I. The Castle"I tell you, Randy, this is one journey I'll be glad to see over and done with."
Randal of Douna sturdy, black-haired youth in the dark, hooded robe of a journeyman wizardturned in the saddle and regarded his cousin Walter for a moment before replying.
Walter himself, at a little past the age of twenty, was only four years Randal's senior, but he was already a knight, and the long sword at his side was no child's toy. He and Randal had ridden most of the day in watchful silence, while the pack train behind them wound its way through the hills of north-eastern Brecelande.
"We shouldn't run into any more trouble on the road," Randal said, in reply to the question that Walter hadn't asked aloud. "I didn't see anything last night, when I used the scrying-spell to look ahead."
Randal didn't blame his cousin for being worried. Six chests full of goldborrowed by a lord in Brecelande to pay for a campaign he planned to fightmade dangerous baggage in a land already at war. He considered the road ahead for a moment, then shrugged and added, "Of course, nothing's certain. We may have enemies who are spelled against magical detection, or we might find ourselves caught by a danger that's only now coming into being, or we . . ."
"If you're trying to sound cheerful," came a light voice from behind Randal, "it isn't working."
The voice belonged to the slightly built girl in boy's clothing who rode next to Prince Vespian's paymaster. The girl wore a jaunty cap of green felt on her short black curls, and carried a lute slung over her shoulder in a leather case. Beside her, the paymaster sat hunched glumly in his saddlethe farther Prince Vespian's gold had come from its native southlands, the longer the paymaster's face had grown, until now he almost never smiled or even spoke at all.
Sir Walter turned and smiled at the lute player. "I'd sooner have honest uncertainty than false security, Demoiselle Lys," he said. "And I'd hate to lose everything at the last moment. Baron Ector trusted me to bring the gold to him at Bell Castle, with no glory-seeking along the way."
"Why do they call it Bell Castle?" Lys asked curiously.
"You'll hear for yourself soon enough," Walter promised. "The Baron's camp is just ahead."
The pack train crested another hill as the knight spoke, and Randal saw an open plain filled with tents and pavilions. He frowned a little at the sight: Even from this distance, he could see that part of the field had once been a village and plowed farmland. The villagersthe men and women who grew Bell Castle's food, and shared its protectionwere nowhere in sight; Randal supposed that they had gone into the castle for safety, much as the peasants at Doun turned to Walter's father in time of trouble.
Randal looked up from the low-lying plain to where more hills began to rise from the valley floor. The castle stood in isolation at the top of a steep slope on a spur of bare granite. Blocks of the same gray stone formed the castle's walls and its two great towers, one higher than the other, rising above the central keep.
"Well, Randy," said Sir Walter, "that's Bell Castle. What do you think of it?"
"I don't think I've ever seen a fortress so strong," said Randal honestly. "Does your Baron Ector really expect to take this place?"
Sir Walter cast a practiced eye over the camp on the plain below. "A thousand foot soldiers, and about five hundred mounted menplus mercenaries, and the gold to pay them. Yes, I'd say my lord Baron is serious."
"Who exactly is Baron Ector?" Randal asked.
"Baron Ector of Wirrell," Walter replied, "is a war-leader of some note. He has a quarrel with another lord who holds land in these parts, including Bell Castle. What the castle itself holds, I'm not certainit's not the largest of Lord Fess's castles, or the most importantbut Baron Ector is determined to break it open and bring out the prize within."
Randal felt a chill run down his spine. He knew the name of Lord Fess. When a stolen artifact of power from Fess's treasure room had come into Randal's unwilling possession, Fess's men had chased him and Lys from Cingestoun to Widsegard in an attempt to get it back.
He glanced at the girl. She looked back at him, and shrugged. "We'd better hope the baron wins," was all she said.
As she spoke, the deep tolling of a massive bell came from the castle across the plain. The bell's dark, booming voice sent a feeling of powerful magic washing over Randal, which faded but did not entirely vanish as the echoes of the bell-note died.
"Bell Castle," he said. "Now I understand the name."
Walter nodded. "The castle-folk ring it once every hour, day and night. It's said no enemy can take the castle so long as that bell hangs in the topmost tower."
Magic, thought Randal. And strong, too, from the feel of it. Once we're settled down, I'll have to look about and see what other spells the lord of the castle has in place.
As the last echoes of the bell died away, the pack train started down the slope toward the plain. A group of mounted men rode toward them out of the camp ahead. As the troop came closer, Randal heard Lys give a shout of recognition.
"Look, Randy!" she cried out. "It's Sir Guillaume!"
Randal looked more closely at the oncoming riders, and saw that she spoke true. The horseman in the lead carried a shield emblazoned with three intertwined rings, the device of Sir Guillaume of Hernefeld. The last time Randal had seen that device had been in Tattinham, on the day of the great tournament therea day when his cousin Walter had almost died, struck down from behind during a moment of truce.
Sir Guillaume spurred forward. "Sir Walter!" he called. "I'm glad to see youI haven't heard of you all year! I was afraid you might be dead, after that wound you took."
Walter shook his head. "No, not deadalthough the quest I was on afterward had me close enough to death a few times. But that's done with, and now I'm Baron Ector's man for this season. What brings you here?"
"The same as you," Guillaume replied. "I'm joined with the Baron in his war on Lord Fess. And if you're with us, then we can't lose."
Walter said something modest in reply, and the pack train, now guarded by Guillaume's men as well as Walter's own, continued across the plain and into the center of the baron's camp. They stopped outside a large, airy pavilion decked out with banners. A heavyset man in his late forties stood outside the pavilion, a look of worry on his square, florid face. His expression lightened a little as Sir Walter and the others appeared.
"It's good you're here," he said to Walter. "Captain Dreikart and his troop of mercenaries were threatening to leave if they weren't paid soon."
"What we have here should keep them happy, my lord Baron," said Walter, with a nod toward the chests. "Prince Vespian's terms were more than generous."
"I see." Then the baron's eyebrows drew together in a frown at Randal's black robe. "Was the prince's wizard part of the bargain?"
"My cousin Randal isn't the prince's wizard," said Walter. "He was fostered with my family at Castle Doun."
"What was a son of Brecelande doing in Peda?" the baron asked.
Randal met the baron's gaze directly. "I'm a journeyman wizard, my lord. It's the custom for us to travel about in search of magical knowledge. I'd been studying with Prince Vespian's court wizard, and when the time came for me to journey on, I joined Sir Walter's pack train to help protect the gold."
"So you are not actually sworn to anybody," said the baron. He made a dissatisfied noise. "There's too many masterless men in this already . . . but I suppose it can't be helped. You, Sir Walterare you willing to vouch for your cousin?"
"With my life," said Walter. "Randy's as trustworthy as the day is long."
"And the lute player therehow about her?" asked the baron. "She looks like a foreigner to me."
"Demoiselle Lys is from Occitania," Walter said. "But a truer friend you won't find anywhere."
"Well, let them camp with you and your men," said the baron. "Since you did such a good job of bringing the gold from Peda, I'm going to give you the responsibility for guarding it, as welland if you're willing to have these two with you, I won't argue."
Later, with the gold safely stowed in the center of the camp, and Vespian's paymaster sleeping next to the locked chests, Walter and his little troop settled down for the night. Lys took her lute and began working over its many strings, bringing them back into tune after the day's travel, while Walter and Randal sat nearby and listened to the silvery jangle of sound. After a while, Walter lifted his gaze from the campfire's flames.
"So tell me, Randalnow that we've gotten the gold safely to Brecelande, what will you do next?"
Randal shrugged. "Travel, I suppose. Learn magic where I can. Go back to Tarnsberg someday, maybe, and study again with one of the masters there."
"But shouldn't you be doing more than just wandering about?" Walter asked curiously. "After all, pages become squires, and squires become knightsdon't journeyman wizards someday become masters?"
"Not always," said Randal. "It's not that easy." He looked down at his hands and shook his head. "I'm not really sure I want to claim mastery. Even a journeyman has too much power sometimes."
"I don't know," Walter said. "A man doesn't stay a squire forever. But I suppose it's different for wizards."
"Everything's different for wizards," said Randal. But his cousin's words made him uneasy just the same, and he fell silent, listening to Lys sing a ballad to the music of her lute.
"Green is the hill, the elfin hill
And the birds fly high above
And I will go to the elfin hill
And fly my hawk for Love."
The evening drew on, and eventually all the baron's camp inside the circle of sentries was wrapped in sleep. Randal lay curled in his journeyman's robe in Walter's tent, and counted the passing hours of the night with the ringing of the great bell.
At last he slept, and in his sleep he dreamed. In his dream he stood on a high plain, empty wherever he looked, with deep cracks running along the parched, hard earth. A hot wind blew across the barren ground, and whipped the ends of his hair against his cheeks and forehead.
He turned to look behind him, and saw that the plain was not entirely featureless after all: He stood before a broken heap of rock, a pile of gray stone that looked like part of a collapsed wall. A rosebush climbed up the side of the wall, its thorny vines holding fast to the ancient stonework.
Randal looked again, and saw that the rose was not the only plant that grew over the broken stone. A brier grew out of the dry soil at the wall's base, and twined its brambles among the leaves and blossoms of the rosebush. The roses covered the ruined wall like a tapestry of petalswhite roses below, near the roots, and red ones near the top, where the brier joined the rosebush in its push toward the sun.
Randal walked around the wall, to see what might be on the other side, and found a small fruit-tree growing there, in the shadow of the stone. From one branch of the fruit-tree hung a royal crown, as if its owner no longer had use for it, and had carelessly left it there.
On the same branch perched two white birds. As soon as the birds saw Randal, they lifted themselves into the air with a rustle of wings, and flew off together toward the south, leaving the crown on the branch behind them.
"Who do you belong to?" Randal whispered. "I can't leave you here where anyone can come along and steal you."
He lifted the crown from the branch. It felt heavy in his hands, and he tried to put it back where he had found it. But when he did so, the branch dipped under the weight of the golden circlet, and the crown would have fallen onto the dirt if he hadn't caught it in time. It seemed to grow even heaver as he stood holding it.
I can't put it back, Randal realized. I touched it, and now I'm responsible for it. When will I learn that I shouldn't touch what I don't want or don't understand?
The crown was dragging him downward, pulling him down onto his knees with its ever-increasing weight. If I can't let go of it, I'll never be able to stand up under the burden, he thought. But it won't to back where I found itwhat do I do now?
Then the answer came to him, not in a flash of insight, but more as if it were something he had always known. I have to put the crown on the head of the true ruler - - - then the barren land will be green and living, and the broken walls made whole.
In that same instant came the booming of the great bell over the field, and Randal awoke. He lay for a while, feeling oddly restless. The images from his dream still haunted him, filling him with a sense of important things waiting to be accomplished. But what have I to do with crowns and kingdoms? In dreams, the answer always seems so clear, but when I wake . . .
After lying still for a little longer, he rose and went to the open flap of the tent to look out at the night.
The stars had traveled a long way across the sky, and the camp was silent. The whole plain full of tents was quiet and darkthe moon had already set. Then, a little way off, a horse nickered.
Let's see what's going on over there, Randal thought. He called up a ball of cold-flame, the magic light that wizards used in place of candles or lanterns. What it showed almost made him cry out and lose the light entirely.
Men were converging on the center of the camparmed men, with their swords drawn, and all of them wearing the yellow surcoats of Lord Fess.
Randal quenched the blue-white ball of light, but one of the men had already turned toward him. Even with the light gone, Randal saw the man raise his sword.
Randal had trained as a squire before he studied wizardry, and now he used the reflexes gained in his early years to drop and roll away from the blow. At the same time he called a flash of blinding white light and a boom of thunder, loud enough to wake Walter and half the camp besides. Then he rolled back to his feet, making ready a shock-spell as he rose.
The man who had tried to kill him was ducking into Walter's tent. Randal threw his shock-spell. The magic hit the man like a heavy fist, doubling him over and knocking him down.
"Walter!" Randal shouted. "Lys! Wake up!"
Walter ran out of his tent, his broadsword in his hand and his shield on his arm.
"What is it, Randy?" he called out. "Give us light so we can see!"
The young wizard cast the light-spell again. This time he poured far more power into that simple conjuration, and a huge ball of white fire appeared over the center of the baron's army, lighting the ground all around with a glare like the sun seen through clouds. The whole plain was illuminated in harsh white highlights and dark black shadows.
Walter set the men-at-arms under his command in a circle around the tent that held Vespian's paymaster and the chests of gold. Then, from out of the darkness, a voice cried, "Sir Walterover here! We need you!"
Walter hesitated, looking over at Randal.
"It's all right," Randal said. "I'll hold things here."
Walter sprinted out of the circle of spears and into the direction of the heaviest fighting. Randal watched his cousin go, and then turned back to holding the light-spell as long as he could, standing motionless while shouts and the sound of clashing steel rose up from other parts of the field.
Overhead, the sky toward the east went from black to gray, and the noise of battle faded to a few scattered outcries in the distance. At last, as the great bell once more gave out its low, brazen note, Randal let the magic fade. The light went from blue-white to dull red and then winked out. He sat down, exhausted, on the ground.
In the dawn light, Sir Walter entered the defensive circle and strode up to Randal. The knight's face was grim. "Well, cousin," he said as he sheathed his sword, "welcome to the war."
This sample chapter comes from THE WIZARD'S CASTLE (Circle of Magic #5, Troll Books, 2000) ISBN 0-8167-6996-6 $3.95
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