The Legend of Red Storm
There were two men following Porta and she slowed her pace, allowing them to draw closer as she followed the muddy woodland path. Suppressing a smile, she knew their deaths would come swiftly at her blade. At the last village she had flashed enough gold coin to get noticed and it had taken less than five pieces before the two men had targeted her. They had looked her over with desperate and greedy eyes, failing to contain their interest. From the moment she had entered the tavern, Porta had been noticed thanks to her blood red hair and sharp green eyes.
The legends always spoke of her long red hair.
A branch snapped beneath a booted foot and a bird squawked, flying from the trees to the right. They were clumsy, Porta noticed, and amateurish at best. Killing them would be no challenge and she sighed, wondering when things had got so easy it was a bore. In truth the fun had long gone and yet she yearned for the feel of death again, wanting to hold close that sense of mortality. There was no danger when you knew the place you would die.
And this was not the place.
Boring of the game, Porta purposefully stumbled and slid on the muddy path, dropping to one knee. The chance for her stalkers was handed to them and they took it. They leapt from the trees, swords drawn and glinting coldly in the fading light of day. As they both closed in on Porta, she sprung up and drew her sword. Spinning round, she ducked to the side and avoided the downward cut of her attacker. Righting herself, Porta swung her sword in time to block the second swing. Her hand shot out and grabbed the hand of the second man and she looked into his straining eyes as he tried his best to pull away his sword arm. With a flick of her wrist and the sweep of a foot, she knocked him to the floor. The first man righted himself and took another swing with his sword, but Porta’s boot slammed into his stomach. Winded, he fell backwards, landing on his backside in the mud.
“Is this the best you boys can manage?” Porta laughed. “Where’s the spirit?”
The two men looked at each other, confused. They had thought she would be an easy target, Porta mused, but they had made the fatal flaw of under estimating. Probably figured they would be deciding who would rape her first by now. Even though she was not a vain woman, Porta thought that she would have been better than any woman these two idiots would be able to have. If she was lucky, she could finish with these two bumbling fools and be at the next town before night fell.
“Well come on then!” Porta shouted, swinging her sword in one hand, enjoying the deathly swoosh it made as it cut the air.
Silent words passed between the two men. Finally, the younger one spoke, his voice tinged with anger. “Keep your gold, woman; I can see you’d be more trouble than it’s worth.” He sheathed his sword, shaking his head as he wandered back down the path again.
Porta looked at the older man who regarded her with some amusement. “Looks like your friend ran out on you; just us then?”
The man shrugged, getting to his feet and brushing himself down. He pulled a flask from inside his cloak and took a swig from it, then offered it to Porta. “The right number for a drink, do you not think?”
Laughing, Porta sheathed her sword and took the offered drink, swigging deeply from it. The drink burned as it went down, warming every part of her. “’Tis a cheap brew, but I thank you. For that I will let you live to thieve another day.”
“You should be more suspicious; that drink is a deadly poison and I have the remedy. It is yours for all the gold you are carrying.”
The game had gotten interesting. She looked the man up and down, taking in his ragged appearance, his frayed grey cloak and leather boots with holes. His eyes were weary, his face weathered and thin as though it had been some days since his last good meal. But he was also a liar. “’Tis a good bluff, old man, but I am not that easily defeated.” She put her hood up and went to leave. “I know where I will die, and this is not the place.”
As Porta headed back along the path, the old man called out behind her. “How can any mortal know such a thing?”
Without glancing back, Porta called out, “Because I dream about it every night.” As an afterthought, she tossed two gold coins over her shoulder and they landed in the mud. “You look like you could do with it more than me.”
“I know you!” The old man shouted.
Porta stopped, turned and raised an eyebrow at the man. “Then who am I?”
The man scooped the gold coins from the mud, cleaning them on his cloak. “I heard songs sung about you. They say you faced fifty men on the fields of Calama and left none standing. They say not a flower grows in that field now.”
“It was actually thirty men,” Porta corrected. “And I always leave at least one man to pass on my tale. What else have you heard?”
“That you stalk Death, hunting him to the end of the world. Your hair becomes redder with each man you defeat and your generosity to the poor is a light in these dark times. You are Red Storm, the bane of kings.”
So the tales had made it this far north; she was surprised at that. “I have not gone by that name in a long time. You can call me Porta. What is your name, thief?”
A look of satisfaction spread across the old man’s face and he gave a smile, showing filthy teeth. “My name is Axel.” He bowed, keeping his eyes fixed on Porta, though she noticed it lingered upon the money pouch tied to her belt. His look of greed repulsed her and she turned to go. “Wait! Let me come with you? I used to be a bard before I fell on hard times; I will write you new songs.”
Pausing, Porta looked at the desperation in Axel’s eyes, though she had already given him enough gold to buy food for a month. Was there perhaps a hint of admiration in his eyes? Had the legend of Red Storm inspired him in some small way as he stole his way through life? It was doubtful, yet he had held Porta’s attention and the road had been a lonely place. “Why do I need new songs?”
Axel shrugged. “I know songs and tales are not the reality of things. Yet they make a person epic, a legend in their own life.”
“I do not wish to be a legend.”
“But legends never die.” Axel edged a step closer, licking his lips, snake like.
“A moment ago you would have killed me.” She sighed. “But I could do with some entertainment. You can travel with me and write your songs until I get bored.” She paused, added, “Or until you try and steal my gold, which you will.”
Axel rubbed his hands together and scurried over to Porta. “You will not regret this. I will compose a song so epic that entire armies will surrender as soon as they see you.”
They continued on down the path as rain began to fall. The light was fading fast and Porta noticed the fear within Axel’s eyes as he glanced into the shadows of the woods. Yet he sung every song written about Red Storm, though his voice was somewhat out of tune. Perhaps it was the fear of what lurked within the woods that tainted the tune, but Porta began to doubt he was really a bard and instead was just a thief who saw an opportunity. Yet the fear she sensed from the man filled her with joy and she tried to imagine what it must be like to have a fear of death. One day, she thought idly, I will catch you up and dance with you, taker of souls; but you shall never take me. At last Axel finished singing and fell silent.
“Is that every song you know of me? I thought you would have heard more.”
Axel looked hurt. “There are more songs? I thought I had learnt every single one.”
Porta stared ahead, quickening the pace as the cold of night began to chill her. “You left out the song where I fought the old witch of the wilds, cutting her head clean off.”
Axel scratched his chin thoughtfully. “That does not sound so epic, killing an old woman.”
“Well, when you put it like that, I suppose ‘tis rather dull. As were most of the real deeds, yet the tale is told over and over and people keep adding to it. Then the bards go and write something based on a tale that has outgrown itself. Look at me, Axel, and what do you see?”
Axel stared into Porta’s green eyes, and then travelled down her body. “I see a hero, a living legend.” Blushing, he added, “And a beautiful woman.”
That brought a moment of vanity to Porta’s heart. “Save your flirtatious talk, for I am not interested. But what you say about me being a legend is a fancy. There are no true heroes in life, no epic battles and certainly no one worthy of legend.” As she spoke the words, she could hear the bitterness contained in them. “I do what I do out of hunger. There is no danger of death, because I have never been in the right place.”
“Because of your dream?”
“Aye, because my childhood was ripped from me the day I dreamt of how I will die and I have been dreaming it ever since.”
The rain fell heavily and Axel tried to wrap his cloak around him, but it provided little protection. Huffing, he gave up, his face glum. “You are a seer then?”
“Alas, the sight only shows me death and just my own. I know not exactly when or where, but when the time comes, I will recognise it and I will dance with death again.” She stopped and glared at Axel. “And when it comes, I shall be on my own, no companion nor friend.”
“Tell me of the dream?”
Grunting, Porta turned away and wrapped her cloak tightly around herself. “That is none of your business.” She grimaced at the harshness of her words, knowing why she had never made a friend in this life. Often people would recognise her to be one legend or the other and be crushed when their hero was not the person sung about, or told around fires at night. But it was no concern of Porta’s, or at least it had not been. This terrible thief come even more terrible bard had got to her for some reason. Perhaps she just felt sorry for him, but his offer for companionship had hit something deep inside she had thought was buried. Axel was not someone she would have ever considered befriending, but the need for a friend had grown stronger over the last year.
They continued on in silence, Axel singing more Red Storm songs under his breath. A strange feeling invaded Porta and she found herself looking into shadows, watching for movement within the darkness that began to gather around them. Yet this was not the place, and she knew she would be safe. As they trudged through the mud, Porta thought about the dream and quickened her pace. Always the same, she would be in a crowded inn, sat on a table on her own and staring into her mug where her reflection looked back at her. When she looked up, she would suddenly feel alone, isolated from everyone. The inn looked like every other inn she had ever stayed in, but she noticed the great skull of a dragon hanging above the bar, its gaping mouth full of sharp teeth that seemed to snap at her. The empty eye sockets stared at her, accusing her.
She sipped her drink, but the assassin had slid up silently behind her and the cold press of steel on her neck caused her to stiffen. A voice whispered in her ear, “I have waited many years for this moment. Turn and look into the face of the man who kills Red Storm.”
Turning, she saw a hate filled face, a right eye missing with a scar cutting down the entire face. Before she could speak, there was a sudden sting in her neck and her chest became wet. The assassin slipped quietly into the crowd and Porta held her hand to her neck, looking down at her bloody fingers. The blood streamed down her front and she staggered to her feet, scared as the life drained from her. She reached out for help, but people pulled away from her, their faces disinterested. She wanted to speak, to shout curses at those who did nothing to help, but her words came out as a gurgle. Dropping to her knees, she knew she was dying and as her vision faded, the last thing she saw was the dragon skull, laughing at her.
And each time she would wake from the dream, gasping for air.
“Beware the dragon that grins,” Porta muttered under her breath.
Axel looked at her. “Huh?”
With her heart pounding, Porta turned to Axel, staring wide eyed at him. “Am I known around these parts as Red Storm?”
Axel nodded. “Aye, you are the Legend of the Red Storm: the woman with hair as red as blood and the fury of a storm.”
Porta’s heart thumped in her chest as she wondered if she had found the place of her death. The assassin in her dream had known her as Red Storm, too. For a moment she felt her mortality. But instead of excitement, she feared. So after all these years of trying to find that thrill of being close to death, she found herself shying away from it. The thought amused her and she chuckled. When they came to the edge of the forest, they stopped and looked down into the valley below them where they spied a town through the heavy rain.
“What is the town called?” But she knew the answer before he spoke it.
“Dragon’s End,” Axel said. “They say the last of the dragons was slain there.”
There was no fear of death, if you knew the place you would die.
And this was the place. As she had imagined, Porta recognised the place instantly. Down in the town was an inn with a dragon skull above the bar. And somewhere around would be the assassin, perhaps skilfully hunting her through the woods and using the two idiots to help cover his tracks. So by turning away, she could avoid the fate and live another day, perhaps forever now she knew where it was.
“Tell me, Axel,” Porta said, “Do you fear death?”
Axel wiped the rain from his eyes and his teeth chattered in the cold. Thunder rumbled in the distance. “Don’t we all?”
“Would you run from death if you had the chance?”
Axel sniffed. “I would not even look back as I ran as fast as I could. Why do you ask?”
Looking away from Axel, Porta stared back down at Dragon’s End. The night was upon them and the forest would be too dark to follow without the aid of a full moon. There was certainly no place to set up camp in this storm, either. If they turned back, she doubted that Axel would survive the night and he went into a fit of coughs which confirmed it for her. In the dream she had been drinking alone, but now she had a companion. What if fate could be changed after all, then the curse knowing her death would at last be lifted. Besides, it would be an incredible rush of danger.
“Come on, Axel, I need a drink and a bed for the night.”
Axel wrapped his arms around himself and happily headed down into the valley. Porta grabbed him firmly by the arm, pulling him back. “What was that for?”
“You will not leave my side for one moment; do you understand?”
Axel scratched the back of his neck. “You wish to share a bed with old Axel?”
Disgusted, Porta pushed the old letch away. “Only in your dreams.”
Axel shrugged and made his way down into the valley, singing happily another song about the Legend of Red Storm. She had heard it before and he got most of the words wrong.
There was only one inn at Dragon’s End and that came as no surprise to Porta. They stood in the street, staring at the hanging sign above the door, the rain soaking them. The water cascaded down from the inn of the roof and the warm glow of candle and fire light beckoned them in with promises of warmth. The sound of cheerful banter drifted to them through the rain.
“Are we just going to stand out here and drown in this downpour? I am starving and you promised me a meal.”
“I made no such promise.”
Axel grinned. “A good bard needs to be fed, my lady.”
With a sharp glare, Porta said, “Then it is lucky you are not a good bard.” She ignored his protests as she read the sign again. It was called the Dragon’s Skull. Of course, what else could it be called? Glancing down the dark, narrow street, Porta wondered if the assassin was watching from an alley, his hand reaching for the sharp dagger that would cut through her neck. He could even be in there now, sat in a dark corner in the shadows, an untouched drink in front of him. Watching. Waiting.
Summoning all her courage, Porta opened the door of the Dragon’s Skull and stepped in from the wet. The heat from the huge open fire was indeed welcoming and the smell of freshly cooked meat caused Porta’s stomach to lurch hungrily. The place was packed, like most small town inns, and they had to squeeze through the crowd that ignored them. Laughter and song mixed in with talk and the crackle of the fire. At her side, Axel went to wander over to the fire, but she dragged him back.
“You do not leave my side, remember?” She had to shout above the noise.
“Then buy us a drink and order a meal,” Axel moaned. “Dragon’s Skull makes the best pies in the north.”
Irritated, Porta pressed herself up at the bar where she grabbed the attention of the barmaid. “Oi!”
The barmaid turned, stared at Porta with her hand on her hip. The girl was young, yet had the scornful look of an old woman. “A little manners if you please, miss,” she said. A man laughed next to Porta and the barmaid gave him a wink and smiled.
Not in the mood for games, Porta threw a handful of silver coins on the bar. “A jug of wine, two cups and two pies.”
The barmaid pulled the coins across the bar, giving two back. “You and your husband take a seat over there.”
Axel chuckled. Holding back her anger, Porta calmly explained that the dirty looking old thing that tried to pass for a man was in no way her husband. But the barmaid had turned away and ignored them. “Charming place,” Porta muttered. Looking up, she saw the giant skull of a dragon tied to the ceiling by strong ropes. The mouth gaped open with a row of jagged teeth as it laughed at her. Suddenly she wondered if this was all a dream and she would wake as the assassin’s blade cut across her throat, digging deep into veins. As in her dream, the skull mocked her, daring her to stay a while. Stay forever.
“There was no need to be rude to that barmaid,” Axel told her as they headed to the only empty table in the place. Thankfully it was by the fire. Sitting down, Porta faced the door so she could keep an eye on it. As they waited for their drinks, Axel babbled on about the town, but her mind was somewhere else, her eyes searching the crowds for a dark figure with an eye missing and a scar down his face. There were groups of mainly men who drank deeply from wooden mugs, none of them giving them a second glance. Unusual, Porta mused, that no one bothered with them. Whenever she entered a town for the first time, heads often turned to face her. Unless someone told them to ignore her, so she would let her guard down and allow a silent assassin to sneak up behind her. Paranoid, she glanced over her shoulder where she saw the grinning skull.
The barmaid slammed a jug of wine onto the table along with two cups. “Your food’s coming before you moan.”
As she turned to go, Porta grabbed her arm. As the girl began to protest, Porta pressed a gold coin into her hand. “Has anyone been asking about me?”
The barmaid shrugged. “Don’t know who you are, so how would I know?” Her eyes narrowed, her tongue licked out at her dry lips. A lie was just told, Porta saw from these simple signs.
“If they do, let me know and there’s more gold for you.” Porta doubted she would, and felt as though the woman had just betrayed her.
The barmaid nodded and tucked the coin into her ample bosom. She hurried off to a call of another rowdy customer who gave her a slap on her behind and laughed. The barmaid laughed with him, but Porta could see the annoyance on her young face. Axel poured them a drink and he knocked his back, finishing it in one gulp. He poured another, belching loudly.
“Animal!” Porta snapped, pouring her own drink. “Do not get drunk; I want you to be alert.”
Axel downed another cup, covering his mouth as he gave another belch. “What for?”
“Anyone that shows an interest in me.”
Axel laughed. “That would be most men, I bet.”
Ignoring him, Porta took a sip of wine and savoured the taste. If the food was as good as the wine, then they were in for a treat. Staring into her mug, she thought again of the dream and was startled by the reality of seeing it playing out before her eyes. When she looked up, she saw Axel’s grinning face studying her. At least he was different; she was on her own in the dream. This might be the place, but it did not mean that it would be tonight.
“What is your story, Axel?”
Axel toyed with his empty cup, a half smile cutting his face. “Nothing to tell.”
There was more to him, but he hid beneath a facade of dirt and stupidity. Not the best thief and certainly not the best bard. Yet Axel had dared to try and here he sat now with a jug of wine in a warm inn waiting for a hot meal. Perhaps he was not as stupid she had thought. Then she wondered if the one eyed assassin had paid him to follow her, to gain her trust and lure her to the place she would die. “No,” Porta said, leaning across the table, “I think there is more to you. The way you held your sword was that of a trained warrior; did you think I had never seen moves like that before?”
Axel chuckled, taking another glug of wine. “I was once a captain in the king’s army, if you must know.”
Frowning, Axel glared solemnly into his cup, unable to look Porta in the eye. “I admit I made up that I was a bard, but I really was a captain.” When he looked up at Porta, she saw in his eyes a distant look as he remembered a day when things were better.
“Why did you become a thief?” She had spat the word thief out too harshly, but she was unable to take it back. There was a look of hurt pride within Axel’s face and Porta felt a moment of pity. Shaking her head, she tried to clear her head from such crazy emotions. She was the Red Storm, an unstoppable force that felt no pity and showed no mercy.
Almost a whisper, Axel said, “I lost my nerve one day and I fled to the furthest reaches of the kingdom where I hoped to start a new life. But what life is there beyond thief for a coward?”
Taking her cup, Porta raised it to him. “Here’s to the cowardly thief.” She smiled and finished her drink. Axel poured her another, but it only half filled her cup before the jug was empty.
“I will get us another jug,” Axel said, leaning in close to Porta. “And perhaps you shall tell me your tale.”
“Aye, perhaps I will.” She went back to staring into her cup and wondered what had turned a hero to coward. Of course, there were no real heroes. People spoke of her like she was a great warrior, full of bravery. But there was no bravery in knowing you would come to no harm. When she looked up, Axel had gone and a sudden fear gripped her. The dream had gone back on track and she sat alone at the table, looking into her cup. Her hand felt down to her money pouch and she felt a cut rope where a knife had sliced through and the pouch was taken. Angry with herself, she realised she had let herself trust a thief. Now she was alone and death stalked close to her in the form of a one eyed man. For the first time in years, a cold chill of fear ran through her body and her heart pounded in her chest. Her head span and the noise of the crowd faded away into the background until all she could hear was her own heavy breathing. A bead of sweat ran down her face, tickling her cheek.
So this was what it was like to fear death? And as she took the feeling within, she gasped with joy as she finally felt something.
Then Porta’s hand shot to the knife in her boot. As she jumped to her feet, she pulled the knife free and spun round, throwing over her chair. In front of her stood a one eyed assassin with a scar down his face. A dagger fell from his hand and clattered on the stone floor between them. A look of shocked horror spread across the ugly man’s face and he looked down to Porta’s hand that grasped her own dagger. The blade was sunk deep into the man’s chest and blood began to pump out around Porta’s fingers. The man staggered back, blood spilling from his mouth. The crowd around her jumped back, a woman screamed in fear as the body crashed to the floor.
Porta stood over the body, pulled her knife free and wiped it on the assassin’s dark cloak. The man gasped for air as his final moments drew close. “I dreamt of this moment all my life,” she whispered in his ear. “And I often wondered if the dream was a way out, a warning. Looks like I was right.”
Calmly, Porta stepped over the assassin as he drowned in his own blood. The grinning dragon skull did not seem to be laughing now, and instead it appeared to fear her. Many years ago she had fought with the dead assassin, and she remembered his screams as her sword took his eye out. How long had he searched for her, plotting this moment of revenge upon the Red Storm that had torn his life apart? It was funny how a minor incident in the distant past had come back to make such a large ripple in her life. In the end, it came down to this one moment, and she had come through unharmed. The curse of her death was gone and she felt suddenly....
The barmaid backed away as Porta drew near. Stopping at the bar, Porta glared at the frightened girl. “First I need to take care of a thief who stole my gold. When I return, I will burn this place down.” She turned to go and the crowd that had fallen into silence parted for her. Before leaving, she looked once more at the grinning dragon and blew it a kiss. “I hate leaving unfinished business.”
The next morning, the dead body of an old thief was overshadowed by the burnt out remains of the Dragon’s Skull and the legend of the Red Storm was spoken about in Dragon’s End for years to come.