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The Years of Longdirk: 1522
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
The door of the crypt swung open with a long creak of rusty hinges that echoed through the black interior like a groan of despair. Iron-bound timber thundered against stonework and stopped; the booming reverberation faded into a tread of boots as a soldier entered, wearing the scarlet sash and gold-hiked sword of an officer. He carried a lantern, but after a few paces he had to stop and hold it motionless in the fetid air until its flame burned up more brightly. Then the darkness crept away behind pillars and back into corners, going grudgingly, as if unwilling to expose the horrors it had been concealing—chains and manacles and intricate machinery for inflicting pain.
When he could see adequately he walked the full length of the chamber and played his light over the fetters and pulleys. He confirmed that the staples were securely anchored in the ancient stonework and that two wooden buckets had been provided, as he had ordered. He set the lantern in an iron sconce on the nearest pillar and waited, impassively ignoring both the pervasive stench and the gruesome furnishings lurking in the shadows.
Soon marching footsteps approached the door. A dozen soldiers entered, clanking mail and weapons and chains, clumping boots, raising the echo again. They herded their solitary captive as if he were some fiercely dangerous monster. Admittedly, he towered a head taller than almost any of them and had shoulders like battlements, but he was unarmed and four men held chains from the fetters on his wrists and ankles. He offered no resistance as he was hustled along to the end of the crypt, being intent on keeping his unshod toes away from all the heavy boots around him.
He wore only a short doublet, faded until its original checkered pattern was barely visible, and hose so ragged that they ended at his ankles. His brown hair was thick and curly, although the relentless Spanish sun that had burned his face to walnut had perversely bleached his beard almost to gold. His face was more notable for strength than beauty—square-jawed and heavy-browed, stubborn and self-willed—yet the steady hazel eyes were surprisingly unhostile, even as he was being manhandled. He seemed quite resigned to what was happening.
His captors turned him. Four of them thrust him back against the wall and held him there. Under the captain's watchful eye his fetters were secured to staples near the floor and the chain joining his wrists to one above his head. Only then did the men holding him relax and step back. As a final indignity, the captain himself came forward and drew his dagger to sever the laces that attached the prisoner's hose to his doublet and then cut the hose themselves in half so that they fell as useless rags around his ankles, leaving him naked below the waist. One of the soldiers placed the empty bucket midway between his outspread feet.
The officer dismissed the squad. They marched out, leaving the door open. Silence and relative darkness returned, with only the single lantern burning in its sconce. Captain and captive looked at each other without expression.
"I do hope you are not frightened to be left alone with me." The large young man spoke in an awkward mixture of Catalan and Castilian, and his accent for both was atrocious.
"I do what I am told, senor. Do you wish a drink of water?"
"Thank you." The young man seemed surprised by the offer. He drank greedily when the captain took a dipper from the second bucket and held it to his lips. The water would be fresh, for it had been drawn from the well less than an hour ago. He spilled some as the dipper was removed, and shivered.
"You are cold, senor," the officer said tactfully.
"I think not, senor. I can recognize fear. In Queen Caterina's day, we did not treat men so." He turned away, ashamed. Even the Inquisition allowed a prisoner to keep his private parts covered—except when he was actually being tortured, of course.
Obviously waiting for something, the soldier began to pace from left to right and right to left, never going very far away. The prisoner had no such option. He could only stand there against the slimy stones of the wall, shivering from time to time as the damp bit through to his bones. Then steel links would clink and the captain's head jerk around.
After twenty minutes or so a faint glow beyond the door announced the arrival of two men in civilian clothes, who advanced along the crypt, their cork-soled shoes making little sound. The first was a flunky carrying a lantern and a stool, the second a man of ample girth, which was emphasized almost to absurdity by the sumptuous, many-colored garments of a noble. His shoulders were padded out to twice their natural width, his features upholstered with rolls of fat. He walked with an affected, mincing sway, wielding a jewel-topped cane and sniffing a posy of flowers. When they reached the end the servant put down the stool and departed, taking the lantern with him.
The soldier drew his sword in salute. "Your Excellency, the prisoner has been secured as you instructed."
"Knowing you, I do not doubt it, Captain Diaz. There is a lot of him, isn't there?"
"He is a fine-looking man, your Excellency."
"Did he cause any trouble?"
"None at all. He displays commendable courage."
The nobleman frowned at this blatant admiration. "Close the door when you leave. I will knock when I am ready. See that it is guarded by six men at all times. The prisoner is to be inspected every two hours and given water if he wishes it. See he is well fed. He is a large man, and we must keep his strength up, you understand?"
"Oh, I understand completely. Excellency." The captain's tone was perilously close to insolence. He saluted again and marched out. The door groaned and slammed, filling the crypt with echoes.
The newcomer turned his back on the prisoner and strutted away until he reached about the middle of the chamber, where he raised a hand to his mouth, spoke softly, turned around once to the right and twice to the left, and said something else. Thereupon the blocks of the barrel-vaulted ceiling began to glow with a pale, gentle lavender light that grew rapidly brighter until the entire cellar was clearly illuminated. That was gramarye.
The change was no improvement, for it revealed the fungus and rat droppings in the corners, the glint of moisture on walls and floor, the meager barred slits that admitted little air and no light. Worse, the macabre furnishings that had hitherto been mercifully invisible were now in plain view. Most obvious was the notorious rack, a table of massive timbers with a windlass at one end, but the vises, braziers, and metal boots were every bit as ominous—as were the mysterious metallic contraptions that had no obvious purpose and therefore challenged the imagination to supply one. Walls and pillars were festooned with chains, whips, rods, pincers, branding irons, knives, and pulleys. No known means of generating unbearable agony seemed to have been overlooked.
The visitor paraded back with his finery now displayed in glory: a knee-length cloak of crimson velvet lined with sable over a hugely inflated jerkin of blue and gold satin, whose sleeves were puffed, slashed, and embroidered, and which gaped at the front to display a decorated and padded codpiece. The hose above his buskins were crimson, bulging over his fat calves. His hat was flat and wide, shadowing his features, and his hair was gathered in a cowl of golden net. He settled on the stool, sniffing his posy to avoid the stench of the room. In a plump face of indiscernible age, smoothly shaven and powdered with flour, his eyes were barely visible, lost in slits between pads of fat, but he smiled with thick scarlet lips.
"So we meet at last, Tobias Strangerson, known as Longdirk."
"Oh, thank the spirits!" said the prisoner. "Someone who speaks English! My lord—your Excellency, I mean—there has been a terrible mistake. My name is William of Crieff, a sailor from Scotland, and I don't know how —"
His Excellency laughed with what sounded like genuine amusement. "Still you do not give up? Master Longdirk, I am honored to meet you. There is an old saying that journeys end in lovers' meetings, but sometimes they can end in enemies' meeting, also. It has been a long time, has it not?" His voice had a guttural, Germanic rasp.
The young man shrugged to concede defeat, rattling chains. "Yes it has. Excellency." His expression gave away nothing.
"I am, of course, Karl Fischart, Baron Oreste of Utrecht, currently King Nevil's viceroy for Aragon."
"I know you," the prisoner said simply. Possibly his eyes glinted a little.
"Indeed?" Oreste spoke more softly than before. "You continue to surprise me, Toby, even now. How do you know me?"
"You were pointed out to me in Bordeaux."
"I was that close? Astonishing! Yes, it has been a long chase, but I have you now, and I do not think you will escape this time." Sequins sparkled on his hat as he looked around the crypt. "I apologize for the accommodation—this odious cellar belongs to the Inquisition, of course, and I regret to say that they use it. Please understand that I do not intend to apply any of those revolting instruments to your flesh, young man. I have other ways to obtain what I need. I put you in here because this chamber happens to be very carefully warded, and in an unusual way. As you saw, it will permit one to use gramarye with immured demons." He spread out his fingers, and the rings flashed in spears of red and blue and green. "But it suppresses the weaker powers of incarnates. I hope this interests you. I am not boring you, am I?" If he was gloating, at least he was being polite. He might have been at home on his estate, speaking graciously to one of his retainers.
"Not at all. Excellency. I welcome the company." The prisoner was responding with suitable deference, neither defiant nor groveling. He shifted his weight from his right leg to his left. He had been given enough slack that he could bend his knees a little or move his hips, but the cold was his worst torment at the moment. The cramps and exhaustion were still to come.
"Ah, be careful, Toby! You may regret my presence soon enough and find solitude preferable. I always enjoy a worthy opponent. I admit I underestimated you at first, of course—a lowborn bastard from some remote Highland glen, ignorant, barely literate, never been away from the cows before. When the Scottish Parliament rushed through a special act condemning this unknown boy to death without trial on the grounds that he was possessed by a demon, I really thought your eggs were scrambled. Who could blame me?"
"It was your doing."
"Parliament? Yes, I did use a little influence there, I admit. But the possession was Lady Valda's fault, wasn't it?" The fat man chuckled. "I congratulate you sincerely on besting her. She had eluded me for ten years."
The prisoner shrugged.
Oreste smiled, amused by something. "So the big, dumb Highland lad is hunted by the full majesty of the law and two of the finest hexers in Europe. What odds would you give on his chances? Yet he escapes! Your companion, by the way, the boy who sailed with you—Hamish Campbell, wasn't it? He can hardly be a boy now, any more than you are. He is well?"
"The last I saw him he was, Excellency. He must be eighteen now."
That remark amused the baron even more. He laughed until his paunch shook. "I am supposed to infer that you haven't seen him for a long time? No matter. Let us get back to you and your demon."
"It isn't a demon. What happened was an accident."
"Not a demon, no. It's the local elemental from Strath Fillan, a partially domesticated sprite, or hob as you call them. But it is dangerous, isn't it, Toby? Even more dangerous than a demon in some ways. A demon always has a conjuration to control it, but the hob is a free spirit, untrained, childlike. It doesn't know good from evil. It is liable to do anything, ja?"
The young man nodded. "It scares me sometimes."
"Scares you, Toby? Oh, I don't think so, I really don't. Not you! No matter. You also had another spiritual companion, even more unusual. Lady Valda had stolen the soul of King Nevil of England. During her bungled efforts to conjure with it, that soul was translated into a jewel, an uncut amethyst. I want that soul. I want that amethyst! Where is it, Toby?"
"How do you know all this?"
"From your former companion, Father Lachlan. He was very forthcoming. He had no choice, of course."
"What did you do to him?" For the first time anger flashed in the prisoner's deep-set dark eyes.
Oreste sighed. "Killed him. I had to, Toby. He was a pleasant old man, although rather ineffectual. He was muddled on the details, but he had learned—learned from you, I'm afraid—that the soul in the king is a demon. Anyone who knows that must die."
The prisoner ground his teeth. Suddenly he looked almost dangerous enough to explain the severity with which he was being restrained.
"Ah, Toby, Toby! You also told Fergan, the pretender to the Scottish throne. He was useful to us as bait for the unruly, but after he learned that truth, he had to go, too. You must have heard that he was caught and executed?"
"Oh, come! You weren't one of his foolish rebels. You knew he would never sit on his throne again—not with Nevil wanting to keep it, he wouldn't! It doesn't matter.
Anyone who knows, dies. Only you and Hamish Campbell are left. And you have the genuine king's soul hidden somewhere. I want it, Toby. I will have the amethyst no matter what it costs ... costs you, of course. I will do anything to get it."
The prisoner licked his lips. The thick muscles of his neck were tense. "I think you're mistaken, Excellency. Valda couldn't find any trace of Nevil's soul. I think it was lost somewhere in all that hexing. So the amethyst's only a piece of shiny stone as far as I'm concerned. It has sentimental value for me, but if you want it so much, you can have it. You ought to be willing to perform a small favor in return, yes? You're a great hexer, and I admit I find the hob troublesome at times. You could remove it from me, exorcize it. Do that and let me go, and I'll give you the amethyst gladly. That's a fair bargain, isn't it?"
"Bargain? Bargain, Toby?" The baron shook with mirth. "You stand there, chained up like a side of beef, and talk of bargaining? Oh, dear me no! You won't be bargaining. And you find the hob troublesome you say? When the Maid of Arran was wrecked on the coast of Brittany, only three people survived: you, Campbell, and a sailor, Derek McGonagall. McGonagall blamed you for that wreck and all those unfortunate men lost at sea."
Longdirk swallowed but did not speak. His cheeks above his beard were visibly paler than they had been a moment before.
The baron shook his head sadly. His jowls wobbled. "But it was the hob's fault, wasn't it? I don't suppose it meant any harm, but it drove the ship on the rocks and killed all those men. So what did you do? At Vannes, in Brittany, just a few days after the wreck, you tried to go to the local shrine. You were convulsed by cramps before you even reached the door. Your friend, young Hamish, helped you back to your lodgings. The keeper insisted that Vannes had never hurt a suppliant like that before, so it wasn't the spirit that was keeping you away. The culprit was the hob, yes?"
Receiving no answer, he smiled again, obviously enjoying the game. "So you tried once more in Nantes, where there was a full sanctuary and a powerful tutelary that would surely not tolerate any insolence from a trespassing hob. As before, you did not even reach the building. Halfway across the courtyard, you fell to the cobbles in convulsions, choking and vomiting blood. Young Campbell was forced to hire porters to carry you home. I was told you writhed in pain for some hours, until the hob forgot why it was mad at you. I can see why you might find it a little troublesome."
The prisoner glared angrily but did not comment.
As if he were growing stiff with sitting, Baron Oreste rose and flexed his back, smiling apologetically at the prisoner. He strolled off to inspect the rack, still talking.
Excerpted from Demon Rider by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1997 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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