Rhodes: Writing about Sieges (Pen and Sword tour Part 1)


IMG_9051Today I was in the mines beneath the walls of Rhodes; I walked along the ditch where you can see where cannon and other artillery have knocked holes in the masonry, and I looked out over the glacis to where the Turkish trenches were; to where Demetrios the Besieger sat in the fourth century BCE. Rhodes has endured quite a few sieges, and the evidence is all around; from catapult rounds pre-weighed and marked in Mina and Talents, to the pock marks of harquebus fire where someone tried, and apparently failed, to storm a gate.


Sieges may seem dull. In the imagination, a siege represents days or weeks of boredom, slaves and lowly soldiers digging in the burning sun, or waiting to starve out a powerful enemy, or perhaps waiting for disease to do its work.  But the walls and tunnels of Rhodes show a different story, of determined, daily resistance and equally determined attackers; daily raids and counter-raids much like WWI trench raids; a handful of knights and their men-at-arms emerging, perhaps, from tunnels to try and hit a Turkish battery, an elite assault group of Janissaries or Spahis creeping along the ditch to attempt to surprise an outpost. A deadly, endless form of warfare, with no quarter asked or given; probably mostly fought at night.


And let us not forget fighting in mines… the purpose of mining was to undermine (it’s all in the word) a weak section of wall, a good way to cause a breech, even in modern times. Once gunpowder was invented, a mine could be filled with powder.


The defenders could always counter-mine, using primitive sounding tools to locate the wound of the enemy sap and attack it underground by tunneling.  And that’s what we see under the walls of Rhodes, I think, the old tunnels wandering off in odd directions were once Turkish and Hospitaller saps, later redug and transformed into underground sally ports. If this theory is correct, these tunnels can tell us a great deal about what mine warfare was like in the Middle Ages. If you are reading this and you know something about the tunnels under the walls of Rhodes, feel free to email me; I know they were there in the 1850’s and they look original to me, but I’d be happy to hear more.

Assuming they are what they appear to be, complete with shafts to the surface and oil-lamp sconces built into the walls, they are perhaps unique in the world. I could write a book….

Fall of Dragons Publication Day


The Fall of Dragons Cover

It’s launch day, at least in the UK.

I started writing these novels in 2012.  I think there’s at least 2400 pages of material, and I could write more.  It’s odd to say goodbye.

However, I want to take this space to discuss origins and books I loved, not endings.  Who knows, maybe Gollanz will eventually want more.  I certainly hope so… a great deal of effort went into world development, both thirty years ago and right up until a few days ago… but that’s another story.

Today’s story is the origins story, with a few tiny spoilers. Really, it’s a social history, or an historiography, with lots of thanks.

Alba started as an RPG.  There were between nine and twenty players, and we always had a heavy element of war gaming involved, so there was an RPG level, a political level, and a military level, and the three were not always the same players.

I happened to be the nerdy president of the Simulation Gaming Association.  (The war games club).  We shared an office with the other campus pariahs (we called ourselves the Pariah Alliance)(NB not to us, but, hard as this may seem to believe, being Gay was a huge deal in 1982) the Gay and Lesbian Association (GLA) and the Drama Club. Nerds, Dramies, and LGBTQ.  All in one office.  A considerable crossover of people…

It was fantastic for my game.  Sure, we started with a bunch of pudgy undergraduates, but by the end of the first year, RPGs had caught on with the two clubs with which we shared the office, and the Alba universe took on a wider scope.  Frankly, some people from the Drama club and the GLA massively upped our role-playing level.  And we had visiting GMs, who included my friend and mentor Celia Friedman, better known to you as C.S. Friedman the SFF writer, and Doug Snyder, one of the best GMs I’ve ever known and a man who sometimes wrote modules for GenCon.  We migrated from AD+D to ICE and eventually Chivalry and Sorcery, and as many of the core gamers were studying Medieval History (and Classics) we gradually discarded other systems and designed our own, like people everywhere.

The story of how our office came to dominate the financial and social life of the campus shall remain for another time.  Suffice it to say that war games conventions, SFF conventions, and dances run by the GLA were the top moneymakers in the Student Association…. and when we had all the money… No, no one was injured.  We owned a lot of miniatures, though.

But I digress…  About three years in, Alba had a depth to it unlike almost any RPG I’ve ever played.  By then, we had about 60 players, some occasional, some always there; I remember well the night that three sorority women showed up to play… causing nerdy gamers to lose their ability to focus…ahh, university. Did I mention that I managed the Student Union?  We always had great rooms in which to play.  Aesthetics matter.

So, back to Red Knight and onward.  It didn’t all happen that way.  That is, you are not reading a compilation of events that unfolded, like history or news reportage.  On the other hand, many characters, from Sauce to Gabriel’s mother to Desiderata, represent the role-playing efforts of real people.  I gather that most readers feel there are far too many characters, but honestly, who was I supposed to leave out? Oak Pew? Father Arnaud?

I have always loved big stories.  When I began to put Alba together, my favorite series were 1) The Lymond Chronicles by Dorothy Dunnett, probably the best HisFic writer of our time, and 2) the Lord of the Rings, with 3) The Deryni Chronicles in a close-run.  Katherine Kurtz (who founded the SCA and represents the William Morris approach to Fantasy, at least to me) does not, I feel, receive enough credit.  Her world was beautifully crafted.  Yes, it was mostly Medieval England.  And Christianity functioned, for good and ill, a choice I chose to share, and I suspect for the same reasons; without Christianity and all its warts and magnificence and weird – arsed Saints and all that baggage, you can’t have the Middle Ages.  You can have sometime completely different, but my Alba was an alternate Arthurian world… and it still is.  In case you didn’t see that coming.

Yeah.  The King, never named, is Arthur.  Desiderata is Guinevere.  De Vrailly is Lancelot.  Gabriel is Mordred.  (Gabriel was, in fact, Mordred’s name int he early cycles, and Mordred was one of the heroes, not a villain). Gawain is… Gawain.  My favorite character. So sue me.  This really shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it seemed fitting to just lay it out at the end.

Later, Alba was modified by other books; Glen Cook’s ‘The Black Company’ and Steven Donaldson and perhaps most of all, the magic system, which was pretty much defined for me by the books I was reading on Hermeticism for classes but beautifully brought out in Ursula LeGuin‘s Wizard of Earthsea, still, maybe, the best novel I’ve ever read. But I was also influenced by the Riddle-Master of Hed, by Jerry Pournelle‘s novel ‘Janissaries’ (bit of a spoiler there) and, overall and most of all, by all the history I was reading; Froissart, and the Chronicon, and charter roles, and books on knights, real ones like Geoffrey de Charny and Sir John Chandos and Sir John Hawkwood. Look them up. Dick Kaeuper and Perez Zagorin ( the professor who, as a life-long socialist and anti-McArthyist, told me ‘If people like you don’t join the military, then it is just people like them’) and a few other professors gave me History. It’s the best story ever.  It is far wider and deeper than fantasy.  In it is the whole story of the human condition, and I never tire of it.

But it wasn’t all history.  I owe a special debt of gratitude to my core friends for being passionate orators about politics and philosophy. Jevon, Bob, Rob, Leslie, Kate, Janis, Doug, Doug, Ann, Joe, Regina, Bill,  Sean-Patrick, Greg and Mike Hauser, Mike Putre and Gail and Marjorie and Jim Dundorf and Rich Daprix and (More recently) Sarah and Nancy, Aurora, Chris, Chris, Cole, Len, Abby, Fil, Elisabeth, Dave, Melissa, Greg, Tasha, Sean, Marc Auger and then all the people in Italy… Simone, Maurizio, and Giuglia… anyway, perhaps more than anyone, Mark Stone, a young man getting a post-doc in Philosophy and philosophy of science.  Mark, and his ally in philosophical crime, Doug Snyder, were relentless is asking ‘why’ about RPG cosmology; why are there gods? More recently, Rajiv Kaushik, professor of Philosophy, and Matt McIntosh have filled the same role.

Who made the Gods?  Who made the universe? Is it a multiverse? Why does magic function?  What role is there for science?  How do societies develop? How does economics function?  How do people study? How does learning work? Who gets to be ‘better’?

Where does the gold/fur/silk/gunpowder come from?

Is there good?/Evil?

Can we defeat evil? Militarily?

Well, here we are, at the end of all things. Mostly, I want to say, THANK YOU to the teachers, writers, books and friends (apologies to anyone whose name was missed!!!) that made the Traitorson books. It’s been fun.  Come by and tell me if you want more.

Oh, by the way, tonight at 7PM EST I’m doing an online launch with Nicholar Kotar.  You can find it here. Ask me anything about the Traitorson series, or really, anything else.



Writing and Fighting: WMAW 2017


That’s me with two excellent squires, the banner of our Compagnia, and my friend and master fencer Sean Hayes. And you cannot have an armoured deed without squires and other support crew, who get to work and sweat so you can look great and fight in armour. Thanks Adam and Jess and Kat! And to Adam’s left are two young men just beginning to learn about Armizare, age 14…

This is a blog about fighting; about teaching martial arts; about admitting when you are wrong, and most of all, about how well-run and fascinating WMAW is.

But first, if you are, say a fantasy or HisFic fan and not a sword person, you may well ask ‘What is WMAW?’  The short answer is ‘The ‘Western Martial Arts Workshop.’  It is an interesting title which might just conjure images of a lot of white nationalists practicing for Hitler’s second coming, so let me immediately note that the word ‘Western’ here has a slightly different history, and we’re really talking about ‘Not-so-much Eastern’ martial arts, and let me add further, most of the attendees have or will practice ‘Eastern’ martial arts as well.  This year we had Ethiopian, Spanish, Italian, German, American and Persian martial arts demonstrated and taught. Most of the concentration is on the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In two years I’ll be an instructor teaching what we can know (and can’t) about Ancient Greek martial arts.

Right.  Anyway!

WMAW is where most of the instructors and senior students in the historical martial arts movement (and some lucky beginners) go to learn and teach and hit each other with swords (or spears, knives, cudgels, sticks, fists, or throws. Also pole axes, pikes, partisans, and probably pretzels.) The event happens every two years in Racine Wisconsin.  It includes a large and very well run armoured deed of arms.  More on that later.

Historical martial arts have a gamut of practitioners and instructors, and they do not all seek the same goals, as I have said before in this column…  That’s fine! WMAW brings many of them together to share knowledge and to share their points of view. It is incredibly useful to here from other people who have points of view radically different from your own.  Perhaps this might be applied outside of swordsmanship… but I won’t get preachy. (Oh, but I will.)

As a veteran swordsman, one of the things I value most about events like WMAW (and it is, for my money, the best of its kind, at least in North America) is that it allows me to experience the teaching of other instructors AND to fence/fight with them and their students.  (A small digression.  I learned at age 13, in good old Olympic foil, that it was actually immaterial whether an instructor could beat me in a bout. By 16 or 17, I could beat many of my coaches. And…they still knew all kinds of things I did not know, although I confess it wasn’t always apparent to me! Because I was 17)

Despite this, I DO find it useful to actually test other instructors a little.  All of us create ‘Glass Houses.’  All of us, left to ourselves with our own sword school, develop theories based on the manuscripts and our own experience; we develop them with our students.  And… sometimes, they are just wrong. Sometimes this development is a closed loop. Only active combat with a peer who is not ‘one of us’ can reveal the flaws in our thinking and our teaching.


A nice period illustration of a garde

Sadly, the example I will use here is me. It’s Christian’s glass house, and the subject is the arming sword/side sword style of Marozzo, an early 16th c. Italian master.  I did not consider myself (thank God) an expert on Marozzo, but we do touch on Marozzo in our Hoplologia curriculum, utilizing two of his assalti (plays) to touch on the fine points of Italian-style sword and buckler fighting. I would have said that I understood (pretty thoroughly, thanks) what Marozzo had to say about theory and practice… and, in my club, and even among a larger group of swordspeople, I have used the techniques as I taught them with some success…

Then I went to WMAW 2017.  There, I had the chance to cross swords with a variety of other folks who specialize in side-sword as a weapon, and who teach Marozzo.  The bout that comes to mind especially was with John O’Meara (Chicago Swordplay Guild).  He pretty much hit me at will.  Here’s the thing that will make swordspeople smile and puzzle others… we’d just fenced a different weapon to a virtual draw (small sword) so that I think we might be said to be relatively EQUAL as ‘swordsmen.’  That meant, to me, that my whole idea of Marozzo was…probably wrong. Ouch.

Put another way, as we had just discovered, to our mutual delight, that we were on roughly equal footing with another weapon, I had to assume that what was different with side sword was that he used it more effectively. I misunderstood the material.


Roberto Gotti on the left, Ton Puey on the right

Now, it was not just happenstance that throughout the WMAW curriculum I followed a ‘Marozzo’ track; I was aware of the deficiency (but not it’s scope!). So I had about twelve hours of classes with Ton Puey, of Spain, with Montante/Spadone (long two-handed sword), and with Roberto Gotti of Brescia, Italy, with Spadone, but specifically and precisely examining Marozzo’s theory and method.

The result was that in one four-day period, I was able to discover the depth of my misunderstanding, and start towards correcting it, all in one place, while having a devil of a good time.  (NB If you really want to know what I did wrong and what I learned about it, you have to go to the end of the article, because I don’t want to bore anyone).

Field-testing your historical research and your practice is at the heart of all good reenacting, and any attempt at scientific experimental archaeology.  I have no interest in competitive, highly-structured HEMA events; they are not examining the historical uses of weapons, but instead, creating a new, Olympic-style combat sport (totally fun; just not my approach). Events like WMAW allow the historical practitioner to see if all that experimentation and practice and theory has validity. Of course, the practitioner has to be prepared to admit that S/he is wrong. (Digression #2.  A few years ago, a fairly senior HEMA practitioner said ‘I don’t need to go to WMAW; no one there has anything to teach me.’ To me, this statement is roughly analogous to saying  ‘I know my fencing is weak; I choose not to test myself.)

A few posts ago, I did a blog on teaching yourself Armizare. Here’s a shocking statement; to some extent, everyone is teaching themselves.  That is, even masters of this art, people who are fully immersed in Armizare or in one of the other forms, Talhoffer, Marozzo, Carranza; long sword, Montante, side sword, sword and buckler, what have you; even the men and women who TEACH these arts are, to some extent, simultaneously teaching themselves.   The good ones also practice what they preach; they will engage in fun bouts with others; they are not adverse to showing their skill in public, so that their peers can see if what they practice actually works. Everyone should attend such events; both to learn from others, and to test what has been learned.  It is fun, and because all of us build theoretical glass houses, it’s essential to keep the quality of our fighting arts high.


Here I’m not fighting; I’m the marshal for a bout between two knights in 15th c. harness

Oh, yes, and there was an armoured deed.  So, if I’m a relative piker with Marozzo, I’ll say that I am a fairly competent armoured fighter and I actually teach the Italian form of Armizare. The armoured deed was splendid, from the initial parade to the closing fight; twenty armoured fighters in two teams, Italy vs the world. I was on team Italy.

Team Italy

And here’s the rest of the world (mostly German, but with Persian and English armoured styles as well).

Team Germany

I could not find a photo of the whole of their team. Apologies to Frank and Manouchehr and anyone else not in this photo.

Italy won. I will say no more.


The duel of the Christians; me vs Christian Tobler. A really good photo of a completely indecisive moment :

And we all had a really good time, too.  A lot of wine and beer flowed; many nice bruises were incurred; there were some fantastic demonstrations; I got invited to learn more Marozzo in Italy next year.  Did I mention the party?

Really.  WMAW.  Everyone should go.


And now the technical bit about Marozzo.

So, I’ve memorized the whole of one of his Assalti, about 39 individual actions (a cut, a parry).  And I’ve fenced the style for a couple of years.   I confessed myself puzzled by the repeated use of heavy cuts and off-line guards, which I put down to the use of heavier swords and armour for a weapon that was quickly becoming the common ‘carry’ weapon in Italian streets.

What I saw almost instantly, both in John O’Meara’s fencing and in my instructors, was a constant use of development of lines and line changes as a fundamental of the art.  Looked at in modern terms, I was trying to use what I had learned to score with first intention attacks or simple counters/ripostas.  I had, utterly incorrectly, written the side sword out of the complex second intention as too unwieldy.  (Just to reveal the depth of my misunderstanding, my ‘long sword’ fighting is a whole world of second and even third intentions, so how I came to this stunning glass house is… oh well. Apparently I thought that Marozzo the long sword teacher and Marozzo the side-sword teacher were different men…)

Looked at as a writer, I learned that the young knight from a small castle who goes off to war is likely to die from the errors of his master-at-arms; in a combat situation, isolation from mainstream practice could be as dangerous in the past as no training at all…