The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
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Book IV: The Whispering Mirror
Episode 8: An Inheritance of Duels
part 2 of 2
Breen’s eyes bulged and he raised his hand to shade his eyes. His heart beat furiously and he blinked more than once, for everything was tiny in the distance. Still ’twas no illusion. There, near the bridge control house were two piles of rocks, and a tiny human figure was hiding between them.
Grandfather! Druin said that if I came here I could see and help my grandfather! But what can I do? the boy wondered. ’Twas evident that the old man meant to spend his life in a heroic effort to save the doomed city. ’Twas a miracle that Sir Uster had been able to slip past the Thesians and get this far. ’Twas obviously impossible for him to get the rest of the way to the gate house.
Unless I create a distraction!
It would, Breen knew, have to be something incredibly dramatic, something that would catch and hold every eye. A mere shower of inaccurate arrows obviously wouldn’t do. Still a goodly portion of the city wall below the tower was well within his accurate range and...
Praise Theba, my dear cousin Druin wasn’t so mad after all!
On the wall below, in good range, watching the battle from what they thought to be a comparatively safe position was a cluster of Thesian noblemen. While Breen wondered how he should use this heaven-sent opportunity, there was a momentary lull in the fighting and the boy knew that this was his moment, to be seized or lost forever.
Lifting a crossbow he leaned out of the tower and shouted, “LORD DICTUS, I AM BREEN, HEIR TO THE LATE SIR DRUIN. I CLAIM MY INHERITANCE FROM YOU AND YOUR FELLOWS.”
His ringing words carried to the farthest corner of the battlefield and men stopped, turned their eyes toward him. Again he shouted, “SIR DICTUS, AS DRUIN’S SOLE HEIR I CLAIM MY INHERITANCE UPON YOU!”
“Boy,” Dictus called back, “stop bothering your elders or I’ll summon archers to shoot you!”
“NAY, GOOD SIR DICTUS, FOR IT’S YOUR PLACE TO SHOOT ME! BY THE CODE OF CHIVALRY I INHERIT DRUIN’S DUEL WITH YOU. NOW GIVE ME MY RIGHT OR STAND SELF-CONDEMNED AS A COWARD BEFORE ALL GATHERED HERE.”
Actually Breen hadn’t the faintest notion whether or not the Code of Chivalry had provisions for inherited duels, but he knew it didn’t matter. The common soldiers wouldn’t know, either, and Dictus would have to fight or be a coward in their eyes.
Below Breen, Dictus was frantically whispering with his fellow nobles and behind Breen the stairway door abruptly began to ring with heavy blows. His pursuers had returned with a sledge hammer.
I’ve got to finish this quickly, before those dogs can burst in on me, Breen thought as he leaned out to shout, “DICTUS, THERE’S A CABINET FULL OF CROSSBOWS TWO PACES TO YOUR RIGHT. WILL YOU TAKE ONE, COCK IT AND FIGHT ME LIKE A MAN OR SHALL I SHOOT YOU DOWN LIKE THE COWARDLY DOG YOU ARE?”
Even as Breen spoke, some of the Thesian nobleman had opened the cabinet. As inconspicuously as possible they were passing out the bows and cocking them.
“Young man,” Dictus called as he accepted a weapon, “you leave me small choice. Lord Hatying here will shout, ready, aim, fire and you and I will obey his commands.”
“AGREED!” Breen answered. Other than the hammering behind him, the battlefield was quiet. He was sure that, fascinated by the spectacle of single combat, every man now watched him intently and he could see old Sir Uster now making his way stealthily toward the gate control house. Grandfather I’m giving you the best chance I can.
“READY!” Hatying shouted and both Breen and Dictus lifted their bows.
Slowly, calmly Breen squinted down his sights at the slightly overweight figure of Sir Dictus. A heartbeat passed. ’Twas time for the command to fire. But it didn’t come. Instead, Dictus shot.
As his quarrel buzzed angrily over Breen’s head, the boy shouted, “THEN DIE FOR A CHEAT, DAMN YOU!” and loosed his bolt. Straight and true it sped to shatter Dictus’s white-bearded head like a melon. While the Ilans cheered wildly and the common Thesian soldiers moaned, the other Thesian nobles lifted their bows and began firing at Breen. Quarrels whistling past him on all sides, the boy grabbed bow after bow from the cabinet firing at a furious pace. ’Twas a short battle, for Breen’s every shot was deadly.
With more than half their number dead, the remaining Thesian aristocrats turned to flee and Breen’s arrows struck them down with coward’s wounds. Once two nobleman crowded too close together and Breen with great savage pleasure was able to slay both with a single bolt, the heavy arrow passing through one man’s heart to sever the other’s spine.
Before the boy fully realized he was in battle, ’twas all but over: the last Thesian nobleman was running frantically away. Breen still had four crossbows, but the man was near the range limit. Breen’s shot almost missed him, the massive arrow striking him in the ankle, breaking bone and nearly severing the foot.
While the Thesian screamed in agony and bled to death, the city’s main gate came crashing down. With a triumphant roar, the army of Ilan, Prince Hower’s army, poured into the city.
But Breen had no time to watch. Behind him the stair door came crashing open and a huge black-bearded Thesian began to step out, the sledgehammer still in his hands.
Instantly one of the last three remaining crossbows was in the boy’s hands and he fired, a clean heart-shot. As the man fell backwards down into the stairs, Breen snatched up the other two bows and rushed forward. Standing at the top of the stairs he could see the Thesians below, a dozen or more spread out on the spiral stairs.
While those at the top struggled with their fallen comrade’s body he fired. The first bolt took a man in the right knee and he staggered, falling over the edge. His fellows caught his hand and there was a frenzied moment while the wounded man hung dangling over a great drop and they struggled to pull him back.
Breen’s second shot went exactly were he aimed it, the lower back of a man in this group who was near the edge and it did exactly what the boy wanted it to do. The impaled man was catapulted forward pushing himself and the others off the edge. As they fell screaming into the darkness, Breen leapt back and grabbed the lever on the boiling pitch pot.
This seething caldron was far too large for him to move, but he didn’t need to. He tilted it in the direction of the stairs. A black torrent spilled forth, caught fire, and, following the slope of the floor, rushed in a burning tidal wave down and round and round the stairs. Men screamed as its flames devoured their flesh. Trying to escape it, many jumped off the stairs to fall the nighted length of the tower.
Breen retreated from the flames and stood watching. The screaming was soon over and the fire lost much of its burning ferocity. Still the fire which remained acted as though it meant to smolder for some little while. That meant Breen was still trapped up here and would be until the air in the tower stairway was clean enough to breathe.
Looking out he could see the battle between the Ilans and the Thesians, if it could be called a battle. The Thesians, leaderless and utterly demoralized, were rapidly going down before Hower’s disciplined troops. Breen couldn’t see any sign of his grandfather. Still ’twas reasonable to hope the old man was all right, and for the moment there was nought Breen could do.
Utterly tired, the boy wondered how long it had been since he last slept. And he fell asleep.
* * *
The next several days were a severe disappointment to young Breen. Though he and Sir Uster were heroes, the Saviors of Ermont, the city was full of starved folk who could think of naught but find a little food for their empty bellies. It was a bad time for heroes.
On the other hand, ’twas a good time for thieves. By being among the first to loot the Royal Palace, Breen was able to acquire a pair of horses, a goodly quantity of supplies — dried beef, grain and the like-- and a large bag of coins, some gold and much silver. There seemed no advantage to lingering here in the city, indeed that would merely invite others to steal their valuables, and thus on a cold, bright day Breen and Uster set out for Castle Paragas, their proper home.
The next several days travel were uneventful save that the provisions went a little faster than expected. Thus Breen was glad when in late afternoon they reached a crossroads and found that for a wonder the Inn was still standing and apparently in business. The Innkeeper greeted them cordially, declaring that their supper would be free if only they’d tell him how the war was going.
Breen accepted and over a meal of hot stew and cold ale, he grandly told all at the table of how he and his grandfather, a boy not yet shaving and a feeble old man, had bested the invading Thesians. Naturally Breen omitted some of the less believable details, but he kept all his bravery and heroism in the tale. When he was done, the landlord asked, “And what, Lord Breen, will you be doing now?”
“Why,”the boy protested, “I explained to you that I’m now Lord of three dukedoms. Naturally I’m going back to my domain.”
“My Lord, you’ll pardon me for saying this,” the host said mildly, “but isn’t that a lot of land for a boy and an old man to farm?”
The piece of bread in Breen’s mouth was suddenly like dry wood and he swallowed it with some trouble. “Suppose,” he said, “I pay for this fine supper, and you pay for our news by explaining what’s been happening in the north country.”
“Why, my Lord,” the innkeeper replied mildly, “I thought surely you must have heard. The Norgemen took horrible advantage of the Thesian invasion. The entire northern section of Zadok is depopulated; those who lacked the wit to flee are all slain. Every town has been burned to the ground. I fear, my Lord, that your domain is naught but empty ruins.”
After supper, after he’d helped old Uster into bed, Breen sat in the inn’s common room in a greatchair before the crackling fire and brooded. Though he’d spent the last several nights sleeping wrapped in blankets on the hard, cold ground, still he could not take advantage of the pleasant bed now available, not after the horrible news he’d just received.
What was he to do? How could he provide for his grandfather now? ’Twas unthinkable that a man who’d served others as well and as often as Sir Uster should not be allowed to finish his days in dignity and honor, but all too clearly the unthinkable was happening. No use talking over their problems with Uster: he was having another of his bad spells.
As he wrestled with these seemingly insoluble problems, Breen’s mind wandered. Why, he mused, had King Thilloden and Queen Islaina hanged themselves? He’d seen their naked bodies dangling by coarse ropes from a crystal chandelier when he was looting the palace, but nothing in the death scene gave any clue as to why. Many other questions unanswered and...
Abruptly Breen stared quite hard at the fire; he’d been letting his imagination play, seeing the faces of different people in the flames. Now, however, the image of his cousin Druin’s sardonic face which appeared in the flame seemed much more than mere imaginings.
“Cousin Druin,” the boy whispered slowly, “didn’t you die in the fire?”
“Only after a fashion,” the image replied softly, “and in future please call me by my new name. Since I was born in a ceremony of fire and death, I dub myself Pyre.”
Wondering whether or not he were dreaming, Breen asked, “Can you, Pyre, explain what happened back in Ermont?”
“In part. Everything got a little complicated, because, you see, there were two wars going on at the same time. The first war was a mundane affair: King Thilloden’s rather crafty plots, which you already understand. The second war, however, was a nightmare business involving the darkest magics.
“Who or what my grandfather and I were fighting, I cannot say even at this late date. I only know that some vast dark purpose was at work. To this purpose King Thilloden was a mere pawn, a thing to be disposed of when no longer useful. Likewise, the death or life of a city full of people was a trivial matter to this Unknown. What it wanted with incredible desperate urgency was a jar of extremely good polish.
“Now my Enemy has that polish. What else It needs to achieve Its dark purpose, is a riddle I must and shall solve. Despite this defeat, our war continues.”
“Well, that’s fine for you,” Breen snapped, “but what are my grandfather and I supposed to do? My inheritance from you turns out to be worthless!”
“Wait here till tomorrow afternoon,” the fire vision answered. “A messenger will arrive.”
Before Breen could respond, he felt a shaking and everything blurred. Opening his eyes, he glanced around puzzled. The innkeeper was shaking him by the shoulder and saying, “Sir, please wake up. You were having a bad dream and talking in your sleep.”
“But...” the boy protested, then fell silent. Perhaps the man was right. Though it had all been so vivid, still the only logical explanation was that he’d gone to sleep in front of the fire.
Perhaps. Either way the only sensible thing for him to do now was go to bed and see what the morrow would bring.
During lunch the next day a messenger in the colors of far-off Palagar arrived, impatiently demanding to know if the great Sir Uster was anywhere around. It soon developed that the King of Palagar was at war and urgently wanted Uster’s help. To that end the monarch offered Uster a place in his court as senior military advisor.
When Breen objected that his grandfather was senile, the messenger replied, that that was no problem, that the King of Palagar already knew of Uster’s senility and believed that an adviser who was senile part of the time would be a great improvement over his generals who were incompetent all the time.
At length, after much discussion with the messenger, Breen reluctantly agreed.
Next: Book 5: The Three Dreams
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon