Wednesday, October 31, 2012


A Pale Green Blade
By William Maier

The whetstone followed the steel edge with a hiss, paused briefly, and then lifted back towards the hilt to start its journey anew. The rhythm of the gritty hiss lent an almost musical quality to the air. It was a methodical process; it was a process which had become ritual. A thousand times the hand had held the stone, and thousands of times more the stone had ridden the steel. It was a simple act, in which Ryl Lorme had always taken pleasure. To whet an ensorcelled blade was unnecessary, yet the serenity it brought was useful, particularly so of late.

A troubled mind was not something that Ryl was accustomed to, and he did not plan on keeping its acquaintance long. Such things spelled doom for men like him: men that were in the employ of the High Marshal. The position was for life; it served as a reward for excessive skill, or punishment for serious crime. In Ryl’s case both applied. The Marshal’s men did not retire, rather they were retired; this was a fact he was intimately familiar with, being the preferred instrument of retirement. Being the best had afforded him an extended life expectancy, though someday, without doubt, the crown’s dirty little secrets would need to be scrubbed clean. Who would they send? Garbow? Terne? The Marshal was no fool, he would send both. It would be a close thing, but in the end he would need to send more, and he certainly would. If you knew where to find a man you could kill him, and the Marshal always knew where to look. And therein lay the source of his current discontent.

How long had it been since he closed the door to foolish hopes of anything but a blade in the back, or a flask of tainted ale, as an end to his story? But now, he could hear memories long put to rest, like kenneled dogs-- scratching at first, but now clawing-- behind the door, refusing to be ignored. And perhaps their diligence paid off, for at that moment he was struck with a recollection of youth: the fancy of someday leaving these highlands to pursue a career as a treasure-seeking pirate, though he had never seen the sea. There was a fair-haired girl as well, the cobbler’s daughter, whose mere presence would weaken his knees. A pungent odor of the past flared his nostrils; it was the smell of onions on his mother’s dirt-stained hands, the only thing that would grow in their wretched little garden. The door had been breached. And only with a great flexing of his mental muscles did Ryl manage to seal it again, but not before the damage was done. For the first time in thousands, the hand betrayed the ritual; the whetstone fell from loose fingers to thud on the ground.

Ryl stared at the stone a moment before reaching down to pluck it from the grass and slip it into the small satchel on his belt. He looked at his sword, giving some regard to the pale green blade before sliding it into the baldric about his shoulder. His trance was broken, the ritual was over. He rose from the rock that served as his seat; he stretched his back, rolled his shoulders, and strode out toward the trail. As he went, he thought about a certain boy: a boy called Rat-face.


Rat-face was the apprentice at the smithy, the same smithy that outfitted the Marshal’s men with their legendary swords. The uniqueness of these swords was the green hue of the steel, presumably, from the enchantments weaved inside them. Ryl had quite literally bled for the right to wield his blade; the blood provided the essence which bound him to the sword. It was impossible for Ryl to lose the sword; how could one lose their very essence? Of course, the sword would always reveal its wielder as well. A very convenient detail, if you happened to be the Marshal. As for the boy, Rat-face, he was a fool; he was a great admirer of Ryl and those of like repute. Yet even fools have their uses, and Rat-face had served as a competent informer for Ryl. Two nights past, Rat-face spent a week’s wages keeping Ryl’s cup filled at the tavern. His attempt to impress Ryl resulted only in his own inebriation. And thus, it was a loose-lipped, rat-faced, fool of a boy, who had set the gears of Ryl’s thoughts in motion.

Rat-face claimed to have information: Ryl’s time had come. The trouble with Rat-face was he had also spoken of carnivorous unicorns and a three-legged goat that could predict the weather. Ryl had considered snapping the boy’s neck and leaving him at the bottom of some stairway-- in another time, a younger Ryl would have done just so-- but after weighing the odds of Rat-face remembering what he said, or to whom he said it, Ryl chose differently. What did the words of a drunken fool matter anyway? Not much. And Ryl could have left it at that-- except there was Verno.

Verno was the proprietor of The Gut Hook, a favored watering hole of the Marshal’s men. Besides being the proud owner of the establishment, he was also Ryl’s most reliable informant. He had been dropping hints to Ryl lately, ones that were safe, but hints Ryl would catch. Last time Ryl had seen Verno, he had handed him silver for the night’s ale, then turned to leave.

“Watch yourself out there, Ryl,” Verno had said cheerily. The words had caused Ryl to pause, so slightly no one would’ve noticed. He had known Verno for years, and never in all those years had Verno said such a thing. Ryl had understood.


Ryl stood between the wagon ruts, staring south down the trail; it was only seconds before he picked up the movement of his companion amongst the tree line. A grin curled his lips. Lenk was a difficult sight to miss, even at this distance. It was not his stature that gave away his identity-- though he was long and lithe, which made him seem taller than his average height-- but rather his obnoxious choice of attire. His affinity for the dramatic was apparent in his black ornate armor, purple plumed helm, and jewel-encrusted scabbard. He was young and unscarred, barely twenty, but quick and skilled with the blade. The old crew-- had there been any left-- would have hated him. They would have thought him soft, but they would have been mistaken. Ryl knew there was a lean-muscled stoutness under the fancy garb. He had a long way to go, but the potential was there. And for this reason, Ryl not only tolerated Lenk, he liked him. It was no surprise they had given him to Ryl. He had to start building a new crew; there were too many retirees out there feeding the maggots, due in no small part to Ryl himself.

The fact he had just covered a half league at a quick pace did little to labor Lenk’s breath, or dampen his spirit. He removed his helm, approaching Ryl with his usual smirk. Ryl, half a head taller, and wearing a tarnished chain hauberk missing several links, stood in stark contrast to his youthful counterpart. Lenk looked more ready to attend a royal ball than to deal with the task at hand. The thought gave Ryl a smirk of his own.

“An escort of only four, two on the coach, one being the driver, of course,” Lenk said, seemingly pleased with his report.

“So six, or is it four?”

“Aye, just two lances and a couple hired swords.”

“You mentioned two on the coach, that’s six, and that’s not counting the job inside the coach. Over compensate, it will serve you well. Details are important. I’ve seen better men than you die on their first job,” Ryl said, finishing with a lie.

“Right, six then plus the job in the coach,” Lenk paused to feign stupidity, “I believe is seven.”

Ryl sighed, “Did you see inside the coach? Or do you simply assume it seats only one? What about sorcery? Please tell me you checked.”

“Hmm, guess I hadn’t considered everything, first time out and all. But, rest assured no mages. I had my hand on the entire time,” he said patting the pommel of his sword, “it never hummed so much as a tickle.”

“Well, some good news at least. No magic.”

“You know, I thought you said that stuff was useless against these blades.”

“Defensive wards and the like, aye, you’ll slice right through. Other spells, offensive types-- fireballs, earth demons, and what have you-- not so much,” Ryl said. He failed to mention there hadn’t been a mage capable of such spells in a hundred years.

“Then I guess that is good news,” Lenk said, touching the pommel once again. The smirk was fading away now. He anxiously shifted from one foot to the other then turned to face back down the trail. There was a moment of silence-- somewhat remarkable for Lenk-- before he spoke again.

“Who do you suppose it is?”

“An unfortunate soul,” Ryl steadied his gaze on his companion,” Don’t muddy your mind with those questions, Lenk. The answers never change the outcome. Besides, you wouldn’t want to know, though you think you do. Less is best, and you’ll just have to trust me on that.” I sure as hell ought to know, he thought.

“How soon till they cross the west road?”

“I’d say they’ve passed it by now. Best go secure the horses, Lenk. Then get your butt back here.”

“I thought maybe we’d be setting a block, tree in the road, or something of the sort,” Lenk said.

Ryl laughed, looking around at the out-cropping of rock to one side of the trail, and the trees to the other. “No, they’ll find it difficult enough to turn around a coach here, if they’re stupid enough to try. It’s a good spot. We’ll be the tree in the road. Relax, my friend, and hurry the hell up with the horses.”

He noticed Lenk raise a quizzical brow before turning to jog up the trail, purple plume bouncing in his wake. My friend? Where did that come from? “He, who thinks and talks the fool, dies the fool.” Had someone said that? Well if not, someone should have. He had felt a dark portent growing about him ever since Rat-face and Verno had planted that seed: his time had come. He wasn’t an old man, not yet anyhow. There were still a few years before he had to truly worry about things. And when the time to worry did come? Well, he was surely no less deserving than those before him.


The lances rode in front of the approaching carriage, with the pair of mercenaries bringing up the rear. As the lances reined their mounts to a halt in front of the two men, Ryl sensed, more than saw, Lenk’s hand creep toward the grip of his blade.

“Careful now,” Ryl whispered to his companion. Lenk stood close to his left side, where he could nearly feel the hammer of the young man’s heart. He remembered the sensation, the rush of adrenaline pushing you to the edge of frenzy. A valuable tool when controlled, but it took time to master. Nice and easy kid, he thought, taking a step forward.

A tall, thick-shouldered man, with a thin dark mustache, came around the coach and dismounted his horse. His dark beady eyes, set deep under a large sloping forehead, seemed to scrutinize Ryl and Lenk. Whatever Tall and Thick saw, it apparently bolstered his confidence. When he spoke, his chin jutted out in theatrical mockery. “What have us here, scoundrels and rogues? It would seem apparent you wish to be trampled beneath us, or maybe you’re simply too slow-witted to clear off the road. May I at least inquire who delays the niece of the Duchess of Treze? I would like to send word of their demise to their families when we reach our destination. Go ahead, you first scoundrel,” he said, poking a finger at Ryl, “then the troubadour, or is he only a jester?” There was a ripple of nervous laughter amongst the lances and the other swordsman. The coachmen, looking terrified, fumbled for their own blades. Tall and Thick crossed his arms, a grotesque smile splitting his face, and waited for his answer.

He who thinks and talks the fool…

It seemed the crown’s interests now stretched as far south as Treze, Ryl thought, noting the heavy scale of the lances and swordsmen-- typical of the region. He gave a brief glance to the coachmen. They were not soldiers, but soft men in everyday garb with faces now turned ashen. For the merest of moments, he felt something akin to pity for them. The feeling quickly forgotten, Ryl gave his best version of a charming smile.

“It would be less than polite to deny anything to such an amicable lot as yours, so I shall answer your question.” He swept an arm toward Lenk, “This young…jester, was it? Anyhow, this is Lenk. And indeed he shall perform for you today, as a jester does, though today he shall not play the part of a fool, as it’s apparent you’ve laid claim to that role. Instead he will be a killer.” Whispers rippled between the guards as Lenk gave a grand bow, his purple plume nearly touching the ground. Ryl was really quite impressed. “As for me,” he slowly drew the jade-colored blade from the baldric, “I am Ryl Lorme, scoundrel, rogue, and much worse.”

Just as Ryl finished speaking, the driver of the coach suddenly stood-- a whimpering sound escaping his throat-- and sprang from the carriage. He landed with a thud, tumbling several feet before managing to scramble to his feet, at which point he broke into a run, heading the direction from which they came.

“Well, I think my reputation precedes me. Perhaps the rest of you would like to follow the coachman’s lead,” Ryl said, no longer wearing the false smile. And then it began, just as he knew it would.

Thick and Tall’s face contorted with hatred as he charged forward. “Murdering scum! I’ll--,” his final threat was soundless, spraying forth in a crimson mist. The big mercenary pitched forward as Ryl yanked the blade from his throat, quickly stepping inside the wild thrust of a lance. A jab to the mount’s flank reared the horse, sending the rider flopping to the ground. Incredibly, he landed in a sitting position with a dazed look upon his face; the expression lasted only an instant before being removed by a downward hack from Ryl’s sword. He spun away from the faceless man, and saw the other rider raise his lance. It was pointed at Lenk, who was busy with his own fight.

Ryl didn’t hesitate. He leapt forward, meeting the rider before he could skewer Lenk, and plunged his blade deep into the man’s left armpit. The force of the blow punched the sword point out above the right shoulder. Now embedded, the blade was nearly torn from his grip as the man slid to the ground to rest between the splayed legs of his faceless comrade. Ryl looked up to see Lenk running toward him; his sword was stained with mercenary blood. He attempted to tug free his own sword just as a white hot pain stung the left side of his head. Managing to spin around, he saw the coachman, the one who had not ran away. His eyes were wide and wild; a short bladed weapon trembled in his grip. He attempted another attack--a pathetic lunge-- at Ryl, as he did Lenk flashed past, burying his sword in the man’s chest.

The two men stood surveying the surroundings. The only sound was of the fleeing horses, their pounding hooves fading down the trail. Ryl bent down and picked something up when Lenk spoke.

“I should tease you about forgetting how to count, but sincerely I am in awe. I had heard the stories-- but you know how stories are. Gods, you are as fast as they say-- forgive my doubts,” he said moving to Ryl’s side to examine the wound. “You’re bleeding quite badly. Hurt much?”

“My head, or the fact you doubted my legend? No, it’s only a scratch and I’ve bled worse, much worse.” Ryl said. He gave a close look to the grisly hunk of flesh he had picked from the ground-- what had been the better part of his left ear-- then simply tossed it aside. “Damn shame though.”

“It will only add to the mystique of Ryl Lorme,” Lenk said laughing. He placed his hand on Ryl’s shoulder with a sudden look of seriousness, “I believe you saved me the discomfort of being impaled, and for that I am more than grateful. I won’t soon forget it.” There was a lack of sarcasm in his last words, unusual for Lenk. It made Ryl wince.

Shit, don’t go starting to trust people kid, especially not people like me, Ryl thought. He nodded toward the carriage, “You’ve got a job to finish. Can’t hold your hand the whole way, that’s the order, it’s how it works. You up for finishing this so we can go get stinking drunk?”

“Aye, I am,” his tone was grave. He turned and slowly walked toward the carriage.

Ryl watched him go. How does a kid like Lenk get stuck in this shitty game? Something screamed in his head to stop him, to just tell him that if he finished this job, his life was finished with it. There would always be another job, till someday, he became someone else’s job. In the end his bust would never be placed on a mantle, and no tapestry depicting his heroics would ever be hung. He would be a killer and a slave, nothing more. Tell him.

“Lenk,” Ryl was startled by the sound of his own voice.

Lenk had reached the carriage, his hand already on the door lever. He turned, “Last bit of advice?”

Ryl held the young man’s eyes for a brief time. It was time enough to curse himself for his own wretchedness. “Nothing, just wanted to let you know I’m buying tonight.” And that I’m a damn coward.

“And I’ll hold you to that,” said Lenk, turning back to the carriage.

Ryl watched Lenk grasp the door lever again, his sword at the ready, another life about to be owned by the Marshal. He watched as Lenk opened the door, seeming to freeze for a long moment, then relax his posture, lowering his blade and turning again to Ryl. There was a look of confusion on his face. “A child,” he barely whispered. And it was just then that Ryl caught the glint of thin cruel steel darting out, like a shiny snake’s tongue, from the dark confines of the coach. He knew that glint of steel had served its purpose-- even before Lenk raised a mailed hand to his throat, before he fell to his knees, and before great gouts of blood spilled through his fingers-- Ryl had known. He did not cry out, or run to his fallen companion. Instead, he paused for an instant, closing his eyes while his mind strangled the rise of an alien emotion. His eyes opened and he wrenched his blade from the dead rider and strode toward the carriage.

Inside he found a young girl, a fair-haired girl. Though not beautiful, she was pretty in a certain way: a way that seemed to encourage the dogs of memory to take up scratching at the door again. He growled, giving a heavy mental boot to the door. Shut the hell up! And he was relieved when they obliged.

The girl was shaking; she held a long thin-bladed dagger, the end slick with Lenk’s blood. Then, thinking of Lenk, he understood: Lenk had not yet become one of the Marshal’s men. He had seen a frightened child, and it mattered to him. It had never mattered to Ryl. Lenk’s reluctance was why he died here today. Maybe it was better this way; he had died with a soul, something Ryl had surrendered long ago. The girl flinched, but didn’t attack when he reached in and took the dagger from her hand. He reflected on his situation, on the girl, and on Lenk. Finally, he let out a sigh, looking at the child who had saved Lenk’s soul. If only he had found his own salvation so long ago. But he was a murderer; he was a tool of the crown and nothing more. These thoughts made him smile bitterly as he spoke, “Girl, I really wish you hadn’t done that.”


After riding south a few leagues past the west road, Ryl slid from his mount to stand at another crossroad. The coach driver, who had fled, only made a league before Ryl rode up on him. On his knees, he had begged and pleaded, as though Ryl were some twisted god about to pass judgment. But Ryl had only instructed him to return to the carriage, where he would find the girl waiting. He was to make haste back to Treze and inform the Duchess of the High Marshal’s treachery. Before the man went, Ryl asked for his weapon. With an odd look, he had handed over his short blade, turned, and started jogging back up the road. It was that weapon which Ryl now held in his hands, standing at the crossroads.

It was really no more than a long knife, better for whittling sticks than flesh. The blade was perfectly unremarkable: grey iron, with a tattered leather grip. He secured it in his belt, and removed the baldric about his shoulder. He let the leather belt and scabbard fall to the ground as he drew the pale green blade. He examined it, as he had countless times before. This sword-- always keen, perfectly attuned to the wielder-- somehow served as a beacon of sorts. It had been his yoke, and he would always be bound to it. Strange, it seemed heavier now, and maybe slightly darker. The Marshal always knows where to look. Ryl realized that Rat-face may have been right; he also realized he no longer cared either way. And with that liberating discovery, he drove the sword into the very center of the crossroad.

Ryl Lorme stood at the center of the crossroads, now marked by a sword with a pale green blade. The road south continued to Treze; the roads north, and west, he was leaving behind. His service to the crown had never taken him far down the eastern road, but he knew where it led. He mounted his horse, thinking of the hundreds of leagues between him and the harbor cities of the coast. The Marshal would come for him eventually, but in the meantime he would head east, toward a new life. A life as a pirate perhaps, though he had never seen the sea.

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I am 42 years old and earn my living as a printer. I have finally quit thinking about writing and am now doing it. I live in Wisconsin with my wife and three daughters.


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