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 2 of 2
Like every prudently built castle, Druin’s home had a number of discreetly concealed passageways. When he reached the narrow stairway that led down toward the dungeon, the young aristocrat felt his hopes soar. He’d passed undetected through the midst of his foes and, if his luck held, if the gods continued to favor him, then perhaps he’d do the impossible and rescue his friends.
The odds, however, were still monstrous long, and even as he hoped, he worried. He could foresee all too many dangers and the hazards he didn’t expect were worse. There were too many things happening that he didn’t understand. For example, why had that pair of raiders been searching for a jar of polish?
While that was merely odd at first glance, it took on a more sinister appearance on deeper thought. No doubt what they hunted was the special polish that was the unique product of the Dukedom.
In the northeast corner of his father’s domain there was an old mine, now long abandoned. In its day it had yielded a peculiar stone, ugly, exceedingly brittle and incredibly hard. Despite the fact that most natural philosophers account diamond the hardest of all substances, the ugly stone could readily scratch even diamond. Crushed into a powder, the stone made a fabulously effective polish, one that in days past had sold readily at goodly price.
Now, with the mine exhausted the wonderful polish was only a memory, albeit people oft sent messengers to beg for a little of it. Only last month, King Thilloden himself had written asking for some, and Duke Aradam had been forced to refuse his sovereign. As the Duke explained in his answering letter, there simply was none, save only for a single jar he kept for sentimental reasons.
Then how had... Merciful Theba, NO!
It was both a horror so foul as to be unthinkable, and a thing so transparently obvious that he’d been a fool not to see it sooner. Thilloden was a traitor to his own kingdom!
Duke Aradam had been the leader of a powerful faction within the Zadokan nobility, a faction that opposed Thilloden’s desire to become an absolute monarch. To eliminate his opponents, the King had made a monstrous bargain with his nation’s age-long enemies. Small wonder there’d been no warning; the coastal watchers had turned a blind eye as the raider’s ships passed!
’Twas an infamy that staggered the imagination, but for the moment he must put it from his mind and think of other problems. He’d reached the bottom of the stairs, and ahead the pale light of the candle he carried showed a door. Beyond that portal, in the dungeons... he couldn’t be sure. Perhaps only empty, long-disused cells; more likely though. he’d find his friends in need of rescue and a guard or two he’d have to murder.
Twice in his life he’d been in mortal combat, but that was battle, open, honest and noisy. What he must do now was a very different matter.
Approaching the door he bent and listened, closely. His ears caught a confused babble of sounds, mostly distant. Seemingly there was no help for it; to find out what was on the other side he’d have to open the door a crack and peek. Lest its light betray him he snuffed out his candle and, slowly, very cautiously, began sliding the door open.
When the crack was but a finger’s breadth, he pressed his face to it and gazed out. At first glance ’twould seem the gods had heard his every prayer. There, crowded into a dozen iron-barred cells were the wedding guests, their eyes dull with shock and fear, their clothing torn, burnt and bloodstained, but alive! No way he could count the survivors just now; still, ’twas obviously more than half.
His friends were caged and facing a grim fate, and though he didn’t see her, probably Sathryn was among them.
There was but a single Norgeman guarding them, a huge shaggy bear of a man, now relaxing in a chair, his back to Druin. This was the opportunity he’d prayed for, perfect in every regard, except... now he recognized what before he’d heard only as blurred sounds. From the dungeon it was only a stone’s throw down a narrow musty corridor to a cavernous large room that one of Druin’s remote ancestors had equipped as a torture chamber.
Judging by the sounds, the main body of the Norgemen must be there, having drunken revel. While no one was screaming just now, ’twas a safe guess that the seawolves had chosen to celebrate their victory in that chamber because they meant to put the grim old implements to use.
How long it would be before a group of the marauders came to the dungeon to drag off a helpless victim for their sport Druin could only wonder. In a way it didn’t matter, for the important thing was that he must murder that lone guard right now and he must do so silently, very silently.
Not an easy task. The man’s head and upper body were protected by a steel helmet and a vest of hard leather. Still a quick knife slash across the throat would... Gods! What kind of fool am I? I’ve neither knife nor any other weapon!
Indeed when he ran his hands through all his pockets, the young nobleman found he’d nothing except the keys, a silk handkerchief and one large gold coin. He didn’t even have the means to relight his candle. That made it impossible to go back and find a weapon, even if there was time, which there wasn’t.
How he could have been so monstrously stupid, Druin couldn’t imagine, and he cursed himself with great and sincere heat. Such was his self-anger that he paid no heed to the way his hands fumbled with coin and silk. Only as he started to put them back in his pocket did he notice.
Without thinking he’d tied the heavy gold coin into one corner of the handkerchief and twisted the silk until ’twas like a short rope.
I’ve heard of this. Though scarcely magic it’s certainly a very black art.
For an instant he wondered how and why such ugly knowledge came to him unbidden, and then he forgot everything except the need to act. The guard was getting up from his chair and it was strike now or never.
Flinging the door open Druin leapt. As the guard sluggishly began to turn, the weighted silk whipped round his neck and the young nobleman drew tight.
Like an enraged grisly bear the Norgeman bolted fully upright, his mouth twisting in soundless fury. Clinging to the silk for dear life and drawing it still more taut, Druin was lifted off the floor and found himself tossed about as though he rode a wild stallion. The ax flashed by his head, missing by a hand’s breadth — a blind stroke that was all too close — the huge Norgeman lurched backwards, slamming Druin into the stone wall with stunning force and... ’Twas over.
With a single convulsion the bearlike raider went limp and Druin slowly lowered his foe’s dead body to the floor. He did not, however, release the strangling silk until he was quite sure of his kill.
Only as he rose from the corpse did the young aristocrat realize what had just happened: he’d just done a stealthy murder with all the skill of a long-practiced assassin. It had been easy, natural, a talent he’d always had but never before had occasion to use, as though he were a cat that for the first time in its life sees a mouse and instinctively kills it. Very disturbing, for if a cat cannot help acting according to its nature, then Druin also...
I’ll worry such Drodd-sent problem on another day. Now I have work to do!
The guests who’d come to celebrate his wedding were staring at him from behind the iron bars that caged them, stunned surprise and dawning hope written on their faces. Before they could begin shouting their excitement, he made an urgent gesture for silence and, putting key in lock, opened the cage door.
Gods above NO! She’s not here!
“Where’s my wife?” he demanded in a harsh whisper, and swiftly their eyes left him to stare at the floor.
’Twas his cousin, old Sir Ustor, an aged knight whose face bore the scars of battles now forgotten, who finally broke the heavy silence. “’Tis best,” he declared, “that you forget her, for there’s naught you can do.”
“Then she’s alive!” Druin exclaimed. Even as he spoke, the young nobleman saw the grim logic of the situation. Sathryn was exceeding fair. It was to be expected that the raiders would force her to attend their revels. And that would mean...
“I’m going after her,” Druin declared flatly.
“’Tis noble,” the oldster replied mildly, “but ’tis also suicide. If you do not regard your own life, then at least think of all these your guests. Do you not have an obligation to get us to safety?”
“Well, yes, but...” The young aristocrat stopped, wracking his brain for a solution to this dilemma. The group of people standing before him were the most pathetic and helpless lot he’d ever seen, for the Norgemen had not spared any that might later cause them problems.
Who could Druin get to lead them out of here? Obviously not Sir Uster. The ancient warrior’s once keen brain was worn by the years and worked but part of the time. Wait, though... next to Uster was his grandson, Breen, a small youth years away from his beard. Still there was something about the boy that made Druin think he might be older than his years.
Taking a yellow flamed torch from off the dungeon wall, Druin placed it in the boy’s hands and said, “”Cousin Breen, I’m going to place a great responsibility on your shoulders.” Swiftly the nobleman described the hidden passageways and the route by which the boy Breen could lead the other survivors to freedom and safety. Presently the boy, his face set and stern, began hastening the others through the secret door.
Ahead, at the end of the night-black corridor, Druin saw angry red light streaming from the entrance to the torture chamber like the open portal of Hell. Laughter that might more fittingly have come from demons than men poured out of that door, grotesque laughter that joyed in pain and bloodshed. ’Twas appalling to think of his virginal Sathryn in such a place and how he might hope to rescue her he could not imagine.
Abruptly the laughter changed to silence, a hushed waiting that ended when a gruff voice roared, “It’s time we had some sport with the girl! Herfar, suppose you be the first to take this fair lady?”
As the mob roared its approval, the young aristocrat raged in silence. The fiends mean to gang rape my Sathryn!
The next voice he heard dispelled any lingering doubt he might have had. ’Twas the cold ice-hard voice that Sathryn used when she was frightened and struggling not to show it. “You’re a fool, Gardragon,” she snapped. “As a virgin I’m worth a fortune to you in ransom. Dishonor me and you lose all that gold.”
“If you be a bit damaged,” the barbarian chieftain replied, “your kin will still buy you back. Perhaps the price will not be so good, but ’tis worth it for the sport we”ll have.”
“NO!” she screamed. “This is Zadok, a civilized country. Our customs are totally different from yours. Among us if a woman is shamed, she’s no choice except to commit suicide!”
“She speaks true,” someone declared.
For a moment many voices resounded in confused babble, then Gardragon roared, “Dishonored or not, girl, there still be plenty of slave markets where you’ll fetch a good price. Herfar, start teaching this very haughty lady some respect.”
I’m one unarmed man against three shiploads of barbarians, but I must act now or it will forever be too late! My untouched bride is in dire peril, and there’s absolutely nothing I can do to save her...
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon