Harvest House Publishers
“You deaf, boy?”
Packer Throme didn’t answer. The last thing he wanted now was a fi ght. Dog Blestoe was a big man, bigger than Packer by three inches and thirty pounds, and Packer’s elder by thirty years. Leathery, grayheaded, lean and muscular from a lifetime of hard labor, Dog stood across the table with his hands knotted into fi sts.
Packer stayed seated and silent.
Dog snorted. He had made sure Packer had left town humiliated four years ago. He would make sure the boy returned the same way. He rammed the table with his thigh, sloshing the mug of ale sitting on it. Packer caught it before it tipped.
Packer didn’t look up.
Dog grabbed the back of a wooden chair and tossed it aside, clattering it across the plank fl ooring, where it nearly shinned one of the regulars. “Disrespect!” he seethed, nodding around the pub at the undeniable proof Packer had just offered them all.
They did not nod back. These fi shermen had come with their usual intentions, to talk and drink and smoke their pipes and do some modest complaining after a hard day at sea. Not to witness this. Not again.
“Stand up, boy!”
Packer studied his ale. Cap Hillis, the pub’s friendly proprietor, had set the dark, white-capped mug there just moments ago. The modest complaining today had been about the pirate, Scatter Wilkins, and the rumors fl ying around that the feared outlaw had turned fi sherman, and was now using harvesting techniques like those of their rivals across the sea in the Kingdom of Drammun. In so doing, Scat, as almost everyone called him, was helping to empty the sea of fi sh and glut the world’s markets. In the process, he was also helping himself to a fortune, and making the fi shing villages—like Hangman’s Cliffs—all poorer by the day.
Dog believed the rumors. They gave him a specifi c target for a deep, general sense of discontent.
“The Trophy Chase wasn’t built to catch cod,” Packer had offered, the only full sentence he had spoken since arriving.
“I said stand up!” Dog now ordered. Packer did not comply.
Dog eyed Packer carefully. The boy had grown some, gained some weight. His pimples had turned to pockmarks. His mop of blond hair was even shaggier, if that were possible. But he was still the same spineless kid who wouldn’t speak up, who couldn’t look a man in the eye.
“They teach you this at seminary?” Dog sneered. “How to mock your elders?” He leaned on the table, his big, hard hands now splayed on the worn wood, his eyes locked on Packer as though they could burn through him. He dropped his voice. “Oh, no—I forgot. They didn’t want you there, either.”
Packer grimaced. He closed his eyes again, letting the pain, and then the anger, pass. Everyone in the village knew he had been expelled after less than a year at the seminary, rejected as a priest. But he was not prepared to have it fl ung at him the moment he returned.
Dog saw he was getting to the boy. He kept pushing. “So why’d you come back? You don’t like hard work. That’s what we have here. No books. No tea parties.”
One groggy old fi sherman, head hung over his ale, looked suddenly perturbed. “Hey, I got a book,” he countered thickly. He was called Fourtooth, a nickname he’d earned after losing a run-in with a jib boom as a young man. Having had his say, he let his mug work its way back toward his mouth.
Packer took a sip of his own ale, careful to do it calmly and deliberately. It was cool, and his mouth was dry, and it felt good going down. He closed his eyes, and his mind returned him to where he’d been just this afternoon, standing atop the Hangman’s Cliffs, the rugged precipices after which this village was named. He had been looking down on the inlet below, down on the great, sleek Trophy Chase shining in the sun, with her two escort ships beside her. Basking in the wrinkled blue water.
Packer alone knew of the pirate’s ship hidden in the inlet below… and he knew he had to be aboard that ship. He wished he were standing on its forecastle deck, facing the Vast Sea, right now.
“You’re cow dung,” Dog sniffed, bringing Packer back to the moment. “And the only thing worse than cow dung is cow dung with no respect.”
Packer tried not to imagine how a respectful pile of manure might behave. Would it salute? He tried to take another sip, but Dog must have noticed that he had let a trace of a smirk slip through, because the older man slapped him hard across the mouth with the back of his hand. The cool drink went fl ying, and the mug skittered across the fl oor.
Packer stroked his stinging jaw, but didn’t respond, didn’t look up. The innkeeper, round and red-faced, scrambled over, recovered the mug, examined it. It was made of sterner stuff than it appeared. He mopped halfheartedly with a rag at some of the puddled ale on the fl oor but was immediately distracted. It would soak into the open grain soon enough, absorbed like a thousand spills before it.
“Dog, lay off. Why not just hear him out?” a voice from the back of the room suggested. “Find out what he knows.” Others echoed agreement.
“But he has nothing to say,” Dog countered. “Do you, boy?”
Packer drew a line with his fi nger down a rough scar on the tabletop. The gash looked to Packer like it had been carved carefully with a knife, artwork made to look like an act of violence.
“Seems to me he’s about to head right back out of town, now that he’s fi nished his ale. Isn’t that right, boy?” Dog snorted his disdain, pondering whether the lad needed hitting again. He decided against it and allowed himself half a smile. “Just as well you broke your promise to Panna. Marrying you would have ruined her.”
There were a few oohs, and a whistle. Dog was hitting low.
Packer’s jaw clenched just slightly, as Dog’s words sliced through him. But this, too, was a familiar pain—the truth was, he couldn’t disagree. A more honorable man would have come home to Panna after the seminary rejected him and settled down to the quiet life of a fi sherman. But Packer had not.
Dog laughed and turned away to pick up his chair. “Go ahead, try to act like nothing bothers you. If you want us to think you’re turning the other cheek like some holy man, it ain’t workin’. We all know you better than that. They sure knew better at your priest school. Like I’ve always told Panna,” he continued casually, “you’re just a worthless dreamer. Good for nothing.” Dog stood over Packer now and delivered his fi nal blow in a whisper. “Exactly like your daddy.”
Audible breaths were taken and held.
Packer’s face revealed nothing. But he stood up slowly, his blue eyes cold. Dog straightened, hands still clenching the back of the upright chair. Packer now looked Dog in the eye, a direct challenge.
The fi sherman smiled broadly. “What, you don’t like me talking that way about your old man?”
Packer was smaller than Dog, but at just a shade under six feet, he was bigger than almost everyone else in the room. His shoulders were usually slouched some, but now he put his head back, squaring himself to the older man. He didn’t look quite so soft, suddenly.
Dog was unimpressed. He looked for something else with which to bait him. He found it on Packer’s belt. “Look at this! What do you know, boys! Did you see? He’s a swordsman! Is that how you protect yourself from all us old fi shermen?” Dog pantomimed a little loosewristed swordplay, gaining laughs from around the room.
Packer’s heartbeat quickened, but his cold gaze didn’t change.
He waited a moment longer, wrestling with his conscience, knowing he should walk away, not wanting to. Dog had crossed a line.
Dog’s moment of mockery turned to disgust. “You’re not fooling anybody. Your daddy was an embarrassment, and so are you. Tuck your tail and get.”
Packer made his decision. He unbuckled his belt and gently laid it, with its scarred and stained leather scabbard, on the table. It was a dueling sword, a thin, straight, double-edged rapier. When all eyes were resting on it, Packer looked at Dog and spoke softly. “I’m sorry if this frightened you.”
Dog’s face went red, and the room erupted in a fl ash, amazed, gleeful. Packer had some fi ght in him after all.
“Draw it!” Dog demanded. Then without looking away, “Give me your iron, Cap!” Everyone knew what the innkeeper kept behind the bar for protection.
“No, Dog,” Cap protested, his high voice strained. “Not swords!” But it didn’t slow Dog or the others. One of them, a dark-spirited man named Ned Basser, reached behind the bar, and with a wild grin tossed Dog the barkeeper’s sword. Cap tried vainly to intercept it, but his short, thick arms fl ailed uselessly as the rusted blade sailed over his bald head. Dog snatched it out of the air by the blade, proving to all who cared to notice just how dull it was. “There you go, Dog!” Ned called out. “Sic ’em!”
“No, leave him be!” Cap warned Dog in a shrill voice, grabbing at the big man’s elbow. The innkeeper leaned in, stood on his tiptoes to speak into Dog’s ear. “They say after he left the seminary he studied swordplay at the Academy…let it go, Dog.”
But Dog’s slitted eyes were now drilling into Packer’s. He shook the barkeeper off his arm. “They can say what they like. I know what this boy’s made of, and a few lessons in a lace drawing room can’t change that.”
Packer took his sword and scabbard from the table and looked at it, weighed it in his hands for a moment, and then suddenly unsheathed the blade. The oiled steel hissed as the blade fl ashed into view. It was a gleaming, fi nely crafted piece of work, with ornate detail engraved a third of the way up its length.
The older man’s eyes widened almost imperceptibly. This was truly a swordsman’s sword, the kind that Hangman’s Cliffs had rarely seen. How Packer had gotten it and whether he knew how to use it were questions that only now formed in the older man’s mind. He couldn’t keep from looking down at Cap’s sword, to which he had paid scant attention until this moment. The darkened thing looked like a fi replace poker by comparison. The blade was slightly bent, the tip rounded and dull, the hand-guard little more than a loose crosspiece of bent metal. He frowned. No matter. This was about manhood, not armor.
Dog gritted his teeth. “Come and get it,” he croaked. But his voice didn’t boom now. The words came not from the belly, but from the throat, more smoke than fi re. Still, there was no chance he would back down. He turned sideways and raised his sword, pointing it so that the tip was inches from Packer’s heart. The others stood and cleared a small space, moving chairs away and the table from between them, so the two could face each other properly.
Packer stood still, not taking his eyes off Dog. Rather than raise his guard, though, the younger man lowered his sword casually, resting its point on the rough fl ooring. Dog prodded a few times, brandishing his sword menacingly, actually poking Packer in the chest twice.
“Come on!” he demanded. His voice was now nasal. The room grew quiet again. The fi shermen were suddenly worried Packer might not fi ght after all, even now. Last time it was fi sts, and humiliation.
With swords, Packer might end up dead.
Packer had no such concerns. He shook his head casually, pulled on his earlobe. “You need to relax,” he instructed his opponent.
“You can’t fence when you’re tight as a drum.” Dog looked sour— but more surprised than angry. Packer spoke with a casual authority the older man had not expected.
Now Packer raised his sword and stepped back, his body melting easily into a perfect guard position, eyes focused and ready, his blade just touching Dog’s. “But most of all, Dog,” he said, with a sudden, burning energy that seemed almost joyful, “try not to show so much fear.” And he smiled.
This drew howls from the audience and a loud curse from Dog. The elder took a great sweeping hack at the younger. Packer reacted as though he expected exactly that move, as though he had meant to provoke exactly that move. He met the blow effortlessly, with the ring of steel on steel. In the same motion, his blade slid down the length of Dog’s, sparking as it went, until its tip sliced across the knuckles of Dog’s sword hand, easily missing the useless hand guard.
As Dog winced, a second fl ick of Packer’s blade, executed so quickly it was almost imperceptible, sent the old sword fl ying across the tavern. Before it came to rest on the fl oor, and before the fi sherman could grab his bleeding right hand with his left, the sharp tip of Packer’s sword was pressed, cold and unyielding, into the sagging skin of the older man’s throat.
Dog grabbed Packer’s blade instinctively with his uninjured hand, closing his fi st around it, but Packer quickly slid it out of his grasp, slicing Dog’s palm and fi ngers as he did. And then he put the point right back where it had been, at Dog’s throat. Dog held his two hands up, both of them now bleeding. He stepped backward refl exively until he stumbled into an open chair. There he sat, hands now balled into bleeding fi sts, eyes wild, neck held back in a futile effort to stay away from the point of Packer’s sword, which felt like it had already bored an inch into his throat. The room went quiet again. Dust swirled in the lamplight.
Packer’s face was fl int, but his voice went soft. “Now would be the appropriate time to show fear.”
No one drew a breath. They all heard Dog’s throat gurgle. His head didn’t move, but his eyes darted around the room, vainly looking for help. He was having trouble grasping that there would be no help; it was already over.
Packer read his eyes, his expression, waiting for the moment when the obvious question arose in Dog’s mind. And as soon as Packer saw it, he spoke. “Apologize to my father.”
Dog’s pride warred with his instinct for self-preservation. His mind spun, searching for another option, any option but apology or death. Apology was shameful; he had been ridiculing Packer Throme and his father, Dayton, for years. To simply retract it all in a moment would be to crumble completely, to admit cowardice as well as defeat. And yet to die at this boy’s hands would be more shameful yet, giving Packer the last word, proving Dog wrong—and forever. Worse yet, Dog would be dead.
He very much did not want to be dead. But would the boy do it? Packer saw that question forming, the arrogance returning to Dog. He pushed just slightly on the blade and nodded, so there would be no question that he was willing.
Dog believed. From deep within him came a roar, full of anger and passion born of fear and pain. His teeth were bared, the strings of his neck taut and visible. He was a wounded, cornered animal, screaming his fury and his terror.
Packer’s face didn’t change, his blade didn’t move. And then the rage in Dog was spent, and the roar rose to almost a shriek, petered out to a whimper. Dog closed his eyes, wrenched them tightly shut. He was breathing heavily, and looked like he might cry.
Still Packer waited. He knew Dog’s moment of decision had not yet come. Dog had not yet decided to live with this moment branded into his memory, and into the memories of all these men; neither had he decided to die and be done with it. The choice would be made now—now that the anger was gone. How deep did Dog’s pride run?
The moment hung in the balance for what seemed like an eternity, Dog unwilling to choose, and Packer unwilling to choose for him. But it was Packer’s resolve that crumbled. As his own emotion bled away, Packer suddenly saw himself—in this moment, detached from the events that had led to it. What if Dog were to choose death?
Would Packer really kill him? A seated, helpless, unarmed old fi sherman? Right here, like this? What was he doing? What would Panna think when she heard about it? And she would certainly hear. He looked around at the shocked, fearful, amazed expressions of those around him.
He had no idea how long he’d been standing here, the point of his sword poised to kill—but he couldn’t continue, not another instant. He withdrew his sword, and sat down in the nearest open chair, his back to Dog. He laid his blade on the table in front of him. Dog put a thumb and forefi nger to his own throat, found the pinprick, was relieved to fi nd so little damage. Then he looked around the room, assessing the much greater damage done to him in the eyes of his friends. Those few who would look at him seemed sad.
He looked at Packer’s back and forced a crooked smile. “Well, boy. It’s just as well you got kicked out of seminary. You’d sure make a lousy priest. No need to turn the other cheek when you can handle a sword like that.”
There was scattered laughter, general agreement. But Packer hung his head, closed his eyes. It was a thrust to the heart.
Cap rushed up with a bar towel and began to bind it around Dog’s bleeding hands. Dog rejected the help, snatched the cloth from the barkeeper. “I better go tend to these little scratches. I got work to do tomorrow.” He eyed Packer with a cautious look. The younger man didn’t see it. But when Dog said, “I’ll see you later, Packer Throme,” Packer heard the dark promise in it.