Now she had grown too old for daydreams, and morning was time for work. Suslan was dead, his palace leveled in the disorders which had allowed the diabolist Vorgun to seize control of the southern capital. So Grandfather Irakli tended his shashlik stand and whispered stories of the old days and King Suslan's battles against those who made pacts with the malign supernatural.
Ashkhen's stomach growled at the savory odor rising from the skewers of roasting lamb. Dreams of rescue were fine for old men and little girls, but Suslan had died without legitimate issue, having preferred the company of courtesans to his lawful queen. Nikos the Mocker might have settled his fat buttocks on the throne in the northern capital, but his son's battle against the notorious Rakhmor laid bare the hollowness of the father's claim. Traveling merchants still brought tales of the horrors that walked in that valley blighted by the slaying of a diabolist by one who lacked royal blood.
So Ashkhen and her grandfather persevered as best they could in the face of their new ruler's exactations. Like the five cherkessa-clad men now striding in her direction.
"Let's see what they've got."
They grabbed the skewers right off the brazier. Behind her, Grandfather Irakli yelped in protest.
"What's wrong, old man?"
Ashkhen squared her shoulders, looked the leader straight in the eye. "If Grandfather Irakli cannot sell his shashliki because you took them, how will we pay the taxes your own master has levied?"
His lips curled upward. "Eh, boys, she wants us to pay him."
The others tossed empty skewers onto the coals. "Here's your money, old man."
They flung him a shower of copper coins so small as to be more insult than payment. Grandfather Irakli pulled himself up as tall as his age-bent back would permit, a poor reflection of the soldier he'd once been. "Shame be upon you. King Suslan's picked men did not--"
"Suslan is dead, old man." The big man flung Grandfather Irakli to the ground. "Or did you just forget how he died of shame after striking down Mad Zviad the poet in a drunken quarrel?"
The other bullies kicked apart the shashlik stand. The brazier overturned and coals scattered on the cobblestones.
A hand closed around Ashkhen's wrist. Unable to break the thug's hold, she grabbed a shashlik skewer and jabbed it at the cording tendons of her assailant's wrist. With a cry of pain he let go. She bolted.
Where to? The old instincts reasserted themselves, from the days when she was just one weedy girl, daughter of a discarded and despised concubine. Ashkhen darted behind a fruit-seller's stand, ducked under the tables of a potter's wares.
From behind she heard crashes and shouts. Trust strong-arm men to go smashing headlong without a thought to what they hit.
Ashkhen ducked past a broken door dangling from one hinge. A dozen steps into the room beyond, the floor gave way beneath her. She forced herself to relax and roll into the fall as Grandfather Irakli had taught her. Better to land softly than to smash a bone.
Pallid light filtered through the crumbling ceiling overhead. Once it had been an elegant corridor, lined with mosaics. What civil war had not destroyed, age had eroded.
Ashkhen crept along the nearer wall, never putting her weight on her foot until she was sure the floor would support her. The light faded, yet she dared not turn back even as dimness became total darkness.
From behind came a sharp bang. Startled, she bolted only to entangle her feet in an object on the floor and fall headlong.
Ashkhen cursed her panic. What if she'd broken a bone?
Her questing fingers explored the obstacle, found cold metal intricately worked -- the hilt of a sword. She wrapped her hand in the cuff of her sleeve and carefully unsheathed the blade to examine. In such dim light it was hard to judge, but the blade did not appear to have rusted. Smithy-magic? King Suslan had been generous in the distribution of lesser magical blades.
Grandfather Irakli had taught her only the rudiments of sword-work, with a shashlik skewer for a practice weapon, but it might suffice to put her find to good use. She would go down a human being, not a hunted animal.
When she saw light, she thought it a trick of her eyes. She blinked and looked away, but it persisted.
The light grew stronger as she approached. As did the sounds of footsteps, and she realized what a fool she'd been. Those were not random glimmers from some crack, but the lamps of Vorgun's bully-boys.
Ashkhen's hand tightened around the hilt of the sword until the metalwork dug into her palm. The thugs sauntered along with casual arrogance, blades sheathed, lanterns held high. One of them looked directly at her.
"Hello, little girl. Better put away your toy before you hurt yourself."
The sword moved so fast she barely managed to maintain her grip. Steel sliced through wool and flesh alike as though they were so much cheese for khachapuri bread. The big thug dropped his lantern to grab at the snakelike coils sliding from his belly.
The skinny thug drew his sword. His overconfidence went a long way toward his own defeat, particularly when it gave way to panic. Ashkhen had no illusion that any skill on her own part had saved her. Not when the sword moved in her hand, pulled her arm through the proper motions to take him down.
Moments after the second thug fell, Ashkhen started shaking so bad she feared her knees would buckle under her. Rather than sit or fall on the filth that covered the floor, she leaned against the wall and fought to control the nausea twisting her stomach. Her hand shook so bad it sent droplets of blood flying from the sword she still clutched.
Which reminded her clearing mind of Grandfather Irakli's warning that good steel would rust if not cleaned. But with what? She didn't have any rags.
In Grandfather Irakli's stories the heroes often wiped their blades on the clothes of the villains they'd just slain. Which meant she couldn't be much of a hero, since she had carefully avoided even looking at the two sprawled corpses. The thought of actually touching them made her stomach knot in fresh nausea.
Don't look at their faces, Ashkhen told herself. Just focus on the fabric you're using to wipe the blade and you won't have to think of them as people.
The mental trick got her through wiping the sword clean, but as soon as she sheathed it and stood up, she saw the bodies as complete figures again. Servants of Vorgun, a master who would not rest until their killer was found.
She had to get out of here. She picked up the lantern the second thug had set down to fight.
Decayed lavishness gave way to a grimmer decor, heavy on skull motifs. She turned a corner to discover an elderly man standing in a little niche. His eyes were closed and his white hair was a stark contrast to his dark garments.
"Grandfather Irakli!" Ashkhen ran, eager to embrace him, only to encounter a transparent wall. Frustrated, she reversed the sword in her hands, smashed pommel into barrier.
After the first several blows, cracks raced across its surface. Another two blows and the glass shattered to let the man trapped within fall forward.
Startled, Ashkhen grabbed him before he could hit the floor. In that moment she realized her error.
"You aren't Grandfather Irakli." Ashkhen stared at the strange man in his black cherkessa, a sword and a silver-niello dagger at his waist. "Wh-who are you?"
His eyes fluttered and opened, not the dark of the mountain people but pale blue. "Zviad." The name came as a harsh whisper. "Yes, that is my name. Zviad." He reached up to grip her arm, hard enough that his fingers dug into her flesh.
Ashkhen bit her lip against the sudden pain, determined not to cry out lest she draw attention. Zviad? She eyed the three long white braids that fell across the shoulder of his cherkessa, just as he was always portrayed.
But Mad Zviad was dead, slain by King Suslan's own hand in that disastrous last banquet. "Shh. You mustn't say that. If Vorgun's men hear you claim to be King Suslan's slain boon companion--"
The old man laughed. "Vorgun made me, lass."
"Indeed." He levered himself up to a sitting position, brushed from his cherkessa the fine dust of the not-quite-glass that had imprisoned him. "He fancies himself master of life and death, so how better to prove it than to restore the dead to life."
"Necromancy!" Ashkhen flinched away, her stomach lurching with disgust.
"And you are surprised?" The old man rested a hand on the sword at his belt. "I did not ask to be torn from the joys of Paradise and returned to the land of the living. The sooner I can return, the happier I will be, and all the better if I can take him down in the doing."
"And lay the valley to waste?"
"Suslan killed many such sorcerers--"
"But his royal line died with him."
"Perhaps the legitimate line, but not all his seed." Zviad pointed to the sword still in Ashkhen's hand. "Else how can you carry Steelheart unharmed?"
"Steelheart?" Ashkhen stared at the blade. "But it was lost when Nikos the Mocker denounced Suslan as a tyrant and defiled his corpse."
"Lost, perhaps, but not destroyed." Zviad's lips curled upward. "Suslan imbued his sword with magic to give it a will of its own and the ability to protect itself from destruction. No doubt it has grown weary of hiding."
Ashkhen looked down at the sword in her lap with new appreciation. "But I can't, I mean, I'm just the daughter of a--" The word whore stuck in her throat.
"A courtesan discarded and despised after Suslan's end?" There was no judgment in Zviad's gaze, only sympathy. "Suslan was not a man made for faithfulness, and he scattered his seed in many places." He rested his hand on Ashkhen's, careful not to touch the weapon beneath it. "And in your case, it may well be the salvation of us all."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"That you can rid us of Vorgun."
Ashkhen stared at him. "I'm no swordsman. Grandfather Irakli and I played at drill sometimes, in the evening or on rainy days." What words could be adequate to describe her ignorance?
Zviad caught a finger under her chin and turned her face back to him. "But it and your ancestry can be enough, with Steelheart in your hand. What other choice do you have with Vorgun's thugs seeking you?"
Ashkhen recalled her determination to die as a human being, not a hunted animal. "Then we do it."
Together they walked through the corridor, lit only by the guttering lantern. By the time they reached the spiral stairs with its torches in bronze sconces shaped like fists, the flame was dying.
Although Ashkhen's poverty-honed instinct resisted abandoning anything potentially useful, Zviad's tone brooked no dissent.
Up they climbed, turn after turn. They came to a room, perhaps a dozen feet across, the three windows choked by thick curtains. The only illumination came from a skull-shaped brazier.
"His personal chamber lies beyond that door." Zviad gestured with the point of his own sword. "Prepare yourself."
Steelheart slid from its scabbard with a soft sound of eagerness. The vibration ran up Ashkhen's arm until she had to bite back a gasp.
Even as she wondered how they would open that huge iron-bound door, the air shimmered and solidified. Before them stood a tall man dressed in a long black robe covered with intricate embroideries of arcane symbols. At first glance the emblems appeared random, until the occult patterns tugged at Ashkhen's mind and brought her gorge to her throat.
"So you have found yourself an escape, Zviad." Vorgun's voice twisted with mockery. "Have you changed your mind about serving me?"
Ashkhen almost shouted in defiance, then realized Zviad's plan -- to distract Vorgun's attention long enough that she might actually have some chance of getting inside his guard. Skilled as Zviad might be with a blade, he dared not strike the killing blow. That was hers alone.
Assuming he's right about Steelheart, and my being Suslan's get.
Zviad stood straight and tall. "You know I serve only my sovereign and his lawful heirs."
"Suslan is dead and his line with him." Vorgun raised his hands. The rings upon his knobby fingers glowed so bright Ashkhen had to look away.
Zviad jerked like a man struck by lightning. From his lips came a scream, thin, inhuman.
Now's my chance. Although it took all her discipline not to become transfixed with horror at Zviad's agony, she edged around the central brazier to approach the diabolist from behind.
She was almost within stabbing reach of him when the brazier crackled. A gout of smoke took form. "Do you think my master's back unguarded?" Sulfurous fumes issued from the demon's mouth and nostrils.
Ashkhen stopped to look, and in doing so allowed the demon to reach her. Hot talons raked along her forearm and it was all she could do to keep from dropping Steelheart. She bit her lip so hard it bled.
"Ashkhen, no!" In the moment Vorgun's attention was off him, Zviad flung himself at the brazier.
Coals flew in all directions. Smoke rose, too diffuse for the demon to retake tangible form.
"You fool. I could have made you great." At Vorgun's gesture, flames blazed around Zviad.
This time Ashkhen did not allow herself to be distracted by his screams of agony. She charged, Steelheart held ahead of her, seeing only the small area of Vorgun's belly just under the ribcage.
It took all the strength of her injured arm to drive the sword home. Vorgun raised his arms in a magical gesture. Knowing she dared not let him complete it, Ashkhen threw her shoulder against him.
Although mighty in the dark arts, Vorgun remained an old man, time-worn and frail. Ashkhen's attack overbalanced him and he fell to the floor, among the still-sizzling coals. His robe caught fire.
"Cut his head off." Zviad's voice was a harsh croak, full of pain. "It's the only way to make sure."
Ashkhen took Steelheart in both hands and brought it down upon Vorgun's neck. The first two blows went awry and only chopped into the flesh of his throat and shoulder. The third fell true, cleaved flesh and bone. The old man's head rolled away.
Ashkhen flinched from the sight, then remembered her companion. Mad Zviad lay sprawled upon the floor, cherkessa burned in a dozen places so badly the reddened flesh could be seen through it. Ashkhen ran to him.
He gestured her away. "Leave me here."
"With Vorgun dead, the binding spells on his tower will fail. Save yourself."
"I'm not leaving you here." Ashkhen grabbed Zviad up and with all her remaining strength dragged him over to the stairs.
How she made it down she never knew. It was a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, of continuing even when every muscle and joint in her body screamed for relief. Even as stones fell from their places all around her, she did not let go of her burden.
The walls fell away on either side, and she scrambled down a ramp of rubble to the chaos that recently had been a marketplace. Strength spent, Ashkhen slid to the ground, Zviad beside her.
Ashkhen stared at her empty hands. "I-I lost Steelheart"
"One does not lose such a blade as Steelheart. Rather, it has left you, now that you no longer have need of it." Zviad gave her a wry smile, full of pain. "In the meantime, we have freed the land of a waking nightmare."
He closed his eyes and was still. His resurrected body shimmered with magical light and dissolved into the dust from which it had been conjured.
Ashkhen looked up at the billows of smoke where Vorgun's tower had stood; around at the ordinary people creeping forth into their new freedom. Had she any right to feel as though all of her effort had been for naught, simply because of what she herself had lost?
© Leigh Kimmel 2012
Leigh Kimmel has numerous short stories published in genre anthologies and periodicals, most recently "Red Star, Yellow Sign" in Historical Lovecraft, "The Damnable Asteroid" in Future Lovecraft, and "Daddy's Girl" in Daily Science Fiction. Her short story "Tell Me a Story" will be appeared in the anthology Rocket Science in April, 2012.