Continuation of Chapter 1 for SFF Chrons readers
Horlgyll cursed under his breath, his hands twisting his apron. “Are you Jaav of Veelsavian?”
“Whadda yer think?”
Grimacing, Horlgyll led Jaav into a small chamber set off the common room, where a fire burned low in a black iron grate.
Horlgyll said, “Put that dog back in its bag. There are two men that you must meet, who I believe have breeding.” He left, grumbling under his breath.
Jaav dropped a log onto the fire then stood on a stool to look at himself in a mirror. Built like a boar, all muscle, sinew and bone, his feet encased in hobnail boots; and he wore boiled leather armour and a metal-studded leather cap from which greasy brown hair emerged. One eye was small, piggy, half hidden behind a scar. His beard and moustache were short and trimmed, greying at the cheekbone and temple, but he had wing-like sideburns combed out. Wrapped around each wrist was a copper band, and he wore fingerless gloves.
He settled into one of the three cushioned chairs that had been placed before the fire. On a table lay a plate of cinnamon toast fingers. He took two, crunching one while he fed the other to Hoppy. There was silence in the room, the noise of the inn and the street muffled by thick walls, curtains and plush tapestries. He waited. Five minutes passed.
The door clicked open and the two dark-cloaked men walked into the room, followed by Horlgyll. Jaav looked up at them.
Pointing to the shorter of the two, Horlgyll said, “This is Dzersestra.”
Jaav found himself looking at a gaunt Northernlander of middle height wearing travel-stained clothes that had been patched many times. His head was pear shaped, with a great rounded forehead around which lank hair lay. His chin was pointed, his nose long, but his eyes were deep and luculent, though encircled by dark bags. Pale skin, sunken cheeks and his scrawny physique gave him the appearance of a beggar, yet on his back he carried a large, well-made bag from which a number of wooden tubes emerged. His manner was nervous.
Jaav nodded once at the man. “I expect yer knows ‘oo I am.”
Horlgyll said, “And this is Gystygyss.”
The second man was was tall and slender, dressed in a dark brown cloak of velvet on which sequins glittered. His sharp-featured face was sallow and he wore a thin, drooping moustache, the ends of which dangled to his chin. His black hair was pulled back into a ponytail caught together by a silver band. His movements were quick, yet quiet, like a bird’s. When he spoke, white teeth flashed.
“Pleased to meet you, Jaav.”
Jaav grunted. This man’s accent placed him west of the Barrier Mountains. Jaav glanced up at Horlgyll and said, “Why’ve we been brought ‘ere?”
Horlgyll hesitated, and for a few moments seemed afraid. Then he cleared his throat and said, “There is somebody here who wishes to speak with you three.” He paused. “In the cellar.”
“‘Oo?” Jaav asked.
“A man named Yngyr.”
Jaav sniffed and helped himself to another finger of toast. “Never ‘eard of ‘im.”
“But he has heard of you.” Horlgyll turned to the other two and said, “And of you.”
“Well, what does he want us for?” asked Gystygyss.
“Are you three not mercenaries?”
Jaav stared up at the newcomers; he had not guessed these mens’ occupations. Dzersestra surely was too puny to be a mercenary. He laughed and said, “This Yngyr must ‘ave gold, then.”
“More than you could dream of.”
The comment brought silence to the chamber.
At length Jaav muttered, “I like the sound of that, but why’s ‘e in the cellar?”
A black cat padded past the four men, a rat in its mouth. Jaav shivered; the warrens beneath the inn were cold and damp. Again he wondered why Yngyr might be hiding in a cellar, but every time he questioned Horlgyll about the man he received no answer. He glanced up at Gystygyss. What was a Westerner doing in the land of his enemy?
“Too many damn questions,” he muttered to himself.
After a few minutes of pacing down dank corridors Horlgyll halted at a wooden door, taking a bunch of keys from his pocket, selecting one, then raising it to the keyhole. Jaav felt suspicious. Horlgyll’s hand was shaking. He buttoned the top flap of his rucksack and loosened the mace in its sheath at his side.
Horlgyll opened the door. “Please enter,” he said. “I’ll leave you now.” With that, he ran off.
In a loud voice Jaav said, “I ain’t scared of nobody. Let’s see ‘oo this Yngyr is. C’mon you two, follow me.”
Gystygyss twirled his moustache and said, “Indeed, lead on.”
Dzersestra looked afraid.
Jaav led them into the cellar. A single lantern lit the chamber, which was large and full of barrels, but he saw nobody. “Anybody ‘ere?” he called out.
A movement in the shadows beneath a dimly lit grille – Jaav glanced up to see a hint of moonlight; and he could smell horses. They were only a few yards below street level.
“Anybody there?” he said.
When a second lantern was uncovered Jaav saw something, a seated figure, a man of great height, thin, almost skeletal, dressed in a black cloak, black breeches and black hobnail boots. His pale face was darkened with charcoal marks in the local style: deep eyes, hawkish nose, a thin mouth. His straggly white hair lay loose about his shoulders, but much of his head was covered by a bulging woollen hat.
“Welcome,” the man said.
The voice was quiet, but possessed of menace. Jaav gripped the mace at his side as he sensed fear spreading across the room. Dzersestra’s stomach gurgled.
“‘Oo’s that?” Jaav said. “Are you Yngyr? Better not ‘ave a go at us, we’re armed.”
“I offer no fight,” said the man. “Walk over to me. I am Yngyr and I wish to speak with you.”
“Gagh,” Jaav said, letting his frustration show. “What’s goin’ on ‘ere?”
Yngyr had placed three barrels at a distance of a few yards away from his bench. He gestured at these seats, then grabbed a flagon at his side and held it aloft. “One of you, come and take this. There are mugs for you on the barrels. I am afraid I could not acquire food.”
Jaav jumped onto the middle barrel, settling Hoppy’s rucksack on his stomach while Gystygyss fetched the flagon. Soon, all four men had mugs of wine in their hands.
Yngyr sat motionless, observing them, so that even Jaav, who had seen many subterranean wonders, began to feel uneasy. Yngyr’s expression was intense, his silence oppressive. Finishing the wine Jaav said, “Why’ve yer called us to this filthy cellar? I’ve come twenty leagues.”
“I have brought you here,” Yngyr said, “to make you an offer the like of which you will never before have heard.” He paused, and a clacking noise sounded inside his mouth. “Now then,” he continued, “Yfnaga was attacked today. What do you make of that fact?”
“Fact?” Jaav retorted. “Yer speak like a library bookworm. Men and women ‘ave died. And at the ‘ands of that vile Eagle Wizard…”
Yngyr nodded. “The Eagle Wizard of the West – one of the great enemies of Yl, indeed of the East as a whole. He is vile.”
“So?” Jaav said.
“Do you suppose that Wernmûrnsar is opposed by anybody?”
When nobody answered, Gystygyss said, “Perhaps by King Yd. But he never appears, and he never performs sorcery, except, perhaps, in his lair.”
“Yd brings war every now and then,” Jaav added, “but the Westerners always beat ‘im back. Now it seems they’re launchin’ attacks into Yd’s own land.”
Yngyr nodded. “Have any of you heard of the Winged Sorcerer?”
Gystygyss laughed. “In ancient tales, yes!”
Yngyr stared at them. “I am Yngyr, the Winged Sorcerer, and I live still. My presence here is the reason for the attack today. Alas, Wernmûrnsar heard a spell that I made.”
Jaav chortled in disbelief. Though illiterate, he had heard enough stories about the endless wars brought by the West to know that the Winged Sorcerer of King Yd had long since passed into history.
“You?” he said. “But you died three ‘undred years ago. Anyway, even if you didn’t, nobody can live three ‘undred years.”
“A sorcerer can do many things, Jaav of Veelsavian.”
Yngyr took off his hat. On his balding pate lay a great blowfly, its six legs gripping his temples and ears.
“This is my Chameleon,” he said. “With it, I perform sorcery.”
Jaav stared, appalled. He had never seen anything so repulsive.
Yngyr said, “Gystygyss, I think your new acquaintances need more drink. There is a bottle beside me here, but I cannot quite reach it.”
Gystygyss walked over to Yngyr’s bench and picked up the bottle of wine, refilling all the mugs, then returning to his barrel. He said, “What then was the spell that caused today’s attack?”
Yngyr uttered a cawing laugh. “To answer that,” he said, “I would need to tell you why you are here.”
Jaav grunted, “About time too.”
In a low voice Yngyr said, “King Yd wishes a deed to be undertaken. With my help he has chosen a number of men-”
“Us?” Jaav interrupted.
Yngyr nodded. “And possibly one or two others. The rewards are beyond your imaginations.” Yngyr waved his hands in the air to create a scene shrouded in mist. Jaav saw piles of gold, silver and jewels, filling a chamber larger than the cellar in which he sat. “Also,” Yngyr continued, “because King Yd understands that wealth alone can be impotent, there are tracts of land on offer, and much more.”
“How do we know that King Yd would keep his word?” Gystygyss asked.
“Never mind that!” said Jaav. “What’s the forkin’ deed?”
Yngyr grimaced. “A company is to be assembled that has as its task the penetration of the Western capital, the city of Sotnosûr itself. There, King Ventûrans’ crown is to be acquired-”
“Madness!” Jaav shouted. “Utter foolery! You dragged me all the way ‘ere-”
“Silence!” Yngyr roared.
Dzersestra patted Jaav’s hand and said, “Let the sorcerer finish.”
Yngyr composed himself then continued, “I speak of a deed so extraordinary it will pass into legend. The rewards are not simply wealth and power. I speak of the overthrow of the West. When this is done, you will live as kings in the peace of the East.”
“Forkin’ nonsense,” Jaav said. “The Westerners control most of the East already. Only Yl is unconquered. Anyway, ‘ow do we know King Yd would keep ‘is bargain?”
“Do not question King Yd,” Yngyr replied in a cold voice. “You and all others undertaking this deed would swear unbreakable oaths, as would King Yd himself, for once agreed this is a task that cannot be shirked. So you see now why we have chosen carefully.”
Jaav sat back, glancing at Dzersestra and Gystygyss and wondering who they were. But he was just a simple miner. “Why’ve I been chosen?” he asked. “I ain’t no ‘ero.”
“We do not seek heroes,” Yngyr replied. “We seek men of extraordinary talent. You, with your strength and your constitution…”
Jaav shook his head. “What about these two?”
Yngyr glanced to Jaav’s right. “Dzersestra?”
In reply Dzersestra stood up and walked over to his bag, from which he extracted a number of musical instruments. He chose a flute then assumed a bizarre posture, standing on his left leg with his other leg hitched up so that his right foot rested against his left knee. Raising his gaze to the ceiling, he began to play. A sound more mournful than Jaav had ever heard filled the cellar, played with feeling, with sorrow; and yet it inspired him. He sat back entranced.
Dzersestra finished playing. Yngyr said, “That was good. Do you sing also? Can you make great ballads of war and of suffering?”
Dzersestra replaced the flute and picked up a leather bag from which a number of wooden tubes emerged. He squeezed it, and it skirled. Muting the pipes with wooden cups he diminished the sound, inflating the bag with a few strong breaths then accompanying himself in song.
‘The Westerners came with swords and a purse,
Their future fortunes to find.
And we so dark and noisome to them,
They left us all behind,
As they stripped our land of its kind.
A shadow diamond is misty and strong,
It powers a man and his mind.
But Westerners came and took them away,
And left us all in a bind,
So vengeance we all now must find.’
The leather bag ran out of air and Dzersestra tipped his head forward, so that he looked at the floor.
“Also very good,” remarked Yngyr. “You were chosen with wisdom.”
Dzersestra glanced up. “You’re not weeping, Yngyr.”
“Such acts in public are deemed dishonourable for one such as I. But do not worry. I understand what you can do.”
Dzersestra returned to his barrel, looking glum.
Jaav glanced to his left. “What about you, Westerner?”
Gystygyss frowned. “I am no longer a Westerner,” he said haughtily. “You know nothing of me. All you hear are my Western origins in my accent. But I left Sotnosûr decades ago. I am like Yngyr – of Yl. I live here, in Yfnaga, performing spells.”
Yngyr sniggered. “I suppose you are telling us that you are a sorcerer.”
A look of anger passed across Gystygyss’ face. “Nobody would dare call themselves that in your presence,” he remarked, glancing away, then raising one hand to pull at his moustaches.
Yngyr said, “But when you were a youth you utilised a clear diamond, is that not so? I know you use shadow diamonds now. Therefore you must consider yourself a sorcerer.”
“My main skills are those of the warrior, of the scout.”
Yngyr hissed. “Nonsense, nonsense. Do you own a black diamond, Gystygyss?”
“Do you?” came the mimicked reply.
Gystygyss walked across to Yngyr, leaning over so that their faces were a foot apart; then Yngyr stuck his tongue out. Gystygyss’ eyes widened in shock. He turned away.
“That is where my power lies,” Yngyr said. “Close to my head. Close to my Chameleon. A stud in my tongue. Did you see the size of it, Gystygyss? A true, flawless black diamond.”
Gystygyss glanced at the Chameleon on Yngyr’s head. He seemed deflated, beaten. “Well, I believe you,” he sighed. “You are Lord Yngyr, after all.”
Yngyr nodded, then said, “You are in fact a logical choice for this deed Gystygyss, because you know the enemy capital, its nooks and crannies, its customs and peculiarities.”
“Perhaps… I left a long time ago.”
Yngyr said in a low voice, “I repeat my question. Do you own a black diamond?”
“You know I don’t.”
Silence fell for a few moments. Then Gystygyss said, “Lord Yngyr, I feel no great and overwhelming hatred of the West such as consumes you. But let me tell you this. I love the East as a home, and if you pay me I will aid it. If the reward is real, and with good comrades at my side, I will serve King Yd until the deed is done. Do not doubt that I am a mercenary. I can be hired.”
“Even on a task of madness?” asked Jaav.
Gystygyss shrugged. “Well, I won’t be performing any sorcery. But I can scout and I can track and I can fight dirty.” He slapped the belt that lay beneath his cloak. “A knife man, me – not afraid of close-up work. Ambidextrous, too.”
Unconvinced, Jaav looked at Dzersestra. “What about you, Northerner?”
Dzersestra replied, “I have spent most of my life with my short bow.”
“So yer don’t just sing and dance, then?”
Dzersestra shook his head, then replied, “I don’t dance.”
Still Jaav felt uneasy. There was something here that felt wrong, and because he did not know what it was he felt frustrated. He turned to Yngyr and said, “What’ll you be doin’ while we sneak into the West? Castin’ spells?”
Yngyr uttered another cawing laugh. “Have you not realised that I shall be coming with you?” And with that statement he reached forward and knocked aside his legs.
There was no sound, nor any movement. For many seconds no man breathed.
At last Jaav croaked, “Yer ain’t got no legs?”
“No, Jaav, I have not. This is the task before you all. You must carry me to the palace of the enemy, where one of the clear diamonds on King Ventûrans’ crown will be replaced with one of King Yd’s black diamonds… and then the West will fall. In truth, it is the difficulty of the deed that makes your reward so great.”
Gystygyss sighed. “Surely Lord Yngyr, it is impossible.”
“Not impossible. Say instead, difficult. But we will be making history. You must not think of your reward in terms of gold, land and honour, though those will be very great. Think in terms of entering legend itself.”
Silence fell across the cellar once more.