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       A Sword Of Wrath, Book I: Blood And Dust, p.1

           K. E. MacLeod
A Sword Of Wrath, Book I: Blood And Dust
Discover other titles by K. E. MacLeod:

  No Shade For Travellers

  Searching For Zeus


  A Sword Of Wrath, Book I: Blood And Dust

  Copyright 2014 K. E. MacLeod


  Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.



  K. E. MacLEOD

  Chapter One

  Like most heroes of old, she was born in secret...

  The old woman studied the young soldier standing beside her, his eyes wide with horror at the event unfolding before them in the tiny isolated cottage. "You've seen a lot of death, hmm?" she asked. "Just not very much life." The old woman, known only as 'Agatha' to the few who were acquainted with her, spoke to the soldier, Kaeso, in a broken patois. He suspected, correctly, that she was not used to using the native Romulus dialect, which was common throughout the northern part of the kingdom.

  "No, I-I," he stuttered, searching for an excuse to better explain his nervousness, but not finding one, simply answered instead, "I haven't."

  Agatha continued her work beside him. She had hair like gray straw stuffed beneath a plain piece of material tied around her head. Her body was short and stout and upon it she wore the traditional dress of her people, called a chiton. Over it she had placed an apron in the futile hope that she would stay clean as she assisted the heavily pregnant woman silently writhing on the table before them.

  The young woman, which the soldier knew as Lady Catherine of Tyre, daughter of Lord Heron of Tyre, member of the Emperor's Court, had fled the kingdom of Lycania hastily and was still dressed in the pink silk stola, which betrayed her courtly status.

  "Why doesn't she scream, moan, something?" he asked, greatly disturbed by the woman's silence.

  "Because," the portly woman answered proudly, "the women of my people do not cry out in childbirth." She took another blood-soaked linen away from beneath the Lady Catherine and replaced it quickly with a fresh one.

  The young soldier's stomach lurched with her action. He had never seen so much blood coming from one person, not even on the battlefield. In fact, none of his lifetime of training could have ever prepared him for any of the events that had transpired in the last twenty-four hours: not for the Emperor demanding that he find the Lady Catherine and mete out her death sentence, nor for the fruitless search that brought him into the kingdom's furthest reaches or for discovering a cottage, rotting away in the woods where he came to rest - only to find the old witch woman tending to the Lady Catherine herself in the midst of giving birth.

  The woman before him continued to struggle in quiet agony, her eyes closed to the world around her. Inside, her body was stretching, tearing as the bones of her pelvis came apart to allow the passage of a baby through her womb into its new world. She grasped the edges of the wooden table as each new wave of a contraction flowed through her - though, in truth, they had long ceased being waves and had, instead, coalesced into one great, unbearable pain. She had never known such distress and was completely unaware of her surroundings or that the sun had set and the night birds had begun their songs.

  The soldier looked down and, feeling powerless to do much else, grasped her hand. Agatha, meanwhile, had continued to replace the bloody rags but her eye caught the simple, gentle gesture and she smiled sadly to herself.

  "So," she said as she worked, "which do you prefer? Life or death?"

  "W-what?" The soldier pulled his gaze away from the Lady Catherine and settled it on the old woman.

  "Death or life? Which is easier to watch?"

  "I don't know," his eyes rested again on Lady Catherine. He spoke slowly, images of past battles flowing through his mind. "I've seen combat many times. I've seen my friends killed in the most brutal of ways. I have even helped to take the leg off of one of my fellow soldiers because it was infected from a stab wound but... this?"

  She smirked, "Did your friend cry out when they removed his leg?"

  With his free hand he smoothed Lady Catherine's hair away from her forehead; it was cold and clammy. His eyebrows knit together, "Yes, and even more afterwards."

  "I think if you men understood what it meant to bring life into this world, you would not be so quick to end it."

  He nodded slowly, "I fear you may be right about that."

  Agatha turned her attention back to Lady Catherine. She walked around the table and pressed her palms against the sides and then the top of the woman's belly. Her expression grew grave as she pressed against them again, verifying her suspected fear. Reluctantly, she wiped her hands on her apron as she spoke, "Catherine? Your baby isn't gonna make it like this."

  For the first time since the soldier had arrived, Lady Catherine opened her eyes. They were gray, he noted, and despite the redness that ringed around them, beautiful.

  "Wha... what... does that mean?" she asked, breathlessly.

  "She's going die if we don't do something."

  "Then do something... woman!"

  Agatha shook her head, "I only know of one thing to do in this situation and I only seen it done one time before but," her eyes flicked to the soldier's then back to Catherine's, "you won't survive."

  Catherine's neck was barely able to support her head and it soon began to waver from the strain as she tried to keep it aloft while she spoke, "Then take my life... and save my child's!" She attempted to reach out to Agatha with her free hand, catching only the edge of the cloth of the old woman's dress and pulling her in, "Tell her... she was loved... by both of her parents. She was conceived in love and will....ahhhh," she convulsed in pain, pausing a brief moment and then continuing on with her words, "she will cast a light upon the darkness of this world!" She released Agatha's dress and fell back against the table, her eyes closing again.

  Agatha turned away from the Lady, shaking her head as she did. Mothers, she thought, they always think their babies are some kind of special but all babies are the same. They cry, they stink, they eat, then they grow up.

  And she had seen her fair share grow up in her many years of living, watching as some rose up to be tyrants, others saviors but most, she believed, became nothings. Their names weren't recorded in history books and only those closest to them mourned them when they were gone.

  This baby, Agatha thought, would be no different - except that her life would be harder than most. But, she resigned herself, half of the baby's blood was from her own people and because of that, she would see to it that the child survived. She wiped her hands again on her increasingly stained apron and turned to the soldier, "I need your dagger."

  His hand unconsciously went to his waistband where the pugio resided, "My what?"

  "You heard me," she indicated his hand, "your dagger. Hand it over."

  He cautiously took it from the sheath that was hooked to his waist by four large rings, and held it out to her, "What're you going to do with it?"

  Agatha took it, "I'm going to finish what you came here to do." She leaned into the Lady, "Now, Catherine, I don't have any magicks or potions to ease the pain of what I'm about to do. Do you understand?"

  She nodded.

  "You may cry out during this, for I believe even the gods will forgive you." Agatha positioned herself at the end of the table, between Catherine's bent legs. She glanced over to the soldier, "Give her the sheath to bite down on."

  His heart raced and he cou
ld feel the sweat against his forehead as it began to form. He did as the old woman said and unhooked the wooden and leather sheath from his waistband. He then slid it between Catherine's teeth and as she stared up at him in fear, she could taste the metal of the iron plate that graced the sheath's front as it touched her tongue.

  He looked upon the young woman and felt a million different sensations flow into him. Only a few hours before he had known her as a criminal whose life he was charged with ending. But, she wasn't a nameless soldier on a battlefield somewhere defying the Empire; she was a young woman who had fallen in love with the wrong person and now she lay in the midst of something that he would not have likely survived himself. This time, when he looked upon her face, he only felt awe at her strength.

  Agatha, meanwhile, held the dagger flat against her forehead as she whispered a prayer to the gods. She then took it and, without further ceremony, sliced deep into the flesh of Lady Catherine's lower abdomen. As she did so, Catherine sat up from the table, crying out loudly. She grasped the soldier's hand, her eyes large and wild as they stared up into the rafters of the cottage. Her cries then became wails as Agatha continued to cut into her womb.

  "I see the baby! I see her!" The old woman shouted excitedly, forgetting herself for a moment.

  The soldier swallowed, "Is it...?" He wanted to say "alive" but he couldn't finish the sentence. He looked at the Lady, she was only whimpering now, her face as white as the sands of the Unclaimed Desert.

  Agatha tossed the dagger to the ground, its metal striking the dirt floor with a dull thump. She reached into the flesh that she had just cut open and pulled with all her might.

  With each rough tug he witnessed, the room around the soldier began to sway more and more.

  "Almost... there...," Agatha heaved and pulled and grasped until finally, with one last wrench of super strength, she freed the naked screaming newborn from its mother's belly, holding it up by its ankle. She laughed, "I didn't even have to swat her! Look, Catherine!" She rested the baby, covered in its mother's blood, atop the Lady's belly, still attached by the birthing cord.

  But the Lady's chest neither rose nor fell anymore and her hand no longer grasped the soldier's. He set her arm gently back down onto the table and looked at the dead Lady's face. It was free from pain; free from the burdens of the world and to him it was the most beautiful face he'd ever looked upon. He quietly and softly closed her eyes.

  Agatha looked grim as she tied off the cord of the screaming child, severing its remaining connection to its mother. She then wrapped the baby in the last few clean linens she could find and drenched a piece of nearby muslin in honey, which she then put into the baby's mouth. The baby at last fell quiet as it sucked happily at the material.

  Agatha was slow to speak, sadness breaking her voice slightly, "The job you came here to do... it's finished now."

  The soldier shook his head, "I didn't come here to do this. I came here to bring a criminal to justice."

  "Didn't you do that?"

  His expression grew stern, "I see no criminals here."

  Agatha smiled slightly, "She was a woman of my people and she should be given a proper death ceremony so that she may grace the halls of Paradise."

  He nodded in agreement, then asked, "How is that done?"

  "We burn our warriors."

  "Won't the fire cause suspicion in your neighbors?"

  She laughed shortly as she gently bounced the sleeping bundle in her arms, "My neighbors are few and far between. Those that know of me would not be surprised that the 'crazy witch woman' is at her experiments again."

  He nodded solemnly, "Alright then, I'll go find some wood."

  It didn't take long to gather enough to build a funeral pyre for the Lady Catherine in the clearing near Agatha's home and when the last of the wood was placed upon the pile, the soldier returned to the cottage to collect Catherine. The old woman looked on sadly as he rejoined her, carrying the limp blood and silk covered body in his arms. He then placed it gently upon the pyre.

  Agatha handed him the torch that she held in her free hand. "The ground is wet," she cautioned. "It may be difficult to light."

  But the gods were with them that evening and as the soldier touched the fire to the wood, it caught almost immediately. He went around the pyre, lighting what he could and then returned to Agatha, the baby against her chest making noises in its sleep.

  "I guess now you return a hero, hmm?" Agatha asked, unable to keep the slight venom from her voice despite the soldier's recent assistance.

  He shook his head, "If they call me that, I won't accept it. Besides," he looked at her as he spoke, the flames lighting both their faces, "I have nothing to prove that I ki-... that she's dead."

  Agatha produced a golden ring from beneath the folds of her dress, the seal of Tyre, a large tree, on its face. "This is her ring. Show it to the Emperor, and he'll know then."

  He took it, slowly, "But, shouldn't this go to the child?"

  "No," Agatha shook her head firmly, "she needs no trinkets, nor amulets or other ridiculous things because she must never know where she comes from or her life will be full of strife."

  A few hours later, as the first traces of dawn began to approach painting the sky in oranges and pinks, Agatha bound the baby with leather straps tightly to the soldier's chest - over his tunic but beneath his chain mail hamata.

  "Do you really think this will work?" He asked with all the disbelief that claimed it wouldn't.

  "Of course - or I wouldn't risk it!" Agatha pulled the straps tighter across his chest. "Remember, go straight to Sotiria in the Imperial Nursery. Mention my name and hand the baby directly over to her. She is one of my people and will know immediately that this is Lady Catherine's daughter."

  "But," the soldier looked upon the sleeping babe, "shouldn't she have a name of some kind?"

  "I don't know, make up something," Agatha waved a dismissive hand in the air. "But make it something Lycanian, because from here on out, that's what she must be."

  "But, I'm not...," he continued to stare at the squirming bundle against his chest, thinking what name he could possibly bestow on her. He thought back to the cry she gave out when Agatha first pulled her into the world and smiled. Her loud mouth reminded him of his little sister, Alexis. He nodded, "Ok. Alexia. She'll be Alexia, then."

  Agatha shrugged, "I suppose it's as good as any name. I just hope to the gods that she stays looking like her mother." She stroked the baby's head one last time.

  The soldier then mounted his horse, easily, so as not to disturb the newborn.

  "Can I ask," she said, handing the soldier back his cleaned pugio, "did her father die... as bravely?"

  The soldier's eyes fell to the ground while his insides churned from the memory, "Her father died more of a warrior than I could ever be. He fought us all and in the end, it was only through the treachery of the Decanus that he was killed." He paused, then looked at Agatha, "I only wish I had known then..."

  She shrugged, "That's what life is all about: wishing that you knew then what you know now. But, one day, you will be old and cynical like me and nothing will surprise you anymore. Not even yourself." She smiled sadly, "Goodbye, little one... and goodbye to you, young one. May the gods of both our peoples ride with you this night!" Agatha then slapped the hindquarters of the horse and sent them galloping into the direction of the capital.

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