The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book III: The Wind at World’s End
Episode 1: The Dark Lady
The barbarians who raid the Western sea are the worst, most ruthless savages in the world, for they believe that the gods, who are the source of all moral values, died in a great battle ages ago. Mankind, they hold, is merely a maggot crawling about on a dying world before the ultimate dissolution of all things. As proof of this strange antireligion they claim that there exists a weird and demon-haunted valley in which lie the very bones of the gods themselves. — Partanmost’s Book of Travels
When dawn burst over the mountains in a flash of topaz, the young lord of Zadok shouted a cry of pride and relief. The sun meant victory; he would live another day.
Last night he and his companions had made camp at the mouth of the Valley of Bones. Something, they knew not what, had come out of the cold night and circled them without once entering the bright bronze of the fire’s light.
Once, for a fleeting moment, when Druin threw grease on the fire, they caught a glimpse of their stalker. Naked she was, despite the cold which made them bundle up and huddle. Beautiful she was too, seemingly the most desirable of women.
Womanless men long a-march swallowed audibly and stared. And then her voice came on nighted wings. Soft and consumingly inviting, it called to Barga; and he went forth. Then another, and he too left his comrades.
When Druin and the others, protected by the torches that lit their way, went in search, they found what remained of them — withered man-husks sucked dry of all bodily fluids
The night became an absolute horror. The fire was their only defense. Since there was not enough wood to keep it blazing high, they burned their provisions and did not mind the stench. Even so, she called, and one by one men went to her. Nor could they be stopped.
Through it all, Lord Druin, well wrapped in his black cloak, fought with every resource of wit and cunning. Perhaps his hastily improvised silver-tipped arrows wounded her, perhaps not. Alive or dead, wounded or no, she continued calling good men to her.
At last, of the nine who had made camp, only Druin and Daroeda remained. And she called Daroeda. As the fat old pirate rose glassy-eyed to walk into the dark, Druin snatched up a stone and knocked him unconscious. Making sure Daroeda was well wrapped, the young nobleman pulled him close to the fire. Then, with his bow and last silver arrows, he sat full upon his companion’s unconscious bulk. Behind him, the fire popped and flickered toward its death.
The time came when he loosed his last arrow and missed, and knew that his life was for the taking. His hope then was that the she-demon would not know he was unarmed. She called, called, and somehow he found the strength to sit unmoving, quietly reciting the twenty-seven Guides for Noble Conduct at a High Wedding.
Only when the fire was dying to feeble embers like waning souls did she come toward him, his will to resist crumbling before her beauty as walls to the ram... and the sun rose.
She fled at the first appearance of mother-of-pearl in the sky, followed by gold. From everywhere and nowhere her words wafted back to Druin: Farewell my lover, until tomorrow night.
For several moments the survivor drank in the wonder of the rising sun and praised the goddess Theba for his deliverance. Also he shouted in pride, for he had not merely survived; he had brought the life of one other human being through the cold night of preternatural horror. Would that he could have saved others as well, but at least Daroeda still lived, the fat old rogue.
Druin turned to place a hand affectionately on the pirate’s gross form. “Come on, Dary, wake up. We’re safe now!”
There was no response; Daroeda was cold, as cold as Barga and Ria.
“Damn it, Dary, No!” he shouted, shaking the inert form harder. ‘’You can’t be dead. I was with you all the time. She could not have gotten to you!” There was no reply and new fear came; had Daroeda frozen?
No, to Druin’s renewed horror he found that, like Barga and Ria, the pirate was a desiccated husk. A torrent of emotions swept through Druin only to be replaced by icy cold. Though Daroeda had scarcely deserved saving, the young lord had struggled with all his might to preserve him and he had failed.
Now, alone in the cold of this land, Druin must either lie down and die or be on his way. He had a long way still to go. Unless he reached his goal before the setting of this new arctic sun, he would be forced to keep that assignation with the she-demon.
As he walked, he reflected bitterly that he had begun this journey to avenge the massacre of his family. Now, the list of those to be avenged had grown to include the names of his followers.
Druin had never met his maternal grandfather and until recently had never wanted to. His family had long made a dark secret of the fact that Druin’s mother’s father was none other than the wizard Mardarin, that fearful mage of legend who dwelt atop Floating Mountain. Throughout his life Druin had wished his grim ancestry — and heritage? — could be forgotten. Recent events had smashed and changed that desire.
In a masterful act of treachery, King Thilloden had arranged the murder of Duke Aradam, Druin’s father, and the entire family. By rights, Druin, too, should have died. Instead the young lord found that he had some minor but wholly unnatural talents, by use of which he escaped.
How his grandfather might now greet him Druin had no notion, but the dread mage was his only hope of gaining vengeance on a king. Thus he had set out for Floating Mountain, bringing with him only ten men.
Now he was nearing the end of that long journey. According to the Undead Book, Floating Mountain was just the other side of the Valley of the Bones.
* * *
The sun had fully begun its own daily journey when Druin reached the top of the pass. He stared, blinking into that valley he expected to be there. Despite its grim name, its appearance was pleasant enough — eerily so. A lush island of green, rolling hills nestled incongruously in the middle of this arctic wasteland. An astonished Druin put back his black hood.
Without pausing to wonder at this miracle the pilgrim hurried on, loosening his furs. Presently, he was walking among profusely flowering bushes and trees. The grass was a soft carpet beneath his feet and the air lilted with the songs of gaily colored birds by the score.
Despite grim memories of last night, his empty stomach rumbled while he stripped off furs and leggings. Revenge, he thought with bitter practicality, is no reason to go hungry. A breakfast of fruits and berries would be most pleasant indeed.
He soon discovered that for all the profusion of bright flowers, there was naught to eat on any of the bushes or trees. He just could not believe that....
Druin’s eyes narrowed with gathering suspicion. Another damned mystery. Plants that flowered without yielding fruits or berries were the result of human cultivation. A valley filled with such tamely decorative plants here in the middle of the wilderness was more than improbable.
It’s almost as if this whole place is a park, he mused, and felt a little touch of cold at the base of his spine as he followed that thought to its conclusion. Parks have owners. Here I am a trespasser, an intruder.
While topaz sun climbed higher into sapphire sky, Druin moved on, pondering the problem. It was not the only mystery cloaked by the Valley of the Bones. Why did the Norgemen believe that the remains of the very gods lay here? Since the gods still lived, of course, it could only be a vulgar superstition. Still... did most superstitions not usually have some basis in fact?
* * *
At midmorning he topped a small rise and stopped to stare at what he saw below him. The lush grass showed the passage of a large animal — or group of men.
Swiftly moving to the track, he knelt to examine it. Within the last few hours, eight men — civilized men, since they wore boots — had come from the far end of the valley and passed this way. Then he discovered a second set of prints: the same men, returning from — somewhere — heavily burdened. For these tracks were deeper, less uniformly straight.
Rising, the young Duke pulled thoughtfully at his abbreviated beard. Perhaps this was no business of his, but he was curious and knew well that things he didn’t understand could hurt him. Eight men had come into the Valley of the Bones to fetch something, and had returned somewhere with that something. What? Why?
Suppose I don’t investigate? The route to my grandfather’s home lies through the far end of this improbable valley, which means I shall overtake eight men I know nothing about. Best I find out what’s going on, first!
Druin set out through the hills at a steady trot. The miles rolled away while he tried to ignore his rumbling belly. Presently, coming around a hummock, he stopped to stare open-mouthed. Before him, he told himself firmly, stood only a building.
But that was like saying that a goddess is only a woman. He gazed upon a simple, unadorned structure of one story only. Though time and the passing ages had marred its beauty and broken many of the once-proud marble columns, still it retained a grace and clean-cut elegance that held Druin in awe.
Gods, would that I could have seen this marvel when first it was built!
The track of eight men led directly to the main entry. As he followed, the sense of trespass, of intruding where he had no right at all, grew the stronger. Only by considerable effort of will did he persist.
The single door, a massive slab of bronze, hung forlornly open. He paused to examine it. He found corrosion, a pitting caused by the passing of he could not guess how many years. It had been built time out of mind, and its hinges were still in perfect condition.
The orphan lord stepped inside to find himself in the darkness of a windowless building. While he paused in uncertainty, his nose told him of an oil lamp nearby. Within a few moments he had found one and lighted it.
He was surprised to discover that he held one of the Sacred Lamps burned in the worship of Theba. Also, the interior walls of this — temple? — were covered with the holy symbols of the Gentle Goddess, the All-Mother of mankind.
For a moment Druin thought he was in a shrine. But no. Though Theba had been worshiped here, that great marble stand was no altar in the building’s center but was obviously intended to hold a casket. He stood in a tomb.
The floor was covered with dust. In that dust of ages was the disturbance of recent footprints. Examining them, Druin could almost see what had taken place: the eight had piously burned their Sacred Lamps and then and only then had they stepped to the center of the room. They had lifted the coffin from the catafalque — a casket for a human of normal size, judging from the pattern left in the dust on the dais — and had marched out with it.
A band of pious grave robbers, Druin thought, no little puzzled and annoyed. While there seemed little to be learned by closer examination, he moved toward the catafalque — only to have the lamp sputter and die.
Since it still held oil in plenty, it seemed evidently only a matter of readjusting the wick and relighting it That was fine, except... I don’t have any way to light a lamp!
During last night’s grim battle to keep the fire alive, he had burned all the contents of his tinder box and inadvertently discarded his flint, leaving him without the means to make a fire.
Then how in Drood’s name was I able to light this lamp in the first place?
Not, surely, in the name of the dark Lord of Deception and Death. Yet it had been easy, natural, an action so casual that he had given no thought to what he was about.
Druin reflected, staring huge-eyed at blackness. Fire-raising was a recognized form of the Black Art. For an instant, apprehension swept over the young man like a chill breath, and he felt he was becoming a stranger to himself.
Then, with cold exultation the thought came, Truly I am Mardarin’s grandson! As pride soared in him, he touched the lamp’s wick and squinted when it burst into flame, all in an instant.
A few moments more in the desecrated tomb convinced Druin he had nothing more to learn here. Besides, time was precious. He quit the ancient tomb of marble and went striding along the trail left by its robbers.
His stomach complained in leonine tones and he chewed leaves he knew to be nonpoisonous, wishing he knew something of edible tubers. Presently he came upon a choice: the robbers, being heavily burdened, had walked around a fairly steep hill. He could follow them, or make the climb, which would be more arduous but faster. Besides, it would give him a good view of the valley.
The ascent proved harder than he expected. He was puffing mightily when he gained the summit of the green but stone-strewn knoll. A glance behind showed him the mausoleum. Its beauty was striking, awesome even at this distance, yet still it did not seem a place for the dead. The noble, the very noble dead, he mused, now noting dozens of marble ruins scattered here and there amid the trees. Corpses, he thought; the corpses of once glorious buildings.
So, the Norgemen are partly right. Some great and noble people, ages ago, used this unnatural valley as their cemetery.
Allowing himself only the briefest rest, he began his descent. Time was his enemy now. If he could reach his grandfather’s home before sunset, he could worry then as to what sort of reception his grim forebear might provide. If, however, the setting sun found him short of his destination, last night’s she-demon would have another opportunity to work her way with him.
Of course, he had brought along the lamp, but he doubted its ability to hold her at bay more than briefly. If only he could be sure of direction, he’d leave these dratted-heavy clothes up a tree somewhere.
As the miles slipped by under Druin’s hurrying feet, so did the hours. Though the urge to rush, to push himself too hard, was a constant temptation, he withstood it. He did do much worrying.
Mardarin’s abode on Floating Mountain was somewhere beyond this valley. How far? If near, he might gain his sanctuary with as much as an hour to spare. If it lay far, then he was surely doomed.
Time passed and the ache in his legs steadily grew. At the valley’s far end a dried riverbed came meandering out of the mountains, all white and yellow clay and stone. For a little time Druin dog-trotted along it, flanked by towering cliffs in sienna and burnt orange and somber gray. Then he emerged into the sunlit open, and the bottom dropped out of his empty stomach
Before him swept a great blinding plain, an enormous sneering expanse of brilliant white sand. He knew he gazed on the desert across whose undulant wastes the Floating Mountain roamed. It was in plain view now, a towering white-capped pinnacle drifting above sand the color of snow and crystal.
Floating Mountain was not at all where the map in the Undead Book had shown his grandfather’s keep to be. Though distances were hard to judge in desert, Druin knew he was looking at several days’ journey. The refuge he had been counting on was far beyond his reach. In an hour it would be dark and the night demon would be keeping her promise to come for him!
Next episode: Wind Wolves
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon