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.
Warning: the story involves graphic violence.
From Antonin’s Oddities:
I am uncertain whether Gudsawr intended the sword to drift in time if unattended. There are serious time paradoxes involved; our own history could be rewritten were the sword to fall into the wrong hands in the past.
Gudsawr laughed when he told me of the tricks and traps in the sword. “Perhaps I will let it be stolen,” he used to say, “So I can watch it kill idiots.”
Mikhal knew nothing until the water closed around him. The water was icy cold, and as he rose back to towards the surface the cold made it almost impossible to breathe. As he rose, he scraped against stone. For a moment he had no idea what had happened; he could think only that he needed to breathe. There was an echoing noise in his water-filled ears, and the meager light disappeared entirely.
He flailed his arms about, trying to find a way out of the water. He struck stone in every direction. He was in a well. He had been asleep in the farmhouse, half drunk on Donal’s wine.
A drug. There must have been a drug in the wine. How simple. He told Felici he was going to throw the sword in a well; Felici had Donal drug him, he had let go of the sword in his stupor, and they had thrown him in the well instead. As these thoughts came to him, Mikhal groped along the edge in the pitch dark, seeking a way out.
Finally, he found a stone that jutted out a bit and braced his foot against it. His back pressed against the other side of the shaft. The rocks were slimy with wet moss. He carefully worked his way up, feet pressed against one side of the well and his back against the other side. Finally, when he felt a stone against his bare foot and another against his back, he levered himself upright with his hands and stood awkwardly, balanced on his feet on stones on opposite sides of the well.
To be so dark, the well must be covered. If it was covered, they had probably piled stones on it to make it harder to get out. Despite the ache in his legs, he must wait a while. And he must be quiet enough that they would think he had drowned.
Mikhal counted his heartbeats. His bare feet grew sorer and sorer, and the muscles of his legs began to tremble. When he counted 1,000 of his heartbeats, he started to climb upwards, searching for stones or cracks in which he could brace himself. Slowly and painfully, he worked his way up the well. After a long time, his reaching hand brushed to wooden cover of the well. He stopped then and listened as best he could. It was quiet, as far as he could tell.
Mikhal braced himself as best he could and tried to lift the well cover. As he had feared, it didn’t move; they had piled stones or something on it to hold it closed. He struggled to a secure position for his feet, pressed his back up against the cover and tried to move it sideways. At least the well walls were drier here, and less slippery. The cover actually moved a bit on his second effort. He tried again, working to slide the cover rather than lift it. The cover slipped enough to expose a bit of light. Blinking in the glare, he rested and listened again. Still no sound. How could it be daylight and there be no sound?
He braced himself again and tried to slide the well cover a little further. It moved, leaving a little more open space. As he let the weight off of his back, the well cover cracked and split. Dozens of rocks and pieces of well cover thundered down the well with a deafening roar. One rock struck his foot and knocked it loose, and he grabbed at the well rim to keep from falling with the wood and rock. His fingers slipped on the mossy well lip, but held and after a long, awkward scramble he pulled himself over the lip and rolled onto the ground.
He laid beside the well for a long time, leg muscles trembling, feet throbbing, blinking in the sunlight. His head throbbed from the wine and drug. His ears were still ringing from the noise and his struggle, but he could hear nothing. The usually noisy farm yard was silent.
He sat up and looked around. He could see no one and no sign anyone was present. He rolled to his hands and knees and levered himself to his feet, wincing at the bruises on the soles of his bare feet and the scrapes on his toes where the falling rocks had hit his foot. He realized suddenly he was naked. Another of Felici’s touches; he was sure he had passed out fully dressed.
Well, there had been piles of clothing, boots and swords in the barn after the fight the day before, pillaged from the dead soldiers. He limped to the barn. The door was shut, but when he opened it the gear was still there. He searched through the clothing for some that weren’t slashed and stained with blood. He found one of the Pretender’s uniforms that fit fairly well, and after looking at a lot of boots, found a pair that matched and fit. The swords were all the same. He found one with a belt. What next? Food.
Although there was still no sign of anyone, he felt exposed and uncomfortable. He went into the farmhouse; it was empty and what food had been there was gone. Sighing, he set off on foot towards the monastery, a long half day’s walk to the east. God only knew what the Abbot would say to him. And he dare not let Simon see him, although Mikhal thought Simon was more likely with Felici. He needed food and he needed to talk to someone about what to do. The Abbot seemed the best choice.
The walk took a long time. His head cleared with the exercise. It seemed to him that there might be a way to get the sword back and find a way to destroy it.
His feet were throbbing when he finally reached the monastery walls. Once again it was twilight. He knocked on the gate and, after a moment, a head appeared over the gate.
“Who knocks?” The voice was not Simon’s. The head was a child’s.
Mikhal cleared his throat. The last words he had spoken were to Donal the night before. “Mikhal of Blackberry Hill. I ask to see the Abbot.”
Mikhal sat down against the monastery wall. He resisted the temptation to take his boots off. If the Abbot turned him away, he would never get the boots back on.
The monastery gate opened a bit and a very young boy said, “Do you pledge peace while inside these walls?”
“Yes, I do,” said Mikhal.
“Leave the sword inside the gate. The Abbot will see you. Follow me.”
Mikhal followed the child through the gate and across the mission compound. They entered the same windowless building. The Abbot sat at the table.
Mikhal dropped to one knee. “I thank the Reverend Abbot for seeing me.”
“You are back. Mikhal, and without the killing sword. But I have heard horrible stories of slaughter and death. Where is the sword?”
“Reverend Abbot, I don’t know for sure, but I think the sword is in the hands of Donal, Simon’s oldest brother, and that Donal with his father Felici lead a small army to the capital.”
“Mikhal, I think you should tell me the whole story.”
“Yes, Reverend Abbot. Everything you said about the sword was true, and I was an idiot.” Mikhal explained what had happened in the last three months.
“Simon was right, his father is a very clever man. When Donal wears the helm, Mikhal, no one will easily tell it isn’t you. He has made it possible for anyone to be the sword bearer.”
“I have been a complete fool,” Mikhal said. “And I have let Felici use me to use the sword for himself. Donal will be Emperor, but Felici will use Donal.”
“You have been too trusting, Mikhal, and you have let others maneuver you through your fear of dying. But I don’t think you are evil or have truly done evil.”
The Abbot stood. “Will you dine with me tonight?”
“If the Reverend Abbot will have me,” said Mikhal. They walked slowly to another building and sat with perhaps two dozen others and ate bread, cheese and seedcake. There was watered wine, but Mikhal drank water. The talk was of crops and the harvest, and chores the next day. It was, Mikhal realized, the talk he had heard around his table at home all his life.
After supper, the Abbot and Mikhal returned to the small room with the trestle table. “What will you do now, Mikhal?” asked the Abbot.
“I think I must follow after Donal, get the sword and destroy it this time. Before Donal becomes Emperor.”
The Abbot raised his eyebrows. “And how will you recover the sword, Mikhal, from an invulnerable man who can move much more quickly than you?”
“I have an idea. And in any event I must try. Two times, Reverend Abbot, I have felt things strike the top of my head when I was holding the sword. I don’t think the sword protects its bearer directly over his head.”
“Describe the times things struck your head.”
“The first time was when I fought the soldiers outside the Emperor’s tent. Someone grabbed my hair when I was bent over. It meant nothing at the time; I had no idea what the sword was. And you will remember that there was blood on my head when I first came to you. It can only have happened when I held the sword.”
“The second time was in the slaughter at the hayfield. Something seemed to strike my head at one point. A man, I suppose it was the Pretender, was falling toward me from his horse.”
“So I think there must be an unprotected area immediately above the head.”
The Abbot stared into space for a time. “You don’t mean to kill Donal?”
“No, Reverend Abbot. I mean for Donal to be Emperor if he wants. I just don’t want him to have the sword.”
“I am truly surprised, Mikhal. Why do you want Donal to be Emperor?”
“Felici told me the history of the Empire, Reverend Abbot. I think he said nothing less than the truth when he said a quick end to the fight over succession is best. And the Pretender is dead at my hands. Felici will rule in all but name, and he is clever. Together, Felici and Donal will be a better Emperor than any of the nobles and officers I met. And I have no better solution. But Felici and Donal with the sword would create more chaos. Everything you said is true. They won’t need the sword to hold the throne, but they will think they do.”
“Now I am twice surprised, Mikhal. You are becoming wise.”
“Reverend Abbot, I am a fool and a coward.”
“All men are fools and cowards, Mikhal. You are learning what most men do not. But let us give thought to how you will accomplish this task and, more importantly, what you will do with the sword if you manage to get it.”
Mikhal and the Abbot talked long into the night. The Abbot brought out maps. Gradually, they agreed on how Mikhal, if he got the sword, might get away and what he might do with the sword.
“If you are to get to Donal in time, you will have to take a horse. He has a two day head start. Can you ride a horse?”
“I raced horses at the fair when I was young.”
“Then sleep with my blessing. I will have different clothes, food and a horse for you in the morning.”
Mikhal slept like a stone.
The next morning, after more bread and cheese, the Abbot sent Mikhal on his way. “There is one more thing I would have you remember, Mikhal,” said the Abbot. “Felici threw you in the well. He did not stab you in your sleep. Remember that if you meet him.”
“I truly want Felici to be advisor to Donal. It’s the best I can do in the chaos I have created.”
“Go with God, then,” said the Abbot.
Mikhal rode back the way he had come the day before, alternating the horse between a canter and a fast walk. The horse seemed sound, but Mikhal stopped to water him when he could and let him eat grass along the side of the road every few hours.
Before mid-morning, he had reached the edge of Felici’s farmhouse. There still was no one around, so Mikhal took the chance and rode straight through, instead of losing time working his way around the open areas. He saw no one, he heard no one. He turned onto the road north towards the capital.
At least there was no mistaking the trail. Men and wagons had gone this way before him, at least two days earlier. He stopped at noon at a spring. His legs were stiff; there was a difference, he thought, between 20 minute horse races and riding all day. He munched the monastery’s bread and cheese and drank water. Then he remounted and set out on down the road.
At late afternoon, he found a campsite. Among the jumble of footprints, there was the mark of Felici’s stump, surely the only one-legged man in the group. The right trail, then, and only a day behind. If he guessed right, Felici would not hurry to the capital, still three long days away, but would move slowly and let rumor and fear of the sword fight for him before he arrived.
Would Felici have scouts behind his army? Mikhal knew nothing of armies and marching. But surely Felici would think all his enemies were before him, except perhaps the kind of assassin who had attacked Mikhal. Scouts and outriders probably wouldn’t be a lot of help against assassins, although it might make Felici set more guards about the camp.
When it became too dark to ride, Mikhal hobbled the horse within reach of water and grass, rubbed the horse down with a scrap of cloth and then wrapped himself in the saddle blanket under an evergreen. He broke taboo and built a small, smoky fire and carefully held the blade of his sword over it, blackening every inch of the steel. It didn’t take long, and when he was satisfied, he carefully buried the fire.
He leaned back against the trunk of the tree. The thick branches came almost to the ground. It was warm and should stay dry.
He slept well and awoke at the first gray light before dawn. His legs were stiff but he reveled in the feeling of being rested, of having had enough sleep. When he had held the sword, he always woke as tired as when he went to sleep.
He rubbed the horse down as he munched more bread and cheese. He found a saddle bag full of grain and gave three handfuls to the horse. Then he saddled the horse and mounted stiffly. He rode on along the trail.
At mid-morning he came to a ford. The tracks seemed very fresh. He was no woodsman to say how far ahead Felici and his army might be, but he thought they were close. A mile or so further long the trail, he stopped, dismounted and simply listened. There was a murmur of voices and, perhaps, the creak of wagons. He could not tell how far ahead.
For his plan to work, he must join the army at twilight. He left the road then and, paralleling the trail, moved as quickly and quietly as he could north, trying not to be seen. As he moved up alongside the army, he saw no scouts or outriders. Felici must be truly confident of his control. By mid-afternoon, he judged he was ahead of the army. He stopped, dismounted and took the saddle off the horse. He tied the horse on a long line. He tried to memorize the landmarks. After making sure there was water and food, and after giving the horse some more of the grain, he moved on foot through the trees towards the road.
He moved slowly, watching for scouts. He could hear the army south of him but saw no one. He found an evergreen he could climb at the edge of the road. He took a handful of the black mud from the road surface, wrapped it in a scrap of leather, and climbed the tree, sword banging against his leg. He settled in close against the trunk, screened from below by branches and from all but the best eyes from a distance. The Reverend Abbot had given him dark green clothing which blended well with the tree limbs and the trunk. He settled in to wait. It was uncomfortable, but not so bad as the well.
After a time, two soldiers appeared on the road. If they were scouts, they were incautious ones. He let the scouts move by beneath him. Perhaps a half mile behind them came Felici’s army. It looked more like a mob. The army had shown more discipline in the valley by the farmhouse. They walked in groups of men. They were not in ranks, they did not walk in step, they still were not in uniform and they showed no caution. Perhaps his idea would work.
As the clumps of men moved by him, Mikhal eased his way down the tree. Between two of the groups of men, he emerged from the partial shelter of the low-hanging evergreen branches, tightening the waistband on his pants. No one commented as he joined one of the crowds of men.
They walked that way for another hour and then, well before sunset, started to pitch camp. Mikhal wandered off into the trees. He got out the black mud and smeared it on his sword, touching up place where the scabbard had rubbed the soot off. He threw the scabbard into the woods and stuck the blackened blade into his belt. Donal had to be behind him. He moved purposefully south down the road, now full of men pitching tents and building cook fires. He saw Donal, wearing the ugly helm, two hundred feet away. He found a tree he could climb that was close to Donal. Even this far away he could see the weariness in Donal’s posture. He almost felt sorry for him. Standing ten feet from the tree, he drew the blackened sword.
“Donal, you coward and thief, give me back my sword,” Mikhal shouted. Mikhal saw Donal stare at him in absolute astonishment. Felici emerged from a tent that had already been pitched. Felici said something to Donal that Mikhal couldn’t hear, but Donal moved quickly, very quickly, toward Mikhal. Mikhal turned and scampered up the tree like a squirrel. Fifteen feet up the tree, Mikhal balanced on a limb. “Thief, coward,” he shouted. “You stole my sword. Give it back.” All over the camp, now, men were turning and watching, some running towards Mikhal. “Give me my sword, Donal, or I will tell the whole camp how you got it.”
Donal hacked with the sword at the branches and then at the trunk of the tree. As Donal stepped close enough, Mikhal jumped from the branch and plummeted at Donal. As he fell, he cast his sword just slightly to the right side. Donal saw the sword, and was still looking at it when Mikhal struck the top of Donal’s head and his right shoulder with his feet. As he had hoped, Donal dropped his sword, staggered to the left and then collapsed. The fall knocked all of the wind from Mikhal, and for an instant he could not move. Then he forced himself to roll in the direction of the magic sword. Donal was just sitting up when Mikhal stood up, holding the sword, feeling the changes the sword had always brought. Behind him the evergreen, cut through by Donal a moment before, crashed to the ground onto men, tents and wagons. There were shouts and a scream.
Mikhal struggled to regain his breath. He picked up his old sword, still blackened, and limped over to Donal. As he got there, Felici came up to them.
Mikhal pointed with the blackened sword at Donal’s shoulder. “Is it broken?” Mikhal asked.
Donal stared at Mikhal for a moment. Then he moved his arm. “No, just bruised, I think. How did you get here?”
Mikhal interrupted him. “There is no time for stories just now. Take this sword.” And he pointed to the blackened sword. “Take it.”
Donal, sitting on the ground, took the sword.
“Now,” said Mikhal, “Get to your feet and drive me away. Make me confess I was lying and drive me away. Remember to strike only the flat of my sword.”
Donal sat on the ground and stared. Felici shoved him in the back. “Get up, you idiot, he is trying to save us all.”
Donal stumbled to his feet.
“Fight, or I will slice off your ear,” Mikhal told him.
Donal began a sword drill, then, gradually warming to his task. Mikhal closed with him for a minute and said, “Felici knows what I want. Everyone must think you still have the magic sword. Knock me down, make me confess and drive me off.”
Donal gasped, “Then give me the sword.”
“No,” said Mikhal, “I will give you the Empire if you cooperate, but I will not give you the sword.”
Behind Donal, Felici called out, “This man is a lunatic. Make him confess and drive him away.”
Donal pushed away from Mikhal. “You are a lunatic and a liar,” he called out. “Get out of the camp.”
Donal cut at Mikhal with a swinging stroke. Mikhal pretended to stumble back and fell. Donal menaced him with the blackened sword as Mikhal lay on the ground. Mikhal saw the other blade was now showing ordinary steel at a few places but still, overall, was satisfactorily muddy black.
“Admit you were lying,” shouted Donal.
“I was lying. I take back my words.”
“Louder,” demanded Donal.
“I admit I was lying,” said Mikhal, “I take back my words.”
“Now get out of the camp,” Donal ordered. He paused. “If I ever see you again, I will kill you.”
Without another word, Mikhal turned and ran from the camp. “Let him go,” he heard Felici call. “Get some men to lift this tree. There are soldiers trapped under it.”
Mikhal ran from through the woods in the twilight, clutching the sword, marveling that the plan had worked. He had come full circle, he thought, running through twilit woods, clutching a magic sword.
But because he did not trust Felici at all, he ran in a looping circle, and not straight to his horse. After a time he stopped, stuck the sword in the dirt and listened. Those might be sounds of pursuit, but they weren’t close. He pull a pair of gloves out of his belt and put them on. When he picked up the sword again, the sword’s effects did not occur. Reverend Abbot had been right again. While the speed the sword gave him would be handy, he wanted none of the sword’s other tricks. If he could help it, he meant not to touch the sword with his bare hand again.
He found the horse in the near darkness. It was an awkward business, saddling the horse in the dark, even after sticking the sword in the dirt again. Finally, he managed it, picked up the sword and mounted the horse. It was hard to see the stars through the leaves, but he guessed at west, away from the faint sounds of pursuit, and made the horse move slowly that way.
End of Chapter 5
Chapter 6 will be posted next Sunday