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It was late afternoon
when Johan walked into the market.
Deep yellow sunlight ran like honey down
the whitewashed walls of the cottages and shops.
The grass was turning from green to gold
where it sprouted between the pavers.
Early autumn filled the market with farmers,
for the most part, bringing pears and squash
and the first of the newly harvested grains.
Here and there, other booths
showed off scarves and gloves,
tools and leather and whetstones,
hanks of yarn for winter knitting.
Johan had not intended to buy anything,
only ask after a room at the inn.
He'd need a scarf soon, though ...
Then his gaze snagged on the sharp ironwork
that marked a smith's display. The long table
beneath it held rows of knives and swords,
sturdy buckles, cloak clasps, latches,
hoofpicks and other tools. The velvet cloth
had been red once, Johan thought,
faded now to a dusty rose
like sunset on a cloudy day.
Johan looked at the proprietor,
startled slightly, and looked again more closely.
"What brings a master smith to the market?"
he wondered aloud. "Such a task
is usually left to apprentices."
"What brings any paladin to a market?"
the smith said quietly. "Need to sell, or need to buy."
"I'm just passing through," Johan said,
but his fingers strayed to the edge of the table
and the worn cloth draping there.
"Such fine blades you have, though."
A shadow flitted across the smith's face.
"I'm turning over my stock," he said,
"don't want to keep what I had ready made."
He touched the hammer symbol at his throat.
"My Lord has changed his alliance,
and I want to make new wares for a brighter day."
Johan's head jerked up.
"Barzay no longer supports Gorrein?"
he said. That accord was old, old.
"No longer, and I'm glad of it, that I am,"
the smith replied. "I mislike what was asked of me,
sometimes, when they worked together.
Uneasy things, for uneasy times, they wanted."
"Yes," Johan said. "I know how it is
to be asked for what you would not give."
He remembered the pain of learning
that one's service was not, after all,
as honorable as one had thought,
and the holder of one's oath not as virtuous.
Sometimes his path lightened his spirits, but
this knowledge always seemed to drag him down again.
"I've long been a skilled smith, even before
I came to my vocation as a paladin,"
the other man said. His thick fingers
touched the hilt of the finest sword.
"In my youth, I forged blades for paladins
of many gods, but lately it's been
Gorrein's people come calling for the most part.
Or else someone wanting tools that will
stand up to enchantment, curses mostly."
He shook his head. "That's not what I'm meant for."
Johan lowered his gaze, letting
the dark fringe of his hair fall forward.
"I'm some time out of service, myself," he said.
"Everyone seems to want something that's beyond me.
My last lord wanted me to procure children for him.
Sent me out with a beating and the clothes on my back,
when I refused." Without even the cheap weapons
he'd been down to by then, too; and that thought
sent Johan's hands to the leather belt
that held up nothing but his pants and cup
and a tiny pouch of coins.
"It sounds like you could use some protection,"
the smith hinted, flicking his fingers at the blades.
Johan shook his head. "Alas, no," he said.
"I could never afford your wares."
"I've a trunk under the table," the smith said,
"for trade-ins and other secondhand gear.
There's no guarantee on it, as it's not my making,
but surely better than walking bare."
He leveled a stern gaze at Johan.
"I'll hear your affiliation, though, before I sell to you.
I won't deal with anyone of Gorrein's ilk again."
"I am Johan, formerly a paladin of Gailah,"
he replied. A bitter laugh trickled past his lips.
"I have no affiliation anymore. Who'd want the likes of me?"
But the smith was looking at him with a faint smile.
"I wonder," the older man said.
"I am Einar, paladin of Barzay."
He flipped up the cloth to reveal the trunk.
"You may find something of interest in there."
So Johan went down on his hands and knees in the dust
to rummage through the tangle of horse tack
and blades and oddments of armor. A long rusting chain
wound through it all, making the process harder.
Some of the objects tingled faintly against his fingers,
sparks of dark and light energy clinging to them.
It made him reluctant to keep digging,
for fear of finding something worse.
Yet a stubborn will rose up in him,
and Johan leaned forward again,
determined to continue the search.
He almost overlooked it at first,
his inner senses faded to this vague quiver,
but the shape of the thing in his hand
was as unforgettable as his own face.
Johan gave a glad little cry
and clutched the long dagger to his chest.
"Found something?" Einar asked,
leaning over the table to peer down at him.
"This was mine, once," Johan said.
The sheath was different, a shabby thing
of worn leather; but the blade was still true.
He had lost it while fleeing the bright city long ago,
and never imagined that he might find it again.
Sudden, wild hope rose in him.
"Do you -- do you have anything else?"
he stammered. "Anything from wherever you got this?"
"A fair bit, from a battle-gleaner's trade goods," the smith said.
"You've chucked half of it on the ground already."
"I'll pick it all up, I swear," Johan said,
diving back into the trunk with heedless speed.
He nicked himself on a naked blade
but it gave him no pause.
"Come out of there with your bare hands, lad,"
Einar said, hauling him away by the belt.
"If you're that determined to dig up the bottom,
I'll empty the trunk for you -- I've got gloves on."
Johan knelt beside him, twitching,
miserable with hope and dread,
not even sure whether he wanted
or did not want to see again
the short sword that matched the dagger.
He busied himself sorting out the castoffs
so they could be repacked more neatly.
"Looks like there's nothing left but a chainmail shirt,"
the smith said finally, and then, "no, wait -- there's this."
He turned with a short sword balanced on his palms.
"It feels like a thing of power, though there's no power in it now."
Johan took it in trembling hands,
as he had taken it from the forge at its making,
urged by a woman long dead.
His heart caught in his throat at the feel of the thing,
his own sword, from his paladin days,
the unclad steel as bright as it had ever been.
He looked at but did not touch
the fallen star clasped in the pommel,
unlit now, as plain and gray as a storm cloud,
nothing but the glimmer of the setting sun upon it.
Then he swallowed his heart back down into his chest,
and reminded himself that he had no right
to touch holy things anymore,
nor money enough to buy this one even if he did.
The dagger, yes, that he might afford, if the smith was kind.
Johan closed his eyes and handed back the sword.
"Not to your liking, then, after all that digging we did?"
Einar asked solemnly.
Johan dragged his voice to its duty and replied,
"I am unworthy, and far from rich."
He opened his pouch and spilled out the coins.
"I'll offer for the dagger, though."
The older man gave an aggravated huff.
"Gailah must need the patience of a goddess
to deal with you, you stubborn pup!" Einar said.
"I'm paladin enough to know this is yours,
now that I've seen it in your hands."
He placed the sword firmly back in Johan's lap.
"I'll not commit sacrilege by selling it to someone else."
"I can't afford --" Johan began.
Einar scooped up the coins and declared,
"You give me what money you have,
repack that trunk like you promised --
and while you're at it, see if you can find
a loose sheath to fit -- then the sword and dagger
are yours again as they should be."
So Johan gathered the weapons and gear
laid out on the ground, and replaced them
in the trunk all in good order.
He found a sheath that would serve,
and buckled sword and knife onto his belt
along with the now-empty pouch.
He would not regret forgoing the inn to camp outside,
nor the extra work he'd need to replenish his funds.
Twilight turned the market to murk and shadows
as the smith and the other merchants packed up to go.
Johan stayed and helped Einar with that too.
"Why are you doing this?" Johan whispered at last.
Einar clasped his shoulders and said,
"Remember that no one can get through life
without doing some harm along the way.
For such as us, what matters is that
the good we do outweighs the rest."
Johan was left to stare after the departing paladin
and wonder if he'd done as much for Einar's balance of deeds
as Einar had done for his.