Richard Morgan - By The Steel Remains

CHAPTER 1

When a man you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options. You can smell his breath, take his pulse, and check his pupils to see if he’s ingested anything nasty, or you can believe him. Ringil had already tried the first course of action with Bashka the Schoolmaster and to no avail, so he put down his pint with an elaborate sigh and went to get his broadsword.

“Not this again,” he was heard to mutter as he pushed through into the residents’ bar.

A yard and a half of tempered Kiriath steel, Ringil’s broadsword hung above the fireplace in a scabbard woven from alloys that men had no names for, though any Kiriath child could have identified them from age five upward. The sword itself also had a name in the Kiriath tongue, as did all Kiriath-forged weapons, but it was an ornate title that lost a lot in translation. “Welcomed in the Home of Ravens and Other Scavengers in the Wake of Warriors” was about as close as Archeth had been able to render it, so Ringil had settled on calling it the Ravensfriend. He didn’t like the name especially, but it had the sort of ring people expected of a famous sword—and his landlord, a shrewd man with money and the potential for making it, had renamed the inn the same way, setting an eternal seal on the thing. A local artist had painted a passable image of Ringil wielding the Ravensfriend at Gallows Gap and now it hung outside for all the passing world to see. In return, Ringil got bed and board and the opportunity to sell tales of his exploits to tourists in the residents’ bar for whatever was dropped into his cap.

All that, Ringil once remarked ironically in a letter to Archeth, and a blind eye turned to certain bedroom practices that would doubtless earn Yours Truly a slow death by impaling in Trelayne or Yhelteth. Heroic status in Gallows Water, it seems, includes a special dispensation not available to the average citizen in these righteous times. Plus, he supposed, you don’t go queer baiting when your quarry has a reputation for rendering trained swordsmen into dogmeat at the drop of a gauntlet. Fame, Ringil scribbled, has its uses after all.

Mounting the sword over the fireplace had been a nice touch, and also the landlord’s idea. The man was now trying to persuade his resident celebrity to offer dueling lessons out back in the stable yards. Cross blades with the hero of Gallows Gap for three Empire-minted elementals the half hour. Ringil didn’t know if he felt that hard up yet. He’d seen what teaching had done to Bashka.

Anyway, he dragged the Ravensfriend from the scabbard with a single grating clang, slung it casually over his shoulder, and walked out into the street, ignoring the stares from the audience he had been regaling with tales of valor about an hour ago. He guessed they’d follow him at least part of the way to the schoolmaster’s house. It couldn’t do any harm, if his suspicions about what was going on were correct, but they’d probably all cut and run at the first sign of trouble. You couldn’t blame them really. They were peasants and merchants, and they had no bond with him. About a third of them he’d never even seen before tonight.

Introductory comment from the treatise on skirmish warfare that the Trelayne Military Academy had politely declined to publish under his name: If you don’t know the men at your back by name, don’t be surprised if they won’t follow you into battle. On the other hand, don’t be surprised if they will, either, because there are countless other factors you must take into account. Leadership is a slippery commodity, not easily manufactured or understood. It was simple truth, as gleaned in the bloody forefront of some of the nastiest fighting the free cities had seen in living memory. It was, however, the Lieutenant Editor in Trelayne had written kindly, just too vague for the Academy to consider as viable training material. It is this ambivalence as much as any other that leads us to decline your submission. Ringil looked at that last sentence on the parchment and suspected a kindred spirit.

It was cold out in the street. Above the waist he wore only a leather jerkin with loose half-length sailcloth sleeves,