Kyle gazed down into the shadowed vale and sighed. He suspected there would be little help in the hamlet. From between the great oaks he caught flickering candlelight, tiny, cold beacons glimpsed between closed shutters. A swift pan across the darkening area told him there could be no more than a dozen dwellings. To the east a flat patch of darkness spoke to pasture; straining his ears he could detect faint lowing of cattle. To the west light moved, strobing across more open space; an inhabitant walking by a staked fence, probably wheat or corn fields. A larger patch of light flared for a moment and darkened, the walker entering a home.
Kyle spurred his horse, Admiral, forward. They were both tired and the great beast snorted, bucking by way of complaint. Kyle patted the muscled neck and soothed;
“I know, old man, believe me I know. If you have gods pray to them. We need all the help we can get.”
Admiral flicked an ear back, listened, snorted shortly, and returned his attention to the stony path which ran down into the valley. Kyle smiled softly. Admiral had been with him a decade and they understood each other; there would be no more bucking tonight. The land about rustled in a warm summer wind, trees and scrub hiding the variety of beasts and birds which scurried or called into the dusk. Kyle could have relaxed, enjoyed it, but for his urgency; there was little time left to fulfill his mission.
Clattering along the road into a small circle of weathered huts he was surprised to see a door flung wide and a handful of men spill onto the road. He tensed, Admiral hoofing up angry little puffs of dirt whilst the men approached. Dressed in homespun with no visible weapons, even displaying a smile or two, Kyle was curious as to why this welcoming party was willing to open their doors after dark. With war and famine rife, folk tended to be insular, suspicious of all. He steadied Admiral and gave a bow of his head to the closest of the men.
“I wish you good evening, and swear no harm is meant by my coming.”
“We are aware, my Lord Sumner. We were told to watch for you.”
“Is that so? And who is it can predict my wanderings?”
The slight edge in Kyle’s voice caused momentary flinching in the group, but the largest, and probably oldest, man stepped forward and raised a hand in token of peace.
“We have a seer, my lord. He came three summers ago, told us to watch for the coming of a knight on a great charger and to guide him to one who can help.”
“I would speak with this man.”
“Forgive us, but that cannot be. Just three days ago the seer left. He headed into the mountains and none of our trackers have been able to find a trace of him.”
Kyle’s suspicions were growing and the elder seemed to understand. He shooed the other men inside – Kyle realised it was a crude inn, a sea of anxious, curious faces swimming briefly into view as the men disappeared inside on a strong waft of ale – signed for Kyle to follow him and trotted off down the road. Reassured, for what harm could really come from a bent elder with shuffling gait and blind stick, Kyle urged Admiral into a trot and followed. They had not far to go as a child could have thrown a stone from one end of the hamlet to the other, and quickly came upon a bend in the road which opened into a cobbled yard and a swell of heat and orange light.
For a moment Kyle could not figure how a forge, a working smithy, could have been hidden from him with such heat and light, but a hulking shape emerged from the light causing Kyle to look up; a oak planked roof prevented even a chink of light escaping. His next thought was more worrying; why would a smith want to hide his presence?
“Because there are those who would use my abilities in ways I do not appreciate.”
The voice was a growl, but held no threat Kyle could detect. It belonged to a man who exceeded Kyle’s six feet by another foot and yet was as slender as as willow. No sign of bulging muscles, bushy brows and leather apron here. Instead his long frame was draped in a pristine white cloak, hood settled over a head of fine blond hair, and elegant fingered hands, revealed as one was offered to Kyle.
He slipped off of Admiral and accepted the gesture, tempering his customary powerful grasp and a little annoyed to hear the man chuckle.
“Have no fear, my lord, though I may look frail for the work I do, soon you will understand not all power comes from the muscles in the body, nor all strength. My name is Sephir. Welcome to my home.”
He held the grip a little longer, firm and unhurried, his pale grey eyes fixed on Kyle’s blue, before leaving go suddenly and sweeping into the light from the forge. Only then did Kyle notice the elder had vanished, presumably back to the inn to gossip. He shrugged, looped Admiral’s rein to a hitching post with a stern admonishment to stay put and headed into the high heat after Sephir.
Once past the usual fixings of a smithy, the raging fire, the anvil and a multitude of metal implements, a heavy door stood open. Stepping through Sephir called, his voice a low grumble;
“Close it, if you will.”
Another flicker of annoyance coursed through Kyle, long since accustomed to lackeys who dealt with doors, but he was still on shaky ground and compliance in the home of another was usually the best option until all angles had been measured. He noted with some amazement how much cooler it was within, the door seeming to block most of the heat.
“A neat trick” he smiled taking a seat in the carved wooden chair offered him.
“Indeed, but it is not tricks you seek. Kyle Sumner, Lord of Southwold.”
“You seem to know much about business you have no right to, good Sephir.”
Kyle accepted the mug of ale, but did not drink. Again he felt a twinge of temper at the superior smile and condescending head bob from this strange man, but Sephir gave no sign of acknowledgement. Something in Kyle made him think this man was more than he seemed and he had no intention of remaining in the dark. He rested a hand lightly on the sword at his side, eyed the man and questioned.
“Perhaps you would care to tell me what you know and how a smith in the back of nowhere comes to know such things at all?”
Sephir rested an elbow on the mantle, nodded and gazed into the glowing embers of the hearth.
“I am no fool, Lord Sumner. I was educated by the peoples of Jarfor.”
“You’re a magician?”
“I do not like or use the term, but it is commonly used. I studied under Master Tyria whilst he was head of the university. In my final days I was given a task. That task was to be ready to aid you when our paths crossed. To that end I was also given a companion, a minor godling who posed as a seer. Together we prepared to watch your progress and await your arrival.”
“You have the aid of the gods and yet you have allowed my to wander at this task for almost a decade?”
“We were warned not to interfere, only to wait. You follow Athramere, god of soldiers. You believe in him, yes?”
Kyle clutched absently at the amulet hanging at his waist, a vial of blessed water from the temple of Athramere wrapped in cloth stitched with magical signs by the sisters of the temple.
“And how often has he helped you, my lord? How often as he directly intervened in your life? And yet still you believe and follow his ways. The gods do what they will, and it is not for mere mortals to question that.”
Kyle rose, a little put out by the lecture – one he had heard often enough whilst training with the king’s men, at the capitol, Sidarthron – and began to pace. Sephir settled onto a low stool by the hearth and poked the embers a little, giving the younger man time to think and assemble his questions.
“Why did the seer leave? Did he not see my arrival? Should he not have been here to conclude this business?”
“I say again, none can know the minds of the gods. I was told you would reach us in three days. The seer was gone when the village awoke. In truth, there was no more for him to do. Your business is now with me.”
“And what do you know of my business, master magician? Why do you hide here in the guise of a smith?”
“It seemed fitting; you will understand soon. As to your business, you are the supreme agent of King Graniere’s rule. There is no spy in the whole of the realm who does not ultimately answer to you. None other has the ear of the king at any hour, or know his thoughts as you. Your name is spoken with as much fear as respect. Not that you have need to dirty your hands these days, my lord.”
“So far, so much anyone could know.”
Sephir rose, walked to a large chest, threw up the lid and rummaged as he spoke.
“My task is simple, though your mission is complex. The king gave you orders almost ten years ago. He told you to find the message his father left and I have that message here.”
Sephir had spoken only truth. Graniere’s father had been a devious man, full of self-importance and wickedness. Graniere had been a fourth son, never intended for the throne. Only the plague and battle losses of his older heirs had left the father no choice, but he had taken such a dislike to the quiet Graniere that he had set in motion troubles which had dogged the entirety of Graniere’s reign. War and famine had become the norm due to a series of letters, written and sent by the dying king in the days before his death. Neither Graniere or Kyle understood why the man had wished such death and destruction on the kingdom, but it had come to pass with astonishing swiftness. The letters set off rumours of hostile advances which caused running battles on borders. These battles pulled men out of the fields and into the front-line leaving crops untended. They failed with alarming regularity and the lack of diplomatic relations with neighbouring kingdoms had led to a lack of imports. The kingdom was being starved out of existence as surely as its men were being wiped from the earth in fields of blood. The only glimmer of hope had been a gleeful whisper from the blue lips of the instigator;
“You’ll never find the hammer.”
The new king and his closest companion were the only ones who knew of the message, but ten years of searching had left them on the verge of despair, close to disbelief. It could all have been a final trick by a bitter, twisted old man. Staring at the roll of sacking in Sephir’s hands Kyle felt a surge of optimism, but he suppressed it with the ruthless experience gained over a decade of disappointment. Sephir came forward and placed the roll in Kyle’s hands, he finding it hard not to tremble a little.
“My task is completed. May you complete your part with speed, Lord Sumner for time grows short.”
Unable to bring himself to look at the contents of the sacking without Graniere’s presence, Kyle had thanked Sephir, promising to seek him out to talk further when all was resolved, sprinted for Admiral and fled back to Sidarthron. Side by side before the throne Ganiere had never been able to ascend and make his own, the king had cut the cords and shaken out the contents from the sacking. He’d staggered a little under unexpected weight, Kyle shooting out a hand to steady him, both staring aghast at the hammer in the king’s hands. It was beyond ordinary, just a wooden handle and a mallet head. No matter how carefully they scrutinized it there were no runes, no magic words or signs, no aid to tell them what to do or how to wield it.
Kyle watched, a second too slow to catch his king before he wheeled and stormed through the castle, guards, servants and nobles alike falling over themselves to get out of his way. No words passed his lips, the surest sign Kyle could have about his friend’s, fury. Graniere had always been most dangerous when words were done. Trailing behind, unwilling to get in the way of that danger, unless it threatened the king’s person, Kyle followed Graniere to the crypt of the chapel. He gaped in horror as Graniere wound up the hammer, swinging it in shorter and tighter arcs until sharply released. It flew through the space between and hurtled into the facing stone of his father’s tomb, shattering the flowery lines describing conquests and triumphs, the space resounding with clattering stone. The hammer was retrieved, wound, thrown, again and again until the tomb lay in ruins, the marble coffin within revealed.
Kyle shot forward, staying Graniere’s hand, his tone apologetic but relieved to see the mists clearing from the eyes of his friend.
“My king, cease, I ask you. Do not free what remains. You do not need to see that.”
There was a long moment of indecision, of tension, but Kyle felt it all rush out of the other man, the hammer falling with a dead thud to the floor.
“A final jest, Kyle. Our hope is gone.”
There was nothing to say, no comfort to give after ten years of pain and misery. Kyle’s eyes travelled over the clutter of stone, a small wave of angry joy filling his heart at the the thought of the man’s memorial lying in pieces. A flutter of white caught his eye. He bent, tugged and pulled free a linen sack which seemed to have fallen free with the stone.
“What have you there?” Graniere asked and Kyle handed it over.
“It bears the seal of your father.”
Graniere released his dagger and slit the material, a scroll falling loose. He was about to break the wax seal, clearly stamped by his father’s regnal ring, but Kyle once more stayed his hand. Something had flashed through his mind, some rogue thought which told him it was vital the seal remain unbroken for the present.
“Not yet.” It felt as if words were pouring into his mind from outside, the words not his own, “Call the lords together. Have them all present. Only then should the seal be broken. Let them see it as we found it.”
Frowning slightly, Graniere acquiesced.
A week later the great and good from all the surrounding realms gathered in the throne room. Graniere broke the seal under their watchful eyes and read the contents aloud. It proved to be the final words of his father, an admission of his manipulations, of the lies and rumours which had brought the realms to war and decimation. There were voices raised in protest, accusations of trickery in an attempt to make false peace, but they were silenced in an instant. A flash of orange light filled the throne and a shape appeared there. Kyle started forward, but Sephir raised a hand.
“I still mean you no harm, Kyle Sumner, nor your king or any present. However, I am tired of the petty wars and tribulations brought about by this pathetic man. It ends now. You will obey me and make peace, lasting peace.”
There were more shouts, asking by what authority Sephir could speak so to the assembled nobility, and in the split second before Sephir rose and took on his true form, Kyle knew him and fell to his knees.
“See me, know me, and obey me.”
Chants of Athramere swelled to fill the room, the god towering over them all in full golden armour, sapphire encrusted sword, Daniether the Bringer of Justice, held high above his head. A garble of promises chased each other through the charged atmosphere, and he smiled at Kyle, words forming once more in the stunned man’s mind.
“I charge you with finishing your task, Kyle. You now serve a greater master. Build my peace.”
And he was gone, bewildered men sinking into chairs all around the room. Kyle rose, took Graniere’s arm and led him up the dais, seating him gently on the throne.
“It is time you took your place, my king.”