His mare had injured her foot stepping on a nasty thorn so it was slow going down the quiet tree lined road. Had he been mounted he may not have noticed the small details: dark patches of old dried blood, a glint caught by the sun in the shadow of the underbrush which proved to be an army issue saber, scars in the trees. A battle then, or an ambush.
But not a recent one. Months ago the army had swept through, stamping out the pretender king’s forces. Peace had settled over the land, and while it was still fragile it was good enough for a sellsword like himself.
He’d spent most of the war in employ of various landowners and common folk protecting their wares and homes from deserters or cutthroat soldiers, at least when they had the coin to spare. It wasn’t well paying work but there wasn’t much else to do aside from join up, and it was more honest than his usual fare. Soldiering was no life for him, he was somewhat solitary by nature and at least liked the idea of refusing work even if it was more often than not a luxury he couldn’t afford.
While he’d be out of a line of work without any conflict the mass destruction wrought by a war was bad for business. What he needed was the more specific and singular violence brought about by everyday troubles: a bandit who needed driving out, a private grievance between rivals settled or even better, the easy money of boring old bodyguard work.
Seeing the ghostly traces of war here was a reminder of how recent it all was. Maybe that was why he lingered.
Ned wasn't sure how he even noticed the small stone statue much less what inspired him to pick it up but here he was turning it over in his palm. It was cool to the touch despite lying in the sun unprotected. The figure was crudely carved from an unremarkable bit of stone by an unskilled hand, the face and features indistinct. Whether it was a saint or some old heathen god he did not know, such things weren't in his realm of expertise. He felt it was somewhat hypocritical to ask for protection from saints considering most folk he encountered needed protecting from him.
Piece of junk, he thought to toss it back into the dirt even as he pocketed the thing and continued on his way. His fingers dipped into the pocket to touch it almost unconsciously as he travelled down the road.
His quarry found him first, an unfortunate inconvenience with his mare hobbled. She was still spry enough to get away in a pinch but he didn’t relish what the added strain would do to her injured foot. She was a reliable beast and even if she’d been a nag he had no funds to replace her.
There were five of them, three more than he had been contracted to cut down. Which meant either he’d been wrong, Ned’s reputation had preceded him or his employer had sent him into a trap. It didn’t matter much either way, he supposed, considering his present circumstances.
“That swine Palmer only parted with enough coin for one sellsword? I almost feel insulted,” one of them sneered. “But I feel more sorry for your bad luck, friend.”
“I was only paid to cut down Fox and his right hand. I’ve got no quarrel with the rest of you if you don’t mind clearing off.”
The sneerer let out an ugly laugh. Fox he presumed. “There’s only one man who’ll be cut down today.”
He gave a curt tilt of the chin to his comrades who started to circle around Ned. He wasn’t confident of his odds against this many even with an advantage but if they got him trapped that’d be him done for.
With a sigh he drew his blade. Two of the circlers stayed well out of his range but the third was clearly eager for blood. Ned marked the other two and waited for the moment to strike. The moment the third man stepped into swinging range Ned lashed out, making his mark with a deep bite into the man’s sword arm. He dropped it with a shriek and Ned took the moment of distraction to swing around to the other two.
The one to his left got her sword up but not in time to parry properly and his swing came down on her hard. He shoved against their crossed swords to topple her and then kicked out to knock her off her feet. She went to the ground flailing but when stepped forward to disarm her the other came in for a killing blow at his open back.
He twisted around to catch it but wasn’t fast enough, she’d get him badly enough if she didn’t kill him outright. That was when he felt it, a cold clamp on his arm and shoulder that shoved him around in a spin and pulled his sword up just enough to glance the blow. The saber still bit into his arm but the cut was shallow and, more importantly, he now had an opening to strike back.
He swung up with all of his force, a brutal slash up through her torso that caught in her jaw. She went down screaming, clutching at her guts and chin.
Just as he turned again to take stock he felt another cold pull and the searing pain of a bolt lodging into his shoulder.
An appreciative whistle rang out from his right and he whirled around to see the two remaining adversaries, his presumed quarry, watching the show. Fox levelled a small crossbow at Ned’s forehead while the other had drawn his sword. Not good.
“You’ve earned him his money’s worth, I’ll give you that. I’d offer to take on your contract, but the mess you made of my merry band must be answered for.”
Ned said nothing. He could throw his sword but not fast enough to dodge another bolt and the one that already pinioned his shoulder was numbing his arm.
“Kill….” He felt an icy breath in his ear and a cool numbing on the pain in his shoulder. Cold fingers curled around his own.
Easy for you to say, he thought with a snort. But whatever the thing was, it was right, it was kill or be killed.
Quickly as he could, he pulled back and launched his sword at the pair of men. A chill breeze rushed down his arm and buoyed the sword, giving it the range of a spear. Fox and his man yelped. The crossbow went off but he was off balance and it flew harmlessly into the tree line. Ned took his moment and rushed forward towards Fox’s right hand. He reached out, getting a grip on the man’s sword arm and trying to pull the thing free. The man was a bandit’s right hand with good reason and didn’t go down so easily. Ned’s head was spinning, he could barely feel his sword arm. He had to get this done.
He kicked the man in the groin, slamming into him enough to knock him down when he doubled over and then stomped on his wrist until his grip on the sword loosened. Ned dove to pick it up and whirled around to his feet, panting heavily, the need for survival pounding through his veins and in his ears.
Fox was standing at the edge of the tree line, clearly he’d taken the time to retreat for a better second shot and was trying to load a bolt. Ned watched dumbfounded for a moment as the bolt Fox pulled went flying out of his hand and clattered down on the road side like someone had knocked it away.
That was his chance, and he would not waste it. With a road Ned surged forward, gripping the unfamiliar blade awkwardly in both hands to keep it steady and drove it straight into Fox, the force pushing him back so he was pinned to the tree like the world’s shittiest butterfly.
Ned stayed where he was for the moment, leaning on the stuck sword, panting heavily. He still had a few to take care of before he was done. There was a soothing cold breath on the back of his neck and he closed his eyes. Just for a moment, just to catch his bearing.
Afterwards, once he’d stripped off a strip of skin tattooed with a curled fox from his mark’s upper arm and dug out shallow graves for the bodies, he sat on a rock on the roadside turning over the statue in his fingers. He didn’t feel any more cold fingers and hadn’t heard any more chilling whispers in his ear but there was something of an awareness about the thing, like something was watching him from inside of it.
Maybe it would be best to leave it here where he’d found it. He didn’t know much about saints or spirits or whatever it was but at the very least the thing was blood thirsty and probably not a complication he needed in his life.
On the other hand, he would be dead if it hadn’t intervened. It hadn’t done him any harm and if all it wanted in return was to satisfy some desire to wreak death, well, that was all in a day’s work for Ned.
He stuffed it back into his pocket and carried on his journey. There wasn’t much light left but even he felt that it was a bit grim to make camp right next to the graves, and he needed to get somewhere near running water to tend to his wounds.
It took him another two days to reach a settlement large enough to get his mare tended to, get himself re-supplied, and post a letter to his employer with the patch of skin as proof and a note indicating where to send the rest of his fee. Then he took a room at an inn for a few nights so he could rest up a bit and look for new work once the bolt wound healed up enough to hold his sword.
He had just finished a satisfyingly greasy lunch at a public house and was washing it down with cheap beer when he thought of the statue and those cold hands again for the first time since the job.
He took the thing out of the pocket he’d been stashing it in and turned it over. This town wasn’t any grand urban center or pilgrimage site but he’d spotted little shrines with similar statues around town. Someone here would likely know better than him at any rate and he had to start somewhere.
When the serving girl came around again to top him up he showed her the statue.
“Don’t recognize it, sorry hon.” She handed it back hastily after giving it a once over, rubbing her fingers together as if they were chilled by its touch.
“Anyone around here who might be able to?”
“Hmm, Mother Werner might. She’s ordained but she’s got wild ideas in her head about the old gods and knows almost everything as far as I can tell. If anyone around here would know it’s her.”
He thanked the girl, settled his bill with a few coins from his near empty purse and set off to find the old priest. She lived outside of the settlement up on a hill that overlooked the township. The building was more of an extension of the hillside itself than a proper place of worship, stone and dark wood planks making up a rounded hovel covered in a mossy cap.
Smoke rose out of the chimney so he knocked.
“Come in, come in” a raspy voice called faintly through the door. The inside was an open chamber, brighter than he had thought it would be thanks to a large hole in the roof letting in the afternoon sun. He heard a shuffling from off to the right and soon a figure emerged through a creaking door.
The old woman was dressed in the dark cossack of a priest, but around her neck were dozens of strings of necklaces all hung with small stone statues and votives and her hair was wild and unkempt. If he hadn’t been told of her profession he would have taken her for a wild hermit or the town loony.
She squinted at him and he stepped into the light to let her get a better look.
“You’re not from around here.”
“No Mother, just passing through. I’ve come in from the village, they told me you might be able to help me identify this thing.”
He retrieved the statue from his pocket and held it out. She shuffled closer to inspect but didn’t move to take it, so he held it up and turned it around for her.
She frowned, pulling at her necklaces, picking up a pendant now and again to compare it against.
“It looks to be a statue of Saint Benedict, though not a style I’ve seen before. An amateur’s work and one with a poor hand. You’d be lucky if the saint heard any prayer through this thing at all. I can offer you a better one if you’d like.”
“I’m not much of a devotee of any saint, Mother. The thing is there’s something connected to it and I don’t think it’s anything holy.” He told her how he had found it and what he had experienced on the road, skimming over the exact circumstances lest she think he had brought the ill spirited thing on himself. Her expression grew more troubled as she listened.
She instructed him to wait and retreated to a different back room. Ned wondered if the hillside was dug out like a warren, he could vividly picture her shuffling through the dark tunnels covered in soot. At length she returned with a heavy looking tome. There were trails of dust coating her robes where she held it against her, and a cloud of it danced in a flurry through the sunlight when she set it down.
He waited patiently, turning the statue over in his hand, thumb tracing the ridges. The gesture had already become a habit. At last she closed the book with a heavy sigh.
“You’d best throw that thing away my boy.”
He felt icy claws grip his forearm where he held the statue, “I told you I’m not looking to become a devotee of Saint Benedict.”
She shook her head.
“That thing is no votive for a saint. Whoever carved it did it to trap something in, not to create a connection. Saint Benedict is a saint of protection, particularly of protection against evil spirits and curses. Whoever they were, they may have thought that the statue would be able to contain it. It seems as though they were half right from what you have told me.”
“If you leave it here with me I will bury it so that it won’t cause any trouble,” The fingers bit in deeper. “The longer you carry it with you the more it will become attached. If it’s not already too late, it might not let you get away.”
Ned considered her offer and considered the desperate thing clinging to his arm. Numbing cold was spreading through the limb. Handing it over was the smart thing to do. But he thought of how he found it, abandoned on the road. It seemed pathetic now that he knew it wasn’t just a hunk of stone but that something living was trapped inside of it. Or something that could think and feel at any rate.
He shook his head and the fingers gentled their vice like grip but didn’t let go. The old priest started to protest, but he cut her off. “Thank you for the warning. I think I’ll hang onto it a while longer.”
She frowned but saw that his decision was made and said nothing more. She bade him farewell with a sigh, pulling off a true statue of Saint Benedict and setting it on the shrine to offer up a prayer of protection for him. The gesture was kind, but he wasn’t sure that he needed it.
By the time he’d secured another contract, the bolt wound had all but healed. Even if it hadn’t he would have taken on the job anyway; he was down to his last coins and the rest of his payment hadn’t arrived. It often didn’t, which was why he took half up front, but it was always worth trying. He hoped that his rotten luck with money offered some solace to the souls of Fox and his band.
The job wasn’t the type he liked to take, an escort under the cover of night, and he was only one of several hired swords pulled in. A local merchant's daughter was setting off to set up a new shop in a larger town and one of her father’s wealthier rivals took exception to losing out the contract so she planned to flee with her wares under the cover of night. That was fair enough but the group was rag tag, half towners and half drifters like himself. They were sparsely equipped and underprepared and no one knew what to expect of anyone else’s capabilities so it was anyone’s guess how they’d managed under an assault. Tensions in the group were high even before setting out. Everyone knew the danger they were in.
He had just started to hope that the occasional bickering and bump in the road would be the most action they’d see when the arrows rained down. Whatever attempts their employer had made to keep this flight under the secrecy of darkness had been thwarted and they were out armed and outmanned.
After a first volley of arrows men in study leather armor fell on them, easily cutting down farmers and the less experienced sellswords. Ned saw out of the corner of his eye that the merchant's daughter had snuck out of the carriage and was well concealed in the shadows under it, knife in hand. When one of the armed men came up to the carriage to look for her she snaked out to cut through his tendons.
Smart girl. He had no more time to watch for her though as a group of men descended on him. He drew his sword and he sent out a silent prayer to the thing living in the statue. I’ll give you your due in blood if you keep me alive.
Later as he lay on the cold dirt, bleeding heavily from his side and stinging from a dozen other small cuts but blessedly alive, he felt a cool hand stroking his forehead and a more violent tug as warmer hands hauled him roughly up and onto the back of a cart. He heard the faint bark of a high pitched voice. Somehow, they’d survived. He hoped that meant he’d get paid.
He woke up some time later in an unfamiliar room. He could tell by the impersonal touch and smell of sick that he was in a small hospital. When he sat up with a groan, an acolyte hurried over to push him back down. His protest died on his lips and he closed his eyes again, that same cool hand stroking his fevered brow and pressing cool lips against it.
When he awoke again there was someone sitting by his bedside. At first he thought it must be the spirit, knowing the thing had watched over him in his sleep, but when his eyes came into focus he saw it was the merchant's daughter. She had a nasty cut on her forehead but otherwise looked no worse for wear.
“Is now a good time for me to collect the rest of my fee?” He croaked.
She snorted but then dropped a coin purse on his bed, near enough his hand for him to reach it. It was heavier than it should have been.
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in taking on a long term contract?”
Ned considered it. Steady and consistent coin was always a temptation, but he shook his head. “Not the life for me I’m afraid. I can’t stay put for any length of time. In fact I think I’ve been in this bed too long already.”
“That’s a shame. You fought like you were guided by the very arm of Saint Georgia herself out there. Without you I don’t think I would have made it out alive.”
“I think if the rest of us had fallen you’d have sneaked off wearing a dead man’s leathers and been free anyway.”
She smirked. “True, but I’d have lost all my cargo and would have had to set up shop on the wrong foot. Very inconvenient.”
That explained the heavy coin purse. “I’ll be sure to come around again if I’m looking for work.”
“You do that then.”
She nodded once and then was up and gone, their business concluded. He appreciated her efficiency and directness, and made a note to find out where he was and to swing back around this way in the future. A generous employer was a line worth keeping open. A smarter man would have stayed but Ned wasn’t a complete fool.
There was some protest from the acolytes when he hauled himself out of the cramped cot and gathered his things to leave. His side ached and he was still fevered but he hated being surrounded by so many sickly people and being hovered over and prodded at so he went on his way. His mare was stabled nearby, she’d been well pampered and was almost reluctant to leave with him. He couldn’t blame her but he wasn’t wasting his windfall on a new horse, so he tempted her away with a carrot and soon she was as happy to be moving as he was.
By midday, the fever had flared up enough that he stopped early to set up his camp, crawled into his tent and passed out.
Ned was in a fog of half sleep when he felt cool fingers running over him. They felt nice on his fevered and overheated body and he let out an appreciative groan. Encouraged, the fingers moved lower, trailing down his torso. At some point in his fever haze he’d stripped down.
He let out a yelp when they enclosed around his length. The hands retreated immediately.
“Saints above, you can’t just stick your icy mitts on a fellow’s prick like that!”
He was wide awake now. The silence in the tent was thick with tension. Absurdly, he felt bad for admonishing the thing. Maybe it didn’t know how cold its touch was.
“Look…” He began uncertainly. Look what? Look he wasn’t interested in getting felt up by some mysterious likely malevolent spirit? That he didn’t want that kind of relationship? Frankly he wasn’t sure that that was true. It had been a long time since he’d had relief by any touch but his own. Mostly because he had found he didn’t much like the, well, the messiness of it. He liked to look sure, he admired a well formed figure as much as anyone, but the rest? Other people’s sweat and fluids, the press of flesh, the awkwardness of trying to arrange limbs, the wrong angles, the false starts. Touching their bodies just felt like work and if he was going to do work he’d rather it be with his other sword and get coin for it. He was much better at it.
This thing though, this spirit or ghost or whatever it was, had no form that needed tending to. He could feel its touch but not touch it in turn and certainly there was no mess to worry about except his own. They got on well enough, which maybe didn’t matter so much for an incorporeal hand on his prick but it meant something to him. Well, what the hell. Why not.
“Look,” he tried again. “Is there any way you can, I don’t know, heat up a bit?”
The silence was still heavy but he felt a prickle of alertness from the spirit, like a nervous animal coming out to check if the coast was clear. He wondered if the more time they spent together the more he’d attune to the spirit’s moods. He found the idea oddly reassuring.
“It’s not the touching I mind, just the temperature,” he added, “So if you could…”
There was a different tension in the air now, the electricity of an excited thrum. A hand pressed to his chest again, still cool, but as it rested there the thrum continued, and slowly the touch warmed.
“Oh, that’s perfect,” Ned sighed contentedly, his body rising to attention in anticipation of the act. A second hand joined and repeated the spirit’s earlier ministrations with more urgency.
Soon a pleasant warmth closed around his prick, and he moaned an encouragement, thrusting slightly into the tight pressure.
The hands were curled tight, just right, and stroked him experimentally, finding the rhythm that he wanted then launching into it with enthusiasm. Ned closed his eyes, relishing the sensation. It was perfect, exactly what he needed. Perhaps this was madness but it felt so right he didn’t care.
Soon he had no more time for reflection, his climax rushed over him with a groan.
As his breathing evened, he cracked an eye to inspect himself. There was no ghostly apparition or solid form sharing the space with him. Next time he’d like to watch it happen but for now he was too blissed out to care. The spirit also seemed content, it was quiet now but the same satisfied silence that Ned shared. Whether it was from the act or an exhaustion from whatever energy it took to heat itself up he didn’t know. Another question for the future.
He closed his eyes and drifted into a deep and satisfied sleep.
His fever had broken sometime in the night and though the assistance the spirit offered didn’t extend to healing wounds he still felt better for the deep sleep and helping hand despite the sting in his side when he awoke the next morning. His mare knickered happily when he emerged and he tended to her with a spring in his step and then took his time packing up his tent.
Feeling somewhat embarrassed now that he had no other task to occupy him, he left his mare and kit behind and walked to a small clearing of stones. He took out the statue and set it on one stone then took his own seat on another across from it. Whatever its form, the spirit was larger and more human shaped than the small statue, but as stupid as he might look if anyone happened upon him, he felt better having something like a face to face conversation.
“That old priest said you were trouble and I should throw you away.”
Ned felt a slight chill in his bones, the spirit making its displeasure known.
“But I think it’s safe to say that I make plenty of trouble all on my own, and I think you and I get on pretty well. You’re pretty handy with, well-” he felt the color rise in his cheeks but pressed on, “-many things. And I don’t understand what you need or why you hang around, but if it’s just because you have no choice and would rather be rid of me, I’d like to know it now. I’m not much interested in a partnership that’s been forced.”
The spirit hadn’t been chatty with him, he knew it could speak but it seemed to prefer touch to talk. That was all fine for fighting or fucking but he needed words now. Or at least something more like a solid confirmation.
“I don’t know what happened with the last person who held you,” the thing hissed. “Or how to free you, or frankly if freeing you is really a thing I ought to be considering doing. But you’re here with me now and if you’ll have me, I’m yours.”
Well, that was the kind of embarrassing slop he never thought he’d say. Maybe the fever hadn’t broken after all.
The spirit was silent, the air tense long enough for Ned to start wondering what the hell he’d been thinking making such a proposition. But then he felt tentative hands curl around his waist, a cool press like a body against his, all over him. Almost like something was sitting in his lap and pressed up against his back at the same time. He tilted his chin up, guessing at the angle and felt a cool press on his mouth, the pressure real and solid even though all he could see was the blue sky in front of him. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the sensation, the hands and mouth warming up as it moved, becoming more urgent.
“Ned…Ned...” it hissed his name gently between touches and kisses. It was ridiculous, and it felt wonderful, and he supposed he had his answer.