Howl's Moving Castle Fan Fiction ❯ The Daemon Wars ❯ Chapter 8: Bargain ( Chapter 8 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

The Daemon Wars: Part IV of the Wallmaker Saga
Chapter 8: Bargain
Howl stared at the man who held his daughter's hand and realized for once in his life he was not the tallest in the room.
Nor the handsomest…
The Wallmaker tried to tell himself that the incredulous anger he felt was over the fact that this stranger was holding his daughter's hand rather than the fact that he had to look up at the star daemon. The spirit was old, nigh ancient and somehow felt very familiar. Calcifer retreated to the hearth the moment he caught sight of the being from the otherworld, dwindling small and pink as he regarded the stranger with wide incredulous eyes over a bit of charred wood.
“Papa!” Drie cried happily and flew up the steps, whisking him into her arms and spinning around as though he weighed nothing before setting him down. The raven-haired man was not used to being handled thus, and his daughter's strength stunned him. He half gaped at her as she drew back and reached out to the white haired man who wore a velvet cloak the color of the indigo veil. Howl also noticed that Sophie had dressed their daughter in one of his best shirts, the back of which was now torn to shreds.
“Papa, this is Nox!”
Again the blue-eyed keeper of the balance was struck by the strangest sense of déjà vu. The man-daemon gently inclined his head with the grace of a summer field in the wind; not to be undone, Howl matched the movement with his own panache.
“I feel as though we have met before, revered ancient,” the handsome wizard spoke gregariously. However, the darkly-tanned man turned curious violet eyes towards Deirdre, the question in them quite plain.
“Oh, I forgot, papa. Nox doesn't speak human very well,” the silver haired girl beamed brightly and turned to her companion, speaking rapidly in a foreign language that shimmered like silver bells in winter. Just the sound of the language of magic, the words of ancients, made Howl's knees weak and his stomach queasy. The violet eyed man replied, his voice resonating deeply in hues of copper and gold.
“Nox says he knew your parents, so don't you recognize him? He's the elder star from the otherworld.” The tall child-woman announced as though he were simply the neighbor from next door.
Howl almost missed the kitchen bench as he sat down hard, his eyes wide with the revelation of the star daemon's identity. The white-haired man spoke again after peering at the dumb-struck wizard for a moment, motioning to his eyes. Deirdre listen to him intently and then frowned.
“He says that you have his twin sister's eyes and that all of the Wallmaker's have stayed true to her blood. What's he talking about? Papa? Are you okay, papa?”
The raven-haired man was staring wildly at Nox, his face paler than usual. Was it possible? Was this the elder star? Could this ancient really be the brother of the mother of the magi race? Nox was currently inspecting the weather charm Markl had fashioned for Sophie at mid-winter with a serene smile, seeming to have draw within himself as though distant in thought. The man-daemon began humming and swaying in a distracted manner as he looked about the dark living room, oblivious to the fact that anyone else was there. Worried for her father, the silver haired half-daemon came over and kneeled at his feet, placing her arms in his lap as she peered up at him.
“Are you mad at me Papa?” She asked again, features twisted with anxious apprehension.
“Mad? Why would I be mad at you, cherub?” Her voice seemed to draw Howl out of his thoughts and the Wallmaker snatched up one of her braids and tickled her nose with the tip. She giggled for a moment and then became very serious, her blue eyes huge and luminous.
“Because of the soldier,” She whispered, her voice dripping with horror and grief as she hid her face in her upturned hands, which were still resting on the sorcerer's knees. Howl could only stare at her, searching madly for the right thing to say.
“You mother and I love you very much, Deirdre. If we seem like we're mad it just means that we're worried about you.” In the weighty pause that followed he smoothed her silver hair and finally mustered the courage to speak again.
“Cherub… The soldier… Did you?”
“NO!” She whispered fiercely, beginning to tremble. Silently, Howl leaned down and wrapped his arms around her, rocking her side to side.
“Do you believe me?” Her small plea was heart-wrenching.
“Of course I do, little one,” again he paused but was forced by circumstances beyond him to continue. “I'm sorry, Drie, but I have to ask. The wizard who was present said that a daemon ate his comrade. Do you know what happened?”
“You can tell me, Drie,” he murmured after the long silence that followed, feeling the tears that were soaking through the fabric of his pants.
“The other ate the man,” She finally replied cryptically, clinging to him as if the very act of speaking caused her pain. For some reason her words caused a lump of cold fear to fall into the pit of his stomach like a lead weight. Howl's skin tingled and the amulet against his skin burned as his intuition told him this had something to do with Danna and the daemon she had put in his daughter's soul. This perhaps was a bit of the answer he was seeking, the way to sever the connection between the cold woman and his daughter.
“Deirdre; who is the other?” The Wallmaker asked in as calm a voice as he could manage.
“I can't tell you,” She whispered.
“Because if I do you'll hurt her.”
“Why would I hurt her?”
“Because she does bad things.”
“Deirdre… is the other Councilor Raia's apprentice?” Howl insisted, his voice sounding much harsher in his ears than he had intended. This was the first time he had attempted to talk to his girl about what had happened in the past. It was probably not the best time or place, but his premonition made him hasty. Hearing the name of the late Councilor, Drie gave a violent start and raised her face to regard him with wide eyes full of frenzied desperation. Her reaction and the shift in her tense made the wizard's skin crawl.
“It's not our fault, papa! Mrs. Danna makes us to terrible things. We're not bad; the burned place made us a little crazy.”
“Mrs. Danna?!” Just hearing the cold woman's name made his blood boil, “Do you know where she is? Can you tell me about her?”
“I don't want to talk about this anymore,” The silver-haired child-woman whispered, her face falling blank white. But Howl's grip on her shoulders intensified as she tried to pull away.
“Please, Deirdre. I want to help you, but I need to know what happened.”
“I said I don't want to talk about this anymore,” The silver-haired child-woman repeated in a low voice, refusing to look at her father.
The Wallmaker recoiled in shock. An icy sting of magic bit at his hands as Deirdre's untrained magic responded to the turmoil of her emotions. Like the fey static charge that builds during a thunderstorm, he could feel the power of her magic. It was vast, endless, and immense; for a moment Howl caught a glimpse of the vast green hills in the otherworld and could taste the bitter-sweet smell of the endless wind. Howl had never felt anything like it and the wizard felt infinitesimally small before her. All of a sudden he understood why his wife was afraid of their daughter.
It was then that his Drie looked at him and the handsome wizard gave a start; her eyes had gone black, dark and irisless as the moonless night sky. At that moment, nothing in the woman before him was his daughter anymore. It was like she had fled her body, becoming lost to another place or purpose beyond his understanding. And then he sensed the Dark; it coiled through his mind like a serpent, bringing with it the horrible sulfur smell. It issued from Deirdre like she was a doorway to the burned world beyond the Wall. For a second so brief Howl wasn't sure if he actually heard it, his son's twin sister thrummed menacingly in a sound no human could make.
Then Nox was at her side, his hand on her shoulder and his violet eyes luminous with power and mystery.
The Wallmaker had a mixed reaction to the man-daemon's reappearance: relief and resentment. The elder star's touch brought Deirdre back from where ever she had gone. His girl blinked and her eyes went blue as the tall being pulled her to her feet. The silver-haired child-woman cast her eyes about as though she were not sure where she was. The spirit's actions convinced Howl of the earlier thoughts he had entertained about his daughter. He would not be able to teach her the knowledge she so desperately needed. Sorrow filled him; had he regained his girl only to loose her again? No, he would not let anyone take away his daughter; not even a star. It was childish, but that moment the wizard felt furious with the man-daemon for proving him right and for the fact that the daemon could do what he could not. Howl experienced a stab of possessiveness as the white haired man let his hand linger on Deirdre's shoulder. As if reading his thoughts, Nox regarded the Wallmaker with a sad smile that did nothing to make the lanky man feel any better.
If anything it made things worse.
“Howl, we've got big trouble!” Calcifer's voice drew the blue-eyed sorcerer from his troubled thoughts. The fire daemon flitted over to the table and settled on the trivet Sophie left there just for him. Heen's claws suddenly scrabbled on the floor and the fat dog leapt up on the bench next to the Wallmaker. The creature thumped his tail as he regarded the star daemon. Then Suliman's errand dog turned large brown eyes to the sorcerer as he wheezed and growled like his noises made sense. But the living flame translated for the Witch of the Waste's companion.
“Heen says he remembers Nox and that he always comes around up when things are going to go bad. He says that's why the star daemons showed up when Suliman attacked you and Sophie during the Mardan War. They were trying to protect you. He says the elder star is the reason why Suliman's staff is so powerful; it's how he keeps tabs on the Wallmaker's family.
Howl was stunned by the words of his late teacher's pet; strike that, Heen was no dog nor was he anyone's “pet.” Calcifer turned to regard the dog with a frown as Heen gave another series of annoyed muffled woofs and growls. The little spark crackled irritably and showed a bit of tooth as he replied nastily.
“Of course I'm not translating verbatim, you fat fur ball. Did you think I would swear in front of the kid?!”
But the living flame gave a chittering pop and colored a rosy pink as the elder star turned his amethyst eyes on the fire daemon with a gentle smile. Something passed between them in the blink of an eye and the little spark spoke again.
“Nox say's he's here because the other Ancient are really angry at the mortals because of the bells and the mirrors and the unnecessary banishing. They say things if we don't get the mortals to stop the Old Ones are going to retaliate.”
“How does he know this?” The Wallmaker spoke and then attempted to swallow only to find his mouth completely dry.
“The spirit of the Wastes told us so, papa. She threw rocks at us,” Deirdre replied, slipping away from Nox to come and sit beside her father. Heen retreated from her immediately, circling under the table to sit on the other side of the table. Howl threw an arm around her shoulder as she leaned into him. The star daemon was staring at them with a cryptic expression in his gentle eyes. The Wallmaker could help but bristle, not liking to feel at a loss in anyone's company.
“I will go into Kingsbury first thing in the morning,” The raven-haired man announced to no one in particular. With that he turned intense cerulean eyes to regard the shaggy dog that sat across from him.
“What do you know about Suliman's sister?” The lanky wizard all but demanded. Heen flinched and shrank under his gaze before uttering a timid wheeze, turning his eyes to the fire daemon.
“What do you want to know?” Calcifer translated with a roll of his eyes, growing tired of playing the messenger service game.
“Everything,” was the Wallmaker's reply.
“I forgot!” The fire daemon suddenly exclaimed as he started up in the air, “Markl went to Kingsbury just now!”
“Sneaking off to see Theresa, no doubt,” Howl grinned, remembering the circle magic that had shown on the back of the door.
“No, it was because of the stinky papers he found in the sleeve of your coat.”
“He was able to read them?!” On his way home the thin sorcerer had glanced at them briefly; the pages were covered with what looked like unintelligible scribbling.
“Yeah and it got him all riled up about something to do with Martha. He took off like a swift, ignoring everything I said. He left the transcription behind; it's up in the workshop.”
Howl was about to stand when Deirdre sat bolt upright and started to her feet holding her hand with a stricken expression on her face.
“My hand!” She gasped in pain.
A second later she began screaming uncontrollably, clutching at her face.
The empty hallways sped past them in a furious blur; although the young wizard took no joy in his flight.
The blood-curdling shrieks had ceased, but the Wallmaker's apprentice knew the creature was right behind them. The stink of its magic was overwhelming in his mind, thick and cloying, making it hard for him to think. But he was not afraid for himself at that moment; his thoughts were only of his friend, the freckle-faced girl that clutched him in an iron grip. This was not the first time Theresa had seen a daemon, but Markl was astounded by how level-headed the freckle-faced girl could be in dire circumstances. Although she had screamed when she first saw the thing, and he could not blame her for indeed he almost had as well, the herbalist apprentice did not struggle madly or shriek uncontrollably. Theresa was much smaller than he, but deceptively heavy; that she remained still in his arms made their flight much easier on him. It was difficult to fly fast without wings, and the young man had yet to learn how to sprout feathers like his parents. He was using an enormous amount of his magical stores in order to keep their pace.
Unfortunately the girl had not brought her garden hoe. Nor had he thought to bring Suliman's staff.
“It stopped!” Theresa spoke in a voice high pitched with fear. Casting a glance over his shoulder, Markl caught sight of the rapidly shrinking blood-drenched figure standing stock still in the middle of the hallway. It was reaching its claws towards them almost in a beckoning motion.
He, however, had no intentions of stopping.
“It's doing something!” The herbalist's apprentice cried in trepidation.
Just then spots flew in front of his eyes as he experienced a gut-wrenching sensation of vertigo. It was as though something had reached it hands inside of him and pulled backwards, ripping from him the otherwind that propelled them forward. Markl issued a truncated shout and the two of them plummeted to the ground, tumbling a few feet as they skidded to a halt on the rug. The daemon at the end of the hallways gave an echoing cry of triumph and yet again clutched at the air as though holding something tangible. Again Markl cried out as the creature pulled at some unseen force and the young sorcerer swiveled on the ground. He was dragged towards the twisted spirit as though hauled by hundreds of unseen hands.
Theresa shrieked as she caught hold of the russet-haired boy and pulled with all her might. However her resistance was nothing before the power of the tainted ancient, and she was dragged along with her friend. Seeing its prey within its grasp, the daemon issued a gleeful metallic chuckle, which resonated darkly in the empty corridor. It was all too human a sound. Plunging a free hand into her pocket as she clung to the boy with her other, the young hedge witch madly wrenched out a handful of dried herbs.
“Markl, fire! FIRE!” The freckle-faced girl shrieked as she shoved the handful of agrimony in the young wizards face.
“My magic is gone!” The young wizard gasped faintly, eyes glazed and his face grey with horror, “Let go, Theresa!”
“No!” The red-head cried hoarsely tossing the herbs aside as she scrambled to fumble with the pouch at his waist.
There was a tense moment of frozen terror when her hand met only a vast emptiness inconsistent with the size of the small pocket. Suddenly, her hand closed around the hilt of exactly what she was seeking. The daemon loomed over them, stinking of blood and death, made all the more huge and horrible because of its twisted form and familiar face.
But Theresa ripped the knife out of Markl's pouch stabbing it at the creature. The mad spirit let out a ghastly wail and recoiled as horror twisted its pale blood smeared face. It threw up its claws defensively, obviously terrified of the knife. The two of them skidded to a halt as the daemon backed away, gnashing its teeth in fury in spite of the bright fear that glimmered in its obsidian eyes. The herbalist's apprentice scrambled to her feet and stood defensively in front of the unconscious young wizard. But her stance faltered slightly as she stared at the creature's face; it was the same girl from the shield room.
It was Markl's sister!
“Deirdre!?” She exclaimed incredulously.
The spirit gave a violent start at the sound of the name as though she had been slapped in the face. With a swaying shudder, the daemon seemed to shake from itself the mad rage in which it had been previously immersed. The monstrous features of its gruesome form faded in the same way that nightmares dissipate with the rising sun. The silver-haired woman blinked rapidly and her eyes turned blue, the same shade as the Wizard Howl's eyes. Lucidity returned to the strange spirit and astonishment crossed its features as it regarded its blood soaked arms. The woman then caught sight of the russet-haired boy as though seeing him for the first time. She cried out in dismay, recognition bright in her cerulean eyes.
“Markl!” The name fell unbidden from her lips.
“You are Dierdre!” Theresa cried in horror.
“No! I am not!” The creature wailed mournfully as though the name caused her great pain. Clasping her hands over her ears, the woman began shaking violently. She sank to her knees rocking back and forth like a child, wrapped in the matted silver cloak of her hair.
“Mother? I'm me… I'm me?” She whispered madly in a panic-stricken voice. Theresa was torn between wild aversion and gentle pity; she knew not what to do. The herbalist's apprentice had known Deirdre was not well the moment she saw her for the first time. Martha had told her a little of what happened, and she knew that Markl's sister desperately needed help. The healer in the copper-haired girl issued forth and she lowered the knife, cautiously reaching out a hand to comfort the woman.
“It's okay… We can help you.”
“You can't help me…” The chimera flinched at the girl's touch and then murmured bitterly, “No one can but her…”
“Theresa!” Martha's frantic voice ripped the girl's attention away from the strange woman. The daemon's face snapped up and transformed immediately as its black eyes fell upon the herbalist. Sophie's dark-haired sister stood white faced and gasping for air at the end of the hallway. Towering upwards into its daemon form, the creature screeched and lashed out and caught the curly haired girl in her moment of distraction. The creature wrenched the blade from Theresa's hands, screeching as the silver burned its flesh. It hurled the girl aside and she crashed against the wainscoting, crumbling into a heap near Markl.
”GET AWAY FROM MY CHILD!” Martha screamed as she hurled handfuls of glass ampoules at the Dark touched ancient, striding forward with fire in her eyes.
The agrimony tincture shattered against the spirit's arms, pelting her face with the liquid. Bright green fire started up from the places where contact had been made. Fading back to its human form, it crashed into the walls with a hand to its face, wailing and shrieking in pain. However, it still held fast to the burning knife in its grasp. A red circle ripped into life beneath the twisted spirit's feet as Dieter appeared at Martha's side, a small mirror held in his hand. But Door bellowed in rage and reality of the mortal world seemed to flex around her, twisting and bowing outward. The red garbed wizard cried out in astonishment as the mirror in his hand cracked and shatter. The banishing circle beneath the daemon's feet let out a great breath of wind, transforming into a portal through which the creature plunged out of sight.
It was the same dream, but again it was different.
She was standing on the green plains in the otherworld, but this time she was young and full of magic. Someone called her name and she turned as the Dull Wall reared up out of the ground, looming over her menacingly. She could barely see through the thick darkness of its gloom, but at its foot stood two women. One was old but still regal; although her heart was full of ice and hatred. It was Mrs. Danna, Suliman's sister. The second was just as tall; she was young and beautiful in spite of the fact that she had long silver hair. The younger turned and regarded her with blue eyes the same color as Howl's; but she blinked and they went black as pitch.
The girl looked back to the wall, lifted a single hand to the bricks and pushed. As though it was been a thing of ash and illusion, the Wall crumbled. As the silver woman turned back to regard Sophie, she twisted and became dark and transparent like a column of indigo water. She held out her arms imploringly as star children faded into existence, dancing around her in a wavering circle.
Silver Mother! The woman cried soundlessly as Danna emerged from behind her, looking at the creature with pure hatred. The woman raised her clasped hands over her head, light glinting off of the silver blade. As she plunged the knife down, red fire from the scorched plains rushed forward in a great wave, consuming the figures.
“No!” Sophie gasped as she sat upright, a cold sweat clinging to her. The bed teetered as the support for the bad leg gave out and the silver haired witch tumbled onto the floor. Stunned and bewildered by her rude awakening, it took her a moment to understand her husband was missing from bed. A second later she realized someone in the castle was screaming. Scrambling to her feet, the silver-haired mother dashed down the stairs barefoot and in her nightdress, skidding to a halt only to clutch at the banister as a wind nearly knocked her from her feet.
Chaos reigned in the kitchen.
Drie was screeching at the top of her lungs, a mad keening noise issued from between her fingers. All the lights in the living room were burning like torches, fluttering in a frenzied response to the thick wild magic at loose in the room. Dark shadows crept long and lively up the walls, twisting like living soot stains. Tea cups and plates flew madly around the room as the floorboard ripped from the ground, snapping and clattering wildly. The castle moaned and creaked so loudly it sounded like it was trying to rip itself apart. Spirits Sophie had never before seen dashed about the ceiling beams as the otherwind ripped through their home, escaping like a furious gale from the front door which was wide open to the indigo world of the beyond. Calcifer was a small sickly point of green light in the hearth, hugging a huge log with the thin tendrils of his arms as though it were his last hope.
Through the madness before her, the silver sorceress saw Howl and a strange man with snow white hair flanked her daughter. They were rooted rigidly in place by twin nimbuses of blue and violet fire as though their magic was the only thing preventing them from being hurled against the walls. In perfect unison, they clapped their hands together and before casting their palms outward in a cutting motion. Deirdre ceased screaming as the wind and foreign beings fled in a huge rush out the front door, which slammed shut with a thunderous echo. The silence that followed was shattered as the objects in the air crashed to the floor along with the Wallmaker's daughter. But Howl caught her just before she fell.
“Deirdre!” Sophie cried as she rushed forward just as her husband hefted their thin daughter into his arms. Drie shuddered violently and opened her eyes only to find the nose of the mother witch an inch from her face.
“Mother!” The child-woman cried, grabbing the relieved woman to her and Howl laughed as he shifted his arm to accommodate his wife into their embrace.
“There, there, little lamb. I'm here,” Sophie managed to say as her son's twin crushed the air from her lungs, “I'm so sorry I yelled at you!”
“S'okay, mother,” Drie smiled tearfully, “Papa told me it means you're worried about me.”
“Oh, what a lively castle,” Granny witch yawned curiously as she emerged in her sleeping kerchief and dressing gown from behind her curtain with a trembling Heen in her arms. Nox started forward, staring fiercely at the stairs and Granny caught sight of him just as Sophie did.
“Oh what a beautiful star!” The faded Witch of the Wastes exclaimed girlishly. Sophie also saw straight through the ancient's mortal guise to the brilliance beneath his human skin.
“Howl, that's the elder star!” She gasped.
“His name is Nox, mommy. He's here to help us,” Drie replied in a matter of fact tone. But the child-woman stiffened in the Wallmaker's arms, her face twisting with worry at the same moment that Calcifer cast aside his bit of wood and roared up in the fireplace, coloring a ruddy red in surprise.
“Something just came through a mirror in the workshop!” Exclaimed the fire daemon.
“Door!” Deirdre gasped and scrambled out of her father's grasp, nearly knocking over the star daemon as she went flying up the stairs.
Barimus sat in his chair like a dead-weight, stunned beyond words.
He had hobbled there with the help of Peoter on the heels of King Ferdinand, who had demanded to see that the children were alright. It was little things like the bristle-bearded man's love of kids that convinced the blond wizard that the monarch of Ingary was a good King. They were currently seated in a small waiting room outside of the infirmary where Martha had whisked both Theresa and Markl. Rather, he was seated and the King was madly pacing the room. The Royal wizard wanted very much to join the emperor's perambulation; unfortunately, he could not.
Barimus hated the sterile little room; it reminded him of the terrible events six years ago. But much to his complete and utter relief, the curly haired little girl was fine. She had fallen out of more trees than he could count and long since had learned to bounce. But the freckled-faced girl was in pieces over the Wallmaker's apprentice. Markl's condition also sent his insides into a wild twist of cold-knotted worry. The young russet-haired boy would not wake up, no matter what foul smelling substance the herbalist wafted under his nose. Although, that much he had not told Ferdinand; the handsome wizard knew that the monarch was likely to have declared the extermination of all daemons if he knew how close to death the two children had come.
According to Dieter, who had been the first wizard on the scene, the daemon had literally ripped Markl's magic reservoirs from his body. Barimus had never encountered anything like this in his entire life as a sorcerer. It was just like what had happened to the Guard named Seran. However, the Wallmaker's apprentice had a much larger gift of magic than the unfortunate lesser mage. Luckily the twisted creature had not drained it all away. Had it done so, it would have tapped into the young man's life force and caused the boy to age, just as had the poor guard and the soldier who touched him. The same daemon was responsible for both incidents. But Markl wasn't cursed; it was like his mind had gone missing from his body.
It was not the first time this had happened.
The red wizard remembered the incident with the crystal ball before the spire cracked. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could do this time. Wherever the young wizard had gone he was far beyond the blond man's call. But his mind turned back to what Theresa had told him between fits of tears. She had given a name and a face to the creature, one that had been corroborated by the description given by the Guard Seran. Barimus' mind still reeled at the revelation he had luckily been able to keep secret. Was it possible that his brother's daughter was responsible for so many deaths? But the handsome blond man pulled himself from his thoughts as he the Royal Wizard realized King Ferdinand was staring at him expectantly, waiting for an answer.
The Wallmaker's brother felt powerless in the web of intrigues in which he was tangled.
He had been able to calm the king out of his violent rage over the infiltration of the palace yet again by daemon by promising to talk to the Wallmaker immediately about restoring the shield. Barimus also managed to convince the king to wait until morning to deploy his troops into the Market Chipping and the wastes. The blond man had already decided grimly that with first light he would go himself to his brother's castle to discuss the secret he had managed to keep hidden. Howl was going to be furious about the deployment of soldiers in the wastes; that was another fire the red wizard would need to put out. However, the Royal Wizard was able to talk the Emperor into restrict the issuing of banishing mirrors to only trained Royal Wizard Guards. In capitulation he had agreed that bells should be distributed to all soldiers. But Barimus was no longer so wary of the chimes; they had proved themselves useful that evening by saving two lives he held very dear.
Unfortunately, the conversation had not ended there. Subsequently, several things had fallen into place all at once, most having in one way or another to do with Mardan magi. Apparently the ruler of Ingary was considering accepting the help of the Mardan scryer in the search for the Daemon Queen. However, Merra of Marda's services were not freely given, and the water witch had a very specific price in mind. The King had informed him unceremoniously that the Council had been biting his heels relentlessly since the spire cracked, demanding he command Barimus to choose a successor. Next the barrel-chested man heaved a tired sigh and asked him point blank if he would be willing to accept Nalir as his heir and apprentice.
At least the emperor had been kind enough to ask his consent before accepting the witch's bargain; but that was poor consolation.
Barimus resisted the urge to scream and break things as he realized he had been set up by a very shrewd and ambitious sorceress. He should have known better; Mardans never gave away anything for free. But now he was indebted to Healer Yewin as well, another mark that put him in their favor. It was not that the royal wizard did not like the boy; he was a good student and studied hard. However, it was the young man's disposition that marked him as an ill-suited candidate. Elder Tirut had done his best to tame the young wizard's pride and vanity, but to no avail. The red-haired boy made it very clear through words and actions on numerous occasions what little regard he had for non-magical citizens. Some of his pranks bordered on cruelty.
In spite of the fact that the young man was top of his class, there was no way Barimus could accept him as an heir. The Council's purpose was to serve the good of all people, non-magical and magical. Too quickly this fact was forgotten in the squabbling of petty magi over concerned by titles and rank. Even if the green-eyed young sorcerer had been suitable, the red wizard would have refused on principle simply because of the back-handed dealings that had brought about this situation. The Lord Councilor liked Prince Justin very much; however, much like Ferdinand let the magi in Ingary do as they pleased, the Mardan sorcerers had a great deal of free reign. Barimus smelled all the familiar characteristics of a coup. Although the expression on his face was carefree, the man tightened his hands into fists where they rested in his lap. He had fought long and hard for six years to restore the balance to the Council, and he was not about to let it be shattered by the ambitions of the power-hungry.
No, Nalir would not do.
But King Ferdinand was desperate; it was clear in the emperor's pinched features and the way his twitched his moustache irritable. Barimus could not refuse the ruler's request knowing it was a solution to two of Ingary's problems simply because he did not like the boy's character. Furthermore, Ferdinand would dismiss his worries about the intrigues of wizards. He could hear the brisk man's reply already. The monarch would laugh and call him picky, and then accept the bargain with the accession that the red wizard would simply have to drill humility into the boy. Wasn't that the point of an apprenticeship? No, the blond man realized with acute dismay; he would have to be under-handed about this. He had little time to think as the barrel-chested ruler twitched his moustache again, a sure-fire sign he was growing increasingly impatient.
And so Barimus told a barefaced lie to the king of Ingary.
“I'm sorry, you majesty, but I regret to inform you I have already accepted an heir and apprentice,” the blond wizard spoke with smooth contrition despite the fact that he was very light-headed and his mouth had gone completely dry. There was only once choice he could make; one that he had long since decided upon in his heart and knew was the right decision in spite of the complications it would cause.
“Really?! When did this happen?” Ferdinand was both troubled and surprised.
“Earlier today when the Wizard Howl visited me.”
“I was wondering what he was doing in the palace. I'm very cross he did not visit me and you can tell him so next time you see him. I would very much have liked to thank him for saving the capital. But out with it man, who is your new heir?”
“The Wallmaker's eldest apprentice, Markl Jenkins.”
“How splendid!” Ferdinand gushed. “What an excellent decision, the boy is practically a hero after his efforts in the shield room! Plus his connection to the Wallmaker makes him a perfect choice as mediator of the Council. The Wizard Howl already has a son, so I can't see how he'd mind turning over his fosterling to you. I don't know why I didn't think of this before? Well, now I'll have to see to Merra. No doubt I can still convince her to lend her aid…”
Ferdinand continued to prattle on, but Barimus wasn't listening anymore. With the words he had spoken came a great rush of relief, but one that had faded to cold despair. Howl hated the Council with blind irrationally, and he loved and coveted his family with the same ferocity. The Wallmaker most definitely would mind turning over his eldest son, adopted or not. And then there was poor Markl, who had not been given any say in the matter. And then there was the chilling possibility that Markl may not wake up. Guilt and shame flooded the red wizard as he realized his lie would force the young sorcerer to make a decision that had the potential to divide their family. The red wizard realized he had acted too hasty, choosing what he wanted most instead of thinking of the greater consequences.
And the price of his bargain had yet to be paid.
“Well, Barimus, I'm done for this evening,” Ferdinand half crowed, thumping the blond man on the shoulder as he strode out of the room, the bell dangling at his hip jostling silently. Indeed, there was now a bell tied to the red leather belt that encircled his waist. “I shall see you in the morning, the troops and I leave at first light!”
As soon as Ferdinand left, Barimus sank his face into his hands.
“My lord, are you alright? Shall I call Lady Martha?” Peoter's voice was at his ear and the handsome man looked up at the concerned expression on one half of the freckle-faced Captain of the Wizard's Guard. The man had stood stark still and silent behind his chair throughout the entire conversation, knowing full well that Barimus had lied outright to his king. The twin's steadfast loyalty to him brought the royal wizard some cheer, and the blond man managed a weak smile.
“No, I'm fine. Go with our King, Peoter and keep him out of harm's way. Nowhere is safe anymore, even with the bells.”
The green-eyed man bowed respectfully before turning to chase after their monarch. After the man's footsteps had dwindled into nothing, Barimus slumped lower into his chair, again sinking his face into his hands.
“What have I done?” He moaned.