The saga of the continent's most notorious sword began in the small kingdom of Qazgral, with a king who had the best of intentions, and a mage desperate to serve him well.
The last stone of the first castle in Qazgral was set with all due sacrifices and rites. Men-at-arms, clad in new, gleaming scale and mail armor, stood at their posts. In the villages around, blacksmiths worked at producing the weapons and armor King Drenmer needed for his ambitions.
He lacked the money and connections for scarlet and royal purple dyes and fine cloth, but the royal clothiers had outdone themselves with the materials available. Finely-spun wool, dyed in the local purple hue, made his cloak, and they had matched the furs of local foxes to line and trim it. A polished, enameled bronze brooch and chain held at his throat. His tunic, lighter purple, was adorned with embroidery enhanced by just enough gold thread to set off the royal insignia. Gilded bronze knotwork made up his crown and adorned his scepter. He wore a dagger, but no sword, yet.
Drenmer wanted to build a proper kingdom for himself and his people. His father had started it, when they made a trading visit to Vonagal. He'd been only about five years old, but he could see that Vonagal was larger and richer than Qazgral. Further insult had come from the nobles who dismissed his birthright as a mere 'pouch kingdom' no larger than one of their own estates. When he had returned home, he had seen anew how the constant fighting between the various petty kings and chiefs kept Qazgral down. His father had apparently seen the same thing, for he had conceived the idea of building a castle and organizing an army to take over the neighboring kingdoms. Then the people would not have to worry about strangers burning their homes and fields every time lords squabbled.
Now he had the castle, and the men. He had done everything he could to not merely raise and equip and army, but to supply that army with the best equipment available, given his means. Unlike his neighbors, he even had a mage, Srelmigel. The mage had come from a far country, and hinted that he had fallen out of favor with his former lord. Since then, he had proven incredibly loyal and effective. All for room and board.
All he needed now was a sword fit for a king. His father's sword was barely distinguished from a common warrior's weapon. He'd set his best swordsmith the task of forging the sword and the mage had offered to bespell the weapon, so that it would never break and would cut through armor. The pair had not been seen at court for several weeks.
When he finished his circuit, he went to his throne room. The throne itself was well made of carved oak, upholstered in tapestry-woven wool. Craftsmen had worked days making certain the stones of the floor were as level as if cut from one enormous block, and more tapestries softened the stone walls. Benches and tables for his nobles ran down each side of the room, too many for the few he currently ruled. Subject nobles would fill them.
He had studied what history he could lay hands on. Like everyone, he had heard versions of the fate of Androvar, cursed by the gods for deicide. He would not become a monster. People would celebrate his reign, and his descendants would follow his example.
His chief counselor, who had served his father, said, "I pray that this augers well for you, my lord."
"So do I. A dream is easy to have. Making it real is harder than getting nobles to agree with each other."
"When is your first court in this room?"
"Tomorrow morning. Everyone gathers as usual, but in here." He motioned to a page. "Tell the nobles of the court to gather here tomorrow, at the usual time."
The boy bowed and trotted out.
***** ***** *****
For the first court in the new throne room, the nobles turned out in their finest clothes. Were their garb any richer, the torchlight and morning sunlight would glitter as if on water.
They understood the extra space on the benches. Several whispered their hopes of sitting beside distant cousins in the near future, and of strategic marriages that would enrich them all. Although they were all warriors, they each hoped that their king could avoid unnecessary fighting. Peace was much easier to keep if men had no relatives or insults to avenge.
Drenmer took his seat just as the first nobles arrived. One of his goals was not to be a monarch who made people wait just because he could do so. Little things like that contributed to people's resentment of their rulers, and resentment begat palace coups or popular revolutions.
After so many years of building and preparation, routine business seemed trivial. But they were used to waiting, and were not impatient. It would take time to build the new kingdom.
***** ***** *****
The royal swordsmith dropped the bloody, bone-and-brain-smeared loops of chain. At the other end of the chain lay Srelmigel's corpse. On the workbench lay the result of their work and the reason for murder: the King's sword. They were to present it to the King after the morning court session.
Fool mage. He had been so desperate to please Drenmer that he'd done the unthinkable. How could he believe that such a man would want a sword with a demon trapped inside it?
The vile magics hadn't been obvious at first. Srelmigel had known where to get high-quality iron, and had wanted other ingredients for his workings. The best spells, he explained, were worked into the objects while they were made. While the smith forged the sword, the mage would work the spells.
And, for a few days after the iron arrived, the magical workings didn't raise any questions with him. He only knew of hedge magic, so he thought any oddities were because he was unfamiliar with court and high magic. He simply made the raw iron into a steel blade.
Then Srelmigel chained them together. On that day, he learned the truth.
Drenmer would have not just a sword, but a powerful sword that would make him nearly invincible. In addition to his native skills, the sword would give him the knowledge and skills of everyone he killed. He had trapped a demon that ate souls. All that they needed was to bind it into the sword.
Afraid of what would happen otherwise, the smith had obeyed Srelmigel. He did not want to remember what they had done. All he would admit, to himself or others, was that no human hand shaped the hilt and pommel or fitted them to the sword, or had colored the blade crimson.
I can't touch it. The thing spoke in his mind. If he hurried, he could feed it Srelmigel's soul. Wouldn't that be a perfect punishment for his deeds?
He waited. As the mage's blood clotted, the voice changed from cajoling him to demanding that he take up the sword and use it. Desperately, he tried to think of how he could get rid of it without touching it, and so that no one else would ever find and use it.
Cut the chains to Srelmigel, first. Perhaps he could wrap the chains around the sword to carry it. Take one of the horses, and ride away. There had to be caves in the mountains. He could lose himself in one of them, in the deepest passage. Kill himself.
He no longer had a family. Even if his king declared him the worst traitor alive, there were none to feel the effects of his wrath. His plan would work, if no-one caught or stopped him.
The royal court would be in session until noon. If he started now, he could be gone before anyone came to ask about the sword.
Fighting the influence of the demon, he got his tools and cut the chains at Srelmigel. He would keep them fastened to him, so that he could not drop the sword. All he had to do was think of a way to handle it without touching it directly.
He first tied some sliding knots in light rope, then donned his thickest smithing gloves. After much fumbling, he looped ropes around the sword and tied it to the chains.
No. Someone from the palace had come for the sword. Couldn't they wait? "I'm just finishing. I will present it to the King myself, if I may."
The courtier walked in anyway. His expression changed from interested to horrified in an eyeblink. "What did you do?"
Oh, no. "What I had to do. Turn around and leave. Now. Please, sir, before anyone else dies." Already, the demon clamored in his head. He could take the sword and kill the fool. Not 'fool'. Count Olress.
"Don't you dare to give me orders, peasant." The count drew his own sword. "Wrap those chains around your own wrists." He backed towards the smithy door. "Don't move."
I could kill him and leave. He couldn't do that. The damned thing would get a grip on his soul. There would be no cave or suicide.
"Guards!" Olress called. "Come here. Come."
What would happen to the sword? Would he have a chance to tell his story before he was executed?
Two men-at-arms entered the smithy. One look, and they leveled their spears at him.
Olress saw the sword. His eyes widened. "What foulness is this?" he demanded.
"Don't touch it, sir. There's a demon in it. Let me take it away. It's why I killed the mage."
"Bind him. Let us take this murderer and his treachery to the King." With those words, the courtier picked up the sword.
Silence in the swordsmith's head.
Olress twitched, looked up and around. He stared at the sword, at the detailed skull pommel and the taloned crossguard. His puzzlement gave way to a peculiar expression, then he killed the men-at-arms and the swordsmith.
***** ***** *****
Morning court ended, and servants brought in the noon meal. To inaugurate the new palace, the cooks had worked for days preparing the courses. They rivaled the best dishes of Vonagal, according to those who had eaten there. Roasted mutton; fine, soft bread; conserves and preserves; in-season fruits, even river fish.
The meal ended, and Drenmer sent a servant to the swordsmith. He knew the man of old. For such an important job, he would worry about even the smallest details. No doubt the servant would find him filing off a nearly-invisible flaw or nick.
Shouting outside, and a man-at-arms rushed in. "Milord King, Count Olress has gone mad! He's killed three men already, and he's coming here."
More men-at-arms entered and took up positions at the doors and before the nobles. The noblemen put their women behind them and drew their weapons.
Outside the door, they could hear the fighting. By all rights, Olress should have been outnumbered and either killed or captured. Even the best warrior could not win against a room full of guards.
The door slammed open, revealing a blood-covered man-at-arms wielding a sword with a bright scarlet blade. In one hand, he clutched Olress's severed head. Behind him, they could see arms and legs. "I want to be your champion, my lord. I can be your champion."
Drenmer frowned. Royal champions had their uses, but the time was long past for any king to keep one. No-one challenged kings to duels, even when the kingdoms were tiny. What possible reason could this man have for requesting this?
The man-at-arms strode forward, stopped just beyond the spear-points. He set down the head and dropped to one knee. "I would defend you with my life, my lord."
I dare not put him off, the king thought. This did not seem to be the sort of madness that one could manipulate. He saw more than three dead guards in the anteroom.
"Olress had this sword," the guard said. "I took it from him and killed him with it. He would have killed you and claimed your throne. That's what he secretly wanted. Your swordsmith killed your mage. Olress killed the swordsmith. The swordsmith and the mage made this sword for you. I would use it to protect you."
Drenmer knew that the red blade wasn't painted. Any paint would have been damaged during use. "That is my sword?"
"I will be the hand that wields your sword," the guard said. "It speaks to me. I would not have you hear its voice."
Magic at work. But what sort? "How does the sword speak?"
"In my head. There is a demon in the blade. I do not want your wisdom tainted by the demon's voice."
A demon in the blade? "I would rather wield a stick than such a thing."
"Aye, my lord. I thought you would say such. You would not foul your reign with this."
The spearmen tensed.
"No-one should have this weapon. Lock me away, and the sword with me. Forget where I'm buried."
A poor reward for such loyalty and devotion, and yet, the only reward possible. "If I grant your request, what will you do?"
The man-at-arms trembled with the effort of control. "The demon doesn't want that. It wants souls. It wants me to fight and kill until I die. When I die, another will pick up this sword."
"Can you go with the guards?"
"I will try."
***** ***** *****
The man-at-arms fought with himself all the way to the deepest cellar. Along the way, his escort stopped to have a collar with two staves and three lengths of chain fitted to his neck. This allowed them to keep him at a safe distance. As they walked, he told them that he was certain that merely separating him from the sword would not work. He would either go mad, or try to retrieve it. As long as he lived, no-one would be safe.
They chained him in the deepest cellar. He was able to drop the sword, which a guard kicked out of reach. Under watch, masons laid a course of stone over the sword, then walled over the back of the cellar. There was almost no way to tell that the cellar was a few feet too short. Then the masons and the attending men-at-arms were oathbound, with curses, to never reveal, in any way, what they had done, or where the sword could be found.
King Drenmer himself did not know exactly where the man-at-arms had been imprisoned. He gave decent stipends to families of the men Olress had killed. All anyone knew was that the sword had been cursed or bespelled. Srelmigel's reputation suffered, as the nobles concluded that he had tried to sabotage Drenmer's ambitions, perhaps in the service of one of the other kings. King Drenmer defended the mage, saying that the man had been too eager to prove himself and had over-thought the spell-work.
Drenmer waited a few years to start his campaign. The story of the cursed sword worked both for and against him. Those kings or higher nobles who thought him a fool for refusing a powerful weapon often faced nobles or commoners who thought otherwise. A man who, on moral grounds, would refuse a sure path to victory was preferable to one who would discard morals. Since Drenmer did not oppress or mistreat his new subjects, people said that his morals were not mere talk. This made surrender more palatable to those he conquered.
Conquest is relatively easy. It's the administration afterwards that's hard. Drenmer was smart enough to not reshuffle too much. He had learned that a king might command, but that small armies of clerks, cooks, tailors, and others in service carry out those commands. These people know all the names, dates, and places and keep the nation running.
In due time, he married the daughter of one of his new subject kings, and they treated the people to five children.
***** ***** *****
The generations passed. Qazgral, strengthened by the absorption of its neighbors, enjoyed peace and security under a dynasty whose heirs tried to be wise and just. There were wars, for no nation can be completely at peace with its neighbors, but they did not stretch out for poisonous decades. The original castle was expanded and remodeled until its original fortress function had been eliminated.
However, even the best of families are composed of human beings, and rivalry and ambition can destroy relationships between family members. When the rivalry and ambition are in royal families, the results can be fatal.
The fourth son of Drenmer's great-great-great-grandson wanted to surpass his ancestor's achievement. In school, he had concluded that his family's mistake had been deciding that Qazgral was large enough. The former nations had become provinces. No families dreamed of reclaiming long-gone thrones. There were no problems in the bureaucracy.
He had heard versions of the story of the red-bladed sword. Most of them agreed that it was long lost. The purported curse he put down to provincial ignorance. Qazgral had proper mages now, trained in the best schools. Whoever Srelmigel had been, he had not been a spy or assassin, but a great mage who had wanted to serve his king.
His father had put him in charge of the latest bout of changes in the palace. This time, they were cleaning out cellars that had been unused for at least a century. The servants found old, mouldering, furniture, a case of wine (now well-aged), and general junk. By his father's orders, he had the cellars measured. The king had thought to knock out or through the walls and make the cellars usable again. But the cellars were part of the original foundations, with thick walls between them. By comparison with the original plans, they did find out that one cellar chamber was somewhat smaller than the others. Curious, and thinking of forgotten treasure, the young prince had the odd wall taken down.
He was there when the servants found the sword. They let him pick up what looked to them like a royal weapon. He took it out into the daylight.
The first thing he noticed, before he even left the cellars, was that the weapon was in very good shape for something buried for decades or centuries. When he was outside, he found a spot where he could examine it at leisure.
"Damn!" He almost threw it down.
A silvery pommel in the shape of a skull, detailed down to the very teeth and cranial sutures. The grip looked like metal, scarlet and silvery, with nightmare reliefs along its length. Silvery crossguard, with talons on each end. Was the blade painted? What master had made it?
No, the blade wasn't painted. That dark crimson, almost black color, was the metal itself.
I am yours. Use me.
What? He looked about for the speaker. Had someone seen?
The voice was in his head. A god? A spirit? Had he been chosen by the gods to be their voice?
I am not a god. I am yours. I am the key to your dreams.
His dreams. His dreams of glory.
A servant approached him. "My lord, there is a body down there. Someone was chained to the wall."
Before he knew what he was about, the servant died on the blade. The man left a wife and three children.
King Drenmer had interred a man alive. That man had killed the first person to hold the sword, Count Olress. How do I know this?
The voice whispered, Through me.
This was the sword that King Drenmer I had refused to use, even in another man's hands.
He could use it. Drenmer had been too close to that primitive age, when a man's death during an impersonal battle could lead to a feud, and when personal morals were thought a guide to how well a man or woman would rule. Those days were over. A monarch ruled through right of descent, or the ability to hold the throne against challengers. Any act that kept people too afraid to rebel was acceptable.
No-one could know he had it. For all he knew, Drenmer I had left a record of that long-ago day. For all he knew, only the one who eventually inherited the throne read that record. His father might know about this sword and what it could do. This sword would not protect him from an arrow or from poison.
He would kill the servants who had found the sword and hide their bodies. Then he would pretend to discover the breached false wall. Everyone would think that the servants had found and stolen a cache of gold or silver.
After that, he would plan how to get the throne. Qazgral's ruling family was not wracked by the intrigues and machinations that left others stumbling. If too many people died in too short a time, the survivors would suspect him. He wanted the throne, and he did not want to look over his shoulder.
He wrapped up the sword and put it away. Time enough to use it later. If he could just block those whispers in his mind.