HAVE SWORD, WILL DRINK
(the story continues...)
Most believed the land was named Sweetriver because of the abundance of fresh water that flowed freely through it. A few others knew that King Brian had named the land after a noble maiden he was trying to impress. Her name was River. She had rejected his favor years earlier, but the name stuck and he had never dared tell the stern woman he had ended up marrying. It was just as well. The land was full of rivers, after all. Some of the people who knew all those things also knew that King Brian was actually only a duke, Duke Brian the Black, but he remained secretly hopeful. Ambition also had the added bonus of keeping him away from home and the “charms” of the duchess.
One of Marenswaith’s more popular revenue-generating enterprises was the Rutting Stag Tavern. It was late in the afternoon when the tavern’s doorstep was darkened by a black-cloaked stranger who stood out even among the usual odd assortment of those passing through from day-to-day. Inside the poorly lit tavern, the middle-aged man pushed through the sweaty masses as though searching for someone in particular. Finally, he approached a table in a corner of the room. A broad-shouldered man sat behind a tankard of mead with his back to the wall.
“Is this you?” the new arrival asked, dropping a small piece of hand-lettered parchment on the table.
Gulping down another mouthful of his drink, the armored man shifted his eyes up to the stranger and then back to the table. He set his tankard down and picked up the parchment.
“No,” he said. “I am me. This is advertising.”
“Perhaps not the best money spent,” the stranger said, “given the state of local literacy.”
“And yet here we are.”
“Indeed. ‘Have sword. Will travel.’ The horse head stands for chivalry?”
“Did you come here to ask me stupid questions or interrupt my drinking?”
“You serve this realm as a knight?” the stranger asked.
“I am a free-lance. It keeps me out of politics,” the warrior said. “You are an idiot in search of a village?”
“They say you are called Slade,” the stranger said.
“They talk too much,” the warrior said, waving his tankard in the air, “and you are boring me. Barmaid! Mead!”
“Your reputation has spread far, Slade,” the older man went on. “I am in need of a man like you.”
“If you want one like me, go elsewhere,” Slade said. “If you want me--”
“I do,” the stranger said, dropping several gold coins and a square-cut ruby on the table.
“I like a man who backs up his words,” Slade said, scooping up the coins and the gem. “You just bought yourself…a chair.”
“Fair enough,” the stranger said, sitting down across from the warrior.
“What is the job and what is your name?”
“I have been called by many names in my long life.”
“No doubt, but you should share one you like,” Slade told him, “before I choose one you do not.”
“Locke will do,” the older man said.
“And what do you want from me?”
“Obviously,” Slade said, “but your rental on my patience is running out, so talk faster. You having problems with tyrants? Barbarians? Giants? Demons? A dragon? Some damsel in a dress giving you a hard time? Speak, man.”
“I need you to claim Justice,” Locke said.
“I am willing to fight for that,” Slade said. “It is noble and--”
“Not the concept, mutton-head,” Locke said. “Justice is the name of a sword.”
“Oh, of course,” Slade said, picking up his fresh tankard of mead as the server flashed a smile and sped away with his empty tankard. “I’ve already got a sword.”
“Ah, but this one is a very special sword,” the elder man said. “This is a unique treasure, said to have been crafted by the ancient goddess Ishtar for the warrior king Gilgamesh.”
“Gilgamesh?” Slade echoed. “Doesn’t sound like a king from around here.”
“Mesopotamia. Babylon,” Locke replied. “Centuries ago, before the Holy Land was the Holy Land, he ruled the people of Uruk with a firm hand. The goddess pursued him. He spurned her advances, though, so she cast his gift beyond the horizon and dispatched the Bull of Heaven to punish him.”
“Women, huh?” Slade laughed, lifting his mead for another gulp.
“She was a goddess of love, sex and war.”
“Yeah, women,” Slade said. “I have met them.”
“As you say,” Locke said, laughing with him. “Now, you may or may not be aware that Duke Brian has certain…aspirations.”
“I hear things,” Slade said. “Some say he wants to sit in a bigger chair, be the man people answer to rather than one of the people.”
“Unless you’re the man in charge, you’re just another one of the masses,” Locke said. “Exactly so, but with the sword of a legendary king in hand, even a pagan one, drawing followers and laying claim to the throne should come with ease.”
“And he can’t get the support of his own knights to go after it himself?” Slade asked.
“A wise question, sir,” Locke said. “A man of power and ambition must choose carefully those he would trust. This must be done discreetly and quickly. While the weapon has remained hidden for many years, others do seek it. It is whispered that among the contenders may even be a dark wizard.”
“A wizard?” Slade asked, slamming his tankard to the table.
“So it is said,” Locke told him, “and of great power.”
“You have a problem with wizards, warrior?”
“They raise the hairs on my neck and boil my blood.”
“You fear them.”
“No,” he said before gulping down the remainder of his mead. “They just complicate simple things for the rest of us, especially the stupid ones. If I never see a fool with a glowing rock again in my life--”
“Regardless,” Locke said, “this needs to be done.”
“Maybe some other time,” Slade said. “I’m not done drinking.”
“It would not do for another to find the sword,” Locke said. “You are noble and pure of spirit.”
“And not finished drinking,” Slade said. “That means I’m not leaving.”
“Understand that with a sword forged by gods,” Locke explained, “that the wizard, to name but one, might unleash unspeakable evils upon the world.”
“What sorts of evils?” Slade asked.
“I cannot tell you.”
“It is unspeakable,” Locke reminded him. “Pay attention.”
Slade muttered something obscene under his breath as he contemplated the bottom of his empty tankard.
“This job will be worth enough to buy your own tavern,” Locke told him. “If you like, afterward we can even find you some damsel whose maidenly virtue needs rescuing.”
“Magic,” Slade grumbled. “I have yet to see the sun rise on a day that ran smooth when magic was involved.”
“Magic…bah! From here on, drinks are on you. Barmaid!” Slade called out.
Two more tankards of mead and four hours later, Locke had led Slade deep into the moonlit night. Far from Marenswaith and the Rutting Stag, weary steeds carried the two men through a little traveled region of unspoiled forest. The journey had not been made in the best of spirits
“Are we there yet?” Slade asked, wriggling in his saddle.
“Nearly,” Locke said, looking at the stars. “One would think I rode with a child.”
“At best,” Slade said, “one only rents mead. If we’re going to be going much further--”
“Very well,” Locke said, pointing through the trees to an inviting glade ahead. “We can dismount there.”
“Most tranquil,” Slade said, dismounting as his horse walked into the tall, moonlit grass.
Slade patted the shoulder of his mount as it lowered its head to the lush emerald grass. Locke rode to Slade’s side, also stopping in the moonlight. The forest clearing almost seemed to glow, basked in the moon’s silvery luminescence guided down from the starry Heavens.
“What now?” Slade asked, raising his arms and stretching his back.
“You go there,” Locke told him, pointing across the clearing.
With his gaze following Locke’s direction, Slade looked at the towering trees where the forest began again. Keen warrior eyes squinted into the shadows to see a barely visible rocky hillside behind the line of trees.
“Why?” Slade asked.
“Walk straight on and you will see the mouth of a cave,” Locke explained. “If the stars have been read correctly, you will find Justice within.”
“Right,” Slade said with a sigh as he turned to walk off.
“Wait,” Locke called out.
“What now?” the fighter asked impatiently.
“There may be tests,” the elder man warned, walking to him with a flickering oil lamp. “And you will need to see where you are going.”
“Thanks,” Slade said, “but I am no scholar. What manner of tests? What are you talking about?”
“Possible challenges to confirm the nobility of your spirit,” Locke said.
“Neither am I a noble,” Slade said. “I am not even in service to one.”
“Yes, I know,” Locke said. “If all that was needed was some brute to bash things, I could have found a hundred other men.”
“I wish you had.”
“Better than that,” Locke told him, “devoid of wealth or status, you are a good man, a noble paladin. This…goodness in you is what will carry you through to the prize. Did I not tell you all this before?”
“You talk a great deal,” Slade said. “Who listens?”
Locke sighed as Slade rolled his eyes and resumed his walk into the dark.
With the lamp held high beside him, Slade stalked cautiously into the silence of the deep cave. Layered beneath mail, cloth and padding, he could still feel his arm hairs bristling. He moved forward through the unknown darkness that seemed determined to swallow the light of his lamp. As the warrior concentrated on the careful placement of his feet, he realized he could hear a soft sound. What he could discern was barely above a whisper, but musical. As he strained to confirm what he was hearing and from where, he saw a light dispelling the stygian blackness ahead of him. A feeling of confident certainty rose within him and the brave fighter pressed forward at a quickened pace.
Slade stepped into the strange light and it flared suddenly. He rubbed his eyes and as they adjusted he realized he was in a large chamber. The walls were alabaster and gold. Piles of gold coins and sparkling jewels littered the floor. Scantily clad maidens danced around him, beckoning him forward. Other maids carried platters of rich foods, the likes of which he had only ever heard tales. His head swam in the scent of a heady perfume as blondes, brunettes and redheads brushed past him dressed as though they were entertaining a sultan. The serving girls began to arrange the food on a large table and pour wine into a large goblet. Again, slender arms and fingers gestured for him to come to the table.
“Come, Slade,” a woman’s voice spoke. “Claim your reward. You are a great warrior, more deserving than any other.”
“I am?” he asked, trying to make sense of things through his clouded senses.
“Live as a king,” the voice enticed. “Feast to your fill. Bed the women of your dreams. Recline in luxury.”
“What? No…I …I have to…I am helping…” Slade spoke, struggling to focus.
“No such foolishness,” Locke said, walking past Slade and around the dancing girls. “If they say you should be king, then be king. Others have had their time. With all the wealth here, we can raise armies in your name and crush your enemies. Who do you want to go after first?”
“Yes, who shall we crush first?” Locke asked him. “Who has earned your righteous wrath, my lord?”
“No,” Slade said. “This is…all wrong.”
“What is wrong?” the woman’s voice asked.
“All of it,” Slade said. “All of this. I am…no king. I help…people.”
“You help people?” the voice asked.
“Yes,” Slade said, “even when it puts a pain in my bloody ass.”
“Very well, then,” the woman said.
Locke vanished. The scantily clad women shimmered and faded away. The feast and the treasures, every last bit of opulence, was gone as though it had never been.
“What magic is this?” Slade asked, watching the beautiful chamber return to its actual appearance. “I am…still in the cave.”
“Yes,” the woman’s voice confirmed, “you never left it. You have been tested by the enemies of man and found to be of suitable strength.”
The glow illuminating the rocky cavern changed, expanding to reveal an ornate sword floating freely above the ground. Aside from its general form as a sword, the weapon was unlike any Slade had ever seen in his lifetime. Its warm glow was like a beacon, drawing him toward it. Even without touching it, he could not help but marvel at its sublime workmanship. The sword had a two-handed handle that had no pommel and appeared to be wrapped in velvet and a golden thread. The hilt had the form of a crescent moon and an intricate silver inlay. The blade itself was the most curious part: a three-foot fusion of metal and some kind of clear crystal. He had handled many weapons in his time, but he could not even begin to guess at the manner of this one’s creation. The dazzling double-edged blade was an embodiment of opposing forces cast in flawless balance. Its light made his mail shirt sparkle.
“It is beautiful,” Slade said.
“Before you take hold of the Sword of Divine Might,” the disembodied voice said, “know this--”
“It’s going to hurt, isn’t it?” Slade asked.
“Do not take this lightly, paladin.”
“Then speak, spirit,” Slade said. “Who are you? What would you have of me?”
“The name I once had is unimportant,” came the response. “Merely know that when you claim this instrument of the gods--”
“No, the Sword of Divine might,” the spirit said. “Pay attention.”
“I was told--”
“You would believe a stranger over my word?”
“Well, in all fairness,” Slade said, “I’ve just met you, too.”
“You may dispense justice with it if you wish,” the spirit said. “The Sword of Divine Might will support you in any cause in which you truly believe, but only in a cause in which you believe.”
“When you claim it, your life will be forever changed.”
“Is it going to hurt or not?”
“Swell,” Slade grumbled. “That’s what my barber said.”
“Be true, paladin.”
“Wait,” Slade said. “What’s it like…in the next world?”
“I cannot tell you that,” the voice said.
“Rules,” the spirit replied. “Don’t make that face. You have no frame of reference to understand, anyway.”
“I barely understood that sentence,” Slade said.
“You’ll have to wait and see,” the spirit said.
“She is at peace.”
“Thank you, spirit.”
“Is that all?”
“My brother?” Slade asked.
“He says you can forget the money you owed him.”
“That does not sound like him.”
“Death can change a heart,” the spirit explained.
“I guess so.”
“I must depart,” the spirit said. “Fare thee well, paladin.”
Silently, Slade looked upon the glistening sword. His skin tingled as he reached out for the handle. Steeling himself against what he anticipated would be excruciating pain, the seasoned warrior grabbed the enchanted weapon. There was a shock and a blinding flash of light, heat and cold ran through him together. He was certain he felt the ground shake beneath him.
The light faded and, as his vision cleared, Slade realized that he stood once more beside his horse. Moonlight shone down on him and soft grass was beneath his feet. Slade took a deep breath and exhaled.
“Locke,” he said.
“Slade! You have the sword,” Locke said, watching Slade mount his steed again.
“Yes,” Slade said, admiring the unearthly weapon as he settled back into the saddle, “and it did not hurt nearly as half as much as I thought it would.”
“Quickly, give it to me,” Locke said. “We must depart this place.”
Slade paused, more out of reflex than choice. His steel-gray eyes studied the figure before him. In the face of the man he knew as Locke, he saw something else. More importantly, he saw someone else, someone dark and malevolent with blood-red eyes seated in deep sockets. Slade sensed the near-tangible presence of evil and it began to dawn upon him that he had only begun to see clearly.
“Deceiver!” Slade challenged, leveling the point of the magic sword at Locke.
“Quiet, fool,” came the response, Locke holding forth a glowing gem. “Give me the sword or I will be your death.”
“Damn,” Slade said, feeling his neck hairs bristling. “Magic.”
“Do not try my patience, paladin,” Locke warned. “Surrender the sword.”
“I never surrender, lying wizard,” Slade said. “You’ll have to come and take it and I do not believe you can.”
The wizard roared angrily as luminous tendrils of magic energy lashed out from the gem in his hand. Slade could barely hold his horse steady as he fought the eldritch forces trying to wrest the sword from his grip. As hard as the wizard could pull, though, Slade held fast with all his considerable might. Suddenly, there was a hissing and crackling between the two men, followed by a flash of light.
After several seconds, Locke managed to clear his vision. He quickly realized that he and his horse were alone in the glade. Producing a clear crystal from a pouch on his belt, the wizard held it toward the smoldering grass where Slade’s horse had last stood and concentrated. The crystal glowed softly and, after several seconds, Locke held it up to peer into its light. The glow grew stronger until the crystal crumbled to dust in his hands. Locke sighed.
“Damn,” he growled. “The paladin was right. Sometimes, magic sucks.”
Foiled and frustrated, Locke adjusted the dark cloak on his shoulders and rode off into the night.