From the author: “The Sword of Destiny” was written at the invitation of Gardner Dozois for his 2017 anthology, The Book of Swords. This 10,000-word novelette introduced Baldemar, the wizard’s henchman, at the (probable) end of his career. I later wrote several more stories bringing him from childhood to maturity, all of which have run (or will run) in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
THE SWORD OF DESTINY
by Matthew Hughes
Baldemar ran across the flat roof at his best speed, though he was hampered by the scabbarded sword thrust through his broad belt. When he had lifted it out of its cradle he had slipped it through at his hip but during the race up the stairs it had somehow worked its way around to the rear and now it struck the back of his left calf with every other step. But there was no time to stop and adjust matters; the erbs that guarded the house were already emerging from the trapdoor and at once their preternatural sensory organs locked onto the fleeing wizard’s henchman. A strange, wavering cry, like that of a weak and hungry child, rose from each of the three long, scaly throats, and Baldemar heard the click of razor-edged claws on the roof’s flagstoned surface.
The neighboring building overtopped this one by several stories and from its ornamental cornices hung a rope. Baldemar had arranged it to be his emergency escape should the operation go amiss. But between the two buildings was a space as wide as Baldemar was tall and that gap was still a good ten paces away – or a very bad ten paces, if the erbs caught him before he reached it.
There was nothing for it but to drag out the sword and let it drop, in the hope that the watchbeasts would stop to guard it, that being their function. He yanked the eldritch weapon free and let it fall. But the staccato clicking of claws did not break its rhythm and now the creatures’ eerie howl was loud in his ears, its pitch rising. That’s the sound, the thought went through his head, they make just before they seize their prey.
Two more strides and the lip of the roof was below the ball of his right foot. He kicked off, flung himself into space, just as a reaching claw sliced through the cloth of his shirt and left a long vertical scratch down the middle of his back. But the lead erb – it would have been the big female – was not poised to leap and could not stop. She tumbled over the edge of the roof and the cry she gave as she plummeted to the pavement below was almost human in its disappointment.
But the other two – her grown pups – were lighter and younger. They pulled up at the brink, their jaws clacking in fury, as Baldemar’s fingers connected with the rope and, unfortunately, with the brick wall against which it hung. He felt a bone snap in the middle finger of his left hand but he ignored the pain and clung to the thick hemp, immediately reaching up with his right to haul himself higher while the toes of his boots scrabbled for purchase against the wall.
He began to climb but had scarcely risen a body length before he heard again the sound the erbs’ dam had belled just before her claw had raked his skin – followed immediately by a thump as the body of one of her brood struck the wall below him.
Down you go, too, was his happy thought, until he discovered he was celebrating too soon. The creature’s forearms had reached out as it leapt the gap and one of its grasping hands made contact. A talon tore through his right legging and gouged his calf muscle, the pain lancing up through his body to resonate with the ache in his broken finger.
Baldemar gave his own cry now, of pain and fear, as the erb’s weight caused the claw to slice downward through the leg muscle until it met the curled-over leather at the top of his boot. Now he had the beast’s weight as well as his own hanging from his diminished grip on the rope. The injured hand told him it was not up to the task and he knew he must change the situation or join the erb and its mother down below in a welter of broken bones and burst bodies.
With his unencumbered foot he kicked at the paw hooked into his boot just as the watchbeast reached up with its other limb and sank another claw into the curled top, its strong hind legs scrabbling against the brick. His efforts availed him nothing and he looked down into the erb’s yellow eyes and saw its jaws gape in anticipation of the first bite, a long, pointed tongue licking across the rows of teeth like serrated daggers.
The sight caused him to give a reflexive jerk of the seized leg. A moment later he felt the boot slide off his foot and the watchbeast fell into the darkness below. Relieved of the erb’s weight, he disregarded the complaints from his finger and calf, as well as the plaintive chirps from the surviving watchbeast, and scrambled up the three stories to the roof of the building.
Coiling the rope and carrying it with him, he limped to where he had left Thelerion’s flying platform, stepped aboard, and said the words that compelled the two indentured imps to lift it into the air and carry him away. The platform’s floor pushed against his feet as they climbed into the sky, and Baldemar lowered himself into the plush, high-backed chair and rested his tired limbs on its gilded arms.
One of the creatures that powered the platform raised itself enough to peer through the surrounding railing. It was the one with skin like fired clay. The nostrils of its pug nose distended to sniff the scent of blood and its red-and-black eyes inspected the henchman closely.
In a voice that had the creak of stiff leather, it said, “I do not see the Sword of Destiny.”
Baldemar was gingerly pressing his swollen finger, feeling for the break. “Tend to your own affairs,” he said.
“Thelerion will not be pleased.”
That was an unfortunate truth and now that the man had the leisure to consider his situation he faced the fact that the perils avoided at the beginning of this flight were nothing to what awaited him at the end. They were already far above the rooftops of High Marsan, the platform arcing west to where its owner waited in his eyrie overlooking the sparsely settled caravan stop called Khoram-in-the-Waste.
Thelerion had spent years assembling a unique ensemble: The Sword of Destiny would have completed the set. What the wizard intended to do with the items was unknown. Baldemar thought he would probably construct an invincible champion to wreak revenge on some adversary. Sorcerers were a tetchy lot, always eager to wreak revenge.
The Sword’s acquisition would have allowed Baldemar to retire from his thirty years of service to the wizard. Or so Thelerion had said, though his word was not to be relied upon. But now the Sword of Destiny was not to join Thelerion’s collection of magic armor. And Baldemar’s employer was not forgiving of failure. Indeed, lately he had begun to suspect that the thaumaturge had contracted a condition to which members of the Wizards Guild were susceptible: creeping figmentia. It was often accompanied by delusions of grandeur and outbursts of misdirected violence.
“Change direction,” he instructed the red imp. “Go due south.”
The compressed features of its diminutive face drew even closer together. “The master awaits,” it said.
“What was his last instruction to you?”
“To obey you until you returned to his manse.”
“And have we returned there?”
The reply was grudging. “No.”
“Then obey me.”
“Tell me,” Baldemar said. “Is Thelerion such a wizard as to encourage his underlings to second-guess his wishes?” To embroider upon them their own whims and fancies?
A shiver shook the small shoulders. “He is not such.”
“Then take us south, at more speed.”
“And do not speak to me again until I require it.”
The stars above rearranged their positions as the platform turned south. Its velocity increased until the wind of their passage drew tears from Baldemar’s eyes. But it was not just the chill of the upper air that made him shiver.
They left the city of High Marsan, home to Baldemar since he had arrived as a young man to be taken on as a junior henchman to Thelerion the Exemplary. Now the platform flew south over the forest of Ilixtrey until the grand old trees gave way to heathered downs where the villages were few and the sheep many. Soon the rolling land climbed to where it abruptly fell away. Baldemar looked back and saw the alabaster cliffs of Drorn gleaming in the starlight and knew he was over the Sundering Sea, its faint salty reek tainting the wind that blustered against his face.
He calculated as best he could their speed, the distance to the sea’s farther shore, and the time remaining before Thelerion would begin to wonder why the platform was not landing on the terrace of his mountainside-hugging manse, with his henchman stepping down to hand him the prize he had been sent to bring.
Baldemar had no doubt that the thaumaturge would be able to reach out to his imps and the moment he did so the platform would reverse course and leave him with the choice between returning to Thelerion’s wrath – legendary for its depth and inventive display – or leaping to a quick, cold death in the gray waters far below.
But no, he thought, the imps would bring the platform down beneath me faster than I could fall. They would catch me and then they would make sure I did not try again.
He voiced a short word that was out of context yet appropriate to the gravity of his situation, folded his arms across his chest, and shivered. His agile mind began rapidly considering plans, but just as quickly discarded them. Evading vengeful wizards was a complex task, even for a man with ten working fingers and both his boots.
The dark sky was paler off to his left. Baldemar limped to the portside rail and cupped a hand against the side of his face to shelter his eyes from the wind. The faint light became less pallid, and now he could see a line of gray that gradually resolved into an overcast that stretched from every horizon to every other. Ahead, the cloud layer became darker and soon he was flying through a cold rain.
He leaned against the balustrade and looked down. Darkness still ruled the world below but after a few more shivers he saw that the sea was no longer beneath him. He was flying above another forest, this one of dark conifers stretching unbroken as far as he could see, except far off to his right, dim in the distance, where he saw cleared land and, beyond, on the slopes of an eminence, a conglomeration of buildings of various sizes surrounded by a wall with towers set at intervals. Atop the heights sat a more imposing structure of gray stone, with its own crenellated walls and a tall keep from which flew a gold-and-black banner.
He began to look around for a clearing to land in. He would send the platform on its way farther south and hope that some southern thaumaturge might seize it for his own. But even as he spotted a distant opening in the forest, the floor beneath him tilted as the platform heeled over and began to head for the castle.
He shouted for the imps’ attention. “Not that way!” he said. “Over there!” he added, pointing.
But the red imp poked its head up through the balustrade and said, “We are summoned thence.”
“Can you not resist the summons?” Baldemar said.
The creature gave an equivocal toss of its head. “Perhaps. But we really don’t care to.”
The platform pursued a slanted course over the town then spiraled down toward a flat-roofed round tower on the castle. A lean old man in a figured robe stood there, his mouth pursed in concentration and a short length of black wood loose in one veined hand. The imps set the vehicle down softly, as if eager to demonstrate their capabilities, then both scuttled out from under to bob and bow in front of the wizard. Baldemar remained seated in the platform’s chair, his posture and face indicative of one who expects an explanation for rude and boisterous behavior.
But the man in the robe addressed himself first to the imps. “Explain yourself.”
This the red one did, with much more prostrating and head-nodding, declaring that they were be indentured to Thelerion the Exemplary, Grand Thaumaturge of the Thirty-Third Degree, while the spotted one mimicked every movement to support what was being said.
“And that one,” the wizard asked, gesturing with the wand toward Baldemar. “What of him?”
“Don’t answer that!” Baldemar said, leaping to his feet. “I will speak for myself.”
But the interrogator made a motion with the wand and the red imp burst out with, “Oh, he’s a terrible man, and a willful liar! Trust not a word he utters!”
“Hmm,” said the wizard. He pointed the black wood at Baldemar and said a few syllables audible only to himself. The man felt a cold shiver enter through the sole of his right foot, swiftly climb his leg, torso, and neck, then exit his left ear after performing what felt like a scouring of his skull with icy water. One hand trembled uncontrollably and he had difficulty suppressing an intense urge to urinate.
“Now,” said the man with the wand, “What’s this all about?”
Baldemar had been preparing a tale of misadventure and surprise, in which he featured as a creature of purest innocence. But when he opened his mouth to speak, his tongue rebelled and he heard himself giving an unadorned version of how his employer, Thelerion the Exemplary, had sent him to recover The Sword of Destiny, in which endeavor he had failed. “Dreading my master’s wrath, I fled across the sea in this, his flying platform,” he finished.
The wizard tugged at his nose, causing Baldemar to fear that another spell would be launched his way. Instead, he was told to accompany the wand-wielder down to his work room. The imps were told to remain where they were. “I’ll send you up some hymetic syrup,” said the wizard.
“Ooh!” said the red imp as the two looked at each other with widened eyes.
“Yum,” said the spotted one.
The wizard’s workroom was depressingly familiar. Thelerion’s had much the same contents: shelves crammed with ancient tomes, mostly leather-bound, some of the hides scaly; glass and metal vessels on a workbench, one of them steaming though no fire was set beneath it; an oval looking-glass hanging on one wall, its surface reflecting nothing that was in this chamber; a small cage suspended on a chain in one corner, containing something that rustled when it moved.
The wizard gestured for Baldemar to sit on a stool while he went to pick through a shelf of close-packed books. “Don’t try to run away,” he said, over his shoulder. “I’ve been having trouble with my paralysis spell. The fluxions have altered polarity and the last time I used it . . .” – he looked up at a large stain on the ceiling – “well, let’s just say it was an awful mess to clean up.”
Baldemar sat on the stool.
The wizard sorted through the next shelf down, made a small noise of discovery, and pulled out a heavy volume bound in tattered black hide. He placed it on a chest-high lectern and began to leaf through the parchment pages. “The Sword of Destiny, you said?”
“Yes,” said Baldemar.
The thaumaturge continued to hunt through the book. “Why did he want it, this Fellow-me-whatsit of yours?”
“Thelerion,” said Baldemar, “the Exemplary. It was to complete a set of weapons and armor.” He named the other items in the ensemble: the Shield Impenetrable; the Helm of Sagacity; the Breastplate of Fortitude; the Greaves of Indefatigability. As he spoke, the wizard found a page, ran a finger down it, and his face expressed surprise.
“He was going to put these all together?”
“To what purpose?”
“I don’t know.”
The long face turned toward him. “Speculate.”
“Revenge?” said Baldemar.
“He has enemies, this Folderol?”
“Thelerion. He is a thaumaturge. Do they not attract enemies as a lodestone attracts nails?”
“Hmm,” said the other. He consulted the book again and said, “But these items do not . . . care for each other. They would not gladly cooperate.”
He tugged a thoughtful nose and continued in a musing tone, “The helmet and the shield might tolerate each other, I suppose, but the greaves would pay no attention to any strategy those two agreed upon. And the sword . . .”
The wizard made a sound of suppressed mirth. “Tell me,” he said, “your master, he is a practitioner of which school?”
“The red school,” Baldemar said.
The wizard closed the book with a clap and a puff of dust. “Well, there you go,” he said, after a discreet sneeze. “Red school. And a northerner, at that. Say no more.” He shook his head and made a noise that put Baldemar in mind of an elderly spinster contemplating the lusts of the young.
The wizard put the book back where he’d found it and favored his visitor with a speculative assessment. “But you’re an interesting specimen. So, what to do with you?”
He was stroking his long chin while the series of expressions on his other features suggested that he was evaluating options without coming to a conclusion, when another man appeared in the doorway, clad in black and gold garments of excellent quality. He was even leaner than the wizard, his face an intricate tracery of fine wrinkles spread over a noble brow, an aristocratically arched blade of a nose, a well-trimmed beard as white as the wings of hair that swept back from his temples. A pair of gray eyes as cold as an ancient winter surveyed Baldemar as the man said, “Is he anything to do with that contraption on the roof?”
“Yes, your grace,” said the wizard. “He arrived in it.”
The aristocrat’s brows coalesced in disbelief. “He’s a thaumaturge?”
“No, your grace. A wizard’s henchman who stole his master’s conveyance.”
The man in the doorway frowned in disapproval and Baldemar shuddered. The fellow had the aspect of one who enjoyed showing thieves the error of their ways. Indeed, he looked the type to invent new and complex forms of education, the kind from which the only escape is a welcome graduation into death.
But then the frown disappeared, to be replaced by the look of a man who has just come upon an unsought but useful item. “Stole from a thaumaturge, you say? That’s an accomplishment, isn’t it?”
The wizard did not share the aristocrat’s opinion. “His master is some northern hedge-sorcerer. Red school, for Marl’s sake.”
But the man in the doorway was yielding no ground. “Say as you will, it’s an accomplishment.”
Understanding dawned in the thaumaturge’s face. “Ah,” he said, “I see where your grace is going.”
“Exactly. We could cancel the race.”
“Indeed.” The thaumaturge now again wore the face of a man who mentally balances abstract issues. After a while he said, “There is great disaffection this time around. The townspeople and the farmers have lost confidence in your . . . story.” He gestured toward the looking-glass. “I have heard grumblings in many quarters.”
The aristocrat’s stark face became even starker. “Revolt?” he said.
A wave of a wizardly hand. “Some vague mutterings in that vein. But more are talking about packing up and moving to another county. The Duke of Fosse-Bellesay is founding new towns and clearing forest.”
The aristocrat grimaced. “Little snot-nose,” he said.
“Actually, your grace, he is now in his fifties.”
The other man waved away the implication. “I remember his great-great-grandfather. He was just the same. Tried to steal my lead soldiers.”
“Yes, your grace.”
The conversation, Baldemar saw, had meandered off and left both participants temporarily stranded. Then the aristocrat seemed to recollect himself. He rubbed his hands against each other, their skin so dry it was like hearing two sheets of parchment frictioned together, and said, “So that’s settled. He’s accomplished. He’ll do.”
The wizard considered for but a moment, then said, “I’ll need him for a little while first. I think I can get an interesting paper out of him for The Journal of Hermetic Studies. But yes, he’ll do.”
“Do for what?” Baldemar said.
But the aristocrat had already gone, and the thaumaturge was looking for another book, humming to himself as he ran a finger over their spines. Baldemar thought about easing out the door, then glanced again at the stain on the ceiling, and decided to stay.
Over the ensuing few days, Baldemar learned several things: he had landed in the County of Caprasecca which was ruled by Duke Albero, he of the papery skin. The wizard was Aumbraj, a practitioner of the blue school. The race the Duke had mentioned was a contest held every seven years to discover a “man of accomplishment” who would be sent as an emissary of the Duke to some hazily referenced realm. He would be accompanied by a woman who had bested all others in a test of domestic skills.
“My companion is a beautiful woman?” he asked, when this news was given him by the Duke’s major-domo, a man who wore a large panache in his high-crowned black hat and was given to sniffing in disapproval at virtually everything that existence contrived to offer him.
“Comeliness is not a factor,” the functionary said, with a mocking smile. “Certainly not in this case.”
Baldemar’s hopes faded. He had briefly liked the idea of becoming an ambassador accompanied by some long-necked, pale aristocratic beauty, until the major-domo described the women’s champion as a lumbering rural wench who had been a bondsmaid on a dairy farm. “The things that were stuck to her boots defy description,” the servant said, adding a sniff of double-strength.
Aumbraj had repaired Baldemar’s injuries and given him new clothing and boots. He was a prisoner but could wander the castle’s confines at will, though if he saw Duke Albero at a distance he should immediately endeavor to make that distance even greater. “But don’t try to leave,” said the thaumaturge. “You have opened up an interesting avenue of research, and I will want to question you further. That may not be possible if I have to restrain you with the paralysis spell.”
They both glanced at the workroom ceiling and agreed that Baldemar would not venture beyond the castle’s walls. However, he did stand on the battlements facing the town and saw the Duke’s men-at-arms disassembling a succession of barriers and obstacles strewn along a taped course that followed the curve of the curtain wall. There were narrow beams over mud pits, netting that must be crawled under, some barrels that had to be foot-rolled up a gentle incline, and a series of rotating drums from which protruded stout wooden bars at ankle-, chest-, and head-height, plus some clear patches of turf for sprinting.
“It is some sort of obstacle course?” he asked a sentry.
“Yes, you could call it that,” said the guard. “The townies and bumpkins don’t like it, though. We have to wield whips to keep them running.”
“And the winner became the Duke’s ambassador?”
The man-at-arms regarded Baldemar as if his question had revealed him to be a simpleton. “Sure,” he said, after a moment, “his grace’s ambassador.”
Baldemar would have pressed him for a proper explanation, but at that moment he was summoned by Aumbraj. Since the summons consisted of a loud clanging in his head that only lessened when he went in the direction of the summoner and did not cease until he found him, Baldemar did not linger.
“Describe the Sword of Destiny,” the thaumaturge said, when he arrived breathless in his workroom.
Baldemar did so, mentioning the ornate basket hilt and its inset jewels.
“And you just seized it?”
“Show me your hand.” When the man did so, the wizard examined his palm and the inside flesh of his fingers. “No burns,” he said, apparently to himself.
Aumbraj tugged his nose again then said, “You said you tricked the guardian erbs into entering another room then locked them in.”
“But once you had the Sword, they appeared and gave chase.”
“Yes.” The how of that had puzzled Baldemar. The lock had been securely set.
“And yet, they did not catch you.”
“I ran very quickly.”
“But they were erbs,” said Aumbraj. “Were they decrepit?”
“No, it was a mature dam and her two grown pups.”
“Hmm. The wizard made a note on a piece of parchment before him on the workbench. “You ran onto the roof and there you left the Sword behind.”
“It was hampering me, poking me in the leg.”
“Just poking? Not slashing, gouging, stabbing?”
“It was still in its scabbard, just stuck through my belt,” Baldemar said. “No one was wielding it.”
Aumbraj’s pale hand batted away his last remark as irrelevant. “Now, this Flapdoodle who sent you after it, did he equip you with any thaumaturgical aides?”
“Only the flying platform. I used my own rope and grapnel, my own lock-picks.”
“Hmm, and you’re quite sure the sword did not seek to kill you?”
Baldemar showed surprise. “Quite sure.”
Another note on the parchment. The wizard rubbed a reflective chin then raised a finger to launch another question. But at that moment, Duke Albero appeared in the doorway, his face congested with concern. “He needs to go,” he said, flicking a finger in Baldemar’s direction.
“I may be on the verge of a significant discovery,” Aumbraj said. “This man may be more . . . accomplished than the usual candidate. I need another day, at least.”
The Duke’s expression brooked no argument. He consulted a timepiece he drew from his garments. “The seven years end this very afternoon. There can be no extensions.”
“But–” the wizard began.
“No buts.” The Duke was adamant. “No just-untils, or a-moment-mores. If he does not go, You-know-who will arrive. So he goes, and he goes now.”
He stepped aside and the major-domo, accompanied by two men-at-arms, entered the workroom. Baldemar found himself once more under restraint.
The Duke gestured for them to take him away but blocked the doorway long enough to tell Aumbraj, “And you will do nothing to interfere with his fulfillment of the requirements.”
The thaumaturge looked as if he might have argued, but dipped his head and said, “I will do nothing to hinder him.”
“Good.” Albero once more consulted his timepiece then said to his major-domo. “You have the medal?”
“Yes, your grace.”
“Then let’s go.”
Baldemar was taken to the castle’s forecourt, just past the gate house. There he stood, his attendants keeping hold of him while the major-domo took from a pouch at his belt a bronze medallion on a chain. Stamped into the metal were the words: For Merit. He showed it to the Duke, who stood in the doorway of the tower from which they had come and moved a hand in a gesture that urged speed.
The functionary hung the chain around Baldemar’s neck. Meanwhile another pair of guards emerged from a timber outbuilding leading a plump young woman in a nondescript gown whose life experiences to this point had developed in her the habits of smiling nervously and wringing her hands. She wore an identical medal.
No introductions were made. Instead the major-domo cocked his head toward a waist-high circle of masonry some distance across the courtyard and said, “Here we go.”
“What happens next?” Baldemar said, but no one thought the question worth answering. The stone circle had the look of a well and when he arrived at it he peered over and saw a deep shaft descending into darkness. The young woman also took a look into the depths and her smiling and hand-wringing intensified.
“In you go,” said the man in the hat.
“What?” Baldemar adopted an explanatory tone. “I am to be an ambassador. Where is the coach to carry me, my sash of office?”
He looked about him, but saw only the woman, the guards and major-domo, the Duke agitatedly gesturing, and high in the tower, at the workroom’s window, Aumbraj pointing his black wand in their direction and speaking a few syllables. The young woman gave a little start, as if someone had pinched her behind, but then the functionary was pointing toward the dark depths.
“You and she go down,” he said. “As you see, we have provided the convenience of a ladder. Or we can offer you a more rapid descent.”
The woman tried to withdraw but the guards were practiced at their task. In a moment, her arm was pinned back and she was forced to the brink of the well. “All right,” she said, “I’ll climb down.”
The functionary considerately helped her over the rim and saw her firmly onto the iron ladder. When she had descended a few rungs, Baldemar accepted the inevitable and took his place above her. Steadily they made their way down into darkness while the circle of sky overhead relentlessly shrank. Then it disappeared altogether as the guards slid a wooden cover over the well. Baldemar heard a clank of iron against stone as it was locked into place.
He had expected water but when they came to the foot of the ladder they were standing on dry rock. It was too dark to see anything, but a cold wind blew from somewhere.
He said to the woman, “What happens now?”
He could not see but could imagine her nervous smile and busy hands. “I don’t know,” she said. “They said it would be a journey to the land of Tyr-na-Nog and we would be received by princes and princesses. But . . .” She let her voice trail off.
“Tyr-na-Nog?” Nothing more was forthcoming so Baldemar pressed her. “Has anyone ever come back from this paradise?”
“No. But then, who would want to?”
Baldemar realized he wasn’t dealing with the realm’s most intelligent specimen of womanhood. “Did you have to run an obstacle race?” he said.
“No, that’s just for the boys. We have our own competition of women’s skills: sewing, milking a cow, baking bread, plucking a chicken.”
“And you won?”
“I was surprised,” she said. “There were better seamstresses and bakers in the contest, yet somehow they faltered and it was I who received the accolade.”
“Which is at the bottom of a dry well.”
She said nothing but he could hear the faint sound of her hands comforting each other.
“Stay here,” Baldemar said, “I’ll explore a little.” He felt his way around the wall until he found a gap, then he got down on hands and knees to cross it until the wall resumed again. While he crawled, he was chilled by a river of cold air. He stood up and said, “Say something.”
What?” Her voice came from the darkness; he oriented himself and found his way back to her side.
“There’s a tunnel,” he said.
Her voice came quavering. “Where does it go?”
He told her he did not know and had no desire to find out. They stood in the darkness and felt the wind. The flow of air must mean that the tunnel connected with the outside world, but he had no desire to grope his way through blackness in which anything might lurk.
Time passed. The woman introduced herself as Enolia. Baldemar gave her his name. They sat on the rock, backs against the wall on either side of the ladder. After a time, Baldemar let his mind wander, and found himself thinking about the wizard’s questions about the Sword of Destiny. Enolia’s voice brought him back to the here and now.
“I smell something.”
His head came up and now he caught it, too: a sour odor, almost sulfurous, with a nose-tickling peppery overtone that made him want to sneeze. “It’s coming from the tunnel,” he said. A moment later he added, “And there’s a light.”
They stood up, backs against the wall. Baldemar missed his knife still in his boot, far away to the north. Then he found himself missing the Sword.
The tunnel was long and the light far down it. It did not flicker like a flame nor throw a beam like a mirror-backed lantern. He saw a shapeless yellow glow that gradually resolved into a sphere with a flattened bottom, the shape of the tunnel. The closer it came, the stronger grew the taint of brimstone with a strong underlay of putrefaction.
He felt motion beside him and realized that the woman was trying to fit herself between him and the wall. “Stop that,” he said, but she did not.
“I’m frightened,” she said.
So was Baldemar, but there was no point dwelling on it. He couldn’t quite bring himself to try to hide behind her, so he let her peep over his shoulder as the light came nearer. When it was a hundred paces away he saw that there was something within the sphere. At fifty paces he could almost make out what it was; at thirty, he could see it clearly, and wished he did not have to. The stench became the olfactory equivalent of deafening.
A moment later, the yellow glow filled the mouth of the tunnel and the bottom of the well. There was neither torch nor lantern; the light somehow came sourcelessly from the creature before him. It regarded them from several eyes then an orifice that resembled no mouth the wizard’s henchman had ever seen spoke in a voice that was somewhere between a hiss and a gobble.
“Well, here we are again.”
“It is the first time for us,” said Baldemar. He felt Enolia’s head nodding against his shoulder in strident agreement.
“I don’t suppose,” said the demon – the man couldn’t think of another word that did the thing justice – “you bring me a message from Duke Albero? Something along the lines of, ‘I’m ready. Take me?’”
Baldemar said that no message had been vouchsafed to him and felt the woman’s nose rub his shoulder as she signaled the same was true for her. “But,” he added, “I’m willing to climb the ladder and ask for one, if you can give me some help with the lid up there.”
The demon made a sound that might have been a sigh, if a sigh could sound that horrible. “We might as well get on with it, then,” it said.
“With what?” Despite the almost unbreathable air, Baldemar felt a strong urge to extend this part of the encounter rather than discover just what “get on with it” might entail.
“And what is the usual?”
The demon focused all of its eyes on the man. Baldemar felt an uncomfortable pressure in his skull and a terrible itching of his palms and soles, but he bore the sensations as best he could while maintaining an expression of polite interest.
Part of the glowing creature moved and settled. Baldemar thought he might have just witnessed how a demon shrugged. “Very well,” it said, “Duke Albero made one of those agreements I’m sure you’ve heard about. Wealth, power, health, longevity, and so on, until he should grow weary of the eternal sameness of existence. Meanwhile, I have to hang about and do his bidding.”
“He seems to have fended off the weariness,” Baldemar said. “Indeed, he looks capable of doing so indefinitely.”
“Hence the escape clause,” said the demon. “Every seventh year, he must send me a man and a woman of accomplishment. I ask them three riddles. If they can answer them, I go up and collect the Duke and take him back with me.”
“And if they can’t?”
Again the complex set of strange motions. “I take the messengers.”
“By any chance, would you take them to a paradise?”
“No, not a paradise,” was the answer. “Certainly not for them. Indeed, I find it rather confining, myself. I would much prefer to collect the Duke and go home.”
“Oh,” said Baldemar. The gibbering from behind him increased, but he forced himself to focus his mind and said, “What is the first riddle?”
The demon said, “What walks on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, and one three in the evening?”
“Seriously?” said Baldemar.
“You can’t answer?” Another demonic sigh; a limb festooned with hooks and grapples reached for him.
“Of course I can answer,” said Baldemar. “Everybody knows that one.”
The arm or leg or whatever it was withdrew into the glow. “None of the Duke’s messengers has ever answered it correctly,” the creature said.
Baldemar realized that the seven-yearly contests were not intended to determine who among the Duke’s subjects were the most learned. They were instead tests of gullibility.
“The answer,” he said, “is ‘man.’ As an infant he crawls on all fours; that is the morning of his life. In maturity, his noon, he walks on his own two feet. And in the evening, which is his dotage, he relies on a cane.”
All the demon’s eyes again concentrated their gazes upon the man and again he had to resist the urge to rub itchy palms and soles together. “It’s hard for me to think when you do that,” he said.
The creature sent most of its eyes looking in other directions. “I was just surprised,” it said. “No one has got it right before.”
“The ‘accomplishments’ of the Duke’s previous messengers,” said Baldemar, “were not in the arena of intellect.”
“I should have specified scholars,” the demon said, “but now I’m encouraged. Here is the second conundrum. Do take your time.” The man thought that the contortion of its facial parts might approximate a smile. Shivering, he looked away and listened to the riddle.
“There are two sisters; each gives birth and death to the other. What are they?”
The conundrum rang a faint chime in the back of his mind, but he could not quite close a mental grip upon it. He said to Enolia, “Do you know it?”
“No, it makes no sense,” she said. She began to snuffle against his shoulder. “Poor me. I shall never see another dawn. Oh, woe–”
“Dawn! That’s it!” Baldemar said. “The sisters are night and day. Each gives birth to the other, each ends the life of the other.”
“Very good!” said the demon. “Very, very good!” The man could not be sure, but beneath the pure horror of its hideous voice and writhing facial parts, it sounded actually pleased. “And now the last, and simplest.” It paused portentously then said, “What do I have in my hand?”
Instinctively, Baldemar looked at the limb that had reached for him, then at another that arched up and over what he thought might be the demon’s head if it had a neck, finally at a third appendage that more or less curled at its more or less feet.
“Is there a clue?” he said.
“I wish there could be,” said the demon. “I have long wanted to leave here and install the Duke in my collection.”
“Let me think.”
The first riddle had been easy. The second had came courtesy of a prompt from the woman. He now spoke to her over his shoulder. “Anything?”
Her voice was a whisper, “Nothing,” and he could feel she had gone back to wringing her hands.
“Can you repeat the question?” he said.
“What is in my hand?”
“No clues,” said the demon. “Oh, dear. Does this mean you’re falling at the last jump?
“Give me a minute.”
Baldemar was mentally cudgeling his brain. What would a demon have in its hand? What would this particular demon have in its particular hand? For some reason, or no reason at all, he wanted to blurt out, A piece of cake!
The young woman began to blub, her tears and nasal flows wetting his shirt. “It’s not fair,” she said. “It doesn’t even have a hand!”
A sensation came upon Baldemar, like a cooling flow of water on a searing summer day. “Nothing,” he told the demon. “You have nothing in your hand because you don’t have a hand. Just a kind of paw, and a crabby claw thing, and . . .” – he couldn’t find the words – “and whatever that other thing is, but I know it’s not a hand!”
There was a silence at the bottom of the well, broken only by the woman’s stifled sobs. Then the yellow glow around the demon deepened to gold and became tinged with red around the edges. “Goodbye,” it said then swept up the shaft of the well at great speed, taking most of its stench with it.
Baldemar looked up and saw the timber lid fly apart into splinters. He pulled Enolia into the tunnel as a rain of sharp wood briefly fell then said, “Come on!”
He threw himself at the ladder and climbed with as much alacrity as his still trembling legs could deliver. The young woman matched him step for step. When they climbed over the rim of the well it was early evening. He saw the flying platform, far off in the distance, framed against the dying light.
From the castle came shouts and screams, the clatter of boots on stone flags. In the nearby stables, hooves were pounding against stalls. Then, from on high, came one great cry of despair.
“Get back!” he warned the woman as a pulsing sphere of red light appeared at the top of the keep, leapt into the air, and arrowed down toward the well. It paused above the opening and Baldemar had a glimpse of the Duke wrapped in what might have been a tentacle bedecked with curved thorns, the circles of his eyes and mouth forming a perfect isosceles triangle. He was making sounds that were not quite words.
The demon had all of its eyes trained on the new addition to its collection but it let one stray toward the man. “He who made me ordained that gratitude may never be part of my nature,” it said, “but I am required to seek equipoise.”
Baldemar said, “I am not prepared to make a bargain with you. No offense meant.”
“None taken,” said the demon. “But I cannot be obligated and I find that I am, to both of you. You may each ask a service of me at no further charge.”
Baldemar took this statement and turned it over to examine it from several angles, demons being what they were. But the woman said, “I would like a nice farm, with good crop fields and healthy livestock, a warm well-furnished house with a pump right in the kitchen.”
“Done,” said the fiend. “It used to belong to the Kazakian family.”
“I was their servant,” she said. “They were always cruel to me, said I was not good enough to clean their muddy boots. The girls pulled my hair and the boys clutched me in private places.”
“I know,” said the fiend, then as an aside to Baldemar it added, “Equipoise, as I said.”
To Enolia, it said, “The Kazakians are now your indentured servants.” A claw handed her several scrolls and a cane fashioned from black, spiraled wood. “Here are all the necessary documents, and a stout stick to beat them with.”
The woman took them and clasped them to her bosom. A smile briefly softened her features before they assumed an aspect of determination. “I have to go now,” she said and left without further ceremony.
Baldemar had finished his examination of the demon’s offer. “Free of charge?” he said. “No comebacks?”
“No comebacks, but hurry up and decide. I am eager to introduce Duke Albero to his new circumstances.”
“Can we leave it open? Can I call you when I have need?”
“If it is not too long,” said the demon. “I experience obligation as a nagging itch. When you know what you want, say the name, Azzerath, and I shall arrive forthwith.” Then it disappeared down the well with the gibbering addition to its collection.
The castle was empty of people though filled with the odor the demon had left behind. Baldemar breathed through his mouth and found it bearable. He had not gone far before he came upon the major-domo’s hat, the man’s head still in it. From a room dedicated to trunks and lidded baskets he took a capacious satchel. In the Duke’s quarters, he changed into richer garments then examined the coffers and cupboards, choosing items that were valuable yet sturdy – precious metals and gems, mostly – along with as much weight in gold coins as he could carry. He also filled a purse with silver bits and bronze asses for incidentals.
The coins all bore the likeness of the Duke. Baldemar studied the aquiline profile on one then turned it to see the obverse. It showed a date from a previous century and Albero’s motto in an extinct tongue: Miro, odal miro.
Baldemar thought back to his school days and found he could translate it. “Mine, all mine,” he said. He dropped the coin into the purse, put the purse in the satchel, and patted its comforting bulk. Then he smiled the exact smile as the woman had before she set off.
The black horse the Duke had ridden was in its stall, half maddened by the smell of demon. But Baldemar was an experienced horse handler and soon calmed the beast. He saddled and bridled it with the Duke’s own gold-chased tack and affixed the satchel securely behind. He walked it out into the courtyard, still clucking and cooing to comfort it, and saw that some of the men-at-arms had abandoned their weapons when the fiend arrived. He picked up a serviceable sword and, since he was riding, a long-shafted lance. It had a black and gold pennant that he tore off.
The animal’s iron shoes beat solid notes on the drawbridge as it carried Baldemar out of the castle. The fortification’s surrounds were empty and he suspected that he would find the town similarly deserted. Demons had that effect.
“Now,” he said to himself, “I’ll ride to the land’s edge and take passage on a ship sailing north. I’ll buy myself a house in one of the Seven Cities of the Sea and invest in the fiduciary pool. Maybe I’ll get a boat and take up fishing.”
He touched his heels to the black’s sides and the horse began to canter toward the town. Just then, a voice from above him said, “There you are!”
Baldemar looked up. The flying platform was just overhead, Aumbraj leaning on the balustrade. It settled to the turf and the wizard said, “Come aboard. We have to go.”
The man was tempted to urge the horse to a gallop. But the thaumaturge was tapping the palm of one hand with the wand. He climbed aboard and the flying platform turned north. Past the town, he looked down and saw Enolia marching along a lane that led to a capacious stone farmhouse. She paused to roll up her sleeves then used her stick to take a few practice swipes at the weeds that grew beside the track before resuming her methodical progress toward the house. When the platform’s shadow passed over her she did not look up.
“The thing is,” the thaumaturge said, “You really ought to be dead.”
They were flying north over the Sundering Sea at an even faster speed than Baldemar had come south. Aumbraj had fed the imps well on hymetic syrup and conjured an invisible shield to protect him and Baldemar from the shrieking wind of their passage.
The wizard’s henchman had been watching the waves ripple the surface of the sea. Now he turned to the thaumaturge. “The demon would have given me a fate worse than death,” he said. “He would have taken Enolia and me for playthings.”
“I’m not talking about the demon. I’m talking about the Sword of Destiny. It is known to be very touchy about being touched.”
He grinned at his play on words but Baldemar bored in on the substance of his remark. “You’re saying the Sword . . . has a will of its own?”
“A will – and a history of seeing that will turned into ways. And means, if you get what I’m saying.”
Baldemar said, “So Thelerion was sending me to be killed?” His disaffection for his employer plumbed new depths.
“I doubt that,” said Aumbraj. “He simply didn’t know what he was getting into – or, more properly, getting you into. But it’s clear from my researches that the moment your hand touched the Sword, you should have found yourself looking at a charred stump somewhere between your wrist and elbow.”
The man shuddered. But the thaumaturge went on, “Instead, the Sword merely freed the erbs you had sequestered so they could chase you away. Even then, it did not allow them to catch you, as they certainly should have. The man has not yet been born who can outrun an erb, especially upstairs.”
Baldemar forced from his mind the image of what would have happened if the beasts had caught him.
“Then, instead of hacking off a leg, it hampered you just enough to make you leave it behind.”
“So it didn’t want to kill me, yet it didn’t want me to take it away.”
Aumbraj thoughtfully tugged his nose, then pointed a conclusive finger at Baldemar. “It did not want you to take it to this Fallowbrain who sent you,” he said, “but I think we have to deduce that it didn’t mind your touch.”
The man turned back to the sea. “I am confused,” he said.
“As you ought to be. You’re probably not used to thinking of yourself as a man of destiny.”
“Indeed, I am not.”
“Well, you’d better get used to it. Once it makes up its mind, the Sword can be quite adamant.”
Aumbraj went on to describe the Sword’s history and attributes. Forged on some other plane of existence, its exact circumstances of origin were now completely forgotten. On the Plane where it was created, it probably had some other shape and function altogether. But here on the Third Plane, it presented as an invincible weapon. Yet it was more than that. It had the inclination sometimes to single out “persons of interest” – that was the Sword’s own term – and assist them to become grand figures of the age.
“Its own term?” Baldemar said. “It speaks?”
“When it cares to,” said the wizard. “But to continue, persons possessed of overweening ambition will seek out the Sword and grasp its hilt. Most of them meet with a swift and decisive end of all their dreams. It is not a forgiving entity and hates to be harassed. But, occasionally, it picks out some seeming nonentity and raises him to heights of glory. Some have taken that as a sign the Sword possesses a sense of humor.”
“Amazing,” said Baldemar.
“You have never heard of any of this?”
“My education was largely informal and centered on acquiring practical skills.”
“Hmm,” said the thaumaturge and spent some time studying Baldemar, after which he said, “You don’t show any signs of being a candidate for glory but, then again, you might be one of those seeming nonentities.”
Baldemar did not know whether to be insulted or pleased. Situations involving thaumaturges and magical weapons were often hard to read.
“Well, we’ll just have to see,” Aumbraj said.
The sun had set long before they crossed the southern downs and the forest of Ilixtrey. Soon the lights of High Marsan showed themselves, strung atop a long ridge and its lower slopes. Baldemar offered to direct Aumbraj to the building where the Sword resided, but the wizard waved the proposal away.
“I can find it,” he said. “To one of my abilities, it emits the equivalent of a blinding light and an ear-splitting noise.” He made a small noise of contempt and added, “Your employer, the Great Fullbean, probably managed to catch a faint glow and a fading whisper.”
They crossed the city wall and began to spiral down toward the rooftop Baldemar remembered so well. “I suppose,” he said, “that’s not really a building at all.”
“Of course, it is,” said Aumbraj. “But it is an edifice unremarked by even its neighbors, who pass by daily with never a thought as to what lies within. Even the city’s tax collectors will overlook it.”
“The Sword’s doing?” the man said.
“As I said, it prefers not to be harassed.”
The roof was in darkness but as they descended closer, Baldemar saw motion on its flat surface. “Look,” he said.
The wizard peered then made a gesture and muttered something. Immediately, the top of the building was bathed in bright light, revealing that someone was bent over the trapdoor, tugging at it with both hands.
“Oh, my,” said Aumbraj. “Truly a skimpwit of the first water.”
The figure looked up, shading its eyes against the light, and Baldemar saw that the skimpwit was Thelerion, clad in the Greaves of Indefatigability, the Breastplate of Fortitude, and the Helmet of Sagacity. The Shield Impenetrable lay on the rooftop beside him, but now he snatched it up and slipped an arm through it while his other hand produced a wand tipped with a large, faceted ruby.
Baldemar knew that wand well. He flinched in anticipation. But Aumbraj said, “Oh, really!” and made a shooing gesture with the backs of his fingers. The Shield glowed briefly as it was thrust back against Thelerion, who stumbled backward and ended up on his rump.
Aumbraj had the imps bring the platform to a gentle landing. He opened the gate in the balustrade and stepped down onto the rooftop. Baldemar followed, being careful to keep the southern thaumaturge between him and his employer.
But not careful enough, because now Thelerion laboriously rose to his feet, leaning on the Shield, and his gaze locked on his missing henchman. His unappetizing features twisted in rage.
“Ahah! Miscreant! Faithless turd! Slackarse!” He had dropped his ruby-tipped wand. Now he stooped and took it up and said, “Receive your just punishment!”
“I would not do that here,” said Aumbraj. “The Sword might not like it.”
Thelerion focused on AUmbraj just long enough for outrage to expand his eyes and mouth then all his features contracted and his gaze again bored into his lackey. “You told!” he cried. “The Sword was my great secret, and you told this . . . this–”
“Aumbraj the Erudite,” said the object of his inarticulacy, “blue school, ninety-eighth degree. And I advise you to lower that thing you probably think of as a wand before something truly awful happens to you.”
Thelerion looked from henchman to wizard, then back and forth several times. His mouth made sounds that were neither words nor incantations, and spittle appeared on his lips. Finally, he emitted a noise that came straight out of his lower throat and pointed the wand at Baldemar. He spoke a portentous syllable and the instrument’s tipped glowed a baleful red. A vindictive smile spread cross his lips and he opened his mouth to speak again.
At the moment, the trapdoor behind him flew open and struck the rooftop a heavy slam. Light shot up from a great brightness within the stairwell and as Thelerion turned to see, the head, neck, and then the shoulders of a young erb serenely emerged from the glowing rectangle.
Baldemar’s employer made another wordless sound, this one expressive of surprise and horror. He pointed his wand at the beast that, continuing its rise from the stairwell, now showed its clawed hands – which clutched the naked Sword of Destiny.
At this juncture, Thelerion made two decisions: one wise, one not. The wise move was to drop his wand; the unwise choice was to assume that the erb was bringing him the Sword, and that he ought to reach for it. His grasping fingers made contact with the scabbard.
Another blast of light illuminated the rooftop, though this one entirely conformed to the shape of Thelerion the Exemplary. His person was limned by a glare so bright that his body seemed to be a black silhouette at its center.
Then the light faded and the seeming became the reality. Where the wizard had been there now stood a figure of deepest black, dull and unreflective. It remained standing just long enough for the shape to be recognized and for its armor and shield to fall away with a clatter. Then the silhouette fell apart into granules of coarse grit that cascaded down to become a cone of stygian cinder. Scarcely had it formed a conical shape before its mass spread out under its own weight to lie as a circular mat of black sand – sand that crunched under the clawed feet of the erb as, still clutching the Sword, it stepped out of the trapdoor and approached Baldemar.
He whirled to leap onto the flying platform only to find that it was now high above him and moving off, with Aumbraj leaning over the balustrade to observe the scene he had left. A glance to one side told Baldemar the rope and grapnel he had left on the adjacent building were no longer there.
He turned back and saw the beast coming on at a steady pace, the Sword now held in its paws so that the jewel-bedecked hilt offered itself to him.
Baldemar experienced a moment of sharp mental clarity. There were two outcomes to accepting the erb’s offer: in one, he would be instantly, and probably painfully, converted into black grit, as Thelerion had been; in the other, he would rise as a man of destiny, to carve out a kingdom or an empire, and rule by whim and fiat. The momentary appeal of the latter prospect swiftly faded as he recalled the ruler of the County of Caprasecca, Duke Albero.
I don’t want that life, he heard his inner voice saying. He remembered his plan to find a nice house in one of the Seven Cities of the Sea and a boat to fish from.
That option, however, did not seem to be available at this moment. But the thought of the parchment-skinned Duke brought up another possibility – a desperate gamble fit for a desperate situation.
As the Sword’s hilt almost touched his fingers, Baldemar said, “Azzerath!”
He was immediately enveloped in a hideous odor and yet another bright light. Between him and the erb, which had leapt back, stood the repellent form of the demon. “What can I do for you?” it said.
Baldemar pointed and the fiend turned to regard the beast and what it held in its claws. All of its eyes focused on the Sword and a kind of ripple went through its being that the man could only interpret as an expression of delight.
“There you are!” said the demon, reaching out and taking the Sword from the erb, which promptly fainted from terror. The fiend folded the weapon in two of its limbs, clutching it to what might have been its torso. It seemed to Baldemar that the Sword also shivered in pleasure.
“I thought I’d lost you forever,” Azzerath said. “What have you been up to all this time?”
The fiend stood still, attentively listening to whatever the Sword was telling it. Finally, it stroked the scabbard and said, “Well, never mind. That’s all over now. We’ll go home and it will be as if none of this ever happened. I’ve got a nice, fresh Duke for us to play with.”
It became aware of Baldemar again and the man thought he was seeing a demonic frown. “It seems,” the creature said, “that I am even more in your debt.” Its body shook like thorned jelly. “The itch is quite uncomfortable.”
Baldemar did not hesitate. “Can you arrange me,” he said, “a nice house in Golathreon, overlooking the Sundering Sea, with a sturdy boat to go fishing in? And perhaps a satchel of gold and jewels?”
“Done,” said Azzerath. Two scrolls appeared at the man’s feet. “Those are the deed and the boat registration. “You’ll find the satchel in the library. Shall I transport you there now?”
“No, thank you. I think the wizard will carry me.”
But Azzerath’s attention had returned to the Sword of Destiny. “You arranged all this?” it said. “Just to find me again? What a smart little woozums you are.” It stroked the scabbard again, making cooing noises, then disappeared.
The flying platform touched down. Aumbraj offered no apology for deserting Baldemar who expected none. If their positions had been reversed, he would have made the same hasty exit. The wizard did enthuse about the events he had witnessed, chortling and saying, “I feel a wonderful scholarly paper coming on!”
“It seems,” Baldemar told the wizard, stepping over the recumbent erb to where Thelerion’s ashes were scattering in the wind, “I have acquired a few pieces of armor. Would you care to purchase them? For scholarly purposes, of course.”
A brief haggle followed, concluded to both participants’ mutual satisfaction. A purse was conjured into existence and passed over. Then Baldemar helped the wizard gather the items and load them aboard the platform. Aumbraj also swept up some of the grit that had been Thelerion the Exemplary and stowed it in a brass cylinder with a tightly fitted lid.
“You never know,” he said.
Meanwhile Baldemar picked up his scrolls and read the address on one of them.
“Will you be passing near the City of Golathreon?” he asked Aumbraj.
“I can do.”
“I would appreciate a ride.”
The wizard shrugged. “If you’ll fill in a few more details about your association with the demon. I mean to make the editor of Hermetic Studies clap for joy.”
“Done,” said Baldemar.
As they flew over the city, Aumbraj observed, in a carefully idle tone, “Even a scholarly thaumaturge can always use a good henchman.”
“I was never a good henchman,” Baldemar said. “Could never manage the required depth of self-abnegation. But I think I just might make a passable fisherman.”
This story originally appeared in The Book of Swords.