Authors: Clayton Emery
“Yes, yes, I know who you are.” With the young, petulant disguise came a fussy, whiny voice. “Why are you here? Don’t waste my time.”
The trader blinked and looked to his fellow delegates, who looked in turn at the ceiling. The man then abandoned his speeches and platitudes and stuttered to the point. “Good sir, we know you represent the might of Lady Polaris and all the Neth above her.” At Candlemas’s glare, he began to speak faster. “Uh, sir, as you know, Dalekeva is one of the Low Cities that lie on the eastern outskirts of Netheril. As such, we enjoy the love and protection of the empire.”
Candlemas doubted that. The Netherese were so contemptuous of groundlings that Low Cities or cesspools were all the same to them.
“We in Dalekeva work for the good of the empire, as do you, sir,” the man continued nervously, “and are privileged to trade our meager goods to the High Ones, the Netherese themselves. No army, no despicable wyrm dares come to humble Dalekeva while the High Ones protect us.”
That was not quite true, thought Candlemas. Most armies and dragons were just smart enough to steer clear of Netheril. Robbing, raping, or gulping down peasants and horses wasn’t worth the grief the empire could muster.
“Yet now, good sir, we find an army threatens on the horizon.”
“Eh?” Candlemas lifted his pinched nose. His thoughts had begun to drift as he pondered the wheat rust problem again. Rumors said the rust had spread to the spring barley crop. If so, it meant famine. “What army?”
A middle-aged woman stepped forward, cleared her throat, and caroled, “The army of the One King, sire. That’s what he calls himself. No one knows much about him, but he’s managed to pull together an army of both orcs and men. They’re cooperating, master, something unheard of.”
Just to butterfly-brained groundlings, Candlemas thought. In his long life, he’d heard everything at least twice. But it did explain the presence of the oddly well-organized orcs in the forests and mountains below. To startle the man, he asked a question to which he’d already guessed the answer. “He flies the banner of the red splayed hand?”
The traders gasped. The woman answered, “Y-yes, sire. This One King’s horde has overrun the city of Tinnainen, killed or enslaved the populace, and made it its headquarters. Tinnainen is only at the fringe of the empire, sire, and is not even a Low City. But it lies not twenty leagues east of us, and we are the next city in its path. The One King has sworn to unite all the land, to the sea as well as the southern deserts. We fear…”
“Yes, of course you do. You fear your own shadows, I expect.” Candlemas waved a hand for silence. What a crackbrained notion, sweeping to the sea, as if the empire would let him. And uniting the southern deserts? What for? To build sand castles and farm pit vipers? Poppycock. The Neth had seen hordes before, usually pushed out of the eastern steppes by other hordes pushed west by the growth of empires in distant Kara-Tur. Even the tribe of Sunbright’s barbarians had been pushed to the wall of the Barren Mountains a few generations back. The Neth had endured forever, almost, and seen other empires come and go. Most times they didn’t care. But any upstart foolish enough to gain the attention of the Netherese fizzled quickly.
“… please, milord?” The woman was still blathering. They say the most horrendous things about the One King. That he commands powerful magics of the most obscene kind. And that he’s not even human, but a red dragon in disguise.”
“Oh, balderdash!” Candlemas found himself actually divulging secret knowledge to a groundling. ” ‘Wyrm eats wyrm and so grows great!’ Dragons consume only other dragons. No dragon walks out in the open in any guise!” His voice was a haughty squeak, because he himself was guised.
Disgusted with penny-ante clerks, Candlemas was ready to order them all out of the castle, out the nearest window if need be. What did he, and certainly Lady Polaris, care if their miserable city were overrun by a miserable army? It would be justice for their having skimped on building a defense and then squandering their money on lavish clothes. The wizard cared only to note the name of their potentially doomed city, that he might notify Lady Polaris in case one of her cronies owned the pisshole. Then …
“Wait.” He pursed pouty lips. “What’s the name of your pisshole? Uh, city?”
The sweating traders exchanged glances. “It’s Dalekeva, your lordship.”
“Dalekeva?” Candlemas unconsciously scratched his healing right arm, even though, guised, it looked fine. “That’s not right. What was it formerly called?”
“Oh.” One of the men had just recalled that wizards, human or not, lived a very long time. “Under the last dynasty, milord, it was called Oberon’s Hold, after the great lord Ober”
“Yes, yes. Hush. The blank region …” Candlemas talked to himself as his audience regarded him curiously. In the past, at various times, the wizard had tried to scry that area from afar, but could not. Perhaps there’d been a battle therethat was a safe guess for anyplace in the empireand residual magic clouded scrying, ancient shields and glamours and hexes. There were several spots in Toril where Netherese magic could not penetrate, but this patch of blankness had moved! That was the intrigue. And lately, it had drifted. Where did these idiots say? East. Toward Tinnainen. A powerful lure that, to any real wizard interested in real study. If Candlemas had been a ferret, his nose would have twitched.
Very well then, he’d put these seeking fools to work. For only fools would run to wizards they hated to solve their piddling problems. He’d grant them wizardry, along with terror and mystery and great adventure. That would cure their bellyaching. And if they happened to waltz into the jaws of whatever monsters were moving magic blankets around, all the better.
“Very good. Remain here. And don’t touch anything.” Humans’ hands were always sticky, and they’d mar the porcelain.
Striding from the room, favoring his right arm, Candlemas made the long trek to his workshop high in the centermost tower. Still disguised, he moved to the palantir and rapped it smartly. Instantly the black glass began to smoke; then a gray cloud at the top turned white and sank, revealing Lady Polaris.
The archmage took one look at the caller, curled her red lips, and spat, “Stellmalagra!”
Candlemas barely ducked his nobleman’s head as a white-hot lightning bolt exploded from the palantir. Seeking iron and ground, it sizzled over his head and punished an iron hook hammered into a room beam. The force scorched the iron hook to a melted dollop, blackened and set fire to the wooden beam, and spattered hot metal over the cringing Candlemas. Red-hot drops pierced the guise, which included a head of curly black hair, so his bald pate was stung as if by hornets.
“Milady!” yelled the wizard. ” ‘Tis I, your faithful thrall, Candlemas! Please, cease!”
“Oh.” The archmage framed in the black glass squinted. “I thought it was some servant playing with the palantir. Don’t you know enough not to summon me while guised?”
Yes, Candlemas did know but, lost in thought, had forgotten. This wheat and corn rust thing was obsessing him. But he’d remember next time. “I beg forgiveness, your ladyship.”
“Don’t bother. It’s nothing. What do you want?”
It occurred to Candlemas that these were the same imperious words he’d flung at the cowering delegates. Not that he felt any sympathy for them. The world was a hierarchy of lords ruling underlings. The trick was to ascend high and fast, and so have more underlings and fewer lords.
Mopping his guised brow, the wizard told of the advancing horde, the rape of Tinnainen, the threat to Dalekeva, the ambitions of an empire-building One King, and the rest, excepting the weird magic-blanketed area. Lady Polaris looked increasingly petulant, but at least she hurled no more bolts. At the end she said only, “Yes, yes. Handle it as you see fit. That’s why I empowered you. Oh, and one more thing.”
Uh-oh, thought the wizard.
“Somewhere in that neck of the woods, or so I’m told by someone who lusts for it, is a book. It’s very big, they say, and has a ruby set into the cover. Or a pearl. It’s chock-full of ancient lore from a race of nonhumans. Stone people or spirits, or some such. It might prove an amusing read. Fetch it.”
The palantir went black.
Horror-stricken, Candlemas stared at the blank black ball. He muttered over and over, “Fetch it? A mystery book lost in hundreds of square leagues? Fetch it? Just like that?”
The delegates of the Beneficent Traders’ Guild of Dalekeva had been waiting nervously, and now their unease got a huge boost. Whitefaced, the prissy nobleman stamped into the room hard enough to dent the marble floors.
There was no wasted time now. Candlemas planted his feet before the delegates and pronounced, “I have gained audience with Lady Polaris. You, all of you, will journey hence to Tinnainen, seek audience with this usurper, the One King, and demand he send word of his immediate submission to Netheril. Don’t return without it.”
That the delegates were stunned barely described their reaction. One screamed and fell to his knees. Another gargled until he clutched his chest and collapsed. Two swooned. The rest babbled like rabid weasels, pointing fingers and hurling blame, while the bodyguards hollered resignations or demands for higher pay.
Candlemas swung on his heel and strode from the room. To the guards, he ordered, “Drag this lot to the magic portal and shove them through. See they’re dumped in the village of, uh, Augerbend on the River Ost. They can walk from there. Oh, I almost forgot.”
He swung back to the room, where the delegates were still crying and gibbering, and shouted, “There’s a young barbarian named Sunbright in the village! Take him with you!”
Striding away, Candlemas, as was his wont, reviewed that decision too. The hell with Sysquemalyn’s foolish bet for now, and the hell with gathering rumors. There was no time for games. Candlemas had to get that damnable book with its pearl-or ruby-studded cover for Lady Polaris, and soon. She hated to be kept waitingif she even remembered issuing the order later. That was another damnable quality of hers! But perhaps this would work out well. Rather than go alone, Sunbright could journey with this pack of cannon fodder as a buffer. When not slaying orcs or whatever, he could be easily shunted hither and yon to search for the book. The boob would do whatever the raven recommended, after all.
So it might work out fine, if all these clucks survived long enough.
And himself, Candlemas.
Briefly he thought of what he’d told that little girl, how he admired her father, keeper of the dovecotes. Perhaps Candlemas could assume his disguise, if all failed. When Lady Polaris flew shrieking through the halls, Candlemas could happily shovel pigeon shit.
That’s what it all was, he sighed. Shitting. Shit fell from the privies of the archmages onto him, and he in turn shit on the lowly groundlings. Somewhere was the lowliest groundling of all, he thought, who collected all the shit of the world on his or her head. He wondered if they were ever happy.
One day’s walk from the village of Augerbend, Sunbright was settling onto his camp bed, blissfully unaware of the machinations happening high over his head. He knew only that he was pleasantly tired after walking a dozen miles that day and bringing down a brace of wood ducks for his dinner.
He had his usual small banked fire, reflecting off a fallen oak this time. This would be his last camp, he supposed, for tomorrow he would enter a real village. He’d never visited one before, had been only to markets erected in fields on the edge of the tundra, where his people traded meat and hides and beaten copper ornaments for salt and iron and cloth and other provisions. Rengarth warriors did not venture far into the lowlands except for cattle and spouse raids. So as for this place, he didn’t know what to expect. For the thousandth time, he wished he had a companion, even a dog, to travel with him. Truth to tell, the brawny barbarian was a bit shy. And with everything so new …
A twig snapped, and as quick as thought Sunbright was off his blanket and behind the log with sword poised. He readied to spring, for he reckoned that the closer he got to civilization, the more dangerous the woods would be, not less. But this clumsy visitor would probably only be the podgy Chandler.
No, definitely not.
A woman tiptoed into his camp. Her hair was long and tawny red, the color of the fire. She wore nothing but a simple shift, the soft cloth washed and worn so much it had taken her shape, thin enough so Sunbright could see every curve as she stood by the fire.
Peering first at his empty bedroll, then at the darkness around her, she quavered, “Hello? Hello, is anyone here? I’m lost and need help.”
It couldn’t be true, thought Sunbright. Her plight had “trap” smeared all over it. So he surprised himself by calling, “Where are you from?”
“Oh!” The girl jumped, startled. She tiptoed, barefoot, to the fallen oak and peered over it. “Oh, there you are!”
Sunbright felt foolish aiming a sword at the girl. But his childhood had been filled with horror stories of mysterious women who accosted wandering men. Silkies, they were called, or dryads, water sprites, nymphs, succubi, and other names. Invariably they cozied up to a man, then visited him with some unspeakable death: turned him inside out, changed him to a frog, drowned and ate him, planted insect eggs into his paralyzed body.
As the girl leaned over him, the shift gaped open revealingly. She shivered. “I’m nearly frozen! I was bathing in the river, and some boys from the village stole my clothes. I had to wait until nightfall to return home, but I lost my way in the dark. Can you…” Her voice trailed off as he continued to stare at her.
A likely story, thought Sunbright. She had to be a night hag, a harpy, a killer. He couldn’t be this lucky. He kept his sword ready, but felt himself melting under her warm green gaze. He knew he should tell her to leave, but some traitorous part of himself replied, “I’m a stranger here and don’t know the way to the village. But if you’d like to share my fire …”
She smiled gratefully and sank down on his camp bed of boughs and blanket.
Now what? Sunbright wondered, standing. Would she grow fangs and red eyes? Would he have to lop off her head?