Magicks and Marvels abound
The Long Dark Road to Wizardry!

A Serialized Sword & Sorcery Epic

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Book One: Wolves at the Wedding Feast

Previously: The wedding of Sir Druin to the Lady Sathryn attracts guests from the noblest houses in the land and some unexpected guests: a raiding party of Norgemen. Killing many, the raiders imprison the rest and start celebrating their victory by drinking and torturing captives. By very quietly murdering a guard Druin releases the captives. Sathryn, however, has been taken away to be gang raped. Like Druin she is bound by their nation's inflexible code of honor: if she is dishonored she must commit suicide. Unarmed, one man against three shiploads of seawolves, Druin must rescue his untouched bride...


Episode 3: Satisfying Honor
With Blood

THE HORROR OF THE SITUATION he faced nearly overwhelmed Druin but he was rescued by a rising tide of anger.

How could the Gods, who were supposed to be just, make such an impossible demand of him. Except -- hadn't someone told him that the way to solve an impossible problem was to make it more difficult. His honor required of him both the impossibility of saving Sathryn and the impossibility of killing the Norgemen to the last man. Slowly a dark inspiration came over him. There was no honorable way to do what honor required but a man can slay a thousand with a well told lie.

I'll do it. I'll go in there and gull the pack of them into their deaths!

For all his sudden fierce resolve, his mouth was abruptly quite dry, his hands were covered in clammy sweat, and the base of his spine was chilly. Still, though his fears were great and he'd not the faintest notion what sort of lie he might tell, at the back of his mind there was a hard core of confidence. He was about to do a monstrous evil and for it he'd a talent inborn.

Striding forward into the lurid red light of the torture chamber Druin stood in full view of his enemies and, bowing slightly, declared, "Gentlemen, I hope I do not intrude."

For an instance his boldness stunned them into silence. The chamber was a large amphitheater, rows and rows of benches rising above a semicircular stage filled with torture implements. The young aristocrat, clad in a bright crimson satin halfcoat, pale blue shirt and pants with a cloth-of-gold sash, was in stark contrast to the dark and grisly marauders, their unwashed bodies clothed in bloodstained armor and filthy rags. 'Twas as though a proud peacock had strutted into the middle of a wolf pack feasting on a fresh kill.

Paying no heed to the staring eyes of his enemies, the young aristocrat scooped up an ale mug, filled it from the nearby barrel and blandly seated himself. Only after taking a long deep drink did he say, "Warchief Gardragon, I've business with you."

"Be ye mad?" the old warrior growled in mixed anger and astonishment. "Canst not see what we are about and what fate you'll have at our hands?"

His bearpaw hand gestured at the room, the various grim implements now decorated with the corpses of his friends, the rack on whose horrid length the unconscious body of his half-brother Kyarl lay faintly moaning, and Sathryn in the torn ruins of her wedding gown now struggling futilely in the grip of an unsavory barbarian like a white song bird caught by a mangy dog.

Shrugging as though all this were a matter of indifference, Druin replied, "But, Gardragon, you're not apt to harm the only man who can lead you to the treasure."

At that single word the entire wolf pack stared at him with suddenly increased interest, greed sparkling in their dark eyes. "What treasure?" demanded Gardragon.

"Ahh", the young aristocrat murmured, "I see our dear King Thilloden didn't bother to tell you. 'Tis a hoard of wealth great enough to keep all of you in luxury for a dozen lifetimes and no doubt good Thilloden wants it for himself."

Behind and several paces to the left of the aging warchief was one warrior obviously different from the rest, a fastidiously clean tiger in the midst of the shabby wolf pack, Sith by name. Having watched Druin with cold calculation in his green eyes, he suddenly demanded, "Why should you come to us, your sworn enemies, with this tale of riches?"

"Because I've no choice," Druin replied blandly. "If I don't sell you the treasure in exchange for freedom for myself and my friends then Thilloden will steal it."

With transparent treachery the old warchief asked, "Be you willing to show us this treasure before we release your friends?"

"Certainly," the young aristocrat answered in a tone of cheerful naivete. "I know you barbarians have your own strong, simple code of honor, though, of course, I'd want you to swear an appropriate oath."

"Done and a bargain!" the grizzled warchief roared. "By the Long Dead Bones of all the Gods I swear that if you show us this treasure and it be all you've said, you and all of yours may go in peace and I swear that if it be but a tale, you shall pay for your perfidy with pains such that you beg for death." Rising to his feet, Gardragon smiled, a grotesque act that showed his rotten yellow teeth, and continued, "There, you have your oath, now let us see this marvelous treasure."

I've done it. They've agreed to follow me. The only reason that these fiends are dangerously sober is that their ale's weak and in short supply. I'll lead them to the wine cellar and -- somehow -- stall the treasure hunt until they incapacitate themselves.

Strangely he felt confident that he could make this very poor plan work, one way or another. For no reason he could put his finger on, there was something especially right about leading his foes into the wine cellar.

"Certainly," he replied smiling. "If you just follow me, the treasure is this way."

"Wait!" Sith demanded suspiciously. "Aren't we going to need tools of any sort?"

"No," Druin shook his head, "some of you are carrying, ahh, sledge hammers aren't you? They'll do for breaking down stone walls."

"What about your brother?" Sith asked, gesturing toward the rack. "I'm sure none of us would mind if you released him."

Though Gardragon started to object, he stopped himself and the faintest hint of a nasty smile crossed his battle-scarred countenance. The same hidden smile, amusement at some secret joke, appeared here and there amongst the wolf pack.

They expected that he'd simply release Kyarl from the rack, a lethal blunder for a sudden relaxation of tension could kill his half-brother as painfully as being further stretched. On the other hand Druin's whole plan depended on playing the fool and if he released the rack, slowly, one notch at a time, 'twould shatter the pretense.

"Actually," he said with a cheerfully idiotic smile, "Kyarl here is only my half-brother. He can stay there while we go get the treasure." Taking half a step, Druin beckoned them to follow him.

Sith was instantly on his feet, frustrated suspicion in his eyes, shouting, "Not so quickly! Before we go with you, I want to know where this supposed treasure is!"

"It's in the wine cellar," Druin replied mildly.

"Why there?" the tigerish warrior demanded.

"I suppose," the young aristocrat replied in pleasantly patronizing tone, "because my father wanted to keep the treasure a secret. He absolutely forbade anyone else from ever going into the wine cellar, so that was the one place in the whole castle where he could keep anything he chose and no one would be any the wiser." He stopped, looked back and forth between Sith and Gardragon, and added, "Whichever one of you is in charge here, do you want to continue this interesting discussion or shall we go get the treasure?"

Spurred by the implied insult, the old warchief instantly thundered, "We go!"

THEY WENT. As Druin led the raiders down the dank stone corridor, he could feel Sith's deadly calm eyes carefully watching him. For the moment he'd outmaneuvered the tigerish warrior but only for the moment.

Sathryn was also behind him, dragged along by an unsavory brute. Much as Druin longed to speak some word of comfort to her, he dared not. For one brief moment their eyes had met, and he saw that she watched him with blind terror. Although he was doing all this to save her, she couldn't know that and instead regarded him with horror as a traitor and a monster. Later he could comfort her and explain all -- in the unlikely event that they both lived.

Ahead was the iron bound thick oak door that was the only entrance to the wine cellar. Without thinking about it Druin fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the appropriate key. Only when 'twas in his hand did he realize, Theba and all her saints, my father wasn't trying to give me all those keys, just this one, the key to the wine cellar!

'Twas the only key that his father in life would never have given to anyone, and the fact that dying he gave it to his son proved that he wanted Druin to lead the Norgemen here. And that in turn must mean--

Brushing past the young aristocrat, Sith snatched the key from his hand. Though he said not a word, his manner eloquently declared that he suspected a trap and meant to guard against it. Sword in his right hand, he placed the key in the lock and stopped.

"The hinges," he exclaimed, pointing, "they're on the outside of the door. That means the door was built not to keep intruders out of this room but to keep something locked inside."

"Stop," Gardragon rumbled, "being a cautious old woman and open the door."

Reluctantly Sith obeyed and slowly, ponderously the heavy door gaped open. The room beyond was black as the pit.

"After you," Sith declared, handing Druin a torch. Without hesitation the young aristocrat took the firebrand and holding it high stepped down into the darkness. The fire's shifting uncertain light revealed naught except what was to be expected, row upon row of wine kegs. Sith's probing eyes danced about, staring first into the darkness then at Druin.

He thinks there's some danger hidden here, something worse than an overabundant supply of wine... and... by the Gods he's right!

Though the recognition of what the true situation was struck the young aristocrat with unnerving force, he still managed to keep his face a blank.

Sith, in baffled suspicion, demanded harshly, "Where's this fabled treasure?"

For a moment Druin was overwhelmed by horror and he could not answer. Then strength returned. He'd vowed to use whatever means were necessary, no matter how foul they might be and by all of Drodd's Thousand Arms he would. To Sith, he snapped, " I told you before, the treasure's behind a false wall which we'll have to break down."

"In the meantime," Gardragon put in, "I see many kegs which, though they be not treasure, are still very interesting." A cheerful rumbling from the other raiders showed that they were as thirsty as their warchief.

Realizing that argument was futile, Sith shrugged his shoulders and started to descend the stairway into the wine cellar. The other Norgemen followed him. Like lambs to the slaughter, Druin thought with savage exaltation. They'd murdered his family and now they'd receive the payment they so richly deserved. While Druin would probably share their grim fate, that was small matter, but...

Theba, No! They're bringing Sathryn down here with them!

That he had to prevent, no matter what the cost.

"My Lord Gardragon," he said hastily, "'twill only take a half dozen men or so to break the wall and, as you can see, this room is too crowded for you and all your followers to drink in comfort. Why not have Sith and a few others stay here and the rest of you go back? You can carry with you all the wine you desire and the Lady Sathryn there may act as your serving maid."

After looking at Druin with narrow and suspicious eyes for a moment, the old warchief nodded. Soon he and most of the raiders had departed, heavily laden with wine, leaving Druin alone with Sith and a few others.

"Now that the old bear is gone," Sith said, gesturing with his sword in casual menace, "you can drop the pretense."

"Why, whatever do you mean?" Druin asked blandly.

"We both know," the other snapped back, "that there's no treasure! What devilish game you're playing I can't guess but..."

"Over there," Druin pointed to a place where the wall held an archway filled-in with crudely mortared stones, "you see what's obviously a false wall. Aren't you curious what's behind it?"

Sith's instincts told him to beware, that he was in some sort of monstrous trap, and he racked his brain for some way that he could order a retreat without later being accused of cowardice.

There wasn't any. That damnable aristocrat in his clothes fine as a peacock had created a situation that left the warrior no choice.

"Dunark," he ordered, "you and the others go to work on that wall with your hammers." As he spoke, he lifted the point of his sword to within a hand's breadth of Druin's neck. "If," he continued, "anything untoward happens, our guest here will be the first to die."

As the five raiders began smashing the stonework, Druin said mildly, "I won't want you to be surprised while you're holding that sword at my throat, so perhaps I'd better tell you something: in addition to the treasure you'll also find my uncle behind that wall."

"What?" Sith demanded.

"Well, you see," the aristocrat answered, "shortly after I was born, both my grandparents died. That made my father the Duke and left him with the very awkward problem: what to do with my uncle. For reasons that needn't concern you, it wouldn't have been practical to kill him, so my father brought my uncle down here and walled him up."

The warrior snorted his contempt at this story, and gestured for Druin to move a bit to the right. Sith wanted the aristocrat where he could see both him and the wall at the same time.

Though the Norgemen hammered furiously, their progress against the stonework was but little. Why common stone should be so hard to break Sith couldn't understand and this minor mystery added to his unease. When the men paused from their labors, his ears pricked and he gestured them to silence.

After a moment old humpback Zabbod shouted, "I hear it!"

That, Sith decided, wasn't quite true. One didn't so much hear this sound as feel it, a deep sub-audible force like the breathing of some unnaturally powerful giant. The torches quivered back and forth with it.

"Only the wind," Druin declared amiably. "When the wind stands on the southwest corner of the castle, we quite often get this sort of thing." Favoring Sith with a broad smile, he added, "I hope it doesn't make you nervous."

"No, damn you!" the warrior snapped back, then to his men he growled: "Back to work! We don't want to spend all night at this."

Despite earnest effort, however, they did little more than mar the surface of the stonework. When next they paused for breath, Druin stepped forward, saying, "There's a bit of a trick, to this sort of thing; let me show you." Before Sith could object, the aristocrat had a hammer and was swinging.

The stone broke under the first blow like chalk and each following stroke edged the wall closer to destruction. Between blows that sent rock fragments spinning wildly in all directions, Druin cheerfully declared, "It's all in the wrist action."

That, Sith thought, is as much a lie as everything else you've said. The unnatural ease with which the stone crumbled added to his mounting fears and the warrior had decided to take no unnecessary risks: as soon as Druin breached the wall, he'd slit his throat.

His eyes wandered nervously about the room and abruptly he noticed something he'd previously overlooked. There, in that dark corner, there was a pile of... something... perhaps furs. Whatever they were, they had no logical reason for being here. Stepping to the pile, he bent down and discovered that 'twas a heap of dead rabbits, their corpses dry as mummies.

Lifting one and tossing it toward Druin, he shouted, "What's the meaning of this?"

With a pleasantly patronizing smile, Druin answered, "My Uncle-Behind-the-wall is still alive. That's what my father fed him."

"But these rabbits weren't eaten! They were drained of their blood!"

"Yes," the aristocrat replied mildly, "but you've got to remember that my uncle has been behind this wall," he paused as he struck another stone-shattering blow, "for a good many years. In the circumstances some dietary peculiarities are to be expected."

I'm going, Sith resolved, to kill him now, while I still have the chance.

As he raised his sword and strode toward Druin, he glanced at the wall. It was composed of two layers of stone and now with the outer layer largely removed, he could see that a pattern had been carefully inscribed on the inner layer of stone: a pentagram.

Dimly he knew that such figures had some occult significance and he screamed, "Stop!" even as Druin's sledge hammer sped down to smash a corner from the mystic figure.

Abruptly all the torches in the room quivered and the ominous breathing became much louder. "Get out of here, men!" Sith yelled at his followers. "I"ll kill this dog and follow!"

His sword swung in a whistling arc at Druin only to crash ringingly against the hammer. The impact numbed his arm and he realized that another such exchange could break his weapon. Before he'd recovered, the hammer came thrusting at his head and he had to leap back.

His men were screaming in terror for, as they rushed toward the exit, the ponderous oak door had suddenly slammed itself shut in their faces.

Behind Sith was the wall with its broken pentagram and from the far side of that wall came a scratching sound, some creature with great claws digging.

"I take you to Drodd with me," the warrior screamed and thrust his blade at Druin's heart. The sword met the hammer in ringing crash and snapped into twain. As steel fragments went flying through the air, Druin finished his stroke, ramming the hammer full into his foe's stomach.

Though protected by his armor, Sith was taken off balance and knocked sprawling. As he lay flat, he saw Druin standing above him, hammer poised for a death blow.

It didn't come.

"Come on!" he shouted. "Finish it."

"No, thank you," the aristocrat replied, smiling with venomed hatred. "You came upon my family as monsters out of the darkness and now I'm letting my uncle return the kindness."

The stone wall was dissolving, great patches as though eaten by the darkness behind the wall. Soon there was no wall, only an archway that opened onto utter blackness. For an instant Sith thought he glimpsed something unspeakable stepping out of that darkness, then all the lights in the cellar went out and he saw no more.

Next episode ... Cry Uncle!

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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.)