Blade of Glass: Chapter 2

That’s the first and last time you’ll underestimate a Knight. Consciousness returned to Meriwether like a forbidden tryst in the night: quickly, and with a lot of sweating and groaning. Light blazed, harsh as the forge of dawn itself. He squinted, holding a hand out to shade his eyes, then cried out at the pain in his side.

The gift from Symonet’s lackies. Meriwether took a calming breath, then another as nausea leered at him. His fingers found his shirt, and tentatively made for the sword gash they’d awarded him with. Trembling and slow, he expected the harsh brand of rent flesh, but instead he found the brush of cotton.

You’re not going to learn anything mewling like a babe in a bassinet. Strength, man. He lay on a bed, the mattress firm but not unkind. Another opening of his eyes showed the earlier brilliant flare was the meager glow of a lantern. Meriwether was in a small room with stone-lined walls. The lantern, now wanting to be his friend, sat atop a small wooden table. The table wouldn’t fetch a high price at market; it lacked adornment or varnish but was well-made. Check the door.

He swung his feet over the side of the bed and let out a small whimper. His sword wound felt worse than he remembered. He’d danced aside from the thrust of a blade but caught the edge in passing. A clean enough cut with nothing vital severed, but it felt like Khiton’s black sword of ending was lodged under his ribs.

Khiton’s a long way off, but his Knights are here. Check the damn door. Meriwether grunted himself upright, staggering to the room’s only exit. The door was sturdy and without an obvious keyhole. He tested the handle, fingers resting on cool brass. It turned easy enough, but the door didn’t budge. Barred from the outside, no doubt. Knights aren’t known for being idiots or taking chances.

With his face close to the timber, he caught the sound of footsteps. The tread was measured and even. Creaking wood belied the weight of the man coming for him. Meriwether stepped away from the door, hurried back to the bed, lay down, and closed his eyes.

He heard a rattle and clunk of wood, then the door creaked open. Heavy Footsteps entered. “If you’re thinking to try something clever, don’t.” The voice was heavy, like a sack of gravel, but—like the bed—not unkind.

Meriwether risked winking an eye open. Before him stood a titan of a man. Skin the color of good mānuka honey. Pale blue eyes, hard as winter’s ice. He wore faded clothes, but well cared for. A loose shirt did nothing to hide the musculature of his chest and arms. Three’s mercy. His biceps are larger than my neckAnd he moves like a dancer. A big, unhappy dancer. No armor, but Meriwether knew the stink of Tresward Knights whatever they wore. No sash either, so impossible to tell this one’s rank. The titan held a steaming bowl. Meriwether’s stomach gave a traitorous growl. “Is that for me?”

“Depends. You going to start something you can’t finish?”

“Do I get the food if I do, or—” 

“She could have killed you. I wouldn’t have said a word.” The titan put the bowl on the small table. The man didn’t turn his back, always keeping Meriwether in sight.

He remembered a young woman chasing him through streets of uncaring people, her hair red like the blaze of a furnace. She was young. Should have been easy enough to fool, but she had my number. “Maybe. Do I deserve it?”

The titan pursed his lips. “That’s a problem for a Justiciar.”

“So, you don’t know?”

“I don’t care.” The titan leaned on the word. “Before you start, there are three things you need to know.”

“Start what?” Meriwether eyed the bowl. Steam continued its lazy rise, and with it the smell of stewed mutton assailed him. He hadn’t eaten a meal in three days, and even then it was stolen bread hard as brick and cheese the mice wouldn’t take. 

“Your escape plan. I’m Israel, Knight Valiant of the Tresward.”

“That’s the first thing?” Meriwether talked to hide a flash of fear. They sent a Valiant’s four heavy bars after little old me. What’s going on?

“It is.” Israel looked down at Meriwether, considering for a moment, then the grim facade of his face eased a hair’s breadth to allow a smile. “You can’t plead your case with me. There’s no gold that’ll buy me, and no cause that will bend my will.”

Meriwether rubbed his face. “And that’s—”

“Number two, right.” A stern nod. “You catch on fast. Third thing is, no harm will come to you while you’re in our care. Until we bring you to the Justiciar, you’re our guest. Unless.”

Meriwether thought about waiting him out, but he wanted the bowl of food more. “Unless what?”

“Unless you try to run. Then,” Israel backed from the room, “we’ll hit you until you stop moving.”

“The Justiciar’s said to be a real asshole.”

“Which one?” Israel frowned, refusing the offered laugh. “No, you’re right. They all are.”

“Ah.” Meriwether nodded, like they were old friends comparing notes. “Did you know the cellar’s haunted?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Enjoy your dinner.” Israel stepped away.

“Wait.” Meriwether looked at his feet. “Why am I alive?”

That earned a silence long enough for his gaze to find its nervous way back up to Israel’s face. Still no humor, but a little pity, unless Meriwether missed his guess. “Because she’s young. New at this. Believes in the cause more than most. The Justiciar said bring you back, and back you’ll go.” He slipped from the room on easy feet, making to pull the door closed.

“Hold up.” Meriwether stepped to the door, risking a glare and all that might follow. He looked Israel in the eye. “What’s her name?”

“The one who didn’t kill you was Geneve. The one who would have is Vertiline. Best remember the difference.” The door slammed closed, the rumble of the bar dropping to lock Meriwether inside. Israel left the vaguest hint of sandalwood on the air, but it was insufficient to overpower the mutton stew.

Make the best of it. Meriwether descended like a ravenous army on dinner. If it wasn’t for the inevitable death at the end of his journey, he could get attached to being a prisoner of the Tresward.

* * *

It felt like one, maybe two minutes passed since Meriwether dimmed the lantern and put his head on the pillow to sleep. By all measures it was a good pillow, because he woke with a start to a pitch-black room and a hand over his mouth.

“Quiet,” hissed the hand’s owner. Meriwether couldn’t make out anything but the smell of leather—gloved hand—and the urgency of the request. He tried for a nod and found the motion easy enough. The hand eased up. “We’re here to get you out. Stay silent, and you might live to see tomorrow.”

That sounds like an excellent deal. Meriwether sat up. There was the scratch and scrape of metal, followed by the red bloom of flame. A second figure by the door held a hooded lantern, allowing a tiny aperture of ruddy light to escape into the room. The dim illumination showed Meriwether’s lantern, now out, and the person who woke him. Where the figure by the door was bulky, this one was slender. They wore leather armor and covered their heads with hoods. Both had cloth masks covering the lower parts of their faces. It lent them an unflattering appearance some—for example, those not about to flee imprisonment—might call sinister.

If you were busting a man from the Tresward’s “justice” you’d want to look sinister, too. Meriwether got to his feet, biting back a cry at his still-healing injury. The bulky figure at the door left, leading the way, the small puddle of light vanishing with him.

He wondered how he was supposed to follow until the slender one grabbed his arm, hauling him along. This wasn’t the gentle, easy pull of a lover leading Meriwether to a tumble in the hay. The gloved hand on his arm felt like it was made of iron, urgency in every movement. He followed, mostly because he had no choice, but also because being put in the Tresward’s cage and taken to some asshole Justiciar wasn’t on his things-to-do list. His shoulder banged on the doorframe on the way out, wrenching his injury, and he stifled a whimper.

The dim lantern light led the way up wooden stairs. There wasn’t enough light to make out many details, but he smelled the faint hint of old wine, onions, and burlap. The walls here were the same stone as his cell. Am I in a cellar? Did they imprison me in a haunted basement? It didn’t feel like a good place to be, and he picked up the pace.

A creak from ahead, followed by a sliver of light. A doorway, leading to a dimly-lit room. The bulky figure doused their lantern, then opened the door wider. Meriwether and his guard followed. They entered the common room of a bar. He’d never been here, but all inns shared the same folksy charm. A collection of drunks littered the space. A fire slumbered on its bed of coals above a wide hearth. No one stirred.

The three shuffled through the space toward a side door. Cool wind nipped at Meriwether’s face. The door was held ajar by a small sliver of wood. The bulky figure paused at the doorway, head cocked as if listening, then eased the door open into the quiet night beyond.

Outside, stillness gathered like the world held its breath. The sky was lit with a thousand tiny stars. Cophine’s pale face beamed down on the courtyard. Ikmae’s gray huddled by her shoulder. Somewhere beyond was Khiton’s black orb. The Three’s moons held vigil, as if the heavens wanted Meriwether’s freedom. Or waited for his fall.

The thin figure held a hand up, fist closed. Meriwether got the idea—don’t move. He stilled, breathing as quietly as possible despite the hammering of his heart. A nod from the bulky figure and they set off, hugging the courtyard’s tall walls. The gate at the end lay open, as if a careless stablehand forgot to shut it.

Beside the gate, the promised stableboy lay beside a dead lantern. He was stretched face-first on the cold stone cobbles, a small pool of something dark seeping from beneath him. Did the Three want your freedom enough that this boy had to die? Meriwether wanted to stop, to pull away, but the inn behind him held Tresward Knights, and their gross parody of justice.

They passed through the gate, Meriwether turning from the still form of the stableboy. Outside, the street was quiet and empty. A hanging sign out the front of the inn proclaimed it the Yellow Mug. A stylized mug was painted beside the words for the inbreds too dense to read. It was probably yellow, but it was too dark to wage a copper baron on it.

Two horses waited in the street. Meriwether would’ve figured them for their getaway rides except for the trifling detail of Israel. The Valiant stood by the horses, feet wide, with one of the Knight’s glass blades in hand. The sword was massive, the tip resting against the ground. The weapon was almost invisible in the night, glinting its resentment at Meriwether. “Hold. By Tresward law, hold!”

The two hooded figures shared a quick glance. They can’t mean to fight a Knight. That’s suicide. The grip on Meriwether’s arm tightened, and his slimmer rescuer broke into a run, dragging him along. He stumbled to follow.

Behind him, the night turned brighter than the day. The hiss of a bottled dragon broke the air, incandescent fury blazing behind them. Meriwether was blinded by the brilliance but followed as best he could. He tripped, knocked into something hard, and was pulled along by his savior, the hand on his arm tighter than ever. He thought he felt resentment in that grip. They know the man behind us will die. He’s tossed his life against glass, and there’s only one end to that.

He was yanked off-balance, their direction changing. Meriwether’s sight was coming back, but he was still mostly night-blind. Vague shapes rose from the dark, resolving into walls, wagons, or barrels as they ran.

Shoring up in a narrow doorway, they caught their breath. His rescuer looked behind for chase. “Minkin’s good. He’ll be all right.” A woman’s voice, easy to make out now she wasn’t whispering. From behind them came a high-pitched chime.

“I’m Meriwether.”

“I don’t care. Not paid to swap names.”

“I just … thank you.” Meriwether put his hand on hers, where it clenched his arm. “I was a dead man.”

Her eyes softened a degree. “Ritva.” The night behind them still burned with the fierceness of the sun. Ritva squinted. “Minkin knows to get clear. The dragon’s bottle doesn’t last long.”

A dragon’s bottle is the blinding tool of assassins and thieves. Who’s interest have I attracted? Who’d be fool enough to challenge the Tresward?

The flare from the dragon’s bottle dimmed, the night returning like it knew the way. Another chime from behind them, then a scream, dulled by distance. Ritva’s gaze hardened. “Come on.”

Meriwether fell in behind her. They both knew Minkin was gone. Dead, cut down by Israel. He’d tested his blade against a Knight, and that was the kind of thing only the criminally insane did.

They found an alley heading between two old, tall buildings. The sky above was a sliver of stars. The Three were hidden from view, darkness shrouding all. Rounding a corner, Meriwether spied lamplight ahead. Ritva led him to a street, a lone street lamp holding watch until the dawn.

Beneath the lantern stood a woman. Lean and hard, skin pale like the dead. Her long hair hung in a braid down her back, and she too carried a glass blade. The lamp flickered, the glass capturing the yellow light, tossing it back to lay at Meriwether’s feet. Hers was a shorter blade than Israel’s: a broadsword, light and nimble. The woman wore full armor. The black sash and three gold bars of a Chevalier lay across her breastplate. A shield hung on her left arm, the golden sun of the Tresward hard and unforgiving in the night.

What had Israel said? The one who didn’t kill you was Geneve. The one who would have is Vertiline. Best remember the difference. Ritva stiffened, her body rigid as if lightning struck her. She produced twin blades. Plain ol’ steel, no good against Tresward glass, but the woman crouched like she was born for this fight. “Run.”

“I … sure, no problem.” Meriwether caught a hint of surprise, as if Ritva expected him to say, no, I’ll stay and die with you. But he had no weapon, and if he did, he’d no idea how to use one other than, put the sharp bit toward the enemy.

Meriwether broke and sprinted. His boots slapped against the cobbles. His heart felt like it might break free. He wanted to stop, the pain in his side dragging his steps, slowing him down. He spared a glance behind him and wished he hadn’t.

Ritva circled Vertiline. The Knight followed the motion, her shield up, glass blade low. Ritva lunged, her twin blades going high and low. An impossible attack to block. Vertiline moved like flowing water, armor be damned. Ritva’s attack, for all it was fast, precise, the lunge of a killer, looked like the clumsy lurching of a newborn babe compared to the Knight. Meriwether’s rescuer cut nothing but air. 

Vertiline swung her blade horizontally. The slash looked perfect enough to cut dawn. Her glass sword glinted, warm yellow light walking the length of the blade. A trick of the light? Reflection from the street lamp? Whatever it was, Ritva took two more steps, then her head toppled free of her shoulders to bounce on the cobbles.

The Knight pointed her blade at Meriwether. “Hold, sinner.”

Fuck all that shit. Meriwether forgot the pain in his side, running as if his life depended on it. He prayed that a fully-armored Knight would be slower than him. Then he cursed himself for praying, because the Three wouldn’t listen to the likes of him.

Ahead he caught the sound of hooves on stone. Horses came toward him at pace. He kept running. He’d rather face a legion of horses than the Knight behind him. He rounded a bend, spying Calterburry’s keep hulking in the dark. It sat above the river, a massive bridge at its feet. Crossing the bridge were men bearing the queen’s pennant.

Decisions like this shape a man. Run toward Symonet’s thugs or face the glass? It wasn’t a contest. He kept running, arms pumping, feet slipping a little on the cold stone. As he approached the mounted troops, he wondered if he could escape to their left near the water’s edge. A leap, and he’d be in freezing water. It sounded heavenly, because Knights in armor didn’t float. He might catch his death in the river, but he liked those odds better than what waited behind him.

He jinked, and almost tasted freedom before the butt of a pole arm collected him in the gut. Meriwether crumbled to the ground, fingers outstretched toward the low brick wall beside the river. Rough hands found his shoulders, hauling him upright.

The mounted officer who’d been too free with his pole arm spared a glance to where Meriwether came from. What he saw made him pale some. To the soldier holding Meriwether, he said, “Go. Take him to the Keep. Be quick about it.”

Meriwether found his hands yanked behind him, rough cord binding his wrists as he was frog marched along. Wait, what? Take me to the Keep? What about a nice, honest jail?

Vertiline’s voice broke over his confusion. “By Tresward law, stand down!”

The whack-thrum of crossbows followed. Meriwether tried for a glance behind him. The confusion of horses and soldiers obscured his view, but from Vertiline’s position, golden light gleamed.

What are these Knights? How can they take a fusillade of crossbow bolts?

His guards hustled him over the bridge. The yawning maw of the keep’s main gate awaited. Tall and strong, it was made from massive wooden slabs reinforced with good steel. The scream of a dying man caught up with him as his escort dragged him into the keep’s courtyard. Burning braziers banished gloom. Guards hurried to shut the door behind them. Troops milled about, their chain armor jingling. He counted fifty before giving up.

I’m not sure fifty’s enough for three Tresward Knights. Vertiline’s out there threshing men and women like wheat. She’s on foot, against mounted soldiers, and she didn’t look like it bothered her.

His escort dragged him toward the Keep’s entrance. These doors were smooth, polished wood, left wide open. Waiting inside was a man, not particularly thin, or particularly handsome. He wore a smile like laborers wore body odor, rank and sour. Bald, with green eyes that missed nothing. “Excellent.”

“Hi,” Meriwether said. “I—”

He sagged as a soldier gut-punched him, in about the same spot as the pole arm’s butt hit him earlier. He whimpered. The green-eyed man kept up his putrescent smile. “Meriwether, I’ve waited so very long for someone like you.”

“Handsome?” Meriwether wheezed.

“Gifted,” the man corrected. “I’m Lord Symonet. We have so much to discuss.” Symonet gestured to the guards. “Bring him.”

As Meriwether was dragged into the keep, he remembered something else Israel said to him. Not the words about Vertiline or Geneve. A curious turn of phrase. No harm will come to you while you’re in our care.

Meriwether struggled as he was dragged away. He knew what they wanted from him now, and the Tresward’s justice seemed the easier death by far.

Miss the other parts of Blade of Glass?

[First Chapter] | [Previous Chapter] | [Next Chapter] (Live 2 July 2024)

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