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Ten: The Years 808-965 afe

Ten: The Years 808-965 afe

What Does a Man Profit?

Fangdred changed rapidly, as did its master. The times when he was warm and companionable grew fewer, when he was irritable, more frequent. Which suited Varthlokkur. Two hundred years made aloneness a habit. Too much friendship too fast might set his feet on the wanderer’s road again.

Fangdred changed, and in changing caused the Old Man’s moodiness. Servants came, poor people hired in Iwa Skolovda. Though frightened of it, they found service at Fangdred a better hope than any at home. They swept, scrubbed, repaired, replaced. They cooked, sewed, cared for the few horses that appeared in Fangdred’s stables. Hogs came to the courtyards, with piglets, ducks, geese, chickens, goats, sheep, and cattle. There was a blacksmith and forge. His anvil rang through the day like a bell. A carpenter. His hammer and saw were busy from dawn till dusk. A miller. A weaver. A mason, a cobbler, a wainwright, a seamstress, a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker. And their children. Many, laughing, tagging through the castle, plaguing the softhearted cook and baker for something sweet, throwing stones off the wall just to watch them drop out of sight. Varthlokkur often watched them from the Wind Tower. He had never been a child. Oh, and a piper. What a piper! In his own way, he worked a magic as powerful as Varthlokkur’s, as immortal as the Old Man’s. His twinkling enchantments ran through the castle with the smith’s hammering, the carpenter’s sawing, and the children’s laughter.

As the castle grew homelike and her people settled in, Varthlokkur and the Old Man withdrew from her life.

So. The Old Man enters a courtyard where carpenter and smith are arguing with the mason about the repair of an interior wall. Their argument, and all other sound, ceases. Except the piping: the piper fears nothing. They dread the man who never dies, though he has done nothing to inspire dread.

So. Varthlokkur visits a courtyard where four little girls skip rope to the piper’s tune. He watches from a shadow, unseen, amused. But when he steps out to ask about the song, the girls flee. He’s hurt. Only the piper remains. He dreads not the Slayer of Ilkazar.

Hurt, the two withdrew from their servants. The Old Man grew irascible, Varthlokkur quiet. But each comforted himself with the knowledge of an advantage over fear: time. Generations would go and come, but they would endure. One day’s frightened children were the grandfathers of another. Fear, like salt in the earth, would leech away.

And, a century later, the people no longer held their masters in dread. The Old Man could speak to his carpenter without having to ignore shaking limbs. Varthlokkur could hold one end of the rope for the jumping girls, and they would thank him when done, calling him Uncle Varth.

There was always a piper who was fearless.

The century came and went, slowly, with its attendant changes. One day the wizard, over breakfast, said, “I’ve not performed a divination in an age. I wonder…”

“If the mists haven’t cleared off your lifeline?” The Old Man brightened. A divination promised diversion. “Shall we go to the Wind Tower?”

“Absolutely,” Varthlokkur replied, catching his excitement. “Had I a patron god, I’d pray.”

“Shall I seal the door?” the Old Man asked as they entered the wizard’s workroom.

“Yes. I don’t want anybody stumbling in.” The Old Man worked a quick, simple spell. The door became part of the wall.

Varthlokkur went to a table where dusty thaumaturgical and necromantic instruments had lain undisturbed since his last divination. He had done little but read and research magic the past century. But neither knowledge nor skill had deserted him. Soon the mirror on the wall was a-flash, giving rapid, still views of the future. He whispered, whispered, narrowed the mirror’s attention till he saw only events in which he was interested.

A few clouds veiling the time-river had faded. He stared downtime and saw something of the coming struggle. His theories seemed valid. The Norns and Fates would be at odds. He searched for his woman, caught a glimpse of her face.

“Ah!” the Old Man sighed. “She’s beautiful.” His eyes sparkled with appreciation. By the time the face faded, each knew it well.

Hair, black as a raven’s wing, long, silken. Eyes, ebony and flecked with gold. Lips, full and red with a suggestion at their corners that she would seldom smile. There was also that, around her brows, which suggested she would be quick to anger. Spirited, but sad. A fine oval face with delicate features, marked by loneliness. Both men knew that look. All too often they had seen it in one another.

She was there and gone in an instant, but they recognized and knew her. And Varthlokkur loved her.

“How long?” the Old Man asked.

Varthlokkur shrugged. “Less than a century. A shorter wait than a century ago, but longer now that I’ve seen her. We’ll look again in fifteen or twenty years.”

“Was it my imagination?… Did you get the impression that this spat between the Fates and Norns is just plain jealousy? I got the impression that they will make the whole world a bloody chessboard—but out of plain old-fashioned covetousness. Settling whether science or sorcery rules will be a bastard son of the dispute. That the whole battle’s over prerogatives.”

“Maybe,” Varthlokkur said after a minute of thought. “An analogy comes to mind. Something in Itaskia.

“The Itaskian King has two kinds of Royal monies and incomes: One belongs to him as an individual. The other belongs to the King personifying the state. The line of demarcation is vague. The time I mean, there were two fiscal officials, the Royal Treasurer and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, both jealous men with personal animosities. Each one tried to ruin the other with claims of infringement, incompetence, that kind of stuff. What both really wanted was complete control of the money. Fighting over it, in the name of the kingdom, they almost ruined the kingdom.”

“I remember. I laughed when the King, when they demanded a judgment, took their heads. And I see the analogy. The Norns would be Treasurers, agents for the Gods. The Fates are Chancellors, responsible to the universe. Both want a hammerlock on dabbling in human affairs.”

“About it. Makes you wonder what we’re doing, taking sides.”

“Uhm. Oh. There was something else. Something about Shinsan. Just a flicker there, that said Dread Empire. Did you catch it?”

After delaying, Varthlokkur replied, “No. I didn’t see anything.” He turned to a table stacked with magical texts.

The Old Man frowned, asked another question, again received an evasive answer. He decided to drop it. “What’re you going to do now?”

“Back to research. I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. A chance to tap a new thaumaturgic Power, almost independent of what we know. Possibly even independent of the Poles.”

The Old Man started. “The Poles of Power?”

Two Poles were believed to exist, one rumored to be in the hands of the Star Rider, the other totally lost. They were to the Power somewhat as the poles seen in the chemically generated “electricity” recently demonstrated at the Rebsamen University in Hellin Daimiel.

“Remember when Tennotini proposed his ‘Uncertainty Principle’?”

“There was a lot of laughter.”

“Looks like he was right. If we accept uncertainty, the sign of Delestin’s Constant stops being fixed. That would destroy the concept of directionality.” He grew excited. “Look what happens when I put a negative constant into my Winterstorm Functions. I think that, when I take the math to the next level, I’ll show that I’ve opened a new frontier…”

“You lost me way back,” said the Old Man. “I’m still wrestling with Yo Hsi’s Prime Anchaics.”

“Sorry. Before I go on, though, I think I’ll take a little trip.”

“Ilkazar?” The Old Man didn’t look at his guest.

“Yes. A return to the scene of the crime, so to speak. Vengeance was a taste of bitter honey.”

“A proverb. I’ll add it to the book.” Through the ages, the Old Man had been collecting pertinent sayings. “You could see the ruins from here.”

“I’m after money. There’s a little silver hidden where a tree once stood on a farm, and some gold in a place only I know. That’s all wasteland now. Hammad al Nakir. The Desert of Death.”

“The treasure?”

“Yes. There’s a concealment spell on it.”

“The treasure of an empire,” the Old Man murmured. “Well, take care.”

Varthlokkur returned some months later. He led a train of animals bearing the gold of Ilkazar. After the festivities attending his arrival, Fangdred returned to its customary quietness. That quiet lasted generations.

The Old Man strode Fangdred’s windy, ice-rimed wall, caught in the grayest of depressions, considering a return to his long sleep. He and Varthlokkur had been together a century and a half. Nothing had happened. The intrigue was gone. Boredom threatened. His eyes no longer sparkled, no longer retained their reminiscences of youth. Yet he appeared much as he had the day of his awakening: of moderate height, thin, his beard streaming like a banner in the wind. He appeared eighty, had the agility of thirty. But his smiles had fled. Now his face often gathered in a frown. His servants had begun to avoid him. Though generations of closeness had eroded the terror of his name, he was still the Old Man of Fangdred, not to be antagonized when in a darkling mood. Those had been common of late.

Hair and beard whipping wildly, he abandoned the wall for the dubious comfort of the common room. That hall was nearly empty, but he took a seat at the head table without his curiosity being aroused. After a moment of staring into nothingness, he turned to those few servants who had had the courage to brave his mood.

“Steward, go to the Wind Tower. Ask Varthlokkur to come down.”

The steward bobbed his head and left.

“Piper, play something.”

This piper, like his ancestors, knew no fear. He cocked his eye at his master, assayed his mood, played the song that went:

Let the day perish wherein I was born,

and the night which said,

“A man-child is conceived.”

Let that day be darkness!…

The Old Man knew the lament. He surged up. “Piper!” he thundered. “Don’t mock me! Your head’s not set on a neck of stone.” He pounded the table, fist flashing pinkly, and shouted, “I’ve had it with your games. The wizard has to have you here, you play something for him!” He plopped down, face burning.

The piper, mildly intimidated, bowed, played:

Awake, O North Wind,

and come, O South Wind!

Blow upon my garden,

let its fragrance be wafted abroad.

Let my beloved come to this garden,

and eat of its choicest fruits.

A song for a woman calling a lover to her bed, but near enough the wizard’s case to mock. He played only the ending, pointedly, as Varthlokkur strode into the hall. Usually the wizard was angered by it, but today he merely laughed and slapped the piper’s back in passing.

The Old Man, interpreting Varthlokkur’s cheer as evidence he bore good news, shook some of his depression.

“You wanted to see me?” Varthlokkur asked. He was obviously more excited than he had been for a long time.

“Yes. But it might not be important now. You’ve brought news. What’s happening?”

“The Game has finally opened,” Varthlokkur replied. “No more empty maneuvers, no more recruitments. Somewhere this fine morning—I don’t know where or how, because they kept it damned well hidden—the Norns made their first concrete move.”

The Old Man’s depression retreated further. He grew excited himself. Battle had been joined. Armies would march. There would be earthquakes, plagues, storms, and mighty works by magicians, as the Director used earthly pawns to cast a tragedy… And he would be in the middle of it for the first time since the Nawami Crusades. He had missed the Director’s more recent epics. “Great! And a minute ago I was thinking about going back to sleep…”

The piper tootled a passage. The Old Man sprang up, raging. “Must we endure that fool? I’ve had too much of him and his ancestors’ mockery!” His mood hadn’t retreated far. The piper withdrew before anything more could be said. He was fearless, but not without sense.

“We need somebody to remind us we’re only human,” said Varthlokkur. He was pleased by the Old Man’s reaction to the news. Despite the Old Man’s rage, he broached a matter that had been bothering him. “There’s something I want, if you’ll allow it.”

“What?” The Old Man continued staring after the dusky little piper.

Varthlokkur leaned, whispered.

The immortal countered, “You think she’s willing?”

The wizard shrugged.

“Ask her after the ensorcelment, I’d say.”

Varthlokkur nodded.

The Old Man clapped his hands. “Mika!” A servant came running. More returned from their hiding places. “Mika, go to the Wind Tower and bring us…” and he named a great many items. Varthlokkur nodded agreement to each. The Old Man knew his life-magicks.

“Marya, help him,” Varthlokkur told a plump young woman standing nearby. “And tell your father that I want to talk to him.”

She nodded quickly and hustled Mika toward the door.

Marya was Varthlokkur’s personal servant, a position she thought the most important in the castle. Very much in awe of her master, she had, from that awe, conceived an emotional attachment. She worshipped him. Not a bright girl, she was, however, dedicated, and even that was more than Varthlokkur asked. She was a dark woman, short, heavy and rounded. She fought her weight with an implacable stubbornness. Her attractiveness came from within: warmth and a capacity for unshakable love. She was an ideal interim woman, the first of the two Varthlokkur’s destiny had promised.

The wizard spoke with the girl’s father. There was a moment of debate. A certain magic was mentioned. The father gave his assent.

Excitement rippled through the hall. The word spread: a sorcery was to be performed in the common room. The folk gathered for a unique treat. Their masters had never performed their wizardries openly.

Marya, Mika, and the equipment arrived. Varthlokkur and the Old Man set it up, established the preparatory runes, chanted the invocations, were ready. Varthlokkur quaffed a mug of bitter elixir, stepped to the focus of power for the magick. The Old Man, in a good tenor, sang the spell of initiation. Then, silently, he waited, as did the scores in the darkening hall.

Darkening? Yes. Soon all light had been banished save that of the cloud of gray silver forming about Varthlokkur. It grew increasingly dense, till he was totally concealed. Motes in the cloud sparkled, swept about the wizard like a tiny silver whirlwind. Sound came, increasing in pitch to a whine; colors swirled kaleidoscopically, mixed with animate shadow, splashing over floor and ceiling and walls; there were smells of lilac in spring, sour old age, boots wet in the rain, a thousand others quickly come and gone. Then, suddenly, the silver dust winked away, or fell. Light waxed. A murmur ran through the hall. In the power nexus, round which the dust had orbited, a youngster of twenty-five stood where an old man had taken his position.

Yet there was no mistaking his identity. This was Varthlokkur as he had appeared before the walls of Ilkazar, dark with dark hair, thin, hawklike of face, yet a handsome young man. He wore a winning smile as he asked Marya the question.

She fainted.

According to Varthlokkur’s wishes, the Old Man, as Lord of Fangdred, married them later that day. Marya went through the ceremony in a daze, unable to grasp her good fortune. Varthlokkur, however, saw it all with a cynic’s eye, in schoolmaster’s terms. He needed training in dealing with women. Marya would serve.

Yet he treated her perfectly from that day forward. She, not bright, counted herself fortunate—though there were times he unwittingly caused her sadness.

Varthlokkur, a man despite the darkness upon his soul, did conceive an affection for her as time passed (rather as a man for a faithful pet), though never did it rival the feeling he had for she downtime. He permitted Marya no children for a long time, and then only when he saw that the lack was crippling her very soul. She bore him one child, a son.

They would grow old together, and eventually Marya would pass on. But during her lifetime Marya would witness the early moves in the Great Game begun the day of her marriage.

Seven years elapsed after the wedding. Early in the eighth the child was born, brown and round like his mother, with her quietness, and, from the sparkle of his eyes, blessed (or cursed) with his father’s intelligence.

One cold winter’s day, with a wind howling around the castle and snow blowing down from even higher country, with ice in places a foot thick in Fangdred’s courts, Varthlokkur, the Old Man, and Marya took seats in the chill chamber atop the Wind Tower, watching the mirror. The wind rose with time, screaming like souls in torment. An unpleasant day for a birth. Another birth, overwhelmingly important to Varthlokkur.

The mirror presented a peek into a faraway room, deep in the heart of another wind-bound tower. In Ravenkrak, cold and stark as Fangdred, harsh as a weathered skull, home of the Storm Kings. A new member of that family was to arrive. A girl-child.

Marya didn’t entirely understand. No one had bothered to explain. She felt distress at her husband’s interest in the event. Why the interest? she wondered.

A bedridden woman lay centered in the mirror.

“She shouldn’t have children,” the Old Man observed. “Too slight. Yet this’s her seventh, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Marya, to his initial remark. “She’s in great pain.”

Varthlokkur winced. He read accusation into her words, as though she were asking why she hadn’t experienced that particular pain more often. She wanted more children. But the indictment existed only in his mind. She hadn’t the guile or subtlety.

“The spasms are closer now,” said the Old Man.

“It’s time,” Marya added, sympathetically.

Indeed. The woman’s husband and a midwife moved to her bed. Servants sprang into action, bringing rags, hot and cold water, and spirits to ease the pain. In the background, a man with a falcon riding his shoulder fed wood to a huge fireplace, vainly trying to warm the room.

The woman brought forth a girl-child, as the divinations had promised. She was ugly, shriveled, red, and not the least remarkable. But Varthlokkur and the Old Man remembered another vision of her, as an adult, seen in the mirror earlier. Her father named her Nepanthe, after a magical potion which banished all cares from a man’s heart. He placed her at her mother’s breast, wrapped both against the angry chill, and resumed managing his castle. Unstaunchable hemorrhaging claimed the mother’s life within the hour.

There was great joy in Fangdred when it was over. Varthlokkur and the Old Man declared a holiday and ordered a feast. A bull was slaughtered, wine brought forth, games taken out, contests held, and the piper driven to a frenzy of playing. The people danced, sang, and everyone had a wickedly good time.

Except Marya. She was more than ever confused, and her feelings had taken a battering.

And then the piper.

As day marched into evening and the wine-cask levels sank to the lees, as more than one reveler passed from happiness into drunkenness, more than one mood abjured gaiety. The Old Man grew reticent and testy, till he spoke only in monosyllabic growls and snarls. In his cups, time piled on him, millennia deep in weight. All the evil he had seen and done returned to haunt him. “Nawami,” he muttered several times. “My guilt.” All the boredom, that only his wickednesses had interrupted, returned to remind him how much more of both awaited his future. He grew increasingly depressed. Death, the specter he had never beheld, became a desirable, lovely, mocking lady, a will-o’-the-wisp forever an inch beyond his reaching fingers.

And Varthlokkur, too, found all his days returning as the lift of the wine began to fail and his temples began to throb. He remembered everything he wanted to drive from his mind: deaths in ancient times; his years in Shinsan and echoes of the bargains he had made there, that he might receive his education; and the hidden evils in his use of those who had become his allies in the destruction of Ilkazar. They were dead now, those people and those days—and many because of him. How many people had died with his name and a curse on their lips? He remembered the screams in dying Ilkazar… Till now they always had remained confined to his worst nightmares. But now, through the throbbing ache left by over-indulgence, they invaded his waking mind…

“Abomination!” the Old Man roared, hurling an empty flagon at the piper. He surged up, smashed a fist against the table. “I told you not to play that!”

The piper, too deep in his cups himself, bowed mockingly, repeated the passage. Silence enveloped the hall. All eyes turned to the Old Man, who had drawn a knife from the wreck of a roast. He began stalking the clown.

The piper, realizing he had gone too far, ran to Varthlokkur. The wizard calmed the Old Man.

Poor fool! No sooner was he safe from one Lord than he antagonized the other with passages from The Wizards of Ilkazar. Anything else Varthlokkur could have forgiven. His mood wouldn’t permit this.

He gave no warning…

A stumbling, lengthy spell he chanted, often pausing to correct his wine-tied tongue. With a sudden handclap and shout, it was done. The piper drifted upward, weightless. With a growl, Varthlokkur kicked him, spinning him across the room. He shrieked, flailed the air, vomited, and spun into the Old Man’s orbit.

It was a pity that Marya and the women had retired. A tempering feminine presence might have averted disaster.

The Old Man seized an arm, spun the piper, then hurled him into a mass of drunken retainers, few of whom had much love for the fool. The little guy habitually told truths nobody wanted to hear.

Pack instincts came to the fore. The piper became a shrieking ball bouncing about the room, with Varthlokkur and the Old Man leading the baiting. They were animals baying after defenseless prey, their cruelty feeding itself. Someone remembered the fool’s fear of heights. In a whooping mass, the mob swept from the common room to the outer wall.

Hurled screaming outward, the piper hung over a thousand feet of nothing. He wailed for mercy. They laughed. The wind carried him away from the wall. Varthlokkur, smiling malevolently, drew the piper in until he clawed desperately at the battlements—then released him completely. Down with a wail he hurtled, crying his certainty of death, only to be stopped a dozen feet short of icy, jagged rocks.

The wind drove tendrils through tiny openings in Varthlokkur’s clothing. The chill proved sobering. He realized where he was, what he was doing. Shame struck in a sticky gray wave, shattering his insanity. He pulled the piper in, prepared to defend him… And saw there wasn’t any need. The cold had had its effect on everyone. Most were leaving, to be alone with their disgrace.

Varthlokkur and the Old Man apologized effusively, offering restitution.

The piper ignored them. He said not a word as he hurried off to nurse his rage and fear. His departing back was the last they saw of him.

A distraught Marya dragged Varthlokkur from dismal dreams. Groaning with hangover, he demanded, “What?”

“He’s gone!”

“Uhn?” He sat up, rubbed his temples, found no relief. “Who?”

“The baby! Your son!” Without comprehending, he studied what tears had done to her dusky face. His son? “Aren’t you going to do something?” she demanded.

His head began clearing, his mind working. Intuitively, he asked, “Where’s the piper?”

Within fifteen minutes they knew. The fool, too, had disappeared, along with a mule, blankets, and food. “Such cruel revenge,” Varthlokkur cried. He and the Old Man spent days in the Wind Tower, hunting, hunting— but finally had to concede defeat. Man and child seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.

“The Fates have used us evilly,” said the Old Man. “Cruelly.”

Indeed. They had taken a hostage to insure Varthlokkur’s participation in the Great Game.

Marya was disconsolate for a time, but eventually made peace with herself. Women of her world often had to accept the loss of children.

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