The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 8: An Inheritance of Duels
part 1 of 2
Previously: Aided by treachery, the Thesian Army has entered the city of Ermont, slaughtering all they meet. Attacking the lair of the Wizard Mardarin they suffer heavy losses but succeed in killing the wizard. In an obviously suicidal action the wizard’s grandson, Druin, carries the mage’s corpse toward a flaming inferno. Druin’s cousin, Breen, pleads with the man to stop but to no avail.
Breen watched in mute horror as Druin walked into the flames and disappeared. The boy wanted to chase after him and make him come back, but the intense heat drove him away. The stone walls were crumbling very dangerously and he knew he must flee now or perish. As he ran, section after section of the wall collapsed, turning the alley into part of the inferno. ’Twas as though he were in the jaws of a closing vice.
His speed saved him, and he did not stop until he was well out on the main street and some distance down it. Here he finally stopped and stood, breathing hard. Looking back he saw a vast realm of fire, blazing up toward the sky. His cousin Druin was at the center of that holocaust and beyond doubt the deluded wretch must be dead by now.
Breen ran. He was horribly tired, ached in every muscle, and it seemed as if he had been running for all eternity. Still he must run. There was some small hope that he might find his grandfather at the city’s main gate, for so his mad cousin had told him before walking to his fiery death. There was forlorn hope of rescuing his beloved grandsire, but tired as he was, he’d no thought of not trying.
His arm bled a little, for on the way he’d met Thesians. A brief fight; they were not interested in chasing him. While the arm pained him, still in an odd way it was a good pain. He’d given far better than he got, no small achievement for a boy fighting professional warriors.
Most of those he met were dead already. Was, he wondered, the whole city that way or just this part? Even as this thought flickered through his mind, he heard the faraway roar of battle: somewhere the city guard was still fighting the Thesian invaders.
As he continued threading his way through dark alleys, the dead changed. No longer were they helpless civilians, slaughtered while pleading for mercy. Instead they were city guards, fallen with their bloody weapons still in their hands, and no few of the Thesians had gone into the darkness with them.
The city of Ermont was built in the shape of a great square with high stone walls for sides and tall, proud towers at each corner. Breen’s destination, the north watch tower, was fairly near and the boy was beginning to think he’d reach it without serious incident when he rounded a corner and was face to face with a dozen Thesians.
The race was on immediately. Breen gained a good early lead while his foes were deciding whether or not one boy was worth chasing. Once they did, however, they steadily gained on him.
Fleeing with all the speed his tired legs could muster, Breen felt horribly cheated. He was a fleet boy running against men burdened with armor: ’twas monstrous that they should be overtaking him. Nonetheless despite his fiercest resolve and frantic effort they came ever closer.
Rounding a corner but two paces out of reach of their swords he saw the North Tower looming directly ahead. I’m going to make it. I’m going to get there ahead of them.
The sight of his goal spurred Breen and he pulled a little further ahead of his pursuers. Still their glittering steel was close to his back, and as he neared the tower he saw to his horror that there was no door he could close and bar. He’d win this race, and for first prize the enemy would chop him to pieces.
His lungs were on fire, his muscles twisted as though on the rack, and, though his situation seemed utterly hopeless, still he struggled on. Entering the tower a pace or three ahead of the Thesians there was naught he could do but make for the stairway and bolt up it.
The Thesians followed at a walk. Breen could hear their steady tread coming after him as he raced up the dark spiral stairway. Every step was an agony and ’twas nearly impossible to think. Still he had to think, hope to solve the deadly trap he found himself in.
The Thesians were clad in armor that covered all of their upper bodies; they couldn’t climb stairs as fast as he, and they weren’t even trying to. If he kept up this pace he’d reach the top well ahead of them and then — somehow — he’d bar the entrance to the top of the tower against them.
A bad plan and yet his only hope of survival. The bottom of these stairs had been dark, and now they were pitch black. The stairway wound around the inside of the tower. Spinning round and round, its spiral course was making Breen dizzy, and on his right there was no railing, only the rough stone surface of the tower. On his left there was nothing, a straight drop of hundreds of feet.
Still he dared not slow even though his senses of balance and position were steadily evaporating. His goal, the light at the top of the tower stairs, was now half visible, urging him on while the shifting uncertain light added to his dizziness. I’m almost there, he thought as his left foot went down and met empty space. He fell headlong, striking the stone staircase, slipping and sliding.
For an agonized moment he thought he was going over the edge. His left leg and arm were waving in empty space, his right foot was sliding helplessly and his frantically grasping right hand grabbed something solid. In a moment he was back on the stairs, scrambling upward on all fours to the top of the stairs and out into the bright sunshine.
THEBA BE PRAISED!
To his vast joy and delight there was a door at the top of the stairway, a heavy iron door. One kick knocked out the support that held it open and it slammed shut with a tremendous crash. As soon as he pushed the heavy iron bolt in place, Breen lay down on top of the door and spent a few moments just breathing.
The exaltation of winning the race soon evaporated for he realized that he was trapped. Of course, perhaps once the Thesians found they couldn’t reach him, they might just go away. Perhaps, but he didn’t think so. Now that he had time to think about it, it seemed the Thesians had been chasing him with extreme determination.
Why? Had they recognized him as a relative of Druin, a man they’d special reason to hate?
Perhaps. It didn’t matter. What was important was that thanks to his cousin’s mad advice, Breen now found himself trapped in the middle of the sky. Stuck up here with no way he could do aught to help his grandfather.
Damn! It’s my own fault. I knew Druin had departed his wits and I still followed his advice. Even as the boy cursed himself, however, he looked about, trying to learn what this tower held that he might use to advantage. Though Breen indulged himself in the luxuries of despair and self-recrimination, he did not find it in his nature to quit.
Glancing around the tower he saw the normal weaponry of defense in siege: three piles of big-as-your-head rocks for dropping on people, a pot of pitch suspended above a heap of dry wood and a large cabinet filled with crossbows. Stepping to the stone railing, Breen gazed out. The dreadful panorama he saw was everything he feared it might be and more. Large sections of the city below were seas of flames. In many other places he could see screaming crowds trapped between the fires and the Thesian soldiers. ’Twould not be long before fire and sword completed the destruction of the fair city of Ermont and all her people.
Breen’s eyes turned from the city itself to the great plain beyond the city walls. There he saw another army assaulting the city’s main gate, struggling fiercely to force their way into Ermont. At first he thought they were more Thesians, then he did a double-take.
The men on the city walls were, he now realized, Thesians. The ones trying to force their way in bore the unmistakable blue and gold banner of Prince Hower.
Merciful Theba! The Prince of Ilan has come at the last instant to rescue us!
Gazing about, he could see the banners of a dozen other proud lords, Ilan and Zadok both. What remained of the Zadokan army had joined the Ilans in this last-minute effort to save the city.
For a moment Breen stood awestruck, watching the vast panorama of battle, not able to take in all at once. The rescuers were milling about beneath the city walls, firing storms of arrows upwards and lifting the few ladders they had in valiant effort to get their men onto the wall. A comparatively few Thesians were on the wall, hurling down rocks and burning pitch, and pushing back the ladders as fast as they were raised.
The Thesians on top of the wall had a vast advantage of position, and their number, though small, was more than adequate to repel the Ilan assault.
’Twould seem, Breen thought gloomily, that our rescuers have come a little too late. Hower’s Ilans were losing not a battle but the war. In order to enter the city in adequate numbers to battle the Thesians. they absolutely must take the main gate: a seemingly impossible task. for the gate was of the drawbridge design. When lowered, it covered a large artificial pond; when raised, that pond made it inaccessible. Direct assault was thus impossible; the only way was for a few men to gain the wall long enough to get inside the control house and lower the bridge.
Gods! the boy thought, the drawbridge would probably drop if you cut one control rope. One man could turn disaster into victory with a single sword stroke!
There was, however, no prospect for that happening. Worse, Breen couldn’t see how he could do much in the present battle. The drawbridge control house stood at the center of the pond, while the the battles to storm the wall raged at opposite edges of the pond. The further of these twin battles was beyond the absolute range of Breen’s crossbows; but the nearer... Breen frowned in thought.
At that distance his arrows would hardly be accurate, indeed would be nearly as dangerous to friend as foe. Still he had to try and if he cocked all the bows — they were, of course, stored uncocked — he’d be able to fire at a furious rate foor several moments.
As Breen began to cock the first bow, there was an abrupt banging on the door to the tower stairs. It took those lackwits long enough to climb up here, he thought, putting the cocked weapon aside and picking up another.
The Thesians who’d chased Breen up this tower continued pounding on the door for a few dozen heartbeats; then silence. Perhaps they’d given up and gone away or perhaps they’d gone to get tools heavy enough to smash the door open. Either way they were no immediate threat. Still, though...
Breen stopped cocking bows long enough to find flint and tinder and light the fire under the pitch pot. Just what use he’d have for hot pitch the boy had no clear idea, but ’twas obvious that hot pitch could be a lot more useful than cold.
After starting the fire Breen returned to the crossbows and working efficiently he completed the long task of cocking them all.
What do I do now? the boy wondered as he got up. When he looked out at the battle again he saw, with sinking heart, that while he’d been working on the bows the tide of combat had gone steadily against his side.
Gods, but it hurt. It was so unnecessary. One man, if he could only get inside the drawbridge control house, could change everything. Most of the Thesians were on the sections of the wall on one side of the pond end or the other. Very few were actually near the control house. If only...
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon