Banewood smelled incense when he entered Aardvard Factotum’s home. As his eyes became accustomed to the darkness, he noticed conspicuous details of wealth: polished wooden furniture from Magnus; a paved floor topped with woven grass mats; and thick tapestries, imported from distant Baranur, adorned the walls. The richness of the furnishings attested to Factotum’s success as a local healer and surgeon — a barber, in local parlance. The peasants, those who could afford his services, paid dearly with their cattle, which augmented what was already one of the largest herds in the realm. Those who were rich, however, had rich diseases, and they paid in gold for their treatment, preferably Baranur gold marks. Many of them.
But Banewood wasn’t looking for healing. And though he could probably use a different type of barber, he hadn’t come for a surgical consultation. He was looking for magic and for anyone willing to trade magic spells and potions.
When he had first arrived at Dargon, Banewood milled about the docks and warehouses, casting about for information among the sailors, longshoremen and merchants. It didn’t take long. Beneath a red and white canopy, a soup vendor called Simon had volunteered the name of Aardvard Factotum, the physician, in barter for some exotic seasonings brought by Banewood. This was not an age of specialization — a physician, especially one trained by an elder, also dabbled in sorcery.
The apprentice shaman, ever on the search for new spells and new knowledge, eagerly sought the physician’s house and gave his credentials to a haughty secretary. After about ten minutes — Aardvard didn’t wish to appear eager — the secretary returned and ushered Banewood into Factotum’s richly appointed office.
“Hansen, go take a walk and leave us alone,” said Aardvard to his secretary. Hansen demurred at the order to leave his employer, but he left obediently.
“Who’s your instructor?” asked Aardvard. From behind thick lids, his reddened eyes peered at the dusty Shaman. He drew a heavy puff from a pipe. The pipe, made of whale ivory scrimshaw, was very rare.
“Ostap of Gorod,” responded Banewood.
“Never heard of him,” said the physician. He stifled a yawn. “I presume you came here with something on your mind.”
Banewood shifted his weight; he’d been on his feet all day. “Yes. I’m a stranger to the kingdom of Baranur, having journeyed through the forest from the east.
“More to this bumpkin than meets the eye,” mused Aardvard to himself. The eastern forests seldom admitted strangers. Ones who passed that way may, indeed, have something to offer. “Go on…”
Banewood told Aardvard little of his adventure at the hut of Baba Yaga or of his meeting with the little people who lived in the dark forest which surrounded Gorod, his home. Nor did he mention Baba Yaga’s book of spells. Baba Yaga was an evil sorceress who died centuries ago in the dark forest. Last summer, Banewood and his companion, Sod the plowman, journeyed through the dark forest to slay Kathryn, a monstrous sow believed by many to be the reincarnation of Baba Yaga. Banewood found Baba Yaga’s book of spells within the ruins of her moldering hut. Books of any sort were rare commodities in this dim age, and a book of sorcery was beyond price — more than one’s life, at least. Banewood concentrated instead on his quest for the greater knowledge, his euphemism for the shaman’s art.
Factotum was amused. Never before had someone sought him out to exchange spells and potions.
“Let’s play with this one a bit,” Factotum thought to himself. “Well, shaman, show me what you can do, and I’ll see what I may have to offer you… But I’m sorry, I’m forgetting my manners, aren’t I? Please sit and ease your feet.”
Banewood nodded in thanks. Picking a stool, he sat down and did little to suppress a weary sigh. He reached into his sack and produced a wooden rod. He waved the rod over a small table in front of him, muttered a few words and caused the table to rise about a foot into the air. It floated about for a moment and then abruptly settled back to earth.
Aardvard shrugged. “I’m afraid the table is the only thing to get a rise from that old trick,” he said with smugness. Thinking to impress Banewood, he reached for a nearby urn and showed the shaman that it was empty. Aardvard covered the urn with a fine cloth which he pulled from a pocket in his robe. He produced his own wooden rod and waved it over the container. With slight flourish, he produced a little white squat-hen, your typical rabbit. He offered the squat-hen to Banewood. “Something for your dinner, perhaps?”
Banewood smirked. “Is that all you can do? Squat-hen tricks?” He reached again into his bag and this time pulled out one of his favorites; it was a narrow vial filled with a dark green liquid. He sipped once from the vial and placed it back in his pouch. Banewood closed his eyes as if resting and appeared to go to sleep.
“Now what?” wondered the physician.
Several minutes went by. However, just as the physician was thinking of offering Banewood a cup of tea or some other stimulant, a raven flew up to the open window and perched on the sill. It looked sideways at Aardvard, which is the way birds often look when gazing directly at you, and croaked “Aar-vard! Aar-vard!”
“Is that all you can do? Bird imitations?” scoffed Aardvard Factotum. But the physician had never seen this bit of sorcery before. “Hmm… What else can you do with that potion?” He asked.
Once again, Banewood closed his eyes and appeared to sleep. After about a minute, Banewood stirred; he opened his eyes and beamed a knowing smile at Aardvard.
“You have twelve hundred gold marks hidden behind your hearth. Don’t you trust the banks in Baranur?” Banewood asked.
Factotum controlled an urge to jump out of his chair and throttle Banewood. “You can do that with your potion?” he asked. “What is it?”
Banewood replied “It’s the Essence of Ur-Baal. It sets the mind free of the body.”
“Oh! I’ve got to try this essence. Let me try it, please?” begged Factotum, going down a bit in Banewood’s estimation.
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Banewood. “It’s kind of dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing; you can easily get lost and not find your way back to your body.”
“I’ve never been lost a day in my life,” retorted Aardvard.
“You mean you’ve used the essence of Ur-Baal before?”
“Yeah, sure. A long time ago.” Aardvard lied.
“Well, in that case…” Banewood looked pensive, Aardvard looked eager. “Okay.” Banewood relented. He trickled a few drops of the essence of Ur-Baal into a waiting glass. “But be careful and don’t stray too far,” he warned.
“Don’t worry, mother, this will be easy,” said Aardvard Factotum as he snarfed down a small mouthful of the dark green liquid.
Aardvard Factotum closed his eyes. He didn’t feel any different for about thirty seconds. Suddenly, he felt strange, like he was having a giddy dream. The muscles in his neck felt extremely loose, and then it felt as if the base of his skull was opening up. His thoughts poured out — literally. “Boy, this is neat,” he thought. In his mind, he went to the kitchen and looked for his gold behind a loose cobble stone near the hearth… “Yes, it’s still there, all of it.” And while his body remained indoors, his mind perceived the sky. He was moving… at least it felt like he was.
He took in the panorama of a dimming twilight sky — it was particularly beautiful — and then perceived the smoke of a distant cooking fire. Following the source of smoke, his mind flew down the chimney and entered the living quarters of one of his tenant farmers. A farmer and his stoutish wife were eating and talking about the day’s events. How odd! Aardvard didn’t hear them, but he FELT what they were saying. They were talking about the stranger who had come to visit the physician, speculating as to what kind of chicanery might be afoot.
“My secretary, Hansen, cannot resist passing on the latest gossip,” thought Aardvard. “So Hansen becomes a rumormonger when he takes his little walks!”
He passed through a small open window and again flew over the countryside with increasing exhilaration. Aardvard’s disembodied mind experienced elation as the sensations bombarded him through numerous channels. Aardvard understood so many things. He sensed the heartbeat of a barn swallow in flight, he felt an oak tree breathe, and he felt the vastness of the earth and the sky surrounding it.
His mind flew upward and toward the Street of Travellers which ran through the business district of Dargon, then over the wall of Dargon Keep. The castle of Dargon Keep served as home to Lord Clifton Dargon, for whose family the city below is named. Within the keep also lived the lesser nobility and other courtiers.
Aardvard Factotum’s mind now ran up and down the halls of Dargon Keep. He entered the chamber of Griswald Brutsam, a physician-sorcerer in the employ of Lord Dargon. Most potentates kept court physician-sorcerers to ward off bad food and bad spells. Clifton Dargon was no fool and, hence, no exception. And Griswald was one of the best.
Someone else was in the room with Griswald. Normally, Aardvard wouldn’t have known who this man was, but his instinct said that it was Lek Pyle, a leading shipping merchant from Baranur. Neither Griswald nor Lek took notice of Factotum’s entrance, though Griswald did shift his eyes about as if he was about to impart something important to the other visitor. Anything that Griswald had to say, particularly to one of Baranur’s leading merchants, was worth listening in on. Aardvard decided to eavesdrop.
Griswald talked about Captain Markus and the return to port of the Singing Mermaid. The Mermaid had gone further east than any Baranur ship — and it had managed to return.
“I know Lord Dargon’s will in the matter of sending an army against the island of Bichu,” said Griswald. “He wouldn’t risk it, and I’m afraid he’s also morally opposed to it. He figures that as long as those people are already willing to trade with us, there’s no sense in fighting them. And I’m not sure I see the sense either.”
“It doesn’t matter what Griswald thinks of this matter,” said Lek. What’s important is that Baranur has the exclusive right to govern trade with Bichu.”
“I still don’t like it,” rejoined Griswald, “but it looks like I don’t have any choice. Loyalty to Lord Dargon isn’t worth my life.”
Lek smiled a crooked grin, stood up and headed for the door.
“Still,” continued Griswald, tugging absently at his ear and rising from his seat, “I’m not sure of the best way to get Lord Dargon out of the picture.”
If the disembodied mind that was Factotum’s could have choked at this moment, it would have. “By the great gods!” thought Factotum. “They’re talking of assassination! I’ve got to go warn somebody…”
While Factotum watched mutely — at least mutely as far as Lek and Griswald were concerned — both men quietly walked out of the room and headed down the hall toward the stairs.
But when Aardvard Factotum tried to follow, he couldn’t move. He felt like a man trying to escape a nightmare beast; if he’d had knees, they’d have turned to rubber right now. No, actually, the feeling was more like standing in muck up to your chin, and knowing that it was going to get higher. Aardvard felt the same sort of panic that men felt when they were about to die, that is, his mind seized up and refused to work. It was a sinking feeling.