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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror

Episode 3: The Price of a City

Previously: Under the command of General Narash and thirty other aristocrats, the Thessian army is laying siege to Ermont, capital city of Zadok. Using blackmail based on occult knowledge, Sir Druin tricks all thirty-one of these aristocrats into agreeing to crossbow duels. In the first seven rounds he kills all seven of his opponents with clean head shots. When he kills the remaining 24, he points out, the Thessian army will be leaderless and will dissolve.

Outside the large tent, the wind howled through the moonless night, its voice cold and bitter. The mood of the men inside the tent was equally bleak. Four and twenty there were of them, all that remained of the aristocrats who commanded the Thessian army.

“I can’t understand,” bemoaned Lord Dictus, “how this could have happened. Yesterday we were winning this war and today it’s as good as lost.”

“Surely,” objected Htaying, a big, amiable, and rather simple fellow, “it’s not that bad. Winning seven duels was an incredible feat of luck. The odds must be huge that you’ll win tomorrow, and that’ll be the end of this Druin fellow. If not, well, one of us is bound to get him. I mean no man could possibly be that lucky.”

Dictus snorted impatiently. As an orator in public and a schemer in private, he felt awkward in command of an army. Still he must do his best.

“No,” he replied as he rose and began to pass about the shadowy tent, “if anything, my good Htaying, I understate. The sad truth is that Druin had virtually won all his duels before he walked out onto the field.

“Strange as it sounds, thirty-one duels are easier to win than one. Remember skill is almost irrelevant, because your opponent is an easy target. Instead it’s a contest of nerves: the winner is whoever can stay calm and shoot on the field as well as he does in practice. A man who sets up thirty-one duels obviously doesn’t give a damn about living: therefore he has no trouble keeping his nerve.”

From the darkness at the back of the tent old Sir Marrot rumbled, “General Narash was a fool to pull that trick with the armor. ’Twas half clever because the helmet interfered with his vision, kept him from shooting accurately, and wasn’t strong enough to stop Druin’s quarrel.”

“True,” Dictus replied, “but there’s small profit in worrying about past mistakes. Our problem is what we do next. If I refuse tomorrow’s duel, I’ll lose honor, lose my reputation for chivalry. Our troops won’t trust our promises to pay them or to share the spoils with them, and our army disintegrates.

“If, on the other hand, I do go through with the duel, each of you will have a turn after I’m dead. Now I know you’re all brave men, but is there any here who thinks he might win? If so, I’ll gladly let you take my turn.”

Dead silence followed this offer. The howling of the cold wind outside echoed with equally cold memories within each man. During the course of this invasion they had done singularly cruel acts and ordered others to do more. Often not even the tiniest baby had been spared. It hadn’t seemed to matter, because they were sure of winning. Now, with defeat, the butcher’s bill was coming due.

At intervals the cold silence was interrupted by someone’s suggestion, which the others promptly rejected as disastrous. Slowly the gloom deepened into despair. Finally, as the meeting was about to break up, a harsh voice said, “Intrepid gentlemen, I believe I can help you.”

Dictus looked up and stared, his eyes bulging from their sockets. Here in the middle of his command tent was one of the enemy, a rat-faced man he instantly recognized as Ebbern, King Thilloden’s chief wizard. Since the flaps of the tent were sealed, the man had been here the whole time, hidden in shadows by unnatural means.

Despite his great fear Dictus kept his voice calm as he demanded, “What do you want with us, Wizard?”

His bright red eyes dancing, the mage smiled, showing his large teeth. “I thought,” he said with greasy sincerity, “that you gentlemen might be interested in buying a city, this city, Ermont.”

While the others gasped, Dictus, in the tone of a shrewd bargainer, snapped, “At what price?”

“Oh, a very good price, I assure you,” murmured the Wizard. “Remember the city comes complete with a great host of people, commoners, noblefolk, King Thilloden, and his beautiful Queen Islaina, any or all of whom you’ll be free to sword. Also the city has strong walls which you’ll need to defend yourselves when Prince Hower arrives with the Ilan army — as I assure you they will — quite soon.”

For a moment the ugly little mage paused, feeling every eye on him, savoring their urgent need. When their impatience mounted to a peak, he said, “The price is threefold. First, you must kill Sir Druin — and do not smile so easily — ’twill be far harder than you imagine.

“Second, you must tell your soldiers that they must not, on pain of death, break any mirror in the city. Do not ask why I make this condition for it is a mighty secret. If you knew or could even hope to guess, I would slay you instantly.

“Third, and most important of all, there is within the city, somewhere, I know not where Druin has hidden it, a jar of polish. In exchange for the city, all of its people, and all of your lives, I must have that polish.”

Next Episode... A Game of Cat and Rat

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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