In Ventus-land in the Springtime…

In the lands surrounding the West Pole, there is one country in particular with which we concern ourselves this day. Like most of that region, it is predominantly of rocky highlands and low, scrubby heather meadows. Color it grey and green and purple, then, and call it Ventus.

At the time that we concern ourselves with, Winter was just releasing it’s icy grip on the land to make way for Spring’s gentle flowering. Shy bulbs slowly peeked out from under their white blankets and raised delicately scented faces towards the still-weak sun. In time, the white would melt away entirely and the flowers would grow more bold, throwing their petals wide to attract insects and young lovers in utterly unequal amounts, but that time had not yet come when we turn our attention to Ventus. Rather than bees and swarms of little buzzing things that fly or crawl or hop, we see only a few early, daring cicadas. Rather than couples with blankets to sit upon and hampers filled with food to bring to each others’ lips, we see only a single man, muttering curses to himself as he stomps through the slowly melting snow.

Consider this man for a moment if you will. We call him man for he fits the generally accepted definition of that species. Lacking the more graceful points at the tips of his ears, and being slightly shorter, heavier, and hairier, it would be wrong to call him an elf, and he is far too tall to be one of the Smaller Species. His clothing is worn and well-mended, of green and gray and brown and black. His boots are leather and soaked through, and his hair is black and a long, shaggy mess that wants comb and scissors and water, none of which the man is of a mind to provide himself at this moment. As we look upon him for the first time he travels West, swearing softly to himself the while.

Reaching the end of the meadow, he begins to climb the slight rise, picking his way amongst rocks and boulders gray and yellow and brown with lichen. He does not turn to consider his own footsteps in the thin white snow of the meadow, for he cares not of his past, only his future. Perhaps his words, spoken where he believes none can hear, will shed some light on why he is here, sweating in the cool spring air. Let us listen in.

“Stupid stupid stupid,” the man mutters to himself as he puts a hand on a largish rock and uses it to steady himself as he scrambles up a narrow, muddy channel. “Why did I listen to that stupid storyteller? I could be home right now, enjoying a nice fire and a mug of morning tea, but no. I had to go and listen to him telling of great rewards and strange goings on, and here I am, hot in my face and cold in my feet, miles and miles from home heading God only knows where. This wizard better be worth the trip.” His foot slips a little in the mud and he goes to one knee, grunting and spitting more curses of the sort one normally hears from people who unload cargo from ships along the rivers.

It takes the man the better part of an hour to make it to the top of the rise, coming at last between a large boulder to his right and a slightly smaller one to his left somewhat after noon on that day. From there, he can look down into the next valley, which looks somewhat like the one before it with the exception of the small, squat tower rising out of the center like a monument to man’s defiance in the face of nature. The man grunts and nods to himself, pausing to scratch indelicately before beginning to pick his way carefully down. He has time, during the descent, to consider the fact that, in places which lack roads or stairs such as this, going down is often more difficult than going up.

The man spends several hours sweating and slipping and cursing as he makes his descent and then crosses the meadow to the tower. We, with the benefit of our position as mere observers of this history, can skip all that and catch up with the man as he stands before the tower in the mid-afternoon, squinting in the watery sunlight and glaring up at the edifice as if it had done him some personal wrong.

The man begins to circle the tower, heading towards his right and going widdershins ’round the structure. He goes three of the four quarters of the circle before he finds the door, and curses himself for picking the long way around. He did not realize it, but it mattered not which way he had traveled, it would have been three quarters of the circle before he found the door in either direction for this was, of course, a Wizard’s Tower.

Still and all, he found the door at last: a heavy looking oak affair with thick iron bands holding the planks together. Spotting in the center a large brass knocker in the shape of a goat’s head with the ring of the knocker gripped in it’s oddly sharp teeth, the man lifted his hand to knock. Before he managed to touch the brass, the goat’s head seemed to speak, which quite startled the traveler.

“What business hast thou in this place, Man?” issued a voice, low and dark and dripping with menace. Such a voice might have come from one of the very Demons of the Eastern Pole, where, it is said, dark and fell sorceries as are common as rocks in the West and supernatural Demons rode men the way men in more cleanly locations ride horses.

The man jerked his hand back, as if afraid that the goat’s head would come to life and bite at him with those terrible, sharp teeth. He blinked in amaze for a time at the door and it’s knocker before deciding that there must be a Demon embedded there and that perhaps he had better answer it lest it curse him or flay the flesh from his bones or any number of other things the man would rather not have happen to him.

“Uh yes, hi,” he began. The man winced then, perhaps thinking that this wasn’t the most self-assured beginning he could have made. He was strangely worried about how the Demon perceived him. “That is, Hello. My name is… not important,” he suddenly corrected himself as half-remembered rumors of what Demons could do if they knew your name flitted through his mind. “I am here to see the Wizard of the Tower, the Wizard Siat.” He nodded to himself, satisfied with this response, and he crossed his arms over his chest. When there was no reply for a goodly minute, his arms dropped to his sides and he leaned forward imperceptibly. “Uh… is he in?” he added then. He mused that it would be just like his luck to have come all this way and the Wizard would not be home.

Another minute passed, and the man opened his mouth to inquire again when suddenly the voice from the door replied, “Sorry about that, I was in the bath.” The voice, although possessing some similar characteristics to the first one, was far less menacing and sounded, the man decided, rather like that of his mother’s brother Albert.

The door swung open then, although the man could not see anyone on the other side who could have opened it. Swallowing hard, the man looked within himself until he found a spark of courage. Grasping it tightly, he stepped forward into the Wizard’s Tower.

Out of professional courtesy, we will not reveal all of what he found inside the Tower. Suffice to say, there was much there that amazed him, some that frightened him, and more than one thing that made him laugh despite his fear. All the while, a small glowing orb bobbed in front of him, slowly leading him along. He walked this way and that, up this stair and down the other, until at last he made his way into a room where waited, seated in a comfortable chair with a small table at his elbow upon which rested a bottle of wine, the Wizard Siat.

Indulge us for a moment while we describe the Wizard, for it will make the man’s reaction more clear. The Wizard was a small man, no more than nose-high to the traveler. He seemed thin of arm and leg, although his belly was nicely rounded. His face had some years to it in the way of Men, lined and creased especially around the corners of the eyes and lips. His hair was shoulder length and brilliantly white and the light from a dozen candles shone from it and created a soft halo around the Wizard’s head. His eyes were dark and filled with mirth and his fingers were long and clever.  A book lay open in his lap as the man walked in, and when the Wizard smiled his teeth were clean and white and even.

This, then, is what the man saw when he walked in, and it goes far to explain his first thought which was this: He even looks like Uncle Albert. Perhaps wisely, the man did not voice that thought aloud but merely asked “You are the Wizard Siat?”

The Wizard considered the man and his appearance for a long moment before smiling. “If not, I’m the boldest sort of robber. I’ve not only broken into his Tower, but I’ve used his bath, dressed myself in his dressing gown, and am now helping myself to a bottle of his wine while reading his book and sitting in his favourite chair. What do you suppose he’ll do with me when he comes home?” The old Wizard cocked his head, mirth twinkling in his eyes as he teased his guest.

“Yes yes, I”m the Wizard Siat. Who are you and what do you want?” the whitehair asked after the man spent a few moments opening and closing his mouth in surprise at this rather extra-ordinary greeting.

“Uh, right,” the man collected his thoughts. “My name is Daniel,” he very nearly extended his hand in greeting as was the custom in his hometown but decided at the last minute that he really didn’t want to touch the Wizard if he could help it. “I heard of you from a traveling storyteller who came through my village,” he explained, “and from what he said, it seems like maybe you could help me.”

“Ah, I see,” the Wizard nodded thoughtfully. “One should always trust everything told to them by wandering storytellers. After all, people who travel from village to village and tell stories are known for being scrupulously honest at all times. They never lie.”

The sarcasm was lost on Daniel, who merely nodded and continued as if the Wizard had not spoken. “You see, there’s this girl…”

“Ahhh,” the Wizard nodded sagely at this. Men coming to him with girl troubles was nothing new. “Let me see… you don’t look like the domestic sort so I’m guessing she didn’t leave you for another man which means she’s not yours yet but you want her to be, yes?”  the Wizard smiled slyly at the man. “Tell me more about this girl.”

Daniel nodded, blushing as he realized that a goofy grin was starting to form on his  lips. “She’s wonderful,” he gushed, eyes glowing faintly with obsession. “Slender and beautiful, she has hair as soft and golden as the petals of a sunflower, with eyes like a late afternoon summer sky. Her name is Jorda, she is the daughter of Godspeaker, and she is so smart. She can even read.”

The Wizard raised an eyebrow at his, his grin never abating. “She sounds wonderful. So what’s the problem? Why do you need my help?”

“Well,” Daniel’s expression went from ecstasy to despair in less time than it takes to say it, “She’s already spoken for. To Steven, the miller’s son. He’s younger than I, and he’ll inherit the mill when his father dies while all I have is a few dozen acres of barely-adequate farm land.” Daniel stared down at the ground, only just now noticing that the carpet was rich vermilion and looked very very soft. “But I love her!” he finished with a whine.

“Yes, I totally understand,” the Wizard nodded to himself. “Let me think here. Hmm. Yes. Yes, I think that might work,” he began smiling again. “Ok, here’s what I need: A lock of her hair, I don’t care how you get it, a few drops of your blood, and something belonging to this Steven fellow. A glove, perhaps.  Bring me these things, and I can work a spell for you. Oh, and of course some payment. That purse you wear, whatever is in there I will take.”

Daniel’s heart soared upon hearing these words and he nodded to hard it is a testament to how well made the human body is that it didn’t fly right off and land in the Wizard’s lap, which would have been inconvenient for all involved to say the least.

“Yes, yes I can do that,” Daniel promised, removing his purse and tossing it to the Wizard who smiled. They worked out a few minor details involving the timing of this, which is of little interest in the broader scope of the events, so we will leave them to it and skip on ahead a week.

The man, Daniel, was good as his word and brought the necessary things to the Wizard, who took them and told the man to return home and await developments. Daniel returned the afternoon before we pick up the thread again, dear reader, and waited in his house for the girl of his dreams.

However, we turn our attention to the Western edge of the village. From between the outlying farms in that direction came a stranger, whistling a cheerful tune as he strode through the early afternoon sun. Tall he was, and lean of limb. His hair was dark and full, cut to shoulder length and swept back from his high forehead. His eyes were dark and soulful, hinting at strength and vulnerability in equal measures. His clothes were of good material, nicely cut of vermilion but dusty from the road. He had the kind of face that makes girls sigh to each other and when he smiled, his teeth were clean and white and even. At his side was a slender sword in a well-worn sheath, and he carried a stout walking stick roughly his own height in his left hand.

Farmers in their fields turned to watch him walk past, not because travelers from the West were unusual but because while he carried a small pack on his back, it seemed to small to be laden with goods for sale which meant he was not a peddler. Still, it was early spring and time for the digging of furrows and the planting of seeds, and these things would not accomplish themselves the farmers reminded themselves after a few minutes, and a single traveler on the road was none of their business.

Arriving at the center of town, the stranger looked about for a moment, perhaps seeking an inn or other public house. Finding none, he shrugged and headed towards the small House of the Gods in it’s traditional spot in the north of the town center. He entered without knocking, as was proper at that time of day, and made the correct gestures towards the shrines to the Lord and Lady on the North wall, the Prince and the Maid on the West wall, the Fisher and the Farmer on the South wall. He even bowed and made signs of respect to the dark shrine along the East wall, which the Godspeaker had never seen anyone do outside of the Grand Central Temple in Torrias.

“Greetings, pilgrim,” the Godspeaker smiled at the young man and made a sign of blessing over the lad’s bowed head. “You’re not from this village. Are you passing through?”

“Thank you Holy One,” the stranger replied, smiling as he straightened and looked at the Godspeaker. “I am yes, although I may linger in this town for a day or so, if that is not too much trouble? It has been a long road and a cold one these last few fortnights, and I should dearly love to let my feet have a chance to dry now that I have found a friendly-seeming village. If my request will not be looked upon favorably by the town, I will, of course, continue on with wet feet,” he hastened to add with a cheerful smile.

“Oh, I think we can accommodate you for two or three days,” the Godspeaker smiled, taking an instant liking to the well-spoken stranger. “Tell me, what is your name, friend?”

“I am called Victor,” the stranger claimed, and there was a hint of amusement in his eyes as he said it. The Godspeaker didn’t notice however, and indeed one would have had to know the stranger quite well to have caught it in any event.

That evening, the stranger dined with the Godspeaker and his daughter Jorda. They passed the evening in pleasant conversation. The stranger proved to be quite well educated, and he and the Godspeaker enjoyed a couple of hours of friendly argument over this or that interpretation of this or that passage in this or that book. The stranger made frequent eye contact with the daughter, and after a time she stopped blushing and looking away.

Later, after Jorda had cleaned off the table and washed the dishes and retired for the evening, the Godspeaker turned to the stranger and said, “My eyes are not so old, young man, that I do not see how you look at my daughter. And were she not already spoken for, I might even encourage you to seek to court her, for you are engaging and well-spoken and these are things to be treasured in such a place as this. However, she is, as I have said, already spoken for, and they will be married come Summer solstice.”

“I understand perfectly,” the stranger smiled to reassure the old man. “Besides, I am but passing through, remember? I could not think to settle down in this town, charming as it is. It’s a bit…” he trailed off, looking as if he wished not to express a possibly hurtful opinion.

The Godspeaker chuckled however and suggested, “bucolic?”

The stranger nodded, and they shared a laugh. “Indeed, that is a good word for it,” he said at last. “So, do not trouble yourself, my host. My intentions are pure.” Again there was the hint of humor in his eyes that only those who knew him well would notice. But despite his words, when the Godspeaker departed for his own room, the stranger sat for a while, looking at the door Jorda last stepped through, and it is there we will leave him for the moment.

In the morning, the young stranger attended the morning Speaking, and then spent several hours helping the Godspeaker with chores around the House. In the afternoon, he took a stroll along the river and then around the village grounds, smiling and nodding at this person and that as they encountered each other. He would spend a few minutes at each farm as he passed, asking the farmer or whichever hand was closest questions about the land, the crops, the best time to plant this seed or that, the best way to prevent birds from eating half the seeds before they had a chance to sprout, and the best times to harvest. To each one, he listened carefully and with such attention that each person he talked to felt three times as important, as if only they knew the secrets of the universe and the stranger was their humble disciple.

That evening, as the stranger helped Jorda setting the table for evening meal, there came a furious pounding on the door to the House. Each looked up in alarm, and the Godspeaker hurried to open it.

Three of the elder generation of farmers were there, all red-faced and out of breath. “Come quickly,” they demanded of the Godspeaker, “there has been a murder.”

The Godspeaker grabbed his satchel and hurried out after them, leaving the stranger and Jorda to look questioningly at each other. Each then snatched up whatever they thought would be useful for a quick walk: she grabbed a shawl for her shoulders and he his walking stick and sword. “Just in case,” he shrugged when the pretty blonde looked questioningly at the blade. “If it really is murder, the killer may still be here and I for one would feel better were I armed in the company of such a person.” That settled the matter, and the two of them quickly followed the departing quartet.

The walk was long, clear on the outskirts of town to the far south. A small farm, in a rocky area with poor soil, or so it seemed to the stranger. “Who’s farm is this?” he asked Jorda as the elders made their way inside the small, poor farmhouse.

“I think it belongs to Daniel,” she replied as she stopped just short of the door. “I… I”m not sure I want to go in,” she admitted when the stranger looked at her. “I know Daniel. He… he wanted my hand, although he was a decade older than I. But as I am betrothed to the Miller’s son, all he could do was watch me from afar with hot eyes. He unnerved me.”

The stranger nodded and looked about the farm. “It looks safe enough here. Wait just a moment. I shall poke my  head inside and see what is going on, then I shall return and tell you all that I know and thus spare you having to see things you be better served not viewing.” This plan settled upon, he was as good as his word. He stepped inside and surveyed the scene with the elders and the Godspeaker.

It was a good thing that Jorda had stayed outside, the stranger decided after a moment. It was not a pretty sight. A farmer, long greasy hair forming a sort of halo around his head, lay in a pool of his own blood. His head looked caved in, as if struck by a stout cudgel or piece of lumber. The entire contents of the house were all in disarray, as if someone had searched for something and simply thrown each container or object over their shoulder when they could not find it.

The elders were huddled with the Godspeaker, gesturing around the room and speaking quietly but heatedly amongst themselves. “We must find who did this,” the Godspeaker declared. “And why,” he added a moment later.

“Hmm,” the stranger spoke, then looked faintly embarrassed when all four older men turned to look at him. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“What is it lad?” the Godspeaker asked. “You’ve a sharp mind, we welcome your thoughts.” The other elders nodded, each of them having been among those the stranger had spent time with earlier that day and thus they also thought highly of the young man.

“Well,” the stranger stooped to pick up one of the murdered man’s spare shirts, a greasy, threadbare thing. “This is the man’s shirt, right? I mean, it looks like most of the rest of the stuff in here: old, many times mended, and not as cleanly as might be desired.”

The elders nodded in agreement that yes, that was indeed the slain farmer’s shirt. “What of it?” asked Mr. Golding, the wealthiest of the farmers in town.

“Well,” the stranger shrugged, “I can’t help but notice that glove over there,” he pointed near the body, half under an overturned three-legged stool. “It seems of particularly superior craftsmanship.”

The others turned to look, and the Godspeaker squatted to retrieve the offending piece of handwear. He held it up for the others to see. “You are right, Victor,” he declared as they all crowded around to examine the glove. “It’s far better than anything Daniel owned. Does anyone recognize it?”

“I do,” Mr. Chandler, the second-most wealthy farmer in the village said. “Isn’t that young Steven, the Miller’s son’s?”

Each of the elders looked again at the glove. “Yes yes,” said Mr. Golding, pointing, “see here? This isn’t dirt, this is grease, the kind they  use on the big axle of the mill. And here, this is blood, still fresh!”

The elders began to talk loudly and quickly, debating what must be done and how. The stranger slipped back out of the house and found Jorda still waiting for him outside.

“Well?” she asked, her pretty brow furrowing in curiosity.

The stranger shrugged in a way that implied there was more to it than he knew, but he said, “As far as I can tell, someone named Steven who works at a mill, killed this man Daniel.It… wasn’t pleasant. His head was staved in, as if by a large stick or beam of wood.”

“No!” Jorda gasped, “Not Steven! Why would he do that? He wouldn’t, that’s why! He has no cause…”

The stranger who called himself Victor shrugged again and said “All I know is that they found one of his gloves inside, and it had the slain man’s blood on it.”

The stranger only just caught the girl before she hit the ground as her knees gave out. “No!” she gasped again, then turned and clung to the stranger’s broad chest as she sobbed. He awkwardly stroked her hair, and tried to make reassuring noises even as the three elder farmers and the Godspeaker tromped out of the house.

“What is she doing here?” the Godspeaker hissed, then shook his head. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter now. Get her home, would you Victor? In the cabinet above the counter in the kitchen is some brandy, give her a glass or two until she falls asleep. I’ll be back in some hours.”

The stranger nodded and picked up the limp girl in his arms and carried her all the way back to her father’s quarters in the House of the Gods where he did as her father had asked, and put her to bed. He then sat up and waited for the Godspeaker to come home.

He greeted the Godspeaker with another cup of the brandy, which the old man took gratefully. “Thanks,” he said after taking a long gulp. “That… was unpleasant.”

“What happened?” the stranger asked as he refilled the Godspeaker’s cup.

“We went to the Miller’s house,” the older man began after a long moment of silence. “Steven, his son, claimed to know nothing of what happened. However, we found Daniel’s purse in his room, and in it was…” He took another long drink of his brandy and stared at the fire that the stranger had built up again after putting Jorda to bed. “In it was some money, a few coins and… hair. The purse was still wet with its owner’s blood.”

“Hair?” the stranger asked, his brows coming together in confusion. “Why was there hair in the purse, and what does that signify?”

“Golden hair,” the Godspeaker added. And indeed, this was significant as only himself and his daughter, as foreigners from the distant South, had hair that color in all of the village. “My daughter’s hair,” he added after a  moment, although that was probably unnecessary.

“I think I begin to see,” the stranger nodded. “Your daughter told me that the farmer, Daniel? He had eyes for her. So let me think.” He fell silent and stared into the fire for a time. Then, “Daniel still had eyes for your daughter, despite her betrothal. He somehow got ahold of some of her hair, for whatever reasons. Perhaps he wanted to seek out a Witch or a Wizard to cast a love-spell. Either way, the Miller’s boy found out about it confronted him. They came to blows and the Miller’s son killed the farmer. Is that about it?”

“Yes and no,” the Godspeaker said heavily. “We found the weapon used to kill Daniel. It had his blood on it. It was a piece of lumber the mill had recently cut. Steven wouldn’t have found that at Daniel’s house, which means he brought it with him. It means,” the wise man looked even older than normal as he pinched the bridge of his nose wearily, “it means Steven meant to kill Daniel from the beginning. It wasn’t an accident, it was murder.”

“Gods!” the stranger blurted, then quickly turned in the direction of the shrines and made quick apology motions to ward off offense at his accidental blasphemy. “What will happen to him now?”

“He’ll be hanged tomorrow evening,” the Godspeaker sighed. “I… I wish there was another way, but the Prince’s Law is quite clear in this regard. Poor Jorda.”

The stranger nodded, sharing the old man’s sorrow at this tragedy and the effects it would have on all their lives. “I… I do not know that I wish to see a hanging,” the stranger said after a time. “I think that perhaps it will be time for me to leave tomorrow afternoon, before… before the events.”

The Godspeaker nodded in sympathy, “I quite understand, my friend.”

The only one in the village who slept well that night was Daniel, and he was past caring.

In the morning, as the Godspeaker was giving the stranger provisions for the road, he said, “I can’t help but feel that something is not right in all of this. Steven is normally a level-headed young man, or else I wouldn’t have allowed him to court my daughter.”

The stranger shrugged, packing his sack with a loaf of fresh bread and a half a wheel of cheese. “Does not the poet Wimer say that Love makes Heroes of Cowards and Fools of Sages? It can make anyone do foolish things.”

“True,” the Godspeaker nodded. Just then Jorda came into the room, clutching her head.

“Do you have to be so loud?” she complained in a hoarse whisper as she poured herself some tea. The Godspeaker and the stranger shared tolerant, faintly amused smiles with each other. It was, it would seem, the girl’s first hangover.

Once the pretty young woman left the room again, the Godspeaker turned to the stranger. “I do not want her to witness the hanging,” he began, thinking through his thoughts carefully. “Do you suppose… No, it would be an imposition,” he shook his head as he dismissed the idea.

“What was it?” the stranger asked. “You’ve been nothing but generous to me, if there’s any way I can repay it that doesn’t involve watching a man die…”

The Godspeaker chewed upon his upper lip for a moment as he debated silently with himself. Finally, “Well… I don’t want Jorda to see her betrothed die. Do you think maybe… could you take her with you for the day, and then return tomorrow after it is done?”

The speaker startled at this suggestion, his face expressing shock and a profound pride. “You trust me to do this? Holy one, I am honored!” he announced. He lifted his hand to his heart and bowed over it. “It would be my honor to repay your kindness with such a simple favor,” he smiled. “I was going to continue traveling East, but I shall take her half a day to the South instead. There we will picnic this night, and I will keep watch lest wolves or highwaymen approach in the night, and tomorrow we shall return. Just take care to have the body buried by then,” he suggested.

And so it was arranged. The Godspeaker called his daughter in and told her to pack for a short journey. “You are to go with Victor here,” he told her sternly, “and do as he says. He has experience with the ways of the road, and will keep you safe until you return to me.”

The girl was confused, but after a time she agreed and packed some warm clothes and a good, wool cloak for herself. Extra food was put into the stranger’s pack, and shortly after noon the two set out, walking South: he with his sword and his pack and his stout walking stick, her with only a smaller pack for her clothes and a blanket to sleep on should they not find anywhere else to stay that night.

As they walked, the stranger would occasionally mumble something incomprehensible and from time to time he would wiggle his walking stick in a funny way. Whenever Jorda asked him what is was that he said, he merely demurred and said that he was clearing his throat, or singing an old song to himself, or that he was mentally going over their supplies for the evening. And always he flashed her a brilliant smile and would try to cheer her up by telling her stories of places he had been, or sing funny songs. Anything to keep her mind off what was surely happening to her betrothed, back in town.

As the afternoon wore on, thick dark clouds began to gather from horizon to horizon. By the time early evening was upon them, it was fairly near as night, and the wind blew cold and damp. As they paused to consider shelter options, the skies burst asunder with a tremendous crash, and rain began to fall upon the travelers in a torrential downpour. Both young people were quickly soaked to the bone, and were it not so cold then surely the stranger would have enjoyed at least the half of that that involved Jorda’s dress clinging to her so tightly.

“We need to get out of this rain,” the stranger had to yell to be heard over the rain, and the Godspeaker’s daughter could find no fault in this assessment. “Come with me,” he held out his hand invitingly, “I know of an old, abandoned tower not far from here. If we run, it will only take an hour or so. We might make it before the sun fully sets.”

And so they ran, feet splashing puddles of muddy water with each step. Jorda could barely see Victor in front of her, but his hand in hers made getting lost impossible. How he knew where he was going was a matter poor, bedraggled girl could not even begin to guess at. She was unsure how long they ran, although it seemed forever and a day to her before she finally realized that Victor had stopped. She discovered this extraordinary fact by virtue of running square into him. He laughed it off, however, and pointed at a dark shape looming out of the rain. “Look, that tower I told you of,” he said, eagerly pulling her towards the door that faced them invitingly.

“Should we knock?” she asked, pointing at the brass doorknocker in the shape of a goat with surprisingly sharp teeth.

“No need,” said the stranger told her. “As I said, I am familiar with this place, and there is no one in there right now.” He pushed open the door which responded lightly to his touch, and together they stepped inside and out of the rain. The silence, when he pushed the door shut behind her, was very nearly deafening.

“Come,” said the stranger who seemed to know his way around the tower, “this way. There is a room with a fireplace, we can dry out and get warm. There is usually wood stocked inside, and if not I will brave the rain once again to find us some.”

If Jorda had been less tired and cold and wet, she might have found that odd since she remembered seeing none during the frenzied flight in the rain. Of course, she could barely see her own hand before her face, so maybe that wasn’t as odd as she might have otherwise thought it. However, the prospect of a fire drove out all thoughts other than the desire to get warm, and she followed the stranger eagerly.

The room he lead her into contained a fireplace as advertized, and as the stranger set to work building a blaze in the hearth Jorda looked around. There was a small, comfortable looking chair, beside which a small table seemed to wait eagerly for a bottle or cup to be set upon it. The carpet was thick and soft and deep vermilion.

The stranger turned to find Jorda frowning faintly. “How do you know of this place?” she asked, staring at the carpet and then at his clothes. “You said you’ve stayed here before?”

“Oh yes, many times,” the stranger smiled charmingly. He rose and drew near the girl, holding out his hand. “Come, give me your cloak. There is another room over there, you can change into your clothes in your pack. They will surely be slightly more dry that that which you are wearing right now.” He gestured towards a door which she had not noticed previously, a door with a strange symbol barely visible on it in the dim light of the fireplace.

“I… yes, thank you,” she nodded, clutching her pack to her chest. Suddenly the handsome stranger’s smile seemed less charming and more sinister to her, although she could not think why that would be. “What a strange door,” she observed as she approached, “what is this symbol on it?”

“I have no idea,” lied the stranger who the gentle reader has probably realized was not named Victor by this point. “Some family crest perhaps, belonging to whoever used to live here and faded with age?”

“Yes, maybe so,” Jorda replied thoughtfully. In truth, the symbol reminded her of ones she had seen in books her father had let her read. Something to do with the East, she thought. Still, she wanted to dry off and it would not do to change in front of a man she was not  married to, so she stepped through the door. The stranger swiftly crossed the room and pushed it shut behind her, bringing down a bar to lock it from the outside. He leaned against the door for a moment, waiting. When the screams began, he smiled darkly to himself and nodded in satisfaction.

Later, seated at his favorite chair with a bottle of wine at his elbow and the light of a dozen candles glinting off his dark hair, the Wizard Siat looked up from his book as a mist floated into the room and coalesced in front of him. “Was the girl satisfactory?” he asked, his voice smooth and amused as he queried the Demon who even then was taking full shape before him.

“Utterly,” the demon nodded its goat head, baring its surprisingly sharp teeth. “Our bargain remains in effect for another ten years, Master. Now if you will excuse me, I need to remember where we keep the toothpicks.”


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