Mikhal’s Story: Chapter 4

A few years ago, WC completed a first draft of a novella. It’s not all that good, and publishers have not been leaping at the opportunity to buy it. But it’s likely good enough to blog… So WC will inflict his fiction – well, his overt fiction – on his long-suffering readers. Chapters will posted on Sunday mornings.

Here’s Chapter 1 if you missed it.
Here’s Chapter 2 if you missed it.
Here’s Chapter 3 if you missed it

Warning: the story involves graphic violence.

From Antonin’s Oddities:

One of the more unsavory tricks Gudsawr placed in the sword was an element that recognized when the same person held the sword for a long period of time. The sword would accelerate the time-dilation effect when the sword didn’t move for an hour or two, as when the sword holder was sleeping. At the extreme of the effect, the time-dilation was 5 to 1; one hour for the sword holder was five hours for the rest of the world. Since the effect ceased the moment the sword was moved, it was nearly impossible to detect the trap.

Gudsawr also programmed the sword to react to an extended period of high activity by accelerating the time dilation to as much as 5 to 1. The person wielding the sword would then move much too fast to even attempt to stop in a long battle. And aging rapidly as well, of course.

Chapter 4

The night before the battle, Mikhal woke from a dream in which someone was trying to stab him to an assassin’s knife plunging at him. Before he could react, the knife slid off the shield’s protection and tangled in the palette on which he slept. Still struggling to wake, he brought the sword up in his left hand and swung at the shadowy figure beside the bed. Despite the advantage of speed the blade gave him, the assassin was able to fall backwards and avoid the sword. Mikhal rolled from the bed and cut at the legs of the assassin. This time he cut the man, but only a glancing blow on the foot. The assassin changed tactics then, and threw himself at Mikhal.

The sword protected him again, and the assassin slid down in front of Mikhal, collapsing in a heap at Mikhal’s feet. The noise of the fight had alerted the guards, who came running into the farmhouse. The assassin then tried to impale himself on the sword, but Mikhal turned the blade at a slant, and the man only made a long, shallow cut along this chest and arm. The guards seized the assassin then and pinned his arms. Donal arrived next, followed by Felici.

Mikhal’s arms were trembling. If he had not held the sword as he slept, this man would have killed him.

“An assassin then?” asked Felici.

“Yes, Master Felici, he tried to kill me as I slept.”

“A fool to try to kill an invulnerable man.” Felici turned to the assassin, still held by the two guards. “Who has hired you?”

The assassin spat at Felici, hitting his cheek.

“Take this idiot outside and kill him, Donal,” commanded Felici.

The guards dragged the assassin out of the farmhouse. Mikhal started to object. Felici stopped him with a gesture, saying “We cannot let him live to attempt to kill you again, or to attempt to kill me. And men who stab from the shadows know the risks they take.”

“Who sent him, then?” asked Mikhal.

“Perhaps the Pretender, perhaps someone who knows of the sword and wants it. We will never know. Assassins do not talk. If you torture them, they lie.” Felici shrugged. “The only way to deal with them is to kill those you catch. That way there is at least one less assassin.”

“Then why did he attempt to kill me. Wouldn’t the Pretender, or whoever sent him, know the sword makes me invulnerable?”

“Who knows,” replied Felici. “Perhaps the dead emperor shared some knowledge of the sword with the Pretender. Perhaps they think you sleep without it. Perhaps they think the sword does not work when you sleep. It is pointless to speculate. They tried an assassin and he failed. The world has one less assassin.”

“And now what?” asked Mikhal.

“Now you go back to bed and try to sleep. I think we must see to better guards for those of us who are not invulnerable.”

Felici left the farmhouse, leaving Mikhal alone. Mikhal stared at the palette, looked at the sword in his hand, and shook his head. He was tired to the point of exhaustion, but sleep seemed a long chance. He left the farmhouse to find Donal. Perhaps some exercise might help him sleep. He found Donal just outside the farmhouse door, wiping the blade of his sword on the tunic of the assassin. Blood pooled around the body.

All thoughts of exercise with Donal left Mikhal. “I cannot sleep after that,” Mikhal told Donal, “I’m going to walk around a while.” Donal simply nodded as he instructed the guards to drag the dead assassin off.

Mikhal walked through the camp. With the sword in his hand, he was very conspicuous, and among those who were awake there a trail of muttered comments and strange looks. While he pretended to ignore them, he thought, “They aren’t really muttering about me. It’s the sword. If I matter, it’s only because I hold the sword. The assassin didn’t want to kill me, he wanted to kill the man who held the sword so that he could take the sword. I matter only because I hold the sword and only to the extent I can use it.”

He reached the edge of the camp then. Up the valley were the campfires and torches of the Pretender’s army. It appeared to be much larger than the army Felici had assembled. Mikhal looked at the sword in his hand, almost invisible in the darkness. He thought again of the dead Emperor, and the fight outside the Emperor’s tent when he had escaped. “Ah well,” he thought, “I will know soon enough.”

Donal appeared, with a wine bottle and two mugs. “A swallow of wine will let you rest,” he said. “It will also let me rest. That could have been disaster.” Mikhal accepted the wine and drank it.

“Thank you, Donal,” Mikhal said. “I doubt I will sleep but it may let me lie down.”

He made his way back to the farmhouse, and went in, lying down on the palette for the few remaining hours before daylight. He was still lying there, eyes wide open, unable to sleep, when Felici came to get him at daylight. “The Pretender’s army is assembling for battle. It’s time to fight.”

The battlefield was to be a large hayfield on the west edge of the farm. A small stream meandered through the hayfield, and the ground sloped gently up on either side. The field was dry. A thicket closed the upstream side. Downstream, the stream ran into a swamp. There would be no ambushes or surprise tactics in this battle. A larger army, Mikhal thought, looking at the Pretender’s forces, a much larger army, would fight a smaller force and Mikhal, wielding the sword.

“Mikhal,” Felici said, “You are the leader, Donal will follow behind you, leading our army in a wedge. Remember, you must go where the Pretender’s soldiers are thickest, and strike down as many as you can. Donal and the army will follow you. If something changes, Donal will shout at you. Be sure of whom you attack.”

“We will be in the capital in a week. Fight well.”

Mikhal waited as the soldiers formed up behind him in a wedge-shape. Felici called, “Attack now. A slow walk, you are invincible.”

Mikhal walked slowly towards the army of the Pretender. There seemed to be thousands of soldiers before him, extending up the other side of the shallow valley in rows and to his left and right the length of the stream. A knot of the Pretender’s soldiers came running down the hill at him in a charge. As the first reached him, he swung the sword right and then left, cutting three men in half and maiming two others. He took two steps forward, swung again and gutted two men and cut a sword off at the hilts. The eyes of the men holding their swords stayed in Mikhal’s mind. Disbelief and panic mixed. A step ahead and one to the left, and he killed three more men. He turned slightly left and cut down two men attacking Donal, then back to his right, killing another two. The men behind Donal had pikes, and kept the Pretender’s soldiers from approaching them. Mikhal stood his ground and cut the arm from one soldier and the head from a second.

“Shift ahead and to the left,” called Donal. Mikhal obeyed, and butchered the three men who came near him. “Aim for the leaders, at the flag ahead of you now,” called Donal. Mikhal walked slowly up hill, swinging the sword through soldiers as he would cut grain in his field, leaving dead and maimed men behind. The wedge of soldiers followed him. Ahead Mikhal saw another group of Felici’s soldiers moving from the far right, also headed for the Pretender’s leaders.

The soldiers before him thickened and thinned, but it made no difference to the sword. Once perhaps fifteen soldiers attacked him at once, trying to push him over or bury him, but as he stopped the soldiers with pikes came up alongside him and forced those who attacked to Mikhal’s front. The sword cut them all down.

As he drew closer to the leaders the soldiers attacking him grew more frenzied, and Mikhal swung faster and made longer strokes, moving the sword through a full semi-circle, suicide with an ordinary weapon but, protected by the shielding magic of the sword, safe as anything. Two more times soldiers jumped at him, trying to bury him with their bodies, or to force him down. Each time he continued to swing the sword as the wedge of pikes moved up before him, forcing the soldiers to the front and into the killing arc of the sword.

There was a kind of wall of shields around the leaders, held by soldiers in chain mail and helmets. The sword sliced through the metal shields, cutting arms and chests in the process. Mikhal noticed that in the noise and chaos around, all screams and ringing metal, the sword made no noise at all as it cut shields, mail, helmets, swords and soldiers into pieces.

“One quarter turn left and ahead,” screamed Donal over the noise, and Mikhal complied, moving towards the leaders as the pikes held the surviving shield bearers away. Four men on horseback tried to move away from him, but the press of soldiers and bodies held them where they were. The second group of soldiers, Mikhal noticed, had moved behind the group of leaders, and now turned to attack what was left of the other side of the shield wall. The four mounted men turned towards Mikhal, their faces mostly invisible behind helmets and masks. One man, Mikhal saw, wore a crown on his helmet. Perhaps that was the Pretender? Mikhal moved towards the horses.

Two of the horses charged at Mikhal. He started to flinch away from the spikes on the horses’ armor, but before the first horse could touch him the magic shield shoved the horse to the side. He swung at the rider to his left, and sliced open the horse’s ribs and cut off the rider’s leg. He swung the other way at the horse on his right and cut the horse’s left foreleg off entirely. The horse stumbled and started to fall on him, but fell away down the shield instead. The rider pitched forward in slow motion, and Mikhal spitted him on the sword. As he lifted the sword up, it sliced through the chest and shoulder of the man. A hand seemed to strike his head for a moment, but the blow had no force.

The other two horseman tried to ride away, and Mikhal took three quick steps forward and cut both of them across the waist, from behind. Blood fountained and one man screamed a long, thin shriek before falling from the horse.

“Towards the soldiers to the left,” called Donal, and Mikhal turned that way, cutting another half dozen men and seeing the others before him begin to fall back. Felici’s second group of soldiers forced the Pretender’s men to the left, downhill and towards the swamp. “A full right turn now,” called Donal, “and up the hill.”

Mikhal sliced through another three or four men, moving uphill. There were still Pretender’s men fighting, Mikhal saw, but only in clumps. Under Donal’s directions he moved to one clump after another, killing soldier after soldier. The clumps of soldiers grew fewer and the number of men running downhill and downstream into the swamp grew larger. Felici’s soldiers didn’t follow them, but left them to flounder in the muck and mud. From his higher point he could see men trying to swim in the soupy stuff, and still more bodies of men floating in the water.

“We have won,” Donal said as he came alongside Mikhal. The wedge of men with pikes was moving to the edge of the swamp, pinning the surviving soldiers of the Pretender in the swamp. Mikhal looked back the way they had come up the hill. Dead men and pieces of dead men lay everywhere, and blood flowed in cascades larger than the creek down the hillside. Mikhal had not imagined there was so much blood in the whole world.

There was no blood on his sword, and no blood on him. A little dust filmed him. Nothing more.

Mikhal’s guts spasmed and heaved. He retched and spat the vileness out on the ground. It was invisible on the blood-soaked soil. After a moment, he looked at Donal. He, too, was almost untouched, a few cuts and bruises on his arms. Mikhal watched the blood pool on the valley floor and stain the stream.

In the space of less than half an hour, he had killed perhaps one hundred or more men. He could easily and as effortlessly have killed five hundred.

“We should return to my father,” said Donal, “and see if there is anything else to do.” Wordlessly, Mikhal walked downhill with Donal, red-colored mud sticking to his boots. They crossed the creek that seemed to run now with pure blood, and walked up the other valley side to where Felici waited. It seemed to Mikhal that the sky grew a little lighter and Donal moved a little faster as they climbed the hill. Some trick of the sword, he supposed.

“There will be no organized opposition between us and the capital, and likely only a few guards there,” Felici said. “The Pretender and his army are dead.”

“The Pretender was the one with the crown on his helmet?” asked Donal.

“Yes,” replied Felici. “He was an idiot but not a coward.”

Donal shrugged. “He is a dead idiot.”

Mikhal’s throat tightened and his head throbbed. “Master Felici, I have killed sheep who had more of a chance. This wasn’t a battle; it was a slaughter. The hay meadow looks like a slaughterhouse.”

“War is defeating the enemy as quickly and completely as possible at the least expense to yourself. None of our soldiers were even badly wounded. The Pretender’s soldiers are either dead or drowning. A few are running through the woods, weaponless. Thanks to the sword, we have destroyed a force that outnumbered us seven to one.” Felici paused. “You are displeased?”

“I am sickened. The sword is too powerful. There is no limit to how many it can kill. Master Felici, I am not even tired. I did not even sweat.”

“A weapon cannot be too powerful, Mikhal, it can only be misused.”

“This weapon will never be used in battle again. The day we take the capital, I will throw it in a well.”

Felici gave Mikhal a long look. “As you say, Mikhal. It is your sword. But tonight we must help our soldiers, the nobles and our other allies celebrate our victory.”

“I must get rid of it soon, Master Felici. The sword is eating at me.”

At twilight, Felici gathered the army together. He called Mikhal to come forth and told the soldiers that the one bearing the sword had made the victory possible. He gave Mikhal a helm that seemed to be a metal eagle’s skull with a crown. The eagle’s beak extended as a nose guard, and the eagle’s eyes a kind of mask. Mikhal detested the thing immediately. What good was a helm to an invulnerable man? But the crowd of soldiers cheered like lunatics when Mikhal put it on.

“So this is power and glory,” thought Mikhal as the soldiers screamed and danced. “I want no part of it.”

A few hours later, as Mikhal sat on farmhouse steps, listening to the carousing soldiers, Donal appeared, once again with a wine bottle and two mugs.

“Not to celebrate,” he said as he handed Mikhal the mug of wine, “but to wash the ashes from out mouths. Victory at the cost of too many lives.”

“To ashes,” Mikhal replied. And drank the wine. “Perhaps tonight I can sleep, but only if the wine can put the rivers of blood from my memory.”

“Do not let go of the sword just yet,” said Donal. There are too many chances on the battlefield.”

Is there wine left?” Mikhal asked. Wordlessly, Donal refilled the wooden mug.

“Will you really throw away the sword?” asked Donal.

“Yes. I should have thrown it in a well when the Abbot told me to. It is too powerful, Donal. Too powerful.”

“As you say,” Donal replied, “but it seems a shame.”

Mikhal climbed to his feet. He felt just slightly unsteady. The wine was a warm glow inside him. “I have to try to sleep,” he told Donal, and entered the farmhouse. He laid down on his palette and, it seemed to him, fell asleep immediately.

End of Chapter 4
Chapter 5 will be posted next Sunday