Alliance for antrim, p.32
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       Alliance for Antrim, p.32

           Thomas Lombard

  Chapter 17


  At their determined PACE, it took less than ten minutes to reach the castle entrance. Orris announced himself again, the same as he had done the previous day, but the guard had seen them coming and already gone in to get his orders. Their excitement rose when he returned and said, “You may enter. Once inside, you are to walk straight ahead into the King’s reception room. Do not speak unless you are beckoned. I will follow you.”

  The guard opened the door and waved them in. Orris went first, followed by the others in single file. Startled by the door slam, Nevin jumped and nearly knocked Anson over.

  Another open door was straight ahead, the entrance to the reception room. Before entering, Nevin scanned the corridors to the right and left; they went on for quite a distance in both directions with brightly colored wall hangings that added a regal charm. Everything was clean and smelled lightly of perfume emanating from a series of wall-mounted oil lamps. Smoke from the lamps rose efficiently up through narrow slots in the ceiling, a clever mechanism to handle ventilation. The ceiling was at least twelve feet high and supported with stout oak beams.

  The guard told the trio to enter the reception room, his look indicating they should not keep the Chancellor waiting. Edging forward, they entered into a very large chamber suitable for a ballroom. It was richly furnished with two large tapestries on the walls to the right and left; smaller, more ornate wall hangings were precisely located around to give the room a stately and colorful appearance. Along the outer wall on his right were several tall narrow windows with large leaded glass panes, some of which were colored to form geometric patterns. Oil lamps affixed to the wall between the windows were lit, providing the room with soft illumination. A slightly different, but pleasant aroma emanated from the lamps.

  Directly over their heads, above the entry, there was a small balcony. At either end of the balcony, catwalk-like corridors extended the full length of the adjacent walls. A dozen Armsmen in bright royal blue uniforms were stationed strategically about the room. Guards armed with crossbows were also positioned at each end of the high catwalks, while guards on the floor level had six-foot pikes and wore short swords.

  Nevin and his cohorts stood just inside the entrance to the room, under the balcony, facing a raised dais straight ahead of them. A runner of plush maroon carpet extended from the spot where they stood all the way to the dais, up some steps and stopped at the foot of the King’s throne, currently empty. On either side of the throne were lesser chairs, the one on the left occupied by a man fancifully dressed, fanning himself.

  A line of well-dressed men and women stood attentively on one side of the maroon carpet. Nevin assumed these people, numbering about thirty in all, were courtiers or courtesans of some rank. The narrow carpet was evidently the path they were meant to take, past thirty pairs of staring eyes. The door guard confirmed this by nodding his head assertively for Orris and the others to go ahead. As the trio slowly edged forward, the room was silent; there was no talking or whispering to be heard. When they finally reached the end of the carpeted lane a few feet in front of the dais, Orris proceeded to announced himself.

  “I am Orris of—”

  “We know who you are, Orris, and we already know of your skirmish in Huxley. Tell us instead about your two companions. We are especially curious about the tall one, who is obviously not Antrim-born.”

  Orris started to respond again, but this time Anson stepped ahead of him. “Sir Chancellor, I am Anson, a loyal subject of King Lucan’s from Huxley. I have come to speak to the King concerning the futility of the war with Gilsum and the need for a quick and peaceful end to it.”

  The Chancellor retorted, “Well, Anson from Huxley, you are apparently the spokesman for this troupe. All our citizens want the war to end; that is nothing remarkable to tell the King. However, you may be allowed to speak to me of your concerns. . .if that is what we wish to hear from you. But first, who is this other man?”

  Nevin was half lost in admiration over the marvelous acoustics of the room.

  Anson declared, “This man is Sir Nevin Reasoner. He has traveled here from another land where he is regaled as a man of great knowledge and learning. He has come at my request to help King Lucan bring an end to the war.

  “Again, you speak for these others? From what I hear, your friend comes more to brawl with our soldiers than help them to defeat Gilsum. What is your trade, Anson of Huxley? You do not look stout enough to be a smith or even a tailor. Are you a farmer?”

  After an eternal moment of hesitation, Anson said, “I am a mage.”

  At that announcement, there was an ominous gasp, the first sounds from the members of the court.

  The Chancellor was not surprised. “I suspected so. Magery had to be at work with so unusual a man involved. We have no interest in your plans or concerns, Anson of Huxley.”

  “But, Sir—” Anson shook his head frantically and waved his hands to deny the rebuff. As he took a step forward, it roused the nearest guards.

  The Chancellor’s face reddened and he sprang to his feet, raising his voice to a near shout and pointing an accusatory finger at Anson. “It is because of you and your accursed brethren that Antrim is beset with attacks by Gilsum troops and profiteering rogues. You shall not bother the King with your tricks and illusions!”

  Anson started to panic. Hope for Antrim was gone if he failed to get an audience with the King. The mage took another step closer to the dais, prompting a lowering of a guard’s pike. Anson ignored the threat, straightened himself and snapped, “If you are supposed to have the King’s interest at heart, then you speak like a fool, Chancellor! It is known that Gilsum’s King Meire has a counselor who provides his army with new and unstoppable advantages, who even fouled the air in Huxley that left the village without defense. I have brought a greater man who knows of these things and much more. As I have put myself in great peril to come to King Lucan, so has Sir Nevin in coming from his land to seek a peaceful means to save Antrim from certain ruin. Not only has he placed himself in jeopardy to travel with a mage, but his peril is multiplied—for Sir Nevin, himself, is a High Mage!”

  Jaws dropped. Some fainted. Several people stepped back out of fear and awe. Not only was Nevin imposing by his size, but now he was revealed as some figure of legend extolled in children’s tales. All the guards, particularly those closest to the dais, set their pikes in a ready position, looking for the first sign of threatening behavior.

  Nevin’s reverie from studying the room was broken with a double-take. Caught off guard by Anson’s impulsiveness, he leaned over to his shorter companion and whispered, “Anson, which of us is supposed to be the High Mage?” Anson’s look of desperation into the eyes of his new comrade made the answer clear. You mean me?Nevin was confused and more. He was not even sure whether his alleged “highness” was a reference to his greater height or alleged professional competence.

  The Chancellor finally reacted as if struck. He shouted to the guards, “Seize them! Bind their mouths so they cannot speak their cursed spellwords!” The guards moved toward them but froze instantly at a shout from the back of the room.

  “Stop in your place!”

  Every head turned and looked up at a solitary man standing on the balcony over the entry way. Immediately, all the courtiers and courtesans knelt and hushed as they recognized their King. The monarch walked a few steps to his right and operated a lever, which lowered a hidden stairway. Impressive, indeed, Nevin thought, a spring-loaded ladder like those used on fire escapes. Trailing the King was a large dog.

  King Lucan descended the stairway and with great regal bearing, walked over to the maroon runway where he formed a royal procession of one as he made his way to the dais. The King seemed a little taller than any of the Antrim men Nevin had seen so far, perhaps by two or three inches. His complexion was very light, his hair dark brown and rather long compared with others. He was dressed magnificently in a dark blue velvet robe and wore a rather mode
st crown. His beard was cropped short. Both hair and beard were mostly dark, but flecked with gray making his age uncertain. He had the unmistakable mien of a man of experience and sovereignty.

  At the King’s side, the dog walked at a perfect heel position. Nevin recognized the dog as a Great Dane, although quite a bit smaller than any he had seen before. Lucan walked erect with a regal bearing that commanded respect, but as he drew nearer his eyes became his most compelling feature, at least to Nevin, who was still standing as the monarch passed. Lucan’s deep blue eyes were piercing without being menacing. He cast an image of a man sure of himself, leaving no doubt he was a King. Nevin found this man charismatic just by his presence.

  As the King approached the dais, a servant came forward and took the King’s robe. This action seemed to cue the Chancellor, who proceeded to scold Nevin.

  “Kneel, you impudent lout!”Without realizing it, Nevin was the only person in the room not kneeling, except for the guards.

  The King was about to seat himself on the throne, but he stopped and held up his hand. Speaking loud enough for all to hear, he said, “This man does not need to kneel before me today. He is not my subject nor has he sworn fealty to me. He is, for now, a guest in Antrim. I welcome you, Nevin Reasoner.” After seating himself, the dog lay down at the right of the throne.

  Lucan’s voice was resonant and deep. He spoke with just the right amplitude and timbre so he could be heard by all without seeming to shout. Nevin thought, this man knows how to play the part of a King. Amid all the regal trappings and ceremony, it was a wonderful sight. Nevin guessed correctly that no one was to speak until directed by the King.

  Lucan gestured for all to rise. The King was supremely composed but seemed to measure his words before finally speaking, “Step forward, Nevin Reasoner. Your visit is an uncommon pleasure for us. If you are a High Mage, as your companion says, favor us with a demonstration.”

  Demonstration? Nevin was stunned. Shooting a look at Anson for getting him into this situation, Nevin finally stammered, “Uh, what. . .I mean, er, Your Highness. . .um, what would you like me to do?”

  “We are acquainted with magery by the likes of common practitioners, such as your friend, Anson of Huxley. Show us what kind of skill distinguishes a High Mage. Please demonstrate, unless your claim to be of service to us is a falsehood.”

  Nevin nervously exchanged looks again with Anson, who was wide-eyed with uncertainty about what to do. Nevin saw that he was on his own. He cast glances around the room in search of an idea, fretting that he did not yet understand this spellcasting business. He had studied carefully the spells Anson and Bartram had shared with him. Surely someone with his background, with his skills at observation and deduction, should be able to reproduce the effects of one of the spells—even without fully understanding it. An idea formed. Gathering his thoughts Nevin took a deep breath. “OK, I’ll give it a shot.”

  Nevin brought his hand to his forehead in an act of concentration, trying to generate “force of mind” as Anson and Bartram had demonstrated. Mental concentration was key at the beginning. All drew quiet around him. Anticipation rose. He spoke the words of one of the few spells he had memorized—but with a slight alteration. I hope this works.

  No one present could make out the spellwords except Anson. Listening carefully, the mage silently mouthed the Nevin’s utterance in perfect syncopation—until the words varied from the cadence he expected! The look on Anson’s face changed to one of incredulity as he figured out what Nevin was trying to do. Anson, himself, would not have considered modifying a spell from its rote tradition, but Nevin was not bound by such habits.

  Nevin was more an empiricist than an artist, one who looked for elemental relationships and gained knowledge by experimentation, and he was experimenting right now. Reality had changed somewhat for him since he met Anson, but the laws of physics still seemed basically intact. He was simply adding A with B to produce C.

  As Nevin neared the end of the spell, the King’s dog alerted to attention and stood up. The animal whined and nervously padded in place as if restrained by an invisible leash. Nevin’s head started to ache from the intensity of his concentration. He kept his eyes closed and tried to mollify his throbbing head by rubbing his temples with the tips of his fingers. His reaction startled the onlookers, who did not know what to expect from this alleged High Mage. Whispering increased to a loud buzz as everyone in the room stared at Nevin. Suddenly, someone shouted that the King’s dog was gone. There were exclamations of awe and a few cheers as Nevin apparently carried out a successful deliverance, albeit of the King’s dog. Anson stepped forward and caught Nevin’s eye, both men sharing looks of combined relief and no small amount of surprise. Nevin sighed deeply, fighting down the need to know whether the dog simply slipped away or was spatially displaced. There was that transmutation problem again.

  “Well done, Sir Nevin!” said the King, apparently pleased at the demonstration.

  The triumph was short lived.

  “If you please, Sire. This act does not befit a ‘High Mage,’” sneered the Chancellor. “It is a common trick to make things seem to disappear, as we have seen done by jesters and other performers who are less than mages. Mere illusions. Shall we have Sir Nevin show us something we have never seen before?Something more convincing?”

  The King’s response hinted that he was not pleased with his Chancellor’s censure, but he left it for Nevin to make the proper rejoinder. “Go ahead, Sir Nevin. Quiet this rooster with a display he has not seen before.”

  Nevin’s confidence instantly dropped. He only knew a few spells and he had already tried the most dramatic option he could think of. Maybe he should have aimed the deliverance at the Chancellor instead of the dog, although his sense of ethics prohibited him from doing something like that to a nonconsenting person.

  Anson, meanwhile, had edged over to Nevin and was whispering something that did not quite register. Anson repeated, then spit the word through his teeth in a stage whisper—“Luminescence!”The windows!” and drew his hands apart in exaggerated gesture. It took a few seconds, but Nevin finally realized that Anson was telling him to use an extra quantity of mindpower on a luminescence spell directed at the windows. Easy for you to say.

  Nevin nodded to let his friend know he understood, and turned toward the windows. Taking his time, he focused his concentration once more to raise that now vaguely familiar sensation of mindpower. Gradually, Nevin felt the sensation rising, as he had barely perceived before, but it still seemed nothing extraordinary to him. Just intense mental concentration, such as any scholar might master. Perhaps like Marconi might have experienced when he privately conceptualized mastery of invisible radio waves, or Edison when he concocted a way to capture his voice on the grooves of a wax cylinder. Both of these examples would appear more extraordinary to these people than vanishing the dog. Nevin increased his level of concentration further and quietly spoke the words as he remembered them. Though his head throbbed some, it was actually getting easier to mount his concentration within the framework of the words. Suddenly, one after another, the wall lamps extinguished.

  While Nevin thought his effort was nothing extraordinary, to others it was more so. Anson was at Nevin’s side but had to step away from the rising bursts of mindpower. He recovered and stepped forward again like a man struggling to glimpse a blinding light, trying to make out the spellwords as Nevin canted them. Through the first iteration it sounded essentially correct, but something went wrong as the wall lamps extinguished. Nevin had progressed to a deeper, more powerful level of concentration as he went through a second repetition. By the third time through, Anson realized what was wrong: Nevin had slipped up on a few words and was reversing the spell! Anson froze with indecision as the room went completely dark. Despite the fact that it was early afternoon and there were several large windows in the room, it was pitch black. Nevin had successfully reversed a light spell.

  The first reaction by all was stunned sil
ence. A few voices cried out in fear. More anxious voices were followed by a few moans and sharp cries. People started moving about in mass blindness, stumbling over each other and articles of furniture. There were more screams and shouts as panic set in.

  Nevin was totally confused about what had happened and could not think of anything to do.

  Anson knew what could be done, but it required more mindpower than he could generate so he had to get hold of Nevin. A stumbling, hysterical woman nearly knocked Anson down as he vainly groped around in the pitch blackness for Nevin.

  Unable to find Nevin, there was only one thing Anson could do. He had to try to match Nevin’s mindpower and undo the spell. The mage braced himself and started canting the appropriate spell words. He concentrated as deeply as he could, trying to find an inner source of strength he never called upon before. Everything was going awry and he had to correct things or this opportunity would be lost. He trembled from effort as he recanted the words. One, then two iterations. With a third he was shouting the words at a fever pitch of concentration. Then, as suddenly as the blackness came, light returned through the windows. People were strewn all around the room where they had collided with someone or something. Some were bruised and several were crying. Hardly anyone but the King was left standing.

  The King raised his hand for order, his face still neutral, not betraying what he thought of this fiasco. The people responded to the King’s silent command and gathered themselves into a semblance of decorum. It was soon quiet again, although the well-dressed courtiers and courtesans were as displeased as they were disheveled. There was no way to know how the King was going to react to this incident, so Nevin took the initiative.

  “Your Highness, please forgive the behavior of your subjects. They cannot be faulted for reacting this way to something they have never seen before, but this is what your Chancellor requested. If he had been as willing as you to accept the first demonstration, this scene could have been avoided.”

  The King’s face remained expressionless as he listened. With a scant look around, a smile faintly broke across his lips. “Well met, Sir Nevin,” replied the King. “Chancellor, perhaps next time you will be more trusting and less impudent when welcoming such a formidable guest.” Turning to the trio, he said, “Now, good sirs, you have my attention as you requested. What is it you wish to discuss with me about the war with Gilsum?”

  This was the opportunity they sought.Nevin bowed and waved Anson forward to present their case. The mage stepped as close as he dared to the dais and was allowed to speak unimpeded. He described how Antrim was becoming depleted by the loss of citizens and resources—mere boys being conscripted into military service, fields lying fallow, and brigands making roads and towns unsafe. The few who survived this war would be so traumatized by its effects that people would regress to barbarism and anarchy. Anson told Lucan about Nevin’s land with its marvelous inventions that allow a person to fly at great speed or view images of people who are a great distance away, and about their medicines that come from things as common as moldy bread that can cure injuries that are fatal in Antrim. Even with their marvelous advantages, they also suffered futile wars with weapons so terrible that the amount of death and destruction is unimaginable. And now that King Meire is being counseled by a man from Nevin’s land, Gilsum will have strategies and devices which Antrim cannot defeat. Even when Gilsum eventually subdues Antrim there will be no prize for the victor, as happened to the decimated city called Hiroshima in Nevin’s land. With a final plea, Anson produced the library pictures he had hidden under his shirt. Nevin now appreciated Anson’s foresight at procuring them.

  Lucan studied these pictures for what seemed a long time, his face turning grave. The King’s eyes fixed back and forth on the images, deep in thought as he reflected on the two dimensional facsimiles. This brightened Anson’s hopes—only to be dashed when the King spoke.

  “I thank you men for your concern. You have come to me at great danger to yourself, which proves you are sincere in your loyalty to me and affection for the people of Antrim. But what you propose for me is surrender to our enemy. We must continue to fight the Gilsum army whenever and wherever it intrudes in Antrim. We have had many casualties as you say, but the soldiers who are left are proud and loyal to our cause. We must still seek a way for our soldiers to prevail. For them, I cannot pursue the course of surrender which you would have me follow.”Lucan stood.

  “I have welcomed you as guests, and as my guests you may stay. A castlekeeper will show you to the northeast tower, where you may enjoy our hospitality for the night before you depart. Our audience for the day is ended.”

  The King left the dais and walked straight toward the exit at the back of the room, this time his pace was quick and not processional like his entrance. His subjects barely had time to kneel as he passed. As he went by, he did not make eye contact with anyone but stared straight ahead.

  After Lucan exited the room, Orris rejoined Nevin and Anson. A woman who identified herself as the castlekeeper, offered to direct the men to their quarters, an offer which they somewhat dazedly accepted. As they made for a side exit, Anson was so disheartened he had to take Orris’ arm for support.

  Nevin was relieved that no one asked him to make the King’s dog reappear.

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