Magicks and Marvels abound
in
The Long Dark Road to Wizardry!

A Serialized Sword & Sorcery Epic

by RICHARD K. LYON & ANDREW J. OFFUTT
About the authors

Book Four: The Whispering Mirror


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.
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Episode 8: An Inheritance of Duels



B REEN 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 back instead. 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 here he'd met Thesians. A brief fight for 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 proud tall towers at each corner. 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 alright and for first prize they'd chop him to pieces.

His lungs were on fire, his muscles twisted as though he were 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 in armor that covered all of their upper bodies couldn't climb stairs as fast as he, weren't even trying. 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 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 advise. 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, it was not in the boy's 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. These 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 unto 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 was at the center of the pond while the storming of the wall was a pair of raging battles at either edge of the pond. The further of these twin battles was beyond the absolute range of Breen's crossbows and 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...

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 bows. 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.

"AIM!"

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 and 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 he 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, was pouring 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 shot man was catapulted forward pushing himself and the others off the edge. As they fell screaming through 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 could and did tilt it in the direction of the stairs and the slope of the floor was in that direction. A black torrent spilled forth, catching fire and rushing in a burning tidal wave down and round and round the stairs. Men screamed as its flames devoured their flesh and 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 well disciplined troops. Breen couldn't see any sign of his grandfather. Still twas reasonable to hope the old man was alright 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 fell asleep.

* * *

THE NEXT SEVERAL DAYS WERE A SEVERE DISAPPOINTMENT to young Breen. Though he and Sir Uster were heros, 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 heros.

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 emitted 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 so 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 in 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 dreamed, 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 til 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 having a 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 Episode ... BOOK 5: THE THREE DREAMS
 


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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry is copyright Richard K. Lyon and Andrew J. Offutt.  It may not be copied without permission of the authors except for purposes of reviews.  (Though you can print it out to read it, natch.)