Chapter 23: The Bully’s Pet
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Chapter 22 appears
in this issue.
Robbenson walked steadily from the Queen’s door. With newfound resolve, he made his way down the dark hallway to the stairs and the levels below that would lead to the ground floor.
It was a quiet and somber walk. Castle Geas was one of the largest palaces that had ever stood. It was considered a small city within a city with a population to rival any of Gheamehn’s several districts. Clerks, with their charts and logs, servants, with platters of roasted beef and venison, maids, with their stacks of fresh linens, all usually made their way through Castle Geas, following a routine that had been set for them by the founders of the great castle many, many moons ago; but not any more.
As Robbenson made his way through one of the largest halls in the palace, he noted how scarce the people were. What people there were, were soldiers. Clothed in the reds and blacks of Alias’ flag, the men lined hallways and guarded doors. Occasionally, he would catch a glimpse of one or two men standing in the corners of a room, in the crevice of a long, dark corridor, as if trying to melt into the shadows.
He kept from shaking his head, tried to keep from allowing his eyes to reveal how he felt, and cleared his throat so words would not stumble out and betray him. What were all these soldiers looking for? What were they protecting Castle Geas from? Robbenson had spent much of his life in this place, this castle he had once called home, and he had grown to know the people within its walls; and one thing he knew for sure was that he didn’t recognize many of the soldiers he saw guarding the silent halls and empty doorways. Once called his home. The thought traveled from somewhere deep in his heart, and the empty hollowness Robbenson felt in the middle of his chest felt like a deep dark crevice there was returning from.
King Alias was a tyrant. Robbenson had tried for years to ignore that little fact. As advisor to the king and queen, he tried to ignore what could not be helped and tried with all his might to be of some use to the people of the great Nation of Geamehn. There was a taste of bile in his mouth as he thought of all of the people who had suffered for so long under the rule of the bully he had come to know as Alias. To call him king was to call a rabid dog a pet. Why would such a man need protection when his castle was empty?
There just weren’t any answers to his questions.
Robbenson turned his attention to the streets beyond. He headed towards the nearest exit, a gate manned with armed soldiers and strangers that were to kill at a moment’s notice. With an acknowledging nod to the guard at the doors, Robbenson walked out of the castle and into the starlit night. He moved swiftly through the palace grounds and across the courtyard at the center of Castle Geas. On most days, the large gardens that Queen Loren had spent so much money and lavish attention on would be filled with hawkers and buyers. The area would be filled with the aromas of roasting quail and the acrid scent of peppers cooking over pit fires. The sights of the castle brought many to the capital of Areonin; children would gawk and the world would dream of nobles and riches.
A gust of rain-scented wind blew across his face and he stared vacantly at a piece of trash that floated through the air only to land in one of the many fountains. Robbenson frowned. The fountains had been empty of water for months now, and he didn’t think there was anyone around to notice or care. The gardeners were long gone now. Where were the people now? Under house arrest, he thought darkly. It was illegal for anyone to come out after dark, and Robbenson couldn’t fathom any reason why such a state of emergency should be declared.
The way he figured it, it was just an excuse for the tyrant to be more of a tyrant. It was something like releasing an avalanche on mountain climbers just to see what would happen. The city was being bled dry. He couldn’t help remember the queen’s dismay two nights ago when an entire block had been put to the torch because Alias was looking for a fugitive. The hoodlums that were roaming the streets under the guise of patrols were running free and looking for an excuse to exert their power over their weaker foes.
Robbenson couldn’t shake the screams of the innocent as they had burned from his mind. Sleep was coming by in small degrees, and usually after great effort. He thought of those days he when he was younger, a boy under the tutelage of his father to be a printer. His father’s goal was to bring education and learning to the masses in such a way that the whole world would benefit and in turn change like ripple in a pond.
Robbenson smiled sadly. I guess those values never truly left, he thought. Here he was, wizard and advisor to one of the worse kings in recent history, and he was attempting now to fight against unspeakable odds. His father would have smiled, as he squirted oil over one of the printer’s gears, and told him the odds were in his favor, because no one expected him to win. Just like his father, his mother would have said over dinner. “Your father is a noble at heart, Young Robbenson,” she would have continued. “He’s more of a noble than all of those lords and ladies that preside over us.”
Robbenson couldn’t deny what she had said. Coming to Castle Geas had been an experience that he would never forget. Seeing the walls of the castle for the first time had held him in awe. He could never imagine in his wildest dreams, at that age, that so much stone could be brought together like that.
Thinking about that day at the dinner table, Robbenson felt so alone. All the people he knew were gone. He might as well have been in another castle, another time, another age, because he only had one person to go to that might be able to help, and that was the person responsible for bringing him here.
As he reached the gates a man with chained mail and a look in his eyes that would make most men urinate in their pants stopped him. Several other men came to stand behind the guard, all of them armed to the teeth and eager for a fight. The tower light dimmed a moment and it took Robbenson a second to see that arrows were being pointed his way.
“What is it that brings you out this night?” asked the man with a slight slur. So they were drinking this night.
“I am on an errand for the queen,” he said patiently. Robbenson was never considered a dangerous man, and his appearance had brought on fights before by those who thought they could bully him around.
“Is that so?” said the man. “Haven’t you heard? The queen is under house arrest. So how is it that you are on an errand for the queen?”
“I am the Royal Advisor for King Alias, good sir,” he said, a little edge to his voice. It could have been mistaken for fear. “You best remember that before you think of ordering me around. I will have you stripped of your clothes and paraded around the streets of Geamehn so your comrades can spit on you. Then I will have fun with you before I release you into the land of the dead.” These men only heard and understood one thing, power.
The man came closer to Robbenson and grabbed the wizard by the robes. “I have killed three wizards in my life, sir!” The breath on the man was foul and Robbenson tried hard not to flinch. Killing three wizards was no easy feat. One wizard was enough to raise an entire plain of soldiers if he knew they were coming.
“Then I better mind my tongue,” said Robbenson. “I wouldn’t want to insult a man of your strength. If your wits are just as brawny, I could be in trouble.”
The larger man blinked when some of his comrades chuckled. “Are you making fun of me?” The man shoved Robbenson hard to the ground. He pulled his sword and advanced on the flailing wizard. “I will make it four wizards on this night, you son of a motherless goat!”
Robbenson managed to get to his feet right as the rest of the soldiers rushed forward and held the man back. He was a big, tough man and it took several of them to finally restrain him. “Let it go, Ferrel. Let it go! It’s not worth it. We kill this one here and King Alias will have our hides.” The man speaking, a short fellow that reminded Robbenson of a rat turned to him. “Go, man, before he breaks free!”
“We’ll see you later, chubby man!” The man snarled. Robbenson walked away from the gate feeling trepidation at everything he saw. The men continued to argue, and shouts of “see you later, little man” still echoing through the streets.
The city of Geamehn was dying. It was obvious in the closed shops, closed taverns and inns, in the unpopulated streets, that Geamehn was seeing the last of its mighty days unless someone stopped the uncontrollable spin of entropy taking place. The castle stood over them, a guardian no longer interested in keeping the king’s treasure safe.
Robbenson took a look around the silent street corner to make sure no one was following and turned down a dark alley; shifting through a maze of over turned barrels and broken crates. He kept his robes from brushing against the dirty alley beneath, his boots crunching against the crusty ground. The place smelled of urine and spilled drink. There was an unmistakable smell of rotting meat somewhere directly to his left but he didn’t bother to examine if it was a dead cat or something far worse. There was no time to deal with such matter at this time.
He continued on for half a block, passing empty doorways and black windows. A horse passed somewhere out in the street, and he could only guess who that might be. As he walked, he thought of the castle watching over Geamehn. The people of Geamehn had always been the treasure of the city. Their drive and pride drove the Nation. It was the ability of the people of Acrene Tarrynth to adapt that made them so great. Engineering feats came out of Geamehn and new philosophies in faith came out of Nomen like water out of mountain streams. People from all over the world came to use the vast libraries that dotted Geamehn to study topics that could not be studied anywhere else. Almost any book that had not been destroyed by the Conquest was in these libraries.
The libraries had been the first places Robbenson had gone to. The library of Geamehn was as big as the village he had grown up in, and at first the sight had staggered him so much he could not bring himself to step into the awesome edifice. It had taken him a week to get over his fear. As he came to the end of the alley and out into the open street, he heard a crate fall over behind him with a crash.
He kept his head from jerking to the side at the sound. Instead of turning down the main road, he kept going straight into the alley directly across the street. He had to cover his mouth in this new place the stench was so horribly strong. There could be no doubt there was a corpse somewhere nearby. With the streets so empty, he didn’t doubt killing was getting easier for the seedy. He wouldn’t be surprised if it was Alias’ men doing it themselves.
He walked further into the shadows of the alley and then stepped into a low darkened doorway when he was sure he could not be seen. He waited patiently for his pursuer to reveal himself. Robbenson felt his heart catch in his throat for a moment and he had to remind himself that he was no longer that young boy who could be bullied around. He was a man of means now, and he could defend himself if the need arose.
Several minutes passed and he thought of continuing his walk when the culprit revealed himself. Stepping out of the shadows of the alley, the man who had almost assaulted him at the gates looked both ways before crossing the road. He stopped half way across the street and looked up and down each block. Then the man looked straight at Robbenson. Running a hand through his greasy hair, the blonde man drew his sword and came full across the street.
Standing a good twenty feet from where Robbenson was hiding, the wizard watched the guard draw closer. With every step he took into the darkened alley, the man drew closer to his death. It was a hard, calculating fact, but Robbenson didn’t have to remind himself that he had to do it. Queen Loren’s life and freedom depended on it. The people of Geamehn, asleep and besieged in their homes, depended on him. He had to get to his destination, and he couldn’t leave anyone behind who had come to see him by chance wondering the streets of Geamehn.
The sound of clothing rustling softly together came to Robbenson’s ears by the time the man was fully in the alley. The stench that had made Robbenson gag had no effect on Alias’ guard. The man, glistening with sweat under the moonlight that spilled partly into the alley, was methodical is his search for the young wizard. He tipped over a barrel, spilling its contents across the dark corridor, and then crashed a couple of crates against a brick wall opposite from where Robbenson hid.
“I know you are here, pudgy man,” came the guard’s quiet voice. “I am going to skin you alive and stick you in one of these barrels where no one will ever find you.”
Robbenson bit his tongue. He could think of far more worse things to do to a person than skinning them alive and stuffing them in a barrel. He had done far worse under King Alias’ banner. Most people underestimated him, and much to their chagrin, this was his greatest weapon. A poodle with rabies was deadlier than a pit bull that was broken and docile.
When the man turned away from him, Robbenson stepped out of the shadows. The guard turned to find the little man standing almost directly behind him. The guard yelped as he took a step back and stumbled into the opposing brick wall.
“You think you can just catch me and skin me alive?” asked Robbenson, letting a little of the steel in his resolve enter his voice. “You are sadly mistaken if you think you can just take me with a stab in the back like some thief.”
The guard was clearly taken aback. “You stay away, wizard. I’ll gut you!” The guard took a lame swing with no real threat of hitting anything at the wizard. Robbenson didn’t bother taking a step back. This was going to be over real soon.
Copyright © 2005 by Julian Lawler