Dumbstruck, Quentin stared slack-jawed at their host. He had expected a warrior commander, or at very least a knight well acquainted with battle and the needs of fighting men and their weapons. The person scuttling toward them across the expanse of the hall was quite the opposite of Quentin’s mental image.
Inchkeith, the legendary armorer, was a small man with a thin, puckered face and sinews like ropes standing out in his neck as if to keep his palsied head from quivering off his thick shoulders. He was slight and bent at an unnatural angle; Quentin saw at once that this was because the master armorer’s spine was curved grotesquely. He walked on spindly legs in a kind of rolling hop, and not at all in the slow and dignified tread of the man Quentin had imagined.
But his hands were the hands of a master craftsman: broad, generous, and deft. They were strong hands and sure of movement, graceful and never still for a moment. These remarkable hands were attached to powerful arms and well-muscled shoulders—the shoulders of a young man. It appeared to Quentin that some cruel jest had been played upon the old man with the spindly legs. The brawny arms and chest of a plowman or a soldier had been placed upon the frail body of a deformed scullery servant.
“It has been long since I have had the pleasure of your company, Durwin. But here you are, and I rejoice at the sight of you.” Inchkeith spoke with a deep voice, contrasting strangely with his wizened appearance. In two hops he was in Durwin’s arms, and the two men were embracing each other like brothers long lost.
“It is good to see you again, Inchkeith. You have not changed a hair. I have brought some friends with me that I would have you meet.”
“So I see! So I see! Good sirs, you are welcome in Whitehall now and always. I hope you will feel free to stay as long as you like. We do not have many guests here, and your stay will be cause for celebration.” The master armorer made a ludicrous bow and winked at them. In spite of himself, Quentin laughed out loud.
“Master Inchkeith, you do us honor. I am certain your hospitality is most gracious.”
“This is Quentin and his companion Toli,” said Durwin.
“Ah, Durwin, you travel in good company.” Inchkeith rolled his eyes and held his hands up to his face in a show of respect. “Both of you are well-known here. Your deeds are sung within these walls often, as are the great deeds of all brave warriors.”
Quentin blushed and bowed, acknowledging the compliment. “The stories do not tell all. I did what any man would have done, and not at all bravely.”
“Yes, but it was you that did it and not another.” Inchkeith jabbed the air with a forefinger. “That is all the difference!”
At that moment a door was thrown open at one end of the hall, and a troop of young men came marching in as if they were soldiers drilling in step.
“Come!” cried Inchkeith, hobbling away. “You must meet my sons. I know they will want to welcome you as well.”
The travelers followed their host; Quentin and Toli, grinning with pleasure, were irresistibly drawn to this peculiar man—so unlike the exact and scrupulous order around him.
There were seven sons, all handsome young men and well mannered. They did not speak, except when their father directed a question or indicated that a reply would be welcome. Quentin greeted each one in turn, as did Toli, and remarked that they were all like images of one another: soft brown hair and eyes, full lips and brown cheeks, high, strong foreheads. And they all possessed strong, straight limbs; none had inherited their father’s deformity.
“These are my army; my treasure, my pride,” said their father, beaming down upon them as they took their places at the table.
“And these are my gold and jewels!” Inchkeith turned and waved his hand and, as if on signal, a tall, handsome woman entered from the near side of the hall, followed by five beautiful young women. “My lady and my daughters.”
The young women tittered behind their hands as they approached, their plain muslin gowns swishing pleasantly as they moved together. But when each was introduced to Quentin, she held out her hand like a highborn lady and curtsied. Although he felt foolish, he kissed their hands, to the glowing approval of their mother. Toli felt obligated to follow Quentin’s example.
“You are most welcome in our home, my lords,” said Inchkeith’s wife. “If you need anything, my household stands ready to serve you.”
“You are most kind . . .”
“I am Camilla,” she said, holding her hand out to Quentin. He kissed it, and she curtsied. He noticed that the woman was younger than her husband; he wondered if she had borne all the offspring he saw gathered before him. It was possible—they all had her dark coloring; but if so, she had retained a most youthful appearance.
“Thank you for your kindness, my lady. I already feel welcome here, and we have but arrived.”
“Then let us not tarry another moment,” said Inchkeith with delight, rubbing his hands together as if to warm them. “Be seated, good guests, and partake with us of our bread.”
Inchkeith took Durwin by the arm and drew him to the head of the table with him, leaving Quentin and Toli in the care of the young women. They settled together across the table from the young men and all at once began talking, asking questions about what was going on at court, what the fashions were in Askelon, what news of the larger world they had brought.
So inquisitive were they that Quentin could hardly keep up with their questions, many of which forced confessions of ignorance from him, as he knew less about some of their interests than they did themselves. Their questions spoke of a firm knowledge of the world and its ways, despite the seclusion in which they apparently lived. As the meal ended, he had formed the firm impression that this was by far the most remarkable family he had ever met.
When they had taken their fill of meat and bread and broth and fruit, the sons of Inchkeith trooped off together, and the daughters, along with their mother, began helping the servants clear away the trenchers and serving vessels. Quentin and Toli moved to the head of the table, where Inchkeith and Durwin sat talking. Inchkeith had taken out a long pipe and was lighting it.
“Though I am grateful for the pleasure of your visit, I know that you did not come just to see old Inchkeith. There is business to be done, aye?”
“So it is.” Durwin nodded. “We do have some business to discuss with you.”
The craftsman took a long pull of his pipe, his cheeks caving in completely. He blew them out again in a long, thin blast of smoke. “I like nothing better,” he said. “But perhaps your business is not so urgent that it will not wait until I have shown you some of my latest works.”
“By all means,” urged Quentin. “I would very much like to see some of your achievements.”
“You twist my arm, sir!” laughed Inchkeith, getting up from the table. “Follow me and you will see something to suit your fancy, I daresay.”
They left the gleaming hall by a side entrance and were at once in a low, dim room where rank on rank of polished armor stood emptily at attention, waiting for their knights to lend them life. It looked the very armory of a king, so many swords, bucklers, helms, and breastplates did they see.
Through this low-beamed room they came to another, smaller than the first and darker. It contained lances and spears of all sizes and description, and halberds without number. The long-shafted weapons were all bound together in neat piles like new-mown sheaves of grain, bundled and waiting to be threshed. In the gloom Quentin could see the steel points of lance and spear, and the smooth, sharp blades of the halberds glimmering as they passed.
“Ah! Here we are. Watch your step. There. This is my only true home—my workshop,” shouted Inchkeith above a new din.
For they had stepped down into a room warm with the fires of the forge and loud with the clangor of steel on steel. The room was easily as large as the great hall, if not larger, and it was filled with the bustle of industry as the sons of Inchkeith, and various servants, went about their work of forging steel and iron into weaponry. There were tables and odd-looking devices that defied adequate description all over the place, from one end of the oblong room to the other. At each table, and surrounded by curious trappings, a man labored over his craft: here a blade being affixed to its hilt and handle, there a wooden shield receiving its hide veering, and over across the way, a truncated knight was acquiring his breastplate.
Quentin was dazzled by the display, for it was totally unlike anything he had ever seen. Inchkeith led them through the maze, pausing at each table to impart some finer point of craft to the workman there. And wherever the eye chanced to wander, it glanced upon a shining example of the armorer’s art. Quentin doubted whether in all the world there was anything to compare with Inchkeith’s workshop.
Quentin looked upon the table and saw, among an assortment of strange tools whose purposes he could but guess, a long, broad sword, a mighty thing, fully a span in length. The hilt was jewel encrusted and gold, and the scabbard was silver engraved with scenes of the capture of a bear. It was every inch a work of excellence and skill.
“Do you like it?” asked Inchkeith, following Quentin’s gaze.
“Like it? Sir, it is the most handsome of swords. A treasure.”
“Here. You may examine it more closely.”
With his left hand, and lamenting that he did not have the use of his right, he drew the sword from its sheath and heard the cool whisper of the sliding steel.
It was made to be used with two hands; yet it was not much heavier than its shorter cousin and was superbly balanced. Even with his left hand Quentin could feel the lift of the blade and the almost effortless way in which it followed the movement of the hand. Quentin passed the weapon to Toli, who made it sing through the air; he saw the light of admiration leap to the Jher’s dark eyes.
“The blade is of a special steel I have begun making. It will shear iron. This one”—he spoke as if it were but one fish of a thousand in his net—“I have made for King Selric of Drin. It is all but finished.” He carefully replaced the sword and turned to them with a twinkle in his eye. “Now I will show you my masterpiece.”
Inchkeith hobbled from his table to a low, arched door set in a recess in the wall nearby. As he passed the end of the table, he took up a lamp and lit it from a taper. After adjusting it, he proceeded to heave aside the heavy bolt that secured the door. “This way,” he said, and he disappeared inside the blackened doorway.
The three followed their stooped guide into a small, round chamber, and it was a moment before their eyes could adjust to the darkness and the dim lamplight. When Quentin raised his eyes, a gasp escaped his lips. Before him stood the most handsome suit of armor he could have imagined, but that alone was not what took his breath away.
Quentin saw before him the very armor he had seen in his vision.
It was real. It existed and was flashing in the light of the lamp as if it were wrought from a single diamond. Polished, smooth, bright as water, it shimmered before his dazzled, unbelieving eyes. Without heeding the others, Quentin moved toward the place where it stood on its stanchion, as if the object had beckoned him closer.
The armor, pale and shimmering silver in the lamplight, was without ornament or device of any kind. All its surfaces gleamed like gemstones, flat and clean, reflecting a luminous radiance.
The helm was magnificent, having a simple slotted visor and a crest that was nothing more than a thin ridge from brow to crown. And, quite unaccountably, from the shoulders hung a cloak of the most exquisite chain mail Quentin had ever seen. He could not resist touching it. He reached out a tentative fingertip, and the mail rippled like liquid silver, sparkling and dancing in the flickering light. The tiny, individual rings sighed like the fall of the snow upon frozen ground as they quivered beneath his touch.
“It is as light as goose down,” said a voice close to his ear. Inchkeith was standing at his shoulder, his face lit with pleasure at Quentin’s unutterable amazement.
“Who is it for?” Quentin managed to croak with effort.
“Ah, there is the wonder of it!” The craftsman’s voice was but a sigh. “No one—at least not yet. I fashioned it after a design that came to me in a dream. I saw it and knew I must make it. I believe the owner will come to claim it one day. Until then . . .” His voice trailed off.
“I notice that it does not have a sword,” Quentin remarked suddenly. “Why not?”
Inchkeith the master armorer cocked his head to one side and frowned. “You have touched it there, my lord. I saw no sword in my dream and so made none.”
“Then come, Master Inchkeith,” said Durwin. “It is time we talked.”