“I’ve told you the truth.” At least he had told them a lot of it. What he had held back, he thought, would probably not be of any importance to them; and it was not something he was going to tell to anyone, whatever happened.
Arnfinn wiped his face with his sleeve again. “Now, can I go?” When nothing intimidating happened to him in response to this question, he dared to get back to his feet.
That move, too, was accepted. At least nobody knocked him down again. Instead, the big man pointed a huge finger at the ground, and grumbled a warning at him, that he should stay right where he was; and then the three moved to a little distance, where they could confer without their victim hearing them. Obviously the subject of their conference was what to do about him.
Watching them, Arnfinn could imagine them coming to one of at least three possible decisions. One, they could determine to kill him after all, in which case he ought to be bounding down the hillside right now, running for his life. He wasn’t doing that, so it followed that he didn’t really believe that he was going to be killed, not after their having talked to him so reasonably. Two, they could try to enlist him in their cause, whatever that might be. Three, they could send him home. In Arnfinn’s current mental state he wasn’t sure which alternative would be worse.
The three did not take long to reach a decision. In only moments they were coming back, surrounding him again.
The gray-robed woman had pulled out her purse and was counting out some coins. Arnfinn felt a little dizzy; at least they were not going to finish him right now.
“What will you do,” the young man asked, “if we tell you, you are free to go?”
“I’ll go home,” said Arnfinn promptly. “I’ll leave here this instant, and never come back.”
The big man added his endorsement of that plan, emphasizing it with a brutally graphic statement of what would happen to Arnfinn if he did come back.
“See that you don’t.”
The lady extended the coins to him in her hand, and Arnfinn muttered thanks and took them-he put them into his pocket without counting, but still it looked like more money than anyone in Lunghai except the lord of its manor had seen for a long time.
He turned away. The moment he started downhill toward the town, three voices challenged and warned him.
He stopped and turned again, explaining that his road home led in that direction. “But I’ll not stop in the town. I don’t know anyone there, and none of them know me.” Which was true enough, for none of the folk of Triplicane had ever seen him without the Sword.
The three let him go on, evidently convinced by his fright, which was certainly real enough.
Even though Arnfinn knew no one in the town, and no one in the town knew him, still there was one stop he had to make, someone in the neighborhood he had to try to see. He knew it was mad foolishness, but still he had to try to see her once more, even if he knew it could be no more than one look from a distance. Even if the three came after him and killed him for it.
He kept on going straight through the town, a stranger insignificant and unnoticed, until he came out on its other side. There he presently found himself standing in front of Triplicane’s most substantial dwelling. It was a low, sprawling manor house, which was invisible from the road behind high walls and trees. It was obvious that wealth and power dwelt here.
Arnfinn had entered the grounds of this manor before, but now he knew that he would never be able to enter them again. Now, without the Sword of Stealth, the best he would ever be able to do was to wait outside, loitering in the road. If he did that it might be possible for him to see her just once more-perhaps catch a brief glimpse through the strong bars of the gate. It was not much of a chance, but it appeared to be all that he now had left.
The realization was sinking in on him that in losing the Sword he had lost whatever chance might have remained of repairing the ruin he had managed to make of his life during the few days when he’d had the Sword in hand.
Arnfinn began to weep again. This time his sobs were quieter, slower, and more bitter. Looking back it was hard for him to see how he might have been able to do things differently.
HIS journey to sell the Sword hadn’t started out in hopelessness. Far from it; in the innocence of its very beginning it had been something of a lark.
The presence of the Sword of Stealth in the village of Lunghai had been kept a secret from the great majority of the villagers, at least up to the time of Arnfinn’s departure. The very few people who knew what he was up to, a small group of immediate family and close friends, had seen him off with quiet rejoicing. At the last moment a couple of his relatives had suggested that it would really be better after all if someone accompanied him. But that point had already been discussed, and really settled. Everyone else in the little group of people who knew about the Sword had work to do in the village, work it would be impractical for them to leave. Arnfinn would have little work to do until the harvest started, and he swore he would be back before then. And if Arnfinn went alone, taking the Sword with him, it was possible no one else in the village would know about the real purpose of his trip until he was back with the money he had realized from its sale.
The day of his departure was fine and promising, in the lull of work before the harvest began in earnest. Arnfinn, riding a borrowed load beast, took pleasure in the sheer novelty of the journey. And not long after he had left his own village behind him, he began to appreciate the possibilities of fun in the miraculous power of the weapon he was carrying.
A pair of poor farmers, one of whom Arnfinn recognized when he chanced to meet them on the road, suddenly put on unintentionally comical expressions and cleared themselves hastily out of his way. This pleased him disproportionately, and he tried in vain to imagine who, or what, the Sword had made them see. At the next tiny hamlet that Arnfinn came to, shortly after his encounter with the farmers, the peasant women who saw him pass ran from their huts to grab up small children and bring them inside.
Arnfinn, grinning as he tried to guess in what image, terrible or awesome, the Sword had presented him to the women, rode past all of them on his phlegmatic borrowed load beast and said nothing. Whenever he cast his eyes down at his own body, even if he did so at the very moment when people were retreating from him in fear, he saw only the same poor clothes as always, covering the same scrawny and unimpressive frame. Only within the past year, after his sixteenth birthday, had he begun to admit to himself the possibility that he was never going to grow much bigger than he was, never going to be huge and powerful.
Even earlier in life he had been forced to concede in his own mind that he was never going to be handsome. His face had never actually frightened anyone-not until the magic of the Sword of Stealth had begun to alter it in the sight of others. But with his nose and Adam’s apple standing out like brackets above and below the bony projection of his chin, his was a countenance that had provoked more than a few jokes.
After passing through that first hamlet Arnfinn came to a long stretch of road where there were no more villages. Nor, for the time being, were there any other travelers for him to meet. In solitude the load beast kept plodding methodically forward. The sun turned through a sky hazed lightly with the onset of autumn.
And, he kept thinking to himself, he hadn’t even drawn the Sword to frighten any of those people. Sightblinder-that was what it had to be-was just hanging there in its fancy scabbard, from the fancy belt that had been with it when the children found it. Belt and scabbard alike were skillfully sewn of fine sturdy leather, and both were mounted with what Arnfinn assumed were real jewels; he suspected that those decorations might be treasure enough in themselves to enrich the village of Lunghai considerably.