G. W. Thomas
The horse whinnied at the rider's prodding heel. Every rain-drop was like a sling's bullet in the face. "I can't go the other way, you stupid nag," the warrior grumbled. "There is nothing behind us but empty wilderness. And ahead the warm embraces of Jaymin." The words did nothing to ease the mare's discomfort. Torel ignored her snortings and rode her with a firmer hand on the bridle.
The storm was building in intensity. Lightning flashed high in the clouds, lighting them up like cheap effects in a traveling actors' show. The swordsman could almost imagine the tragic figures of Matusio and Derelda, declaring their forbidden love to each other. Still, the Gelt was uncomfortable, soaked to the lining of his undergarments. The saddle chafed at his legs. The rain, though diverted by Torel's wide-brimmed hat, had found a way to drip down his back, chilling him to the spine. Humorous thoughts were hard to keep.
Still the new illumination from the heavenly explosions helped the lone rider to see what lie before him in the darkness. Only a swift gallop ahead was the ruined yard of a tall, deserted manor-house, stone-walled but unguarded. Shelter, at last!
Torel kicked his horse to a faster pace, not galloping exactly but a headlong trot which gave heed to neither gopher holes (of which there were legion) or rotting stone, perhaps a fence at one time. In less time than it takes to cross a street, Torel was shaking off his cape under the eaves of the tall structure, wondering if the estate was occupied, deserted, haunted, the hideaway of thieves and killers or simply an illusion.
"Hail!" he boomed into an empty, shadow-encrusted doorway. "Anyone about?"
Torel had not expected anything even close to an answer, except perhaps his echo bouncing off some mold-covered wall. He jumped when a throaty voice replied, "Shut up, fool, you'll scare the owls."
The rider frowned. What did he care about owls? And who answered him from someplace as yet not ascertained?
The speaker did not wait long to show himself. Stoop-shouldered and lean like a lizard, the newcomer was a middle aged man dressed in blue satin. The man's eyes were a bright emerald green.
"Hello, my good man. Is it raining?" The voice was equally lizard-like.
"Tagus' teats! Is it raining?" blustered the tired warrior. "Just let me--" he started to shout again before being shhhed into silence and remonstrated once again "because of the owls".
"What is all mighty so important about these owls?" the swordsman demanded.
"Oh," sighed the man with the green eyes, "if they stir from the rafters, they get shit in the wine."
As strange as this explanation sounded, it made sense to the rider as he followed the man to the back of the house and a well-lit barn. Inside, a host of five or six played, sang and all the other activities of a good party, under the wide beams of the barn's criss-crossing rafters. On these oaken boards, Torel noticed a row of four owls, of many sizes and kinds, sleeping warmly in the coverlets of their wing feathers. For some unexplainable reason the sight of the birds bothered the newcomer.
Leaving his horse beside a warm pile of straw, Torel noticed a large fat man with red whiskers. "Ho ho!" he cheered, "Who do we have here?" He took a deep pull on his drinking jack. Torel noticed two interesting things about him. One, he had only three fingers on the hand that held the jack. And two, on the middle finger he wore a large purple stone gilt in silver casings.
"I am Torel, a Gelt," the rider announced in an irritated voice.
"Of course you are," smiled the rotund man, before turning to the slim, dark fellow with the green eyes. "Ho ho, Everaud, we have an audience at last."
The man who had brought Torel to the barn bowed his head slightly, never taking his flashing green eyes from their host. The warrior noticed a small green ring on Everaud's thin hand.
"Have you ever heard of Everaud, the Enchanter of Ruwstaws?" asked the jolly man. "Or of Hundower the Half-Handed?"
"I take it that would be you gentle men?" asked the Gelt wearily.
The fat man belly-laughed. "Aye. Better to be half-handed than half-witted, I always say."
"Or under-handed, I always add," added Everaud.
"I have never heard of you gentlemen."
Too bad. Perhaps you've read a small book: The Theory of Relentless Energy and Perpetuating Momentum," supplied Hundower. "Of course, I wrote most of it. Everaud only checked for errors."
This brought a laugh from Everaud, which was a startling thing, like a blade of silver or an icy blast of winter air. "My colleague supposes too much--"
An argument (the worst kind, an old argument, well-worn like a forest path) ensued and Torel used its cover to make for the fire which burned in a small brazier next to the door and away from the straw. A woman who resembled a small boy offered him a pint of ale, which he took heartily. He spied a plate of roast mutton but was offered none. After a few more drafts from his mug, he started to feel better. The brazier did a slow but adequate job of drying his outer clothing anyway, and eventually the mutton came his way. His thirst quenched, his hunger satisfied and his clothing more comfortable, he ventured back to his hosts. The two men were finished arguing, neither clearly the winner or loser.
"So, Torel, tell us of the West," inquired Hundower.
"How do you know he has come from the West?" interrupted Everaud, a whine flavoring his question.
"He has noted the wetness of my garments which are predominately soddened on the front of my clothing. Thus I was traveling into the wind, which flies like a demon from the East this night," supplied Torel hastily before his host could answer.
"A-hah! I see I am in the presense of a fellow logician," grinned Hundower.
"Not exactly. In the war we used the same method to weed our false messengers," explained the Gelt weakly.
"Wonderful! Wonderful! How about a test then?"
Torel would have rather found a dry place to sleep but there was nothing else but to humor these competitive gentlemen.
"Tell me who are the real men here tonight?"
The Gelt made no answer, but allowed his silence to reply for him.
"That is hardly fair, without introductions," remarked Everaud.
"Then let me remedy that situation," offered the fat man. They stepped up to a large tow-headed Taavsite, who wore the wolf-skin and tartan of his people. He was teasing one of two wolfhounds in the barn with a piece of fatty mutton. On his thumb sat a topaz ring with smaller garnets set around it. "Here is Javork, a necromancer from the Plains to the North." Javork nodded absent-mindedly but didn't bother to speak.
Next Torel met a couple, the female half being the only woman in the room who was not obviously a servant. "Madame Hulstruun of Sadavol." Almost as large as Hundower, her massive breasts sat on either side of her belly, making her look like some kind of primitive fertility goddess.
"Madame," greeted Torel.
"She has written a history of the Outer Reaches -- though as yet none have had any way to verify it," sneered Everaud with another dagger-smile.
Hulstruun smiled back, despite the back-handed compliment. She opened her mouth, large enough to pop a chicken leg in, bone and all, then wiped her balloon-like fingers daintily on her napkin. Torel noticed the red stone set in her ring.
Next to her sat Portoff, a man of no obvious race or creed. In fact everything about him was pale and indistinct. Torel could not remember him later as short or tall, fat or thin, simply as an accouterment of the more forceful Hulstruun. The warrior saw a small white gold band on his limp right hand.
"There you are, my good man. Now you know everyone." That Torel might have wanted to meet any of the servants was unthinkable. Hundower dismissed them from his thoughts as he might have dismissed them from his presence. "So? Who is a real man? I defy you to tell me."
Torel thought. "If I might be allowed to -- ah, freshen up -- before we finish our game?" He had traveled a long way and such bothersome necessities had a way of announcing themselves at inopportune times.
"Certainly, where are my manners?" Hundower remonstrated. "Please take your time. There is no rush. I am merely eager for the contest."
Torel put his mug down on a bench and made a bee-line for the door. It was proving to be a strange night. It would prove stranger yet ...
His toilet complete, Torel made to slip away from these strange wizards and their odd contests. Hundower's jovial bulk prevented that and Torel turned back to his host and the small group of revelers. The atmosphere of the party had changed. Where once there had been a well-lit room filled with frivolity and servants, there now stood a dark, seemingly empty chamber, without wine or girls to serve it. Everaud and the rest were gathered around something on the floor. They stared with white-pale faces.
The visitor stepped up to the circle and saw that it was Hundower. He was dead, a long-bladed cris protruded from his back. Blood pooled in a small black puddle.
"He is dead," sighed Everaud unnecessarily, a look of powerful loss on his face. Torel wondered at the veracity of that facade. Was Hundower friend or foe to this rival mage?
"Who could have done this?" asked Hulstruun of Sadavol. "Surely the murderer is still here. No one has left."
"No one but the servants," added the visitor.
"Surely the servants did not do this. This is the work of an assassin," the Seeress of Sadavol returned, her snobbery and her horror intertwined.
Torel inspected the body. Hulstruun was right. The cris had been applied with expert skill. The blade had been pressed under the rib cage and into the vital organs. Death had been swift if not instantaneous.
The warrior followed the line of the body until he reached the right hand, constricted in death. He pried with a small amount of difficulty. A crumpled piece of parchment lie between the fingers. Opening the torn scrap, Torel read the note aloud. "Who are the real men?" The script was thick and written in blood. "It appears Hundower had time to leave us a dying message. He seemed to think this important." Torel looked to the others but received nothing but empty stares.
"I think I shall be leaving," declared the rigid Javork. "One of you is a murderer and I don't intended to be the next victim!"
"You are, no doubt, correct," agreed the Gelt. "But you can not leave. Not until we have settled this business. To leave now is as much as an admission of guilt."
"I did not kill him!" sneered the Taavsite. "I do not even own a blade like that. I have a silver ax."
The visiting warrior shook his head. "Does not necessarily mean you are innocent. You may have stolen the knife or used it to throw suspicion from you."
"If I wanted him dead, I would simply have struck him on the shoulder." Javork referred to the Taavsite custom of the blood-feud challenge which ended in a duel to the death.
Torel turned from the wolf-skinned wizard. "And what of you, Hulstruun of Sadavol?"
"What of me? I had no argument with Hundower. He was kind enough to invite me here. I don't think I would kill him for that." The large woman's chins rolled and bobbed like white fishes as she pointed a pudgy finger at Torel. Portoff watched quietly, never making an objection in his wife's favor.
"And you, Everaud? What of you?"
"I knew Hundower for over three decades. We were like brothers."
"Was not the first murderer a brother?" asked Javork, alluding to the myth of Ryvar and Remjek.
"Maybe our little guest here did it?" side-stepped the Enchanter of Ruwstaws.
"I was outside relieving myself," stated Torel without pique.
"So you say."
"Fair enough," nodded the visitor. "Let us all agree to stay and find the murderer."
Everaud nodded, then Javork. Hulstruun sighed, a massive pushing of air. She gave consent with an annoyed hand gesture. Nobody asked Portoff.
"Now, if I might--" began Torel. "Hundower thought his game important enough to write it in his note. So, 'who are the real men?'"
"Logic should prove this simply enough," volunteered Everaud, referring to their earlier conversation.
"I wonder," returned Torel, having no faith in these magicians or their methods. "The question asks for the real 'men' -- so we can eliminate Hulstruun. She is a woman."
"But can we?" interrupted Everaud. "Portoff is her husband, but surely not the 'man' of the couple. If anything, Hulstruun is the man ..."
"That is very unkind, Everaud," sniffed the Lady of Sadavol. "Portoff, why do you say nothing?" The wraith of a husband moaned but made no plea in his defense.
"I am a real man," declared Javork, "as is Everaud and our guest. This is a waste of time." The Taavsite scratched his nose absent-mindedly. Torel noticed the topaz-colored ring again.
An idea came to the swordsman. He left the bickering quartet to examine the body again. On Hundower's left hand sat his red ring. Torel pulled at the silver setting, slipping the circlet off. The cool metal sat in the warrior's wide palm, but Hundower's body was gone.
"Here is your first 'un-real' man," stated Torel flatly. "Hundower never existed, except by magic. There was no murder here tonight."
The noise was instantaneous. The visiting warior yelled for quiet. When he had it again--except for the owls who stirred on the ceiling beam--he pointed to Everaud. "This is solved easily now. Remove your ring. If you disappear--you are not real--and therefore not the murderer of man who was never murdered."
"This is madness," blurted Javork. "I am leaving this time." The tall blond man made to go but Torel's words stopped him. "It won't matter. Once you have left the sphere of magical influence you'll stop to exist. Only I do not possess a ring. Only I know for sure." The Gelt held up his hands to prove the truth of his statement.
Javork turned. "Damn it all. Here!" The Taavsite tugged off his topaz ring, but it never reached the swordsman's hand. Javork was gone. The ring rolled on the floor, striking the wall.
"Anyone else want to try that?" asked Torel.
"I won't do it!" bellowed Hulstruun. "Even if I only exist by magic, I still exist--" Before she could finish the sentence, Portoff had her ring. Hulstruun of Sadavol vanished without so much as a puff of smoke. The husband laughed joyfully, doing a little dance. Then, with suicidal glee, he pulled off his own ring and evaporated.
Torel turned to Everaud. "How about you?"
"There is no need. I admit it. I am the 'real' man. Well done, Torel the Gelt. You solved the puzzle."
"I suspected as much once I remembered my meeting you first. But why the illusion?" The smaller man waved his hand around.
The other wizard sighed, pulling off his own ring. The walls faded as did the table and the brazier. The barn became a decrepit hovel, a simple owl-infested ruin.
"So the owls are real," commented Torel to himself.
"Very real," remarked Everaud, pointing to the four birds, no longer asleep. "Ever see owls sleep at night?"
Torel shuddered. That was what had been bothering him about the birds. They should have been awake even if they had not been out in the storm.
"I killed them. Hundower, Hulstruun, Portoff and Javork."
The first owl shuffled on the ceiling beam. The other birds were opening their eyes.
"Jealousy. Hundower and I argued insistently. The others, witnesses --"
The first owl stretched its wings, preparing to fly.
"But why the game? What did you need me for?"
"Judgment," was the last thing Everaud said. The first owl swooped down from the rafters, followed by its three cousins. The birds, white, grey, brown, all went for the Enchanter of Ruwstaws, their taloned claws open and hungry.
Torel gathered his things. The horse whinnied at the idea of returning to the out-of-doors and the falling rain, but Torel had no appetite to spend the night in a ruin--alone.
G. W. Thomas lives in Central British Columbia. His work has appeared in over seventy books and magazines including Writer's Digest, Eldritch Tales and Gothic.net. He is editor of the action-adventure ezine RAGE m a ch i n e at http://www.pgweb.com/chucks/