Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine

The Crimson Blade

An eleven chapter saga of swordplay and sorcery
Chris Gordon

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Previously: Having tentatively learned how to control the enemy's flying dragans, Kael and his companions are eager to see if the can, at long last, take the fight to the enemy, and to the dark sorcerer, Kelmar -- and possibly rescue the kidnapped Cara...

CHAPTER SEVEN:  The Raiding Party

They could not even pretend  that they were adequately prepared. They had spent the rest of the day- a mere day!- learning to control the mounts that would take them either to victory or to their doom.

Kael, Olver, Siman, Tarabus and two other  trusted volunteers stood in the courtyard of the inn with their mounts, each with a goad retrieved from the cache of weapons and belongings of the dead raiders. Tarran stood with them, nodding to himself as though approving of their oncoming task.

‘The council say you are foolhardy to attempt this, all of you, but  they also wish you well’, he said. ‘You have all volunteered for this, but no-one will think any less of you should any of you choose to back out. You all know the risks involved.

‘You, Kael, most of all should realise that you do not have to do this. After all, this is not your city.’

‘It was my idea, Tarran my friend,’ he said. ‘It is only right that I go. Besides, I would rather die at the hand of another, as opposed to staying here under siege and waiting to die of starvation or disease. I go.’

Tarran looked hesitant. Perhaps he wanted to tell them to find Cara, bring her back to him. Kael could see the pain in his eyes. He could imagine what was going through the big man’s mind. Was his daughter still alive? Was she, even now, serving the vile pleasures of the mercenaries or, even worse, the Thrait? Kael shuddered to think of the girl’s fate. He liked her, liked her father.

Tarran’s eyes asked the unspoken question. Kael nodded.

‘Thank you,’ Tarran muttered, almost inaudibly. ‘Thank you.’

Daylight was fading, the call to the walls being sounded.

‘We must needs be off, before Kelmar’s men come,’ said Siman. ‘Lest they see us before we are clear of the city.’

Kael barked an order for the men to mount their winged beasts. Helmets were donned, straps tightened, quivers checked.

Kael had left his longbow behind, instead favouring a shorter horseman’s bow. A short bow was more effective, either when riding, or employing guerrilla tactics as they intended. Their plan depended on entering the fortress undetected.

Tarran raised a hand to them as, one by one, they took off into the deepening gloom. He watched them as he disappeared from his sight, then went to fetch his axe for the forthcoming battle.

Kael put hard on the reins and put his mount into a steep climb, gaining more and more altitude as he spiralled upwards, the southern wall of the city already but a thin line far beneath them. Within the next few minutes he would discover whether his plan would fail before it had hardly begun. The barrier, he surmised, was not of infinite height. After all, Kelmar did not believe that the townsfolk would ever ride the Dragans. Therefore, Kael had suggested, if one was to gain enough height, surely it would be possible to pass over the top and into ‘free air’. Soon he would test the validity of his theory.

Kael looked down towards the ground and saw that the city had become an ever-shrinking square far beneath his feet. The air was becoming thinner, less dense, less sustaining, and the temperature was starting to drop to an uncomfortable level. Soon he would have to risk a ‘crossing’. If his hunch was right, he would live- if he was wrong, he would die. It was as simple as that. It was his theory- it was only right that he should be the one to test it.

As his mount turned towards the barrier, he pulled it out of it’s upward spiral and headed for what could be his grisly end. He kicked his heels in, urging the creature forward with greater speed. If he was to be killed by the barrier, it would at least be a swift death- he would know nothing  of it, or of  his subsequent plunge to the ground far below. Teeth gritted, his hair flying behind him like a nest of writhing serpents, he flew headlong at the region where the barrier would lay many of hundreds of feet below. A wave of nausea gripped him and his skin crawled as though he were in the midst of an electrical storm, his head spinning briefly and his eyes refusing to focus as he passed through the barrier. Then he was through, flying in clear air once more, shaking his head to remove the fuzziness that still lingered, the barrier behind him. He shuddered to think of the pent-up powers and strange sorceries he had just felt the faintest touch of. Such things he would rather have nothing to do with. For him were the things he could understand- the warm sensuous curves of a woman, good food and ale, cold, dependable steel at his hip- not the devious machinations of wizardry and devilry that demanded so much devotion from their adjutants.

‘Come on- it’s safe!’ he cried, beckoning the others across the unseen barrier. ‘There’s something there that will make you feel damned strange for a moment, but it passes.’

‘So, your master sees fit to allow us to pass his barrier, savage,’ Tarabus sneered. ‘No doubt he is already aware of our impending arrival, thanks to his faithful spy, who we have foolishly taken into our city. What fate has Kelmar in store for the  six of us? Death at the end of his vampire sword, more than likely. Why should he fight us to acquire more victims, when we are so willing to bring ourselves to him, led like lambs to the slaughter by this mercenary dog here? Ha! What fools we are, believing the outcome of this plan is not already determined by Kael here.’

‘Be quiet, Tarabus!,’ shouted Siman as he flew through the barrier.

‘What will be your reward for betraying us, I wonder?,’ continued Tarabus, ignoring his companion. ‘Gold? Jewels? Women? Or is there something else you crave? Power perhaps?’

‘If you are so sure that Kael is leading us to our doom, Tarabus, then why do you come with us? Olver said as he joined Kael and Siman on the other side of the magical barrier, his nausea fading quickly.

‘I come so I can kill him before I myself die!’ he spat. He flew his dragan in close to them and shook his head to clear the dizziness. Their mounts flew in tight circles to keep position.

‘We may die, but first I shall ensure that this... traitor  never collects his reward for his treachery.’

Kael’s face remained unreadable. He believed he knew Olver and Siman well enough to know that they would pay no heed to Tarabus’s irrational rantings.

‘Be silent Tarabus!’ Olver hissed. ‘Your accusations have gone far enough. Either hold your tongue or leave us and return to Varl.’

Tarabus was indeed silent for a moment, as he contemplated Olver’s words.

‘I will come with you,’ he said angrily. ‘If only to show you that I am right.’

Seeing the confrontation was at an end, Kael wheeled his mount and headed off in the opposite direction of Kelmar’s fortress, his intent to take a wide circle back around. By this manoeuvre, he hoped to miss the main body of Kelmar’s forces, hopefully avoiding any confrontation before their arrival at their destination. Kael’s companions followed him without comment. This was his plan, they were relying on him to see them through it.

The evening was drawing in. Dark clouds stained the night sky, eating up stars and moon alike, against which they might otherwise have found themselves silhouetted, giving them away. The rain had given way to a mistiness that helped to hide them, yet still soaked their clothes. The six men were grim and silent, they knew that behind them, Varl was probably already under attack, yet they were here, unable to defend it. They also knew that Kelmar’s men could fly underneath them at any time. Their silence was helping to ensure that they were not discovered ere they had hardly begun.

Once Kael felt they were far enough from the city, and from any of Kelmar’s troops, he lost altitude quickly, dropping down until the dark canopy of the forest rushed past only a few feet beneath them. He steered the party in a wide arc, relying on instinct to find his bearings,  until they were heading in the general direction of Kelmar’s keep. The darkness was now almost complete, through the mist above their heads the faint glimmer of the occasional star shone through briefly, before winking out of view once more.

A cry of alarm went up. A single dragan and rider, presumably a sentry, had seen them and was now racing back in the direction of Kelmar’s keep. It seemed that Kelmar was not entirely as complacent as he had appeared..

‘Quickly!’ hissed Kael. ‘Stop that dog, or we’re all dead men!’

The six men sped after the sentry, loosing arrows from the short bows that each of them carried. A scream of pain indicated that someone had hit their target and the dragan dropped downwards suddenly and crashed through the canopy, taking its rider with it. Unlikely though it was,  if the sentry survived, he would not get back to the keep in time to raise the alarm. They continued their journey.
As time passed, Kael’s keen eyes made out a greater darkness rising out of the forest ahead. Kelmar’s fortress. They were in sight of their target.

As the great dark mass before them grew with their approach, so the forest receded abruptly below them. The tree line stopped a clear half-mile from the fortified wall that surrounded Kelmar’s stronghold. Like themselves, Kelmar had wanted a clear view of any approaching visitors, friend and foe alike. Here though, there was not the lush sward of grass like that surrounding their own walls. Instead the earth was charred black, as though an inferno had flashed across here and incinerated every living thing. The air was redolent with the smell of charcoal. Had the six men looked closely enough, they would have seen that the leaves of the trees at the edge of the clearing were unmarked by the fire. This clearing had not been created by any earthly means. Only sorcery could create a fire so intense as to cause such mass destruction, yet still be so selective as to what was turned to ashes and what remained untouched.

With a hand signal, Kael indicated that they should land near the edge of the forest. All six reptiles landed with a soft thump in the mixture of soft earth and ashes. Each rider dismounted, and left their Dragan to it’s own business- the giant flying reptiles were more than capable of looking after themselves. There was no need to tether the beasts. If the six men succeeded in their mission, then doubtless fresh mounts , whether they be rassaurs or dragans, would be available. If they were not successful then they would have little need for their mounts ever again. No-one said it, but they all knew that the dragans had served their purpose.

Kael lay down in the filth underfoot and rolled around in it, smearing the stinking black mixture of  mud and ashes onto himself, paying particular attention to areas where his skin was exposed. He motioned to his companions to do the same. They all looked at him with disgust, but to a man they none the less complied.

‘It isn’t much of an edge,’ he said. ‘But it might make the difference between getting inside that wall, or getting an arrow in the guts before we’re even in touching distance of it.’

The muck congealed on their clothes and skin, darkening as it dried. In the black night, they blended in like dark phantoms.

‘Make sure your weapons are secure, and if they rattle, muffle them with something. I want us to be as silent as possible, and this is our last chance to make sure there is nothing to that will break that silence. Kael watched them as they cinched their sword belts tighter and checked that their armour would not make a sound. ‘Make sure you do it properly damn it, because if I hear any sound louder than a rustle, I’ll brain the culprit with this!’ He brandished the dragan goad in front of them, then pushed it into his belt, where he checked it was securely fastened before letting it go. It would be well, he had decided, to lead by example.

‘We’ll have to run, and fast, if we are to get to the walls in good time,’ he said. Four of his companions nodded in the darkness, while Tarabus adopted his now customary scowl. Kael turned and set off for the fortress at a steady pace, the others falling in behind him. On several occasions, only his keen night vision prevented them from tripping over blackened boulders and tree stumps that still littered the clearing. As they approached within a short bowshot of the wall, Kael stopped in his tracks and motioned for them to get down. Here there was no cover from the eyes of anyone who might be atop the wall, save for the darkness and the filth they had caked themselves in.

‘Why have we stopped?’ whispered  Olver in a strained voice.

Kael pointed up at the top of the wall, now a huge barrier in front of them, rather than the indistinct darkness it had appeared from a distance.

‘Kelmar doubtless has enough brains in his head to leave a guard atop his outer wall, even if it is only a bare minimum.’

Olver and the others stared into the gloom at the huge curving wall.

‘I see nothing,’ Siman said quietly. A barely audible grunt of agreement issued from someone else in the party.

‘Look harder then. Directly in front, where the curve of the wall is closest to us.’

They all looked at the parapet of the wall, straining to see the elusive guard.

‘I see him,’ said one of the two men who had accompanied Kael, Olver, Siman and Tarabus. ‘The light keeps reflecting off something he’s wearing or carrying- his helmet or spear perhaps.’

Now others spoke quiet affirmations as they espied the guard pacing back and forth along a short route atop the wall.

‘Is that the only guard there is?’ asked Olver. ‘Surely Kelmar has more mind as to his security than that.’

‘There are more guards there, to both the left and the right. Every two hundred paces or so,’ Kael told him.

The other men strained to see, but none could make anything out.

‘The gate then,  is doubtless well-manned too,’ said Siman.

‘Doubtless,’ Kael agreed. And that is exactly why we are going nowhere near it.’

‘Then how do you propose we get in? Fly, perhaps?’ Tarabus sneered. ‘Look at the height of that bloody wall!’

‘We’ll climb over it easily enough,’ Kael said, apparently unfazed by Tarabus’s outburst. ‘We’ve done enough flying for one night. We go over the wall. Whether we do it without being discovered is in Cer’s hands.’ He grinned, showing his teeth white in the darkness. ‘Unless it’s been polished like glass there’ll be a way up somewhere. Come now, let’s get a move on, and quickly!’

Next: Chapter Eight: The Compound

back to Chapter Six: Maiden Flight

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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.)