Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 01

The old knight stuck to the side of the road as he entered the village.  He had no wish to disrupt the villagers moving their carts and baskets along the road, just to prove to them his station was above theirs.  His armor was old, but polished.  His helm sat behind him on the saddle.  His brigandine coat spoke volumes for him- a warrior, careful but confident, traveling but not riding to war.  The old sword hung at his side, gleaming in the morning sun.  His dark grey warhorse was showing his age, as well, but held his head high.

He smiled as he took in the landscape…  he was on the outskirts of another beautiful, small village near the mountains, bordering the large, thick forest he’d ridden through for days.  There were a handful of two story buildings near the center, surrounded by smaller homes and craft-shops, giving way to the barns and grain storehouses near the edges.  And beyond those, on the other side of the village, he could see crop fields and orchards stretching for several miles. Many of the farmers were already at work, driving teams of horses across the fields, carrying water buckets, or pulling weeds.  These were his favorite sort of people – industrious and prosperous, yet in harmony with nature around them.  These were the people, he told himself, that he spent all those years defending.  It was these people that he truly fought for.  Seeing them always made him smile.  Being in the capitol city of Njanotta, among the politics of the court, had almost made him forget how much he preferred to be out among his people.

And many of those nearby smiled back at him, some waving as he passed them.  He nodded to them, not knowing their names but knowing them all at the same time.  The hard workers with dirty hands, the ones whose sweat and toil built kingdoms.  He was happy to serve a king that saw himself as a servant of the people, not the ruler over them.  History had hard lessons for those who forgot that simple truth.  He had spent the past few years passing that lesson onto younger knights, but had found that task more and more trying. The long peace was causing many people to forget the hard lessons of war.

As he passed a small blacksmith shop, he was approached by an elderly man who bowed low to him before saying, “My lord, please, my son needs your aid.”  He wore simple clothes, rough and dirty boots, and his head was shaven clean.  Even with his head down, his eyes shown with hope mixed with great grief.

The knight stopped his horse, nodded and said, “What is it he needs?  There are few things an old warrior can do outside of battle.”

“He was injured- fell from the loft of his barn, and his legs won’t work,” the old man said.  “Our healer says his legs aren’t hurt, but he cannot walk.”

The old knight closed his eyes.  “A warrior is the wrong man to ask for healing.  If you can get him to the capital by wagon, the healers there may be able to do something to help him.”

The man lowered his gaze, and said, “Forgive me, sir, but you looked to me to be a Paladin.”  His eyes drifted to the hilt of the sword buckled to the saddle beside him.

Shaking his head, the knight held up his hand, then dismounted.  He could no more refuse to help these people than he could draw his sword and attack them.  He had just hoped that no one would recognize him.  “Where is he?  Perhaps I can offer better advice if I see him.”

The old man understood at once.  His eyes brightened.  “Of course, lord.  Please follow me.”  He turned, and led the knight between the blacksmith’s shop and a small, empty stable, to an even smaller house.  The wood walls were old and weathered, but the thatched roof was well-kept and the paint was new.  The old man opened the door, beckoning the knight to enter. Gridnor whispered to his horse, quietly, and the horse nickered at him, lowering his head to rest for a few minutes.

Inside the house, a young man sat in a chair at the maple-wood dinner table, sewing tools in his hands.  The windows let in sunlight from all directions. He smiled as his father entered, then looked curious when he saw the knight.

“My lord, welcome.  Forgive me for not standing to greet you, but I’ve…”

The knight held up a hand to stop him, smiling.  “Your father has told me.  Don’t apologize, please.”  He stepped closer, then asked, “How far did you fall?”

“I’m not sure, lord.  The loft is almost taller than our house.  The healer told me I was lucky to survive it.”

“Let him see, Dalian,” the father said, waving a hand.  The younger man nodded, then leaned forward and lifted his shirt.  A large bruise stretched from his right side just past his spine, and while it was healing well, the knight grimaced.  He straightened, then removed his gloves and tucked them between his belt and his armored shirt.

As the knight ran his fingers over Dalian’s spine, he whispered, “I think I can help you, Dalian.  But tell me… how strong is your faith?”

Confused, Dalian turned his head to look over his shoulder.  “My faith?  Do you mean what gods do I worship?”

“Not exactly.  What is it that you believe in the most?” The knight asked.  “Is it the chaos in the world, is it the love of your family and village, is it the power of nature to preserve life? These beliefs are more important than the names of the gods, my friend.  These things are what make up the gods themselves.”  He closed his eyes, and tried to think of the last time he had healed someone with his touch.  It had been many years, and that soldier had gone from mortally wounded to full strength, and had proven his valor twice that day before falling for the last time.

Still confused, the young man searched for an answer before saying, “I don’t go to any church, I don’t worship. I pray for a good harvest, for my family’s health, but I don’t pray to anyone in particular.”

“Your work is your worship,” the knight replied.  “You don’t need to believe in the same things I do… you just need to believe in what you do.  So now… think of those things, and hold them in your mind.”  He inhaled sharply, then channeled his breath, his hands, and his energy.  He felt the familiar dizzyness, the drain of his own strength as it flowed into his fingers and across the young man’s skin.  Dalian gasped, clutching the table, his face screwed up against a combined feeling of pain, pressure, and wonderous release the likes of which he couldn’t possibly have known before.  As the knight pulled away his hands, the glow from his palms receded, and Dalian’s father gasped upon seeing the dozens of small burn scars on the old knight’s hands.

“I knew it, my lord.  Forgive me, but I knew you could help him the moment I saw you.” he said, kneeling on the wooden floor.  “I’ve fought beside your brethren, many years ago, and I’ll never forget them and what they could do.”

Dalian turned again to look at the old knight, then down at his own legs.  Slowly, carefully, he leaned forward and put his weight back onto his legs.  As he straightened, his lips spread into a wide smile, and his eyes filled with gratitude.

“I had hoped to arrive here in secret. The presence of a Paladin leaving the capitol makes people whisper,” the knight replied. “Don’t fault your eyes for telling you the truth.  There is something you can do to help me, too.”

“Anything, my lord-paladin,” the old man replied.  “Anything I can do, anything I have.”

“I’m looking for someone.  A man my age, a master smith, who is crippled and can no longer practice his trade.  He lived near here years ago, but I don’t know if he returned here after leaving Njanotta.”

The man brightened at once.  “You mean Kridayan- yes, he does still live here, just outside of town.  He is a friend of yours?  I can take you there at once.”

The knight nodded.  “Thank you.”  He turned to Dalian again, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “You, my young friend, will have a chance to pass this on.  There will come a time when someone comes to you for help that no one else can provide, and as I helped you, remember to pass your gift on to another who needs it.”

The knight smiled as the pair approached the hill that the old house stood upon.  It was the right place, he could tell even as they approached it.  Old, weathered, maintained as well as such an old house could be through many winters and storms.  Just large enough for one man to live comfortably alone, if he could be comfortable alone.  He turned to his guide, and said, “Thank you, but I must see him in private.”  The elder man bowed, smiled, and turned to make his way home.

He led his horse up to the crest of the hill, then patted it’s neck, and said, “Rest here, old friend.  The grasses out here look like they’d keep you happy.”

The horse nickered at him, and affectionately bumped the knight’s neck with his nose, then turned to graze on the long, healthy grass.  The knight approached the house, but stopped before reaching the front step.

“Kridayan!” he called.  “Are you in there?”

There was a long pause before he heard the answer.

“Ha!  Gridnor, you old goat!  I wondered if that was you I heard wheezing,” a gravelly voice replied.  “I apologize for the hill.”

Gridnor laughed.  “I’m not so old that I can be conquered that easily.  Are you going to make me shout through the walls all afternoon?”

“I’m sorry, my friend, but you’ll have to let yourself in, I’m afraid.”  The voice changed.  “There’s not quite as much left of me as when we last met.”

“So I’ve heard,” Gridnor replied, lowering his voice and stepping up to the door to enter the house.  “I never heard about what happened to you.”  The door was unlocked, and opened at his touch.

There was little light inside.  There were few enough windows, and those were covered by heavy drapes.  Gridnor could see a small dining table, a clean cooking room through an archway.  On the serving counter were baskets with fruit and small breads and cakes, covered with bright colored cloth.  The breads filled the air with their earthy aroma.  A large chair faced the empty fireplace, and his friend’s hand could be seen on the armrest.  He wore bright, loose clothing that seemed to brighten the room around him slightly.

“It’s a long story, and painful to tell.  I’ll have to have one of the village girls bring us up some ale before I can tell that one.” Kridayan said.  He sighed deeply.  “But you first- what brings you out here?  I picked this village because it’s a long way from everywhere, and I can rest here in peace.  There’s quite a few old soldiers raising their families here, and they remember me from the wars.  Their children have taken good care of me.  And it’s so quiet here… even if our kingdom was at war right now, these mountains are a month’s march from anyone who would bother to attack us.  These people remember war, but have left it behind to build good lives.”

Gridnor felt his breath get heavier.  “I fear war is coming again, my friend.  If I’m reading the signs right, you may not be so far from the fight as you’d thought.”

Kridayan laughed.  “Who’d be fool enough to bring back those wars?  Especially to attack us?  Every kingdom that was part of the wars is much more prosperous now, and lead by kings and queens who have learned that peace is far more prosperous than war… or is there news that the village hasn’t shared with me?”

“There is much, but I doubt the villagers would know.  Kridayan, Asharida has suffered the worst drought in a century, and many of its people are near starving.  Their king is a decent young man, but he relies on his advisors too much, and you remember one or two of them, I believe.”

Kridayan answered with his silence.

“Also, the king of Trislanys has died.  His son you may never have met, but our own king has had difficulty dealing with the new ambassadors he has been sent.  I’m not sure what to think of them, but it seems like old King Adnorsen failed to teach his son how to treat other nations.”

“That or his lessons didn’t take,” Kridayan grunted.  “But from the sound of your voice, you’ve yet to tell me the worst of things.  What is it that is really bothering you?”

Gridnor sighed, then said, “Someone has been collecting all of the Santrellian Blades, and destroying them.”  Kridayan’s breath caught.  “They’d been disappearing, one at a time, stolen or, we’d hoped, misplaced, but…”

“And how exactly would their owners misplace one of my swords?  Has yours forgotten how to speak to you?”

Gridnor smirked at his friend’s chiding.  “We don’t know enough yet about what we’re dealing with to make any judgements, Kridayan.  Some of the owners had spells on them, affecting their memories.  Some have reported the blades stolen.  And a few have been murdered.”  Gridnor sighed. “And, so you know, I haven’t needed to draw my sword in a very long time.  The practice blades in the academy are making him very jealous, I suspect.”

Kridayan chuckled at that thought.  “So you came here to tell me my creations are being destroyed.  Have you found the pieces of them?”

“Of several.  Whoever is doing this, they’re leaving the swords for us to find.  Most people don’t recognize them when they see them- they look just like normal swords.”

“But broken?”

“Broken inside, Kridayan.  We don’t even know how yet.  But every one of them has its gem cracked, and there is no voice left, not even to a paladin.”  Gridnor paused a moment, then pressed on.  “Kridayan, if we do go to war again, we’ll need blades such as yours again.  Not many, but I’m certain we’ll need them.”

“Still convinced that your old foes are out there, eh?  I thought you destroyed most of them yourself.”

“I don’t believe we’ll ever see the end of the Shadowknights,” Gridor breathed.  It was his worst fear that they survived, but if they had, he knew it was his place to face them.  It was their legacy he feared, not the knights themselves- if they outlived him quietly, it was his students who would face them.

Kridayan seemed to hear his thoughts.  “I can’t believe that your academy isn’t preparing the young men and women to face them, even after all this time, Gridnor.”

“And no matter how hard we train them, it doesn’t prepare their minds, their spirits.  We get plenty of people coming to prove themselves paladins, but not so many of them truly have the gift.  There’s not many who can heal anymore.”

“Funny how being at peace brings more volunteer warriors.” Kridayan agreed.

“Yes, but we’re going to need them.”  Gridnor paused again.  “And we’ll need you, too, my friend.”

Silence.

“I know something happened to you, something that keeps you from your craft.” Gridnor said, quietly.  “I can see your right hand from here, and it shows no sign of weakness.  And your skills can be passed on, if we find the right person to learn from you.”

More silence.

“There are thousands of young smiths in the kingdom, and any of them would trade anything to learn from you.  Surely someone will be able to carry on your craft.”

After a pause, Kridayan whispered, “My friend, I have dreamed of finding a student.  Even before… ” he choked for a moment, then said, “The gift it requires is rare, Gridnor.  I am a lucky man, to have had the skills I had.  Finding someone who could make Santrellian Blades would take us years of searching.  And even then…”

Kridayan finally stood, and turned to face the door.  Gridnor hadn’t seen his friend in decades, but he could tell that time was not the cause of the scars he saw.  He wore a bright blue tunic, with matching trousers, and a gold cord was tied around his waist.  These clothes had been chosen to brighten his appearance, by someone with an eye for colors.  But it was not Kridayan who made that choice; around his head was tied a carefully-folded length of gold fabric, covering his eyes.  After a moment, he reached up and pulled the blind from his head, and showed Gridnor what was left of his eyes.

“The Shadowknights.  They took my sight from me, and left me to die.”  He sighed, then took a step toward the door.  Gridnor rushed forward to take his hand, to stop him from falling, even though it was obvious Kridayan had been sightless long enough to be used to it.

Gridnor felt the tears welling up, and couldn’t stop them.

After a long silence, the old smith finally spoke again.  “I sit here, and listen to the sounds of the smiths down in the village, and I wish I could go down and watch them work.  Even just to grip a hammer again, feel the heat of the forge… they all fear I’d walk into the fires if they let me.”  He took a deep breath.  “Sometimes I sit across the road and listen to them work.  They humor me, of course.  They know who I am, and what I have made.  But I fear I’m of no use to you now.”

Gridnor shook his head.  “No, there must be some way.  Your skills can’t end here, like this.  Kridayan, whoever is destroying the Santrellian Blades had to know you’d make more if the need arose… there must be some way.”  He looked back toward the village, for he could now hear the blacksmiths at work again, the sound of the hammers carrying up to the house.  There were several of them at work now, their hammer strikes ringing in the air.

Kridayan sighed.  “I could travel to the capital with you, of course… I could survive the trip, but what use would I be?”  They fell silent again, listening to the hammers carrying thru the air, until Kridayan sighed, and laughed.

“What is it?”
“Oh, Ferrian has a new apprentice.  The boy can barely hold a hammer yet.  He’ll learn, but in the meantime it amuses me to listen.”

Gridnor smiled, and said, “If you can tell how good or bad the smith’s apprentice is, just from listening to his hammering, what makes you think you couldn’t judge the smiths in the capital by the sounds they make?”

“There’s a lot more to it than that, Gridnor, and you know it.”  Kridayan scoffed.  “Being able to finish the blade can’t be determined just by listening.  A blade that’s good enough to be enchanted doesn’t sound any different than any other.”

“It’s a start.  And right now, it’s enough for me.”

“Gridnor, just a curiosity… did the king send you to bring me back to Njannotta?”  The old smith smiled.  “It would have saved a lot of time if you had just given me a royal summons.”

Gridnor laughed.  “No, the king doesn’t know.  He is concerned by what the other paladins and I have been telling him, but many of his other advisors have convinced him it’s not worth disrupting the peace over.  They’re used to the peace, and are too afraid of losing it to admit that it could end.”

“Peace always ends, my friend.  We both know that.”

“It does.  And we do know it.  But teaching it to a king takes some doing.”  Gridnor smiled.  “He’s a good man, and a fine king.  He cares for the people, and serves them, instead of being served by them.”

“We serve them, too.” Kridayan said.  “Always.  I haven’t forget my oaths.  I’ll go with you, and do what I can.”

Gridnor clapped his shoulder, smiling.  “That’s all we can do.  Besides, you know, there’s a few people there that would like to see you again.  You do still have friends in the capital, you know.”

One Response to “Traitor’s Hilt – Chapter 01”

  1. very intresting, I like the book can’t wait to read more of it.

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