the smuggler’s bible

Byrhtnoth

The door swings open under his hand. Light on the far wall, a shadow, light again. Motes gleam and swirl in his wake. There is a long room and candles on the sideboard. A man waits with a bowl for him to dip his hands, a cloth to dry them. He nods toward the table. He means, there at the end, that is your place.

Byrhtnoth sits and takes a strawberry from a dish. Across from him, a tall man, light-colored eyes, plucks bones from a capon.

“You forget, sir,” the man says quietly, “that you came with a sword.”

Byrhtnoth

He sends the others downstream along the crumbling road and starts up the path alone. The stairs are dug into the hillside, rough-hewn and uneven. He finds it easier in places to hunch forward and crawl like an animal. When he looks up finally after panting and scrabbling at moss, he sees smoke above the ridgeline. Then a chimney, gable and thick roof timbers.

Byrhtnoth climbs the last steps slowly, to regain his wind, and with the sword Skulltwister in his hand. The old stories say these kinds of things generally end with fighting or begging—and unhappily either way.

Byrhtnoth

“Could be the Bishop’s colors.” Toki stretches the cloth over his arm, trying to get it into the light, then holds it up in front of him. The fire shines through in uneven patches. “It’s old,” he says.

“Of course it’s old. The Bishop’s old. The war is old. This whole goddamned place is old.”

The men pass the spear-rent tabard around the sod cottage. The fellow they took it off of grins quietly in the corner. It’s impossible to be sure after so long, but Byrhtnoth thinks his mistake might have been standing with his back to the door.

Byrhtnoth

The men spend three nights in the ruined hall, sharpening weapons and scouring the rust from their mail with sand. Byrhtnoth takes Toki and Leofwine to the hill overlooking the seventh gate. Below, there are old, bleached pennants still hanging on poles and the overgrown remnants of the army’s earthworks. The grass sways in the wind coming off the ridge.

“The way everyone tells it, they never got through,” Toki says.

Leofwine makes a sign to ward against curses. “So if that’s true, why is the gate open?”

“Either somebody told it wrong,” Byrhtnoth says, “or we’re being invited in.”