Mythopoeia I - The Riven Shield

Chapter One

The Bloodhunters’ quarry had been on the move for months. He changed direction at random, sleeping nowhere longer than a single night. The Bloodhunters discussed among themselves whether he knew that they followed him, and finally decided that such was impossible. They had not yet drawn close enough that he could have perceived any sign. Their quarry, they decided, was moving like a caged bear, such as the emperor kept for his menagerie. He was not running from them, but pacing, and his prison was the sky.
He led them down winding ways, down dark and silent paths where the Gothos bees hummed in their milky hives. He led them along game trails, and over the mountains of Skreeholm, down from the Three Kingdoms and into the Keepholds.
He had led them here, to the ruins of Ten Towers, and there remained. For three days he had stood unmoving before the statue of a woman. On the last day he had sunken to his knees before the statue, and he had remained in that position now for many hours. The Bloodhunters did not know the woman or the ruins. The statue was extremely detailed, and from its stature and the distinctive bone structure of the face it was clearly meant to depict a Fae. She was very beautiful. Even kneeling, Bawn was eye level with the likeness. It is a pity, the elder Bloodhunter thought, that the Fae had become so rare. His name was Shiro, and he had seen a few of the race during his time in the City of Immortals. They had been collared, of course, but they had all been as exquisite as the statue. He had pitied them for the scars that had once been wings.
It was rumored that the emperor kept more than one hundred of their kind for his personal seraglio. It was also rumored that he kept a dragon for the same purpose.
One could never tell with the emperor.
                The second Bloodhunter was concealed behind the rubble of a collapsed building. Protruding from the rubble was part of another sculpture, half the head of a massive sleeping tiger. This Bloodhunter was clad in black, his partner, in white.
            Shiro signaled that it was time.
            Kuro signaled back, Shall I lead?
            Yes, Shiro confirmed. His white garments had already begun to blur, and a pale mist surrounded him as he activated his chakras. Kuro’s weapons whispered out of their sheathes in a fraction of a second. The gray tallo of their blades, called steel by some, was thickly coated with Naku powder, a poison that had the added benefit of dulling the tallo’s gleam. The dark of the night had deepened around the Bloodhunter as his own chakras awakened. He sprang.
            Shiro watched a moment longer before fading into the night.

                                                                                        *      *     *

            The diskworld sits nestled in the boughs of a great ash tree that roots in darkness. Water spills in a long fall from the southern lip of the disk down to the depthless pool of Myrminar.  There dwells a retiring serpent, vast and old as time, with a name forgotten by mortal kind.
           This is Mythopoeia, and on its western continent there lies a golden grassy reach, the Ragnar Tang. Many days would a rider need to cross it, even more from north to south. Beyond it is the Rim, and before it are Petronia and the Three Kingdoms. The plains are uniform, grasslands marred only rarely by the occasional bluff. They are home to various tribes, the White Feather Grahs and the many factions of the Southwind Tang. These are not for us to know, not now.
           Our eyes must focus elsewhere, in the beginning.
           The Tower of Sorcery can be very simply described. It is invisible. Ninety nine levels compose the Tower. The first level comprises a city. It is somewhat large.
           Sometimes the grandest wall can be brought down for want of a single stone. Sometimes a war is lost on account of a loose leather strap. In this case, the fall of the Tower and the end of Mythopoeia itself began with a wager.

           There is no party like a wizard’s party.

           In High Mancer Corneus Malsh’s betting chamber a centaur was dueling a giant crab. The Circle of Melee had been set at twenty paces in diameter. It was enough room for both beasts to maneuver, but not so much that there would be any boring lulls in the combat.
          Two-score mancers, many of high repute, were in attendance to this soiree. They sprawled on divans, or stood in eager clumps on the edges of the melee. Sprinkled among them, like dainties and baubles, were the Children. Their ages ranged from eight to twenty-eight, these servants to the mancers. They bore plates of delicacies; pickled quail eggs, humming bird tongues, and a panoply of semi-rotten fruits. They bore enormous carafes of honeyed wine from which their masters regularly decanted copious draughts of the stupefying brew.
         Laughter cavorted in the vast vault of the ceiling. Beneath it rang the harried clop of the centaur’s hooves and the clack of the crab’s pincers. “This is the end, my friend,” Gargamel said, shouldering in beside Corneus. The two corpulent men were festooned with brightly colored robes and sashes, embroidered with gold umber thread, gems and sparkly disguises. Gargamel’s robes were themed so that he seemed to be standing in raucous sea spume. Corneus’ own wrap was simply glittery chaos.
        The centaur let out a shout as he endured a pinch to his left haunch. The opening was deliberate. He had come inside the crab’s guard to slash across its eyestalks with his sword-spear. A strip of flesh came free in the crab’s huge claws, and blood welled from the wound as he disengaged.
         One eye splattered wetly on the marble, and the other hung limp, its optic nerve severed. The fell crab chittered madly, its swings turning wild.
         “Ready to submit?”  Gargamel prodded, jowl’s parting in a whale-like grin. Corneus only crossed his arms over his chest, saying nothing. His gaze traveled the room in an effort to disguise his irritation. He settled on a mancer fornicating with one of the children on a divan well away from the ring.
         “I’ve known Skree with more patience than you,” he muttered.
          “What was that?” Gargamel exclaimed, “Skree, you say? Why must you always go on about those worthless lizards? Filthy, useless creatures.”
          Corneus’ eyes narrowed. “Useless, Gargamel? They would make better servants than many that we pluck from the City of Children below. I would warrant I could make a decent prentice out of a Skree, better at least than any of the fools that stir your cauldrons.”
           The other mancer laughed until he fell down.
           The fell crab swung in a jagged circle, legs clicking. The centaur paced it, confident now, with only a slight hitch in his gait. Aside from the sword-spear, it carried two long hunting knives in a belt around its waist. There was also a pouch of herbs and smooth pebbles, soul stones, tied to the belt by a leather thong. This was all that he had carried when Gargamel had captured him.
           The crab had only its claws, large enough to remove a limb in one snip. Its shell top was about level with the centaur’s chest, though its girth was such that it still appeared squat.
           The pincer snapped, almost by chance, over the shaft of the darting blade spear. Ferule bent and wood cracked. The centaur tried to twist the weapon free and only succeeded in finishing the cut. The pieces clattered out of sight as the centaur drew his knives, face twisting into a snarl.
           Hoots and howls erupted from the onlookers. A passing colleague clapped Corneus on the shoulder, which he ignored. He was focused now with his whole being on the scene unfolding before them.
           “Now! Now!” he urged his champion, even as the centaur caught the monsters arm at the joint behind its claw, the twin blades sliding between the plates of its carapace. A scissoring motion and the claw fell away, spasming.
           “Twin Cocks!” Corneus swore, and Gargamel erupted in uproarious glee. The crab did try to fight, but the centaur danced out of the reach of the other claw. Pale liquid seeped steadily from the severed limb. It was only seconds more until the finish.
            The centaur looked up from its grim work, sadness utmost in its gaze. This was the whole of its existence, one savage struggle plied upon the next. Soon the blackness would take him again and when he woke his body and his weapons would be whole once more. In these few spare seconds of freedom he wondered whether he could just give up. They would not allow him to kill himself, their control was too complete. He could throw a match, however, if he was careful. If he made sure to die quickly, could the master stop it, bring him back?
            He looked for his master among the humans--bloated, ignoble beasts. They were demons, sorcerers, spirit hoarders. He had rebelled in the early days, but the wards that bound him in the circle were stronger than any force of his body or mind. He could throw himself against them as he liked. He would wake refreshed upon his next summoning.
            Gargamel made an arcane gesture with one hand, and the centaur disappeared. There was a card, a wooden rectangle that fit neatly into his palm. It was painted with a perfect rendering of his champion. Perfect. He slipped it into his robes.
            "Your base,” he said to Corneus, “belongs to me.”
            The other mancers clinked their goblets, and groped their favorite Children. Grumbling, Corneus removed a single copper base, like a burnt fish scale, from his multifarious pockets, and delivered it unto Gargamel. The mancer garbed as if in sea foam kissed the base, and held it up for all to see. The coin burst into a puff of ochre smoke.
            Gargamel brushed his hands as if to clean them.
            Corneus, fuming, played his hand. “One more wager, Gargles? Will you double down?”
Gargamel regarded him as if from a great height, and said imperiously, "At any time you care to choose, in any place you care to name, I will meet your wager, Corn-ass.”
            “Oooh,” said the nearby mancers, “Ooooh.”
             Corneus was as red as a burst pustule. “No more Melees! I’m bored with them.” Silence spread from the tolling of the word. There was no greater insult to a wizard than that he could be boring.
            “A new sort of challenge. I told you I could make a Skree into a truer prentice than any that you own. A year and a day for his training, and you may choose any of yours to set against him in the Showing.”
             Gargamel was beside himself with mirth. “Of course. Of course. Take as many moons and cycles as you require. Aha. Ahem. Shall it be the usual prize between us? One copper base?”
             Corneus smiled. “Let it be sealed.”
             They spat in their palms and shook on it.
             The melee circle was cleared, and in came the dancers, and the lyricists, and the chanters. Tables rose out of the marble, and servants brought dishes piled high with steaming meats and dainties. The pickled squid eyes, some as large as apples, were a particular favorite. All through this the mancers hardly tasted or saw, in their minds they mulled and maundered, tongues gossiping over the crowning event of the evening.
             A new wager? Memories were sifted and parsed, and there was nothing found. A Skreeling to be taught the highest art, trained in the Arcanum, perhaps, if Corneus saw fit. This was the most precious and treasured of rarities in the hearts of the immortal and omnipotent.
             This was something new.

*      *     *

             Flies murmured into the ears of the oxen as they sweated under their yoke. Their sleek hides shone in the afternoon light, exaggerating the play of the muscles beneath the sheath of their skin. Those ears twitched, and sent the flies into careening orbits around thick bovine skulls.
            “The heat, Kerry. The heat!” Maggitha complained, fanning herself with a vellum fold-out made for that purpose. “It will be the death of me.” She was a well fleshed woman, though past her prime. She was dressed as nicely as the exigencies of travel allowed, in a fine if somewhat drab tunic, with nothing but her wedding collar as jewelry.
            “Yes, mother,” her daughter answered from within the carriage, her voice small through the netted window. It was her habitual response.
             Maggitha Nae Lumlali rode beside the driver at the fore of the carriage. It had been her hope that the wind would cool her. Alas, it was no better.  She was a commanding woman, used to being obeyed, but somehow the spirits of the air and sky, and the sunflower in particular, had never learned to fear her. If only she lived long enough, it would be rectified. Before her there rode three of her most loyal guards, and behind her a wagon overflowing with weaves of the highest quality. Behind that rode three more guards on large riding mules.
              They had set out three days ago from the city of Grape. It would be as many again before they could succor at the first of the Dog’s Keeps. If only she was a Rider, with a real horse and some real wind at her back, she would already be there by now. Of course, if she were a Rider her life would have been decidedly more uncomfortable than it was in innumerable other ways. But what was the point of fantasies if you had to go and ruin them with logic? No, she was no Rider, had never even met one, to be perfectly true. This journey had to be made, and they would make it as quickly as they could, whether or not that was very quickly at all.
            “Nice day for this, eh?” the driver said by way of conversation. She grunted in reply. The toothless old runt, smelling worse than his oxen, didn't deserve anything more than that.
             Maggitha Nae Lumlali was one of the richest people in Grape, and she had done it without a hand to either oils or wine. No, she had her weaves, a favorite luxury in the Keepholds, and her many, many properties. The only difficulty being that none of it, actually, technically, was hers. Women didn't own property. They couldn't. As a general rule they came with it, attached like the plague in a gift of infected blankets. This had been fine when her husband had been alive. She ran the estates and the businesses, while he napped in his study or his library. She had absolute authority over their little empire, so what could it matter that she derived that authority from him? Oh Lumlali, my sweet mediocrity, if only you had held on for a few more years. If only she had had the time to find Kerry a suitably malleable husband.
             The business partners were all well used to dealing with Maggitha over her reclusive husband. It had been that way for years, but as days had congealed into weeks the risk of discovery grew ever more prevalent. Lumlali had been advanced in his age even before their union, and he was without male successors. His holdings, her holdings, would all revert to the nobles who could best afford them within days of discovery.
              Maggitha could not allow that to happen, not when she had worked so hard. Arranging this marriage had been a stroke of genius, and if Kerrigan wanted to cry over that prickless dandy, Aric, then by all means, she could; as long as it was out of earshot of her husband to be. Even if times hadn't been so precarious for them she would never have let her daughter take the name of a boy with so few prospects. Gallant enough, certainly, but gallantry doesn’t keep the roof tiles aligned.
              Now only one more week--one week her indentured needed to keep the estates running without her. As far as anyone in Grape knew, Lumlali was headed to his daughter’s wedding in this very carriage. Once she was safely wed and the union duly consummated there would be no more need for subterfuge.
             All would be right with the world.
             The forward guard began to slow.
             “What is it?” she demanded. “I told you we need make haste!” The lead rider shook his head and held up his hand. They had come upon the ruins of Ten Towers. The road had been a path rutted between two banks of trees. Now one of those banks had fallen away and as far as Maggitha could see the ground dropped away into wrecks of white stone. Half buried cornice, spire and finial, statues of warriors and of strange, unknown designs; all of it sprang up as if from nowhere. Once a great city--greater than any, some said--and now a place of ghosts.
            “Why did we come this way?” she asked, the imperiousness vanishing from her voice.
The driver said nothing, but tied off the reins on a peg in the bench and began to climb down.
They had all come to a stop now, and Maggitha looked from one face to the next as her men turned to her. Not yours anymore, she thought. But maybe…
            “How much?” she asked the leader, Graham. He had always seemed reasonable enough.
            “What do you mean, woman?”
              Red flashed before her eyes. Woman? How dare he! She controlled herself only barely. “How much are you paid for this, to betray me? You must know I can match it.”
             The guard sneered. “We are not paid. And you can pay us nothing. We betray no one by deserting you.”
             Maggitha’s throat tightened. “Graham, please. Stop this. I don’t understand why you’re behaving this way with my daughter’s wedding...” A hand seized her by the shoulder and she screamed involuntarily. Eyes crazed, she tumbled off of the bench and landed heavily in the dirt of the road.
            “Mother!” Kerry called. “Mother, what’s wrong?”
             Kerrigan, my Kerrigan, what can you do? Maggitha scrambled to her feet and glared at the man who had had the nerve to touch her. It was Blawd, one of the three rear riders, staring down at her from his mule. He wore an unkind smile.
             “Nothing,” Maggitha called, “it’s only a dip in the road.” That doesn’t make any sense, she told herself. Betai love us, it doesn’t matter, just don’t come out of that carriage, my daughter.
             She turned her back on Blawd and glared at Graham unflinchingly. Well past middle age, the old guard seemed almost embarrassed by her scrutiny.
             “We’ll leave you a mule, Maggitha. The rest we take.”
             “You will all be outlaws!” She raised her voice. “Are you criminals? Have I harbored criminals in my house, that you would do this to me?” Blawd had dismounted, and he grabbed her again, this time pulling her against his chest.
             “We could do more to you if you like.” His breath washed hot in her ear. 
             Graham shook his head.“You've defrauded the household, and when it’s discovered we’ll all be indentured. I can’t live through another term, and the rest don’t want to try.”
             It was true. Most estate guards were hired through short term contracts, three years or less. Even that small indenture made them a part of the household assets, and if the property reverted to the city those contracts would go with it. Given the circumstances, they would be considered complicit, and therefore in breach. Three years could become ten, or fifteen.
             “It won’t happen. I promise you.” She pushed away from Blawd, and he let her go, leering. “Both of you get back on your mounts and we can continue on our way. My daughter is betrothed, betrothed! Don’t you understand that?”
             “They’re already taking the estate,” Graham said in a low voice. “I have a few friends with a few friends of their own. I got warning. By the getting back, we’d be getting back too late.”
             “I give you my word. Your contract is safe.” Her back was straight, and her voice was steady. She did not doubt. It was not enough.
              “Your husband is dead, Maggitha. Too many people know. They’ll take his name back from you, and you’ll fare worse than any of us. I don’t care where you go, but don’t go back to Grape.”
             The other men were opening the carriage, disengaging the many locks. “Open up, Lady.”
             “Kerrigan, don’t!” Maggitha’s words rang out, but it was too late. The carriage was fitted with a tallo security bar on the inside of the door, but Kerry had lifted it free as soon as she heard the keys in the outer locks.
              The door swung open, and suddenly their hands were all over her, dragging her out. The girl screamed, and her mother’s mouth opened to do the same, though in outrage rather than fear.
Blawd cuffed her on the head, and she was on her knees. The world spun, and Kerry’s screams sounded far away.
              “Enough!” Graham commanded. “Don’t touch her.”
              “Might as well.” Blawd shrugged, “Headless knows they’re not getting to the city in one piece. Why not be the first to have at ‘em?” One of the others laughed and casually pushed the girl. She tripped over a rut and fell, staining her dress with mud.
              “I said enough!” Graham’s short-sword appeared in his hand. Maggitha felt a dagger pressing into the skin under her jaw. “Push it away,” Blawd said quietly. “We’re just going to have us a time with the lady girl, and then we’ll leave ‘em like you said.”
             “Hush!” One of the others was pointing beyond the road toward the ruins of Ten Towers. A man was standing on top of a pile of rubble, huge and naked and hairless. His skin seemed to glow in the light of the sunflower. He walked, and the air appeared to bend before him, as water does a whale surfacing in the sea.

© Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl