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 Six: The Puppet's War


PREVIOUSLY: Pursued by an enormous cat Breen and Princess Delanda find six black doors, one of which might take them out of the nightmare realm in which they've been trapped and back home. Guessing that the right door will have the reverse of the pattern of the door by which they came here, Breen jumps through with the Princess in his arms.
 


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Episode 8: The Voice in the Flame



FOR A FLEETING INSTANT THEY WERE falling in utter darkness, the next they landed on something soft and yielding.

"Where -- where are we?" stammered Delanda.

"I don't know, Your Highness." Unable to see Breen reached out and felt: smooth silk sheets and soft velvet pillows. "I think we're in a bed of some sort."

"It's my bed!" she exclaimed. In her excitement she threw her arms around him, shouting, "We're safe! Oh, thank you for saving me! I'm back home, safe in my own bed!"

Abruptly a door opened and they were trapped in a beam of bright light.

Merciful Gods in their Heavens, the Princess is stark naked and I'm caught in bed with her. Will anyone believe my explanation?

"WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?" thundered a voice from behind the light.

"Uncle, is that you?" Delanda asked timidly. As she spoke, she remembered she was nude and rapidly pulled up the bed sheets.

"Yes! Now explain what you are doing here."

Holding a lamp high they stepped into the room, Duke Esaur and four men-at-arms.

"Ahh..." Breen began, "it's not what you're thinking. You see..."

"I'm not thinking anything," barked the Duke. "I don't understand how you two came to be here and I'm ordering you to tell me."

Swiftly Delanda put a protective arm around the young mercenary not noticing or caring that the sheet slipped. "This brave soldier saved me from horrible danger, that's what happened!"

"How? When?" the Duke demanded. "Tell me the details."

"Well, then, turn around so I can get dressed and I'll tell you the whole story." Without the slightest hesitation the Duke and his men turned their backs.

Why is the Duke acting this way; why didn't he jump to the wrong conclusion and order me slain out of hand?

With a little reluctance Breen stepped forward, also standing with his back on Delanda. In but a few moments she had donned a gown and told what little she understood of all that had befallen her. Having listened impatiently to the girl's incoherent story, Esaur glared at Breen, "You're a soldier," he ordered; "give me a clear report!"

"Wait," demanded the Princess. "What happened here? Are you and I all that's left of the Royal Family?"

"Later, Delanda."

This man is desperately eager to know my story. Why? What compels him with such urgency?

"No, please, you must tell me!" she insisted.

"Oh, very well. Why your father, the King, agreed to help that magician stage a simulated assassination I'll never understand. Such a thing was bound to start a riot even if there hadn't been traitors among the Palace Guards..."

"You mean," she interrupted, "that my father is alive!"

"Yes, but later in the fighting he was gravely wounded. Many of the nobility were also wounded and some slain. Naturally until the King recovers all this must be held in strictest secrecy."

The man's lying -- why? All at once he knew, a single terrible thought that explained everything.

"Now, soldier, your report," ordered the Duke in a dangerous tone.

"Your pardon, Sire, but mine's a long story and I've a dry throat and an empty belly." By itself this was presumption enough to earn a flogging, yet he compounded it by walking away from the Duke, blandly saying, "I believe the Imperial Dining room is this way."

If they let me get away with this then Hell has indeed come visiting.

"See here, soldier..." the Duke began.

"Uncle dear," Delanda interposed, "I'm hungry too. Besides aren't there a lot of people who ought to hear this brave warrior's story? Why not let him tell it once to everyone at supper?"

The Duke regarded Breen, his eyes very cold and calculating while the soldier reined his fears and held his face a calm mask. For a long moment the hard eyes sought to pierce the mask and, failing, the Duke smiled and declared: "Well said, Delanda. I was on my way to dinner when we came upon you, and you two have every right to be hungrier than I. Here you are, my favorite niece, back home safely from a fearsome adventure, rescued by this valorous swordsman. Tonight dinner shall be a feast in your honor!"

Feast or no, the gaunt nobleman permitted no delay, no moment for Delanda to fix her hair, or Breen to straighten his armor, nor was there any chance for the warrior to whisper aught to the princess. Swiftly they were hustled into the dining room where a small throng of happy faces greeted them. While Delanda laughed and cried, kissed her relatives and had joyful reunion, Breen stood back as befits a man who guests where he does not belong.

The room with its burgundy silk drapes and lustrous great oak table was as familiar to him as the people in their finery and jewels. A silver candelabrum in the table's center held ten wavering flames and in this shifting light he could see the bone white china, perfectly polished silverware and sparkling crystal wine goblets. It was all very familiar and now to be a part of it was a wistful dream come true. The side of beef, roasting in the fireplace, beguiled his empty stomach with aroma and it would be easy, all too easy, to forget his dark fears.

"You're all here, you're all safe and well," babbled Delanda in her joy. "It was like a nightmare and now it's over, gone." She laughed. "Why, look," she gestured toward the mirror which filled one wall, "even my Birthday mirror is all right."

"Yes," murmured Breen, "I expected nothing would harm it."

With formal courtesy he held her chair that she might sit at the head of the table and with his own permission he seated himself beside her. She looked at this strong silent man and was drawn to him. She had much to give a man and mayhaps she'd be wise to give it where it would be appreciated rather than where custom decreed.

She was hungry and hot soup was before her. Court etiquette demanded that she sit there hungry, waiting patiently for her elders. Now being a good time to start forgetting custom, she reached for her spoon. It wasn't there. Oh, she had a spoon but it was on the wrong side of her soup dish. It seemed her silverware had been placed backwards.

Indeed, each and every place setting was reversed. She started to ask about this and under the table Breen kicked her. With seeming gentleness he placed a restraining hand upon her arm, said, "Perhaps, Highness, it would be best if I spoke for both of us. These are soldier's matters, you know."

There was an undertone of urgency in his voice and his hard fingers bit cruelly into the soft flesh of her arm. She looked at him in confusion and dawning fear. He was forbidding her to ask about the backwards silverware. Why? Was there some great danger she could not comprehend? What was happening? The palace servants would never normally have made such a mistake ... other things were reversed. Most of her relations had been righthanded, yet now they seemed to be lefthanded. Her aunt had a large mole on her left cheek and somehow it had moved over to her right cheek. How? Why? What did it all mean?

Breen watched her with compassion, his heart bitter. She's like a song bird, he thought, an incredibly lovely one, only beginning to realize that she's landed in a nest of vipers. There's none but me to rescue her and how I'm to do that is a mystery.

"Well, my boy, go on!" boomed the Duke. "You started to tell us about your adventures." The words were pleasantly spoken yet there was no mistaking the threat behind them.

He gained a moment's grace by sipping his wine and began slowly. "First of all, did you know that Captain Volsa was one of the traitors?"

"Yes, yes," replied Esaur, "he met the fate of traitors some time ago. What we're all eager to hear about is your adventures."

They applauded and smiled to encourage him, yet he could see the dark hunger lurking in their eyes. As soon as I've told them what they want to know, they'll kill me -- and do worse to Delanda.

"Well," Breen began slowly, "I hope none of you have anything else you need to do this evening, for my adventures are a passing long tale, one that has its beginning a good many years ago. When I was just a child, my Grandfather, Sir Uster, and I went to the wedding of my cousin Sir Druin at Castle Paragas. In the middle of the wedding the Norgemen attacked and....

Calmly, steadily Breen described all that had happened to him since that fateful night and all the while his mind raced, struggling desperately to find some plan to save himself and the Princess.

The kitchen door is right behind me. The dim glow from the fireplace doesn't matter; if I could quench those candles we could flee in darkness... the stable's too far -- no chance to steal horses.. all the gates in the palace wall will be locked and guarded...no good, no good... what I need is some clever lie, something I've not the wit to think of.

The flame of one candle danced oddly, twisting and congealing, forming two black dots. One could even imagine those dots were eyes in a strange distorted face... a face that looked like -- Pyre!

"If you have any wits, which I doubt, use them now. Stall!"

The candle flame flickered and died. There was no sign anyone else had seen or heard aught. Was the vision real or only a delusion born of his fears?

He heard himself saying, "And we jumped through the Black Door, landing in bed where you, Duke Esaur, found us."

"And that," the nobleman asked calmly, "is all you know about these events?"

Breen's mind spun. He'd told his story, scarcely realizing he was nearing its end. What now -- admit he knew no more and be promptly executed?

"Yes, that's the whole of it," he paused, drank some wine, while raising a finger, "except..."

He took a mouthful of roast beef, chewed it slowly with obvious enjoyment, adding with his mouth full, "except for what Pyre plans to do next."

There was no overt sign, yet all of them twitched like a fish on a hook. Twas a small enough victory, enough to slightly calm his knotted stomach and let him swallow the meat in his mouth.

"Now to understand what Pyre will do," he continued in a relaxed tone, despite his dry throat and the cold sweat that covered his back, "you have to examine the what and why of his past actions."

"Why," interrupted Delanda, "did that dark wizard help you rescue me?"

"Twas not his plan," Breen replied, playing out his words as a fisherman plays his line. "He and our unknown enemies both meant that you should die, though in different ways. Remember that crystal vase full of strange green liquid? The rat-man's severed hand fell into that liquid and continued to live."

Delanda's eyes widened in horror as she whispered, "He was placing a knife to my breast. He -- he must have meant to cut out my heart and put it, still beating, into that obscene vase. I'd died and my heart would beat on -- forever."

"My Queen," he answered, "there is a spell which makes yon mirror perfect while your heart beats. Our enemy meant to make that spell permanent, while Pyre intended to break it."

"And what," asked the Duke, "is important about this mirror?" For all the casualness of his words his eyes were intent on Breen. Indeed they all watched him avidly, their outward human form scarcely concealing the black reality beneath.

Slowly the soldier answered, "When you put all the clues together, it's fairly obvious what must have happened. That mirror," he gestured, "originally belonged to Queen Eslaina of Zadok. Being both beautiful and vain she commanded the wizard Ebbern to make her mirror perfect. Fool wizard attempted to do just that, not realizing the fearful danger."

"And what danger would that be?" the seeming Duke Esaur asked softly.
 

Next Episode (Conclusion!!!)... HELL COME TO SUPPER
 


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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.)