GrogHeads Fiction: Just When I Thought I Was Out
An adventure for your weekend ~
Jonathan S. Pembroke, 28 May 2016
I straightened my back and looked out over the churned earth and fresh-plowed rows of the field. I leaned on my hoe, wiped the sweat from my brow, and savored my accomplishment as the sun slid towards the horizon. I’ve always derived deep satisfaction from the labor of an honest day’s work and there are some things you want to do with your own two hands.
A slight breeze ruffled my hair, reminding me that the early spring evenings tended towards the cool side. I gave the field one last look and returned to my porch.
The top step squeaked but I barely heard it; in truth, I’d ignored the loose nail for so long it felt wrong to fix it. As I stepped up, Trio raised his head. His tail thumped a greeting against the boards. I stooped, scratched his ears, and sought my rickety rocking chair. My pipe lay in the seat. I stuck the tip between my teeth and focused my eyes on the bowl. A brief spark flickered and a stream of smoke rose from the tobacco. I inhaled, relishing the warmth as the sweet smoke filled my lungs. The breeze blew again, mixing with soft sounds of clucking chickens as they sought their roosts for the night.
Trio sat up, ears erect. A soft growl escaped his lips. “Easy, boy,” I said. He fell silent but continued to gaze into the trees. I shrugged; whatever was out there would show itself soon enough.
A horse neighed in the distance. A moment later, a party of riders emerged from the tree line beyond my fallow field. I counted nine. It was a large enough party to travel safely through the valley and enough to challenge me, had they caught me by surprise.
The band trotted up to my house without hesitation. The foremost wore the standard of a snarling white tiger on a field of green. He was a middle-aged man and rode with confidence. The group stopped and the leader dismounted.
Trio stood at his approach and growled again. Several of the man’s companions reached for their weapons but he waved them down. He stopped short of the porch and said, “Do I have the honor of addressing the Royal Mage Vetterex?”
“You are addressing a simple farmer, Sir.”
“But you are he, aren’t you?”
“I am the former Royal Mage, now retired. And you would be?”
“Sarto. I am the castellan to Castle Hithdale.”
“From Hith, then,” I said. “Does King Arken still reign?”
“He died last year. His son Alladan now rules.”
“Unfortunate news about Arken. Alladan was but an infant when I last saw him. I wish him well.”
Sarto looked to either side of the porch, at the hedges I planted there. His eyes glided over the curved topiaries, which I’d molded and shaped with painstaking detail into the rearing horse and majestic eagle. “Elaborate. I assume you used your talent to shape these.”
“My gardening talent, yes.”
“Exceptional work, worthy of the Royal Garden. However, I did not come for a pleasant discussion on planting.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My answer is ‘no’ to whatever you have come to ask of me.”
A shadow of irritation passed over Sarto’s face. “You do not even know what that is.”
“I don’t really care.”
“Master Mage, I have traveled for several weeks to reach you. My companions and I braved the dangers of Devanda Valley. Already, we lost two of our fellows to the foul beasts that inhabit this land. I cannot leave without at least stating the King’s need. May I join you?”
I pointed at the sun-bleached steps. “Sit there, if you like.”
Sarto’s men muttered at my flippant disrespect but the castellan was unfazed. Sarto looked at the step, then at Trio who was but a few feet away. “Is it safe to sit beside your wolf? Is it tame?”
I told him what he wished to hear. “Yes.”
Sarto sat and took a deep breath. “Are you familiar with the Duke of Yashin?”
“The previous Duke, yes. I don’t know the current one.”
“If you knew his father, then you will understand that the son is a drunk and a brawler. The family bloodlines breed true.”
“If that’s so, then he is also brave, resourceful, and—like all good vassals—very loyal to the throne.”
Sarto shook his head. “That was true, once. Now, the Duke is a very large thorn in the side of the King.”
Sarto flushed. “That is immaterial.”
I waited. Sarto looked away for a long moment. Finally, he pursed his lips. “The Duke appears to have made an alliance with our enemies in the Empire of Tarris. We aren’t certain of his plans but the King’s counselors believe that he is waiting for the opportunity to betray the King at a moment when His Majesty’s military attention is focused on the Empire.”
“Then remove him,” I said. “The Duke rules only at the King’s discretion. Surely you did not need to brave the dangers of the Valley to hear that.”
“It is more complicated than that, Master Mage. The King’s sister, Princess Allana, is married to the Duke. Her popularity with the nobles has temporarily exceeded the King’s own. Were he to remove Duke Yashin, the King fears Hith would descend into a civil war.”
“Hith was once known as ‘The Riven Kingdom.’ ” I tapped the heel of the pipe against my palm. “Such civil warfare between rulers is common and normal. As King, Alladan should expect it, and be prepared to deal with it.”
“And there are simple ways to deal with a man. Doubtless the members of the Royal Council know the right scoundrels if blood needs to be shed.”
“The Duke has employed a powerful sorcerer to protect him. His name is Kervain.”
“Kervain,” I said, echoing Sarto. The word tasted sour in my mouth.
“You know him?”
I fought to keep the contempt from my voice, with only partial success. “I do.”
Sarto nodded at my tone. “This sorcerer foiled all of our previous attempts to….”
“Solve the problem?”
“Yes. Despite our best efforts, the Duke lives. The King spent many hours chambered with his advisors and they reached the only possible solution: the King must employ a more powerful mage.”
He gave me a grim look. “And that means you, Sir. We have even inquired in the nations across the Swollen Sea. There are no others that can match Kervain’s lineage and blood talent. Just you.”
“Still not interested.”
Sarto glanced at my house. His eyes traced the stains in the wooden walls where rainwater had leaked through the porch roof. “One might say that this dwelling is quite, uhm….”
“Unremarkable,” he said. “A man of your talents deserves more. The King could see to it.”
“What you see here was built with the sweat of my brow, Sir. I treasure it above any mansion given to me, no matter how grand.”
“Living in Devanda Valley cannot be easy. The creatures that dwell here are highly dangerous.”
I chuckled. “I have the monsters of the Valley well-trained. None has dared cross my path in years.”
I chuckled. “I have the monsters of the Valley well-trained. None has dared cross my path in years.”
“One day they may come for you.”
“Only the suicidal ones.”
“What of women?” he asked. “The nights must grow lonely, no?”
“I left those desires behind many years ago. A woman would only be an intrusion now.”
“But what of-”
I exhaled. A ringed puff of smoke rose from my lips. “Do you know what is remarkable, Sir Sarto?”
“That a man can retire from royal service, move into a wilderness inhabited by monsters and wild beasts, far outside the kingdom, that he can make a home for himself where he is not a bother to anyone. And yet he may still be pestered by people seeking his favor.”
“Master Mage, I-”
“I moved here because I no longer care about the outside world. Wars, blood feuds, crime; I am sick of it all. Now, I crave only the peace of a simple life. My answer stands.”
Sarto’s hand strayed to the shaped bush and he stroked the leaves for a moment. Finally, he said, “Will nothing convince you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
The castellan stood and faced me. “Very well. I did not want it to come to this but here we are. We have your son.”
My heart clenched and I struggled to keep my face calm. “I have not spoken to my son in years. In truth, I did not even know he was still alive.”
Sarto nodded, though a flicker of amusement danced in his eyes. “I appreciate the lie but I can see the truth on your face.”
At the man’s tone, Trio rose, his posture aggressive. I petted Trio between his ears to calm him. “And?”
“And unless you help us with Duke Yashin, I shall see to it that your son dies in the most painful and prolonged manner I can imagine.” He held up his hand. “Please do not bother with threats, Master Mage. I am well aware of your power and even though the court sorcerers are not of your caliber, their blood talent is sufficient to track our party and check our progress from time to time. You could scarcely reach Hithdale before they discovered an attack. If something happens to us, your son’s sentence will be carried without hesitation.”
“I see.” An image of my son—drunk and courting the local wenches in a shabby tavern—passed through my thoughts. “I assume King Alladan is aware of your ultimatum.”
“The King is a practical man but sentimental. He was positive you would aid us out of respect for the camaraderie you shared with his father. I had hoped as much, but I did not achieve my position on hope alone.”
“I will consider your offer.”
“It is not an offer, Master Mage. I will have an answer before I depart.”
I sighed. “Depart, then. I will deal with the Duke soon enough.”
“You will come with us.”
My eyes narrowed. “Do you expect me to deal with the Duke or not? I have what I need here and for this form of attack, distance is no object. Traveling with you would only delay completion of the task.”
“Under the circumstances, I am sure you will understand that I don’t fully trust you.” He gestured towards one of his party. “Shovan will remain here to ensure your compliance. He will check in with me daily via his sorcerous means.”
As Sarto mounted his horse, he said, “I expect results by the time I return to Hithdale. Shovan will update me on your progress. When it is done, I will release your son.”
He motioned at the two hedges flanking the porch. “And if you ever decide to return to civilization, I can promise you a job as a gardener.”
Sarto and his men galloped away, leaving Shovan in front of the house.
The man slid from his horse and strode onto the porch. He was handsome, without apparent pretense, save the arrogant gleam in his eye. “Well, let’s get started.”
“Later,” I said. My pipe had gone out so I re-lit it. “After the sun sets.”
“Sir Sarto ordered you-”
“Sarto ordered me to eliminate the Duke by the time he returned to Hithdale. It will take him at least two weeks to do that, so I intend to fully enjoy the remainder of my evening.”
Shovan looked as if he wanted to say something further but he left the porch and wandered out into the field. I ignored him. The image of my son’s face floated in my mind. I traced back over my conversation with the castellan, dissecting every word. Sarto’s promise was hollow; my son would never be released, regardless of what I did.
I frowned. I had changed my son’s name, altered records of his lineage. I even put blocks on his blood talent to prevent him from exposing himself. Finding him would have been difficult, save for someone who knew what to look for.
I remembered the day I turned Kervain away, refusing to teach him further. His talent was strong but his mind was a cesspool of arrogance and cruelty. Kervain threatened and blustered but I paid it little mind at the time. Perhaps I should have listened.
If Kervain had indeed delivered my son to the King, then he was playing the King and the Duke against each other.
I rubbed my eyes. For the moment, Kervain’s schemes were immaterial.
Something nudged my hand. Trio stood there, gazing at me with sympathy-laden eyes—and the spark of an idea ignited. I glanced at the hedges; the elements of a plan slithered into place. A desperate and improbable plan, but perhaps the only way.
The urge to leap to action crowded to the front of my mind but I forced myself to be patient.
Shovan returned to the porch. He jerked his head at the field I’d finished sowing that afternoon. “What did you plant there?”
“A bit early, isn’t it?”
I shrugged. “Perhaps but I have a good finger on the weather. Spring comes early this year.”
“As you say. But-”
“Tell me, youngster: how strong is your talent?”
Shovan narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“If you are strong enough, perhaps you can help me with the Duke.”
“Oh. Five generations. And you? They never told me.”
Shovan snorted. “Not so much. Tavern stories say you’re so powerful as to be near-immortal. Is there some secret to tapping your strength to a greater degree?”
I did not answer. As the last sliver of sun disappeared, I said, “Very well, let’s get something to eat.”
“I can’t magick on an empty stomach.”
Shovan’s lip curled. I suppose he thought my admission a weakness.
The home’s interior was cozy for one, cramped for two. I gestured; flames erupted in the fireplace. Shovan snorted, unimpressed. He sat on a low padded bench, only to recoil as Trio snarled at him with bared teeth.
“That’s his chair,” I said.
Shovan jumped up, his eyes wild. “Well, tell him I am going to use it.”
“You tell him. I don’t think he’ll listen, though.”
Shovan stomped to the other side of the room. Still grumbling, Trio hopped up on the stool and curled up. He gave my guest a baleful glare.
“Not much of a wolf, is he?”
“How do you mean?” I turned towards the fireplace and strung a cleaned chicken across the flames.
“He’s a runt and missing one leg.”
“He probably wouldn’t take well to you calling him a wolf.”
“He’s not a wolf.”
I took a deep breath and growled a snarling cough. Trio sprang from his bench at the surprised mage. Shovan threw up his hands to protect his head and bellowed as Trio’s fangs sliced into the skin of palms. Shovan cursed and made to kick at my companion but a wooden look bolted up his face. His body spasmed, then went rigid. Like an axed tree, he toppled backwards to the floor. Trio looked at me. I nodded to him. “Thank you, old friend.”
Trio returned to his bench. I knelt next to Shovan. His eyes stared straight and his breath came in feeble gasps. “The castellan assumed Trio a wolf. I don’t have a name for his kind. They look like canines but their bite is poisonous. It paralyzes their prey, allows them to feed.”
Shovan’s lips twitched as he struggled to speak. I shook my head. “No, he won’t eat you. He likes chicken more than anything. When I found him, Trio was just a pup. He was already missing his leg then, and he was dying. I nursed him back to health and he’s been with me ever since.”
I pulled a chair across the stone floor and sat next to the paralyzed mage. “More important to our conversation, his bite also paralyzes your blood talent. He nicked me once and I thought I was finished. Fortunately, the paralysis to your body and talent wear off after some time.”
He wheezed. I held out my hands. “I said I had eight generations of blood talent in my veins. The truth is closer to thirty-eight. Imagine that, Shovan: all those generations of mages, multiplying their talent with selective mating. Of course, that leads to inbreeding, which is why half the powerful magicians of history were raving lunatics or stupid as could as could be. I guess I was just lucky.”
I paused and leaned back in my chair. “Although such luck carries its own curse, because of men like Sarto, who will always seek to use my blood talent, and me, for their own ends.”
I passed my hand over Shovan’s face. A subtle flux of energy emanated from his forehead, which I severed with a twist of my wrist, brushing his mind shield aside like a fallen leaf. I gazed into the mage’s eyes, probing.
An image came to me: a thin, disheveled man in filthy trousers, huddled in the corner of a room, high above the city. The man’s eyes were bloodshot and his beard thin but for all that, he had a stubborn look I knew only too well. I pulled back in the image, looking down over the city and triangulating the room’s location. I nodded and blinked the vision away.
Shovan gurgled something. I smiled, made a fist and squeezed it. Shovan’s eyes bugged out. “There. Now, your little mishap is just between us. Your talent? I just crushed what little you had right out of your blood.”
I exited the house and strode to one of my topiaries. With eyes closed and hands raised palm-up, I spoke a few words. The magical energy native to my being rippled through my frame. A low crackling filled the air. I exhaled, feeling a sudden fatigue. I’d need to sleep for twelve hours when this was all over.
The hedge eagle stretched. Roots slithered free of the ground as it stamped like an animal awakening from a long sleep. The eagle shook itself and the air was filled with the verdancy of falling leaves. It looked in my direction with an eyeless gaze.
“Go,” I said. My memory recalled what I had just seen in Shovan’s mind. “He is in the highest tower of the citadel. You should be able to pluck him right from the window.”
The hedgebeast crouched and leapt into the sky. Leafy wings beat at the air with sound of trees bending in the gale as it tore through the night sky. It would cover the hundreds of miles in just a few hours. I watched the eagle until it faded from sight.
I went inside. The aroma of roasting chicken filled the tiny space. Trio sat upright on his bench, watching me with eager eyes as I fussed around the fireplace. Moments later, the chicken was ready. I placed it on the oak chopping block, but before I could carve it, I took note of the still-prostrate Shovan. His eyes were glossy but he croaked, “Y-y-you….”
The effect of the poison in his veins was fading. In a genial voice, I said, “I’m sorry, Shovan. I don’t mean to be a bad host and eat in front of you.”
I snapped my fingers. Shovan vanished. Trio cocked his head and looked at me. “No, I didn’t let him go. I sent him down the back hill, to the refuse pile, where that two-headed bear scavenges every night.”
A strangled cry drifted in through the night air. I brought down my cleaver, separating the chicken, and tossed half to Trio.
After dinner, I returned to the porch. The last rays of light slipped away, giving the evening fully over to night. The moon shone down on my fields, bathing everything in a pale blue aura. I resisted the urge to look to the east, to see if the eagle was returning. I forced myself to sit, re-lit my pipe, and waited. Trio curled up at my feet and waited with me.
Hours passed and my confidence shriveled. Had I been too rash? Had Shovan somehow managed to raise an alarm? Had someone spotted the eagle, despite the cover of night—or in fact destroyed it? What if Sarto’s men had moved my son and the eagle could not reach him? How long before his sorcerers missed communicating with Shovan?
And what would I do with my son when if he returned? We had not spoken for years. Would his anger at the past still be strong? Would mine? I wondered whether it would be worse if the rescue succeeded or not.
I rose from my chair and paced back and forth for hours. When I could take it no longer, I reached out with my mind. I sensed the eagle’s return but could not tell if someone rode along. I slammed my pipe to the ground, snapping the stem.
At last, the heavy thrash of leafy wings reached my ears. I darted from the porch. The eagle spiraled out of the night sky; clinging to the branches of the eagle’s neck was the thin man I’d seen in Shovan’s mind. I breathed a sigh but of relief or nervous anticipation, I did not know.
The hedgebeast lit on the ground with a thud, tossing the man to the loam. The eagle glanced at me as I hurried forward. “Rest,” I said. It gave voice to a strange breezy moan, shuffled its talons in the dirt, and returned to its place beside the porch. A moment later, it was if the bush had never moved.
I placed my hands around the man’s arm and helped him to his feet. His eyes focused on me and narrowed. “I knew it.”
“I glad you decided to let the eagle carry you.”
“What else was I going to do? Stay there and rot?
“What else was I going to do? Stay there and rot?
“How did they find you?”
“I have no idea,” he grumbled. “One moment, I was in the taproom of the Black Horse Inn, making some progress on a busty redhead. The next, I was surrounded by soldiers and all but beat to death.”
“Spare me your sarcasm, old man. I was only there because of you.”
“Perhaps so, and for that I apologize.”
My son’s eyes fell on Trio, who did nothing save give an uncertain wag of the tail. “So, now what?”
“You’ll have to stay here for a few days, until I can settle this matter.”
He looked around. “Where is ‘here,’ anyway?”
“Gods, Father! I knew you were insane but you live among monsters?”
“You’ll be safer here than anywhere else.”
“Do you have anything to drink?”
I started to make a sharp retort but it died on my tongue. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “On the table is a bottle of wine, and part of a roast chicken. It should be enough for the night. You can also find a fresh tunic in the wardrobe by the fireplace.”
He nodded but his eyes refused to meet mine. I think part of him felt guilty for accepting my help and part resented me for actually needing it.
“Go on, Son. Try and relax. We’ll figure out where you can go from here. Perhaps Abasana. It is far to the south and I do not think Kervain has ever traveled there.”
“Are you that eager to be rid of me again?”
Something in his voice bit into my soul, worse than the worry ever had. As gently as I could, I said, “No, of course not. I just want you to be comfortable and safe.”
His gaze met mine and I could see he was grateful for the lie. I motioned. “Go on inside now.”
“Are you coming?”
He went. I watched him enter the house. I closed my eyes and concentrated, summoning a few more bottles for him, knowing he would be roaring drunk in twenty minutes and passed out in thirty. I waited until I heard his head hit the table.
Beside me, Trio whined. He wagged his tail when I looked down.
I smiled. “No, old friend, you helped me tonight, more than I deserve. The rest of this burden I have to carry on my own. Go inside and keep an eye on things.”
He did, reluctantly. I glanced at the horse topiary. One task remained for the night.
A few moments later, I was astride the horsehedge, plunging into the forest. The horse galloped strongly over the uneven ground. I didn’t know what game Kervain was playing with my son’s life but I pushed the thought from my head. That conversation with my erstwhile student was for another day.
In the meantime, that sneering bastard Sarto and his entourage were but a few leagues away. The behavior of the beasts in the forest told me right where the interlopers were camped. I could have encouraged the nearby monsters to attack them but it wasn’t their fight.
Besides, I’ve always derived deep satisfaction from the labor of an honest day’s work. And there are some things you want to do with your own two hands.