Odo and Eleanor did not set out to find their destiny. At best, they were hoping for eels.
‘I’ve never seen the river so low before,’ said Odo as he climbed down the banks and began to trudge through the thick, reddish mud. He’d walked along and waded in the same stretch of the Silverrun for what felt like every single day of his life. Like his days, the river was always much the same. But now, there was a lot more mud and a lot less river.
‘Father says it never has been so low,’ said Eleanor absently. She was already a few steps ahead of him – but that was no surprise. She was always a few steps ahead of him, he felt. Odo watched as his best friend stopped and looked intently at one of the puddles next to the thin, knee-deep stream that was all that remained of the once-rushing river.
Before Odo could say anything else, she lunged with her spear and lifted out a writhing eel firmly stuck on two of its three sharp prongs.
‘Got it!’ she cried.
‘I noticed,’ said Odo. He was impressed, but it was more fun to make Eleanor think he wasn’t. He took the snapping eel off the spear, his strong fingers holding it firmly despite its slime. Then he put it in the wicker basket he held and strapped the lid back on. There were already four eels inside awaiting the fifth.
‘When the river is this low, it’s very bad for the mill,’ Odo went on. ‘There’s not enough water to turn the wheel. We’re grinding with the small millstone now, turning it by hand.’
‘I wondered why you sneaked away,’ said Eleanor. She headed downstream. ‘Let’s go to Dragonfoot Hole. All the eels will be gathering there, I reckon.’
‘I didn’t sneak away!’ protested Odo. He was the seventh child of the village miller – and even if there had been seventy more kids in the family, there would always be work to do. ‘I did my share this morning!’
‘I know – you’re very good,’ said Eleanor with a grin, in a way that made good almost sound like an insult. Her father was the village apothecary, and though she did help him with some things, he by and large let her do what she liked. What Eleanor liked the most was looking for adventure. In the village of Lenburh, this meant spearing eels, shooting rabbits with her bow, or scrumping apples from the bad-tempered Wicstun family. Which was fun for about three minutes . . . Eleanor wanted more. Her mother had been a soldier knighted on the field of her last battle, and Eleanor planned to follow in her footsteps, if she could find someone to train her. In the becoming a knight part, not the dying in battle.
Odo didn’t know what he wanted to be. He would be thirteen next spring, and at that age most people were already doing whatever they would be doing for the rest of their lives. He had to decide soon if he wanted to apprentice with someone instead of his mother, the miller.
‘Do you reckon we’ll all have to move?’ he asked Eleanor, eyeing the shallows and the mud. ‘I mean if the water dries up completely?’
‘Yep!’ said Eleanor brightly, spearing another eel. She quite liked the idea of heading off into the unknown.
‘The river will come back, though,’ said Odo, basketing the eel without even thinking about it. ‘It’s been raining lately.’
‘But isn’t that what makes it all so strange?’ Eleanor asked as she peered around the edges of the biggest sinkhole on the river. ‘It’s been raining and the river is still drying up. Look, what’s that?’
Odo looked. Dragonfoot Hole was a deep depression that exactly resembled the imprint of a mighty clawed foot. Odo had never seen it so clearly before. Normally he would have had to dive down to the river bottom holding his breath, but now the water hardly flowed over his large bare feet.
Odo could see three eels swimming just below the surface where Eleanor was pointing. Then he caught the faint gleam of something shiny sticking out of the muddy riverbed.
‘Metal,’ he said. ‘Probably an old horseshoe or something. I’ll get it.’
He knelt and reached down into the water.
Eleanor could make out a long silver shape through the murk. ‘Doesn’t look like a horseshoe,’ she commented.
‘Well, I know that now. Ow!’ He pulled his hand back and looked at the thin line of blood on his finger. ‘It’s sharp!’
Eleanor knew she should tend to her best friend’s wound. But she couldn’t take her eyes off what they’d found.
‘It’s a sword,’ she said breathlessly. She started to reach for it herself, but Odo grabbed her wrist.
‘Careful!’ he warned. ‘I only just touched the tip of the blade, and look!’
He held up his injured finger, showing Eleanor the cut. A single drop of blood welled up and slid across his flour-stained fingernail, falling into the water above the submerged weapon. For a moment the drop stayed together, then it broke apart and swirled away.
‘Press on it; that’ll stop the bleeding,’ said Eleanor, unimpressed. She’d helped her father sew up many really serious wounds, like last week when Aelbar the farmer had run over his foot with a plough. ‘I’ll just lever this out.’
She reversed her eel-spear, pushed it into the mud under the silvery blade, and heaved down.
The sharp, pointy end of the sword came out of the mud with a loud squelching sound.
‘It’s not even rusty!’ exclaimed Eleanor in wonder. She moved the spear shaft further along, eager to free the rest of the weapon from the mud. ‘Can I have it? You’ve never wanted a sword.’
‘I guess so,’ said Odo. He’d been pressing on his cut finger, but stopped to have a look and see if the cut was still bleeding. It was, and another big drop of blood fell. This time, it didn’t fall in the water. It fell on the tip of the sword and ran down the narrow gutter in the middle of the blade.
The single word was not spoken by either Odo or Eleanor, but by a deep, male voice that was a little scratchy, like it belonged to someone woken from a very deep sleep.
Eleanor and Odo looked around and then at each other. They were alone in Dragonfoot Hole. There was no one standing on the high banks on either side and no one upstream or downstream either, and this was a straight stretch, at least fifty yards of empty river.
The voice was stronger now. More awake. It sounded like it was coming from someone right next to the two children. Someone they couldn’t see.
Odo stepped back and clenched his fists. He was very big for his age, and strong from all his heavy work in the mill.
Eleanor reversed her eel-spear again, holding it ready. She wasn’t big, but she was very, very quick, as the eels knew to their cost.
Odo and Eleanor screamed as the sword erupted out of the water. It shot into the air as if wrenched from the mud by some invisible warrior, and hung there unsupported, water cascading from its golden hilt and sharkskin grip, the sun making the huge emerald in its pommel gleam.
‘Who has woken me from my rest?’ roared the voice.
There was no doubt where that voice was coming from now.
Eleanor struck at the weapon, catching the blade between the prongs of her eel-spear. Twisting, she forced the sword back down into the river with a huge splash.
‘Run, Odo! I’ll try to hold—’
The spear juddered in her hand, moving violently despite her best efforts to keep it still. Odo grabbed hold as well, but that only seemed to make the sword angrier. It suddenly twisted in the water, broke free, and chopped up the shaft of the eel-spear, reducing it to six-inch bits in a flurry of lightning-fast blows.
Eleanor flung the last bit of the spear away and turned to run. Odo threw the basket of eels at the sword, but the sword dodged it easily. It bashed Eleanor with the flat of its blade, knocking her down to the mud, then whisked around in front of Odo, hovering there with its incredibly sharp point a finger-width from the hollow of Odo’s throat.
Odo stood completely still, his eyes wide in terror.
‘Did you wake me from my rest?’ The sword wasn’t shouting now. It almost sounded normal, like someone stopping at the mill to ask Odo when they could get their wheat ground.
‘Um, I’m not . . . not sure,’ said Odo. ‘We were hunting eels and we saw your . . . you . . . shining there . . .’
‘Blood woke me,’ said the sword. ‘The blood of a true knight, for naught else could raise me from my slumber. I have need of such a knight. Whose blood has awoken me?’
Odo knew the answer to this question. And if there was any possible way to get out of giving the sword the answer, he would have. But he had a feeling the sword already knew.
‘Ah, well, I suppose that was my blood,’ said Odo. ‘But I’m not a knight. I’m just one of the miller’s children—’
‘Do you mean to kill us, sword?’ Eleanor interrupted, sitting up in the mud and wiping at her face. Odo sent her an urgent ‘don’t give it ideas’ look, which she ignored.
‘I do not make war upon innocents,’ said the sword, sounding faintly affronted. It backed up a little, still hovering in the air like a huge, shining, and frighteningly dangerous wasp. ‘What is your name, miller’s son?’
‘Odo. And this is my friend Eleanor.’
‘And you are not a knight.’
‘But your blood woke me, and only a true knight’s blood could have done so,’ mused the sword, as though working through a difficult problem.
‘If you say so.’ Odo made a slight gesture with his fingers to Eleanor. She knew this meant run away while the sword’s talking. But she ignored him again, stood up, and faced the sword, her hands on her hips.
‘You’re one of those magic swords, aren’t you?’ Eleanor wasn’t afraid now the sword was just talking, not attacking. ‘Like in the stories. Sir Wulfstan had one called Bright Talon. What’s your name?’
‘Hildebrand Shining Foebiter,’ said the sword proudly. ‘You might know me better as Biter. No doubt you have heard the many stories told of me. More than this so-called Bright Talon, I’m sure.’
Odo and Eleanor exchanged a quick glance. Eleanor gave a slight shrug. She’d never heard of Hildebrand Shining Foebiter, and she was much more interested in old legends than Odo was.
‘We live in a small village,’ said Odo. ‘We don’t get to hear many stories. Uh, can we go now?’
‘No,’ said Biter. ‘I must think. My rest could only have been broken by the taste of a true knight’s blood. Yet you say you are not a true knight. Are you sure?’
‘Yes,’ said Odo. ‘I’m not any sort of knight.’
‘Does it have to be a proper knight?’ Eleanor asked. ‘What if it’s someone who’s going to be a knight one day? The daughter, say, of a knight. Wouldn’t that be enough?’
‘I . . . slept for many years,’ said the sword. ‘My memories are somewhat clouded. But I am sure . . . fairly sure . . . about the detail of the true knight.’
‘Fine.’ Eleanor couldn’t help sounding a little miffed. ‘If you need a “true” knight, there is old Sir Halfdan at the manor. We could take you to him, I suppose.’
‘No,’ said Biter. ‘I can only be woken by a true knight. Yet you are not a knight. This situation cannot be allowed.’
Odo didn’t like the sound of that. ‘Why don’t you just go back to sleep and forget we ever found you—’ he pleaded.
‘Kneel!’ ordered the sword. He rose higher in the air and angled back, as if to strike at Odo’s neck.
‘At least let Eleanor go.’
‘And go too while you’re at it,’ added Eleanor urgently.
‘Kneel, I say!’
Odo knelt down in the mud, babbling.
‘Please, spare Eleanor. It was my fault you got woken up—’
The blade came whistling down, slowed at the last moment, and turned sideways, slapping Odo on the left shoulder. Odo flinched, but the killing blow didn’t fall. Instead, the blade whipped up above his head and then tapped him on the right shoulder.
‘Rise, Sir Odo!’ called out the sword, pulling away and hanging dazzling in the sunlight.
‘Sir . . . what?’
‘Now you are a knight,’ said the sword. ‘All is properly in order.’
‘What?!’ Eleanor cried out, her voice caught high and tremulous in her throat. ‘This is so unfair! I’m the one who wants to be a knight. I’m a better fighter than Odo too.’
‘She is,’ Odo agreed. He started to stand up, then stopped as he realised his legs were shaking and might not hold him. His neck still felt bare and cold where he’d expected the sword to slice.
‘You can be Sir Odo’s squire,’ said Biter to Eleanor, which didn’t make her feel any better at all. ‘Every knight must have a squire. But enough of this chatter. Doubtless I have been awoken to combat great evil or dire threat. Tell me what it is.’
Eleanor helped Odo up. Neither had any idea what to say. Just moments ago they had been hunting eels, and now one of them was a knight and the other a squire . . . and a talking sword had got it completely the wrong way around.
‘You are too afraid even to speak of it,’ Biter pressed. ‘Some fell beast creeps at night and steals children and livestock? A sinister steward in midnight-dark raiment demands tributes beyond endurance? Come, Sir Odo, when you wield Biter you need fear none of these!’
‘It’s not that,’ said Odo. ‘We . . . that is . . . there’s simply no great evil threatening us.’
‘Or dire threat,’ said Eleanor. ‘Least I can’t think of one . . .’
‘There must be something,’ said Biter in an aggrieved voice. ‘Take my hilt, Sir Knight, we will sally forth and essay the matter. Your hand, Sir Odo. To me.’
Odo gingerly held out his open palm. The sword flashed up and around in a circle, the sharkskin grip slapping against the boy’s hand. Odo closed his fingers around it and held the sword away from his body as if it were an actual shark.
‘Hold tighter!’ called Biter. Odo gripped harder and felt even more worried than he had a few moments before.
‘What does “essay the matter” mean?’ Odo said out of the corner of his mouth to Eleanor.
‘Look into things,’ replied Eleanor. And as soon as she said it out loud, she thought, I like the sound of that. Her whole life, she’d been waiting to sally forth. More than anyone else in their town, she was ready to essay matters. All these actions led to a much bigger, brighter, and very attractive word . . .
Immediately, Eleanor’s mood turned surprisingly cheerful, despite the mud all over her and the presence of the magic sword that was straining in Odo’s grip like a dog on a lead.
‘This isn’t good,’ whispered Odo. ‘How am I going to get rid of this sword?’
‘Why would you want to, you big saddle-goose?’ asked Eleanor, her eyes bright. ‘This is an adventure! At last!’
Now Odo didn’t know what scared him more – the bizarre sword in his hand or Eleanor’s even more bizarre enthusiasm.
‘But I don’t want an adventure!’ he protested. ‘Or to be a knight!’
Eleanor slapped him on the back. He took a step that turned into a stumbling run up the riverbank as Biter pulled him forward.
‘But you’ve got both!’ Eleanor called out. Then she laughed and added, ‘Lead on, Sir Odo!’
Odo had no illusions as to who was leading who. The sword pulled him along the path so hard he almost overbalanced, reminding him of the time the rival team of shepherds’ children had almost beaten the miller’s children during the annual tug-of-war competition on the Lenburh green. Then, as now, he felt that at any moment his feet would slip out from under him and deposit him on his backside in front of the whole village.
The first witnesses, it appeared, would be Aaric and Addyson, the unbearable twin sons of Lenburh’s baker.
‘Look here!’ Aaric scoffed, sauntering over. ‘It’s Odd Odo and Eelanor playing soldiers – and they’ve stolen Sir Halfdan’s sword to do it!’
Eleanor flushed in anger and embarrassment. Aaric and Addyson had doughy skin and hair as white as flour – they looked like loaves brought out of the oven too soon – and their favourite occupation was taunting Eleanor and Odo, knowing full well the two friends had been forbidden to fight them.
‘We’re not playing,’ she told them. ‘And that isn’t Sir Halfdan’s sword. It’s . . . he’s Sir Odo’s . . . and he doesn’t take kindly to the likes of you.’
‘Sir who?’ The twins clutched their bellies and howled with laughter. ‘You’d better take that sword back before Sir Halfdan or the reeve sees you with it.’
‘Disrespectful knaves!’ Odo felt the words vibrate up the sword and along his arm even as Biter lunged forward.
Aaric and Addyson fell backward with cries of fright.
‘Odo!’ Aaric shrieked. ‘What are you—?’
The sword slashed the air in front of Aaric’s nose and would have cleaved his skull in half if Odo hadn’t yanked the weapon back with his entire body weight. Setting his heels deep, he kept Biter at bay as the twin bakers stared in shock.
‘No, don’t hurt them!’ Eleanor called out. ‘They’re just stupid, not dangerous.’
If the sword murdered the twins, that would bring their brief adventure to the worst imaginable end. Eleanor and Odo would be outlawed at best, if not hanged from the justice tree on the hill above the village. She wanted to be remembered as a famous knight, not as an infamous murderer of dull-witted baker boys.
Aaric stood up, face red in outrage. ‘You could’ve killed me!’
‘Wait till Da hears about this!’ said Addyson.
‘A knight has a right to defend himself from all forms of mockery,’ said the sword, slicing a figure eight through the air despite Odo’s efforts to keep him grounded. The baker twins retreated a few more steps and looked at each other as they slowly realised Odo wasn’t somehow faking the sword’s voice, and that he was honestly straining to keep the sword back from them.
Biter was a real enchanted sword – and he apparently wanted to kill them.
‘Or herself,’ said Eleanor.
‘And any who fall under his protection,’ added the sword in a magnanimous tone.
‘Or her protection.’
‘We don’t need protection, Biter,’ said Odo. He smiled nastily at the twins. ‘They’re just a nuisance. Like gnats.’
Aaric opened his mouth to utter a cutting retort, but closed it after Addyson pulled at his arm. Neither of them took their eyes off the shining silver sword that quivered in the air, only barely restrained by Odo’s powerful arms.
‘Well, Sir Odo, if they are not your true enemies, let us go find them and dispense justice!’
Biter surged forward, dragging Odo along the path. Aaric and Addyson screamed and bolted back towards the village.
‘Skelpie!’ called Aaric.
‘Murder!’ shouted Addyson. Their cries of protest were plaintive bleats that did not slow them down one jot.
‘That showed them,’ said Eleanor, seeing the possibilities now that shock had turned to amusement. ‘What about Old Master Croft? He yelled at us once for stealing his fennel even though we didn’t steal any.’
‘Lead me to this Old Master Croft,’ ordered Biter. ‘He will trouble you no more!’
‘No, no,’ said Odo, struggling in vain to control the sword. Biter was swinging from side to side, reacting excitedly to anything that moved, which included Pickles the ginger cat, who had stopped by on her way to inspect a den of field mice and a branch swaying in the wind. Cat, mice, and branch all narrowly avoided being sliced into several pieces.
Meanwhile, Eleanor had years of injustices to make up for. ‘Reeve Gorbold spent our tithes on a blue linen dress with beads for his daughter once, remember?’
‘Sir Halfdan made him pay it all back,’ said Odo patiently. ‘Being beheaded isn’t going to teach him any lessons. Or do us any good.’
‘What about the Wicstuns? They’re too tall anyway.’
‘Yes, take me to the wicked Wicstuns!’
‘Stop it! Both of you!’ The loudness of Odo’s shout startled all three of them. Biter drooped at his side and Eleanor bit her lip. Odo had never shouted at her before, not seriously.
‘Don’t even joke about chopping heads off, Eleanor,’ he said more calmly, although his hands shook with more than just physical exhaustion from trying to control the sword. ‘We have no enemies here, Biter. Just annoying people, and thoughtless ones, but no one who deserves what you want to do to them.’
‘I am no mere executioner’s skewer,’ said the sword sullenly. ‘I am also skilled in the art of poetic justice—’
‘There’s no need for your justice!’ Odo could feel his voice rising again and struggled to keep Biter under control. ‘We have a reeve, and the village moot, and even old Sir Halfdan. If there was a problem, they would take care of it.’
‘Well, there is the river,’ Eleanor pointed out. ‘No one’s taking care of that. If it stops running, there won’t be a village or any people. Annoying, thoughtless, or otherwise.’
‘The river isn’t flowing?’ he said. ‘It must be blocked by something.’
‘Probably just a rockfall upstream.’ Odo had heard his mother tell his father this more than once. ‘It’ll wash away in the spring rains.’
But the sword wasn’t listening to him.
‘Blocked by something . . . or someone! Sir Odo, it is no coincidence that you woke me this day.’
‘Sure, because no one would even have seen you at the bottom of the river—’
‘Our quest lies before us. We must seize the chance to save the helpless villagers of . . . ah . . .’
‘Lenburh,’ Eleanor supplied.
‘Lenburh! It is our destiny. Sir Odo, let us depart this minute!’
The sword dragged Odo several feet along the path again, but this time Odo really dug his heels into the ground and bent his knees. He was getting the hang of it now. The trick was not to let Biter get him moving. Once he was off balance the sword had all the power. ‘We can’t just leave without telling anyone!’
‘Without telling anyone what?’ asked a voice from behind them.
Eleanor spun around. Her father, Symon, was looking at them with a rather bemused expression on his face, his overflowing gathering basket evidence he was returning from the huge clump of nettles that grew around the standing stone further along the path.
‘We’re going on an adventure!’ she said.
‘I see. Right now?’
‘I hope not—’ Odo started to say even as Biter swung him around to present his shining blade in Symon’s face.
‘State your name and allegiance!’
‘Ah, I thought I’d heard someone else,’ said Symon. He did not seem unduly perturbed and did not back away. ‘An enchanted sword. It has been a long time—’
‘State your name and allegiance!’
‘But you are the visitor here. Is the obligation not yours to introduce yourself first, according to custom?’
‘Er, yes, I suppose so,’ said the sword. ‘Please pardon me, for I have been long asleep. I am Hildebrand Shining Foebiter and I think I used to also be called the Scourge of . . . something or other . . . something quite terrible, I’m sure . . .’
Eleanor’s father bowed, losing some of the nettles from his basket in the process.
‘My name is Symon. I am healer, herbalist, and apothecary of Lenburh, and my allegiance first and foremost lies with my daughter, Eleanor.’
‘Squire Eleanor,’ said Biter. ‘Now in service to Sir Odo.’
Symon looked at Odo and raised one eyebrow. Odo shrugged unhappily.
‘We found Biter in Dragonfoot Hole,’ Eleanor explained excitedly. ‘He knighted Odo and now he’s taking us to find out what’s happened to the river upstream!’
‘I see.’ Symon set his basket down and cupped his chin thoughtfully.
‘It is a noble quest, Master Symon,’ Biter said. ‘Though we may perish, we must not quail.’
‘I think that two children would perish more easily than an enchanted sword,’ said Symon. ‘But it is true someone should investigate what is happening with the river. Is there no one more suitable?’
‘They may be young, but Sir Odo found me and awoke me. The mighty quest is his,’ said Biter. ‘By the same token, your daughter is small but seems valiant, and my knight must have a squire.’
‘Don’t try to stop me,’ said Eleanor mulishly.
‘Oh, I can see there’s little point in me doing that,’ Symon said with a glance at Eleanor that she couldn’t read. Was he angry or sad? Or both at once? ‘Minds have been made up, plans made . . . You have made plans, I assume? Gathered supplies . . . a map at least?’
‘Um, not yet,’ Eleanor admitted. ‘That’s . . . that’s exactly what we were going to do next.’
‘It’s all happened so quickly,’ said Odo. He gave Symon a beseeching look, hoping that the herbalist could somehow make the sword let them go so they could get back to their ordinary lives.
‘I know what knights are like,’ Symon said, putting a hand on Eleanor’s shoulder. ‘Always rushing off on quests, never thinking of the things they might have forgotten. But there’s no stopping them, not once they’ve set their hearts on a particular path. And you have your mother’s heart, Eleanor.’
Definitely sad, she thought. For an instant her resolve wavered.
‘Promise me,’ Symon said, looking away from her, ‘that my daughter will come to no harm.’
‘Sir Odo will keep your daughter safe,’ Biter replied.
Odo gulped. Symon wasn’t seriously thinking about letting Eleanor go, was he?
Symon looked from the sword to Sir Odo and back again.
‘Swear on it.’
‘A knight’s word is—’
‘I’m asking you, not the boy.’ There was sudden steel in Symon’s voice. ‘Swear on it. By your blade.’
‘By my blade!’ Biter came upright in a salute, painfully wrenching Odo’s wrists.
‘Good.’ Symon reached out and ruffled Eleanor’s hair. It was blond and cut short like his, so stray strands wouldn’t foul his potions. ‘You have my blessing.’
She beamed up at him, even though her eyes were suddenly full of tears. Where had they come from? Eleanor hadn’t cried since her mother’s vigil, when she and her father had sat alone overnight before the procession through Lenburh the next morning. For all that she had dreamed of leaving the village, it did not truly strike her until now that it would mean leaving him too.
‘Thank you, Father,’ she said.
‘Come, Sir Odo and Squire Eleanor,’ said Symon. ‘You have much to do, starting with getting that mud off you both.’
When Odo and Eleanor stumble upon an ancient sword in a river outside their village, something very unexpected happens... the sword starts to talk! Much to Odo's dismay he discovers that he's awoken a famous enchanted blade called Biter, and thus has instantly become a knight. Eleanor would love to become a knight - but she's not the one with the sword. Unearthing Biter is only the start of their troubles; soon boy, girl and sword must depart on a noble quest to save their kingdom from threats - in both human and dragon form.
** To purchase the novel, move your curser mid-bottom page and click through on the 'Buy' button. Published by Allen & Unwin.