Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Glass Sword - Chapter 1

The owl watches the man slip through the busy camp. A hooded man wide shouldered and of thick limbs, he moves casually and is little noticed by the warriors. The owl’s eyes, fashioned by the gods to glimpse the mouse hidden, catch now the flash of a hand or the languid sweep of an arm as the passing figure steals what it wishes. Iced rain begins to fall again, pelting soggy ground churned into mud by the heavy boots of Nordic men weighed down by war. The sound of sharpened swords and broad battle axes, fur lined armor and dented helms ring through the curses to the snake god Set made by scattering warriors. They gather belongings into sagging tents soiled with the scent of wet leather and festering wounds. The hooded one never breaks his stride, only finds his horse and lifts himself lightly onto its back. He turns her head toward the tree line and she responds eagerly. He does not look back.

He never looks back.

The moon had fallen by the time he reached the trees. The roiling black clouds raged at his insolence, his journey had been slow and silent but for the deafening roar of the rain. The canopy offered him some respite, so he weaved his horse through snow kissed pines at a run to make up time. Man and beast moved as one, dodging and leaping until he spotted a flash of golden light far off. He slowed down, picking his way carefully, so that after some time he was within arm’s reach unseen when a young hand raised the glowing gem to flash it once again.

“You’re using the gem of Aracella as a nightlight?” came a question from the man in the saddle. The boy's gasp could have been heard by the camp hours away. The gem dropped, blinking out, and he could hear the boy searching for it through in the leaves.

“It’s by your foot.”

“My boot?”

“Your other foot.”

“Oh! Great!” The boy rose from his knee with a satisfied grin on his face. Then he remembered where he was. “ King!” He pocketed the gem. “King! Yes, here I am! As you requested...”

“Requested? Praise Bel, I’ll think twice before I challenge you again, young one.” He dropped from his horse, shrugging off his damp cloak. Under the wet wrap was a solid man wrapped in wolf furs, the grey pelts thick and dry up to his full grey beard. His long black hair was greying as well, but it framed a weathered face with regal lines, where sky bright blue eyes hovered under a brow as hard as the mountain ridges that rose above them. “I’ll ask you again.” in a gruff voice. “ Your nightlight?”

“Aracella you say? That is a pretty name. Pretty gem, too. Doubt it’s the one.”

“How’d you get it?”

“Get what?”

“Aracella!” bellowed his king.

The boy was about to say something clever when he felt his king’s eyes bear down on him. His king had a brooding presence that could quiet a forest. In fact, the only thing either of them heard at that moment was the boy’s heart pounding.

“I found it by your throne.”

“Under my throne, sealed in a puzzled box, with my butt seated above it for hours on end?” the king accused.

“That is why I am happy to see you getting out, sire! Where are we going?”

The king only grimaced. The quick witted boy had come to the castle alone a year ago, alone and broken. His parents had been killed by raiders down south. The king would have never known of the stray the cooks had taken in were it not for the disappearing objects around the castle. For a king bound to his throne for years sorting out political spats and bruised pride, hunting down the culprit offered the first excitement in years. Once he caught him, the boy would not leave him. He instead stayed to serve as the little voice that chided royalty for their self imposed drudgery, and just to see the wiry, blonde haired sprite leap into the room was to be reminded how old one felt. So the king chose a plea from a distant village and set off to find adventure. The boy had seen the gleam in his eye the day before he planned to slip away, and traded his silence for a chance to go along. The king offered him the challenge that if he could meet him in the far off Nimar Forest by midnight, he'd let him come. The little thief had done the impossible. “Gunnald, you cannot be more than twelve yet you carry the audacity of a fattened princeling. And your eye for gems will set them ogling from the tip of a pike.”

“Sire, no danger will come to me, for I am stronger than ten men and quicker than all their wives. None can catch me!”

“None but one. By Crom, the day will come, and then we will see how strong you are.” They both smiled but for very different reasons. “You’ve come without a horse?”

"I could not take the one I was offered.”

“Wasn’t wearing a necklace, you mean. Then get up onto my horse, and I will tell you about that gem you stole from me.”

“Aracella? Never heard of it. Why's it so special?” the boy teased. Once aboard they set off north, hustling to make it to the glass caves before it got too cold.

“The stone has three qualities. The first you have discovered.”

“When it is out of its pouch, it lights up. Very useful.” Gunnald answered. “What else?”

“Let us wait and you will learn its properties in time.” They traveled through the trees and started the rocky incline that led to the caves. Gunnald sat behind his king, soon falling to sleep with his head resting on a broad back.

The cave mouth was darker than the night that hid them, but the king did not pause before leading Gunnald inside with his sword hilt loosened. They walked slowly, unsure of the ground below them and the utter darkness before them. The king stopped, his powerful arms flexing in concentration. A long, dry hiss erupted above them and Gunnald was thrown to the ground by his Lord; his royal sword unsheathed and singing as it cleaved the flesh flying around them. The cave exploded with the horrid shriek of carnivores tempted by the scent of meat, and but for their flapping wings the king would not have known where to swing his blade. The spraying blood raised a lust throughout the cave, until it was filled so densely with malice that every pass with the sword cut through scores of the screeching beasts. They began to attack his arms, legs; long fangs driven deep, yanking their furry heads as they attempted to tear chunks of muscle from him.

“The light! Aracella!” he yelled to Gunnald. The boy fumbled for the pouch as he fought off the wings around him. He pulled at the leather strap and held the gem high. The crisp light pierced the room like a ray of sunlight through a crack in the rock, stunning the black skinned bats that stabbed at them both. Gunnald screamed in shock at the sight of the creatures, with their reflective green eyes peering out from shrunken humanoid heads. The wings spread the height of a grown man, but the body was a shriveled form until it gorged on bloody flesh, then it drooped like a gut sack of water hung from a tree. The bats feared the light, and fled at the sight of it, but only seconds passed before their fear was overridden by their hunger, and they began to swarm. The shrill cry rose again, higher and higher, peaking in feverish gluttony.

“It’s not working!” Gunnald yelled, trying to make himself heard over the grunting of his king at bloody work. Now that Gunnald could see the slashing raptors he used his quickness to evade them, sending the lunging attackers smashing headlong into each other and the cave walls.

The king worked his way near Gunnald and called out to him. “The gem, use it to kill these things!”

“Here, take it!” Gunnald offered.

“No! You must do it! Point it and say this words: Erlik! Flame!” answered the muscled warrior, his beard drenched in the ruby blood trails of his streaking victims.

Gunnald held the gem out and started to speak, but a snarling beast attacked his hand, its talons slicing into his skin as its teeth gnawed at his fingers holding Aracella. His screams of agony attracted other winged predators and they careened off the walls to get to him. The pain erupted down his arm, and he felt himself being lifted off his feet by the winged feeding frenzy that was breaking out over his bloody hand above him.

“ Say it!” demanded the king, himself almost overwhelmed by whirring cloud of black wings and drooling fangs.

Gunnald knew that if he dropped Aracella the room would drop into darkness. They would be shredded into bite size pieces. He grit his teeth, found his feet, and standing strong he cried with all the strength he had left, “ERLIK! FLAME!”

The ball of frenzied meat eating bats clustered at his hand burst, pulverizing flesh into blood that sprayed onto everyone and everything around him. The king ducked quickly as another blast of flame coursed from Gunnald's outstretched arm over him, searing scores of black demons. Yelps and whines filled the cave as the flying rodents scrambled for the safety of the dark, but there was none, and very soon the ground was a quivering mass of dead and dying bloody mouthed bats.

“And there is it’s second quality!” the king announced, out of breath. “And it looks as if in it you have found your strength!”

“I have the strength of ten men!” Gunnald hollered, his heart racing with the power he held in his hand, and making as much of the moment as he could. The king burst out laughing, a good natured, belly shaking laughter.

“Of ten men indeed!”

“Sire, I must know, the third property of Aracella, what is it? If the second is so powerful, the third will make me a God!”

“No, not a God.” the blood spackled royalty answered. “Aracella is named for the queen it once adorned. She died fighting over the dead body of her king against the knives of Sygian priests of the black kingdom. When they cut her down, her rage and her heartbreak were trapped inside that gem. I killed a thousand men to hide that gem under my throne.”

Gunnald looked down upon the glowing stone in his hand. It burnt brightly and with a coldness that made his hand ache. “The third property?”

“It’s third that only a woman can unleash the powers of Aracella.” A chuckle escaped the king’s smiling face as he peered down at Gunnald, a face growing more red the longer he held in his mirth. He finally burst out in laughter, wiping a bloody hand across a tear stained face. “A year and I never knew! The boy that was really a girl! Amazing!”

Gunnald kept staring down at the glowing stone Aracella. “It’s true, I am a girl. But I am still as strong as ten men!”

“I believe you!”

“And I will go with you, my king Conan to Alar, to cut down the scourge that is ravaging that village!” Gunnald announced, casting a questioning glance toward him.

“I’ll never get my gem back if I say no, I predict. Then we will go, Conan the Barbarian and..." he looked down at her and raised an eyebrow.


"And Grunelda, queen of thieves, to Alar and we will slay this scourge.” Together they cleared the cave of the dead debris, he with his shield and her with Aracella. Conan gathered wood to warm the cave. He slept near the opening, his body a muscled wall of safety for any behind it. Grunelda wrapped her warmed cloak about her, laying exhausted, holding the gem Aracella with both hands.

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