A Homecoming (6)

09/25/2015 § Leave a comment

It was the blacksmith’s apprentice—his wall-eyed son—who received Loren when he knocked on the smithy’s door. The smith, he was told, was fast asleep from exhaustion, having done little else but work on the magistrate’s commission for the past few days.

Loren followed the apprentice through the living quarters to the forge, which was unlit. It was cold. The ash smell was still there, however, fire or no.

The sword was laid on canvas cloth atop a table, a dull bluish gleam in what little light that leaked in through the shuttered windows. Its scabbard was leaning against a leg of the table.

“It’s flawless,” said the apprentice. “Honestly. Just look at the blade. It was as if my father was possessed.”

Loren did take a step and examined the sword closely, though in truth he knew next to nothing about metalworking. It was in the traditional Ilmaren fashion, he knew that much: single-bladed, a slight curve in the upper half, with a handle long enough for two-handed grip. It looked very sharp. There were fine, almost imperceptible ripples along the length of the blade.

Nodding, he fished out a pouch from inside his cloak and held it out to the blacksmith’s son. “Your fee, as was agreed upon by my master and your father.”

“We had to close shop for three days, you know,” the smith’s son complained even as he snatched the pouch from Loren’s hand. “Four, counting today. It took up all of his time.”

“The fee was agreed upon,” Loren said flatly. He had instructions not to haggle; his master had provided both the metal and the design.

The apprentice rolled his eyes at that, which made them appear all the more stranger. “Well, then I suppose it is settled,” he said.

Loren picked up the sword and the scabbard. The sword was heavier than he had expected, and longer, too, in his grip. With the blade sheathed and secured after a couple of awkward attempts, he tucked it under his left arm.

“You should wear it proper,” the apprenticed pointed out. “The strap’s there for a reason.”

“That would not be proper for a slave,” said Loren.

“Oh.”

Loren bade farewell and left the way he came. The apprentice did not see him out.

Outside, the rain was at last beginning to die down. Clouds parting, the sun seizing its moment to shine. Loren made his way back toward the Post in a misting of rain, the sword carefully hidden under his cloak. The streets were busier now. There was even a small crowd gathered at the square, outside the Post, which gave him a pause. He knew—everyone knew—what had happened the last time Zoe had visited a tavern: three drunk shepherds got into an argument over whose song better praised the magistrate’s daughter, and then decided to settle it with their fists, which of course turned into an all-out tavern brawl.

The Imperial Post was no ordinary tavern, however, and Zelalem knew how to keep order in his own establishment, so the crowd outside did not worry him particularly. Still, he hastened toward the crowd and grabbed the nearest person—a woman—and asked what was happening.

The woman turned with a start. “Some soldiers,” she said. “Rode in not too long ago.”

“It must be the magistrate’s son,” said a man standing next to the woman. “We’re waiting to get a look.”

Loren was relieved to hear that. It had to be Markos, he thought, the young master who had been away at war longer than he had been a slave. He hadn’t been told there would be others, however. But then again, his master simply might have neglected to tell him. And why shouldn’t he have? A slave needed not know everything. One needed only to do what one was told: no more, no less. It was said to be better that way.

“Hey,” said the woman. “Aren’t you the magistrate’s boy? There’s still going to be a feast, yeah?”

Ignoring the question, Loren thrust himself into the crowd and began making his way toward the Post. Many in his path lashed out with curses at being pushed aside; some even tried to shove him back. He was nearly halfway through when, suddenly, the whole crowd parted before him.

A large black horse burst through the stable door and galloped past the reeling crowd, a cloaked figure lashing it into speed.

“Horse thief!” The stableboy came running out shouting. “Horse thief!”

His cries were met by two men in legion’s cloak, who rushed out of the inn with short throwing spears in their hands. One pinned his spear in the dirt and ran to the stable, while the other readied and then hurled his with a loud grunt.

The crowd gasped, and gasped again as the spear narrowly missed its mark. The horse and its rider had moved just beyond the reach. The soldier—a large, barrel-chested man with an impressively bent nose—cursed fiercely at his miss.

It was then that Loren saw Zelalem appear in the doorway of the Post. The innkeep’s face had gone pale—Loren hadn’t known that was possible—in a sort of dull, gray black. Their eyes met, briefly. Loren spun and trained his eyes after the horse thief. It was too far for him to tell, truth be told. But he knew who it was. Of course, of course he knew.

The second soldier rode out of the stable on a horse of his own. As he rode by his companion, he leaned over expertly in the saddle and picked up the spear he had spiked into the ground just moments ago. He even flashed a smile toward the crowd as he kicked his horse into a gallop.

And Loren reacted, before he even knew what he was about to do.

He ran into the street.

“Move! Fool!”

Loren didn’t so much as flinch. He felt—there was no time for thought—the thing that had to be done. It was simple; it was clear. He surrendered himself to the certainty and immediacy of that deed, allowing them to dictate his muscles and limbs, indeed his entire being, even as a warhorse and its rider charged to crush him.

The soldier, of course, was not about to alter his course. It was already too late for that. The risk of injuring both himself and the horse was too great even to consider it.

Loren pulled open his cloak. Everything seemed distant and muted; time seemed to have slowed almost to a halt. Everything became clear, so painfully clear. The slanting light of the sun, the faces in the crowd, the roar of the blood coursing through his body. Taking a small step to his right, he felt the cold, numb lake inside him swell—a throb, a pulse, movement. And in that same moment, and in that same motion, he unsheathed and swung the sword as the horse passed him by. There was warm wind in his face, and the animal smell. Summoning forth a memory.

Then pain.

He was knocked flat on his back. For what seemed like a very long moment he lay there dazed. Then he thought of the sword, which was gone—likely torn from his hands by sheer force, and wondered briefly if anyone had been struck by it. Hoped not.

There was a loud crashing noise from behind him. He twisted his head to see the horse tumble and fall forward in the middle of the street, its left foreleg dangling where the sword had nearly severed it. The loud noise had come from the rider, it seemed, who had been thrown off—or threw himself off, rather—and crashed into a basket-weaver’s stall.

The horse began to scream. It was a terrible sound, full of fury and confusion—a keening. It tried to get onto its feet but kept falling, failing, spurting fresh blood from the wound with each effort. Loren clenched his teeth. Somehow it struck him, the sight of the animal and its miserable scream. The agony of it. There was a burning sensation in the back of his throat. He felt sick. He had been so certain of himself, so alive, just a moment ago. And yet…

Other soldiers—there were a few, now—were running toward him, swords drawn.

Loren struggled to his knees, and held up his hands in submission. His palms were bleeding, he saw. He couldn’t really feel them.

Two soldiers ran past him toward the rider who had crashed into the stall, who was now sitting up facing his screaming horse, dazed. The rider allowed one of the soldiers to pull him up to his feet, and then walked unsteadily over to the horse and knelt beside it.

The horse stopped screaming.

The rest of the soldiers formed a ring around Loren, their swords pointed at him. One of them, the man who had nearly skewered Zoe, approached him.

“This one is a slave to Damaion of Adenapolis,” said Loren, his voice faltering a little. “Who is the magistrate—”

The blow to the stomach snuffed out the words in his mouth. He lurched and fell to his knees, unable to breathe, bile drooling from his mouth.

“It matters nothing who you are,” the soldier said. “Poor fucking fool. It’s the Doux of the Ninth you and your friend stole from. Hear that? You’ll be hanging meat soon enough. Your friend too. Men!”

“Wait, Dioclas.” Another soldier stepped forward. “Say that again,” he commanded Loren. “The name of your master.”

Loren looked up, his sight bleary with tears. “Damaion… of Adena…polis,” he managed in gasps.

“What—Is that?” the burly soldier asked the other.

“Yes,” said the second soldier. Then, one hand brushing his jaw as if nursing a toothache, he made a sound that was both a groan and a sigh. “I think—I think I know where to find the Doux’s horse.”

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