When a little girl teaches Sven three magical words--how many are saved?
The damp air lent a burdensome weight to Sven's clothing as he dragged himself across the unwelcoming town of his birth. Distant, mocking laughter as the town children pointed and whispered, only made him more alone.
He did not listen, did not need to hear why they laughed. "That's the man who never grew up. He believes in magic. That's for little children." Don't look up, Sven warned himself.
Peeking out of an alley, a little red haired boy, the very image of his lost older brother, pointed at him and covered his mouth.
The weight of the morning pulled on his 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 them away from town. As Sven muttered a curse at his toes, his shoulders hunched even lower.
The laughter echoed in the shrill cawing of the birds as they fled him.
The saplings that intruded between the cobblestones counted among Sven's closest friends. He knew their names, names that no tongue could ever speak. That was why the stranger among them stood out to him. He walked toward it.
Black, with ruddy spots, and thick, it towered above its fellows, with its two even placed branches standing waist high.
Never did they get so tall, as the villagers refused to abide intruders for long. As he came close enough to speak to this peculiar stranger in his garden, he saw not a tree but a sword that had been stuck into the ground.
As Sven gripped the handle, he felt a gritty hard place in his chest and looked for passersby with a demonic grin. The thought of the hateful, rude villagers running as he chased them down calmed him. Sven snarled in glee, only for a second, and threw the sword down in disgust.
The blacksmith and bookbinder walked idly by.
When their eyes slid over him as if he were merely playing with a stick, it brought no surprise; false friends ignore your greatest moments, and enemies would 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. He 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.
He looked down on his soft, fat hands, less than worthy of 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?" Surely not. He chuckled and petted his precious new friend.
At that, the 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 would rather die.”
The young man pulled his hat off his arm, revealing a glowing, smoking ball of goo. "Sword first." He threw the ball at Sven's face.
Sven brought the sword down into the center of the ball, which wrapped around the blade. The metal crumbled, powdering Sven’s face in black dust. The pocked and crumbling handle remained.
Sven looked at the broken hilt as his shattered dreams floated to the ground.
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.
The woman whispered, “I’ve half a mind to apprentice Sven.”
“You barely have half a mind,” the young man retorted, and put his hand over his mouth. “With respect, Magister Kiele, Sven—”
Kiele’s face showed her age as she smiled up at Orekhan. “Best show respect, my boy, lest your master hear what we do today.” The star at the tip of her wand flashed blood red for a split second, then returned to white.
The young man stared at her wand, then turned and ran.
Kiele nodded and turned to Sven, who now struggled to hold back the tears. As she walked toward him, Kiele said something unintelligible that made Sven’s head swim.
“The least I could do!” Sven said, and wondered why.
That made him remember blue skinned demons running to Magister Kiele, right after Orekhan left. How frightened Sven had been! To his surprise, the sword had brought out the warrior within. As if in a game, Sven had struck at the chest of the greatest 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. “That’s 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.”
“That is a really beautiful lie." He wiped some of the black dust off his face. “Nobody is going to believe it.”
Kiele gave him a brooch. “When they see this, they will.”
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 it be our little secret.”
Does she mean the demon 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 blonde 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.” Orekhan flung the teddy bear across the plaza 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.
Sven ruffled the little girl's golden hair and Sven tucked those 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.”