the Crimson Sword

Book One of the Legend of Asahiel

Chapter One

Midnight shadows filled the forest, spectral images born of moonlight filtering through a thicket of gnarled oak and shagbark hickory, of pine and spruce, of ferns and fronds and slithering ivy. Upon the ground, dark profiles weaved and merged, gathered over twigs and needles in a series of dry pools. Once puddled, the darkness shifted in silent ripples, mimicking the languid motion of branches and leaves swaying overhead in a late summer breeze.

At the edge of one such pool, standing just within the sifted radiance of a pale moon, a mouse lifted its head to sniff the scented air. Whiskers wriggled atop its nose, brushing the air with ceaseless anticipation. Its heart beat furiously within its chest. The creature glanced quickly to one side, then the other, then looked back to the small grain seed clutched in its paws. Once, twice, it nibbled experimentally, turning the morsel over, testing it from either end. Finally, it cast the seed aside and reached for another.

A sudden shadow fell over it. The mouse squealed as iron talons pierced its flesh, a sharp squeak of fear and surprise. Before it could draw another breath, its chest collapsed beneath a crushing grip as it was hoisted free of the earthen floor.

The owl bore its twitching meal skyward, winging its way through a labyrinth of dark trees.

The Shadow watched the owl’s flight and remained hidden, eyes and ears probing the darkness. But the attack had been perfect. Almost immediately, the shrill echoes of the mouse’s cry were lost to the wind, and what remained of life within the forest went about its business without notice or concern. The Shadow permitted itself a private smile. Perfect.

It detached itself from its concealment then, peeling from the trunk of a nearby birch like a strip of bark. It cast north and south, crouched low, searching for a response to its movement. Detecting none, it resumed course, a shimmer amid the trees. Like the owl, it flew upon wings of death, slipping through the foliage without a whisper to mark its passing. Rodents scurried from its path; trees shuddered in a gust of wind. Made anxious by its ghostly presence, nature recoiled, finding safe quarter from which to watch and wait out the trespasser’s foul purpose.

It helped the Shadow to think in such exaggerated terms, to distance even itself from its true identity, to imagine itself a creature of supernatural origin and prowess. It fancied itself a fiend among children, pitiless, as inexorable as death itself.

Unhindered, it slid into a copse sprouting from the fringe of the forest. Less than a hundred paces to the south, down a gently sloping hill, loomed a forbidding shape, a wall outlined against the night by the pale wash of moon and stars. The Shadow’s gaze swept the wall’s surface, a skin ravaged by mosses and ivy and crumbling mortar seams. Despite its weathered appearance, the stone structure towered over the land. A trickle of a moat ringed its base, little more than a stream of sewage headed for the nearby Royal River. Most importantly, only a single sentinel stood watch upon this section of the rampart, one who, amazingly enough, appeared to be dozing while leaning upon his rusted pike.

Without further hesitation, the Shadow dashed from its cover, plunging into the knee-deep prairie grass that carpeted the hillside. It crossed the clearing in a crouch, leapt the putrid stream, and came to rest against the cold stone of the castle wall. With only a slight breeze to mark its passing, it need not have paused to ensure that it had not been spied. But the Shadow wore caution as a soldier would his heavy armor, a coat of arms enmeshed over limbs and joints, impossible to remove without concerted effort, and shed not a moment before the battle was won. Caution shielded against overconfidence, which often led to mistakes. And in a contest such as this, a single mistake could grant passage into death’s domain. So the Shadow made none.

An army of crickets chirped in shrill cadence. Farther off, an owl hooted deep within the woods. Nearby, the waters of the moat lapped against their earthen banks. But the Shadow’s presence, draped flat against the wall, remained undetected.

Secure in this thought, the Shadow turned to face the unyielding stone, producing a coiled length of slender rope from within its cloak. To one end was fastened a tiny, three-pronged grapnel, its metal hooks wrapped in cloth to help quiet any sound and guard against the reflection of light. With deft movements, the Shadow sent the hook hurtling to the top of the crenellated battlement some ninety feet overhead. The throw was true. A muffled clank echoed upon the wind as the hook swung around a crumbling merlon and bit like a serpent into the resisting stone.

Below, the Shadow waited, a tiny crossbow poised to bury its bolt into the unsuspecting face of any curious sentry. But once again, its caution proved unnecessary, as a sudden snore broke the near silence.

The crossbow vanished, and a pair of daggers appeared. After spinning them in its fingers, the Shadow placed the blades in its mouth. Seizing the threadlike rope, the invader tested its hold before beginning to climb.

The Shadow breezed up the monstrous structure, running skyward along the wall while pulling hand over hand upon the rope. Upon reaching the top, the Shadow swung skillfully between two moss-covered merlons, drew the daggers from its mouth, and buried each to its hilt in the throat of the oblivious guardsman. Slumping to the ground within a shadowed alcove, the sentry fell silently into a sleep from which he would never awake.

Pausing briefly to draw a breath, coil its rope, and retrieve its blades, the Shadow turned and raced along the battlement, down a flight of lichen-covered steps, and into the city below.

Closed shops stared with blank expressions as the Shadow passed through the slumbering marketplace. It knew well the route to take, racing through the empty business center while avoiding the areas infested at this hour with drunks, whores, thieves, and various other miscreants. Although more at home with their type than most others, on this night, the Shadow had other business with which to attend.

Overhead, scattered clouds hid the moon and stars as they tracked across the sky. Pools of lamplight were scarce in this sector of the city, and easily avoided. Though ever mindful of its surroundings and watchful of the darkened alleys through which it passed, the Shadow hastened its pace.

Within moments, the iron fence encircling the royal palace emerged from behind a slat-wood building. A pair of watchmen stood before the towering grillwork, laughing over some obscene gossip about their queen. As it studied the men and their surroundings, the hidden Shadow considered their raillery with wry interest. In other nations, speaking such words meant death, but in Alson, half the rumors about Queen Ellebe were started by King Sorl himself—by the sound of it, this one included.

Only in Alson, the Shadow thought, where the king’s penchant for lurid tales and unrestrained revelry was the stuff of legend. It was said that no ruler in history knew better how to sate the base urges of himself and his exclusive guests than old King Sorl. His was a large and wealthy land, built on his father’s efforts, and it was not in Sorl’s nature to worry about cost or consequence. Though Alson fell into further ruin with each passing season, the king demanded that his treasury be kept full, his father’s fortune supplemented from time to time with taxed and stolen treasures in order to fund his appetites.

A shame he reserved so little of that fortune for the commission of more-competent sentries.

When the pair of guards erupted into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, the Shadow stepped forward and slit their throats before they could register its presence. As it lowered the second guardsman softly to the ground, the Shadow found a confused expression on the man’s stubbled face.

“You’re dead,” the killer said in a whisper, like that of a dry leaf scraping across the cobbled street.

The soldier’s grunt fell from his throat with a choking splash of blood.

With that, the Shadow wiped its blade before scampering to the top of the gate and jumping lightly to the ground beyond. It hit the stone running, and within moments had reached a structure that dwarfed its surrounding companions.

Despite its size, the tower of King Sorl was by no means magnificent. Once upon a time, it had been the most splendid structure in Alson, a proud symbol of her lands and ruler. But now, it more rambled into the night sky than soared, and was so cracked and weathered that it seemed as if only the clinging ivy kept it standing.

Upon reaching the tower, the Shadow skulked alongside its circular outer wall, making for the servants’ entrance. But the area was heavy with traffic, as the last of the revelers and food merchants and drug mixers from the night’s festivities headed home or lingered about, not yet ready for the debauchery to end. Most were too inebriated to give the Shadow pause. Whores giggled and sighed, some teasing and demure, others open and inviting as they considered last-minute propositions. But others appeared more cognizant, such as scullery maids pushing out wagons of refuse and the whoremasters come to collect their fees. When a trio of guardsmen sauntered over to inspect and then join the commotion, the Shadow decided to seek another avenue.

Flitting away, the Shadow moved back toward the front of the building, where it considered the broad flight of steps leading up to the tower’s main entrance. A murky collection of moon and lantern light washed down over the stone, taunting the Shadow with its ability to expose the darkness, daring it forward.

The Shadow cast an ear back toward the side of the tower. The risk, it had begun to realize, was minimal.

After mounting the steps, the Shadow pushed experimentally upon the enormous pair of doors fronting the structure. They knocked briefly against the crossbar locked within. Spinning away, the Shadow came to rest against a postern. Hearing nothing from within, it went to work on the keyhole of the wrought-iron gate that warded the wooden door beyond. Soon, the tumblers shifted and the latch released with a click. With the protective grillwork unlocked, the Shadow reached between its bars for the knocker clinging to the main door.

*  *  *

Carrus groaned. Realizing that the tapping was not a result of the dreams in his head, but of a spear butt against his helm, he came awake and slapped at the intrusion. “What in the Fiend’s eye?”

Tehmin snorted and withdrew his spear. He offered a toothy grin as Carrus’s thrashing did little more than knock askew his own helm. “We’s got company.”

“What?” Carrus finally centered his helm and glared at his fellow guardsman, who pointed to the receiving door of the main foyer. “Well, run them off already. What do you need to wake me for?”

“Procedures,” Tehmin reminded him, although the man’s smirk betrayed the fact that he had roused his companion for no other reason than to irritate him.

Chuckling at Carrus’s muttered curses, Tehmin approached the door and drew back the viewing slat. His statement of dismissal caught, however, as he gazed past the bars of the security gate.

“What is it?” Carrus prompted.

“Bah, kids.” Tehmin slammed shut the viewing slat and turned away. Before he had taken two steps, the knock sounded again. Spinning about, he tore open the slat. Someone on the other side of the door gave a low whistle.

Tehmin growled and threw back the locking bar. Behind him, Carrus chuckled.

“Now, now, Tehmin. Procedures.”

Tehmin ignored him and yanked open the wooden door. As soon as he did, the security gate flew open as well, and Tehmin doubled over. Carrus stopped laughing long enough to squint at the shadow that came rushing forward. His eyes widened as they caught a flash of steel, but before he could so much as find his voice, Carrus felt his windpipe collapse beneath the shredding tips of twin daggers. He clutched at his assailant, but might as well have been grasping at the wind. He felt his muscles stiffen and convulse, heard blood splatter as he coughed, then watched the world fade.

*  *  *

The Shadow squinted against the torchlight. Ordinarily it would have shuddered at such a risk, but this mission had become a touch too easy, and having granted caution its due consideration, the Shadow did not mind adding some excitement to its task. Now, after positioning the pair of guards in a pretense of slumber and securing the portal, the Shadow slipped away from the reaches of the revealing chamber light to the base of a stairway fronting the main hall. Climbing to the top took a matter of heartbeats, at which point the Shadow chose one of several side passages and moved cautiously down its length toward a second set of stairs beyond.

With silent efficiency, the Shadow navigated the maze of corridors and stairs that crisscrossed the interior of the royal palace, winding its way skyward. Reaching the upper floors proved no difficult task; nor was there any challenge in locating Sorl’s room. The passages were empty of life, and once it had reached the tower’s apex, the Shadow followed the snore of a sentinel to the king’s door. The fool lay on the ground in a drunken slumber, a half-filled mug of ale leaning dangerously upon his lap. Above his head, a torch burned gleefully, its light creating strange yet innocuous shadows that helped to make the lethal one invisible. There were no sounds from within.

The guard did not see the glint of steel as the killer’s dagger slid from its sheath. Nor did he see how close the blade came to slitting his throat before the Shadow shifted and withdrew the weapon, deciding against the spilling of the man’s blood. Let the man try to explain himself in the morning. Let him squirm before his captain and wish that he had been slain. Let him live to wonder at and to curse the Shadow’s inexplicable mercy.

Smirking to itself, at its ability to play games with fear and death the way others played with dice, the Shadow shoved the unlocked door fully open. Without a second glance at the dozing guardsman, the Shadow blew like a stray gust through the arched opening and into the chambers of Sorl, king of Alson.

The door closed silently. Inside, the Shadow found a comfortable sitting room, complete with a flaming hearth and padded chairs. Clothes and mugs and food trays littered the otherwise plush landscape. To the left, an empty doorway opened in on the king’s bedchamber.

Sliding along the near wall, the Shadow sheathed its dagger and produced again its tiny crossbow. It could see the king’s slumbering form clearly now, a mountain beneath rumpled sheets. Surprisingly, the man slept alone, sprawled upon his back beneath the awning that stretched across brass bedposts, their curtains drawn back.

Alone, save for his cat.

The animal lifted its head as the Shadow crossed the threshold of the bedchamber. One eye was missing, the scarred lid stretched tight and sewn shut against the hollow socket. Its good eye glittered while the cat hissed a slow, steady warning. When the Shadow eased forward, the animal bounded away, scampering across Sorl’s chest before dropping to the floor and vanishing behind a dresser.

In its wake, the king woke with a start and jerked upright.

“Who’s there?” he coughed.

Pieces of the man’s evening feast still nested in his tangled black beard. His eyes were puffy and shaded. His garments appeared to be those he had worn that day, stained with gravy and drink and the stench of smoke from feast hall torches.

The Shadow offered no response. It stood motionless while Sorl blinked and rubbed his eyes and cast about for the source of his alarm. After a moment of searching, Sorl finally saw the Shadow, and he began to tremble as he spied its weapon, leveled already with deadly aim.

“What . . . whatever you want—”

“I shall have,” the Shadow whispered.

Sorl’s face went pale and he began to cast frantic glances about the room. The Shadow watched him, reveling in the man’s fear. Ironic, that the people of Alson might actually think the assassin had done their land a service.

People were, after all, shortsighted and foolish.

Realizing his doom, the wide-eyed Sorl finally shrieked a desperate cry for help. But it was cut short as the lethal bolt leapt from the assassin’s instrument and buried itself in the king’s throat, pinning him to his bed.

Awakened by his king’s cry, the sentry from the outer hall scurried to his feet and rushed into the room. Inside, he found Sorl lying in his bed, and unaware of the small arrow sticking through his lord’s bleeding throat, his eyes flew to the window, where he was certain he saw a man leaping over the stone sill.

His sense of duty lured him to the open window, where he poked his face into the warm night wind and scanned the vista below. After searching in vain for several moments, the sentry shook his head. Perhaps the old coot had had a nightmare. Or perhaps the entire episode had been of his own imagination.

The yawning guardsman closed the shutters, fumbling with the latch as he blinked away the odd dream, then wiping at his breeches where he’d spilled his unfinished ale in his haste to respond. As he stepped from the window, muttering to himself, the sleeping king behind him made a strange gurgling sound. The guardsman turned at once. Bowing respectfully as he backed toward the room’s exit, he apologized for disturbing his lord’s slumber, nightmare or no.

“Your pardon, my liege. ‘Twas merely a shadow.”