Chapter thirty-four: The Strong-hold


Morning came all too soon, for the mountain excursion had been draining, and a deep, if troubled sleep had enfolded me quickly. The dreams had come strongly, repeating the promise of the crown and blade. Brock ordered his bearers along the lane outside and with Thavis and myself flanking them, we set off for the town center, and the grim brick fortification of Duke Felway.

The streets by day looked no less austere than they had the night before, nor were they much better populated. There were more loose cats and dogs in the lanes than commoners. Clots of armed men, wearing the same device that decorated the brute at the inn, were apparent every few intersections. We were stopped and questioned at least three times on our approach.

The compound's gates were flanked by two high turrets, in which the moving shadows of archers flitted behind thick arrow slits. Ten armed men waited before the closed gate, and I did not envy Brann his conversations with them. Apparently satisfied, and after stripping us of our weapons, the guards pushed open the gates, and our caravan filed in. The packed earth of the yard was busy, troopers were marshaled everywhere, and against the long high fortifications, fire from field forges blew acrid smoke that curled everywhere like a dry fog.

I kept my eyes moving, trying to take in everything I could, though we were hustled quickly into a three walled area near the gate, and made to wait the seneschal's convenience. My eyes had caught at a tall black tower rising above the two-story main building at the yard's center, and I was filled to shaking with a sense of yearning and excitement. I noted that the tower was backed against the far yard wall. Two wooden doors split its arched entrance, one ajar. As there were no other towers, I felt that this must be the Mage Veddek's retreat, following the pattern set by Chord and Orton.

I wondered if there might be a private exit from the tower through the yard wall, but the distance seemed too wide for that. Looking at it, I realized any attempt to breach it would likely invite a fast bath in boiling oil mixed with liberal arrow fire, but I marked the place anyway. The men I saw in the yard were conventionally armed, which was a relief. There were no cannons or rifles to be seen, for which I was thankful, though that was no guarantee there were none.

Thavis nudged me, and in a low voice noted, "The hold is at full strength, I warrant. The walls are manned every six feet, and at least three full companies, by the various emblems I see, are barracked here. Puts the hold's complement at well over two hundred men -- siege strength. That they let us inside at all means they are still stocking supplies here."

"How is that? Couldn't they as easily off load supplies before the gates?"

Thavis shook his head. "Too much hauling. It would leave the gates largely open, to unload the deliveries they are taking in. We may expect, given the preparations here, that levies are being garrisoned near the pass. This place prepares for war."

"I sort of thought this conclusion foregone. The incursion into Wayland's fief, the devilry in the pass, all that," I said.

"No," Thavis replied. "you misunderstand. A bicker between dukes, a little piracy, raiding, perhaps an attempt to extort extra tolls, that is one thing. This," he said, sweeping a hand at the compound, "indicates a larger design. You saw all the armsmen about town, It requires time for such preparations to become so advanced. This is no gambit to be resolved in parlay. There can be no waving away of the burlies Veddick set to the roads on our side of the pass as some unknown oddity or rogue event, but here, by so arming, Felway has marked his complicity with mage Veddek's plans, set himself directly against King Fredrick. He is fully a part of it. Duke Wayland must be told. I am not known here, as most of my work strayed not from Wayland's fief, save for rarely, to the capitol. But we may still find ourselves sequestered, imprisoned, or worse, press-ganged into his service, as we are posing as guards."

I must have seemed bemused "You can tell this from one sweep of the yard of Fellways townhold? What of the pass itself and what of the garrisons there?"

"Those still need to be ascessed of course, but it is obvious to me a muster has been called. Dukes do not call for musters on whim. Such are expensive war preparations."   

Being press ganged was not something I wanted to endure. I had supposed we would be left alone while Brann completed his trades. "We will have to get out of here... Tell Brann to send us away. Have him tell the guards we go to check for some goods he left behind."

Thavis nodded, and went to the front of the holding area, to whisper with Brann. The merchant nodded and turned to the two guards that braced the open side of the holding area. There ensued a brief argument, and a small pouch changed hands between the larger of the two guards and Brann. The guard motioned to us, and we were escorted back to the gate. Luckily, it was easier getting out than entering had been, and we were ejected quickly. Having seen us before, the troops stationed along the lanes did not stop us again, and we were careful to follow the same route back to the inn. We collected Brock, and made for the hills, where we had sequestered Gort.

Brock raised an eyebrow, or rather, his eyebrow, as I can't say he had more than one. "So what's next, then?"

Since leaving the compound and viewing the tower, I had not been able to shake a sense of urgent yearning to climb to its top. Considering my dreams of late, I was suspicious of the feeling's source, and set my mind against it. It was a constant strain now, and made it difficult to consider other things. The continual assault on my free will was the one thing that drove me to Tark, I needed to seek some solution, some way out of Credine's clutches. Practical matters of personal safety were driving me back without the answers I really sought, and frustration filled me. I rallied my thoughts, and considered our future course.

"I don't think Brann is in any danger from our actions, hired mercs taking off in such situations cannot be rare. I think we should make for the Nublin village, our closest haven, then split up. Thavis must return and inform Duke Wayland, Orton, and Chord of what little we have found out. I will stay on at the village. I have a few ideas to work out there, and besides, I wouldn't return without word from the mages in any case. First though, it would be useful to see just what is garrisoned at the pass. Would there be any vantage where this might be done?"

Brock choked, and gave me an evil eye. "Aye son, there are many such oversights, doubtless all of 'em crawling with sentries set to welcome such curious behavior with flowers 'n honey cakes! Are you mad, boy?"

I thought of Gort, and his very advanced tunneling skills. Several plans started to form, one of which I mentioned to Brock. "What if we were to make a new tunnel, somewhere unexpected? Is there a place where Gort might bore through to create a viewing spot, that wouldn't likely be patrolled?"

Brock pulled his beard and frowned, thinking. "Aye, I forgot about the pottery man. He did a fair job, snatching you from Wayland, eh? There is a steep just west 'a the pass, almost a sheer face...was a time we assayed it fer ore, days long gone. Were nothing there to mine, but if he could tunnel a hundred foot or so through solid granite, say hundred-fifty yards up the sheer cliff face, a man might oversee the pass through it. I'd guarantee it'd not be guarded, as the sheers there be not something a a force of men would try. From either side either, mark ye. Think'in yer Golem could do such a thing?"

"Let's find out."

We dug Gort out and made for the spot Brock mentioned, which took a good two hours of hard scrabbling to reach. The clif went up like a wall, as Brock said. It was apparent that any tunnel less than a hundred fifty feet up would need to bore through too much rock. The jagged range was peppered with these steep formations, some feature of the local geology.

Gort stood impassively as I explained what we needed, and that we could not spend any great amount of time here tunneling. It turned and faced the sheer, put one hand out and "scooped" at the surface. A four inch deep score trailed behind his hand.

The Golem's reply was short. "One hour, one hundred yards."

We sat back to watch. Gort made horizontal sweeps with his hands about every two feet, clambered up on them, and repeated the process, as rubble rained down, forcing us to retreat further from the sheer. The rock ladder continued to build until Gort achieved about a hundred-thirty feet, then he started inwards with a will, and a constant fall of boulders clattered and bounced downwards, some with alarming trajectories, sending us scurrying well to the side and even farther back.

There were no explosions of course, but a deal of noise, all the same. I mentioned this to Brock, who shrugged. "Took us two and a half hours ta get here, shortest route, and I knew the way. Even if they do hear somthin odd driftin' over the peaks, I donna think it will matter much, unless you are set on camping here for the night."

Within the allotted hour, Gort reappeared in the new hole in the sheer's surface, and not bothering with his rock ladder, simply fell off. He hit bottom, bounced, rolled, and then to my amazement, simply stood back up. Brock blinked and said, "Now, I've changed my mind about that thing. When we get back, I have a proposition or two 'ta discuss wi' ye."

There was still the problem of climbing up the rock ladder, and Brock would have none of it.

"You two go right ahead, I've no interest in the view, so unless a thousand Burlies come poring into on this place, I'll be right here watchin' yer progress."

Thavis borrowed several yards of rope from Brock's pack, and we tied ourselves together about twelve feet apart with it, then looking again at the climb, tied another twelve between me and Gort, whom I commanded to lead.

The ascent was actually not that bad. All of the scores had a downward internal angle offering very secure hand-holds, and were clean cuts. Still, I wouldn't want to have tried it if I were out of shape. The hole itself was tight, a hands and knees crawl, as if Gort had swum through the rock to make it. There was light at the other end though, so it wasn't as scary as I thought it might be. Gort had quietly managed an opening only a little larger than a basketball on the pass facing end.

The view was all Brock promised, and I estimated about four thousand men were bivouacked before the pass. There were row upon row of tent-like structures set in a semi circle behind two forts that flanked the gap itself. From here, I could see into the one on the near side, and it seemed fully manned. My attention gravitated to one particular structure of the fort directly below. Backed against the sheer was a square building mounded on all four sides with dirt, like an ammunition or explosives dump. Further away, something suspiciously like a brace of vintage cannons sat against the pass-facing side of the fort. These looked to be civil war replicas or some such, but were sturdy, and obviously the kind that could actually be fired. I briefly wondered how MaCaan had gotten them through the tower, to get them here.

More magic, likely, I assumed, or block and tackle. Replicas of this kind are easily available without any kind of license. While frightening, I knew a good deal of training was required to make use of such artillery, and I doubted the likes of MaCaan, or any other locals, would have the savvy to make good use of them, as yet. I knew several custom smiths who specialized in these quite popular lawn accessories for the well heeled. As for the odd building, had the cliff opening been larger, I could have jumped onto the loose board roof of it. I would have died in the fall, but it would have been possible. Freeing a small rock from the hole, I dropped it and counted out the seconds till it bounced from the roof of the structure below. A good five second drop.

It looked like they were prepared to march troops through the pass or, if necessary, support the defense of it from the fortifications. I flattened down and let Thavis slither over the top of me for a peek, then we blocked up the spy hole with rock and backed out to where Gort waited. Having made the trip up, I thought the better of climbing down without any real equipment. We used the rope sections to lash ourselves to Gort, then instructed it to carry us down the rock ladder, remembering his former method of making the trip.

Once down, we set off quickly for the Nublin village. We made good time back to it, not having the porters to slow us. Thavis set the pace, and both Brock and I struggled to keep up, but we found it unnecessary to stop in the hills as we had before. As a first matter of business, I called on Orehammer and explained something of what we had seen, and something of my ideas. I needed access to the forge, and the information about the pass was just about all I had to trade for it. Since the reconnaissance bore on ridding the vale and pass of the Burlies, he agreed to give me use of the forge, and a good price (on the credit of Chord, for whom Brock vouched) for metals and such supplies as they mined here. We retired then, but before I bedded down, I took Gort aside. I stared at the immobile clay figure, and brought to mind all of my history in these lands. I had delved into the essential mystery of this Golem only lightly since its inception, and I wanted to resolve some things that had occurred to me.

"Gort, how many days of activation have you left?"

A slight movement of one arm was the only reaction to my query at first, but then the hollow voice responded. "Nineteen years, ten months and eight days."

"You know my sword, the one we spoke of before. Could you pick it up, were I to leave it somewhere? Or like living men, would you not be able to move it?"

"I could move it, though every day it would absorb some of me."

"What do you mean?"

"My energy would decline. My active time would be lessened."

"If I sent you to retrieve it, and you brought it here to me how much would that decrease your lifespan?"

Gort paused, then spoke again."It would remove six months of activation."

An inspiration struck me. I removed the golden circlet from my brow, and placed it upon Gort. The clay figure seemed to flinch. As I held it there, it grew warm. After a ten count, I pulled it off, and asked the Golem, "How long can you remain active?"

"Eighteen years five months and six days."

My timing was not exact, but it seemed that the crown absorbed out, about one year's energy for every ten seconds worn. The sword, according to Gort, much less. Perhaps because it was intended to be most effective when thrust into something. There was too much I could never know enough about to make a good guess, but my test did show that the same energy the sword took from Burlies, it also drained from the creations of the demons, such as Gort. Chord had implied as much, when he explained that Burlie energy powered all the magic in this place. Evidently, the gold band shared this characteristic with the blade.

"Is it possible to reverse this drain? To take it back?"

Gort began again to recite, and it turned out there was. The clay could be re-infused, just as it had been originally, by a demon's incantation. This was not surprising, as I had already seen something of the sort done for Chord's marvelous boots when I first encountered him. Ritual was somewhat like pushing rocks uphill, unnatural, but possible .

Was there a faster way to drain away the energy, perhaps from the sword and band itself?

There was. If the blade were grounded in neutral earth while Gort held it, the golem's charge would flow out, as the golem was a non-living vessel. Like a battery discharging, I thought. As I recalled the legend, the "force" of Credine was driven into the earth by a lightning strike when wearing the crown and sword. It sounded to me that Credine's Manna, or Ka, acted the way electrical charges did, moving from one state of potential to another, or as magnetism acted, in a way. Of course, this was the interpretation of my modern mind. How a mage would explain it, or what the mechanism in truth did, remained opaque to me. In practical terms though, I felt I had a found a functional handle.

I whispered some commands into Gort's shell-like ears, and sent him to retrieve the bushes Brock and I had slept beneath, near where the golden circlet had been forged. I also asked that he retrieve the Corm Da from its ashy resting place beneath the slopes of Esh. I cautioned him to remain out of sight, and to hurry. Gort turned without a word, and left at a remarkable pace.

I went to my pallet in the mine, and this night, slept well.


About the author


Bio: So, I write largely science fiction and fantasy, and fantasy/humor. I do novels, short stories, Serial short stories, Novellas, all that. If all goes well, I expect to be posting a good deal of both here. What else can I say? I like walks in the rain and ice cream? I sketch, play blues harp, have been known to program for fun. Gamer? Yeah, I'm a slacker. Ran Plotters of Dreams for writers before it was virtually shut down save in title by Yahoo cuts in service, for ten years and counting. Ive moderated other groups, and obviously, writing is a passion. -Want to make peoples day, send them on vacation, make them chuckle occasionally.

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