“Wake up you little shit!” A fat fist pounded on Aaron’s rickety door.
Aaron’s eyes sprung open, sticky with exhaustion. The first trickling of morning light leaked through threadbare curtains. Aaron had overslept again. He jolted from slumber, and scrambled for a rag of a shirt. Panicked heartbeats mixed with Mr. Hubbard’s meaty knocking. When the door finally opened, a furious swollen red face stared down a thick nose at Aaron, standing two heads above him.
“I’m sorry Mr. Hubbard. I was….” Aaron felt his hair tighten in an iron grip before being yanked over the threshold. He let out a squeal of pain before his cheek pressed against cold glass.
“You see those potato sacks? They were delivered before dawn. Why are they not in the storehouse being peeled?” He pulled Aaron’s head back and pressed it against the glass over and over again. “If you live here, you work! If you don’t, then it’s the streets. This is your last warning! Now go!”
Tears welled in Aarons eyes from his stinging scalp. His breath fogged the glass window panes. Mr. Hubbard released him, and Aaron sprung at the opportunity. He made for the stairs, vaulting down three steps each bound. He caught his reflection briefly in Mr. Hubbard’s wall mounted cutlass. Still as sharp as the day he left the navy. He rounded a corner, and abruptly stopped his sprinting momentum.
“Late again?” Claudia said. She held a well-worn brown coat, a soft smile curled into her cheek. “It is a bit nippy.” He blushed, and took it.
Claudia returned to dish washing, a small fire kept the kitchen warm during that cold autumn morning. She watched Aaron work through a window. He heaved a bag over his shoulder, and trotted out of sight toward their tavern’s storehouse. She recognized her father’s footsteps. Each heavy step was followed by groaning wood. He stepped into the kitchen, rustled in a cabinet, and lit a fire on the stove.
“You are too soft on him.” He mumbled. “He is getting older, and as boys do, they need discipline.”
“I’m too soft pa? How many final warnings have you given him?”
He responded with an indifferent grunt.
“Kingsmen will be coming today. Valkin won again.” The name alone gave her shivers.
“Valkin? He won his duel against Breen?”
“Breen’s men left this morning. We will be in Valkin’s territory tonight, until someone beats him.” He stood silent in thought for a moment. “You are getting to marrying age. You are growing more womanly and pretty, and then duel mad boys won’t be satisfied with pretty smiles. You need a husband, and a tough one.”
“Don’t worry. I have Aaron.” her jab poked a sore spot, and the room grew still.
“You need a man. With years. Someone strong, maybe won a few duels himself. Not an orphan.” He slapped his hand on the countertop. “This Valkin fellow. I am real worried. I’ve heard rumors. Bad ones. If he comes here. You stay in the kitchen, out o’ sight.”
“Yes pa.” She scrubbed a black pot, and glanced at him. “Am I pretty?” She wiggled in place.
“Pretty as your mother, prettier than all them pirate queens o’the south.” He hugged her tight, and kissed the crown of her brown hair.
Aaron’s stomach went weak. He didn’t mean to overhear, but when he did he couldn’t stop. He crawled away from the kitchen window, sunlight warming his back. Beads of sweat were swallowed by the fabric of his coat’s interior. He thought of Claudia caught in the clutches of some fat beast. It made his blood boil. He stared at his empty muddy palms.
“She does need a man, not a boy.”
A lonely barrel sat crammed in the far corner of the storehouse. Aaron spun it to the side and crouched, pulling a loose brick from where the floor met the wall. Beneath it was a black pit of a hole. Drowned in darkness was a leather pouch. Before opening it, he searched over his shoulders for unwanted eyes, then poured it’s contents into his palm. A black sword hilt fell with a weighty thud.
He tightened his grip, it felt light, lighter than when he first bought it from that greasy foreign peddler. Black steel spun into a twisted grip, but still fit perfectly in his palm. Dark red shimmered between grooves, so dark it could easily have been mistaken for more black. The guard was a golden ring. Aaron wanted to spend the day experimenting it’s removal, not peeling potatoes. If he could peel the gold away, he could pay a smith to forge a real blade. With a real sword, he would be one more step towards being a man. Aaron struggled to pull his eyes away from his treasure.
Nightmares were coming much easier to him than they had ever before. Last night's terror was a particularly nasty encounter. He closed his eyes, and remembered how warm Claudia’s thighs had been as he rested his head on them. Being Accompanied by her smiling face had been bewilderingly pleasant. Pleasantness did not last long, abruptly fear filled his heart like a fresh glass defiled with a stream of rotten juice. Her smile melted into bloody gore, dripping toward his face. Aaron wanted to shriek, but there was no air in his lungs. He wanted to run, but there was no life in his legs. He recalled shutting his eyes an instant before the bloody slurry made contact.
To his utter dismay, when his eyes opened the loving smile was replaced with a blood stained skull. Crimson bones leaked gore, as if to regrow flesh, but rotting away before fully healing. Worse yet, it’s eye sockets were populated with lidless white eyes, forever locked with fleshless surprise. It’s deep black pupils dug deep into the unpleasant memory.
Cradled by the crimson horror. Aaron heard it whisper with his own voice.
This had been the first time he could recall his nightmares so vividly. His knees were weak, but his grip was painfully tight. He forced his hand open, wincing at the pain. He let his treasure thump against a wooden table top. He had potatoes to peel, and the morning was slipping away.
“What is that?” Claudia came fast, long skirt flapping wide enough for him to see her boot lacings.
“It looks familiar.” Her slender fingers tapped it, setting it rocking. “Reminds me of a fairy tale.” She went on, with little interest in Aaron’s consent. “The god of steel had a beautiful daughter. Two brothers Kray and Kolt fell in love with her, each wishing her hand in marriage. The steel god demanded they work their forges. Whoever produced the finer blade would win. Kray won, or was it Kolt? I suppose all that matters is the loser killed the winner with a black hilted blade. The murder’s soul forever bound to the blade by the angry god, forever bloodthirsty. As I recall, they named it Blood-Gorger!”
She stabbed an invisible blade into the air, with a giggle.
“I didn’t know you like stories like that.” Aaron’s eyes were locked on his treasure.
“Most girls like romance, but the tragedy of betrayal is absorbing.” She plopped the hilt where she found it, and planted her hands on her hips. “Want to hear another?”
Evening snuck in swiftly, blue haze creeping along paved roads. Six obnoxious men occupied their tavern. A golden chained unicorn rearing on its hind legs was etched on a shield, a chest plate, and finally Valkin’s flapping black cloak. His blonde hair bouncing in rhythm with boastful bellows. Aaron trotted back and forth from the kitchen, plates shattered and men shouted. He had experienced rowdy guests, but never as brazen as these kingsmen.
Aaron sucked his teeth. Parched, he recalled a guest using the word. Although he hardly felt so, his thoughts were becoming jumbled. His mind had become foggy. Words willed themselves into his thoughts without his consent. He needed sleep, but he cringed at the thought of meeting another horror in the night. Shouts of ‘boy’ and ‘more’ echoed around him, his mind ached behind his eyes. He forced his eyes shut and pushed his thumbs against them. It brought relief, but only for a moment. Behind a closed door, he let his head sink into his palms.
I want to hold it.
An overwhelming urge to dig in his pocket cleared his mind. The black hilt felt remarkably warm, comforting even. Candle light danced on its twisted shape. He traced his eyes over red lettering he hadn’t noticed before, in fact he hadn’t noticed putting it in his pocket. Aaron admired it. He tightened his grip around it, and gave it a few practice swings. He couldn't stop swinging, his feet were light and his arms precise. Heartbeats thumped in his ear.
“Supposin’ this fat man has any daughters hidden away?” a beat red face spit out between bites of a meaty leg.
Aaron froze when he heard the muffled words. He leaned against the door, and held his breath.
“A good tumble would be pleasant. Forley. Go take a look. Necessity makes these kinds of peasants hide everything of value.” A young face sprung up, and sauntered towards the kitchen.
“Wait!” Aaron found himself tugging on the man’s shirt. Before he could produce an excuse, a hard knuckle struck his cheek, sending him sprawling to the dirt floor.
“Stupid little shit. Settles it, must be something young and comely back there.” Forley threw open the kitchen door. Claudia’s shrill squeak preceded a cascade of metal pans and shattering dinnerware.
Forely dragged Claudia out by a fist full of hair. Her hands clawed at his wrist, struggling in vain against the pain. He dragged her to Valkin, presenting her like a fresh caught hare. Aaron struggled to his knees, he could see tears streaking on her cheeks.
“You are a lucky lass. My father is the new king here. I will allow you to keep my bed warm tonight.” His kingsmen beat their fists on table tops and whooped.
“Get your fucking hands off my daughter!”
Aaron’s head snapped back to the kitchen door. Mr. Hubbard’s face screamed purple-red, and he clutched his cleaver in white knuckles. His eyes locked with Valkin’s, and without breaking eye contact, he grabbed his cutlass from its wooden wall mount. Aaron removed himself.
“It is unwise for you to challenge me, cook. Bring more brew, and I will consider bringing her back in one piece.” Valkin sneered.
“A thousand men call themselves kings in this shit country. I’d kill’em all before I'd let you defile her.” Mr. Hubbard’s eyes bulged.
Valkin smirked as he drew his own steel. Long, but skinny, double-edged, less than half the width of Mr. Hubbard’s single edge cutlass. Valkin put his blade up between his eyes, and sliced air.
“This is Unicorn’s Blight. Passed down one hundred generations. It will be your death, be grateful.” His words slithered across the room.
Patience failed Mr. Hubbard, and he lurched forward. His cutlass raised above his head, delivering all his fury. Valkin rotated his weight on the balls of his feet, dodging the strike effortlessly. He slashed his skinny blade up the back of Mr. Hubbard’s hips. Mr. Hubbard felt a cold swipe, followed swiftly with the dropping of his trousers. Valkin’s miserable kingsmen roared, while a trickle of warm blood dribbled down his backside.
“Where should I put the next hole?” Valkin flounced his skinny steel.
Wild sweeps and thrusts stormed at Valkin. He saw through each of Mr. Hubbard's boarish strikes, and delivered a quick jab at his left shoulder. The inn keeper’s left arm went limp and cold. He tripped over his downed trousers, crashing to his rump. He winced at the pain, when he opened his eyes, a sharp point greeted him. Valkin drove his steel into his left eye, and out the back of his skull. Valkin threw his free hand up into the air, his entourage roared, and Aaron’s jaw dropped.
“Bloody shame, his stew was remarkable.” Valkin’s leather boot pressed against Mr. Hubbard’s face, tears welled in the dying man’s eyes as he was kicked off the skinny steel.
Aaron kept eye contact with Mr. Hubbard as he fell. Black steel bit into his palm. He trembled as he stood, his limbs went cold. They were no longer his own, his body moved without his command, as if he were a passenger in his own flesh. Valkin noticed him rise.
“I expect you do not want me to touch her either?” Valkin lifted Claudia’s skirt, he beat his gloved hand against her exposed rump. “Forely would you? I’ve killed enough peasants for one evening.”
“With pleasure.” Forely dragged a long sword from its scabbard. He took two strides, and with a grin slashed his cold steel at Aaron’s neck.
Forely’s brow furrowed, and to the astonishment of jeering kingsmen, his steel bit into thin air, above Aaron’s black hilt. The violent contact sent a crash through Aaron’s body. His vision went red, and a gurgling giggle grew from his stomach. Laughter vomited from his lips, a laugh impossible for Aaron to produce naturally.
Without warning, Aaron lurched forward, sinking his teeth into Forely’s hand, tearing flesh. Forely let his steel loose, squealing in pain. Before it bounced off the dirt, Aaron drove an invisible edge into Forely's neck. Cleanly cleaving through his neck. His headless corpse fell to its knees.
Each kingsman heaved to their feet. For a long moment the air was polluted with bouncing scabbards and hustling steel. Bloody tears bumped Aarons uncontrolled grotesque smile as he admired his bloody work. Valkin lost his grip on Claudia. She squirmed away, under a table.
“Surround this devil, we will take him together.” Valkin ordered, but each of his men glanced concern at each other, before surrounding the boy.
“Now!” He barked, and stepped back.
Two kingsmen flanked Aaron’s rear. Before their eyes, he threw himself backward, between them. They shifted their weight. Revising their attack in coordination with Aaron’s swift repose. One moved into position to thrust, and the other raised a heavy axe high above his head.
Inhuman speed possessed Aaron, he came at them. The thrust went wide, and the axe edge clipped his hair. First the man with the axe felt a cold sting in his belly, being cut neatly in half across his stomach. The other witnessed wet gore spilling across the floor. His fate had been sealed. Aaron stomped on his knee, bending it sideways. He shrieked in shock and put up his hand out of instinct. It offered little protection. Invisible steel sliced through, and cracked his skull open.
Blood drenched his phantom blade, revealing its crooked shape, and gnarled edges. It’s hilt glowed with a sickening crimson, light bleeding out from between Aaron’s pale fingers. His hideous giggle sent shivers down Valkin’s spine.
Valkin felt the fresh kingsman’s corpse crash into the floor. Utter disbelief painted across his face. Three kingsmen killed in a handful of moments. The kingsman to Valkin’s right put his double edge blade up over his face. Aaron leapt and slammed his foot on the blade, the kingsman lost control, and Aaron’s weight buried the edge deep. Splitting his face open. Pain and blood gurgling from his split lips. Aaron rode the collapsing corpse to the ground.
Understandably, the remaining king's man turned to flee. He rammed into Valkin, dropping both of them to the floor. Valkin crawled back, frantically pushing himself to his feet. In the corner of his eye, he watched Aaron split the stunned kingsman’s head in half. A sudden spurt of gore streaked across Valkins cheek before he regained his footing.
“I will have you know the name of your doom, beast!.” he said with a hiss. “I am Eusteus Valkin.” He assumed a fierce fencing stance, his thin blade high, a drip of kingsman blood fell from his cheek.
“Val….. kin?” Aaron grunted. His guttural speech strained to produce the name. He moaned, contorting in ecstasy, as if he had eaten a sweet roll baked for a king. “Noble blood!” He shouted before lunging.
Valkin sprung, his form impeccable, his explosive thrust blindingly fast, and his target only a stride away. Unicorn’s Blight struck Aaron, but only sliced a cheek. Valkin’s eyes filled with terror, his heart punctured by a cold vicious edge. He wailed in pain, and tears bubbled before he dropped Unicorn’s Blight. It bounces elegantly, and comes to rest.
Claudia met Aaron’s bloodshot gaze, his guttural laughter welling up. She held her hand over her mouth, and slowed her breath. Her skin was cold, but her ears were burning. She watched Valkin’s limp hand through tear blurred vision. In a matter of moments, fair skin turned to gray death. As if his fleeting life was sucked from him. A faint voice hummed through silence. She listened intently.
“Not her.” a weak voice pleaded.
“Yes, her. More blood. Fresh blood.” a scraping mockery of a voice responded.
Aaron argued with himself. Desperate strands of his mind were pulled in a thousand directions. Wrenching his conscious mind through a molase of crazed rage, as if forcing his way out of a dream. He scooped up Unicorn’s blight, and in a half slumber stupor held an edge to his other wrist.
“No.” his voice strained.
He fell, as if strings supporting his body were cut. His body was heavier than it had ever been, as if he carried a thousand potato sacks, and peeled thousands more. He shivered with brutal exhaustion. Claudia stared at him, eyes wide as saucers.
“You're safe.” his voice cracked, and he willed his mouth into a painful smile.
Claudia shrieked, and ran out into the inky night.