Fiction Page 1
SACRIFICE OF THE BURGESS
Lawrence R. Dagstine
"And some people say thereís not a God in heaven," Zarkov was saying, sword at the ready. "Yet here you are, wizard. Did you ever wonder if I might not come calling again?"
Meredean looked up in astonishment. He knew the pirate had meant the noble Burgess. "No, I did not," he said.
"Why should you? You sent your apprentice to put an end to the BurgessĎs squire and myself. But he was too eager, and too young. He did not find the heart. I lay for three days in that rotten stinking swamp before a girl found me and cared for me."
"But you are a criminal, Zarkov," said Meredean. "I am the law of this town. What would you have done in my place?"
"Probably the same. And like you I would now be paying the price." Zarkov paced up and down the seaside tavern, thinking to himself. "But there is an alternative."
Meredean closed his eyes. "Yes?"
"Free the Burgess," said Zarkov simply, lifting the patch up above his eye. "Do away with his death sentence and pardon him of his crimes, so I can take him back to the ocean where he belongs."
"Now you know I donít have the authority to do that. No one in Warhorta does."
"You are not only a great conjurer but a wise chancellor." Zarkov tipped his head and grinned. "You can do anything."
"Then do you deny that you were on your way to the duke with a story that would have brought destruction on this town?" asked Meredean.
Zarkov released the old seerís apprentice. The young Calif fell to the floor, gripping his throat. It took him a second to catch his breath. Plantagenet, one of Zarkovís minions, just stood quietly in the background. The pirate had enough strength in that one hand to snap the neck of a giant land lizard. "You are not so dull and stupid as you look, wizard," he said. "But as you put it, would you not have done the same?"
Meredean kept silent for a moment. True, he was a magic user, and he could make all of them disappear when he wanted to, but he was no Taki or Merlin. And he wasnít stupid either. All this nonsense had to do with the capture and trial of the Burgess, whom Zarkov relied on, for selling his stolen spices and illegal rug shipments. He remembered the last time (and there had been many) he had come face to face with Zarkov, a ruthless scavenger of the ocean tides...but at the same time eccentric, debonair, with a touch of the old panache. It was three winters ago. Oddly enough, the two of them were working together, struggling for a way out of Narcissus by scaling an icy cliff. They not only had to evade Imperial capture but cope with the harsh weather as well.
But the tables were turned and the issues much different this time. This little fiasco had to do with the Burgess, which was far worse than being chased across an icy plain by a couple of Narcissian berserkers. The Burgess was an ex-pirate, who just happened to take up maritime politics and become a baron over the sea trading market. Zarkov was a fellow peer. Plantagenet a student.
Meredean pulled his apprentice behind him; he had taken enough abuse. "And what if I refuse to cooperate?" he asked the half-blinded pirate.
"Look well, wizard," Zarkov said mockingly. "And now see this and consider yourself fortunate that you are a man." With that he crossed to one of the maidens at the back of the bar (it was harem night at the tavern), gripped the neck of her silky dress and tore the garment downward so that it fell in a heap on the floor.
Plantagenet vested a small chuckle. "What Zarkov is trying to say is that if you donít free the Burgess before his day of execution, we shall take all the townís women and rape them."
"And we know Warhorta would lose if they ever considered fighting back," Zarkov said, "because we know how strongly they disapprove of weapons. So donít take it entirely as a threat, but heed the warning well."
All Meredean could do was stand and watch; he dare not fight back by casting a spell or risking the life of his young pupil. He felt sorry for the maiden. She had nothing to do with all this. It was so unexpected that he went quite numb with shock. The bartender was on his lunch break and had half started out of his chair, with a minor grunt, but when Plantagenet drew his dagger he took his toothless mouth and smiled, and just sank back. The rest of the maidens were frightened and the whole tavern staring; it was a revelation.
The woman just stood there like a terrified image, and to this day Meredean had never seen anything so lovely yet so frightened. Her body was long and lean, with firm young breasts and gently rounded flanks. But it was her coloring that overwhelmed him. Under her shimmering black hair her skin was as white as a winter moon, except for one blemish, and of course her blushing.
In the silence of the moment her voice cut at Zarkov and his men in anger. "Pigs!" she retaliated in words. "Animals!" Then she scooped the fallen dress and threw it around herself. "Get out." she hissed at the men. "Get out of this town!"
She must have run from the inn for the next thing Meredean and his apprentice could remember was leaning against the bar, trembling with the chill of reaction. The woman was strong-hearted for someone who had just been raped and made an example out of. So why did Meredean feel helpless then? Had it not been just as cruel not to stop these malicious corsairs from tearing off her clothes?
"All right, wizard," said Zarkov, sitting down at a nearby table and kicking his heels up. "Now that sheís out of the way...The point is, what are you going to do now? Are you going to let the Burgess be taken from county prison to that execution camp in the forest, or are you going to free him?"
Meredean was confused. "Camp? What camp? I was given no information regarding the Burgess being transferred." He only wished the duke were there so he could question him on this.
Zarkov shook his head. "Cute. You play dumb, when it is you who finds out every detail first. And it is you who were elected chancellor by this town and given power of decision."
"But I tell the truth! I did not know! And I donít have the power to change it!"
"No oneís accusing you," said Zarkov more temperately; it sounded like he was just insinuating instead. "Just free him, thatís all I ask. Or must I return with more men to occupy all your women and cause more havoc?"
"I donít see how I can stop you," said Meredean unhappily. "Short of killing them. Iím sure youíre not suggesting the worst."
"I wouldnít think of it, old friend. I want to resolve this matter just as much as you do."
"Donít listen to him!" said Calif, his young apprentice. "He lies through his teeth!"
"Silence, waif!" shouted Plantagenet.
Meredean glanced at his apprentice and then looked back at Zarkov most contemptuously. "You had to have a monarchís approval I still say, someone like the duke to give you courage to present yourself and this ridiculous demand. You imagine that Iíd be afraid of the consequences of my actions, scared by what you just did to that young girl." He looked at the spell book in his right hand, a half-smile on his face. "A smart demand from a worthy foe. Ten years in the making." Then his eyes rose to face Zarkovís once more. "There is no spell good enough to cast on you at this time. It would be a waste of my mana. I am at your command."
Zarkov wasnít sure whether the wizard was serious or simply attempting to provoke or trick him. He smiled just as weakly. "Good, I knew youíd see reason. You and your apprentice will leave for the country tomorrow around sunup. During that time my men and I will be staying at this inn. And, to make sure you donít pull a fast one, random farmers with horses weíll be dispatched into your service."
Plantagenet came forward and threw a sack of money on the floor, right beside Meredeanís feet. "Weíll cover the expenses, of course."
"Is that all?" asked Meredean; as if his hometown had not been violated enough.
"Almost, but not quite." Zarkov looked over at the remaining women in the bar and smiled nefariously. "I will be staying in this inn. So just keep that in mind. Iím only a stoneís throw away from these lovely ladies."
Meredean held his chest and gulped. "Point taken."
"Then sharpen up your mayoral skills and be off at the crack of dawn, for you have only 72 hours until my patience becomes lost. That is also how long the Burgess has until he is beheaded. Now go, you and your brat...off to the wilderness to liberate my good friend the baron."
Meredean and Calif left the inn in hesitation, the ten or more criminal pirates behind them laughing tediously. Things were bad. Very bad. Meredean just looked down at his pupil in silence. It seemed as if they had no choice but to comply.
The next day and a half went by with four farmers, Calif, and Meredean riding horseback to the northeast through thick wilderness; Calif, the smallest member of the posse, rode by mule. The lead farmer, a mahogany-skinned, Narcissian man by the name of Rodafé, was in charge of watching over the group to make sure no one got out of hand or tried to escape. After all, this is what he had been paid to do. As Meredean had expected, they found the camp that the Burgess was being held in and soon the whole party was trotting slowly forward. It almost resembled some kind of village, on the outskirts of no manĎs land. Perhaps preowned territory. But excellent grounds for a prison camp, that much you could say. The guards were stationed in some sort of ravine and could spot trespassers or escapees easily. Lucky for Meredean he had his apprentice take the party to an unnoticeable ridge which happened to lay alongside it. He proceeded forward, by himself, and didnít return. Calif, Rodafé, and the rest of the party waited on the ridge that night and slept rough and cold, but no Meredean.
The following day the country changed, the mountains giving way to flat-topped hills, their crests guarded by steep cliffs of sheer rocks. "Somethingís wrong," said Calif, a terrible feeling lying in the back of his mind. The party members shrugged their shoulders. Still no Meredean, even ten hours later. How odd. "Perhaps he was caught," the young apprentice then added.
"I donĎt see this Burgess character," said one of the older, more insignificant party goers. "If I wasnít getting paid handsomely for this I would go back."
"I know for a fact that there is a cleft in the hillside which gives access to the camp," Rodafé then said. "You could go looking for him."
They waited until the sun began to sink (almost another whole day) and the hillside was in shadow; then Calif went himself, to where he imagined Meredean to be. It soon came to him that he should never have left the group, for the fact that a wrong turn led him to a great wall of interlaced thorn trees, obviously intended to close the mouth of the camp off to visitors. There was a section that had been pulled aside and never replaced. "He must have entered here," the young apprentice told himself. "Thereís no other way without being spotted."
A moment later he found himself in a rock gully that sliced down the heart of the mountain, offering an easy, unguarded incline to a group of small caves with prison bars on them. He moved toward them warily, dagger at the ready. As he neared the top he heard whistling. A guard, sitting down and cleaning his toenails, had his back turned only a few feet away. He then saw Meredean on the other side with the shackled, dirty-faced form of the Burgess. He smiled and eased himself cautiously out of the gully.
Meredean spotted his young pupil and scurried not too far behind, dragging the silent Burgess with him; his tongue had been cut out while he was in the camp so he would not "rat out" his former connections or predecessors. But why? Why decide to cut his tongue out if he was going to be executed within the next day or two anyway? Unless someone working from the inside knew he was going to be freed and ordered it as a precaution. Other than that, Meredean took him by the arm and ran past the whistling guard. The guard kept cleaning his feet and never took notice.
Meredean and Calif found it almost impossible to climb back up and return the way they came. They were all pretty much not prepared for what they saw. The camp was about three hundred yards in diameter, bigger than Meredean had imagined, and in the center was a village of fifty or sixty caged huts, and not including the cavelike prisons from a short while ago. Each one was rather conical in shape, thatched right down to the ground. In the center of the village stood a much larger dwelling, which Meredean and Calif guessed to be the wardenís house. To one side, not far from where they were hiding, was a stone goat pen, a berserker carrying buckets of milk back and forth to the convicts. Inside the huts were hardened men, their legs bound to a metal spike in the ground. The expressions on their faces were dull and apathetic, as were most of the berserkersí.
"I see a way out through those bushes," whispered Calif, tugging on his masterís tunic.
"Weíll leave in a minute," said Meredean, most curious of the wardenís den. "I want to know more about this camp, these prisoners, and the man or woman in charge."
"But what about the Burgess? If we stay here any longer weíll all be caught and put up for execution."
"Then go, my child. Take the Burgess back to Rodafé and his men. Wait for me for fifteen minutes, no more. If I donít return you know what to do. I need to know whatís going on here. I just have this funny feeling..."
It was almost full darkness now and a bitter wind blew off the mountains and through the ravine. Meredean couldnít stay where he was; he would soon be stiff with cold and slow when he finally did make his escape. He climbed out of the dense foliage he had been covering himself with and crawled towards the main hut, hoping to discover who the warden was. He took a chance and wriggled across part of an open clearing, evading about a half-dozen guards and ending up at the back of the wardenís den. With the sharp end of his rod he began to poke holes and work softly at the thatch. Gradually he cut a small hole through which he could peer.
The scene inside was the most terrible he had ever witnessed; or ever envisioned for that matter. In the center of the room was a wood fire by whose flames he could see a crowd of guards, an emirate, standing to one side and gripping a frail, innocent-looking man, and a monarch laughing to the warden on the other. Over the fire a huge pot filled with acid was bubbling. Yellow smoke filled the room like fog, and at first Meredean could not make out what was happening. He just saw the shapes and figures, and held his nose at the smell of the acidic smoke. Then he realized that the man was being tortured, his face dunked into the searing pot and his body flogged from behind, asked questions he could not possibly know the answer to--and for no reason! The emirate held him while two guards twisted a thong around his neck and dunked, and a third, more lesser guard cracked a whip from the foreground. The warden questioned him for the monarch, but was unsuccessful at interrogation. Meredean couldnít believe his eyes when he saw that the monarch was a former member of the dukeís court, a fellow by the name of Halcion. A very wealthy man. He had seven wives. And he was dressed in Imperial garb too.
When the frail man was dead he was butchered and the flesh was shared out among the berserkers, some of whom passed smaller pieces to the other prisoners. Meredean shook his head in disgust. He had watched this whole operation with dread fascination.
Many questions started to form in his mind, for the next minute he found himself running hard toward the camp exit (which was the smartest thing to do) and he used whatever youthful energy was left inside his old, wrinkly body to leap over the wall and land amongst a bed of hay.
He saw a hand reach out and he grabbed it. It was Rodafé. "Need help, old man?" the Narcissian farmer smiled.
Meredean smiled back. "Yes, you could say that." He pictured himself flat on his back, but from the farmerís viewpoint. "Letís get as far away from here as possible. I want to remember nothing about this place."
"Whatís the matter? You seem like youíve seen a ghost."
Meredean swallowed his breath. "Yes, you could say that. But I think this is worse."
The journey back was different from the slow, healing outward voyage. Now Meredeanís party traveled as quickly as they could: even though he had freed the Burgess, Zarkov was unaware of this. And the closer they came to Warhorta the more the 72 hour timeframe diminished; and the more uneasy they became with each other.
At sundown on the third day, however, Calif came to ride beside his master. At one point in a quiet voice he asked, "Do you remember that night? The night in Narcissus before we---"
"Yes, I do" said Meredean, interrupting the young lad and holding his own breath in-between. He had never touched on this, but after seeing Halcion at that prison camp it was impossible not to. "I dread the thought of those Imperial invaders," he went on. "Oh, and those neanderthal berserkers...but they are not really to blame." He was glad in some ways, to have joined the duke when he did. He just had a couple of questions he wanted to ask him, maybe bring it up over the next big election dinner, but not intentionally of course.
"Did you--I mean, did you do anything rash back there like in Narcissus?" The pupil was persistent, young and curious.
Meredean gave a half-smile. "Nothing, Calif. Nothing at all."
"I see. Thank you, master." Calif turned away and continued riding at the rest of the partyís pace.
They were within a mile of Warhorta when they noticed that the outlying fishing markets were deserted. The horseís footfalls were loud in the silence. "Somethingís wrong," said Meredean grimly. "Letís push on with ease."
It was already clear and the moon shone down on the town most ominously. The houses at the gates past the docks, too, were deserted. Meredean could hardly make himself come to think about the eerie loneliness of those two hundred buildings and shops without a prickling sense of fear.
The Burgess had been bound with his hands behind his back and facing backwards on his own horse, which was pulled by a metal attachment on Meredeanís saddle. He let the other men stay by the beach, asking Calif and Rodafé (who Zarkov owed money) to stay behind as well, while he hurried to the seaside tavern. It was as empty as the other buildings. But then he heard voices; as he drew near he could make out the crouching figure of a woman, swaying to and fro with hoarse cries of sadness. On the ground beside her lay what looked like a bundle of torn clothes. She pointed her finger upwards and whispered, "Upstairs...Theyíre upstairs..."
Meredean covered the girl with his cloak and ascended the wooden staircase in the back. At the top he jerked to a halt, staring across at the two men near the edge of the balcony. He felt a sudden chill around his heart. "My God!" he said shakily. "Itís the duke himself!"
He knelt down on the floor, right at the edge of the staircase and in the shadows, looking on in utter amazement at the duke and Zarkov laughing it up. Meredeanís lips were drawn back in a snarl now, and dark patches of anger showed where his trust had flowed away. "Politics, what a joke," he muttered. "They were in cahoots all the time. Well, that explains Halcion. Him and the duke are buddies. But what about the Burgess? Where does he fit into all of this?"
Then Meredean temporarily halted his thoughts, for the two men started talking. He put his ear forward and listened in...
"Have the gems been loaded?" This was the duke speaking. "Your 72 hours are almost up."
Zarkov had a question of his own. "Are all of Warhortaís finances and the funds from the treasury in the galley of my ship?" He blinked at his royalness. "Remember, we had a deal. You get to come with us and replace the baron if you ante up your half."
"I know, I know," said the duke, perspiring something awful. The worry was tremendous. "Itís just that this is all so sudden."
"Donít worry," said Zarkov. "Next week at this time you will be a very rich man, and Iím talking more money and more adventure than a duke could imagine. Donít think of the people so much...they donít think of you. Itíll take them months to elect another high official and get back on their feet. Warhorta is finished." He gave a sinister smile and put his arm around the dukeís shoulder. "But you...your reign is only just beginning. And it will be a most profitable one at that."
The duke still wasnít sure. "But what about the Burgess? What if Meredean comes after us?"
"The Burgess was of no further use to me, especially behind bars. A man in prison cannot produce funds for his people. I sent Meredean and his apprentice on a foolís journey. It gave us plenty of time to load the ships and plan this out. Three whole days. But just in case, I made sure that his tongue was lanced. So even if he is freed and does outlive his execution, he canít breath a word of this to anyone. Your secret is safe, as is your reputation."
"Well, thank goodness for that." The Duke felt somewhat better. "I guess we should be going."
The Duke and Zarkov headed for the staircase when suddenly a torch lit the air. Engulfed in the light of the flame was the form of a face, a very familiar yet angry face.
The Duke stood there motionless, like a block of wood. Zarkov on the other hand was quite surprised he had made it back in the 72 hours he had given him. "Well, well, well," he said, "if it isnít the old wizard again, snooping and prying around. I see you made it back."
"Yes, I have your beloved prize. Though I donít think heís too happy. Heís at a loss for words." Meredean had said this rather smugly, but then he turned and faced the duke who was beyond nervous. "Ah, and if it isnít my friend the good duke. And where are ye off to?"
"Just--just going for a walk," said the duke anxiously; ice-cold sweat was pouring down the side of his face.
"Get out of our way, Meredean," snarled Zarkov. "Thereís nothing you can do to stop us. Those ships are leaving the bay. If you feel so sorry for this town and want to be a superhero then elect yourself the duke, because this one is coming with us." He gave a slight nod to Plantagenet, who was tiptoeing up the stairs behind Meredean. The wizard had not taken notice of him.
Plantagenet silently slipped his dagger around Meredeanís throat, but he was not fast enough for the old timer. Meredean spun around and threw the torch at him, setting his thin clothing ablaze. Plantagenet screamed in agony. Zarkov became hardened at that moment, but there was no time. He would deal with Meredean another day. He grabbed the duke by the hand and pushed Meredean out of the way, running down the stairs and out the tavern.
Meredean covered his eyes and held his mouth, for he found it hard to pass the burning screaming body of Plantagenet. But once he was able to pass, he pursued Zarkov all the way to the end of the beach, where not only Calif and Rodafé were setting temporary camp, but where three big pirate ships were ready to set sail.
"Look, thereís Meredean," Calif said, finger outstretched and pointing. He had failed to notice the duke and Zarkov making their getaway, but Rodafé did.
Meredean yelled out as loud as he could, "Stop them! Theyíre getting away! The Duke has betrayed Warhorta! Stop them!" His voice may have been loud, but for a man his age his speed was slow.
"Your master is trying to tell us something," Rodafé said, looking Zarkov dead in the eyes as he passed, and then peering at the Burgess. The Burgess was crying and humming beneath his sliced tongue. "This man is innocent."
"How can you be sure?" asked Calif.
"I just sense it. Come, let us chase these people. Weíre closer than your master."
So the young wizard-to-be and the big dark-skinned Narcissian gave chase, all the way to the last dock where two of the ships had already set sail. It seemed that Zarkovís vessel, the Kimota, wasnít leaving. There was trouble battening the taffrails and picking up anchor. Rodafé was the first to arrive, using his brut strength to punch a hole through the side of the barge. He wanted to make sure that no one could leave, not like the other two ships. And with a giant hole in the side of it, the only place it could possibly go would be underwater: sink...sink...sink some more, until finally it was sunken. Then, just as Calif and Meredean picked up their pace, he leaped aboard and started making combat with pirates; fending was more like it. And if anyone had the robust strength to do it, it was Rodafé.
Meredean climbed up the side, using an old wooden plank for support. As soon as he reached the top he saw two pirates running for the control station. He started to mumble some words, chant a Latin verse or two....
Suddenly, a blue sphere appeared in the palm of his right hand. He motioned it with his fingers and eyes through the air. He guided it all the way to the control station and destroyed the helm. This was just the beginning of his magic. He chanted and chanted and conjured some more, using these words to take apart the shipís mast and sails. The Kimota was starting to collapse in on itself.
Calif did his own bit of damage, too. But definitely not on the same destructive level as Meredean and Rodafé. After all, he was only an apprentice.
When it finally came time to open the galley, Meredean used his magic to remove the hinges from the door. Where once food must have been kept was an entire storeroom filled with jewels and gemstones of every possible color. This was the treasure formerly locked in the dukeís personal vault, the money that financed the daily operations of Warhorta. And buried beneath a pile of rubies near the far wall was the duke himself.
Rodafé lunged forward and pulled him out and pinned him against the wall. The Duke hung there, helpless and scared like a little cur.
Meredean stepped forward, arms crossed. "Youíre finished, your royalty," he said. "It is time we had a new leader, and Iím quite thinking of overthrowing you and taking the position myself."
"Youíd have my vote," said Calif.
"As you would mine," Rodafé added.
Meredean looked at this meager soul, once a leader of a kingdom, once a liege over a town and many other territories and said, "Now tell me, whereís Zarkov?"
There was a little unfinished business between the two of them.
"He escaped!" cried the duke. "Escaped in one of the other ships! And he has the rest of my money--my private stash!"
"Serves you right," said Calif, "with all the chaos you brought to this town. Youíre a traitor to your people."
Rodafé looked over at Meredean. "Should I kill him?" he asked.
"No," said Meredean, considering this.
"What about rough him up a little?"
"No, not that either. I know a nice prison camp about a day and a half away from here that would suit him just perfect."
And little did the duke of Warhorta know that he would be sharing a cell right next to Halcion, and other traitors like himself. Rodafé would be made warden over this prison and bring back sanity and criminalsí rights. Calif would become the town seer in time, and a great chancellor too. The poor, voiceless Burgess, along with his squires, would be acquitted, given a chance to become a citizen again by helping rebuild Warhorta...making a new and improved version. Meredean would move into the castle in the countryside, taking up the reign as duke, making sure justice and righteousness prevail. And before he would do any of this, he would make himself one promise. His goal in life would be to find Zarkov, make him pay for the anguish he caused many others. For the one-eyed swashbuckler was still out there, doing who knows what to some other innocent town. A job Meredean would have to come to like, for he felt that without Zarkov (just as there cannot be good without evil or evil without good) there could be no Meredean, and what pirate could possibly live a life of adventure if there wasnít someone there to pursue him?
Surely a question he was destined to seek the answer to.