As he had for the last year, Hndred chopped wood and built fences and cleaned the stables for old Bakken the innskeeper. The young man worked a month before he’d earned enough credit to pay for an evening in the The Broken Beast. He left his field at sunset, walked three miles on the darkening road to the inn where he put in hours by moonlight or starlight. The month finished, Bakken, a short, burly figure whose dark, curly hair receded at his forehead, tallied Hndred’s time, double-checking his figures, before saying, “You have been helpful once again. My inn is open to you when you return. It’s good your appetite does not match your size, or a month labor wouldn’t be enough to feed you.”
The next day, Hndred laid out the guardsman tunic that had been his father’s prize possession from his days before he became a farmer, and the fine pants of brushed wool. He quit the field early, washed, dressed, his father’s jacket tight across his shoulders—for the son had outgrown the father--and then set out for the Broken Beast, a hand barrow before him, filled with fresh produce for the inn’s kitchen, and hiding a leather-wrapped parcel beneath. Hndred walked despite rumor of Bandihai raiding parties from the north, who waylaid travelers on the road. They had grown much worse of late, men wearing green leathers, carrying double-edged knives and cruel curved swords. Hndred heard they’d sacked Talfer on the Yent, a village a half-day’s walk up the harbor road. They’d emptied its treasury and burned the mill.
Hndred arrived before the evening trade, took a stool and table near the fire, ate the dinner Bakken’s kitchen had prepared, which, no matter what, tasted better than any meal Hndred prepared for himself. Tonight Bakken filled him with roasted hare, pepper-seasoned and covered with savory gravy. Hndred mopped his plate clean with a hunk of rough bread, then ordered a mug of Bakken’s mead. He drank slowly while waiting for the inn to fill.
The Broken Beast sat near the junction of three roads, one which led to the harbor on the distant sea, one from the forests and fields of the western plain, and the third, the long road that traders and travellers from the south used. They met at the Broken Beast and fed into the King’s Way, a hard day’s travel to King’s Keep and the royal city. Wondrous wanderers came to the Broken Beast, nobles and merchants, mercenaries and knights errant. They took meals and rest in Bakken’s place, bringing report of their journeys and tales of the heroic past. Hndred sat on his stool to listen, to ask questions when invited, to join in the singing when song broke out. Tonight, though, Hndred thought about his hidden parcel in the barrow out back, and wished to hear about swords.
Two years ago, a week after his father died, leaving him the farm, Hnrdred plowed the field, readying it for the spring planting. He plodded thoughtlessly behind the ox, holding the plow steady, stopping only to toss aside rocks he turned up. Grief fogged his thoughts. Only Hndred and father survived the sickness in the winter that killed his mother, sister and two brothers. Now, Hndred was alone. The plow bumped over another obstruction. Hndred lay it down, dug out a rock half as big as his head, and cast it off the field. He didn’t know, but other farmers talked about him, about his size and strength. The rock flew much farther than anyone else could have flung it, if they would have attempted as unlikely a feat.
Why bother planting? Hndred thought. If there is no rain, the crop will fail and I will die. If there is rain, insects could come and eat the grain before I harvest, and I will die. Or marauders might burn the fields, or a flood, or, worse, the crops might thrive, and I will gather them, live through the winter just to plant again in the spring. He could see nothing in the future that wasn’t grey and hopeless.
The ox needed little direction. Dirt turned away from the plow, leaving the groove for him to plant, then it fetched against another rock, nearly tearing the handles from his hands. The ox stopped on its own. Hndred dropped to his knees and dug with bare hands, but the obstruction was dirt-clotted cloth, not a stone, and much larger than a rock. He dug the long shape free and laid it across his legs. Rotted leather strings held the package closed but broke when he tugged them. He unwrapped the heavy fabric, an oiled canvas. The top layers shredded under his hands, but the deeper ones were whole. Whatever was within had been well protected. Then the last layer fell away. Sun glinted off metal and multiplied into a thousand shards from the single jewel imbedded in its hilt. Hndred looked upon it dumbly, and then drew the sword from its unmarred sheath. When he touched the blade, it hummed like a living thing. He took his hand back. The ox turned to look at him, as if he wondered why they were not continuing. Hndred had only plowed half the field so to his left the dirt was dark and fertile, ready for seed, and to the right the stubble covered land showed how much was left. The field was quiet, but it had given up a secret. He touched the blade again. This time, it was cool and smooth, without imperfection, totally out of place. How was it possible that a sword was buried in his field?
A lone man came through the door first, a satchel slung over his shoulder, perhaps a messenger. Next, three soldiers. The two holding pikes looked no older than Hndred, but their captain wore a sword in a fine-tooled scabbard and carried himself like a man of many campaigns. Soldiers often told the best stories. Hndred saluted with his mug when they sat near him. Night had fallen without. A fire at each end of the hall and oil lamps hung from the rafters provided a smoky light. Four waiters served the tables, three women and a boy. The women attracted attention, but woe to the traveller who bothered them. The threat of banishment from the Broken Beast kept the servants safe.
“I defended the east gate during the Pretender’s siege,” said the captain. His companions leaned in. “Only two beside myself had seen battle before that day. It was close work on the causeway. A knife served better than a sword. The Pretender brought three times our force to bear. I tell you, more than one of my men cried in their sleep after seeing their fires on the mountain the night before.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” asked one of the soldiers. “How could you stand against such a force?”
The captain took a long drink. “The King’s Keep was built for defense, boy. I could hold the walls against an army with a handful of milkmaids and a dozen stable boys. The Pretender’s head swung above the main gate the next day, ah, but there was labor befitting a soldier on the causeway. I got this there.” He touched a thick red scar along his neck.
“One of the Pretender’s followers? Did you kill him?”
The captain laughed. “Not so brave as that. One of my green young men swung an axe too wide.”
Hndred couldn’t restrain himself. “Does your sword have a lineage, sire? Is it storied?”
The captain turned to him. “Are you a historian, perhaps?” He laughed. “You look more like a farmer.”
Hndred stood, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to offend.” More than once he’d been rebuffed when he asked questions.
The captain leaned back in his chair. “A very big farmer. No, no offense. Ah, perhaps I am mistaken. Your coat is castle-cut—not a farmer--but I don’t know you.”
“I farm. The coat was my father’s. He once served.”
The captain nodded. “You are looking for a tale then, something to dream about as you toil among quiet grains and attentive livestock?”
His men laughed at that, but with good humor. Hndred thought that this would be an interesting night.
“I do like a fine story about swords when I hear it if you have one to share.”
The captain drew his sword and placed it on the table. “Are you superstitious, farmer? Have you heard that a sword holds the soul of every man it kills? Do you know of the swords that betray their masters, breaking when most needed and proving faithless in the end?”
Hndred pulled his stool close. “I would listen to such stories.”
“Would you be disappointed if I told you that a sword is just a tool, no more special than a hammer to a carpenter or a brush to a painter?”
Hndred sagged on the stool.
“I see you would.” The captain twisted the hilt, flipping the blade over. “So I have two portraits for you. The first is about the sword as a common tool. Through much practice, a man can learn to use this tool to defend himself and to kill if needed. Wars are won by men who wield them well. Kingdoms are gained or lost when the metal sings, but the sword itself means much less than the man. Champions make stories with swords, not the other way around. But, there are rare swords, contrary tools that seem sometime bigger than the metal the smithy pounded them from. Give a man a choice of five swords that are the same, one will speak to him when he grasps it. One will leap out in battle faster than it should. It will not break when the club strikes it. It holds its edge. Such swords are passed on. They become legendary. They earn names.”
“Can you tell me about such?” asked Hndred.
Men at nearby tables stopped their conversations. Soldiers told the best stories. The captain settled in and spoke.
The Bramble Knight fought in the mêlée at seven major festival, winning every battle and standing alone as the defeated tended their injuries and bandaged their pride. They say he fought like a coyote who baits a puppy into leaving the safety of its yard, only to carry the animal off for a meal. He retired before the onslaught, seeming to keep himself unscathed as much by accident as by plan. A practiced eye, though saw that he never backed into a wall. His feet and wrist were a wonder.
He talked while he fought. “I’m sorry, sire,” he’d say, “that I have not fallen yet. Your swordsmanship is a marvel. Oh, that was good. I don’t know how I am so lucky.”
And then his opponent would be on the ground, wondering how he got there, and he’d hear the Bramble Knight talking to someone else. “Please accept my apologies. I don’t know how I was allowed in this year. I’ve been injured. See how my shoulder sags. Nice thrust, sire,” and then the other man would suddenly be without his weapon and have to yield.
They say the Bramble Knight’s sword glinted gold in the sun, that by torch light it flamed red, and that when struck it rang like a bell.
So the Bramble Knight rose in the king’s service and became the prince’s personal guard. One day, when the young prince was hunting, assassins surrounded them in the wood, three seasoned killers who hoped to make short work of the prince and his single companion.
“We are no match for you,” said the Bramble Knight. He had not even drawn his sword.
One man wielded an axe; another a spear, and the third a sword in one hand and a fisherman’s hook in the other. Surely they planned an easy conquest.
The spearman thrust at the Bramble Knight whose sword had somehow cleared the scabbard, clipping the spear point and disappearing into the man’s side. “I was only trying to scare him,” the Bramble Knight said to the prince, who had drawn his own sword.
The other two moved to flank the Bramble Knight, ignoring the young prince. They were not careless or inexperienced. Like wolves, they knew how to kill. This was no joust, no polite melee with padded weapons and codes of behavior.
“Maybe we can talk,” said the Bramble Knight. His sword pointed down as if he wasn’t sure how to handle it. “You gentlemen can hardly be blamed for mistaking us for important people, but we cannot be worth your trouble.”
The axe man feinted as if to swing. The Bramble Knight flinched away. He appeared to stumble. The assassins grinned and moved as if on a signal.
Then the axe man staggered back, looking puzzled, a rose blossoming in his chest, and the other swordsman had lost a hand. He had no time to scream before the Bramble Knight pivoted and the blade blurred into a neck-high scythe.
The prince said later that the Bramble Knight’s sword whispered when it dealt death. It slipped through enemies like a fish in a river. The knight held the sword in front of him, looking at it as if he’d not seen it before. No blood stained the metal. “We make a good couple, this blade and I.”
So the sword became known as Bramble’s Bride. When the Bramble Knight died in his old age many years later, the prince who had become king held a great tournament with Bramble’s Bride as the trophy, and the sword has passed on the same ever since.
Two years earlier, Hndred took the sword from the field, leaving the ox and plow unattended. No one saw him, but he held the treasure close. Any sword, the plainest of construction, was valuable at market, the making of them taking rare knowledge and skill. This weapon, though, looked to be worth a thousand such ordinary swords. In his low-roofed house, he grasped the hilt with both hands, pointing it in front of him. The tip vanished into sharpness. Touching its edge drew blood. He swung the blade in a wide arc. It was much lighter than it looked and didn’t pull at his wrists. Hndred struck a pose like he imagined his father might at a tournament, his hands close to his waist, the sword up and tilted so it passed the side of his face, then the farmer lunged forward with it. He stepped and swung as if defending an attack from behind. Hndred smelled the battlefield, the clash of arms, the screams of triumph and moans of the defeated. He saw himself, sword at his side, standing before the king and royal court, presented as a hero. The balladeers rushed to write songs about him. But mostly he hoped they would see his father in him. He was his father’s son. Reluctantly, he returned the sword to its sheath and put it under his mattress.
He might be a champion in his imagination, but the ox and field needed tending.
That night, though, by the cooking fire’s low light, he brought the sword out again and watched the smoldering reflection in the metal. Once again, he heard horse’s hooves thudding, the rip of banners in the wind, and the joy of battles unfought.
A wealthy trader bought the captain and his men a round. “For another story,” he said.
The captain thanked the trader for the drink, and seeing that the crowd had turned their attention to him, sighed. “Facing a man with a sword is not so glorious as you seem to think.” He caught Hndred’s eye, as if he was for the moment addressing him only. “It is a fearsome weapon that leaves terrible wounds. A man can be split from crown to crotch. The blade makes a sound when it hits bone that you will not forget, and the vibration weds itself to a man’s hands. I have felt a fighter’s last second flee through my sword. The lost man never laughs again. He never raises his mug at an inn to spin a tale.” The grizzled fighter lifted his mug to the men around him.
“So I’ll tell you a story about the Ungallent, a sword that served no men but led to their ruin. The worst weapon in a kingdom beset by a terrible enemy.
“It was not a pretty sword. No artist’s attention went into its hilt, an unadorned, functional spot for a man to grasp, and it would look as any other sword, but the metal had taken a taint at the smithy, a blue-grey streak that ran partly down the blade. A squire, handing it up to his master on a platform died first. The knight claimed he never touched the weapon, that his unaneled squire held the naked blade above his head and then it slipped, while others said the knight brushed his fingers against the metal and drew back, as if the sword had warned him away. The squire, though, died instantly as the weapon’s weight drove the point home.”
“That was a stupid way to handle a sword,” said one of the soldiers.
“Indeed,” the captain agreed.
Hndred swallowed hard. Stories of the supernatural disturbed him. He’d spent too many nights in the dark of the family home, laying awake, wondering if he heard the murmur of his father in the wind outside.
“The knight threw the sword away, but a stable hand retrieved it. War went badly, and every weapon might be of use. A soldier, though, saw the stable boy with it on the street and took it from him, his own sword being bent and dull. The soldier bragged to his friends about his new sword. None of them knew that it had been discarded. During a drill, the soldier’s training partner struck at his neck, a blow that soldiers block hundreds of times in practice, but the Ungallent caught on the soldier’s leg leaving him open for a killing stroke.
“The blade passed from soldier to soldier, giving each one bad luck or maiming or killing him. Soon, all misfortune of any kind was blamed on the blade. Meanwhile, battles were lost. The opposing army marched into the kingdom’s fields and burned them. The soldiers put the Ungallent in a closet to never be used, but stories, being what they are, go on and are told again and again. The king’s grandmaster, commander of all the armies, came to the soldiers’ quarters. An imposing man, a veteran of hundreds of campaigns, feted for his victories in his youth, now a beaten general, he called the men to him. ‘Let me see this sword, the one you call Ungallent. Bring it to me.’
“Reluctantly, they obeyed. Surely such a sword would not be the one to give the grandmaster when his hour was so dire. The sword lay on a table in the common room, while the man who brought it rubbed his hands hard against his pants, sorry that he’d touched the evil blade. The grandmaster called his servant to him who carried in a magnificent scabbard, the pinnacle of an artist’s efforts, inlaid with gold and silver filigree. Gems glittered on it. Gold cords dangled. The soldiers’ eyes grew wide. The wealth of a mighty house would be broken to pay for a scabbard such as this.
“The grandmaster held the Ungallent and inspected it. ‘It is indeed an ordinary-looking article. This is the one of so many tragedies?’
The soldiers nodded.
“Satisfied, the grandmaster put the Ungallent into the beautiful scabbard. Such a joining of the beautiful and demonic had never been seen before. Angels must have cried as that marked blade slid into its holy home.
“The grandmaster instructed his servant. ‘Take this as a present to the enemy’s camp with this scroll. Tell him it is from the king, and that he asks mercy. The sword is our gift, a family heirloom passed from father to son through the generations. It is our dearest possession.”
“On the battlefield the next day, the enemy’s armies stood at the castle gates. The enemy king rode with his army on this last battle, intent on making the victory his. On his waist, the jeweled scabbard glittered and shone, a shining symbol of the castle’s defeat. Surely the kingdom’s ruin awaited, but the enemy king’s horse shied when crossing the moat bridge, a horse that by all accounts had been the most steady of steeds. It shied, and the king fell into the water. The weight of his armor and his treacherous sword pulled him under. He could not be saved. During the loss and confusion, the castle guard rushed from within. The army without its king fled, and the grandmaster lead his troops in pursuit, slaughtering them who would not surrender and disarming the rest.”
Hndred asked, “What became of the sword?”
The captain finished his mead. “I am dry after such a story.” Someone hurried to replace it. After a long drink, he said, “The Ungallent was taken to sea and dropped in a deep place. You can be sure that no boat’s crew was as nervous as the sailors who transported that cursed sword.”
Bathed by the inn’s firelight, the crowd facing him, the captain appeared to Hndred to be the sagest of men. He was one to be trusted, one who could lead men in battle, one whose wisdom penetrated the mysteries. Or it could be the mead had worked its way upon the young farmer’s mind as is its wont to do, so that the most ordinary of women walked like princesses, the must dullard of men became savants, and inane pronouncements of the unlearned sounded profound.
A trader from the south began a ballad, drawing attention away from the captain and his men, but Hndred had no interest in poetry tonight. He felt a kinship with the captain gained through the many evenings Hndred had spent practicing with the sword, mimicking knight’s moves from tournaments. He imagined himself bringing enemies to their knees, presenting his sword to the king, taking a place in the king’s guard as his father once had. His wrist, already grown strong through farm labor, no longer tired, no matter how long he swung the sword. The magnificent sword must have chosen him. No accident would bring such a boon.
So, with confidence in his heart, Hndred approached the captain as his men laughed at a ribald part of the trader’s ballad.
“Captain, if I may, I need your opinion on a sword that I have found. No man other than myself has seen it since it came from my field. It had been buried.” Even as the words left his lips, Hndred regretted speaking. What would he appear to be to a captain in the king’s service other than an unschooled farmer? A fool. How could he dare bother a man who’d fought real battles, gave orders that were followed not because of his rank but because of the respect earned through real accomplishment. At best, the captain would dismiss him, maybe mock him before the crowd.
The captain gazed thoughtfully upon Hndred, his hands cupping his mug. “You ask about swords not from idle curiosity then?”
“My presumption, sir.”
“Let’s see this discovery of yours then. I have been sitting on this stool forever.”
Hndred led the captain through the hall. Many tables were empty now. Only the carousers listening to stories remained at one end by the fire. Bakken’s staff cleaned dishes and pots as the two men passed through the kitchen.
The captain liberated a lamp that cast a buttery light at their feet. Outside, the warm and windless evening welcomed them with silence. Hndred uncovered the long shape in his barrow, then carefully undid the cloth he’d used as a shroud until the scabbarded blade lay revealed. Lamplight caught the jewel set in the hilt, and in the softer light, the metal shifted from well-polished bronze to silver and back.
The captain sucked in a breath, ran his hand down the unadorned sheath. “May I draw the sword, boy?” He sounded reverent.
The captain paused before touching the hilt, “My hands are unclean. If this is truly a great sword, I hope it forgives me.”
The sword revealed itself in a smooth motion, then the captain held the lamp close to inspect it. Hndred wished he’d kept the prize hidden. No farmer deserved to own a weapon such as this. Only a great fighter or the most noble of knights could be worthy. The captain would take it from him.
“You say that it was wrapped in oilcloth and buried in your field?”
The captain turned the blade over in his hand, thoughtfully. “So it must have been stolen and then hidden; or perhaps someone pursued, knowing he could not save it, used your field to keep it from passing into bad hands. I know many stories about swords, including ones that were lost or secreted, but I don’t know of this one.” He swung the sword once, sheathed it, and handed it to Hndred. “Swords seek their owners, though. I know that. There must be a powerful reason it made its way to your field and that you found it. Whoever the smith was who formed that sword was a master, but it’s not a battle blade. The jewel in the hilt speaks to ceremony or a gift. No nicks, no wear, I doubt your sword has seen true use.”
Hndred held the sword’s weight in his hands. He had fought a hundred battles with it in his mind. As he fell asleep, he heard the sharp metal slice the air. Dust from men’s feet pounding the tourney grounds filled his nose. He had wondered if the dreams were really the sword’s memories relived within him. In the dreams, he saw a familiar hand holding the hilt, a familiar arm flexing and bulging and wielding the sword with glorious skill. “A champion owned the sword, I know.”
The captain opened his mouth to speak, then cocked his head.
In the distance, horse hooves thudded against the road.
“Strange that a party would ride so late,” said Hndred.
The horses stopped at the inn. Hndred started toward the building’s corner to see who they were. The captain held him back.
Shouts came from inside. Metal clashed on metal. A man cried out. Two cooks burst through the back door. “Bandihai!” one shouted as he fled into the dark.
Hndred would have rushed into the inn, the beautiful sword in hand, but the captain, whose own weapon now caught the lamp light, said, “There will be too many of them. Only my soldiers and myself are trained to fight, and I will bet my men had no time to arm themselves. The Bandihai are robbers and cowards. They will take our valuables, and, if the mood strikes them, kill some or all. If the women did not escape, they will suffer their own fates, and the Bandihai may burn the inn. We have one play, if you are willing to take part, farmer.”
He explained his plan to Hndred.
The captain stepped into the smoky dining hall. Hndred stayed back, in the shadows. Against the far wall, the merchants and tradesmen stood, facing a half-dozen leather-clad Bandihai whose curved swords threatened them. On the floor, clutching his bleeding arm, a soldier glared defiantly.
The Bandihai leader, a tall man whose blond hair caught the ceiling light, gave orders. “Your money purses into the bag, and do it smartly. I’d rather not search for them among your corpses.”
Kicking plates to the floor, the captain mounted a table. The Bandihai and their leader turned to face the intrusion.
“You have made a mistake coming here,” announced the captain. “It is time for you to leave.”
The leader whose scarred face showed he’d survived many encounters, laughed. “You are bold to face us, old man, but you must see how you are outnumbered. Only this boy soldier among your friends attempted to fight, and look at the wound he suffered. So be quick about it and join the rest. We’ll liberate you of your coin, and if you’re lucky, we’ll spare you despite your impertinence.”
“You may try,” said the captain, “but I do not think you want to fight. You shall surrender immediately.”
The Bandihai leader laughed even harder until his face turned dark with it. When he regained his breath, he gestured to two of his men. “Kill him now.”
The captain put up his hand. “Attacking me would be a mistake.”
“Why?” said the leader, profoundly amused.
“You do not think I have been a warrior for so long and grown this old by accident, do you? If so, send your men, but you misunderstand my mission.”
The leader raised a hand to hold his men back. “What is your mission?”
“I am an old campaigner as you have pointed out,” said the captain. “I led men at Torshein Gap against the Lendilian horde until we prevailed when nine out every ten of our troops fell. I protected the infant king at the liege lord’s court against his treacherous cabinet. I have trained with tournament victors and been victorious myself, but now I fulfill my greatest calling. If you value your life, you will not ask me to reveal it. Put down your arms. Save yourselves while you can.”
The Bandihai leader did not appear nervous. “I will risk it. What is your calling, old man?”
The captain gave Hndred the signal behind his back. Hndred walked into the light, his treasure revealed. Polished as a mirror, the blade gathered the room’s light, and quivered in Hndred’s grip. He moved aside a heavy table with one hand and stood still while the captain spoke.
“I am now footservant to the champion of the Sword Imperial, bane of a thousand armies, protector of the great kingdom, the blade that was never forged but has been forever and will forever be. The bearer of the sword, my master, can not be defeated.”
The leader of the Bandihai looked up at Hndred who stared back. The captain’s directions had been clear: “Look him in the eyes. Do not waver. Consider him as you would a pig before slaughter, and when the moment is ripe, step toward him boldly.”
Hndred had said as they stood behind the inn. “What if I am not brave?”
“When you heard the Bandihai engage, you ran toward the noise. Your instinct is to fight. I believe you would make your father whose jacket you wear proud.” He reached up to clap Hndred upon the shoulder. “Plus, you hold a sword like they have never seen.”
The Bandihai leader did not move, but Hndred imagined what he must see: the captain, moving aside for a giant bearing a sword that was brighter than any of legend. As the captain said, it was the Sword Imperial.
For the moment, Hndred felt like a myth made real. It was the sword, of course, the pull of it in his hand, like an extension of his arm, glowing and warm. Hndred had said, “But what if they attack. I have no training.”
“You are the biggest man I have ever met, which means you have the longest reach. Fell them like trees. No style needed for that, and if they attack, you will be fighting for your life anyway.”
Hndred believed he had become a man whose enemies would melt before him. It must have shown on his face, in the strength of his arm. A tableau of frozen expressions stared at him, the Bandihai and their leader, the merchants and tradesman, the wounded soldier on the floor. Standing as he was, one arrayed against the many put him in the hero’s place. If men were to write songs, they might remember the night that Hndred bore the Sword Imperial.
The Bandihai leader blinked. Hndred stepped forward. The men with their curved swords broke for the door, tripping over each other in their rush to exit. The leader retreated a step, glanced back at his fleeing men, then turned and rushed after them.
For a moment, glory filled the farmer like heady drink. Hoofbeats echoed on the highway. Then the men crowded round him, cheering and yelling like boys.
Later, the captain talked to Hndred in front of the inn. His men busied themselves in the stable, packing their horses.
“For a moment, I was convinced you were the champion I said you were. You didn’t hold the weapon like a farmer, nor did you appear frightened.”
Hndred didn’t know what to say.
“You could come with us,” said the captain. “A soldier’s life is hard, but it has its advantages. It is not a choice to make quickly, though. You will need training, and many start much younger than you. Still, think about it. We will come this way again in a week. Tell me your answer then.”
The captain’s men brought the horses around the inn, both dressed for the road. “All is ready, sir,” said the wounded one, his bandaged arm secured to his chest. Soon, the three were mounted.
“Our duties call,” said the captain.
They trotted in the direction the Bandihai had fled.
Hndred watched until they were out of sight. Before their dust had settled, he knew that he didn’t need a week. Nothing that he’d left at the farm seemed important. His oxen could fend for itself. Perhaps his neighbors would plant the fields. It did not matter.
The young man took the package from his barrow, unwrapped it and strapped the Sword Imperial to his back. Was the blade a legend or not? Was he the kind of man who they’d make songs about? Hndred didn’t know, but if he started walking now, he could catch the captain and his men where they made camp.
His legs were long, his stride mighty, and he wagered they’d find for him a place by the fire.
©January, 2017 James Van Pelt
James Van Pelt is a former teacher turned professional writer. His work has appeared in many places, including Realms of Fantasy, Adventures in Sword & Sorcery, Asimov’s, and Daily Science Fiction. His most recent novel, Pandora's Gun, came out in 2015. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.
Curtis Ellett is a frustrated fantasy writer and a founding member of the 196 Southshore Writers' Group. He has lived on three continents, studied archaeology and worked as a newspaper ad designer and a bookseller. He now gets paid to write. Find him on Twitter @CurtisEllett.