Let Night Be Your Ally

By Allan Stevens

" Let black night be your ally, clear daylight requires explanation, all things are seen with clarity, hide always in the shadows that which cannot be explained." Lord Tute, High scribe to the Guild

The cell was rectangular, about twelve feet long and eight feet wide. A rough platform of stone was opposite the Door. Over this was a slit that allowed the fading daylight entrance. Too narrow even for a child's head to poke through, it and the grille on the door it were barred with iron. They sat in silence, waiting for the Wizard to speak. The Poet thought it was obvious that he would have the answer. A barred door would be no obstacle to this man. He knew he had more of his story. He considered the words he would use to describe how this man of so many wonders, sat silently summoning the power that would shatter the door to pieces. The Wizard looked at him, there was reassurance in his eyes, and then they blazed in anger, as the twist of burning straw flew towards his head. The wizard shouted toward the door.

" Are you so brave that you hide behind a locked door? At least let me see your face."

A fat grin appeared at the grille, followed by a hollow chuckle of laughter. The shadowed lips said.

" I thought you all looked a little chilled, does the heat bother you?"

The words were followed by more laughter, and then another spark of burning straw was pushed through the grating. Once again the greasy voice was heard, saying.

" I'm sorry that there is so little to go between you, and you might have to huddle round, but you will all have more than you could ever wish for when the sun rises tomorrow, that is, if you ever see the sun through the smoke."

Another loud hoot of soulless laughter preceded more straw. The Wizard looked at our assailant, the anger was gone from his eyes now. It was replaced, strangely, thought the poet by pity. The wizard's voice was gentle now. The poet remembered the words used to release him from the enchantment that held him before. The wizard used the same tone in his voice as he said to the face in the grating.

"You have been in the Kings employment for too long. My Friend, I ask you to look into your heart, and see the error of your ways. Would you?"

The answer was the one that they all expected, burning straw, this time more than could be thrown, it lay in a heap by the door. Calmly the wizard picked the ladle from the water bucket and he doused the flames. The face disappeared from the door. The wizard returned to his seat saying.

"Now perhaps I will have a little peace in order to think."

After a few moments, there was the grinding sound of the doorbar withdrawing.

" The heaviest deluge always begins with but the lightest of sprinklings, Eh Poet"

Framed in the opening there stood the jailer accompanied by five other guards, their swords drawn in readiness. The voice of their tormentor was louder in its victory address.

"Your trick with the water, had me wondering, I would not have the King's entertainment tomorrow spoiled by antics on your part. Maybe it would be better if you did not take in too much to drink, in case you decide to release it. I am sure that you understand."

The poet knew it would be no hardship without a drink. Sunrise was just a night time away. The wizard still spoke softly as he replied and it was a threat. Veiled, and obvious only to those who knew his moods.

"He who would be warm would do better not to piss on his own firewood I think you are trying to say my friend."

Then he bowed low to the jailer, and as he rose once more said.

" I and my companions thank you for your hospitality, and concern my good man, only a good man would give us warmth on such a cold night as this, and you are a good man this I see now."

The captain of the guard pulled back his clenched fist, and as he did so, he was face to face with the Wizard. Their eyes met, and the emerald sparkle that shone from the wizard's seemed to lighten the darkness of the dungeon. For a moment neither moved, then the jailer's arm dropped slowly, and he turned to leave with a snarl. It was directed at the wizard.

" No friend it will not be bruises that mark your skin, I will attend to you personally tomorrow." As the door slammed closed, the Wizard's words were for all who would hear.

" A good man, ever diligent in his duty."

The words had the effect he desired signified by the curse from behind the door. Again they sat in silence, through the grille across the window the night crept in, as the day slid out along the floor. Torchlight through the hole in the door began to lengthen the shadows in the cell. It fell across the faces within and the dull orange light was the only illumination. A thin metallic voice was heard.

"I wish to see the duty roster for tonight, and I would see it now, you have it, yes?"

There were a few seconds pause and the voice spoke again.

"I see, I see, there is no need to intervene. A fool you are jailer but sometimes you seem inspired. Yet my congratulations would just fall on deaf ears. Remain a fool, you may be wise to be a fool in these dark days."

The travellers knew the voice of the jailer, and they heard it again, this time there was fear in it as the words were uttered. The wizard glanced quizzically at the poet as they listened. Neither of them could mistake the grovelling reply of their jailer as he said.

" Yes my Lord Chancellor, I will always take the advice of your Lordship and remain a fool." Another face appeared in the door, it was the face of the cowled figure who had been present at their trial. There was no familiarity or friendly greeting. Only a malevolent gleam in the eyes that peered at them.

" My apologies to you all."

The voice had addressed the jailer. Now there was a face to the voice and an explanation to the presence behind the throne. The Lord Chancellor continued and to the poet it seemed that the words had been practised. The performance was flawless in its delivery.

" I will be unable to watch your final performance, my friends. I will be otherwise engaged away from Talassen. The usual punishment for your crime would be a lifetime of relative silence. I say relative, it is hard to talk when your tongue has been burned to the root by hot iron, however it is still possible to grunt with the rest of the swine who build the trade roads, and bellow under the whip."

For some reason, it did not seem fitting to deprive the population of your voice so quickly storyteller. Your words seemed to carry so well, as I heard them from my balcony. I thought one last chance to let your words flow, as long as the flames allow that is. Sleep well my friends, sunrise brings a new dawn, red and glowing."

The face was gone, it was no answer that came from the Wizard, there was a question in his words, but the answer was a long way from them all.

" Poet, I did name you well, you must be, you have friends at the court already."

Once more, they lapsed into silent lassitude. That they would burn, there was no doubt in the Poet's mind. As to what was passing through the mind of the others? He neither cared nor wondered. Slowly the night drew on, he saw the others sleeping, and gradually he joined them. He was awakened by the Wizard's hand across his mouth, in a gentle restraint. The wizard spoke in a whisper.

" The citadel and city sleep, as much as they ever will, would you rather roast or shall we take our leave of Talassen Poet?"

The poet's eyes focussed the wizard's smile before his mind absorbed the jest of his words. As realisation came it brought with it anger. The poet's reply would have been a shout, had it not been for the wizard's hand.

" Is this a time for jokes Wizard, if it is in your power to escape then use it." The wizard still smiled as he said.

" Poet, there is always time for jesting, you have spent too long on the farm." The hiss of the poet's reply would have brought pride to the lidless eyes of any mother viper, as she herded her brood. "Wizard I would!"

" Hush friend, silence will be our only hope. This box will open, but our escape may be a little way off. I would rather a clean death at the point of a sword than feel my toes warmed. If you agree then open your ears alone, your mouth keep as the dungeon door. Remember our meeting, you felt the touch of the walking sleep, it is an art I have learned, I will use it on the guard outside and his companion, the door will open, and they will let us pass. That leaves us the rest of the citadel to wander. If challenged there will be no time for weaving a spell of obedience, and there are many mercenaries in the guards. My powers are limited and one of its limitations is that of a native tongue. Do you understand this?"

The Poet nodded, he had heard the voice of the wizard as it commanded him when he had been freed from the slavers. The poet felt the reassuring touch of the wizard's hand on his shoulder as he arose, saying with a smile.

" Freedom is some way off yet my friend, the first step is outside that door, be ready."

The Wizard rose and went over to the door, he stretched his arms straight from his body, though his fingers were intertwined. He turned his hands and flexed his linked fingers, as he did so he stretched to his full height. He remained still for a moment, then released his hands, raising them to the level his chin. His fingertips rested on his chin, while he exhaled forcibly. The wizard paused, inhaled deeply and slowly rubbed the palms of his hands together. The Poet watched him with the interest of a truly diligent pupil. He would tell this tale one-day maybe, and detail would always be required to answer the curious. The wizard now stood a few feet from the door, hand on chin, the poet already knew that the gesture signified nothing more than a thoughtful moment. Evidently the ritual was over, and he felt safe with his enquiry, and said.

" Tell me Wizard, is that how you summon forth your power?"

The wizard turned round slowly, and nodded his head, saying

" What by doing this?"

The wizard very deliberately repeated his actions, the breath was more forced. There was a greater strength added to his movements. When the hand once more rested on his chin a quiet chuckle of glee escaped his mouth, and there was the sparkle in those eyes again. The poet felt humiliated, he knew the moods of those green eyes. It had been a simple enough request, he thought. He was here at the wizard's invitation, it was the wizard who had promised him his story. These fuelled his next question as he said.

" Why mock me Wizard, I would learn some of your ways, that is all." Had they been elsewhere the wizard's laughter would have resounded for miles. Here he was forced to a girlish whispered giggle. The wizard struggled to say.

" Then my friend."

Again the ritual was quickly performed.

" Learn how to banish cold and cramp, if you would understand, then first listen." The Wizard turned back to the door, and began to speak, his voice no longer muffled as a whisper. The guards were sat at a table, a platter of bread and greens the remains of some meal, and an empty tankard, were upon it.

" Guards, I would have thee both draw closer, I have words that I would have thee hear from my lips, I would command thee to my will."

One of the jailers stood, he was over 6 feet tall, heavy, and a bushy drooping moustache hid parts of a gentle face. His stammer echoed, along with his footsteps, as he came to the cell door.

" Wh, Wh, Wh."

The guard stamped his foot, hard, and the sound of his iron-shod boots rang on the flagstones.

" Wh, What is it my Fr, Fr, friend, the captain s, s, s, s, said no w, w." Again they heard the click of the guards heel on the floor, the words however, were as broken as ever.

" No water, f, f, for you, do you thirst?"

The Wizard's hand now gently stroked his chin, almost as though it was a thought for his mind alone and no ears should have picked up the sound he said.

" Tricky, very tricky, but not impossible"

The Wizard looked round the cell, and took up the ladle that lay on the floor where it had fallen, he silenced the Poet with a glance that would have made a tiger turn and run when he said.

" A fine cudgel that will be my friend, or do you intend to drown him in his own sp, sp, sp, spit?" The Poet sat down, he knew he was no tiger and although the Wizard heard the muttered words.

" I thought there was always time for jesting." He chose to ignore them, he had other things on his mind.

" Guard, do you hear me?"

" Y, Y, Y,"

Clank! Went the booted foot.

" Yes"

Replied the guard. As best as he could. The wizard paused, waiting until he was sure he had the fullest attention of the guard then said.

" I w, w, w,"

Simultaneously the Wizard struck the wall with the ladle, in imitation of the guard's aid against his stammering. Three things happened, all of which caused the Poet's laughter to erupt in his mouth, although which one lead to his aching ribs he could never have decided. It was either the Wizard completing his words

" I W, Would command, th, th, th, this is hopeless, pass the torch my friend I think we'll burn in here."

Or it was the dull thud of the copper ladle against the stone, it may even have been the way that it bent in two with the blow. The guard ignored the poet as he struggled to stop his mirth, and spoke honestly to the wizard.

" If y, y, y, need more l, l, l, light then I w, w, w, will fetch you a l, l, lantern, a torch with all that straw, could be d, d, d, dangerous."

The guard withdrew, the Wizard once again stood hand on chin. The other guard still remained sitting at the table, and the Wizard once more spoke, clearly, his voice strong, almost a light shining in that dark place. His words were the words of power.

" Guard, hear me, my lips have words that I would have thee hearken to."

The guard remained sitting, and moved his arm to the table to cradle his head. Again the Wizard used the words of the spell caster, his voice was a crescendo round the cell.

" Listen to my words, and obey my will, slave thy bidding is my will." The first guard returned carrying a small oil lamp, made smaller by his large hands. He carried the light gently, almost as if it were precious to him. He opened the grille to hand it to the Wizard saying.

" It's n, n, n. no use trying to talk to him, m, m, m, my friend, he's d, d, d, d," For the first time, the Wizard interjected the guard before there was the stamp on the floor and said.

" Let me guess, he's deaf."

" As a post," replied the guard, and the door grating clanged shut. The Wizard, hand pensively on chin, spoke without turning to face his companions.

" Poet there are better gags than a mouthful of straw, my hands around your throat for example. This is no time for laughter, remember the words of the Chancellor, he knew my power. He beheld me with the sight that sees beyond, and he has his own power, as well as cunning. I begin to understand more of our meeting now, and why Talassen beckoned me. We must away from here."

The poet sat on the floor, his laughter, or his rolling had caused his nose to bleed again. He feigned his indignation as he said to the wizard.

" Wizard you say an end to laughter, then encourage it by stating what is obvious to us all, maybe you should use your power upon yourself and give us peace from your ramblings." Hearing the words the wizard slapped his own forehead, and his words were those of the victorious.

" Poet you give good counsel, fools see what the wise never do. Woodenheads will always see trees through the branches. Stand up Poet, you three will become the key that opens the door, remove the straw though, I would not have you become a donkey." Once more there was laughter, while outside the guards sat and one alone wondered at the bravery that could find mirth at such a time.

The wizard took the poets right arm in a gentle grip, saying.

" Poet I will use the walking sleep, and you will be given the strength of ten, this time you will not be unaware. You will know as you fall into your dream. The other two will always work to my will, and I have no doubts of their strength. Appearances sometimes lie, and truth has it's own time to make itself plain. Take a look through the door grating and you will know what lies beyond". The Poet did as he was bidden, and quickly took in the scene outside the cell, the corridor that ran beside the dungeons, the widening of the guardroom, the tables and benches. He returned to the wizard's side. The wizard took his arm and positioned the poet. The wizard stood on the poet's left, slightly behind the three of them. His words were for the poet alone.

" Now Poet look at the door, you see it as wood and iron. You know now what is beyond it. Listen to my words, you will know yourself when you are ready, do what it is within you to accomplish. See through the door, focus your eyes on the grille and its openings, let those openings grow, as they grow the door will cease to be door. It will be as air to you, all you will feel is a breeze as you pass through it."

The poet heard the wizard's words, as the wizard began to repeat them, this time with a softer tone. He felt himself being drawn away from that place, he knew that he was still there. The poet concentrated his eyes onto the dark wood, gradually the door began to shimmer in the darkness. He saw the stone blocks of the wall opposite becoming more distinct, at first they retained the grain of the wooden door, as though they had been painted. Eventually it faded, stone became stone. The poet felt that if he reached out his hand he would be able to take the tankard from the jailer's table the door was gone. All that was needed was the step that would take him through the empty gap it left behind. He knew that he was running, yet to him he felt as though he was walking through the thickest mud of the water soaked, ploughed fields of the farm, and the voice of the Wizard grew louder in his ears.

" Speak your battle cry, my friends, say it loud, let it be a sound of joy at your freedom."

He saw his comrades from the corners of his eyes, the poets eyes were fixed ahead. They were three abreast and reached the opening in synchronicity, a quarter step and they would be through. A small stride, and into it went all the Poets strength, and more than just his mettle, that step would have carried the blackest sinner into the fairest heaven, but it would not carry him through the door. The poet awoke, although he had not slept, to hear the wizard's words again, this time there was no spelling to them, just admiration and honesty, as he said.

" Now that's what a door should be, that my friends is a real door." He turned and helped the poet over to the stone bench, where the others already sat, gently rubbing their shoulders.

" Poet, you did not fail, I think there may be more to the door than the wood would confess to, I still have the smell of the Chancellor in my nostrils. As I said to you, you would only feel the breeze as you passed through the doorway, hopefully that will be enough to lessen the bruising."

Once more there was silence in the cell, although this time it was brooding and oppressive, the Poet's only thought that at least it would soon be over, day was drawing ever nearer. The wizard spoke once more, and for the first time, the Poet heard sadness in the pronunciation.

"My friends there is but one way out of this predicament, there is no option, and I will take it. I will have to bargain, and if I feel that the price is too high, then we will burn. I do not yet know what the price will be, I ask each of you, your life is your own, and it is yours alone to give. Would you give your life so that one of the others would live? I need an answer, for me, I am ready to die, but not on Darin's pyre."

Those green eyes held each one of them in turn, no words were spoken, yet the Wizard knew that each gave their answer. The answer was the same in every case, if death was to take one or more, so that one or more could cheat Darin. When he called for the fires to be lit at their burning, then that price would be met in full.

As the poet fell under the wizard's gaze he said.

"Poet, as a companion, whether you were chosen for me, or if I had chosen for myself, I do not think that I could have chosen better. The other two I know, and Poet I would wish the same of you. I would be honoured if you decided that, should we escape, you would ride with me. I will promise you a story that will earn you your cloak of red trimmed blue and you will have no need to bloody the Lord Digul's nose again. You will have a tale that will give you a pocket full of gold, maybe even enough to dare and dream of your own kingdom. That, My Friend is the future, for now I must attend to the problem that faces us in the present."

Using his foot, the wizard cleared a space of straw and sat cross-legged on the floor. His hands rested loosely upon his folded knees. He began to whisper, the words were unknown to the poet, and the accent was alien. The wizard never moved, even his lips seemed still, yet the murmuring grew louder. The Poet sat on the bench under the window. In his heart, from what he had seen during this night the poet felt reassured that, perhaps, he was better having some things unknown to him. If this was his story, how would he ever tell it? Its delivery would be the confession of darkest witchcraft. He would exchange Darin's fire for another. For what seemed an age the wizard continued in his deliberations, and his comrades stood or sat in silence. Suddenly, the Wizards head fell backwards, and beads of sweat covered his forehead. Wild eyed, he sat staring at the dungeon roof, and then he arose, and spoke.

" It will be soon, the wings that carry him are swift, and he is close, closer than I realised. When the door opens, do not look back, it is a good bargain I have made, for us my friends, I ask you only to pity the poor wretch that will pay the price of our freedom."

The other three looked one to the other, silently agreeing that ignorance of the future was a blessing no matter how poorly shrouded. Ten miles along the Eastern road out of Talassen, the way winds through a small valley, a wooded hill rises to an outcrop of limestone, there is a small track, that skirts the wood. At the end of severed trunks bearing silent witness to the axeman's work. Thick undergrowth hides a cave entrance. A cleft in the rock, high enough for a man to enter, then rapidly narrowing, seemingly to a wall of impassable stone. As the Lord Chancellor of Talassen dismounted, his horse was taken by skilled, willing hands and lead into the shielding copse. A man, wearing the same black cowl as the Chancellor, silently handed him a bundle, then took the riding cloak, and folded it before placing it in a hollow tree. The bundle unfurled was a cloak of purple velvet, and shimmered in the light of the rising moon. With a flourish the cloak fell neatly around the Chancellor's shoulders. As he fastened the clasp he asked the one who had passed it to him.

" All is ready Cire? Everyone is assembled?"

" Yes my lord we await only your arrival, and the summoning will begin." The Chancellor nodded his satisfaction and continued.

" The sacrifice to our master, the true Emperor?" A lascivious smile preceded the answer.

" She is prepared my Lord, she has been shown the delights that await her refusal, her compliance will satisfy your hunger."

The Chancellor fingered the cowl, ensuring the lines of the cloak followed it. As Cire aided him in arranging it the Chancellor spoke again.

" And when I am content her blood will satisfy another deeper lust, and soon the order will change." Cire gave the newly attired Chancellor a deferent bow, and asked.

" My Lord Chancellor, how long before you are king of Talassen?" The Chancellor waved his hand and Cire was upright once more. He tolerated such questions, but only from one scource and to him the Chancellor gave his answer.

" A dawn will come in a year's time , and black will be that sunrise, patience Cire, your Chancellorship will be the better for your patience."

Over Talassen the quiet of the night lay heavy, the merchants dreaming their golden dreams. The Poet began to pace the floor of the dungeon, back and forth with feigned heavy footsteps.

" Poet, would you wear a hole in this stone floor? We have no need of a tunnel, the door will open, sit and save your strength for fleeing."

The poet glanced at the Wizard, but ignored the words. Was this ploy to raise the spirits of those behind the door? There would be no escape, it would take an army to storm the citadel of Darin, and what was the bargain that had been made? He thought of the hall of scribes, under the dome of the library of Galasar. His story may as well have been written on their parchments, it would go to the fire easier then. He grasped the bars of the windows, and pulled as he stepped up onto the bench, he looked at the iron that barred the opening, his arm passed through, to his shoulder but no further. He felt the chill of the night on his fingers, and grim thoughts of freedom, a free hand, to do what? Passed through his mind. The cold of the dark seemed to spread up his arm and across his back, and he shivered as the image of how they would all soon be warmed passed across his open eyes. He knew that he would feel pain, unendurable and he would scream until death took him, that bravery would disappear in the fire along with his flesh. He thought of the rain and that the woodstore was roofed, dry tinder would mean a quicker passing. He thought of the gathering in the market, and the wit of the traders, as he yelled in the flames.

" Now let us hear you storyteller, we shall see how full of air your stories are, does the smoke choke you friend, or your own lies?"

He knew the hecklers would be out in force, but for how long would he be able to reply in kind. Memories of home were dismissed, he had no regrets at his choices, and in a silent prayer to his country gods of the fields and streams, he said farewell to the farm. These were his thoughts, black, black as the smoke that would soon be filling his lungs. Black as this dungeon, he glanced over at the Wizard, sitting calmly, eyes fixed on the door, hand softly rubbing his chin. He resigned himself to one last look at the moon that he knew he could have. Sunrise would be open to doubt. He raised his head, and a cloud slowly moved across that silver face, as it passed the gentle moonlight lit and shadowed the contours of it. The Poet watched with wonder, if ever a cloud should obscure the moon, that was the one, spindle shaped, with a long tail. Perfectly sized that it flowed across the centre of the harvester's friend. He resolved to watch its passing to the end, his story, passing to its end. He would always have his dream.

As he watched, it seemed as though a piece broke away, the air was still, but he knew that the wind would always blow at the height of the clouds. The remnant seemed to grow, rain would follow, but not soon enough to delay the business in the market place. The blackness returned; always the market place. He remembered the excitement of the weekly trek with his parents, the ennui as he watched their crops as they went elsewhere. The joy as he received a coin that would be given to the teller of tales. The blackness of realisation of the morning and what it heralded, the grief as he thought,

" As it ends; so it begins."

That would have silenced the noisiest of children, now he would never have the opportunity to use it.

He withdrew his arm, clenched his fist to restore the blood to his hand, it was cold, and the cell seemed as cold as the night. One last look at the moon, a smile from the face of the giver of dreams, and then maybe sleep, his companions were silent. Pale moonlight, shadowkeeper, bearer of the silver snow of summer. Then he saw it.

That was no cloud, there were feathered wings attached, apish long, muscled arms, and the legs hunched up as it flew straight at him. A bull thick neck supported a head that bore the face of the sweetest evil. The Poet fell back from the window, and stepped from the bench, his arm stretched out straight and rigid, his finger pointing at the window opening. Speech was beyond him, there were no words that he could use. The Wizard looked at him as he stood like a deranged scarecrow, and with a grim smile announced to anyone who listened.

" I see our locksmith has arrived at last."

The Poet did not hear the words, for the moment he was lost in fear, he tasted the horror of that face on his lips, as if he had been kissed by the Queen of the darkest hell. He saw the window darken, and knew that those jaws would soon clamp around his throat. Those dripping fangs would feast upon him.

It passed. He felt the warmth from the Wizards hand on his brow, there was healing in his words as he soothed the poet saying.

" Some things should never be seen Poet, remember this, he has not come for thee. Let it go from thee, your fear is his greatest weapon, remember my words and forget." The Poet sat between the two others, the Wizard was stood, arms outstretched, between them and the door. His voice echoed, although he did not shout, it was as if the walls had melted, and the whole citadel had become their cell.

" I have spoken thy name, and the bargain is set, sealed with the words of becoming, these are not for you. Would you have me speak thy name as a sword fresh from the fire to be plunged for tempering in the blood of your heart? We have the knowing of the ways of the jewel, these are not for you. From your pit I raised thee."

The oil in the lamp was nearly gone, in one last flare it burst light onto the Wizard as he stood barring the path of whatever was bringing the darkness into the dungeon. A dark foreboding gloom, with a cold blast that sucked the warmth from the body, as a lingering death would slowly suck life.

" And in thy pit I could seal thee, or should I tell the sun where you cower, where then would you hide thy face."

The lamp faded and the only light was from the torches in the corridor, slowly there grew in the cell the sound of wood grinding against wood, it started as the noise of the wind through the trees. Swiftly growing, the wind became a hurricane. The door creaked and groaned in protest. A thin ribbon of light could be plainly seen around its edges' now. Still the sound of the creaking rose, the Poet thought he would be deafened, and a shrill cry was forming in his throat. It was stifled by the touch of the Wizards hand on his arm as the wizard said.

" Peace, my friend it is your fear that talks, soon it will pass."

His cry had been silenced yet the Wizard ignored the whimpering of the others. The Poet looked at the door, and then he knew why he had the cold hands around his heart. The door was bulging, as though mighty shoulders were hard pressed against it. Not the charge of a bull that succeeds through momentum, it was a slow steady application of a strength beyond his reason. There was no need to fear the deforming door, that was wood and iron, whatever was pushing, was pushing outwards, whatever was pushing was inside the dungeon with them. Thunder as lightning struck at the Poets feet would have been quieter than the door finally splintering, but after that crash that was all that was left, splinters. The Wizard was already outside, and the stammering guard stood and gaped. Quickly the wizard said to him.

" The King must be told of this, let no one enter before the King. Hear my words, I would command thee."

Whether it was the shock of the door parting, or if the Wizard had the help of his locksmith in casting his spell, the Poet never knew, but that jailer would never stammer his words again. The empty tankard broke on the head of the other, and he passed into a deeper silence. The Poet was the last to leave their holding place, he felt the cold breath of his nightmare across the back of his neck, and he paused and began to turn. He looked back into the cell, it beckoned him to re enter. Once more the Wizards intrusion halted him.

" Poet remember, then paint your picture at your leisure, now we go."

The corridor from the Guard room went out through a wooden door on to a small courtyard the main wall of the citadel was opposite, in the wall there was a small gate of wrought iron. The gate opened onto a tunnel through the main wall which was 12 feet thick, the tunnel ended in the market square, from there it was a simple run to the Inn where their horses were stabled. This far they had met no opposition, as they ran into the market a figure appeared to block their way. The rush of the poet grounded him. Although it was the wizard who joined him in the dirt as he tripped over the fallen body. The confusion in the eyes of this man, soon changed to fear as he recognised the companions, recognition, however, gave rise to confusion in the poet, as he saw lying there, their fire loving jailer.

There was an order of things in the white city that guarded the trade routes, from an age old agreement there was little to fear within it's walls, the law of Talassen, was known throughout the lands which surrounded it. The guard was unarmed save for a small dagger, more of an insignia than a weapon. As he drew it from it's sheath, the cold brightness of the finely honed edge shone in the moonlight. The wizard broke the silence of words. As he spoke the pants and gasps of their flight from the dungeon stopped, he spoke with the words of power, and the spell he cast was one the Poet knew well, and the jailers eyes glazed as his had, when he joined the sleepers who walked.

" My Friend jailer, I have words for thee, thou will hear them and obey, your will is my will, thou art my slave, and I am as a master to thee, arise slave and hand back to me, my dagger. I am grateful that it is found again, you have served me well."

The Poets relief as the jailer did as he was bidden was audible, then he readied to turn and begin his run back to the inn, he didn't know the way in daylight, now in the dark he waited impatiently for the Wizard to lead. The wizard however seemed preoccupied with their unwanted baggage. Standing, hand again gently stroking his chin,

" Slave I would command thee, remove thy tunic".

The Poet wondered at this madness of delay, but the green flash of the Wizards eyes quietened him, he looked for support in the other two travellers, but all he saw in their eyes was the silence of the lead, those who obediently follow, and something else. The impossibility of which stunned him to keep his silence, he had seen that look on the farm, it was the look of hunger.

The jailer stood bare chested, a blank imbecilic stare had replaced the fat grin which they had seen through the door as the straw was pushed through. With a single finger the Wizard drew a line across his belly, and spoke to the guard, the Poet had heard the voice before, it was the tone the Wizard had used with the slavers on the road.

" Slave remember this, follow the line, with this amount of pressure, no more, no less, no shorter no longer. There will be no blood to flow, thy veins are empty, there will be no pain to feel, thy nerves are chilled, but you will remember slave, remember my words, and do as I will. Kneel slave, but not with a finger will you draw your line, Slave use this, it is mine, you may borrow it."

With that, the Wizard handed him back the dagger. The silence was enough, there is a sound to the slicing of living flesh, few know it, a murderer would never admit to hearing it, and it is lost in the din of battle. The Poet knew it, he had seen the killers at work on the farm, as they butchered to feed the villagers, he knew that sound. The jailer's intestines spilled onto the ground, and he looked upward to his master with expressionless eyes. The Wizard turned to the Poet, his words were those of information, and cared not for a reply.

" Judge me later Poet, as you do, remember this, we were in his keeping for a few hours, consider those who had the pleasure of his company for longer, consider the women that have passed through his caring hands. Need I continue?"

The Wizard looked down at the guard, and gently took the dagger away from his hand that reached out to offer it, the guard held it safely, hilt toward the Wizard as he took it the Wizard said.

" Slave, make a fist."

The dagger was withdrawn through the flesh of the hand.

" Now Slave, there was no pain, there was no bleeding,"

The poet saw the truth of this but the knowledge of how was lost on him, he saw the wisdom that would kill without inflicting pain on another. He had no doubts of the cruelty of the guard, and his sense of humour had probably driven more than one captive mad, and caused more to welcome the kiss of death as it released them from their misery. He knew the secret of painless killing, a sharp knife and a swift drawing across the neck of an unsuspecting animal. That was the way with the cattle on the farm, tenderly drawn to the block by the butcher, if this was the way with a man, he knew no different. He wondered how it would end, would there be a simple word from the Wizard. What would it be? Then he had his answer.

The Wizard spoke the word of death, and judgement. " Slave I command thee, thy will is my will, remember the bite of the blade, unchill thy nerves, let the blood flow, put your guts back into your belly if you can, as you remember, then awake."

The cry from the guard was pitiable to the poet, they left him screaming as his intestines broke open in his frantic fingers. The Poet was enraged by what had happened, and was ready to ignore the counsel of the Wizard, he stopped him with a hand on his shoulder, and the Wizard spun on his booted heel and glared into the face of the Poet. Yet, his glare turned to a smile as the Poet heard that cry from inside the palace. It was the cry of madness, pain, mixed with the laughter of insanity.

" Wizard, what in hell was that?"

The Question was asked for reassurance, he received none from the words, yet the Poet trusted that smile.

" Not in hell Poet, from hell, that was the price of our freedom, and has been paid:" Another that was louder, longer, and faded slowly to silence interrupted him.

" I think in full measure now,"

The Wizard stopped and cupped his hand to his ear facing back along their route,

" Yes Poet I think that is all the excitement for tonight, shall we go?"

The Lord Chancellor of Talassen stood on a dais in the centre of a cavern at it's widest point, the myriad torches that burned could not illuminate the whole of that place, and there was a centre of glowing red, surrounded by the blackness. As he surveyed the scene before him, he allowed himself a pause to remind himself of the four who sat waiting behind the closed door in Darin's dungeon. The door he himself had locked with the sealing words. Red fire and black smoke filled his thoughts, he had sensed the power of the travellers at their first meeting, and he had seen the veil shimmer as they were brought before Darin. He discounted the idea that there was any purpose or omen to their arrival on this day of all days. It was of no consequence they would soon be ashes, and his mind returned to the cave.

On an altar of obsidian lay the girl who had been given to him by her father. A true sacrifice to the true Emperor, she had been raised and educated for this night, and he had tasted the pleasures of her sixteen years, a year for each seal on the gates of hell. Her hair had been counted as her head was shaved, a demon for each, and enough to ensure that none would be offended by omission. There was a hole by the altar, surrounded by a rail of gold about a foot high, and behind this was a great golden bell, supported by a stand of iron. The bell pull was of silk, dyed red. Before the platform, were stood a hundred, dressed in the same fashion as the cowled Chancellor, except for the silken cloak which he alone wore as the high priest of Tirin. At their head was the one known as Cire, the one who had met the Chancellor. Their eyes were fixed forward, some on the pit, some on the girl, some on her nakedness, some on the hand of the Chancellor as it reached toward the silken cord hanging from the bell.

The bell tolled, the sweet sound anomalous in that place, the peal echoed through the cave, the single note filling the hot smoke laden air. The anticipation of the acolytes as they awaited their master was palpable. The Chancellor's lips narrowed in a thin smile, he revelled in his power, and at the fear in the eyes of the girl draped across the altar. She struggled to free herself from her chains, as they tensed so did his mouth. The peal of the bell was ended, and there she still lay, whole and unmarked. She had prepared herself for this night well, and throughout as ritual had demanded she had remained silent. Now she broke it.

" Lord,"

She whispered to the Chancellor

" Am I not worthy?"

The Chancellor held his arms high, ignoring the girl, and addressed the gathering, he feigned the anger in his words, and succeeded in hiding his confusion.

" Ask of your selves why you are abandoned? You have failed, I hear his words to his children. I feel his sorrow at those who have disobeyed as the young will always disobey their father. Learn from your mistakes and be diligent. Disappointment has lead to a grief that cannot be calmed. Fear for your selves and your true blood if his grief should change to anger."

One note from that bell, on one night of the year, the ritual of the sons and daughters of Tirin, the sacrifice had been in vain, and there could only be one cause. This the Chancellor well knew. There had been another summons this night.

The pounding of the horses hooves beating on the road as he raced from the dawn and toward Talassen, drummed the thought deeper into his brain.

Copyright (c) Allan Stevens April 18th 1998 and presented with Permission of the Author.

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