R. S. Pyne
Art by Christine Graham
The market town of Hard Riding waited, ready as it would ever be for the three day sword fair soon to descend on it. Jevan Blade-master sat in the early morning sunshine with a large, stave-bound tankard of ale and watched the road, a favorite hammer resting on his lap. His forge was carefully sited for this very purpose, an ideal place to while away the rare moments when he did not have ‘too much to do’. You can die from that, his father said, the old man quickly proving himself right by dropping down dead in the middle of an impatient warlord‘s order. For much of the year‘s turning, Far-western Hundred towns saw few strangers, but the midsummer trading event drew them like wasps to a mug of honey beer.
“Are you still here?” he said to his apprentice. Kai was twelve years old, and unable to settle to sweeping the floor. The son of his favorite sister, desperate to go to the fair, but he lacked the courage to ask for a day off. The boy was away with the fairies and, in a place of red hot metal and large hammers, such distraction often proved fatal. “Get yourself away before I change my mind.”
“If you are sure,” Kai hesitated, sent on his way with a pair of copper coins. He did not look back, breaking into a run before his uncle had a change of heart. A group of amber merchants in characteristic orchid purple robes passed the forge, closely attended by their bodyguards. Pickpockets and cut purses would not risk a confrontation with men who killed for a living, preferring to rob those less able to defend themselves. A trio of gray clad pilgrims followed the merchants through the wide double gates, their faces set in a permanent scowl of disapproval.
“Are you taking orders?” An unfamiliar voice interrupted his people watching. “I have something that may be of interest.”
“I never turn down work,” Jevan switched his mind back to business. That had not been good for weeks, barely enough to keep his forge running. He studied the potential customer carefully and saw no reason to send him away. The man gave his name and unfolded a square of crumpled parchment on the table, weighted down with stones. “It must be exactly as shown here or I may as well go and face the dragon with a toothpick.”
“Dragon?” Jevan looked at the faded drawing and saw a delicate weapon more suited to fencing practice: a thing of beauty rather than a war tool for flying, fiery monsters. “Are you sure it will be heavy enough?”
“Yes.” Karys Drake did not look like a typical Hero – all rippling muscles, bad attitude and body odor, drunk most of the time when they were not trying to kill each other. A westerner from the coast by his speech, he dressed in black, not a link of mail or studded leather in sight. The long sword sheathed at his hip kept company with a wolf-headed fighting knife. He held out a hand better suited to a harpist than a killer of monsters.
“Eighty marks now as a sign of good faith and for materials, another two hundred paid when the job is completed, but it must be done by the next new moon. Tell nobody of our arrangement and never let the blade touch earth. Do we have a deal?”
There were other conditions – not a curse word uttered, even if he did hit his thumb with a hammer. He could not eat meat, fight or get drunk until the sword was finished, spill no blood, kick a dog or throw spoil at the cat even when it scratched him. The rebellious side of him objected, but there had been a time when all smiths lived under such stringent rules for they were closer to the Gods, gifted with their own magic of creation. Govannon, the Lord of the Forge, demanded such dedication from those that followed him.
“We have a deal but it would help if the instructions were better,” he pointed to a large pack-moth hole, hoping the cursed insects had not eaten the most important part.
A strange commission indeed, guided only by a piece of paper that had seen better days centuries ago, but Jevan Blademaster liked a challenge. He spat in his hand and struck palms to seal the bargain, a solemn promise not to be broken. Karys Drake looked like a man of honor, someone to be trusted even though they had never met before. He folded the parchment and pushed it across the table before taking his leave. “That is just a guide. Sleep on it and all will become clear.” His tall, lean figure quickly disappeared into market day crowds, leaving the sword smith to study the faded, insect and age ravaged design. An experienced mind quickly worked out some of the basics but skills long lost to smith-kind could not be gleaned from just looking at it. He followed Karys’ advice, hoping for inspiration to settle on him during the night. A woman came in his dreams, walking out of a pool of crystal water, a long silk gown drying the instant her foot touched solid ground. She was beautiful, but hard as fine steel, the spirit of a sword blade given human form.
“You wish to learn my secret, how to forge the Dragon Blade?” Her musical voice silvery as moonlight on the surface of a mountain lake held a trace of amusement as he struggled to find the words.
“Lady, I do.”
“What can you offer me in return?”
“Whatever you ask for.”
She laughed, reaching out a white hand to touch his face. The touch was feather light, brief as a settling thistledown. “I give my knowledge freely for it is in my best interests to do so. Without you, I cannot be born into the world.” As good a reason as any, Jevan heard himself say, but could not remember anything else about the dream. He woke early the next morning with the forged sword etched in his mind, wisdom of the ancient smiths clear and ready for tapping.
“Kai?” he saw the boy stumble, tripping over a half-finished fire dog, sleep still clouding his mind. “Wake up – I need you with me today. We have a new sword to make and only a few days to do it.” He wiped sweat from his streaming face, watching the heated metal for any sign of weakness or impurity.
Only the best for this blade, with a fist sized lump of star iron thrown into the mix to add to the magic. He drank a cup of cool spring water to ease his parched throat and continued the cycle, heat and then bond the bundle of metal rods together with quick, well placed strokes. Different components added strength and resilience, but more importantly ensured a snake patterned blade on contact with finishing acid. Under his expert eye, the long slender metal tongue took shape, ready for inlaid words of power. By the second day, it was beautiful, all that remained to polish and give it an edge. Kai would do most of that, the long tedious hours of work good for his training. The boy had a good eye and would not embarrass himself with a half-finished job.
As good as his word, Karys Drake knocked at the forge door and waited to be invited in, the outstanding payment made before he had even seen the sword. “You have done well,” he said, when it was in his hands. He ran a practiced finger down the blade, appreciating a master smith’s work. Early morning sunlight glittered off spidery silver runes set into the steel. Each had been carefully copied from the scrap of parchment, painstaking, heart stopping work that seemed to take forever. Any mistake would ruin the magic forever.
“Is it as you wanted?” Jevan said, hardly daring to breathe. He had put so much of himself into the sword, worked harder than ever before, but without customer approval – he would not be paid. “The runes are copied exactly. My apprentice has a good eye and I think that he got everything right”
“They said you were the best in this area.” Karys raised the sword to feel its weight and balance, a blue sheen rippling down the patterned blade. Inner fire woke deep within the amber pommel stone and blazed there.
“She is perfect. I may well put some business your way again.”
Jevan poured two tankards of ale as a final gesture of hospitality, watching his greatest work disappear in a carefully wrapped bundle. Sudden madness gripped him, a man who had never been one for either adventure or suicide missions. “I have never seen a dragon.”
“Stay or come – as you wish.” The westerner showed no surprise or hesitation that he should ask. He drank a silent toast and smiled. “I will swing by here again before I go. If you want to take my road to the Spine Mountains, then be ready to leave.”
A day’s ride away, the cave-ridden limestone foothills were a haunt of robbers and monsters, wolf-head outlaws and hermits who just wanted to be left alone.
Wonderful weather for it, Jevan thought as he considered the prospect. Getting back in the saddle after three years of walking everywhere carried the promise of saddle sores, his horse fat and spoiled from a life of leisure.
“You are in charge until I get back,” he watched Kai try to make sense of his master’s sudden wanderlust. “Try not to burn the place down.”
The boy nodded, secretly pleased to be given such responsibility.
Karys took his newly forged sword from its cradle of oiled leather and the inner fire woke once more. At his touch, the weapon revealed its power. A soft breeze stirred the hanging curtains of moss and swept particles of fine gold with invisible fingers.
“Why did you not tell me it was enchanted?” Jevan whispered – a little annoyed that such information had been left out. Magic cost extra and he cursed himself for not adjusting the fee before they had struck palms on the deal.
“You never asked. Be quiet now.” The tall westerner made a silencing gesture, warning that now was not the best time for long conversations about money.
“Do not make a move. Do not even sneeze.”
Jevan felt his heart miss a beat as a vast, reptilian shape unfolded from the shadows, moving with frightening speed and silence. The elegant, horse head yawned, showing its double row of teeth large as steak knives to full advantage. Lamp yellow eyes regarded the trespassers, a fierce ancient intelligence burning brightly. It blew out a gust of sulfur tinged breath but did not make any hostile movement, watching them to see what they would do. Muscles in its long neck shifted under the leathery armored skin, fine striations on each scale reducing its weight. A rivulet of water from the cave roof fell onto scales the color of high grade red gold, tracing a single point of weakness all dragons had to live with. The droplets changed form on contact with the magical creature, dropping to the sandy floor in a gilded shower.
“Wait”, Karys gripped the blade master’s shoulder, pulling him back. “Give the sword time. The beast is still young, inexperienced and unsure of itself. A wiser wyrm would have struck long before now and we would both be dead.”
He spoke with respect, the heavily accented voice holding not a trace of fear or self-doubt. Jevan realized then that he was not a Slayer at all but a Soother – one of the rare breed that wandered the country calming dragons before they did something silly and died for it. The dragon moved closer, sweeping its head from side to side like a cat with a mouse, fascinated, enthralled by the music.
A woman’s voice sang a wordless lullaby: a honey sweet invitation to rest that affected all who heard it.
Burning yellow eyes grew heavy as the great body coiled around a mound of treasure, making a more comfortable bed before sleep claimed it.
They left the sword buried up to the hilt in another pile of yellow gold, its beautiful song still rippling like a stream.
The dragon slept on, protected by strong magic, waiting for a day long foretold when all slayers changed profession.