The four of them huddled just inside the edge of the woods, watching the castle. There was Berket, master of the sword. He was tall, brawny, and had dark weathered skin, with a square jaw and cold eyes in a head with very little hair. There was Meera, the thief. She could open any lock and steal any thing. She was slim with dark, short hair, and very limber, an ability that helped her get into the tiniest crack. There was Faulk, the noble. He was of average height and average weight, and he used this to his advantage. No one ever suspects that he had a first class education at the finest schools in the land. He was very good at strategies and tactics, which made him an exceptional gambler, not only at cards but also at business. And there was Sorel, the monk. He thought of himself as a minor magician, but his jittery nature kept him from mastering the greater spells. He was a thin man, with reddish hair and weathered hands, which he got from working tirelessly in a small church and the small town the church was in. And across from them, almost half a mile away, over a wide field and a few small hillocks, was the castle. Inside the castle was the Wizard, and their salvation.
Berket grumbled, “It must be tonight. Everything must be perfect.”
“Don’t worry”, said Faulk. “We’ll get in there, no problem. The sun is almost down, and we’ve got everything we need, right Sorel?”
Sorel only nodded. His hand wringing gave away his nervous disposition. He would never have thought of doing this, as he was quite content to live out his life as quietly and meekly as he could. After the job was done he might be considered a hero to some, but being a hero was a bit much for him to look forward to right now.
“See?”, said Faulk. “Nothing to worry about. We’ll be in there and done before he even knows what hit him.”
Berket only stared at the castle. He was tired of running from the Wizard, and wanted this night’s business to be done.
Days earlier Berket, Meera and Faulk rode into the small town Sorel was working in. It was very near dusk when they found the tavern, one of the few that were allowed to operate. It was a simple, large wooden building with a thatch roof and big wooden doors. It was situated at the edge of town, the better to service newcomers. The three were dressed simply, the better to seem like the thousands of others who found themselves displaced by the wizard’s rule. They were there for a reason, a good one, for them at least.
It was there that they met Sorel. He had come running out from behind the tavern to tend to the horses, hoping to make a few coins for his trouble. The three dismounted, handing over the reins to their horses, and prepared to enter the tavern. Meera stopped and looked at the dirty friar’s frock he was wearing. Her talents as a quick eye made her more than useful to the group.
“Pardon me, good sir,” she said to the monk. “Shouldn’t you be in a monastery?”
“Huh, who me?” Sorel was taken back by the question. Most people barely noticed him, and were content to let him take their horses and be about their business.
“Yes, you”, she replied. “You don’t look the sort to be tending to horses.”
“Why, yes, right you are ma’am.” Sorel bowed his head, and then looked at her, and was instantly drawn to her eyes. “B…But seeing as the church I was working in was burned down, there isn’t much else for me to do.” He couldn’t tear his gaze from Meera’s dark eyes. They entranced him like no other thing has.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Concern showed on Meera’s face. It practically broke Sorel’s heart just to see it.
He quickly tried to console her. “No, no, don’t be alarmed. It was old, and due to come down. Besides, as long as God is in your heart, there is no tragedy that can break one’s spirit.”
At this she gave a small smile. Berket and Faulk had moved to the door of the tavern and let her do her work. This was just one of her many talents, part of what makes her an exceptional thief. Being able to charm men, guards in particular, has gotten her more information and got her in more places than anyone should be allowed.
“Well, Friar, I was wondering if you had a moment to talk to me and my friends”.
“Well, my dear,” replied Sorel, “is this a religious matter?”
“Sort of. It does involve our eternal souls.”
This made Sorel pause again, but only for a second. He looked to her friends, but they had already entered the tavern. He looked back at Meera, and then back at the door, which remained open for her. He was quite hesitant about giving her a reply, partly because he was a junior monk, partly because the townsfolk frowned on him dispensing his faith, but mostly because of her eyes. They touched something deep inside him, something she shouldn’t be touching, considering his vow of chastity.
Just then she reached out and touched his arm. “Please,” she said, “it will only take a minute of your time.”
He felt her touch and her warmth, and almost shuddered. How could he say no?
He drew back from her and stammered. “Just, just give me a moment to tend to the…the…the …” he forgot what he was tending to.
“The horses?” she offered.
“Right, right, the horses. I’ll just, I’ll just be a moment.”
“Good” she replied, “We’ll be in here, waiting for you.” She turned, and a few steps later she entered the tavern, closing the door behind her.
Sorel stared after her, and then half ran, half stumbled on his way back to the stable with the horses. He was excited about her, but wasn’t sure about her intentions. Add her friends and the horses and something didn’t seem quite right. They were dressed as if they lost as much as everyone else in these parts, yet they possessed horses. If anyone had a horse it was to pull a cart containing everything they had left, which usually wasn’t much. Feelings of unease, as well as curiosity rose in him.
Sorel stabled the horses, gave them food and water, and secured the barn door. She made him want to take the extra care. A bad thing for him to be thinking, being a monk and all. But with the demise of the monastery he wasn’t too sure it mattered anymore. The only thing that he took with him after it was destroyed was the frock he was wearing and the cross hanging from his neck. He took his faith with him, but she makes him question it. He headed back to the tavern and to the rear door which led into the kitchen. He didn’t normally enter the main room, preferring to remain in the back with the staff. This time, he made his way to the front, to peer into the room. Sitting at a table away from the lantern light and against the wall sat the three of them. Sorel screwed up his courage and made his way to the table to introduce himself.
“Good evening folks. I am Sorel. How…how may I be of service?”
Faulk rose to his feet. “Sit, sit, good friar.” Faulk offered him a seat and motioned to the barmaid. “Can I treat you to a drink?”
“Please, just a small one, I am a man of the cloth” said Sorel.
“Of course, of course,” said Faulk. “I won’t be the one accused of corrupting the clergy. Barmaid, another mead, please.”
Faulk continued. “Let me introduce ourselves. I am Faulk. The man on my right is Berket.” Berket nodded, sitting with his back to the wall. “And you’ve already met Meera.”
Sorel turned to her. She nodded. That was all. He was hoping for more, but he wasn’t sure exactly what. He began to feel awkward, like maybe he should say something. That’s when Faulk unwittingly saved him from embarrassment.
“Have a seat, my good man”, said Faulk, “we have much to talk about. Sorel sat facing Berket, with Meera on his left and Faulk on his right. Between Berket’s stony face, Meera’s silence and Faulks jauntiness he wasn’t sure what to expect. Faulk continued. “Wow, look at you. Who would have thought there would be a monk this far out. Not me, I can tell ya’.
Sorel gave a small and tentative smile. “I go where the Lord needs me.” It was a rote reply. He almost grimaced after he said it.
Before he could say more, Faulk began talking again.
“I’m sure He does. I guess He leads all of us to our fates. Like when He brought the three of us together. Then He allowed us to meet you. This must be God’s work.”
“Are, are you mocking me ,sir?” Sorel had to ask, he wanted to know where this was going. He was already feeling fidgety and a little nervous, and there was something about this man he couldn’t trust. Not anything specific, after all he just met him. Something he couldn’t put his finger on.
“Why no sir, not at all. We respect your calling, to the highest degree. I assure you, I meant no insult. Please, humor me while we tell you our stories.” He had a way of talking that made you suspicious and curious at the same time.
“Well, certainly, um, yeah, yes, tell me your story. And if I can be of some help then I will. Help, I mean.”
“Of course, of course” By this time the barmaid had arrived with their drinks. She saw it was Sorel and addressed him. “Hey, are you harassing our guests? You know Jacob doesn’t like that.”
“No, no, I…I was just…”
Before he could finish Faulk spoke up. “He is a guest of ours. We seek his consul, if that’s ok?”
She looked at Faulk, then at Sorel. “Well, as long as he didn’t come to you. We keep telling him not to spread his religion around here. I don’t even know why he still wears that frock,” she said as she set down our drinks. “His monastery is gone, his God is gone, there’s nothing left for him to worship, and there are no more followers, that’s why he works in the stables. I swear, if it wasn’t for that he probably would…”
“Yes, yes, thank you dear for our drinks. Now please excuse us, we have much to talk about.” Faulk felt compelled to interrupt her. She seemed to want to go on a very long monolog.
“My apologies, enjoy your stay.” And she left, a little miffed about being interrupted.
“It’s true, you know”, said Sorel, hunched down in his chair. “I…I’m no good for you, whatever you have in mind. The monastery, the brethren, the church, all gone, save for me. And I’m no…not allowed to wor…worship as it’s become illegal.”
“Yes it is, dear sir” replied Faulk. “This is precisely why we wanted to speak to you”. This made Sorel look up, into his eyes. He had to know if he was serious. He looked at Berket, who was looking away. And then at Meera, who had her head down, it seemed in sadness.
“Ok,” said Sorel, I…I don’t know what you’re up to, but I…I think I should go. Th…thanks for the drinks, and when you’re ready I’ll have your horses ready for you.” He made to get up and was stopped by two hands on his shoulders, Meera and Faulk, and a glare from stone-faced Berket.
“Wait, please”, Meera spoke first. “Don’t leave us now”, said Faulk. “We have a proposition for you, one I hope you will like. Just hear us out, and if you think it’s not for you, just walk away.”
Sorel settled back into his seat and gave them all a studied look. Berket was looking away again. Meera had a combination of looks on her face, hope and sadness and anger. Faulk looked like he does very well playing poker: his look was one of “trust me”, but with an edge. Sorel wasn’t sure this meeting would turn out good for him.
Meera spoke up. “Perhaps you should hear our stories, then you can see what we’re like.” Couldn’t hurt to hear them out. Sorel said “O…Ok, I’ll listen.”
Meera continued. “You look at me, but what do you see. A pretty lady, an eager and innocent maiden? Actually, I’m a thief. I can steal anything from anywhere. There is no lock that can keep me out. Maybe it’s not the honorable profession you would have me do, but it’s mine, and I’m very good at it.”
Sorel gulped at this, took a drink from his mug. “Anyway”, continued Meera, “I had a partner, her name is, was, Wendy. We did many jobs together. We had amassed a small fortune in a span of three years. Wendy had the idea of settling down with it, get our own house, live out our days quietly. I was the more adventurous one. I didn’t want to stop. I was having fun.” Her tone was getting more somber. Sorel felt it more than he heard it.
“We had a good enough haul from a job we pulled, so we decide to go to market and see what we could get. I walked ahead of her, she got held up looking at some bauble. I turned to show her what I found, and that’s when I saw the Wizard’s soldiers”, she continued. “Wendy didn’t. I pulled my hood over my head and hid behind a shop keeper. Wendy was down a few stalls so I couldn’t warn her. They walked right up to her, like they knew she was there, grabbed her, threw her down. She cried out, and they beat her right there, stomping on her and hitting her with clubs. Then they ripped at her clothes and didn’t stop until they found the gold we had stolen. She was half naked and bleeding when they put her in chains and dragged her away. Dragged, through the middle of the market, no dignity, no chance to defend or cover herself. I tried to go to her, but the shop keeper stopped me, telling me there’s nothing I could do but get myself killed. All I could do was watch. We were outnumbered and my only weapon at the time was a knife.” A tear found it’s way out, she didn’t notice. Then she looked right at Sorel. “I know what we do is dishonest. But no one deserves that kind of treatment! And she wanted to stop, to quit.”
Meera sat back, as if to let the silence that followed simmer. Sorel felt for her, and not the mixed feelings he had for her earlier. Yes, she was a thief, but all of God’s children deserve to be treated with respect. That these soldiers treated her friend like she was nothing, it was too much to bear.
Faulk cleared his throat. He had heard the story before, but it still choked him up. “Berket”, he said. “Care to tell yours?”
Berket’s eyes turned to the table, then he leaned over it and began his story.
“I was a mercenary, a sword for hire. Made a good living at it too. It’s all I know. Then the Wizard came and began to take over the land. I was hired by a local lord as a body guard, so I didn’t see any fighting. But by the time it was done, all swords were made illegal. The soldiers marched up to the lord’s house and demanded all swords to be turned over. I had to drop my sword on the ground and watch them gather it up. When they had gone the lord looked at me and said ‘what good is a body guard without a sword? You’re dismissed’. So I was out of a job and out of a sword. The Wizard wasn’t hiring, which is strange. He has a formidable army, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use more experienced troops. I think he gets them young and trains them himself. Which puts me at too late, at my age. It’s like all of my experience counted for nothing.”
“The worse is that I lost my sword. It’s like losing an arm. Good thing I was able to find this one.” And he pulled back his cloak to reveal it.
“Put that away!” exclaimed Faulk. “You don’t know who’s watching!” Faulk had reached over Berket to pull his cloak back. Berket covered it, but slowly. He then leaned back, and resumed looking away.
Sorel was taken aback. Here was a man carrying an illegal weapon, and if caught he would be guilty of consorting with him.
“Um, I, uh, shouldn’t be sitting here so long, I should be getting back to, uh, work.” Sorel was about to get up again but the look coming from Berket stopped him, a cold, unflinching stare. He didn’t even turn his head, just his eyes.
“Do you know what it’s like, to have the one thing that means the most to you, removed, made illegal?” Berket’s words were like fire. “I’ve fought many battles with my sword and always came out on top. I’m one of the top swordsmen around. It’s not just a sword, it’s a part of me, the part that makes me one of the best. You’ve never heard music as sweet as my sword makes slicing through the air. Then the solid hit that means I’ve hit my target perfectly. The clashing of sword against sword, the crunching of bone against metal, blood flying everywhere.”
Berket looked away again. “Then all of a sudden I’m nothing. What’s a swordsmen without a sword?”
Sorel was surprised and appalled at this. He wasn’t sure how to feel. At once here was a man who was a killer, and a proud one too, and now sat a man who was missing his calling. It made it difficult to judge him.
Faulk tried to break the tension. “No worries my good man. You have to excuse my friend here, he is a passionate one.” Sorel looked at him like his life was on the line. He had the idea that if he tried to leave Berket would cleave him in two before he made two steps. Meera reached out and place her hand on his arm, then said “Don’t worry Sorel, I’ll defend you.” And she looked at him with those eyes, eyes that said “trust me”. But she was a thief. How well could he trust her?
“Look”, said Faulk, “ there’s one more tale to be told. If You don’t like it after that you’re free to leave, I give you my word. Ok?” He had his hand on Sorel’s arm again, willing him to stay.
With much hesitation, Sorel stayed. “But I’m going to need another drink.” And with that he downed the rest of his mead.
“Of course” replied Meera, who beckoned to the bar maid. After it was set on the table Sorel took another big gulp as Faulk told his story.
“I am a business man. I buy and sell goods all over, well, I used to. My main business was futures.” “Futures?” asked Sorel. “Yes” replied Faulk, “and it’s a tricky one. To know if the value of wool blankets is going up, or if the price of bacon was going down. A lot of it has to do with the seasons, the harvest, trends in different villages. I have to take this info, figure out what was going to happen, then either buy large quantities of leather or sell huge quantities of iron ore. All in the hope of staying ahead of the market. Do you understand?”
Sorel had no idea what he was talking about, but nodded anyway, sipping at his mead.
“Anyway, business was good. I was trading everywhere, making a very good living. I traded goods with as many people as I could find, and made plenty of connections to keep me ahead of the market. You know what’s really profitable?” Sorel shook his head. “War. Every army needs supplies, weapons, clothing, food, horses, carts. And people, not just soldiers, but doctors, cart drivers, messengers, blacksmiths, healers, women, the list goes on. I traded in all of this, so if there was a war going on I was there making money, and who cares who’s side you’re on. If they have the cash and the need then we can make a deal.”
Berket cleared his throat, letting Faulk know he was rambling, again. “Right, so anyway, I was about to leave the nearest town to a battle that had just ended. I was sitting in a tavern having a drink when the Wizard walked in. Imagine that, a lowly tavern and the Wizard walks in like he owns the place. I think everyone in there just froze, wondering as I was what was about to happen. He looked around and saw me. Now, I’m thinking I’m about to make some real cash. He walks up to me, and says I have to stop my business. Just like that. I asked him why and he said something about stability in his new nation. I was completely dumbfounded, he actually told me to stop working! Then, if that wasn’t enough, he steps back and points a finger at me, says something or other, and poof, I’m cursed. I tried to talk to my old connections but they don’t trust me anymore. Me! I lost all of my connections, I’ve had all kinds of business dealings fall through, and over night my business died. Now I can’t even trade a horse to save my life.”
Sorel took this in, still indecisive about whether to stay or not. “Ok, he said, “I’ve heard your stories, so if I’m done here…”
“Wait,” said Faulk. “Now it’s your turn.’
“Now we get to hear your story” replied Faulk.
“I don’t, don’t have…have a story.”
“You don’t?” Faulk now faced Sorel with prying eyes that made him feel self-conscious.
“No, I don’t.”
“So you’re happy with your lot in life.”
“I, uh, don’t know, what…”
“You’re a monk, right?”
Faulk’s prying was really making Sorel want to run away, not because of what he was asking, but because he began to see where this was going. “That was a long time ago, and I’ll thank you not…”
“But you can’t be happy about it” pushed Faulk. “Please, we shared our stories. I’m seeing now that there’s pain in yours too. Please, we’d like to hear it, to share in your pain…”
“BUT I DON’T WANT TO SHARE!!!” exclaimed Sorel. Not a shout, but still enough to draw the attention of people nearby.
“Whoa, whoa, I’m sorry” said Faulk. Meera again put her hand on Sorel’s arm. Her hand was comforting to Sorel, allowing him a moment to collect himself. He put his hand on top of hers, feeling closer to her, although he knew he shouldn’t.
“Look”, said Meera, “I understand if you don’t wish to speak. We know what the Wizard is capable of, personally. And we know that your faith has been banned. Please forgive Faulk for his bumbling. He didn’t mean anything by it.” She gave Faulk a glare. Berket continued to look away.
Faulk tried to apologize. “Really, I didn’t mean to upset you…” Meera cut him off. “That’s enough from you.” She turned back to Sorel. “If you don’t want to talk about it, it’s ok.” Sorel looked at her, the way the lamp light reflected off of her short black hair and shimmered in her eyes. He was at ease with her, despite her profession. He took a few breaths, said “I’m sorry for my outburst. It’s not easy, remembering, it’s, well, not easy…”
“That’s ok.” Meera’s calming tone helped Sorel regain his composure. He decided to tell them. Why not, it might be good to get it out.
“Ok fine, this is what happened.” Sorel took another swig of mead and continued. “So, we were minding our own business, me and the other, uh, brothers.” He whispered that last word, never know who’s listening. “We had just finished breakfast and were about to do our chores when the Wizard’s soldiers barged through the door. They read a decree denouncing all religions and that we were to stop or face arrest. They, uh, brought a lot of kerosene with them.” Sorel paused, took another swig of mead. “The uh, the Abbot, a fearless man, walked up to them, and ordered them to…to leave. They laughed at him and told him to get out or be burned along with the monastery. That’s when they began spreading the kerosene everywhere. We tried to grab the Abbot, tried to get him to leave with us. He shook us off and went after…well, he, uh, grabbed, a soldier. The, the…” He had to clear his throat, took another swig, realized his mug was empty.
“So the soldier turned around and punched him. The Abbot went down, didn’t get back up. The, the other, ahem, the other soldiers looked at hi…him, shrugged, and began pouring kerosene on him too. We, we tried to stop them but were forced away and outside by more soldiers. We were crying for our Abbot as the flames rose. After the soldiers had left, one of the brothers tried to run back in to get him, never made it out. What could we do, we fled from the fire. We had no where to go. Some of us went west, hiding mostly. I went with others, we went south. We wound up in this town. The towns folk didn’t care if we were there, but they didn’t help us either. Because of the new edict, feelings were strained. As time went on, some of the brothers wandered off. I got a job at the stable, and that’s my story.” He tried to take another swig, discovered again the empty mug. Faulk ordered more.
“I’m sorry for your loss”, said Faulk. Sorel nodded. They sat quietly, drinking their mead.
“So” began Sorel, “if we’re done here…”
“Well”, said Faulk, “we have a plan to get what we lost back.” At this Sorel raised an eye brow. “And we need you.” Sorel raised the other eye brow, this time in fear.
“N..n..n…no, no, no way, no…” Again, Sorel made to leave. This time he was stopped by Meera. She had her knife placed just inside his thigh, too close to his groin for comfort. Through gritted teeth, she stared right at Sorel and said, “sit down.” Sorel slowly sat down. Now a tremble was settling into his bones. He looked around at the three of them. Meera had taken on a much more serious demeanor. And she still had that knife on his leg. Berket didn’t break character at all, continuing to look away, arms crossed. And Faulk was finishing off his mead, as calm as a morning pond.
Faulk looked at Sorel with a sad but determined look. “Regretably, we’ve already told you too much”, he said, “And we’re doing this. But we need you. And if you say no, we’ll kill you.”
Now the trembling in Sorel made it to his hands, making the mug he was holding rattle on the table. He didn’t know what to do or say. His mouth moved as to speak, but nothing came out. He felt the fear rise in his bowels, and he urgently needed to pee.
“Relax” said Meera, slowly pulling the knife away. “Faulk has a flair for the dramatic. This is the part where I take over.” Sorel slowly turned to her, not knowing what to expect. “We’re not going to kill you. We want to help you, and in helping you, you’d be helping us.”
“How…how…how…” Sorel couldn’t finish, finding it difficult just to say that much.
“Listen carefully.” Meera leaned closer to him, placing her hand back on his arm to ease the trembling. “I know that you want your church back. I can see it in your eyes, as well as that monk’s frock you still wear. I also know that your church practices magic, right?”
“How… did…how…how…” Sorel thought that was a secret. No one should know that. But of course, she’s a thief who probably steals more than just things.
“I know because my partner Wendy knew, and she knew because her brother was a monk.” Oh, well, I guess that’s another way of finding out. But seeing as he spoke about it, he must not have been a good monk.
“Wendy and her brother were very close. There wasn’t much they didn’t share with each other. “
“Ok now, I don’t know what’s going on here but could you please get to the point!” exclaimed Sorel. He was certainly on edge and Meera’s revelation was not helping.
“As you wish,” said Meera. “I came across a spell that can help us with our quest, but first, have you ever noticed the crystal ball the Wizard is always carrying?”
“Wha…” Sorel started, then began to think. It was true, whenever you saw the Wizard, whether in battle or in town or if he was just passing through, in his left hand was a crystal ball. It wasn’t huge, but it was there. It was such a part of him most times you didn’t notice it. “Oh yeah, he does. Wha…what about it?”
“That’s where he gets his magic. He’s never without it, especially in battle. Every time he casts a spell his hand runs over it. It’s what he used when he cursed Faulk. Every battle, every war, every piece of knowledge he gets, he uses that ball to get it. It has strong magic, the strongest we’ve ever seen. He uses it as a focal point and unleashes it at will. And it seems to be limitless. He’s taken down entire armies with it. He can destroy castle walls with just a thought, make people do and say things like they’ve become his puppets, appears and disappears like the wind, alone or with troops. If we can break it, his power will diminish, and then we can destroy him. What do you think?”
Sorel didn’t know what to think. He was still on edge from the very real threat all three represented. Even thinking of attacking the Wizard puts him in peril, a fact these three were willing to brave.
“Relax,” Meera said, trying to calm him. “It’s ok, I understand how you feel. Probably like everyone else that opposes the Wizard. But we can help. Have you figured out why I’m talking and not Faulk?”
Sorel hadn’t thought about it, but now that Meera pointed it out, it did seem odd. “Actually, if I’m being honest, well, uh, hum.” He had to stop for fear of being insulting.
“It’s ok”, Meera said. “We know you don’t trust him. It’s the spell at work.” Sorel was stunned. He looked at Faulk, who winked at him. He immediately felt a wave of distrust for him. He looked back at Meera, then back at Faulk. Sure enough, he didn’t trust him, hadn’t since he first saw him. It wasn’t because of anything he did or said, just a feeling that overcame him.
“Berket and I see it all the time” said Meera. “At first we didn’t trust him. When he talks to you in a conversational manner, the feeling is much less. Also when he makes declarations about what he’s doing. The second he tries to convince you of something, the feeling increases greatly. It took some time, but we saw it for what it was, and joined him. I believe you should too.”
“But first, another round” declared Berket. Besides his story, they were the first words he spoke without encouragement. Faulk beckoned once again, and we had four fresh mugs of mead. Sorel took a huge swig of his, wiped his mouth on his sleeve. This gave him time to take in all that was said. He took a moment to steady himself, then said “ok, why?”
Meera looked around the table, then back at Sorel. “We want to end the Wizard’s reign. He has brought misery to many people, chiefly, you. Don’t you miss your brothers, your church, your faith? Do you ever wonder what happened to them? Wouldn’t you like to see them again? And what of your Abbot? Did he deserve to die like that? We have our reasons, and you do too.
“But if that’s not enough, think about this. Every day the Wizard lives his reign and his terror goes unchecked. He can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. He can beat helpless women in the street, or give out curses or even disarm loyal, strong, and brave warriors. His control over all the land is complete, with no one to oppose him. His last battle with the last king was such a rout it was over before it started. Now he walks around like a god. And we can’t say or do anything to stop him. With this spell we have a chance to make things right. But we need a monk to speak it. Please, join us, if not for us, then for your brothers.” She reached inside her cloak and pulled out a piece of parchment. She placed it on the table and slid it towards Sorel, who looked at it like it was a damning fire.
Sorel looked deep into her eyes and saw the longing in them. He wanted to help, but was unsure. Then he thought about his brothers. He hadn’t seen them in so long. And the Abbot. He was a strong, self assured man. He was also a kind and gentle soul. He encouraged all of the brothers to do their best, and if one faltered he would be there to help, and not to admonish. He didn’t deserve his fate, and his brothers were the best friends he ever had. They were a family, helping each other out, studying together, doing mass together. He really wanted to see them again, he missed them all so much.
And he so mourned the Abbot’s death. He thought about him at least once a day, made a point of it. He lived in the barn with the horses as no one else would take him in, but he was still able to make a small shrine, nothing more than some straw tied together, a few words at night, and then sleep. Usually one of the horses ate it, which was actually a good thing, better to not let it be found by someone. So he would make another, and another. Blessings for the horses in the name of the Abbot.
Yes, there were times when he wished doom and gloom on those soldiers for killing the Abbot. But he tried not to dwell on that. It doesn’t make for a good monk. So what his order is destroyed and banned throughout the land, he can still be the best person he can be. And if that means living in poverty with horses then so be it. But every here and there those thoughts would return. To hurt them the way they hurt him, the feeling was very appealing.
Sorel looked around the table, at Meera’s sadness and anger, at Berket’s and shame, at Faulk’s futility. It was then that he realized that he didn’t care for their reason’s for doing this. All that mattered to him were his brothers and his home. He was tired of living in a barn, of living with horses. He was tired of the disdain he was afforded by the town’s folk, and even visitors. It was like his frock was a symbol of shame rather than a symbol of a once great faith. He looked down at it, at the filth and the smell. When he was a proper monk this would be clean. It was one of the many chores they had at the monastery, but now that it was gone he missed each and every chore, every missive, every rite, every casting. Even the food, simple as it was, was something he sorely missed.
And the dignity. There, he had it. He wasn’t some bumbling fool chasing after riders for a few coins to take care of their horses. He had a calling, one that was cut short by the Wizard and his soldiers. He was tired of just being an extraneous fixture of this town. Sorel wanted his life back, just like the three sitting with him. These three people managed to put his plight into perspective, and he didn’t like it. They also offered an out, a way to get back what he lost, and he’d be a fool not to take this chance.
“I’m in”, he finally said.
Meera grinned broadly. Berket nodded his approval, he even gave half a grin with the corner of his mouth. Faulk let out an audible sigh of relief. “Whew”, he said. “I was hoping for this. Great, great, I’m glad you’re aboard. Now here’s the plan….”
That was several days ago. Now here they were, hiding within a tree line, while across an open field was the Wizard’s castle. They were waiting for full night as it being a new moon there would be no light to pick them out as they crossed. They all wore black cloaks to blend in with the night. And Sorel was very afraid.
What was I thinking? he asked himself. I was just fine, living in a barn. What am I doing here? Following a pretty face, that’s why you’re here. He looked at Meera, and tried to feel resentful. But he couldn’t, and it wasn’t because of her. He knew why he was here, why they were here. However knowing why one should be here and actually being here are two different things. He tried to get a grip on his fear, breathing deeply, slowly. It will all be over soon, he kept telling himself. One way or another. No, don’t think like that, it will be over in one way only: their way!
Faulk looked over at him. “Remember the spell?” he asked. Sorel nodded, but felt compelled to recite it again in his head. It was a simple enough spell, a dissipation spell. The plan was simple too: Meera would get us in, Faulk would lead the way to the throne room where the ball was kept, Berket would take out any guards, he would recite the spell, and then they would smash it. Just another hour before we could move. It seemed like forever, but everyone else was taking it in stride. Meera was leaning against a tree taking a nap. Faulk couldn’t stop talking, and Berket just sat on a tree root, sharpening his sword and watching the castle. Sorel sat against another tree, trying not to shake too bad, and reciting the spell over and over. He just wanted this to be over.
Time passed slowly, the sun was down for a few hours, night looked absolutely black. Faulk touched everyone, letting them know it was time to move. Sorel stood up, a little shaky from sitting too long, and a little shaky for the task at hand. They moved forward slowly in a line; Berket was first, then Meera and Sorel, with Faulk bringing up the rear. They kept low, gliding over the grass silently, keeping to the blind side of the castle, to the right where there was a service door. It was a small one attached to a large one that led directly into a small paddock where they took in supplies. At this time of night there should be no one there. Eventually they made it there un-observed. Now it was Meera’s turn.
She approached the lock with a small prod in her hand. Sorel couldn’t see what she was doing in the dark, but could hear the tumblers line up, and then the lock turning. She pulled slowly on the door, taking a peek inside, then motioned for everyone to follow her in. They found themselves in the paddock, where the little bit of lantern light made everything seem ominous. Or was it just Sorel’s nerves doing that.
Now it was Faulk’s turn. He was very familiar with castles, even more than Meera. He led them to the back of the room and through another door. Down one corridor, around a corner, down another corridor, up a flight of stairs, and then the throne room door, bracketed by two guards.
Meera approached them, pretending to be lost. While she had them distracted, Berket snuck up and stabbed one from behind with his sword. It was like the guard had suddenly had a long blade erupt from his chest. When the other turned Meera slid a blade into his ribcage, grabbing his mouth to stifle the scream. Faulk was excited by this, while Sorel had to turn his gaze. No one said anything about killing, but it was too late to turn back. While Berket listened to the first guard gurgling on his sword Meera looked at the door, pulled out another tool and unlocked it. Once open, they dragged the bodies inside so as not to be discovered. It seemed to Sorel that Berket was enjoying his part too much. He kicked the body a few times and then wiped the blood on his sword on it. Sorel could see the look on Berket’s face, the snarl he was making, the gleam in his eye.
“There it is” said Faulk. Sorel turned his gaze from Berket and looked down the length of the throne room to see, sitting on a narrow, spindle-like pedestal, the crystal ball. It glimmered in the small lamp light, looking inert and quiet. In the dark that was all he could see, but it was enough. Now it was his turn. He had to put what he saw out of his head and focus. He walked towards the ball, reciting the spell agin in his head. Faulk, Meera and Berket followed him, ready for anything.
Up two steps, two steps forward and he was standing before it. Behind it was the throne, a high backed oak chair with arms and purple velvet padding. The Wizard was a lot of things but ostentatious he wasn’t. Sorel took a deep breath, prepared himself, put his hands together, placed his left hand on his chest, placed his right hand palm forward to ward the ball, and began the chant. His entire focus was on the ball, nothing else registered, not his cohorts circling the ball, not the hour or the darkness, not even the door to the throne room opening. The others noticed it and became instantly alert. Sorel took no notice of any of this.
The Wizard stepped in to the room, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. He was a tall man with a thin bearded face and a gaunt expression, dressed in a long night shirt. The first thing he noticed were the bodies of the guards. Then he looked up and saw the group surrounding the ball. In a gravely voice he said “What are you doing? Wait, did you do this?” He motioned towards the two dead guards. “Get away from there!” he yelled.
“Looks like time’s up” said Berket, drawing his sword. Sorel was still focused and chanting as Berket raised his sword, preparing to smash the ball.
“Stop” yelled the Wizard. “If you do that….”
Berket’s sword came down hard and fast, breaking the ball into three pieces, surprising Sorel out of his trance. The pieces fell to the floor, breaking into more pieces. Surprised, Sorel looked around, looking for an explanation. Then he too saw the Wizard, and he gasped loudly. Meera and Faulk had readied themselves for a fight, drawing their blades.
“Oh great”, said the Wizard, “now I have to get another one out of the closet”.
The four of them blinked, not really sure of what he was saying.
“What, you thought my magic was contained in that ball?” said the Wizard, motioning to the glass shards now littering the floor. “Don’t be silly. I use that as a prop. You see, when people see that they’re immediately thinking ‘well, that guys a wizard’. It saves me a lot of time in telling folks who and what I am. I’ve got so many of them in a closet upstairs, and I have more made all the time. I’ve got a group of glaziers that do it, in fact they do all kinds of things. Some of the work they put out is simply marvelous, and not just drinking glasses and bowls, they make animals and people and sculptures. In fact, one of them just made a sculpture of…”
As the Wizard rambled Berket saw an opportunity and made for him. For a large man, Sorel was surprised at his speed. In a split second he was on top of the Wizard, his sword about to cleave him in two. The Wizard raised a finger, and Berket was sent flying, straight up, until he crashed into the ceiling, twenty feet up. He then fell to the floor with a sickening crunch. He lay there, writhing in pain, moaning, his sword once again falling from his hands and clattering on the stone floor. As they watched, the room suddenly filled with soldiers. They came from everywhere and surrounded them quickly, knocking them to the floor, pinning them with the butts of their spears. It was over, quickly and efficiently, leaving them speechless and defeated.
Sorel looked at Meera who let out a shriek. From his position on the floor he couldn’t see Faulk, but he could hear him grunting from the pain of being pinned. Sorel himself was in a great deal of agony. All this time of eating as a monk left him with a frail body that the spear butts took full advantage of. He couldn’t move anything, not his arms, legs, back, or shoulders, for all of these parts were pinned. He was able to look up to where the Wizard was standing over Berket, who despite his injuries was also pinned.
“Well,” started the Wizard, “what do we have here. Let’s see…” He leaned over Berket’s prone body, taking him in with a penetrating gaze. “You’re a mercenary, right? Still walking around with a sword, like it’s not illegal?”
Berket managed to look back at the Wizard, in profile at least. He yelled, “You took my job from me, my life! I want it back!”
“Tut, tut, poor man. You don’t need that profession any more. If what you wanted was to continue to kill and maim people, you did that when you killed my guards.” The Wizard motioned to the two bodies laying inside the doors. “This is what I didn’t want, a bunch of people running around killing at will, harming anyone that came their way. I’ve seen the villages that were razed because of you mercenaries, the orphans, the violated women, the dead and dismembered men, good men. And for what, a few pieces of gold? Some laughs? The people who’s lives you destroyed didn’t think it was funny.
“So you had a choice, to find another vocation. A man of your strength would make a fine blacksmith. Or you could have found work loading wagons or something, something positive. But no, you want to hurt people. Well those days are over.”
The Wizard straightened up, still looking at Berket. “Seeing as you can’t seem to find another way to earn a living, or rather no desire to do so, I will choose a job for you.” the Wizard crossed his arms, tapping his chin with one finger. “I know” he said. “I will have you castrated, that should quell the fire in you. And then you can work as a eunuch for my new harem. Now how does that sound?”
Berket looked at him, then let out a primal scream that came from deep within him. It was cut short by his injuries, but he continued glaring at the Wizard with eyes full of hate.
“I see that you’re looking forward to it”, said the Wizard. “Whether it’s having your balls cut off or being around all those women I don’t know. And I don’t care. At last you’ll be a productive member of society. Moving on…” The Wizard stepped past Berket and approached Meera, Faulk, and Sorel.
Sorel began to tremble as the Wizard approached Meera. “I know you” he said. “ I would have thought you learned your lesson after I had my men beat your partner. And I know you were watching. You were supposed to. You were supposed to have stopped your thieving ways. What happened?”
Meera screamed. The Wizard waited patiently while she let it out. She screamed again, then took a few breaths. “You hurt her, beat her, dragged her away like a dog. You Bastard!” Meera was incensed to be reduced to being pinned to the floor, not being able to reach out and take her vengeance.
“Ah, I see”, said the Wizard. “You’re here for vengeance. I should have seen that. But when I saw you and your partner, what was her name, Wendy? When I saw you and Wendy robbing that noble I had to act. Rather than take you both in, I chose to make an example of her. And it was a good one. Theft dramatically dropped after that beating. On top of that, people are actually living better lives because of it. They actually trust each other. Whether it’s because they’ve made me a common enemy or maybe they’ve learned to trust each other I don’t know. The thing is, they’ve become better people, not just because of me, but they feel secure. This is what I have done.
“But your eyes see only vengeance. Too bad. We’ll have to change that look.” Again, the Wizard crossed his arms, tapping his chin with a finger. “I know! I will make you a consort, one of my harem. With a little mental manipulation your eyes will turn from hate to love. Now how does that sound? In fact, you will have a friend to keep you company, the mercenary over there who will be your eunuch. Fun!” And with that the Wizard turned from her, leaving her to scream in frustration.
It was Faulk’s turn. “Faulk, Faulk, Faulk, I’m truly curious as to how you pulled this off. That curse I left with you should have prevented this.” Faulk was silent. Sorel couldn’t see his face, so he could only guess his reaction. “Yes, I know this was your doing. Not a one of these people” he waved his hand around the room, “could have come up with this. Your only mistake was thinking that my magic was contained in a ball. So you thought you could remove it and then destroy me?”
“What I thought was I could get back to running my business” seethed Faulk.
“And what was your business?” raged the Wizard. This was the first time he actually lost his temper. “You were buying goods at a low price and then reselling them at a higher one! You were devaluing the hard work of good people who were trying to make a living! You cost so many people so much, all to make yourself rich! You are the worst person here, thinking only of yourself. While I was trying to stabilize the region you were ruining it. So you want your business back?! If your work was more noble I would let you, but you have no conscience as to what you were doing. Every other noble has gotten rich by working hard. You were taking short cuts! And you want me to respect that?! Ruining everything I was trying to do, while I was building up you were tearing it down, while I was making the economy stronger you were making it weaker! You, YOU!…” The Wizard’s temper had reached it’s peak. He stopped, closed his eyes, took a few breaths, relaxed a little.
After regaining his composure he looked at Faulk. “I’ve got something special in mind for you. You made a foolish mistake coming here, so you will be my new Fool. You too will undergo some mental manipulation, and by that I mean a hook will be driven past your eye and into your brain. Then a piece of brain material will be pulled out, leaving you to be a complacent, non-thinking, member of my court. You will dance and sing and generally be a much happier person. You’ll even have a colorful outfit to dance around in. How does that sound?”
Faulk unleashed a series of swear words that would make most people blush. The Wizard just stood there, taking it all in. When Faulk was finished the Wizard just turned from him, no longer interested in his presence.
“And now we come to the weakest among you.” The Wizard had turned his attention to Sorel, who was visibly trembling, even through the pinning. “Did you come here to try to save your church?”
Sorel didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. “P…p…please, sir, ha…ha…ha…have…have…mer…mer…mercy…”
“Shhh, little monk” said the Wizard. “I get it, you were convinced into taking on this little venture. I’m not sure how, as Faulk is cursed. It must have been the woman who convinced you. Well, as long as you’re here, I’ll tell you a story.” The Wizard sat down next to Sorel, on the steps leading to the throne. “This is a good one, so pay attention.”
“There once was a religion that was scaring the people. It did this by assuring them that if they didn’t believe like they did they were doomed to a life, and mostly death, full of misery. This made the people sad and angry and depressed. ‘What do we do, I don’t want to end up in misery’ they said to each other. So some of them joined the church. But this still led to misery, because not all of them joined the church, so those that did would hold it against those that didn’t. And those that didn’t held it against those that did. This led to fights breaking out all over the place.
“So one day a kindly wizard came along. And he saw what was happening and saw that it wasn’t good, especially because the religion was making enemies among the people, brother against brother, sister against sister, parents against children.” While the Wizard told this story Sorel could still hear the others moaning, or crying, or swearing. It made for an uneasy backdrop to the story the Wizard was telling.
“So”, continued the Wizard, “ the kindly wizard decided he wanted his neighbors to get along, but the religion was making that difficult. To get everyone to get along, he decided to ban the religion. At first there was a lot of outcry about that decision. But gradually, everyone calmed down. Brothers started talking to each other again. As did sisters, parents, children, friends and neighbors. So you see, what the kindly wizard had done was for the best for everyone. And no one questioned his wisdom again. Do you se where I’m going with this?”
Sorel, racked in pain and nerves, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Th…th…that’s not tr…true, it can’t b…b…b…”
“Be true?” finished the Wizard. “Well it is. Do you know what’s been going on outside of your monastery? Probably not, you monks spent all of your time inside the walls. You, yourself, were probably taken in at a young age, right? Never knowing your church had dispensed missionaries across the land to convert the people. This of course led to fights breaking out everywhere. It’s when they began publicly shouting out their values that things really got heated. Standing on their boxes like self-proclaimed angels. I was sending out troops all over the place to stop one quarrel or another, until it just got to be too much. I had to stop them completely, which is why your order is disbanded.
“But what would you know about that? Inside your monastery all safe and sound, not knowing what’s going on in the world. I’ll bet it was nice and safe in there, in your ignorance. Probably learned a few spells, just enough to keep you happy. Not knowing that your fate was sealed a long time ago, when your abbots would have you out there, yelling at the world, shouting out how great your order is. And even then not knowing you were doing more harm than good.
“Now perhaps you were convinced that this was the way to bring it back. I feel for you. These folks have led you astray on an impossible task, just like your order. And you seem harmless enough, probably living out your days doing some menial task for a few coins. I’m tempted to let you go. But I can’t. Even though this was not your idea, you still committed it. So you will live out your days in the dungeon, never to see the sun again, in a cell, alone, to one day die in obscurity. Sorry, but this is what these people have led you to.”
And with that, the Wizard stood up, dusted himself off, and said to the soldiers, “Take them away”. Sorel, more dismayed and depressed than he’s ever been, moaned when the spears were taken from him. He moaned again when the soldiers grabbed him and began dragging him out of the room, as well as the others. Faulk complained the loudest for his treatment, followed by Meera, who cried and screamed curses at the Wizard. Berket tried to fight back, with no success and a spear butt to the head to show for his efforts. The soldiers dragged them away, each going to different locations. Sorel moaned for the last time when he was delivered to his new home, a cold dark cell deep within the castle. He was thrust inside, left to fall on the hard stone floor. He laid there, hearing the door clank shut behind him for all eternity, alone, dismayed, and sobbing, curled into a fetal position, for this was the end for him.