Two-Fisted Tales

Tales of Mystery and Adventure

The Promise of Wine
(Part 3 of 4)

By Peter J. Sanderson
About the author

Vajna peered around the front of the tomb he had been hiding behind and looked two mausoleums down. A small hunched figure sat on a stone bench near the front of a mausoleum. The door to the mausoleum was open. At his feet were two men lying prone, near the open door. They were not moving. The figure on the bench would sigh then take a deep pull from a flask he had clenched in his right hand. Vajna strained to peer at him through the gloom. He looked to be a middle-aged fellow. His hair was receding. He could see his balding pate standing out in the dark. Well, he mused, it was now or never.

"Are the pickings lean, friend," Vajna said, stepping out of the darkness. This elicited a startled yelp from the figure on the bench who leaped to his feet.

"Who are you? Speak now or I'll blast your soul to hell! Woe betide one who would meddle in the business of a necromancer!" the figure shrieked in a shrill voice.

"Peace, goodman," Vajna said, "I am just a humble robber and would not think to interrupt you." He smiled to himself and a plan quickly formulated itself in his mind. "I'd best be on my way."

"Wait...a robber you say? Perhaps you could help me...I would be willing to pay. Come closer that I might see your face."

Vajna stepped closer. He could now make out the little man's features. He was thin and sallow with pallor to his skin that Vajna thought owed more to drink and lack of care than necromancy. Receding, stringy hair topped his narrow bony skull like an unkempt pile of brambles. Great bags were under his watery looking eyes; but he had an absorbing stare. Vajna could smell the reek of cheap wine and guessed the man had been hard at drinking.

"Payment, you say?" Vajna pulled back the hood from his cloak and put away his weapons. "Well, I am a man of humble means and would require only a little for I love adventure and drink, more than gold."

"A man after my own heart," the necromancer said. "Here, take a swig of this to steel yourself -- not too much, mind." Vajna took the flask and raised it to his lips. He took a draught of the cheap wine and palmed the vial of poison in his free hand from the pouch on his stolen belt.

"So," Vajna began, "in what way can I assist you, good friend, necromancer?" As the necromancer rose from the bench, he turned to motion towards the sepulchre that they stood beside. At that moment, Vajna unstopped the vial with his fingers and dumped the contents into the bottle. As the wizard turned back towards him, he had already lifted the bottle to his firmly clenched lips, feigning a swallow, but well distributing the draught of poison throughout the wine. He could feel the slight tingle on his lips and wiped his mouth hastily as he passed the bottle back to the necromancer who held out his hand for it.

"Gods, I hope you didn't drink it all...I'll have to go home to get more and I am loathe to leave here without accomplishing my task." The necromancer took a deep draught of the wine and drained the flask. Belching, he flung the empty bottle into the hedge. "Anyway, I need you to go into that tomb and fetch something. Trouble is, there's a trap inside and I don't know a thing about traps."

"Neither did they," Vajna said motioning to the two dead men who lay near their feet. "But I do know about traps...what is it that you want fetched?"

"Well, this tomb is that of a great mage who once lived in this city. He knew a good deal about necromancy and I need that knowledge. I can work a spell to speak with the dead and I need his skull to converse with him. Fetch that and I'll reward you."

"Done," Vajna said. "Do you know what kind of trap it is?"

"It seems to be a dart or needle near the funeral bier...poisoned too...dreadful stuff."

Vajna felt a laugh building inside him and fought it back. "Dreadful stuff, indeed. I'll be a few moments."

"Take your time, just be done before sun-up. The watch do not take kindly to grave robbers."

Vajna stepped through the doorway. He could see the faint yellow glow of an oil lamp ahead. He moved towards it. The antechamber was plain and unadorned marble. There was no door between it and the tomb proper. The tomb was small but very ornate. If he had several days to carve away the gold fittings on the now open sarcophagus, it would take him far from Livnoji and in high style. The sarcophagus sat upon green marble shot through with black veins. Tapestries adorned the walls and empty braziers stood in each corner of the low-ceilinged tomb. He stood in the doorway and scanned the floor. He could see the tracks of the two men in the thick dust of the floor and where they intersected. It must be something other than poison for this tomb was undisturbed before this night. No trap maker had been in here to freshen the toxin on a needle. He walked carefully across the floor.

Peering into the coffin, he looked at the ancient bones of the dead mage. Dressed in robes once white, now dulled and moth eaten, the bones of the wizard lay, shrouded in cobwebs. The skull still had long, silvery hair attached to it and a silver circlet ringing it shining faintly in the lamplight. Perhaps, Vajna thought, he should have taken a better look at the corpses to see if there were any wounds and where they were.

The circlet drew his eyes back. It was tarnished but even in the guttering light of the lamp, Vajna could make out the fine filigree work and see the small, well-cut gems set in it. That alone would set him up for many years in a distant fleshplot, far from the intrigues of Livnoji. One pass of a sword under his ribs and the necromancer would be too busy trying to read the portents in his own slippery entrails to cast a spell.

He stretched out his hands towards the circlet, which seemed to beckon him to slip it off the skull and set it on his own head. He would be as wealthy as a lord would! He would -- then he froze. He felt a chill run up his spine. Thinking like a thief...that's what killed those bravos, not poison.

Vajna pulled back his hands. He laughed aloud. Oh, we must be a predictable lot we thieves, he mused. That crafty old wizard knew that at heart we are a bunch of thieving magpies looking for shiny things to fill our nests with. A wise man, indeed. Vajna wondered what spell would crush his will and eat his soul if he touched the circlet. It would be a horrible way to die, surely.

With a sound like the cracking of a dry tree limb, Vajna hacked the skull free of the body and, removing his cloak, tucked it into its heavy folds with the tip of his blade. He walked out of the tomb, whistling merrily and hoped that the necromancer had love for his own life.

"Do you have...ah, in the cloak. What was the trap?"

"The circlet," Vajna said glibly. "Be careful not to touch it with your hands or you'll probably end up like them."

"Give it here," said the necromancer, stretching out his hands.

"I think not," Vajna said, stepping back and drawing his short sword to wave it menacingly before the little wizard. "Not without certain assurances that I'm sure you'll be glad to provide me."

The necromancer stared, bug-eyed at first then smiled broadly. "You are an arrogant rogue, aren't you. What's your name?"

"Vajna. And yours?"

"Lanejznac. Tell me why I should let you live, impudent rascal...don't think that even drunk I could not conceive a sorcerous death that would be painful beyond imagining."

"Because, dear fellow, I am your ticket to life itself...the wine you have drank...poisoned while you looked away at the tomb. I can get you the antidote. Otherwise, you'll be dead before noon. The only way you'll get it is if you assist me in a certain matter."

Lanejznac looked at him balefully for a moment and then shrugged his shoulders.

Click for Part 4

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The Promise of Wine is copyright Peter J. Sanderson. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)