The series starts here
Late the next morning Kaila hid a smile as Kreg tried, unsuccessfully, to hide the way aches pulled at his body. He had slept the night bunking on a pallet of folded blankets in the room she shared with Shillond. He was still wearing the light cloak of a style favored by the desert nomads. Knowing how the local people felt about the nomads, Kaila thought that Kreg would find the cloak a burden in more ways than one.
“‘Twere best if I did the bargaining,” She told Kreg. “Just watch and learn.”
“As you say,” he said.
Trevanta by day was a far different place from Trevanta by night. Hawkers, selling from wagons, lined the streets, extolling the virtues of their various wares. Crowds surged through the streets, passing in and out of various shops that claimed to sell a plethora of goods. Wagons and carts bounced over the deeply rutted, muddy streets, splashing mud and slop on anyone too slow to get out of the way. Hogs wandered freely, set loose to eat the garbage dumped into the streets.
On closer look, however, the wares hawked from wagons were spare indeed, with more space than goods on the racks. The crowds too, were thin, only seeming thick in their frantic energy.
Shillond had been right. The city was dying and only pretending to health. Few of the ships, which had been the life-blood of Trevanta, docked here anymore. Trevanta was yet one more casualty in the collapse of the Empire. Had old King Cael been right, she wondered, to venture down the path of independence from Shend? Much evil seemed to have sprung from it. And yet…. She sighed. Such matters were beyond her.
Sometime during the night the storm had spent its fury. Now the sky was clear, with only an occasional wad of cloud to mar its deep blue. Yet even after the cleansing rain, the city stank of waste, filth, and decay. Kaila longed to be back in Norveth, the capital of Aerioch, with its cool breezes and streets not so choked in filth.
“First, a stout sword is needful,” Kaila said, turning back to Kreg. “When I did examine the briganti’s sword I found it too slender for serious combat. A pretty toy, fit only for petty duels or for frightening townsmen. We must obtain training swords as well for ‘twould please me not to carve you up in practice.”
“No,” Kreg said. “I don’t think I’d enjoy it much either.”
Kaila laughed and clouted him on the shoulder. “‘Tis but the truth, I warrant.”
Although she had masked her strike as a friendly clout, she tested Kreg as well. Despite his height, his slim form bore little muscle. Yet she had found that what muscle he had was hard and well toned, and his slim frame was stronger than it seemed. Strength he would need, for she had seen that he had little of the skills that served a man well in the world. Untutored he was and innocent as a babe.
But had not Shillond once said that knowing ones ignorance was the greatest wisdom? If true, then she suspected that Kreg was wise indeed. Although Kreg had strange humor several of her former squires could have learned much from Kreg’s willingness to listen and to assay.
“Ah, but what do I espy?” Kaila said after a moment. “If yon sign speaks sooth, we approach Trevanta’s master weaponsmith.”
“Then let us enter,” Kreg bowed, sweeping one arm to invite Kaila to precede him. Kaila stepped through the shop’s doorway with a quick glance over her shoulder to see that Kreg followed her.
“Pay heed and act as I do,” She whispered over her shoulder.
She leaned forward to peer at the swords that dangled in racks along one of the walls. A collection of spears, swords, and axes festooned the other wall but these Kaila ignored. She slid one, the best of a poor lot, free from the rack and held it before her eyes. “These are truly poor blades,” she said. “It warrants me that these all are apprentice work. Behold the looseness of the joining between blade and hilts. Note the quality of the wire wrapping of the grip. I find it appalling that such should be displayed for sale.” She handed the sword to Kreg.
“Oh, I agree,” Kreg said, although his voice sounded none too certain. In this sword, wood peeked through gaps in the wire wrapping of the grip. “You only need to look at them to see.”
“May I be of service, Lord and Lady?” A man approached them. The top of his head just came up to Kreg’s armpit. The man bowed and waited, wiping his hands on his knee length, black, leather apron. Muscle bulged under his tunic, his right arm thicker than his left. Dozens of small, puckered scars dotted his arms. His proportions, his clothing, the scars, all cried out “Smith” to Kaila’s eyes.
Kaila ignored the man for some seconds, while Kreg shuffled his feet nervously.
“Mayhap,” Kaila said with a slight lifting of her shoulders, “if you have better than these to offer.” She waved at the rack of swords. “It may be that we can make do.”
“Certes, I have wares which may please such a fabulous warrior as you no doubt are.” The smith bowed. “You are obviously a person of much discernment to note that these blades are of inferior make.” He bowed again. “If you will be patient for the nonce–” Bow. “–I shall display for you the master’s own work.” Bow.
The master’s own work, Kaila thought, meaning his own work, no doubt.
“As you will.” Again, Kaila lifted her shoulders a bare finger width, then let them drop. “As I am here already, ’tis as well I see what you have, though it be little enough. Bring these swords.”
“At once, Illustrious Madam.” The man bowed yet again and backed out through a door leading into the rear of the smithy, still bowing.
“Do always remember,” Kaila whispered to Kreg as the door swung shut on leather hinges. “A master will oft display goods of inferior make, apprentice work or his own failures, and then deal evilly with any possessing not the wit to know the difference. But be wary. As like for pieces of true merit to be concealed among the poor as a test of ones discernment. Here, there are none such.”
“So that was all true?”
“Aye. Save that yon smith was likely the master himself.”
He started to ask another question but Kaila raised a hand to warn him to silence. The smith had returned.
“Do examine these, Madam,” the man said. “Mayhap you will find what you seek among them.”
“An’ they are better than those I have already seen, then mayhap.”
Kaila suppressed an inrush of air as she saw the swords on the counter. One of the swords was a shashyn, a serpent, the great sword of Aerioch. As quickly as excitement brushed her mind, she quashed it. Poor copies of the Aeriochnon shashyn sometimes appeared in nations bordering Aerioch, toys for the local nobles to play with and pretend that they could match the Knights of Aerioch. Yet without the secrets of its making, secrets closely guarded by swordsmiths in Aerioch, any foreign made shashyn could be scarce more than a plaything, fit for children to play at being knights.
Paying no particular attention to the shashyn, Kaila inspected the swords the smith laid on the counter. She paid particular attention to the edges and the ricasso, the unbeveled area in front of the guards. She held in turn several swords by the grip and swung them slowly in graceful arcs, using only her wrist and forearm, trying their balance.
In the end, she turned to the shashyn. The blade and grip were the correct length. When she set the point on the ground, the blade came up to her hip while the pommel just reached the height of her short ribs. About a hand long for her but, she eyed Kreg critically, it should be perfect for Kreg’s longer frame. The blade was also the correct width and thickness, with a wide, shallow groove that ran half the length of the blade. The ricasso was short, the edges starting almost immediately in front of the guard. And, how strange, there was no maker’s mark.
From the hilts, it tapered gracefully to the point. The edge was not particularly well honed, but the basic shape was correct. Some candles with a stone would correct the flaw.
The steel of the blade did not have the delicate serpentine patterns produced by whatever secret techniques went into the making of the true shashyn of Aerioch and Kaila was dubious that it would be both strong enough to stand in combat yet not so brittle as to shatter at the first blow.
She decided to test it anyway and placed the point of the sword against one of the stone tiles of the floor. She leaned her weight against the blade judging the amount of bow. With a twist of her wrist, she let the point spring free of the stone and watched the blade snap back to straightness too fast for the eye to follow and leaving no residual curve to the blade.
She looked at the smith. “Pells?”
For answer the smith gestured at a door at the side of the shop that led to a small courtyard. In the middle of that yard stood a wooden post.
Kaila approached the post then looked back at the smith.
“As the Lady pleases,” he said.
Kaila slid her right foot forward, leaving the sword trailing behind on the left, sloped down so that the tip hovered a few fingerwidths above the dirt. She paused for a bare moment then struck, driving the sword with measured force into the pell.
Three more times she struck at different angles, striking with different parts of the blade. For the final strike she closed with the pell and drove all her strength and weight behind the base of the blade, with the cross hilt just kissing the wood.
Wrenching the sword free from the wood she held it up and sighted along its length. Still as straight as when she had begun.
Gods’ Iron, she thought. The sword had to be made of Gods’ Iron. It would suffice.
“Verily, there is little enough of value here,” Kaila said. She walked back into the shop. “What ask you for this blade, though it is fit only to skin some farmer’s fat hogs?”
“Ah!” The smith beamed. “Trust Madam to select the best sword in the shop! A true warrior’s sword! Note the edge, keen enou’ to behead a krayt at one blow. Note the balance. Note the weight. It is heavy enou’ to withstand the stoutest of broadswords, yet light enou’ to be swift on the attack and on the parry. Surely such a blade will be a joy to use.”
“I note,” Kaila said, “that you say naught of the temper. Will the edge hold true or will it be blunted at the first strike? Still, for the nonce, it will suffice.” She shrugged. “What ask you?”
“Why, madam.” The smith bowed. “Such a fine sword could not possibly be sold for less than the price of twenty-five rabeni.”
“Twenty-five rabeni? For this tin billet?” Kaila dropped the sword, shaking her hand as if the sword had burned her. “I will give you ten.”
“Ten!” The smith shrieked. He grabbed his dull brown hair as though to pull it out by the roots. “Were I to part with the swordsmith’s pride for so paltry a sum, he would have me flayed alive then boiled in oil. And then he would have my flayed hide made into scabbards! I will sell to you for twenty-three.”
Kaila frowned and sighed. “‘Tis theft at half the price. Nevertheless, I will pay thirteen.”
“For that sum–” The smith shook his head. “–I would avoid only being made into scabbards. Still, in honor of your companion who stands looking on and is so bold as to wear the garb of desert raiders–” He frowned. “–I will sell for twenty.”
“Fifteen,” Kaila said.
“Eighteen,” the man said, “and not a ve’ib less.”
Kaila shook her head. “‘Tis robbery, but eighteen if you will also supply two whalebone training swords, balanced and weighted thus–” She held up the shashyn. “–in trade for my companion’s rapier.”
“Although of a surety the smith will punish me,” the smith said, “I will do as you bid.”
He stalked into the back of the shop, grumbling, and returned with the training swords.