Words of Power: Chapter 2 So the Quest Begins
The next morning, Annan packed a bag with a spare change of clothes, enough food for the day, and the tools of magic before kissing his mother goodbye. She said not a word, but turned quickly away, wiping her eyes with her apron.
Annan then walked briskly to the blacksmith’s house. “Galvyn!” he called. “Oi, Galvyn!”
He waited, impatiently tapping his foot. Promises are all well and good, but if the smith didn’t hurry, Annan was tempted to call it good and leave. Just as the young man turned, the front door opened and the slim blacksmith stood framed in the doorway, still holding a slice of bread.
“Annan? What are you doing here so early?”
“I promised to help you with that beam, and as it happens, we either do it now, or you’ll have to get Torsten on it.”
“No,” the blacksmith hurriedly finished chewing and stepped back, motioning for Annan to enter. “Now is good, no need to call Torsten.”
Annan touched the lintel overhead respectfully, pressinging those same fingers lightly to his forehead, giving greetings to the spirits of the house.
“What?” Annan grinned, a little nasty. “You don’t want Torsten touching your house?”
“Did you see what he did with my bellows?” Galvyn demanded. “The last thing we need is for our home to look like a Ruidhrian brothel, too!”
The young wizard laughed. “Fair enough. Now, quickly, show me what you need. I must be away before the sun is much higher. I am to be sent on a quest.”
The blacksmith turned to him in surprise. “No one has quested since...I don’t remember.”
“Two hundred and three years.” Annan clapped his hands. “Show me- Whoa!” The wizard examined the beam. “I’d ask what happened, but I think the story will take more time than I have.” The beam in question ran down the center of the house, lengthwise. It acted as the primary support, but now sagged in the middle, splinters showing where it cracked. “When did this happen?”
“Last week. It was an accident!” he shouted, when his wife snorted loudly from the kitchen. “I had a few of the lads over, and…” he gestured helplessly to the beam.
“Right.” Annan pushed up the sleeves of his shirt.
Plucking a small sliver from the beam, he threw it into the bowl he pulled from his pack. Selecting various jars from their sleeves, painstakingly sewn into the pack, Annan added an acorn for strength, a dash of powdered willow wood for flexibility, and a few calendula petals for healing, finishing it off with a splash of water from the copper flask. Muttering over the bowl, he stirred it with a finger until the spell took hold, stirring of its own accord.
When it reached the right color, he cried out a Word that disappeared into the air as soon as he spoke it and flung the contents at the beam. The liquid soaked into the wood, absorbed without a trace. The entire house groaned as the beam straightened, the roof shook, sending down a shower of dust and spiders, splinters smoothing into the beam once more.
“There, that should be that,” Annani stashed the bowl and jars away, slinging his pack on and turning to the door.
“Wait!” Galvyn cried. “What about payment? Or breakfast?”
“Can’t wait, sorry.” Annan paused in the doorway. “I still have to get a couple people here and then get to the city. No time to waste.”
Annan strode away from the blacksmith’s, muttering to himself. “How is a man ever to marry, with all these useless questions. Faugh!”
Annan’s next stop was the church, three streets over from the blacksmith’s. The church was the tallest building in Arras, a good two stories high. The wizard had no time to appreciate the intricate carvings over the door as he usually did. Ignoring the tale of Conn of Arras, his ancestor, Annan flung the doors wide.
“Beathan!” he called, striding through the large double doors. “Beathan! Your king needs you! Well,” he amended when the cleric emerged from the rear chambers “I need you, and at the moment, that’s the same thing.”
“What on earth could the king need me for?” Beathan, a small man a few inches shorter than Annan, wrung his hands, his soulful brown eyes anxiously examining Annan.
“Your faith, good cleric,” Annan clapped the man on the shoulder. “Pack your bag, we go first to Caer Ruidhri, and then to battle the Evil. What better to combat evil than to have as faithful and worthy a cleric as you?”
Puffing up his thin chest, the cleric rushed to the back, chattering excitedly. “I must tell Brother Donal of this news! And I must pack...extra robes, my Book, staff, holy water…” Beathan’s speech became indistinct when he left the chapel proper.
The wizard watched the cleric hurry away, frowning. He hadn’t expected it to be so easy to persuade the cleric to join him. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one who’d occasionally dreamed of adventure? It was hardly his fault if his dreams of that adventure included scantily clad women, though Annan doubted the cleric had quite the same goals.
In surprisingly short time, Beathan reappeared carrying a pack similar to Annan’s in size, though Annan had no doubt it differed greatly as to content, and a stout walking staff.
“Now, Beathan, we must go to the jail.” Annan propelled the small cleric out the door.
“You did not say we’d be taking a thief!” wailed Beathan. “What use is a heathen such as this on a holy quest to vanquish evil!”
“For thieving. The goodness and faith is what we have you for,” Annan reminded him, keeping a weather eye on the latest addition.
Alan was a thief, and a frequent drunk, though rogue might be a more appropriate term. Enjoying fun and adventure more than coin, the rogue still loved his coin dearly, though not enough to rob the vulnerable. He also never operated within their hamlet, so his being a thief was more a matter of conjecture than actual proof.
“I am NOT going on any quest,” the tall, slim man glared through the bars of his cell at Annan, the thief’s shock of blond hair blocking part of his glare. Annan, who negotiated with the bailiff for Alan’s release, ignored the man’s theatrics. “So sure, get me out, if you want, but then I’m gone.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sure you’ll try,” Annan smiled pleasantly at the rogue. “But think of it like this: I’m a wizard, and I will fry your ass if you try. Besides, we’re going to deal with the gold-hungry, city-sacking Evil. It has tons of gold in its coffers. I’m also sure there will be times where you can arrange to be the only one near said coffers.”
The thief/rogue narrowed his eyes, fingers tapping on the bars, lips moving silently as he counted. “All right. I’m in.”
“Excellent!” Annan grinned broadly.
“Noooo!!” moaned Beathan. “That gold will rightfully belong to King Brieuc.”
“And how will Brieuc know how much is there? Hmm?” Alan stepped back from the door to his cell. “Lead on, young wizard.”
Annan narrowed his eyes, sure the rogue must be planning to run anyway. No way a man like Alan agrees that quickly and honestly. Upon attaining his freedom, the rogue immediately rummaged through his own pack.
“Hey!” He glared at the bailiff. “Where’s my picks? And my grappling hook? And my rope?”
The bailiff snorted. “The tools of a thief,” he said contemptuously.
“And?” Alan folded his arms, tapping his toes. “This is what I’m being bailed out for. So hand them over.”
Annan nodded, and reluctantly, the bailiff went to the closet, fumbling with his ring of keys until he located the correct key. Flinging the door wide, he stepped back, allowing Alan to collect his gear.
“One final thing, before we leave.” Annan swiftly seized the rogue’s wrist, closing a bracelet around it. He spoke a Word, and the bracelet flared with light that winked out as quickly as it came.
“What are you doing, you sparking idiot?!” Alan yanked his wrist free and immediately set to prying at the bracelet.
“Making sure you don’t run too far.”
“I-you-you-!” Alan’s shoulders slumped. “Asshole.”
“Excellent!” Annan rubbed his hands together. At this rate, he might actually be finished by autumn.
It couldn’t come too soon. After all, he’d be the first one besides his uncle to go to court in a decade and he’d be surrounded by beautiful court ladies. It would be unmitigated torture, but in becoming a hero, he would have opportunities to find a woman with far more and better land than any of his brothers had done.
His daughters would have the chance to marry good men from the court and nobility rather than the drunken rabble too often available to the women of small towns and villages.
“Now, to court, to see good King Brieuc about the rest of our party!” Annan had spoken to his father, Fynbar, at length the previous night, asking about his uncle’s expedition to deal with the Evil.
It seemed Uncle Anant had tried to deal with this thing without knowing what it was, and he’d gone alone, leaving the army behind. Annan had read enough of the ancient sagas to know better. You needed a party, in order to have all the necessary skill and capabilities on hand. His mother hadn’t raised any idiots- Well, Annan’s oldest brother, but she hadn’t raised Annan to be an idiot, at least.
“The-the rest of our party?” Beathan asked faintly.
“Oh, no,” Alan moaned. “We’re questing? No one has quested in forever! Why would you-?”
“My uncle has already tried and failed in the face of this Evil,” Annan said firmly. “We go to court because we need a fighter and a bard. We also need information, because I have no idea what is up with this Evil, other than it needs to be stopped and it has fearsome magical prowess.
“And the King has commanded it. And I can’t even look at a girl until it’s defeated,” he added.
“You can’t look at a girl?” Alan stared, astounded. “Actually, you know what? I don’t want to know. Let’s go so I can lose this stupid jewelry.”
The small party made their way through the streets of Caer Ruidhri just after lunch. Beathan gawked. The young cleric had never been to so large a place before. He had come from a small village, been trained in the monastery, and assigned to another small village. Alan strode through the city as if he owned the streets, completely unconcerned with the chaos. Annan struggled to pretend he was comfortable, and blessed the fact that he had an easier time of it than Beathan. He, at least, had been to Caer Ruidhri before.
Alan led them through the markets, brushing past stalls lining the streets and overflowing into the central square. Shade cloths fluttered in the breeze, providing welcome protection from the first hot sun of the year. Stall owners hawked their wares, housewives bartered, alternately praising and condemning the products for sale.
A sudden commotion had Annan clutching his pack a little closer. Fynbar had told his son that when anything out of the ordinary happened in the great city to look to your belongings, or else a thief would take advantage of the distraction.
A man dashed past, pushing through the crowd, clothes in disarray, and a lute slung across his back. It was the lute that drew Annan’s attention. Perhaps this was a bard skilled in seduction? Which is the only kind of bard he was interested in. All the great sagas made it sound like seducing his way into and out of complicated situations was a more important skill for a bard than actually playing an instrument.
Before Annan could get himself together, the bard disappeared, followed by an angry fat man and a group of liveried soldiers who could only have been personal guardsmen.
“Excuse me,” Annan hailed a woman selling produce, “do you know that man’s name?”
“Him?” the elderly woman cackled. “That’s Tellhouse, bard to the king. He’s always through here. Did he ‘meet’ your wife, too? You’d think the men would have learned a thing or two by now.”
Perfect. If he had that much of a reputation, then this Tellhouse might be just the type Annan needed. How to convince the king to part with the bard?
Finally leaving the market behind, Annan and his companions made their way to the castle fort at the center of the city. The castle was built high upon a hill, a relic from the days when magic was rampant across the land. It’s stone walls rose taller than any other, easily the height of four men.
Annan marveled at the thickness of the walls. Not only was this structure designed to withstand siege from normal weapons, it was built to resist any magical bolts thrown at it as well. It’s history was written in the small pockmarks dotting its outer surface, and the areas where newer stone had been brought in to replace damaged sections.
His father had regaled him and his brothers with tales of Conn, the first wizard of the realm. The battles that raged in those lawless days were now the stuff of legend. Most people thought those tales to be nothing more than exaggeration, and some, from the far flung villages, thought magic gone entirely. Arras was the last village to even have wizards. Until they reached the age of marriage, anyway.
At the gates, they were stopped by guards, lowered halberds aimed directly at Annan.
“Who goes there?” One guard demanded. Upon examining the young wizard’s simple shirt and tunic, belted above serviceable woolen trousers, the guard sneered. “You cannot just walk into the castle, you ignorant curs! Leave!”
“I am Annan O’Connor,” Annan began.
“Who cares?” The second guard spoke now. “Only those who have business with the king may enter. And you…” He laughed.
Annan narrowed his eyes. First his coming of age was delayed, and more importantly, his chances of being with a woman completely stymied, by order of the king, now he had to deal with rude men who had no idea that the wizard was summoned to court? Laughed at by idiots who probably couldn’t find their asses with both hands and a dog?
Still, his mother had drummed politeness into his skull, so Annan tried one more time. “I’m from Arras, the O’Connor village, the king contacted my father, Fyn-”
“Rubbish!” snapped guard one. “The King does not truck with peasants! Be on your way before we decide you’ve wasted our time enough and we put you in the stocks.”
Beathan squeaked. “Perhaps we should come back at a later time?” he whispered. “After we’ve had a chance to contact...somebody?”
“Nonsense,” Annan growled. These soldiers would stand between him and his as yet undiscovered wife? He didn’t think so! “I’m the wizard the king called for-”
The guards burst out laughing.
Snapping his fingers, a small flame appeared in Annan’s palm. A whispered Word and it shot up. Annan cast it to the ground in front of him, where it continued to grow. Another Word blocked the heat from Annan’s party directing it at the gobsmacked guards. Extending his arm, he exerted his will, pushing the flame forward, forcing the guards back.
People appeared from outbuildings, the walls, and even from the castle itself. One, a richly garbed man with gray hair and flowing robes of green and gold waved at the guards, telling them to stand down.
Once the weapons were lowered, Annan dissolved the flame, but kept it close in his mind, to be conjured quickly if needed.
“You must be the wizard King Brieuc summoned,” the green robed man said icily, eyeing Annan’s simple clothing with disdain.
“I am.” Annan nodded politely, ignoring the man’s demeanor. “I am Annan O’Connor, son of Fynbar, elder of the village Arras. My companions are-”
“Irrelevant,” the man interrupted. “I am Sugn, the seneschal of this castle. The King has ordered that you must appear before him immediately upon your arrival.”
“It would’ve been nice if you’d informed your gate guards of such,” Annan informed Sugn. He enjoyed the older man’s angry glare. If they would treat him with disdain, he would be damned if it was for nothing.
Sugn summoned an armed guard to see Alan and Beathan to the kitchens where they would be fed. Annan was commanded to follow, the command accompanied by a glare. How had Uncle Anant dealt with this for all these years? He practically lived at court, and was the very reason neither Annan or any of his cousins had ever been called before.
Until they realized that Anant would never lose his powers by losing his purity, boys from the family of Connor would be summoned to make repairs on the castle, perform any necessary healings, basically, everything they already did for the villages. However, once it was realized that Anant’s preference for men equalled lifelong purity, the previous king had given him chambers in Caer Ruidhri, where he could be easily reached.
That had been thirty-five years ago, and Fynbar had only been to the great city a handful of times since, taking a different son with him each time.
Annan walked the corridors of the castle, trailing behind Sugn, the first Connor since Anant to be here in decades. The young man strove to remain unimpressed, certain that gawking would only lead to more dismissive and disdainful comments.
Despite it being 200 years since the last truly serious altercation, the castle maintained a martial air. Windows were narrow slits, doors were simple, heavy wooden affairs devoid of embellishment. The only real display of wealth were the tapestries covering the walls.
Until Sugn led Annan into the audience chamber, that is.
Here, a table covered in fine linen cloth sat before the king and a small entourage. Roasted chicken, goose, and lamb sat upon it, the scent filling the large chamber. The walls were covered in tapestries, gold and silver thread woven through them, winking in the light cast by torches on the walls and beeswax candles on the tables. Rushes covered the floor around the table and fireplaces, sweetly scented herbs scattered throughout them.
Nobles gathered in small clumps, their fine clothing and jewellery catching the light from the torches on the walls and the candles of the king’s table. Annan noticed the majority of people picking at food from tables lining the walls. Apparently, only the king and his closest friends (Advisors? Did kings even have friends?) were given the luxury of chairs.
“Is this the wizard?” boomed the king from his high seat. “Bring him forward! Ladies of the court, please, I ask that you leave us for a time!”
Ladies, oh, those beautiful ladies, drifted away, some casting him glances from under their eyelashes. Annan followed them with his eyes, unable to quell the longing in his...heart. A young woman rose from the table and joined the scattering of ladies who walked past Annan. This one, however, glared at him, a mulish look in her eyes, at odds with her finery and the gems adorning her dress and hair.
“You will bow before the king,” Sugn hissed to Annan. “Do not look him in the eye. Do not speak unless spoken to. Answer all questions quickly and succinctly. Do you even know what succinct means? Do not leave until he dismisses you. Do not turn your back to the king until you are twenty paces away. Do you understand?”
By this time, they were close enough Annan was unable to reply. Walking forward on his own, Annan bowed low when he was within five paces of the high table.
“Rise up, young wizard!” the king cried. “I understand you gave a demonstration of your powers at my gate. Why was this?”
Annan shrugged. “Your Majesty’s guards were either not informed of my arrival, or they expected a wizard from a country community to be dressed far finer than a shepherd could ever be.”
The wizard kept his eyes above the king’s left shoulder, as he did whenever his father lectured him. Sugn’s angry gaze bored into his back, the seneschal practically vibrating with anger. Annan couldn’t let himself be cowed, only the will that powered his spells keeping his spine from wilting under the combined pressures of angry seneschal and condescending king.
With every breath, he reminded himself he was a wizard in the prime of his powers, and by ancient law beholden to the king only for the purpose of keeping peace in the realm. The king could not have him beheaded for insubordination, since they were practically equals. The clammy sweat on his palms gave the lie to his words. The young wizard was terrified.
A commotion across the hall caught the king’s attention. “Ah! Tellhouse, you’re back. Come forward, meet the young wizard who will save us from the Evil!”
Annan turned, and met the eyes of the half-dressed bard he’d seen in the marketplace earlier. Only now, the bard’s clothing was fine - and all there. Annan gave the bard a short bow, which the bard returned, adding a flourish.
“Tellhouse knows all there is about the Evil,” the king informed Annan. “He is our repository, knowing every story and song worth hearing. He will go with you when you depart to meet with the Evil. If there is anything you need, more food, horses, whatever, speak to Sugn, he will assist you. I want you ready to leave first thing in the morning. You will have at least five days riding to meet the Evil, and you cannot delay!”
Annan rocked back on his heels slightly, nonplussed. Getting the bard had been remarkably easy. But there was one more the party needed… “Your Majesty,” he began, desperately ignoring Sugn’s shocked inhale, “I will require the services of a fighter, a champion. In case there is physical fighting and I need a moment to collect a spell,” he lied hurriedly.
Wouldn’t do to tell the king about the ancient sagas and be laughed out of court.