Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine

The Crimson Blade

An eleven chapter saga of swordplay and sorcery
Chris Gordon

about the author

Previously: Wanderer Kael comes upon a city besieged by strange beast men. After fighting his way through a throng of the besiegers, Kael is finally admitted inside the city's walls where he falls unconscious from his wounds...

CHAPTER TWO:  "The Tree of All Seasons"

He awoke to find himself in a soft bed in a darkened room, his wounds cleaned and dressed, his clothes stripped from him. The sound of rain drummed against the windows behind closed curtains, which let only the dullest of illumination into the room, enough though for him to survey his surroundings. A stone fireplace contained a crackling blaze, casting it’s own eerie glow into the room.

He tossed the blankets that covered him aside, the heat beneath them stifling and, naked as the day he was born, save for the dressings on his wounds, stalked across the room to a large ornate dresser, where he hoped he would find his clothes, his body a mass of aches and pains from the battle only... hours? before. How long had he slept?

He touched his shoulder gingerly, the pain less intense than it had been. He flexed it a little, happily noting that it still moved as it should, then opened the doors of the dresser. His clothes were absent, it was empty but for a few old books. He picked one up and examined it. The writing on the spine was unfamiliar to him. His father had taught him many spoken languages, but few written ones-that was something he would have to do for himself.

As he stared uncomprehendingly at the meaningless script upon the pages, a soft giggle alerted him to another person’s presence in the room. He turned around and met the gaze of a girl of a similar age to himself, olive skinned and clad in a simple grey woollen dress, her raven black locks flowing freely behind her. A wry smile was on her lips, her dark eyes sparkling mischievously as she looked him up and down.

‘Although you may find it strange outlander, here it is our custom to put clothes on before we start wandering around an unlocked room.’ The girl’s voice was melodious and playful.

Suddenly aware of his nakedness and his attraction to his new visitor, Kael uncharacteristically attempted to protect his modesty with the open book he was holding. The girl chuckled quietly as she looked him up and down, a naked man, bandages covering his many wounds from a terrible battle, trying to hide himself from her scrutiny.

‘You can’t hide anything from me that I didn’t see earlier,’ she said, teasing him. Kael realised that it must have been her who had cleaned and dressed his wounds.

‘Lie back down,’ she said firmly, putting her arm around his broad back and guiding him over to the bed. ‘You’re still weak.’

Kael allowed himself to be guided by the small girl. As easy as it would have been to resist her efforts, he felt strangely compelled to do her bidding, though he still found the spur to voice one small protest.

‘I feel fine, girl!’

She ignored him and, as he sat on the bed, leaning against the headboard, she pulled the blankets up to his chest.

‘First you get some food inside you, then I will decide whether or not you feel fine.’

By the tone of her voice, Kael realised he had little choice in the matter.

She opened the curtains, and grey light streamed in through the rain-lashed windows. She turned as if to leave, but a call from Kael made her stop and look back at him.

‘I doubt not that you already know who I am girl, but who are you, and where am I?’

‘My name is Cara,’ she said gently. ‘And you are a guest in my father, Tarran’s inn, ‘The Tree of all Seasons’, in the town of Varl. Rest a while longer Kael, and I will bring you a bite to eat.’

When Kael said nothing further she turned and left the room, leaving the nomad alone once more with only his own thoughts for company. As she disappeared, Kael realised how lightly and quietly she moved, and now understood how she had entered the room earlier and had stood watching him, undetected until her giggle had given her away.

Cara was not gone long however, and on her return she brought a tray loaded with a bowl of soup and crusty bread, which she laid on Kael’s lap. He tucked into the food with gusto, and she sat on the edge of the bed, watching her “patient” eat.

‘Do you treat all your guests this well, bringing them their meals in bed?’ Kael asked, his mouth full of soup and bread.

‘Only those who single-handedly take on an entire Thrait raiding party,’ she said. ‘Olver and Siman told me you fought well, Kael.’

‘You know those two?’ he asked.

‘They are my cousins-my father’s side. That was how you came to be brought here. You are fortunate I have a knowledge of medicine and herbs, or you may have bled to death from that wound in your shoulder. It was foolish to pull the arrow free yourself.’

Kael shrugged indifferently as he gulped another spoonful of soup down.

‘When they brought you to me, you were already unconscious. Neither Olver, Siman or I could wake you up, so I patched you up as best I could and let you rest. Nobody knew whether you would make it.’

‘How long did I sleep?’ he asked her.

‘You stirred briefly yesterday, but soon drifted off again. You’ve been asleep for nearly two days. Why do you think you’re so hungry?’

‘How do you know that I don’t always eat like this, girl.?’ he said, wolfing down the last of the bread.

She studied  him, marvelling at his regained vitality.

‘Think yourself lucky that there was somewhere for my cousins to bring you, there are few people in Varl who will trust a stranger at the moment.’

‘People like Tarabus you mean?’

She nodded.

‘People just like Tarabus. Don’t be too harsh in your judgement of him, he has lost a lot recently, as have many others.’

‘To this... Kelmar?’

‘Yes-Kelmar. Tarabus lost his whole family when...’ she suddenly seemed hesitant. ‘I really shouldn’t say any more for the moment. Olver and Siman want to talk with you themselves.’

‘They are here?’

‘They are on their way by now, I should think. They left word that they wanted to be informed as soon as you awoke. My father sent his cellar boy to find them as soon as I told him you had risen.’

Cara stood and lifted the now-empty tray from him.

‘I’ll fetch your clothes, you no doubt have many questions that you want answering.’

He nodded.

‘What’s more, I suspect that if I don’t fetch you your clothes, you’re just as likely to wrap yourself in your bedding and go and find them yourself,’ she said as she went through the door.

She was gone but a moment, then was back, a pile of folded clothes in her arms. He was pleased to note that his sword lay across the top of her burden, the leather belt wrapped around it.

‘Your own clothes were ruined,’ she said, laying the pile on a chair. ‘I’ve brought you some of my father’s things, hopefully they’ll fit you.’ His leather boots she set down on the floor next to the bed.

She did not leave, but instead she went to the door and closed it. The mischievous sparkle was back in her eyes.

‘Aren’t you going to get dressed then?’ she asked him, doubtless noticing the effect she was having on him, and was obviously seeing it as a game.

Kael felt ridiculous. He was actually embarrassed to dress in front of this girl. What did he find so difficult? He had lain naked with many a woman before, what was so different about this? Then he realised. He wasn’t in control. She was.

Cara smiled, looked at him, then the clothes questioningly. She was clearly enjoying the sport. She laughed, throwing her head back with delight.

‘Has the mighty warrior gone shy with me again?’ she said, in a voice like she would address an infant.

Kael glared at her, trying not to look embarrassed. He breathed a sigh of relief as she nodded and left the room, all the while still smiling with delight.

He dressed quickly, throwing on the clean breeches and shirt that Cara had left him. They were both comfortable, fitting almost as well as his own had. Then he slipped his boots on - now thankfully dry - and stamped his feet on the floor to get them comfortable, the newly-polished leather soft and supple. Finally he strapped on his sword belt and adjusted the lacquered leather scabbard so that it hung comfortably against his left hip. He lifted the Katana free and hefted it before him, it’s long, gently curving blade gleaming in the dull light. Its cutting edge had been honed to a razor, the blood line cleaned of the life fluids of the Thrait. Someone had taken considerable care in cleaning, sharpening and oiling it. As he slid it back into its scabbard, Cara returned.

She inspected him carefully, walking around him, tugging at his clothes here and there as she went, testing their fit. With his bandaged wounds and multitude of scrapes hidden by the loose white shirt and black breeches, he was an impressive figure- tall, proud, and defiant under her scrutiny. There was no trace of his earlier modesty.

‘You don’t clean up bad for a savage,’ she said, sporting a noticeable grin. ‘Come. Your visitors are waiting.’

She led him from his room into a corridor with several doors on either side, some of which stood open, revealing empty rooms similar to his own. These she passed and led him through a plain door which opened into a dimly lit common room, flanked on one side by a serving area around which stood barrels of ale and flasks of wine. A few customers sat at plain wooden tables, quaffing mugs of the ale or wine, or gnawing on joints carved from the large hunk of meat that was roasting over a roaring fire, and was kept turning on its spit by a youthful looking servant. The air was thick with the smell of the roasting meat and of the smoke from the fire. Olver and Siman were lounging at a table in a corner by the door, mugs in front of them, and as they saw him they called him over with a hearty shout. Several of the other patrons watched his passage across the room warily, marking him as an outsider.

‘Cara! A mug of ale and a plate of meat for our friend here!’ Olver shouted.

Cara nodded and hurried off, seemingly taking no offence at the demand. Although she was their cousin, it seemed the two men treated her as though she were their younger sister.

‘It is good to see you well again, Kael,’ Siman said, as the Nomad seated himself next to him.

‘Aye, it is at that,’ Olver affirmed from the opposite side of the table. ‘For a while we believed you would not be with us for long.’

‘I for one, had no such worries,’ Kael said. ‘I can remember nothing between getting on that cart and waking up a short while ago.’

Cara arrived at the table, and leaning over him, she placed the plate of meat and mug of ale in front of him. He detected a subtle hint of a delicate perfume about her which he had not noticed before, and he could feel the soft roundness of her curves against his back as she reached over him. He wondered if she were doing it on purpose. He would not be surprised at all if she were. Nor would it bother him. She retired to another part of the common room, where she attended to another patron.

‘We have something for you,’ Olver said, as Kael picked up the greasy joint of meat in his fingers and began to gnaw at it. Siman groped under the table and produced Kael’s longbow and quiver of arrows, both of which were wrapped in his cloak.

‘We retrieved your saddle and bridle as well,’ said Siman. ‘They’re in the stables at the back of the inn. Both men looked particularly pleased with themselves.

‘What of my horse? I note that you say nothing of that.’

Olver and Siman exchanged worried looks, first at each other , then at the plate in front of the younger man. Kael stopped chewing, realising what was coming next.

‘You’re eating it,’ they said together. Then, noticing that Kael had paused in his meal, Siman added;

‘The Thrait cut its throat as it bolted for the trees. It was already dead when we retrieved it. If it were not for the fact that we are so short of meat in the city...  we never would have...’ He fell silent as he saw Kael contemplating the piece of horseflesh in his hands.

Kael knew the horse was already dead, that the Thrait had killed it. Dead, it was worth no more to him than a dead pig or cow. It made more sense that these people should make a meal from it, than it should lie rotting outside the city walls. He resumed his chewing, waving a hand dismissively, these people had probably saved his life, whatever the cause of his injuries in the first place, and if they were short of food, then sacrificing the carcass of his dead horse was a  small price to pay for their hospitality. Licking his fingers clean, he said;

‘You say you are short of meat. Why? I gather it has something to do with this Kelmar fellow?’

‘That is what we wish to talk about. Finish your ale and walk with us.’

Kael swilled down the beer in the mug, a strong brew with a hoppy flavour. He put the mug down and wiped froth from his lips. A shadow fell across the table.

All three men looked up as a huge, bear-like man, bigger than Kael himself, loomed over them. Round faced and round bellied, his face half covered by a huge black beard, he stood there, wiping his ham hock sized hands on the front of his leather apron. With arms and legs like the limbs of some age-old oak, Kael had no doubt that this man were as strong as he looked.

Olver and Siman smiled as they realised who their visitor was.

‘Uncle!’ they cried in unison.

‘Kael, this is Tarran, Cara’s father and owner of  ‘The Tree of all seasons.’ Olver told him.

The big man grinned broadly as, his long whiskers spreading wide. He held out one massive hand for Kael to shake. The young warrior stood, and, his own large hand dwarfed by this bear of a man’s massive paw, shook it firmly. The other man, though much older than he, had a grip like iron, his strength undiminished by time.

‘Greetings friend, welcome, welcome. My nephews here told me of your bravery yesterday. It almost makes me wish I’d been there myself.’ Kael found himself wondering how this man had become an innkeeper. He did not doubt  that he had an exciting past. No innkeeper, no matter how many barrels he lifted, ever had strength like that. It was no great effort to see where Cara had inherited her self confidence from.

‘You are welcome to stay here as long as you are in the city, my young friend. Any enemy of the Thrait is a friend of mine.’

As Tarran released Kael’s hand and rushed back to whatever business he was involved in, Kael realised that, during the man’s brief introduction, he hadn’t said a single word in return. The man’s sheer presence had shocked him into silence, and he had departed so abruptly, he hadn’t had time to regain his wits.

‘Tarran has been wanting to congratulate you ever since you arrived, Kael. He’s a strange man, but if he takes a liking to you, you’ll always have a friend in him,’ said Siman.

‘And did he take a liking to me?’ Kael asked, looking over his shoulder as he watched the big innkeeper disappear through a door into what he presumed was the kitchen. ‘He didn’t give me time to speak.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ Olver said. ‘It’s his way. While the inn is open, he rushes around like a madman. Speak to him when this place is empty, you’ll see a different person. You’ll get along fine.’

‘I’ll take you at your word. Let us finish our parley.’

The other two men grabbed their helmets from the floor and the group stood. Kael wrapped his cloak about himself, and took up his bow and Quiver. With a call of goodbye to Cara, the small group stepped from the inn and out into the rain.

Next: Chapter Three: A Tale of Woe

back to Chapter One: The City

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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.)