Travelling alone in the depths of winter, Morlock Ambrosius (bitterly dry drunk, master of all magical makers, wandering swordsman, and son of Merlin Ambrosius and Nimue Viviana) is attacked by an unknown enemy.
To unmask his enemy and end the attacks he must travel a long crooked way through the world: past the soul-eating Boneless One, past a subtle and treacherous master of golems, past the dragon-taming Khroi, past the predatory cities of Sarkunden and Aflraun, past the demons and dark gnomes of the northern woods.
Soon he will find that his enemy wears a familiar face, and that the duel he has stumbled into will threaten more lives than his own, leaving nations shattered in its chaotic wake.
And at the end of his long road waits the death of a legend.
“James Enge writes with great intelligence and wit. His stories take twisty paths to unexpected places you absolutely want to go. This isn't the same old thing; this is delightful fantasy written for smart readers,” says Greg Keyes, New York Times bestselling author of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series.
Paul Cornell, Hugo-nominated writer of Doctor Who and Marvel comics, declares, “James Enge's work is like Conan as written by Raymond Chandler: rich, witty, aware of its genre's traditions but not bound by them, with a new surprise of plot or turn of phrase every moment.”
Praise for James Enge's Blood of Ambrose:
“Enge's precise and elegant language and some darkly harrowing scenes are sure to tug on readers' heartstrings. ...this coming-of-age narrative makes for an engaging journey.”
Scroll down to read an excerpt from Enge's latest, This Crooked Way.
This Crooked Way
I: THE WAR IS OVER
The crooked man rode out of the dead lands on a black horsewith gray sarcastic eyes.
Winter was awaiting him, as he expected. In the deadlands it never rained or snowed, and the nearness to the seakept the lifeless air mild. But it was the month of Brenting, late in winter,and as they crossed into the living lands the air took on a deadly chill and the snowdrifts soon became knee-high on his horse.
Morlock Ambrosius dismounted awkwardly and took the reins in hishand. “Sorry about this, Velox,” he said to the horse.
Velox looked at him and made a rude noise with his lips.
“Eh,” Morlock replied, “the same to you,” and floundered forward through the snowdrifts, leading the beast. He was a pedestrian by temperamentand had spent much of his long life walking from one place to another. He knew little about the care of horses, and what little he knew was not especially useful, as Velox was unusual in a number of ways. But, although he had considered it, he found he could not simply abandon Velox or trade him to some farmer for a basket of flatbread.
But Velox wanted food in alarming horse-sized amounts. Morlock had tried feeding him dried seaweed from the coastline, and Velox had eaten it, since there was little else. But Morlock suspected it wasn’t enough for the grumpy beast, and he was going to have to go to a farm or even a town to buy some horse feed.
This was a problem, as Morlock was a criminal in the eyes of imperial law. He had reason to suppose the Emperor was not interested in seeing him dead, but no local Keeper of the Peace was likely to know this. It was dangerous for him to be seen, to be recognized.
On the other hand, his horse was hungry.
Nearly as grumpy as Velox, Morlock led the beast eastward through the bitter white fields until they reached the black muddy line of the Sar river, running south from the Kirach Kund. Alongside the river ran a hardly less muddy road; at intervals on the road were stations of the Imperial Post; clustering around some of these stations were towns where one could buy amenities like hay and oats.
Morlock mounted his horse and rode north toward Sarkunden. Presentlyhe came, not to a town, but (even better for his purposes) to a barn. The doors of the barn were open and several dispirited farm workers were carrying pails of dung out of the barn and dumping it in a dark steaming heap that contrasted strangely with the recent snow.
Morlock reined in and said, “Good day. Can I buy some oats or something?”
The workers stopped their work and stared at him. Others came out ofthe barn, and also stopped and stared. After a while, one who seemed to betheir leader (or thought he was), said, “Not from us, Crookback.”
“Do you own this place?” Morlock asked.
“No, but we’ll keep him from selling to you.”
“Unlikely,” Morlock replied, and dismounted. The men were gripping their dungforks and shovels and whatnot more like weapons now. If there was going to be a fight he wanted to be on his own feet, for a number of reasons.
“Know who I am, Crookback?” the leader of the workmen asked.
“This help?” He brushed some muck off his darkish outer garment. Morlock saw it was embroidered with a red lion.
“Not much,” Morlock said.
“My name is Vost. I was Lord Urdhven’s right-hand man. His closest friend. You killed him. Destroyed him. And now you come here. And ask me for oats.”
“The man was dead before I met him,” Morlock said. “We’ve no quarrel.”
“You lie,” Vost said, sort of, through clenched teeth.
“Then,” Morlock replied. He drew the sword strapped to his crooked shoulders. The crystalline blade, black entwined with white, glittered in the thin winter sunlight.
“I hate you,” Vost hissed, raising the dungfork in his hands like a stabbing spear. “I hate you. Nothing will stop me from trying to kill you until you’re dead.
”Morlock believed him. He was beginning to remember this Vost a little: a fanatical devotee of the late unlamented Lord Protector Urdhven; he had lived and died by his master’s expressions of favor or disfavor. His life had lost its meaning when he had lost his master, and he had to blame someone for his freedom. Evidently he had settled on Morlock.
Morlock extended his sword arm and lunged, stabbing the man through his ribs. Vost’s face stretched in surprise, then went slack with death. Morlock felt the horror of his dissolution through the medium of his sword, which was also a focus of power, very dangerous to use as a mundane weapon. A dying soul wants to carry others with it, and Morlock had to free himself of Vost’s death shock and the dead soul’s death grip before he was free to shake the corpse off the end of his sword and face Vost’s companions.
They must have made some move toward attacking him, because Velox was in amongst them, rearing and kicking. One man already lay still in the dirty snow, a dark hoofmark on his forehead. As Morlock turned toward them, his sword dripping with Vost’s blood and his face clenched in something not far removed from death agony, they took one look and fled, running up the road past the barn.
“Hey!” shouted a man coming out of the farmhouse with an axe in his hand. He was a prosperous gray-haired man with darkish skin, and he carriedthe axe like he knew how to use it. “Why are you killing my workmen?”
Morlock was cleaning his blade with some snow; he wiped it on his sleeve and sheathed it.
“The man annoyed me,” he said at last.
“And the other one?”
“Annoyed my horse.”
“You know what annoys me? People who come into my barnyard and leave dead bodies lying all over the place. I find that annoying.”
"I was going to dump them into the river. Unless you have some strong objection.”
The farmer blew out his cheeks and thought it over. “No, I guess not. They were no friends of mine, just some tramps working for the day.”
“Then.” Morlock hauled Vost’s corpse out of the yard, across the road, and threw it face down into the muddy water of the Sar. The corpse sank almost out of sight; the sluggish waters tugged it away from the bank and it floated downstream.The last casualty in Protector Urdhven’s civil war, or so Morlock hoped.
When he returned, he found the farmer had laid down his weapon and was crouching over the workman Velox had struck down. “This one’s stillbreathing,” the farmer said. “Your horse is hurt, though.”
Morlock saw this was true: blood was dripping off Velox’s neck and running down his left foreleg, staining the dirty snow. Morlock grabbed some snow from a clean patch and held it to the ragged wound on the horse’s neck. It was already healing, but Morlock thought the cold might help counter the pain. If Velox felt pain: that was one of the things Morlock wasn’t sure about.
Presently he turned away and grabbed a bagful of herbs from the pack strapped behind the saddle. He knelt down in the snow next to the fallen man and examined the wound on his head.
“The skull doesn’t seem to be broken,” Morlock said. “The man may wake up, or not. If he doesn’t, he’ll be dead in a few days; toss him in the river. If he does wake, give him tea made with this, once a day for a few days.” He tossed the bag to the farmer. “It will help him heal.”
“What is it?”
“Uh. All right. Wait a moment, I’m supposed to look after this tramp? I’ve got a farm to run.”
Morlock reached into a pocket and tossed him a gold coin. “It’s on me.”
The farmer’s eyes opened wide as he looked at the coin, weighed it in his hand. “All right,” he said.
Morlock pointed at the red lion, faintly visible on the supine man’s dirty surcoat. “You should get rid of this, in case an imperial patrol comes by. This man must be one of Lord Urdhven’s soldiers, the dead-enders who wouldn’t accept the new Emperor’s amnesty.”
“I didn’t know.”
“It’s better if they don’t know. Better for you. For him.”
“I’ll get rid of it. Let’s carry this poor virp into the barn; it’s a bit warmer there. And I don’t want him in the house.”
They bedded the fallen workman down in the loft, and then the farmer said, “It occurs to me that you came into my yard for some reason.”
“I need some food for my horse, something I can carry with me. Oats or something.”
“Not a horsey type, are you? That horse isn’t going anywhere for a while. It’s wounded pretty bad.”
“He’ll be fine by now.”
The farmer shook his head and said, “You may be a murderous son-of-abitch, but you don’t strike me as cruel. And I tell you it’d be cruel to expect him to carry you and your baggage for a while. Leave him with me; I’ll takecare of him. Or sell him to me, if you don’t plan to be back this way. I’ll give you a fair price.”
“Just sell me some oats.”
The farmer wanted to haggle over the price, but Morlock just handed him another gold coin and said, “As much as this will buy.”
The farmer sputtered. “You and the horse couldn’t carry that much.”
“As much as he can carry, then.”
“It shouldn’t be carrying anything!”
Morlock went with the farmer down to look at Velox, who was quietly stealing some hay and hiding it inside himself. The wound had closed and ascar was forming.
“There’s something weird about this,” the farmer said.
“He’s an unusual beast,” Morlock conceded.
They bagged up some oats and strapped them across Velox’s back. Morlock took the pack off, strapped it to his own back, and they threw more bags of oats onto Velox.
“That’s thirsty work,” the farmer remarked. “You want a mug of beer before you go?
”Morlock considered it and, when he realized he was considering it, said, “No.”
“We’ve got a jar or two of wine from foreign parts—” the farmer continued, doubtful of his ground but willing to be sociable.
“If you offer me a drink again,” Morlock said evenly, “I’ll kill you.”
The farmer did not offer him a drink again. He said nothing at all as Morlock led Velox out of the yard and away, northward up the road to Sarkunden.
II: INTERLUDE: TELLING THE TALE
More or less at the same time, young Dhyrvalona said,
“I don’t understand?”
“Why didn’t he take the drink?”
“Was he afraid it was poisoned?”
“A harmony,” her nurse sang to her. “A harmony of meanings, Dhyrvalona dear. You may have three mouths, but I don’t have three minds. Harmonize your questions the way you harmonize your voices; let your wisdom vibrate in the listener’s mind, and she may return the favor.”
Little Dhyrvalona’s three adorable mouths harmonized three different but related obscenities she had heard her armed guards use.
Gathenavalona, Dhyrvalona’s nurse, snapped her mandibles and extended all three of her arms in angular gestures of rebuke.
After a tense moment, young Dhyrvalona covered each of her three eyes with a palp-cluster, an expression of grief or sorrow—in this context, an apology. She peered through her palps to see how her nurse was taking it.
Gathenavalona relaxed the tension in her mandibles, giving her pyramidal face a less forbidding appearance. Her arms changed from harsh angles to soothing curves, and she stroked the top of Dhyrvalona’s pointed head with one gentle palp-cluster.
Humbly, Dhyrvalona sang,
“But I still don’t understand.”
“Learning is a lasting joy.”
“Ignorance is an endable grief.”
Gathenavalona gestured strong approval and replied, more prosaically,“You know how the one-faced fill their one-mouths with rotten grape juice and old barley water?”
“A single mouth! How ugly and stupid!”
The remarks didn’t harmonize in sound or sense, but the nurse was not inclined to be strict with her charge these days. Young Dhyrvalona was growing up; soon she would take the place of old Valona in the Vale of the Mother. That would be a proud and sad day for the nurse, and she wanted the days and nights until then to be less proud and less sad.
“The juice makes some one-faceds happy; it makes some sad; it makes some sick. For Morlock—"
“—for Morlock Ambrosius, it does all these things. The farmer did not intend to harm him. His kindness would have harmed him, though. Do you understand?”
“Neither do you.”
“The Destroyer is beyond understanding.”
“Empty your mind of lies.”
“Fill your mind with truth.”
“Nothing is beyond understanding.”
Young Dhyrvalona opened her eyes and her ear-lids, indicating a willingness to be instructed.
The nurse sang.
“Kindness can kill.”
“Enmity can heal.”
“Surgeon and destroyer both wield sharp blades.”
Young Dhyrvalona gestured acknowledgement, but incomplete understanding.
The nurse sang.
“We are nothing to Morlock.”
“Morlock is nothing to us.”
“Yet, on a day, we met and wounded each other.”
The nurse paused and resumed.
“A mother was wounded.”
“A mother was slain.”
“A mother stood waiting in death’s jaws.”
The nurse paused and resumed.
“Morlock stole the hatred of the gods.”
“The gods stole our hatred of Morlock.”
“That end/beginning was our beginning/end.”
The nurse paused and resumed.
“That is why, once a year, we wear the man-masks.”
“That is why, once a year, we curse the gods-who-hate-us.”
“That is why, once a year, we sing of who destroyed us.”
Young Dhyrvalona cried out impatiently,
“All right, I’m trying to be good.”
“Night is falling; the time for tales is ending.”
“You haven’t even told me about the horse!”
Gathenavalona blinked one eye in amusement and sang indulgently.
“A horse is almost like us.”
“Horses have four legs, anyway, not two.”
“For a man to lose a horse is a serious thing . . .”
Young Dhyrvalona snuggled down into her nest and prepared to be entertained. She knew this part of the story well, of course: the nurse told her a little more every year, but this was one of the earliest parts and she had heard it many times.
This year, her nurse had promised, she would tell her the whole tale, even if it took many nights, every night of the annual festival. The grown-ups of the Khroic clan of Valona’s heard the whole story every year, and now she would too. That was because, the nurse had explained to her, she was almost a grown-up now. Young Valona could see that this made the nurse sad, but she herself was very happy; she couldn’t wait to grow up. And she was so glad it was the season of Motherdeath, the happiest time of the year.
III: BLOOD FROM A STONE
Morlock awoke because the earth was shuddering beneath him. He’d been raised under the mountains of Northhold and he knew in his bones that, if the ground moved, he had better move, too.
He rolled to one side to free himself from his sleeping cloak and leaped to his feet. By then the stone monster had plunged its fist or paw deep into the ground where Morlock had been lying.
The stone monster. It was clearly made of stone; at first he thought it was striped like a tiger, but then he saw that it was ringed or ridged down its long leonine body to the end of its four limbs. It swung its heavy maneless head toward him, clicking oddly as it moved; the stone teeth in its crooked ill-matched jaws streamed with some red fluid in the gray morning light. Its eyes gleamed like moonlit crystal or water as they focused on him and it prepared to leap.
“Tyrfing!” Morlock shouted, and held out his hand for his sword. It didn’t come to him: even though he was not in rapture, he felt the talic impulse as it tried to reach him. Something was holding it back.
The stone beast jumped at him and he leaped to one side. The old woundin his leg was already aching; he hoped he wouldn’t have to try to outrun this thing. He reached down and grabbed two fistfuls of dirty snow and threw them at the stone beast’s eyes.
It responded strangely, like a startled animal, blinking fiercely and shaking its head to get the grit from its eyes.
Morlock’s opinion, those eyes were made of glass or crystal in some maker’s workshop; the beast’s whole body was a cunningly made puzzle, its joints clicking as pieces shifted so that it could move. He doubted that the thing could feel as an animal’s body feels.
But it acted as if it could feel the dirt in its eyes; it expected to feel discomfort from the snow. At the very least, it was perplexed when somethingobscured its vision.
That told him something: he was not facing a golem. Golems do only what they have been designed to do, fulfilling the instructions on their lifescrolls. It was unlikely that a maker would waste scroll space telling a golem to react emotionally like an animal when something got in its eyes. Somehow a living entity was directing the motions of the stone monster.
And if it was alive, it could be killed.
Morlock’s back was against the trunk of an oak tree, its crooked limbs leafless and whistling in the breeze of the winter morning. He reach up and tore one of the limbs loose from the trunk.
The stone beast, floundering through the snow, charged Morlock, who circled behind the tree. If he moved carefully, he could keep to the hardened crust of snow and move faster than the beast. It lunged toward him; he continued around the tree and, leaping into the trench of snow left in the stone beast’s wake, he struck the beast as hard as he could across the back of its lumpy head.
The stone beast snarled, a grinding sound of rock on rock, and swung about to face him. Morlock fled back around the tree. The stone beast rose upon three legs and struck the trunk of the tree with its right forepaw. The oak tree shattered, the trunk split down the middle.
Giving vent to the turbulence of his emotions, Morlock said “Eh,” and ran.
The beast was after him in a moment, but he took a twisting path though the nearby trees, keeping to the surface crust of snow when he could, and managed to stay barely ahead of the thing. Twice he managed to get inmore blows to its head—once from the side, once from behind—and he thought that its movements were getting more sluggish, the beast groggier.
His twisting course took him toward the nearby Sar River. His thought was that, if worse came to worst, he could swim away from his stone enemy (although the cold water in this cold weather might kill him faster than themonster could).
As he zigged to avoid the stone beast’s lumbering zag, he glanced over his shoulder and saw that one of the thing’s glass eyes was cracked. The stone head kept twitching and shaking, as if to free the eye of some obstruction. (The shattered eye itself?)
He whirled about and swung the branch with both hands, striking thebeast on the side of its head with the broken eye. The glass fell away and allthat remained was a dark hole in the stone beast’s face. It drew back, as if aghast. A thin trickle of blood, like tears, ran down the gray stone face from the empty eye socket.
Morlock turned on his heel and ran straight toward the river.
It was after him in a moment, but he had reached the icy marsh along the river’s edge before it caught up with him. It came forward in a great leap and knocked him off his feet in the shallow ice-sheathed water as it landed behind him. The great stone body surged as Morlock scrabbled for his club on the icy surface of the water and struggled to regain his feet in the soft ground. The moments passed like hours; it seemed impossible that the beast would not recover and strike him dead before he could arm himself. But, in fact, it didn’t. When he regained his feet he saw why.
The beast was stuck in the mud under the shallow water, unable to free its deadly limbs from the soft ground. Morlock realized this was his chance; he vaulted past the beast’s snapping jaws and one-eyed face to land on its broad shoulders. Standing there he delivered savage blow after savage blow to the back of the beast’s head. The stone body writhed and chittered beneath him, but in time it began to move slower and slower. At last it fell still; its snout slumped into the icy stream, and bloody water bubbled from the empty eye socket. The thing was dead.
Morlock staggered off the beast’s back and tossed aside his now splintered club. He took a few moments to breathe and gather his strength. But not too long: the cold was a pain gnawing at him, especially the limbs that had been soaked in the river.
He went to change into dry clothes, shivering by the smoking remains of last night’s fire. He saw his sword, Tyrfing, bound in its sheath to a nearby boulder; he doubted that the stone beast’s paws could have managed that, even if its brain could have planned it. That bothered him. He saw Velox nowhere, and that bothered him very much. He remembered the red fluid on the stone monster’s stony teeth.
In dry clothes, after freeing Tyrfing, he went in search of Velox. And he found what he had feared he might: what was evidently the scene of a struggle, some distance away from Morlock’s camp. There were the marks of savage bloody blows in the snow and the stiff unyielding earth below. There were some stray horsehairs, bloody hoofmarks in the snow and earth, but nobody, not even stray bones or flesh.
He had seen something like this in his youth, where a monster had dismembered and eaten a horse on the long road facing the western edge of the world.
“Doubtful,” Morlock reminded himself. There was more, or perhaps less, to this scene than met the eye.
He spent the rest of the morning dragging the dead body of the stone beast from the swampy margin of the river. He took his time because he wanted to avoid getting soaked again, using xakth-fiber ropes and a pulley system to haul the thing up from the water to an open area not far from his camp.
Not pausing for breakfast or lunch—eating didn’t seem advisable, given his plans—he took Tyrfing and gutted the stone beast, laying bare its insides from its stumpy tail to its blunt snout.
There was indeed some kind of fleshy brain in the rocky skull. It was badly swollen from the beating Morlock had given it, but he didn’t think it was a man’s or a woman’s brain. A dragon’s? A dwarf’s? Something else? Morlock couldn’t tell. He was no connoisseur of brains.
The contents of the stone belly told an interesting tale indeed. There were multitudes of splintered bone fragments, a cracked hoof or two, an oddly familiar pair of black horse-ears, a brown equine eye, other more horrible things, all swimming in a strange pale fluid that stank like a torturer’s conscience.
That was enough. Morlock wiped his sword carefully and sheathed it, then walked away. The stone belly told an interesting tale: that the beast had killed and eaten Velox before attacking Morlock. And the tale was a lie. Most black horses have brown eyes, but Velox did not, and there simply was not enough bulk in the stone beast’s belly to account for an entire horse.
Morlock boiled water, washed his hands, made tea, and thought.
Every lie is shaped by the truth it is meant to conceal. What did the lie in the stone beast’s belly tell him?
That Velox was probably alive, for one thing—seized by a maker skilled enough to make the stone beast and ruthless enough to use it. He knew of only one such, but there might be many; it would be best to keep an open mind.
Normally he would have sought out a crow who might have seen something, for he had an affinity for crows, but they were rarer in this region than they had been once. Using his Sight to search for the maker and his stolen horse might be a mistake, though. There were traps that could be set in the realms of vision that could capture or harm even the wary. Still, he needed more information before he set out in search of Velox. And there might be a way. . .
He went to his pack and sorted through it until he found a certain book.
He had written it himself in the profoundly subtle “palindromic” script of ancient Ontil. Each page was a mirror image of the one it faced; both pages had to be inscribed simultaneously. There was a page for each of the days of the year, and one for each day of the “counter-year” that runs backward as time moves forward. It was useful for reading the future or the past; merely to possess it sometimes gave one clairvoyant experiences. He had fashioned it over a long period, beginning last year, after he had some indication that he might have to confront a maker as gifted as himself whose talents in the Sight were even greater than his.
He turned to the day’s date and read the palindromes for that day and its counter-day. Most of them meant nothing to him. But there was one that he came back to again and again.
Alfe runilmao vo inila. Alinio vo amlinu refla.
Which might be rendered: From the skulls, [he] walked south. A maker goes into the north.
“The skulls” might be “the River of Skulls”: the Kirach Kund (to give it the Dwarvish name by which it was generally known). It was the high pass that divided the Whitethorn and Blackthorn ranges, the only way past those towering mountains . . . for those who had the courage to take it.
This didn’t make his decision for him: like any omen it might mean anything or nothing. But his intuition confirmed it: he would go north.
Another man might have weighed the odds on recovering the horse against the fact that he preferred to walk. He would have thought twice about whether getting the horse back was worth it.
But there was a bond of loyalty between Morlock and Velox, and Morlock was not the sort to question that bond, or the obligations it might entail.
Also, he had nothing else to do. He struck camp and, before the sun had descended much from its zenith, he was walking along the river northward to Sarkunden.
IV: PAYMENT DEFERRED
The thug’s first thrust sent his sword screeching past Morlock Ambrosius’s left ear. He retreated rather than parry Morlock’s riposte; then he thrust again in the same quadrant as before.
While the thug was still extended for his attack, Morlock deftly kicked him in the right knee. With a better swordsman this would have cost Morlock, but he had the measure of his opponent. The thug went sideways, squawking in dismay, into a pile of garbage.
The point of Morlock’s blade, applied to the thug’s wrist, persuaded him to release his sword. The toe of Morlock’s left shoe, applied to the thug’s chin, persuaded him to keep lying where he was.
“What’s your story, Slash?” Morlock asked.
Morlock’s sword point shifted to the thug’s throat. “I’m in Sarkunden for an hour. You pick me out of a street crowd, follow me into an alley, and try to kill me. Why?”
“Y’re smart, eh? See a lot, eh?”
“Dontcha like it, eh? Dontcha like to fight, eh?”
“Call a Keep, hunchback!” the thug sneered. “Maybe, I dunno, maybe I oughta—” He raised his hand theatrically to his mouth and inhaled deeply, as if he were about to cry out.
Morlock’s sword pressed harder against the thug’s neck, just enough to break the skin. The shout never issued from the thug’s mouth, but the thug sneered triumphantly. He’d made his point: Morlock, as an imperial outlaw, wanted to see the Keepers of the Peace—squads of imperial guards detailed to policing the streets—even less than this street punk with a dozen murders to his credit. (Morlock knew this from the cheek rings in the thug’s face. The custom among the water gangs was one cheek ring per murder. Duels and fair fights did not count.)
“Ten days’ law—that’s what you got, eh?” the thug whispered. “Ten days to reach the border; then if they catch you inside it—zzccch! When’d yourtime run out, uh, was it twenny days ago? Thirty?”
“Sure. Call a Keep, scut-face. By sunrise they’ll have your head drying on a stake upside the Kund-Way Gate.”
“I won’t be calling the Keepers of the Peace,” Morlock agreed. The crooked half-smile on his face was as cold as his ice-gray eyes. “What will I do instead?”
“You can’t kill me, crooky-boy—” the thug began, with suddenly shrill bravado.
“I can kill you. But I won’t. I’ll cut your tendons and pull your cheek rings. I can sell the metal for drinking money at any bar in this town, as long as the story goes with it. And I’ll make sure everyone knows where I last saw you.”
“There’s a man; he wants to see you,” said the thug, giving in disgustedly.
“Alive. But I figure: the Empire pays more for you dead than this guy will alive.”
“You’re saying he’s cheap.”
“Cheap? He’s riding his horse, right, and you cross the road after him and step in his horse-scut. He’s gonna send a greck after you to charge you for the fertilizer. You see me?”
“I see you.” Morlock briefly weighed his dangers against his needs. “Take me to this guy. I’ll let you keep a cheek ring, and one tendon, maybe.”
“Evil scut-sucking bastard,” hissed the thug, unmistakably moved with gratitude.
“The guy’s” house was a fortresslike palace of native blue-stone, not far inside the western wall of Sarkunden. Morlock and the limping thug were admitted through a heavy bronze door that swung down to make a narrow bridge across a dry moat. Bow slits lined the walls above the moat; through them Morlock saw the gleam of watching eyes.
“Nice place, eh?” the thug sneered.
“I like it.”
The thug hissed his disgust at the emblems of security and anyone who needed them.
They waited in an unfinished stone anteroom with three hard-faced guards until an inner door opened and a tall fair-haired man stepped through it. He glanced briefly in cold recognition at the thug, but his eyes lit up as they fell on Morlock.
“Ah! Welcome, sir. Welcome to my home. Do come in.”
“Money,” said the thug in a businesslike tone.
“You’ll be paid by your gang leader. That was the agreement.”
“I better be,” said the thug flatly. He walked back across the bronze doorbridge,strutting to conceal his limp.
“Come in, do come in,” said the householder effusively. “People usually call me Charis.”
Morlock noted the careful phrasing and replied as precisely, “I am Morlock Ambrosius.”
“I know it, sir—I know it well. I wish I had the courage to do as you do. But few of those-who-know can afford to be known by their real names.”
Those-who-know was a euphemism for practitioners of magic, especially solitary adepts. Morlock shrugged his crooked shoulders, dismissing the subject.
“I had a prevision you were coming to Sarkunden,” said the sorcerer who called himself Charis, “and—yes, thank you, Veskin, you may raise the bridge again—I wanted to consult with you on a matter I have in hand. I hope that gangster didn’t hurt you, bringing you in—I see you are limping.”
“It’s an old wound.”
“Ah. Well, I’m sorry I had to put the word out to the water gangs, but they cover the town so much more thoroughly than the Keepers of the Peace.Then there was the matter of your—er—status. I hope, by the way, you aren’t worried about that fellow shopping you to the imperial forces?”
Charis’s narrow blond eyebrows arched slightly. “Your confidence is justified, ”he admitted, “but I don’t quite see its source.”
Morlock waved a hand. “This place—your house. No ordinary citizen would be allowed to have a fortress like this within the town’s walls. You are not a member of the imperial family. So I guess you have a large chunk of the local guards in your pocket, and have had for at least ten years.”
Charis nodded. “Doubly astute. You’ve assessed the age of my house to the year, and you’re aware of its political implications. Of course, you were in the Emperor’s service fairly recently, weren’t you?”
“Yes, but let’s not dwell on it.”
Charis dwelled on it. Knotting his eyebrows theatrically, he said, “Let’s see, what was it that persuaded him to exile you?”
“I had killed his worst enemy and secured his throne from an usurpation attempt.”
“Oh, my God. Well, there you are. I don’t claim your own level of political astuteness, you understand, but if I had been there to advise you I would have said, ‘Don’t do it!’ I never do anything for anybody that they can’t repay, and I never allow anybody to do anything for me that I can’t repay. Gratitude is painless enough in short bursts, but few people can stand it on a day-to-day basis.”
They ascended several flights of stairs, passing several groups of servants who greeted Charis with every appearance of cheerful respect. Finally they reached a tower room ringed with windows, with a fireplace in its center and two liveried pages in attendance. Charis seated Morlock in a comfortable chair and planted himself in its twin on the other side of the fireplace. He gestured negligently and the pages stood forward.
“May I offer you something?” Charis asked. “A glass of wine? The localgrapes are particularly nasty, as you must know, but there’s a vineyard in northern Kaen I’ve come to favor lately. I’d like your opinion on their work.”
“I’m not a vintner. Some water for me, thanks.”
This remark set Charis’s eyebrows dancing again. “But surely . . .” he said, as the demure dark-eyed servant at his side handed him a glass-lined drinking cup.“
I don’t drink when I’m working, and I gather you want me to do a job. What is it?”
Charis leaned back in his chair. “Let me begin to answer by asking a question: What do you think is the most remarkable thing about this remarkable house of mine?”
Morlock accepted a cup of water from a bold-eyed blond-haired page. He drank deeply as he mulled the question over, then replied, “I suppose the fact that all the servants are golems.”
The comment caught his host in midswallow. Morlock watched with real interest as Charis choked down his wine, his astonishment, and an obvious burst of irritation more or less simultaneously.
“May I ask how you knew that?” Charis said carefully, when he was free for speech.
“From the fact that all the servants we’ve met, including your guards, have been golems, I deduced that your entire staff consisted of golems.”
“Yes, but surely, sir, you understand the intent of my question: How did you know they were golems? For I think, sir, as a master in the arts of Making, you will admit they are excellent work—extremely lifelike.” Charis’s frank and inquisitive look had something of a glare in it. Clearly he had made the golems himself and was vexed because they had not deceived Morlock.
“Mostly the eyes,” Morlock said. “The golems are well made, I grant you, and the life-scrolls must be remarkably complicated and various. But you can’t quite get a natural effect with clay eyes.”
Charis turned his gaze from Morlock to the dark-haired modest page at his left hand. Morlock watched the struggle in his host’s face as he realized the truth of the observation.
“What would you use?” Charis asked finally. “If I may be so bold.”
“Molten glass for the eyes proper—the eyeball and the cornea. I’d slice up some gems and use a fan-ring assembly for the irises. You’re using black mirror-tube for the visual canals? I think that would work very well.”
“You can’t use glass,” Charis said sharply, sitting on the edge of his chair. “I’ve tried it. The vivifying spell induces some flexibility in the material, but it’s not sufficient.”
“It would be necessary to keep it molten until the vivifying spell is activated,” Morlock replied.
“It seems to me, frankly, that the problems are completely insuperable.”
“I can show you,” Morlock said indifferently.
“Frankly, you’ll have to. That will have to be part of the deal. Frankly.”
“What deal are you offering?”
Charis leapt to his feet, walked impatiently all around the room, and threw himself back down in his chair. “You have me at a disadvantage,” he remarked. “As you no doubt intended.”
“We both have something the other needs.”
“Thank God! I thought for a moment—no matter what I thought. As you guessed: except for myself, all my household are golems. I do business every day in the city—a very large business in very small spells—and, frankly, when I come home I detest the human race. But I have the normal human desire for a sociable life.”
Morlock, who had none of these problems, inclined his head to acknowledge them. “And the golems are your solution.”
“A most effective one, by and large. Except that I will never be able to look one of the damned things in the eyes again!”
“That can be fixed,” Morlock pointed out. “Also, there must have been something else, or you wouldn’t have been looking for me.”
“Yes. Yes. As you noticed, I’ve been at some pains to give each of my golems a distinctive character, physically and otherwise. A desert of a thousand identical faces and minds would hardly satisfy my social instincts.”
“No golem has a mind,” Morlock observed. “A limited set of responses can be incorporated into any life-scroll.”
“A difference that is no difference, sir. What does it matter to me whether they really have minds or not? If they seem to have minds, my social instincts will be satisfied.”
Morlock thought this unlikely, but did not say so. “Then?”
“The trouble is that, since I inscribed their life-scrolls, nothing they say or do can ever surprise me. You see? The illusion that they have identities collapses. My social instincts are not satisfied. Frankly, it’s dull.”
“Then. You would have me make a new set of lifelike golems, at least some of whose responses you will not expect.”
“In an unthreatening and even charming way. Play fair, now.”
“I can’t undertake to provide charm,” Morlock said. “We can rule out danger, insubordination, and incivility.”
“Very well. I’m sure I can trust your esthetic instincts. Also, you must show me your method of constructing their eyes.”
“The question arises, ‘What can I do for you?’ I take it that mere gold will not . . . ? No.”
Morlock shook his head. “I understand the Sarkunden garrison still runs scouting missions into the Kirach Kund,” he said, naming the mountain pass to the north of Sarkunden.
"Ye-e-es,” Charis said slowly.
“I can’t remain in the empire, as you know. I can’t go west—”
“No one goes into the Wardlands.”
“In any case, I can’t. I dislike Anhi and Tychar, and therefore would not go east.”
"You intend to cross the Kirach Kund!”
“Yes. It is done from time to time, I believe.”
"By armed companies. Nor do they always survive.”
Morlock lifted his wry shoulders in a shrug. “I have done it. But I was once taken prisoner by the Khroi and am reluctant to risk it again.”
“The Khroi take only prey, never prisoners. You will excuse my being so downright, but we live in the Khroi’s shadow, here, and we know something about them.”
“They made an exception for me, once. They may not make the same mistake again. It would be better for me if I knew what the imperial scouts know—what hordes are allied to each other, which are at war, where the latest fighting is, where dragon-cavalry has been seen.”
“I see.” Charis’s face twisted. “I have never meddled with strictly military matters before. It will strain my relationship with the garrison commander.”
Morlock lifted his crooked shoulders in a shrug. “You could hire anumber of human servants. If—”
“No!” Charis shouted. “No people! I won’t have it!” His nostrils flared with hatred; he neglected to move his eyebrows expressively.
“Very well,” he said at last. “I’ll get you your news. You make me my golems.” And they settled down to haggle over details.
On the appointed day, Charis strode into Morlock’s workroom, unable to disguise his feelings of triumph. “Oh, Morlock, you must come and see this. Say, you’ve been cleaning up in here!”
A shrug from the crooked shoulders. “My work’s done. I hope you like your golems.”
“They’re marvellous. I’m so grateful. One of them speaks nothing but Kaenish! And I don’t know a word!”
A smile was a rare crooked thing on Morlock’s dark face. “You’ll have to learn, I guess.”
“Wonderful. But come along to my workshop. The guardsman will be along presently, and I badly want to show you this before you depart. Oh, do leave that,” he said, as the other began to reach for the sword belt hanging on the wall. “You won’t want it, and there’s no place for it in my room.”
They went together to Charis’s workshop. Body parts fashioned in clay of various shades lay scattered all over the room. There was a positive clutter of arms on the worktable—Charis had mentioned to Morlock at supper last night that he was “on an arm jag,” and now it could be seen what he meant.
Charis worked by inspiration, crafting dozens of arms or legs, for instance, as the mood took him, getting a feel for the body part and creating subtle differences between the members in the series. In the end he would construct golems like jigsaw puzzles out of pieces he had already made, and improvise a life-scroll that suited the body. His other skills as a sorcerer were quite minor, as he freely admitted, but his pride as a golem maker was fully justified.
So far, though, irises had defeated him. In everything else he had proved a ready pupil to Morlock, even in the manipulation of globes of molten glass, a difficult magic. But creating the fan-ring assemblies of paper-thin sheets of gem had proved the most challenging task of Making he had ever undertaken.
His latest efforts lay on the worktable, two small rings of purple amethyst flakes, glittering among the chaos of clay arms. He watched anxiously as the other bent down to examine them.
“Hm.” A hand reached out. “An aculeus, please.” Charis quickly handed over the needlelike probe. The skilled hands made the artificial irises expand, contract,expand again. Finally the maker’s form straightened (insofar as it ever could, Charis thought, glancing scornfully at the crooked shoulders), saying, “Excellent. You should have no trouble now making lifelike eyes for your golems.”
Charis sighed in relief. “I’m so glad to hear you say so. Really, I’m deeply in your debt.”
A shrug. “You can pay me easily, with news from the pass.”
“I’m afraid that would hardly cover it,” Charis said regretfully, and pushed him over, onto the table. The clay arms instantly seized him and held him, a long one wrapping itself like a snake across his mouth, effectively gagging him.Charis carefully swept the artificial irises off the table into his left hand and, moving back, commanded, “Table: stand.”
The table-shaped golem tipped itself vertically and, unfolding two stumpy human legs from under one of its edges, stood. Its dozens of mismatched arms still firmly held Morlock’s struggling form.
“I’m sorry about this—I really am,” Charis said hastily, in genuine embarrassment. “When push came to shove, though, it occurred to me that my relationship with the garrison commander simply couldn’t take the strain of fishing for secret military information. You’ve no idea how stuffy he is. Also, I’m not convinced the news would be as useful to you as you think, and you might hold a grudge against me. You’ve given me so much, and I’m afraid—that is, I don’t like to think about you holding a grudge, that’s all. So this is better—not for you, I quite see that. But for me. Guardsmen!”
From a side door three imperial guardsmen entered, the fist insignia of Keepers of the Peace inscribed on their breastplates. They eyed the inhuman golem and its struggling victim with distaste and fear.
“Have it let him go,” the senior guard directed. “We’ll take him in.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Charis exploded. “This man is the most powerful maker in the worlds, and a dangerous swordsman besides. If you think that he is going to quietly walk between you to his place of execution, you—Look here: let’s not quarrel. You’ll get your reward whether you bring him in dead or alive. I simply can’t risk his surviving to take revenge on me, don’t you see? Cut his head off here. That’s what we agreed. Don’t worry about the golem; it was made for this purpose.”
“They say Ambrosius’s blood is poison,” one of the other guardsmen offered quaveringly. “They say—”
"Gentlemen, it is your own blood you ought to be concerned about,” Charis remarked. “This man is lethal. He has been condemned to death by the Emperor himself. You have him helpless. I’ve paid you well to come here, and you’ll be paid even better when you bring his head to your captain. What more needs to be said?”
The senior guard nodded briskly and said, “Tervin: your sword.”
“Hey!” shouted the junior addressed. “I’m not going to—”
“No. I am. But I’m not going to use my own sword. I paid a hundred eagles for that thing, and I don’t want it wrecked if his blood eats metal, like they say. Your weapon’s standard issue. Give it to me.”
Tervin silently surrendered his sword; the senior guard stepped forward and remarking, in a conversational tone, “In the name of the Emperor,” lopped off the head of the struggling victim. The sword bit deeply into the table-golem; several of the arms fell with the severed head to the floor.
The senior guard leapt back immediately to avoid the gush of poisonous Ambrosial blood, then took another step back when he saw that there was no gush of blood. The headless form in the table-golem’s arms continued its useless struggle.
“No,” croaked Charis, his throat dry. “This can’t be happening.”
He stepped forward, as if against his own will, and touched the gleaming edge of the severed neck. It was clay. He reached down into the open throat and drew out a life-scroll inscribed in Morlock Ambrosius’s peculiar hooked style. The body ceased to move.
“They told me you were cheap,” Morlock’s voice sounded behind and below him.
He turned and, looking down, met the calm gray gaze of the severed head that looked like Morlock’s.
“They told me you were cheap,” the severed head remarked again, “so I expected this. I am somewhere you can’t reach me. Have the information ready when I send for it and I’ll hold no grudges. But do not betray me again.”
“I won’t,” whispered Charis, knowing he would have nightmares about this moment as long as he lived. “I promise. I promise I won’t.” Then he turned away from the suddenly lifeless head to soothe the frightened guards with gold.
That night the unbeheaded and authentic Morlock lay dreaming in the high cold hills north of Sarkunden, but he wasn’t aware of it. To him it seemed he was lying, wrapped in his sleeping cloak, watching the embers of his fire,wondering why he was still awake.
An old woman walked into the cool red circle of light around Morlock’s dying campfire. He could not see her face. She bent down and took the book of palindromes from Morlock’s backpack and flipped through it until she reached the page for that day. She carried it over and showed it to him. Her index finger pointed to a palindrome: Molh lomolov alinio cret. Terco inila vo lomolhlom.
Which might be rendered: Blood red as sunset marks the road north. Son walks east into the eastering sun.
He looked up from the book to her face. He still could not see it. He wasn’t able to see it, he realized suddenly, because he never had seen it. Then he awoke.
He opened his eyes to find the book of palindromes open in his hand. It was his index finger resting on the palindrome he had read in his dream.
Morlock got up and restowed the book in his pack. Then he settled down and built up the fire to make tea: he doubted he would sleep any more that night.
He was caught up in some conflict he didn’t understand with a seer whose skill surpassed his own. Any omen or vision he received was doubly important because of this, but it was doubly suspect as well.
He much preferred Making to Seeing: the subtleties of vision were often lost on him. In a way, he had made the book of palindromes so that he would have some of the advantages of Seeing through an instrument of Making. He thought the omen pointing him northward was a real omen, and it was possible that this one was, too. But it was possible that one or both had been sent by his enemy to mislead him.
Morlock drank his tea and thought the matter over all night. By sunrise he had struck camp and was walking along the crooked margin of the mountains eastward, keeping his eyes open for he knew not what.
V: FIRE AND WATER
One morning, after many days of travel eastward, Morlock awoke to find his pack had been slit and the book of palindromes stolen. He spent some time thinking about why the thief had stolen that one thing, and what the theft might mean. In the end, he shouldered his violated pack, belted on his sword, and took after the thief.
Morlock was a master of makers, not trackers, but the ground was soft in early spring and the track fairly easy to follow, perhaps too easy. The trail led north and east, toward a place Morlock had particularly wanted to avoid.
When the thief’s trail took him as far as the winterwood, as he had known it must, Morlock Ambrosius sat down to think. To enter there was to gamble with his life, and Morlock hated gambling: it was wasteful and he was thrifty—some said cheap. Still, there was the book. . . . And the note. It had been staked to the ground, just next to his slit pack . . . staked with a glass thorn from the same pack. (The chamber of the thorn was broken and the face inside was dark and lifeless. Another score to settle!) The message was simply a stylized figure of a hand with the fingers pointing northward. . . toward the forest of Tychar, the winterwood. The meaning was as clear as the slap in the face the symbol represented: Forget your book. It’s gone where you can’t follow. The note was addressed “Ambrosius.”
So it was someone who knew him, someone bold enough to rob him, someone who had preferred, when he was vulnerable, to insult him rather than kill him. He had a desire to meet this person.
As he sat, pondering the dark blue trunks of the winterwood, he found the desire had not faded.
He kindled a fire with the Pursuer instrumentality. As he was waiting for it to grow to optimal strength, he took off his pack and set about repairing the slit. There was a patch of gripgrass not far away; he spotted it by the long deerlike bones of an animal it had killed. He drew a few plants from the ground, taking care not to break the stems or tear the central roots. He sewed up the slit in his pack, carefully weaving the gripgrass plants into the seam.
The fire was high enough, then, so he took the thief’s note and burned it in the Pursuer fire with a pinch of chevetra leaf. The smoke traveled north and east, against the wind, toward the forest: that was the way the thief had gone.
They called it “the winterwood.” The trees stood on high rocky ground; it was cold there, even in summer. The trees there, of a kind that grew nowhere else, flowered in fall and faded in spring. They resembled dark oaks,except their leaves were a dim blue and their bark had a bluish cast.
Just now it was early spring; patches of snow lay, like chewed crusts, beneath the hungry-looking trees. The leaves, crooked blue veins showing along the withered gray surfaces, were like the hands of dying men. They rustled irritably in the chill persistent breeze, as if impatient to meet and merge with the earth.
Morlock did not share their impatience. When he saw the smoke from his magical fire enter the tree-shadowed arch of a pathway (a clear path leading deep into those untravelled woods) he shook his head suspiciously.
So he sat down again and took off his shoes. After writing his name and a few other words on the heel of his left shoe, he trimmed a strip of leather from the sole and tied it around his bare left foot at the arch. He did the same withthe other shoe (and foot). He muttered a few more words (familiar to those-who-know). Then he picked up the shoes, one in each hand, and tossed them onto the path. They landed, side by side, toes forward, about two paces distant.
He stood up and moved his feet experimentally. The empty shoes mimicked the motion of his feet. He stepped forward onto the path; the shoes politely maintained the two-pace distance, hopping ahead of him step by step. Morlock nodded, content. Then he strapped his backpack to his slightly crooked shoulders and walked, barefoot, into the deadly woods.
Morlock first became aware of the trap through a sensation of walking on air.
He stopped in his tracks and looked at his shoes. They stood on an ordinary stretch of path, dry earth speckled with small sharp stones. But just in front of his bare feet he saw a dark shoe-shaped patch of nothingness.
Morlock nodded and scraped his right foot on the path; the right shoe mimicked it, brushing away a paper-thin surface of earth suspended in the air, revealing the nothingness beneath.
“Well made,” Morlock the Maker conceded. No doubt the pit beneath the path concealed some deadly thing—that was rather crude. But Morlock liked the sheet of earth hanging in the air, and would have liked to know how it was done.
Carefully approaching the verge of the pit, he peered through the empty footprint. The pit was about twice as deep as Morlock was tall. At its bottom was a fire-breathing serpent with vestigial wings, perhaps as long as the pit was deep. The serpent wore a metal collar, apparently bolted to its spine; the collar was fastened to a chain anchored to the sheer stone wall of the pit. The serpent, seeing Morlock, roared its rage and disappointment.
“Who set you here, serpent?” Morlock asked.
“I set myself,” the worm sneered. “This chain is a clever ruse to deceive the unwary.”
“I have gold,” Morlock observed.
The serpent fell quiet. Its red-slotted eyes took on a greenish tint.
Morlock reached into his pocket and brought forth a single coin. He swept away the dirt hanging in the air and held the coin out for the serpent to see.
It saw. Its tongue flickered desperately in and out. Finally it said, “Very well. Throw me the coin.”
Morlock dropped the gold disc into the pit. “Tell me now.”
The serpent roared in triumph, “I tell you nothing! Only a fool gives gold for nothing. Go away, fool.”
Morlock (he knew the breed) patiently reached back into his pack and brought forth a handful of gold coins.
Silence fell like a thunderbolt. Morlock held the gold coins out and let the serpent stare at them through his fingers.
“Tell me now,” Morlock said at last.
“It was a magician from beyond the Sea of Worlds,” the serpent replied, too readily. “He said I could eat your flesh, but must leave the bones. I said I would break the bones and eat the marrow, and no power in the world could stop me. He called me a bold worm, strong and logical. He agreed about the bones. Then he rode away on a horse as tall as a tree.”
Morlock allowed a single coin to fall into the pit.
"More!” The word rose on a tongue of flame through the mist of venom blanketing the serpent.
“I will give you two more. For the truth.”
“All!” shouted the worm. “All! All! All!”
“It was a Master Dragon of the Blackthorn Range. He—”
Morlock snapped the fingers of his left hand twice. The two coins that had fallen into the pit rose glittering out of the cloud of venom and landed on his outstretched palm.
“Thief!” the serpent screamed.
“Liar,” Morlock replied. In the language they were speaking it was the same word.
There was a long silence, broken by the serpent’s roar of defeat. “I don’t know who he was! He came on me while I was asleep. I didn’t wake up until he drove this bolt into my neck. Take your gold and go!”
“What did he look like?” Morlock demanded. “Describe him.”
“Describe him! Describe him!” the serpent hissed despairingly. “He was no different from you.”
Morlock shrugged. He’d met serpents better able to distinguish between human beings. But he had never supposed his interlocutor a genius among worms. He opened both his hands and scattered gold into the pit.
As he rose to go the serpent called, “Wait!”
“I’m hungry,” the serpent said insinuatingly.
“Must I be more explicit? I was promised a meal, yourself, if I permitted myself to be staked in this pit. I am staked in this pit, and have been denied the meal by the most offensive sort of trickery. You are the responsible party, and your double obligation is clear. I ask only that you remove any buckles or metal objects you may have about your person, for I have a bad tooth—”
“But this tooth—”
“You may not eat me.”
“Be reasonable. I won’t eat you all at once,” the serpent offered hopefully.
Morlock shook his head, declining this reasonable offer. “Nevertheless, ”he added slowly (for it occurred to him this creature would certainly die if it remained staked in the pit), “I will set you free for some slight charge. Perhaps a single gold coin.”
There was a pause as the worm struggled between the prospect of certain death or the loss of any part of its new wealth. “Never!” it snarled at last.
Morlock walked away. The worm’s voice followed him, carrying threats and abuse but never an offer to change. Morlock ignored it and presently it ceased.
The path came to an end just beyond the pit. This left him at something of a loss as to where to go next, but there was one good thing about it: he could put his shoes back on.
He sat down and tugged the leather strips from his dusty feet, breaking the spell. He heard footsteps and looked up to see his shoes running away into the dense bluish woods.
Morlock was aghast. Some spirit or invisible creature had clearly stepped into his shoes as they preceded him down the path. When the spell was broken they had stolen the shoes.
He had to recover those shoes. He had made them with his own hands; he had worn them for months; he had written his own name and other magical words on them. He would never be safe if he did not recover them.
Leaping to his feet, he heard footsteps crackling eastward through the blue-green underbrush. Heedlessly he followed them.
It was not long before the poisonous blue leaves began to sting his bare feet.These had already been scratched and bruised by his barefoot walk down the stony path. The slight pain from the poison naggingly reminded him that if he walked for long in these woods without protection for his feet the poison would accumulate in his lower limbs and they would die. Then he would face the unpleasant alternatives of self-amputation or death.
The shoes seemed to be aware of his danger. At every turn they plunged into the thickest underbrush, treading down hard to leave a path sharp with broken sticks and poison leaves.
But their strategy was not an unqualified success. Whatever their guiding intelligence was, it did not provide Morlock’s sheer physical mass: an undoubted advantage in storming through wild shrubbery. The shoes became entangled for long moments in places where Morlock simply brushed through or leapt over, and he closed steadily.
In a gap without trees he drew to a halt and listened, knee-deep in leafy poison. Silence fell in the winterwood. The crashing through blue bracken and greenish underbrush had ceased. His shoes had taken cover somewhere.
His heart fell. He was bound to lose a waiting game. He seized the first heavy branch that came to hand, tore it loose from its tree, and began to beat savagely about the dense covert of bushes.
It was sheer luck he glanced up to see his fugitive shoes weaving and dodging among the close-set trees on the opposite side of the narrow clearing. Morlock gave a crowlike caw of dismay and dashed off in pursuit. But almost as soon as he spotted them they disappeared in the woods beyond.
Morlock forced himself to halt at the place he had last seen the shoes. He listened. Again a sly chill quiet had descended on the winterwood. There was no light footfall, no crunch of leaf or snap of twig—not so much as the rustle of leather soles edging forward in the grass. The shoes had taken cover again. And they were nearby; he was sure of it.
He turned slowly, a full circle, examining every rock, stone, bush, or tree in sight. He saw no trace of his shoes. He moved forward, as quietly as possible, striving to make no sound that might cover the shoes’ retreat. He saw nothing. He heard nothing.
After taking ten paces forward, he halted. He had missed them somehow; they could not have come much farther than this. He turned and looked back the way he had come. Then, on a bitterly sharp impulse, he glanced up at the forest roof. Far out of reach, the shoes stood nonchalantly upon a blue-black tree limb.
He crouched down and groped about on the forest floor. Latching on to a fist-sized rock, he rose again and pegged it with deadly accuracy at the rakishly tilted right shoe. Then he held the branch, like a crooked javelin, ready in his other hand in case he needed something to throw at the other shoe.
But he didn’t. The right shoe tumbled almost to the ground before the other followed it, hurtling from the bough like a stone shot from a sling. Morlock wasted a moment wondering about the nature of the thing that had stepped into his shoes. Before he shook off his speculations the shoes began hopping like a pair of leather toads across the forest floor.
Then, in an instant, the chase was over.
The left shoe had hurled itself forward to land in a dimly blue patch of gripgrass (less greenish in color and finer than the weed carpeting the poisonous wood). In doing so it had bent the stems and torn the central roots of dozens of blades of the bluish grass.
Each offended blade divided into several long wire-tough lashes that instantly wrapped around the first solid object they touched. The left shoe was swiftly bound to the forest floor. Moreover, some of the released lashes inevitably snapped across their quiescent brethren; in less than a human vein-pulse the whole patch of gripgrass had come to greedy life. It snatched the right shoe, flying overhead, and bound it to the earth next to its mate. Even then a faint blue cloud of yearning tendrils floated on the air until the unoccupied blades re-formed themselves and slowly sank back into quiescence.
Their more fortunate kin clung tightly to their new prey, so that its death and corruption might provide food for the whole patch, not to mention serve as bait for an unwary carrion eater. This time they had caught nothing more nourishing than a pair of old shoes, but even if they had known they would not have cared; it is not in the nature of gripgrass to be choosy, and what they possess they do not surrender.
“Hurs krakna!” muttered Morlock, giving vent to one of the many untranslatable idioms of his native language. Then he sat down and began to bind up his feet, using strips torn from his cloak.
It is not every master maker who carries a choir of flames in his backpack. For one thing, few master makers have backpacks, being typically as sessile as clams. Also, flames are not readily portable; they require care of a peculiar sort; they are fickle and given to odd ideas. Nevertheless Morlock, a gifted maker of gems, knew that there was nothing so helpful in tending a seedstone as a choir of wise old flames.
The sphere of smoke clinging to the choir nexus was dense and hot, so Morlock kept his face well out of the way as he removed the dragon-hide wrapping of the nexus; there were the signs of a heated conversation in progress.
“In a former—”
“How do you expect—”
“—life, I was a salamander. Mere words can’t imagine how much I meant—”
“—expect me to breathe?”
“—to myself, bright as a brick in the Burning Wall . . .”
“Remember lumbering through fossil-bright burning fields?”
“I prefer wood to coal. Would you feed us more? Would you? Eh? Would you?”
A shower of bright sharp laughs, like sparks, flew up into the dim air of the winterwood.
“I’m hungry!” cried a lone flame, when the laughter had passed. “Feed me! I’M GOING OUT! FEED ME!”
Morlock glanced into the nexus. “Friends,” he said patiently, “fully half the coal I gave you last night is unconsumed. You needn’t go out.”
“Coal is boring!” the desperate flame cried. “Death before boredom!”
“Death before boredom!“ the choir cried as one.
“Most of us like coal, you understand,” a flame confided agreeably. “But we all support the principle.”
“Principle first, always,” another flame agreed. “And more coal, please.”
“It makes my light so dark and heavy. And all those strange memories!”
“Strange memories, yes. Remember all those fish!”
“I remember remembering. Strange to be a fish.”
“No coal!” hollered the desperate flame. “No coal!”
“Friends,” said Morlock, “I come to offer you variety.”
“Variety,” one observed snidely. “How dull!”
“I have a task for a single flame—outside the nexus.”
This shocked them into silence. It was the nexus that sustained them beyond the ordinary term of flamehood, giving them time to develop their intelligence. In twenty years of life, many of them had never blown a spark outside the nexus.
“Well, what is it?” one flame demanded matter-of-factly.
With equal matter-of-factness, Morlock held up one of his clothbound feet. “My shoes have run away into a plot of gripgrass. I want one of you to eat them free.”
He waited patiently while the choir exhausted itself in laughter and jeers.
“Gripgrass is something none of you has tasted,” Morlock continued. “Furthermore, if one of you volunteers I will give the whole choir two double handfuls of leaves, the smoke of which is poisonous to man.”
“Nonsense!” cried a panicky voice, in which Morlock thought he recognized the coal-hater. “Coal’s good enough for us! Nothing better! More coal or nothing!”
"I like coal well enough,” the matter-of-fact voice said, “but it will never taste so good to me unless I try gripgrass.”
“Then,” Morlock said, and snapped his fingers. The flame hurtled up and landed in Morlock’s palm. Morlock immediately fed it with a strip of bark from the branch he still carried.
“This bark tastes a bit odd,” remarked the flame smokily.
“It is kin to gripgrass,” Morlock replied. “Do not talk, but listen. Time is your enemy as long as you are outside the nexus. Yonder is the gripgrass hiding my shoes. Do you see them?”
“Then. I’ll place you on the forest floor; work your way into the gripgrass and burn the shoes free, then proceed to the far side of the patch. The nexus will be there and you can climb back inside. Do not speak unless you are in trouble; then I will do what I can for you. Do not propagate or you will lose yourself in your progeny. Plain enough?”
The red wavering flame nodded and danced anxiously. Morlock put it down and watched it burn a black smoking beeline for the dim blue patch of gripgrass.
Morlock absently brushed the pile of ashes from his palm, but did not check for blisters. It took a flame hot enough to melt gold to do harm to his flesh; like his crooked shoulders and his skill at magic, that was the heritage of Ambrosius.
Having placed the nexus beyond the gripgrass patch, just out of lashreach, Morlock sat down beside it and began to whittle idly at the branch he still held in his hand. The pale bluish scraps of wood he fed to the flames were still resident in the nexus.
“This wood has a cold marshy taste,” a flame remarked, not disapprovingly.
“I don’t think I like it,” another said. “But I’d need more to be sure.”
“Don’t blow the smoke over here,” said Morlock, annoyed. He’d taken enough poison today as it was; his feet were numb with it. He tossed another pile of wood scraps in the nexus; that was when the gripgrass plot lashed out again.
Morlock had been expecting this. If a plant’s central stem was burned through it would not (because it could not) unleash. The central stem would respond to the burning of a peripheral stem, and some central stems would fall and set off the inevitable chain reaction.
Still it was alarming. The air currents totally dispersed the smoke trail by which Morlock had been gauging the flame’s progress. Even after some moments the smoke did not return.
“Are you all right?” Morlock called out.
“Yes,” replied the flame, its voice muffled by the tightly woven roof of gripgrass.
“Can you breathe?”
“Yes,” replied the flame, with overtones of annoyance.
Morlock took the hint and returned to his whittling.
Presently the flame’s bright wavering crown appeared, like the point of a knife, through the blue mat of gripgrass. It swiftly ran around and cut a smoking shoe-sized hole in the still tightly lashed grass.
“One shoe free,” the flame announced curtly and disappeared.
Finally the wavering crown reappeared and repeated the procedure.
“Second shoe—” it began.
Then the flame was nearly extinguished by the passage of both shoes leaping backward up and out of the gripgrass patch. Landing with a double thump on the forest floor, they immediately began to run away again.
Morlock hurled the improvised javelin he had carved out of the tree branch, spearing the leather sole of one shoe. The other, farther off, kept on hopping away. Morlock bided his time. Finally throwing his knife, he transfixed the shoe, in midleap, to a nearby tree. Both shoes struggled briefly and fell still.
“You’d better get yourself some sensible shoes,” suggested a matter-of-fact voice behind him. Before he could respond, the flame had reentered the nexus and was lost among the choir.
He fed the choir their double handfuls of leaves and sat aside while they smokily consumed and discussed them. As he waited he carefully removed every trace of the spell he had written on the shoes; he sewed up the holes with the leftover strips of leather from the spell.
The reek of poisonous smoke was still heavy in the air when he finished, and he glanced impatiently over toward the nexus. If he’d known they were going to take this long he would have picked drier leaves. (They preferred leaves moist or, as they said, “chewy.”)
“We’ve been done for centuries!” cried a flame defensively as he approached. He saw this was essentially correct; the leaves had all been consumed,and they were working again on their lump of coal.
“We think the forest may be on fire,” the matter-of-fact voice observed.
"It may be,” Morlock agreed. “Friends, I am going to wrap you up again.”
He took their complaints and bitter insults in good part. But he wrapped the nexus in its dragon-hide covering and stowed it in his backpack.
Shoes firmly fastened to his feet, pack comfortably strapped to his crooked shoulders, Morlock wandered casually toward the source of the poisonous smoke. On his way he was attacked by several white wolfish or canine beasts that had black beaks and narrow birdlike faces. He killed one of them with the accursed sword Tyrfing. He had no chance to examine the dead predator’s body; although its companions fled howling, the corpse was immediately set upon by a cloud of small catlike creatures with long leathery wings ending in reticulated claws. These were apparently scavengers that followed the birdwolf pack. They descended with pitiless delight on the dead predator; their brown triangular cat-faces were soon black with blood.
Several of the scavenger catbirds orbited around Morlock, as if searching for a place to land and feast. He knocked them away. One scored a long bloody gash along his left forearm, but as the wound was shallow he decided against treating it at that emergent moment.
He was further delayed by the passage of a fire-breathing serpent taller than himself and as long as a caravan. The approach of this monster was evident from five hundred paces away in the afternoon gloom of the woods. Deciding to take cover until the thing passed, he climbed a tree with comparatively dense foliage, most of which was still blue-black from winter, and wrapped himself in his black traveling cloak to complete the camouflage.
He could feel the blood from his wound soaking into the cloak, which began to cling to his skin. And his torn, bruised, and poisoned feet had had enough trouble today without perching for an appreciable chunk of the evening on a tree branch. Plus, there was the inevitable sharp object intruding on his wounded arm—he didn’t want to move away from it in the serpent’s presence. (Fire breathers do not hear or smell very well, but they have bitterly keen eyesight.) He grinned wryly and waited it out. Most annoyingly, and most trivially, leaves from the tree (he assumed that was what they were) kept brushing against him and tickling his skin unbearably.
The giant worm rumbled away into the woods. Morlock sighed with relief. Now for some free movement . . . and a good scratch!
He threw back his cloak. The catbirds that had settled down on and around him (whose feather-fur he had mistaken for leaves) leapt screaming into the air and began to circle the tree.
Morlock shouted several croaking insults a crow had once taught him, then plucked one of the catbirds out of the air and snapped its neck. He killed a second with a well-thrown knife and dropped the first body where the second one fell.
The scavengers having gathered on the ground to feed on their fallen comrades, and Morlock dropped down beside them, branch in hand. He killed several more scavengers by methodically flailing about before the survivors flew off to a safe distance. It was an ugly business, and as Morlock stood over the crushed catbirds and heard their fellows screaming at him from a nearby tree, he was not pleased with himself.
But it had been necessary. This demonstrated to the deadly catbirds that he was not merely a wounded prey staving off death but a predator in his own right. They would be more cautious in following him thereafter; perhaps they would leave his trail entirely. And if nothing else, these corpses would entertain the survivors while he got away.
Having retrieved, cleaned, and sheathed his knife (the grip was covered by razor-thin teethmarks), Morlock made his way into the woods. He looked back once and saw that the forest floor where the dead catbirds had been was alive with dark winged forms.
Heading straight into the smoke-bearing wind, he walked until he found the fire. By that time night had entirely risen, and he could see from a distance that it was a kind of campfire. A tree had been cut and sectioned, certain sections quartered and several of the quarters set afire, all with considerable labor, no doubt. The hapless campers, one man and one woman, lay unconscious before the fire. You might have thought them overcome by weariness until you noticed their faces, greenish even in the red firelight. Apparently they’d been poisoned by the fire they’d set and were in danger of dying.
Morlock felt the tug of sympathy; he also felt there was something wrong with this scene. But out of the corner of his eye he saw the cloud of scavenger catbirds settle silently down on a nearby tree. He found he couldn’t walk away and leave these as catbird fodder.
He beat down the flames with his hands and heaved earth over the fuming coals. He sat down some distance away from the pair and bound up his wounded arm as he waited for them to awaken.
Morlock kept thinking he should get about his own business. But the scavengers were still out there in the darkness watching what he would do. He waited, thinking long, slow thoughts to pass the time. Twice he roused himself to kill several large carnivorous beetles the size and temperament of snapping turtles who were approaching him hungrily. He tossed the dead beetles out into the wood, where the catbirds devoured them.
Finally the woman stirred. A long yawn broke off in a gasp as she sat suddenly up.
“Vren,” she said, in the lingua franca of the Ontilian Empire, “the fire has gone out!”
“Not exactly ‘gone out,’” Morlock observed, in the same language. “I extinguished it.”
Now both man and woman were standing. “Who are you?” the woman demanded. “Where are you?”
“I am a traveller,” Morlock said cautiously. He rarely gave his name, of the Whitethorn Range. “I am somewhat behind you and off to oneside, as you can tell from my voice. Passing by, I noticed your fire and found you overcome with its fumes.”
“Oh,” said the woman. “Are the trees poisonous, too?”
“Yes. You will find all life in Tychar inimical to you.”
“Including yourself?” she shot back.
"Possibly,” Morlock admitted. “There are some strange things about you two. How did you happen to fell, section, and burn one of these trees without noticing its nature?”
“We tell you nothing,” Vren said sullenly.
“Be quiet, Vren,” the woman said without heat. “We had the kembril do it, traveller. We had a spell, and we spoke it, and the kembril came. It brought us fire and food, as we commanded. The food was good, at least. The fire was. . . local.”
Morlock did not recognize the word kembril, but he thought he understood the gist of the story. “You are sorcerers, then?”
“We are thieves, mostly,” the woman said frankly. “(Be quiet, Vren! He saved our lives.) But we steal magic by choice. We are going to rob a sorcerer who lives in the winterwood. Maybe then we’ll be sorcerers, with a little practice.”
“There is a sorcerer in the wood?”
"Yes,” said the woman reverently, “the greatest and evillest in the world: Morlock Ambrosius himself. He has settled in Tychar.”
“Hmph,” said Morlock, glad of the darkness. “This is news to me.”
“Well,” said the woman complacently, “few know of it. We were lucky enough to rob one of his sorcerous correspondents in Sarkunden, our hometown. We thought . . . well, for such as us it is the opportunity of a lifetime. We have a map.
”Morlock had expected nothing else, except an offer to join their quest. That was forthcoming in another moment; he accepted with a thoughtful glumness that seemed to surprise his new companions.
The two thieves, Urla and Vren, went back to sleep, trusting as children, after Morlock offered to stand guard for the rest of the night. Or perhaps they were not so childlike, Morlock reflected: he had already had his chance to rob or kill them; they had more reason to trust him than he did to trust them, which was why he had taken the watch.
They walked all the next day and into the next night, avoiding death narrowly on a number of occasions. Each time, however, the catbird scavengers fed well on the corpses of their attackers. Morlock believed they had come to look on him as their patron predator. He found this annoying; there was nothing he could do about it, though.
That night they slept in shifts. Morlock took the last watch—something of a risk, perhaps. He had come to trust his companions, although he had occasion to think them somewhat timorous.
And he needed sleep. It had been long since he had woken up, south of the forest, to find himself robbed. His arm wound was infected and the poison in his system was slow to dissipate. He expected that tomorrow would be a very bad day indeed.
It was all too soon when Urla’s voice woke him from a hellish dream and he crawled out of his sleeping cloak to stand watch over his companions. He sharpened a stick and absentmindedly speared any of the carnivorous beetles who crawled too near him or the sleepers. There was no fire, so he watched by the starlight and moonlight that managed to filter through the blue-black branches and leaves. He found that his left arm was swollen and sluggish, and so used his right hand almost exclusively.
At last dawn came. Morlock, having viewed the thieves’ crude map several times the previous day, spent the last few moments of his watch calculating how long it might take them to reach the house of “Morlock.”
He glanced idly back along the way they had come, noting that their trail was vividly marked by silver dew on the blue-green coarse grass of the winterwood. His eyes moved on; it was time to wake Urla and Vren—then he looked sharply back. His trail was visible: grasses bent by his passage dark among their silvery kin, footprints clearly outlined in the mold of the forest floor. But there was no sign of any others beside his.
Troubled, he looked down on his companions, now waking on their own in the dim blue dawn. He was sure they were real—that is, they were not mere illusions; they did not have the talic aura an illusion must project. Yet if they had left no trail in the woods, they could hardly be real.
Real, yet not real. He stared at them as they greeted one another, chatted, shook the dew off their blankets. . . . The grass moved beneath their feet, he noticed. But did it move enough for a real man and woman?
Vren was groaning. “Back to the packs! I thought mine would split my shoulders yesterday.
”Urla sympathized and Morlock stepped over. “Let’s trade,” he suggested .“I’ll carry yours, and you mine.”
Vren looked surprised, then glanced at Morlock’s formidable pack. “It’s probably worse than mine,” he grumbled.
“It’s not so bad as it looks,” Morlock insisted. “Give it a heft.”
Vren hesitated. Both he and Urla wore tense troubled expressions. Morlock bent down and picked up Vren’s pack. It was as light as a spiderweb.
Morlock dropped it and straightened; reaching out with both hands, he seized his companions under their chins. Pulling up strongly, he tore off both their faces.
In the holes that had been faces there were forests of silvery spines. They vibrated tensely for a few moments, then grew still. The skins of Urla and Vren separated and fell away, exposing the creatures that had worn them as a hand wears a glove . . . or a puppet. These “hands” had small insectlike bodies and hundreds of long silvery legs that took a roughly spherical shape around the central body.
Morlock had heard of such things. Given the outer shell of a person, and having fed on that person’s brain, they could sustain his or her living likeness. But they had no muscle or significant mass of their own, so that the seeming person would be light as gauze. They were marginally intelligent; at least they could feign an intelligence suited to the guise they wore. But shorn of their disguise they would unthinkingly return to their creator for protection and guidance.
So these did, rolling away in the dim blue woods. Morlock shouldered his pack and followed them. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a few of the catbirds drop down and devour the discarded skins. The rest of the cloud followed silently on his trail.
The silver-spine creatures were not moving quickly, but Morlock was dazed with poison and fever; he almost lost them twice. Using his left arm had torn the wound open again, and it throbbed with each leaden heartbeat. Still he kept moving. The hunt was almost over.
They came at last to a dark stone house in the dim blue woods. The spheres of silver tines paused, then began to wander aimlessly along the walls, seeking ingress.
Morlock found two dead bodies lying against the door of the house. One had been a man, the other a woman. They had been flayed, their skulls broken like eggshells and drained. Carrion eaters had torn their flesh. These, Morlock guessed, were the originals of Urla and Vren. Morlock covered the bodies with earth and deadwood, sealing their quasi-comradeship.
Then he turned to the wooden door of the stone house. It was locked; he crouched down to examine the lock with his fingers. Only then did he understand how ill he was; his right hand was trembling too much to perform any subtle work and his left hand was swollen into useless immobility.
Morlock stood back and unslung his pack. He drew out the choir nexus and unwrapped it. He explained the matter in a single terse sentence; a moment later, fifteen volunteer flames were eating their way into the door around the lock. When they had passed through Morlock cried “Stay clear!” and kicked in the door.
He paused for a moment on the threshold, shuddering with fever chill and pain. (The blood-beats of exertion were agony to his wounded arm.) Then he passed into the entry hall and swore. The flames had stayed clear all right. From burn marks in the many rugs and tapestries it appeared they had scattered in search of adventure and interesting combustibles.
Well, he had no time to look for them. He stowed the nexus in his backpack and took that on his shoulders again. The hallway led him to a winding stairway; Morlock ascended it, feeling that the sorcerer’s workroom would be on the upper floor.
It was. In fact, the workroom occupied the entire upper floor of the house. As he entered it, his enemy, at the far end of the long room, rose to greet him.
The room was full of water. It was lit (quite apart from the tall unglazed windows) by glass cylinders filled with a bubbling white fluid that emitted a harsh bluish light; these were set like torches along the walls. The stained worktables that lined the room were crowded with retorts, alembics, beakers, tubes, and tubing, all of them emitting or gathering liquid. In the middle of the room was a circular sheet of gray bubbling water, suspended in mid air.At the far end of the room was a crystal globe fill with very bright, very clear water. Morlock guessed this was the sorcerer’s focus. At any rate, he was seated before it with a fixed inward stare when Morlock entered the room, and he turned around and smiled broadly, as if in welcome.
“There are flames like rats loose in my house,” he explained, rising. “Fortunately they have proven rather easy to detect and extinguish. I hate flames, I suppose as much as you love them. Mine is a watery sort of magic, as you will have guessed.”
The stranger advanced through the room as he spoke, his manner suggesting that Morlock was an expected guest and he himself was a slightly remiss host. He wore garments of white and blue; otherwise he was a mirror image of Morlock: the same dark unruly hair, the same weather-beaten features, the same alarmingly pale gray eyes. The stranger even had crooked shoulders and walked with a slight limp, as Morlock did.
“Unimpressive,” Morlock remarked. “Certainly not original.”
The stranger looked surprised, then amused. “Oh, my appearance. But I assure you, my dear fellow, it is no mere ploy. Years of labor have gone into this work, and perhaps the rest of my life will go into perfecting it. You see, I have decided to usurp your personality.
“I’m not joking, either,” the stranger continued. “Not that I’m surprised by your indifference. That’s what gave me the idea, in a way.
“You see, I was sitting in a tavern (forgive my loquacity, but I have so looked forward to telling you all this) and a drunk was singing some nasty ghost story you were supposed to have had a part in. And I was thinking how. . . well, how unlike your legend you are. (Most of those-who-know know that.) And I thought, too, how little use you have put your legend to. It really is a remarkable resource, coupled with your true abilities. You are truly feared, south of the Kirach Kund. Yet you wander from place to place like. . . like some kind of magical tinker, when you might command fear and respect the way a general commands an army.
”Morlock shrugged irritably. “Why?”
“Why?” repeated the stranger incredibly. “For everything a man could want!”
“There is not much that I want.”
“That is your problem. It is not mine. Mine is (or was) that I had no legend. Like most makers, I have pursued my studies in solitude; we are too unworldly, most of us. I would have labored in obscurity, only to totter into some local fame when I was too infirm to put it to effective use. You have the advantage of us there; we aren’t all descended from demi-mortals like you are.
"Then I realized (sitting in the tavern, you understand) that if you weren’t going to use your legend, it was only fair that I do so. And to that I have bent my life ever since. I built my house here in the winterwood; I changed my appearance; I began to conduct correspondence with other sorcerers in my new person. Things were developing nicely, even before I ran into you along the trail the other night.”
“So it was an accident.”
“Some such meeting was inevitable,” the stranger said superciliously. “Anyway, I managed to slit your pack and extract the book of palindromes (which has proven most instructive, by the way). But the protective spell over your person was so subtle I could not even guess its attributes. So I decided to lure you into my own territory. . . .”
Morlock was smiling wryly.
“I suppose that sneer means there was no spell,” the stranger said bitterly. “Well, that doesn’t matter. You are here, now, and your pack is here, and there are no risks involved. Or maybe you’re thinking I’m an inferior sorcerer because I had to appropriate your legend. But I’m not. Your legend is a historical accident. I can’t be held responsible for not being the beneficiary of a historical accident.”
“It was political slander, originally,” Morlock observed, a little weary of the subject.
“Really? That’s most interesting. Take some political slander, let simmer a few hundred years, add seasoning, and dish up. Fearful legend, serves one. Very nice.
“Now arises the question of whether I will spare your life or not. I feel you might possibly be a useful adviser, under restraint—sort of the world’s expert on having been Morlock, if you see what I mean. Also, I’m sure some of the most interesting artifacts in your pack would be damaged in a mortal combat. So . . .”
Morlock said nothing.
“Oh, come now,” the stranger said irritably. “Don’t try to be forbidding. I know exactly what shape you’re in. I watched every step of your journey; don’t think I didn’t. I knew the forest would do my fighting for me! I saw you scrabbling at the lock on my door (what a pitiful performance that was!)and I see now that you can barely stand.
“And where do you stand? In my place of power. Never doubt it, Morlock: I have a thousand deaths at my beck and call as I stand here. Do you doubt it? You still are silent?” The stranger shrugged. “Very well. Why should you take my word for it?” He waved his hand and spoke an unintelligible word.
The weight on Morlock’s crooked shoulders was suddenly heavier by several pounds. In sudden alarm, he unslung his pack and lifted out the choir nexus. Water poured out through the dragon-hide wrapping. The choir was dead.
“You killed my flames,” Morlock said hoarsely. His eyes were stung by abrupt surprising tears.
The stranger laughed incredulously. “‘Killed’? The notion is jejune. I extinguished them. That water might as easily have gone in your lungs instead, or—heated to steam—in your heart or brain. Then it is you who would have been extinguished. I killed my hundreds perfecting the techniques, Morlock, and they work. Never doubt it—again.”
“I doubt you will find your own death jejune,” Morlock replied. Tears were still running down his face; he supposed it was a symptom of the fever.
“Don’t threaten me, you battered tramp!” the stranger snarled. “You were about to hand me your pack, that I might spare you what remains of your life. Do so now.”
A long moment passed, in which Morlock seemed to consider. Then he slowly lifted the pack, holding it out to the stranger.
The stranger laughed and took the proffered edge. This, the only convenient hold, happened to be the place where he had slit the pack two days ago.When his grip was firm, Morlock pulled back, as firmly. The stranger’s grip, resisting the tug, tore the gripgrass woven into the sewn seam.
The gripgrass, starved for nutriment, exploded into dozens of thin wire-tough lashes, binding the stranger’s hand inescapably to the repaired slit. The stranger emptied his lungs in an instinctive cry of pain and surprise.
Morlock pulled him off his feet, by way of the pack, hauled him over to the nearest window, and, still holding on to the pack, threw the stranger out. His body slammed against the stone wall of the house and he stared up at Morlock for a long moment, as if gathering breath to speak.
Then his body was dark with winged forms. The catbird scavengers had been waiting for their predator, and he had not disappointed them. In a matter of minutes the stranger was dead, dismembered, and devoured. Morlock drew in a pack stained with blood, shining blue threads of satiated gripgrass woven into the sewn-up slit.
Morlock carefully unwove the grass. It had caused him considerable trouble, preserving its integrity, and it served no purpose now. When he finally disentangled the gripgrass, a matter-of-fact voice near his feet inquired, “Do you want that?”
He looked down to see a single red flame burning a hole in the wooden floor. “Because if you don’t want it,” the matter-of-fact flame remarked, “I’ll take it.”
Morlock dropped the grass on the floor and the flame casually devoured it.
“A little too chewy,” the flame remarked smokily.
“The whole business was somewhat chewy,” Morlock replied. “But it’s over now, I guess.” Taking some water from a nearby table, he set about sponging the blood off his backpack.
Morlock set the flame-nexus out to dry and searched the dead sorcerer’s house for his stolen book of palindromes. He found it finally, or what was left of it, in a glass jar submerged in watery acid that was eating away the book’s pages. It had passed the point of uselessness, so Morlock left it where it was.
Had Morlock been led to the dead sorcerer, or he to Morlock? Was the whole purpose of the encounter to deprive Morlock of the book of palindromes? He suspected as much.
If so, he should trust the book’s last omen and continue his journey eastward.
He didn’t know what awaited him there, but he gave it some thought as he left the watery sorcerer’s house burning behind him in the winterwood.
James Enge’s fiction has appeared in Black Gate, Flashing Swords, and everydayfiction.com. He is an instructor of classical languages at a Midwestern university. Visit him online at http://www.jamesenge.com