? I cannot even protect myself.”
I had no answer to that. I considered arguing that the Steward had sent her away to protect Gondor, that in enduring this journey she was serving her homeland, but some instinct told me this would not satisfy her. After a moment, I turned and walked back to the horses, and drew a dagger, with its sheath, from the bags, then returned to her and held it out to her. She stared at it as if I were offering her a fish covered in ants, so I explained. “A knife is no match for a warrior with a sword, but it is enough to protect yourself, and easily learned. Here, take the handle this way.”
At first, she was reluctant to even touch the knife, but once it was in her hand, and she’d been shown the proper way to hold it and how to move her wrist, she seemed almost eager. There is something compelling about the heft of a well-balanced blade in the hand, and the effort of learning helped to distract her from her worry, without hiding from it — instead, it made her feel she was doing something about it, taking control over it.
“Try to stab me,” I told her, but she shook her head. “No, I mean it, my Lady, try to stab me.” She refused, too confident that she might manage it, so I had to suggest she sheath the knife and then try to stab me. It was an empty gesture; if she had somehow managed to get the point of the blade at my chest inside the sheath, it was likely the slim leather of the scabbard would offer little protection, but it appeased her. She lunged clumsily at me, and then drew up in puzzlement, finding herself with no knife and me behind her. I patiently explained what had happened and we tried again. Eventually I allowed her to make contact; I could still easily have avoided the blow, but I judged that making her feel confident was at least as important as making her capable, and probably more so, since the most effective use of a blade is always in making the enemy choose not to attack.
For an hour, we danced with blades. I showed her how to watch a man’s midsection to see which way he was about to move before he began moving, how to duck under a blow, how to use a man’s size against him to topple him. I demonstrated, with some help from Elemir, tricks to knock a blade out of a man’s hand. I showed the spot under the edge of a shirt of maille where a small knife can be worked up and under, causing a debilitatingly painful, or even fatal, wound. But mostly I showed her, without making it clear that I was, how to hold the knife so that a man skilled in warfare would believe she knew what to do with it, so he might choose not to approach. A man threatening a woman, particularly a lovely and delicate woman, might be intending to simply overpower her to have his way with her; but if the woman were holding a knife, looking like she’s had blood on her hands before, such a man would likely seek easier prey.
I was feeling quite pleased with her progress, and her enthusiasm, as the night slipped away. She was tending to lunge forward too hard, unbalancing herself, even though I’d explained how little force a sharp blade needed to draw blood and pain, but I’d struggled to find a way to express to her how to keep her balance better. I set up a pile of hay and then stepped behind her, putting my arms around to either side to guide her arms, and urged her to stab at the hay, and this time I pressed against her back and kept one hand on her stomach, the other on her arm, to guide her. The dagger sank into the hay, while her feet stayed firmly planted, and I exclaimed, pleased, “See how much better that worked? Let’s try it again.” But as I stepped away to get the hay back into place, I noticed something had abruptly changed. She was staring at me, and the knife, with an unreadable but clearly unhappy look on her face. I stopped, dumbfounded. “What’s wrong, my Lady?” I asked, turning the knife to offer the hilt to her.
She took it, then curtly, her voice like an icy wind from the mountain peaks, she said, “That’s enough, Captain.” She hadn’t used that title the whole evening, or indeed, I realized, for some days, having instead fallen into the habit of calling me by name. She slipped the dagger into the scabbard, correctly and carefully, I was pleased to see, then turned back to her bedroll, and without another word, she curled up facing away from me and steadfastly ignored me, and everything else in the barn for the rest of the night.
I stood in puzzlement for a time, and glanced questioningly at Elemir, but he only shrugged as if to say he had no idea either. After a few attempts to inquire if all was well with her, all of which were rebuffed with silence or only a grunt, I returned to my bedroll and sat in silence, trying to puzzle out the mystery. What had I done? What had changed so abruptly? It was a mystery whose lock was beyond my abilities to open, and I got little rest that night.