"Have you ever slain a demon, sword?" Manius addressed Hrym directly for the first time.
"Probably," Hrym said. "I can't be expected to remember every kind of thing I've slain. Listen, Manius, before we begin our crusade, do you mind giving me a few moments alone with Rodrick here?"
Manius narrowed his eyes. "Why?"
"We faced horrors together in that tomb," Hrym said. "Monstrous serpentine creatures of darkness—"
"And an angry dwarf," Rodrick chimed in.
"Yes, that too," Hrym said. "We became blooded comrades in arms together, and while I'm eager to join you in your battle, Manius, I wish to give my fellow warrior Rodrick my blessing before he goes on his way."
"Ah, certainly, the camaraderie of battle, I understand." Manius nodded sagely, with the full understanding of someone who'd never been anywhere near a real battle. "I shall return shortly. I have men waiting in the hallway, Rodrick, if you need anything in the meantime."
Rodrick nodded, smiling, absorbing the not-so-subtle reminder that Manius knew he was a thief, and would be watchful. Manius handed the sword off to Rodrick and strode out of the room, a busy man with big plans.
"I was promised a bed of gold," Hrym said. "Not a one-way trip into the heart of demon country! This fool will get himself killed, and I'll rot in some fecal swamp!"
"That does seem a likely outcome," Rodrick admitted. "I'm sorry—Manius didn't share his ambitions with me when he hired me to break into the barrow and bring you back. I assumed you were just going to be another collector's item. But don't despair. You're immortal. Someone will come along and pick you up from the battlefield eventually, and—"
"Piss on that," Hrym said. "Get me out of here."
Rodrick shook his head. "I don't see how I can. Manius doesn't trust me—he hired me to steal you, so he's prepared for me to try to steal you again. Short of using you to kill everyone between me and the outskirts of his property, I don't see how—"
"Then start thinking," Hrym said. "Remember what I said about how you'd need to become more cunning? Now's your chance."
"I appreciate the difficulty of your situation, but I'm afraid—"
"I have no intention of going to the Worldwound, Rodrick. If you don't save me, then I'll wait until Marius assembles his crusaders to start marching, and I will freeze every single one of them in place. They will be a forest of dead statues. And when that grim site is discovered, I'll start screaming 'Rodrick made me do it'!"
They sat together in silence for a moment. Then Rodrick said, not without admiration: "That's blackmail, Hrym."
"I prefer to think of it as forceful persuasion."
"Perhaps..." Rodrick murmured. "Listen, Hrym, this might take me a few days. But tell Manius you're going to stop talking until you reach the Worldwound—a vow of silence, or a period of meditation to help you prepare for the rigors of the struggle to come—whatever. The point is that you have to shut up. Can you do that?"
"I didn't say a word for years in that barrow. Silence is within my considerable capabilities. But I don't see why—"
"I know this is a laughable statement on the face of it, but: just trust me."
"And you trust me," Hrym said. "If you don't come back for me, remember: a field of frozen crusaders."
"Consider me motivated."
Rodrick took his money—beautiful money, of which he suspected he'd have to spend nearly all of it—and then took his leave of Manius. He headed to Carpenden, the nearest town of size, and began making some inquiries.
Carpenden was prosperous, home to wealthy landowners and the merchants who catered to them, but it was also a military town, housing a large portion of Andoran's army. The real military types Rodrick encountered didn't give Manius's planned expedition great odds of success. They allowed that even a well-prepared force of hardened paladins led by a veteran warrior couldn't expect to win any decisive battles in the Worldwound. As for a mixture of unaffiliated crusaders and mercenaries led by a gentleman farmer who'd read a few textbooks on military tactics? A noble undertaking, in a way, yes—but hopeless.
Like anyone in his line of work, Rodrick knew people, and the people he knew knew other people, and so two days after leaving Manius's house he sat down in the back room of small gambling house with an illusionist named Horwick. The illusionist was fat, and wore a threadbare red velvet robe, and picked at his teeth endlessly with his over-long pinky fingernail.
"Do you know the goldbrick trick?" Rodrick said.
The illusionist considered the smear of old food stuck on his fingernail and grunted. "You offer to sell someone a gold brick, and at the last minute, you switch it with a lead brick covered in a thin coating of gold leaf. But you don't need an illusionist for that. You barely need a paintbrush."
"I'm working a sort of... variation," Rodrick said. He explained the two things he needed.
Horwick allowed that he could provide those items, if the price was right.
The right price, as Rodrick had expected, was ruinously expensive.
Rodrick returned to Manius's house with an old sword strapped to his back and a pair of wands tucked away in his shirt. The crusaders were more organized now, clearly preparing for departure, but they still paid no attention to him as he rode up to the front steps. He wandered into the house again—depressed at the lack of small, valuable objects to steal—found the chamberlain, and requested an audience with Manius.
After a while, Manius appeared in the sitting room, which now contained only a single chair, the other having presumably been sold for sword polish or something. Rodrick rose to greet him, noting Hrym's hilt sticking up from scabbard at Manius's belt. "Your talk of crusade moved me," Rodrick said. "I'd like to join your party."
Manius grunted. "We're not on a quest for gold, Rodrick. Only glory."
Rodrick pressed a hand to his chest and put on his most sincere face, one that had charmed the coinpurses off men and the underclothes off women many times. "I've spent the past three days thinking about the empty hollowness of my life, and my need for a greater purpose. Please. Allow me to join you."
"It does my heart good to see you make that choice. My hope for humanity has never been stronger." Manius stroked his chin. "I could send you to report to one of the crusader leaders... but I think I'd like to keep you closer, as part of my personal retinue."
Rodrick beamed. "That would be an honor." He knew it was more likely because Manius didn't trust him and wanted to make sure he didn't steal the horses and provisions, but that was fine. If Rodrick was sleeping in the house, it would spare him having to sneak in later. "How are you, Hrym?"
"The sword is spending the foreseeable future in silent contemplation, marshaling its powers for the great battles ahead," Manius said. "It's just as well—it strikes me as a bit unseemly, having a sword speak."
He can still hear you, Rodrick thought, amazed at the man's arrogance. He seemed to think Hrym was just a curiosity, when the sword was really—
Well, not a person in the normal sense, obviously. But he was still a person.
"We could all probably do with a little less talking," Rodrick said.
Late that night, Rodrick slipped from his bedroll in the corner of an empty storage closet and crept through the house to Manius's chamber. The door was unguarded, and why not? There was literally an army on the grounds. Rodrick opened the door and slipped in, then waited for his eyes to adjust to the dimness, listening to the rich man's snores from the overstuffed bed in the center of the room. The only light came from the fires outside shining faintly in the windows.
Rodrick was making a terrible habit of sneaking into places where dangerous creatures were sleeping in order to retrieve a magical sword. At least this time he was armed, though he desperately hoped he wouldn't have to stab anyone with the sword on his back.
"Psst," Hrym said. "Rodrick? Is that you? I'm over here."
Rodrick crouch-walked over to a large wooden wardrobe. Hrym was still in his scabbard, slung over the back of a chair. Not even a bed of coins. Rodrick eased the blade out of the scabbard.
"Let me out of this thing, I can't see—" Hrym began, and Rodrick shushed him, listening to Manius mutter in his bed for a moment before deciding he wasn't waking up.
Rodrick drew the old, battered longsword from the sheath on his back and laid it on the ground before him. He felt in his shirt for the right wand—it had a golden band around one end, while the other was plain wood—and withdrew the slim and expensive bit of magic. He touched the wand to the sword, and watched the illusion take hold.
The beaten sword shimmered and turned bluish-white. In a moment, it was a perfect copy of Hrym, sparkling like ice. He then took Hrym out of the scabbard.
"You sly bastard," Hrym said. "It's my spitting image—"
"Your turn," Rodrick whispered, and touched Hrym with the other wand. The sword was transformed into a battered, notched longsword, decidedly unmagical. He shoved the disguised Hrym into his scabbard, ignoring the sword's outraged squawk. Then he placed the false Hrym in Manius's scabbard and hung it back over the chair. Horwick had assured Rodrick that the illusions were long-lasting enough to let Rodrick escape undiscovered with time to spare, but he didn't want to test that.
Rodrick was nearly to the door when he heard the mattress creak. "Who's there?" Manius demanded.
The thief stopped breathing, and tried to think like a shadow. Manius padded over to the chair, drew the false Hrym halfway from the sheath, and grunted. "Still not talking?" He rattled the sword and then shoved it back in the scabbard, sighed, and returned to bed.
Rodrick counted to a hundred fifteen times before he was convinced Manius was asleep again, then slipped into the hallway and away.
"Do you think he'll realize the sword is fake before or after he tries to charge directly at a demon lord?" Hrym asked as they dawdled along a road many miles south the next day. He'd instructed Rodrick to stick him on the outside of the scabbard on Rodrick's back, and Hrym had frozen himself in place there—that way Hrym could see. Drawing Hrym was a lot easier when he wasn't actually in the scabbard, too. Wearing a longsword strapped on your back made you look impressively dangerous, but it was practically difficult to draw four feet of icy blade from a sheath on your back in a hurry, unless you had freakishly long arms.
"Before, if he's lucky." Rodrick jingled his coinpurse, or tried to; it contained three pieces of copper and one of silver, which didn't make for much of a jingle. He'd had to sell his lovely blue boots, too, and he'd never even walked on water with them. "Wands are damnably expensive, Hrym. I wish I was sure you're worth it."
"The wands still work, don't they? Can't they cast the same spell dozens of time?"
"Well, I suppose, but—" He paused. "You're a genius, sword. I could sell you. Over and over again."
"You could use me to put on a dazzling demonstration, then sell worthless hunks of metal that looked like me," Hrym said.
"Oh, this could work out," Rodrick said.
"We just have to settle how to divvy up the profits," Hrym said. "Since without me there would be no profits, I suggest a ninety-ten split, in my favor."
"Ha! More like ninety-ten in my favor. I'd like to see how much gold you'd make on your own if I stuck you in the bottom of a bog, sword."
They rode on, bickering amicably, into their golden future.
Coming Next Week: A look inside one of Andoran's oddest military units in Neal F. Litherland's "The Irregulars."
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.