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The Crier’s Sacrifice

Part I: Infiltration

Chapter Sixteen: Trio’s Journey

Nathan Black
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Shaking his head, Nilrid tried, hopelessly, to keep his eyes open. A mile and a half south of Indimer, they had been traveling for nearly an hour, and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon.

The Ritual of Summoning was safe, packed away in Nilrid’s own invisible box. They had spent a few minutes that morning going over the Divine Tongue translation of the Ritual, but Nilrid had been groggy and slow to catch on. Eventually, Wekain used a spell of mind-absorption to cram the knowledge, unconsciously, into the boy’s head.

“Can’t we buy some horses?” he asked irritably of his two companions. The ride on Asinai’s mare had been quite pleasant, he remembered, but the young wizard had left his horses at the stables in Mountown, giving the local innkeeper a great deal of money for their care.

“Travel on horseback has been illegal in this country for a month now,” the High Wizard of Esanta explained. “Whenever the King feels that war is near, he can ban any sort of ‘efficient travel.’ That includes horses, chariots, and teleportation for everyone except the High Wizard when he’s on state business.”

“I see,” the boy said, even more dispirited. “How did you convince the King that you were on state business when you teleported to the capital?”

“Spies are much more respected here than in other countries. You’re a Querisian agent, and that makes you a dignitary. It’s the best way for the government to designate your importance. And you are important,” he added, “more valuable than any of those stiff old codgers in Yansor.”

Nilrid stiffened as he walked down the highway.

“Ah, but you’re still young and impressionable, aren’t you? You must love your country more than life itself.” Asinai laughed. “The wise man has no regard for countries, or Kings, or any of that rabble. After you’ve seen a few more borders, you’ll feel the same way too.”

“Perhaps,” Wekain interrupted, “but it’s very hard to be a High Wizard if you don’t have some respect for your homeland.”

“Maybe that’s why I don’t enjoy my current job very much,” the High Wizard of Esanta mused.

“Oh, don’t you?”

“It’s all ceremony and meetings—the only exciting thing I’ve ever done is rescue Nilrid!” he exclaimed, gesturing at the boy. “I hope I find being Chancellor a little more invigorating.”

Wekain chuckled. “Oh, and how are you so sure you’ll be elected?”

“The ballot deadline was the first of July, and the only other name I saw besides mine was Hovampt. Nobody in their right mind would vote for that jackass again. He hasn’t used his power in years, which I hear isn’t that impressive anyway, yet his rear end has warmed the seat of every chair in Perisanta.”

“There was a third name, my dear Asinai,” the High Wizard of Querisia corrected. “He was added at the last minute, probably after you left the University. And while I certainly wouldn’t cast a vote for Hovampt if my life depended on it, this Beynar fellow looks quite promising.”

Asinai stopped in his tracks. “You’re not serious, are you?”

“About voting for him? Of course not. But I saw his name on the ballot, as plain as day.”

“The nerve!” the High Wizard of Esanta hissed. “Does he really think he’ll get a single vote?”

“Oh, you’d be amazed where a little gold can take a villain like himself. He plans to buy his way into the Council of the Arcane, and then send a little hunting party somewhere south of Tsatira, if you get my meaning.”

“That’s outrageous!” Asinai cried.

“No, it’s clever. I would consider dipping into your pockets a little bit myself, if you want to be Chancellor next year.”

Nilrid, who had been silent for quite a while, put in, “Perhaps if you exposed Beynar’s attempts to bribe the councilors, he would be disqualified, or at least his chances of getting elected would be much lower.”

The High Wizard of Esanta nodded slowly. “Yes, that would be more acceptable. Good thinking, my boy.”

“Thank you,” Nilrid said modestly.

“Now let’s see... the election isn’t until September 30. We’ll be back in Indimer by then, don’t you think?”

“Certainly,” Wekain agreed.

“I’ll probably have to move into Luvo Esanta to avoid an assassination attempt, but from there I can command an enormous investigation, and then reveal the King’s atrociously dishonest scheme.” Asinai’s own embellishment made him smile. “Of course, we may find a few leads in Tanaveri.”

“And we must always be prepared for the possibility of Beynar dying as a result of our visit,” the High Wizard of Querisia warned. “With an opposing candidate in the same city, things might begin to look suspicious.” He sighed. “Then, we’d be stuck with Hovampt for another five years.”

“We’ll have to be as unnoticeable as possible,” Asinai agreed. “Shouldn’t be too hard, with professional spies working with us. I know Honir and his company—you may rest assured that the Second Indimer War will have started before Beynar catches onto us.”

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather avoid another major war,” Wekain said.

“Wouldn’t we all?” the High Wizard of Esanta laughed.

It was nearly six o’clock in the evening when the threesome reached South Indimer, a small subsidiary of the ancient capital. After paying for a night’s rest in a pleasant inn, they quickly made their way to their rooms, staying out of sight in case a Malthanian spy was in the area. Nilrid was almost too tired to eat his evening meal, and fell asleep as soon as he crawled into his soft covers.

A light drizzle was on them the next morning as they left town at dawn. The extra hour of sleep was very welcome to the boy, though it was still hard for him to get out of bed.

Despite the general misery as they walked along, the view of the deep, gray clouds rolling along the flat and open plains of southwestern Esanta was breathtaking. For the first time, Nilrid also noticed the infamous Osir Forest, still fifty miles or so to the east but quite visible. The trees, massive and bunched together, provided a startling contrast to the almost unnatural openness of the grasslands. Looking around him once more, the boy couldn’t help but feeling eager to enter the protective foliage.

They ate quickly under a rare, gnarled old tree by the roadside, drinking as much water as they dared to wash down the dry and bland food. With a far-from-anticipatory sigh, he hoped to Gelz that all his days wouldn’t be like this.

That afternoon, they came across a minstrel traveling in the opposite direction. He was an amazingly happy person, the kind that Nilrid wondered at and the older wizards despised. They saw him about a hundred yards distant, coming up a low hill with a harp and a walk that looked very awkward without the tune he whistled accompanying. Asinai and Wekain grumbled a bit about stopping, but after the boy reminded them of their near-desperate need for information, they were convinced to stop the exuberant minstrel and question him about events to the east.

“Good day!” the traveler called as they grew closer.

“The same to you,” the High Wizard of Querisia returned, somewhat blandly.

The minstrel politely stopped whistling and looked the threesome over. “It’s so wonderful to see three generations together all at once,” he commented, appearing impressed by his new acquaintances.

“I have an ailing father in North Rogilia,” Wekain replied, blending into the lie immediately. “My son and grandson are coming along with me—after all, the roads aren’t as safe as they used to be.”

“Certainly not,” the minstrel said, a wisp of seriousness crossing his youthful face. “And North Rogilia isn’t the best place to have an ailing father.”

The High Wizard of Querisia shrugged. “He’s been living there since 1046. We tried to move him to Indimer, but he just wouldn’t listen. Said his heart would break, or some nonsense like that.”

“Well, we must be sensitive to our elders,” the traveler observed accommodatingly. “The Rogilian government is beginning to crack down on foreigners, though; Tanaveri and the rest of the world are on the brink of war, if the news hasn’t reached you yet. You’d do well to avoid any Royal Troops while you’re inside the country.” Tipping his hat, he continued, “Nice talking to you. I’m terribly sorry about your father, and wish you luck. Good day again!” With that, the overly cheerful minstrel half-walked, half-skipped away.

“1046?” Asinai asked incredulously.

“It was when I was born,” the 82-year old wizard replied smoothly. “It was the first date in the last century I could think of.”

“Brilliant,” the High Wizard of Esanta murmured.

They arrived at New Crossroads the next day, in the middle of the scorching afternoon. It was a quaint, pleasant little town where the main roads to Rogilia and North Rogilia met, but Nilrid couldn’t help feeling a little bored as he wandered the quiet streets and observed the prosperous, adventure-less people. The threesome spent the night in a small inn, got up early in the morning, and then continued on their way, turning off the Rogilia Highway and heading east.

The Osir Forest gradually grew closer as they walked along, and the boy tried to concentrate on it instead of his aching feet. Walking fourteen hours a day on dusty roads under the blazing July sun required such endurance from the inexperienced Nilrid (except, of course, for his town crier job, but that had only lasted the morning and was in a forest) that he could never get enough sleep. Every day, he awakened a little less prepared for the journey ahead of him. He just hoped that he got out of Esanta quickly, so they could buy some horses and draw from the strength of someone else—and move faster, certainly.

However, his real test of endurance didn’t come until the day after that, the twentieth of July. They entered the tall, forbidding trees of the Osir Forest around four o’clock that afternoon, and the boy felt an instant surge of relief. The cool air rushed over him, and the darkness was almost total after nearly five days of brilliant, unyielding sunlight.

“Well, here we are!” Asinai said cheerily. “Shall we rest here?”

“Please,” Wekain replied. They all took seats on smooth, comfortable rocks (as rocks go).

Had any of them been paying attention, they would have noticed a strange, purplish aura surrounding every granite boulder in the area. But weariness overcame caution, so none of them discovered the trap until it was too late. Nilrid had just sat down when there was a groan of stress from the three rocks, and then they folded in on themselves simultaneously. The boy found himself trapped in an encompassing, suffocating blanket of darkness. It was difficult to breathe.

Suddenly, he heard a voice in his head say, “Welcome, my friends, to the Osir Forest.”

In the distance, Nilrid felt a surge of power, which scented faintly of Wekain’s style (Iquen had taught him to recognize a specific mental residue that identified one particular wizard). The power was aimed at a fourth person, standing outside the rock on the dirt road.

“That won’t work, High Wizard of Querisia,” the person said in a mocking tone of respect. “I am safe from you here.

“Are you aware of the time it will take all of you to suffocate to death? Less than half an hour, I’d say. Your air supply is rather limited. But please don’t be bitter. Though you’ll never know my name, I assure you that my cause is very important to my superiors. Have a nice death, my arcane friends!”

Another, much larger surge of power burst from Asinai.

“Magnitude won’t help you, High Wizard of Esanta. Every spell you cast reflects off the inside of your unpleasant, but only temporary prison. Now if you don’t mind, I really must be going.”

As the Malthanian was talking, Nilrid was forming his plan. Closing his eyes (without the slightest change in lighting), he formed the image of a rock, and then included a property of reversal. A difficult concept to explain, but the method of anti-irreversibility was not terribly hard to piece together. Since it was already present in the naturally-conformed rock the boy had made, all he had to do was eliminate that particular characteristic.

Placing the reversed rock, he immediately felt another groan, and in the next instant he was crouched, in a rather odd position, on the outside. He caught an instantaneous glimpse of their assailant—an inhumanly old, bent-over man with sunken eyes and skin that sagged a couple of inches—before he teleported himself away. The look in those ancient, smoldering red eyes was one of total surprise.

Methodically, Nilrid released his two companions from their own prison. “Good thinking, boy!” Wekain said sincerely as he straightened out his clothing. “I thought that we’d never get out of there without killing the caster and undoing the spell.”

“Who was he?” the boy asked.

“I can’t say who, but he was definitely one of the Vinatira,” Asinai replied gravely. “A Necromancer.”

Nilrid shuddered. “That was one of the cruelest traps I’ve ever heard of!”

“That’s their business, boy—torture by magic,” the High Wizard of Querisia explained. “You’ve heard the stories.”

“But never experienced them.”

“We might be in store for a few more lovely surprises, I’m afraid,” Asinai put in. “Only the direct officers of Malthan can deploy Vinatira, and they wouldn’t do it for just anyone.” He stood up and sighed. “We may as well assume that Malthan knows about us and our rough location, and that the King of Tanaveri has gotten word and has agents behind every tree.”

“We’ll travel at night, then,” Wekain decided. “I’d rather meet a Malthanian awake than asleep.”

The nocturnal piece of the journey was even more difficult for Nilrid. At the times when he wanted to do nothing but fall down and sleep, he had to keep walking, wincing as his feet stepped and slipped on the rocks in the road. All around him, there were eerie sounds of high-pitched owls and spectral moans. The Osir Forest was not the best place to be in Derenda when the sun went down.

Eventually, he accustomed himself to the new schedule, and was able to assure himself that whatever hid among the dark, foreboding trees was either afraid or just watchful of the threesome. And after all, he told himself, the weather at night in a forest was much better than what he had experienced out on the plains in broad daylight. After two nights, he actually started to enjoy nocturnal travel.

Just before dawn on the twenty-second, they reached a fair-sized town called Esperaton. Carved out of the forest, it was surrounded by high walls made of sturdy, almost black oak. It had been one of the first towns built east of Indimer, and had been meant to be a fortress more than a community.

“This is one of Esanta’s provincial capitals,” Asinai told them as they walked through the huge, open gates and into the grid-like streets of the town. “I’m good friends with the Baron, so we’ll pay a visit to his manor.”

“That sounds very appealing,” Wekain said, gesturing disdainfully at the grubby blankets on his back.

Esperaton Manor was set on a high, manmade hill so that it towered above the rest of the town. At the top, the threesome was confronted by a stern-faced guard in his forties.

“Names?” he called bluntly.

“Wekain, High Wizard of Querisia, Nilrid of Fyr’nay, and Asinai, High Wizard of Esanta,” Asinai replied.

“Ah, good morning, Asinai,” the guard said in a friendlier tone. “I should have recognized you. Please wait here while I find the Baron. He’ll be very happy to see you.”

A minute or so later, a short, stout man with curly red hair and an impish grin on his face greeted the three travelers. “Good morning!” he said, “and welcome to Esperaton. So wonderful to see you again, Asinai—you must introduce me to your companions.”

“Of course,” the High Wizard of Esanta replied, gesturing to Wekain, who was looking the Baron over carefully. “This is...”

“Not now, not now! First let’s all find a place to relax, and get out of the accursed sun.” He looked up disdainfully at the blue, cloudless sky. “Personally, I always liked it better under the trees.”

The three wizards thought likewise, so they allowed themselves to be walked into the manorial keep, where they were escorted along several passageways and finally admitted into a fair-sized sitting room. Four comfortable-looking chairs had been set up near the crackling fireplace.

The Baron of Esperaton impulsively wiped the sweat from his brow. “Put that out,” he ordered, gesturing at the fire. It was immediately doused.

“Thank you. Now, if you would leave us, I’d prefer to speak with my old friend and my other guests privately.” Without a word, the Baron’s personal attendants left the room.

As Asinai, Wekain and Nilrid took their seats, their host said, “Now, to your names. You must be quite distinguished company to be traveling with the High Wizard of Esanta.”

“It’s an overrated job, Sir Baron,” Wekain replied. “I am Wekain, the High Wizard of Querisia.”

“Well met, sir, well met. And you?” the Baron asked of the boy.

“My name is Nilrid of Fyr’nay,” Nilrid said simply. He thought it safest to leave it at that.

“And do you have a reason for traveling with these grown and very important men, Nilrid of Fyr’nay, or are you just tagging along to see the world? You’re quite a ways from your home.”

“The Baron is a trusted acquaintance of mine, Nilrid,” Asinai assured. “You may as well tell him your business.”

“I’m an agent for King Jizir XI of Querisia,” the boy elaborated. “I was hired to infiltrate the Tanaverian Palace in Pakil.”

The Baron raised his eyebrows. “That’s quite a job for someone your age. I suppose that’s why you have two High Wizards accompanying you. Well, I prefer to go by my name instead of my title, so plain Yivinat will do just fine for me, thank you very much.”

“We actually came along to help some other spies infiltrate the Mustering,” Asinai explained.

“So soon?” Yivinat murmured.

“I’m afraid so,” the High Wizard of Querisia said gravely. “We’re all getting a sinking feeling that the assassination of Corlais and the crowning of someone never even heard of is only the tip of the iceberg. Malthan herself has awakened from her six hundred year dormancy, and is preparing for war.”

The Baron looked serious for the first time that morning. “But if it’s a Goddess we’re dealing with, and not just an evil King, then what good are espionage missions going to do you?”

“We have more effective tactics,” Wekain said evasively. “But we’ll spare you the details. As much as I like you, there’s no telling what might come out in a torture chamber.”

“I’ll not press you, then. Would you like to stay the night?”

“We’d be honored to,” Nilrid replied automatically.

The Baron laughed. “What have you been doing to this poor child, Asinai? He seems awfully eager.”

The High Wizard of Esanta smiled. “We’ve had a long, tiresome journey. But I’m afraid we don’t have time to cut it short. The boy’s correspondents in Pakil are expecting him by the first of August.”

“In that case, I’ll let you get moving along. Good luck to you!”

Since Asinai had obviously decided they weren’t going to sleep that day, they pressed on until dusk, then rested, and then began their night journey. By the next morning, Nilrid had been awake for over thirty hours and couldn’t go another step had his life depended on it.

After that, the pace eased up a bit, and they only found themselves traveling about eight hours a day (as opposed to twelve or even fourteen when Asinai was feeling particularly energetic).

They reached the Rogilian border well ahead of their expected arrival. It was about eleven o’clock at night on the twenty-fourth when they halted in front of the large gatehouse—they expected to cross near dawn on the twenty-fifth. There was a tall guard on the ramparts, but they couldn’t see him.

“Halt,” he called, sounding surprisingly lively for the one assigned to the night shift of border patrol. Of course, the three wizards had already stopped, but the guard ignored this fact and continued. “You are now passing into the Kingdom of Rogilia. Before you are granted entrance, I will need to ask you a few questions.”

“As if we didn’t know we were crossing a border,” Wekain muttered.

“What was that?” the guard called.

“I was commenting on your articulation,” the High Wizard of Querisia shouted. “You seem quite talented for one awake so late at night.”

“Thank you,” the guard said sourly. “Your occupations?”

“We are all merchants from North Rogilia,” Asinai lied. They had already agreed that since none of them had any authority in Rogilia, they should be as inconspicuous as possible.

“Purpose of travel?”

“We wish to visit my ailing grandfather in the city.”

“My condolences,” the guard said. “The three of you are permitted to pass. Welcome to the Kingdom of Rogilia.”

They walked through the open walkway—traditionally, in times of peace the border gate was kept up—and walked across a ten-foot bridge over the Salaver River, which was the official boundary between Esanta and Rogilia.

“Somehow, I thought the Salaver would have been bigger,” Nilrid commented.

“Well, it’s been very dry for the past few weeks in this part of the world,” the High Wizard of Querisia replied. “The Salaver still has several hundred miles more to go before its estuary, anyway.”

“And the questions that guard asked were even more sparse than the water in the river,” Asinai said, shaking his head. “They’re awfully confident about foreigners for a country that borders Tanaveri.”

“Would you rather have been interrogated?” Wekain asked.

“No, I’m just saying that...”

“Then stop complaining,” he snapped. “The questioning will be a little more extensive at the Tanaverian border, so let’s just count our blessings.”

They walked in silence for a while. Nilrid squinted at the darkness ahead of him, trying to make out the features of the Rogilian side of the Osir Forest. With a sigh of disappointment, he concluded that it wasn’t any different from the Esantan piece of it, which had grown a bit tiring.

“We’ll buy horses at the first town,” Asinai announced, breaking the silence.

“A splendid idea,” the High Wizard of Querisia agreed.

“After that, we’ll pick up our speed a bit. If we ride from eight at night to eight in the morning, we should be able to go thirty-five, maybe forty miles a day. Where’s the nearest town—is it North Rogilia?”

“I hope not,” Wekain replied. “We’re still about a day’s walk from the city. There’s sure to be a village somewhere in the vicinity.” He coughed slightly. “I could certainly use some water right now.”

“There’s a river just ahead of us,” the boy reported. “We’ll stop there and sit for a few minutes.”

“You’re a brilliant boy,” the High Wizard of Querisia congratulated.

Squinting, Nilrid tried to get a better look at the river. It was certainly wide for a tributary of the Salaver. The boy gasped suddenly. There was a gatehouse on one of the banks!

“Look!” he said, confused, as he pointed at the two connected towers. “That’s the Salaver River up ahead!”

“What?” Asinai murmured.

“Surprise!” a deep voice suddenly said.

Before the boy could turn, something metal and very heavy came down on his head, and he collapsed to the dusty ground.

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Copyright ©Nathan Black, 1998
By the same author RSSThere are no more works at
Date of publicationMarch 2000
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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