A Friendly Chat
There came a hammering on the tower's front door. Engrossed in her study, Lana paid it no heed. Surely one of the apprentices would go to answer it.
Scarcely a few moments passed until the hammering resumed, more persistent than it had been. Exhaling audibly, Lana set aside her papers and descended, glancing into the gilt-framed mirror in her lounge as she passed by. She made out the familiar face of her childhood friend, Dyervo Luscarum, accompanied by a second individual - one of two guards she had recently appointed to guard the gates to the grounds of her tower.
Opening the door, she dismissed the guard with a wave. "You may return to your post."
Dyervo's expression was grave, his breathing was laboured, and he had put out a hand to steady himself.
"Whatever is the matter?"
"A wizard is waiting for you," he panted, "at the inn."
Karnus? Hadrian? Either would have come directly to the tower. "Did he give a name?"
"Bargle," he managed between breaths, "the Infamous."
Her chest tightened immediately. Silver Eye. The note. It had only been a matter of time. "Tell me everything."
"He just walked in," he gasped, "in his black robes… said he'd kill everyone unless somebody went to fetch you."
"Did he say why?"
"He said to tell you he just wants to talk, and that nobody would die tonight… unless you chose not to co-operate."
"And he's alone?"
Dyervo shook his head. "He's with a huge hairy monster and a goblin… its skin looks like it's covered in chalk dust."
"You did the right thing coming to get me." She couldn't think what else to say, but held the tower's door open. "Stay here for now."
Ushering Dyervo inside she cast a spell and rose into the air before flying off toward the village. Along the way she thought about how she had no option but to play along with the wizard's plan. She consoled herself with the possibility of learning useful information, something she might use against the adversary who remained largely a stranger to her. She reviewed his purpose in coming to Glaston. It seemed unlikely his intention was simply to talk… more likely he wished to sow the seeds of unsettlement. She considered whether she should act brave, or show him the fear he surely craved - the fear which all bullies sought to engender in their opponents.
Her feet touched down in the village square, finding the place deserted and unnaturally quiet, rendering her all the more nervous. As she strode toward the inn she spoke the words to another spell. A protective shell formed around her body; the confidence it gave her lessened as her hand reached for the handle of the inn's front door and she recalled the Flying Ferret with sad clarity. She pushed the notion from her mind that History might be ready to repeat itself.
She entered to find Bargle seated at a table with a drink in one hand. Standing near him was a particularly large bugbear with a tattered rust-red cloak and one arm locked around the neck of a local woodcutter (by the looks of things the most able-bodied patron of the inn that evening). Two men lay on the floor. They appeared unconscious but breathing. There was no sign of the goblin Dyervo had mentioned.
The air was thick with the palpable fear of the villagers although some looked to Lana hopefully as she entered. Her eyes roved around, checking none of her villagers were seriously hurt. Was it prudent, she wondered, to show no fear to a man who had come wanting to prey on her comparative weakness? She decided to keep her head held high, hoping the display might reassure some of the onlookers.
An empty seat opposite Bargle was waiting for her.
"Lady Budanter." The wizard gestured for her to sit. "I am happy that you were able to spare the time to meet with me. What will you have to drink?"
Noticing that the innkeep was present Lana spoke to him by name. "Master Arnagus. Bring more wine for our guest, please. Not the best, the one down from that will serve."
With that she took her seat, willing her expression and demeanour to stay calm. "We meet again Bargle. What brings you to my village?"
"Silver Eye," he replied in a matter-of-fact tone. His self-assured leer was just as Lana remembered it from their previous encounter - when she and her companions had descended into the dungeon beneath the Doom Tor - only his lime and saffron robes were now plain black. "There is no doubt in my mind that you were behind his attack on Fort Doom. I was wondering what you hoped to achieve."
Lana answered him in a slow, calm voice, her gaze not leaving his. "I will not insult your intelligence by distancing myself from that event. I had hoped he might rend you limb from limb - just as your frost giants, wasn't it, pummelled Valtanivark into a bloody, lifeless pulp.”
"Frost giants?" His nonchalance was repellent. "Where did you hear that story?"
"It's what I was told happened." She sighed. "But I witnessed the magic to which you subjected Silver Eye. He never stood much of a chance, did he."
A serving girl arrived with the wine. A goblin stood behind her, its dagger pressed to the small of her back as she poured. The ugly creature's face and hands were covered in bone white powder. Lana stared at them curiously, wondering which tribe's markings they might represent.
Bargle motioned the girl away. "Silver Eye was no threat to me but he was a useful servant - one that will take time and effort to replace. The fact that you were able to capture him and set him against me makes you slightly more interesting than you were before. I could kill you and wipe your wretched village from the map this very night but I will not. It has been a long time since I have had an opponent worthy of my notice. It would be a shame to end the game before it has really started."
His words elicited half a dozen different emotions within Lana - chiefly relief that her village would not be Fireballed straightaway.
"For the longest time," she surprised herself by giving half a laugh, and toyed with her glass without drinking from it, "you were the player holding all the cards. Nobody in Karameikos could have hoped to match you. I did wonder whether it bored you... perhaps even more than Ludwig's company. Is that what drove you to all the killings?"
"I assure you I do not find the Baron's company boring," replied Bargle in a tone that suggested otherwise, "and I enjoy killing those in my way but you are right that I have been lacking a challenge. The last obstacle I faced was that mad cleric in the caves near Castellan Keep - I'm sure you heard about him from your friends – and he was easily disposed of in the end."
He sipped his wine. "You however. I see potential in you."
Lana's eyes widened.
"That," he continued, "is why I'm going to let you live for now but you and everyone here will know it is only because I CHOOSE not to obliterate you that you will continue to draw breath."
"That's sporting of you." Her surprise mixed with relief, though she suspected that on a subliminal level his comments might have the lasting psychological effect he intended.
"Day after day you will awake and wonder whether it is the day when I will have changed my mind. You will grow in power no doubt and you may come to believe you have a chance against me. I encourage you to pursue that dream – it will I hope leave me with richer pickings when I take everything you have from your lifeless corpse and ruined lands!"
"I have many ambitions, it may please you to know. And I mean to acquire plenty of new trinkets in the near future." She raised her glass. "I shall be sure to think of you when I do so."
Bargle too raised his glass and paused to sip his wine. "Hmm, not so terrible for such a meagre little place."
The serving girl yelped just then, the goblin's knife threatening to pierce the soft flesh of her back. "Please," Lana addressed the creature in its own tongue, "the girl will not misbehave. It would be a kindness if you could put away your blade."
The goblin hesitated, looking at Lana with blood red eyes that contrasted with its skin and an expression that suggested it might just kill the girl out of spite. Lana sensed in that moment that she hadn't instilled proper meaning in her words; that the concept of 'kindness' was alien to most goblins.
Bargle growled at the creature however. "You only kill when I tell you." The girl was allowed to withdraw.
"What of Silver Eye?" Lana hoped her tone didn't betray her concern for the lycanthrope's wellbeing. "Have you returned him from his planar prison? What will become of him?"
The wizard relaxed into his chair. "His intellect is not his strength and he was held in the Maze I sent him to long enough for he to make full preparations for his return. It was then very easy to incapacitate him and place him in the cells beneath Fort Doom. It took me a good few days before I could think what to do with him but I am most pleased with the solution. I have made a gift of him to the Master of Hule."
"Hule," Lana echoed, "where a lie is a holy thing. Not a decision I would have made, but then you and I see value in different places." For a moment she relished the possibility of Bargle and the Master turning upon one another. She resolved to not mention her run-in with the wizard Alrethus - surely no good would come of Bargle getting that information. "No doubt the Master will put him to effective use."
"Indeed. Would it interest you to know that the Master has heard of you? Your part in the ignominious defeat of his lieutenant Alrethus at the battle of Darokin is known. Don't worry though - the Master is content to let me deal with you. Alrethus on the other hand is I believe desperate for revenge. I will not permit him to have it but he will be very useful to me so long as he thinks that I will help him get to you and some items of his that he wants back..."
Bargle adopted an expression that was somewhere between a smile and a sneer.
"Oh." Her eyebrows arced as she swore inwardly. "I am surprised since on the field of battle Alrethus was vocal that females were undeserving of his attention. He will be disappointed to learn that his items, the spoils, have been scattered to the winds. I myself have retained only one of them."
"Really?" Bargle seemed genuinely interested. "And what would that be?"
Lana sat back in her chair, took a moment and replied with calm severity. "That would be telling."
"Yes, I suppose it would. I will find out for myself in time but if it happens to be the ring imbued with the power of the Master himself you would be better off giving it to me now."
And grant you its power? "Were I to have retained that ring and determined its potency, I might have entrusted its keep to those more powerful than I. Those better placed to resist its malevolence. Who knows - if it makes its way back to me perhaps you will indeed strip it off my corpse." She sipped her drink. "When you say it contains the Master's power... what specifically is known of its properties?"
"That would be telling," replied Bargle with a smug smile.
But then he continued, "unless you wish to serve the Master it will not help you."
There are those in Thyatis who disagree. "You're not seeking a place by the Master's side, are you? I can imagine how one such as you might outgrow a place such as Fort Doom."
"Oh you won't be getting rid of me that easily I'm afraid. No, I have plans for Karameikos. The Master and I have found that we can mutually benefit one another - that is all. I have no desire to take the place of Alrethus... although I might take his former belongings."
"Enough of Alrethus and the items he lost." Lana found herself wishing to divert the flow of conversation. Her voice took on a bitter edge. "What of my master's effects, and his books? Have you retained them?"
Her mind wandered to Valtanivark, shaking his head sadly as Lana conversed with his one-time pupil and murderer. She blocked it out, knowing her emotions would consume her if she allowed them to... she anchored her consciousness in the present moment, telling herself it was the time to Know One's Enemy.
"Of course," Bargle replied. "Valtanivark was one of the greatest wizards in Karameikos once but like Teldon he allowed himself to become weak and the strong will always take what they want from the weak."
"Again our perspectives diverge. Where you see entitlement, I see responsibility." She gestured around her. "Though I have always held that Fortune favours the bold. I'm also a believer in reciprocity, action and reaction. That is why I perceive an imbalance between you and I which begs to be addressed." She mustered all her nerve; when she next spoke her voice sounded small, though the words were her own and they reached her adversary's ears withal. "When I am ready I will come for you. You said you wished for a worthy opponent? I assure you that I will not prove a disappointment."
She raised her glass. "May the braver of us succeed."
Bargle smirked but raised his drink all the same. "To competition. Those whom we kill make us stronger."
She couldn't deny the efficacy of his sentiment. Nodding, she leaned forward. Their glasses met with a ringing clink.
Immortals help me, she thought, before remembering. They already had.
Bargle rose. "I think we understand one another. Now I must be leaving or there is a real chance that the townsmistress of Luln will be having an undisturbed night."
Remaining in her chair, Lana frowned. "Oh dear. Are you planning to antagonise her for long?" She mulled it over and answered her own question. "Of course you are."
The wizard smiled evilly. "Of course I am."
At least this discussion is done…
"One more thing," he announced, addressing the room as a whole. "I indicated that nobody would die tonight."
There came nervous silence and averted glances.
"There is something you should all know … … I lie!"
Lana's heart practically leapt from her chest. She shot to her feet, gripping the edge of the table. "You drew me here under a strict assurance,” she said sharply. "The quarrel is between us, leave them out of this."
Bargle looked at her as if she were an idiot. "I… lie," he said again slowly, making a sharp gesture with his hand.
The bugbear snapped the arm of his hostage like a twig then drove his head into a nearby table with a sickening crunch.
Bargle spoke a single word in a gruff tongue. It sounded close to Goblin for 'Enough.'
"I lie," said Bargle for a third time, "but not tonight."
The woodcutter gave a low moan and spat out blood and broken teeth.
Lana silently cursed her adversary. "It was too much to hope this would be a civilised discussion. Now. Perhaps you would be good enough to get the Hell out of my village."
She dared not speak more boldly, lest her words should spark more violence.
"We're leaving." To her relief Bargle gestured and his monstrous henchmen exited the inn.
"However." He lingered at the doorway, his smile broad as he addressed all present. "I want to be certain that all you poor idiots understand the fate that awaits you. Lady Budanter has angered me so I will kill her but not before she has failed to save this insignificant village. Your homes will burn, your animals will be killed, your families will be given to my servants and you will watch as their bodies are used in ways your limited minds cannot imagine as yet. Some of you will be made slaves. Others will die … painfully. You will all learn to curse the woman who brought your doom down upon you. She cannot save you. She does not have it in her to do what needs to be done."
He gave a mocking bow.
"Until we meet again… Lady Budanter."
The most appropriate verbal response Lana could muster was to profane, though she kept from doing so. With her heart racing and her chest painfully tight, she maintained her defiant expression, glowering until Bargle retreated and the door closed behind him. Instantly, she felt the villagers' expectant stares descend upon her. The taproom was in a state of shocked silence.
"Listen all of you." It felt like the most natural thing in the world to adopt a tone which was deadly stern. Now was not a time for doubt. "It is true Bargle and I have unfinished business. Many of you know he slaughtered my master to steal his treasures. And he torched my inn on a whim. He is powerful indeed. Yet..." Her eyes narrowed. "He is not without weakness. For one, he underestimates his foes. When he says I do not have what it takes to defeat him, I consider him mistaken. There is fire in my belly and there is much Bargle does not know of me, much that will surprise him when I unveil plans I began long ago. I will have my revenge against him but equally, I will do everything in my power to protect ALL of you from his wickedness."
She met as many gazes as she could, hoping they would recognise her sincerity. Was it sincerity? It was one thing convincing the audience that she possessed courage of conviction; whether or not she believed so herself was a separate matter but in that moment was wholly irrelevant. She would, at least, maintain the illusion.
"Run and fetch Father Grygor." The serving girl nodded and departed.
She knelt by the injured woodcutter, feeling his broken arm gingerly. “You will receive healing," she murmured, "and your family will receive a stipend until your arm is recovered.” With a series of sharp twists she manoeuvred the broken bones into the best position to knit and heal. She then set about cleaning the mess of the man's face, wiping away blood which was flowing freely from his shattered nose.
The silence dissipated as those present crowded round her and began talking all at once. She would continue to reassure the villagers however she knew their fright would not lift entirely. Not while Bargle continued to draw breath. She could not guarantee safety to any of them, herself included, however heartfelt words would serve a purpose in the meantime. A long night lay ahead.
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