Niro paced along The Wall, his gloved hand occasionally reaching out to brush it. The Wall was made of huge slabs of polished black marble. Etched into the pure black marble were the rules and laws of the nation of Morth.
It was a late hour, and Niro paced alone, beneath the twinkling of the stars, and the faint orange glow of the gas giant Maroth. The wind blew through the trees that sheltered The Wall, and Niro pulled his robes more tightly about him.
Niro was a tall man, perhaps an inch under six feet, in a land where the average man was closer to five feet. Niro's salt-and-pepper hair and beard were well-trimmed, Niro's sole mark of vanity. Beneath his blue robes, blue scale-mail, made from the scales of a behir, tinkled with every step. His heavy boots were well padded and insulated, and padded silently along the wet stone before The Wall.
He was a mage. A wizard. And more than that, he was also a cleric of Agincoth, the Goddess of Knowledge. Marquis Niroduth Tonwiler paused, his gloved hands clasped behind his back, his breath steaming in the cold air.
Niro said, “You can come on out. There's no one else about.”
Snow fell in a clump, over the edge of The Wall. A moment later, a lithe figure wrapped in snowy white and cream-colored wool dropped onto the ground. The figure stood up, apparently a man, though the face was well-wrapped against the cold – and recognition.
The Marquis Tonwiler looked the figure over, from head to toe, and back to head. “Forkan wool, Juneth? You're moving up in the world.”
Juneth started, and then chuckled. His voice was a mid-tenor that could change to a bass, or a contralto, at will. “I never know if you simply have good eyes, or you're using your magic.”
Niro smiled, the smile carrying to his eyes. “Both, most times. Obviously, I recieved your note. What do you need?”
The man in white leaned up against The Wall, and crossed his arms. “Task for a task. I wish you to make one of my men, invisible, again.”
The Marquis nodded his head, slightly. “What are you after?”
Juneth chuckled. “Mere baubles, to a Marquis of Morth. A merchantman from Rakore is due in to Glenforel, soon. She'll be in to trade for wool that the Vridarans need. The captain of the ship, is a woman.”
Niro's eyebrows shot up.
The master thief chuckled, a stark figure in white, leaning against a black wall. “Aye. She's a tough woman, though. Some say she's a priestess of Olorin. The cargo manifest for her last two calls to port, in Glenforel, showed that she unloaded some dwarven-made chain mail, to sell to the Vikermans. Nutedae has paid me a handsome sum, to steal the chain mail, and give it to them.”
Tonwiler frowned, his hands still clasped behind his back. His eyes were as blue as his robes. “How can one invisible thief steal an entire shipment of chain mail?”
Juneth laughed softly. “Come now, if I tell you all my secrets, you might one day run me out of business!”
Niro's smile was frosty. He was not in the habit of having anyone refuse to answer his questions.
The master thief finally sighed, and said, “Oh, bugger. You don't have the suave to run a thieves' guild. Very, well.” He sighed, again, and said, “It's simple, really. The Rakorans send everything in under heavy guard – a military carrack escort, plus the galleon carrying the chain. The carrack will peel off to hunt down pirates, while the galleon goes to Lamental.”
Juneth glanced up, looking around. Fog slipped out of his white-wrapped head, and then he turned again to Niro. “The chain mail will sit in a warehouse in Giranhad under heavy guard, until the Vikerman guard arrives to transport it to the Duke's. One letter.”
Marquis Tonwiler stood with legs slightly apart, hands still clasped behind his back. He frowned for a moment, enjoying the puzzle. Finally, he shook his head. “Too many guards. Too many people know what's going on. One letter couldn't change anything. Could it?”
The figure in white leaned away from the wall, and moved to stand just before Niro. Juneth hinted, “If the Vikerman guard goes to the wrong warehouse – one on the wrong side of the harbor…”
Niro squinted his eyes at Juneth. “Will the guard find chain mail, at the wrong warehouse?”
The master thief chuckled, his breath coming in puffs from his white-wrapped face. “Yes, they will. The top set of chain in each crate is Rakoran make; the rest is what my people have drug up from a wrecked Nutedean warship.”
“It must have sunk in shallow water.”
Juneth nodded. “When the tide goes out, you can walk out to it.”
The Marquis pursed his lips. “What about the real Rakoran chain? You'll have to harm the guards, to get the chain out, before the Vikermans find something amiss. I can't help you, if there will be blood on my hands.”
Juneth said, “No blood. I recently hired a former assassin from Halenal. Very fast, that one.”
Niroduth started to object, but Juneth held up both hands in a placating gesture.
“Relax, Niro. The Loord Marshes of Halenal produce some interesting plants – among them a toxin that is nonlethal. Paralytic.” Juneth pulled a small vial from nowhere, and handed it with his white gloves to the Marquis.
Niro turned the vial over in his own brown gloves, and eyed it speculatively.
Juneth explained, “He calls it 'numolocis'. It paralyzes a victim for at least an hour. Which is all we'll need. I've had the Halenalan training my people on the use of blowguns; as bad as they are, in aim, they still have a few days yet, to improve.”
The Marquis slipped the vial into a pocket on the inside of his robes, and asked, “And if a guard raises the alarm?”
The master thief was silent for a moment, his face hidden behind the wrappings. “We dance this dance, again and again, Marquis. I give my word, again and again, as a follower of Samis, that no blood will be shed, during an assignment using your magic. If we're caught, we'll simply fade away into the woodwork.”
Juneth cleared his throat, and said, “The Nutedeans will, of course, want their money back. I'll be able to pay it, I think, but it will drain my resources.”
Niro nodded, his eyes squinting. “You've kept your word, so far, Juneth. Very well. I'll concoct a potion of invisibility, and include instructions.”
Juneth asked, “How soon can you have it?”
The Marquis Tonwiler glanced up into the sky, looking at Maroth while he thought. “When we made our first bargain, I went ahead and began work on a number of items I thought you might need or request. I'll have my apprentice, Mordrun, bring it to that bouncer at the Stolen Heart tavern.”
“Ikesis. He'll bring it to us.” Juneth paused, waiting. “This will make two tasks that I owe you.”
Niro nodded. “I know. I also know that you don't like having debts hang over your head.”
Juneth nodded subtlely beneath his white wrappings.
The Marquis said, “Two tasks, then. One, I want your men to train Mordrun how to fight. I'll need to be able to send him on missions, for me, and he'll need not only to defend himself, but-”
The master thief interrupted, “But also a plausible reason to travel about. As a mercenary. Very good. One of my men is very skilled in Krulkef style; he and Mordrun can begin training whenever you're ready. But I warn you; mastering that kind of style takes a long time.”
Niro nodded. “I expect it will be some time, yet, before Mordrun is accomplished enough, at magery, to travel at my behest.”
Juneth asked, “And the other task?”
“There is a merchant, here in Chisivel, asking an exhorbant sum of money for a tome he acquired, somehow or another. I want to know how he acquired the tome – discreetly – and I want the tome.”
The master thief nodded. “Describe the tome.”
“Very large.” Niro's hands indicated a book with a face two feet by three feet. “And very thick. It's locked, with large iron-bound backing and cover plates. It's entitled, Jerusel's Covenant. I've no idea what's in it – only that the book faintly radiates magic. I would advise against picking the lock, at least at first.”
Juneth nodded. “What's the merchant's name?”
“Edward Molinar. He owns a small scribery and cartography shoppe down on the main street, called Edward's Ink. Get the book, find out where Edward acquired it, and then bring it to me. I'll handle the rest.” Niro glanced around, seeing only The Wall, snow, and the thick trees protecting The Wall from the wind.
The master thief nodded. “And then we'll be even. Finding out where Edward got the book may be difficult.”
“No torture. Edward must not even know anyone was curious about the book. If possible, I'd like a replacement, so that he never knows its missing. If not, just make it disappear.”
Juneth chuckled. “Making things disappear is your calling, wizard.”
The Marquis suddenly realized that Juneth had no inkling he was a cleric of Agincoth. Startled by the insight, he merely replied drolly, “Indeed. Very well. I shall have Mordrun bring the potion of invisibilty to Ikesis, at the Stolen Heart, here in the city. You shall begin training Mordrun in some fighting style… Krulkef style, I believe you called it?”
Niro continued, “And you will see about acquiring for me Jerusel's Covenant. Are we agreed?”
The master thief nodded, once again, and said, “Agreed. Good night, to you, Marquis Tonwiler.” Juneth saluted sloppily, waving his hand negligently in the cold air, and turned to leave.
Niro nodded after him, and said, “Good night, to you, as well.” Niro clasped his gloved hands behind his back, and began walking along The Wall, back towards his estate.
He glanced at the wall, seeing his dimly orange-lit reflection in the dark black marble, the reflection interrupted by the law of the nation of Morth. He reached out one gloved hand, sliding his fingers along The Wall, feeling the grooves of the letters inscribed in the marble.
The Marquis said quietly to himself, “What a sloppy job… I couldn't have been… Much older than Mordrun, I suppose.” He pulled his hand back, and clasped it behind his back, walking along.
He finally reached the end of The Wall, and continued on.
A small, green-with-rust brass plaque was set in a blank slab of the raw marble, at the end of The Wall. It read: The Law of Morth, as given to its people by the King and the gods. Dedicated by the Marquis de Natille, Niroduth Tonwiler, this Thirdday, Dacal 2, 1289 Avard.
Some years later…
Niro held up a shard of green glass nearly the size of his hand, and watched as the sunlight through the open window glinted through it. A myriad of fractures within the shard threw bolts of green-tinged about the room as Niro turned the shard over and over, peering deeply into the glass.
A young man of perhaps sixteen or seventeen years entered the room, and Nirodeth glanced up.
Mordrun had the blocky build of a miner or a smith, with massive shoulders and calves coupled to a squat build. The man wore simple brown leathers and a white shirt, with a sword at his side and a leather cloak on his shoulders. He nodded his head briefly, his blue eyes flashing in the beam of light that shown into the room.
His baritone voice was strong in his heavily downed, bronzed skin as he said, “Master,” by way of greeting. His eyes were drawn to the shard of green glass still in Niro's hand, and his face lit up in a smile. “Still hoping to repair the rik?”
The Marquis de Natille Nirodeth Tonwiler chuckled, and closed his hand around the shard. “Just meditating on my failures. What brings you to me, so early in the morning – and dressed to travel, as well?”
Mordrun, preferring the hours of the night to the hours of the day, winced. “It's not by choice, Master, I assure you. I have lessons again this morning, with Master Juneth.”
Niro smirked, the expression mirthful in his well-trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. “Ah. I had forgotten. How far along in your studies are you?” He gestured with his other hand, indicating his apprentice should take the seat at the table opposite him.
Mordrun clunked over to the seat, and spun it around, sitting in it backwards with his crossed arms upon the headrest. “Not as far as I would like, Master. Master Juneth says that I'm more suited to the Alekdan style of fighting, but…” He shrugged, an unmistakeable gesture on one with such broad shoulders. “It may be late Spring or early Summer before I've earned Master Juneth's sword.
The marquis chuckled, and shook his head. At his apprentice's look of confusion, Niro said, “You amaze me, Mordrun. I don't think you realize just how far ahead of your peer group you are.”
The apprentice covered his confusion at the answer with a scoff. “It's easy. Swordplay is second nature to me. Besides, it'll keep me out of Service when the time comes.”
Niro nodded. For the neutral nation of Morkth, the only way to evade the mandatory two years of service for every man and woman, was to either be pregnant – difficult in Modrun's case – or prove oneself a superior swordsman to the recruiter. The odd exception to the mandatory service ensured that the average citizen worked hard at learning the use of the sword.
The marquis pocketed the shard of green glass, and nodded. “You're right, of course. I'd rather have you here, by my side, than in the Service.” Niro glanced outside, his sky blue eyes staring out over a frost-covered forest on a clear day. “Your test of Service will not take place for another two years, though, and you are already capable of besting the recruiter. By then, your… gift… will be even stronger, as well.” He turned his head, locking his eyes with Mordrun's.
The apprentice glanced outside, nodding, and swallowing. “I've a great deal of work left, before I can master my… gift.”
Niro said, “Look at me.” Their eyes locked, one with the intense wisdom of decades, and the other with the intense clarity of youth. “Modrun, I've given great thought to an offer Master Juneth has made me: to let you work with him for a year, as his
Modrun blinked several times, trying to digest the terrifying news. “M-master..! I… Should anyone discover my gift – should… It would put me behind in my studies with you, by at least that year!”
“True.” Niro held up the green glass shard he had pocketed a moment before. It caught the sunlight, reflecting and refracting it in a myriad of greenish flashes. “I learned my lesson about not… About not diversifying as much as I should have. I have tried to leave you free to pursue your goals in whatever direction you sought, Apprentice.”
There was a slight inflection on the title that Modrun caught, and it filled him with dread.
Nirodeth continued, “I have acted as your guide, and as your mentor, and even instructed you in the arcane arts. But you have a gift that is beyond even my knowledge and experience – and I am the most powerful of the mages in these lands. Your gift needs to grow, and expand, or you will wind up blind to its potential.”
Modrun nodded, absorbing what his master said. Deep in his heart, he knew it was a severance; his foster father and mentor was dismissing him. For a brief moment that he prayed did not show on his face, the apprentice thought that the marquis might be 'getting rid of him', by sending him to Master Juneth. Modrun dismissed the thought at once, though, knowing Master Juneth to be more guileful than that, and Master Nirodeth to be more kindly than that. It was odd, he thought, to place his priorities for survival in that order.
The Marquis de Natille saw the slight slip, but did not let that knowledge show in his next words. “Modrun. I don't want you hiding the scars I bear, simply because you failed to see the potential of your enemies.” The scars across his neck itched, and the marquis strove to ignore the twinge. “You were very lucky you were not here at the time.”
The young man's eyes lit up with vengeance and spirit, and he unconsciously flexed his large arms. “Master, I'm sure I could have taken the half-elf!”
Niro shook his head sadly. “I am not without my resources, Modrun. I have fought in many battles, and fought against master swordsmen. Genecelot did not rely on his blades alone. He had a… higher power, to aid him.”
Modrun stubbornly shook his head. “A druid? So he taps into the life energies of those things around him, but so what? An anti-magic field locks off those life energies as surely as they lock off arcane energies for spell-slinging.”
The marquis smiled faintly at the naivety of his apprentice, but conceded the logic. “True. But an anti-magic field would have left me as powerless as he, and-”
”-And then it would have come down to pure swordplay. If nothing else, two on one – you and I, together – against him, would have decided the battle.”
Niro's condescending smile went unnoticed by the young man. “Perhaps.”
Modrun shook his head. “I wish you'd tell me how it ended, though.” He set his jaw stubbornly. “You will,” he said, certain. After a moment's thought, he asked, a bit more uncertainly, “Won't you?”
Nirodeth said, “The goddess has not deigned to bless you with her power, Modrun. What passed between myself and Genecelot is strictly between Her peoples.”
The apprentice crossed his formidable arms, his jaw still set stubbornly. “I don't buy it. He had you; the scars are proof. He would've killed you, had you not been a cleric in your own right.”
The marquis smiled, looking out onto the frost-covered world beyond the window. “True enough.” He conciously wiped away the smile, and changed his mood to the somber tone needed. “Modrun, you leave this evening. Tell Master Juneth, at this morning's lessons, that his final debt to me will be repayed by taking you in. If he has any doubts – or you have any doubts – remind him of Jerusel's Covenant. He'll know what it means.”
Modrun shook his head, glaring out the window, for he dared not glare at his master.
Niro's butler entered, breakfast held high on a silver platter. The man-servant lowered the tray, and swiftly unloaded tall drinks of freshly-squeezed juices, soft breads, and bowls of oatmeal heavily laden with sweet meats and spices.
The butler stood there for a moment, his braided beard and hair falling from a long face with a large nose. “Will there be anything else, gentlemen?”
Nirodeth said, “No, Aunre. This looks to be plenty.”
When Modrun shook his head, jaw still set, Aunre nodded once, and exited with nary a sound.
Nirodeth attacked his oatmeal with gusto, but Modrun pushed his silver bowl away. “I've lost my appetite. I will… I will see you this afternoon, master. Good day.”
The marquis watched Modrun's back until the youth was out of sight, and then sighed heavily.
It had been three years since the fated day the druid had nearly killed the marquis, and Niro's mind drifted back to that time, reliving it with his precise, detailed mind.
The enchanted book that Juneth had acquired for him had proven to be a prayerbook, used by a priest of the mad god Nabrol. The priest had spent his lifetime trying to recreate one of Nabrol's infamous Riks – golems of reddish glass that stood forty feet tall, and were virtually unstoppable. The priest had died without ever completing his quest, and out of fear that other priests would find his work and use it against him, the man had written the prayerbook in a tongue more ancient than any spoken alive.
Nirodeth, with prayers of his own to the goddess of knowledge, and arcane spells of his own creation, unlocked the secrets of the prayerbook. He studied well the large book, carefully turning its three foot tall pages night by night, day after day – and at last he unlocked the secret of the Riks that had escaped the priest. Hoping to tame one to his own use, he had begun acquiring jades, emeralds, and green glass from far distant lands. With the help of his young apprentice, he had activated the awesome Rik – but in so doing, Niro unlocked Modrun's sorcerous abilities.
Modrun was sent well away from the Rik, lest his sorcerous abilities make him a target of the barely controlled creature. Nirodeth set about sending the golem on a distant mission, far from Morth, so that he might have time to further study it and refine his control over it.
His simple mission backfired with disasterous results. The nation of Rakore had been reputed to house the largest collection of free arcane artifacts in the world, outside of the Inquisition's control. The marquis had sent the Rik to take those artifacts, and return undetected. Such was the power of a Rik, that it succeeded.
It also brought down full upon the nation of Morth the wrath of Rakore. Morth, priding itself on neutrality between the warring nations of Vikerma and Nutedae, found itself embroiled in a war it could not win. The Rakorans had attacked from the sea so quickly that the marquis could only surmise great prayers or great magic to have aided them. How the Rakorans knew it was a man of Morth that had achieved the theft was something the goddess still would not tell him.
While the marquis had sought to use his Rik against the Rakorans, and simultaneously research the arcane artifacts the golem had brought back… Genecelot had struck, quickly and without mercy. His blades had cut through Niro's neck as though his protective spells had not been in place. As the marquis lay dying in a spreading pool of his own red blood, he had tried with trembling hands to grasp his amulet of Agincoth, that he might speak the prayers of healing for himself.
The druid Genecelot spoke the prayers himself, plying the dying man's body with the energies of the goddess of knowledge, and saving one of her priests from death. Gently grasping the amult of Agincoth, Genecelot had spoken…
“I am Genecelot Foresthene, Marquis de Natille. You will surrender to me, or I will kill you.”
As the druid had spoken, one of the controlling runes for the Rik had shattered. The remaining runes, hovering in the air as though on an invisible sheet of parchment, cracked. The Rakorans were defeating his Rik, as powerful as it was.
Niro asked with awe in his voice, “Who are you?”
Genecelot said only, “I am one lightning strike within a great firestorm racing across the world. You can become as we are, or you can be burned.” His beautiful sword leapt through the air, the swordsman-druid holding the tip of the blade at the marquis' Adam's apple. “Surrender.”
The marquis opend his mouth to speak, just as the runes of control had flared with a brilliant scarlet color. Instead of surrending, he said only, “No!” as Nabrol himself assumed control of the green Rik.
Aunre cleared his throat, and softly asked, “Is everything all right, sir?”
Nirodeth blinked, and turned his eyes from his oatmeal to his man-servant. “Sorry, Aunre.” He sighed. “Just remembering that bit with the Rik.”
The butler shivered. “Agincoth protect us, that it may never happen again.”
The marquis smiled. “May Agincoth protect us. Aunre… Please pack master Mordrun's things, once he leaves. He'll be leaving us, this afternoon.”
Aunre looked lost for a moment, and then blinked with a tear in his eye. “Has the young master done something wrong, sir?”
Niro shook his head, smiling. “No, Aunre. He's done everything right. But… It's time for our young lad to seek answers for himself that I cannot find for him.”
The butler sniffed. “Ah, they all leave the nest eventually, don't they, sir?”
Nirodeth smiled, looking out the window onto the glistening, melting frost outside. “Spring is in the air… The goddess tells me that spring is the time of lovers.” He grinned, and turned to Aunre. “What do you imagine she could be talking about?”
Aunre smiled from ear to ear, “Why, sir! I would have no idea what she was talking about.” He chuckled, and began clearing master Mordrun's side of the table. “Will there be anything else, sir?”
The marquis looked out the window again, and shook his head. “Not now, but… A bit of brandy, once I'm done, Aunre – for the both of us.”
The man-servant nodded, smiling. “Of course, sir. A toast, then… To youth.”
Nirodeth chuckled. “I was thinking more of a toast to the pursuit of knowledge, but both are adequate.”