The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book I: Wolves at the Wedding Feast
Episode 1: Druin’s Heritage
Remember, o Man, when thou makest joyful celebration, that in the darkness outside the bright circle of thy happiness there are wolves watching thee with hungry eyes. — The Visions of Darmostra
As Sir Druin raised the gold wedding cup toward his lips, he glanced down into its depths and for one fleeting moment he saw the image of a skull grinning up at him out of the dark red wine.
’Twas a portent of death so clear as to unman even the bravest.
Though his mouth was abruptly dry, Druin still managed to keep his face from showing the horror he felt. He had to, for every eye in this crowded room watched him. The rich and proud, the nobility of a dozen nations, all dressed in their finest attire, had gathered to watch him marry the fair Lady Sathryn. Now he stood before them in the marble-columned Great Hall of Castle Paragus and he was about to drink the toast which was the last step, the culmination, of the wedding ceremony.
If he failed to drink that toast — or even hesitated overmuch — ’twould be a mortal insult. He’d lose the girl he loved and the bitter feud between their fathers, Duke Aradam and Lord Marcon, would be renewed. Obviously then he ought to ignore the vision. Probably ’twas merely some demon sending, one of the lies the dark ones oft send to destroy men — or so he tried to tell himself.
As demanded by custom he lowered his face into the cup and inhaled the wine’s fragrance. The bouquet was all it should be: sweet, crisp, and beneath that fine clean aroma lurked something else, half-hidden but unmistakable, a sour musky scent.
Merciful gods, what am I to do?
He could see his prospective father-in-law’s face. Storm clouds were gathering. For all the man’s generous and kindly nature he had a fearfully short temper, and this tiny delay was already beginning to anger him.
On the faces of his father and his half-brothers Druin could see signs of concern as though they half-guessed that all was not well. Whatever he did must be done swiftly.
The ancient family motto, which young Druin had always believed, was that a man’s true life is his honor. The choice was grim but...
In honor, he told himself sternly, I can do only one thing. If I drink and die, there’ll be peace and either Kyarl or Dort can marry Sathryn.
The thought of leaving his untouched bride to one of his half-brothers was appalling. Still, while there had been small love lost twixt him and them, he could trust them to do what honor required.
So must I.
Lifting his free hand into the air as a signal for silence, he raised the cup to his lips and drained it in a gulp. Before the applause could start, he addressed the crowd, “Friends, I’m sure you’ll understand when I tell you that I must excuse myself and spend the next hour alone in prayer. ’Tis a promise I made long ago to my dead mother.”
Brushing rapidly past the bejeweled ladies and proudly dressed noblemen, he passed out a side door and hastened down the hallway beyond. Behind him he could hear the buzz of puzzled voices. Good, let them be baffled, just so long as none was angry and insulted.
Where does that fool scullery maid keep her feather dusters?
With darkness sitting in his stomach and slowly creeping into his blood, his life depended on finding a feather he could swallow. His time he knew was measured in heartbeats and the tiny closet ahead looked like his best hope.
Indeed his only hope.
Throwing open the door he stared into the little room. Though ’twas packed with a host of sundry things, there was, to his distress, no duster. Nothing with a feather, but... there was something infinitely better.
The maid, may the gods grant her eternal blessing, had left a pail full of dirty soapy water.
Some vague impulse made Druin shut the door behind him before he dropped to his knees in front of the pail and begin thirstily guzzling its foul contents. After filling his belly he lowered the bucket and waited to vomit. What, he wondered in horror, if it doesn’t work?
At last, when his stomach was empty, unable to give up aught more, he again raised the pail to his lips and forced himself to drink. Again and yet a third time he purged himself till finally he knew there was nothing left in his stomach that might harm him.
The poison which had already crept out into his blood was another matter. There was naught he could do about that... except wait to see if it killed him. His vision was already beginning to blur. When he took a step, the floor wasn’t quite where it should have been and he nearly fell.
This was disgusting. Bad enough that he might soon die, but to do so in a dark closet lying on a floor soiled with his own vomit, that was unthinkable. His birth and ancestry demanded some little dignity.
The best place, he decided, would be the chapel; but where was the door out of this closet? Everything was so fuzzy, and the room was slowly rocking back and forth as it spun.
This felt like the door handle, yes, it had to be but... the door wouldn’t open.
For a moment, anger cleared his failing senses, and he knew that he’d truly found the door. ’Twas stuck and all his strength couldn’t pull it open.
Staggering back he half fell into a chair. Odd, he didn’t remember there being any furniture in this room. Well, it scarcely mattered.
Cold was spreading through his body and he no longer had the strength to rise. Here he was and here he must stay. At least he had a good view out the window.
Wait, there shouldn’t be a window in a closet!
As the coldness froze his body, his mind cleared. ’Twas as though he were some disembodied spirit locked up inside a marble statue. Perhaps his body still breathed and its heart beat; perhaps, but he couldn’t tell, and therefore perhaps this was death. Either way there was nothing he could do except sit and look out a window... that wasn’t there.
Probably I’ve my grandfather’s blood to thank for it! Dark blood. Evil blood tainted with unholy powers... or so the servants gossiped. According to the tales they whispered Druin’s father had, in a youthful adventure, rescued a beautiful young girl from dire peril. Being a headstrong lad he’d also married her without bothering to learn aught about her parentage.
When young Aradam came home with his bride, his parents were not a little disconcerted, nor did it help that the girl refused to say anything about her background. Her father, she declared, was a man she greatly feared and wanted only to forget. More than that no one could get from her.
All in all ’twas a crossed situation. When, less than a year later, the girl died giving birth to Druin, there were many who publicly sympathized with Aradam’s grief and privately said that ’twas all for the best, that now the young nobleman could make a proper marriage and get on with his life.
Then came the funeral and... an unexpected guest.
Where he came from none could say, for nobody saw him approach. Suddenly he was simply there in their midst. Afterward no one could describe him except to say that when his cold blue eye gazed upon them ’twas like the bitter cold of the north wind.
After he dropped a handful of earth into the open grave, the stranger looked long and hard at Aradam. The threat was plain and, though the young nobleman was in his father’s domain and surrounded by his father’s guards, he knew his life hung by a thread and none could help him.
After a silent agony of waiting, the stranger said, “I find that my daughter’s death was not your fault.” And he was gone like the mist at sunrise.
Though all were stunned by this unnatural visitation, they continued mechanically through the funeral ritual until the very end. Then it was that someone looked for the two midwives — the pair who’d attended Aradam’s late bride. They were missing. As best could be determined they had disappeared shortly after the uncanny visitor had appeared and... there were two new graves.
Where the graves had come from, none could guess, for digging a grave and filling it in again is a task that takes a strong man several hours, and only a few minutes ago these graves hadn’t been there.
The headstones said that the midwives were inside the graves.
Of course, by the time the impossible graves could be dug open ’twas too late. By then the midwives had smothered and there was naught to do except bury them again.
The death of Aradam’s mother, the Duchess Mitteed, was slower and far more horrible. Shortly after the dark wizard’s departure she went into labor. Some tried to claim that it must be false labor, and logic was on their side for till this day her slender figure had given no hint of pregnancy.
Nonetheless and logic be damned, something was in her womb struggling to be born.
Though she was quickly taken to her bedchamber the entire castle was filled with her cries of agony. Seemingly her pain had no bounds; and if it relented for a moment, terror took its place and the Duchess would shout denials and prayers, swearing in one breath that she had not bribed the midwives to let her daughter-in-law die and in the next begging Theba for mercy for having committed that crime.
Before the end came, all fled from her bedchamber save only the Duke. No matter what her crimes or their punishment, Aradam’s father was not minded to leave his wife.
What happened next no living man could say.
When ’twas over, when the fear-crazed servants dared at last return to the bedchamber, they found that the old Duke had died as a man ought, sword in his hand, battling against the horror that slew his wife.
Aradam was now Duke, and his first official act was to proclaim that his father and mother had died in a tragic but wholly natural accident. Anyone who said otherwise would be hanged forthwith for sedition and high treason.
’Twas an edict well received, for those who’d witnessed these horrific events were only too glad to forget them. When Aradam swiftly remarried and got two more sons, the illusion that all was back to normal was nearly perfect.
Still, as Druin grew toward manhood, he sensed that something was amiss about his birth, and bit by bit he learned the grim story, learned that he bore within his veins the blood of a dread dark necromancer. For Druin, who wanted nothing so much as to live the peaceful life of an ordinary man, the idea that he might have inherited some of his grandfather’s dark powers was appalling.
’Twould set him apart, isolate him from his fellows more than he was already.
Fortunately there was no sign he had any such powers... or so he’d told himself. If he sometimes dreamed dreams that told the future all too clearly, why, many have such dreams and it means naught. If he occasionally knew something which no one had told him, ’twas merely luck, or perhaps he had been told and simply forgotten.
These were hints easily ignored... until today. Twice this day he’d seen unnatural visions: first the death’s head on the cup and now this window-that-wasn’t there. If he lived, ’twould be because of the warning of that first vision. The idea that he had inherited aught of his grandfather’s dark powers was vastly unwelcome, and still he couldn’t help wondering: might not this impossible window also be a warning of some dire peril?
In the ghostly light of a pale moon he could see the steep cliffs whereon sat his father’s castle. Beneath lay the sea, wild and windtossed, frothing with silver as it surged among broken rocks sharp as fangs. There was only one tiny stretch of beach where a ship could make safe landing, and on that spot of land, lurking like sleek black monsters, were three dragon-prowed longships.
Norgemen! The Wolves of the Western Sea!
It was impossible that the seawolves should come riding this far south without the alarm being raised. The coast was studded with watchtowers, always manned. Surely one or more would have seen, and yet there’d been no warning. With her defenses relaxed, the castle was surprised in the midst of a wedding feast.
I must warn them!
Since there was no motion on the longboats, the raiders must have left their ships some time ago. No doubt: in but moments their savage attack upon his defenseless friends would begin. If he would give warning, he must do so immediately.
Theba, help me!
The veins stood out in his neck and cold sweat covered his brow as he struggled to break the paralysis that held him. Slowly, horribly slowly, it yielded and he forced himself erect. As he took his first staggering step the room was a spinning darkness around him. Another lurching step and he stumbled, half fell, into the door. Darkness was rising against him as his groping hands found the latch.
It still wouldn’t open.
Scores of lives hung in the balance and the Drodd-begotten-door wouldn’t open. No! He couldn’t let something that obscene happen. Struggling with all his waning strength, he fought the stubborn latch and...
He heard a scream, a single outburst of terror that was swiftly followed by a horrible mixture of sounds, the clangor of steel against steel, the war cries of the victorious, the shrieks of the dying. The attack had begun and he was too late.
By the Cud, I can still join the fighting. I’ll...
His thoughts were an angry blur as darkness finally claimed him and he collapsed onto the vomit-soiled floor...
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon