Durwin awoke with a cough, spitting sand. His face lay upon a prickly bed of seaweed rank with the fetid odor of fish. He felt a sharp, stinging pain on, of all places, his scalp. Perhaps it was the pain that had brought him to.
Another prick, and another pain. Durwin raised an arm to his head and dislodged a gull, which flapped off along the beach, squawking its displeasure. “Not food for the birds yet,” mumbled Durwin under his breath.
He shoved himself up on his elbows and waited for the throbbing in his head to subside. Wiping the sand out of his eyes, he looked around him only to realize that he lay alone on the beach, near to a rock that poked up like an old fang from the gums of an aging dragon. The rock was draped in stinking seaweed, as was Durwin.
The sun had not yet risen, but the rosy glow spreading over the horizon promised a new day very soon. The waves of the storm had deposited Durwin high up on the strand, and as he sat taking in his surroundings, he felt strange eyes upon him. Glancing around, he saw a host of crabs scuttling closer, their eyes wavering in the new light. “Go pick the bones of some other poor fish,” he yelled at them. “This one needs his skin a little longer.”
Durwin pulled himself to his staggering and unsteady legs. He placed a hand on the rock and looked both ways along the jagged, rock-strewn shoreline. “Ah, this is an evil place,” he muttered. He lurched down to the water, which now lapped calm and undisturbed, as if nothing could ever perturb its placid surface. He dipped his hands in and washed his face and gritty neck. He shook the sand out of his hair and beard, then started along the water’s edge in search of the others, dreading what he might find.
He had not tottered more than ten paces when he spied a shapely foot sticking out from behind a low, moss-encrusted rock. “Alinea!” He rushed to the lady’s side, and her eyelids fluttered open.
“Durwin? Oh, what has happened? I feel sick.” She frowned.
“You probably drank your weight in seawater. As did I.”
Coming to herself more fully, Alinea asked, “The others . . . Theido, Trenn, Ronsard. Where are they? Have you found them? Are they . . . ?”
“Shh . . . in time, in time,” he soothed. “You are the first I have discovered. The others cannot be far away. We shall look for them together.” He hesitated and added after a moment, “Or I will seek them alone, if you would rather. You may rest here.”
“No. We will go together. I can face what we may find; the waiting would be worse.”
Durwin helped his sodden, sand-covered queen to her feet.
“Sit on this rock for a moment. Breathe the air. Deeply. It will make you feel better.”
“I must look like one of Orphe’s daughters—more fit for the fishes than for human company.”
“We will all require some careful grooming, I’ll warrant. But to be alive—there is nothing more beautiful than that. After last night . . .”
“Oh, Durwin . . . ,” the queen gasped. Her hand found his arm and squeezed it.
Durwin turned to look where her eyes were fixed, to see what he had taken to be a pile of kelp and seaweed lumped upon the beach. Now he saw that it had a human form, and then what Alinea had regarded with horror. Dozens of crabs were feeding upon the body, gathered around an open wound. Their pincers scissored tiny chunks of red flesh from the body’s flank.
“Ack!” cried Durwin, rushing to his comrade, sending the blue and green crabs scuttling in sideways retreat.
“It is Trenn!” he shouted as he rolled the body over. He placed his ear to the man’s chest. “He is alive, thank the god!” Then the hermit bent to finger the wound in Trenn’s side—a long, ragged gash, deep though not bleeding; the flow of blood had been stanched by the salt water.
“Will he be all right?” Alinea crept close to Durwin.
“I think so. The wound is deep but not severe, I think. He may have other injuries we cannot see.”
Alinea shivered at the memory of the crabs. “I saw them snatching at him. . . . I thought . . .”
“And so did I. But look: The crabs have done a service after all. The wound is clean now; it will heal quicker.” Durwin spoke with soft assurance but cast a doubtful eye upon Trenn’s insensate features.
Suddenly a crash sounded in the undergrowth of the thick wooded land that fringed the shoreline. Durwin glanced up and met a ring of sullen eyes set in dull, unfeeling faces. There were perhaps twenty soldiers dressed in hauberk and helm, leveling spears at them. Each helmet carried the crest with the insignia of the soldiers’ cruel master: the black croaking raven of Nimrood the Necromancer.
A rider on a black-spotted horse leaped through the tangle and onto the strand. He eyed the humble survivors with a malicious glare. A purple scar cleaved his face from forehead to jaw, bending the nose aside as it swept across the cheek.
“Seize them!” the rider cried. The voice was a sneer.
The impassive soldiers leaped at once to the task of jerking Durwin and Alinea to their feet and roughly binding them. The prisoners were marched, with much prodding and poking, into the wood above the beach.
“Is he alive?” asked the rider, jerking his head to the body of Trenn reposed upon the sand.
“Yes, he is alive,” affirmed Durwin. “Be careful with him. He is injured.”
“Tch, a pity. ’Twere better if he were dead.” The rider spurred the skittish horse past Durwin and the queen and shouted, “Take the other one.”
The three were bundled into a high-sided cart. Alinea and Durwin edged Trenn carefully to the bottom of the cart and settled, as best they could, beside him.
“Not a word about the others,” Durwin warned in a whisper.
“Take them away!” yelled the rider with the wicked scar, who seemed to be the commander of the company on the shore.
The cart bumped off into the wood, rocking as if to overturn. Neither the driver of the cart nor the four accompanying soldiers paid the slightest attention. The cart passed through a thin, unhealthy wood made up of wiry trees and straggles of vines. Rocks with sharp edges thrust out of the ground, making the going exceedingly strenuous. And though it was sunrise, the dire wood seemed to banish the light, steeped instead in perpetual gloom.
“This is a cheerless place,” noted the queen.
“So it is. Any place the necromancer calls his own is cheerless and, I fear, a good deal worse.”
The cart and its contents bumped over rock and root. Eventually they reached a feeble trail scratched into the stony soil. The surrounding wood thinned as they proceeded along.
It soon became apparent that they followed a struggling brook; the splash of its churning water could be heard close by. Rude hills rose on each side, covered with dense, though sickly, vegetation of unpleasant sorts. An air of quiet doom hung over the valley they trod. Only the forlorn call of an occasional bird and the groan and whine of the wagon’s ungreased wheels broke the oppressive silence.
After an hour or longer—time seemed irrelevant in this place—the cart turned onto a wider path and began a steep ascent. Alinea looked round with wide, frightened eyes.
“Do not be afraid, my lady,” soothed Durwin. “He is not so terrible that he cannot be faced. Evil always misrepresents itself. Pray instead for Theido and Ronsard; they may yet escape. That is greatly to be hoped.”
“I will do as you ask, though I have not the knowledge of the god that you possess.”
“It matters not what words one uses. He hears the heart itself.”
After a long ascent, the cart rolled to a level place, a wide ledge of stone carved out of the steep mountain. From there, peering over the cart’s high sides, the unhappy prisoners could see the hunched hills through which they had been traveling. The sun was well up and yet seemed dim and far away. A sulky mist draped the hills and gathered thick in the miserable valleys. The land seemed shroud-wrapped and forsaken.
From somewhere a keening wail rose into the air like a lost soul crying for release.
“Just a gull,” replied Durwin, looking above. But his tone lacked conviction.
Once more, silence crept back. And then, “Ohhh . . . ohhh . . .” A low moan escaped into the air. Durwin looked at the queen and then at Trenn. An eyelid flickered. A finger twitched.
“So it is! He is coming round.” Durwin, hands tied behind him, could do nothing to ease Trenn’s entrance back into the realm of the living. But he bent his head close to Trenn’s ear and whispered, “Rest easy now. No need to fear. We are with you. Take your time.”
Presently the warder opened his eyes and stiffly turned his head. “Trussed up like chickens, aye,” he said.
“Oh, Trenn. You are all right.”
“Yes . . . ohh.” He winced as he tried to move to sit up. “But I may be better with some seeing to.”
“You have had a horrid gash,” said Alinea. “Just lie back.”
“Where are the others?”
“Shh!” Durwin warned.
“We do not know—could not find them this morning.” He appeared doubtful. “But we had no time to look.”
“Where are we? Nimrood’s tribe?”
“It appears we are on our way to meet him.”
“You should not talk so,” whispered Alinea. “Rest now while you can.”
No one spoke for a long time after that. Each nursed his own thoughts and discouraged the fear that grew like a dull ache with each step closer to Nimrood’s foul roost.
Finally, “There it is!” Durwin inclined his head past the driver of the cart. Alinea turned, and Nimrood’s castle, like a blackened skull set upon a rock, swung into view.
“What a ghastly ruin,” said Alinea.
“So it is.”
Black stone battlements rose straight up from the rock of the mountain. A maze of stairs and dark entrances carved in stone like the tunneling of worms wove throughout. Odd-shaped towers of irregular heights thrust themselves above the great domed vault of the hall. Empty holes of doorways and windows stared like eyeless sockets out from the squat jumble of apartments around the dome. Dark shapes of birds flapped through the cool air above the castle and shrieked at the approach of the cart.
The winding road to the castle had here been built upon the back of a ridge. The road, only wide enough for the wagon with a man on each side, twisted up sharply. The mountain fell away in a steep run to each side. The ridge ended in an abrupt precipice just before the long, narrow, iron-studded drawbridge.
The cart lurched to a halt before the raised drawbridge. The chasm, falling down in a sheer drop from a breathless height, stretched before them. Below, ringing like the clash of sword on shield, a noisy cataract fought its way to lower ground.
With a prolonged groan the drawbridge began to lower. It thumped down with a hollow knock, and the wain rumbled over it; each creak of the cart was magnified; each step of the horse’s iron-clad hooves sounded a death knell that rolled away to echo in the chasm below.
Squeaking in protest, the cart bumped across the drawbridge and through the dark gatehouse under the baleful stare of an owl perched in the beams. The gatehouse was as dark and damp as a cave. Water dripped from the ceiling and trickled down the sides of the stone walls with a snickering sound.
Trenn, now sitting in the cart, let out a low whistle that reverberated through the tunnel. “It is hollow beneath this road,” he said after listening to the echo die away. “I would not like to find what lurks down there.”
“Courage, friends. Our enemy seeks to break the spirit. Resist him. Do not give in to fear.”
“I fear no mortal man,” said Trenn. A tremble shook his voice. “But this sorcerer—”
“Is a mortal man like any other. He has powers, yes, but he can be beaten. He can be defied.”
“The king is here,” said Alinea. Though Durwin could not see her in the darkness, from the sound of her voice he knew she must be close to tears. “How long, oh, how long? This wretched, hideous place.”
“Take heart, my queen. The king is strong, and unless I am far wrong, his imprisonment has not been unbearable. He is able to withstand.”
The cart rolled suddenly out of the dark gatehouse tunnel and into the light of a misshapen and unkempt courtyard. A man dressed in a sable cloak, dark tunic, and trousers with high black boots was waiting.
“Bring them,” he said and turned on his heel and disappeared into the yawning entrance of the castle. The prisoners were handed down and marched through a maze of corridors and passageways. The castle seemed deserted, so few servants did they meet. Without ceremony they were thrust unexpectedly into the throne room of Nimrood.
The sorcerer awaited them, eyes half closed as if in a daydream, sprawled upon his great black throne as if flung there at the height of some monstrous passion that left him limp. Oily torches behind the throne spewed thick black smoke into the room and cast a slippery glare round about.
“Welcome to Karsh, my friends,” the sorcerer mocked. He neither opened his eyes nor lifted a hand in acknowledgment of their presence. “I have been waiting for you. I have only to wait. In time everything comes to me.”
“Even death and destruction—the end of your schemes,” replied Durwin calmly.
“Silence, fool! I can have your tongue torn out where you stand!” Nimrood had leaped to his feet and stood glowering down at them. His hands gripped a rod of polished black marble.
“But no.” The wizard suddenly sweetened. “Prattle on. Your words are the rhymes of children. Noise and air. There is no power in them. It amuses me. Please continue.”
Durwin said nothing.
“Nothing more to say? We shall see if I can inspire you! Take them to the dungeon!” He swung the rod over his head, and the guards who had accompanied them from the wain hustled them away with the butts of their spears. As they left the room, they heard Nimrood cackle. “You will soon have company—your friends, unless they are dead, cannot elude me long. Ha! It makes no difference. Dead or alive, you shall have company. Ha! Ha!”