We’uns’ll reach the castle by nightfall, Tipper. Yes—leastways, not long after. Still a fer road, though. Almost too fer on two legs in a day. But I don’t mind, Tip, I don’t.” The tinker patted his dog and ruffled the fur behind her ears as they sat on a hazel stump beside the southern road.
The afternoon sun slid lower in the west over fields of ripening grain. They had left Pelgrin behind and upon emerging from the shaded wood, sat down for a few minutes to rest in the warmth of the day. The sword leaned against the stump for the moment; the weight of it had caused the thin cord to dig into its bearer’s shoulder.
“Ah, what a day, Tip. Eh? Lookee yonder to that cloud o’dust rising. Some’uns coming and coming quick, by the look of it. Not one only, maybe two or three or more. We’uns’d best stay put right here out of the way. They’ll pass right by us so we’uns’ll see who ’tis.” Pym watched the dusty ochre cloud rising from the road beyond the next hill. In a moment he heard the drum of hooves on the earthen track, sounding a dull rumble, then saw the riders themselves as they crested the hill and came on toward him.
Soon Pym could see the bearing of the men in the saddle and their fine clothing and knew that they must be knights or lords. He could hear the clink-chink of the steeds’ tack as they trotted along.
The foremost riders—two men riding abreast—drew near where he sat on his rough hazel stump. Eyes straight ahead, looking neither right not left, they passed him in a flash. Three more dashed by in an instant, and one of these raised a gloved hand in greeting while one of his companions glanced at the tinker and nodded as he galloped by. Pym got to his feet and took up the sword. He stepped into the road and was in the act of hoisting the sword onto his shoulder once more, his eyes on the backs of the retreating horsemen, when a sixth rider approached.
Before Pym could think or move, the rider was upon him. He jumped back, dropping the sword as the horseman jerked the reins hard, bringing his charger to a hoof-clattering, dust-churning halt.
“Out of the way, you fool!” growled the angry rider. “If you cannot watch where you are going, you should stay off the road! Next time I will trample you!”
Pym threw his hands in the air. “Sorry, Yer Lordship! I beg your pardon, master! Oh!” He scrambled out of the way as the ill-tempered rider and his fidgety mount cantered closer. Then, remembering the sword, the tinker turned quickly, stooped, and picked it up.
“Ho! Stop!” said the rider. “What have you there?”
Pym raised frightened eyes. His mouth worked the air, but his voice was some time in coming. “N-nothing, sir,” he managed to sputter at last, his features convulsing in anguish.
“Hold, peasant! If you knew who it was that addressed you, you would do well to keep an honest tongue in your head.”
The tinker lowered his eyes and said nothing; he brought the bundled sword behind his back, away from the prying eyes of the lord before him.
At that moment Pym became aware of a sound behind him. The other riders, having seen one of their party stopped in the road, had come back to discover what the trouble was. All five of them rode up behind Pym. “What is the trouble, Ameronis?” asked one of the newcomers, eyeing Pym in his shabby clothes suspiciously.
“This rascal darted out in front of me and nearly threw me from the saddle,” replied the quarrelsome Ameronis.
“I am certain he meant no harm,” said Lord Edfrith—the one who had previously nodded to Pym as he rode by. “I noticed him on the stump here a moment ago. Leave him, and let us be off.” The nobleman made a move as if to ride away, but none of his friends followed.
“What are you holding there?” asked Ameronis again, his voice cold and menacing. “I will see it before I ride hence.”
Pym glanced at the ring of faces around him, his heart leaping to his throat. “I—! I . . . nothing, my lord.” He pulled the sword to him. “I am a poor man. A tinker. Please let me go.”
“Let him be, Ameronis,” said the one who had spoken before. “He has nothing to interest us.”
“Nevertheless,” roared Ameronis, “I will see it! If it is nothing, let him show me.” His piercing eyes fell upon Pym with keen determination. “But,” he continued slyly, “if that is a sword he holds wrapped in those rags, I mean to find out where this tinker came by it.”
This brought a murmur from the others. “Well?” said Lord Gorloic. “Show us, then, for I too would see it.”
“I discern the shape of a weapon beneath those rags,” added another—this was Lord Lupollen, Ameronis’s closest friend. “Show us, tinker; it is our right.”
“No!” wailed Pym helplessly, “I cannot!” His black dog flattened her ears and growled. One of the horses stamped the ground and snorted.
“Give it to me!” demanded Ameronis, thrusting out his hand suddenly.
Pym clutched his prize to his chest and refused to give it up.
“Come,” said Edfrith, “let us be about our own business.”
“Go!” shouted Lupollen. “We do not need you. But as this interests me, I will stay to see it through.”
Edfrith pulled his reins and his mount backed from the group, wheeled, and galloped away. “I will have nothing more to do with this ill-advised plan,” he shouted over his shoulder.
“Please, sir. I have done nothing,” pleaded Pym, sweat dripping down his neck, staining his shirt. “Let we’uns go in peace. I beg you, ple—”
“Silence, peasant! Shut your mouth!” With that, Ameronis leaned down from his saddle and grabbed the bundle.
Terrified, Pym hung on and was pulled off his feet. Lord Ameronis struck him a blow across the face with his studded glove, raised his foot from the stirrup, and kicked the tinker in the stomach. Pym released the sword and fell writhing to the ground. Tip barked and snapped at her master’s attacker.
Ameronis tore at the rag coverings, shreds of cloth falling from his hands. “No!” cried Pym, rolling up to his feet once more. “Please!” He looked to the other noblemen for help and saw their cool, impassive faces. They were with Ameronis. “I beg you, sir! Give it back!” He lurched for the blade, but was not quick enough. The haughty Ameronis lashed out with his booted foot, caught the tinker full on the jaw, and sent him sprawling backward in the dust.
“I am in your debt, tinker,” crowed Ameronis, pulling the last of the tatters aside. “You have delivered the prize into my hand!” He raised the sword high. “And also the crown!”
“By all the gods!” gasped the noblemen, looking on. “It is Zhaligkeer, the Shining One!”
“For this service I will give you a reward, tinker,” said Ameronis, his eyes shining with the light of his greed. “What do you think of that?”
Pym stared in horror at the sword in the usurper’s hand and said nothing.
“I will grant you your worthless life,” said Ameronis, laughing. His lords laughed too, nervously, still amazed that the sword had come to them. “For surely you have stolen this sword, tinker,” continued the lord, lofting the sword and swinging it, enjoying its cold, resilient strength in his hand, the blade so finely crafted that it seemed alive.
“Now get up on your feet, scum,” he ordered.
Pym, his mouth bleeding and the skin along his jaw swelling an ugly violet-red, dragged himself to his feet.
Ameronis flicked the point of the Shining One at the tinker’s throat. “You will tell no one of this, tinker, do you hear me? I have ears everywhere, and if you tell I will know about it and I will have your head on a spike over the gate of my castle. Do you understand?”
Pym felt the cold kiss of the sharp blade against his flesh. He knew the ambitious Lord Ameronis would not hesitate to kill him, and within his heart he burned with rage and shame: he had let them take the king’s sword. What could he do? How could he prevent them?
“Ye might as well kill me now,” said Pym sullenly. “For I will not keep quiet about this.” Now that the words were said, he stood by them. “Yes, we’uns mean to go to the king straightaway and tell him what’s happened.”
“You care so little for your life then, tinker?”
“I care so much fer me king,” replied Pym. “It be his sword ye hold there, as ye well know. We’uns were taking it to him—it been lost, ye see.”
“I warn you for the last time,” Ameronis menaced. He raised the sword to strike. Tip growled savagely and barked at her master’s attacker.
Pym stood his ground and closed his eyes. If it was to be his last moment . . . very well, let it be in the service of his king. He waited for the sound of the blade singing through the air.
Instead he heard a shout—far off and high-pitched.
“Wait!” said one of the others. “Someone is coming!”
When a sound of hooves came thumping up behind them, Ameronis cursed and said, “I will finish with this one even so!”
“Do not be a fool!” said Lupollen, his voice tense. “We have what we want; let us leave the field clean.”
Pym opened his eyes a peep and saw the violent lord’s face, dark with rage, still towering above him, the sword still raised in his hand. The hooves pounded closer, and another shout reached them.
Ameronis glanced up, then hovered for a moment in indecision.
“Come!” urged Lupollen, his horse wheeling around. The others turned their mounts and started away.
“The gods bear witness,” muttered Ameronis thickly, “blind luck has saved you, tinker. But if ever we meet again, your life is forfeit.” With that he spurred his charger forward, directly at Pym, who jumped to the side. He was not quick enough, and Ameronis swung the sword hilt down on his skull.
The heavens darkened, stars swung from their courses, and Pym collapsed in the road.