The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 1: Crossbows at the Hour of the Dog
“’Twas a strange, strange thing. The Queen’s bedchamber was obviously empty, every corner visible in her great mirror, and yet there was the sound from in there... of whispering.” — Statement of Milord Duke Ashok on his deathbed
Ermont, capital city of Zadok, sat in the middle of a great plain like a mighty stag surrounded by wolves. All around the city’s high proud stone walls stood the mud-spattered tents of the Thesian army, conquerors of a dozen nations.
For the moment the clangor of battle, the ring of sword against sword, was ended. Occasionally, perhaps once or twice a day, the Thesian siege engine, crewed by men with naught else to do, would hurl a hundredweight of stones up into the sky to thunder down upon the streets of the besieged city.
Though the people had learned caution, still most throws killed a luckless wretch or two. Other than this occasional random bombardment all was peaceful. Both sides had settled down to a waiting game: the loser would be the one who first ran out of food.
The advantage was clearly with the Thesians. Nightly these hardened veterans ate a supper of dried beef and hard bread. ’Twas the boast of their commander, General Narash, that, used thus, their provisions would last the winter. ’Twas also his boast that he ate no more than the humblest of his men.
In the city, in the Royal Palace, King Thilloden and his queen, Islaina, and all their court did feast on roast ox and pig and elaborate frosted cakes, did drink free-flowing wine, while in the streets the common folk shuffled about like zombies, starvation written in their gaunt faces and dull eyes.
It was treason to say what all knew, that the Royal Granary was full to overflowing and so ill-managed that the rats did feast and grow fat like Thilloden’s court. Besides, the King was indirectly feeding his people, for many had taken to rat hunting.
One such crouched in an alley outside the granary. Still a boy in years, Breen went about the task of getting supper for himself and his grandfather with a determined intelligence few adults could match. The rats, he knew, must leave the granary to get water. Therefore he’d search until he found a wide rat hole, obviously used by fat, juicy rats, and there he’d set up a shooting blind.
Concealed behind an empty barrel twenty paces from the hole Breen now watched through crossbow sights. He’d but a single bolt and no means of recocking his weapon. He’d kill with his first shot or go hungry.
Assuming he got an opportunity to shoot. He’d been waiting a long time. The sun was getting low and the shadows were growing long. If the rats didn’t go for water until full dark, his weapon would be useless, and not all the city’s rats were well fed. There were many others, as gaunt and hungry as the people of this city, and at night the alleys were their territory.
Breen’s empty stomach was rumbling unhappily and — there! A brief flicker of motion at the hole. A cautious rat peeking out to make sure the coast was clear.
There would be but an instant in which the rat would scurry across the alley from one hole to another. Only an instant. Little beads of sweat spotted the boy’s forehead as he waited.
It was, he realized with a sinking feeling, another false alarm. Why did Theba—
A flash of black sped out of the hole. The urge to hurry was like a physical blow and still Breen took that tiny fraction of a second needed to aim his crossbow.
As the bow string sang, the quarrel flew, buzzing, its flight ending with a brief animal squeal. I did it! But even as his pride rose, he kept his caution. He ran swiftly to recover his kill, dagger drawn and eyes alert for danger.
As he snatched up the bolt and the fat prize it impaled, he scanned the wall. There were many holes and not all of them at ground level. More than one pair of red eyes watched him but the sun was not quite down and the alley was still the domain of man. Swiftly but calmly Breen retreated, giving no hint of the fear he felt.
Hiding his prize under his shirt — for many would gladly rob a boy of such a treasure — he raced for the little house he and his grandfather were using, bursting in the back door into the kitchen to shout, “GRANDFATHER, I’VE BROUGHT DINNER!”
After dinner — the whole rat, raw, for they needed all the nutrition it could provide — Breen said, “Grandfather, I think I’m ready.”
Many months ago they’d realized that Breen would have to fight a duel to the death against his cousin Druin. A half-grown boy against an accomplished warrior. In a duel with sword — or any other weapon that depended on the user’s strength — Breen wouldn’t have a chance. Crossbows might be a different story, and Sir Uster had promptly begun training him to the weapon.
Breen spent many hours every day of target practice and then went out into the woods near Castle Paragas to shoot a squirrel — or he went without supper. A trick of fate had brought them to the city in time to be trapped by the siege, but that had made little difference. Breen simply hunted rats instead of squirrels and waited for the day his cousin Druin would reappear.
Three weeks ago Druin had mysteriously reappeared in the city. Breen had wanted to challenge him immediately, but Sir Uster had told him to wait.
Looking at the boy now, Sir Uster marveled at how much he’d changed in so little time. Breen was taller and harder, but the greatest change was inside; the boy now had the look of a young eagle. ’Twas a look many young men had at a certain point in their lives. They were hearing their destiny’s call and you could not stand in their way even though you knew many of them would die.
Slowly the old knight nodded his head. “You are, my boy, very probably, the best crossbow shot in the realm.”
“Then I can challenge Druin?” the boy asked eagerly.
“NO!” Uster declared. “You may publicly insult him. He will then have to challenge you. That way, the choice of time, place, and weapons will be yours.”
* * *
Next morning, Breen went in search of his foe.
Time and again he approached a place where Druin might be, nerving himself for the confrontation only to find that Druin was not there. By noon he was thoroughly angry and frustrated.
Controlling his temper with some difficulty, he strode into the Bull’s Tavern, a place much frequented by the minor nobility. At table in one corner were Sir Aget, Sir Conar, Sir Ebester, and... Lord Druin!
Hate glittering in his eyes, Breen headed straight toward his cousin.
Seeing him, Druin rose and smiled. “Cousin Breen,” he called, gesturing in friendly manner. “Greetings. How fared you after we parted that dreadful night at Castle Paragas?”
“I lived,” Breen replied, spitting the words like little lead balls, “small thanks to you.”
Raising his eyebrows in mild surprise, Druin replied, “But if you’ll remember, it was I who saved you and the others.”
People were watching. They could sense that Breen was about to speak words that could not be called back. “You,” the boy said, his voice loud and clear, “were responsible for our being captured. The Norgemen raided Castle Paragas at your invitation!”
“Cousin,” Druin temporized, “I can understand your being confused about what happened that night. Please, if you will but withdraw your words I’ll gladly explain in private what actually happened.”
“Druin,” whispered Sir Aget, “the boy’s gone too far.You’ve no choice. You must challenge.”
Frowning, Druin whispered back, “I’m reluctant to fight a half-grown boy.”
Breen’s heart was pumping furiously. He’d never been so afraid in his life, and he knew it would be disaster to show that fear. “You’re reluctant to fight period,” he snapped. “When you wanted to come into your inheritance, you hired Norgemen to kill your father!”
As he hurled the monstrous accusation, the boy had a sense of triumph. Surely Druin would have to challenge him. The Code of Honor was absolute: if Druin tried to ignore a mortal insult, he’d be whipped out of the city.
To the boy’s dismay, however, the hawk-faced nobleman showed not the slightest anger. “The code of chivalry,” he said, smiling sardonically, “is a little more subtle than you imagine. If I challenge you, you must name acceptable weapons and time and place for the combat.”
“Crossbows,” Breen snapped defiantly, “at the hour of the dog this afternoon in Queen Delanda’s square!”
Next Episode: A Duel to the Death Every Day for a Month
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon