Blaze, they call him, for, they say, he raised blue fire to shield his cursed witch-dam when the elders of the village came for her. A pact she'd made with the Dark Ones of Faliern Forest to gift her son their powers, they say, and whether true or no, the witch lost her son that day, for the sorcerer of the valley took him to the wizard of Glade-town, who sent him to the mage of the Western domain, who brought him to Court, and never did he set foot in his village from that day to this.
Acorn had never clapped eyes on the most famous wizard in all of Havnor isle, nay, in all the four times forty isles, and crammed into this space reserved for guild artisans and their families, a hundred feet above the arena if it was an inch, she was not to see him today – not really. Today's tournament was to honour the Prince's nameday, and the Queen had declared a feast day across all the City. Acorn had watched the young Prince defeat three challengers – though from here the duellists resembled brightly painted toy soldiers, and you could no more track their moves than bend a wooden soldier's arm! She saw more action polishing her Da's swords than she was ever likely to stuck up here.
Turning her back on the arena with its gaudy pennants hanging limp, on the marble walls and alabaster towers of the palace behind, she stared out across the roofs of the City, ochre and ginger and russet, towards the broad grey ribbon of the Great Canal, the pale forest of masts in the harbour and the grey sea beyond, sparkling in the late afternoon sun.
'All right, Corrie?' enquired her Da. 'Not getting hot?' In his heavy velvet tunic with the little embroidered swords of the guild on the cuffs, Da himself was sweating more than he ever did at the forge.
'I'm fine, Da.' She would never make a swordsmith if she was bothered by a bit of heat! She caught sight of Oak amongst the crowds round the fair stalls below, wind-milling his arms to get her attention, and a moment later Da saw him too.
'I see,' he said with a smile, though he didn't, really, and he slipped her a couple of ivory pieces, clapped her on the back, and instructed her to enjoy herself. 'But not too much! I won't have you messing up Clearwater's order in the morning because you've over-indulged in the cider.'
Acorn pressed the coins against her palm as she edged out of the box and down the stairs.
'Mind where you're putting that elbow!' she snapped, then wished she hadn't as her kneeling companion only moved his arm rather higher. She slapped it away. 'Oak!'
It was so much better here, despite Oak's wandering hand – though she had to stoop and squint to see through the crack in the wooden barrier, and her view only covered the whole of the arena if she waggled her head a bit from side to side. After an injunction to take good care no-one caught them, Oak's Da, resplendent in the black and gold of the Queen's Guard ceremonials, had sneaked the two of them into the royal enclosure with only a coarse joke about oaks and acorns to which, from long familiarity, neither of them paid any mind. They had slipped through the jewel-crusted draperies, wriggled under wooden supports (she'd got grass stains on her best gown, but it was worth it), and were now ensconced beneath the very stand where the Eagle Queen herself was enthroned. Indeed, if she peered up between the broad steps of the stand, Acorn thought she might just be able to see the tail of the Queen's cloth-of-gold train. She shivered. Oak's Da might not have been joking when he'd mimed throat slitting should they be noticed.
'Give over,' said Oak, amiably. 'I let you have the better—'
'Shush!' she said, with a glance upwards. Luckily, at that moment the crowd began to cheer and stamp, and there was even a scatter of applause from the courtiers above their heads. 'I think they're coming out!'
Four trumpets blared. 'Gehis of the Havens!' announced the heralds. 'Blaze of the Eagle Queen's court!'
'So which one is he, then?' asked Oak, sounding genuinely puzzled.
Acorn squinted through the crack again, but none of the four youths now entering the arena much resembled the profile on the ivory piece, nor the statue atop the guild-hall portico. Two wore surcoats bearing the imperial eagle device: the seconds. Of the principals, one stood tall and fair and comely (that must be him, surely!), the other shorter, dark and sharp, his sword overlong for his height. And then she recognised the darker youth's second – the Prince himself – and realised, abruptly, that she'd got the two turned about. As they lined up not five feet away to present arms to the Queen, she took a closer look at the dark one – at Blaze. He was not exactly ill-favoured, but everything about him was thin, from his skinny build and slender sword to his sharp nose and bloodless lips. Even in his habergeon he wasn't as broad in the chest as Oak.
Acorn thought she heard gasps from the tiers above, and angry words, of which 'impudent whelp' and 'above his station' were all she could distinguish – but there was nothing amiss that she could see. The trumpets sounded once more. The duellists acknowledged each other with a curt bow, took up first positions – Gehis high in the Hawk, Blaze low in the Serpent – and started circling each other warily. Da always said that it was an advantage to strike second, for the first attack gave away your fighting style. If that was so, then Gehis broke first, with a heavy plunging cut that Blaze blocked easily on his buckler, side-stepping to get in a low thrust that almost slipped beneath the other's guard—and after that the blows and blocks fell too fast for her to chant the moves even under her breath.
When Da demonstrated the points of a blade to a buyer he looked like he was dancing, but there was nothing of the dance in this: fierce, brutal, real. This close, the steady sound of shuffled footwork, of ground-out breaths, punctuated with the clash of blade on buckler, of blade on blade, overwhelmed the roar of the crowd, though occasional shouts of advice – some good, some bad – pierced the overall din. She had to put her hand over Oak's mouth to stop him adding his voice.
Both youths were quick, strong, adept – but Gehis wielded all the advantage of inches and pounds, not to mention a sword more suited to his build and, as both began to tire, the balance of the fight was tipping. Blaze more and more took his opponent's strikes on his sword, grasping his buckler loosely as if his hand ached. Gehis, too, had spotted the weakness; he pressed his advantage with a stream of rapid shieldward blows till Blaze could no longer counter them. All too soon his buckler flew from his hand, rolling away to hit the barrier with a dull clang. Blaze plunged after it – his first real error – and Gehis caught him off-balance, shoved with all his weight behind the buckler, then when Blaze tripped – she heard the Prince gasp – stamped on his hand till he loosed his sword.
Oak bit down on her finger. 'That must've hurt,' he said, when she dropped her hand.
Gehis kicked the blade away, and it slid, spinning, across the slick boards round the edge of the arena, coming to rest hilt first not three feet from where she stood. Acorn had come across many swords in her sixteen years, but this, this was the most beautiful by far. Gold and silver wires braided the grip; the pommel was a carven dragon's head in gold with emeralds for eyes, the serpentine guard, a forked dragon's tail. But, oh, the blade, the blade rippled like the sea in moonlight! And even as she thought she'd never seen its like, a nagging voice in the back of her mind told her that she recognised it.
Now Gehis stood over his opponent, a triumphant smile spread across his handsome face—but the fight wasn't over yet. Blaze kicked upwards, catching his opponent in the balls under his tunic, rolled rapidly out from between his legs to scramble after his sword. The barrier shuddered as Gehis shoved him against it, and Acorn flinched away. When the wood stopped shaking, she cautiously put her eye to the crack again to find her view full of Blaze.
This close, she could hear each gasping breath, could smell the sour reek of his sweat, the sickly scent of the oil on his braids. She could see the individual gilt bronze scales of his habergeon; each bore an embossed design, a burst of flames alternating with a rearing dragon. (The place across from her Da's workshop on Smith Street was an armourer's, and on days when the sun shone, old Master Raven hung their wares from the balcony to catch the light, and maybe a little passing custom with it. Whenever Acorn felt she would explode if she had to polish a blade already gleaming just one minute longer, she thought of Raven's green-handed mistress who scoured bronze scales with vinegar and flour from the first hour to the last, and picked up her cloth again.) Polishing that armour, she thought, would be like hauling water in a leaking bucket.
…And for a moment, as Gehis looms over, dagger in hand, for a moment she thinks he's going to finish it for real. Her guts clench, and she wishes she could remember how to close her eyes.
'How dare you lay your filthy hands on that sword!' he hisses, so close that a few drops of spittle land on Blaze's cheek. 'Witch-get!'
And where there was a youth rears a dragon…
She shut her eyes, and when she dared to open them again, it was over. Blaze, and no dragon, sat propped against the wooden barrier, the Prince's arm across his shoulders. Gehis was sprawled over the other side of the arena, his face (so far as she could see it for the gaggle of officials and officious) as pale as a barbarian. As she watched, he groaned, stirred, woke – and as if waiting on that signal, the Prince rose to retrieve Blaze's sword, handling it with reverence. The crowd hushed. He offered the hilt to Blaze, kneeling, for all the world as if Blaze were the prince and he his subject.
Along one wall of the guild-hall, she remembered now, was a frieze of Morred the White riding the west wind over the winter sea—and she'd thought the ripples on his blade mere reflections!
Blaze pushed it away. 'I'm no swordsman.' He drew off the gauntlet from his shield-hand, wincing.
'He's got two years on you,' said the Prince, quietly. He clasped their hands together, palm to palm – Acorn saw that both bore a twist of white linen – and pulled Blaze to his feet. 'I'll beat him for you.'
Someone in the crowd yelled out something, and there was a laugh, applause: first tentative, then uproarious. Acorn clapped till her palms were on fire, though she wasn't entirely sure what she was applauding. Then Oak slipped his arm about her waist, and she nestled her cheek against his broad shoulder. He smelt of beer and leather and, well, Oak.
'Let's go,' she said. 'I need to ask Da how you get that pattern in the steel.'
'Riding the west wind' is from 'The Song of the Young King', in 'A Description of Earthsea'