The sun was setting, and Naomi Caldress wept. She cried hard, taking great breaths before succumbing once again to her tears.
Finally, after what seemed like hours (but in all truthfulness was less than thirty minutes), she calmed, her tears slowing. Then she looked at her hands, stained red with blood, and she again began sobbing.
“You seem rather distraught,” a strange, gravelly voice said. Naomi gasped and whirled around to see a man she had never seen before, wearing immaculately tailored dark clothing, a crimson cloak the color of dark blood, and a sword with a well-worn hilt in a simple scabbard at his hip. “One would think the average murderer less capable of tears.”
Naomi fumbled for the dagger she had dropped, finally finding the blade with her finger, slicing it open and mixing her blood with that which was already coated on the weapon. The pain was distant, and it didn't deter her from grabbing the weapon , standing, and bringing it to bear at the man. She grasped the handle with both hands, but was unable to keep the blade from quivering violently.
The strange man rolled his eyes. “Indeed,” he said dryly, before calmly walking past her to kneel next to the body on the slick floor. “Sloppy work.”
“What...what do you mean?” she asked, the blade quivering more fiercely before her.
“Superficial,” he said, pointing at the shallow cut along the shoulder. He pointed at another wound. “You removed half of the ear, which was pointless. There's no real reason to aim for that section of the skull at all with a weapon as light as the one you used. You're not apt to do any real damage.”
He continued, pointing at the various damages she had inflicted upon the corpse, and explaining the inadequacies of each. Finally, he came to the gaping hole in the middle of the throat. “That was what did it,” he said. “If you would have gone for at once, the whole ordeal would have gone much smoother. And been much...cleaner.”
“Who are you?” Naomi asked.
“I am...a friend. Perhaps the only friend you have, now, wouldn't you say?”
“I've never seen you before in my life,” she replied, trying to sound confident. “Now you had best get out of my house, stranger, before you enter a world of hurt.”
She didn't see him draw, or turn to face her. All she knew was that one moment he was kneeling on the ground, pointing the opposite direction, and the next moment he was standing in front of her, sword drawn, and her hand stung viciously from the dagger being wrenched out of it by the force of his slash, an attack made in too short of a time for her eyes to even begin to process. It occurred to her then that this was a very dangerous man, and that if he had so much as fancied the thought of moving forward another few inches during his attack, she would have lost fingers, or her hand, or perhaps half of her arm.
He could very easily kill her before she even realized the thought to do so had crossed her mind, and then there would be two Caldress bodies lying on the floor of the simple wooden abode.
“I don't very much appreciate being threatened, Naomi,” her 'friend' remarked casually. “No, not at all. You may very well consider me old-fashioned in such a manner. And speaking of manners, where are yours? You've a guest in your home, and you don't even put on the tea?”
She swallowed, wondering if perhaps she was the one who died in the earlier struggle, and this was but the beginning of her torture on one of the endless levels of Hell.
“We...I don't have any tea, sir,” she said, her voice quivering.”
“It was a jest, ma'am. And as for my name—I am called Crow. At your service.”
“What do you want?”
“Well now,” he said, sheathing his sword and walking to the other side of the room before easing into the rickety rocking chair that once belonged to Naomi's grandmother. “That is the question, isn't it? I suppose, in the short term, I want to ensure that you don't end up in an Imperial prison, rotting for twenty years.”
It was almost funny, but she just now realized that very distinct and likely probability. She had grabbed the dagger in a moment of fury and passion, had fought with the same presence of mind, and had cried thinking of the loss in her life, of how impossible it would be for her to afford to give him a decent burial, of what her family would think, of what her friends would think, but she was just now thinking of what the town guard would think.
She'd be tried, and found guilty. There was no escaping that. Of course, she could run from town, but as soon as someone found the body, there would be a bounty on her head, and she'd have more to fear from bounty hunters than from the guards. At least the guards wouldn't take advantage of her when she was being brought in. She thought, briefly, that perhaps she could hide, the body, but she knew it would be impossible. Her home was in the middle of town, and she wasn't a strong girl. Dragging the heavy corpse outside of town would take her hours, and what would she do with it then, anyways? Bury it? Digging a hole sizable and deep enough would take as much time as dragging the body through town, and filling it back in would take half that. The thought of doing all that without a single person noticing was the bad punchline to a cruel joke.
“Begging your pardon, stranger,” she said, collapsing back to the floor, “but I don't think you have much say in the matter.”
“You'd be surprised,” Crow said, a faint smile briefly lighting his face.
“If it's all the same, I'd just as soon not talk about it.”
He nodded, and reached in his cloak. “Well enough.” He produced a finely-crafted pipe, the likes of which Naomi had never seen. It seemed to be made of ivory, and around the entirety of the bowl she could make out small figures engaged in battle. The craftsmanship was amazing, and she knew she was looking at something worth more than her house and the combined value of everything she had ever owned, or dreamed of owning. He loaded the pipe with a hefty amount of tobacco and lit it with a match, taking a few long puffs in the silence.
“I don't think you'll be able to dispose of the body yourself, if you don't mind me saying. Not without half the town noticing, at any rate. So, I've a proposition for you.”
“You...you wish...to use me?” she asked, knowing the answer. She had no delusions about being the most beautiful woman in the town, but at the same time, she knew she wasn't hideous. But wouldn't it be worth it? A few minutes, hours maybe, of enduring this mans passions would pale in comparison to years spent in prison, where she would be abused, regardless.
He let out a hearty chuckle halfway through a drag off of his pipe, and tobacco shot out of the bowl, landing on the floor, the embers smoking gently. He crushed them with the heel of his boot and once again began to load his pipe. “No, milady. If I desire carnal pleasures, I'm certain I could find a less despicable way to attain them.”
“You're destined for greater things than this, Naomi,” he said, once again lighting his pipe. “Therefore, if I remove your...problem, shall we say? You succumb to training, under my tutelage. Learn to properly wield a sword, to fight, to defend yourself. And, when we're done, you leave this town, never to return.”
“I don't think that I'd be much of a swordswoman,” she said.
“You will be. After I'm done with you.”
“And why do you want me to leave my home?”
“Is it much of a home, then?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her. “If you'd prefer, I can leave as swiftly as I entered. You'd be forced to leave, regardless, but instead of walking out on your own two feet, you'd be forced into the back of a locked carriage and shipped to the nearest prison.
“My reasons are my own, milady. You can either allow me to help you, and trust that it is in your best interest, or you can fend for yourself. I'll not force you into anything. Now, shall I dispose of this body, or not?”
She licked her lips, looking at the corpse on the floor. “Do it.”
He nodded, standing. “Very well, then.” He walked to the kitchen table and took a small scroll from a pouch on his belt, spreading it flat on the table. “Nommus: Gob Drazil.” He slammed his open hand on the scroll, and it began to glow before the edges caught aflame. The flame quickly expanded, and Crow stepped back as it began to take a strange shape, forming what appeared to be a large, low-slung body with four stubby legs and a long tail. The flames died out, all at once, and revealed a large alligator underneath, whose tail whipped back and forth as it turned its head to regard Crow. It seemed to ignore Naomi completely, and she was certainly glad. She backed into a corner, her face white, taking shallow, rapid breaths.
“Calm down,” Crow said. “A summoned creature obeys the person who called it explicitly. I promise you that if I had desires to end your life, I'd not need a beast such as this.” He turned his head back to the creature. “Down,” he said, pointing at the floor, and the alligator clumsily dropped to the floor, before looking back at Crow. “Eat,” Crow said, pointing at the body, and the alligator closed the distance to the corpse with a surprising swiftness.
“Come,” Crow said, taking her elbow and gently leading her into the bedroom. “There's no reason to watch it. When it's finished, there will be nothing left, I assure you, and then the beast will be unsummoned.” He pointed at the rapier mounted on the wall. “Yours?”
“It was my father's.” She picked it up reverently. “He was a master fencer.”
“Excellent. How much did he teach you?”
“Nothing. He died before I was born. There was a raid on the town, and he died defending it.”
“Ah. A shame. All the same, it means I don't have to work making you unlearn anything. I think now would be as good a time as any to start our first lesson.” He unsheathed his sword and held it before him in a defensive stance. “Now. Come at me, Naomi, and let's see how much you have to learn.”
“Wait, what? This isn't a dulled blade, sir.”
He snorted. “I think I should be able to defend myself, milady. Now, come at me.”
She sighed, and thrusted forward with the tip of the rapier. Crow easily batted the blade aside. “Again. Do better, if you please.”
She thrusted again, and this time, after batting the rapier's blade aside, he twisted around, facing away from her, and drove his elbow into her forehead. She cried and fell to the floor, her vision imprinted with dozens of tiny points of light. “What in the hells was that for?!”
“If you attempt the same thing over and over again, you'll simply become predictable and leave yourself even more open to counterattack. I promise you, in actual combat, you'd receive much worse. Now, stand, and come at me.”
She had a lot to learn.