Chapter I: The Letter

My Dear Horwendell,

I have a favor to ask of you. It is a matter of life and death. I am afraid it will take you away from your work, but I suspect that would be better for you than you know.

Meet me at my home and I can explain.


That was the letter. It was written in this neat, tidy little script, addressed to me: Horwendell. It was signed Mal, short for Malisa, an old friend of mine. She had this really annoying habit of being the only person in the world who was right more often than I was. And she was right about this one. More right than she even knew, I think. It was most certainly a matter of life and death.

It, my friends, was the beginning of the story of how I died.

I read the letter, and then I folded it up and swept it to the left corner of my desk.

The candle on the wide desk was burning low, breathing a gentle life into the room. At the right hand of the desk, a quill propped up in a glass inkwell cast its shadow across the stone wall. At the left hand, a stack of mismatched missives, documents, and sheaves of notes piled up, newly adorned with the little half-rolled note on rough parchment. The back of the desk was littered with a selection of the tools of my trade: a set of hourglasses filled with fine veld sand, a wound up ball of copper wire, two glass beakers of a frothy red liquid, a well-worn glass dropper, a small glass vial of amethyst dust with a cork stopper, a brass ruler with pressed markings, a pair of steel tongs with sheepskin grips, a small claw-footed pewter basin full of cold water, and, most important of all, a full jar of midnight blue ink and an impossibly thick roll of blank parchment tied off with a small green ribbon. All of these—and more, occupying the shelves on the desk’s imposing hutch—seemed to swim silently in the little yellow candlelight.

I sighed and rubbed my eyes. I stood up and started to pace. Sometimes, on nights like this, I needed to move so my study would sit still. The dour black robe of my station and the violet sash of my rank, both earned in long service to the Marquis of Ilianath, swept pleasingly about as I turned in the confines. My mouth drew tight, stretching my mustache and ruffling my neatly trimmed golden-white beard, as my body seemed to join in the strain of solving the puzzle presented by my friend’s letter. I paced to the door and back to the desk. From the west window to the east wall.

Life or death? I wondered what she could possibly have been asking for. The most trying thing she had ever asked of me was for a pinch of ruby dust. And why me? We got along well, to be sure, but she had to be circumspect when asking me for favors, knowing that my colleagues and superiors all took a dim view of her non-sanctioned arcane practices—her witchcraft. But that could, perhaps, explain why she had been so vague in her letter and requested that I meet her all the way out at her cabin. Meeting at the castle town, whose little lights I could see from the porthole-like window of this tower study, would suffice for a simple loan of ingredients or tools, but would not be private enough for something more important. But what?

Sensing that my thoughts were beginning to loop and twist through the fog rather than navigate to a conclusion, I stopped, mind and body. I sighed again, rubbing the bridge of my nose, and then stepped over to the desk, picked up the folded letter, and hid it away in one of the pull-out cubbies on the hutch.

It could wait until tomorrow.

The door creaked open, and I left behind my darkened study and began my descent down the spiraling wooden steps of the cylidrical tower. The twentieth step down complained under my weight, as was its habit. The little circular window on the north side showed only the black of the forest blanketed by the starlit tapestry of the night sky.

Ten years ago, I had watched from this very window as the stars were choked out by the smoke of campfires, as Emault I, King of Orland, arrayed his army in siege. I had been an apprentice at the time, quite skilled in my own right (if I do say so myself) but, alas, without the ear of the Marquis. Then again, even my master, the Court Wizard, didn’t seem to have the ear of the Marquis. The entire court, her included, had entreated the Marquis to accept King Emault’s generous terms: to abdicate his seat to his chosen, quite capable heir and to spend the rest of his years in the comfortable custody of the King. But the Marquis refused to be a hostage, and he refused to relinquish the territorial ambitions that had begun the struggle in the first place. So the court had entrusted its wizard, and its wizard in turn entrusted her apprentice, to sneak a message out of the castle and to the city garrison: surrender the city, relieving its citizens of the siege and cutting off the Marquis from half of his soldiers and most of his food stores.

The gambit had succeeded. The Marquis was willing to defy a king, but no man can defy a hungry belly conspiring with an empty larder. As the King’s captain, a wiry blonde man in an impressive suit of steel plate armor, led an entourage into the throne room to accept the Marquis’ surrender, it finally struck me what had happened. A mere Sending spell, which was not a trivial evocation but nor was it terribly complicated or esoteric for an apprentice of my stature, had ended a rebellion. It had spared thousands of people months of miserable siege, had perhaps saved dozens or hundreds of lives, and had dragged a man down from lofty heights of power into ruin.

So it was that Henri III, Marquis of Ilianath, had abdicated to Henri IV, who pledged renewed fealty to the throne of Orland. And I hadn’t seen smoke rising above the Whiteglade forest ever since.

I continued to pad down the stairs, making my way to the nightly meeting of court.

The Marquis seemed bored tonight. So did his courtiers. It was the peak the harvest, which meant court was held late in order that any subjects with grievances might still be able to petition after a full day in the fields. It also meant that most people were too busy to generate any real grievances.

Henri sat on an oaken throne, suffused with a lively red hue, that was the product of days of work by an experienced team of carpenters centuries ago, upon a short dais. Beside him were his young heirs, Linette and Giselle, both present tonight. They were both kind girls, but prone to quarrel with each other, and some nights they needed reminders of the solemnity of courtly duties. Tonight was one of those nights.

Below the masters of the house and on their right were the courtiers, arranged in a row of mismatched, high-backed seats that helped serve the impression that we were the Marquis’ collected oddities. Tonight, those present were: myself, Court Wizard; Jermaine, a foreign-born diplomat and master of many tongues; Aveline, the house Treasurer and Chancellor; Doria, captain of the house retinue; and Rober, Henri’s elderly tutor now charged with educating his daughters.

Upon the wide blue rug beneath the dais and before the courtiers stood a farmer, Joha. His cap was doffed and his coat was clean, as it always was. Joha was well-known to this court as a busybody. Jermaine and I argued frequently, out of the man’s earshot, over whether he was truly well-meaning (if slightly paranoid) or if he simply enjoyed ingratiating himself to the Marquis and attempting to lord his influence over his fellow peasants. As was common, I was the cynical one, believing Joha to be a brown-nosing meddler. The Marquis was sympathetic to my concerns but seemed to be of the opinion that if anything were truly wrong, Joha could be trusted to be the first to speak up about it, and so it was valuable to hear his voice.

So here he was, in court. Again.

Tonight was not the night something was truly wrong, and Joha was expressing his concerns about the travel of his fellow peasants over a particular corner of his land as a shortcut to the road while hauling grain. Jermaine was staring off into the middle distance, past that blue rug and toward the closed wooden double doors, behind which were likely just a few more petitioners on this night. Rober was trying to hush the Marquis’ daughters. Aveline and Doria were exchanging knowing looks.

Eventually, Joha left, having received a polite dismissal from the Marquis with the promise that should the behavior continue after harvest the Marquis would ensure swift resolution.

After the back of Joha’s shaggy head disappeared between the doors, a new figure appeared there. A broad-shouldered man wearing a neat doublet and padded hose strode into the room. His beard was trim, his gait confident, and his eyes firm. I mused idly at what sort of ambitious noble scion this man might be, attempting to attend court to shortcut Jermaine’s carefully managed list of appointments. Perhaps a merchant from the eastern duchies seeking some particular relief from custom. But my wondering was cut short and my guess proved off-the-mark as the badge affixed on the man’s left breast caught the torchlight and the herald announced him as Piear, Reeve of Fertheaux.

I lost interest immediately. It was probably a matter of thievery or banditry in Fertheaux, a little hamlet a day’s journey from the castle town. Problems for Aveline and Doria. But a few minutes later, after the formal greetings and the shows of faith, the conversation took a turn that gripped my attention.

“My lord, the woods witch has returned.”

I fought the urge to bolt upright, and instead slowly sat up and listened intently while the Marquis chided his Reeve.

“She has been there the entire time, Piear.”

“If so, my lord, she is elusive…”

“Do not pretend, Piear. Your fellows, as well as your own self, likely, seek her out as an apothecary and a healer, despite my cautions against it. I am not blind to this, nor am I pleased with it. However, I am also little pleased by farce. Continue.”

Piear, who had clearly given a lot of thought to this excuse that the Marquis was uninterested in, closed his mouth and paused, staring out with his hard, dark eyes while he reframed his plea. I feigned an expression of official consternation. Underneath, instead, I was personally concerned. Malisa was normally very good at avoiding unwanted attention. Had she run afoul of someone influential?

“… yes, my lord. Many seek her out for medicines and treatments. But in the last week, many have come to… mistrust her. They see the shadows moving around her. Fires burn hotter near her abode.”

The man paused, hoping it would have a dramatic effect. It did not.

“… and, Piear?”

“I believe she is consorting with demons, my lord. I have seen one myself.”