“Before the coming of the Gyre Itself, Man was a stupid and lawless beast, enslaved to the elements. He had no fire, no speech, and crawled on all fours like the most loathsome creature of the field. Magic, the primal force of the earth, took delight in plaguing Him; all the natural world was thus His enemy, for it knew Man came as a conqueror. Lightning sought Him out, earth crumbled maliciously beneath Him, the sea sent forth the tendrils of leviathans to crush and consume Him, and yet Man endured, His primitive mind ever-bent towards evolution. Yet he could not achieve speech, nor craft any material invention, until the coming of the Gyre Itself.
Who was and is the Gyre? In the depths of unrecorded time a wordless primitive was struck with the collective revelation of his race. This nameless being stood erect and began to speak the words of power, in which all the elements of the world are bound up. He found that he could tame the sea, that fire bowed to his will, that the earth and the air became his humble chariots. So was magic harnessed, and the Gyre Itself born from the husk of a dumb savage.”
- Isdori Doctrinal History, as dictated and decreed by the Gyre Itself
1: Into the Woods
Two opulently attired young men sat astride their equally opulent mounts. They stared up at a crude wooden sign, a pair of arrows angling down separate veins of roadway. One man was munching on an apple, while the other struggled with a heavily creased map drawn on parchment. It was a chilly day, a day studded with gray clouds and chattering leaves, the air ripe with the smell of decay. Trees crowded close on all sides, hanging over the roadway and spilling fire-colored leaves to the wind.
“I think we go left,” the man with the map said. He was young, almost a youth, fresh-faced but narrow, with thin lines already forming at the corners of his eyes and mouth. He rotated the parchment, braced it against his horse's neck. “Unless I'm reading this wrong.”
The man with the apple shrugged and took a bite. He was older than the map-reader by several years and larger of build, his face shrouded with a heavy auburn beard. “We want to get to Tannigal. That's north from here.”
“I know where it is.”
“Then why are we wasting time? It'll be night soon.”
The young man with the map bent over it, brushing away a vivid yellow poplar leaf that fell and obscured the majority of the northern realms. His name was Kelrob Kael-Pellin, and he was a magician. “We wouldn't need to be wasting time if we'd just stayed on the main road.”
“Academic. I was sick of being stuck behind that caravan and trudging through their offal. Read the map.”
Kelrob sighed. “If we go to the left,” he said, casting the sign a dubious glance, “we'll enter the outskirts of the Umberwood.”
“That's dangerous country.”
The bearded man laughed. He, too, was a magician, his azure robes cut from dew-retted linen, his boots high-topped and glistening. His name was Salinas, and he came from blood older than the mountains. “Dangerous? For a tinker or lonely merchant, perhaps. Not for us.” As he spoke he raised his right hand and flashed a ring of pure, unpolluted chromox, the metal beyond gold, the philosopher's media. “We have power, Kelrob. It would do you good to start remembering that.”
Kelrob ducked his head half-submissively, glancing down at the ring glistening on his own finger. He felt the tidal pull of the metal on his bloodstream, the whispers passing into his marrow, sustaining and demanding. Raising his other hand, he opened it and spoke a quick word of power. Fire sprang to life in the nest of his palm.
“You've got a way with flame,” Salinas observed grudgingly.
Kelrob felt a tingle at the older magister's praise, his distraction causing the fire to flicker and go out. “I've been practicing,” he said, rubbing his fingers against the warmth lingering in his palm. “It's my favorite element.”
“You've got the skill. Ever considered the path of a Taskmaster?”
Tasmaskers, the butchers and battlers of the Isdori Order, Salinas's own brethren; Kelrob's full-lipped mouth turned down in distaste. “I don't enjoy conflict,” he said.
“Oh? You might change your mind after you fry your first Ak.” Salinas's eyes glowed as he spoke. He had just returned from his first tour of duty on the grim Barrier, defending the country of Thevin from the vicious, mindless hordes that dwelt in the desert beyond the Ilark mountains. The majority of his journey with Kelrob had been filled with gore-laden accounts of his exploits, Aks withered in fire and frozen in ice, dismembered by blades of magic, disemboweled and blinded and stripped of flesh. It had put Kelrob off his food, and set his unwilling mind to brooding on the ever-present threat from the east.
Now the young magister wrinkled his nose. “My interests lie elsewhere,” he said. “I had three or four specializations to choose from, and Taskmaster wasn't on the list.”
Salinas's eyes darkened with anger. “And yet you chose the path of a Hedgewizard, dedicated to hiding in libraries with your nose in a book.”
“It is just as noble a path as yours.”
“It is cowardice. But come, the sun is westering, and the dreaded Umberwood awaits.” With a flashing smile Salinas spurred his mount down the path, faded sunlight catching in his flowing hair. Kelrob scowled and urged his horse to follow, a cold sweat prickling at his temples.
The forest quickly closed in. What had been a broad, comfortable road, rutted with the frequent passage of wagons, became a narrow leaf-embalmed trail. The trees were thick and old here, profuse oaks, their contorted boles stretching up to heads warped by ancient copping. Moss lay in thick profusion, blending earth and root together. Kelrob gulped uneasily, but resisted the manic urge to hum. He kept thinking that he saw faces forming in knotholes or amid the thick incarnadine clusters of leaves.
Salinas seemed to be above such worry, chomping carelessly at his apple, his sandy hair fluttering on the autumn wind. He was tall and slim, long legs folded into gemstone-studded stirrups, his patrician features only partly obscured by his beard. He guided his horse with ease as he ducked beneath an overhanging branch. “Look out,” he called belatedly back to Kelrob, who hurried to duck in turn. The branch rasped against the top of his scalp, hurting little but leaving flecks of bark in his hair.
Kelrob was younger than Salinas by two years, a mere Adept of the 16th Circle who had yet to confront his twentieth year. He was thin and light boned, a bird of a man, with sunken cheeks and dark brown hair and eyes, almost black; when he was a child he'd eaten a raven's feather that had blown into his cradle, so said his father. His nose was long and faintly hooked, his lips surprisingly full, marking his only true voluptuousness. The rest of his body was long and lean, narrow hips and gangling legs, resembling a man stretched on the rack until his physiognomy had adapted to the torment.
The wind rose, chattering amid the branches and sending stray leaves across the path. Kelrob shivered, drawing deeper into his robes. A gift from his father and signifier of his new-won adept status, the mantle and cowl were unadorned with jewels or other fetishes of class, but the sage-green fabric was exquisite, soft and enveloping and riddled with cunning pockets. These Kelrob explored nervously, holding the reins with one hand and darting the other from pocket to pocket like a bird hunting for a roost. His fingertips touched many secrets, and he smiled to himself, strangely reassured.
Salinas rode easily in the saddle, his face serene, if tight with impatience. He spared no glances into the forest, but kept his eyes firmly locked on the path, his ring glistening like a fallen star on his finger. This was accomplished by feeding the faintest thread of his will into the chromox, which consumed his intention and manifested it as light. It was a demi-spell that served little purpose beyond arcane pageantry, though it served potently in this capacity, a tiny shiver of power indicating vast reserves. The bearded Taskmaster was at ease, but it was not a fool's ease; beneath his carefree veneer muscles twitched with caution. He said nothing to Kelrob as they rode, and Kelrob said nothing to him. Together they listened to the forest, their horses' hooves impacting dully on the loam. The air was riotous with foliage, weltlike purples and hellion reds and sad withered browns, yellows like the backs of honeybees, orange like a pumpkin's candle-flushed rind; autumn was Kelrob's favorite season, and he managed to savor the ride through his unease. As for Salinas, he had no favorite season, though he grudgingly admitted the leaves very pretty when Kelrob broke their mutual silence long enough to comment on them.
At length, hearteningly, the path began to widen. The impenetrable vault of tree-limbs parted, revealing a sky heavy with oncoming twilight. Salinas, glancing up, broke his long silence with a grumble. “I hate riding in the dark,” he said.
Kelrob scented the air. “I smell woodsmoke,” he said. “And something cooking.”
Salinas inhaled deeply, frowned. “Boiled meat.”
“It's better than what I have in my pack.”
“It can't be an inn. Not all the way out here.”
Kelrob nodded down the broadening path. “Well? Let's ride forward and see.”
Salinas tugged uncertainly at his beard. Thoughts of meat-boiling bandits flitted through his mind, and his ring began to glow brighter. “Men of power fear no road, however dark,” he said to himself. “Very well. Hopefully it is an inn. With a bathtub and something resembling a fine selection of wines.”
They proceeded forward, moving with greater caution, Salinas muttering incantations beneath his breath. After a few minutes something glittered in the distance, along the path. “I see a candle!” Kelrob said. He urged his horse forward, and Salinas followed with a curse, calling for Kelrob to wait.
The path spilled into a clearing dominated by a twisted and promethean oak, its limbs bristling with fiery leaves. Beneath it stood a scarecrow made of an old laborer's tunic and trousers, the loose garments stuffed with corn husks and chaff. Light fluttered from within its grinning head, a hollowed turnip carved into a macabre visage and lit with a fat tallow candle; a ewe's heart was pinned against its chest with a stake of ash-wood, still glistening with blood, ventricles yawning. Kelrob rode closer and peered at the organ, his scholarly interest piqued.
Salinas bent to stare into the turnip's flickering interior. “What is this?” he demanded.
“A superstition amongst farmers,” Kelrob said promptly. “This scarecrow stood in the fields all summer, keeping the crops safe. In that time, so it's believed, he became a very capable watchman. When the harvest comes in, it's customary in some communities to take the seasoned scarecrows and place them on paths that travelers use, to guide them to comfort and to ward off evil spirits.”
“And the heart?”
“A sacrifice to appease some god or other, I'm sure.”
Salinas's face darkened. “Savage superstition. Get a few day's ride out of a city and people will believe anything.”
“Still, it's a good sign. It means fair lodging ahead.”
“So it's true what I've heard. Not only do you bury your nose in books, but you waste your time reading about weird customs and practices among the nithings.”
Kelrob blushed and tried to sink into his robes. “It's a fascinating branch of knowledge,” he said in a low voice. “Each village has a deity or deities, generally, and they revere them at times of planting and harvest.”
“Useless barbarism. Commoners are no better than Aks. I can't believe the Masters are allowing you to research this claptrap.”
Anger stirred at the heart of Kelrob's embarrassment. “At least I knew how to interpret this sign,” he said, a little cuttingly. “We'll have beds tonight.”
Salinas spat on the heart. “Let's go,” he said, baring his ring against the candlelight. “We'll bring the light of civilization with us.”
They followed the path down into the hollow, the wind rising as the sun vanished, leaves tearing from their branches. Kelrob cast the scarecrow a final glance as it vanished behind the oak tree, the light of its grin winking out, but lingering as a jagged smear in his eye. He thought of the flame burning away inside the turnip, of the flame dancing in the pit of his palm.
The inn squatted in the hollow like a toad in its hole, a ramshackle edifice with a roof of rotting bark shingles and windows sealed with tarp against the chilly night. It wasn't on the map, but the warm glow of fire through the hides and the presence of several peaceably munching horses in the stables put Kelrob at ease. A sign hung over the door, wordless, but depicting a frothing mug pouring down a green man's decapitated head. The ale spilled into his grinning mouth and out the stump of his neck, accompanied by a burst of vines that writhed upwards towards the bloody disc of a setting sun.
Salinas eyed the sign with distaste. “See? This is why I avoid the country.”
Kelrob stared up at the sign, eyes wide. “Fascinating,” he said.
“Fascinating! It's all a bunch of primitive nonsense. Hot water is fascinating. Silk sheets are fascinating. When we get to Tannigal I'm going to spend a whole week in bed.”
An ostler came out to greet them as they rode towards the stables. He tipped back his leather cap in surprise as Salinas held up his ring.
“Do you know what this is?” the war-mage asked calmly.
The ring glowed blue, glittering in the ostler's eyes. “I rightly do,” the man said. He was a rough-cut fellow, thick of body and, assumedly, of mind. A leather apron strained against his considerable gut, speckled with horse dung. Bright leaves clung to the manure.
Salinas's eyes narrowed. “Then you should know to remove your cap.”
The ostler blinked, then complied with a jerk of his hand. “My lord,” he said, the words emerging uneasily, untrained, “forgive me. We're a poor wayside here, not used to visits from such as yourself.”
Salinas inclined his chin, his eyes glowing faintly. “Tell me, how much farther to Tannigal?”
“A good five hours' ride. Perhaps four, with mounts like that.” The ostler cast the woods a wary glance, his hands clutching his cap against his chest. “Wouldn't suggest it, though. Not at night.”
Kelrob finally glanced away from the inn's placard, which was swaying slowly and persistently in the heavy air. The green man's face lingered on his retina, like a sun-blast. “Why? Is it dangerous?”
The ostler shuffled from foot to foot, seeming to weigh his answer. “Why, no, m'lord, not at all. We're peaceful folk hereabouts. But the path is best taken in daylight, if you take my meaning.”
Salinas sneered. “In other words you think we should lodge here tonight?” As he spoke his ring began to glow brighter.
The ostler shied back, his head dipping in a bow. “I mean, if it please yer lordships. You'll find no better lodgings 'twixt here and Tannigal.”
Salinas winked at Kelrob. “Hm. Perhaps we should speak with the good innkeeper? Get him out here.”
The ostler dipped his head again, lower, a hint of fear in his watery eyes. “Of course, of course, but a moment,” he said, bobbing back towards the inn's doorway and slipping within. Warm light spilled into the evening, accompanied by a brief flutter of music.
Kelrob shifted uneasily in his saddle. “Can't we just go inside? My backside is throbbing.”
“What, like desperate rag-clad squatters looking for a flop?”
“Minus the rag-clad, but yes.”
Salinas shook his head in mock weariness. “When I stayed at the Golden Tankard in Ixthis, I was brought seven different fruits every hour, on platters of gold. I drank the finest wine, I slept in the finest bed, with three of the finest women I've ever tupped. If these primitives want my coin so badly I at least expect them to scrape for it.”
Kelrob groaned and slid around in his saddle, cursing Master Kenlath for pairing him with this lummox for protection on the journey north. It was obviously another of his mentor's notorious tests of patience. He shivered as the wind blew cold, sending the placard into a frenzy. Hides were peeled back from the windows and faces appeared, eyes glittering with animal-like curiosity. Kelrob averted his gaze, examining the ripe sheaves of corn nailed to the inn's door. Some had been fashioned into crude human forms, their husk-limbs fluttering, faces globular with ripe kernels. Similar dolls dangled from the eaves. A carven gourd flickered by the stables, its face frowning and fierce where the scarecrow's had been welcoming and jovial.
The inn's door opened cautiously. A hunched, sharp-eyed man emerged, his face framed with long braided locks of silver. He walked with a dignified limp, his body withered with wound and age; a necklace of Ak teeth hung from around his neck, marking him a veteran of the Barrier. Kelrob noted with some small alarm that he wore a sword at his hip.
Salinas also took notice. He raised his ring, and it began to glow with an ugly light. “Who dares approach us bearing arms?” he demanded.
The man shielded his eyes from the glow, peering through the steady web of his fingers. “I am called Kirleg,” he said, “and I am innkeep here.”
The ring dimmed into a low threatening luster. “Approach,” Salinas said sharply.
Gross display of power, betraying cowardice. Kelrob kept the thought very much to himself. His mount shifted uneasily, scenting other horses and ready grain; reluctantly he restrained it from wandering towards the stables.
Kirleg came forward, bowed towards Salinas, Kelrob, Salinas again. “How can I serve my lord magisters?” he said.
Salinas raised his ring. “You know us?”
The innkeep bowed deeper, gray eyes staring up through a silver spill of hair. “Aye, my lord. I promise you, the House of the Setting Sun and all its comforts are at your pleasure.”
Salinas raised his eyebrows, impressed despite himself. “Well said. It's good to see that even in the Umberwood men know their betters.”
Kelrob noticed Kirleg's hands twitch, as if desperate to close into fists. “You're only at the outskirts, my lord. Mine is the last alehouse before the Tangle.”
“Alehouse? Tumbledown cottage, rather. And why do you festoon it with corn?”
The innkeep's eyes glittered. “To celebrate the harvest, my lord.”
“I had heard there was famine in the heartlands, and now I know why. You go about nailing your food to eaves.” Salinas laughed at his own jest. “Well? What say you, Kelrob? Shall we accept their rustic hospitality?”
Kelrob was doing his very best to shrink into his robes. He felt mortified on the innkeeper's behalf, and discovered to his immense shame that he was blushing. Instead of responding he slid from his horse. “She's skittish,” he told Kirleg, who was staring at him in some astonishment. “Tell your man. I'd hate for him to suffer a hoof to the head.”
Kirleg blinked, then bowed again. “Of course, my lord.” With a whistle he summoned the ostler, who rushed from the warm glow of the inn to take Kelrob's reins. “Glev, tell Meela to put on fresh meat. And tap that keg of vintage we've been saving for Yuletide.”
The ostler smiled benignly. “Aye.” Taking Kelrob's reins in hand, he turned to Salinas, who still sat firmly in saddle. A sneer was settling into perpetuity on the war-mage's face.
“Before we accept your overflowing hospitality,” he said to Kirleg, “you will show your gratitude for our patronage. Approach.”
Kirleg's right hand twitched anew, fingertips brushing the pommel of his sword. He stepped forward and said, “What more can I offer my lords?”
Salinas held out his right hand, the ring glittering on his finger. “Kiss it.”
“Salinas,” Kelrob said angrily, “that's enough.”
The Taskmaster's eyes flared. “Know your place, Kelrob.” With a grin Salinas thrust his hand towards the innkeeper. “He does.”
Kirleg stared at the ring for a moment, then slowly bowed his head. “My lord,” he said huskily before pursing his lips and pressing them against the shimmering band.
Blue fire flashed; Kirleg shrieked and fell backward, his right hand scrabbling for his sword. Kelrob's horse whinnied and reared, Glev struggling to keep the animal under control.
Salinas laughed. Raising the still-burning ring to his lips, he kissed it with a wet smack. “Just a parlour trick,” he said as he slid from his horse.
Kirleg clutched at his eyes; Kelrob could see smoke rising from the old man's singed hair. He suddenly wanted to spring back into the saddle and ride pell-mell for Tannigal, damn the dark and the cold. As if in response to his desire the wind rose in a long, chilling moan. He fixed Salinas with a black stare. “All right, you've had your fun. Can we go in now?”
Kelrob's father was a fair man, even-handed in trade, always willing to spare his tenants avoidable misery. He had taught his sons that goodwill often fostered good business, and that the measure of a man could be taken by his treatment of his subordinates. Many is the lord, he was was fond of saying, who beats his wife, curses his servants, and unwittingly eats their spittle in his every meal. It was a quaint philosophy by city standards, the semi-honorable blather of a country lord, but Kelrob adhered to it despite the endless jibes by his more – or less – civilized peers. It was a particular sticking point with his current companion; Salinas's smile remained plastered to his face as he handed off his reins to the ostler and tossed the dazed Kirleg a golden coin. It fell to the ground at the innkeep's feet, where it was quickly covered by shifting leaves. “Keep the change,” he said.
2: The House of the Setting Sun
A foliate mask hung over the broad hearth, its yawning mouth issuing an abundance of cornstalks. Offerings were left beneath it on the smoke-blackened wood of the mantel, flanked by grinning gourds: dried fruit, tassels of corn, a stone bowl filled to the brim with what Kelrob fervently hoped was animal blood. The mask grinned at him, the hollows of its eyes dancing. He looked away.
The inn was crowded with rough-looking men, dressed in simple burlap or coarse woolen garb, and a few women, clearly servers, or 'wenches' as Salinas had a penchant to call them. The men were a motley collection of farmers, tinkers, and foresters, the last sporting voluminous beards and dressed in tarpaulins of treated hide that shone greasily in the firelight. Swords and daggers were worn openly. Kelrob suppressed a gulp as the door swung shut behind him.
Salinas surveyed the company grimly, his eyes flicking about the inn's cramped interior. His face hardened as he took in the ramshackle bar, a plank of untreated oakwood suspended on old, split logs. The floor was dirt, the sturdy tables and chairs hand-hewn. Bundles of drying herbs dangled from the rafters, to which further foliate masks had been nailed. The air was heavy with the stink of sweat, ale, and charred meat. Leaning close to Kelrob, Salinas said in a heated mutter, “I can't believe I let you talk me into this.”
Kelrob bit off a sharp reply. Raising his hand, he motioned one of the serving-girls forward. Lowering her eyes, she detached from the wary throng and came to stand at his side. “M'lord,” she said in a shaking voice, falling to her knees and bowing until her forehead touched the earth, “I am yours.”
Salinas's eyebrows arced in genuine surprise. “How generous. Though I suppose it is the only commodity they have to offer us. Will you take her, Kelrob, or should I?”
Kelrob fought blushing with all his might. Reaching down, he extended a hand and helped the girl to her feet, clearly bewildering her in the process. “Is there a room ready for us?” he asked gently.
The girl nodded. She was small and wiry, her skin acorn-brown, slender arms and neck taut with field-honed musculature. “Room 3,” she said, with a sideways glance at Salinas. “Are...m'lords retiring so soon?”
“Would you – I mean, would m'lords like some food brought up?”
“For my friend. I'll take milk, if you have some.”
Salinas sighed emphatically. “Kelrob, you can scurry to your hole if you wish, but I will take my meal in the common room, like any other weary traveler.” As he spoke he slid off the outer mantle of his robes, a rich sapphire-blue cloak studded with minute sparkling gems. “Here, sweet one. Take my cloak from me. Be careful, for it's worth more than your life.”
The girl's eyes went wide with wonder as the cerulean bundle fell into her arms. Her fingers teased at one of the gemstones, then darted back, as if bitten. Kelrob knew Salinas would take a full catalog of the jewels when the cloak was returned, and woe betide the girl should their number be lessened.
“Wine!” cried Salinas, stepping towards the speechless mass of onlookers. “Is this how you greet a Taskmaster, a brother in the great war? I heard music before and I demand it again!”
The key to room 3 was pressed into Kelrob's hand by an older woman whose hair spilled down her back in thick silver braids, similar to Kirleg's. Her thin face was creased with worry as she said, “Please, sir. Lift the curse you placed on my husband. We will do whatever you say.”
Kelrob blinked in surprise. “Curse?”
“The blue light. The burning. He says your companion put wasps in his head.”
Retinal over-stimulation, leading to headache and disorientation. Kelrob resisted the urge to hurl a very literal curse in Salinas's direction. Instead he reached into one of the hidden pockets lining his robes and withdrew a stoppered vial of gray powder. “Mix this with some tea,” he said, pressing it into her hand. “Have him eat a little something while he drinks it, then lay a warm compress over his eyes. If you do these things the curse will be broken.”
The woman held the vial to her chest and bowed. “We are honored to have such wise magisters as our guests,” she said hollowly.
“Are you sure you wouldn't like to stay in the common room with your friend?” She glanced uneasily towards Salinas, who was settling himself in at the bar and mockingly gesturing for a companion in his drink.
Kelrob shook his head. “Thank you, but no.” I'm on his tether, not the other way around, he struggled to keep from adding.
The woman's face crinkled with worry. “Very well, m'lord. My name is Meela, if you need anything. I'm the lady of this house.”
A large man had risen from his seat beside an effigy of wheat stalks and settled beside Salinas at the bar. Salinas looked somewhat surprised at the acceptance of his rude invitation, but greeted the man with a sardonic slap to the back. Behind the bar two young men were struggling with a dust-coated cask; within moments the spigot was affixed and vivid red wine began to flow. The other patrons slowly settled back into their chairs, none daring to make for the exit. Salinas turned and saluted them with a sloshing tankard, drained it, and said, “Where is that sodding minstrel? Fetch him, or I'll turn you all into toads.”
Kelrob closed his hand around the room-key and turned away, weariness tugging at his every ligature. He started up the stairs. Ache, pain, ache, pain – he spoke to his ring, whispering near-silent words, and a burning warmth swept through his body, easing the worst of his hurts. He mounted the final steps with renewed, if highly temporary, vigor, reaching the landing just in time to see a huge, half-dressed man being forcibly hauled out of room 3.
“Get yer damn hands off me!” the man snarled, jerking against the grip of Glev the ostler and another brutish-looking man Kelrob assumed was in Kirleg's employ. They pinned the struggling man against the wall and dealt several blows to his stomach, whereupon the reluctant occupant vomited onto his unlaced breeches and keeled over.
“Get up!” Glev hissed, all hints of gentle foolishness gone. He delivered a heavy kick to the man's backside. “If they find you up here they're likely to kill us all!”
The man laughed from his prone position, then belched. Even from his vantage at the end of the hall Kelrob could smell the stench of spirits. “What makes you think I care? Go on, beat me to a pulp, get my blood and guts all over the floor. I'll not move, I'm paid for the month, an' you swore to let me be.”
Glev looked at his associate in panic. “Grab his arms,” he said. “We'll send him down the garbage shoot.”
The lump of a man nodded. “His things?”
“Send 'em down too.”
The man groaned and spat on the floor. “Fucking bastards. Issis any way to treat a paying customer? That coin is my blood, it'z all I have left.”
A pained look flashed over Glev's face. “Dammit Jacobson, there're magisters here. Magisters! I saw one put on curse on Kirleg with my own eyes!”
“Don't care,” Jacobson mumbled into the floorboards. “I paid for this room, nicest in the place, nogonna leave.”
The brute crackled his fists together. “Grab his legs,” he said to Glev. “I'll deal with the rest of 'im.”
At that moment Jacobson threw back his head and stared down the corridor. Kelrob found himself impaled by a pair of fiercely blue bloodshot eyes. “You!” Jacobson spat, and struggled to rise, his body trembling with pain and intoxication. “I paid for thish room! 'S mine!” Reaching down into his breeches, he drew out a small hunting knife and stabbed it impotently along the length of the floor.
Glev's eyes widened with horror at the sight of Kelrob. Without hesitation he brought his boot down on Jacobson's hand. There was a faint crunching noise, and the knife tumbled free. Jacobson screamed and curled in on himself.
“Cowards,” he spat, lashing out with the last of his strength at Glev's leg. “He's just a whelp, a stripling.”
“Hold 'im down,” Glev told the brute. Stepping over Jacobson, he knelt before Kelrob in a placating gesture. “M'lord, I am so sorry. He's mad, brain fever -”
Kelrob raised a hand, cutting off the ostler's babble. He looked at Jacobson in sad disgust, then down at the knife. “I just want to rest. Undisturbed.”
Glev nodded. Without another word he rose and grabbed Jacobson by his legs. The brute tackled with his arms, avoided being bitten, and ungently hoisted the drunkard in the air. “Cowards!” Jacobson screamed as he was carted from sight, his head snapping back to stare at Kelrob. The mage met those piercing blue eyes for a moment, then looked away. He waited until the man's curses and cries had faded before entering the room, the door shutting behind him with a dull click.
The room was large and dark, the candles unlit, or rather burned into puddles. The only illumination shone from the innards of two hollowed gourds positioned in the room's windows (which held actual panes of glass, Kelrob noted with surprise). The mage eased inside, his nose twitching at the commingled stench of alcohol and urine. There were two large beds of down and ticking, a table, a desk, a cold hearth, a basin filled with dirty water, a generous faggot of firewood, a wardrobe, a stone ewer, an inkwell, and a profusion of empty or half-empty bottles that stank of venting spirits. Kelrob grimaced. Crossing to the windows he unlatched them and threw them wide. Cold air rushed in, dispelling the miasma but leaving him chilled.
The righthand bed was rumpled, and bore the very clear indentation of a body. A sword hung from one of the bedposts; Kelrob eyed it warily for a moment before lifting belt, blade, and scabbard over the fancifully-carved riser. The weapon was heavy in his hands, plain pommel and plainer leather sheath, smelling ripely of oil and iron. Sliding his hands along the pommel, Kelrob gripped it and tried to tug the blade free. It resisted his efforts for a moment before popping loose with a grotesque sucking sound.
Blood. The smell flooded the room, pressing back the reek of less vital bodily fluids. Kelrob gulped as he stared at the gore-crusted blade, the iron already beginning to rust beneath its butcher's coating. With effort he tugged the weapon free, and held it up in the dim light.
A loud knock came at the door. “M'lord,” came Glev's winded voice, “I have your things from the stables, and a few girls to see to the mess.”
Kelrob slid the sword back into its sticky rest. “Just a moment,” he called. No stranger to blood and its perils, the mage reached into one of the pockets lining his robes and drew out a handkerchief infused with antibiotic ointment. He proceeded to wipe his hands clean; only then did he bid the ostler enter.
“This room is despoiled,” was all he could think to say.
Glev's broad face immediately paled with fear. “Yes, m'lord. Didn't think you'd be taking to bed quite so early. We were just coming to deal with the mess.” Stepping aside, he snapped at the two girls looming behind him in the hallway. “Mantha! Seren! Get in here and get to work!”
The girls were younger than Kelrob, though already ripe in face and figure. One was blonde, the other a pale brunette; both were tall and hale of body. They bowed to him, then entered the room, slinging down the horse-packs and setting about gathering bottles with nervous industriousness.
Glev approached Kelrob and bowed apologetically. “So sorry, m'lord, so sorry. If you'd like to go downstairs, or wait in the hall -”
The quaver of a lute sounded from the common room below. Kelrob heard Salinas bellow a command, and the unseen minstrel steadied his hand. “No,” the mage said, sliding a long-suffering hand down his face. “I'll wait. Just clean it and go.”
Glev doffed his cap in deference. The brute entered behind him, his bulging arms incongruously laden with a bundle of clean linen. He took one look at the room, cursed, and kicked a bottle into the hallway. “Apologies, m'lord,” he said gruffly. “Had no idea that rat had made such a warren.”
Kelrob waved the apology aside and retreated to the desk, where he sat and watched the harried process of cleansing. The last of the bottles were taken away in short order, the brimming waste bucket removed. One of the girls stirred up a fire in the hearth, which was soon flickering and sending out welcome pulses of warmth. The other girl made to dispose of the gourds, but Kelrob stayed her, saying merely, “I like them.” She nodded in response, and instead swung the windows shut, locking out the cold night wind.
Kelrob glanced at the sword, still propped against the bed. “Who was that man?” he asked Glev. The ostler had made no move to assist in the cleaning, preferring to slouch in the doorframe and oversee his underlings.
The brute sniffed disdainfully. “No one,” he said, answering for his surrogate master. “A wasted man, m'lord. He's been dealt with.” With another grunt he ripped away the soiled sheets, exposing the sagging mattress.
Kelrob fixed Glev with his weary gaze. “I asked a question,” he said. “Who is he?”
Glev stirred uneasily, his leather cap twisting in his hands. “An old soldier, m'lord. Came here several months back, paid for the room in gold, and hasn't come down since. Drank up half our cellar in that time.”
The fire rose higher in the grate, outshining the flickering lanterns. One of the girls lit a stick of acrid incense and set it to smoldering on the mantel. Kelrob blinked, his eyes beginning to water. “A paying customer?”
“Aye,” Glev answered uneasily. “A nuisance, but a profitable one.”
Reaching down, Kelrob picked up the sword and held it in his hands. There were no other personal affects in the room, he saw, save a tattered tunic hanging in the wardrobe. “And what of the rest of his gold?”
Glev flinched, his hand fluttering guiltily over a half-full satchel strung at his waist. “Taken for damages, at Kirleg's order.”
Kelrob nodded wearily. Reaching into the depths of his robes, he withdrew a platinum polgari, the sacred coin of the Seven Cities. “Compensation for his troubles,” he said, tossing the coin at Glev's astonished feet. “Make sure it find its way to him, and not into some other pocket. So I command.”
Glev's eyes flared with greed for a moment before he bowed and retrieved the coin. “Of course, my lord.”
“Put him up in another room. And give him his sword.”
Kelrob had spent the vast majority of his life being discomfited by bowing. The old awkwardness flared anew as Glev dipped head and shoulders in respectful obeisance to his command. Kelrob gave the sword to one of the servant girls, who placed in the ostler's outstretched hand. The incense smoldered on the mantel, clouding the air with a resinous fume; Kelrob wiped away tears as Glev vanished, the platinum glittering in his cupped palm. Like a flame? No. Like cold metal. A harsh element, whose invocation often gave Kelrob headaches.
At last the purgation was complete. The floor was swept, the beds redressed and scented with jasmine oil. The girls bowed clumsily to Kelrob as they departed; he spared a mere nod to their dismissal. I just want to be alone! Finally the door shut and peaceful silence fell, broken only by the minstrel's muffled playing and what sounded like Salinas's partially-drunken yawp.
Kelrob sighed and slid out of his robes. The fire in the hearth was burning too high; he sent a mote of will through his ring and shifted the embers, the wood groaning as it settled into a more controlled burn. The gourds flickered merrily, their broad grins mirrored and distorted in the glass panes. Kelrob stripped off his boots and laid down on the bed closest to the windows, his rump burning, insides wild with hunger. He waited impatiently for the tromp of feet that would announce his coming meal, at the same time dreading the further invasion.
The meal came late. Kelrob was half-drowsing when the gentle knock sounded at the door, accompanied by a potent whiff of stewed meat.
“M'lord?” came a voice. The mage stiffened. It was Kirleg.
Kelrob pushed himself up from the overpoweringly fragrant sheets and crossed to the door.
It opened on the wizened innkeep, Kirleg's gray eyes still narrowed and watering from Salinas's prank. He bore a winebottle, a wooden trencher of stew, and an assortment of crude iron cutlery that clinked against his chest; blinking in the light of the hearth, the old man bowed. “My lord,” he said, a teardrop sliding down to dangle from the oft-broken tip of his nose.
Kelrob gulped and motioned him in. “Just set that anywhere,” he said shortly, “and thanks.”
Kirleg obeyed silently, laying bottle and trencher on the desk with slow, creaking movements. He had been a warrior once, and was probably a warrior still, the sword at his waist finely polished with oils, its hilt honed to a mirror sheen by the companionship of his hand. Kelrob felt a resurgence of sympathy, and said to the innkeep as he bowed and turned to the door, “I'm sorry for the conduct of my companion. It was dishonorable, what he did.”
Kirleg halted in the doorframe. With a sigh he turned and stared at Kelrob, his eyes piercing even as they twitched with tears. “This place,” he said, rapping a fist against the lintel, “was built on my warchest. Twenty years of killing Aks out on the Barrier, slaughtering them and watching my fellows slaughtered in turn, drinking the blood of friend and foe mixed in wine.” As he spoke his voice rose and his spine straightened, the tears easing in his eyes. He smiled bafflingly at Kelrob, and the mage merely nodded, inviting him to continue or, more hopefully, to depart.
Kirleg's hand fell down to his sword. It was a casual motion, or so Kelrob hoped; the ring burned on his finger, aware of potential threat. “In those twenty years,” the innkeep continued, “I fought beside many magisters. Young, old, stupid, smart, all merely men, but convinced they were more. What my men did at need, they did at pleasure, coming up to the mountains for sport, for a chance to kill. I knew one Taskmaster who loved to strip the flesh from Aks and deserters alike in layer upon layer, keeping him awake and alive for the dressing. Another ate human flesh, loved the taste actually, and read portents in the innards of children. This,” he said, with a brief motion to his dazzled eyes, “is nothing. I said so to my wife, but she is a woman, and prone to worry.” Reaching into his pocket he withdrew the vial of medicinal powder and set it on the floor, not ungently, then straightened with a groan that brought all the weight of age flooding back into his frame. “I don't need your cures,” Kirleg said, “but you have my...thanks, my lord.”
Kelrob stood frozen, backed up against the desk, completely at a loss. “But,” he said, without awareness of the words, “it will ease your pain.”
Kirleg shrugged. “Man is made to feel pain.” He glanced around the room, nodding in approval at its transmogrified state. “Looks like they did a good job cleaning. This is the best room in the house, m'lord, though I know it must seem humble to you.”
“I...yes, thank you. They scented the sheets.”
Kirleg's nostrils flared, taking in the commingled bouquet of incense, oil, and steaming food. “If you need anything else,” he said with a bow, the teeth strung around his neck rattling faintly, “just open your door. I'm leaving my man Rack here.” As Kirleg spoke the brute hove into view behind him, the huge man's scarred lips curled downwards in a glower. He crossed his muscle-swollen arms and nodded to Kelrob. “Your servant, m'lord,” he said in a voice like a sepulcher.
Kelrob returned the nod. “And what of Jacobson?” he asked. “Have my orders been obeyed?”
Kirleg's lips tightened in a grimace. “Aye, my lord. I can only hope that you're half as generous with my house as you are with drunkards.” And, with a final bow, he left. Kelrob fell exhausted into a chair as the door swung mercifully shut. His mind spun with Kirleg's story as he uncorked the wine, poured it into a chipped cut-crystal glass, and took a few hesitant sips, finding it to be a pleasantly cloying malbec. Made from far northern grapes, by the taste; there was an added richness his father's vineyards couldn't match. Kelrob took a second drink, then grimaced, his stomach bursting into flame. Belatedly he remembered he'd asked for milk to sooth his unspoken ulcer. He liked wine, but it didn't like him, at least not in the last year.
The food was quite acceptable, doused some of the burning. Kelrob ate slowly, puttering between bites. He fed the hearth and doused the incense, which was shrouding the room in a funereal stench. His pack yielded a book, one of the few he had brought with him, a text chronicling the millennia-long struggle between the civilized peoples of Thevin and their speechless blood-thirsting enemies, the Aks. Kelrob flipped to a chapter recalling the first remembered war with the savages of the Dry Lands, and settled in to read as he ate, sinking his unease in scholarly inquiry. Of course he knew a good deal about the Aks, a primitive race who lacked the most basic sorcery and who tried, with mindless brute force, to cross the Ilarks and claim the bounty of Thevin. He had even seen several of the creature's bodies in a pickling-vat during his schooling at the Rookery; gray-skinned and black-eyed, with long jagged talons and emaciated limbs, they had looked to him like warped parodies of men. When he was younger an opportunity had arisen to tour the Barrier, the spell-reinforced line of high walls and cloud-capped fortresses built along the Ilarks, but Kelrob had declined, preferring to focus on his private studies. It was a choice that had further soured his already-curdling reputation amongst the Masters, earned him the title of coward amongst his peers.
At length weariness weighed on him. He read and read, but could find no reference to the Taskmaster brutalities Kirleg had described; the brethren of war-magisters were portrayed as noble heroes and selfless gods-in-flesh, as always. Kelrob began to discount it all as an old man's foolish talk, but some of the bloodier stories Salinas had told him on the road made him hesitate. The Taskmasters were a self-contained brethren, occupying the 8th Circle of the Isdori Arcanum; their ways and secrets were very closely kept. They could indeed be involved in practices far more barbaric than any nithing harvest festival, and no-one would know it or admit to it. But really, who cared what the brethren did so long as they repelled the Aks, year after year? Kelrob told himself this as he closed the book, intent on sleep. Meaning to get up, instead he drowsed.
At length he was awakened by loud, frantic music swelling from the common-room below. Kelrob frowned through a stretch and a yawn: Salinas seemed to be having a good time. The mage yawned again and raised his eyes to see that the gourds had flickered out. Darkness yawned beyond the windows, leaves plastering momently to the glass before being gusted away.
The door to the room creaked open. Kelrob started up from his half-stupor to see a girl framed in the light from the hallway, one of the servants, naked save for a circlet of jingling bells on her ankle. Her eyes were wide-blown, glassy; raising her hands, she ran them down the generous curves of her body. Kelrob recognized her as one of the servants who had cleansed his room, the blonde-headed one. Mantha.
Kelrob raised his ring, the chromox glowing brightly. His eyes danced over her body, and a little dry gasp made its way up his throat. “I don't wish to be disturbed,” was what he said.
Mantha smiled woodenly. She cupped her breasts and stepped towards him, across the threshold. Kelrob rose from his chair and backed himself against the bed, his body flushed with the heat of the wine and his uncertain mortification on the girl's behalf. By the Gyre, where was Rack? He said nothing, merely trembled as Mantha neared him and pressed her body to his, the rich earthy scent of her body enveloping him.
“My lord,” she said, her breath hot in his ear, “I am here for your pleasure.”
Her words rang hollow, coerced. Kelrob bit back a curse and severed the magical threads binding her to the will of Salinas. The large girl slumped in his grip, then began weeping, her hands struggling to conceal her nakedness.
“Please!” she cried into his shoulder, dampening Kelrob's tunic with her tears, “no more, no more!”
Kelrob eased her onto the bed, then raced for the stairs in a flash, burning the remnant alcohol from his blood with one purifying pulse of the chromox. He staggered down the steps and made for the common room, bursting onto a scene of such profanity that he cried out and fell back, bile surging up to lap at the root of his tongue.
Salinas sat on a makeshift throne of bodies, supported by a seething, straining cradle of naked men. He held high court over the common room, the ring of chromox glowing mercilessly bright on his hand, face covered by the foliate mask whose tendrils of corn-stalk he had enchanted to weave and undulate. Before him the servant-girls lay exposed, some weeping, others frightening still, all naked and some bruised. Around them danced a whirlwind of unwilling bodies, foresters and peddlers suspended on coarse strings of magic. They leaped and bowed, scraped and pranced, some biting into their own tongues until blood dribbled and shone on their chins. Behind, on the stage of cobbled wood, a minstrel played frantically, tears spraying from his eyes. His fingers had flayed against the strings, reducing them to bloodied flaps of skin; with a rising gorge Kelrob saw the glint of bone.
Salinas crowed on his throne, heels kicking at a man's already-bloodied head. “More song! More wine!” he cried, throwing up his arms. The ring gleamed on his right hand, engorged with his passion.
Kelrob summoned his power. It was a different summoning, deeper than any he had experienced, born of need and horror; with a single word he smote the web of Salinas's magic, blood bursting from his lips with the incantation. The dancers collapsed in groaning heaps, their limbs twitching as the foreign will was drained from them. Salinas's throne collapsed, and with it the lord of the revels, his voice rising in a pathetic and powerless curse as the ring on his finger went dark. The foliate mask fell aside with a clatter, revealing a bearded face flushed with drink and rage.
“Kelrob!” Salinas snarled, fighting up from the tangle of bodies. “How dare you! How dare you! How dare -”
Kelrob stilled his tongue with another word. Bound it, tied it down, along with his limbs. The enchantment cocooned Salinas, and he fell over stiffly, striking the dirt floor with a fleshy thump. Kelrob raced forward and tore the ring from the Taskmaster's finger, the sacred metal burning his skin as he slid it into a pocket over his left breast. Another word, and Salinas was borne aloft, Kelrob's sorcery hoisting him on a thin bier of fog.
Was the girl still in their room? It didn't matter. Kelrob snapped his wrist in cold command, and the petrified Salinas was swept from the common room, up to the waiting bed. Drawing on his training in the mind-warping Mentatis discipline, Kelrob soothed the bewined brain of his fellow, his superior, and settled him amid the blankets with a spell of slumber so heavy that it caused the bedframe to groan.
The common room was a mass of tangled limbs and weeping. Salinas had woven a heavy enchantment, and it still lingered on in the individual limbs of his thralls, feet and fingers twitching in a mockery of dance as they struggled to stand. The fire in the great hearth burned a putrescent green, another lingering blot of embellishment; Kelrob dispelled it with a flick of his eyes. He then panicked, wondering whether to run upstairs and lock the door, or bend and minister to the wounded. Remembering the vial of powder that Kirleg had left at his feet (Kirleg, who now lay in a corner convulsing), Kelrob stymied this impulse, and instead wove a deep and peaceful slumber over the writhing assembly. Summoning up strength beyond his training, he took their memories of their debasement into himself, foreign thoughts flooding the mage's brain with such force that he nearly swooned. Fighting to maintain consciousness, Kelrob created the crude false memory of a brawl and implanted it in the gaping hole he had cut into each mind.
The thrashing stilled, replaced with groggy stirring, replaced with echoing snores. The air convulsed, overwoven, overspelled; Kelrob gathered his breath and beat a retreat up the stairs, ring burning on his finger. His blood thundered in his temples, hot and unnervingly euphoric. He wondered if the minstrel would die.
The girl was gone, much to Kelrob's relief. Salinas snored piggishly against the pillows, his mouth wide, teeth discolored with wine. Kelrob slammed the door and stood over the Taskmaster, his body trembling with fury and exhaustion and the abated dregs of his casting. Kirleg's recounting flashed in his mind: the flayed man, the eaten man, the steaming bowels of children spelling out portents for a depraved eye. Trembling, Kelrob slid into a chair by the hearth and ran his hands over his sweat-caked face.
The inn was agonizingly still, the fire dying on the grate. Kelrob pushed it down into glowing cinders. He was numb from what he had seen, from what he had done. Weariness welled in him as the wind rose to a piercing howl; his final thought as he unwillingly collapsed into bed was that he hadn't seen Jacobson among the enspelled.
Copyright Scott J. Couturier 2014