Cast of Wonders 489: My Hilt Itches
My Hilt Itches
by Sydney Rivers
‘Innkeeper, another round!’ roared the Hero. Cheers of approval came from the other men at his table, dressed in pungent furs and armour. They paired copious drinking with heaped plates of roast meat. That and the body odour was enough to make me queasy.
Of course, it didn’t help that I was strapped against the Hero’s back. My jewelled sheath did little to protect me from the nauseating sounds and smells emanating from him. Regardless of his company, the Hero always ate the most, always drank the most. How I would love to teach him the meaning of moderation with some choice insults and a good knock on the head.
‘Show us Excalibur!’ yelled one of the self-professed ‘warriors’, quickly echoed by the shouts of his peers.
Standing upon the table, the Hero yanked me out of my cosy covering. I was held high, displayed for the entire inn’s enjoyment. I was really getting tired of his perpetual bragging.
Of course, I was not actually the famous Excalibur, just a cheap knock-off designed in its most excellent likeness. I say cheap in the most relative way possible. Excalibur was priceless, but the Hero had had to pay a dragon’s ransom to the witch who forged me; I was a superb weapon, after all. A superb weapon with one teensy-weensy extra detail that the witch had failed to mention to the Hero when he purchased me. She had a bad habit of endowing her creations with personalities. A foible, perhaps, but she did get lonely. Truth be told, I think she was glad to be rid of me. I got the impression that I was a bit too sarcastic for her liking. Ah, well, it’s not like she was the one who made me that way…
The Hero was still revelling in his undeserved attention, telling anyone who listened how he had won Excalibur in fair combat, defending his life against twenty marauders and a dragon. The fiction, and his fame, grew a little bigger with each retelling. I wondered if he would ever grow tired of the constant notice, jealousy, and adoration. Unlikely.
One other thing. The Hero snores. His breath seemed to rattle the very walls that enclosed us. If I had had ears, I would’ve stuffed cotton in them. Or maybe I would’ve stuffed something sharper into him.
There were two beds in the room the Hero rented for the night. While he lay snoozing in one, the other remained empty. It was meant for his servant, who was busily polishing my already-gleaming metal. Although the Hero was not a knight (as if he had the skill and determination), he still generously called the boy his ‘squire’. Besides keeping me in good condition, the boy’s job was to carry the Hero’s equipment, groom his horse, do his errands, help him dress, shine his shoes, hold his hanky, comb his hair, brush his teeth, wipe his arse…
The boy talked to me sometimes when his master was asleep, or if we were otherwise alone, sharing improbable tales he’d heard and his equally improbable dreams for the future. That’s how I knew his name to be David; the Hero only ever called him either ‘boy’ or ‘squire’. Tonight, however, he was quiet. That was normal when David was tired, for we had spent the day traveling. The Hero had to travel often. He knew how to use a sword, to an extent, and would make his money slaying relatively easy foes. But, if he stayed in one place for too long, either the money would run out, or he would one day be called upon to fight something worthy of Excalibur’s distinguished history. While I had an easy ride upon the Hero’s back, David enjoyed no such luxury.
Before too long, my upkeep was finished for the night, and the boy fell into bed for some well-deserved sleep. As for me, I lulled myself into a pleasant rest, which ended in me lackadaisically singing ‘Put the Lyme in the Coconut, You Knave’ in the wee hours of the morning, accompanied by the incessant roar of the Hero’s snores.
‘You fool!’ shouted the Hero.
I sighed. As if this problem was anyone’s fault but his. The Hero had been in such a rush to find a new monster to defeat, he’d hurried David to the point that he was bound to miss something. When David had packed up his master’s belongings before leaving the inn, he’d somehow overlooked a small dagger, made by the same witch who created me. The weapon would always hit its target, no matter the incompetence of the thrower — and was just what the Hero needed in this situation. I was not saddened by the dagger’s absence; it was one nasty piece of work.
We had stumbled upon–excuse me–tracked an ogre outside of its cave. Defeating an ogre sounds rather impressive, doesn’t it? Ha ha ha, wrong, my friend! Ogres, while incredibly ugly, are only slightly larger than your average human. They have long claws, sharp teeth, and mainly subsist on a diet of small mammals and roots. The only reason to slay an ogre is their significant affinity for treasure and surprising resourcefulness when it came to stealing it. Gee, I wonder what the Hero was looking for…
I was raised into the air, preparing for the ogre’s running attack. It dodged my strike as the Hero tried to land a solid blow. The ogre gibbered at us, looking for an opening. Its claws were seven inches long, and strong as the flat of my blade. Yes, a good dagger throw would have been extremely useful right about now.
David was standing on the side-lines, near the edge of some woodland. As the ogre moved around, it spotted him, and saw that he was unarmed. It rushed forward, away from my deadly sharp edge. The Hero’s counterattack was short lived: as soon as he realized the creature was retreating, leaving its treasure exposed, he lowered my blade and turned towards the cave.
The ogre approached David swiftly. It may have been trying to escape, but the Hero’s attack had enraged it. It would likely have a go at dispatching at least one enemy. And ogres were fast.
David… began to dance. He broke into a sprightly jig, kicking his feet high into the air, hands on his hips. That’s when I remembered the story. David had heard on our travels that, for a reason no one could fathom, ogres despised the sight of dancing. The more vigorous the movements, the better. I hadn’t believed a word of it. Strangely enough, this idea had come into his head before the thought of running away.
The ogre stopped. It made an expression that, if possible, made its face even more grotesque than usual. With loud gibbering noises, the creature dashed back to its cave. It cut in front of the Hero, who had not yet reached the cavern’s threshold. Jumping inside, the ogre cascaded small boulders over the cave’s opening. The rocks, which had rested in a net of webbing attached to a release cord, now completely blocked the only access. The opening had already been so small, a person of average size could only crawl through it. Classic ogre’s trick.
The Hero roared in anger. He had lost his treasure, which would have bought new armour, and many rounds of ale. He strode over to the boy, and–
–hit him with the back of a gloved hand. David was left on the floor, rubbing his head, as the Hero stomped off towards his horse. He had tears in his eyes. I was incensed.
The damned chicken was overcooked. At least, that’s what the Hero kept insisting. We had reached another village, several hours after the ordeal with the ogre. He had immediately sent David upstairs to clean his entire suit of armour, and then sat down for a meal. The Hero’s reputation had already spread to this area. The inn therefore tolerated him, despite his persistent nagging, whining, and grumbling. The Hero was in a bad mood. Obviously, the room was too small, the ale was watered down, and the cook had no idea how to prepare either meat or vegetables.
I was unfortunately still attached to the cursed Hero. Why he could not unstrap me and let David take me upstairs, I had no idea. Perhaps he thought brandishing ‘Excalibur’ around would nourish his poor bruised ego.
The innkeeper burst through the front doors as the Hero took a bite out of a still-steaming potato. He was pale and sweaty; his hands were shaking.
The man hurried over to the centre of the inn, everyone’s eyes upon him. Climbing up onto a table, he waved his hands for quiet and attention.
‘A dragon has invaded the mountainsides!’ shouted the innkeeper, eager and afraid. Gasps were heard throughout his audience; some of the men had hands over their mouths. Dragons were widely considered to be a bane of humanity. Most people believed this loathing to be caused by the beasts’ ferocity and cruelty. Personally, I think it was just an excuse for humans to collect on the vast riches that dragons accumulated.
People in the inn began to whisper. Many glanced at the Hero, appearing excited. A group of men got up from their seat, walking over to him.
I smirked. Or, well, as much as a sword can smirk. Being asked to defeat a dragon was of the highest honour. Matching your strength against one was likely to end up with your body in ribbons, or as a pile of ashes. The Hero would have to face the disgrace of rejecting such a laudable quest. Not even he could be stupid enough to agree to the peril of it. Right? Right?
God damn the bastard.
The Hero had accepted the quest, and there was no turning back. Were he to renege, his dishonour would spread even faster than his fame. The Hero was toast; I only hoped that David would be smart enough to run away before he got incinerated. As for me, perhaps life as dragon treasure wouldn’t be so bad…
That’s… not a dragon.
We were two day’s ride from the village, scouring the mountainside for the dragon’s cave. A small burst of fire coming from a rocky cavern would have been a nice indicator, but this was just ridiculous. Roiling flame had risen up behind us in a massive dragon-shaped fireball. I suppose from a distance, you might mistake it for an actual dragon. Unfortunately for us, this thing was a bit more… hot-headed.
I’m going to stab that innkeeper, I decided.
The Hero was just getting to his feet. His horse had dashed sideways when the fire-dragon-thing appeared, cantering away as fast as his hooves would carry him, and leaving the Hero on his arse.
I was surprised when the Hero managed not to wet himself, and even more so when he was able to draw me from my sheath.
I was less astounded when he began to run away, leaving David before the inferno’s wrath. Yeah, like I’d let that happen.
It’s not like I could move, per se, but I did have some influence over my body. With an impressive act of willpower, if I do say so myself, I forced all of my weight into the tip of my blade. The Hero fell to the ground, pulled by my significant mass. It was not luck that I did not break upon hitting hard ground. I said that I was well-made.
David did not move before the firedragon, frozen in awe and terror. I feared for his life as the beast of flames moved closer. And then, it vanished, leaving only the faint smell of smoke behind.
The Hero shrieked as the firedragon reappeared in front of him. It cocked its head-shaped flames, and I could swear the darn thing smiled.
The Hero ran in the opposite direction, and again the inferno disappeared, only to appear in front of him once more. Each time the Hero tried to escape, the firedragon blocked his way. David seemed to be highly bemused at the game of cat-and-mouse before us. Still on the ground, I chuckled internally. It was like watching a chicken being chased by the fiery hellcat of Lucifer.
‘Ceara, that’s enough!’
An old woman was walking up the hill towards us. At her command, the firedragon pranced over, sitting in front of her like a dog. They were… a strange duo. The woman was tiny compared to the orange-yellow inferno beside her. Despite her advanced age, her long hair remained the colour of ink. She wore a long purple dress, tied at the waist with a royal blue sash.
‘Oh my, I am so sorry’, said the woman, towards the Hero. He stormed over to her in self-righteous anger… which swiftly turned to confusion as she marched right past him. Coming over to my side, the lady picked me up with gentle, nigh, loving hands.
‘I’m so sorry, my darling’, she cooed. ‘What if you had been damaged?’
I was too surprised and–alright, I’ll admit it–comfortable to feel indignant. Me? Damaged? Ha. It would take a lot more than a fire-dragon-dog-thing to injure me in such a way.
The woman began to rock me lightly in her arms. One of her hands was under my hilt, the other supporting my blade. If I had had eyes, I would have closed them in contentment.
Still cradling my long body, the woman walked towards David, whose expression was halfway between confusion and amusement.
‘Is this your sword?’ she asked him, stroking my jewelled hilt. He shook his head, pointing at the Hero.
‘Hmm’, said the woman absentmindedly, striding past him. She was carefully inspecting every inch of my fine metalwork, smiling frequently and letting out the occasional gasp or contented sigh. I guess she was pleased with my craftsmanship, unsurprisingly.
‘You are so beautiful’, whispered the lady.
‘Thank you’, I thought. And then, coming to my senses a bit, ‘Why do you have a firedragon?’
‘Oh’, she said with a chuckle, ‘that’s my flame spirit, Ceara. I conjured her two moons ago. Beautiful, isn’t she?’
Ceara flew in circles overhead, simultaneously playing with her appearance. She created horns and fangs out of tongues of fire.
‘Yes’, I agreed. I wondered why the flame spirit had come to see us.
‘Because she sensed a coward’, the lady answered. ‘Ceara loves to scare them.’
That made me snicker. I was not startled that the woman understood me. It was pretty apparent from her aura that she was a witch. I liked witches, even the witch who made me. It was nice having someone to talk to.
The woman was walking away with the Excalibur mimic. David liked the sword, even though it wasn’t its famous duplicate. He always felt comfortable around the weapon, like it was a good friend.
The woman was getting farther away. David had seen her talking to – no – with the sword. She was probably a few gallons short of a bathtub.
He looked over at the Hero, whose mouth would soon begin to collect flies. David shrugged, then began to follow the woman and firedragon. He was sorely in need of an explanation.
The Hero watched the strange woman leave with his sword, her firedragon flying ahead. A metallic glint caught his eye, and he turned his head. There was a cave he hadn’t seen before. It was embedded in the rocky hillside, behind where the dragon had first appeared. In the cavern’s mouth was a single gold coin, the thing which had caught his attention.
The Hero glanced between the treasure cave and the retreating figure in purple. Making up his mind, he set off towards the cave. He could always buy another sword. The amount of gold in a dragon’s lair was legendary…
The woman in purple looked back over her shoulder. The Hero had disappeared. Ceara’s cave lay open; she was truly enjoying her time in dragon-form. She had even filled it with a horde worthy of the creature she was impersonating.
A chicken strutted out of the cave, clucking lightly. The hen was a golden-brown colour, and it carried a single gold coin in its beak. The woman smiled. She really must ask Ceara to stop cursing her possessions…
As the night grew heavier, I felt my excitement growing. After many moons away, David was finally coming home.
I was looking forward to David’s stay with us. I did not have a heart, but my soul was growing mournful without my friend. Before he had left the witch’s manor, she had helped David learn to speak with me. He never could do it perfectly without her, but I felt that we understood each other better afterwards.
Even with David gone, I was not lonely. The witch spent much of her day chatting with me, especially when mixing her more mundane charms. I knew, however, to be silent when she prepared her intricate spells and potions. I speak from experience; terrible things can happen when a witch is distracted.
David had spent most of the last year in a neighbouring country, making a living on the jobs that came his way. Ceara had travelled there but one moon into his journey, returning with good news. He had found work as a bladesmith’s apprentice.
During his time with the Hero, David had conveyed his liking for me, and interest in sword lore. With luck, time, and some traveling, he hoped to master the art of bladesmithing. Tonight, Ceara was bringing him back for a long-awaited visit. The witch had promised to teach him how to weave magic into his forging.
The Hero never did come to retrieve me. News from surrounding villages said he died in battle, fighting to slay a monstrous and brutal dragon. Tales and songs turned the creature into a four-headed beast of mountainous size, spewing flames hotter than Satan’s hellfire. The dragon was never seen again, and it was assumed that the two combatants destroyed one another.
The witch kept a small chicken coop, housing several hens and one large rooster. One hen was golden-brown in colour, with golden flecks in its feathers. It was dull-eyed, and spent most of its time searching for seeds, or avoiding the local rooster. After sunfall, the bards would often raise their voices, telling of the Dragonslayer’s heroism and bravery. The music would float up to the chicken coop, carried on gentle winds. The golden-brown hen cooed softly on those nights, and all the chickens slept better.
About the Author
Sydney Rivers is a first-time published author loosely based betwixt the realms of imagination and practicality. Balancing on the rift of scholastic insanity, she does her best to write when not battling her way through college assignments. Her free time is frequently spent reading, walking her dog, or watching Bollywood films.
About the Narrator
Rish Outfield can be found regularly at The Dunesteef podcast, which he produces with Big Anklevich, and you can hear him pretty much everywhere in the genre story pod-o-sphere. You can find him online.