by Yury Nesterenko (George Right)
Translated by David Koralov
By noon, the troop finally made it to the entrance of the gorge. Prince Haruld stopped spurring the exhausted horse, and it halted immediately, lowering its head and mane, soaked with foamy sweat, to the dry rocky ground. The prince felt with his knees how its heart thrashed around inside its chest. The other horsemen also halted. Haruld looked over his party gloomily. Both the men and the horses looked pitiful. The horses could barely keep on their legs, and the horsemen - in the saddles. Gray dust covered their weary faces, their soaked-through clothing, and the wet heaving sides of the horses. But, worst of all, only twelve soldiers remained in their small troop. In reality, there were not that many more from the very beginning. Six guardsmen had been lost in battle while breaking out of the capital. Another four had to be left behind, as their horses had fallen, unable to endure the relentless chase.
Twelve exhausted men. That was all Prince Haruld had remaining; just three days ago, he was about to become the king of one of the mightiest nations on the Continent.
“Here’s the border,” the prince tried to cheer them up. His voice sounded hoarse as if all of the dust he had swallowed along the way had suddenly clumped up inside his throat. Haruld took out his almost-empty flask and drank some of the warm water, relishing every gulp, using all of his willpower to save a tiny bit for later. “We’ve made it after all,” he said.
be here in an hour, at most,” old corporal Zehts shook his
head. “And they won’t stop here. They will follow us into
Haruld knew that Zehts was right. It was already a miracle that, even with superhuman exertion, they had somehow managed to reach the mountains before the pursuing party, who would get new horses at every post. But such miracles don’t last long. Those in pursuit were approaching, and everyone understood that. Surely, the agents of the damned swine Edmund will not stop at the formal border, which is not even patrolled from either side. It is said that mountains are the best type of barrier for a border. It is a good thing, Haruld thought, with a crooked grin on his face, that his younger brother had seized power specifically now. At any other time of the year, this ravine would have been completely impassable.
“There is only one thing to do, my lord,” continued Zehts. “To leave a covering force at the entrance. That will delay them.”
For a quarter of an hour?” grimaced Haruld unhappily. “There
are a dozen of us, and in pursuit, there are at least a hundred.”
“Most likely there are more,” stated the corporal calmly. “That is why they have not yet caught up with us. Too large a troop inevitably loses mobility. Up ahead there is a bottleneck narrow enough for six to eight people to cover. To cover and hold long enough, even against an entire army.”
long as the arrows last.”
“Yes. But a good soldier can always put the arrows flying in from the other side to good use.”
“But then, it’s inevitable death anyway.”
is the work of a soldier,” said Zehts calmly. “Someone
else’s … or one’s own.”
“Are you sure that they will follow such an order?” asked the prince, lowering his voice. Previously, it would not even have occurred to him to doubt his soldiers. They would give their lives without hesitation for the heir to the throne. And if any hesitation occurred, there would be a court-martial to deal with the matter. But now - would they go to certain death for a persecuted outcast, when they could simply run away without being held accountable? Maybe they would even be rewarded for their betrayal...
“They will follow it,” firmly answered the corporal. “I will personally see to that.”
“You? You want to stay at the barricade?” Haruld wanted to save Zehts. They had known each other since the prince’s childhood; in former times, Zehts had taught fencing to the young heir and would hide him in the barracks when the prince would run away from his tutors’ tedious lessons. And later, they would sneak through a secret passage to the cliff behind the west wall of the castle, bake potatoes at a campfire, and the boy would listen with wide eyes to the soldier’s tales, which most likely would not have pleased his strict teachers...
“Someone must take command of the rest,” calmly shrugged the old soldier. “And since all of the officers went over to Edmund’s side…”
“Thank you,” said the prince, after several seconds of silence. He said it as an equal to an equal, not as a commander to a subordinate. And the latter did not bark in response “At the service of the Crown!” (the crown was now in the hands of the usurper anyway), but instead quietly said, “Stay safe, my lord.”
“Alright, guys,” Zehts turned to the soldiers, “let’s serve his Highness one last time! I need seven men for the barricade. Who is ready to stay here with me? Come on! Enough running from them, let’s show these traitors what the personal guard of the crown prince is worth!”
as one hand went up, slowly and hesitantly, followed by another, and
another... The prince felt almost touched. In earlier times, the
sight of soldiers staying to die would not have evoked any emotion in
him. After all, that’s their job, is that not so? But now he
thought that he would need to do something for them; in reality, of
course, for their families... obviously after returning to power and
hanging this swine, Edmund, from the tallest tower. Yes, from the
tallest! You wanted to rise higher, Edmund - well that’s what
you will get! That is what he will tell him when handing him over to
the executioners! Haruld smiled broadly at the thought.
“You need to hurry, my lord," Zehts returned him to reality.
The prince looked at those who were to accompany him further. Still just boys. Some of them were eager to go to battle, but Zehts decided to save the youngest. The decision was not only humane but also thought through - in battle, they would be less useful than experienced soldiers... The prince suddenly thought that those who wanted to stay were motivated not only by heroism but also by the thought that they would get to rest for even an hour - and the ones that went on would have to keep riding... Awfully stupid, of course - one hour of rest in exchange for one’s life, but people rarely think strategically, though. And that’s why the subversive ideas of a popular rule are so stupid. Strategy, politics, power - those are the destiny of the selected few, Such as...
Such as your younger brother, who treacherously fooled you, said a cunning voice from inside his head. He, unlike you, probably did not run away from his tutors to sit at a campfire with common soldiers. Always diligent and setting a good example, Edmund ... but we’ll still see who will have the last laugh!
Haruld glanced at the fifth of his remaining companions. He was a young boy, practically the same as the remaining soldiers... except he was wearing torn-up civilian clothes, his ankles were tied underneath his horse, and his hands were tied to the saddle-bow. The long reigns of his horse were tied to the prince’s saddle. Clearly, the captive was doing yet worse than the others, and his appearance was quite pitiful - it looked as if he was about to fall off the horse and dangle from the ropes.
him some water,” demanded the prince somberly. One of the
guardsmen reluctantly extended a flask to the captive’s mouth,
then suddenly yanked it back, unkindly barking “Hey! Hey! Don’t
guzzle too much!” The others also looked gloomily at the
captive, although he had done them no harm. He wasn’t a
sympathizer of Edmund and wasn’t guilty of anything, except not
keeping his mouth shut. He was simply a burden that needed to be
dragged along, fed, and given water while they were being
The six-person troop continued deeper into the canyon. The high, wall-like cliffs blocked the sun, providing some relief. However, it would only help for a while. If they didn’t find water, the horses would surely die... In these gorges, there certainly should be streams of water flowing. But, as if out of spite, only barren rocks and dusty pebbles stretched for miles and miles…
“I can find water,” uttered a young, yet cracked voice.
The prince turned around and glanced at the captive mockingly.
“Well, then find it. It’s in your own interest.”
“Untie me. I need my hands to be free. And I need to stand on the ground.”
“Go ahead,” nodded Haruld to his soldiers. “The fellow has nowhere to go anyway.”
The young captive clumsily dropped to the ground, unable to hold back a tortured groan.
The guardsmen understandingly grinned. The youth, who clearly did not have the experience of a cavalryman, seemed to have bruised his entire behind. What is the magical art of these sorcerers worth, if they can’t even protect themselves from bruises and falls?
The young man crouched, digging through the dry dust with his fingers. He then got up, mumbling something with closed eyes and making unintelligible gestures with his hands. Then, in a demanding fashion, as if he had the right to give orders, he extended his hand:
“I need water.”
“So do we,” a soldier laughed mockingly. “Now go look for it!”
“Like things attract like!”
“Give him a flask,” ordered the prince. This time, nobody rushed to execute his order, and Haruld had to prod the closest guardsman: “You!”
With a gloomy look, the soldier extended his flask to the youth. The captive turned it upside down, pouring the life-giving liquid into the dry gravel.
“What do you think you are doing, you bastard?!” roared the guardsman, who was now without water, but the prince stopped him with a gesture. The moist spots on the hot rocks dried up almost instantly. Then, nothing happened. The half-learned magician stood with closed eyes, not paying attention to the angry bickering of the soldiers.
“There,” he suddenly pronounced, pointing behind them.
“You want to deliver us right into their hands?!” exclaimed the other guardsman angrily.
“It’s nearby,” responded the captive calmly. “Two hundred yards at most.”
“But we were just there, and there wasn’t any water!”
“It’s under the rocks. It can be summoned.”
“Let’s go,” nodded the prince.
They followed the youth, who went on foot. Soon he stopped and started mumbling something once again, but this time, with visible strain.
“More water,” he demanded, wiping away the sweat from his brow.
“Do you want to leave us with nothing?!” protested Haruld.
“I want to give you an entire spring, but I need more strength.”
He was given another flask. He didn't pour this one out, but greedily drank it instead, and extended his hand for another one.
“I think he just wants to drink at our expense, and then say that his magic didn't work,” predicted the fourth guardsman ominously.
“If that’s the case, we’ll fill these flasks with his blood,” promised the prince. In fact, he still needed the captive, but scaring him a little wouldn't hurt.
“Faster, or I’ll have to start over!” demanded the impudent youth. “Well,” thought Haruld, “sometimes a ruler must make risky choices,” and extended his own flask.
The young man drank almost everything, allowing only a couple of droplets to fall onto the ground, and began to mumble his spells once again. Then he became quiet, taking a breath. And suddenly, out of the steep wall, a transparent stream sprung out!
After the men and the horses quenched their thirst and all of their flasks were once again filled, the soldiers were ready to bathe for much longer, playfully dipping their heads and shoulders into the stream. But the prince reminded them of the pursuing party, which, surely, at this very moment was being held off by their comrades, who were fighting till the last breath. So, they rode on.
The captive was once again tied to the horse without any care. Since he had proven that he was not merely a cheap trickster, it was worth watching him even more closely. Perhaps, the hope that continued to drive Haruld, and which would have been condescendingly dismissed by Edmund as merely “fantasy”, was, in fact, warranted…
After the brief break, mounting felt even more torturous. The exhausted horses walked slowly forward but were soon spurred on to a sluggish trot. Their shadows continued to climb up the walls of the canyon. Dusk was approaching, but the air was still full of dry and dusty heat.
“That’s it,” said the captive suddenly. “They’re dead.”
“Who?” retorted the prince, still lost in his thoughts.
“Your officer and the rest”. The youth, apparently, was such a civilian, that he did not even know the difference between a corporal and an officer.
“How do you know?” one of the soldiers angrily turned to him.
“I know it. I feel it.”
After the “magic trick” with the water, nobody dared to protest. An eerie silence hung in the air. Then, the youth added: “We must hurry. We can’t stay to set up camp, or else we’ll be caught.”
“What’s in it for you?” grunted Haruld.
“They aren’t going to bother figuring out whether or not I was your prisoner. They have orders to leave no witnesses.”
“Well, I suppose that’s logical,” thought the prince. No matter what Edmund based his claims to the throne upon, the murder of an heir is a serious matter.
“Don’t listen to him, my lord,” protested the same soldier. “He just wants us to finally drive the horses to death.”
“In this gorge, we are like in a mousetrap,” Haruld shook his head. “If they catch up with us, we’re done for. We can rest when we get out.”
The difficult journey continued. The sharp rocks crunched and grated under the horses’ hooves. Every now and then, they would have to struggle over large boulders that had at some point fallen from above. The bottom of the canyon was already nearly submerged in darkness, but high above, between the dark walls, one could still see the colors of the sunset dancing around. It appeared as if a fiery golden-orange river were flowing above their heads.
But the small troop was not interested in the majestic beauty of the evening. The captive suddenly let out a frightened cry, and the prince felt how the reins of the captive’s horse yanked back. Haruld had to pull on his reins and stop. The youth’s horse stood in place, its whole body shaking, while blood flowed out of its nostrils. In the next instant, the front legs of the poor animal bent forward, and it lunged into the sharp gravel, dragging the bound captive down with it. One of the soldiers rushed to help, but, of course, it was too late. The young man groaned with pain after tumbling onto the rocks; the horse had fallen on his leg.
The troop dismounted, the captive was untied and put back on his feet. He had managed to make it out with only a few bruises and abrasions, and a tear in his pants. The horse, on the other hand, was faring a lot worse. The oldest of the soldiers crouched next to it, hoping to help it, but quickly stood back up, shaking his head.
“I told you, he set this all up!” exclaimed his angry comrade. “Maybe, he even cast a spell on the horse. He wants us to leave him so that he can run over to those… He is lying that he will be killed! He’ll just tell them about us, or maybe he knows some type of sorcery that will...”
“Shut up!” interrupted the prince suddenly. Sorcery, of course, had nothing to do with this. The marvel here wasn’t that the captive’s horse had fallen, but that the other horses were still standing. And what were they going to do now? If they dragged the boy along on foot, they would lose even more time. It was a long way to go, and running on the sharp gravel with his fancy thin-soled shoes would be impossible. If they sat him together with another man, yet another horse would be lost…
“You,” Haruld pointed at the angry accuser, “You give him your horse. Get out of here any way you like. Go home if you can.”
“How will I get out?!” exclaimed the soldier, while looking around at the vertical stone walls in desperation. “You said it yourself - it’s like a mousetrap in here! Whether I go back or onwards, they’ll catch up with me if I’m on foot...”
“Follow the order!” Haruld cut him off. The thought of possible insubordination again crossed Haruld’s mind, but the guardsman gloomily answered: “Yes, my lord.”
The four of them and the captive, who again had his hands tied to the saddle, rode on. Had the prince looked back at the man he had left behind, he would have seen how the soldier, distancing himself from the carcass of the horse, threw one more hopeless glance around and lay down on a flat rock, to rest and await death. But Haruld did not look back. The guardsman no longer existed for him.
The fiery river faded at first, and then completely darkened, nearly merging with the cliffs. Stars appeared above the gorge. The troop continued its journey in the darkness, something they soon paid the price for. While passing over a large stone blockage, one of the horses tripped and broke its leg. One soldier less. However, this one did not gloomily await his death. First, he looked and felt around the pile of stone that had now become fateful for him, wondering if he could perhaps hide somewhere. After being disappointed in this undertaking, he attempted to run after the riders. Of course, he soon fell behind.
Not long before sunrise, they had reached the end of the gorge. In front of them was a solid wall, from top of which tiny cold streams flowed. In the spring and fall, a mighty waterfall would be roaring here, and the canyon would become a turbulent river, but now, the pitiful trickles disappeared between the rocks.
One of the remaining guardsmen, making out the blockage in the darkness, cursed in frustration, but the prince was calm. He knew that a passage existed.
“Where now?” he grunted, turning to the captive.
“The passage begins there,” the youth, with his bound hands, attempted to point into the darkness somewhere near the bottom of the wall. “But we’ll have to leave the horses behind. They won’t get through.”
The prince did not like the idea of continuing on foot, but he did not see any other choice. Haruld only grunted, while dismounting:
“Are the pursuers far behind?”
“They’re close by,” the youth responded confidently. “But they won’t follow us here. I’ll make sure that they don’t notice the entrance.”
It was clear that, even without any magic, the narrow crack in the stone wall was probably not easily visible even in broad daylight. But after all four of them squeezed inside and one of the soldiers lit a torch, the young man mumbled some spells.
A long journey through a labyrinthine cave ensued, where, even with a map, it probably was easy to get lost. At the front was the guardsman with the torch, then the captive, who assumed the role of a guide, telling the party where to go at each turn. Next followed the prince and the other soldier, looking at the youth with suspicion.
They got especially worried when they had to walk on a narrow ledge above a dark, and seemingly bottomless underground lake, or through cracks so narrow that it would be impossible to use their weapons if anything happened. That would have been just what the young man needed - to extinguish the torch in one way or another, perhaps even with the help of his magical tricks, and then to dive into some dark crack, leaving his enemies stranded, with no way of finding either him or the exit.
But the young man, apparently, thought that an attempt to run away was too risky, and performed his duty as a guide honestly. One torch burned out, and, out of its dying flame, another was lit. After that, another… Then, finally, when the last torch crackled in dying agony, a gleam of sunlight appeared up ahead.
The exhausted men, who for the last three days had slept merely in short intervals, left the icy darkness of the cave, pushing away the long tree roots hanging from above. In front of them lay a crystal-clear lake that reflected the slopes and peaks of the surrounding mountains.
From between the two mountains in the East, rose the young morning sun, and its joyful rays whitened the walls and reddened the rooftops of the small town spread out along the shore of the lake, approximately a mile away from the exit from the caves. From here, the town appeared very homely and almost toy-like - perhaps this was due to the lack of a fortress wall. Well, either way, it would be difficult for an enemy army to get here, and there was nothing particular to conquer here, other than sheep cheese and mountain honey.
“So, he lives here,” stated the prince.
“Yes,” nodded the captive quickly. “Go along the shore in the direction of that pointed tower over there. That’s the town hall. After that, turn left straight away to the street that points away from the lake in the direction of the mountains. That street will take you to the main square almost immediately. On one side, there is Uncle Gille’s tavern, and on the other side, a two-story house with stained glass and gargoyles on the porch. You won’t miss it.”
“The gargoyles, I hope, are made of stone, aren’t they?” grinned Haruld.
“Yes, they’re statues,” responded the youth in a serious tone. “Also, there at the door, there is neither a bell nor a door knocker...”
“How then do I let him know that I wish to see him?”
The prince once again grinned incredulously but noticed one of the soldiers grasp an amulet on his chest and silently mumble something. In fact, Haruld himself felt out of place. He had never been a coward, and would readily face his enemies in open combat, but to get involved with magic seriously…
“So, you’re telling me he lives across from the tavern,” said the prince. “Not the ideal neighborhood for so mighty, as you insist, a person.”
“Uncle Gille has a very reputable business!” protested the captive, even with some resentment, as if he had been insulted personally. “There is never any screaming or any fighting, or even loud singing at night. Nobody even gets completely drunk there. The food is excellent, and a delivery boy brings hot meals directly to his home…”
“I thought,” continued Haruld with the same sarcastic tone, “that your master could make food materialize out of thin air.”
“Why would he waste his powers on that, if he could order a delivery from the tavern next door?”, shrugged the young man.
“Indeed,” chuckled the prince. “That’s how it is with magicians, is it not? I could perform a miracle, but right now the conditions aren’t ideal. But right now they are ideal, so I’ll read a spell, and it’ll start raining. The rain, of course, had been gathering since the morning, but you understand, of course, everything has to do with my spell, and not with the moisture in the air...”
“If you don’t believe in magic, why did you make me bring you here?” retorted the captive reasonably.
“What I do or don’t believe is none of your business,” answered the prince sharply. “Can we stay in this tavern? After all, we need to get a good rest, before having a conversation about business.”
“No. There are no rooms for visitors,” the youth shook his head. “They only offer food there. There is not an inn in the entire town. Strangers here are too great a rarity.”
“What about the clients seeking the services of your master?”
“He doesn’t need clients. He doesn’t want anyone to bother him. He doesn’t want anyone to even know that he lives here. He helps out the townsfolk in a neighborly fashion, and that’s it. In return, they hold their tongues, and besides, there is nobody in particular they could talk to. He’s going to be very unhappy when he finds out that I opened my mouth,” concluded the captive contritely.
“You had no other choice!” the prince reminded him, although this was not exactly true. The runaway apprentice had begun boasting on his own. Without mentioning any concrete details, of course. Only when the agents of the Secret Guard got him as he walked out of a tavern, and took him to a far less comfortable room to talk… Alas, while the people loyal to the prince were listening to tavern chatter, the real coup, as it turned out, was brewing elsewhere. But the babbling, that Edmund and the old king, when he was still alive, would have characterized as drunken nonsense, was of some use after all.
In any case, Haruld hoped so.
“Well, I brought you here and told you everything,” the young man said plaintively, raising his tied hands. “Are you going to let me go now?”
“Not so fast,” grinned the prince. “I need a trump card to bargain with. And you are just that.”
“He’s not going to accommodate you for my sake,” objected the captive fearfully. “I went against his will, I willfully left… ”
“Then you will die,” stated the prince bluntly. “So, if you can somehow influence his decision, it’s in your interest to do so.”
“Alright,” the prince turned to the guards, “Since this nice town is so hospitable, let’s go back to the caves. We’ll have to get some sleep there.”
“No, don’t!” exclaimed the young man quickly, as if something worse than just cold and darkness was lurking underground. “There is an old shepherd's hut nearby. I’ll take you there.”
“Hmm…” the prince pondered, considering the options. He really did not want to climb back into the darkness. “Alright, let’s go. But if you try to play some type of trick on us...”
However, the youth was, apparently, too frightened to be thinking about running away or setting some sort of a trap. In half an hour, having walked up a barely visible trail on a green slope, the four did indeed reach a small hut under a thick straw roof, and, taking turns, ducked under the low doorway. There was nobody inside. In fact, the hut appeared to have been deserted a long time ago; in the farthest corner, sunlight entered through a gap in the roof. However, with the clear sky, there was no rain threatening. The prince, having ordered the soldiers to take turns in standing on guard and to never take their eyes off the captive, stretched out on an old and torn hay mattress with great pleasure.
When Haruld woke up, the sun was already setting; the shadows of the mountains drowned the clearly visible town, and only the needle of the tower of the town hall still glimmered in the golden evening sunlight. Having scolded his guardsmen for not daring to wake him up earlier, he left them both to guard the hostage, diligently brushed the straw off his jacket, put on his sword strap, and hurriedly walked down the slope in the direction of the town. Perhaps, showing up there without guards was not the best idea, but he could only take one soldier with him. Would that change anything, especially considering who he had to speak with? Furthermore, there was no need for an extra pair of ears to be listening to the negotiation, and leaving the hostage with only one guardsman would be too risky. Who knew what they could conspire about, especially considering the lower ranks’ superstitious fear of magic…
The young man was not lying; in about an hour, as the town was already covered by early dusk, the prince walked out to the square next to the tavern. Warm welcoming light flickered in the windows of Uncle Gille’s establishment, and unbelievably appetizing smells reached Haruld from the doors. Haruld remembered that he had not eaten since the day before, and the meager provisions he had eaten in the previous days of the chase were not really suitable for a king’s table. In fact, this tavern was not a palace hall either, and the public here was of the type one would expect to find in such an establishment. And yet, Haruld wanted to go in really badly -- but first, he had to deal with business - and after that, perhaps, the very thought of having dinner in such an eatery would appear ridiculous...
While he stood at the doors of the tavern indecisively, his aristocratic nose sensed a different, far less pleasant, odor. Haruld's gaze moved to the right of the entrance. There was a little canopy apparently made for horses. The prince noticed three hitching posts, but there was not a single horse. In this small town, where there was nowhere to ride, they apparently weren’t popular. Instead, some man in dirty rags was lying on hay, under the canopy. A disgusting stench came from him. And since at such a distance the prince could sense it, then one could infer that nearby, it stunk like a latrine.
“And they say there aren’t any drunkards here,” mumbled Haruld unhappily. “There are, and they even soil themselves…”
“He’s not drunk, sir,” pointed out a high voice from behind the prince. Having turned around, he saw a young boy holding a large basket covered with a wicker lid. “He’s sick.”
“Paralysis,” clarified the boy. “He can’t even speak.”
“Then why is he lying around here? Why don’t they take him to a doctor - or at least to his home?”
“A doctor cannot help him. And he doesn’t have a home. He doesn’t have a penny. Those who come to the tavern feed him out of pity. He can eat if food is put directly into his mouth.”
The prince grimaced in disgust as he imagined this spectacle. He then inquired:
“Does he lie like this year-round? Even in the winter?”
“But it’s warm here in the winter,” responded the boy blithely.
“Is that so?” retorted the prince with surprise. Although he wasn’t a very diligent student of his palace tutors, Haruld still understood enough geography to know that at this latitude, especially in a mountainous region, there should be snow lying around through the winter.
“Well, yeah, ever since…,” the boy stumbled as if suddenly remembering that he was speaking with a stranger. “I’m sorry sir, I can’t chat anymore. I need to deliver an order, while it’s still hot.”
“Are you a delivery boy from the tavern?” realized the prince. He had already forgotten about the paralyzed pauper.
“I’m uncle Gille’s nephew,” responded the boy proudly, emphasizing with his voice that he was not just any ordinary servant.
“Are you delivering the order to that house over there?” Haruld pointed at the home on the other side of the square.
“How do you know?” retorted the boy.
“I guessed,” the prince stretched his lips to form a smile. “Let’s go, it’s on my way.” As they were crossing the square, Haruld attempted to inquire about the inhabitant of the home, but Gille’s young nephew suddenly became less talkative. Really, the square was not very big. In a minute, they were already climbing up the stairs of the porch that was guarded by stone gargoyles. These, of course, were perfectly ordinary statues, as were the multitude the prince had seen in his own capital. And yet, he couldn't get rid of an eerie feeling that two unkind pairs of eyes were staring at him.
On the door, indeed, there was neither a door knocker nor a bell. Additionally, there wasn’t even a handle on the outside. Haruld lifted his hand to push the door, hoping that it would be unlocked, when, at that moment, it opened on its own, as if to invite the visitors inside the house.
They found themselves in a dimly lit hall, whose decorations reflected the taste and wealth of the owner, but had nothing unusual about them. Wooden panels, checkered floor tiles, a few paintings in heavy braided frames, a stone staircase with carved hand railings… While the prince was gazing at all of this, a man holding a candle appeared at the top landing of the staircase, quite tall, dressed in casual clothing, with a long face and long grayish hair that left his high forehead almost completely exposed. He seemed about fifty-five.
“Froy, take the food over to the kitchen, as usual,” he told the delivery boy, and the boy quickly ducked into a doorway under the staircase. “And you, sir, must be here to see me? Actually, I don’t see visitors.”
“I’m prince Haruld of Estrand, and I have some very important business with you!”
“I am not interested in your title. Nor in your business. Neither you nor any other earthly ruler has anything to offer to me.”
“Indeed? That’s a pity. And yet, I can take something away from you, Lucimius.”
The host did not change his facial expression upon hearing this name. He inquired with the same calm voice:
“Is that so? And what is it that you can take from me, except my time?”
“Perhaps we can continue our conversation in a more comfortable setting?”
Lucimius intently looked at the uninvited guest, and the prince got a terribly sickening feeling: as if something invisible and intangible, but at the same time mercilessly sharp, impaled him, slashed him, like a scientist’s lancet, dissecting him all the way to the deepest and most hidden corners of his soul, of whose existence even he barely had a vague understanding.
“Fine,” said the host. “Let’s go to my study.”
They sat down in tall armchairs that faced each other on opposite sides of a small but heavy table with slightly bent legs, where Lucimius placed his candle in the candelabra; the chandelier, that looked like a massive cluster of crystal grapes, was not lit. Along the walls were shelves, all the way to the ceiling, all full of books. The prince instinctively tried to read the titles of the closest ones but was unable to discern a single one. He attributed this to the dim lighting. However, no skulls, sooty flasks, or mysterious boxes on the shelves were visible.
“What do you want?” asked the host.
“The great wizard Lucimius does not know what my problem is?” chuckled Haruld, once again feeling more confident. It turns out that the gutting stare was merely some sort of cunning trick - a moment ago, the prince was ready to believe that his counterpart had learned everything about him.
“I know what your problem is,” answered the wizard, annoyed. “It’s, in fact, quite different from what you think it is. I also know what you need. I didn’t ask about that. I asked you what you wanted.”
Yet, Haruld decided not to immediately blurt out his main desire, afraid to make himself look like a naive fool who believed in fairy tales; he had to approach the topic discreetly and little by little.
“As you already know,” -- the prince did allow himself to smirk incredulously, “I became the victim of vile betrayal, by a person of the same blood as mine...”
“Your brother took your throne,” specified Lucimius impatiently. “With regards to blood, don’t flatter yourself. You only share half your blood with him. The late king wasn’t your real father, so, from the point of view of your laws, Edmund’s claims to the throne are absolutely justified.”
“What?!” Haruld’s hand instinctively went for his sword, but right away he regained self-control, reminding himself that a great ruler should not succumb to rage, even upon hearing such insults.
The wizard maintained an indifferent silence, waiting for the uninvited guest to calm down. He apparently was unafraid of the prince’s sword.
“That’s Edmund’s propaganda. You can’t know for sure,” said Haruld through his teeth.
“If you doubt my abilities, then why are you taking up my time?” answered the wizard. Just a little while ago, the prince had heard a similar phrase, even with the same intonation… but this was quite a convenient transition to the main topic.
“These days, it is said that the real abilities of wizards are not that great,” pronounced Haruld, unwillingly copying the tone of his teachers. “Calling or diverting rain over a small territory, curing or unleashing certain illnesses, usually not deadly, making love potions, finding hidden things, predicting this or that ahead of time or from a distance, or, at best, creating enchanted weapons that, while better than average, do not guarantee invincibility… and that’s practically it. Everything else is no more than romantic legends and the superstitions of ignorant commoners. Even in the things I listed, there are fifty charlatans for every real wizard. And the fact that in many nations magic has been declared illegal is based on just that - the fight against swindlers and crooks… And yet, ever since my youth, I have suspected that it’s not that simple. Legends don’t appear out of thin air, there must be something behind them. And behind the struggle against wizards as well. Not the desire to protect fools from giving their money to crooks, but a fear of a real force… And, as soon as I could, I created my own subdivision of the Secret Guard, responsible for thoroughly investigating these legends and rumors … And my men were able to dig up something quite curious. In particular, something about a wizard named Lucimius, who officially is nothing more than a folklore character. One who was unsuccessfully searched for by the secret services of four mighty kingdoms… at least four. It’s not surprising that they were unsuccessful, right? After all, aren’t you the most powerful wizard on the Continent, and therefore in the entire world?”
“I’m not sure,” Lucimius answered honestly. “I’m no longer at an age when it’s important to be the best. And, especially, to be considered the best by others… And, really, there aren’t any objective criteria that can be used to decide this. It’s like trying to decide who the best warrior is while comparing cavalrymen, swordsmen, and arbalesters…”
“Here, there are criteria,” remarked Haruld sharply. “The one who is capable of killing the most enemies.”
“What enemies? What is more important for the outcome of a battle -- to kill one thousand foot soldiers or one general? Even this question does not have a unique answer...”
“Aha,” nodded the prince. “For the outcome of the battle. And the war. And all of the wars. In any case, a well-informed source reported to me that you knew a certain spell,” Haruld paused unwillingly before the most important words, “a spell of absolute power.”
The wizard did not react in any way, and the prince continued:
“Of course, I did not believe it. This was due to an obvious reason: if someone knows such a spell, then why doesn’t he use it himself?” Haruld paused again, but Lucimius still did not say anything. “But the source was particularly well-informed. It was precisely he who brought me to your shelter, where you are hiding from the entire world… ”
“I’m merely living in peace and quiet on the shore of a clean lake in the mountains, something I have dreamt of doing for a long time,” retorted the wizard. “And I know whom you’re talking about. Redgar, my nasty apprentice, who got bored with his studies and with a quiet life. He imagined that he already knew enough, and went off to seek adventure. As I understand, he found just that.”
“So, what about the spell? Does it exist?”
“You believed a talkative youth, who wanted to impress the ladies?”
“In the place where he talked about it, there weren’t any ladies,” protested the prince. “Except for a certain ‘iron maiden’.” Haruld once again paused, carefully observing the face of his counterpart, but it remained impenetrable. “No, they didn’t embrace. He was simply introduced to her, and that turned out to be enough.”
“Moreover, don’t you allow the thought that, out of fear of torture, he might have told you what you wanted to hear, and not what is really true?”
“I could not have wanted to hear about this spell, as, at that moment, I knew nothing about it. It was Redgar himself who told me about its existence. Don’t try to wiggle out of this, Lucimius. Do you know the spell of absolute power, yes or no? It’s in your best interest that your answer be ‘yes’.”
“And why is that so?”
“Because Redgar is still in my hands. I don’t want to do him any harm, and until now I have been treating him quite well. But if you force me to...”
“Don’t you think that to threaten, as you say, the most powerful wizard in the world is unintelligent?” Lucimius raised his eyebrow.
“I admit that you could possibly kill me without standing up from your seat,” Haruld answered calmly. “But then Redgar would also die. And neither you nor anybody else would be able to resurrect him. That is simply impossible. To create a brainless zombie - yes, but not to bring back his personality. As you see, I know a thing or two about your art.”
“So, Estrand’s crown no longer interests you,” the wizard grinned wryly. “You want power over the entire world.”
“If you say so. So your answer is yes?”
“What makes you think that I'll hand the entire world to a power-hungry outcast to save a single neglectful apprentice?”
“To save your only son, Lucimius.”
This time, the wizard’s indifferent face flinched. Only for a single moment - but that was enough.
“As you see, I also know a few secrets about your family line,” stated Haruld with vengeful pleasure. “Oh yes, this is a well-kept secret. Even Redgar himself doesn’t know about it. Well, how does one admit that a great wizard, who is supposed to be above earthly passions, gave in to the charms of a woman?”
“That was the one and only time,” Lucimius uttered in a muffled voice. “My one and only mistake. Really, it’s not the boy’s fault of course… ”
“I need an answer,” Haruld reminded him coldly.
“Fine,” decided the wizard; his face and voice were once again impenetrably calm. “The spell exists, and I know it.”
“And you’ll apply it to me?”
“Yes, after you release Redgar.”
“Swear the Unbreakable Oath. And beware, I know its exact wording.”
After Lucimius pronounced the words that cannot be broken by any wizard, Haruld asked for a feather pen, some paper, and some sealing wax.
“I have a guess as to why you listened to me so calmly,” remarked the prince. “Not just out of self-control, as I thought at first. You just knew that Redgar was alive and well, right? Otherwise, you would have felt it.”
“Well, you see, I play fair.” He quickly and boldly wrote a few words, folded the package, attached a finger ring with a seal, and extended the paper to the wizard. “Here’s the order for Redgar’s release, along with a passcode that is known only to me and to my men. Have your messenger deliver it to the abandoned shepherd's hut in the mountains to the southwest, approximately an hour away by foot. Of course, it’s faster on horseback. Do you know which place I’m talking about?”
“I know it,” Lucimius nodded. “A horse won’t be needed. Karlus!” he called loudly.
The prince turned in the direction of the still-open door to the study, expecting a servant to enter.
But he did not hear any footsteps. Instead, there was a flapping of wings as a large raven flew into the dimly lit room. The raven looked like a cluster of night darkness. Its claws clacked against the smooth surface of the table; the flame of the candle tossed about in the wind from the flapping of its wings but was not extinguished. For some time, it sat without moving, as if intently listening, although the wizard did not say a word. It then took the message into its beak and looked at Haruld with the dark beads of its eyes. Haruld thought that he saw the bird smirk. Soon, the wings flapped again, and Lucimius’s messenger flew off.
“I’m not sure that my guardsmen will accept this type of a messenger,” Haruld mumbled. “Well, they do know about carrier pigeons…”
“Don’t worry about that,” the wizard answered, not wanting to go into further discussion.
The two sat in their armchairs across from each other and waited. Finally - the prince felt as though a very long time had passed, although it had hardly been a quarter of an hour - the wizard nodded with satisfaction, relaxing. Only now did it become clear that, before this moment, his calmness had been feigned.
“My son is free,” he stated. “Now you will get what you want. But first, I must tell you about the conditions.”
“Conditions?!” Haruld frowned.
“Just for you to know exactly what you will get. First of all: we’re not talking about omnipotence. This is merely about absolute political power. That is, about control over people. Only that, and nothing else.”
“That’s exactly what I need,” the prince interrupted impatiently. “Anything else?”
“Second. Nobody in the whole world will be able to kill you, neither on purpose nor accidentally…”
“Well, that’s great!”
“Except for someone who wishes to take your place.”
“Hmm. Well, yes, otherwise the second condition would have been all too good to be true. But I’m glad that the contender can only do it with his own hands, and not through some sort of mercenaries or mutineers - did I understand you correctly?”
“Yes. Only in person, with his own hands. In fact, you’ll be able to know about his plans ahead of time.”
“Splendid! Absolute power! I’ll create such a security service… ”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand how absolute power is different from relative power, with which you’ve had to deal so far. You won’t need a security service. You’ll be able to control people directly, like pieces on a board game.”
“Even so? Well, in this case, nothing can threaten me at all! Pieces are not able to mutiny against a player, isn't that so? If that’s all, then read your spell.”
“Alright,” the wizard fell silent, looking at Haruld intently. The latter once again felt uneasy.
“Well?!” the prince could no longer resist.
Lucimius stayed silent for a few more moments, and then nodded:
“That’s it. The spell for absolute power cannot be pronounced out loud.”
Haruld examined himself as if expecting a diamond crown to appear on his head and an ermine cape on his back. But he was wearing the same dirty outfit he had on since his escape from the capital, which was full of sweat, dusty, and crumpled from the escape.
“And?” the prince inquired (or maybe he was no longer a prince). “What now?”
“You must carry out the last action yourself. You must prove that you are worthy of absolute power.”
“In what way?” Haruld frowned. He suddenly felt like a fool at a fairground, being tricked by a cunning scammer, who was placing more conditions on a transaction that had already been agreed upon and paid for.
“Oh, it’s very easy. You must kill a human being. And wash your face in his blood.”
The image of Edmund bleeding to death appeared so vividly in front of Haruld’s eyes, that his lips couldn't help but stretch out in a smile. But the wizard continued:
“Moreover, this person cannot be your enemy. You must kill him, without personally holding anything against him”.
“Oh yes. I understand,” the prince nodded. “A great ruler must not be driven by either rage or pity. Only by practicality. Well, that’s wise, in a way. But whom? Should I just walk out to the street and stab the first person I see with my sword?”
“That’s your choice,” Lucimius shrugged. “I can only repeat that the spell will take effect as soon as you do that, but not a moment before.”
“So, nobody will try to punish me for this murder? As soon as I do it, I’ll be above the local laws?”
“And not just the local ones.”
“That’s clear,” pronounced the prince. He understood that the wizard wasn’t lying. The Unbreakable Oath would not allow him that. And yet, the feeling that there was some trick behind this did not go away. “But still, who? You know this town -- perhaps, you could give me some advice?”
“Do you want absolute power or do you want to follow the advice of others?”
“I thought that you sympathized with the locals,” remarked Haruld wryly.
“That’s your responsibility, not mine. I merely promised to fulfill your wish. In fact, you can still refuse.”
“No, of course not,” the prince got up resolutely. “I’ll do it right now.”
At the doorstep of the study, he stopped and looked back. The wizard was still sitting in his armchair and was looking at him in the same indifferent way.
“Is this why you did not use the spell on yourself?” asked Haruld. “Because you would need to kill?”
“No,” answered Lucimius calmly. “I just don’t need absolute power.”
The prince walked unescorted down to the hall, then from the porch to the square.
The feeling of two malicious glances digging into his back suddenly became so strong that Haruld could not help it, and looked over his shoulder. Behind him, there was still nobody, except the two stone gargoyles. Yes, these were ordinary statues. But only… Haruld felt as if, when he saw them last, they had slightly different postures. Just as symmetric, but different. Less threatening…
“Oh, it’s just nonsense,” he told himself. “My imagination is acting up.”
Haruld put his hand on the hilt of his sword. It was already completely dark. At this hour, one could prowl the deserted streets in search of a potential victim for a long time… And, additionally, the prince was disgusted by the role of a street bandit. And what if… he sacrificed one of his guardsmen? Yes, of course, that would be terrible ingratitude for their service. But in their time, they had given an oath that they were willing to give their lives for the crown prince! What’s the difference, whether it is in a battle against the enemy, or…? But they were far away. He did not want to drag himself over to the mountains in the moonless night. If he got lost or twisted his foot on that rocky trail…
On the other side of the square, lights gently glowed in the windows of the tavern. Indeed, no drunken singing could be heard. But, surely, there must be customers there. Should he just grab the first one and… The prince cringed -- after all, his upbringing revolted against such a beginning to his rule. He could easily give an order, but to kill someone, by himself, with his own hands - not in battle or a duel, but to simply slaughter some innocent unsuspecting citizen like a pig, …
Then it dawned on him. The paralyzed pauper! That would be someone nobody would pity. On the contrary, death for this poor soul would be a deliverance. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable and contemptible existence than this! He remembered the words that the man had been fed out of mercy. That’s how stupid those commoners are. It would be far more merciful to let him die. Haruld resolutely walked across the square.
The pauper, of course, was still lying in the same spot, and still stunk the same. Haruld remembered that he would have to wash in the blood of this … being, and twitched with revulsion.
How not to get infected… although, paralysis is not infectious. And besides, he’d wash in clean water right away. Go on! Absolute Power awaits!
Haruld knew that if he stabbed directly in the heart, there wouldn't be much blood. That’s why he stepped on the paralyzed man’s face with the tip of his boot, turning his head sideways, aimed, and pierced his neck with his sword. His fencing skills did not betray him - even with the dim light, the blade cut the carotid artery. The dying man let out a disgusting gurgling wheeze, as blood gushed like a fountain. The prince, holding his breath to avoid the stench, bent down and scooped some of the warm liquid into his palms. Perhaps, that was enough; he diligently used his palms to smear the blood over his face.
And suddenly he felt that he could not straighten his back. Moreover -- his legs did not hold him up. Haruld helplessly collapsed on the stinky hay next to the already dead body.
Some people walked out of the tavern. “Help me!” Haruld tried to scream, but his tongue no longer obeyed him. Nonetheless, they walked directly towards him. But not at all intending to help him. One of them took his sword, the others began to busily take off his boots, his jacket… Haruld couldn’t do anything to stop them. They had already dragged the dead man off somewhere, having tied his legs with a rope.
After that, the same boy approached him, Uncle Gille’s nephew. In his hand, again there was a basket, but a different one. It reeked of pigwash. With his hand in a canvas glove, he pulled out some sort of sodden and bitten crust and shoved it into the prince’s mouth. Haruld tried, with all of his remaining strength, to spit this filth out, but his hunger reflex forced him to draw his jaws together and swallow it.
Then, everything was swallowed by darkness. Perhaps, the light in the nearest window went out. Or, maybe, Haruld lost the last thing he still had -- his sight.
Or maybe not? A figure stood next to him. Haruld could not distinguish its vague outlines, but he somehow understood that it was Lucimius.
“What is this?!” the former prince wanted to ask but was only able to let out a groan. Nonetheless, the wizard understood him perfectly.
“This -- is Absolute Power. In its clean, pure form. No property, no grandeur, no title, no bodily pleasures. Not even the ability to move an arm or a leg. Nothing except for Power. Power over people.”
“Over what people?!”
“Take a closer look.”
Haruld tried to peer into the surrounding darkness and understood that he could discern… something similar to a map. A gigantic relief map of the Continent, where all of the nations, cities, and towns were depicted, all the way to the smallest run-down village. With his new vision, which had nothing to do with his dead eyeballs, Haruld could focus on any of these places, and discern the people -- kings and princes, nobles and merchants, artisans and peasants, soldiers and guards, thieves and convicts… And the head of each of them was as if connected to an invisible thread that Haruld could pull with a mental effort. They did not feel it. They felt as though they were making all their own decisions. Oh yes, this was true Absolute Power - the power, under which pawns do not even realize that they are pawns…
Then, maybe, what had happened to him was not really so horrible after all?
Haruld found Estrand and then Edmund, who was celebrating his victory in the arms of his mistress. He then easily started a rebellion among the populace, inspiring the rabble with the idea that this lover was a spy for Ostoria, one of Estrand’s longtime enemies, and additionally a witch. Besides, he struck Edmund’s loyal generals and nobles with apathy and paralyzed them with fear and indecisiveness, and also made them quarrel with each other. After a few days, the newly made king, along with his woman, were hung, naked, from the tallest tower in the capital, but, naturally, the rabble didn’t calm down with that; chaos and massacres engulfed the entire nation, but the disasters that swept across the fatherland that once rejected its rightful heir only amused Haruld.
The Ostorian king did not hesitate to use this opportunity to move his forces against his old enemy. Haruld willed the king to personally lead his army. While the Ostorians were pacifying the Estrandian rebels, Haruld quickly formed an anti-Ostoriian coalition of three neighboring states that struck the nation, left without the direct care of the monarch, in the back. The coalition forces victoriously marched to Ostoria’s capital, where, by all predictions, they should have routed the hastily returned king and his battered and tired army, but instead, they suddenly signed a completely unfavorable peace agreement that returned all of the captured lands to Ostoria. Some historiographers declared this the stunning victory of Ostorian diplomacy. Others -- the horrific stupidity or corruption and betrayal of coalition commanders. Yet others considered it to be the result of mutual distrust among the recent allies. Naturally, nobody would ever guess the real reason.
Haruld could really do whatever he wanted with them. The pieces would obediently jump from square to square, doing the most stupid things, and then coming up with the most logical explanations. But this passive submission bored him very quickly. He, like any other player, needed, apart from a board and pieces, a second player. Someone equal to Haruld in strength and ability with whom he could seriously compete. Even if it wasn’t an enemy from outside, since he had nowhere to come from, then perhaps a rebellion from within! But alas -- Absolute Power ruled out the possibility of competition. There was no hope for salvation from the horror of endless anguish…
Naturally, at some point, Haruld tried to find Lucimius among the pieces. But he wasn’t on the board. Neither was Redgar, by the way.
And then, the former prince of Estrand, and now the ruler of the world (also a blind paralyzed pauper, lying on a pile of hay soaked in his own urine), understood something else. He understood something that he should have thought of long ago. He understood why there was the first coup in his home country, whose will Edmund was following, and who needed the young, power-hungry prince to first gain some knowledge of magic, and then to be forced to flee, yearning for revenge and power…
Well, it seems, now was the time to find someone to take his place.