by Kristen Lee Knapp
She dropped pine needles into her small fire. The flames crackled and sweet smoke sizzled upward. Tall trees loomed all around, blocking the starry black sky with dry, cackling branches. Wintry winds cut through the forest and through her furs.
Shadows shifted in the forest. Feral eyes shone in the dark. Black shapes loped closer, pink tongues lolling free from rows of yellow fangs.
Igral stood and drew her sword. Firelight gleamed down the sharp steel blade and the frayed length of her blond hair.
A huge wolf strode towards her and stopped. A steel sword was clenched in its jaws. Its fur vanished, its paws morphed, changing into hands and feet. The snout vanished, the jaws shrank into rows of teeth. A naked man rose from the ground, a muscular, grinning animal with pale skin and a murderous gaze. "Little girl," he said. "I am Vargwr. This is my forest." He grabbed his crotch and pointed at her with his sword. "You will bear me many children."
Igral ripped open her jerkin, baring her breasts, slapping them with the flat of her sword. The wolves muttered with laughter.
Vargwr spread his arms. "Come. I will not hurt you. Let us be friends."
She charged. Steel met steel. Sparks flared and fizzled in the frozen earth. She slashed but missed, stepping off balance. He grabbed and locked her wrist, twisting the sword from her hands. His amber eyes glowed and he growled a laugh.
She smashed his nose in with her face and he stumbled back screaming. She dropped, grabbed the sword, slashed and an arm spiraled away, spurting red.
Vargwr's body shrank and hair sprouted over his body as he morphed back into a wolf. Soft whimpers escaped his jaws as he looked up at her with big yellow eyes.
The sword clove his head from his shoulders. She bent down, claimed the head and hurled it to the other wolves. She slapped her breasts with her bloody sword.
The wolves melted away into the darkness. Long after the flames died down she lay awake, clutching her bloody blade.
The sun blinked over the horizon and light spilled down through the thick canopy. Snow drifted through the forest, dusting trees and wandering on the wind. Igral stood and buckled on her sword.
A few logs smoldered in her fire. She stamped the embers out, grabbed her things and walked away. She ate as she walked, chewing strips of dried jerky and spitting gristle.
She came to a narrow river. Ice crusted both banks and dark water flowed between. She filled her waterskins and walked upriver, boots crunching through cold wet snow.
A craggy grey mountain appeared through the mists. Snow buried its flat cliffs and sharp boulders. A halo of dark clouds circled the frosty peak. The grim cadence of her bloody wet boots quickened.
The maw of a huge cave gaped at the base of the mountain. Rocks hung from the ceiling like mammoth tusks. Water dripped from the ceiling and spattered against the rocks. Light glowed in the depths of the cave. She drew her sword and descended.
Blue flames appeared all around her. An old man with a white mossy beard and dark eyes stood before her, frowning. "Who are you?" he said, then sniffed. "You stink like a werewolf. But you're human. What do you want?" He hobbled away and pulled open a small wooden door. Igral followed him in.
Workbenches and tables were scattered through the chamber, covered with potions and roots, skulls and crystals. Stacks of books and scrolls reached to the ceiling. She gaped.
"Speak up," said the old man. "I am occupied."
"Are you the Wizard Under the Mountain?"
He nodded, sat and began crushing something with a mortar and pestle. "I am. I have dwelt here forever. Kings have come seeking my wisdom. What do you want?"
"If you lie, I will kill you."
He smiled and raised his caterpillar eyebrows. "You are welcome to leave."
She frowned. "No." She showed him her sword. "This is Akjik. It was my father's sword. It has slain a hundred men."
The wizard looked at it and flicked the blade. "A sharp piece of metal," he said. "No more deserving a name than your boots or a piss pot. What of it?"
"I must kill the man that killed my father," she said.
The wizard rolled his eyes and went back to crushing something in a mortar and pestle. "Not interested."
"I have fought with this man already," she said. "But I was...beaten. His sword was bright like the sun and blinded me."
"He spared you, did he?" the wizard said, without looking at her.
Igral gnashed her teeth.
"Sounds like some manner of light incantation. An old spell." The wizard thrummed his fingers against his beard. "A very old spell. Interesting."
"Will you help me?" she said.
He wove his spotted, wrinkled fingers together. "I may. But I will only agree if you bring me this light sword after I have done this for you. Agreed?"
"Yes," said Igral, handing him the sword. "Work quickly."
He looked at it and chortled. "No. No. This will take years, child."
"Years. What did you expect? For me to mutter some words and speed you on your way?" He tsked and shook his head. "Foolish girl. No. Learn some patience or abandon your revenge. But do not waste any more of my time."
"I cannot wait years."
The wizard frowned and scratched his jaw. "Oh, enough enough. Here." He walked over to a shelf and grabbed a tiny leaf from a potted plant. "Eat this. You will sleep the years away and never age. I will wake you when your sword is ready. And then you will bring me this magic sword of light."
"Why do you want it?" she said.
"A professional interest, you might say."
"I will chase you to hell if you try to cheat me wizard." She sniffed the leaf and bit. It crumpled in her mouth and vanished. A bitter taste choked her throat and clogged her nostrils.
"Yes. Fear not," said the wizard. He helped her over to a bed of straw. "I will try and remember to wake you."
The dim lights went black and her vision dribbled away.
Igral opened her eyes and immediately hauled herself upright.
"Well. You're awake now," he said. The wizard walked over, handed her a gourd. Igral drank. Spiced wine burned her throat, heat rushed through her limbs.
"I was successful," he said. "Though it took slightly longer than I expected."
"How long?" she said.
"How long you have been asleep, you mean. Thirty years. You will appreciate all of the extra work I went through in preparing your sword."
She grabbed his throat. "Thirty years!"
He smiled and nodded. "Thirty. I offer no apology. And you have profited from our bargain. Here is your sword." He handed her a sheathed blade.
"It looks no different," she grated.
He rolled his eyes. "You must never draw this sword unless you mean to kill. It must take a life before returning to its sheath or it will take yours."
"What manner of sorcery is that?"
"I have nurtured a demon to live in your sword and forged in it many spells. The steel is very strong and will never dull. But the demon will make your sword truly great. It will thirst for blood. Seek your enemy's flesh." He paused. "Remember your end of the bargain."
"I do not even know if my father's killer still lives. What use will this sword be?"
The wizard shrugged. "Kill his children. It's no matter to me. Your young blood was useful these past years. Very seldom do I have a specimen of your strength and so many spells call for a human essence."
She looked at her arms, the myriad of fresh scars lining her wrists.
"But a deal was made. I expect you to uphold it, or I will not be so kind," said the wizard.
She drew the sword. Red light throbbed down the length of glittering steel. She thrust it into the wizard's chest and twisted. His eyes went wide and he screamed, grasping her shoulders feebly. Black blood gushed from the wound. When she drew the sword out only smoking bones remained of the Wizard Under the Mountain. She sheathed the sword, grabbed her pack and fled the cave.
The sun shone bright outside. Green grass thawed from beneath a blanket of light snow. Warm wind gusted down from the mountainside. Birds skirted through blooming trees. White puffs of clouds hovered above, a blue sky waited beyond. She walked into the forest. She kindled a fire against the coming night and sat in front of it, rubbing her callused hands against her cold, pale flesh. Sleep came quickly.
She woke before dawn, covered her fire and set off into the forest. Her stomach roared for a bloody haunch of meat and her throat screamed for a flagon of wine, it felt ages since she'd had either.
Tracks were scattered across the forest floor below. She knelt, dusting through the snow until she uncovered a trail. She drew her bow from her pack, knotting the thick, waxy string taut.
Igral followed the trail, inundated with memories of hunting with her father. Her fingers straddled the goose feather fletching, stroking the frayed edges.
A doe sipped water from a small creek. Igral drew the arrow back, exulting as her bow flexed with pent up strength. She loosed the arrow, watched it spear through branches and sink into the deer's throat. Igral rushed over and cut its throat with a knife from her belt.
Horses trampled through the woods. Two men emerged from the trees. Each wore metal helmets and carried shields, axes and lances. "Who are you?" one of them said.
Igral dropped her bow to the forest floor. "Who are you?"
"Mordren, and this is Borzum. We are Lord Auric's housecarls. Who are you?" he said. "By what right do you hunt in this forest?"
"This land belongs to me."
They laughed. "Queen of the Forest, are you?" said the other.
"Hastald was my father," she said. "I am Lord Igral. Auric slew my father and I will drink goblets of his blood soon."
The two men looked at one another. "Hastald and his ilk have been dead thirty years," said Mordren. "Do you think this is a game, whore?"
She drew her sword. Red light pulsed down the steel blade, a smile bloomed across her hard lips. "Come and play, eunuch."
Mordren cursed and raised his spear.
"Leave her," said the other man.
Mordren shouted, kicking his heels into his horse, urging it to a run.
Igral rolled under the spear thrust and hacked the horse's legs, sending it screaming to the ground. Mordren crawled from the saddle, drew his axe from his belt. "That horse was worth more than your life," he growled, leaping to the attack.
Igral blocked, dancing backwards, checking his swings. The sword felt strange in her hands, moving against her instincts, pulling her to the attack.
Akjik leapt out, hewed the axe head from the haft. A blink. The sword pierced Mordren's bowels. Blood gushed from the wound and the sword pulsed, swallowing it. He screamed, shriveling like a grape in the sun. His skin melted from his flesh until only clothes hung from naked bones. He crumpled to the ground.
"Sorcery!" Borzum shouted, fighting with the reins. His horse shrieked, reared, and spilled him from the saddle.
Igral strode over, raising her sword.
Borzum pulled off his helmet. His face was grey and his beard was the color of iron. His green eyes drooped with the weight of untold shame. "Please," he said. "Spare me! I served your father."
"Traitor," she said.
"No!" He crawled to his knees and bowed his head. "I fought for you and your father thirty years ago. I simply did not believe who you were."
"You serve Auric now?"
Borzum pressed his face against the ground. "After the war he...He offered me mercy. I took it. I wanted to live!"
"You should have fallen on your sword," she said.
"Your father was dead and you had vanished." He looked up and there were tears in his eyes. "I have a family. And their bellies do not care if their food tastes less than honorable. I beg you to take me in your service."
"What would I do with an old man?" she said.
"You may take my horse and weapons. I have food and..."
He nodded. "A skin of Gossian red."
They skinned the doe and made a fire and a spit from some tree branches. Borzum spun the gutted deer over the crackling flame. Igral drank wine and shredded a steaming hunk of meat in her teeth. Blood sluiced down her chin. She washed her food down with a gulp of wine.
"Mordren was one of Faylek's greatest warriors."
"Mordren," she said. She poured some wine on the ground.
Borzum frowned. "What did you do to him?"
She touched the hilt of her sword. "It is a demon blade. The Wizard Under the Mountain forged it."
"I did not know he truly existed."
"Not any more. He tricked me and I slew him. He made me sleep for thirty years."
"Thirty!" Borzum shook his head. "I did not know legends sprang so readily from the forest. Do you think you can slay Auric?"
She spat a chunk of gristle into the fire.
"You must know he is old," said Borzum. "He is no great warrior any more. His sons rule."
"Then I will kill his sons," she said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.
"I was sworn to Faylek's service. He rules a castle not far from here. War is brewing with his brothers."
Igral drank more and more, uncaringly greedy.
"I heard tales of the battle at Muradk," said Borzum, staring at her. "They say you were a demon that day, that you killed fifty men at least. But after that you disappeared. What happened?"
"Auric defeated me," she said, standing. "Take me to this castle."
He shook his head. "No, that's suicide. Faylek will kill you immediately!"
"Do not defy your lord and master," she said. "Take me there."
Wooden stockades lined the mud-slopped hill. Men teemed over it like ants, digging ditches and sharpening stakes, burying them in the dirt, staring as Borzum and Igral rode past. Their horse sloshed through bubbling brown pits and puddles up toward the house on the hill.
A spearman stopped them at the gate. "Alone?" he said. "Where's Mordren?"
"I slew him," said Igral, dismounting.
He smiled. "Oh. No small feat. What's your name lassie?"
"Igral. Daughter of Hastald. I have come to kill your master."
A pause. The spearman laughed and opened the gate. "Go on through," he said.
Borzum stabled his horse and they walked up to the house on the hill. Four men in steel coats and crested helms waited for them. They took their weapons and set them aside. Igral's hands tingled as she gave Akjik away.
Multicolored banners hung from tall wooden beams. Burning torches cast dim light on log walls. Guards stood at attention with large halberds.
A fleshy man sat on a tall throne. A black beard rusted with white covered his flabby jaw. Thick hides wrapped his corpulent frame. He looked up as she approached.
A slim woman in a grey gown stood beside him. Her long ruddy hair was tied simply behind her and her blue eyes drilled into Igral's.
"This is not a time for visitors," said Faylek. "War is coming. Who are you? What do you want?"
Borzum grabbed her arm. "This is suicide!" he whispered.
"Borzum?" Faylek raised his eyebrows. "Where is Mordren?"
"I slew him," she said. "I am Igral, and I've come to destroy your family."
A chasm of silence opened in the hall.
"Impossible," said Faylek. "She would be...sixty or seventy were she alive."
"She tells the truth, my lord," said Borzum.
The big man laughed. "A joke."
"No," said the woman at his side. "Look at her, look at her eyes. She is not joking."
"Fight me, if you are no coward," said Igral.
Faylek grinned. "Gout took my sword from me long ago," he said. "But even if I was hale, I would not fight you. Whoever you are. I have no courageous bone in my body." He lifted a finger. "Take her."
The guards raised their halberds and converged. Borzum threw himself in front of her. Steel blades rained down, hacking him apart.
One of the guards slashed at her. Igral ducked under the cut, seized the halberd and knocked him flat. Another guard came on. She spun and crushed down on his helm. The helm crunched down and blood splattered from his head like juice from a crushed fruit.
Something swept her legs from under her and she hit the ground. They ripped the halberd from her hands and pinned her, dragging her to her feet.
"Such a fierce creature," someone said.
"Who would follow a man who fears to face a woman?" she shrieked.
Faylek laughed, slapping the bulge of his gut. "Throw her in the dungeon."
The huge jailer stared at her through the iron bars. Scars laced his bald pate. His dull, bovine eyes watched her every movement.
Igral stared back, cracking her knuckles.
He grinned and shoved a key into the bars, opening them. "Going to scream?" he said.
She tested the chains at her wrist, stretching against them.
He shrugged, pulled down his pants and came at her.
She hefted herself up by her chains and clamped her legs about his neck, driving her knee into his throat. He choked, grasping pitifully at her thighs as his face turned pink.
The chain around her right wrist snapped free of the ceiling and she fell to the ground. The jailer staggered back choking, regaining his breath slowly. He wiped his face, spat and came again.
Igral whipped him with the broken links of her chain, ripping gouges into his skin with rusty iron links. He shouted and shot his hand out, catching the chain and slamming her up against the wall, pinning her. His hot breath poured down her neck. The coarse hair and cold sweat of his chest slid across her face. He ripped her cotton shift apart and threw it aside, wrenching himself between her legs.
Igral felt him probe her thighs, hard, unyielding. Her skull quaked as magma roiled up from her throat.
A door opened and closed above. The jailer looked up, cursed, relaxed his grip.
Igral smashed his temple with the flat of her palm and he sank to the ground.
Two figures descended into the dungeon. The light of their torch blinded Igral and she closed her eyes.
"Leave us," said a woman's voice.
Igral squinted. The huge bald man stumbled to his feet and staggered out.
"Are you injured?" another voice, a man's.
"The light," she said through clenched teeth.
The torch hissed as it was shoved into a bucket of water. Igral opened her eyes. Faylek's red-haired woman stood before her, a stranger waited at her side. He was a tall man with mossy eyes. Dark hair shadowed his bold jaw and hung from his head in an unkempt tangle. He wore an iron scale shirt and a sword at his hip.
"I've come to make you an offer," said the woman.
"Who are you?"
"Cerwyn," she said. "Faylek's wife."
"Royac," the man said with a half-bow. "Auric is my father. I hear you mean to kill me." He smiled. "Your methods are somewhat unorthodox. Did you really expect to succeed, disarmed and surrounded?"
"I have waited years for revenge. I will not wait a moment longer."
Royac grinned. "A little subtlety might lend itself well to your mission. Unless you want to end up like your friend Borzum."
"I've come to make you an offer," said Cerwyn.
Igral tested the chain around her left wrist, yanking at it. Iron bolts held tight in the stone ceiling. "Speak," she said.
"I will release you from this cell and deliver you my husband to do with as you please."
"Marry me," said Royac.
Igral's eyes fell on them.
"None of Auric's children have a legitimate claim to these lands," said Cerwyn. "The people do not support them. If you wed Royac, his claim becomes real. That will tip the balance in the coming war. The people remember your father and they will remember you."
"Not a terrible deal," said Royac. He scratched his jaw. "Your only real chance of succeeding, you know."
"I do not think my honor so worthless as what you offer," said Igral. "My answer is no. I will kill Auric and all of his children."
"Listen to reason," said Cerwyn, twin veins bulging in her temples. "You have no money, no support, no friends. You are condemned to death in the arena. Whatever you think to accomplish, it will be for nothing. Take my word. Royac is the youngest of his brothers and the best of them. Faylek is cruel, Altor is grasping and useless and Auric is too old."
"We are done," said Igral.
Cerwyn walked away, her footsteps at a fevered tempo.
Royac slung a leather skin from his shoulder and tossed it to her. "Wine," he said, winking.
She pulled the cork, sniffed and drank deep.
They dragged her up to the side of the pit and hurled her in. Her naked body slammed into the thick mud. She climbed up and wiped her hands. Someone tossed her a longsword. Her hand snatched out and caught the rusty hilt and she tried a few practice cuts.
A crowd of men shouted at her from above. She scanned their faces and found Faylek in the masses. Cerwyn sat at his side, her gaunt face drawn tight.
A horn sounded. A gate opened in the pit's wooden wall. Three slavering hounds rushed in, chain leashes dragging behind them as they ran.
One of the hounds lunged at her and she impaled it, tossing the yelping, bleeding mass aside.
The other two circled her, wary. Her heels dug into the mud and she watched them both, blood and adrenaline exploding in her veins.
They charged. Iron jaws clamped around her forearm and shook wildly, tearing skin. She raised her sword and hammered the pommel down on its back, snapping the dog's spine. It yowled and fell, broken.
The other lunged for her legs. She sprang and dove back, swinging her sword wildly. The dog tripped and fell, its front legs severed. Igral clove the hound's head in two. The crowds cheered, hooting and shouting her on.
Another horn blasted. The gate opened again. A massive bear trampled in and roared. Pink scars laced its heavy brown fur. Its dark eyes locked on Igral and it charged.
She danced away, swiping. The sword singed the air near the bear's black snout. It backed a step, growling, drooling, snorting. She kept back, ignoring the tingling sensation in her arm.
Her foot slipped in a puddle of mud.
The bear lunged. A shout flew from Igral's lips and she slashed. The beast screamed and fell back, blood swirling from its paw. The sword flew from her hands and she ran, leaping up the side of the arena wall. Guards rushed over and swatted at her with pikes. One of the spears came too close and she seized it by the haft, ripping it away and falling back into the pit. She aimed the long spear at the bear as it swatted the sword from its hand. It bellowed and flew at her.
Igral thrust the pike into the bear's shoulder. It stopped, staggered back. She stabbed, stabbed, stabbed. The bear groaned and slumped to the side. She stabbed until the bear stopped breathing. The crowd's cheers rose.
Faylek stood and raised his arms. "Send it in!" he shouted. The crowd went wild. A dozen horns sounded and the gate opened again.
A grey-skinned ogre lumbered in. It was at least eight feet tall, muscled like an ox, with skin like an Oliphant's hide. Tusks jutted from its jaws and it carried a massive axe and a shield the size of a door.
Igral shouted, a cry from the deep of her throat, and charged, thrusting her pike at the ogre's face. It raised its shield defensively. Quick as a snake, she pivoted the spear down and thrust it into the ogre's ankle. Green blood bubbled free.
The ogre slammed its shield down, snapping the pike in two and slashing with its axe. Dropping down, Igral slid under the arcing blade, claiming her bloody sword from the mud and slashing the back of the ogre's knee. The ogre moaned and fell back, its leg half-gone. She stood over the beast and thrust the point of the sword through his eye. It twitched and lay still with a slow, gurgling rattle.
"Seize her!" shouted Faylek's voice from the crowd.
A gate opened. Dozens of guards rushed in and beat her down with hardwood cudgels. They knelt on her back and pried the sword from her hands.
Faylek emerged from the gate, limping as he walked, Cerwyn following at a distance. Akjik hung from his side. Igral's eyes fixed on it.
"An impressive display," he said. He rested a hand on the hilt of her father's sword. "You really are Igral. Your reputation is deserved," he said. "But truly I am the greater warrior. I need not even so much as lift a sword to defeat you in a duel." He drew the sword and slashed. The blade hovered an inch over Igral's neck. "I could spill your blood all over this arena," he said. "But to kill you is beneath me. You are my slave now. It will please me to see you raped a hundred times a day for the rest of your unnatural life." He smiled and sheathed the sword, turning.
He stopped. The veins in his face and neck bulged. Blood spilled from his eyes, nose, mouth and ears in a red fountain. His skin flopped off his flesh and piled into a puddle at his feet. His body crumpled like wax held over a flame.
Someone screamed. Everyone stared.
"Release me," said Igral. The guards let her go. She stood, walked over to the corpse and claimed Akjik from the smoking puddle. She looked at Cerwyn. Her blue eyes were wide and her face was ashen.
"I accept your offer," said Igral.
Wine poured down from the cup, spilling across her lips and chin. She grunted and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. Blood seeped through the wound in her arm, soaking her new shirt of metal rings. Her father's sword sat across her lap, throbbing in time with her heart.
"Perhaps those wounds..." began Royac.
She thrust her cup at him. "More wine."
He smiled and poured wine into her goblet. His eyes looked into hers. She met his gaze and drank.
"Shouldn't you be wearing black and weeping?" said Igral, turning to Cerwyn.
She looked up as though startled. "Oh. No. I was his slave. Not his wife. Auric conquered my family's lands when I was a girl. I was a gift to his son."
Igral nodded. She looked at Royac. "How many men are here in this castle?"
"One hundred and thirty fighting men. A few dozen laborers," he said. "How precisely do we proceed? Faylek's men will not follow me. And I doubt they will follow you."
"We pay them," Igral said, pouring wine on her wound.
"Not all of them are mercenaries," said Royac, rubbing his jaw. "Though some will be swayed. Who exactly will pay them?"
"You," she said. "Consider it my bride price."
Royac grinned. "My income is modest from my estates. But I have certain chests of coin set aside."
"How many men can you rally?" she said, thinking.
"Twenty five housecarls within a day. Fifty conscripts from a few dozen families." He paused. "What are you planning? We cannot possibly attack."
"No," said Cerwyn. "That would be suicide. Altor can summon a thousand men to fight for him. Auric can double his numbers when he learns Faylek is dead."
"The people must learn of my return," said Igral. "Then our numbers will grow."
Cerwyn shook her head. "But what hope is there if we..."
"I have won your husband's lands and your soldiers' loyalty in a day. Now I will win this war."
Two guards dragged in a massive bald man. "Here's the one you wanted," said one as they threw him to her feet.
The jailer looked up at her and screamed.
Igral drew her father's sword.
"This man and this woman are now husband and wife. Let no man, beast or God tear them apart." The green robed cleric raised his hammer and bashed the lamb's skull. It slumped to the ground.
Igral and Royac raised their joined hands. The gathered mass of soldiers and common folk roared. Flower petals tossed through the air, pipes blasted long notes and colorful banners waved.
Igral and Royac turned and walked up the path toward the house on the hill. Fiddlers danced ahead of them, spiraling and spinning and fluting songs.
"A day ago you were a prisoner," said Royac, loudly in her ear. "Now you are the master. I should worry."
She looked at him. "But you don't."
"I am incapable."
Guards opened the longhouse doors. They went inside and through into the bedchamber, shutting the door behind them.
Igral let her hair loose and pulled off her white gown. Royac grabbed her hands, stopping her.
"What are you doing?" she said.
"We met once before," he said. "Do you remember?"
Her eyes narrowed. "No."
"More than thirty years ago," he said. "I was a boy then." He smiled. "You were exactly as you are now. I remember you hunched over a vat of wine in the corner. You glowered at me once." He squeezed her hand. "I did not fight against you. It was wrong of my father to go to war with your father." He looked at her face. "You don't believe me. I have no reason to lie to you."
"Like father, like son," she said.
His smile changed and his eyes glazed. "Then I am lying, to tell you I have loved you since I was a boy. Your face has stayed with me for thirty years. Haunting every woman I take to bed."
"You have my pity." She turned.
He grabbed her wrist. "I know you have suffered. I know what my father did at Muradk."
"He did nothing," she said, ripping her hand away.
"It wasn't you," he said. "He never spoke ill of you. He did it because of your father." He paused. "I love you," he said. "Do as you like with me. Take your revenge and all the lives necessary until you are satisfied."
She cleared her throat. "Will you consummate our vows?"
"When neither honor nor vows demand it."
She walked to where her armor was hung, pulled on her chain mail shirt and buckling on her sword, left the bedchamber.
Mist clouded the groggy morning. Igral rode atop a chestnut horse, Royac and Cerwyn at her side. An army clad in iron, leather and skins marched behind, beating brave drums and waving bold banners. They barely numbered a hundred.
She glanced at her husband. He was staring ahead, grinding his jaw side to side.
"Where are we going?" said Cerwyn. She looked uncomfortable on horseback.
Igral drank wine from a skin. "There are villages near."
Cerwyn nodded slightly. "Oh. Yes. Minor estates. Lands belonging to a housecarl, I...I do not remember who."
Igral watched her face. "Tell me how revenge feels."
Cerwyn pulled her cloak close about her. "I spent so long hating him. I grew that inside of me. Like some kind of...Egg, or something. I wish I could have slept those years away like you." She smiled.
"Will you go home?"
Cerwyn shook her head. "Who will I find there? My family is dead." She looked away.
Igral looked at Royac. "Tell me about your father's sword. That blade of light."
"It is a family heirloom," he said. "Forged five hundred years ago by dwarves from the strongest iron, dragon gold and the light of the sun. But when the dwarves made it they tricked my ancestors and set it in stone, never to be removed."
She drank wine. "How was it removed?"
"My father took it from the rock." He shrugged. "My brother carries it now."
"Tell me about him."
"I have not seen Altor in years. He is my father's favorite. He..." Royac trailed off.
Hovels appeared ahead, emerging from the fog. Igral spurred her horse ahead and looked around. The homes looked deserted, with shuttered windows and barred doors.
Cerwyn and Royac rode up beside her. "They are fleeing the coming war," said Cerwyn.
A door opened. A boy emerged from a home carrying a small pig. He saw them, shouted and ran through the streets. Igral followed him between houses and far into the mist.
She yanked back the reins. A hundred people stood crowded beneath the drooping arms of a titanic willow tree. They turned and looked at her. A big gutted man with a bushy beard pushed through the others. "Who are you?"
"Igral. Hastald's daughter," she said.
"Clear off." The man pointed. "We want no part of your madness."
The crowd murmured.
"Who are you?" she said.
"Storn Barrelmaker." He folded his arms over his chest. "Chief of these villages when the housecarls are called to war."
"I require your men and women of fighting age."
Some in the crowd shouted. Storn looked back at them then to her. "Why? What will you promise us? Gold? Lands? Glory?" He pointed at the ground. "We want only peace."
Royac rode up beside her. "You will not move them," he whispered. "Leave off. Take their food for the army and burn their village."
Igral shook her head. "Your village is an island in an ocean," she said. "A day will come when you're whipped into battle by someone other than me."
"Worse than you?" someone shouted.
"No," she said. "I seek revenge for my father and death to my enemies."
"I did not know your father. I was born when he was cold in the grave," said Storn.
"Your fathers fought with mine for what is right. Your coward's peace dishonors them. I ask only that you honor them by fighting with me now."
A long pause. Many came forward. Storn and a few others looked around. Igral pointed at him. "You are a barrel maker?"
"Instead be a man," she said.
Storn took a breath and stepped forward.
"A logistical nightmare," said Royac.
Igral stared out over the mass of villagers and soldiers. Rusty billhooks and pitchforks bristled like quills of a porcupine. The sun shone bright on her shoulders.
"We have almost no food left. We've eaten this town to the ground and more volunteers come every hour. We need to march or we'll starve," he said. He looked at her. "You look like you're about to smile."
She glanced at him and slung a horn from over her shoulder. She blasted a long note. "FORM!" she roared.
The masses hurried, marching into tightly packed knots.
"Ragtags," said Royac. "They won't be much use. Five hundred of the scum. Add a hundred fighting men and maybe forty housecarls. We may even look like half an army then."
She blew her horn again. "FORWARD!"
The tight knots marched forward, shouting as they went.
"The most bloodthirsty cobblers, gardeners and gong farmers I've ever set eyes on," he said.
He looked at her and smiled. "So you can laugh."
"Are the rumors true?" she said.
"That my father is dead. Of a revolt. No. Wars breed all manner of rumors. But they don't grow an overabundance of food."
"Will your brother march?"
"You are challenging his rule. Stealing his subjects. If he does not his housecarls will not support him. If any of the rumors are true about my father, it's important he eliminate threats as quickly as possible."
"Your father. When my father died I could only think of reaching him in battle. Of claiming his sword and striking back." She shook her head. "I took the sword and fought your father and lost. He took me, raped me and made me swear him my allegiance and a hundred other oaths before he gave me back my father's sword. Then I ran."
Royac looked at the ground. "Do you miss your father?"
"When I was alone in the wilderness, yes. Every minute smile."
A man sped up on a horse and skidded to a halt in a torrent of dust. "They're marching!" he yelled. "Altor is marching at the head of a thousand men! They're advancing toward Pelart!"
Rain bucketed down on the idle green hills. Mist roiled about, puffy white snakes hovering over the ground. A chorus of frogs and insects belched a primal song from the flooded bog.
Hundreds of feet and hooves trampled the muddy ground, the sound grumbling like distant thunder.
Igral raised her hand. The army stopped behind her. She slung her horn from her shoulder and blew a long blast. The army split into three, forming tight knots at the edge of the swamp. They waited.
She looked at the faces of her soldiers. Storn Barrelmaker, looking pensive, a wooden mallet in one hand and a rusty knife in the other. Dar Quickshot, a tall, thin man, stringing his hunting bow. Gared Blockman, with rusty hooks and sharp chisels at hand. Hundreds more, most of them strangers, somehow coerced into risking their lives for her.
Spears sprouted from the hill. Armed men poured over, flanked by housecarls on tall horses.
Royac leaned in the saddle. "Feathered caps, Ossland archers. Langovarts, see the long beards and axes?" He pointed. "There. Gisqwik men with javelins. And there. Bosfin swordsmen."
She looked at him. His face and eyes were still like tepid water. His shirt of ringmail had deep scars and his helm was dented and spotted with rust. An axe was strapped to his back and a sword was sheathed in his saddle. A dun grey cloak hung limp from his shoulders, soaked through.
"Gods," said Cerwyn. Her blue eyes looked black. Her red hair was plastered to her grey face. "So many. Look."
Three horsemen split off from the enemy army and rode up to the edge of the bog.
"A parley," said Cerwyn.
Igral clicked her tongue and her horse trotted forward. They stopped opposite the others. She knew Altor at once. A narrow icicle of a beard pronged from his broad jaw. His face was narrow, his cheeks gaunt. Heavy bags hung below his dark eyes. The air around him seemed to shimmer, like the heat from a burning torch. A gold-hilted sword was sheathed at his waist. Something about his gaze seemed to pin her in place. When he turned his gaze to Royac it came as a relief.
"Is it true that Faylek is slain?" said Altor. He rested a gauntleted hand on the hilt of his sword.
"He slew himself when he set hands on her magic sword," said Royac. "Few deserved it more."
Altor looked to her. "My father is dead. He succumbed to an illness."
Igral's heart ceased beating a moment.
"We hear rumors of a revolt," said Royac. "Any truth to that?"
"There are rebellions in certain townships, fueled by your actions and some riots in my city. They have all been put down." He sighed and looked at Igral. "You are Hastald's daughter. I never knew either of you. But I understand your desire for vengeance. Am I what you expected? An old man, bent by taxes, famines, disputes and rebellions?"
"No," she said.
"Here we are then," he said. "And battle is unavoidable now."
"There is a way," said Igral. "Single combat. I will fight any champion you name."
"No," said Altor. "My housecarls are near open defiance. Some want to destroy you, most probably yearn to join you and carve out estates for themselves." He rubbed his forehead. "I am tired. I do not sit a saddle half as well as I did."
"Will you accept a truce?" said Igral. Royac and Cerwyn both looked at her.
Altor smiled. "Are you frightened? Or has revenge lost its taste?" He shook his head. "No. My situation is precarious. If I do not win, and quickly, my numbers will dwindle while yours will swell. A battle is a risk, I know, but I have no choice."
"Yield," said Royac. "You will be spared."
"Do I have a brother's word?" Altor ran his fingers down his white beard. "Do you know what father told me on his deathbed? He said when this sword was created, it was prophesied that he who freed it from the stone would be the one to ruin his family."
Royac rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Nonsense."
"I agree," he said, smiling. He looked at Cerwyn. "My lady. Your sisters and your uncle live still. They own a modest estate two days ride from here. I will provide you an escort there."
Cerwyn raised her hand to her throat. "I..."
"No trick, my lady. You are a noble lady and this field is no place for you." He waved invitingly. "I am happy for your freedom. My brother was a beast."
Cerwyn looked at Igral. "Thank you," she said, riding off.
"I will look for you on the field," said Altor, turning his horse and trotting back to his army. Igral and Royac rode back.
Lightning speared across the dark sky. Altor's army lurched forward, an iron tide.
Igral took a breath. Royac looked at her and put a hand on her shoulder. "You can't stop now. You chose this path. Follow where it leads."
She looked at him and nodded. She drew her sword and raised it. Akjik throbbed, pulsing warmth down her arm. Guttural shouts burst from her army. She brought her horn to her lips, blasted a note and pointed her sword forward. They advanced.
Flights of arrows raked their advanced. Men fell, pinned to the mud by white feathered darts. Men shouted and died. The advance stopped.
Royac stopped his horse beside her. He shook her. "Lead them," he shouted. "You are their captain. Lead them or we will all die."
She searched for that molten rage inside herself and found it missing. Some instinct took hold and she lifted the horn to her lips and blew another note. The army moved once more.
Altor's men had entered the bog and were sloshing their way through knee deep muck. Arrows sprang from her lines and struck many as they came. More of the enemy flooded down into the bog and trudged through.
It happened at once. A dozen of Igral's men shouted and charged. Then fifty. Then their ranks were broken and the whole of her army charged. Weapons and bodies collided and the press of her ragtag army was that of a falling mountain on the enemy.
Igral watched, keeping the reins tight in her fist as bodies piled in the marsh. Akjik pulsed in her hand, throbbing, pulling her forward.
A trumpet blared across the marsh. Altor and his bodyguard of housecarls barged forward, riding into the fray. Without thought, Igral spurred her horse forward. Royac followed, his mounted housecarls charging with him. Through the waving brambles of slashing swords and stabbing spears she saw a beacon of light. Altor was cleaving into the heart of the battle, hewing all about as he trampled through the bog, a whirlwind of death.
Akjik thrummed in her hand. Before she could react her horse was diving forward through the masses. Altor looked up and saw her and their eyes met.
The battle slowed all about them. Altor raised his sword. White light glowed, exploding from the sword, as bright as the sun, and she went blind. Without thought she raised her sword. Steel clashed and the shock rattled down through her arm. The sword moved again, controlling her arm, pushing her to attack. Their swords clashed, razor edges grinding together, screeching. The sword drew her in, pulled her closer. Her face flamed and the blood in her veins boiled.
She screamed and slashed with all her strength. A crack, a sound like glass shattering. The light vanished and her eyes cleared.
Altor sat atop his horse. Shards of steel protruded from his throat. Blood frothed down his chest and dripped down into the bog. He held a broken sword in his hand.
Igral looked at her father's sword in her hand. Akjik was a splintered ruin, it no longer throbbed in her hand. All the fire inside was gone.
Altor slumped forward then fell from the saddle. He disappeared into the muck of the bog and his horse reared and ran away.
Igral stared into the fire and gnawed at a greasy chicken breast. She spat gristle into the fire and tore off a slag of skin. Pipes played around the camp. Drunken voices sang. Igral looked up. The stars watched. She ripped off a last shred of meat and swallowed.
She glanced to her side. Gar Quickshot sat waxing his bowstring. A mangy looking black and brown dog sat at his side. She tossed the bone to him, stood and walked off. She came to a large tent. Two guards stepped aside and she passed through.
Royac lay on a blanket. Physicians hovered over him, checking his wounds. They saw her and bowed their heads. Royac looked at her. Dried blood stained his face. He smiled weakly.
"Leave us," she said.
The physicians went. Igral drew the sword from her belt. Candlelight flared down the shattered shard of Akjik. She stood over him.
Royac coughed. Blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth. "Do you remember...What I told you?"
She knelt down over him and held the sword over his throat.
He winced and held his side. His dressings were soaked red and some of his cuts oozed pus. "If you're going to kill me, might I suggest a more merciful method?"
"If we were to couple," he said. "I'm quite certain all my dressings would open and I would bleed to death."
Her hard lips twitched into a smile.
© 2010 Kristen Lee Knapp
Bio: Kristen Lee Knapp is an author/student living in Jacksonville Florida with his girlfriend Kaity. Kris's stories have appeared in Residential Aliens, Silver Blade, Planet Magazine, Realms Magazine, Yellow Mama, Moon Drenched Fables, DemonMinds, Allegory ezine, and Bewildering Stories, among others. This is Kristen's fourth appearance in Aphelion; his story Near Neighbor, Far Brother was featured in the December 2009 / January 2010 edition.
E-mail: Kristen Lee Knapp
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