by Jim Lee
The morning broke clearer, cooler than the previous two. But nothing about it altered Young Jode’s precise and practiced habits.
He checked his horse, saw to its needs. Then he prepared and ate another quick, nearly tasteless breakfast for himself and washed it down with a swallow of tepid water from his canteen. He doused the guttering campfire with four fistfuls of dark High Plains dirt and wondered how it would feel, when the time came to kill more than a dancing flame.
If that time should ever come—and if he survived to know the aftermath!
He bit his lip and resumed his movements.
Gear packed and his horse saddled, and a carefully oiled, cleaned, sharp-honed sword in its scabbard, Young Jode mounted. Weeks on the flat, open grasslands—most spent as a solitary rider—had fostered this routine.
But it was the latest rumor, the guarded whispers of the Owl Creek band he had encountered three days previous that set his direction. Again he turned his horse to the northwest. And thus onward he rode, at a relentlessly steady pace that only hinted at his grim, determined mission.
A few hours on he caught sight of another lone rider, far ahead in the distance. Was it the infamous and deadly Kress, at last? Young Jode frowned, struggled to slow his racing heart. It could be him. Or it could be any other freelance, bound to try his (or even her) luck in the endless but sometimes profitable Clan Wars of Far Marmondy. The distance was simply still too great for certainty.
And above all, he must be certain!
It would not do to attack, and possibly kill, an innocent man—or worse, be killed by someone with whom he had no real quarrel. And—though he refused to admit it to himself—he was in no hurry to pit his still-modest talents against Kress and that terrible, allegedly magical sword.
So he quickened his pace to overtake the distant rider, but only gradually. Young Jode also angled his path subtly, so that his approach would be slower and unforced. Good tactics, he assured himself. Study your enemy; get to know him before striking.
And yet, he already knew Kress—knew him well enough, in fact, to account for eleven years of pain, anger and nightmares.
Kress the Ruthless!
Kress the Heartless!
Kress—it was gasped and whispered with fear-soaked awe—the Invincible!
“We’ll see,” he muttered now and sank deeper into the badly worn Nevinite saddle. The image of Old Jode, bloody and unmoving on the cobbled streets of home, flashed behind his pale brown eyes. “We shall surely see.”
It was just past midday when the other rider halted. He dismounted, turned and tied his horse to a clump of bush. Young Jode had been so focused on his potential quarry that he only now saw the pair of riders approaching the man straight-on. More than the bearded man’s gender, he could not as yet swear to—the remaining distance saw to that. But the regal bearing and the purple tunics of the newly arrived pair told Young Jode who confronted the freelance.
This in itself was not unusual. The Eastland’s Priestess-Warriors had converted all the Plains Tribes, long ago. And Young Jode, though a foreign nonbeliever, knew he had no reason for concern: his papers were in order, his way clear so long as caused no harm.
But if the other rider was indeed the notorious outlaw Kress . . . .
Young Jode held his mount motionless, watching the encounter from a safe distance.
The Dragon Women also left their saddles, but neither saw the need to bind their sleek black warhorses. Instead, they merely caressed the well-trained animals, spoke a few words to them and turned to the bearded figure.
The freelance took one step forward; they took two in turn and all spoke a few words.
Abruptly, the Priestess-Warriors stiffened. One darted to the left, the other stepped more coolly to the right—gaining positional advantage, even as they drew their weapons.
Their gleaming black mounts also tensed, snorting and watching the scene with far more awareness than mere beasts. Splendid examples of the Royal Breed, they would come charging in to help their mistresses upon any sign of trouble.
The man’s blade came out and Young Jode’s heart skipped a beat. The blade gleamed, golden in the afternoon sun. Oh, yes—yes! There couldn’t be more than one sword like it—not in all the world!
“Kress,” Young Jode hissed.
And he was alone—against two Dragon Women and their Royal Blacks!
The women exchanged glances and the one to the right gestured sharply. Her partner, sword in one hand and dagger in the other, sprang forward in a preliminary feint.
Meet able, Young Jode thought, by any decent swordsman’s standard.
Yet Kress seemed to over-commit himself and for a sick moment, the watcher knew his enemy would be unable to defend the other woman’s follow-up thrust.
No! Young Jode’s mind cried out, sure he was about to be denied his one chance for revenge.
Kress met the first Priestess-Warrior’s blow—met it solidly and forced her back, his weapon moving, delivering stunning blows of inhuman quickness and power. This flurry forced her sword aside and slashed at her left shoulder, opening a small wound and causing her to drop the dagger.
And that should have been it.
He should have died there as the other Eastlander drove her blade straight under his extended arm and into his side.
Young Jode glared, unwilling to accept what he was about to witness.
Then—incredibly, impossibly—yet also easily—the golden blade jumped and wheeled. It seemed to drag its owner with it; to direct the mercenary’s actions rather than be directed by him. A jerk, a slash, an arcing outward sweep and metal met bare metal.
The loud clang of sword-on-sword was followed by a gasp the young watcher only imagined he could hear. But he knew the source, even as he could picture the wide-eyed look of surprise on the Dragon Woman’s face.
One, two and three lightning-fast blows followed. The sword was torn from the Eastlander’s grasp, her throat laid open and her lifeless body tossed aside in far less time than it takes to draw a breath.
The sword jumped back the other way, bending Kress’s wrist unnaturally. He screamed and lost his balance, fell. Yet even there, on his knees, his wrist turned, his arm jerked and the golden blade deflected a killing blow from the surviving woman’s sword.
Blade met blade, but at each turn Kress—or rather his weapon—was always a bit faster. The angered horses tried to charge, to kick him off-balance—but his flashing sword kept them back as he regained his feet. The magic weapon flew and darted. Flicked and slashed and hacked. It left wound upon bloody wound on the doomed Dragon Woman’s limbs and torso, as well as on the flanks and upper legs of both warhorses.
Bastard! Young Jode knew with wrathful certainty. He’s toying with them!
At last the final exchange came: The woman’s sword was gone, along with her hand. Kress jammed the hilt of his weapon into her face and sent her sprawling. The arc of his sword drove back both horses a last time then it plunged down and forward.
The quick thrust through lightweight body armor and into her heart was a gory anticlimax.
The Royal Blacks snorted with fury and Kress sprang upright, blood dripping from his ready sword.
Tthe fearless but intelligent animals hesitated, yearning to avenge their slaughtered mistresses. It was said the love the Eastlanders showed their fine steads went both ways and Young Jode had now seen enough to believe it. Yet in that instant, with almost supernatural sensibility, the horses understood it was a lost and hopeless cause.
They turned. Necks bowed as if in shame, they walked away.
Kress watched them for a time.
Then he bent down, found an unsoiled patch of purple tunic on his second victim and slowly cleaned his blade. Afterward he straightened and returned his sword to its sheath.
Young Jode watched in vague astonishment as Kress seemed to shrink into himself and stagger about in circles as if dazed.
He knew that the tales, the whispers had all been true. The man who killed his father, the butchering Kress, could not be beaten in anything even approaching fair fight. It simply wasn’t possible—not while Kress had that magical weapon of his.
The young man finally was left no doubts. That golden blade—its unnatural speed, agility and power—sorcery was the only explanation!
Young Jode, barely nineteen and alone, put his head down and wept. The distance was too great and he too involved in his own bitterness to see his enemy likewise shedding tears of despair.
Kress was an experienced freelance and despite the incredible advantage of the sword, a fat, inviting price was offered for his head—no questions asked. Yet the man showed an almost willful contempt for his personal security.
So careless, Young Jode thought. As if he invites ambush!
In contrast, the vengeful youth employed more caution and patience than he had thought himself endowed with. He worked himself closer by measured degrees and calculated inches.
Finally, the germ of an idea formed.
He gathered up his courage and dismounted, led his horse at a slow walk into the solitary camp Kress had set up for the night. It was to one side of a low gully formed by a long-dry river bed.
His quarry looked up from the crackling beginnings of a cook fire. The slight arch of a thick, greying brow indicated only mild surprise.
“Oh,” he said as if they were old companions, “it’s you. Decided to quit skulking—to join me, right and proper?”
Young Jode studied his sworn enemy’s face and saw no actual welcome there—saw, in fact, nothing at all. The aging mercenary’s expression was empty, skin stretched loosely over a cool void.
Somehow, he was not surprised.
“You saw me?”
A hard laugh burst forth. “Felt you, be more accurate. Then saw you, later—out the corner of my eye. Hmm. Young pup, ain’t ya? Hardly more’n a boy!”
Kress nodded. “As I said: young. Got a name?”
Young Jode hesitated only an instant. Then he said it and knew that his father’s killer did not remember, did not recognize it.
Kress eyed him, gestured with a bony hand. “Left home to be a freelance, did ya?”
He nodded, moved his horse alongside the older man’s and began to strip his gelding for the night. Kress prepared a meal for them, as Young Jode tended the horses. Then the killer ambled over, the magical sword still dangling from his hip.
His guest glanced at it, instantly both repelled and fascinated.
“You from Nevin?” Kress indicated the distinctive saddle. “Crossed the Howling Desert with a caravan?”
Young Jode nodded. “Hired on as a guard. Nevin to Pol then across the Desert.”
“Took the northern route? Saw Mount Heartsong?”
“From a safe distance. The moon was full,” Young Jode explained softly. Kress made no comment, so the nervous nineteen-year-old sputtered on. “We proceeded across the Lower Plain’s from there to Felicity.”
“Nice enough city,” Kress allowed with a singular lack of conviction. “The Sisters built it, when they came out here to ‘civilize’ the Thirty Tribes.” He paused briefly to chew his lower lip and watch his pursuer’s eyes. “Grew up, maybe four days’ journey from it.”
“Oh?” Young Jode was genuinely surprised. Nobody ever seemed quite sure where Kress came from. Certainly no tribe, city or nation took pride in claiming him. He was just suddenly there one day, long ago—killing anyone and anything standing in his way. Even if it was a mere shopkeeper, in a far oasis city, who spoke a few incautious words to the caravan owner who had Kress in his employ, just then.
Yes, even a mere shopkeeper with a namesake son then barely eight summers old.
“I had no idea you were a Tribesman, Kress. But your hawk nose, the slope of your forehead? Yes, now I can see it!”
The killer didn’t blink. No reaction, no surprise—nothing at all.
“I’m no Tribesman,” he said eventually. “I’m nothing; got nothing—and nobody.”
“Me, too.” Young Jode sat across the crackling fire from his sworn enemy and they ate. It was a good meal, despite everything. He was sick of doing without a cook fire in what he now knew had been a vain attempt to conceal his presence.
Kress had known about him following the very beginning—and had done nothing about it. Why?
“So, lad,” Kress said and shoved a last crumb of biscuit into his mouth. “You’re alone in the world?”
The youngster’s eyes narrowed slightly, his head bobbed. “My father . . . was killed, years back. And last year, my mother—she went more peacefully, without much pain. But still . . .”
“An illness?” Kress seemed to become truly interested. At Young Jode’s grunt, he spread his fingers. “I thought you Nevinites had cures for everything! Or is that just a story?”
“Not quite everything, it seems. But yes, our medical learning is what largely draws the caravans. But you should know, Kress. You’ve been there, haven’t you?”
“Been most everywhere, it seems.” Kress sucked his teeth then showed their tips to his new, temporary companion. “Well, ‘cept north of the Three Breaks, of course.”
“Oh? I’d heard tales about your sword coming from—”
“Shut your mouth, pup!” Kress shot to his feet, clutching the scabbard with an odd mix of desperation and reluctance. “You just shut your mouth on that subject, lad. Hear me?”
He turned aside without awaiting a reply and shook his head.
“No offense intended,” Young Jode said cautiously, watching for any further reaction. When none was offered, he tried a different tact. “So, yes—my family’s all gone. Dead. And me, I’m out for adventure!”
“Thought you’d seek it among the Marmonds?” Kress still had his back turned, but at least he was communicating again. “Something more exciting than guarding caravans?”
“Right. And of course, I’ve heard of you. Most famous, most feared freelance in all the Main Continent!”
Kress snorted. “Most hated, too. And with several bounties on me head, as well!” He glanced around, met Young Jode’s eyes. “You might not be after some of those, by any chance?”
The Nevinite refused to quail. “I saw what you did to the Dragon Women. I’m not here to get carved up. And they all say: ‘Kress is never beaten.’ To me, that makes it sound like you’re the man to team with!”
Kress chewed his lip again. “I work alone, lad. But if you’re truly of a mind, you can provide company, far as the Marmond Border. Just keep in mind those two, ya hear? And take this to heart: The Sisters of the Dragon are the best and most difficult of foes, even to me. I kill lesser men and women with far more ease.”
“Maybe it’s those Talismans they wear?” Young Jode said, thinking out loud.
“Maybe.” Another grunt. “Those little carvings are meant to dampen down all other magics.”
“Can they truly speak to the Seadrakes using them?”
Kress shrugged. “They claim it with a straight face. But the coast is the other place I’ve not been. So who’s to say for sure?”
“In any case, your sword—it is enchanted, then? Like they say?”
“They say a lot of things,” the aging killer muttered. He looked pained, truly uncomfortable. Yet he nodded at last. “Few hundred years’ old at least. From Old Union, I suspect. The tale about it coming through one of the Three Breaks in the Grinning Mountains? I think that’s just another story. No, actually I’m sure. It had to come from the Wizard People of Old Union. The thing has their sort of devious about it! As for myself, I came across it twenty-seven years ago. In one of the Canton Kingdoms, it was—far south and east of here.”
“So it—like you—has moved around considerably?”
“And your family? Like mine, all dead?”
Two hard eyes narrowed. “Far as I know, I still have two sisters, a brother and an uncle living.”
“But you said—”
“I know what I said!” The outlaw jumped to his feet, his face flushed. “I’ve got nobody, pup. That’s how it is. They still live, but . . .”
“They’ve disowned you?” Young Jode felt something cold slither across the inside of his belly. “Because of your reputation?”
“I am . . . dead, to them and all others who knew of me before!” Kress shrugged. “You might consider such a fate, ‘fore casting your lot with such as me.”
Young Jode leaned forward, hands on his knees. “I think I’ll continue with you anyway—for some few days, at least.”
“Your choice.” Kress’s voice, the wave of his hand conveyed disinterest. Yet something in his eyes told a different story.
By the Gods! Young Jode thought. This man is . . . lonely!
* * *
Their third day together was just beginning. Warm morning sun on his face, Young Jode found his fingers caressing the grip of his secondhand sword. He watched Kress as closely as ever. Now he knew that the aging freelance never allowed the weapon to leave his side. But unlike every other mercenary Young Jode had seen, Kress did not regularly clean nor oil, nor even practice with his blade. In fact, he realized, the outlaw had not even so much as unsheathed his ever-present weapon since the slaughter of the two Priestess-Warriors.
Kress caught him staring now and, a frown upon his face, stepped closer.
In that moment—and aside from the terrifying magic of his sword and the reputation that sprang from its use—he seemed to Young Jode an ordinary man.
“What now?” he grumbled.
Kress was gruff and impatient, dangerous and intensely lonely. But still quite an ordinary man, as far as the nineteen-year-old could see and just then curiosity overcame his lingering fear.
Young Jode shook his head. “Just wondering: How many, Kress? Any idea?”
Kress elevated his chin. He did not pretend to misunderstand. “Lost count, ages ago. But like I told you, those Dragon-loving Eastlanders—they’re the worst. All-told, I’ve taken eleven of the Sisterhood, if that gives you an idea. Once, there were three of them at once.”
“But how? Even with a magical sword?”
“It won’t let me lose, lad! And I mean that, in so many words! It will not allow my enemies to win out—or even survive the attempt.”
The younger man gulped.
“It’s inactive in the sheath,” Kress growled onward. “But alert and waiting, watching—always watching! And when it’s out and in my hand—the thing takes charge! The power—it tingles, lad—and it . . . knows everything! Who is a serious enemy, a real threat to me—and what they’ll do, and when. And . . . then it kills them, lad.”
“No!” Young Jode gave his head a violent toss, sudden anger rushing out—like the pent-up waters of a lake, bursting suddenly, uncontrollably from the breast of a failed earthen dam. “Not ‘it,’ Kress! Even if it’s enchanted, it’s still just a sword—a mere tool! And you—you do all the killing!”
Kress stood motionless—a helpless, nameless something in his eyes. “I knew it. Smelled it on you, from the first. So who was it, for you?”
Those two words vibrated with a hideous resonance inside Young Jode’s skull. And it made sense—there had been so many, over all the years. More words, equally maddening, assaulted his outraged sensibilities now.
“Lost count, ages ago. Eleven of the Sisterhood. And they’re the worst. The worst. The wor—”
With a mad scream, Young Jode drew his sword.
Kress responded by long-engrained instinct and did likewise. Then the experienced killer groaned. But then, just as abruptly, his eyes glittered—with understanding and a weird species of relief. He laughed, almost frantically.
Young Jode wondered if the glowing sword’s influence had finally, entirely taken the freelance’s mind.
Kress shook his head. “Put down the sword, lad.”
“So you can kill me that much easier?”
“No. Not going to kill you, lad. Don’t have to. You aren’t my enemy. Not really.”
“Damn you.” Young Jode spat, gestured with his weapon. “It was my father and you murdered him. Killed him—for nothing! You and that caravan owner, the one who ordered it!”
“I’ll take your word on it.” Kress sighed. So many. Lost count, years back. “But down deep, you’re no killer. And you don’t hate me. Not now, since you know me. No. You’re not my enemy, not a serious threat. And this sword knows it, even better than I do.”
Young Jode snorted. “You and your enchanted blade . . .”
“It’s a cursed blade, lad!” Now it was Kress who spat—violently, disgustedly. “Not ‘enchanted’—don’t you see? But then again, why should you? I was only a few years older than you are now when I took this terrible thing from its previous ‘owner’—and certainly no wiser. I didn’t understand. Not at all; not for months and years—not for bloody, empty, useless years!”
Young Jode tilted his head, but kept his sword poised for defense. “You defeated its old owner?” Something exhilaratingly akin to hope blossomed in his heart, only to wither at the aging mercenary’s next words.
“A Southlander. I followed her home, intent on revenge. She and this accursed blade here—they’d killed . . . a friend. A boy I grew up with; had much . . . affection for.” Kress shook a greying head in slow, solemn remembrance. “I trailed her back to her homeland. Was a gifted tracker in those days, even by my band’s high standard. But not much of a swordsman and just plain mediocre with a staff, a throwing knife or bow. Stood no chance against her blade, so I turned to treachery. She did not know me, had never seen my face.”
“You did as I?” Young Jode guessed.
“In some manner, yes. Won her confidence—or seemed to. Then I poisoned her.” A sad smile appeared on his grizzled face. “She was old, tired—like I am now. She didn’t mind—not even when I took this and gashed her throat! So I’ve been this thing’s tool, ever since. Twenty-seven damned years!”
“It’s kept you alive,” Young Jode pointed out. “Made you powerful and famous.”
“Magic is dangerous, boy.” Kress growled. “A double-edged thing—just like this hellish, throbbing monstrosity in my fist! Yes, it’s kept me breathing. But it’s also taken away all that made living worthwhile. Stole it—and my soul . . .”
“But you won’t kill me? It won’t make you kill me?”
“Yes, boy.” The outlaw’s voice was tired, infinitely old. “Put aside that toy. I kill only enemies.”
“But . . . once that blade is drawn, I’ve heard it said . . .”
“True.” Kress smiled crookedly—a grotesque and bitter sight, coming close to madness. Yet it also had an undercurrent of irony, even relief. “It wants and needs, even demands fresh blood. Just not yours. The blood of my enemies, only. My true and mortal, deadly enemies.”
“But . . . my father?”
Kress stared into the distance. He didn’t seem to hear. “I once served a Lord in Comstock. He was opposed by a neighboring Lord and I was sent to confront him. That man, my employer’s enemy, laid a trap for me. I saw him at forty paces, apparently alone. We both drew our swords, but then two rows of archers jumped up from their hiding places. Five to either side of us. The man grinned, barked an order. As one, the archers let loose.”
Young Jode’s face showed his awe. “Ten of them?”
“Yes. Ten arrows, tipped with poison—the archers of Comstock always tip their arrows with poison. One scratch, you’re dead. I should’ve been a bloody pile, sprawled out on that rocky ground. But my sword was out, active and aware. It moved so fast, my wrist snapped—broke clean. Hasn’t been quite the same since.”
“But the arrows?”
“Deflected. All ten, swatted harmlessly aside. In my anger, I sprang forward. The Lord was too shocked to move. This sword came arcing around, dragging my shattered wrist with it. I screamed in agony, even as it beheaded the man with a single stroke.”
Kress gestured to the four winds. “They fled. Praises to the Goddess! The sword knew they were mere hirelings, so did not demand that I follow and finish them. So I killed only one that day—with ten more scattering to add to my legend, huh?”
“And now—who, Kress? There is only me and you, and the sword—glowing golden in the sunlight. When it comes out . . .”
Kress extended his arms, turned the sword-point to his breast. He gripped the hilt and handle with trembling hands. “All my enemies are dead; all but one. I became what I hated, the day I betrayed my honor. I killed that Southlander by immoral means. If it had been a fair fight . . .”
“You’d have lost.”
“Yes, and died like a decent man.” Kress snarled at the memory. “Like someone my family could in good conscience mourn!”
“Kress . . .”
The aging freelancer jerked his arms, cutting Young Jode’s words short even as he plunged the magic blade home. He worked it deep, blood spurting. He fell to his knees.
Then with face drawn taut and eyes bulging, he motioned the younger man closer.
“Give me that rag. And don’t touch the thing, till I’ve wrapped the handle.” That done, Kress wheezed. His blood flowed steadily, a great red stream. “Wait till I’m dead. Then pull the evil thing free. I’ll be past pain, so don’t mind me. But touch only the rag and keep the thing in its scabbard. It can’t . . . can’t control you, till you’ve held it by the bare handle. Remember that, lad! Take it north. Not to Marmondy, but northeast—to the Iron Wastes. Mining towns, foundries. Toss . . . toss it in, scabbard and sword both. Into the . . . urgh! Molten metal. Only way, lad. Once it’s melted . . . the base metal . . . can’t hold . . . even a double-edged curse!”
Young Jode touched the dying man’s shoulder. “I will, Kress. I swear it!”
“Lad . . . just make sure you never draw the thing. Never! Not even you save your life! Not worth it. Nothing’s worth . . .”
Kress lost consciousness then. He fell over.
In five more minutes, he was gone.
Hours passed until the nineteen-year-old could bring himself to wrench the gory blade free. He sheathed the weapon, placed it on the ground. He dug a grave, lowered Kress into it with care. It took half the night to fill the hole.
The next day, he set out early.
Young Jode, he was no longer—for he felt different, profoundly changed.
He was a grown man now. Or rather he would be, once his new mission was completed.
Jode guided his horse toward the Iron Wastes and their waiting, cleansing flames.