Magicks and Marvels abound
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The Long Dark Road to Wizardry!

A Serialized Sword & Sorcery Epic

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

Book One: Wolves at the Wedding Feast


Previously: As Sir Druin raised the gold wedding cup toward his lips, he glanced down into its depths and for one fleeting moment he saw the image of a skull grinning up at him out of the dark red wine. The wine is poisoned but if he does not drink the wedding toast he will insult his bride's father and start a civil war. He drinks, excuses himself, and finds a hiding place to vomit. Paralyzed, he waits to see if he will live or die. Looking through a window that does not exist he see a raiding party approaching the castle, three shiploads of Norgemen. Struggling to rise and give warning he loses consciousness...

 


******
Episode 2: To Do Murder


WHEN CONSCIOUSNESS FINALLY BEGAN to return, Druin remembered nothing, knew only that his head seemed to be splitting. The air was full of a faintly unpleasant odor, smoke, and this nagged him.

Theba save us! The Norgemen!

Had it really happened or was what he remembered merely a nightmare born of fever and delirium? Much as he wanted to believe that all was well, the odor of smoke bode no good and, desperate to know, he heaved himself upright. For a moment waves of dizziness swept over him and only after they passed did he start fumbling at the door latch.

It was still stuck ...which proved that part at least had been real. As he now remembered, if one jiggled the thing just so...

It opened.

The scene beyond the door was everything he'd feared and more. Through an evil pall of twisting smoke, he saw the bodies, people he'd known all his life slaughtered like so many sheep. None had died with weapons in their hands and from the positions of the bodies most had apparently been attempting to flee or futilely begging for mercy.

Not my wife, please Theba, not my beautiful Sathryn!

He was a man divided, half his mind in unthinking turmoil, the other half crystal clear and as hard and cold as the winter ice. The dead, he saw, were all servants. 'Twas what one would logically expect; the Norgemen came raiding for sport and also for profit. Those who might fetch a good ransom had, no doubt, been taken captive while the others were killed out of hand.

The odds were that Sathryn was still alive and held captive not far from here. In the distance Druin could hear the roar of drunken carousal and the occasional scream of a tortured victim; the Norgemen celebrating their easy victory and clearly in no great hurry to depart.

Despite the odds 'twas not absolutely impossible that Druin might -- somehow -- rescue his beautiful bride. First he'd find a weapon and then ... well, he'd have to trust the Gods for the rest. Just now he was still weak as a kitten from that cursed poison but, in a few hours, he'd be stronger and ... his foes would be sober again.

No. If there was any chance 'twas now, while the enemy was muddleheaded with ale.

Though his muscles ached and his legs weighted like lead, he set off down the corridor. As he approached the Greathall which scant hours ago had echoed with the joy of his marriage, he paused at the threshold and listened closely. Utter silence. Hopefully that meant the raiders had all departed.

Cautiously he slipped through the doorway and looked about. The bright lamps which had burned during his wedding were gone and the room was dark save for the murky illumination of a dying fire. Amidst overturned tables and smashed chairs, on a floor littered with broken crystal glasses and plates, spilt food and drink, lay the still forms of the wedding guests, their elegant clothing drenched in their own blood.

For a grim moment imagination showed him what must have happened: the Norgemen pouring into the hall like wolves come to a feast, his friends caught unarmed and surprised. Somehow a fire had started and they'd been trapped between its flames and their enemies' steel.

Perhaps some had been taken captive; certainly none had escaped.

Shaking himself, Druin forced his mind back to his immediate problem, finding a sword. Chances of finding one left behind in this slaughterhouse were passing slim, but over there, in that small alcove, a collection of ancestral weapons had been kept.

It took him a few moments to get from here to there; the way was blocked by the charred remains of a fallen ceiling timber. As he crawled around it, he noticed with grim joy that two Norgemen lay on the floor beneath it, crushed like insects when it came crashing down. Around the entrance to the alcove there were more of the accursed seawolves, their throats swordslashed open.

Aradam! I should have known my father wouldn't sell his life cheaply!

In the alcove, as he'd guessed, he found the remains of Duke Aradam. Though the body bore half a dozen mortal wounds, in the end 'twas not his enemies but the fire that slew the proud Duke. His hand, burned clean of flesh, still grasped the hilt of a broken sword and...

Druin's heart nearly stopped, for the corpse moved ever so slightly. A trick of his imagination or...

"Druin," it said.

Though it cost all his courage, still he forced himself to answer, "Yes, Father."

"I could not let myself die, until I spoke with you."

Within himself Druin struggled. He wanted to rejoice that his father was still alive but he could not overcome the uncanny feeling that no man so horribly wounded had the right to be among the living. "Father," he babbled, "instead of talking, shouldn't I get bandages, bind up your ... wounds and--"

Something in the old Duke's eyes stopped him, forced him to wait silently for his sire to speak again.

"My son, though you know disaster has befallen our house this night, I doubt you see the full extent of the calamity. For many years I worked building a system of alliances, a network of powerful friends. All those mighty allies came to your wedding and tonight, in a single stroke, they were destroyed, slain or taken captive to be held for ransoms that will reduce them to penury. Thus we have gone from a position of power to one of shame. 'Twas our duty to protect our guests and our failure means that our honor is lost, stained past restoration."

"No!" Druin exclaimed. Without thinking he added, "I"ll restore our honor, rescue all our friends that still live and kill the Norgemen to the last man!"

Even as he spoke, the young nobleman knew he was making a horribly rash promise, and he little cared. His father was slipping into the darkness and Druin had to give the man any comfort he could. Despair was still written in the old duke's eyes as he gasped, "No, son. 'Tis a brave promise you make, but no mortal man could prevail against the odds you face. Best you--"

"Father!" Druin blurted, "I'm your son but I've also an inheritance from my grandfather. The name, honor and reputation of our house will be cleaned no matter what dark means I must use to do it!"

No sooner had he said it than Druin wanted to call the words back, for he was admitting the fear which had been unspoken all these years. He could not, however, for his father's face was suddenly brightened with hope.

"Perhaps," the dying man murmured, "you could. Also," his eyes were glazing, his speech blurring, "your uncle might help... the key... pocket..." With a slight gasp Duke Aradam yielded at last to death.

At least, I gave him a little comfort -- but how do I keep my promise?

'Twas clearly impossible and just as clearly absolutely necessary. Now that Druin was the Duke, he must maintain his family's honor or -- his head swam with all the monstrously nasty consequences -- or else he simply couldn't live in this world.

Somehow he must save not only Sathryn but all his friends and he must do so tonight. Vengeance against the Norgemen could be postponed but not the rescue. Since he didn't have any dark powers that he knew how to use, what could he do?

He still lacked a sword. The weapons which had been in this alcove were gone, either grabbed up by his guests at the start of the battle or stolen by the Norgemen afterwards.

There was some small chance that his father's keys might, one way or another, prove useful and, reaching down, he pulled them from the corpse's pocket.

'Twas no time, he sternly told himself, to worry about niceties. No, for the now he must be busy with staying alive and helping his friends -- above all his Sathryn -- to do likewise.

What had his father meant by the reference to Druin's uncle helping? Did it mean something or was it merely the ravings of a dying man? Seemingly 'twas the latter for Aradam was an only son. Still his father hadn't seemed delirious, so...

The sound of approaching footsteps drove all other thoughts from his mind. 'Twas the heavy tread of several men in hard leather boots, undoubtably the Norgemen and they were coming toward this alcove. Since there was but one exit, he was trapped and though he looked frantically about, the bare little room offered no hiding place. Of course, he could lie down behind that fallen timber but it was scarcely thicker than his body. A child couldn't hide there.

The steady approach of the footsteps continued. But another few moments and they'd be upon him.

Fighting them would mean a futile death while capture meant both death and dishonor. But perhaps he could...

Dropping flat Druin crawled under one end of the fallen timber. If they did not look over closely they might suppose him dead, killed when the timber fell. Scarcely was he in position than he'd second thoughts. A trick like this was not likely to fool a child and ... 'twas too late.

The footsteps came through the doorway and into the alcove. With his head buried under the timber, Druin could see naught of them except for one bloodstained boot that stopped directly before his face.

The slightest motion would be fatal. He dared not breathe and cold sweat covered his limbs.

From above him there was a voice in the harsh guttural language of the Western Seas. "This place has already been looted; no chance that what we seek be here."

One of the others grumbled in reply, "Aye, but still, bend down and check those bodies. With luck you'll find an ornament or two of gold or silver."

The moment they touched him, Druin realized in horror, they'd know he was alive, and in this position he could not offer even token resistance. Gods, to be slaughtered like a farmer's hog...

"We've no time," the first answered. "Gardragon commanded us to search the whole castle until we found that polish. Time's short and we've much territory still to cover. "

"By the Gods' longdead bones, why should we ignore treasures asking to be stolen and look instead for a jar of lackwitted polish?"

The blood-stained foot was slowly moving away. They were leaving and Druin was, for the moment, safe...except that he felt a sneeze coming.

"We must," answered the first raider, "because our warchief commanded it."

They were still in the doorway and the tickling sense in Druin's nose was building irresistible.

"I'd far rather Sith were warchief," grumbled the second.

As their footsteps faded into the distance, the first answered, "Aye, and many share your preference, but..."

They were, apparently, gone and Druin let go the sneeze he could no longer contain. Though he smothered its sound as much as possible, still it seemed louder than thunder. For a very long moment he waited and silence was the only reply. Mayhaps then he'd not been heard and certainly he should be off and about his business.

Finding a weapon could probably wait. The urgent thing was to learn where his friends, especially Sathryn if she lived, were held captive. With most of the Norgemen busy having drunken orgy, and others searching the castle, the raiders would logically keep their prisoners where they'd require little guarding -- the dungeons...

***
LIKE EVERY PRUDENTLY BUILT CASTLE, Druin's home had a number of discretely concealed passageways. When he reached the narrow stairway that led down toward the dungeon, the young aristocrat felt his hopes soar. He'd passed undetected through the midst of his foes and, if his luck held, if the Gods continued to favor him, then perhaps he'd do the impossible and rescue his friends.

The odds, however, were still monstrous long and even as he hoped, he worried. He could foresee all too many dangers and the hazards he didn't expect were worse. There were too many things happening that he didn't understand. For example, why had that pair of raiders been searching for a jar of polish?

While that was merely odd at first glance, it took on a more sinister appearance on deeper thought. No doubt what they hunted was the special polish that was the unique product of the Dukedom. In the northeast corner of his father's domain there was an old mine, now long abandoned. In its day it had yielded a peculiar stone, ugly, exceedingly brittle and incredibly hard. Despite the fact that most natural philosophers account diamond the hardest of all substances, the ugly stone could readily scratch even diamond. Crushed into a powder the stone made a fabulously effective polish, one that in days past had sold readily at goodly price.

Now, with the mine exhausted the wonderful polish was only a memory, albeit people oft sent messengers to beg for a little of it. Only last month King Thilloden himself had written asking for some and Duke Aradam had been forced to refuse his sovereign. As the Duke explained in his answering letter, there simply was none, save only for a single jar he kept for sentimental reasons.

Then how had ... Merciful Theba, NO!

It was both a horror so foul as to be unthinkable, and a thing so transparently obvious that he'd been a fool not to see it sooner. Thilloden was a traitor to his own kingdom!

Duke Aradam had been the leader of a powerful faction within the Zadokan nobility, a faction that opposed Thilloden's desire to become an absolute monarch. To eliminate his opponents the King had made a monstrous bargain with his nation's age long enemies. Small wonder there'd been no warning; the coastal watchers had turned a blind eye as the raider's ships passed!

'Twas an infamy that staggered the imagination, but for the moment he must put it from his mind, and think of other problems. He'd reached the bottom of the stairs and ahead the pale light of the candle he carried showed a door. Beyond that portal, in the dungeons ... he couldn't be sure. Perhaps only empty long disused cells, more likely though he'd find his friends in need of rescue and a guard or two he'd have to murder.

Twice in his life he'd been in mortal combat, but that was battle, open, honest and noisy. What he must do now was a very different matter.

Approaching the door he bent and listened, closely. His ears caught a confused babble of sounds, mostly distant. Seemingly there was no help for it; to find out what was on the other side he'd have to open the door a crack and peek. Lest its light betray him he snuffed out his candle and, slowly, very cautiously, began sliding the door open.

When the crack was but a finger's breadth, he pressed his face to it and gazed out. At first glance 'twould seem the Gods had heard his every prayer. There crowded into a dozen iron barred cells were the wedding guests, their eyes dull with shock and fear, their clothing torn, burnt and bloodstained, but alive! No way he could count the survivors just now; still, 'twas obviously more than half.

His friends, caged and facing a grim fate, and though he didn't see her, probably Sathryn was among them.

There was but a single Norgeman guarding them, a huge shaggy bear of a man, now relaxing in a chair, his back to Druin. This was the opportunity he'd prayed for, perfect in every regard, except ... now he recognized what before he'd heard only as blurred sounds. From the dungeon it was only a stone's throw down a narrow musty corridor to a cavernous large room that one of Druin's remote ancestors had equipped as a torture chamber.

Judging by the sounds, the main body of the Norgemen must be there, having drunken revel. While no one was screaming just now, 'twas a safe guess that the seawolves had chosen to celebrate their victory in that chamber because they meant to put the grim old implements to use. How long it would be before a group of the marauders came to the dungeon to drag off a helpless victim for their sport Druin could only wonder. In a way it didn't matter for the important thing was that he must murder that lone guard right now and he must do so silently, very silently.

Not an easy task. The man's head and upper body were protected by a steel helmet and a vest of hard leather. Still a quick knife slash across the throat would ... Gods! What kind of fool am I? I've neither knife nor any other weapon!

Indeed when he ran his hands through all his pockets, the young nobleman found he'd nothing except the keys, a silk handkerchief and one large gold coin. He didn't even have the means to relight his candle. That made it impossible to go back and find a weapon, even if there was time, which there wasn't.

How he could have been so monstrously stupid, Druin couldn't imagine, and he cursed himself with great and sincere heat. Such was his self-anger that he paid no heed to the way his hands fumbled with coin and silk. Only as he started to put them back in his pocket did he notice.

Without thinking he'd tied the heavy gold coin into one corner of the handkerchief and twisted the silk until 'twas like a short rope.

I've heard of this. Though scarcely magic it's certainly a very black art.

For an instant he wondered how and why such ugly knowledge came to him unbidden and then he forgot everything except the need to act. The guard was getting up from his chair and it was strike now or never.

Flinging the door open Druin leapt. As the guard sluggishly began to turn, the weighted silk whipped round his neck and the young nobleman drew tight.

Like an enraged grisly bear the Norgeman bolted fully upright, his mouth twisting in soundless fury. Clinging to the silk for dear life and drawing it still more taut, Druin was lifted off the floor and found himself tossed about as though he rode a wild stallion. The ax flashed by his head, missing by a hand's breadth -- a blind stroke that was all too close -- the huge Norgeman lurched backwards, slamming Druin into the stone wall with stunning force and ... 'twas over.

With a single convulsion the bearlike raider went limp and Druin slowly lowered his foe's dead body to the floor. He did not, however, release the strangling silk 'til he was quite sure of his kill.

Only as he rose from the corpse did the young aristocrat realize what had just happened: he'd just done a stealthy murder with all the skill of a long practiced assassin. It had been easy, natural, a talent he'd always had but never before had occasion to use, as though he were a cat that for the first time in its life sees a mouse and instinctively kills it. Very disturbing, for if a cat cannot help acting according to its nature, then Druin also...

I'll worry such Drodd sent problem on another day. Now I've work!

The guests who'd come to celebrate his wedding were staring at him from behind the iron bars that caged them, stunned surprise and dawning hope written on their faces. Before they could begin shouting their excitement, he made an urgent gesture for silence and, putting key in lock, opened the cage door.

Gods above NO! She's not here!

"Where's my wife?" he demanded in a harsh whisper, and swiftly their eyes left him to stare at the floor.

'Twas his cousin, old Sir Ustor, an aged knight whose face bore the scars of battles now forgotten, who finally broke the heavy silence. "'Tis best," he declared, "that you forget her, for there's naught you can do."

"Then she's alive!" Druin exclaimed. Even as he spoke, the young nobleman saw the grim logic of the situation. Sathryn was exceeding fair. It was to be expected that the raiders would force her to attend their revels. And that would mean...

"I'm going after her," Druin declared flatly.

"'Tis noble," the oldster replied mildly, "but 'tis also suicide. If you do not regard your own life, then at least think of all these your guests. Do you not have an obligation to get us to safety?"

"Well, yes, but..." The young aristocrat stopped, wracking his brain for a solution to this dilemma. The group of people standing before him were the most pathetic and helpless lot he'd ever seen, for the Norgemen had not spared any that might later cause them problems. Who could Druin get to lead them out of here? Obviously not Sir Uster. The ancient warrior's once keen brain was worn by the years and worked but part of the time. Wait, though ... next to Uster was his grandson, Breen, a small youth years away from his beard. Still there was something about the boy that made Druin think he might be older than his years.

Taking a yellow flamed torch from off the dungeon wall, Druin placed it in the boy's hands and said, ""Cousin Breen, I'm going to place a great responsibility on your shoulders." Swiftly the nobleman described the hidden passageways and the route by which the boy Breen could lead the other survivors to freedom and safety. Presently the boy, his face set and stern beyond his years, began hastening the others through the secret door.

Ahead, at the end of the night-black corridor, Druin saw angry red light streaming from the entrance to the torture chamber like the open portal of Hell. Laughter that might more fittingly have come from demons than men poured out of that door, grotesque laughter that joyed in pain and bloodshed. 'Twas appalling to think of his virginal Sathryn in such a place and how he might hope to rescue her he could not imagine.

Abruptly the laughter changed to silence, a hushed waiting that ended when a gruff voice roared, "It's time we had some sport with the girl! Herfar, suppose you be the first to take this fair lady?"

As the mob roared its approval, the young aristocrat raged in silence. The fiends mean to gang rape my Sathryn!

The next voice he heard dispelled any lingering doubt he might have had. 'Twas the cold icehard voice that Sathryn used when she was frightened and struggling not to show it. "You're a fool, Gardragon," she snapped. "As a virgin I'm worth a fortune to you in ransom. Dishonor me and you lose all that gold."

"If you be a bit damaged," the barbarian chieftain replied, "your kin will still buy you back. Perhaps the price will not be so good, but 'tis worth it for the sport we"ll have."

"NO!" she screamed. "This is Zadok, a civilized country. Our customs are totally different from yours. Among us if a woman is shamed, she's no choice except to commit suicide!"

"She speaks true," someone declared.

For a moment many voices resounded in confused babble, then Gardragon roared, "Dishonored or not, girl, there still be plenty of slave markets where you'll fetch a good price. Herfar, start teaching this very haughty lady some respect."

I'm one unarmed man against three shiploads of barbarians but I must act now or it will forever be too late! My untouched bride and there's absolutely nothing I can do to save her...
 

Next episode ... SATISFYING HONOR WITH BLOOD


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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.)