The day was hot and both horse and rider were fed up with the other. The horse danced along the dirt path, tossing its head slightly to loosen the grip of its rider so that it might run. The young, finely clad boy sitting astride the great beast would have none of it. The horse, large and powerful, brown with a single white sock, tossed its head again and the boy, much too small for the horse, tugged on the reins. Hard.
With an outraged whinny, the horse reared, pawing at the air. The rider slipped off the great saddle and fell to the ground, dust clouds springing up around him. He glared up at the horse as he stood and nursed his bruises and pride. His hair was a mousy brown and he had the fine features of a nobleman, his slight frame clad in green silk and velvet.
"If you cannot keep your seat, you should not be riding," a deep voice said, tones sharp with disdain. The speaker was the boy's father, a powerful man also wearing finery in a deep blue and astride a black gelding that flicked its ears at the spirited young horse that had thrown its rider. "Get up and back on the horse or you shall walk the remainder of the way to Kyper."
The young boy glared up at the horse again and moved to mount, the stirrups nearly at his head. He reached up with grasping fingers to try and claw his way back onto the mount when a third voice spoke.
"Actually, my lord, the horse would have thrown your son no matter what he did. One of the shoes is made wrong." The words caused the nobleman and boy to whirl around and face a lean youth with short black hair and fair features. The youth was skinny, obviously from malnourishment and wore a pair of brown breeches and coarse grey shirt that bespoke his station and hung on his frame loosely. The youth, no more than sixteen years of age, was beautiful and looked as if he had been born of faeries. No matter the appearance of the youth, he had dared to contradict a nobleman. He would be punished.
"Are you a stableboy to know such things?" the nobleman asked harshly, whirling his horse around to ride up beside the lad.
To his surprise, the lad shook his head, "No, and I don't pretend to be any good with horses. I'm a blacksmith apprentice and I know when a shoe is made wrong." The nobleman looked closer at the youth and saw the bright green eyes staring up at him with honesty and a wall of steel that bespoke a hidden strength. The youth had obviously seen more than was his fair share in life and yet still was bright, cheerful and curious. "I can fix it, if you want. I haven't got a fire, but I've got a hammer that should do just as well."
"What is you name, lad?" the nobleman asked, tone softening slightly but giving no leeway to the youth. As far as he was concerned, this faerie-child could just move on.
"Folks call me Crow, my lord-" the lad said, furrowing his brows and looking up at the nobleman in question.
"Duke of Westmont," he replied. "Boyd Garner, Duke of Westmont. This is my son, Thomas."
"My lord duke," Crow said, bowing as was only proper. "Would you like me to fix the shoe?"
The Duke snorted but waved his hand in assent and Crow set down his pack, metal clinking within. He pulled out a fairly large hammer and stuck it in his belt, moving to the horse that grazed contentedly along the side of the path. With skill, Crow lifted a hoof and pried off the shoe with his bare hands, an unexpected show of strength from the skinny lad. The baggy shirt hid much of the boy's muscle.
As Crow worked, pounding away at the shoe with great force, the Duke talked, curious about this strange peasant. "Where are you from and who is your master?"
"I lived out by Hotun and my master-" his eyes clouded for a moment before becoming clear, "was ol' Sythfeld. He died and the new smith decided that he didn't want an apprentice. So I set out for Barem."
The Duke laughed suddenly and boisterously, causing Crow to halt in his work. "Crow, you passed Barem nearly twenty miles back. Kyper's only a mile further along this road."
"Oh," Crow said, furrowing his brows. He picked up the shoe, no longer bent and awkward and fitted it back to the hoof of the horse, using the hammer to pound in the nails. "That should do you, I think."
The boy, Thomas, angry at being forgotten in favour of this peasant, huffed indignantly and clawed his way back to the top of the horse, only making the brown snort in annoyance. Crow didn't move to help, seeing that the boy would only take it as a slight. The Duke saw and a thought sprang in his head. "If you are looking for a new master, I know one who is in need of an apprentice. I would be pleased to speak on your behalf, should you wish."
Immediately, Crow brightened and beamed, showing off straight teeth. "That would be wondrous, my lord! Thank you."
The Duke chuckled and started walking his horse forwards. Thomas followed, only slightly behind. Crow took the cue and followed, trotting along at a happy gait. "Isn't Crow a bird?" Thomas drawled angrily.
"Yep. Folks took to calling me that 'cause of my black hair. It stuck, and I've been Crow for ages, now," the pale skinned blacksmith said, ignoring the slight made by Thomas. The boy huffed and rode on in indignant silence as they came upon the capital of the Garth states, Kyper. When the walled city came into view, Crow nearly gasped.
The spires and turrets of the palace loomed over the city, far above the outer walls. There were many people going in and coming out of the city with horses or ox-drawn carts, baskets of food or goods to sell, men, women, knights. The two guards in a plain black tunic over mail with hands resting lightly on swords acknowledged the Duke of Westmont with bows and the nobles walked into the city straight and proud with the fair skinned Crow trotting along behind.
The city itself was made up of a myriad of buildings of all sorts which caught Crow's attention immediately. There was an open-air market to which people flocked, haggling and talking and creating a bit of a ruckus. Crow slowed his pace to try and take in all the goods and it was only when he noticed that the horses were moving away did he run to catch up. Much to the youth's surprise, the Duke did not stop at any of the small foundries along the way, but rather rode straight towards the palace, acknowledging the guards which stood outside the palace gates with little more than a nod. The guards wore heavier armour and the helms on their heads shone in the mid-day sun. Crow followed closer to the two horses and their riders, not wanting to be turned away, even though it seemed that he had been forgotten by the Duke. Not that being forgotten was particularly unusual, especially when it came to nobles.
The palace courtyard was large, large enough to have hosted the open-air market in Kyper and still have room. There were a few buildings on either side of the yard which was paved with cobbled stone. There were kitchens and a path along one side of the palace which led, Crow assumed, to the practice yards. The palace itself was made of beautifully hewn stone and had a large, solid wooden door that allowed entrance. There were windows with actual glass and the sheer size was almost unthinkable.
In astonishment, Crow had completely stopped in the middle of the courtyard, simply gazing about in awe. He heard a chuckle and then, "Crow, come." The lad snapped his attention back to the scenario at hand and spotted the Duke dismounting from his horse over by one the buildings, partly open to the yard with a fire built up within. A forge. A proper forge. And a large one at that. Crow ran over, the pack bouncing on his back as he caught up with the Duke just as a large and dangerous looking man appeared in the forge.
He was tall and broad with a barrel chest and thick legs. His arms were padded with immense muscle and his face was covered in soot and unshaven hair. The cut on the man's head was unruly and uneven, but the grey strands did not degrade from his look. There were numerous burns and scars on the man's hands and he walked with purpose in his stride. Crow immediately admired the smith and did not cower under the man's harsh gaze.
"My lord Duke of Westmont," the man said, bowing slightly. "Master Thomas."
"I have found you an apprentice," the Duke exclaimed happily, grabbing Crow by the shoulder and shoving him forwards. The youth looked at the Duke with confusion at the cheerful tone and then froze as the smith came forwards and stuck his crooked nose into the faerie-child's face.
"I don' need no 'pprentice," he growled, voice low and gravelly. "Specially not a stick."
"Hear me out, Master Smith," the Duke said, haughty tone returned at the slight to his find. "This lad spotted a bent shoe on Thomas' horse without examination and fixed it with only a hammer and his bare hands. He is very skilled."
"I don' need no 'pprentice," the smith repeated, moving away from Crow and into the half-lit shadows of the forge.
"Just give him a trial," the Duke pleaded, exasperated. "Then you can judge for yourself."
The smith shot a glance of indignation towards the Duke and then turned back to Crow who stood in silence, taking in the scene. The smith growled something under his breath and glared as he strode over to a rack of tools. He pulled out a hefty hammer and some tongs and thrust them at Crow who took the tools with a grin and put his pack on the ground. The smith handed a large piece of iron to the lad and glared.
"Make a shoe, big enough for a large gelding, like those others," he said, inclining his head to a pile of mismatched shoes. "I'll see your work when you're done."
Crow wasted no time and took the proffered opportunity. He heated the iron and examined the shoes, finding one to his tastes. After running his hands over the metal piece, he put it back and then pulled the heated metal out of the fire. With power in each stroke, Crow beat the metal flat and bent it into shape before reheating it for the final touches. One more trip into the fire and Crow pulled it out with the tongs, dousing it in a bath of water the smith had next to the fire. When the steam and hissing had abated, Crow pulled the metal out of the water and handed it to the smith, ignoring the heat the metal still contained.
With surprise written in the man's face, he examined the shoe and held it up for inspection with the others in the pile. "Well?" the Duke asked expectantly, folding his arms over the blue finery.
"I'd say that this is the best work I've seen for quite some time. I'll take you on, lad," the smith said, no longer speaking to the Duke but directing his full attention to the boy.
"Wonderful. Do you need funding for the boy? I found him and I feel rather responsible for his well-being," the Duke said, reaching to his belt for a bag of coins. The smith scoffed and shook his head.
"His Majesty allows me funding for when I take a 'pprentice. The boy is no longer your responsibility," the smith growled and the Duke nodded briskly, clapping Crow on the shoulder before hurrying Thomas away from the angry looks of the smith.
Crow stood in the forge, hands stuffed into pockets, studying every inch. The smith, in turn, studied the boy, taking in the lean frame and fair features. There was a hidden strength in the boy, the smith decided. "What' yer name?" he asked, tone somewhat softer now that the Duke had gone.
"Folks call me Crow," he replied easily, a grin lighting up his features. The smith grunted.
"I'm Jek. No Master, no sir, just Jek," the big man said and motioned to Crow's pack, "Pick that up, Crow, and we'll get you set in the house."
Crow did as he was told and followed the smith through the forge to a small door which creaked open to reveal a house. The house wasn't terribly large, but there was enough space for a kitchen and two bedrooms. Jek led Crow to an obviously abandoned room which was full of dust and cobwebs and grunted to the small bed and tub. "This here's yer room. Ye can get water from the pump near the kitchens for a bath. Clean yerself up and then we'll see what we can do with ye. I don't want to see hair nor hid of ye before yer clean, aright, lad?"
"Yessir," Crow replied cheerfully. Jek shot him a glare and Crow's smile didn't waver in the slightest. Sighing the big man led the lad past him into the room and noted that he was almost of a height with his 6' 4''. Crow watched as the smith left and then closed the door, taking a lone wooden chair and propping it against the door. The window, small though it was, overlooked a small plot of garden behind Jek's house and Crow covered that with a cloth before removing the chair and running to fetch water for a bath.
It took three trips before there was enough water for a bath and when it was ready, Crow replaced the chair and peeled off his shit. Underneath, completely wrapped around his torso, were wide strips of cloth. The result was a rather thicker chest than he would have normally. Crow pulled off his breeches to reveal a set of tight, very short shorts. With care, Crow pulled the end of the strip of cloth wrapped around his chest and began to unwind the fabric.
As more and more skin was revealed from his navel upwards, the intricate scars which had been drawn over his skin were revealed, twirling and dancing in a maze. But the most surprising bit was when Crow unwrapped the final bits of cloth near the arms. Crow took a deep breath and the two, small, round breasts that had been bound before heaved with the release. For Crow was no lad. He was a she and she meant to keep that fact hidden as long as it was possible.