Authors: Salvador Mercer
“Yes, you burned like an oven, Eric. I’m surprised you don’t remember, though to be fair, you seemed to be pretty much out of it and you kept babbling on about a dragon or some such nonsense.”
“What do you mean by
out of it
?” Eric asked, ignoring her comment about the dragon. He was more worried about what had been done to him than remembering what he had come across days earlier.
“Delirious. Didn’t you hear a word I just said?”
Eric nodded. “Of course I did. I simply don’t remember. But do go on. What happened to me then?”
“Well,” Mary started, smoothing her already smoothed skirt yet again, “your friend and business associate, Master Ewellyn, tried to get a healer to you, but the Kesh refused. We thought for sure we were going to bury you the next day.”
“The Kesh turned Lucky away?”
“Yes, not only him but my master as well,” Mary said, nodding.
Eric sat up further, inching his back against the headboard and shifting his weight for a moment. On impulse, he reached to the side and felt a walking stick there instead of his sword. Yes, he was remembering now. He had lost his sword somewhere high in the Felsic Mountains. Looking at Mary again, he whispered, “Is there a sword here?”
Mary shook her head. “I’m sorry, Eric. The magistrate insisted that you be confined unarmed until further notice.”
“What?” Eric asked, shock coming over him. “The magistrate of Moartown is involved?”
“I’m afraid so, and it’s worse. They have called for a justiciar to judge your case.”
“What case?” Eric sat upright, grabbing Mary by her shoulders and startling her.
“Eric, please, you’re frightening me.”
Eric released her immediately. “I’m sorry, Mary. I didn’t mean to scare you. I simply don’t understand what is happening to me. Please, Mary, can you explain?”
“That’s what I thought I was doing,” Mary said, standing and walking a few paces away and then turning to return, this time standing next to his bed and keeping a small distance between the two. “You may not remember, but the Kesh called for their own healer and . . .”
“And what, Mary?”
“He healed you, if that’s what it can be called.” Mary’s tone and facial gesture indicated a cross between fear and loathing.
“Who healed me?” Eric was tiring of asking so many questions, but his once-friendly companion was taking an entirely evasive course in answering him.
“One of those death worshippers.” Mary shuddered, holding her arms together as if cold.
“You mean a cleric of Akun?” Eric could think of no other
. If any such cult existed, it would be a follower of Akun.
Mary nodded. “Yes, one of them.”
“You let them touch me?” Eric started to shiver and feel his body to ensure all his limbs and other organs were intact.
The worshippers of Akun reveled in death and saw disease, strife, illness, and injury as parts of Akun’s reckoning. They performed many macabre rituals, and any sane inhabitant of Agon would never allow a follower of Akun to touch them, much less administer to them. Only the Kesh seemed to cultivate any sort of tolerance for their services, and even then, in limited circumstances.
“It’s not like we had much choice.” Mary defended herself and the actions of her master. “The Kesh would allow no other to heal you, and they paid well for our services.”
Eric stopped and looked at her, reason coming into his mind for the first time that day. A Kesh wizard would, and could, demand just about anything that he wanted, and anyone short of a holy warrior or mage-slayer would comply. It was simply a matter of self-preservation. Add to that the fact that the Kesh were paying for various services—well, money explained a lot, and Eric knew that greed was one of his weaknesses as well.
“So I was healed, left to recover here, and that was it?” Eric summarized.
“Yes.” Mary nodded. “Pretty much, until after the Kesh left, and then the magistrate started to ask questions and called for a justiciar to assist. That pretty much sums it up.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Eric said, feeling as if his life was turned upside down in more than one way.
“Do you need me to fetch your bucket?”
Eric looked at Mary and then chuckled, the first of its kind that morning. “No, not that kind of sick. More like a
I can’t believe this is happening to me
kind of sick.”
“Oh, I see.” Mary struggled to smile, and then she leaned toward Eric and lowered her voice. “What happened to you out there?”
Eric met her gaze and felt guilt again, a most unwelcome feeling. “It was something I never expected . . .” Eric allowed his gaze to fall to the floor, and he saw the scene of combat—the scene of death and destruction played again in his mind.
Silence enveloped them for a moment before the faint, soft voice of Mary asked again, “What happened to your men, Eric? Are the rumors true?”
Eric mercifully snapped from his memory and looked at Mary again. “What rumors?”
“That you killed them all,” she said, awe and fear in her voice.
“Of course not.” Eric shook his head. “That is sheer nonsense.”
“But the Kesh and the Akun cleric . . .” Mary said, letting the association sink in.
“I’m telling you I had nothing to do with their likes,” Eric said, defending himself. Mary nodded.
Her skirt will be the smoothest it has ever been
, Eric thought to himself. “You believe me, don’t you?”
Mary continued to nod and smooth. “Of course I do, Eric, but it’s not up to me to . . .”
“To what?” Eric asked, getting accustomed to prying every detail out of Mary, one question at a time.
Mary looked down. “To pass judgment.”
“What exactly is it I’m being accused of?” Eric asked.
“It’s probably better if your associate explains things to you.” Mary looked hopeful now.
“Yes, that would be best,” Eric said.
Mary nodded and then walked to the door, exiting the room and leaving Eric alone for the time being. He felt his ribs and back, and though they were sore, he could tell that he was recently healed and in much better shape than he was when he narrowly escaped the white death. He shuddered at the thought of what had happened, and a huge wave of grief and sorrow washed over him. Then came the last wave of emotion, guilt, for having lost his men and his crew.
There was no time for further self-reflection, as Mary returned much quicker than he had anticipated. Walking to his side, she smiled and smoothed her skirt again, which gave Eric a bad feeling. “They will allow Master Ewellyn to speak with you.”
Eric frowned, and Mary kept her hands flowing against her clothing. Finally Eric placed his feet on the floor, and Mary backed a step away. Eric didn’t like that action either. “Are you afraid of me?”
“Why no, silly,” Mary said, her tone nervous. “Of course not.”
Eric didn’t believe her. “Mary, listen to me very carefully.” Mary nodded. “Who are they?”
Mary looked to the door and then back at Eric. “Your guards,” she said.
Eric looked at the door again, not seeing a shadow. He gingerly tested his balance and stood, wobbling for a second before gathering his strength. “Can you hand me that stick?” He motioned to the walking stick a mere foot away, though he felt he couldn’t reach for it without falling.
Released from the paralysis of her fear, Mary quickly walked to the stick and handed it to Eric in one hand while grabbing his other to assist him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to see who’s guarding me.”
“I can tell you that, silly,” Mary said.
“You know, you not only smooth your skirt when you’re nervous, Mary, but you also call me silly,” Eric said, taking a couple of steps toward the door and feeling better about moving around.
“You’ll only upset them,” she said, though not making any attempt physically to stop him from opening the door.
They reached the door, and Eric stopped, pausing to listen for a long moment. Mary stood by his side, allowing his arm to rest on hers, and Eric realized that if not for the rumors, Mary really didn’t fear him. They had known each other for far too long for that.
The seconds turned to minutes, and still Eric stood listening. He could make out the faint sounds of discussion from far down the corridor, and he understood that the room he was in was located behind the bar where the innkeeper kept his private quarters. He had never been in this room before, always staying in rooms above the tavern or sleeping at one of their quarters in town, depending on his coin, or lack thereof.
When he was satisfied that he would open the door and confront his guards, he heard a familiar voice not far away, faint but argumentative. “I was told I could see him.”
Eric turned to Mary, who nodded. “Lucky?”
“Sounds like him,” Mary said.
“I thought you said they would allow him to see me,” Eric said, confusion in his voice.
“They did. Well, the officer said he could.” Mary sounded just as confused.
“There are several of them, though the one on duty just now is the one who told me so. Do you want me to go to him, perhaps clarify?” Mary asked, trying to be helpful.
Eric shook his head. “No, let me hear what they are saying,” he whispered.
Mary nodded, and the conversation outside seemed to pause for a moment.
“So who ordered this?” one voice said.
“I don’t know who, but a messenger arrived telling me that the master of The Hunt had awakened and that I had permission to speak with him.”
There was some shuffling of papers. “I don’t see anything written.”
“Check again,” came Lucky’s voice.
“No, you are definitely on the forbidden list. I can see it here,” came the unknown voice.
“I was on that list of yours, but it’s changed now. Can’t you check with your superior?”
“What are you saying?” the voice sounded irritated.
“What’s going on?” came a third commanding voice.
The unknown voice spoke. “Sir, Mister Ewellyn wishes to speak with the prisoner, and he is on our off-limit list.”
” Eric mouthed. Mary shrugged, looking helpless.
“Enough of this. I have taken Lucias Ewellyn off the forbidden list. He may be admitted to see his client,” the commanding voice said.
” Eric mouthed again, his face getting redder by the minute as anger made it flush with blood.
“As you command, sir.”
The sounds of boots approaching gave a shock to Eric and Mary, and they turned to walk back toward the bed. Eric felt ridiculous in his tan sleeping robe, and before they could reach the bed, the sound of two spear butts were heard smashing at attention on the floor outside.
The door opened abruptly, and one of the Ulathan military officers stepped inside, holding the door open while an older man in fine clothes entered and looked at Eric and Mary with confusion.
“A moment in private, if you don’t mind,” the older man said, and the Ulathan officer gave a slight nod of his head and exited the room, shutting the door behind him.
“By all the gods of Agon,” Eric said, using a more ancient term to demonstrate his intense emotion of relief at seeing his old associate. “It’s good to see you.”
Lucius nodded and then smiled, walking to Eric and embracing the man, giving him a few good pats on the back for good measure. “Good to see you up and about as well, Eric.”
“Pray tell, what in Agon is happening out there?” Eric motioned with his head to the door.
Lucius “Lucky” Ewellyn looked back at the door and then returned his gaze to Eric and frowned. “I have bad news, Eric. You’re under arrest.”
“Everything is in place,” the first man said to the second from the top of their tower overlooking the frontier Ulathan town.
“A justiciar has been summoned?”
“Yes, Amora, one has, and Kelee has returned to Keshtor to make the necessary preparations. Then he will head north with the raiding party. You are sure they will go that way?” the first man asked.
Amora looked at his former apprentice, recognizing the same ambitious look that he had in his youth many decades earlier. “Yes, I am sure. They cannot help themselves, and the mercenary will have few options left. If our intelligence is worth anything at all, he will head north to secure his aid.”
“I hope so,” Kirost said, not fully understanding how the mage could know what the mercenary would do before he did it, but then Amora seemed to have that talent.
“You have done well, Kirost. Your former apprentice fulfilled his role perfectly.”
Kirost nodded slightly in deference to the mage. “Yes, Milo was more than useful, despite his shortcomings in the arcane.”
“Have you given thought to your next pupil?” Amora asked.
“No,” Kirost said, returning his gaze to Moartown far below. “Will your illusion hold? It will be risky if the Ulathans suspect our involvement.”
Amora looked down at the sheer cliff face that his tower stood upon. The magical structure was carried in a pouch tied to his belt, and it had nearly cost him his life to secure, decades ago. Placing the magical carving of a black tower on the ground and summoning the arcane to activate it caused the small statue to grow in size and become a small, three-story tower. Amora added a veil of illusion to mask the structure from casual view, thus in effect making it invisible as well. Finally, placing the tower on the outcropping of a small cliff face with no way to approach it made their quarters secure.
“All things worth pursuing involve risk,” Amora finally answered, gazing at the town now. “The realms cannot know of our involvement in the purging of the draconians.”
“I seriously doubt most of them believe that the dragons even exist,” Kirost said, using the more common term for the creatures.
“Most,” Amora answered. “The wise ones understand well enough, and they are the ones we must guard against.”
An icy wind blew down from behind them despite the warmer season far below. Both men pulled their cloaks tighter around themselves to guard against the cold. “Most interesting the local draconus was white.”
“The High-Mage predicted such variance long ago,” Amora explained. “The ancient scrolls were not only detailed but accurate in their assessment of the creatures.”
“I find it interesting that the nine support him. You have heard the rumors, have you not?” Kirost said, moving into more controversial conversation with his master.
“Kirost, you surprise me,” Amora said. “Of course I have, but whether they are true or not will not matter. If Amtor has indeed located the Staff of Alore, it will only help us to secure our rightful place in Agon. I have no ambitions beyond the furthering of Kesh influence.”
“Spoken as a true patriot,” Kirost noted, and Amora graced him with a sideways look for the remark. “The realms have reacted slowly to our prompts, but quickly to suspect us. We must use caution or risk bringing open warfare to us.”
“That is a forgone conclusion,” Amora said, pulling his staff in closer to his body. “The only question now is when warfare will become open. Even now, the High-Mage marshals are forces in preparation for what is to come. Speaking of which, are our
Kirost nodded, a thoughtless habit, as it would not be seen by the mage. “They are. The Balarian, and his team, are in place awaiting our orders. Was it necessary to wake the draconus this early?”
Amora nodded. “The raids that Belost conducted were causing suspicion. Now, the testimony of the mercenary will sow confusion amongst the Ulathans and shift any appearance of blame from us to his company. There is only one person I fear to learn the truth, and a northern clan has been tasked with taking care of this.”
“You refer to the historian?” Kirost asked.
“Yes,” Amora said. “His meddling can undo much of what we have worked so hard to accomplish. If they succeed, Diamedes will be dead soon.”
“And if they don’t?”
“Then we will have to kill him ourselves.”
“I’m really not following your logic at all,” Justiciar Corwin said from atop his mount as they traveled over the mountain pass.
“Which part?” Diamedes asked from his smaller horse at the justiciar’s side.
Corwin scratched his head for a moment. “Well, quite frankly, almost all of it.”
“That covers quite a deal of ground considering our conversation the last two days,” the small historian said. “I don’t know where to begin.”
“Well, it’s rare that I get to spend some quality time on the road with someone of your stature, and knowledge, for that matter, so I’d like to take advantage of it. Stick with the dragon part.” Corwin looked at the small historian and then smiled at him.
“You are too kind. I am but a simple record keeper—”
Corwin cut him off. “Hardly, but I understand your modesty. It’s a rather good trait to have nowadays considering the hubris of so many of our nobles. Still, I do wish to understand your explanation for the dragons, if you don’t mind. I spend far too much time mediating disputes between farmers and whose cow roamed into whose pasture and ate too much.”
Diamedes smiled, and the two men shared a knowing look. There was once a time when a justiciar handled very important matters of state, and still they did for the most part, but as time progressed, there seemed to be more and more petty squabbles that were elevated past the local magistrate, calling for a justiciar to mediate.
“I thought I was clear, but the main point I was making is that the draconus—”
Again, an interruption. “You mean dragons, and it’s quite all right to name them in the common tongue when talking to me,” Corwin said.
“Yes, well, the dragons,” Diamedes started again. “They seem to ensure that there are no survivors when they attack.”
“Which you say they do purposely?” Corwin asked.
“Either on purpose or that’s simply the nature of the consequence for one of us humans encountering a dragon. I have not come across a single citation, reference, or other piece of material that points to a dragon showing anything resembling mercy or kindness. They seem to be most destructive in nature and very deadly at every encounter.”
“What else could one expect from their kind? I find it fascinating, however, that you’ve come across conclusive proof that they not only exist but are literally residing amongst us. That will be a major breakthrough throughout Agon. Personally, I don’t believe a word of it. Never seen a dragon nor heard of anyone who has. I’m quite sure you will find your stories questioned at several points.”
“Conclusive is a subjective word,” Diamedes reminded the man.
Corwin nodded. “Agreed, though the duke and the king will, most likely, not accept your findings. Personally, if I didn’t know of your reputation, I’d consider you mad. There has to be some other explanation for your findings, don’t you think?”
“Perhaps if you had seen what I had seen . . .”
“Careful, Master Historian,” Corwin cautioned. “The actual detail about a dragon being involved was quite minor; in fact, the man was listed as delirious with fever in the report I received. I was surprised at how quickly you wanted to accompany us. My aide informed me that you had just arrived the night before in the capital after a long journey.”
Corwin had nodded behind him, and Diamedes looked back at their entourage, noticing that the justiciar’s aide smiled and nodded at him, obviously overhearing their conversation. The pair of men rode at the front of a score of soldiers, aides, and porters, all mounted in a dual column formation.
The ride from the Ulathan capital of Ulan Utandra to Moartown was entirely within the borders of the duchy. However, in recent months, several incidents occurred at the Highstone Pass that was disrupting trade and the normal movement of the realm’s business. Due to this, the once smaller entourages were now beefed up to better protect the traveler, or they banded together in loose caravans to move together, though even this was not a certainty of safety, as some reports from the far north returned that entire caravans had been lost.
“I was quite tired, but I’m working on a special project, and when I heard that a sighting was possible, I knew I had to accompany you,” Diamedes explained.
“Well, I think you’ll find this rather boring, if anything at all, and perhaps a complete waste of your valuable time, Master Historian,” Corwin said.
Diamedes nodded. “You may be right, but my path has followed strange courses before, not all beneficial, but enough so that I can’t disregard a lead such as this.”
“It’s your time. I hope you find it worth it,” Corwin finished.
The group rode on through the pass and reached the northern slopes of the Felsic Mountains, seeing Moartown in the distance below. It took them the rest of the day before they arrived, and they never saw the Kesh spy near the road, nor the large white wolf a mile off, both watching their small contingent of men as they traversed the narrow road.
Many of the town’s inhabitants stopped what they were doing to watch the group arrive. They were accustomed to travelers, but not one of the justiciar’s stature. Diamedes was more of an afterthought, not many people noting the small man dressed in a plain brown robe, riding alongside the chief justice of the duke himself. Most thought the man a servant, just one of many porters who helped carry goods across the mountain pass.
When the sun had gone down, the group congregated at the main town hall that doubled for a theater of sorts when not used on official business. There was no thespian show scheduled for that night, nor any night that week, not being a large outpost for those who loved, or supported, the arts.
The town was relatively compact. Built at the base of the mountains, it was still higher in elevation than most towns, and the roofs were angled more sharply to prevent snow from accumulating and causing a collapse. There were several inns and pubs, and the only stone structure of any merit was a large tower, which housed a contingent of the duke’s troops, as well as the local magistrate, and other various governmental offices, in stout wooden buildings that ringed the tower, creating a sort of courtyard within.
The justiciar had a special room reserved for him in the tower, and his aide, troops, and porters stayed in the barracks along the courtyard of the facility. Diamedes was relegated to one of the taverns that had an inn, and when he found out that the man in question was staying at the Peak Pub and Inn, the historian elected to rent a room at the same establishment.
Diamedes was invited to dine with the justiciar after their meeting, and was in attendance as an official witness of sorts. Group pleasantries were observed, and the short meeting was called to order.
“So in the name of Duke Uthor, Lord of the Duchy of Ulatha and ruler of this realm, his honorable Lord Justiciar Corwin Baines has called the initial inquiry to order.”