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Authors: John Morressy

Tags: #Fantasy, #Humour

Kedrigern in Wanderland

BOOK: Kedrigern in Wanderland
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Kedrigern in Wanderland
John Morressy
ACE BOOKS NEW YORK
Contents

Cover

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

One
the road to dendorric

 

THE TRUE BEGINNING
of the story is Hamarak’s finding of the enchanted sword, the great dark blade Panstygia, Mother of Darkness, formerly known as Louise. One could, if one wished, go back to the original curse of Vorvas the Vindictive, and the long immurement within a living oak tree; but that is really background information, easily and briefly provided at the proper time.

One might also open with the conversation between Kedrigern, the wizard of Silent Thunder Mountain, and his wife Princess, on that evening in the autumn of the year following their fateful, and successful, quest for Arlebar and The Magic Fly, as they sat by their hearth, she adapting her wardrobe to allow free use of her newly acquired wings and he perusing the rare volumes bequeathed to them by Arlebar. But while the princess and the wizard are the primary figures in this story, they are second in point of time. It starts with Hamarak.

Hamarak’s great strength had always been his great strength. His earliest memories were of being able to work harder and longer than all those around him. He had never been without work for more than a few days. It was usually hard, dirty work, to be sure, but it was work. He seldom lacked food and shelter, and usually had a coin or

two in his purse, which he invariably spent on warm fresh bread. This was his only self-indulgence.

Hamarak was very big, very broad, and very strong, but he had a mild disposition and a quiet manner. He was neither clever nor stupid; given time, he could think his way through a knotty problem, but he preferred to leave such exercise to those who enjoyed it; he did not. He had ordinary features, serviceable without being particularly decorative, grotesque, or comical: a broad flat nose, a wise mouth more inclined to remain closed in a placid smile than to open in unnecessary speech, brown eyes that were usually focused on nothing in particular. His hair was thick and black, his hands callused, his skin browned by the sun. In all respects save size and strength, Hamarak was a perfectly ordinary man, and he expected to lead a perfectly ordinary life; in truth, he fervently desired it. His life so far, all twenty-some-odd years of it, had been an uneventful round of eat, work, eat, work some more, eat, sleep, and an occasional binge on fresh-baked bread, and he was content to go on that way.

But one bright autumn day, as he was felling trees on a patch of land newly acquired by his current master, Hamarak heard a voice. It was a woman’s voice, sweet and sad, and it carried a hint of ringing metal in its resonance. At first the words were not clear, merely a muffled incantatory murmur from among the trees; but as he walked on, Hamarak heard the message in a voice soft and mournful, and now distinct:

“Woodsman, woodsman, set me free

From my prison in the tree!

Free the princess in the blade,

And your deed shall be repaid!”

Hamarak stopped in his tracks and looked about sharply. This had to be a trick. There was a kitchen wench in his master’s service, a pretty little thing she was, too, but with a cruel way of mocking a man, and this was just the sort of prank she’d play on him, drawing him off into the woods with fairy voices and promises of reward. He would have none of it.

The voice called to him again. It seemed to come from an oak tree that stood alone in a little clearing, a venerable old giant, split at the fork and mortally cleft halfway to the ground, but still in full leaf. That was unusual. Hamarak came closer, and heard the voice yet again. It came unmistakably from inside the tree. This was not a trick, it was magic, and magic was worse than a kitchen wench’s pranks, far worse.

“Kindly woodsman, can it be

You have come to set me free?”

Mournfulness had given way to hope, and that hopeful voice was addressed to Hamarak. It had to be. There were no other woodsmen near. Though he was much bewildered and a little frightened, Hamarak felt compelled to reply.

“Is someone in there?”

He waited, feeling foolish. The reply, when it came, was in a clear and exultant voice that rang like a hammer on an anvil.

“Woodsman, fell this riven oak

With the power of your stroke!

Free the princess in the sword

And enjoy a rich reward!”

Hamarak did not fully understand what was going on, but certain facts were clear: someone inside the tree wanted to get out, and he had a good sharp axe in his hands and knew how to use it. How the person had gotten in there at all was beyond him; perhaps slipped down that deep cleft; but the voice had mentioned a princess, and Hamarak had never heard of a princess climbing a tree. Of course, his knowledge of princesses and their ways was limited to hearsay. It might well be that princesses were always getting stuck in trees, and there was nothing out of the ordinary in all this, and nothing magical about it. All the same, he would have to be careful, and make sure he cut down only the tree and not its royal occupant.

“If I chop down the tree, won’t I hurt you?” he asked.

“Strike away, and have no dread— I am high above your head.

Let the chips fall where they may,

Only set me free today!” the voice cried eagerly.

That was clear enough, and there was no point in delaying. Hamarak stripped off his leather jerkin, spat on his palms, rubbed them together in a slow, businesslike gesture, and took up his axe. He paused after each of the first few strokes to listen for a cry of pain or warning, but none came, and he set to work in earnest. He saw that he need chop only halfway through the trunk in order to effect his rescue, since the weight of the undercut portion would split the tree at the cleft and bring it down, enabling anyone inside to escape. He worked quickly, with a smooth regular motion, and the results were exactly as he had hoped. With a cracking, rending, squealing rush, the oak split to the mark of his axe, and half the trunk went crashing to the ground.

When all was still, Hamarak stepped forward, puzzled. He had seen no one emerge. He heard a shivering metallic sigh of relief, and looked around wildly for the source. There, on the pale surface of the fallen trunk, lay a naked blade of deep velvety black. The pommel of the hilt was the finely sculpted head of a woman, and as Hamarak stared in awe, it spoke.

“Thank heaven!” it exclaimed. “Oh, what a relief to be out of that dreadful tree, and not to have to speak in rhyme anymore!”

“Was it you.
. .
in there?” Hamarak asked.

“It was. You must be the woodsman who chopped it down. Thank you ever so much, young man. It was decent of you. Do you have an upper garment of some kind?”

“Myjerkin.”

“Then put it on, please. I’m not accustomed to the sight of half-naked woodsmen. I am a princess.”

Hamarak frowned. This was getting more confusing. “You’re a sword,” he said uneasily.

“Put your jerkin on, and I’ll explain. Do on, there’s a

good fellow,” said the sword. Its manner was so self-assured, its voice so coolly commanding, that Hamarak obeyed without further delay. When his jerkin was laced, he presented himself before the sword, which said, “That’s much better. Now, before I proceed, I must ask you a very important question: do you wish to be the greatest swordsman in all the world?”

Hamarak weighed the question for a time. “Do I have another choice?”

“Don’t be difficult. Just answer the question. I’ll repeat it: do you wish to be the greatest swordsman in all the world?”

“No,” said Hamarak.

“Oh, good. That’s really very good, youngman. I can’t tell you how pleased I am to hear it.”

“There are other things I’d like, though,” Hamarak said hopefully, recalling an earlier mention of reward.

“Yes, I’m sure there are. Now, tell me this: is there a decent sorcerer nearby, or a wizard? Any kind of enchanter will do.”

Hamarak scratched his head slowly and thoughtfully. “Not around here. There used to be a witch in the cave up on the mountain, but she died.”

“How stupid of her. Where is the nearest sorcerer?”

“I heard a man say that there’s a wizard in Dendorric. That’s somewhere off to the east, a long long way from here.”

“Then we must leave at once. Take me up, and let us be on our way.”

“But I don’t know the way to Dendorric! I don’t have any money, or food, and my boots are worn. I have work to do right here—there are trees to be cleared, and my master will be angry if I don’t get them down. I can’t just leave!” Hamarak protested.

“Now, listen to me. What
is
your name? You haven’t told me,” said the sword impatiently.

“I’m Hamarak.”

“Listen very carefully, Hamarak. At present I am

Panstygia, the great black blade of the west. But I have not always been a sword, and I do not intend to remain a sword any longer than is absolutely necessary. Do you follow me so far?”

“I think so. You’re a sword, but you’re not really a sword. You’re really a princess.”

“Very good, Hamarak. I am Princess Louise, of the Kingdom of the Singing Forest. For reasons I do not choose to go into at this time, I have been transformed into a sword by a wicked sorcerer. Only a sorcerer of equal power, but less wickedness, can undo the vile enchantment that binds me in this form. Whoever assists me in finding that sorcerer will be richly rewarded.”

“Isn’t there any reward for just getting you out of the tree?” Hamarak asked wistfully.

“Don’t be selfish, Hamarak. If you’re not prepared to make some sacrifices, you might as well have left me in the tree. You’re involved now, and you must carry on to the end. Tell me, what is the name of this wizard in Dendorric?”

“The man called him Mergith.”

“Mergith.
. . ,“
Panstygia repeated thoughtfully. “Never heard of the fellow. Well, he’ll just have to do. Let us away, Hamarak.”

“Will I be rewarded if I take you to Mergith?”

“Handsomely. You need only name your reward, and my brother and sister and I will confer it with pleasure.”

Hamarak reached out his hand for the blade, but hesitated and then drew it back. “What about your brother and sister? Do I have to get them out of trees, too?” he asked.

“They’re no concern of yours, Hamarak. Get me to Mergith, and you’ll have your reward.”

For the first time in his life, Hamarak saw the chance to have everything he longed for. He imagined warm fresh bread with butter melting into it; his own farm, and a house, and a sturdy wife who would bake every day, and two fine oxen, and new boots: in short, all that a man

could wish for in this world. Even a new plow. He reached out and took up the black sword.

“Well done, Hamarak!” said Panstygia heartily.

“What do I do now?”

“Head east, and keep asking the way to Dendorric. Nothing to it. There’s one thing—a man walking with an unsheathed sword is liable to generate undue excitement, so I’d better disguise myself while we’re traveling. When you need me, I’ll become a sword again.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not a swordsman.”

“You will be, Hamarak. Trust me. Now—to Dendorric!”

 

That very afternoon, Hamarak was able to trade his axe for a much-mended but still serviceable cloak and enough money to buy ten days’ food. He learned, to his chagrin, that Dendorric was at least twenty days’ walk from this land, if the weather remained dry and the bridges were open. Under adverse conditions, it might require months of slogging. ln either case, there was no certainty that a traveler would reach his goal. The way led through a forest said to be teeming with wild beasts and cruel brigands, where false trails misled the unwary and danger lurked at every turn of the path. Dendorric itself—if he ever reached it—was described as a cold and inhospitable city whose ruler was a man to be avoided. Hamarak took in all this information, drew his cloak around him, and trudged on.

He occupied his mind along the way in his customary fashion. He observed the shadows, and the colors of the autumn foliage, and when he could see them through the leafy canopy, the shapes of the clouds overhead. He listened for birdsong and watched for the spoor of small animals. From time to time he thought of fresh bread.

Contemplation had never been a significant activity in Hamarak’s life. On the few occasions he had attempted it, the effort left him confused and upset. He was dimly aware that if he allowed himself to think for any extended period about what he was now doing, he would become more confused and upset than ever. So he confined his

mental activities to the immediate vicinity and the best possible future.

The days passed, wearying and mostly uneventful. Hamarak exchanged few words with Panstygia along the way, despite his desire to know more of her story. She had disguised herself as a staff, in which form she could not speak, and when he summoned her, she always expected to be told they had arrived, and was cross and somewhat surly. She gave Hamarak repeated, but vague, assurances of success and promises of reward, but revealed very little about herself. Her manner made him feel stupid and inadequate. This was becoming a frustrating business.

Hamarak managed to make his funds last for an extra day. And then, when his last coin had been spent and his scrip was empty, he came upon a merchant, the merchant’s daughter, and one elderly servant seated by the roadside, jellied with terror. One of the merchant’s wagons had overturned, and he was frantic to right it and be out of the woods before dark, for fear of robbers. His other servants had already fled, and the merchant himself was torn between the urge to save himself and his daughter, and the desire to preserve his property.

At first sight of Hamarak the servant fainted, the daughter shrieked, and the merchant prostrated himself on the ground, blubbering. It took some time for Hamarak to reassure them, but when he had finished unloading the wagon, righted it, repaired the damage to the canopy, and then reloaded the goods, completing the task by midafternoon, they accepted him as a friend and benefactor and asked him to accompany them.

“Are you going to Dendorric?” he asked.

“Not while Mergith is in power,” the merchant replied. “But our way will take us within two days’ walk of Dendorric. Come with us. We’ll all be safer, and you’ll be spared much walking.”

“Do you have food?”

“My good man, you will be our honored guest. But

BOOK: Kedrigern in Wanderland
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