Blade of the Blood God by Newton Webb
1081, the Garthian Moors,on the border with Thann
Dead soldiers littered the field. Corpses mingling with the dying. The crow-like forms of the camp followers picked through them, looting the fallen. Screams echoed as they put the injured survivors out of their misery.
King Henri was victorious. He had reclaimed his throne and deposed his traitorous uncle. His armies had repulsed the Thannish invaders, breaking their legions and humbling their God-Emperor. The Fox, reputed to be the greatest general in three generations, was dead. Henri had sent his decapitated head, now embalmed in tar, to be mounted at the palace gates.
Once more, peace had returned to the land.
Peace… The thought of it caused him to recoil. Seven years waging war. He had set his mind against the Fox’s, his blade against the God Emperor’s soldiers, his word against his uncles. Could he now return to sit on his throne, nestled in plumped up pillows, listening to trade agreements and territorial disputes? Would he grow fat off the profits of peace?
The saddle was more to his liking. With an enemy in front of him, his lance lowered, the wind gusting through his helm, his hot breath steaming.
Anger and hate rose in his gullet. His uncle had started all of this. “King” Eduward had seized Henri’s rightful throne, forcing him into hiding. When Henri had emerged from exile to contest him, the legions of their arch-rival Thann had marched. Proving the depths of his uncle’s treachery with their support.
Rage sustained him for seven years while he skulked in bogs and forests. He had fought against Thann’s men, using ambushes and raids until his soldiers had the strength to sweep the enemy from the field.
The familiar red mist swelled within him now, yet it had no opponent to sate itself on. One crow, larger than the rest, settled near him and cawed mockingly. He clapped and roared at it. It cocked its head with studied indifference before continuing to peck at the dead eyes of its meal.
Peace. That beautiful tonic which he had used to cajole his men with. The soothing balm with which he had calmed fears and ushered them to make just one more charge.
It tasted bitter in his mouth.
1074, the Forest of Glane
The young King Henri hid in a woodshed, cowering under the cordwood. Spiders and rats skittered around him. Not yet a man. Henri was a King in name only. His uncle, the so-called King Eduward, squatted on the throne, issuing decrees and squandering the treasury on decadent luxuries. King Eduward barred him from the great city of Kalmorn, the ancestral seat of his family’s power.
In stark contrast, Henri relied on the kindness of peasants, their fealty ensured with the dwindling coin of his few remaining followers. In turn, their loyalty was assured. Death was the only alternative available to them. His uncle had bounties on their heads.
The senate still offered him a mercurial loyalty. They responded kindly to his messages in private, yet publicly denounced him and praised his uncle. When they wrote to him, they were carefully neutral.
The army camped outside the city, the troops refusing to commit to either side. General Darna had declared his neutrality in the succession, his loyalty affirmed to the throne rather than the occupant. He was content to wait to back the winner. With supplies dwindling for his forces, he would have to pledge one way or another soon. Given the choice of Henri’s uncle, ensconced in the kingdom’s riches, or Henri, ruler of a solitary hut and courted by vermin, it was a certainty who he would support.
It was here, at his nadir, that she came to him. A deep, feminine voice called to him from outside the woodshed. Henri tentatively emerged, hand on his hilt, blinking at the dull sunlight.
Through the mist and stench of the Brekkar Bog, the beautiful priestess Zareen, draped in exotic silks, her eyes fixed upon him, stood watching him. Dressed in her order’s loose clothing and bangles, she defied the cold weather, immune to the freezing wind.
‘Tell me, King, what price will you pay to ascend to the throne?’
‘Who are you?’ Henri demanded. His voice kept its authority and privilege despite his ragged appearance.
She walked towards him, ignoring his question, and gently traced the veins on his neck with her finger.
Henri swallowed. Her eyes seemed to gorge on him, and Henri felt himself drowning in them.
‘I asked you a question, King Henri of Kalmorn. What price will you pay?’
‘Anything,’ he murmured, mesmerised by her intoxicating presence. The man with nothing will offer everything.
‘Then you will make a pact between you and the great Akas, the Lord of Death. You must renounce your faith in the fake goddesses of the Empire and swear to be loyal to him in blood, soul, and breath. Only then will he will lend you his strength.’ She smiled at him. ‘Or, I leave here and within the hour, your uncle’s knights will find you.’
‘What favour have the gods shown me? I’ll swear to anyone for another week of life.’ Henri murmured as if in a dream. The only currency of value was time.
Zareen shook her head and chided him. ‘You think too small, young king. Your eyes should be on the reunification of the Empire.’
‘The Empire? What Empire? It’s gone. We haven’t had an emperor for nearly a hundred years. I don’t even have a kingdom. My entire realm is a woodshed leased from a forester.’
Zareen pulled him down into the mud and rude filth of the shed, sliding on top of him. His body reacted instantly, arousal blossoming. She whispered into his ear. ‘I need to hear the words. Say you renounce the three maidens. Say that Akas is the one true god. We will seal your faith with Akas and make history tremble.’
Her eyes were glowing a deep yellow as he looked up at the priestess, panting. He summoned enough of his wits to proclaim, ‘I renounce the three maidens. Akas is the one true god.’
Thunder roared without warning. Lightning lit the sky.
Henri moaned as she undid his trews and guided him inside her. Her warmth radiated through him. Above him, the priestess’s pupils expanded to vertical slits as she writhed in ecstasy.
Visions of his enemies slaughtered, the eleven kings subjugated, the senate kneeling in fealty all drifted before him. The well-practised movements of the priestess went unnoticed by him. His shuddering climax came as he witnessed the murder of his uncle, waking him from his dream.
Henri was exhausted from the frenzied passion that had gripped the pair of them. His body was coated in mud, slime and cobwebs. Zareen rose, her form immaculate, unaffected by the exertions. Her eyes had returned to a dark brown shade, her pupils once more round.
One of her maidens approached to pass her a long fabric wrapped parcel. The silk fell clear as they pulled apart the ribbons, revealing a long sword.
‘Behold, the Blood Kiss, your gift from Akas. This powerful relic will steer you towards glory and fame. Nobody will forget the reign of Emperor Henri the Uniter.’
Her hand reached down into her silks and emerged to smear their combined fluids down the blade. They seemed to soak into the shiny metal and disappear. ‘We bond the sword to you, a contract between you and Akas. It will visit death upon your enemies and shield you from the storm.’ She handed the weapon to the boy, who rose from the dirt. Eyes wide, he raised the sword to the sky as the heavens beat a thunderous percussion.
Zareen had gone. He looked down. There were no footprints, just vague impressions in the soil where they had sealed their bargain.
With eyes and mind firmly focused, Henri left the woodshed and called his few remaining followers. They looked at his mud-splattered appearance in disdain until he started issuing orders.
Then they followed without question, a new sense of purpose gripping them.
Eduward’s knights were coming for them, but Henri intended to find them first.
1081, the Garthian Moors,on the border with Thann
In front of his army, he raised the Blood Kiss to the ragged chorus of cheers from his men. Blood and gore ran down the blade, over the hilt and coated his mailed gauntlet. For seven years he had waged war with the Blood Kiss, even as his privy counsellor, Argos, had fought the diplomatic battle with quill and parchment. The holy relic made him feel immortal, confident. With the weapon in his hand, he had cut his way clear from every battlefield. Even when his fury and hatred had led him into the heart of the most brutal engagements, he had emerged alive and victorious, howling for more opponents. His allies called him the Battle King. His enemies called him the Reaper.
At first, he had been inexperienced and weak, frightened of the strength and rage that flowed through his veins as he held the Blood Kiss. He used to keep it locked in a shrine to Akas between battles. As he grew stronger, he realised the weapon was a part of him. He felt hollow when not holding it. His words lacked conviction. Not only that, but the sword being apart from him left it vulnerable to thieves. No, he couldn’t risk losing it. The Empire needed it. He needed it. He slept with it now, the long blade glittering above the sheets, his hand clenched around the hilt as he dreamt dark dreams. What need had he of concubines? His carnal needs were the desires of the juvenile and the wastrel, the young king that he had been.
His dreams of conquest had eclipsed them. The cold whispers of the sword were far more intimate than the warm touch of mere mortals.
Argos coughed. Henri had heard him approach but ignored him as he contemplated the looming spectre of peace.
‘My liege,’ Argos tried again.
‘Yes?’ His hand clenched round the pommel of the Blood Kiss.
‘The guards report you left the encampment last night.’
‘Nonsense, I slept soundly to prepare for today’s battle,’ Henri said. I dreamt I found a village of traitors, a hotbed of separatists and listened to them die screaming on my blade. I dedicated their souls to Akas and bathed in their blood.
He mentally pushed down the image of him decapitating Argos. He could see the motions now, one step back and a pirouette, his blade licking out to separate the old retainer’s head from his body. As rage blossomed within his heart, he suppressed it with difficulty. Argos is my oldest and most trusted advisor.
‘They are most insistent, sire. They say you refused an escort.’ Argos had been his tutor when he was a child. In the dark days, when they had hidden in woodsheds and cattle barns, as his retainers had slipped away into the night, one by one, Argos had stood by him.
Henri looked at him. ‘Let it drop, Argos. I slept soundly and woke up more refreshed than I have in months.’
‘If you remember our lessons from before the war, you’ll remember I taught you the concept of association.’
Henri glared at Argos. Get to the point, old man. ‘Of course, I do, vaguely anyway. The war took precedence. War always does.’
Argos paused. Henri watched impatiently as he collected his thoughts.
‘You are the Battle Emperor, the Uniter, the Hammer of the Empire, the greatest warrior of our--’
‘What are you trying to say? This flattery serves no purpose.’ Henri realised he had his hand around the hilt now. He moved it back to rest on the pommel with a deep breath. He saw Argos looking pointedly at the weapon.
‘Quite rightly, you unquestionably associate the sword with battle. It has been your right arm and salvation for seven years now. Yet, now peace is here. At last, it is time for it to resume its rightful place. The grand temple to Akas in the capitol is a fitting home for such a powerful relic.’
Henri’s eyes flashed. ‘I need the sword. Assassins have hunted me day and night, ever since my uncle’s treachery. You urged me to be careful.’
‘My lord, nobody has tried to kill you in years. All know that you sleep with one eye open and are unmatched in combat. Perhaps you could try a different weapon tonight? I worry this sword is so irredeemably associated with battle and war that even when asleep, you are driven to seek it out.’
Henri pulled clear the blade, watching with a sneer as Argos leapt back, stumbled and then fell on his rump, staring up wide-eyed. ‘A different weapon? You would have me debase myself with a lump of steel. I am the Avatar of Akas himself. I wield his fang into battle. All this because you think what? I am riding around in the night and fighting in my sleep?’
As he looked at Argos, guilt overrode contempt and he sheathed his blade. He helped the old man up. ‘My friend, I didn’t mean to alarm you. This… This transition is wearisome for me. Victory has a cost of its own.’
‘Do not apologise, my liege, my life is yours. Tonight, please, I beg of you to put down the sword--’ Argos tried.
‘So you can steal it?’ Henri said, his earlier contrition banished by the red light of anger. ‘Do you think I’m a fool? I see you all looking at it. Lusting for it.’
Henri saw a great sadness cross the face of his retainer. Argos shook his head, denying the king’s charges. ‘I want nothing to do with any sword, let alone your weapon. I am your servant. I always have been. At your birth, sire, I helped deliver you. I have only ever acted in your best interests.’
Guilt warred with fear, fear that he would never again feel the euphoria of battle. He waved dismissively at Henri. ‘Leave me. I would spend time alone. I will reflect on your words, old friend.’
Argos wisely complied, leaving Henri to survey the corpses. The murder of crows, his constant attendants.
When he had drunk his fill of the carnage, his body reminded him that he had other needs. Turning, he stomped to his command tent. His servants bowed at his approach. ‘Bread, wine, meat,’ he commanded.
1081, the Garthian Moors,on the border with Thann
Henri woke in the morning. His stomach ached with the acidic burn of too much wine. He clutched the hilt of his sword, dispelling the hangover. The cold metal acted as a soothing balm.
He looked down.
It had happened again.
Dried blood coated his blade, red clay caked his boots, and his cloak was damp. Henri had no memory of leaving the tent. He had dreamt of his uncle. He had watched the pretender, King Eduward, beg for forgiveness as he stabbed him deep in the gut. His sword swept out to decapitate him. As the crowd cheered him, he had placed his head on a spear.
He leapt up and washed the sword before anyone could see it. Hearing movement, his body servant entered. Henri quickly returned the blade to its scabbard.
There were tears in his servant’s eyes.
A pit formed in Henri’s stomach. ‘What is wrong with you?’
‘Nothing, my liege, I apologise.’ The servant was shaking.
‘Send Argos to me. We need to organise the victory parade at the capital.’
The servant was dumbstruck, gaping at Henri.
Henri stepped forward, his hand on his hilt. ‘Spit it out.’
The servant, eyes wide with fear, pointed to the canvas flap.
Henri walked cautiously towards it and out into the brilliant sunlight. In horror, he fell to his knees.
Argos’s head was outside the tent, impaled on a spear. His mouth was open. His swollen tongue lolled impotently. In death, Argos cried a silent, endless scream.
Tears erupted from Henri’s eyes, grief wracked his body.
‘No, no, no.’ His hands clenched at the damp earth. ‘No!’ he screamed into the sky. His guards all took great care to avoid eye contact. A cloud of fear hung over the encampment.
Henri stumbled to his feet, he rummaged in his campaign chest and pulled out a large pouch of gold. Calling to his servant, he handed him the Blood Kiss and the money with great difficulty. ‘Ride from here as fast as you can. You must bury this weapon where no one will ever recover it. Then keep running. I must never see you again. Do you understand?’
The servant nodded, clearly not understanding.
‘Get out, hide the blade! If I see you again, you are dead.’
That the servant understood. He took the gold and the weapon and fled.
Henri knelt down, his eyes streaming with tears as he mumbled words he hadn’t spoken in seven years, a litany to the three maidens. Even as he said the words, rage pounded through his skull.
The sword. I need my sword. The thought pressed itself through Henri’s mind as he forced it down with the repeated prayer.
The servant lied to get the sword. I’m a fool. Argos is in his tent. That is someone else’s head. He fought down the urge to call the guards. Cry for the servant to return. You need your sword.
His hands shaking, he knew he would eventually do whatever it took to get the sword back. He made his last conscious decision and his final sacrifice before he was forced to return to the blade’s servitude.
He grabbed a knife from his dining table and stabbed it deep into his heart.
The ice-cold feeling of release quenched the searing rage. He felt calm for the first time in seven years. As his blood drained away, his life flickered before his eyes, free at last from the blade’s influence. He saw what he’d done with horrifying clarity.