The walls of the Red City grew up out of the scrub as we approached. The building stones, eroded red sandstone, looked like burning charcoal. There were echoes of many seasons. “Master the city is old.”
“Chela you continue to waste words on the obvious.”
We spoke in Ruthierian, a language which would die with the few remaining mountain villagers who spoke it. This obscurity was the first level of our mutual secrecy.
Guards met us at the gate and peeled away the crowd from in front of us. We plodded through a porridge of brown and gray robes sprinkled with brightly colored litters.
On reaching the palace the old One dismounted without help and from a saddle bag took out blue crystals and scattered them in a circle around us. The crystals ate into the street dust, formed bubbling clots, and belched blue smoke.
I glanced questioningly at the old one.
“Just an absurd prophecy we should fulfill.”
The guards had backed away but reformed and led us in. The palace interior was lit by candles of animal fat. The air was smoky. Court attendants began to enter in small bunches from side passageways, alerted to the old one’s arrival. We stopped in front of a massive bronze throne, unoccupied.
The old one had used the evenings of our journey to prepare me.
“Queen Hastert wishes a future knowledge which her own magus cannot provide. I in turn wish something from the queen. It is unlikely they will resort to killing us until the game has been played out.
“They will attempt to strip this knowledge it away from us without payment. You will be seen as the weaker access . Expect to be drugged, or offered sex, or tortured, perhaps all three. ”
“Is it necessary that I am again the stalking horse? Could I not dispose of those who drug or injure me?”
“Chela your pain hardens their belief in what you reveal. So long as the drugs are not lethal and the pain is transient I wish you to appear to weaken, telling everything as I have told it to you.”
“And the truth you have provided to me, is of course untrue.”
We were meant to wait for a considerable time. The old one stood motionless for three hundred heart beats, before idly swirling his fingers at the marble-slabbed floor, kindling a ghost fire whose flames were the images of misshapen animals.
The chamberlain had until then kept himself behind a pillar. He clutched his vermillion robe and quick marched over to us .
“You cannot set a fire in here!”
The old one waved his hands through the flames as if petting familiars. “I’m an old man who must amuse himself during all this waiting. Will the queen give us audience soon?”
“Soon , I promise.”
“Ah well then,” The old one waved his hand and the flames diminished and disappeared. The images of the animals glistened faintly from within the marble, a souvenir of our visit.
The chamberlain backed away. Some heartbeats later a lank figure stepped out from behind the throne.. All truly proficient wizards seem to be gaunt. “Hail Isthfrig,” he intoned.
“Hail Thorpak. I had heard you were in the Queen’s service.”
The men approached each other like wary dogs.
Thorpak pointed to the marble encased animal images. “It is surely only courteous to not indulge in cheap magic tricks when serious occult matters are to be discussed.”
“I will restrain myself.” The old one swirled his fingers again and the images faded out.
Ignoring me, the two adepts mouthed innocuous words while making discreet thaumaturgical probes of each other. Thorpak finally broached the manner of our arrival.
“Your street show with the blue smoke was amusing Isthfrig.”
“And you want to ask me how I know of the inscription on the Carolian tablet?”
“Bazaar gossip could have told you that. The tablet appears to be without serious purpose. What is your purpose in play acting its prophecy?”
“As you say, cheap magic tricks.”
Finally a large boned, muscular woman filled a doorway to our left and stepped to the throne. She wore an armless tunic . Five sinewy young women followed closely. As she mounted her throne the candle light fell into the furrow of a scar that ran from forehead to jaw bone.
The old One stood before her in a black robe, not cow or horse hide, but skin of a scaled animal that hung loosely off his thin frame. He carried neither staff nor sword.
The chamberlain began the customary, interminable honorifics.
“Before you Isthfrig is the protector of our empire, the mother of our people, the ruler of Mawld and Serket, the conqueror of Hathret” and so on and so forth and so forth and so forth.
It was finally my turn. I usually fabricated attributes, which amused the Old One.
“ Queen Hastert, before you stands Isthfrig the malevolent, the devourer of bodies and souls, the ruiner of some empires, the builder of others, the waster of farm lands, the creator of fear…”
And so on and so forth. When I was finished the queen spoke.
“I did not think you would really come wizard.”
“We can perhaps reach an understanding.”
“Who is the whelp?”
“Malame. He is more adept than he appears. ”
“Perhaps. We will arrange for you to be brought to your chambers and provided with necessities. Tonight you and I will dine with those of our court in attendance. Tomorrow we will speak.”
“As you wish highness.”
Our separate chambers were sparsely furnished. Accommodations suitable for someone less than noble. At dinner, the old one sat at the queen’s table, but below her, across from Thorpak.
I was seated at a table near the queen but adjacent to the kitchen, in company with various court minions, including the queen’s attendants.
My seating let me observe the queen. She was a strongly formed woman of perhaps thirty five winters, with large hands, a broad mouth and unusually defined muscles.. She occasionally flexed her arms and shoulders in that self absorbed manner muscle trainers have. Her focus on strength rather than speed meant that she would be fractionally slower in combat.
One of the queen’s attendants, Charlong, paid special attention to me. By discreet word and touch she indicated that the evening might not be over with dinner. She also tended to my wine cup, which was not tainted with a soporific until toward the end of the meal.
As the drug seeped through my body I returned Charlong’s flatteries with an increasing slur, offering doubly-meaninged words of encouragement It was not a thousand heart beats after returning to my chambers that Charlong arrived bearing more wine.
Her low cut, loose robe belled open as she bent to pour, presenting a bare torso, groin and thighs. Her figure was slender but not at all boyish.
I drank more of her drugged wine, but remained lucid. Charlong faintly exposed her annoyance at this, having hoped to avoid servicing me. With a moue she excused herself for ablutions. She returned without her robe.
In our coupling I discovered that her preparations included applying a narcotic salve to parts of her body This drug was both a sexual stimulant and a somnolent. Charlong of course was also afflicted and lost consciousness during our pairing . I allowed my consciousness to fade out as well, while maintaining presence.
Thorpak, who presumably had been observing our efforts, entered the room with several guards. “Remove the slut,” he ordered.
He then forced an herbal concoction down my throat which countered the effects of the drugs, allowing me to answer questions.
Thorpak proceeded with pain based questioning which would leave no visible marks. He was considerably harsher than was required. The pain from hyper extended tendons and muscles was acute, and eventually I allowed myself to answer. The forced responses appeared to satisfy Thorpak, and he left perhaps ten thousand heartbeats before dawn.
I roused myself with the sunrise, sweat drenched and trembling from drug withdrawal. And pain. Wrenching pain. Nothing seemed to be broken or missing. The pain was of no consequence.
After washing my body parts I entered the Old One’s chamber. We had brought with us an intricately woven silk rug and blanket . The magus was performing an asana on the rug. Without words I picked up the blanket, knelt face to face with him and covered over our heads and bodies. Our hidden observers would be unable to see our motions or hear our words.
One of many minor arts known to the old one was the laying on of hands- not touching, but moving the hands closely over face and body. I have always found this both intriguing and repugnant. For while he was assessing my mood and injuries, I could not help but take in his aura. There were unpleasant currents roiling within him, not malevolent, but brutally indifferent.
“Ah,” he whispered in Ruthierian, “genital drugging. I had hoped for more originality. Pause. “You did not injure Thorpak. Good.”
“As you instructed master. Although his pain infliction was excessive.”
“Do you see chela that this is useful knowledge about our associate?
Did you tell him everything as I told it to you?”
“Yes, teacher. He used various tricks and pain to test that my truth was consistent.”
“This attendant, this Charlong, will continue to be used to gain access to you. Was the coupling interesting?”
“No master. She was heavily drugged. But her movements suggested talent in that art.”
“Allow this to develop. Should she begin to take enjoyment or affection from you she may have a use. But do not let your soft emotions surge.
“We meet the queen before the midday meal, when we will make our respective demands. The queen is of the military caste and training, she will be prompt and blunt.”
The meeting was held in a large garden under eight eyes- the old one and me, the queen and Thorpak.. The queen waved us onto stone benches and began without pause.
“Presumably our proposal is of interest to you Isthfrig?”
“May I speak openly Queen Hastert? The old one nodded at Thorpak.
“He is aware of my intentions. Proceed.”
“There is a military campaign being mounted against you. You wish to know the plans and future actions of your foes, so that you may crush them. Thorpak presumably cannot provide this to you, and so you have come to me. ”
Thorpak glared but said nothing. His visible anger was another flaw worth remembering.
The queen started pacing. “Your inferences are correct.. Once you have provided us with your revelations you will remain at court until after your information provides victory. After which you will receive an agreed payment. Should you fail you will receive nothing except suitable punishment. Is this acceptable? “
“There is need for clarification, queen. Thorpak is a capable magus. He would attempt to perform this task for you at considerably less expense. Why is he not chosen?”
“The risks to the spy are great, great also is Thorpak’s usefulness to me. I do not wish to jeopardize him. You will ask for much, but your failure would leave me without expense or additional weakness. Also, your acknowledged skill as a spy precedes you.”
“As I had assumed. My demands and conditions are stringent but hopefully not overly onerous.
“I will require various alchemic items and a spot with significant goetic power. There is only one suitable location in the palace- the crypt housing your family artifacts, scrolls, and various thaumaturgic items.”
Thorpak interrupted,” Majesty we cannot allow this defilement. It is a poor wizard who requires such props….”
“Silence Thorpak. Continue Isthfrig.”
“Nothing is to be removed from the chamber, nor disturbed, nor must there be any observation into the chamber. Thick curtains must be spread over the walls and ceiling so that there is no view of us nor sound from us which leaves the chamber. You will of course verify that nothing is missing or disturbed when we vacate the room, which we will do well before your victory.”
“And what of your reward?”
“A pittance really. In addition to five cubits of gold, I require the rune etched sword used by your father’s fathers and yourself on ceremonial occasions.”
“And cannot have. It is the major symbol of my lineage and queenship. ”
“Ah. I will work for nothing else. You could remove the sword from the chamber, use it as a model to create a duplicate and provide me the original when my task is complete.”
Thorpak burst out in full throat. ”Majesty, this bazaar attraction is known to be duplicitous . His proposals always leave the other worse off. Do not be cozened. “
“I cannot agree to this Isthfrig. Ask something else of me.”
“Ah. There is nothing else. I thank you for considering my terms. Should we leave the palace majesty?”
Thorpak was about to speak again but queen Hastert waved him silent. She studied the old one quietly for a hundred heartbeats. ”Stay within our hospitality for two more days Isthfrig. If you have not changed your requirement you may depart undisturbed.”
That evening meal was served to us in the old one’s chambers. It was untainted. Thereafter we crouched between rug and blanket..
The old one’s aura was pungent. He was on the hunt. “Master I fear that even if the queen agrees she will attempt to cheat you out of the sword at the end.”
“Chela, she has no choice but to appear to agree. If I fail it costs her nothing. If I succeed and she honors my terms she keeps her throne but waves an imitation sword. And if she successfully cheats or kills us she has lost nothing and gained much.”
“With her victory comes our danger?”
“And what of your danger in attempting to divine the actions of the queen’s adversary? The magus of her enemy will seek to prevent you and to do you great harm”
“Ah, indeed chela, that is my well calculated risk.”
“And you will do this without leaving the sanctum?”
“You are my legs, ears and eyes within the palace. I shall not leave the chamber. Garmir will do my work outside the city.”
Garmir. The old one’s reliance on the beast frightened me despite my training. Garmir is a spirit hound, a four eyed brute that eats both flesh and soul.
“What will you provide Garmir for his service to you?”
“He shall have access to the forthcoming battleground and the dying it provides.”
“I wonder master that some prices are too dear.”
“I wonder chela that some students are too sensitive.”
Two daybreaks later we were summoned by the queen to her anteroom. We were again under eight eyes. The queen did not ask us to sit.
“What is your decision Isthfrig?”
“Queen Hastert, I must abide by my demands. If they are unbearable I shall understand and wish you good fortune in the pending battle.”
The queen and Thorpak exchanged fleeting glances that revealed no disappointment or anger. Given Thorpak’s temperament this probably meant that they had thought through an alternative solution.
“Most of your conditions are acceptable Isthfrig. You may abide and work in the sanctum. My sword will be removed before you enter. You shall not be disturbed while there. But your demand for the sword is odious. Ask something else of me that I may grant.”
“I cannot. Thorpak has explained to you the dangers involved with what you ask. It is painfully harsh work to gain knowledge of an enemies intentions, harsher still on the magus is the divination of the outcome of a war. For great jeopardy I must ask great price.”
The queen and Thorpak went to the far corner of the room to talk. My far vision is acute, and although I could not hear the words I could clearly see the queen’s bare arms and legs. Her muscles remained loose, no clenching or spasming. Hence no tension about an unpleasant decision. They were acting a play for our benefit.
The queen waved us over to join them.”Isthfrig with great detestation I agree to your demands. Know however that your failure would be severely punished.”
“I accept that risk. Once we are installed in the sanctum I ask that none of your court or guards venture too close to the sanctum walls. I shall be using a spirit messenger which will view as prey those he encounters in entering and leaving the sanctum. Care should be taken.
“I shall confine myself to the sanctum, but Malame will be performing various errands for me in the palace, and I ask that his quarters be maintained for him.”
The queen nodded curtly. “Curtains for the sanctum will be installed today, and you may enter at first light tomorrow. I shall need results in two hands of days.”
“That is, I think, adequate time.”
That night under the silk blanket I said, “Master they had determined to violate their agreement before making it.”
“Once we have left the sanctum and their victory is assured we will be without reward and in danger.”
“And while in my quarters outside the sanctum you still wish me to cultivate the queen’s attendant?’
“Almost so. I wish the girl to carry your faculties back to the queen’s chambers. She will be told nothing of significance but you can use her eyes and ears better than she can.”
The crypt did not inspire awe. Its walls were unadorned red stone, the floor of dressed marble. The central chamber had eight facets, each facet being an alcove in which were stored an assortment of venerable and magical items. The central chamber had a stone table with an empty sword rest upon it. The queen’s sword had been removed. Instead the table top was covered with the alchemical utensils the old one had requested.
The Carolian tablet, along with other scrolls, talismans and tablets kept in the alcoves had a confusingly strong goetic resonance. Their emanations welled out from the alcoves into the central chamber and created a mystic babble, like a large dining hall with hundreds of people talking at once, none of whom could be understood.
“Master I envy your ability to work in this clamor.”
“There are no moments we can spare to tune the orchestra chela. Set my belongings on the stone table, and stand beside me as I summon Garmir.”
“Master I do not…”
“Silence. This fear makes you prey-like. Absorb it as I have taught. What safer place have you than at my side? When Garmir comes I wish you to approach him, close enough that you could pet him. He has been instructed and merely needs to be unleashed. When he arrives this is what you will say to him.
“Thorpak has probably placed spies outside the walls despite my caution. These are Garmir’s to dine on, so anticipate muffled screams.”
The old one leaned to my ear and whispered seven words. He then began his conjure, and in eight hundred heartbeats, with a faint scream from outside the walls, Garmir emerged beside us. My intestines felt a rot in their tubing, my lungs a liquid decay. Although I knew Garmir could sense my fear I approached the four eyed beast , almost touching his fetidness . His evil was blatant, but even Hades has a bottom. From that bottom I gave him the seven words and he was gone through the far wall, with yet another scream echoing after him.
I was washed in foul, greasy sweat, as if he had licked me.
“Master I think I am not meant to engage this beast.”
“Chela you have no conception of what you are meant for. Clean yourself, you stink.”
And so, when not on errands for the old one, bringing supplies often of no meaning to me- a large lump of clay for example, I was the dispatcher of hell. At dusk the old one would send me away, so that there was no witness to his nocturnal sorcery.
As expected ,Charlong had been assigned to maintain closeness with me, and the nights were pleasant. We indicated to each other by hint and facial expression that we were tasked to keep the other under observation, and by the third day it was the source of mirth between us.
“Malame,” she asked one evening,” how long have you been with the sorcerer?”
“He purchased me when I had seen only three cycles of the sun. I have no memory of my life before the Old One, only sense fragments.”
“I was also bought young, and have grown up here.”
“I sense that service to the queen is not pleasant?”
Charlong sighed. “She can be quite harsh. But it is her right. Are you content to be a chela?”
“Content no. But there is an addiction in working spells, stronger than sexual, stronger than hunger, a spiritual drug. The gratification is so urgent that I can accept indignity or insult to repeat it.”
The evening before we left the sanctum the old one and I were once again under the silk blanket.
“Master, should I prepare for further torture?”
“No chela. You may be killed but at this point they won’t bother to drug or torture you.”
“Still you reveal nothing of your plans to me.”
“Just so. There is no need. Should we survive I will provide you with edification.”
“Garmir has been sent away, but I think is unrewarded?”
“He waits at the battle site. He will feed well.”
“Charlong will probably be killed if we fail, or if the queen cheats on your agreement.”
“Of a surety. And yes, we will attempt to bring her with us. “
I stared at the old one.
“You have the subtlety of a puppy. Despite my instruction you have developed emotion for this morsel. You must learn to treat the living like a necromancer treats the dead.”
The old one looked closely at me, and I at him. He had been gaunt when he began his incantations ten daybreaks ago. Now his blue veined skin looked so thin that a touch would tear it open.
“Chela, she is the queen’s plaything which you and not the queen are playing with. The queen will treat her like a broken toy. I will briefly accommodate her presence during our flight. But compose yourself that she will probably die.”
That next morning we vacated the sanctum. The old one’s bag was heavier than when we entered, perhaps bulged by alchemaical utensils. After visiting our quarters we went to the queen’s audience hall.
“Queen Hastert, I have the knowledge you seek.. We need to speak under four eyes so that I can advise you of the necessary actions.”
While Thorpak and I stared at each other and the various courtiers, the queen and the old one went into a small chamber behind her throne. Thorpak excused himself, presumably to check on the contents of the sanctum. The sun had moved overhead before Queen Hastert and the old one returned.
Two daybreaks later the queen and the largest part of her army marched out from the red city. Afterwards, confined to the palace, the old one and I waited. I occupied myself with Charlong, who was both perceptive and a pleasure to delve into.
“Malame,” she asked as we were eating,” teach me one of your arts.”
“I could show you a potion for slow poisoning which would requires no Goetic ability, or the bazaar form of fortune telling which requires only sensitivity to the other’s emotions, or, if you wish, the summoning of a minor familiar, which would test if you have the presence. What is your pleasure?”
She stroked my arm. “What can this familiar do?”
“We would summon something small and not dangerous to you, say a fire starter.”
“Yes please, a fire starter.”
And so I peeled back her layers. To my pleased surprise, although deeply suppressed, she held the presence. Before we slept Charlong could kindle a hearth from across the room.
I was at the old one’s chamber the next day break.
“You knew before you agreed to Charlong’s accompaniment that she had the presence.”
“May I know how to do this?”
“It is not an art but a sensitivity. If you live you will probably acquire it. To serious matters. You must take control of the woman sufficiently that she does not argue when we flee. And flee we must, before tomorrow’s dusk. You will sense my call to action.”
“Your words create my actions.”
On my return to Charlong I instilled a delusion,so strong that she would be energetic in fleeing with us. I had a brief moment of regret at its necessity.
We awoke twined.
“Malame, you are anxious today.”
Her burgeoning presence was a complication. “Charlong, the battle is engaged, and with it the measure of our fortunes.”
“No, that is not it, but I know you will tell me when you can.”
The old one summoned me just before dusk.
“Chela, Garmir advises that queen Hastert is newly dead and her spirit consumed. We must make our escape.”
We were surrounded by guards and minor adepts who would warn Thorpak of any attempt to flee. The two adepts were dealt with first. I used a more vicious cousin of Charlong’s fire starter and seared their gray matter before they could transmit an alarm. The guards were dispatched by simply snapping their necks.
The old one, having recovered for several days, carried his heavy bag without exertion. Charlong, fully deluded, moved almost too quickly. As we passed a storage room under a downward spiraling stairway the old one caused the door to open and took out a sword.
“Your did not think I would leave without this token payment? I removed it from Thorpak’s chambers a little earlier. Here, carry it, it will be of use.”
We descended to a small doorway in the palace wall used for provisioning the kitchen. We needed to kill three cooks and two guards to exit the palace. I had a flicker of sympathy for the cooks, who had no standing in this fight.
We moved quickly through the streets to a minor gate in the city wall. All gates would be secured at dark, and reopening them made great noise. There were too many people at the gate to be killed without raising an alarm, so the old one put a glamour on the guards and travelers that would keep them bemused for at least two thousand heart beats. This sapped a bit of the goetic energy he had stored up.
Dark settled in as we moved off the main road and across fields. Charlong and I were young and limber and moved at wolf lope. The old one, haggard as he was, strode as if wearing faery shoes, without foot fall.
The city walls were a darker red line on the sunset when lights burst forth from them.
“Our departure is noted chela.”
“Shall I wait behind and slow the trackers master?
“No, for the principal tracker will be Thorpak, in a frenzy at our departure and the loss of the sword. He and I must have words. Let us proceed until he catches up.””
I swung the queen’s sword. It was overlong, thick, and poorly balanced. I felt little innate power within it. Of no great use then but for ceremony. I would have to use it as one would a broadsword. We moved onward and into a forest for perhaps five thousand heartbeats.
A string or torch lights appeared behind us. Twenty torches, so perhaps forty of the queen’s troops. And Thorpak. We halted with rock embankments to our right and rear, and dense briars to our left. I pushed Charlong into the ground level bole of a large tree. The old one and I stood side by side. Thorpak sent in ten soldiers to fix us in position.
The troops formed a loose line, weapons in hand and advanced.. It is my shame that in such moments I have no conscious bravery. I become, without volition, a berserker, drawing on rage and hatred from fallen dead. The old one, who created this in me, himself backs away at such moments for in my blood lust I have slain allies. I ran at the troops, swinging the queen’s sword in great looping arcs. The first I split from crotch to chest, the second lost an arm at the bicep, thereafter I have no clear memory. But in less than two hundred heartbeats the ten were dead or maimed.
Troops were not his answer, so Thorpak emerged from the remaining soldiers and approached. I stood to one side, leaning on the sword and sucking in ragged breaths. I was bleeding from several cuts.
“Isthfrig, thus far you have shown me only cheap bazaar tricks.”
“I can if desired remedy that Thorpak. But think, we are of a small and dwindling brotherhood. You have no pleasant emotions for the queen. The queen is dead, you sense this. Would you not best serve yourself by walking away and finding another master? “
“That cannot be, I have given oath.”
“Ah, great pity in that.
“Thorpak, I violated the agreement before you had a chance to do so. It is yours to make the first killing effort.”
The old one stood quietly, stooped, as Thorpak’s lips moved in incantation.
Those unknowing talk of battles between wizards as the hurling of thunderbolts and fire balls, of great noise and destruction. The truth is more terrible.
One wizard attempts to annihilate another by goetic will, to extinguish a life force of volcanic power. The sounds are not constant but episodic- the wind shattering of a great tree, the smashing of boulder on boulder, the membrane ripping keen of creatures in death conflict.
Thorpak and the old one glared at each other from twenty paces.. Miasmas oozed from them both, cloying torch and star light. There was a reek, not of brimstone, but of suppurating, decomposing flesh- that vilely sweet odor that crawls into the lungs. The faces of the two magi contorted into gargoyles, then worse, not clearly seen , but much, much worse. The ground between the two adepts ripped open, and then closed and then reopened slobberingly, as if wanting to eat them.
Their lips moved inaudibly, the air distorted into knots by the conflicting spells.
They were thus for perhaps six hundred heartbeats. The plants around them blackened and fell, as did several of the troops who had ventured too close. And then, slowly but with finality, the miasmas curdled around Thorpak. His lips moved more franticly until they split apart. His ears began to char. His eyes dropped into his skull. At the end he was consumed, leaving a small pile of ash.
The old one still stood. Ozone crackled around him.
“Retrieve the ash,” he told me,” It has a value.”
The remaining troops had no will to fight and made off. The old one took the queen’s sword from me to lean on. My master was spent. I retrieved Charlong and made a rough camp.
The old one and I woke in sympathy at daybreak. Charlong, who had done nothing, slept.
“Master, have you the energy to elucidate?”
“Ah, chela, ask and I shall attempt to answer.”
“Queen Hastert died in the battle?”
“And was decapitated before Garmir fed on her.”
“You would not have gone through this without recompense. Since we are without the gold and the queen’s sword seems to hold little power, even when used in battle, you will have rewarded yourself differently.”
“What would you do chela if you were asked as I was to determine what the outcome of a battle would be?’
“As you did. I would agree to do so.”
“And what would you do if the antagonist to this requester later asked for the same thing?”
“Ah. Queen Hastert was the second requester. I would have to agree, so as not to alert the queen that I had already taken a commission.”
“Just so. Having won, Queen Hastert’s foe will give us the five cubits of gold. We will send him the sword as trophy.”
“Master you do not engage in sorcery for gold.”
“Bring me my bag.”
The bag was significantly heavier than I had thought. From it the old one took out a fired clay tablet.
“Master that appears to be the Carolian tablet- but you said it was of no thaumatological worth.”
“I lied. When last in the red city I perceived a strong force from within the sanctum, but disregarded the tablet, as the incised script was drivel. But I erred. In time I perceived the true meaning of the runes, and what the tablet was made to mask.”
The old one held the queen’s sword by the blade and swung the hilt into the tablet, breaking it apart. From the tablet shards dropped a black stone, shaped into the form of an earth mother, with pendulous breasts and heavy thighs. Unshielded, the stone throbbed with force.
“And the clay was used to make a substitute for Thorpak’s scrutiny?”
“And what of Charlong? I must remove her delusion soon, and when I do she is apt to try and kill me.”
“She will despise you. Especially when she learns that she is gravid with your child.”
“I perhaps countered her precautions. A child whose both parents have the presence is of considerable value. “
“Charlong gives me great comfort master. Is it possible she could abide with us?”
“No. But I have a place in mind for her where she will be sheltered and able to develop her goetic abilities. An associate of mine, a sorceress, has need of a young woman with the presence. A female infant with the presence will be that much the better.”
“Surely not Horflog? She is a hag and your enemy.”
“Ah. In the far eastern lands there is a custom of giving gifts of apology. Charlong will be such a gift.”
And so it transpired. Once the spell was lifted, Charlong was angry enough to lunge at me with a knife. She was still angry when she was bound and sent off, to Horflog. Horflog, after assessing her, accepted the gift from the old one as partial atonement. The sword was dispatched, the five cubits of gold arrived. The old one and I settled back into life in our cave.
One evening, having successfully prepared an exceptionally noxious poison, I dared another question.
“Master I still have sentiment for Charlong. If they have survived would it be possible to see her and the child?”
“Chela you have the subtlety of a monkey in lust. You have been instructed that away from here you should associate only with those you are willing to sacrifice. However, there may be a moment when I need to encounter Horflog, and you would accompany me.
“This potion appears satisfactory. Provide a dose to one of the bulls and report on the number of heartbeats to its death.”
© Ed Ahern 2012
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international paper sales. He still has his original wife, but after 44 years advises that they are both out of warranty. He spends his free time fly fishing, shooting, and attending Japanese, German and French conversation groups. Recent acceptances include Bewildering Stories, Zodiac Review, Silver Blade, Wicked East, Cover of Darkness, Tales of Old and Lissette's Tales.