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4
The King's Dagger

This blade is enchanted, great-grandfather said. While you bear it, no evil men or Orcs can harm you. She wasn't sure she believed him, but every day she carried it, its slim weight tugging at her belt as she gathered berries or wood, herded the goats, fed the chickens. Although the red damask hilt had faded, the black blade could cut through green wood like butter.

That day, she must have been daydreaming. The men approached so quietly that she heard nothing until a voice said, "Don't be afraid, mistress."

Startled, she whipped out the dagger and whirled to face the threat. Two young men, tall, dark-haired, their weaponless hands raised in a gesture of peace, stood at the garden gate.

"Rangers!" she said, thrusting the blade toward them. "What do you want?"

"A warm place for the night," said one.

She walked toward them, the knife clenched before her. She stopped short of their reach, the fence between them, and stared into their faces. "Why are you here?"

"We mean no harm," the man said. "We will work for your trouble."

They stood patiently, hands raised, unmoved, until the dagger caught the glance of the taller one. His eyes lit in recognition.

She pointed the black blade at his chest, firming her grip. "It is a magic blade," she said warningly, "a gift from the king for our service. Beware, if you intend evil here."

"Many years ago, then," said the man. "A great honor."

The respect in his voice surprised her. "You know of the Old Kings?" she said.

"We do." His steady, clear eyes held her gaze. "And of the power of such blades against harm."

He speaks true, she thought with wonder. He knows. "All right, then," she said, lowering her arm. "You may come in."



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