The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book II: What Was Found in the Cellar
Episode 1: A Dangerous Inheritance
Druin has fended off the barbarian Norgemen with the help of his Uncle in the cellar. Meanwhile, Druin has appointed his young cousin Breen to lead the wedding-party guests to safety. Breen has done so, but now the boy finds himself in the clutches of King Thilloden, with only his wits to depend on for survival.
Dragon’s teeth are sown where in battle blood was shed. — The Book of Princes
As the approaching footsteps drew steadily nearer, Calev trembled. “What did you do, Breen?” he whispered in a voice that was almost a whimper. “Why are the King’s knights searching for you?”
A moment ago Breen had hoped that the heavy thudding footsteps of the men in armor were only passing; but no. If they were going somewhere else, they’d have turned off by now. Why they were looking for him Breen had no idea, but he knew the King wouldn’t summon a whoreson like himself with any good purpose in mind.
“Calev,” he whispered back in an urgent tone, “just groom your horse the way you’re supposed to. If you’re doing your work, you won’t get in any trouble.”
Despite Breen’s words, Calev’s hands were trembling and his eyes wide with fear. Watching him, Breen had an unhappy feeling that no matter how brave a front he put on, his friend would give the show away.
The knight and a man-at-arms came toward the boys, huge grim iron giants in the cold night, mud squishing from under their heavy boots at every step. Their eyes wandered about, falling but briefly on the boys. The knight grunted, seemingly satisfied to see what he thought to be two stableboys tending to the horses.
“I told you the wizard be daft. There’s no one but two horse squires.”
Were there suspicious thoughts behind the eyes of the man-at-arms? Breen couldn’t be sure. He was the one who was likely to see horse squires as people. Turning toward the knight, he said urgently, “Good sir, please! Something has to be done to get these horses better shelter. The rain is freezing and the wind carries it in here like—”
“You,” the knight snapped, looking straight and hard at Breen, “will have to do the best you can. ’Tis the King’s orders.” To the man-at-arms he added, “Best we look over there.”
As they sloughed off, Breen found he could breathe again. His tension-knotted muscles were relaxing when a voice spoke quietly from behind his back. “I must commend you, young master; for one of your tender years you carried out that deception quite expertly.”
At first glance, the speaker — a black-cloaked figure with eyes red as firestones, an unnaturally pointed nose, and long bristling whiskers — looked like a giant rat; but no, he was merely an ugly man.
“Run, Breen!” Calev exclaimed as he himself took flight, “’tis the wizard!”
Though he would gladly have followed, Breen stood as helpless as a mouse facing a cobra. Whether it was some occult force from those baleful red eyes or only fear that paralyzed him he could not say. Since his tongue still worked, he stammered, “Who are... are you?”
“I am called... Ebbern,” the dark other answered, his ratlike face twitching eagerly, “and you are Breen, son of Sir Uto, and a cousin to Duke Aradam. Accordingly I have a... use for you. Come.”
Helpless, Breen followed the rat-man toward the rain-soaked, charred ruins of Castle Paragas. Not a word spoke the wizard as they passed through a doorway half-blocked with rubble and went down hallways littered with dead.
As they entered the Great Hall, the wizard dropped to his knees and servilely announced, “Your Highness, I have brought you the boy.”
As Breen stared at a tall man dressed in a spotless white shirt and long white trousers, he felt his mouth go abruptly dry. Thilloden, King of Zadok, was a man of truly striking appearance, his lean hard body erect and of stately bearing, the finely chiseled features of his middle-aged face still handsome, and his neatly trimmed beard and free-flowing hair as golden as the sun. All this one saw at first glance.
Looking again one saw only Thilloden’s eyes, black, opaque as coal, and quite lifeless. One did not look for mercy from a man with such eyes.
“Young man,” Thilloden said mildly, “you do realize, don’t you, that you are in some difficulty?”
As carefully as if his life depended on every word, Breen replied, “Would Your Majesty care to explain?”
Smiling without the slightest warmth, Thilloden responded: “Breen, my boy, my dear boy, We are grateful to you. The Norgemen held many people precious to Us captive, and you played an important role in their escape. Had you not led them quickly to a place of shelter and warmth, this terrible weather would have killed most of them.”
This, Breen knew, was all too true. The wind outside hurled icy rain with the malice of a frost giant. The former captives were dressed in the ruins of their wedding finery, and few would have survived if he had not swiftly led them to a dry place with a fire.
No doubt Thilloden ought to be grateful for what Breen had done. However, since the King had done nothing to help while Breen was doing all this, Breen didn’t consider himself especially grateful now.
“While this noble deed,” Thilloden continued, “places the entire kingdom in your debt, still there is the awkward fact that you claim to be the illegitimate son of Sir Ethod by... We shall be charitable and call her ‘a woman of the lower classes’.
“This recent tragedy cost the lives of your uncle, the Duke of Metros, and of your cousins, the Duke Aradam and Lord Marcond. Since Sir Druin is also presumably dead, you are the closest surviving relative, the heir presumptive to all their vast property.”
The King paused, his long manicured fingers pulling his beard, his black eyes watching Breen without emotion. “Perhaps,” Thilloden went on, “you don’t see the danger in such a situation. Great property is bound to attract other claimants, and the law permits them to press their claims on the Field of Honor. Do you see what that would mean?”
“No, Your Highness, not really,” Breen replied promptly.
“Ahh, dear boy,” the King smiled in unpleasant amazement, “’tis much worse than you might imagine. You’d find it impossible to get anyone to act as your champion, so, young as you are, you’d have to go into mortal combat against an experienced warrior.
“Furthermore,” Thilloden added with relish, “you can’t back out. Failing to claim your inheritance would be an admission that you’re an impostor, a crime punishable by drawing and quartering.”
Though he stood erect, Breen was sweating, cold drops running like snakes down his spine.
After briefly enjoying the boy’s discomfort, Thilloden continued: “Fortunately, however, We are favorably disposed toward you and have decided to support your claim. You are to be the uncontested heir to three dukedoms. In return...”
As Breen waited for the ax to fall, Thilloden turned to the table on his right, lifted the crystal goblet of amber wine to his lips, sipped it slowly, and only then continued, “In return, We ask only that you give Us a certain book. It’s somewhere within this castle and We have no doubt you’ll be able to find it with diligent effort.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Breen gasped, his head spinning from this strange turn of fortune, “but how do I recognize this book when I find it?”
“When you find it,” the King replied with an annoyed gesture, “you’ll have no trouble recognizing it. Now be off, for time’s short!”
As he fled out of the large room and down the dark hallway, Breen couldn’t decide whether he should be elated or terrified. The prospects before him were incredibly attractive — if he could trust the King to keep his word. Royal promises were doubtful at best and this one was absurd. Three dukedoms for a worthless book!
Or... was the book worthless? Might it not be the key to some nightmarish intrigue, some dark plan of Thilloden and Ebbern’s? Mayhap. Indeed, since the King didn’t seem to be mad, that appeared to be the only explanation. In that case Thilloden would want Breen to keep silent about the book and would have to keep his word!
I can do it! I can find that Drood-begotten book and make a place in this world for myself and my grandfather! The boy trembled as he realized what this could mean: his grandfather could spend his remaining years in the honor that was his due, and Breen himself...
The boy’s eyes bulged, his mind filled with greedy thoughts, as he realized what it would mean to be wealthy and powerful. ’Twas a goal worth great risk. With a determined stride Breen set out down the dark corridor, stepping gingerly over the occasional corpse.
From the darkness ahead he heard sounds. If memory and his sense of direction served him, he should be approaching the library of Castle Paragas. He could see flickering lights streaming around a corner. Quiet as a mouse, he slipped up and peered around.
A group of men-at-arms, Imperial Cavalry looking far less impressive without their horses, was struggling to clear a doorway blocked by fallen timbers and stone.
Knowing that he was about to cast fortune’s dice, Breen strode boldly forward and demanded, “Here, you men, just what do you think you’re doing?”
“Who’s asking?” growled the knight in charge.
“I am Breen, this very day created Duke of three realms by King Thilloden. Now, pray explain your actions.”
While suspicion lurked in the knight’s eyes, he answered politely enough, “Then may it please your Lordship, we’re carrying out our King’s orders. Thilloden commanded us to search the entire castle for a jar of polish and to get into the library we have to—”
“Yes, yes,” Breen interrupted, “I know all about that. What I want to know is why you’re about to violate the King’s orders by getting yourselves killed. If you’ll look up, you’ll see that there’s a lot of heavy stone ceiling that hasn’t fallen... yet.”
As the knight started an angry reply, a few bits of mortar came clattering down on him and his men. One of them murmured, “Stuff like that’s been falling every time we move anything.”
“Sire,” the knight said in a much milder tone, “I take your point, but how are we to clear a path into the library?”
“Well,” Breen replied thoughtfully, “if instead of trying to clear the entire doorway, you just moved that timber... and that one,” he pointed, “there’d be room enough for a small person like myself to slip over the top.”
After a long silent moment, the knight replied “Your Lordship is young but wise.”
I did it! I tricked these horselovers into giving me first crack at the library!
Concealing his excitement as best he could, the boy watched, impatience boiling inside him while the way was cleared. When there was barely enough space at the top of the doorway, he bade the horsesoldiers to boost him up. In a moment he was up, over, and into the library.
Dawn was beginning to redden the horizon and its first pale rays streamed through the room’s broken windows.
How do you find one book about which you know nothing in a room full of books?
Well... obviously the book Breen needed was valuable and therefore it would be either displayed with pride or hidden. Or both. Castle Paragas abounded in secret doors and passageways. Why not a little alcove where some vastly important book could rest with appropriate splendor and still be hidden?
With such thoughts Breen wandered about. Occasionally he marveled at the wealth of the late Duke Aradam. The man had literally hundreds of books! And other things. On his right, for example, was an oak case full of curiosities all related to the old mine... which, come to think of it had produced a fabulously effective polish.
With a flush of excitement Breen remembered: a sample, the very last of that magnificent polish had been kept in the center of this case. No doubt King Thilloden wanted it and would be grateful to whoever gifted him with it, but... In the place where the polish had been there was only an empty circle in the dust.
While this was a disappointment, the oak case was still worthy of his attention. It was a door in disguise. Had it been completely shut, the disguise would have been virtually perfect, but someone had left it open a crack.
Hurriedly opening it, Breen saw the hidden alcove he’d half expected. A single table stood in that tiny room, the pattern of dust on its surface bearing mute witness to the fact that until recently it had born a large iron-bound book.
Upon the floor lay the body of a Norgeman raider, the seawolf’s hands and every other part of his body that Breen could see covered with horrible wounds. The man was pale as marble, as though there were not a drop of blood left in his veins; and, worst of all, the wounds had a pattern: they were complex, ornate, almost like written words.
Damn! What in Drood’s name does this mean? A book that kills those who aren’t supposed to read it? If Thilloden wanted a book and that book was lethal to all save its proper owner, the King couldn’t simply take the thing. He’d have to pay for it.
All of which left Breen in a very awkward position. With the book gone, the King had no need of his services. I’d best leave while I may.
Since the windows opened on a sheer drop to the sea, the only way out was the way Breen had come in. He’d have to bluff his way past the horsesoldiers again.
Climbing up to the top of the doorway on a shaky tower of tables and chairs, he slipped through and shouted, “I’ve found something extremely important!” With eager hands helping him down, he continued, “You must stay here, guard our discovery while I run to find the King”
“You needn’t,” said Thilloden, resplendent in his white clothes, as he stepped out of the shadows, “run far. Pray tell us what you have found.”
Breen’s mind went blank, no good lie would come, and for want of anything better to say he told the truth.
When he had finished, Thilloden nodded. “’Twould seem,” he commented, “you have found proof that what We seek is not to be found here. ’Tis unfortunate, but We believe your tale for it matches certain things our Wizard has recently divined.”
For a painfully long moment the boy waited for the King to announce what he meant to do next. Despite Breen’s fears the Monarch smiled amiably and declared, “Still Our chief purpose in coming here was to rescue the survivors of the savage Norgemen’s attack. In that regard the Throne owes you a debt of gratitude, young man, for you led many people whose lives are dear to Us to safety. Kneel, young Breen.”
Though this was a total surprise, Breen obeyed promptly. Taking a sword from one of his men, Thilloden tapped Breen on one shoulder then the other. “Rise,” he said, “Duke Breen.”
Dazed the boy asked, “What happens now?”
“Why, of course,” Thilloden declared smiling, “we gather everyone together and go back to Ermont.”
* * *
For Breen the next several hours were a happy confusion. Since he had never seen Ermont, any trip to his nation’s capital would have been exciting, but to go there as a newly created Duke!
Both the Knights of the Imperial Cavalry and the common soldiers thronged him, joying in his elevation. Many had known and loved his grandfather, and all knew and admired his reputation. They rejoiced that the seed of such a noble tree should prosper.
Some few, especially the long-limbed Sir Vorund, confessed more in private. The tradition of the Imperial Cavalry had always been one of untarnished honor, and much of what Thilloden had done of late made them uneasy. Fortunately all that was over: the King had abandoned his strange quest and was now doing what was right in the sight of all.
Breen’s only regret was that his grandfather could not share more fully in this joyous occasion, but the old man was having one of his bad days and kept wandering off.
By midmorning the baggage train arrived. The wagons, pulled by slow steady mules, had been unable to keep up when Thilloden ordered his troops to rush the castle at full gallop. Now they arrived, bringing food and supplies.
As the survivors slowly returned from the stables they were greeted with warm food, clothes suitable for the fierce weather, and assurances that they could all ride home in warm dry wagons.
Sir Grisnor and a small group of men-at-arms arrived with the baggage train. After glancing at Breen, the scarfaced Knight bowed to the King and thundered, “Your Majesty, is it not your place to judge cases at law?”
“Indeed it is,” Thilloden replied affably.
“Then pray judge my case. I, Sir Grisnor, son of Sir Milcar, am a distant relative of the late Dukes Aradam, Marcond, and Metros; but with so many dead I think that I and Sir Uster are the closest surviving relatives.
“Since property cannot go backwards, all three dukedoms are my inheritance. This right, however, is denied me because a whoreson, a base-born cur of no known ancestry has claimed the property and estates that are rightly mine. May I challenge this interloper to mortal combat?”
“Certainly,” the monarch replied, “and as the aggrieved party you have the choice of time, place and weapons.”
“Good,” the ugly knight rumbled, “then I challenge this impostor Breen to mounted combat in full armor with lances — here and now!”
Next Episode: Mounted Combat on a Wooden Horse
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon