“…toiled and wrought long and hard, and harnesser of the Yrmenweald, the great Master Staff, was completed after many, many cycles (1). Swithwald, the most exalted Master of the Clear Fire Weavers (2), completed the bindings between the (an untranslateable rune – a name?) (3) source and the Master Staff, and left the siring of the lesser staves to the rest of his brotherhood, being exhausted nigh unto death by his feat. And so was the way forged for us to become the most powerful ever seen in Keinald’s Demesne (4)…”
“…it was commanded by our King to set down herein the manner by which was hidden the access to the Source. Once my pen has darkened these pages with that information, then shall the Weavers remove all knowledge of what has been so recorded from the minds of the Sons of Aelther (5). Thus shall the might of our nation be safe from our enemies. This tome shall be in the keeping of my Office until time ends, and with it, the supremacy of Fretheod (6), and the Sons of Aelther.”
“The demise of the Fretheod Empire is an oddity. At one time, they were the masters of all lands, unconquerable, ever spreading their empire to all points of the globe. Legend has it that they maintained their supremacy through a magical construct, what they called the Master Staff, and a collection of lesser staves somehow linked to the Master one. The lesser staves, carried by all captains of war, and all exploring parties, could draw upon the power of the Master Staff, enabling the bearers to accomplish amazing feats of foresight. Where the Master Staff got its power, or exactly what that power was, no one now knows.
“In the final days of the Fretheod Empire, civil war broke out – the first ever in the long history of the Sons of Aelther. Twins were born to the ruling monarch, Queen Earnfled. As the two sons, Osgeofu and Tilgeofu, grew to maturity, it became apparent that they were alike in only their looks. Everyone knew that Osgeofu, being first by mere minutes into the world, would inherit the Empire, becoming the next monarch. But, everyone wished that Tilgeofu would have that honor, being the more noble, kind, and strong of the pair. Osgeofu was petty, cruel, and just short of a coward. But the laws of the Sons of Aelther were inflexible, leaving only one way for the people to get the desired person onto the throne – revolution.
“Tilgeofu did not instigate the civil war, but there was a large faction of the nobles who refused to submit to the reign of Osgeofu. They organized, planned, arranged, and finally struck. But, Osgeofu was aware of the unrest, and he had planned, too. So, the planned quick coup turned into a long and bitter battle, and eventually into a full war.
“In the second month of the war, the Queen died. Osgeofu crowned himself, and declared Tilgeofu’s followers outlaws. The war began to go against the rebel brother, but Fretheod was suffering more.
“At the end of the Fourth month, the last remnant of the instigating faction, along with Tilgeofu, penetrated the Palace, and made it to the throne room. There, Tilgeofu confronted his brother. With the people loyal to him rioting in the streets, Tilgeofu demanded his brother’s abdication. Osgeofu refused until Tilgeofu threatened him with Huaetec, the Royal Sword of State. The king, cowed by the threat, stepped down from the throne, but, before removing his crown he smashed the head of the Master Staff on the stone floor of the throne room, and then cracked the polished wood length across his knee. Then, laughing and shouting, “If I cannot have it, no one can!”, he dashed to a window and leaped through it, still wearing the crown. He was torn to shreds by the mob outside.
“Shortly thereafter, a neighboring kingdom, formerly in thrall to the Fretheod Empire, revolted, and attacked the barely recovered nation. Fretheod tried to hold firm, but something was gone out of the Sons of Aelther. They still fought as fiercely as before, and they had superior numbers, despite the harrowing war, but their masterful leadership was gone. Their generals made stupid mistakes, and were led into obvious traps. Tilgeofu sent his Skaldric, Tarhela, across the sea to get help, but Tarhela never returned.
“It took a long time for Fretheod to die. Even after that first invasion razed the capitol and killed Tilgeofu and his sons it took many years for the far-flung colonies of the Sons of Aelther to fail, or to become nations in their own right. Eventually only the name remained..”
“…I fear that I have failed my King. The storm that blew us off our course has only just died away, leaving the ship a near wreck, and us utterly lost. I watch now as the captain stands at the wheel, cursing the gods, the sea, the wind, even the King, as he brandishes one of the now useless Son Staffs upon which he used to depend. Such a storm would never have caught a ship of Fretheod unawares before Osgeofu’s treachery.
“I have in my posession the Tome of the Yrmenweald, passed down from Skaldric to Skaldric since the beginning of the Time of the Master Staff. It was the only hope my King had of regaining the power of the Master Staff and saving our people. But, we know not where we are, and so the chances of happening on the citadel that holds the secrets are almost none. Wudamund might as well be on the larger moon for all we can get to it now. Only by the will of Keinald will Tilgeofu and Fretheod now be saved…”
Reference A – Translation of the “Tome of the Yrmenweald”, by Hrothgrim the Skaldric, page 185.
Reference B – Translation of the “Tome of the Yrmenweald”, by Hrothgrim the Skaldric, page 421.
Reference C – From the “History of the Ancient World”, Volume 4, by Trenta, Historian and Chronicler to King Vulpa of Baranur, pages 231-233.
Reference D – Excerpt from the personal log of Tarhela, Skaldric to Tilgeofu, page 642 (the second to last leaf).
(1) A cycle is approximately the period of the Moon from New to New. It equates roughly to one month.
(2) The Clear Fire Weavers were the cream of the crop of the wizards of the land, distinguished by passing a fatal test involving binding and controling elemental fire.
(3) Not only is the figure untranslateable, but it resembles nothing remotely similar to any rune or figure in the entire lexicon of the Fretheod – it seems to be an alien inclusion, perhaps from another language.
(4) Keinald is the Over-god of the Fretheod, and the world is considered to be his personal property.
(5) Aelther was (in legend) the first man to set foot upon the shores of the land that became the home of the Fretheod.
Thus do the people of the Fretheod honor the first of sailors.
(6) Fretheod was, at one time, the foremost Empire in the world, spanning all the known lands of the time and finding more all the time. They were inveterate colonizers, and their markers – stone pillars or obelisks with sticklike writing on them – can be found in almost every area of the world now traveled.
Ka’lochra’en stood before the huge, intricately carven doors of the Bardic College, and wondered (as usual) if it would work. He was a skilled thief of a special type – he didn’t snatch and run, but rather he spent a lot of time and preparation planning his thefts, and making them as perfect as possible. Often, that meant assuming a role, as he was now doing, or in some other way infiltrating the premises of his target openly and making sure that he was not a suspect in the crime. He found his own method of work to be much preferable to that of the average thief, and it meant that he could go after larger marks and enjoy the money he got for his services without having to hide from reprisals.
But, no matter how foolproof his plans, or how perfect his impersonation was, he always worried just before he began a job. He let himself run over the details in his mind, reviewing his cover story, assuring himself that he knew the layout of the place and the exact location of the book. He thought that it was this worry that had kept him alive so long – he had been in the business for over 15 years, and had never been so much as suspected of one of his crimes.
He was being well paid by a mysterious man to get a book out of the College’s main vault. The man, who refused to name himself or give any details about the book, had provided the keys to the vault. Ka’en had wondered aloud why the man needed his help to get the book when he had the keys. The man had said that no one must know that the book was missing, and that Ka’en was renowned for making things disappear mysteriously. The number of gold coins that the man offered got Ka’en to take the job, despite his misgivings.
Taking a deep breath and assuring himself that he was as prepared as possible, Ka’en continued up the steps. His green cloak was an exact copy of one worn by a bard. He wore a nondescript sword and a leather harp-case on his back, though the case was empty and padded. And, most importantly, he wore around his neck an absolutely authentic Rank pendant. He had gotten it from Bellen, a disreputable ruffian who, nevertheless, had ways of procuring certain things. He had proved to be reliable before, and so when Ka’en had put out feelers for a bardic Rank pendant, it had been just a few days before Bellen had turned up with one. Ka’en hadn’t asked where he had gotten it, staving off Bellen’s eager attempts to tell him anyway. He had given the ruffian the five crowns he had promised (which wasn’t even a decent fraction of what he had already been paid for the book), and had continued to prepare. He knew that the Rank indicated was fairly high among the journeyman class. The owner of the pendant had completed Eight of the Ten staves required before advancement to Master class. That would make Ka’en’s job both a little easier and a little harder. Easier, because he, wearing that pendant, would be taken for an important person. Harder, because there weren’t all that many Eighth Stave Bards proportionally, and it might well seem suspicious that he was a stranger. But, the opportunity was too good to pass up; he decided to take his chances.
A small nagging doubt remained in his mind – there was one thing that would undo all of his planning. His second cousin, Je’lanthra’en, a real Bard, would be able to unmask him if she happened to be in residence. As he pushed the well-counterbalanced massive doors open and entered the College, he decided to check on Je’en’s whereabouts with the option of aborting the mission if she was in Magnus at that time.
Ka’en assumed his role as he strode purposefully through an entrance hall as huge as the doors and tastefully ornate. It had only one other door, much smaller, which led into the College proper. Standing by the closed door was a young man wearing the red sash of a SongWarder over his blue tunic and white hose.
“Greetings, brother,” said Ka’en as he halted before the warder.
The young man in blue and white bowed formally to the tall, tow-headed man in green cloak and proper pendant. “Welcome to the College of Magnus, my Lord,” said the warder, and shifted his weight onto the plate in the floor that caused the inner door to open. “Enter, and may all your needs and wants be fulfilled within.”
“Perhaps you can assist me, brother,” said Ka’en. “A friend of mine, a travelling companion for a time, said she might be here this month. I was wondering if you knew whether Je’lanthra’en was, indeed, here?”
The face of the warder fell. He said, “I am sorry, my Lord, to be the one to tell you this. Lady Je’en is in town, but she has suffered an accident. Just this past week, in the Fifth Quarter. Her injuries were severe, and she is being tended by Master Enowan in the Palace. Did you know her well?”
Ka’en allowed his face to show the sorrow he did feel at the news of Je’en accident, but he kept hidden the elation that he could continue his night’s work without fear of discovery. “Yes, brother, I knew her well. I am sorrowed to hear of this. I leave again on the morrow, but perhaps I will delay long enough to pay her a visit. Thank you for the news, brother.” And he passed through the inner door shaking his head sadly for effect. He never made the connection between the pendant he wore, the hints Bellen had tried to drop, and the news of Je’en accident.
He went to see the seneschal of the College and got a room for the night. He was in time for dinner and he actually enjoyed himself at the meal, listening to the tales spun by the other bards and the students as well. He had to supply a few, himself, but he had no problem imitating the style of the others in the room. He also had a vivid imagination so he managed to entertain the whole group as well as any bard present.
He pretended to drink overmuch and finally excused himself from the procedings with the excuse of needing sleep for his further travels. He wasn’t the first one to leave, so his going wasn’t unduly remarked. In other circumstances, he would have left with a woman, and, after a little fun, he would have drugged her asleep for the bulk of the night, providing himself with a “perfect” alibi. But, he couldn’t be sure that a bard wouldn’t detect the drug in the wine – bards were spooky that way, sometimes. So, he would just have to rely on the image he had projected at dinner to prove he was who he said he was.
He went up to his room in the sparsely populated Guest Wing (larger than both the Student and Resident Wings put together) and took a small nap, waiting for the college to fall asleep.
Ka’en’s inner clock woke him shortly after midnight. The intricately maintained time-lamp on the wall confirmed that his personal alarm had worked properly, and the silence pervading the wing attested to his choice of times. With a little care, Ka’en would not be disturbed in his thieving.
Dressed in the black clothes packed in his harp case, carrying the tools of his trade, and the keys to the vaults, Ka’en slipped out of his room and down the stairs to the Leafy Atrium – a little clear-domed hall that led from the work buildings of the College to the three living wings. He crossed the open space, dimly lit by moon light, and paused in the inky shade cast by the little garden in the center of the hall that gave it its name. He waited to be sure that no one was coming before moving on: the Atrium was where he was most likely to run into someone.
He made it to the main building of the College without incident, but just as he approached the stairs into the cellars, he heard footsteps and voices. Hastily ducking into the nearest doorway, he waited until he heard the three person parade fade into the distance.
Then, he heard a sound behind him. Turning lithely as a cat, and as soundlessly, he noticed that the room wasn’t empty. It was a study room, adjacent to the main Library, equiped with a large table and rather comfortable looking chairs. Perhaps too comfortable, Ka’en thought. The sound he had heard was a stifled snore, which repeated itself a few times more. A student was curled up in one of the chairs, his candle burned down to a faint, blue glimmer amid a pool of liquid wax, and the book he had been reading was lying on the floor.
Ka’en paused for several more minutes before easing the door open, and then shut again behind him, careful not to disturb the sleeper. Silently blessing his fortune, and overzealous, sleepy students, he padded to the stairs and continued down. When he reached the third landing, he passed through the archway into that cellar, leaving the mysteries of the still descending staircase for someone else to explore.
There were more vaults in the cellars of the College than there were in the Crown Castle, some said, and they were probably right. Some also said that there was more wealth in the vaults of the College than in all of the vaults the Kingdom of Baranur considered its own. That, too, was probably correct, but there was more than monetary treasure in those vaults. The Bardic College collected knowledge, and art, and anything else that the wisdom of its leaders commanded them to collect. Like old books.
Ka’en came to the correct door, just one of at least ten in the long hallway. It was of a dull grey metal ten feet tall and three wide. It stood out from the well carven walls of the hall even though there wasn’t a crack around the perimeter as most doors had. There was also no handle, and no visible keyhole, either. But, Ka’en knew what to do.
He took the first of the keys and measured its length eight times from the floor up the right edge of the door, and then one over. Two fingers’ pressure moved a piece of the carving there aside, revealing the first keyhole. He had been told to measure carefully since the very similar carvings around the correct one were traps, which would set off an alarm as well as incapacitate the burglar in various ingenious ways.
Inserting the measuring key carefully into the hole it had revealed, Ka’en turned it slowly to the left (right would have released another trap). There was a faint snapping noise. He could feel the key click as it turned. After the second click, he pushed the key in hard and felt it sink home. A louder snapping noise accompanied the appearance of the normal outline of a door on the grey metal, as well as three triangular holes in the general region of a normal keyhole.
Taking the second key from his belt pouch, Ka’en measured up the left jamb of the now revealed door for nine of the shorter key lengths and then four lengths to the left. The end of the key rested on the center of one of many identical triangular projections, each with an indented circle within each point. He pressed the indicated triangle, and it sank deeply into the wall. There was a faint whirring noise and after a few seconds the triangle reappeared with the lower right circle glowing faintly. Ka’en inserted the second key into the lower left hole in the door, and turned it. The proper hole was different every time, or so his employer had said, selected randomly with the pressing of the carving and indicated on that same carving. The wrong hole or the wrong carving were, of course, traps.
When the second key had been turned all the way around, a knob-like portion of the door popped out, just above the three keyholes. Taking the third key, Ka’en inserted it slowly into the center of the knob, deactivating the last trap on the door. He turned the knob and the thick, but not heavy, door opened inward.
Relieved to have negotiated the complicated entry procedure, Ka’en slipped inside after removing the three keys. His employer had assured him that the door could be opened with ease from within, so he closed the door behind him. When it met its frame, he was astonished to see that it had become transparent. At least he would have plenty of warning if someone tried to enter.
He turned his attention to the interior of the vault. This was one of the College’s knowledge vaults, which was just as well – no temptation to take a little extra. The shelves and chests were arranged just as the mysterious man had said. He went directly over to the correct chest. It was the top one of a stack of four, so he wouldn’t have to worry about moving it to gain access.
Two more keys rested unused in his pouch; he retrieved the first. The very thin leather gloves he was wearing allowed him to trace the intricate lines graven into the side of the chest. He found the hidden keyhole and unlocked the chest – the large, normal-looking lock hanging where locks normally hung was yet another trap.
He raised the lid and eyed the thick, leather-bound books arranged neatly within. Carefully lifting the first tray out by the handles, he set it on the floor and stacked the other three trays on top of it. Taking the last key in hand, he pushed aside the lining of the seemingly empty chest and released the hidden bottom. He slipped the last key into the lock that bound his quarry into the recesses of the false bottom of the chest with crossing straps of iron, much like a cage. He carefully removed the required book. It was light for its size and thickness. He traced the sticklike runes laid in gold on the very light-colored leather of the cover, making sure that they spelled out what the stranger had told him meant “The Tome of the Yrmenweald”.
Satisfied with his find, he placed the book in the other pouch he carried. He relocked the cage and replaced the contents of the chest as he had found them. With a brief glance around the vault, he went back to the door. He surveyed the corridor through the transparent door and eased it open without complicated precautions. When he shut it behind him, it again became a featureless plane of dull grey metal.
Ka’en made his way carefully back to his room, sure that he had been undetected. He repacked his black clothes in the harp case, adding the book to the bundle, and settled back on the comfortable bed to sleep away the rest of the night.
Ka’en left the College the next day with no suspicions trailing him about his midnight activities. Once again, he had pulled off a job successfully. He strolled casually out of town, following the route he had hinted at the night before at dinner. Around noon he reached his cache at the center of a stand of trees, sure that no one had followed him. He changed clothes, burying the bardic ones deep in the ground. Dressed as a nobleman traveler, he made his way back to Magnus.
It was well after dark when he crossed the city limits. He made straight for the rendezvous point, an inn called the Fighting Unicorns. He knew that his employer would not still be there this night, as his own wanderings to throw off any cunning trackers had delayed him, but the inn was comfortable and cheap, and he wouldn’t mind a night in one of its large rooms.
The Fighting Unicorns was situated as near the Fifth Quarter as any legitimate business could be without being part of that warren filled with underworld characters. That was the reason that its rooms were so inexpensive – few dared to brave the proximity of the haven of thieves and murderers that was practically on the inn’s doorstep. So, its few patrons were coddled, in hopes that good treatment would bring more business. It didn’t – the dark alleys of the Fifth Quarter were more powerful than word of mouth – but Sir Hawk, the owner and proprietor, was an optomistic sort, so he kept up the treatment, just in case.
Ka’en slept well and stayed in his room for most of the next day. As sunset approached, he went down to the taproom to have dinner and wait for his employer.
The food at the Fighting Unicorns was as cheap as the rooms and the portions as large, so Ka’en ate more than his fill for just a few small coins. When he finished, he ordered a large tankard of the fine inn ale and settled back in his booth to await the completion of his mission.
Sir Hawk did his best to make his inn very attractive to his few customers, so there was some very fine entertainment once the kitchen had closed. This night, there were several singers – not bards, but persons with the talent who simply didn’t wish to undergo the rigors of full training – and two fine dancers. Ka’en was enjoying the show so much that he had almost forgotten why he was there. The ale, of which he had drunk less than half, had given him a slight buzz, and he was very relaxed and comfortable just drinking and watching the floor show.
His comfort was interrupted when a very lovely woman approached his table. She was dressed finely, but manner of her dress and the style with which she had painted her face, indicated that she was one of the more classy of those who plied the horizontal trade.
She attracted the glances and stares of most of the other male patrons of the tap, but her destination was firm, and she slid herself into Ka’en’s booth across the table from him. He said, “M’lady, please, not tonight. I am meeting someone here and…”
The woman smiled sweetly and said, “I know.” She reached out a lovely slim arm and pulled the curtain of the booth closed, shutting the two of them in. Before Ka’en could protest, the woman smiled again and put a long finger to her lips, shushing him. She closed her eyes and began to shimmer. Her whole form wavered and glittered and the woman disappeared. In her place was the brown robed figure of his mysterious employer.
The man said, “Very effective illusion, don’t you think? You have the book.”
Ka’en nodded, and patted the large satchel resting beside him on the seat. “You have the money?” he asked. The man in brown nodded in turn, and pulled a very large black bag out of thin air and set it down on the table with a hefty and satisfying clunk. Ka’en lifted the satchel onto the table and pushed to toward his employer while pulling the bag of coins closer to himself.
The two opened their bags of loot at the same time. Ka’en’s eyes went wide at the sight of all of that gold. The man in brown drew out his newly purchased book and looked at it with almost the same degree of avarice. After fingering the locking clasp on the old volume, he put it away and looked up at Ka’en. “Is our deal completed to your satisfaction?” he asked. Ka’en nodded. “The keys I gave you are in the satchel, too?” Again, Ka’en nodded. The return of the keys hadn’t been part of the deal and Ka’en had considered keeping them, but presumably they only opened that one vault and there was nothing of overtly monetary value in it.
The man in brown smiled faintly, and said, “Then I shall take my leave. It has been a pleasure doing business with you, sir.” And, without offering to shake hands on the completion of the deal, he closed his eyes again. With much the same effect as before, save now in reverse, the man in brown vanished, and the lovely whore reappeared. Though the man had been holding the satchel, it had seemingly now vanished. She/he opened the curtain and slid out of the booth. After leaning back in to give Ka’en a little kiss that utterly embarrassed him, she walked away with a “See you later” thrown back over her shoulder.
Ka’en stared dumbly after the illusion of beauty long after it had vanished through the doorway. He had suspected, faintly, that his employer was a magician – who else would have that much of a need for an old book – but the proof was unnerving. He didn’t like magic much – it was too unpredictable. And, he wondered again why a magician needed his help to procure the book. He didn’t know that the College was protected from outside magic by the power of the Crystal of Oathes.
When Ka’en recovered, he remembered that there was a large bag of money sitting out in the open in front of him. Hastily, hoping no one had noticed, he yanked it off the table and onto the seat beside him. Unfortunately, he had not been fast enough.
Just as he was about to return to his room for one last night of comfortable sleep before moving on, someone else slipped quietly and quickly into the booth with him. Startled, Ka’en recognized Skar, the leader of the group of cutthroats that Bellen ran with. Skar, who was leering at him very unpleasantly, said, “Greetings, Kane. And good business come your way lately?”
Ka’en, who was known to the underworld of Magnus as Kane, said, “What business might it be of your’s, Skar?”
“Well, friend Kane, perhaps we could share a little of that gold you just got from that fancy whore as just left. You know, share the wealth, eh?”
“What makes you think that she brought me that gold, and why should I share it in any case?”
“I know she brought it because you didn’t have it when you came down them stairs earlier. And, ’cause if you had that much money, you wouldn’t be staying here, now would you.
“And, we should share, ’cause I know something that the town guard just might like to hear. I don’t know just what that tart wanted you to do in the Singers’ school, but I know that you bought a Singer’s pendant from Bellen. And if the High Singers check real careful, I bet they find something missing, eh?
“‘Course, my yearning to do my civic duty just might be subverted with enough gold…”
Ka’en was appalled. This gutter rat was blackmailing him. Of all the gall! What was worse, of course, was that his record was in jeopardy now. He just might be caught, finally, and all because of a little greed.
Skar said, “I think about half of what’s in that black bag there should keep my mouth shut – for a while, at least, eh?”
Ka’en, a resigned tone in his voice, said, “I guess I have no choice, Friend Skar. How about a little privacy, though, so no one else decides that they need a little of my hard won gold?” So saying, he drew the curtain across the mouth of the booth, again isolating it from the rest of the taproom. Lifting the sack of gold back onto the table with one hand, he drew his last resort from behind his belt buckle.
With the tiny dagger – not much more than a pin, really – carefully concealed in his left hand, he opened the bag and began counting out the gold into two piles. Skar greedily reached out for his pile after it had grown to six coins, and Ka’en managed to surreptitiously scratch his hidden dagger along one of those reaching hands.
He continued to count for another minute or so. Then, Skar’s head jerked up, his eyes wide with shock and fear. “What did y…” he began to say, but in mid word, he simply stopped moving. His eyes continued to blink, slowly, but the rest of his body was immobile.
Ka’en returned the coins to his bag and his last resort to his belt. Then, he took his still half filled tankard, and put it between Skar’s chilling fingers. Molding the thief like a wax dummy, Ka’en shaped Skar into the position of a solitary drinker – hands around the tankard, body leaned forward, head down and staring into the depth of his ale. He also managed to work the thief’s expression into one of contemplation. Then, he eased himself out of the booth, opening the curtain and closing it again on the dying gutter rat.
He was up well before dawn the next day, packed and ready to go. He hadn’t been able to sleep very well, though – he didn’t like to kill. He left two gold pieces on his pillow to settle (and much more) his bill, and slipped out the back way. He decided not to return to Magnus for a very long time.
Skar was found, dead, just as dawn came, and the taproom closed. No cause of death could be found – the slight scratch on his hand couldn’t possibly have killed him, according to the official reports. The authorities wanted to question one Baron Kanning, the last person to be seen with him, but the noble in question had left before dawn, leaving a hearty tip behind him. Skar was a known ruffian, and a denizen of the Fifth Quarter, so the inquest was closed after only a cursory attempt to find the Baron in question. Most felt themselves well rid of the thief.