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Authors: Robert Priest

The Paper Sword

BOOK: The Paper Sword
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I am a parcel of vain strivings tied

By a chance bond together


The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction.

— Margaret Laurence


For Marsha Kirzner, Eli and Daniel Kirzner-Priest,

my parents Betty and Ted Priest, Eitan and

Erez Lebo, and William Broome


The Stick

was a strange call welling up from the sea that caused him to change course. The sound echoed off the side of the mountain, hollow and huge, like some haunted beast seeking its ghost mate. It could have been the moaning of the wind through the jagged rocks of the fiord, but it could also have been the call of a dragon, and he had been waiting all his life to see a dragon. Lean and tall for his age, he veered off the path and proceeded along the top of the riverbank to the falls, close to the place where he had first found Saheli. The water had tumbled so long from this high point it had cut a channel through the rock. Standing on the ridge atop it, he had a good view over most of the valley and the bay below.

A large thunderhead was gathering on the western horizon but the sky above was still blue and clear. The sea was grey and rough, the wind coming in steadily from the south. He scanned the beach and peered through the tendrils of mist clinging to the lower reaches of the valley but saw no dragon. Again the strange sound came. But from which direction? There was still a small section of the shore below that he couldn't see from here so he began to climb down the bank to the river to get a wider view.

He had only about nine feet to go but the last part of the slope was almost straight down and the spray had made the clay especially slippery. There was what looked to be the projecting nub of a root not far from his right hand. He leaned over and gripped the palm-sized protrusion, tugged at it, and, judging that it was solid enough to anchor him, leaned his weight on it and stretched his foot down. Without warning the root came away
in his hand and with a startled shout he fell down onto his back on the narrow ledge beside the river. If not for the desperate claw-like grip of both hands into the wet clay, he would have slipped into the torrent and been swept away. His heart beat loud in his ears, louder even than the roar of the falls, as he got carefully to his feet. It took a second or two for him to even notice the stick lying at his feet. He picked it up. It was about three feet long. There were still clotted lumps of mud and clay on it, so just to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him, he knelt down and dipped it into the river, amazed at how mightily the rapid current tugged at it, trying to get it away from him. His excitement grew as he withdrew the clean white stick from the waters. Yes, the part he had first grabbed was just like the pommel and haft of a sword. There was no hand guard but the rest of it was straight, thin and flat, tapering to an edge on one side exactly like a blade. The very tip had been broken off, but it wouldn't take much to fix that.

The falls roared beside him as he gripped the stick excitedly, waiting to hear again that awesome call. He had an urge to hold the stick up to the sky in the first pose from
The Manual of Phaer Swordsmanship
, which he had just last month uncovered from the locket library, but the sword was not yet complete. It had to be perfect. He waited a long time, but when no further call came he set off back up the mountainside. Before he entered the shade of the forest at the top of the ridge, he couldn't resist turning to face the sun and slashing the blade diagonally through the air. Slash one way and slash the other — the first letter of his name: Xemion.

The many generations of astrologers who had previously inhabited the tower tree, where Xemion lived, had left little behind to tell of their occupation, but recently, in one of the many oddly shaped rooms under the tower, Saheli had found two tiny brushes and two pots of silver paint. The astrologers, Xemion conjectured, had used the silver to paint stars on their maps of the sky. But today he had another use for it. First he repaired the sword, using pine pitch to attach a copper bowl for a hand guard and a carved piece of pumice stone for a point. Then when it had dried he set about feverishly applying the silver paint. The paint was thick and the brush small and it took a long time. The sun illumined first the lower window and then the higher window of the workshop as he worked his way up the blade. By the time he neared the pitch-darkened point the silver paint was all but gone and he feared there would be too little to complete the job. But when only the tiniest black tip of pitch and pumice remained he managed to scour one last drop of the liquid silver from the pot. He laughed out loud at the result. It was so realistic! He could hardly wait to show it to Saheli. He left the silver sword balanced on the table to dry and went back to the tower tree in search of her.

“Saheli!” he called.

She had probably awoken, and when she'd discovered that he was gone, decided to go and do some foraging. After a while he returned to the workshop and, seeing that the sword was still not quite dry, he sat upon the stone step outside and with some strips of leather, a bone needle, and some black twine began to make a scabbard. Several more times he called out to her. Briefly, an old worry, a worry that she would disappear from his life just as suddenly as she had arrived in it, arose in him.

By the time he heard Saheli coming at last, the scabbard was finished. Tying it about his waist, he hurried back into the workshop and, after making sure that the paint had completely dried, he slipped the sword into the sheath and wrapped his purple cloak back around him.

“What is it?” Saheli asked as the door opened, ushering in a long streak of sunlight. “I heard you calling from way down on the plateau.”

She had grown in the four months he had known her, but she was still not as tall as Xemion. Today, though, with her hair piled up high on top of her head, she towered over him by at least two inches. He had never seen her wear a top knot before, and for a moment the beauty of it — the way it set off the elegance of her long neck and high cheekbones — caught him off guard. As did the fact that her lips were stained raspberry red. “Berry?” she asked, holding out a brimming basketful.

Xemion took one and said, “I have a surprise. Hide your eyes.”

Obligingly she held one hand up over her green eyes and waited, her brow slightly furrowed. Xemion took the blade out from under his cloak, grasped the hilt in both hands, and finally did what he'd been waiting all day to do. He held the sword straight up in the first pose from
The Manual of Phaer Swordsmanship
. It was a heroic posture and he was delighted at how firm but flexible the sword felt.

“Behold!” he announced in his deepest, most dramatic voice. Saheli took her hand away from her eyes and gasped at the smiling figure before her.

“But Xemion —”

“Don't worry, it's not a real sword,” he was quick to assure her. “It's just a strangely shaped piece of wood I found. See, this part here is a bowl held on with resin. Then I used the silver star paint you found.” He bowed to her, swooping the sword elegantly to one side.

The crease in Saheli's brow deepened. “Let me see it.”

He held it closer for her scrutiny. “I imagine it washed down from the spell-crossed forest on the other side of Ulde.”

Reluctantly she nodded. “So you're not going to use it against Torgee and Tharfen then?”

“Not at all.”

“Because if Tharfen gets any angrier at you I believe she may tell her mother and it will all come out about us playing at sword fighting, and if —”

“I just want to do one Phaer salutation with it. I've gone as far as I possibly can using sticks. And I've been longing for a sword, and suddenly I find this stick shaped so much like a sword you'd think it was carved by some kind of tree spirit on my behalf. And besides, who, other than you, is going to see me?”

“What about the new examiner who's supposed to be coming around?”

“According to Torgee,” he said somewhat contemptuously.

“Well I don't think Torgee would lie.”

“Anyway, examiners never come up the mountain.”

“What if today was the first time?”

He shrugged. “I will throw it away if you like.”

She nodded in the affirmative.

“Saheli, I guarantee you there is no one on the mountain today but you and I. I just want to go down to the promontory with it once and do the salutation right up there beneath the sun the way it's supposed to be.”

“I wish you wouldn't.”

Xemion's pose had now turned mock-heroic. He felt slightly embarrassed. “Well, I'll burn it or fling it into the river if you like but …” He could see she was giving in.

“What about Chiricoru?” she asked. “She's been alone all day.”

“No, I fed her and watered her and walked her while I was waiting for you and now she's gone back to sleep. She'll sleep for hours yet. We'll dash down to the plateau and we'll dash back. She won't even know we've been gone.” Saheli looked skeptical. “And I'll keep the sword sheathed all the way there and all the way back and only take it out when we get to the promontory.”

Saheli took in and expelled a deep breath. “And if we do meet anyone, you'll let me do all the talking like Anya said?”

“Of course.”

“And when we get back, you'll throw it away?”

“Right into the river, if that is thy command.”

She attempted a sigh but smiled despite herself. “Stop it.”

“Stop what?”


“Most certainly, milady,” Xemion replied, bowing elaborately. And as he bent forward he reached into the basket, removed another raspberry, and popped it into his mouth.

BOOK: The Paper Sword
9.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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