The Best Man Wins
K. J. Parker
He was in my light. I didn’t look up. “What do you want?” I said.
“Excuse me, but are you the sword-smith?”
There are certain times when you have to concentrate. This was one of them. “Yes. Go away and come back later.”
“I haven’t told you what I—”
“Go away and come back later.”
He went away. I finished what I was doing. He came back later. In the interim, I did the third fold.
Forge-welding is a horrible procedure and I hate doing it. In fact, I hate doing all the many stages that go to creating the finished object; some of them are agonisingly difficult, some are exhausting, some of them are very, very boring; a lot of them are all three, it’s your perfect microcosm of human endeavour. What I love is the feeling you get when you’ve done them, and they’ve come out right. Nothing in the whole wide world beats that.
The third fold is—well, it’s the stage in making a sword-blade when you fold the material for the third time. The first fold is just a lot of thin rods, some iron, some steel, twisted together then heated white and forged into a single strip of thick ribbon. Then you twist, fold, and do it again. Then you twist, fold, and do it again. The third time is usually the easiest; the material’s had most of the rubbish beaten out of it, the flux usually stays put, and the work seems to flow that bit more readily under the hammer. It’s still a horrible job. It seems to take forever, and you can wreck everything you’ve done so far with one split second of carelessness; if you burn it or let it get too cold, or if a bit of scale or slag gets hammered in. You need to listen as well as look—for that unique hissing noise that tells you that the material is just starting to spoil but isn’t actually ruined yet; that’s the only moment at which one strip of steel will flow into another and form a single piece—so you can’t chat while you’re doing it. Since I spend most of my working day forge-welding, I have this reputation for unsociability. Not that I mind. I’d be unsociable if I were a ploughman.
He came back when I was shovelling charcoal. I can talk and shovel at the same time, so that was all right.
He was young, I’d say about twenty-three or -four; a tall bastard (all tall people are bastards; I’m five feet two) with curly blond hair like a wet fleece, a flat face, washed-out blue eyes, and a rather girly mouth. I took against him at first sight because I don’t like tall, pretty men. I put a lot of stock in first impressions. My first impressions are nearly always wrong. “What do you want?” I said.
“I’d like to buy a sword, please.”
I didn’t like his voice much, either. In that crucial first five seconds or so, voices are even more important to me than looks. Perfectly reasonable, if you ask me. Some princes look like rat-catchers, some rat-catchers look like princes, though the teeth usually give people away. But you can tell precisely where a man comes from and how well-off his parents were after a couple of words; hard data, genuine facts. The boy was quality—minor nobility—which covers everything from overambitious farmers to the younger brothers of dukes. You can tell immediately by the vowel sounds. They set my teeth on edge like bits of grit in bread. I don’t like the nobility much. Most of my customers are nobility, and most of the people I meet are customers.
“Of course you do,” I said, straightening my back and laying the shovel down on the edge of the forge. “What do you want it for?”
He looked at me as though I’d just leered at his sister. “Well, for fighting with.”
I nodded. “Off to the wars, are you?”
“At some stage, probably, yes.”
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” I said, and I made a point of looking him up and down, thoroughly and deliberately. “It’s a horrible life, and it’s dangerous. I’d stay home if I were you. Make yourself useful.”
I like to see how they take it. Call it my craftsman’s instinct. To give you an example; one of the things you do to test a really good sword is make it come compass—you fix the tang in a vise, then you bend it right round in a circle, until the point touches the shoulders; let it go, and it should spring back absolutely straight. Most perfectly good swords won’t take that sort of abuse; it’s an ordeal you reserve for the very best. It’s a horrible, cruel thing to do to a lovely artefact, and it’s the only sure way to prove its temper.
Talking of temper; he stared at me, then shrugged. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re busy. I’ll try somewhere else.”
I laughed. “Let me see to this fire and I’ll be right with you.”
The fire rules my life, like a mother and her baby. It has to be fed, or it goes out. It has to be watered—splashed round the edge of the bed with a ladle—or it’ll burn the bed of the forge. It has to be pumped after every heat, so I do all its breathing for it, and you can’t turn your back on it for two minutes. From the moment when I light it in the morning, an hour before sunrise, until the point where I leave it to starve itself to death overnight, it’s constantly in my mind, like something at the edge of your vision, or a crime on your conscience; you’re not always looking at it, but you’re always watching it. Given half a chance, it’ll betray you. Sometimes I think I’m married to the damn thing.
Indeed. I never had time for a wife. I’ve had offers; not from women, but from their fathers and brothers—he must be worth a bob or two, they say to themselves, and our Doria’s not getting any younger. But a man with a forge fire can’t fit a wife into his daily routine. I bake my bread in its embers, toast my cheese over it, warm a kettle of water twice a day to wash in, dry my shirts next to it. Some nights, when I’m too worn-out to struggle the ten yards to my bed, I sit on the floor with my back to it and go to sleep, and wake up in the morning with a cricked neck and a headache. The reason we don’t quarrel all the time is that it can’t speak. It doesn’t need to.
The fire and I have lived sociably together for twenty years, ever since I came back from the wars. Twenty years. In some jurisdictions, you get less for murder.
“The term sword,” I said, wiping dust and embers off the table with my sleeve, “can mean a lot of different things. I need you to be more specific. Sit down.”
He perched gingerly on the bench. I poured cider into two wooden bowls and put one down in front of him. There was dust floating on the top; there always is. Everything in my life comes with a frosting of dark grey gritty dust, courtesy of the fire. Bless him, he did his best to pretend it wasn’t there and took a little sip, like a girl.
“There’s your short riding sword,” I said, “and your thirty-inch arming sword, your sword-and-shield sword, which is either a constant flattened diamond section, what the army calls a Type Fifteen, or else with a half length fuller, your Type Fourteen; there’s your tuck, your falchion, your messer, side-sword or hanger; there’s your long sword, great sword, hand-and-a-half, Type Eighteen, true bastard, your great sword of war and your proper two-hander, though that’s a highly specialised tool, so you won’t be wanting one of them. And those are just the main headings. Which is why I asked you; what do you want it for?”
He looked at me, then deliberately drank a swallow of my horrible dusty cider. “For fighting with,” he said. “Sorry, I don’t know very much about it.”
“Have you got any money?”
He nodded, put his hand up inside his shirt and pulled out a little linen bag. It was dirty with sweat. He opened it, and five gold coins spilled onto my table.
There are almost as many types of coin as there are types of sword. These were besants; ninety-two parts fine, guaranteed by the Emperor. I picked one up. The artwork on a besant is horrible, crude and ugly. That’s because the design’s stayed the same for six hundred years, copied over and over again by ignorant and illiterate die-cutters; it stays the same because it’s trusted. They copy the lettering, but they don’t know their letters, so you just get shapes. It’s a good general rule, in fact; the prettier the coin, the less gold it contains; the uglier, conversely, the better. I knew a forger once. They caught him and hanged him because his work was too fine.
I put my cup on top of one coin, then pushed the other four back at him. “All right?”
He shrugged. “I want the very best.”
“It’d be wasted on you.”
“Fine. The very best is what you’ll get. After all, once you’re dead, it’ll move on, sooner or later it’ll end up with someone who’ll be able to use it.” I grinned at him. “Most likely your enemy.”
He smiled. “You mean I’ll reward him for killing me.”
“The labourer is worthy of his hire,” I replied. “Right, since you haven’t got a clue what you want, I’ll have to decide for you. For your gold besant you’ll get a long sword. Do you know what that—?”
I scratched my ear. “Blade three feet long,” I said, “two and a half inches wide at the hilt, tapering straight to a needle point. The handle as long as your forearm, from the inside of your elbow to the tip of your middle finger. Weight absolutely no more than three pounds, and it’ll feel a good deal lighter than that because I’ll balance it perfectly. It’ll be a stabber more than a cutter because it’s the point that wins fights, not the edge. I strongly recommend a fuller—you don’t know what a fuller is, do you?”
“Well, you’re getting one anyway. Will that do you?”
He sort of gazed at me as if I were the Moon. “I want the best sword ever made,” he said. “I can pay more if necessary.”
The best sword ever made. The silly thing was, I could do it. If I could be bothered. Or I could make him the usual and tell him it was the best sword ever made, and how could he possibly ever know? There are maybe ten men in the world qualified to judge. Me and nine others.
On the other hand; I love my craft. Here was a young fool saying; indulge yourself, at my expense. And the work, of course, the sword itself, would still be alive in a thousand years’ time, venerated and revered, with my name on the hilt. The best ever made; and if I didn’t do it, someone else would, and it wouldn’t be my name on it.
I thought for a moment, then leant forward, put my fingertips on two more of his coins, and dragged them towards me, like a ploughshare through clay. “All right?”
He shrugged. “You know about these things.”
I nodded. “In fact,” I said, and took a fourth coin. He didn’t move. It was as though he wasn’t interested. “That’s just for the plain sword,” I said. “I don’t do polishing, engraving, carving, chiselling, or inlay. I don’t set jewels in hilts because they chafe your hands raw and fall out. I don’t even make scabbards. You can have it tarted up later if you want, but that’s up to you.”
“The plain sword will do me just fine,” he said.
Which puzzled me.
I have a lot of experience of the nobility. This one—his voice was exactly right, so I could vouch for him, as though I’d known him all my life. The clothes were plain, good quality, old but well looked after; a nice pair of boots, though I’d have said they were a size too big, so maybe inherited. Five besants is a vast, stunning amount of money, but I got the impression it was all he had.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Your father died, and your elder brother got the house and the land. Your portion was five gold bits. You accept that that’s how it’s got to be, but you’re bitter. You think; I’ll blow the lot on the best sword ever made and go off and carve myself out a fortune, like Robert the Fox or Boamund. Something like that?”
A very slight nod. “Something like that.”
“Fine,” I said. “A certain category of people and their money are easily parted. If you live long enough to get some sense beaten into you, you’ll get rather more than four gold bits for the sword, and then you can buy a nice farm.”
He smiled. “That’s all right, then.”
I like people who take no notice when I’m rude to them.
“Can I watch?” he asked.
That’s a question that could get you in real trouble, depending on context. Like the man and woman you’ve just thought of, my answer is usually No. “If you like,” I said. “Yes, why not? You can be a witness.”
He frowned. “That’s an odd choice of word.”
“Like a prophet in scripture,” I said. “When He turns water into wine or raises the dead or recites the Law out of a burning tree. There has to be someone on hand to see, or what’s the good in it?”
(I remembered saying that, later.)
Now he nodded. “A miracle.”
“Along those lines. But a miracle is something you didn’t expect to happen.”
Off to the wars. We talk about “the wars” as though it’s a place; leave Perimadeia on the north road till you reach a crossroads, bear left, take the next right, just past the old ruined mill, you can’t miss it. At the very least, a country, with its own language, customs, distinctive national dress and regional delicacies. But in theory, every war is different, as individual and unique as a human being; each war has parents that influence it, but grows up to follow its own nature and beget its own offspring.
Copyright © 2017 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.