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First four chapters in a pdf file.

 

The Blackgloom Bounty

 

Jon F. Baxley

 

 

Prologue: Britain, Spring, 988AD

It came to him in a dream. Or was it a dream? Merlin's image seemed so real. Then the image spoke, and Kruze knew he was not dreaming.

"Kruzurk Makshare, the time has come to avenge me," the image said, gliding closer to the back of the wagon.

"Merlin?" the old man questioned aloud. "Is it really you, or have I passed to the other side?"

The silky, colorless image floated into the wagon and settled less than a foot from his face. It hesitated, as if studying the craggy lines of the old man's hideous features. "It is I, Merlin. Has it been so long that you have forgotten your teacher?"

"Merlin? It is you!" Kruzurk swore aloud. "It's been--how long--sixty, no seventy seasons. It's true, then, what they say about your powers of making. I never really believed that you could . . ."

The image interrupted, saying, "Kruze, my old friend! I have little time, and much to say. My powers have weakened from the long stay on the other side. There is no need of magic there, you see. But I must ask of you a boon. It will take great courage, and I can think of no other better suited for the task."

"Merlin, you need only ask."

"Avenge me, Kruzurk," the image said. "The Seed has gained great powers. He must be stopped. All that you will need is contained herein."

A tightly rolled black oilskin scroll appeared in Kruzurk's lap. "The powers of light be with you, old friend, for I can help you no further."

As the image seemed to dissipate in a sparkle of moonlight, Kruzurk cried out, "It will be done, Merlin--upon my magician's oath, I swear it!"

 

Chapter 1: The Beginning

"On with you, now!" the old man cried out, his voice becoming distant and hollow in the damp evening's clamminess. "Pull my ladies!" he shrieked. "'Tis but a waine strip you've ta complete afore the light fails. On with you, now! Pull, ya big-butted sisters of perrr-dition."

Daynin waited patiently at the edge of the field as his grandfather finished plowing the last three rows for the seasonal planting. The boy amused himself by slinging the small gray stones for which his adopted shire had been named. Already his keen eye and quick release had felled two of the fat, hairy rodents that scurried in and about the deep ruts his grandfather's plow had furrowed only moments before.

His amusement was cut short by a loud snort from one of the two great Rhone mares on his grandfather's team. Quickly, the other mare snorted and joined the revolt against the heavy strain the team had encountered in the last row of the field. The old man slapped at the horses' backsides with a heavy leather thong that Daynin had grown to know all too well.

"Curse ye, get on!" the old man bellowed.

Daynin was unaccustomed to hearing his grandfather swear like that, and in none of his fifteen previous planting seasons, had he ever seen him strike one of the animals in anger. "Something's wrong," he whispered aloud.

The sound of the lash on bare horseflesh caused the boy to shudder. He agonized for the mares, knowing how badly that thong could sting when wielded by a man as stout as was Ean McKinnon. Sixty planting seasons and three terms as bowman in the service of Scottish lords had done little to weaken the stocky, stone hard features that Daynin had come to know and love above all others.

"Bring a staff and come 'ere, boy!" came a shout from across the rows.

"What's wrong, grandfather?" Daynin shouted through the thickening darkness. Staff in hand, he was already halfway across the field.

"I'll be a blaggard's whore if I can tell ye, boy. A bloody great stone is buried here, where none has ever been afore. Agnes and Matildy cannae barely budge it. Some black evil it is that's left this here booty in my field."

Upon reaching the far side of the plowed field Daynin could see, square in the middle of the last furrow, an upturned edge of what appeared to be a great round headstone. The few curious markings that were visible in the failing light gave little evidence of the stone's meaning to the two McKinnons.

With Daynin's help and a mighty heave from the mares, they dragged the stone from the furrow and cast it aside for the night. Ean and his grandson, both tired from the long day's work, talked little of the stone on the way back to their hovel. Daynin asked at supper what his grandfather intended to do with the stone, and was met with a brief, pointed rebuke for reminding the elder McKinnon of the stone's annoying presence.

The next day was market day for the village. Daynin had little to do except wander around and investigate all the wonderful things the traveling merchants had brought to Hafdeway to sell. He stopped at one wagon and stared for a long time at three magnificent books on display in the back. The ornate covers and beautifully inscribed writing fascinated the boy. He had not had the pleasure of being so close to a real book in a long time.

When he reached out to explore the cover of one book, a thin wooden stick struck from nowhere, slapping across his knuckles with the swiftness of a black snake. Tears welled in Daynin's eyes as he rubbed the stinging flesh on his hand.

"Look ye, brat, but touch ye not!" came a harsh admonishment from inside the wagon. "Lest, of course, ye be the Duke's heir and have brought me ten pieces of silver for the pleasure," the gruff, squeaking voice continued.

"But I was just . . ." Daynin protested.

"Just is dust when profit I must, says I," the voice interrupted again.

Daynin peered carefully around the tailgate of the wagon to see whence his admonishment came. A mop of long, unclean, stringy hair growing from a too-small head, sitting atop a too-small body met his eyes.

"Nosey bit o' work, ain't ye, sprite?" the hairy head asked.

The shock of seeing the head talk, seemingly without the benefit of a mouth, temporarily struck the boy dumb. He stepped back from the tailgate and briefly considered running away. Strangely, his feet wouldn't respond to the warning his brain screamed at him.

"Rat got your tongue, boy?" the hair demanded.

"Uhh, no, I--uhh, I just uhh . . ."

The hairy head turned and screeched, somewhat less loudly, "There ye go using that just word again. Ain't no profit in that word, boy. You got to be pure, or sure, elsewise you ain't fit for nothin' but cleanin' up horse droppin's in the middle of the road. Remember that, lad! Remember what old Boozer tells ye, 'cause there's profit in it, if'n ye'll listen and mark it well."

Daynin's eyes grew large as the screaming in his head exploded again. His feet still refused to move. The ugliness of the heavily scarred face staring down at him from the wagon was almost more than he could bear.

The boy's eyes dropped, preferring to stare instead at the mud and animal dung caked on the wagon's axle. Words totally escaped him. The horror of the man's face and of the whole situation made him hope he was dreaming and not really there.

"Ye never see'd a face like this afore, have ye, boy? Never see'd a face spoilt like this one, eh? Here, give us a good look at that sweet cherub smile of yours," the hairy face said. A long bony hand reached down to cup the boy's face in its palm.

Daynin cringed at the touch of the hairy thing's rough skin. He noted a strange color in the hand--a kind of bluish white flesh tone. The hand slowly pulled his chin up, forcing his eyes to meet those of his tormentor.

"Please, I only wanted to look at the . . ." Daynin pleaded.

"Manuscripts? Truly it is with everyone. And what happens if I let every curious bloke touch me books? 'Ere long, the covers get tore, the pages bespoiled and then me books are as worthless as three-day-old pig guts. What's yer name, cherub? What is it they call you, or do you just go by boy? Eh--speak up!"

"Daynin's my name, sir. I live just, er, uhh, half a league outside the village."

"Daynin, eh? Bloody curious christenment for these parts, says I."

"I'm not from here, m'lord. My grandfather brought me here from the highlands of Scotia. He is a McKinnon, of the McKlennan clans."

"Then what need have ye of books, master McKinnon? 'Tis common knowledge that highlanders are a wild lot and have little need of education. Their swords do most of their talking, so I'm told."

Daynin rankled at that notion. He thought of the books in his father's house, and how they had smelled as the great fire engulfed all that he had known of life in the highlands. His mind flashed to the blood splattered snow and the image of his father's still warm brains melting a hole in it. Gone was the clan of McKinnon, killed one and all by the order of men he knew not. All gone, save for Daynin and his grandfather, and they alive only by the grace of good providence and the luck of being caught out in a late winter's storm.

He had never forgotten that scene, the smell of the burned flesh, the agony of finding all of his kin murdered in one bloody afternoon. He seethed with anger at the loss of the books his family had cherished so much.

"I have to go," Daynin replied sheepishly. "I have chores . . ."

"Run away if ye must, lad, but stay, if me books you wish to muse."

"But you said . . ."

"Not many have the stomach to stay and chat with old Boozer. Let alone make an argument with 'im that has the looks of the devil's own nightmare. You got the grip, boy, and that's rare these days. What say you, now? Have ye a readin' eye, or was ye only lookin' outta curiosity?"

"I can read," Daynin replied, matter-of-factly. "Latin and some Greek, but it's been a long time."

The Boozer held up a small sign and said, "Then read this, and I'll let ye spy me books. If'n ye can't, I'll swat ye again for bein' the liar."

"Boozer's Books and Magical Items," the boy read out loud.

"Hanged if ye ain't a reader!" the hairy one declared excitedly. "Sit down and tell me what the village of Hafdeway is doin' with one as bright as you."

Daynin reluctantly agreed, his mind having finally convinced his feet that he was in no mortal danger for the moment. He jumped up on the wagon's tailgate opposite the Boozer and began to describe how he and his grandfather managed their harrowing exodus from the highlands.

The Boozer listened attentively for a while. Then the boy's story reached its climax at yesterday's finding of the great stone in his grandfather's field.

"Headstone, says you?" the Boozer asked excitedly. "Rounded like and wider than a man is tall, with strange markings on it?"

"Yes, that's right."

"Gimme the lay of those markings, boy. If they weren't Latin, tell me what they looked like."

"Like that," Daynin replied, pointing to an ancient astrological chart the Boozer had hanging inside his wagon.

The old man's head twisted around rapidly, as though not connected to his body by a neck. "Runes, says you!" he spat out. "On a bloody great stone, buried in a highlander's field. Friar's Rush, boy, that ain't no headstone! No wonder t'was never found. The legend says a highlander's field--but it don't say the field is in Scotia," he crowed.

"What are you talking about?" Daynin replied.

"Every mage for a thousand years has been lookin' for that sacrosanct slab of infernal sedition, and it took a cherub like you to find it. Luck is indeed with you, boy. The powers of all the heavens is alayin' out there in that field right now. You could well have discovered the Scythian Stone!"

 

Chapter 2: The Taking

"What do you mean?" Daynin begged. "What is this Sa-Si-than Stone?"

"Scythian, boy, SSScythian," the Boozer hissed. "The legend says it has the secrets of all the heavens writ down for 'im what finds it. Take the Stone to the Great Circle at Briarhenge, and ye can read where the sun will be at the equinox. Supposedly, ye can even predict when the sun and the moon are gobbled by that great black demon in the sky. Imagine it, boy. To be able to say when the sky'll go black for a time. No one's ever done that in our day. But it's said the Scythians could do it, and they were worm meat long before the Norsemen came. That stone's the only record, and there's those that'll pay a Duke's ransom, or slit your gullet to possess it."

"My grandfather said . . ."

"Words is words right now, boy!" the Boozer snapped. "We got to be haulin' out there to get that Stone. Quick now, you get down and throw my goods in the wagon, whilst I hitch ole Abaddon to the trace. Go on! Daylight and prosperity's a burnin'."

Daynin did as the Boozer ordered. The old man's excitement was rapidly becoming contagious. The boy could feel his heart beating faster as he loaded the wagon, carefully placing the Boozer's books last on top of the heap.

"What do we do with it once we get the Stone?" Daynin asked, as the wagon jounced heavily over the last remaining ruts of his grandfather's field.

"Do? Why, with it, boy, we can do anything we want!" the Boozer exclaimed. "Once we've got the Stone and can read it, the very powers of the heavens'll open up to us. Think of it, boy! The magic I know now will pale in significance compared to that of the Scythian Stone."

Daynin turned abruptly to stare at the Boozer's gnarled profile. Fear swept over him again. He wished to be back at his grandfather's hovel, safely asleep in front of the fire. "Are you a sorcerer?" he asked sheepishly, as if afraid to hear the response he knew was coming.

"Magician," the Boozer proclaimed. "There's a world of difference. Sorcerers are them what's evil with nothing but evil intent. You know what a sorcerer would give to have the power of the Scythian Stone?"

Daynin shook his head, "no".

"Anything they had, boy, that's what. The Stone'd make 'em legitimate, you see. Not just some evil crackpot who does bad things for the fun of it, but genuine knowledge and power, that's all. If this is the Stone, we're gonna be real careful who we be tellin' about it, wager on that!"

The magician pulled the wagon to an abrupt stop a few yards from where the Stone lay. He climbed down and hurried over to examine it. Within seconds, he seemed to be convinced. "Help me turn it over, lad. If they's runes on the backside, it's treasure we've got and not some mislaid headstone."

The back proved to be full of the same mysterious encoding as the front. Even the edge of the stone was engraved all the way around with more of the intricate carvings. The Boozer could barely contain his excitement. He danced a strange jig around the upturned stone, chanting words that Daynin had never heard before.

* * *

The old magician grinned and brushed the dirt off his hands. "There it is, boy. That's a handy bit of work, eh? You didn't think my rigging would lift the Stone's weight did ya, now?"

Daynin smiled and shook his head. "No. I've never seen such a contraption. Is it magic?"

"Of course it's magic, you bean-headed plowboy, but not the way you think. It's ropes and pulleys, that's all. Best magic there is--common sense and leverage. Remember that, boy. Now, let's get this plunder over to your grandfather that he may have a say in its future."

It was mid-afternoon when the wagon rolled up to the modest hovel that the McKinnon clan called home. Daynin's grandfather stormed out of his front door, ready to argue or fight with the unwanted visitor until he saw his grandson's face appear from under the wagon's cover.

"Can ye not see it's well past the dinner time, boy?" he bellowed. "You shoulda been home from the market long ago. We've got seed to ready!"

Daynin jumped down from the wagon, expecting to be clouted for his tardiness. Instead, his grandfather seemed transfixed, staring up at the wagon's driver. "This is my friend, grandfather," Daynin blurted out.

"Boozer's me name, kind sir . . ." the magician said as he climbed down clumsily from his lofty perch, " . . .and magic is me game. That is, it was, until your young cherub of a grandson, there, told me about you and the Stone."

"What stone?" the elder McKinnon demanded.

The Boozer replied, "Sure it is I am you've unearthed a treasure of immense significance in your field. Have ye ne'er heard of the Scythian Stone, Ean McKinnon?"

"Aye, that I have," McKinnon answered. "And so I've heard of a thousand other such treasures. I give 'em as little thought as flies on a boar's ears. They be nothin' but old fool's tales and myths."

"Then take a spy in me wagon and see a myth come to life," the Boozer countered. "There be nothing but truth in this tale, and we brought it to you so's you can help us make a disposition of the spoils."

"Spoils!" McKinnon scoffed. He poked his head in the wagon and shook it mockingly. "Nothin' here but that bloody headstone."

"But grandfather," Daynin pleaded, "the Boozer says it's a treasure, and I believe him."

The elder McKinnon pushed the boy aside and stormed toward his front door, saying, "Then take it to the Duke and collect your reee-ward. That is, if ya live long enough. Be gone with you, now, ya scaggy nightmare. I'll hear nothing more o' this tripe." With that, he stormed inside and slammed the door.

The Boozer remounted his wagon. "Come on, lad," he said. "There's some spice in what your grandpere says. We'll take it to a man I know what can say for sure if it is the Stone, and the worth thereof."

"But I can't leave the village," Daynin protested. "I have to help with the planting tomorrow. You don't understand . . ."

"I understand aplenty, boy. I understand that with the spoils you can get from this here Stone, you can take your grandpere and go back to Scotia in the style of a real genteel highland clansman. 'Course that probably ain't much to be considered, you bein' the great landlords here in Hafdeway and all. I mean, you'd have to be leavin' this here great and mighty estate behind and such."

Daynin's ears burned at the very thoughts the Boozer was implanting. "Go back to Scotia?" the boy questioned aloud. "Back to McKinnon land?" Daynin practically flew into the wagon. "I'll go, but I have to be back by first light."

"First light it is, boy," the magician agreed. The cackling inside his ugly, hair covered head seemed so loud, the Boozer feared the boy might actually hear him celebrating. It's working, he thought. Better than e'er I thought it would. Now, on to Tendalfief!!!

After a long, jolting silence on the road to Tendalfief, Daynin finally summoned enough courage to ask the Boozer the question he'd held onto all afternoon. "What happened to uhh, to your uhh . . ."

"Me kisser? Burned in a cauldron, boy. Seethin' with all manner of slime and black bile. Warn't a pretty sight, you can pledge on that one."

"But what happened? Did you fall into the cauldron?"

"Manner o' speakin', t'was so," the magician replied. "Only I had a little help from a man I trusted. Seed was 'is name. Seed of Cerberus. Vilest of the vile, he turned out to be. He was an apprentice to Merlin himself, just like me, afore Merlin found out the boy was a demon seed, that is. By then it was too late. The Seed stole all of Merlin's charms of 'making' and then his 'chants' to boot. I tried to stop him when I found out what he planned to do. This here mess was my reward. The Seed pushed my head into a vat of boiling goo, then cursed me with an evil spell. Lucky for me he hadn't yet learned any powerful spells. I might've ended up a cockroach for life. But my hair's been dirty ever since, for if I wash it, spiders and roaches come a crawlin' out. And if I cut it or shave it, great oozing scabs appear."

Daynin's heart leapt into his throat listening to this horrendous tale. He cringed at the thought of spiders, and felt a great pity for the Boozer, cursed as he was. "Is there no way to lift this curse?" he asked.

"Sure there is. They's always a way to reverse a curse, boy. But ye got to get right in the face of the one what put the curse on ye, and make him take it back. That's the only way, short of killin' the curse maker."

"Have you ever tried to go back to, uhh, wherever this Seed is? To get the curse lifted I mean?"

"Can't do that. The Seed never leaves Blackgloom. He'd likely lose his powers if he did. There's no way in or out of there, save by the use of sorcery."

"What is Blackgloom?" the boy asked.

"Bloody great fortress north of Insurlak. Surrounded by trees so tall ye cannot see the tops. Trees of a girth so great that three men can't link arms around one. And guarded inside, it's said, by demons and beasts of which nightmares are made. No place for the faint hearted, wager that."

Daynin's curiosity grew with each new facet of the old magician's story. He asked, "Then no one's ever been there?"

"None what's lived to tell of it, boy," the Boozer snapped.

"Lights ahead!" Daynin cried out after another long stretch of silence.

"Aye, that'll be The Never Inn. We're just ten leagues from Tendalfief and the Al Cazar. Then we'll know if we be fools or finders."

"What's the Al Cazar, Boozer?"

"He ain't a what, master McKinnon, but a who. He's the biggest cheese in the north of Britain. His mage'll know if the Stone's real, and may even make us an offer for it. We'll have to be keepin' a sharp eye after that. Once the word gets out, every blaggard for a hundred leagues'll be after the booty we've got. Have ye knowledge of weapons, boy?"

The question came as a mild shock. The idea that they might have to fight for the Stone had never entered Daynin's mind. "I'm good with stones, and a fair to midlin' archer," he said. "I can bring down a squirrel at a hundred paces."

The Boozer pulled the wagon to a stop near the barn of the inn. He held out his hand to the boy and said, "Take this silver and get us some cheese. Bread and a tankard of ale, too, if you've enough. It's a long ride to Tendalfief, and I don't want to be stoppin' on this here thieves' road tonight."

 

Chapter 3: The Meeting

Daynin opened the huge doors of the inn very cautiously and peeked inside. A roaring, poorly vented fire filled the top third of the room with light smoke. Blackened lanterns cast eerily dancing shadows from the dozen or so figures moving about within. In one corner stood a large harp, seemingly out of place in the hazy den of iniquity.

"Close the gate, you weedy little dolt!" the barkeeper growled from across the room. "Leave the cold outside where it'll do the most good."

Sheepishly Daynin entered the room, quickly shutting the great doors behind him. He felt a flush of embarrassment coming over him as he made his way to the bar. Off to his left, he caught just the swirl of a long skirt moving across the darkened side of the room.

"Some cheese, and, and bread, and a tankard of ale," he stuttered, holding out the coins in his hand.

"A tankard says he!" one of the bar's scruffy patrons scoffed. "And would ye be needin' a room for the night, Sir Puke?" he added, bringing a round of heavy, raucous laughter from the small crowd.

"Leave him alone, you crowbeat blaggards!" came a resounding rebuke from the shadowy corner.

Daynin turned to see from whence his honor had been defended. "Who are you?" he asked of the mysterious figure.

"Never mind, boy," the shadow answered. "You just get your goods and be off. The Never Inn's no place for the likes of you. Especially at this time of night."

Daynin realized the voice, though deep and somewhat hardened, was that of a young woman. He stepped toward the corner and was stopped in his tracks by another strong rebuke. "Get thee hence, swineboy, before I lose my patience and let these blaggards have their turn with you."

"I just wanted to thank you for--for, uhh, helping me. I'm Daynin McKinnon of Hafdeway. My friend and I are on the way to . . ."

"To hell, sooner or later, as are most of us! That is, if you're lucky and don't get that scrawny little throat slit right here, tonight. Now be off with you!" the woman warned. "You've no business in a place like this."

Daynin backed up to the bar, still facing his mysterious benefactor. He tried desperately to see some semblance of a face, but the smoke and darkness made that impossible. He did make out some detail, along with one shapely ankle that protruded into the light, and he liked what he saw. He was at a loss as to what course to take then, as his curiosity had completely overcome his fear of the situation.

The tavern's doors swung open just then, and in marched the Boozer, looking for all the world like a deranged demon in the hunt for its prey. The room fell coldly silent for several seconds while the magician sized up the situation. "What's keepin' ya boy?" he roared. "Time's a wastin'. We got no time for the dillydally. Did you get my ale?"

"Uhh, not yet, m'lord," Daynin responded, attempting to cast the manly image of himself as servant rather than plowboy for the benefit of the shadowy female enchantress. "Ale, innkeeper!" he ordered loudly.

The heavy clump of metal on the spiral wood stairs above the room announced the arrival of a new player to the scene. "Play, woman!" a harsh, gruff voice demanded from the stairs. "I didn't bring that harp here for an ornament, you know. Get over there and earn yer keep."

Daynin swirled about to catch a glimpse of the woman, but was attracted instead to the thump of riding boots on the floor of the inn. He saw the long black hauberk first, its tiny, intricate rings of iron a flowing masterpiece of smithwork. Then his eyes met the heavily gold inlaid belt with a magnificent silver dirk protruding angrily at the man's waist. He had not yet gotten to the stranger's face when his inspection got interrupted.

"What're you lookin' at, pup?" the black hauberk growled. He pushed a chair out of his way and strode rapidly toward the corner where the woman had yet to move.

Before Daynin could answer, the magician intervened. "He looks at nothing, my lord," he said apologetically. "He is but a foolish boy. May I buy you a tankard of ale for your trouble?"

The hauberk roared, "Woman! I told you to play! Now make that harp sing, or there'll be the devil to pay for you this night." With that, he stormed into the darkened corner and shoved the woman out into the light. "Do what I tell ye, now, or the lash'll be your reward."

Young McKinnon was instantly struck through by the woman's beauty. The bodice front of her dress fell away from her as she attempted to get up from the floor. Even in the poor light of the inn, he could see the round fullness of her breasts heaving with each breath. Her long black hair glistened from the sparkle of firelight, her skin reflecting the yellow glow of the room's lanterns. She was a dream come true for Daynin. He had never before seen such a beautiful woman.

"Let's go, boy," the Boozer urged, so as not to intervene further.

"No!" Daynin replied. "He can't treat her that way! It's not . . ."

"It's none of your business, lad. We've a trek to make, remember?" the old magician urged again, this time jerking on Daynin's leather frock sleeve.

Daynin jerked his arm free and took two steps to where the woman had just come to her knees. He held out his hand and asked, "Are you all right? I mean, are you hurt? Can I help you?"

"Help her at your peril, boy," the innkeeper snapped. "She belongs to the Marquis, there, and he's as apt to break your head as look at you."

The woman pushed herself to her feet, her eyes meeting briefly with Daynin's. He realized she was no woman, at least not in years. The marks on her face and hands belied her true age, but he knew her eyes were those of a very frightened young girl, not much older than was he. He smiled, and received the barest hint of a smile in return.

The Marquis' great shadow descended upon them like a demon's breath. Daynin's eyes flashed from the woman's face to the black hauberk just as the blow fell upon her. The Marquis struck her in the back of her head with his heavy studded gauntlet, stunning the woman and splattering blood on Daynin's face and arms.

In a heartbeat the boy reacted in anger for the first time in his life. Perhaps the memory of his family's fate at the hands of black-armored slayers had done it. Or perhaps the passion of a young man long held in abeyance to the harsh injustices of the Duke's realm came to the fore.

Regardless the cause, the result was the same. He grabbed blindly at the Marquis to stop the assault. His hands found the hilt of the man's dirk. With the precision of a trained assassin, he pulled the blade free and jammed it to its limit into the seam of the hauberk. Instantly, blood gushed from the deep wound, the Marquis toppling forward onto the boy like a great oak felled by lightning.

Pandemonium reigned in the room. The innkeeper climbed over the bar with a short, studded board in his hands. Several of the patrons drew their dirks in anticipation of more bloodletting. Everywhere there was confusion. The woman screamed, then swooned as a scarlet river of blood she must have thought as her own, spread rapidly on the barroom floor.

Boozer jumped between the innkeeper and the boy's unprotected back. He, too, drew a large dirk from under his cloak, and that, combined with his naturally fearsome features, served to stem the tide of the others. They stopped in their spots or backed away quickly, preferring not to be added to the casualty lists for the inn that night.

"You best be takin' your leave, afore the Duke's men hear of this," the innkeeper warned. "The Marquis was the Duke's cousin, you know, and he'll not take lightly to his kinsman's murder, bastard that the Marquis was. And take that wench with ye as well. She's been nothin' but trouble since she's been here. Good riddance to ye all!"

"Help the woman to the wagon, Daynin," the magician ordered. "We'll be headin' back to Hafdeway now. Be quick with ye, boy!"

The magician's wagon was thundering down the track toward Tendalfief before Daynin came to fully realize what had happened. The woman lay stunned in the bottom of the wagon next to the Scythian Stone, still bleeding from the gash in the back of her head. All Daynin could hear was the Boozer lashing out at Abaddon, urging the old horse onward through the gloomy darkness.

The heavy jostling of the wagon finally broke through the stupor where Daynin's senses had gone. He reached over to touch the girl's fine black hair, now lightly matted with blood at the base of her skull. She moaned slightly as she tried to turn her head.

"Best be still," Daynin cautioned. "You've a bad knot on your head."

"Owhhhh," she said, after running her fingers across the bump. "That bastard! I'll strangle him with his own lash the next chance I get."

"Then you'll need a spade to do it. He'll be feedin' the worms 'ere you see him again," Daynin said, somewhat boastfully.

She sat up, holding her head as if it were a melon balanced on a fence post. "Owwww! Charon's Cross! I'll make that felon pay," she swore.

"I'm trying to tell you," Daynin insisted, "the Marquis crossed over to the other side this night. He'll not be bothering you nor you, him, ever again. At least not as a mortal man."

"The Marquis is dead?" she begged. "By whose hand, and for what price was this deed of heaven's justice done?"

"Is that important?" Daynin evaded. "Isn't it enough that the man is dead? He paid the ultimate price for his misdeeds, that's for sure."

"You killed him!" she said with a finality of recognition. "You've condemned yourself to the gallows and me in the bargain. Damn you!"

"The man gave me no choice. He would have killed you if I hadn't . . ."

She pulled up her sleeve and snapped, "Do you not see these bruises and scratches? He's beaten me before, but I've lived to tell of it. Besides, he owns me. It's his right. I'm indentured to him for life."

"Not any more," Daynin scoffed with a large sigh. "Might I at least know the name of the person I've chosen to share the gallows with?"

"Sabritha, if it matters. And after this night, I doubt it will. We'll all be hanging from an oak tree before the cock crows twice. And who might you be, anyway, sir knight of the barroom?"

Daynin could feel the flush of embarrassment flooding his face again. "I already told you. I'm Daynin McKinnon of Hafdeway. And that is the Boozer, a traveling magician. We're on our way to . . ."

"I don't give a render's puke where you're going!" she growled. "If we don't head for the border of Scotia, right now, we're going to be crow's food when the Duke's men catch us. The Marquis was Duke Harold's cousin, you know. Not a liked man, to be sure, but a Marquis . . ."

Daynin interrupted. "Are those lights in Hafdeway, Boozer?"

"Tendalfief," he replied. "We can't go back to Hafdeway just yet."

"Tendalfief!" Sabritha cried out, then shuddered with the pain echoing in her head. "The Al Cazar is the sheriff of Anglia. You've saved 'em the trouble of looking for us, you old fool! Turn around now, before it's too late!"

Daynin pointed toward the back of the wagon. "It's already too late," he whispered. "There are soldiers behind us!"

 

Chapter 4: The Entangling

"Quiet! Both of you," the Boozer demanded. "No one here knows of the Marquis' death, yet. We'll do our business and be gone by daylight."

Hardly had old Abaddon pulled to a stop before three heavily armored gatemen surrounded the magician's wagon. "What's yer business here at this hour of the night, hawker?" the sergeant of the gatewatch demanded.

"I must see the Al Cazar," the Boozer answered, very solemnly. "I have something of great value he will wish to see."

One of the gatewatch held his torch higher to get a better look at the visitor, then jerked it back down, wishing he'd not seen the horrible apparition the torch presented. "That's what you hawkers all say," the sergeant mocked. "You be gettin' down from there and we'll see what this here 'something' is."

The Boozer was not about to play his only card on a lowly gate guard. "I am sent here as a personal emissary of Duke Harold's," he boasted. "If you value your commission, sergeant, I suggest you go and wake the Al Cazar."

The Duke's name had the desired effect, as the heavy gates of Tendalfief swung open slowly, allowing the magician's wagon to enter. The fort stood as silent as a graveyard, its magnificent stone edifices rising at a steep angle to the level of the rocky hill upon which the great keep had been built. Tendalfief had long been the only stone fortress in the whole of northeastern Anglia and was frequently the sight of bloody engagements between the Duke's men and the wild highland clans of Scotia.

The hollow "rrhuuump" of the gates closing behind him caused the Boozer to wish he'd never made the vow to Merlin's ghost. That was especially true now that he had the blood of an innocent man staining his sacred vow. He mused to himself, once the Al Cazar knows of the Stone, it won't take long for word of it to reach Blackgloom and the Seed. Then will I know if my plan has succeeded.

* * *

Daynin had listened curiously to the conversation between the gatewatch and the Boozer. Something about it bothered him, but he couldn't quite decide what. Then it struck him. "Boozer," he whispered, as the magician wheeled the wagon into the stables area of the keep, "you talked differently with the gatewatch than you have before."

The Boozer laughed and then said, "Aye, you got the grip, that's for sure. Don't much fly between them ears, says I. Solid as a rock you are, boy. Sure, I talks different with them what's got the authority, boy, because they make the rules. The rules say that if ye be smarter or better educated than the next man, he's got to bow down to you. That blaggard of a gatewatch would've kept us waiting all night, if I'd let him. But you see how fast he moved when I talked down to him. That's the lay of things, boy, and you best be learnin' that rule right now."

"What happens if the Duke's men come looking for us?" the boy asked.

"They'll be lookin' toward Hafdeway, I expect, since that's the clue I gave 'em in the tavern. But it won't matter, 'cause nobody could've got here faster than we did, and we'll be out of here by first light with any luck at all. You just tend to the wench and keep her quiet. Let me do the talkin' and there'll be no trouble."

* * *

Climbing down from the wagon, the Boozer thought to himself, this boy was a wise choice, after all. It's obvious he has the grit for the task ahead of us. I don't know what will become of him after that, but I'll do the best I can by him. I swear that to you, Merlin, and to the magician's guild. That is, if I'm still alive on the morrow to make good on any of my pledges.

* * *

A light, cold rain had begun to fall outside, pattering quietly on the wagon's oilskin cover. Daynin wetted a cloth in the rain, and placed it gently on Sabritha's neck. Her skin felt warm to his touch. He began to worry that she was seriously hurt or that she might not recover from her wound.

"You've the manner of a blind ox when it comes to healing," Sabritha blurted out, rather unexpectedly.

Daynin recoiled from the surprise onslaught. "I-I'm sorry," he stuttered. "I didn't know you--I thought you felt hot. I just wanted to . . ."

"To what? Touch my skin? You're not the first to want that, plowboy. But most are willing to pay, and pay handsomely. What are you willing to pay, huh?" she jabbed.

"Nothing!" he shouted, involuntarily pulling his hands away to prove his innocence. "I was just trying to help. I would never--I mean, I wouldn't do that to you--I wouldn't, I couldn't . . ."

"You never have! That's what you really mean, isn't it?" she parried.

Daynin seemed confused. He replied, "Never have what?"

"Been the Duke's minstrel, of course," she laughed, then continued, "been with a woman, you rock-headed son of a bean planter."

Daynin feigned confusion. He shuffled his position in the wagon, making a pretense of looking out for the Boozer, and allowing himself an escape from the conversation. "Boozer's been gone a long time. I hope this Al Cazar can tell us what we need to know, so we can get out of here."

Sabritha sat upright, leaning her back against the Stone. "What is it that's so full of importance the old man had to bring us here anyway?"

"That," Daynin said, flatly, pointing at the Stone.

"A headstone? He's risking our necks for a headstone?"

"No. It's--it's something special. We've come here to find out how special. Boozer thinks the Al Cazar may even want to buy it."

Sabritha ran her hand along the edge of the Stone, feeling the runes around the rim. "Never seen a headstone with runes like these. Is it magic?"

"We'll soon find out," Daynin answered. "The Boozer's coming with some men. Now keep quiet, and say nothing about last night."

"Whatever you say, your worship," she said mockingly.

"Open the wagon!" the order came.

Two men-at-arms threw open the back of the wagon, and stopped, as if frozen in time. Sabritha's presence surprised and instantly delighted them both. "Hold!" one of them bellowed. "We've got a wench bestored here, and a sightly one at that!"

"Step aside!" the Al Cazar ordered. He leaned into the back of the wagon, apparently more curious to see the woman than the Stone. "You failed to tell me you brought us a treat, old man. We may indeed have some bargaining to do, after all."

"Good morn, your lordship," Sabritha purred.

Daynin's anger flared once again. This time his tongue did the work, rather than a dirk. "Quiet, wench!" he snapped. "The Al Cazar is an important man. He has no need of your diseased services. Now move aside, so the Stone can be got."

"Diseased is it?" the Al Cazar repeated, stepping back quickly.

"Aye, m'lord," the Boozer joined in. "Something she picked up in the north, I'm afraid. You know how nasty those highlanders are."

The Al Cazar stepped back further, his interest in the woman obviously diluted with a twinge of fear. "Get the Stone," he ordered.

"Get back, wench!" the man-at-arms ordered, fear evident in his tone as well.

An elderly mage stepped forward with a large leather-bound manuscript while others unwrapped the Stone. He waved for a torch to be brought closer, and opened the book to a pre-marked spot. He studied the writing in the book for several seconds, then compared it to what the Stone contained. He ran his hands across the face of the Stone, carefully tracing the etched runes with his fingernails. He stopped, turned the page in his book and repeated the process twice more.

"M'lord," he whispered, "I believe it to be genuine. It appears to be the Scythian Stone." The mage turned to the Boozer and asked, "Where did you find this?"

"In a highlander's field, just as the legend says," he replied.

"Bring the Stone inside," the Al Cazar ordered. "We'll examine it further in good light."

The Boozer stepped between the mage and the Stone. "A moment, if you will, m'lord," he said firmly. "We've a bit of hagglin' to do afore the Stone leaves the wagon."

"Haggling!" the Al Cazar exclaimed. "Name your price, old man, and be quick about it. Throw the woman in the deal and it's a Duke's ransom you'll be getting."

"It's not just silver I be needing, your lordship. 'Tis a pardon by your hand for any and all crimes committed here in Anglia that I would wish for me and my mates. We've, uhh, had a minor scrape or two with the Duke on occasion, and you bein' the high sheriff, why, I figure you could grant us your pardon. 'Course, I realize your word don't carry the weight of the Duke, but, 'tis better'n a sharp stick in the eye, as you might say."

The Al Cazar thumped his mailed hand into the Boozer's chest, boasting, "The law's the law, merchant. And I make the laws in Anglia, not the Duke. But your pardon'll only be good for past crimes, understood?"

"Clear as a fall day, m'lord. Now, as to the price. Five thousand talens should about cover it, I expect. And the woman's no part of this deal."

"Five thousand talens!" the Al Cazar roared. "Why not five times five thousand, you witch-faced trammel? There's not that much silver in the whole of Anglia. Maybe a year or two in the dungeon will lower your demands, eh? Or a week on the rack, perhaps?"

"Your lordship knows the power of this Stone," the Boozer said, quietly. "You said yourself it's worth a Duke's ransom . . ."

"Duke's be hanged if there's one I'd give more'n a thousand for, and that's if he be blood kin, old man. You'll take seven hundred and be on your way, or you'll be my guest till the rats feed off ya."

The Boozer turned to flip the cloth covering back over the Stone and said, "A bargain made fair by the details, your lordship," his voice flat and unemotional. "When can your mage draw up the pardons?"

"By first light, and we'll need the names," the mage replied.

"Done!" the Boozer agreed.

Daynin couldn't believe his ears. Seven hundred silver pieces split three ways, as the Boozer had agreed to include a share for his grandfather, was more than the boy had ever hoped to earn in his life. And now he would have it all in one lump sum. A vivid image of the highlands lit in the back of his mind. A brief image of something much closer that he could now afford, also made his head swim.

"If you don't mind, your lordship, I'll be keepin' the Stone in the wagon until morning," the Boozer said. "Not that I don't trust you, you see, it's just that the Stone is quite heavy, and I wouldn't want any risk to come to it."

"First light, old man," the Al Cazar warned. "I'll have an extra guard posted at the front gate, just in case."

The Boozer climbed into the wagon and waited until all the men of Tendalfief had departed. He pulled Daynin very close and whispered, "We got to beat it out of here, boy. We got to make a break, or we're goners for sure. This Al Cazar's no man of his word, and besides, I think he's hot for the woman. I want you to open this keg and grease up the wheels on the wagon, so's we can make a run for it. I'm gonna spy us a way out."

"But--I don't understand!" Daynin protested. "I thought the deal was made. Why do we have to run for it?"

"Gut feelin', lad. He means to slit our throats for that Stone."

Sabritha agreed, though her council seemed unheeded. "The old man's right, Daynin. The Al Cazar would sooner part with his mother than seven hundred talens."

"What do you know about that kind of plum?" Daynin scoffed.

"Never mind that, now," the Boozer interrupted. "Get out there and grease those wheels, so's we can make a run for it. I'll be back in a while."

The magician removed a small bag from under the wagon seat and disappeared into the gloomy darkness. His black cloak and diminutive size made him all but invisible in the light rain and haze of the fortress.

Daynin finished greasing the wheels and took a large handful of grain to feed Abaddon. Having accomplished all he could to ready the wagon, he climbed back in and settled down to wait. In minutes, he was fast asleep.

* * *

In the wee hours of morning a heavy rain beat down hard on the wagon's cover, drowning out the sound of a dark shadow as it crept closer and closer. The shadow reached its long bony fingers through the open canvas front, feeling for the soft human flesh it knew to be inside. Slowly, the tip of its fingers crawled unseen onto the boy's neck. Another instant, and the shadow's prey would be struggling for its last breath.

"Ahhhhrghh!" Daynin screamed. "No!" he gurgled, desperately trying to gain some air through his throat.

"Shut up and go back to sleep!" Sabritha scolded.

Daynin sat up and felt for his neck. His eyes were so wide that Sabritha could see them in the dark. "The Marquis! He was here!" Daynin moaned. "He--he was--he had no skin. He tried to kill me."

"Bad dream, that's all. Now go back to sleep."

"I may never sleep again," Daynin whispered, his throat still aching from the phantom's attack.

Outside, he could hear a loud commotion stirring toward the main gate. The clatter of horse hooves on stone mixed with garbled voices, though not loud, seemed definitely out of the ordinary for that time of the morning. Daynin peered out from under the canvas, instantly recognizing the distinctive yellow and red standard of the Duke fluttering across the courtyard. "Sabritha! The Duke's men--they've found us!" he whispered, almost choking on the words.

 

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Author Bio

Jon F. Baxley is an award winning freelance writer, novelist, historian, editor, author and Internet entrepreneur from Hondo, Texas. His latest major work is a serialized fantasy epic that began with an eBook entitled The Scythian Stone and continues with the April 2006 hard cover release of The Blackgloom Bounty under Hollywood Media's Tekno Books Speculative Fiction label.

Prior to Baxley's writing career, he served with the U.S. Army and the United States Information Agency in the former Soviet Union. Having been a full time editor, ghost writer and author for many years, Baxley turned his attention to fiction writing and has never looked back. Some of his military and cold war experiences are captured in his newest contemporary romance/spy novel, Red Flags, currently under development.

TTB title: The Blackgloom Bounty [ebook version]

Author web site

 

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The Blackgloom Bounty Copyright © 2006. Jon F. Baxley. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

  Author News

Here's a link to Jon's brand new Amazon.com Blog.

Check out a recent press release:
Harry Potter, Move Over!
http://www.prweb.com/releases/2006/1/prweb338829.htm

 

  Reviews

In 988 Britain, Merlin visits his former apprentice Kruzurk “Boozer” Makshare for the first time in seven decades with a boon to stop another former student the powerful Seed of Cerberus. Kruzurk thinks back to when he and the Seed were pupils of the great mage and he caught his peer stealing Merlin’s tools. For his efforts Boozer was cursed and Merlin was gone.

Kruzurk knows the quest begins at the demon-guarded Blackgloom Keep. On the journey he meets Daynin McKinnon, who shows him a rune-covered headstone, which is probably the legendary Blackgloom Bounty that will gain him entrance into the keep though the lad wants to sell it to replenish his family’s dwindling fortune. While Daynin meets clever Sabritha Kilcullen, Kruzurk uses the young man to further his efforts to destroy the Seed. Others join his adventure not realizing how Kruzurk manipulates them as pawns in his efforts to overcome the insurmountable odds and achieve his boon.

This terrific medieval fantasy with its Camelot connection will elate readers for its fast-paced, action-thrilled story line starring a strong cast. From the opening dream visit of Merlin to the final confrontation and more, the tale never takes a breath yet the motives of the key players are fully developed especially Kruzurk’s desire and Daynin’s struggle between fortune, love and good deeds. Jon F. Baxley adds to the legend of Arthur with this strong medieval Britain fantasy.

Reviewed by Harriet Klausner.
 



 

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