A Tear In The Sky

Lance Arthur
23 min readFeb 9, 2017



“He’s good for nothing.”

“No one is good for nothing. Everyone is good for something.” The man’s tone was dull and worldweary, but he had a point. Everyone is good for something. Cleaning privies is something, isn’t it? And someone has to do that, and they don’t even have to be particularly good at doing it. “He looks…”


“Small, yes, but….” He left the sentence unfinished, and for some years the boy would often wonder what the man saw in him, and if it was something important or interesting, why he was so anxious to be rid of him. It was a small word that made all the difference. ‘But.’ Not ‘and.’ It would’ve been more understandable with an ‘and.’ To have heard ‘Small, yes, and…’ ‘And’ ugly. ‘And’ stupid. ‘And’ sickly.

“Perhaps a talent for something?” the other man asked, looking down at him. He smelled of whiskey and smoke and…dank sweat? Did the man even know what the word ‘bath’ meant? The boy’s sense of smell was jarringly acute. Why did everyone have to smell like that? Why couldn’t they smell like lavender? Or pine? Or honey?

His father — or the man he thought of as his father — shook his head and nearly laughed out loud. “Him? The boy’s a lump. Useless. What’s he going to grow up to be, assuming the runt grows at all? Stables? The horses would step on him like a dungheap. Kitchens? What could he carry? Who’d want to see him serving?” He considered the boy’s face, which was admittedly quite beautiful. “Mebbe to the brothels. Some fat old royal might want to bugger a thing like that, wanting a tighter hole than the whores have.”

Charming, the boy thought. But he bit his tongue rather than suffer another round of beatings. His large, blue eyes blinked in feigned ignorance. It didn’t pay to be too smart, so he had learned not to open his mouth unless told to, and then only to offer the most modest appraisals of circumstances rather than elaborate on what someone should do, and how, and when. The filthy tang of shit struck his nostrils, and his mouth turned into a grimace involuntarily. “Look at him,” his father said, “who’d want to stick his cock into that mouth?”

The other man’s mouth quirked into a half-smirk. It was difficult to tell what the look referenced. Did he agree with the assessment, or did he contemplate the act? “Small,” he said again. “But not too small.”

The boy gulped, and regretted doing so instantly. At ten years of age, he wasn’t unfamiliar with what men wanted. Pity the ones that so often wished to abuse him were so ugly, and that the ones he found beautiful never cast their eyes in his direction. He wondered if everyone felt the same way about love. He wondered why they spent so much time pursuing it, and so much gold paying for it, and would it ever feel good. He blinked again, a practiced gesture, which pretended ignorance of the subject of the conversation. He hoped that it would counteract his throat’s betrayal.

“What’s he done?” the other man asked. He kept his eyes on the boy to an uncomfortable degree. He didn’t mind being stared at, but those eyes were odd. He’d seen odd eyes in his life, of course. People were always getting eyes poked out in fights or having a blade slice through them to leave milky orbs behind, but the other man’s eyes looked undamaged and ordinary, except that they were the color of metal, like iron or silver. His features were otherwise uninteresting, save for a few of the usual scars and a particularly good set of teeth.

“Done?” his father asked. His father was a dunce.

The other man wanted to sigh with resignation and annoyance, but only a slight tightening at the corners of his eyes — which the boy recognized easily — betrayed his emotions. “What jobs has he performed?” he croaked in clarification. His nose had been broken at least once, the boy could observe, and he offered such an economy of movement that he might have been a statue in the room.

His father shrugged. “Tried to get him fetching milk for the cheeser, but he spilt more than he carried. Good at stokin’ fires. He has some skill with letters, though not what you might call learned.”

“Letters?” His right eyebrow arched. He was still eye-locked with the boy, so it was easy to see his face change in subtle ways that told the boy his interest was piqued, and it was time to go in for the kill. At this point, his father should have reached for gold, and named a high price for him.

The boy’s father only nodded, though, because he was a dunce. How could he not see what was happening? Wasn’t it screamingly obvious? “Not much use, I agree. What’s he gonna do, run up to the castle proper and take down what the king says?” He laughed at his own jest with a harsh, unpleasant sound, more like clearing his throat than anything like a guffaw. “Dumb as a post, that one,” he summarized, as if that was a selling point.

“You can read, boy?” he asked.

The boy looked at his father for approval to speak. He was rewarded with a cuff to the back of his head and a reprimand. “Answer him, oaf!”

He nodded, and mumbled, “Yes sir.”

“See? I taught him manners,” his father boasted. Then he cuffed him again in reward. “Can’t abide bad manners,” he growled.

“Show me your hands,” the man asked. The boy presented them. They were delicate things, with long fingers. The man turned them over and looked at his palms, seeming to stare at his fingertips, then gripped them hard and waited for the boy to grimace or protest. The boy did neither, though his jaw tightened and his eyes narrowed slightly.

“Not going to be a smithy,” his father joked. “Those hands ain’t good for all but stroking a soft one into a hard one.”

You should know, the boy thought. But his face didn’t betray his thoughts, and when the other man released his hands, he let them fall to his sides though they were pulsing with pain.


His father shook his head. “The Academy would’ve had him by now, wouldn’t they?” The boy could almost hear the ‘and good riddance’ at the end of the sentence.

The man said, “Not if you wanted to raise a rogue, they wouldn’t.”

His father’s eyes widened at the mention of the thought. “No,” he said darkly, and almost formally. “The boy has no magicks.”

“How much, then?” his father asked. The ugly man’s arms were crossed over his sunken chest, bony things with hardly any meat. The skin was leathery and stretched like a thin hide over a starving weasel. His eyes were sunken and empty, as if darkened by stupidity.

The other man’s eyes were almost the exact opposite of his father’s. Alive with silver light and dancing across his body and face, taking in every detail and summing him up with an uncomfortable intensity. “Two silvers,” he offered. His voice was like fingernails on slate. There was a white scar on his neck, across the windpipe, and another along the right side of his face, slashing down his features like lightning.

“Five,” his father countered. What an idiot. He felt his eyes rolling in their sockets before he could stop them. Five? Counter two with five? What an idiot. The boy knew he was worth at least six, but countering with four made better business sense after all the remarkably asinine shit his father had just spoken. The man was a complete asshole.

The other man had a smile on his face, for some reason. He was looking at him directly, eye to eye, as if he could read what his mind was saying. “I’ll be off then,” he said, reaching for his black woolen cap.

“Four, then,” his father said. The boy gritted his teeth. Idiotic idiot. Dropping the price instead of countering with the boy’s hidden talents? Letting his opponent know he had misstepped? Giving in so easily, even when he was outclassed? That just reeked of fear and stupidity, and granted his opponent another advantage.

“It was…interesting meeting you,” he said directly to the boy.


“Two,” the other man said, with finality. “Two silvers for your small useless lump.” The man was still watching the boy’s face, and not the boy’s father’s. The boy was practiced, that was clear. His face was slackened and dull, but his eyes could not betray him. That could be taught, of course, but the other talents — the man had never seen anyone so proficient at masquerade and misdirection.

His father groaned and balled his hands into fists. The boy winced — even that looked an act, and perhaps it was, feigning fright to lessen the blow — but he stood his ground. How often had he been beaten? How bruised was the skin under his collection of rags? How had he kept all his teeth, in the name of the gods? The other man’s eyes narrowed and he pursed his lips, considering the possible worth of the boy to his endeavors. Finally, his father simply nodded his big, stupid, ugly head and said, “Two then. And good riddance!” He drew back and slapped the boy hard, making contact with his whole face, somehow. His anger was never easily contained, and often aimed at the boy whether he deserved it or not.

The boy didn’t move, taking the blow with practiced fearlessness. A red impression of his father’s hand grew like a stain on his porcelain skin. Tears welled in his large, blue eyes, but certainly not from sadness. His lips trembled slightly before subtly lifting at the corners. What part of that was feigned? How much had he trained himself in the arts of misdirection and persuasion without even knowing that he was doing so? How much talent did this beautiful young boy have, and could it be tapped sufficiently before his ego ruined him as it had so many others? As he grew taller, and more handsome, would he be trapped by his own talents and beauty?

None of that mattered, of course. All that mattered was the moment, and at the moment, the boy had been won. The other man reached for his purse and extracted two shining coins. “Done,” he said, passing them into the boy’s father’s hand. It was still warm from its contact with the small boy’s face, as if the sting passed both ways.

His father bit the coins between blackened teeth and pocketed them quickly. He lifted his hand again for a goodbye thrashing, but the other man caught his arm with more force than his lanky frame would convey, his grip shooting out as quickly as an arrow and grasping the father’s arm before it was cocked for the blow. “He is my property, now. No one touches him but me.”

“He needs beating,” his father reported. His hand was twitching as if blessed with a life of its own, and a singular purpose.

“Thank you for your advice,” the other man said. His guttural voice was like a frog’s. His scar moved as he spoke, a snake scribed onto the skin of his throat. “I shall take it under advisement.” He placed his hand upon the boy’s shoulder — again, it was surprising how much strength the slight man had in his grip — and nudged him from the hovel and its dreary, painful memories. He reached his other hand forward to push the door open.

A wash of scents, mostly unpleasant, entered from the outside which the boy recognized and parsed for their individual meanings in an instant. Soured milk spilled into a puddle, a milkmaid too forcibly cuddled. Urine, from a drunkard. Rust, as usual. Rotted wood in the dank air. Moist soil and cut grass. And blood — the copper tang of blood mingled with the other scents. He could always smell that strongly, even if it was only a woman having her monthly bleeding. The sky was overcast with fog and clouds, and a dank mist hung in the air causing the smells to be locked in its thick grip.

The man did not pause to take in the sites, particularly since there were none worth seeing. He steered the boy to the right and up the sodden lane between the sad buildings of his home town. His bare feet squished into the mud in a disagreeable fashion, and the mist seemed to instantly penetrate his clothing, such as it was, leaving him feeling cold and clammy.

Even so, his heart was beating quite quickly and he could barely keep his excitement in check. To be away from that man he called his father was an action filled only with hope. That had been his third father, and his least favorite. The others might have hated him, too, but at least they weren’t completely stupid. Lazy, yes, and unlearned. Why did no one even wish to be educated? Why was that seen as something to be avoided, as if learning more about anything made one dumber? He had an intense curiosity about everything, and had taught himself letters by listening intently to anyone holding a piece of paper or parchment. They might explain what they were reading — in some cases, even read directly from the sheath — and he would find discarded pieces and discern the meaning of the words, sounding them out and coming to an understanding that the symbol meant a sound, and that the sounds came together to make words, and that the words were strung into sentences. It was wonderful and amazing! And yet not one of the men who called him son could be bothered with it.

The man with the iron eyes did not speak for a long time, so the boy chose not to speak, either. The man released his grip on the boy’s shoulder the instant the door to his old home was closed behind them, and they walked at a measured pace toward the north end of the lane. The man had pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, covering his cap, as they walked, and never even looked back to see if the boy was still following. But the boy did follow, because he had a new owner. He did not want to think of this man as his father.

“Call me Sir,” the man instructed quietly.

“That your name?” the boy inquired.

An odd response, and curiously appropriate, but he let it pass for now. “It is what you will call me.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know your name?” The question floated back to him on gravelly tones, croaked from the man’s scarred throat.

“Me mum…me mum called me….,” he answered.

“Do not tell it to me. That is not what I asked you. Again, do you know your name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The name your mother gave to you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You knew your mother?” He paused before he answered, measuring his options and the likelihood of being struck if he answered wrongly. Then the man said, into the silence, “Never lie to me, boy. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you know the difference between the truth and a lie?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What is the difference?”

“You cannot choose a truth.”

A sly and slight smile wound across the man’s thin lips. “A wise answer,” the man said. “Now, answer the question.”

“My mother…”

The man interrupted the boy. “It is important never to answer more than was asked. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you know your mother?” he asked again.

“No, sir.”

“How do you know what your mother named you?”

“My…the first man who owned me told me.”

“And how did he know?”

“It was sewn onto my small clothes, he said.”

“Does the man live, still?”

“No, sir.”

“Where is your mother?”

“I killed her when she bore me, sir.”

“Something else your first owner relayed to you?”

“Yes, sir. My first father, sir.”

“Does the man I purchased you from know your name?”

“I don’t know.” The man looked toward the boy, and he responded, “He never called me by it. He may know it.”

They turned a corner and continued up the next street at the same measured pace. “Your previous owner told me you were ten years old.” The boy remained silent, walking apace with the lanky figure. “Good,” he croaked, “do not answer a question that has not been asked. How old are you, boy?”

“Twelve, sir,” he answered.

“Is that the truth?”

“It…it is what I believe.”

“What is the difference between the truth and what you believe?”

“If…if I believe it, then it is the truth.”

The man’s eyes widened and his eyebrows arched. He stopped and turned, looking down at the boy’s face. “Who told you that?”

“No one, sir.” The man stared at him intently, until the boy said, “A man did, sir. I don’t know his name.”

“Did he tell you not to divulge his name?” The boy’s eyes narrowed. “To divulge something is to reveal it, as if it were a secret. Did he tell you not to divulge his name?”

“He did not divulge it to me, sir.”

“Why did you lie to me?” The question was not an accusation, merely an inquiry. The boy recognized the difference.

He searched his memory of the event, but it returned curiously fuzzy, which was unusual. He normally remembered the oddest details about events, like the color of a kerchief in a woman’s sleeve cuff, or the particular way a man’s left shoe was coming untied. “I…I don’t know.”

“I understand.” His head tilted slightly. “Do you know why I am asking you these questions?”

He looked up, into those grey eyes. “No, sir.”

“I am teaching you, and I am learning from you. Do you understand?”

“No, sir. I mean, yes and no, sir.”

The man smiled slightly at the boy’s cautious precision. “I suppose it is not important that you understand that, yet. Everything is an opportunity to learn something. But it is important to know that. Do you understand the difference?”

“I think so, sir.”

“Explain the difference to me.”

“To know something is to… to know the thing itself, but nothing more. Like looking at an apple. To understand something is to know the truth of the thing. Like tasting an apple.”

They were walking toward the edge of the village. Houses began to grow fewer and farther between. The smells of the village and its people grew dimmer, and the smells of the forest and the land swelled larger for the boy. “I am going to give you a new name. This will be the only name that I will call you. Keep your own name hidden. Do not tell anyone else your given name — the name your mother gave you. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

The man stopped and confronted the small boy. They were now outside the village, on the road leading to the next. The sky hung low above them, slate grey and wet. The forest was dripping and there was a hush about them. Neither the sun nor the moon could be seen above. “Give me your hands,” the scarred man asked. He complied at once, offering them to the man palms up. The man took the boys hands in his own.

A warmth encompassed his grip. The man’s eyes, grey as the sky, grey as iron, grey as silverplate, seemed to glow, though that was certainly a trick of the light. “I call you Carder. It is not your name. Your name is your own. I call you Carder.” He released the boy’s hands. “What is your name?”

“Carder, sir.”

“Wait here for me, Carder. There is some unfinished business in the village I must attend to.” He gave the boy a penetrating gaze. “You will wait here for me, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” he answered, “I understand.”

The man nodded and turned toward an alley leading back toward the main lane of the small village. Carder stood where he had been told to wait for enough heartbeats for him to guess that he was out of site of his new owner before he turned to follow him down the alleyway.

In his head, Carder was already rationalizing his disobedience. When he stated that he understood, of course he meant that he understood that Sir had something to attend to. Perhaps he didn’t understand that he should stay exactly where he was. Perhaps he thought he should stay in the village, or stay near Sir. Yes, that sounded like it made sense. And besides, Sir had only said that he should not lie to him, and this was not a lie, exactly. This was…this was the truth, since he believed it.

Only he didn’t really believe it, but maybe saying you believed something was the same thing.

Carder was good at many things. Trouble was that many of those many things skirted the sheriff’s opinion of what was strictly within the law. Not that anyone ever had asked him what should and should not be legal, so he wasn’t sure he needed to abide by the laws he had no say in writing.

Carder’s senses were unusually perceptive. He only realized this after recognizing that those around him seldom heard, or saw, or smelled things to the same extent that he did. Sometimes, it was irritating. Trying to sleep when a bird was outside singing an unremittingly repetitive song, infiltrating his thoughts and then his dreams with its rhythms. Sitting at supper with the smell of the privy in his nose, because it lingered on the pant-leg of his slovenly father. Being distracted from the focus of his attention by some shiny bauble at the periphery, the pearl at the throat of a visiting lady, the gold ring in the ear of someone trying to evince the semblance of a pirate, without the requisite aromas of the the sea and salt. Why did no one else have these problems?

He moved silently along the building’s walls, careful to avoid stepping where a sound might give him away, and tried to keep Sir in his sights while making sure he was not in Sir’s line of vision. He was fairly certain that Sir was not cursed with his overactive sensitivities, though it was prudent to act as if Sir was. The other man moved without stealth, but with a certain quality of care that suggested he did not want to be noticed by acting as inconsequential as possible. Carder knew that moving about as if one is trying to hide is often the sole thing that gives one away. The trick is to move as if one has nothing to hide, while hiding whatever one needed to be hiding, and keeping a watchful eye on one’s surroundings and the faces of others. Sir seemed unusually adept at the act.

They were approaching Carder’s old homestead. Familiar scents assailed him, and he wiped his eyes of the clinging mist to watch Sir approach his front door and enter without knocking.

His heart was beating in his chest, pumping blood into his ears. His body felt hot, even though the air was cold and wet. His clothing clung to his small body and he hugged the side of an adjacent building for a few long moments before testing his luck and moving closer.

The smell of blood was still in the wind, stronger now than before. He could almost taste its metallic tang, so thick was its presence. The shack was silent, dripping darkly with the mist’s clinging breath. He snuck toward the rear window, its surface coated in filth, and raised his head slowly to peer inside.

His former father was already dead, the man’s limp body sprawled into a broken pile on the floorboards with a dark river flowing from his opened neck. His eyes were wide open, looking directly at the boy through the window, and his mouth was stretched in a silent shout. A small fire still burned in the hearth, and an untended meal bubbled angrily.

“What did you see?” Sir’s voice was behind him.

He had not heard the man approach, and he flinched in embarrassment and fear. “Nothing, sir,” he answered quickly. He turned and looked up, into the steel-grey eyes. He steeled himself for the coming blow.

“Tell me what you saw.” Sir did not seem angry. He stood quite still, and smelled of blood.

“I saw Sir enter that house. Then I saw a man dead on the floor. His throat had been cut. It didn’t look like he struggled.” Carder’s eyes drifted to Sir’s hands. They were white and boney, with veins winding under the sallow flesh like branches of a tree.

“Did you see who killed the dead man?”

“No, sir, Sir,” he answered.

The man straightened and placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, pushing him about with more power than his tall, thin frame might suggest, and they both moved back up the alley. “Did I not tell you to wait for me?”

“I did, sir,” he replied, with convincing honesty. He was rewarded with a cuff to the back of his head.

“Do not play word tricks with me, Carder. You knew what I wanted you to do.”

“You asked me to ‘wait for you here,’ and I am still here. I didn’t go anywhere.”

“Semantics,” the man replied.


“Word play. You knew what I wanted you to do,” he said again. “Do you make it a habit to disobey, boy?”

“No, sir. Not a habit.” More like…a preference, he thought to himself.

They moved through the alleys and behind buildings toward the edge of the village, where two steeds were tied up well away from the road. One was quite large, and quite black, his coat shimmering with the mist and making him look as if he had been molded from some dark metal. The other, much smaller and with a shaggy brown coat, had large wet eyes and he snapped at Carder as the young man approached. “Mine, no doubt,” he murmured.

“What’s that?”

“Nothing, sir,” he answered, more audibly.

“Good,” the man replied. “Mount up, Carder. We have a long ride ahead.”

It was late morning when they set off, and dusk when they approached the mountains. The rain had increased to a full downpour at one point, and then tapered off to the same loathsome drizzle. Carder was soaked to the bone, and chilled to his soul. He was unused to the saddle, being more comfortable riding bareback, and had to keep readjusting to ease his aches. He tried to do so surreptitiously, not wanting his new owner to be having second thoughts about his worthiness.

Few words were spoken between the two riders. Carder watched his new owner with interest and curiosity. He seemed very comfortable on his horse, keeping control of him with only the slightest motions and very few commands. That meant either that the man had training — though he did not look the part of cavalry or knighthood — or that the horse was his own steed and had been so for many years, meaning that he was richer than he looked. Having a second horse just for his new property seemed almost carelessly generous.

The man slowed and allowed Carder to ride alongside his large, black beast. He sat his horse tall and rather proudly, and his face had an odd look that made him appear younger than his years. “Who do you think killed the dead man?”

Carder wiped his eyes and shook the water from his blonde locks. “I can’t be certain, Sir. He may have tripped and fallen on his own knife.” An obvious lie, but a prudent one.

“An unlikely occurrence.”

“But possible.”

“Indeed,” Sir agreed. “Do you think I may have killed him?”

“No, sir,” Carder answered quickly. He tried to put a note of complete disbelief into his words, as if the mere thought that his new owner had murdered his old one was beyond impossible.

“Why not?” He seemed genuinely surprised. “I had the time. I was seen entering the home. Shortly after, the man was dead, or so you tell me. Would it not stand to reason that I could be the culprit?”

“Culprit, sir?”

“The murderer,” he explained.

Carder considered his answer carefully. Sir watched his face, and particularly his eyes, and waited silently. Finally, the lad reported, “You had no reason to kill him. Your business had been concluded to your benefit, and I am now your property. There is nothing else that the man possessed that would have been of value to you. Not his house, for certain. And he owned nothing else except what you already purchased.”

“Nothing he possessed.”

“No, sir.”

“And I went back to him because…?”

“Um,” Carder began.

“And there is no other reason that I would want him dead?”

Another pair of horses approached from the mountains ahead. They looked to be heralds or knights, based on the glimmer of armor and the colors of their livery. “Should… should we be discussing this now?”

“Why should we not, if neither of us is guilty of any crime?” He tilted his head slightly. “If a man were to move away from the scene of a crime in stealth or at speed, would he not be more suspected of that crime?”

“I suppose so.” He knew it to be true, based on some personal experience.

“Answer yes or no.”

“Yes,” Carder answered.

Sir nodded. “And since we have established that I did not have reason to kill him — or, did you kill him, Carder?”

“Me, Sir?”

“You had reason, did you not? You hated him. He abused you — emotionally, if not physically — took advantage of you, treated you quite poorly by all accounts.” Carder wondered which accounts those were, but he did not ask it. “He insulted you, used you, subjected you to trials and horrors, no doubt, that a young boy should not need to suffer.”

“I had reason,” the boy agreed, and reasons perhaps even the man did not suspect.

“But you did not kill him?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, if neither you nor I killed the man, merely discussing it could not prove to be harmful to us, could it?”

Carder looked up the muddy road at the riders. He could now see the steel of a sword strapped to one horse, and what looked like a staff angled behind the second man’s armored back. “Time, I think, is more the point, sir, if you pardon me for saying so.”

“Time, Carder?”

“If we had left the village when…after your business was concluded, there would have been no time for us to have learned of the murder. The fact that I was his property, and you my new master…surely that would lead to some…questions. And here we are discuss…”

He let his logic drop as the other riders approached, and Sir slowed his horse with a tongue-click, bowing his head slightly as he lowered his hood before raising his hand in greeting. “Sir knight,” he said, then he bowed his head to the other rider. “Sir knight,” he repeated. Carder bowed his head and left it lowered, awaiting a word from the mage warriors and expecting the worst.

“Good morrow,” one of them said. His voice was filled with gravel and weeds. “Where are you bound?”

Sir said, “The lad and I are headed back to Carthanin, sir knight, having completed some very profitable work in Frontin.”

“That’s a long way,” he observed, “and I see no packs.”

“In truth, sir knight, my back is no longer capable of sleeping on the ground. We make for towns along the highway and sleep in beds. As I said, our trade was quite profitable.”

The other knight spoke, then, His voice was honey to the other knight’s rough voice. “How do two such as you manage against ruffians?”

“By luck, sir knight. We have met none along our travels, may Bisha continue to guide us.”

“Followers of Bisha?” The gravel-voiced knight sounded surprised.

“Indeed! Perhaps you would care to hear…”

“No,” the gravel-voiced guardian said, waving his hand vaguely, “no thank you, sirrah.” He looked at Carder. “Does the small one have no tongue?”

“You speak true, sir knight. My unfortunate charge has no voice.”


Sir laughed gently. “Nothing so dramatic, sir knight. The boy is merely mute, and born as such.” Sir leaned from his saddle and whispered conspiratorially, “In truth, he aids my negotiations greatly. Our… esteemed benefactor was a bit too loose with his words around the lad, thinking him deaf as well as mute, and he… overheard some rather helpful, shall we say, advice?” He sat back, smiling and shrugged. “And who am I, a poor but honest tradesman, to refuse a gift from Bisha?”

The two knights laughed, seemingly amused at the codger’s tale. “What news from Markandin?”

“Sorrow and shame, good sirs, as you would imagine from such a wicked and forlorn place. We heard nothing of Bisha’s warmth and light there, and departed as soon as provisioned.” He shrugged his bony shoulders. “It is not the most…accommodating of villages, and lacking the possibility of trade the lad and I moved on. I’m afraid I can offer no news of that place, other than sadness and blight.”

“Light be with you, sirrah,” the honey-voiced warrior said.

“And to you both,” Sir said in his own growling cadence. “The love of Bisha knows no bounds!”

Carder listened to the two knight’s horses slowly meander up the road, keeping his head down until sufficiently satisfied. When he brought his eyes toward Sir, the old man was staring at him intently. “What did you learn, Carder?” he asked, and nudged his pony to a slow walk.

Carder followed him, thinking of an answer to the question. “I’m not certain,” he said.

“Remember that learning does not always require learning something new. Sometimes, one learns things that reinforce what one already believes.”


“Knowledge is never final, Carder. And it can change quite quickly.”

That seemed to satisfy Carder’s self-doubt. “I learned that an entertaining tale is useful.” A slight smile touched Sir’s thin lips. “I learned that following Bisha can be useful, as well.”

“Is that correct?”

He reconsidered his reasoning. “I learned that telling others you are a follower of Bisha can be useful.”

“Do you understand why?”

“She is…quite demanding.”

“Indeed, and very politic of you.”


“Politic. It means using the right words chosen carefully to achieve a beneficial end.”


“Personally beneficial,” Sir added.

“Yes, Sir.”

“And what else?” Carder lowered his head and thought, but could come up with nothing else. “Why did you remain silent, Carder.”

“You told them that I…”

“Before that. You kept your head lowered and said nothing, even as the two knights spoke in a friendly manner.”

“I…do not trust knight mages, Sir.”

“Why, Carder? They protect all honest citizens. They are charged with using magicks only in defense of the realm and the throne.” Carder kept silent, and only nodded. “You have had encounters with knights before,” Sir concluded. Again, Carder kept silent, and swallowed drily. “Do you fear them, Carder?”

“No, Sir.”

“But you do not admire them.”

“No, Sir.”

“Very well.”

They rode on in silence. The wind grew colder as the trees thinned out along the road. It licked at Carder’s skin and swam down his neck. But the real chill he felt was coming from inside himself, dredged up from memory and dressed in red steel.