Gods of Blood and Fire - A. J. Strickler

Chapter 1

Give us the coin or die,” his uncle commanded the man in the black cloak. Julian looked at the man closely from where he was hiding in the stand of trees. There was something dangerous about him that made Julian uneasy. They had stealthily followed the stranger for a few miles before they made their move. His Uncle Raul said he was a small man and would be easy to take.

Julian felt wary about the man, he tried to tell his uncle he thought robbing this traveler was a bad idea; he got a busted lip for his effort.

Uncle Raul was right: the man was not tall and although Julian could not see his body because of the long black cloak that he had wrapped around him, he thought their intended victim seemed slender.

The traveler had black hair that fell just past his shoulders, but it was those green eyes of his that made Julian nervous—they seemed too calm for a man who was about to be robbed and murdered.

“Are you a simpleton? Did you hear what I told you? The coin, hand it over now. I won’t ask again,” his uncle threatened.

“Give us that cloak too,” Julian’s cousin Vlad added.

Julian watched as the traveler’s feet shifted ever so slightly. The boy noticed that his own palms had begun to sweat and he was holding his breath.

The man reached into his cloak and threw a small pouch on the ground. “Take it,” the stranger said. “The few coppers I have are not worth your lives.”

His uncle smiled and bent down without taking his eyes off the stranger and picked up the pouch; he shook it and put it into his pocket. “You’re a cocky bastard for a man outnumbered three to one. My son said he wanted the cloak, too, now hand it over.”

The dark-haired man looked at the sky for a moment as if he was checking the weather then slowly returned his gaze to Uncle Raul. “Winter is just passing. I will need this cloak, the nights are still cold.”

Julian watched as his two cousins spread out to the right and left of their victim, both with smug looks on their faces.

“I think he’s just a coward, Father, let’s just kill him and take it.” Julian’s uncle nodded.

“Good idea, Stephan, why waste our time talking to this son of a gutter rat? Try not to get too much of his blood on the cloak.”

The man threw back his cloak. He was dressed in black leather leggings and a long-sleeve black jerkin, but that’s not what caught Julian’s eye. It was the hilt of the sword that hung from his waist. It appeared to Julian to be inlayed with gold and silver.

The traveler’s hand slowly moved down until it came to rest on the sword’s pommel. “I have given you what I have to give. I wish no trouble from you, just let me pass.”

Julian could see that his uncle was not even listening. His eyes, bloodshot from the drinking he did the night before, were staring at the hilt of the stranger’s sword. It was worth enough to keep them fed and his uncle in ale for months.

“Vlad, Stephan—kill him,” his uncle shouted. Julian had trouble following what happened after that; it was too fast.

The stranger’s blade whispered from its sheath and blocked his cousin Vlad’s ax attack. Then the stranger spun away toward Stephan with the grace of a dancer. His cousin raised his mace, but the man’s sword slid through his chest before he could deliver the blow. Stephan fell as Vlad swung his ax at the traveler’s head. The man ducked the ax cut, rolling away to come up behind Julian’s enraged cousin. The swordsman moved like water flowing through a stream making Vlad’s attack seem awkward and clumsy. Before his cousin could turn around the traveler’s sword sang through the air. Vlad’s head jumped from his shoulders and rolled across the dusty road. His uncle screamed with rage his sword coming up to strike the traveler down. The dark-haired man spun on his heel, his cloak spreading out in the cool evening breeze. The beautiful sword severed his Uncle Raul’s head from his neck. The body fell to its knees then toppled into the road. The traveler stood over the bodies, his blood-stained sword still in his hand. In a matter of seconds, all the family Julian had left in the world was dead.

Blood dripped from the tip of his sword. He had never