Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine presents

The Crimson Blade

An eleven chapter saga of swordplay and sorcery
Chris Gordon

about the author


Kael Gar‘oth guided his horse cautiously along the muddy forest track, slowly so that the animal would be less likely to lose its footing in the treacherous boggy ground which was fast turning into quagmire as the rain continued to fall.

He had spent the cold, damp night in a shallow cave in a rocky outcropping that rose next to the track, drying his sodden clothes as best he could next to a pathetic fire kindled with the few pieces of dry wood he could find within his meagre shelter, over which he also cooked the small rat-like rodents he had caught during the day, his staple diet since he had been in this forest.    Setting off again just after first light, the constant rain had soon soaked through his oiled leather cloak, his efforts to stay dry all futile. His loose breeches and shirt, now wet through, clung to his body like a clammy second skin.

He growled a curse, pulling his hood further over his head and wrapping his cloak tighter about him, a garment which did little to conceal the powerful spread of his shoulders, or the width of his muscular frame. His unstrung longbow and a half-full quiver of arrows lay across the pommel of his saddle next to a bag containing a meagre amount of food and a water skin, filled from a swiftly flowing stream the previous evening. His sword, a fine oriental katana, sat snugly in a lacquered leather scabbard at his hip under his cloak Everything he owned, he had brought with him on this journey.

He was travelling to the distant east, a land where his father had been presented with the katana, where he had been taught the art of the sword by those proud warriors he had met there, skills which in turn he had passed, at least in part, to his son. The finer skills of swordplay were to be taught to him as he grew older, when he would travel to those distant lands with his father.    Alas, that journey together would never take place, his father long since dead, so he had undertaken the journey the journey himself, both to fulfil his father’s wishes and to find out how his father became involved with the warriors of the east in the beginning, a part of the story that had never been revealed to him. Of his final destination he had no idea, but he first intended to head for the great city of Tambulai, said to be the jewel of the Orient.

For now though, he had to get through this accursed forest, where unseen eyes seemed to bore into his back, a feeling that he had not been able to shake for the last few days, though he had seen and heard nothing.

The Mantor forest was huge, the size of a small country, to circumnavigate it would add weeks, perhaps months to his already impossibly long journey, so he had decided to pass through it, using one of the roads of the people that dwelled there. Within the forest were said to be many large settlements, inhabited by people who, according to those with whom Kael had spoken in the surrounding lands, gave a warm welcome to all their visitors, glad for the trade or custom they brought to their communities.

The rain hammered down harder still, kicking up a fine shroud of mist that hung low in the forest like fog, obscuring the details of anything more than a few tens of feet distant. With a brief glimpse at the dark angry clouds overhead, Kael confirmed his feeling that there was likely to be little change in his fortune before the morning was finished. Such knowledge did not help his equally dark mood, and he cursed again as a trickle of water found it’s way past his cloak and down his back. Long hours passed as he made slow progress along the slippery dirt road.

The faintest glimmer of weak sunlight high in the sky told him it was close to midday as the trees suddenly opened up around him into an enormous clearing, hidden until the last moment by the clinging mist that still rose from the ground.

The open space in front of him was huge, the trees of the forest cut neatly back, forming a wall of greenery around a grassy square at least five or six miles long on each side. In the centre of this square, perhaps half a mile distant, rose a great stone-walled city. Without hesitation, Kael guided his mount out onto the lush grass, noticing immediately that the mist was no longer about him, instead it hung back at the tree line, as though it were seeking the shelter and the darkness of the forest canopy.

As he crossed the great swathe of grass, equally wide on the other side of the city that was visible to him, and presumably the other two sides as well, he pondered on the absence of human activity outside the city’s great walls. Usually whole communities of caravans from miles around congregated about any city, as they stayed a while to ply their various trades. Only in times of war would this great clearing be free of activity, empty so that any enemy would be visible long before they arrived, thus preventing any surprise attack. Approaching the great walls, he realised the gates were closed tight, and that there was no sign of life within, yet his savage instincts made him aware of a feeling of being watched by unseen eyes. As he dismounted and lead his horse on foot for the final few yards, he was finally able to appreciate the monstrous scale of the walls that surrounded the forest city.

It was at least five times his own height, and topped with crenellated battlements, through which archers or crossbowmen might pick off their targets in relative safety. Kael suddenly realised how exposed he was, should anyone decide to use him for target practice, and moved in closer to the heavily built gates, each of which looked as though it could withstand any assault that could conceivably be used against it.

‘Ho there!’ he shouted, to attract attention, banging one large balled fist against the wood. No answer was forthcoming, yet still he felt the unseen eyes watching him. Again he hammered a fist against the gates, the sound swallowed by their tremendous size.

‘Is anyone there?’ he shouted up at the walls.

A behelmeted head leant cautiously over the top and eyed him intently.

‘What do you want, stranger?’ The man shouted down to him. The man’s words were strange, yet similar enough to the language of  Mor, which Kael knew, for him to be able to understand him. Two more men appeared at the top of the wall and looked down at him. These were all undoubtedly the gatekeepers.

‘I wish only food and accommodation for a night or two, and stabling for my horse. I was told I might find it in a place such as this.’

‘Then you were told wrong, stranger,’ said one of the other two men curtly. ‘Be on your way!’

Kael pulled back his hood, that they might see his face, and they gasped as they saw his long matted locks that sat atop his head like a nest of black serpents. Was this the “friendly welcome” that he could expect from all of the forest-dweller’s cities?

‘I have been told often of your warm welcome to all visitors,’ he said, hoping to inspire confidence with his openness.

‘These are dark times,’ said the first man, more politely than his companion. ‘These gates open for no-one without good reason.’

‘Is not a weary traveller seeking food and shelter reason enough?’

‘Be on your way!’ the ruder man interrupted.

Kael continued as though the man had not spoken at all.

‘I do not seek charity here, I pay my own way.’ He lifted his cloak aside to show a small moneybag hanging from his belt. He hoped they would not ask to see it’s contents, for it contained no gold, only a solitary silver coin and a handful of coppers. All three men stared suspiciously at the katana in it’s scabbard which had also been brought into view.

The second man spoke again, this time to his two companions.

‘I think he’s one of his men. Just take a look at him.’

‘Who’s men?’ yelled Kael.

‘Tarabus here thinks you may be in the employ of Kelmar,’ the third man said.

‘I know of no such person,’ he said wearily, tiring of this futile exchange.

‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’ Tarabus argued with his two fellows. ‘The dog would hardly admit his ties with him, would he? I say this is a trap, and we should cut him down where he stands!’ He aimed his crossbow at Kael.

The first man reached over and lifted the front of Tarabus’s crossbow back over the parapet.

‘And if he is what he says? You would happily kill an innocent man? You are not the only one to have lost someone in all of this, Tarabus. Keep your head before you do something you later regret.’

Tarabus merely continued to glare at Kael, who stood calmly at the gate waiting for something to happen. He sensed that he was winning the other two over as three men disappeared back over the wall and he heard disjointed snatches of their discussion.

‘He is an outlander, a savage!’ Tarabus’s voice.

‘I believe him, he’s...’

‘I don’t! Send him on his way!’

‘I’m with Olver, we let him in.’

‘No, no, no!’

‘It’s  two against one, Tarabus. Besides, I’m in charge here.’

‘Then be it on your own head, Olver, and your bloody brother’s. I want nothing further to do with it.’

Two of the men leant over the parapet again. Tarabus was not one of them.

‘We are going to let you in, friend, but we must ask you to leave your weapons here with us. They will be returned to you as you leave the city.’

Kael reluctantly nodded his head in agreement. Though he did not relish the thought of being unarmed in a strange city, it was perhaps a price worth paying if it meant somewhere dry and warm to sleep for the night, and a chance to get himself out of his sodden clothes.

His horse whickered nervously as he waited for the great gates to be opened, and he rubbed its nose gently to soothe its fears, rain still coming down in a constant deluge, soaking his dark locks. He heard the sound of heavy bars being lifted from their stays, and the scrape of iron against iron as huge bolts were drawn aside, then one of the gates was swung open a fraction to allow his entry, the two men who had agreed to let him into the city urging him to make haste in getting inside. He had taken no more than a single step when he heard Tarabus’s shout of alarm.

‘It’s a trap! A trap! They come! They come! Close the gates!’ He was pointing towards the tree line.

Kael spun around and stared into the distance. A knot of  riders, perhaps as many as nine or ten had broken from the cover of the trees and were covering the grassy plain with astonishing swiftness. Each of the riders held a lance, a mace, or a sword, and was screaming  a bloody war cry. Most astonishing though were their mounts. Each rider sat atop a large greenish-brown rassaur, its leathery snout full of razor-sharp teeth bared in a snarl, stubby forelimbs waving ineffectively in the air as its large hind legs powered it across the clearing, its tail stretched out behind it as a counter balance. Kael had heard of only one race who had dared to tame these reptilian horrors, yet until now he had never seen a member of that people.

These were the Thrait, a half-human, half-animal race, said to have been made that way by the gods as a punishment for a crime that had been committed by their ancestors. Their skin was greenish-black, and even from this distance he could see their protruding foreheads and distended bottom jaw. Eyes set too close together, a flattened nose, and an ape-like build did nothing to improve their brutish appearance.

All these details Kael noticed in but a fleeting moment, for there was no time to dwell on any of these thoughts. Even before he turned to look, he knew they were closing the gate behind him, and wooden bars and iron bolts alike were being rammed back into place. He was trapped between the city wall and the Thrait, with the possibility of a quarrel through the back from one of the city’s bowmen. If he were to die here, he would sell his life dearly. He swiftly doffed his cloak and pulled out his sword, spreading his feet wide, preparing for the onslaught. Now he did not notice the constant rain, or the wind that bit at his damp clothing, there was only his blade and the approaching enemy.

Even as the first riders and their mounts were skewered by the hail of crossbow bolts and arrows that rained down from the walls, the rest rode over the top of their fallen comrades and were upon him, their guttural war cries ringing terrible in his ears. Those whose mounts had been brought down soon scrambled to their feet and joined their brothers in the attack.

A first rassaur’s lunge he side-stepped, bringing his sword around in one smooth slicing motion to hamstring the beast, whose rider landed awkwardly as his mount toppled, breaking his neck. Another of the Thrait closed in on top of him, his reptilian horror threatening to disembowel  Kael with a slash of its powerful hind claws, which it kicked out at him at its master’s command, who in turn lost his arm to Kael’s sword at the shoulder as he raised his mace to stove in Kael’s skull. More than once, only Kael’s speed and skill, his berserker rage, saved him as he parried a killing blow with his sword, only to deal death in return to those who sought to slay him. His sword was a lightning silver blur as he carved a bloody swathe of destruction through his foes. A myriad of cuts covered his skin as he cheated death time and time again, the press of enemies becoming less intense as their numbers fell, dying by Kael’s sword or by the hail of arrows and quarrels that poured from above.

Kael skewered one attacker’s mount with his katana, only to feel the  sharp pain of a quarrel that pierced his left shoulder, his own blood mixing with the spattered blood of his vanquished foes, his legs buckling underneath him as a wave of pain lanced through him. As he staggered back, a sword flashed through the air where his head had been only moments before, and he span on his heels, his sword slicing through his attacker’s belly, spilling steaming intestines and blood onto the cold damp grass. The Thrait dropped his sword and stared stupidly at Kael with small dark eyes, his expression a mask of surprise, his body seemingly frozen in time. A swift kick from Kael and he was down, lying on his back in the filth of the battle, staring into space with the glazed eyes of the dead.

Kael stood, brandishing his sword before him, his face a grim mask of fury and pain, ready to take on another wave of attackers, but there was no-one left to fight. The bodies of the Thrait lay lifeless on the ground, their surviving steeds feasting on both the corpses of their masters and their slain kin alike. A few of the surviving attackers were retreating across the swathe back to the trees, some mounted, others running as fast as their legs could carry them, holding hands to wounds as they ran.

He stared down at the dead Thrait, a race of which he had heard so much, their tiny malformed ears, the vicious beast like fangs that protruded between thin lips, the fine hair that covered their near-naked bodies. He grinned as he staggered drunkenly between them, his body nearing a point of total collapse from fatigue and blood loss, the domesticated rassaurs quite tame now that they were not being goaded by their masters.

He turned quickly, his sword raised, as he heard noises behind him. The gate swung open, the two guardsmen who had agreed to let him enter hesitantly stepping out to join him, shocked by his grim countenance.

Drenched in blood and gore, clothes slashed into ribbons, his sword still dripping crimson fluid, his matted snake-like locks caked red, the quarrel still buried in his shoulder, surrounded by the bodies of his foe, whose blood stained the grass red, he faced them. He lowered his sword, wiped it on the grass, then re-sheathed it. He laughed quietly, almost to himself.

‘Now do you believe me?’ he said breathlessly.

‘You fight like a madman, my friend, you have done enough to prove your intentions. Perhaps even enough to convince Tarabus.’ said one of the men. He nodded his head toward the parapet where Tarabus still stood, scowling down at Kael. ‘I am Olver, this is my brother, Siman.’ Both men offered hands, which Kael shook, in turn introducing himself.

‘Tarabus is an old, if misguided, friend. Come inside and let us tend to your wounds.’

Kael looked at the arrowhead protruding from the front of his shoulder.

‘Break the end off the shaft,’ he said to Olver, pointing to the part of the arrow that poked from the back of  his shoulder. Olver looked at him with dismay.

‘Do it,’ he said, more insistently. ‘I’d rather it be done now than later by some heavy-handed fool.’

Kael grimaced as Olver bent the shaft and broke it. Olver and Siman were next to grimace as Kael gripped the shaft and pulled it from his flesh, his face contorting with agony, a fresh gout of blood flowing from the wound as the wooden shaft came free. Olver and Siman leapt to support him as he dropped the gory arrow and swayed violently.

‘Thank you, my new friends. Now let us be inside lest I fall down where I am and our visitor’s companions show up and kill me where I lie.’ His vision swam in and out of focus as they led him inside the gates. A small ass-drawn cart drew up and he was helped into this by his two companions. It moved swiftly through the narrow streets, and as fatigue and blood loss overcame him he fell into an undisturbed sleep.

Next: Chapter Two: "The Tree of All Seasons"

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The Crimson Blade is copyright by Chris Gordon. It may not be copied without permission of the author except for purposes of reviews. (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)