“One. Five. Three. Four. Six. Two.”
The sergeant barks his orders down the line as blades whorl and return in unison.
Ten days, they said. Ten lessons to make a solider of you. You can’t say you feel much different to when you started, but tomorrow you’ll be off to fight all the same. Grimly, you wonder whether it matters much. You’ll die a soldier’s death either way.
Consumed by gloom, you barely notice the chanted numbers as they fade into rhythm. You look on as if abstracted, your body leading the way. Steel meets steel in synchronicity before snapping back to safety, speed increasing to match your master’s calls. You catch your opponent’s eye and see him grinning in disbelief as the commands come faster and faster.
Despite everything, sweat streaming down your face, you find yourself smiling back as you lean into another lunge.
In accordance with your vision, the warrior steps onto the shore – as cold and forbidding as the waters she emerges from. Black is her armour, and gleaming black her hair. Black is the hilt of the slender sword at her side, laced with bars and pierced with an eight-pointed star.
If this is chaos magic, it is not as you imagined it. Far from uncentered your every thought and fibre is in orbit, spiralling gyres drawn into an unerring epicentre: a single intent, incandescent with urgency.
You must make that sword your own – or perish in pursuit of it.
An unfamiliar cry spills from your pale lips as you launch yourself at the warrior. As if in slow motion you watch surprise bloom in her dark eyes, then harden into chilling resolve.
The door is no different in appearance to any of the other portals you’ve passed on your way through this labyrinth. Studded and suspended from sturdy iron hinges, it bears a brass latch and a star of four iron bars lacing a circular aperture. Beyond is only darkness.
Brushing the wood with your palm your mind is filled with a sudden susurrus of torment. A multitude of mutterings from every side, set to a symphony of rattling chains.
Much as every fibre wills you to step back from the door, you’re struck with an unsettling certainty that the artefact you seek lies amidst this madness. You can almost see it: a blade, sweet and slender, steel stark against the blackened star that beckons to your grasp.
A hand upon your wrist. A start and a stifled scream. Your guide shakes his cowled head.
“No,” he intones. “That way lies only madness.”
With your back to a gnarled blackthorn, you wait. You’ve got good at it over the years. Waiting for a rabbit to trip a well-laid trap. Waiting for darker quarry as well. Waiting for news. For her. For history to be made.
While you wait, you slide a weather-worn hand into your pack and retrieve a sliver of lembas bread and a roughspun rag. Setting the former aside, you turn your attention to your sword, tutting at its tarnish, running the rag over stern, swooping lines. Waiting you may be, but idle you are not.
The sword had a name once, you muse. In fact, it had many – the names of great deeds and glories. Out here, alone, you prefer to think of it simply as your sword. A trusted tool. Just as you would shrug off your own weighty appellations.
Your thoughts are interrupted by the unmistakable sound of footsteps beyond the birdsong and bracken-rush. Five pairs of feet and the clamour of conversation.
“Please remember,” an urgent voice breaks through the rest,” that the name Baggins must not be mentioned.”
Another traveller trying to outrun a name. You grin and gather your pack. Read More
Through the gathering mists, you glimpse yet another crumbling causeway, a shadow of its former glory. You sigh. Day ninety-eight.
Were your feet less sore and the outlook less grim, you would laugh. You left your father’s halls to cheers and sounding trumpets, pennants flying in the breeze as hooves clattered across white stone. What would your father think to see you now, clothes soiled by many weeks’ journeying, horse lost to the churning waters of the Greyflood?
By degrees, your pace slows to a dead stop. You stare into the mist a few desolate moments longer before shaking yourself and slowly drawing your sword. Fierce yet finessed, it is unmistakably the weapon of a well-born warrior. The carved quillons form a graceful arc against the unforgiving lines of the blade. A questing sword. A captain’s sword. Your sword.
Returning to yourself, you sheath the blade and glare down the road to Rivendell with renewed purpose.
Pulling your hood closer, you scowl into the driving rain and trudge on, cold water washing through your worn-out boots. You must still be 20 miles from Inverness, and the deluge shows no sign of slowing. Once again you wonder why you left – at least the bloody barracks had been dry.
Some miles down the road (you stopped counting days ago) you think you catch sight of a figure, barely a shadow through sheets of rain. Your heart leaps and your hand flies to your scabbard, but you steady yourself and peer deeper through the downpour. The shape is small and stooped with age. No threat to you.
As your breathing slows, you find yourself wondering how much coin the old man carries. Your stomach growls like something feral at the thought of a full meal. There’s already a price on your head – and as your mother always said, may as well be hanged for a sheep.
“Halt if you value your life!” you call into the rain. To illustrate your point, you draw the dagger from your belt.
The old man doesn’t stop. As he draws nearer, you make out a heavily scarred face, hair hanging damp and limp across a horrible grin. Without slowing his pace, he casts aside the skirt of his coat and, quick as lightning, draws a sword. The blade gleams bright against matte black steel, a scattering of hearts piercing the plate.
You have a feeling you just made a terrible mistake.
“I don’t believe you,” you say again, turning the leather-wrapped handle over in your hands. The man sitting opposite you grins, his heavy-lined eyes glinting in the guttering candlelight.
“What did you expect?” he asks, “A jewel-encrusted pommel? A glistening of arcane runes? A chorus of Hallelujahs, perhaps?”
You glance away from the old tinker, chastened. The truth is you did hope for something more. The sword before you is simple and sturdy, remarkable only in its elegant lines and the steel rings protruding over the crossguard.
“This sword was not made to catch the eyes of lords and ladies,” the old man explains as his worn fingers flash across the steel, “It was made to protect,” – he taps the rings – “and to defend. This was the sword of a great hero before the songs and stories made him such. This was the sword that kept him alive to hear them.”
Shaking his head, the scarred trader lifts the sword from the table and swaddles it in yellowed cloth with a care bordering on reverence. No, not reverence. Familiarity.
“Wait,” you cry, despite yourself.
The old man looks up with a smile.