Sword Called Kitten Serial

Gordon A. Long

Published by

Airborn Press


   Home      Issue #11 Pot Boy
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EPISODE 11
Pot boy

 


“Hey, Pot boy!”

“Coming, sir, coming.” The lad stumbled towards the mercenary's table, dread evident in every line of his body, fatigue showing in the pallor of his face.

“About time, kid. Get me another ale.” The man reached out, grabbed a handful of shirt at the nape of the neck. “And make sure it's full this time.”

“Yessir, yessir. I will sir.” Propelled by a hearty shove, the boy barely regained his balance as he scrambled over to the bar. He soon returned with the mug, full to the brim, held with two hands before him like a religious chalice. But his fatigued muscles betrayed him, and his shaking hands spilled ale on the table.

A hard backhand laid the poor lad on the floor, a harsh laugh ringing in his ears. “Clumsy oaf!”

The boy rested there as long as he dared, then dragged himself away.

The mercenary's attention returned to his mug, as he resumed the serious business of getting as drunk as possible in the time available.

The Cat growled softly to herself. I'm never going to get a Name with a fool like this. She determined to be no help at all when the liquor began to befuddle his mind.

The evening continued in depressingly predictable fashion. The pot boy had learned his lesson, and produced a newly filled mug each time the last one approached its dregs.

Smart boy. You'll learn. If you survive.

Don't worry, Cat. I'll survive.

If she had still owned hair, it would have stood on end. Are you talking to me?

I don't know. Weren't you talking to me?

Well, sort of. I just didn't expect you to be listening.

So you learned something.

I suppose I did. She explored the surface of his mind. Why hadn't she noticed him before?

I don't want to be noticed.

Why not?

In my business, it's best to keep your head down.

The Cat's senses were always attuned to violence. In that case, duck. Now!

Across the room, the boy dropped to the floor, narrowly avoiding the backswing of a sword. He scuttled behind the bar as the two drunken fighters whaled away at each other, to the cheers and catcalls of the other tavern patrons.

The barkeep leaned on his thick staff nearby, judging his time. Then he stepped forward and, with a few efficient strokes, disarmed both men. “Settle down or leave. I don't mind you cutting each other up, but you almost cost me a pot boy.”

Thoroughly cowed, the two gathered and sheathed their weapons.

Keeping a close eye on the former combatants, the boy cleaned up their table and brought them new drinks.

The Cat felt his mind searching.

I'm over here. The mercenary.

You're him?

Not him, stupid. His Sword.

You're a Sword? A Magic Sword?

Well, aren't we a bright boy?

Thanks for the warning back there.

It was the least I could do. My Hand is an idiot, in case you hadn't noticed. He only gets worse when he's sober.

But…but you're a Magic Sword. You have a special bond with your Hand.

Aye. That doesn't necessarily make him a hero. And right now, he's two slugs from the bottom of his mug.

Can he handle another?

So far, you have seen nothing. I'd be more worried about the contents of his purse, if I were you.

How much does he have left?

I'm a Sword, not an accountant. Ask him.

Some chance.

Then bring him another or not. I don't tell you how to do your job. No, wait a minute. I take that back. Don't bring him another.

Why not? …Oh.

The burly bulk of the mercenary had begun to take on a definite list. His hand dropped from his mug, his arms slid out along the table top. In another moment he was snoring.

The pot boy deftly slipped the mug to safety.

What do I do with him now?

What do you usually do with them when they pass out?

Let them sleep it off, then roll them out the door when they wake up. The boy's mind jumped with guilt. We usually take what we're owed. No more, no less.

Well, don't let me stop you.

Thank you. The boy opened the man's purse, and extracted a few small coins. He's running low.

I told you.

What brought you to this? I never thought to see a Magic Sword in a place like this.

And I never thought to be here. Or to find a mind like yours. What brought you here?

Born and brought up. I told Dad I wanted to learn to fight, but he says there's no point in tryin' to be a hero. Just gets you killed. What does he know?

From my experience, lad, it sounds like he knows a lot.

Dying a hero would be better than living this life.

You may think that now. When the dying part comes along, you might see it differently. Right now, I think you'd better pay more attention to your job. If you don't want that peasant to walk out without paying.

Thanks. “Say, Master Jeb, you done for tonight?”

The Cat talked to the boy off and on through the rest of the evening, until the mercenary roused himself and stumbled off to the hovel where he was lodging. It was depressing to think how quickly he had blown through the proceeds of the fight on the trail, and sunk to what was obviously his habitual level of existence.

The Cat looked around from the corner where she had fallen as he collapsed onto the heap of rags that served for a bed. He was already snoring.

“Rather die a hero than live like this.” You know, I can almost see his point. If I am going to gather honor and a Name for myself, I can't keep hanging around with people like this. I know I am bound by my Joining to this Hand, but if I get the chance, I have to better myself. Then I can gain a Name. A Name of Glory!

“Storm Bringer!” No, I don't want to be bringing trouble.

How about “Justice!” Sounds a bit austere… Maybe something more flashy…something that really rolls off a person's tongue…

The Cat amused herself through the long night hours with plans of the deeds she would do, the honour she would demonstrate, and the glory that would ensue, when all recognized her worth.

 

The next day the pattern was repeated. And the next. And it was looking like the following day would be the same when the Cat noticed a hush falling over the tavern. It wasn’t sudden. More like a wave of awareness that spread from a centre, finally reaching every corner of the room as each patron realized that something was wrong, and stopped drinking and talking, and started to think about enemies and exits.

The centre in this case was just inside the door. A slender, grey-haired woman, cloaked in ragged brown, stood hesitating on the threshold. Her hand stretched backwards, connected to a girl in similar clothing, who looked about twelve years old. Or an underfed fifteen, for all that. In any case, the interest of the male patrons was like a wall, and the girl was reluctant breach it. Her mother, if that’s who she was, frowned and yanked her forward.

This little byplay gave the pot boy time to get to the intruders first. He met them halfway across the room, unfortunately a great spot for entertainment.

“Whaddaya want?”

“Please, sir, my daughter and I need a room for the night.”

This was spoken in a voice loud enough to carry, and several of the patrons called out their willingness to oblige. The raucous response from the rest gave the pot boy his chance. As the din subsided, his voice rose.

“We have no rooms for beggars. Out with you!” He grabbed the woman’s shoulder and spun her around, barging her into the girl and starting both for the door and safety.

Another round of wit from the patrons covered his real message; the Cat used her connection with him to hear it. “The stable door at dusk.”

He hurried the two unfortunates out the door, much to the displeasure of the rest of the customers, adding under his breath, “Copse of trees south of town. Stay out of sight till dark. Some of these will come looking.”

With a frightened glance around the room the woman slipped away, her daughter eager now to follow her.

The boy brushed off his hands as he shouted after them, “And have a bath if you want to come back!”

This got another round of laughter. The boy, feigning disgust, went back to his duties.

That was well done, lad.

I hope she moved fast.

Don’t worry; you put the fear into her. Is there a safe spot in the stables?

My father protects the customers’ horses. He expects humans to take care of themselves.

That was it for the evening. The mercenary worked his way through several tankards, the Cat spent her time observing the tavern patrons and bemoaning her fate, and the pot boy, except for a few moments disappearance just before dark, did his exhausted best to keep the ale flowing out and the money flowing in.

It was a more raucous night than usual, whatever the reason. Perhaps the imaginations of even this slovenly bunch were stirred by the thought of…the Cat didn’t want to take the idea a step farther. Unable to follow the boy as far as the stables, she had to be satisfied with a quick comment as he dashed back in.

Now I just have to hope they don’t steal a horse when they leave.

 

The following afternoon the mercenary shouldered his way back through the inn door, his shove coming partly from aggression and partly from the continuing effects of last night's entertainment. He stared around with a bleary eye, then stumbled over to his usual table in the corner.

Alerted by the Cat's presence, the boy rushed over. He looked even worse in daylight. To the Cat's senses, he had obviously not slept well, and a fresh bruise on his face suggested why. As the boy brought stew and ale to his customer, the Sword used her former path into his mind to take the pain out of the bruise. Much easier if she was in physical contact, but she couldn’t see that happening. As she worked, she could see his mood brighten and his hand went to his cheek. He glanced in her direction.

Yes, lad. That was me.

How did you do that?

A talent that my Hand requires at times.

But I'm not your Hand. I'm nobody.

He can take care of himself. And you're a human, just like everybody else.

I suppose.

What happened?

Somebody came looking for them. I had to discourage him. They got away safe this morning.

You’re a good lad.

The boy’s heart expanded. Thank you, Sword.

'Ware behind you.

The pot-boy slid aside with practiced ease as the two strangers, one large and one small, barged past him, heading for the mercenary's table.

“You the man we're lookin' for?”

The mercenary looked up slowly, scornfully. “Lotsa guys lookin' for me. Whataya want?”

The darker man looked at his larger friend, nodded, and plunked himself down at the table, leaning in. “We've been told you might deliver a package for us. Just over the border in Inderjorne.”

“I ain't the Post service.”

“And it ain't that kinda package.”

The mercenary grinned and nodded, then winced as his aching head complained at the movement. “One o' those packages. It'll cost ya.”

“We ain't lookin' for charity. You deliver this package to Ringvagen, and there'll enough to go round.”

“Half now, half on delivery. That's th' deal.”

“Fair enough. It goes today.”

“There ain't time to get to Ringvagen today.”

“There is if you start now.”

“I ain't finished my lunch.”

“For ten silvers, wouldya forget yer lunch?”

The mercenary's scarred lips parted, revealing teeth that were damaged even worse. “I might be persuaded.”

The dark man looked over his shoulder at the empty inn, slipped a thin package out of his coat and handed it across the table, followed by five coins.

“Deliver it to the landlord of the Bull in Ringvagen by tonight. He'll pay you the rest.”

“How does he know how much?”

“You leave that to us. Just get that package over the border.”

The mercenary heaved to his feet. “On m' way, gentlemen. Nice doin' business with ya.”

The darker man also rose, and the two watched their new messenger make his way towards the door.

“Excuse me, sir?”

The mercenary turned sharply, and the Cat had to squirm to avoid collision with a chair. “Whadaya want, kid?”

“Three coppers for the lunch, sir.”

“I didn't eat it. It was slop.”

“Then two coppers for the ale. Please, sir. You drank that, sir.”

The mercenary, about to raise his hand, noted the landlord standing behind the bar and his lip twisted. He tossed two pennies on the floor, spun on his heel, and walked out.

You're well rid of him, lad.

I suppose. But he was a customer, and we don't get that many of them. Will I see you again?

Probably not, but you never know. Good luck, lad.

Thank you, Sword. Good luck to you. But I’m guessing a Magic Sword doesn't need luck.

Considering my present situation, I suspect you'd be guessing wrong.

As the mercenary strode up the street, the boy's mind was fading in the distance.

Bye, Sword….

Good-bye…

And then he was gone.

Buoyed by the jingle of coins in his pocket and the thought of more to come, the mercenary strode off. A quick visit to his lodgings (if they could own that austere name) and he was away. After a brief thought, he decided to leave his hardened leather breastplate and greaves behind. It was a warm day, and he wasn’t feeling all that swift.

Still, the road was dry, smooth, and once he got clear of the farmers’ fields, well shaded. He swung along cheerily enough until the buzz from his noon ale wore off and he began to feel the effects of missing his lunch. Still, he was a mercenary and used to hardship. He slowed to a mile-eating slog, retreated into some quiet corner of his mind, and bore on.

The Cat, having nothing better to do and no decent company, practiced her skills on the small animals and birds that ranged about her. Weak and befuddled as their minds were, she could easily project her image into any place in their world, and she amused herself by chasing them back and forth as long as each one remained within reach of her mind.

Although he was not speedy, the mercenary did not stop often or for long, and soon they had passed into Inderjorne. On this faint trail there was no guard or post of any kind at the border. Immediately the road got narrower, more winding, and more poorly maintained. Stumbling aside to avoid a twisted ankle, the mercenary complained to himself about the benighted heathen ‘Jornese who didn’t know enough to make a road straight and smooth.

They were quite a distance into the new country when the Sword was surprised to hear a faint call in her mind.

Cat! Cat! Where are you?

I'm here, boy. More to the point, where are you?

I”m behind you on the trail. Can you tell him to slow down?

We're not exactly running. What's the problem?

Ambush. Those two men who hired you. They're going to steal the jewels back, and keep them and tell the owner they were stolen.

Hmm. A good trick, if you can make it work. Where?

I don't know. Oops! Ouch! Can't you make him slow down? I've been running all the way.

Keep on. I’ll think of something. Thanks for the warning, anyway.

By now the mercenary's heavy night was really catching up to him, and he sweated and stumbled along the path. When the Cat sensed someone on the road ahead, she felt a slight moment of guilt, but it didn't take too much trouble to swing her scabbard into his ankle, causing him to sprawl full length in the dirt. When he looked up, the small, dark man was standing in front of him, an unpleasant smile on his face.

“Have a nice trip?”

The mercenary scrambled to his feet. “What'r' you doin' here?”

“We've changed our minds. We want the package back.”

“Huh? Whadaya mean?”

The dark man smiled. “Come on and I'll tell you all about it. We've got a camp over here. It's a hot day. I bet you're thirsty.” He led his victim through the brush to a small clearing. “It turns out we really need that package, and we don't want it to go to Ringvagen. So hand it over.”

The mercenary's mind whirled. “Huh? What about the innkeeper? He was gonna give me five more silvers.”

“Right, but you aren't even half way there yet, and you can keep the five we gave you.”

“I dunno.”

“Think about it. Five silvers, and all you had to do was walk a league.”

“Oh. Hey, where's this camp of yours? I'm thirsty all right.”

Then the Cat had it. The other man, the big one. Where was he? She cast her senses outwards. Yes, there he was, behind that tree. With a bow. Raised and drawn! She plunged into the mind of her Hand. Danger! Danger! Draw and turn!

But the man's drink-befuddled mind was too slow. The arrow took him through the right side of his chest, the point jutting from the front of his tabard.

He stumbled forward, and the dark man stood aside, a look of satisfaction on his face. But he had not reckoned with the strength in the fighter's body. The mercenary reached out, grabbed the unprotected neck, and wrung it as you would that of a bird. And that was the last of his strength. He dropped the body of his victim and collapsed on top of it.

The larger man stepped out of his hiding place, regarding the scene in front of him. Obviously not the brains of the pair, it took him a moment to figure things out. Finally he got it. He smiled and rolled the bodies apart, first taking care of the precious package, then going through all their pockets for anything of value.

Where are you, Sword?

No, lad. Don't come in here.

What's going on? Where is your Hand? Does he need help?

No, lad. Don't…

The thief was bent over, intent on his work, when the boy stumbled into the clearing.

“What's going on? What have you done?”

Not now, lad. GET OUT OF HERE!

Suddenly the lad realized his danger. He stumbled back, but his foot caught a root and his tired legs failed him. He fell back with a thump, and sat looking up at the large man, who drew his sword slowly.

“Well, we can't have any witnesses, now can we?” The man lunged forward, and the boy squirmed out of the way. The man lunged again, and again the boy avoided the sword, but a line of blood showed through a gash in his smock.

You need a weapon, lad.

The boy looked over at the body of the mercenary, so far away.

The man stepped closer, drew back his sword, and swung. The boy jumped backwards, but the sword tip cut a long, deep gash across his midriff. He clamped his hands to his stomach, pain screaming at him. The thief circled round now, sure of his prey, the boy backed away, hands desperately pressed against the wound as if holding himself together

Just reach out, lad. I'm right here!

The boy looked over at the body of the mercenary. The Cat strained toward him, pushing her hilt from the scabbard. He reached out, the blood on his hand sticking to her sharkskin, and pulled her clear. She fed strength to his arm, and he swung her up in time to parry. The blow that would have killed him only drove him to his knees.

The bandit stood over the boy, sneering. “So the pot boy thinks he's a fighter, does he? Looks like a mistake. Your last mistake, kid. He nudged the boy's shoulder with his knee, and that last burst of energy gave out. The boy sprawled in the dirt, the Sword beneath him.

A fierce, deep barking erupted from the woods out by the road. The bandit looked over his shoulder.

Now is your time. For once in your life, stand up for yourself. Kill him!

With a gasp, the boy wrenched himself to his feet, the Sword dragging behind him. With all of his waning strength, he swung her in a huge arc, and she loaned him every bit of energy she could.

The surprised bandit turned back and tried to raise his own weapon, but he was too late. The Sword caught him under the ribs and plunged deep. He yelled in surprise and agony. Then he sank to his knees, his side gushing blood, and fell to the ground. Soon his soul rose seeking, but she batted it away, and it disappeared to wherever souls go.

The boy looked down on his vanquished enemy in surprise and wonder. Then he glanced down at his Sword.

Well done, lad. You are now a hero.

There was a shout from the road. “What's goin' on over there?”

The boy turned and staggered a few steps, then sank to his knees.

It's all right. Rest, now. You have done your share.

A large, shaggy brown dog bounded into the clearing, sliding to a stop in comical haste. He backed up, whining and looking over his shoulder. Then a leather-clad man strode out of the brush, a short axe clenched in his fist, stopping to take in the scene before him. The boy opened his mouth, but no words came. Laying the Sword carefully on the ground, he collapsed.

The Cat cradled the newly freed soul for a moment in her paw, then blew gently. I don't know where heroes go lad, but that's where you're bound.

The boy’s soul gave a glint of surprise, then swooped gleefully away.

The newcomer stepped forward, his eyes taking in the scene. Tall, blond-haired and dressed in leathers, he carried a heavy pack and held the axe as if he knew how to use it. There was no need. Kitten reached out, found a receptive mind.

There is nothing you can do here. Take the Sword and go.

The man looked down at her. A sword and a trap line did not fit together in his mind.

The Sword is worth more than you can make in five years of trapping. If you don't take it, the other bandits will.

At the idea of other bandits, the trapper straightened and glance around again, his axe rising. She pushed harder.

Take the Sword.

Reluctantly he reached out, and she slid into his hand.

And the scabbard. She was glad to notice that he wiped her clean before he sheathed her. With a final glance around the clearing, the Trapper spun on his heels, gestured to the dog, and strode out.

With her own last look at the body on the ground, the Cat turned her senses ahead, attuning her images to the mind of the man who carried her.

You know, that's a very heavy pack…
 
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