By Steven Brust and Skyler White
Illustrated by John Blumen
You wonder how much of a difference accidents make. I don't believe the way things work out is just happenstance, but I also have trouble believing in destiny. One day Mum decided we needed a new kettle, and that set everything off. What if she'd decided that a week earlier, or a day later? I don't know.
Of course, this was before I met your grandmother. If you really want to know how it all happened, I'll tell you, but it's a long story. Maybe your grandmother will help me out.
My mother, your great-grandmother, was a barber and a dentist. She and father had had a farm, a freehold I'm proud to say, and kept some pigs until the fever came and took father and my little brother with it. I was nine then. After that, Mum traded the farm for a wagon and mules and razors and scissors. We traveled a circuit of the local villages, cutting hair, drawing teeth, sometimes doing surgery. She was teaching me to sharpen her razors, but it went slow because I wasn't very good at it. It takes a steady hand and a good eye, and as you grow up, you'll learn that you can't be good at everything.
There was a smith in Lynchburg, one of our regular stops. He was a good smith, too: old, but he could pound you out a dozen nails while you were saying good morning. Mum had decided we needed that new kettle, so while we were in town she sent me over there to try to work out a deal.
His smithy was next to an empty lot on one side and a cobbler named Forest on the other. We hobbled the mules, drew water for them in the town well, and left them to graze in the lot while Mum went to see who needed a molar cut or a beard pulled. I went to the smithy full of 16-year-old confidence that I would emerge with a bargain for a kettle that would make Mum beam with pride.
It was hot in there, and Smith had his back to me, so I couldn't tell what he was hammering on. I stepped between the concrete blocks and the stool he wasn't using and saw a sword on the anvil. At about the same time, he noticed me and said, "Whatever you want, I don't have time, boy."
"That's a sword," I said.
"And people say today's youth are ignorant."
"I want to commission--"
"Come back the day after tomorrow."
"I didn't know you made swords."
He straightened up and twisted both ways as if stiff, then he took a long drink out of a wooden tankard--leave it to a blacksmith to have a wooden tankard, right? He said, "I used to. Still haven't lost the knack." He glanced at the blade--there was no hilt yet--and said, "And this one is special."
"Yes, sir," I said.
He shrugged. "Not that you'd know a masterwork from something stamped out of a sheet of junk-steel."
"But this is important. This is a gift for his Majesty."
"You know his Majesty?"
"No, but Lord Beltham does, and he commissioned it."
"Wow," I said.
He seemed pleased at how impressed I was. He wiped his hands on his apron and said, "What is it you want?"
"That means a sand mold."
"All right. I'll finish with this sweetheart tomorrow. If you come by in the afternoon, we can talk while I sharpen it."
"Can you show me how?"
"I can let you watch," he said more kindly than I'd expected. "But you can't touch this one. She's special. Tonight I'm going to heat her up again and hammer in--no, I shouldn't say. In any case, I'll see you tomorrow."
"Yes, sir," I said, and took my leave.
Mum and I slept, as we usually did, in the wagon. The next day, I returned to the smithy in the afternoon. The sword was on the ground: a gleaming double-edged weapon, with a sleek blade that looked bigger than me, gold filament wrapped around the leather hilt and a large red jewel gleaming from the pommel. Next to it, a step away, was Smith, staring up at the ceiling with lifeless eyes. There was no blood, no sign of what had killed him. There was an expression of surprise on his face, but that's not unusual when people die.
I don't know how long I stood there. It isn't like I'd never seen a dead person; I'd seen my own father when I was much younger. But this was different. Smith had been so very alive yesterday, and now he was just lying there, staring up at nothing.
I was about to go and find someone to tell, but then my eye returned to the sword, with its red jewel in the pommel. I didn't know what the jewel was, but I knew it was worth more than everything Mum and I owned put together. Could I steal it? Could I steal the sword? I thought about it, but I lacked the courage; the punishment for stealing back then was--well, some of you are too young to hear about it.
But then it came to me that if I were to deliver the sword, there might be a reward. Perhaps not as much as the jewel was worth, but still welcome. Before I could think about it too much, I picked up the sword, surprised at how light it felt, and, resting it on my shoulder, I set off for the castle. Now you're going to laugh at your old grandfather, because it never crossed my mind that if I picked up the sword and started carrying it away, someone would think I was stealing it, even if that wasn't my intention. The fact is, I didn't even think about that until much later. I can only say I got lucky; no one was about.
Evening was approaching by the time I reached the great gate of Castle Greenmere. I hoped it wouldn't take too long, I didn't want Mum to start worrying.
As I approached the gate, a guard on the rampart challenged me. I don't now remember exactly what he said, but I remember that I had no idea how to answer him.
There are three things I've known all my life: that nothing is an accident, that true love happens only at first sight, and that a town should have only one witch. Lynchburg had three. Well, two and half since I was still quite small at the time, and honestly, not much of a witch. Not for lack of ambition, mind. I dreamed of great things. Cassandra said it was how I spent all my days, but she was mistaken. My days were taken up with carrying messages between the castle witch and the witch of the woods. You'd think witches would send ravens, or speak to each other in dreams, but they sent me. And if I dreamed some along the way, well, no one the wiser and little harm done.
Did I dream of your grandfather? No, of course not. I hadn't met him yet.
Now, neither witch was what you'd call a natural teacher, but both would let me read from their grimoires, or use odds and bobs from their workbenches for practicing whilst I awaited their replies. And they both liked to hear stories from me. Almost as much as you do, so maybe you'll grow up to be witches one day. They paid for my tales in honey tea and sweets, and I could often trade the same news for two oatcakes, one from each witch.
So on the morning our story begins, two weeks before your grandfather started it, I was up early and waiting in the castle yard to carry a message to the witch of the woods. Usually, I could do a bit of magic on the guards, or slip out through the eastern sally door, but that morning they were stationed in twos and looking like their clothes all had brambles sewn in. Cgwill and Brytin were waiting by the gate, huddled against the chill, he with a small, silver-banded box in his hands, and she with a scroll that bore the castle Greenmeer seal. I sidled up to them, my hands in the pockets of my cloak. "We all have errands early, it seems."
"No wonder you're the witch's girl, with that quick eye," Cgwill sneered.
"I suppose you won't be needing a spell to warm your feet then," I said.
"I do." Brytin turned her pink-nosed face to me. "I must go to every seamstress in the town for samples for dresses for milady for her journey for the king's ball!"
"Too many fors to sally forth," Cgwill grumbled.
"I was here second," Brytin said. "You were first, and she's come third," Brytin pointed at me. "There's no fourth."
"Any second," I said.
Brytin counted on her
fingers, shrugged, and sneezed. "Where are you to deliver that?" she
asked Cgwill, eying the engraved silverwork of the box. "I go first to the
seamstress on Brightwell; perchance you can walk with me?"
There are three things I've known all my life: that nothing is an accident, that true love happens only at first sight, and that a town should have only one witch
"The smithy," Cgwill said. "The opposite way."
"Oh." Brytin sniffed against the cold. "Likely you bear something to be made into a gift for the king, should he marry the duke's daughter," she said and sighed.
Cgwill tried scraping mud off one boot with another just as muddy from which I thought he agreed, but had been sworn to secrecy. I also knew the duke's daughter wasn't much to look at, nor very bright, so whatever Lord Beltham believed would sweeten the pot must be quite sweet indeed.
Which put me in mind of the witches and what they might feed me for news of such a secret thing. They'd be hungrier than I was to know what Cgwill carried.
"I'll give you a spell for safe travels," I told him, "if you let me see."
"I walk very carefully."
"I'll give you a kiss," Brytin easily outbid me.
"A proper one?"
Cgwill defined what he meant by that in more detail than I'll repeat, but Cgwill explained, and Brytin agreed, and they looked around the courtyard for a private place to make their trade. "I'll hold that box for you," I suggested. "Since you'll need your hands free."
"He will?" Brytin's nose-pink had spread to her cheeks, and almost her eyes.
"If he knows how to kiss, he will," I said.
She blushed collar to kerchief and reached for him. He gave the box to me.
They nipped into the stables, and I felt along the metal hasps for the bar that held them pinned. I magicked the silver into ribbon and pulled it free. I lifted the lid, and the box nearly fell from my hands. The ribbon did.
Nestled in black silk inscribed with runes, lay a gem as large as a pullet's egg. Even in the grey of morning, it shone, smooth and glittering. It was clear as spring water, smooth as baby's gums, and as hungry. The iron in my blood sang to feed it. My teeth ached like their roots had caught fire. The morning's gentle air seized me, and the lid snapped shut with my shaking.
The gate guards shouted to the tower watch, and with a rasping like the breath in my lungs, the gates began opening. Brytin and Cgwill would hear, and soon come running. I dropped to my knees. I could see the mud and my groping hands only in shades of red. I picked up a thing that looked more like a snake or a twisted vein than a ribbon and threaded it with trembling fingers back through the rings that formed the casket's hinge. I'd just gotten it in place when a shout from Cgwill almost cost me the whole thing.
"I kept the key with me, witchling!" He took the box from my hands. "Only Brytin gets to see. And I know all there is to about kissing," he added, whispering. "So don't go thinking you taught me anything."
I nodded and the box's spine fluttered in the wind. It took all my will to turn it back to silver. I would have but little strength left if Brytin needed comforting. I found her doubled over, giggling. "He put his fingers in my mouth," she told me, wheezing. "All four of them!"
And no, before you ask me, that isn't how kissing's done properly.
I left out only that bit of biting when I told the witch in the woods my story, and she gave me two whole oat cakes, which I ate as I awaited her reply. I gave it, and the same tale to the castle witch, but she smashed a pitcher and gave me no sweets or honey tea, and I surmised the witches had learned to speak into each other's dreams at last and made an accounting.
Once she regained her temper, the castle witch charged me, "When next you see that stone again, no matter how it looks or if it's changed, you will know it. It is a stone of great magic and dark destiny."
I was pretty sure I'd told her that, but I didn't think it wise to say.
And that's why, when I first saw the magic stone again two weeks later, worked into the pommel of a gold filament wrapped sword with a leather hilt and a curving single-edged blade as long as my forearm, I knew two new things: that destiny had arrived at our castle gate not at all in the usual way, and that the guards would take both sword and head from the lad unless I acted. But invisibility's a difficult spell, and I don't know, I didn't do in purposefully, but with the way he was carrying it, and in a bit of a panic, I cloaked that curved, one-edged sword as a leg of lamb.
I stood at the castle gates with the magnificent two-edged, straight-bladed sword over my shoulder and the guard bellowing, "Speak up, boy!" at me. So I yelled as loud as I could, "A delivery for Lord Beltham!"
He grunted and turned away, I guess speaking to someone else, then turned back and said, "All right, then. He turned away and a man-sized door within the gate opened and there was another guard, who gestured to me with his head.
"Follow me, boy. I'll show you to the larder."
The larder? Were they going to feed me? Was that all the reward I was going to get for delivering this--
Instead of the sword, I was carrying a leg of lamb.
I stood there, as if my legs had grown into the flagstone and sprouted roots.
That was my first encounter with magic, and, of course, I didn't think to myself, something magical has happened, I thought, I must be losing my mind.
The guard grabbed me by the arm and jerked me along; I guess he thought I was some straw-haired farm boy overcome by the majesty of it all. I followed him. It was a good thing that my feet knew their business without orders from my head, because my head just wasn't doing any of the sorts of things I expect it to. As we walked, he said, "If you get grease on me, I'll skin you."
It was a few steps after that when I had my first clear thought, which was, I wonder why I don't have any grease on my hand?
Right then, a little slip of a girl with her hair pulled back tight and smudges on her face said, "Here's that leg at last! I'll take care of him from here, sir. And I don't envy the hiding he's going to get for being so late, I'll tell you that by the Six Mountains."
The guard looked at her. "Do I know you, girl?"
"Why, no sir, I don't think you do. But you know the corn-twists you ate last night."
"You made those?"
She curtsied, looking smug.
"What's for tonight, then?"
"Ah, wouldn't you like to know? Now, if I don't get this boy and his haunch to where they're expected, he won't be the only one getting a beating today."
The guard grunted, nodded, and said, "All right, then. But mind you show him out, too."
"Oh, I will be sure to, sir."
The guard went on his way. The kitchen girl looked at me and shook her head. "Well, if you aren't the most empty-headed blank page I've ever met! What did you think you were doing, bringing that right up to the door of the castle?"
I opened and closed my mouth a couple of times, trying to find words. I managed to get as far as, "When I got here, it wasn't--"
"Oh, hush," she said. "Come with me."
Her hand was cool and dry, and she was stronger than she looked. She brought me through a maze of passages to a narrow spiral stairway of stone, and as we climbed there was a jarring feeling and a clank. The leg of lamb was now a sword again.
"Oh, do come on, before we're both caught and sent to the Question."
I didn't know what the Question was, but it sounded scary, so I followed her swishing skirts--they looked like a badly made quilt, if truth be known--up the stairway, holding that double-edged sword once more.
"Of course I'm a witch, you flat-headed ligelfish. And if you keep standing here at the top of the stairway, someone will see us, and even I won't be able to save you.
Once I'd cloaked the sword as a leg of lamb, I had no idea what to do next. I didn't know how long the spell would hold, and I was terrified the poor lad carrying it would argue with the guard about what it was, or try to explain what it had been, which would have ended badly. The guard was dragging him along by the elbow, and, well, once you dive in, you can't get more wet. I plunged through the courtyard exclaiming about how late the leg was. "Oh!" I cried. "Here's that leg at last!"
And that was the only thing I could think to say. Luckily, your grandfather--as you know--has always been ready with words.
"I thank you, sir," he said to the guard. "I'm sure this kitchen lass can show me the rest of the way."
The guard looked at me. "Do I know you, girl?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said trying not to let my voice squeak. How was I to know what he knew?
"I'll bet you know the fine stew you had last night," the boy said.
"I do indeed!" the guard chuckled. He squinted at me. "Did you make that?"
“Well, of course when I tell it, it isn't the
same as when your grandfather does. Last week you remember your little brother
running off while you looked away, and your big sister remembers you falling
asleep and him wandering off. If you remember things different from your sister
after only a week, how would you expect your grandfather and me to remember
things the same after forty years? Now, where was I? Ah yes. The guard asked me
if I'd made the stew.”
"She had a hand in it," the boy said. Which wasn't quite right. It'd only been two fingers, and just for a pinch of the meat.
"And what's for tonight?" the guard asked me.
"I'm sure she'll out-do herself," the boy said. "But now, if she doesn't get me and this fine specimen where I'm expected, I fear there'll be tears in the tubers tonight."
The guard grinned and left, and I turned to the boy. "How did you know there was stew?" I asked him.
"There's always stew," he said. Which was true. "And tubers. Are you a witch? What's your name?"
"What?" I said. "No."
"Pleased to meet you, Wut," he said. "My name's Cutterson. Maybe you should take me to the duke now."
I got my wits about me then and, gathering my long skirts (of very thin weave that were nothing at all like a quilt), I graciously took the lad by the hand and led him through the castle's passageways. On the spiral stairs of the witch's tower, there was a shiver in the air, a dull clank, and the leg of lamb he still shouldered turned back into a sword.
At the very top, the spiral stairs opened up to a circular area with two doors. She led the way toward one, then stopped and pointed to the other. "That is my room. Never go in there, do you understand?"
No, I didn't understand. I hadn't understood anything since my sword had turned into a leg of lamb, and I had understood even less since it had turned back. I stood there, staring at the door she was pointing at and trying to make sense of it, the door, the sword on my shoulder, or anything else.
"Well?" she said, and, I don't know why, I started to get annoyed.
I looked at her. "Look, Wut, what am I doing here? Where are you taking me, and why? Who are you?"
"I'm the girl saving your life, you imbecile. Or at least, I would be if you'd cooperate a little."
"How did my sword turn into a leg of lamb?"
"It didn't, I just made it look like one. Now--"
"You're a witch!"
"Of course I'm a witch, you flat-headed ligelfish. And if you keep standing here at the top of the stairway, someone will see us, and even I won't be able to save you. Now look. That is my room. Don't go in there. I'm taking you to this room. It has a window, so if you don't want to be sensible, you can just jump out of it and crack your empty head on the stones and be done. If you do want to be sensible, maybe I can get you out of this alive. Now follow me. The castle witch will know what to do about all this."
I hesitated a moment longer, still annoyed, still confused, but now also a little scared. But then I nodded. "All right, Wut" I said.
She opened the door and I followed her through to--
I had no idea there were so many books in the world. I mean, we had books, too. A whole shelf of them in the cottage, and Mum still kept five in a box. One was Your Place in the World that I'd learned to read from, another was--but I'm sorry, I'm distracted. I have to tell you kids, I know you've grown up with books, but I didn't, and you could have thrown me half an acre to see all of them, whole shelves, whole walls. I almost didn't notice anything else, though there was plenty to see.
I said, "Have you--"
"If you ask me if I've read all of these," she said, "I will turn you into a leg of lamb. Sit on that stool."
At first, I didn't see the stool--it was like all of those books dazzled me. But then I did, and sat.
"Don't touch anything," she said. "If you do, it'll most likely kill you."
My head was already spinning too much for that to have any effect. I looked at the bench behind her, full of candles and wooden rods painted various colors and pens and paper and clear bowls and ceramic bowls and rows and rows of jars.
"Well," she said. "What am I to do with you and that magnificent, long, straight, double-edged sword of yours?"
I said no such thing. Why would I when the sword he carried was most certainly not double-edged, nor straight? And not half as long as he'd like to think. I courteously offered the boy a seat, and he sat, his dark eyes blank as an empty page, and as frightening. I set about tidying up. It was what I did when I had some time between errands, and if a few things tumbled into my apron pockets, well, no one the wiser and little harm done.
I worked, and he sat until it seemed my old milking stool had grown a boy-shaped mushroom, with a mushroom's worth of care for his own fate. Did he understand he'd nearly died that day? Did he realize he still well might?
"Speak truth," I charged him. "Did you steal this one-edged blade?"
"No!" He drew himself up to a mushroom's full dignity.
"How did it come to be in your--" I corrected myself. "Over your shoulder?"
"I found it at the smithy," he told me. "The smith was dead, and this was lying in the dust at his feet."
"The witch will never believe that," I said. "She'll send you to the Question, whose job it is to cut to the truth of things."
"I don't think I'd like that," he said. "I'm going home. My mother will be missing me."
I thought it would be nice to have such a thing as a mother, but I lived in a castle, with fine clothes and important errands. And I would be a witch someday.
"Right," I told him. "Off you pop. You can leave the sword with me." But he wouldn't, no matter how I explained that it wasn't his, it was the duke's, forged as a gift for the false king, and that any who saw him with it would kill him for theft. But he was stubborn even then. He wanted his reward. I offered him a trade.
"You don't have anything worth as much as this," he said.
"We'll see," I answered him, because, in truth, I did. "But the witch will be here any instant," I told him. "So, the question you must pose to yourself, if you can manage such a thing, is this: Do you want what I offer in trust against the return of this sword, or do you want the witch of the castle to find it resting across your knees?"
He gave it to me.
I took it by the blade and hilt like they do in knighting ceremonies and carried it to my chamber.
It wasn't really a chamber. No one had thought to assign one to me when I arrived at the castle. I'd been happy enough in the kitchen bunks when I was young, but that's no fit place for a witch to sleep. Witches sleep in chambers. I'd fashioned mine from magic and a garderobe too high for anyone to want to take a seat and so, happily for my purposes, unused for its.
My magic made it seem unchanged to any eyes but mine, so when I opened the door, I saw not a wooden bum slat and mat made of old twine, but my own bed, cozy if a bit short, and a soft wool rug. I wrapped the sword in the rug and felt about for what I'd promised the boy in trade. I hadn't lied when I said my little stone and chain was of greater value than his sword, but I also hadn't specified. I hadn't said, to me. To me, it was worth more than anything. I'd always had it, and I knew, without knowing how, through magic, doubtless, that it had been my mother's once. Which was all I knew of her. I took it and the rug-wrapped sword back with me. I'd keep it hidden until I could explain, and then show it to the witch.
The boy sat where I'd left him, still as lichen and just as chatty. "Here," I said, thrusting my precious silk-wrapped bundle at him. I was a little cross, I suppose, at having to let it fall into hands such as his. "We'll tell the castle witch--"
"What?" The witch rounded on me.
I hadn't seen her there, and I didn't envy the boy having been discovered in her chambers without me to explain.
"Everything, of course," I stammered. "Lady, you charged me once, if ever again I saw the stone which crossed my path two weeks hence, to speak at once to you. This very day I learned the stone I told you of had been worked into a sword, and its color changed from clearest light to deepest red."
"What? Leave off the poetry."
I sighed and began again. I told the witch everything as plainly as the boy had told me.
"Right," the witch said. "Go home," she told him.
He glowered at me and moved not. "Wut took . . ." He faltered. "My leg of lamb."
The witch waved her hand dismissively and gave him two coins, a silver and a copper piece. "This should be enough to cover whatever we ate. Now run along. Your mother and whatnot." He left, and the witch turned to me. "Let me see that." She held her hand out for the sword.
Mum and I got on well. She was very affectionate, and always glad to see me, and never too busy to spend time with me, singing or reading together. This time, as I returned to the wagon, she said, "Where have you been? You should have been here an hour ago. Did you order the kettle?"
"No, Mum. The smith--"
"Fool of a boy! How hard is it to ask a smith to--"
"Don't interrupt. To order a--what?"
After a moment she said, "Oh. Well. Have some dinner."
"I got some coins," I said as I took the pheasant from the fire. "One and one."
"How did you get them? Were you begging? Don't lie!"
"No, Mum. I ran an errand to the castle."
The pheasant was overcooked, but that was my fault for being late. I told her about finding the smith, and the sword, and bringing it to the castle. I sort of skipped the part about the witch girl, and I didn't tell her about what was in my pocket. Of course, I didn't yet know what it was--I'd been in too much of a hurry to get back to Mum to avoid a whupping. And now I couldn't; there was no way to get out from under her eye before dark.
The next morning, I fetched water, made a fire, and boiled the water for coffee before she was up. She grunted her thanks as she drank a mug, and then, with only the words, "Mind you behave," she was off with her scissors and her razors. She didn't tell me what behaving meant today, so as soon as she was gone I took the bundle out of my pocket. I wasn't sure what the material was, but I'd never felt anything so soft and smooth. It was a very light red, a color I'd never seen before. I unwrapped it.
Inside the wrapping was a silver chain of amazing, tiny links, such as would be beyond the skill of any silversmith I'd ever met. Attached to it by a small setting was a polished stone, no bigger than the tip of my least finger, rounded to a neat oval, with bands of white and different shades of blue.
I held it in my palm, and then slipped the chain over my head.
I've thought about that moment for years, and I still don't think I can describe it. Did you ever look up at the stars and think about how tiny you are? Remember when we took you out on the Tribute Mountain River and we hit the rapids and the raft started spinning? Remember when Diffon the belly-singer performed in the Bent Oak, and his voice seemed to fill your whole body? Do you remember the first time you suddenly understood how letters formed words, and it seemed as if an entire world had opened up? It was like that, like all of those at once.
It seemed like I was shouting, though I don't think I made a sound. I was shaking, but I'm pretty sure I didn't move. The world spun around me, though my eyes were closed. That's as close as I can come.
After some amount of time, from the sun it must have been more than an hour, I started to come back to myself. The day was bright, a little cold, windy. I took a deep breath, let it out, and turned back toward the wagon. That's when things got strange.
I could see a line between me and the wagon. No, it wasn't seeing exactly--more like I could feel it, like I was aware of it; it was a connection that seemed like I could do something. I didn't know what, or how, but it was there. Then I looked at Corky, the older of the mules, and the line with the wagon was gone, but I was connected to the mule. Then I tried it with one of the ducks in the pond across the way, then with the door of the tailor shop. Whatever I turned my attention to, there was that sense of connection.
It was a strange feeling. And I liked it.
I took the pendant off to see if the feeling would go away, and it did, only not completely; I was still aware of a sort of association between me and anything I focused on. Not as intense, and easier to ignore, but it was there.
I wondered what it meant.
The witch girl, Wut, would know. I thought about going back to the castle to ask her, but she kept talking about how they'd torture or kill me there. But then I realized that the whole point of her giving it to me was so that I had something of hers while she held something of mine, which meant that, sooner or later, she would come and find me. All I had to do was wait.
The witch wasn't as pleased as I'd hoped she'd be by my cunning in securing the sword for her to see, but I didn't stand there disappointed for more than a moment's breath because the sword spoke to me. No, not in words, but I heard it all the same. Hide me! it said.
"I don't know where it is," I told the witch. It seemed the right thing to obey when a sword talks to you. "I'll just go put my rug in my chamber and return."
The witch reached for me, and I don't know how to explain what happened then, except to say that the bundled sword somehow knocked my legs from beneath me. I tripped, tried to right myself, tumbled, and fell. The sword leapt from its wrappings and slid. It came to rest under a claw-footed chest, and the witch rounded on me. Her cheeks were flushed, and whips of hair stuck to her forehead.
I scrambled to standing, curtsied, stammered, and stopped.
"Give me the thirst stone!" the witch cried.
She wants me for her own, the sword said. She intends to claim me!
The witch's face changed. The whole witch changed. I could almost see the geniality slide back into place. The pink washed from her cheeks. "That stone killed the smith," she said sweetly. "It will drink you dry. You don't want it."
I told her I did. That it talked to me.
"You can't trust it," she said.
But I said that I did. It trusted me even after I'd magicked it into a leg of lamb.
"You did what?" she interrupted me.
"I magicked the sword into a leg of lamb."
"You can't do that. You're not a witch."
"I'm a witch in training."
"You most certainly are not. That boy you brought up here, though, he smelled of it."
"He's not a witch," I explained. "I am. Or will be. He just saw it the way I said it would be."
Quick as thought, the witch's hand reached out and yanked my apron off me. I gasped, and the sword keened from its hiding place. But the witch apparently heard nothing. She dug into my apron pockets and pulled out two coins (both half coppers), a nice piece of string, an amulet I'd borrowed from the woods witch, a totem bag I'd made myself, and a page I'd copied from a grimoire for studying.
"This!" She held the paper up. "This is all your magic, right here. You have none of your own--no power at all beyond a mighty gift for self-delusion and imagining. You're a marred page. All doodles and chicken scratch and crossed out bits. You're certainly no witch. Never were. Never will be."
She balled up my apron and threw it at me. She turned her back and stalked to her workbench, then began digging through the books and jars, pouches and vials, searching for something. If she'd said what she sought, I could have found it for her. I often did such things, but she didn't say, and really, I don't think I would have been much use to her right then. She had punctured me. I felt hot, boneless, and melting. I sat down on the chest and tried to keep breathing. It seemed more than I could manage. I wasn't a witch. I couldn't do anything.
"Finally!" She cried, finding her wand at last. She turned to face me, and raised it. She spoke to it in words that rang in my ears and deafened me. She leveled it at my eye. The heavy wooden chest shot out from under me. My bum hit the floor; my hand fell on the sword. My fingers wrapped around its hilt, and the witch's death spell flew at me. My body shot into the air and landed on its feet. It was strong and poised and balancing. The sword caught the spell and bounced it away.
"You have no magic!" she screamed. "How dare you deflect mine?"
She raised the wand again, and the sword moved my arm. My every muscle sprang alive and wary, ready for anything. My mind was miles gone.
"Give the sword to me!" she cried.
The sword offered to give itself to her, point first, through her heart and out the other side, but I told it no. I loved the witch, or had when I'd had a heart. She had torn it into pieces, but I could not hate her with its shards. I think I knew she was right. I had no magic but hers. And the woods witch's.
I could run to the woods.
Or I could let the castle witch kill me, and know true power at least one time.
She called magic to the wand again and pointed it at me. I stood ready. She struck. The sword moved, and the spell ricocheted. The witch flung herself out of its path. The spell flew past her, grazing her hair. Death magic splintered against the shelves of books. They drank the magic in, and gleamed deep red. But the witch's hair had caught fire. She dropped her wand and reached for the water pail.
Run! cried the sword, and I ran.
After about half an hour, I came to a sudden and important realization: I hate waiting. Besides, what if Mum came back before Wut showed up? Mum might decide we were done there, or she might send me off on an errand. On the other hand, I still didn't want to go back to the castle.
I pulled the pendant from my pocket and put it on. It was different this time. The feeling, like an extra sense, or maybe an extra limb, grew stronger, and reminded me that it had been there the whole time. Once more I turned my attention to various objects around me: the lamp post outside the inn, the town center stone, a fence post. And once more I felt the connections to them.
And then I wondered what would happen if, instead of looking at something around me, I concentrated on something that wasn't nearby. Like, the sword, for example.
The instant I thought of it, I felt it; it was a line, a connection between me and the sword. It was so sharp I could almost see it. I knew what direction it was, and I could tell that it was moving!
Without even deciding to, I began to move toward it. I set out of the village going northeast, keeping in mind an image of the sword as I'd seen it lying on the anvil: its bright red jewel, straight, double-edged blade the width of three of my fingers and as long as my arm.
Maybe all I'd had was fear to drive me. I had thought that I was brave, but then, I'd thought I was a witch and that the castle witch was kind.
I ran until I reached the Newland forest. There, where my path ran out, my steps slowed, and my courage failed. If I'd ever had any. Maybe all I'd had was fear to drive me. I had thought that I was brave, but then, I'd thought I was a witch and that the castle witch was kind. But she had tried to kill me. All I'd ever wanted was her love, but I'd set her hair on fire. I got things wrong that way.
I sat down on a tree root without even my mother's necklace to comfort me. I'd lost everything but my way.
And the sword.
I rested its blade on my shoulder. Its sweep felt almost like an arm around me. Yes, it was curved. Could I have lopped off my own head with any other blade? I don't think so.
I would have, too, if the boy hadn't found me.
I'd started running--not because I felt like I needed to get there quickly, but just because I wanted to, because it was starting to sink in just how exciting this was, that something was going on that might change my whole world.
As I started to get winded, I slowed to a jog, then a walk. By that time, I had entered the Newland Forest. If I'd had any sense, I'd have looked for a path, because it's easier to get lost there than you'd think with a wood that only extends from the Fenced Road to the river. But the direction I needed to go was so clear, I just wanted to get there. There are stories about losing your sense of direction in thick, heavy forests--about how you step past some brush, or around a tree, and suddenly you aren't sure of which way you're facing. Well, true or not, it didn't happen this time. It was like there was a rope, and all I had to do was keep pulling on it, until--
She heard me tramping, turned, and said, "You!"
"Hello, Wut," I said.
She sat on a stump with the sword on her shoulder, its two-edged blade shining, and as long as my leg.
The boy found me sitting there. "Hello? What?" he said in his benighted way of making everything a question.
I held the sword against my neck, and I pressed my palm against its one dull side to test the other's sharpness on my skin. It wasn't terribly long, with a hilt in the shape of a crescent moon, and a blade that soared like a ship's sail. It widened from its base to its lethal tip and its dull side curved away from the wickedly sharp point like a bird's wing.
"How did you find me?" I asked him.
There she sat on her stump with the sword. Its broad, flat hilt made stark right angles with the leather-wrapped grip, and again with the perfectly symmetrical, straight blade. It was sharp on both edges with a gully in the middle and came to a finely-honed point that gleamed.
"What are you doing?" I asked her.
"I asked first," she said.
In all the years between that moment and today, I've never figured out what would have been a good answer to that.
"I found you with, I found you by, the sword. By its man-sized, straight, flat, two-sided blade."
I asked how he'd found me, and he said magic led him to me. How could he have magic and I none? I almost cried then. But I'd seen the duke's daughter weep to win her way, and I'd go back to cutting off my own head before I'd let that boy see me cry. I raised the sword with its sleek, curved blade, sharpened on only the long side, brilliant and glittering bright, the length of my forearm maybe. I meant only to hand it back in trade and get my mother's necklace, but he ducked, and ran away. I shrugged. Men are full of mystery and no woman knows their ways.
There's nothing mysterious about it. I thought your grandmother meant to kill me, and I didn't run away. I held my ground with that massive, long, heavy blade pointed at my chest, its two sharpened edges threatening, and its brilliant tip--nearly a hand's length on its own--almost piercing my chest. If she'd tripped, she would have killed me.
I never trip, and I didn't want him dead. If I had, he would be, and we wouldn't be here, yet here we all sit, so there.
What's that? Destiny or accident? Well, there's a question that cuts both ways!
No, it doesn't mean it has two sharp sides. And accidents are dull. Let's call it destiny.
In my hand, I held the sword, the boy's by finder's rights, and he had my mother's necklace around his neck.
Yes, it's the one he wears still.
No, I never got it back.
Why? Well, because he could do magic with it and I couldn't. And Smith--that was the sword's name--never spoke to him, so I kept it.
Yes of course I do.
No, you can't.
Because what it looks like isn't the point. And besides, I've described it to you.
Yes, we both agree on that, it had a point. A bright, sharp one, that never dulled, but always shone, even when it was red with blood, like love beneath an argument.
The point, you ask? Perhaps we've lost our story's. And it's gotten late. Upstairs with you now. Go to sleep.
“Come here, old man.”
Alright. We'll try again another day.