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       The Scarab's Curse (The Savage and the Sorcerer, Book 1), p.1

           Craig Halloran
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The Scarab's Curse (The Savage and the Sorcerer, Book 1)


  The Scarab’s Curse

  The Savage and the Sorcerer, Book 1

  By Craig Halloran

  The Scarab’s Curse

  The Savage & the Sorcerer, Book 1

  By Craig Halloran

  Copyright © 2017 by Craig Halloran

  TWO-TEN BOOK PRESS

  P.O. Box 4215, Charleston, WV 25364

  ISBN eBook: 978-1-946218-14-8

  www.craighalloran.com

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, recorded, photocopied, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

  Publisher's Note

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  CHAPTER 1

  Tarley’s Tavern sat high on the hill, up and away from the small town of Marcen. The rickety building had stood, braced against the highland winds, for hundreds of years. Over the course of history, some of the realm’s greatest heroes had passed through Tarley’s. Some guzzled ale, many told tall tales, and others sat quietly, wanting nothing more than to be left alone. More recently, the life within the tavern was of a more common sort. Rough-skinned farmers, ornery tradesmen, merchants, and restless men and women went there seeking a little excitement to alleviate the quiet of the farm town.

  The builders of the durable and weathered establishment were long gone, and new faces had taken their place over the years. Now, within the walls, the tavern’s current owner, Tuberlous, threw another log on the fire. The embers crackled, and a warm glow permeated the room. Nobody noticed. Instead, the dwellers drank, gambled, and cursed. The barmaids posed on the laps of lavishly clad merchants. Pipe smoke and the smell of cherry tobacco made for a dreamy atmosphere. Within the haze, the discreet sulked in the corners while others went on without an ounce of shame about their business. Every once in a while, joking, jesting, and wild, victorious cheers rang out.

  In the rear of the tavern, a lone spiral staircase led up to a balcony that overlooked the tavern floor. Stiff winds made the wooden rafters in the vaulted ceiling groan. The iron candlelit chandeliers quavered time and again. On that balcony, a man sat behind a small desk, pouring wine out of a clay carafe. He wore garish robes, with a large collar, that were long overdue for cleaning. The unique garb was laced with intricate patterns and lavish colors. His head was bald, face slender, gray-black eyebrows peaked. Every move he made was purposeful and fluid. His name was Finster. Long ago, he had been a magus of the highest order. Now, he drank. He drank a lot.

  A farmer entered the tavern with his cloth hat clutched in his hand. A cold breeze followed him, causing some unpleasant mutterings from the dwellers. With effort, he pushed the door shut, turned, and looked up. He caught Finster’s penetrating stare. Rolling his long fingers, Finster beckoned the man upward. Head down, the farmer shuffled through the crowd and slowly climbed up the stairs.

  “Oh, hurry up, will you?” Finster said in the voice of an impatient schoolmaster. “I haven’t got all night, commoner.” He looked over the rail. “No, wait a moment.”

  The farmer stopped.

  “Tuberlous!” Finster shouted down at the barkeeper. “Are you blind? I have a customer!”

  Tuberlous slid out from behind the bar with his belly bouncing underneath his greasy smock. He faced the farmer with his hand out. “That’ll be a copper, Varney.”

  The farmer handed the barkeep the coin and headed upstairs.

  “My rent is paid today!” Finster shouted to the barkeep. “Let that take the grief from your puffy lips.” The farmer walked along the balcony, glancing over the rail once before taking a seat on the wooden stool in front of Finster’s desk. Finster leaned forward. “Varney, is it?”

  The man nodded. His eyes attached to the bookshelf filled with many leather tomes, potions, vials, and other trinkets. His grubby hands wiped the sweat on his lip. “Hello.”

  “Aren’t you the chatty one? Hmmm, let me try to figure out what it is you need.” Closing his bright eyes, Finster touched the side of his oblong head. “Let’s see. You need a special seed for your crops—ah, no, that’s not it. Oh, wait, I see it now—you need a special seed for your wife.” He opened his eyes. “Yes, your wife’s crops need fertilization. You have no sons to help you with labor. Lucky for you, I have just the thing for that.” He reached for his shelf.

  “No, that’s not it. I have sons. Many.” The farmer’s eyes slid to the people below them.

  Finster slapped the table. “No one is listening to you! Out with it, then. What do you need? Your secrets are safe with me. What we speak of his fully anonymous.” He hiccupped. “Excuse me. I have a strange illness.” He took a swig of wine. “Ah, I’m cured. Now, where were we?”

  “I need something to help me and, er, the wife, say, find the passion again?”

  “So I was on course.” Finster leaned forward with his elbow on the table. “Tell me, Varney. About this wife of yours. Is she ample?” He winked at the farmer. “You know, bosomy?”

  “I don’t see how that his helpful?”

  “It makes all the difference, farmer. Don’t you come up here and insult me about how to go about my business. Is she ample or not? Come now. I need details.”

  “She’s rather full chested.”

  Leaning back in his chair and toying with the hairs on his chin, Finster said, “Interesting. Very interesting, Varney, seeing how I know that your wife is as flat chested as a twelve-year-old boy. So you desire to fool around, eh? Well, it’s not my business.”

  “You said you’d be discreet.”

  “And I will be. If anyone inquires, just say you wanted my advice about the harvest. That’s what everyone says.” He reached into his shelve and grabbed a glass vial. “Ground mandrake, but remember, ‘Lust is blind but not your neighbors.’”

  “What?”

  “Nothing.” He slid the small bottle over the table. “This is what you want. It’ll be three silvers.”

  Varney’s dirty fingers picked at the inside of a small pouch. He slid over three coins.

  With his finger, Finster touched two of the three coins. They rose from the table. He stacked one coin on top of the other. “See? A little trick, for free, in case you doubted my powers as a wizard.”

  Varney tucked the vial in his sheepskin vest. “You’ll be discreet, right?”

  “And dare draw the wrath of a farmer like you? Of course I will.”

  Giving Finster a funny look, Varney got up and started to walk away.

  “Do you see that strapping young fellow down there at the bar? Brawny, with sandy locks.”

  “Yes, why?”

  “That’s Plowboy Roy, just so you know. So don’t be ashamed about your secret nuptials.”

  Varney shook his head. “What are you talking about?”

  “Young Roy has been plowing your wife’s fields for quite some time.”

  “You lie!”

  “No, she’s paid a visit to me as well. Perhaps it’s time that the two of you have a long, open, honest, and pathetic conversation.”

  Clutching his cap and with anguish building in his voice, Varney said, “Why did you have to tell me that? I thought you were discreet.”

  “Oh, yes. I forgot to mention—that costs extra.” He flicked a silver down toward the
bar. It landed inside a glass with a clink. “Tuberlous! More wine! Lots of it.”

  Without warning, the front door of the tavern burst open. Many soldiers, well armed and dressed head to toe in leather armor, filed through the startled crowd. The hard eyes of the men scoured the room. One of them pointed up at Finster. He was a tall man in a dark leather tunic who stood out among the rest. Something sinister lurked in his dark eyes. He called up to Finster in a gravelly, authoritative voice and said, “You, sir, are a wanted man.”

  CHAPTER 2

  Hands on the rail, serene in expression, Finster replied, “I beg your pardon, Commander, but I believe you are mistaken. I’m not guilty of any crime that I am aware of. I’m a lone sage, a mere novice of elixirs working toward the betterment of the community and myself. Eh, perhaps you are searching for those grave robbers that have been trolling about. We’ve seen strange folk heading west, two days gone by now.”

  “Is that so?” The commander nodded to a pair of soldiers, who moved to the bottom of the spiral stairwell. He took off his chainmail gauntlets, dropped them on the table, and unrolled a scroll. He tilted his head, eyes squinting. “I have a drawing that fits your description. I’m certain it is you.”

  “I have very keen eyes,” Finster said, craning his neck. “May I see it?” The commander showed the picture. Finster’s brow lifted. It was an exact image of himself, take away a decade or two. “I don’t see the resemblance in the slightest. You’ve mistaken my identity.”

  “Is that so?” The commander showed the image to the barkeep. “What do you think, man?”

  Tuberlous’s crinkled brow burst into beads of sweat. His eyes flitted to Finster for a moment then back at the picture. He swallowed. “I can’t say for certain.”

  “See, you’ve mistaken—common soldier—eh, what do you call yourself?”

  “Crawley. Commander Crawley of Mendes, the ruling kingdom. Pursuer of villains, liars, murderers, and the like.”

  “It’s so hard to tell one from another these days. As a matter of fact, many I’ve come across have borne a remarkable resemblance to you. Scruffy, rough-handed men that tend to spit a little too much when they talk.” He rubbed his throat. “No offense. Tuberlous! I’m getting dry again. Tell you what, Crawley. Will you let me buy you a drink?”

  Tuberlous poured a mug of ale from a keg tap. Crawley glared at him. The barkeep set the mug down, wiped his hands on the rag and said, “I think I smell something burning in the back.” He vanished through a small door behind the bar.

  “See what you’ve done, Crawfish, you’ve frightened the only bartender for leagues.” Finster slammed his hands on the rails. “Outrageous. Don’t you know who hard it is to train a man to pull cork out of a bottle and not ruin the bouquet? But, I’ll forgive and believe me when I say, I am not who you think I am. You’ve mistaken.

  “Lying is a crime,” Crawley said. “Resisting arrest is an offence. Bribery, well, that makes me really nasty.”

  “A man of passion. Good for you. Crawfish, can you tell me the name of the man you are looking for? Perhaps I can offer some assistance.” He tapped his chest and belched. “Pardon me. I see many new faces. I’ve a bit of a reputation. The other day, for example—”

  “Shut up, you old doddering crone!”

  One of the tavern dwellers tried to slip out. A soldier stuffed him back in his seat. Crawley unrolled another scroll with his meaty fingers. “You want a name? How does this sound? The Whistling Cauldron, Pine Bender, Master of the Inanimate, the Silver Snake, Guardian of the Mystic Forge, Iron Keeper, the Secret Slayer, Rodent of Whispers…”

  He lists many I’ve forgotten about. Those were the days. Young, powerful, deadly, and delightful. So amazing.

  “… the Metal Scourge, and finally, Finster the Magus of the Ninth Order.” Crawley rolled up the scroll. “Do you still deny that is you?”

  “Those are just legends. Old stories and tall tales that women tell their whiny children to get them to sleep after a meal.” He drummed his fingers on the railing. “Besides, I can’t imagine a man such as yourself trifling with the man whose legend you just described. It extends beyond the borders of reason.” Finster’s brows knitted ever so slightly. “That would be suicide.”

  The soldiers eyed their commander. Sharp steel scraped out of sheaths. Men cranked the lines back on their light crossbows and took aim at Finster.

  Without a blink, Crawley said, “Don’t underestimate a man you know little to nothing about, old magus. It could be fatal.”

  Finster saw the iron resolve in the commander’s eyes. Crawley wasn’t a foolish youth but a veteran, with marks to show for it—a true fighter skilled at slaying, judging by the heavy steel on his hips and rank on his arms.

  Toying with his lips, the magus said, “I haven’t been to Mendes in decades. Do you care to tell me what I’m allegedly charged with?”

  “As of now, just treason.”

  “Treason? I stand accused in the low kingdom. Seems really thin. Treason can be fatal.”

  “There will be a trial.”

  “I’m well aware of how those trials go. They are death sentences oft times. I don’t have any intention of turning myself in. I’d be better off committing suicide.”

  “I don’t want you to do that. You’re wanted alive. Come on down, Finster. Make it easy. You never know what will happen. After all, you might be innocent, heh-heh.” Crawley stepped right beneath him. “I’ve been doing this a long time. Never failed to get the man, woman, or wizard I pursued. Don’t test me.”

  Impudent, curly-headed brute! How dare he? I’m a master—well, former master—of the ninth order! Finster gave the men in the room further study. Greasy and durable, this entourage from Mendes, if that was where they were really from, wasn’t your ordinary ilk. They were hunters, true killers who struck in the dark of the night. Cutthroats. Oh, how I hate men that can only use brawn rather than brains to negotiate. Weak-minded fools. I’ll turn their brains into pig food. “Crawley, I’m sorry to say that you’ve given me no choice other than to defend myself and my place of business.”

  “Look around, Finster. I’ve brought in my lot of wizards, lost some good men—well, some good, bad men—and trust me when I say I won’t have any problem with you. You’re washed up. Weak. Pathetic. Not even a reflection of the days of old. Don’t be a fool. Come to Mendes, and see what the judge has to say.”

  He’s lying. Why would Mendes want me? Crossing his arms over his chest, he looked at Crawley. “I can’t abandon my arcane abode. I like it here.”

  “It was hard enough to find your little alchemy stand. I’m not going back empty-handed.” Without taking his eyes off of Finster, he backed into the bar. With a tap of his hand, the barkeeper poured him an ale. He drank it then said, “You’d better come down here before I finish this.”

  “I suppose I can’t bring any belongings.”

  “No, you’ll be shackled, and we aren’t carrying it.” Crawley drank half the mug. He sneered at the contents. “I won’t take any chances, but I’ll take you to Mendes fed and safe. That’s a generous offer.”

  Crawley couldn’t have come at a better time. Finster was drunk. Not only that, but he was far from the top of his game. For years, he’d hidden from those who’d sought him out. He’d just wanted to fade away. Now, his past had caught up with him. His judgment day had come. “Crawley, there’s an old saying in Winkley. Perhaps you’ve heard it before.”

  “I’ve heard a lot of things but nothing worth remembering from Winkley. Indulge me.”

  Finster cleared his throat. “Never wake Finster from his slumber.”

  CHAPTER 3

  The crossbows took on a life of their own as, with a single thought, Finster reshaped the wood of the crossbow bolts. The tips pointed toward the gabled ceiling. The soldiers pulled the triggers, and the bolts shot out in loop de loops, sailed short of the mark, and clattered into the stairwell.

  “Get up there!” Crawley
ordered two soldiers who stood at the base of the spiral staircase. “His parlor tricks won’t last forever.”

  The husky soldiers rushed up the steps with wary eyes.

  Summoning more power from the mystic well the fed his blood, Finster focused on the stairwell. With his hand in an open grip, he twisted it in the air.

  The stairwell groaned. The iron railing bent. The wooden steps cracked and popped. The heavy staircase livened like a snake. The metal coiled around the soldiers, constricted, and crushed. The soldiers screamed.

  Looking up at Finster, Crawley started for his sword, but his hand pulled back.

  Finster winked at him. “Having second thoughts, Commander Crawley?”

  “No, just changing strategy.” He shouted out, “A dozen gold to the man who brings him down!”

  The soldiers, just shy of a dozen, moved in an organized scramble. Oh, dear. There are so many of them. The Master of the Inanimate got to work. He reached deeper than he had in years. With a thrust of calculated thought, the chairs, stools, and tables on the floor took on a life of their own. The patrons, still in their chairs, screamed in horror as the wooden objects carried them and charged into the hard-eyed soldiers, bowling one of them over. Another soldier was knocked to the ground by a table. In a small world gone mad, a soldier with a large eye patch stabbed a patron through the chest.

  “Easy on the people, Arly! It’s only sticks you’re fighting!” Crawley snatched up a walking stool and smashed it against the bar. “It’s just firewood!”

  A large rectangular table blindsided two more soldiers. They went down howling and chopping with their blades. The table legs jabbed into the men’s bodies and limbs.

  Seeing his ragtag army of furnishings getting chopped and smashed to bits, Finster executed another command. He caught Crawley looking away and made a twitch of his fingers. The floorboards beneath the commander curled back one by one and swallowed him whole. Dusting off his hands, Finster said, “Ah, that should buy me enough time.” He went to his bookshelf, gathered a few choice items, and tucked them into a rustic leather travel bag. He slid one bookshelf over, slipped through the crack, and snuck down into the kitchen. A backdoor awaited him, half open, with green fields beyond it as far as the eye could see.

 
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