The Balance of the Rose - Cover

The Balance of the Rose

Copyright© 2014 by R22CoolGuy

Chapter 1

A Rose by any other Name...

The Mediterranean Coast, in the south-east of France, in the province of Savoy, near the Italian territory, 1748 (in an alternate reality).

It was a beautiful late spring day on the coast as Karith and her father strolled along the beach enjoying a rare day off from the confines and heat of the forge. Galt, Karith's father, was the village blacksmith as well as the area's swordsmith and could usually be found hammering out a piece of glowing metal in the oppressive heat from the smithy's forge. This day however he was enjoying a well earned afternoon off with his daughter on a picnic at the beach. Karith was walking along the water's edge, holding her sandals and the hem of her simple dress while digging for shells with her toes. Galt was lying on a blanket, leaning back on his elbows, watching her from their picnic site.

Karith had just turned eighteen the previous winter and would be leaving for the university in Lyon soon so Galt wanted to spend as much time with her as possible. When she had first come of age he had noticed that the village boys had started sniffing around the smithy's shop and he did not want her to fall into any harm. His greatest wish was that she should attend the university to receive a formal education, and he did not want some lovesick boy interfering with that. He should not have worried, however, since she was more interested in books, and swords for that matter, than boys. He recognized that she was truly beautiful, as beautiful as her mother, God rest her soul, and as opposite as one could be. Where Gwynith was even-tempered, Karith was fiery. She was a wisp of a girl, barely approaching five feet, but filled out her dresses well and her blonde hair that she kept to the small of her back in braids accented her crystal blue eyes.

"Yes," he sighed to himself. "She is the spitting image of her mother at that age. I will need to keep an eye on her."

The one thing that they had in common other than their appearance was their skill, nay, gift with a sword. The sword was what brought Gwynith and Galt together those many years ago. But, in the years thereafter she had lain down the art of the sword and picked up the art of healing. She said that she had seen enough of the ravages of man and wanted to help instead of hurt. He hoped that that was all they had in common. He did not even want to think about it to give his fears any credence. He would watch and take things as they came.

"Papa! Look!" Karith pointed down the beach at a shape lying in the edge of the surf. "Something has washed up onshore."

Her call brought Galt out of his silent musings and he brought his hand up to shield his eyes as he tried to scan the shoreline in the area where she pointed. When he could not make out what she was describing he stood up and approached her.

"Karith, wait there," Galt commanded as he approached his daughter, seeing the shape rolling in the surf. "It might be dangerous."

Galt slowly approached what turned out to be a naked man rolling side to side in the surf. He slowly approached and reached down to check for a pulse and found a strong steady beat under his fingertips which were pressed against the man's neck. He flinched noticing the scars of old whip marks crisscrossing the man's back.

"Karith, quickly run back and bring me the blanket," he directed his daughter. "It is a man and he is alive but not conscious."

He watched Karith nod and turn around and jog back to where their picnic was laid out. Galt reached down and gently rolled the unconscious man over and checked for wounds. He noted a nasty cut above his right eyebrow but otherwise the man looked non the worse for wear. He reached down and grasped the man behind the arms and dragged him out of the surf and up onto the beach. Karith had returned by that time and after cautioning her to shield her eyes he draped the blanket over the naked body.

"Karith, put on your sandals and run back for Master Nigel, the healer," Galt directed her. "Explain what you have found and tell him to bring the wagon from the smithy."

"Yes, Papa," Karith replied, slipping on her sandals and giving her father a quick kiss before bolting for the healer.

Galt used a corner of the blanket to wipe the blood that had started flowing again from the cut. Pressing the cloth against the wound he examined the man and checked for any identifying marks.

The man wore a black, shimmering metal ring on his right hand, the only possession that Galt could find. His hair was an odd color, not blonde but actually white, and not the white of old age which was normally thin and straggly, but more like that of an albino. His ears were unusually shaped, pointed at the top instead of rounded, and he had a slight arch to his eyebrows. He also had marks on the insides of both wrists: crossed roses on the left, and a unique design on the right, featuring a straight vertical line with one chevron near the bottom, closest to the palm, and three concentric hexagons on top. The design almost looked like a flower, possibly even a rose, to match the marks on his left. Both designs were colored even though they looked like brands. The roses were colored red and black, while the design was golden. Other than the brands, or tattoos, and the whip marks on the man's back, the only other distinguishing mark was a strange scar on the bicep of the man's left arm, a circular scar a fingertip's width across the bicep muscle.

Galt looked up at the sound of an approaching wagon and team and saw Master Nigel and Karith cresting a grassy dune. He stood up and waved his arm to pinpoint his location and waited for them to approach. Master Nigel halted the team, set the brake and hopped down from the wagon and approached his friend, grasping his arm. Galt cautioned Karith to stay up on the wagon.

"I see you have caught a big fish, Galt," Nigel smiled with a twinkle in his eye as he knelt next to the unconscious man.

"Not I, Nigel," Galt pointed to where Karith sat on the wagon. "Karith is the fisherman here."

Nigel nodded and after inspecting the man for any other injuries or bruising that might indicate internal damage, reached for his suture kit. After closing the wound with stitches, Nigel sat back on his haunches and rubbed his head looking around.

"If that cut is any indication then your fish has had a nasty blow to the head," he smiled at Galt. "He should recover from it at some point. Where do you suppose he came from?"

"No idea," Galt scratched his own scalp and looked out to sea. "Possibly thrown overboard? There are old lash marks on his back, perhaps he was taken by a press gang and had tried to make his escape."

"I do not know about that, his facial appearance is unlike any that I have seen," Nigel replied continuing to check him over. "He looks slight of build, but there is strength here in the arms and if the calluses on his hands are any indication then he has used a blade before, I think. The ring is odd too, I have to really concentrate on it or it looks blurry. Very strange, I would be careful with this one."

"Yes, I was thinking the very same thing," Galt replied, deep in thought.

"What are you going to do?" Nigel looked back at Karith.

"I do not know," Galt shook his head. "I have that old apprentice room off of the smithy that I have been using for storage. I guess I could clean it out and pot a cot and chamber pot in there. You say he will recover?"

"The signs are all good that he will," Nigel nodded.

"Alright then, help me load him in the wagon?" Galt asked.

Galt walked over to the wagon to drop the tailgate and then he and Nigel picked up the unconscious man and placed him in the bed. Closing up the wagon again they made straight for Galt's shop where they spent the remainder of the afternoon cleaning out the unused apprentice quarters, making it livable again. They dressed the man in a nightshirt and laid him in the bed.

"Galt, keep a watchful eye, if that wound begins to seep or turn ugly give me a call," Nigel instructed them. "If he becomes hot with fever use a cool compress and send Karith for me right away. Other than that, you should be fine."

"Nigel, I thank you for helping the stranger," Galt grasped his arm again. "Stay for supper, Karith is cooking stew."

Nigel enjoyed the evening and the meal with Galt and Karith and after reminding them to call if the stranger's condition worsened he returned to his home. Galt checked on the stranger one more time and then closed up the smithy and retired for the evening.

The next morning was a busy one and Galt had only had time to check on the stranger once before lunch. Karith had taken on the task as nurse to the unconscious man while Galt tended to his work. He only had to remind her once to return to her studies in the afternoon. By the time he had closed up shop Karith had dinner ready and decided to broach the subject of the stranger.

"Papa, would it be alright if I move my studies into the stranger's room so that I might watch over him while I work?" she asked, tentatively.

"Perhaps, would you promise to do more work than watching?" He looked back at her intently. "I do not want your studies to suffer from lack of attention. You do want to go to Lyon and the university?"

"Yes, Papa, you know that I do," Karith nodded. "I will not neglect my studies. It is just that I want to be available if he should need me. There is something about him that calls out to me. I cannot really explain it any better."

That last statement caused Galt to stop and stare with apprehension. He finally sighed and gave her permission to move her books and things into the apprentice's quarters where she could keep a watch on the unconscious man and not have it interfere with her studies.

The following day was more of the same for Galt; heavy work in the morning, repairing wagons, hoes and a plow or two. It was late in the afternoon that Galt had an unexpected visitor. The nephew of the Comté di Savoy had heard of Galt's swordmaking skill and had come to commission a sword.

In a previous life, before the death of his wife, Galt had been an apprentice to one of the premier swordsmiths in Toledo, Spain. After receiving his journeyman status he was posted to Barcelona at the forge of an aging swordsmith. He completed his studies there, receiving his master designation and, later, the shop when the aging master retired. He met Karith's mother, married, and began to raise a family, when 'The Plague' changed everything. He left Barcelona and that life after the disease took his wife, an exceptional healer who had succumbed to the same disease that she had been treating. Galt had fled the Black Death with his young daughter making his way northeast to the coast and this small village across the border from Italy, far from the ravages of that fell disease. A master swordsmith was in less demand far from the nobility of larger cities but a blacksmith was not and there was a village without a resident blacksmith. While a good blacksmith was not necessarily a good swordsmith, a good swordsmith could make an excellent blacksmith and thus began Galt's second life.

The Comté's nephew, with instructor and several other retinues in tow had descended on Galt's smithy looking to purchase a custom sword. They came with a design already in mind and finely drawn out on parchment. Galt looked it over, finding no fault with the blade or the design of the pommel. He quoted them a price and after a brief negotiation the two groups came to a mutual agreeable contract. After Galt quoted an acceptable timeframe for the undertaking, the nephew and group left. Galt quickly and securing closed up his shop for the night and then sat back and pondered the undertaking.

Toledo swordsmiths were renowned for the quality of their blades and many lesser swordsmiths had tried to copy them. The procedure was a closely guarded secret that was not revealed until the smith earned his master's patent. The exact recipe for the steel, the liquid used for quenching, the process of heating and pounding and heating again, all were guarded by the smiths known as Toledo Master Swordsmiths. The most highly guarded secret was the fire itself; legend had it that the first swordsmith had received it from the Gods themselves and the fire was nurtured and passed down from master to master like bread starter for bakers.

Galt had left most of his material possessions behind when they had fled Barcelona. They literally left with the clothes on their backs. A few keepsakes and other small family heirlooms were the bulk of their personal effects. The one thing that was not left behind were the bars of steel that were used in the forging of blades. He was able to load the wagon with a considerable amount of pure Toledo sword blanks. He also brought with them a portion of the living flame handed down from swordsmith to swordsmith.

When he moved into the unoccupied smithy he had built a smaller single purpose forge to be used only when creating masterpieces. Within that forge he tended the flame of the Toledo swordsmiths. His plan was to work on the sword in the evenings after his regular daily work was complete.

The undertaking of a sword was akin to a religious ceremony for the Toledo Masters and everything was done in ritualistic fashion, from the clothes he wore to the purity of the area, to the precise beat of the hammer against the metal. Signore Tomas di Savoy's sword would be no exception.

Completing the preliminary steps, Galt locked the small room where the sword forge was and announced to Karith that he was done for the evening. After checking on the still unconscious stranger, she followed her father into their home and began the preparations for dinner.

The shift from unconsciousness to sleep was accomplished with little fanfare. One moment the stranger was laying on his back with no observable movement and the next a subtle movement of his leg marked the transition. The next indicator was the change in rhythm of his breathing and then a twitch of the finger. Consciousness was not far away.

The next morning found Karith sitting in the stranger's room, she thought of the room that way now, working on geography when a murmur from the bed caught her attention. She looked over to the unconscious man and noticed his arm was in a different position, and there, the leg moved!

"Papa!" Karith called out while getting up and rushing to the door. "Papa, he moved. His leg moved!"

Galt set down the plowshare that he was working on and hurried over to the doorway where Karith stood pointing. He looked in and saw that in fact the stranger had moved in his unconscious state, well maybe not so unconscious anymore. He watched as the man's eyes flickered open and saw the minute movement of his head. What strange eye color; emerald green with flecks of gold and the pupils, not round but more the shape of a cat. Add the eye color and shape to the hair color, eyebrow arch, and point of the ears, and this stranger was extremely unusual looking. Not any nationality that Galt knew of.

Karith rushed over to his bedside with a glass of water.

"How are you feeling?" she smiled down at him.

The stranger furrowed his brows in confusion and continued blinking at Karith. The words were foreign to him, the speech unknown but he thought he might have understood her.

"Karith, give him a moment," Galt cautioned moving toward the bed. "He just woke up and is probably disoriented."

Galt watched the man look over toward him and track his movements with his eyes. The stranger continued to watch him warily as his hand slowly crept to his hip, only to find nothing there. Galt saw something in those strange eyes that caused a momentary shiver. The stranger reminded him of a cornered asp, ready to strike if anyone approached too close. There was death in those eyes!

"Relax, you are safe here," Galt opened up his hands in a non-threatening gesture. "We found you on the beach unconscious. You have been that way for several days now. Do you understand what I am saying?"

The stranger looked at Karith and then at Galt before sighing and slowly nodding his head in the affirmative. Finally the words held meaning to him, he was still disorientated but at least he understood what they were saying.

"Would you like some water?" Karith asked again.

The stranger deliberately closed his eyes and squeezed them tightly shut before opening them and sighing again when the scenery did not change. He hoped that this was all a dream and if he squeezed his eyes tight and then reopened them he would know where he was but it was not to be. The girl asked him a question so he looked at her and nodded. She seemed familiar to him and yet he was sure they had never met. Now how did he know that? Another quick shake of the head and he reached out to take the glass and stopped when he noticed the crossed rose brand on the inside of the wrist. He turned his wrist back and forth while furrowing his eyebrows in concentration. Those marks meant something but what he did not know. Sighing once more, he reached for the glass and brought it to his mouth and sipped the water.

"Do you know where you are?" Galt asked, watching his reactions.

The stranger shook his head in the negative, handed the glass back to Karith, and then closed his eyes. He felt tired and dizzy; closing his eyes stopped the room from spinning. He felt his consciousness begin to slip, and being too tired to fight it he let it and slipped into unconsciousness, again.

"We will let you be so you can rest," Galt backed away toward the door. "Karith, return to your studies, let him sleep."

The next time the stranger woke it was already dark outside and the young woman that had been watching over him was gone. This return to consciousness was stronger and marked a significant improvement in his overall health. He felt stronger and more in touch with his surroundings, as he lay there for several moments getting his bearings and trying to orient himself. The biggest change was that the room no longer spun and he did not feel like heaving the meager contents of his stomach everywhere. Finally feeling ready he slowly moved his legs off of the cot and tried to sit up. Fighting off the wave of nausea and dizziness, he fought to stay upright and finally succeeded. The dizziness was not completely gone but definitely more controllable. The next step was the hardest so far, as he slowly tried to stand. Using the cot as a crutch to help maintain his balance he slowly worked himself over to the wall and use it to get completely vertical. Upright now, albeit on shaky legs that threatened to give out at any moment, he released the wall and centered himself as he stood unaided. Taking slow, deep breaths to keep the dizziness at bay he put one foot forward and promptly dropped like a ton of bricks.

The only good thing that came out of the fall was that his body naturally moved on its own to lessen the impact and he completed a somersault, ending up in a kneeling position. Waves of nausea washed over him, threatening to push him over the edge of unconsciousness. He fought the feeling with every portion of his weakened will until finally pushing the feeling down. When he felt ready, he slowly rose from kneeling to standing, his legs more firmly under him then the time before. Once again he centered himself and put one foot out and shifted his balance forward.

The first shaky step led to another, and then another, until eventually he was slowly walking around the room gaining strength and balance. When he was able to move about with no loss of balance he began to move his arms about to check his balance, which was steadily improving. He improved to the point where he could flail his arms about and swing his legs around as he walked without missing a step. He returned to the cot and sat down.

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