Jack's eyes were burning. His vision blurred. Sweat and unshed tears mingled like salty rain. He blinked.
Zaknafein stood motionless, the half-drow's blade between Jack's shin and the weapon he'd fumbled.
Jack stared down. It would've hit my leg …
Zaknafein took the sword from him. "You've never even held a blade, have you?"
Jack swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. "Nothing longer than a bread knife."
Zaknafein stared at him, his gaze as unreadable as a book written in High Elvish.
Stupid, Jack chided himself. Bread knife? Where had that come from?
Then Zak cracked a smile. He stepped back and raised both swords out to the sides.
Jack tensed. If this was his death, he'd meet it with his eyes open.
But Zaknafein dipped a bow and executed … not him, but some kind of sword salute. "Well. Maybe I could teach you the basics sometime."
Jack's mouth dropped open. "What happened to wanting to fight me? To give me what I deserve?"
Zak shrugged, a half smile on his face. "If your hands are so blistered that you can't even lift a sword, I'd say you have been punished." He strode toward the weapons cupboard. "Besides," he added over his shoulder, "I'm pretty sure I won."
Jack stared at him. Hands too blistered. Yeah, that was it. Let the kid think that. Not that the sword was too damn heavy for him. Heavier than he'd ever expected. He stared at the younger boy's back. "Was—was that a normal sword?"
Zak clicked the lock on the cupboard and appraised him with a grin. His purple eyes seemed to glint in the torchlight. "It's what I use."
"Oh." Jack shuffled his feet. "Look, Zak. I—I should never have … I mean, there in the stable. I mean, at school …"
Zaknafein crossed his arms slowly. "Yes?"
"I'm tryin' to say I'm sorry!"
The half-drow tipped his head. "Good."
Just that. Good. Not "Apology accepted." Not "I forgive you." Jack grimaced. His stomach felt like it was full of acid. "I am sorry, Zak. Really. Your father, he—he made me realize that I was doing the same thing as—the same thing as—" His voice cracked, and he looked away. "As my old man," he growled at last around the lump in his throat. "And I don't ever want to be like him." He stared at the rocky floor, gray like the weathered boards of the barn back home. The barn. Who was taking care of the cow?
A firm hand gripped his shoulder, and Jack flinched, grabbed it, turned. He rounded his back and threw his father over his shoulder as he'd always imagined he'd someday do.
Not his father. Zaknafein. Jack swore and reached down a hand to pull the kid up. "Sorry, Za—"
Zak grabbed his proffered hand and yanked him down, sweeping Jack's legs out from under him.
"Oof!" Jack landed on the smaller boy and grabbed a fistful of his red hair. He yanked it hard. "What was that for?" he demanded.
Zak twisted to the side and swung a fist out wildly. It connected with Jack's nose. "You pull hair like my sister!"
Jack threw his head back, drops of blood flying from his nose. He faked a left jab and landed a right cross. "Yeah? Well, you punch like a girl."
They both jumped to their feet, circling warily.
Zak clamped a hand to his left eye and then dropped it just as quickly. "Gnome blast it."
Jack squinted at him. "What kinda curse is that?"
Zak huffed a laugh. "Heard the dwarves say it."
Jack stopped circling. "Sounds like something ol' Stonearm would say." He lowered his fists.
Zak grinned, breathing hard. "I know some drow curses too, that my dad let slip." Then he narrowed his eyes. "Why'd you attack me?"
Jack's eyebrows climbed. "You attacked me. I was just defending myself." He wiped his bloody nose.
Zak squinted at him. His left eye was swelling shut. "I never attacked you."
"You did. You grabbed my shoulder."
"That?" The younger boy's eyes widened. "I was trying to help you feel better. You know, like when someone puts their hand on your shoulder to give you strength, kind of thing? To let you know they care?"
Jack frowned at him. "That's what you …? I … No one touches me except to hurt me."
Zak met his frown with a deeper one. Then he shook his head. "Not anymore."
The tension in Jack's shoulders eased. Both boys relaxed their stances, and Jack cocked his head to the side. "You can't fight worth beans, you know." His mouth twitched.
Zak glared at him with his good eye. "And you can't even hold a sword. I could have killed you."
"Yeah," Jack conceded. "About that—thanks for not killing me."
Zaknafein cracked a smile of his own.
"And thanks for saving my shin there too."
Zak smirked. "You're welcome."
Jack wiped the blood from his nose again and sighed. "Tell you what. You teach me fencing or whatever you call it, and I'll teach you to fight."
Zak's smile widened. "Deal. But I'll tell you what I want. You stay out of the way when I come here to visit my grandpa. No skulking around either."
Jack raised his hands, palms out. "Deal. My room's so far into the mines, I can barely find my way to the latrine anyway, let alone your grandfather's living room."
Zak laughed. "You'll get it sorted." Then his face sobered. "How come you wanted a ring or something anyway? Just to get me in trouble?"
Jack shook his head and kicked the ground. "To get outta Larch Glen. Away from him. Somewhere safe."
"Away from your father?"
Jack nodded. "Figured I needed enough gold to take me to Mirabar or somewhere far away. Then maybe I'd get a job in a store or whatnot. But I'd need gold to get there—and to get food on the way."
Zaknafein nodded slowly.
"Then I ran into your grandfather. Literally." Jack smirked and shook his head. "Stayin' here, where there are dwarves who are kindly …" The lump was back in his throat. "Well, anyway, King Bruenor and Mr. Do'Urden are gonna talk to my—to him." Somehow he couldn't bring himself to say father. "Hope he leaves me be. Or leaves! At least I'll be safe here."
Zak nodded seriously. "You will."
Then the door burst open.