The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book I: Wolves at the Wedding Feast
Episode 4: Cry Uncle!
Previously: Though the castle has been raided by barbarous Norgemen, Sir Druin has secretly managed to free most of the wedding guests who had been taken prisoner — all save his bride-to-be and his brother. Alone, armed with nothing but his cunning, strange instincts, and his father’s cryptic dying words, Druin persuades a party of the Norgemen that there is treasure hidden in the wine cellar. They start to tear down a strange old wall in the cellar behind which Druin has promised treasure, but something else lurks there. Something alive — something they free. Then... blackness!
For Druin, the darkness lasted but a moment. In a twinkling the cellar was again fully lighted — but changed. The torches were still out and whence the new light came was entirely mysterious. There was also no sign of Sith and his men. In their place there was a young man of about Druin’s age, similarly dressed and bearing some resemblance to the aristocrat.
“Uncle?” he asked tentatively.
“Yes,” the other replied affably, as he seated himself. “I hope you don’t mind if I eat while we talk. I’m quite famished.”
Looking at the bowl his “uncle” held, Druin saw that it contained a number of wiggling little forms, as many as there had been of Sith and his men. When he popped one into his mouth, there was a faint sound, as of someone very far away screaming in horror, and then the distinctive cracking of bones.
As Druin took a step back, he found that the floor was almost but not quite where he saw it. The same was true of a wine keg he tried to touch. “Uncle,” he asked in his most polite tone, “is it true the lights are still out and what I’m now seeing is only an illusion that resembles the cellar?”
“Right, you are, my boy,” Uncle replied between mouthfuls. “I thought it would be much more pleasant for us to chat this way, rather than you sitting in the dark listening to me eat.”
“Well,” Druin blurted, “why not have the lights on so I can see things as they are?”
Laughing slightly, Uncle replied, “My boy, you do want to keep your sanity, don’t you?”
As another squirming little figure disappeared into Uncle’s mouth, Druin had an eerie, sinking feeling. No doubt what his uncle implied was true; were he not protected by these normal-seeming illusions, his mind, his reason would be extinguished like a candle in the wind.
“What I want,” he forced himself to say, “is your help. Will you aid me in destroying the Norgemen and rescuing Sathryn?”
“What you’re asking,” the other replied, “is not an easy thing. Do you truly want her that badly?”
“More than my life!” Druin declared without hesitation.
The other shook his/its head. “You humans are strange. Now you’re willing to die to possess this woman and yet a few months ago when you visited her father’s castle, she came to your bedchamber at night and you, fearing to offend her father, sent her away.”
“That was a diplomatic necessity!” Druin protested. “If I’d dishonored Sathryn under her father’s roof, ’twould have been a mortal insult. Instead of the marriage I was trying to — and finally did — arrange, there’d have been war.”
Druin paused, took a deep breath, and continued, “All that no longer matters. Uncle, I need to know whether or not you’re willing to help me.”
“My boy, that’s why your grandfather left me here. I’ll gladly save your friends and destroy your enemies. Problem is,” he said while chewing slowly, “your father was a very thorough man. There are a number of occult barriers which make it impossible for me to leave this cellar.”
After thinking a moment Druin answered, “In that case would you mind giving me whatever gold my late enemies may have been carrying?”
“Oh, certainly. Never could digest the stuff anyway.” He fumbled for a moment in the eating bowl, pulled out a large leather sack and tossed this same to Druin.
Hastily mumbling his thanks, the young aristocrat swiftly left the cellar. The oak door opened for him. Once he’d passed through it and was safely away from his “uncle,” Druin nearly collapsed. Leaning against the wall and breathing deeply, he promised himself that when all this was over he’d get drunk and stay that way forever.
That, however, was for later, and now speed was of the essence. Checking the sack, he found ’twas all he could have hoped for: gold and silver coins; numerous bright, pretty jeweled rings and bracelets; other trinkets. Nothing of great value, but for his purpose that scarcely mattered. Someone, probably Sith, had been a skilled looter, and now he had the fruits of whoever’s efforts.
Filling both hands with coins and jewels, he strode down the corridor toward the red-light doorway of the torture chamber. From the sound the Norgemen were in wild carousal, making full use of the stolen wine.
When he was a few steps from the doorway, he broke into a run, went bursting into the torture chamber, shouting “Behold, the treasure is found!” As he tossed the gold and silver at the astonished barbarians, he continued, “This is but the smallest token. Your comrades” — he pointed excitedly back toward the wine cellar — “cannot carry what they have found. They bathe in gold, dance upon diamonds—”
He would have gone on, but there was no need. The barbarians were up, brushing past him in a mad rush. In but a few heartbeats almost all of them were running down the corridor to the wine cellar.
I hope my uncle is hungry.
He was left alone with Gardragon, a dozen of the other Norgemen — six on their feet and the rest peacefully sleeping — Kyarl still stretched upon the rack, and Sathryn who stood beside the rack tenderly ministering to him.
“Before,” Gardragon declared slowly, “we go see this fabulous treasure, I am minded to keep my promise.”
“Your promise,” Druin asked cautiously, “to let us all go?”
“No, lackwit! The promise” — the gristled barbarian smiled horribly — “I made to myself, that I read the future in your spilled entrails!”
“But what of your honor?’ Druin protested.
Though they were a bit unsteady on their feet, the six Norgemen were up and, weapons in hand, slowly closing in on Druin as wolves circle a stag. They weren’t between him and the doorway, yet. He could retreat.
NO! Damn the odds, I’m going to stay and fight for my Sathryn!
“Surely,” Gardragon chortled merrily, “you didn’t expect honor from a barbarian?” His belly shook as he laughed, and he shouted, “Take him, boys!”
As they lunged toward him, Druin ducked and, crouching low, tried to spring past them. He made it — almost. Someone stuck a foot out and he tripped, falling headlong. Before he could recover they were upon him and the world dissolved into a painful fog.
He didn’t quite lose consciousness and when he could force his eyes to focus, he was flat on his back on the cold stone floor with strong men holding his hands and feet. Druin’s stomach was bare and old Gardragon was standing over him, smiling, a drinking jack in one hand and a horrid knife in the other.
I seem, he thought ruefully, to do a great deal better lying than fighting.
For an instant the drinking jack caught his eye and he wondered: had he seen a skull on it? “Wait, great warchief,” Druin implored, “if you spare my life, I’ll spare yours.”
Gardragon knelt, put the point of the knife below Druin’s navel and said, “I’m listening.”
“While we were in the wine cellar, I heard Sith talking to one of the others. He said that he wasn’t going to share the treasure with you. Instead he’d arranged for someone you thought to be your friend to... well, just smell the wine you were about to drink.”
Though the knife point did not move from Druin’s stomach, Gardragon did raise the jack to his nose and sniffed the contents.
His face turned ashen. Fear distended his eyes and a compulsive tremor shook his right arm, spilling red wine in all directions. “Soargous, you traitor!” he screamed, plunging the knife into the heart of the man who held Druin’s right shoulder.
“Warchief or not,” yelled one of the others, “you’d no right to do that!”
“You’re all Sith’s men, you’re all in this plot against me!” Gardragon accused, snatching up his great two-headed war-ax.
“But surely...” one of the remaining five protested, raising his hand in gesture of peace. Before he could say more, the ax chopped off his arm at the elbow. As he staggered back, painting the room in streaming red, the battle was on: the four smaller barbarians against the huge warchief.
Though they were walking all over him, Druin thought it prudent to lie where he was, accepting the small punishment of being stepped on rather than risk getting up and attracting their attention. After a few painful moments the scene of battle shifted and he could rise. Now that he could see the combat clearly, it seemed less a battle than a mutual slaughter.
While only two of the four remained, Gardragon bled from a dozen horrible wounds. As Druin watched, the pair attempted a clever maneuver. Coming at the warchief from opposite sides, one thrust at his broad stomach. They expected their foe would parry this blow, leaving himself open to the other.
Instead Gardragon let the sword thrust deep into his girth and used his ax to pulp the first man’s head. The second hesitated an instant before stabbing and was caught by the return swing.
Bleeding profusely, two swords projecting from his body, Gardragon turned about, a fearful red light in his eyes, and roared at Druin, “You! This be all your doing!”
Staggering like a wounded colossus he brandished his bloody ax and came toward Druin. Out of the torture chamber and down the corridor toward the wine cellar he chased him. When they reached the doorway, red foam spewed from his mouth and his horrible eyes were blind.
Standing directly in front of the doorway, Druin called, “Here I am!” and stepped to one side. As Gardragon lunged forward, the young aristocrat stuck out his foot. Tripped, the warchief fell headlong into the darkness of the wine cellar like a bit of food into a giant’s mouth.
It’s over. I actually did it! Sathryn’s safe. Probably we’ll even be able to nurse Kyarl back to health. Many of my friends escaped unharmed. Of course, none of us will ever forget the horrors of this night, but life will go on, things will return to normal.
Even as he entertained these thoughts, he knew they were pleasant lies and that somewhere at the back of his mind a warning was sounding. For a moment he ignored it, caught his breath, when abruptly it came to him.
Gods! Kyarl, the rack, Sathryn! No!
He was running down the corridor as fast as his tired legs would carry him. Now, with victory won ’twas unthinkable to let a tragedy occur.
As he came rushing back into the torture chamber, he saw everything he feared: Sathryn huddled on the floor sobbing and Kyarl lying dead upon the rack. “Darling,” he said softly, “it wasn’t your fault. There was no way you could have known that suddenly releasing the rack’s tension was the wrong thing to do...”
As she turned toward him, he saw in horror that the front of her white wedding dress was stained red. The knife lay nearby and he had no doubt the wound was self-inflicted.
“Dear gods, no!” he screamed. “Sathryn, why? Why do such a thing to yourself?”
Hatred sparkling in her eyes, she spat at him, “Why? Because, you blind fool, I had to! Ever since that night when you refused my love and Kyarl accepted, I’ve been a dishonored woman. If only that poison had killed you, everything would have been perfect! Kyarl would have been heir to the Dukedom and would have married...”
Her eyes went blank and she was dead.
Though Druin wanted to scream at the top of his lungs, cursing the gods and damning the Fates, he was far too tired and instead sat on the floor, quietly cursing himself. In a while he was too fatigued for even that and simply sat, his eyes wandering aimlessly about the room.
The six Norgemen he’d previously thought dead drunk were simply dead. Well, with Sathryn for their serving maid, their deaths were hardly mysterious.
Oh gods, what a monstrous joke! All the raiders are dead. I cheated them of their lives, lied them into obscene death, deeds for which the gods will damn my soul, and by doing all that I restored my family’s honor.
His laughter was bitter and horribly ironic, and his mind grew colder and harder. He had an important decision to make: which of his two heritages should he choose?
If he wanted to be a rural nobleman ruling a sleepy countryside, he could tell a few plausible lies and everything that had happened could be smoothed over. Obviously, though, he’d have to forget King Thilloden, forget that the traitor had sent death to his family for a jar of polish. Indeed he’d have to send Thilloden the accursed polish.
On the other hand there was the dark side of his family. Somewhere his wizardly grandsire no doubt still lived and practiced unspeakable arts. Monstrously evil as the old man was, the fact remained that both he and the Uncle-demon stretched out their hands toward Druin in friendship.
And they had power.
Slowly he rose and began walking toward the cellar and the thing that waited there in the darkness.
End of Book One
Proceed to Book Two: What was Found in the Cellar
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon