In which the wizard lures the battle-weary warrior into
The stranger was indeed wonderful to behold - tall and slender, and wrapped in a billowing cloak of royal blue silk. A matching blue hat with a wide floppy brim topped a profusion of long dark curls.
Roxana ducked under a flying flagon. She looked across to the other mysterious stranger. He'd arrived in the Lascan village of Claresso earlier in the day and taken a chamber above stairs. He looked to be a rough mercenary - one who would relish the 'services' of a bonny and buxom wench. Surprisingly, he'd turned down her offer. More surprisingly, his rejection had been delivered with soft-spoken courtesy. Definitely a gentleman.
His interest was solely, and morosely, in mine host's strongest liquor. He'd been drinking since he'd arrived. And what was he drinking to forget? Her predatory little heart softened at the thought of some doomed love affair.
He was not drunk however. His warrior's reflexes were still sharp. As she watched, a heavy pewter plate hurtled towards him. Would it take his head off? No. With one fluid movement, it was caught and set down upon the table. Bystanders gasped in admiration - including a jovial ruffian flourishing his fists.
"Think yer fast do yer, stranger?" he grinned.
The look which the would-be assailant received gave him pause. He rubbed his nose in some discomfiture. Turning away, he walked smack into a hay-maker. It took him out of the fray for several minutes.
The latest newcomer spotted the little island of sullen calm amid the sea of cheerful turmoil. Clearly he'd found what he was looking for. He moved towards it, delicately picking his way among fallen bodies and upturned furniture. At one point, he very fortunately trod on someone's fingers.
"Oh, dear, I do apologize! No - um - serious injury, I hope?"
He bent over the sufferer in concern, unconscious of the stool which swung through the space he had vacated - though not as unconscious as the yokel standing behind him . . .
Some minutes and several near misses later, he gained his objective. Roxana, peering cautiously over the bar, watched with interest as he engaged her gentleman in a short conversation. They both then left the taproom and went upstairs.
"Well . . . !" she exclaimed as the imagined inamorata died stillborn, and her heart snapped back to its usual flinty form.
Meanwhile, above stairs, the vision in blue was about to put an entirely different sort of proposition to the gentleman. His bright, bird-like eyes flitted around the chamber. It was sparsely furnished. A chain mail hauberk, which had a distinctly dwarven look to it, was laid over the back of a chair. A cloak, elven he noted with approval, hung on a hook on the back of the door A pair of saddle-bags sat on the floor at the foot of a hard bed, and across a ricketty wooden table lay a long sword encased in a well-worn scabbard.
The gentleman also glanced around. His puzzled expression suggested he was not entirely certain about how he had made the transition from taproom to private chamber. Through an alcoholic haze, he tried to recall what it was that his visitor had said to him that sounded so irresistibly appealing - and failed.
A faint suspicion entered his mind but faded away as the other began to speak. The voice was quiet with a dreamy almost hypnotic quality, yet it held a hint of power.
"I am seeking a bold fighting man," said he, "for a difficult and - um - dangerous venture. I shall not conceal from you that the - um - risks will be enormous, but the - um - cause is a just one."
The bold fighting man experienced a painful sense of déjà vu. He wondered if there was something, invisible to himself, written indelibly across his forehead for everyone else to see, saying, "Sucker for a good cause - high risks welcomed - grateful thanks are adequate remuneration".
After that last dreadful débâcle at Q'ulzira, he had decided to call it quits for good. It was certainly essential to lie low for some considerable time to come, but the oddity before him didn't look the sort to take 'no' for an answer - a wizard, or he'd never seen one...
"Go on," he said wearily.
"It concerns a realm where - um - injustice is rife, starvation common and - um - cruelty the order of the day."
"There are many such barbarous lands. I cannot put all to rights."
"This land was not always barbarous; once it was fair and - um - green, under a noble lord who cared for each and every one of his people, and - um - dealt with their troubles and grievances with generosity and - um - mercy."
"A rare land indeed. And why come you to me to set matters straight? It seems more like a lost cause than a just one."
"Your reputation leads me to believe that you are - um - well qualified to undertake the - um - task."
"My reputation? I was not aware that I had one - not to justify your apparent faith anyway."
"All who have benefited from your - um - services have said so."
"Have they indeed?" The gentleman raised one quizzical eyebrow. "All of them? You have been busy."
The wizard smiled modestly and inclined his head in acknowledgement of the tribute. The gentleman gave him a hard stare, seeing his irony miss its mark.
"There's more to you than meets the eye," he commented.
"More to both of us," amended the wizard cryptically, and noted with satisfaction that he had at last caught the gentleman's interest.
"You clearly know who I am," said the gentleman. "May I know who you are - and whom you represent?"
"I am Valarien - wizard and - um - mage" he announced. "I represent truth, justice and the - um - Elven Way."
The gentleman raised one slanting eyebrow again.
"Perhaps you would tell me what name you are currently travelling under?" Valarien continued.
The eyebrow shot up even further.
"Since you know so much, perhaps you should tell me . . ."
The wizard took a deep breath.
"Well, in - um - Kerralia, you were Ferris the Firm, in Nordmark, you were - um - Roland of Radz, in Cheratolia, you were Edmund Ironhand, in Zingalia, you were Darius the Deliverer, in - um "
"Enough, enough!" protested the elusive one, with a wry smile. "Kai will do."
"Then, Kai, will you do this thing?"
"I might . . . consider it. Where is this blighted realm?"
"It is - um - rather a long way away," Valarien admitted. "Indeed, I doubt if anyone in this part of the world has ever heard of it."
"Promising," Kai thought, and said aloud, "You may as well put a name to it, since I sha'n't find it without one."
"Oh, I shall be coming with you. It is more than one man's job."
Kai looked at him in disbelief.
"I rather think 'tis more than a job for one errant mercenary and one wizard - however powerful! I'm sorry, I thought you were recruiting an army in support of those who oppose the present régime. I cannot consent to so hare-brained a scheme."
"Do not refuse so hastily, my friend. It is my intention to recruit others in this - um - enterprise, but an army would not be appropriate. I do not wish to embark upon a full-scale war. That would be disastrous. A short, sharp - um - 'surgical' raid is more what I had in mind, with a small group of -um - elite warriors."
Silence fell as Kai contemplated the project, watched intently by the wizard. He felt that he was missing something, that Valarien had not told the whole story. While the wizard had been speaking, the venture had seemed simple and straightforward if hopelessly quixotic. Now the feeling of suspicion rose again.
"Why me?" he demanded suddenly.
"As I said, your reputation "
"Damn my reputation. There are plenty more like me around. I could list you a dozen such, a hundred, a thousand even, and yet you come to me, though by your own admission, this place you speak of is far off. Now, I say again, why me?"
The wizard looked acutely uncomfortable. He rubbed his long nose, tugged at one ear and shuffled his feet. Eventually he murmured,
"Perhaps you do not like - um - travelling?"
"Perhaps I do not like being umtrifled with," Kai grated.
"Sir, I do not trifle! "
The affronted wizard drew himself up to his full height, looking for all the world like an agitated owl. It occurred to Kai that wizards themselves are not generally to be trifled with, and felt that it behoved him to set about smoothing the owl's ruffled feathers.
"Suppose I choose to accept this foolhardy mission, what is there in it for me beyond more heartache and suffering? Come to that, what's in it for you?"
"The material rewards for yourself will not be - um - insubstantial. For myself, wizards are above such - um - mundane considerations."
"That's news to me!" muttered Kai, sotto voce. Again, he had the unnerving feeling that he was being manipulated - that he was no longer in control of his own destiny.
"Suppose I choose to remain here?"
"Suppose the - um - Archduke Zervan - or Vashtârik - were to learn of your - um - whereabouts?"
"I'm sorry, that was - um - a little below the belt. I shouldn't betray you in any event but I must earnestly beg you to - um - lend your aid. Much depends on it - much more than you think . . ."
Finally, Kai shrugged.
"Suckered again," he thought and said listlessly, "Very well, I will join your 'enterprise'. It is not as though I have more pressing concerns. Where do you say we are going?"
"To - um - Gyldenburg, - in Belsaria."
A stricken look settled on Kai's face as the pain of longburied memories took his breath. Eventually, he managed, "'Rather a long way'? It's the other side of the Halcyon Ocean."
"You've - um - heard of it, then?"
"Surprisingly, yes, as I suspect you well know . . ."
"You will not change you mind?" Valarien asked quickly.
Despite serious misgivings, Kai shook his head.
"I never go back on my word," he said ruefully.
The wizard gave him a grateful smile.
" - Um - do you think I might share your room for tonight, only I - um"
Kai cut him short.
"My room, yes: my bed, no. So if you get cold . . . "
He found he was talking to himself. The wizard, taking his acquiescence for granted, was ferreting about in his robe from which he produced a rolled-up blanket. Under Kai's irritated gaze, he shook it out, and laid it on the floor.
"Sublevar eksollo adsummum ghennus ," he muttered, wiggling his fingers above the blanket, "uskwiad preemalukay."
In response to his words, the blanket rose to knee-height above the floor. Valarien sat on it, then stretched out to his full length. It seemed to have no difficulty in accommodating his weight. Kai turned to his own bed and stripped off his leathers, wondering if he'd ever learn. He pinched out the candle and climbed between the sheets. The bedding, for a mercy, was not damp, but he tossed around for some time till out of the darkness came the wizard's voice.
"Obdormeeskay, Kai," and Kai slept.
He was awakened abruptly by a loud thump, and half fell out of bed. He scrabbled for a dagger. In the pale grey gloom, he could just make out the tumbled form of the wizard on the floor and the events of the previous evening came flooding back. He groaned.
Then the after-effects of the night before made their presence felt and he groaned again.
"Sorry about that," said the wizard, brightly, picking himself up off the floor and rolling up the blanket, "but I set the spell to end at dawn. It never fails to wake me up."
Kai wondered about Valarien's sanity, and regarded the enthusiastic cheerfulness with loathing. He wondered about his own sanity, too. In the past, he'd backed a number of losers, it was true, but they'd all looked as though they stood a reasonable chance at the outset. Never before had he thrown in his lot with anyone quite so far short of a full deck.
"I think we have time for - um - breakfast before we leave," went on the dynamic one.
"Later," groaned Kai, making for his bed, "much later . . ."
"We haven't really got that much time," pursued the wizard. "You remember I said I wouldn't - um - betray you? I wouldn't have needed to. Vashtârik already knows where you are, and he's on his way here now with - um - a fair-sized body of men."
"What?" squawked Kai, falling out of bed for the second time.
He grasped the wizard's clothing and yanked until Valarien's head was down on a level with his own.
"You mean you wouldn't betray me because you've already done so?" he demanded.
Valarien touched the back of Kai's hand with one long, bony finger, and the warrior sprang back clutching the afflicted member.
"I most certainly have not," the wizard stated coldly. "As a matter of fact, I am indebted to Vashtârik himself for information about your - um - direction. He is presently a good day's ride to the east of here, but we cannot rely on his remaining - um - lost for much longer."
Kai bowed his head.
"I owe you an apology. I'm sorry. The Saghan' îl are a bit of a sore point with me at the moment."
"So I gathered. Vash'târik seems to feel much the same about you. I don't know what you did to provoke such - um - hostility, but he certainly seems to have taken it very - um - personally."
Kai laughed sharply, then groaned and clutched his head. The wizard regarded him with some sympathy.
"Not to worry - a good breakfast will soon set you to rights," he said bracingly.
"Breakfast?! With Vash'târik on our heels?"
"Yes, breakfast," Valarien repeated with finality. "We already have a good head start, and you could certainly do with something to - um - clear your head. Unnecessary hunger is not a survival technique . . . "