by Michael Kingswood
The sky was burning crimson on the eastern horizon. The sun’s disk was a third of the way gone, down into her nighttime abode, and rays of red-orange streamed down through gaps in the partial cloud cover like spotlights, illuminating here and there bits of the rolling grassland before the ridge where Selam stood just a little bit brighter than the others. Some last remnants of light against the encroaching blackness, hanging on just a little bit longer than their fellows, despite the fell cast to that illumination.
He shuddered, drawing his fine blue silk-cotton cloak tighter around his body despite a lack of physical chill. He watched the orb lower further past the hill lands east of his home, and couldn’t help but consider that he could relate to those little swaths of land, seemingly desperately clinging to whatever light they could.
The swish of grass behind him brought Selam out of his reverie, and his hand went to the well-worn leather that wrapped the grip of his sword, master crafted by Farelio himself and handed down to him from his father as had been done for generations in his family.
Without thinking about it, he bent his legs slightly, his muscles bundling as they tensed, ready to spring into action.
But then the smell of horse and pipe tobacco reached his nose, along with a sweet-sour that he would recognize anywhere.
“Good evening, brother,” Selam said, as he relaxed in his stance.
The movement from behind him stopped, and Selam could imagine the look on Hafi’s face. He was Selam’s senior, but not as skilled in the martial ways as Selam. He always was surprised when Selam saw the obvious traces and signs that he himself missed.
A rueful chuckle, and then Hafi stepped up beside him on his left. Hafi shook his head, his long, black hair swaying in time with his movement and his lips drawing upward into a wry grin, white teeth flashing stark contrast with the blackness of his beard.
He was of a height with Selam, but plump about the middle. He wore his robes loosely, white and brown cotton that hung down to his ankles and would restrict his movement if it came down to a fight.
But Hafi had never been one for the great contest. That’s why he had inherited their father’s business, and Selam the sword.
“How do you always know it is me?” Hafi asked.
Selam sniffed. “The cologne you wear. Its southern spices are…unique, here.” And more than a little excessive, he didn’t say.
Hafi half-chuckled again, and raised a meaningful eyebrow Selam’s way. “The ladies of Tyrash certainly appreciate it.”
“One wife is not sufficient for you? Would you seek two more? Three?” Selam had lost track of how many mistresses Hafi had these days. And really didn’t want to know.
The humor went out of Hafi’s eyes, and his lips compressed into a scowl for a moment. But instead of replying, he looked away from Selam toward the setting sun, now barely visible as the last rim of glow against the increasing darkness of the night all around.
Hafi drew a breath. “I met with Farooq today.”
The name sent a little tremor down Selam’s spine. As the man holding the lion’s share of the debt the family business owed, he would have more than a slight influence on their future.
If there was to be any future.
“Not good news, I’m afraid.” Hafi rolled his shoulders slightly, then crossed his arms over his chest. “He wants twenty thousand, by next month.”
“Twenty thousand? But we only owe fifteen.”
Hafi shrugged. “Late fees, and unpaid interest. And…other matters.”
Selam looked sidelong at his brother, and Hafi did not meet his gaze. Had Hafi taken to the gambling dens again? Not that it mattered. They couldn’t have paid the sum if it had been five thousand.
They were ruined.
Selam looked down, toward the hilt of his father’s sword. Still bright, despite the swiftly departing daylight, the pommel seemed to almost glow of its own accord.
More than a dozen generations had born this sword, in wartime and in peace. In wealth and in poverty, but always with honor. Their father had said that as long as it remained in their family, they had a future to be envied, no matter how dark the days might look at the time.
But now, as the first of the stars became clearly visible overhead and the breeze seemed to already have become more cool as night crept over the land, Selam wasn’t sure he could believe that.
They were going to lose father’s business. Because Hafi was too—
No. He would not pass judgment on his elder brother. Hafi had inherited the business, and the right to direct it as he chose. And in truth he had often asked Selam’s input, and he had not objected to Hafi’s decisions. For the most part.
But somehow, still here they were. About to lose it all.
He ran the fingers of his left hand over the sword’s pommel, and felt a bit of comfort.
Selam felt Hafi’s gaze on him, and he looked fully at his brother. Hafi’s eyes flicked downward quickly, as though he were ashamed to meet his younger brother eye to eye. Then he visibly steeled himself and looked up.
There was no defeat in Hafi’s gaze. Unexpected, and when Selam saw that, his heart leapt.
He reached out and clapped Hafi on the shoulder. “We shall overcome this, my brother,” he said. “Our family will emerge stronger than ever.”
Hafi placed his hand overtop Selam’s, where it still rested on the meat of his shoulder, and nodded. “Yes, we will. I have a plan.”
Selam raised a questioning eyebrow.
“Meet me at The Red Phoenix at midnight.” His lips turned upward again, into an eager grin. “Tonight, we shall save our family.”
Selam knew of The Red Phoenix, and had been inside a handful of times. But never for long, and never so late as this.
He had long ago forsook the call of late night debauchery; a true acolyte of the way of the sword did not go down that path. It was destructive to body and spirit, ruining discipline and eating far too much into the day’s work.
He was not surprised Hafi frequented the place, and at late hours, however.
Again, the reason Selam had inherited the sword.
The blocky stone of the tavern’s building was unadorned. Just a small sign posted above the dark wood of the double doors allowing entrance. In the daylight, it would show a broad-winged bird, wreathed in red flames, rising from a pile of ash, with the tavern’s name written in script above the bird’s beak.
Now, a few minutes before midnight, the sign was barely visible in the flickering light of the twin burning torches that rested in sconces on either side of the doors. But the sign was unnecessary, to those who knew Tyrash well.
Having grown up here, that included Selam.
Two thick-armed men in plain tunics stood on either side of the entrance doors. The one on the right looked Selam up and down appraisingly, and for a moment he thought the bouncer would try to make trouble. But then he just grunted and jerked his head toward the interior.
It was more well-lit inside by oil lamps hanging from the bare wooden rafters and mounted in holders along the walls. Tobacco smoke wafted over the long, broad common room that made up most of the tavern’s first floor, and there was seating for easily a hundred patrons. Ranging from bare-wood benches alongside equally unadorned tables at the front to satin-cushioned divans at the rear, the tavern was equipped to cater to clientele of all levels of wealth.
The central bar was circular, with stations at three positions where serving wenches could sidle up to fill orders, and casks and more delicate flasks containing everything from the most rude ale from the savage wastes to the northeast to the finest wines from the western kingdoms were tended by a trio of bartenders in grey tunics who wore seemingly eternal smiles on their faces.
A trio of dark-haired dancing wenches in sheer silks that barely concealed their charms swayed on a stage off to the left, moving to the beat of a pair of drummers, a flutist, and a pair of men playing stringed instruments Selam had seen before but didn’t know the name of. They produced a fine melody was all he knew; all he cared to know.
A stairway to the upper level was off to the right, and at a round table not far from the base of the stairs Selam spied Hafi.
His brother was standing there, in the same robes he had worn earlier in the night, with a tall, dark-haired youth. He was lean and muscled, and wore more tightly-fitting clothing than his father; the better to move efficiently in.
Selam found his lips turning downward into a scowl as he saw his nephew, lifting a goblet of what could only be wine to his lips. He had been training the lad—barely thirteen now—in the ways of the sword, as was fitting the men of their family.
This was not part of the way.
“Ah, brother,” Hafi said as Selam approached, and reached out to grasp him on the shoulder in greeting. “Will you take wine? This is will be a great night.”
Selam kept his eyes on his nephew, who swallowed and slowly lowered his cup to the table. He met Selam’s eyes for a moment, but only a moment, instead looking down at the tabletop, abashed.
“No,” Selam said, finally looking at Hafi, who had noted his son’s embarrassment and had lost some of his enthusiastic expression. “We have business, you said?”
Hafi let go of Selam’s shoulder and nodded. Gesturing toward the stairs, he said, “They are waiting for us.”
Instead of answering, Hafi turned toward his son. “Misra, your uncle and I have business to attend to. Wait for us here.”
Misra nodded, still not meeting Selam’s eyes.
Then Hafi turned and ascended the stairs. Selam didn’t follow for a moment, just looking at his pupil and unsure what, if anything, to say. Instead, he turned and followed his brother upstairs.
It was more quiet, and less smokey, in the upper level. The stairs emerged into a broad hallway, walled in stone like the rest of the building and floored in the same unpolished material, though covered in red rugs with golden fringes that looked like they were worth a small fortune each.
The hallway took them past a pair of doors stained the same shade as the double doors leading into the tavern proper, then stopped at a third door that looked somehow more ornate than the other two, though Selam could not have said what exactly it was that gave that impression.
Hafi knocked twice, and a moment later the door opened, and Selam followed him inside.
The man sitting on the divan in the center of the room beyond was the largest Selam had ever seen; but not in a righteous way. His fat rolled lasciviously beneath the loose silk of his silver-blue robes, and his jowls swayed grotesquely with every movement of his head. He was bald, his cheeks rouged to make his pale skin seem more pink, and he had small, pig-like eyes that flashed blue in the lamplight.
But despite his slothful, indolent appearance, there was a sharpness in his gaze and an aura of danger about him.
Selam knew him by description, though he had never met the man before, and immediately he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
What sort of deal was Hafi getting them into here?
“Hafi,” the man on the divan said. “Good of you to come.” He made a vague sort of waving gesture that almost seemed too lazy to be a dismissal.
But the two girls who were lounging on the divan next to him in silks that were even more sheer than the dancers’ below, leaning their lithe, young bodies up against his bulk on either side of his frame, immediately sprang to their feet and scampered off through a small doorway to the left.
The door they exited through was pulled closed by a muscular man in a fighter’s tunic, who wore a broad, curved blade on his right hip and who looked at Selam with a frankly assessing gaze.
This was not the only fighting man in the room. Now that he was over his initial surprise at seeing the fat man they were dealing with, Selam noted no less than half a dozen guards standing unobtrusively but alertly in all corners of the square, tapestry-bedecked room.
He was liking this situation less and less, and was just about to pull Hafi by the shoulder to make him leave when Hafi instead stepped directly in front of the fat man and made a half-bow to him.
“Acharo,” he said, “thank you for seeing us at this late hour.”
The name confirmed Selam’s suspicions, and he wanted to leave even more strongly. Acharo had a reputation in Tyrash. Seemly men did not do business with him.
Whatever this was, Selam was certain he wanted no part of it.
“I was about to ask whether you brought it, but I see you have,” Acharo said, his gaze leaving Hafi to rest fully upon Selam. And in particular on his left hip. “Farelio’s work, you say? If that holds up, you’ll get every penny.”
Selam froze, and his left hand went to his sword, his thumb wrapping around the metal of the crosspiece to keep it firmly in place within its scabbard.
“Hafi, what is this?” he said, but he already knew, and he turned accusing eyes on his brother.
He didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed. He met Selam’s gaze, and said nothing.
“You would sell our father’s sword, our family legacy, to this…this – ?“ Selam gestured with his right hand toward the grotesque man lounging before them, unable to give words to his thoughts about the merchant.
“I would save our family legacy,” Hafi said, moving a step closer to Selam. “There are less than twenty weapons from Farelio’s forge left in the world. That sword is worth ten times what we owe to Farooq, and Acharo will pay it. With that much, we can secure our family’s future forever!”
“This sword is our family’s future,” Selam spat back. “Father said—“
“I know what father said,” Hafi said with a heat and a spitefulness that Selam had never heard from him before. Then he snorted. “Meaningless words. I’m talking about gold, in our hands. We can buy another sword.”
Selam shook his head, and stepped back from his brother. He lowered into a crouch and his right hand found the grip of his sword, baring the first two inches as he twisted his torso slightly.
Acharo sighed, rolling his little eyes toward the ceiling. “Hafi said you might object,” he said, “but it hardly matters. The arrangements are already made.” He raised his left hand and made a swirling little gesture with it.
The subtlest of sounds from behind announced the movement of a guard that Selam hadn’t seen yet.
Moving from instinct, he twisted to his right, drawing and cutting downward even as he got out of reach of the grasping hand that had been reaching for him.
Selam’s sword met the guard’s arm at the elbow. Blood and forearm both went flying, and the guard stumbled backward against the wall, screaming in sudden anguish as his one remaining hand clamped against the suddenly gushing wound.
Movement erupted all around him.
Guards moved toward him from both sides, drawing steel as they advanced.
Acharo bounded up from his divan with surprising speed and grace for one of his bulk, and headed toward the same door the two girls had vanished through.
And then Selam could spare attention to nothing but the approaching guards.
These first two were clumsy, half trained, and unused to coordinating with each other. Selam easily sidestepped a thrust from the one, and watched as the miss sent the guard stumbling forward into the path of his comrade’s cut.
A chagrined shout from the second guardsman mirrored the first’s cry of anguish as the blow struck him where the neck meets the shoulder.
Then Selam was dancing around the still-falling man and slipping the tip of his blade into the other’s armpit, puncturing lung and heart before moving past him.
Both guardsmen fell behind Selam, and he saw there were only two remaining.
The muscular man who had been eyeing him before was closing the door off to the side, where Acharo had fled, and there were just this pair to face him.
From the looks on their faces, they wished to be just about anywhere else but right there.
Five seconds later, they were off to the next world, and whatever lay in store for them. Hopefully a good reward; despite their fear they were brave men and had met their fate standing up, with all the skill they had.
The fact that their skill was insufficient was not a blemish on their souls; there was always someone better out there.
Breathing deeply but with controlled, steady breaths, Selam turned back around to see Hafi standing where he had been when the confrontation first began.
His eyes were wide, but not from fright or surprise. He had sparred with Selam many times when they were growing up, seen him fight in actual battle before.
Hafi knew Selam’s skill.
No, they were wide with chagrin, anger even.
“You fool!” Hafi spat. “You have ruined us!”
“I? It was not eye who buried himself in debt.”
Hafi shook his head. “No, that was father. I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t hear it. He could do no wrong, in your eyes. The gallant swordsman, the noble warrior.” Hafi’s mouth twisted in disgust. “The spendthrift and the gambler, the whoremonger!”
“The devil you say.” Selam found himself advancing on his brother, fiery anger flaring within his soul.
“It’s true, brother.” Hafi moved to his left, keeping the distance between himself and Selam constant. “He left the business in debt, and it’s been all I can do to stop it from going under, for years. Well I can’t stop it anymore.” His eyes flickered from Selam’s face to the sword, then back. “I could have, though. I am the firstborn. The sword should have been mine by right.”
“You chose a different path. The sword is—“
“I know what the sword is!” Hafi’s shout practically shook the walls. “That’s all I ever heard of growing up, all father ever focused on. And what good did it do?” He shook his head, stopping beside one of the fallen guards. “He focused on it so much, he’s destined us, destined his grandson, to be paupers.”
“Our family has been poor before. We—“
“No,” Hafi said. In one quick, smooth motion he crouched down and grasped the fallen guard’s sword. “You can delude yourself If you like, but I will not live as a pauper. And neither will Misra.”
Then he launched himself at Selam.
He was taken aback, both at the ferocity of his brother’s attack and by the fact that he was making the attack at all. For a heartbeat, Selam stood still in stunned disbelief.
Then he spun to the side, leaving Hafi’s blade to sing through the air where he had been moments before.
Selam backpedalled, keeping his sword up at a guard but no more. “Brother, stop,” he said. “We can—“
Hafi’s feral growl overwhelmed Selam’s words, and again Selam had to dodge aside to avoid being skewered.
But Hafi kept on coming, and Selam kept falling back. From somewhere beneath the sounds of their fight, below the moans of the lone living guard, still clutching at the stump of his right arm, Selam heard shouts and screams from down below in the tavern’s front room.
Word on what had happened up here was spreading. Soon, someone would come up to check what was going on and then—
Selam’s thigh struck something hard, and he glanced down.
He had hit the side of the divan.
He looked back up to see Hafi’s sword coming in again. Without thinking, Selam executed a spiraling parry that ended with Hafi’s sword skittering across the floor off to the left and a bloody gash across his right cheek.
Hafi took a half-step back, his left hand rising to his cheek. He had a look of surprise on his face, like he had never conceived that such a thing could happen.
No less than Selam felt. He lowered his sword. “I’m sorry, brother. I—“
Hafi’s sudden surge forward caught him unaware, and Selam froze again. This time for too long.
Hafi’s hands clamped down around Selam’s on the grip of the sword, and began twisting.
Selam was the stronger of the two of them. It had been thus for years. But now, this night, he found he could not resist the power of his brother’s arms.
Slowly, inexorably, the point of Selam’s sword moved. Twisting and rising until it was pointing upward between them.
Hafi grinned in sudden, mad triumph.
Then he hurled himself onto the point of the sword.
It was like the world went into slow motion. Selam heard himself cry out a denial, but it was from far away, in a distant country.
Hafi’s body slid further down onto his blade, and he saw the pain in his brother’s eyes. But also resolve.
“What will you do now, my brother?” asked Hafi in a hoarse whisper.
Then his eyes glazed over, his breath rattled, and he went limp.
The world returned to normal speed and Selam pushed backwards, pulled the sword from his bother’s body even as his mind screamed at him that this could not really be happening.
The door burst open to the side, and Selam heard Misra’s voice.
The youth broke off when he took in the scene. Selam turned to see his nephew’s eyes grow wide with shock, then grief.
“Misra—“ Selam began, then the youth’s eyes met his, and grief turned to terrible anger.
Selam knew the young man would have a sword and be on him in a heartbeat. He also knew he could easily defeat Misra; he was good, but he had far too much still to learn.
But Selam had seen more than enough blood for one night. Precious blood that he never thought to spill.
He saw a second door off to the left, between a pair of tapestries that had been knocked askew.
He charged through it, then down the passage beyond toward the back of the tavern.
“Coward!” he heard Misra cry from behind him.
He found a set of stairs leading downward, and he followed them.
Selam was still running when dawn began to glimmer, bright and pure, in the sky to the west.
He had been running that direction ever since he emerged from the tavern’s back door, ever since exiting one of Tyrash’s half dozen gates, somehow getting there ahead of the news of the events at The Red Phoenix.
He ran until he had no strength left, but still he continued on.
Now, as the light of the new day bit into his eyes, eyes that could barely see from the tears still flowing from them, Selam finally slowed to a jog, then a walk.
Then he collapsed onto his knees and yelled. He yelled out the anger, the anguish of the night at that glowing orb that was slowly pushing its way up from where it had gone to bed a seeming lifetime ago.
He yelled until his throat was hoarse, then he sank down onto his haunches, and lowered his eyes.
The glint of steel drew his gaze, and he realized with a start that he was still carrying his father’s sword, unsheathed in his right hand.
Sunlight glinted off the grey-blue of the curved, finely honed blade. Off the intricate engraving on the flat of the blade: game animals and constellations and weapons and men and horses all twisted into one mass of art that would have been garish, should have been garish, but somehow was instead sublime.
He looked at all that, and at the red stain of blood still coating the cutting edge in some places.
His brother’s blood, along with others.
Selam raised his hand and drew back his arm, intending to just throw the sword away.
Except at the last second, the newly-dawned sunlight flashed against the pommel, the rounded metal that his father had made him trace with his fingertips countless times when he was a boy.
This was his family’s legacy. His family’s future.
Hafi had not seen that, not believed it. He had strayed from the path, and it had driven him, if not mad, at least to his end.
If Selam were to cast aside his legacy now, after all this. What would he be? And could he ever face his father without shame when they met again in the next world?
He lowered his arm again, letting the sword drop into the grass next to his knee, then he drew a deep breath.
Selam looked over his shoulder, to the east. Toward Tyrash, and the home he had always known.
He could never go back there. Maybe if he had not run, he could have explained. But running as he had…Misra would be past all convincing, and the authorities would have come to the same conclusion his nephew had.
Back was impossible. So it must be forward.
Selam looked back to the west, to the strange lands and unfamiliar kingdoms that lay toward the direction of the sunrise.
Then, slowly and deliberately, he cleaned the blood from his family’s sword and sheathed it.
And he rose, and took his first steps toward those distant lands.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: