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I had completed my evening toilet and was about to return to my shelter when I realised I’d lost my ring into the stream. After a few moments of disquiet I managed to compose myself, despite unaccustomed feelings of sudden nakedness. The fact that I actually was naked was secondary – I’d lost my treasured ring!
Ten minutes of splashing around in the gathering dusk made me appreciate that I’d have to wait until it was at least light enough to see what I was doing. The ring was heavy and the stream, though some three feet deep in the middle, wasn’t flowing with sufficient force to move such a weighty item out of the slight depression in which I’d been bathing. I told myself that it would still be there in the morning, when I would resume my search among the pebbles.
Nonetheless, the loss, albeit temporary, filled me with foreboding. I hadn’t felt this vulnerable since I’d left home with the ugly old thing wedged tightly onto my right forefinger. Over the last few months of travelling I’d put on quite a bit of lean and plainly lost some fat as well; the ring had become noticeably looser and I now regretted not having taken precautions against parting with it in such a clumsy fashion.
The ring wasn’t intrinsically valuable – it was what it could do that made it indispensable. Mark you, as magic rings go, I freely concede that mine wasn’t overly magnificent. It couldn’t produce gold copies of itself or conjure an all-powerful spirit; in fact, I wasn’t at all sure just what it could do. Right at that moment, with the evening mists starting to form in the shadows, I was going to miss its ability to set protective wards around my modest encampment. As comforting and friendly as the forest was in the daytime, at night it became a dark, sinister place, each murky depth doubtless containing some creature bent on making a meal of me – or so my fervid imagination was wont to convince me.
I gathered my clothing and hastened back to the rough lean-to I’d constructed just two days hence, dressing hurriedly before leaving to inspect the snares ere it got too dark. Two were empty, the tasty greenery I’d carefully positioned as yet uneaten while the third contained a rather scrawny-looking rabbit. As meagre as it was, my eyes lit as my stomach reminded me it hadn’t been full for some days. I despatched my future meal as quickly as possible, remembering to reset the trap before bearing the limp form back to my fire to skin and gut. With no utensils among my scanty belongings, I would supplement spit-roasted rabbit with the edible herbs, berries and roots I’d gathered during the morning.
While I secured my catch over the embers, I couldn’t help a wry smile at the accustomed ease of my recent actions. It hadn’t always been so; killing my first rabbit had been the hardest thing I’d yet had to do and the skinning and cleaning which I now accomplished in barely three minutes had taken fully an hour and fairly covered me in gore. Far from easy learning for a king’s son, one might think, for so I was; though lamentably, not my esteemed father’s first but his third. I would perhaps have fared somewhat better had I been numbered among my many royal sisters, but my fate as a junior scion had been set at the moment of my conception.
With father approaching his dotage, my eldest brother and the heir apparent, Olivar, had already connived the death of our only other male sibling – or so I’d been led to believe by my mother and Gertrand, firstborn of my sisters. It was they who had that same night bade me depart the court at the earliest opportunity. At the outset, I found it hard to credit that Olivar could have murdered Friedel, but when the royal magician assured me that signs of evil were upon the body, I began to take the womenfolks’ entreaties more seriously.
Come the daylight, and Olivar appeared to weep his copious tears with the rest of us at the graveside, though having lately been advised of the true circumstances, it was not difficult for me to detect that his rue at our brother’s departure was insincere, his dry, darting eyes at odds with the cries issuing from his mouth. The sanctioned cause of poor Friedel’s death was consumptive wasting and indeed, he had not looked at all hale for fully six months prior to his demise. Trevian’s explanation for my brother’s declined health and eventual expiry was more sinister however, the old mage actually trembling as he whispered the word ‘poison’ into my right ear. Bony fingers gripped my shoulder as his cape swept along the cloister cobbles behind us, the metal ferrule of his ivory cane rattling hollowly on the uneven stones. He pressed me into his somewhat cluttered quarters with the sounds of mourning still hard upon our heels, bolting the door behind us with a haste that bespoke his fear.
‘Come, David; sit with me,’ he urged, hurrying through the tortuous paths between stacks of musty papers and tottering piles of books until we reached the battered old chairs by the fire. The stick joined two others and a tarnished old sword in the metal stand beneath the mantel as my friend and mentor sank into his cushions with a sigh. ‘Stibium, I’ll warrant,’ he said, leaning towards me and barely breathing the words as though he thought unseen ears among the jumble might overhear. ‘The little nubs on his skin and the wheezing cough … did you not remark his constant odour of allium?’
I had indeed. My ailing brother’s garlic breath had regularly assaulted the entire household. ‘And we all believed it was a treatment for his condition …’ I trailed off as Trevian interrupted me, his flowing grey beard wagging decisively.
‘No, my boy. A far more devilish cause was evident to those who had the senses for it.’ A frown creased his wrinkled features. ‘As a matter of fact …’ He rose unsteadily to his feet, accepting my hand on his elbow as I quickly stood to aid him in his progress towards a huge, wooden bureau, strewn with vials, paper twists and cobweb-strung bottles. ‘Somewhere here,’ he muttered, peering at the fuddle before him, occasionally flapping the spiders aside to lift and scrutinise a faded old label. ‘Ah-ha!’ he crowed eventually, waving a long, green container, corked and sealed with crumbling red wax and encrusted with dust.
I took it from him and squinted at the scripted lettering. The label was badly foxed and torn in places but the words ‘Wine of Antimony’ were easily discernible, the exhortation below taking more time to decipher.
‘For treatment of the Snail’s Itch?’ I couldn’t help a smile, Trevian answering with his own as he sank back into his chair.
‘Ay … and still unopened, you’ll remark,’ he added, taking the bottle from me and closely observing the contents over the top of his eyeglasses. ‘Carefully dosed, it is an excellent remedy for the condition …’ His gaze darkened, eyes engaging mine with solemnity as the bottle disappeared into his cloak, ‘… but rendered down and clandestinely administered over perhaps a year or more …’
‘A year?’ I nearly rose from my own chair with the shock, Trevian’s slow, sad nodding penetrating my disbelief as I now realised what my poor brother must have endured at his elder’s hands.
‘Fully that, I’ll wager.’ His lips trembled as he reached out to me, imploringly. ‘Heed your mother’s counsel and leave, David … before Olivar rids himself of the only other possible claimant to your father’s throne.’
‘But why?’ My head reeled with disbelief. ‘Surely he can have nought to fear from me.’ I struggled to make sense of it. ‘I am younger than he and clearly without pretension.’
‘As was Friedel,’ came the dry reply, ‘but it did not stay your brother’s hand for one moment.’ Trevian’s old shoulders shrugged beneath the robe’s folds. ‘He plainly fears any possible contest to his imminent accession.’ The mage sighed and gestured toward the ceiling. ‘I count myself lucky that I shall predecease your father …’ He waved away my dissensions. ‘… It is written, my son. At the least, I shall not be forced to endure your brother’s doubtless stormy and troubled reign.’ His hand stilled in mid-gesture, a long, leathery forefinger stabbing at me with almost palpable force. ‘Take this urgent advice, boy, and place yourself beyond his reach … before you too succumb to your elder’s foul ministrations.’
‘But … how do you know it was he?’ My altered circumstances were slowly asserting themselves through my doubts. ‘Can there be no question?’
‘None whatever, I’m afraid. I am distraught that my suspicions took so long to be transformed into fact, for though I long suspected the genuine reason for Friedel’s infirmity, I only recently learned of your brother’s malign interest in arcane physiks and cathartics.’ He beckoned me closer, lowering his voice to a raspy whisper. ‘It was but a sennight past that my manservant observed him taking delivery of phials such as these.’ A baggy sleeve waved towards the bureau with its collection of lethal oddities. ‘He took pains to be secretive, naturally, but Rollo is well-versed in … furtive arts, so to say, and followed Olivar to a long-disused dungeon, where he found all manner of strange apparatus and devices. He could not guess at what they were, but his descriptions of copper vessels and glass evaporators left me certain your brother was up to no good.’
‘I’m sorry, Trevian, but still I cannot see how you can be so sure …’
‘Patience, lad; it was not so much what he had that finally betrayed his actions, but that of which he disposed and the manner of its disposition.’ The old mage sighed, interrupting his dissertation to take up the old sword from the fireside stand, using the ancient weapon to stir the coals into more vigorous flames. I obeyed his tremulous gesture towards the untidy pile of wood on the hearth, adding four logs before he waved me back to my seat. ‘Rollo kept watch long into the night, his vigilance finally rewarded just before dawn when Olivar emerged from his hiding place bearing two sacks. These he transported well beyond the castle walls, into a small, wooded ravine, where he doubtless fancied them safe from detection. After he left, Rollo investigated and as well as finding discarded phials and sundry broken wares, he came upon the bodies of two cats, one of which he brought here, to me.’
‘Poor things. More of my brother’s victims?’
‘So it proved. The stink of allium was all through the animal’s innards, simple analysis demonstrating the presence of stibium sufficient to have killed both beasts ten times over.’ Again he beckoned with a gnarled finger, whispering conspiratorially. ‘I sent Rollo back for some of the apparatus, which evidence I gave to your mother for concealment.’
He settled back into his chair, folding his hands into his capacious sleeves so as to vanish them entirely, though some wriggling beneath the material showed they were not still. ‘Here, my boy … take this …’
The right hand re-emerged bearing the dull, metal ring I’d frequently observed upon my mentor’s left forefinger. The head was strangely fashioned in a geometric form one might first have thought to be a hexagon or even octagonal, but which on closer examination showed itself to have seven sides, all unequal in length. It clearly was not made of gold, nor silver; nor in fact of any metal I recognised. The flat surface was unadorned by stones or gems of any sort, with no script to betray an allegiance and not for the first time, I found myself judging it to be the ugliest piece of jewellery I had yet encountered. Moreover, I was reluctant to relieve Trevian of what he asserted to be a talisman and indeed, to have other uses besides the setting of protective wards, in which he had already begun to instruct me. He stated he had no time to divulge them, however, claiming that I would discover them in due course.
‘Leave this very night, David. Take little with you and choose that wisely. A sturdy knife, stout clothing, flint and striker …’
‘But … that would reduce me to a mere itinerant! Can I not at least take a good horse; some gold, or jewels for trade?’
‘My boy …’ His wrinkled old hand took mine, his thumb rubbing the surface of the ring now firmly engaged upon my own first finger, ‘… do you think he will not search for you?’ My skin grew goosebumps as the sense of his words penetrated. ‘Frippery and a fine steed would mark you as one of consequence, merely aiding his pursuit. I believe your brother to be mad, David; he will not stop until you are within his grasp … and then, he will kill you. No …’ He brushed tears from his eyes, ‘… take nothing. Do not give him any excuse to veil his wickedness as reason. If he brands you a thief, his cause will gain legitimacy.’
‘But how will I survive …?’
‘You must take to the woods.’ His eyes twinkled as he smiled, albeit somewhat contritely. ‘Perhaps now you realise the value of our many walks therein …’
Now, I too had
to smile as I recalled the lessons he had drummed into me. They were not those
of the usual sort, dry lettering and numeracy, but more useful knowledge, like
the telling of edible Cup or
He was right; I would not starve, save perhaps of human company … but where would I go? The forest did not stretch forever, nor could I live there in winter, when little moved and nothing grew.
‘Make for Palenta; the autarch is an old acquaintance. Show him your ring and he will aid you.’
‘At my last reckoning, Palenta was a full fifty leagues hence! It will take at least a season, if not two!’
My protestations had not swayed the old man, and I duly left my home of sixteen years that very night, telling only mother and Gertrand of my plans. Our parting was sad and heartfelt, but strangely, not overly tearful. Given that our courtly lives had ever been essentially separated, it was pain at leaving my mentor and only real friend that caused me the most grief, while my dam and sister merely kissed me fondly and urged me hurry away.
Rollo had provided me with rude but appropriate clothing, including knee-breeches, leather boots, a spare blouse and a short, rather worn vesture. I was thankful that spring was but lately upon us, for without a proper coat or other warm raiment, I was going to find it a smidgeon cold come wintertime. Other than what the manservant gave me, I had few items in my leather sack save those which might commonly be found upon a man of the road, for such I would needs become. With but a few silver coins hidden in the linings of my boots, a bodkin and thread, two stout blades, flint, striker and simple snares formed the majority of my few possessions as I slipped out into the moonlit fields by the chapel lych-gate. Gaining the advantage of a nearby hill, I took some moments to turn and gaze for one last time upon my birthplace. Would I ever see it and my family again?
Ah, but now it was high summer, and I a different man from that soft prince. Certainly, nights in the forest sometimes alarmed me a little, but it was not without cause. Wolves were plentiful, while boar and bear, though scarce, still roamed the deeper parts. I had often heard them around my camp, but their howls and snufflings no longer disturbed my sleep, thanks to the wards I erected. There were also tales of other things lurking in the shadows; hobgoblins, sprites and fays, and once, when young, I’d been near mesmerised by an old man who claimed he’d encountered a beldame, who had removed all his teeth. I remember being well convinced when he opened wide his gummy mouth and showed that indeed, he had none!
But tonight, there would be no wards. I paused, the half-eaten rabbit-flank stopped on its passage to my mouth as I recollected my predicament. I had only once before attempted to roost in a tree and nearly brained myself toppling from it while fully asleep. I was not about to essay it again, but was equally under no illusion that the lean-to would afford me any protection. Unfortunately, it appeared that I must needs remain awake the whole night, to keep the fire tended.
As was my habit, I burnt the rabbit’s offal and skin in the flames. Certainly, they took some time to fully ignite and the smell was not pleasant, but I had learned from bitter experience that leaving them lying about, or even burying them, was unwise. On the last occasion upon which I had been lax in disposing of some remains, my morning toilet had been disrupted by a marbled polecat, bent on making off with the fresh intestines. Our mutual surprise had resulted in a hissing retreat by the animal, accompanied by the well-aimed liberation of a stench so noxious, it took me fully an hour to rid my skin of the smell. I counted myself blessed that I hadn’t been clothed at the time and never again left such tasty morsels to attract the local fauna.
I was intent on completing my meal when one of the sounds I least wished to hear set the hairs raising on my neck. The forest was never truly silent, but I knew most of its voices to be benign and happily discounted them. Not so this noise, for it was the rumbling growl of a wolf, and closeby, moreover. I moved as stealthily as I was able to clutch a lighted brand and lift it higher, my mouth and throat suddenly dry as I peered fearfully into the gloom. My only hope was that the wolf was solitary, but the odds on that were low; if it was one of a pack and they were sufficiently hungry, then even my fire would not save me.
Then I saw it; first its eyes, gleaming blue in the torchlight, then its fangs, glistened with saliva. My heart near stilled from fright; it was huge, of a size that rivalled my own. I rose slowly to my feet, holding the firebrand before me and clutching the larger of my two knives in a sweat-drenched grip. I would not easily be taken by this monster, though as I braced myself for its rush, it began to seem to me that the wolf was as reluctant to attack as I was to have it do so.
Wolfmagic - available in book or download format. What … or who … was this strange creature? Buy Wolfmagic, and follow David’s adventures as he tries to release his beloved Geran from the evil magician’s curse, while working to avenge himself upon his wicked brother.