The Rockwizard and the Wheatrider
By Noah Youngs
It stretched a scarred claw towards the glimmer of moonlight above, inching forward slowly. A thousand times it had tested its invisible prison, felt the sting of fire and lighting as it was forced back into the depths. But no fire burned… no acrid bolt singed its mark. The claw crept forward again, touching at last a tendril of the moon’s light, so long yearned for. It let out a low hiss. From the chasms below, a chorus of multitudes answered back.
When the first summons from the Mage Guild arrived, warning that the Seal of Myth had been broken and the greater and lesser fiends let loose upon the world once more, Ulliem threw it out. It was the Guild’s own fault for meddling with things, and he wasn’t about to pack up and leave for some backwater just because they needed him to make a few superstitious peasants feel safer.
Certainly the danger was greater in the frontiers than it was here in the city of Lastrania, where professional soldiers and warwizards manned stout walls, but Ulliem wasn’t afraid. He was too old to bother with fear anymore.
“It’s all just so confoundedly vague,” he complained to the statues and ornately adorned bits of masonry that littered his shop. Really he wasn’t too surprised, since the guildmasters themselves probably had little idea as to the extent of the peril. The Seal of Myth was one of the most unorthodox pieces of magic ever conjured, rumored to be equal parts genius, madness and accident. For nearly a thousand years, generations of guildmasters had poked and prodded at it, trying to comprehend its success. “And now they’ve gone and broken it,” Ulliem snorted.
The next day another summons arrived, this one scribed on parchment the color of rusted manacles, and icy to the touch. In no uncertain terms, it threatened Ulliem with forced labor under the cruel whips of warlock jailors unless he obeyed his charge. With a plethora of long-suffering sighs, the rockwizard packed his bags for Dern.
Perched half-heartedly on the shoulder of a ragged hill, Dern was a meager collection of thatched houses and gapped-wood barns meant for surpluses that seldom came. Above the town a stumpy keep attempted vigilant guard, anchoring a road that wandered down past Dern, splitting wheat fields and bending to accommodate the curves of a small orchard. Before the road disappeared back the way Ulliem had come, a small track branched off northward, mostly reclaimed by tough dusty-green grass, marching towards a narrow canyon that sliced into the hills.
Missing a turn in the path, the rockwizard wandered though the orchard, forlornly prodding at the hard, unripe fruits. He found the road again, unaware that he’d ever lost it, all the while cursing the carriage driver who had taken his money but dropped him off leagues down the road. Making his way slowly up the hill, past the wheat fields, Ulliem finally reached what a generous man might call ‘the center of town’. The rockwizard fell into a bony heap near the well, ignoring the stares of the dozen or so Dernians who had gathered after spotting his protracted approach.
Many folk accustomed to city and culture would have been dismayed by the dull prospect of Dern, but Ulliem, despite having lived in the midst of both, was neither. Stone was the only thing of permanence in his life– people just wandered in and out of it without leaving much behind.
What did dismay him was the question of what exactly he was supposed to do now that he was here. More sculptor than sorcerer, the rockwizard’s grip on the arcane had never been more than tenuous at the height of his study, many years ago, and his mildly prosperous career had been based largely on the skill of his hands rather than the strength of his incantations.
Not that it looked as if the village felt much need for a powerful wizard. Everyone seemed so calm. He’d expected a grateful parade, or at least a tearful speech or two, thanking him for abandoning the safety of Lastrania to save them from nightmarish danger. But even though he knew riders had warned every town after the Seal had shattered, he caught not even a whiff of dread.
“Where’s the governor of these parts? Where’s the engineer of fortifications, and the colonel of the militia?” he snapped at no one in particular, ignoring timid greetings and proffered hands.
Ulliem felt resentment swelling inside him, fueled by hunger and the fatigue of his weeklong journey. He’d managed to save up some money before the summons had come, perhaps enough to retire. But it was all gone now, spent on wearying travel. Picking a stalk of wheat from where it had hitched a ride in his robe, he began to chew on it angrily.
Finally a blacksmith pushed his way through the crowd, introducing himself and motioning to the rockwizard to follow him up the hill. Peering irritably up at the large man in his leather apron, Ulliem made out a broad, unsympathetic face, ruddy with forge-heat. Ulliem spat the stalk into the dirt and rose to his feet, mumbling obscenities under his breath as he trailed in the smith’s wake.
As they approached the squat keep, the rockwizard pursed his lips in disappointment. It was a sham-castle, built with barely enough strength to keep out fear. The four walls seemed to lean on each other for support, rife with holds for many-armed demons, and its warding runes looked to have been cast by false-bearded charlatans hoping to turn village superstition into coin. Worst was the stone, aching with strain and compromise. It smelled of a time when fiends were already painted into story, sealed in myth. It would never stand against their manifestation.
Just outside the arched gateway to the keep, a middle-aged man awaited, standing behind a woman seated in a rolling chair of the kind found commonly in guildhalls of medicine. She was graceful, even in her old age, but her eyes wandered about absently, and with a shudder Ulliem recognized the vacant stare of the mind-lapsed. It was a fate that sometimes came to the elderly before their time was spent, and the rockwizard had often wondered of late whether it lurked for him just around the next season’s corner, bemusing arms held wide in insidious welcome.
“I, acting mayor Ralten, welcome you to the city of Dern, on behalf of our citizens and my mother, mayor Lenorra” the man intoned in a reedy voice. Clearly bought for exorbitant prices from some traveling swindler, his clothes were gaudy, full of gold thread and colored-glass jewels. The way he held the rolling chair was more reminiscent of someone clinging to a badge of office than a loved one.
Ulliem had no skill at divining, but he had read nearly all the great books of Insight in his youth. Adding to this knowledge were many years of experience carving the likenesses of Lastranian aristocracy, including more than a few pompous and spoiled noblemen’s sons. The rockwizard saw at once that while the mayor Lenorra had been erudite and wise, her son Ralten had managed to travel the road of literature without passing through the city of learning, and had stopped a few leagues short of wisdom.
“Yes, very nice town” Ulliem snapped by way of response, still in a resentful mood as he gazed about disapprovingly.
There was an awkward pause, and then a mousy-looking woman in an overlarge striped apron appeared from inside the gates, followed by a half-dozen children of varying ages, who quickly formed into a line. Ulliem caught a delicious whiff of something baked trailing behind the woman, and he craned his neck to look for the source.
“Allow me to introduce the rest of my family,” Ralten said stiffly, clearly annoyed by the rockwizard’s response. He turned, his mouth entertaining a frown that looked quite at home. “It seems we are one child short. Adopted children are often more willful than natural kin.”
“Mmmmm,” Ullien agreed sagely, moving towards the acting mayor’s wife to speed on the commencement of the meal. Shaking hands, ignoring names, and murmuring pleasant nonsense, the rockwizard moved down the line of children until he reached the blacksmith.
“We’ve met, Wizard, by the well. I told you my name was Mungar,” the blacksmith reminded him emotionlessly, but Ulliem was lost in the smells of fresh cooking.
“Good lad. Carry on,” he replied, before moving once more and offering his hand to the empty air.
Ralten cleared his throat, momentarily unsure how to treat the seemingly senile old man. “Ah, do you have any questions about our city or the environs?” the acting mayor asked finally, tugging at Ulliem’s attention.
“The canyon to the north, a quarry if I don’t mistake my guess? Do you still mine good blocks?” Ulliem inquired, momentarily diverted from gastronomical reverie.
“No quarrying in these parts. That canyon is a sacred place,” Ralten answered tersely, his face darkening, but Ulliem missed the reaction.
“Hmm, too bad. There was some sandstone lying about that was quite a luscious red… never seen its like. I might go take a peek and see if there’s anything of size,” the rockwizard mused.
Ralten looked suddenly angry, drawing himself up. “As acting mayor, you are under my direction. That canyon is a holy place, and I abjure you from setting foot in it,” he declared haughtily. “What’s more,” he continued, “I’ll thank you to keep any displays of magic or talk of fiends to yourself. We’re a simple folk here, with quite enough to keep us busy without you spreading fear with horror stories and nightmares. I don’t know what this business is the Mage Guild has gotten itself into, but I’m sure it has nothing to do with us.”
“Now, see here–” Ulliem said, offended, but Ralten interrupted, regaining his composure.
“Let us speak no more of this until we have dined, Master Wizard,” he declared, “my wife has prepared a meal in your honor.”
Ulliem grumbled, still affronted and of a mind to dispel a bit of the arrogant man’s ignorance. But his stomach was grumbling too, and in his experience ignorance was hardly ever conquered in a day.
The meal was not half-bad, and made all the better for the rockwizard by leagues of travel and cold, stale food. Ulliem found his good spirits returned, and lavished florid compliments on the acting mayor’s wife between mouthfuls.
“Lady, a more succulent roast there has never been on the highest tables of golden lords…Madame, truly what ambroisal meade you have deigned to grace us with…Oh goddess of ovencraft, thy pies drip with delectable juice!”
Ralten sat in sullen silence. After dinner, his furiously blushing wife led Ulliem to a room that smelled as if it might quite recently have been a meat-curing pantry. Exhausted and full, the rockwizard kicked off his boots, threw down his satchel, and dropped like a felled tree into the small cot, snoring loudly within minutes.
The next morning, Ulliem awoke early, sneaking out of the keep. Whistling a lively tune, he ambled down the hill, barefoot, heading for the very quarry he had been “abjured” from the day before.
Farmers were already in the fields, pausing to stare at him as he passed, but none moved to bar his way, and he made sure to wait until he had passed them all before turning northward. When at last he reached the canyon mouth, two pillars greeted him, standing sentry. They were fashioned out of the same deep red sandstone that seemed to find its origins in the canyon beyond, and Ulliem marveled at their craftsmanship.
“Now here’s some stonework,” the rockwizard murmured to himself, stepping closer to the columns. “Crafted in the Heuric style, if I don’t mistake my guess.”
A quarryman’s pickaxe was carved into the base of each pillar, chiseled skillfully to give the illusion of two entirely different stones being welded together. Above the axes, partially obscured by lichen, subtle runes wound about the pillars, calling for good fortune, safety, and strength of stone. There was something else too, hidden.
“Sir Wizard!” A cry came from behind him, breaking his focus.
Ulliem whirled to see a small girl running towards him. Her long strawberry-blond hair, uncharacteristic of the region, streamed behind her, and sunlight picked out a yellow ribbon at her waist.
“You don’t have to call a wizard sir, little girl,” he snapped, annoyed at having been caught. “That address is for trained knights and merchant’s second sons with deep enough pockets to buy the title.”
The girl nearly skidded to a halt in front of Ulliem, abashed, clasping her hands behind her back. “You don’t have to call a girl little, Sir Wizard,” she said seriously, staring at the ground. “That’s for babies and boys who pick their noses and don’t know right from left.”
Ulliem couldn’t help but laugh.
She looked up at him, smiling, before growing serious again, her miniature hand lifted towards the twin columns. “You shouldn’t go near the benee nee,” the girl warned in a solemn whisper. “It’s not a place for trampsing feet or loud breaths.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t traipse on the binny inny,” he reassured her indulgently. “I’m just going to have a looksee…” he trailed off, squinting at the girl suspiciously. “How did you come here lass? I always look behind me, and the fields were empty but a few moments ago.”
She beamed at him, shifting her weight to one leg and twisting her other toe in the grass. “I rode the wheat,” she said simply, and the rockwizard loosed a chuckle.
“Hmmm, can I ride it too?” he asked amusedly, assuming that she had simply been hiding in a field. “These old feet are tired.”
She scrunched up her lips, shaking her head after a moment’s thought. “You can’t ride the wheat. It doesn’t know your song.”
The answer might have given Ulliem pause, except that he wasn’t listening, focused on the pillars once more. They were still nagging at him, and he stepped closer, closing his eyes as he placed a hand flat against the cool stone. There it was, just under the surface. More runes overlapped each other as if the column had been carved from the inside out, a higher magic than the rockwizard had ever even dreamed of achieving. Trying to recollect long-ago studies, Ulliem recognized a few of the sigils. A soul-binding spell? Ulliem frowned. That didn’t make sense at all.
A sudden jolt traveled up the rockwizard’s other arm, as if he’d touched a bell being struck. Ulliem looked down to see the girl firmly gripping his hand, her leaf-green eyes holding his.
“No,” she intoned firmly, and Ulliem found himself unable to move for a moment. Then the girl smiled, and the spell was broken as warmth flooded over the old rockwizard. In amazement, he allowed her lead him back down the grassy track and towards the main road.
“What’s your name, lass?” Ulliem asked as they approached the town.
“Thealenne“ she replied, and then began to sing a wordless melody.
“That’s a nice tune, Thealenne. Did you make it up?” he asked her.
She shook her head, sending strawberry-blonde hair flying in every direction like a started flock of birds. “Granma Norra, used to sing it before her songs got trapped inside. I don’t ‘member the words though, unless she sings it with me.”
“Granma Norra? Norra, Lenorra. That would make you Ralten’s missing adopted child…oh, er, hmmm.” Ulliem trailed off in consternation, not knowing if he had unwittingly revealed the girl’s false parentage, but Thealenne’s nose had wrinkled at the mention of the acting mayor.
“Uncle Ralten used to say he was my daddy, but I knew right away he wasn’t.” She declared firmly, and Ullien laughed aloud at her fervent tone.
“Aye, Thea Wheatrider, I wouldn’t have thought that he was.”
Thea clapped her hands and laughed happily at the title he had given her. She rose up on her toes, and then back down again, squinting at Ulliem with pursed lips. “Sir Ully!” she exclaimed, giving him a nickname in return, and the two were fast friends.
The following weeks quickly settled into a routine for Ulliem, who spent his mornings stomping around the town and surrounding hills. There were no signs of danger, and the rockwizard began to treat his post as something of a retirement after all. Dragging a chair into the shade just outside the keep walls, he passed long afternoons napping, an unlit pipe drooping from the corner of his mouth as he snored.
Sometimes in the evening Thea would find him and they would put on a show for Ralten’s other children. Ulliem played a cracked lute passed on by Lenorra’s late husband, and Thea would sing in a beautiful soprano that was amazingly complex. But for the most part the girl seemed to prefer her own company, and so he frequently passed the evenings alone, chiseling away at some small piece of the red sandstone. The rockwizard didn’t mind her absences, fully understanding the need for solitude.
It took the villagers of Dern less than a fortnight to get over their amazement at having a resident wizard, especially since he refused to perform any magic for them. Ulliem told any who asked that he was following Ralten’s orders, but secretly he was afraid that if the town discovered how meager his abilities were, they’d never trust him as their protector. Thus the rockwizard was largely treated as an irrelevant oddity, and those that did not ignore him quickly learned to do so after he began asking them about the history of the quarry.
The other resident of the keep, master farmer Kaid, was an overworked boulder of a man who was perpetually sweating, and turned to excessive drink as soon as his duties were done (or sometimes before). The man dabbled in some sleight-of-hand, and was forever trying to accost Ulliem so that they could swap “secrets of the trade”. Between avoiding Kaid and avoiding Ralten, who managed to irritate him more with every affectation, the rockwizard spent much of time in the forge.
The blacksmith gave no signs of annoyance at Ulliem’s presence, even though the quarters were close and hot; but then again, Mungar never gave many signs about anything. Ulliem had heard somewhere that the smith had been pressed into service for the War of Two-Dozen Dowries, and didn’t return quite the same as he had left. Still, Mungar was the closest thing to another craftsman in the town, and so Ulliem did much of his carving in the forge, to the ringing of hammer blows and the roaring of bellows.
It was during one such night, just shy of two months after the rockwizard’s arrival, that Mungar finally acknowledged his presence. Taking a break from the anvil, the smith deftly sliced an apple in two with a knife at his belt, and proffered one half to Ulliem, who took the gesture as an opening.
“I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but do you know anything of the circumstances of Thealenne’s adoption?” Ulliem asked innocently as he took the fruit.
The blacksmith blanketed him with a probing stare before answering.
“One of the copse-kin came through seven or eight years ago,” Mungar said, ”offering barkcloths and grow-all tinctures of the kind folk don’t trust much around here. Come morning the peddler was gone, leaving a cold firepit and a quiet baby in a willow-bough basket.”
Ulleim nodded to himself, as if confirming a prior suspicion. “And the quarry,” he went on, taking advantage of the smith’s unusual openness, “Binnyei Inyei? Benee Nee? When did the mining stop?”
There was an almost imperceptible tightening around Mungar’s eyes…the rockwizard might have imagined it… and then the smith answered slowly. “Long time ago, centuries maybe, this was a quarry town. Baine Enielle they say folk round here once called it…Lenorra used the name from time to time, though I don’t know the origin.” Pulling a broken plough-blade from the fire, Mungar stared at the glowing iron, as if planning his attack with the heavy hammer gripped by one large hand. “Folks don’t use any name for it much these days. All mining stopped after the slide, and it’s been nought but a grim reminder in the scores of years since.”
“The slide?” Ulliem asked, but apparently the smith had decided the conversation was done, for the hammer rose and fell, spraying fountains of sparks into the air, and Mungar was silent.
The rockwizard wandered slowly back to his room, mulling his thoughts with care. He had a hard time reading Mungar, and tried to wrack his memory for details about the War of Two-Dozen Dowries, a whimsical name for a brutally short, vicious affair. There had been rumors of atrocities committed for the sake of greed, he recalled, and blood that continued to drip long after the combatants had supposedly sheathed their swords.
Reaching deep into a pocket, Ulliem fingered a small piece of the rare sandstone absently. It was surprisingly warm, and for a odd moment Ulliem thought he could hear muffled singing, until he realized he was by the cupboard under the stairs where Ralten’s children hid when they were in trouble with their father, which was often. Recognizing the melody, the old rockwizard pressed his ear to the rough wood.
“Rise Up Quarrymen! Quarrymen Arise!
Fetch pickaxe and lampoil. To Work! To Toil!
‘neath heavy stone embrace, we mine.”
Ulliem found himself humming along to the tune, realizing that it was the same song that Thea often sang without the words. His accompaniment gave him away, however, and there was a startled silence inside the cupboard, before the door creaked open and a timid pair of brown eyes peeked out.
“Whaddaya doin’?” the eyes asked, narrowing suspiciously.
“Why, I was just try to catch a listen of that fine song there, sung so well,” Ulliem answered warmly, trying to coax Ralten’s youngest boy out into the open. “Where did you learn the tune?”
The eyes widened a bit at the praise, and a freckled nose emerged as well. “I heard Tob and Gindel singin’ it,” the boy answered, naming two of Ralten’s older children. “They say you only learn it when you turn from a boy to a man like they have, so I’m practicin’.” There was a pause, and the nose withdrew. “We’re not s’ppose to let grownups hear it.”
Ulliem smiled at the contradiction. “Well I’m a wizard, not a grown-up, so you can sing it for me,” he reassured the eyes, but they disappeared as well, closing the cupboard door after them. The rockwizard waited for a moment, but his only companion was silence.
When Ulliem returned to his room, he reached under the bed and pulled out his satchel, probing around inside it until he found the querybook. Magically linked to the massive Guild library, the querybook was an invaluable source of information. The trouble was, you had to wait for a scribe to processes your inquiry, and the rockwizard had been waiting nearly three weeks.
Opening the querybook hopefully, Ulliem saw the sketched outline of a golden quill in the upper left corner of the first blank page, and smiled in excitement. Grabbing his own quill, he hastily scrawled “Baine Enielle – or – Quarry of Dern”. He sat back on his bed waiting for the far-away scribe to notice. After a few minutes, neatly penned letters appeared on the page, listing a half-dozen books. He circled one, and there was a pause as the scribe cast whatever spell was necessary to summon the volume from the quite extensive shelves of the library. Then the querrybook fluttered slightly, ink draining from its pages, only to be refilled as if another book had been cast as a die and stamped onto the paper.
The rockwizard perused various texts until the candles burned low, and the golden quill started to fade, indicating that his time was up. Unfortunately, many of the accounts made only brief references to the quarry, but Ulliem managed to piece together that Dern had once been fairly prosperous on its account. The Sultans of Heur had bought the unique stone for their most ornate monuments and palaces, up until some sort of accident almost two centuries ago.
Ulliem let the candle exhaust itself with a wisp of smoke, lying back on his cot in the ensuing darkness.
“Why would they close such a lucrative quarry?” He mused aloud. There was always demand for colored stone among masons and sculptors, and men risked their lives daily to excavate far less vibrant hues. “It’s a dangerous business, quarrying. Accidents happen,” Ulliem muttered softly, his breathing becoming regular, tired old limbs leaden. “Regrettable of course, but no reason to deny the world such luscious stone. And those pillars! Strange spells, and secretive villagers…” His last thought before falling into a deep sleep was that many accounts had mentioned a memorial on top of Dern hill.
The next morning Ulliem headed east, up the slope of the hill behind the keep. Quickly steepening, the path struggled to pick its way through outcrops that became more frequent, and the rockwizard skinned both knees and an elbow scrambling over boulders. When the path faded away Ulliem halted, dabbing at the bleeding elbow, his breathing labored. He had climbed perhaps a thousand feet in elevation, but now a nearly-sheer cliff face presented itself to him, mocking his final attempt at reaching the crown.
There was no sign of a shrine, but Ulliem felt the need to conquer the summit anyway after how far he’d come. Glaring at the offensive stone barrier, Ulliem began stomping around the crest, looking for another way up.
The cliffs seemed to completely encircle the summit of the hill like an impregnable stone helmet, and Ulliem was about to give up when he noticed a narrow cleft in the rock. Hiking closer, the rockwizard found a set of steps, wide enough for the shoulders of two men.
The crown of the hill was an impossibly flat plateau, as if a knife blade had sliced off the peak to create a level surface for the memorial in the center. A low semicircular wall embraced the shrine, made of crimson blocks joined together so deftly that Ulliem was hard-pressed to find the seam with probing fingers. The wall cradled a cracked sandstone column, capped by a huge ball of quartz that Ulliem was surprised had resisted the ever-seeking fingers of thieves.
At the base of the column were two waist-high statuettes of kneeling men, so red that it seemed is if their touch might leave a stain. By their garb and gear Ulliem could see that they were meant to be quarrymen, but though their arms were arranged as if to grasp some tool, the minutely carved stone hands were empty. His mind whispered something familiar to him, but the rockwizard was tired from the arduous climb, and his old memory could not quite make the connection. The column itself was twined with runes, and the air seemed thicker, full of powerful magic – the kind of magic that cradled men’s souls.
“My, my, what have we here,” the rockwizard breathed in amazement, approaching the shrine carefully. A rectangular portion of the pillar had been sanded smooth, clear of runes, and at the top Ulliem recognized the crest of Val’Thul, a past guildmaster of stonecraft. Ulliem vaguely remembered from the yards of youthfully memorized lineage that Val’Thul had held office around the time of the alleged quarry accident, and that he had disappeared mysteriously. Below the crest a poem was inscribed:
O’er bracken and scree, through crook and cleft,
The Quarrymen march true
Grinding, rolling, relentless, they boldly live anew
But when the rose’s hastened bloom grows bare,
Petals fallow in the fields will lie
And the Quarrymen, ever marching, the Quarrymen will die
The column had fractured, as if the quartz were somehow too heavy for thick stone, and Ulliem couldn’t tell if there had been more verses to the poem. He did not examine it further, however, for the sun was quite high overhead and the descent would be treacherous enough without darkness to hide his path.
Climbing back down towards Dern, Ulliem’s thoughts were a turmoil of curiosity. Staring at the ground in front of him, pondering various wild theories, the rockwizard noted absently that his descent was shadowing the tracks of some wild animal. It was a strange imprint, three splayed lines that looked as if they had been cut rather than impressed. Scrambling down a boulder, Ulliem observed that the tracks continued right over the stone, slicing into the rock as if it were just more packed earth.
The blood in his veins turned to ice. ‘…razor sharp claws that do not slow for steel or stone,’ he remembered reading in the Mage Guild summons. Clutching his chest, Ulliem could feel his heart beating uncomfortably fast. Abandoning caution, he raced down the rest of the path, miraculously avoiding a fall, and didn’t stop running until he reached the mayor’s quarters in the keep and fell heavily into a chair in front of a surprised Ralten.
The acting mayor looked over Ulliem’s torn clothing and bedraggled condition with disdain before returning to his papers, waiting for the rockwizard to catch his breath.
“Fiends! Tracks in the hills!” Ulliem choked out finally, clutching the armrests while struggling to rise to his feet.
The acting mayor sniffed dismissively, not even bothering to glance up. “I’ve warned you already wizard,” Ralten admonished. “We don’t need this kind of fearmongering around here. I’ll thank you not to bring Mage Guild troubles to our doorstep.”
“You fool!” Ulliem exploded, all of his pent-up anger at the man suddenly giving him the strength to stand. “You pompous imbecile! These demons are more than trouble. They could be doom for all mankind! We need to get the villagers somewhere at least remotely defensible – the keep, or up on the plateau where the narrow stairs can be stoutly held.”
Ralten had been initially taken aback by the rockwizard’s outburst, but quickly found his own anger, rising amidst an avalanche of paper. “You trespassed on our sacred ground?” he accused hotly. “You have no business there. That shrine is for the citizens of Dern to mourn their ancestry, to pray to those spirits that watch over us and protect us. Have you no decency?”
“Deceny?” Ulliem screeched, waving an arm in the air wildly. “Everything around you is a breath from ruin, and you speak of decency? I have seen the signs with my own…”
“You have seen the signs?” Ralten interrupted coolly, his anger back under control. “And what, prey tell, do you know of such things” – the acting mayor paused scornfully – “rockwizard?” Ralten plucked a sheet deftly from amongst the scattered pile of papers. “I reached out to an acquaintance in Lastrania, and looked up your status with the Mage Guild. You’re barely more than a sculptor, Ulliem. What do you know of such things?”
The rockwizard felt doubt creep into his stomach like a slithering worm. The light had been failing…could he have imagined it? He opened his mouth, and then closed it again.
“Now then, I’m sure some wild animal gave you quite a fright in the twilight,” Ralten went on patronizingly. “Mungar will go take a look for tracks in the morning, and if there is something dangerous about, you can help us take appropriate measures. How does that sound?”
Ulliem drew himself up, suddenly almost too tall for the room. Leveling his arm at Ralten’s chest, he spoke in a voice much younger than his years. “Have a care, Ralten son of Lenorra, for the horrors of myth are at hand. See that ye tend to thy kin and thy charges, lest all come to slaughter.” Whirling quickly, the rockwizard stormed out of the room.
Instead of heading back to his cot, Ulliem marched out to the keep’s gate, closing and barring it laboriously while Ralten came outside and looked on in exasperation. Climbing the uneven steps to the walltop, the rockwizard planted his feet firmly, pulling his cloak about him to stave off the chill air. His gaze was directed intently east, but even though a half-moon shone down, Ulliem saw nothing but grass, rock, and tree.
Grim doubt crept into his mind, for what did he really know about the fiends? They were demonic creatures that used to ravage the ancient world, feeding on terror and superstition, but accounts of their true nature or source were few and mostly conjecture. Not even the guildmasters knew entirely what to expect, their summons having only included a few cryptically prophetic warnings taken from ancient songs and rhymes.
Eventually exhaustion overwhelmed Ulliem, and he stumbled back to his cot, falling into a defeated sleep.
In the morning, Ralten sent Mungar to the hilltop with the rockwizard, as promised, but though the smith scoured the ground intently, there was no sign of the demon tracks. When they returned empty-handed, the smugness in Ralten’s eyes was almost more than Ulliem could bear.
For the next week the rockwizard traced every inch of the hillside, but never found any more tracks or signs. At night he obsessed over the querybook, using what remained of his money to buy a priority inquiry and bypass the wait for a free scribe. Pouring over all the fiend-related spellbooks he was allowed access to, Ulliem tried to learn incantations or enchantments that might be of help. Thea came by once or twice, looking to play music, but in his studious fervor he sent her away. To his dismay, however, all the spells proved too advanced for his skill, and he despaired of being able to do anything to help the town.
More days passed, and though there were no further signs forthcoming, Ulliem slipped into a deep depression. Either there were fiends about, and he was too feeble to detect or challenge them with magic, or he had imagined the tracks, in which case he was too old and senile to be of use – hardly better. On the last night before his priority inquiry expired, Ulliem tried to distract himself, scribbling the words “Val’Thul – and – memoirs” into the querybook. The wait was agonizingly long, and then instead of the usual listing of results, a direct note from the attending scribe appeared:
The volume you requested is classified as ‘Guild Sensitive’ and requires a passphrase specified by the author.
Ulliem pulled the candle closer, hunching over the querybook in excitement. After a moment’s thought, he wrote the only phrase he could think of: “Baine Enielle”.
Chewing on the end of his quill, Ulliem waited anxiously, his hope starting to fade. Then a single page stamped itself into the querybook.
The Confession of Val’Thul
A great weight lies on me, and I do not think I shall be able to carry on without relief. It concerns the good people of Dern, who have always sold me their unique and beautiful stone at a fair price.
It was with some concern for the integrity of his quarry that the master mason of Dern wrote to me, for he was receiving pressure from the Sultans of Heur to produce stone at a greater rate. Gladly offering my assistance, I booked travel to the distant town, but was intercepted by a Heuric seneschal, who promised vast donations to the guildhall if my evaluation of the quarry’s integrity should be favorable.
It will be my eternal shame to admit that for the duration of the inspection, I could think of little else but the number of new journeymen who could be fed with Heuric gold. Thankfully I will never know exactly by how much greed blinded me, for if it were certain that I could have prevented the catastrophe, my already-tortured soul could not bear the guilt.
About a week after my return, I received news of the rockslide that had killed more than half the men of Dern, and I immediately set forth.
A fog of hatred and grief darkened the village, and I could feel the souls of the perished quarrymen still floating in the nether, refusing to leave. Their anger burned fiercely towards the Heuric seneschals, already arrived to re-open the quarry, but also hottly towards me, their trusted advisor who had failed his charge.
With penitent resolve, I have decided on the only course of absolution. I will bind the lost souls of Dern to the Baine Enielle as I name it, Mason’s Ruin. The quarrymen shall keep their lavish stone, and Dern will be abused no more on its account.
If ever there is need of the bold quarrymen again, I shall place twin keys readily at hand, to avert new danger in atonement for that which I failed to prevent.
Ulliem sat back and massaged his temples, trying to process everything he’d read. After a moment he quickly reached for the querybook, writing: “Binding rhyme –or– Poetry forms used in binding enchantment”. A lonely entry appeared, and Ulliem circled it quickly, the words materializing on the page.
The Apprentice’s Encyclopedia of Enchantment: Binder’s Couplet
Aside from the keys to a binding, other factors (see entry on binding factors) can be worked into the enchantment. A binder skilled in his or her craft will often use something familiar to enhance the potency of the spell, but the benefit is lost if the factor used is forgotten. In order to keep track of a factor paired with a particular binding, a wizard will often compose a poem known as a binder’s couplet. The traditional couplet fills three verses.
Before Ulliem could jot down any more inquiries, the golden quill faded from the querybook. “So there is more to the poem,” he mused out loud, repeating the two verses from the memorial pillar to himself.
A squeak of poorly oiled metal-on-metal made Ulliem look up, and he saw that Lenorra had wheeled herself to his doorway. The ancient woman’s lips were moving, but no sound came out.
“Lenorra,” the rockwizard greeted her, “do you know the ending to this poem?” He tried to catch her eyes, but was met only with a vacant stare and silently dancing lips. After a moment, she wheeled herself on down the hallway, and Ulliem was left to try to sleep.
The rockwizard awoke to the sight of Thealenne waiting patiently beside him, her face uncharacteristically mournful.
“What seems to be the matter Thea Wheatrider?” he asked tenderly. “I’m sorry I’ve been so busy of late. An old man’s mind can play tricks on him sometimes.”
Thea shook her head sadly. “It’s not that,” she said. “Today’s the day the wheat stops singing.”
Ulliem nodded solemnly, tightening the yellow bow around Thea’s waist. “Would you care to accompany me to the harvest festival, noble lady?” he inquired. “We can give the wheat a proper farewell.”
Thea nodded three times, and they walked hand in hand down towards the village well. There they found all the farmers of Dern already gathered, split into groups, and taunts and jibes about who would harvest more wheat flew through the air. Ralten was there too, decked out in his most ostentatious baubles, and all that remained was for master farmer Kaid to arrive and commence the competition.
The morning dragged on, and still there was no sign of Kaid. A few jests were shouted out about how he had probably fallen into the well in search of more mead, but soon the jests turned to angry muttering at the delay. Ralten was clearly infuriated, and dispatched Munger to go find the missing drunk. After about an hour the smith returned, impassive as ever, but when he leaned in to whisper into Ralten’s ear, the acting mayor’s face went white.
Telling Thea to stay put, Ulliem hurriedly made his way over to Ralten’s side. “Tell me what happened,” he demanded in a loud whisper, but the man seemed to be in shock, and it was Mungar who answered.
“I found Kaid up the hill, dead, cuts all over. There were… animal… tracks around his body, lots of them, and fresh.”
Ulliem felt his body numb, the fear attempting to paralyze him. ‘…when daylight no longer deters, when the taste of blood is renewed, settle your affairs, for you have but till nightfall in this good life,’ the Mage Guild summons had warned. A strange calm settled over the rockwizard, and he felt suddenly alert and focused, as the danger he had been dreading finally arrived.
“Ralten, order everyone into the keep. We’ll have the best chance of holding off the fiends there,” Ulliem commanded, but the acting mayor snapped out of his daze.
“You have no proof that…”
“A man is dead,” Ulliem interrupted hotly. “Whatever the cause, you need to protect your people.”
Ralten glared at him, but then nodded reluctantly. The rockwizard hastened back over to Thealenne, forming the seeds of a desperate plan.
“Thea, I need help with something, and I think you are the only one who will listen,” he told her honestly. “It’s very, very important. Will you help me?”
She nodded, her eyes wide.
The crowd of villagers was fidgeting uneasily, slowly growing aware that something was wrong. Ralten started to address them, and the Ulliem and Thea slipped away unnoticed.
The climb up the hill passed in a nervous blur for Ulliem, his eyes scanning every rustling stand of oak, never keeping his back towards the same direction for long. Though calm at first, Thea soon picked up on the tension in the air. The closer they got to the peak, the more agitated she became, until at last she stopped at the foot of the hidden stairs, clamping her hands over her ears.
“I don’t want to go up,” she screamed, as if to overcome some tumultuous racket beyond the rockwizard’s hearing. “The spirits are singing angry songs.” Tears traced their way down her cheeks.
Ulliem knelt down in front of her, wiping her eyes and placing his callused, wrinkled hands over hers, drawing them slowly away from her ears. “Are they singing about you?” he asked gently.
She shook her head quickly from side to side, strawberry-blonde hair flying.
“And do they want to help the people of Dern?”
Thea nodded, calmer in her movements this time.
“Then can you endure a little hurt to help our friends? To keep all of Dern singing?”
Her lips pursed and her brown knit bravely, and then she nodded once more.
The quarrymen statuettes were light, but awkwardly shaped. Ulliem would have been hard-pressed to make the tricky descent back to the keep carrying both, and he doubted there would be time for another trip. Urging Thea on as they went, the rockwizard prayed silently that the sandstone wouldn’t chip as she dragged the figurine behind her down the hill.
They reached the keep with the last of the villagers, many of whom were still carrying harvesting tools uncertainly. Ulliem grabbed Thea’s hand, pulling her through the crowd in the overstuffed courtyard, mounting the steps to the western walltop as quickly as she could go. The rockwizard placed the figurines on the uneven stone, hearing the gate being closed and barred beneath them as he did. He was relieved to see that there was no permanent damage to the statuettes, but the relief was brief as a scream sounded from the throng of villagers below, and then another.
A roiling tide was cresting the hilltop, parting around the cliffs before rejoining in a sea of limbs the color of bile, climbing over each other like a mass of caged crab. The fiends themselves were like nothing on this earth, but familiar, as if the most vile creations of nature had been turned inside out and jumbled into oozing masses. In the courtyard below, villagers were milling about in terror, a few fainting, and many others vomiting into the dirt. Ralten stood on the eastern wall, half-turned, his eyes bulging.
Ulliem fought to keep hold of his own stomach, the waves of panic and revulsion that emanated from below threatening to overwhelm him. Focusing on the seated form of Lenorra, a lonely rock in the chaos, he breathed deeply, reaching out a hand to Thea who was trembling beside him. When her small fingers grasped his, he felt a momentary surge of hope, and muttered a prayer to gods he had never really believed in.
Chanting a poorly-remembered spell, the rockwizard touched the nearest statuette. “I release you, souls of Dern, to protect your progeny,” he shouted. There was a flare of light, and a muffled boom. Ulliem felt bones in his arm snap as he was knocked flat, but the miniature quarrymen did not move.
Hearing the blast, Ralten spun, quickly taking in the prone rockwizard and the crimson statuettes. The terror that threatened to overwhem his sanity found an outlet in fury, and he raised a shaking arm to point at Ulliem.
“You!” he screamed, cutting through the horrified moans of the villagers below. “You have vandalized our sacred land, angered the spirits that protect us. Who will be our deliverance now? You have doomed us!”
People began to look up from the courtyard, and other angry, desperate voices soon joined Ralten’s.
“The wizard has desecrated our shrine! He has brought this horror down on us!”
“Cast out the wizard. Appease the demons while there is still time!”
Ears still ringing, Ulliem gripped a crenellation with his good hand, doggedly hauling himself to his feet. If they turned on him now, blindly following Ralten’s idiocy, he couldn’t save them, couldn’t save her. To his left, he saw that Thea had pressed her back to the battlements, hands over her ears and eyes closed, but thankfully unharmed. Raising his own arm, Ulliem summoned as strong a voice as he could manage.
“This man you trusted, this arrogant popinjay, has kept from you the most perilous event any of us will live to see. The Seal of Myth has broken, releasing nightmare to appear at any time and suck us down into the abyss.”
A few of the more educated villagers went white, comprehending at last what was happening.
“Blessed spirits! The fiends, the fiends are loose,” someone moaned, but most were looking about in confusion, never having been taught the history of the world, still believing that demons were the stuff of legend and nightmare.
“Enough!” Ralten bellowed in fury, smacking stone with his open hand. “All that matters now is that you have destroyed any chance for our salvation.” He started working his way around the walltop, shouting down to the smith. “Mungar, stop him! Seize our sacred relics!”
The large man pushed his way through the crowd easily and started to climb the steps, but Ulliem was ready.
“Remember, soldier, the last time you obeyed orders without question,” he barked in his best impression of a sergeant’s rough voce. “Remember the war and sins you committed for an unworthy master. You have the chance now for absolution.”
Mungar froze, foot raised to the next step, and then began to tremble. The large hammer was suddenly in the smith’s hand, his eyes on fire, and for a moment Ulliem was afraid that he might have unleashed a demon of his own. But then as if an enchantment were dispelled, the smith’s body loosed, and the hammer fell.
Screeching in rage, Ralten was approaching quickly, still fixated on the statuettes. “Give them to me Wizard! Defiler! Give me the keys to our salvation.”
KEYS! Ulliem’s mind raced. ‘I shall place the twin keys readily at hand,’ Val’thul had said. He looked down at the two statuettes. He’d assumed that they were the keys themselves… but those outstretched hands, meant to hold some missing tool… Finally he made the connection, and his gaze slowly rose, looking northwest to the Baine Enielle and the two sentry pillars. “The pickaxes, one on each pillar…I missed it, an old fool!” Ulliem gasped, falling to his knees as hope drained.
The tide of fiends was halfway down the hill, hundreds, maybe thousands, the clicking of their claws on stone just becoming audible. There was simply not enough time.
A gentle tug on his sleeve broke the spell of despair.
“I can get them Sir Ully. I can ride the wheat.”
Ulliem looked down at Thea, his eyes suddenly watering at her bravery. “You know the danger, little Wheatrider? Fiends have no melody, and the cuts from their claws cannot be stitched.”
She smiled, pushing the horror away a little. “I’m the only one,” Thea answered simply.
Grabbing the girl by the waist, Ulliem stood and lifted her carefully to the edge of the battlements. She began to sing, a golden song full of rich earth, sunshine, and soft rain. There were horrified gasps from the courtyard below, and the rockwizard suddenly felt hands gripping his shoulders painfully.
Looking back with one last radiant smile, Thea stepped over the edge, and was gone.
“What have you DONE!” Ralten screamed into the rockwizard’s ear. He threw Ulliem to the ground and rushed to the wall’s edge, falling to his knees in shock.
The old rockwizard landed awkwardly, his injured arm failing under him, and his head bounced off stone, the world spinning. He fought the haze grimly, pushing himself up on one elbow and gazing down in trepidation.
Thea was almost a speck already, sitting cross-legged as tall stalks of wheat bent and straightened under her, carrying her swiftly and safely in an undulating wave.
Strong hands were thrust under Ulliem’s arms lifting him up, and the smell of leather and iron filled his nostrils. “How is this possible?” Mungar asked, his voice tinged with awe.
“She is a shaman of the Hathalsea,” Ulliem answered groggily, “the copse-kin as you call them. The songs of all living things are in her heart, and they love and obey her for it.” The rockwizard almost laughed aloud in relief and joy.
But it was short-lived, for with a crash the tide of fiends finally broke around the keep, circling madly. A gusting wind arose, seemingly from every direction at once, clawing at clothes and eyes, and carrying gruesome shrieks.
“What can we do?” The smith shouted over the gale.
“Get everyone on the wall. Use shovels, scythes, whatever you can find to hold them off as long as you can,” Ulliem shouted back, but his voice was tinged with hopelessness. He imagined Thea prying the stone pickaxes loose from the pillars, turning to carry them back, but she was cut off. “Get away,” he whispered under his breath. “Run and live for all of us.”
The sickening howls stopped as quickly as they had begun, followed by a silence that was the most terrifying of all, for it felt as if it were slowly compressing around them, pushed tighter and closer by encroaching horror. Faintly below, the clicking of claw on stone tapped a petrifying beat.
Then Mungar was shouting orders, and the villagers were slowly roused, obeying in a frightened daze. Still gripping farm implements in white-knuckled hands, men and women rushed to the wall-tops. Razor-tipped arms began to grope over the crenellations, some spidery or reptilian, others nauseatingly close to human. With a ragged battle cry, the people of Dern engaged the fiends, pushing ghastly bodies from the walls with thresher and scythe. Mungar was everywhere, bleeding from a dozen cuts, his hammer a blur as he smashed deadly appendages into useless lumps of murky ochre ooze.
Several farmers went down, rent with bloody gashes, but the wave of fiends slowed. There was the beginning of a cheer, but it was swept away by a sound like the ringing of a gong. The walls began to hum and shake, loose stones falling out and landing below with a clatter, and the cheer turned to shouts of alarm. It would not take much to bring the weak masonry tumbling down beneath their feet.
Hoping against reason, Ulliem looked west once more. Thea was closing in, riding a mass of wheat that tore itself up by the roots in its effort to speed her journey. But she was headed straight for the mass of fiends, towards rending death. A mournful trill drifted through the air, and then the wheat exploded in a puff of stalk and chaff, sending Thealenne flying though the air above the thirsty claws far below, and Ulliem’s heart hurdling into his throat.
She landed in the arms of an astonished Mungar, bowling the smith over, but both seemed unhurt. Thea was on her feet slowly, exhausted.
Running over to her, Ullliem hugged her small frame, tears falling freely. “You are a precious one, little Thea,” he murmured into her hair. Seizing the stone pickaxes from her arms, Ulliem took two long strides to the crimson statuettes, still kneeling peacefully among the carnage. He placed a pickaxe in each quarryman’s grasp, twisting them until there was a soft click. Stepping back hurriedly, he reached for Thea’s hand, and the two of them gazed west and north, nervous breath held amidst a sudden stillness, the rockwizard and the wheatrider.
With a thunderous boom, red boulders poured out of the Baine Einelle, tumbling through the twin pillars like whitewater from a sluice-gate. As they rumbled and rolled closer, shapes formed, the pebbly outlines of strong men twirling pickaxes.
Dropping from the walls, the fiends turned towards the avalanche, skittering from side to side. Another gong-like sound stretched the air, and the walls stopped shaking.
Instead the quarrymen slowed, losing momentum. The tide of rock reached the wheatfields below Dern, unfurling like the petals of a rose, but still slowing, stretching thin and bare.
There was the sound of another gong, and the mass of fiends surged forward, stopped short, and then again, and again. Each time more of the quarrymen collapsed into lifeless heaps of rock, the march all but halting.
Ulliem looked down at the statuettes, seeing tiny fractures spreading across the surface, and Thea clenched his hand in fear. The spell was not strong enough to save them from the demons of nightmare. In final desperation, he began to chant the binder’s couplet, hoping that even incomplete, it might boost the spell.
“O’er bracken and scree, through crook and cleft
The Quarrymen march true
Grinding, rolling, relentless, they boldly live anew” he recited. But it was another voice that spoke the second verse.
“But when the rose’s hastened bloom grows bare
Petals fallow in the fields will lie
And the Quarrymen, ever marching, the Quarrymen will die”
Confused, Ulliem paused. Was it working? Was the stone answering him? But the other voice did not pause with him. The rockwizard spotted Lenorra in the courtyard below, standing from her chair and finishing the third verse in a musical tone.
“But warm the song: ‘Rise Up Quarrymen!’
Quarrymen with hands so deft
Enemy, face them if you dare” the old mayor paused, but there was no effect, the piles of sandstone in the fields lay still.
Then she raised her voice in a haunting melody, starting mournfully but gathering speed and energy as it went.
“Rise Up Quarrymen! Quarrymen Arise!
Fetch pickaxe and lampoil. To Work! To Toil!
‘neath heavy stone embrace, we mine.”
Realization dawned on Ulliem, and he shouted to the villagers: “Sing! Sing! Strengthen your protectors!”
In the courtyard below, young boys and girls looked at each other, still terrified, but hesitantly added their voices to the mixture.
“Rise Up Quarrymen! Quarrymen Arise!
Fetch caution and courage. Drink your mead! Eat your porridge!
‘neath looming crush, silent dark, sharp threat of death we earn our keep.”
There was a stirring in the fields, as piles of crimson rock began to quake. But it was not yet enough.
“Sing now, sons and daughters of Dern!” Ulliem tried again, feeling the last of his strength go out with his words. “Remember the song learned far from the ears of disapproving elders. Remember the stone and axe forgotten for the pain of loss, and let the quarry song ring out once more in the Baine Enielle!”
One by one, the farmers of Dern found their voices, for a melody learned nestles deep, and is not oft forgot.
“Drink your mead! Eat your porridge! This warm hearth visit might be your last.
For we risk life and limb, to fill family coffers to the brim,
to build the halls of lordly dreams and walls against the fiends.”
The ochre mass of fiends built itself upward, frothing and shrieking, but unable to drown out the voices of Dern as they joined for the concluding refrain in thundering unison.
“Rise Up Quarrymen! QUARRYMEN ARISE!”
There was a deep groan, as if the earth itself heard their song, and then the refrain echoed back in an impossibly deep baritone.
“Rise Up Quarrymen! QUARRYMEN ARISE!”
Geysers of sandstone shot into the air, human forms reshaping in their midst, surging up the hill towards the keep.
With one last piercing howl, the fiends let loose, flowing down to meet them.
The two waves, red and yellow, met with a crush and shattering.
Ulliem felt suddenly dizzy, his vision blurring as he gripped the wall for support. Reaching to touch the bump where his head had smashed into stone, the old rockwizard’s hands came away sticky. As the world faded, he heard the demonic shrieks become more frenzied and desperate, slowly drowned out by the relentless grinding of good strong stone, and then everything went dark.
Ulliem awoke to the face he least wanted to see, Ralten’s, looking awkwardly ashamed. Everything seemed slightly blurred to the rockwizard, as if time had snuck ahead without him and his mind was struggling to catch up. He tried to speak, but his tongue had no energy.
Ralten noticed the slight movement, and broke into a smile that was both relieved and contrite. “Ah, you are awake,” he said. “Don’t try to move. Keep your strength.” He attempted to mop Ulliem’s brow clumsily, dripping water in the rockwizard’s ear. “Mungar has some skill with battlefield medicine, but a guild healer from Lastrania will be arriving tomorrow to tend properly to you and the rest of the wounded…” Ralten kept on speaking, but the words seemed to grow smaller and fainter.
Ulliem’s vision began to fade, and with a laborious sigh he slipped back into unconsciousness. Clawing fiends scuttled in and out of his dreams, keeping him from rest. Sometimes the quarrymen would march through in a wide column, sweeping away the horrors, but always they would return, as if seeping from some invisible rift.
The next time he awoke, it was to a melodious song and the much more welcome face of Thealenne. The two beamed at each other, the rockwizard and the wheatrider, holding hands as Thea sang, and when Ulliem slept again his dreams were much sweeter.