Pitiless

A Fantasy Short Story Written By Stephen Frame

Pitiless

by Stephen Frame

Amazon – KoboNook

Champagne Book Group

Stephen Frame’s work has appeared in a number of anthologies including “Daughter of Sarpedon” from Brigid’s Gate Press, “Fabled Journey 2020” from Remastered Words and “Judge Dredd The Megazine” from Rebellion Publishing. His debut novel, an urban fantasy featuring the Big Bad Wolf working as a private eye in 1930s Los Angeles, is available now on Amazon, Kobo, Nook, and direct from Champagne Book Group.

 

I see them looking as I approach the city gate, the pedlars and traders I pass on the road. They see my patched and worn clothes and the sword slung on my back. They whisper behind their hands and stare. Word will spread. Good. Let it. Let them look.

I pass a beggar woman, she forks her fingers and spits through them. Still, I throw her a coin. She scrabbles in the muck, her piteous thanks chasing me to the gates, and I smile without looking back, because I know I have done a good thing.

The sergeant at arms at the gatehouse asks my business in the city. I say I have a message to deliver. He keeps glancing over my shoulder at what hangs there, as if to reassure himself it is real. I give him one coin for the toll. I press another into his hand. “For you. A good tavern?”

The Three Tuns on the Saltmarket. The beds are passably clean.”

The beds I don’t care about. The beer?”

The best.”

I watch him lick his lips. His gaze flicks once more to the sword. He’s going to ask. He has to.

Is that…?”

I nod slowly, closing my eyes. “Yes. It is.”

His fingers scrape at the stubble on his jowls. “Should I…?”

No.” I shake my head. “Not you.”

I see his relief. I give him what little else I carry, for I do not need it any more. I am drawn here, as inexorable as the tide, to fulfil another man’s desire. Other than the sword, that is all I want, all I need, all I can think of. I walk into the city.

#

I find the rich man’s home. It is in the merchant’s quarter. I stand before his gate. A servant comes forth. He asks me to go away. I tell him I cannot; his master has summoned me. He leaves. After a spell, another servant, this one carrying a cudgel. His eyes are sharp and his face is knowing. I unsling the sword, resting it before me. The sheath is plain wood, the pommel and cross-piece unadorned.

Tell your master I am here. I would hear what task he has for me.”

The man swallows and nods and opens the gate.

#

The merchant sits by his fire, he has oiled hair and fat fingers bedecked with rings.

How did you know?” he says. “I sent no word.” His gaze never leaves the sword.

I shrug. “I come at need. It doesn’t matter how I know.”

He ripples his fingers, sending his jewelled rings in a dance. “The blade? Would you sell it?”

I laugh, for it is question I’m often asked. “I cannot sell what does not belong to me. The servant does not sell his master’s possessions.”

Then would you join my house? Name your price.”

I shake my head. “I will not.”

And now he begins to doubt. It is written on his features. This is not uncommon.

Draw the blade. I would like to see it.”

Neither is this. “You would test me? You know what it means should I draw it.” I do draw it, only enough to expose a bare inch of its edge. I push my will into it, casting a sliver of its power into the room. The merchant clutches the front of his robe, he look as if he might vomit the honeyed fruits he has plied his lips with the whole time we have spoken. I slide the sword home, metal clacking on wood. “You have children?”

The merchant nods, chokes out a reply. “Three sons. One daughter.”

For the task you wish of me, the cost is your right hand. Or your youngest son. Or half your fortune. There will be a retainer. Payable now. Ten gold, fifty silver.” I turn away. “I’ll wait for your reply in the Three Tuns.”

#

I get my retainer. I keep one silver for my bed and board. I keep one gold for reasons that are unclear to me, other than I know I will need it before I leave the city. The rest, I cast into the air in the first market square I come to. The tinkle of coin on stone is pleasing to hear. As is the uproar it causes. I walk away with a smile. Life, sometimes, can be so good. Then I stop, because a feeling takes me. A feeling that cuts the smile from my lips, that casts a clinging veil over my good humour. A happenstance that shouldn’t be. There is another here who needs my service. I feel the weight of the sword; it presses on my spine, the cold of its steel leaches through my clothing and into my skin. I want to sit down, to rest, to find some ease from my burden. But I cannot. I must serve.

#

The second rich man is thin, where the other was fat. He sits in a cold hall and he is attended by no-one. He is as dry and hard as the stone walls which surround him.

Word reached me you were in the city.”

Yes.” I shift my feet, my boot soles gritting on the flagstones. “To answer your call.”

He leans forward in his chair. “But I sent no such call. And still you know. This fascinates me.” He sits back. “So few of your kind remain. Most are in the cohorts of men far richer than I. But not you.”

No, not me.”

Why?”

I appreciate his directness, so I attempt an answer. “Some of my brothers are permitted to choose their own path. Apparently a good meal and warm bed each night have their attractions.”

He allows himself a small smile. “But not you?”

I shrug. “I enjoy a meal and a bed as much as the next man. Sometimes a hot bath too. But not every night.”

I look round, my gaze drawn to the stained glass window at one end of the hall, the only concession to wealth in the room. It is circular, magnificent. Filigree stonework divide it into quarters depicting spring, summer, autumn, winter. He catches me looking. His smile holds as much warmth as his empty hearth. “All things have their season. A time when they flourish and a time when they pass.” He gestures towards the window. “I recall when this city was nothing more than a provincial market town.”

I want to tell him I remember when it was a famine-gnawed hamlet, where the dead out-numbered the living. But I don’t. Men such as he never listen.

You look troubled, swordsman. Tired. I can offer you the hospitality of my house, such as it is?”

I shake my head, once more drawn to the window, where the winter quarter shows a lone figure, bent-backed in a harsh landscape, some bundle strapped to their shoulders. I have the urge to be gone from this place but he has more questions for me.

The sword, it has a name? I have heard stories.”

I set it on his table. I lay my hand across the pommel. “Pitiless. So it is named, but not by me.”

He nods. “A good name for what is doubtless a fine blade.”

It suffices. There are others. Warspite, Resolute, Trenchant, Vengeance are amongst them. They have been carried by many. But this one is Pitiless. And mine is the only hand which has ever held it.”

He stares, a measuring look, a taking stock. This one does not doubt. He knows I speak the truth. His silence tells me as much. Now he will ask to see it, as they so often do. But he does not. He rubs at his mouth before he speaks again.

I paid a smith to fashion a sword for me once.”

And?”

He died. In the way of all who try to do so. They say swords are cursed by the gods.”

They say a lot of things. It doesn’t make them true.”

Doesn’t it puzzle you that no-one in all this land can make one of these? That anyone who tries reaches the same fate as my smith?”

No more than it puzzles me why birds can fly and we cannot.”

He scratches at his chin. “How much?”

Now it is my turn to smile. The terms of our agreement are near set. I can be away from the sight of the stained window and the shadows it casts in my mind. “The price is a promise.” I lift the sword. “Send word to The Three Tuns if you accept.”

There is no need. I accept.”

Good.”

Don’t you want to hear what I want?”

A meal, a hot bath and a warm bed come first.” I raise a hand in farewell as I leave.

#

The inn keep at The Three Tuns is pleased to see me. But then, silver has a way of making people like you. The beds and the beer are much as the sergeant at arms described. Word comes from the first rich man. He accepts, though he does not say which price he wishes to pay. It doesn’t matter to me. I have the sword. I need nothing else. Or so I tell myself. But trouble owns me. The wholesome pleasures of clean skin and a full belly give me no comfort. Neither does my cup, no matter how far into its depths I plunge. Uncertainty scratches at my mind with rat claws.

I have no clear recollection of what came before the sword, but in recent days I have been plagued by vague memories of a woman and a child, memories sometimes sparked by a face in the crowd. I cannot remember how the sword came to me, only that it is by my side, and always will be. That is my comfort. That, and the settlement of other men’s desires.

These two men, they both want the same thing. Such is their need, such is their folly. They cannot be content with wealth and privilege. They would deny them to each other. They each want the other dead. This is the sole reason I am ever called. Which leaves me with a dilemma. I cannot serve both. One must come first, thus depriving the second. And if one goes to his grave with his desire unfulfilled, what becomes of me? What of my purpose, my need? Some time between the first beer and the bed, I make my choice. To visit both men again, and persuade one to give up on his desire. I think it might be best not to mention the consequence of this giving up.

#

The fat merchant’s servant will not let me in. He says his master is busy. I wear the sword at my hip. I rest my hand on it. “I only ask as a courtesy. I will see your master now. You can lead me to him or I can step over your remains. You choose.” He leads me to his master.

He sits before his hearth in a silk shift, sipping chilled wine. The room is baking hot, the fire rages up the chimney. Sweat glues cloth to my back as I stand before him.

I ask you to re-consider.”

He pouts. “We have an agreement. I will pay what you ask.”

The matter is not as simple as it once was.”

Not my concern. I pay, you act.” There is flint in his eyes and iron in his tone that was not there yesterday. I open my mouth to speak and I have no idea what to say. He is right, we have an agreement. I lick at dry lips, as beads of moisture track into my eyes, making them sting. I paw at them to clear my sight. “As you wish.” I shuffle out of his presence, glad to be free of the oppressive heat.

#

The thin merchant offers me a seat at his table and a cup of ale. “Why should I reconsider?”

Sunlight through the stained glass window at my back falls on the scrubbed tabletop in tinted splendour. I struggle to frame a reply. “It would be to my benefit.”

I see.” He toys with his own cup before going on. “How will I benefit from this change of heart?”

I admit there would be little for him to enjoy. He draws a breath. “What might I charge you for this change?”

Why would there be a charge?”

Just as all things have their season, so all things have their nature. That is the nature of agreements.”

His gaze is steady across our shared cups, across the colour-dappled table. I find I cannot hold it. He scrapes back his chair. “I will send word when I decide.”

I am dismissed. I leave without speaking. Back to The Three Tuns, where I drink deep into my piece of silver before collapsing into my passably clean bed. In the quietest hour of the night, some stealthy noise rouses me. Or perhaps it is the sword. I’m never sure. I draw the blade. It is lambent in the moonlight cast through the window. The door opens with the tiniest of creaks. Three men; clearly the reputation of my kind has faded in these parts. The way they hold their weapons speaks of some degree of competence. It doesn’t make any difference to what comes next.

Come the morning, the innkeeper is less than pleased with the state of my room and the hallway outside it. I can’t say I blame him. I wouldn’t want to clean up the mess I’ve made. Still, my gold coin coaxes his smile back, leaving me to decide which of my two rich men sent my night-time visitors. I suppose it must be the fat one who wanted to buy the sword, but the thin one’s curiosity could be the more powerful draw. Or perhaps he knows more than he says. Or perhaps three men randomly decided to rob a stranger’s bedroom. I don’t know. And my head hurts. But there is something else. I sit on my bed, staring at the sword, propped against the far wall, and I feel … a cleaving from a it. A distancing, as if it is falling away from me. I lurch to my feet, stagger across the room, snatching the blade up and clutching it in my hands. It is as solid and heavy as it ever is. Reassuring in its heft. Yet when I clasp the hilt, as I have done countless times, it feels awkward in my grip.

I set it down, pick it up, pace across the floor. Then, having no answers and no further enlightenment, I make for the common room of the inn and whatever comfort it can offer. It offers none, other than a message from the thin merchant. He is as parsimonious with his words as he is with his wealth. ‘No,’ is his message.

I don’t know what to do. The sword lies on the table before me. I have no desire to touch it, because it cannot answer my dilemma. And because it cannot, I am scared. Which makes me want to pick it up all the more. If I turned away, walked out of the room, out of the inn, out of the city, without the sword. What then? What would become of me? I am scared; of what I am, of what I might be, of what I do not have the strength to do on my own. I am scared of the sword, for it is pitiless.

#

I make my way to the fat merchant, feeling sick of heart and stomach. He will not see me. No measure of cajoling or threats will sway his servant. He is a brave man, that is all I can say of him. His bravery doesn’t help him. The sword’s grip squirms against my skin. The butchered flesh in my path horrifies me. Yet it is I who lifted the sword, I who swept it down.

I stand before the fat merchant, the naked blade in my hand. A sight few live to see. Blood stains its edge. He is terrified, he pushes himself back in his chair. He struggles to speak, when I ask him if he sent his men to the inn. From some depth of mind, he draws out his courage. He nods. “I only desired to possess the sword.”

I lift the point so it is level with his eye. “You do not possess the sword. It chooses.”

His gaze never leaves the end of the blade. “You named your price. I give it to you. My youngest son. Take his life. Or do with him as you will.”

Rich men, they weary me with their endless arithmetic of what is best. How this thing can be traded off for that. How everything has some relative value to all other things. I would put the sword through him, to demonstrate there are things which are absolute and cannot be reconciled. But I cannot. For we have a bargain. The sword. The sword weighs heavy in my hand. It is a weight which will drag me under. There is only so long a man can kick at the water before his strength is gone. “Bring the child,” I say.

So the child is brought, a skinny runt of perhaps ten summers. He trembles and cries and clings to the servant who fetched him.

Bring him here,” I say to the servant, pointing the sword to the floor beside me. I turn my gaze to the fat merchant. “This is your child? Not one of your servants? I will know, and it will go ill, should it prove so.”

The fat merchant nods. There is a gleam in his eye, he sits forward now, for his desire is closer to his grasp. “The boy is my issue.”

I squeeze my eyes closed, rub at them. “So be it.” And the blade claims another.

#

The thin merchant ushers me into his hall. If he is concerned by the dark spots which spatter my clothing and skin, he makes no mention of them. He offers me wine. I accept. I drink deeply from his cup. He watches me. He speaks.

I have a rival in trade. You know this. The man I would be rid of. A man who would see me destroyed but has not the means. Although, now perhaps, he has acquired those means.”

I say nothing. I sit in this man’s chair, the sword leaning against me, the point resting on the ground, the pommel over my heart. “I would have my payment.” My voice is a croak. “Your promise.”

What do you want me to promise?”

To put aside your desire.”

He stares into his cup for a moment. “A heavy toll to levy on a man.” He looks up. “I will name my price for changing our bargain.”

What price would you have?”

I would have you set down the tyrant who rests on your shoulder.”

I shake my head. “I cannot. It must be given over.”

He stretches out his hand. “Then give it.”

It will be all you possess. It, and nothing more, because it is well named.”

His smile is grim. “Pitiless.”

#

Two men leave the city; they leave by opposite gates. One carries a sword, one carries his future.

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