Herewith a delightful fairy tale, in which we meet a cheated wizard, a brawny (but illiterate) hero, a hot-blooded princess, and a curse that creates—
THE NIGHTS OF DREADFUL SILENCE
Illustrated by MIKE KALUTA
An ominous thing was happening at Itaskia‟s Royal Palace. Aristithorn of Necremnos, the infamous sorcerer, was being cheated by King Norton.
The wizard repeated, “Your Highness, your servant is certain he heard
the promise of the Princess Yselda‟s hand to the man who would slay that up-country ogre.”
Norton asked, “Vizier, did we make that ridiculous promise?” “No, Majesty.”
“You see, wizard?” The King glared. Of course he had made the proclamation—he made it every time a dragon, troll, or other disaster arose— but he had no intention of following through. Never had.
Aristithorn sighed. “Ah, so that‟s the way of it. Hast heard of Ainjar, King of Alfar, Majesty? He cheated Sil-„magester the Dark—sad, his
reward. Three plagues: first, dragons; then locusts in swarms; later, thirty-three daughters so ugly they are unmarriable, and each of whom eats with the appetite often lusty men…”
“You threaten?” the King roared. “Nay, Illustrious. 1 merely make a
moral: dishonesty seldom pays.”
“Seize him!” Norton bellowed. Softer, “Good an excuse as I‟ll find, I guess.”
Aristithorn shook his head sadly as pikemen closed in. “Hate to do it, but: ”Past six nights and come seventh sun.
Itaskia‟s lying shall be done; This treacher Norton‟s wicked realm Black vengeance mine shall overwhelm;
Then ever after shall be heard No slightest sound of singing bird, No low of cow, nor spoken word.“ There was more, equally bad poetry, which does not bear repeating. He finished with a muttered, ”Not bad for spur-of-the-moment.“ He threw his staff to the marble floor, watched it become a huge serpent, mounted it and rode from the palace, past horrified guards.
That was the same day Bragi Ragnarson suffered a fit of nostalgia and, to the hoots and jeers of his friends, galloped off north toward Trolledyngja, a place someone once described as “the arse of the world on ice.” Bragi only remembered the good things, though, until, two days north of Itaskia, a sudden rain squall came rumbling along and pounced. He had equally sudden visions of himself forced to face the weather as it would be a few hundred miles farther along—snow and sleet and
ice and all that. Quickly, he turned back for the warm taproom at Itaskia‟s Red Hart Inn, all pride fled.
Shortly, he fell asleep. And shortly, his scatter-brained mare had them hopelessly lost. Bragi woke to find himself being carried -through unfamiliar forest typical of the kingdom anywhere north of the Silverbind.
Three days later he was still searching for the road home, completely miserable. The cold drizzle would not stop. Then he heard someone singing. Also hearing his indignant stomach rumbling, Bragi thought he might cadge something to eat. He studied the camp of the singer from hiding, saw a bedraggled old donkey and a ragged old man huddling around a small fire where a cauldron exuded aromatics. The clearing around the old man was dry, but, being so hungry, Bragi did not notice. He stepped out of the underbrush.
“Hello, grandfather,” he said, “could you spare a starving man a smallish bite?” He waved a hand in the direction of the pot.
The old man, bent over something he was trying to sew, started. He looked at Bragi uncertainly. “You‟re a long way from Trolledyngja,” he observed.
“You‟re welcome, sure, if you‟ve brought your own tools. I‟ve no extra gear, not being accustomed to guests.”
“Thanks. Say, how‟d you know where I‟m from?” While talking, he dug
battered utensils from his saddlebag.
The old man rummaged through his own gear, found a spoon and bowl, joined the northman over the pot. “Where else do men grow big as bears, and twice as ugly?” he asked. “Who else butchers the King‟s Tongue such a way? You‟re one of those wandering heroes, eh? Dragon-slaying and
maiden-rescuing. Ah, what a life. Wish I were young again… What would you be doing out here?”
“Times are tough,” Bragi grumbled. “Too much competition. In the old days, before Norton, it was „a dragon in every cave and a troll under
every mountain.‟ But since Norton killed King Willem, things have gotten worse. Trolls and dragons‟re almost gone… Willem was a conservationist.” Then he remembered the question. “I fell asleep in the saddle coming down the North Road. Stupid horse decided to go exploring. Been lost three days.” He finished filling his bowl and said around a mouthful, “Good! Well seasoned. What of you?”
“Cooking is my hobby,” the old man replied, also with a full mouth. “I‟m out here trying to think up a spell to fit a curse I cast on Itaskia.”
“Uhn. Aristithorn of Necremnos… you don‟t seem distressed.” He sounded hurt.
“Should I be?” He tossed his head to get the ends of his blond hair out of his stew. “Judging by Zindahjira, a man‟s safe if he isn‟t jumped straight off. I don‟t have anything a wizard would want anyway. Can I have another bowl?”
“Help yourself. You‟ve met the Silent One, eh? Biggest windbag in the trade.”
“That‟s him. Say, what kind of curse are you brewing up?”
The old man snorted. “You been in the kingdom lately?” “Left the city five days back.” “Ever hear of the King‟s proclamation about the ogre? The one that‟s been stealing maidens and the like, not the one who robs travelers. He has a license, and pays his taxes.”
“Heard somebody finally got him. Why? You the fellow?”
“Got him and two of his brothers who were helping handle a surfeit of maidens.”
“And Norton wouldn‟t pay, eh?” “No!”
“Should‟ve expected it. How‟d you get old, being so naive? He promises his daughter every time there‟s trouble. What happened to the maidens?”
“Well, after stoning me for ruining what they said was a good thing, I suppose they went home and made do with ordinary men. There‟ll be a passle of ugly, warty, hairy little bastards born come spring. I hope they all grow up trollish and go into the independent ogre business. Serve Norton right.” “What‟re you going to do about it?” “Don‟t know. When he refused me Yselda, I cast the first curse I thought of. Said that, starting the seventh day after I left, Itaskia would be stricken by total silence until Norton pays.”
“Hey, that‟s good!” Bragi chuckled, speaking more clearly as his belly filled and his mouthfuls grew smaller. „‟I‟ve got some friends there who need just that. How‟re you going to do it?“
“That‟s my problem. I don‟t know. Never tried anything like it. Wish I‟d thought before I opened my mouth. Norton‟s probably still laughing.”
“Be good if you could do it. Might get Yselda after all. Some woman, from all I‟ve heard. A little skinny, but…”
Bragi considered a moment, said, “Put yourself in Norton‟s place, King in a city with no sound. Like everyone‟s deaf, eh? Everything would have to be in writing, eh? How many written promises can a man break before he gets hung from his own rafters? A liar like Norton would sell his mother to keep on cheating. Mark me, Norton‟ll have his daughter up for whoever gets rid of the silence. Bet?”
The„ wizard grunted thoughtfully. Bragi imagined fiery lines from dreadful tomes where spells were written in blood on parchments of virgins‟ skins, bound in dragon hide, raging before his eyes.
“What do you want with Yselda, anyway? I thought sorcerers had to do without, or lose their powers.”
“I‟m old, ready to retire. I want to raise roses and practice the magicks of love.”
“At your age? She‟ll kill you inside a week.”
“No, no. I‟m a wizard, remember? All my abstentions of three hundred years are stored up inside me, ready to go. I can hold my own even against Yselda.”
“I suppose it‟s possible,” Bragi muttered. “What‟s she got to say about it?”
“She didn‟t like me until I mentioned my wizard‟s savings. „Ha! Then she pressed my case more passionately than I. That fool Norton is blind. The Palace Guards stand in line at her door, and the idiot thinks I want her as a source of virgin‟s blood.”
Laughter, uproarious. Every man within a hundred miles of Itaskia, except the King, knew at least a dozen ribald stories about the Princess‟s boudoir adventures. She was a girl of a fiery nature, and
always kept a fireman handy.
“Oh! What magicks would come of using her blood!” Bragi roared. “She‟d wreck your whole profession. So! What about the spell?”
The sorcerer grunted noncommittally. He and Bragi started as an idea occurred to both. As one, they said, “I‟ll make you a deal…”
An hour found diabolical plots plotted and wicked agreements agreed.
The next two days were dull. Bragi was accustomed to bloody action or drunken inaction. Neither was available here. He amused himself by devouring vast quantities of Aristithorn‟s excellent stews.
The day the curse was to be fulfilled, Bragi made a point of staying out of the way. Aristithorn was uncertain he could cast the necessary spells, was terrified of his all-too-probable failure. However, he would hazard it. Bragi fled camp, following a desire to be at a safe distance when the wizard started summoning demons.
He sat on the earth in the forest, leaning against a tree, watching the squirrels at play among the autumn leaves. His pleasures were simple. But even that little amusement was soon denied him. Wails and demonic howls from Aristithorn‟s conjurations frightened the animals. Then the outcry died and the forest became unnaturally silent. The northman grew worried. He was working up the courage to investigate when, “Ho! Bragi! Come on in! I‟ve done it!”
He found the ancient dancing around his pentacles. “Tomorrow I go,” he said. “You‟d better write the messages. But how‟ll I understand the answers? I can‟t read.”
“What‟s to understand?” the wizard asked. “Just give him the list of demands, then sit tight until you get the woman and gold. What could be easier?”
“Norton taking my head.” “There is that chance, true.” “Can I hear the one to Yselda? You were up awful late with it.” ,
The wizard stirred through a mound of thaumaturgical gear and came up with a smallish scroll. “To the Princess Yselda, Duchess of Scarmane, et cetera, greeting from the great thaumaturge Aristithorn, Archimage of Necremnos, Lord of Eldritch Sprites…”
“Why do all you magicians brag so?” “Huh? We have to! Nobody else will. Necromancy‟s a hard way to make a living. Everyone cheats us. Knights try to kill us. Devils are after our souls. Everyone, everywhere, insists we‟re evil. Hell of a life! Praise for our modest efforts has to come from somewhere, so we do the applauding ourselves…”
“Maybe. Write. Save the speeches for Yselda. I‟m leaving at first light.
That‟ll give me a little time to scout before I stick my head in the
“Uhm!” the wizard grunted, already writing, tongue protruding from the corner of his mouth. “Have you memorized the way back to the road?” “Yes.”
Bragi left at sunrise, was more than halfway to the city by nightfall. He rose with the sun again and by late afternoon had camped atop a hill two miles from the city walls. From there, he watched amazedly as refugees dismally came out Itaskia‟s gates and marched toward the boundaries of silence. He saw many a stout wife dragging her man toward where she could catch up on her backlog of nagging. Compulsive talkers shouted with glee when they were free of the curse and could once more bore their neighbors with tales of themselves. Bragi found he was tempted to leave, to let the silence go on, but thoughts of his share of the profits strengthened his determination. He slept late next morning, did not ride until mid-morning. The flow of refugees had not slackened. Fighting their flow, he took until noon to reach the gates where he
gave the guard officer the first of several scrolls.
Bragi was surprised by the gloominess of the city, then realized how many little noises he had always taken for granted. The song of wind was gone. The humming of insects. The creaks and groans of wagon wheels. The sounds of hooves on pavement. The silence was unnerving. He was beginning to understand the mood of the fleeing thousands. The northman‟s scroll cheered the sour guard captain. The soldier quickly delivered him to the palace and King‟s herald. The herald got a second
letter, danced with joy. He directed Bragi‟s attention to a poster. The northman was certain it was another of Norton‟s proclamations. He nodded.
The Vizier himself soon appeared, ushered Bragi into the Royal Presence. Here he delivered a scroll to the King. While Norton anxiously poured over the text, Bragi slipped a letter to Yselda. She read and laughed. Then, knowing there was nothing to do but wait, he sat on the floor, leaned against a pillar, and went to sleep.
Mountains of parchments and buckets of ink were used during an argument between Norton and his advisers, the latter pleading for accession to Aristithorn‟s demands. Bragi went unnoticed only because his prodigious snoring was inaudible. Later, however, someone did notice him and decide he might be pressured into betraying the wizard. Bragi was given parchments dripping doom and golden promises. He grinned at them all. Considering the direness of some of the threats, Norton soon concluded he could not read.
Bragi—always wearing his lackwit‟s smile—considered the Royal argument.
It seemed the King‟s advisers wanted to pay Aristithorn. The King refused to give up a politically valuable daughter. The Vizier, however, found Norton‟s weakness.
The King, so the Vizier argued, would be lord of an empty city if the silence continued—the people were fleeing in thousands. Where, when the people were gone, did the Crown expect to apply taxes?
A telling blow! If there was anything Norton enjoyed more than lying, it was taxing his subjects to staggering. Insufferable demand, with no return, had made Norton one of the better known tyrants of his end of the world. Other monarchs envied him. These were distinctions he would not willingly surrender. Therefore, after breakfast, he put on his sad face and sent for Yselda. Sorrowfully, he told her what he had to do.
Yselda tearfully made apparent her willingness to sacrifice herself for her people.
Norton seemed delighted with Yselda‟s sorrow—but suspicious because
her possessions were already waiting on a cart at the palace gate. However, he shrugged that off as he had all the other oddities about his child—unaware she had needs other than those complementing his own.
Bragi and the woman quickly departed.
His daughter gone, the King dried his tears and turned to business. He sent his bodyguard after the two, with orders to slay the northman and sorcerer. The wizard‟s death should cancel all his spells. He would then have his daughter back and could put her to good use.
However, a chuckling Aristithorn was watching from afar.
Bragi and Yselda left the silence, rode up a tall hill, over, and entered a smallish wood. Behind them, outside the wood, shimmerings appeared, coalesced into duplicates of the couple. The specters rode at right angles to the path of those they imitated.
Norton‟s soldiers topped the hill, followed the decoys. Only later did they notice the chimeras had no cart—and then it was too late to find
Bragi‟s carefully concealed trail. Somewhere afar, an old man chortled
at his deception, then, weary, retired.
Bragi and Yselda covered most of the distance to the wizard‟s camp before nightfall. Yselda had ridden silently the afternoon long, eyes always on the northman. He grew wary of the hungers he saw there. He had his own desires, and one of the strongest was to avoid antagonizing Aristithorn.
But there was no avoiding the trap— all too well did the woman know
how to bait it. Bragi was a long time getting to sleep. And rode with guilt the next morning. He was surprised when the wizard greeted him pleasantly.
“Hai!” the old man cried when they rode up. “So Norton can be beaten. Wonderful - wonderful - wonderful! Hello, my dear. Did you have a pleasant journey?”
“Indeed I did, Thorny,” she replied, sighing. “Indeed I did.”
A suspicious look passed across Aristithorn‟s face, but he was too eager to waste time worrying. “Thank you, thank you,” he said to Bragi. “I hope you did well too.”
Grinning, the northman held up a sack with the mark of the Itaskian Treasury.
“Ah, good. My friend, you‟ve helped an old man beyond all hope of repayment. If you ever need a friend, drop by my castle in Necremnos. It‟s the one with the chained chimeras guarding the gates and the howls coming from inside—I suppose I‟ll give that up, now I‟m retiring. Drop by any time. I‟ve got to go. The silence will end when I do. One more magick, then I‟ll get to the business of renouncing my vows.”
The wizard was so excited he flubbed his incantation three times. The fourth, while Bragi watched, saw woman, sorcerer, cart, and two donkeys vanishing in a fearsome cloud of smoke.
Shrugging the affair off as profitable I and amusing, but of no great import, Bragi returned to Itaskia. He stopped by the Red Hart Inn for a stoop with old friends.
But the story did not end so easily. Bragi found himself outlawed for his part in the affair. Off he went, on an adventure into Freyland where he planned to liberate a fortune said to be lying in the heart of a certain mountain. The treasure he found—and the dragon guarding it.
The worm won the ensuing battle handily.
The singed northman, outlawed all along the western coast, decided to impose on Aristithorn‟s hospitality. The wizard welcomed him warmly, immediately took him to see his children. Yselda had recently given birth to a pair of sturdy little blond, blue-eyed sons.
Innocently, Bragi asked, “How old are they?”
“Two months,” Yselda replied. Confirmation of his suspicion was in her face.
Aristithorn said something about it being time to feed the vampires in the basement. He shuffled off. Bragi and Yselda went for a walk in the garden.
“Is he the man he claimed?” the northman asked.
“Indeed! A one-man army on that battlefield. There‟s a problem, though. He abstained so long he can‟t father children. He doesn‟t know, I‟m sure.” A strange light twinkled in the Princess‟s eyes as she added, “It‟s a pity. He wants more children. So do I, but I just don‟t know how we‟ll manage…” “If lean be of any help…” Deep in the dungeons,
Aristithorn hummed to himself as he tossed wriggling mice to his vampire bats while watching a garden scene in a magicical mirror…
He‟d lied when he said he was retiring.
Celibacy has nothing to do with his kind of magick.
He‟d known of his sterility.
Trust a wizard no more than a King. They‟re all chess players.