Rodrick—pragmatist, opportunist, and occasional outright thief—groaned and tried to sit up, but only managed to half-lean against the wall of a lightless cavern. His head had felt like this many times before, but usually only after a night of drinking and wenching. His memories of the prior hours were fuzzy, but they didn't involve taverns and winsome (or buxom, or both; he wasn't picky) maids.
Images bobbed in his mind like rotting apples in a pond. A body, crushed in a trap. A man with a weaselly narrow face and a pack full of potions. A creature that looked like a beautiful woman from one side, and a gnarled, hollowed-out tree from the other. A room full of shattered treasure chests, and a suit of ancient black armor, and a distressingly large hole in the back wall—
Then he remembered. Sneaking into a barrow rumored to be full of treasure, accompanied by a fool named Simeon who'd gotten himself killed in a trap before they were even well begun. Disabling traps and killing a monster, assisted by a treacherous alchemist named Alaeron. They'd had a small disagreement about how to proceed, and so the alchemist had drugged Rodrick, knocking him unconscious and leaving him here to die.
Or, more accurately, to wake up with a headache.
Rodrick patted his pockets and discovered that all of his knives were gone, even the ones in his boots. No surprise, really, since his boots were also gone. The alchemist had stolen his shoes. That was nicer than stabbing Rodrick in the neck, admittedly, but still quite rude.
Now he sat slumped on a sloping hill, in a dark cavern that stank of something rank and reptilian, which Alaeron had claimed was a linnorm—a great slumbering beast that wasn't exactly the same as a dragon, but close enough. This barrow of treasures plundered from the North had included a linnorm egg, which had, at some point, hatched and grown to full size. The beast had smashed through the tomb wall into a system of caves and constructed a lair there, complete with a hoard made from the gold and gems and magical geegaws Rodrick had come to steal.
The linnorm had been the source of Rodrick's disagreement with the alchemist. Rodrick had advocated sneaking into the linnorm's cave and stealing everything, while Alaeron had favored running away and living to loot another day. Rodrick had insisted on his course of action, using a sword to advance his argument, and Alaeron had replied with a potion.
Rodrick began to crawl up the slope, quietly, toward the hole in the wall. There should have been torches lit in there. Either they'd burned out, or Alaeron had doused them when he left.
Having groped his way back into the mostly-empty treasure room, Rodrick crawled without success along the floor, looking for the lantern. No luck—the alchemist had taken it—but he did find an unlit torch, and he still had his flint and steel, at least. He got the torch lit and breathed a shaky sigh of relief as light blossomed in the dark.
After lighting the other torches on the walls, he sat in a carved wooden throne and considered his options. He was tempted to pursue Alaeron and exact revenge, but there was a more pressing concern: acquisition.
The most important thing was the sword. The alchemist had used a potion of darkvision to look over the sleeping linnorm and its hoard, and had claimed to see a sword, so that was promising. Rodrick had spun a tale for the alchemist about discovering the existence of this barrow and deciding to pillage it with his friend Simeon, but that was only partly true. Rodrick had actually been hired by a wealthy collector to break into this place and retrieve the sword, rumored to be an artifact of great power. Anything else he could steal was his to keep, in addition to a hefty payment in coinage.
Returning to Manius without the sword wasn't really an option if Rodrick wanted to keep his head. He could flee, with the collector's up-front payment in his pockets—but no, damn it, Alaeron had stolen his coin purse too—and probably escape any unpleasant consequences by changing his name again and heading south.
Escape was tempting. He was no dragon-slayer, even if linnorms weren't exactly dragons. But the treasure... the treasure was even more tempting.
He sighed, rose, lifted a torch from its sconce, and slowly approached the hole in the wall. He stepped through carefully, the torch held out in front of him.
The light immediately returned to him, shining from a shimmering lake of golden coins and glimmering jewels. As always, the sight of large quantities of wealth took his breath away. Alas, he could also see the pale scaled belly of something immense coiled atop the hoard. He'd hesitated to bring light into this chamber before, for fear of waking the beast, but then he'd had an alchemist on hand, with potions that would let them see in the dark. Circumstances had changed, and necessity demanded a certain amount of risk.
He crept down the slope, to the more-or-less level bottom of the chamber, just a few feet from the outlying spill of gold and gems. In this case, being barefoot was actually a boon—his footing was more sure, and he could move through the coins far less noisily. Rodrick mostly watched his feet, carefully sliding coins aside to find secure footing underneath, but occasionally he glanced up and saw more and more of the linnorm revealed. The thing was large enough that he couldn't apprehend it as a whole—it seemed serpentine, wrapped around and around itself. At least its head wasn't visible. Alaeron had said the creatures could hibernate for centuries, so Rodrick hoped a little torchlight wouldn't serve to wake it up.
His circle of light continued to advance. At last, it touched the hilt and first foot or so of a longsword's blade. Unfortunately, the remainder of the sword was firmly wedged beneath the linnorm itself, both resting atop a bed of coins. Perhaps if Rodrick undermined the coins—
"Do you mind?" The voice was deep, faintly annoyed, and slightly muffled, as if the speaker were wrapped in a blanket.
Rodrick froze. "I... beg your pardon?" he whispered.
The voice didn't bother to whisper. "As well you should. Do I come creeping into your bedchamber at night and shine a light in your face? Well?"
"Uh, who is this speaking?"
"Me," the voice replied unhelpfully. "What are you doing in here? In case you haven't noticed, there's a linnorm sleeping a few feet from your face. You wouldn't enjoy waking it up. If it even rolls over in its sleep you'll be crushed by its coils. The thing must be sixty feet long."
"I'd love to discuss my motivations, but I'd like to know who I'm talking to—"
"I'm the sword, idiot," the sword said. "Call me Hrym, if you must call me something."
"Ah." Rodrick closed his eyes, but only briefly. "The sword. Of course. I'd heard rumors that you could speak, but I didn't entirely believe them."
"I'm a rare breed," Hrym said. His voice was muffled—presumably because he was jammed beneath several tons of sleeping monster. "Who're you?"
"Rodrick. An adventurer."
"Stay here too long and you're sure to have an adventure, though it's likely to be your last. Why don't you have any shoes on?"
"I had a disagreement with a, ah, fellow adventurer, and he stole them."
"Mmm. There's a pair of boots there, about a foot to your right."
Rodrick turned his head slightly and moved the torch. A pair of pale blue boots were indeed jumbled in with the gold and gems. "Are they magical?"
"No," Hrym said, the sarcasm unmistakable. "They're perfectly ordinary boots, sealed up in a warlord's barrow with all his other treasures."
"Ah. Do you know how they're magical?"
"They let you walk on water, if I recall," Hrym said.
Rodrick sighed. "Hardly helpful in my current circumstances."
"They are also quite functional as ordinary boots."
"A fair point." Rodrick slid over the gold, wincing as a small cascade of coins tinkled and chimed together. He stuck the torch down in the heap of gold—a bit like shoving a stick into sand—to free his hands, tied the laces of the boots together, and hung them around his neck like an unwieldy scarf.
"Most people wear those on their feet," Hrym said. "But I'm sure your bold new fashion will soon be all the rage. Away with you, adventurer! I doubt the linnorm will notice the absence of the boots—they were just sort of swept along with the rest of the treasure. As long as you don't try to remove anything shiny from the hoard, you can probably escape."
Rodrick thought of the gems and rings he'd already dropped into his pockets along the way and decided to pretend he hadn't heard that last part. "The boots are nice, but I'd rather hoped to leave with a bit more."
"Don't be greedy," Hrym said. "It's unseemly in a human. Why, think of the money you could make ferrying people across rivers. You've got nice broad shoulders and strong arms—you could probably carry two, maybe three people at a time. If they didn't have any luggage."
"Sword—Hrym—I'm here to rescue you."
"Rescue," the sword said. "Rescue? Would you ask me to rescue you from a brothel or a barroom?"
Rodrick frowned. "I suppose it depends on the circumstances—"
"I love it here, human. Do you know my fondest aspiration in this world? It's to sleep on a bed of gold. And do you know what I'm doing just this very moment? Sleeping on a bed of gold! Or I was sleeping, until you shone a light in my face."
"You don't have a face."
"And you don't have a very good grasp of metaphor. Fine, then, you shone a light on my hilt—"
"Which I assume would be less akin to your face and more akin to your—"
"My point," the sword said, loudly, "is that I don't need to be rescued. What you really mean is 'stolen.' Now go away before I wake the linnorm."
Rodrick considered. Stealing a sword should have been a lot simpler than this. But the sword had a mind—of sorts—which meant that it could be manipulated. And Rodrick was far better at manipulation than he was a burglary.
"Suit yourself," he said. "My client will be disappointed."
"Oh, to know I caused the disappointment of some human I've never met or heard of, how will I stand the pain? Now, go. This beast is hibernating, but I have ways of stirring it into consciousness very quickly."
"All right, fine. You're missing out, though. I mean, you call this a pile of gold? Pfft."
"Pfft?" Hrym said. "These are the all the riches acquired by the warrior Brant, slayer of beasts and men, despoiler of vaults—"
"Oh, I mean, it's alright," Rodrick said. "I wouldn't mind having this lot in my house, certainly. But my employer doesn't pillage. He invests. He owns half of Andoran, including the banks, and he believes in keeping a ready supply of coin on hand. There's a basement in his house that's so full of gold and gems that he has ten clerks working full-time just to inventory it all, and they can't keep up with the fresh cartloads of coins that arrive every day. He loves money, but more than that, he's a collector of rare and precious magical items and relics. You, of course, are one of the most rare and precious in the world—"
"This is true," Hrym said.
"—and he desires greatly to add you to his collection. Why, he's paying me more gold than I see here just to deliver you to him! Hrym, you could rest in a place of pride atop a mound of treasure that makes this look like the dregs of a drunkard's coinpurse after a holiday. Or you can stay wedged under the ass of a monster, if you prefer."
"Hmmm," Hrym said. "If this is a trick, you'll regret it. I have powers beyond mere speech."
"I'm sure you do," Rodrick said. "Shall we?"
"Very well. Draw me forth. But slowly, so I don't slice the beast."
Rodrick moved toward the sword, grasped the hilt, and gently drew out the blade. The linnorm didn't so much as shift—it might have been carved of stone.
Hrym's blade was dazzling. It was made not of steel, but rather of some bluish-white crystal, gleaming like a faceted diamond in the torchlight. The substance resembled nothing so much as—
"Ice," Rodrick whispered. "I'd heard you were a blade of living ice, but I didn't know what that meant."
"You still don't," Hrym said. "Now go, quickly."
Rodrick held Hrym aloft and carefully worked his way down the slope, moving in a low crouch, away from the light of the torch. He paused halfway down, spying what looked like a silver bell as big as a man's head, half-buried in coins. "Is that—is that the bell that summons blizzards?" he whispered. "I heard there was such a thing here."
"Oh, probably," Hrym said.
"I can carry that too," Rodrick said, and moved carefully sideways.
"I wouldn't do that." Hrym said.
"In that respect, we differ." Rodrick reached for the bell, brushing away coins with his free hand, and grasped the ring at the top. He lifted the bell up, carefully, slowly—
And as it came free from the heap of gold, the clapper struck a deep, low note so loud it brought back Rodrick's headache in full force. An icy wind suddenly blew through the cavern, and the great coils of the linnorm began to move.
Coming Next Week: The perils of waking a linnorm in Chapter Two of Tim Pratt's "Bastard, Sword"!
Tim Pratt is the author of the Pathfinder Tales novels Liar's Blade and City of the Fallen Sky, as well as the short story "A Tomb of Winter's Plunder." His writing has won a Hugo Award, a Rhysling Award, and an Emperor Norton Award, as well as been nominated for Nebula, Mythopoeic, World Fantasy, and Stoker Awards. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as The Best American Short Stories and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, as well as two short story collections of his own. His non-Pathfinder novels include the contemporary fantasies The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl and Briarpatch; the Forgotten Realms novel Venom in Her Veins; and seven books in the Marla Mason urban fantasy series (as T. A. Pratt). He edited the anthology Sympathy for the Devil, and Rags & Bones with Melissa Marr. His books and stories have been translated into French, Czech, Dutch, Russian, Greek, Korean, Spanish, German, and several other languages.
Illustration by Eric Belisle.