Kyen stared, brows pinched together, at the sign above the smithy. Built of river rock and reed shingles, the blacksmith’s lean-to shaded forge, anvil, and hammering smith. The clang-clang clank of hammer on steel rang through the rural village.
“Can I help you?” The blacksmith paused his hammering to eye the hot wedge of metal in his tongs. He dunked it into a bucket. A hiss of steam burst up.
“You’ve been standing there nearly half an arcquarter,” said the blacksmith. “Is your head on straight, son?”
Kyen blinked. “Hm…? Oh! I’m sorry. I mean—”
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I—” Kyen stepped under the lean-to. “I’m looking for a friend. Ewin. I could have sworn this was his smithy.”
“Aye. Ewin’s the person as sold it to me before last harvest.”
“He left? Did he say where?”
The blacksmith shrugged. “Word has he’s set up near the river. What customers he meets out there, I’ll not know. Seems as nobody can quite find him.”
The blacksmith stoked his coals in response so Kyen ducked out to the street. He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand and sighed. A handful of houses, all of river rock and reeds, flanked the road. An inn lifted a second story above the other roofs, but Kyen passed it by. He walked the road out into the grasslands. The clang of the smithy faded into the prairie music of songflies, prattling beetles, and lowleaf warblers. In the distance, the river ran like a glittering ribbon underneath the afternoon Arc.
Kyen heeded none of it. As he walked, he searched the roadside. He ruffled through the grasses, peered under bushy pasture flowers, or checked the dirt on the roadside. A pair of horsemen eyed him and crossed to the opposite side of the road to trot past. Kyen swept apart a thick stand of grass taller than himself.
“Ah! I knew it.”
A footpath hidden behind the grasses wound away into the prairie. Kyen stepped off the road to follow it. Within moments, the high grasses swallowed him and blocked all sight of the road behind. The path followed the low of the land, skirting the rises and running in the dips. The Arc sank low. The murmur of the river unseen joined the beetles and birds. Stands of river reed, their tops a dark ridge against the setting Arc, rose above the grasses ahead.
A few more steps, and the prairie yielded to a sandy hollow backed by the reeds. A massive, river-rock chimney stood in the center of the hollow. A house and lean-to, cobbled together with reed-sheets, propped up with hay bays and boards, leaned against the chimney’s sides.
Kyen walked to the lean-to, looking around at the disarray of a smithy. Rods, ore chunks, pinchers, chisels, and hammers of a hundred sizes lay strewn over the workbenches and the ground.
Kyen bent to pick up a small hammer at his feet. “Ewin?”
The prattling beetles crackled at each other in the grasses.
A cow lowed in the distance.
Kyen hung the hammer on a nearby peg and walked to the chimney. In its hearth, dusty gray coals lifted a thin strand of smoke. Kyen held his fingers over the hearth for a moment. He withdrew his hand.
“He never lets the forge go out,” said Kyen. “Ewin!”
He hurried around to the house and pushed open the door. Inside a cot lay flipped, a fallen bucket splayed ore chunks across the floor, and a work bench stood knocked askew.
Kyen frowned as his eyes swept the mess. He left the doorway to begin searching the ground. He paced back and forth, sometimes stooping to look at the dirt. He widened his search until, coming to the edge of the river reeds, he stopped.
A reed hung broken.
Scuff marks marred the sandy soil up to the edge, but then footprints emerged. Three sets, two barefoot. They led towards the murmur of the river.
Kyen bound into the reeds. The thicket became higher and denser as he pressed into it, until the reeds rose twice his height and thick as trees. He moved like a shadow flitting between them, keeping a hand on his sword hilt. An undergrowth of waterweeds popped up. A trail smashed through them, winding away over the sandy ground. Night fell fast in the thicket. Darkness closed in on the trail, slowing Kyen down. The rush of the unseen river filled the night air.
A light glimmered out of the night, and Kyen’s eye caught it. He snuck through the copse and parted the waterweeds to gain a clear view.
An ancient weeping willow sheltered a cove in the river. Its trailing leaves curtained the mast of a boat. More like a barge with a stubby sale-mast, the boat squatted its broad hull low in the water. Its front half lay beached up in the sand. The glimmer shone from a lantern hung beside a gangplank. Under its light stood a broad, burly man with his arms crossed. His bald head sported a red bandana with tails that dangled down his back. A bronze, leaf-bladed sword hung off his belt. Another like him but with hair guarded the door to the boat’s only cabin.
Kyen frowned. He ducked into the weeds and snuck away behind the ship. Portholes glowed yellow above Kyen’s head as he reached the hull. He eyed them for a moment. Then, hurrying to the willow’s trunk, he hauled himself up into its branches. He came level with the porthole and looked inside.
In the cabin, three more pirates sat at a table. Their hands lay limp beside their forks, knives, and tankards. They stared with empty eyes and blank faces at their full plates. Across from them, a scraggly man hunched on the floor by the wall. He wore an oversized leather apron, a crooked cap, and soot dusted every inch of him. A dirty sling wrapped one arm against his side. Rope bound his other arm to his ankles.
Kyen edged towards the end of the branch. It bowed under his weight, but Kyen kept hold of the dangling leaves above for balance. He let go to lean out and grab the rim of the porthole. Taking his dagger from his belt, he slid the blade underneath the edge, shimmied the latch up, and pulled the glass open. He peered at the pirates. None moved.
“Ewin!” Kyen whispered.
Ewin’s head snapped up, and he stared at Kyen for a long moment. His sooty brows drew down.
“You!” His whisper came out as an angry hiss. “This is all your fault! I knew it!”
“What?” Kyen blinked.
“Things like this happen every time you show up, Kyen of Avanna!”
“But I don’t even know what’s going on.”
“They’re trying to threaten me into making black weapons.” Ewin shot the pirates a glance; they hadn’t moved. “Some sort of dart, it looks like and—”
“That’s what I came here to ask you about—”
“You always bring trouble! Always!” Ewin cut in. “It used to follow behind you, Kyen of Avanna, but now it goes before you!”
“Ewin. I need you to look at something. I think it’s a—”
“Get me out of here, ash-for-brains!” Ewin growled through clenched teeth.
“Oh right, right. How many are there?” Kyen eyed the pirates still sitting at the table. “Three?”
Ewin shot them a glance then scooched closer to the porthole. “Three. One on deck and—”
“The one at the gangplank.”
“There could be more. I don’t know.”
“Five on one. That’s not very good odds.” Kyen’s pensive face vanished from the porthole.
“Wait! Give me your dagger!” hissed Ewin.
Kyen’s face reappeared. “Right. Here.” He dropped his dagger into Ewin’s lap before he vanished again. He let himself drop from the tree to land at a crouch in the sand.
“Kyen! Kyen!” Ewin’s voice floated out the porthole after him. His face followed in a moment.
Kyen looked up.
“Don’t do anything—” Ewin hesitated. “Anything stupid. A dark power is at work here.”
“I won’t.” Kyen smiled a little. Ewin’s face disappeared, and Kyen jogged around to the front of the ship. When he leaned around the curve of the hull, he saw the pirate still on guard at the gangplank. Not a foot had shifted nor an arm twitched out of place. The pirate could have been a human statue but for the steady rise and fall of his chest.
Kyen slipped his sword free. Padding softly through the sand, keeping to the shadow of the hull, he crept up on the pirate.
When Kyen left the shadows, the pirate’s face turned. He drew his sword. Kyen lunged for him as the pirate slash down.
Two loud clangs rang out as one. Kyen deflected the slash to the side and flicked out a following blow breaking open the pirate’s guard. The two movements happened so fast, they blurred into one.
Before the pirate could regain his guard, Kyen smacked his hilt into the pirate’s face.
The pirate dropped to the sand.
Kyen stepped back, but the pirate lay stunned. As Kyen looked down at him, his eyes narrowed.
A black welt stood out on the pirate’s neck.
Kyen turned and hurried up the gangplank at a crouch. He peered on deck.
The pirate guarded the cabin doorway, unmoved by the sounds of battle or the thunk of Kyen’s boots on deck. A black welt stood out on his forearm in the lamplight.
Lifting his sword, Kyen edged towards the pirate.
The pirate stared into space, his face blank.
Kyen frowned. He moved in and hefted his sword.
The pirate responded by drawing his blade.
Kyen struck first with a lunge.
The pirate moved to block, but Kyen feinted; Kyen’s sword slashed wide only to whip back in underneath the pirate’s guard. It caught the pirate’s cross guard and ripped his sword from his hand. The pirate stumbled sideways. Kyen grabbed him and slung him over the side of the ship. His body hit the water with a splash.
Walking up to the door, Kyen slung it open with a bang.
The three pirates at the table all looked up simultaneously. They rose as one. Ewin paled and stared as they approached Kyen. With a start, he fumbled with the dagger and sawed at his bonds.
Kyen backed away from the open door as the pirates drew their swords on him. He stood at the ready, the lantern light glinting off the edge of his blade.
As the first pirate stepped over the threshold, Kyen lashed out low, striking at his ankle. It connected, and the pirate fell forward into the deck.
Kyen stabbed out at the pirate behind, but he jerked back from the blade point. He stumbled up against the third pirate behind him.
The first pirate on the deck tried to get up between them.
Kyen kicked him, but the pirate caught his foot. He gave it a nasty yank, and Kyen fell over backwards. His head smacked down hard against the deck. Kyen rolled away, scrabbled for a moment to get away but collapsed back, clutching his head. He fell limp to the deck.
The two pirates came out of the cabin to join the first. Together they approached Kyen’s prone form.
“Kyen!” Ewin, shedding his bounds, ran out of the cabin. He jumped onto the first pirate’s back. He grabbed him around the neck in a headlock, trying to get his dagger to the pirate’s throat.
The pirate shrugged this way and that.
Ewin clung on.
The two pirates from behind seized Ewin and wretched him off, one grabbing his dagger hand. Ewin bit the arm that had seized him, but the pirate didn’t let go, even as Ewin ground his teeth in.
The first pirate hefted his blade as he neared Kyen.
Kyen stirred. Slowly, with head hung, he lifted himself to his feet. When he straightened, he wobbled backwards a few steps and stood there. His sword dangled from his limp arm.
“Kyen! Look out!” shouted Ewin.
The first pirate raised his sword to slash.
When Kyen opened his eyes, the sight made Ewin go pale, and all the pirates hesitated. Kyen’s eyes had changed to a brilliant gold. He lifted his gaze to regard the pirate holding the blade over his head.
The pirates holding Ewin dropped him. They moved to surround Kyen.
The first pirate slashed down on Kyen, but Kyen flicked the slash aside with his blade and gutted him. As he shoved the first pirate off his sword, the second and third came at him from the sides.
Kyen swung his bare palm out against the blades.
The ship’s timbers shuddered as a flash of light sent the pirates stumbling backwards. Green corrosion bloomed over their blades. The pirates dropped their swords with a start. The blades hit the deck as dust.
Kyen lunged into the pirates’ midst. In a single fluid movement, he took the head off one and whirled to stab the other up under the ribcage. The bloody sword point appeared out of the pirate’s back.
Kyen let the pirate drop, his blade slipping free as the body collapsed. Kyen’s sword arm dangled back to his side.
Rising to a crouch, Ewin stared at Kyen.
Kyen lifted his face to Ewin. The fierce, golden-eyed gaze pinned him in place.
Without warning, the golden color flickered out. Kyen’s stormy eyes returned only to roll up into his head. Kyen crumpled to the ship’s deck, his sword clattering out of his hand.
(Continue to Chapter 4 here!)