Ragged, starving, wracked with illness, the warrior staggered through the old, dark forest. Months ago, he had thrown away his armor and released his horse, keeping only clothes, dagger, and the demon-possessed Bloodsword.
The demon in the weapon demanded that he turn around and return to cities, where it could feed on souls and blood. "No, by the gods," he said. "Enough. You've done enough. I have done enough." No more. It had taken every ounce of mental strength he could muster to resist the monstrous blade's urgings and come so far from even the smallest village. He could not destroy it, no-one could destroy it, but he could hide it from the world. For that reason, he had come to this unclaimed, remote forest.
He stumbled against a tree and clung to it for support. This is the end of my road. Right here, right now.
The tree was good-sized, healthy. The demon-filled blade would pierce it as if it were potter's clay, and the tree would grow around it. No-one could find it here.
Inside his head, the demon clamored, cajoled, and threatened. With his last strength, he thrust in the blade. His legs folded.
Before he could weaken further, he used the dagger.
400 Years Later
When the stolen horse foundered just inside the forest, Fasz dismounted. He looked back along the road, trying to see the police trackers. How close were they?
On either side, undergrowth choked the forest floor. If he left the road now, he would leave signs. He'd heard that underbrush thinned the farther one went into the forest, so he continued on the roadway. Behind him, he thought he heard the police trackers calling to each other.
All that fuss for a skinflint barman who wouldn't give credit. So what if he'd owed money? He always paid, eventually.
"Ow!" He wasn't used to riding, and he certainly wasn't used to running on anything except cobbled, clean, town roads. He'd twisted his ankle on a loose stone.
But the bastard had insisted he pay before he could get so much as a taste of ale, and then threatened to call the city police when he couldn't scrounge a copper. A man had a right to defend himself.
He heard tracker horn-signals. Damn. They had good horses, and knew how to ride and track. And they used that to pick on people like him.
It wasn't his fault he had to lie and steal and cheat. He tried to work, but they were always on him about something, and he refused to work for anyone who didn't respect him. The world wouldn't end if he took all afternoon to groom two horses or if he was a little late on an errand.
The trees were huge, with branches as big around as his chest or legs at the boles. He hadn't known trees could get so big. Some of them had knobby holes, knobs, and broken stumps of branches. If he could find a tree with enough of them, he could climb it. And if he didn't fall out, he could hide from the trackers. But the damned brush was still too heavy. He'd be caught in it before he could get away.
Again the horns. Closer.
The trackers weren't riding full-speed. They wouldn't want to miss their victim. He didn't want to be caught on the ground. Once he got in a tree, maybe he could go branch to branch and so on to another tree. He had to risk leaving a trail.
He forced his way towards a promising tree. His clothes snagged on the brush, slowing him even more. A tiny branch stuck out just below shoulder height. There were bumps and knobs just above it.
First try. His smooth, wood-soled town shoes slipped on the bark. The little branch felt odd in his hand. He'd held his share of wooden staves and handles, and the texture was all wrong for wood.
While wiping his hand on his shirt, he studied the branch. Not a branch, but metal. Some lord's climbing spike? Never mind that. He had to escape the trackers.
He grabbed it again, found purchase for one foot, and the other foot slid off the bark. This time, he lost his grip.
More discoloration had come off the metal. It gleamed like silver, and there was a vertical piece near the tree and a knob on the end. It looked like a sword hilt.
Pull. Use me.
Fasz jumped, looked around, and chided himself. Climb the tree, he scolded, grasping the shiny metal.
Not words so much as impulses, feelings. Where had they come from?
Red tinged his thoughts. Bloody revenge on his enemies: he could have it. Show people he couldn't be pushed around.
How could he do that?
"Here!" a tracker called.
He pulled at the apparent sword-hilt ---
--- and drew a red-bladed sword from the tree.
The trackers rode into view. They scanned along the road and to each side, their weapons ready. None of them had loaded a crossbow. Why should they?
I don't know how to use a sword! They'd cut him into cat's-meat.
The voice in his head, again: I will show you what to do. Let me guide you.
The six trackers trotted through the brush towards him, ready for him to run again. Sunlight dappled their armor and horses.
Fasz raised the sword. No more running. Let's see your fine horses and weapons take me. I'll gut you all.
***** ***** *****
Around him lay the bodies of the six trackers and two of their horses. Fasz could only stare at the carnage.
Six armed men. Six armed, trained, men. He'd killed them all.
He'd never even held a sword before today. Knives, yes, and the occasional cosh, but those were poor training for swords. And he avoided fighting with armed men.
I should be dead.
The sword. The sword? He looked at it closely.
Red blade. Not paint, but red metal. It had been dark crimson, almost black, when he pulled it out of the tree. Now it was scarlet.
And the hilt! He almost dropped the sword in horror.
Silvery, shiny as a mirror, with a detailed skull for a pommel; the grip worked in the silvery and crimson metals with more detail than he'd ever seen, showing nightmares he lacked words to describe; and the cross-piece ending in talons.
That sword had cut through flesh and metal as easily as through air, but that alone had not defeated the trackers.
He had known how to fight them.
Except that he always ran when outnumbered. It was the only way he could stay alive.
He'd attacked the weakest part of their line, intending to steal the horse. The beast had shied, giving the other trackers time to regroup. With the strange sword in one hand and a stolen spear in the other, he'd met their attack. After that, things blurred.
Why worry about it? He knew how to fight, now.
But how had he learned?
Was the sword magic? Had it been made to help a fighter? Why should he care? Should he care?
He wiped off the blade. Blood and gore spattered his clothes. His stomach rumbled.
He had a sword, and he could fight. New clothes, money, armor, and other weapons were here for the taking.
All this for a niggardly barman.
Six dead men. Between them, he should be able to cobble together a complete set of clothes and armor. He'd leave the identifying police badges and jupons to rot with the bodies.
***** ***** *****
Riding with other men's skills, wearing stolen mail-and-plate armor and clothes, Fasz returned to the town of Kartenal.
Had the town been walled, he would have been caught by guards who recognized a horse, perhaps some police-specific patterns of the armor or weapons. Without prominent identifying marks, he looked like a wandering sell-sword. People who knew him either looked past him, not expecting the armor, or looked twice in surprise. He passed a group of men drinking at tables outside a tavern.
"Hey, hey, look who's here." Tarbil swung his gut-and-muscle bulk from the bench into Fasz's path. His companions chuckled. "Is that armor real? Who'd you cheat for the horse?"
"Get out my way." Despite himself, he whined as he usually did when Tarbil confronted him.
"Off the horse, Fasz." The big man clamped a hand on his leg. "Hey, that's real." He looked at the horse. "That's no nag." Suspicion flared. "What have you been up to?"
I don't have to put up with this. Not anymore. With that, Fasz cleaved Tarbil's skull. "Anyone else?" he asked the little knot of men. They scattered.
Tarbil had money hidden away. How do I know that? he wondered, for about ten seconds. The bastard owed him for a lifetime of trouble.
He had always known where Tarbil lived. Right there with the other snobs who thought their dung didn't stink, who actually owned their homes. With the sword, he cut the door-lock. Inside, he found and cut through the panel concealing a small box. He broke that open, and found gold and silver coins. A lifetime's hoard, put away against age or hard times.
As he left through the ruined door, two men tried to stop him. He recognized them as childhood bullies, so he killed them.
What if he left two widows and three now-fatherless children? They'd made his life miserable and had tried it again. He was certain, despite the contrary knowledge in his mind, they had used the burglary to justify abusing him. If anyone else had robbed the place, they'd have ignored the thief, he rationalized.
He had stopped wondering how he knew things. Obviously, the sword was magic.
At an expensive tavern, where no-one knew him, he learned that one of his silver coins bought a finer meal and better ale than he'd ever consumed in his life. So he used another coin to buy a bottle of wine.
***** ***** *****
Tarbil's comrades reported his murder. Upon hearing Fasz's name, the prefect dispatched a squad to find the trackers, and sent an alert to patrols throughout the city.
***** ***** *****
After two cups of wine, it occurred to Fasz that the police would hear of Tarbil's death. If he were to pay back his persecutors, he had to start now. Show everyone he couldn't be pushed around anymore.
He took the bottle with him.
First victim was the blacksmith. Picky bastard. How could it matter whether you hit the iron ten or twenty times, or if the billet didn't stay white-hot? Not everyone could pump a bellows or bang metal all day without a break.
He not only killed the smith: he cut the anvil in half.
Next, the carter. Another picker. This time about loading carts. Things fell when the carts hit potholes, no matter how you loaded them. But the bastard wouldn't listen. Always on him about the so-called 'right way' to load a cart.
The butcher next, two more childhood enemies, three women who had rejected him, a carpenter, a baker, one of his former landlords, and a witness to that murder.
Word spread. Armed men cleared the streets to let the police do their job.
By killing so many, Fasz muted the details of each individual in his mind. He didn't have to find ways to justify himself, and he started to enjoy murder.
Go on. He heeded the prompt.
A three-man police patrol, on foot. They readied their spears and commanded him to identify himself.
"I'm the man you rousted for fun," he said. "Now, I'm your death."
He'd surprised the trackers. These three knew how to handle a mounted man. They surrounded him, spears up. One stabbed the horse, which jigged, then bucked. It took all of Fasz's new skills to stay mounted, then the other two stabbed the beast. Mortally wounded, it collapsed.
Fasz wore plate and mail head to foot, while the patrol wore mail shirts and carried shields. They surrounded him, attacking simultaneously. Were it not for the armor, he would have had a hard time, but it gave him enough edge to kill them.
They ganged up on me! He almost stamped his foot and threw a tantrum, but new knowledge filled him. Police procedures, and fighting techniques. Only in plays or stories were fights always one-on-one. Why should the police come at him one at a time?
He needed a horse. Not a cart-horse, cob, or plug, but a good, combat-trained horse.
***** ***** *****
The prefect of police knew Fasz as a petty criminal more likely to run from a fight than hold his ground. His first murder had been a crime of anger, which wasn't a hanging offense.
He studied the clean-cut anvil in the smithy. What could have cut it that way? He'd never seen anything like it.
The bodies of the blacksmith and other victims were just as cleanly cut. He'd never seen such cuts, even at executions.
There had to be magic involved. He needed a mage, or someone who knew enough magic to tell him what might have happened. Then he could send to Earl Mazrül for a mage who could break whatever magics had been worked on Fasz or his sword.
One of his men had a young hedge-witch as a cousin. She agreed to help, with the caveat that she wasn't sure she could do any more than the rest of the police. Her talents were mostly kitchen-witchery and treating minor wounds, although she could bespell recently-dead animals and tell what had killed them.
She looked at the bodies, then touched them. By the time she had examined all of them, she was ready to faint. The victims' souls had not gone to the Land of Light, or to the Land of Shadows: they had been taken.
The prefect shuddered. Only demons could take souls. How had Fasz gained a demon? Magic required discipline, and Fasz had less discipline than some children. And he would never give up control to a demon. He was too self-centered for that.
***** ***** *****
Shit. They're everywhere. Fasz ducked out of sight. In the few hours since he'd killed Tarbil, the police presence had doubled. People locked their doors, and he felt certain that those with weapons would use them on anyone who forced a door or window.
He had to get out of the city before the earl could send extra men and they sealed off the roads. Carters and wagoners had unhitched their teams and even removed the tongues from their vehicles, so he couldn't steal one or hide in one leaving town. Men with crossbows and clubs guarded stables.
Damn it all. If he waited any longer, he'd never escape. Some nervous cotter or tradesman would shoot him.
He needed a horse. Once he had one, he could ride across country, get out of Mazrül's lands, reach another town or city where he wasn't known. Then he'd take another name and hide in plain sight.
Hoofbeats. Cautiously, he peered around the corner. Single, mounted patroller, with ready crossbow, in the middle of the street. Two foot patrols at either end, with longbow archers. What orders had they been given?
There weren't enough police to cover every place he could go. They would probably watch the main roads. If he wanted a horse, he would have to hit the stables or mews. Not the ones used by the wealthy: those would be well-guarded. The places he wanted were for the inns and other public buildings.
Sheedaw's. He had never worked there, so any guards wouldn't really be expecting him. In and out fast. Don't stop for anything except a saddle and bridle.
He was in luck. Sheedaw had closed all the gates, and the guards tried to stay alert, but Fasz walked openly towards them, which they didn't expect. Two quick cuts, and they were dead. Into the stable, where he found a horse, decapitated a groom, and rode out at speed.
The lack of city walls worked for him. He used side-streets and jumped his mount over a low wall not far from the main road. By the time the patrol saw him and gave chase, he was well ahead.
The prefect was not a man to let a criminal become another town's problem. He sent out trackers and patrols, and sent to Earl Mazrül for men to guard the town and assist the search.
Like the majority of people, Fasz had never left the town. He wouldn't know the best routes across the farms and fields, which meant that he could be slowed down by fences, streams, ditches, and walls. Either the horse would founder, or he'd decide to risk the road. Perhaps the horse would throw him and break his neck. The police would be able to catch him easily.
***** ***** *****
After a cold night in a shed, Fasz resumed his ride. The horse was unhappy, but he didn't care. He had to get far enough away that he could be certain the patrols wouldn't find him.
He didn't intend to become a mercenary or a bodyguard. Too dangerous. He would get away, lose the red sword down a well or something, and get work. There would be someone who would understand him and let him do things his way. There had to be.
But there were so many he wanted to punish for the way they'd treated him. Later, when people stopped looking for him. He'd return, find a way to make them suffer.
Or he could kill them. Kill them and have done with it. Kill anyone who crossed him. But cleverly, carefully. No more leaving bodies in the street. He knew offhand a half-dozen places in Kartenal where he could hide a corpse, and could think of a half-dozen more.
Hedges, fences and streams slowed him. When the horse wouldn't jump, he had to find gaps in the fences and hedges, and fords at the streams. The farmers and cotters presumed that he was a criminal and shot at him with arrows, stones, spears, and quarrels. He dared not take the time to kill or rob anyone.
With his stolen knowledge, he kept away from the road and angled out of Mazrül's lands towards Duke Golna's holdings. There, he could take to a proper road, and get to another town or city.
***** ***** *****
Mazrül sent word to his immediate lord, Duke Golna, and also to neighboring lords, about the criminal with the red-bladed sword. The farmers who had seen Fasz reported him, and as the news spread, others prepared traps for him. Men-at-arms equipped with bows, crossbows, and slings kept lookout. No-one would get close to them.
***** ***** *****
Fasz's luck ran out at the border with Golna. The duke had marshaled every man and woman who could pull a bow or use a sling. They hid behind trees, fences, boundary-markers, and any other cover they could find, leaving a few uniformed soldiers in plain sight.
Behind him, a loose arc of men-at-arms closed in.
Seeing what looked like a clean escape, Fasz spurred his horse. A crossbowman fired, and the animal collapsed. As he struggled to his feet, an archer and a slinger both struck him with their missiles, the arrow through the mail on his right arm, the sling-shot crunching his helmet.
Get away! Now! He yelped as another stone hit his injured arm.
Kill them and be done with it. Make them pay for hurting you.
Yes. Yes. Blood ran down his arm onto the sword, and disappeared into it. He shifted it to his left hand. He could do it, with the sword's help. Cut right through them, like a scythe.
An arrow went into his neck, and he choked. Quarrels punched into the plate pieces, and stones knocked him about. More arrows struck.
Choking on blood, he crawled. The sword was supposed to help him. It had helped him before. Why hadn't it helped him now?
He crumpled. In front of his eyes was the crimson metal blade, and he now saw the way it absorbed his blood. What was it?
Arteries and veins emptied into the ground, or into the sword. He waited for the soul-takers from the Land of Shadows.
The demon reached out of the Bloodsword and took him.
No-one approached the body until the Kartenal party arrived. By then, flies had begun to crawl over it.
***** ***** *****
Fasz was buried with other criminals. Those who looked at the red sword too long reported being fascinated by thoughts of killing, as did those who touched it. After all attempts to melt or break it failed, Earl Mazrül had it encased in lead and at the dark of the moon, he himself cast it into the deepest, swiftest part of the river. He never told anyone the location.