Rodrick threw the lantern at the dwarf's head. It bounced off the miner's helmet, but didn't deter the attack.
"Use me!" Hrym shouted.
Rodrick lifted the sword defensively. As he swung the blade, an arc of whiteness flew from its tip and struck the dwarf just below the knees. The miner's forward movement instantly halted, and he swayed like a young sapling, his boots and calves frozen to the tunnel floor—which didn't stop him from swinging his axe wildly, to the limit of his reach.
"I'll just, ah, be going." Rodrick moved carefully around the dwarf, then followed the slanting tunnel upward at a brisk jog.
What other miners they encountered were quick to drop their swords and flee, and a short while later Rodrick and Hrym emerged into a bustling mining camp. They sidled toward the edge of the settlement and then hared off into the trees, following a ridgeline up and away. Once they'd reached high-ish ground, Rodrick looked around in hopes of finding his bearings. The barrow was in the hills of northern Andoran, east of Darkmoon Vale, but he wasn't sure how far he'd gone underground. But if the gloomy spire of Droskar's Crag was over there, then that was west, and so...
"Are you lost?" Hrym said.
"Only until I find a road," Rodrick replied, and set off downhill in what he suspected to be the direction most likely to lead to civilization. After a while they hooked up with a dirt track—probably the one that led to the mining camp—and Rodrick proceeded with more confidence. They were sure to encounter a village soon, or someone they could beg a ride from.
"So what are you really?" Hrym said as they—or, rather, Rodrick—trudged along.
"I can't imagine what you mean."
"You say you're an adventurer. You're certainly no fighter, though—when holding a sword in one hand and a lantern in the other, your first instinct is to defend yourself with the lantern? I would therefore assume you're a thief, but I saw you skulking in the cavern, and you're equally awful at stealth—"
"Please, your flattery will overwhelm me. I do wish I had a scabbard to shove you into." He switched Hrym to his left hand and stretched out the cramped fingers of his right. Carrying a sword for this long was grueling, even if Hrym was lighter than most blades his size. "As you can see, I look like a fighter—"
"Humans look mostly like fuzzy blobs of varying hues to me, I'm afraid."
Rodrick sighed. "Take me at my word, then—I am long of limb, broad of shoulder, wide of chest, mighty of thew, and so on. Reasonably mighty, anyway. I am blessed with a certain natural athleticism, though admittedly devoid of skill or training in battle, because people get hurt in battles, and I have no interest in getting hurt. But looking as I do makes it easy for me to be hired as a caravan guard, or personal bodyguard, or member of an adventuring party—"
"And once there, in the midst of your trusted allies, you wait for the opportune moment to steal whatever you can and escape in the night?"
"Do I detect a note of judgment in your voice, sword?"
"Not at all. I'm interested in ends, not means. And I'm only interested in ends when those ends are gold."
Rodrick laughed. "You and I could get along, sword. A shame I've promised you to someone else."
"You could just steal me, though," Hrym said reasonably. "In fact, by not stealing me, you're violating your own habits. You might even be accused of doing an honest day's labor."
"Oh, I had to cheat a few people to get into the barrow, don't worry—I kept in practice. And what are you saying, anyway? You'd give up your spot in a rich man's treasure-heap?"
"I'm not volunteering to join you, no, though this has been entertaining—at least compared to being jammed beneath a linnorm's belly. I'm just wondering why you don't seize an object of my obvious value. An intelligent sword of living ice, capable of speech and great feats of magic—whatever this rich man's paying you, I'm worth more in your hand."
"Ah, and if I were truly a fighter and adventurer, I'm sure I'd never dream of giving you up. But to succeed in my chosen venture, I benefit from a certain amount of anonymity. I can easily disappear into a crowd after committing a morally questionable act—assuming it's a sufficiently handsome crowd—and alter my speech, mannerisms, and mode of dress well enough to elude detection. But if I started carrying around a loud-mouthed sword with a blade of shimmering blue-white crystal, word would get around. I might even, allow me to shudder at the thought, become famous."
"You might have to change your ways a bit, I suppose," Hrym said.
"You wouldn't suggest I try actually being a fighter."
"No, no. You'd just have to get better at cheating people and stealing from them—ideally leaving them unaware they'd been cheated at all, at least until you'd said your farewells and ridden into the next country. I'd be good for you. I'd force you to become more cunning, and elevate your practice."
"Alas, we'll never know." Rodrick shaded his eyes and looked down the ridge. "Aha! I know that village. I can get a sheath for you there, and a horse, and room for the night." He yawned. "And then take advantage of a bed. Being drugged in a barrow doesn't count as a good night's sleep."
"I don't like sheathes," Hrym said. "And you'd better not spend all the gold you stole on horses and beds and things—you'll need to scatter a nice layer of coins for me to rest upon while you sleep."
"You are a very odd weapon, Hrym."
The sword drew quite a few glances before Rodrick bought a sheathe and convinced Hrym it was better to be temporarily hidden than to become a target for ambitious bandits. They settled in an inn Rodrick had visited before and bedded down for the night. Normally when so flush with coin Rodrick would not have been alone in that bed, but the thought of inviting one of the village's more adventurous ladies up to his room while Hrym rested in a drawer on a thin scattering of coins was too embarrassing to contemplate. Yet another good reason he and the sword shouldn't travel together.
And yet, they stayed up into the night, talking. In the dark, it wasn't so strange to chat with an intelligent sword; they were just a couple of rogues swapping stories of past exploits. Rodrick's tales were mostly wildly exaggerated, and he assumed Hrym's were, too. Even so, the sword's laziness and avarice—and the heroic efforts he was willing to expend in hopes of future laziness, while wielded by men far more ambitious than Hrym himself—were truly inspiring.
The last thing Hrym said before Rodrick fell asleep was, "My great tragedy is that I'm so attractive to conquerors, crusaders, and heroes, when by temperament I'd be a better companion for a treacherous, self-interested hedonist like you."
"You say the nicest things, sword," Rodrick said, and closed his eyes.
The next day Rodrick bought a sweet-tempered horse and they rode down out of the hills east of Darkmoon Vale, toward the fertile valleys south of the Andoshen River, where Rodrick's employer Manius lived. The rich man's family had been nobility back in the days when Andoran had such things, and in the years since had managed to recreate the conditions of nobility by buying up farm- and timberland, amassing quite a fortune. He lived in a grand house surrounded by green fields, with a stand of personal forest spreading green and wild beyond—
Or at least he had last time Rodrick was here. Rodrick reined in his horse and stood staring across the fields.
"What?" Hrym said, voice muffled inside the scabbard. "Are we there yet?"
"Ah, nearly," Rodrick said.
The fields were trampled and full of tents, with armored men milling among them. The miniature forest was greatly reduced, and the sounds of hammering and sawing and cart-building suggested what had become of those noble old trees. Smoke rose from the house's four chimneys, and from at least two makeshift forges. Rodrick, never comfortable entering camps of armed men without a good reason, eased his horse forward. None of the soldiers challenged him, even as he passed among the tents and proceeded to the house. A harried-looking man stood near the front door, directing various servants, and Rodrick recognized him as Manius's head of household.
"Hail," Rodrick said. "I've returned from my mission—"
The chamberlain—or whatever his title was—squinted at Rodrick, then brightened. "Ah! The master was just wondering if you ever intended to return. We'll see to your horse—you go on inside. The butler will arrange an audience."
"If you don't mind me asking," Rodrick began, "why is there an army on the—" But the man had already hurried away.
The butler didn't open the door at Rodrick's knock, so the thief just let himself in. The interior of the place had changed greatly, too—the beautiful rugs were gone, leaving bare wood behind, and the artwork was gone from the walls. He wandered on the first floor until he found the butler, who stuck him in a drawing room that still possessed a couple of chairs and told him to wait. Hrym complained of being in the sheath, so Rodrick drew him forth and leaned him against the other chair.
"This doesn't look like the opulent palace you led me to expect," Hrym said suspiciously.
Rodrick spread his hands. "It was a rich man's mansion last time I was here, I assure you. I can't speak for what's going on now—"
"What's going on," said Manius, stepping in and shutting the door after him, "is preparation for a crusade." Manius was in his early fifties, with graying hair, a lined and serious face; and the bearing of a warrior ascetic. He wore the sort of clothes that seemed ordinary unless you noticed how perfectly they were cut and tailored to his form. His eyes fell upon Hrym, and widened. "Rodrick. You succeeded. You brought me the blade of ice!"
"I did," Rodrick said. "With great effort and considerable peril, and even loss of life among the hirelings who assisted me, and—"
"You will be duly compensated." Manius stepped forward, then paused. "Does, ah—does it truly speak?"
"I do," Hrym said. "You may address me directly."
"Remarkable!" Manius said, still talking to Rodrick. "One of my ancestors saw this blade in battle, wielded by Brant Selmy—"
"Oh, I hated him," Hrym said. "Never knew how to relax. Until he died. Buried me in his tomb with him. But I suppose you know that."
Manius knelt, took Hrym by the hilt, and raised him up, staring at the shimmering blade. Rodrick felt an unexpected twinge at seeing the sword in another man's hand.
"Beautiful," Manius murmured. "You will be the death of many a demon."
"Demons?" Hrym and Rodrick said at the same time.
"Oh, yes," Manius said. "It's the reason I wanted this sword. My life has been one of idleness and pointless pleasure for far too long. I decided that I need to make my mark on the world before I die. And so I've spent every penny I've inherited and earned to gather and provision an army of crusaders to go north, where we will face the demon-infested nightmare land men call the Worldwound." He held up Hrym. "We leave in one week. And with this sword, I hope to slay a demon lord with my own hand."
Coming Next Week: The final chapter 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 Greg Opalinski.