I filled my canteens at a small creek and gave Hakan my second one. He’d need his own soon. The forest was filled with the immense silence of winter, but small sounds punctuated the stillness. The snow squeaked sometimes beneath my boots and once I heard a fantail hawk.
“Where are we going?” His voice followed me.
“First to Four Corners for supplies. Then northeast, to the hills. I know them well and there aren’t many patrols anymore.” I set a quick pace and could hear him panting behind me, but it didn’t stop his questions.
“You served in the army?”
“In the suvari for the first four years, then I was transferred to the kedani.”
“There was a shortage of qualified officers.”
Many had been killed in the long foolish campaign to the northeast against the Tarvil. It had gained the king nothing and cost him many of his best men. I’d been transferred to a position above many men with years of experience on me. I was fortunate they were willing to recognize my skill and forgive my relative inexperience. My talents for tactics and strategy had then earned their trust, but not every young officer is lucky enough to be given that chance.
“How long is the term of service?”
“Volunteers have the opportunity to retire or reenlist every three years. Foundlings like me serve for twenty years to repay the king’s purse for our education and training. We’re not slaves; we’re paid, though it isn’t much.”
“Twenty years! That seems harsh.” He was breathless now, and I slowed a little and shrugged.
“When you’re king, you can change it as you see fit.”
“You don’t think it was unjust?”
“In what way? I received a good education, though I remain lacking in some subjects. Most officers come from orphanages.”
In fact, many orphans and foundlings eventually command volunteers with more exalted positions in life, since we begin our training as children. The army generally rewards merit and talent over the status of one’s birth. It can result in odd tensions, but for the most part, it’s accepted, for we’ve had much success even in badly conceived actions.
He ran up beside me and looked up at me, almost falling over a rock as he took his eyes from the path. “Honestly, you don’t feel that your misfortune at birth was used against you? That you were taken advantage of?”
“What good would that do?” I shrugged again. “I’ve no complaints, but if you would seek my counsel once you have your throne, I could probably find in myself some suggestions.”
That was the most I’d said in several months, and I clapped my mouth shut to press on. He followed me in silence for some time, but I wasn’t surprised when he eventually thought of another question.
“What age does a foundling enter the king’s service?”
“Normally sixteen.” I knew the question that would follow.
“I entered the king’s service on my fourteenth birthday.”
“Why? That’s so young.”
“Because I was very good. Besides, I was nearly as tall as any Tuyet man by then.”
“Into combat at fourteen?” His voice sounded incredulous.
I wondered if he thought I was lying, and decided I didn’t care enough about his opinion to be offended. “Skirmishes, yes, but my first real battle wasn’t for another year.”
He was quiet a few moments. I heard the trilling call of a mountain lark. We’d left the trees to follow the spine of a low hill toward the northern spur of the great forest, and the wind was stronger in the open. My damp shirt stuck to me and the ice flakes felt like little knives on my face. Hakan would have to get his own cloak at the first opportunity.
“How long have you been out of the army?”
“I was discharged four years ago, but I’ve served as a mercenary on occasion since then.” Would he require an explanation of that too?
“But that would mean you’re thirty eight years old. You can’t be.”
“I’m thirty three. I was discharged five years early.”
“Why?” The boy might have been an interrogator for the courts, he had so many questions.
“Because I received this.” I turned to face him and pulled the neck of my shirt and the strap of my pack aside.
I watched him flinch at the sight, then look closer. The wound had healed rather well, considering what it had looked like at first, but I couldn’t blame anyone for their initial shock. If I’d been a light-skinned Tuyet, the scar wouldn’t have been so noticeable. It had faded from the livid red of the first few months to a sickly greenish white which stood out stark and ugly against my dark olive skin. It was a ragged circle a few inches below my collarbone on the right side, none too small, sunken a bit below the curve of the muscle, like a shallow crater.
The one on my back was worse, though I didn’t see it often, a larger scar that only matched the neat circle in the front with a bit of imagination. It was much lower, at the bottom of my shoulder blade. It would have shattered the bone, but I’d had my arm stretched upward when the javelin hurtled downward from a high arcing throw. It had knocked me off my feet with the force, the javelin driving into the ground beneath me.
“What happened?” I was gratified to see that after the initial horror his face had become curious rather than disgusted.
“I was on the wrong end of a javelin near the end of the campaign against the Tarvil. It wasn’t a large battle, but we were badly outnumbered. We were ambushed.”
I felt my throat getting tight at the memory. He looked up at me, waiting for more details, and I surprised myself by continuing.
“There were about forty of us and maybe one hundred and fifty of them.” I lost my friend Yuudai in that battle. A stupid battle, one that never should have happened at all. It was pointless, a waste of good men.
“Did you kill any of them?” His eyes were wide.
“Aye, some fourteen or fifteen, I don’t remember clearly.” Yuudai’s blood had come bubbling out his throat. I don’t remember much after that aside from the pain of the wound itself.
“How did you live?”
I took a deep breath. Patience.
“I was left for dead, the javelin pinning me to the ground. A scouting party found me the next day, and against all predictions I lived. I was honorably discharged upon being able to stand upright without support, given two weeks worth of food, and sent on my way.”
I did resent that. I thought I’d earned a bit more compensation, at least a month’s recovery time. If not for the injury itself, for my fifteen years of service and the many men I’d trained. It stung to be thrown aside because I was no longer useful. Not least because I might have served my country again, if the army had only waited another few months for me to heal.
The wind carried a hint of heavier snow in the next few hours. Soon we would be in the trees again, but at our pace we would not reach town before nightfall.
“Does it hurt anymore?”
“When it’s cold. Why?”
“You can have your cloak back. I’m better now.”
“Keep it.” Patience. Discipline. Self-denial. Consider it training, I reminded myself. “Come on.” I started off again.
We didn’t reach Four Corners that night. I had to slow my pace for the boy. I had the opportunity to practice self-denial again that night, alternating pacing about the fire in the cutting wind and sitting huddled close to the flames as I grew colder. The snow petered out around midnight and I dozed a little, but again the grey light of morning was more than welcome.
It was late morning when we finally reached town. There was a light snow falling and I shook the flakes from my head as I entered what I guessed was a general store. I couldn’t read the letters carved on the sign, but the rough painting of a bolt of cloth and a barrel of flour was clear enough for me. The room was deliciously warm, and I let out a sigh of satisfaction as I moved toward the back, Hakan trailing behind me.
The wonderful heat was coming from a cheerful fire around which were gathered some seven or eight men. Two were playing a game at a low table, but most were just talking. I studied them a moment before stepping forward, wondering who among them ran the store. Several of them looked up at me in surprise, glancing at my sword and smiling nervously.
“Can I help you?” One man stepped forward, wiping his sweaty hands on a well-used apron.
“Aye. We want some supplies and lodging for the night.”
He nodded and glanced back at the group. “Come then, show me what you want and I’ll tally it up. It’s a bad winter to be out. There’s a boarding house just down the street.”
I was reveling in the warmth, but he shivered as we approached the front door.
“Phraa, it’s cold up front. Now then, what do you want?”
“First a heavy cloak.”
He pointed down one of the aisles.
“Naoki, pick the one you want.” I caught Hakan’s eye as I called him by his new name. Naoki means honest or righteous in Kumar. It wouldn’t do to call him Hakan so close to Stonehaven, and Mikar, the name he’d given me, made his noble accent all too obvious.
“A length of rope. Some salt.” A scoop of rough salt went into a carefully wrapped leather bundle. Soap. Some string. A new pair of woolen socks; mine had holes in the toes. Then things for Hakan. A canteen. An extra bowl. A spoon. His own soap, a sharpening stone for his knife, other supplies, and a pack to put them in. Of course he wouldn’t know what to buy, so I chose everything.
“Peppers.” Dried hot peppers were an extravagance, at least for me, but they reminded me of my time campaigning in the south, which I had mostly enjoyed.
“Not so many, I don’t have that much money. A good knife, about so long.” That was for Hakan. It was no longer safe to go about the countryside with nothing for protection; the king’s law hadn’t been enforced consistently for some years.
He shook his head. “I don’t sell knives. You’ll need to go to Ursin, the blacksmith. He’s just down the street.” I thought it was a good name for a blacksmith. It’s from urseo, Common for bear.
I nodded. “A flint.”
I could find a flint for Hakan, but with all the snow on the ground and heading into the mountains, it would be worth the expense to not have to look. But that was perilously close to the end of my money, considering the cost of a night in the inn and a good knife. Not to mention the sword he’d need eventually. Hakan had some money, but I didn’t know how much. I nodded at the shopkeeper and went back to find Hakan still fingering the cloaks.
“What’s taking so long?”
“They’re all rough.”
“Aye, like mine.” What did he expect, silks? I ran my hand down the ten or twelve cloaks hanging neatly.
“Here, this one is the heaviest.” I pulled it out and examined the cloth, holding it up to him. Too short for me, of course, but quite long enough for him, with a heavy hood as well. Perfect.
“Get this one. Give me your money.” He hesitated, but pulled the small bag from inside his shirt and handed it to me.
The gold inside was heavier than I’d expected, and I wished we were in the sunlight so I could admire it. I’ve always loved gold, but not for its value. I’m happy enough with what most people might call little. I love gold for its beauty, the warm glow it has, the fine detail in well-worked designs, the way it’s like the sun captured within the metal. I picked out one small coin and handed the bag back to him. Good. Lodging wouldn’t be a problem then. “Put it away.”
His coin was enough for all his items. I paid for my own things, and the shopkeeper watched me curiously as I handed Hakan’s change back to him. I shrugged into my cloak and Hakan wrapped his new one around him as the shopkeeper gave me directions to the blacksmith and to the boarding house down a side street. Then it was back out into the snow, this time much more comfortably.
The smithy was also warm, fires roaring as the blacksmith worked on something in the back. I called out to let him know we were there, and a boy came running. When he caught sight of me, his mouth dropped open and he turned right around and ran back into the shop, shouting for his master. In a moment the blacksmith himself appeared, paling as he saw me. They’re always afraid of me.
I spoke politely. “I was told you could sell me a good knife.”
He nodded. “I sell knives. You’ll have to judge the quality for yourself.” Honesty. I like that. I followed him around the corner to the storeroom.
“How much do you want to spend?”
“Let me see the quality and I’ll decide.”
He nodded and pulled out several wooden trays, knives neatly aligned one beside the other. I picked out seven of the best with plain hilts but good blades. I tested the balance, but three were completely off, and I discarded those.
“Do you make all these yourself?”
“No, I buy and sell them too. I make tools mostly. Knives are a sideline.”
I nodded. Someone who knew what he was doing would never have made these so inconsistently.
“Naoki, hold this one.” Good, the hilt was not too long for him, the blade clean and straight. “We’ll take it.”
He nodded and named the price, seven bronze eagles.
“That’s a bit high.” I frowned. Hakan glanced at me, and I thought he looked a little surprised. Of course he wouldn’t know how much a knife should go for.
Ursin hesitated and glanced at my sword. “Six then. For a soldier.”
Hakan slipped his hand in his pocket, but didn’t pull out his money yet. There was a long silence. The price would have been fine in Stonehaven, but we were only in Four Corners. I thought about turning away. I hate bargaining, though everyone does it. Tell me the price straight, and I’ll decide. Once a little girl selling fruit in the market in Stonehaven was so frightened of me that when I frowned at the price for a skewer of roasted apples, she shoved it into my hand and started crying. She was probably too young to even understand why I frowned. Her father turned around to scowl at me, though he too looked a bit unnerved. I paid her high price to assuage my guilt.
Ursin licked his lips. “Five.”
I nodded curtly. Hakan paid and bent to slip the knife into his boot.
I was turning away when the blacksmith asked, “What’s wrong with these three?”
“The balance is off.”
“Can you show me?”
I stifled a smile. “Did you make them yourself?”
He nodded unhappily. “Aye, and everyone who knows what they’re about rejects the ones I make, but I don’t know why. I can’t improve my work if I don’t know what’s wrong.”
“Right then. Naoki needed a blade for his boot, self defense, a fine thin blade as long as my hand with excellent balance, light. These two, the balance is too far forward, you see? The blade is heavy. That’s fine for butchering, but not for fine work. This one, the balance is in the hilt, which makes it quick to move but hard to control, since the hilt is round and can slip in your grasp.”
He nodded, studying each knife in turn.
“Why didn’t you consider these?” He gestured at the other two trays.
“Those are too small, they’re children’s knives.”
He looked at me in disbelief. “They’re not! I’ve seen many a man carry one of those.”
I shrugged. “If you prefer, say my friend needs something more serious. Those are for show. I’m not made of gold and cannot pay for ornamentation. This one will do quite well.”
He nodded again. “Thanks. If you have the time, could I ask your advice on some I’m making now?”
“We need to be going. It’s almost noon, and I wouldn’t keep you from lunch.”
“If I offer you lunch and dinner, would you lend me your expertise for the afternoon?”
I hesitated. Food that someone else prepared would be a luxury I hadn’t enjoyed in some time, but I didn’t want to stay too long and attract attention. “I’m no armorer.”
“But you know knives!” He was eager. “If you must go, thank you. But consider my offer.”
“Naoki?” I turned to Hakan.
He smiled broadly. “Why not? I’m hungry.”
I shrugged and nodded.
“Good, good! We’ll have lunch first then. Did you just arrive in town?” He bustled about, taking off the thick leather apron and putting back the trays of knives.
“Where did you come from?”
“East. Do you have any news from Stonehaven? I’ve heard vague rumors but nothing more.”
Hakan glanced at me but said nothing. Of course, we’d come from southwest, but Ursin didn’t need to know that.
“Aye, some strange news indeed. Some say the prince is dead.”
“Really?” We followed him as he went to the back and spoke to the bellows boy a moment, then out into the swirling snow and down the street. The wind whipped his breath away, and he didn’t continue until we entered an inn just a few doors down.
He called out toward an open door in the back. “Bread and whatever you’re serving today.” Then to us, “It’s Nonin, isn’t it? Good. It’s pork pie day. You’ll like that, just the thing on a cold day like this.”
I nodded, hoping he would return to the news.
“Of course all the rumors contradict each other. We don’t get any real news, though Stonehaven isn’t really so far away. “
“What are the rumors?” Get to the point.
“The prince is dead. The prince is missing. The prince is ill and won’t be seeing anyone. Not that I’d be seeing him anyway, but you understand. That the prince has been crowned and is sitting on the throne already. That one doesn’t have much credibility, since there’s no word of any coronation celebration.”
I glanced up to see a young girl coming out of the kitchen with a broad platter of food. She saw me and her mouth dropped open before she scurried back into the kitchen, and I scowled at the table.
Ursin flinched back. “What’s ailing you?”
“Nothing.” I growled. I took a deep breath. “Do you think Vidar is planning to take power?”
Ursin nodded, and a man came out of the kitchen carrying the tray of food. He stared at me a moment before cautiously bringing the food over. I nodded curtly to him as he set down the bread, plates of rich pork pie, and cool mugs of ale.
I wished Ursin would tell me more, but he was cautious and unwilling to speak too freely to a stranger. He said business had been slow, and he wanted to test for the elite armorers that supply the army. Anyone can make a knife or a sword, but standard issue weapons are made to criteria set by the crown. Officers’ weapons are works of art. It would be good steady work, and pay better than blacksmithing in a farming town. I thought his chances were slim; an armorer’s apprenticeship begins young. But he seemed bright enough and willing to work for it, and I’m not the sort to fault a man for trying.
Ursin was a better blacksmith than armorer. The smithy was blissfully warm after my three days with no cloak. I could feel my hair and shirt drying as I stood close by the great fire. The bellows boy eventually peeked out from behind a wall and studied me as Ursin plied me with questions that never seemed to end.
Hakan was quiet, sometimes listening to us and sometimes wandering about the blacksmith’s shop. He smiled at the bellows boy, who finally gathered his courage to chatter at him, pointing at me every so often. Hakan laughed and shook his head, letting the boy lead him about the shop. I think it was a change for him, for he didn’t strike me as one to enjoy the company of children.
I sketched different blades for Ursin on parchment, showing the proper ratios of width and length, the best cross section for strength, for flexibility, for speed and maneuverability. I cannot work metal myself, but I know what makes a good blade. The strong curve of a scimitar, with its leading edge hardened and sharp, the back edge softer to catch the blade of an opponent. The bold straight blade of a longsword, the fuller nearly to the end, narrowing just a bit through the length. The short triangular blade of a falsehand, three fingers wide at the base and short enough to be concealed easily, narrowing to a precise point at the end. An assassin’s weapon, but also good for women to protect themselves. The leaner longer blade of a bootknife. Then of course there were other weapons I’d trained with, but he didn’t need to venture into those.
Finally the blacksmith was satisfied, or perhaps overloaded with information. He took us to his home for a simple dinner. His wife didn’t join us as we ate, though she stared at me from time to time. Her eyes had widened when she first saw me, and she clutched at her husband’s sleeve to speak to him in a frightened whisper when he invited us in to sit in the cramped room. He’d shaken his head and muttered something to her, and she’d backed away to stand over the fire. He was freer with his words after several glasses of ale.
“I wish the prince was found safe. No one wishes him ill, not as far as I’ve heard. But with the problems we’ve had, we can’t afford another king like the last one.”
Hakan twitched as if he would speak and I shot him a look that for once was meant to look dangerous. He quieted, so I suppose it worked.
Ursin continued unaware. “Taxes have gone up, but the roads are worse. We’ve had all sorts of vagabonds passing through here, and just last week one of the farmers, I didn’t know him well, was murdered on his way home from market. Robbed. It wouldn’t have been tolerated when I was young.”
“And you think Vidar will fix it?”
He nodded. “I hope so. We need the roads, surely you can see that. We have get to market, and my wife’s family lives an hour away if the weather’s good. Travelers have to worry about bandits more than they have for years, and we’ve heard the rumors from the border.”
“What rumors?” I’d heard many rumors, but I wanted Hakan to hear what the people heard every day.
“That the Rikutans are getting bolder in their raids. Of course, the Tarvil are getting bolder too; everyone knows that. I say it’s because we don’t have enough soldiers anymore. You should know that, you’re a soldier, aren’t you?”
“Then you’ve seen how the posts were abandoned. So what do we get for our higher taxes then? Nothing! I’m as loyal as the rest, but surely you can see how we need a change.”
I glanced at Hakan, who had his mouth tightly shut, his face very pale. “What would you do if the prince was found?”
It was a bold question, and he didn’t want to answer it, tipping back his mug to gain a moment to think. Finally he said, “I suppose we’d all have to choose, wouldn’t we?”
Hakan’s mouth opened slightly, and I skewered with my eyes to prevent him from speaking.
“No doubt. I’m for the prince if he does turn up. But I suppose we’ll make do with Vidar, at least for now.” I finished my own glass of ale. “Thank you for dinner.” I would have smiled my thanks to his wife, but I didn’t want to frighten her more.
“If you’re short of money you can stay here for the night,” Ursin shifted in his chair.
I raised my eyebrows. “Where?”
He glanced back at his wife, who reddened and moved away from the door.
“She’s frightened of me. We can go.”
“If you like. But you’re welcome in the smithy if that would do.”
I nodded. It would be warm and dry, and no one else would remember our presence. “Thank you. We’ll do that. I want an early start tomorrow.”
We walked back across the street to the smithy and he opened the door for us, leaving it unlocked. I splashed a bit of water on my face from a bucket and wrapped myself in my cloak on the floor near the fire. My boots steamed by the hearth and my feet soaked in the warmth. I was nearly asleep when Hakan spoke.
“Kemen, do you think Vidar will strengthen the army?”
“Aye.” I stifled a yawn.
“Why are you helping me?”
Sleep tugged at my brain. Two nights with no sleep, two and a half days of walking, all in the frigid cold. I spoke with my eyes closed. “I fought under Vidar once, though I didn’t know him well. He’s a good man, or so I thought.” I had to concentrate to form the sentences. “I don’t see why he’d want to have you killed. He has the trust of the people and the respect of the army. If he wanted to influence you, I’d think you’re young enough and smart enough to take his advice.”
I heard him taking off his boots and fumbling with his cloak as I drifted toward sleep in the delicious warmth of the fire.
“I would’ve taken his advice. I don’t understand why I was warned away.”
“Do you know how your father died?” I opened my eyes to see him frowning up at the ceiling.
“No, I suppose not. He’d been sick for years, though. We weren’t close, he didn’t tell me how he was feeling.” He didn’t sound as if he grieved much.
I was nearly asleep when he said, “You didn’t say why you’re helping me.”
Patience. I didn’t snap at him, though I came close. The frustration helped me formulate my thoughts. “Merely having a strong army does not make one a good ruler. Vidar is a decent man, but there is something more here. Either he’s changed, or someone else is threatening you. Either way, it’s underhanded and doesn’t befit a king. You’re young and have much to learn. Nevertheless, I hope you’d put the lives of your people before your own wishes. Unlike your father. Either Vidar is false, or he doesn’t have the grasp on power he thinks he has, and so his honesty means little.” Then I had to think. “Is there anyone else who could be behind the threat?”
He hesitated. “I don’t know. I didn’t like some of his ministers, but I couldn’t accuse them of anything without proof.”
Fair enough. “Then go to sleep. We can’t solve the riddle tonight.”
He sighed and rustled around a bit more, but I was asleep in minutes. Whether he slept after that, I don’t know.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish