Rémi gazed up at the sky from where he lay in the grass at the edge of the Forêt de la Marignan. His hands were clasped behind his head, and he hummed lazily, adding his own music to that of the birds and the frogs and the crickets of the field.
His black linen shirt was open at the neck, exposing deeply tanned skin. The shirt was neatly tucked into brown breeches. He wore a thick suede vest that matched his tall brown boots. His black hair reached his shoulders, and when the sun shone on it, it almost looked blue. People often commented on it, as it was such a rare color in this region of Frénau.
Vaçon was just on the other side of the nearby bluff, a village of small huts like many others along the Frénau countryside. If he'd felt like sitting up at that moment, he would have seen several small tendrils of smoke rising from the very tops of the chimneys in the village. Every once in a while he heard peals of laughter from his neighbors' children as they played their childish games, games he'd played not so long ago.
He heard a twig snap behind him, and he jumped up from his spot, expecting trouble.
"It is only me, Rémi."
Rémi breathed a sigh of relief at the sound of his older brother's voice, and a moment later, Léon appeared from the shadows of the forest, a grin on his handsome face. His floppy, wide-brimmed hat sat tilted over his curly brown hair, and his dark eyes twinkled mischievously from the shadow beneath it. His lambskin jacket fell to his thighs above black breeches and boots. His ruffled white shirt hung open at the neck, and part of it hung loose at the bottom, leading Rémi to believe his brother had just been with a woman and had hurriedly dressed to meet him.
"You'll never become a hero of the people if you startle that easily," Léon said.
"Don't sneak up on me like that, and I won't be startled," Rémi shot back.
Léon reached up and ruffled Rémi's hair. He grinned, then lowered his hand. "Are you ready for your next lesson?"
"Whenever you are." Rémi picked up the sword in its scabbard that had been lying beside him. He strapped it to his back, then withdrew the long blade and took a defensive stance.
Léon studied him with a critical eye, moving around him so he could see his brother from every angle. "Hm—not bad. I can tell you've been working on your defensive stance." He stepped back. "Show me your moves."
Rémi raised the sword and swung it as if he were striking out at an enemy, then he brought the sword up as if to block. Then he jabbed and parried, all the while making sure his footwork matched up."
"Very good, little brother. I can see you've been working hard on your technique. You have a real knack for this. I really think you've found your calling."
"You think so?" Rémi asked, a huge grin on his face.
"Absolutely. You still have a lot to learn, of course, but you're a quick study. You'll be an expert by the time you're twenty, I've no doubt." Léon looked straight into Rémi's dark eyes. "That is, as long as you keep practicing."
"Practice helps," Rémi agreed. "But I also need a sparring partner. Spar with me?"
"I thought you'd never ask," Léon said with a wink. He removed his jacket and strapped his own sword to his back, then withdrew it from its scabbard. He held the blade in front of him as if pointing at his brother. "Whenever you're ready, kid."
Rémi stood with his feet about shoulders' width apart and waited for his brother to strike. Léon had taught him that you should never make the first move unless you had a really good reason, but that you should always draw first blood. Of course, he and Léon never drew blood on each other. At the moment, Léon was too good for Rémi to even think about that, but he liked trying anyway.
Léon made the first move, stepping in with a jab, then a parry. Rémi blocked and swung his blade across, just missing Léon's abdomen.
"Close call," Léon said in surprise. "Either I'm slipping, or you're greatly improving."
Rémi said nothing, but he didn't have to. The smile on his tanned face said plenty.
They sparred for a while, and after some time, Léon lowered his sword.
"You know, I think you're ready to learn some dirty fighting."
"Dirty fighting?" Rémi asked, intrigued.
Léon motioned for Rémi to come closer. "Come here, and I'll show you."
Rémi stepped nearer and suddenly found himself in a headlock from which he couldn't break free. A leg wrapped around his, and in the next moment, he was on the ground with Léon on top of him, his blade at his throat. Rémi had dropped his own blade in the scuffle.
He glared up at Léon. "What was that for?"
"That was for nearly gutting me," Léon said with a laugh. He stood and reached down to offer Rémi a hand up.
Rémi smacked it away and rose to his feet on his own. He was less than pleased.
"Come," Léon said, a smile still lingering beneath his brunette mustache. He grabbed his hat and put it on, then picked up his jacket. "Let's talk."
Rémi hesitated. He didn't trust Léon not to try something else. "About what?"
"Just come. I give you my word, there will be no more dirty fighting."
Léon walked away, and after a few moments of hesitation, Rémi finally went after him.
"So, that was dirty fighting?" he asked when he finally caught up.
"Yes, but that's not what I want to talk about."
Léon glanced at Rémi. "You know, I've been thinking you're still a kid, but look at you. You're as tall as me. And you've got a girl—well, sort of." He gave Rémi a light punch on the arm. "You're all grown up. If only Dad could see you now."
"I hardly remember him," Rémi said with a frown. "What was he like?"
"He was hardworking, honorable, devoted to Mom and us."
"I know he was a blacksmith, like you. Was he happy?"
"I think he was. He always said a man should do what he loves or his life will hold little value."
"Do you think that's true?"
"I do," Léon nodded.
"Do you like blacksmithing?"
Léon let out a little laugh. "Contrary to what I let the rest of the world believe, well—I'll let you in on a little secret, brother." He wrapped an arm around Rémi's shoulders and leaned in. When he spoke, his voice was barely more than a whisper. "While I can't say I love it, I can emphatically say that I don't mind it, which is actually very different from loving it. But I like what I get out of it. And I don't mean the flowing wealth of the people in the surrounding villages."
"Then what do you like about it?"
Léon stepped away and drew his sword, snapping his heels together as he did so. He held it up in front of his face. "Do you see this blade?" he asked, studying it like one would study a beautiful work of art.
"I made this with my own two hands. I care for it with my own two hands. If it breaks, I'll either repair it or make another..."
"With your own two hands," Rémi said. "I think I understand."
"So, I suppose I have something on my mind. Something I want to propose to you."
Léon slipped his sword back in its scabbard. "How would you like to learn how to make your own sword? I can teach you in exchange for your helping me out around the forge."
Rémi thought about it for a moment. "How long? Would I have to make it my life's work?"
"Not at all. Just for a little while—say, until you figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life? And you'll make a little money, too. What do you say? Are you interested?"
"Sure. I want to make a sword as good as that," Rémi said, jerking his chin toward Léon's sword, which was, indeed, a very fine work of art. "Better, even."
Léon smiled, a twinkle in his eye. "If you put your mind to it, you can do anything you want, little brother."
Léon wrapped his arm around Rémi's shoulders again, and they turned and headed back toward Vaçon. As they walked, Rémi smiled at his brother.
"What?" Léon asked. He swiped at his nose and whiskered chin. "Have I got dirt on my face?"
"No, nothing like that," Rémi laughed, shaking his head. "I was just thinking. I don't remember much about dad, but I have a feeling you're a lot like him."
Léon nodded. "I don't think there's anyone great enough in this world to fill his shoes. That being said, I can aspire to be a man he'd be proud of, and so can you."
"I bet he's sitting up in heaven right now looking down on us with a smile. I bet he's already proud of you, Léon."
"And of you, my boy," Léon said, kissing Rémi on the very top of his head. "And for what it's worth, I'm proud of you."
Rémi didn't know how to respond to that, but inside, he suddenly felt lighter than air. His brother was proud of him. What more did he need?
Well, besides food, clothing, shelter, and the lovely Nicole Charbonnier?