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Offline Red Right Hand

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Mind Over Magic
« on: December 23, 2018, 11:54:28 AM »
Elijah crept as quietly as he could down the steps. Not easy in the dark and he dare not show a light. The rough stone barely whispered against his shoe leather, yet every tiny scratch of sand and grit against the stair treads made him wary. Made him halt. His ears strained for any sound from either above or below.

They said the Adept’s tower was impregnable. Perhaps they were right. Certainly the Baron’s mounted force had been overthrown in mere moments when they had commenced their charge this morning. Two huge walls of dirt, rock and scree had reared up from the valley floor and swept the 20 odd knights aside. Smashing them along with their squires and attendants, their men at arms and camp followers. Knights are curious things, none seem able to survive and prosper without at least five others in support. This campaign was no different. 23 knights had ridden out to press the Baron’s claim and they brought a herd of lesser beings with them, blacksmiths, armorers, cooks, herdsmen, teamsters, fools, companionable wenches, wine stewards…

Wine stewards for goodness sake! When the best knights of the region mounted up, unfurled their standards, blew their horns, poised just so to allow the new risen sun to gleam off helm and mail, barding and lance point… when they’d looked as magnificent and threatening as they knew how; the Adept had shrugged from his vantage point high atop the tower and pressed his palms outward. The resultant twin waves of earth had risen and over washed both knights and camp alike: burying 182 humans, 67 horses and a fortune in metals, supplies and comforts beneath fifty feet of rock and debris.

Sir Arthur of Rowan, who had issued the Baron’s demands in parlay the day before, was dead and buried. Sir Giles the Stalwart was no more. Sir Percy of the East Reach, winner of the last three tourneys, would never be seen in the lists again.

Atop a nearby hill, surrounded by his vast retinue, on the edge of his prodigious encampment filled with followers and folly; the Baron blanched at the ease of the Adept’s thwarting of him and bellowed for Elijah the Doubter to be brought to him in his tent.

The Doubter’s back ached from the burden he carried there. He had walked with it strapped to his back down the hill and out onto the valley floor. He’d had to detour quite some way in the dark to get around the huge mound of rubble that had been the knight’s encampment and the equally huge trench that had been the mound of rubble’s resting place only last morning.

Halfway between trench and tower an apparition had arisen to challenge Elijah. A ghostly figure the color of frost under moonlight which resembled a giant hound with bared fangs. Elijah had doubted such a thing that was so transparent had teeth real enough to grab onto his flesh and so he walked straight toward the hound as it snarled without sound, leapt at his throat and dissolved into wisps as he passed through it unharmed.

Elijah the Doubter had gone to sea as a young lad and spent years in the east, traveling, studying. He made a name for himself when he returned to the lands of his birth by use of a simple phrase which had served him well: “I doubt…”

At the fair, when he wagered 100 pieces of silver against the man who ran the shell game he had won easily. “I doubt the pea is under that shell,” he’d said, pointing to the one in the middle. And when it was lifted there was no pea to be found. “I doubt the pea is under this shell,” he stated flatly, lifting the one on the right to show the crowd that no pea resided beneath. He’d leaned in and whispered to the man who moved the shells around, “Unless you are a cheat who has robbed all these good folk…” Then he’d declared loudly, “The pea must, then, be under the remaining shell!” The gamesman had paid Elijah his 100 silver pieces and a fairly nasty look as a bonus.

The Baron was in an apoplectic state when Elijah was brought into his tent. His red face sprayed spittle and commands in equal measure. His advisors and captains nodding sagely as their liege ranted about siege engines and razing. This went on for quite some time before Elijah cleared his throat.

The Baron whirled to glare at him.

“M’lord,” Elijah said amiably, “I doubt such engines of war will be more effective than all your fine knights were this morning.”

“Why not!” The Baron thundered. His face got redder and his breath shorter. “I’ll smash... his tower…with trebuchets!” The Baron’s fists pounded the table before him. “My men at arms… can scale… his puny tower… from siege towers… almost as high!” The followers and fools all clamored to agree. “They say YES!” The Baron glowered at the Doubter. “Tell me why NOT?

“Because,” Elijah said mildly, “that is just what he expects you to do and so will be prepared.”

The Baron stared at him with bulging eyes and harshly panting breath. All was quiet in the pavilion. “What would you have me do?” The Baron’s voice showed the strain of being forced into such measured tones.

“Those words are for m’lord’s ears alone.”

“Out,” the Baron screamed. “All of you out! Leave us two alone.”

Elijah doubted the hired men the Adept had set out on the small plain before his tower to serve as night watchmen had much loyalty or alertness for their task other than the coarsest sort. He doubted they strayed far from their fires on such a chilly night. He passed easily and silently through one of the many gaps between watch fires. He doubted the singing he heard from the fire to his left would have sounded much better if the man were sober.

Approaching the tower he veered aside from the portcullis covering the stout main doors. Likewise the sally gate on the side of the tower to the left of the main entrance. Quietly making his way around back he slid his hand along the wall and looked closely with eyes grown used to the dark. It was the matter of half an hour’s work to find what he expected. A bit of wall with a texture apart from the rest and a patch of ground leveled and scraped clear of weeds.

Elijah had taken the doubling of his fortune away from the fair and had purchased an ox and cart. He’d filled the cart with carefully haggled over goods and proceeded toward the keep. Along the way he came to a narrow bridge over a steep bank where the waters of a river ran high and fast. It was a narrow thing of rickety wood and he led his ox slowly across. As he neared the far side a horn sounded, hooves thundered around a bend and a knight with retinue drew up short, blocking his exit from the bridge.

“Make way for Sir Chester,” a squire called. “He rides forth and has need of the bridge.”

Elijah tied the ox’s lead to a rail post and walked forward into a cloud of muttering and curses. “I doubt,” he addressed the squire, “that the good Sir will save any time by not allowing me to cross. Have you ever tried backing an ox cart?”

The squire sneered. “Sir Chester yields the road to no man, nor ox.” That earned him a nice laugh from his fellows and he smiled beamingly down at Elijah.

“Be that as it may,” Elijah countered, “there are several gaps in the planking of this bridge. I doubt the wheels, being backed up and not drawn forward by the ox, will pass such gaps without becoming stuck.”

The knight urged his mount forward. “Yield me the bridge knave,” he boomed as he drew his sword, “or you shall have gaps in your planking.”

“I doubt it.” Elijah smiled from his place at the end of the bridge. The knight spurred his horse forward and swung a vicious overhand blow with the sword aimed at splitting the Doubter’s head. Elijah sidestepped nimbly, grabbed the knight’s armor at the joint in the elbow and pulled downward hard. Sir Chester was unhorsed and flew heels over head in a long arc, crashing through the bridge rail and dropping into the river where he sank like a stone under the weight of his arms.

“I doubt you can save the good Sir from drowning if you take time first to avenge him,” Elijah advised. The retinue moved aside and began trying to rescue their hero as Elijah finished his crossing of the bridge.

The Baron entertained lavishly and his table enjoyed a wondrous reputation. His wife was the King’s own sister and the couple had prestige, power, money. Moreover it was a time of peace and plenty for the kingdom. Visitors were pleasant. Tourneys were regular and lavish. The gentry were occupied with chivalrous pursuits and the commoners entertained with fairs, jousts, archery completions and melees.

Into this amiability had come the Adept, from whence none were sure. That he had mystical power was assured. He presented himself to the Baron and his Lady and offered his services. He proved his worth by curing the Baron’s kennels of a strange malady that had afflicted all the hounds with a lethargy that neither Kennel Master nor Court Magician could lift. His price, stated after the fact, was leave to build a small tower - a place to retire to, he said - on a small portion of the Baron’s lands which were little used. The Baron, being a keen one for the hunt and therefore rather grateful, readily agreed.

Once he’d sprung open the secret door at the back of the tower, Elijah had entered to find a staircase winding both up and down. He doubted the Adept’s chambers where he prepared his magics were higher in the hold and so he’d placed his hand to the wall for guidance and begun his descent in the dark. Of stairs he counted one hundred, forty and four when he reached a landing. Blindly he turned to face the opening that appeared in the wall. Faintly he heard a scrabbling noise. Faintly, because he’d placed a wooden bucket over his head before beginning his climb down the stairs.

He doubted a cockatrice could immobilize him if it were too dark to see, but thoughtful magicians supplied them with oil lanterns in their ambuscades rather than relying on intruders to provide light. Elijah further doubted a cockatrice could fight well if it could neither paralyze nor peck and scratch at exposed flesh. He was correct and it was the work of but a moment for him to seize the beast in his gloved hands and wring its neck before it could do no more than squawk quietly in surprise.

The Baron’s keep was, quite naturally, an island around which money flowed in a tidal manner. Outside its walls was the largest market of the region and the place where hard to find commodities would be sought. Elijah unloaded the contents of his ox cart in the place purchased from the Master of the Market and sold both cart and ox to a passing farmer for a fair price. A fair price in this place being roughly twice what he had paid in the hinterlands. The entire contents of the wagon were supplies and tools which were used to erect a nice, spacious, well-appointed stall from whence Elijah could ply his trade. The tools and scrap were then sold to a passing craftsman at a price that left the craftsman feeling as if he’d gotten a bargain and, at the same time, topped off Elijah’s purse so that he’d actually gotten paid a small sum to open for business.

After the craftsman hauled away his purchases, the Doubter hung his shingle to announce to the passing world that he wished to ply his trade. “Advice:” the placard stated, “Quite Reasonable.” Beneath the words was a rather well done portrait of a lad winking.

The Adept’s tower was erected with astounding speed through use of some swarthy men who had appeared mysteriously. Local craftsmen grumbled about imported labor being used, but also marveled at the efficiency of the project. The imported men stayed on to staff the place and a few disputes broke out between them and the locals, but they were minor things based mostly on misunderstandings in language.

Soon after, the Baron’s eldest son and heir took ill with a shaking fit that came and went. Neither Leach nor Court Magician could affect a cure. The Adept appeared at court and offered a consultation in exchange for ceding to him several choice parcels of tenanted lands which adjoined his valley. This would be a grievous blow to the Baron’s incomes, but he was distraught and agreed for his son’s sake. The young lord was restored to health in a short time.

The Court Magician started whispering in the Baron’s ear some choice parables about poisonous snakes invited to sup at the table…

Closing his eyes tightly, Elijah removed the bucket from his head and placed it, by feel, over the cockatrice’s corpse. He then stretched his back and adjusted his burden before taking up the oil lamp that was burning in the alcove. He doubted that darkness and stealth would be called for from this point forward.

Of steps there were ninety and nine before the staircase ended in a vast open space like the bottom of a dried well. The Doubter looked around a moment and then climbed back upward counting carefully as he went. At the forty fifth step from the bottom he paused and squinted. His foot kicked out at a block and the hidden door swung open. He doubted that his arrival was unexpected.

Elijah’s doubts were little things often overlooked by simple folk, but they had a power that cut through obstacles of understanding faced by coarse, headstrong commoners. His fame quickly spread after he doubted a certain meat seller’s weights were false. This was proven when they balanced correctly against the weights of several other merchants. However, he also doubted the plates of the meat seller’s scales were of equal weight and this too was proven. The meat seller, for his part, had doubted how closely one might look and had always kept something atop one plate or another.

Soon, much of the Baron’s justice diverted itself to Elijah the Doubter’s stall. It proved eminently cheaper for the malfeasant and rather more sure for the aggrieved. In time the Baron had word of him and grew curious, but by then the Baron had more pressing issues…

A fortnight after the curing of his son, the Baron’s wife grew sick and lapsed into an unending sleep from which none who sought to help could awaken her. Again the Adept presented himself and offered his services. The Baron was wary and asked what price.

“Half your lands, your Excellency,” the Adept crooned, “for certainly the Baroness is half of you.”

“Already I’ve ceded you a fourth part of my holdings not obliged to my lesser nobility and knighted vassals,” the Baron mused. “Such a thing is not to be born that you should be landlord over more than I. Name another price, I pray.”

But the Adept was adamant. In the end the Baron set his Court Magician on the Adept and there in the great hall they battled… or would have. The Court Magician started a chant in ancient Phoenician and gathered his power to hurl at his adversary. The Adept muttered some simple word and flung his hand out with a twisting motion and the Baron’s champion fell to the floor choking and clawing at his throat.

The Adept departed and no man dared bar his way.

The Baron began plotting his campaign of revenge upon the Adept which would force him to restore the Baroness to health and drive him from these lands. He bade his vassals to muster in force, sent word to the King who was brother to the Baroness and, as an afterthought, commanded that this Elijah the Doubter he’d been hearing of should be brought along to attend him if need be.

“Come in… Elijah,” a voice called softly.

“Good evening, Adept. May I put my burden down on the floor?”

“Certainly,” the Adept replied. He looked at the heavily rope bound bundle with eyes that sparkled in the lamplight of the well-lit chamber. “You don’t seem surprised that I know your name…”

“Nor you to see me here,” the Doubter replied amiably.

“Just so.” The Adept smiled wickedly, “You’ve come to… advise, yes? That is what you do I’m told.”

“Mostly I observe. How go your plans to vacate this place?”

The Adepts eyes swiveled from the bundle on the floor to Elijah’s face. “What makes you think I’d leave such an accommodating place?”

“I’m sure you would have found it difficult to leave with the Baron’s retainers all looking for your severed head to enhance their glory… But if you smash them here from the seat of your power, and quickly before the King’s forces arrive, you could make a leisurely journey to other lands.”

“Just so.” The Adept regained his grin. “In that regard it goes well. The Baron is a dolt, advised by fools.”

“Even so,” Elijah countered, “demonstrations of power such as this morning’s are costly and time consuming to arrange. I doubt another such could be shown again so soon. Minerals are abundant in these hills, but only so much can be dug out at a time… even by skilled quarry workers and miners from the Caucuses.”

“How… Never mind.” The Adept sighed heavily. “Old habits die hard and I over reached. Suppose I would like to travel some more. What would you advise?”

“That you conclude your affairs and depart before the much more able men and magicians of the King arrive.”

“Just so. But I’ll not bow to the likes of the Baron.”

“Of course,” the Doubter smiled pleasantly and began unbinding the bundle which squirmed on the floor. “I doubt,” he added conversationally, “that there are more than a dozen in this kingdom who know of the bristling grubs from east Persia which dogs find so tasty, but which also infect them with lethargy. Or more than ten who know the cure is the sap from a thorn bush of the same region mixed into the afflicted dog’s food.”

The Adept showed a start of surprise but watched the unwrapping of the bundle which had been a shapely young woman bound tightly in the fetal position.

“I doubt that there are more than eight in all this land who know the venom of a certain centipede found in Siam causes palsy or more than six who know that the cure is ground root from the mangrove tree.” Elijah finished unbinding the naked woman he’d carried here, excepting for her wrists and ankles. She writhed upon the floor in pain as her circulation was restored, much to the Adept’s entranced delight.

The Adept waved a hand in agitation at Elijah, urging him to continue.

“Perhaps only four in the realm know that essence of poppy causes a deep sleep which continues so long as it is given by mouth. I doubt it will take long to discover which of the Baroness’s servants has been helping you.”

The Adept scowled. “You might be too clever, Doubter.”

Elijah hauled the naked woman to her feet and pushed her up against the wall. He draped her bound wrists over an unused hook on the wall and caressed her firm flesh, smiling all the while. “I doubt you’ll be able to leave your lair before the King’s forces arrive unless I report back to the Baron that his terms are met.”

“Continue,” the Adept granted, “but first turn the wench so I can see the back of her.”

“As you wish,” Elijah agreed. He spun the damsel so she faced the wall and swatted at her buttocks playfully while she squealed through her gag. “I doubt any but you and I in the entire Kingdom know that the liver from the puffer fish in the eastern ocean is so toxic that one touch upon the palate takes a man’s breath from him. And perhaps,” Elijah inclined his head solicitously, “just perhaps, only one with the skill to throw such a liver so accurately.”

“Curse you, Doubter. The terms. And why this bit of flesh dragged down here?”

Elijah left off his fondling. “Two men such as yourself and the Baron each must have his pride. You’ve clearly bested him thus far, but with my advice to him I doubt your luck will continue. He wants you vanquished before the King must come and save him from the mess he’s made, yet he can ill afford to spend his force here and still look suitably strong in the eyes of neighbors.”

“Just so,” the Adept agreed.

“You, your men and all they can pack beforehand will depart here at noon and ride under armed escort to the border. It would appear as if you have your leisure to travel without expending costly preparations. Your departure and your giving into my hands the cure for his wife, the Baroness.”

The Adept laughed at that. “You already know the cure.”

“Even so,” Elijah grinned, “I doubt the Baron will bother with the distinction when the King’s sister is revived. The Baron saves force as do you… And to ensure that you leave the region with a suitable hostage and a plaything to vent your feelings of revenge upon…” The woman was spun round again to face the Adept at his work table. “You do recognize her, I hope.”

The Adept studied her face a moment then smiled. “The Baron’s Concubine!”

“It was hard to make him see he needed to yield a token that at once satisfied you and prevented him from doing anything rash, stupid even, which might end the whole arrangement. His love for her is well known and her life is your safe passport out of this land.”

“So once away, the escort brings her back to the Baron?”

Elijah laughed. “I doubt you will use her gently during the week’s time it will take to reach the border. You may do anything short of maiming or killing her.”

“What do you get out of this, Doubter?”

“Why the Baron’s good graces… and your tower and lands.”

The Adept grinned. “So long as I know you aren’t some altruistic fool I believe I can trust you. Please, convey my acceptance of terms to the Baron.”

As Elijah made his way up the stairs he heard a scream and a whimper from the girl. He smiled at that.

All went as planned. The Adept and his men were escorted to the border. The King was pleased his brother in law had sent word that additional force need not be brought to bear. The Baroness awoke and grew strong once more. The land was freed from the Adept and the Baron had his concubine returned. The Doubter became a landholder renowned for happy tenants.

Knights are curious things. They bring along so many to support their campaigns. Barons even more so. It really had not taken long for Elijah to find just the right men in the Baron’s camp to help complete his plan. One final preparation before the hostage was trundled and shouldered for the long trek to the tower…

Elijah doubted the Adept would have a liking for the case of syphilis he was sure to contract.
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