The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book I: Wolves at the Wedding Feast
Episode 2: To Do Murder
part 1 of 2
Previously: 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. The wine is poisoned, but if he does not drink the wedding toast he will insult his bride’s father and start a civil war.
He drinks, excuses himself, and finds a hiding place in which to vomit. Paralyzed, he waits to see if he will live or die. Looking through a window that does not exist, he sees a raiding party approaching the castle: three shiploads of Norgemen. Struggling to rise and give warning, he loses consciousness...
When consciousness finally began to return, Druin remembered nothing, knew only that his head seemed to be splitting. The air was full of a faintly unpleasant odor, smoke, and this nagged him.
Theba save us! The Norgemen!
Had it really happened, or was what he remembered merely a nightmare born of fever and delirium? Much as he wanted to believe that all was well, the odor of smoke bode no good and, desperate to know, he heaved himself upright. For a moment, waves of dizziness swept over him and only after they passed did he start fumbling at the door latch.
It was still stuck... which proved that part at least had been real. As he now remembered, if one jiggled the thing just so...
The scene beyond the door was everything he’d feared and more. Through an evil pall of twisting smoke, he saw the bodies, people he’d known all his life slaughtered like so many sheep. None had died with weapons in their hands, and from the positions of the bodies most had apparently been attempting to flee or futilely begging for mercy.
Not my wife, please Theba, not my beautiful Sathryn!
He was a man divided: half his mind in unthinking turmoil, the other half crystal clear and as hard and cold as the winter ice. The dead, he saw, were all servants. ’Twas what one would logically expect; the Norgemen came raiding for sport and also for profit. Those who might fetch a good ransom had, no doubt, been taken captive while the others were killed out of hand.
The odds were that Sathryn was still alive and held captive not far from here. In the distance Druin could hear the roar of drunken carousal and the occasional scream of a tortured victim; the Norgemen celebrating their easy victory and clearly in no great hurry to depart.
Despite the odds ’twas not absolutely impossible that Druin might — somehow — rescue his beautiful bride. First he’d find a weapon and then... well, he’d have to trust the gods for the rest. Just now he was still weak as a kitten from that cursed poison but, in a few hours, he’d be stronger and... his foes would be sober again.
No. If there was any chance ’twas now, while the enemy was muddleheaded with ale.
Though his muscles ached and his legs weighed like lead, he set off down the corridor. As he approached the Greathall, which scant hours ago had echoed with the joy of his marriage, he paused at the threshold and listened closely. Utter silence. Hopefully that meant the raiders had all departed.
Cautiously he slipped through the doorway and looked about. The bright lamps which had burned during his wedding were gone and the room was dark save for the murky illumination of a dying fire. Amidst overturned tables and smashed chairs, on a floor littered with broken crystal glasses and plates, spilt food and drink, lay the still forms of the wedding guests, their elegant clothing drenched in their own blood.
For a grim moment, imagination showed him what must have happened: the Norgemen pouring into the hall like wolves come to a feast, his friends caught unarmed and surprised. Somehow a fire had started and they’d been trapped between its flames and their enemies’ steel.
Perhaps some had been taken captive; certainly none had escaped.
Shaking himself, Druin forced his mind back to his immediate problem, finding a sword. Chances of finding one left behind in this slaughterhouse were passing slim, but over there, in that small alcove, a collection of ancestral weapons had been kept.
It took him a few moments to get from here to there; the way was blocked by the charred remains of a fallen ceiling timber. As he crawled around it, he noticed with grim joy that two Norgemen lay on the floor beneath it, crushed like insects when it came crashing down. Around the entrance to the alcove there were more of the accursed seawolves, their throats swordslashed open.
Aradam! I should have known my father wouldn’t sell his life cheaply!
In the alcove, as he’d guessed, he found the remains of Duke Aradam. Though the body bore half a dozen mortal wounds, in the end ’twas not his enemies but the fire that slew the proud Duke. His hand, burned clean of flesh, still grasped the hilt of a broken sword and...
Druin’s heart nearly stopped, for the corpse moved ever so slightly. A trick of his imagination or...
“Druin,” it said.
Though it cost all his courage, still he forced himself to answer, “Yes, Father.”
“I could not let myself die, until I spoke with you.”
Within himself Druin struggled. He wanted to rejoice that his father was still alive, but he could not overcome the uncanny feeling that no man so horribly wounded had the right to be among the living. “Father,” he babbled, “instead of talking, shouldn’t I get bandages, bind up your... wounds and—”
Something in the old Duke’s eyes stopped him, forced him to wait silently for his sire to speak again.
“My son, though you know disaster has befallen our house this night, I doubt you see the full extent of the calamity. For many years I worked building a system of alliances, a network of powerful friends. All those mighty allies came to your wedding and tonight, in a single stroke, they were destroyed, slain or taken captive to be held for ransoms that will reduce them to penury. Thus we have gone from a position of power to one of shame. ’Twas our duty to protect our guests, and our failure means that our honor is lost, stained past restoration.”
“No!” Druin exclaimed. Without thinking he added, “I”ll restore our honor, rescue all our friends that still live and kill the Norgemen to the last man!”
Even as he spoke, the young nobleman knew he was making a horribly rash promise, and he little cared. His father was slipping into the darkness and Druin had to give the man any comfort he could. Despair was still written in the old duke’s eyes as he gasped, “No, son. ’Tis a brave promise you make, but no mortal man could prevail against the odds you face. Best you—”
“Father!” Druin blurted, “I’m your son but I’ve also an inheritance from my grandfather. The name, honor and reputation of our house will be cleaned no matter what dark means I must use to do it!”
No sooner had he said it than Druin wanted to call the words back, for he was admitting the fear which had been unspoken all these years. He could not, however, for his father’s face was suddenly brightened with hope.
“Perhaps,” the dying man murmured, “you could. Also,” his eyes were glazing, his speech blurring, “your uncle might help... the key... pocket...” With a slight gasp Duke Aradam yielded at last to death.
At least, I gave him a little comfort — but how do I keep my promise?
’Twas clearly impossible and just as clearly absolutely necessary. Now that Druin was the Duke, he must maintain his family’s honor or — his head swam with all the monstrously nasty consequences — or else he simply couldn’t live in this world.
Somehow he must save not only Sathryn but all his friends and he must do so tonight. Vengeance against the Norgemen could be postponed, but not the rescue. Since he didn’t have any dark powers that he knew how to use, what could he do?
He still lacked a sword. The weapons that had been in this alcove were gone, either grabbed up by his guests at the start of the battle or stolen by the Norgemen afterwards.
There was some small chance that his father’s keys might, one way or another, prove useful and, reaching down, he pulled them from the corpse’s pocket.
’Twas no time, he sternly told himself, to worry about niceties. No, for the now he must be busy with staying alive and helping his friends — above all his Sathryn — to do likewise.
What had his father meant by the reference to Druin’s uncle helping? Did it mean something or was it merely the ravings of a dying man? Seemingly ’twas the latter for Aradam was an only son. Still his father hadn’t seemed delirious, so...
The sound of approaching footsteps drove all other thoughts from his mind. ’Twas the heavy tread of several men in hard leather boots, undoubtably the Norgemenm and they were coming toward this alcove. Since there was but one exit, he was trapped, and though he looked frantically about, the bare little room offered no hiding place. Of course, he could lie down behind that fallen timber, but it was scarcely thicker than his body. A child couldn’t hide there.
The steady approach of the footsteps continued. But another few moments and they’d be upon him.
Fighting them would mean a futile death while capture meant both death and dishonor. But perhaps he could...
Dropping flat Druin crawled under one end of the fallen timber. If they did not look over closely they might suppose him dead, killed when the timber fell. Scarcely was he in position than he’d second thoughts. A trick like this was not likely to fool a child and... ’Twas too late.
The footsteps came through the doorway and into the alcove. With his head buried under the timber, Druin could see naught of them except for one bloodstained boot that stopped directly before his face.
The slightest motion would be fatal. He dared not breathe and cold sweat covered his limbs.
From above him there was a voice in the harsh guttural language of the Western Seas. “This place has already been looted; no chance that what we seek be here.”
One of the others grumbled in reply, “Aye, but still, bend down and check those bodies. With luck you’ll find an ornament or two of gold or silver.”
The moment they touched him, Druin realized in horror, they’d know he was alive, and in this position he could not offer even token resistance. Gods, to be slaughtered like a farmer’s hog...
“We’ve no time,” the first answered. “Gardragon commanded us to search the whole castle until we found that polish. Time’s short, and we’ve much territory still to cover. “
“By the gods’ long-dead bones, why should we ignore treasures asking to be stolen and look instead for a jar of lackwitted polish?”
The blood-stained foot was slowly moving away. They were leaving, and Druin was, for the moment, safe... except that he felt a sneeze coming.
“We must,” answered the first raider, “because our warchief commanded it.”
They were still in the doorway and the tickling sense in Druin’s nose was building to irresistible.
“I’d far rather Sith were warchief,” grumbled the second.
As their footsteps faded into the distance, the first answered, “Aye, and many share your preference, but...”
They were, apparently, gone and Druin let go the sneeze he could no longer contain. Though he smothered its sound as much as possible, still it seemed louder than thunder. For a very long moment he waited, and silence was the only reply. Mayhap then he’d not been heard, and certainly he should be off and about his business.
Finding a weapon could probably wait. The urgent thing was to learn where his friends, especially Sathryn if she lived, were held captive. With most of the Norgemen busy having their drunken orgy, and others searching the castle, the raiders would logically keep their prisoners where they’d require little guarding — the dungeons...
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Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon