Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine

The Crimson Blade

An eleven chapter saga of swordplay and sorcery
Chris Gordon

about the author

Previously: Kael awakes in the besieged city and makes friends with the inn keeper's daughter, Cara, and others, but also earns the distrust of others who suspect he is in league with the mysterious Kelmar. Still unsure of what is going, Kael's companions promise answers...


The constant rain and crowded streets had turned the ground underfoot into glutinous mud which sucked at their boots as they tramped through the mire. The air around them was pungent, rotten. Assailing his nostrils was a mix of decay and the stench of burnt timbers from the many blackened, gutted buildings that sat amongst the other, intact structures.

‘We brought you out into the street so that you could see for yourself the position we are in,’ said Olver. ‘Our people are at their wits’ end. The city is overcrowded, and our food supplies dwindle ever smaller. This constant siege by Kelmar is slowly being lost. Any traders that head into the forest are slaughtered by the Thrait, their stocks taken to feed Kelmar’s mercenary army.’

‘You still fail to tell me who this Kelmar is,’ Kael said. ‘Why does one man harry a city so?’

Olver’s expression was grim.

‘Kelmar was once the Principle Citizen of Varl. He had already been the town’s Principle for many years when I , myself was born.’

‘What happened to him that made him hate your townsfolk so?’ Kael asked as he noted the slow walk of a barefooted woman, her legs covered to the knees by the filth of the street, her back bowed as though under a great load, though she carried only a meagre loaf of coarse bread, and a small bowl, half full, of rice.

‘He discovered the Texts of Orta.’

Kael raised an eyebrow. He had heard of these books, as most people had. Orta was a toad-like god of malevolent intent. He delighted in conflict, pleasures of the flesh, and senseless bloodshed. His worshippers appeased him regularly with human sacrifice. The priests of Cer, the most commonly worshipped deity in the western world, had outlawed the worship of this most foul of the minor gods. The Thrait themselves, a popular legend held, had once been ordinary people, who in their foolishness had turned to the worship of Orta, and the Great god Cer had turned them into the monstrosities they are now, and condemned them to live forever in the great wastes of the world. This, many believed, was the reason the Thrait despised humans. They envied the beauty of their faces, and their homes and lands in which they lived, and knowing they could never posses them, sought to destroy them.

The Texts of Orta themselves were a set of religious books, describing the worship of Orta - its rituals, its doctrines, and the rewards that there were for the most fanatical of the god’s devotees. Every temple of Cer possessed in its libraries, copies of these long-outlawed books in order that priests of Cer could learn from them the perils of following a wrong path, and guide their flock against such a grievous sin. The books were kept under guard, along with other forbidden volumes, safely away from the eyes of those other than the priests and their initiates.

As Principle Citizen of Varl, Kelmar would also hold the ‘Seal of the Faith’, an honorary initiateship of Cer that charged him with ensuring that the townsfolk held to the beliefs of Cer. Many towns and cities had such institutions. As holder of the ‘Seal’, it was not inconceivable that he would have access to the forbidden texts in the temple.

‘The Texts corrupted him?’ Kael said.

The books themselves, although full of blasphemous rituals and practices, were not particularly dangerous. The words though, had been written in such a way that their very structure was hypnotic. The sentences and verses that they made had been laid down by a skilled master to have subtle patterns that were said to deliver powerful subliminal suggestions into the mind of all but the strongest reader. The priests of Cer were trained against such attacks as part of their own initiations into the services of the temple. Normal people were not. However Kelmar had obtained access to the forbidden texts, it was clear that they had affected him.

‘Kelmar changed completely,’ Olver said. ‘Even as a child I remember him as a wise leader. He led us through some of our darkest years unscathed. He got us through drought and famine with his leadership. He was just and fair. Every five years, when the time came to choose our Principal Citizen, he would be re-elected by an overwhelming majority. The few people who stood for office against him were all but ignored. I imagine few people would remember even their names.’

Olver’s expression darkened further. Siman stared down at his mud- caked boots as he walked, his attention fixed intently upon them. He doubtless knew the next part of the story well enough already.

‘Three years ago,’ Olver began, then paused momentarily as though steeling himself for what he was about to relate. He inhaled and exhaled deeply. ‘Three years ago, he changed. Out of nowhere came his order to burn the temples of Cer, and to have the priests and their initiates thrown into the city’s prison. His guards carried out his orders within a day. The few people who tried to stop them were beaten or thrown into the prison themselves.’

Kael looked surprised at this revelation.

‘Kelmar’s men stood by him? Even when his orders were madness?’ he asked.

‘The guards of this town swear themselves totally to the Principal. They remain in service until they become too old to perform their duties, or, should a new Principal Citizen be elected, providing they are over fifty, they can to either swear their allegiance to the new principal, or return to normal civilian life. They swear absolute allegiance, the wishes and welfare of the Principal coming before those of even their own family.’

‘Even if the Principal turns into a raving madman? Even if he jeopardises the city’s well-being?’

‘Nobody would expect anything different- it is a matter of honour. The oath is one of blood, our very strongest. To break that oath is worse than any death. It has been that way for centuries.’

Kael nodded. He understood the concept of honour well, even if he thought this arrangement of allegiance was insane.

‘The priests and their initiates did not languish long in prison. As soon as Kelmar had built his new temples on the sites of the old, towering black monstrosities filled with grotesque effigies of Orta and stone altars, he had every last one of them sacrificed to his foul god. Every man, woman and child was forced to attend the temples of Orta at least twice a week, on pain of death. There were those who refused to bow down to the madness, of course, but they became more infrequent as Kelmar dealt them the same fate as he had the priests.

‘Over the next two and a half years it became worse, much worse. Orta demands total obedience from those who bow before him, complete control. Kelmar’s word became absolute law. He recruited new priests for his temples to Orta, a task made all the easier by his offers of great wealth. There are always those who will put their greed over the welfare of their fellow man.

The temples demanded heavy tithes of gold or other precious goods from every citizen- to ‘appease Orta’s wrath’. People were forced to hand over what little money or trinkets they had, be they coins of silver or copper, or golden bangles. With these metals he created more effigies of his accursed toad-god, Orta.

‘He kept taking from us, month after month, until those who were less wealthy could no longer afford to pay. They were dragged off into the forest to work on the construction of his ‘keep’. Many never returned. Our own father was taken, we never saw him again. Our mother died shortly afterwards. She refused to eat, just wasted away to nothing.

‘Farmers could no longer sell their produce freely. Instead, they had to take it to Kelmar’s distribution markets, where Kelmar’s guards would hand out meagre amounts of food to the people while keeping the lion’s share for their master and his acolytes. Other goods too, whether they be weapons or blankets, horses or clothes, all went to the distribution markets. Anyone found keeping a little extra for themselves, food to feed their half-starved families, or making an extra  blanket for a child, anything, the slightest deviation from the new laws, the person would be guaranteed a death sentence on of those filthy black altars.’

Kael heard the waver in Olver’s voice, saw the tremble in his lips as he spoke. To speak of these terrible events was causing him much pain. Anger visibly boiled and seethed deep within him, demanding vengeance.

Olver was silent for a moment, composing himself, getting his emotions under control.

‘How did you finally depose him? You say he now holds your city under siege.’ Kael asked.

‘A religious festival was held, celebrating the glory of Orta. Everyone had to attend. Kelmar himself was to conduct the ceremonies at the largest of the temples. He announced that every child in the city under the age of ten was to be sacrificed- after all what was sacrifice without pain. How it all began, I do not know.

‘I myself, was in the smallest of the temples. The first sacrifice was due when the city bell rang the noon hour. I suspect that some of the townsfolk had arranged everything previously. Kelmar had become too self-confident in his hold over the people, he should have realised that people would not stand by as he slaughtered their children.

As the bell-ringer struck noon, the high priest of the temple bid the first child to be sacrificed to come forward. I knew the same events were being repeated in the other three temples at the same time. I couldn’t believe it was happening. All around me were the sounds of grief and despair. The priest raised his knife, ready to strike it into the heart of the small child lying on the altar before him, and begun the first of his vile incantations.

‘No-one knew who threw the rock, but it hit the priest square in the face, I heard the crunch of his nose as it shattered. He fell in a heap on the floor and dropped his sacrificial dagger. Someone threw something else, one of the small stone statues of Orta, I think. It hit one of the guards and bounced off his breastplate. That was enough. The rest of  us went mad, we were like animals. We rushed at the guards and the priests. They didn’t stand a bloody chance. They were pulled down by sheer weight of numbers, the guard’s weapons counted for naught when the crowd fell on them. Members of the congregation took their swords and slew the priests. The guards were mostly spared, though many were badly beaten by the angry mob.

‘Within minutes the temple was ablaze, and I found myself being dragged towards the doors by the fleeing masses. It was only as I got into the open air, still half-blind and choking, that I saw the clouds of black smoke rising from the other three temples. Only then did I realise  what had happened.’

Olver shook his head slowly and took a deep breath as though reliving the relief he felt at that moment.

‘Kelmar’s body was dragged from the city and staked out in the middle of the clearing outside the walls, barely recognisable as a human being, so badly beaten was it. We left the corpse there for the Yagga birds and the beasts of the forest to have their fill. The next morning, the corpse was gone, presumably dragged into the forest by some unknown beast.

‘His fortress the townspeople laid to waste, freeing his surviving prisoners before setting it afire then razing the empty shell to the ground. So many of our people had died in its construction, we wanted to be rid of the filthy thing.’

‘We wanted no reminder of Kelmar,’ added Siman, before quickly resuming the study of his boots.

‘We thought it was over,’ Olver said quietly. ‘The guards that had survived the rebellion joined us, for they had no-one to fight for, and we all set about rebuilding our lives.’

‘Your people accepted the guards back amongst them?’ Kael said, not believing it. ‘Even after all they had done?’

‘As I told you earlier,’ Olver said calmly, ‘No one expected them to do anything differently from what they did. It is a matter of honour.

Kael still found this mixed-up code of honour hard to grasp.

‘Things were beginning to become right again,’ Olver told him. ‘Nobody thought anything like it could happen again.’

‘What did happen?’ Kael asked. ‘You have already told me that this Kelmar is dead, so who now imprisons you within you own city walls?’

‘It is Kelmar. He is back from the dead.’

Kael snorted mockingly.

‘That I do not believe! If it truly is Kelmar himself, then perhaps the corpse you staked out for the birds was not his. You said yourself that it was barely recognisable as a human being. Perhaps it was the body of one of his priests. Perhaps Kelmar escaped in the commotion.’

‘No,’ Siman said sternly. ‘He did not escape. I, personally, have spoken to the man who killed him. Kelmar had ordered his young daughter killed only weeks before. That man was Tarabus.’

‘The Tarabus I met at the gate?’

‘Yes, that Tarabus. He slit Kelmar’s throat with his own sacrificial dagger. His body was disfigured only after many of the angry townsfolk had vented their anger on it, kicking it, beating it. Tarabus watched it all. The body was that of Kelmar. Of that there is no doubt.’

Kael looked first at Siman, then at Olver.

‘Then perhaps this Kelmar who assails you now is an impostor,’ Kael suggested to his two companions. ‘Would that not be a likely explanation?’

‘Indeed it would,’ said Olver. ‘Were it not for the fact that one of our people has seen him with their own eyes.’

‘That’s not possible!’ Kael cried. ‘A dead man is dead, and that’s an end to it!’

‘For a traveller, my friend, it seems that you have seen or learnt very little,’ Siman said.

Kael shot him a glare.

‘I have learnt enough to know not to believe in cradle tales.’

‘Three months ago,’ Olver began, ‘A group of our townsfolk went into the forest to gather wood for building. Twenty men. Only one man came back.’

Kael said nothing and waited for Olver to continue.

‘They were set upon by a party of forty or more of the Thrait. All of the men were armed, Thrait raiding parties are not unheard of this far south, they travel from the mountains north of the forest, but the Thrait soon overwhelmed them as they had taken the men by surprise, at night while they slept.’

Kael grimaced as he got a mental picture of  the beast-like killers slaughtering the men in their beds.

‘They killed them?’ he asked.

‘No. The only casualties were the two men who had been posted as guards, both were decapitated by black-bladed axes before they could raise the alarm. The remaining men feared they would be roasted alive on the Thrait cook fires, but instead the beasts chained them together and dragged them to the site of Kelmar’s keep.’

‘They didn’t kill them?’ Kael asked. In all the stories that he had been told, the Thrait never took prisoners, at least not for any longer than the time it took to cook and eat them.

‘This is the part where you will find things even harder to believe,’ Olver said. ‘When the men got to what were supposed to be the ruins of Kelmar’s keep, they found that it had been completely rebuilt, exactly as it had been before we razed it to the ground. Not a stone was out of place.’

Kael held his tongue.

‘It took almost two and a half years to build that fortress. Two and a half years of concentrated slave labour. A thousand men and women, working from dawn until dusk, sometimes longer. It was rebuilt in three months, perhaps less. That is impossible. Yet it happened.

‘The men were taken inside the outer walls into the main complex where Kelmar had once held court in his own private stronghold. There he was once more, holding court from his room at the top of that  damned black tower. Back from the dead.’

‘It wasn’t him, it couldn’t have been,’ said Kael. ‘A look alike, a member of his family out for revenge.’

‘It was him. Even if you were right- which you are not- how can you explain the rebuilding of his fortress?’ Siman said.

‘I cannot.’ Kael admitted.

‘Seventeen of the men who stood before him he slaughtered in their chains. He ran each of them through with his sword, which, according to the sole survivor, turned red as it drained the victims of their blood. Kelmar seemed to gain sustenance from the act, as though the blood was draining from his victims into him.

‘When he had finished, the seventeen men were little more than dried-up husks. Every drop of blood, and life, had been leeched out of them.’

‘What did this ‘Kelmar’ do to the remaining man? Why did he let him go?’

‘He sent a message. He will not rest until we all bow down- both to Orta and to himself- or until every last one of us is dead.’

‘And will you bow down?’

‘Never. We will die first.’

‘And how long will that be? How long can you last?’

‘Our food supplies are becoming low, soon our fires will run out of fuel. When we run out of the necessary medicinal herbs to treat our sick and injured, overcrowding and pollution will soon ensure that disease soon takes a hold within these walls. Eventually, the nightly raids of the Thrait and Kelmar’s mercenaries will bear more for them than the odd victim to feed their own twisted pleasures. Some night soon, they will take the town.’

‘They come every night? Tonight?’ Kael asked.

‘Every night. The lone man who returned from the forest said that it is Orta himself who has brought Kelmar back to terrorise us, and that is the reason why the Thrait fight alongside him. The mercenaries have no doubt been promised great riches in reward for their loyal service.’

‘What can you do to stop him?’ Kael asked. ‘What do you plan to do next?’

‘Tarran and the rest of the elect council have instructed us to ask for your help.’

Next: Chapter Four: The Barrier

back to 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.)