Sword Called Kitten Serial

Gordon A. Long

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Airborn Press


   Home      Issue #18 A New Hand
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EPISODE 18

A NEW HAND

 

“One more heave and we’ve got it.”

The Trapper braced his feet and hauled on the rope. The heavily loaded sled groaned its way over the rim of the canyon and up onto the flatland beyond. The trapper slumped onto the bundle of furs, his breath coming fast, sweat soaking his shirt.

How does the leg feel?

He wiggled his sore ankle experimentally. “A whole lot better than it did the last time I hauled a load through that canyon. But that’s the hardest I’ve worked all winter, and it doesn’t feel too bad.” He slapped the canvas-covered load with satisfaction. “And it was worth it. A good haul this year, in spite of the slow start.”

All you have to do is get your furs to the traders.

“Aye, but it’s all downhill from here, the snow is holding up, and the trail is wider and smoother, now.”

And what are you going to do for the summer?

“Haven’t decided yet. If fur prices hold up, I might not have to do much.”

Then you’ll have plenty of time to fulfill your promise.

“Don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten. I know you’re no good to anyone hitched to a trapper. I’ll find you somebody who can use a magic Sword.”

For the good of Inderjorne.

“Oh, aye, for the good of the realm. Whatever you like.”

Fine.

The Trapper rose. “But first I’ve got to get the furs to the Traders’ Market. And that means we’d better get moving. Make it down to last fall’s camp tonight.”

No happy memories there.

“Well, I got through it. There’s some pride in that.”

And you’re a proud man.

“I suppose I am. But this sled is a humbling experience.” He leaned into his harness, and the sled moved slowly along the trail.

 

* * *

 

It was a long slog down through the forest, while the weather warmed and the trail lost its surface. By the third day the Trapper was worn but still moving well.

Company.

“What kind of company? Where?”

Two men. Around the next corner.

“What are they doing?”

Nothing. Just sitting.

“I don’t like that. They could be waiting for me.”

Hah! I doubt it. Thieves are lazy. Only a fool would steal something he couldn’t run away with.

The Trapper's mind became grim. “They wouldn’t have to run away if I was dead.”

Then we’d better be ready.

“Don’t worry. I can handle them”

Better have me near to hand in case.

“That, I can’t argue with.” The Trapper reached under the tarp and pulled the Cat’s hilt clear. Then he leaned into his harness again and strode onwards.

Just around the corner there were two men sitting on logs, one on either side of the trail. The Trapper hauled his load to within a few paces of them then stopped. “Morning.”

The larger of the two, a dark-skinned man with a short-cropped, curly beard, rose slowly. “Morning. You’re workin’ hard.”

The Trapper nodded. “Weather’s warming. Trail’s soft.”

‘Maybe you could use a hand.”

“Thanks, but no. I trapped these myself, I’ll haul them in the same way.”

The smaller man rose as well. “Mebbe we could save you the work.”

The Trapper glanced at him, assessing his size, his face. “I somehow doubt it.”

The man on the right fingered the knife at his belt. “But mebbe you wouldn’t have much to say about it.”

You don’t need me to tell you what he’s thinking.

No, I don’t. You ready?

‘Not ready’ is not a concept I am familiar with.

The Trapper reached back and his hand closed on her hilt. She sang free, loosened of the damping effect of her scabbard. The Trapper held her low, no threat, but there, just there. “I think I’ll keep my options open.”

The Cat sent a wave of fear towards the two bandits. From what she could read in their minds they hardly rated as such, but their intentions were obvious.

The larger man’s hand dropped away from his knife. “Hey, we didn’t mean nothin’.”

“Exactly. And now you’re going to show that by stepping aside. Then you both go around to the left my sled and off up the trail and about your own business.”

“Aye. Whatever you say.” The men did as they were told and soon were out of sight. The Trapper slid the Sword back in her scabbard and leaned to his task.

They are continuing. Hurriedly, I might mention.

A feeling of satisfaction suffused the Trapper’s soul. “You know, you do have your uses.”

They weren’t much. If you had hauled out your axe you probably would have had the same result.

“No, I have to admit, there’s a level of confidence

Which is partly from me, but a whole lot from you.”

“I know what you’re getting at. You think it’s both of us. Together. Helping each other and all that.”

You have been listening all winter.

Well, you have been going on about it for months.”

Consider it part of your education. You’re not thinking of going back on your promise, are you?”

She could feel a wiggle of humour pass through his mind. “No, I’m just thinking what kind of a price I can ask for you.”

Price? You can’t sell a magic Sword!

“I can’t?”

Definitely not. I am given to he who would do the best for the realm.

“There you go with the good of the realm again. Can’t argue with that. I’ve been trying all winter and I know when I’m wasting my time.”

And besides, if I wanted you to let me go, I think I could persuade you that it was in your best interest.

“If you mean pester me till I’m ready to throw you in the bush, I certainly agree.”

However, I’m sure the man who receives me will be very grateful for your part in the transaction. I could persuade him to provide an appropriate reward. If I felt inclined.

She could feel a familiar emotion rising in his mind. “You do what you like. I won’t be beholden to anyone’s whims, let alone a Sword with a bad attitude.”

Sorry. It was a feeble attempt at humour.

“And I, too, am sorry. I shouldn’t rise to the bait like that. A minor flaw in my otherwise sterling character.”

He hiked on, and the Sword went back to her own thoughts.

Soon they reached a fork in the trail. Trapper looked around and grinned. “This is great!”

What’s so great? Looks like more woods to me.

“What’s great, my dear Sword, is that we’re almost at the village, and the trail has lasted. Two years ago the snow melted early, and it took me a full day extra to drag the sledful of furs over the rocks.”

“Well, that’s great then. On you go. I’m beginning to look forward to talking to humans again.”

The Trapper only smiled wider. “Present company excepted, of course.”

“Well, except for Ruffie, I suppose so.”

The dog, completely attuned to the feel of the Cat’s voice in his mind, let out a “Woof!” and pranced ahead down the trail.

It takes so little to amuse him.

“I’m sure he’s looking forward to seeing a few of his doggie friends. Catching a cat or two.”

“Over the winter, I have developed a much higher opinion of dear Ruffie’s intelligence. He may be stupid, but he’s not stupid enough to catch a cat.”

The Trapper leaned into the straps again, and on they went. The trail was downhill and the snow was well packed, so he moved rapidly, striding along with a swing in his step.

Wait a minute.

The man kept walking, buoyed by his cheerful thoughts.

Stop. Stop NOW!

“Huh? What?”

Don’t talk. Danger. Ruffie, stay here.

The man’s hand crept behind his back to where her hilt stuck out above the load of furs. What is it?

Hard to tell. Ambush, I think. Put Ruffian beside you and keep him still.

The man’s hand closed on the dog’s neck fur, and the Cat’s mind held him steady.

Drat. And we’re so close to making it into the village. How many?

That’s the problem. There’s about thirty of them.

“Thirty!” … I mean thirty! Surely thirty men aren’t waiting for me.

It isn’t likely.

What do I do now? I can’t deal with thirty men. Any idea what kind of men?

The Sword sent her seeking ahead, checking the mass of men who lay in wait. Soldiers.

Soldiers? What do soldiers want with ambushing this little trail?

It’s the trail to the border, so I imagine they’re waiting for some kind of invasion.

Whose soldiers?

That’s easy. They’re Inderjornese. Very open minds. Especially the leader.

So they have no reason to bother us.

Exactly. In fact, if they want to stay hidden, their smartest move would be to stay hidden and let us slide right on past.

Well, let’s hope they’re smart. On we go?

Your life, your furs. It’s your choice.

The Trapper hauled on the shoulder straps, his face grim. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

He trudged forward, forcing his eyes to focus on the trail ahead of him. I’m not looking. Where are they?

All around us right now. And they are very badly hidden. If you looked left, you’d see… don’t look!

I’m not looking. I’m not looking!

The Sword broadcast a feeling to the minds around. We are not looking. You can all relax. We are minding our own business. We don’t know you are here. Ruffie, look straight ahead.

How are we doing?

It’s working. They’re relaxing. Oh, by the Hammer of the Smith! Don’t relax too much!

There was a clatter beside them as a soldier sat down, his sword hilt striking his shield loudly. The Trapper’s head swung around of its own accord. A helmeted head protruded above a nearby bush, eyes staring into his.

“Oh, shit!” He stopped.

The soldier stood, drawing his sword. “Stand fast, you there.”

“I am standing fast, in case you didn’t notice.”

There was a moment’s silence, as the soldier looked around, unsure of what to do next.

“Well? I’m doing what you asked. What do you want?”

There was a blast of profanity from up the trail behind them, and a blond young man in a bronze cuirass stepped from behind a tree. He had a look of complete exasperation on his face. “Stand down, Jamma. It’s too late.” He raised his voice. “Everyone else stand down but for the sake of the gods, STAY HIDDEN!”

He strode forward, taking in the Trapper and his sled. “What are you doing here?”

Don’t say what I think you’re going to. He’s not in the mood.

Don’t tell me… yes, I suppose you’re right.

“My name is Trapper, my Lord. My trap line is up in Jahson Creek Pass. I’m just coming down to Telkwa with my winter’s take.”

“Jahson Creek, is it?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“See anyone on the trail?”

“Two very inept bandits tried to take my furs, my Lord, but I discouraged them and they went their way.”

“In which direction?”

“East, my Lord, up the trail.”

The young nobleman nodded. “That’s fine, then. You’ve been up in the mountains all winter?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Seen anyone travelling? Big parties?”

“Lots of snow this year, my Lord.”

“Just answer the questions, please, I don’t need a weather report.”

“Not a soul, my Lord. Trail was completely impassable until a week ago. If that helps, my Lord.”

The officer looked at the Trapper again, more closely this time. “You look like an intelligent sort. Do you know the trail to Ghost Lake Pass?”

“I do…um…never been up it, of course.”

“No, I’m sure you haven’t. No need to be crossing the border, would you?”

“Of course not, my Lord. Especially with the ghosts and all.”

“Ghosts. Pah! It’s not ghosts I’m worried about. What is the condition of that trail?”

“I only saw the junction, my Lord, but it looked about as passable as what we’re standing on. Since Ghost Lake Pass is lower than Jahson Creek, I’d suggest it was in even better condition than this. Soft and slushy, but not hard walking on a packed trail.”

“Even for heavily armed soldiers?”

“Do you think you should have mentioned that to me, my Lord?”

“Why not? I obviously can’t turn you loose to tell everyone that I’m here.”

“But I’m going down into the village, my Lord. Into Inderjorne.”

“There are spies everywhere.”

“And you really think you’ve marched thirty men through that area, and they don’t know you’re here?”

“How do you know how many men I’ve got?”

“A lucky guess, I suppose. And since you’re going to be moving your ambush the moment I leave, I can’t tell anyone anything they don’t already know.”

“And why am I moving my ambush?”

“Because this is a lousy place to hide and it’s below the trail junction. The place you want to hide is about three bowshots up the Ghost Lake Trail. There’s a rocky bluff there that overlooks the path, just higher than a man’s head. Perfect ambush spot.”

The lord sent a questioning glance at a nearby soldier, an older man with a rusty helmet. The reply was a barely-perceptible rise of shoulders and eyebrows. That seemed to mean something to the younger man.  A new confidence filled his voice.

“I thought you were intelligent. You’ll come along with us and show us this spot.”

“With respect, my Lord, I have a load of furs, which represent my whole winter’s work as well as a great deal of pain. I can’t just leave them to go running along to seal with one of your little problems."

“This isn’t a ‘little problem,’ my man. This is a possible incursion from the Maridon side of the border! If I say you are coming with us, it is your duty to come.”

“Again with respect, my Lord, I’m not. I am taking my furs to be traded, and nothing is going to stop me. If you want to try, you can cut me down right now. I read you as an honourable man, and I don’t think you’re going to do that. It’s your choice.”

“How dare you speak to me like that? The safety of the Realm of Inderjorne is at stake! Every loyal subject must rally around.”

The Trapper sat down on his load. “My Lord, I sincerely doubt if anything so dramatic is happening. Not if they only send you with this inept troop of soldiers to solve it. Much more likely you’ve got some trade or boundary dispute going with our Maridon neighbors and you’ve come up here to try and deal with it, under-equipped and poorly manned as you are. The way I see it, I’m much safer off going about my business and letting you go about yours.

Leave me here. He needs me, and I can help him.

The Trapper held up his hand. “Wait a minute, my Lord” What did you say?

Trapper, this is more important than a little border hassle. Lord Coelric has a very open mind and he’s in a real quandary. I can’t get all the details, but he needs help.

What can I do that will make a difference?

“My man, why am I standing here while you stare off into the sky? Say, I’m talking to you…”

“Just a moment, Lord Coelric. We may have a solution, here.”

“How do you know my name? What…?

Again the raised hand stopped him.

I can’t help him, Cat.

But I can.

You mean…

Yes. This is your chance to fulfill your promise. Give me to Lord Coelric. I will go with him to protect the realm, and you can go your way with your furs.

Just like that?

Just like that. He is nobility. He has a very open mind. His need, and the need of the realm, is great. And you get out of it, free and easy.

The young noble stepped forward, his hand on his hilt. “All right. I’ve had enough of this…”

The Trapper stood and turned his back, tugging at the tarp. “It’s all right, my Lord. I’ve changed my mind. I am going to help you.”

“You are?”

“Yes. Here.” The Trapper pulled the Sword from her bindings and thrust her into the hands of the astounded noble. “Use her well.”

“What? A sword? You think giving me a sword is going to help?”

The Trapper’s hand lingered on her hilt, just for a moment, then slowly slid away. “Oh, I don’t think you’ll find her just any Sword, my Lord. I wish you an easier time with her than I had. No, maybe I don’t. It was an interesting winter, that’s for certain, and I won’t forget it.”

He shook his head. Good-bye, Cat. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s been the most fascinating winter of my life. Maybe the most fascinating time of all. I wish you all Honour and Glory. May you earn the Name you deserve.

The Trapper turned away from the noble, tears stinging his eyes and an ache in his throat. He put his shoulders to the straps. “And now, my Lord, I have a load of furs to sell. Good luck up in the mountains.”

He leaned into the traces and strode off down the trail, the sled bouncing with the unaccustomed speed.

Good-bye, Trapper. I wish you the joy of your independence. ‘Bye, Ruffie, old friend.

The dog looked back, whining, then spun and trotted after his master. The Sword turned her attention to the mind of the young noble who held her, staring at the back of the retreating man.

All right, Lord Coelric that’s settled. We’ve got work to do. Let’s get at it.

“What’s going on? You can’t just walk away! You know far too much…”

And you know far too little, my Lord. He wouldn’t say anything even if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. He’s a good man. Think about it. Few people will walk up to you and give you a magic Sword and walk away, asking for nothing in return.

“You’re a magic Sword? That’s who’s talking to me?”

Yes, and you’d better learn to talk in your head, if you don’t want your men to think you’ve lost your tether.

“But…”

In your head, my Lord. Don’t worry; we can settle this while we’re marching. We have to get that new ambush set up immediately. Don’t worry. I have a picture of the spot from his mind. Get this sorry excuse for a troop of soldiers up on their feet and moving. With my help, you have a chance of stopping this invasion. But only if you move. NOW!

She sent a completely fabricated image of a troop of dark-skinned soldiers, tromping up a snowy trail in the mountains, heading nearer and nearer.

The officer shook his head and looked around at his poorly concealed men. “All right. We’re moving. Form up on the trail, and double-quick!

That’s better. She pressed a sense of urgency into the open minds around her, and their movements quickened. The scout down the trail didn’t hear you.

“Oh, right. Panos, go get Ivad. We’ll be gone when you get back. Both of you stay on tail guard.”

The soldier saluted and slogged away down the trail.

The soldier to your right has left his pack open and he’s losing things. The one behind you has a loose greave and it’s going to trip him up in a moment. They’re starting to mill around, now, and need another order smartly to get them moving.

Lord Coelric accepted this rush of information with surprising ease. He immediately began to snap out orders, and the Cat fed him new information. In record time, the troop was moving out in good order. In good order for a bunch of amateurs. Where did you get them, anyway? No, don’t answer that. It was an emergency. I understand.

Lord Coelric strode up the trail, his head swirling.

Don’t worry, my Lord. You’ll get used to me in no time. And we don’t have much time, do we? Please don’t answer out loud. You just have to think clearly, and I can read you fine.

Like this?

Exactly like that, my Lord. You have a very clear mind.

And you’re a magic Sword.

I hope so. If I’m not, you’re losing your mind.

A quirk of humour crossed the new Hand’s mind. That wouldn’t be surprising. I thought I was losing my mind before you showed up.

I can understand. But this is what we’ve got, and this is what we’ll use. What, exactly, are we dealing with? What is your source of information?

An incursion of Maridons. Coming over Ghost Pass the moment the trails are clear. As far as the information source, I don’t really know. Lord Albersun sent the information, and I was the only one available. So I levied what men I could, and here we are.

Well, from the picture I got in the Trapper’s mind, we’ll soon be at a much better place.

The man’s mind became grim. We need all the help we can get.

Then let’s get there. Then on to Glory!

Glory? I’ll be happy to survive.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Of course neither are their opposites.

I’m well aware of that too.

They marched up the trail, their troops strung out behind them.  
 e hH

 

 

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