It was a fine spring day when Hell paid a visit.
“Will you be requiring any…special arrangements during your stay?”
Tau-Strinus incanted Calm and continued. “Should you need anything—spell components, lambs, virgins—you have but to ask and it will be brought to your lodgings.”
The arch-diabolist’s white eyes flicked to him. “No.” The voice grated against itself. “I have brought what I require.”
Tau-Strinus glanced back at the workers unloading the two iron cages off the skiff. The black plates concealed much, but through an airhole in the second, he could see three human toes. Even from this distance he could see brown nails curling over themselves.
“It will be several hours before your welcome feast, Diabolist Rale,” Tau-Strinus said. “Will you rest in your lodgings until then? Or perhaps you would care for a demonstration of our progress here.”
Rale was five hands taller than Tau-Stinus and long of gait. Despite the odor of rot emanating from his red and white striated robes, it was clear there was nothing wrong with his legs. Tau-Strinus had to exert himself to keep up.
“I did not come for resting, mage,” Rale said, striding ahead. “And you can feed your feast to the ravens, for I will have none.”
Tau-Strinus had to will himself to meet the arch-diabolist’s empty gaze. The eyes looked like eggs whose yolks had been drained away. “Yes, Diabolist Rale.”
“I have come to determine your suitability for a great work. From what I’ve seen so far,” he said, waving a veiny hand at Tau-Strinus’ adepts working on the dirt hillside around them, “I fear I have come in futility.”
“You honor me, Diabolist.”
Rale’s laughter was harsher than his speech. “But you are master of your tongue, so there is hope for you yet.” He stopped in the shade of a stricken olca tree to let Tau-Strinus catch up.
“Tell me, mage, did you think to impress me with your chicken magic?”
“Were you going to have your augerists read my fortune in the entrails of a pig? Were you going to show me the elaborate failures of your alchemists?” He was laughing. “Were you going to mix eye of owl with the blood of a salamander eviscerated beneath a full moon and thereby turn someone into tree moss?”
Tau-Strinus bowed slowly. “I would not presume.”
“Ha! I guessed it,” Rale said, striding toward the cavern entrance. “I saw it in my crystal ball! Yes! I gazed into it and muttered a spell discovered in the writings of some simpleton long ago turned to ash.”
Tau-Strinus noticed his adepts gathering around, perhaps to come to their master’s aid or defend their craft. Loyal fools. He met each set of eyes and sent them back to their chores.
They reached the shade of the cliff. Tau-Strinus could feel the frigid air blowing from the cavern and hear the stonemasons’ hammers from within. He tried to meet the arch-diabolist’s eyes, but settled for staring at the crusted pus around Rale’s ravished neck “One of my disciples will show you to your rooms.”
“Ah, there. You see? I have wounded you.”
Tau-Strinus checked the diabolist’s eyes. Surely this was not compassion. The voice, sounding like it was made of river-dragon skin, seemed incapable of communicating anything but cynicism. Yet the man was a puzzle. Aside from that seeping wound and his drained eyes, Rale was handsome, even rakish, and young. What had eaten him alive like this? What would constrain him to remain in such obvious misery?
“You have not wounded me, Diabolist. I am too sure of my life’s work to be so quickly discouraged from it.”
“As you have pointed out, the life of a sorcerer is one of patience and frustration. Yet by forbearance we advance our knowledge. We stand atop the shoulders of those who have given their lives to the art. It is my humble hope that those who come after me can stand some few hands higher because of what we have done here.”
Though dozens of people stood nearby, no one spoke. Tau-Strinus could hear the plow horses advancing behind him, rattling the iron cages. Did the arch-diabolist’s milky eyes look less certain?
“A fine speech, mage,” Rale said at last. “Forgive my words.”
Tau-Strinus bowed deeply. The others followed suit. “You are gracious, Diabolist.”
“It is true: Your reputation for the bloodless branch of our art is well-known. Indeed it is this that has brought me to you. Arise, mage. Though I have little regard for your pursuits, nonetheless I need someone who has not been…tainted by the more powerful magics.”
“I beg your indulgence, Diabolist,” Tau-Strinus said. “But I think you will find that there is much power in what we do. Some of my advanced students have animated whole legions of—”
“Ha! Animating lifeless objects? Predicting the future from henpecks? These ridiculous conjurings are nothing compared to the power of the Dark One. Watch and see!”
Rale produced a gongola from his robes. He lifted a rock from the ground and struck the small instrument three times, then three times again. The metal plate resounded through the cavern, producing differing notes as the tones died away.
At once the stone floor of the cave melted into transparency. The earth trembled, bringing down a fine avalanche of powdered stone. The ground had become like a layer of flesh. Beneath, all could see some creature struggling as if to escape the womb. It was impossible to see detail. Only elbows and fists and twisting heads pressing against the membrane that had once been solid rock.
Rale’s eyes were shut as if in ecstasy. He rattled the small gong gently, producing a sustained harmonic hum. The sores on his neck oozed freely, wetting his striated robes. “Do you hear them?”
Tau-Strinus became aware of a pounding sound: deep and distant. He saw that other creatures had joined the one. It was like looking into a she-dog’s womb and seeing the whole litter before birth. But this litter was endless. Layer upon layer of creatures fighting to break out.
“What are they?”
The white eyes flashed open, but they did not focus on the living. “There is power, mage! The power to enslave nations and change time itself. Eternal power. How they beckon! Do you hear? ‘Release us. Open the way. Our time is here. Our time is now.’”
Instantly the fleshy membrane became rock once more. Rale’s eyes teared and spilled and he coughed. Manservants in the service of the diabolist came forward with fresh gauze and sweet-smelling ointments for his fetid neck. One took the gongola from his master’s drooping fingers and replaced it in the reeking robes. They eased their master onto the cool ground over against the cavern’s wall.
Tau-Strinus was aware of his adepts’ reactions—some falling over themselves in retreat, some running up to see what was happening, others looking at Arch-Diabolist Rale with loathing or terror or…envy?
“Leave us!” the diabolist croaked.
Tau-Strinus crouched in front of his guest as the crowd dispersed. “Diabolist, please allow my physicians to—”
Rale gripped Tau-Strinus’s wrist with ferocity, forcing him close to his pockmarked face. “Listen to me, mage. The tearing has begun. The Master is arising. With his army at his back. Do you understand?”
“Diabolist! My arm. You- You’re cutting me.” As he watched, dark red blood spurted from where Rale’s fingernails gripped his wrist, gushing with the rhythm of Tau-Strinus’s heart. “Please. It hurts. It hurts!”
Rale released him with a shove. Tau-Strinus wrapped his wrist tightly, noticing angry red lumps where the nails had sliced him. Poison.
“Let it serve to remind you of my visit, mage. Let it remind you of the day you came into the service of true power.” He sneered at the cavern and the adepts going about their duties. “Your puny efforts here are worthless to the Master.”
“That, sir, is false,” Tau-Strinus said, standing up. “In this place we do ‘great works’ every day. We serve the power of knowledge and its application. It is true, we stay far away from the soulish magics, the sorceries that invoke malevolent spirits, because it has been my experience that such spirits devour the summoner and condemn him to a living death. Look at yourself, Diabolist. Rotting on your feet, consumed by the apparitions you claim to control. How long before your ‘power’ overpowers you?”
The amused look on Rale’s face irritated Tau-Strinus beyond measure.
“You can make rock look like flesh and blood?” Tau-Strinus asked “That is nothing. A pretty illusion. I can make rock live and move and do my bidding. There is order in this universe, Diabolist. We strive to understand that order, to tap into it and control it to our wishes. We may not enjoy the moments of supernatural empowerment like you do or the perverted pleasures, but in the end, Diabolist Rale, in the end, we retain our eternal souls!”
Rale looked exhausted. He beckoned Tau-Strinus closer, then beckoned him again. “Come, sit beside me. I have salve for your wound.”
Tau-Strinus moved cautiously. “You will poison me again.”
“No,” Rale said weakly. “Not again. I need you.”
Tau-Strinus extended his arm and removed the blood-soaked cloth. The welts had begun to turn green and to emit a clear liquid. The wound stank. Rale applied the sweet-smelling ointment and the arm was immediately soothed.
“Tomorrow you will only have scratches. They will heal well.” He handed Tau-Strinus some clean gauze. “Now, sit.”
“As you wish, Diabolist.”
They sat together staring out over the hot hill and the river beyond. The workers who had carried Rale’s baggage train passed by, headed back toward the docks.
“You are skilled at making speeches, Loremaster Tau-Strinus.”
Tau-Strinus all but jumped at the use of his name and title. “You are kind to say so.”
“And your library here, it is unrivalled.”
“We have worked to make it so.”
Rale brought out his gongola and toyed with it on his knees. “Once I believed as you do. The mechanical arts—letters and scrolls and arcane incantations. For me it was the only way that would do. I finished two apprenticeships: as a thaumaturge and as a silver alchemist.”
“What made you change to…? What happened?”
“Ah, that is a tale for another day. It is tedious. Suffice yourself to know that it was a decisive break. For me, I knew I could never go back to the bloodless magics, no matter what it cost me. In a way it does have me trapped, as you suggest. But it is a snare I choose gladly. Whatever hells await us after death, whether there are hells or simply perfect silence, I know not.”
“You don’t know?” Tau-Strinus asked. “Not even you? I would’ve thought the spirits you commune with would—”
“You cannot believe them. They say what they wish and change the tale as it serves them. But I do know that they are chained in the abyss even now and that they long to reach our world. And when they do, Tau-Strinus, when they arise and their master walks once more on this world, it will be the end. And… And a beginning.”
They did not speak for a while. Tau-Strinus kept his eyes on the stone floor, feeling that the earth might erupt at any moment freeing hideous creatures to emerge and tear him apart. He took solace in the steady sounds of the stonemasons’ picks. Tonight he would animate one of their gargoyles. It would reaffirm his belief in the scholarly magics—and he would not feel unprotected as he did now.
“If what you do will be the end of the world, why do you do it?”
Zale smiled ruefully. “Not the end of the world. No, not right away. Only the end of life the way it’s always been. Besides, it is not as if I have a choice in the matter. Long ago I waived that right. Were I to resist my master, I would be devoured in an instant.
“This life is all I will have, Tau-Strinus. In it I enjoy vast power—powers and pleasures that you could never begin to guess at. But when I die, my soul is at the mercy of the Lord of the Abyss. So I give him no reason to punish me. And so I will never die. I will cheat him of his prize, Loremaster. But to do so I must help him bring about his wishes. I must prepare for his arrival. There must be blood and fire and chaos at his coming, Tau-Strinus.” Rale shrugged. “It is his natural environment.
“In any event,” he said, putting away the gongola with a metallic ting, “it is too late to stop it now. The tear has been opened and I was the one who tore it. After my errands I must go back to continue widening the rupture. But even so, as we have been sitting here, hundreds of little devils have entered into our plane. When the tear is complete, the Master himself will step through—to the raucous acclaim of his minions.”
“I still don’t understand why you have come here,” Tau-Strinus said. “We cannot help you widen this tear even if we desired to.”
“Of course not. Your skills would be useless. I have hundreds of diabolists working on it night and day. No, my need of you is different. Those who work on this task must be untouched by the soulish magics. I have come to you because you and your disciples must…research something. Ah. That caught your interest. Yes, you must learn how something is done and how to replicate it on demand.”
Tau-Strinus turned his body to face Rale directly. “What is this thing we must investigate?”
“It is a…power. Another power. The only power that could possibly stand opposed to the Master’s own.”
Rale laughed until he coughed. “No, mage, not necromancy. How can the dead oppose us? No, I speak of theurgy.”
“Theurgy? Magic of the gods?”
“Not ‘gods,’ Tau-Strinus, ‘God.’ As there is one Lord of the Abyss there is one Lord of the Cosmos.”
“Lord of the Cosmos? Diabolist, you know I have no interest in spirits and gods. I thought I’d made it clear that—”
The fury returned to the diabolist’s white eyes. “Listen to me. These powers are real, you fool. The Lord of the Cosmos possesses the only power that can rival my master’s. Some dare to whisper that it eclipses my master’s. As we strive to disintegrate the boundary between this world and the Abyss, others will come against us, others who will bring this power with them. They will not hinder us, do you understand, mage? They must not be allowed to exert this power when our Master is upon the very threshold. All depends on it.”
He seized Tau-Strinus by the hair. “You, mage, will discover how this magic is performed. And how it may be turned against our opponents. I cannot delve into it, nor can any of my diabolists. We have tried. It must be those who have not been touched by my Master. You, mage, and your flock will seize this power for us. And when the time comes for the great battle, you will be by my side turning this accursed force against them. And then our Lord will step into this world in triumph!”
He released Tau-Strinus but held him with his gaze. “I do not have to tell you what the cost of failure will be. But even the cost of success is high.” He laughed horribly. “It is the end of the world, Tau-Strinus. We are all going to die in agony. Soon or late. But if you succeed in this task, I can at least assure you a tortureless death.”
On Midsummer’s Eve, Tiercel became a holy knight at last.
He burst onto stage in a flourish of cape and helm and drawn sword. Two hundred gazes struck him like a wave.
“Do not be so quick to reckon thy victory, Dark One,” he shouted across the stage.
The actors’ reaction was more precious still. All ten forgot to be guards and wizards and captured ladies and became instead confused peasants. They squinted at him from behind glittering masks. Geros’s switch had worked as planned: Not even they knew who he was.
“Release her, Ulcryp, and I shall bless thee with a quick death. Refuse and I shall amuse myself with your undying. Tooth or tongue, I will leave this place with Lady Pouline as my bride.”
Tiercel felt them snapping back to the mummery. Most of them, anyway.
“Ah, you… Uh, you can’t…” Horace sputtered from atop the mock parapet. “That is, nay, Sir Piander, thou shalt not have my prize. She will appease the Deep for me and begin the New Forever!” He pulled Garetta’s arm and she fell into his embrace. “Pouline is mine, Piander. You are too late. Guards!”
The guard mummers nearest Tiercel drew their weapons and charged. He deflected their blows and dispatched them, just as he’d watched Geros do a hundred times.
More guards rushed him, but he vaulted to the parapet. Black-clad elite guards blocked his pursuit of the wizard and the lady. He met eyes with Nik, but saw no recognition dawn. Nik launched a fierce combination of attacks. Tiercel parried and dodged, but took a hard hit to the helm, proving that close observation was no substitute for actual practice.
Tiercel was truly fighting now. Moving on instinct. Perhaps it was the mask or the risk he took or the blow to the head, but he felt the fight become suddenly easier. It was as if he had gained inhuman speed and could easily avoid Nik’s attacks. He leapt upon the battlements, improvising deflections and thrusts and spins.
Without knowing exactly how, he found he had taken Nik to the ground, defeated the other elite guards, and exited the stage.
In the wings, he saw the other mummers pointing at him and heard their whispers, but there was no time to enjoy it. Horace and Garetta were already on for the final scene and his entrance cue came.
He leapt on stage with a shout, feeling his sense of clarity surge again. In his mind he could see the rest of the scene queued up, one event at a time. His worry that he wouldn’t be able to remember what to do next vanished like fog. He could see it all lined up in order, as if he were on the outside of it looking at start to finish all at once. He could see his lines and actions and those of his fellow mummers right through to the end. It almost seemed redundant to actually carry them out. But he did.
The foul wizard Ulcryp had rendered Pouline unconscious and was muttering arcane incantations, preparing to sacrifice her to the dark powers. Brave Sir Piander strode to face the wizard and struck his sword against his own breastplate in challenge.
“You are too late, Piander,” the wizard said. “I have already consigned her spirit to the abyss.”
“I don’t believe you, Ulcryp,” Piander said. “Your every utterance is treachery. I am taking her away and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“Oh? This place is my haven, pathetic fool. You have come to the dragon’s den. Nothing may defeat him there!”
Horace’s evil laughter impressed even Tiercel. The audience watched agape. In the back a child started to cry.
Tiercel raised his sword and shouted, “For Adrunda Hall!”
This was a dangerous part to do without rehearsal. Piander’s blade was supposed to appear to bounce off the wizard as off a boulder, but they had never practiced it together. Tiercel could see Horace begin to flinch away.
Tiercel struck well behind Horace and made the blade appear to bounce away. He struck again and again, seeing Horace relax into the act. With a final strike his sword clanked down to the stage. Horace reared back his head and laughed again.
“You see, Piander? You cannot touch me.” He traced a pattern in the air with his hands. “Now taste the awesome wrath of Grand Mage Ulcryp in all his fury.”
He clapped his hands three times and a black-robed demon (played by Ig Howson) ran shrieking onto the stage. He ran circles around Tiercel, who flailed his arms at the demon ineffectually. With what was supposed to be a cry from the deepest blackness, Iggy hollered and struck Tiercel with a black sword. Tiercel swooned and a black curtain dropped between him and the rest of the characters.
The musicians sitting beside the stage began playing mystical sounding music. Two angels strode forward from the wings. They stood at Piander’s head and feet, their arms lifted angelically.
Piander roused and looked about in wonder. “Where am I? Is— Is this the Neverend?”
The angels moved their arms up and down in unison, and from offstage Jiunda spoke through a bullshorn hoop to make her voice sound mysterious.
“Good Piander, arise.”
Tiercel stood, looking from one angel to the other. “Who are you?”
“Good Piander, you cannot stay here.”
“Where am I?”
“Good Piander, you have much to do before you may enter our fair land.”
A copper sword lowered down on two ropes.
“Good Piander, you have found favor with the One Who Is. Take this blessed blade. Use it to do what you must.”
Tiercel took it from the ropes and swung it about experimentally. “Does it have special powers?”
The angels began stepping backwards toward the wings. “Good Piander, if you do well, the blade will aid you. If you use it for ill, it will shatter.”
The angels exited and the black curtain lifted. Ulcryp, his back to Piander, leaned over Pouline, a massive yellow candle dripping wax onto his rune-inscribed gauntlets. He sang a dire song in a forbidden tongue. From out of his robes he drew a long silver dagger. His voice rose and he held the dagger over Pouline’s white neck.
Piander crossed the stage with a cry, brandishing his blessed sword. Ulcryp spun around, dropping his candle.
“Now, Ulcryp, you will perish.”
“You continue to defy death, holy knight. But you cannot prevent what I do now!” He raised the dagger over Pouline’s neck.
Tiercel rotated his blade to catch the afternoon sun, then swung it and struck the wizard down. Horace fell with a gasp. The audience cheered enthusiastically.
On the altar Pouline moaned and rolled her head. Piander sheathed his sword and lifted her into his arms. She squinted into his eyes, perhaps trying to figure out who he was, but then rested her head against his chest affectionately.
Tiercel strode to center stage, Pouline still in his arms. The audience watched him carefully, jostling each other to get a view into his mask.
“Hear me, beings of chain and dark, Piander of Adrunda Hall has vanquished you in the name of the One Who Is. In the abyss you were cast and in the abyss you will stay. Should you ever seek power in this realm again, know this: His sword and His servant will rise to oppose you, even if it be three ages hence.”
Tiercel swept the crowd with his eyes and nodded. In one voice they recited with him: “Up from earth, up from hell, night’s black sword by Truth is felled.” The people clapped and whistled and Tiercel carried Garetta offstage.
* * *
They continued to applaud as the entire cast, still wearing their masks, came onstage and stood in a line.
A man in a jester’s costume and mask came to stand in front of them. It was a costume that had not been used in the play. The audience and the cast murmured in anticipation. Only Tiercel knew who it was.
The jester bowed to the audience, bells tinkling on his belt and mask. “Fair ladies and noble men, I trust you have enjoyed the mummery?”
The people cheered again, but as the applause began to die down a man’s voice rose: “Get on to the unmasking!”
“Yes,” someone else said. “The unmasking.”
The crowd took up the chant. “Un-masking, un-masking, un-masking.”
“Very well,” the jester shouted. “The unmasking!”
The people cheered. Many of them darted forward to get closer seats.
“You know the rules very well,” the jester said. “Whoever guesses a mummer’s identity receives a drink of his choice from Manlan’s stores, paid for by that mummer. Unless most of you guess it, in which case we all laugh but no drinks are exchanged. If no one guesses the mummer’s identity, the whole village buys him three drinks of his choice and a double helping of Manlan’s dinner special. If you knew who was behind a mask before you got here, you can’t guess. Agreed?”
The group answered together: “Agreed.”
“We shall start with me,” the jester said. “But, since Manlan gives me a free meal and drink anyway, I will save you your missed guesses.” He turned his back to the audience, pulled his mask away from his white-bearded face, and spun back to the crowd.
“Geros!” they shouted.
“I knew it right away.”
An old man wearing a slightly out of style hat lifted his chin. “Rector, you’re taking us for a ride, heh?”
“Why, Yerda,” Geros said, “whatever makes you think such a thing?”
“Ah, I knew it,” the man said. “You pulled a switch, heh? I know good and well you were Piander until the end.”
“And I have defrauded you out of Manlan’s white ale, have I, Yerda?”
“That’s a fact.”
“Well, you’re right. I switched out with our mystery mummer just before the battle. You didn’t think I could scale that wall at my age, did you? But just to show you I stand on the mark, Yerda, I’ll treat you to a round of Manlan’s finest myself.”
Kayla Endtown shook her frayed yellow locks. “So who’s the other’n, Rector?”
“Now, Kayla,” Geros said, “you wouldn’t want me to spoil the mystery for everyone, would you?”
“No,” Geros said, coughing slightly. “We shall save our mystery mummer until the end.”
The crowd booed, but not too much.
“Let us begin the guessing with foul Ulcryp’s accursed guards. Guards, step forward.”
Five masked guards strode forward. Geros held a long leafy branch over the first guard’s head.
“Loon Fallow!” several people shouted.
Loon tore his mask off in disgust, to the delight of the crowd. He stepped offstage and into the crowd.
Geros moved the branch to the next guard.
“I’d know those beautiful broad shoulders anywhere,” Belna Swinner shouted. “It’s Sterg Debson or I’m a two-headed tree swallow.”
The guard made no move.
Geros banged the branch on his head. “Show yourself.”
“Yes,” Belna shouted. “I want you to buy me a drink, Sterg, and drink it with me!”
The crowd hooted suggestively and clapped.
“Now, now, you filthy-minded backsliders,” Geros shouted. “I’ll have none of that in my presence.”
Someone answered from the crowd: “Then you’d better go home, Rector!”
The crowd laughed, and Geros joined them, his laughter soon turning to coughing.
He turned to the guard. “Why won’t you remove your mask, young man? You’re holding up dinner.”
“Because I don’t want to drink with that two-headed tree swallow!”
Belna shrieked and the crowd laughed, and Sterg took off his mask. He jumped off the stage and twirled Belna in his arms.
Geros moved the branch.
The guessing was easy after that. There being very few people in the town who were missing from the crowd, it didn’t take much to figure out who that plump girl or that tall man with a limp might be. Only Nik and Croos earned drinks and dinner from the village: They had conspired to take on each voice patterns and distinctive mannerisms to win the game and the meal.
Finally, with the sun well beneath the western ridge, only Tiercel remained onstage and unmasked. Geros dropped his branch and brought him forward. Villagers and cast members alike peered at him with squinted eyes.
“Well,” Geros said, “any guesses?”
No one spoke.
Tiercel smiled beneath his mask, but the anxiety that had sprung up in him when the unmasking began had now become almost unbearable. He wondered if this plan had been such a great idea after all.
“No one?” Geros said. “Come, come, now. Manlan’s finest awaits the winner.”
Tiercel could see that the crowd was getting uneasy. Geros played it to the full.
“I will sweeten the prize,” Geros said. “If one of you can guess Piander’s identity, I will purchase the three drinks and double helping myself.” He challenged them with his fierce gaze. “Perhaps if I had him turn around for you?” He turned to Tiercel. “Good Piander, holy knight, savior of Pouline and servant of the One Who Is, turn around for the good people.”
Tiercel held his arms out and turned around.
“It won’t do no good,” someone shouted. “We don’t know who he is.”
“There, you see?” Geros said. “A good strong young man like that. Surely you know him. I thought for certain that the backside view would tip you off, Kayla, Belva, Teel? And what about you, Garetta? You played opposite him. You laid your cheek against his strong chest. You’ve got your eye on every handsome youth in the whole valley. Surely you know who this is?”
“I don’t, Rector, and that’s a fact,” Garetta said. “But I’d sure like to find out. The way he leapt up the wall to save me, the way he fought for my honor, the way he looks in his armor, and the way he held me… Lo, yes, I want to know who it is!”
Geros smiled deviously. “Remember that thought, Garetta. All of you remember.”
“It’s a trick!” someone shouted.
“Yes, Rector. You’ve brought in a ringer from another village!”
The crowd nodded and agreed. “A ringer! Yes, from Timmons Forge, I’ll wager.”
“No!” Geros shouted, a note of fury in his voice. “He is no ringer. He is a young man from Wharram Dale and nowhere else. You know him. He is one of you. You see him every day. Look around you. Who is missing?”
The villagers murmured and turned this way and that. Tiercel could sense a rising frustration mixed with their desire to see beneath his mask.
“No one is missing,” Yerda said, his cheeks reddening. “The whole town is here. I’ll wager my new plow team that you’re a liar, Rector though you be, and that this boy’s a ringer from somewhere’s else.”
The crowd gasped.
“Yerda,” Geros said, “I can’t accept your wager. I’m a holy man and forbidden from the gambling. And,” he said, and he paused for effect.
Tiercel knew the moment was upon him. His desire to see their shock had long ago been drowned by his fear of the repercussions. Still, it was too late to turn back now. All along he had wanted the trick to work. Now he was sorry it had.
“And Yerda,” Geros said, “I wouldn’t want to deprive you of your new plow team.” He turned to Tiercel. “Good Riander, show yourself.”
Tiercel took off his mask.
There was a delicious moment of silence when Tiercel could almost hear their eyes widen.
Then a woman screamed, men bellowed in anger, and, behind it all, Geros laughed and coughed.
“Who is it?” Horace said.
“Who is it? What do you mean, ‘Who is it?’” Belva’s mother answered. “Can’t you see with your eyes?
“It’s the whore’s boy.”
This time when the two hundred pairs of eyes locked onto him, it was with loathing.
* * *
The lamb was delicious. Manlan had slow roasted it on the spit since before dawn. The green beans and capers, drowning in goat butter, were unlike anything Tiercel had ever eaten. And the yeast bread was the most mouth-watering food he had yet had the pleasure of swallowing.
But it all tasted like shame.
Tiercel sat at the table of honor, next to the fire, alone. There was an invisible ring around him into which no one would step. The few times he looked up, he found people looking at him, but quickly they would turn away.
The old men had broken out the darts and bones and several games were underway, but their usual hearty laughter was absent. Manlan had cleared a space for dancing, and the musicians were there playing, but the music seemed slow and half-hearted and no one danced.
Tiercel looked around the torchlit hall, searching for a friendly face. Geros had returned to the chantry for his tonic. He spotted Nik talking to Croos, but his cousin had his back to him. He heard dainty laughter and turned to see beautiful Garetta on the lap of Ig Howson. Her eyes met Tiercel’s briefly, and he felt his blood surge at the memory of her words and of her body in his arms. But her face wrenched as if she’d just smelled a dead cat, and she turned around in Iggy’s lap.
Judging from the rising sounds of voices and scuffed chairs, Manlan’s ales were beginning to have an effect on the celebrants.
Tiercel felt a light touch on his knee. Two boys no older than five stared at him with wide eyes. “Ho there, Ginder,” he said with a smile. “Ho there, Bosh.”
“Ho, Tiercel,” Ginder said. “Tiercel, me’n Bosh was wondering how you learned to fight like that.”
“Like in the mummery?”
“Uh huh. ‘Cause we never knew’d you could fight like that. And we’d sure like to learn how.”
Bosh tripped over Ginder’s feet, trying to get close to Tiercel. “Did you bring your sword? Can I try it?”
Tiercel laughed. “No, I didn’t bring my sword to dinner, Bosh. That’s just for the mummery.”
The boys looked devastated.
“Tell you what, though. Tomorrow, after your morning chores, come on over’t my place and I’ll let you try it out. What do you say?”
“Dead man’s bones, do you mean it?” Ginder said.
“Dead man’s bones.”
The boys laughed and started dueling with mock swords.
“Ginder Cole. Bosh Fry!” a woman’s voice said. “What are you doing? Get away from there.”
Tiercel spotted Ginder’s mother moving through the crowd toward the boys. “Evening, millerwife Cole. The boys weren’t causing any—”
“Don’t you millerwife me, you offscouring.”
“But I wasn’t—”
“You stay away from my boy, do you hear?”
Tiercel lifted his hands in surrender, but she hesitated, her lips pursing and unpursing. Finally she let it out.
“And another thing, whorekin. I’ve wanted to say this to you since you were born. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to your blessed mother. Never. You and that father of yours who couldn’t keep his breeches laced for two days without borking every two-penny whore between here and Bearton Ridge. The day that tomato strode into town with you ripe to pop was the worst day this town has ever seen. The worst. You destroyed the best woman I’ve ever known, you filthy pup. Don’t you never talk to my boy again, do you hear me? Never!”
The crowd parted for her as she left, the two boys dragging behind. All the heads in the inn swiveled to watch her go, then swiveled back at Tiercel.
He pretended to be lost in his dinner.
One of the serving wenches, Rebinda, clomped forward and slammed another platter of food and two more mugs of berry wine onto Tiercel’s table. People turned to watch.
“There’s your prize, underwit,” Rebinda said. “Manlan says enjoy it, ‘cause it’s the last’n you’re ever going to eat from his kitchen.”
The onlookers chuckled.
“Oh,” Rebinda said, “there’s something I forgot to add to your lamb, whore boy. The juice.” She coughed up a monstrous ball of spit and deposited it onto his platter. “Eat up now!”
The crowd erupted in cheers, patting Rebinda on the back as she headed back to the kitchen.
Tiercel smiled to himself and sighed. He wiped his face, grabbed his plate and mug, and stood to leave.
Loon Fallow, Iggy, and Sterg Debson blocked his way.
“Where you think you’re going, whoreboy?” Sterg said, slurring slightly.
Tiercel saw the village men coming forward and the women stepping back. “Since I’m obviously not welcome here, I was going to take my dinner outside.”
Iggy knocked the mug from Tiercel’s hand. “Not with food you ain’t paid for, you ain’t.”
“I don’t have to pay for it, Iggy. I won it.”
“Yeah, with a trick,” Sterg said slowly.
“Right,” Tiercel said. “A trick just like the one Croos and Nik used to win their dinner. It’s all part of th—”
“No,” Iggy said. “Not like that. Croos and Nik ain’t you.”
“You think you’re a big man now, don’t ya, candle boy?” Loon said. “You think that just because you fooled us all that we’re gonna change our minds about you, don’t ya? Well, it ain’t gonna happen, you got me?”
“Watch out, Loon,” Iggy said. “That’s a knight you’re dealin’ with now. A holy knight!”
That got a laugh.
“Ain’t that right, whore boy? You think you’re some kind of knight now, don’t ya?”
“Yeah,” Sterg said.
“I never said—”
“I guess it’s off to Wyclassburg Academy for you now, isn’t it? Going to go join the paladins, aren’t ya, whore boy? Maybe you can make them some pretty candles so they can see to shine up their armor.”
Another laugh. Tiercel felt that comment cut deep, but he couldn’t have said why.
“Well, I hate to spit in your carrots—oh, somebody’s already done that, ain’t they?—but no son of a street slut and a whoremonger can ever be a holy knight. Got it?” As if to emphasize his point, Iggy knocked Tiercel’s plate to the floor.
“Hey!” Rebinda said. “Cut that out, Ig Howson. You’re cleaning that up.”
“Stay out of this, Rebinda,” Iggy said.
“Hey,” Loon said. “Make holy harlot boy clean it up. It’s his prize, ain’t it?”
Tiercel turned back to the table for the other plate and mugs. Sterg growled and spun him around by the shoulder and launched a great sweeping punch. Tiercel ducked easily and counterpunched the big youth in the gut. Sterg doubled over.
“Look,” Tiercel said, “I just want to leave, all r—”
The others fell upon him like dogs on a ham bone. Women screamed. Someone fell over a chair.
Tiercel slid, pushed, kicked, and bit his way free of his assailants. He leapt to his feet…and found himself in that strange state in which he could anticipate everyone’s moves.
He saw Iggy grab a knife from a table. He saw in Sterg’s eyes that the next punch would be just like the first. Behind him, Tiercel sensed someone rushing forward at a charge.
In that moment of intensity and danger, Tiercel was struck by an unexpected thought: This is too easy. It seemed everyone had suddenly become far drunk with barley whiskey. It was ridiculously simple to avoid their lumbering attacks. Even his thinking was faster. It was as if he could see the thoughts forming in their minds.
He dodged the charger—Horace—without looking, knowing Horace’s momentum would carry him into Sterg, ruining his planned attack. He kept his focus on Iggy’s eyes, fearing the blade.
But that, too, turned out to be about as dangerous as a billy goat with a crossbow.
Iggy slashed the knife at him with what must have seemed like a lightning-fast stroke. But by the time it began, Tiercel had already leaned out of its range. He actually had to wait for the blade to pass by. He had to struggle to keep his mind from wandering in the interim.
He saw a path toward the exit. Rather, he saw the path that would be there when he strode through it. As Loon picked up a chair to smash over his head, Tiercel stepped into the emerging path.
Loon’s chair smashed into Sterg instead of Tiercel, sending Sterg over Tiercel’s table by the fire to slam against the firepit.
A shower of sparks leapt out of the pit onto the ale-soaked floor. Instantly a fire sprang up, lighting the room a hot yellow.
Tiercel glanced over his shoulder on the way out. He saw people falling away from the fire and others rushing forward to fight it. He saw Manlan, a towering barrel of a man, burst from his kitchen in a wrath. And he knew, just as he had known how to dodge, that the fire would quickly be doused.
But the more dangerous fire, the one now raging in the people of Wharram Dale, wouldn’t be quenched so easily.
Back in 2002 I wrote 30,000 words of this story. It's my epic fan-tasy, my magnum opus, the book of my heart.
Things were going along great. I was loving the story and the characters. I even posted the prologue and first chapter on my Web page.
Then I had a hard drive crash.
No, I had a hard drive heart attack. A massive HD coronary failure.
So I loaded Windows onto my secondary hard drive and put in my backup CD where this story was pre-served.
Only to discover that there were about 3 (out of 30) subdirectories on this CD that had somehow got-ten corrupted. Including the one containing the 30,000 words of my book.
All I had left were some of my notes and the 6,800 words of it I'd posted to the Web page (the portion you can read on this page).
Perhaps you can imagine my despair. Not only had I lost the hard drive, sending me into binary and financial distress, but I'd lost 88% of my novel. I actually went into grief.
But the story would not die. After about two years of grieving I began writ-ing notes again. Doing maps, coming up with histories, replanning the story, developing the characters, etc. Until now I have almost 90,000 words of notes.
But no more words to read. Not yet.
In fact, I'll probably ditch the prologue you see here and replace it with something else. The chapter 1 you see may remain, however.
It turns out that the story idea I have in my head now is, I think, about 10 times better than what it was going to be the first time.
It's almost as if God inten-tionally crashed my hard drive and corrupted my CD, so I would start over. Maybe I needed those ex-tra years for the story to simmer in my head.
Maybe God picked up my story like an Etch-A-Sketch and shook it all up. "Start over," He said.
Maybe now I'm ready.
Now if only I could find the time to write it...
If I ever do Marcher Lord Press, this may be the first title I release.