In which Kai discovers that magic is not a predictable
science, and the
"Kai! Wake up! Wake up! In the name of the gods, come back!"
Something was hitting him and shaking him violently. He groaned, then groaned again.
"Where am I?" he mumbled.
With an effort, he forced open his eyes. The worried face of Valarien filled his vision.
"You are back?" he asked, chafing Kai's hands which were deathly cold.
"Mmph . . . but I feel so cold. . . Why couldn't you leave me alone? At least I was warm."
"That sort of - um - warmth is to be avoided at all costs," Valarien declared tartly. "Try what this will do for you."
He tipped a small phial of golden liquid into Kai's mouth. It tasted pleasantly of spices and some sort of spirit. Kai relaxed and let its gentle warmth creep slowly outwards until it reached every extremity . . . Valarien shot him an impish smile.
"Yes, that can be a problem or not," he said, "depending on the - um - circumstances."
Kai laughed. He recovered rapidly and was almost cheerful, raising no demur when the wizard said they should press on immediately. Before they departed however, Valarien took steps to alter their rather conspicuous appearance. He removed his hat, rolled it up and stuffed it inside his cloak.
"Myu tarrah inra vumdeum," he commanded and the royal blue colour slowly drained out of his cloak leaving it a soft dove grey much like Kai's own.
"Mecomyu tarrarh inalter remfa keeyem," was the next command.
While Kai was expecting some sort of change he wasn't prepared for a total remodelling of the wizard's appearance. He found himself standing beside a somewhat rough looking man, slightly shorter than himself and with no distinguishing features. Kai stared wondering which was the real Valarien, then hastily shut his mouth. The wizard read his look and grinned.
"No, this isn't my normal appearance, merely a disguise I use when I wish to - um - travel incognito. Now let us see what we can do for you."
A slight amendment to the disguise spell gave Kai a similarly nondescript appearance, even concealing the chain mail hauberk. The insignificant-looking pair set off northwards towards Laurenna on foot. As they walked, they discussed the events of the morning.
"It is clear," Valarien began, "that we have disturbed some evil being, though how, or why, I know not at this time. Clearly, some exponent of the - um - Thirteenth Order is at work and we appear to be in the - um - firing line or rather, you do."
"I have already said I do not know. However, although the effect of the - um - smoke was initially greater on me, you were in far greater danger. I recovered almost immediately but you were - um - gone for hours."
"Gone? What do you mean?"
"Your body remained in the orange grove but you yourself were - um - elsewhere."
Gradually the memory, which had faded almost entirely as Kai had recovered, began to return. It took some effort to recall, partly because Kai did not want to remember and partly because something seemed to oppose his will to do so. He found he didn't want to talk about it but the wizard insisted. Nevertheless, much of it he kept to himself.
"Hmm, it seems you were approaching a gateway to one of the - um - Seven Hells created by the Great Evil One in parody of the Seven Heavens. Had you passed through the - um - circle of fire, I fear you would have been lost to this world forever."
Kai felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise in horror. He swallowed.
"I think I owe you about a million thanks for bringing me back," he said in a subdued voice. "Without you, I would have been lost . . . "
He contemplated how close he had been to following the beautiful terrible daemons - for daemons they must have been - through the gateway to Hell, and shuddered.
They walked on in silence along the edge of another field then Kai gave a delighted shout. Two or three fields away on the edge of a copse were the two horses, placidly grazing. He gave a shrill whistle. Sadique's head came up. Kai whistled again and the magnificent animal came cantering towards him taking the hedges as though they were not there. Dapple followed docilely behind, pushing his way through holes in the intervening hedgerows.
As Sadique came nearer he slowed to a walk looking warily at his master. Kai remembered his new image. He laughed and went to meet his friend. Sadique recognized the voice then reassured himself with his master's scent as Kai fussed over him.
"We're going to have to do something about him," remarked the wizard. "Yokels like us do not commonly ride creatures like that."
He frowned in concentration then declaimed, "Es - um - mannus!"
Kai found himself patting a very surprised-looking old woman.
" - Um - oh dear. That shouldn't have happened."
He glanced at Kai and encountered a very black look indeed.
"Yes, - um - well, try again. Um - es - er -esmannus!"
The old lady turned into a furry grey donkey which looked reproachfully at his master.
"Oh well - um - that'll have to do," he concluded, satisfied.
"What?!" Kai exploded, you can't leave him like this!"
"Oh, it's all right," explained the wizard soothingly, "it's not - um - real. He's still there just as you are. Pretty good really. It would fool anyone. Well, it - um - fooled you didn't it?"
Valarien looked so smug that Kai wanted to hit him. He also bitterly resented being seen on the back of a donkey although, as the wizard pointed out with some asperity, no-one would know who he was. It did not sit well with his sense of dignity however, and he looked so ill-tempered that Valarien felt obliged to admit that he didn't have total control over the spell with regard to animals.
"It is a spell of the - um - sixth order which I acquired from Scipius. You may not be aware of this, but spells of each order are written in different - um - languages. Unless one can put the right - um - inflections in the right places, the spell may fail - or worse - so it's better to learn them in - um - translation. Even so it is not - um - foolproof as you saw. If you insist I will try again but you may find yourself riding a giant - um - tortoise next time . . . "
Kai's rebellion subsided but it was a while before he could bring himself to respond to the wizard with anything like civility.
It took them four days to reach Laurenna. Kai fretted at their slow rate of travel but as Valarien pointed out, a donkey racing along at the sort of speed that Sadique could sustain, would undoubtedly attract the kind of attention they were most desirous of avoiding. Furthermore Dapple would not be able to match Sadique for speed anyway. As it happened, the wizard's efforts at disguise were not entirely necessary for they saw hardly anyone. Those they did see hurried past giving them a wide berth.
As they travelled northwards they were concerned to see a number of hamlets and homesteads standing as blackened ruins. These appeared to be of very recent origin. To their relief they were not the first upon the scene. Any bodies, assuming the inhabitants had not fled, had already been removed.
There were small blackened areas at the corners of some fields as though there had been attempts to fire the crops. This did not argue a great deal of intelligence on the part of the would-be arsonists for the plants were young and sappy. The black patches reminded Kai uncomfortably of the orange grove and he voiced his apprehensions.
"Hm. I don't think there is any - um - connection. There is usually a faint but distinctive feel when the - um - Dark Powers are involved. I do not sense it here. It feels - um - 'clean', if you follow me? Furthermore, there is an absence of Balefire,"
"Not to mention an absence of bales," put in Kai, sotto voce, but the wizard heard him.
"Balefire," Valarien informed him scathingly, "is created magically, and will burn virtually anything. These fire-raisers clearly had no such - um - assistance - for which we must be very thankful. No, this is the work of mere - um - ruffians."
Kai, though chastened, ventured to disagree. "It's far too organized for random banditry. There must be some power behind it."
An unwelcome thought struck him.
"It could be the work of the Saghan îl. If so, they have spread far - and fast. Vashtârik usually ranges well beyond the Archduke's main forces, as I know to my cost. To find them so close behind Vashtârik could pose problems - almost certainly will, in fact."
They did not see any sign of the perpetrators, whoever they were, on their journey. They had presumably passed through some days previously. It was reassuring to find, some twelve miles south of Laurenna, that the attentions of the raiders petered out quite abruptly, but their relief was short lived.
The wizard and the warrior looked at each other in dismay. Without saying a word they dismounted and took refuge beside a dry stone wall to consider their options. They sat in silence for some time, staring blindly out across the field of spring wheat that rippled in the sunshine like a sea of pale green velvet.
Kai was experiencing an inner turmoil which conflicted strangely with the serenity of his surroundings. This was the most ill-conceived venture in which it had been his misfortune to become embroiled. He'd never wanted any part of it and now he wanted out of it, but he had given his word. Nor was he going to give anyone the opportunity to call him a quitter even if he died proving it. The whole affair had seemed doomed from the beginning but then, he thought dolefully, it appeared to be his destiny, ever since he'd left home so many years ago, to drift from one hopeless cause to another. . .
He gave himself a mental jolt. He realized hed let the affair of Vashtârik and the Saghan îl get right under his skin. It had been gnawing away inside him like a maggot in an apple, and it had got to stop before it destroyed him. Why should he give Vashtârik that satisfaction?
His life hadn't been that bad when he reviewed it more rationally. Come to think of it, the triumphs had outweighed the disasters for the most part, and if his life hadn't been comfortable, at least it hadn't been boring. Well, to hell with Vashtârik, to hell with Archduke Zervan, and the Saghan îl. Ah, what the hell . . . to hell with hell, too!
Kai grinned to himself. For some inexplicable reason, the world suddenly seemed a much sunnier place. Here he was, with a horse that looked like a donkey, outside an apparently dead and ransacked town, on a mission to save another town in another land half a world away from a similar fate, along with a motley collection of hitherto unknown "heroes". And it was Valarien that he thought was crazy!
His outburst of laughter drew a sharp query from the wizard. He shook his head, and tried to force his features into a suitably sombre expression. A severe look from Valarien told him he'd failed.
"I was just wondering what your current plans are, oh Great Wizardliness," he temporized, hoping to distract his companion.
Valarien gave a snort, and by way of an answer took two pieces of crystal from the depths of his cloak. One piece, a clear, flattish disc, he gave into Kai's keeping. The other, a pale blue sphere the size of a bantam's egg, he held in his cupped hands.
"Veesaeris, veehay huncockulum telluris."
The wizard withdrew his hands, and the blue crystal remained hanging in mid air. Kai was not surprised.
"Vollaret conspickay inoppido."
The crystal shot off towards the town. Valarien took back the clear crystal and held it up close to one eye keeping the other one closed. The wizard squinted through the little disc for a short time then began moving his head from side to side.
Kai very soon lost interest in the proceedings and, rather than sit twiddling his thumbs, set about getting things out for lunch. He found he'd left his tinder-box in his saddle-bag and went to get it. Without thinking, he wandered across in front of the wizard.
Too late. Kai received the incoming crystal full in the stomach. Small it may have been but it was travelling at high velocity and Kai was stunned into insensibility.
There was a slight sense of déjà vu as he came round. Valarien was slapping his face again albeit a little more gently this time and muttering something about "desserts" and "unseemly mirth" and "frivolous attitude". Somehow, Kai got the feeling that the scolding tone was covering up a genuine concern for his welfare and was touched.
He sat up, and winced as a residual pain drew his attention to itself. Had it not been for his armour, he realized, the crystal could have done him serious damage. The pain gradually wore off but it definitely took the edge off his appetite.
As they rode on towards Laurenna, Valarien related the little he'd discovered with what he called his "eye spy". The town appeared deserted by townsfolk and raiders alike. Many of the buildings had suffered fire damage and the keep had been broken into and looted. There seemed virtually nothing left in the town of any value.
The fate of the inhabitants was a cause of much conjecture. It was possible that there had been sufficient warning for the entire population to flee, maybe into the mountains, but this didn't seem likely. Though not large, the town yet numbered its citizens in four figures. A like number tenanted the surrounding farmsteads which belonged to Laurenna's lord. It would take many days warning to mount so complete an evacuation, assuming it was thought safer to risk being caught out in the open.
Then, too, there were bound to be some obstinate souls who refused to leave the "safety" of hearth and home, especially among the older generation, but Valarien had seen no bodies nor any scavenging birds circling around. Although they had not seen any actual corpses on their journey there had been signs of slaughter in the form of several newly dug graves including one small one pathetically decorated with a child's doll.
It seemed even less likely that they had all been taken prisoner. Who would pay the ransom? The idea of selling the captives into slavery arose only to be dismissed immediately. Only the young and fit would have been taken and the rest put to the sword.
Even so, the number of potential slaves would be a considerable drain on the invaders' resources in both provisions and manpower. Could it be that the people were taking refuge in secret hideaways within their houses? The eye spy could only see. It could not hear. Maybe there were auditory clues as to the whereabouts of the townsfolk?
They had reached the gates of the town by now and found the whole place eerily silent. As they rode through the narrow streets, the sound of their horses hoofs striking the cobbles seemed almost supernaturally loud. They made firstly for the little keep where, under normal circumstances, they would have got news of Ardino Eques. Its doors hung in fragments as though it had succumbed to the incessant pounding of a battering ram. They were about to ride into the courtyard of the keep when Kai called a halt and they dismounted.
"Wait, could we not be walking into another ambush?"
Valarien considered for a moment.
"No, I think not. The - um - eye spy saw nothing, there is no feeling of the - um - Dark Powers and no indication of the use of magic as we came."
"As we came, no, possibly not, but I don't like it all the same. Use your eyes, wizard. There has clearly been a great struggle here yet I do not see any blood. If there has ever been a battle with no blood spilt I have never heard of it."
The wizard's face assumed a pained expression.
"You are right. Fool that I am! My wits have been wandering," he exclaimed in exasperation. "Why did I not see . . . ?"
"Then we are in danger?" Kai demanded, all his instincts suddenly on the alert.
"Oh, no. Not in the least," Valarien growled, swinging himself into the saddle with more haste than skill. He set off back into the town at a speed that surprised Kai and surprised Dapple even more. He disappeared round a corner leaving Kai to follow the clatter of hoofs.