Today I have the conclusion of The Hired Blade for you guys. I have also made a collection of my short stories available on amazon for the kindle here, if anyone is interested. The first portion of the Hired Blade is here, if you want to start from the beginning.
I awoke again and found myself surrounded by sea-green darkness. Helena was there next to me, seated upon a chair by a silver mirror, and she was wearing pants and a silken shirt. I sat up, feeling my bones protest wearily, and the sheets that had covered me rolled down from my chest to pool at my waist. "I have had strange dreams," I said, eager to find that my voice had returned to me.
"You were delirious," she responded. Her accent was strange and musical, her voice like the plucking of a Roman lyre. "But now you've come back to the world and you can be of service."
"Service?" I asked, furrowing my brows. The last thing I was hoping for from Helena was to give her service, unless it was service of the pudenda which she was looking for. "What do you mean?"
"Well," she said, some what testily I may add, "I saved your life. Don't you think you owe me a little something in return?"
"I would not call it little, signorina," I said with a smile as I hitched back the covers a little more.
"Not that," she said, playfully slapping my belly. I had once had a quite magnificent belly, toned and oiled, but all that had gone to waste in the cellar cell where I had been held. "Besides, if you tried to take me right now you'd shiver to pieces."
"Ah," said I, "But each shiver would be one of ecstasy."
She frowned and replied, "Maybe afterwards, Giancarlo of Venice. For now, I have need of you."
"What need?" I asked, suddenly feeling tired again. As the prospect of intercourse faded, my own interests in staying awake began to flag. Every portion of my body was in some kind of pain or other. My throat was parched, my lips cracked, my ribs throbbing, my head pulsing...
"You said you were good with a sword. That you were a... soldier. Is that not so? I have need of a good sword."
I dabbed my brow. Had I indeed said that? Well, the truth was that I was no slouch with a side-sword or saber, that I had held a buckler before and I knew how to kill with the point or edge of my blade or even with the metal boss of a shield. I had fired pistoles before, and seen the lead smash out a man's cheek. I was no stranger to violence and war, that much was true. I confirmed it to her and she came back with her demand.
"I want you to kill Rogr Faw."
* * *
I discovered who this mysterious Rogr was later that day. Helena and he, it seems, were the two most beloved people in their gypsy band. They had been planning to wed years ago, when Rogr was discovered abed with some local piece of flesh. Helena's father had been the de-facto lord of the gypsy camp in those days, and Rogr paid a harsh price: exile, loss of his family wagon, and abandonment to the townfolk. He paid with a month's hard labor while the gypsies moved on.
Meanwhile, Helena thought she was going to be leader of their little band. She groomed herself for the position, making peace amongst the families and doing the work her father had grown too old to do. Eventually he went blind, and then developed the even more incurable malady of death. Helena was the leader of the gypsies when he passed, and she decided where the band did, and why.
Then one day, they came upon Rogr in the forest. He had collected a group of desperate men about him: outlaws. They robbed and stole without a care, and he was going to do the same to his former kin when he realized who they were. Some of them were sad to see him gone, and they welcomed him back with open arms. And he brought with him eight or ten men of strength and low cunning. Soon, it was Rogr Faw who was ruling the caravan.
Helena hated him: first, for betraying her, and second for stealing her patrimony. She was a strong woman, that much I could see, and the gypsies would benefit mightily from allowing her to be their Bandit-Queen... but Faw had men, and strength at arms, and a fearful brutality that many were afraid to challenge. When Helena had discovered that I was in captivity nearby, she made certain her people were around to find me. She had a use for such a hired blade.
As I left her wagon that night, she strapped a short hacking sword to my side. "For protection," she said, and then she rumpled my shirt and unlaced my pants. I thought she meant to have me right there, which I would never have argued with! But instead, she pushed me outside into the firelight.
I stood, dumbfounded. It is not often that some Romani girl teases your loins and then shoves you into the night! I was surrounded on all sides by their brightly painted wagons. In the center of the circle there burned a huge bonfire, and sitting by it there was a man in a wide hat that could be none other than the famed Rogr Faw.
He was a short man with broad shoulders and long greasy locks of hair that fell down his back. He wore a red coat that had been faded by rain and exposure to the sunlight. A filthy creature, to be told, not fit to shine my shoes or act as a porter to a cannon team, carrying buckets of grease and shot. I could only see his back, but I was instantly repulsed. Perhaps I should have been more aware of the men at his sides who had begun whispering to him the moment I appeared.
Rogr Faw turned to face me, pushing his ugly and troublesome minions away from him. I looked into his face and saw there a man of violence far beyond my own. His features were blunt and hard, his nose smashed into a pulp. His eyes were piggy and small, brown and completely without mercy. One of his men pointed at my breeches and Faw's face turned red. I knew the game was up—Helena had tossed me into a kettle of trouble, indeed.
I struggled to do up the laces of my pants as Faw advanced on me. He wore a fine side-sword, I saw, with a filigreed hilt. I had only the bush-cutter that Helena had given me and my feet were bare. "So," Rogr said, and the first time I heard him speak was like feeling the blow of a reeling drunk. "You and she, eh?" he asked me.
"No," I said stupidly, "She wouldn't have me. Said I was too weak, neh? Look at me, signor, I am in no shape." I had hoped to make him laugh with a joke, but I simply made him snarl.
"You think you can fuck my bride and get away with it, right under my nose?" he asked, and he advanced. I retreated, keeping ware to circle the fire even as I did. The ground was rough and uneven beneath my heels, but without boots on I could feel each and every stone and grip the dirt with my toes.
"Not really," I said halfheartedly. "Come now, you filthy Croat," I muttered, some of my old fire returning to me though I still held out my hands as though to stop him from drawing his sword. "Or Romani or whatever you are. Your woman dresses like a boy, and has the tits to match. I just want to go home."
"Home?" he asked, and I knew I was in danger, for his voice held no menace at all and then, suddenly, as much as he could muster. "I'll send you home!" With that last syllable he drew his sword and made a clumsy swipe at my head.
I saw it coming from a league or more away, so I ducked and spun out of reach. My own sword lept to my hand as though unbidden. I studied it contemptuously for a moment: bad tip, nearly blunt, not going to be wonderful for stabbing and a curving blade used to cut away brush. Wonderful, I found myself thinking, so I can't thrust and I can hardly cut.
Rogr came after me, all fury and wildfire. I had seen men fight like that before. They were very dangerous for the first few moments, but they soon spent themselves if they didn't chop their opponent into torso-shaped firewood very quickly. I backpedaled again, circling, ever circling, making sure to keep the fire on my right. I really wanted it on my left, but going around Faw would have necessitated going through his cronies, and that was a situation that would only end in being clubbed over the head. They were eager to get in on the action, I could see it in their eyes, and I was eager to keep them out.
"I'll teach you to fuck another man's wife," Faw grunted, and he made as though to cut at my shoulder, but transformed the maneuver fluidly into a lunge. Perhaps he was a better swordsman than I gave him credit.
I beat the blow aside, huffing as I did. I was still weak and tired, and Faw was ungodly strong. I wondered if I wouldn't perhaps be assaulting the walls of the Heavenly Citadel soon enough after all.
Two steps forward for him, two steps back for me. I could not keep my footing quite so well as he, for he was wearing boots and could move in the proscribed motions. I had to hop-slide my heels to where I wanted them, and even then it was no sure thing.
A cut from the right was easily parried, but a thrust at my abdomen would have skewered me then and there had I not the good fortune to lose my balance on the rocky earth and go tumbling backwards. Faw was upon me in a moment, looming over me, blade ready to do murder-work.
Perhaps a gentleman-fencer will tell you that it is unsportsmanlike to injure the opponent in his extremities when you could make a pass for the body, but I am the son of a merchant. I hacked with all my might at Rogr Faw's left knee and was rewarded with the satisfaction of a crackling splintering noise and a gush of hot red blood. Faw was not deterred from trying to skewer me, however, so I did the best I could: I turned sideways and let the blade enter me from my right flank. It went in a handspan before he had to pull it out again and stagger back.
I slowly stood as he fell backwards. His knee was bad, my side was worse. He stood like a drunk, reeling, but I could feel the cold icy hand of death inside my wound. I hate being wounded, you see. God never intended for me to take steel inside my body, else he would have filled me with shot and sand and not soft organs and blood.
I reached down for the stone that had tripped me and caught it up in my left hand. Faw stumped forward, to cut my head from my shoulders, but I came up fast. He was clumsier now than before, and he had hardly been graceful then. Long before he could land his blow, I struck him in the face with the rock. A flower of blood bloomed from his temple and he shouted as he clutched his bleeding head. "Kill him!" he said.
His men began to come for me, slowly at first, but then with more confidence. They knew I was hurt and that there were six of them there and but one of me. "Is this how Rogr Faw fights?" I asked, heaping my voice with all the scorn I could muster.
"Yes," he growled, face still held in his hands.
I saw my end in those six toughs, those hardened Croat murderers who had lived in the woods and forests all their lives. Some had axes, and one a club, and others fire-hooks or knives. They were too many, and I was too wounded and broken from my ordeals. I closed my eyes and waited for them to come.
There was a sudden CRACK like thunder, ear-splitting, terrifying. I opened my eyes, expecting to see God Almighty himself amongst us, but instead I saw Faw rolling sideways into the fire. His head was a bloody ruin and his men simply stared. I stared too, but what I saw wasn't Faw but Helena. She stood on the step of her wagon, a smoking pistole raised. A second was lowered, its slow-fuse burning. "Rogr Faw has dishonored himself," she said.
"There's more of us than there are of either of you," one of the forest toughs said.
"Yes," Helena agreed, "But the first man to harm my Italian will not live to tell of it."
I cursed under my breath. These Romani have some strange damn sense of honor. Looking at her hips beneath those breeches, the buds of her breasts beneath the silken shirt, I thought: But perhaps it was worth it.