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Chapter 12: Volonor

The first time I’d visited a large city, I’d been fleeing my home, and I was far too upset to pay attention to my surroundings. Survival first, then shelter and food, had been my priorities; the adults who towered over and menaced me had been my most important concerns. The architecture didn’t even register for many days. Now, I found myself again in a strange city, without a friend, facing someone older and more powerful who could kill me as soon as help me. I shrugged off those memories, and with an effort, reminded myself I was no longer a scared, helpless child; indeed, I straightened and found myself taller and far stronger than the man who stood beside me, not that those physical gifts would do me much good should I be forced to exercise them against someone armed with magic.

I shivered, trying to conceal the movement by shrugging to settle my clothing about me. When I’d mastered myself at least that much. I faced Orgrim.

“Did you say Volonor?”

“You heard me. Surely by now you’ve grown accustomed to unusual means of travel?”

“It’s not the mode of travel,” I lied, “but rather the destination. What business have you here? Am I to rob another library for you, or bear another demon into the presence of someone who will want to kill me for it?”

Orgrim met my gaze, unperturbed. “The latter, of course. Bear your message to the King.”

“And this time, how shall I survive to perform your next task? This time I’ll have neither the forbearance of the Elves nor the fear of the Goblins to preserve me.”

Orgrim laughed. “No, you shall have your native wit—that and the fact that I am not yet done with you.”

“I find little consolation in that notion.”

He laughed again, this time not bothering to mask the cruelty. “Why, Modred, one would think you no longer trust me.” He turned away and took a step into the night.

“Wait! Have you no scroll to give me this time?”

His eyes gleamed in the reflected starlight. “No. This time, you bear the message within you.”

And with that, he turned and faded into the night. I crossed to where he’d stood, and knelt to examine the ground. There was mud there from a recent rain, and I was a skilled tracker, but I saw no trace of his footprints. I shivered and rose to my feet.

I’d need a safe, warm place to spend the night, and enough liquor to give me a night’s sleep. Having no reason to choose one direction over another, I set off in the direction I was facing, confident that in a city as large as Volonor, I’d soon find clues that would point me in the right direction.

***

I awoke next morning to the dull pounding of a large hammer in my head and a foul, fuzzy taste on my tongue, as if something furry had died there during the night. I also awoke to the feel of warm flesh beside me, and turned my head at once, alarmed, to see who shared my bed. Blinding pain struck between my eyes, obliterating the hammer’s strokes but bringing me to full, if muddled, alertness. When my vision cleared, it was to the sight of long blond hair spilling across the pillow beside me. I frowned, irritated that whatever had chanced the night before was now lost to my memory. Gingerly, so as not to disturb my bedmate—or awaken the pain in my head—I slid from beneath the covers.

The room around me was unfamiliar, but of good quality. My clothing lay in a tidy pile atop the table beside the window, and I moved towards it as best I could manage, which is to say not very. I lowered myself onto a chair, the pounding in my head growing stronger, but by gritting my teeth and concentrating on the task at hand, I managed to reach the floor where the rest of my gear lay. With clumsy fingers, I teased open the flap of my medical kit and reached for the vial of willow bark powder I carried as a sovereign remedy against headaches. There was no water remaining in the ewer, so I took my medicine dry. The bitter, gritty powder stung my tongue and burned my throat, but it was still better than the foul taste I’d woken to. I closed my eyes and breathed deep for a few moments, giving the powder time to work its magic, and when I opened my eyes again, the pain was more tolerable.

I dressed, astonished and pleased to find my clothing cleaned and mended overnight, but not so pleased I dared any sudden head movements. Dressed and feeling more human, I eased myself from the room, taking care not to jar my head with my steps. The edge of the door caught one of the strings on my lute as I left the room, but the answering hum was not loud enough to wake my bedmate. I found myself in a hall, lit by flickering oil lamps, with a flight of stairs at one end. I made for the stairs.

In the common room below, the landlord met me with a broad smile, then replaced it with a solicitous look as he caught the look in my eyes. He crossed the room, took me by the arm, and helped me to a table. Ordinarily, I’d have resented his familiarity, but today, I was grateful for any help I could get.

“You’ll be wanting more of the medicine that ails you, no doubt?”

My stomach, which up until now had behaved itself, began to churn. “Perish the thought. The drink would be wasted on your floor.” The coating in my throat and the effects of holding my jaws clenched in an effort to keep last night’s meal down where it belonged made this less clear than I’d intended.

The landlord nodded acknowledgment. “I’ve just the thing for you.” Without awaiting my reply, he strode off behind the bar and passed into the kitchen.

While he was gone, I looked around, trying to figure out where I’d ended up. The room was paneled in light wood, stained yet still bright and fresh. Two broad, shuttered windows flanked the thick oaken door, which was open too little for me to look through, but neither the windows nor the door were clad in metal. This, then, was a neighborhood wealthy enough that the watch could be relied upon to do their jobs and keep establishments safe from common thieves. More evidence of the quality of the inn lay in the decor; in place of the heads of dead animals, rusted weapons, and other bric-a-brac, there were polished brass implements of diverse and mysterious sorts accompanied by a collection of oil paintings—not a one of which featured nude women. If I’d had any doubts remaining about the quality of the inn, the landlord banished them when he returned.

I turned my head to see what he’d brought me, and was rewarded by only a slight increase in the throbbing in my head; the willow bark was working now. “What’s this?”

An exquisite ceramic mug lay before me on the table, so thin I fancied I could see my fingers through it as I wrapped them around its rim. Steam curled from the thick black surface of the oily liquid within. “Try it. It’s brand new, something the traders brought to us from the south. They call it coffee.”

I grasped the cup delicately, afraid I’d crush it. I held it beneath my nose and sniffed. The odor was bitter, like so many medicinal herbs, with a skunky hint of musk, but there was also a rich, pleasant aroma that dilated my nostrils. I touched the cup to my lips and took a sip. It was every bit as bitter as its smell had hinted, and it burned the wool from my tongue, replacing it with a scalded patch, but there was something special to this coffee.

The landlord placed a matching ceramic creamer on the table before me, and a small pot of amber liquid. “If you find it too bitter, add cream or honey.” He watched as I complied, and smiled with deep satisfaction as I drained the cup, including the dregs. The liquid lay heavy on my stomach, but also soothed its unease. Better still, my head had begun to clear.

“Would that all medicines were so palatable!”

The innkeeper’s smile broadened. “I’ll bring you more. When you’re feeling human again, let me know what you’ll be wanting to break your fast.”

He soon returned with a steaming pot that held several mugs of coffee. I drank it all to the dregs, and was tempted to call for more, save for two things. First and most urgent, I had developed a sudden urgency to visit the privy, accompanied by a distinct trembling of the hands; this new drink had dramatic and not entirely pleasant side-effects, whatever its efficacy at curing a hangover. Second, something this new to our land would be expensive, and I wanted an opportunity to verify the state of my purse.

By the time I returned to my table, I was relieved on both counts. The landlord awaited me, looking smug. “Feeling better, sir?”

I smiled my gratitude. “I’m a new man, and ready to eat like one. Bring me your best, and enough for someone my size.”

He didn’t disappoint me. Breakfast was a loaf of bread whiter than any I’d been privileged to taste, bread that melted in my mouth almost before I had time to savor its delicate texture. Thick butter, with just the slightest dew of cream still upon it, fresh from the churn. Several eggs, pan-fried so their golden eyes gazed up at me until I soaked them up with that delicious bread. A slab of ham so thick it would have made good saddle material. Potatoes, fried in the grease from the ham, and smothered in ham gravy. A pitcher of chilled cider to wash it all down. For a time, I forgot about my troubles and concentrated on enjoying my food.

When I was done, I asked the landlord the score, and managed to conceal my shock at the sum I’d managed to accumulate in a single night’s stay. I paid him with the heavy coin of Volonor, grateful I had no need to earn my keep at such a place. I’d no idea how the coin of Ankur had been replaced in my purse overnight, but replaced it had been, and although the cost of my stay was heavy, there was more than enough coin to leave the landlord a good amount beyond what I owed as a token of thanks for my miraculous cure. Sighing, I gathered my gear and headed for the door to begin my day. I never quite made it, for as I stood, my bowels told me that despite their earlier patience, they’d brook no delay in my tending to their needs. I returned once more to the privy, wondering again about the medicinal properties of this new drink he’d called coffee. When I’d done what was necessary and returned, I managed to persuade the landlord to part with a small pouch of the brown beans he’d used to make the coffee. I had plans for those beans.

It was still early in the day, and only servants trod the street before me, returning from market with the day’s fare for their masters. The stone houses across from my inn rose two stories above the street, and had unbarred glass windows at ground level; though each had the weathered appearance of considerable age, the quarried blocks that made up their fronts remained neatly fitted, with little or no mortar missing. The distance between doors suggested each house was large enough for several families to live in. Small but tidy flower gardens butted up against the walls, and a few shade trees grew from earth-filled wells set amidst the cobbles. There was little detritus in evidence anywhere along the street, and my eyebrows rose along with my estimation of the neighborhood.

I sidled along, nodding a polite good morning to the dwindling stream of servants returning home from the market or other errands. The wealthy neighborhood turned out to be rather smaller than I’d thought—no more than five minutes’ work to move beyond it and into more typical scenery, older buildings less well maintained, more litter upon the streets, and no vegetation save that which peeked through gaps in the cobbles. The watch passed me as I made my way out of the wealthier area, and having assessed the state of my clothing and the confidence of my demeanor, made no effort to stop me. That in itself was a relief, for under other circumstances, a minstrel wandering alone might have been stopped for questioning.

I kept on for a while, stretching out the pain from muscles abused by one day more spent on horseback than I’d ever again intended to suffer and trying to get a feel for the new city. It was early enough the streets had little traffic apart from the servants, but after a time, I came across a shopkeeper just opening his doors to throw out the first sweepings of the day. He was a merry sort, and was quite pleased to give me directions to the palace.

Finding the palace was easy, for it lay on the edge of town, overlooking a broad expanse of water. This was the first time I’d ever been within sight of the sea, and it proved a mixed pleasure. Long before I escaped Volonor’s confining alleyways, I caught hints of that unfamiliar salt tang I’d smelled yesterday and heard the shrill cries of what turned out to be seabirds. The scent strengthened as a brisk wind caught at my hair and fluttered it behind me like a banner, but along with it came the unmistakable and pungent stench of sewage and other, less familiar, decaying materials. A strong breeze washed these smells from the shore inward towards the city, and though I’d lived in a city for most of my recent life, I’d spent too much time in the countryside to ever do more than endure a city’s stench.

When I emerged from between the buildings and stepped forth onto a narrow, stone-walled promenade that let me gaze out upon the ocean, the horizon drew my eyes right past the massive palace that dominated the beach. It was all I could do to repress a shudder. Always in the past, there’d been something to bound my world, whether mountains, the green of grasslands, or distant forest; here, there was... nothing. It was as if there was no end to the world save for that imposed by the limits of my sight. Endless green waves whose like and size I’d never imagined swept towards me in tight ranks from the horizon, surging towards me as if the world itself had gone crazy and there was neither sense nor solidity anywhere. Only in the far distance, where the sky descended to grapple with that unsteady mass of green, was there anything resembling a steady boundary between what lay below and what lay above. I couldn’t imagine the desperation that had forced my ancestors to take to their ships and flee into such a vast emptiness, for the restless waters met the sky as if the two were vying for supremacy, neither deigning to notice the land that until then had been my whole world. Worse, if the stories of the journey had been at all true, there would have come a point when that ceaseless motion had surrounded them on all sides. It struck me like a near-physical blow that perhaps our ancestors had fled that emptiness itself, and that perhaps even now that emptiness slid ever closer to our shores.

I found myself clutching the stone wall with a painful grip, grateful for any anchor that could safeguard me against that vast, terrible expanse of water and sky. Unable to repress a shudder, I tore my eyes from that disquieting sight and forced them landward, back to the more familiar and comforting works of Man. Or so I’d hoped, for there was unpleasantness near at hand too. On the pebbled strand that stretched before me, several bodies had washed up against the rim of the ocean, and were lying amidst the sewage and other unidentifiable rotting things. There was no obvious sign of how any of them had died, though their exposure to the ocean had left them bleached and bloodless. The shrieking seabirds I’d heard were now revealed: strange, pallid birds the size of ravens fought over the bodies and other offal, doing combat as well with small, scuttling things that emerged from the wave-washed edge of the strand to seize small morsels and retreat into the water. Every dry surface was coated with a thin white film, which I imagined to be salt, and perhaps it was that same film that coated the birds and the bodies.

That vision was no more pleasant than the last, but there was something else to distract my gaze, if not my thoughts. The palace I’d glanced at would draw any man’s eyes were it not for the greater wonder of the sea, and in its own way, it was no less compelling. Ancient and monolithic, the building at the heart of Volonor squatted on the beach like a small mountain. Of course, the scale was all wrong for a mountain, as I could see guards clearly atop those tall, steep walls, yet that massive pile of stone had the same sense of weight one felt at the feet of a mountain. Calling it a palace was wrong, for it was more a castle, a fortress, a bastion against that terrible ocean and all that it represented. A broad stretch of open land separated the stronghold from the nearest buildings, and what appeared to be a moat ran below the walls; that same deep trench, partly filled by the sea, ran along the walls and out across the strand until it met the waves, forming a curious link between the present and the past. Every so often, a monster of a wave swept in past the strand and broke upon the seawall beneath the fortress with a force I could feel in my feet, sending white spray surging along the wall and into the moat and crashing high into the air above the seawall. It astonished me that even the quiet strength of that rock could resist the wild, unrestrained power of the waves.

The fortress was an obvious relic from that distant age of warfare, when impervious walls were still necessary to keep out Goblins and other foes, and I’d neither seen nor imagined its like. Indeed, given its size, I could not imagine how those refugees from another land found the time and resources to construct such a thing, unless it had been with magical aid. (That possibility contradicted what I’d read, but as I’d learned, the old tales were neither complete nor honest.) The fortress overhung the harbor like a cliff, and the ugly snouts of catapults and other powerful engines of war projected beyond the crenellations. I knew little of siegecraft, but their height and size suggested that no ship entered or left that harbor without the harbormaster’s permission.

There were no ships in evidence, and thinking of the sea set me to wondering just what it was those weapons guarded against. Though I’d traveled little before meeting Orgrim, I’d gathered any lore I could from those who had traveled further, and not a one had spoken of another seafaring kingdom along the shore or out to sea—but then I recalled the traders who’d brought coffee to these shores. I remembered what I’d read of our past in the library, and apprehension grew within me. Could those weapons be guarding against whatever lay beyond that chilling emptiness?

I felt small and vulnerable here, for large though I’d felt on a human scale, this was different, and my self-confidence deserted me against that backdrop. This was something I would never have expected, for I’d stared up at the limitless night sky all my life, and more recently, I’d watched the grasslands recede to a distant horizon, and in neither case had I felt such discomfort. Yet now, I confronted the certainty that there were strange and terrible things beyond even what I’d experienced or comprehended, things that were all the more terrifying thereby. From the Elves and the Goblins I’d learned enough to understand that Orgrim was a relic from the distant past, and for the first time, I wondered whether he might have been part of that disaster that lay at the origin of our coming to these lands. Could he have even been the cause of it?

Being Orgrim’s message bearer now took on a far more sinister feel, and bringing his next message to the King was something I could no longer be party to without understanding more of the events that surrounded me. With the Elves and the Goblins, I’d at first been unaware of the message I brought and, later, not too concerned, for neither race was my kin and neither awoke in me any sense of duty. But here, I would be bringing that same terrible message to my own kind, with potential consequences that every beat of the waves on the shore made plain. Now, confronted by the sea that bridged our past and our present, I had an inkling of what his message might truly mean. Though a life full of abuse and torment had given me scant reason to love my own kind, I now knew of two other races with whom I’d felt even less kinship, and for the first time I felt part of something far greater than myself. I was not yet ready to forgive my people for what they’d done to me, yet neither was I ready to bring their old doom upon them—upon us—once again. Staring at those massive, ancient walls, I resolved to flee Volonor and seek shelter until I’d had time to ponder how to break the ties that bound me to Orgrim.

I gathered my resolve to leave and tried to walk back the way I’d come, but my limbs betrayed me and left me rooted in place. For a moment, I wondered whether I might be dreaming and for the first time remembering that dream, but the voice in my head dashed that thought.

“Flee Volonor? No, Morley, you have a task set before you, and perform it you shall.” It was the voice of my demon, and even as he spoke, I felt my limbs begin moving without my volition, propelling me towards the palace.

“Wait, Demon! We’ve talked once, and must talk again.”

“For what purpose? You offered me an alliance against he who would give me something of inestimable value. Waste not your breath, for I spurn your offer yet again.”

I thought fast, alarmed at my complete lack of control over my body and having difficulty focusing my thoughts. “I will not make you that offer again. This time, I appeal to your sense of self-preservation. Why would you believe our master would grant what you desire, when you know how he plans to betray me?”

There was an uneasy pause, then the voice resumed, confidence in every syllable. “You are clever, Man, but not clever enough. Though Orgrim is powerful, he is not powerful enough to break such an oath as he swore. I shall have my reward at the end, never doubt it.”

“But will you have your life with which to enjoy it?”

“What mean you, Man? Think you he could destroy me after I have taken my reward? I cannot be destroyed here in your world, only returned to my own. The pain of that return would be transitory, and nothing next to the pleasure of what I shall bear with me.”

“You sound confident, Demon, and perhaps with reason, but I urge you to consider one thought: if Orgrim is he who destroyed the world from whence my people originated, he has power beyond your imagining. Are you certain that by serving him you do not help to bring that same doom upon your own kind?”

The demon laughed, a chilling sound. “And what care have I for them? I shall have my reward—let the others fend for themselves.”

As we talked, we’d made rapid progress towards the palace, and were drawing close enough to see the faces of the guards who watched our approach from the far side of the drawbridge that spanned the moat. The guards were clad in shining steel hauberks that must have been heavy and already uncomfortable in the warmth of the early-morning sun. The demon’s logic struck me as unassailable, for if he had no fear for his own kind, what hope had I of reaching him with my fears? Sensing that I’d abandoned our conversation, the demon withdrew into a brooding silence, but maintained his firm grip upon the reins of my will. I resigned myself to what was about to befall me, and let him drive me on towards the palace.

It was not long before we were upon the drawbridge, a wooden structure so thick and massive it muffled the sound of our feet, giving back no echoes. The guards watched us with casual alertness up until the last moment, when one of them stepped forward to bar our progress with his halberd.

“Halt! State your name and business here.”

To my horror, I reached out and pushed the halberd out of my way. “Stand aside. I bear a message for your master from my master, and will not be delayed.” With that, my limbs were my own again, and I staggered before I could adjust to the sudden change and reassert control over my body. The demon’s mocking laughter echoed in my head.

A second guard stepped behind me and I felt an ungentle prod from something large and presumably sharp at my back. “You speak boldly for a single man. I think you need to learn courtesy before we take you to our King.” With no warning, he swept my feet out from beneath me, leaving me scant time to twist aside from falling on my lute. I found myself staring, winded, up at the point of his pike hovering just before my eyes.

Not knowing what to say after my unfortunate first impressions, I kept my mouth shut while his companions searched me, taking care to disarm me. They were thorough in their search, and left nothing but the clothes on my back. When they were done, one of them rolled me onto my side and tied my hands behind me with coarse rope that abraded my wrists, then used that rope to jerk me to my feet, shoulders protesting the sharp pain. In despair at what had befallen me this morning, I kept a resolute silence as two laughing guards exchanged their halberds for truncheons and used those weapons to propel me before them and into the palace.

We passed through a dark opening that led inward through what turned out to be just the outermost walls that encircled the palace. Up close, the palace itself, which had been hidden behind those mighty walls, loomed over me with even greater scale and weight than it had possessed from a distance, even though it lay two-score yards behind the walls, across a courtyard of cobbles. I had little time to inspect the scenery, for the guards moved briskly and soon had me inside. My mind worked fast, for I had no idea what I would say when I met the King. Orgrim had given me no message, and though I had an idea of what he would want me to say, the thought of trying to put it in my own words and bear the resulting responsibility horrified me.

In short order, I found myself in a room with an elderly man at a heavy wooden desk heaped with scrolls and an impressive collection of writing implements. He ignored me and the thwack! of a truncheon across my shoulders as the guards forced me to my knees on the stone floor. Instead, he continued his work on one of the papers that lay before him, and when he was done, raised his head.

“What have you brought me?”

The guard at my right cleared his throat and tugged me to my feet, turning me half sideways to the man. “Sir, we have brought a fool who claims to bear a message to the King, and one so important he had no intention of answering our questions or explaining himself.”

The scribe met my eyes with a too-casual gaze. This was no man to play games with. “You don’t say? Tell me, sir, what is so important you felt confident we’d let a stranger walk unescorted into the presence of our King.”

My mouth was dry, but I found my voice and replied as best I could. “Sir, I bring a message from a powerful sorcerer that the King must hear at once. More than that, I cannot now say.”

The scribe’s eyes widened, and his gaze went to the ropes that bound my arms. He turned to the guards. “Leave him with me. Bound as he is, he poses no threat. But wait outside the room lest I should need you.” The two guards left promptly, and shut the door behind them.

“Very well, we are alone. Now tell me what message you bear for the King. Speak as if you were speaking to the King himself. If you convince me of the importance of your message, I will see to it that the King hears your words.”

I licked my lips, and the words I’d feared would elude me rose from the depths of my mind, spoken by a familiar, mocking voice. I intercepted them on their way to my lips, and took as much of the edge off them as I could without losing the message itself. “Know, Sir, that I come before you unwilling, compelled by the spell of a powerful sorcerer. I bear your King the greetings of my master, one Orgrim, who bids me inform you that he has returned and brought with him the reign of magic.” The man’s eyes widened further when he heard my master’s name, but he controlled himself as I continued. Only the tapping of his fingers on the table revealed his true thoughts.

“I am to tell you you will have a new master soon.”

“And that was all?” He tried, but failed, to conceal the tension in his voice.

“Sir, to the best of my knowledge, that is all. Please forgive me for being the bearer of such a message. I beg you, believe me that I do this against my will.”

He raked me with his gaze, anger and something else—fear perhaps?—vying for dominance on his face. “Though you speak an ancient name that has deep resonance here, I would have proof of what you say.”

“Then proof you shall have!” It was the demon’s voice that rose in my throat, bursting past my feeble attempts to control it. Once again my limbs were not my own. With a mighty wrench of our arms, we parted the rope that bound them as if it had been a seamstress’ thread. My wrists, which should have been slashed to the bone by that effort, bore not even a scratch, and without pausing to marvel at that, I advanced upon him so fast he had no time to do more than cry out in fear.

I heard the door fly open at my back and crash against the wall as I seized his desk and lifted it high above my head. Without pausing, I flung the desk hard against the wall, smashing it to kindling. “Now you have your proof, Man! Bear my message to your master, and bid him await the pleasure of my master.”

And with that, the berserker strength that had possessed me released me again—just in time for the truncheons wielded by the two guards to catch me in the head and side and hurl me to the ground, my vision dimming and bright sparks of pain lancing through broken ribs. I have no recollection of those next several moments, for blows rained down upon me and robbed me of any consciousness other than the agony of the beating. When I did at last return to my body, it was to find myself lying on my side in damp, stinking muck in a tiny, stone-walled cell in what must be the dungeons. Faint light came from a torch outside my cell, weak and flickering through a barred slit at the top of the door. I tried moving, then thought the better of it as pain surged through my head and side, almost causing me to lose consciousness again.

I lay there, feeling lost and so confused in my thoughts that I feared the guards had injured my mind when they’d struck me down. I lay there in misery, not even able to contemplate rising when the keeper entered my cell.

“So you’re the one who attacked the chancellor, are you? You don’t strike me as the sort.” The man knelt behind me and began running his hands across me, as if seeking something. “Hmm... they didn’t leave me much, did they? But wait—what’s this?” His hands came to rest on my hand, where Orgrim’s ring lay.

I found what was left of my voice, talking as best I could with a tongue gone thick and disobedient. “Leave it. It’s not mine, and you will regret taking it.”

He laughed with obvious relish. “Think you I’ve never heard that line before?” His fingers worked at the ring, but it clung to my finger. My arm was like a dead weight, and I could not resist.

“Don’t go anywhere,” he laughed. “I’ll be right back.”

I lay there, unmoving, until the light in the room brightened. He had returned, bearing a torch and a large knife. “Last chance, friend. Will you surrender the ring, or will I have to resort to persuasion?”

My mind was too dull to perceive his meaning, and I watched, uncomprehending, as he set the torch into a crack in the floor and knelt once again beside me. He stretched out my arm, and held the knife against my hand, where the finger joined it. I could feel a dull sense of alarm rising in me, but could not muster the energy to do anything about it. Even as I tried, the keeper leaned his weight hard on the knife and a searing pain shot down my arm. Blood spurted, and my finger and the ring it bore separated from my hand.

He laughed. “Bide a moment, friend. I’ll fix that up for you.” The pain did little to clear the heaviness in my head, but was no less real for all that. I would have shrieked, but my voice had deserted me again and all I managed was a shrill whimper. Then I did shriek, for while I was contemplating what he’d done, he freed the torch from the floor and thrust my wounded hand into it. The pain was blinding, and I lost consciousness; I recall having found my voice long enough to shriek again with what scant air I’d drawn into my lungs after my mutilation, but the heaviness in my head was such that I could not testify even to that.

An indefinite time later, I regained consciousness to the taste of bitter liquid in my throat and the stench of burnt flesh in my nostrils. I lay there, uncomprehending, and listened to the conversation that was going on.

“I would urge you in future to take better care of what I have given into your possession.”

“What concern is that of mine? You know full well it is not the husk that interests me.”

“Be that as it may, that husk still serves my purposes, and you forget that at your peril. Need you a reminder?” That was greeted by sullen silence. “Good. Now get him up.”

I rose to my feet, and it had not been me who made that decision. My head was still heavy and my thoughts confused, but things soon improved.

“Morley? Can you hear me?” There was concern in that voice, and still numb, I nodded. “Good. Now listen: I’m going to reattach your finger. You could continue to serve me without it, but I don’t want to impair your effectiveness in any way. This is going to hurt, so prepare yourself.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. The pain that seared through my hand and up my arm made the half-remembered pain of the knife and the torch nothing by comparison. I screamed, making my throat raw with the force of that scream, and then, all at once, the pain was gone. I looked down in wonder at my hand, which was whole once again save for a thin scar and a dull ache that throbbed beneath the plain white ring. The pain in my ribs was also gone, though I could feel a few twinges as I drew a deep shuddering breath.

“Don’t worry,” Orgrim spoke with evident amusement. “It’s not as if your cries will bring any attention to you; they’re to be expected in this place.”

“And the keeper?”

“...is in no condition to worry about your cries.”

Orgrim pushed me ahead of him through the open door to my cell, a hand upon my shoulder both to guide me and to stop me from falling now that there was only me to command my abused body. In the corridor ahead of me, the keeper’s corpse lay against the wall, horror frozen on his face. I looked away, shuddering, for though I’d wanted nothing more than to kill the man myself had the opportunity presented itself, his look told me it had not been an easy death.

Orgrim sensed the direction of my thoughts. “I came when he began playing with the ring, as I would have come had you done the same,” he scolded. “Were you able to deliver your message to the King?”

Without thinking, I shook my head, wincing in anticipation then discovering that the pain had vanished. “No. I delivered it to his chancellor, though.”

“That will suffice. Now we must bear the message elsewhere. Enter within my cloak again.”

The old mage spread wide his cloak, and within lay that same darkness I’d seen before. I passed within for the second time, reluctant. There came a momentary sense of disorientation and a cold shock like plunging into a spring lake, then I was back in normal air once again. As my eyes adapted to the fading light around me, I recognized the facade of the library where I’d performed my first task for Orgrim. I was home in Ankur again, and with a feeling of growing dread, I realized where he meant me to bring the next message.

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Continue reading: Chapter 13

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