“This place is colder than death,” Ne’on muttered, as he and Captain Bartholemew Clay walked the parapets above Gateway Keep. The moisture from their breath hung lightly in the air in front of them, before dissipating like small clouds on a hot summer day. Captain Clay clasped his black cloak tightly around his chest and looked at his lord in wonder. Ne’on refused to wear anything more than his white robes and golden belt, to which was strapped a fine silver dagger – of Galician origin, Clay guessed. Ne’on’s entire left arm contrasted the rest of his clothes by its black dye, and the midnight black glove he wore on his hand. Ne’on’s Black Arm, Bartholemew mused, and frowned for not having noticed it before.
“Aren’t you used to the weather by now, my lord?” Ne’on responded to the question with a confused gaze, and Clay reinforced his thought. “You have lived here all your life, have you not?” Captain Clay often wondered why his employer did not wear more protective clothing; for warmth alone, if for no other reason.
“I’m more concerned with Marcus’ knowledge, than my clothes, Captain. And my robes provide ample warmth to sustain life in my body, for now.” Clay didn’t remember having asked the question, but its being answered didn’t surprise him. Ne’on had a habit of answering some questions before they were asked.
Ne’on stopped by a fortification in the wall, and looked out over the partially frozen Laraka. His father had built Gateway like any other keep of the day; but, without enough funds, he made things considerably smaller. He thought his father had been a small man. “What does Marcus know about this ‘High Mage’, or whatever his title? What is there to know about him? Is he just a dealer in the arts? No;” he answered his own question, “otherwise, how would he have known of Qord?”
“My lord, if I may,” Clay began, and Ne’on turned to him with such a cold gaze he reached to gather more of his cloak about him. The cold air is increasingly bitter, he thought.
“Please, my lord,” Ne’on mocked, “what is it you wish to tell me?” Bartholemew felt no anger at his lord for this remark; he held no respect for titles of other men unless they were deserved. This thought warmed him, and gave him the strength to return Ne’on’s stare.
“As I was about to say, I spoke with Marcus concerning this ‘Marcellon’ yesterday.” Upon hearing this, Ne’on’s gaze became more attentive, his jaw a little less hard. Clay noticed the signs, and continued. “Not only is he an accomplished wizard, but his mind has powers no ordinary man can lay claim to. There’s a word for it…” Bart’s eyes scanned the sky, as if searching for his answer in the clouds above.
“Psychic,” Ne’on stated. “That could be a problem.” Once again, his gaze fell onto the crystallizing river, the snow hanging over the banks as if grasping hold for life, the occasional rabbit darting out from a snow covered bush nearby. “Unless I blind him.” Ne’on’s spirits rose, and Bartholemew was almost afraid to ask what he meant.
It is nothing new, he thought, merely a substitution for other, simpler, forms of sacrifice. Ne’on repeated this thought to himself continuously as he removed the rabbit from the small cage he had set in his private study. Rather than waste additional spell components which he could not spare – he was already using his only piece of crysthalum, which was hard to find, and harder still to polish correctly – he had to substitute the life energy of the small animal. The light of the bronze chandelier was all that lit the room his father had once filled with bows, swords, and trophies of the hunt. At least his use of the animal was for more than the sheer joy of killing.
The small, pink nose twitched nervously, the ears flicked back and forth, as if the creature sensed its impending death. It struggled for freedom as Ne’on unsheathed his silver dagger and lay it down within the pentagram he had drawn on the floor. He felt himself cut off from the rest of the world as he sat within its bounds, as if his breath were being restrained, but he disregarded that as fancy, imagination. Taking from his pocket the small blue stone, he remembered how it had come from a larger slab he had found outside Qord’s hut in the Nar-Enthruen. He had had to cut that stone many times, making sure the piece was shaped correctly, the edges not too sharp, before he finally came up with this piece. Strong enough to pass the magic, he thought, without shattering before the spell was completed.
Opening the leather-bound tome he had acquired from the remainder of Qord’s possessions, he turned to the appropriate page and began reciting a chant far older than the walls of Gateway; or any other castle in Baranur, for that matter. The stone glowed with a thick luminescence which expanded to form a small hemisphere, encircling the outer points of the pentagram. The spell was cast. All that remained was to expand it to the proper dimensions.
Retrieving his dagger, he held the rabbit directly above the trans- mitter and slit its small throat, delicately and quickly. The blood poured freely over the gem-stone, and over the floor below, caking and drying almost instantly as the magic absorbed its energy. The blue hemisphere expanded rapidly, fading in proportion to its size, until it had completely surrounded the entire keep with a near-invisible aura.
The Garthian Blind has been cast, and no spell or psychic probe will pass through, he thought. Unfortunately, this includes my own magic. Also unfortunate, he continued, looking down at the chrysthalum, is the loss of the component. I shall have to acquire another piece before I open the gate.
A stone above the door to the room glowed faintly for a moment, until Ne’on acknowledged its signal. Stepping out of the pentagram, he took a deep breath and opened the door to greet whoever was outside the room. It was, he should have known, Captain Clay.
“What is it?” Ne’on asked of his Captain as he turned from the door and walked backed to the table. He had some cleaning up to do, and there was little, he thought, that required his complete attention. He frowned lightly again when he saw the empty cage, and avoided it in his cleaning.
“More men have arrived for service in the Black Arm, Lord Keeper.” Clay cast his gaze lightly about the room, settling on the bloody rabbit. “Taking up fine cuisine?”
“Don’t be glib, Clay; it doesn’t become you.” Returning his tome to the table, he flipped through the pages as if searching for a spell. “Do you have anything of worth to tell me, or do you just like to play in my laboratory?”
“You mentioned something of a desire to have a ceremony held for the new recruits…” Bartholemew looked at Ne’on, but received no confirmation. “I have planned the occasion, and wish to confirm its date.”
“Where did they come from?” Ne’on closed the tome and reached for the small decanter on the edge of the table. Lederian red wine is best at room temperature. “How do you know they are trust worthy? Would you like a glass,” he offered, indicating the bottle.
“No, thank you.” Bartholemew never drank wine, the head it left him with was too slow to keep up with his normally fast paced line of work. “And,” he continued, “we don’t know we can trust them. Not all of them, in any case. I commissioned some acquaintances – five of them – to find me eight men each. We have fifty new recruits.”
Ne’on almost betrayed a sign of surprise, when he heard that. “From whence, then, came the other ten?”
“It seems,” Clay explained, “that the word is out. Your Black Arm is the elite guard, in Gateway. We have ten men from the populace, the oldest around forty five, and the youngest, seventeen. Our captains of the guard are beginning to worry about their status.”
“Tell them not to worry.” Ne’on stroked his thin chin lightly with his left hand, as his gaze seemed to settle on the mountains to the east. “Let these be the last of the Black Arm. Let it further be known that if someone wishes to be a member of the Arm, he must challenge one of the existing members for their position.” Ne’on smiled, having always believed in the survival of the fittest. His mental fitness, he thought, would allow him to survive for many hundreds of years. “And make sure the present members of the Arm receive the best training available. I want you to take a personal interest in it.”
“I hardly think that will be necessary,” replied the captain. “The guards here are all specialists with the bow. I don’t think they would know what to do with a good sword fighter, in close quarters.”
“Unfortunately for you,” Ne’on riposted, “I don’t pay you to think. Do as I say, and remember who put you where you are.”
Bartholemew remembered. He remembered well. “Yes, my lord.”
Flames burning, crisping, dying, red skull
rising, dripping, bloodied, blackened,
burned, hardened, hot, dark, blackness
engulfing… he’s coming…
The crystal sphere glowed faintly, clouded, and revealed nothing. Marcellon stared at the ball, dissapointed. Could he have drained himself so completely, in this last week, his own powers were failing him? He had been taxed to some extent, he knew, when the head of Count Connall had arrived at court without the rest of his body; however, he should still be able to use the ball uninhibited.
When the messenger had arrived from Gateway, two hours ago, he was relieved to be informed of Ne’on’s capture. As he was reading it, however, the parchment seemed to burn in his hands, and he dropped it to the floor, to the confusion of the messenger. When Marcellon had looked at it again, it was whole. He dismissed it as stress, a fancy of his over-worked mind. Finally, when the messenger had left, he closed the door and saw the image of a white haired youth, rising out of a pit of flaming lava, fire dripping down off a red colored skull. He knew something was amiss in Gateway.
He tried once more, concentrating on the dry parchment to give him a connection to the keep. Once more, the ball revealed nothing. Then he noticed it: the ball was glowing, he was making the connection. Fool! He was tired! Something was blocking his probe, making him believe he couldn’t establish contact. The illusion works best that is not all illusion. Some type of blanking spell was cast on Gateway – probably a Blind. He tried harder, concentrating, this time, on the white haired head of the Winston child. The images came cloudy, but they were there: Ne’on Winston sat on the seat of Gateway Keep. But where was Goren? Ah, this image was sharper. Goren Winston lay in a huddle, barely conscious, in a dungeon cell. The purple-black color around his eyes and the swollen lips betrayed how the guards had treated him. Obviously, this situation demanded outside help.
He let the images cloud, and fade. He frowned; with the war coming, he couldn’t go to Gateway on his own. Jordan had died in the same camp as Qord, some months ago. His father was a mage of some worth, if he remembered correctly. What was his name… Marek? Marek would be hearing from the High Mage.
…reaching, opening, grasping, red liquid,
sweet, glass, round, smooth, cold, biting,
dropping, staring, pain, pang, hurt, hand
on chest, he stares, accusing, despairing,
questioning, shocked, alone…
Marcus looked over the grey mermilons to the Vodyanoy river below the battlements. Where its brother, the Laraka, joined in its eastward flow, was an outcropping of rock, a ledge which overlooked the joining of the waters. On a rare day in Nober, one could see ice worms eating through the frozen waters to feast on the dead moss against the rock. The ice worms had plenty to feed on this year, he thought.
Watching the giant water bucket lower from the top of the northern parapet to the cold waters, he looked about the outer perimeter of the keep, worried about a possible fire. Fires are the only reason they used the bucket, in times of peace, except to practice the drill. He was relieved when he saw no clouds of black smoke rising into the air. At least the Arm hadn’t burned another cart in the market place.
Since the Black Arm had been officially named the personal guard of the Keeper, several months ago, their reputation had not improved. In Nober, they had stopped paying for their drinks at the Riverside Tavern, the more prestigious of the two taverns in Gateway. When Marcus had brought this fact to light in Ne’on’s presence, Ne’on decided that his men needed some fringe benefits, and decreed that the Arm would not have to pay for its drinks at the Tavern. This annoyed Marcus to no end; there was already a feeling of apathy between the regular guard and the Black Arm, and the tavern keeper was no lover of Winston blood, that day.
One day, Marcus had all but seen one of its members burn down the cart of one of Gateway’s merchants. The merchant tried to press charges, and Marcus was willing to give him his full support; but, Ne’on said no proof meant no sentence, and the merchant was forced to swallow his losses. That was one less merchant Gateway would see in the winter months, when supplies were low enough already.
At last, Marcus seemed to find some respite. At the end of Deber, the first month of the new year, Ne’on had sent some fifty of his men to parts unknown. Ne’on claimed they were looking for a rock of some sort, a spell component for some all important plan he had. Marcus hoped Ne’on knew what he was doing. There was war in the air, Bichu or no Bichu, and he knew those slanty eyed foreigners would sail right down the Laraka, taking Magnus in one bloody day. With only nine members of the Black Arm left in Gateway, aside from that shifty eyed captain, Marcus thought he had little left to worry about, for the time being. When the others return, he thought, Rise’er’s feast will begin anew.
Marcus’ silent thoughts were slowly interrupted as he heard the soft footfall of leather on stone. Looking up to his left, he spied a small man dressed in chain mail which was too large for his size, and a helmet which had to be pushed back so that the eyes behind it could see. The sword at the man’s side dragged lightly against the ground, its length only slightly longer than the man’s legs. Marcus wondered why the man didn’t carry a short sword, instead, when he heard the cherubic voice of his son cry out from under the helmet, which had fallen back over the boys eyes.
“Castellan Ridgewater, sir!” Thomas had been training for only three months now, and already he had begun to wear the armor of Gateway. Thomas stood as much at attention as he could, given the over sized armor he was wearing, and the weight of the blade at his side. He had originally been meant to start his training with a smaller blade; however, he knew his father used a broad sword, and he was determined to be his father’s equal, as circumstances allowed.
“Report, soldier,” the Castellan replied, resulting in a bright smile from Thomas.
“Request permission to speak freely, sir!”
Marcus looked questioningly at his son. He thought he knew what was coming next: the other boys training in the guard were planning to spend a night in the forest to the south-west of Gateway, where they hoped to do some winter trapping. “Permission granted, Thomas.”
“I just came to tell you I’m dropping out of the regular training stuff.” Marcus looked with great astonishment at his son, standing in front of him with his oversized attire. Then he noticed the Black Band on Thomas’ left arm. “I just spoke with Lord Keeper Winston, and he says he needs to train young minds like myself for future pla… placements in the Black Arm!” The boy’s enthusiasm scared Marcus; he had no idea what he was getting into.
The steel reinforced doors burst open on the main hall, as Marcus strode through them with anger in his eyes. “Ne’on,” he yelled at the top of his voice, his face red and his eyes bulging. Keeper or no Keeper, he had some explaining to do. No son of his was going to train for the Black Arm, he would make sure of that. “Ne’on,” he cried, again.
“What is it, Castellan Ridgewater?” Ne’on’s smooth, carrying voice lilted through the room from behind a parchment he was reading. Not removing his gaze from the letter, he continued, “And, please, for the sake of formality, remember to address me in the proper tone, when we are in the reception hall.”
“To Rise’er with ‘proper tone’, Ne’on. What are you doing with my son?” Marcus stormed up the room, stopping directly in front of the Keeper. His fists were clenched in rage, and his sword ached to be wielded.
“My lord Castellan,” Ne’on began with a lackadaisical air, “you seem very upset. As far as Thomas is concerned, he is being personally trained by Captain Clay for private duty. I’m sure that, in a few months, he will be a fine addition to the Arm. I thought I might start up a youth program for keeping the urchins in line, what with the upcoming war. I offered to put him in charge, as their sargent, once he was properly trained.”
“My son,” Marcus trembled, “is no pup to be trained under that dog, Clay. I do not want him in your children’s group, and I will not have him joining any part of your Black Arm.”
Ne’on lowered the parchment he had been reading, and looked directly at the man in front of him. “He will be very sad to hear you are against his rising in the ranks, Castellan. However, I think you will find him working with me, in any case. He seemed quite exhilarated when I told him my plan.” Marcus quickly grabbed the hilt of his sword, and took a step towards his lord.
“Keep your distance, Castellan.” The voice came from behind the door Marcus had bashed open when he entered the room. Marcus turned around, slowly, to see four men in silver chain and black tunics, all wielding short swords and pointing them at him.
“Come now, gentlemen,” Ne’on interposed. He rose from his seat and walked towards the men, a half smile of pleasure on his face. “There’s no need for aggression. Marcus, my old friend,” Ne’on placed his left arm over the Castellan’s shoulders, “perhaps you need a rest. You’ve been through a lot, these past months, what with my father’s untimely demise at my brother’s hands. You haven’t had a vacation in years, since your wife’s unfortunate death during childbirth. Why don’t you travel? Go on a hunting trip? Take some time off to get yourself together?” Ne’on started walking the man towards the door as he spoke to him, and now they were at the entrance to the hall. “How does that sound to you?”
Ne’on’s voice was smooth, and soft, and penetrated Marcus’ anger easily. Marcus felt acquiescent as he listened to Ne’on’s words. “Perhaps you’re right, Lord Keeper.” A confused look came over him. “I am tired. Very tired. Maybe I should take a small vacation.” Ne’on began to smile, and Marcus continued. “I’ll think about it. I’m terribly sorry for the mess I made…”
“Do not worry, Marcus, old friend. I shall take care of everything.” Ne’on gave a small pat on the Castellan’s back, and Ridgewater exited the room considerably quieter than he entered. After Ne’on closed the door, he looked at his guards. “Starting tomorrow, Castellan Ridgewater is to be followed where ever he goes. I want a complete and detailed account of what he does, who he talks to, and how he handles each and every situation. He is an old man; it would be a terrible shame if he were to have an accident,” he added to himself.
…hand grasping tight, taught, red, mad,
tunic tearing, digging, flesh torn by
fingers, dirty, brown, skin peeling, blood
slowly dripping, reaching, lifting, pain,
The stone hallway echoed the sound of hard leather boots scraping against the floor. Marcus turned the corner and descended the spiral stone staircase, dug from the rock on which Gateway was founded, and muttered again that it was too small for a boy to climb through. Once Marcus had seen to his present problems, he would make sure the underground works of Gateway were properly renovated.
At the bottom of the stair was a strong wooden door, a foot thick, which had no key holes, just large bars on either side, and a small window to speak through. Marcus rapped loudly on the door, and a dark face looked out from the other side. “Let me in, Kraig,” he growled, and lifted the bar on his side. He heard the grunt of the small man behind the door, and pushed it open.
“Good evenin’, Castell’n, what brings ya round this time o’ night?” Kraig’s unshaven face, dark skin, and bleary eyes made him an unpleasant sight in the flickering orange torch light, and his own smell was almost comparable to the fetid aroma that filled the chamber. Marcus decided not to stay here any longer than necessary.
“Ne’on’s been changing every squirmin’ thing else in Gateway, has he changed anything down here?” Marcus knew there was no change, but he wanted to make sure the other guards were still down here, as well.
“Aye, the Lord Keeper’s been busy, of late. But, there’s still just the three o’ us. Jess and Dalia are back in th’ other room, sleepin’.”
“Wake them,” Marcus commanded him, “and bring them here, quickly.” When Kraig had left the room, Marcus unlocked the door which led to the pens, rows of cages only four feet high and four feet deep. The scum of the river were held there, as far as Marcus was concerned. Thieves, small-time pirates, murderers; they all found their way to this area of the dungeon, if the Castellan was able to catch them. He could think of a few men he’d like to see there, right now.
Dalia, a tall, red-haired woman with brown eyes, and Jess, a dark- skinned man like his brother, Kraig, entered the room with the guard. “Here they are, Castell’n. What d’ya need o’ us?”
The three tired, run down, out of luck guards were at the bottom of the river, as far as their ability was concerned, which is why Ridgewater had assigned them this shift. Almost nothing could go wrong down here, where light of day and fresh air were as uncommon as good men. Marcus wasn’t sure how he should handle his situation. The first half of his mission had been easy. He always took a ride around the perimeter of the keep before sunset, and dropping a packed bundle on the ice under the dock by the northern ford was as easy as catching rats in the kitchens. Now, however, he had to depend on the reliability and discretion of guards who had no reason to love him, and little reason not to betray him.
The snow crunched softly under his boots, the wind bit lightly on his unshaven face. The cloak he had was warm, but when the sun had set completely in the west, he knew he had better have shelter and a warm fire. His body was in pain, his teeth bared, and his head on fire. Sliding down the gentle slope of snow and ice, he dug into the snow under the dock for the package Marcus had told him would be there. His lips accuse you, his eyes betray you, his soul is burning in Gil-Pazulirken.
His bare hands digging into the soft snow, the cold creeping up his sleeves, he felt the harsh skin of a dead aelo wrapped with cord made from a horses tail. The cold dampness on his knees felt warmer as his skin numbed; he knew it was getting late. If he didn’t find shelter soon, something away from Gateway and his treacherous brother, they wouldn’t be finding him until the Mertz thaw. That’s it, die; let go. Join your father in the feast of Rise’er. He’ll be glad to eat the flesh from your bones, to revenge himself upon you, murderer.
Opening the bundle, he gazed at what the castellan had left for him: a tinder box, a piece of curved glass, a chunk of salted meat, some dried fruit, six arrows, and his father’s bow. He picked up this last item and tried to string it. How dare you? Kill your father and take his own possessions? Better to destroy them, than keep them for one such as you.
Try as he might, he was too weak to bend the bow; he needed food and water, and rest. But where would he go? He knew the wind would bite deep and harsh, as soon as he stepped out from beneath the dock. How would he even manage a fire, and with what wood? Better you freeze here, beneath the dock your father built with his own hands, like the wolves on the other side of the river.
At that thought, he looked across the water, about seventy feet at this spot, and saw the small pack of wolves huddling together where the dock rested against the embankment. Marcus hadn’t chosen this spot randomly, he knew how the winds blew in Janis. Gathering the bundle together, he pushed up to the top of the slope, still under the dock, and dug away the snow, which was less deep, there. Removing the bow and arrows from the skin, he snapped the arrows in half, and piled them with some rotting wood from the underside of the dock. He would have to wait until the fire was started before he could burn the bow. Removing the tinderbox, he made the best use of the wood he possibly could, until the light of dawn should wake him.