When a little girl teaches Sven three magical words--how many are saved?
Distant, mocking laughter echoed in the empty cobblestone street.
The damp air weighed on Sven's clothing as he dragged his awkward, fat body across the unwelcoming town.
"That's the man who never grew up," a faraway child said. "He believes in magic. That's for little children."
He did not listen, did not need to hear why the children laughed. "Don't look up," Sven grumbled to himself.
Peeking out of an alley, a little red-haired boy--the very image of Sven's lost older brother--pointed at him and covered his mouth.
The weight of the cold-hearted morning pulled on Sven's chest. Why could they not see what happened all around them? Why could they not at least spare a bit of compassion? He had no will to see any of them, wished he could send the villagers away. Sven's shoulders hunched even lower as he muttered bad words at his toes.
The laughter echoed in the cawing of the nearest birds as they flew from pecking at the stones of the street to avoid his presence.
The saplings that wedged their way between the cobblestones counted among Sven's closest friends. He knew their names, names that no tongue could ever speak. They welcomed him, and spoke to him of sunlight and clouds and rain.
Except the stranger, a new, silent tree that stood above its older fellows. Unable to get its attention, Sven walked toward it.
Black, with ruddy spots, and thick, the steely new sapling towered above its fellows, with its two even-placed branches standing thigh high.
Never did an unwanted weed get so tall; the villagers refused to abide intruders that stood out. As he came close enough to speak to this peculiar transplant in his garden, he saw not a tree but a sword that had been plunged between cobblestones.
Sven blinked in surprise, though he did not expect things to always make sense. After taking a breath, he shrugged. "Why couldn't there be a sword stuck in the street?"
As Sven gripped the handle, and freed the sword from the cobblestone, he felt a gritty hard place in his chest and squinted at the far ends of the square, looking for passersby. The thought of the hateful, cowardly villagers screaming as he chased them down lifted the weight from his chest and stretched his face into a vicious smile. Sven snarled in glee, only for a second, and threw the sword down in disgust.
The blacksmith and bookbinder walked idly by.
Sven threw his hand over his mouth. As he thought of the hate that receded inside him, he knew it had to have come from the sword. Only a cursed sword would put such thoughts in his head, he decided. He stepped back from the vile weapon.
The villagers' eyes slid over him as they went about their way.
As if he were merely playing with a stick. This brought no surprise. False friends ignore your greatest moments, and enemies never acknowledge you at your best. In order to act unseen, Sven watched the uppity villagers passing by. At the proper moment, he gently wrapped the dangerous, living metal in his tattered cloak and stole away.
If nothing else, the evil blade would fetch a high price. Boys like Sven had no use for weapons—such dark passions belonged to more important men—though the money would come in handy. His wife owed the church for petty sins, and his boys needed waterproof shoes to run about this rainy season. Of course, one day a sword would come in handy. He might need a blade, especially one that could draw forth the warrior spirit. This blade might drive his hand when the wells of courage ran dry.
Sven frowned on his soft, fat hands. They hardly deserved any sword, however shabby. "I will sell it, and never have to work again." He nodded, as if that closed the matter.
But the precious bundle drew his eyes. Lifting the rag, he stared into the blade until he saw through the cloudy red image of rust to the fine red and orange etchings. The magic disguised the art and turned aside the lustful gaze of the fools about him. He stumbled and stumbled, still unable to look away. The thought of this fine weapon hanging at his side made him grin with pride. "You will rue the day."
Montolio, the kindly old merchant, would laugh and take pity on Sven, mocking the sword along with the owner. How Sven would relish the irony! He might pretend to hate their mirth, or to lap it up like a pathetic painted performer in the circus—the clown who gathers tips as much by pity as by skill. With a nod, Sven turned away from the fish market and his errands. He now had a destiny and would need a scabbard and a name. "Sven the Warlord, Wielder of Livestealer?" Shaking his head, he chuckled and petted his precious new friend.
"Sven, Sven, Sven!" A young man in a pointy hat jumped out of hiding, right in front. “Sven, Livestealer is not for you. Put it down.”
Sven pulled it out of its wrap and raised it high above his head.
The young man tipped back his head and laughed so hard his hat fell down. He spun around and caught it, reaching to his elbows. “One more chance, Sven.”
Sven roared. How dare this puny boy challenge the rights of a warlord? “I'd rather die.”
The young man pulled his hat off his arm, revealing a glowing, smoking ball of goo. With a grin, and a mocking flash of his eyebrows, he cried, "Sword first!" and lobbed the ball at Sven's face.
Sven brought the sword down into the center of the ball, which clung to the blade. As the goo boiled away, the metal crumbled, powdering Sven’s face in black dust. Only the handle of the proud sword, pitted and crumbling, remained.
Sven looked at the broken hilt as his shattered dreams floated to the ground on black and rusted snowflakes.
An ebon-faced, little woman hit the young man in the back with the white, star-burning tip of a black rod. “How many times have I told you about this, Orekhan?”
The young man blushed and grabbed his hat, squashing the cone in his grip.
The woman whispered, “I’ve half a mind to apprentice Sven.”
“Barely half,” the young man retorted, and put his hand over his mouth. “With respect, Magister Kiele? Sven—”
Sven had heard it all his life. Not bright enough to explain it away. Not proud enough to pretend he didn't see. He finished Orekhan's sentence, "...is an idiot."
Kiele’s face showed her age as she smiled up at Orekhan. “Show respect, my boy, lest your master hear what we do today.” The white spark at the tip of her wand flashed blood red, then returned to white.
The young man blushed as he stared at the spark, then turned and bolted.
Kiele nodded and turned to Sven, who now struggled to hold back the tears. As she walked toward him, Kiele spoke some weird hocus pocus that made Sven's head swim.
“The least I could do!” Sven said, and wondered why.
In answer, he remembered a dream of blue-skinned demons running to Magister Kiele, right after Orekhan left. Or instead of Orekhan? How frightened Sven had been! The sword had survived, or been restored, and brought out the warrior within. As if in a game, Sven had struck at the chest of the largest demon.
To his delight, the sword—unaccountably perfect, and shining chrome—bit deep, and the blade broke off in his hand. The demon stumbled back, and vanished in a puff of smoke. The other demons cried out and ran back where they came.
Sven shook his head and paced around. What had Kiele done to him to make him imagine that? “That’s--it's just not what happened.”
“Are you sure?" Kiele reached up to his elbow, looked up at him, and waved her wand again. "Power swords bring out the greatness in a man. Too bad the demon blood rusted it.”
“That is a really beautiful lie. Nobody's going to believe it." He wiped some of the black dust off his face. He leaned close. "It wasn't greatness that sword brought out in me."
Kiele nodded at the confession and gave him a brooch. “When they see this, they'll believe.”
The words, “For Meritorious Conduct,” etched in gold on a black cross. Sven cried again, happier than ever, and shook his head.
"I know how hard it's been." Kiele’s tiny black hands wrapped his around the cross. She looked up at Sven and winked. “So, let this be our little secret.”
Does she mean the demon dream or the apprentice? Sven stopped his sniveling and pocketed the sword handle and brooch. He waved goodbye. As he resumed the walk to the fish market, his shoulders felt tight, as if he had grown too big for them.
He rounded the corner to see a little orange-haired girl running about, crying, “Give him back!”
A teddy bear in the air floated inches beyond the vexed little girl’s fingers. A few yards away, Orekhan pulled at unseen strings.
“Give the girl her toy.” Sven could not believe the words came from him, and his arms twitched as he fought to not slap his own mouth closed.
“Who’s going to make me?” Orekhan swaggered up to Sven. “You gonna call Magister Kiele? Or maybe your dear dad?”
The boy, alone and unchallenged, had power, real power. The presence of such awesome force shook Sven. Normally, he would call the Magister, or fall to his knees, begging—anything but stand there, mouth agape. But, what good would any of that do? He shook his head at Orekhan’s display.
Orekhan’s delicate fingers, as they slapped Sven, barely left an impression. “Have it your way, fool.”
The insult washed over him as he stood and waited for Orekhan to actually do something.
Orekhan's shoulders slumped and he kicked dust onto Sven's shoes. After a breath, he flung the teddy bear into a puddle and stomped away.
The girl ran up to Sven and hugged him. “You’re my hero.”
Sven shook his head. “Just a man.”
She pushed him away so she could look him in the eyes. “One day, I hope to marry a man like you so he can save me.” Then she went in for another hug.
He had done nothing special, he knew, as he ruffled the little girl's fire-orange hair. Yet, the actions he took, without sword or title or grand magic, meant something to that girl. So, he tucked her words deep inside. Every time someone tried to laugh at him, like the teddy bear shaking himself dry, he would think of that little girl and her magic words, “A man like you.”