The Long Dark Road to Wizardry
by Richard K. Lyon
|Table of Contents|
Book III: The Wind at World’s End
Episode 2: Wind Wolves
part 1 of 2
It was puzzling that Floating Mountain was so far from where the map in the Undead Book had shown his grandfather’s keep to be.
That was a problem to be considered later, along with why the sand was so white and sparkly under that vast floating mass of granite. Right now his problem was shelter for the night. The tomb-robbers whose trail he’d crossed must be going somewhere, and all ports are good in a storm.
Running at a steady pace he soon picked up their trail. Following it, he went up a small rise and there in the distance ahead were four tents clustered about... an inn!
Impossible. He rubbed his eyes and squinted. The inn remained.
While a travelers’ stop in the middle of this desolate expanse was absurdly unlikely, the large ramshackle building displayed the sign of the pilgrim’s staff and was beyond doubt a place of accommodation.
Like as not Drood Himself is the cheerless proprietor, Druin thought. Though he was not inclined to take good fortune at face value, Druin trotted rapidly across the sands holding his swordhilt to prevent the scabbard’s banging his leg.
The sun was lowering itself gingerly onto the horizon when he neared the inn. Despite its absurd location, business was evidently brisk. In the rope enclosure off to the right was an assortment of horses, mules and a single, bored camel.
Men moved about among the tents. He saw several shining blacks wearing only breechcloths; three dusky yellow Narokans in black pajamas, stupidly absorbing sun; and four such as he in the bronze-studded leather that was pretty much standard for the soldiers of a western nobleman.
A towering ebony giant, standing some little distance from the front of the inn, saw Druin and waved in a friendly manner. “Welcome, stranger,” he called, between bites of the large haunch of meat in his fist. “Welcome to the Inn at World’s End.” He smiled. Druin saw to his horror that the man’s teeth had been filed to points.
“Hallo,” the young noble said, concealing his shock, “I”m Lord Druin of Zadok.”
“Chief Bungamin. Why come you here?”
Close up, Druin found the black man even more impressive: he towered over seven feet, and his bare chest rippled with powerful muscles. A huge lionskin was slung over his shoulder as an ordinary man would wear a cape. Except for it and a loincloth, Bungamin was naked.
“I’ve come,” Druin said cautiously, “to see the wizard Mardarin.”
“So are we all,” the huge chief rumbled, “all come here for Mardarin.”
When Druin looked blank, he continued, “This only place to wait for Mardarin. Floating Mountain drifts all over desert, according to moon. Only place water is, is right here. So, everybody comes here, sits around getting soft, waits for mountain to come close. Lucky you to come just now. Tonight may be the night!”
“Pardon me,” Druin said rather tentatively, “but isn’t that a human bone you’re gnawing on?”
“Oh yes. Was tricky trader. Good meat. You like some? Ho ho, I see you make face! When you hunger, you be glad to eat such good meat. Why you want to see Mardarin?”
Since there was no point in concealing the truth or telling all of it, Druin replied, “The King of Zadok had my entire family murdered by treachery, and I want revenge.”
“Ah, good reason.” After taking a big bite of meat and chewing it with obvious relish, Bungamin continued, “I come here because I was big liberal. Had great plan for reform. After war, stopped killing and eating enemies and instead sold to slave traders. Good idea, but didn’t work.”
Another pause while the chief chewed a mouthful of trader. “Traders take captives all right, but tried to cheat: no payment! Big mess. Now Bungamin out of power and need help of Mardarin to get back power. One good thing, though: this trader teached me how to preserve meat by smoking.”
Bungamin, Druin mused, was speaking in what was not his native language. On a superficial level he was doing so rather crudely, creating the impression that he was a simple soul. There were, however, a great many complications in the language of Zadok, the need of adjective and noun to agree in phase and many other subtleties. The huge black was getting them all correct. Most people try to show you how very intelligent they are, but the really clever ones often want you to think that they’re less clever than they really are.
While Druin and Bungamin had been talking, they had been walking toward the inn’s front door. Bungamin touched the other’s arm as they were about to enter, and whispered. “One thing more. Should warn you — other guests.” The mighty black actually shuddered. “They — not good people like you and me.”
While Druin wondered what it would take to bring a shudder to a giant cannibal, they entered the inn. The innkeeper proved to be a wizened little man with little black eyes like agates set deep within his skull. A thin fringe of unpleasant white hair circled his misshapen head like a mushroom’s collar. Upon Druin’s placing a small gold piece in his outstretched hand, he stepped out of the way and bowed with consummate politeness,
“Good my Lord, welcome to my humble abode. You are just in time for supper.”
Hoping fervently that his host meant that ambiguous remark in the ordinary way, Druin walked in. The common room seemed ordinary enough: walls of rough-hewn wooden beams and planking, a cheerful fire in a stone fireplace, and a long sturdy table of oak. Of the two who sat at the table, the short man, broad of shoulder and dressed in the silks and samite of one very well born, rose and bowed politely. “Count Kainus of Thunland,” Bungamin said, “Lord Druin of... Zadok?”
“Zadok, yes,” Druin said, returning the bow. “It is the custom of my country, taught me by my father the Duke, to shake hands,” he lied, and extended his hand.
After a slight hesitation, the Count accepted the gesture. He had, as the orphan lord had suspected, hairy palms. And his eyebrows met.
After that clasp, Kainus waved toward the other seated man, a near skeleton in black robes. “And this grim fellow is Torguadis, formerly high priest of the Temple of the Great Spider in Shamash.”
“Please,” the priest snapped angrily, and his hard opaque eyes flashed. “Spare me the introductions. You know I do not wish to converse with unbelievers.”
Druin smiled as he seated himself, and replied smoothly, “I find that a great pity, Your Reverence. Though I do not share your faith, I am a man of open mind and ears. There is much I would like to learn from you.”
“The proper way to instruct the unbeliever and the heretic,” Torguadis replied in a voice like an iron rod, “is by breaking on the rack.”
Bungamin, who had seated himself on Druin’s right, laughed with his mouth full. He swallowed and said, “Our priest’s manners take some getting used to. But wait till you see what you get for supper. You be glad I gave you good meat.”
A cannibal apologizes for a priest, Druin thought, noting the empty clay bowl and rude wooden spoon before each of the four men seated around the table. In its center a large iron pot squatted unesthetically. A peek within confirmed what Druin’s nose had told him — vegetable stew.
“Looks good to me!” he assured, and reached for the pot only to discover that all three of his companions were glaring coldly. He knew that he had just committed a serious social blunder in this gentle company.
“We are,” Count Kainus replied in a voice that could freeze salt water, “waiting for Our Lady.”
What woman could command the reverence of this weird group was a mystery to Druin, but he spoke in swift contrition. “My apologies, gentlemen. Please remember that I am a stranger among you and had no way of knowing you awaited a lady.”
The black nodded and shrugged and the Count said, “Certainly.” Torguadis continued his stony silence.
Gods! What incredible company I dine with tonight! A religious fanatic, a friendly cannibal and, unless I’m much mistaken, a mannerly werewolf. Still I’m a great deal better off than I was last night — here are four walls around me and a good fire to keep that night-demon at bay.
“While we wait,” Druin said, “there is something I’d like to ask you. On my way here I came upon a trail. Apparently eight men left this inn, went to some place in the Valley of the Bones, and returned here bearing a heavy object. Do you know aught of this?”
To his puzzlement, all, with apparent sincerity, denied any knowledge of the event. Outside the sun was setting, and as dusk swallowed the landscape, wolves commenced to howl. The sound was especially eerie as each howl seemed the echo of the previous one, so that ghosts seemed to ride to and fro on the night wind. Darkness and that wind brought swift chill into the inn despite the fire.
“Druin,” Bungamin said as he wrapped himself more tightly in his lion skin, “be glad you inside. Wind-wolves do not come near tents or this building. Anyone caught out in open, man or beast or demon...” He gestured: “Vvt! No more.”
Copyright © 2009 by Richard K. Lyon