Read The web of wizardry Online

Authors: Juanita Coulson

The web of wizardry

Wizardry of Markuand

The season of bitter darkness had come to Markuand. Snow fell from lowering, slate-gray clouds, drifting across barren fields and the chalky ridges. Even at midday, the country was a twilit white. Stark shadows fell upon peasants' huts and villages and towns and the castles of the warlords. Though it was not a time of travel, the warlords had left their citadels, journeying from all quarters, obeying the imperious summons that could not be refused.

Now the warlords' sledges were drawn up in the courtyard of the Emperor's palace. Cruel winds lashed at the waiting teams while drivers and lackeys burrowed for warmth into the straw heaped against the gateposts. Dumb brutes and menials shivered helplessly, and the snow continued to fall.

White dominated Markuand, a cruelty of nature, a thing which had always been. Snow would ever come to blanket the land, and in the warmer season soil and rocks would be revealed in their pale dustiness. This was Markuand's fate in the schemings of the gods, and men and beasts accepted their lot.

But now a new and quite different pallor had stolen through Markuand. This was not the familiar, coldly beauteous sweep of windblown flake. By the Emperor's decree, standards and garb and all accoutrements of his warlords and soldiery were white henceforth—an absence of any color, a bleeding dry of the many hues which once had marked the Emperor's own. With that whiteness came fear more profound than any Markuand had suffered. The wave radiated from the palace, engulfing the land in whiteness, numbing hope, as the dark seasons had numbed flesh for countless generations.

1

In the pillared throne room of the palace, great fires crackled on the hearths and the Emperor sat swathed in costly fur cloaks; his concubines and favorite pages were permitted to draw near his presence, but others who attended him must wait below his dais. Along the outer walls stood rows of white-clad sentinels, seemingly immune to cold and fatigue. At the Emperor's back, half hidden in shadows and curtains, certain men and women lurked, their eyes glittering, their whispering ominous. An immense water clock splashed away the time, each drop into the carven bowl beneath the urn magnifying sound. The repetition added to the restlessness of the men of battle waiting below the throne. Yet none dared voice his impatience. The warlords were petty kings in their own right, jealous of prowess and territory. Now their pride was bent to a thing more powerful than any strength of arms. They closed ranks, staring with mutual loathing at the Emperor.

Childlike, he smiled in return, and his concubines laughed at the warlords' discomfiture. In face and form, the Emperor was a paragon, the very image of his illustrious sire. Tall and well formed, he was as well blessed with a fair and open countenance of godly mien. The blood of Markuand's most esteemed dynasty flowed in his veins, and this was to be the flower of that seed. His sire had been a leader warlord most bloody, and all had hoped the son would rule Markuand unto still greater glory.

The paragon gazed over the gathering and giggled inanely. His pale eyes were empty of any mature wit. One of his women fussed with his cloaks and he pouted and waved her away, not wanting to be distracted in his game.

The warlords must suffer the humiliation, though each longed to draw blade and strike down this halfwit in tyrant's guise. Not merely loyalty to the late Emperor and fear of the guards' pikes made them stay an attack on the imperial presence. Rather they watched the shadowy strirings along the drapes behind the throne, that place where the bright-eyed apprentices were waiting.

At long last, the heavy curtain was thrown back and servants rushed forth, carrying a chair and brazier and placing these at the foot of the throne. They kindled fire and then spread a golden cloth upon the chair, making it a rival for the Emperor's own. The simpleton perched on the edge of his throne and clapped his hands in excited expectation, peering intently toward the curtains.

He was not disappointed. With a flourish, the master wizard made his entrance, bowing very low to the Emperor. As he straightened he made a negligent flutter with his hand and produced a singing bird from the tips of his fingers. The Emperor squealed with delight and reached out for the creature, only to have the thing transform into a glittering, golden chain ere he could touch it. His squeals became gasps of awe, and he allowed the master wizard to twine the ornament about his royal shoulders. It nestled amid many a similar gaud, all gifts bestowed by the same hand.

While the Emperor and his favorites cooed over this new trinket, the wizard seated himself, not asking permission. He was a man of middle years, and luxury had put only a bit of fleshiness upon his sturdy frame. If he had chosen, he might have been a puissant warlord, for his Hmbs were well formed, his shoulders broad. His features could have been quite ordinary, save that an essence of some terrible, arcane knowledge shone through his dark eyes; it was a fearsome quality that held the waiting warlords in utter thrall.

He studied them and did not honor them with their titles when he addressed them. "Perhaps you are curious to know why his Most Perfect Highness and I bade you come to us. I will explain our whim to you." Behind him, those wizardly apprentices, men and women, formed a curtain of flesh, silent, listening to every word, now and then nodding or smiling in a fashion that made the warlords shudder.

The sorcerer steepled his forefingers and said, "It has come into our thoughts to look with covetousness upon the Lands Across the Great Western Sea."

He let a moment lengthen, probing their reactions. The warlords began to forget their dread, greed quick-

ening their pulses, though some doubt clung to them.

"We ... we know of them, Master Wizard," one ventured to say. "Their boats are blown to our shores now and again, but it is far across that sea, and how may we know the strength of this enemy, Master?"

A condescending smile answered them. "There are ways. I do not rashly slay such boatmen who are brought to my attention, my lords. I find methods to learn of their lands and peoples. They revealed many, many things before they were granted death's release."

Once more the wizard let silence serve as his weapon, and an evil leer curved his full lips. A few of the warlords made surreptitious signs in an attempt to ward off his magic. Uneasily, they mulled what he had said.

"They told me many things," the wizard repeated, "and much they would not have offered under mere torture." He enjoyed the collective shiver that went through their ranks, then continued. "The Lands Across the Sea are rich and fertile, ripe for the conquest. There are precious metals and timber such as Markuand's rocky hills have not known for half of twelve generations. There are gems and beasts and goods which will glorify His Most Perfect Highness's realm immeasurably. And of course, there will be slaves, alien women of exotic coloring and habits to brighten your dull households, my generals . . ."

"Oh, show these things to me!" the Emperor exclaimed.

The master did not take his attention from the warlords but left such display to his apprentices. Each was most skilled in the magical arts, though they had given over their lives to his commands. Now his silent bidding moved them. One by one, they conjured transformations upon themselves and took on the form of peoples far away. A dark and hulking male apprentice wizard became a tall, golden-haired fisherman, whose nets held a weighty harvest. A scrawny young woman changed herself to a well-fieshed beauty, small, with curling dark hair and tanned flesh; her lands, she said, were prosperous and green and warm throughout the year. Another of the wizard's talented minions spread

a veil of illusion over his being. This representation of an aUen people was very tall and, though young, his hair was white; he held an ax, and the magician conjured the prey of that ax, showing the warlords magnificent trees which seemed to burst through the ceihng, towering out of sight. A fourth had his turn and assumed the shape of a strong, dark man of middle height. He cast several images about himself. The warlords saw first a seemingly endless grassland where countless fat herds grazed. Heavily laden wagons traveled across the vista, their cargoes rich in gems and shining cloth and pure white and yellow metals from deep mines within towering mountains.

Their master gave no signal that the warlords could see, but he had tired of the game, and in an instant his minions were once more Markuand. They eased back into the shadows as he spoke. "Rich lands. Most Perfect Highness, and rich in population. They will make good slaves, those we choose to spare, and their labor will fill Markuand's coffers."

The warlords grimaced, and one of them said, "And are there not warriors in these alien lands? That fisherman did not look weak, nor did the hewer of trees or the miner, nor even that small woman."

"And did not the Gnarly Folk of the Broken Fields resist you, my generals? Where are they now? Their domain is ours and the people are dust," the wizard reminded them. "What of the Cave Fastnesses and the redbeards who ate from skulls? They were slain by our soldiers, our white-clad army that feels no pain. So shall the Lands Across the Sea fall to us."

"These . . . these ahen lands ... we do not know their languages and their ways. There may be dangers there foreign to Markuand, their customs a mystery to us . . ."

"Not to me."

A bit desperately, one of the bravest of the warlords found his voice and said, "But it is madness to attack them, in their own lands, upon several fronts. Surely we cannot hope to overwhelm them easily."

The wizard held out his hand and the words caught in the challenger's throat. But the curse or enchant-

ment he had dreaded did not come. Instead an incantation began, a droning chant among the wizard's apprentices, and a new set of images flowed from the fire of the brazier, took form, and leaped outward, crouching on the marble floor.

As one, the warlords shrank back. Even the Emperor forgot his amusements and gibbered in terror, and his women and pages shrieked and hid behind his throne.

A foursome of scaly abominations confronted the generals. They stood on the hindmost of six pairs of limbs, and forked tongues thrust out between slavering fangs. These were things of nightmares and a man's worst deliriums, brought up from the bowels of darkness and given life.

Few could bear to look directly upon them. Fear boiled out into prayers as the generals called upon their gods to protect them. Men snatched their cloaks out of the groping claws and fell back, scrambling across the cold floor, courage fleeing.

The master wizard employed his arts, a frown creasing his broad forehead, and a fifth creature appeared from the brazier and took flight. Larger than an ox, the winged snake soared in the smoky air, and light and shadow rippled across its leathery white wings—white like the imperial uniforms of the guards. Now the wizard sent his bird-snake flying toward the nearest of those soldiers. The guard threw up his spear to fend off the assault, fighting well. A long, vicious beak lined with teeth snapped at him, sundering the spear to splinters. The great wings rustled and wafted a stench through the room as the bird-snake closed with its prey. In stark horror, the warlords saw the soldier draw knife and try to strike, only to have the iron blade break against the magical beast's hide. Talon and beak ripped at the soldier, rending him Uke carrion. Potioned with the wizard's brew, he did not cry out in pain or fear but continued to strike futilely at the creature even as his vitals were destroyed. Within a few heartbeats, he lay dead, flesh and bone scattered as in a slaughterhouse.

Though the warlords were well hardened to battle

and had seen many a lopped limb and split head, this was something beyond mortal understanding. They clasped hands to their mouths to contain their vomit and turned away from the scene. The snake-bird croaked and hopped amid the carnage, feeding upon its victim's entrails.

Then the wizard flexed his hands, and the bird and its demonic fellows disappeared instantly. But the bloody remnants of the soldier did not. He had died, rent into fragments by a creature out of nightmares. The master wizard gestured and wiped all memory of what had happened from the Emperor's feeble mmd.

The warlords, however, could not forget, though much they wished to do so. They avoided looking upon the mangled flesh and bone of the dead guard and fought their nausea.

Coldly, the wizard smiled at them. "A small demonstration, to persuade you that not force of arms alone will strike these Lands Across the Sea. Once those aUens have met my little pets, they shall carry the tale with them as they flee, spreading confusion and fear. They wiU fall easily to your forces, and there will be much, much treasure for the Emperor, slaves for his realm, new territories for his glory."

"Oh, I should hke to have treasure!" the Emperor wheedled, like a boy craving a sweetmeat.

"So you shall. Most Perfect Highness. All is in readiness. It needs but a few more ships and the fleet is assembled. Further, we have provisions to fulfill the needs of our soldiery until we have conquered enough of the alien lands to begin to satisfy us there. The attack will begin within the season, at the coming of the Soft Wind. We will deal first with the island kingdom and hold the northerners and the little brown people at bay then while we take the land of mines. I have plans for those peculiar metals and gems ..."

He tapped a forefinger against his cheek, his eyes very bright. "You see, I do not expect much of you, my generals—only your swords and courage and the strong arms of your vassals. Your soldiery will be po-tioned and will become an invincible army, incapable

of pain or retreat. The might of Markuand will conquer, in the name of His Most Perfect Highness."

The prospect of conquest and plunder attracted the warlords. But doubts remained, driving the boldest among them to speak now. His lineage was nearly the equal of the Emperor's own, and pride bade him ask, "Master Wizard, have not the enemy their wizards? Can they not conjure? Shall they not call up demons to match your demons, sorcery to counter Markuand's sorcery?"

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