I crossed his tracks not far outside of Stonehaven, and I followed them out of curiosity, nothing more. They were uneven, as if he were stumbling. It was bitterly cold, a stiff wind keeping the hilltops mostly free of the snow that formed deep drifts in every depression. By the irregularity of his trail, I imagined he was some foolish city boy caught out in the cold and that he might want some help.
It was the winter of 368, a few weeks before the new year. I was on my way to the garrison at Kesterlin just north of the capital, but I was in no hurry. I had a little money in my pack and I was happy enough alone.
In less than a league, I found him lying facedown in the snow. I nudged him with my toe before I knelt to turn him over, but he didn’t respond. He was young, and something about him seemed oddly familiar. He wasn’t hurt, at least not in a way I could see, but he was nearly frozen. He wore a thin shirt, well-made breeches, and expensive boots, but nothing else. He had no sword, no tunic over his shirt, no cloak, no horse. I had no horse because I didn’t have the gold for one, but judging by his boots he could have bought one easily. There was a bag of coins inside his shirt, but I didn’t investigate that further. His breathing was slow, his hands icy. It was death to be out in such weather so unprepared.
He was either a fool or he was running from something, but in either case I couldn’t let him freeze. I strode to the top of the hill to look for pursuit. A group of riders was moving away to the south, but I couldn’t identify them. Anyway, they wouldn’t cross his path going that direction.
I wrapped him in my cloak and hoisted him over my shoulder. The forest wasn’t too far away and it would provide shelter and firewood. I wore a shirt and a thick winter tunic over it, but even so, I was shivering badly by the time we made it to the trees. The wind was bitter cold, and I sweated enough carrying him to chill myself thoroughly. I built a fire in front of a rock face that would reflect the heat back upon us. I let myself warm a little before opening my pack and pulling out some carrots and a little dried venison to make a late lunch.
I rubbed the boy’s hands so he wouldn’t lose his fingers. His boots were wet, so I pulled them off and set them close to the fire. There was a knife in his right boot, and I slipped it out to examine it. You can tell a lot about a man by the weapons he carries. His had a good blade, though it was a bit small. The hilt was finished with a green gemstone, smoothly polished and beautiful. Around it was a thin gold band, and ribbons of gold were inlaid in the polished bone hilt. It was a fine piece that hadn’t seen much use, obviously made for a nobleman. I kept the knife well out of his reach while I warmed my cold feet. If he panicked when he woke, I wanted him unarmed.
I felt his eyes on me not long before the soup was ready. He’d be frightened of me, no doubt, so for several minutes I pretended I hadn’t noticed he was awake to give him time to study me. I’m a Dari, and there are so few of us in Erdem that most people fear me at first.
“I believe that’s mine.” His voice had a distinct tremor, and he must have realized it because he lifted his chin a little defiantly, eyes wide.
I handed the knife back to him hilt-first. “It is. It’s nicely made.”
He took it cautiously, as if he wasn’t sure I was really going to give it back to him. He shivered and pulled my cloak closer around his shoulders, keeping the knife in hand.
“Here. Can you eat this?”
He reached for the bowl with one hand, and seemed to debate a moment before resting the knife on the ground by his knee. “Thank you.” He kept his eyes on me as he dug in.
I chewed on a bit of dried meat as I watched him. He looked better with some warm food in him and the heat of the fire on his face. “Do you want another bowl?”
“If there’s enough.” He smiled cautiously.
We studied each other while the soup cooked. He was maybe seventeen or so, much younger than I. Slim, pretty, with a pink mouth like a girl’s. Typical Tuyet coloring; blond hair, blue eyes, pale skin. Slender hands like an artist or scribe.
“Thank you.” He smiled again, nervous but gaining confidence. He did look familiar, especially in his nose and the line of his cheekbones. I tried to place him among the young nobles I’d seen last time I’d visited Stonehaven.
“What’s your name?”
“Hak-” he stopped and his eyes widened. “Mikar. My name is Mikar.”
Hakan Ithel. The prince.
He looked a bit like his father the king. It wasn’t hard to guess why he was fleeing out into the winter snow. Rumors of Nekane Vidar’s intent to seize power had been making their way through the army and the mercenary groups for some months.
“You’re Hakan Ithel, aren’t you?”
His shoulders slumped a little. He looked at the ground and nodded slightly.
He had no real reason to trust me. Vidar’s men would be on his trail soon enough. No wonder he was frightened.
“My name is Kemen Sendoa. Call me Kemen.” I stood to bow formally to him. “I’m honored to make your acquaintance. Is anyone following you?”
His eyes widened even more. “I don’t know. Probably.”
“Then we’d best cover your tracks. Are you going anywhere in particular?”
I stamped out the fire and kicked a bit of snow over it. Of course, anyone could find it easily enough, but I’d cover our trail better once we were on our way. A quick wipe with some snow cleaned the bowl and it went back in my pack.
He stood wrapped in my cloak, looking very young, and I felt a little sorry for him.
“Right then. Follow me.” I slung my pack over my shoulder and started off. I set a pace quick enough to keep myself from freezing and he followed, stumbling sometimes in the thick snow. The wind wasn’t quite as strong in the trees, though the air was quite cold.
I took him west to the Purling River as if we were heading for the Ralksin Ferry. The walk took a few hours; the boy was slow, partly because he was weak and pampered and partly because I don’t think he understood the danger. At any moment I expected to hear hounds singing on our trail, but we reached the bank of the Purling with no sign of pursuit.
“Give me your knife.”
He gave it to me without protest. He was pale and shivering, holding my cloak close to his chest. I waded into the water up to my ankles and walked downstream, then threw the knife a bit further downstream where it clattered onto the rocks lining the bank. Whoever pursued him would know or guess it was his, and though the dogs would lose his trail in the water, they might continue downstream west toward the Ferry.
“Walk in the water. Keep the cloak dry and don’t touch dry ground.”
“Why?” His voice wavered a bit, almost a whine.
I felt my jaw tighten in irritation. “In case they use dogs.” I wondered whether I was being absurdly cautious, whether they would bother to use dogs at all.
He still looked confused, dazed, and I pushed him into the water ahead of me. I kept one hand firm on his shoulder and steered him up the river. Ankle-deep, the water was painfully cold as it seeped through the seams in my boots. The boy stumbled several times and would have stopped, but I pushed him on.
We’d gone perhaps half a league upriver when I heard the first faint bay of hounds. They were behind us, already approaching the riverbank, and the baying rapidly grew louder. I took my hand from the boy’s shoulder to curl my fingers around the hilt of my sword. As if my sword would do much. If they wanted him dead, they’d have archers. I was turning our few options over in my mind and trying to determine whether the hounds had turned upriver or were merely spreading out along the bank, when the boy stopped abruptly.
He shook his head. “They’re my dogs. They won’t hurt me.”
I grabbed the collar of his shirt and shoved him forward, hissing into his ear, “Fear the hunters, not the dogs! You’re the fox. Don’t forget that.”
He stumbled and twisted a bit in protest, but I kept my hand firm and pushed him forward again. Gradually we made our way upriver, keeping the water always above our ankles. The princeling was trembling, and I didn’t let go of his collar, afraid he would fall.
“I don’t think I can go much farther.” His voice shook.
The baying of the hounds had grown no closer, and I relaxed a little, but we were hardly safe yet. “The crossing isn’t far.”
He said nothing else, and I kept us going until the ford. The crossing itself took only a few minutes, but the water came up over our knees. I kept us in the water for half a league up the other side of the river before finally moving us away into the trees.
My feet were a raging ache of cold and I was shivering almost uncontrollably. But I didn’t trust the boy to keep steady, so I pushed him ahead of me for another hour through the growing darkness. Finally we reached an ideal shelter, a grand old tree that had finally been conquered by time and fallen, leaving a broad trunk stretched out on the ground. The boy collapsed to sit with his back against the tree while I gathered wood for another fire, this one small and subdued. A few hills would hide the light from anyone at the river. It was dangerous if they were close behind us, but we’d both lose our feet if we didn’t have a fire soon.
We sat by the fire in silence, the heat stinging our faces. He glanced at me from time to time. I was content with the quiet, and he spoke first, as I was preparing the last of the tubers to roast. I should have been hunting as we walked, but I’d been too cold and too intent on listening for pursuit.
“Please forgive my curiosity, but I’ve never seen anyone like you before. Where are you from?” His voice had the soft lilt of the highborn.
“Llewton.” I smiled at his look of confusion. “I’m Dari. There aren’t many of us in Stonehaven. The Dari are from the east, and the few in Erdem are mostly near the eastern border.” He waited, watching me, so I added, “I was a foundling in Llewton. I served under your father until about four years ago.”
He leaned forward in interest and I handed him the bowl of kiberries and the first steaming skewer.
“I’ve never seen a Dari before.”
I grunted and when he flinched back I laughed. “Do I frighten you?”
“Should I be frightened?” He flung the question back with a bit of fire and I smiled.
“If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done so already.”
He smiled then. “Thank you for your help. I haven’t thanked you properly, and I do apologize. Normally I have better manners.” He tucked into the food with good will, studying me closely.
I couldn’t blame him for his curiosity, but I admit it made me self-conscious. We Dari are much taller than Tuyets and much darker. Dark brown or black eyes are normal, but an unfortunate few of us have green eyes. I am uncommonly tall even for a Dari. For all my looks, I have lived among Tuyets all my life and speak Darin only haltingly.
Normally I would have wrapped up in my cloak close by the fire and slept soundly, one hand on my knife in case of trouble but unworried and relatively comfortable. To sleep with one eye open and yet rest well is an invaluable skill for any warrior.
The boy offered me my cloak. I shook my head, and he looked relieved, with a quick, almost embarrassed smile. He wasn’t suited for harsh weather, and it was less trouble to simply give it to him than be slowed if he became ill.
The night was long and cold, the wind cutting through the trees. My wet breeches didn’t dry much. I amused myself by trying to identify the animals in the darkness by the sounds they made. Once I heard the far off cry of a wolf, and much closer the sudden sharp cry of a rabbit dying, probably caught by an owl, and the soft rustle of rodents in the leaves and snow. I tried once to lie down, but the ground sucked the warmth right from my bones, so I spent the night pacing round the fire, feeding it wood when it got low.
Hakan slept the sleep of the dead, only a shock of yellow hair sticking out from the end of my cloak. My eyes were gritty by the time the sky began to turn grey. I left him and went hunting, taking two purflins and a dove in less than an hour. I wanted to get an early start, but when I returned the boy was still asleep.
I cleaned the birds, roasted them for our lunch, and wrapped them in a bit of cloth before finally waking him.
“Up with you now, we’d best get on.”
He rubbed his eyes blearily. “It’s early.”
“Do you want to be in town with a warm bed tonight?”
“So do I.” I slung my pack over my shoulder and started off. He followed me, my cloak still wrapped around his shoulders.
“You didn’t sleep?”
I didn’t answer. He could hardly have made the night warmer, and he needed the rest more than I did.
“I’m sorry.” He sounded genuinely apologetic and I smiled a little.
“We’ll reach Four Corners by late afternoon. Do you have any money?”
“Why?” His voice was cautious.
“It makes paying for things like beds and dinners easier.” We walked in silence for some minutes before I questioned him. “Are you going to explain why you were fleeing the palace?”
“My father died last night. I mean, the night before I left. Yesterday morning Tibi woke me early and told me to leave immediately. He gave me money and told me not even to stop by the stables because they were too easy to see from the windows. I snuck out through the kitchen.” He sounded very young, a slight tremor in his voice.
“My tutor, Tibon Rusta.” A childish nickname, then.
“You trust him?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You left then?”
“Yes. I went out the eastern gate and through Stonehaven.”
Rusta might have paid dearly for that warning, but there was no point in bringing that to the boy’s attention. Or perhaps it had been convenient for Rusta to send Hakan out to his death in the snow rather than to open himself for accusations of assassination.
“What are you going to do?”
He was silent, as I had expected. I wondered how much he knew of the coup we had all expected.
Vidar had been positioning himself to take over for months, and nothing had been said about the prince. The boy had been almost forgotten in the palace, his father taking no great pains to give him responsibility, to let him earn the respect of the people.
The king’s health had been declining for several years, but in the last few months he’d grown much worse. Vidar, the seneschal, had assumed more responsibility each day, and by many accounts he had been competent, though rather harsh. But he wasn’t the heir, nor was the prince young enough to require a regent to rule before he came of age.
“Do you have any friends who would shelter you?”
There was a long silence, and finally he said quietly, “Perhaps some might, but they’re all in Stonehaven. I’m not sure enough to ask them.”
I cursed inside. He had no friends, no plan, no sword, no horse, and no idea how to survive alone. It would have been so simple to leave him to fend for himself. I might as well kill him myself; he’d be lucky to last a day.
I wouldn’t last much longer without a cloak, either. My lungs stung from the frigid air. My hair and shirt were damp from the snow and my back ached from the constant shivering.
The throne belonged to the prince by right. With the support of the army, removing a usurper should be easy. I wondered what the army would do, whether they would cast their support behind the seneschal or whether they would hold out for the prince.
My soldier’s oath was fulfilled when I was honorably discharged from the kedani, the corps of foot soldiers. I could have walked away. But when I served the king Hakan Emyr, I did so for love of Erdem, not for love of the king. Every soldier swears allegiance to the kingdom, not to the king’s person.
The hereditary rule of the king is well established, but there’s logic in it. The army supports the heir because the heir is trained from childhood to be the best possible leader for the country.
This had been the system in Erdem for generations, but it began breaking down with the king Hakan Emyr, the boy’s father. He didn’t earn the respect of the people and, at least when I served in the suvari, the horsemen, and then in the kedani, there were serious doubts about his leadership. Discontent. Distrust. Fears of Tarvil marauders from the north had begun to rise, and questions of border security had become much more pressing as the army dwindled. There was little money to pay soldiers, and many simply retired, took their pay and left to find better jobs. Disillusioned. The word wasn’t strong enough.
“What will you do?”
“I don’t know.” His voice was miserable, and I waited for him to explain. “I don’t know if I want to be king.”
Odd that he questioned it. I would have assumed that, being born to the throne, he would have accepted the idea. “Why not?”
Again he was silent, this time for long that I stopped and turned around to face him. “Why not?”
“The job of a king isn’t easy.”
“So you only want to do easy things?” I didn’t bother to hide my scorn.
“No!” He frowned. “I don’t know if I can do it well. I wouldn’t be the only one to suffer for it if I’m not a good king.”
“Yes. The position carries responsibility. You’d shy away from that?”
He hesitated. “I assumed the threat came from Nekane Vidar, my father’s seneschal. If he seizes power, perhaps he’ll be better for Erdem than I will.”
He flushed and stared at the ground. “You should know. He’s a warrior, battle-tested, with a good grasp of strategy and tactics. We’ve heard reports all winter that Tafari is preparing to invade. I don’t have any experience, and I’m not good with a sword. I would think it would be better for everyone if he was in charge of our defense.”
I turned around and began walking again. Right enough, Nekane Vidar the seneschal was battle-tested. I’d served under him distantly, when I was not long out of training. I hadn’t spoken to him, of course, but I knew him by sight and reputation. At the time, at least, he’d been respected, though not well liked. Harshly demanding and quite competent.
I’d believed him loyal to the kingdom and to the king himself. He was wellborn and served as a suvari officer before he had been appointed in the king’s ministerial staff, rising to the rank of seneschal some five or six years ago. I hadn’t particularly liked him, but I wouldn’t have thought him likely to send assassins after anyone. He was more direct than that. But perhaps I was wrong. I wouldn’t rule out anything yet.
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.