The House of the Magus
by Derek Paterson
Appeared in Witches Vs. Wizards: A Fantasy Anthology
from Zombie Pirate Publishing, released Nov 2018.
"Here he comes now," Rolf said, elbowing Sven in the ribs. Sven looked up from his cup and examined the tall figure who filled the tavern's doorway-and didn't much like what he saw. The new arrival looked like a bandit who'd fallen on hard times. Or hard times had fallen on him, more like. His jerkin and breeches didn't seem to fit, leading Sven to suspect he might have taken them from men who no longer needed them. He wore a leather patch over his left eye and his right eye was so bloodshot Sven wondered he could see at all.
Apparently he could, because he pushed his way across the crowded room, provoking an angry chorus of protests, and sat down on the other side of their table, facing them. He nodded to Rolf, who'd arranged this meeting, then scowled at Sven. "Who's this?"
"This is my cousin, Sven. He'll be coming with us on our, ah, venture."
"You must be Fenris Skullsmiter," Sven said, offering his hand in brotherhood.
The big man ignored the hand and sneered at him, showing broken teeth. "You don't know me well enough to use my clan name, boy, so you'll call me Skullsmiter, else you'll feel the weight of my fist."
Rolf smiled a brittle smile. "Sven was just trying to make you feel welcome, Skullsmiter. Never fear, you're among friends." He glanced around the tavern as if afraid they might be overheard. But no one was paying them any attention, with the exception of a squat fellow who glared angrily as he rubbed at a wet patch on his shirt. Skullsmiter must have nudged him in passing, causing him to spill his drink. Most of the regulars were crowded around the games table, cheering or protesting, depending on however they'd wagered. A flash of light and a plume of green smoke from the table produced equal measures of joy and groaning.
"Never fear?" Muscles twitched under the bloodshot eye. "Skullsmiter fears nothing. I fought in the Iron Wars. I've slain orcs and trolls and gargoyles, and ogres, too. I stood alongside Thor Grimhand and Axel Wolfsblood when King Hammerstein led his dwarfen army out of the Iron Mountains, and together we halted their advance at Blood Pass." The memory of his valiant exploits apparently became too much for Skullsmiter; he snatched up Sven's cup and emptied it with one mighty swallow, then slammed the cup down upon the table.
Sven didn't comment. The very idea of calling out this uncouth warrior for quaffing his drink remained but a distant notion at the back of his mind.
The squat fellow made his move. Twin knives appeared in his hands-deadly curved blades that glinted in the yellow light of the oil lamps that hung from the tavern's blackened ceiling beams. Sven took a breath, intending to shout a warning, but there was no need. Skullsmiter punched the man in the face so hard he somersaulted backward before landing face-down on the floor.
A hushed silence surrounded them. Then the tavern keeper bellowed, "Throw that idiot outside!" Eager hands grabbed the squat fellow and dragged him toward the door. Sven noticed those same hands cutting his purse-string and picking his pockets clean. The curved knives vanished beneath cloaks. As the door swung shut, Sven was sure he saw someone tugging at the man's boots.
Skullsmiter chuckled darkly. "Saw him coming half a league away."
Rolf said, "That was well done, Skullsmiter. We can see your reputation is well-earned."
"Is he dead?" Sven asked.
Skullsmiter stared at him. "What if he is?"
"The Town Wardens don't mind the occasional brawl, but they draw the line at murder."
"Is that right? Then why don't you go and fetch them?" Skullsmiter snarled. "You can watch me kill them all with my bare hands."
Rolf made calming gestures, as much for Sven as for Skullsmiter. "You worry too much, cousin. We'll be long gone before they even hear of this."
This seemed to placate the dangerous, unpredictable mercenary, who sat back and nodded thoughtfully. "Then let's be about our business. I want to be a rich man tonight."
Rolf licked his lips, then said, "We're waiting for the fourth member of our party to arrive."
Skullsmiter grabbed Rolf's shirt and pulled him across the table until their noses touched. Sven held his breath and hoped Rolf was doing the same, for his health's sake.
"You didn't say anything about a fourth member!"
"Plans can change, Skullsmiter," Rolf said, his voice very small. "We, we realized we needed a locksmith. Neither of us have the skill, and we didn't think-"
"That's right, you didn't think," Skullsmiter growled. "How do you know I can't pick locks, eh? Sounds like you're just trying to reduce my share."
"I assure you, that's not our intention," Sven said. Skullsmiter continued to hold Rolf in place while his bloodshot eye regarded Sven balefully. "The fact is," Sven continued calmly, "Magus Xandor hired the best elven artisans coin could buy and had them brought to his house. I doubt whether any human hand could open those locks." Sven paused for effect, then said, "Ever hear of a thief called the Shadow?"
Skullsmiter's eye widened, suggesting he knew the name. "That's who we're waiting for?"
Sven nodded. "I let it be known we wanted the best. The Shadow responded, saying he'd meet us here tonight."
Skullsmiter released Rolf, who sat back down and smoothed his rumpled shirt as best he could. "Well now, that's different. The Shadow could be useful. It's said he never fails."
"We heard the same thing," Sven said.
The door opened again and as beautiful an elven maid as he'd ever seen stepped into the White Swan tavern. She pulled back her hood, causing long silver hair to waterfall past her shoulders. Her gold-flecked eyes seemed to fix upon Sven from across the room. He suddenly found it very difficult to breathe.
"There's something you don't see every day," Skullsmiter muttered. "Wandering around on her own, too. Asking for trouble, that."
Sven wondered whether he should warn the mercenary about the diplomatic agreement between their King and the Lord of the Forest Folk. That agreement gave elves protection against harm whenever they visited human towns. The Town Wardens were known to enforce any violations with great enthusiasm. Only last month, some drunken fool who'd taunted an elf aristocrat had been thrown into a dungeon cell to contemplate his folly. He was still rotting there, as far as Sven knew.
To his surprise, the elven girl made her way across the room to their table. The tavern keeper, who'd not even looked twice at the interplay between Skullsmiter and Rolf, followed her progress with hungry eyes, as did every other customer. Sven couldn't blame them. Her robe, made from some magical cloth woven with gold and silver thread, and pulled tight at the waist by a silver leaf chain, emphasized her curves only too well.
Skullsmiter smiled and said, "Sit on my knee, pretty one, and I'll buy you a drink."
She ignored him and addressed Sven instead: "You are he who is called Wheatfarmer?"
Sven blushed furiously. His family's name didn't suit his current profession, that of rogue and pickpocket. And thief, especially when a house full of treasure was ripe for the plucking.
"I am Sven Wheatfarmer," he reluctantly admitted.
She sat down beside Skullsmiter, who immediately sidled closer to her. Sven stared at this vision of loveliness, bewildered by her beauty and confused as to why she might ever wish to speak to him, let alone how she could know his name.
"Is there something I can-?"
"I studied Magus Xandor's house on the way here," she said, her violet eyes looking into his soul. "If you can take care of the guards, I can get us to the treasure."
Rolf sucked in a deep breath. Even Skullsmiter gaped at her, stunned by what she'd said.
"You're the Shadow?" Sven asked, feeling stupid.
"One and the same," she said, a ghost of a smile turning up the corners of her ruby red lips.
"I don't believe it," Skullsmiter said, leaning close. "You're just a girl. An Elf girl, at that. Whoever heard of an elf thief?"
"No one, and that's the way I'd like it to stay," she replied. "My name is...." She paused, as if considering what to reveal of herself, which Sven thought entirely sensible. "You may call me Dari."
"Thank you, Dari," Rolf said. "The gentleman sitting beside you is none other than Skullsmiter, whose fame precedes him." Skullsmiter frowned; Sven wondered if he understood what Rolf had just said. "This is my cousin Sven, who now prefers to reap danger rather than wheat. And I myself am Rolf."
"Prove it," Skullsmiter said.
"Prove what?" Rolf asked, puzzled.
"Not you, her. Prove you're a thief, girl. Show me by deed not by word, that you're the Shadow, as you claim."
She turned her head and stared at Skullsmiter. "Tell me, Fenris Skullsmiter," she said, "what is the most precious thing you own?"
"That's none of your business."
"Come now, you asked for proof. I would guess it's made of silver, this thing. Finely crafted, and bearing the seven signs of the High Astronomicon. A good luck charm, thrice-blessed by the priests of Alder. Am I right?"
"If you're reading my mind, girl, I'll wring your skinny little neck here and now, so help me."
Sven, for no reason he understood, reached for the dagger he kept in his boot. The hilt felt uncommonly slick and difficult to grasp. His hand was sweating. As was the rest of him. Was he really prepared to draw the dagger to defend Dari? He didn't even know her.
"If I could read minds, Fenris Skullsmiter, I would have no need to steal to make a living," Dari said. "I know what it looks like because I have it in my pocket."
Dari reached within her robe, the movement revealing an area of creamy flesh. Sven looked away but not before she caught the direction of his gaze, adding to his embarrassment.
Skullsmiter's startled expression when Dari pulled the silver amulet free and held it dangling from its chain was a pleasure to behold.
"Sorcery," he declared, snatching it from her, but it was a half-hearted accusation.
"I am no witch," she told him, placing two bent copper coins on the tabletop, along with a lump of dry black meat, nibbled at one end. Skullsmiter recognized them at once and quickly grabbed them off the table, as if he expected Sven and Rolf to lay claim. Sven wouldn't have touched the meat if he was starving but didn't want to upset Skullsmiter by saying so. The silver amulet surprised him, though. He recognized fine elf craftsmanship. Such rarities, he knew, possessed high value. It could easily purchase this tavern twice over. He wondered whose corpse Skullsmiter had looted it from.
"All right," the mercenary said, having returned his belongings to his jerkin's pockets. "Maybe you are who you say you are. But beware, elf. Try that again and you'll lose some fingers. D'you understand?"
"I understand you very well, Fenris Skullsmiter," Dari said, and Sven sensed her amusement. He noted how Skullsmiter didn't correct her for using his full name.
Rolf said, "Now that everyone's happy, shall we discuss the night's business?" Receiving nods from around the table, he went on, "Magus Xandor is known to be in the capital, taking part in the annual games tournament. His bodyguards will be with him. That leaves his house undefended, with a fortune in silver and gold in his treasure room."
"It's not undefended," Dari said.
"Well, no, not entirely. We know there is a token guard. I estimate four men at most. Possibly fewer." Rolf looked at Skullsmiter. "We'll be depending on you to handle them. Sven and I will back you up, of course."
"Who are they?" Skullsmiter asked.
"Mercenaries from the Northmark. Will they pose you any problems?"
Skullsmiter snorted his derision. "I won't need your help against that scum. Best if you just keep out of my way and let me do my sword work." Skullsmiter's unwavering confidence impressed Sven. Perhaps he'd been wrong to judge the man by his appearance and manner. Perhaps.
"Do you have a plan of the house interior?" Dari said.
Rolf shook his head, looking disappointed. "Alas, no. We tried to discover-"
She took a rolled parchment from her sleeve, opened it and spread it across the table. They craned their necks to peer at the beautifully drawn interior layout of Magus's house. Sven wondered whether Dari knew any of the Elf artisans who'd worked in the house. She must have obtained her information from somewhere.
"I suggest we go over the east wall," she said, pointing the spot out. "The trees and shrubs will conceal us. There's a side door, here. It isn't guarded because it's kept locked at all times."
"If there are guards inside, I'll take care of them," Skullsmiter said. His toothless grimace put the fear of death into Sven, who remembered he was holding his dagger beneath the table. He carefully returned it to its sheath inside his boot. Dari watched him while Rolf and Skullsmiter studied the map. Sven knew that she knew, and again he blushed.
"What's wrong with you?" Rolf asked.
"Nothing," Sven replied. "Where's the treasure room?"
"Here, I think," Dari said, pointing a slim finger at one of the few areas on the map that remained blank.
"You think?" Skullsmiter's tone carried equal annoyance and accusation. "Don't you know?"
"There are three possible locations. We will have to check them all. Once we get past the pieces, that is," Dari said.
The tavern keeper's daughter, Brunhilde, came to their table with a tray. Dari swiftly rolled the map up and slipped it inside her sleeve, but Brunhilde only had eyes for Rolf anyway. "May I fetch more drinks, sir?" she asked as she collected their empty cups.
Rolf returned her smile, no doubt well aware that her father was scowling his disapproval at his daughter's love for this penniless young man with no prospects. "Thank you, no. My friends and I must leave soon." His fingers lightly brushed her hand and her cheeks flushed red. She took her tray to the bar counter, smiling back over her shoulder at Rolf. Her father leaned over the counter to whisper into her ear. Sven could guess what he was saying.
As always Sven tried to conceal his jealousy. And his disappointment that Brunhilde never even looked at him whenever Rolf was around. She was a fine girl and more than once he had contemplated what it might be like to be the object of her desire.
"What do you mean by pieces?" Skullsmiter said, continuing the interrupted conversation. "Pieces of what?" At least he'd remained focused on the subject in hand.
Dari said, "Magus Xandor is expected to win the tournament again this year. He must practice to maintain his skill level. We will encounter the pieces from his game board."
Sven wasn't sure he understood. And then he did. "He plays Magic Monsters."
Dari nodded. "This is so. With any luck they will be dormant while their master is away."
Skullsmiter banged his fist on the table again. "You'll tell me what you're talking about, or else I'll-"
"The pieces are alive," Sven told him. He gestured to the games table, and Skullsmiter followed his gaze. The miniature version of Magic Monsters was being played at this very moment. The game involved creatures the size of his hand-their magician creators called them chimeras-doing battle with each other while seeking to gain possession of hidden treasure chests scattered across the board. He always found it fascinating to watch the various pieces as they clawed and hacked each other to death. He'd refused an offer to join the game when he came in earlier. He just couldn't afford the bets. Perhaps after tonight, things would be different.
"Alive, how?" Skullsmiter shook his head, confused.
"Sorcery," Dari said simply.
Realization suddenly struck Sven. He knew that while the tavern game involved small magical creatures the size of his hand, the annual games tournament in the capital took place in a huge arena with high walls fortified with magic wards-which were necessary to prevent the monstrous chimeras conjured for the tournament from escaping and rampaging through the city. The pieces in Magus Xandor's house would not be miniature. Nor would they vanish in a puff of green smoke when someone rolled the bone dice.
"We're talking about full-size pieces, aren't we?" he said.
Dari nodded. "This is likely."
Skullsmiter seemed to ponder this for a moment. "If they're alive, does that mean they can die?"
"They are created to die, so yes."
"Then they better keep out of my way." Skullsmiter looked around the tavern. "If we're not drinking, why are we still sitting here?"
Rolf said, "What say you set off first, Skullsmiter? We don't want to draw attention to ourselves by leaving in a group. I'll follow you in a few candle-slivers. Sven and Dari can come after me, bringing up the rear, so to speak. We'll rendezvous near the east wall of Magus Xandor's house at midnight. Agreed?"
Skullsmiter got up without another word and headed for the door. Everyone gave him plenty of room, recalling the fate of the squat man with the twin knives.
"I would have suggested we toast to the success of our venture," Rolf said, "but I didn't want to risk taking the edge off our courageous warrior's reflexes."
"He's trouble, that one," Dari said. "When it comes time to divide tonight's spoils, beware. His greed outweighs his honor."
Rolf said, "How do you know?"
Dari looked puzzled. "How do you not know? It could not be more clear were it written across his forehead in runes."
"Will you still come with us?" Sven asked
Again she stared at him with those calm eyes of hers. He felt himself falling into their immeasurable depths. "I would not be here otherwise," she told him.
"We'll deal with Skullsmiter if and when the need arises," Rolf said, surprising Sven. He got up. "I'll see you both at midnight. Don't be late." He made his way to the door. Brunhilde reached him just as he was about to leave, as if she'd been waiting for this moment. Sven noted her worried expression; had she somehow sensed something was afoot? Rolf's easy smile and whatever he said failed to reassure her. He opened the door and stepped out into the night. Brunhilde sighed and returned to work, her brow furrowed. Sven felt sorry for her but he had his own worries to deal with, not least of which was the possibility of treachery from Skullsmiter.
"That just leaves us," Dari said.
"Aye," Sven said, wishing he didn't feel so tongue-tied and stupid in her presence.
"You don't know what to make of me, do you?"
"What do you mean? I've met elves before."
She chuckled, a melodious sounds. "Male elves."
"You're smitten with me and don't know what to do next. Am I right?"
So much blood rushed into Sven's head that he thought he must surely faint. "Is it so obvious?" he managed to say.
"There's no need for embarrassment," she said. "Human males find our perfume irresistible. That's why our diplomatic delegations are exclusively male."
"I didn't know that."
"I thought it important you should know. Because I could never love you, Sven Wheatfarmer who is now Sven the Thief. Accept this, and save your adoration for someone more worthy than I."
"Can such a person exist?" he blurted as she rose from her seat.
"Oh yes, she exists. I cannot read minds but I can glimpse your future. I see it clearly even as I sit here. The lady does not love you now, but she will."
Sven exhaled sharply, stunned by this news. "But who is this lady?" he demanded. "When will I meet her?"
Dari shook her head. "In time you will come to understand why I can reveal no more. Shall we depart? It may have slipped your mind, but midnight approaches and we have a fortune to steal." She smiled again and stood up. "Let's not keep it waiting."
As they headed for the door, something at the games table went bang! The crowd cheered. A plume of crimson smoke rose toward the ceiling. One of the tiny chimeras had just perished. Sven wondered what awaited them in Magus Xandor's house.
* * *
They crouched in the shadow of the wall, listening for any sounds alien to the night. Moonlight gleamed off the iron helmet Skullsmiter wore. He'd evidently collected this, and the huge sword he carried, on the way here. Armed, he looked even more dangerous than he had before, if that were possible. Again Sven wondered what he and Rolf would do if Skullsmiter turned on them. But this would happen once they found the treasure, not before. They would have to be prepared.
"Enough waiting," Skullsmiter said. "Let's do it. Give me a leg up, boy."
Sven put his back against the wall and joined his hands together, hoping the mercenary hadn't stepped in anything on the way here. Skullsmiter put his boot in his hands and Sven heaved with all his strength. Skullsmiter went up and over the wall and landed heavily on the other side. Dari went up next, a wraith who made absolutely no sound at all. Lastly, Sven launched Rolf, who sat atop the wall and reached down to help pull Sven up. They jumped down together and crouched among the bushes, listening for foreign noises that might indicate their discovery, but there were none.
Skullsmiter led the way forward through the overgrown garden. Dari flitted out to his left, a smaller, more delicate figure. Sven and Rolf followed in Skullsmiter's wake. Ahead, Magus Xandor's house loomed, a solid shape in the darkness. No light shone from any window. Perhaps the guards were asleep? Sven wanted to believe it, but couldn't afford to. Far more likely the Northmark mercenaries, renowned for their ferocity, were sharpening their swords and hoping some idiots would come their way tonight to alleviate their boredom.
The cautious advance halted. Sven made out the doorway. Dari pressed an ear against it and he knew her sharp elven senses were probing beyond the thick wood. Apparently satisfied, she crouched down and worked at the lock.
Even in the dark, Sven could see Rolf's smile. He was enjoying this as much as Sven would be, if his stomach wasn't knotted with tension.
Something clicked. The door swung inward.
Skullsmiter leaped through the opening, sword ready. At least the man was no coward. Dari slipped inside after him. No one shouted alarm and no sounds of desperate fighting reached their ears.
Dari beckoned to them. Sven followed Rolf, his sword gripped tightly in one hand, dagger in the other. His uncle, Rolf's father, had been a soldier in the King's Guard. Hearing his uncle's adventure stories as a boy, Sven had realized he could never be a farmer like his father was. But there hadn't been a war for nearly ten years. The King's Guard wasn't recruiting and couldn't offer young men escape from the drudgery of farming life. So here he was, Sven the Thief, skulking in the night, risking death and worse for the sake of a few coins. Well, hopefully more than a few. His father had long since disowned him, but Sven suspected his uncle might have given one of those lop-sided smiles of his and secretly winked his approval.
A torch mounted in a wall bracket suddenly flared to life. Others did likewise. Sven and Rolf exchanged glances.
"A minor conjuration," Dari said, as if that explained everything.
The torchlight illuminated a straight corridor. Twenty paces on, the corridor opened up to left and right, then split into further corridors. The place was a maze. Sven recalled however that the guards had quarters in the south corner, which lay in another direction. If luck was on their side, they might not encounter the Northmark mercenaries at all. He sent silent prayers to all the gods he knew, then became aware that Rolf and Skullsmiter were arguing, the latter making no attempt to whisper.
Sven pushed past Dari who stood watching them, wide-eyed. He touched Rolf's shoulder. "Are you mad? You'll wake up the dead with this noise!"
"I said I'd deal with the scum," Skullsmiter said. "And so I will. I'm not going to skulk like some coward and wait for them to ambush me."
"We're here to steal the Magus's treasure," Rolf said. "Not for you to pursue some personal-"
Skullsmiter put his big hand against Rolf's chest and roughly shoved him away. Off-balance, Rolf staggered against the wall. His lips formed a thin line and for an awful moment Sven thought he was going to attack the mercenary. But then Dari said, "You shall have your wish, Fenris Skullsmiter. They are coming."
The sound of clumping footsteps echoed along the corridors. Rolf looked back at the door they'd entered through, then at Dari and Sven. Their choice was obvious: leave now, or press on toward the Magus's treasure. Dari made Sven's mind up for him-she ran past Skullsmiter and disappeared around a left turn. Skullsmiter hardly noticed her pass him; he was questing around, trying to guess which direction the guards were approaching from. The footsteps seemed to come from every direction.
Sven slapped Rolf's shoulder. "Come on!" He ran after Dari and just glimpsed her as she turned right into another corridor and then left down another, always keeping ahead of him. Sven hadn't realized the house was so damned big inside. He panicked when he realized he'd lost sight of Dari. Where had she gone?
She emerged from a doorway and ran around another corner. Sven ran past the doorway. The room beyond was dark and empty. He reached the corner and saw her emerge from yet another room. Once again she ran on, keeping ahead of him. The room she'd just left was also empty. He realized she was checking them out. Searching for Magus Xandor's treasure room.
He ran past an opening, stopped, back-stepped and spotted Dari at the far side of a square chamber shrouded in darkness. She was moving her hands over what appeared to be a blank section of wall. The wall shifted, apparently turning upon a hidden pivot. Dari ducked through the clever opening. Sven caught a glimpse of a small room beyond, and a globe that sat upon a column. It gave off bright golden light as if it were burning, yet he saw no flame.
Using her long sleeves to protect her hands, Dari lifted the globe off the top of the column. She turned around and Sven saw her smile. She stepped out of the small room-then froze in mid-step, realizing-just as Sven did at that very moment-that the larger chamber was not empty. The globe's golden light revealed the floor to be painted with dozens of circles and stars. Upon the symbols lining the edge of the chamber stood dragons, or beast-men with curved horns atop their heads, or deformed cats with huge fangs, or giant scorpions with the heads of lions. Sven recognized the chamber for what it was-a Magic Monsters game board. A much, much larger version of the board in the White Swan tavern. He could imagine Magus Xandor positioning his sorcery-created chimeras on the board and directing them to do battle against each other as he refined his strategies in preparation for the annual tournament.
Sven heard an odd whispering, as if many voices were talking at once, but he couldn't tell there they were coming from. He was about to call to Dari when he detected movement out the corner of his eye. One of the lion heads had turned, he was sure, so it was now looking directly at him.
Rolf skidded to a halt in the corridor, wide-eyed and panting for breath. "He's dead."
Sven stared at him, not understanding. "Who's dead?"
"Skullsmiter. They killed him."
"Who killed him?"
"The guards, you idiot! They cut him to pieces. They didn't even break step."
Which either meant Skullsmiter had been a loudmouthed braggart, or the men who'd killed him were exceptional fighters.
"Where does that leave us?" Sven said, fighting down his panic.
"In trouble, up to our necks."
Another creature with wings shifted position. Were the chimeras waking up? Were their movements random or were they responding to the presence of intruders?
Dari ran across the board and joined them. "Empty," she said.
Rolf gaped at her. "What do you mean, empty? What's empty?"
The heavy beat of footsteps became louder again as the guards closed in on them. Sven couldn't tell which direction they were approaching from.
"All the rooms are empty. Magus Xandor's treasure isn't here. He must have taken his gold with him to the capital to wager on the games."
Sven wondered about the globe. Did it have value?
Rolf scowled at her. "By the gods, girl, if you're lying-"
Sven had never seen a Northmark mercenary before. He caught a glimpse of studded black leather armor, a thick blond beard and ice-blue eyes that held no hint of mercy. The mercenary exploded out of one of the darkened corridors, bellowing like an enraged bull, his sword aimed at Rolf. Without even thinking, Sven shouldered the warrior off-balance so he slammed into the opposite wall at full speed. The crash was horrendous. The warrior slid down, stunned. Sven thrust the point of his sword into the man's neck.
"Sven?" Rolf wore a surprised expression. His knees suddenly gave way. Sven caught him and lowered him to the floor, not sure what was wrong with him. His cousin stared at the ceiling, his lips working, forming silent words.
"Rolf, can you hear me? Rolf!" But Rolf's eyes closed and he wasn't breathing. Sven stared at the gleaming wetness on his hands and realized the truth of it. The mercenary's sword hadn't missed after all.
"Your cousin is dead. We must flee, Sven Wheatfarmer," Dari said. When he didn't reply she placed her hand upon his shoulder. "If we stay, they will kill us."
More footsteps reached them. Armor and weapons scraped against walls. It sounded as if the Northmark mercenaries intended to surround them. Rolf's estimate had been wrong, badly wrong. There were many more than just four.
Sven got to his feet. "I'm not leaving," he told Dari.
"Rolf is no longer with us. This is just the vessel his spirit lived in."
Sven swallowed hard, knowing she was right. But his uncle had told them the King's Guard never left its dead behind. It was a matter of honor, of brotherhood. All of which had to mean something, he told himself as he gazed at Rolf's still face. "Go," he said. "I'll delay them as long as I can."
"Don't be a fool. Come with me, before it's too late."
Sven shook his head. "I cannot." He didn't know if she understood but he thought he saw sympathy in her eyes. Without another word she turned and dashed down one of the corridors. She disappeared into the maze, became one with the darkness. Sven hoped the Shadow would elude her pursuers.
He drew a deep breath as several half-seen shapes resolved themselves into grim-faced men dressed in black armor. Sven didn't know which way to turn, there were so many of them. He stood over Rolf's body and moved his sword left and right, ready for their attack. They'd cut him down, no doubt about that, but he'd try to give them something to remember him by. Perhaps his father might have approved of this, at least.
He counted their numbers-ten, eleven, twelve of them. Gods above and below, he didn't stand a chance. Why Magus Xandor should leave such a heavy guard in his house when he was absent mystified him, especially as, if Dari was right, there was no treasure here. Then again, he'd glimpsed the glowing object in the hidden room. A suspicious thought struck him: Was that the reason she had agreed to join them?
The Northmark mercenaries didn't seem to be in any hurry now that they knew they'd trapped him. They could come at him from any side and he'd be dead before he knew it. He remembered how quickly Rolf had died, here one heartbeat, gone the next. All he could hope for was a similar swift end.
He looked at each of the mercenaries in turn. "Which of you wants to die first?" he said, but none of them lunged at him, offering him the chance of a quick death. They were smiling. He amused them. They didn't even regard him as a real warrior.
Sven gave the dead mercenary's boot a kick.
"Come and join your friend. If you have the courage to face me, that is."
Their smiles vanished. They looked to the tallest among them, who Sven guessed must be their leader. This warrior stepped forward. He towered over Sven. The others began to chant a name, over and over: "Ulf, Ulf, Ulf."
Ulf bared his teeth in a terrible grin. "I will cut you into little pieces for your insult, boy." He raised his sword and advanced on Sven. But he didn't get halfway before something whipped out of the dark corridor opening behind him and struck him so hard his entire body shook. His expression changed to one of complete surprise. Whatever it was lifted him up off the floor so he dangled in mid-air, groaning. Ulf was still alive, but only for a moment longer. His sword clattered to the floor, his head slumped and his body went limp.
The Northmark mercenaries grouped together, their swords bristling like a forest of steel. Ulf slipped off the thing that was holding him aloft and sprawled, lifeless. The chimera that had killed him scuttled forward, its insect feet clicking on the floor. Flickering torchlight revealed the huge lion's head upon the body of a scorpion. Its sting had punched through Ulf's armor as if it was made of parchment.
The tail whipped around again and its barbed end slammed into the wall where Sven had been standing-but, forewarned by the manner of Ulf's death, Sven had leapt to one side, avoiding the deadly strike. He thrust his sword into the chimera's furry lion breast! It tried to claw at him but Sven had released his sword and instantly ducked back out of range. The chimera flailed, making a terrible noise that was a mixture of pain and rage, but it was far from dead. His thrust must have missed its heart.
Sven snatched up Ulf's fallen sword. It was a heavier blade than he was used to and he needed both hands to wield it. Its edges were serrated and the point looked sharp. A brutal killing weapon. The chimera rushed at him, its scorpion tail poised to strike. Fear threatened to turn Sven's bowels to water, but he shouted a wordless challenge and the lion head snapped forward. As it did so, he brought the sword up and drove it into the beast's hellish mouth. Rows of fangs closed upon the steel, striking sparks and tearing the weapon out of his hands. Once again he had to leap out of the way as the chimera blundered past him and into the wall, cracking the brickwork.
He expected it to round on him instantly and kill him, but instead the chimera collapsed, its legs splaying wide. The point of Ulf's sword must have been driven deeper by the collision with the wall and found its brain. Talk about luck! Sven couldn't have timed that if he'd tried.
The Northmark mercenaries looked at each other, as if not sure what to do next. Had this changed anything? Sven doubted it. He stepped up to the dead chimera, braced his boot against its chest and worked his sword free. He did likewise with Ulf's sword, dragging it from the creature's open mouth. The Northmark steel came away more easily. He faced the mercenaries, but realized at once that he couldn't possibly control Ulf's sword with only one hand. He placed the weapon upon Ulf's chest and shifted the dead mercenary's hands so they rested upon the blade and kept it in place. His uncle would have nodded approval. Perhaps his father would have, too. Sven resumed his former position beside Rolf. He wanted to throw up, wanted it to all be over and done with. Why wouldn't they attack him?
They lowered their swords. One said, "Your courage does your companion honor. We will not kill you if you leave now and vow to never return."
"He was my cousin," Sven said. "His name was Rolf. I am not leaving without him." The King's Guard never leaves its dead behind. That was what his uncle had taught them. He knew that Rolf, presented with the same choice, would have done exactly the same for him. They'd been closer than cousins. Now Rolf was dead and Sven hadn't been able to do a thing to prevent it. Here was his only chance to make amends.
"You would die for a corpse?"
"I told you, we were blood kin. That means something to us, even if it doesn't mean anything to you." There, he'd made his speech. What else was there to be said?
He steeled himself for a death that never came.
In ones and twos, without a word spoken, the mercenaries turned from him and retreated down the corridors, back the way they'd come. Four of them dragged Ulf and the other dead mercenary away with them. They ignored Rolf. Sven didn't relax for an instant and didn't take his gaze off them.
The mercenary who'd spoken made to turn away, but Sven stopped him with a question: "Why?"
The man looked back at Sven over his shoulder. "Any man who would stand and die for a fallen comrade's honor is worthy of our respect." He paused, then added, "Tell others who might be foolish enough to seek our master's wealth that they will never leave this house alive. Tell them we are waiting."
He departed, leaving Sven alone with Rolf. The mercenaries' footsteps faded, leaving only silence behind.
Sven came to accept that it wasn't a trick after all. He sheathed his sword, bent and lifted up his cousin, settling him over his shoulder. He made his way through the maze of corridors and junctions, following his instincts-and a hint of air movement that might, if he was lucky, come from the door they'd entered through. He didn't see or hear anything else of the Northmark mercenaries, or any of the other chimeras, thank the gods.
He passed Fenris Skullsmiter's corpse and knew he was proceeding in the right direction. He hoped the warrior had found his way to the afterlife.
A short while later he found the outside door. It still lay open. Glittering stars beckoned to him.
As soon as he passed outside into the garden, he heard the whirr and click of elven lock mechanisms. The door swung shut behind him. He wondered whether the locks would be changed-or whether swift death would be waiting for anyone who attempted to open the door again.
There was no sign of Dari. Had she found her way out? He hoped so. He carried Rolf to the wall and looked for a tree suitable for climbing. But then he noticed the tall iron gates were ajar. He sent silent thanks to Dari and slipped out this way.
He saw no one else as he moved through the quiet streets. He carried Rolf up the hill to the temple that overlooked the town, and laid him on the steps outside the door. He fished into his pocket for a coin. He placed this under Rolf's tongue to pay the priests for service and burial. This was what they'd agreed, if either of them came to grief during their adventures. But Sven had never once expected Rolf to die.
He slept under the stars that night, and dreamt of Dari. In the dream she smiled as she bent over him and stroked his brow tenderly and told him her true name was Leurandariel. He asked her, What was it that you took from the secret room? And she replied, Something that was stolen from the Forest Folk an age ago, and which is now returned to its rightful place. Sleep now. She touched his head and he slept.
In the morning he awoke and remembered the dream. It felt so real that he didn't question whether it had actually happened. He washed in a stream, scrubbing his clothes as best he could, then returned to the White Swan, which was now open for the breakfast trade. The games board had been cleared and brushed clean of chimera smear, ready for the evening's activities. He sat at the same table where he and Rolf had sat only last night. Brunhilde came to the table and stared at him with wide eyes, as if startled by his appearance. He ordered porridge and said nothing else. When she brought him the bowl he ate slowly, not even tasting it. When he was finished, she sat down beside him.
"Where is Rolf?" she asked. The tremble in her voice suggested she already suspected the worst. He supposed his appearance and the bloodstains on his clothing must have given her a clue. He'd been dreading this question, but he'd not come here just to fill his empty stomach.
"Rolf won't be coming back," he said.
Brunhilde sat with her head bowed and her shoulders heaving. Sven hesitated, then put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her closer, offering what little comfort he could. She leaned into him, weeping openly, her hot tears soaking through his shirt. Sven closed his eyes and sighed. Brunhilde wasn't the only one who needed comforting.
The lady does not love you now, but she will, Dari's voice said.
He opened his eyes and looked around, but Dari wasn't there.
Something on the table caught his eye. He picked the object up by its chain and stared in wonder at the seven water signs of the High Astronomicon. It was Fenris Skullsmiter's silver amulet. Dari must have taken it from his body on the way out.
"W-what is that?" Brunhilde asked, making an effort to wipe away her tears.
"A gift," Sven told her. "A gift from a friend."
The House of the Magus
Appeared in Witches Vs. Wizards: A Fantasy Anthology
from Zombie Pirate Publishing, released Nov 2018.
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