To Rescue A Sorceress
Richard L. Rubin
Shreve smiled with satisfaction as two uniformed guards escorted him into the grand hall of Earl Gaynors’s castle. True, there was decadence and decay here: the tattered crimson and black banners, the faded wall hangings depicting past family glories; that whiff of staleness in the air. Still, the very size and grandeur of the palace spoke of wealth, old noble family wealth, all of which suggested a generous payday for the cynical, battle-hardened sellsword. The Earl had summoned Shreve on short notice. Whatever service was about to be requested was something which would need to be done quickly. One of Shreve’s firm beliefs was that lords who wanted something done without delay should be charged a premium.
Somewhat to Shreve’s surprise, no one was sitting on the ornate, bejeweled throne which stood at the end of the grand hall. Instead, Shreve found himself ushered into an adjoining anteroom, containing a well-polished mahogany table surrounded by a few plush, comfortable chairs, only one of which was occupied. An elegantly dressed and manicured man, most certainly the Earl, sat at the far end of the table. He was middle-aged, with long, swept-back blond hair going to gray, and the distinctive but out-of-shape physique of one who had been vigorous and athletic in his youth.
One of the soldiers announced Shreve and the mercenary bowed to his host.
“Please leave us alone and set guards at the door,” said Gaynor in a refined, aristocratic accent. “I desire complete privacy.” He motioned Shreve to take the seat at the opposite end of the table.
When they were alone, the Earl said, “Ah, Shreve, glad you could arrive so quickly. I have a critical mission for you, a matter of great urgency and one of great discretion.”
“Tell me what I may do for you, Milord, and I will tell you my price.”
“Direct and to the point. Very good, my lad. I have an illegitimate daughter named Crystine. She was born twenty years ago. Her mother, Janis, was a sorceress whom I became entangled with in the foolishness of my reckless youth. I had almost forgotten about them, caught up as I was in the affairs of my earldom and the well-being of my subjects, but now two things have occurred which change that. First, there was the death of my son Geraint, struck down by the plague six months ago. I am a widower and he was my only legitimate heir. And my court physician has recently informed me that, due to physical impairment, I am now unlikely to father another child even if I took another wife.
“Last week I received a message from this almost forgotten daughter. Crystine says her mother holds her a virtual prisoner, abuses her and treats her like a servant.
Janis seeks to school her daughter as an apprentice in the ways of sorcery, and Janis is a hard and relentless taskmaster. Crystine hates her mother and wishes for me to arrange her rescue: she asks for you specifically by name, and that you be sent alone to free her from her sorcerous mother and bring her back to live with me. Given that I am now without an heir, my daughter’s plea corresponds with my own needs. Her message provides instructions on where she is to be found and on the dangers you will face in effecting her rescue.”
Shreve was surprised. “Why would she request me by name, Sire?”
“Probably due to your outstanding reputation for integrity.” The Earl chuckled with undisguised sarcasm.
“As you say, Milord.” Shreve smiled; he was proud of his rep as a cynical but effective sword for hire who always got the job done (except for that one time when the party on the other side made him a better offer). But the thought struck him: There’s something here below the surface. The Earl was underplaying the dangers in the mission, which was only to be expected. But there was something else. . . .
“My daughter sent this with her message.” The Earl held out a woven leather necklace from which hung a rich, pulsating, red gemstone. Shreve could not identify the mysterious stone; he had never seen its like before.
The Earl continued, “She says it will provide you with some degree of protection against direct attack from the sorceress’s witchcraft. It’s important that you wear it during the rescue.”
Shreve considered quickly. The mission was certainly quite dangerous, but danger was part and parcel of his vocation as a sword for hire. The degree of danger was just one more factor, like that of the time involved, in pricing his services.
“I will undertake the rescue, as you wish, for twenty thousand gold sovereigns, two thousand in advance to cover my expenses.”
Gaynor raised his eyebrows. “You’re expensive, but I hear you’re one of the best sellswords available, and it is you alone whom my daughter asks for. You shall have your price. Is there anything else?”
“I’ll rest here for the night and leave in the morning. Before I depart, you’ll provide my retainer and the note from your daughter–the original, not a copy. Also, you’ll provide me with an extra horse for her to ride back on, one that’s fast.” Shreve reached out and took the necklace, which he fastened about his throat.
“You’ll have all you require.” Gaynor nodded and waived his hand, indicating that the meeting was over.
Three days later, Shreve beheld the sorceress’s dark, foreboding stronghold. Janis’s ebony stone tower rose up in sinister domination above a gloomy, desolate landscape. The walled-in structure certainly looked imposing and impregnable. But no matter. If Shreve succeeded in rescuing the bastard princess he would be rewarded with twenty times more wealth than he had ever possessed in his life. Enough to live in luxury and leisure for several years, or perhaps the means to hire and equip the mercenary company he had dreamed about as the first step towards achieving the opulent status of a landed noble. Or perhaps this would simply be the place where he died.
He pulled up his bay stallion, withdrew Crystine’s note, and reread it carefully. It said that Janis had employed her magic to animate two death warriors who served as her guards. A male death warrior would be stationed at the front gate. The other, a female skilled with a longbow, would be in a room near the top of the tower. Shreve was familiar with such creatures. They were not ordinary mortals, but dead soldiers magically resurrected to serve the ends of their masters. The creatures retained the fighting skills they had acquired in life and were formidable foes. They were also difficult to slay. Crystine’s note also warned that Janis employed a roc–a fierce, giant bird–to patrol her fortress grounds. This was a creature Shreve had not encountered before.
So be it. Shreve dismounted and tied the two horses to a large rock about fifty feet from the entrance. He hefted a small black sack over his shoulder and set his steel-rimmed, wooden buckler on his left arm. Then he drew his broadsword from its scabbard and advanced to the gate. The male death warrior stood guard, unbreathing and ramrod straight, dressed in gray leather armor, twin longswords hanging at his hips.
At Shreve’s approach, the creature of darkness drew his twin swords to confront Shreve at the entrance to the stronghold. Shreve halted and crouched down in a fighting stance, shield and sword raised. The death warrior charged, slashed at Shreve’s chest with the sword in his left hand, but metal met wood as the mercenary caught the blade squarely on his shield. The death warrior thrust his right-hand sword up, then swept it down towards Shreve’s throat, but the mercenary parried it with the right edge of his broadsword. The death warrior delivered a crashing blow with his left sword, which Shreve met full on with his buckler, only to have the wooden shield crack, sending a pulsating wave of pain up his arm. He threw the damaged shield to the ground, and gripped his sword in both hands, dancing back to allow himself room to deliver a vicious swing which cleanly sliced off his opponent’s left forearm. The warrior’s sword, along with his forearm, fell to the ground with a thump, but the creature seemed unfazed.
Shreve pulled back his sword and thrust hard, this time at the death warrior’s throat. His adversary met this with a defensive parry, but the force of Shreve’s blow sent the creature staggering back on his heels. Taking advantage of his opponent’s momentary vulnerability, Shreve executed a backhanded slash which cleanly severed the thing’s head from its shoulders, and sent it bouncing grotesquely through the gate. The body dropped like a stone column, but no blood flowed from the severed jugular.
Shreve kicked the torso and the creature of darkness flopped over lifelessly; the thing was dead.
Shreve trusted that Janis, the patrolling roc, and the female death warrior were all still unaware of his intrusion, but that wouldn’t be the case for long. He had to act fast. Shreve sheathed his sword, and sprinted across the cobblestone courtyard to the base of the main stone tower. Crystine’s note said she would be on the uppermost floor. Shreve withdrew the rope from his shoulder bag and smoothed the line. He tossed it up, hoping to snare the grappling hook on the open window on the highest floor. The throw fell short and the rope flopped back down on the ground beside him. Shreve made a second attempt and this time the hook caught the edge. He jerked the rope to insure it was secure.
Shreve bent his back to the task and began his climb up the taught rope. Despite the need for haste, he was forced to exercise caution, trying not to dislodge any loose piece of stone masonry, or otherwise create any noise, as he carefully scaled the ancient wall.
As he approached halfway up the wall, he heard something above. He looked up to see the business end of a longbow. The female death warrior was leaning straight down out of a window on the highest floor. As the death warrior took careful aim at her dangling target, Shreve moved instinctively, pushing his feet hard off the wall while holding tight to the rope. He managed to dodge to the left just as the arrow whizzed by, missing him by mere inches. Swinging back to where he had been, he looked up and saw the death warrior draw back from the window, then quickly reappear, having notched another arrow. The creature of darkness leaned deeply over the side once again and proceeded to adjust her aim at the helpless mercenary.
Shreve set his legs to swing for safety again, but feared it was hopeless. He could try to elude the second arrow as he had the first, if he was able to dodge again with perfect timing, but that would only buy him a few more moments of life until the third arrow flew, followed by the fourth and so on, until his luck inevitably ran out and he wound up dead.
Shreve was ready to spring once again when a young female voice called out from above, “Leap out of the way, quick!”
He saw someone behind the leaning death warrior, who then shoved the creature’s body and sent it hurtling out the window. Shreve pumped his feet hard off the wall and, hanging tight to his rope for all he was worth, swung off to the left. With a hellish shriek of rage and frustration, the falling death warrior plunged past him, landing with a sickening thump on the cobblestones below. Shreve looked down to see the thing’s body splayed on the ground like a broken puppet. Shreve began his climb again, his senses on heightened alert.
He had not gone much further when there was another shout from the younger voice: “Shreve, the roc–it’s spotted you! Look to the sky and protect yourself!”
A shadow loomed over him and Shreve looked up to see a vicious-looking crimson bird, twice the size of a man, circling in the sky above, preparing to attack. The roc soared down, drew parallel with Shreve, then flew directly at him, its fierce, yellow beak aimed straight for the mercenary’s throat.
Shreve ducked his head just in time to avoid the razor-sharp bill of the hell-roused creature. The angry roc flapped its mighty wings and flew a short distance away.
Then it turned back for a second pass. As it drew in close, Shreve swung his sword and feigned a forward thrust at the approaching creature. Then, as the great red bird veered away, Shreve pulled back his blade and struck hard, cutting through the bone and muscle of the creature’s left wing. The roc released a high-pitched shriek as it fell downward, spinning wildly to the ground below.
Shreve began his climb once again. When he was just below the second highest window he heard a door slam, followed by evil-sounding chanting, like the screech of a devil owl descending on its prey. Reaching the window and looking to the far end of a large room, he beheld an old, weathered-looking woman dressed in a dark brown robe. Her eyes locked upon his and he could feel cold, ancient hatred in that glare. The crone held a gnarled, rune-inscribed, wooden staff in her right hand, and there was a vicious looking dagger strapped to the leather belt at her waist. She brandished the staff at Shreve and continued screeching in a harsh, ancient-sounding tongue.
Janis–for this had to be Janis–repeated her incantations with increasing frenzy and frustration as she stared with venom at Shreve. Shreve realized that Janis was attempting to attack him with some form of magic spell, but the crimson pendant he was wearing somehow protected him, just as Crystine said it would.
Shreve climbed from the rope into the room. He drew his broadsword and began to cautiously advance on the witch, a grim smile on his lips. Realizing the futility of her magical attack, Janis hurled her staff at Shreve. He batted it aside with his sword and continued to advance. Only a few yards now separated them.
In one fluid motion, the sorceress slipped the dagger from her belt and hurled the blade at the mercenary. The knife flew half the distance to Shreve, slowed, then froze in midair. The blade then turned and flew back toward the one who had thrown it. The sorcerous shrieked as the point of the knife entered her heart. Then she crumpled to floor with her lifeblood spilling out.
Shreve looked beyond the sorceress’s body and saw a young woman standing in a doorway, holding up a second wooden staff, a near twin of the one employed by Janis.
She was strikingly attractive, with silver-blonde hair cut in a rough shag, and a trim, alluring physique. She was dressed in a short black skirt and navy blue tunic.
Shreve gave a roguish grin; he liked that sort of woman.
“Crystine, I presume,” he said.
“Yes, glad you could make it,” she said, smiling, but sounding winded. “I need to catch my breath from running down the stairs. We can talk later. Let’s get out of here.”
“Can you scale down my rope?” Shreve asked, gesturing towards the window.
“Of course. Let’s go–quickly!”
Shreve climbed out the window, grabbed the rope and glided down, with Crystine following just behind him. The pair reached the ground, and ran outside the gate of the stronghold to where the two horses were tied. Shreve mounted the bay and indicated for Crystine to take the roan. They galloped away, heading south in the direction of Lord Gaynor’s castle.
An arrow whizzed overhead, then another. They looked back over their shoulders to see the female death warrior standing at the gate, notching another arrow in her longbow.
Crystine called out, “That death warrior recovered from that fall. We should have stopped to slice off her head.”
“Too late for that now. Crouch down and give her less of a target!” shouted Shreve as they urged their horses faster, while yet another arrow zipped past them, closer this time.
Crystine’s mount let out a howl of pain and buckled beneath her. The poor beast had taken two arrows deep into its loins. It dropped to the ground, but Crystine was able to roll to the side, narrowly escaping being crushed by the collapsing animal.
Shreve doubled back and extended a hand to her. She mounted the back of the bay stallion, and Shreve took off hard, dodging and weaving as he rode to make a more difficult target for the arrows that continued to fly.
After fifteen minutes of hard riding, Shreve slowed the stallion.
He said, “Don’t think there’s anyone following us and we’re well out of arrow range. Do we need to worry about leaving that death warrior behind?”
“Probably not. Now that Janis is dead, the death warrior, being one of her creations, should de-animate in a few hours. Great gods, but it’s good to finally be free of that evil witch.”
“That trick you did with the knife was pretty impressive. I’m surprised you needed anyone’s help to escape.”
“I’m far from a full-fledged sorceress–only an apprentice. That ‘trick’–as you call it–took me nearly a year to master and it probably wouldn’t have worked if Janis’s attention hadn’t been directed towards you. I was a long way from being able to escape from her on my own. And besides, I very much wanted to have you come to rescue me.”
“How did you come to know of me by name?”
“While I was growing up, my mother sometimes had lovers and other guests at her home. I kept my ears open. Your reputation sounded intriguing. In fact, you seemed perfect for what I had in mind. One of my mother’s lovers took a liking to me, and when he recently parted from her I begged him to secretly convey my message to my father.”
“I’m flattered. And now on to Earl Gaynor?”
“Not so fast. There’s a nice inn in the nearby village where we can spend the night. I’d like to show my gratitude.” She smiled seductively.
Shreve smiled back; this was unexpected, but certainly welcome. “As you say. The good Earl can wait.”
“There are also some things I’d like to discuss with you.”
“You’re full of surprises. I like that.” He gave her a roguish grin.
He turned the horse and they rode for the town.
Three days later, Shreve again sat in Earl Gaynor’s anteroom, this time joined by Crystine.
Gaynor said, “Here’s payment for your service, as promised. You may count it if you wish.” He handed two heavy brown sacks across the table to Shreve.
Shreve accepted the bags, opened them, and looked down at their gleaming contents. Then he closed the sacks and weighed one, then the other, in his hand.
Grinning, he said, “It seems to all be here; I trust you. It’s been a pleasure serving you, Milord.”
“I’m satisfied with our bargain. I’ve got my dear daughter back and my earldom is more secure, for once again I have a designated heir. What say you, daughter?” The Earl smiled at Crystine.
“I’m delighted to be here with the chance to know and love my father, and to be rescued from Janis’s cruelties,” she said.
“Then it’s worked out well all around,” Shreve said. “I’ll take my leave now.”
“Before you go, just out of curiosity, what do you intend to do with all your newfound wealth?” asked the Earl.
“Why, I intend to hire and equip my own band of skilled mercenaries. Perhaps one day you’ll have need of our services.”
“Perhaps, we’ll see. Farewell, Shreve, and best of luck to you.”
Shreve rose up to go. He picked up the two sacks of gold, exchanged a parting smile with Crystine, and left the room.
A week later, Shreve rode his bay stallion behind the Earl’s castle. As midnight approached, Shreve had not required much stealth to deal with the two half-drunken guards at the back entrance to the castle grounds. He had bound and gagged them, thus ensuring that his way out would be clear when the time came.
Shreve looked up and saw the flickering yellow light in the large window two floors up. This was the right spot. He dismounted his horse and waited a minute or two.
Then Crystine appeared in the window, looked down at him and waved. He positioned himself, and returned the gesture, indicating he was ready. Crystine climbed onto the window ledge, threw a good-sized leather purse onto the ground below, then leapt down into Shreve’s waiting arms. She was dressed in a dark tunic and matching riding pants: a practical girl. Shreve secured the purse to his saddle and they mounted the stallion.
“I’ve got everything we want,” she whispered. “Let’s get out of here, fast.”
They galloped away. Shreve glanced over his shoulder several times as they rode out through the unprotected gate, but nothing stirred.
“Did everything go well?” he asked.
“Yes. I managed to use a sleeping spell on the Earl and his personal night staff. I’ve always resented that pompous buzzard for abandoning me to the mercies of that nasty old witch. I’m sure he’ll disown me when he wakes up and finds I’ve robbed him, but I don’t care. I certainly wasn’t up for sitting here, year after year, waiting around for him to die so I could inherit his rotten old throne. I grabbed a big sack of fancy jewels on my way out,” she said. “Enough for us to live very well for a very long time.”
“Looking forward to it,” replied Shreve. He smiled roguishly as they galloped away into the night.
She returned the smile. “Be good to me. I’m pretty much an orphan now.”
Richard L. Rubin’s science fiction stories appear in Volume 9, Issue #4 of the Aurora Wolf journal, and Issue #4 of Blasters and Broadswords magazine. Richard’s flash fiction story To Soar like a Bird is available for free as the February 2018 Dark Fiction selection at Eastern Iowa Review at http://www.portyonderpress.com/dark-fiction.html. His sci-fi thriller Robbery on Antares VI is available on Amazon. In a previous life he worked as an appellate lawyer, defending several clients facing the death penalty in California. Richard is an Associate Member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. He lives near San Francisco with his wife, Susanne. Richard’s website can be found at richardlrubin.com.