DargonZine 27, Issue 3

The Path to Power

Vibril 4, 1019 - Vibril 29, 1019


Tyrus Vage trudged up a steep forest path, stumbling over roots and loose stones. His legs ached, and his right knee had stiffened; a lance of pain shot through it every time he tried to bend it. The pain was centered on an old wound, given to him by a spying little gypsy boy. His boots, made for riding not hiking steep trails, had raised blisters on his feet that stung with every step. He was tempted to go barefoot, but he was afraid of what he’d find when he removed his boots. The left one felt like it was filled with blood. Plus, it was getting dark, and he needed the protection against sharp sticks and rocks he wouldn’t be able to see.

There was another reason to keep the boots on; with the darkness would come the cold. The wind was keeping him cool now despite the exertion of his climb, but he could imagine its icy fingers slipping beneath his clothing once night fell. He was lucky to be on the western face of the hill he was climbing, or he’d already be in darkness. Vage pulled his thin cloak close about him. It had been fine for an evening stroll on the streets of Dargon, but would be little protection against a cold night in the wilderness. He hoped the inn he was seeking was close.

His horse he had left behind at Garret’s, the last inn he’d seen, both because it would not have been able to assay the steep, narrow trails, and because Vage had almost been out of coins. At the time, he had been disgusted that he, former owner of a great merchant house, was dickering with some dirt farmers. Worse, they’d paid less than half of what the beast would have fetched in Dargon. Now, Vage just wished he had sold his clothing as well. The rich garments had served him well as a powerful merchant, commanding the obeisance of lesser men and the attention of those few nobles to whom he’d paid a grudging respect. Any single garment he wore was worth more than all of those farmers would earn in a year, but he would have traded all of it for something thick and woolen.

Lungs heaving, Vage crested the hill. In the past, he might have considered that cause for celebration, but he’d learned today that downhill is harder when your legs are spent. That, and the far side of the hill plunged into darkness. He hoped it would at least get him out of the damnable wind. With no other option, he began his descent.

In the shadow of the hill, the forest changed. The trees seemed to close in, providing hiding places for imagined attackers, both human and animal. Each rustle of leaves became the footfall of a stalking beast. He was not normally a fearful man, but his was the bravery of the negotiating table; he had the courage to ruin his foes financially and to send armed men to do physical harm when necessary. He drew his cloak even tighter around him, aware that it provided little defense from either an attacker or the elements.

The wind had eased a bit, but the darkness seemed to draw about him, chilling him deeply. The sweat from his uphill climb made his thin clothing cling to his skin, sucking away more body heat. He tried to quicken his pace, but his knees wouldn’t allow it.

It seemed like bells later when the twilight became full darkness, but Vage knew it was only menes; he’d barely come halfway down the slope. As Vage paused to mop cold sweat from his brow, he saw the darkness brought a pleasant surprise: a fire in the distance winked through the gently blowing foliage. Finally! It had to be the inn. Knowing he couldn’t speed up, he put his head down and focused on the trail or what little he could see of it. He paid little heed to the noise he was making; the people below should be allies, the first he’d encountered since leaving Dargon over a sennight ago. Actually, they would probably be the first real allies he’d seen in much longer than that.

At the bottom of the hill, he encountered a shallow stream. With no obvious bridge in sight, he forded it. He was proud when he reached the other side without getting water over the tops of his boots, but he did end up plunging his left hand into the water up to his elbow to avoid falling in. His sleeve hung from his forearm, dripping icy water. The path sloped upward on the far side of the stream, but gently. Vage welcomed the break for his knees and walked a little faster.

As he drew closer, he could see the light was from a campfire, not the inn that he had hoped for. He supposed it wasn’t surprising that these people would be setting pickets; they were technically at war. Still, there were no military geniuses among them. The events at Tench six years earlier had proven that.

There were two men by the fire. They stood as Vage approached.

“Who might you be?” the larger of the two asked. His hand closed about a stout wooden rod; from the way the man leaned on it, it looked to be more walking stick than cudgel.

Vage was careful to keep his hand away from his own weapon, a short knife at his left hip. “Just a fellow wanderer, seeking a friendly hand.” These were words he had learned many years ago, but never expected to use. He’d served the cause behind a merchant’s desk, not skulking through the woods.

“Are you, now?” asked the big man. His free hand went to his chin, rubbing the bristle there as if in thought. Vage thought he sounded slightly smug.

Vage felt his breath catch in his throat. That was not the response he had expected, but the man’s tone implied he knew something. Could these be gypsies who had learned the signs? If so, he knew he was dead; he was in no shape to fight one man, let alone two. What else …? Ah! Maybe the sign was old. It could have been compromised, which would make these men suspicious of him. He chose his next words carefully, drawing from secret rituals that never changed.

“May his ever-watchful eye shine upon our meeting.”

It was the smaller man that reacted to this, in a voice that was high and squeaky. “Hey, Gidden, what’s he on about?”

Vage watched Gidden, who nodded and smiled, turning to his companion. “Them’s sacred words to Sageeza.” He turned back and met Vage’s gaze. “Unfortunately for our… hm, rather well-dressed friend here, I’m no longer with the Hand.”

“With the who, now?” squeaked the small man.

Gidden rolled his eyes and looked down at his friend again. “The Bloody Hand. No? The people I was with when I picked up my limp in the battle near Tench? I’ve only told you the story a dozen times or so.”

“Oh, right, the gypsy haters. Why’d you leave them again?”

“There’s no money in it, killin’ gypsies. Or not much. Seemed like everything we took from ‘em went toward killin’ more gypsies.”

Vage let his hand creep toward his knife during the exchange. At another time he would have been happy to debate the economics of gypsy-killing with Gidden. He’d built a financial empire on it, himself. Now, he was more concerned with getting out of this situation alive. He wondered if he could kill the squeaky one quickly and then outdistance Gidden. He’d soon find out which of them the gypsies had given a worse limp.

All thoughts of escape slipped away as an iron grip closed over his wrist and something sharp pressed into the small of his back.

“Here now, Gidden,” a voice hissed from behind him, “this fellow was about to draw a blade on you while you was goin’ on about your war wound. I always meant to ask you, how come when you’re tellin’ that story in a bar, you got that limp fightin’ Bennies?”

Gidden turned back to Vage. “Shut yer trap, Mikel. In the bar, this limp came from whatever will get people to buy me the most ale. Usually that’s fightin’ Bennies. It’s not often I meet someone what knows about the battle of Tench.”

Vage got a look at the man’s limp as he approached, and realized he would have lost the footrace anyway. He relaxed in Mikel’s grip, and tried to appear as unthreatening as possible. Only his ability to negotiate was going to save him now. Fortunately he was a master negotiator, recent horse-trading notwithstanding.

Gidden stopped a few feet from Vage. “So, how much ale are you going to buy me?”

Vage made a peaceful gesture with his free hand. “Well, friend, I’m sure we can –”

“Not your friend,” grunted Gidden. Vage saw the cudgel lash out and tried to avoid it. Mikel’s grasp prevented that, but he did manage to tilt his head away from the attack. Still, the cudgel struck him a glancing blow to the side of the head and the world went dark for a moment.

He came back to his senses lying face down, with hands moving all over his body. His knife was plucked away first, then his coin purse was pulled from his belt.

“Check it out,” came a hiss.

“Let me get it by the fire,” squeaked a reply. “Not much in here. Hm. Two of these is silver. Not bad.”

Dimly, Vage remembered that he’d had four silver Rounds. He wondered if the rat-man, as he’d come to think of the squeaky fellow, had failed to notice the other silver coins or if he had pocketed them. Vage suspected the latter and wondered if he could use that to his advantage.

“How about his clothes?” said the quiet voice. “Looks like they cost quite a bit.”

“How about ‘em?” Gidden said. “Tattered, muddy, and soon to be bloody. I bet our ‘friend’ here paid a lot for ‘em, but who’d pay the likes of us? What are we gonna do? Knock on some noble’s door and offer him this lovely outfit at a discount? ‘Please, sir, it just needs a bit o’ mending and washing. And only one man died in them.’”

At the last words, Vage tried to rise to his hands and knees. “Wait. I’ll –”

A booted foot to the ribs interrupted him, taking all of his breath away. While he gasped and clutched his side, Gidden’s voice boomed down from above. “You’ll what? Out here alone, by yourself, dressed like that, and us with all your money already? No matter what you offer, I’m thinkin’ either you’ll bring us back with promises and then get us arrested or killed, or you ain’t got nothin’ to go back to. Either way, I think we’ll get everything you have to give from you right now. And maybe I got a few things to give you, see if that ‘ever-watchful eye’ is lookin’ out for you or not.”

The cudgel landed squarely in Vage’s back, causing the muscles to spasm in agony. Then a boot stomped down and agony erupted from his knee. The pain in his back was forgotten as more blows fell. He couldn’t tell boot from cudgel, but it didn’t matter. He felt bones snap in his left hand and another blow to the head turned everything gray. Once Gidden’s fury was vented he was lying in a heap, waiting.

The rat gave voice to Vage’s question. “Ain’t you gonna kill ‘im?”

Gidden’s reply sounded a hundred miles away. “Nah. He’s no threat. Look at him. Probably won’t make it out of the forest alive anyway.”

“Hmm,” came a quiet voice. Mikel. That was Mikel. “Maybe you’re a little worried after all, with that talk about watchful eyes and such. I’ve never much cared to tempt the gods myself, though, so maybe a little worry is called for.”

“Straight,” said Gidden. “Let’s leave ‘im for the wolves. Come on. There’s enough there for a bed each, and someone to warm it, with enough left over for plenty of ale.”

“That place to the north?”

“Nah, they only got one woman there, an’ she’s old and ugly. Let’s head east to Garret’s.”

“That’s another two bells, easily.”

“And well worth every step. Now come on.”

As his consciousness waned, Vage heard the sound of footsteps moving away from him and stealing the peace of a quick death with them. Now he would die slowly from the cold, or his wounds, perhaps even fed on by scavengers while he still lived. The last thing he heard before the darkness took him was the sound of a squeaky voice asking, “Hey, do you think these boots will fit me?”

 

***

 

Vage woke to a confused blur of colors that slowly resolved itself to the ashy remains of a campfire with the morning sunlight shining down upon it. He must have dragged himself to the men’s fire while he was half-conscious, probably saving his life; he cursed himself for it. Death would have been easier than what he had to face.

Through the haze of pain, he remembered Mikel’s question — “that place to the north?” He’d forgotten the trail would turn north before he reached his destination. He’d been expecting the inn too soon, or he wouldn’t have approached the fire so openly. From what the men had said it was closer than the journey back to Garret’s — two bells closer, but that was for healthy men walking. He was going to have to crawl.

Vage took stock of his injuries. His head was swimming in pain. His left hand was badly swollen, and his right knee was worse. He moved his right hand over his ribs, wincing as he touched a few tender spots. Maybe a few cracks there, but nothing crippling. That was good. He sat up and inspected his feet. They were badly blistered and a few of the blisters had broken, but they weren’t bleeding after all. His mouth was dry; his tongue rasped against the roof of his mouth like sandpaper.

He thought about the stream he had crossed, but he was loathe to go in the wrong direction. He had to continue on and pray that he crossed water again soon. Pray? Vage almost laughed. The only thing he had ever worshipped was profit. Gidden had spared his life for fear of killing one of Sageeza’s faithful, but the man couldn’t have been safer. Vage had only used the strange cult for personal gain, as he still hoped to do this day. He began to crawl.

Several bells later, he wished he had gone back to the stream. He hadn’t seen more than two tiny puddles, both of which he’d sucked dry, the water gritty and foul but still soothing to his parched throat. He was crawling uphill, and it was slow going. He was moving mostly with his left leg and right arm. He could put his left elbow down, but he had to be careful not to jar the hand. His right leg was almost useless. He couldn’t bend the knee at all, but nothing seemed to be broken; dragging the leg along didn’t produce the white-hot agony he felt every time his broken hand brushed the ground.

Finally he topped the hill and wished he hadn’t. The downhill was steep, crisscrossed by a series of rocky switchbacks. Vage spent an agonizing afternoon crawling back and forth across the face of the hill, tumbling over rocks to land with jarring agony more than a few times. The switchbacks ended with a slow decline into a valley that began to darken as the sun set behind him. He still hadn’t turned north.

He stopped to rest with the side of his face against the coolness of a mossy rock, and recognized what he must have been hearing for a while. It was the sound of rushing water. A stream! There had to be a stream ahead. He began to crawl, dragging himself along on his elbows and pushing with his left foot. The sound didn’t seem to get any closer. He thought about trying to stand and hop along on his good leg but knew he wasn’t up to the task. He kept crawling, his world narrowing to the distance between him and the stream.

Then he was upon it. The vague, distant rushing sound resolved into the flow of water over rocks. He propelled himself forward the last several feet, heedless of his injuries. His good hand plowed into the muddy bank and he dragged himself forward, plunging his head into the water. He alternated between holding his head under water and drinking deeply. After a mene or two, he coughed up most of the water he had drunk, so he drank again, more slowly. This time it stayed down. After his thirst was slaked, he lay on his back, staring at the darkening sky, feeling the water refresh his body. After a while he began to feel cold again and knew he needed to continue. Then he looked at the stream — the wonderful thing that had saved his life — and realized it was now a barrier. He would have to crawl through it to continue on his way.

Plunging his head into the stream had been almost joyful. Pulling his whole body through it was agony. The numbing cold bit into him and he gasped for breath. Then his bad knee struck a rock and he remembered real pain. He curled around it until the agonizing fire ebbed and then dragged himself from the water, but the cold stayed with him. His clothing was drenched and night was falling. He crawled along in desperation for a few menes but then realized his situation. He was nowhere near the inn, and he could lose the trail in the darkness. He had to get out of his wet clothing or die.

Raising himself with his right hand, Vage spied a tree that had fallen against a slope, forming a sheltered hollow. He dragged himself to it and decided it would have to do. He stripped his wet clothing off and draped it over the log, and then crawled into the hollow and covered himself with moss and leaves.

It seemed like he spent the whole night shivering and trying to bury himself deeper beneath the leaves, but he must have slept. At one point he remembered getting up and squeezing his wet clothing to get another drink of water. He woke to sunlight warming his face. He lay there for a moment, letting it warm him, and then he dragged himself out of his shelter. He relieved himself propped up on his good knee. There was no blood in his urine, which was good, but it was very dark. He was going to have to find some more water.

His clothes were dry, which was a mixed blessing. He’d been hoping to wring out another drink, but he dressed instead, grateful for the warmth. He began to crawl again.

The day passed in a blur. He crawled up and down hills, but none as steep as the previous day. He crossed no streams, but a small pond gave him enough to drink. He napped briefly beside the pond before continuing on. Near nightfall, he noticed the sun was to his left. He had turned north and not even noticed. He kept on for a while after sunset, but then collapsed where he lay on the trail, too tired to look for shelter.

 

***

 

“Who do you suppose he is?” A woman’s voice penetrated the fog of Vage’s mind.

“Dunno.” This was a man’s voice, deep like Gidden’s, but not his. Thank … whomever.

“Think he has any money?”

“Dunno.”

“Here, help me roll him over.”

Hands grabbed Vage and rolled him on his back, roughly but not cruelly.

“Ol’s balls,” said the woman. “Look at him. Somebody’s been over him once or twice already. Still, them clothes is nice, or was. Once. He’s got ‘em all ripped to shreds. Think he’s worth anything to anybody?”

“Dunno.” Vage wondered if the man ever said anything else. He tried to move his mouth, but no words came out. The man was one up on him at that. His thoughts still seemed shrouded in mist. He struggled to raise his head, but it only flopped to the side, giving him a view of two sets of feet in old, battered shoes.

“Hey, look at his teeth! Ever see so many? He’s a noble or something, I bet. Hey! Wonder if any of them’s gold. Help me open his mouth!”

Vage panicked, and the fog surrounding his thoughts finally slipped as he was grabbed again and his jaw was pulled down. He didn’t have any gold teeth, but he didn’t put it past these two to pull some out, just to check. If they were from the inn, from the Bloody Hand, he might be able to give them a sign, but he couldn’t speak, and anyway fingers were prying his mouth open. Then he remembered — handsigns! Desperately he moved his right hand in a gesture of recognition.

“Hey, what’s that? Toward the back. Is that one shiny?”

“Dunno.”

“Help me open his mouth wider. Might have to crack his jaw to get at it …”

His mouth was forced open as wide as it would go, and still the fingers pulled. They weren’t looking at his hand! He snapped his fingers, three rapid clicks, and then began to repeat the gesture, fingers waving frantically.

“What’s he doing?”

“Fark.” The man’s vocabulary just doubled.

“What?”

“He’s with the Hand. We have to take him back.”

“But the tooth …” Her voice became a petulant whine.

“But nothing. I’m still loyal, and even if I wasn’t, if they found out we’d left one of their own to die, they’d kill us. We have to get him back to the inn.”

Relief swept through Vage and the world went away.

 

***

 

He remembered nothing of the final leg of his journey to the inn. He awoke sitting in a chair beside a roaring fire wrapped in dry woolen clothes underneath a heavy fur blanket. His hand had been bandaged and there was a splint on his knee. He sat there in silence until a woman walked by and noticed him.

“Oh! Awake are you?”

Was it the same voice from the trail? He nodded at her. Even that small motion brought pain.

“Here, let me get you a drink.” She held a cup to his lips and he sipped eagerly from it. “Is there, maybe, some kind of reward for helping you?”

Definitely the same woman. He just glared at her as he sipped.

“Well, um. No matter. You’ll let your friends in the Hand know it was me and my husband, Mord, what saved you, straight? I’m Gerta.”

Vage nodded, the movement costing him.

That seemed to satisfy her. At least she let him drink in peace and left when he had his fill.

He must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew, a man was standing over him.

Vage tried his voice, surprised to find that it worked. “You would be Mord?”

A grunt and a nod. That would be Mord. At least he didn’t say, “dunno”. Then Vage remembered Mord’s speech about his loyalty to the Hand and realized he could talk when he needed to.

“I’d like to thank you and your wife for saving me.”

“Glad to lend a friendly hand to a fellow traveler, sir.”

Vage almost smiled, recognizing the code words in that phrase. He replied in kind. “We travelers have to stick together.”

“Against those we hate, yes sir.”

There was silence between the two men for a long moment.

“Do you mind if I ask what brings you up here, sir?”

“I find myself in a difficult situation.”

Mord just stared at him.

“Before… this.” Vage gestured to himself with his good hand. What to tell this man? Enough to get help with the rest of his journey, nothing more. “I’m having problems with my position in the world, and I seek counsel.”

“You mean …?” Mord pointed in a direction that was meaningless to Vage, but he got the idea.

“Yes.”

“But the Voice … not everyone comes back, they say. Only the commanders can visit him safely, and only when summoned. You aren’t a commander, are you, sir?”

Vage considered lying to the man. He knew it would get him quick action, but he didn’t know what risks it would bring. He’d only ever been on the fringe of this cult. Were there things he would be expected to know? After a long moment, he shook his head.

Mord’s shoulders relaxed. Vage wondered if the man had been thinking his wife had almost pulled the tooth of a commander in the Bloody Hand of Sageeza.

“Can you get me to the Voice, Mord?”

“I … I can get you close. I can bring you on a mule, but the last of it you’ll have to do on your own. I’m not allowed up there. You really didn’t know that?”

Vage shook his head.

“Halfway up from where I’ll leave you, you’ll find the old man.”

Vage nodded. “Good. Thank you, Mord.” That matched what he knew, though the information had been a bit confused. Not surprising, since he’d gotten it from a member of the Bloody Hand that he’d gotten drunk on some very expensive brandy. That fellow, like Mord and Gidden and most of the rest of the Hand that he’d met, had been a country simpleton. It was easy enough to get the information out of him. The Voice spoke for Sageeza, and the commanders obeyed. Find the inn and the old man and you find the Voice. He must have just assumed the old man would be at the inn. No matter, he was close. He could rest at the inn for a time and then go talk to the old man.

If he could convince the old man of his value to the Bloody Hand, they could set him up in another city, maybe with another name, and he could use the cult to build another fortune.

 

***

 

Vage stayed over a fortnight at the small, nameless inn. He kept to himself, though Mord and Gerta did little to engage him. Two travelers came through, a man and a woman, and he avoided them as well. He did not know if they were with the Bloody Hand, nor did he care to — not until he’d spoken to the Voice.

When the swelling subsided in his knee he was able to walk on it, with a crutch at first, but eventually just with a heavier limp than he’d had before this journey started. His hand was still heavily wrapped, less tender but still mostly useless. Gerta had done a better job setting the bones than he expected. He would just have to live with it. His side still ached, but the stabbing pains from his ribs when he took a deep breath had become less frequent.

He told Mord one evening that he was ready to go the next day. They set out at daybreak mounted on mules. They were surefooted beasts, and navigated the steep, rocky trail without slipping, something that Vage wasn’t sure he could do even with two good legs. It was almost noon when they came to a great stone marker, carved with a symbol that Vage recognized: the Sword of Sageeza.

“Here is where I leave you,” Mord said.

“So leave.”

“I need the mule.”

Vage stared up at the path beyond the marker. It was as steep and rocky as the path the mules had taken, or worse. The wind was cold and biting and the air felt thin. He was panting just from riding the mule. “You’re joking.”

“I’m not. You can’t take the mule beyond the marker anyway. You would be turned back. You have to arrive on foot.”

“Well, I’m not turning back now.” Angrily, he dismounted. He came down hard on his right leg, and a jolt of pain caused him to stumble and land on his backside. He glared at Mord, daring him to say something.

The man only grabbed the reins of Vage’s mule and turned down the slope. “May his ever-watchful eye shine upon you,” he called back over his shoulder.

Vage got to his feet, holding onto the mule for balance. “I wonder if his ever-watchful eye saw me land on my ass,” he muttered as he began the climb.

It was steep going the entire way. He had to rest often to catch his breath. Every time his foot slipped, he was sure that he would go sliding down the side of the mountain, and every gust of wind seemed determined to pick him up and cast him into the open air. He was better equipped than when he had started his journey. Mord and Gerta had given him heavy boots and thick woolen clothes. He was recovered from his exhaustion and dehydration and his wounds were mending. He had *crawled* for two days through the forest. This was nothing; he would endure.

He was less certain of himself when the sun began to set. The air grew colder and the wind seemed to pick up. In the twilight he was less sure of his footing. Once, he stumbled and had to claw at the rocks with his good hand and his left elbow to keep from sliding down the slope and into the darkness. He lay there, spread eagle and gasping, for a long mene. When he looked up, he saw … a light? He peered closer. It was faint; it would have been invisible before the sun set, but it was a light. It looked like firelight seen through window shutters. He forced himself to his feet and climbed toward the light.

Sure enough, that was exactly what it was: firelight seen through the shutters of a small cabin. The cabin sat on a wide shelf that was sheltered from the prevailing wind. There was even a place near it for a small garden patch. Vage sat and rested once he was out of the wind, and stared at the cabin. So, this was it. The Voice of Sageeza was some crazy old man living on the side of a mountain, tending his vegetable garden. He shrugged. If the crazy old man could restore his fortune, what did he care?

He finished scrambling up the slope to the cabin, pounding on the door once he arrived. After a moment, it opened, revealing half of a face. The bright blue eye in the face revealed no surprise at his presence. It glared at him for a moment and then was gone. Vage could see the old man’s back as he stalked toward the hearth. The man was stooped but not hobbled. Vage pushed the door the rest of the way open and entered.

The old man pulled down two clay bowls from the mantle and filled them from a pot over the fire. He thrust one into Vage’s hands along with a rough wooden spoon, and then sat in a chair with his own bowl, facing the fire. Vage sat in the chair beside him, also facing the fire. The old man ate his soup wordlessly, so Vage did the same. The broth was thin, but with thick chunks of some root, and bits of stringy meat. Vage supposed it might be goat meat. Once the first spoonful passed his lips, he ate ravenously.

When they finished, the old man set aside his bowl. Seen by the fire, the man’s skin was lined and weathered. His nose was slightly hooked, and large compared to the man’s withered face. “Where does the sword strike?” he asked, gazing hard at Vage.

This was one of the deep signs, one with many false answers planted in the world. Vage’s favorite one to let slip was “in the hearts of gypsy scum.” True members understood, though, that the Sword of Sageeza was a star, one of the few that moved in the night sky relative to the constellations. Those who faithfully conducted the rituals of worship to Sageeza would know the answer immediately. Vage just kept abreast of it like any other information that would help him in his dealings. “In the eye of the Mistweaver,” he replied.

The old man nodded and got to his feet with a grunt. He strode to a shelf and took down a stoppered jar. He pulled the plug and drank a swallow. Coughing, he walked back to Vage and held out the jar.

Even from that distance, Vage noted the sharp whiff of alcohol coming from the jar. In his exhausted state, the last thing he needed was a drink. He held up a hand, palm out. “I don’t mean to insult you, it’s just –”

“The only insult will be makin’ me drag your corpse out of here. My hips aren’t what they used to be. Now drink, ‘fore the first cramps hit, or you’re in for a long night.”

Vage understood, and took the jar. He gulped down a swallow of the burning liquid. The old man was no match for most travelers if they gave the wrong sign, so he poisoned them — and himself — in advance.

Once Vage finished his swallow, the old man took the jar and replaced the stopper, then sat heavily in his wooden chair. “So, you’ve come.”

This took Vage by surprise. “You … knew I was coming?”

This produced a small snort. “Not you. They always come. Idiots seeking favor, seeking to claim a place of power, ready to brag about how many gypsies they’ve slain.” He said the word “gypsy” with particular venom.

“And is that important to you? How many gypsies someone has slain?”

The old man shrugged. “I hate gypsies as much as the next man, but why should it matter if it’s important to me?”

Vage just gaped at the man.

“Oh, I see. You think you’ve come here to see me. I’m just here to give you soup and a place to sleep for the night. You’ll see *him* in the morning.”

“What? Where …?”

The old man glanced meaningfully toward the door, and then up.

Vage followed his gaze, and groaned. More climbing.

“Don’t worry,” said the old man, “as far as you’ve come, the climb tomorrow won’t test you.”

Vage grunted noncommittally, and rubbed his knee, wondering if it would be able to move in the morning.

“So, why have you come, anyway?”

“I thought you were just here to give me soup.”

“I was going to try to talk you out of it. Not everyone comes back down, you know.”

“Have you ever managed to talk anyone out of it?”

The old man tugged on his lip before replying. “Never.” Without another word, he rose and collected the soup bowls. He dropped them into a bucket of water and lay down on a small cot, his back to his guest.

Vage noted that the cot was the closest thing to a bed in the tiny cabin, but there was a pile of straw and some blankets not far from the fire. He made himself comfortable — it was a luxury compared to sleeping naked under moss and leaves — and went to sleep.

 

***

 

Vage woke to the smell of tea. The old man wordlessly offered him a steaming mug, and some hard biscuits with honey. The biscuits were tough and tasteless, but the honey made them tolerable. Vage ate his fill, knowing he would need his strength. Neither man spoke.

When the meal was over, Vage rose from the table and opened the door. Without even a backward glance at the old man, he set off. The morning was cloudless, but biting cold. Once he cleared the lee where the cabin stood, the ever-present wind began to cut through even the heavy clothing from Mord and Gerta. Vage shuddered at the thought of finishing this climb in his original clothes. In daylight, the trail was obvious, well-worn if not often used. The climbing was hard — some of the hardest he had faced — but knowing the end was close made the going easier. He scrambled over and around loose chunks of stone, occasionally half-crawling up a slope of loose rocks. His legs ached, and his lungs burned from trying to draw breath in the thinning air, but his spirit was high — until he found the body.

It lay face down on the trail. Scraps of clothing and desiccated flesh clung to a skeletal frame. Here and there a bit of yellowed bone peeked out. Whoever it was had died in the act of crawling down the trail, back toward the old man’s hovel. Vage shuddered as he understood why the person had been crawling; the shattered end of a shin bone poked out below one knee.

Vage edged carefully past the body. He had no fear of this withered corpse rising up and attacking him; he just didn’t want to hear the sound of bones crunching underfoot. He wondered how the poor wretch had become injured. It wasn’t long before he knew. Not much further along, the trail crossed beneath a cliff. Vage guessed it to be a hundred feet to the top. At the base of the cliff were more bones. Many more. A few had tried to crawl away, with less success than the first victim, but most appeared to have died where they fell. Vage looked from the pile of shattered bones back to the trail. He was approaching a series of switchbacks; it led to the top of the cliff. He hoped the forewarning would help, but he considered that most of these poor wretches would have also had a heap of skeletons to warn them.

He assayed the switchbacks before his nerve had a chance to fail him. Compared to some of the morning’s climb they were almost gentle, but his lungs still heaved and his knee ached. He reached the cliff before he expected to and stopped to survey it. It was not what he expected. He had anticipated narrow and treacherous, but this cliff was flat and broad, wide enough for four men to walk easily abreast. Keeping a good distance from the edge, Vage continued on, looking for a place at the back of cliff where he might take brief shelter from the wind. He saw a likely place and moved toward it.

In a moment, he realized that what he thought was a shadow was actually the mouth of a cave. Was this it? Had he found the place where the Voice of Sageeza made his home? It was an odd place from which to command an army of fanatics. No wonder half of the Bloody Hand never knew what the other half was doing. He stood at the mouth of the cave for a moment and let his eyes adjust. The cave wasn’t deep, but it was out of the wind. It was roughly furnished. Vage could make out a table and chair; a cot stood in the far corner. There was no place for a fire. Still, it was warmer than the open cliff, even out of the sunlight. Vage entered, wondering if it would be rude to take a nap while waiting for the Voice to return.

As he drew close, he realized the Voice was already there, in the cot. A bony figure, almost as skinny as those at the bottom of the cliff, lay beneath the blanket on the cot, its back to Vage. Wisps of gray hair clung to a wrinkled and liver-spotted scalp. Vage approached, wondering at his next step. He stood over the cot, looking down. The face he saw now in profile was a map of wrinkles. A nose with a familiar hook stood out like a beak in the ancient face. Skin drooped unnaturally from the impossibly withered form.

Vage’s heart sank is his chest as he gazed down at the remains of his last hope. After all of the climbing, the crawling, the agony, he had come too late. The Voice of Sageeza, this withered husk, had died in his bed probably long before Vage had started his journey. He wondered if he would make it back down the mountain alive. If he did, where would he go? How would he ever rebuild his fortune? How would he ever exact vengeance against his enemies? Their faces rose unbidden before him: Parris Dargon, whose mad scheme had destroyed his fortune; Tanner, the spying gypsy boy who’d left him scarred; Edril, his strong right hand who’d betrayed him; Sferina, who’d lured Edril away and finished the work that Parris had started. There were three others, he realized: Gidden, Mikel, and the rat-man. Those three were first. Or would have been. He gazed down again at the withered corpse on the cot, only to find bright green eyes looking up at him.

“Who,” asked the thing, “are you?” The voice was dust and stone, a whisper with power.

“I am Tyrus Vage, merchant of Dargon.” The words had come unbidden to his lips.

“Are you mine, Tyrus Vage?” The ancient man on the bed moved. He cast aside the thin blanket, revealing withered flesh, thin almost to the point of translucency, draped over sinew and bone.

Vage’s throat grew tight. His mouth moved, trying to form words. He wanted — needed — to answer, but the question made no sense to him.

The old one rose with ponderous slowness to a sitting position, slumped so far forward he was bent almost double. He grinned, revealing the brown stumps of a few scattered teeth. “Oh, I think you are. Did you speak the oath, Vage? Did your hand bleed?”

“Yes!” The word burst from his lips, releasing all of the tension in his body. “I said the words, they cut my hand, I pledged my faith –”

The green eyes held him, freezing the words in his throat again. “And are you faithful to me, Tyrus Vage?”

To me? Then this ancient being was the Voice of Sageeza. Here was his chance! If he could win this old man over, he would have the cult’s full support. “I serve the Bloody Hand,” Vage said, “with information.” He wanted to stop, but his mouth continued. “So, in that sense, I am faithful, but I use the cult for personal gain. I always have. From the day I joined, the Bloody Hand of Sageeza was nothing but a tool for me, to help me amass power and wealth.” What was he doing? This was madness! He knew never to reveal more information than was needed; that was a basic tenet of negotiation. He stared into the green eyes. What power did this ancient man hold to make him speak so freely? He had to act. Thoughts of wealth faded for a moment. One blow would be enough to end this, but his arms wouldn’t move.

“Why do you struggle?”

“I mean to strike you down. One blow would kill you, but I cannot move.”

The ancient glanced down at himself, and looked up with a shrug, grinning as if to acknowledge the truth of Vage’s words. “Your will is mine, Tyrus Vage. You will act only on my command. Pray that I do not find you wanting.”

Suddenly Vage knew who all of the bones at the bottom of the cliff had been. He wondered that his confession of betrayal did not already have him marching toward the edge.

“Is your hatred pure, Tyrus Vage? Is it strong?”

He thought of the gypsies, whom the cult was sworn to destroy, and his heart sank. The words came out as soon as he thought them. “I hate the gypsies, but not in the same way as the Bloody Hand does. They are the opposition, eating into my profits, conducting trade through secret routes. I hurt them for profit — stealing their goods, selling their people.” He paused, and then remembered … the boy! “There is one that I hate beyond all hope of profit. His name is Tanner. He wounded me and spied on me for years.”

The Voice of Sageeza closed his eyes and inhaled through his nose, as if savoring a delicious scent. “Tell me of this Tanner.”

The words poured forth. Vage told of ambushing Tanner’s family in the time before the battle of Tench, killing two and taking one to be sold as a slave, and how Tanner, a mere child, had rescued her and left him crippled and scarred. He told of how, years later, Tanner had come to work for him, somehow still young, and stolen his secrets for a long time before being revealed. The boy had escaped him then as well.

The ancient one then did what Vage would have thought impossible. He rose from the bed and stood. Was the flesh hanging less loosely from his bones? It was hard to tell, but the ancient one’s spine was straight as a ship’s mast. “Mmm. Dargon leaked secrets during those years. My secrets. Starting with Tench. Do you think Tanner learned of the attack near Tench from you, Tyrus Vage? Did he warn his people? Did you help turn an ambush of the Rhydd Pobl to the slaughter of the Bloody Hand?”

Vage felt his palms and the soles of his feet begin to sweat. His mouth was dry. “I’ve often wondered that myself,” he said. Did he have enough doubt to escape this question? That thought brought the next words to his mouth. “It seems the most likely explanation, yes. It was almost a certainty.” Apparently not. Vage waited for the command that would send him walking to his death.

“So, you caused that massacre. Hmm. Tench was …” The Voice of Sageeza closed his eyes for a long moment. “Delicious. All of that hatred. And it has continued for years. The Rhydd Pobl hating the survivors as they hunted them, the survivors hating their hunters. Delightful, really.”

The Voice of Sageeza must have read the confusion on his face. “What is it, Tyrus? You may speak your mind.”

Vage almost stumbled forward as his muscles all relaxed at once. “You don’t blame me for that disaster? So many of your people slaughtered?”

“Of anyone, I would expect you to understand. It has never been about victory, about destroying a people. It’s only about what I need. That brings me back to my question, Tyrus. How pure is your hate?”

“I don’t know how to answer that. I only hurt the gypsy scum for profit.”

“Rhydd Pobl, Tyrus.” That was the third time the Voice of Sageeza had said that name, and perfectly accented. “And they surely hate you. Those you have left alive, that is.” The old one licked withered lips with a tongue that looked almost rotten. “Who else do you hate? Tell me.”

“Three men who attacked me as I traveled to you: Gidden, Mikel, and a third I call the rat-man.”

The ancient lip curled, revealed the brown stump of a tooth. “Bah! That’s mere anger. I want to know who you would see suffer ruin and anguish. Tell me!”

Three names came to his lips. “Parris Dargon. Edril. Sferina.”

“Ah. There is the hatred. Deep and abiding. Why do you hate them? Are they different from you? Did they hunt your people? Kill your family? No … what is it?”

Again the iron command came, and he answered. “They cost me. Money. Power. That is all that matters.”

“Hatred born not of fear, or vengeance, but of … greed? A lust for power? And power begets hatred. How wonderful! Why, Tyrus, I think my search is over. Too long have I wasted my time with these simpletons, who hate only what is different and strange. Too long have I lingered in this cave, waiting for trickles of hate to come to me. There would be risk to travel the world, but the rewards, oh the rewards! Will you serve me, Tyrus? Carry my voice into the world? Build a financial empire on the bloodied backs of your enemies? Earn their hatred as you crush them underfoot?” The green eyes glittered.

Tyrus knew he was bound to answer, but he did so with a smile. “For that, my lord, I would pledge myself to any god.”

“So be it!” The withered man circled behind Vage, faster than he could have imagined. He felt the ancient hands on his back, then somehow in his body. Something flowed into him, filling him, lighting every nerve on fire. He cried out, and then the pain was gone. He fell forward, hearing the old man behind him falling as well.

He lay there for a long time, gathering his strength. It seemed to flow into his body, which was strange. After a time, a gentle wheezing behind him drew his attention. He rolled over and found himself looking into an ancient face that seemed to be almost all nose. Wrinkled flesh hung loosely from it, all of the strength finally gone. Clouded, dull eyes tried to focus on him. When the breath finally came, it stank of corruption. The withered lips moved. Vage moved in closer to hear, despite the stench.

“Is it … gone?” The voice was only dust, no stone.

Vage smiled. “Yes, your power is gone. Sageeza has chosen one more worthy.”

There was no response. The ancient eyes closed, and the mouth emitted one final, foul breath.

 

***

 

That night and another full day Vage stayed in the cave, gathering power. He could feel the tendrils flowing into him, the hatred of all who had pledged themselves to Sageeza, and the hatred of others for them. Something that moved behind his eyes feasted with glee, but left enough for Vage to regain his vigor. He felt no hunger, no thirst. The bones in his left hand knit themselves together and the strength returned to his knee.

The following morning he fairly bounded down the mountain, leaping easily down rock faces that he’d struggled to scale only two days before. It was well before midday when he came to the small cabin. The old man was tending his garden when Vage approached. Rather than surprise, he wore a look of resignation on his face. He waited until Vage was in front on him before he spoke.

“Is he dead, then?”

Vage nodded slowly. “Yes.”

He hadn’t expected the response. The old man crumpled; he fell to his knees and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Vage stood there, not quite sure what to do. In normal, polite society, he would have been expected to put his arm around the old man and say words of comfort. He’d done so himself any number of times; it often helped negotiations to display sympathy. He was so far beyond normal and polite society now that such an act seemed foolish. Still, he had to do something, so he gripped the man’s shoulder, noting how dry and cracked the sun and wind had left the back of his own hand.

The old man looked up, tears still in his eyes, and Vage fumbled with what to say. He opted for the obvious, given the family resemblance between the ancient in the cave and this man. “Was he your father?”

The old man let out another sob before replying, “He was my son.”

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