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Chapter 13: Ankur

The Court of Ankur had become a home of sorts, and one I’d made for myself. Even so, I often found myself wondering whether it was worth enduring the Osrics and other frustrations in exchange for the satisfaction to be gained from living among people who most often detested or at best ignored me. Sometimes, in my weaker moments, it seemed I was indulging in stubbornness for its own sake, with no other benefit than to test my strength of will. Other times, I felt a true measure of security; indeed, now that Bram and his family had entered my life, there was an elusive promise of more than just the traditional protection afforded a King’s fool.

That profession earned me shelter, purpose, and even the sense that every now and then I had forced someone to accept me on my own terms. I suppose that’s really what I craved. Though I’d earned something like that kind of acceptance in my life with the foresters, a quiet voice I could never silence insisted I was fooling myself, and that they accepted me solely because of the respect they held for my father.

So I’d left the forest and tried to make myself a new home in Ankur, to find a role earned entirely by my own wits and effort. But despite my achievements thus far, the Court always remained an uncomfortable home. No matter how well I played my role, there was always a sense that as in the forest, I never truly belonged and my place was guaranteed only by another’s influence—now, the King rather than my father. Though that was a good thing when the languid currents of intrigue swept through the Court but left me untouched, being ignored was not what I sought... nor what I needed. Though involvement in any actions more profound than telling the King what I’d overheard would have made me harder to ignore, it would have led to more surreptitious and nastier abuse than what I already endured.

So it was with mixed feelings that I returned to Ankur, bearing the additional burden of the knowledge that I was about to achieve that greater involvement I’d first desired, then shunned. And if I repeated my performance in Volonor, I stood to lose even what little acceptance I’d achieved thus far.

I felt a hand on my head, interrupting my musings and turning me to face my companion like a child being forced to pay attention to an adult. “I have little time, for things have begun moving faster than I’d anticipated. Listen closely, now: first thing in the morning, you must bear the same message to King John that you brought to Volonor, then hide so you cannot be found. I will contact you in perhaps a week to prepare you for your final task when I return from my own deeds. Do you understand me?”

Enough of the fog had lifted from my head that the word final struck me as more ominous than hopeful. But I nodded my understanding, not trusting myself to words. “Good. There is no time to retrieve any of your lost gear, so replace what you feel is essential. But only that—you will have scant time for shopping, and no immediate need.” He thrust a heavy purse into my hand, met my eyes, and scowled. “In the meantime, get yourself off the street. I’ve restored you to a semblance of physical health, but there are limits even to my magic. You’ve paid a heavy toll for what you’ve been through, and you will be unable to stay on your feet for much longer.”

I watched, numb, as he gathered his cloak about him and faded into the twilight, growing as transparent as the mist that dances atop a lake’s still surface on early autumn mornings. Whatever medicine he’d given me earlier had put me back on my feet, but I could feel an overwhelming weariness hovering at the edges of my mind, and I knew Orgrim was right. I shuffled off in the direction of the Golden Kettle, where I’d stayed the last time I needed shelter here; I was not very steady on my feet, and I could tell from the stench that hung about me that I was grimed in a mixture of muck from the dungeon, blood, and my own bitter sweat. I forced a rueful smile at my imagined appearance, and that lifted my mood: it would prove interesting trying to gain entry to the inn.

My refilled purse dissolved the expected obstacles with its own kind of mundane magic. I remember pressing one coin after another into the innkeeper’s hand until he swallowed his concerns and let me enter, and I remember asking him to have new clothing ready for me by morning (more coins) and to send a messenger to fetch several medicines I was familiar with (still more coins); I have no clear recollection of the final sum, but it must have been enormous. My consciousness was fading too fast to do more than note this for future reference, and a curious fatalism gripped me. I remember being shown to my room, and I remember crisp linen sheets and a faint scent of lavender. Then, nothing.

***

I awoke in the morning to a shaft of sunlight streaming past curtains opened by a gentle breeze. That same stir of air wafted me the scent of baking bread, awakening my stomach. The quiet noises of a smoothly functioning establishment drifted up through the floor, and heavy snores penetrated the wall of the room to my left. The heaviness in my head felt more odd than unpleasant, more sleepy than hung-over. However, the odor that emanated from beneath the sheets was sufficiently unpleasant I’d have to do something about it. I pushed myself into a sitting position, bracing myself against expected pain, but apart from a few twinges, there was nothing. Dim images of what had happened yesterday began coming into focus in my fogged mind, and I glanced with trepidation at my ring finger. For a moment, I was afraid I’d be unable to remove the ring, as the jailer had been unable to remove it, but that proved not to be the case. Beneath the ring, there was an obvious seam where the flesh had been knitted back together. I contemplated hurling the ring from me, but a wiser part of me prevailed; I felt sure that nothing so simple would free me from my master, and the ring might still come in useful, as it had done in Ankur’s dungeon. I shuddered, and replaced the ring.

At the foot of the bed lay a table heaped high with towels, a pile of clean clothing, a small leather shoulder bag, and a large basin of water. The steam rising from the water was evidence someone had been in my room, and worry over my money cleared much of the remaining fuzziness from my head. I rose from the bed, naked and seeing no sign of my old clothing. I reached under the thick mattress—an unfamiliar luxury—and found my purse where I’d been sure I’d left it. It would have been difficult to lift my weight off the mattress enough for a thief to remove the purse, but not impossible; its continued presence in the room meant I’d chosen my refuge well. I glanced over at the water, wrinkling my nose at the smell that wafted from me every time I moved my arms away from my sides, and began pondering how to make myself feel—and smell—alive once again. But the water awoke more urgent thoughts, and I sought and used the chamber pot instead.

Afterwards, I laid towels on the floor by the basin and scrubbed myself with the coarse sponge and perfumed soap that had been left for me. As I scrubbed at the accumulated grime, watching the filth and old blood sluicing down onto the towels, I contemplated the day that lay ahead. Somehow I would have to enter the palace again and make my way into the King’s presence. The results of my last attempt to announce myself suggested that this time, a measure of discretion was advised. I thought back to my last exit from the palace, and realized the odds were good I could enter the same way I’d escaped. What I’d do after I delivered my message was another story; Orgrim told me to go to ground, but other than suggesting this was possible, he’d provided no clues as to how I’d escape the palace. I shrugged, consoling myself that this time I at least knew Orgrim’s ring could summon help, assuming he’d not been lying about needing me for one more task.

I gathered my scant belongings—stiff new clothing, too small for me, plus my purse and a shoulder bag that carried the familiar aroma of medicinal herbs. Casting a last glance over my shoulder at the fouled water in the basin, missing the lute that had accompanied me since long before I left the forest, I headed downstairs. It was long enough after sunrise that the common room was empty when I arrived, most customers having long since risen and set about their duties. My stomach, having recovered from its discomfort at my aroma, was stirring with increasing vigor, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d eaten. A heavy brass bell hung from an iron bar over the counter, and I rang it to summon the staff. A young boy appeared from the kitchen, smiling uncertainty.

“Sir?”

“Breakfast, and quick. Let’s start with that wonderful bread I can smell baking, a wedge of cheese, a slab of ham, and as many eggs as you can spare.”

The boy disappeared behind the bar and I seated myself at a table near an open window. It was still early enough to be cool, and I enjoyed the gentle breeze as I watched the street traffic beginning to pick up. The breeze was pleasant, though no doubt it would become less so as the summer sun began coaxing the city’s odors from the streets. It wasn’t long before the boy returned, bearing a tray laden with an abundant breakfast. The food was excellent, but I fear I ate too fast to do it justice. It was gone all too soon, and when the boy came back to clear the table, I caught him by the arm.

Fear flared in his eyes, and abashed, remembering my own experiences at the hands of larger men, I released him. His eyes remained wary, but he realized that I bore him no ill will, and stood a little straighter. “Sir?”

I pushed back the cutlery. “I need a good knife, lad—not this fine silverware, but rather a fighting man’s knife. And I need to find a carpenter.” I laid enough coins on the table to cover my fare and a few extra for him.

“There’s a carpenter just down the street and past the market, about a half-mile before the tanner’s. I think there’s also a weaponer’s place thereabouts.”

“Yes, I know the place. Thanks.” Now I remembered the place. It was not one I’d visited, but I had walked past it before. In retrospect, it alarmed me that I’d had to ask. By the evidence, even a sound night’s sleep had not restored me. I pushed back from the table, and rose, not looking back as I headed out into the street.

I’d mulled over my plan as I ate, and reached a conclusion about how I’d gain entry to the palace. I’d need a ladder and rope; the dagger was only a tool, as I’d had enough of combat to last me a lifetime. As I walked, I forced my still-sluggish mind to focus on my memories of the kitchen window in the palace; it wouldn’t do to buy a ladder that was too short.

The carpenter’s door was open when I arrived, and he was at his workbench, crouched over his project with a drawknife, curls of wood cascading to the unswept floor at his feet. I repressed a smile, for he was a small man, not much larger than I’d been, though it was hard to tell for sure given my altered perspective. I cleared my throat, and he raised his head, unalarmed, the knife coming to a swift halt. I watched his face harden as he took in my size, and wondered whether my own emotions had ever been that transparent.

“I need a ladder.”

He nodded. “You’ve come to the right place. I make the best in town.” A well-worn mask of politeness replaced the momentary hostility.

“So I hear,” I lied. “But I’ll need it this morning.”

He frowned. “Impossible. I’ve none in stock, and with my current backlog, it’ll be at least a week before I can help you.”

“I can’t afford a week,” I replied, pulling my purse from beneath my cloak. “I can afford an hour.”

“An hour?” He snorted in disbelief, but the purse drew his eyes, as it remained large enough to impress. “Still impossible, but let’s talk details.” He laid aside the drawknife, composed himself, and turned his attention from my money to my face.

“Not so impossible as you might expect. I don’t need anything that will last me years, just a simple climbing device that will last me one or two uses.”

His gaze sharpened. “I see. Perhaps you’d prefer a grappling iron instead?”

I repressed my smile and feigned anger. “Very well. If you’re not prepared to be serious, I suppose I’ll have to look elsewhere.”

His face fell. “Forgive me, Sir. A ladder, you say...”

“Sturdy enough to bear me, even if briefly, and 10 feet tall. Something temporary will suffice.”

“And something easy to dispose of afterwards,” he muttered under his voice, not realizing I’d heard him; his eyes had gone distant with concentration. He pulled a slate and a stick of chalk from beneath his work table. “Something like this perhaps?” He sketched a single piece of lumber, pierced by dowels at intervals. If properly braced, the ladder would support a strong, nimble man able to climb it in a hurry.

I smiled. “That should do.”

He nodded. “That I can do in an hour.” He named a price, trying to look casual. It was extortionate, but I had money enough there was no need to haggle.

I laid the coins on his workbench, then added more for good measure. As it seemed likely I’d soon have no use for any money, there was no need to conserve my funds. “Agreed. I’ll return in an hour. See that the ladder is ready.”

He turned away even as I finished, pulling a large auger from his toolbox and slapping it on the table and rummaging for his drill bits. I smiled, pleased at my own cleverness and at having done a good turn for someone I could sympathize with. I made a note to return here when everything was over and determine whether he needed a friend as badly as I’d once needed one. Then I left so I could spend time walking. With luck, the gentle exercise would help restore clarity.

I had at least an hour to pass before I could begin Orgrim’s next task, and much to think of during that time. Something in me had changed beside the ocean in Volonor. Until then, I thought I’d known what was amiss, and understood that at some point, I would have to break free from Orgrim’s control. The demon had forced my hand in Volonor, convincing me that any sense of self-control I’d nurtured was a delusion; I had precisely as much self-control as the demon permitted me, and that freedom was, in turn, further circumscribed by such freedom as Orgrim permitted the two of us. This situation could not be allowed to endure long, even if I ignored the implications of this being my next-to-last task. Despite the demon’s incomprehensible threats and its overheard conversations with Orgrim, I still had no firm knowledge of what fate awaited me. As near as I could figure it, Orgrim had promised me to the demon when he no longer had any use for me. Given what I’d seen of the behavior of demons thus far, that was not a pleasant prospect, though it would be a better fate than many; either I would be slain and devoured, like the Goblin had been, or my consciousness would be extinguished and the demon would go its way among men in my body, slaying and taking its pleasure until it was itself caught and slain. Either way, my problems would soon be over.

That argument satisfied the rational part of me, but that was by no means the larger part. The stubborn me that held this inner dialog had kept me alive through equally dire circumstances and feared an ending, railed against this fate, and screamed for an alternative. And under the prodding of that part, I came up with a solution: I would turn myself in to King John, warn him of what was happening, and throw myself on his mercy. I knew the kind of man our King was, and of the resources at his command, and if anyone could stand against Orgrim and offer me protection, it was him. At worst, he would clap me in his dungeons and thereby see me safe; at best, perhaps I could betray Orgrim and see his plans ended. Doubt still haunted me, particularly given that the demon must be listening to this inner debate and smiling to itself, but I felt sure I could retain my self-control long enough to deliver my message and await the consequences of that action.

I’d been so lost in thought that I missed the first time when the palace clock tolled the hour, and forgot my desire to purchase a weapon. When the half hour rang through the streets, I’d grown eager to see an end to things, so I returned at a fast jog to the carpenter’s shop. When I entered, breathless despite the distances I’d traveled and the newfound toughness in my legs, he was eyeing the door impatiently, as if expecting me.

“You’re late. I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten me or been caught.”

I ignored his innuendo. “You have it ready?”

“Of course. Here you are.” He handed me three long, straight pieces of near-identical lumber.

I turned the wood over and noted that each piece had several holes bored in it, each filled with what appeared to be wooden plugs. Crude brass fixtures topped one end of two of the pieces; this puzzled me until I noticed how the remaining piece would fit into those bands. But as a ladder, it lacked a certain something. “That’s it?”

“Of course not. You’ll need these too.” He handed me a leather bag that made a wooden clicking noise as its contents rolled about. I opened the bag and saw a dozen six-inch dowels. “When you get to your destination, insert them in the holes. It’ll be a tight fit, but with muscles like those, you should have no trouble.”

I was taken aback, and angry at having been taken advantage of; moreover, I would tolerate no delay now that my plan was settled, not even the delay required to assemble the ladder. “Didn’t I leave you enough time to assemble it for me?”

He smiled. “You’re rather new at this, aren’t you? No,” he continued, catching the look in my eyes, “let me finish. Surely you don’t think you’d get far carrying a ladder through the streets to wherever it is you’re going? The watch would spot you in an instant and take you in for questioning. You’ll have to assemble it at your destination.”

All at once, my anger vanished, and I could feel my cheeks coloring. “I take your point. I’m in your debt.” I removed a few more coins from my purse, hesitated, then gave him the whole purse. One way or another, I’d have no need for it in about an hour.

The carpenter’s eyes widened, then filled with concern. “I apologize for any offense I may have given. At a guess, I’d venture that you have no intention of returning from wherever it is you’re going, and if that’s so, I regret having added to whatever burden you bear.”

“I doubt that would be possible. But I thank you nonetheless. Use the money better than I would have. Perhaps we’ll meet again and I’ll tell you more.”

“But you don’t believe that or wish me to believe it either. You’ve the look of a man going to his doom. I’d wish you luck, but I doubt that luck is what you need.” His eyes were sober and sympathetic, and I turned from him and left the shop before I could hesitate further and delay what I must do.

It was swift work to make my way through the streets to the palace. As the carpenter had predicted, nobody gave a second glance to a burly, unarmed man carrying what appeared to be nothing more than building supplies. It was simple to find my way to the alley behind the palace and position myself in the shadows beneath the open kitchen window. Once there, I removed the wooden plugs from the lumber and forced the dowels into the holes. The fit was as tight as the carpenter had promised, but the task posed no challenge for my newfound strength. To finish off, I joined the two brass-bound pieces to the centerpiece. They made a sturdy ladder.

As it turned out, I’d neglected one small fact: although the window was no more than 10 feet above the street, the ladder would have to be braced at an angle before I could use it, and that would leave it short of the mark. This distressed me, until I realized that with a little luck, I’d prove tall enough to stand at the top and grasp the window ledge. I set about examining the ground, then fitted the butt of my ladder as best I could into a crack in the pavement. When I was done, I leaned the ladder’s top against the wall, relieved to note that it did indeed reach to within a few feet of the window. I tested its balance, then once I was sure it would hold, I began climbing, resting my weight after each step before taking the next step. The ladder creaked and bowed beneath my weight, but held long enough for me to reach an arm up to the window ledge. I pulled myself up and peered over the edge, listening with dismay as the ladder fell away beneath me. It landed with an alarming clatter, and I realized I might have little time before anyone came to investigate.

The storeroom was empty, and my arms were beginning to feel the strain of holding such a large weight suspended above the street, so I hauled myself up far enough to reach a hand over the ledge and grasp its inner rim. My other hand slipped then, and I almost fell. But I’d caught that inner rim, and was able to hang swaying from the ledge, the muscles of that one arm straining with the effort and my forearm compressed against the stone of the opening. I flung up my other arm and caught the rim once again, then followed the arm with a leg. In another few seconds, I’d pulled myself onto the ledge, panting with the effort and how close I’d come to falling.

I was fortunate in arriving between meals, for the few kitchen workers who remained were dozing; the kitchen staff woke early and worked late, and sleep was a precious commodity, to be taken whenever possible. Nonetheless, it would be wise to have an excuse for being here, so I sought around me for an appropriate prop. That prop came in the form of a small cask of ale, which I lifted to my shoulder and held tight against my neck, concealing my face. That got me through the kitchen and the first few halls without a question, as I had the look of a minor servant who belonged here. Once I’d reached a safe distance from the kitchen, I lowered the cask to the floor and left it resting against the wall. Thereafter, I strode on my way as if I belonged there, which indeed, I once had. I was aided by the fact that I moved in parts of the palace I could never have reached without the tacit or express approval of several teams of guards, so there was no reason anyone should think to question me. Moreover, with my clean new clothes and the lack of any supplies that marked me as a traveler, what reason would any have to suspect me?

A few questions told me where I could find the King, and I set off in that direction, moving slowly enough not to appear suspicious, but fast enough that I would delay my encounter no longer than necessary; in addition to the fear of discovery before I could deliver my message, I was impatient to reach a resolution. After a time, I came near the workroom where the King was said to be, and I made my final preparations. From within my medical pouch, I withdrew a certain small vial and took a small sip; then, thinking of the battle I would soon be waging, I downed its entire contents and hoped I’d survive such a strong dose. The bitter taste of the herb known as headstrong washed my tongue and throat, and immediately began its work on my head. My mind cleared, my vision sharpened to a razor’s edge, and I was free of all doubt; indeed, in that moment I knew I could challenge Orgrim himself and win. I would pay for this courage when the drug wore off, but for now, I was the true King here.

I strode, confidence personified, towards the guards who leaned against the wall outside the workroom. They straightened as I drew near, but remained diffident; I had the look of someone who belonged here, and it was a time of peace. I recognized neither of them, and they did not recognize me. Having prepared my lies in advance, I introduced myself.

“I bid you a good morning, gentlemen. My name is Modred, and I bear our King a message from Lord Bram. Is our liege within?”

The guards, recognizing the source of the message if not the messenger, knocked twice, then opened the door and let me pass within without so much as checking for concealed weapons. I smiled in what they took to be courtesy, but what was in fact contempt at how I’d fooled them. Even so, my keen mind noted, with uncommon insight, their sloppy behavior. I made a point to discuss it with the King, along with several other criticisms I’d been nursing for months, should the opportunity present itself. The door closed at my back, and I found myself facing a table with the King and several of his counselors seated around it, faces grim.

The chancellor rose to his feet as I went to one knee, and a stern look grew on his face. “You have business with us?”

I bowed my head. “Sire, gentlesirs, I bear ill news for the King.”

The King rose too. “More bad news from Volonor?”

I remained kneeling, feeling the first stirring of the demon within me. “Sire, far worse news than that. If you speak of what I suspect, then I bring the same news to you.”

“Your name, Sir.”

“Modred, Sire, but you once knew me as Morley.” The demon now surged against me, but I was ready for him, and the drug gave me strength. I felt the demon’s surprise and rage as he reached for control—and I held him back.

“Morley? I know one Morley, and he is a dwarf less than half your size and long since gone missing. You speak riddles.”

“Nonetheless, Sire, it is I, your former jester, and my current condition is proof of the ill news I bear you. I have been transformed by an ill magic, and bound to the service of one who means you no good. And the message I bear is this: that my slavemaster, a sorcerer named Orgrim, has come to wrest control of our lands from us. I throw myself on your mercy and beg your protection from him. But first, you must bind me to protect yourselves, for I fear he will compel me to harm someone before I leave.” The demon surged again, and I clenched my jaw, fighting it with all my strength and understanding, disbelieving, that despite the drug, I was losing ground.

As I’d named the sorcerer, there came a sharp collective intake of breath, and several paled, but my thoughts focused inward in a last attempt to keep the demon at bay. As I did this, two things happened, and had it not been for the artificial clarity of my thoughts, I would have missed them. First, the chancellor seized upon a bell and rang it, summoning the guards; second, an older man who’d been watching all this time rose to his feet, keenly appraising me.

The door opened, as loud in the silence as the scraping of wood on stone when those at the table pushed back their chairs and rose, grasping for weapons. I felt myself seized from behind, but my mind focused on the struggle within with an intensity I’ve never known before or since. The demon began to master me despite my best efforts, for wrestling him was as perilous as walking on the slick, algae-grown rocks beneath the surface of a stream. I felt my shoulder muscles bunch, and despite my waning efforts at control, I threw off the two guards who held me, that other voice issuing from my mouth.

“The dwarf speaks truth. We are Orgrim’s messenger, and we come to inform you that you must surrender to our master when he returns to your city.” I felt an impact as the flat of a sword slammed into my head, but it didn’t even stagger me. I lashed out with a fist and sent the guard reeling; I’d felt ribs break beneath the force of that blow, and felt a predatory grin growing on my face.

The King blanched in horror, but it was not he who spoke. The old councillor had moved around the table to stand between us. “We knew of your coming, demon, and you will not find us unprepared.” He drew a slim wooden wand from one deep sleeve and held it between us like a fencer’s blade.

We laughed, mocking them. “Old bones contain the sweetest marrow, fool. As the dwarf feared, I shall feast upon yours before I return to my business with your betters.” We made to advance upon him, but as we did, he released his grip on the wand and spat a command. That slim white piece of wood interposed itself between us and hung in the air, emitting a deep thrumming noise like the bass string on my lute. All at once, we struck a barrier, and though the wand bent almost double as we pushed against that barrier, we could make no progress. Worse yet, the wand set itself before us no matter which direction we turned, and we found ourselves rooted in place.

“You’ll not be feasting on anyone’s marrow again, demon.” The old man withdrew a drawstring pouch from his pocket and dipped his hand within. When it emerged, bearing a small pile of metallic powder, the mage spoke a few quiet words and flung the powder in our direction. The powder flew apart into a shimmering cloud that surrounded us, passing through the barrier as if it had not existed and filling the air with the sharp tang of silver. The wand fell to the floor, but it had done its work; we remained rooted in place.

“Silver, the sovereign remedy against all things mystical,” the mage whispered, a bead of sweat belying his outer calm. Despite that calm, his eyes held an intensity that would have made us take a step back had that been possible. He spoke another unfamiliar word, and the cloud of dust collapsed inward upon us, clutching our skin in a tingling grasp. “And now, demon, I bid you return whence you came.” His calmness vanished, replaced with concentration that increased to match the intensity of his gaze, the change as startling as the feeling that came over me—yes, me, for the demon had retreated deep within, leaving my body once more my own.

For a moment, it felt as if my entire body had been draped in cobweb and someone had removed that nauseating stuff all at once. But as the mage chanted, that feeling moved deeper inside me, passing through my skin like the warmth of a sauna after a cold winter’s hunt. The warmth spread through the depths of my body until I could feel it kindling within my bones. Beneath the level of thought, I felt the demon’s rage surging, and my own answering surge of elation as the demon fought the magic that permeated me, leaving me ever more control of myself. But that elation was short-lived, for another change began clutching at me, something that drew and tore at my essence as if trying to pull my bones from my flesh. I felt the demon’s ravening hunger, and knew on an instinctive level he was trying to take me with him.

Then all at once, that pressure was gone, and the silvery cloud the mage had cast about me stood before my eyes, a human shape large as a statue, its silvered face contorted in rage. From within that shape, a voice boomed out. “You shall pay for this effrontery, mage. Orgrim shall flay your skin from your bones and hang you still living in his workroom to watch as he brings me back to feast on your—” The demon concluded with an unknown word.

The mage’s sweaty face tightened with concentration, and he spoke another word, clenching his fist before him as he did. The silver contracted inward upon itself so fast I nearly missed it, and that fast, the demon was gone.

“That may well be,” the mage whispered, staggering as the cloud of silver dust collapsed to the floor, “but it shall not be as easy as you might expect. And perhaps we may yet surprise you.”

My elation at the demon’s departure vanished, for a nausea grew within me. All eyes turned to me, and I felt the second soldier’s sword pressing against my back. But though that familiar presence in my mind had departed, something else took its place: pain. That night when I’d undergone my transformation into the giant I now was, the pain had been as intense as I imagined being broken on the rack would be. This time, when that pain surged in me, my instinctive knowledge of what was happening only made it worse; this time, I both knew what I’d endure and understood what I’d be losing. A part of me hoped, in vain, that what I’d been through had taught me to deal with such pain, but instead, I’d learned to appreciate it more keenly. The agony shot through me once more, searing through every part of my body and mind. I lost all track of time, and at some point in my screaming, I lost consciousness.

***

I awoke to silence, the taste of old blood and bitter medicine in my mouth, and a dull ache that throbbed in my head and echoed throughout my body. Atop this lay a weakness and lethargy that smothered me like a heavy blanket, until I could only lie there, scarcely breathing, and stare with fuzzy vision at the dim-lit beams of the ceiling far above my head. It was a long time before I recognized that I lay once again in the infirmary.

It was an effort of will to look around me, for my head would not move and I could make that survey with my eyes alone; even then, I moaned. Each motion of my eyes awoke a new wave of pain in my head. I lay there alone, and listened, which was all I could do without gritting my teeth together to hold in the screams. From the character of the noises around me, it was evening. That meant most of a day, or perhaps several days had passed; from the fullness of my bladder, I expected the former. I felt no urgency to move, but that lethargy itself raised a faint alarm. Though it was likely the aftereffects of the headstrong I’d consumed, I feared the possibility that having the demon torn from me had caused more serious damage. Then my final fears came back, and that cut through my lethargy and made me begin trying to rouse myself enough to inspect my condition.

After considerable effort, I raised myself into a sitting position. Pain shot through me with each movement, but it was the bearable pain that comes the day after great exertion rather than the agony that had savaged me earlier that day. So I sat, my legs dangling over the edge of the cot, the chill air of the palace raising goosebumps on my naked flesh as I strained to touch the floor with my toes. Had I been clearer of thought, I would not have squandered my energy in that way, but the dullness clutching at my mind kept me trying, too scared to look down at myself, until at last hope faded and the realization that I had returned to my former stature came crashing down on me. Then I wept, long and loud, great racking sobs that echoed in the half-darkness of that great hall.

The catharsis of that weeping exhausted me, but at the same time, bestowed a curious vigor. I’d lived this way my whole life, and old defensive reflexes that had kept me alive through times of great despair awoke and helped me shake off that self-pity. And the first act I performed to reassert myself was to slide off the cot and use the chamber pot. Pitiful though that small affirmation was, it was also a first step towards reclaiming my dignity. When I returned to the cot, shaking with the chill and drained by the effort of rising, the fuzziness and despair still lay heavy on my mind, but I’d once more reasserted ownership of my body and mind. It was not much to cheer me, but it was a start.

I lay there, naked beneath the covers, staring with unfocused eyes at the ceiling, and forced myself to concentrate. My survival instincts having at last cut through the mental fog, I knew that I must assess my situation soon. Though my demon had been driven from me, Orgrim still awaited, and when he returned, I’d best be ready. I raised my hand to stare at the ring, and was shocked to discover it gone. Fuzzy though my mind was, I knew I was seeing the correct finger, for the white seam of scar tissue where Orgrim had reattached my finger was plain, even in the poor light, and throbbed when I focused my attention on it. Remembering what had happened to the last person who’d removed that ring, I shuddered beneath my blankets.

So I had no way of summoning Orgrim? Very well. Then that meant he had no easy way of finding me either, or so I could hope. This provided more time than I otherwise would have had. If I were correct in my understanding, it also meant that his power over me might be gone, for I was certain he’d not left me the ring for my own benefit. Perhaps I could remain beyond his grasp if I fled to the woods as soon as my strength returned; after all, I’d delivered his messages, and without the demon in me, I would no longer be such a useful tool.

Approaching footsteps interrupted my musings. I forced myself to turn my head to meet the gaze of the approaching surgeon. Without a word, he sat beside me on the cot and held his hand to my forehead; when he’d done, he pressed a finger into the angle of my jaw and I watched his lips moving as he counted to himself. Then he took my hand in his.

“Grip my hand,” he commanded. I complied. “Harder!” I exerted myself until at last he relaxed, satisfied. “You’ll live. You may not enjoy it, but you’ll live.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. You’re tough and stubborn, else you’d have died in the King’s presence. Indeed, there were those who insisted on slaying you where you lay, but one of the councillors argued so hard in your favor that they spared you.”

“Bram?”

He frowned. “No, the old fellow. Raphael.”

The name awoke memories, but in hindsight, I didn’t remember him at the meeting I’d interrupted, so he must have wandered by afterwards. “Please thank him for me.”

“You can thank him yourself. He’ll be by to visit you in the morning. In the meantime, I suggest you sleep and regain your strength. If even one part in twenty of the rumors flying about the palace are true, you’ll be needing your strength.” He withdrew a flask from his pocket, and measured me with his eyes. “Take one mouthful—and mind you, not a drop more.”

“What is it?”

“A sleeping draught. An infusion of sleepbalm and honey that will help you rest.”

I nodded. I’d used the same medicine on the occasional forester who’d been my patient. Through sheer willpower, I forced an arm up from beneath the sheets to take the flask from him and hold it to my lips. My arm shook, but I managed to drink a single mouthful without spilling any and return the flask to him. There was a cloying taste of honey and a bitter aftertaste, but nothing intolerable. He nodded approval, laid his hand on my forehead a last time, then left the room. I closed my eyes, and sank into a vast, dark pit.

***

I awoke to the smell of steaming porridge and fresh bread that had been laid on a stool beside my bed. Whoever had left it hadn’t bothered to await my return to consciousness—or had chosen to leave me in peace. I shrugged off the haze in my head, and found my thoughts far clearer than they’d been the previous night, and my muscles, though still aching, cooperated better than during my previous waking. I propped myself against the cold stone wall at the head of the bed, shielding myself from that chill with a pillow that was far too large for me. I didn’t dwell on that, but forced my attention instead to breakfast. The porridge, thick and lumpy, bore a load of honey and swam in cream; the bread was so fresh it was still hot enough inside to melt butter, and I smeared it with the fresh butter that had hidden behind the bowl of porridge. My appetite was slow to awaken, but fierce once aroused, and I ate every last morsel and looked around for more.

There was no one in sight, so I seized the opportunity to use the chamber pot—which some kind person had emptied during the night—then tucked myself beneath the covers once again. Not long afterwards, the surgeon returned to examine me. He repeated last night’s inspection, sniffed the chamber pot, and nodded approval. “You heal fast. Good. There are visitors waiting to see you. I’ll send them in one at a time.”

Visitors?

The door opened to admit a familiar figure: Bram, who had treated me so nobly. I turned away from him, all at once ashamed of what I’d done. After a time, a gentle hand fell upon my shoulder.

“Are you well, Morley?”

Without turning, I nodded.

“Look at me, my friend. You have naught to be ashamed of.”

That startled me enough that I faced him despite myself. “How could that be?”

Bram’s smile was slow, but warm and genuine. “How could it not be? Raphael has told us of what you’ve been through. Revealing yourself to the King as you did was an act of great courage. I know not the whole story, but—”

“If you did, you would not be so charitable,” I interrupted. Tears of shame welled up in my eyes, and I fought them back, burning away shame with anger.

“Then tell me, that I may understand and find a way to forgive someone who will not forgive himself.”

I complied, the words coming slowly and painfully at first, then increasingly easily, pouring from me like water overflowing a boiling kettle. Bram listened without interrupting, compassion growing upon his face. When I finally ran out of words, he nodded. “I can well see how you might be ashamed of what you did; there are many things not to be proud of. But you have left much unsaid, and from that, I see evidence of considerable courage.”

“Courage? Say blindness and greed, rather.”

Bram bit his lower lip. “Perhaps blindness, but greed is too strong a word. Like you, I have always been an outsider here, so I can understand the force of the desire to be treated like everyone else.” As he said it, I recalled the words of his former countrymen and knew he spoke the truth. “No, even the blindness I find hard to credit. Did you know aught of magic when you accepted Orgrim’s offer? Did he tell you the price would be more than your obedience? Did he not perhaps use his magic to seduce you into accepting his offer without thinking it through? Is it not obvious to you that much of what happened after you were occupied by the demon was not your fault?”

The silence stretched for a long moment. “That’s one way of looking at it,” I admitted.

His voice hardened. “Any other way would be self-flagellation, not honesty. What is done is done, and you cannot change it. Accept that—and accept a chance to begin anew—and learn how you can atone for what you did in a way that will let you live with yourself.”

“I’ll try,” I replied, chastened but wanting to believe what he was saying.

“See that you do.” His voice softened again. “Believe me, Morley, when I say that I too have had experience with such things as magical compulsions. Like you, I was once controlled by forces beyond my knowledge, yet I survived to triumph in the end.” I stared at him, surprised, for the sudden lack of conviction in his voice made me wonder what he left unsaid. But his eyes looked past me. “None of us can escape our fate, but we can at least fight to divert its course.”

“And now it’s my time to do so.”

“So it would seem.”

“And how did you turn aside your fate?”

His gaze returned, trying to read me. “That would be a longer story than I have time to recount, for another visitor awaits you and the King awaits me. When all is over, I shall tell you what I can of my story. In the meantime, our problem is how to turn aside your fate.”

Our problem?”

He smiled, and it warmed me. “To the extent that you will accept my assistance, and in all ways save those paths that you must walk yourself. But I must leave now, for as I said, our King has need of me. Your part in this may well be over, but mine is just beginning, I fear.” He squeezed my shoulder and started to rise.

“Bram?” He paused. “Thanks.”

My friend—for such he was—nodded and left in a hurry. The door half-closed behind him, then opened again to admit the counselor who had argued to spare my life in the council chamber. Blinking away the dampness that had filled my eyes, I had a moment of confusion; at first, I saw the familiar, unprepossessing face of Raphael, one of the King’s counselors—yet at the same time, I saw the old mage who had banished my demon the previous morning. That image vanished, leaving Raphael. He moved towards me with a grace that belied his evident age. But when he sat beside my bed, I saw the shadows beneath his eyes and the lines graven deep in his face. He studied me a moment, then let out his breath in a long, weary sigh.

“Have you recovered enough to talk?”

“How could I deny such a little thing to the man who saved my life? You are Raphael?”

He bowed his head and answered softly. “I am.” Then his voice strengthened, and there was surprising fervor in it. “But I repudiate the debt you would thrust upon yourself. Whatever you may be thinking, my actions were first and foremost taken to save our King and my own poor life. If I saved your life too, then so be it. You owe me no debt.”

“Nonetheless—”

Nonetheless!” His voice echoed in the room, and abashed, he lowered it before continuing. “If you feel a need to repay your debt, start by telling me your story. Some I can infer from the ending, but there is much I need to know about what set you on this course.”

I nodded, and told my story for the second time that day, and the telling was easier the second time. When the words ran out, I met his calm gaze and steeled myself for his judgment. “Where does this leave me?”

Raphael frowned. “Only Orgrim knows that for sure. Your part in this may be ended, for you are no longer his tool. But on the other hand, should he choose to reclaim that tool, your part may just be beginning. One thing may make that decision for you.” He opened his cloak to reveal Orgrim’s bone ring hanging from a silver chain about his neck.

“The ring!” I watched it with horrified fascination.

A smile played on his lips. “Fear not. For now, I have severed its connection with its owner.”

The image of the sorcerer arose before my mind’s eye, and I scrutinized the counselor. The resemblance was slight, but I had not imagined it. “You too are more than you seem.”

He smiled wearily. “You look more deeply than most.”

I mulled that over for a moment, and chose to leave it be for a time. “Your words suggest you’ve left another thing unspoken.”

“You’re perceptive too. Our foe chooses his tools well.” There was a certain harshness in his tone, but it wasn’t directed at me. “You’re right, of course. There will come a time when we must confront Orgrim, and I would far rather do so on my own terms than his.”

“I can understand that.”

“No, you cannot. For all you’ve experienced, you still know nothing of the ways of sorcerers. My reading of the situation is that your former master is far too busy right now to investigate what happened to you, but from the time I pulled his ring from your finger, he has been aware that his machinations have gone astray. When he has dealt with whatever holds his attention, he will return his attention to this ring. At that time, you must decide.”

“Decide?”

“Whether to flee, or to stand and aid us against him—or whether to once more accept his bargain.” The horror of his last suggestion struck me like a blow, yet in the wake of that suggestion, I felt a strange, nauseating yearning for what I’d had. I shuddered, and met his eyes again. He nodded approval, and went on. “It’s hard to tell which would be most risky for you.” He took the chain and ring from around his neck and placed it around my own. The silver of the chain lay cool against my flesh, but the ring warmed against me. Raphael continued, ignorant of what I was feeling. “So long as the ring remains on that silver chain and Orgrim’s attention lies elsewhere, you’ll be safe. Should you free the ring of its chain and place it once more upon your finger, his attention will return to you.”

“And if I don’t?”

“Then his attention will return to you anyway, for you bear his mark, and ring or not, he can find you wherever you run. The ring makes it easier, that’s all. This is why I will leave the ring with you rather than bearing it myself.”

“You fear him that much?”

Raphael’s smile hardened. “I would be foolish to fear him less. I took many precautions, so there is a chance he remains ignorant of my identity. Oh, I haven’t fooled myself; he knows for certain that he’s been forestalled by another mage. Yet if I’m fortunate, he doesn’t yet know who that mage is. I’d like to keep it that way.”

“Until you can meet him on your own terms.”

“Yes. And that will require extensive preparation, which I must be about soon. There may be little time, and there is one more curious thing about you that I must investigate.”

“That being?”

“You spoke of a cat that accompanied you, and what the Elf said of it. I must understand that particular piece of the puzzle, for it strikes me as something best understood soon. I’m not enamored of mysteries where sorcery is concerned, for their solutions oft prove fatal to the uninformed.” He rose. “Be well, Morley, and heal fast. Your part in this has not yet been decided, by you or your former master, and I mislike that confusion. Though you’ve done well to survive this long, I’ve a suspicion we shall need you a while longer.”

He rose and left, moving even faster than Bram had. I felt guilty for lying abed, but for the moment, there was naught I could do. Without even clothing to my name, I had little choice. In any event, the catharsis of telling my tale twice, combined with the apprehension Raphael’s predictions raised in me, had tired me more than I’d expected. Still thinking on what he’d said, I slipped into a light sleep.

***

I woke to a warm hand on my forehead. Opening my eyes, I gazed up at Alison, concern in her voice but distraction in her eyes. “Morley, wake up. We must talk.”

I smiled up at her, trying to force the cobwebs from my mind. “What time is it?”

“Not long before dinner.”

“And you didn’t want me to miss my dinner?”

She laughed, the distraction leaving her for that brief moment. Then she sobered again. “No, it is rather that my husband bids you leave the palace and stay with us this night.” My shock must have showed, for she continued without pausing for breath. “Nay, fear not. It will be no imposition.”

“Imposition? Hardly that. You endanger your family by taking me in. Did Bram tell you nothing of what has happened?”

“He did, and I was the one who insisted you stay with us, though he put up no more than a token fight.” She frowned, as if wondering at her victory, then the distraction left her eyes. “Do you think so little of us that we’d not come to the aid of a friend?”

“And do you think so little of me that you believe I would endanger a friend?” I lifted the ring by its chain, not daring to touch the smooth ivory with my hand, even though it had lain next to my naked flesh for at least a day, and on my finger, unnoticed, for weeks before that. “I cannot accept.”

Alison lifted a bundle of clothing from the floor by her feet. “On the contrary. You cannot refuse. You can consider Bram’s offer to be a command from a higher authority.”

I was incredulous. “The King has intervened?”

She held the frown for a moment, then laughed again, unable to stay mad for long. “No, not that higher authority. I meant me.”

I was flabbergasted, and it showed. “Lady, how can you command such a thing? How can you imperil your children in such a way?”

The frown returned, and this time there was no mirth behind it. “Think you I would do so, even for a friend? Then you don’t know me at all.”

“No, I don’t. Neither do you know me.”

“I know all that I need to know. I know that without you, I might be widowed soon, and without the comfort of the man I love. Did you pause to ask about your own danger or our worthiness of the risk you assumed when you intervened to save him?” I began a reply, but the look in her eyes forestalled me. “Could I do any less for someone I know to be a good man? No, fear not for my children. I have sent them to stay with my parents in Volonor. They will be as safe there as they would be anywhere, and safer than had they stayed here. Whatever happens next, it will center around the Court and those who serve it.”

The fight went out of me. “As you know more of these things than I do, I must perforce accept your decision.”

The smile hadn’t returned, but the edge had gone off her anger. “Yes, there is much we know, but did Bram tell you why?”

“He did not, though he hinted that the two of you were no strangers to sorcery.”

She sighed. “My husband, for all his virtues, is not one to share dangerous knowledge. There are times when I want to wipe away that concerned, overprotective smile with a mace.” The unmistakable affection in her voice belied the harsh words. The remaining anger drained away, leaving an echo of that former intensity in her voice. “Morley, know you aught of what came to pass years ago during our war with Amelior?”

I pondered the question. “I know what everyone knows of the story, and more than most about Bram’s past.”

She nodded. “Then you know nothing of importance. The war itself was a small thing, though it did not seem so at the time. What was truly important were the deeds of a sorcerer named Dariel, who travelled in the semblance of a bard.”

“Dariel? Whose namesake was the pre-Exodus minstrel whose name remains to us when all else from that age is vanished to memory?”

“More than a namesake; it was Dariel himself.” She watched the shock growing in my eyes with a certain malicious satisfaction. “There is much I do not understand, for some things Bram and his oathbrother Gareth never told me. But this much I do understand: Dariel set out to accomplish what this Orgrim even now sets out to accomplish. Bram and Gareth defeated him, though it was a near thing and required a measure of witchcraft, and that sorcerer is gone from our lives. Had they not won, we would not be worrying about this Orgrim just now; Dariel would have resolved the problem for such of us as survived.”

“How is it I heard none of this? That no one did?”

“Few knew of Dariel’s role in events; most of those who became too involved with him have been dead these eight years. Even those of us nearer to the center of things than most still don’t understand everything, not even how we survived him.” Frustration freighted her voice, but I saw a measure of fear in the set of her eyes and the tightness of her lips.

“Yet you survived that time,” I prodded.

“Yes, we did. And whatever may happen in the near future, my husband and I know we survived worse in the past—and will do so again this time. Foolish confidence, you may think, and I cannot deny that accusation. Yet I know what I feel, and I have faith in my husband and those he surrounds himself with.”

I felt a rush of emotion, but managed to keep it off my face this time; I was tired of being read like a scroll. “You’ve convinced me. I will stay with you for so long as I can persuade myself I’m not endangering you. Should that change, no argument or force you can muster will keep me there.”

She measured me for a moment with her gaze. “Agreed.” She thrust the clothes towards me. “Now get dressed. I’ve taken these from your room and had them cleaned, for they’d grown moldy during your absence.” She rose and headed for the door. “I’ll wait for you.”

I dressed as fast as my abused body permitted and followed her, limping, out into the streets.

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Continue reading: Chapter 14

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