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Seven: The Years 605-808 afe

Seven: The Years 605-808 afe

Even the Sparrow Finds a Home

Fallen, fallen was Ilkazar, like ruin, like death. What more was there when that end had been accomplished?

Varthlokkur wandered away, depressed and lonely. His great work was complete. His goals had been fulfilled.

Already victory tasted of bile. Two decades he had paid for it, and now it seemed without point, possibly even an error. In destroying something he found vile he had also destroyed much that was good. For all its wickedness of heart, the corpus of the Empire had given common folk much for which to be thankful: peace throughout most of the west, a common law and language, relative social and physical security… Like maggots, Varthlokkur foresaw, a thousand petty lords would appear to devour the Imperial cadaver. The west would collapse into chaos.

His responsibility troubled him deeply.

Should he terminate his tale now? Be done with his past, with having to observe and endure the consequences of what he had done?

No, he thought not. There might be something he could do to justify his existence, to redeem the evil he had done, to ease the coming pain.

He looked up. His feet were headed north. As good a direction as any when you have nowhere specific to go. He retreated to his thoughts, harrying something he’d heard from Royal.

There was a time for everything, Royal had told him. A time for birth and death, for love and hatred, for planting and reaping, for mourning and laughter, for war and peace, for construction and destruction. And a time for the love of a woman. Only a man himself could judge when his times had come. As Ilkazar fell farther behind, he realized that, in his country way, Royal had been as wise as the priests and wizards who had taught him later. Loneliness inundated him. He missed Royal and the old woman. Hatred and purpose gone, he had receded to his point of origin, alone in a lonely world.

Loneliness had never been this absolute. Solitude he had known well during his years in Shinsan, but always the intolerable existence of Ilkazar had ameliorated that.

“Fallen, fallen is Ilkazar, that was mighty among the nations…”

The loss of his mother had left him desolate, yet that had been softened by the kindness of the executioner, and of Royal. Now Ilkazar’s streets were the dwelling places of jackals. Nothing and no one needed him. His name was already legend, gothic with darkness and dread. It would grow with time and retelling. While he remained Varthlokkur, he would move in a vacuum created by fear that he would again use the Power he had revealed at Ilkazar.

And what of womankind? he asked himself. His ignorance of the other sex was as vast as his knowledge of the Power. Too many years, formative, learning years, had been squandered to purchase vengeance. Could any woman accept the Empire Destroyer? He was sure he’d be ages finding one such. She’d have to be as alienated as he, and as unhappy, as unwise. Where could he find a female mirror of himself?

He took another name. Eldred the Wanderer became a face familiar along the roads connecting the western city-states. He became renowned as a man pursuing a dream, though no one knew its nature—least of all the Wanderer himself. He thought he had found a worthy project when he rediscovered the wretchedness of the poor. His sorcery could alleviate their misery. He raised a poor man to power in Hellin Daimiel, to aid his fellows, but the man proved more cruel and corrupt than any hereditary monarch. In Libiannin, a man raised less high tried torturing him to compel him to give more. Eldred became a man as despised as Varthlokkur had been feared, briefly wresting the title “Old Meddler” from the less obtrusive Star Rider.

Depressed, he fled east, to the steppes behind the Mountains of M’Hand. He found his thoughts trending darkly. Had he any real reason to live? He rehearsed all the old arguments. Then one night, in a gloomy ravine beside a small creek, with the steppe wind moaning through scrawny trees overhead, he took strange instruments from his saddlebags, drew pentagrams, burned incense, sang spells, and performed a powerful divination. Demons added their voices to the mourning of the wind. Familiars of devils came and went, smoke things half-seen. Before dawn, he had had a shadowy look down the river of time.

There were two women waiting somewhere, if he could but endure. It would be a wait of centuries, and the divination had been extraordinarily cloudy. One he would use, one he would love. His love waited in a time of flux, when extraordinary powers would be malignly dipping envenomed fingers into the affairs of men. The necromancy couldn’t be clarified. Forces Varthlokkur thought of as the Fates and Norns would be squabbling amongst themselves.

Yet he elected to live, to pursue this love-destiny. The Fates, he felt, had commanded him.

Somehow, somewhere (perhaps from the Tervola or Princes Thaumaturge of the Dread Empire), he had acquired an unshakable conviction that the Fates controlled his destiny. A collateral portion of his divination troubled him deeply. Mourning Ilkazar, he had sworn never again to use the Power for destruction. The divination said that he would, during the coming age of confusion. That saddened him. Varthlokkur stared into his fire, lost in contemplation. He had gained command of all sorceries while in Shinsan. Spells had been put upon him. At what cost? He couldn’t remember. His selective amnesia disturbed and frightened him. He had become ageless, though not immortal. He would die someday, when the Fates willed, but he need never age. He could reverse his aging when he wanted, to the lower limit of the age he had been when the spells were cast.

He let himself grow old. The old were revered and well-treated. Alone as few men had ever been alone, he cherished even such inconsequential kindnesses as he garnered this way.

He found the proverbs “No man is an island” and “Man lives not by bread alone” uncomfortably true.

Alone. So alone. Could he not find just one friend?

For a time he played shaman to a nomad tribe on the steppe. It was a comedown, but a position for which he was grateful. He couldn’t renounce the Power completely. Because he needed to be needed, he deluded himself with the belief that the tribesmen loved him. He still didn’t understand human nature. The tribe went to war. Its chieftains became righteously indignant when he refused to use the Power on their behalf. Nor did he employ more than the minimum necessary to insure his survival when they turned upon him.

He wandered again, through the basin of the Roë, amongst the oldest cities of Man. He saw nothing to elevate his opinion of his own species. He wished the time-river would roll faster. She waited somewhere downstream.

There was an old road running east from Iwa Skolovda, one that seemed to lead nowhere. Periodically, the Kings of Iwa Skolovda sent colonists along it into East Heatherland and Shara, where they were supposed to supplant the savages through stubbornness and numbers, winning new territories for the Crown. Such movements were invariably devoured by the barbarians.

The road was wide and well-paved near the city, but after a dozen leagues, once it no longer served to bring produce from the countryside, it soon degenerated into a path. One spring day, two hundred years after the fall of Ilkazar, Varthlokkur followed that road, a sad old man who hadn’t yet found a thing to make living worthwhile. But recently he’d encountered an interesting legend. It concerned a remote castle of unknown origins, and an immortal of equally nebulous background. Both waited at the end of this road, in that knot of tremendous mountains called the Dragon’s Teeth. Both, Varthlokkur had divined, could become an inextricable part of his fate.

He had found a scrap of the legend in one city, a fragment of myth in another, and a piece of speculation in a third. Together, they had hinted of a castle called Fangdred, or the Castle of Wind, as old as The Place of A Thousand Iron Statues, and as feared, and as mysterious as that alleged stronghold of the Star Rider. In Fangdred dwelt an immortal known only as the Old Man of the Mountain, who supposedly had retreated there to escape the jealousy of shorter-lived men.

Maybe, Varthlokkur thought, he and this immortal were two of a kind. Maybe Fangdred could provide what he so desperately needed: a home and a friend.

Varthlokkur feared he was slowly going mad. In the midst of a raging, barbaric world where each man interacted with hundreds of others, living, loving, laughing, weeping, dying, and giving birth, he alone was outside, an observer totally alienated from human involvement. He didn’t want to be outside, didn’t want to be alone—yet he didn’t know how to pass through the doorway of human intercourse. When he helped, he was cursed. When he didn’t help, he was hated. Yet there was no way he could abandon the Power that damned him.

And Ilkazar had made him fear human relationships. A romanticized relationship with a mother whose face he couldn’t remember had set his feet plodding a narrow, hard, joyless road cruel to the life-paths it had intersected. Relationships never worked the way they did in his dreams; dreams where love dwelt, and peace, without pain, became something real, while harsh, double-edged reality gradually became ghostly.

The sole dam holding the madness at bay was the woman waiting downtime.

He followed that road for weeks, across East Heatherland, into foothills, then up and down the flanks of tremendous, brooding mountains. His path tended ever upward. Each mountain rose taller than the last. Soon he was higher than he had believed possible. The trail hung a half mile above the tops of the trees. Eagles planed below him. But the road continued upward over gray stone and snowy mountains, a barely discernable trail carved from living rock, following ridgetops, sometimes passing through tunnels, climbing, climbing. Finally, in a place so high he could hardly breathe, Varthlokkur paused. The road had taken a sharp turn around a knifelike corner of cliff, and ended.

Weary, cold, he wondered if he had come a thousand miles for nothing. Then, barely discernable through the ice and snow, he noticed steps cut into the flank of the mountain. Tracing their rise, he spied a tower with crenellated battlements peeping over a looming scarp above. With a groan, resigned, determined, he began that last thousand feet of travel.

The stairs ended on a narrow ledge fronting the fortress. The tower, that he had seen from below, perched on the very peak of the mountain, and, like a lighthouse, reached high into the wind. It had no visible doors or windows. The bulk of the stronghold rambled down to this ledge, which overlooked a thousand-foot precipice. So this was Fangdred, and Mount El Kabar. Briefly, before hammering on the sagging gate, Varthlokkur looked out across the Dragon’s Teeth.

It was obvious how they had come by their name. Each peak was a giant gray-and-white fang ripping at the underbelly of the sky. Countless hungry fangs huddled deep, narrow, shadowed canyons all the way to a shadowed horizon.

Varthlokkur faced the gate.

An odd current stirred the musty air of the chamber atop Fangdred’s Wind Tower. Dust moved nervously, as if suddenly charged with static electricity. Soft sounds, dust-dampened, whispers—a breath of movement. In a seat of ancient carven stone a gaunt figure, so covered with dust and enmeshed in cobwebs that it seemed a mummy, drew a tiny breath. It echoed through the sealed room. Eyes bright with life-pleasure opened in a wizened face. A long white beard tumbled down over a dusty blue smock which itself became dust the moment its wearer stirred.

The eyes, once open, were surprising. Though set in an ancient face, they seemed young and laughter-vibrant. Yet they weren’t the eyes of a sane man. He had lived too long to have escaped the kiss of madness.

For a long time the old man remained motionless, his face drawn in concentration. He had been asleep a hundred years, waiting for something interesting to happen. What was it this time? he wondered. His glance halted at a mirror set into the wall. The mirror reflected not the dusty chamber, but a view of the trail to El Kabar. “Ah! A visitor.” The sigh so soft barely stirred the dust in his whiskers. It had been ages since anyone had come looking for the Old Man of the Mountain. Life at Fangdred was lonely. He was pleased. A visitor. That was worth waking for.

He gathered strength for an hour before investing energy in anything more than breathing and moving his eyes. Those eyes aged quickly, the life-joy fading. Too old, too old. His wrinkled hand finally moved a tiny phial in a niche in the arm of his throne. He pushed it with a wrinkled finger. It fell. The sound of its breaking was a cymbal-crash in the empty chamber. Crimson vapor spread, rose. The Old Man inhaled deeply. Each breath of red mist sent a wave of life through his spare frame. Soon there was rosiness in his skin and strength in his long-unused muscles.

At last he rose and stumbled across the chamber, the dust of his smock falling from his otherwise naked body. His bare feet made muted, hollow slaps in the dust. He went to a cabinet of bottles, beakers, and urns, leaned against it while catching his breath. Then he took a small bottle down, unstopped it, swallowed its contents. What was it? Certainly something bitter. He made a frightful face. Also, something of amazing potency. His body visibly livened.

So. This Old Man was a magician, a specialist in the life-magicks, a difficult field indeed. There were other magicks about that chamber, but, with the exception of the far-seeing mirror, none were beyond any sorcerer’s apprentice.

Another hour passed. The Old Man grew stronger. When he felt truly ready, he went to a door—invisible till he pulled a lever disguised as ornamentation—which opened on a dark staircase leading downward. Rambling through the castle proper, he observed changes that time had wrought, noting what needed doing to put the place in order.

As he reached a door opening on the courtyard behind the castle gate, there came a sudden boom! boom! boom! from the great bronze portal. His visitor had arrived. Hobbling slightly because he had twisted an ankle on the way, he hurried to a huge lever. He shook in the chill wind as he heaved against it. Creaks and groans bespoke a counterweight moving. Turning purple in the cold, he wondered if the gate would yield. Then a line of light appeared at one edge and slowly grew.

They stood a moment, staring at one another, considering. They were much alike, yet different. The Old Man’s hair and beard were totally white. There was still a little color in Varthlokkur’s. The wizard was taller, but loneliness had engraved similar lines on their faces. They knew one another immediately, not by name, but by their mutual needs. They were friends before words were spoken.

The Old Man indicated his nakedness, motioned Varthlokkur through the gate. The wizard inclined his head slightly, accepting. Still he did not speak.

The Old Man closed the gate, led Varthlokkur into the castle.

The wizard studied the dusty halls as he followed the Old Man, noting the age and gloom, and lack of life-signs in the pools of gray light cast by sunbeams stealing through high windows. Obviously, little happened here.

In a place deep within the fortress, carved from the rock of the mountain itself, the Old Man made passes before a large, dusty cabinet. Varthlokkur nodded, recognizing the counter to a spell of stasis. The cabinet front vanished. Dust cascaded.

The Old Man gestured while he considered the contents. Varthlokkur needed no orders. With a minimal spell of repulsion, he removed the dust from a stone table. The Old Man produced a time-shielded flask of wine. Varthlokkur set out plates, silverware, and pewter mugs. The Old Man brought forth a platter of hot, steaming ham, and another with fresh fruit. He produced new clothing, and hastily dressed. Once he stopped shivering, he joined Varthlokkur.

The wizard found the wine excellent, though it resurrected old sorrows. It was the golden, spiced wine of Ilkazar, as delicate as a virgin’s kiss, and nearly unicorn-rare.

“I am Varthlokkur.”

The Old Man considered that. Finally, he nodded. “The Silent One Who Walks With Grief. Of Ilkazar.”

“And Eldred the Wanderer.”

“A sad man. I watched him occasionally. He drank a bitter wine. Dogs can be more humane than men. They don’t know the meaning of ingratitude. Nor of treachery.”

“True. But I’ve abandoned anger and disappointment.”

“As have I. They’ll be what they’ll be, and nothing will change them. You came seeking?”

“A place away from all places, and men, and loneliness. Two centuries among men… are enough.”

“Any changes these past hundred years? I slept them out, being bored with repetitiveness.”

“I thought so. Yes. Cities have fallen. Kingdoms have risen. But Kings and men are the same in their hearts.”

“And will always be. Fangdred is a refuge from that. You’re welcome. But there’s a lot to do to make this place livable. Maybe servants and artisans should be engaged. Why here?”

“As I said, I need a place away, yet not lonely. To wait.”


“A woman, and destiny. I haven’t performed the divination for decades. Would you like to watch? You’d understand better.”

“Of course. How soon?”

“She’s still two centuries down the river. The Fates hold a veil across the flow, concealing most of her age. Their hands will be in deep then, in a time of strife and true changes. Great powers will contest for empires. Wizards will war as never before. That’s what I’ve divined so far. Seldom have I seen a divination so clouded.”

“Ah? What’s this about the Fates? Have they ranged themselves against you?” The Old Man’s gray eyes flashed as though he were considering challenging the unchallengeable.

“They’ve taken sides, but I don’t know how, nor the nature of my role. They’re playing a complex game, apparently against the Norns, with incomprehensible rules and stakes. The players are uncertain, and their allegiances ephemeral.”

“You’ve got a theory?” The Old Man tugged his beard thoughtfully.

“A tenuous one. That possibly the antagonists are systems of manipulation. Magic versus science. Romantic stasis versus clinical progress. The stakes could be the validity of magic and godhead. That puts us on the side of the gods. But I can’t understand the Norns fighting us. If they are. They’d have no place in an orderly world either.”

The Old Man ran a wrinkled hand through his hair. “I see. Ours is an enchanted world, with magical laws. That system has no room for newness or change. Which’s why it hasn’t changed much since the advent of the Star Rider.” That event antedated even the Old Man’s earliest memories—though he knew more than he would ever admit.

“And it’ll stay that way unless the Power fails. I don’t know if that’s right. I have to stay with the magical system. My choices have been made for me, long ago, before I understood enough to choose intelligently.

“Consider a world without magic.”

The Old Man closed his eyes, leaned back, imagined. He remained motionless and silent so long it seemed he had fallen asleep. A man less patient than Varthlokkur would have grown irritated. But, then, Varthlokkur had a concept of time unlike that of shorter-lived men.

“It wouldn’t be a pleasant world,” the Old Man finally replied. “There’d be no room for us. Sorcery would be a bad joke. Dragons and such would be the hardware of children’s stories. Gods would be degraded till they had the substance of smoke. An unpleasant world, I’d say. I’d have to support magic, too. Are you tired?”

“In many ways, of many things, and life most of all. But I’m going to wait for her.”

“Rest, then. Tomorrow we’ll start rejuvenating Fangdred. And then we’ll begin getting ready for this future contest.”

Actually, Varthlokkur didn’t much care about the coming struggle. He thought of it only as the price of finding his woman. “Where should I establish myself?”

“The Wind Tower would suit you best. You’ll find the mirror especially useful. I’ll show you how to get there.”

Even the sparrow finds a home.

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