The town of Hathenford came into view soon after the strange incident on the road. The Rushwater Valley broadened, the rugged mountains biting up further and further away, enshrouded in a soft sunset fog. Bigger, broader-leaved trees grew along the banks, which now whispered instead of gurgled.
As they approached the ford, a brawny man in his middle twenties came up to them, shaking his purse.
"Evening, folk," he said, in a slightly different dialect. "Gal at your services...es....es."
"Evenin'," said Ax roughly, continuing to ride, but the man placed a hand on the horse's chest.
"You never been down these parts before, matey?" Gal said, raising his eyebrows.
"Many years ago," said Ax. "Why, have times changed?"
"You need to pay me to cross this here ford," said Gal gruffly.
"Why? Cos I'm the ruddy maintainerer, that's why! Ye don't think this here ford looks after itself, surely? Nah, it's not a dear fare, but this be the only crossing point for fifty miles either stream. Nearest is Bottom Bridge but they don't charge, crazy people ..."
Alright, alright! How much we owe yeh?"
"Just a copper. I'm thinkin' of increasing it actually ... gotta find some way of payin' for me ale."
"'Ere, you ain't heard of anyone bein' - forcibly expelled from Hathenford, have you?"
"Forcibly expelled?" said Gal sharply, with half a glance at Will's concealed grin. "Is that supposed to be your idea of a joke?"
"Whatever floats your boat," Ax returned smoothly. "Oh - well ..." He half-glanced at the ford. Will's smile broadened.
"You mean a vagrant got kicked out? You met him on the road?"
"Aye, it was a funny place for him to drop by, actually."
Will couldn't keep his face straight any longer. His smirk turned into a quiet snigger. Gal stared at him.
"Listen, I'll add another copper to yeh fare if I think yeh're takin' the piss!" Gal said indignantly. "Get down off your high horse, why don't you?"
"Is that the best you could come up with?" Ax chortled. He flicked a copper at Gal, which hit him in the eye, and Ax turned and led the way across the stony embankment. The Rushwater stretched out wide at this point and the horses only sank knee-deep into the water, which was so clear that Gal's embankment of stones was clearly visible beneath the bubbling surface.
On the other side was the town, a little wooden cluster nestled in a group of low foothills. The thatched roofs glowed warmly in the sunset.
"Alright then, we made it," said Will quietly, as they rode into the town, catching the casual eye of a few early punters outside a tavern. "Where is this bloke you're so matey with?"
"I'm actually not too sure," said Ax. "You might have heard of him - everyone calls him Bald, ever heard -?
"Best go and ask in the tavern then."
They dismounted and tied their horses to the fence. Ax wanted to leave Will with the horses (he was shooting the punters some apprehensive looks) but Will was loath to wait outside like a good boy and miss the fun.
The tavern was crowded, hot and smoky. A cockpit was being staked out in the corner, surrounded by a band of straggly enthusiasts. Will caught a glimpse of the two birds being prepared for their fight - razor-sharp blades were being attached to their feet and beaks. Will knew that by the end of the night, however, the straw-covered floor would be covered in much more than the roosters' blood.
Axbrand approached the barman furtively. He was clearly a seasoned soul and knew when someone was seeking a private word. He led them aside and said, "What can I get ya?"
A bit o' booze and banter, if it pleases yeh," said Ax.
"Haha, my favourite answer," said the barman. "You from round these parts?"
"Aye, just journeyed from Bottom Bridge in search of -"
"Bottom Bridge!" crowed the barman loudly. "We haven't had punters from there for years! No-one sees the need to pay us a visit 'nymore. I'm Ned."
"Ax. And my travelling companion, Will."
"And what be you doin' in Hathenford, then?"
"We're looking for a man known to most as Bald, if he be sowin' the same seed after all these years."
"Well, I'm 'fraid you won't find Bald 'nymore," said Ned darkly. "He popped his clogs, see. Not more'n a few days ago."
Ax and Will exchanged glances.
"I'm sorry to hear that. How did he pass?"
"Murdered, by all accounts. His missus found him the other day with a knife in his gut, offal all over the walls ..."
They lapsed into casual conversation while Ax and Will finished their drinks, then they excused themselves with thanks.
"What now, then?"
"We're going to have to talk to his widow," said Ax grimly. "Not a pleasant thing to do, believe me, so don't look at me like that - but summat tells me that that old bard 'oo fell outta the sky be up to no good. You don't just drop into the road suddenly, right in front of two travellers who'd be the only one for miles ..."
"Was he Gifted, like me?"
"How am I supposed to know, boy?" said Axbrand loudly. "And keep your voice down, people don't take kindly to - OI!"
They had just left the tavern, to see their horses tied to a fence. Ax was yelling at a man running down the street, a prize (no doubt from their saddlebags) clutched in his hands.
"Ax, calm down, he only -"
But then Will's eyes strayed to his horse. Something was missing.
The Sword had been hung on the saddle strap. And it was gone.