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“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” Pax prompted.

Olivia shook her head. “No.” Her hands were shaking as she shoved the sword back into the sheath. She turned away quickly, but not quickly enough.

“That’s a magnificent blade you have there,” Pax noted. “May I see it?”

Reluctantly, Olivia redrew her sword and presented it hilt first to the man. He took it, and stepped back, swinging it a few times.

“It’s well-balanced,” he said after a moment. “It’s maker?”

Olivia shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I’ve no idea.” She wanted the sword back in her hands.

“The pommel is an unusual color,” continued Pax, handling the sword as casually as a butter-knife. “I’ve never seen it’s like.”

“Really?” Olivia tried. “I found it. Sort of.”

“Sort of?” Pax hedged, scraping a bit of dirt off the dull edges.

“Sort of,” she affirmed, clenching her fists. “It was lying around the village, and I was the first to pick it up in years.” She defended herself cautiously, not knowing what to say about her actions.

He ignored her explanation, lost in his own world. “The pommel,” mused Pax. “The color. Gold mixed with bronze. It reminds me of an old story.”

“What story?” Olivia asked, disarmed.

Pax shrugged. “I’m sure it’s nothing. Just a silly memory.” He handed the sword back to her.

Olivia grinned wryly. “What story, Pax?” She was glad to have the weapon in her hands again, and, silently thankful, slid it back into the sheath at her hip.

Pax offered her his arm. “Shall we walk?”

Olivia countered. “That depends. Shall you talk?”

“I shall,” Pax declared delightedly. “The story goes like this.”

***


Pax was a captain. He was fairly young to rise to the position—thirty-two years. Olivia was the most promising pupil he’d seen since his days in the standing knights’ ranks. He’d met her while securing one of the far villages ravaged by barbarians and plague. She, the oldest of the young men and women not already dead, at seventeen years of age, had walked right up to the cavalrymen, and asked the captain what possibly could have taken his squadron three years to offer the king’s aid.

So he’d offered her a position in his class of apprentices. Surprisingly, she’d accepted. Only a month later, she’d already taken a shine to her individual weapon and shield, and though her skills were rough, she was determined and merciless. Not to mention beautiful and graceful as well. A fine young woman, but a dangerous one.

They strolled through the barracks, an odd pair. One middle-aged man, in modest livery, well-muscled and refined-looking. One girl, slender, with spiraling, platinum-blonde hair, and chain mail and leather armor over her torso, forearms, and thighs.

“Back in my day, when I was younger than you, even, my father used to tell me stories. I wanted nothing more than to be a knight like him,” Pax began. “He told me about dragons and castles and princes and true love. I took his word as gospel as a child.

“One of my least favorites, however, which happened to be the one he most loved to tell, became the one I would invariably remember. Do you know about the twenty-three days of the Kramions?”

Olivia thought about that. “The Kramions were a race of men from the south. It was an invasion. They’d conquered the nations to the west, and were heading for us next. So the king… what, sixty years ago? The king sent out a force to meet them at the western border. The battles lasted twenty-three days with heavy casualties on both sides. But we finally drove them out. The end, right?”

Pax nodded. “That’s accurate, for the most part. There was a draft from the outlying towns. All able-bodied men were called on to fight with whatever they had at hand. Now, I don’t know if this story is true or not. But it fits with at least some of the facts.” He took a deep breath, and smiled.

“One of the men drafted was a musician, a traveling minstrel. He didn’t have a home, or a family to fight for. But he loved his work, and played an instrument. A cornet, have you heard of it?”

Olivia shook her head. “No, never,” she said. “What is it?”

“It’s made of brass. You hold it in your left hand, and press a series of buttons with the fingers of your right. It’s no larger than your forearm,” Pax explained. “You see, the minstrel was drafted forcibly into the army. He technically wasn’t a citizen of any city, town, or village. He had no home, but most importantly, he had no love of killing, even in defense.”

Olivia stared at Pax. “So how did he fight? They had to have made him.”

Pax shook his head. “At first, the minstrel didn’t. He was caught trying to desert three times before the general of the king’s sent forces decided to take drastic measures.

“When the musician declared to the general he would never murder men from another country who were no more than slaves like he—not literal slaves, mind you, but slaves in saying they were forced by a tyrant to have no say in their actions—the general asked for another reason, a better reason. It was a trick.”

“A trick?” Olivia asked. “How?”

“ ‘I have no weapon,’ the musician declared soundly, sure his argument would hold up. But the general without another word ordered the men loyal to him to seize the musician. And then, the general took the cornet.”

Olivia stopped midstride. “No!”

Pax nodded solemnly. “Unfortunately, yes. To spare you the details, the coronet was melted down. It wasn’t enough metal to make the blade, so the most of it was discarded, but a small amount was inlaid into the hilt, and the pommel. As punishment, the minstrel was sent into the primary attack units with the sword.” He paused for a moment.

“I never understood why my father used to tell me this story, especially as a little boy. Can you imagine, doing the thing you hate most, with the thing you love most?” Pax mused.

Olivia shook his arm gently. “But what happened? How did it end?”

Pax smiled grimly. “It ended like this. The musician was already in the primary attack units. The first to engage and the last to withdraw. He fought all twenty-three days of the Kramions, so the story goes, and his sword—rather, his cornet, his faithful cornet—kept him alive. For rumor has it he never once killed, only pounded, bruised, broke slightly. In the hasty making of his sword, the end of hilt was left unfinished. But through use, constant pounding and force over three weeks, the pommel was made smooth.”

From his voice, Olivia could tell the story was over.

***


“So, what’s the moral?”

At dinner that evening, with all the other cadets and apprentices, Olivia left her bench with the other first-years and strode up to the table of instructors, the knights, and Captain Pax. It was an unprecedented move, but then, Olivia, a parentless girl from a dying village with an uncanny knack for swordsmanship, was an unprecedented girl.

“The moral?” Pax questioned, aware of his fellows’ stares.

“The moral to the story,” she repeated. “Why your father told you an otherwise depressing bedtime tale only to try and encourage you to be a knight. What is it?”

Pax thought about it. “Where’s your sword?” he asked finally.

“Sir?” Olivia questioned doubtfully.

“One would think,” he said finally, “that there are serious disadvantages to being in a battleschool without a weapon constantly at your side.”

Olivia crossed her arms. “Are you changing the subject, or is that the answer?”

Pax folded his hands, and leaned forward. He rested his forearms on the table. “The story doesn’t have a moral. That’s all it is. A story.”

“It really happened,” Olivia protested, shaking her head. “Otherwise, it would have a moral.”

“Find your sword, my dear,” Pax said, his smile not reaching his eyes, “and look at the hilt. And then tell me what you think.”



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