The man and the girl with the fire inside her crunched along the cobblestones. The man said nothing and the girl continued her fantasy, every now and then glancing at his sword and forcing the memory of what had just happened back into his mind. He told himself he wouldn’t have drawn it, though he was not sure what it said of him that he needed to tell himself that.
“Where did you get that sword?” the girl asked.
“A corpse,” the man said. “I was hired to fight against the Enemy. But my employer went and got himself an arrow through his throat. It’s hard to pay a man when you’re dead. And I decided that a dead man has little and less uses for swords, so it’s mine now.”
“Does it have a name?”
The man laughed. He laughed and laughed, until his hands were braced on his knees. When he managed to compose himself, he knelt to be at eye level with the girl, who knitted her eyebrows in confusion.
“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you, girl. I swear it. You don’t know any better, but…listen, there are certain kinds of people that will tell you the best swords have names. These people are called morons. I’ve never understood the practice of naming swords. If I were to call it anything, I’d call it ‘Sharp’” The man left it at that and rose to continue onward.
But the girl wouldn’t follow. “If it did have a name,” she called, “What would it be?”
The man unsheathed his sword. It was polished, but there was no sunlight to reflect it. He checked the wolf on the pommel and the leather grip. “Steel is a special sort of magic,” he mused, and then sheathed his blade again. “I’d call it Sharpwand.”
The girl grinned at that, and rushed to catch up with him.
“Come,” the man said. “We must away.”
* * *
Two miles farther on the valley gave way to cobblestones, and the cobblestones led them to a tavern. Scorch marks clawed their way up the side of the building, and there was a five foot long black-and-pink lump nearby that the man ignored and the girl didn’t ask about. They stood there and studied it.
“Let’s have a look,” the man said.
“I don’t want to,” said the girl.
“There’s nothing left inside. There may be beds. We could—”
“No!” The girl said. The fire flared beneath her eyes.
“Okay,” the man said, “Let’s move on.”
* * *
On the far side of the river valley was a black burn of a forest. Charred tree trunks stretched and curved at odd angles. The meadow-lands just beyond the tree trunks were old and gray and spotted with small pools of muck. They traveled through the black burn, stepping carefully around the muck. They were in the Enemy’s country, and the Enemy made could make traps of anything.
Soon they crested a hill, and there the man stopped, cold wind lashing his face. He pulled his hood up and urged the girl to do the same. He looked at her.
“I’m okay,” she said. She pulled her cloak about herself.
“I’m sorry,” the man said.
“Because the Old Gods chose you to carry the fire. And they chose me as your guide.”
The girl wrapped her hand around two of his fingers. “What’s wrong with you?”
The man said nothing. And then, “We should keep moving.”
* * *
They found a rock that speared the apex of a hill, filling its descent with shadow. The thunder was booming. They took shelter under the rock and watched the gray sheets of rain blow over the valley below. The girl shivered, and the man asked her why she didn’t conjure her fire.
“I don’t want to,” she said. “Fire kills. I don’t want to kill things.”
“Fire has other uses.”
She wrapped her cloak about herself and hugged her knees to her chest. “Not for me.”
When it had cleared they opened up their bedrolls and supplies and all that they would need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their camp in the damp grass under the rocks. The girl asked to share his bedroll, so they did. He made her grab her short sword first. He put his arms around her, but when she shivered anyway, he gave her his cloak. He did not sleep that night. The dark was a shroud about them. But there were some who liked the dark.
Those who liked the dark didn’t like them. But the girl would know that before the journey was over.
* * *
The girl took a long while to get to sleep. In the blackness he felt her roll over to face him. The rain had matted her hair to her forehead. “Can I ask a question?”
“What is it?”
“Are we going to die?”
“Yes. Not now, but yes.”
“They say the Enemy’s fortress is filled with fire that doesn’t burn, don’t they?” the girl asked.
“Would that make it warm?”
“I suppose so.”
“I’d like to be warm.”
And then later: “Can I ask another question?”
“What would you do if I died?”
The man didn’t answer at first. “I would die too.”
“Because I’m supposed to keep you safe. If I fail in this life, mayhaps I could succeed in the next. All right?”
* * *
He woke before dawn and watched the day break. The sky turned from gray to pink to blue. He rose while the girl slept. She had folded his cloak for him and put it by her unused bedroll sometime in the night. He shook his head as he retrieved it and fastened it about his shoulders. He decided he would very much like to strangle the Old Gods who made this girl’s veins burn. Of all people they chose a child. Why? The Old Gods had said he could not understand Their will. But if Their will was to march children off into war, he wanted no part of Them.
After this war was over, of course.