Hard Cleft

“Alfred. What, exactly, makes Excalibur special?”

I considered the question, sitting across from Polly at the small café table, looking out across the small town of Ffostrasol. “In theory, the difference between a normal supernatural entity and a God is one of… scale. A fairy, a demon, one of the undead- All of them can become gods. It is simply a matter of accumulating enough power. So the theory goes, at any rate.”

“Uh huh.”

“Now, there have long been legends of- Well, Atina uses the word ‘Tsukumogami’, because at her heart she’s still very enamored with Japanese stories. It’s a good word, because the concept doesn’t really exist much in Western civilization anymore, though ‘heirloom’ comes close. Think of a favorite tool; something you are irrationally attached to, that you use despite the fact that there are better tools at hand. It’s familiar to you. You’re attached to it.”

“I see.”

“Thus, Tsukumogami. The missing source of power. They are almost entirely hypothetical among most wizards. After all, they have not been known in living history, and the difference between a Tsukumogami and a simple enchanted object can be, in most cases, difficult to grasp. It is said that in the old days, the mark of an Archmage was that they could, over the course of a single lifetime, make an object into a Tsukumogami. Jack Knife suggests that they were very real, and even gives some hints as to what they are like.”

“Hmmm.”

“This is complicated somewhat. For example, Gods often are known for potent weapons- But are the weapons potent on their own, or are they an extension of the god’s power? Is Mjolnir a weapon of legend, or is it just Thor’s hammer? This is more obvious with some gods than with others- Nobody said that Ares’ spear or sword or whatever was particularly special, whereas Mjolnir has its own epic backstory.”

“Yeah.”

“But I believe that certain weapons become famous on their own- Tsukumogami who are effectively divine beings through the sheer strength and spread of their legend. Excalibur, I expect, would be one of these weapons. And- Are you reading your phone?”

“Huh?”

I reached out, and grabbed the phone, glowering. “Did you hear a single word I said?”

“Excalibur is a god among swords. You could’ve just said that. Academia’s a dangerous thing, love. It can make you think that one thousand words will do the job of six.”

I opened my mouth, and closed it. Then, I sighed. “It is sometimes very useful to answer the why of a thing, instead of just the what. If only to get ahead of questions.”

“Well, thank you for the lesson in theoretical swordology.” She smiled. “We’re close.”

Nearly four months tracking through England, Scotland, Ireland, and finally- god help me- Wales. That was a joke- The Welsh are perfectly lovely people, although their language is the most effective method of nonviolent resistance that a human being has ever displayed. But our search for Excalibur had been… difficult. “I hope so,” I said. “The world has been… tense.”

“Tense?”

“The dreams back in September. The strange uptick in… Well, odd activities. Can you feel it? The world hums like a length of steel under great pressure. It doesn’t break, yet, but it vibrates with the tension of its end.” I stared out at the town. “Two of the ravens of the Tower of London were found dead by their keepers, yesterday morning.”

“What does that mean?” Polly asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Likely that one of them was extremely old, and the other one was a trickster, because when the keeper picked the second one up, it bit him and flew off.”

Polly blew out a breath. “You had me proper- I mean, you had me scared, there.” She flushed, looking from side to side. I smiled. She really was doing her best not to offend anyone with the Irish act. I still liked it, though. “So. The world is at risk.”

“And when England’s darkest hour comes, so too does the king under the mountain. And in his hand, to mark the need, Excalibur. The Fae are sensitive to such things.” I smiled. “The end of the world, by necessity, includes that of Britain. Convenient how nationalism, in a time of universal crisis, can become humanitarianism.”

“Hope that lasts,” she muttered.

“Oh, it never does. It’s in the nature of people to misjudge, to betray, or just to repay old grudges at an inconvenient time. People can be very silly. That’s not the surprising thing, though. It’s the nobility that’s surprising.” I looked up and out of the window again. “There. It’s moved.”

“You sure?”

“If I’m not, I’m not the man I thought I was,” I said, winking lightly, as I stood up.

Was there truly a King Arthur? History is unclear. Perhaps there was simply the idea of one. But the world of mythology does not care about facts. Certainly, a god can form around a seed of truth, like a crystal. But like a crystal, it can also form spontaneously, from nothing, under the right circumstances. It does not matter whether King Arthur was a real person. People believe in him. He is a symbol. That is enough for there to be an Excalibur.

I hope. So my mother told me. So she tells me I can be. I would never put it past the Fair Folk to make such a thing out of whole cloth.

Take the Mound, for example. The legendary burial place of King Arthur. How on earth could someone miss something like that? The resting pace of Excalibur- And yes, I know about the whole ‘thrown back to the Lady of the Lake’ thing, that was several Arthurs ago. No, the Mound was where it was last left, in the hands of four Fairy Champions; One of Spring, one of Summer, one of Fall, and one of Winter. I was expected to best all four in a contest of their choosing.

“So the last Bergen… tr…”

“Bergentruckung,” I said, as the two of us hiked up the green grass hills, patches of chalk visible here and there. “King Under the Mountain, if that makes it easier.”

“So, the last King Under the Mountain. How exactly did they die?”

“This would have been back around World War 2. The King Under the Mountain was an infantryman. Found the Sword of Excalibur, faced off against Hitler, armed with the Lance of Longinus and the Elixir of Immortality, over the Ark of the Covenant. He struck Hitler dead, and bled to death of his wounds soon after.”

“You’re kidding,” said Polly, her eyes wide, astounded.

“Yes. I don’t know much about the history of the Bergentruckung. Arthur may very well not have been the first. The Fair Folk have always had a need, from time to time, for a champion. Someone to represent their unified desire for… well, whatever it may be. Usually, for the stories to keep going. Like a more primitive version of whatever makes true Heroes, the kind that the oldest stories said existed, once. The kind that, if rumors are true, are showing themselves again.”

“And Excalibur showing itself?”

I was quiet for a moment as I reached the top of the mound, studying the circles of stones. A small mound, the stones were no larger than my torso, at best. Weathered by the rain, with deep divots carved by someone who had believed that putting a hole in a rock made it more magical. I bent down by one, and rapped it with my knuckles, before moving onto the next. “Sorry?”

“Excalibur. What does that mean?”

“Oh. The first goal.” I stood up straight, and tapped the next rock with my heel. “The Hero, theoretically, has a broad goal. Broad behaviors they must engage in. Their fating is… loose. They are fated to win, but how that happens is loose. A Bergentruckung is more restrained. The Drawing of Excalibur is the first step in the Matter of Britain.”

“I thought Excalibur and the Sword in the Stone were two different swords?”

“Yes, many people think that. Originally, they were one and the same. The whole matter of the Lady in the Lake being added later. For this, well…” I stepped forward, frowning as I approached another rock. I drew out my broadsword, and rested the iron tip against the stone, closing my eye. “Well begun is half done. The gathering of knights, the seeking of the grail, the Guinevere, and so on, and so forth. The more of these I succeed at, the better I follow the story, the more powerful I will become, so long as I continue towards those self-same goals. As long as I fight to preserve Britain. Thankfully, I can do that from anywhere.”

“All of it?” said Polly, softly, her brows drawing together. “There were some pretty dark moments for Arthur.”

“Yes.” I grinned over my shoulder. “Still, everyone’s life has dark moments. Few people get the comfort of knowing that those dark moments have a reason for happening, and that they’ll genuinely make you stronger.” I raised the broadsword, and stabbed it forward. There was a soft clang.

“I think you watched the Princess Bride a few too many times-”

A soft grinding noise filled the air, and the earth shook as the glamour over the stone was dispelled by that single strike with the iron weapon. I sheathed it, grinning broadly. “No, exactly enough.”

The two of us strode down into the mouth of the cave. The chalk had been cleared away in a low tunnel, and I conjured an illusory torch to clear the way forward, stepping through the darkness.

“So, what happens if you fail one of these challenges?”

“I’m not the Bergentruckung.”

“Oh. Is that it?”

“Yes. As long as I’m not trying to murder anyone, they’ll just turn me away.”

“So this whole thing’s kind of on the honor system, isn’t it?”

“It tends to be a big thing among the-”

The sword whistled through the air. That was the only warning I got. My broadsword lifted to catch it at the hilt. The second blade wound towards my neck with the same effortless grace, and I was forced to throw myself backwards, no small feat in full chain. A third blade whistled through the air, and went through the illusion of me I had sent ducking down, skewering the illusion’s skull. Blood fountained forward from the illusion briefly, before it faded, and I reappeared.

“Fae. Usually.” I frowned, my hands on my hips, studying the faerie. Eight feet tall, flaming red skin, hair that was not just the color of fire but was actual fire, scorching the ceiling and raising in waves of blue, to white, to red. Feminine, broadly- But the amazonian type, all lean muscles and great tusks. “Really, no pre-fight discussion? No en garde? Nothing?”

“I apologize,” she said, in accented English, a strong hint of Indian in it. “I was told to guard this tomb from intruders through the methods of the Summer Court. That is, sudden and brutal violence.” She frowned. “You are the Bergentruckung, yes?”

“Yes, I-” I leaned to the side, as one of the three scimitars she carried in her six hands whistled through the air, sinking a foot into the wall, and humming softly, vibrating like a plucked wire. “You know, throwing your sword is just the kind of flashy, useless maneuver that you would be endlessly berated for in any good dueling school.”

“I taught myself, by murdering people,” she said. “Till I was told that was not acceptable by two very angry men, who told me to work at a police station. When the station closed, I came here, but I still don’t kill people, unless I have permission.” She glowered down at me. “You are puny.”

“Should I help here, Alfred, or is this one of those ‘honor demands a single duel’ things?” asked Polly, an eyebrow raised.

“I don’t think there are any specific rules that I can’t have some help, but I have this.” I smiled. “Not the first giant angry blood-drinking woman I’ve fought.”

“You have your type,” she said, and smiled.

Ah, there it was. Romance. The tingle of uncertainty. The pain of decision.  The sting of being me. More so because of my nature. After all, if I was a Bergentruckung, if my  mother wasn’t fooling me- well, everyone knew how Arthur met his end.

I sighed, and swept the broadsword to the left, sending one of the two scimitars reaching for my face winging out of the Rakshasa’s hands, shattering it at the base. They were not very good swords- The Fae cannot make good use of steel, and iron would be lethal for them to use. As such, they usually must rely on lesser materials, or weapons of fairy make, which are often esoteric, fascinating, full of magical potential, and shatter like cheap glass when struck with iron.

The Rakshasa did not seem deterred. She struck me with a fist, hard enough to hammer me across the ground, my chainmail doing little to absorb the blow. I hit the ground, rolled, and came back to my feet, my ribs aching. I sized up the Rakshasa for a tenth of a second as she charged towards me, raising the last scimitar in two hands for a tremendous downwards swing. I stood, raised the arm holding my rapier, and threw it. It completed a full arc, and sank through her thigh. When her weight came down on that leg, it collapsed, and she stumbled, falling to the side, striking the rock wall with her head hard enough to leave a deep indent in it. The wall, not her head.

“Yield?”

“Agh,” she growled, rubbing her leg, glaring at me. “Thought you said throwing your sword was flashy and useless.”

“That’s why I’m the Bergentruckung,” I said, grinning cheerfully.

She grunted, and nodded, reaching down, tugging the steel- painful, but not lethal- rapier out of her leg. She breathed flame across her own sword, pressing it against the wound, and the smell of burning skin filled the air, making me and Polly wince. She held out the rapier, hilt-first. “It is good. You may go forth.” She stood up, leaning against the wall as the two of us walked forward, following at a modest pace behind us.

“So,” said Polly, an eyebrow raised. “Are all the challenges going to be like that?”

“No, no. Maybe the Winter guardian, but otherwise…”

Polly frowned over her shoulder. “Hey, big girl. Where exactly did you get hired from? Like, what’s the hiring qualifications for becoming a guardian of a legendary weapon?”

“There was a tournament,” said the Rakshasa. “I triumphed over every other.”

“Sort of a Faerie employment program,” I said. “It’s a very dull job to guard something like this. Usually it’s well-compensated, so as to encourage the most capable.” I frowned, as I sniffed the air. “Do you smell lavender?”

We entered a large, open mound. The ceiling and the floor had both collapsed, and here there was an open space above us, letting the sunlight shine through into a sinkhole, filled to the brim with water. In the water lounged a young woman, very pretty, and extremely nude. Long blonde hair surrounded her, long enough to reach her feet if it were straight, stretching out in the water rather like a very broad . The water was clear as a window, and did absolutely nothing to hide her body. I smiled brightly.

“So, are the guardians usually all women?” Polly asked, not so much jealously as- Well, if I were honest with myself, it was likely jealousy. We had not been in a relationship for some time, but it is hard not to fall back into old habits when around old lovers. Hers was one of the few intimate relationships I’d ever had which did not ended with a spirited attempt to murder me.

“Coincidence, I’m sure,” I murmured. “Fairy, how may I prove my worthiness as the Bergentruckung?”

“Fair knight, a true king is marked by his generosity. By his skill. And by his heart. Lay with me.”

There was a shocked silence for several seconds, before the Rakshasa spoke up. “Mugwort, you are supposed to challenge him in a poetry contest.”

“Oh, you bloody traitor,” growled the fairy girl, brushing her hair back with an annoyed look. “Three years I’ve been in here, talking with you about how much I need a shag, and the first man to come by is a looker with a codpiece like a pumpkin, and you queer the deal!” She leaned back in the water, muttering something shockingly impolite. “Yes, yes, it’s a bloody poetry contest. Seeing that you have a creative spirit, the understanding of beauty and aesthetics, all of those necessary things for a true king. Of course, you could also prove yourself through the sewing of-”

“I, ah, prepared for a poetry contest, your ladyship,” I said, as kindly as I could. “And I am currently on the rebound.”

It was chilly in the chamber. The fairy was not apparently bothered by the fact that the water she was lounging in was close to freezing, or the occasional snowflakes blown by the wind into the cenote, as she watched me. I reached into my pocket, and drew out the note. The gift I’d asked for from Jenny. The other complication to my relationship with Polly.

“If I may?” I asked, smiling warmly. The fairy nodded, her expression interested. I took a deep breath, conjuring up the image in my head. Trying to get it just right.

Rain drops fall upon

The words filling the air around me, as I thought of her face. The image of her, standing upon the salt flats of Bolivia, as the rains fell around us, the world turned into a perfect mirror, the sky and the land indistinguishable.

A face turned towards heaven

The chill of her body, undead yet strangely tender, clinging to my back, and the sensation as the warmth slowly spread through her body. As it seemed to redouble, the two of us keeping each other warm in the midst of the winter.

Light that doesn’t burn.

There was a soft silence in the air, as the three women stared at me, three very different expressions on their faces. I coughed, and closed the note, slipping it into my pocket.

“It is not my work, but I judged it worthy.”

“Of course,” said Mugwort, nodding quickly as she stood up, conjuring a terrycloth robe out of nowhere. “That was very well-read. The poem itself- Well, perhaps a little bit trite, but the way you read it… Very lovely.”

“Oh,” I said, frowning. “I thought it was very beautiful.”

Mugwort wavered a hand. “I’m willing to give it to you on the strength of the performance, but I think that says more about you than whoever wrote it. Clearly you cared about the one who gave it to you.”

Polly was quiet for a moment as I set down the corridor again, the two of us walking down the chalk corridor. “Jenny. So… What happened between you two while I was away?”

“We… went on a quest together.”

She breathed in sharply.

“Just a small one! It wasn’t like that. She’s a trusted ally of Atina, she is trying to learn more about her powers, to become a protector of those she cares about. It’s not a romantic thing.”

“Did you make a pact with her?”

“It- It was a desperate moment, facing darkness unending, a knight-”

“Oh, Alfred.” She sighed softly, shaking her head. “I’m afraid there’s no such thing as a platonic quest-partner.”

“It’s not like that,” I said, frowning. “We will never be together.”

She paused, and looked over at me, an eyebrow raised. “I was teasing you, Alfred.”

“I know.”

“Do you… really want to be with her?”

“No,” I said, even more firmly. “She is a good, kind young woman, and a good friend. I am glad I had the chance to protect her, and I am more glad that her faith in us was rewarded. I think that she is capable, and deserves the power that she has been given, which is a rare state of affairs. I have no interest in a romantic relationship with her, Polly. For any number of reasons.”

Like Guinevere.

Like Mordred.

I had experienced many relationships. I was the son of a very powerful Faerie queen. I had a substantial degree of personal power. I was given to powerful emotions. I was largely regarded to have an epic destiny, which was the equivalent of an inexhaustible trust fund, a medical doctorate, and a twelve-inch manhood for a Faerie. I had- well, ‘taken advantage of my position’ made it sound very wrong, but I had taken advantage of my position. Enjoyed flings with Faerie women more than once. I had fallen in love hard, thought the best of them, and when things ended, I was amicable about it. They often were not, but I could forgive that.

Faeries were about those kinds of relationships. Brief, intense, dropped once the fun was gone. I could rely on them to lose interest in me, to be happy to take the excuse.

Jenny had lost her boyfriend, had him murdered, and found her hold on the world torn away, dropped into a place full of monsters. Atina had done the lion’s share to save her, but…

She had told me, not long before I left for England, about the impact I had made on her. I’d never considered it before, but I had saved her life when she was helpless. I had fought for her, and in a very visceral way. Something like that- It could be a fishhook. If I let it, it could bind the two of us together. She would cling to me for dear life, to keep her head above water, to guard her. She could be desperate for a white knight. And I…

I would love to be a glorious, noble protector for someone. To be the constant safeguard. To fight to save them, to always be there for them, to protect their heart from every ache. Loneliness, pain, hunger, fear. Even death.

But legend did not care for small goals. For small lives. As a great man said, the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world. Jenny would find her love, and I trusted her judgment enough to know she’d choose right.

I shook my head. Gloomy thoughts. Jenny had been right, they did not suit me. I grinned. “Come. The Fall challenge awaits.”

I entered the second chamber. This one was dark, and the illusory torch burned low. I frowned at that. Someone able to dim the illusion would have to be powerful. I stepped forward-

“You,” I said, stunned, my eyes widening. “Impossible.”

The Half-Faced Man sat in a lawn chair on the far side of me, smiling. Mugwort frowned, her eyes glancing from me, to the Half-Faced Man, and back again. “You know him? He just started, a week ago. The last champion had to leave, said something about an emergency, and he volunteered- well, more forced himself into the position.”

“Come now, Alfred. You’re a fine man, and quite knowledgeable, but we both know that your knowledge of riddles and secrets isn’t anything like Atina’s.”

“Oh, don’t even start with me.” I glowered. “Is this to fuck with me? To gain some secret knowledge? Or is it one of your big, elaborate plans.”

“Can’t it be all three? Come on, Alfred, I got a nice local brew.” He held up a bottle of a stout in a dark glass bottle.

“No. Come on, this is serious- Polly!”

“What? This looks good,” she said, taking the bottle from the Half-faced Man and flicking the top off with one thumb. She knocked back a long swig of it, grinning, her red hair shining behind her. It was wet. “Alfred, are you seriously scared of this guy? I’m getting a lot of intimidation off of you.”

I grabbed one of the beers, and pried the cap off with the edge of my broadsword, glowering at him. I took a sip, and the fact that it tasted smooth and rich as a summer day really only made me more annoyed. How the hell would he even know what my tastes in beer were?

“So. Three questions. You only have to answer one of them.” He smiled, and stood up. “I’ll whisper them in your ear.”

I stood straight as he approached me. That freaky blue skin, the way his joints moved, like he had twice as many joints as a human should, giving his movements a disturbing, flowing quality that I knew was intentional on his part. He leaned in close, that strange masquerade mask hanging over his face. His voice was low, little more than a hum.

“One of three questions. First… What is the threat that you seek to stop? Second… Which of the women will you choose? And third… What color are Atina’s favorite panties?”

I stared at him. “Why would I even know that? More importantly, why would you want to know that?”

“You spend a lot of time there. You might have caught a glimpse. I know she doesn’t have… the most shame, when she should.” The Half-Faced Man grinned. “And because which question you choose to answer is, in itself, an answer.”

I crossed my arms, and lowered my head, frowning. “Very well. A great threat is coming to Avalon. One that could break the world in two. I was told… I was told that there would be a wailing, and a gnashing.”

“Of teeth?” asked The Half-Faced Man, head tilted quizzically.

“Is there some other kind?” I sighed. “That is my quest. To save Avalon,”

“Well. Not a complete answer, but, good enough for me.” The Half-Faced Man picked up his lawn chair, folded it under one arm, and took the case of beers with the other hand. “Let’s go see the sword.”

“Well, one more challenge,” I said. “Winter.”

“Ah, yes.” The Half-Faced Man followed a half pace behind me, Polly just to his side, the other two following with bemused expressions. “You know, around equatorial countries, there aren’t four seasonal courts- Instead, the fairies have a cycle of Rainy and Dry. During the Dry, they act according to stereotype, following their stories directly, and during the Rainy period, they subvert those expectations- Some even become entirely different kinds of Fae after the end of their Rainy period, their behavior and feeding permanently changed.”

“Is that where you’re from, then?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“An excellent question. Isn’t it interesting how the different weather alters them, though? And those fairies who move to a court there find themselves prone to the same instability. Strange, isn’t it?”

“Not really. Stories,” I said.

“Yes. But why are stories so powerful?” asked the Half-Faced Man. He sighed. “Well, some Bergentruckung you are, not having the answers to such a question.”

I raised a hand, shushing him, as we approached the third chamber. I drew the broad sword, and stepped forward, every sense sharpened to a razor’s edge. I closed my eyes, and stepped through the opening. The air inside was still, and bitter cold.

“You can open your eyes,” said a soft voice. “I am not that kind of Winter Fairy.”

I opened my eyes. An old man sat in the room, wearing a very fine robe of red threads. His hair and his beard were both a brilliant red, matching the robe. He was also Chinese, but after the Rakshasa and the Half-Faced Man, I’d gotten the distinct impression that the local fairy courts had been bringing in some ringers.

“You’re not going to stab me, are you?” asked the old man.

“No,” I said, smiling pleasantly as I sheathed the sword. “Not as long as you don’t try to kill me, anyway.”

“Not directly,” said the old man, and he chuckled dryly. “But, well, I’ve had more than one man blame me for their death.” He stroked his beard, and plucked a red string. “My name is Yue Xia Laoren. Do you know anything of me?”

“I am afraid that my education is primarily Western,” I confessed.

“The god of love,” said the Half-Faced Man. “The one who ties together predestined couples. The one who makes love blossom.”

“Till the end of your days,” said Yue Xia Laoren, smiling warmly. “A fate both pleasant, and… sad. After all, humans are nothing if they are not creatures of regrets. But a King needs a Queen and an Heir. Something to pass him on to the future, and someone to call him back. You need to be tied to claim the blade. I’ll give you a choice, though. The woman who shall be tied to you, till your death.”

My heart felt leaden in my chest. It’s amazing how these things sneak up on you. “Ah… I am sorry, your honor.” I bowed my head. “I am not sure that I know anyone who would accept being tied. There are many women who I’ve loved, but to tie them to me, to bind them, without their permission…”

“Ah, hell,” murmured Polly. “I’ll do it.”

I looked over to the side at her, an eyebrow raised. “Are you sure? It’s-”

“Are you sure?” she asked, sharply. “I’m doing the same thing, here. Offering a lot.”

I was quiet for a moment. “I don’t know if this is the same thing as love. You could wind up regretting it.”

“Hell. I do things I’ll regret all the time.” She smiled brightly. “Come on.”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

Atina would kill me if she knew I was doing this. But she wasn’t a spontaneous person. I’d always known that love was about a rash action, taken in the heat of the moment, that you spent the rest of your life justifying.

Oh, that was a little too cynical to be me speaking. If I’m honest, I just expected to die before too long; And Polly was someone I trusted. She knew how stories went. She knew what was involved. She’d make a good Guinevere, and I wouldn’t hold a bit of it against her.

“Hmmm,” said the Half-Faced Man, his expression dour.

“What, man?” I asked, a little more annoyed than was entirely fair.

“Oh, nothing, nothing. Just… Well, I didn’t see that coming.” he frowned. “I really had you pegged to end up with the other girl.”

“Well, what fun would there be in life if you knew how everything was going to work out?” I asked, as Yue Xia Laoren tossed the thread into the air. I waited for a moment. “So- May we continue?”

“The sword is yours, Bergentruckung,” said the old man. The six of us strode forward, into the final chamber.

This one was a true king’s resting place. Thirteen skeletal warriors, clad in the rusted remnants of their armor, stood guard around the perimeter of the room. Dust lay thick on the ground, undisturbed, and our footprints were the first signs of anything having entered the room in centuries. In the center, the old Bergentruckung lay on his back atop a stone altar, still looking almost like he could be alive, though his chest did not move. His hands were clasped together around a gorgeous white silk scabbard, accented with silver frameworks. There was a warm, almost holy feeling to the room, and I walked closer, closing my eyes, and stared at his face. There was something so familiar about those young features. He didn’t really look anything like me- hair dark and curly instead of blonde, face more angular, a bit scrawnier- But he still could have been my brother. It was that kind of strange, almost inexplicable sense.

“Shouldn’t there be a handle in that scabbard?”

There was quite a lot of shouting and confusion at that point. Finding that the legendary sword Excalibur was missing would do that to you. I approached the stand as recriminations threw between the four.

“How do we know that he didn’t steal it, hmmm?” said Mugwort, pointing at the Half-Faced Man.

“I know him. And while he may be untrustworthy, prone to acts of magpie theft, and otherwise the kind of being I would blame in a heartbeat for this, I know one thing about the Half-Faced Man.” I pointed towards the altar, where a pair of small circles had been drawn in the dust by the old Bergentruckung’s head. A three was just beneath the two circles, on its side. “He does not sign his crimes with a cat’s face.”

“What does this mean?” asked Polly, concerned.

“Oh. The sword- well, I am sorry it’s not here. But the sword wasn’t really what I had my eye on. And it tells us something about the thief. They didn’t know what they were doing.” I rested my hands on the corpse’s. They slowly loosened, and I lifted the scabbard, studying it. “The scabbard was the true source of power. A sword, no matter how powerful, is only so useful to a king. But a scabbard that saves its holder from death- that is a true treasure.” I gently hooked the silver filigree into my belt. “We have what I sought.”

I smiled at Polly, and felt my heart flutter. I knew it was magic, the power of the red thread or of the Bergentruckung. But that didn’t mean I had to reject it.

“Let’s hurry home. We can be there in time for Christmas.”

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