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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry

by Richard K. Lyon

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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror

Episode 4: A Game of Cat and Rat

part 1 of 2

Previously: Ermont, capital city of Zadok, sits in the middle of a great plain like a mighty stag surrounded by wolves. All around the city’s high, proud stone walls stand the mud-spattered tents of the Thessian army, conquerors of a dozen nations. Within the city, many hail Sir Druin as a hero, the man who will break the siege and save them all. Druin’s cousin Breen, however, is convinced that Druin is a monster, the man responsible for the massacre of their family at Castle Paragas...

Wearing depression like a second cloak, Breen trudged up to the little house that was home to him and his grandfather so long as they must remain in this besieged city. Twilight was creeping over the city, as stealthily as an assassin. As he reached the door, Breen saw someone rushing at him from out of the darkness. He heard the shout as he reached for his dagger.

“My Lord Breen!” the unknown called. “It’s Sir Vorund!”

“Oh.” Breen remembered the skinny knight who had been his friend that day at Castle Paragas. The youth relaxed, but only little. The knight’s face hardly resembled that of a bearer of good tidings.

“Is it true?” Vorund asked breathlessly. “Did you publicly accuse Lord Druin? Try to force him into a duel?”

Breen sighed. “It’s true. But as you must know he’s too busy dueling others to bother with me.”

The worry clouding Vorund’s sky-colored eyes deepened. ”Ah, lad! I fear me you may be quarreling with your only friend. Small reason you and I have to trust King Thilloden — and if such people as we have any friends at all, ’tis surely Mylord Druin.”

“The street’s a bad place to speak against the king,” Breen said quietly, and opened the door. “Come in, Sir Vorund. Mind the lintel.”

A second surprise awaited Breen within: someone was waiting in the sitting room. He stared at the wizard Ebbern, who was about as attractive as spiders and rats. Words exploded from Breen in accusation: “What are you doing here? Where’s my grandfather?”

The maroon-robed man bowed politely and stringy gray-and-white hair swung past his pinched face. A rat’s face, Breen thought.

“I,” the wizard replied, “came to talk with you and your grandfather. But after he admitted me, the old man had a small stroke. My presence was good fortune, as I’ve some skill in such matters. He is in his bed, resting comfortably, and should enjoy a full recovery.”

“I don’t want to seem ungrateful, but I mean to check what you’ve just said, wizard.” As Ebbern gestured agreement and Breen started past him, Vorund touched the youth’s arm. “Lad,” he murmured, “we must talk. Dark things are happening and...”

Abruptly Vorund’s face went gray and he clutched at his chest. Even as Breen tried to grab him, his legs went limp. The stringy knight crumpled to the floor like a sliced wash-line.

“I do believe,” Ebbern observed impersonally, “the poor fellow is having a heart seizure.”

* * *

His face contorted in pain, Vorund still struggled to speak. Hurriedly Breen squatted and bent an ear to the man’s lips.

“I came here to warn you,” Breen heard. “Things happening in the king’s court.... men disappearing wi-without... q-queen’s bedroom, mirror there... “ Approaching death wracked him in a final spasm and with his last bit of breath Vorund said, “At night the mirror... whispers... “

His own condition close to debilitating shock, Breen rose from a corpse. He looked at Ebbern, and his expression became one of intense suspicion. “I notice, wizard, that you made no attempt to help my friend.”

“There was nothing I could do,” Ebbern said with a rather elaborate gesture. “Besides, the poor fellow feared me. Had I approached him ’twould merely have worsened his state.”

“Worse than death? Rather a coincidence, isn’t it? First my grandfather’s stroke. Then Vorund’s seizure, all in one night and with you present.” Breen’s indifferent upbringing had hardly taught him not to stand up to the aged; even wizardly ones.

“Tragically, no,” the ugly little man replied in a sigh. “This city is under siege and near starvation. We are all weakened, my boy. Death is all too common. It is our constant companion.”

Slowly Breen let out his breath. Much as he mistrusted the wizard, there was no reasonable ground on which he could accuse him of anything. “Suppose,” he said, still watching his unwelcome guest most closely, “suppose that you just state your business, sir, and depart. I must to my grandfather.”

“He lives, Breen; he sleeps now; he needs that rest. Today you publicly accused the most noble Lord Druin of plotting the massacre at Castle Paragas. That is something King Thilloden has long suspected without being able to prove it. Do you have proof — evidence, that would stand up to a court of his peers?”

“No. That’s why I tried to force the knave into a duel.”

“Ahh, young man, young man,” the mage said, with a placating gesture of a twice-ringed hand that was like an albino spider. “I could have told you that that would be of no avail. Still...” the mage paused and paced about the sparsely furnished room. His robe whispered about doubtless spindly legs Breen had no desire to behold. “Still, my young friend, there is something you can do, something that would greatly advance you in the King’s favor.” Again Ebbern paused to stare sidewise, eyebrow cocked. Fixing, those eyes were. Breen didn’t like that gaze.

“There are many things I could do, did I choose! Trusting you is not one of them, sir!”

Even as he snapped the “sir” as an insult, the youth was staring into the wizard’s red eyes. They were larger, much larger, than they had any right to be. Ebbern spoke softly, purring. “Would you be willing to spy on Druin? Suppose I were to provide you with a magical disguise, so that you could follow Druin unknown, learn what he plots against the kingdom...”

I must go to my grandfa— “Well, uh... I mean, that would depend on...” His voice trailed off with his capacity for thought. He had to gaze in helpless fascination into the wizard’s enormous red eyes — eyes like unto glowing pools of blood. He had the strangest feeling, uncanny, and far from pleasant, as if he were shrinking. No, of course not. But that chair is growing!

“I’m so pleased that you agree,” Ebbern whispered, and reached down toward Breen.

To the boy’s horror the old man was now gigantic, his hand so large that he could — and did — pick Breen up by the scruff of the neck as if he were a kitten. Squealing in angry protest, Breen squeezed shut his eyes against the horror of vertigo. He was being carried through the air. It was not just Ebbern; the entire room had grown to prodigious dimensions, furnished for giants.

From somewhere the mage produced a leather bag that was covered, strangely, with a mesh of chain armor. Without ceremony Breen was dropped into that reinforced sack. As its top was drawn shut to imprison him in utter darkness, he heard the wizard’s voice: “Don’t get excited, lad. After you’ve done your spying on Druin and learned what he’s up to, just come back here and I’ll gladly turn you back.”

* * *

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon

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