The trumpet sounded.
Erik wiped his hands on his apron. He was doing little real work since finishing his morning chores, merely banking the fire so he would not have to restart a cold forge should there be new work later in the day. He considered that unlikely, as everyone in the town would be lingering in the square after the Baron's arrival, but horses were perverse creatures who threw shoes at the least opportune moment, and wagons broke down at the height of inconvenience. Or so his five years of assisting the blacksmith had taught him. He glanced at where Tyndal lay sleeping, his arm wrapped lovingly around a jug of harsh brandy. He had begun drinking just after breakfast, "hoisting a few to the Baron's health," he claimed. He had fallen asleep sometime in the last hour while Erik finished the smith's work for him. Fortunately, there was little the boy couldn't do, he being large for his age and an old hand at compensating for the smith's shortcomings.
As Erik finished covering the coals with ashes, he could hear his mother calling from the kitchen. He ignored her demand that he hurry; there was more than enough time. There was no need to rush: the Baron would not have reached the edge of the town yet. The trumpet announced his approach, not his arrival.
Erik rarely considered his appearance, but he knew today was going to thrust him into the forefront of public scrutiny, and he felt he should attempt to look respectable. With that thought, he paused to remove his apron, carefully hung it on a peg, then plunged his arms into a nearby bucket of water. Rubbing furiously, heremoved most of the black soot and dirt, then splashed water on his face. Grabbing a large clean cloth off a pile of rags used for polishing steel, he dried himself, removing what the water hadn't through friction.
In the dancing surface of the water barrel he considered his broken reflection: a pair of intense blue eyes under a deep brow, a high forehead from which shoulder-length blond hair swept back. No one today would doubt that he was his father's son. His nose was more his mother's, but his jaw and the broad grin that came when he smiled were the mirror image of his father's. But where his father had been a slender man, Erik was not. A narrow waist was his only heritage from his father. He had his maternal grandfather's massive shoulders and arms, built up through working at the forge since his tenth birthday. Erik's hands could bend iron or break walnuts. His legs were also powerful, from supporting plow horses who leaned on the smith while he cut, filed, and shod their hooves, or from helping to lift carts when replacing broken wheels.
Erik ran his hand over his chin, feeling the stubble. Blond as a man could get, he had to shave only every third day or so, for his beard was light. But he knew his mother would insist on him looking his best today. He quickly hurried to his pallet behind the forge, taking care not to disturb the smith, and fetched his razor and mirror. A cold shave was not his idea of pleasure, but far less irritating than his mother would be should she decide to send him back for the razor. He wet his face again and started scraping. When he was done, he looked at himself one more time in the shimmering water.
No woman would ever call Erik handsome: his features were large, almost coarse, from the lantern jaw to the broad forehead; but he possessed an open, honest look that men found reassuring and women would come to admire once they got used to his almost brutish appearance. At fifteen years of age, he was already the size of a man, and his strength was approaching the smith's; no boy could best him at wrestling, and few tried anymore. Hands that could be clumsy when helping set platters and mugs in the common room were sure and adroit when working in the forge.
Again his mother's voice cut through the otherwise quiet morning, demanding he come inside now. He rolled down his sleeves as he left the smithy, a small building placed hard against the outside rear wall of the livery. Circling the barn, he came into sight of the kitchen. As he passed the open stable door, he glanced at those horses left in his care. Three travelers were guesting with his master, and their mounts were quietly eating hay. The fourth horse was lying up from an injury and she neighed a greeting at Erik. He couldn't help but smile; in the weeks he had been tending her she had come to expect his midmorning visits, as he trotted her out to see how she mended.
"I'll be back to visit later, girl," he called softly to her.
The tone of the horse's snort revealed her less than enthusiastic response. Despite his age, Erik was one of the best handlers of horses in the region surrounding Darkmoor, and had earned the reputation of being something of a miracle worker. Most owners would have put down the injured mare, but Owen Greylock, the Baron's Swordmaster, valued her highly. He judged it a prudent risk to put her into Erik's care, for if he could make her sound enough to breed, a fine foal or two would be worth the trouble. Erik was determined to make her sound enough to ride again.
Erik saw his mother at the rear door of the Inn of the Pintail's kitchen, her face a mask of resolve. A small woman of steely strength and determination, Freida had been pretty once, though hard work and the world's cares had taken their toll.